In the last post, I discussed possible characterizations of Google’s conduct for purposes of antitrust analysis. A firm grasp of the economic implications of the different conceptualizations of Google’s conduct is a necessary – but not sufficient – precondition for appreciating the inconsistencies underlying the proposed remedies for Google’s alleged competitive harms. In this post, I want to turn to a different question: assuming arguendo a competitive problem associated with Google’s algorithmic rankings – an assumption I do not think is warranted, supported by the evidence, or even consistent with the relevant literature on vertical contractual relationships – how might antitrust enforcers conceive of an appropriate and consumer-welfare-conscious remedy? Antitrust agencies, economists, and competition policy scholars have all appropriately stressed the importance of considering a potential remedy prior to, rather than following, an antitrust investigation; this is good advice not only because of the benefits of thinking rigorously and realistically about remedial design, but also because clear thinking about remedies upfront might illuminate something about the competitive nature of the conduct at issue.
Somewhat ironically, former DOJ Antitrust Division Assistant Attorney General Tom Barnett – now counsel for Expedia, one of the most prominent would-be antitrust plaintiffs against Google – warned (in his prior, rather than his present, role) that “[i]mplementing a remedy that is too broad runs the risk of distorting markets, impairing competition, and prohibiting perfectly legal and efficient conduct,” and that “forcing a firm to share the benefits of its investments and relieving its rivals of the incentive to develop comparable assets of their own, access remedies can reduce the competitive vitality of an industry.” Barnett also noted that “[t]here seems to be consensus that we should prohibit unilateral conduct only where it is demonstrated through rigorous economic analysis to harm competition and thereby harm consumer welfare.” Well said. With these warnings well in-hand, we must turn to two inter-related concerns necessary to appreciating the potential consequences of a remedy for Google’s conduct: (1) the menu of potential remedies available for an antitrust suit against Google, and (2) the efficacy of these potential remedies from a consumer-welfare, rather than firm-welfare, perspective.
What are the potential remedies?
The burgeoning search neutrality crowd presents no lack of proposed remedies; indeed, if there is one segment in which Google’s critics have proven themselves prolific, it is in their constant ingenuity conceiving ways to bring governmental intervention to bear upon Google. Professor Ben Edelman has usefully aggregated and discussed several of the alternatives, four of which bear mention: (1) a la Frank Pasquale and Oren Bracha, the creation of a “Federal Search Commission,” (2) a la the regulations surrounding the Customer Reservation Systems (CRS) in the 1990s, a prohibition on rankings that order listings “us[ing] any factors directly or indirectly relating to” whether the search engine is affiliated with the link, (3) mandatory disclosure of all manual adjustments to algorithmic search, and (4) transfer of the “browser choice” menu of the EC Microsoft litigation to the Google search context, requiring Google to offer users a choice of five or so rivals whenever a user enters particular queries.
Geoff and I discuss several of these potential remedies in our paper, If Search Neutrality is the Answer, What’s the Question? It suffices to say that we find significant consumer welfare threats from the creation of a new regulatory agency designed to impose “neutral” search results. For now, I prefer to focus on the second of these remedies – analogized to CRS technology in the 1990s – here; Professor Edelman not only explains proposed CRS-inspired regulation, but does so in effusive terms:
A first insight comes from recognizing that regulators have already – successfully! – addressed the problem of bias in information services. One key area of intervention was customer reservation systems (CRS’s), the computer networks that let travel agents see flight availability and pricing for various major airlines. Three decades ago, when CRS’s were largely owned by the various airlines, some airlines favored their own flights. For example, when a travel agent searched for flights through Apollo, a CRS then owned by United Airlines, United flights would come up first – even if other carriers offered lower prices or nonstop service. The Department of Justice intervened, culminating in rules prohibiting any CRS owned by an airline from ordering listings “us[ing] any factors directly or indirectly relating to carrier identity” (14 CFR 255.4). Certainly one could argue that these rules were an undue intrusion: A travel agent was always free to find a different CRS, and further additional searches could have uncovered alternative flights. Yet most travel agents hesitated to switch CRS’s, and extra searches would be both time-consuming and error-prone. Prohibiting biased listings was the better approach.
The same principle applies in the context of web search. On this theory, Google ought not rank results by any metric that distinctively favors Google. I credit that web search considers myriad web sites – far more than the number of airlines, flights, or fares. And I credit that web search considers more attributes of each web page – not just airfare price, transit time, and number of stops. But these differences only grant a search engine more room to innovate. These differences don’t change the underlying reasoning, so compelling in the CRS context, that a system provider must not design its rules to systematically put itself first.
The analogy is a superficially attractive one, and we’re tempted to entertain it, so far as it goes. Organizational questions inhere in both settings, and similarly so: both flights and search results must be ordinally ranked, and before CRS regulation, a host airline’s flights often appeared before those of rival airlines. Indeed, we will take Edelman’s analogy at face value. Problematically for Professor Edelman and others pushing the CRS-style remedy, a fuller exploration of CRS regulation reveals this market intervention – well, put simply, wasn’t so successful after all. Not for consumers anyway. It did, however, generate (economically) predictable consequences: reduced consumer welfare through reduced innovation. Let’s explore the consequences of Edelman’s analogy further below the fold.