Beware of Being Unique in the EU


Perhaps you thought that the biggest challenge of doing business in Europe might be the data privacy regulations implemented by the EU. Well, antitrust investigations might present an even bigger hurdle.

Once again, data is at the center of the issue.

Credit: Pixabay
Credit: Pixabay

An article by The Street outlines how the EU's competition commissioner is raising the possibility that the EU could crack down on companies that use "unique data" to maintain a competitive edge.

That article quoted EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager as saying, "It's true that we shouldn't be suspicious of every company which holds a valuable set of data...But we do need to keep a close eye on whether companies control unique data, which no one else can get hold of, and can use it to shut their rivals out of the market." She added that "if we do find that companies are undermining competition, we won't hesitate to take action."

This warning is being viewed as a restriction facing the use of big data in Europe. That could be true. However, the big question for me: What does she mean by "unique data"?

I've seen the term used in conjunction with data tools such as Excel with reference to removing duplicate rows or values in a database. I really doubt that the competition commissioner is thinking at the row level. "Unique data" also is slipping into marketing nomenclature as consultants and others say they will help organizations develop "unique" data strategies.

I suppose you could say data that is unique to a company -- such as which customers bought which products for what price -- would be unique data. Is utilizing that data to advance the company an unfair advantage? Not in the minds of any business person I've ever met or heard speak. Restricting use of that legitimate data would strain the boundaries of fairness.

When we think of big data, two core types of data come to mind. First, there is data that a customer or website user provides to the company, whether it's Google, Facebook, or some widget maker. I won't get into the issue of whether customers and site users "voluntarily" provide that data. Does the EU expect that a company will stop gathering that data? Or, maybe the union expects that company to share the data with its rivals?

Neither makes sense.

The second type of data in a big data strategy is publicly available data, that from government sources or data brokers. That data certainly isn't unique because it's available to everyone.

So I'm left wondering what would give some European company or a US company doing business in Europe what the EU would judge to be an unfair advantage.

Doesn't it seem that the EU's leaders either are desperate to impose control over legitimate business, or that those leaders just don't understand what big data is all about?

James M. Connolly, Editor of All Analytics

Jim Connolly is a versatile and experienced technology journalist who has reported on IT trends for more than two decades. As editor of All Analytics he writes about the move to big data analytics and data-driven decision making. Over the years he has covered enterprise computing, the PC revolution, client/server, the evolution of the Internet, the rise of web-based business, and IT management. He has covered breaking industry news and has led teams focused on product reviews and technology trends. Throughout his tech journalism career, he has concentrated on serving the information needs of IT decision-makers in large organizations and has worked with those managers to help them learn from their peers and share their experiences in implementing leading-edge technologies through publications including Computerworld. Jim also has helped to launch a technology-focused startup, as one of the founding editors at TechTarget, and has served as editor of an established news organization focused on technology startups and the Boston-area venture capital sector at MassHighTech. A former crime reporter for the Boston Herald, he majored in journalism at Northeastern University.

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Re: It's Not the Uniqueness, It's Unanimity
  • 9/18/2016 8:53:32 AM
NO RATINGS

@Terry. When I read about the EU mindset on "fairness" I had a different thought. It brought me back to what happens today in suburban youth sports. In some places they don't keep score and they give everyone a trophy because "everyone is a winner."

Re: It's Not the Uniqueness, It's Unanimity
  • 9/18/2016 8:22:17 AM
NO RATINGS

@Terry,

Thanks Terry. If this forum was on education, I could use the same premise to explain why outstanding teachers in public schools are moved from schools that they transformed into high achieving schools, to schools that are underperforming - the philosophy that equality of opportunity to be successful must also result in equal outcomes. While the EU is showing a sense of of concern 'for the least of these', one should not stigmatize and punish those who are blessed for having entreprenurial and revenue generating skills. If you want Greece to become economically viable again, then give Germany and the private sector some incentive to continue working for the greater good. In seeking to close the european gaps of economic disparity, they are thowing the baby out with the bath water.

Re: It's Not the Uniqueness, It's Unanimity
  • 9/17/2016 3:40:44 PM
NO RATINGS

This is a part of anti-trust enforcement and litigation that has bothered me since the Justice Department took on Microsoft 20 years ago: We want companies to compete but the rules (or regulators) also want want them to make room in the market for their same hated competitors. This is a little schizophrenic.

Re: It's Not the Uniqueness, It's Unanimity
  • 9/17/2016 3:23:07 PM
NO RATINGS

That's a succint analysis of EU's inadvertent stagnation-inducing mindset, Bryan. It also helps explain the community's amazing lack of technical innovation.

Re: It's Not the Uniqueness, It's Unanimity
  • 9/16/2016 10:12:16 AM
NO RATINGS

rule makers purposely make ambiguous rules

One of my Chinese friends told me that "opportunity for corruption" was sometimes a factor in how Chinese leaders make decisions. More opportunity was viewed as a positive.

Our leaders would never put it in those words, but I'm sure we're not so different from the rest of the world.

Re: It's Not the Uniqueness, It's Unanimity
  • 9/16/2016 8:01:10 AM
NO RATINGS

I'm not sure that rule makers purposely make ambiguous rules or that attorneys schooled in cleverness will find ways to argue both sides of an issue no matter how common sense the rules may seem. It's probably a no win situation when lawyers make their living arguing.

Re: It's Not the Uniqueness, It's Unanimity
  • 9/14/2016 4:00:50 PM
NO RATINGS

"some animals are more equal than others"

@Bryan, I agree. The EU is making it difficult to understand what the rules are. The case against Apple is an example of this - why would Apple think it owes more taxes to Ireland, if Ireland doesn't think so itself?

Ambiguous rules make it easier for the government to simply choose which companies crossed a new invisible boundary. And which bureaucrat would think to make a name for themselves by bringing AOL to justice? No, it's more about Apple and Google and Facebook. It's more about not being too successful.

Re: It's Not the Uniqueness, It's Unanimity
  • 9/12/2016 3:03:46 PM
NO RATINGS

I would think unique data would be something similiar to the European Injury Data Base.The IDB is a unique data source that contains standardised cross-national data on the external causes and circumstances of injuries treatedin emergency departments.  If this data was only made available to one medical equipment practicioner and not the others that would be an unfair advantage.  Especially if it was the public that paid via taxes for that data. 

It's Not the Uniqueness, It's Unanimity
  • 9/12/2016 12:55:28 PM
NO RATINGS

As I read this, the concept that leaps out at me is that that this has nothing to do with the data but everything about unanimity of economic outcomes. As long as no one has data resources that represent a market differentiator and would upset the market equilibrium, then  that is OK. But if for some reason, someone does have a better data-mousetrap, that competitive advantage would offset the effort for stable markets and trade. To use the language of physics, they want data that has scalar properties but not vector properties; the data resources can vary by size, but not have any direction. Ultimately, this reflects the EU economic policy that the herd must move together (or not). This works well for the underperformers but disincentivizes the economic achievers. Therein lies at least one of the motivators for Brexit.  This keeps every data custodian under the normal curve.

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