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UK's competition watchdog preps to shoulder post-Brexit workload from European Commission

Apparently Eastenders' Phil Mitchell is in charge these days - it sounds fighty

The head of the UK's competition regulator said the body planned to "come down like a ton of bricks" on anyone attempting to stifle the country's economic recovery.

Jonathan Scott, chair of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), said the nation was now ready to "step up and fulfil the regulatory role previously held by the European Commission."

Addressing the Law Society last week, Scott said: "Now we are out of the Transition Period, we are carrying responsibility for the biggest and most complex competition and merger investigations which previously would have been the exclusive preserve of the European Commission.

"And post-COVID, we will carry responsibility for coming down like a ton of bricks on anyone attempting to stifle the economic recovery and damage consumer confidence through anti-competitive or unfair activity."

When it comes to holding businesses to account, he touched on the difficulties faced by "big parties with deep pockets and no shortage of very talented advisers who know only too well how to hold us up."

He lamented the fact that compared to other regulators, the CMA lacked sufficient oomph and called, instead, for "penalties for non-compliance with the CMA's investigatory requirements [to] be bolstered."

He went on: "It is important to be able to adequately incentivise compliance and deter failures to comply. For example, in our Amazon/Deliveroo merger, when Amazon delayed proceedings by failing to provide complete information, we fined them circa £60,000. When Facebook did similar to the European Commission, it fined them circa €110m."

His comments come as the CMA has stepped up the number of investigations it is handling, especially in the digital space.

In the last month, the CMA said it had:

  • opened a formal probe into Amazon and Google over fake reviews and is digging deeper into whether the online beasts have broken consumer law by taking "insufficient action to protect shoppers"
  • launched a broad-reaching market study into Google and Apple's duopoly of the mobile sphere to figure out if this has led to reduced innovation and higher prices for consumers
  • said it will keep a close eye on Google as it works to address concerns around its proposals to remove third-party cookies from its Chrome web browser. It even plans to take up a role in the design and development of Google's "Privacy Sandbox" proposals to ensure they do not distort competition
  • slapped on the latex gloves to probe Facebook amid allegations the social media giant unfairly used the data gained from its advertising and single sign-on to benefit its own services. This coincided with a full-on investigation by the European Commission to look at whether Facebook "ties its online classified ads service 'Facebook Marketplace' to its social network, in breach of EU competition rules."

Whether this activity is a sign that the CMA is ramping up its position to protect consumers – or merely taking on board the extra workload following Brexit – remains to be seen. But with some of the world's biggest firms facing greater scrutiny, things should get interesting. ®

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