After decades of global expansion and consolidation in the technology sector, antitrust is now a key issue for the industry around the world.
What has been a slow and stuttering series of disparate actions over the past decade has merged into a swift and comprehensive series of actions against industry in recent weeks, with the United States being a notable laggard worldwide.
Nowhere are these actions as prominent as in China, where – after many years of sensible laissez-faire policies towards their internet giants – the competition authorities suddenly decided to take sweeping action against their largest tech companies.
That movement began after Chinese regulators thwarted Ant's record-breaking IPO in early November. Ant is one of the top Chinese tech companies, a fintech company aiming for a valuation of more than $ 300 billion and has 1.3 billion active users worldwide, focused on China and the overseas Chinese diaspora.
This regulatory move resulted in an immediate drop in Alibaba's market cap of $ 60 billion as Alibaba owns 33% of Ant.
However, the bad news from Beijing has continued for the tech industry. Earlier this week, market regulators tabled a plan to rectify Ant that includes stricter lending standards that are expected to have a large impact on the high-flying company's sales, margins and growth. The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that China is also expressly planning to "shrink" Jack Ma & # 39; s own influence over its business empire, with the government itself potentially acquiring larger stakes in tech companies.
Furthermore, Beijing appears poised to force Alibaba and Tencent to play better with each other and give startups a respite outside of their two interlocking corporate networks. Earlier this month, authorities fined Alibaba a nominal amount and also examined a Tencent acquisition. These measures were viewed by analysts as the first steps in a new round of antitrust interventions. Further measures are expected for 2021.
It's not just China, however, that got tech companies on their toes. Almost exactly a year ago, Delivery Hero from Germany announced the acquisition of Baedal Minjok from Seoul, a popular grocery delivery app, valued at $ 4 billion. Yesterday, South Korean competition authorities ordered Delivery Hero to divest its existing local supplies in order to gain approval for the takeover – a demand that undermined one of the reasons behind the Baedal Minjok takeover. Delivery Hero has announced that it will sell its unit to close the deal.
Meanwhile, Europe and the imminent Brexited Britain announced a series of new policies and regulations designed to increase competition in the technology sector, including increasing legal liability for illegal content, increasing transparency about services and encouraging open competition in important areas platforms. These guidelines have been a long time coming, but now as they are starting to grow in importance, they point to big changes in how the biggest tech companies in the old continent can operate.
While many of these global directives aim to reverse the consolidation and scale of the industry, regulators in India are first working to prevent such a scale. The local competition authorities there announced in November a framework to prevent a company from owning more than 30% of the local payment volume and which also prescribes standards for financial interoperability. This policy seems to be aimed at avoiding the fintech duopoly between Alipay and WeChat Pay in China.
In all of these global antitrust actions, the United States has been the laggard, perhaps since the biggest tech giants were headquartered domestically. While Congress, the President and dozens of attorneys general regarding companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook remains the action against the giants very early on.
The largest and most notable lawsuit to date was a massive 46-state lawsuit against Facebook filed earlier this month. As we reported at the time, the lawsuit alleges that the company "illegally" and "predatory" bought competitors in order to grow and maintain its market power. The suit quotes Facebooks Acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp as outstanding examples. "
Of course, as some of us recall from the US government's case against Microsoft in the 1990s, it often takes years for antitrust lawsuits to get through to court – and in the end they often don't even lead to major changes or no changes at all.
It remains unclear whether a Biden government will dramatically change the course of these measures. The transition offers very limited insight as it prepares to take office next month.
Nonetheless, all of these anti-trust actions happening simultaneously around the world within weeks point to enormous regulatory battles over technology in 2021.