Tech giants risk breakups as Vestager weighs ‘last resort’

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US tech giants run the risk of being broken up if they don’t play fair, under tough new rules being weighed as a “last resort” by European Union antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager, a regular tormentor of Silicon Valley.

Digital markets “can tip very fast so we as competition enforcers need to be able to move quickly”, the EU commissioner told a competition law conference on Friday.

The new regulatory firepower she’s seeking would allow officials to probe entire industries and “by imposing obligations that would protect competition that could involve duties to behave in a certain way to make data available to others”.

“As a last resort, it could even mean breaking up companies to protect competition,” she said.

The rules would address frustrations the EU has faced in chasing down online giants without extracting much meaningful change, despite hefty penalties. Google has largely shrugged off some US$9bil (RM38.55bil) in fines and antitrust orders that tried to stoke more competition for search services. Fresher investigations into Amazon.com Inc and Apple Inc could take years to resolve.

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Vestager has spearheaded a crack down on online firms, which have expanded with few regulatory curbs since the dot-com boom. Officials have targeted online content and digital tax revenues as well as how some tech companies essentially become a gatekeeper to entire industries by setting the rules for online marketplaces or app stores.

Regulators will publish the draft law by the end of 2020 as tackling such problems “is a matter of urgency, and that is even more clear to me now after the corona crisis”, Vestager said.

Regulators are separately asking for feedback on changing how they see companies competing against each other, partly a response to business complaints that EU merger rules miss the impact of Chinese rivalry when they find problems between firms competing in small European markets. – Bloomberg

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