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Open Data Leads to Competition

Larry Press

When evaluating proposed mergers and breakups, control of data should be considered along with market impact.

In a previous post, I spoke of Amazon's use of customer and market data in restraint of trade, but they are not alone. For example, leaked internal documents show that plans to sell access to user data were discussed for years and received support from Facebook's most senior executives. Facebook gave Amazon extended access to user data because Amazon was spending money on advertising and partnered with them on the launch of the Fire smartphone. In another case, Facebook discussed cutting off access to user data for a messaging app that had grown too popular and was viewed as a competitor.

As former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler points out in a recent post, proprietary data is a source of market control, and he cites two examples where opening data has led to competition. In the US, a law mandating open access to video content enabled satellite companies to compete with cable companies and in the UK, open access to customer banking data led about 200 organizations to offer new services in its first year.

Wheeler's position is elaborated in Unlocking Digital Competition, a report from the Digital Competition Expert Panel convened by the British Treasury Department. Their data-related recommended actions are:

  • Establishing data mobility and open standards between services: overcoming network effects which cause markets to tip by requiring systems to 'talk' to each other using open, standardised formats. This will mean consumers can port their data between networks, interact with users on other, similar networks, and smaller firms can plug their services into those of bigger ones. New business opportunities will open up that use, manage, and combine data made available. Consumers, in turn, will have new choices of digital services, with switching made much easier.
  • Securing access to non-personal and anonymised data: tackling the data barrier to entry for smaller and newer firms, while protecting privacy. The power of bulk data driving economies of scale and scope is a key reason new firms struggle to compete and bring innovative services to consumers. Overcoming this barrier will allow the digital economy to remain dynamic.

These are only two of the 20 recommended actions in the 140-page report. Those actions are grouped under six strategic recommendations for the government:

  • Sustain and promote effective competition in digital markets, by establishing a pro-competition digital markets unit, tasked with securing competition, innovation, and beneficial outcomes for consumers and businesses.
  • Take more frequent and firmer action to challenge mergers that could be detrimental to consumer welfare through reducing future levels of innovation and competition, supported by changes to legislation where necessary.
  • Update and effectively use tools against anti-competitive conduct to help them play their important role in protecting and promoting competition in the digital economy.
  • Continue to monitor how the use of machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence evolves to ensure it does not lead to an anti-competitive activity or consumer detriment, in particular to vulnerable consumers.
  • Conduct a market study into the digital advertising market encompassing the entire value chain, using its investigatory powers to examine whether competition is working effectively and whether consumer harms are arising.
  • Engage internationally on the recommendations it chooses to adopt from this review, encouraging closer cross-border co-operation between competition authorities in sharing best practice and developing a common approach to issues across international digital markets.

The two open-data actions mentioned above fall under the first strategic recommendation of promoting competition, but control of data is involved in the others as well. When Amazon acquired Zappos and Whole Foods, they gained access to data on relatively affluent shoppers. Facebook's acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp and Google's acquisition of Waze also yielded data in addition to eliminating competition. The machine learning recommendation involves training data. When evaluating proposed mergers and breakups, control of data should be considered along with market impact.

The last strategic recommendation — international engagement — recognizes the global nature of the Intenet. (Note that an American chaired the Digital Competition Expert Panel). Nations like China and the US have different goals with respect to competition, but democratic, capitalist nations should strive to adopt compatible institutions and policies. In the era of Brexit and MAGA, we need to work with other countries — I'd rather end up with two Internets than fifty.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University – He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.comVisit Page
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