Rarely a month goes by without major technology companies being fined for various infractions, from price fixing and anti-competitive behavior to mishandling of user data. However, despite these hefty fines, it often takes years before the companies actually pay the penalties. A recent report confirms that Meta (formerly Facebook) has yet to pay any of the two billion euros in fines issued since September 2021, while TikTok also owes hundreds of millions. Even Amazon is appealing against a 746 million euro fine, and Google is disputing EU fines totaling over eight billion euros. Apple, too, has been engaged in a long-standing battle against a French antitrust fine and an order to pay 13 billion euros in back taxes to Ireland. This problem extends beyond the big four companies, affecting tech firms of all sizes. For instance, X (formerly Twitter) in Australia has failed to pay a fine imposed for its failure to address child sexual abuse content. Critics argue that the current system of fining tech companies does not effectively deter bad behavior, and it is about time for more significant measures to be taken.
Margarida Silva, a researcher at the Dutch NGO the Centre for Research on Multinationals, points out that tech firms have often reveled in their reputation for “disruption.” This reputation, combined with their deep pockets, allows them to challenge and delay the enforcement of regulations. Silva contends that even if the companies eventually lose their legal battles, the prolonged litigation process forces authorities to incur significant expenses for years on end. This sets tech companies apart from industries like finance, which face stronger incentives to pay fines promptly in order to maintain public and investor trust. However, Romain Rard, a lawyer at Gide Loyrette Nouel in Paris, argues that it is logical for companies to appeal large penalties. Ignoring fines and challenging decisions is not a viable strategy; rather, companies hope to achieve more favorable outcomes during the appeals process. Notably, some companies have successfully overturned or significantly reduced billion-dollar antitrust fines on appeal, such as chip firms Intel and Qualcomm.
Europe’s approach to fines differs from that of other jurisdictions, such as China and the United States, where settlements are often reached following lengthy processes. In 2019, Facebook paid a record $5 billion fine to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the United States due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and in 2021, Alibaba immediately paid an almost $3 billion fine to Chinese regulators. Activists argue that these financial penalties may not significantly impact tech companies that possess immense wealth. Moreover, Austrian lawyer Max Schrems believes that the inconsistent application of rules exacerbates the issue. He argues that the Irish Data Protection Commission, for example, grants companies too much leeway in their appeals processes and imposes fines that are disproportionately small. While fines receive the most attention, correctional measures should also play a crucial role in resolving these issues, as highlighted by Ireland’s Deputy Data Protection Commissioner, Graham Doyle, in a statement defending his office’s record.
Many activists and experts agree that financial penalties alone are insufficient to address the underlying problems. Margarida Silva proposes that competition regulators take a more proactive stance in the tech sector. Rather than relying solely on fines, she suggests halting future takeovers and mergers while also considering a reversal of past mergers. In some cases, this may even involve breaking up the large tech companies, such as Meta (formerly Facebook), whose influence would have been drastically different had it not been permitted to acquire Instagram and WhatsApp. These more drastic actions would aim to restore fair competition and address the monopolistic practices that have plagued the industry. To gain a more comprehensive understanding of the situation, AFP has reached out to Meta for a response.
The persistent issue of tech companies evading fines raises significant concerns about their accountability and the effectiveness of the current regulatory framework. Critics argue that the prolonged litigation period and the companies’ deep pockets enable them to avoid paying fines for years. Moreover, the inconsistent application of rules across jurisdictions and the size of the fines relative to the companies’ financial resources diminish the impact of these penalties. To address these challenges, experts suggest that competition regulators should take more proactive measures, such as halting mergers, undoing past consolidations, and even breaking up dominant tech companies. It remains to be seen whether these more drastic actions will be pursued and how they will shape the future of the tech industry.