In a new paper, Giuseppe Colangelo and Oscar Borgogno investigate whether antitrust policy is sufficiently flexible to keep up with the dynamics of digital app stores, and whether regulatory interventions are required in order to address their unique features. The authors summarize their findings in this blog post.
Likewise, the terms and conditions for accessing app stores—such as in-app purchasing rules, restrictions on freedom of choice for smartphone payment apps, and near field communication (NFC) limitations—face scrutiny from courts and antitrust authorities around the world.
Finally, legislative initiatives envisage obligations explicitly addressed to app stores. Notably, the EuropeanDigital Markets Act (DMA) and some U.S. bills (e.g., the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the Open App Markets Act, both of which are scheduled to be marked up Jan. 20 by the Senate Judiciary Committee) prohibit designated platforms from, for example: discriminating among users by engaging in self-preferencing and applying unfair access conditions; preventing users from sideloading and uninstalling pre-installed apps; impeding data portability and interoperability; or imposing anti-steering provisions. Likewise, South Korea has recently prohibited app-store operators in dominant market positions from forcing payment systems upon content providers and inappropriately delaying the review of, or deleting, mobile content from app markets.
Despite their differences, these international legislative initiatives do share the same aims and concerns. By and large, they question the role of competition law in the digital economy. In the case of app stores, these regulatory interventions attempt to introduce a neutrality regime, with the aim of increasing contestability, facilitating the possibility of switching by users, tackling conflicts of interests, and addressing imbalances in the commercial relationship. Ultimately, these proposals would treat online platforms as akin to common carriers or public utilities.
All of these initiatives assume antitrust is currently falling, because competition rules apply ex post and require an extensive investigation on a case-by-case basis. But is that really the case?
Platform and Device Neutrality Regime
Focusing on the content of the European, German, and U.S. legislative initiatives, the neutrality regime envisaged for app stores would introduce obligations in terms of both device and platform neutrality. The former includes provisions on app uninstalling, sideloading, app switching, access to technical functionality, and the possibility of changing default settings. The latter entail data portability and interoperability obligations, and the ban on self-preferencing, Sherlocking, and unfair access conditions.
App Store Obligations: Comparison of EU, German, and U.S. Initiatives
Antitrust v. Regulation
Despite the growing consensus regarding the need to rely on ex ante regulation to govern digital markets and tackle the practices of large online platforms, recent and ongoing antitrust investigations demonstrate that standard competition law still provides a flexible framework to scrutinize several practices sometimes described as new and peculiar to app stores.
This is particularly true in Europe, where the antitrust framework grants significant leeway to antitrust enforcers relative to the U.S. scenario, as illustrated by the recentGoogle Shopping decision.
Indeed, considering legislative proposals to modernize antitrust law and to strengthen its enforcement, the U.S. House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, along with someauthoritative scholars, have suggested emulating the European model—imposing particular responsibility on dominant firms through the notion of abuse of dominant position and overriding several Supreme Court decisions in order to clarify the prohibitions on monopoly leveraging, predatory pricing, denial of essential facilities, refusals to deal, and tying.
By contrast, regulation appears better suited to support interventions intended to implement industrial-policy objectives. This applies, in particular, to provisions prohibiting app stores from impeding or restricting sideloading, app uninstalling, the possibility of choosing third-party apps and app stores as defaults, as well as provisions that would mandate data portability and interoperability.
However, such regulatory proposals may ultimately harm consumers. Indeed, by questioning the core of digital platform business models and affecting their governance design, these interventions entrust public authorities with mammoth tasks that could ultimately jeopardize the profitability of app-store ecosystems. They also overlook the differences that may exist between the business models of different platforms, such as Google and Apple’s app stores.
To make matters worse, the difficulties encountered by regulators that have imposed product-design remedies on firms suggest that regulators may struggle to craft feasible and effective solutions. For instance, when the European General Court found that Google favored its own services in the Google Shopping case, it noted that this finding rested on the differential positioning and display of Shopping Units when compared to generic results. As a consequence, it could be argued that Google’s proposed auction remedy (whereby Google would compete with rivals for Shopping box placement) is compliant with the Court’s ruling because there is no dicrimination, regardless of the fact that Google might ultimately outbid its rivals (seehere).
Finally, the neutrality principle cannot be transposed perfectly to all online platforms. Indeed, the workings of the app-discovery and distribution markets differ from broadband networks, as rankings and mobile services by definition involve some form of continuous selection and differentiated treatment to optimize the mobile-customer experience.
For all these reasons, our analysis suggests that antitrust law provides a less intrusive and more individualized approach, which would eventually benefit consumers by safeguarding quality and innovation.
The bill marks the culmination of misguided efforts to bring Big Tech to heel, regardless of the negative costs imposed upon consumers in the process. ICLE scholars have written about these developments in detail since the bill was introduced in October.
Below are 10 significant misconceptions that underpin the legislation.
1. There Is No Evidence that Self-Preferencing Is Generally Harmful
Self-preferencing is a normal part of how platforms operate, both to improve the value of their core products and to earn returns so that they have reason to continue investing in their development.
Platforms’ incentives are to maximize the value of their entire product ecosystem, which includes both the core platform and the services attached to it. Platforms that preference their own products frequently end up increasing the total market’s value by growing the share of users of a particular product. Those that preference inferior products end up hurting their attractiveness to users of their “core” product, exposing themselves to competition from rivals.
As Geoff Manne concludes, the notion that it is harmful (notably to innovation) when platforms enter into competition with edge providers is entirely speculative. Indeed, a range of studies show that the opposite is likely true. Platform competition is more complicated than simple theories of vertical discrimination would have it, and there is certainly no basis for a presumption of harm.
Consider a few examples from the empirical literature:
Li and Agarwal (2017) find that Facebook’s integration of Instagram led to a significant increase in user demand both for Instagram itself and for the entire category of photography apps. Instagram’s integration with Facebook increased consumer awareness of photography apps, which benefited independent developers, as well as Facebook.
Foerderer, et al. (2018) find that Google’s 2015 entry into the market for photography apps on Android created additional user attention and demand for such apps generally.
Cennamo, et al. (2018) find that video games offered by console firms often become blockbusters and expand the consoles’ installed base. As a result, these games increase the potential for all independent game developers to profit from their games, even in the face of competition from first-party games.
Finally, while Zhu and Liu (2018) is often held up as demonstrating harm from Amazon’s competition with third-party sellers on its platform, its findings are actually far from clear-cut. As co-author Feng Zhu noted in the Journal of Economics & Management Strategy: “[I]f Amazon’s entries attract more consumers, the expanded customer base could incentivize more third‐ party sellers to join the platform. As a result, the long-term effects for consumers of Amazon’s entry are not clear.”
2. Interoperability Is Not Costless
There are many things that could be interoperable, but aren’t. The reason not everything is interoperable is because interoperability comes with costs, as well as benefits. It may be worth letting different earbuds have different designs because, while it means we sacrifice easy interoperability, we gain the ability for better designs to be brought to market and for consumers to have choice among different kinds.
As Sam Bowman has observed, there are often costs that prevent interoperability from being worth the tradeoff, such as that:
It might be too costly to implement and/or maintain.
It might prescribe a certain product design and prevent experimentation and innovation.
It might add too much complexity and/or confusion for users, who may prefer not to have certain choices.
It might increase the risk of something not working, or of security breaches.
It might prevent certain pricing models that increase output.
It might compromise some element of the product or service that benefits specifically from not being interoperable.
In a market that is functioning reasonably well, we should be able to assume that competition and consumer choice will discover the desirable degree of interoperability among different products. If there are benefits to making your product interoperable that outweigh the costs of doing so, that should give you an advantage over competitors and allow you to compete them away. If the costs outweigh the benefits, the opposite will happen: consumers will choose products that are not interoperable.
In short, we cannot infer from the mere absence of interoperability that something is wrong, since we frequently observe that the costs of interoperability outweigh the benefits.
3. Consumers Often Prefer Closed Ecosystems
Digital markets could have taken a vast number of shapes. So why have they gravitated toward the very characteristics that authorities condemn? For instance, if market tipping and consumer lock-in are so problematic, why is it that new corners of the digital economy continue to emerge via closed platforms, as opposed to collaborative ones?
Indeed, if recent commentary is to be believed, it is the latter that should succeed, because they purportedly produce greater gains from trade. And if consumers and platforms cannot realize these gains by themselves, then we should see intermediaries step into that breach. But this does not seem to be happening in the digital economy.
The naïve answer is to say that the absence of “open” systems is precisely the problem. What’s harder is to try to actually understand why. As I have written, there are many reasons that consumers might prefer “closed” systems, even when they have to pay a premium for them.
Take the example of app stores. Maintaining some control over the apps that can access the store notably enables platforms to easily weed out bad players. Similarly, controlling the hardware resources that each app can use may greatly improve device performance. In other words, centralized platforms can eliminate negative externalities that “bad” apps impose on rival apps and on consumers. This is especially true when consumers struggle to attribute dips in performance to an individual app, rather than the overall platform.
It is also conceivable that consumers prefer to make many of their decisions at the inter-platform level, rather than within each platform. In simple terms, users arguably make their most important decision when they choose between an Apple or Android smartphone (or a Mac and a PC, etc.). In doing so, they can select their preferred app suite with one simple decision.
They might thus purchase an iPhone because they like the secure App Store, or an Android smartphone because they like the Chrome Browser and Google Search. Forcing too many “within-platform” choices upon users may undermine a product’s attractiveness. Indeed, it is difficult to create a high-quality reputation if each user’s experience is fundamentally different. In short, contrary to what antitrust authorities seem to believe, closed platforms might be giving most users exactly what they desire.
Too often, it is simply assumed that consumers benefit from more openness, and that shared/open platforms are the natural order of things. What some refer to as “market failures” may in fact be features that explain the rapid emergence of the digital economy. Ronald Coase said it best when he quipped that economists always find a monopoly explanation for things that they simply fail to understand.
4. Data Portability Can Undermine Security and Privacy
As explained above, platforms that are more tightly controlled can be regulated by the platform owner to avoid some of the risks present in more open platforms. Apple’s App Store, for example, is a relatively closed and curated platform, which gives users assurance that apps will meet a certain standard of security and trustworthiness.
Along similar lines, there are privacy issues that arise from data portability. Even a relatively simple requirement to make photos available for download can implicate third-party interests. Making a user’s photos more broadly available may tread upon the privacy interests of friends whose faces appear in those photos. Importing those photos to a new service potentially subjects those individuals to increased and un-bargained-for security risks.
As Sam Bowman and Geoff Manne observe, this is exactly what happened with Facebook and its Social Graph API v1.0, ultimately culminating in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Because v1.0 of Facebook’s Social Graph API permitted developers to access information about a user’s friends without consent, it enabled third-party access to data about exponentially more users. It appears that some 270,000 users granted data access to Cambridge Analytica, from which the company was able to obtain information on 50 million Facebook users.
In short, there is often no simple solution to implement interoperability and data portability. Any such program—whether legally mandated or voluntarily adopted—will need to grapple with these and other tradeoffs.
5. Network Effects Are Rarely Insurmountable
Several scholars in recent years have called for more muscular antitrust intervention in networked industries on grounds that network externalities, switching costs, and data-related increasing returns to scale lead to inefficient consumer lock-in and raise entry barriers for potential rivals (see here, here, and here). But there are countless counterexamples where firms have easily overcome potential barriers to entry and network externalities, ultimately disrupting incumbents.
Zoom is one of the most salient instances. As I wrote in April 2019 (a year before the COVID-19 pandemic):
To get to where it is today, Zoom had to compete against long-established firms with vast client bases and far deeper pockets. These include the likes of Microsoft, Cisco, and Google. Further complicating matters, the video communications market exhibits some prima facie traits that are typically associated with the existence of network effects.
Geoff Manne and Alec Stapp have put forward a multitude of other examples, including: the demise of Yahoo; the disruption of early instant-messaging applications and websites; and MySpace’s rapid decline. In all of these cases, outcomes did not match the predictions of theoretical models.
More recently, TikTok’s rapid rise offers perhaps the greatest example of a potentially superior social-networking platform taking significant market share away from incumbents. According to the Financial Times, TikTok’s video-sharing capabilities and powerful algorithm are the most likely explanations for its success.
While these developments certainly do not disprove network-effects theory, they eviscerate the belief, common in antitrust circles, that superior rivals are unable to overthrow incumbents in digital markets. Of course, this will not always be the case. The question is ultimately one of comparing institutions—i.e., do markets lead to more or fewer error costs than government intervention? Yet, this question is systematically omitted from most policy discussions.
6. Profits Facilitate New and Exciting Platforms
As I wrote in August 2020, the relatively closed model employed by several successful platforms (notably Apple’s App Store, Google’s Play Store, and the Amazon Retail Platform) allows previously unknown developers/retailers to rapidly expand because (i) users do not have to fear their apps contain some form of malware and (ii) they greatly reduce payments frictions, most notably security-related ones.
While these are, indeed, tremendous benefits, another important upside seems to have gone relatively unnoticed. The “closed” business model also gives firms significant incentives to develop new distribution mediums (smart TVs spring to mind) and to improve existing ones. In turn, this greatly expands the audience that software developers can reach. In short, developers get a smaller share of a much larger pie.
The economics of two-sided markets are enlightening here. For example, Apple and Google’s app stores are what Armstrong and Wright (here and here) refer to as “competitive bottlenecks.” That is, they compete aggressively (among themselves, and with other gaming platforms) to attract exclusive users. They can then charge developers a premium to access those users.
This dynamic gives firms significant incentive to continue to attract and retain new users. For instance, if Steve Jobs is to be believed, giving consumers better access to media such as eBooks, video, and games was one of the driving forces behind the launch of the iPad.
This model of innovation would be seriously undermined if developers and consumers could easily bypass platforms, as would likely be the case under the American Innovation and Choice Online Act.
7. Large Market Share Does Not Mean Anticompetitive Outcomes
Scholars routinely cite the putatively strong concentration of digital markets to argue that Big Tech firms do not face strong competition. But this is a non sequitur. Indeed, as economists like Joseph Bertrand and William Baumol have shown, what matters is not whether markets are concentrated, but whether they are contestable. If a superior rival could rapidly gain user traction, that alone will discipline incumbents’ behavior.
Markets where incumbents do not face significant entry from competitors are just as consistent with vigorous competition as they are with barriers to entry. Rivals could decline to enter either because incumbents have aggressively improved their product offerings or because they are shielded by barriers to entry (as critics suppose). The former is consistent with competition, the latter with monopoly slack.
Similarly, it would be wrong to presume, as many do, that concentration in online markets is necessarily driven by network effects and other scale-related economies. As ICLE scholars have argued elsewhere (here, here and here), these forces are not nearly as decisive as critics assume (and it is debatable that they constitute barriers to entry).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many factors could explain the relatively concentrated market structures that we see in digital industries. The absence of switching costs and capacity constraints are two such examples. These explanations, overlooked by many observers, suggest digital markets are more contestable than is commonly perceived.
Unfortunately, critics’ failure to meaningfully grapple with these issues serves to shape the “conventional wisdom” in tech-policy debates.
8. Vertical Integration Generally Benefits Consumers
Vertical behavior of digital firms—whether through mergers or through contract and unilateral action—frequently arouses the ire of critics of the current antitrust regime. Many such critics point to a few recent studies that cast doubt on the ubiquity of benefits from vertical integration. But the findings of these few studies are regularly overstated and, even if taken at face value, represent a just minuscule fraction of the collected evidence, which overwhelmingly supports vertical integration.
There is strong and longstanding empirical evidence that vertical integration is competitively benign. This includes widely acclaimed work by economists Francine Lafontaine (former director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Economics under President Barack Obama) and Margaret Slade, whose meta-analysis led them to conclude:
[U]nder most circumstances, profit-maximizing vertical integration decisions are efficient, not just from the firms’ but also from the consumers’ points of view. Although there are isolated studies that contradict this claim, the vast majority support it. Moreover, even in industries that are highly concentrated so that horizontal considerations assume substantial importance, the net effect of vertical integration appears to be positive in many instances. We therefore conclude that, faced with a vertical arrangement, the burden of evidence should be placed on competition authorities to demonstrate that that arrangement is harmful before the practice is attacked.
In short, there is a substantial body of both empirical and theoretical research showing that vertical integration (and the potential vertical discrimination and exclusion to which it might give rise) is generally beneficial to consumers. While it is possible that vertical mergers or discrimination could sometimes cause harm, the onus is on the critics to demonstrate empirically where this occurs. No legitimate interpretation of the available literature would offer a basis for imposing a presumption against such behavior.
9. There Is No Such Thing as Data Network Effects
Although data does not have the self-reinforcing characteristics of network effects, there is a sense that acquiring a certain amount of data and expertise is necessary to compete in data-heavy industries. It is (or should be) equally apparent, however, that this “learning by doing” advantage rapidly reaches a point of diminishing returns.
This is supported by significant empirical evidence. As was shown by the survey pf the empirical literature that Geoff Manne and I performed (published in the George Mason Law Review), data generally entails diminishing marginal returns:
Critics who argue that firms such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook are successful because of their superior access to data might, in fact, have the causality in reverse. Arguably, it is because these firms have come up with successful industry-defining paradigms that they have amassed so much data, and not the other way around. Indeed, Facebook managed to build a highly successful platform despite a large data disadvantage when compared to rivals like MySpace.
Companies need to innovate to attract consumer data or else consumers will switch to competitors, including both new entrants and established incumbents. As a result, the desire to make use of more and better data drives competitive innovation, with manifestly impressive results. The continued explosion of new products, services, and apps is evidence that data is not a bottleneck to competition, but a spur to drive it.
10. Antitrust Enforcement Has Not Been Lax
The popular narrative has it that lax antitrust enforcement has led to substantially increased concentration, strangling the economy, harming workers, and expanding dominant firms’ profit margins at the expense of consumers. Much of the contemporary dissatisfaction with antitrust arises from a suspicion that overly lax enforcement of existing laws has led to record levels of concentration and a concomitant decline in competition. But both beliefs—lax enforcement and increased anticompetitive concentration—wither under more than cursory scrutiny.
The number of Sherman Act cases brought by the federal antitrust agencies, meanwhile, has been relatively stable in recent years, but several recent blockbuster cases have been brought by the agencies and private litigants, and there has been no shortage of federal and state investigations. The vast majority of Section 2 cases dismissed on the basis of the plaintiff’s failure to show anticompetitive effect were brought by private plaintiffs pursuing treble damages; given the incentives to bring weak cases, it cannot be inferred from such outcomes that antitrust law is ineffective. But, in any case, it is highly misleading to count the number of antitrust cases and, using that number alone, to make conclusions about how effective antitrust law is. Firms act in the shadow of the law, and deploy significant legal resources to make sure they avoid activity that would lead to enforcement actions. Thus, any given number of cases brought could be just as consistent with a well-functioning enforcement regime as with an ill-functioning one.
The upshot is that naïvely counting antitrust cases (or the purported lack thereof), with little regard for the behavior that is deterred or the merits of the cases that are dismissed does not tell us whether or not antitrust enforcement levels are optimal.
Activists who railed against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) a decade ago today celebrate the 10th anniversary of their day of protest, which they credit with sending the bills down to defeat.
But despite the activists’ temporary legislative victory, the methods of combating digital piracy that SOPA/PIPA contemplated have been employed successfully around the world. It may, indeed, be time for the United States to revisit that approach, as the very real problems the legislation sought to combat haven’t gone away.
From the perspective of rightsholders, the bill’s most important feature was also its most contentious: the ability to enforce judicial “site-blocking orders.” A site-blocking order is a type of remedy sometimes referred to as a no-fault injunction. Under SOPA/PIPA, a court would have been permitted to issue orders that could be used to force a range of firms—from financial providers to ISPs—to cease doing business with or suspend the service of a website that hosted infringing content.
Under current U.S. law, even when a court finds that a site has willfully engaged in infringement, stopping the infringement can be difficult, especially when the parties and their facilities are located outside the country. While Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act does allow courts to issue injunctions, there is ambiguity as to whether it allows courts to issue injunctions that obligate online service providers (“OSP”) not directly party to a case to remove infringing material.
Section 512(j), for instance, provides for issuing injunctions “against a service provider that is not subject to monetary remedies under this section.” The “not subject to monetary remedies under this section” language could be construed to mean that such injunctions may be obtained even against OSPs that have not been found at fault for the underlying infringement. But as Motion Picture Association President Stanford K. McCoy testified in 2020:
In more than twenty years … these provisions of the DMCA have never been deployed, presumably because of uncertainty about whether it is necessary to find fault against the service provider before an injunction could issue, unlike the clear no-fault injunctive remedies available in other countries.
But while no-fault injunctions for copyright infringement have not materialized in the United States, this remedy has been used widely around the world. In fact, more than 40 countries—including Denmark, Finland, France, India, England, and Wales—have enacted or are under some obligation to enact rules allowing for no-fault injunctions that direct ISPs to disable access to websites that predominantly promote copyright infringement.
In short, precisely the approach to controlling piracy that SOPA/PIPA envisioned has been in force around the world over the last decade. This demonstrates that, if properly tailored, no-fault injunctions are an ideal tool for courts to use in the fight to combat piracy.
If anything, we should be using the anniversary of SOPA/PIPA as an opportunity to reflect on a missed opportunity. Congress should take this opportunity to amend Section 512 to grant U.S. courts authority to issue no-fault injunctions that require OSPs to block access to sites that willfully engage in mass infringement.
In policy discussions about the digital economy, a background assumption that frequently underlies the discourse is that intermediaries and centralization always and only serve as a cost to consumers, and to society more generally. Thus, one commonly sees arguments that consumers would be better off if they could freely combine products from different trading partners. According to this logic, bundled goods, walled gardens, and other intermediaries are always to be regarded with suspicion, while interoperability, open source, and decentralization are laudable features of any market.
However, as with all economic goods, intermediation offers both costs and benefits. The challenge for market players is to assess these tradeoffs and, ultimately, to produce the optimal level of intermediation.
As one example, some observers assume that purchasing food directly from a producer benefits consumers because intermediaries no longer take a cut of the final purchase price. But this overlooks the tremendous efficiencies supermarkets can achieve in terms of cost savings, reduced carbon emissions (because consumers make fewer store trips), and other benefits that often outweigh the costs of intermediation.
The same anti-intermediary fallacy is plain to see in countless other markets. For instance, critics readily assume that insurance, mortgage, and travel brokers are just costly middlemen.
This unduly negative perception is perhaps even more salient in the digital world. Policymakers are quick to conclude that consumers are always better off when provided with “more choice.” Draft regulations of digital platforms have been introduced on both sides of the Atlantic that repeat this faulty argument ad nauseam, as do some antitrust decisions.
Even the venerable Tyler Cowen recently appeared to sing the praises of decentralization, when discussing the future of Web 3.0:
One person may think “I like the DeFi options at Uniswap,” while another may say, “I am going to use the prediction markets over at Hedgehog.” In this scenario there is relatively little intermediation and heavy competition for consumer attention. Thus most of the gains from competition accrue to the users. …
… I don’t know if people are up to all this work (or is it fun?). But in my view this is the best-case scenario — and the most technologically ambitious. Interestingly, crypto’s radical ability to disintermediate, if extended to its logical conclusion, could bring about a radical equalization of power that would lower the prices and values of the currently well-established crypto assets, companies and platforms.
While disintermediation certainly has its benefits, critics often gloss over its costs. For example, scams are practically nonexistent on Apple’s “centralized” App Store but are far more prevalent with Web3 services. Apple’s “power” to weed out nefarious actors certainly contributes to this difference. Similarly, there is a reason that “middlemen” like supermarkets and travel agents exist in the first place. They notably perform several complex tasks (e.g., searching for products, negotiating prices, and controlling quality) that leave consumers with a manageable selection of goods.
Returning to the crypto example, besides being a renowned scholar, Tyler Cowen is also an extremely savvy investor. What he sees as fun investment choices may be nightmarish (and potentially dangerous) decisions for less sophisticated consumers. The upshot is that intermediaries are far more valuable than they are usually given credit for.
Bringing People Together
The reason intermediaries (including online platforms) exist is to reduce transaction costs that suppliers and customers would face if they tried to do business directly. As Daniel F. Spulber argues convincingly:
Markets have two main modes of organization: decentralized and centralized. In a decentralized market, buyers and sellers match with each other and determine transaction prices. In a centralized market, firms act as intermediaries between buyers and sellers.
[W]hen there are many buyers and sellers, there can be substantial transaction costs associated with communication, search, bargaining, and contracting. Such transaction costs can make it more difficult to achieve cross-market coordination through direct communication. Intermediary firms have various means of reducing transaction costs of decentralized coordination when there are many buyers and sellers.
This echoes the findings of Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, who observed that firms emerge when they offer a cheaper alternative to multiple bilateral transactions:
The main reason why it is profitable to establish a firm would seem to be that there is a cost of using the price mechanism. The most obvious cost of “organising ” production through the price mechanism is that of discovering what the relevant prices are. […] The costs of negotiating and concluding a separate contract for each exchange transaction which takes place on a market must also be taken into account.
Economists generally agree that online platforms also serve this cost-reduction function. For instance, David Evans and Richard Schmalensee observe that:
Multi-sided platforms create value by bringing two or more different types of economic agents together and facilitating interactions between them that make all agents better off.
It’s easy to see the implications for today’s competition-policy debates, and for the online intermediaries that many critics would like to see decentralized. Particularly salient examples include app store platforms (such as the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store); online retail platforms (such as Amazon Marketplace); and online travel agents (like Booking.com and Expedia). Competition policymakers have embarked on countless ventures to “open up” these platforms to competition, essentially moving them further toward disintermediation. In most of these cases, however, policymakers appear to be fighting these businesses’ very raison d’être.
For example, the purpose of an app store is to curate the software that users can install and to offer payment solutions; in exchange, the store receives a cut of the proceeds. If performing these tasks created no value, then to a first approximation, these services would not exist. Users would simply download apps via their web browsers, and the most successful smartphones would be those that allowed users to directly install apps (“sideloading,” to use the more technical terms). Forcing these platforms to “open up” and become neutral is antithetical to the value proposition they offer.
Calls for retail and travel platforms to stop offering house brands or displaying certain products more favorably are equally paradoxical. Consumers turn to these platforms because they want a selection of goods. If that was not the case, users could simply bypass the platforms and purchase directly from independent retailers or hotels.Critics sometimes retort that some commercial arrangements, such as “most favored nation” clauses, discourage consumers from doing exactly this. But that claim only reinforces the point that online platforms must create significant value, or they would not be able to obtain such arrangements in the first place.
All of this explains why characterizing these firms as imposing a “tax” on their respective ecosystems is so deeply misleading. The implication is that platforms are merely passive rent extractors that create no value. Yet, barring the existence of market failures, both their existence and success is proof to the contrary. To argue otherwise places no faith in the ability of firms and consumers to act in their own self-interest.
A Little Evolution
This last point is even more salient when seen from an evolutionary standpoint. Today’s most successful intermediaries—be they online platforms or more traditional brick-and-mortar firms like supermarkets—mostly had to outcompete the alternative represented by disintermediated bilateral contracts.
Critics of intermediaries rarely contemplate why the app-store model outpaced the more heavily disintermediated software distribution of the desktop era. Or why hotel-booking sites exist, despite consumers’ ability to use search engines, hotel websites, and other product-search methods that offer unadulterated product selections. Or why mortgage brokers are so common when borrowers can call local banks directly. The list is endless.
Digital markets could have taken a vast number of shapes, so why have they systematically gravitated towards those very characteristics that authorities condemn? For instance, if market tipping and consumer lock-in are so problematic, why is it that new corners of the digital economy continue to emerge via closed platforms, as opposed to collaborative ones? Indeed, if recent commentary is to be believed, it is the latter that should succeed because they purportedly produce greater gains from trade. And if consumers and platforms cannot realize these gains by themselves, then we should see [other] intermediaries step into the breach – i.e. arbitrage. This does not seem to be happening in the digital economy. The naïve answer is to say that this is precisely the problem, the harder one is to actually understand why.
Fiat Versus Emergent Disintermediation
All of this is not to say that intermediaries are perfect, or that centralization always beats decentralization. Instead, the critical point is about the competitive process. There are vast differences between centralization that stems from government fiat and that which emerges organically.
(Dis)intermediation is an economic good. Markets thus play a critical role in deciding how much or little of it is provided. Intermediaries must charge fees that cover their costs, while bilateral contracts entail transaction costs. In typically Hayekian fashion, suppliers and buyers will weigh the costs and benefits of these options.
Intermediaries are most likely to emerge in markets prone to excessive transaction costs and competitive processes ensure that only valuable intermediaries survive. Accordingly, there is no guarantee that government-mandated disintermediation would generate net benefits in any given case.
Of course, the market does not always work perfectly. Sometimes, market failures give rise to excessive (or insufficient) centralization. And policymakers should certainly be attentive to these potential problems and address them on a case-by-case basis. But there is little reason to believe that today’s most successful intermediaries are the result of market failures, and it is thus critical that policymakers do not undermine the valuable role they perform.
For example, few believe that supermarkets exist merely because government failures (such as excessive regulation) or market failures (such as monopolization) prevent the emergence of smaller rivals. Likewise, the app-store model is widely perceived as an improvement over previous software platforms; few consumers appear favorably disposed toward its replacement with sideloading of apps (for example, few Android users choose to sideload apps rather than purchase them via the Google Play Store). In fact, markets appear to be moving in the opposite direction: even traditional software platforms such as Windows OS increasingly rely on closed stores to distribute software on their platforms.
More broadly, this same reasoning can (and has) been applied to other social institutions, such as the modern family. For example, the late Steven Horwitz observed that family structures have evolved in order to adapt to changing economic circumstances. Crucially, this process is driven by the same cost-benefit tradeoff that we see in markets. In both cases, agents effectively decide which functions are better performed within a given social structure, and which ones are more efficiently completed outside of it.
Returning to Tyler Cowen’s point about the future of Web3, the case can be made that whatever level of centralization ultimately emerges is most likely the best case scenario. Sure, there may be some market failures and suboptimal outcomes along the way, but they ultimately pale in comparison to the most pervasive force: namely, economic agents’ ability to act in what they perceive to be their best interest. To put it differently, if Web3 spontaneously becomes as centralized as Web 2.0 has been, that would be testament to the tremendous role that intermediaries play throughout the economy.
Early last month, the Italian competition authority issued a record 1.128 billion euro fine against Amazon for abuse of dominance under Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). In its order, the Agenzia Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato (AGCM) essentially argues that Amazon has combined its Amazon.it marketplace and Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) services to exclude logistics rivals such as FedEx, DHL, UPS, and Poste Italiane.
The sanctions came exactly one month after the European General Court seconded the European Commission’s “discovery” in the Google Shopping case of a new antitrust infringement known as “self-preferencing,” which also cited Article 102 TFEU. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, legislation was introduced in the United States earlier this year to prohibit the practice. Meanwhile, the EU’s legislative bodies have been busy taking steps to approve the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which would regulate so-called digital “gatekeepers.”
Italy thus joins a wave of policymakers that have either imposed heavy-handed decisions to “rein in” online platforms, or are seeking to implement ex ante regulations toward that end. Ultimately, the decision is reminiscent of the self-preferencing prohibition contained in Article 6a of the current draft of the DMA and reflects much of what is wrong with the current approach to regulating tech. It presages some of the potential problems with punishing efficient behavior for the sake of protecting competitors through “common carrier antitrust.” However, if this decision is anything to go by, these efforts will end up hurting the very consumers authorities purport to protect and lending color to more general fears over the DMA.
In this post, we discuss how the AGCM’s reasoning departs from sound legal and economic thinking to reach a conclusion at odds with the traditional goal of competition law—i.e., the protection of consumer welfare. Neo-Brandeisians and other competition scholars who dispute the centrality of the consumer welfare standard and would use antitrust to curb “bigness” may find this result acceptable, in principle. But even they must admit that the AGCM decision ultimately serves to benefit large (if less successful) competitors, and not the “small dealers and worthy men” of progressive lore.
Relevant Market Definition
Market definition constitutes a preliminary step in any finding of abuse under Article 102 TFEU. An excessively narrow market definition can result in false positives by treating neutral or efficient conduct as anticompetitive, while an overly broad market definition might allow anticompetitive conduct to slip through the cracks, leading to false negatives.
Amazon Italy may be an example of the former. Here, the AGCM identified two relevant markets: the leveraging market, which it identified as the Italian market for online marketplace intermediation, and the leveraged market, which it identified as the market for e-commerce logistics. The AGCM charges that Amazon is dominant in the former and that it gained an illegal advantage in the latter. It found, in this sense, that online marketplaces constitute a uniquely relevant market that is not substitutable for other offline or online sales channels, such as brick-and-mortar shops, price-comparison websites (e.g., Google Shopping), or dedicated sales websites (e.g., Nike.com/it). Similarly, it concluded that e-commerce logistics are sufficiently different from other forms of logistics as to comprise a separate market.
The AGCM’s findings combine qualitative and quantitative evidence, including retailer surveys and “small but significant and non-transitory increase in price” (SSNIP) tests. They also include a large dose of speculative reasoning.
For instance, the AGCM asserts that online marketplaces are fundamentally different from price-comparison sites because, in the latter case, purchase transactions do not take place on the platform. It asserts that e-commerce logistics are different from traditional logistics because the former require a higher degree of automation for transportation and storage. And in what can only be seen as a normative claim, rather than an objective assessment of substitutability, the Italian watchdog found that marketplaces are simply better than dedicated websites because, e.g., they offer greater visibility and allow retailers to save on marketing costs. While it is unclear what weights the AGCM assigned to each of these considerations when defining the relevant markets, it is reasonable to assume they played some part in defining the nature and scope of Amazon’s market presence in Italy.
In all of these instances, however, while the AGCM carefully delineated superficial distinctions between these markets, it did not actually establish that those differences are relevant to competition. Fetishizing granular but ultimately irrelevant differences between products and services—such as between marketplaces and shopping comparison sites—is a sure way to incur false positives, a misstep tantamount to punishing innocuous or efficient business conduct.
The AGCM found that Amazon was “hyper-dominant” in the online marketplace intermediation market. Dominance was established by looking at revenue from marketplace sales, where Amazon’s share had risen from about 65% in 2016 to 75% in 2019. Taken in isolation, this figure might suggest that Amazon’s competitors cannot thrive in the market. A broader look at the data, however, paints a picture of more generalized growth, with some segments greatly benefiting newcomers and small, innovative marketplaces.
For instance, virtually all companies active in the online marketplace intermediation market have experienced significant growth in terms of monthly visitors. It is true that Amazon’s visitors grew significantly, up 150%, but established competitors like Aliexpress and eBay also saw growth rates of 90% and 25%, respectively. Meanwhile, Wish grew a massive 10,000% from 2016 to 2019; while ManoMano and Zalando grew 450% and 100%, respectively.
In terms of active users (i.e., visits that result in a purchase), relative numbers seem to have stayed roughly the same, although the AGCM claims that eBay saw a 20-30% drop. The number of third-party products Amazon offered through Marketplace grew from between 100 and 500 million to between 500 million and 1 billion, while other marketplaces appear to have remained fairly constant, with some expanding and others contracting.
In sum, while Amazon has undeniably improved its position in practically all of the parameters considered by the AGCM, indicators show that the market as a whole has experienced and is experiencing growth. The improvement in Amazon’s position relative to some competitors—notably eBay, which AGCM asserts is Amazon’s biggest competitor—should therefore not obscure the fact that there is entry and expansion both at the fringes (ManoMano, Wish), and in the center of the market for online marketplace intermediation (Aliexpress).
Amazon’s Allegedly Abusive Conduct
According to the AGCM, Amazon has taken advantage of vertical integration to engage in self-preferencing. Specifically, the charge is that the company offers exclusive and purportedly crucial advantages on the Amazon.it marketplace to sellers who use Amazon’s own e-commerce logistics service, FBA. The purported advantages of this arrangement include, to name a few, the coveted Prime badge, the elimination of negative user feedback on sale or delivery, preferential algorithmic treatment, and exclusive participation in Amazon’s sales promotions (e.g., Black Friday, Cyber Monday). As a result, according to the AGCM, products sold through FBA enjoy more visibility and a better chance to win the “Buy Box.”
The AGCM claims this puts competing logistics operators like FedEx, Poste Italiane, and DHL at a disadvantage, because non-FBA products have less chance to be sold than FBA products, regardless of any efficiency or quality criteria. In the AGCM’s words, “Amazon has stolen demand for other e-commerce logistics operators.”
Indirectly, Amazon’s “self-preferencing” purportedly also harms competing marketplaces like eBay by creating incentives for sellers to single-home—i.e., to sell only through Amazon Marketplace. The argument here is that retailers will not multi-home to avoid duplicative costs associated with FBA, e.g., storing goods in several warehouses.
Although it is not necessary to demonstrate anticompetitive effects under Article 102 TFEU, the AGCM claims that Amazon’s behavior has caused drastic worsening in other marketplaces’ competitive position by constraining their ability to reach the minimum scale needed to enjoy direct and indirect network effects. The Italian authorities summarily assert that this results in consumer harm, although the gargantuan 250-page decision spends scarcely one paragraph on this point.
Intuitively, however, Amazon’s behavior should, in principle, benefit consumers by offering something that most find tremendously valuable: a guarantee of quick delivery for a wide range of goods. Indeed, this is precisely why it is so misguided to condemn self-preferencing by online platforms.
As some have already argued, we cannot assume that something is bad for competition just because it is bad for certain competitors. For instance, a lot of unambiguously procompetitive behavior, like cutting prices, puts competitors at a disadvantage. The same might be true for a digital platform that preferences its own service because it is generally better than the alternatives provided by third-party sellers. In the case at hand, for example, Amazon’s granting marketplace privileges to FBA products may help users to select the products that Amazon can guarantee will best satisfy their needs. This is perfectly plausible, as customers have repeatedly shown that they often prefer less open, less neutral options.
The key question, therefore, should be whether the behavior in question excludes equally efficient rivals in such a way as to harm consumer welfare. Otherwise, we would essentially be asking companies to refrain from offering services that benefit their users in order to make competing products comparatively more attractive. This is antithetical to the nature of competition, which is based on the principle that what is good for consumers is frequently bad for competitors.
AGCM’s Theory of Harm Rests on Four Weak Pillars
Building on the logic that Amazon enjoys “hyper-dominance” in marketplace intermediation; that most online sales are marketplace sales; and that most marketplace sales are, in turn, Amazon.it sales, the AGCM decision finds that succeeding on Amazon.it is indispensable for any online retailer in Italy. This argument hinges largely on whether online and offline retailers are thought of as distinct relevant markets—i.e., whether, from the perspective of the retailer, online and offline sales channels are substitutable (see also the relevant market definition section above).
Ultimately, the AGCM finds that they are not, as online sales enjoy such advantages as lower fixed costs, increased sale flexibility, and better geographical reach. To an outsider, the distinction between the two markets may seem artificial—and it largely is—but such theoretical market segmentation is the bread-and-butter of antitrust analysis. Still, even by EU competition law standards, the relevant market definitions on which the AGCM relies to conclude that selling on Amazon is indispensable appear excessively narrow.
This market distinction also serves to set up the AGCM’s second, more controversial argument: that the benefits extended to products sold through the FBA channel are also indispensable for retailers’ success on the Amazon.it marketplace. Here, the AGCM seeks a middle ground between competitive advantage and indispensability, finally settling on the notion that a sufficiently large competitive advantage itself translates into indispensability.
But how big is too big? The facts that 40-45% of Amazon’s third-party retailers do not use FBA (p. 57 of the decision) and that roughly 40 of the top 100 products sold on Amazon.it are not fulfilled through Amazon’s logistics service (p. 58) would appear to suggest that FBA is more of a convenience than an obligation. At the least, it does not appear that the advantage conferred is so big as to amount to indispensability. This may be because sellers that choose not to use Amazon’s logistics service (including offline, of course) can and do cut prices to compete with FBA-sold products. If anything, this should be counted as a good thing from the perspective of consumer welfare.
Instead, and signaling the decision’s overarching preoccupation with protecting some businesses at the expense of others (and, ultimately, at the expense of consumers), the AGCM has expanded the already bloated notion of a self-preferencing offense to conclude that expecting sellers to compete on pricing parameters would unfairly slash profit margins for non-FBA sellers.
The third pillar of the AGCM’s theory of harm is the claim that the benefits conferred on products sold through FBA are not awarded based on any objective quality criteria, but purely on whether the seller has chosen FBA or third-party logistics. Thus, even if a logistics operator were, in principle, capable of offering a service as efficient as FBA’s, it would not qualify for the same benefits.
But this is a disingenuous line of reasoning. One legitimate reason why Amazon could choose to confer exclusive advantages on products fulfilled by its own logistics operation is because no other service is, in fact, routinely as reliable. This does not necessarily mean that FBA is always superior to the alternatives, but rather that it makes sense for Amazon to adopt this presumption a general rule based on past experience, without spending the resources to constantly evaluate it. In other words, granting exclusive benefits is based on quality criteria, just on a prior measurement of quality rather than an ongoing assessment. This is presumably what a customer-obsessed business that does not want to take chances with consumer satisfaction would do.
Fourth, the AGCM posits that Prime and FBA constitute two separate products that have been artificially tied by Amazon, thereby unfairly excluding third-party logistics operators. Co-opting Amazon’s own terminology, the AGCM claims that the company has created a flywheel of artificial interdependence, wherein Prime benefits increase the number of Prime users, which drives demand for Prime products, which creates demand for Prime-eligible FBA products, and so on.
To support its case, the AGCM repeatedly adduces a 2015 letter in which Jeff Bezos told shareholders that Amazon Marketplace and Prime are “happily and deeply intertwined,” and that FBA is the “glue” that links them together. Instead of taking this for what it likely is—i.e., a case of legitimate, efficiency-enhancing vertical integration—the AGCM has preferred to read into it a case of illicit tying, an established offense under Article 102 TFEU whereby a dominant firm makes the purchase of one product conditional on the purchase of another, unrelated one.
The problem with this narrative is that it is perfectly plausible that Prime and FBA are, in fact, meant to be one product that is more than the sum of its parts. For one, the inventory of sellers who use FBA is stowed in fulfillment centers, meaning that Amazon takes care of all logistics, customer service, and product returns. As Bezos put it in the same 2015 letter, this is a huge efficiency gain. It thus makes sense to nudge consumers towards products that use FBA.
In sum, the AGCM’s case rests on a series of questionable assumptions that build on each other: a narrow relevant market definition; a finding of “hyper-dominance” that downplays competitors’ growth and expansion, as well as competition from outside the narrowly defined market; a contrived notion of indispensability at two levels (Marketplace and FBA); and a refusal to contemplate the possibility that Amazon integrates its marketplace and logistics services in orders to enhance efficiency, rather than to exclude competitors.
The AGCM sees “only one way to restore a level-playing field in e-commerce logistics”: Amazon must redesign its existing Self-Fulfilled Prime (SFP) program in such a way as to grant all logistics operators—FBA or non-FBA—equal treatment on Amazon.it, based on a set of objective, transparent, standard, uniform, and non-discriminatory criteria. Any logistics operator that demonstrates the ability to fulfill such criteria must be awarded SFP status and the accompanying Prime badge, along with all the perks associated with it. Further, SFP- and FBA-sold products must be subject to the same monitoring mechanism with regard to the observance of Prime standards, as well as to the same evaluation standards.
In sum, Amazon Italy now has a duty to treat Marketplace sales fulfilled by third-party operators the same as those fulfilled by its own logistics service. This is a significant step toward “common carrier antitrust.” in which vertically integrated firms are expected to comply with perfect neutrality obligations with respect to customers, suppliers, and competitors.
Beyond the philosophical question of whether successful private companies should be obliged by law to treat competitors analogously to its affiliates (they shouldn’t), the pitfalls of this approach are plain to see. Nearly all consumer-facing services use choice architectures as a means to highlight products that rank favorably in terms of price and quality, and ensuring consumers enjoy a seamless user experience: Supermarkets offer house brands that signal a product has certain desirable features; operating system developers pre-install certain applications to streamline users’ “out of the box “experience; app stores curate the apps that users will view; search engines use specialized boxes that anticipate the motives underlying users’ search queries, etc. Suppressing these practices through heavy-handed neutrality mandates is liable to harm consumers.
Second, monitoring third-party logistics operators’ compliance with the requisite standards is going to come at a cost for Amazon (and, presumably, its customers)—a cost likely much higher than that of monitoring its own operations—while awarding the Prime badge liberally may deteriorate the consumer experience on Amazon Marketplace.
Thus, one way for Amazon to comply with AGCM’s remedies while also minimizing monitoring costs is simply to dilute or even remove the criteria for Prime, thereby allowing sellers using any logistics provider to be eligible for Prime. While this would presumably insulate Amazon from any future claims against exclusionary self-preferencing, it would almost certainly also harm consumer welfare.
A final point worth noting is that vertical integration may well be subsidizing Amazon’s own first-party products. In other words, even if FBA is not fully better than other logistics operators, the revenue that it derives from FBA enables Amazon to offer low prices, as well as a range of other benefits from Prime, such as, e.g., free video. Take that source of revenue away, and those subsidized prices go up and the benefits disappear. This is another reason why it may be legitimate to consider FBA and Prime as a single product.
Of course, this argument is moot if all one cares about is how Amazon’s vertical integration affects competitors, not consumers. But consumers care about the whole package. The rationale at play in the AGCM decision ultimately ends up imposing a narrow, boring business model on all sellers, precluding them from offering interesting consumer benefits to bolster their overall product.
Some have openly applauded AGCM’s use of EU competition law to protect traditional logistics operators like FedEx, Poste Italiane, DHL, and UPS. Others lament the competition authority’s apparent abandonment of the consumer welfare standard in favor of a renewed interest in punishing efficiency to favor laggard competitors under the guise of safekeeping “competition.” Both sides ultimately agree on one thing, however: Amazon Italy is about favoring Amazon’s competitors. If competition authorities insist on continuing down this populist rabbit hole, the best they can hope for is a series of Pyrrhic victories against the businesses that are most bent on customer satisfaction, i.e., the successful ones.
Some may intuitively think that this is fair; that Amazon is just too big and that it strangles small competitors. But Amazon’s “small” competitors are hardly the “worthy men” of Brandeisian mythology. They are FedEx, DHL, UPS, and the state-backed goliath Poste Italiane; they are undeniably successful companies like eBay, Alibaba – or Walmart in the United States. It is, conversely, the smallest retailers and consumers who benefit the most from Amazon’s integrated logistics and marketplace services, as the company’s meteoric rise in popularity in Italy since 2016 attests. But it seems that, in the brave new world of antitrust, such stakeholders are now too small to matter.
As a new year dawns, the Biden administration remains fixated on illogical, counterproductive “big is bad” nostrums.
Noted economist and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers correctly stressed recently that using antitrust to fight inflation represents “science denial,” tweeting that:
In his extended Twitter thread, Summers notes that labor shortages are the primary cause of inflation over time and that lowering tariffs, paring back import restrictions (such as the Buy America Act), and reducing regulatory delays are vital to combat inflation.
Summers’ points, of course, are right on the mark. Indeed, labor shortages, supply-chain issues, and a dramatic increase in regulatory burdens have been key to the dramatic run-up of prices during the Biden administration’s first year. Reducing the weight of government on the private sector and thereby enhancing incentives for increased investment, labor participation, and supply are the appropriate weapons to slow price rises and incentivize economic growth.
More specifically, administration policies can be pinpointed as the cause, not the potential solution to, rapid price increases in specific sectors, particularly the oil and gas industry. As I recently commented, policies that disincentivize new energy production, and fail to lift excessive regulatory burdens, have been a key factor in sparking rises in gasoline prices. Administration claims that anticompetitive activity is behind these prices increases should be discounted. New Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigations of oil and gas companies would waste resources and increase already large governmental burdens on those firms.
The administration, nevertheless, appears committed to using antitrust as an anti-inflationary “tool” against “big business” (or perhaps, really, as a symbolic hammer to shift blame to the private sector for rising prices). Recent pronouncements about combatting “big meat” are a case in point.
The New ‘Big Meat’ Crusade
Part of the administration’s crusade against “big meat” involves providing direct government financial support for favored firms. A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plan to spend up to $1 billion to assist smaller meat processors is a subsidy that artificially favors one group of competitors. This misguided policy, which bears the scent of special-interest favoritism, wastes taxpayer dollars and distorts free-market outcomes. It will do nothing to cure supply and regulatory problems that affect rising meat prices. It will, however, misallocate resources.
The other key aspect of the big meat initiative smacks more of problematic, old-style, economics-free antitrust. It centers on: (1) threatening possible antitrust actions against four large meat processors based principally on their size and market share; and (2) initiating a planned rulemaking under the Packers and Stockyards Act. (That rulemaking was foreshadowed by language in the July 2021 Biden Administration Executive Order on Competition.)
The administration’s apparent focus on the “dominance” of four large meatpacking firms (which have the temerity to collectively hold greater than 50% market shares in the hog, cattle, and chicken sectors) and the 120% jump in their gross profits since the pandemic began is troubling. It echoes the structuralist “big is bad” philosophy of the 1950s and 1960s. In and of itself, large market share is not, of course, an antitrust problem, nor are large gross profits. Rather, those metrics typically signal a particular firm’s superior efficiency relative to the competition. (Gross profit “reflects the efficiency of a business in terms of making use of its labor, raw material and other supplies.”) Antitrust investigations of firms merely because they are large would inefficiently bloat those companies’ costs and discourage them from engaging in cost-reducing new capacity and production improvements. This would tend to raise, not lower, prices by major firms. It thus would lower consumer welfare, a result at odds with the guiding policy goal of antitrust, which is to promote consumer welfare.
The administration’s announcement that the USDA “will also propose rules this year to strengthen enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act” is troublesome. That act, dating back to 1921, uses broad terms that extend beyond antitrust law (such as a prohibition on “giv[ing] any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person”) and threatens to penalize efficient conduct by individual competitors. “Ratcheting up” enforcement under this act also could undermine business efficiency and paradoxically raise, not lower, prices.
Obviously, the specifics of the forthcoming proposed rules have not yet been revealed. Nevertheless, the administration’s “big is bad” approach to “big meat” strongly signals that one may expect rules to generate new costly and inefficient restrictions on meat-packer conduct. Such restrictions, of course, would be at odds with vibrant competition and consumer-welfare enhancement.
This is not to say, of course, that meat packing should be immune from antitrust attention. Such scrutiny, however, should not be transfixed by “big is bad” concerns. Rather, it should center on the core antitrust goal of combatting harmful business conduct that unreasonably restrains competition and reduces consumer welfare. A focus on ferreting out collusive agreements among meat processors, such as price-fixing schemes, should have pride of place. The U.S. Justice Department’s already successful ongoing investigation into price fixing in the broiler-chicken industry is precisely the sort of antitrust initiative on which the administration should expend its scarce enforcement resources.
In sum, the Biden administration could do a lot of good in antitrust land if it would only set aside its nostalgic “big is bad” philosophy. It should return to the bipartisan enlightened understanding that antitrust is a consumer-welfare prescription that is based on sound and empirically based economics and is concerned with economically inefficient conduct that softens or destroys competition.
If it wants to stray beyond mere enforcement, the administration could turn its focus toward dismantling welfare-reducing anticompetitive federal regulatory schemes, rather than adding to private-sector regulatory burdens. For more about how to do this, we recommend that the administration consult a just-released Mercatus Center policy brief that Andrew Mercado and I co-authored.
Even as delivery services work to ship all of those last-minute Christmas presents that consumers bought this season from digital platforms and other e-commerce sites, the U.S. House and Senate are contemplating Grinch-like legislation that looks to stop or limit how Big Tech companies can “self-preference” or “discriminate” on their platforms.
A platform “self-preferences” when it blends various services into the delivery of a given product in ways that third parties couldn’t do themselves. For example, Google self-preferences when it puts a Google Shopping box at the top of a Search page for Adidas sneakers. Amazon self-preferences when it offers its own AmazonBasics USB cables alongside those offered by Apple or Anker. Costco’s placement of its own Kirkland brand of paper towels on store shelves can also be a form of self-preferencing.
Such purportedly “discriminatory” behavior constitutes much of what platforms are designed to do. Virtually every platform that offers a suite of products and services will combine them in ways that users find helpful, even if competitors find it infuriating. It surely doesn’t help Yelp if Google Search users can see a Maps results box next to a search for showtimes at a local cinema. It doesn’t help other manufacturers of charging cables if Amazon sells a cheaper version under a brand that consumers trust. But do consumers really care about Yelp or Apple’s revenues, when all they want are relevant search results and less expensive products?
Until now, competition authorities have judged this type of conduct under the consumer welfare standard: does it hurt consumers in the long run, or does it help them? This test does seek to evaluate whether the conduct deprives consumers of choice by foreclosing rivals, which could ultimately allow the platform to exploit its customers. But it doesn’t treat harm to competitors—in the form of reduced traffic and profits for Yelp, for example—as a problem in and of itself.
“Non-discrimination” bills introduced this year in both the House and Senate aim to change that, but they would do so in ways that differ in important respects.
The House bill would impose a blanket ban on virtually all “discrimination” by platforms. This means that even such benign behavior as Facebook linking to Facebook Marketplace on its homepage would become presumptively unlawful. The measure would, as I’ve written before, break a lot of the Internet as we know it, but it has the virtue of being explicit and clear about its effects.
The Senate bill is, in this sense, a lot more circumspect. Instead of a blanket ban, it would prohibit what the bill refers to as “unfair” discrimination that “materially harm[s] competition on the covered platform,” with a carve-out exception for discrimination that was “necessary” to maintain or enhance the “core functionality” of the platform. In theory, this would avoid a lot of the really crazy effects of the House bill. Apple likely still could, for example, pre-install a Camera app on the iPhone.
But this greater degree of reasonableness comes at the price of ambiguity. The bill does not define “unfair discrimination,” nor what it would mean for something to be “necessary” to improve the core functionality of a platform. Faced with this ambiguity, companies would be wise to be overly cautious, given the steep penalties they would face for conduct found to be “unfair”: 15% of total U.S. revenues earned during the period when the conduct was ongoing. That’s a lot of money to risk over a single feature!
Also unlike the House legislation, the Senate bill would not create a private right of action, thereby limiting litigation to enforce the bill’s terms to actions brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), or state attorneys general.
Put together, these features create the perfect recipe for extensive discretionary power held by a handful of agencies. With such vague criteria and such massive penalties for lawbreaking, the mere threat of a lawsuit could force a company to change its behavior. The rules are so murky that companies might even be threatened with a lawsuit over conduct in one area in order to make them change their behavior in another.
The FTC itself has a history of abusing its authority. As Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson remind us, the commission was nearly shut down in the 1970s after trying to use its powers to “protect” children from seeing ads for sugary foods, interpreting its consumer-protection mandate so broadly that it considered tooth decay as falling within its scope.
Khan in particular does not appear especially bound by the usual norms that might constrain this sort of regulatory overreach. In recent weeks, she has pushed through contentious decisions by relying on more than 20 “zombie votes” cast by former Commissioner Rohit Chopra on the final day before he left the agency. While it has been FTC policy since 1984 to count votes cast by departed commissioners unless they are superseded by their successors, Khan’s FTC has invoked this relatively obscure rule to swing more decisions than every single predecessor combined.
Thus, while the Senate bill may avoid immediately breaking large portions of the Internet in ways the House bill would, it would instead place massive discretionary powers into the hands of authorities who have expansive views about the goals those powers ought to be used to pursue.
This ought to be concerning to anyone who disapproves of public policy being made by unelected bureaucrats, rather than the people’s chosen representatives. If Republicans find an empowered Khan-led FTC worrying today, surely Democrats ought to feel the same about an FTC run by Trump-style appointees in a few years. Both sides may come to regret creating an agency with so much unchecked power.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) appears committed—at least, for the moment—to a path of regulatory overreach. The commission’s Dec. 10 Statement of Regulatory Priorities (SRP) offers, in addition to a periodic review of existing rules and the status of proposed rules in the pipeline, a sneak preview of new “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) and “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” (UDAP) rulemakings that the body will consider developing next year.
In issuing its regulatory wish list, the FTC’s current “majority” (actually, only two of the four sitting members) pay no heed to spirited dissents by Commissioners Christine S. Wilson and Noah Phillips. Wilson’s well-reasoned statement particularly merits a close read, as it lays bare serious flaws with the wish list.
Highly problematic from the start, the SRP praises the July 2021 decision to streamline the commission’s consumer-protection rulemaking procedures, thus ignoring Wilson’s concerns (shared by Phillips) that “those changes fast-track regulation at the expense of public input, objectivity, and a full evidentiary record.”
The SRP also asserts that case-by-case antitrust enforcement “has proven insufficient, leaving behind a hyper-concentrated economy whose harms to American workers, consumers, and small businesses demand new approaches.” This attempt to justify new far-reaching rulemakings is made without a shred of substantiation, and without mention of solid economic research to the contrary.
Having failed to establish a broad economic predicate for novel rules, the SRP immediately turns to describing rulemaking possibilities.
It begins by describing a possible hybrid consumer-protection and competition rule focused on “abuses stemming from surveillance-based business models,” including possible lax security practices and discriminatory algorithms. The SRP claims, without citing any evidence, that such abuses are “particularly alarming.”
Next, the SRP sails further into uncharted FTC regulatory waters by stating that the commission will consider initiating a host of possible competition rulemakings that deal with “non-compete clauses, surveillance, the right to repair, pay-for-delay pharmaceutical agreements, unfair competition in online marketplaces, occupational licensing, real-estate listing and brokerage, and industry practices that substantially inhibit competition.”
The SRP also highlights two public petitions for competition rulemaking, dealing with (1) curtailing the use of non-compete clauses and (2) limiting exclusionary contracting by dominant firms. It adds that “the Commission also solicited additional examples of unfair terms” and is “carefully reviewing” thousands of public comments. As if that’s not enough, the SRP further notes that “[t]he Commission will explore the benefits and costs of these and other competition rulemaking ideas.”
This compilation of rulemaking desiderata is stunning in both its breadth and in its impracticality. Any efforts to follow through and actually put forth rulemakings along the lines suggested in the SRP would be harmful to producer and consumer welfare. Three points, in particular, are worth noting.
As I have previously explained, the legal justification for promulgating FTC UMC rules is highly problematic, to say the least. Moreover, the “streamlining” of consumer-protection rules under Section 18 of the FTC Act raises substantial Due Process problems. These difficulties are compounded by the reality that the commission lacks the administrative law resources to conduct the fulsome fact-finding proceedings and legal analyses that would provide credible record support for a raft of highly unprecedented rule proposals. As such, there is only a modest, at best, chance that most (if any) of the new rulemakings the FTC suggests would survive judicial review. Devoting substantial commission resources to novel and time-consuming rulemakings that will likely fail—resources that could be far better applied to more traditional law enforcement—would not appear to meet any rational cost-benefit test.
The suggested rulemakings involve categories of business conduct that have major efficiency justifications. Imposing inflexible one-size-fits-all rule provisions to limit such conduct would generate enormous error costs, and would doubtless deter a great deal of economically efficient behavior. Business innovations that enhance market offerings would slow, harming consumers and denying potential gains to producers’ product and service improvements. Relatedly, regulatory strictures on industry practices would discourage third-party entrepreneurial activities that could have generated new markets and product and service improvements. These problems would be compounded by the error costs that would inevitably attend the design of rules.
Novel rules would not be an effective means to address any FTC concerns about alleged dominant firm depredations. Indeed, to the contrary, the long and sordid history of regulatory manipulation by powerful firms in response to regulation suggests that new rules could create or enhance barriers to entry and raise less connected rivals’ costs. Such an outcome would, of course, harm consumers while reducing economic efficiency and innovation.
I have only scratched the surface of the problems raised by the SRP’s novel rule proposals. Fortunately, none of the troublesome rulemakings are yet under way. One may hope that the eventual confirmation of a fifth commissioner will lay the groundwork for a reconsideration of the wisdom of new and overly expansive rulemaking proceedings.
Antitrust policymakers around the world have taken a page out of the Silicon Valley playbook and decided to “move fast and break things.” While the slogan is certainly catchy, applying it to the policymaking world is unfortunate and, ultimately, threatens to harm consumers.
Several antitrust authorities in recent months have announced their intention to block (or, at least, challenge) a spate of mergers that, under normal circumstances, would warrant only limited scrutiny and face little prospect of outright prohibition. This is notably the case of several vertical mergers, as well as mergers between firms that are only potential competitors (sometimes framed as “killer acquisitions”). These include Facebook’s acquisition of Giphy (U.K.); Nvidia’s ARM Ltd. deal (U.S., EU, and U.K.), and Illumina’s purchase of GRAIL (EU). It is also the case for horizontal mergers in non-concentrated markets, such as WarnerMedia’s proposed merger with Discovery, which has faced significant political backlash.
Some of these deals fail even to implicate “traditional” merger-notification thresholds. Facebook’s purchase of Giphy was only notifiable because of the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority’s broad interpretation of its “share of supply test” (which eschews traditional revenue thresholds). Likewise, the European Commission relied on a highly controversial interpretation of the so-called “Article 22 referral” procedure in order to review Illumina’s GRAIL purchase.
Some have praised these interventions, claiming antitrust authorities should take their chances and prosecute high-profile deals. It certainly appears that authorities are pressing their luck because they face few penalties for wrongful prosecutions. Overly aggressive merger enforcement might even reinforce their bargaining position in subsequent cases. In other words, enforcers risk imposing social costs on firms and consumers because their incentives to prosecute mergers are not aligned with those of society as a whole.
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has been following this space. As my ICLE colleagues and I have been arguing for quite a while, weakening the guardrails that surround merger-review proceedings opens the door to arbitrary interventions that are difficult (though certainly not impossible) to remediate before courts.
A Simplified Model of Legal Disputes
The negotiations that surround merger-review proceedings involve firms and authorities bargaining in the shadow of potential litigation. Whether and which concessions are made will depend chiefly on what the parties believe will be the outcome of litigation. If firms think courts will safeguard their merger, they will offer authorities few potential remedies. Conversely, if authorities believe courts will support their decision to block a merger, they are unlikely to accept concessions that stop short of the parties withdrawing their deal.
This simplified model suggests that neither enforcers nor merging parties are in position to “exploit” the merger-review process, so long as courts review decisions effectively. Under this model, overly aggressive enforcement would merely lead to defeat in court (and, expecting this, merging parties would offer few concessions to authorities).
Put differently, court proceedings are both a dispute-resolution mechanism and a source of rulemaking. The result is that only marginal cases should lead to actual disputes. Most harmful mergers will be deterred, and clearly beneficial ones will be cleared rapidly. So long as courts apply the consumer welfare standard consistently, firms’ merger decisions—along with any rulings or remedies—all should primarily serve consumers’ interests.
At least, that is the theory. But there are factors that can serve to undermine this efficient outcome. In the field of merger control, this is notably the case with court delays that prevent parties from effectively challenging merger decisions.
While delays between when a legal claim is filed and a judgment is rendered aren’t always detrimental (as Richard Posner observes, speed can be costly), it is essential that these delays be accounted for in any subsequent damages and penalties. Parties that prevail in court might otherwise only obtain reparations that are below the market rate, reducing the incentive to seek judicial review in the first place.
The problem is particularly acute when it comes to merger reviews. Merger challenges might lead the parties to abandon a deal because they estimate the transaction will no longer be commercially viable by the time courts have decided the matter. This is a problem, insofar as neither U.S. nor EU antitrust law generally requires authorities to compensate parties for wrongful merger decisions. For example, courts in the EU have declined to fully compensate aggrieved companies (e.g., the CFI in Schneider) and have set an exceedingly high bar for such claims to succeed at all.
In short, parties have little incentive to challenge merger decisions if the only positive outcome is for their deals to be posthumously sanctified. This smaller incentive to litigate may be insufficient to create enough cases that would potentially helpful precedent for future merging firms. Ultimately, the balance of bargaining power is tilted in favor of competition authorities.
Some Data on Mergers
While not necessarily dispositive, there is qualitative evidence to suggest that parties often drop their deals when authorities either block them (as in the EU) or challenge them in court (in the United States).
U.S. merging parties nearly always either reach a settlement or scrap their deal when their merger is challenged. There were 43 transactions challenged by either the U.S. Justice Department (15) or the Federal Trade Commission (28) in 2020. Of these, 15 were abandoned and almost all the remaining cases led to settlements.
The EU picture is similar. The European Commission blocks, on average, about one merger every year (30 over the last 31 years). Most in-depth investigations are settled in exchange for remedies offered by the merging firms (141 out of 239). While the EU does not publish detailed statistics concerning abandoned mergers, it is rare for firms to appeal merger-prohibition decisions. The European Court of Justice’s database lists only six such appeals over a similar timespan. The vast majority of blocked mergers are scrapped, with the parties declining to appeal.
This proclivity to abandon mergers is surprising, given firms’ high success rate in court. Of the six merger-annulment appeals in the ECJ’s database (CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd.’s acquisition of Telefónica Europe Plc; Ryanair’s acquisition of a controlling stake in Aer Lingus; a proposed merger between Deutsche Börse and NYSE Euronext; Tetra Laval’s takeover of Sidel Group; a merger between Schneider Electric SA and Legrand SA; and Airtours’ acquisition of First Choice) merging firms won four of them. While precise numbers are harder to come by in the United States, it is also reportedly rare for U.S. antitrust enforcers to win merger-challenge cases.
One explanation is that only marginal cases ever make it to court. In other words, firms with weak cases are, all else being equal, less likely to litigate. However, that is unlikely to explain all abandoned deals.
There are documented cases in which it was clearly delays, rather than self-selection, that caused firms to scrap planned mergers. In the EU’s Airtours proceedings, the merging parties dropped their transaction even though they went on to prevail in court (and First Choice, the target firm, was acquired by another rival). This is inconsistent with the notion that proposed mergers are abandoned only when the parties have a weak case to challenge (the Commission’s decision was widely seen as controversial).
Antitrust policymakers also generally acknowledge that mergers are often time-sensitive. That’s why merger rules on both sides of the Atlantic tend to impose strict timelines within which antitrust authorities must review deals.
In the end, if self-selection based on case strength were the only criteria merging firms used in deciding to appeal a merger challenge, one would not expect an equilibrium in which firms prevail in more than two-thirds of cases. If firms anticipated that a successful court case would preserve a multi-billion dollar merger, the relatively small burden of legal fees should not dissuade them from litigating, even if their chance of success was tiny. We would expect to see more firms losing in court.
The upshot is that antitrust challenges and prohibition decisions likely cause at least some firms to abandon their deals because court proceedings are not seen as an effective remedy. This perception, in turn, reinforces authorities’ bargaining position and thus encourages firms to offer excessive remedies in hopes of staving off lengthy litigation.
A general rule of policymaking is that rules should seek to ensure that agents internalize both the positive and negative effects of their decisions. This, in turn, should ensure that they behave efficiently.
In the field of merger control, those incentives are misaligned. Given the prevailing political climate on both sides of the Atlantic, challenging large corporate acquisitions likely generates important political capital for antitrust authorities. But wrongful merger prohibitions are unlikely to elicit the kinds of judicial rebukes that would compel authorities to proceed more carefully.
Put differently, in the field of antitrust law, court proceedings ought to serve as a guardrail to ensure that enforcement decisions ultimately benefit consumers. When that shield is removed, it is no longer a given that authorities—who, in theory, act as agents of society—will act in the best interests of that society, rather than maximize their own preferences.
Ideally, we should ensure that antitrust authorities bear the social costs of faulty decisions, by compensating, at least, the direct victims of their actions (i.e., the merging firms). However, this would likely require new legislation to that effect, as there currently are too many obstacles to such cases. It is thus unlikely to represent a short-term solution.
In the meantime, regulatory restraint appears to be the only realistic solution. Or, one might say, authorities should “move carefully and avoid breaking stuff.”
The Autorità Garante della Concorenza e del Mercato (AGCM), Italy’s competition and consumer-protection watchdog, on Nov. 25 handed down fines against Google and Apple of €10 million each—the maximum penalty contemplated by the law—for alleged unfair commercial practices. Ultimately, the twodecisions stand as textbook examples of why regulators should, wherever possible, strongly defer to consumer preferences, rather than substitute their own.
The Alleged Infringements
The AGCM has made two practically identical cases built around two interrelated claims. The first claim is that the companies have not properly informed users that the data they consent to share will be used for commercial purposes. The second is that, by making users opt out if they don’t want to consent to data sharing, the companies unduly restrict users’ freedom of choice and constrain them to accept terms they would not have otherwise accepted.
According to the AGCM, Apple and Google’s behavior infringes Articles 20, 21, 22, 24 and 25 of the Italian Consumer Code. The first three provisions prohibit misleading business practices, and are typically applied to conduct such as lying, fraud, the sale of unsafe products, or the omission or otherwise deliberate misrepresentation of facts in ways that would deceive the average user. The conduct caught by the first claim would allegedly fall into this category.
The last two provisions, by contrast, refer to aggressive business practices such as coercion, blackmail, verbal threats, and even physical harassment capable of “limiting the freedom of choice of users.” The conduct described in the second claim would fall here.
The First Claim
The AGCM’s first claim does not dispute that the companies informed users about the commercial use of their data. Instead, the authority argues that the companies are not sufficiently transparent in how they inform users.
Let’s start with Google. Upon creating a Google ID, users can click to view the “Privacy and Terms” disclosure, which details the types of data that Google processes and the reasons that it does so. As Figure 1 below demonstrates, the company explains that it processes data: “to publish personalized ads, based on your account settings, on Google services as well as on other partner sites and apps” (translation of the Italian text highlighted in the first red rectangle). Below, under the “data combination” heading, the user is further informed that: “in accordance with the settings of your account, we show you personalized ads based on the information gathered from your combined activity on Google and YouTube” (the section in the second red rectangle).
After creating a Google ID, a pop-up once again reminds the user that “this Google account is configured to include the personalization function, which provides tips and personalized ads based on the information saved on your account. [And that] you can select ‘other options’ to change the personalization settings as well as the information saved in your account.”
The AGCM sees two problems with this. First, the user must click on “Privacy and Terms” to be told what Google does with their data and why. Viewing this information is not simply an unavoidable step in the registration process. Second, the AGCM finds it unacceptable that the commercial use of data is listed together with other, non-commercial uses, such as improved quality, security, etc. (the other items listed in Figure 1). The allegation is that this leads to confusion and makes it less likely that users will notice the commercial aspects of data usage.
A similar argument is made in the Apple decision, where the AGCM similarly contends that users are not properly informed that their data may be used for commercial purposes. As shown in Figure 2, upon creating an Apple ID, users are asked to consent to receive “communications” (notifications, tips, and updates on Apple products, services, and software) and “Apps, music, TV, and other” (latest releases, exclusive content, special offers, tips on apps, music, films, TV programs, books, podcasts, Apple Pay and others).
If users click on “see how your data is managed”—located just above the “Continue” button, as shown in Figure 2—they are taken to another page, where they are given more detailed information about what data Apple collects and how it is used. Apple discloses that it may employ user data to send communications and marketing e-mails about new products and services. Categories are clearly delineated and users are reminded that, if they wish to change their marketing email preferences, they can do so by going to appleid.apple.com. The word “data” is used 40 times and the taxonomy of the kind of data gathered by Apple is truly comprehensive. See for yourself.
The App Store, Apple Book Store, and iTunes Store have similar clickable options (“see how your data is managed”) that lead to pages with detailed information about how Apple uses data. This includes unambiguous references to so-called “commercial use” (e.g., “Apple uses information on your purchases, downloads, and other activities to send you tailored ads and notifications relative to Apple marketing campaigns.”)
But these disclosures failed to convince the AGCM that users are sufficiently aware that their data may be used for commercial purposes. The two reasons cited in the opinion mirror those in the Google decision. First, the authority claims that the design of the “see how your data is managed” option does not “induce the user to click on it” (see the marked area in Figure 2). Further, it notes that accessing the “Apple ID Privacy” page requires a “voluntary and eventual [i.e., hypothetical]” action by the user. According to the AGCM, this leads to a situation in which “the average user” is not “directly and intuitively” aware of the magnitude of data used for commercial purposes, and is instead led to believe that data is shared to improve the functionality of the Apple product and the Apple ecosystem.
The Second Claim
The AGCM’s second claim contends that the opt-out mechanism used by both Apple and Google “limits and conditions” users’ freedom of choice by nudging them toward the companies’ preferred option—i.e., granting the widest possible consent to process data for commercial use.
In Google’s case, the AGCM first notes that, when creating a Google ID, a user must take an additional discretionary step before they can opt out of data sharing. This refers to mechanism in which a user must click the words “OTHER OPTIONS,” in bright blue capitalized font, as shown in Figure 3 below (first blue rectangle, upper right corner).
The AGCM’s complaint here is that it is insufficient to grant users merely the possibility of opting out, as Google does. Rather, the authority contends, users must be explicitly asked whether they wish to share their data. As in the first claim, the AGCM holds that questions relating to the commercial use of data must be woven in as unavoidable steps in the registration process.
The AGCM also posits that the opt-out mechanism itself (in the lower left corner of Figure 3) “restricts and conditions” users’ freedom of choice by preventing them from “expressly and preventively” manifesting their real preferences. The contention is that, if presented with an opt-in checkbox, users would choose differently—and thus, from the authority’s point of view, choose correctly. Indeed, the AGCM concludes from the fact that the vast majority of users have not opted out from data sharing (80-100%, according to the authority), that the only reasonable conclusion is that “a significant number of subscribers have been induced to make a commercial decision without being aware of it.”
A similar argument is made in the Apple decision. Here, the issue is the supposed difficulty of the opt-out mechanism, which the AGCM describes as “intricate and non-immediate.” If a user wishes to opt out of data sharing, he or she would not only have to “uncheck” the checkboxes displayed in Figure 2, but also do the same in the Apple Store with respect to their preferences for other individual Apple products. This “intricate” process generally involves two to three steps. For instance, to opt out of “personalized tips,” a user must first go to Settings, then select their name, then multimedia files, and then “deactivate personalized tips.”
According to the AGCM, the registration process is set up in such a way that the users’ consent is not informed, free, and specific. It concludes:
The consumer, entangled in this system, of which he is not aware, is conditioned in his choices, undergoing the transfer of his data, which the professional can dispose of for his own promotional purposes.
The AGCM’s decisions fail on three fronts. They are speculative, paternalistic, and subject to the Nirvana Fallacy. They are also underpinned by an extremely uncharitable conception of what the “average user” knows and understands.
Epistemic Modesty Under Uncertainty
The AGCM makes far-reaching and speculative assumptions about user behavior based on incomplete knowledge. For instance, both Google and Apple’s registration processes make clear that they gather users’ data for advertising purposes—which, especially in the relevant context, cannot be interpreted by a user as anything but “commercial” (even under the AGCM’s pessimistic assumptions about the “average user.”) It’s true that the disclosure requires the user to click “see how your data is managed” (Apple) or “Privacy and Terms” (Google). But it’s not at all clear that this is less transparent than, say, the obligatory scroll-text that most users will ignore before blindly clicking to accept.
For example, in registering for a Blizzard account (a gaming service), users are forced to read the company’s lengthy terms and conditions, with information on the “commercial use” of data buried somewhere in a seven-page document of legalese. Does it really follow from this that Blizzard users are better informed about the commercial use of their data? I don’t think so.
Rather than the obligatory scroll-text, the AGCM may have in mind some sort of pop-up screen. But would this mean that companies should also include separate, obligatory pop-ups for every other relevant aspect of their terms and conditions? This would presumably take us back to square one, as the AGCM’s complaint was that Google amalgamated commercial and non-commercial uses of data under the same title. Perhaps the pop-up for the commercial use of data would have to be made more conspicuous. This would presumably require a normative hierarchy of the companies’ terms and conditions, listed in order of relevance for users. That would raise other thorny questions. For instance, should information about the commercial use of data be more prominently displayed than information about safety and security?
A reasonable alternative—especially under conditions of uncertainty—would be to leave Google and Apple alone to determine the best way to inform consumers, because nobody reads the terms and conditions anyway, no matter how they are presented. Moreover, the AGCM offers no evidence to support its contention that companies’ opt-out mechanisms lead more users to share their data than would freely choose to do so.
The AGCM also replaces revealed user preferences with its own view of what those preferences should be. For instance, the AGCM doesn’t explain why opting to share data for commercial purposes would be, in principle, a bad thing. There are a number of plausible and legitimate explanations for why a user would opt for more generous data-sharing arrangements: they may believe that data sharing will improve their experience; may wish to receive tailored ads rather than generic ones; or may simply value a company’s product and see data sharing as a fair exchange. None of these explanations—or, indeed, any others—are ever contemplated in the AGCM decision.
At the heart of the AGCM decisions is the notion that it is proper to punish market actors wherever the real doesn’t match a regulator’s vision of the ideal—commonly known as “the Nirvana fallacy.” When the AGCM claims that Apple and Google do not properly disclose the commercial use of user data, or that the offered opt-out mechanism is opaque or manipulative, the question is: compared to what? There will always be theoretically “better” ways of granting users the choice to opt out of sharing their data. The test should not be whether a company falls short of some ideal imagined practice, but whether the existing mechanism actually deceives users.
There is nothing in the AGCM’s decisions to suggest that it does. Depending on how precipitously one lowers the bar for what the “average user” would understand, just about any intervention might be justified, in principle. But to justify the AGCM’s intervention in this case requires stretching the plausible ignorance of the average user to its absolute theoretical limits.
Even if a court were to buy the AGCM’s impossibly low view of the “average user” and grant the first claim—which would be unfortunate, but plausible — not even the most liberal reading of Articles 24 and 25 can support the view that “overly complex, non-immediate” opt-outs, as interpreted by the AGCM, limit users’ freedom of choice in any way comparable to the type of conduct described in those provisions (coercion, blackmail, verbal threats, etc.)
The AGCM decisions are shot through with unsubstantiated assumptions about users’ habits and preferences, and risk imposing undue burdens not only on the companies, but on users themselves. With some luck, they will be stricken down by a sensible judge. In the meantime, however, the trend of regulatory paternalism and over-enforcement continues. Much like in the United States, where the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has occasionally engaged in product-design decisions that substitute the commission’s own preferences for those of consumers, regulators around the world continue to think they know better than consumers about what’s in their best interests.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Dec. 2 filed an administrative complaint to block the vertical merger between Nvidia Corp., a graphics chip supplier, and Arm Ltd., a computing-processor designer. The press release accompanying the complaint stresses the allegation that “the combined firm would have the means and incentive to stifle innovative next-generation technologies, including those used to run datacenters and driver-assistance systems in cars.” According to the FTC:
Because Arm’s technology is a critical input that enables competition between Nvidia and its competitors in several markets, the complaint alleges that the proposed merger would give Nvidia the ability and incentive to use its control of this technology to undermine its competitors, reducing competition and ultimately resulting in reduced product quality, reduced innovation, higher prices, and less choice, harming the millions of Americans who benefit from Arm-based products[.]
Assuming the merger proposal is not dropped (it also faces tough sledding in the European Union and the United Kingdom), findings of fact developed at the FTC administrative trial scheduled to begin next August will shed light on the robustness of the complaint’s allegations. Without waiting that long, however, and without commenting on the FTC’s theory of competitive harm, it is useful to take stock of the substantial efficiencies that may be associated with the merger, which can be gleaned from the public record. (The following discussion draws primarily on four sources, see here, here, here, and here.)
The Proposed Merger and Its Efficiencies
Arm has been a key player in the development of next generation processors for the better of the last 30 years. Arm-based processors can be found in most mobile devices, from mobile phones and tablets to some computers. Their ubiquity stems from their power, efficiency, high speed, and low cost. Part of this low cost comes from Arm’s licensing scheme, whereby Arm itself does not produce or deliver any semiconductors. Rather, it licenses their intellectual property to other businesses, allowing those businesses great freedom of implementation in return for zero manufacturing risk for Arm. This means that neither consumers nor businesses can buy an Arm processor to put into their computers, and there is no such thing as an Arm-branded processor. Companies use Arm’s technology to develop, refine, and manufacture their own processors.
Nvidia, also a long-time player in the microprocessor space, takes a decidedly different approach to the semiconductor market, manufacturing and selling its devices both to end users and business alike. Nvidia graphics cards (GPUs) are integrated into various computing machines, from consumer laptops to data-center servers, and all carry Nvidia branding. This approach places significantly greater manufacturing risk on Nvidia but allows for significantly greater control over the integration and operation of their products. Since Nvidia undertakes development of optimization and compatibility in-house, it can ensure that its GPU technology works similarly across devices, a step that Arm does not take.
Additionally, there are two ways in which outside companies may interact with Arm’s IP. The first involves buying the right to produce a stock processor and modifying it to suit the business’ needs. This is the less expensive option and allows businesses to undertake the bare minimum of research and development to make their product work. Arm supplies them with the specifications to manufacture the processor, but the optimization and compatibility testing is the responsibility of the end business.
The second avenue is by purchasing what is known as an “architectural license,” giving the business rights to the underlying processor technology and coding language, but not a processor design. In those cases, the end business designs a processor from scratch, optimizing and integrating as it goes along to make sure the processor is a perfect fit for its device. While this integration generally leads to better results for the consumer, this method requires significantly higher research and development costs, leading to higher prices for the device.
The second avenue enables businesses to significantly advance the capabilities of their processors beyond what is achievable though an Arm-specific design. Since Arm generally focuses on CPU technology, the integration of the additional components to make the computer work—like the motherboard, hard drives, and GPU—are left to the business. In many cases, these components are pieced together from various sources and may be poorly integrated, leading to lower-powered machines with inferior battery life.
However, businesses like Apple and Samsung have taken advantage of architectural licenses to use Arm processor technology and fully integrate all necessary components to work together seamlessly. This can improve battery life, speed, and efficiency in ways that off-the-shelf components are not capable of achieving. This fully integrated system, called a system on chip (SoC) design, advances computing far beyond Arm’s current offerings and presents a significant competitive threat to the processor market.
Given these circumstances, vertical integration of Arm with Nvidia may present both significant efficiencies and new competition in processor markets. Nvidia, with its expertise in manufacturing and designing integrated systems, may benefit from bringing Arm’s processor design in-house. It could save on licensing costs and use the extra capital to bring fully integrated off-the-shelf SoC designs to the mass market. This could reduce the cost of SoC implementation for computer manufacturers, reduce the time spent designing new computers, and bring the price of computers and mobile devices down for consumers.
Additionally, integration with Nvidia would allow Arm to keep pace with the wave of innovation from Apple and Samsung, among others. Those companies are making significant strides in the mobile-computing market, designing smaller, faster, and more energy-efficient processors that can be put into just about any form factor. Arm is significantly behind the curve when looking toward the next generation of processing technology. Integrating with Nvidia may be what the company needs to become competitive in the years to come.
One argument against allowing the merger to be completed is that Arm is a critical trading partner with nearly every processor manufacturer in the market, including Nvidia. Up to this point, Arm has not been owned by a single manufacturer and has not had an incentive to prioritize working with one manufacturer over another. Should the merger go through, Nvidia would own Arm, including the IP used by other companies, leading to concern from the FTC and other international regulators that Nvidia will be able to foreclose rivals from critical IP.
There is a strong counterargument, however, that Nvidia would be going against its own interest if it seeks to foreclose the market. Arm-based processors have become a dominant processor technology in recent years, integrated into 90% of the mobile-device market and nearly 34% of the overall computing market. This guaranteed revenue stream is a gold mine for the company, amounting to nearly $2 billion annually.
Closing the door to this revenue stream by revoking access to Arm’s IP would surely come back to bite the newly merged company. Foreclosing IP would have the effect of raising prices and reducing the quantity of processors in the market, but also would likely force the market to shift away from Arm-based processers over time. Arm already has been forced to reduce the cost to license its technology in recent years in order to stave off competition from open-source chip designs that are available without a license. Doing anything that impacted the overall computing market would harm consumers, businesses, and the newly merged company alike. Denying IP to the broader market would likely not pass an internal cost-benefit analysis for the merged entity.
We do not express an opinion on the ultimate antitrust merits of the Arm-Nvidia vertical merger. We note, however, that vertical mergers are typically procompetitive. Furthermore, information in the public record about the proposed consolidation strongly suggests that it could generate substantial efficiencies that would enhance competition in markets for next-generation computers and mobile devices, in turn benefiting consumers. FTC theories of merger-related anticompetitive foreclosure (which at first blush appear somewhat counterintuitive) need to be scrutinized carefully in light of specific facts, and should be assessed with a jaundiced eye in light of the powerful efficiency arguments in favor of the Arm-Nvidia merger.
Recent antitrust forays on both sides of the Atlantic have unfortunate echoes of the oldie-but-baddie “efficiencies offense” that once plagued American and European merger analysis (and, more broadly, reflected a “big is bad” theory of antitrust). After a very short overview of the history of merger efficiencies analysis under American and European competition law, we briefly examine two current enforcement matters “on both sides of the pond” that impliedly give rise to such a concern. Those cases may regrettably foreshadow a move by enforcers to downplay the importance of efficiencies, if not openly reject them.
Background: The Grudging Acceptance of Merger Efficiencies
Starting in the 1980s, the promulgation of increasingly economically sophisticated merger guidelines in the United States led to the acceptance of efficiencies (albeit less then perfectly) as an important aspect of integrated merger analysis. Several practitioners have claimed, nevertheless, that “efficiencies are seldom credited and almost never influence the outcome of mergers that are otherwise deemed anticompetitive.” Commissioner Christine Wilson has argued that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) still have work to do in “establish[ing] clear and reasonable expectations for what types of efficiency analysis will and will not pass muster.”
In short, although the actual weight enforcers accord to efficiency claims is a matter of debate, efficiency justifications are cognizable, subject to constraints, as a matter of U.S. and European Union merger-enforcement policy. Whether that will remain the case is, unfortunately, uncertain, given DOJ and FTC plans to revise merger guidelines, as well as EU talk of convergence with U.S. competition law.
Two Enforcement Matters with ‘Efficiencies Offense’ Overtones
Two Facebook-related matters currently before competition enforcers—one in the United States and one in the United Kingdom—have implications for the possible revival of an antitrust “efficiencies offense” as a “respectable” element of antitrust policy. (I use the term Facebook to reference both the platform company and its corporate parent, Meta.)
FTC v. Facebook
The FTC’s 2020 federal district court monopolization complaint against Facebook, still in the motion to dismiss the amended complaint phase (see here for an overview of the initial complaint and the judge’s dismissal of it), rests substantially on claims that Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp harmed competition. As Facebook points out in its recent reply brief supporting its motion to dismiss the FTC’s amended complaint, Facebook appears to be touting merger-related efficiencies in critiquing those acquisitions. Specifically:
[The amended complaint] depends on the allegation that Facebook’s expansion of both Instagram and WhatsApp created a “protective ‘moat’” that made it harder for rivals to compete because Facebook operated these services at “scale” and made them attractive to consumers post-acquisition. . . . The FTC does not allege facts that, left on their own, Instagram and WhatsApp would be less expensive (both are free; Facebook made WhatsApp free); or that output would have been greater (their dramatic expansion at “scale” is the linchpin of the FTC’s “moat” theory); or that the products would be better in any specific way.
The FTC’s concerns about a scale-based merger-related output expansion that benefited consumers and thereby allegedly enhanced Facebook’s market position eerily echoes the commission’s concerns in Procter & Gamble that merger-related cost-reducing joint efficiencies in advertising had an anticompetitive “entrenchment” effect. Both positions, in essence, characterize output-increasing efficiencies as harmful to competition: in other words, as “efficiencies offenses.”
UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) v. Facebook
The CMA announced Dec. 1 that it had decided to block retrospectively Facebook’s 2020 acquisition of Giphy, which is “a company that provides social media and messaging platforms with animated GIF images that users can embed in posts and messages. . . . These platforms license the use of Giphy for its users.”
The CMA theorized that Facebook could harm competition by (1) restricting access to Giphy’s digital libraries to Facebook’s competitors; and (2) prevent Giphy from developing into a potential competitor to Facebook’s display advertising business.
As a CapX analysis explains, the CMA’s theory of harm to competition, based on theoretical speculation, is problematic. First, a behavioral remedy short of divestiture, such as requiring Facebook to maintain open access to its gif libraries, would deal with the threat of restricted access. Indeed, Facebook promised at the time of the acquisition that Giphy would maintain its library and make it widely available. Second, “loss of a single, relatively small, potential competitor out of many cannot be counted as a significant loss for competition, since so many other potential and actual competitors remain.” Third, given the purely theoretical and questionable danger to future competition, the CMA “has blocked this deal on relatively speculative potential competition grounds.”
Apart from the weakness of the CMA’s case for harm to competition, the CMA appears to ignore a substantial potential dynamic integrative efficiency flowing from Facebook’s acquisition of Giphy. As David Teece explains:
Facebook’s acquisition of Giphy maintained Giphy’s assets and furthered its innovation in Facebook’s ecosystem, strengthening that ecosystem in competition with others; and via Giphy’s APIs, strengthening the ecosystems of other service providers as well.
There is no evidence that CMA seriously took account of this integrative efficiency, which benefits consumers by offering them a richer experience from Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram, and which spurs competing ecosystems to enhance their offerings to consumers as well. This is a failure to properly account for an efficiency. Moreover, to the extent that the CMA viewed these integrative benefits as somehow anticompetitive (to the extent that it enhanced Facebook’s competitive position) the improvement of Facebook’s ecosystem could have been deemed a type of “efficiencies offense.”
Are the Facebook Cases Merely Random Straws in the Wind?
It might appear at first blush to be reading too much into the apparent slighting of efficiencies in the two current Facebook cases. Nevertheless, recent policy rhetoric suggests that economic efficiencies arguments (whose status was tenuous at enforcement agencies to begin with) may actually be viewed as “offensive” by the new breed of enforcers.
In her Sept. 22 policy statement on “Vision and Priorities for the FTC,” Chair Lina Khan advocated focusing on the possible competitive harm flowing from actions of “gatekeepers and dominant middlemen,” and from “one-sided [vertical] contract provisions” that are “imposed by dominant firms.” No suggestion can be found in the statement that such vertical relationships often confer substantial benefits on consumers. This hints at a new campaign by the FTC against vertical restraints (as opposed to an emphasis on clearly welfare-inimical conduct) that could discourage a wide range of efficiency-producing contracts.
Chair Khan also sponsored the FTC’s July 2021 rescission of its Section 5 Policy Statement on Unfair Methods of Competition, which had emphasized the primacy of consumer welfare as the guiding principle underlying FTC antitrust enforcement. A willingness to set aside (or place a lower priority on) consumer welfare considerations suggests a readiness to ignore efficiency justifications that benefit consumers.
The statement by the FTC majority . . . notes that the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines had improperly contravened the Clayton Act’s language with its approach to efficiencies, which are not recognized by the statute as a defense to an unlawful merger. The majority statement explains that the guidelines adopted a particularly flawed economic theory regarding purported pro-competitive benefits of mergers, despite having no basis of support in the law or market reality.
Also noteworthy is Khan’s seeming interest (found in her writings here, here, and here) in reviving Robinson-Patman Act enforcement. What’s worse, President Joe Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Competition explicitly endorses FTC investigation of “retailers’ practices on the conditions of competition in the food industries, including any practices that may violate [the] Robinson-Patman Act” (emphasis added). Those troubling statements from the administration ignore the widespread scholarly disdain for Robinson-Patman, which is almost unanimously viewed as an attack on efficiencies in distribution. For example, in recommending the act’s repeal in 2007, the congressionally established Antitrust Modernization Commission stressed that the act “protects competitors against competition and punishes the very price discounting and innovation and distribution methods that the antitrust otherwise encourage.”
Recent straws in the wind suggest that an anti-efficiencies hay pile is in the works. Although antitrust agencies have not yet officially rejected the consideration of efficiencies, nor endorsed an “efficiencies offense,” the signs are troubling. Newly minted agency leaders’ skepticism toward antitrust economics, combined with their de-emphasis of the consumer welfare standard and efficiencies (at least in the merger context), suggest that even strongly grounded efficiency explanations may be summarily rejected at the agency level. In foreign jurisdictions, where efficiencies are even less well-established, and enforcement based on mere theory (as opposed to empiricism) is more widely accepted, the outlook for efficiencies stories appears to be no better.
One powerful factor, however, should continue to constrain the anti-efficiencies movement, at least in the United States: the federal courts. As demonstrated most recently in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ FTC v. Qualcomm decision, American courts remain committed to insisting on empirical support for theories of harm and on seriously considering business justifications for allegedly suspect contractual provisions. (The role of foreign courts in curbing prosecutorial excesses not grounded in economics, and in weighing efficiencies, depends upon the jurisdiction, but in general such courts are far less of a constraint on enforcers than American tribunals.)
While the DOJ and FTC (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, foreign enforcers) will have to keep the judiciary in mind in deciding to bring enforcement actions, the denigration of efficiencies by the agencies still will have an unfortunate demonstration effect on the private sector. Given the cost (both in resources and in reputational capital) associated with antitrust investigations, and the inevitable discounting for the risk of projects caught up in such inquiries, a publicly proclaimed anti-efficiencies enforcement philosophy will do damage. On the margin, it will lead businesses to introduce fewer efficiency-seeking improvements that could be (wrongly) characterized as “strengthening” or “entrenching” market dominance. Such business decisions, in turn, will be welfare-inimical; they will deny consumers the benefit of efficiencies-driven product and service enhancements, and slow the rate of business innovation.
As such, it is to be hoped that, upon further reflection, U.S. and foreign competition enforcers will see the light and publicly proclaim that they will fully weigh efficiencies in analyzing business conduct. The “efficiencies offense” was a lousy tune. That “oldie-but-baddie” should not be replayed.