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As the Google antitrust discussion heats up on its way toward some culmination at the FTC, I thought it would be helpful to address some of the major issues raised in the case by taking a look at what’s going on in the market(s) in which Google operates. To this end, I have penned a lengthy document — The Market Realities that Undermine the Antitrust Case Against Google — highlighting some of the most salient aspects of current market conditions and explaining how they fit into the putative antitrust case against Google.

While not dispositive, these “realities on the ground” do strongly challenge the logic and thus the relevance of many of the claims put forth by Google’s critics. The case against Google rests on certain assumptions about how the markets in which it operates function. But these are tech markets, constantly evolving and complex; most assumptions (and even “conclusions” based on data) are imperfect at best. In this case, the conventional wisdom with respect to Google’s alleged exclusionary conduct, the market in which it operates (and allegedly monopolizes), and the claimed market characteristics that operate to protect its position (among other things) should be questioned.

The reality is far more complex, and, properly understood, paints a picture that undermines the basic, essential elements of an antitrust case against the company.

The document first assesses the implications for Market Definition and Monopoly Power of these competitive realities. Of note:

  • Users use Google because they are looking for information — but there are lots of ways to do that, and “search” is not so distinct that a “search market” instead of, say, an “online information market” (or something similar) makes sense.
  • Google competes in the market for targeted eyeballs: a market aimed to offer up targeted ads to interested users. Search is important in this, but it is by no means alone, and there are myriad (and growing) other mechanisms to access consumers online.
  • To define the relevant market in terms of the particular mechanism that prevails to accomplish the matching of consumers and advertisers does not reflect the substitutability of other mechanisms that do the same thing but simply aren’t called “search.”
  • In a world where what prevails today won’t — not “might not,” but won’t — prevail tomorrow, it is the height of folly (and a serious threat to innovation and consumer welfare) to constrain the activities of firms competing in such an environment by pigeonholing the market.
  • In other words, in a proper market, Google looks significantly less dominant. More important, perhaps, as search itself evolves, and as Facebook, Amazon and others get into the search advertising game, Google’s strong position even in the overly narrow “search” market looks far from unassailable.

Next I address Anticompetitive Harm — how the legal standard for antitrust harm is undermined by a proper understanding of market conditions:

  • Antitrust law doesn’t require that Google or any other large firm make life easier for competitors or others seeking to access resources owned by these firms.
  • Advertisers are increasingly targeting not paid search but rather social media to reach their target audiences.
  • But even for those firms that get much or most of their traffic from “organic” search, this fact isn’t an inevitable relic of a natural condition over which only the alleged monopolist has control; it’s a business decision, and neither sensible policy nor antitrust law is set up to protect the failed or faulty competitor from himself.
  • Although it often goes unremarked, paid search’s biggest competitor is almost certainly organic search (and vice versa). Nextag may complain about spending money on paid ads when it prefers organic, but the real lesson here is that the two are substitutes — along with social sites and good old-fashioned email, too.
  • It is incumbent upon critics to accurately assess the “but for” world without the access point in question. Here, Nextag can and does use paid ads to reach its audience (and, it is important to note, did so even before it claims it was foreclosed from Google’s users). But there are innumerable other avenues of access, as well. Some may be “better” than others; some that may be “better” now won’t be next year (think how links by friends on Facebook to price comparisons on Nextag pages could come to dominate its readership).
  • This is progress — creative destruction — not regress, and such changes should not be penalized.

Next I take on the perennial issue of Error Costs and the Risks of Erroneous Enforcement arising from an incomplete and inaccurate understanding of Google’s market:

  • Microsoft’s market position was unassailable . . . until it wasn’t — and even at the time, many could have told you that its perceived dominance was fleeting (and many did).
  • Apple’s success (and the consumer value it has created), while built in no small part on its direct competition with Microsoft and the desktop PCs which run it, was primarily built on a business model that deviated from its once-dominant rival’s — and not on a business model that the DOJ’s antitrust case against the company either facilitated or anticipated.
  • Microsoft and Google’s other critic-competitors have more avenues to access users than ever before. Who cares if users get to these Google-alternatives through their devices instead of a URL? Access is access.
  • It isn’t just monopolists who prefer not to innovate: their competitors do, too. To the extent that Nextag’s difficulties arise from Google innovating, it is Nextag, not Google, that’s working to thwart innovation and fighting against dynamism.
  • Recall the furor around Google’s purchase of ITA, a powerful cautionary tale. As of September 2012, Google ranks 7th in visits among metasearch travel sites, with a paltry 1.4% of such visits. Residing at number one? FairSearch founding member, Kayak, with a whopping 61%. And how about FairSearch member Expedia? Currently, it’s the largest travel company in the world, and it has only grown in recent years.

The next section addresses the essential issue of Barriers to Entry and their absence:

  • One common refrain from Google’s critics is that Google’s access to immense amounts of data used to increase the quality of its targeting presents a barrier to competition that no one else can match, thus protecting Google’s unassailable monopoly. But scale comes in lots of ways.
  • It’s never been the case that a firm has to generate its own inputs into every product it produces — and there is no reason to suggest search/advertising is any different.
  • Meanwhile, Google’s chief competitor, Microsoft, is hardly hurting for data (even, quite creatively, culling data directly from Google itself), despite its claims to the contrary. And while regulators and critics may be looking narrowly and statically at search data, Microsoft is meanwhile sitting on top of copious data from unorthodox — and possibly even more valuable — sources.
  • To defend a claim of monopolization, it is generally required to show that the alleged monopolist enjoys protection from competition through barriers to entry. In Google’s case, the barriers alleged are illusory.

The next section takes on recent claims revolving around The Mobile Market and Google’s position (and conduct) there:

  • If obtaining or preserving dominance is simply a function of cash, Microsoft is sitting on some $58 billion of it that it can devote to that end. And JP Morgan Chase would be happy to help out if it could be guaranteed monopoly returns just by throwing its money at Bing. Like data, capital is widely available, and, also like data, it doesn’t matter if a company gets it from selling search advertising or from selling cars.
  • Advertisers don’t care whether the right (targeted) user sees their ads while playing Angry Birds or while surfing the web on their phone, and users can (and do) seek information online (and thus reveal their preferences) just as well (or perhaps better) through Wikipedia’s app as via a Google search in a mobile browser.
  • Moreover, mobile is already (and increasingly) a substitute for the desktop. Distinguishing mobile search from desktop search is meaningless when users use their tablets at home, perform activities that they would have performed at home away from home on mobile devices simply because they can, and where users sometimes search for places to go (for example) on mobile devices while out and sometimes on their computers before they leave.
  • Whatever gains Google may have made in search from its spread into the mobile world is likely to be undermined by the massive growth in social connectivity it has also wrought.
  • Mobile is part of the competitive landscape. All of the innovations in mobile present opportunities for Google and its competitors to best each other, and all present avenues of access for Google and its competitors to reach consumers.

The final section Concludes.

The lessons from all of this? There are two. First, these are dynamic markets, and it is a fool’s errand to identify the power or significance of any player in these markets based on data available today — data that is already out of date between the time it is collected and the time it is analyzed.

Second, each of these developments has presented different, novel and shifting opportunities and challenges for firms interested in attracting eyeballs, selling ad space and data, earning revenue and obtaining market share. To say that Google dominates “search” or “online advertising” misses the mark precisely because there is simply nothing especially antitrust-relevant about either search or online advertising. Because of their own unique products, innovations, data sources, business models, entrepreneurship and organizations, all of these companies have challenged and will continue to challenge the dominant company — and the dominant paradigm — in a shifting and evolving range of markets.

Perhaps most important is this:

Competition with Google may not and need not look exactly like Google itself, and some of this competition will usher in innovations that Google itself won’t be able to replicate. But this doesn’t make it any less competitive.  

Competition need not look identical to be competitive — that’s what innovation is all about. Just ask those famous buggy whip manufacturers.

After more than a year of complaining about Google and being met with responses from me (see also here, here, here, here, and here, among others) and many others that these complaints have yet to offer up a rigorous theory of antitrust injury — let alone any evidence — FairSearch yesterday offered up its preferred remedies aimed at addressing, in its own words, “the fundamental conflict of interest driving Google’s incentive and ability to engage in anti-competitive conduct. . . . [by putting an] end [to] Google’s preferencing of its own products ahead of natural search results.”  Nothing in the post addresses the weakness of the organization’s underlying claims, and its proposed remedies would be damaging to consumers.

FairSearch’s first and core “abuse” is “[d]iscriminatory treatment favoring Google’s own vertical products in a manner that may harm competing vertical products.”  To address this it proposes prohibiting Google from preferencing its own content in search results and suggests as additional, “structural remedies” “[r]equiring Google to license data” and “[r]equiring Google to divest its vertical products that have benefited from Google’s abuses.”

Tom Barnett, former AAG for antitrust, counsel to FairSearch member Expedia, and FairSearch’s de facto spokesman should be ashamed to be associated with claims and proposals like these.  He better than many others knows that harm to competitors is not the issue under US antitrust laws.  Rather, US antitrust law requires a demonstration that consumers — not just rivals — will be harmed by a challenged practice.  He also knows (as economists have known for a long time) that favoring one’s own content — i.e., “vertically integrating” to produce both inputs as well as finished products — is generally procompetitive.

In fact, Barnett has said as much before:

Because a Section 2 violation hurts competitors, they are often the focus of section 2 remedial efforts.  But competitor well-being, in itself, is not the purpose of our antitrust laws.

Access remedies also raise efficiency and innovation concerns.  By 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.

Not only has FairSearch not actually demonstrated that Google has preferenced its own products, the organization has also not demonstrated either harm to consumers arising from such conduct nor even antitrust-cognizable harm to competitors arising from it.

As an empirical study supported by the International Center for Law and Economics (itself, in turn, supported in part by Google, and of which I am the Executive Director) makes clear, search bias simply almost never occurs.  And when it does, it is the non-dominant Bing that more often practices it, not Google.  Moreover, and most important, the evidence marshaled in favor of the search bias claim (largely adduced by Harvard Business School professor, Ben Edelman (whose work is supported by Microsoft)) demonstrates that consumers do, indeed, have the ability to detect and counter allegedly biased results.

Recall what search bias means in this context.  According to Edelman, looking at the top three search results, Google links to its own content (think Gmail, Google Maps, etc.) in the first search result about twice as often as Yahoo! and Bing link to Google content in this position.  While the ICLE paper refutes even this finding, notice what it means:  “Biased” search results lead to a reshuffling of results among the top few results offered up; there is no evidence that Google simply drops users’ preferred results.  While it is true that the difference in click-through rates between the top and second results can be significant, Edelman’s own findings actually demonstrate that consumers are capable of finding what they want when their preferred (more relevant) results appears in the second or third slot.

Edelman notes that Google ranks Gmail first and Yahoo! Mail second in his study, even though users seem to think Yahoo! Mail is the more relevant result:  Gmail receives only 29% of clicks while Yahoo! Mail receives 54%.  According to Edelman, this is proof that Google’s conduct forecloses access by competitors and harms consumers under the antitrust laws.

But is it?  Note that users click on the second, apparently more-relevant result nearly twice as often as they click on the first.  This demonstrates that Yahoo! is not competitively foreclosed from access to users, and that users are perfectly capable of identifying their preferred results, even when they appear lower in the results page.  This is simply not foreclosure — in fact, if anything, it demonstrates the opposite.

Among other things, foreclosure — limiting access by a competitor to a necessary input — under the antitrust laws must be substantial enough to prevent a rival from reaching sufficient scale that it can effectively compete.  It is no more “foreclosure” for Google to “impair” traffic to Kayak’s site by offering its own Flight Search than it is for Safeway to refuse to allow Kroger to sell Safeway’s house brand.  Rather, actionable foreclosure requires that a firm “impair[s] the ability of rivals to grow into effective competitors that erode the firm’s position.”  Such quantifiable claims are noticeably absent from critic’s complaints against Google.

And what about those allegedly harmed competitors?  How are they faring?  As of September 2012, Google ranks 7th in visits among metasearch travel sites, with a paltry 1.4% of such visits.  Residing at number one?  FairSearch founding member, Kayak, with a whopping 61% (up from 52% six months after Google entered the travel search business).  Nextag.com, another vocal Google critic, has complained that Google’s conduct has forced it to shift its strategy from attracting traffic through Google’s organic search results to other sources, including paid ads on Google.com.  And how has it fared?  It has parlayed its experience with new data sources into a successful new business model, Wize Commerce, showing exactly the sort of “incentive to develop comparable assets of their own” Barnett worries will be destroyed by aggressive antitrust enforcement.  And Barnett’s own Expedia.com?  Currently, it’s the largest travel company in the world, and it has only grown in recent years.

Meanwhile consumers’ interests have been absent from critics’ complaints since the beginning.  And not only do they fail to demonstrate any connection between harm to consumers and the claimed harms to competitors arising from Google’s conduct, but they also ignore the harm to consumers that may result from restricting potentially efficient business conduct — like the integration of Google Maps and other products into its search results.  That Google not only produces search results but also owns some of the content that generates those results is not a problem cognizable by modern antitrust.

FairSearch and other Google critics have utterly failed to make a compelling case, and their proposed remedies would serve only to harm, not help, consumers.

By Geoffrey Manne and Berin Szoka

[Cross posted at TechFreedom.org]

Back in September, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee held a hearing on “The Power of Google: Serving Consumers or Threatening Competition?” Given the harsh questioning from the Subcommittee’s Chairman Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Ranking Member Mike Lee (R-UT), no one should have been surprised by the letter they sent yesterday to the Federal Trade Commission asking for a “thorough investigation” of the company. At least this time the danger is somewhat limited: by calling for the FTC to investigate Google, the senators are thus urging the agency to do . . . exactly what it’s already doing.

So one must wonder about the real aim of the letter. Unfortunately, the goal does not appear to be to offer an objective appraisal of the complex issues intended to be addressed at the hearing. That’s disappointing (though hardly surprising) and underscores what we noted at the time of the hearing: There’s something backward about seeing a company hauled before a hostile congressional panel and asked to defend itself, rather than its self-appointed prosecutors being asked to defend their case.

Senators Kohl and Lee insist that they take no position on the legality of Google’s actions, but their lopsided characterization of the issues in the letter—and the fact that the FTC is already doing what they purport to desire as the sole outcome of the letter!—leaves little room for doubt about their aim: to put political pressure on the FTC not merely to investigate, but to reach a particular conclusion and bring a case in court (or simply to ratchet up public pressure from its bully pulpit).

The five page letter concludes with, literally, three sentences presenting Google’s case, one of which reads, in its entirety, “Google strongly denies the arguments of its critics.” The derision is palpable—as if only a craven monopolist would deign to actually deny the iron-clad arguments of Google’s competitors so painstakingly reproduced by Senators Kohl and Lee in the preceding four pages. This is neither rigorous analysis nor objective reporting on the contents of the Senate’s hearing.

While we worry about particularly successful companies being singled out for punishment, we hold no brief for Google in this debate. Instead, in all our writings, we’ve tried to present a consistently skeptical view about a worrisome trend in antitrust enforcement in high tech markets: error-prone and costly intervention in markets that are ill-understood and fast-moving, to the great detriment of consumers and progress generally. Although our institutions have received financial support from Google among a range of other companies, organizations and individuals, our work is focused on this broad mission; we have no obligation or intention to support any company simply because it finds value in supporting our mission.

We’ve defended (and one of us has even worked for) Microsoft in the past, and just yesterday, we lamented the fact that the Obama Justice Department and the FCC have effectively blocked Google’s arch-rival, AT&T, from buying T-Mobile. Rather than defend any particular company, our goal, to paraphrase Hayek, is to “demonstrate to [regulators] how little they really know about what they imagine they can design”—lest they undermine how competition actually works in the name of defending outdated models of how they think it should work. Unfortunately, the letter from Senators Kohl and Lee does nothing to assuage our concern and suggests instead that crass politics, rather than sensible economics, could determine the outcome of cases like this one—if not in a court of law, then in the court of public opinion and extra-legal intimidation.

To begin with, the letter asserts that “Google faces competition from only one general search engine, Bing,” suggesting that only Bing (and it, only ineffectively) could keep Google in check. In essence, the Senators are prejudging an essential question on which any case against Google would turn: market definition. But why would the market not include other tools for information retrieval? Is it not at least worth mentioning that more and more Internet users are finding information and spending time on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, while more and more advertisers are spending their money on these Google competitors? Isn’t it clear that search itself is evolving from “ten blue links” into something more social, multi-faceted and interactive?

In a remarkable leap, the senators then identify the specific alleged abuse that Google’s alleged market power leads to: search bias. That’s remarkable because, other than the breathless claims of disgruntled competitors (given plenty of air time at the September hearing), there is actually no evidence that search bias is, in fact, harmful to consumers—which is what antitrust is concerned with. (Read both sides of this debate in TechFreedom’s free ebook, The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet.)

As our colleague, Josh Wright, has thoroughly demonstrated, this “own-content” bias is actually an infrequent phenomenon and is simply not consistent with an actionable claim of anticompetitive foreclosure. Moreover, among search engines, Google references its own content far less frequently than does Bing (which favors Microsoft content in the first search result when no other search engine does so more than twice as often as Google favors its own content).

Of course, none of this is even hinted at in the Senators’ letter, which seems intended to condemn Google for “preferencing” its own content (under the pretense of withholding judgment). It’s a little like condemning Target for deigning to use its trucks to supply inventory only to its own stores instead of Wal-Mart’s, or, say, condemning a congressman for targeting earmarks for his own state or district. Earmark bias! Continue Reading…