In his speech, Philip Hammond gave a nod to an independent panel of experts led by Harvard professor Jason Furman, formerly chief economist for Barack Obama, which says UK competition rules must be updated for the digital age.
Dr Furman says that this would permit more companies “to join the market on a more equal-footing – ushering in a new wave of innovation and the creation of new social media and online search platforms”.
The panel’s report, Unlocking digital competition, was published alongside the Spring Statement and its recommendations include:
- The establishment of a new digital markets unit, with expertise in technology, economics and behavioural science, and the legal powers to back it up.
- The new unit should give people more control over their data, enabling people to switch between platforms more easily.
- It should also develop a code of conduct so the largest digital companies know the competitive rules of the game.
- Regulators’ existing powers for tackling illegal anti-competitive practices should be strengthened, making it quicker and simpler to prosecute breaches, such as bullying tactics by market leaders.
- Changes to merger rules are needed so the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) can do more to stop digital mergers that are likely to damage future competition, innovation and consumer choice.
- The CMA should launch a formal market study into the digital advertising market which is currently dominated by two players, Facebook and Google, and suffers from a lack of transparency.
- Powers to force the largest companies to open up to smaller firms, providing access to key data sets, when doing so does not affect privacy.
- That the UK should engage internationally on all of these issues.
The panel found that these proposals, if actioned, could boost the economy by encouraging the development of new platforms to compete with established players. Opening markets up would also lead to new services that revolutionise how we use digital apps and programmes. For example, an aggregator service could bring together a person’s content and data from several social media platforms and make it easier to browse and message friends and family who use different apps.
Customers will be able to switch services more easily, taking their custom elsewhere and with greater control over their data. Lists of friends could be transferred to new social media sites and search histories could be transferred to a new search engine.
The Government plans to formally respond to the panel’s recommendations in the summer.