The exchange of information between competitors treads a thin line between enhancing efficiencies and potentially causing harm to competition. While the potential benefits of an information exchange system include the improvement of investment decisions, improved product positioning, lower research costs, benchmarking best practices and a more precise knowledge of market demand, such systems could also facilitate collusive / co-ordinated behaviour among competitors, to the detriment of consumers.
Recognising the difficulty in determining which side of the line an exchange of information falls, the Competition Commission (the “Commission“) intends to set out, based on its experience and international best practice, the general approach that it will follow in determining whether an exchange of information contravenes the Competition Act 89 of 1998 (the “Competition Act“).
The Commission has published and called for written comment on its Draft Guidelines on the Exchange of Information between Competitors (the “Draft Guidelines“) from any interested person. We set out the basic principles as set out in the Draft Guidelines below.
Legal basis for assessing information exchanges
Section 4 of the Competition Act regulates practices amongst competitors, with competitors including all firms that are in the same line of business (whether these firms actually or may only potentially compete with one another).
The section prohibits any agreements (including contracts, arrangements or understandings, whether legally enforceable or not) between competitors:
- that have the effect of substantially preventing, or lessening, competition in any market (without sufficient technological, efficiency or other pro-competitive justifications); or
- that involve cartel practices, including price-fixing, market allocation or bid rigging (which automatically fall foul of the Competition Act and for which no justifications may be advanced).
Where an exchange of information has the effect of substantially preventing or lessening competition in any market (without sufficient pro-competitive justifications for such exchange), or where it facilitates price-fixing, market allocation or bid rigging, such an information exchange system will therefore contravene the Competition Act.
General principles of assessment
Importantly, the guidelines only concern the exchange of information between competitors. Also, information in this context refers to “commercially sensitive information”, being trade, business or industrial information which has a particular economic value to a firm and its business strategy and is generally not available or known by others.
Information exchange systems between competitors are evaluated on the following general bases (among others).
- The nature of the information sought to be exchanged: considerations will include whether the information is based on past, current or future conduct or outcomes, the level of aggregation of information, the frequency of sharing and the age of information;
- The purpose for which the information is being exchanged; and
- The market characteristics and dynamics: considerations include whether products are homogenous, the level of concentration in the market, the transparency of information in the market, the symmetry and stability of the market shares of competing firms and barriers to entry.
It is important to note that the Guidelines are just that – they are not binding on the competition authorities and will not be applied mechanically – there is no set formula / combination of the above factors that will ensure that an information exchange system is compliant with competition law and assessment will be multi-factorial and on a case-by-case basis.
Forums for information exchange
The Commission also set out an (open) list of platforms over which information exchange may occur and practical considerations and platform-specific guidelines to ensure competition law compliant exchanges over such platforms.
These platforms include, among others, trade / industry associations and regulators / policy makers, public announcements (which may constitute market signalling), joint ventures, cross-directorships / shareholdings, market studies and benchmarking and cartels.
Information exchange and your business
Whatever the final guidelines, given the inherent difficulties in determining whether an information exchange system between competitors will fall foul of the Competition Act, and the significant penalties and reputational harm that such conduct (even if unintentional) may incur, obtaining legal advice before embarking on any such practice may prove invaluable to your business.
The full draft guidelines can be found here.
Please note that the closing date for the submission of comments is 14 September 2017.