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India to investigate antitrust complaints against Apple

India may investigate a complaint against Apple after allegations that the US computer giant violated local competition laws, an antitrust agency official told Dow Jones Newswires Wednesday.

The official, who spoke to Dow Jones on condition of anonymity, said the complainant alleged Apple had broken Indian law by selling its iPhone 4 model through just two local mobile phone operators, Bharti Airtel and Aircel.

Apple’s model of selling its iPhone through a limited number of operators, particularly in the States where the first model of the iPhone was only available through AT&T, has seen the Cupertino based company face criticism before.

In the past Apple has seen cases brought against it by competitors and private plaintiffs for everything from disputed claims about the battery life of the phone to privacy and intellectual copyright. The most recent corporate case against Apple was by Motorola in October 2010 after the latter complained that Apple had violated a number of Motorola patents in the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.

Should the Indian investigation of Apple come to court, however, it would appear to be the first brought against it by a nation state.

“We may examine the complaint to see if it (Apple) is violating any law,” the official at the Competition Commission said, declining to provide any further details about the complaint.

India’s 2002 Competition Act bars any deals that are “likely to cause an appreciable adverse effect on competition within India.”

A spokesperson for Apple India claimed that the company had “not received any notification from the Competition Commission” and declined to comment further.

“The first test of whether Apple violates the Competition Act will essentially be if it adversely affects public interest,” Akil Hirani, a managing partner at a leading Indian law firm said.

If the company was found to have breached local laws, the Competition Commission could pressure it to widen its distribution network to include more mobile phone operators, he added.

Gaurang Kanth, a managing partner at another leading legal firm explained that the Indian authorities could also force Apple to break its existing contracts with Airtel and Aircel, and bar it from setting up similar exclusive deals in the future.

The popular iPhone 4 made its debut in India last month amid growing demand for smartphones in the country.

India, which boasts the world’s fastest-growing mobile market, has more than 800 million cellular subscribers, with the sales of smartphones expected to hit nearly 12 million in 2011, according to CyberMedia Research.–AFP