Is data the new oil? Competition issues in the digital economy

Briefing 08-01-2020

The global debate on the extent to which current competition policy rules are sufficient to deal with the fast-moving digital economy has never been more pertinent. An important part of this debate concerns the market power of large high-tech companies that dominate many online markets. The main factors behind these developments are economies of scale and scope, network externalities, and the rising economic significance of data, which are a highly valuable commodity in an online economy. While being indispensable to the development of potential game changers – such as artificial intelligence – data are also a crucial input to many online services, production processes, and logistics – making it a critical element in the value chain of many different industries. Data-dependent markets are also characterised by a high level of concentration and, according to many experts, high entry barriers relating to access to and ownership of data – which make it difficult to challenge the incumbent companies. On the other hand, the large players are generally considered to be very productive and innovative. Some studies, however, show that the diffusion of know-how and innovation between the market leaders and the rest of the economy may be affecting competiveness in general. One possible way to correct these shortcomings is to regulate the sharing of data. While the risks of policy-making in this field are generally well-known and centre around the need to protect privacy – particularly where personal data are involved – and to prevent the collusive aspects of data sharing, there is currently no global model to follow. The European Union has taken multiple initiatives to unlock data markets through modern, user-centred laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the regulation on the reuse of public sector information. The global thinking seems to gradually favour more prudent oversight of the market, considering its economic heft.