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September 29, 2021updated 30 Sep 2021 3:08pm

Is a coordinated international approach the way to regulate Big Tech?

Australia, the EU and the UK could develop a shared antitrust framework to rein in tech's biggest names. But is an international regulatory approach a realistic prospect?

By Cristina Lago

Google is once again in the eye of a storm after Australia’s antitrust watchdog called for powers to prevent the digital giant from using its internet data to display targeted ads and inhibit competition. On the other side of the globe, advertisers, publishers and tech companies have sent a complaint to EU antitrust regulators as they fear Google’s plans to block internet cookies is anti-competitive.

Similar issues have arisen in the US and other countries as part of the ongoing struggle between regulators, policymakers and Big Tech. A coordinated international approach could be the answer, but it will be difficult to achieve.

Google offices in Berlin

Google’s latest advertising monopoly disputes are raising questions about the possibility of an internationally coordinated approach to regulate Big Tech. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The differences between the US and the EU in their antitrust approaches

As reported by Tech Monitor, regulators around the world are taking on Big Tech with legislation designed to encourage competition. “I think the European Union is probably the most advanced on proposed legislation on that because it tries to tackle the problem ex ante, before the damage has been done, setting some criteria that Big Tech companies need to respect so that competition can be ensured,” says Laura Petrone, principal analyst in the thematic research team at GlobalData.

The EU came up with a legislative proposal in 2020 aimed at preventing large online platforms (so-called “gatekeepers”) from abusing their market power. Under the Digital Markets Act (DMA), designated gatekeepers will have a set of obligations and could be fined up to 10% of their worldwide turnover in case of non-compliance. Although the list of gatekeepers has not been published yet, it is understood that the main targets are the five Big Tech corporations, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft.

The US approach to antitrust regulations differs from the EU in that it has not proposed any ex ante legislation, continues Petrone. Antitrust rules there were not envisaged for the digital world but are nonetheless working. However, they involve lengthy investigations, as is the case of several antitrust challenges, including government lawsuits, filed in the US against Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple.

“The issue [in the US] is that it takes time to collect evidence and to prove that these companies are monopolies,” Petrone adds.

Could international regulation of Big Tech work?

As part of the latest Google ad dominance row, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chair Rod Sims told Reuters that his country, the EU and the UK are having talks about the possibility of coming up with a shared antitrust framework.

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“The Europeans and the UK are consulting on such laws at the moment and we’re going to be trying to align with them over the next year,” Sims said, adding that he expected that the global push to increase regulation of Google’s advertising business between the company and the Australian regulator: “I just think they can see what’s happening and it’s in their interests that these rules are aligned (between countries) and it’s in their interests that they’re really well thought through.”

However, not everyone is convinced that international efforts to regulate Big Tech can work. Sam Gilbert, affiliated researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy and author of Good Data, thinks that although regulatory interventions to curb the power of Big Tech companies are certainly needed, he fears these proposals will miss the target.

“The vast majority of Google’s revenues come from showing ads to users in the context of their Google searches,” Gilbert says. “It is mainly timeliness that makes these ads so valuable to advertisers – not the data Google holds on users’ online behaviour elsewhere.

“Google’s market position in digital advertising is a function of its dominance in search – the ideal policy solutions would address both issues simultaneously.”

Concerns about the feasibility of an international approach to Big Tech regulation have also been voiced by law specialists.

“I think the different jurisdictions of the US, the EU, the UK, do have very different long-term views on the best way to implement antitrust regulations,” Nicky Morgan, consultant to the technology sector group at Travers Smith law firm, told Tech Monitor earlier in the year. “It’s unlikely you’d end up with global antitrust regulations”.

But Morgan did agree that global regulators will end up working closer together – a cooperation that is shown at the ongoing EU-US Trade and Technology Council taking place in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia. One of the goals of the summit is for the EU and the US to find some common ground in digital policy, an area which has been riddled with disagreements between the two economies, particularly when it comes to data privacy.

“Brussels and Washington want to discuss ways to have closer technology standards and work more closely on developing regulation,” GlobalData’s Petrone says. “But they differ in how to tackle regulation.”

Even if an international approach to Big Tech regulation becomes impossible, Petrone said that at least these corporations are more willing to collaborate and cooperate with regulators, which shows a degree of progress. For example, Google recently offered to settle the case around the plan to block internet cookies after a group of advertisers, publishers and tech companies raised a complaint to EU antitrust regulators.

“In this case, I think Google started to make concessions,” says Petrone. “They [Big Tech companies] are probably aware that the world is changing. And even though very gradually, they need to work together with the regulator and policymakers as well to address these issues.”

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