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Law, regulating technology and Isaac Asimov: an interview with Professor Nicolas Petit

Posted on 27 April 2020

Nicolas Petit, Joint Chair Professor of Competition Law and Policy, joined the Department of Law and the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies earlier this year.

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Professor of Competition Law Nicolas Petit

Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Netflix have all become household names. However, these colossal firms are also a challenge for lawmakers.

Professor Nicolas Petit is one of the academics tackling how regulation can best approach the tech giants shaping modern life. Rapidly adapting to an uncertain market, tech firms are often seen as sprawling monopolies. His research has uncovered a far more nuanced scenario, as governments struggle to keep up with regulating the highly competitive world of digital technology.

Professor Petit makes clear that technology creates unique pressures on firms. He summarises his research in two questions: 'To what extent does the nature of digital technology impose competitive pressure on firms and other market organisations?', and, 'Is this technological pressure a substitute to rivalry and competition?'.

His preliminary conclusions highlight a multifaceted and uncertain reality. 'It’s wrong to look at these firms as if they were all bad monopolies' - he says. There is diversity in the market, with some firms being more pro-competition than others, which look more of the monopoloid kind. However, digital technology has its own unique set of challenges, being 'a gigantic source of uncertainty, which has an enormous influence on how these companies look at their environment and make decisions'.

It is this ever-changing scenario that highlights why decision makers need to deepen their understanding of uncertainty, an understanding which Professor Petit describes as 'abstract and embryonic'.

Regulators also need to widen their scope of enquiry, going beyond issues of market structure and the number of firms in the field. In this regard, Professor Petit also delves into what he calls ‘behavioural factors’, looking for example at what sort of people are employed by the firm and how much profit the company keeps. These factors are among those allowing to infer whether firms suffer from uncertainty-driven pressures. 'I think that a key finding is that there is more dynamism in this market than the static analysis suggests' he says.

Professor Petit’s multidisciplinary approach is a reflection of his many interests. He first studied Law in Paris, initially focusing on Constitutional Law, and then subsequently enrolling in the Erasmus programme ‘almost by mistake’. He quickly developed interests in economics, management and business science. His curiosity brought him to tap into a diverse pool of academic research which is often ignored by specialist competition agencies, policy-makers, lawyers and regulators, making it a unique trait of his own research.

However, it is his childhood passion for the works of science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov and others, where he first learnt about the laws of robotics, that is now reemerging in his current work. For Professor Petit, Asimov’s three laws of robotics are being misused to justify the creation of special regulations for AI systems. Often cited in newspapers and in politicians' speeches, Petit says that Asimov shows 'that humans are fallible when it comes to designing regulations for new technology'. Special laws, he says, malfunction. The question remains whether the existing legal infrastructure can adequately regulate emerging technologies, for example, facial recognition.

Professor Petit looks forward to developing his research on law, technology, and market regulation in the time he spends between the Law Department and the Robert Schuman Centre, where he is joint chair. His new book Big Tech and the Digital Economy will be published this summer by Oxford University Press.