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EU hits Amazon with record-breaking $887M GDPR fine over data misuse

By Carly Page

Luxembourg’s National Commission for Data Protection (CNPD) has hit Amazon with a record-breaking €746 million ($887m) GDPR fine over the way it uses customer data for targeted advertising purposes.

Amazon disclosed the ruling in an SEC filing on Friday in which it slammed the decision as baseless and added that it intended to defend itself “vigorously in this matter.”

“Maintaining the security of our customers’ information and their trust are top priorities,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “There has been no data breach, and no customer data has been exposed to any third party. These facts are undisputed.

“We strongly disagree with the CNPD’s ruling, and we intend to appeal. The decision relating to how we show customers relevant advertising relies on subjective and untested interpretations of European privacy law, and the proposed fine is entirely out of proportion with even that interpretation.”

The penalty is the result of a 2018 complaint by French privacy rights group La Quadrature du Net, a group that claims to represent the interests of thousands of Europeans to ensure their data isn’t used by big tech companies to manipulate their behavior for political or commercial purposes. The complaint, which also targets Apple, Facebook Google and LinkedIn and was filed on behalf of more than 10,000 customers, alleges that Amazon manipulates customers for commercial means by choosing what advertising and information they receive.

La Quadrature du Net welcomed the fine issued by the CNPD, which “comes after three years of silence that made us fear the worst.”

“The model of economic domination based on the exploitation of our privacy and free will is profoundly illegitimate and contrary to all the values that our democratic societies claim to defend,” the group added in a blog post published on Friday.

The CNPD has also ruled that Amazon must commit to changing its business practices. However, the regulator has not publicly committed on its decision, and Amazon didn’t specify what revised business practices it is proposing.

The record penalty, which trumps the €50 million GDPR penalty levied against Google in 2019, comes amid heightened scrutiny of Amazon’s business in Europe. In November last year, the European Commission announced formal antitrust charges against the company, saying the retailer has misused its position to compete against third-party businesses using its platform. At the same time, the Commission a second investigation into its alleged preferential treatment of its own products on its site and those of its partners.

Shopify’s Q2 results beat estimates as e-commerce shines

By Alex Wilhelm

Canadian e-commerce juggernaut Shopify this morning reported its second-quarter financial performance. Like Microsoft and Apple in the wake of their after-hours earnings reports, its shares are having a muted reaction to the better-than-expected results.

In the second quarter of 2021, Shopify reported revenues of $1.12 billion, up 57% on a year-over-year basis. The company’s subscription products grew 70% to $334.2 million, while its volume-driven merchant services drove their own top line up 52% to $785.2 million.

Investors had expected Shopify to report revenue of $1.05 billion.

Shopify also posted an enormous second-quarter profit. Indeed, from its $1.12 billion in total revenues, Shopify managed to generate $879.1 million in GAAP net income. How? The outsized profit came in part thanks to $778 million in unrealized gains related to equity investments. But even with those gains filtered out, Shopify’s adjusted net income of $284.6 million more than doubled its year-ago Q2 result of $129.4 million. Shopify’s earnings per share sans unrealized gains came to $2.24, far ahead of an expected 97 cents.

After reporting those results, Shopify shares are up less than a point.

In light of somewhat muted reactions to Big Tech earnings surpassing expectations, it’s increasingly clear that investors were anticipating that leading tech companies would trounce expectations in the second quarter; their earnings beats were largely priced-in ahead of the individual reports.

The rest of Shopify’s quarter is a series of huge figures. In the second three-month period of 2021, the company posted gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $42.2 billion, up 40% compared to the year-ago period. That was more than a billion dollars ahead of expectations. And the company’s monthly recurring revenue (MRR) grew 67% to $95.1 million in the quarter. That’s quick.

Shopify is priced like the growth will continue. Using its Q2 revenue result to generate an annual run rate for the firm, Shopify is currently valued at around 43x its present top line. That’s aggressive for a company that generates the minority of its revenues from recurring software fees, an investor favorite. Instead, investors seem content to pay what is effectively top dollar for the company’s blend of GMV-based service revenues and more traditional software incomes.

Consider the public markets bullish on the continued pace of e-commerce growth.

It will be interesting to see how BigCommerce, a Shopify competitor and fellow public company, performs when it reports earnings in early August. Shares of BigCommerce are up more than 3% today in wake of Shopify’s results. Ironic given Shopify’s relaxed market reaction to its own results? Sure, but who said the public markets are fair?

How AI Will Help Keep Time at the Tokyo Olympics

By Jeremy White
Omega, the official timekeeper of the Games, is now using computer vision and motion sensors for events like swimming, gymnastics, and beach volleyball.

Biden taps Google critic to lead the DOJ’s antitrust division

By Taylor Hatmaker

The Biden administration tripled down on its commitment to reining in powerful tech companies Tuesday, proposing committed Big Tech critic Jonathan Kanter to lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division.

Kanter is a lawyer with a long track record of representing smaller companies like Yelp in antitrust cases against Google. He currently practices law at his own firm, which specializes in advocacy for state and federal antitrust enforcement.

“Throughout his career, Kanter has also been a leading advocate and expert in the effort to promote strong and meaningful antitrust enforcement and competition policy,” the White House press release stated. Progressives celebrated the nomination as a win, though some of Biden’s new antitrust hawks have enjoyed support from both political parties.

Jonathan Kanter's nomination to lead @TheJusticeDept’s Antitrust Division is tremendous news for workers and consumers. He’s been a leader in the fight to check consolidated corporate power and strengthen competition in our markets. https://t.co/mLQACA0c4j

— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) July 20, 2021

The Justice Department already has a major antitrust suit against Google in the works. The lawsuit, filed by Trump’s own Justice Department, accuses the company of “unlawfully maintaining monopolies” through anti-competitive practices in its search and search advertising businesses. If successfully confirmed, Kanter would be positioned to steer the DOJ’s big case against Google.

In a 2016 NYT op-ed, Kanter argued that Google is notorious for relying on an anti-competitive “playbook” to maintain its market dominance. Kanter pointed to Google’s long history of releasing free ad-supported products and eventually restricting competition through “discriminatory and exclusionary practices” in a given corner of the market.

Kanter is just the latest high-profile Big Tech critic that’s been elevated to a major regulatory role under Biden. Last month, Biden named fierce Amazon critic Lina Khan as FTC chair upon her confirmation to the agency. In March, Biden named another noted Big Tech critic, Columbia law professor Tim Wu, to the National Economic Council as a special assistant for tech and competition policy.

All signs point to the Biden White House gearing up for a major federal fight with Big Tech. Congress is working on a set of Big Tech bills, but in lieu of — or in tandem with — legislative reform, the White House can flex its own regulatory muscle through the FTC and DOJ.

In new comments to MSNBC, the White House confirmed that it is also “reviewing” Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a potent snippet of law that protects platforms from liability for user-generated content.

Quantexa raises $153M to build out AI-based big data tools to track risk and run investigations

By Ingrid Lunden

As financial crime has become significantly more sophisticated, so too have the tools that are used to combat it. Now, Quantexa — one of the more interesting startups that has been building AI-based solutions to help detect and stop money laundering, fraud, and other illicit activity — has raised a growth round of $153 million, both to continue expanding that business in financial services and to bring its tools into a wider context, so to speak: linking up the dots around all customer and other data.

“We’ve diversified outside of financial services and working with government, healthcare, telcos and insurance,” Vishal Marria, its founder and CEO, said in an interview. “That has been substantial. Given the whole journey that the market’s gone through in contextual decision intelligence as part of bigger digital transformation, was inevitable.”

The Series D values the London-based startup between $800 million and $900 million on the heels of Quantexa growing its subscriptions revenues 108% in the last year.

Warburg Pincus led the round, with existing backers Dawn Capital, AlbionVC, Evolution Equity Partners (a specialist cybersecurity VC), HSBC, ABN AMRO Ventures and British Patient Capital also participating. The valuation is a significant hike up for Quantexa, which was valued between $200 million and $300 million in its Series C last July. It has now raised over $240 million to date.

Quantexa got its start out of a gap in the market that Marria identified when he was working as a director at Ernst & Young tasked with helping its clients with money laundering and other fraudulent activity. As he saw it, there were no truly useful systems in the market that efficiently tapped the world of data available to companies — matching up and parsing both their internal information as well as external, publicly available data — to get more meaningful insights into potential fraud, money laundering and other illegal activities quickly and accurately.

Quantexa’s machine learning system approaches that challenge as a classic big data problem — too much data for a humans to parse on their own, but small work for AI algorithms processing huge amounts of that data for specific ends.

Its so-called “Contextual Decision Intelligence” models (the name Quantexa is meant to evoke “quantum” and “context”) were built initially specifically to address this for financial services, with AI tools for assessing risk and compliance and identifying financial criminal activity, leveraging relationships that Quantexa has with partners like Accenture, Deloitte, Microsoft and Google to help fill in more data gaps.

The company says its software — and this, not the data, is what is sold to companies to use over their own datasets — has handled up to 60 billion records in a single engagement. It then presents insights in the form of easily digestible graphs and other formats so that users can better understand the relationships between different entities and so on.

Today, financial services companies still make up about 60% of the company’s business, Marria said, with 7 of the top 10 UK and Australian banks and 6 of the top 14 financial institutions in North America among its customers. (The list includes its strategic backer HSBC, as well as Standard Chartered Bank and Danske Bank.)

But alongside those — spurred by a huge shift in the market to relying significantly more on wider data sets, to businesses updating their systems in recent years, and the fact that, in the last year, online activity has in many cases become the “only” activity — Quantexa has expanded more significantly into other sectors.

“The Financial crisis [of 2007] was a tipping point in terms of how financial services companies became more proactive, and I’d say that the pandemic has been a turning point around other sectors like healthcare in how to become more proactive,” Marria said. “To do that you need more data and insights.”

So in the last year in particular, Quantexa has expanded to include other verticals facing financial crime, such as healthcare, insurance, government (for example in tax compliance), and telecoms/communications, but in addition to that, it has continued to diversify what it does to cover more use cases, such as building more complete customer profiles that can be used for KYC (know your customer) compliance or to serve them with more tailored products. Working with government, it’s also seeing its software getting applied to other areas of illicit activity, such as tracking and identifying human trafficking.

In all, Quantexa has “thousands” of customers in 70 markets. Quantexa cites figures from IDC that estimate the market for such services — both financial crime and more general KYC services — is worth about $114 billion annually, so there is still a lot more to play for.

“Quantexa’s proprietary technology enables clients to create single views of individuals and entities, visualized through graph network analytics and scaled with the most advanced AI technology,” said Adarsh Sarma, MD and co-head of Europe at Warburg Pincus, in a statement. “This capability has already revolutionized the way KYC, AML and fraud processes are run by some of the world’s largest financial institutions and governments, addressing a significant gap in an increasingly important part of the industry. The company’s impressive growth to date is a reflection of its invaluable value proposition in a massive total available market, as well as its continued expansion across new sectors and geographies.”

Interestingly, Marria admitted to me that the company has been approached by big tech companies and others that work with them as an acquisition target — no real surprises there — but longer term, he would like Quantexa to consider how it continues to grow on its own, with an independent future very much in his distant sights.

“Sure, an acquisition to the likes of a big tech company absolutely could happen, but I am gearing this up for an IPO,” he said.

Biden’s sweeping executive order takes on Big Tech’s ‘bad mergers,’ ISPs and more

By Taylor Hatmaker

The Biden administration just introduced a sweeping, ambitious plan to forcibly inject competition into some consolidated sectors of the American economy — the tech sector prominent among them — through executive action.

“Today President Biden is taking decisive action to reduce the trend of corporate consolidation, increase competition, and deliver concrete benefits to America’s consumers, workers, farmers, and small businesses,” a new White House fact sheet on the forthcoming order states.

The order, which Biden will sign Friday, initiates a comprehensive “whole-of-government” approach that loops in more then twelve different agencies at the federal level to regulate monopolies, protect consumers and curtail bad behavior from some of the world’s biggest corporations.

In the fact sheet, the White House lays out its plans to take matters to regulate big business into its own hands at the federal level. As far as tech is concerned, that comes largely through emboldening the FTC and the Justice Department — two federal agencies with antitrust enforcement powers.

Most notably for Big Tech, which is already bracing for regulatory existential threats, the White House explicitly asserts here that those agencies have legal cover to “challenge prior bad mergers that past Administrations did not previously challenge” — i.e., unwinding acquisitions that built a handful of tech companies into the behemoths they are today. The order calls on antitrust agencies to enforce antitrust laws “vigorously.”

Federal scrutiny will prioritize “dominant internet platforms, with particular attention to the acquisition of nascent competitors, serial mergers, the accumulation of data, competition by ‘free’ products, and the effect on user privacy.” Facebook, Google and Amazon are particularly on notice here, though Apple isn’t likely to escape federal attention either.

“Over the past 10 years, the largest tech platforms have acquired hundreds of companies — including alleged ‘killer acquisitions’ meant to shut down a potential competitive threat,” the White House wrote in the fact sheet. “Too often, federal agencies have not blocked, conditioned, or, in some cases, meaningfully examined these acquisitions.”

The biggest tech companies have regularly defended their longstanding strategy of buying up the competition by arguing that because those acquisitions went through without friction at the time, they shouldn’t be viewed as illegal in hindsight. In no uncertain terms, the new executive order makes it clear that the Biden administration isn’t having any of it.

The White House also specifically singles out internet service providers for scrutiny, ordering the FCC to prioritize consumer choice and institute broadband “nutrition labels” that clearly state speed caps and hidden fees. The FCC began working on the labels in the Obama administration but the work was scrapped after Trump took office.

The order also directly calls on the FCC to restore net neutrality rules, which were stripped in 2017 to the widespread horror of open internet advocates and most of the tech industry outside of the service providers that stood to benefit.

The White House will also tell the FTC to create new privacy rules meant to guard consumers against surveillance and the “accumulation of extraordinarily amounts of sensitive personal information,” which free services like Facebook, YouTube and others have leveraged to build their vast empires. The White House also taps the FTC to create rules that protect smaller businesses from being preempted by large platforms, which in many cases abuse their market dominance with a different sort of data-based surveillance to out-compete up-and-coming competitors.

Finally, the executive order encourages the FTC to put right-to-repair rules in place that would free consumers from constraints that discourage DIY and third-party repairs. A new White House Competition Council under the director of the National Economic Council will coordinate the federal execution of the proposals laid out in the new order.

The antitrust effort from the executive branch mirrors parallel actions in the FTC and Congress. In the FTC, Biden has installed a fearsome antitrust crusader in Lina Khan, a young legal scholar and fierce Amazon critic who proposes a philosophical overhaul to the way the federal government defines monopolies. Khan now leads the FTC as its chair.

In Congress, a bipartisan flurry of bills intended to rein in the tech industry are slowly wending their way toward becoming law, though plenty of hurdles remain. Last month, the House Judiciary Committee debated the six bills, which were crafted separately to help them survive opposing lobbying pushes from the tech industry. These legislative efforts could modernize antitrust laws, which have failed to keep pace with the modern realities of giant, internet-based businesses.

“Competition policy needs new energy and approaches so that we can address America’s monopoly problem,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a prominent tech antitrust hawk in Congress, said of the executive order. “That means legislation to update our antitrust laws, but it also means reimagining what the federal government can do to promote competition under our current laws.”

Citing the acceleration of corporate consolidation in recent decades, the White House argues that a handful of large corporations dominates across industries, including healthcare, agriculture and tech and consumers, workers and smaller competitors pay the price for their outsized success. The administration will focus antitrust enforcement on those corners of the market as well as evaluating the labor market and worker protections on the whole.

“Inadequate competition holds back economic growth and innovation … Economists find that as competition declines, productivity growth slows, business investment and innovation decline, and income, wealth, and racial inequality widen,” the White House wrote.

 

Google faces a major multi-state antitrust lawsuit over Google Play fees

By Taylor Hatmaker

A group of 37 attorneys general filed a second major multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google Wednesday, accusing the company of abusing its market power to stifle competitors and forcing consumers into in-app payments that grant the company a hefty cut.

New York Attorney General Letitia James is co-leading the suit alongside the Tennessee, North Carolina and Utah attorneys general. The bipartisan coalition represents 36 U.S. states, including California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Colorado and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia.

“Through its illegal conduct, the company has ensured that hundreds of millions of Android users turn to Google, and only Google, for the millions of applications they may choose to download to their phones and tablets,” James said in a press release. “Worse yet, Google is squeezing the lifeblood out of millions of small businesses that are only seeking to compete.”

In December, 35 states filed a separate antitrust suit against Google, alleging that the company engaged in illegal behavior to maintain a monopoly on the search business. The Justice Department filed its own antitrust case focused on search last October.

In the new lawsuit, embedded below, the bipartisan coalition of states allege that Google uses “misleading” security warnings to keep consumers and developers within its walled app garden, the Google Play store. But the fees that Google collects from Android app developers are likely the meat of the case.

“Not only has Google acted unlawfully to block potential rivals from competing with its Google Play Store, it has profited by improperly locking app developers and consumers into its own payment processing system and then charging high fees,” District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine said.

Like Apple, Google herds all app payment processing into its own service, Google Play Billing, and reaps the rewards: a 30 percent cut of all payments. Much of the criticism here is a case that could — and likely will — be made against Apple, which exerts even more control over its own app ecosystem. Google doesn’t have an iMessage equivalent exclusive app that keeps users locked in in quite the same way.

While the lawsuit discusses Google’s “monopoly power” in the app marketplace, the elephant in the room is Apple — Google’s thriving direct competitor in the mobile software space. The lawsuit argues that consumers face pressure to stay locked into the Android ecosystem, but on the Android side at least, much of that is ultimately familiarity and sunk costs. The argument on the Apple side of the equation here is likely much stronger.

The din over tech giants squeezing app developers with high mobile payment fees is just getting louder. The new multi-state lawsuit is the latest beat, but the topic has been white hot since Epic took Apple to court over its desire to bypass Apple’s fees by accepting mobile payments outside the App Store. When Epic set up a workaround, Apple kicked it out of the App Store and Epic Games v. Apple was born.

The Justice Department is reportedly already interested in Apple’s own app store practices, along with many state AGs who could launch a separate suit against the company at any time.

Edge Delta raises $15M Series A to take on Splunk

By Frederic Lardinois

Seattle-based Edge Delta, a startup that is building a modern distributed monitoring stack that is competing directly with industry heavyweights like Splunk, New Relic and Datadog, today announced that it has raised a $15 million Series A funding round led by Menlo Ventures and Tim Tully, the former CTO of Splunk. Previous investors MaC Venture Capital and Amity Ventures also participated in this round, which brings the company’s total funding to date to $18 million.

“Our thesis is that there’s no way that enterprises today can continue to analyze all their data in real time,” said Edge Delta co-founder and CEO Ozan Unlu, who has worked in the observability space for about 15 years already (including at Microsoft and Sumo Logic). “The way that it was traditionally done with these primitive, centralized models — there’s just too much data. It worked 10 years ago, but gigabytes turned into terabytes and now terabytes are turning into petabytes. That whole model is breaking down.”

Image Credits: Edge Delta

He acknowledges that traditional big data warehousing works quite well for business intelligence and analytics use cases. But that’s not real-time and also involves moving a lot of data from where it’s generated to a centralized warehouse. The promise of Edge Delta is that it can offer all of the capabilities of this centralized model by allowing enterprises to start to analyze their logs, metrics, traces and other telemetry right at the source. This, in turn, also allows them to get visibility into all of the data that’s generated there, instead of many of today’s systems, which only provide insights into a small slice of this information.

While competing services tend to have agents that run on a customer’s machine, but typically only compress the data, encrypt it and then send it on to its final destination, Edge Delta’s agent starts analyzing the data right at the local level. With that, if you want to, for example, graph error rates from your Kubernetes cluster, you wouldn’t have to gather all of this data and send it off to your data warehouse where it has to be indexed before it can be analyzed and graphed.

With Edge Delta, you could instead have every single node draw its own graph, which Edge Delta can then combine later on. With this, Edge Delta argues, its agent is able to offer significant performance benefits, often by orders of magnitude. This also allows businesses to run their machine learning models at the edge, as well.

Image Credits: Edge Delta

“What I saw before I was leaving Splunk was that people were sort of being choosy about where they put workloads for a variety of reasons, including cost control,” said Menlo Ventures’ Tim Tully, who joined the firm only a couple of months ago. “So this idea that you can move some of the compute down to the edge and lower latency and do machine learning at the edge in a distributed way was incredibly fascinating to me.”

Edge Delta is able to offer a significantly cheaper service, in large part because it doesn’t have to run a lot of compute and manage huge storage pools itself since a lot of that is handled at the edge. And while the customers obviously still incur some overhead to provision this compute power, it’s still significantly less than what they would be paying for a comparable service. The company argues that it typically sees about a 90 percent improvement in total cost of ownership compared to traditional centralized services.

Image Credits: Edge Delta

Edge Delta charges based on volume and it is not shy to compare its prices with Splunk’s and does so right on its pricing calculator. Indeed, in talking to Tully and Unlu, Splunk was clearly on everybody’s mind.

“There’s kind of this concept of unbundling of Splunk,” Unlu said. “You have Snowflake and the data warehouse solutions coming in from one side, and they’re saying, ‘hey, if you don’t care about real time, go use us.’ And then we’re the other half of the equation, which is: actually there’s a lot of real-time operational use cases and this model is actually better for those massive stream processing datasets that you required to analyze in real time.”

But despite this competition, Edge Delta can still integrate with Splunk and similar services. Users can still take their data, ingest it through Edge Delta and then pass it on to the likes of Sumo Logic, Splunk, AWS’s S3 and other solutions.

Image Credits: Edge Delta

“If you follow the trajectory of Splunk, we had this whole idea of building this business around IoT and Splunk at the Edge — and we never really quite got there,” Tully said. “I think what we’re winding up seeing collectively is the edge actually means something a little bit different. […] The advances in distributed computing and sophistication of hardware at the edge allows these types of problems to be solved at a lower cost and lower latency.”

The Edge Delta team plans to use the new funding to expand its team and support all of the new customers that have shown interest in the product. For that, it is building out its go-to-market and marketing teams, as well as its customer success and support teams.

 

Amazon and Google face UK CMA probe over fake reviews

By Natasha Lomas

The UK’s competition watchdog, the CMA, has opened another investigation into Big Tech — this one targeted at Amazon and Google over how they handle (or, well, don’t) fake reviews.

The Competition and Markets Authority has taken an interest in online reviews for several years, as far back as 2015.

It also went after eBay and Facebook back in 2019 to try to squeeze the trade in fake reviews it found thriving on their marketplaces. After continuing to pressure those platforms the watchdog was given pledges they’d do more. Albeit, in the case of Facebook, it took until April 2021 for it to take down 16,000 groups that had been trading fake reviews — and the CMA expressed disappointment that it had taken Facebook over a year to take meaningful action.

Now the CMA has Amazon and Google in its sites, both of which control platforms hosting user reviews — saying it will be gathering evidence to determine whether they may have broken UK law by taking insufficient action to protect shoppers from fake reviews.

Businesses that mislead consumers or don’t take action to prevent consumers being misled may be in breach of UK laws intended to protect consumers from unfair trading.

The CMA says its investigation into Amazon and Google follows an initial probe, which it started in May 2020, which was focused on assessing several platforms’ internal systems and processes for identifying and dealing with fake reviews.

That work raised specific concerns about whether the two tech giants have been doing enough to:

  • Detect fake and misleading reviews or suspicious patterns of behaviour. For example, where the same users have reviewed the same range of products or businesses at similar times to each other and there is no connection between those products or businesses – or where the review suggests that the reviewer has received a payment or other incentive to write a positive review.
  • Investigate and, where necessary, remove promptly fake and misleading reviews from their platforms.
  • Impose adequate sanctions on reviewers or businesses to deter them and others from posting fake or misleading reviews on their platforms – including those who have published these types of reviews many times.

The regulator also said it’s concerned that Amazon’s systems have been “failing adequately to prevent and deter some sellers from manipulating product listings” — such as, for example, by co-opting positive reviews from other products.

And, well, who hasn’t been browsing product reviews on Amazon, only to be drawn up short by a reviewer earnestly referring to product attributes that clearly bear no relation to the sale item in question?

While the user reviews that pop up on, for example, Google Maps after a search for a local business can also display unusual patterns of 5-starring (or 1-starring) behaviour.

Commenting on its investigation into concerns that Amazon and Google are not doing enough to combat the problem of fake reviews the CMA’s CEO Andrea Coscelli had this to say, in a statement:

“Our worry is that millions of online shoppers could be misled by reading fake reviews and then spending their money based on those recommendations. Equally, it’s simply not fair if some businesses can fake 5-star reviews to give their products or services the most prominence, while law-abiding businesses lose out.

“We are investigating concerns that Amazon and Google have not been doing enough to prevent or remove fake reviews to protect customers and honest businesses. It’s important that these tech platforms take responsibility and we stand ready to take action if we find that they are not doing enough.”

Amazon and Google were contacted for comment.

A Google Spokesperson sent us this statement:

“Our strict policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences, and when we find policy violations, we take action — from removing abusive content to disabling user accounts. We look forward to continuing our work with the CMA to share more on how our industry-leading technology and review teams work to help users find relevant and useful information on Google.”

An Amazon spokesperson also said:

“To help earn the trust of customers, we devote significant resources to preventing fake or incentivized reviews from appearing in our store. We work hard to ensure that reviews accurately reflect the experience that customers have had with a product.  We will continue to assist the CMA with its enquiries and we note its confirmation that no findings have been made against our business. We are relentless in protecting our store and will take action to stop fake reviews regardless of the size or location of those who attempt this abuse.”

In a blog post earlier this month, Amazon — likely aware of the CMA’s attention on the issue — discussed the problem of bogus online reviews, claiming it “relentlessly innovates to allow only genuine product reviews in our store”; and offering up some illustrative stats (such as that, in 2020 alone, it stopped more than 200M “suspected fake reviews” before they were seen by any customers, mostly via the use of “proactive detection”).

However the blog post was also heavily on the defensive — with the ecommerce giant seeking to spread the blame for the fake reviews problem — saying, for example, that there’s an “increasing trend of bad actors attempting to solicit fake reviews outside Amazon, particularly via social media services”. 

It sought to frame fake reviews as an industry-wide problem, needing a coordinated, industry-wide solution — while reserving its heaviest fire for (unnamed) “social media companies” (cough Facebook cough) — and suggesting, for example, that they are the weak link in the chain:

We need social media companies whose services are being used to facilitate fake reviews to proactively invest in fraud and fake review controls, partner with us to stop these bad actors, and help consumers shop with confidence. It will take constant innovation and partnership across industries and law enforcement to fully protect consumers and our honest selling partners.”

Amazon’s blog post also called for coordinated assistance from consumer protection regulators “around the world” to support its existing efforts to litigate against “bad actors”, aka “those who have purchased reviews and the service providers who provided them”.

The company also told us it has won “dozens” of injunctions against providers of fake reviews across Europe — adding that it won’t shy away from taking legal action. (It noted, for example, a lawsuit it filed on June 9 with the London Commercial Court against the owners of the websites, AMZ Tigers and TesterJob — seeking a prohibitory injunction and damages.)

In light of the CMA’s investigation being opened now, Amazon’s blog post calling for regulatory assistance to support litigation against purveyors of fake reviews looks like a pre-emptive plea to the CMA to swivel its gaze back onto Facebook’s marketplace — and check back in on how the trade in fake reviews is looking over there.

We reached out to the CMA to ask whether its investigation into Amazon and Google will dig into the role that review trading groups hosted elsewhere, such as on social media platforms, may play in exacerbating the issue and will update this port with any response.

The CMA has been increasingly active in regulating Big Tech as it dials up attention on digital markets to prepare for planned UK reforms to competition law that look set to usher in an ex ante regime for dealing with competition-denting platform power.

The watchdog has a number of other open investigations into Big Tech — including into Google’s planned deprecation of tracking cookies. It also recently initiated a market study into Apple and Google’s dominance of the mobile ecosystem.

Given the watchdog’s focus on major platforms — as well as its long standing interest in fake reviews — it’s interesting to speculate whether iOS maker Apple may not face some UK scrutiny on this issue.

Concerns have also been raised over fake ratings and reviews on its App Store.

Earlier this year, for example, iOS app developer, Kosta Eleftheriou, filed suit against Apple — alleging it enticed developers to build apps by claiming the App Store is a safe and trustworthy place but that it doesn’t protect legitimate developers against scammers profiting from their hard work.

The CMA already has an open investigation into Apple’s App Store. So it will be paying close attention to aspects of the store, saying back in March that it would be investigating whether Apple imposes unfair or anti-competitive terms on developers — which then ultimately result in users having less choice or paying higher prices for apps and add-ons.

For now, though, the watchdog’s attention toward the fake reviews issue has been publicly focused elsewhere.

Firebolt raises $127M more for its new approach to cheaper and more efficient big data analytics

By Ingrid Lunden

Snowflake changed the conversation for many companies when it comes to the potentials of data warehousing. Now one of the startups that’s hoping to disrupt the disruptor is announcing a big round of funding to expand its own business.

Firebolt, which has built a new kind of cloud data warehouse that promises much more efficient, and cheaper, analytics around whatever is stored within it, is announcing a major Series B of $127 million on the heels of huge demand for its services.

The company, which only came out of stealth mode in December, is not disclosing its valuation with this round, which brings the total raised by the Israeli company to $164 million. New backers Dawn Capital and K5 Global are in this round, alongside previous backers Zeev Ventures, TLV Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners, and Angular Ventures.

Nor is it disclosing many details about its customers at the moment. CEO and co-founder Eldad Farkash told me in an interview that most of them are US-based, and that the numbers have grown from the dozen or so that were using Firebolt when it was still in stealth mode (it worked quietly for a couple of years building its product and onboarding customers before finally launching six months ago). They are all migrating from existing data warehousing solutions like Snowflake or BigQuery. In other words, its customers are already cloud-native, big-data companies: it’s not trying to proselytize on the basic concept but work with those who are already in a specific place as a business.

“If you’re not using Snowflake or BigQuery already, we prefer you come back to us later,” he said. Judging by the size and quick succession of the round, that focus is paying off.

The challenge that Firebolt set out to tackle is that while data warehousing has become a key way for enterprises to analyze, update and manage their big data stores — after all, your data is only as good as the tools you have to parse it and keep it secure — typically data warehousing solutions are not efficient, and they can cost a lot of money to maintain.

The challenge was seen first-hand by the three founders of Firebolt, Farkash (CEO), Saar Bitner (COO) and Ariel Yaroshevich (CTO) when they were at a previous company, the business intelligence powerhouse Sisense, where respectively they were one of its co-founders and two members of its founding team. At Sisense, the company continually came up against an issue: When you are dealing in terabytes of data, cloud data warehouses were straining to deliver good performance to power its analytics and other tools, and the only way to potentially continue to mitigate that was by piling on more cloud capacity. And that started to become very expensive.

Firebolt set out to fix that by taking a different approach, re-architecting the concept. As Farkash sees it, while data warehousing has indeed been a big breakthrough in big data, it has started to feel like a dated solution as data troves have grown.

“Data warehouses are solving yesterday’s problem, which was, ‘How do I migrate to the cloud and deal with scale?’ ” he told me back in December. Google’s BigQuery, Amazon’s RedShift and Snowflake as fitting answers for that issue, believes, but “we see Firebolt as the new entrant in that space, with a new take on design on technology. We change the discussion from one of scale to one of speed and efficiency.”

The startup claims that its performance is up to 182 times faster than that of other data warehouses with a SQL-based system that works on academic research that had yet to be applied anywhere, around how to handle data in a lighter way, using new techniques in compression and how data is parsed. Data lakes in turn can be connected with a wider data ecosystem, and what it translates to is a much smaller requirement for cloud capacity. And lower costs.

Fast forward to today, and the company says the concept is gaining a lot of traction with engineers and developers in industries like business intelligence, customer-facing services that need to parse a lot of information to serve information to users in real-time, and back-end data applications. That is proving out what investors suspected would be a shift before the startup even launched, stealthily or otherwise.

“I’ve been an investor at Firebolt since their Series A round and before they had any paying customers,” said Oren Zeev of Zeev Ventures. “What had me invest in Firebolt is mostly the team. A group of highly experienced executives mostly from the big data space who understand the market very well, and the pain organizations are experiencing. In addition, after speaking to a few of my portfolio companies and Firebolt’s initial design partners, it was clear that Firebolt is solving a major pain, so all in all, it was a fairly easy decision. The market in which Firebolt operates is huge if you consider the valuations of Snowflake and Databricks. Even more importantly, it is growing rapidly as the migration from on-premise data warehouse platforms to the cloud is gaining momentum, and as more and more companies rely on data for their operations and are building data applications.”

Your Favorite Mobile Apps That Can Also Run in a Web Browser

By David Nield
Break free from the confines of your phone screen for messaging, music, and more.

Transform launches with $24.5M in funding for a tool to query and build metrics out of data troves

By Ingrid Lunden

The biggest tech companies have put a lot of time and money into building tools and platforms for their data science teams and those who work with them to glean insights and metrics out of the masses of data that their companies produce: how a company is performing, how a new feature is working, when something is broken, or when something might be selling well (and why) are all things you can figure out if you know how to read the data.

Now, three alums that worked with data in the world of big tech have founded a startup that aims to build a “metrics store” so that the rest of the enterprise world — much of which lacks the resources to build tools like this from scratch — can easily use metrics to figure things out like this, too.

Transform, as the startup is called, is coming out of stealth today, and it’s doing so with an impressive amount of early backing — a sign not just of investor confidence in these particular founders, but also the recognition that there is a gap in the market for, as the company describes it, a “single source of truth for business data” that could be usefully filled.

The company is announcing that it has closed, while in stealth, a Series A of $20 million, and an earlier seed round of $4.5 million — both led by Index Ventures and Redpoint Ventures. The seed, the company said, also had dozens of angel investors, with the list including Elad Gil of Color Genomics, Lenny Rachitsky of Airbnb and Cristina Cordova of Notion.

The big breakthrough that Transform has made is that it’s built a metrics engine that a company can apply to its structured data — a tool similar to what big tech companies have built for their own use, but that hasn’t really been created (at least until now) for others who are not those big tech companies to use, too.

Transform can work with vast troves of data from the warehouse, or data that is being tracked in real time, to generate insights and analytics about different actions around a company’s products. Transform can be used and queried by non-technical people who still have to deal with data, Handel said.

The impetus for building the product came to Nick Handel, James Mayfield and Paul Yang — respectively Transform’s CEO, COO and software engineer — when they all worked together at Airbnb (previously Mayfield and Yang were also at Facebook together) in a mix of roles that included product management and engineering.

There, they could see first-hand both the promise that data held for helping make decisions around a product, or for measuring how something is used, or to plan future features, but also the demands of harnessing it to work, and getting everyone on the same page to do so.

“There is a growing trend among tech companies to test every single feature, every single iteration of whatever. And so as a part of that, we built this tool [at Airbnb] that basically allowed you to define the various metrics that you wanted to track to understand your experiment,” Handel recalled in an interview. “But you also want to understand so many other things like, how many people are searching for listings in certain areas? How many people are instantly booking those listings? Are they contacting customer service, are they having trust and safety issues?” The tool Airbnb built was Minerva, optimised specifically for the kinds of questions Airbnb might typically have for its own data.

“By locking down all of the definitions for the metrics, you could basically have a data engineering team, a centralized data infrastructure team, do all the calculation for these metrics, and then serve those to the data scientists to then go in and do kind of deeper, more interesting work, because they weren’t bogged down in calculating those metrics over and over,” he continued. This platform evolved within Airbnb. “We were we were really inspired by some of the early work that we saw happen on this tool.”

The issue is that not every company is built to, well, build tools like these tailored to whatever their own business interests might be.

“There’s a handful of companies who do similar things in the metrics space,” Mayfield said, “really top flight companies like LinkedIn, Airbnb and Uber. They have really started to invest in metrics. But it’s only those companies that can devote teams of eight or 10, engineers, designers who can build those things in house. And I think that was probably, you know, a big part of the impetus for wanting to start this company was to say, not every organization is going to be able to devote eight or 10 engineers to building this metrics tool.”

And the other issue is that metrics have become an increasingly important — maybe the most important — lever for decision making in the world of product design and wider business strategy for a tech (and maybe by default, any) company.

We have moved away from “move fast and break things.” Instead, we now embrace — as Mayfield put it — “If you can’t measure it, you can’t move it.”

Transform is built around three basic priorities, Handel said.

The first of these has to do with collective ownership of metrics: by building a single framework for measuring these and identifying them, their theory is that it’s easier for a company to all get on the same page with using them. The second of these is to use Transform to simply make the work of the data team more efficient and easier, by turning the most repetitive parts of extracting insights into automated scripts that can be used and reused, giving the data team the ability to spend more time analyzing the data rather than just building datasets. And third of all, to provide customers with APIs that they can use to embed the metric-extracting tools into other applications, whether in business intelligence or elsewhere.

The three products it’s introducing today, called Metrics Framework, Metrics Catalog and Metrics API follow from these principles.

Transform is only really launching publicly today, but Handel said that it’s already working with a small handful of customers (unnamed) in a small beta, enough to be confident that what it’s built works as it was intended. The funding will be used to continue building out the product as well as bring on more talent and hopefully onboard more businesses to using it.

Hopefully might be less a tenuous word than its investors would use, convinced that it’s filling a strong need in the market.

“Transform is filling a critical gap within the industry. Just as we invested in Looker early on for its innovative approach to business intelligence, Transform takes it one step further by providing a powerful yet streamlined single source of truth for metrics,” said Tomasz Tungis, MD, Redpoint Ventures, in a statement.

“We’ve seen companies across the globe struggle to make sense of endless data sources or turn them into actionable, trusted metrics. We invested in Transform because they’ve developed an elegant solution to this problem that will change how companies think about their data,” added Shardul Shah, a partner at Index Ventures.

A Senate proposal for a new US agency to protect Americans’ data is back

By Taylor Hatmaker

Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has revived a bill that would establish a new U.S. federal agency to shield Americans from the invasive practices of tech companies operating in their own backyard.

Last year, Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the Data Protection Act, a legislative proposal that would create an independent agency designed to address modern concerns around privacy and tech that existing government regulators have proven ill-equipped to handle.

“The U.S. needs a new approach to privacy and data protection and it’s Congress’ duty to step forward and seek answers that will give Americans meaningful protection from private companies that value profits over people,” Sen. Gillibrand said.

The revamped bill, which retains its core promise of a new “Data Protection Agency,” is co-sponsored by Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown and returns to the new Democratic Senate with a few modifications.

In the spirit of all of the tech antitrust regulation chatter going on right now, the 2021 version of the bill would also empower the Data Protection Agency to review any major tech merger involving a data aggregator or other deals that would see the user data of 50,000 people change hands.

Other additions to the bill would establish an office of civil rights to “advance data justice” and allow the agency to evaluate and penalize high-risk data practices, like the use of algorithms, biometric data and harvesting data from children and other vulnerable groups.

Gillibrand calls the notion of updating regulation to address modern tech concerns “critical” — and she’s not alone. Democrats and Republicans seldom find common ground in 2021, but a raft of new bipartisan antitrust bills show that Congress has at last grasped how important it is to rein in tech’s most powerful companies lest they lose the opportunity altogether.

The Data Protection Act lacks the bipartisan sponsorship enjoyed by the set of new House tech bills, but with interest in taking on big tech at an all-time high, it could attract more support. Of all of the bills targeting the tech industry in the works right now, this one isn’t likely to go anywhere without more bipartisan interest, but that doesn’t mean its ideas aren’t worth considering.

Like some other proposals wending their way through Congress, this bill recognizes that the FTC has failed to meaningfully punish big tech companies for their bad behavior. In Gillibrand’s vision, the Data Protection Agency could rise to modern regulatory challenges where the FTC has failed. In other proposals, the FTC would be bolstered with new enforcement powers or infused with cash that could help the agency’s bite match its bark.

It’s possible that modernizing the tools that federal agencies have at hand won’t be sufficient. Cutting back more than a decade of overgrowth from tech’s data giants won’t be easy, particularly because the stockpile of Americans’ data that made those companies so wealthy is already out in the wild.

A new agency dedicated to wresting control of that data from powerful tech companies could bridge the gap between Europe’s own robust data protections and the absence of federal regulation we’ve seen in the U.S. But until something does, Silicon Valley’s data hoarders will eagerly fill the power vacuum themselves.

Biden elevates tech antitrust crusader Lina Khan to FTC chair

By Taylor Hatmaker

The Senate confirmed Big Tech critic and prominent antitrust scholar Lina Khan as FTC Commissioner Tuesday. In a strong and surprising signal that the tech industry is overdue for some intense regulatory scrutiny, Biden elevated the newly-confirmed Khan to chair the agency the same day.

Khan was confirmed in a 69-28 vote, with Republicans joining Democrats in a rare show of bipartisan support for Khan’s ideas on reining in tech’s most powerful companies. As FTC chair, Khan will replace Rebecca Kelly Slaughter who moved into the role of acting chairwoman in January.

“It is a tremendous honor to have been selected by President Biden to lead the Federal Trade Commission,” Chair Khan said in a statement. “I look forward to working with my colleagues to protect the public from corporate abuse.”

An associate law professor at Columbia, Khan’s star rose with the publication of a landmark paper examining how the government’s outdated ways of identifying monopolies have failed to keep up with modern business realities, particularly in tech. In Khan’s view, that regulatory failure has allowed the biggest tech companies to consolidate unprecedented wealth and power, in turn making it even more difficult to regulate them.

I’m so grateful to the Senate for my confirmation. Congress created the FTC to safeguard fair competition and protect consumers, workers, and honest businesses from unfair & deceptive practices. I look forward to upholding this mission with vigor and serving the American public.

— Lina Khan (@linamkhan) June 15, 2021

President Biden nominated Khan back in March, sending an early message that Biden would not extend the warm relationship Big Tech companies enjoyed with the White House under former President Obama.

Khan’s confirmation is a sign that the agency will be prioritizing tech antitrust concerns, a priority that will run parallel to Congressional efforts to bolster the FTC’s enforcement powers. The FTC famously imposed a $5 billion fine on Facebook for privacy violations in 2019, but the record-setting fine was only a glancing blow for a company already worth more than $500 billion.

Last week, Congress revealed a long-anticipated package of bipartisan bills that, if passed, would overhaul tech’s biggest businesses and redraw the industry’s rules for years to come.

A previous bill proposed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar would set aside a pool of money that the FTC could use to create a new division for market and merger research, one step toward modernizing antitrust enforcement to keep up with relentless growth from tech’s most powerful giants.

Facebook’s use of ad data triggers antitrust probes in UK and EU

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook is facing a fresh pair of antitrust probes in Europe.

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the EU’s Competition Commission both announced formal investigations into the social media giant’s operations today — with what’s likely to have been co-ordinated timing.

The competition regulators will scrutinize how Facebook uses data from advertising customers and users of its single sign-on tool — specifically looking at whether it uses this data as an unfair lever against competitors in markets such as classified ads.

The pair also said they will seek to work closely together as their independent investigations progress.

With the UK outside the European trading bloc (post-Brexit), the national competition watchdog has a freer rein to pursue investigations that may be similar to or overlap with antitrust probes the EU is also undertaking.

And the two Facebook investigations do appear similar on the surface — with both broadly focused on how Facebook uses advertising data. (Though outcomes could of course differ.)

The danger for Facebook, here, is that a higher dimension of scrutiny will be applied to its business as a result of dual regulatory action — with the opportunity for joint working and cross-referencing of its responses (not to mention a little investigative competition between the UK and the EU’s agencies).

The CMA said it’s looking at whether Facebook has gained an unfair advantage over competitors in providing services for online classified ads and online dating through how it gathers and uses certain data.

Specifically, the UK’s regulator said it’s concerned that Facebook might have gained an unfair advantage over competitors providing services for online classified ads and online dating.

Facebook plays in both spaces of course, via Facebook Marketplace and Facebook Dating respectively.

In a statement on its action, CMA CEO, Andrea Coscelli, said: “We intend to thoroughly investigate Facebook’s use of data to assess whether its business practices are giving it an unfair advantage in the online dating and classified ad sectors. Any such advantage can make it harder for competing firms to succeed, including new and smaller businesses, and may reduce customer choice.”

The European Commission’s investigation will — similarly — focus on whether Facebook violated the EU’s competition rules by using advertising data gathered from advertisers in order to compete with them in markets where it is active.

Although it only cites classified ads as its example of the neighbouring market of particular concern for its probe.

The EU’s probe has another element, though, as it said it’s also looking at whether Facebook ties its online classified ads service to its social network in breach of the bloc’s competition rules.

In a separate (national) action, Germany’s competition authority opened a similar probe into Facebook tying Oculus to use of a Facebook account at the end of last year. So Facebook now has multiple antitrust probes on its plate in Europe, adding to its woes from the massive states antitrust lawsuit filed against it on home turf also back in December 2020.

“When advertising their services on Facebook, companies, which also compete directly with Facebook, may provide it commercially valuable data. Facebook might then use this data in order to compete against the companies which provided it,” the Commission noted in a press release.

“This applies in particular to online classified ads providers, the platforms on which many European consumers buy and sell products. Online classified ads providers advertise their services on Facebook’s social network. At the same time, they compete with Facebook’s own online classified ads service, ‘Facebook Marketplace’.”

The Commission added that a preliminary investigation it already undertook has raised concerns Facebook is distorting the market for online classified ads services. It will now take an in-depth look in order to make a full judgement on whether the social media behemoth is breaking EU competition rules.

Commenting in a statement, EVP Margrethe Vestager, who also heads up competition policy for the bloc, added: “Facebook is used by almost 3 billion people on a monthly basis and almost 7 million firms advertise on Facebook in total. Facebook collects vast troves of data on the activities of users of its social network and beyond, enabling it to target specific customer groups. We will look in detail at whether this data gives Facebook an undue competitive advantage in particular on the online classified ads sector, where people buy and sell goods every day, and where Facebook also competes with companies from which it collects data. In today’s digital economy, data should not be used in ways that distort competition.”

Reached for comment on the latest European antitrust probes, Facebook sent us this statement:

“We are always developing new and better services to meet evolving demand from people who use Facebook. Marketplace and Dating offer people more choices and both products operate in a highly competitive environment with many large incumbents. We will continue to cooperate fully with the investigations to demonstrate that they are without merit.”

Up til now, Facebook has been a bit of a blind spot for the Commission’s competition authority — with multiple investigations and enforcements chalked up by the bloc against other tech giants, such as (most notably) Google and Amazon.

But Vestager’s Facebook ‘dry patch’ has now formally come to an end.

The CMA, meanwhile, is working on wider pro-competition regulatory reforms aimed squarely at tech giants like Facebook and Google under a UK plan to clip the wings of the adtech duopoly.

 

Amazon’s market power to be tested in Germany in push for “early action” over antitrust risks

By Natasha Lomas

Germany’s Federal Cartel Office (FCO) is seeking to make swift use of a new competition tool to target big tech — announcing today that it’s opened a proceeding against ecommerce giant Amazon.

If the FCO confirms that Amazon is of “paramount significance for competition across markets” — as defined by an amendment to the German Competition Act which came into force in January (aka, the GWB Digitalisation Act) — the authority will have greater powers to proactively impose conditions on how it can operate in order to control the risk of market abuse.

Section 19a of the GWB enables the FCO to intervene earlier, and the idea is more effectively, against the practices of large digital companies.

The provision gives the authority the power to prohibit digital giants from engaging in anti-competitive practices like self-preferencing; or using tying or bundling strategies intended to penetrate new markets “by way of non-performance based anti-competitive means”; or creating or raising barriers to market entry by processing data relevant for competition.

The FCO already has two other proceedings ongoing against Amazon — one looking at the extent to which Amazon is influencing the pricing of sellers on Amazon Marketplace by means of price control mechanisms and algorithms; and a second examining to agreements between Amazon and brand manufacturers to check whether exclusions placed on third-party sellers on Amazon Marketplace constitute a violation of competition rules — but a finding of “paramount significance” would enable the authority to “take early action against and prohibit possible anti-competitive practices by Amazon”, as it puts it.

Amazon has been contacted for comment on the FCO’s latest proceeding.

It’s the second such application by the Bundeskartellamt to determine whether it can apply the new law to a tech giant.

In January the authority sought to extend the scope of an existing abuse proceeding, opened against Facebook in December — related to Facebook tying Oculus use to Facebook accounts — saying it would look at whether the social media giant is subject to the GWB’s “paramount significance” rules, and whether, therefore, its linking of Oculus use to a Facebook account should be assessed on that basis.

Commenting on its latest move against Amazon in a statement, FCO president Andreas Mundt said: “In the past few years we have had to deal with Amazon on several occasions and also obtained far-reaching improvements for sellers on Amazon Marketplace. Two other proceedings are still ongoing. Parallel to these proceedings we are now also applying our extended competences in abuse control.”

“In this particular case we are first of all examining whether Amazon is of paramount significance for competition across markets. An ecosystem which extends across various markets and thus constitutes an almost unchallengeable position of economic power is particularly characteristic in this respect,” he added. “This could apply to Amazon with its online marketplaces and many other, above all digital offers. If we find that the company does have such a market position, we could take early action against and prohibit possible anti-competitive practices by Amazon.”

In January Mundt made stronger comments vis-a-vis Facebook — describing its social networking ecosystem as “particularly characteristic” of the bar set by the new digital law for proactive interventions, and adding that: “In view of Facebook’s strong market presence with the eponymous social network, WhatsApp and Instagram such a position may be deemed to exist.”

The FCO proceeding to confirm whether or not Facebook falls under the law remains ongoing. (It also has a pioneering case against Facebook’s ‘superprofiling’ of users that’s headed for Europe’s top court — which could result in an order to Facebook to stop combining EU users’ data without consent, if judges agreed with its approach linking privacy and competition.)

Zooming out, the Bundeskartellamt’s moves to acquire more proactive powers at the national level to tackle big tech foreshadow planned updates to pan-European Union competition law. And specifically the ex ante regime which is set to apply to so-called “digital gatekeepers” in future — under the Digital Markets Act (DMA).

The DMA will mean that Internet intermediaries with major market power must comply with behavioural ‘dos and don’ts’ set by Brussels, risking major penalties if they don’t play by the rules.

In recent years lawmakers across Europe have been looking at how to update competition powers so regulators can respond effectively to digital markets — which are prone to anti-competitive phenomena such as networking effects and tipping — while continuing to pursue antitrust investigations against big tech. (The Commission laid out a first set of charges against Amazon in November, for example, relating to its use of third party merchant data.)

The problem is the painstaking pace of competition investigations into digital business vs the blistering speed of these players (and the massive market power they’ve amassed) — hence the push to tool up with more proactive antitrust powers.

Earlier, EU lawmakers also toyed with the idea of a new competition tool for digital markets but quietly dropped the idea — going on propose their ex ante regime for gatekeeper platforms, under the DMA, at the end of last year. However the proposal is in the process of being debated by the other EU institutions under the bloc’s co-legislative approach — which means it’s still likely years away from being adopted and applied as pan-EU law.

That in turn means German’s FCO could have an outsized role in clipping big tech’s wings in the meanwhile.

In the UK, now outside the bloc — where it too may have an influential role in reforming regional competition rules to rebalance digital market power — the government is also working on a pro-competition regime aimed at big tech.

This year it set up a dedicated unit, the DMU, within the national Competition and Markets Authority which will be tasked with overseeing a regime that will apply to platforms which are identified as having “strategic market status” (akin to the German approach of “paramount significance for competition across markets”). And while the UK is taking a similar tack to the EU’s DMA, it has said the domestic regime will not sum to a single set of rules for all gatekeeper-style platforms — but rather there will be bespoke provisions per platform deemed to fall under the ex ante regulations.

 

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