EU Commission’s Microsoft / LinkedIn Decision – watershed for competition and data?

On 6 December 2016, the European Commission approved the acquisition of LinkedIn by Microsoft, conditional on compliance with a series of commitments.  The full text of the decision has recently been published, affording some useful insight into the Commission’s reasoning.

The merger is one of a number of high profile technology cases in which data is the key asset. Cases such as this are challenging the Commission’s relaxed attitude to the potential effects on competition of deals involving significant volumes of data (for example, the Commission’s 2014 clearance decision of Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp – now the subject of an investigation into whether Facebook provided misleading information in the context of that merger review).  

Similarly, in the LinkedIn / Microsoft decision, the Commission’s assessment was that the post-merger combination of data (such as the individual career information, contact details and professional contacts of users) did not raise competition concerns.

The Commission identified two potential concerns: 

  1. The combination of data may increase the merged entity’s market power in the data market or increase barriers to entry / expansion for competitors who need this data in order to compete – forcing them to collect a larger dataset in order to compete with the merged entity; and 
  2. Even if the datasets are not combined, the companies may have been competing pre-merger on the basis of the data they control and that this competition could be eliminated by the merger. 
These concerns were dismissed by the Commission on a number of grounds, the most interesting being that the combination of their respective datasets is unlikely to result in raising the barriers to entry / expansion for other players as there will continue to be large amounts of internet user data available for advertising purposes which are not within Microsoft’s exclusive control.

The Commission’s approach contrasts with that of some commentators (and indeed some of the Commission’s own non-merger enforcement activities) which have highlighted the potential for platforms to gain an unassailable advantage over competitors in relation to data. 

Concerns of data ‘tipping points’ were among the reasons why French and German competition authorities have published a joint paper on data and competition law. 

Germany has amended its domestic competition law to increase the legal tools available to prevent market dominance and abuses in relation to data. These changes will come in to force later this year and include: 

  1. controversially) amending the German merger thresholds to require notification of deals involving innovative companies (like start-ups) with a transaction value of EUR 400 million; and
  2. introducing specific criteria for reviewing market power in (digital) multi-sided markets, for example allowing the Bundeskartellamt (BKA) to consider: concentration tendencies; the role of big data; economies of scale; user behaviour; and the possibilities to switch a platform.
The additional merger threshold is intended to allow the BKA to review mergers in which the transaction value is high but the parties’ turnover in Germany is below the existing EUR 25 million threshold; for example, when Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp for USD 22 billion was not notifiable in Germany (although it was reviewed by the Commission). 

France and Germany’s robust approach to competition concerns in relation to data is in contrast with the less interventionist position in the UK. This is demonstrated by recent UK government report on digital platforms which found that, “In many sectors, e.g. search engines or social networks, firm behaviour and survey evidence suggests that in the event of even a modest hike in costs users would expect to find an alternative and cease using the service. It is difficult to reconcile this behaviour, and this finding, with the sense that there is an important “moat” which prevents users switching to alternative services over time. Any moat that does exist only seems to be enough to keep them in one place if the platform continues to be free and improve its service over time.

Given the moves towards ex ante regulation of data in France and Germany, and given the ex post investigation into Facebook/WhatsApp, it remains to be seen whether future merger investigations will take a similarly permissive approach.

Will pricing algorithms be the European Commission’s next antitrust target?

There has been considerable debate over the last year or so about the potential anti-competitive impacts of pricing algorithms. They could lead to discriminatory pricing, for example a company quoting different prices to different people based on an algorithmic analysis of their personal data, or cases of collusion, for example companies using algorithms to automatically fix prices. 

In a recent speech, Commissioner Vestager sounded a clear warning against the latter example: “companies can’t escape responsibility for collusion by hiding behind a computer program”. She also indicated that the use of pricing software forms part of the issues being investigated in the Commission’s new investigation into price-fixing in consumer electronics.

However, as pricing algorithms increase in complexity and sophistication, and their use becomes more prevalent, it will not be easy for competition authorities to establish where the use of such algorithms equates to actionable infringements of competition law.

How might pricing algorithms be used?

A new book by Professors Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke have identified four scenarios in which pricing algorithms may promote anti-competitive collusion (see here; also developed in more detail in their book Virtual Competition). 

The first is where firms collude as in a traditional cartel, but use computers to manage or implement the cartel more effectively, or to monitor compliance, for example by utilising real-time data analysis. Competition authorities have already investigated this kind of subject-matter – for example, the CMA issued an infringement decision last year against two companies that agreed to use algorithms to fix prices for the sale of posters and frames on Amazon (see here).

The second example is a hub-and-spoke scenario whereby one pricing algorithm may be used to determine prices charged by numerous users. Evaluating this sort of issue is a current challenge for competition authorities. Last year, in Eturas, the CJEU held that travel agents participating in a platform that implemented a discount cap could be liable if they knew about the anti-competitive agreement and failed to distance themselves from it (see here).  An ongoing case in the US (Meyer v Kalanick) is examining Uber’s ‘surge’ pricing algorithm, which increases the price of an Uber journey as demand increases.  The claimants allege that this constitutes an implied horizontal price-fixing agreement.  

The examples seen so far involve relatively straightforward cases of the use of algorithms as an aid or means to fix prices (although the Uber example arguably involves only unilateral conduct, rather than collusion).  However, Ezrachi and Stucke’s final two scenarios move into more uncertain territory – what if there is no express collusion by the companies? 

In the third scenario, each firm independently adopts an algorithm that continually monitors and adjusts prices according to market data. Although this can lead – effectively – to tacit collusion, particularly in oligopolistic markets (those with a small number of sellers), there is no agreement between companies that could form the basis of an investigation.  However, there can evidently be an anti-competitive effect: if an online retailer can track the prices used by another online retailer for common products, and immediately adjust its own prices to match any discounts, it can prevent the second online retailer from gaining a reputation for lower prices. The incentive for either retailer to lower its prices is removed.  On the other hand, examples from the analogue world suggests that this kind of market review can be used to ensure lower prices for consumers, at least for now (think supermarkets’ price match promises…).

In the fourth scenario, machine learning and the increasing sophistication of algorithms expand tacit collusion beyond oligopolistic markets, making it very difficult even to detect when it’s happening.

The latter two examples pose obvious difficulties for competition authorities. If they do consider such actions to be anti-competitive, how would they prove the requisite intention to co-ordinate prices?

How will competition authorities react?

As discussed above, competition authorities have already undertaken investigations against companies using pricing algorithms in collusion. We have previously noted the CMA’s interest in developing digital tools to aid its investigations (here). It seems certain that such tools will be necessary as these algorithms become more sophisticated and harder to detect.

The actions of non-dominant companies in using pricing algorithms whilst acting independently do not fall within the current competition law framework, even if such use ultimately results in higher prices for consumers. Commissioner Vestager has accepted that “what matters is how these algorithms are actually used”. This sensibly suggests that for now the Commission’s focus will remain on the more clear-cut cases of collusion. Anything else is arguably a matter for policy and regulation rather than enforcement by competition authorities.

However, Commissioner Vestager also stated that “pricing algorithms need to be built in a way that doesn’t allow them to collude”, suggesting that they needed to be designed in a way that will oblige them to reject offers of collusion. It is unclear whether this means Commissioner Vestager intends to target the use of pricing algorithms more generally, or simply to drive home that the competition rules apply equally where collusion is achieved algorithmically.

The fourth scenario, where machine learning algorithms tacitly collude to fix prices, does sound speculative. However, recent developments such as Carnegie Mellon’s Liberatus beating four of the world’s best professional poker players (here) and Google Deep Mind’s AlphaGo victory against Lee Sedol (here) indicate that it might not be too far from becoming reality in the near future.

Collusion in the online economy – new competition law traps for the unwary?

We reported last year on the Eturas decision, in which the Court of Justice ruled that technical measures applied on an online platform gave rise to a potentially anti-competitive agreement.  The Lithuanian Court which had referred the matter to the CJEU then went on to consider liability, based on the participants’ knowledge of the relevant facts (for a review of this decision, see here).

But the risks posed by agreements over platform T&Cs are not the only thing for companies to be aware of.

The European Commission is now carrying out active enforcement in relation to geo-blocking, which can be achieved primarily through technical measures.  The Steam video games investigation is looking in particular at whether anti-piracy measures have an anti-competitive effect. 

Meanwhile, the CMA last autumn issued a statement noting another practice potentially raising antitrust concerns.  This concerned agreements restricting the use of paid online search advertising (e.g. through use of Google AdWords).  The CMA suggested that restrictions on bidding for particular ad terms, or on negative matching (identifying terms for which ads should not be shown) may infringe the competition rules.  It appears that the CMA sees this in terms of potential effects on competition, rather than as a new form of object restriction, with the CMA stating that the practices are particularly likely to be problematic “where one or more similar agreements include parties that collectively represent a material share of the relevant markets and, in the context of brand bidding restrictions, as a result of negative matching obligations in relation to brand terms which an advertiser would not negatively match but for the agreement”.   It should therefore not be assumed that such a provision would in fact be restrictive of competition – but it is something which bears watching.  Indeed, the CMA is not the only competition authority to have lighted on this issue – a similar point is under investigation in the United States, where the FTC accuses 1-800 Contacts of “orchestrating a web of anticompetitive agreements with rival online contact lens sellers that suppress competition in certain online search advertising auctions”.

In conjunction with this statement, the CMA also announced a market study into digital comparison tools; it described the study as an opportunity to explore the nature of competition between price comparison websites and their relationship with service providers.  This may lead to further issues in this area; in the meantime, judgment in the Coty case, which considers contractual prohibitions on the use of certain online sales channels, such as price comparison websites, is due from the CJEU in the near future.

And then there’s the risk of good ol’-fashioned collusion, with a modern twist.  One thing that comes to mind is the new attention on the significance of privacy conditions for consumers.  Now that these are recognised as a parameter of competition (see here, for example), is there a risk that exchanging information about planned changes to privacy conditions / other online trading T&Cs, or actually agreeing a common strategy for these could amount to a breach of Article 101 or its national equivalents?   Or that an agreement between separate companies to adopt a common practice on such terms (in particular if it results in less protection for consumers) could amount to active collusion?  These are open questions for now, but companies should remember that – while benchmarking is often sensible – they should ultimately take their own decisions, and keep their own counsel, about such matters.

Coincidentally, the consumer arm of the CMA has just closed an investigation into the online terms and conditions of cloud service providers following changes agreed by a number of companies.  The closure statement notes that “the CMA remains interested in unfair terms and conditions, particularly in the digital economy”.  It should not be assumed that this interest is limited only to the parts of the CMA responsible for enforcement of consumer laws… 

Pay-for-delay focus on steroids

At the end of last week, the CMA sent a formal statement of objections to Actavis UK and Concordia alleging that they had entered into illegal ‘pay-for-delay’ patent settlement agreements.
 
For a number of years Actavis was the sole supplier of hydrocortisone tablets used to treat conditions such as Addison’s disease that result in insufficient amounts of natural steroid hormones. Concordia was the first potential competitor to obtain a market authorisation for a generic version of the drug. The CMA alleges that Actavis incentivised Concordia not to enter the market with its generic version of the drug by agreeing a fixed supply of its drug to Concordia at a very low price for resale to customers in the UK. As a result Actavis remained the sole supplier of the drug for most of the duration of the agreements (January 2013 to June 2016), during which time the cost of the drug to the NHS rose substantially from £49 to £88 per pack. 
 
The CMA has provisionally found that the pharma companies have breached competition law by entering into anti-competitive agreements.  It has also provisionally found that Actavis abused its dominant position by inducing Concordia to delay its independent entry into the market. This case is separate from the CMA’s other continuing investigation into Actavis UK, which it announced at the end of last year.  That investigation is looking at whether Actavis UK has abused a dominant position by charging excessive prices to the NHS for the drug following a 12,000% price rise over the course of several years.  A substantial portion of that price rise took place in the period before the start of the agreements in issue in this investigation.
 
This latest development comes amidst a number of appeals regarding the application of competition law to pay-for-delay patent settlement agreements in the pharma sector.  In particular, the General Court of the EU recently upheld the European Commission’s decision fining Lundbeck and a number of generic companies in relation to patent settlement agreements (see here and here). That decision is now on appeal to the EU Court of Justice – the grounds of appeal are available here.  Separately, the CAT is currently hearing the appeal of the CMA’s infringement decision against GSK and a number of generic companies for pay-for-delay agreements (see here and here) – this hearing is listed for five weeks, continuing until the end of this month.
 
In both of these appeals a key issue is whether the competition authorities applied the correct test in finding that the pay-for-delay agreements restricted competition ‘by object’, meaning that the effects of the agreements did not need to be considered. The appellants argue that, following the EU Court of Justice’s decision in Cartes Bancaires, ‘by object’ restrictions should be interpreted restrictively.   The Lundbeck appeal to the EU Court of Justice also raises the critical issue of how the General Court dealt with the existence of Lundbeck’s patents. With this in mind, we will be keeping a close eye on the CMA’s investigation into Actavis/Concordia, particularly the legal basis for any final finding of infringement…  

Francion Brooks