Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

Archive for June 6th, 2014

On Privacy, Big Data and Competition Law (2/2) On the nature, goals, means and limitations of competition law

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In my previous post I outlined the content of the main part of my presentation at the European Data Protection Supervisor’s recent workshop on Privacy, Consumers, Competition and Big Data, held in the wake of the EDPS preliminary opinion on the subject.

Today I’ll provide you with my views on the great question underlying both the workshop and the opinion: should data protection considerations be incorporated to competition law’s substantive assessments?

The (preliminary) view implied in the EDPS’ opinion is that they should. In essence, the opinion posits that competition law is or should be about consumers’ welfare, and that this comprises much more than only the narrow set of economic considerations that competition law currently looks at. The EDPS tends to believe that public interest would be better served that way. Some lawyers and the companies they represent also hold these views but perhaps for different –less public interest oriented- reasons.

The somewhat anticlimatic view I conveyed to the participants at the workshop on this point was the following (as in the last post, I’ll basically sketch my conference notes):

Competition law is certainly a most tempting instrument given both its flexibility to accommodate creative theories of harm and the ample remedial powers it offers. These reasons explain the recent use (or instrumentalization) of competition law to pursue other public policy goals [I also talked about the latter yesterday at another conference, but I might develop that in another future post].

But just because competition authorities have a hammer, that doesn’t mean they should view every problem –even if unrelated to competition law- as a nail.

In my view, competition law and competition authorities are not well-suited to factor into their analysis (perhaps more important) public policy considerations alien to the specific matters they are supposed to deal with. Competition law is a legal regime of last resort, which means that their existence is premised upon the assumption that, in those areas where regulation doesn’t say otherwise, competition is the best way to allocate resources. When this is not the case, I think the solution may lie in regulating more or in a smarter way, but not in blurring the already blurred contours of a legal regime that –let’s not forget- is of a quasi criminal nature.

Other reasons why competition law might not be well-suited to deal with privacy/data protection issues relate to the fact that it’s only triggered in very specific circumstances; that it is about conduct and not structure; that if authorities are reluctant to intervene in cases of apparent direct harm to consumers in the form of excessive price it’s not easy to see why they should focus on direct harm through lower privacy alternatives (when moreover there is an additional ad hoc legal regime precisely to establish minimum standards). And on top of those there are institutional factors: if competition authorities struggle to strike a balance between strictly economic factors, how would they be supposed to trade-off economic factors with fundamental rights or other public policy objectives? (environment, industrial policy, labor standards, effects on jobs …)

Coming back to the data protection world. The gap (if any) does not lie in competition law not reaching where it should, but on data protection law lacking adequate regulation and remedies. Accordingly, the way to fill in that gap would require devising an effective data protection regime with its own and more effective rules and principles, but not extending competition law beyond its natural limits.

Some person I very much appreciate personally and intellectually (can’t give names because Chatham rules applied) raised the point that the Charter of Fundamental Rights may perhaps be a game changer in that the European Commission would be bound by it and therefore should not only not violate those rights but also facilitate their exercise by citizens. I tend not to agree. In my mind the argument that the Commission would have any obligation not only to comply with the negative obligations Charter but also to positively ensure that private companies comply with it to an extent that goes beyond that required by specific ad hoc legislation –and that may moreover clash with the fundamental rights of others- is stretching the reach of the Charter too far.

I certainly don’t think public policy should be only or mostly about efficiency and competition (as an admired colleague often says, a world exclusively governed by competition would make a great subject for a dystopian novel). There are values, fundamental rights and public interests which might very well trump economic considerations. But my point is that even if one doesn’t trust market forces to promote optimal levels of privacy (due to consumers’ apparent indolence or for whatever reason), one shouldn’t entrust competition law with that task either.

If you ask me, there are issues far too important to be left to competition authorities and competition lawyers.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

6 June 2014 at 12:18 pm