EU competition chief to take harder look at ‘big data’ collected by Internet cos during merger probes

European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager addresses a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, January 11, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The European Union plans to take a harder look at whether the collection of vast troves of consumer data by big Internet companies violates competition rules, competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager said on Sunday.

“If just a few companies control the data you need to satisfy customers and cut costs, then you can give them the power to just drive rivals out of the market,” Vestager told a conference of top European and U.S. entrepreneurs and investors.

“If we analyze a merger, if we have a suspicion or concern when it comes to antitrust, if it comes to data, of course we will look at it,” she said in a speech at an annual digital innovation conference in Munich. “It may be a competition problem.”

Since taking over as Europe’s top antitrust enforcer in 2014, Vestager has stepped up investigations into U.S. web giants such as Google and Amazon to decide whether her agency should regulate them more tightly.

Vestager acknowledged that protecting consumer privacy goes beyond her agency’s competition remit.

But she put Internet companies on notice that the vast power they exercise in online marketing and commerce should not make it too difficult for smaller businesses to compete in those areas.

“If a company’s use of data is so bad for competition that it outweighs the benefit, then you may have to step in to restore the level playing field,” she said of her role.

Last April, the European Commission accused Alphabet Inc’s Google of favoring its own shopping services in search results at the expense of rivals, and is weighing possible sanctions against the world’s most popular search engine.

Previously, the EU considered and rejected big data issues when it approved Google’s acquisition of online advertising firm DoubleClick in 2008 and Facebook‘s merger purchase of the WhatsApp messaging service in 2014.

“In the particular circumstances of those cases, there was no serious cause for concern,” she said. “Because even after those mergers, other companies would have access to many sources of useful data.”

The EU agreed last month to a new general data protection regulation to create consistent regulations across Europe’s 28 member states, requiring businesses to build privacy safeguards into products and services.

Vestager welcomed efforts by companies to develop common standards for Internet data protection and stressed the positive benefits she sees in companies analyzing big data to understand consumer demand to offer personalized shopping, find cures to diseases and better organize transportation.

Separately, she promised rapid action on questions of whether e-commerce companies such as Amazon.com Inc are violating competition rules by restricting cross-border trade.

The EU is looking to boost economic growth in Europe by removing national barriers for online services. It plans to publish a wide-ranging policy paper on the topic by the middle of this year, she said.

Vestager also said she would open up a public debate before Easter on whether so-called “geolocation” contracts unfairly restrict the evolution of the European digital single market, resulting in higher costs for consumers.

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Reuters

Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

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Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

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Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
  • A journalist to track special situations funds, distressed debt and private credit (from the PE angle) across Asia.