Australia to leave digital giant break up work in the hands of the United States

The ACCC will instead focus on the more local digital giant problems, such as the News Media Bargaining Code and the new adtech inquiry.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The chair of Australia's competition watchdog has said any work attempting to essentially structurally separate large tech giants, which could potentially undo many of the acquisitions undertaken over the last few years, would be left to its counterparts in the United States.

The call to effectively break up Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google came at the conclusion of the United States House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee's probe into the four digital giants, with its 450-page report in October making a slate of recommendations, including those it said would strengthen antitrust laws and restore competition in the digital economy.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chair Rod Sims said these calls were "very much an issue for the US to deal with".

"I certainly met with Representative Cicilline, who was the chair of that report, when I was last in Washington … we ourselves are in touch with all the major international competition agencies and regulators on these issues," Sims told the House Standing Committee on Economics on Wednesday.

"Breaking them up is more an issue for the US, but you just don't know -- personally, I wouldn't want that to distract from attention on all the other problems that we should be dealing with now, and it could be a big distraction if that's all we're focused on, we're [going to] miss a hell of a lot else."

Read more: US antitrust probe finds 'alarming pattern' of innovation-stifling practices

Also of concern to Sims is that if the US was successful in breaking the giants up, he believes they would simply consolidate in a different way. He said his focus is instead on what is going on in Australia.

"There's more to do. Looking at adtech, we're looking at apps, we're looking at data issues -- so there's a lot of work to be done," he said. "Our approach so far has been let's work out what the problems are, let's deal with the problems."

Such problems include the News Media Bargaining Code that is currently before the Senate.

On Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled his intention to work with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on the regulation of online platforms.

A statement out of Ottawa said both prime ministers agreed to continue coordinating efforts to address online harm and ensure the revenues of web giants are shared more fairly with creators and media.

Adding further commentary on the code, Sims said he believes there was never going to be the prospect that Google and Facebook would do deals with media businesses in Australia without the threat of the code being extremely close to reality.

"Only when it was clear it was going to be law was there action from the platforms," he said.

"This is high-stakes game, Google and Facebook want to be in control … this requires them to actually make deals, they didn't want to do that."

Elsewhere on the ACCC's agenda are mergers affecting Australia's technology, retail, and fintech sectors between Google and Fitbit; Eftpos, BPay, and NPP Australia; the National Australia Bank and neobank 86 400; as well as Woolworths and PFD Food Services.

"There's certainly challenges with the merger laws … if we form the view that these mergers should be opposed, we won't let any interpretation stop us taking action," Sims said. "Whether we succeed or not, perhaps will be another test of the merger laws, but it won't affect us acting if we believe these mergers should be opposed."


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