The European Commission is investigating whether companies are gaining an unfair competitive advantage by harvesting data through the deployment of voice assistants like Alexa and Siri.
It argues that vast amounts of data collected by voice assistants and smart devices can be exploited by big companies to cement their position in various markets and potentially suppress the threat of competition.
Data collected from prominent voice assistants could allow big companies to gain certain knowledge of how people access other services, which can, in turn, allow these companies to enter markets for those services and dominate.
An investigation will assess whether these companies can bully themselves into becoming “gatekeepers” of the Internet of Things (IoT) industry, according to European Commission executive vice president Margrethe Vestager, and make or break other companies.
Specific voice assistants namechecked by Vestager include Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, and Magenta, developed by Deutsche Telekom. The nature of this anti-competitiveness could manifest as ‘self-preferencing’, where the companies mentioned would unfairly direct users towards their own products or services.
“The potential is incredible. But we'll only see the full benefits – low prices, wide choice, innovative products and services – if the markets for these devices stay open and competitive. And the trouble is that competition in digital markets can be fragile,” Vesteger said in a speech.
“When big companies abuse their power, they can very quickly push markets beyond the tipping point, where competition turns to monopoly. We've seen that happen before. If we don't act in good time, there's a serious risk that it will happen again, with the Internet of Things.”
The probe will also examine whether there is enough interoperability between smart devices, as there is a significant risk that customers will be locked in to systems made by just one provider.
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Companies involved in the IoT market are invited to submit their opinions, with the European Commission issuing a questionnaire to solicit the views of approximately 400 firms, large and small, from around the world.
It will question relevant companies about the products they sell, how the markets for those products work, how data is collected, how data is used, and how data is monetised. The survey will also seek to establish how different products and services work together, and whether any problems exist with making devices interoperable.
Vesteger added the inquiry should help regulators establish not only where companies may have broken rules, but also feed into future regulations that govern the IoT landscape.
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Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.