Sundar Pichai, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg—meet Margrethe Vestager, Lina Khan and Dina Srinivasan.
Vestager is the European Union’s (EU) competition commissioner; Khan, a law student in her late twenties; and Srinivasan, a veteran ad-tech entrepreneur. Three women, one goal: dismantle the dominance of Big Tech. Vestager, Khan, and Srinivasan have decoded Pichai’s Google, Bezos’s Amazon and Zuckerberg’s Facebook, respectively, to isolate the same antitrust DNA that runs through all these companies. All laid bare in the form of explosive research papers and orders.
These ideas—Srinivasan’s February paper on Facebook’s market dominance and privacy issues leading to lower quality of service, Vestager’s multiple rulings and multi-billion euro fines against Google and Khan’s 2017 article examining Amazon’s predatory pricing—are leading to a groundswell of action the world over.
At least 10 different regulators in different countries are probing at least one of the three companies for antitrust violations. Including, most recently, the US Federal Trade Commission, which is considering fining Facebook up to $5 billion over privacy violations.
In India, however, these ideas are still ricocheting off the walls of the antitrust watchdog, the Competitive Commission of India or CCI.
“The CCI so far is being pro-industry in its stance,” said a lawyer specializing in antitrust cases. She asked not to be named as she is not an authorized spokesperson for her firm. “They are watching what is happening globally, but there is this understanding that India is in an early phase of the digital economy, and the CCI doesn’t want to scuttle it.”
For example, the CCI was taken to the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) in January by a union of 3,500 online sellers. For dismissing a case they had filed against Flipkart, complaining that the Walmart-owned e-commerce firm abused its dominant position in online retail. The CCI said it hadn’t.
“We have challenged the impugned order before the NCLAT, because contrary to the Hon’ble Commission’s opinion, we feel we presented reasonable evidence to prove the case of dominance,” says Chanakya Basa, an antitrust lawyer who argued for the All India Online Vendors Association. The NCLAT is set to hear the appeal next week. Its decision could set a new precedent for competition law in India.
Online market at its peak
The one thing Facebook, Amazon, and Google have in common is their ability to use their size and adjacencies to trample over the competition. What may be a whole business for another company is just a feature for these three. The companies’ network effects create switching costs and erect barriers to entry or expansion. That’s why venture capitalists’ favorite question to ask before investing is “What will you do if Google, Facebook or Amazon decide to do this”—a measure of competitive fear.
But to prove their dominance under existing legal frameworks—in India or elsewhere—is quite a task. Because the standard measures of monopoly power used historically for big oil or telecom companies don’t apply to internet firms happy to run up gargantuan losses for market control.
India is the second-fastest digitizing economy after China, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report. And with the three tech giants looming larger than ever before in India, the CCI could do with some lessons from the three women opposing them.
Taking a pickaxe to Google
Google appeared on the EU’s radar in 2010 after at least three companies complained about its anti-competitive practices, sparking a decade-long crusade. This gathered momentum after Vestager, former deputy prime minister for Denmark, took over as competition commissioner in 2014. Known for her wry wit as much as for her love for knitting woolen elephants, Vestager is morally bound to protecting competition.
“I was brought up with a very strong value that you should always protect the small and the few against those who want to misuse their muscle and weight in order to get what they weren’t supposed to,” she told Reuters just before her appointment.