UK's Digital Markets Unit – the Big Tech watchdog – remains toothless for now but statutory powers due this year

Better get a wiggle on because the work is stacking up, those potentially massive fines won't write themselves


Tech giants such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google face fines of up to 10 per cent of turnover if they're found to be in serious breach of new regulations being considered by the UK government.

The proposals – to be adopted by the Digital Markets Unit (DMU), a fledgling division trailed last November that sits within the UK's Competition Markets Authority – would force tech megacorps to follow new rules of "acceptable behaviour with competitors and customers."

It's the latest step in the shuffling bureaucratic process of scoping out the DMU's role and embarking on a consultation process before finally giving it the legal authority to actually do something.

Exactly when that might happen is unclear. The government said it wants to hand the DMU its new powers "as soon as parliamentary time allows" but until then, the DMU has no regulatory teeth.

The exact nature of those new powers – when they finally arrive – also remains sketchy. However, in general terms, the DMU is looking to target digital firms with "deep-rooted market power", subjecting them to a mandatory code to bolster competition while keeping the interests of consumers front and centre.

This could include preventing tech firms from forcing punters to use proprietary associated services, or ensuring third-party companies that depend on them aren't blocked from doing business with competitors.

The DMU could also be given powers to tackle tech giants that change their algorithms or T&Cs, while those who ignore bogus online ratings and reviews to flog goods and services could also be in the firing line.

And when the DMU finally gets the green light, at least it won't have to start from the scratch.

In the last six weeks or so, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has already opened a formal probe into Amazon and Google over fake reviews; launched a broad-reaching market study into Google and Apple's grip on all things mobile; said it will keep a watchful eye on Google's plans to remove third-party cookies from its Chrome web browser; and launched a probe into Facebook amid allegations the social network unfairly used the data gained from its advertising and single sign-on to benefit its own services.

In a statement, CMA chief exec Andrea Coscelli said: "Today's consultation is an important milestone towards building a world-leading, pro-competition regime to drive technological innovation and protect consumers in the digital age. The Digital Markets Unit will continue to support the Government as it establishes this new regime, ahead of receiving its new statutory powers."

But it will need to get a giddy on because the work is stacking up. Last week, the UK's biggest trade union complained to the CMA about alleged price gouging at Amazon.

The CMA just spent the last couple of months dithering over the chippy merger between AMD and Xilinx before before finally giving it the all-clear.

And officials have until the end of the day to make sure their pencils are all sharpened and papers organised as they await "legally binding proposals" from Cellnex and CK Hutchison regarding the proposed sale of thousands of phone masts in the UK. ®


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