Tencent in Monopoly Spotlight; Baidu Next? 腾讯被诉垄断 下一个是百度吗?

An important trial has just begun in southern Guangdong province, testing China’s young anti-monopoly law and its legal system in a case that could spell big headaches for leading Internet firm Tencent (HKEx: 700). Analysts also point out the case could have a domino effect for other areas where a single company dominates the Web, with online search leader Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU) perhaps the most vulnerable to a similar lawsuit. But let’s look at the Tencent case first, as that’s the main point here. Perhaps appropriately, the case is being bought by Internet software company Qihoo 360 (NYSE: QIHU), a seasoned veteran with litigation in China, having been sued numerous times by others, including Tencent, and also filing numerous lawsuits of its own against rivals. This latest case has Qihoo suing Tencent for monopolistic practices in the instant messaging space, claiming Tencent’s wildly popular QQ service has a virtual lock on the market. (Chinese article) The case, which began on Wednesday morning,has Qihoo seeking 150 million yuan, or about $24 million, in damages. Chinese courts rarely award that much money due to legal restrictions, but even if they did such an award would be trivial to a company like Tencent that has a market cap of $56 billion and a huge cash pile. Of course the much bigger threat is that the court will determine that Tencent does indeed have an instant messaging monopoly, which it has used to quickly gain dominance in other Internet spaces such as online games. From my perspective, Qihoo’s case does indeed look convincing, as Tencent currently controls more than 70 percent of the instant messaging market. I personally don’t use QQ, but in my experience the only other platform that has any users at all in China is Microsoft’s (Nasdaq: MSFT) MSN, whose service is basically just a copy of its global product and is far less popular among Chinese users. A court ruling against Tencent would be interesting for a number of reasons, all of which would obviously be bad for the company. Qihoo and others are clearly interested in seeing the court order Tencent to de-link QQ from its other initiatives, as that would seriously hamper the company’s ability to take advantage of its massive instant messaging user base to quickly develop into other areas like search, online video and e-commerce. But the court, if it rules against Tencent, should also take steps to break its instant messaging monopoly, which is what the anti-monopoly rule was designed for. Of course, if the court rules against Tencent the next major target would be Baidu, which also controls more than 70 percent of China’s search market, the legal definition for a monopoly. Accordingly, China Internet watchers and investors should be paying close attention to this case, which could have big implications for both Tencent and Baidu stock.

Bottom line: Tencent will suffer a big setback if a court rules it has a monopoly in instant messaging, potentially paving the way for a similar lawsuit against Baidu.

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