Brexit Britain’s Antitrust Chief Counts on Global Help Taming Tech
(Bloomberg) -- The head of Britain’s antitrust watchdog said he needs to pick his battles with tech giants such as Amazon.com Inc. and that global counterparts like the European Commission will often take the lead reining in Silicon Valley.
Andrea Coscelli, chief executive officer of the newly beefed-up Competition and Markets Authority, told Bloomberg he may take a back seat in some cases if other agencies are already taking a close look, and that some merger probes are better suited to certain courts and jurisdictions than others.
“You cannot expect when there is a problem, every single agency to go after it, because we all have to make choices,” Coscelli said in an interview, pointing to the European Union’s case on Amazon’s marketplace as a probe that should have U.K. benefits despite the CMA not having a similar case. “There’s quite a lot of good stuff on tech that’s happening in Brussels that will have a direct positive benefit for U.K. consumers.”
Coscelli was speaking ahead of the first in-person meetings of the world’s top antitrust enforcers in London since the pandemic and the first of its kind on digital markets, although some are expected only to attend online. G-7 regulators including the Federal Trade Commission’s Lina Khan are expected to discuss how to better enforce competition and explore areas where they can work together.
The Nov. 29-30 meeting comes as Big Tech platforms face tougher scrutiny from regulators worldwide. In the U.S., Khan’s FTC has hit Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. with a new antitrust case that seeks to revisit its purchases of WhatsApp and Instagram. The EU is close to agreeing a Digital Markets Act that might require Apple Inc. or Google to allow rival app stores to install programs on devices.
The London-based CMA has been thrust into the spotlight since emerging from the shadow of EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager post-Brexit. Along with regulators in the EU and U.S., Coscelli’s agency is currently probing Nvidia Corp.’s takeover of Arm and has stepped up scrutiny of Google, Apple, and Facebook.
The CMA showed it wasn’t afraid to flex its muscles, fining Facebook 50.5 million pounds ($67 million) for failing to update regulators on the deal with Giphy they were probing.
“It was important to send a signal that it was just unacceptable behavior,” Coscelli said, revealing that the company did not appeal and has now paid in full. “Facebook has an army of very good lawyers so the fact they didn’t appeal says something about how they saw the facts in this particular case.”
The U.K is toughening up its stance with the new Digital Markets Unit, which will be able to enforce a code of conduct and potentially suspend, block and reverse decisions made by tech giants.
International regulators are aware of a lack of enforcement and under-regulation in the digital sectors amid the fast-emergence of tech monopolies, Coscelli said in the interview. But now, the CMA and its counterparts in the EU, the U.S. and other G-7 regulators are all thinking similarly to find a solution.
The CMA chief said change is likely to come from “clusters of activity” run by global regulators which will force companies to take action, citing its privacy probe into Alphabet Inc.’s Google as an example where companies can work together with regulators to potentially roll-out global changes.
Meanwhile, Coscelli said he disagreed with lawyers who’ve warned that the CMA’s determination to be tough on deal-makers is creating a challenging environment for foreign investors.
He said that although some might think it has a major role in M&A activity in the U.K., the CMA only looks at between 50-60 cases out of around 500 every year.
Coscelli is expected to stand down as CEO next year after six years at the top. Coscelli said the next boss will need to have an understanding of regulation and big companies, skills he said will be more important as the CMA takes on a dual-role of regulator and competition agency.
“The CMA after I leave will be a hybrid of the two so it will be really important to have this horizon scanning and constantly thinking about big tech,” Coscelli said.
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