online platforms

No more ‘flying under the radar’: capturing transactions below the jurisdictional thresholds of national and EU merger control regimes

The European Commission (“Commission”) is expanding its jurisdiction over transactions by encouraging national competition authorities (“NCAs”) of the EU Member States to ‘refer’ certain transactions to it that fall below the thresholds for mandatory notification at the EU and the national level. On 26 March 2021, the Commission published guidance (“Guidance”) setting out referrals that are ‘encouraged’ and how and when it will accept such referrals. This development has not required legislative changes (which would have taken some time and also required unanimity among EU Member States) but rather the Commission is resuscitating an existing provision, the so-called “Dutch clause”, namely Article 22 of the EU Merger Regulation (“EUMR”).

The Commission hopes to remedy what it perceives as an enforcement gap under the turnover-based thresholds for notification. In particular, this change in policy aims to catch transactions that would otherwise fall outside its jurisdiction as the turnover thresholds would not be met, but the parties otherwise have an important competitive position that is not reflected in their turnover, including so-called “killer acquisitions”. The Commission considers this to be a particular issue in the digital economy, pharmaceutical sector and other ‘innovation-driven’ sectors.

Only a couple of Member States (Austria and Germany) have implemented transaction value-based thresholds to catch acquisitions of companies with low turnover and high valuation. The Guidance allows the Commission to enable a more systematic EU-wide response.

The substantive test remains unchanged: the Commission will continue to assess whether there is a risk of significant impediment to effective competition (the “SIEC test”).

Transactions falling within the new policy

According to the Guidance, Article 22 referrals will be encouraged for transactions where the turnover of at least one party does not reflect its actual or future “competitive potential.” A non-exhaustive list of examples includes acquisitions of: (i) promising start-ups, (ii) “important innovators,” (iii) an “actual or potential important competitive force,” (iv) companies having access to key raw materials, infrastructure, data or IP rights, and (v) companies providing key inputs for other industries.

Whether a transaction is eligible for an Article 22 referral depends on two legal requirements: the transaction must (i) affect trade between Member States, and (ii) threaten to significantly affect competition within the territory of the Member State(s) making the request. The Commission provides examples of the relevant factors for the assessment of these criteria:

  • Trade between Member States could be considered affected, for example, based on the location of potential customers, data collection, or likely future commercialisation of IP rights.
  • The requirement of a threat to “significantly affect competition” within the relevant territory will be met if a preliminary assessment reveals a real risk that the transaction could result in the creation or strengthening of a dominant position, the elimination of an important competitive force (in particular, a new important innovator), the foreclosure from a market or supplies, and leveraging a strong market position from one market to another through exclusionary practices. The preliminary assessment conducted to verify this second criterion is without prejudice to the subsequent formal assessment of the transaction if the Commission accepts the referral.

Procedure/timing

The Commission intends to play an active role in the enforcement of the new policy. It is willing to “cooperate closely” with NCAs to identify transactions that would fall within the scope of this new policy, or even invite NCAs to invoke Article 22 in certain cases. Third parties are encouraged to contact the Commission or NCAs, if they consider a transaction appropriate for referral, provided they have sufficient evidence to enable a preliminary assessment.

The timing for referral is as follows:

  • In cases where there is no mandatory filing at a national level, NCAs have 15 working days to request referral, starting from the date on which the transaction is made known to them (according to the Guidance, this is when sufficient information is available to make a preliminary assessment);
  • The Commission will inform the other NCAs of the referral request “without delay”;
  • Other NCAs then have 15 working days to join the initial request (direct communication between NCAs is also encouraged by the Commission); and
  • After 10 additional working days, the Commission will be deemed to have adopted a decision to examine the transaction, if it has not already done so.

While the referral is subject to the deadlines set out above, the Commission is willing to accept Article 22 referrals up to six months after completion of the transaction or the transaction having become known in the EU (whichever is the later), or even later in “exceptional situations”.

Implications for parties to corporate transactions

Standstill effect and risk of gun jumping: The obligation not to close a transaction applies to transactions that have not completed at the date on which the Commission informs the parties that an Article 22 referral request has been made, after which the parties risk substantial gun jumping fines if they decide to close. The standstill obligation ceases if the Commission subsequently decides not to examine the concentration. The standstill obligation does not apply to transactions that have already completed before the Article 22 referral process is initiated such that no gun jumping fines can be incurred. The Commission will inform the parties as soon as possible if a referral is being considered to allow the parties to refrain from completing the transaction.

Duty to notify: Once the Commission has accepted Article 22 jurisdiction, the acquirer will be under a duty to notify the transaction under the standard notification procedure under the EUMR.

Potential effects on the transaction and risk of sanctions: Once the Commission has accepted jurisdiction, the transaction will be reviewed based on the standard substantive and procedural EUMR rules, which for transactions that raise concerns include the risk of remedies and in the worst-case scenario, a prohibition decision. If the transaction has not yet completed, there will be no real difference with the standard rules for notifiable transactions, although a decision to apply Article 22 adds to the timetable and may delay closing. However, effective remedies could prove difficult to implement for transactions that have already closed depending on the degree to which the acquired business has been integrated, particularly remedies requiring structural changes (e.g. full or partial divestment) to restore the situation pre-transaction.

The end of the “one stop shop” within the EU?: While under Article 22, the territorial jurisdiction is in theory limited to the EU Member States that have either referred the concentration to the Commission or joined the initial referral(s), the Commission takes into account the effects of a transaction in the rest of the EU whenever a relevant market has a geographic dimension larger than the referring Member State(s). This is likely to be the case in many digital and innovation markets potentially covered by the new policy and tech companies with global ambitions should assume that the Commission will investigate the effect of the transaction on an EU-wide basis.

The Guidance states that if a transaction has already been notified in one or more EU Member States that did not request a referral or join such referral request, this could be a factor against accepting a referral. However, for the purposes of legal certainty and considering potential for inconsistencies, in particular in relation to any remedies, we encourage the NCAs and the Commission to maintain a high level of cooperation to avoid overlapping investigations.

Our recommendations in light of the new policy

This is a major change to the Commission’s merger control policy. With this new policy, which is not limited to “Big Tech” or the digital economy (which has driven recent policy shifts or discourse relating to such shifts), EU merger control no longer provides for the legal certainty resulting from turnover-based notification thresholds. Several months of delay could be added between signing and closing, remedies could be imposed after the implementation of a transaction, and completed acquisitions might have to be unwound, all for transactions which prior to this policy change would not have faced any merger control review in the EU.

In light of this, transaction parties should consider:

Assessing the risk of falling within the scope of the new policy: Transaction parties should consider if a transaction falls within the categories of potential Article 22 referrals set out above. They should also consider if the transaction is likely to raise competition concerns – including through the strengthening of dominance/market power, access to advanced/innovative technology, R&D or data, or if the transaction involves a highly concentrated market, a target with a substantial user base or high projected growth, or meets merger control thresholds outside the EU. The rationale of the transaction and projected market developments will also be relevant factors in assessing if an Article 22 referral is likely.

Allocating risk and adapting transaction documents: Transaction agreements should be revised to take into account the risk of an Article 22 referral. In particular, agreements should allocate the risk of an Article 22 referral between buyers and sellers and include, or not include, as a condition precedent the absence of an Article 22 referral in the time period between signing and closing. If a transaction is likely to be referred, the acquirer may insist on having received from the Commission or NCAs confirmation that the transaction will not get referred under Article 22.

Strategically informing NCAs: At a national level, it might be beneficial to provide NCAs with enough information to allow a preliminary assessment of whether Article 22 referral is appropriate. Providing a sufficient level of detail should trigger the 15 working day deadline vis-à-vis the NCAs that have been provided with such information. It remains to be seen what level of cooperation will be achieved among NCAs; at this stage, it is not certain that informing one NCA would be regarded as informing all NCAs.

Reaching out to the Commission: While it is not yet clear what type of “comfort letter” the Commission is willing to provide, early communication with the Commission should help clarify whether a transaction is outside the scope of Article 22 referral, provided that sufficient information is made available to the Commission to make such assessment. This option should be particularly attractive in a competing bid scenario, or where competitors or other third parties otherwise may use the new Article 22 policy to scupper or delay a transaction.

New obligations and sanctions for digital ‘gatekeepers’: European Commission proposes Digital Market Act

The debate about competition issues and unfair practices specific to online platforms and the appropriate tools to tackle them was taken a step further by the European Commission (‘Commission’), which presented two legislative proposals on 15 December 2020: The Digital Services Act (‘DSA’) and the Digital Markets Act (‘DMA’). While the former is intended to regulate online content and increase transparency and accountability, the latter is intended to ensure contestable and fair markets in the digital sector by imposing limits (and potentially sanctions) on so-called ‘gatekeepers’. This post focuses on the latter. The DMA is the confirmation that, from the Commission’s point of view, the competition law toolbox does not perfectly address the new challenges encountered in the digital sector. Designed more specifically at tackling unfair practices and closing (what is perceived by the Commission as) an enforcement gap, the DMA complements the competition law toolbox with new obligations for market players and new control and enforcement tools for the Commission.

Identifying the gatekeepers

The first potentially contentious issue concerns the determination of the subject-matter of the DMA.

Digital platforms will have to assess whether the DMA applies to them. During the press presentation, the two commissioners in charge, Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President for a Europe fit for the Digital Age (and continued head of DG Competition), and Thierry Breton, Commissioner for Internal Market, refrained from naming any specific platform.

The DMA establishes a concept of ‘gatekeeper’, which refers to providers of ‘core platform services’. These services include online intermediation, search engines, social networks, video-sharing platforms, online-communication, operating systems, cloud computing, as well as related advertising.

More specifically, the proposal sets out three cumulative criteria for defining ‘gatekeepers’: the provider must (i) have a significant impact, (ii) act as an ‘important gateway for business users to reach end users’ and (iii) enjoy an ‘entrenched and durable position’ or will foreseeably do so in the near future.

The Commission will presume that these criteria are fulfilled above the following quantitative thresholds:

a) for criterion (i) above, where the provider has an annual turnover in the EEA of at least EUR 6.5 billion in the last three financial years or market capitalization or market value of at least EUR 65 billion in the last financial year and it provides a core platform service in at least three Member States; or

b) for criterion (ii) above, where, in the last financial year, the core platform service had more than 45 million monthly active EU end users and 10,000 yearly active EU business users; or

c) for criterion (iii) above, where the provider meets the two thresholds mentioned in b) for each of the last three financial years.

The gatekeeper status will result from a Commission assessment and subsequent decision, but providers will have an obligation to self-assess and report themselves to the Commission when they meet the thresholds for the presumption to apply.

The presumption is rebuttable: a provider meeting the thresholds can argue that it does not fulfil the gatekeeper criteria. The Commission can also identify a gatekeeper even when not all the thresholds are met. A list of gatekeepers will be published and maintained to take into account market developments.

Specific duties and prohibitions

Regarding behavior, the DMA contains a list of Do’s and Don’ts for gatekeepers.

A first set listed in Article 5 of the DMA applies per se and needs no further details for the gatekeepers to fully comply with and be held responsible if they do not. For the second set listed in Article 6 of the DMA, the Commission may impose specific, more precise measures on a gatekeeper.

Do’s

Don’ts

Obligations for gatekeepers
(art. 5 DMA)

  • Allow business users to offer the same products or services to end users at different prices or conditions via other platforms;
  • Allow business users to do business with end users acquired on a platform also outside that platform, and allow end users to access content via the platform even if it was acquired outside the platform;
  • Upon request by a client of advertising services, provide it with pricing and remuneration information in relation to a specific ad and for each relevant advertising service.
  • Refrain from combining personal data sourced from these core platform services with other personal data;
  • Refrain from preventing or restricting business users from raising issues with any relevant public authority relating to any practice of gatekeepers;
  • Refrain from imposing its own identification service on end users that want to access business users’ services on the gatekeeper’s platform;
  • Refrain from tying core platform services.

Obligations for gatekeepers susceptible of being further specified
(art. 6 DMA)

  • Allow end users to uninstall any preinstalled software applications (unless it is essential for the functioning of the operating system or of the device and cannot technically be offered on a standalone basis by third parties);
  • Allow use of or interaction with third party software applications or software application stores on the gatekeeper’s operating systems, and allow access to these outside the gatekeeper’s core platform services (but the gatekeeper can take proportionate measures to ensure that the integrity of its hardware or operating system is not endangered);
  • Allow business users providing ancillary services access to and interoperability with the same operating system, hardware or software features used for the gatekeeper’s ancillary services;
  • Provide advertisers and publishers, upon their request and free of charge, with access to the performance measuring tools of the gatekeeper and the information necessary for advertisers and publishers to carry out their own independent verification of the ad inventory;
  • Provide effective portability of data generated through the activity of a business user or end user;
  • Provide business users (or third parties authorised by them), with free, effective, high-quality, continuous and real-time access and use of data provided for or generated in the context of end users engaging with the products or services provided by those business users; however, for personal data, the end user must have opted in for such access, and the access must be limited to the data directly connected with the use of the relevant platform in respect of the products or services offered by the relevant business user;
  • If the gatekeeper offers an online search engine, provide any third-party providers of online search engines (upon their request) with access on FRAND terms to ranking, query, click and view data generated by end users, subject to anonymisation of personal data;
  • Apply fair and nondiscriminatory general conditions of access for business users to the gatekeeper’s software application store.
  • When the gatekeeper competes with business users, refrain from using relevant data not publicly available and generated or provided in relation to the use of the core platform services by these business users or their end users;
  • Refrain from ranking more favourably its own products and services compared to those of third parties (fair and nondiscriminatory conditions should apply);
  • Refrain from technically restricting the ability of end users to switch between and subscribe to different software applications and services to be accessed using the operating system of the gatekeeper, including as regards the choice of Internet access provider for end users.

 

Regarding acquisitions, the DMA introduces an obligation for gatekeepers to inform the Commission of any intended concentrations in the digital sector, even for transactions falling outside the scope of EU or national merger control regimes.

Enforcement powers for the Commission (EU level intervention)

The Commission will have several tools to monitor gatekeepers and sanction lack of compliance: market investigations, investigative proceedings (including requests for information, interviews, on-site inspections), interim measures in case of emergency, noncompliance decisions, and ultimately fines up to 10% of the gatekeeper’s worldwide annual turnover and periodic penalty payments up to 5% of the average daily turnover. A provider will be able to make commitments to avoid a noncompliance decision and sanctions.

Limited intervention at national level

For the sake of a uniform and coherent response to unfair practices implemented by gatekeepers within the EU, the proposed legislation takes the form of a Regulation, directly enforceable within the EU, meaning that it will apply without the need for Member States to adopt national rules. The DMA lays down harmonized rules and Member States must not impose further obligations specific to gatekeepers, be it by way of national legislation, administrative action or else. The only way for Member States to intervene is when at least three of them jointly request the Commission to open an investigation. Regarding public enforcement, no specific role is foreseen for national competition authorities.

However, private damages are still handled at national level. The DMA leaves room for business users and end-users of core platform services provided by gatekeepers to claim damages for the unfair behaviour of gatekeepers before national courts.

Not yet a reality – the legislative process ahead

The current version of the DMA is still likely to change as it will undergo the normal EU legislative process involving the European Parliament and national governments via the European Council. According to the Commission, the search for a broad political consensus was already part of the preparatory phase, so that the final legislative act is anticipated to be adopted rather rapidly, in about one and a half years. Add the proposed six-month delay between entry into force and application, and the DMA could apply beginning of 2023. Yet, the real pressure against the proposal will probably come from providers likely to be identified as gatekeepers and that had already made their objections known during the public consultation launched by the European Commission prior to the drafting of the DMA.

 

Enhancing Fairness in Platform-to-Business Relations in the EU Through a Change of Legal Landscape

Online platforms have become a crucial infrastructure for businesses. They enable small businesses to have easy access to millions of potential customers and create an unprecedented choice of products and services for them. According to a recent Eurobarometer survey on the use of online marketplaces and search engines by small and medium-sized enterprises (“SMEs”),[1] 42% of the respondents declared that they use online platforms and marketplaces to sell their products or services.[2] This survey also indicates that 82% of the respondents rely on search engines to promote and sell their products or services. In short, online platforms play a key role in the growth of the economy and help the digital transformation of small businesses. READ MORE