In April 2015 the European Commission (EC) opened a formal investigation into the behaviour of Google in the market for smartphones and tablets. On the 20th April Google was sent a preliminary judgment (referred to formally as a Statement of Objections) in which it was accused of abusing its dominant market position. The European Commissioner argued that the case was similar to the famous and protracted investigation into the conduct of Microsoft.
In the early 2000s Microsoft had a dominant position in the market for desktop operating systems. It has been estimated that 97% of all computing devices at the time used Microsoft Windows. This market power attracted the attention of the EC who accused the company of using its dominance in the operating systems market to restrict competition in complementary markets for software such internet browsers and media players. This led to a complex legal battle between the two parties.
Windows is proprietory software and computer manufacturers have to pay Microsoft a licence fee to install it on their machines. Before the rulings by the EC, Microsoft could make a licence for Windows conditional on other Microsoft software such as Internet Explorer and Media Player being pre-installed. This is known as bundling and in this case the EC came to the conclusion that it restricted competition. The European Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager recently stated that
“If Microsoft’s media player was already there when you bought a PC, it would be hard to persuade people to even try an alternative, so innovators would be at a big disadvantage”
Microsoft lost most of its competition battles with the EC and had to pay a total of €2.2 billion in various fines. It was also forced to change its conduct. For example, the EC instructed Microsoft to provide its users with a choice of internet browsers.
The marketplace for operating systems has gone through some significant changes since the early 2000s. By 2016 Microsoft’s market share had fallen to 26 per cent. One of the major reasons for this decline has been the increasing popularity of smartphones and tablets.
Google’s Android operating system dominates the mobile market with a market share of over 80 per cent. However, the economics of the Android operating system are very different from those of Windows. Unlike Windows, Android is an example of ‘open-source software’. This means that, rather than having to obtain a licence fee, mobile handset or tablet manufacturers can freely install Android on their devices and are not obliged to pre-install other Google software – both Amazon and Nokia have done this. ,
Another major difference is that it is relatively straightforward for rival firms to develop software that can run on Android. Microsoft was accused of making it very difficult for rival software companies to develop products that would run smoothly on the Windows operating system.
It would appear far easier for rival firms to compete with Google than it ever was with Microsoft when it had a dominant market position. It might therefore seem surprising that the EC has accused Google of abusing its dominant market position.
Rather than any restrictions surrounding the licencing conditions for the operating system the EC’s objections to Google’s behaviour focus on its licencing conditions for other proprietary software products it provides. In particular, the EC has focused on the Google Play Store.
The pre-installation of the Google Play Store is seen as vital to the commercial success of any Android phone. Google Play Store was launched in 2012 and brought three previously separate services together – Android Market, Google Music and Google eBookstore. It is the official app store for all users of a device with an Android operating system. It has been argued that a mobile phone store would not stock an Android phone unless it had Google Play Store pre-installed because it is so highly valued by customers.
Therefore it is vital for Android smartphone and tablet manufacturers to obtain a licence for the Play Store. The conditions for obtaining a licence are outlined in the Mobile Application Distribution Agreement. This specifies that a number of other Google apps must also be pre-installed on the device in order for a licence to be granted for the Play Store. These apps include Gmail, Google Chrome, Google Drive, Google Hangouts, Google Maps, Google Search and YouTube. The manufacturer is free to install any other non-google apps.
The EC has specifically objected to the condition that Google Search has to be installed and set as the default search engine. It is concerned that this that will make it very difficult for other search services to compete with Google because (1) manufacturers will have limited incentives to pre-install any competing search engines and (2) consumers will have less incentive to download competing search engines.
The EC has also expressed concerns that the pre-installation of Google Chrome as the mobile browser will also have a negative impact on competition and innovation in this market.
Companies are given 12 weeks to respond after they have received a preliminary judgment. If they do not accept the objections, then the EC will take several months to come to a final ruling and suggest some appropriate remedies. In this case, the most likely remedy is the removal of the licence conditions for the Google Play Store. If Google appeals the ECs decision to the General Court of the EU, it could take years until a final judgment is made.
Murad Ahmed, the European Technology Correspondent at the Financial Times commented that
“One lesson Google might want to learn from Microsoft’s example is while it fights the EU watchdog it is not overtaken by a less distracted competitor.”
Europe v Google: how Android became a battleground The Guardian (20/4/16)
EU accuses Google of using Android to skew market against rivals The Guardian (20/4/16)
Google faces EU charge over Android ‘abuse of dominance’ BBC News (20/4/16)
Google hit with EU competition charges for ‘abusing’ dominant position with Android Independent (20/4/16)
Everything you need to know about Google and its EU battle The Telegraph (20/4/16)
- Draw a diagram to compare and contrast the price and quantity in a competitive market with a situation where a firm has market dominance. Clearly state any assumptions you have made in the analysis.
- What factors does the EC consider when judging if a firm has a dominant position in the market?
- This blog has focused on one aspect of Google’s behaviour/conduct that has raised concerns with the EC. What other elements of Google’s conduct has the European Commission objected to?
- Explain the difference between pure and mixed bundling.
- What impact does bundling have on consumer welfare?
The proposed $100 billion takeover of SABMiller by AB InBev is the third largest in history. It provides a good example of how the UK Panel on Takeovers and Mergers operates.
Economics textbooks often discuss competition authorities such as the Competition and Markets Authority but they rarely mention the UK Panel on Takeovers and Mergers (The Panel).The Panel is an independent body that was established in 1968. It has up to 35 members who all have professional expertise on the subject of takeovers i.e. they are usually employees of or have been seconded from (i) law and accountancy firms (ii) corporate brokers (iii) investment banks.
The Panel’s main responsibility is to implement the City Code on Takeovers and Mergers. This code sets out a number of ground-rules that companies must follow if they are involved in a merger or takeover. These rules became statutory in 2006 following the Companies Act of that year. The following objectives underpin the code:
||To ensure that the shareholders of the target company in a proposed takeover are treated fairly and are given the opportunity to make an informed decision about the relative merits of the takeover.
||To ensure that the whole takeover/merger process operates in a structured and systematic manner.
The Panel does not make any judgements on the commercial case for the takeover or merger. This is left to the management and shareholders of the companies involved. It also does not get involved with competition issues such as whether the newly established firm would have significant market power. These decisions in the UK are left to the Competition and Markets Authority. If the merger has a European element/dimension to it then it is investigated by the European Commission.
The rules that made up the code remained largely unchanged from 1968 until some important changes were made in September 2011. This followed the controversial takeover of Cadbury by the US food company Kraft. Kraft had first announced its intention to make an offer to acquire Cadbury in September 2009 but a deal was not agreed by the management of Cadbury until January 2010. Concerns were expressed at the time that this long and protracted takeover had made it very difficult for Cadbury to run its business effectively because of the uncertainty it created. It was also argued that the rules gave the acquiring company a significant tactical advantage in the takeover process and made it too easy for them to succeed.
One important change is that a targeted company must publicly announce the name of any companies that have made an approach about a possible deal. This announcement then activates a 28 day bid deadline period known as ‘pusu’ which stands for ‘put up’ (the money: i.e. make a formal bid) or ‘shut up’ (and walk away). This means that if the potential acquirer has not made a formal bid by the end of this 28-day period it is prohibited from making a bid for another 6 months. A request can be made to the Takeover Panel for an extension to this initial 28-day period, but this can only be done with the agreement of the target company.
Therefore SABMiller was obliged to announce on 15th September 2015 that
“Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV (AB InBev) has informed SABMiller that it intends to make a proposal to acquire SABMiller. No proposal has yet been received and the Board of SABMiller has no further details about the terms of any such proposal.”
The timing of this announcement made 14th October the official deadline by which AB InBev had to make a formal offer. After rejecting five bids, an offer of £44 a share by AB InBev was agreed in principle by the SABMiller management team on 13th October. Given the size and complexity of the deal (i.e. AB InBev is financing the deal by borrowing over $70 billion from 21 different banks), an initial two-week extension until 28th October was granted by the Takeover Panel. This could only have been granted with the agreement of SABMiller. Another one-week extension was agreed and then, on 4th November, SABMiller management made the following announcement.
“In order to allow SABMiller and AB InBev to finalise their discussions and satisfy the pre-conditions to the announcement of a formal transaction, the board of SABMiller has requested that the Panel on Takeovers and Mergers further extends the relevant deadline until 5pm November 11, 2015.”
One major issue has been the potential impact of the takeover on the level of competition in the US market. AB InBev and SABMiller already have market shares of 46% and 27% respectively. SABMiller’s strong presence in this market is a result of its joint venture, MillerCoors, with Molson Coors. One reason behind the last request for an extension is to grant enough time for a deal to be finalised for the sale of SABMiller’s 58% stake in MillerCoors to Molson Coors. Without this sale the US competition authorities would not approve the takeover.
Most observers believe that it will take a year for the deal to be completed and it will be interesting to chart its progress over the next 12 months.
Postscript: AB InBev announced on 11th November that it had made a formal offer of £71 billion to acquire SABMiller and SABMiller’s share in MillerCoors had been sold to Molson Coors for $12 billion.
SABMiller to seek another Takeover Panel extension for AB InBev takeover The Telegraph, Ben Martin (04/11/15)
AB InBev and SABMiller allay concerns about 68bn MegaBrew deal The Telegraph, Ben Martin (28/10/15)
AB InBev, SABMiller extend takeover deadline to Nov.4 Reuters, Philip Blenkinsop (28/10/15)
SABMiller agrees AB Inbev takeover deal of £68bn The Guardian, Sean Farrell (13/10/15)
SABMiller is AB Inbev’s toughest takeover yet. It may not be its last The Economist (14/10/15)
Brewery Battle: AB Inbev and the Craft Beer Challenge BBC News, Peter Shadbolt (13/10/15)
Beer Giants AB Inbev and SABMiller Agree Takeover Terms BBC News (13/10/15)
- The proposed takeover of SABMiller by AB InBev would be the third largest in history. What are the two biggest deals?
- The European Commission investigates ‘large’ mergers that have an ‘EU dimension’. On what basis does the European Commission judge if a merger is large or has an EU dimension?
- On what basis are mergers judged by the Competition and Markets Authority in the UK?
- What is a ‘virtual bid’ period? How did the ‘pusu’ bid deadline operate before the changes were introduced in 2011?
- Pfizer’s bid for Astrazeneca did not succeed in May 2014. Some people blamed the collapse of the deal on the 28-day ‘pusu’ deadline and rule 2.5 (i) of the code. What is rule 2.5 (i) and how did it contribute towards the failure of this deal?
Since the late 1990s the European Commission (EC) has been concerned with trying to prevent Microsoft from abusing its dominant position. As described previously on this site, in the latest instalment last week Microsoft was fined for accidentally failing to adhere to an earlier commitment automatically to allow Windows users a choice of web browser.
This is the first case of fines being imposed for failure to comply with commitments required by the EC. In part because of Microsoft’s compliance, the fine imposed was well below the maximum level it could have been. However, it still means that Microsoft has now in total contributed enough to the EC’s coffers to cover the competition department’s budget for over 20 years.
Commitments appear to be increasingly the EC’s preferred solution for resolving competition disputes, especially in the rapidly changing IT sector (see for example Google and e-books). In contrast to a lengthy litigation process, in theory such commitments can quickly fix the problem and increase competition. The EC hopes that the fine imposed on Microsoft will send clear signals to firms that agreed upon commitments must be adhered to. However, this case also highlights that behavioural commitments require close monitoring by the competition authorities. As one industry consultant argues:
While it’s highly likely that it was a technical mistake that broke the browser choice facility the fact that it remained broken for 14 months raises significant questions about Microsoft’s ability and willingness to comply with the voluntary agreement with the EU.
At the same time the situation also raises concerns over the EU’s ability to actually monitor the outcomes of antitrust agreements.
Microsoft offers web browser choice to IE users BBC News (19/02/10)
Microsoft faces hefty EU fine The Guardian (06/03/13)
Microsoft fined €561m for ‘browser choice’ error The Guardian, Charles Arthur (06/03/13)
- Why is it essential that competition disputes in the IT sector are quickly resolved?
- What are the problems with monitoring company behaviour in this sector?
- What are the pros and cons of agreeing commitments rather than litigation for competition law infringements?
- How might Microsoft respond to this latest fine from the EC?
In 2009, the European Commission investigated Microsoft’s practice of bundling its own browser, Internet Explorer, with new copies of Windows. It found that this was an abuse of market power and created an unfair barrier to entry of other browsers, such as Firefox.
An agreement was reached that Microsoft would include a ‘choice screen’ in which users in the EU would be given a full list of alternative browsers and asked which they would like to install. On making their selection, a link would take them to the browser site to download the installation program. This screen would be available until 2014. Between March 2010, when the choice screen was first provided and November of the same year, 84 million browsers were downloaded through it.
In May 2011, however, the screen was no longer present on new Windows 7 purchases. The Commission took some time to realise this: indeed it was Microsoft’s rivals that pointed it out. The screen reappeared some 13 months later, after some 15m copies of Windows software had been sold.
For this lapse, the Commission has just fined Microsoft €561m. Commission Vice President in charge of competition policy, Joaquín Almunia, said:
In 2009, we closed our investigation about a suspected abuse of dominant position by Microsoft due to the tying of Internet Explorer to Windows by accepting commitments offered by the company. Legally binding commitments reached in antitrust decisions play a very important role in our enforcement policy because they allow for rapid solutions to competition problems. Of course, such decisions require strict compliance. A failure to comply is a very serious infringement that must be sanctioned accordingly.
This may seem unduly harsh, given that Internet Explorer’s share of the browser market has fallen dramatically. In 2009, it had around 50% of the European market, with its main rival at the time, Mozilla’s Firefox, having just under 40%. By 2013, Internet Explorer’s share has fallen to around 24% and Firefox’s to around 29%. Google’s Chrome, which was just starting up in 2009, has seen its share of the European market rise to around 35% and is now the market leader. Partly this is due to the rise in tablets and smartphones, a large proportion of which use Google’s Android operating system and the Chrome browser.
Not surprisingly, the European Commission is investigating Google to see whether it is abusing a dominant position. Is Google’s case, it’s not just about its share of the browser market, it’s more about its share of the search market, which in the EU is around 90% (compared with around 65% in the USA). As The Economist article below states:
The Commissioner believes that Google may be favouring its own specialised services (eg, for flights or hotels) at rivals’ expense; that its deals with publishers may unfairly exclude competitors; and that it prevents advertisers from taking their data elsewhere.
Joaquín Almunia asked Google to respond to these concerns by January 31. Google delivered its suggestions on the deadline, but we await to hear precisely what it said and how the Commission will respond. It is understood that Google’s proposal is for clearly labelling its own products on its search engine.
Microsoft Fined $732 Million By EU Over Browser eWeek, Michelle Maisto (6/3/13)
Microsoft faces hefty EU fine The Guardian (6/3/13)
Sin of omission The Economist (9/3/13)
Microsoft fined by European Commission over web browser BBC News (6/3/13)
EU commissioner Joaquin Almunia announces Microsoft fine BBC News (6/3/13)
Microsoft’s European Fine Comes in an Era of Browser Diversity Forbes, J.P. Gownder (6/3/13)
Life after Firefox: Can Mozilla regain its mojo? BBC News, Dave Lee (11/4/12)
Google responds to European commission’s antitrust chief The Guardian, Charles Arthur (31/1/13)
Google May Clinch EU Settlement After ‘Summer,’ Almunia Says Bloomberg Businessweek, Stephanie Bodoni and Aoife White (22/2/13)
European Commission Press Release
Antitrust: Commission fines Microsoft for non-compliance with browser choice commitments Europa (6/3/13)
- Why did Microsoft’s share of the browser market continue to decline between May 2011 and June 2012?
- Why would it matter if Microsoft had market power in the browser market, given that it’s free for anyone to download a browser?
- In what ways might Google be abusing a dominant position in the market?
- Can Mozilla regain its mojo?
- According to the second Guardian article, the Microsoft-backed lobby group Icomp said “To be seen as a success, any settlement must … include specific measures to restore competition and allow other parties to compete effectively on a level playing field with Google in the key markets of search and search advertising.” Give examples of such measures and assess how successful they might be.
- Would “clearly labelling its own products on its search engine” be enough to ensure adequate competition?
The EU competition acuthorities have just fined ten producers of memory chips a total of €331 million for operating a cartel. One of the ten, Micron, will pay no fine because it blew the whistle on the other nine. They, in turn, have had their fines reduced by 10% for co-operating with the authorities. According to the EU Press Release:
The overall cartel was in operation between 1 July 1998 and 15 June 2002. It involved a network of contacts and sharing of secret information, mostly on a bilateral basis, through which they coordinated the price levels and quotations for DRAMs (Dynamic Random Access Memory), sold to major PC or server original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the EEA.
“This first settlement decision is another milestone in the Commission’s anti-cartel enforcement. By acknowledging their participation in a cartel the companies have allowed the Commission to bring this long-running investigation to a close and to free up resources to investigate other suspected cartels. As the procedure is applied to new cases it is expected to speed up investigations significantly”, said Commission Vice President and Competition Commissioner Joaquín Almunia.
Chipmakers to pay fines of €330m over cartel Financial Times, Nikki Tait (20/5/10)
Chipmakers fined by EU for price-fixing BBC News (19/5/10)
European Commission douments and findings
Antitrust: Commission introduces settlement procedure for cartels Europa Press Release (3/6/08)
Antitrust: Commission introduces settlement procedure for cartels – frequently asked questions Europa Memo (30/6/08)
Antitrust: Commission fines DRAM producers € 331 million for price cartel; reaches first settlement in a cartel case Europa Press Release (19/5/10)
Antitrust: Commission adopts first cartel settlement decision – questions & answers Europa Memo (19/5/10)
- Explain how the new fast-track cartel settlement procedure works.
- Are the incentives built into the procedure appropriate for reducing oligopolistic collusion?
- Are the any reasons why the chip cartel might have been in consumers’ interests?
- Why does EU competition legislation apply in this case given than all but one of the companies are non-EU businesses?