Debbie Johnston navigates a rapidly shifting legal landscape at Competition Bureau Canada

Technology is transforming competition in the marketplace, says Johnston

Debbie Johnston navigates a rapidly shifting legal landscape at Competition Bureau Canada
Debbie Johnston, executive director and senior general counsel, legal services, Competition Bureau Canada

It is an exciting time to be working in competition law, according to Debbie Johnston. Since she joined the Competition Bureau at the Department of Justice Canada just as the world went into lockdown in March, 2020, competition law has heated up dramatically.

Johnston – a former prosecutor with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada – leads the Competition Bureau’s legal team, working to safeguard a competitive and innovative Canadian economy in her capacity as executive director and senior general counsel, legal services. She currently manages a team of around 30 people, including 20 lawyers – making up a small part of the legal team at the much larger Department of Justice Canada.

Top of mind for Johnston this year is the digitization of the economy and how this is transforming competition in the marketplace, and the impact on mergers and market dominance. As the shift to a digital landscape accelerated rapidly during COVID, the Competition Bureau had to examine new ways to assess price increases when personal information is used in place of dollars to access digital platforms.

“What we’re seeing in the competition sphere is new forms of market dominance; we’re seeing that data is very valuable. It’s basically like a currency,” says Johnston. “We’re seeing businesses acquiring other businesses in the digital economy that are new and novel.”

The Competition Bureau is also seeing the impact of algorithms, in terms of how they can coordinate prices and match data from different platforms to create profiles that can be used and marketed, in addition to new acquisition strategies in the digital economy. For example, larger companies will sometimes buy a start-up, either to acquire the technology – or just to stamp out potential competition.

“Businesses used to be two-dimensional, and mergers were either buying up competitors or buying up people in the supply chain. Now there are all kinds of angles, so we have to look at if our existing system is still suitable for the current economy,” says Johnston.

Also top of mind at the Competition Bureau – and among businesses across the country – is the ongoing reforms to competition law in Canada and around the world, as regulators re-think laws and policies, and their approach to enforcement. The Government of Canada introduced some initial legislative amendments in 2022, so Johnston is now preparing for the launch of the anticipated larger competition reform.

“We’re witnessing a dramatic shift to more vigorous enforcement of competition laws,” says Johnston. “We will likely see more collaboration between competition regulators around the world so we will be involved in that."

In addition to supporting the Competition Bureau, Johnston’s team also supports the broader Department of Justice, particularly with corporate objectives, such as by litigating cases that relate to the affordability of goods and services in Canada, for example.

“One of our goals continues to be to ensure that the Competition Bureau legal services is ready to litigate responsible and evidence-based cases on behalf of the commissioner,” says Johnston. “This may include settlement negotiations or negotiating administrative penalties where appropriate, or seeking injunctions where they are warranted.”

Creating a healthy work environment for her busy team is another key priority for Johnston. She and her deputy executive director created four cornerstones of team wellbeing: employee empowerment, valuing people meaningfully, fostering a clear workplace culture, and creating an inclusive and diverse workplace.

“In the public sector, we don’t have a lot of money to spend, so I’m always looking for cost-neutral ways to show our employees how much they mean to us, to our clients, and to the Department of Justice,” says Johnston.

Debbie Johnston spoke to Canadian Lawyer in her personal capacity. Her comments are hers alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Justice or the Competition Bureau.

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