CMA Vs The Duopoly -- It's So On

And lo, it came to pass. After the EU raised a series of record-breaking fines on Google for anti-competitive behaviour, it is now the Competition and Markets Authority taking its turn to put its oar in.

It couldn't come at a worse time for a new Conservative government, which is eager to keep arguments with America and its tech giants to a minimum, but it's probably fair to say that the digital marketing industry will largely welcome anything to trim back the duopoly's power.

The CMA has published what amounts to an initial charge sheet that is likely to form the basis of the areas that will give shape to a more thorough investigation into the duopoly's dominance of the digital advertising industry.

The reports certainly talk about the duopoly, but from the early indications, such as CNBC's reporting, it would appear that Google is the main culprit the CMA intends to cut down to size.

Google stands accused of dominating the UK digital marketing industry, alongside Facebook. Between them, the pair account for 61% of the UK digital advertising market.

The most obvious way this is achieved is through Google's dominance of search, a channel that accounts roughly for half of all UK digital marketing spending. It is around search that the CMA makes some sound points, but also some rather odd ones.

Front and centre in the full-blown probe into the duopoly will be the old chestnut of Google's deals with device manufacturers and media owners. Apple gets a specific mention as one of those deals where a fellow tech giant is paid to make Google the default search engine for its customers.

It makes sense that more choice would stop the perpetuation of Google being on top.

However, the rather odd hints dropping into stories at the moment suggest the CMA is considering opening up the search market by making some search data available to rivals, so they get a better hook on the type of queries Google is being daily asked to answer.

It is hard to imaging how Google would share data with rivals, or indeed why it should. Sure, cutting down on it always being offered as the default search engine makes sense and could boost competition. But sharing search data? Doesn't sound like something that could be enforced to me.

Elsewhere, we're back on solid ground, with the CMA revealing it is highly interested in curtailing the data power of the duopoly and to enforce them to be far more clear with users on how their data is collected and how it is used. One very clear and obvious move being considered is to force Facebook to make it easier for users to opt out of personalised advertising. 

If anything comes out of the investigation, ensuring that GDPR is far more rigorously enforced would be welcomed by consumer groups. Google and Facebook can probably point to some long legal agreement we have all clicked at some stage so we can get back to watching surfing kittens, but clearly explained, granular permission-seeking? I'm not so sure. 

If the duopoly -- and in fact, the wider industry -- were to properly enact GDPR it would require what the ICO refers to as data policies written in a style a child could understand, with clear yes and no decisions a person can make as to how their data is used.

A quick tick-a-box approach before we let people search for their nearest pizza restaurant is unlikely to satisfy the letter, and most definitely not the spirit, of upgraded data protection laws.

So being more clear on data would make a lot of sense, and making decisions clear and visible and granular would be the icing on the cake. So too would stopping Google from arranging to be the default on just about any device you care to pick up.

As for getting Google to share search data with rivals, I think we can put that one down to a loud voice in a meeting somewhere where nobody had the guts to point out that it could never work.

Nevertheless, when the CMA's full report and recommendations to government come out, which will likely be next June, it will mark another low point for the duopoly that is finally starting to feel the effects of what happens when regulators begin to flex their muscles and point to the rule book on data privacy and market dominance. 

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