Resetting Competition Policy Frameworks

Earlier this month, the GSMA – an association representing various mobile operators – published a report: ‘Resetting Competition Policy Frameworks for the Digital Ecosystem’ – see here for an Executive Summary. The GSMA proposes a more nuanced approach to competition policy in the digital economy following the EU Commission’s Digital Single Market initiatives (see previous posts here and here). The GSMA suggests that it is necessary to create a regulatory environment fit for the digital age. We summarise the four main themes below.

Market definition and market power

The study points to: 
  • an unprecedented uptake in new technologies: 
  • an increasing use of big data to gain a competitive advantage (see our opinions here); and 
  • a rising number of cases where price is not the critical factor for consumer decision-making. 
In the light of these findings, it is suggested that competition authorities need to adapt their approach to defining product and geographic markets. Recommendations include:
  • Focussing on the products and services consumers genuinely view as viable substitutes to inform market definition;
  • Investigating how the quality of goods and services which are provided at no monetary cost can be used as part of a market power analysis; and
  • Revising market definitions where there is substantial evidence to do so.
Adopting a total welfare standard in digital markets

The GSMA has urged competition authorities to take into account the effect of conduct on product quality, innovation and economic efficiencies (‘Total Welfare’) rather than simply pricing effects. It proposes that looking at the bigger picture could entail positive effects on investments, quality of products and services and performance in digital markets. Recommendations include:
  • Adopting a total welfare standard to support productivity growth /higher living standards;
  • Focussing on dynamic effects when assessing mergers and competition in digital markets. This might enable certain mergers to be cleared that could benefit society; and
  • Adapting the approach to efficiencies by use of experts, identifying efficiencies in earlier transactions and utilising new analytical techniques. 
Rebalancing ex ante and ex post regulation

The report notes that technologies such as cloud computing, social media, and the use of the Internet of Things are no longer entirely novel but they do continue to alter how businesses operate, and products and services are being offered in new and sometimes unpredictable ways. As entire industries are adapting to this changing digital environment there is a concern that regulating on the basis of predictions (‘ex ante’) could distort competition and deter innovation. GSMA’s study argues that applying competition law in the light of experience and facts (‘ex post’), is more flexible and can be tailored to experience of changing market conditions. Recommendations include:
  • Reviewing the thresholds for ex ante regulation to ensure that the potential negative impact on investment and modernisation that may arise is analysed against any possible gains;
  • Focussing ex ante regulation on enduring market power; and
  • Ensuring consistent and streamlined regulation that conforms to competition law.
Institutional Arrangements 

While noting that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ institutional arrangement, the report calls for competition authorities to be independent and transparent; to adopt policies which support investment and innovation; and to cooperate closely with regulators in moving towards ex post enforcement. 

The GSMA is careful not to criticise the principles currently underpinning competition policy and enforcement in Europe. However, it is firm in the view that features of the competition regulatory framework must be updated to allow digital services the right environment to flourish and to ensure appropriate conditions for competition. That view is not necessarily universal, and it will be interesting to see how others react to the GSMA’s recommendations.

Excessive pricing: the Italian version

Pricing issues in the pharmaceutical industry have continued to keep competition authorities busy, this time with the Italian Market Competition Authority (AGCM) fining the multinational South African pharmaceutical company Aspen near €5.2 million on 14 October 2016, following its finding that Aspen abused its dominance to artificially inflate the price of four of its cancer drugs.

In its press release/statement, the AGCM stated that Aspen, which had acquired the rights to the four essential drugs (Leukeran (chlorambucil), Alkeran (melphalan), Purinethol (mercaptopurine) and Tioguanine (tioguanine)) from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), had threatened to interrupt their supply to the Italian market in order to compel the Italian Medicines Agency to accept price increases for the drugs of between 300%-1,500% of the initial price. The drugs were described by the AGCM as “irreplaceable” and central to the treatment of blood cancers especially for children and elderly patients. In the relevant period Aspen was the only supplier of these drugs in the Italian market, which led to the finding that Aspen held a dominant position in the relevant national market and had unfairly increased the prices.  The AGCM noted in particular that there was no direct substitute for the drugs, the patents had been expired for years and no economic justification for the price increases could be established.

The antitrust authority applied a two-step test to determine whether the increase in pricing amounted to unfair pricing in contravention of Article 102. The AGCM first established that there was an excessive discrepancy between the manufacturing costs and the final prices of the products and secondly considered that the pricing was excessive and unfair, by reference to factors such as the change in prices and any economic basis for this change, any potential benefits for patients, and conversely any harm to the Italian National Health Service.

There is no easy method for competition authorities (or indeed companies) to determine what constitutes excessive pricing, due to the number of variables involved.  A justified price increase might be due to increased manufacturing costs or could be the reflection of a profitable market or a high-risk marketing strategy, among other factors.  Ultimately, the determination of when a price is excessive remains challenging, and – where pharmaceuticals are involved – may well vary from country to country.  As yet, the impact of excessive pricing on reference prices has not been examined.

Italy is not the only country to look at excessive pricing of off-patent drugs, however.  Another example from the UK (on which we have reported here and here) is the ongoing CMA investigation into the pricing of the anti-epilepsy drug Epanutin by Pfizer and Flynn Pharma (the latter having acquired the marketing rights of Epanutin by Pfizer in late 2012).   The CMA has recently updated its case file to push back the expected date of the conclusion of the investigation, to November 2016. The focus of the investigation is understood to be whether the pricing for phenytoin sodium capsules is excessive and unfair and thus constitutes an Article 102 and Chapter II abuse.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the antitrust authorities have considered similar issues with the 50-fold increase in the price of Turing Pharmaceuticals’ Daraprim and the more recent Mylan EpiPen controversy, caused by a six-fold price rise in the popular emergency allergy treatment.  In September 2016, Mylan became the subject of a congressional hearing on this subject. The allegations about increased pricing were followed by suggestions that Mylan had been misclassifying EpiPen as a generic, as opposed to as a branded product, in order to benefit from the lower rebate rate available (13%) than the equivalent for branded drugs (23%).  In this case, it was of significance that Mylan had a market share of around 90%, and the increase in pricing was accompanied by a direct increase in Mylan’s profits. The US FDA itself was criticised for not intervening more effectively in order to allow competing products to reach the market.

The complex topic of excessive pricing continues to be an issue in the EU more generally.  The announcement of the Aspen investigation has led to calls by public interest bodies such as the BEUC for the Commission to carry out EU-wide investigations into whether companies use similar tactics to increase pricing.  No doubt, as the case law develops, so will our understanding of when a company’s pricing tactics risk being in breach of Article 102.

The European Commission’s E-commerce Conference

On 6 October, the Commission held a conference on its Preliminary Findings of the E-commerce Sector Inquiry: the entire day was made available via webcast (no geo-blocking for the Commission…).  

This follows the publishing of its Preliminary Report last month (which we covered here and here).  The conference was an opportunity for those working in industry, academia and competition authorities around the EU to comment on the findings.  A list of the speakers can be found here.  We have provided a summary of the main issues raised below.

Distribution

In today’s digital world, selective distribution systems are used for a very wide range of products and they are no longer limited to those products which are accompanied by a service.  It was suggested that using selective distribution to ban the use of third party platforms raised important competition law and political questions.

In the context of consumer goods, selective distribution can be beneficial, allowing brands to maintain consistency across retail channels and strengthening consumer protection.  However, it was noted that they can be detrimental to SME retailers, which often struggle to gain market share as a result of restrictive distribution practices.  The need for clear and objective criteria was also raised as an issue.  Some industry representatives called for greater parity between online and brick and mortar stores in terms of the products they are allowed to sell.  This view was not shared by all – others were quick to emphasise the differences between online and physical stores and the benefits of differentiating between these types of sales.  

Turning to the media content sector, the focus was on the use of exclusivity which gives rise to a similar dynamic to selective distribution in the goods economy.  On the one hand, the competition for exclusivity among media organisations has been a driver of innovation and investment in the production of new technologies (e.g. Ultra HD TVs) and has facilitated the creation of more choice among content providers.  On the other hand, distribution contracts are often awarded for lengthy terms and – in the Commission’s view – certain terms risk giving rise to anti-competitive effects.  One example which was discussed was the use of automatic renewal provisions, extending the duration of exclusivity; however, such terms may be justified on the basis of the considerable investment needed to create new content. Such terms will need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Cross-border access to content

The paradox that 50% of EU citizens shop online but only 15% shop cross-border was raised as an important issue.  The volume of complaints about geo-blocking directed to National Competition Authorities varied significantly.  Opinions differed on the prioritisation of geo-blocking and territorial restrictions generally.  

The discussion on consumer goods focused on the ability to sell across borders.  Legal fragmentation and lack of harmonisation, personalised products and distribution capacity were all identified as reasons why cross-border sales may be limited.  In addition to technical and logistical barriers, selective distribution systems were also considered to play a part in the availability of products in specific regions. 

Geo-blocking occupied a large part of the discussion on online content distribution.  Industry representatives argued that the territoriality identified in the report is not the result of active efforts by distributors to fragment the market.  Instead, it was said to reflect diverging national demands and differences in the level of investment that broadcasters are prepared to make in each territory.  The possibility of pan-European licences was dismissed as being prohibitively expensive as well as having the potential to be anti-competitive. 

Pricing

Issues surrounding pricing and pricing mechanisms were raised throughout the day.  There was general agreement that the competitive impact of such mechanisms in e-commerce will depend heavily on the level of market power of those imposing the prices.

An interesting point on price discrimination was raised in the context of consumer goods.  If price discrimination is banned, firms adapt by changing their pricing and product strategies, which could harm or benefit consumers depending on the market.  It was noted that vertical restraints could be used strategically by suppliers in the marketplace. 

Pricing mechanisms were also raised as a concern in relation to online digital content.  It was suggested that it might be necessary for the Commission to examine restrictive payment structures in contracts and perhaps regulate the area to ensure a level playing field between mobile platform providers and application developers.

The Commission has invited stakeholders to submit comments on its Preliminary Report by 18 November 2016.  It remains to be seen whether the commentary put forward during the conference and the divergence of industry views will be reflected the Final Report.  Past sector inquiries tend to suggest that the changes between the preliminary and final reports may be few and far between…

Competition defences, patent litigation and costs…

A recent judgment from Mr Justice Roth in the Patents Court highlights the importance of parties considering the sensible case management of competition defences in patent litigation and potential cost implications.

The judgment is from a case management conference in proceedings between several parties including Illumina Inc, Sequenom Inc, and Premaitha Health Plc.  The case is primarily patent litigation that is due to go to trial in July 2017.  In April 2016, the defendant Premaitha Health plc sought to introduce various competition law defences.  Pleadings were already advanced on the technical patent issues and the defendant sought permission to amend its defence.  This was discussed at a CMC in April.  The presiding judge (Mr Justice Birss) adjourned the application to be heard at a later hearing.  The defendant had served its amended pleading only two days before the CMC and so he recognised that the claimants could not be expected to address a wholly new case at such very short notice.  The proposed non-technical defences addressed complex questions under competition law and the claimants were not represented by specialist competition counsel at that first CMC.  Regardless, the defendant pressed the court to grant permission to amend its defences at the first CMC taking the position that the claimants could subsequently on full consideration of the pleadings apply to strike them out or for summary judgment.  The judge (unsurprisingly) did not agree this would be appropriate.  He adjourned the application to a second CMC once the claimants had had time to consider properly the proposed amendments and had been able to give notice of the aspects of the defence to which they objected or consented.  He remarked that if this second hearing did not take place for some reason then the defendant would be given permission to serve the non-technical defences in the form annexed to the defendant’s application.

The second CMC took place on 1 July (the judgment has just been handed down).

Roth J, decided that actually the most appropriate course of action in terms of the efficient conduct of the litigation at this stage would be to further adjourn the non-technical defences application to be restored once the technical judgment had been handed down.  The main reason given is that the precise content of the competition law arguments in this case depends on the scope of the patents.  The market definition alleged by the defendant is framed in terms of patented technology that is an essential input to the allegedly infringing product produced by the defendant.  So any change to the scope of the patent in the technical trial could have a substantial effect on market definition and non-technical arguments that depend on that market definition.  Additionally, the Judge notes that the draft non-technical pleadings are vague and general in places and that a technical judgment would enable a much more sophisticated and tighter focus to be brought on the competition issues.  He also mentions two additional (but subsidiary) reasons why he thinks this is a more sensible approach: (i) the Commission is conducting a competition law investigation which appears to cover the same ground as in the draft non-technical defences (on which we reported here) and further clarity as to the Commission’s investigations should be reached by when the technical judgment in the current proceedings is handed down; and (ii) one of the non-technical defences relates to a settlement agreement between Illumina Inc and Sequenom Inc which to date the defendant has only seen a heavily redacted version.  Roth J suggests that this issue can be dealt with by way of further disclosure in due course which will enable consideration of whether the proposed pleading raises an arguable case.

On costs (which Roth J notes were significant), he ordered that they should be reserved (as a fair assessment requires knowledge of how the matter is going to proceed after judgment in the technical trial) save as to the defendant’s costs which the defendant had to bear.  He stated that an applicant (here the defendant) has a responsibility to consider how its application should sensibly be managed and determined.  He warned “[t]here may perhaps be some lessons from all this. If competition defences are now being introduced on this contingent basis in patent litigation, consideration needs to be given as to how the pleading, and any argument about strike out or summary judgment for the respondent to that pleading, should sensibly be managed. I doubt that this is the last case where such non-technical defences will be introduced”.

This case acts as a reminder of the importance of parties taking a reasonable position when asserting competition law defences in patent litigation and considering how they should best be case managed in the circumstances (or alternatively being prepared for costs consequences).  The facts of this case (notably, the proximity of the raising of the non-technical defences to trial and the defendant’s approach to how strike out or summary judgment should be handled) are not entirely standard and this no doubt had a particular bearing in this case.  However, given the propensity of the UK courts to be inclined to order “patents first, non-technical defences second” in the absence of agreement between the parties to the contrary, and also to defer to any parallel competition law investigation particularly where the alleged non-technical defences concern complex issues of competition law, the outcome is not entirely surprising.  Something for all defendants (and claimants) to keep in mind.

The privacy & competition law overlap: new competition rules on big data?

A few days ago, we reported on the European Data Protection Supervisor’s (EDPS) Opinion on coherent enforcement of fundamental rights in the age of big data (see our post here, and the Opinion here). 

On Thursday 29 September, at a Conference organised by the EDPS and BEUC, Commissioner Vestager gave a speech on Big Data and Competition in which she echoed some of the points raised by the EDPS (see here).

She confirmed that the Commission is “exploring whether we need to start looking at mergers with valuable data involved, even though the company that owns it doesn’t have a large turnover” (because, for example, it has not yet managed to monetise its data). 

Noting that “the competition rules weren’t written with big data in mind”, she also stated that the Commission is conducting an impact assessment on whether national competition authorities need new powers to deal with big data, and hinted that a proposal for new EU legislation, likely a Directive, may be on the table early next year. 

The current prognosis (subject to the outcome of the pending legal challenges) is that the UK may well have triggered Article 50 by then, and may have ceased to be an EU Member State before any such Directive has to be implemented.  This gives rise to the potential for different approaches to the treatment of big data in competition enquiries between the EU and UK post Brexit.

Data Pooling

‘Big data’ tends to be perceived as a (potential) competition issue in the context of tech giants which hold an enormous amount of data.  In her speech, Commissioner Vestager noted that in addition to a single company data set, large amounts of data can also be amassed as a result of several companies pooling their data.  She suggested that this might even be beneficial for competition, enabling smaller companies to compete more effectively with big companies.

However, she also warned that certain risks accompanied this, noting that “companies have to make sure that the data they pool doesn’t give away too much about their business.  Otherwise, it might become too easy for them to coordinate their actions, rather than competing to cut prices and improve their products”.  And of course, if companies are controllers of personal data, they can only share that data subject to applicable data protection laws.

The Commissioner ended her speech by saying that she “will keep a close eye on how companies use data”.  For our part, we will continue to keep a close eye on the EU / UK authorities’ approach to data.