Joint report on competition law and Big Data, and the Facebook investigation

By Gabriele Accardo

On 10 May 2016, French and German Competition Authorities published their joint report on competition law and Big Data. Separately, the French Competition Authority announced the launch of a full-blown sector inquiry into data-related markets and strategies.

The joint report provides an overview of how the two authorities would look at relevant competition issues raised by the collection and commercial use of data, in particular the assessment of data as a factor in establishing market power

Interestingly, the authorities make reference to established antitrust principles (e.g. data as a barrier to entry, or use of data in exclusionary or exploitative abuses), and not to new theories to look at such issues. In fact, a number of past cases illustrates how competition authorities have analyzed the “data advantage” in “non-digital” markets, and provides useful guidance on which issues the authorities are likely to focus on in future cases.

While it is noted that there are several possible “data-based” conducts, whether exclusionary or exploitative, which may lead, depending on the circumstances, to enforcement action, however, the theories of harm underlying the prohibition of such conducts are premised, mainly, on the capacity for a firm to derive and sustain market power from data unmatched by competitors. Yet, before concluding whether a company’s “data advantage” has created or strengthened market power, enforcers should undertake case-specific assessments on whether data is scarce or easily replicable, and whether the scale and scope of data collection matters.

Two considerations are worth singling out.

First, the two authorities recall that refusal to access to data can be anticompetitive if the data is an essential facility to the activity of the undertaking asking for access. Based on existing EU case law, compulsory access to essential facilities can be granted only in exceptional circumstances as even a dominant company cannot, in principle, be obliged to promote its competitors’ business. In this context it is further noted that access to company’s data may raise privacy concerns as forced sharing of user data could violate privacy laws if company exchange data without asking for consumer’s consent before sharing their personal information with third companies with whom the consumer has no relationship.

Secondly, with specific regard to privacy concerns, it is recalled that under EU case law, any issues relating to the sensitivity of personal data are not, as such, a matter for competition law, but may be resolved on the basis of the relevant provisions governing data protection. Still, according to the two authorities, Decisions taken by an undertaking regarding the collection and use of personal data can have parallel implications on economic and competition dimensions. Therefore, privacy policies could be considered from a competition standpoint whenever these policies are liable to affect competition, notably when they are implemented by a dominant undertaking for which data serves as a main input of its products or services. In such instances, there may be a close link between the dominance of the company, its data collection processes and competition on the relevant markets, which could justify the consideration of privacy policies and regulations in competition proceedings.

For instance, looking at excessive trading conditions, especially terms and conditions which are imposed on consumers in order to use a service or product, data privacy regulations might be a useful benchmark to assess an exploitative conduct.

Facebook investigation in Germany

The presence of excessive trading conditions is the underlying theory of harm for the investigation launched by Germany’s Federal Cartel Office (FCO) Bundeskartellamt into Facebook to assess whether it has abused its dominant position in the market for social networks through its specific terms of service on the use of user data. In particular, the FCO will assess whether Facebook’s position allows it to impose contractual terms that would otherwise not be accepted by its users.

Andreas Mundt, President of the FCO, stated that dominant companies are subject to special obligations, including the use of adequate terms of service as far as these are relevant to the market. For internet services that are financed by advertisements such as Facebook, user data is very important. For this reason, it is essential to also examine the abuse of market power and whether consumers are sufficiently informed about the type and extent of data collected.

In order to access the social network, users must first agree to the company’s collection and use of their data by accepting the terms of service. It is difficult for users to understand and assess the scope of the agreement accepted by them. According to the FCO, there is considerable doubt as to the admissibility of this procedure, in particular under applicable national data protection law. If there is a connection between such an infringement and market dominance, this could also constitute an abusive practice under competition law.

The FCO is conducting the proceeding closely with the competent data protection officers, consumer protection associations as well as the European Commission and the competition authorities of other EU Member States.

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