Amendment 12

Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords am 5:00 pm ar 11 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Clement-Jones:

Moved by Lord Clement-Jones

12: Clause 19, page 10, line 36, after “activity” insert “or another digital activity under its control that is affected by the relevant digital activity”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment would widen the conduct requirements for designated undertakings to include an undertaking’s conduct with respect to any other digital activity that is impacted by its designated activity.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 12 and support Amendments 14, 23, 34 and 60, which will no doubt be spoken to in more detail by their proponents.

Last week, several things took place. First, the European Commission issued Apple with a fine of €1.8 billion. The fine was increased due to Apple providing the Commission with misinformation during the investigation. Secondly, as many noble Lords have noted, the Digital Markets Act came into force in the EU. Thirdly, Apple took the decision last week to terminate Epic Games’s developer account, in retaliation for previous comments criticising Apple’s approach to managing the App Store.

Fourthly, Apple introduced a new core technology fee, which it announced in January. It proposes to charge any developer who takes advantage of the DMA’s benefits. In practice, it means that any developer wishing to list their app on an alternative store, or offer consumers an alternative payment method, is confronted with a new fee, despite not using any Apple service. This does not send a signal that Apple is ready to comply with new competition regulations. Such anti-competitive behaviour and the efforts of big tech to avoid meaningful regulation is exactly why the UK needs a strong digital markets regime, and a very good illustration of the tactics that some big tech operators are using.

The amendments being put forward today as regards digital markets are crucial to ensuring that the UK’s regulatory regime is fully equipped to meaningfully tackle big tech’s anti-competitive practices and prevent its circumvention and delaying tactics, and that, wittingly or unwittingly, we have not given it the ability to drive several coaches and horses through the CMA’s powers in the Bill. Equipping the CMA with a strong leveraging principle—which, thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, we must now call the whack-a-mole principle—is therefore critical to ensure that it keeps up with such attempts to move illegal practices and fees around its ecosystems. I am not quite sure whether my Amendment 12 is belt or braces to the amendment being put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, but it is designed to ensure that what is called the leveraging principle has full play in the CMA’s powers.

The noble Viscount, Lord Camrose, said in Committee:

“We agree with noble Lords that it is crucial that the CMA can deal with anti-competitive behaviour outside the designated activity where appropriate”— note the “where appropriate”. He went on:

“Our current drafting has sought to balance the need for proportionate intervention with clear regulatory perimeters. The regime is designed to address the issues that result from strategic market status and is therefore designed to address competition issues specifically in activities where competition concerns have already been identified. This recognises that SMS firms are likely to be active in a wide range of activities and will face healthy competition from other firms in many of them”.—[Official Report, 22/1/24; col. GC 164.]

However, the Government’s subsequent note on leveraging lays bare their limited approach to leveraging.

We need a much more comprehensive approach to the use of market power in non-designated activities, especially where activities are those such as operated by Google and Apple. For instance, Google runs Search, YouTube, its ad network, Ad Exchange and products such as Google Maps, Images, News and Shopping. All share operating systems and a browser, and fixed and common costs, and all operating system and browser costs are recovered from advertising. All search and browser and operating systems are integrated. All benefit from economies of scale, scope and network externalities. Apple, Amazon and Meta are all the same. They can account for everything as stand-alone businesses, but it is entirely their choice whether they do so; they can move costs around at will. Amendments are consequently needed to tighten up the provisions of Clauses 19 and 20—as particularly set out in Amendment 14 from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones—and ideally in Clause 29 as well.

I have signed amendments relating to countervailing benefits. Since the introduction of the Bill, we have been strongly of the view that Clause 29 could be a major loophole and that the long-term interests of the consumer could be ignored in favour of the short-term interests. On this basis, we strongly support returning to the form of the clauses as they were before Report in the Commons, as proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, in her amendments. I have sympathy with the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, too, and would support it if we felt there was sufficient support across the House.

Finally, I turn to Amendment 34 and the final offer mechanism, which is due to be spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Black. The aim must surely be to ensure that the final offer mechanism is a credible incentive to negotiate, so that designated undertakings are not able to frustrate the enforcement process over many months or even years. The final offer mechanism would remain a last resort, used only when good faith negotiations had completely broken down but made a more credible incentive.

In closing, I should say that, if the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, wishes to test the opinion of the House on her Amendments 14 and 23, we will support her.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Ceidwadwyr 5:15, 11 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I have four amendments in this group. Amendments 16 and 17 relate to the conduct requirements that the CMA can impose on designated undertakings, and Amendments 20 and 25 relate to countervailing benefits in relation to that conduct. I will come to that in a minute. Let me stick for a moment with Amendments 16 and 17.

Amendment 16 was helpfully introduced, to some extent, by what the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said about the activities in the run-up to the introduction of the Digital Markets Act in the European Union. There was a deadline of 7 March for that, and considerable attention has been paid to what Apple in particular has done in relation to that. The noble Lord made Apple’s position clear. It is saying, essentially, that we can either stay with our existing system, and it will charge 30% by way of fees for apps on the App Store, or we can go to this alternative which enables us to comply with the DMA, and Apple will offer an alternative but with a 17% fee for apps plus a 3% core technology fee, and, if you go beyond a million downloads, you will get a 50 cents processing charge per download. Those who fear that their app may go viral, with millions of downloads, are potentially facing enormous costs for processing them through the App Store. As far as all the potential users of the Apple App Store are concerned, this potentially restricts their opportunity for competition rather than enabling it.

My first point is to further reinforce that we have come together to design legislation in support of the Government that is more flexible than the Digital Markets Act. The DMA, in effect, puts the obligations into the originating Act. To change them will be considerably more difficult than would be the case for the Competition and Markets Authority in our regime to change the structure and the content of conduct requirements. Potentially, we have really good flexibility.

Amendment 16 is linked to whether the powers to impose conduct requirements enable the CMA to act in relation to the leveraging of market power in digital activities into other activities—the wider system of its business. Amendment 16 is absolutely about whether the conduct requirements that can be imposed under Clause 20 are sufficiently wide to enable the Competition and Markets Authority to structure them to limit activity which restricts competition in the way that these efforts are being pursued in relation to the Digital Markets Act. To that extent, Amendment 16 asks the Minister, if he would be kind enough to respond in this light, whether, if a designated undertaking were to behave in that sort of way, the CMA would have the power under the conduct requirements to respond and act, and to do so rapidly, to frustrate that kind of anti-competitive result.

Amendment 17 is slightly different, in that we discussed it in Committee. One of the European Union Digital Markets Act obligations is termed expressly to prevent others seeking to stop someone making a complaint to any public authority about non-compliance with the relevant obligations. I looked to see whether our conduct requirements, specified in Clause 20, cover a similar circumstance. In discussion in Committee, the Minister directed me to the “fair and reasonable terms” provision, which is very wide ranging but does not cover this, because these are not the terms of a contractual relationship between a designated undertaking and its users or potential users. It may not relate to that at all.

The Minister also directed me to the question of discrimination, but I do not think this is about discrimination between users; it is about preventing someone, who may be a user, a potential user or a potential competitor, from going to a public authority and saying, “This undertaking does not comply with its conduct requirements”. We know—I will not repeat the evidence that I gave in Committee—that there have, unhappily, been circumstances of intimidation of those who would complain to regulators about the conduct of organisations with significant market power. I return to this simply to say to the Minister that I am not yet convinced. Can he convince us that this kind of activity is covered by the conduct requirements? If it is not, will he undertake to ensure that the necessary changes are made to Clause 20, which the legislation would permit?

I will also speak to the amendments about counter-vailing benefits exemptions. Amendments 23 and 24 revert the Bill to its original wording, which would be better than where we are now. I have looked at Clause 29 from my point of view and I cannot find a good reason for it, so I thought it better to leave it out. If there is a conduct investigation and there are countervailing benefits, they should be presented to the CMA when it makes representations to a conduct investigation. Why would they be left to any other time or specified separately in the legislation?

I thought it better to amend Clause 27 such that, when making representations, the designated undertaking may give details of the benefits associated with its conduct to form part of that investigation. At that point, it should come forward if it is prepared to make commitments that the CMA could accept, without necessarily making a finding, to close that investigation.

All this should take place in Clause 27 on representations, because that is where the sequence lies. I do not understand why Clause 29 has been added at what appears to be a later stage in the sequence of the legislation. As it is a separate clause, it appears as though the benefits can be presented at an entirely separate point.

As I have also discussed with the Minister, there is an analogy with the exempt anti-competitive agreements under the Competition Act 1998. I was on the standing committee when that Bill was in Committee and this is a very different kettle of fish. The 1998 Act set out broad descriptions of agreements that would be deemed anti-competitive and therefore void, except if undertakings came to the Competition and Markets Authority; then the burden is on it to demonstrate that they have, in effect, countervailing benefits, such as to innovation, the consumer and the like, without an adverse effect on competition.

That is ex post regulation. That is agreements and obligations that are broad-ranging and apply across industry. Here, we are talking about conduct requirements that are optimised and designed in relation to that undertaking in the first place. This is ex ante regulation. You cannot compare ex post provisions in the Competition Act with ex ante regulation under this legislation. They are not the same kind of thing.

Therefore, again, I come back to the argument: let us not have exemptions. The use of “exemption” seems wholly inappropriate. We have here a very straightforward process. Conduct requirements require, in themselves, under Clause 24, for there to be a consultation. The undertaking should tell the CMA what the benefits associated with its conduct are at that stage.

There is a forward-looking process; the conduct requirement is supposed to look forward five years, but none the less, circumstances change. The CMA can review a conduct requirement, and the designated undertaking should come to the CMA if circumstances change and there are countervailing benefits and ask for the conduct requirement to be reviewed. Even if, under all these circumstances, a conduct investigation notice is issued, the undertaking should come forward and express what the benefits are at that point. Under none of these circumstances is there a requirement for the use of “exemption” or for an additional clause that offers countervailing benefits as such.

I dare say I will not press this, because there is probably more to be said for Amendment 23 and going back to the original wording, but it afforded me the opportunity, I hope, to explain why I think the whole proposition in Clause 29 seems misplaced.

Photo of Baroness Kidron Baroness Kidron Crossbench

My Lords, I find myself in a slightly awkward position because my name is listed in support of Amendments 23 and 24, but I find the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, incontrovertible, and maybe he should press his amendment.

On the wording, I want to put on the record the view of Which?:

“This is a legal loophole for big tech to challenge conduct requirements through lengthy, tactical, legal challenges. It would tie up CMA (i.e., taxpayer) resources and frustrate the intent of the legislation. Whilst we agree with the intent of this provision, which is to encourage innovation that will benefit consumers, it is critical that these provisions do not inadvertently give designated firms a get out of jail free card from DMU decisions” by presenting opaque consumer benefits.

I put that on the record because it is so measured in comparison with many of the emails and representations I have had, and still is absolutely categoric that this is a get out of jail card. Like the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, I do not understand why the regulator duty to be

“proportionate, accountable, consistent, transparent and targeted”,

within the context of coming to the conduct requirements and taking up any countervailing benefits at that point, is not adequate. So I will support the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, should he change his mind in the next few minutes.

I also add my support to Amendment 60, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Fox. I am an enthusiastic supporter of international standards. They provide for soft law and, having worked with the IEEE on a number of standards over the last few years, I see how brilliantly they work to bring disparate people together and provide practical steps for those tasked with implementation. I declare an interest in relation to the IEEE, which gives some funding to 5Rights Foundation, of which I am chair.

The point I leave with the House is that, toward the end of 2022, I had two conversations with companies that will certainly be SMS about why they were now recruiting for employees to work on standards full-time. I believe the CMA should be in the standards-writing game.

Photo of Lord Black of Brentwood Lord Black of Brentwood Ceidwadwyr 5:30, 11 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of interests. I will speak to my Amendment 34, the effect of which would be to allow the final offer mechanism to be initiated by the CMA after a conduct requirement of the type allowed under Clause 20(2)(a)—to

“trade on fair and reasonable terms”— has first been breached and the other conditions in Clause 38 are met. This includes the condition that

“the CMA could not satisfactorily address the breach within a reasonable time frame by exercising any of its other digital markets functions”.

I am very grateful to noble Lords who have added their names to my amendment.

As I explained in Committee, I am concerned that the final offer mechanism must be a credible incentive to negotiate rather than such a distant prospect that the big tech firms can delay and frustrate enforcement. The whole point of the Bill is to reduce the limitless ability of big tech to leverage its huge market power and financial and legal clout. Yet, if Google or Meta believes that the FOM will never be reached, they will happily offer publishers and content creators suboptimal deals and elongate the negotiation process, and publishers—I think particularly of the hard-pressed local press—may well be compelled to accept suboptimal deals out of commercial necessity.

It is important to note that the amendment would not rush a publisher or platform into the FOM unnecessarily. If the CMA judges that its other enforcement mechanisms would bring a swift resolution to any dispute on commercial terms, it could proceed with those remedies. Therefore, the amendment seeks merely to give the CMA a wider range of tools at an earlier stage, rather than mandating which tools it should select.

We need only to look to Australia, the first country to introduce final offer arbitration, to see just how determined some firms are to avoid fair commercial deals for the trusted content that is the antidote to a new wave of AI-generated disinformation. Less than two weeks ago, Meta, with weary inevitability, announced that it would close Facebook’s news tab feature in Australia and would not renew any of the deals made with publishers after the news media bargaining code was put on to the statute book.

At a minimum, there must be assurances that the CMA will be able rapidly to move through the enforcement stages prior to the FOM, setting short deadlines for compliance and being ready to swiftly set new or more prescriptive conduct requirements of the type allowed in Clause 20(2)(a) if the initial requirements are inadequate.

We must also be sure that, under Clause 20(2)(a), the CMA will be able to require SMS firms to share information necessary for publishers to calculate the value of their content. Without this information, publishers will inevitably be at a severe disadvantage in initial negotiations, making it nigh on impossible for “fair and reasonable terms” to be agreed. In parts of the Bill dealing with the FOM itself, it is explicitly stated that the CMA can use an information notice to require an SMS firm to give information to the CMA, and for that information to be shared with a third party, such as a publisher. Although this precise mechanism may not be appropriate for negotiations outside the FOM, if the CMA’s conduct requirements were not able to encompass a requirement for the necessary information to be shared, we would end up in a situation where the FOM was the only means to facilitate “fair and reasonable” commercial terms. Robust reassurances on this matter from my noble friend the Minister would be most welcome; I am waiting to see whether he writes “robust” down.

Finally on my amendment, I note that although this legislation ultimately cannot prevent global monopolies denying their users access to all trusted news content, the conduct requirement in Clause 20(3)(a) prevents SMS firms

“applying discriminatory terms, conditions or policies”.

We must have clarity that the CMA would be able to use this requirement to prevent the withdrawal of a service by an SMS firm—including ending the hosting of news content—if it is done in a discriminatory manner. Such discriminatory behaviour could include the removal of news content from UK news publishers in an effort to avoid payment while promoting news content from English-language titles based in other jurisdictions. That must not happen. Again, I hope the Minister can provide reassurance.

I will say very briefly that I support Amendments 23 and 24, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, which would reintroduce the indispensability standard to the countervailing benefits exemption. When the Bill was first published, the committee chaired by my noble friend Lady Stowell found that this exemption, as drafted, constituted a “proportionate backstop”, provided that the threshold for its use remained high, and stated explicitly that the Government should not lower the threshold.

We have been told by the Minister before that the changes made in the Commons do not lower the threshold but are an effort to add clarity. Yet, Cleary Gottlieb, a law firm which has represented Google in competition cases, has itself admitted that the new standard “is arguably lower”. Unfortunately, if these amendments are not adopted, it seems highly likely that the courts will reach the conclusion that Parliament explicitly moved away from one set of words to another, the clear implication being that it wishes to create a new and novel standard, and one which would seriously undermine the whole purpose of the legislation.

On the issue of precision, it is hard to see how a move away from a well-established and understood legal concept can add clarity in this area. Since its adoption in the Competition Act 1998, as my noble friend Lord Lansley said, the indispensability standard has been tested extensively, meaning that designated firms, third parties and the CMA alike would have a huge amount of precedent to draw on if it was reintroduced into the legislation. Why on earth would we tamper with that?

As my noble friend Lord Lansley’s amendments demonstrate, it is questionable whether the stand-alone exemption is necessary at all. Therefore, given that the changes made in the Commons may well have lowered the threshold required to access the exemption and the fact that they only reduced clarity—neither of which was the Government’s stated intention—there seems no sound policy reasons not to return Clause 29 to its original form, and I will support the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

My Lords, I assure noble Lords that, having spoken at length in the first group, I will be very brief in this group, not least because my noble friend Lord Black has made my argument for me on the countervailing benefits issue, which Amendment 23, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, addresses. I support that amendment because, as my noble friend just said and as I referred to in my remarks on the first group, there were several issues in the Bill that your Lordships’ Communications and Digital Select Committee was clear were important and should not be changed, one of which was countervailing benefits. I therefore support the amendment, which would reverse what has been changed in the Bill back to its original wording. As has been said, we know from the evidence of the last few weeks since the Digital Markets Act has been in force in Europe, and other cases have been brought against some of the respective large tech firms, that those firms will take any and every opportunity there is to exploit potential weaknesses or loopholes in legislation. That is why it is important that the language remains in its original wording.

I also support my noble friend Lord Black’s remarks about his Amendment 34. I too look forward to my noble friend the Minister giving him some assurance in robust terms.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business)

My Lords, Amendment 60 is in my name. I was expecting to be ploughing a rather lonely furrow on this amendment, so I welcome the enthusiasm of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, particularly as it is based on such relevant experience and came with such authority. I thank her for that.

The Minister has been very open in our discussions on these issues, which focus on two areas: interoperability and standards, which are, of course, inextricably linked. One critical area to be clarified is the importance of vertical and horizontal interoperability and the fact that each requires different responses. Clause 20 covers vertical interoperability; for example, the promotion of the use of platforms as neutral distribution channels to market for all kinds of apps. The Bill does not explicitly include interoperability between an app and a platform that operates as a distributor and, in a network sense, among websites that compete with each other and with the platforms. This is horizontal interoperability.

The department’s view is that Clause 12 is wide enough to catch all of this. The Minister said in Committee that it is the department’s contention that defining interoperability is unnecessary because it considers it to be a “commonly understood technical term”. That is welcome, but it relies on a level of interpretation and inference by the DMU because the department’s interpretation is not clear by the letter of the Bill. As such, it would be helpful if the Minister could confirm the explicit inclusion of horizontal interoperability between websites in promoting competition. Will he please confirm that Clause 20(3)(e) will not limit conduct requirements to promote interoperability with a platform only, and set out how the Bill permits the DMU to consider requirements relating to interoperability in a range of contexts, including web browsers, apps, operating systems and websites?

As far as standards are concerned, I think we agree that there is a need for open and non-discriminatory international standards to support interoperability and promote the competition at which the Bill is so firmly targeted. That this is important is illustrated by the fact that Apple recently publicly threatened to block access to the open web from its devices. For there to be competition, the open web needs to interoperate with Apple and Google browsers. This is quite a serious point. This activity is controlled via W3C standards.

The amendment I have tabled is designed to be helpful. It ensures simply that the DMU understands its role in seeking to ensure that international standards bodies are promoting interoperability, both vertically and horizontally, and hence promoting competition. Given the central importance of standards to competition, my aim is to emphasise that this is not an add-on for the DMU but a core activity. I thought the Minister might be able to accept this amendment, but if he feels unwilling to do so, I feel sure that if he could put on record this important role for the DMU, it will be an important step forward, and I look forward to his response.

Photo of Lord Leong Lord Leong Shadow Spokesperson (Business and Trade), Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, it has been illuminating to listen to the varied and valuable contributions from all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I thank all those who have risen to speak. As may be expected, a broad range of knowledge, differing views and important concerns has been shared and expressed. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, referred to Apple’s dominance and it not being prepared to comply with any digital legislation. This should make us mindful of what big tech is getting up to. One thing is very clear: there is a strong consensus in the House that legislation is needed to catch up with, and indeed anticipate, the rapidly changing digital landscape which even the most technophobic among us can no longer afford to ignore.

I shall speak specifically to Amendments 14, 15, 23 and 24 in the name of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Harding and Lady Kidron, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for adding their names. The principle behind Amendments 14 and 15 is to ensure that the Competition and Markets Authority can tackle anti-competitive conduct in a non-designated activity, provided that the anti-competitive conduct is related to a designated activity. These amendments do not seek to hamper digital innovation but rather to create a pro-competition market in which consumer interests are safeguarded.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey of Didcot, showed great innovation when he described the so-called leveraging principle as the “anti-whack-a-mole” principle, and I shall refer to it as the “whack a mole” principle from now on. Thanks to him, we all know what this means: companies can use their market power to retain an anti-competitive advantage until the regulator is about to catch them and then, just before the whack, they shift this unfair advantage somewhere else. This can happen again and again, perpetuating the inequity and creating unnecessary work for the CMA. Our amendment would prevent companies from circumventing regulation by shifting their anti-competitive behaviour from designated to non-designated activities.

I have no doubt that many noble Lords will have received briefings, representations and requests for meetings from big tech companies, which are pushing back strongly on these amendments. They cite concerns about regulatory overreach. They claim that these amendments will have lasting consequences, potentially delaying or deterring new and improved digital services being brought to market, but this is not the case. These amendments are pro-competition. They ensure that the playing field remains level. New innovators will not face an uneven pitch obstructed by too many whack-a-molehills with a maze of secret tunnels beneath it. I sincerely hope that the Minister is prepared to stand up for consumer interests in the face of increasingly powerful technology companies and, like a good groundskeeper, will roll the pitch to keep it even.

If the Minister genuinely supports a competitive marketplace, I hope he will support these amendments. If he does not feel that he can address our concerns, I give notice that we will test the opinion of the House on Amendment 14. I hope he will find my argument persuasive, and I will listen carefully to his response.

I will, in passing, mention three other amendments which support Amendments 14 and 15, to which I have just spoken. Amendment 12, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, simply widens the conduct requirements for designated undertakings to include an undertaking’s conduct with respect to any other digital activity that is impacted by its designated activity. Together with Amendments 16 and 17, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, this would enable the CMA to keep conduct requirements under review and take account of whether those requirements are having their intended pro-competition effects and, if not, to determine whether further intervention is required. Taken together, we believe that these amendments clarify and reinforce the powers available to the CMA.

I shall speak now to Amendments 23 and 24. Once again, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Harding and Lady Kidron, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for adding their names. These amendments would have the effect of reverting the wording on countervailing benefits exemptions to the Bill’s original text, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell. We object to the Government’s late amendments because they would narrow the application of the exemption through which big tech companies can argue that their conduct gives rise to benefits which outweigh the detrimental impact on competition that their conduct would otherwise breach. I hope the Minister will listen carefully to my argument and agree to accept Amendment 23 and revert to the original wording, as it is another issue about which we feel strongly enough to test the opinion of the House, if required.

Amendments 23 and 24 also reinsert the requirement for the conduct to be “indispensable” to the realisation of the benefits before an exemption can apply. As we discussed in Committee, the removal of the word “indispensable” may weaken the regulator’s ability to rebuff countervailing benefit claims.

We believe that without the word “indispensable”—a word which has a recognised competition law standard—the threshold for claims will be reduced. It follows that a lower threshold would increase the likelihood of success for big tech firms’ claims against the regulator. We fear that this could become a go-to tactic for litigation lawyers—a means by which they could delay a final conduct requirement outcome and thereby prolong a potentially anti-competitive advantage.

Without our far more precise definitions, the CMA may find itself inundated with numerous claims of countervailing benefits, used tactically by expensive lawyers to divert the regulator’s limited resources from its central task of pursuing the conduct investigation.

In Committee, the Minister said that

“the current wording is that the benefits could not be realised without the conduct, and the previous wording was that the conduct is indispensable to the realisation of those benefits”.—[GC 231.]">Official Report, 24/1/24; col. GC 231.]

He went on to argue that this creates the same standard—neither higher nor lower—but with greater clarity.

In his subsequent letter, the Minister again argued that the current government-amended language has the same meaning as that originally proposed in the Bill. We do not accept that the different wording in fact means the same the thing. This is our key point of disagreement: if it does mean the same thing, why did the Government bother to change it?

The word “indispensable” is a recognised competition law standard. Reinserting this word strengthens the clarity of the law. This is a clarification which, it appears, we are all seeking. We assert that, in this Bill, the word “indispensable” is indispensable.

I now refer to the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Black. We are sympathetic to the final offer. If there is a credible offer, it would offer challenger companies the option of coming to a settlement rather than playing into the hands of the dominant big tech companies with their vast financial resources.

In conclusion, I would like to mention Amendment 60 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Fox. This amendment requires the DMU to take into account interoperability and international standards in discharging the duty to promote competition in the interests of consumers. Interoperability standards enable the operational processes underlying the exchange and sharing of information between systems. This ensures that all digital research outputs are findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable: the four pillars of the FAIR principles. Their widespread acceptance and adoption as standards for management of data, development of infrastructure and delivery of services in the sector warrants the amendment’s inclusion in the Bill.

As we have argued throughout, our aim is to avoid unnecessary and expensive legislation. It is our contention that these amendments help to achieve that objective. I will listen keenly and with considerable interest to the Minister’s response, in particular on Amendments 14 and 23.

Photo of Viscount Camrose Viscount Camrose Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) 5:45, 11 Mawrth 2024

As ever, I start by thanking all noble Lords who have spoken so well and clearly in this very interesting debate. I will start with Amendment 12 from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and Amendments 14 and 15 from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, which would expand the ability of the CMA to intervene outside the designated digital activity.

As outlined in Committee, this regime is specifically designed to address competition concerns in digital activities in respect of which firms have been designated as SMS. I agree with noble Lords that the CMA must be able to deal with anti-competitive behaviour outside the designated activity where appropriate, to prevent firms leveraging power unfairly or seeking to circumvent and undermine regulation. Under current drafting, the CMA will already have broad powers to prevent and address issues of an SMS firm seeking to avoid or circumvent the regime or unfairly leverage its market power.

I hope I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Leong, by listing these. First, there are three types of conduct requirement that can address different types of leveraging. In addition to the leveraging principle in Clause 20(3)(c), the CMA can prevent leveraging by imposing requirements to address self-preferencing under Clause 20(3)(b) and tying and bundling under Clause 20(3)(d). Additionally, PCIs can be imposed anywhere in an SMS firm’s business to address an adverse effect on competition related to a designated activity, such as a firm seeking to circumvent regulation.

Finally, the CMA will have discretion to set the parameters of an SMS designation and to define a digital activity in a broad way. This will limit the risk of harmful activity falling outside the scope of a designation in the first place. This regime has been designed to give the CMA powerful tools to address competition issues. I hope noble Lords feel reassured that, where the CMA should be able to intervene, the powers already in the Bill allow it to do so.

Amendment 60, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, would require the DMU to consider interoperability and global web standards when carrying out its duty to promote competition under the digital markets regime and to liaise with international authorities when doing so.

The CMA engages already with global digital standards where it is appropriate to do so; for example, with the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, the web standards development organisation. We expect that the DMU will also pay due regard to global technical standards, along with other relevant considerations, when operating the digital markets regime. As outlined in Committee, a lack of interoperability in digital markets can reinforce entrenched market positions and harm competition.

SMS designation is the gateway into the regime. The Bill allows the DMU to define digital activity for designation purposes. In defining the digital activity, the DMU will be able to capture the various ways in which the firm provides digital content or internet services as part of that. The DMU would have discretion to impose obligations on that firm, including for interoperability in relation to that digital activity.

The Bill gives the DMU comprehensive and flexible powers relating to interoperability to promote competition in digital markets, including conduct requirements that can be tailored to a firm’s specific business model and behaviour. So I would like to reassure the noble Lord that the regime’s tools can apply to both interoperability between platforms and between and among apps and platforms and other digital services.

Depending on the scope of the designation, the DMU can set conduct requirements under Clause 20(3)(e) to promote interoperability, not only with a platform but in a range of contexts, including web browsers, apps, operating systems and websites.

Other types of conduct requirement can also be used to ensure interoperability, such as requirements for

“trade on fair and reasonable terms” under Clause 20(2)(a) or requirements to prevent restrictions on the use of other products under Clause 20(3)(h). The Government agree that promoting interoperability and having regard to global standards can be important for promoting competition in digital markets.

Amendments 16 and 17 from my noble friend Lord Lansley would add two additional permitted types of conduct requirement to tackle specific types of behaviour by SMS firms. Amendment 16 seeks to prevent SMS firms charging fees which are unjustified or could restrict access to the relevant digital activity. Under the current framework, the CMA will be able to effectively tackle this issue. The CMA could likely use its powers under Clause 20(2)(a)—the requirement to trade on fair and reasonable terms—and subsections (3)(a), (b), (c) and (d) prohibiting discriminatory treatment, self-preferencing, leveraging, and tying and bundling.

Amendment 17 would add a new permitted type of conduct requirement to deal with SMS firms attempting to stop third parties raising possible non-compliance with the CMA. Again, I can reassure my noble friend that Clause 20(3)(a) permits a conduct requirement that could prohibit an SMS firm imposing discriminatory terms. This could address retaliation by an SMS firm, including where an SMS firm has singled out a user for adverse treatment in retaliation.

I will now address the amendments relating to the countervailing benefits exemption. As set out in Committee,

“the exemption will not act as a loophole for firms to avoid conduct requirements”.—[GC 231.]">Official Report, 24/1/24; col. GC 231.]

It is an important safeguard that reflects similar practice in the competition landscape. Under Amendments 25 and 20, my noble friend Lord Lansley proposes to remove the clause and replace it with a discretionary power to consider consumer benefits under Clause 27.

My noble friend is right to say the CMA should be able to consider consumer benefits identified by representations. Regarding the sequencing of these clauses, I reassure him that any representations that the countervailing benefits exemption should apply to would be considered among the representations under Clause 27. Clause 29 does not therefore constitute an additional step; rather, it explains how the CMA must act in relation to a specific type of representation. It would not delay or extend the conduct requirement breach investigation process. Making it discretionary for the CMA to act on a demonstrable instance of consumer benefits outweighing the harm to competition, while removing the criteria in Clause 29, would create uncertainty for both SMS firms and for third parties as to how the CMA will conduct its processes.

I turn next to Amendments 23 and 24 from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, which would revert the wording of the countervailing benefits exemption to the text as introduced in the Commons. I stress that the current wording maintains the same high threshold. However, I will not repeat the arguments, given the extensive debate we shared on this in Committee.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Ceidwadwyr 6:00, 11 Mawrth 2024

I am very grateful to my noble friend. Could he say therefore whether a designated undertaking that feels it can demonstrate countervailing benefits must have presented those to the CMA before the CMA concludes its findings under Clause 30—or can it do so afterwards?

Photo of Viscount Camrose Viscount Camrose Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

It can make a representation to the effect of countervailing benefits as part of a breach investigation, which can of course happen at any time during the life of a conduct requirement. We would expect it to make those representations at the start of or during the initial investigation. When these representations are made as part of a breach requirement, the Bill sets out the high standards required in order to accept that argument.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Ceidwadwyr

Sorry, may I just press my noble friend? Can he therefore say that the presentation of a countervailing benefits exemption after the CMA has made findings under Clause 30 would be void?

Photo of Viscount Camrose Viscount Camrose Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

A representation to the effect that there are countervailing benefits would take place as part of a breach investigation. Of course, once the investigation is complete, there is no further opportunity to do so. Have I answered the question?

Photo of Viscount Camrose Viscount Camrose Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

To address the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Leong, that the current wording deviates from legal precedent, I note that, since this is a new regime, existing exemptions in different competition regimes would not be directly applicable. It is highly likely that the application of the exemption will be tested, no matter the wording.

Finally, Amendment 34, tabled by my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood, would allow the final offer mechanism to be used after the breach of a conduct requirement, rather than after a breach of an enforcement order. This novel tool has been designed as a backstop to normal enforcement processes. It is a last resort to incentivise sincere negotiations concerning fair and reasonable payment terms between the SMS firm and third parties. I wholeheartedly agree with my noble friend that these incentives must be both compelling and credible. It is clearly preferable for parties to reach a privately agreed settlement rather than one chosen by the regulator. That is why we must ensure due consideration of less interventionist options before turning to the final offer mechanism.

However, if SMS firms try to frustrate the process or drag it out to the detriment of third parties, I agree that the DMU should be able to accelerate stages before the final offer mechanism is invoked. That is why we have ensured that the DMU will be able to set urgent deadlines for compliance with enforcement orders, supported by significant penalties where appropriate, in cases of non-compliance.

I can robustly reassure my noble friend that the CMA can, via conduct requirements and enforcement orders as well as the final offer mechanism, gather and share key information with third parties.

Finally, to his comment on the forced withdrawal of content, the Bill is able where appropriate to tackle this issue. A conduct requirement could, for example, prevent an SMS firm withdrawing a service in a discriminatory way or treating users more favourably if they purchase the SMS firm’s other products.

The Government have worked hard to strike a balanced approach to intervention. This includes ensuring that firms cannot undermine regulation, and prioritising benefits to consumers at the heart of the regime. I believe the tools, as drafted, achieve these goals, so I hope that noble Lords will not press their amendments.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response to the various amendments. I will be extremely brief; there will probably be quite a few votes now. I thank him for a full reassurance on Amendment 60, tabled by my noble friend, on standards and interoperability. I was looking closely at the noble Lord, Lord Black, when the Minister talked about Amendment 34, and I think there was a half-reassurance there—so that is one and a half so far.

It is clear to me, having discussed countervailing benefits further on Report, that this is, if anything, more dangerous than it appeared in Committee. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, will have noted the mood of the House as we discussed that.

On leveraging, the Minister made a valiant attempt to go through some points where the CMA might take more into account in terms of non-designated activities and so on. But the Minister sent through the technical note, and I am afraid that, if you look at it with care, it makes quite clear the circumscribed nature of the CMA’s powers under the Bill as currently drafted. It will be very important that we take a view on that. I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has been alert to that as well. I withdraw my Amendment 12.

Amendment 12 withdrawn.