Apple, Antitrust, and the FTC

Josh Wright —  25 February 2011

Antitrust investigators continue to see smoke rising around Apple and the App Store.  From the WSJ:

For starters, subscriptions must be sold through Apple’s App Store. For instance, a magazine that wants to publish its content on an iPad cannot include a link in an iPad app that would direct readers to buy subscriptions through the magazine’s website. Apple earns a 30% share of any subscription sold through its App Store. …

A federal official confirmed to The Washington Post that the government is looking at Apple’s subscription service terms for potential antitrust issues but said there is no formal investigation. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, the official said that the government routinely tracks new commercial initiatives influencing markets.

Investigators certainly suspect Apple of myriad antitrust violations; there is even some absurd talk about breaking up Apple.  There is definitely smoke — but is there fire?

The most often discussed bar to an antitrust action against Apple is the one many regulators simply assume into existence: Apple must have market power in an antitrust-relevant market.  While Apple’s share of the smartphone market is only 16% or so, its share of the tablet computing market is much larger.  The WSJ, for example, reports that Apple accounts for about three-fourths of tablet computer sales.  I’ve noted before in the smartphone context that this requirement should not be consider a bar to FTC suit, given the availability of Section 5; however, as the WSJ explains, market definition must be a critical issue in any Apple investigation or lawsuit:

Publishers, for example, might claim that Apple dominates the market for consumer tablet computers and that it has allegedly used that commanding position to restrict competition. Apple, in turn, might define the market to include all digital and print media, and counter that any publisher not happy with Apple’s terms is free to still reach its customers through many other print and digital outlets.

One must conduct a proper, empirically-grounded analysis of the relevant data to speak with confidence; however, it suffices to say that I am skeptical that tablet sales would constitute a relevant market.

Meanwhile, Google demonstrates the corrective dynamics of markets.  New entry during an investigation period can influence agencies’ decision-making — as it should; Google has recently offered a new service, OnePass, which would allow publishers to keep up to 90% of subscription revenue.  It is unknown — and perhaps unknowable — which business model is “correct;” perhaps both are preferable in their individual contexts.  It appears there is emerging, significant competition in this space, of which regulators should take note.

Finally, in light of Geoff’s recent post, it is also worth discussing whether Tim Wu’s recent appointment to the Commission impacts the likelihood of a suit against Apple.  Geoff thinks it means a likely suit against Google; Professor Wu might bring similar implications for Apple — after all, Professor Wu has described Apple as the company he most fears.  I have no doubt that Professor Wu will spend a good deal of his time at the Commission dealing with issues surrounding both Google and Apple, policy issues concerning both, and potential antitrust theories surrounding business practices such as Apple’s subscription model.  I am skeptical, however, that his presence changes the actual likelihood of a suit: Section 2 law remains a substantial obstacle.  The real value of his creative thinking will be in generating Section 5 claims surrounding these business arrangements — where the Commission must demonstrate substantially less onerous requirements and where the Commission operates within greater legal ambiguities.  In this light, will Professor Wu bring such an aggressive stance to Section 5 so as to make the difference between an Apple challenge or not?  I doubt it — the Commission has already expressed an interpretation of Section 5 that I find unjustifiably aggressive.  The Commission needs no assistance in leveraging Section 5 to intervene in high-tech contexts: just ask Intel.

Predictions are a rough business: that caveat aside, I continue to believe the FTC will file against Apple — and because of the obvious (and likely impassable) hurdles under Section 2, I believe the eventual complaint will be a bare Section 5 suit.

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