Max von Thun:
Thank you for the opportunity to give evidence on this important piece of legislation. I am Max von Thun, the Europe director at the Open Markets Institute, which is a competition policy think- tank. We focus on the risks that arise from corporate concentration, and advocate for policies to tackle that. Prior to working at the Open Markets Institute, I spent several years in the private sector advising on competition and tech policy, and also here in Parliament advising MPs on economic policy. I have been following the UK digital competition debate for quite some time now.
Q How important is it that this legislation is not watered down, as the Government’s approach to the Online Safety Bill has been as that passes through the House?
Max von Thun:
That is very important. We think the legislation as it currently stands is very strong. It very much represents the approach that has been recommended initially by the Furman review and then by the Digital Markets Taskforce, and will go a long way towards promoting competition in digital markets. There are a couple of areas where we have seen some campaigning—particularly from some of the larger platforms—including on the review standard, which a lot of people have talked about today.
There are a couple of other areas of the legislation that, although not necessarily designed to be loopholes, could have that effect. Other speakers have talked about the countervailing benefits exemption. You might want to see some changes to prevent that from being abused or from stymieing the enforcement of the new system. Similarly, I point to the five-year criteria that the CMA will need to use to establish whether a platform has entrenched market power. Although it makes sense to base market power not just on a platform’s dominance in any one year, at the same time making it forward-looking with such a long timeframe will give platforms opportunities to put forward arguments as to why they should not be designated as SMS. For example, they might point to new technologies like generative AI and say, “We look dominant now, but there’s all this disruption coming down the future, so you shouldn’t designate us.” That is another area you will want to make sure is fit for purpose. Overall, it is a strong Bill and the priority should be getting it through as quickly as possible.
Q On the matter of getting it through as quickly as possible, we spoke to previous witnesses regarding the time that this will take to implement—2025 was mooted. It would be helpful to the Committee if you could outline some specific cases and instances of competition in digital markets that have been threatened up to this point, and any specific cases of detriment to the smaller market actors or to consumers.
Max von Thun:
Sure. I mainly refer to some examples given by previous witnesses. I am thinking, for example, about issues we have seen with data in the digital economy, where dominant platforms such as marketplaces collect data on the sellers using their platforms and use that to compete against them or produce products that compete against them. The flipside of the coin is restricting data—sometimes generated by the users of the platform —by not allowing those users to use it to improve their business operations. Self-preferencing is another problem. That can be everything from a large dominant firm pre-installing its own app on its operating system and making it hard for competing providers to get their app on to the system. You see interoperability restrictions—for example, where it can be hard for a third party or a competing platform to have access to the fundamental software or hardware it needs to produce a good product.
With those sorts of practices, which we have seen over the past decade or so, there have been lots of competition investigations, particularly in Brussels, to try to solve them, but we have not really seen much success or the introduction of much competition in the market. With the conduct requirements and especially the pro-competition interventions, hopefully the Bill will be able to address that and help smaller players to really compete in the market.
Q I did some market research with my 23-year-old son, who is much more of a digital consumer than I am, especially when it comes to online games. I want to ask you about where the dividing line is with in-game purchases. I, being very pro-market, would say that anybody should be able to sell these products once you are in the game, but my son was saying, “But wouldn’t that put off the person who invested all the money in inventing that game in the first place and is getting some of his money back because of my in-game purchase? It’s up to me whether or not I make that purchase.” Where is the line, Max?
Max von Thun:
Obviously if someone has produced a particular product or service that you can buy in a game, they should be entitled to profit from it. The main issue that we have seen with purchases from app stores, which are increasingly what people use to access these games through their phone, is that a small number of companies—basically Apple and Google—are using their control of the app stores to take a very big cut. They take up to 30%, which is not what you would be seeing in a competitive market. Sure, it is fair that they get a share of the proceeds, because they are putting in the time to maintain these app stores, but 30% seems quite steep.
Another issue is that it is hard for alternative payment providers to offer their services on these systems, because you will be forced to use Apple or Google’s payment solution, for example. That also makes it easier to charge high commission rates. I think it is about allowing the large platforms to play their role, but making sure that they are not using that power to exclude people.
Q I get that, but let’s say that an online game is like a shop. If I own the shop, I am not going to let anybody else walk in, put their products on my shelves and sell them, because I am paying the set-up costs and running the shop. If I have invented a game, should I let other people sell their products inside it?
Max von Thun:
But you do have games where one company will provide the fundamental game—the world that you play in—but allow third parties to interact with it and sell you an outfit to wear in the game, a weapon or something like that. That kind of interoperability is very feasible, and you can have different companies co-existing.
Q Can I ask about the whole area of innovation, particularly for smaller start-up tech firms? What is your feeling towards the Bill with regard to the attitude that they might take to operating in the UK?
Max von Thun:
Overall, I think it would be very positive for those types of firm. As others have said, this Bill is very targeted: the actual regulatory obligations apply to only a very small handful of dominant firms. It is not legislation like the Online Safety Bill or privacy regulation, where you are creating a compliance burden for the whole tech sector; it is very targeted at dominant firms.
As I mentioned earlier, if you look at what the Bill is trying to do, it is very pro-innovation. It is really about introducing contestability into the market. The combination of the conduct requirements, which are more about stamping out some of the problematic anti-competitive practices that we have seen over a long period, and the PCIs, which we think are a more significant tool because they allow you to inject competition into the market through interoperability and opening up data, will be very good for start-ups. I think it will give them more confidence to launch businesses that directly take on the dominant tech platforms.
At the moment, if you are a smaller firm, your strategy will often be to grow to a certain point and then get bought up. That is how firms design their business model, and investors will often look at it that way, but if through legislation you change the picture, you will change the incentives and create more opportunities for companies in the UK to scale up to a global level.
Max von Thun:
Yes, to an extent. The merger requirements for SMS firms are really just about reporting. They require SMS firms to let the CMA know if they are acquiring companies that meet certain thresholds. That will allow the CMA to avoid things slipping under its radar. Another part of the Bill is about what is called an acquirer-focused threshold, which is basically designed to prevent what have often been called killer acquisitions from taking place. Those are acquisitions that do not meet the UK’s merger control thresholds when it comes to turnover or market share, because they are very small start-ups that do not generate much revenue but that often produce very innovative technology.
The tech giants buy them up either to prevent eventual rivals from emerging or to use that technology to extend their dominance into new markets. The Bill will prevent some of that. That means, to an extent, that in some cases involving very large platforms it will be harder to be bought up if you are a start-up. It is important to acknowledge that to an individual founder being bought up by a big tech firm can often be attractive. Big tech firms can pay a lot of money to acquire you. They can offer all sorts of technical and logistical expertise to help you to grow, but if we look at the wider ecosystem, those deals can be very harmful, essentially by eliminating competition.
Think of what Instagram might have become had it not been bought up by Facebook. Rather than just being part of Meta’s business model, it could be challenging Facebook. To take a more local example, DeepMind, a leading AI company, was bought by Google in 2014. Had it not been, it would be an independent AI company. That would have put the UK at the forefront of a lot of the development in general AI. Obviously, the UK is already doing well in AI, but now DeepMind is part of Google’s empire and subordinate to Google’s business objectives. Those are some of the reasons we should care about this.
Also, if you make it a little harder for these companies to buy up start-ups, the market will respond. The UK already has a lot of alternatives. It has a very healthy venture capital scene—I think the best in Europe. If it is harder for big tech purchases to take place, investors will partly fill that space. I am sure that there are things that the Government can do as well to incentivise private investment—maybe investing themselves in some cases, as they did with the Future Fund, and so on. There are a lot of other routes that, in the long run, are better for the tech sector than these types of deals.
Q Thank you for your evidence. You probably heard my questions from earlier. We are very keen to ensure that innovation continues, not just in terms of the start-ups and scale-ups but with our big tech firms. Do you see anything in the Bill that will inhibit that?
Max von Thun:
Honestly, not really. If I look at what is in the legislation, focusing on the conduct requirements and the PCIs that the large firms will have to comply with, what I see is something that says, “You’re allowed to operate in the UK. You’re allowed to grow in the UK. You’re allowed to invest. You just have to play by the rules. You can’t use your dominance to unfairly exploit small businesses or prevent rivals from emerging.” It does not stop them investing lots of money in R&D or hiring top talent. We are seeing all the innovation that they are doing now, and I do not see anything in the Bill that will stop that.
More broadly, there is quite a lot of evidence, not just in tech but in other sectors, that more competitive and less concentrated markets are better for innovation because challengers invest a lot of money in trying to take on the incumbents because they believe that they can replace them. The dominant firms have to defend themselves, and they invest more to protect themselves. The Bill will have that effect.
Lastly, particularly since the whole debate around Microsoft and Activision, we have seen to an extent an attempt to conflate the interests of a small subset of dominant firms with the wider tech sector. That is often a mistake. What is good for a large majority of tech start-ups may not necessarily be good for big tech firms. It may be, but it is important to separate out the two.