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Big Tech Gets Put on Guard by Antitrust Police

 |  January 27, 2020

By Alex Webb, Bloomberg

When the world’s competition police reflect on big tech’s dealmaking over the past 15 years, you could forgive them for wondering what might have been. If Facebook Inc. hadn’t acquired WhatsApp or Instagram, or if Google hadn’t bought YouTube or DoubleClick, would there be stronger competition for the two Silicon Valley firms?

It certainly seems that regulators, particularly in the U.K., are eager to avoid repeat scenarios where companies grab outsize control of an emerging market before it’s clear exactly how important or big that market may be. That’s why a 6.1 billion-pound ($8 billion) food delivery takeover may have broader implications for tech giants’ dealmaking-to-come.

Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority is reviewing the Dutch firm Takeaway.com NV’s planned acquisition of Just Eat Plc, the U.K.’s online marketplace for restaurant delivery. It’s a remarkable step, given that Takeaway.com no longer has a British business, and so the two firms don’t currently compete, at least not in the U.K. The regulator, the CMA, is instead pondering hypotheticals. It’s deliberating whether, without a deal, Takeaway.com might still otherwise enter the market and add a healthy dose of competition.

The move underscores a recent approach that could make it more difficult for tech giants to make acquisitions, even small ones. (Together, they’ve bought more than 250 companies in the last six years.) Companies might not obviously compete with the firm acquiring them, but the U.K. watchdog is increasingly taking into account the possibility they could become a competitor at some later stage. It seems to have listened to the findings of the government-commissioned review into digital competition last year by Jason Furman, previously economic adviser to former U.S. President Barack Obama, which recommended that the CMA should take “more frequent and firmer action to challenge mergers that could be detrimental to consumer welfare through reducing future levels of innovation and competition.”

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