Big tech companies frequently face fines for engaging in price fixing, suppressing competition, or mishandling data, yet it often takes several years for them to actually pay the penalties.
Ireland’s data protection authority confirmed to AFP that Meta has not paid any of the two billion euros ($2.2 billion) in fines since last September. TikTok also owes hundreds of millions.
Amazon is still appealing the 746 million euro fine from 2021, Luxembourg’s data protection authority told AFP.
Google continues to deny EU fines of more than eight billion euros for abusing its market position in 2017-2019.
Apple has been fighting for years France’s €1.1 billion antitrust fine and €13 billion tax payment order to Ireland.
The problem is ongoing, global and affects tech companies of all sizes, not just the big four.
This week, Australia confirmed that X (formerly Twitter) had not paid a fine for failing to outline its plans to stop child sexual abuse content – although X is now countersuing.
Critics say fining tech companies won’t stop their bad behavior and it’s time to get tough.
– ‘Challenge all’ –
Margarida Silva, a researcher at the Center for Research on Multinationals, a Dutch NGO, noted that technology companies have long enjoyed a reputation as “disruptors”.
“Non-payment of fines fits with the way we’ve seen big tech companies challenge almost any rule enforcement against them,” Silva said.
“Even if the company eventually loses, by then they’ve dragged the administration through years and years of spending.”
He argued that this separates tech from industries like finance, which still have an incentive to pay to appease the public and investors.
But Romain Rard, a lawyer at Gide Loyrette Nouel in Paris, said it was common sense for companies to seek to appeal large penalties.
“It’s not like companies can just ignore the fines, challenge the decisions and hope for the best that they get away without having to pay anything,” he told AFP.
And the companies have had notable successes — chip companies Intel and Qualcomm both recently had billion-dollar EU antitrust fines overturned or dramatically reduced on appeal.
– Bring back the differences –
The European system differs from jurisdictions such as China or the United States, where fines often come at the end of a long process and are announced as settlements.
In 2019, Facebook paid a record $5 billion fine to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
And e-commerce giant Alibaba told investors in 2021 that it would immediately pay a record nearly $3 billion fine to Chinese regulators in 2021.
Activists argue that these companies are simply too rich for financial sanctions to have much of an impact.
Austrian lawyer Max Schrems, who has campaigned strongly for data rights in Europe, said the problem was exacerbated by uneven application of the rules.
He said the Irish Data Protection Commission gave companies too much leeway in their appeals processes and imposed fines that were far too small.
In an interview with AFP, Ireland’s deputy data protection commissioner Graham Doyle defended his office’s record and said the fines were only one part of the story.
“Most of these investigations that we’ve concluded, although the fines tend to attract the most publicity, we’ve also put remedial measures in place,” he said.
He highlighted research on Instagram regarding the processing of children’s data.
The 405 million euro fine is currently being appealed, but Doyle emphasized that the platform had already fixed the original problem.
Activists agree that fines can only be part of the solution.
Silva argued that it was time for competition regulators to step up financial penalties, rather than just noodling them.
He called on them to stop future acquisitions and mergers in the industry and repair the damage of the past, possibly even breaking up the companies.
“Meta’s problem would be completely different if it hadn’t been allowed to buy Instagram and WhatsApp,” he said.