A bipartisan group of senators unveiled legislation today that would dramatically curtail the ability of online platforms to “self-preference” their own services—for example, when Apple pre-installs its own Weather or Podcasts apps on the iPhone, giving it an advantage that independent apps don’t have. The measure accompanies a House bill that included similar provisions, with some changes.

1. The Senate bill closely resembles the House version, and the small improvements will probably not amount to much in practice.

The major substantive changes we have seen between the House bill and the Senate version are:

  1. Violations in Section 2(a) have been modified to refer only to conduct that “unfairly” preferences, limits, or discriminates between the platform’s products and others, and that “materially harm[s] competition on the covered platform,” rather than banning all preferencing, limits, or discrimination.
  2. The evidentiary burden required throughout the bill has been changed from  “clear and convincing” to a “preponderance of evidence” (in other words, greater than 50%).
  3. An affirmative defense has been added to permit a platform to escape liability if it can establish that challenged conduct that “was narrowly tailored, was nonpretextual, and was necessary to… maintain or enhance the core functionality of the covered platform.”
  4. The minimum market capitalization for “covered platforms” has been lowered from $600 billion to $550 billion.
  5. The Senate bill would assess fines of 15% of revenues from the period during which the conduct occurred, in contrast with the House bill, which set fines equal to the greater of either 15% of prior-year revenues or 30% of revenues from the period during which the conduct occurred.
  6. Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill does not create a private right of action. Only the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and state attorneys-generals could bring enforcement actions on the basis of the bill.

Item one here certainly mitigates the most extreme risks of the House bill, which was drafted, bizarrely, to ban all “preferencing” or “discrimination” by platforms. If that were made law, it could literally have broken much of the Internet. The softened language reduces that risk somewhat.

However, Section 2(b), which lists types of conduct that would presumptively establish a violation under Section 2(a), is largely unchanged. As outlined here, this would amount to a broad ban on a wide swath of beneficial conduct. And “unfair” and “material” are notoriously slippery concepts. As a practical matter, their inclusion here may not significantly alter the course of enforcement under the Senate legislation from what would ensue under the House version.

Item three, which allows challenged conduct to be defended if it is “necessary to… maintain or enhance the core functionality of the covered platform,” may also protect some conduct. But because the bill requires companies to prove that challenged conduct is not only beneficial, but necessary to realize those benefits, it effectively implements a “guilty until proven innocent” standard that is likely to prove impossible to meet. The threat of permanent injunctions and enormous fines will mean that, in many cases, companies simply won’t be able to justify the expense of endeavoring to improve even the “core functionality” of their platforms in any way that could trigger the bill’s liability provisions. Thus, again, as a practical matter, the difference between the Senate and House bills may be only superficial.

The effect of this will likely be to diminish product innovation in these areas, because companies could not know in advance whether the benefits of doing so would be worth the legal risk. We have previously highlighted existing conduct that may be lost if a bill like this passes, such as pre-installation of apps or embedding maps and other “rich” results in boxes on search engine results pages. But the biggest loss may be things we don’t even know about yet, that just never happen because the reward from experimentation is not worth the risk of being found to be “discriminating” against a competitor.

We dove into the House bill in Breaking Down the American Choice and Innovation Online Act and Breaking Down House Democrats’ Forthcoming Competition Bills.

2. The prohibition on “unfair self-preferencing” is vague and expansive and will make Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple’s products worse. Consumers don’t want digital platforms to be dumb pipes, or to act like a telephone network or sewer system. The Internet is filled with a superabundance of information and options, as well as a host of malicious actors. Good digital platforms act as middlemen, sorting information in useful ways and taking on some of the risk that exists when, inevitably, we end up doing business with untrustworthy actors.

When users have the choice, they tend to prefer platforms that do quite a bit of “discrimination”—that is, favoring some sellers over others, or offering their own related products or services through the platform. Most people prefer Amazon to eBay because eBay is chaotic and riskier to use.

Competitors that decry self-preferencing by the largest platforms—integrating two different products with each other, like putting a maps box showing only the search engine’s own maps on a search engine results page—argue that the conduct is enabled only by a platform’s market dominance and does not benefit consumers.

Yet these companies often do exactly the same thing in their own products, regardless of whether they have market power. Yelp includes a map on its search results page, not just restaurant listings. DuckDuckGo does the same. If these companies offer these features, it is presumably because they think their users want such results. It seems perfectly plausible that Google does the same because it thinks its users—literally the same users, in most cases—also want them.

Fundamentally, and as we discuss in Against the Vertical Disrcimination Presumption, there is simply no sound basis to enact such a bill (even in a slightly improved version):

The notion that self-preferencing by platforms is harmful to innovation is entirely speculative. Moreover, it is flatly contrary to a range of studies showing that the opposite is likely true. In reality, 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.

We discussed self-preferencing further in Platform Self-Preferencing Can Be Good for Consumers and Even Competitors, and showed that platform “discrimination” is often what consumers want from digital platforms in On the Origin of Platforms: An Evolutionary Perspective.

3. The bill massively empowers an FTC that seems intent to use antitrust to achieve political goals. The House bill would enable competitors to pepper covered platforms with frivolous lawsuits. The bill’s sponsors presumably hope that removing the private right of action will help to avoid that. But the bill still leaves intact a much more serious risk to the rule of law: the bill’s provisions are so broad that federal antitrust regulators will have enormous discretion over which cases they take.

This means that whoever is running the FTC and DOJ will be able to threaten covered platforms with a broad array of lawsuits, potentially to influence or control their conduct in other, unrelated areas. While some supporters of the bill regard this as a positive, most antitrust watchers would greet this power with much greater skepticism. Fundamentally, both bills grant antitrust enforcers wildly broad powers to pursue goals unrelated to competition. FTC Chair Lina Khan has, for example, argued that “the dispersion of political and economic control” ought to be antitrust’s goal. Commissioner Rebecca Kelly-Slaughter has argued that antitrust should be “antiracist”.

Whatever the desirability of these goals, the broad discretionary authority the bills confer on the antitrust agencies means that individual commissioners may have significantly greater scope to pursue the goals that they believe to be right, rather than Congress.

See discussions of this point at What Lina Khan’s Appointment Means for the House Antitrust Bills, Republicans Should Tread Carefully as They Consider ‘Solutions’ to Big Tech, The Illiberal Vision of Neo-Brandeisian Antitrust, and Alden Abbott’s discussion of FTC Antitrust Enforcement and the Rule of Law.

4. The bill adopts European principles of competition regulation. These are, to put it mildly, not obviously conducive to the sort of innovation and business growth that Americans may expect. Europe has no tech giants of its own, a condition that shows little sign of changing. Apple, alone, is worth as much as the top 30 companies in Germany’s DAX index, and the top 40 in France’s CAC index. Landmark European competition cases have seen Google fined for embedding Shopping results in the Search page—not because it hurt consumers, but because it hurt competing pricecomparison websites.

A fundamental difference between American and European competition regimes is that the U.S. system is far more friendly to businesses that obtain dominant market positions because they have offered better products more cheaply. Under the American system, successful businesses are normally given broad scope to charge high prices and refuse to deal with competitors. This helps to increase the rewards and incentive to innovate and invest in order to obtain that strong market position. The European model is far more burdensome.

The Senate bill adopts a European approach to refusals to deal—the same approach that led the European Commission to fine Microsoft for including Windows Media Player with Windows—and applies it across Big Tech broadly. Adopting this kind of approach may end up undermining elements of U.S. law that support innovation and growth.

For more, see How US and EU Competition Law Differ.

5. The proposals are based on a misunderstanding of the state of competition in the American economy, and of antitrust enforcement. It is widely believed that the U.S. economy has seen diminished competition. This is mistaken, particularly with respect to digital markets. Apparent rises in market concentration and profit margins disappear when we look more closely: local-level concentration is falling even as national-level concentration is rising, driven by more efficient chains setting up more stores in areas that were previously served by only one or two firms.

And markup rises largely disappear after accounting for fixed costs like R&D and marketing.

Where profits are rising, in areas like manufacturing, it appears to be mainly driven by increased productivity, not higher prices. Real prices have not risen in line with markups. Where profitability has increased, it has been mainly driven by falling costs.

Nor have the number of antitrust cases brought by federal antitrust agencies fallen. The likelihood of a merger being challenged more than doubled between 1979 and 2017. And there is little reason to believe that the deterrent effect of antitrust has weakened. Many critics of Big Tech have decided that there must be a problem and have worked backwards from that conclusion, selecting whatever evidence supports it and ignoring the evidence that does not. The consequence of such motivated reasoning is bills like this.

See Geoff’s April 2020 written testimony to the House Judiciary Investigation Into Competition in Digital Markets here.

A debate has broken out among the four sitting members of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in connection with the recently submitted FTC Report to Congress on Privacy and Security. Chair Lina Khan argues that the commission “must explore using its rulemaking tools to codify baseline protections,” while Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter has urged the FTC to initiate a broad-based rulemaking proceeding on data privacy and security. By contrast, Commissioners Noah Joshua Phillips and Christine Wilson counsel against a broad-based regulatory initiative on privacy.

Decisions to initiate a rulemaking should be viewed through a cost-benefit lens (See summaries of Thom Lambert’s masterful treatment of regulation, of which rulemaking is a subset, here and here). Unless there is a market failure, rulemaking is not called for. Even in the face of market failure, regulation should not be adopted unless it is more cost-beneficial than reliance on markets (including the ability of public and private litigation to address market-failure problems, such as data theft). For a variety of reasons, it is unlikely that FTC rulemaking directed at privacy and data security would pass a cost-benefit test.

Discussion

As I have previously explained (see here and here), FTC rulemaking pursuant to Section 6(g) of the FTC Act (which authorizes the FTC “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter”) is properly read as authorizing mere procedural, not substantive, rules. As such, efforts to enact substantive competition rules would not pass a cost-benefit test. Such rules could well be struck down as beyond the FTC’s authority on constitutional law grounds, and as “arbitrary and capricious” on administrative law grounds. What’s more, they would represent retrograde policy. Competition rules would generate higher error costs than adjudications; could be deemed to undermine the rule of law, because the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) could not apply such rules; and innovative efficiency-seeking business arrangements would be chilled.

Accordingly, the FTC likely would not pursue 6(g) rulemaking should it decide to address data security and privacy, a topic which best fits under the “consumer protection” category. Rather, the FTC presumably would most likely initiate a “Magnuson-Moss” rulemaking (MMR) under Section 18 of the FTC Act, which authorizes the commission to prescribe “rules which define with specificity acts or practices which are unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce within the meaning of Section 5(a)(1) of the Act.” Among other things, Section 18 requires that the commission’s rulemaking proceedings provide an opportunity for informal hearings at which interested parties are accorded limited rights of cross-examination. Also, before commencing an MMR proceeding, the FTC must have reason to believe the practices addressed by the rulemaking are “prevalent.” 15 U.S.C. Sec. 57a(b)(3).

MMR proceedings, which are not governed under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), do not present the same degree of legal problems as Section 6(g) rulemakings (see here). The question of legal authority to adopt a substantive rule is not raised; “rule of law” problems are far less serious (the DOJ is not a parallel enforcer of consumer-protection law); and APA issues of “arbitrariness” and “capriciousness” are not directly presented. Indeed, MMR proceedings include a variety of procedures aimed at promoting fairness (see here, for example). An MMR proceeding directed at data privacy predictably would be based on the claim that the failure to adhere to certain data-protection norms is an “unfair act or practice.”

Nevertheless, MMR rules would be subject to two substantial sources of legal risk.

The first of these arises out of federalism. Three states (California, Colorado, and Virginia) recently have enacted comprehensive data-privacy laws, and a large number of other state legislatures are considering data-privacy bills (see here). The proliferation of state data-privacy statutes would raise the risk of inconsistent and duplicative regulatory norms, potentially chilling business innovations addressed at data protection (a severe problem in the Internet Age, when business data-protection programs typically will have interstate effects).

An FTC MMR data-protection regulation that successfully “occupied the field” and preempted such state provisions could eliminate that source of costs. The Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act, however, does not contain an explicit preemption clause, leaving in serious doubt the ability of an FTC rule to displace state regulations (see here for a summary of the murky state of preemption law, including the skepticism of textualist Supreme Court justices toward implied “obstacle preemption”). In particular, the long history of state consumer-protection and antitrust laws that coexist with federal laws suggests that the case for FTC rule-based displacement of state data protection is a weak one. The upshot, then, of a Section 18 FTC data-protection rule enactment could be “the worst of all possible worlds,” with drawn-out litigation leading to competing federal and state norms that multiplied business costs.

The second source of risk arises out of the statutory definition of “unfair practices,” found in Section 5(n) of the FTC Act. Section 5(n) codifies the meaning of unfair practices, and thereby constrains the FTC’s application of rulemakings covering such practices. Section 5(n) states:

The Commission shall have no authority . . . to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such an act or practice is unfair unless the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition. In determining whether an act or practice is unfair, the Commission may consider established public policies as evidence to be considered with all other evidence. Such public policy considerations may not serve as a primary basis for such determination.

In effect, Section 5(n) implicitly subjects unfair practices to a well-defined cost-benefit framework. Thus, in promulgating a data-privacy MMR, the FTC first would have to demonstrate that specific disfavored data-protection practices caused or were likely to cause substantial harm. What’s more, the commission would have to show that any actual or likely harm would not be outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition. One would expect that a data-privacy rulemaking record would include submissions that pointed to the efficiencies of existing data-protection policies that would be displaced by a rule.

Moreover, subsequent federal court challenges to a final FTC rule likely would put forth the consumer and competitive benefits sacrificed by rule requirements. For example, rule challengers might point to the added business costs passed on to consumers that would arise from particular rule mandates, and the diminution in competition among data-protection systems generated by specific rule provisions. Litigation uncertainties surrounding these issues could be substantial and would cast into further doubt the legal viability of any final FTC data protection rule.

Apart from these legal risk-based costs, an MMR data privacy predictably would generate error-based costs. Given imperfect information in the hands of government and the impossibility of achieving welfare-maximizing nirvana through regulation (see, for example, here), any MMR data-privacy rule would erroneously condemn some economically inefficient business protocols and disincentivize some efficiency-seeking behavior. The Section 5(n) cost-benefit framework, though helpful, would not eliminate such error. (For example, even bureaucratic efforts to accommodate some business suggestions during the rulemaking process might tilt the post-rule market in favor of certain business models, thereby distorting competition.) In the abstract, it is difficult to say whether the welfare benefits of a final MMA data-privacy rule (measured by reductions in data-privacy-related consumer harm) would outweigh the costs, even before taking legal costs into account.

Conclusion

At least two FTC commissioners (and likely a third, assuming that President Joe Biden’s highly credentialed nominee Alvaro Bedoya will be confirmed by the U.S. Senate) appear to support FTC data-privacy regulation, even in the absence of new federal legislation. Such regulation, which presumably would be adopted as an MMR pursuant to Section 18 of the FTC Act, would probably not prove cost-beneficial. Not only would adoption of a final data-privacy rule generate substantial litigation costs and uncertainty, it would quite possibly add an additional layer of regulatory burdens above and beyond the requirements of proliferating state privacy rules. Furthermore, it is impossible to say whether the consumer-privacy benefits stemming from such an FTC rule would outweigh the error costs (manifested through competitive distortions and consumer harm) stemming from the inevitable imperfections of the rule’s requirements. All told, these considerations counsel against the allocation of scarce FTC resources to a Section 18 data-privacy rulemaking initiative.

But what about legislation? New federal privacy legislation that explicitly preempted state law would eliminate costs arising from inconsistencies among state privacy rules. Ideally, if such legislation were to be pursued, it should to the extent possible embody a cost-benefit framework designed to minimize the sum of administrative (including litigation) and error costs. The nature of such a possible law, and the role the FTC might play in administering it, however, is a topic for another day.

Still from Squid Game, Netflix and Siren Pictures Inc., 2021

Recent commentary on the proposed merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery, as well as Amazon’s acquisition of MGM, often has included the suggestion that the online content-creation and video-streaming markets are excessively consolidated, or that they will become so absent regulatory intervention. For example, in a recent letter to the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), the American Antitrust Institute and Public Knowledge opine that:

Slow and inadequate oversight risks the streaming market going the same route as cable—where consumers have little power, few options, and where consolidation and concentration reign supreme. A number of threats to competition are clear, as discussed in this section, including: (1) market power issues surrounding content and (2) the role of platforms in “gatekeeping” to limit competition.

But the AAI/PK assessment overlooks key facts about the video-streaming industry, some of which suggest that, if anything, these markets currently suffer from too much fragmentation.

The problem is well-known: any individual video-streaming service will offer only a fraction of the content that viewers want, but budget constraints limit the number of services that a household can afford to subscribe to. It may be counterintuitive, but consolidation in the market for video-streaming can solve both problems at once.

One subscription is not enough

Surveys find that U.S. households currently maintain, on average, four video-streaming subscriptions. This explains why even critics concede that a plethora of streaming services compete for consumer eyeballs. For instance, the AAI and PK point out that:

Today, every major media company realizes the value of streaming and a bevy of services have sprung up to offer different catalogues of content.

These companies have challenged the market leader, Netflix and include: Prime Video (2006), Hulu (2007), Paramount+ (2014), ESPN+ (2018), Disney+ (2019), Apple TV+ (2019), HBO Max (2020), Peacock (2020), and Discovery+ (2021).

With content scattered across several platforms, multiple subscriptions are the only way for households to access all (or most) of the programs they desire. Indeed, other than price, library sizes and the availability of exclusive content are reportedly the main drivers of consumer purchase decisions.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with the current equilibrium in which consumers multi-home across multiple platforms. One potential explanation is demand for high-quality exclusive content, which requires tremendous investment to develop and promote. Production costs for TV series routinely run in the tens of millions of dollars per episode (see here and here). Economic theory predicts these relationship-specific investments made by both producers and distributors will cause producers to opt for exclusive distribution or vertical integration. The most sought-after content is thus exclusive to each platform. In other words, exclusivity is likely the price that users must pay to ensure that high-quality entertainment continues to be produced.

But while this paradigm has many strengths, the ensuing fragmentation can be detrimental to consumers, as this may lead to double marginalization or mundane issues like subscription fatigue. Consolidation can be a solution to both.

Substitutes, complements, or unrelated?

As Hal Varian explains in his seminal book, the relationship between two goods can range among three extremes: perfect substitutes (i.e., two goods are perfectly interchangeable); perfect complements (i.e., there is no value to owning one good without the other); or goods that exist in independent markets (i.e., the price of one good does not affect demand for the other).

These distinctions are critical when it comes to market concentration. All else equal—which is obviously not the case in reality—increased concentration leads to lower prices for complements, and higher prices for substitutes. Finally, if demand for two goods is unrelated, then bringing them under common ownership should not affect their price.

To at least some extent, streaming services should be seen as complements rather than substitutes—or, at least, as services with unrelated demand. If they were perfect substitutes, consumers would be indifferent between two Netflix subscriptions or one Netflix plan and one Amazon Prime plan. That is obviously not the case. Nor are they perfect complements, which would mean that Netflix is worthless without Amazon Prime, Disney+, and other services.

However, there is reason to believe there exists some complementarity between streaming services, or at least that demand for them is independent. Most consumers subscribe to multiple services, and almost no one subscribes to the same service twice:

SOURCE: Finance Buzz

This assertion is also supported by the ubiquitous bundling of subscriptions in the cable distribution industry, which also has recently been seen in video-streaming markets. For example, in the United States, Disney+ can be purchased in a bundle with Hulu and ESPN+.

The key question is: is each service more valuable, less valuable, or as valuable in isolation than they are when bundled? If households place some additional value on having a complete video offering (one that includes child entertainment, sports, more mature content, etc.), and if they value the convenience of accessing more of their content via a single app, then we can infer these services are to some extent complementary.

Finally, it is worth noting that any complementarity between these services would be largely endogenous. If the industry suddenly switched to a paradigm of non-exclusive content—as is broadly the case for audio streaming—the above analysis would be altered (though, as explained above, such a move would likely be detrimental to users). Streaming services would become substitutes if they offered identical catalogues.

In short, the extent to which streaming services are complements ultimately boils down to an empirical question that may fluctuate with industry practices. As things stand, there is reason to believe that these services feature some complementarities, or at least that demand for them is independent. In turn, this suggests that further consolidation within the industry would not lead to price increases and may even reduce them.

Consolidation can enable price discrimination

It is well-established that bundling entertainment goods can enable firms to better engage in price discrimination, often increasing output and reducing deadweight loss in the process.

Take George Stigler’s famous explanation for the practice of “block booking,” in which movie studios sold multiple films to independent movie theatres as a unit. Stigler assumes the underlying goods are neither substitutes nor complements:

Stigler, George J. (1963) “United States v. Loew’s Inc.: A Note on Block-Booking,” Supreme Court Review: Vol. 1963 : No. 1 , Article 2.

The upshot is that, when consumer tastes for content are idiosyncratic—as is almost certainly the case for movies and television series, movies—it can counterintuitively make sense to sell differing content as a bundle. In doing so, the distributor avoids pricing consumers out of the content upon which they place a lower value. Moreover, this solution is more efficient than price discriminating on an unbundled basis, as doing so would require far more information on the seller’s part and would be vulnerable to arbitrage.

In short, bundling enables each consumer to access a much wider variety of content. This, in turn, provides a powerful rationale for mergers in the video-streaming space—particularly where they can bring together varied content libraries. Put differently, it cuts in favor of more, not less, concentration in video-streaming markets (at least, up to a certain point).

Finally, a wide array of scale-related economies further support the case for concentration in video-streaming markets. These include potential economies of scale, network effects, and reduced transaction costs.

The simplest of these ideas is that the cost of video streaming may decrease at the margin (i.e., serving each marginal viewer might be cheaper than the previous one). In other words, mergers of video-streaming services mayenable platforms to operate at a more efficient scale. There has notably been some discussion of whether Netflix benefits from scale economies of this sort. But this is, of course, ultimately an empirical question. As I have written with Geoffrey Manne, we should not assume that this is the case for all digital platforms, or that these increasing returns are present at all ranges of output.

Likewise, the fact that content can earn greater revenues by reaching a wider audience (or a greater number of small niches) may increase a producer’s incentive to create high-quality content. For example, Netflix’s recent hit series Squid Game reportedly cost $16.8 million to produce a total of nine episodes. This is significant for a Korean-language thriller. These expenditures were likely only possible because of Netflix’s vast network of viewers. Video-streaming mergers can jump-start these effects by bringing previously fragmented audiences onto a single platform.

Finally, operating at a larger scale may enable firms and consumers to economize on various transaction and search costs. For instance, consumers don’t need to manage several subscriptions, and searching for content is easier within a single ecosystem.

Conclusion

In short, critics could hardly be more wrong in assuming that consolidation in the video-streaming industry will necessarily harm consumers. To the contrary, these mergers should be presumptively welcomed because, to a first approximation, they are likely to engender lower prices and reduce deadweight loss.

Critics routinely draw parallels between video streaming and the consolidation that previously moved through the cable industry. They suggest these events as evidence that consolidation was (and still is) inefficient and exploitative of consumers. As AAI and PK frame it:

Moreover, given the broader competition challenges that reside in those markets, and the lessons learned from a failure to ensure competition in the traditional MVPD markets, enforcers should be particularly vigilant.

But while it might not have been ideal for all consumers, the comparatively laissez-faire approach to competition in the cable industry arguably facilitated the United States’ emergence as a global leader for TV programming. We are now witnessing what appears to be a similar trend in the online video-streaming market.

This is mostly a good thing. While a single streaming service might not be the optimal industry configuration from a welfare standpoint, it would be equally misguided to assume that fragmentation necessarily benefits consumers. In fact, as argued throughout this piece, there are important reasons to believe that the status quo—with at least 10 significant players—is too fragmented and that consumers would benefit from additional consolidation.

A lawsuit filed by the State of Texas and nine other states in December 2020 alleges, among other things, that Google has engaged in anticompetitive conduct related to its online display-advertising business.

Broadly, the Texas complaint (previously discussed in this TOTM symposium) alleges that Google possesses market power in ad-buying tools and in search, illustrated in the figure below.

The complaint also alleges anticompetitive conduct by Google with respect to YouTube in a separate “inline video-advertising market.” According to the complaint, this market power is leveraged to force transactions through Google’s exchange, AdX, and its network, Google Display Network. The leverage is further exercised by forcing publishers to license Google’s ad server, Google Ad Manager.

Although the Texas complaint raises many specific allegations, the key ones constitute four broad claims: 

  1. Google forces publishers to license Google’s ad server and trade in Google’s ad exchange;
  2. Google uses its control over publishers’ inventory to block exchange competition;
  3. Google has disadvantaged technology known as “header bidding” in order to prevent publishers from accessing its competitors; and
  4. Google prevents rival ad-placement services from competing by not allowing them to buy YouTube ad space.

Alleged harms

The Texas complaint alleges Google’s conduct has caused harm to competing networks, exchanges, and ad servers. The complaint also claims that the plaintiff states’ economies have been harmed “by depriving the Plaintiff States and the persons within each Plaintiff State of the benefits of competition.”

In a nod to the widely accepted Consumer Welfare Standard, the Texas complaint alleges harm to three categories of consumers:

  1. Advertisers who pay for their ads to be displayed, but should be paying less;
  2. Publishers who are paid to provide space on their sites to display ads, but should be paid more; and
  3. Users who visit the sites, view the ads, and purchase or use the advertisers’ and publishers’ products and services.

The complaint claims users are harmed by above-competitive prices paid by advertisers, in that these higher costs are passed on in the form of higher prices and lower quality for the products and services they purchase from those advertisers. The complaint simultaneously claims that users are harmed by the below-market prices received by publishers in the form of “less content (lower output of content), lower-quality content, less innovation in content delivery, more paywalls, and higher subscription fees.”

Without saying so explicitly, the complaint insinuates that if intermediaries (e.g., Google and competing services) charged lower fees for their services, advertisers would pay less, publishers would be paid more, and consumers would be better off in the form of lower prices and better products from advertisers, as well as improved content and lower fees on publishers’ sites.

Effective competition is not an antitrust offense

A flawed premise underlies much of the Texas complaint. It asserts that conduct by a dominant incumbent firm that makes competition more difficult for competitors is inherently anticompetitive, even if that conduct confers benefits on users.

This amounts to a claim that Google is acting anti-competitively by innovating and developing products and services to benefit one or more display-advertising constituents (e.g., advertisers, publishers, or consumers) or by doing things that benefit the advertising ecosystem more generally. These include creating new and innovative products, lowering prices, reducing costs through vertical integration, or enhancing interoperability.

The argument, which is made explicitly elsewhere, is that Google must show that it has engineered and implemented its products to minimize obstacles its rivals face, and that any efficiencies created by its products must be shown to outweigh the costs imposed by those improvements on the company’s competitors.

Similarly, claims that Google has acted in an anticompetitive fashion rest on the unsupportable notion that the company acts unfairly when it designs products to benefit itself without considering how those designs would affect competitors. Google could, it is argued, choose alternate arrangements and practices that would possibly confer greater revenue on publishers or lower prices on advertisers without imposing burdens on competitors.

For example, a report published by the Omidyar Network sketching a “roadmap” for a case against Google claims that, if Google’s practices could possibly be reimagined to achieve the same benefits in ways that foster competition from rivals, then the practices should be condemned as anticompetitive:

It is clear even to us as lay people that there are less anticompetitive ways of delivering effective digital advertising—and thereby preserving the substantial benefits from this technology—than those employed by Google.

– Fiona M. Scott Morton & David C. Dinielli, “Roadmap for a Digital Advertising Monopolization Case Against Google”

But that’s not how the law—or the economics—works. This approach converts beneficial aspects of Google’s ad-tech business into anticompetitive defects, essentially arguing that successful competition and innovation create barriers to entry that merit correction through antitrust enforcement.

This approach turns U.S. antitrust law (and basic economics) on its head. As some of the most well-known words of U.S. antitrust jurisprudence have it:

A single producer may be the survivor out of a group of active competitors, merely by virtue of his superior skill, foresight and industry. In such cases a strong argument can be made that, although, the result may expose the public to the evils of monopoly, the Act does not mean to condemn the resultant of those very forces which it is its prime object to foster: finis opus coronat. The successful competitor, having been urged to compete, must not be turned upon when he wins.

– United States v. Aluminum Co. of America, 148 F.2d 416 (2d Cir. 1945)

U.S. antitrust law is intended to foster innovation that creates benefits for consumers, including innovation by incumbents. The law does not proscribe efficiency-enhancing unilateral conduct on the grounds that it might also inconvenience competitors, or that there is some other arrangement that could be “even more” competitive. Under U.S. antitrust law, firms are “under no duty to help [competitors] survive or expand.”  

To be sure, the allegations against Google are couched in terms of anticompetitive effect, rather than being described merely as commercial disagreements over the distribution of profits. But these effects are simply inferred, based on assumptions that Google’s vertically integrated business model entails an inherent ability and incentive to harm rivals.

The Texas complaint claims Google can surreptitiously derive benefits from display advertisers by leveraging its search-advertising capabilities, or by “withholding YouTube inventory,” rather than altruistically opening Google Search and YouTube up to rival ad networks. The complaint alleges Google uses its access to advertiser, publisher, and user data to improve its products without sharing this data with competitors.

All these charges may be true, but they do not describe inherently anticompetitive conduct. Under U.S. law, companies are not obliged to deal with rivals and certainly are not obliged to do so on those rivals’ preferred terms

As long ago as 1919, the U.S. Supreme Court held that:

In the absence of any purpose to create or maintain a monopoly, the [Sherman Act] does not restrict the long recognized right of [a] trader or manufacturer engaged in an entirely private business, freely to exercise his own independent discretion as to parties with whom he will deal.

– United States v. Colgate & Co.

U.S. antitrust law does not condemn conduct on the basis that an enforcer (or a court) is able to identify or hypothesize alternative conduct that might plausibly provide similar benefits at lower cost. In alleging that there are ostensibly “better” ways that Google could have pursued its product design, pricing, and terms of dealing, both the Texas complaint and Omidyar “roadmap” assert that, had the firm only selected a different path, an alternative could have produced even more benefits or an even more competitive structure.

The purported cure of tinkering with benefit-producing unilateral conduct by applying an “even more competition” benchmark is worse than the supposed disease. The adjudicator is likely to misapply such a benchmark, deterring the very conduct the law seeks to promote.

For example, Texas complaint alleges: “Google’s ad server passed inside information to Google’s exchange and permitted Google’s exchange to purchase valuable impressions at artificially depressed prices.” The Omidyar Network’s “roadmap” claims that “after purchasing DoubleClick, which became its publisher ad server, Google apparently lowered its prices to publishers by a factor of ten, at least according to one publisher’s account related to the CMA. Low prices for this service can force rivals to depart, thereby directly reducing competition.”

In contrast, as current U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer once explained, in the context of above-cost low pricing, “the consequence of a mistake here is not simply to force a firm to forego legitimate business activity it wishes to pursue; rather, it is to penalize a procompetitive price cut, perhaps the most desirable activity (from an antitrust perspective) that can take place in a concentrated industry where prices typically exceed costs.”  That commentators or enforcers may be able to imagine alternative or theoretically more desirable conduct is beside the point.

It has been reported that the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) may join the Texas suit or bring its own similar action against Google in the coming months. If it does, it should learn from the many misconceptions and errors in the Texas complaint that leave it on dubious legal and economic grounds.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan’s Sept. 22 memorandum to FTC commissioners and staff—entitled “Vision and Priorities for the FTC” (VP Memo)—offers valuable insights into the chair’s strategy and policy agenda for the commission. Unfortunately, it lacks an appreciation for the limits of antitrust and consumer-protection law; it also would have benefited from greater regulatory humility. After summarizing the VP Memo’s key sections, I set forth four key takeaways from this rather unusual missive.

Introduction

The VP Memo begins appropriately enough, with praise for commission staff and a call to focus on key FTC strategic priorities and operational objectives. So far, so good. Regrettably, the introductory section is the memo’s strongest feature.

Strategic Approach

The VP Memo’s first substantive section, which lays out Khan’s strategic approach, raises questions that require further clarification.

This section is long on glittering generalities. First, it begins with the need to take a “holistic approach” that recognizes law violations harm workers and independent businesses, as well as consumers. Legal violations that reflect “power asymmetries” and harm to “marginalized communities” are emphasized, but not defined. Are new enforcement standards to supplement or displace consumer welfare enhancement being proposed?

Second, similar ambiguity surrounds the need to target enforcement efforts toward “root causes” of unlawful conduct, rather than “one-off effects.” Root causes are said to involve “structural incentives that enable unlawful conduct” (such as conflicts of interest, business models, or structural dominance), as well as “upstream” examination of firms that profit from such conduct. How these observations may be “operationalized” into case-selection criteria (and why these observations are superior to alternative means for spotting illegal behavior) is left unexplained.

Third, the section endorses a more “rigorous and empiricism-driven approach” to the FTC’s work, a “more interdisciplinary approach” that incorporates “a greater range of analytical tools and skillsets.” This recommendation is not problematic on its face, though it is a bit puzzling. The FTC already relies heavily on economics and empirical work, as well as input from technologists, advertising specialists, and other subject matter experts, as required. What other skillsets are being endorsed? (A more far-reaching application of economic thinking in certain consumer-protection cases would be helpful, but one suspects that is not the point of the paragraph.)

Fourth, the need to be especially attentive to next-generation technologies, innovations, and nascent industries is trumpeted. Fine, but the FTC already does that in its competition and consumer-protection investigations.

Finally, the need to “democratize” the agency is highlighted, to keep the FTC in tune with “the real problems that Americans are facing in their daily lives and using that understanding to inform our work.” This statement seems to imply that the FTC is not adequately dealing with “real problems.” The FTC, however, has not been designated by Congress to be a general-purpose problem solver. Rather, the agency has a specific statutory remit to combat anticompetitive activity and unfair acts or practices that harm consumers. Ironically, under Chair Khan, the FTC has abruptly implemented major changes in key areas (including rulemaking, the withdrawal of guidance, and merger-review practices) without prior public input or consultation among the commissioners (see, for example, here)—actions that could be deemed undemocratic.

Policy Priorities

The memo’s brief discussion of Khan’s policy priorities raises three significant concerns.

First, Khan stresses the “need to address rampant consolidation and the dominance that it has enabled across markets” in the areas of merger enforcement and dominant-firm scrutiny. The claim that competition has substantially diminished has been critiqued by leading economists, and is dubious at best (see, for example, here). This flat assertion is jarring, and in tension with the earlier call for more empirical analysis. Khan’s call for revision of the merger guidelines (presumably both horizontal and vertical), in tandem with the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), will be headed for trouble if it departs from the economic reasoning that has informed prior revisions of those guidelines. (The memo’s critical and cryptic reference to the “narrow and outdated framework” of recent guidelines provides no clue as to the new guidelines format that Chair Khan might deem acceptable.) 

Second, the chair supports prioritizing “dominant intermediaries” and “extractive business models,” while raising concerns about “private equity and other investment vehicles” that “strip productive capacity” and “target marginalized communities.” No explanation is given as to why such prioritization will best utilize the FTC’s scarce resources to root out harmful anticompetitive behavior and consumer-protection harms. By assuming from the outset that certain “unsavory actors” merit prioritization, this discussion also is in tension with an empirical approach that dispassionately examines the facts in determining how resources should best be allocated to maximize the benefits of enforcement.

Third, the chair wants to direct special attention to “one-sided contract provisions” that place “[c]onsumers, workers, franchisees, and other market participants … at a significant disadvantage.” Non-competes, repair restrictions, and exclusionary clauses are mentioned as examples. What is missing is a realistic acknowledgement of the legal complications that would be involved in challenging such provisions, and a recognition of possible welfare benefits that such restraints could generate under many circumstances. In that vein, mere perceived inequalities in bargaining power alluded to in the discussion do not, in and of themselves, constitute antitrust or consumer-protection violations.

Operational Objectives

The closing section, on “operational objectives,” is not particularly troublesome. It supports an “integrated approach” to enforcement and policy tools, and endorses “breaking down silos” between competition (BC) and consumer-protection (BCP) staff. (Of course, while greater coordination between BC and BCP occasionally may be desirable, competition and consumer-protection cases will continue to feature significant subject matter and legal differences.) It also calls for greater diversity in recruitment and a greater staffing emphasis on regional offices. Finally, it endorses bringing in more experts from “outside disciplines” and more rigorous analysis of conduct, remedies, and market studies. These points, although not controversial, do not directly come to grip with questions of optimal resource allocation within the agency, which the FTC will have to address.

Evaluating the VP Memo: 4 Key Takeaways

The VP Memo is a highly aggressive call-to-arms that embodies Chair Khan’s full-blown progressive vision for the FTC. There are four key takeaways:

  1. Promoting the consumer interest, which for decades has been the overarching principle in both FTC antitrust and consumer-protection cases (which address different sources of consumer harm), is passé. Protecting consumers is only referred to in passing. Rather, the concerns of workers, “honest businesses,” and “marginalized communities” are emphasized. Courts will, however, continue to focus on established consumer-welfare and consumer-harm principles in ruling on antitrust and consumer-protection cases. If the FTC hopes to have any success in winning future cases based on novel forms of harm, it will have to ensure that its new case-selection criteria also emphasize behavior that harms consumers.
  2. Despite multiple references to empiricism and analytical rigor, the VP Memo ignores the potential economic-welfare benefits of the categories of behavior it singles out for condemnation. The memo’s critiques of “middlemen,” “gatekeepers,” “extractive business models,” “private equity,” and various types of vertical contracts, reference conduct that frequently promotes efficiency, generating welfare benefits for producers and consumers. Even if FTC lawsuits or regulations directed at these practices fail, the business uncertainty generated by the critiques could well disincentivize efficient forms of conduct that spark innovation and economic growth.
  3. The VP Memo in effect calls for new enforcement initiatives that challenge conduct different in nature from FTC cases brought in recent decades. This implicit support for lawsuits that would go well beyond existing judicial interpretations of the FTC’s competition and consumer-protection authority reflects unwarranted hubris. This April, in the AMG case, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected the FTC’s argument that it had implicit authority to obtain monetary relief under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which authorizes permanent injunctions – despite the fact that several appellate courts had found such authority existed. The Court stated that the FTC could go to Congress if it wanted broader authority. This decision bodes ill for any future FTC efforts to expand its authority into new realms of “unfair” activity through “creative” lawyering.
  4. Chair Khan’s unilateral statement of her policy priorities embodied in the VP Memo bespeaks a lack of humility. It ignores a long history of consensus FTC statements on agency priorities, reflected in numerous commission submissions to congressional committees in connection with oversight hearings. Although commissioners have disagreed on specific policy statements or enforcement complaints, general “big picture” policy statements to congressional overseers typically have been by unanimous vote. By ignoring this tradition, the VP Memo departs from a longstanding bipartisan tradition that will tend to undermine the FTC’s image as a serious deliberative body that seeks to reconcile varying viewpoints (while recognizing that, at times, different positions will be expressed on particular matters). If the FTC acts more and more like a one-person executive agency, why does it need to be “independent,” and, indeed, what special purpose does it serve as a second voice on federal antitrust matters? Under seeming unilateral rule, the prestige of the FTC before federal courts may suffer, undermining its effectiveness in defending enforcement actions and promulgating rules. This will particularly be the case if more and more FTC decisions are taken by a 3-2 vote and appear to reflect little or no consultation with minority commissioners.

Conclusion

The VP Memo reflects a lack of humility and strategic insight. It sets forth priorities that are disconnected from the traditional core of the FTC’s consumer-welfare-centric mission. It emphasizes new sorts of initiatives that are likely to “crash and burn” in the courts, unless they are better anchored to established case law and FTC enforcement principles. As a unilateral missive announcing an unprecedented change in policy direction, the memo also undermines the tradition of collegiality and reasoned debate that generally has characterized the commission’s activities in recent decades.

As such, the memo will undercut, not advance, the effectiveness of FTC advocacy before the courts. It will also undermine the FTC’s reputation as a truly independent deliberative body. Accordingly, one may hope that Chair Khan will rethink her approach, withdraw the VP Memo, and work with all of her fellow commissioners to recraft a new consensus policy document.   

Policymakers’ recent focus on how Big Tech should be treated under antitrust law has been accompanied by claims that companies like Facebook and Google hold dominant positions in various “markets.” Notwithstanding the tendency to conflate whether a firm is large with whether it hold a dominant position, we must first answer the question most of these claims tend to ignore: “dominant over what?”

For example, as set out in this earlier Truth on the Market post, a recent lawsuit filed by various states and the U.S. Justice Department outlined five areas related to online display advertising over which Google is alleged by the plaintiffs to hold a dominant position. But crucially, none appear to have been arrived at via the application of economic reasoning.

As that post explained, other forms of advertising (such as online search and offline advertising) might form part of a “relevant market” (i.e., the market in which a product actually competes) over which Google’s alleged dominance should be assessed. The post makes a strong case for the actual relevant market being much broader than that claimed in the lawsuit. Of course, some might disagree with that assessment, so it is useful to step back and examine the principles that underlie and motivate how a relevant market is defined.

In any antitrust case, defining the relevant market should be regarded as a means to an end, not an end in itself. While such definitions provide the basis to calculate market shares, the process of thinking about relevant markets also should provide a framework to consider and highlight important aspects of the case. The process enables one to think about how a particular firm and market operates, the constraints that it and rival firms face, and whether entry by other firms is feasible or likely.

Many naïve attempts to define the relevant market will limit their analysis to a particular industry. But an industry could include too few competitors, or it might even include too many—for example, if some firms in the industry generate products that do not constitute strong competitive constraints. If one were to define all cars as the “relevant” market, that would imply that a Dacia Sandero (a supermini model produced Renault’s Romanian subsidiary Dacia) constrains the price of Maserati’s Quattroporte luxury sports sedan as much as the Ferrari Portofino grand touring sports car does. This is very unlikely to hold in reality.[1]

The relevant market should be the smallest possible group of products and services that contains all such products and services that could provide a reasonable competitive constraint. But that, of course, merely raises the question of what is meant by a “reasonable competitive constraint.” Thankfully, by applying economic reasoning, we can answer that question.

More specifically, we have the “hypothetical monopolist test.” This test operates by considering whether a hypothetical monopolist (i.e., a single firm that controlled all the products considered part of the relevant market) could profitably undertake “a small but significant, non-transitory, increase in price” (typically shortened as the SSNIP test).[2]

If the hypothetical monopolist could profitably implement this increase in price, then the group of products under consideration is said to constitute a relevant market. On the other hand, if the hypothetical monopolist could not profitably increase the price of that group of products (due to demand-side or supply-side constraints on their ability to increase prices), then that group of products is not a relevant market, and more products need to be included in the candidate relevant market. The process of widening the group of products continues until the hypothetical monopolist could profitably increase prices over that group.

So how does this test work in practice? Let’s use an example to make things concrete. In particular, let’s focus on Google’s display advertising, as that has been a significant focus of attention. Starting from the narrowest possible market, Google’s own display advertising, the HM test would ask whether a hypothetical monopolist controlling these services (and just these services) could profitably increase prices of these services permanently by 5% to 10%.

At this initial stage, it is important to avoid the “cellophane fallacy,” in which a monopolist firm could not profitably increase its prices by 5% to 10% because it is already charging the monopoly price. This fallacy usually arises in situations where the product under consideration has very few (if any) substitutes. But as has been shown here, there are already plenty of alternatives to Google’s display-advertising services, so we can be reasonably confident that the fallacy does not apply here.

We would then consider what is likely to happen if Google were to increase the prices of its online display advertising services by 5% to 10%. Given the plethora of other options (such as Microsoft, Facebook, and Simpli.fi) customers have for obtaining online display ads, a sufficiently high number of Google’s customers are likely to switch away, such that the price increase would not be profitable. It is therefore necessary to expand the candidate relevant market to include those closest alternatives to which Google’s customers would switch.

We repeat the exercise, but now with the hypothetical monopolist also increasing the prices of those newly included products. It might be the case that alternatives such as online search ads (as opposed to display ads), print advertising, TV advertising and/or other forms of advertising would sufficiently constrain the hypothetical monopolist in this case that those other alternatives form part of the relevant market.

In determining whether an alternative sufficiently constrains our hypothetical monopolist, it is important to consider actual consumer/firm behavior, rather than relying on products having “similar” characteristics. Although constraints can come from either the demand side (i.e., customers switching to another provider) or the supply side (entry/switching by other providers to start producing the products offered by the HM), for market-definition purposes, it is almost always demand-side switching that matters most. Switching by consumers tends to happen much more quickly than does switching by providers, such that it can be a more effective constraint. (Note that supply-side switching is still important when assessing overall competitive constraints, but because such switching can take one or more years, it is usually considered in the overall competitive assessment, rather than at the market-definition stage.)

Identifying which alternatives consumers do and would switch to therefore highlights the rival products and services that constrain the candidate hypothetical monopolist. It is only once the hypothetical monopolist test has been completed and the relevant market has been found that market shares can be calculated.[3]

It is at that point than an assessment of a firm’s alleged market power (or of a proposed merger) can proceed. This is why claims that “Facebook is a monopolist” or that “Google has market power” often fail at the first hurdle (indeed, in the case of Facebook, they recently have.)

Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that any antitrust claim that does not first undertake a market-definition exercise with sound economic reasoning akin to that described above should be discounted and ignored.


[1] Some might argue that there is a “chain of substitution” from the Maserati to, for example, an Audi A4, to a Ford Focus, to a Mini, to a Dacia Sandero, such that the latter does, indeed, provide some constraint on the former. However, the size of that constraint is likely to be de minimis, given how many “links” there are in that chain.

[2] The “small but significant” price increase is usually taken to be between 5% and 10%.

[3] Even if a product or group of products ends up excluded from the definition of the relevant market, these products can still form a competitive constraint in the overall assessment and are still considered at that point.

Digital advertising is the economic backbone of the Internet. It allows websites and apps to monetize their userbase without having to charge them fees, while the emergence of targeted ads allows this to be accomplished affordably and with less wasted time wasted.

This advertising is facilitated by intermediaries using the “adtech stack,” through which advertisers and publishers are matched via auctions and ads ultimately are served to relevant users. This intermediation process has advanced enormously over the past three decades. Some now allege, however, that this market is being monopolized by its largest participant: Google.

A lawsuit filed by the State of Texas and nine other states in December 2020 alleges, among other things, that Google has engaged in anticompetitive conduct related to its online display advertising business. Those 10 original state plaintiffs were joined by another four states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in March 2021, while South Carolina and Louisiana have also moved to be added as additional plaintiffs. Google also faces a pending antitrust lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and 14 states (originally 11) related to the company’s distribution agreements, as well as a separate action by the State of Utah, 35 other states, and the District of Columbia related to its search design.

In recent weeks, it has been reported that the DOJ may join the Texas suit or bring its own similar action against Google in the coming months. If it does, it should learn from the many misconceptions and errors in the Texas complaint that leave it on dubious legal and economic grounds.

​​Relevant market

The Texas complaint identifies at least five relevant markets within the adtech stack that it alleges Google either is currently monopolizing or is attempting to monopolize:

  1. Publisher ad servers;
  2. Display ad exchanges;
  3. Display ad networks;
  4. Ad-buying tools for large advertisers; and
  5. Ad-buying tools for small advertisers.

None of these constitute an economically relevant product market for antitrust purposes, since each “market” is defined according to how superficially similar the products are in function, not how substitutable they are. Nevertheless, the Texas complaint vaguely echoes how markets were conceived in the “Roadmap” for a case against Google’s advertising business, published last year by the Omidyar Network, which may ultimately influence any future DOJ complaint, as well.

The Omidyar Roadmap narrows the market from media advertising to digital advertising, then to the open supply of display ads, which comprises only 9% of the total advertising spending and less than 20% of digital advertising, as shown in the figure below. It then further narrows the defined market to the intermediation of the open supply of display ads. Once the market has been sufficiently narrowed, the Roadmap authors conclude that Google’s market share is “perhaps sufficient to confer market power.”

While whittling down the defined market may achieve the purposes of sketching a roadmap to prosecute Google, it also generates a mishmash of more than a dozen relevant markets for digital display and video advertising. In many of these, Google doesn’t have anything approaching market power, while, in some, Facebook is the most dominant player.

The Texas complaint adopts a non-economic approach to market definition.  It ignores potential substitutability between different kinds of advertising, both online and offline, which can serve as a competitive constraint on the display advertising market. The complaint considers neither alternative forms of display advertising, such as social media ads, nor alternative forms of advertising, such as search ads or non-digital ads—all of which can and do act as substitutes. It is possible, at the very least, that advertisers who choose to place ads on third-party websites may switch to other forms of advertising if the price of third-party website advertising was above competitive levels. To ignore this possibility, as the Texas complaint does, is to ignore the entire purpose of defining the relevant antitrust market altogether.

Offline advertising vs. online advertising

The fact that offline and online advertising employ distinct processes does not consign them to economically distinct markets. Indeed, online advertising has manifestly drawn advertisers from offline markets, just as previous technological innovations drew advertisers from other pre-existing channels.

Moreover, there is evidence that, in some cases, offline and online advertising are substitute products. For example, economists Avi Goldfarb and Catherine Tucker demonstrate that display advertising pricing is sensitive to the availability of offline alternatives. They conclude:

We believe our studies refute the hypothesis that online and offline advertising markets operate independently and suggest a default position of substitution. Online and offline advertising markets appear to be closely related. That said, it is important not to draw any firm conclusions based on historical behavior.

Display ads vs. search ads

There is perhaps even more reason to doubt that online display advertising constitutes a distinct, economically relevant market from online search advertising.

Although casual and ill-informed claims are often made to the contrary, various forms of targeted online advertising are significant competitors of each other. Bo Xing and Zhanxi Lin report firms spread their marketing budgets across these different sources of online marketing, and “search engine optimizers”—firms that help websites to maximize the likelihood of a valuable “top-of-list” organic search placement—attract significant revenue. That is, all of these different channels vie against each other for consumer attention and offer advertisers the ability to target their advertising based on data gleaned from consumers’ interactions with their platforms.

Facebook built a business on par with Google’s thanks in large part to advertising, by taking advantage of users’ more extended engagement with the platform to assess relevance and by enabling richer, more engaged advertising than previously appeared on Google Search. It’s an entirely different model from search, but one that has turned Facebook into a competitive ad platform.

And the market continues to shift. Somewhere between 37-56% of product searches start on Amazon, according to one survey, and advertisers have noticed. This is not surprising, given Amazon’s strong ability to match consumers with advertisements, and to do so when and where consumers are more likely to make a purchase.

‘Open’ display advertising vs. ‘owned-and-operated’ display advertising

The United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority (like the Omidyar Roadmap report) has identified two distinct channels of display advertising, which they term “owned and operated” and “open.” The CMA concludes:

Over half of display expenditure is generated by Facebook, which owns both the Facebook platform and Instagram. YouTube has the second highest share of display advertising and is owned by Google. The open display market, in which advertisers buy inventory from many publishers of smaller scale (for example, newspapers and app providers) comprises around 32% of display expenditure.

The Texas complaint does not directly address the distinction between open and owned and operated, but it does allege anticompetitive conduct by Google with respect to YouTube in a separate “inline video advertising market.” 

The CMA finds that the owned-and-operated channel mostly comprises large social media platforms, which sell their own advertising inventory directly to advertisers or media agencies through self-service interfaces, such as Facebook Ads Manager or Snapchat Ads Manager.  In contrast, in the open display channel, publishers such as online newspapers and blogs sell their inventory to advertisers through a “complex chain of intermediaries.”  Through these, intermediaries run auctions that match advertisers’ ads to publisher inventory of ad space. In both channels, nearly all transactions are run through programmatic technology.

The CMA concludes that advertisers “largely see” the open and the owned-and-operated channels as substitutes. According to the CMA, an advertiser’s choice of one channel over the other is driven by each channel’s ability to meet the key performance metrics the advertising campaign is intended to achieve.

The Omidyar Roadmap argues, instead, that the CMA too narrowly focuses on the perspective of advertisers. The Roadmap authors claim that “most publishers” do not control supply that is “owned and operated.” As a result, they conclude that publishers “such as gardenandgun.com or hotels.com” do not have any owned-and-operated supply and can generate revenues from their supply “only through the Google-dominated adtech stack.” 

But this is simply not true. For example, in addition to inventory in its print media, Garden & Gun’s “Digital Media Kit” indicates that the publisher has several sources of owned-and-operated banner and video supply, including the desktop, mobile, and tablet ads on its website; a “homepage takeover” of its website; branded/sponsored content; its email newsletters; and its social media accounts. Hotels.com, an operating company of Expedia Group, has its own owned-and-operated search inventory, which it sells through its “Travel Ads Sponsored Listing,” as well owned-and-operated supply of standard and custom display ads.

Given that both perform the same function and employ similar mechanisms for matching inventory with advertisers, it is unsurprising that both advertisers and publishers appear to consider the owned-and-operated channel and the open channel to be substitutes.

[The following post was adapted from the International Center for Law & Economics White Paper “Polluting Words: Is There a Coasean Case to Regulate Offensive Speech?]

Words can wound. They can humiliate, anger, insult.

University students—or, at least, a vociferous minority of them—are keen to prevent this injury by suppressing offensive speech. To ensure campuses are safe places, they militate for the cancellation of talks by speakers with opinions they find offensive, often successfully. And they campaign to get offensive professors fired from their jobs.

Off campus, some want this safety to be extended to the online world and, especially, to the users of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. In the United States, this would mean weakening the legal protections of offensive speech provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (as President Joe Biden has recommended) or by the First Amendment and. In the United Kingdom, the Online Safety Bill is now before Parliament. If passed, it will give a U.K. government agency the power to dictate the content-moderation policies of social media platforms.

You don’t need to be a woke university student or grandstanding politician to suspect that society suffers from an overproduction of offensive speech. Basic economics provides a reason to suspect it—the reason being that offense is an external cost of speech. The cost is borne not by the speaker but by his audience. And when people do not bear all the costs of an action, they do it too much.

Jack tweets “women don’t have penises.” This offends Jill, who is someone with a penis who considers herself (or himself, if Jack is right) to be a woman. And it offends many others, who agree with Jill that Jack is indulging in ugly transphobic biological essentialism. Lacking Bill Clinton’s facility for feeling the pain of others, Jack does not bear this cost. So, even if it exceeds whatever benefit Jack gets from saying that women don’t have penises, he will still say it. In other words, he will say it even when doing so makes society altogether worse off.

It shouldn’t be allowed!

That’s what we normally say when actions harm others more than they benefit the agent. The law normally conforms to John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle” by restricting activities—such as shooting people or treating your neighbours to death metal at 130 decibels at 2 a.m.—with material external costs. Those who seek legal reform to restrict offensive speech are surely doing no more than following an accepted general principle.

But it’s not so simple. As Ronald Coase pointed out in his famous 1960 article “The Problem of Social Cost,” externalities are a reciprocal problem. If Wayne had no neighbors, his playing death metal at 130 decibels at 2 a.m. would have no external costs. Their choice of address is equally a source of the problem. Similarly, if Jill weren’t a Twitter user, she wouldn’t have been offended by Jack’s tweet about who has a penis, since she wouldn’t have encountered it. Externalities are like tangos: they always have at least two perpetrators.

So, the legal question, “who should have a right to what they want?”—Wayne to his loud music or his neighbors to their sleep; Jack to expressing his opinion about women or Jill to not hearing such opinions—cannot be answered by identifying the party who is responsible for the external cost. Both parties are responsible.

How, then, should the question be answered? In the same paper, Coase the showed that, in certain circumstances, who the courts favor will make no difference to what ends up happening, and that what ends up happening will be efficient. Suppose the court says that Wayne cannot bother his neighbors with death metal at 2 a.m. If Wayne would be willing to pay $100,000 to keep doing it and his neighbors, combined, would put up with it for anything more than $95,000, then they should be able to arrive at a mutually beneficial deal whereby Wayne pays them something between $95,000 and $100,000 to forgo their right to stop him making his dreadful noise.

That’s not exactly right. If negotiating a deal would cost more than $5,000, then no mutually beneficial deal is possible and the rights-trading won’t happen. Transaction costs being less than the difference between the two parties’ valuations is the circumstance in which the allocation of legal rights makes no difference to how resources get used, and where efficiency will be achieved, in any event.

But it is an unusual circumstance, especially when the external cost is suffered by many people. When the transaction cost is too high, efficiency does depend on the allocation of rights by courts or legislatures. As Coase argued, when this is so, efficiency will be served if a right to the disputed resource is granted to the party with the higher cost of avoiding the externality.

Given the (implausible) valuations Wayne and his neighbors place on the amount of noise in their environment at 2 a.m., efficiency is served by giving Wayne the right to play his death metal, unless he could soundproof his house or play his music at a much lower volume or take some other avoidance measure that costs him less than the $90,000 cost to his neighbours.

And given that Jack’s tweet about penises offends a large open-ended group of people, with whom Jack therefore cannot negotiate, it looks like they should be given the right not to be offended by Jack’s comment and he should be denied the right to make it. Coasean logic supports the woke censors!          

But, again, it’s not that simple—for two reasons.

The first is that, although those are offended may be harmed by the offending speech, they needn’t necessarily be. Physical pain is usually harmful, but not when experienced by a sexual masochist (in the right circumstances, of course). Similarly, many people take masochistic pleasure in being offended. You can tell they do, because they actively seek out the sources of their suffering. They are genuinely offended, but the offense isn’t harming them, just as the sexual masochist really is in physical pain but isn’t harmed by it. Indeed, real pain and real offense are required, respectively, for the satisfaction of the sexual masochist and the offense masochist.

How many of the offended are offense masochists? Where the offensive speech can be avoided at minimal cost, the answer must be most. Why follow Jordan Peterson on Twitter when you find his opinions offensive unless you enjoy being offended by him? Maybe some are keeping tabs on the dreadful man so that they can better resist him, and they take the pain for that reason rather than for masochistic glee. But how could a legislator or judge know? For all they know, most of those offended by Jordan Peterson are offense masochists and the offense he causes is a positive externality.

The second reason Coasean logic doesn’t support the would-be censors is that social media platforms—the venues of offensive speech that they seek to regulate—are privately owned. To see why this is significant, consider not offensive speech, but an offensive action, such as openly masturbating on a bus.

This is prohibited by law. But it is not the mere act that is illegal. You are allowed to masturbate in the privacy of your bedroom. You may not masturbate on a bus because those who are offended by the sight of it cannot easily avoid it. That’s why it is illegal to express obscenities about Jesus on a billboard erected across the road from a church but not at a meeting of the Angry Atheists Society. The laws that prohibit offensive speech in such circumstances—laws against public nuisance, harassment, public indecency, etc.—are generally efficient. The cost they impose on the offenders is less than the benefits to the offended.

But they are unnecessary when the giving and taking of offense occur within a privately owned place. Suppose no law prohibited masturbating on a bus. It still wouldn’t be allowed on buses owned by a profit-seeker. Few people want to masturbate on buses and most people who ride on buses seek trips that are masturbation-free. A prohibition on masturbation will gain the owner more customers than it loses him. The prohibition is simply another feature of the product offered by the bus company. Nice leather seats, punctual departures, and no wankers (literally). There is no more reason to believe that the bus company’s passenger-conduct rules will be inefficient than that its other product features will be and, therefore, no more reason to legally stipulate them.

The same goes for the content-moderation policies of social media platforms. They are just another product feature offered by a profit-seeking firm. If they repel more customers than they attract (or, more accurately, if they repel more advertising revenue than they attract), they would be inefficient. But then, of course, the company would not adopt them.

Of course, the owner of a social media platform might not be a pure profit-maximiser. For example, he might forgo $10 million in advertising revenue for the sake of banning speakers he personally finds offensive. But the outcome is still efficient. Allowing the speech would have cost more by way of the owner’s unhappiness than the lost advertising would have been worth.  And such powerful feelings in the owner of a platform create an opportunity for competitors who do not share his feelings. They can offer a platform that does not ban the offensive speakers and, if enough people want to hear what they have to say, attract users and the advertising revenue that comes with them. 

If efficiency is your concern, there is no problem for the authorities to solve. Indeed, the idea that the authorities would do a better job of deciding content-moderation rules is not merely absurd, but alarming. Politicians and the bureaucrats who answer to them or are appointed by them would use the power not to promote efficiency, but to promote agendas congenial to them. Jurisprudence in liberal democracies—and, especially, in America—has been suspicious of governmental control of what may be said. Nothing about social media provides good reason to become any less suspicious.

The dystopian novel is a powerful literary genre. It has given us such masterpieces as Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451. Though these novels often shed light on the risks of contemporary society and the zeitgeist of the era in which they were written, they also almost always systematically overshoot the mark (intentionally or not) and severely underestimate the radical improvements that stem from the technologies (or other causes) that they fear.

But dystopias are not just a literary phenomenon; they are also a powerful force in policy circles. This is epitomized by influential publications such as The Club of Rome’s 1972 report The Limits of Growth, whose dire predictions of Malthusian catastrophe have largely failed to materialize.

In an article recently published in the George Mason Law Review, we argue that contemporary antitrust scholarship and commentary is similarly afflicted by dystopian thinking. In that respect, today’s antitrust pessimists have set their sights predominantly on the digital economy—”Big Tech” and “Big Data”—in the process of alleging a vast array of potential harms.

Scholars have notably argued that the data created and employed by the digital economy produces network effects that inevitably lead to tipping and to more concentrated markets (e.g., here and here). In other words, firms will allegedly accumulate insurmountable data advantages and thus thwart competitors for extended periods of time.

Some have gone so far as to argue that this threatens the very fabric of western democracy. For instance, parallels between the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and the power of large digital platforms were plain to see when Epic Games launched an antitrust suit against Apple and its App Store in August 2020. The gaming company released a short video clip parodying Apple’s famous “1984” ad (which, upon its release, was itself widely seen as a critique of the tech incumbents of the time). Similarly, a piece in the New Statesman—titled “Slouching Towards Dystopia: The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism and the Death of Privacy”—concluded that:

Our lives and behaviour have been turned into profit for the Big Tech giants—and we meekly click ‘Accept.’ How did we sleepwalk into a world without privacy?

In our article, we argue that these fears are symptomatic of two different but complementary phenomena, which we refer to as “Antitrust Dystopia” and “Antitrust Nostalgia.”

Antitrust Dystopia is the pessimistic tendency among competition scholars and enforcers to assert that novel business conduct will cause technological advances to have unprecedented, anticompetitive consequences. This is almost always grounded in the belief that “this time is different”—that, despite the benign or positive consequences of previous, similar technological advances, this time those advances will have dire, adverse consequences absent enforcement to stave off abuse.

Antitrust Nostalgia is the biased assumption—often built into antitrust doctrine itself—that change is bad. Antitrust Nostalgia holds that, because a business practice has seemingly benefited competition before, changing it will harm competition going forward. Thus, antitrust enforcement is often skeptical of, and triggered by, various deviations from status quo conduct and relationships (i.e., “nonstandard” business arrangements) when change is, to a first approximation, the hallmark of competition itself.

Our article argues that these two worldviews are premised on particularly questionable assumptions about the way competition unfolds, in this case, in data-intensive markets.

The Case of Big Data Competition

The notion that digital markets are inherently more problematic than their brick-and-mortar counterparts—if there even is a meaningful distinction—is advanced routinely by policymakers, journalists, and other observers. The fear is that, left to their own devices, today’s dominant digital platforms will become all-powerful, protected by an impregnable “data barrier to entry.” Against this alarmist backdrop, nostalgic antitrust scholars have argued for aggressive antitrust intervention against the nonstandard business models and contractual arrangements that characterize these markets.

But as our paper demonstrates, a proper assessment of the attributes of data-intensive digital markets does not support either the dire claims or the proposed interventions.

  1. Data is information

One of the most salient features of the data created and consumed by online firms is that, jargon aside, it is just information. As with other types of information, it thus tends to have at least some traits usually associated with public goods (i.e., goods that are non-rivalrous in consumption and not readily excludable). As the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Catherine Tucker argues, data “has near-zero marginal cost of production and distribution even over long distances,” making it very difficult to exclude others from accessing it. Meanwhile, multiple economic agents can simultaneously use the same data, making it non-rivalrous in consumption.

As we explain in our paper, these features make the nature of modern data almost irreconcilable with the alleged hoarding and dominance that critics routinely associate with the tech industry.

2. Data is not scarce; expertise is

Another important feature of data is that it is ubiquitous. The predominant challenge for firms is not so much in obtaining data but, rather, in drawing useful insights from it. This has two important implications for antitrust policy.

First, 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 our survey of the empirical literature shows, data generally entails diminishing marginal returns:

Second, it is firms’ capabilities, rather than the data they own, that lead to success in the marketplace. 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.

This dynamic can be seen at play in the early days of the search-engine market. In 2013, The Atlantic ran a piece titled “What the Web Looked Like Before Google.” By comparing the websites of Google and its rivals in 1998 (when Google Search was launched), the article shows how the current champion of search marked a radical departure from the status quo.

Even if it stumbled upon it by chance, Google immediately identified a winning formula for the search-engine market. It ditched the complicated classification schemes favored by its rivals and opted, instead, for a clean page with a single search box. This ensured that users could access the information they desired in the shortest possible amount of time—thanks, in part, to Google’s PageRank algorithm.

It is hardly surprising that Google’s rivals struggled to keep up with this shift in the search-engine industry. The theory of dynamic capabilities tells us that firms that have achieved success by indexing the web will struggle when the market rapidly moves toward a new paradigm (in this case, Google’s single search box and ten blue links). During the time it took these rivals to identify their weaknesses and repurpose their assets, Google kept on making successful decisions: notably, the introduction of Gmail, its acquisitions of YouTube and Android, and the introduction of Google Maps, among others.

Seen from this evolutionary perspective, Google thrived because its capabilities were perfect for the market at that time, while rivals were ill-adapted.

3.    Data as a byproduct of, and path to, platform monetization

Policymakers should also bear in mind that platforms often must go to great lengths in order to create data about their users—data that these same users often do not know about themselves. Under this framing, data is a byproduct of firms’ activity, rather than an input necessary for rivals to launch a business.

This is especially clear when one looks at the formative years of numerous online platforms. Most of the time, these businesses were started by entrepreneurs who did not own much data but, instead, had a brilliant idea for a service that consumers would value. Even if data ultimately played a role in the monetization of these platforms, it does not appear that it was necessary for their creation.

Data often becomes significant only at a relatively late stage in these businesses’ development. A quick glance at the digital economy is particularly revealing in this regard. Google and Facebook, in particular, both launched their platforms under the assumption that building a successful product would eventually lead to significant revenues.

It took five years from its launch for Facebook to start making a profit. Even at that point, when the platform had 300 million users, it still was not entirely clear whether it would generate most of its income from app sales or online advertisements. It was another three years before Facebook started to cement its position as one of the world’s leading providers of online ads. During this eight-year timespan, Facebook prioritized user growth over the monetization of its platform. The company appears to have concluded (correctly, it turns out) that once its platform attracted enough users, it would surely find a way to make itself highly profitable.

This might explain how Facebook managed to build a highly successful platform despite a large data disadvantage when compared to rivals like MySpace. And Facebook is no outlier. The list of companies that prevailed despite starting with little to no data (and initially lacking a data-dependent monetization strategy) is lengthy. Other examples include TikTok, Airbnb, Amazon, Twitter, PayPal, Snapchat, and Uber.

Those who complain about the unassailable competitive advantages enjoyed by companies with troves of data have it exactly backward. 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.

We’ve Been Here Before: The Microsoft Antitrust Saga

Dystopian and nostalgic discussions concerning the power of successful technology firms are nothing new. Throughout recent history, there have been repeated calls for antitrust authorities to reign in these large companies. These calls for regulation have often led to increased antitrust scrutiny of some form. The Microsoft antitrust cases—which ran from the 1990s to the early 2010s on both sides of the Atlantic—offer a good illustration of the misguided “Antitrust Dystopia.”

In the mid-1990s, Microsoft was one of the most successful and vilified companies in America. After it obtained a commanding position in the desktop operating system market, the company sought to establish a foothold in the burgeoning markets that were developing around the Windows platform (many of which were driven by the emergence of the Internet). These included the Internet browser and media-player markets.

The business tactics employed by Microsoft to execute this transition quickly drew the ire of the press and rival firms, ultimately landing Microsoft in hot water with antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, as we show in our article, though there were numerous calls for authorities to adopt a precautionary principle-type approach to dealing with Microsoft—and antitrust enforcers were more than receptive to these calls—critics’ worst fears never came to be.

This positive outcome is unlikely to be the result of the antitrust cases that were brought against Microsoft. In other words, the markets in which Microsoft operated seem to have self-corrected (or were misapprehended as competitively constrained) and, today, are generally seen as being unproblematic.

This is not to say that antitrust interventions against Microsoft were necessarily misguided. Instead, our critical point is that commentators and antitrust decisionmakers routinely overlooked or misinterpreted the existing and nonstandard market dynamics that ultimately prevented the worst anticompetitive outcomes from materializing. This is supported by several key factors.

First, the remedies that were imposed against Microsoft by antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic were ultimately quite weak. It is thus unlikely that these remedies, by themselves, prevented Microsoft from dominating its competitors in adjacent markets.

Note that, if this assertion is wrong, and antitrust enforcement did indeed prevent Microsoft from dominating online markets, then there is arguably no need to reform the antitrust laws on either side of the Atlantic, nor even to adopt a particularly aggressive enforcement position. The remedies that were imposed on Microsoft were relatively localized. Accordingly, if antitrust enforcement did indeed prevent Microsoft from dominating other online markets, then it is antitrust enforcement’s deterrent effect that is to thank, and not the remedies actually imposed.

Second, Microsoft lost its bottleneck position. One of the biggest changes that took place in the digital space was the emergence of alternative platforms through which consumers could access the Internet. Indeed, as recently as January 2009, roughly 94% of all Internet traffic came from Windows-based computers. Just over a decade later, this number has fallen to about 31%. Android, iOS, and OS X have shares of roughly 41%, 16%, and 7%, respectively. Consumers can thus access the web via numerous platforms. The emergence of these alternatives reduced the extent to which Microsoft could use its bottleneck position to force its services on consumers in online markets.

Third, it is possible that Microsoft’s own behavior ultimately sowed the seeds of its relative demise. In particular, the alleged barriers to entry (rooted in nostalgic market definitions and skeptical analysis of “ununderstandable” conduct) that were essential to establishing the antitrust case against the company may have been pathways to entry as much as barriers.

Consider this error in the Microsoft court’s analysis of entry barriers: the court pointed out that new entrants faced a barrier that Microsoft didn’t face, in that Microsoft didn’t have to contend with a powerful incumbent impeding its entry by tying up application developers.

But while this may be true, Microsoft did face the absence of any developers at all, and had to essentially create (or encourage the creation of) businesses that didn’t previously exist. Microsoft thus created a huge positive externality for new entrants: existing knowledge and organizations devoted to software development, industry knowledge, reputation, awareness, and incentives for schools to offer courses. It could well be that new entrants, in fact, faced lower barriers with respect to app developers than did Microsoft when it entered.

In short, new entrants may face even more welcoming environments because of incumbents. This enabled Microsoft’s rivals to thrive.

Conclusion

Dystopian antitrust prophecies are generally doomed to fail, just like those belonging to the literary world. The reason is simple. While it is easy to identify what makes dominant firms successful in the present (i.e., what enables them to hold off competitors in the short term), it is almost impossible to conceive of the myriad ways in which the market could adapt. Indeed, it is today’s supra-competitive profits that spur the efforts of competitors.

Surmising that the economy will come to be dominated by a small number of successful firms is thus the same as believing that all market participants can be outsmarted by a few successful ones. This might occur in some cases or for some period of time, but as our article argues, it is bound to happen far less often than pessimists fear.

In short, dystopian scholars have not successfully made the case for precautionary antitrust. Indeed, the economic features of data make it highly unlikely that today’s tech giants could anticompetitively maintain their advantage for an indefinite amount of time, much less leverage this advantage in adjacent markets.

With this in mind, there is one dystopian novel that offers a fitting metaphor to end this Article. The Man in the High Castle tells the story of an alternate present, where Axis forces triumphed over the Allies during the second World War. This turns the dystopia genre on its head: rather than argue that the world is inevitably sliding towards a dark future, The Man in the High Castle posits that the present could be far worse than it is.

In other words, we should not take any of the luxuries we currently enjoy for granted. In the world of antitrust, critics routinely overlook that the emergence of today’s tech industry might have occurred thanks to, and not in spite of, existing antitrust doctrine. Changes to existing antitrust law should thus be dictated by a rigorous assessment of the various costs and benefits they would entail, rather than a litany of hypothetical concerns. The most recent wave of calls for antitrust reform have so far failed to clear this low bar.

The patent system is too often caricatured as involving the grant of “monopolies” that may be used to delay entry and retard competition in key sectors of the economy. The accumulation of allegedly “poor-quality” patents into thickets and portfolios held by “patent trolls” is said by critics to spawn excessive royalty-licensing demands and threatened “holdups” of firms that produce innovative products and services. These alleged patent abuses have been characterized as a wasteful “tax” on high-tech implementers of patented technologies, which inefficiently raises price and harms consumer welfare.

Fortunately, solid scholarship has debunked these stories and instead pointed to the key role patents play in enhancing competition and driving innovation. See, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Nevertheless, early indications are that the Biden administration may be adopting a patent-skeptical attitude. Such an attitude was revealed, for example, in the president’s July 9 Executive Order on Competition (which suggested an openness to undermining the Bayh-Dole Act by using march-in rights to set prices; to weakening pharmaceutical patent rights; and to weakening standard essential patents) and in the administration’s inexplicable decision to waive patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines (see here and here).

Before it takes further steps that would undermine patent protections, the administration should consider new research that underscores how patents help to spawn dynamic market growth through “design around” competition and through licensing that promotes new technologies and product markets.

Patents Spawn Welfare-Enhancing ‘Design Around’ Competition

Critics sometimes bemoan the fact that patents covering a new product or technology allegedly retard competition by preventing new firms from entering a market. (Never mind the fact that the market might not have existed but for the patent.) This thinking, which confuses a patent with a product-market monopoly, is badly mistaken. It is belied by the fact that the publicly available patented technology itself (1) provides valuable information to third parties; and (2) thereby incentivizes them to innovate and compete by refining technologies that fall outside the scope of the patent. In short, patents on important new technologies stimulate, rather than retard, competition. They do this by leading third parties to “design around” the patented technology and thus generate competition that features a richer set of technological options realized in new products.

The importance of design around is revealed, for example, in the development of the incandescent light bulb market in the late 19th century, in reaction to Edison’s patent on a long-lived light bulb. In a 2021 article in the Journal of Competition Law and Economics, Ron D. Katznelson and John Howells did an empirical study of this important example of product innovation. The article’s synopsis explains:

Designing around patents is prevalent but not often appreciated as a means by which patents promote economic development through competition. We provide a novel empirical study of the extent and timing of designing around patent claims. We study the filing rate of incandescent lamp-related patents during 1878–1898 and find that the enforcement of Edison’s incandescent lamp patent in 1891–1894 stimulated a surge of patenting. We studied the specific design features of the lamps described in these lamp patents and compared them with Edison’s claimed invention to create a count of noninfringing designs by filing date. Most of these noninfringing designs circumvented Edison’s patent claims by creating substitute technologies to enable participation in the market. Our forward citation analysis of these patents shows that some had introduced pioneering prior art for new fields. This indicates that invention around patents is not duplicative research and contributes to dynamic economic efficiency. We show that the Edison lamp patent did not suppress advance in electric lighting and the market power of the Edison patent owner weakened during this patent’s enforcement. We propose that investigation of the effects of design around patents is essential for establishing the degree of market power conferred by patents.

In a recent commentary, Katznelson highlights the procompetitive consumer welfare benefits of the Edison light bulb design around:

GE’s enforcement of the Edison patent by injunctions did not stifle competition nor did it endow GE with undue market power, let alone a “monopoly.” Instead, it resulted in clear and tangible consumer welfare benefits. Investments in design-arounds resulted in tangible and measurable dynamic economic efficiencies by (a) increased competition, (b) lamp price reductions, (c) larger choice of suppliers, (d) acceleration of downstream development of new electric illumination technologies, and (e) collateral creation of new technologies that would not have been developed for some time but for the need to design around Edison’s patent claims. These are all imparted benefits attributable to patent enforcement.

Katznelson further explains that “the mythical harm to innovation inflicted by enforcers of pioneer patents is not unique to the Edison case.” He cites additional research debunking claims that the Wright brothers’ pioneer airplane patent seriously retarded progress in aviation (“[a]ircraft manufacturing and investments grew at an even faster pace after the assertion of the Wright Brothers’ patent than before”) and debunking similar claims made about the early radio industry and the early automobile industry. He also notes strong research refuting the patent holdup conjecture regarding standard essential patents. He concludes by bemoaning “infringers’ rhetoric” that “suppresses information on the positive aspects of patent enforcement, such as the design-around effects that we study in this article.”

The Bayh-Dole Act: Licensing that Promotes New Technologies and Product Markets

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 has played an enormously important role in accelerating American technological innovation by creating a property rights-based incentive to use government labs. As this good summary from the Biotechnology Innovation Organization puts it, it “[e]mpowers universities, small businesses and non-profit institutions to take ownership [through patent rights] of inventions made during federally-funded research, so they can license these basic inventions for further applied research and development and broader public use.”

The act has continued to generate many new welfare-enhancing technologies and related high-tech business opportunities even during the “COVID slowdown year” of 2020, according to a newly released survey by a nonprofit organization representing the technology management community (see here):  

° The number of startup companies launched around academic inventions rose from 1,040 in 2019 to 1,117 in 2020. Almost 70% of these companies locate in the same state as the research institution that licensed them—making Bayh-Dole a critical driver of state and regional economic development;
° Invention disclosures went from 25,392 to 27,112 in 2020;
° New patent applications increased from 15,972 to 17,738;
° Licenses and options went from 9,751 in ’19 to 10,050 in ’20, with 60% of licenses going to small companies; and
° Most impressive of all—new products introduced to the market based on academic inventions jumped from 711 in 2019 to 933 in 2020.

Despite this continued record of success, the Biden Administration has taken actions that create uncertainty about the government’s support for Bayh-Dole.  

As explained by the Congressional Research Service, “march-in rights allow the government, in specified circumstances, to require the contractor or successors in title to the patent to grant a ‘nonexclusive, partially exclusive, or exclusive license’ to a ‘responsible applicant or applicants.’ If the patent owner refuses to do so, the government may grant the license itself.” Government march-in rights thus far have not been invoked, but a serious threat of their routine invocation would greatly disincentivize future use of Bayh-Dole, thereby undermining patent-backed innovation.

Despite this, the president’s July 9 Executive Order on Competition (noted above) instructed the U.S. Commerce Department to defer finalizing a regulation (see here) “that would have ensured that march-in rights under Bayh Dole would not be misused to allow the government to set prices, but utilized for its statutory intent of providing oversight so good faith efforts are being made to turn government-funded innovations into products. But that’s all up in the air now.”

What’s more, a new U.S. Energy Department policy that would more closely scrutinize Bayh-Dole patentees’ licensing transactions and acquisitions (apparently to encourage more domestic manufacturing) has raised questions in the Bayh-Dole community and may discourage licensing transactions (see here and here). Added to this is the fact that “prominent Members of Congress are pressing the Biden Administration to misconstrue the march-in rights clause to control prices of products arising from National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense funding.” All told, therefore, the outlook for continued patent-inspired innovation through Bayh-Dole processes appears to be worse than it has been in many years.

Conclusion

The patent system does far more than provide potential rewards to enhance incentives for particular individuals to invent. The system also creates a means to enhance welfare by facilitating the diffusion of technology through market processes (see here).

But it does even more than that. It actually drives new forms of dynamic competition by inducing third parties to design around new patents, to the benefit of consumers and the overall economy. As revealed by the Bayh-Dole Act, it also has facilitated the more efficient use of federal labs to generate innovation and new products and processes that would not otherwise have seen the light of day. Let us hope that the Biden administration pays heed to these benefits to the American economy and thinks again before taking steps that would further weaken our patent system.     

The American Choice and Innovation Online Act (previously called the Platform Anti-Monopoly Act), introduced earlier this summer by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), would significantly change the nature of digital platforms and, with them, the internet itself. Taken together, the bill’s provisions would turn platforms into passive intermediaries, undermining many of the features that make them valuable to consumers. This seems likely to remain the case even after potential revisions intended to minimize the bill’s unintended consequences.

In its current form, the bill is split into two parts that each is dangerous in its own right. The first, Section 2(a), would prohibit almost any kind of “discrimination” by platforms. Because it is so open-ended, lawmakers might end up removing it in favor of the nominally more focused provisions of Section 2(b), which prohibit certain named conduct. But despite being more specific, this section of the bill is incredibly far-reaching and would effectively ban swaths of essential services.

I will address the potential effects of these sections point-by-point, but both elements of the bill suffer from the same problem: a misguided assumption that “discrimination” by platforms is necessarily bad from a competition and consumer welfare point of view. On the contrary, this conduct is often exactly what consumers want from platforms, since it helps to bring order and legibility to otherwise-unwieldy parts of the Internet. Prohibiting it, as both main parts of the bill do, would make the Internet harder to use and less competitive.

Section 2(a)

Section 2(a) essentially prohibits any behavior by a covered platform that would advantage that platform’s services over any others that also uses that platform; it characterizes this preferencing as “discrimination.”

As we wrote when the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust bills were first announced, this prohibition on “discrimination” is so broad that, if it made it into law, it would prevent platforms from excluding or disadvantaging any product of another business that uses the platform or advantaging their own products over those of their competitors.

The underlying assumption here is that platforms should be like telephone networks: providing a way for different sides of a market to communicate with each other, but doing little more than that. When platforms do do more—for example, manipulating search results to favor certain businesses or to give their own products prominence —it is seen as exploitative “leveraging.”

But consumers often want platforms to be more than just a telephone network or directory, because digital markets would be very difficult to navigate without some degree of “discrimination” between sellers. The Internet is so vast and sellers are often so anonymous that any assistance which helps you choose among options can serve to make it more navigable. As John Gruber put it:

From what I’ve seen over the last few decades, the quality of the user experience of every computing platform is directly correlated to the amount of control exerted by its platform owner. The current state of the ownerless world wide web speaks for itself.

Sometimes, this manifests itself as “self-preferencing” of another service, to reduce additional time spent searching for the information you want. When you search for a restaurant on Google, it can be very useful to get information like user reviews, the restaurant’s phone number, a button on mobile to phone them directly, estimates of how busy it is, and a link to a Maps page to see how to actually get there.

This is, undoubtedly, frustrating for competitors like Yelp, who would like this information not to be there and for users to have to click on either a link to Yelp or a link to Google Maps. But whether it is good or bad for Yelp isn’t relevant to whether it is good for users—and it is at least arguable that it is, which makes a blanket prohibition on this kind of behavior almost inevitably harmful.

If it isn’t obvious why removing this kind of feature would be harmful for users, ask yourself why some users search in Yelp’s app directly for this kind of result. The answer, I think, is that Yelp gives you all the information above that Google does (and sometimes is better, although I tend to trust Google Maps’ reviews over Yelp’s), and it’s really convenient to have all that on the same page. If Google could not provide this kind of “rich” result, many users would probably stop using Google Search to look for restaurant information in the first place, because a new friction would have been added that made the experience meaningfully worse. Removing that option would be good for Yelp, but mainly because it removes a competitor.

If all this feels like stating the obvious, then it should highlight a significant problem with Section 2(a) in the Cicilline bill: it prohibits conduct that is directly value-adding for consumers, and that creates competition for dedicated services like Yelp that object to having to compete with this kind of conduct.

This is true across all the platforms the legislation proposes to regulate. Amazon prioritizes some third-party products over others on the basis of user reviews, rates of returns and complaints, and so on; Amazon provides private label products to fill gaps in certain product lines where existing offerings are expensive or unreliable; Apple pre-installs a Camera app on the iPhone that, obviously, enjoys an advantage over rival apps like Halide.

Some or all of this behavior would be prohibited under Section 2(a) of the Cicilline bill. Combined with the bill’s presumption that conduct must be defended affirmatively—that is, the platform is presumed guilty unless it can prove that the challenged conduct is pro-competitive, which may be very difficult to do—and the bill could prospectively eliminate a huge range of socially valuable behavior.

Supporters of the bill have already been left arguing that the law simply wouldn’t be enforced in these cases of benign discrimination. But this would hardly be an improvement. It would mean the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) have tremendous control over how these platforms are built, since they could challenge conduct in virtually any case. The regulatory uncertainty alone would complicate the calculus for these firms as they refine, develop, and deploy new products and capabilities. 

So one potential compromise might be to do away with this broad-based rule and proscribe specific kinds of “discriminatory” conduct instead. This approach would involve removing Section 2(a) from the bill but retaining Section 2(b), which enumerates 10 practices it deems to be “other discriminatory conduct.” This may seem appealing, as it would potentially avoid the worst abuses of the broad-based prohibition. In practice, however, it would carry many of the same problems. In fact, many of 2(b)’s provisions appear to go even further than 2(a), and would proscribe even more procompetitive conduct that consumers want.

Sections 2(b)(1) and 2(b)(9)

The wording of these provisions is extremely broad and, as drafted, would seem to challenge even the existence of vertically integrated products. As such, these prohibitions are potentially even more extensive and invasive than Section 2(a) would have been. Even a narrower reading here would seem to preclude safety and privacy features that are valuable to many users. iOS’s sandboxing of apps, for example, serves to limit the damage that a malware app can do on a user’s device precisely because of the limitations it imposes on what other features and hardware the app can access.

Section 2(b)(2)

This provision would preclude a firm from conditioning preferred status on use of another service from that firm. This would likely undermine the purpose of platforms, which is to absorb and counter some of the risks involved in doing business online. An example of this is Amazon’s tying eligibility for its Prime program to sellers that use Amazon’s delivery service (FBA – Fulfilled By Amazon). The bill seems to presume in an example like this that Amazon is leveraging its power in the market—in the form of the value of the Prime label—to profit from delivery. But Amazon could, and already does, charge directly for listing positions; it’s unclear why it would benefit from charging via FBA when it could just charge for the Prime label.

An alternate, simpler explanation is that FBA improves the quality of the service, by granting customers greater assurance that a Prime product will arrive when Amazon says it will. Platforms add value by setting out rules and providing services that reduce the uncertainties between buyers and sellers they’d otherwise experience if they transacted directly with each other. This section’s prohibition—which, as written, would seem to prevent any kind of quality assurance—likely would bar labelling by a platform, even where customers explicitly want it.

Section 2(b)(3)

As written, this would prohibit platforms from using aggregated data to improve their services at all. If Apple found that 99% of its users uninstalled an app immediately after it was installed, it would be reasonable to conclude that the app may be harmful or broken in some way, and that Apple should investigate. This provision would ban that.

Sections 2(b)(4) and 2(b)(6)

These two provisions effectively prohibit a platform from using information it does not also provide to sellers. Such prohibitions ignore the fact that it is often good for sellers to lack certain information, since withholding information can prevent abuse by malicious users. For example, a seller may sometimes try to bribe their customers to post positive reviews of their products, or even threaten customers who have posted negative ones. Part of the role of a platform is to combat that kind of behavior by acting as a middleman and forcing both consumer users and business users to comply with the platform’s own mechanisms to control that kind of behavior.

If this seems overly generous to platforms—since, obviously, it gives them a lot of leverage over business users—ask yourself why people use platforms at all. It is not a coincidence that people often prefer Amazon to dealing with third-party merchants and having to navigate those merchants’ sites themselves. The assurance that Amazon provides is extremely valuable for users. Much of it comes from the company’s ability to act as a middleman in this way, lowering the transaction costs between buyers and sellers.

Section 2(b)(5)

This provision restricts the treatment of defaults. It is, however, relatively restrained when compared to, for example, the DOJ’s lawsuit against Google, which treats as anticompetitive even payment for defaults that can be changed. Still, many of the arguments that apply in that case also apply here: default status for apps can be a way to recoup income foregone elsewhere (e.g., a browser provided for free that makes its money by selling the right to be the default search engine).

Section 2(b)(7)

This section gets to the heart of why “discrimination” can often be procompetitive: that it facilitates competition between platforms. The kind of self-preferencing that this provision would prohibit can allow firms that have a presence in one market to extend that position into another, increasing competition in the process. Both Apple and Amazon have used their customer bases in smartphones and e-commerce, respectively, to grow their customer bases for video streaming, in competition with Netflix, Google’s YouTube, cable television, and each other. If Apple designed a search engine to compete with Google, it would do exactly the same thing, and we would be better off because of it. Restricting this kind of behavior is, perversely, exactly what you would do if you wanted to shield these incumbents from competition.

Section 2(b)(8)

As with other provisions, this one would preclude one of the mechanisms by which platforms add value: creating assurance for customers about the products they can expect if they visit the platform. Some of this relates to child protection; some of the most frustrating stories involve children being overcharged when they use an iPhone or Android app, and effectively being ripped off because of poor policing of the app (or insufficiently strict pricing rules by Apple or Google). This may also relate to rules that state that the seller cannot offer a cheaper product elsewhere (Amazon’s “General Pricing Rule” does this, for example). Prohibiting this would simply impose a tax on customers who cannot shop around and would prefer to use a platform that they trust has the lowest prices for the item they want.

Section 2(b)(10)

Ostensibly a “whistleblower” provision, this section could leave platforms with no recourse, not even removing a user from its platform, in response to spurious complaints intended purely to extract value for the complaining business rather than to promote competition. On its own, this sort of provision may be fairly harmless, but combined with the provisions above, it allows the bill to add up to a rent-seekers’ charter.

Conclusion

In each case above, it’s vital to remember that a reversed burden of proof applies. So, there is a high chance that the law will side against the defendant business, and a large downside for conduct that ends up being found to violate these provisions. That means that platforms will likely err on the side of caution in many cases, avoiding conduct that is ambiguous, and society will probably lose a lot of beneficial behavior in the process.

Put together, the provisions undermine much of what has become an Internet platform’s role: to act as an intermediary, de-risk transactions between customers and merchants who don’t know each other, and tweak the rules of the market to maximize its attractiveness as a place to do business. The “discrimination” that the bill would outlaw is, in practice, behavior that makes it easier for consumers to navigate marketplaces of extreme complexity and uncertainty, in which they often know little or nothing about the firms with whom they are trying to transact business.

Customers do not want platforms to be neutral, open utilities. They can choose platforms that are like that already, such as eBay. They generally tend to prefer ones like Amazon, which are not neutral and which carefully cultivate their service to be as streamlined, managed, and “discriminatory” as possible. Indeed, many of people’s biggest complaints with digital platforms relate to their openness: the fake reviews, counterfeit products, malware, and spam that come with letting more unknown businesses use your service. While these may be unavoidable by-products of running a platform, platforms compete on their ability to ferret them out. Customers are unlikely to thank legislators for regulating Amazon into being another eBay.

The U.S. economy survived the COVID-19 pandemic and associated government-imposed business shutdowns with a variety of innovations that facilitated online shopping, contactless payments, and reduced use and handling of cash, a known vector of disease transmission.

While many of these innovations were new, they would have been impossible but for their reliance on an established and ubiquitous technological infrastructure: the global credit and debit-card payments system. Not only did consumers prefer to use plastic instead of cash, the number of merchants going completely “cashless” quadrupled in the first two months of the pandemic alone. From food delivery to online shopping, many small businesses were able to survive largely because of payment cards.

But there are costs to maintain the global payment-card network that processes billions of transactions daily, and those costs are higher for online payments, which present elevated fraud and security risks. As a result, while the boom in online shopping over this past year kept many retailers and service providers afloat, that hasn’t prevented them from grousing about their increased card-processing costs.

So it is that retailers are now lobbying Washington to impose new regulations on payment-card markets designed to force down the fees they pay for accepting debit and credit cards. Called interchange fees, these fees are charged by banks that issue debit cards on each transaction, and they are part of a complex process that connects banks, card networks, merchants, and consumers.

Fig. 1: A basic illustration of the 3- and 4-party payment-processing networks that underlie the use of credit cards.

Regulation II—a provision of 2010’s Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act commonly known as the “Durbin amendment,” after its primary sponsor, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.)—placed price controls on interchange fees for debit cards issued by larger banks and credit unions (those with more than $10 billion in assets). It required all debit-card issuers to offer multiple networks for “routing” and processing card transactions. Merchants now want to expand these routing provisions to credit cards, as well. The consequences for consumers, especially low-income consumers, would be disastrous.

The price controls imposed by the Durbin amendment have led to a 52% decrease in the average per-transaction interchange fee, resulting in billions of dollars in revenue losses for covered depositories. But banks and credit unions have passed on these losses to consumers in the form of fewer free checking accounts, higher fees, and higher monthly minimums required to avoid those fees.

One empirical study found that the share of covered banks offering free checking accounts fell from 60% to 20%, the average monthly checking accounts fees increased from $4.34 to $7.44, and the minimum account balance required to avoid those fees increased by roughly 25%. Another study found that fees charged by covered institutions were 15% higher than they would have been absent the price regulation; those increases offset about 90% of the depositories’ lost revenue. Banks and credit unions also largely eliminated cash-back and other rewards on debit cards.

In fact, those who have been most harmed by the Durbin amendment’s consequences have been low-income consumers. Middle-class families hardly noticed the higher minimum balance requirements, or used their credit cards more often to offset the disappearance of debit-card rewards. Those with the smallest checking account balances, however, suffered the most from reduced availability of free banking and higher monthly maintenance and other fees. Priced out of the banking system, as many as 1 million people might have lost bank accounts in the wake of the Durbin amendment, forcing them to turn to such alternatives as prepaid cards, payday lenders, and pawn shops to make ends meet. Lacking bank accounts, these needy families weren’t even able to easily access their much-needed government stimulus funds at the onset of the pandemic without paying fees to alternative financial services providers.

In exchange for higher bank fees and reduced benefits, merchants promised lower prices at the pump and register. This has not been the case. Scholarship since  implementation of the Federal Reserve’s rule shows that whatever benefits have been gained have gone to merchants, with little pass-through to consumers. For instance, one study found that covered banks had their interchange revenue drop by 25%, but little evidence of a corresponding drop in prices from merchants.

Another study found that the benefits and costs to merchants have been unevenly distributed, with retailers who sell large-ticket items receiving a windfall, while those specializing in small-ticket items have often faced higher effective rates. Discounts previously offered to smaller merchants have been eliminated to offset reduced revenues from big-box stores. According to a 2014 Federal Reserve study, when acceptance fees increased, merchants hiked retail prices; but when fees were reduced, merchants pocketed the windfall.

Moreover, while the Durbin amendment’s proponents claimed it would only apply to big banks, the provisions that determine how transactions are routed on the payment networks apply to cards issued by credit unions and community banks, as well. As a result, smaller players have also seen average interchange fees beaten down, reducing this revenue stream even as they have been forced to cope with higher regulatory costs imposed by Dodd-Frank. Extending the Durbin amendment’s routing provisions to credit cards would further drive down interchange-fee revenue, creating the same negative spiral of higher consumer fees and reduced benefits that the original Durbin amendment spawned for debit cards.

More fundamentally, merchants believe it is their decision—not yours—as to which network will route your transaction. You may prefer Visa or Mastercard because of your confidence in their investments in security and anti-fraud detection, but later discover that the merchant has routed your transaction through a processor you’ve never heard of, simply because that network is cheaper for the merchant.

The resilience of the U.S. economy during this horrible viral contagion is due, in part, to the ubiquitous access of American families to credit and debit cards. That system has proved its mettle this past year, seamlessly adapting to the sudden shift to electronic payments. Yet, in the wake of this American success story, politicians and regulators, egged on by powerful special interests, instead want to meddle with this system just so big-box retailers can transfer their costs onto American families and small banks. As the economy and public health recovers, Congress and regulators should resist the impulse to impose new financial harm on working-class families.