Chancellor to make fresh attempt to curb power of tech giants

Philip Hammond to promise action on plan to tackle Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple

A fresh bid to curb the market power of US tech giants will be signalled by Philip Hammond on Wednesday when he welcomes the findings of an independent review calling for government action to ensure companies including Google, Facebook and Apple face stiffer competition.

The chancellor will use his annual spring statement to promise action after a review conducted for the Treasury by Jason Furman, Barack Obama’s chief economic adviser, concluded that the dominance of the big digital players was curbing innovation and reducing consumer choice.

Furman, now a Harvard professor, said a new digital markets unit should be set up in Whitehall staffed by people with technological expertise and equipped with the powers to set and enforce greater competition.

The review says individuals should be given more control over their personal data to enable them to switch between platforms more easily, that the biggest tech companies – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple – should have to sign up to an enforceable code of conduct, and that merger policy should be toughened up.

“Over the last 10 years the five largest firms have made over 400 acquisitions globally. None has been blocked and very few have had conditions attached to approval, in the UK or elsewhere, or even been scrutinised by competition authorities,” the review said.

“Ensuring that competition is vibrant requires ensuring that there are competitors. Merger control has long had this role and in the context of the digital economy it needs to become more active with an approach that is more forward-looking and more focused on innovation and the overall economic impact of mergers.”

The Treasury said the Furman review was part of a package that also included Hammond’s proposals for a UK digital sales tax, an upcoming white paper to prevent online harms, and the Cairncross review into the future of journalism.

“The UK leads the world in embracing technology and the opportunities it delivers for people. Competition is fundamental to ensuring the market works in the interest of consumers, but we know some tech giants are still accumulating too much power, preventing smaller businesses from entering the market,” Hammond said.

“The work of Jason Furman and the expert panel is invaluable in ensuring we’re at the forefront of delivering a competitive digital marketplace. I will carefully examine the proposals put forward by the panel before responding later this year, setting out how the government will implement the changes needed to ensure our digital markets are competitive and consumers get the level of choice they deserve.”

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Furman said the dominance of the tech giants was neither inevitable nor desirable, and rejected the idea that it was now too late to inject more competition. “The sooner we get on with it the better.”

He added: “These recommendations will deliver an economic boost driven by UK tech startups and innovation that will give consumers greater choice and protection.”

Damian Collins, the Conservative MP and chair of the digital, culture, media and sport committee, welcomed the report. “It’s central conclusions that digital markets only work well if they are supported with strong pro-competition policies, corroborates a number of the findings of my committee’s report into disinformation and ‘fake news’ published in February.”

Contributor

Larry Elliott

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