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imageI am of two minds when it comes to the announcement today that the NYC taxi commission will permit companies like Uber and Lyft to update, when the companies wish, the mobile apps that serve as the front end for the ridesharing platforms.

My first instinct is to breathe a sigh of relief that even the NYC taxi commission eventually rejected the patently ridiculous notion that an international technology platform should have its update schedule in anyway dictated by the parochial interests of a local transportation fiefdom.

My second instinct is to grit my teeth in frustration that, in the face of the overwhelming transformation going on in the world today because of technology platforms offered by the likes of Uber and Lyft, anyone would even think to ask the question “should I ask the NYC taxi commission whether or not I can update the app on my users’ smartphones?”

That said, it’s important to take the world as you find it, not as you wish it to be, and so I want to highlight some items from the decision that deserve approbation.

Meera Josh, the NYC Taxi Commission chairperson and CEO, had this to say of the proposed rule:

We re-stylized the rules so they’re tech agnostic because our point is not to go after one particular technology – things change quicker than we do – it’s to provide baseline consumer protection and driver safety requirements[.]

I love that the commission gets this. The real power in the technology that drives the sharing economy is that it can change quickly in response to consumer demand. Further, regulators can offer value to these markets only when they understand that the nature of work and services are changing, and that their core justification as consumer protection agencies necessarily requires them to adjust when and how they intervene.

Although there is always more work to be done to make room for these entrepreneurial platforms (for instance, the NYC rules appear to require that all on-demand drivers – including the soccer mom down the street driving for Lyft – be licensed through the commission), this is generally forward-thinking. I hope that more municipalities across the country take notice, and that the relevant regulators follow suit in repositioning themselves as partners with these innovative companies.

If you haven’t been following the ongoing developments emerging from the demise of Grooveshark, the story has only gotten more interesting. As the RIAA and major record labels have struggled to shut down infringing content on Grooveshark’s site (and now its copycats), groups like EFF would have us believe that the entire Internet was at stake — even in the face of a fairly marginal victory by the recording industry. In the most recent episode, the issuance of a TRO against CloudFlare — a CDN service provider for the copycat versions of Grooveshark — has sparked much controversy. Ironically for CloudFlare, however, its efforts to evade compliance with the TRO may well have opened it up to far more significant infringement liability.

In response to Grooveshark’s shutdown in April, copycat sites began springing up. Initially, the record labels played a game of whac-a-mole as the copycats hopped from server to server within the United States. Ultimately the copycats settled on grooveshark.li, using a host and registrar outside of the country, as well as anonymized services that made direct action against the actual parties next to impossible. Instead of continuing the futile chase, the plaintiffs decided to address the problem more strategically.

High volume web sites like Grooveshark frequently depend upon third party providers to optimize their media streaming and related needs. In this case, the copycats relied upon the services of CloudFlare to provide DNS hosting and a content delivery network (“CDN”). Failing to thwart Grooveshark through direct action alone, the plaintiffs sought and were granted a TRO against certain third-parties, eventually served on CloudFlare, hoping to staunch the flow of infringing content by temporarily enjoining the ancillary activities that enabled the pirates to continue operations.

CloudFlare refused to comply with the TRO, claiming the TRO didn’t apply to it (for reasons discussed below). The court disagreed, however, and found that CloudFlare was, in fact, bound by the TRO.

Unsurprisingly the copyright scolds came out strongly against the TRO and its application to CloudFlare, claiming that

Copyright holders should not be allowed to blanket infrastructure companies with blocking requests, co-opting them into becoming private trademark and copyright police.

Devlin Hartline wrote an excellent analysis of the court’s decision that the TRO was properly applied to CloudFlare, concluding that it was neither improper nor problematic. In sum, as Hartline discusses, the court found that CloudFlare was indeed engaged in “active concert and participation” and was, therefore, properly subject to a TRO under FRCP 65 that would prevent it from further enabling the copycats to run their service.

Hartline’s analysis is spot-on, but we think it important to clarify and amplify his analysis in a way that, we believe, actually provides insight into a much larger problem for CloudFlare.

As Hartline states,

This TRO wasn’t about the “world at large,” and it wasn’t about turning the companies that provide internet infrastructure into the “trademark and copyright police.” It was about CloudFlare knowingly helping the enjoined defendants to continue violating the plaintiffs’ intellectual property rights.

Importantly, the issuance of the TRO turned in part on whether the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits — which is to say that the copycats could in fact be liable for copyright infringement. Further, the initial TRO became a preliminary injunction before the final TRO hearing because the copycats failed to show up to defend themselves. Thus, CloudFlare was potentially exposing itself to a claim of contributory infringement, possibly from the time it was notified of the infringing activity by the RIAA. This is so because a claim of contributory liability would require that CloudFlare “knowingly” contributed to the infringement. Here there was actual knowledge upon issuance of the TRO (if not before).

However, had CloudFlare gone along with the proceedings and complied with the court’s order in good faith, § 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) would have provided a safe harbor. Nevertheless, following from CloudFlare’s actual behavior, the company does now have a lot more to fear than a mere TRO.

Although we don’t have the full technical details of how CloudFlare’s service operates, we can make some fair assumptions. Most importantly, in order to optimize the content it serves, a CDN would necessarily have to store that content at some point as part of an optimizing cache scheme. Under the terms of the DMCA, an online service provider (OSP) that engages in caching of online content will be immune from liability, subject to certain conditions. The most important condition relevant here is that, in order to qualify for the safe harbor, the OSP must “expeditiously [] remove, or disable access to, the material that is claimed to be infringing upon notification of claimed infringement[.]”

Here, not only had CloudFlare been informed by the plaintiffs that it was storing infringing content, but a district court had gone so far as to grant a TRO against CloudFlare’s serving of said content. It certainly seems plausible to view CloudFlare as acting outside the scope of the DMCA safe harbor once it refused to disable access to the infringing content after the plaintiffs contacted it, but certainly once the TRO was deemed to apply to it.

To underscore this point, CloudFlare’s arguments during the TRO proceedings essentially admitted to knowledge that infringing material was flowing through its CDN. CloudFlare focused its defense on the fact that it was not an active participant in the infringing activity, but was merely a passive network through which the copycats’ content was flowing. Moreover, CloudFlare argued that

Even if [it]—and every company in the world that provides similar services—took proactive steps to identify and block the Defendants, the website would remain up and running at its current domain name.

But while this argument may make some logical sense from the perspective of a party resisting an injunction, it amounts to a very big admission in terms of a possible infringement case — particularly given CloudFlare’s obstinance in refusing to help the plaintiffs shut down the infringing sites.

As noted above, CloudFlare had an affirmative duty to to at least suspend access to infringing material once it was aware of the infringement (and, of course, even more so once it received the TRO). Instead, CloudFlare relied upon its “impossibility” argument against complying with the TRO based on the claim that enjoining CloudFlare would be futile in thwarting the infringement of others. CloudFlare does appear to have since complied with the TRO (which is now a preliminary injunction), but the compliance does not change a very crucial fact: knowledge of the infringement on CloudFlare’s part existed before the preliminary injunction took effect, while CloudFlare resisted the initial TRO as well as RIAA’s efforts to secure compliance.

Phrased another way, CloudFlare became an infringer by virtue of having cached copyrighted content and been given notice of that content. However, in its view, merely removing CloudFlare’s storage of that copyrighted content would have done nothing to prevent other networks from also storing the copyrighted content, and therefore it should not be enjoined from its infringing behavior. This essentially amounts to an admission of knowledge of infringing content being stored in its network.

It would be hard to believe that CloudFlare’s counsel failed to advise it to consider the contributory infringement issues that could arise from its conduct prior to and during the TRO proceedings. Thus CloudFlare’s position is somewhat perplexing, particularly once the case became a TRO proceeding. CloudFlare could perhaps have made technical arguments against the TRO in an attempt to demonstrate to its customers that it didn’t automatically shut down services at the behest of the RIAA. It could have done this in good faith, and without the full-throated “impossibility” argument that could very plausibly draw them into infringement litigation. But whatever CloudFlare thought it was gaining in taking a “moral” stance on behalf of OSPs everywhere with its “impossibility” argument, it may well have ended up costing itself much more.

Nearly all economists from across the political spectrum agree: free trade is good. Yet free trade agreements are not always the same thing as free trade. Whether we’re talking about the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the European Union’s Digital Single Market (DSM) initiative, the question is always whether the agreement in question is reducing barriers to trade, or actually enacting barriers to trade into law.

It’s becoming more and more clear that there should be real concerns about the direction the EU is heading with its DSM. As the EU moves forward with the 16 different action proposals that make up this ambitious strategy, we should all pay special attention to the actual rules that come out of it, such as the recent Data Protection Regulation. Are EU regulators simply trying to hogtie innovators in the the wild, wild, west, as some have suggested? Let’s break it down. Here are The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good

The Data Protection Regulation, as proposed by the Ministers of Justice Council and to be taken up in trilogue negotiations with the Parliament and Council this month, will set up a single set of rules for companies to follow throughout the EU. Rather than having to deal with the disparate rules of 28 different countries, companies will have to follow only the EU-wide Data Protection Regulation. It’s hard to determine whether the EU is right about its lofty estimate of this benefit (€2.3 billion a year), but no doubt it’s positive. This is what free trade is about: making commerce “regular” by reducing barriers to trade between states and nations.

Additionally, the Data Protection Regulation would create a “one-stop shop” for consumers and businesses alike. Regardless of where companies are located or process personal information, consumers would be able to go to their own national authority, in their own language, to help them. Similarly, companies would need to deal with only one supervisory authority.

Further, there will be benefits to smaller businesses. For instance, the Data Protection Regulation will exempt businesses smaller than a certain threshold from the obligation to appoint a data protection officer if data processing is not a part of their core business activity. On top of that, businesses will not have to notify every supervisory authority about each instance of collection and processing, and will have the ability to charge consumers fees for certain requests to access data. These changes will allow businesses, especially smaller ones, to save considerable money and human capital. Finally, smaller entities won’t have to carry out an impact assessment before engaging in processing unless there is a specific risk. These rules are designed to increase flexibility on the margin.

If this were all the rules were about, then they would be a boon to the major American tech companies that have expressed concern about the DSM. These companies would be able to deal with EU citizens under one set of rules and consumers would be able to take advantage of the many benefits of free flowing information in the digital economy.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the substance of the Data Protection Regulation isn’t limited simply to preempting 28 bad privacy rules with an economically sensible standard for Internet companies that rely on data collection and targeted advertising for their business model. Instead, the Data Protection Regulation would set up new rules that will impose significant costs on the Internet ecosphere.

For instance, giving citizens a “right to be forgotten” sounds good, but it will considerably impact companies built on providing information to the world. There are real costs to administering such a rule, and these costs will not ultimately be borne by search engines, social networks, and advertisers, but by consumers who ultimately will have to find either a different way to pay for the popular online services they want or go without them. For instance, Google has had to hire a large “team of lawyers, engineers and paralegals who have so far evaluated over half a million URLs that were requested to be delisted from search results by European citizens.”

Privacy rights need to be balanced with not only economic efficiency, but also with the right to free expression that most European countries hold (though not necessarily with a robust First Amendment like that in the United States). Stories about the right to be forgotten conflicting with the ability of journalists to report on issues of public concern make clear that there is a potential problem there. The Data Protection Regulation does attempt to balance the right to be forgotten with the right to report, but it’s not likely that a similar rule would survive First Amendment scrutiny in the United States. American companies accustomed to such protections will need to be wary operating under the EU’s standard.

Similarly, mandating rules on data minimization and data portability may sound like good design ideas in light of data security and privacy concerns, but there are real costs to consumers and innovation in forcing companies to adopt particular business models.

Mandated data minimization limits the ability of companies to innovate and lessens the opportunity for consumers to benefit from unexpected uses of information. Overly strict requirements on data minimization could slow down the incredible growth of the economy from the Big Data revolution, which has provided a plethora of benefits to consumers from new uses of information, often in ways unfathomable even a short time ago. As an article in Harvard Magazine recently noted,

The story [of data analytics] follows a similar pattern in every field… The leaders are qualitative experts in their field. Then a statistical researcher who doesn’t know the details of the field comes in and, using modern data analysis, adds tremendous insight and value.

And mandated data portability is an overbroad per se remedy for possible exclusionary conduct that could also benefit consumers greatly. The rule will apply to businesses regardless of market power, meaning that it will also impair small companies with no ability to actually hurt consumers by restricting their ability to take data elsewhere. Aside from this, multi-homing is ubiquitous in the Internet economy, anyway. This appears to be another remedy in search of a problem.

The bad news is that these rules will likely deter innovation and reduce consumer welfare for EU citizens.

The Ugly

Finally, the Data Protection Regulation suffers from an ugly defect: it may actually be ratifying a form of protectionism into the rules. Both the intent and likely effect of the rules appears to be to “level the playing field” by knocking down American Internet companies.

For instance, the EU has long allowed flexibility for US companies operating in Europe under the US-EU Safe Harbor. But EU officials are aiming at reducing this flexibility. As the Wall Street Journal has reported:

For months, European government officials and regulators have clashed with the likes of Google, Amazon.com and Facebook over everything from taxes to privacy…. “American companies come from outside and act as if it was a lawless environment to which they are coming,” [Commissioner Reding] told the Journal. “There are conflicts not only about competition rules but also simply about obeying the rules.” In many past tussles with European officialdom, American executives have countered that they bring innovation, and follow all local laws and regulations… A recent EU report found that European citizens’ personal data, sent to the U.S. under Safe Harbor, may be processed by U.S. authorities in a way incompatible with the grounds on which they were originally collected in the EU. Europeans allege this harms European tech companies, which must play by stricter rules about what they can do with citizens’ data for advertising, targeting products and searches. Ms. Reding said Safe Harbor offered a “unilateral advantage” to American companies.

Thus, while “when in Rome…” is generally good advice, the Data Protection Regulation appears to be aimed primarily at removing the “advantages” of American Internet companies—at which rent-seekers and regulators throughout the continent have taken aim. As mentioned above, supporters often name American companies outright in the reasons for why the DSM’s Data Protection Regulation are needed. But opponents have noted that new regulation aimed at American companies is not needed in order to police abuses:

Speaking at an event in London, [EU Antitrust Chief] Ms. Vestager said it would be “tricky” to design EU regulation targeting the various large Internet firms like Facebook, Amazon.com Inc. and eBay Inc. because it was hard to establish what they had in common besides “facilitating something”… New EU regulation aimed at reining in large Internet companies would take years to create and would then address historic rather than future problems, Ms. Vestager said. “We need to think about what it is we want to achieve that can’t be achieved by enforcing competition law,” Ms. Vestager said.

Moreover, of the 15 largest Internet companies, 11 are American and 4 are Chinese. None is European. So any rules applying to the Internet ecosphere are inevitably going to disproportionately affect these important, US companies most of all. But if Europe wants to compete more effectively, it should foster a regulatory regime friendly to Internet business, rather than extend inefficient privacy rules to American companies under the guise of free trade.

Conclusion

Near the end of the The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Blondie and Tuco have this exchange that seems apropos to the situation we’re in:

Bloeastwoodndie: [watching the soldiers fighting on the bridge] I have a feeling it’s really gonna be a good, long battle.
Tuco: Blondie, the money’s on the other side of the river.
Blondie: Oh? Where?
Tuco: Amigo, I said on the other side, and that’s enough. But while the Confederates are there we can’t get across.
Blondie: What would happen if somebody were to blow up that bridge?

The EU’s DSM proposals are going to be a good, long battle. But key players in the EU recognize that the tech money — along with the services and ongoing innovation that benefit EU citizens — is really on the other side of the river. If they blow up the bridge of trade between the EU and the US, though, we will all be worse off — but Europeans most of all.

The CPI Antitrust Chronicle published Geoffrey Manne’s and my recent paperThe Problems and Perils of Bootstrapping Privacy and Data into an Antitrust Framework as part of a symposium on Big Data in the May 2015 issue. All of the papers are worth reading and pondering, but of course ours is the best ;).

In it, we analyze two of the most prominent theories of antitrust harm arising from data collection: privacy as a factor of non-price competition, and price discrimination facilitated by data collection. We also analyze whether data is serving as a barrier to entry and effectively preventing competition. We argue that, in the current marketplace, there are no plausible harms to competition arising from either non-price effects or price discrimination due to data collection online and that there is no data barrier to entry preventing effective competition.

The issues of how to regulate privacy issues and what role competition authorities should in that, are only likely to increase in importance as the Internet marketplace continues to grow and evolve. The European Commission and the FTC have been called on by scholars and advocates to take greater consideration of privacy concerns during merger review and encouraged to even bring monopolization claims based upon data dominance. These calls should be rejected unless these theories can satisfy the rigorous economic review of antitrust law. In our humble opinion, they cannot do so at this time.

Excerpts:

PRIVACY AS AN ELEMENT OF NON-PRICE COMPETITION

The Horizontal Merger Guidelines have long recognized that anticompetitive effects may “be manifested in non-price terms and conditions that adversely affect customers.” But this notion, while largely unobjectionable in the abstract, still presents significant problems in actual application.

First, product quality effects can be extremely difficult to distinguish from price effects. Quality-adjusted price is usually the touchstone by which antitrust regulators assess prices for competitive effects analysis. Disentangling (allegedly) anticompetitive quality effects from simultaneous (neutral or pro-competitive) price effects is an imprecise exercise, at best. For this reason, proving a product-quality case alone is very difficult and requires connecting the degradation of a particular element of product quality to a net gain in advantage for the monopolist.

Second, invariably product quality can be measured on more than one dimension. For instance, product quality could include both function and aesthetics: A watch’s quality lies in both its ability to tell time as well as how nice it looks on your wrist. A non-price effects analysis involving product quality across multiple dimensions becomes exceedingly difficult if there is a tradeoff in consumer welfare between the dimensions. Thus, for example, a smaller watch battery may improve its aesthetics, but also reduce its reliability. Any such analysis would necessarily involve a complex and imprecise comparison of the relative magnitudes of harm/benefit to consumers who prefer one type of quality to another.

PRICE DISCRIMINATION AS A PRIVACY HARM

If non-price effects cannot be relied upon to establish competitive injury (as explained above), then what can be the basis for incorporating privacy concerns into antitrust? One argument is that major data collectors (e.g., Google and Facebook) facilitate price discrimination.

The argument can be summed up as follows: Price discrimination could be a harm to consumers that antitrust law takes into consideration. Because companies like Google and Facebook are able to collect a great deal of data about their users for analysis, businesses could segment groups based on certain characteristics and offer them different deals. The resulting price discrimination could lead to many consumers paying more than they would in the absence of the data collection. Therefore, the data collection by these major online companies facilitates price discrimination that harms consumer welfare.

This argument misses a large part of the story, however. The flip side is that price discrimination could have benefits to those who receive lower prices from the scheme than they would have in the absence of the data collection, a possibility explored by the recent White House Report on Big Data and Differential Pricing.

While privacy advocates have focused on the possible negative effects of price discrimination to one subset of consumers, they generally ignore the positive effects of businesses being able to expand output by serving previously underserved consumers. It is inconsistent with basic economic logic to suggest that a business relying on metrics would want to serve only those who can pay more by charging them a lower price, while charging those who cannot afford it a larger one. If anything, price discrimination would likely promote more egalitarian outcomes by allowing companies to offer lower prices to poorer segments of the population—segments that can be identified by data collection and analysis.

If this group favored by “personalized pricing” is as big as—or bigger than—the group that pays higher prices, then it is difficult to state that the practice leads to a reduction in consumer welfare, even if this can be divorced from total welfare. Again, the question becomes one of magnitudes that has yet to be considered in detail by privacy advocates.

DATA BARRIER TO ENTRY

Either of these theories of harm is predicated on the inability or difficulty of competitors to develop alternative products in the marketplace—the so-called “data barrier to entry.” The argument is that upstarts do not have sufficient data to compete with established players like Google and Facebook, which in turn employ their data to both attract online advertisers as well as foreclose their competitors from this crucial source of revenue. There are at least four reasons to be dubious of such arguments:

  1. Data is useful to all industries, not just online companies;
  2. It’s not the amount of data, but how you use it;
  3. Competition online is one click or swipe away; and
  4. Access to data is not exclusive

CONCLUSION

Privacy advocates have thus far failed to make their case. Even in their most plausible forms, the arguments for incorporating privacy and data concerns into antitrust analysis do not survive legal and economic scrutiny. In the absence of strong arguments suggesting likely anticompetitive effects, and in the face of enormous analytical problems (and thus a high risk of error cost), privacy should remain a matter of consumer protection, not of antitrust.

Profile-Pic-3-professional-200x300Truth On the Market is pleased to announce that Kristian Stout of the International Center for Law and Economics (“ICLE”) has joined our team of writers. Kristian was recently hired by ICLE as Associate Director for Innovation Policy, bringing with him over ten years of experience as a technology professional and entrepreneur. In his role at ICLE, Kristian’s work is focused on the areas of Innovation, Data, Privacy, Telecom, and Intellectual Property.

Kristian has previously been a lecturer in the computer science department of Rutgers University,  is frequently invited to speak on law and technology topics, and has been published in law journals and legal treatises on intellectual property and innovation policy. Kristian is an attorney licensed to practice law in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, is a partner at A&S Technologies, a software services firm, and sits on the board of CodedByKids, a nonprofit organization that provides STEM education to underprivileged children.

Kristian graduated magna cum laude from the Rutgers University School of law, served on the editorial board of the Rutgers Journal of Law and Public Policy, and was awarded a Governor’s Executive Fellowship from the Eagleton Institute of Politics.

He is excited to join the TOTM team, bringing with him a fusion of technological-optimism and a belief in the power of free markets to enhance the welfare of all humanity.

Yesterday the Heritage Foundation released a series of essays on “Saving Internet Freedom.”  These analytical essays are an excellent reference work for interested members of the public who seek answers to those who claim the Internet requires new and intrusive government regulation.  The introduction to the essays highlights the topics they cover and summarizes their conclusions:

“1.    Federal “network-neutrality” regulations. Rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in February 2015 bar Internet access providers from prioritizing the content that is sent through their networks. This ban limits the ability of Internet service providers (ISPs) to innovate, which limits economic freedom, to the detriment of the Internet and its users. In addition to activities clearly prohibited, the new rule also gives the FCC vast discretion. As a result, critical decisions about what practices will be allowed on the Net will be left to the subjective judgment of five unelected FCC commissioners.

  1. Global Internet governance. Many nations, such as China and Russia, have made no secret of their desire to limit speech on the Internet. Even some democratic nations have supported limiting freedoms online. With the U.S. government’s decision to end its oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the private, nonprofit organization that manages name and number assignments on the Internet, these countries see a chance to fill the vacuum, and to use ICANN’s Internet governance role to limit expression on the Web.
  2. Regulatory barriers to online commerce. The Internet is a true disruptive force in commerce, challenging inefficient ways of business. Often, these challenges conflict with anti-consumer laws that protect middlemen and others with a stake in older, costlier ways of doing business. These harmful laws have eroded in many cases, but have not been erased from the statute books.
  3. Internet taxation. Sales and other taxation also create regulatory barriers to online commerce. Some politicians and state tax collectors are pushing Congress to pass legislation that would allow state governments to force retailers located in other states to collect their sales taxes. They say they want to equalize the tax burdens between so-called brick-and-mortar retailers and their online counterparts. But instead of eliminating differences, the proposal would create new disparities and impose new burdens, as sellers struggle to deal with the tax laws of some 10,000 jurisdictions and 46 state tax authorities.
  4. Intellectual property. The freedom to create without fear that one’s creation will be appropriated by others is fundamental. At the same time, overly restrictive laws limiting the use of intellectual property erodes other freedoms, not least freedom of expression. The challenge to lawmakers is to balance these two opposing values, to protect intellectual property without undue limits on its fair use or on third parties.
  5. Cybersecurity. To enjoy the freedoms made possible by the Internet, a certain amount of security is needed to protect it from cyber theft, vandalism, and other criminal threats. This security cannot simply be achieved by government mandates. Government should remove barriers that hinder private-sector efforts to protect online networks.
  6. Digital privacy. Under current law, communications by Americans via electronic networks enjoy less protection than a letter sent by mail. Government does have a legitimate interest in viewing private communications in limited circumstances in order to apprehend criminals or terrorists and to protect security. But to do so, the government should be required to obtain a search warrant for each case, holding it to the constitutional standards that protect other communications, such as mail.”

Supporters of individual freedom and economic liberty will find much to like in these essays.

On Wednesday, March 18, our fellow law-and-economics-focused brethren at George Mason’s Law and Economics Center will host a very interesting morning briefing on the intersection of privacy, big data, consumer protection, and antitrust. FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen will keynote and she will be followed by what looks like will be a lively panel discussion. If you are in DC you can join in person, but you can also watch online. More details below.
Please join the LEC in person or online for a morning of lively discussion on this topic. FTC Commissioner Maureen K. Ohlhausen will set the stage by discussing her Antitrust Law Journal article, “Competition, Consumer Protection and The Right [Approach] To Privacy“. A panel discussion on big data and antitrust, which includes some of the leading thinkers on the subject, will follow.
Other featured speakers include:

Allen P. Grunes
Founder, The Konkurrenz Group and Data Competition Institute

Andres Lerner
Executive Vice President, Compass Lexecon

Darren S. Tucker
Partner, Morgan Lewis

Nathan Newman
Director, Economic and Technology Strategies LLC

Moderator: James C. Cooper
Director, Research and Policy, Law & Economics Center

A full agenda is available click here.

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has a terrific essay in the Review section of today’s Wall Street Journal.  The essay, Competition Is for Losers, is adapted from Mr. Thiel’s soon-to-be-released book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.  Based on the title of the book, I assume it is primarily a how-to guide for entrepreneurs.  But if the rest of the book is anything like the essay in today’s Journal, it will also offer lots of guidance to policy makers–antitrust officials in particular.

We antitrusters usually begin with the assumption that monopoly is bad and perfect competition is good. That’s the starting point for most antitrust courses: the professor lays out the model of perfect competition, points to all the wealth it creates and how that wealth is distributed (more to consumers than to producers), and contrasts it to the monopoly pricing model, with its steep marginal revenue curve, hideous “deadweight loss” triangle, and unseemly redistribution of surplus from consumers to producers. Which is better, kids?  Why, perfect competition, of course!

Mr. Thiel makes the excellent and oft-neglected point that monopoly power is not necessarily a bad thing. First, monopolists can do certain good things that perfect competitors can’t do:

A monopoly like Google is different. Since it doesn’t have to worry about competing with anyone, it has wider latitude to care about its workers, its products and its impact on the wider world. Google’s motto–“Don’t be evil”–is in part a branding ploy, but it is also characteristic of a kind of business that is successful enough to take ethics seriously without jeopardizing its own existence.  In business, money is either an important thing or it is everything. Monopolists can think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t. In perfect competition, a business is so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits.

Fair enough, Thiel. But what about consumers? That model we learned shows us that they’re worse off under monopoly.  And what about the deadweight loss triangle–don’t forget about that ugly thing! 

So a monopoly is good for everyone on the inside, but what about everyone on the outside? Do outsize profits come at the expense of the rest of society? Actually, yes: Profits come out of customers’ wallets, and monopolies deserve their bad reputations–but only in a world where nothing changes.

Wait a minute, Thiel. Why do you think things are different when we inject “change” into the analysis?

In a static world, a monopolist is just a rent collector. If you corner the market for something, you can jack up the price; others will have no choice but to buy from you. Think of the famous board game: Deeds are shuffled around from player to player, but the board never changes. There is no way to win by inventing a better kind of real estate development. The relative values of the properties are fixed for all time, so all you can do is try to buy them up.

But the world we live in is dynamic: We can invent new and better things. Creative monopolists give customers more choices by adding entirely new categories of abundance to the world. Creative monopolies aren’t just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better.

Even the government knows this: That is why one of the departments works hard to create monopolies (by granting patents to new inventions) even though another part hunts them down (by prosecuting antitrust cases). It is possible to question whether anyone should really be rewarded a monopoly simply for having been the first to think of something like a mobile software design. But something like Apple’s monopoly profits from designing, producing and marketing the iPhone were clearly the reward for creating greater abundance, not artificial scarcity: Customers were happy to finally have the choice of paying high prices to get a smartphone that actually works. The dynamism of new monopolies itself explains why old monopolies don’t strangle innovation. With Apple’s iOS at the forefront, the rise of mobile computing has dramatically reduced Microsoft’s decadeslong operating system dominance.

…If the tendency of monopoly businesses was to hold back progress, they would be dangerous, and we’d be right to oppose them. But the history of progress is a history of better monopoly businesses replacing incumbents. Monopolies drive progress because the promise of years or even decades of monopoly profits provides a powerful incentive to innovate. Then monopolies can keep innovating because profits enable them to make the long-term plans and finance the ambitious research projects that firms locked in competition can’t dream of.

Geez, Thiel.  You know who you sound like?  Justice Scalia. Here’s how he once explained your idea (to shrieks and howls from many in the antitrust establishment!):

The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices–at least for a short period–is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place. It induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth. To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.

Sounds like you and Scalia are calling for us antitrusters to update our models.  Is that it?

So why are economists obsessed with competition as an ideal state? It is a relic of history. Economists copied their mathematics from the work of 19th-century physicists: They see individuals and businesses as interchangeable atoms, not as unique creators. Their theories describe an equilibrium state of perfect competition because that is what’s easy to model, not because it represents the best of business.

C’mon now, Thiel. Surely you don’t expect us antitrusters to defer to you over all these learned economists when it comes to business.

There were several letters in today’s Wall Street Journal commenting on my recent op-ed with my son Joe on second best arguments for various forms of crony capitalism.

Overall, these articles are critical of our position, but I do not disagree with them. Our original article was at best a weak defense, with terms like “may be” and “a second-best world is messy” and “there may be better ways.”  The letters are basically amplifying these caveats, and I do not disagree that the second best alternatives Joe and I proposed were flawed.  Clearly, as the letter writers indicate, a first best world with no inefficient regulation would be better.  Would that we could get there. 

But it does seem odd to pick on the Export-Import Bank as the major effort to reduce crony capitalism. The Bank makes money in an accounting sense, but loses in terms of the risk-adjusted cost of capital.  The cost is estimated as $2 billion.  The ethanol program or the import-restriction policies of the Commerce Department and the International Trade Commission are much more costly, and would make better targets for deregulation.  

There is another political point.  Those of us in favor of free markets are fond of pointing out that being pro-market is not the same as being pro-business, and may point to opposition to the Ex-Im Bank as an example.  But while being pro-market is not the same as being  pro-business, it is also true that business is one of the major forces generally advocating freer markets and decreased regulation.  There is a cost to antagonizing a major ally in the fight against inefficient rules.

 

The Times seems to specialize in stories that use lots of economics but still miss the important points. Two examples from today: Stories about Uber, and about the dispute between Amazon and Hachette.

UBER:  The article describes Uber’s using price changes to measure elasticity of demand, and more or less gets it right.  But it goes on to discuss the competition between Uber and Lyft with taxi companies.  However, what is not mentioned is that taxis are greatly handicapped in this fight because of their own sins.  They have lobbied for price fixing and supply limitation, thus creating the very market that Uber is entering.  It is quite plausible that if the taxi market were a free entry free price market there would be no demand for firms such as Uber.  Interesting to see how Uber does in cities such as Washington D.C. with relatively free entry into the taxi market, compared with New York city with highly restrictive rules.

The article also misses another point.  It discusses an agreement recently signed by Uber that limits “surge” pricing in times of disasters.  But what is not mentioned is the effect of this restriction in reducing supply and increasing demand during the very times when transportation services are most needed.  While we economists have won some public relations battles, we have not weaned the public away from its hatred of “price gouging.”

 

AMAZON: The story about the Amazon-Hachette dispute is interesting.  But again, some of the key economics is missing. 

Traditional publishers serve two purposes: They organize the physical publishing of books, and they certify quality.  Neither of these functions is needed any more an a world of ebooks.  For ebooks, there is no need of physical publishing, and reader comments are a good substitute for quality certification, at least for fiction.  Amazon provides other services to help inform consumers about books that might be of interest.

Moreover, authors should have a natural affinity with ebook publishers.  For physical books, there is a conflict between authors and publishers.  Authors are paid a royalty based on dollar volume, so they want a price that maximizes revenue.  All of the author’s costs are fixed costs.  Publishers have the marginal cost of actually printing and distributing the book, so their goal is to maximize profit, revenue minus cost.  When costs are positive, the profit maximizing price (MR=MC) is greater than the revenue maximizing price (MR=0), so authors traditionally think that publishers have overpriced their books.  This conflict does not exist for ebooks (marginal cost is zero) so Amazon and authors both want the revenue maximizing price.  As a result, I predict that in the long term Amazon will win because it will have a comparative advantage in dealing with authors.