An overview of Big Tech cases leading up to the Digital Markets Act (DMA)

Bas Braeken & Jade Versteeg & Timo Hieselaar / 30 Jun 2021

The rise of Tech Giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft (“Big Tech”) and their integration into people’s lives has been interesting on many levels. Particularly in the context of fair and contestable digital markets, it raises many questions. The most pressing of these is whether ex-post enforcement of EU competition law is effective enough to keep up with rapidly evolving (digital) markets and Big Tech companies.

To expand its enforcement toolkit, the European Commission (“Commission”) published a proposal for a Digital Markets Act (“DMA”) in December 2020. Its overall objective is to complement antitrust intervention in digital markets with ex-ante regulation in the form of a set of obligations that platforms identified as “gatekeepers” should abide by.

This blog covers recent developments in the fight against Big Tech, followed by a more detailed analysis of the DMA and its implications for gatekeepers.

Ex-post enforcement of Big Tech companies

The fight against anti-competitive behaviour by Big Tech companies has kept both the Commission and national competition authorities (“NCAs”) quite busy over the last years.

Although the Commission was initially relatively passive towards Big Tech, its Google Android decision from 2018 seems to have been an important starting point for (EU) competition law enforcement towards Big Tech. In this case, the Commission concluded that Google had abused its dominant position by tying the Google Search app to the Android appstore. Not only did the Commission impose a massive fine on Google of €4.3 billion (the highest fine ever imposed), it also established guidelines for assessing dominance in the mobile ecosystem.

Margrethe Verstager, European Commissioner for Competition, indicated that it became her mission to counter the rise of increasingly powerful digital platforms. Subsequently, it did not take long for the Commission to launch two formal investigations into Amazon.

The first investigation concerned Amazon’s use of marketplace seller data. In the Commission’s assessment, by using such non-public data, Amazon is able to avoid the normal risks of retail competition and to leverage its dominance on the market. The second antitrust probe assesses Amazon’s practices regarding its “Buy Box” and “Prime” label, which enables it to favour its own retail offers and offers of marketplace sellers that use Amazon’s logistics and delivery services over the ones of third-party sellers. When digital platform providers play a dual role – in which they act both as platform provider for business users and as retailer in competition with business users – they are incentivised to engage in self-preferencing.

In June 2020, after Spotify filed a complaint, the Commission launched a formal antitrust investigation into Apple’s rules for app developers on the distribution of apps via the App Store. On 30 April 2021, the Commission published its preliminary finding that Apple was indeed abusing its dominant position by requiring app developers to use Apple’s own in-app purchase system.

The Commission also launched a parallel investigation into Apple Pay, Apple’s mobile payment app. The Commission has expressed concerns that Apple’s terms related to the integration of Apple Pay for purchases of goods and services may distort competition and reduce choice and innovation, because no other payment solution than Apple Pay can access the payment chip technology embedded on iOS mobile devices for payments.

Lastly, Epic Games, the creator of the global hit game Fortnite, has officially filed a complaint with the Commission earlier this year. Epic Games accuses Apple of foreclosing the market for app distribution as well as the market for iOS in-app payment processing, allowing Apple to charge a higher commission. Previously, Epic Games has initiated proceedings against Apple in the US, Australia and the UK.

Also on the national level digital platforms have been subject to numerous competition law investigations. The Bundeskartellamt (“BKartA”) has been very active in this regard. In 2015, for instance, the BKartA issued a decision in which it prohibited Booking.com from continuing to apply its ‘best price’ clauses (for further information on APPAs and MFNs and the BKartA’s decision see our previous blog “On APPAs, MFNs and a tenacious German competition authority”).

Another significant case brought forward by the BKartA, regarding Facebook, dates back to 2019. In this decision, the German competition authority concluded that Facebook abused its dominant position in the social networking market by excessively collecting and combining user data without the consent of its users.

In April 2021, the BKartA has received an antitrust complaint about Apple from nine associations representing German media, Internet and advertising industries. They claim that the iPhone maker is abusing its dominant position with its recently introduced App Tracking Transparency program. This feature on iOS requires apps to ask users for permission to collect their data. However, the complainants submit that Apple itself can still collect significant amounts of user data.

In addition, the Netherlands Authority for Consumers & Markets (“ACM”) has conducted an in-depth market study into the mobile app store market and its implications for competition. This study shows that the lack of realistic alternatives to Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store puts them in a position – at least in theory – to set unfair conditions. The ACM is now investigating specifically whether Apple is abusing its dominant position through its App Store by imposing certain conditions on app providers that do not compete with Apple’s apps.

Need for ex-ante intervention?

Competition authorities in the EU thus appear to be willing to act against distortions of competition caused by Big Tech. However, given the (legal and factual) complexity and length of investigations, it often takes a long time before a sanction can be imposed. By then, the (perceived) damage has often already been done. The question therefore arises whether these measures can restore competition in a timely and effective manner. In light of ‘prevention is better than curing’, the DMA was proposed in December 2020. With this Act, the Commission aims to prevent the manifestation of anti-competitive effects in the digital market.

Definition of “Gatekeepers”

The DMA is focused at gatekeeper platforms. A gatekeeper is a provider of a core platform service with a significant impact on the internal market, including, among others, online intermediation services (e.g. app stores, Amazon), online search services (e.g. Google), online social networking services (e.g. Facebook), video-sharing platform services (e.g. TikTok), number-independent interpersonal communication services (e.g. WhatsApp), operating systems (iOS, Android, Microsoft).

The DMA only applies to gatekeepers that meet the following thresholds:

  • An annual EEA turnover equal or above €6.5 billion in the last three financial years or an average market capitalisation that amounted to at least €65 billion in the last financial year.
  • To serve as an important gateway for business users to reach their respective end users the core platform service must have more than 45 million monthly active end users in the EU and more than 10 000 yearly active business users in the EU over the course of the last financial year.

A platform has to notify the Commission if it meets these thresholds and therefore potentially constitutes a gatekeeper (duty to notify). The Commission reserves the right to proactively designate a core platform provider as a gatekeeper when they meet the thresholds, even – or especially – in cases where it did not receive a formal notification.

Obligations for gatekeepers

Once a core platform provider qualifies as a gatekeeper (whether or not designated as such by the Commission), it has to comply with certain obligations as set out in Articles 5 and 6 of the DMA. Some of these obligations relate to (similar) conduct that has given rise to many Big Tech competition cases in recent years. The DMA also includes a provision that creates the power for the Commission to update the list of obligations as a result of market investigations (Article 10 DMA). This makes the DMA flexible in its application and suitable to account for the highly dynamic and innovation driven markets.

Some of the proposed obligations concern:

  • Third-party personal data: Gatekeepers must refrain from combining personal data sourced from their own services with personal data from other services offered by the gatekeeper or third-party services without the consent of the user pursuant to the GDPR (Art. 5(a) DMA). The Bundeskartellamt reached the same conclusion in 2019 in its case against Facebook.
  • MFN/parity clauses: Gatekeepers must allow business users to offer the same products or services to end users through third-party online platforms under different terms and conditions than those of the gatekeeper’s platform (Section 5(b) DMA). The cases of Amazon e-books and Booking.com involved this type of conduct.
  • Anti-steering prohibition: Gatekeepers must allow business users to promote their products in apps purchased through the platform’s core service, such as Apple’s App Store (Article 5(c) DMA). Business users will thus be able to conclude contracts with their end-users outside the core platform. This will, for example, allow Epic Games to offer and sell their in-app products through their own channel, rather than exclusively through Apple’s in-app purchase system.
  • Opening of the operating systems to third-parties: Gatekeepers must allow third-party apps and app stores within the operating system of the device (i.e. iOS and Android). Such practices also lie at the heart of the Commission’s Apple App Store case. This obligation will have far-reaching implication for Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store. At the same time, the DMA acknowledges that the gatekeepers can take proportionate measures to ensure that third-party software applications do not endanger the integrity of the operating system provided by the gatekeeper.
  • Bundling prohibition: Gatekeepers are no longer allowed to bundle several of their core platform services, such as Google did with the pre-installation of Google Chrome on Android devices (Art. 5(f) DMA).
  • Non-public data: Gatekeepers have to refrain from using, in competition with business users, any data not publicly available, which is generated through activities by those business users (Art. 6(a) DMA). Such practices are currently under investigation with regard to the Amazon Marketplace.
  • Self-preferencing: Gatekeepers will have to refrain from treating their own services or products more favourably than those of third parties (Art. 6(d) DMA). The ongoing investigation of Amazon’s “’Buy Box” option is an example of this.

If gatekeepers fail to comply with these obligations, the Commission may impose fines of up to 10% of the gatekeeper’s worldwide annual turnover. It may also impose periodic penalty payments of 5% of the gatekeeper’s average daily turnover. Finally, the Commission has the power to take structural and behavioural measures when, following a market investigation, it finds that a gatekeeper is systematically violating its obligations under the DMA. An example of a structural remedy is the mandatory divestiture of (part of) a business.

Powers for national competition authorities

In principle, the enforcement of the DMA will lie with the Commission. However, the presidents of the NCAs in the EU have stated in their view that they should be given a complementary enforcement role under the DMA. They argue that their knowledge and expertise will make the DMA’s enforcement more effective and faster. Whether the NCAs will eventually be assigned a role in the enforcement of the DMA is unclear at this time.

Conclusion

Once in place, the DMA will embody the shift from ex-post enforcement to an ex-ante regulatory approach. In doing so, the Commission aims to improve competition in the Big Tech landscape. This could have a significant impact on the operations of gatekeepers within the EU.

However, the DMA is currently only a legislative proposal. Given the scope and expected impact of the DMA, it will be subject to much debate. Thus, it is still uncertain what the DMA will ultimately look like upon its enactment.

For further questions, you may contact Bas Braeken, Jade Versteeg, or Timo Hieselaar.

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