The tough antitrust scrutiny of mostly US-based technology giants within the European Union is not likely to ease any time soon.

The European Commission has already sanctioned a number of big name tech players, and now it will evaluate its antitrust enforcement framework, to ensure it is truly fit for the digital age.

This is the stark warning from EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager, speaking at a conference on Thursday.

Margrethe Vestager.  European Commission

Antitrust evaluation

Reuters reported Vestager as saying that EU regulators are looking to update rules, which target companies abusing their market power and those setting up illegal cartels, to make them more efficient.

Under the rules, known as Regulation 1/2003 and in force since 2004, the European Commission has taken on Alphabet unit Google, Apple, Amazon, Meta, Microsoft and Intel and imposed billions of euros in fines.

The ability of the European Commission to sanction American tech giants, as well as take action against other industry cartels, has thrust the EU watchdog into the forefront of corporate policing.

The Commission wants to maintain its leading position, Vestager was quoted by Reuters as saying.

“I’m announcing today that in the coming months we are going to launch an evaluation of Regulation 1/2003, the central plank of our antitrust enforcement framework,” Vestager told a conference, organised by economic consultancy CRA.

“It is important that we hear the views of stakeholders concerning what has worked well, and where there is scope for more efficient and effective procedures and enforcement tools; making sure Regulation 1 is truly ‘fit for the digital age’,” she said.

Vestager reportedly said the updated rules would seek to make them more operational and useful to businesses.

Such procedural changes would relate to requests for information sent to companies, dawn raids, oral hearings where companies seek to defend their cases and the 10 percent cap on fines levied for breach of rules or non-compliance.

Antitrust fines

Earlier this month he European Commission (and the UK’s Competition Market Authority), both opened formal antitrust investigations into Google and Meta (aka Facebook) and whether a 2008 agreement about online display advertising services may have breached competition rules.

Meanwhile Alphabet’s Google perhaps has felt the antitrust wrath of the EC the most.

In 2017 the European Commission had fined Google 2.4bn euros (£2.01bn) after the Commission ruled that Google had thwarted rivals of shopping comparison websites.

Then in July 2018 the European Commission had fined Google a record 4.3 billion euros (£3.83bn) for commercial practices related to its Android mobile operating system.

And then in March 2019 European antitrust regulators once again fined Google 1.49bn euros (£1.3bn) concerning the firm’s AdSense advertising service.

Enforcement setback

But not everything has gone the EU way, and appeals are still ongoing for many of its antitrust fines.

In January this year European Commission was handed a significant setback, after one of its early antitrust fines against an American tech giant was dismissed by a European court.

Back in 2009 the EC hit Intel with a €1.06 billion ($1.2 billion) antitrust fine, after officials accused Intel of abusing its market position by trying to block rival Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) by giving rebates to Dell, Hewlett-Packard Co, NEC and Lenovo to buy Intel chips.

Intel however fought against this fine for over 12 years, and in January this year, the Luxembourg-based General Court (Europe’s second-highest court), criticised the EU competition enforcer’s analysis, and annulled the fine.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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