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When it comes to taking on Big Tech, Brexit Britain is showing Brussels up.
The EU has long cast itself as the world’s toughest digital policeman, setting the global standard on everything from privacy to online content moderation and slapping hefty fines on tech platforms that flout its trust-busting rules.
But it has competition — from an ex-EU member across the Channel.
In ordering Facebook to sell GIF platform Giphy on Tuesday, Britain’s competition watchdog did what no EU trustbuster has done before: block an acquisition by a Big Tech firm. In terms of regulatory enforcement, it’s far more of a headache for Facebook than even the most headline-grabbing of fines.
The U.K. Competition and Markets Authority issued the order after finding that the merger would allow Facebook to consolidate its “already significant market power” in the social media space.
In the EU, it’s a different story.
Apart from an ongoing probe in Austria, no European competition authority has said it’s looking at the deal. That includes the 27-member bloc’s top antitrust enforcer, the European Commission, since the buyout fails to meet its notification thresholds.
The contrast has not been lost on digital regulation aficionados.
“It is clear that the U.K. is in a way a bit more advanced than the EU so far in this idea of a comprehensive approach to merger review,” said Alexandre de Streel, academic co-director at the CERRE think tank.
He’s not the only one looking at post-Brexit Britain for inspiration, particularly with proposed amendments to the country’s merger regime that attempt to crack down on so-called “killer acquisitions.”
“It’s good that the U.K. takes the lead and sets an example … It’s about time Europe gets a grip on killer acquisitions too,” said European lawmaker Paul Tang, in reference to deals that see large companies snap up smaller rivals in order to snuff out innovation they see as a challenge to their own business.
But Tang, who had previously pressed the EU Commission for answers on the Facebook-Giphy deal, remains confident that more robust merger control procedures can be embedded into the EU’s own draft digital competition rules.
For observers, London’s nixing of a Big Tech deal points to another area where Britain’s digital enforcers are peeling off from the pack: cooperation between different types of regulators.
Since 2020, the U.K. privacy, competition, media and, later, finance regulators have been cooperating under the auspices of the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum in a bid to tighten cooperation on online regulation.
The initiative is more than a gimmick: It has full-time staff and earlier this month poached a Google executive to become its chief executive. The British regulators now work hand-in-hand on various topics, including a sprawling investigation into Google’s online advertising empire.
The cooperation forum is turning heads in the EU.
Ireland’s privacy regulator Helen Dixon, which oversees the bulk of U.S. tech firms in the EU, called the British initiative an “inspiration” in a recent interview with POLITICO, while in October, the Dutch privacy, competition and media regulators announced a similar arrangement. In Brussels, the EU’s data protection supervisor said it planned to launch a revamped proposal to bring digital regulators together next year.
You could forgive Brits for feeling smug. Predictably, they are.
One U.K. minister, who declined to speak on the record, said: “Europe are beginning to go ‘oh God,’ the Brits are going to make a success of this. They’re starting to get a bit nervous, which is what we want, because then they’ll start to work with us again.”
It’s important not to overstate London’s tech taming powers.
Stephen Gilbert, who chairs the U.K. House of Lords communications and digital committee, said he was still concerned the U.K. takes a “very fragmented approach to regulation,” while British tech lobbyist Dom Hallas said it remains to be seen whether the regulator cooperation forum really has teeth.
“The question that’s still open is what will the [forum] evolve into — and is it just going to be one more voice saying the same things or more like a referee between the groups,” Hallas said.
And while the U.K.’s competition authority may be outshining its continental counterparts on tech for now, it’s less clear-cut in other areas of digital regulation.
Under the EU’s privacy rulebook, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the British regulator has meted out less in monetary punishments than the likes of Italy, France or even Luxembourg. It’s also been accused of dropping the ball in an investigation into the online advertising empires of Google and others, despite promising swift enforcement more than two years ago.
The U.K.’s influence on tech regulation will also always struggle to emerge from the shadow of its larger neighbor. It is not yet clear whether the U.K. or EU, which are both currently drafting sweeping online content and digital competition rules, will be the global standard setters.
In the end, maybe it’s not about bragging rights at all.
“This could be one of the few benefits of Brexit. The U.K. is going their own way, we are going our way and we experiment and hopefully we will learn from each other,” said de Streel.
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