The emergence of the digital economy has been a powerful force, bringing about increased competition across a wide range of products and services. As noted in the European Commission’s report ‘Competition policy for the digital era’, digitisation and developments in artificial intelligence have led to the emergence of new possibilities and business models. The Report recognises that ‘many of these changes have greatly benefited European citizens’, for instance, ‘the accessibility of information has greatly increased . . . [transacting] across national borders has been facilitated . . . [and] [consumer] choice has increased.’ The report of the UK’s Digital Competition Expert Panel similarly found that the ‘digital economy has benefited consumers by creating entirely new categories of products and services’, often high-quality with low prices, and has in some areas facilitated greater competition, for example in the case of digital comparison tools.
As with any cycle of disruption and innovation, this digital revolution also presents some challenges for competition law enforcement. The contributions to this guide show that competition agencies continue to intensify their scrutiny of the digital economy, and that they are trying to get to grips with both the opportunities and challenges.
It is clear from the contributions to this guide that many agencies are also aware that regulatory overreach could have negative effects on the development of digital markets and that they should take an evidence-based approach to competition enforcement in this area. As a first step, a number of agencies (or their governments) commissioned market studies or appointed experts in the digital field to prepare industry reports. Jurisdictions such as the European Union, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Canada led the way in this respect and others have since followed (including the United States and India).
It is notable that a first wave of studies and reports on selected topics, such as e-commerce and data, has been followed by a second wave of studies and reports tackling broader topics, such as ‘digital competition’ and ‘digital platforms’. Examples of such reports include:
Many competition agencies have also established or appointed specialist digital markets units or officers with the aim of developing expertise and regulation to deal with fast-paced digital markets. For example:
While many reports and studies have found that existing competition rules generally continue to provide a solid basis for protecting competition in the digital age, the calls for greater changes to regulation are growing. The reports have generally noted that the traditional tools for competition analysis may require some adaptation or refinement to address better the specificities of online markets, such as the multisided nature of platforms, network effects, zero-price markets, ‘big data’ and the increased use of algorithms. In some jurisdictions, changes to the existing competition law framework have been suggested – for example, in India, changes to the jurisdictional thresholds in merger control have been proposed to capture more digital mergers (see below), and similar changes have already been implemented in Germany and Austria. Germany has also amended its competition legislation to tighten the control of abusive conduct in digital markets. Under the amended act, the Federal Cartel Office can intervene at an early stage in cases where ‘competition is threatened by certain large digital companies’ and prohibit certain types of conduct.
In other jurisdictions – in particular the EU, the US, China and the UK – there are proposals for new ex ante regulation to govern gatekeeper digital platforms, with a general move to more prescriptive regulation of such platforms.
The European Commission has in particular profiled itself as a frontrunner in regulating digital industries and this has led to various legislative initiatives, including the Digital Markets Act (DMA). The DMA, which could have far-reaching implications, particularly for companies designated as ‘gatekeepers’, entered into force on 1 November 2022. Following their designation, gatekeepers should have until early March 2024 to comply with its requirements. It will be interesting to see how the DMA regime will interact with traditional competition law enforcement by the EC and the national competition authorities.
In an increasing number of jurisdictions, competition agencies have moved on from market studies and expert panel reports, and instigated investigations into specific conduct. In some instances, these investigations have resulted in enforcement action. Overall, this action confirms that competition agencies across the globe have found that the current competition rules are sufficiently flexible to deal with a range of potentially anticompetitive restrictions in a digital environment, including third-party platform bans, online sales restrictions (including ‘geo-blocking’), dual pricing, most-favoured-nation (MFN) clauses and algorithmic collusion.
For example, based on its E-commerce Sector Inquiry findings (May 2017), the European Commission opened a number of antitrust investigations in relation to online vertical restrictions. These investigations resulted in (1) four decisions relating to online resale price maintenance (RPM) (against four manufacturers of consumer electronics products) in July 2018; and (2) a decision in relation to an online cross-border sales restriction (against Guess) in December 2018. Vertical restraints in digital markets, such as dual pricing and RPM, have also been the subject of national investigations in Europe.
There have also been a number of newly launched or continued abuse of dominance investigations against tech companies. In Europe, a key focus has been the dual role of platforms and the impact of ‘closed ecosystems’ on competition. For example, the European Commission is investigating Apple in relation to its App Store and iOS, and Amazon in relation to its use of marketplace seller data and its e-commerce business practices. Regulators in many other jurisdictions have also opened investigations with a particularly noticeable uptick in the United States.
From a procedural perspective, regulators have also shown that they can use the existing frameworks to resolve digital cases via commitments or settlements. For example:
There has also been an increase in the use of interim measures in relation to digital and technology markets (e.g., in France and the EU). In particular, in October 2019, the European Commission imposed interim measures on Broadcom (a designer, developer and provider of integrated circuits for wired communication devices) in the TV and modem chipsets markets. At the time, Competition Commissioner (now Executive Vice-President) Margrethe Vestager said that in the absence of intervention ‘Broadcom’s behaviour is likely . . . to create serious and irreversible harm to competition . . . We therefore ordered Broadcom to immediately stop its conduct.’ This was the first time in 18 years that the Commission imposed interim measures.
Some enforcers have raised questions about the prevalence and potential impact of low-turnover, high-value transactions in digital markets. So far, legislative changes have mostly remained limited to refinements to the jurisdictional tests in certain countries to address the perceived concern that such transactions may otherwise escape review. However, more far-reaching proposals have been put forward in some jurisdictions. For example, the UK government is considering introducing a new regime in which companies designated as having ‘strategic market status’ would have to report their most significant mergers to the CMA prior to completion and the CMA would have a broader jurisdiction to review such mergers through the introduction of a transaction value threshold and an accompanying UK nexus test. Germany and Austria have already introduced transaction value thresholds. While there are no plans to amend the jurisdictional thresholds in the EU Merger Regulation, the European Commission announced an overhaul to its approach to the use of the referral mechanism in the EU Merger Regulation so as to allow it to review transactions falling below EU and national merger review thresholds.
A number of jurisdictions have intensified their merger control enforcement in relation to tech companies. One example is China. The Chinese State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), for example, prohibited the proposed merger between Huya and DouYu, two companies backed by the Chinese Internet giant Tencent, who are operating live game streaming platforms in China. SAMR has also imposed fines for gun-jumping, for example in relation to Tencent’s acquisitions of China Music Corporation without seeking merger control approval.
In the EU, another important recent development has been the way in which merger control deals with data and privacy. The Commission’s decisions have set new precedents on market definition for data markets, the theories of harm that may be relevant and the remedies that can solve such concerns. Meanwhile, in the US, recent statements by AAG Kanter suggest that remedies in technology mergers or acquisitions may face more scrutiny than in previous administrations.
Another trend that is noticeable in the jurisdictions covered by this guide is that a number of competition agencies have reviewed and updated, or intend to review and update, their published guidance as they gain more experience in relation to digital markets. For example:
The courts are also increasingly providing guidance on how the competition rules should be applied to digital markets. For example, in May 2021, the German Federal Court overturned an earlier decision by the Higher Regional Court of Düsseldorf and held that the latter had failed to consider whether Booking.com’s narrow MFNs were ‘objectively necessary’ for the performance of the main contract, the provision of online intermediary services. Another landmark decision in the area of vertical restrictions in online markets is the European Court of Justice’s ruling in
Enforcer guidelines and court rulings that provide further guidance on how the competition rules will or should apply to online markets (including how and when the traditional tools require adaptation or refinement) should be welcomed. It is clear from the contributions to this Guide, however, that issues of market definition and potential competition in digital markets continue to be debated. This can also be seen in the FTC’s litigation against Facebook, alleging that Facebook holds monopoly power in an alleged market for ‘personal social networking services’. Facebook is not the only tech company facing litigation by US regulators.
As can be seen from the contributions, there has also been an uptick in private enforcement claims against tech platforms, including Epic Games v. Apple, in which the United States District Court for the Northern District of California considered allegations of antitrust violations in relation to the control of an app store and in-app purchasing systems, as well as a number of other private enforcement actions. These claims will also continue to provide important precedents on competition issues in digital markets.
Technological innovation is largely pro-competitive and the existing competition rules are, and will continue to be, flexible and robust enough to deal with the challenges of the online world. Careful, evidence- and precedent-based enforcement in individual cases continues to be the best approach to address competition concerns in digital markets, although this will in future likely operate alongside ex ante regulation of gatekeeper platforms in some jurisdictions.
A globally coordinated approach to the challenges raised in competition law by the digital age remains important wherever possible. Not only are the substantive issues similar across jurisdictions, but remedies should be coordinated where possible to avoid undermining the very cross-border competition that the online world has facilitated. We hope this Guide encourages competition enforcers and practitioners to think and act globally when it comes to the enforcement and practice of competition law in the online world.
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