An Antitrust Case Against Dominant Online Intermediation Platforms in the African Market

Vellah Kedogo Kigwiru, competition and technology law, Technical University of Munich, School of Social Sciences and Technology
Law, Law and Economics, Technological Change
Keywords - Digital markets, Competition law, Big Tech

The role of the US big tech companies—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft (GAFAM)—as intermediaries of online commerce has in the recent past received considerable attention. These online intermediation platforms (OIPs) have provided businesses with an opportunity to grow by reaching a wider customer base, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic when online transactions increased rapidly.These OIPs, however, also directly compete with many businesses reliant on their platforms, acting as gatekeepers. Consequently, scholars, policymakers, and market regulators have raised concerns that dominant OIPs exploit their dual role to entrench dominance, engage in unfair trading terms, stifle competition through self-preferencing and appropriation of third-party competitively sensitive information for their advantage.
The above concerns have attracted antitrust attention, albeit so far entirely limited to the Global North. For instance, the EU and the UK have opened investigations against Facebook probing whether Facebook appropriates sensitive data of business users on its platforms to its advantage. Similarly, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) initiated a suit against Facebook over similar concerns. The EU has enacted the Digital Markets Act.

Unfortunately, the important issue of the (potential) anti-competitive conduct of big tech companies in Africa has hardly received any scholarly attention so far. This is an imporant omission since GAFAM are increasingly making inroads in search of new users in Africa through increased investments in mobile social media, financial intermediation, and network infrastructure. Some scholars have argued that GAFAMs’—especially Google’s and Facebook’s—increased investments in Africa are disguised as a philanthropic mission to increase internet access, knowledge, and enhance the growth of start-ups in Africa. Yet, contrary to the philanthropic image, the march of GAFAM into the continent has been a business venture aimed at increasing big tech’s global market dominance through data extraction and imminent input foreclosure of African start-ups. The big tech companies are also taking advantage of unregulated territories and disadvantaged populations for digital experiments and data extraction.

As African business users increasingly rely on GAFAM to reach consumers and due to unequal power relations, these OIPs could be exploiting the SMEs who remain largely unaware of the exploitation. Yet, African competition agencies have so far not initiated any investigation monitoring the big tech companies’ conduct. Their inability to initiate investigations or impose a pecuniary penalty is exacerbated by a lack of legal and policy frameworks that would promote fairness and transparency for business users of OIPs. Worse still, no African government has come up with legislation or rules that would regulate digital markets. Generally, the antitrust epistemic community lacks systematic knowledge about big tech companies’ behaviour in African markets, despite the substantial market share of the latter.
My research project:
a. Examine how African governments in general, and African competition agencies in particular can monitor and regulate digital markets and the conduct of dominant OIPs, especially through the use of competition law and policy.
b. Explore how the US and EU digital markets policies against big tech companies could inform African digital policy.