Tom Smith, Geradin Partners: November 2022 was an important month for the UK’s efforts to curb the power of big tech. The Chancellor announced in his Autumn Statement that the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill will be introduced into parliament in the 3rd parliamentary session (it is currently rumoured to be scheduled for April this year), and the CMA formally launched its market investigation into mobile browsers and cloud gaming. Another important, but lower profile, development in this period was the exit from the CMA of Tom Fish to the private sector, taking with him years of accumulated experience and knowledge of the competition challenges posed by digital markets. Tom joined a tech start-up, Gener8, which lets people earn rewards from their online data through a free-to-use web browser and mobile app.
I’m pleased that Tom has agreed to be interviewed for this blog, to share his unique perspectives on digital competition and regulation, and give us an insight into the life of an innovative start-up as it interacts with the digital gatekeepers.
Before we hear about your new venture, could you tell our readers a bit about yourself and your background?
Tom Fish: I spent most of my career as a government economist, taking up a range of roles in what was known then as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as well as Ofgem (the energy regulator) and the Bank of England.
My career took an unexpected turn when, in 2018, I was seconded to HM Treasury for six months to lead the economic analysis within the secretariat for the independent review of the Digital Competition Expert Panel, or the Furman Review as it is more commonly known. As well as diagnosing the benefits and challenges to competition in digital markets, I also carried out the assessment of merger underenforcement in the UK, which ultimately contributed to the CMA updating its Merger Assessment Guidelines, and developed proposals for the conduct requirements that are expected within the new DMU regime.
I moved to the CMA after that review, where much of my work was focused on turning those high-level ideas into well-evidenced and detailed proposals that would convince the government to legislate. This included a central role in delivering two world-leading market studies into digital advertising and mobile ecosystems, and the advice to the government of the Digital Markets Taskforce. In parallel, I steered the increasingly collaborative approach with the Information Commissioner’s Office (the UK’s data protection regulator) on the intersection between competition and data protection.
You have made an interesting switch from regulator to tech startup. What was behind this move?
When I joined the Furman Review, there was not a general consensus globally on the nature of the challenges in digital markets or of the need for action, let alone what form that action might take. There is now a widely accepted diagnosis of the inherent challenges posed by platform markets, regulators are taking more decisive action towards mergers and anti-competitive conduct, and governments are bringing in new regulations all around the world to bring laws up to speed with the digital age. I’m tremendously proud of the contribution I have made to that progress.
In my final few days at the CMA, the government confirmed it will bring forward the DMU legislation to Parliament this year, and the CMA launched its market investigation into mobile browsers and cloud gaming. We are finally transitioning from evidence gathering and advocating, through to action, and with this I judged my mission complete.
This led to me feeling it was the right time to seek out a new challenge and fresh perspectives. Although my personal objectives at Gener8 overlap those I had at the CMA, I’m excited to be operating with a different toolkit.
I expect your experience and knowledge was in high demand once you started looking outside of the CMA. What is Gener8 and why was that your preferred destination?
With each major report on digital competition that I have worked on, a common thread has been the idea that in many cases ‘free’ is not such a good deal. I have written in many contexts in the past of the potential benefits of enabling consumers to earn from the value of their personal data. In Gener8 and its founder Sam Jones, I identified a company and individual whose mission matched my own, so I reached out.
Gener8 is a two-sided platform. On one side it provides a personal information management service (PIMS), empowering its users to control and earn from their data. On the other side it sells fully consented and anonymised market intelligence data to business clients. It delivers this model through a browser on desktop, and a data management app on mobile.
I was conscious that several reports and academics have written about the uphill battle any PIMS will face to successfully commercialise, due to the powerful indirect network effects that come with monetising through the digital advertising sector. But one lunch with Sam left me convinced that Gener8 will be the first commercially viable PIMS. This is because it sells privacy-friendly market intelligence products on the business side of the platform (rather than enabling people to trade their privacy for ad targeting), so it can monetise from much lower user numbers and circumvent the classic ‘chicken and egg’ problem faced by two-sided platforms. To my knowledge this model is unique.
It is also great to be joining a company with real momentum. Sam is well-known in the UK for the ‘best pitch ever’ on Dragons Den in 2021, a television show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to investors (the format was subsequently reproduced in the US as Shark Tank). Since then, Sam has attracted a series of high-profile investors and received the Disruptor of the Year award in 2022. It definitely feels like an exciting time to have joined the company.
OK so let’s cut to the chase. What is Gener8’s number one ask of governments or regulators?
The most important issue for us is enabling our users to have frictionless access to their data on a seamless and continuous basis. This will lower the barriers to user engagement, give people more control, and boost their earning power. The problem is that at the moment, it is clunky and repetitive for a user to access their data, and this ultimately results in a bad user experience and lower retention rates. For example, companies have up to 30 days to respond, and there is no consistency in the process or format for delivering the data to the user. In addition, the incoming Data Protection and Digital Information Bill will make it easier for organisations to reject individuals’ data access requests.
If governments want to level the playing field in digital markets with respect to data access, and assuming they don’t want to fall out with privacy regulators, then they will need to unlock the potential of personal information management services (PIMS). They can do this by implementing Open Digital here in the UK, which is an initiative calling for the big platforms to create open APIs for user data based on common agreed standards.
The UK is very much behind the EU in this respect, where progress has already been made through inclusion of new data portability requirements in Article 6 of the Digital Markets Act. The devil will be in the detail there of course, and we will be pushing for those requirements to be implemented with teeth, alongside appropriate governance and oversight of common standards.
That sounds very similar to Open Banking, which was an initiative to give bank customers control over their data. Could this be implemented by the Digital Markets Unit (DMU) in the UK once it has its powers?
Exactly right. And yes, that is one option, as the DMU could use its expected Pro-competitive Intervention (PCI) tool to mandate the same data portability requirements on each of the firms designated with SMS. But there may be some limits to how far the DMU could reasonably go in overseeing such a scheme.
There is also likely to be another route, which could enable a more comprehensive solution with broader coverage. There are new powers being introduced by the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill that is currently making its way through the UK Parliament, and this will facilitate new Smart Data Schemes to be introduced in other sectors, for example Finance, Energy and Communications. We need Open Digital to be at the top of this list, and we will be pressing for the required secondary legislation to be taken forward as a priority by the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology.
You mentioned Gener8 has a desktop browser as well as the data management app on mobile. Why the different approach between desktop and mobile, and does your browser face any barriers?
We view the browser and app as being part of a family of products that empower people to control and earn from their data across all platforms. Despite the demand from our users to release a mobile browser, there were a number of reasons why we decided to take a different path on mobile at this stage. This certainly included an assessment that successful entry and expansion into the mobile browser market is currently improbable. We will keep this assessment under review, in particular in response to any positive regulatory developments coming from the DMA or the CMA’s market investigation.
Things are a little better on desktop, partly due to the availability of browser extensions, but it is far from a level playing field. We operate a relatively small desktop browser but not a search engine. We are too small for Google to talk to us about a default deal, but we also can’t really afford to accept a big hit to our user churn rate that we suspect would come from selecting a less popular search engine. This is a bit of a Catch 22 situation and leaves us with a browser that can’t be directly monetised due to the lack of competition in general search. We have just starting an interesting piece of research into this issue, where we are going to run some A:B testing of the impact of a change to our default search selection on a range of outcomes. For example, this could enable us to observe the impact of changing from Google to Bing on a whole range of metrics including our user retention rates, switching, search volumes, and potentially impacts on traffic and spending.
Did Gener8 make a submission to the CMA’s investigation into mobile browsers and cloud gaming?
Yes, as well as supporting the investigation with evidence where we could, we also raised a new issue that was not included as one of its theories of harm. In fact, to be honest, it wasn’t an issue I was aware of until I joined Gener8.
Uncharacteristically, Google is behind Apple on the browser development race with respect to browser extensions on mobile – they are not yet supported for Chrome on Android, despite being implemented by Apple for Safari in September 2021. We highlighted in our submission the various anticompetitive effects this restriction is having, including the harm it is causing to innovation throughout the ecosystem.
You worked on the CMA’s mobile ecosystems market study, raising strong concerns around the operation of the main app stores. Is this something you have witnessed in practice since moving to Gener8?
Yes, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster actually. I asked a colleague to start keeping a log of the app review journey to inform a future blog, but I hadn’t anticipated how much of a task this would turn out to be.
With Apple in particular, we recently had a long period of uncertainty and stress as our updates were held in limbo or rejected, with several repeated requests for similar information. This meant our Apple users were missing out on major new features and bug fixes for over two months! Worryingly, we were also advised that our entire app concept was under review at a senior exec level within Apple, without much more information on what the implications or timing of this might be.
It is absolutely right that Apple should be rigorous about which apps get into its store, and making sure that developers are being honest with their users about what they do with their data – at Gener8 we share these values. It just makes running a small business extremely challenging when there is such uncertainty and a lack of transparency in the process, and potential threats hanging over your existence.
One really positive point to highlight from this experience was that we did eventually have a call with someone from the App Store team, which gave us the opportunity to explain our app and the way that we access and process our users’ data with their consent. This seemed to be really helpful for both sides, and I think should definitely be viewed as part of a model for best practice going forwards, for example when regulators are thinking about potential new conduct requirements.
Do you face similar problems with Google?
Not since I joined. Hopefully this is reflective of a really efficient and effective process, rather than it being less rigorous.
You mentioned that you monetise your platform through the market intelligence sector, rather than the advertising sector. Does that mean you don’t have any interaction with Meta?
As with practically all small businesses these days, we really have little choice but to interact with Meta as an advertiser – when we start looking to grow our user base more rapidly, we will have to place ads on Facebook and Instagram. Our experience of this to date has been concerning, with an extremely disruptive effect on our business. We frequently have our ads randomly rejected for extremely vague and sometimes bizarre reasoning. It seems to be down to a combination of automation and lack of care rather than anything more sinister, but this is totally unacceptable for a firm that can make or break the fortunes of other companies so easily.
We will also be adding data connections to Meta platforms this year so that our users can access that data and choose to earn from it themselves if they wish. We are yet to establish how much friction Meta puts in place for people that want to exercise their rights under the GDPR.
How does Gener8 view the incoming DMU legislation to establish the new pro-competition regime in the UK?
It can’t come soon enough from our perspective. We will be doing what we can to support the Bill as it hopefully makes its way through parliament this year. The message we will be trying to get across to parliamentarians on all sides is that there are British tech startups that are relying on this regulation – we know there will be some with the belief that all regulation must be bad for business and bad for innovation and growth, so we must challenge this outdated view.
But even if the Bill makes it through unscathed in this session, we recognise that the DMU won’t be able to deploy all of its tools from day one. The designation decisions and the rule-writing will take some time, and the DMU will need to determine which interventions to prioritise. We may still be some years off getting the support we need.
This is why we will continue to push for change on other fronts. For example, rather than needing to wait for the DMU, our proposals for Open Digital could be implemented by the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology as a Smart Data Scheme, once the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill has passed.
We also strongly support the CMA and other regulators using their existing toolkits in the meantime to the fullest extent possible, with the CMA’s current market investigation into cloud gaming and mobile browsers a prime example. This investigation must ultimately have teeth, including in respect of mobile browser extensions which we brought to their attention.
Are you only based in the UK, or will you be engaging with the DMA going forwards as well?
We are primarily UK based at the moment, but once our model is proven we will definitely be expanding globally and empowering consumers all around the world to control and earn from their data.
The data portability requirements in Article 6(9) of the DMA would make the EU the obvious next step, as the digital gatekeepers will be required to provide access to user data on a continuous real time basis, and free of charge (unlike GDPR). We will be keeping a close eye on how this is implemented and highlighting the opportunities for gatekeepers to obfuscate this requirement and create friction for end users and third parties acting on their behalf.
Can a small organisation like Gener8 make its voice heard?
Absolutely! We are precisely the type of UK-based challenger that the UK government and the CMA are aiming to support through the new DMU regime, so I expect they will be keen to hear our perspectives and understand the threats our business is facing.
We will also be conducting an ambitious programme of research, through a combination of targeted consumer surveys and other tests, that will plug into important live public policy debates. For instance, we have just concluded a survey of around 700 of our users relating to online tracking and trust in online platforms, and as I mentioned earlier, we are currently scoping out some exciting A:B testing within our browser. Alongside the wealth of data we have available on user behaviour online, I expect this kind of evidence will enable us to punch above our weight.
Are you fearful of retaliation from the big tech platforms that you depend on?
We totally understand why so many individuals and small businesses – or even huge global corporations – are scared to speak in public about the barriers and difficulties that they face. We also definitely recognise the risk of placing a target on our backs.
But on the other hand, what choice do we have? We are not looking to complement the status quo – we are looking to totally disrupt it – and there is no doubt we will need some action and support from regulators and authorities along the way.
Finally, what would you say to someone considering making the switch from public to private sector, or vice versa?
I would absolutely encourage people to move in both directions. Designing and implementing sound policy and regulation requires an understanding of how businesses work and think – first-hand experience of this can only be a good thing. And for anyone in the private sector that wants to engage with and shape government policy, it helps to know how that world works as well.
But more important than any of that in my opinion is working out what you really care about, what type of work motivates you, and being clear about what your core values are. Once you’ve done all that, you can identify pretty quickly if a job or an organisation is going to be right for you – and in that sense the distinction between public and private sector doesn’t really matter so much. This was the approach that led me to Gener8!