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UK’s Facebook slap-down raises bar for US watchdog

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The Meta and Facebook logos are seen in this illustration taken November 2, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

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LONDON, Dec 1 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Britain is learning from past mistakes. Its competition watchdog on Tuesday ordered Facebook owner Meta Platforms (FB.O) to sell Giphy, a database of cartoonish clips for use in online banter and advertising. The 2020 deal was not immediately transformative for the $940 billion social media behemoth, and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg will probably appeal. But the smackdown offers a blueprint for other regulators to say “no”.

In Britain, Giphy and Facebook are leaders in GIFs – the technical shorthand for the clips – and social media respectively. Giphy plugs itself into big social media sites, making it second only to Google in terms of numbers of searches. The Competition and Markets Authority reckons that, combined, the pair would account for as much as 60% of monthly GIF searches.

But searches for clips of surfing dogs or yawning kittens aren’t the CMA’s primary concern. Instead, it’s worried about the impact the union could have on future competition in the display advertising market, in which advertisers pay online operators like Facebook to display their ads on their platforms or apps. That’s a big leap, given that GIF-based ads are still in their infancy.

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It’s another leap to say there’d be less competition between social media companies due to Facebook’s ability to prevent rivals from accessing Giphy’s GIF databases. For starters, Facebook has offered to keep the libraries open. It’s also unclear how the richness or otherwise of a GIF library will affect advertisers’ choice of a social media platform.

Such issues are likely to feature in Facebook’s expected appeal. Jurisdiction could be another thorny issue. In September it contested the UK regulator’s authority over a U.S. group buying another U.S. company that generates no revenue in Britain.

Significantly, though, the ruling points to regulators in Britain and elsewhere scrutinising even relatively small deals for their potential to have a big impact a long way hence. At a reported $400 million, Giphy is a tiny addition to Zuckerberg’s stable. Yet regulators will be mindful of the outsize long-term influence of Instagram, which he bought for just $1 billion in 2012, or WhatsApp, which cost $19 billion two years later. By peering into the future, Britain’s competition watchdog has raised Big Tech’s M&A bar in the present.

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CONTEXT NEWS

- The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on Nov. 30 told Facebook owner Meta Platforms to sell popular animated-images platform Giphy, the first significant move by British regulators to rein in the online clout of social media giants.

- Meta bought Giphy for a reported $400 million in May 2020 with the aim of integrating it with its Instagram photo-sharing app.

- The CMA fined Meta a record $70 million in October for breaching an order imposed during its investigation into the Giphy acquisition.

- Meta shares closed down 4% on Nov. 30.

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Editing by Ed Cropley and Oliver Taslic

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