Australia’s competition regulator is closely monitoring the US antitrust case against Google and will seek to reform Australian merger laws next year. Competition tsar Rod Sims also warned against privatising assets as part of a COVID recovery.

In his annual address to the Law Council of Australia Business Law Section’s Competition and Consumer Workshop, held online, Sims said the ACCC is closely watching the ongoing antitrust case against Google in America as well as proposed new competition laws in Europe.

The Australian regulator’s focus remains on digital platforms, including the news media bargaining code Google and Facebook are railing against, an inquiry into the opaque advertising technology industry Google dominates and its investigation into app stores, again dominated by Google along with Apple.

ACCC Chair Rod Sims. Source: ACCC.gov.au

“These are complex issues, but they matter enormously and, in different ways, they are being considered all over the world,” Sims said.

“The international focus is encouraged by the many acquisitions by the main digital platforms. While the platforms have grown through amazing and beneficial innovation, they are cementing their position through frequent acquisitions.”

Tech giants have hoovered up competing platforms over the last decade, sparking fears of monopoly positions and anticompetitive strategies. But with digital platforms, where consumers are given services in exchange for data rather than money, the impact of competition on consumers is arguably less clear than with traditional markets.

Sims said the growth of digital platforms had sparked new debate on the adequacy of merger laws worldwide, including Australia. He said the ACCC would put forward ideas for changes to Australian merger laws in 2021.

Last month the US Department of Justice — along with eleven State Attorneys General — filed a civil antitrust lawsuit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia to stop Google from unlawfully maintaining monopolies through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices in the search and search advertising markets and to remedy the competitive harms.

Google says the case is “deeply flawed” and argues its consumers ultimately benefit from its position.

Privatisation pause

Sims said Australia must stop treating its infrastructure assets as “cash cows” and instead focus on using them to underpin a strong economy.

“When the economic historians look back on the past 20 years they will marvel at how we often privatised so many vital assets to raise money at the clear cost to future users of the relevant assets,” Sims said.

“The community does not, by a large majority, approve of the privatisation of Government assets. They are not luddites. They have simply observed the higher prices that have often been the result.”

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