Antitrust watchdog takes on Huge Tech, however wants sharper legal guidelines to ship last blow

By Nishant Arora

New Delhi, Jul 9 (IANS): As government regulators the world over, especially in European countries, penalize Big Tech for millions of dollars over anti-competitive behavior, India is finally taking some steps in this direction. Lately, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) has taken charge to tame giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and others from harming competition and safeguarding the interests of local businesses.

Under Ashok Kumar Gupta, a 1981 batch IAS officer from the Tamil Nadu cadre with 40 years in public service, the antitrust watchdog has been hailed for leading probes against e-commerce giants, social media firms and device manufacturers.

According to Gupta, the Chairman of CCI, Big Tech firms are “centres for entrenched and unchecked dominance”.

Last month, the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) upheld the December 2021 order of the CCI that suspended its earlier order approving Amazon’s deal with Future Coupons, a Future Group entity, and imposed a Rs 202 crore fine on the e-commerce major .

In a December, 2021 order, the market regulator had said an approval granted to Amazon to acquire a 49 per cent stake in Future Coupons would stand in abeyance, as the firm suppressed information while seeking the clearance.

The CCI’s order came after complaints filed by Future Retail’s independent directors and the industry body, the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT).

The CCI is currently investigating both Apple App Store and Google Play Store policies, particularly their payment methods that harm local app developers.

Both Google and Apple charge either 15 or 30 per cent commission on purchase of paid apps and in-app purchases (IAPs) in the country.

According to The Alliance of Digital India Foundation (ADIF) and consulting firm The Quantum Hub, several Indian developers have objected to the quantum of the commissions, and the lack of choice in picking a payments system, terminating the proposed policies unreasonable.

“Google’s new rules could significantly dent developers’ profit margins, affecting both business viability and innovation,” said the report.

The CCI launched a probe into Google’s Play Store policies around two years ago.

Recent reports claimed that the Additional Director General of the CCI found Google’s contentious payments policy for Play Store developers to be “unfair and discriminatory”.

A Google spokesperson said the CCI report was not the “final decision and does not prejudge the outcome of the CCI’s inquiry.”

After facing a severe backlash, Google, which has a mobile OS market share of over 95 per cent in India, decided to defer the implementation of its app payment policies to October for developers in India.

In March this year, the CCI ordered another investigation into complaints against Google for abusing its dominant position related to news referral services and Google Adtech Services in the Indian online news media market.

According to the Indian Newspapers Society (INS), media houses are being kept in the dark on the total advertising revenue collected by Google and what percentage of the advertising revenue is being transferred to media organisations.

The CCI found that prima facie, these allegations of abuse of dominant position are under the purview of the Competition Act, 2002 and requires a detailed investigation by the Additional Director General.

In May, the ADIF became a party to an ongoing CCI probe against Apple over alleged abuse of market power in the apps market.

The CCI, in December last year, ordered a probe into Apple’s business practices in the country, saying that it was of the initial view that the tech giant had violated certain antitrust laws.

According to industry stakeholders, Big tech firms like Apple and Google have monopolized the app economy and continue to impose predatory policies on their app stores.

“There is an urgent need to rein them in so that the interests of the scores of small players that make up the internet and app economy are protected,” said Sijo Kuruvilla George, Executive Director of the ADIF.

The CCI also launched a probe into Meta-owned WhatsApp’s new privacy policy that came into effect early last year.

The Delhi High Court this year granted more time to WhatsApp and Facebook to respond to the CCI probe.

According to industry stakeholders, while CCI has taken on tech giants over monopolistic practices, it needs sharper, effective laws as in some cases, existing regulations have prevented the watchdog from striking a final blow at Big Tech for their anti-competitive practices.

Meanwhile, the government is now aiming to change competition laws to give CCI more powers.

“If the anti-competitive and monopolistic practices along with the gatekeeper policies of big tech firms are not kept in check, there is bound to be a detrimental impact on Indian entrepreneurs and businesses and ultimately the sovereignty of the country,” according to Anupam Mittal , Founder and CEO of Shaadi.com.

George said that it is commendable that the CCI is actively taking steps to address the anti-competition practices of big players as there is an urgent need to ensure fair competition and improve choices for both developers and consumers.

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