United States: No Signs Of Slowing Down — Global Antitrust Agencies Focus On Big Tech

Last Updated: August 6 2019
Article by Amy W Ray and Ellen Caro

Earlier this year, we covered the widespread interest in tech giants among international competition authorities, as well as the potential for divergence in intensity and type of enforcement across jurisdictions. We observed that while the U.S. enforcement agencies did not appear to support a regulatory approach to platforms and the digital economy, others like the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the UK Parliament's Digital Culture, Media and Sport Committee may have a stronger appetite for proactive regulation.

Since that post, competition authorities, both U.S. and other, have intensified their focus, with activities ranging from sector-wide studies to investigations into individual tech companies.

For example, the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) recently announced a broad review of whether online tech companies have harmed consumers or otherwise reduced competition. The probe will cover leading online platforms in "search, social media, and some retail services" and will focus on "practices that create or maintain structural impediments to greater competition and user benefits."

That DOJ announcement is part of a broader effort by the U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies to address competition in the tech sector. Days later, the Attorney General met with eight State AGs who reportedly are considering opening their own investigations. The FTC launched a tech task force back in February (in addition to its recently concluded hearings on competition and consumer protection) and last month opened a formal antitrust investigation into Facebook (according to a recent press release accompanying Facebook's Q2 earnings report). Reports also have emerged of FTC information requests to third-party resellers on Amazon. Even the Antitrust subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary has held a hearing on online platforms and market power as part of its separate investigation.

The U.S. agencies' overseas counterparts have remained just as active. In Australia, the ACCC just published the Final Report from its Digital Platforms inquiry. The inquiry focused on online search engines, social media platforms and other digital content aggregation platforms with an emphasis on Facebook and Google, and looked into the impact of digital platforms on competition in the advertising and media markets, and on advertisers, media content creators and consumers.

The final report found that Google has "substantial market power" in the supply of general search services and search advertising services in Australia, and that Facebook has "substantial market power" in the supply of social media services and display advertising services in Australia. Both companies were found to have "substantial bargaining power" in their dealings with news media businesses in Australia. The report cautioned that this market power could be used to damage the competitive process, though it did not look at whether these digital players have in fact misused their market power.

The report offered 23 recommendations "aimed at addressing some of the actual and potential negative impacts of digital platforms in the media and advertising markets, and also more broadly on consumers." The recommendations most directly implicating competition include changing merger law to incorporate additional factors – such as the likelihood that the acquisition would result in the removal of a potential competitor from the market, and the nature and significance of assets, including data and technology, being acquired – and to require advance notice of acquisitions; and creating a new, specialist digital platforms branch within the ACCC to monitor and investigate proactively instances of potentially anticompetitive conduct by digital platforms and take action to enforce competition and consumer laws.

The report also recommended changes to Australia's Privacy Act, including expanding the definition of "personal information" to include technical data, strengthening notification and consent requirements and pro-consumer defaults, enabling the erasure of personal information, and introducing direct rights of action and higher penalties for breach, as well as establishing an ombudsman scheme to resolve complaints and disputes with digital platform providers. Additional recommendations focused specifically on news media (e.g. creating a code of conduct to promote fair and transparent treatment of news media by digital platforms, improving digital media literacy in schools and the communities, and offering greater funding for public broadcasters and local journalism).

Similar undertakings are in the works around the globe. The ACCC report comes just as the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced the start of a formal market study into online platforms and the UK market for digital advertising. The study will examine three potential sources of harm in digital advertising: (1) The market power of online platforms in consumer-facing markets – to what extent online platforms have market power and what impact this has on consumers; (2) Consumer control over data collection practices – whether consumers are able and willing to control how data about them is used and collected by online platforms; and (3) Competition in the supply of digital advertising in the UK – whether competition in digital advertising may be distorted by any market power held by platforms. Platforms not funded by digital advertising are expressly outside the scope of the study.

In keeping with what appears to be a greater openness toward proactive regulation than the U.S. agencies (at least historically), the discussion of potential remedies in the CMA's Statement of Scope explains that the "current expectation is that any remedies are likely to focus on recommendations to Government for the development of an ex ante regulatory regime ... and are likely to require legislative change." The CMA does not believe that a "one-off" market investigation and intervention is "sufficient to provide a sustainable long-term framework for the sector." The five main areas in which remedies may be required include: (1) increasing competition through data mobility, open standards, and open data; (2) giving consumers greater protection over data; (3) limiting platforms' ability to exercise market power; (4) improving transparency and oversight for digital advertisers and content providers; and (5) institutional reform. The CMA plans to publish an interim report with initial findings in January 2020, with a final report to follow no later than July of next year.

Not to be outdone, the EU – which recently has been fairly active in the tech sector, including last year's highly publicized Google Android decision – recently announced a formal investigation into Amazon. The investigation focuses on Amazon's role as both a platform provider (through Amazon marketplace) and a participant on that platform (through its first-party retail offerings), asking whether Amazon's use of sensitive data from independent retailers is in breach of EU competition rules. Specifically, the Commission will look into (1) the standard agreements between Amazon and marketplace sellers, which allow Amazon's retail business to analyze and use third-party seller data; and (2) the role of data (including competitively sensitive marketplace seller data) in selecting the winners of the "Buy Box," which allows customers to add items directly to their shopping carts and accounts for the majority of Amazon transactions.

As we cautioned previously, with so many competition authorities weighing in on how to assess tech competition, this confluence of inquiries and investigations can pose a challenge for global enterprises operating under an international patchwork of approaches. Technology-focused, data-intensive businesses should consider seeking antitrust counsel to monitor developing competition trends and implications across jurisdictions.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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