Regulators around the globe are scrambling for a silver bullet to “tame” tech companies. Whether it’s the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, or Canada, the animating rationale behind such efforts is that firms like Google, Apple, Meta, and Amazon (GAMA) engage in undesirable market conduct that falls beyond the narrow purview of antitrust law (here and here).
To tackle these supposed ills, which range from exclusionary practices and disinformation to encroachments on privacy and democratic institutions, it is asserted that sweeping new ex ante rules must be enacted and the playing field tilted in favor of enforcement agencies, which have hitherto faced what advocates characterize as insurmountable procedural hurdles (here and here).
Amid these international calls for regulatory intervention, the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) has been seen as a lodestar by advocates of more aggressive competition policy. Beyond addressing social anxieties about unchecked tech power, the DMA’s primary appeal is that it claims to strive for two goals with almost universal appeal: fairness and market contestability.
Unfortunately, the DMA is not the paragon of regulation that it is sometimes made out to be. Indeed, the law is structured less to forward any purportedly universal set of principles, but instead to align digital platforms’ business models with an idiosyncratic and specifically European industrial policy, rooted in politics and protectionism. As explained below, it is unlikely other countries would benefit from emulating this strategy.
The DMA’s Protectionist Origins
While the DMA is today often lauded as eminently pro-competition (here and here), prior to its adoption, many leading European politicians were touting the text as a protectionist industrial-policy tool that would hinder U.S. firms to the benefit of European rivals: a far cry from the purely consumer-centric tool it is sometimes made out to be. French Minister of the Economy Bruno Le Maire, for example, acknowledged as much in 2021 when he said:
Digital giants are not just nice companies with whom we need to cooperate, they are rivals, rivals of the states that do not respect our economic rules, which must therefore be regulated… There is no political sovereignty without technological sovereignty. You cannot claim sovereignty if your 5G networks are Chinese, if your satellites are American, if your launchers are Russian and if all the products are imported from outside.
This logic dovetails neatly with the EU’s broader push for “technology sovereignty,” a strategy intended to reduce the continent’s dependence on technologies that originate abroad. The strategy already has been institutionalized at different levels of EU digital and industrial policy (see here and here). In fact, the European Parliament’s 2020 Briefing on “Digital Sovereignty for Europe” explicitly anticipates that an ex ante regulatory regime similar to the DMA would be a central piece of that puzzle. French President Emmanuel Macron summarized it well when he said:
If we want technological sovereignty, we’ll have to adapt our competition law, which has perhaps been too much focused solely on the consumer and not enough on defending European champions.
Moreover, it can be argued that the DMA was never intended to promote European companies that could seriously challenge the dominance of U.S. firms (see here at 13:40-14:20). Rather, the goal was always to redistribute rents across the supply chain away from digital platforms and toward third parties and competitors (what is referred to as “business users,” as opposed to “end users”). After all, with the arguable exception of Spotify and Booking.com, the EU has none of the former, and plenty of the latter. Indeed, as Pablo Ibañez Colomo has written:
The driver of many disputes that may superficially be seen as relating to leveraging can be more rationalised, more convincingly, as attempts to re-allocate rents away from vertically-integrated incumbents to rivals.
Alternative Digital Strategies to the DMA
While the DMA strives to use universal language and has a clear ambition to set global standards, under this veneer of objectivity lies a very particular vision of industrial policy and a certain normative understanding of how rents should be allocated across the value chain. That vision is not apt for everyone and, indeed, may not be apt for anyone (see here). Other countries can certainly look to the EU for inspiration and, admittedly, it would be ludicrous to expect them to ignore what goes on in the bloc.
When deciding whether and what sort of legislation to enact, however, other countries should ultimately seek those approaches that are appropriate to their own context. What they ought not do is reflexively copy templates made with certain goals in mind, which they might not share and which may be diametrically opposed to their own interests or values. Below are some suggestions for alternative strategies to the DMA.
Doubling Down on Sound Competition Laws
Mounting evidence suggests that tech companies increasingly consider the costs of regulatory compliance in planning their business strategy. For example, Meta is reportedly considering shutting down political advertising in Europe to avoid the hassle of complying with the EU’s upcoming rules on online campaigning. Just this week, it was revealed that Twitter may be considering pulling out of the EU because it doesn’t have the capacity to comply with the Code of Practice on Disinformation, a “voluntary” agreement that the Digital Services Act (DSA) will nevertheless make binding.
While perhaps the EU—the world’s third largest economy—can afford to impose costly and burdensome regulation on digital companies because it has considerable leverage to ensure (with some, though as we have seen, by no means absolute, certainty) that they will not desert the European market, smaller economies that are unlikely to be seen by GAMA as essential markets are playing a different game.
Not only do they have much smaller carrots to dangle, but they also disproportionately benefit from the enormous infrastructural investments and consumer benefits brought by GAMA (see, for example, here and here). In this context, the wiser strategy for smaller, ostensibly “nonessential” markets might be to court GAMA, rather than to castigate it. Instead of imposing intricate, costly, and untested regulatory obligations on digital platforms, these countries may reasonably wish to emphasize or bolster the transparency, predictability, and procedural safeguards (including credible judicial review) of their competition-law systems. After all, to regulate competition, you must first attract it.
Indeed, while competition is as important in developing markets as developed ones, developing markets are especially dependent upon competition rules that encourage investment in infrastructure to facilitate economic growth and that offer a secure environment for ongoing innovation. Particularly for relatively young, rapidly evolving industries like digital markets, attracting consistent investment and industry know-how ensures that such markets can innovate and transition into maturity (here and here).
Moreover, the case-by-case approach of competition law allows enforcers to tackle harmful behavior while capturing digital platforms’ procompetitive benefits, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater by imposing blanket prohibitions. As Giuseppe Colangelo has suggested, the assumption that competition laws are insufficient to tackle anticompetitive conduct in digital markets is a questionable one, given that most of the DMA’s contemplated prohibitions have also been the object of separate antitrust suits in the EU.
Careful Consideration of Costs and Unintended Consequences
DMA-style ex ante regulation is still untested. Its benefits, if any, still remain mostly theoretical. A tradeoff between, say, foreign direct investment (FDI) and ex ante regulation might make sense for some emerging markets if it was clear what was being traded, and at what cost. Alas, such regulations are still in an incipient phase.
The U.S. antitrust bills targeting a handful of companies seem unlikely to be adopted soon; the UK’s Digital Markets Unit proposal has still not been put to Parliament; and Japan and South Korea have imposed codes of conduct only in narrow areas. Even the DMA—the most comprehensive legislative attempt to “rein in” digital companies—entered into force only last October, and it will not start imposing its obligations on gatekeepers until February or March 2024, at the earliest.
At the same time, there are a range of risks and possible unintended consequences associated with the DMA, such as the privacy dangers of sideloading and interoperability mandates; worsening product quality as a result of blanket bans on self-preferencing; decreased innovation; obstruction of the rule of law; and double and even triple jeopardy because of the overlaps between the DMA and EU competition rules.
Despite the uncertainty inherent in deploying experimental regulation in a fast-moving market, the EU has clearly decided that these risks are not sufficient to offset the DMA’s benefits (see here for a critical appraisal). But other countries should not take their word for it.
In conducting an independent examination, they may place more value on some of the DMA’s expected negative consequences, or may find their likelihood of occurring to be unacceptably high. This could be due to endogenous or highly context-dependent factors. In some cases, the tradeoff could mean too large a sacrifice of FDI, while in others, the rules could impinge on legitimate policy priorities, like national security. In either case, countries should evaluate the risks and benefits of the ex ante regulation of digital platforms themselves, and go their own way.
There are, of course, other good reasons why the DMA shouldn’t be so readily emulated by everyone, everywhere, all at once.
Giving enforcers wide discretionary powers to reshape digital markets and override product-design decisions might not be a good idea in countries with a poor track record of keeping corruption in check, or where enforcers lack the required know-how to do so effectively. Simple norms, backed by the rule of law, may not be sufficient to counteract these background conditions. But they also may be preferable to the broad mandates and tools envisioned by the kinds of ex ante regulatory proposals currently in vogue.
Smaller countries with limited budgets would probably also benefit more from castigating unequivocally harmful (and widespread) conduct, like cartels (the “cancers of the market economy”), bid rigging, distortive state aid, and mergers that create actual monopolies (see, for example, here and here), rather than applying experimental regulation underpinned by tenuous theories of harm and indeterminate benefits .
In the end, the DMA has been mistakenly taken to be a panacea or a blueprint for how to regulate tech, when it is neither of these two things. It is, instead, a particularistic approach that may or may not achieve its stated goals. In any case, it must be understood as an outgrowth of a certain industrial-policy strategy and a sui generis vision of how digital markets should distribute rents (spoiler alert: in the interest of European companies).