The EU Commission is currently working intensively on regulatory procedures for internet platforms. Hence, the ideal time to discuss the problems incurred because of these internet giants and the various approaches for solutions within the framework of an evening event on December 3rd by AK EUROPA und ÖGB Europabüro.
The author of the study, Leonhard Plank, started the evening by presenting the results of the AK Study “Internet Platforms as Infrastructures of the Digital Age” and explained the dimension of the market power of internet platforms as well as the option to regulate these. Due to their dominance, internet platforms such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Co could by now be compared with infrastructure companies. They too gradually obtain physical infrastructure such as the global overseas internet cable links. Apart from that, internet platforms benefit from mutually strengthening effects, for example from “Rings of market power” or the “Medici Vicious Circle”. It thereby becomes clear: power leads to more power. To counteract this, Plank suggested regulating prices and market access (“bottleneck”); the option of switching between systems would also be essential. Regarding the competition law, greater account had to be taken of criteria such as the number of users, data concentration and consumer rights. Only then, market power could be broken.
Thomas Kramler, Head of the e-commerce Unit in the European Commission's Directorate General for Competition, argued that the big internet platforms are be very complex and more complicated than the state-owned. The competition law could not solve all problems, for example poor working conditions. However, Kramler affirmed that several Directorates of the Commission were already working on coordinating their approaches, among other in respect of the interactions between competition and labour law. Employees of internet platforms could be granted collective bargaining rights and those, who have been wrongly declared self-employed contractors, should be better protected. The competition law shall also be accelerated and adjusted to current challenges.
The competition policy expert of the Austrian Federal Chamber of Labour (AK), Ulrike Ginner, pointed out that the competition law was able to do much more than indicated by the Commission. Even though different questions would arise with each platform, the market power of the big internet platforms is a problem for consumers, employees and fair competition. Hence, these unfair practices should not only be punished in retrospect: fair competitive conditions should already be created beforehand. However, currently competition law lags behind, in particular concerning the duration of the proceedings and the necessary modernisation. For example, data concentration should be the determining factor in merger controls.
Patrick Grant, BusinessEurope, commented that platforms are far more complex than any infrastructure and that it is therefore not possible to compare the two. He also pointed out that some regulations for internet platforms already exists. However, there is definitely room for improvement: the regulation should not only focus on the “big four” and a coherent legal framework is needed. From his point of view, market power alone is not the problem - only its exploitation. Poor working conditions are the result of poor corporate conduct and have nothing to do with the size of a company: a company is not bad only because it is big.
The trade unionist Michael Gogola, GPA-djp retaliated: there might not be causality, but definitely a correlation between poor working conditions and the size of internet platforms. Precarious working conditions are used to gain a competitive advantage, for example by defining employees as self-employed contractors such as Uber. Tax avoidance and data concentration also strengthen the market power of internet platforms. A Directive for platform workers, which includes an exact definition of the term “employee” and determines minimum standards, might solve some problems. It should also be determined that companies have to prove that no employee status exists, and not vice versa. This reversal of the burden of proof would immensely strengthen employees’ rights.