US Congressional Antitrust Hearing: Case for a data protection law in the Indian Context
[The said contribution is part of the series on “US Congressional Antitrust Hearing” run by the Centre for Competition Law and Economics]
The recent US congressional antitrust hearing has once again highlighted an important question that whether there is free and fair competition in the online market. The testimony of CEOs of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple before US House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust showed concerns regarding abuse of monopolistic power by these companies. The Committee highlighted that these companies have tremendous power and act as gatekeepers to shape and control online market. The CEOs of these companies were not only questioned for using dominant position in abusive and coercive ways to eliminate the potential competitors, but were made to answer queries related to misuse of data and user privacy. The Committee relied on certain evidences and accused Amazon in particular for tracking consumer habits, shopping history, sellers pricing, data of the competitors and using it for its own benefit. Mr. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of the company, couldn’t deny these accusations, and admitted that the company is looking into such violations.
The congresswoman Pramila Jayapal accused Facebook of spying on competitors and threaten small players through varied ways. The Committee questioned acquisition strategies of the Big Tech firms which help them strengthen their market position, and eliminate potential competition from such acquired firms. Facebook was accused of acquiring WhatsApp and Instagram in the market of social media platform, and Google on its stake in YouTube and DoubleClick acquisitions, to eliminate potential competition.
It is noticeable from the evidence relied by the Committee that these companies have entered into certain anti-competitive business practices to improve their dominance, and to eliminate potential competitors. The UK Parliament, and Australian Competition and Consumer Commission also highlighted similar concerns and suggested regulation of online market in their recent reports in 2019. These companies have tremendous market power to dictate terms and conditions of competition in online market and hence, regulating these big tech companies is necessary to increase innovation and competition in online market.
It can be reasonably argued that one of the main objects of the antitrust regulatory regime is to foster innovation and competition. To ensure that online markets are no exception to it, there is a need to re-envisage regulations for these companies particularly in the Indian context. Two of the four questioned companies have a large user base in India, and collect humongous form of data from its consumers. This not only helps them in improving their existing products, but assist them in inventing new ones as well. India, till date, doesn’t have a data protection law. This may have some bearing on the lawmaker’s ability to reign in the Big Tech. The US has woken up to its unprecedented growth in the form of Congressional hearing, and one must not be surprised if the Indian government also introduces new regulatory changes to keep a check on the growing power of data monopolists.
[Mr. Umar Javeed is a Research Associate at the Competition Commission of India. The submission has been made in his personal capacity]