Government unveils proposals to increase competition in UK digital economy


Proposals have been set out for a new pro-competition regime for digital markets that will support the UK’s growing tech sector and protect consumers.

The Digital Markets Unit (DMU) will be given the power to designate tech firms that hold substantial and entrenched market power with ‘Strategic Market Status’ (SMS). This will require them to follow new rules of acceptable behaviour with competitors and customers in a move that will benefit the public and drive growth and innovation across the economy.

The DMU, launched in non-statutory form within the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in April, will work alongside firms to inject stronger competition into the digital tech sector resulting in more innovation and fairer terms for UK businesses, including startups, news publishers and advertisers. It will bring better consumer choice and control, making it easier for people to take their business elsewhere.

The proposed new powers are expected to help British startups and scaleups to compete more fairly against those tech giants that have powerful positions in the market.

The consultation seeks views on the objectives and powers of the DMU and details a new mandatory code of conduct, which will set out what is expected of firms for fair trading, open choices and trust and transparency. This could include tech platforms not pushing their customers into using default or mandatory associated services, or ensuring third party companies that depend on them aren’t blocked from doing business with competitors.

The code will be underpinned by robust investigation and enforcement powers. These may include imposing fines of a maximum of 10 per cent of a firm’s turnover for the most serious breaches.

The DMU could also be given powers to suspend, block and reverse code-breaching behaviour by tech giants – for instance unfair changes in their algorithms or T&Cs – and order them to take specific actions to comply with the code.

As well as tackling poor behaviour by these firms, the consultation will also consider whether the DMU will be able to impose a set of measures to tackle the root causes of competition issues in digital markets.

This could see the DMU implementing measures to support interoperability – making it easier for digital platforms and services to be compatible with each other and for customers to switch between them. For example it could require platforms to allow the public to share contacts from one platform to another.

Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “The UK’s tech scene is thriving but we need to make sure British firms have a level playing field with the tech giants, and that the public gets the best services at fair prices. So we will be giving our new Digital Markets Unit the powers it needs to champion competition and drive growth and innovation, with tough fines to make sure the biggest tech firms play by the rules.”

Industry reaction

Gerard Grech, CEO of Tech Nation, said: “Fair competition makes markets function successfully and enables businesses to scale and grow dynamically. Tech Nation accelerates the growth journey of the UK’s tech scale ups, and so we welcome this consultation which will future proof markets as both inclusive and competitive.”