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ACCC takes global view of competition and digital platforms

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is watching global anti-trust efforts focusing on major digital platforms.

This includes the United States Department of Justice’s recent case against Google and proposed new competition laws in Europe, according to ACCC Chair Rod Sims.

In his annual address to the Law Council of Australia Business Law Section’s Competition and Consumer Workshop, held online, Mr Sims said there was much activity under way in this area.

“The ACCC is focusing on the media bargaining code, our ad tech inquiry and our study examining app stores, and we have noted the Epic Games proceedings against Apple and Google in the US in regards to the latter,” he said.

Mr Sims said the growth of the digital platforms had added to the worldwide debate about the adequacy of merger laws, including in Australia. The ACCC would put forward ideas for changes to Australian merger laws in 2021, Mr Sims said.

“These are complex issues, but they matter enormously and, in different ways, they are being considered all over the world,” he said.

“The international focus is encouraged by the many acquisitions by the main digital platforms. While the platforms have grown through amazing and beneficial innovation, they are cementing their position through frequent acquisitions.

“We have seen the same in Australia in a range of domestic sectors.”

In his speech, titled ‘COVID… And So Much More’, Mr Sims said Australia must stop viewing its infrastructure assets as ‘cash cows’ and instead focus on how efficient use of infrastructure can underpin a strong economy.

“When the economic historians look back on the past 20 years they will marvel at how we often privatised so many vital assets to raise money at the clear cost to future users of the relevant assets,” Mr Sims said.

“The community does not, by a large majority, approve of the privatisation of Government assets. They are not luddites. They have simply observed the higher prices that have often been the result.”

Mr Sims said a new ‘Part IIIB’ regime, or sector-specific regulation of particular infrastructure assets, could address much of the harm that has been caused.

He said the ACCC had been busy during the COVID-19 period, including through its role in authorising competitors to cooperate on specific measures during the pandemic, and in dealing with emerging consumer and competition issues.

Despite the pandemic, the ACCC continued to make significant progress in its cartel enforcement work. In addition to securing three convictions, it had a guilty plea relating to obstruction of an investigation, another matter had been set down for a jury trial, two civil cases were in the Federal Court and a further three were at the committal stage.

“We have an active pipeline, and there are more cartel cases to come, hopefully soon,” Mr Sims said.

“We also have an important array of competition cases. Our case under the new section 46 is before the Federal Court, our NSW Ports case is currently being heard in the Federal Court and on 8 December our special leave application will be heard by the High Court for an appeal in relation to the Pacific National/Aurizon section 50 matter.”

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