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Rise of digital monopolies should be checked, Wall says

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Ms Pheona Nabasa Wall, the chief executive officer of Fidelis Leadership Institute. PHOTO/ISMAIL MUSA LADU

The Competition Act, 2023, which aims at regulating players with dominant positions in the markets, has not started biting yet despite uncompetitive tendencies by businesses and organisations. In an interview after the launch of the competition law and consumer protection training by Fidelis Leadership Institute in partnership with the COMESA Competition Commission, the chief executive officer of the Institute, Ms Pheona Nabasa Wall, told Prosper Magazine’s Ismail Musa Ladu why tackling uncompetitive and predatory business practices begins with knowledgeable human resource. Excerpts ….  

What is competition law seeking to cure?  
In the dynamic landscape marked by rapid technological advancements and evolving market dynamics, the regulation of competition is paramount. The Competition Act 2023 and upcoming Regulations on consumer protection and competition in Uganda serve as crucial instruments in maintaining fairness, preventing monopolies, and safeguarding consumer interests. We are currently living in an era where Organisations have found themselves embroiled in lawsuits due to their failure to comply with regulatory requirements regarding competition law. One such recent case is the lawsuit against Apple Inc.’s legal over monopolistic practices on smartphone distribution. 

How serious is the issue of uncompetitive tendencies - competition? 
Today, we are facing a competition crisis. For more than 40 years, antitrust enforcement has not kept pace with the need to rein in anticompetitive mergers and business conduct. As a result, in too many sectors, a few powerful companies dominate products and services – many of which are core to the everyday experience of the economy. We see this in higher consumer prices, lower wages, and fewer new businesses being created. The digital revolution, in particular, has brought us many great things, but it has also enabled the emergence of extractive gatekeepers in critical parts of our economy. 

Dominant companies deprive the people of their hard-earned money and economic opportunity while they control the flow of information and public discourse, and exert outsized influence in our political processes. 

As an advocate of fair competition in business, how do you see it shaping out as technology becomes the way of life, and is the law as is sufficient to deal with the situation?  
In the Fourth Industrial revolution, Competition law faces unique challenges and opportunities. With the rapid advancements in technology, particularly in areas like Artificial Intelligence, big data analytics, and the Internet of Things, traditional competition frameworks must adapt to ensure fair and efficient markets. 

One of the primary concerns is the rise of digital monopolies and the dominance of a few tech giants, which can stifle innovation and limit consumer choice, these need to be kept in check.

And for Uganda’s situation, what are your thoughts?
Competition policy and enforcement are critical to addressing concerns regarding digital platforms. The new problems of the digital economy have arisen in tandem with dominant firms. As a result, we cannot separate out their effects, but we do know that more competition would help in every respect. For example, would more competition and competitive markets better protect user privacy? 
Given consumer demand for it that seems likely. Would more competitive markets better secure our data and our systems? Security is a key product feature, so competition would drive it forward. Would more competitive markets respect limits on using algorithms to steal our time and attention, delivering more content with less scrolling? Time is a precious commodity, so that is a safe bet as well.

How can fair or leveled playing field be attained in these circumstances? 
Such incidents have underscored the critical need for comprehensive education and training in competition law. We need something that signifies more than a mere curriculum—it should embody a commitment to excellence, integrity, and the pursuit of justice in commerce all of which is something as Fidelis Leadership Institute is about and will continue to present. We started this Institute in 2019 by a coalition of willing young people who wanted to create a critical mass of ethical leaders and be the change they want to see. We intend to pursue this for as long as we want. 

In 2022 when the Competition Bill was being prepared to be read on the floor of Parliament, our team in Partnership with the CPAU sat together and committed to work on capacity gaps through such training. We then wrote to the COMESA Competition Commission (CCC) and we have seen our dream to impart knowledge come true. For a very long time, there have not been only gaps in knowledge but also in skills and legislation. We believe that these trainings will equip the region for International trade in the wake of the ACFTA.

How much of lack of adherence to competition principles at the regional level and even beyond cascades back into the local trading community?    
Many within our business communities have become ensnared by restrictive non-compete practices and still face a similar threat as international markets open up for the region. 
This is why it is important to target a diverse audience encompassing the public sector, private enterprises, and interested business individuals and have them empowered participants with a profound understanding of competition law and consumer protection principles. 
I believe what we stand for and at the same time, offer will promote ethical behaviour, social responsibility, and serving the greater good. This is because in a global arena where competition knows no boundaries, the necessity for knowledgeable and principled advocates of competition law has never been more urgent.

What is your role going forward?  
We are committed to conducting market Inquiries tailored to the local economy, to augment evidentiary relevant training. This initiative underscores our dedication to providing comprehensive and contextually relevant education in competition law, ethics and integrity.
I like to conclude with a Greek proverb that goes: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.”