The power of digital platforms does not only pose new challenges for consumers and small businesses, but also for competition authorities. The extent to which competition policy needs new instruments to counteract tendencies of power concentration in the platform economy has for long been at the center of an ongoing debate. The planned 10th amendment to the Act against Restraints of Competition (GWB), now intends to provide the Bundeskartellamt with additional instruments enabling the authority to act more effectively with regard to digital companies who possess market power. The aim of the law is to create a “digital regulatory framework”.
On the occasion of the official publication of the draft bill, Thorsten Käseberg, Head of the Department of Competition and Consumer Policy at the Federal Ministry of Economics, presented an overview of the planned new provisions of the "GWB Digitization Act" at an event at the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition co-organized by the Münchner Kartellrechtsforum e.V.
The centerpiece of the draft bill is the modernization of the rules on abusive conduct by companies who possess outstanding market power. "You can say that the wind has turned significantly with regard to this concern”, said Käseberg at the beginning of his lecture, summarizing the general sentiment both in society and in many competition authorities worldwide. An increasing number of observers have indicated that with the traditional rules the authorities would hardly be able to effectively control certain unilateral strategies of dominant companies in the digital sector.
The amendment addresses the increasing importance of data by introducing "access to competition-relevant data" as an additional factor for assessing the market position of a company (Section 18 (3) GWB, new version). In addition, in the new Section 18 (3b), the concept of "intermediary power" as a factor for determining a dominant market position has been introduced to the law. This provision intends to better capture the role of platforms as intermediaries in multilateral markets.
By expanding the "Essential Facilities Doctrine" the GWB amendment takes the importance of data for digital business models into account. "We have tried to open up and internationalize the provision which previously only referred to physical infrastructures”, said Käseberg. If a dominant company refuses to grant another company access to data, this behavior can be classified as abusive under certain conditions according to the new Section 19 (2) No. 4. "Even if we cannot finally solve the issue of data governance, we want to create an instrument for cases of clear abuse.”
According to Käseberg's assessment, the new Section 19a is expected to be highly controversial. This provision addresses platforms who dispose of an outstanding market power across several markets. With regard to such companies the Bundeskartellamt would be able to establish that they belong to this category and to subsequently interdict certain strategies of such platforms. This includes self-preferencing, leveraging of market power and impeding data portability.
The German rules on abusive conduct apply already below the market power threshold in the case of relative market power or dependency. According to the planned revision of Section 20 (1) the application of these rules will in the future not any more be limited to cases where small and medium enterprises are possible plaintiffs.
In addition to the reform of abuse control, the 10th amendment to the GWB will adapt the thresholds for merger control and create more legal security for cooperation between companies. The amendment also implements the ECN+ Directive, which aims to strengthen the competition authorities in the EU Member States.