European regulators are coming after Big Tech. These are the key cases facing Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

European Digital Economy Commissioner Margrethe Vestager reacts during a news conference on NBCUniversal antitrust case in Brussels, Belgium January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

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After years of levying fines against the big platforms for antitrust and data-privacy violations, regulators in Europe are looking at whether to implement landmark reforms to help it tame the most powerful companies in tech.

European Union competition policy chief Margrethe Vestager is pushing ahead with investigations into the tech giants as proposals for new Europe-wide rules governing all social media sites and online platforms edge closer to becoming law. Meanwhile, data and competition authorities in countries including the UK, Italy, France, Germany and Ireland are currently assessing a flurry of cases concerning the world’s biggest tech companies.

The regulatory landscape is also increasingly busy in the US, too. Google and Facebook in particular are up against several major lawsuits, some of which are calling for the companies to be broken up.

Insider breaks down some of the biggest regulatory cases and lawsuits facing Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google in Europe as legislators try to level with the Big Four’s dominance.

The EU Commission wants to empower itself to impose bigger fines and stricter enforcement action with the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act

The EU Commission’s proposals for the Digital Markets Act will see the body take a broader approach to regulation of Big Tech — preventing companies from undertaking practices that exploit a dominant position. 

The DMA would allow the Commission to deem giant tech platforms to be “gatekeepers” and impose higher fines or stricter action against them for any anti-competitive activity.

Elsewhere, the Digital Services Act aims to provide better safeguards and protection for online users by tackling harmful content and hate speech and sales of illegal goods. 

For a company like Amazon, this could mean facing tougher restrictions on products sold on its giant marketplace with new rules prohibiting the sale of products that could promote hate speech or extremist material.  Amazon sellers themselves could also be subject to new rules like enhanced traceability mechanisms to track those selling illegal goods. 

The proposals were submitted to the European Parliament and European Council in December 2020 and aren’t expected to come into force until 2022.

The EU Commission is focusing on Amazon’s ‘buy box’ that promotes the fast, free delivery available to Prime customers

Last November, the EU Commission announced findings of an initial investigation into Amazon’s marketplace practices, accusing the company of misusing third-party seller data to distort competition. 

Amazon denied this and said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal in November that “no company cares more about small businesses or has done more to support them over the past two decades than Amazon.”

The Commission is now zoning in on Amazon’s Buy Box — the box on the right of its product pages that promotes individual products with fast, free delivery and availability to “buy now.”

“A big question with this case will be: How does the Commission figure out a remedy to make sure that there is equal access to the Buy Box, whilst also preserving what consumers like about Prime?,” said Dr. Magali Eben, lecturer in competition law at Glasgow University and co-director of the Academic Society of Competition Law UK.

Investigations brought by the EU Commission under Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which explicitly prohibits the abuse of a dominant position, are significant because there are so few of them, added Dr Eben.

“Each one that is usually brought to the Commission often displays a strong motive,” said Dr Eben.

“That is quite obvious with Amazon’s Buy Box, but also with the other part of the investigation looking at Amazon’s use of data, because it ties into some aspects that the Commission has proposed to address through the Digital Markets Act — I think that the DMA was actually written with this investigation in mind.”

Spotify and the makers of Fortnite have lodged complaints in Europe about the alleged dominance of Apple’s App Store

The EU Commission launched two investigations into elements of Apple’s empire last year — one looking into App Store policies and the other looking at whether Apple Pay’s functionality restricts other financial service providers from offering something similar on iPhones.  

The European Commission’s Margrethe Vestager cites Apple’s “gatekeeper’ role” as justification to probe whether App Store rules allow Apple to distort competition and strengthen its own position when competing with rival app developers.

Spotify in 2019 filed an antitrust complaint to the EU over the impact of Apple’s in-app purchase system, which levies a 30% fee on purchases made within App Store apps.

An Apple spokesperson said in a statement to Insider in June: “It’s disappointing the European Commission is advancing baseless complaints from a handful of companies who simply want a free ride, and don’t want to play by the same rules as everyone else.

“We don’t think that’s right — we want to maintain a level playing field where anyone with determination and a great idea can succeed.”

Epic — whose wildly popular game Fortnite was kicked out of the App Store last August after the software developer created its own in-app purchasing system — filed an antitrust complaint with the European Commission this month.

In it, Epic claims, “Apple has not just harmed but completely eliminated competition in app distribution and payment processes.” Epic also filed a lawsuit in the US last year, which accuses Apple of engaging in anticompetitive behavior in its App Store. 

In a statement to Insider, an Apple spokesman said, “In ways a judge has described as deceptive and clandestine, Epic enabled a feature in its app which was not reviewed or approved by Apple, and they did so with the express intent of violating the App Store guidelines that apply equally to every developer and protect customers.

“Their reckless behavior made pawns of customers, and we look forward to making this clear to the European Commission.”

Apple is to require that apps obtain people’s consent before tracking and sharing their data – but faces lawsuits over whether the policy properly applies to its own apps

The EU Commission launched two investigations into elements of Apple’s empire last year — one looking into App Store policies and the other looking at whether Apple Pay’s functionality restricts other financial service providers from offering something similar on iPhones.  

The European Commission’s Margrethe Vestager cites Apple’s “gatekeeper’ role” as justification to probe whether App Store rules allow Apple to distort competition and strengthen its own position when competing with rival app developers.

Spotify in 2019 filed an antitrust complaint to the EU over the impact of Apple’s in-app purchase system, which levies a 30% fee on purchases made within App Store apps.

An Apple spokesperson said in a statement to Insider in June: “It’s disappointing the European Commission is advancing baseless complaints from a handful of companies who simply want a free ride, and don’t want to play by the same rules as everyone else.

“We don’t think that’s right — we want to maintain a level playing field where anyone with determination and a great idea can succeed.”

Epic — whose wildly popular game Fortnite was kicked out of the App Store last August after the software developer created its own in-app purchasing system — filed an antitrust complaint with the European Commission this month.

In it, Epic claims, “Apple has not just harmed but completely eliminated competition in app distribution and payment processes.” Epic also filed a lawsuit in the US last year, which accuses Apple of engaging in anticompetitive behavior in its App Store. 

In a statement to Insider, an Apple spokesman said, “In ways a judge has described as deceptive and clandestine, Epic enabled a feature in its app which was not reviewed or approved by Apple, and they did so with the express intent of violating the App Store guidelines that apply equally to every developer and protect customers.

“Their reckless behavior made pawns of customers, and we look forward to making this clear to the European Commission.”

Dr Rupprecht Podszun, chair for civil law, German and European competition law at Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf, said that while no individual case is “one big game-changer”, “the continuous stream of cases” was a significant challenge to the power of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

Germany is looking into the new requirement for people to register with Facebook before using Oculus VR products

Germany’s competition authority the Bundeskartellamt is investigating Facebook’s move to require users of new Oculus VR glasses to register with a Facebook account — phasing out existing Oculus accounts for its latest hardware. Facebook acquired the virtual reality tech firm in 2014.

Germany recently strengthened its commitment to regulate Big Tech by passing an amendment to the German Competition Act (GWB), empowering it to take preventative action when competition looks to be under threat.

In January, the Bundeskartellamt announced plans to extend the scope of its Facebook investigation to see whether it might fall under the remit of the GWB’s new amendment.

Dr Podszun, the chair for civil law, German and European competition law at Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf, said that the investigation went to “the very heart of the data policy of Facebook, and is a really powerful case.”

Facebook told AP in December that it had already paused sales of Oculus products in Germany this year, a move it said was unrelated to the Bundeskartellamt investigation.

“While Oculus devices are not currently available for sale in Germany, we will cooperate fully with the Bundeskartellamt and are confident we can demonstrate that there is no basis to the investigation,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Facebook in Ireland is battling Europe’s decision to invalidate the ‘Privacy Shield’ data-sharing agreement between the EU and US.

Austrian lawyer and privacy campaigner Max Schrems, founder of the None of Your Business (noyb) organization, has led a yearslong effort to demand better protection of European citizens’ data, particularly when their data is accessed by US tech giants.

Following Schrems’ efforts, the EU’s judiciary ruled to invalidate the “privacy shield” that had allowed tech companies to transfer personal data from the European Union and Switzerland to the US.

But after Facebook launched its own suit to challenge the ruling with the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) the proceedings to unravel the Privacy Shield stagnated.

“If our highest court basically decides on something, then we need the authorities to act  — and they actually have a duty to act,” says Alan Dahi, program director at Noyb. 

Schrems sued Ireland’s DPC last year over its “own volition” case – delaying enforcement of the initial ruling – but has since dropped his suit after the regulator agreed to reach a final decision on Facebook’s EU-US data flows in the coming months.

The UK’s competition watchdog is probing whether Facebook’s acquisition of Giphy gives it a monopoly on gifs

An investigation into Facebook’s proposed $400 million acquisition of gif-giant Giphy, announced by the UK’s Competition and Market Authority (CMA) last spring, is now well underway.  

Following several appeals and requests for derogations by Facebook over the last few months, with the Competition Appeal Tribunal dismissing one of these in November on all grounds, the CMA has begun its initial 40-day probe (Phase 1) into the merger. 

This will determine whether the acquisition would result in less competition within the gifs and social media marketplace. The probe’s decision is expected by March 25.

A Facebook spokesperson told CNBC in January, “This merger is pro-competitive and in the interests of everyone in the U.K. who uses Giphy and our services.”

The UK is probing whether Google’s Chrome plans to freeze out third-party tracking cookies and replace them with new technologies would freeze out other ad companies

The EU has levied almost $10 billion in total in antitrust fines on Google over the years. The EU Commission said in January it was investigating all the search giant’s services  “including digital advertising and the ad tech chain.”

Google said it is cooperating with the investigation and that it offers users “granular controls” over how their information is used to personalize ads.

In the UK, regulators are zoning in on Google’s announcement last year that its popular browser Chrome will drop support for third-party ad-tracking cookies by 2022. Google has been experimenting with tools in its “Privacy Sandbox” that are designed to allow advertising to continue to work with less encroachment on people’s privacy. 

Marketers for an Open Web, a group that says it represents publishers and advertisers, has called on the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority to block the move – claiming Google will effectively create a “walled garden” in the advertising industry at the expense of competitors.

Following that complaint, the CMA launched an investigation into Google’s Chrome plans, as well as its Privacy Sandbox technologies.

“It will be a very interesting test case for the intersection between data protection and privacy laws and competition law,” said Dr Pinar Akman, director at the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence in Digital Governance and a professor of law at Leeds University.

A Google spokesperson said its ambitions to create a more private web “while also enabling the publishers and advertisers who support the free and open internet” require the industry to make “major changes” to the way digital advertising currently works.

Elsewhere, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is resuming its investigation into the entire adtech space in 2021. The regulator paused the probe in May last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The investigation involves the examination of real-time bidding within online advertising auctions. It is also looking at the role of data brokers within the adtech sector.

The ICO said it would also continue to support the CMA in its probe into Google’s Privacy Sandbox proposals.

Google’s lawyers are also being kept busy in Italy where the competition authority, the AGCM, is investigating whether Google’s advertising practices abuse its dominant position in the market.  

The AGCM said it would look into “the discriminatory use of the huge amount of data collected through its various applications, preventing rivals from competing effectively as well as adversely affecting consumers.”

A Google spokesperson told Reuters it was working constructively with the Italian authorities.

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European regulators are coming after Big Tech. These are the
key cases facing Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.