Microsoft Scores Final Regulatory Approval for LinkedIn Acquisition

By Evan Niu, CFA Markets Fool.com

How CEO Satya Nadella probably feels right about now. Image source: Microsoft.

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Not that there was ever really that much concern, but Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) has now scored the final necessary regulatory approval to move forward with its proposed acquisition of professional networking site LinkedIn (NYSE: LNKD). The European Commission, which was the last regulatory agency needed to sign off on the deal, has cleared the acquisition. The news comes approximately six months after the software giant announced what will be its largest acquisition ever, with a total value of over $26 billion.

Microsoft Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith announced the approval in an official blog post, detailing some of the commitments that the company has made to regulators.

Trying to level the playing field

In order to minimize any antitrust concerns, Microsoft will continue making its Office Add-in program, which allows developers to integrate with Outlook and Office, available for third-party professional networking services to use. The software giant will continue allowing other professional networking services to promote their offerings in the Office Store.

In the event that Microsoft develops a stand-alone LinkedIn application for Windows, it will allow PC manufacturers to opt out of pre-installing the application within the European Economic Area (EEA). Any such application would also be easily uninstalled by users, and Windows will not proactively prompt users to install any LinkedIn applications. Nearly a decade ago, Microsoft had gotten in hot water with European antitrust regulators over its practice of bundling and pre-installing Internet Explorer, which was seen as uncompetitive for the browser market.

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These steps are designed to foster competition within professional social networking, making sure that Microsoft does not abuse its dominant market position to stifle competition unfairly.

Sorry, Salesforce

Microsoft had reportedly been competing with salesforce.com (NYSE: CRM) to scoop up LinkedIn. The customer relationship management (CRM) specialist had been interested in LinkedIn due to its massive trove of user data that can be used to cross-sell, and LinkedIn was beginning to pioneer the notion of social selling on its platform. Microsoft's relationship with Salesforce had been starting to improve in recent years as the companies began collaborating on a number of fronts.

But the bidding war over LinkedIn has created tension, and Salesforce had been a pushing European regulators to closely scrutinize the deal due to antitrust concerns and Microsoft's history of monopolistic behavior. In no uncertain terms, Salesforce Chief Legal Officer Burke Norton bashed the competitive implications of the deal in September: "Microsoft's proposed acquisition of LinkedIn threatens the future of innovation and competition. By gaining ownership of LinkedIn's unique dataset of over 450 million professionals in more than 200 countries, Microsoft will be able to deny competitors access to that data, and in doing so obtain an unfair competitive advantage."

The European Commission's approval shows that it is satisfied with Microsoft's commitment to fair competition, although it's worth noting that the measures that Microsoft is committing to don't address Salesforce's underlying concerns about how valuable the acquired user data will be. There's no mention of sharing that data, which of course would immediately undermine its value as the crown jewel of the acquisition.

Even if Microsoft technically provides a seemingly level playing field in terms of market access on its platforms, it will absolutely still have a major edge for its Dynamics CRM as well as professional networking.

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Teresa Kersten, an executive at LinkedIn, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Evan Niu, CFA has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of LinkedIn and Microsoft. The Motley Fool recommends Salesforce.com. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.