Business

UK competition watchdog warns big tech firms of investigations

The UK’s competition watchdog plans to launch a series of antitrust investigations into big tech companies including Google and Amazon this year, in the latest sign of increased scrutiny of the practices of the Silicon Valley companies.

The Competition and Markets Authority will later this year become home to a new digital markets unit (DMU), which will police the internet companies and have powers to impose fines of billions of pounds.

“Until we have these new legal powers, if we want to achieve impact for consumers in the UK, we need to use our current [tools],” said Andrea Coscelli, the CMA chief executive, in an interview with the Financial Times. “There are quite a few cases against the digital platforms in Brussels today, and a number of these include the UK market.”

After Brexit, the CMA’s investigations will be independent, but Coscelli said the UK will continue to work alongside Brussels on some joint antitrust investigations at least until next year.

The DMU will enforce a code based on “fair trading, trust and transparency” that will apply to companies deemed to have strategic market status (SMS).

This could include, for example, assessing whether the way the tech giants trade with publishers is on terms fair enough to prevent them “from taking advantage of power and position”. Platforms such as Google and Facebook have commercial deals in place to republish content such as excerpts, headlines or preview images.

Facebook moved to ban the sharing and publishing of news content in Australia earlier this month in response to a proposed new law that would force it and Google to negotiate with news companies over payment for content. Google has responded by striking deals with more than 50 publishers in Australia, including the Guardian, to feature content in its News Showcase product.

On Monday the UK government said it was concerned about the situation in Australia and confirmed that the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, would meet Facebook bosses this week.

“We are obviously concerned about access to news being restricted in Australia,” said a spokesperson for Boris Johnson. “As we always have done, we will be robust in defending free speech and journalism.”

Although no tech firms have been officially awarded SMS status yet, the criteria will include companies that earn more than £1bn in UK revenues, or £25bn globally. Google makes more than $160bn (£120bn) in worldwide revenues annually, while Facebook makes more than $70bn.

“We are actively scanning the players, the complaints we have received, the cases that others are doing, what could be done in parallel with others, where are the gaps in the work the European commission is doing,” Coscelli said. “We certainly expect to open more cases during the course of this year.”

There is an expectation that acquisitions made by big tech companies will come in for more scrutiny. In December, the recommendations on the scope of the new DMU’s powers pointed out that between 2008 and 2018 Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple made 400 acquisitions, but only a “handful” were reviewed by competition regulators and none were blocked.

For example, Coscelli questioned the EU’s recent clearing of Google’s takeover of Fitbit, saying he was “sceptical” of the solutions offered by the two companies which Brussels had deemed acceptable.

“Long-term behaviour remedies were ultimately accepted by the European commission in this particular case,” he said. “Our concern is that it’s very difficult to monitor sufficiently and enforce this type of remedy.”

The new rules will not allow the DMU to “implement full ownership separation” by breaking up a tech company – such a move would be for the CMA, if it was deemed necessary. The government gave the green light for the DMU to be set up after the CMA’s study into the UK’s £13bn digital advertising market, which is dominated by Google and Facebook. The study found that Google controls 90% of UK search revenues and Facebook accounts for more than half of the British digital display ad market.

The CMA’s review indicates that the duopoly’s dominance in this area is also likely to be a focus. Issues highlighted include a “lack of consumer control” over data use, the targeting of personalised advertising, and market power reducing innovation.

Silicon Valley companies face increasing scrutiny from regulatory bodies around the world. The EU is investigating the practices of companies including Apple and Amazon. The US justice department was joined by 11 states in October to sue Google, accusing it of acting unlawfully to maintain its dominant position in search and advertising.

It also emerged in December that Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, threatened to pull investment from the UK if the government did not soften its stance on the regulation of Silicon Valley companies. Matt Hancock, who held a meeting with Zuckerberg in 2018 when he was culture secretary, said in response that the UK could “shift from threatening regulation to encouraging collaborative working to ensure legislation is proportionate and innovation-friendly”.