Dominant tech companies will have to open up their troves of data to smaller rivals, as other sectors such as financial services already do, the European Commission said, in proposals aimed at breaking down the monopolies such as those of Amazon and Google.
In a document outlining a “European strategy for data”, the commission said it would explore “the need for legislative action” to push companies towards sharing and pooling data. In areas where there has been market failure, it said access to data “should be made compulsory [ . . . ] under fair, transparent, reasonable, proportionate and/or non-discriminatory conditions”. It suggested it may revise previous EU directives to remove obstacles such as whether data can be classified as a trade secret.
The commission said that tech companies were able to build huge advantages by guarding their data, while banks or car companies were already required to allow third parties to access information about customers. “The high degree of market power resulting from the ‘data advantage’ can enable large players to set the rules on the platform and unilaterally impose conditions for access and use of data,” it said. Margrethe Vestager, the commission’s digital and competition chief, said: “I have had people coming to me saying: ‘We in the financial sector will have to share the data that we have but Amazon will not have to share the data the other way around’.”
She added that forcing tech companies to open up their data may be a possible antitrust “remedy” that “will actually work”. “We have the fines to punish past behaviour, but we still have a market that is upside down.” She said, however, that the discussions remained at an early stage. Last summer Ms Vestager opened an investigation into Amazon’s data-gathering practices from small retailers on its platform and the tech giant’s dual role as a marketplace and as a seller of its own brands. Separately, the commission has accused Google of promoting its own shopping search engine at the expense of smaller rivals in a case being contested in the EU courts.
Observers highlighted some of the difficulties facing the commission, including how to define what kinds of data should be shareable and who bears any legal liability. New rules may also see a potential clash with privacy regulators, who have been taking steps to lock down personal data. Facebook said it was broadly in favour of data sharing, both by the user and between businesses, but added it needed more clarity around the rules, including how personal data is defined, for its own legal certainty and to explain to its user community.
Amazon and Google declined to comment. Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, director-general of DigitalEurope, a tech lobbying group, said: “We are concerned that attempts to make data sharing mandatory could undermine innovation. If we want to encourage more data sharing we need to instill a culture of partnership between businesses.”