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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU regulators are considering whether companies that gain access to valuable data via small M&A deals should seek approval for these acquisitions to ensure that they will not hurt competition, the EU's antitrust chief said on Thursday.
European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager's comments come alongside an increasing focus by regulators globally on privacy and the possibility that some companies may buy data-rich rivals to lock in users and squeeze out competitors.
"A company might even buy up a rival just to get hold of its data, even though it hasn't yet managed to turn that data into money," Vestager told a conference organised by consumer group BEUC and the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS).
"We are therefore exploring whether we need to start looking at mergers with valuable data involved, even though the company that owns it doesn't have a large turnover," she said.
EU merger rules currently apply to mergers where the annual turnover of the combined businesses exceeds specified thresholds in terms of global and European sales.
The European Commission plans to seek feedback from the public and interested parties before making any decision.
"We hope to start a public consultation very soon on should we supplement, complement our merger thresholds which are now turnover thresholds when it comes to data but also knowledge as such," Vestager told reporters, saying the subject would also include patents which are not covered for now.
Vestager, who will rule in the coming weeks on Microsoft's (MSFT.O) $26.2 billion bid for social media company LinkedIn Corp LNKD.N in its biggest-ever deal, said the onus was on companies to behave themselves.
"Those who work with big data need to take this (users' concerns) seriously. It's up to them to convince people that they will use data properly ... So I will keep a close eye on how companies use data," she told the conference.
Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Jane Merriman