The following is the first in a new blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available at https://truthonthemarket.com/symposia/the-law-economics-of-the-covid-19-pandemic/.

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[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Dirk Auer, (Senior Researcher, Liege Competition & Innovation Institute; Senior Fellow, ICLE).]

Privacy absolutism is the misguided belief that protecting citizens’ privacy supersedes all other policy goals, especially economic ones. This is a mistake. Privacy is one value among many, not an end in itself. Unfortunately, the absolutist worldview has filtered into policymaking and is beginning to have very real consequences. Readers need look no further than contact tracing applications and the fight against Covid-19.

Covid-19 has presented the world with a privacy conundrum worthy of the big screen. In fact, it’s a plotline we’ve seen before. Moviegoers will recall that, in the wildly popular film “The Dark Knight”, Batman has to decide between preserving the privacy of Gotham’s citizens or resorting to mass surveillance in order to defeat the Joker. Ultimately, the caped crusader begrudgingly chooses the latter. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, this might have seemed like an unrealistic plot twist. Fast forward a couple of months, and it neatly illustrates the difficult decision that most western societies urgently need to make as they consider the use of contract tracing apps to fight Covid-19.

Contact tracing is often cited as one of the most promising tools to safely reopen Covid-19-hit economies. Unfortunately, its adoption has been severely undermined by a barrage of overblown privacy fears.

Take the contact tracing API and App co-developed by Apple and Google. While these firms’ efforts to rapidly introduce contact tracing tools are laudable, it is hard to shake the feeling that they have been holding back slightly. 

In an overt attempt to protect users’ privacy, Apple and Google’s joint offering does not collect any location data (a move that has irked some states). Similarly, both firms have repeatedly stressed that users will have to opt-in to their contact tracing solution (as opposed to the API functioning by default). And, of course, all the data will be anonymous – even for healthcare authorities. 

This is a missed opportunity. Google and Apple’s networks include billions of devices. That puts them in a unique position to rapidly achieve the scale required to successfully enable the tracing of Covid-19 infections. Contact tracing applications need to reach a critical mass of users to be effective. For instance, some experts have argued that an adoption rate of at least 60% is necessary. Unfortunately, existing apps – notably in Singapore, Australia, Norway and Iceland – have struggled to get anywhere near this number. Forcing users to opt-out of Google and Apple’s services could go a long way towards inverting this trend. Businesses could also boost these numbers by making them mandatory for their employees and consumers.

However, it is hard to blame Google or Apple for not pushing the envelope a little bit further. For the best part of a decade, they and other firms have repeatedly faced specious accusations of “surveillance capitalism”. This has notably resulted in heavy-handed regulation (including the GDPR, in the EU, and the CCPA, in California), as well as significant fines and settlements

Those chickens have now come home to roost. The firms that are probably best-placed to implement an effective contact tracing solution simply cannot afford the privacy-related risks. This includes the risk associated with violating existing privacy law, but also potential reputational consequences. 

Matters have also been exacerbated by the overly cautious stance of many western governments, as well as their citizens: 

  • The European Data Protection Board cautioned governments and private sector actors to anonymize location data collected via contact tracing apps. The European Parliament made similar pronouncements.
  • A group of Democratic Senators pushed back against Apple and Google’s contact tracing solution, notably due to privacy considerations.
  • And public support for contact tracing is also critically low. Surveys in the US show that contact tracing is significantly less popular than more restrictive policies, such as business and school closures. Similarly, polls in the UK suggest that between 52% and 62% of Britons would consider using contact tracing applications.
  • Belgium’s initial plans for a contact tracing application were struck down by its data protection authority on account that they did not comply with the GDPR.
  • Finally, across the globe, there has been pushback against so-called “centralized” tracing apps, notably due to privacy fears.

In short, the West’s insistence on maximizing privacy protection is holding back its efforts to combat the joint threats posed by Covid-19 and the unfolding economic recession. 

But contrary to the mass surveillance portrayed in the Dark Knight, the privacy risks entailed by contact tracing are for the most part negligible. State surveillance is hardly a prospect in western democracies. And the risk of data breaches is no greater here than with many other apps and services that we all use daily. To wit, password, email, and identity theft are still, by far, the most common targets for cyber attackers. Put differently, cyber criminals appear to be more interested in stealing assets that can be readily monetized, rather than location data that is almost worthless. This suggests that contact tracing applications, whether centralized or not, are unlikely to be an important target for cyberattackers.

The meagre risks entailed by contact tracing – regardless of how it is ultimately implemented – are thus a tiny price to pay if they enable some return to normalcy. At the time of writing, at least 5,8 million human beings have been infected with Covid-19, causing an estimated 358,000 deaths worldwide. Both Covid-19 and the measures destined to combat it have resulted in a collapse of the global economy – what the IMF has called “the worst economic downturn since the great depression”. Freedoms that the west had taken for granted have suddenly evaporated: the freedom to work, to travel, to see loved ones, etc. Can anyone honestly claim that is not worth temporarily sacrificing some privacy to partially regain these liberties?

More generally, it is not just contact tracing applications and the fight against Covid-19 that have suffered because of excessive privacy fears. The European GDPR offers another salient example. Whatever one thinks about the merits of privacy regulation, it is becoming increasingly clear that the EU overstepped the mark. For instance, an early empirical study found that the entry into force of the GDPR markedly decreased venture capital investments in Europe. Michal Gal aptly summarizes the implications of this emerging body of literature:

The price of data protection through the GDPR is much higher than previously recognized. The GDPR creates two main harmful effects on competition and innovation: it limits competition in data markets, creating more concentrated market structures and entrenching the market power of those who are already strong; and it limits data sharing between different data collectors, thereby preventing the realization of some data synergies which may lead to better data-based knowledge. […] The effects on competition and innovation identified may justify a reevaluation of the balance reached to ensure that overall welfare is increased. 

In short, just like the Dark Knight, policymakers, firms and citizens around the world need to think carefully about the tradeoff that exists between protecting privacy and other objectives, such as saving lives, promoting competition, and increasing innovation. As things stand, however, it seems that many have veered too far on the privacy end of the scale.

Yet another sad story was caught on camera this week showing a group of police officers killing an unarmed African-American man named George Floyd. While the officers were fired from the police department, there is still much uncertainty about what will happen next to hold those officers accountable as a legal matter. 

A well-functioning legal system should protect the constitutional rights of American citizens to be free of unreasonable force from police officers, while also allowing police officers the ability to do their jobs safely and well. In theory, civil rights lawsuits are supposed to strike that balance.

In a civil rights lawsuit, the goal is to make the victim (or their families) of a rights violation whole by monetary damages. From a legal perspective, this is necessary to give the victim justice. From an economic perspective this is necessary to deter future bad conduct and properly align ex ante incentives going forward. Under a well-functioning system, juries would, after hearing all the evidence, make a decision about whether constitutional rights were violated and the extent of damages. A functioning system of settlements would result as a common law develops determining what counts as reasonable or unreasonable uses of force. This doesn’t mean plaintiffs always win, either. Officers may be determined to be acting reasonably under the circumstances once all the evidence is presented to a jury.

However, one of the greatest obstacles to holding police officers accountable in misconduct cases is the doctrine of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity started as a mechanism to protect officers from suit when they acted in “good faith.” Over time, though, the doctrine has evolved away from a subjective test based upon the actor’s good faith to an objective test based upon notice in judicial precedent. As a result, courts have widely expanded its scope to the point that qualified immunity is now protecting officers even when their conduct violates the law, as long as the officers weren’t on clear notice from specific judicial precedent that what they did was illegal when they did it. In the words of the Supreme Court, qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” 

This standard has predictably led to a situation where officer misconduct which judges and juries would likely find egregious never makes it to court. The Cato Institute’s website Unlawful Shield details many cases where federal courts found an officer’s conduct was illegal yet nonetheless protected by qualified immunity.

Immunity of this nature has profound consequences on the incentive structure facing police officers. Police officers, as well as the departments that employ them, are insufficiently accountable when gross misconduct does not get past a motion to dismiss for qualified immunity. On top of that, the regular practice of governments is to indemnify officers even when there is a settlement or a judgment. The result is to encourage police officers to take insufficient care when making the choice about the level of force to use. 

Economics 101 makes a clear prediction: When unreasonable uses of force are not held accountable, you get more unreasonable uses of force. Unfortunately, the news continues to illustrate the accuracy of this prediction.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Julian Morris, (Director of Innovation Policy, ICLE).]

Governments are beginning to lift the lockdowns they imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19. That is a good thing. But simply lifting the restrictions won’t immediately take us back to normality. For that to happen requires a massive investment in mechanisms that will rebuild trust.

Prior to COVID-19, people implicitly trusted that travelling on public transit, working in an office, attending a ball game, or going to a shopping mall would not subject them to the risk of infection by a potentially deadly virus (or any other terrible eventuality). In the wake of the pandemic, this implicit trust is gone. Many people are afraid of COVID-19 and will require reassurance. While governments likely contributed significantly to the loss of trust, they are likely not in the best position to rebuild that trust. The onus is thus on businesses and civic organizations to provide reassurance and rebuild trust. This post outlines two ways businesses can contribute to this effort.

Lockdowns and the Trust Deficit

As the incidence of COVID-19 began to rise dramatically in March, governments across the world imposed “lockdowns.” These curfew-like arrangements have gone well beyond the limits on public gatherings and other “social distancing” strategies deployed during previous major pandemics such as the Spanish ‘flu of 1918-19. Indeed, they are among the most far-reaching restrictions ever imposed on human activity during peacetime. Hundreds of millions of people have been cooped up at home for nearly two months, allowed out only briefly each day for exercise or to buy groceries. Millions of those now at home have also lost their main source of income.

Governments are now finally beginning to remove some of the most severe of these restrictions, allowing more businesses to operate. As they do so, businesses are trying to figure out what the post-lockdown economy is going to look like: Will employees come back to work in offices? Will customers shop in stores, eat at restaurants, visit movie theatres, and use rideshares, taxis, planes, and public transit?

Many people are fearful about the consequences of going back to work. A recent IPSOS-MORI poll for the Washington Post found that 74 percent of American adults want policymakers to, “keep trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even if that means keeping many businesses closed,” while just 25 percent prefer to, “open up businesses and get the economy going again, even if that means more people would get the coronavirus.” Meanwhile, in a recent survey in the UK, the TUC union found that 40% of workers were worried about the prospects of returning to crowded workplaces.  

The loss of trust is likely in part be due to conditioning: for the past two months we have been told by all and sundry to avoid other people (except over Zoom). Governments likely contributed to this through their promotion of scary predictions that millions could die if people didn’t “stay home, stay safe.” Partly, however, it is a natural reaction to the perceived threat posed by COVID-19.

For the elderly and those with underlying conditions more likely to be adversely affected by COVID-19, such anxiety is understandable. But even many people less likely to become seriously ill or die from COVID-19 are worried. This is also not surprising: They may have heard horror stories of young, otherwise healthy people who ended up on a ventilator and either died or suffered permanent lung damage. Or perhaps they read about the mysterious effects COVID-19 can have on other organs, ranging from the intestines to the brain. Or they may have a more vulnerable person in our household and are worried about the possibility that we might infect them. Or, as I am sure is the case with many, they just don’t know—and this is their reaction to uncertainty (fueled, in part by the now-discredited predictions of doom).

Regardless of why a person fears COVID-19, the fact is that many do. And one thing common to all of them is a trust deficit. Given widespread uncertainty regarding who has the virus, how can one trust that the business one works, shops, or dines at provides a safe environment free of COVID-19? This even extends to friends and colleagues: how can one individual trust another individual they might encounter while at work or at play? And it applies also to the use of taxis and rideshares; how can riders and drivers trust one another?

It might be argued that since governments were in no small part responsible for generating the trust deficit, through their well-intentioned but probably misguided efforts to lock down the economy and constant exhortations to avoid all human contact, they should now be trying to do what they can to rebuild trust. Unfortunately, however, they may not be in a very good position to do that. While governments are quite good at scaring people (“I’m from the government and I’m here to help”), they are less good at providing reassurance (“I’m from the government and I’m here to help”), or even data. In other words, governments aren’t much good at engaging in the kinds of “costly signalling” necessary to build trust between individuals and businesses. As a result, much of the responsibility for rebuilding trust will fall on businesses and civic organizations.

Businesses can do several things that would likely reduce this trust deficit and allay the fears of employees and customers. First, they can establish, communicate, and implement clear standards for employees and customers regarding the practices to be adopted to reduce infection risk. Second, and relatedly, where employees are likely to be working in close quarters with one another or with customers or suppliers, they can adopt mechanisms to establish the COVID-19 status of those employees, suppliers and customers (somewhat along the lines of the system implemented by Taiwan in February and subsequently elaborated by Hal Singer in his post in this series here). 

The following sections briefly consider how such systems might work.

CV19 Standards

Companies that have not been locked down are already implementing processes to limit the exposure of employees to potentially infected customers, suppliers, and other employees. For example, many supermarkets require staff to use masks and/or protective screens and gloves. Some stores also require customers to wear masks, limit how many people can be in the store, and impose distancing rules. Some have even built seemingly permanent screens in front of check-out clerks and imposed seemingly permanent rules for in-store movement.  Other stores and restaurants are currently limiting service to take-out and delivery.

At present, the approaches taken by businesses vary considerably. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; indeed, it is a healthy part of a market process in which companies develop different solutions to the same problem and allow consumers to pick and choose the ones that work best for them. Consumers can be aided in this process by reading reviews and ratings provided by other consumers; that model has worked well for goods and services purchased online. As Paul Seabright has noted, these systems are designed to enable users to build trusting relationships with suppliers. Survey data suggest that consumers find such systems more trustworthy than government regulations.

But when consumers are not well placed to evaluate the most effective solution, for example because it is difficult to observe the effectiveness of the solution directly, it can be helpful for third parties to evaluate the various solutions and either rank them or set out voluntary pass-fail standards. COVID-19 is just such a case: individual consumers and employees are unlikely to be in a good position to evaluate the relative effectiveness of different processes and technologies designed to limit the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. As such, pass-fail standards developed and/or validated by credible, independent third parties are likely to be the most effective way to help rebuild trust.

Standards will vary depending on the type of establishment and activity. For some businesses, such as theatres, gyms, and mass transit systems, the standards will likely be more onerous than others. Plausibly, such establishments could reduce transmission through such things as: mandatory masks, mandatory use of antiviral hand sanitizer on entry, regular cleaning, the use of HEPA filters (which remove the droplets on which the virus is spread), and other technologies. But given the very close proximity of people in such systems, often for extended periods (half an hour or more), the risk of significant viral load being transferred from one person to another, even if wearing basic masks, remains.

For standards to be effective as a means of regaining the trust of employees, suppliers, and consumers, it is important that they are communicated effectively through marketing campaigns, likely including advertising and signage. Standards will also likely change over time as understanding of the way the virus is transmitted, technologies that can prevent transmission, and hence best practices improve. The need for such standards will also likely change over time and once the virus is no longer a major threat there should be no need for such standards. For these reasons, standards should be both voluntary and developed privately. However, governments can play a role in encouraging the adoption of such standards by legislating that organizations that are compliant with a recognized standard will not be liable if an infection occurs on their property or through the actions of their employees.

In addition to other practices designed to reduce transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, some businesses have begun testing employees for the virus, to determine who is and who is not currently infected, so that infected individuals can be isolated until they are no longer infectious (employees who are required to isolate continue to receive their salary). Some businesses are also considering testing for antibodies to the virus, to determine who has had the virus and likely has some immunity. By doing such testing, businesses are probably reducing transmission both among employees and between employees and customers to a greater extent than by merely implementing technologies, hygiene and distancing rules. But the tests are not perfect and given the potential for infection outside work, it is possible that an employee who tests negative on one day could then become infected and be infective a few days later. While daily testing might be an option for some firms, it is unrealistic for most—and will not solve the trust problem for most individuals.

CV19 Status Verification

This brings us to the second major thing that business can do to reduce the trust gap: status verification. The idea here is to enable parties to ascertain one another’s current COVID-19 status without the need to resort to constant testing. One possible approach is to use a smartphone-based app that combines various pieces of information (time stamped virus tests and antibody tests, anonymized information about contacts with people who subsequently tested positive, and self-reported health-relevant data) to offer the most accurate and up-to-date status of an individual.

In principle, such a status app could be used by employers to minimize the likelihood that their staff have COVID (and to require those that may be infected to self-isolate and obtain a test). But their potential application is far wider:

·       Universities, churches, theatres, restaurants, bars, and events might utilize the status app not only for employees but also to determine who may participate and/or what forms of PPE they should utilize and/or where participants may congregate.

·       Airlines might utilize status apps to determine who might fly and where passengers should be seated.

·       Jurisdictions might utilize status apps as a means of facilitating more rapid immigration – and to enable those who most likely do not have COVID-19 to avoid most quarantine requirements.

·       Public transit systems might utilize status apps to determine who can use the system.

·       Taxis and ridesharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, might utilize data from the status app to help match riders and drivers.

·       Personal services facilitators such as Thumbtack might utilize the app to help match service providers and customers.

·       Hotels, AirBnB and vacation rental facilitators such as vrbo might use status apps for both hosts (and their employees and contractors) and guests in order to minimize infection risk during a visit.

·       Online dating and matchmaking services such as Match and Tinder might utilize status apps to help facilitate virus-compatible matches. (While SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 is not really comparable to HIV/AIDS, it is noteworthy that sites already exist that seek to match people who are HIV positive.)

How a CV19 Status App might Work

A basic schema for a CV19 status app would be:

·       Red = Has COVID-19 (e.g. recently tested positive for virus)

·       Red-Amber = May have COVID-19 (e.g. recently tested negative for virus but either has COVID-19 related symptoms or has been in contact with someone who tested positive).

·       Amber = Is susceptible: Has not had COVID-19 and likely does not have COVID-19 (e.g. recently tested negative for COVID-19, has no COVID-19 symptoms, and has had no recent known contact with someone who tested positive).

·       Green = Has had COVID-19 and is now presumed to be immune (either tested positive for CV19 and then tested negative for CV19, or tested negative for CV19 and also tested positive for Antibodies) (See below regarding immunity concerns.)

This schema is shown in the decision tree below

There are numerous technical issues relating to the operation of an app designed to establish a person’s CV19 status that must be addressed for it to function effectively. First, it will be necessary to ensure that the person using the app is the person whose status is being asserted. It should be possible to address this by storing the information from tests, contacts with infected people, and self-reported symptoms on an immutable digital ledger and use biometric identification both to record and to share status information. (Storing the status information on a person’s phone in this way also avoids the risk of hacking that plagues centralized databases.)

Next there is the question of authenticating test data recorded by the app. Ideally, this would be done by having a trusted third party—such as a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist—verify the data. If that is not feasible—for example because the test was carried out at home—then some other mechanism will be required to ensure the data is input correctly, such as rewards for accurate self-reports and/or penalties for inaccurate self-reports. (Self-reported data could also be treated within the system as less reliable, or simply as tentative—requiring verified test data to be added within a specified period.)

Beyond these verification issues, there remain problems with the specificity and sensitivity of tests—implying a likelihood of both false positive and false negatives. Although there are now both PCR and antibody tests that achieve very high levels of accuracy, even small numbers of false negative PCR tests and false positive antibody tests would clearly create problems for the effective functioning of the status app system. To address these problems, it may be necessary to undertake secondary testing for some portion of the tests.

The more challenging problem is that of infection after tests are conducted. As noted above, this can in principle be mitigated—but not eliminated—by incorporating contact tracing and/or self-reporting of symptoms. Related to this is the possibility that having COVID-19 confers only limited immunity (as has been suggested in relation to some people who have seemingly become reinfected). This obviously poses problems for the notion of a “Green” status; if reinfection is possible, then Green clearly would not be a permanent designation and would require regular testing. The evidence remains ambiguous, with news of five US sailors who had COVID then tested negative twice subsequently having new symptoms and testing positive again; on the other hand, a recent study suggests that people who test positive after recovery do not have a live (infectious) version of the virus.

Contact tracing apps have been used successfully in several locations as part of a strategy for containing COVID-19. However, the only really successful implementations so far have been those in China, South Korea and Hong Kong, which had a mandatory component and were highly centralized. By contrast, apps that required voluntary uptake have generally been less successful.

One reason for the lack of success of voluntary contact tracing apps is heightened concern regarding privacy (for example, the app used in Hong Kong enables anyone to find the gender, age, and precise locations of every person in the city who currently has COVID-19). Of course it is worth repeating Jane Bambauer’s observation in an earlier post that “Objections to surveillance lose their moral and logical bearings when the alternatives are out-of-control disease or mass lockdowns. Compared to those, mass surveillance is the most liberty-preserving option.” But assuming imprisonment is not the only alternative, concerns over privacy are not necessarily unmoored from logic or ethics (pace Christine Wilson’s earlier post). And to address these concerns, several groups have developed privacy-protecting systems. For example, the TCN coalition developed a system that shares anonymized tokens with other nearby phones over Bluetooth Low Energy. That system has now been adopted by Google and Apple in an API that is being made available to government health authorities (but not to other private app developers).

Another reason voluntary contact tracing apps have not been successful is the lack of incentives to adopt them. The main benefit of a contact tracing app is that it notifies the user when they have been in close contact with someone who subsequently tested positive. Logically, the people most likely voluntarily to adopt a contact tracing app are those who are most risk averse. But those people would also presumably be taking strong measures to avoid contracting COVID-19, so they would be less likely to become infected. By contrast, the people most likely to become infected are those who are least risk averse. But those people are least likely to be motivated to use the contact tracing app. In other words, even if there is relatively wide uptake of the app (say, 40% of the population, as in Iceland), it is likely to miss many of the people most likely to be spreading COVID-19 and so would not actually be very useful as a means of identifying and containing clusters.

Tying the contact tracing app to a CV19 Status App potentially overcomes this incentive compatibility problem, since anyone who wants to engage in an activity that requires use of the app would automatically participate in the contact tracing system. It could thus be quite effective at identifying instances of transmission that occur during activities that require the app to be used, which would also presumably be activities that put users at higher risk.

Nonetheless, for the app to be useful as a means of identifying clusters of COVID-19, either a significant proportion of common activities would have to require use of the app (e.g. public transit, rideshares, gyms, and shopping malls) or it would have to be used by at least some proportion of those not required to use it for access to activities.  

Adding a symptom monitoring component can help in two ways. First, by offering users a way to self-assess for early symptoms of COVID-19, it encourages more people to download and use the app.  More important, symptom monitoring can help identify additional potential COVID-19 infections, both among the individuals reporting symptoms and among their contacts. Thus, the combination of test data, symptom data and contact tracing become the information determining a person’s current status in a manner that is more reliable than relying on any one datum.

It should be noted that even combining these data will not make the status app 100% accurate. Some people with COVID-19 will likely slip through as Green or Orange and others will likely inadvertently be infected as a result. But the number of such instances is likely to be small and certainly much lower than would be the case without the use of the app. Moreover, widespread use of the app should dramatically reduce the infection rate throughout the population, with benefits to all.     

Conclusions

Both CV19 standards and CV19 status verification offer potential means by which to address the trust deficit that has emerged in the context of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. A company that adopts both solutions would likely dramatically reduce the chances of their employees, suppliers and customers contracting the virus on their premises. That would also likely reduce the company’s liability, which could be rewarded by insurance providers offering discounts. Indeed, one could envisage a greater role for insurance companies in designing or certifying the standards and the status app.

However, the real benefits of these systems come not from one or a few companies adopting them but from widespread adoption, which has the potential dramatically to reduce the transmission of the virus both now and in the future (should there be a second wave). This leads to something of a paradox: Governments could mandate adoption, but such an approach may be counterproductive for two reasons. First, much knowledge is dispersed and tacit, so it is generally better to allow private actors to determine which standards to adopt (lest an inferior standard be the subject of a mandate). Second, if companies are genuinely concerned to address the trust deficit, then they will be willing to invest in standards and to limit access though status apps — both of which entail costs. By contrast, if governments mandate the use of standards and apps, they would effectively prevent firms from engaging in such costly signalling, so would undermine at least part of the effectiveness of such tools as trust-generative.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Ian Adams, (Executive Director, International Center for Law & Economics).]

The COVID-19 crisis has recast virtually every contemporary policy debate in the context of public health, and digital privacy is no exception. Conversations that once focused on the value and manner of tracking to enable behavioral advertising have shifted. Congress, on the heels of years of false-starts and failed efforts to introduce nationwide standards, is now lurching toward framing privacy policy through the lens of  proposed responses to the virus.

To that end, two legislative vehicles, one from Senate Republicans and another from a bicameral group of Democrats, have been offered specifically in response to the hitherto unprecedented occasion that society has to embrace near-universally available technologies to identify, track, and remediate the virus. The bills present different visions of what it means to protect and promote the privacy of Americans in the COVID-19 era, both of which are flawed (though, to differing degrees) as a matter of principle and practice. 

Failure as a matter of principle

Privacy has always been one value among many, not an end in itself, but a consideration to be weighed in the pursuit of life’s many varied activities (a point explored in greater depth here). But while the value of privacy in the context of exigent circumstances has traditionally waned, it has typically done so to make room for otherwise intrusive state action

The COVID-19 crisis presents a different scenario. Now, private firms, not the state, are best positioned to undertake the steps necessary to blunt the virus’ impact and, as good fortune would have it, substantial room already exists within U.S. law for firms to deploy software that would empower people to remediate the virus. Indeed, existing U.S. law affords people the ability to weigh their privacy preferences directly with their level of public health concern.

Strangely, in this context, both political parties have seen fit to advance restrictive privacy visions specific to the COVID-19 crisis that would substantially limit the ability of individuals to use tools to make themselves, and their communities, safer. In other words, both parties have offered proposals that make it harder to achieve the public health outcomes they claim to be seeking at precisely the moment that governments (federal, state, and local) are taking unprecedented (and liberty restricting) steps to achieve exactly those outcomes.

Failure as a matter of practice

The dueling legislative proposals are structured in parallel (a complete breakdown is available here). Each includes provisions concerning the entities and data to be covered, the obligations placed upon entities interacting with covered data, and the scope, extent and power of enforcement measures. While the scope of the entities and data covered vary significantly, with the Democratic proposal encumbering far more of each, they share a provision requiring both “opt-in” consent for access and use of data and a requirement that a mechanism exist to revoke that consent. 

The bipartisan move to affirmative consent represents a significant change in the Congressional privacy conversation. Hitherto, sensitive data have elicited calls for context-dependent levels of privacy, but no previous GOP legislative proposal had suggested the use of an “opt-in” mechanism. The timing of this novel bipartisanship could not be worse because, in the context of COVID-19 response, using the FTC’s 2012 privacy report as a model, the privacy benefits of raising the bar for the adoption of tools to track the course of the virus are likely substantially outweighed by the benefits that don’t just accrue to the covered entity, but to society as a whole with firms relatively freer to experiment with COVID-19-tracking technologies. 

There is another way forward. Instead of introducing design restraints and thereby limiting the practical manner in which firms go about developing tools to address COVID-19, Congress should be moving to articulate discrete harms related to unintended or coerced uses of information that it would like to prevent. For instance: defining what would constitute a deceptive use of COVID-related health information, or clarifying what fraudulent inducement should involve for purposes of downloading a contract tracing app. At least with particularized harms in mind policymakers and the public will more readily be able to assess and balance the value of what is gained in terms of privacy versus what is lost in terms of public health capabilities.

Congress, and the broader public policy debate around privacy, has come to a strange place. The privacy rights that lawmakers are seeking to create, utterly independent of potential privacy harms, pose a substantial new regulatory burden to firms attempting to achieve the very public health outcomes for which society is clamoring. In the process, arguably far more significant impingements upon individual liberty, in the form of largely indiscriminate restrictions on movement, association and commerce, are necessary to achieve what elements of contract tracing promises. That’s not just getting privacy wrong – that’s getting privacy all wrong.

The goal of US antitrust law is to ensure that competition continues to produce positive results for consumers and the economy in general. We published a letter co-signed by twenty three of the U.S.’s leading economists, legal scholars and practitioners, including one winner of the Nobel Prize in economics (full list of signatories here), to exactly that effect urging the House Judiciary Committee on the State of Antitrust Law to reject calls for radical upheaval of antitrust law that would, among other things, undermine the independence and neutrality of US antitrust law. 

A critical part of maintaining independence and neutrality in the administration of antitrust is ensuring that it is insulated from politics. Unfortunately, this view is under attack from all sides. The President sees widespread misconduct among US tech firms that he believes are controlled by the “radical left” and is, apparently, happy to use whatever tools are at hand to chasten them. 

Meanwhile, Senator Klobuchar has claimed, without any real evidence, that the mooted Uber/Grubhub merger is simply about monopolisation of the market, and not, for example, related to the huge changes that businesses like this are facing because of the Covid shutdown.

Both of these statements challenge the principle that the rule of law depends on being politically neutral, including in antitrust. 

Our letter, contrary to the claims made by President Trump, Sen. Klobuchar and some of the claims made to the Committee, asserts that the evidence and economic theory is clear: existing antitrust law is doing a good job of promoting competition and consumer welfare in digital markets and the economy more broadly, and concludes that the Committee should focus on reforms that improve antitrust at the margin, not changes that throw out decades of practice and precedent.

The letter argues that:

  1. The American economy—including the digital sector—is competitive, innovative, and serves consumers well, contrary to how it is sometimes portrayed in the public debate. 
  2. Structural changes in the economy have resulted from increased competition, and increases in national concentration have generally happened because competition at the local level has intensified and local concentration has fallen.
  3. Lax antitrust enforcement has not allowed systematic increases in market power, and the evidence simply does not support out the idea that antitrust enforcement has weakened in recent decades.
  4. Existing antitrust law is adequate for protecting competition in the modern economy, and built up through years of careful case-by-case scrutiny. Calls to throw out decades of precedent to achieve an antitrust “Year Zero” would throw away a huge body of learning and deliberation.
  5. History teaches that discarding the modern approach to antitrust would harm consumers, and return to a situation where per se rules prohibited the use of economic analysis and fact-based defences of business practices.
  6. Common sense reforms should be pursued to improve antitrust enforcement, and the reforms proposed in the letter could help to improve competition and consumer outcomes in the United States without overturning the whole system.

The reforms suggested include measures to increase transparency of the DoJ and FTC, greater scope for antitrust challenges against state-sponsored monopolies, stronger penalties for criminal cartel conduct, and more agency resources being made available to protect workers from anti-competitive wage-fixing agreements between businesses. These are suggestions for the House Committee to consider and are not supported by all the letter’s signatories.

Some of the arguments in the letter are set out in greater detail in the ICLE’s own submission to the Committee, which goes into detail about the nature of competition in modern digital markets and in traditional markets that have been changed because of the adoption of digital technologies. 

The full letter is here.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Eric Fruits, (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics).]

Earlier this week, merger talks between Uber and food delivery service Grubhub surfaced. House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David N. Cicilline quickly reacted to the news:

Americans are struggling to put food on the table, and locally owned businesses are doing everything possible to keep serving people in our communities, even under great duress. Uber is a notoriously predatory company that has long denied its drivers a living wage. Its attempt to acquire Grubhub—which has a history of exploiting local restaurants through deceptive tactics and extortionate fees—marks a new low in pandemic profiteering. We cannot allow these corporations to monopolize food delivery, especially amid a crisis that is rendering American families and local restaurants more dependent than ever on these very services. This deal underscores the urgency for a merger moratorium, which I and several of my colleagues have been urging our caucus to support.

Pandemic profiteering rolls nicely off the tongue, and we’re sure to see that phrase much more over the next year or so. 

Grubhub shares jumped 29% Tuesday, the day the merger talks came to light, shown in the figure below. The Wall Street Journal reports companies are considering a deal that would value Grubhub stock at around 1.9 Uber shares, or $60-65 dollars a share, based on Thursday’s price.

But is that “pandemic profiteering?”

After Amazon announced its intended acquisition of Whole Foods, the grocer’s stock price soared by 27%. Rep. Cicilline voiced some convoluted concerns about that merger, but said nothing about profiteering at the time. Different times, different messaging.

Rep. Cicilline and others have been calling for a merger moratorium during the pandemic and used the Uber/Grubhub announcement as Exhibit A in his indictment of merger activity.

A moratorium would make things much easier for regulators. No more fighting over relevant markets, no HHI calculations, no experts debating SSNIPs or GUPPIs, no worries over consumer welfare, no failing firm defenses. Just a clear, brightline “NO!”

Even before the pandemic, it was well known that the food delivery industry was due for a shakeout. NPR reports, even as the business is growing, none of the top food-delivery apps are turning a profit, with one analyst concluding consolidation was “inevitable.” Thus, even if a moratorium slowed or stopped the Uber/Grubhub merger, at some point a merger in the industry will happen and the U.S. antitrust authorities will have to evaluate it.

First, we have to ask, “What’s the relevant market?” The government has a history of defining relevant markets so narrowly that just about any merger can be challenged. For example, for the scuttled Whole Foods/Wild Oats merger, the FTC famously narrowed the market to “premium natural and organic supermarkets.” Surely, similar mental gymnastics will be used for any merger involving food delivery services.

While food delivery has grown in popularity over the past few years, delivery represents less than 10% of U.S. food service sales. While Rep. Cicilline may be correct that families and local restaurants are “more dependent than ever” on food delivery, delivery is only a small fraction of a large market. Even a monopoly of food delivery service would not confer market power on the restaurant and food service industry.

No reasonable person would claim an Uber/Grubhub merger would increase market power in the restaurant and food service industry. But, it might convey market power in the food delivery market. Much attention is paid to the “Big Four”–DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Postmates. But, these platform delivery services are part of the larger food service delivery market, of which platforms account for about half of the industry’s revenues. Pizza accounts for the largest share of restaurant-to-consumer delivery.

This raises the big question of what is the relevant market: Is it the entire food delivery sector, or just the platform-to-consumer sector? 

Based on the information in the figure below, defining the market narrowly would place an Uber/Grubhub merger squarely in the “presumed to be likely to enhance market power” category.

  • 2016 HHI: <3,175
  • 2018 HHI: <1,474
  • 2020 HHI: <2,249 pre-merger; <4,153 post-merger

Alternatively, defining the market to encompass all food delivery would cut the platforms’ shares roughly in half and the merger would be unlikely to harm competition, based on HHI. Choosing the relevant market is, well, relevant.

The Second Measure data suggests that concentration in the platform delivery sector decreased with the entry of Uber Eats, but subsequently increased with DoorDash’s rising share–which included the acquisition of Caviar from Square.

(NB: There seems to be a significant mismatch in the delivery revenue data. Statista reports platform delivery revenues increased by about 40% from 2018 to 2020, but Second Measure indicates revenues have more than doubled.) 

Geoffrey Manne, in an earlier post points out “while national concentration does appear to be increasing in some sectors of the economy, it’s not actually so clear that the same is true for local concentration — which is often the relevant antitrust market.” That may be the case here.

The figure below is a sample of platform delivery shares by city. I added data from an earlier study of 2017 shares. In all but two metro areas, Uber and Grubhub’s combined market share declined from 2017 to 2020. In Boston, the combined shares did not change and in Los Angeles, the combined shares increased by 1%.

(NB: There are some serious problems with this data, notably that it leaves out the restaurant-to-consumer sector and assumes the entire platform-to-consumer sector is comprised of only the “Big Four.”)

Platform-to-consumer delivery is a complex two-sided market in which the platforms link, and compete for, both restaurants and consumers. Platforms compete for restaurants, drivers, and consumers. Restaurants have a choice of using multiple platforms or entering into exclusive arrangements. Many drivers work for multiple platforms, and many consumers use multiple platforms. 

Fundamentally, the rise of platform-to-consumer is an evolution in vertical integration. Restaurants can choose to offer no delivery, use their own in-house delivery drivers, or use a third party delivery service. Every platform faces competition from in-house delivery, placing a limit on their ability to raise prices to restaurants and consumers.

The choice of delivery is not an either-or decision. For example, many pizza restaurants who have their own delivery drivers also use platform delivery service. Their own drivers may serve a limited geographic area, but the platforms allow the restaurant to expand its geographic reach, thereby increasing its sales. Even so, the platforms face competition from in-house delivery.

Mergers or other forms of shake out in the food delivery industry are inevitable. Mergers will raise important questions about relevant product and geographic markets as well as competition in two-sided markets. While there is a real risk of harm to restaurants, drivers, and consumers, there is also a real possibility of welfare enhancing efficiencies. These questions will never be addressed with an across-the-board merger moratorium.

As the initial shock of the COVID quarantine wanes, the Techlash waxes again bringing with it a raft of renewed legislative proposals to take on Big Tech. Prominent among these is the EARN IT Act (the Act), a bipartisan proposal to create a new national commission responsible for proposing best practices designed to mitigate the proliferation of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) online. The Act’s proposal is seemingly simple, but its fallout would be anything but.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act currently provides online services like Facebook and Google with a robust protection from liability that could arise as a result of the behavior of their users. Under the Act, this liability immunity would be conditioned on compliance with “best practices” that are produced by the new commission and adopted by Congress.  

Supporters of the Act believe that the best practices are necessary in order to ensure that platform companies effectively police CSAM. While critics of the Act assert that it is merely a backdoor for law enforcement to achieve its long-sought goal of defeating strong encryption. 

The truth of EARN IT—and how best to police CSAM—is more complicated. Ultimately, Congress needs to be very careful not to exceed its institutional capabilities by allowing the new commission to venture into areas beyond its (and Congress’s) expertise.

More can be done about illegal conduct online

On its face, conditioning Section 230’s liability protections on certain platform conduct is not necessarily objectionable. There is undoubtedly some abuse of services online, and it is also entirely possible that the incentives for finding and policing CSAM are not perfectly aligned with other conflicting incentives private actors face. It is, of course, first the responsibility of the government to prevent crime, but it is also consistent with past practice to expect private actors to assist such policing when feasible. 

By the same token, an immunity shield is necessary in some form to facilitate user generated communications and content at scale. Certainly in 1996 (when Section 230 was enacted), firms facing conflicting liability standards required some degree of immunity in order to launch their services. Today, the control of runaway liability remains important as billions of user interactions take place on platforms daily. Related, the liability shield also operates as a way to promote good samaritan self-policing—a measure that surely helps avoid actual censorship by governments, as opposed to the spurious claims made by those like Senator Hawley.

In this context, the Act is ambiguous. It creates a commission composed of a fairly wide cross-section of interested parties—from law enforcement, to victims, to platforms, to legal and technical experts—to recommend best practices. That hardly seems a bad thing, as more minds considering how to design a uniform approach to controlling CSAM would be beneficial—at least theoretically.

In practice, however, there are real pitfalls to imbuing any group of such thinkers—especially ones selected by political actors—with an actual or de facto final say over such practices. Much of this domain will continue to be mercurial, the rules necessary for one type of platform may not translate well into general principles, and it is possible that a public board will make recommendations that quickly tax Congress’s institutional limits. To the extent possible, Congress should be looking at ways to encourage private firms to work together to develop best practices in light of their unique knowledge about their products and their businesses. 

In fact, Facebook has already begun experimenting with an analogous idea in its recently announced Oversight Board. There, Facebook is developing a governance structure by giving the Oversight Board the ability to review content moderation decisions on the Facebook platform. 

So far as the commission created by the Act works to create best practices that align the incentives of firms with the removal of CSAM, it has a lot to offer. Yet, a better solution than the Act would be for Congress to establish policy that works with the private processes already in development.

Short of a more ideal solution, it is critical, however, that the Act establish the boundaries of the commission’s remit very clearly and keep it from venturing into technical areas outside of its expertise. 

The complicated problem of encryption (and technology)

The Act has a major problem insofar as the commission has a fairly open ended remit to recommend best practices, and this liberality can ultimately result in dangerous unintended consequences.

The Act only calls for two out of nineteen members to have some form of computer science background. A panel of non-technical experts should not design any technology—encryption or otherwise. 

To be sure, there are some interesting proposals to facilitate access to encrypted materials (notably, multi-key escrow systems and self-escrow). But such recommendations are beyond the scope of what the commission can responsibly proffer.

If Congress proceeds with the Act, it should put an explicit prohibition in the law preventing the new commission from recommending rules that would interfere with the design of complex technology, such as by recommending that encryption be weakened to provide access to law enforcement, mandating particular network architectures, or modifying the technical details of data storage.

Congress is right to consider if there is better policy to be had for aligning the incentives of the platforms with the deterrence of CSAM—including possible conditional access to Section 230’s liability shield.But just because there is a policy balance to be struck between policing CSAM and platform liability protection doesn’t mean that the new commission is suited to vetting, adopting and updating technical standards – it clearly isn’t. Conversely, to the extent that encryption and similarly complex technologies could be subject to broad policy change it should be through an explicit and considered democratic process, and not as a by-product of the Act. 

In the wake of the launch of Facebook’s content oversight board, Republican Senator Josh Hawley and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, among others, have taken to Twitter to levy criticisms at the firm and, in the process, demonstrate just how far the Right has strayed from its first principles around free speech and private property. For his part, Commissioner Carr’s thread makes the case that the members of the board are highly partisan and mostly left-wing and can’t be trusted with the responsibility of oversight. While Senator Hawley took the approach that the Board’s very existence is just further evidence of the need to break Facebook up. 

Both Hawley and Carr have been lauded in rightwing circles, but in reality their positions contradict conservative notions of the free speech and private property protections given by the First Amendment.  

This blog post serves as a sequel to a post I wrote last year here at TOTM explaining how There’s nothing “conservative” about Trump’s views on free speech and the regulation of social media. As I wrote there:

I have noted in several places before that there is a conflict of visions when it comes to whether the First Amendment protects a negative or positive conception of free speech. For those unfamiliar with the distinction: it comes from philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who identified negative liberty as freedom from external interference, and positive liberty as freedom to do something, including having the power and resources necessary to do that thing. Discussions of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech often elide over this distinction.

With respect to speech, the negative conception of liberty recognizes that individual property owners can control what is said on their property, for example. To force property owners to allow speakers/speech on their property that they don’t desire would actually be a violation of their liberty — what the Supreme Court calls “compelled speech.” The First Amendment, consistent with this view, generally protects speech from government interference (with very few, narrow exceptions), while allowing private regulation of speech (again, with very few, narrow exceptions).

Commissioner Carr’s complaint and Senator Hawley’s antitrust approach of breaking up Facebook has much more in common with the views traditionally held by left-wing Democrats on the need for the government to regulate private actors in order to promote speech interests. Originalists and law & economics scholars, on the other hand, have consistently taken the opposite point of view that the First Amendment protects against government infringement of speech interests, including protecting the right to editorial discretion. While there is clearly a conflict of visions in First Amendment jurisprudence, the conservative (and, in my view, correct) point of view should not be jettisoned by Republicans to achieve short-term political gains.

The First Amendment restricts government action, not private action

The First Amendment, by its very text, only applies to government action: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” This applies to the “State[s]” through the Fourteenth Amendment. There is extreme difficulty in finding any textual hook to say the First Amendment protects against private action, like that of Facebook. 

Originalists have consistently agreed. Most recently, in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, Justice Kavanaugh—on behalf of the conservative bloc and the Court—wrote:

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment provides in relevant part that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment makes the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause applicable against the States: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . .” §1. The text and original meaning of those Amendments, as well as this Court’s longstanding precedents, establish that the Free Speech Clause prohibits only governmental abridgment of speech. The Free Speech Clause does not prohibit private abridgment of speech… In accord with the text and structure of the Constitution, this Court’s state-action doctrine distinguishes the government from individuals and private entities. By enforcing that constitutional boundary between the governmental and the private, the state-action doctrine protects a robust sphere of individual liberty. (Emphasis added).

This was true at the adoption of the First Amendment and remains true today in a high-tech world. Federal district courts have consistently dismissed First Amendment lawsuits against Facebook on the grounds there is no state action. 

For instance, in Nyawba v. Facebook, the plaintiff initiated a civil rights lawsuit against Facebook for restricting his use of the platform. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed the case, noting 

Because the First Amendment governs only governmental restrictions on speech, Nyabwa has not stated a cause of action against FaceBook… Like his free speech claims, Nyabwa’s claims for violation of his right of association and violation of his due process rights are claims that may be vindicated against governmental actors pursuant to § 1983, but not a private entity such as FaceBook.

Similarly, in Young v. Facebook, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California rejected a claim that Facebook violated the First Amendment by deactivating the plaintiff’s Facebook page. The court declined to subject Facebook to the First Amendment analysis, stating that “because Young has not alleged any action under color of state law, she fails to state a claim under § 1983.”

The First Amendment restricts antitrust actions against Facebook, not Facebook’s editorial discretion over its platform

Far from restricting Facebook, the First Amendment actually restricts government actions aimed at platforms like Facebook when they engage in editorial discretion by moderating content. If an antitrust plaintiff was to act on the impulse to “break up” Facebook because of alleged political bias in its editorial discretion, the lawsuit would be running headlong into the First Amendment’s protections.

There is no basis for concluding online platforms do not have editorial discretion under the law. In fact, the position of Facebook here is very similar to the newspaper in Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, in which the Supreme Court considered a state law giving candidates for public office a right to reply in newspapers to editorials written about them. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the statute, finding it furthered the “broad societal interest in the free flow of information to the public.” The U.S. Supreme Court, despite noting the level of concentration in the newspaper industry, nonetheless reversed. The Court explicitly found the newspaper had a First Amendment right to editorial discretion:

The choice of material to go into a newspaper, and the decisions made as to limitations on the size and content of the paper, and treatment of public issues and public officials — whether fair or unfair — constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment. It has yet to be demonstrated how governmental regulation of this crucial process can be exercised consistent with First Amendment guarantees of a free press as they have evolved to this time. 

Online platforms have the same First Amendment protections for editorial discretion. For instance, in both Search King v. Google and Langdon v. Google, two different federal district courts ruled Google’s search results are subject to First Amendment protections, both citing Tornillo

In Zhang v. Baidu.com, another district court went so far as to grant a Chinese search engine the right to editorial discretion in limiting access to democracy movements in China. The court found that the search engine “inevitably make[s] editorial judgments about what information (or kinds of information) to include in the results and how and where to display that information.” Much like the search engine in Zhang, Facebook is clearly making editorial judgments about what information shows up in newsfeed and where to display it. 

None of this changes because the generally applicable law is antitrust rather than some other form of regulation. For instance, in Tornillo, the Supreme Court took pains to distinguish the case from an earlier antitrust case against newspapers, Associated Press v. United States, which found that there was no broad exemption from antitrust under the First Amendment.

The Court foresaw the problems relating to government-enforced access as early as its decision in Associated Press v. United States, supra. There it carefully contrasted the private “compulsion to print” called for by the Association’s bylaws with the provisions of the District Court decree against appellants which “does not compel AP or its members to permit publication of anything which their `reason’ tells them should not be published.”

In other words, the Tornillo and Associated Press establish the government may not compel speech through regulation, including an antitrust remedy. 

Once it is conceded that there is a speech interest here, the government must justify the use of antitrust law to compel Facebook to display the speech of users in the newsfeeds of others under the strict scrutiny test of the First Amendment. In other words, the use of antitrust law must be narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest. Even taking for granted that there may be a compelling government interest in facilitating a free and open platform (which is by no means certain), it is clear that this would not be narrowly tailored action. 

First, “breaking up” Facebook is clearly overbroad as compared to the goal of promoting free speech on the platform. There is no need to break it up just because it has an Oversight Board that engages in editorial responsibilities. There are many less restrictive means, including market competition, which has greatly expanded consumer choice for communications and connections. Second, antitrust does not even really have a remedy for free speech issues complained of here, as it would require courts to engage in long-term oversight and engage in compelled speech foreclosed by Associated Press

Note that this makes good sense from a law & economics perspective. Platforms like Facebook should be free to regulate the speech on their platforms as they see fit and consumers are free to decide which platforms they wish to use based upon that information. While there are certainly network effects to social media, the plethora of options currently available with low switching costs suggests that there is no basis for antitrust action against Facebook because consumers are unable to speak. In other words, the least restrictive means test of the First Amendment is best fulfilled by market competition in this case.

If there were a basis for antitrust intervention against Facebook, either through merger review or as a standalone monopoly claim, the underlying issue would be harm to competition. While this would have implications for speech concerns (which may be incorporated into an analysis through quality-adjusted price), it is inconceivable how an antitrust remedy could be formed on speech issues consistent with the First Amendment. 

Conclusion

Despite now well-worn complaints by so-called conservatives in and out of the government about the baneful influence of Facebook and other Big Tech companies, the First Amendment forecloses government actions to violate the editorial discretion of these companies. Even if Commissioner Carr is right, this latest call for antitrust enforcement against Facebook by Senator Hawley should be rejected for principled conservative reasons.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Kristian Stout, (Associate Director, International Center for Law & Economics]

The public policy community’s infatuation with digital privacy has grown by leaps and bounds since the enactment of GDPR and the CCPA, but COVID-19 may leave the most enduring mark on the actual direction that privacy policy takes. As the pandemic and associated lockdowns first began, there were interesting discussions cropping up about the inevitable conflict between strong privacy fundamentalism and the pragmatic steps necessary to adequately trace the spread of infection. 

Axiomatic of this controversy is the Apple/Google contact tracing system, software developed for smartphones to assist with the identification of individuals and populations that have likely been in contact with the virus. The debate sparked by the Apple/Google proposal highlights what we miss when we treat “privacy” (however defined) as an end in itself, an end that must necessarily  trump other concerns. 

The Apple/Google contact tracing efforts

Apple/Google are doing yeoman’s work attempting to produce a useful contact tracing API given the headwinds of privacy advocacy they face. Apple’s webpage describing its new contact tracing system is a testament to the extent to which strong privacy protections are central to its efforts. Indeed, those privacy protections are in the very name of the service: “Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing” program. But, vitally, the utility of the Apple/Google API is ultimately a function of its efficacy as a tracing tool, not in how well it protects privacy.

Apple/Google — despite the complaints of some states — are rolling out their Covid-19-tracking services with notable limitations. Most prominently, the APIs will not allow collection of location data, and will only function when users explicitly opt-in. This last point is important because there is evidence that opt-in requirements, by their nature, tend to reduce the flow of information in a system, and when we are considering tracing solutions to an ongoing pandemic surely less information is not optimal. Further, all of the data collected through the API will be anonymized, preventing even healthcare authorities from identifying particular infected individuals.

These restrictions prevent the tool from being as effective as it could be, but it’s not clear how Apple/Google could do any better given the political climate. For years, the Big Tech firms have been villainized by privacy advocates that accuse them of spying on kids and cavalierly disregarding consumer privacy as they treat individuals’ data as just another business input. The problem with this approach is that, in the midst of a generational crisis, our best tools are being excluded from the fight. Which begs the question: perhaps we have privacy all wrong? 

Privacy is one value among many

The U.S. constitutional order explicitly protects our privacy as against state intrusion in order to guarantee, among other things, fair process and equal access to justice. But this strong presumption against state intrusion—far from establishing a fundamental or absolute right to privacy—only accounts for part of the privacy story. 

The Constitution’s limit is a recognition of the fact that we humans are highly social creatures and that privacy is one value among many. Properly conceived, privacy protections are themselves valuable only insofar as they protect other things we value. Jane Bambauer explored some of this in an earlier post where she characterized privacy as, at best, an “instrumental right” — that is a tool used to promote other desirable social goals such as “fairness, safety, and autonomy.”

Following from Jane’s insight, privacy — as an instrumental good — is something that can have both positive and negative externalities, and needs to be enlarged or attenuated as its ability to serve instrumental ends changes in different contexts. 

According to Jane:

There is a moral imperative to ignore even express lack of consent when withholding important information that puts others in danger. Just as many states affirmatively require doctors, therapists, teachers, and other fiduciaries to report certain risks even at the expense of their client’s and ward’s privacy …  this same logic applies at scale to the collection and analysis of data during a pandemic.

Indeed, dealing with externalities is one of the most common and powerful justifications for regulation, and an extreme form of “privacy libertarianism” —in the context of a pandemic — is likely to be, on net, harmful to society.

Which brings us back to efforts of Apple/Google. Even if those firms wanted to risk the ire of  privacy absolutists, it’s not clear that they could do so without incurring tremendous regulatory risk, uncertainty and a popular backlash. As statutory matters, the CCPA and the GDPR chill experimentation in the face of potentially crippling fines. While the FTC Act’s Section 5 prohibition on “unfair or deceptive” practices is open to interpretation in manners which could result in existentially damaging outcomes. Further, some polling suggests that the public appetite for contact tracing is not particularly high – though, as is often the case, such pro-privacy poll outcomes rarely give appropriate shrift to the tradeoff required.

As a general matter, it’s important to think about the value of individual privacy, and how best to optimally protect it. But privacy does not stand above all other values in all contexts. It is entirely reasonable to conclude that, in a time of emergency, if private firms can devise more effective solutions for mitigating the crisis, they should have more latitude to experiment. Knee-jerk preferences for an amorphous “right of privacy” should not be used to block those experiments.

Much as with the Cosmic Turtle, its tradeoffs all the way down. Most of the U.S. is in lockdown, and while we vigorously protect our privacy, we risk frustrating the creation of tools that could put a light at the end of the tunnel. We are, in effect, trading liberty and economic self-determination for privacy.

Once the worst of the Covid-19 crisis has passed — hastened possibly by the use of contact tracing programs — we can debate the proper use of private data in exigent circumstances. For the immediate future, we should instead be encouraging firms like Apple/Google to experiment with better ways to control the pandemic. 

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Eline Chivot, (Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Data Innovation, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.).]

As the COVID-19 outbreak led to the shutdown of many stores, e-commerce and brick-and-mortar shops have been stepping up efforts to facilitate online deliveries while ensuring their workers’ safety. Without online retail, lockdown conditions would have been less tolerable, and confinement measures less sustainable. Yet a recent French court’s ruling on Amazon seems to be a justification for making life more difficult for some of these businesses and more inconvenient for people by limiting consumer choice. But in a context that calls for as much support to economic activity and consumer welfare as possible, that makes little sense. In fact, the court’s decision is symptomatic of how countries use industrial policy to treat certain companies with double standards.

On April 24, Amazon lost its appeal of a French court order requiring the platform to stop delivering “non-essential items” until it evaluates workers’ risk of coronavirus exposure in its six French warehouses. The online retailer is now facing penalties of about 100,000 euros (about $110,000) per delivery, and was given 48 hours to reduce its warehouse activities and operations. 

But the complexity of logistics would make it difficult to adjust and limit deliveries to just “essential items.” Given the novelty of the situation, there were no official, precise, and pre-determined lists in place, nor was there clarity about who gets to decide, nor was there a common understanding of what customers would consider essential services or goods. As a result, Amazon temporarily closed its six French distribution centers, and is now shipping to its French customers from its warehouses in other European countries. If France wants to apply such measure for worker safety in this time of crisis, that’s clearly its right. But the requirement should apply to all online retailers equally, not just to the American company Amazon.

The court’s decision was made on the grounds that Amazon had not implemented sufficient safety measures for its workers. The turnaround last week of trade unions (who had initiated the complaints against Amazon and called for the shutdown of its facilities) and their proposition to “gradually” resume operations speak volume. Like many other companies, Amazon had  invested in additional safety measures for its employees during the crisis, distributed masks and gloves to its workers, had taken their temperatures before their shifts, had built testing capacity, and proactively decided to prioritize the delivery of essential goods. Like many other companies, Amazon had to rapidly cope with unprecedented circumstances it wasn’t prepared to handle, while having to juggle a surge in online orders during lockdowns and make do with some governments’ unclear guidance regarding safety measures.

But France has long prioritized worker welfare over broad economic welfare—which includes worker welfare, but also consumer welfare and economic growth. Yet, in this case, that prioritization seems to only apply to Amazon. French retailers like Fnac, Cdiscount, Spartoo, and La Redoute did not face the same degree of judicial scrutiny despite similar complaints about distribution centers. Nor did they have to restrict their deliveries to “essential goods.” But in France, it seems, what is good for French geese isn’t good for U.S. ganders. In fact, the real issue appears to be the French application of industrial policy.  According to a union representative of Fnac, this is about “preventing Amazon from gaining market share over French retailers during lockdown,” so that the latter can reap the benefits. Using the crisis as an excuse to restructure the French retail sector is certainly one creative application of industrial policy.

Moreover, by applying these restrictions (either just to Amazon or across all retailers who engage in e-commerce), the French government is deepening the economic crisis. The restrictions it has imposed on Amazon are likely to accentuate the losses many French small- and medium-sized companies are already facing because of the COVID-19 crisis, while also having longer-term negative consequences for its logistics network in France. Many such firms rely on Amazon’s platform to sell, ship, and develop their business, and now have to turn to more expensive delivery services. In addition, the reduction in activity by its distribution centers could force Amazon to furlough many of its 9,300 French workers.

According to the unions, Amazon’s activity is judged “nonessential to the life of the country.” Never mind that Amazon partners with French retailers like Casino and is rescuing brands like Deliveroo during the crisis. In addition, online companies like Amazon, HelloFresh and Instacart hired more workers to manage growing demands during the crisis, while others had to furlough or layoff their staff. Beyond, French brands will need economically robust allies like Amazon to compete with Chinese state-backed giants like Alibaba that are expanding their footprint in European markets, and that have come under fire for dubious workplace practices.  

Finally, the French court’s decision is an inconvenience to the 22.2 million people in France who order via Amazon, depend on efficient home deliveries to cope with strict confinement measures, and are now being told what is essential or not. With Amazon relying on other European warehouses for deliveries and being forced to limit them to items such as IT products, health and nutrition items, food, and pet food, consumers will be faced with delayed deliveries and reduced access to product variety. The court’s decision also hurts many French merchants who use Amazon for warehousing and fulfillment, as they are effectively locked out of accessing their stock. 

Non-discrimination is, or least should be, a core principle of rule-of-law nations. It appears that, at least in this case, France does not think it should apply to non-French firms.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Noah Phillips[1] (Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission).]   

Never let a crisis go to waste, or so they say. In the past two weeks, some of the same people who sought to stop mergers and acquisitions during the bull market took the opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the new bear market to call to ban M&A. On Friday, April 24th, Rep. David Cicilline proposed that a merger ban be included in the next COVID-19-related congressional legislative package.[2] By Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, warning of “predatory” M&A and private equity “vultures”, teamed up with a similar proposal.[3] 

I’m all for stopping anticompetitive M&A that we cannot resolve. In the past few months alone, the Federal Trade Commission has been quite busy, suing to stop transactions in the hospital, e-cigarette, coal, body-worn camera, razor, and gene sequencing industries, and forcing deals to stop in the pharmaceutical, medical staffing, and consumer products spaces. But is a blanket ban, unprecedented in our nation’s history, warranted, now? 

The theory that the pandemic requires the government to shut down M&A goes something like this: the antitrust agencies are overwhelmed and cannot do the job of reviewing mergers under the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act, which gives the U.S. antitrust agencies advance notice of certain transactions and 30 days to decide whether to seek more information about them.[4] That state of affairs will, in turn, invite a rush of companies looking to merge with minimal oversight, exacerbating the problem by flooding the premerger notification office (PNO) with new filings. Another version holds, along similar lines, that the precipitous decline in the market will precipitate a merger “wave” in which “dominant corporations” and “private equity vultures” will gobble up defenseless small businesses. Net result: anticompetitive transactions go unnoticed and unchallenged. That’s the theory, at least as it has been explained to me. The facts are different.

First, while the restrictions related to COVID-19 require serious adjustments at the antitrust agencies just as they do at workplaces across the country (we’re working from home, dealing with remote technology, and handling kids just like the rest), merger review continues. Since we started teleworking, the FTC has, among other things, challenged Altria’s $12.8 billion investment in JUUL’s e-cigarette business and resolved competitive concerns with GE’s sale of its biopharmaceutical business to Danaher and Ossur’s acquisition of a competing prosthetic limbs manufacturer, College Park. With our colleagues at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, we announced a new e-filing system for HSR filings and temporarily suspended granting early termination. We sought voluntary extensions from companies. But, in less than two weeks, we were able to resume early termination—back to “new normal”, at least. I anticipate there may be additional challenges; and the FTC will assess constraints in real-time to deal with further disruptions. But we have not sacrificed the thoroughness of our investigations; and we will not.

Second, there is no evidence of a merger “wave”, or that the PNO is overwhelmed with HSR filings. To the contrary, according to Bloomberg, monthly M&A volume hit rock bottom in April – the lowest since 2004. As of last week, the PNO estimates nearly 60% reduction in HSR reported transactions during the past month, compared to the historical average. Press reports indicate that M&A activity is down dramatically because of the crisis. Xerox recently announced it was suspending its hostile bid for Hewlett-Packard ($30 billion); private equity firm Sycamore Partners announced it is walking away from its takeover of Victoria’s Secret ($525 million); and Boeing announced it is backing out of its merger with Embraer ($4.2 billion) — just a few examples of companies, large corporations and private equity firms alike, stopping M&A on their own. (The market is funny like that.)

Slowed M&A during a global pandemic and economic crisis is exactly what you would expect. The financial uncertainty facing companies lowers shareholder and board confidence to dive into a new acquisition or sale. Financing is harder to secure. Due diligence is postponed. Management meetings are cancelled. Agreeing on price is another big challenge. The volatility in stock prices makes valuation difficult, and lessens the value of equity used to acquire. Cash is needed elsewhere, like to pay workers and keep operations running. Lack of access to factories and other assets as a result of travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders similarly make valuation harder. Management can’t even get in a room to negotiate and hammer out the deal because of social distancing (driving a hard bargain on Zoom may not be the same).

Experience bears out those expectations. Consider our last bear market, the financial crisis that took place over a decade ago. Publicly available FTC data show the number of HSR reported transactions dropped off a cliff. During fiscal year 2009, the height of the crisis, HSR reported transactions were down nearly 70% compared to just two years earlier, in fiscal year 2007. Not surprising.

Source: https://www.ftc.gov/site-information/open-government/data-sets

Nor should it be surprising that the current crisis, with all its uncertainty and novelty, appears itself to be slowing down M&A.

So, the antitrust agencies are continuing merger review, and adjusting quickly to the new normal. M&A activity is down, dramatically, on its own. That makes the pandemic an odd excuse to stop M&A. Maybe the concern wasn’t really about the pandemic in the first place? The difference in perspective may depend on one’s general view of the value of M&A. If you think mergers are mostly (or all) bad, and you discount the importance of the market for corporate control, the cost to stopping them all is low. If you don’t, the cost is high.[5]

As a general matter, decades of research and experience tell us that the vast majority of mergers are either pro-competitive or competitively-neutral.[6] But M&A, even dramatically-reduced, also has an important role to play in a moment of economic adjustment. It helps allocate assets in an efficient manner, for example giving those with the wherewithal to operate resources (think companies, or plants) an opportunity that others may be unable to utilize. Consumers benefit if a merger leads to the delivery of products or services that one company could not efficiently provide on its own, and from the innovation and lower prices that better management and integration can provide. Workers benefit, too, as they remain employed by going concerns.[7] It serves no good, including for competition, to let companies that might live, die.[8]

M&A is not the only way in which market forces can help. The antitrust agencies have always recognized pro-competitive benefits to collaboration between competitors during times of crisis.  In 2005, after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we implemented an expedited five-day review of joint projects between competitors aimed at relief and construction. In 2017, after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we advised that hospitals could combine resources to meet the health care needs of affected communities and companies could combine distribution networks to ensure goods and services were available. Most recently, in response to the current COVID-19 emergency, we announced an expedited review process for joint ventures. Collaboration can be concerning, so we’re reviewing; but it can also help.

Our nation is going through an unprecedented national crisis, with a horrible economic component that is putting tens of millions out of work and causing a great deal of suffering. Now is a time of great uncertainty, tragedy, and loss; but also of continued hope and solidarity. While merger review is not the top-of-mind issue for many—and it shouldn’t be—American consumers stand to gain from pro-competitive mergers, during and after the current crisis. Those benefits would be wiped out with a draconian ‘no mergers’ policy during the COVID-19 emergency. Might there be anticompetitive merger activity? Of course, which is why FTC staff are working hard to vet potentially anticompetitive mergers and prevent harm to consumers. Let’s let them keep doing their jobs.


[1] The views expressed in this blog post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Trade Commission or any other commissioner. An abbreviated version of this essay was previously published in the New York Times’ DealBook newsletter. Noah Phillips, The case against banning mergers, N.Y. Times, Apr. 27, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/business/dealbook/small-business-ppp-loans.html.

[2] The proposal would allow transactions only if a company is already in bankruptcy or is otherwise about to fail.

[3] The “Pandemic Anti-Monopoly Act” proposes a merger moratorium on (1) firms with over $100 million in revenue or market capitalization of over $100 million; (2) PE firms and hedge funds (or entities that are majority-owned by them); (3) businesses that have an exclusive patent on products related to the crisis, such as personal protective equipment; and (4) all HSR reportable transactions.

[4] Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976, 15 U.S.C. § 18a. The antitrust agencies can challenge transactions after they happen, but they are easier to stop beforehand; and Congress designed HSR to give us an opportunity to do so.

[5] Whatever your view, the point is that the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t make sense as a justification for banning M&A. If ban proponents oppose M&A generally, they should come out and say that. And they should level with the public about just how much they propose to ban. The specifics of the proposals are beyond the scope of this essay, but it’s worth noting that the “large companies [gobbling] up . . . small businesses” of which Sen. Warren warns include any firm with $100 million in annual revenue and anyone making a transaction reportable under HSR. $100 million seems like a lot of money to many of us, but the Ohio State University National Center for the Middle Market defines a mid-sized company as having annual revenues between $10 million and $1 billion. Many if not most of the transactions that would be banned look nothing like the kind of acquisitions ban proponents are describing.

[6] As far back as the 1980s, the Horizontal Merger Guidelines reflected this idea, stating: “While challenging competitively harmful mergers, the Department [of Justice Antitrust Division] seeks to avoid unnecessary interference with the larger universe of mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral.” Horizontal Merger Guidelines (1982); see also Hovenkamp, Appraising Merger Efficiencies, 24 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 703, 704 (2017) (“we tolerate most mergers because of a background, highly generalized belief that most—or at least many—do produce cost savings or improvements in products, services, or distribution”); Andrade, Mitchell & Stafford, New Evidence and Perspectives on Mergers, 15 J. ECON. PERSPECTIVES 103, 117 (2001) (“We are inclined to defend the traditional view that mergers improve efficiency and that the gains to shareholders at merger announcement accurately reflect improved expectations of future cash flow performance.”).

[7] Jointly with our colleagues at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, we issued a statement last week affirming our commitment to enforcing the antitrust laws against those who seek to exploit the pandemic to engage in anticompetitive conduct in labor markets.

[8] The legal test to make such a showing for an anti-competitive transaction is high. Known as the “failing firm defense”, it is available only to firms that can demonstrate their fundamental inability to compete effectively in the future. The Horizontal Merger Guidelines set forth three elements to establish the defense: (1) the allegedly failing firm would be unable to meet its financial obligations in the near future; (2) it would not be able to reorganize successfully under Chapter 11; and (3) it has made unsuccessful good-faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers that would keep its tangible and intangible assets in the relevant market and pose a less severe danger to competition than the actual merger. Horizontal Merger Guidelines § 11; see also Citizen Publ’g v. United States, 394 U.S. 131, 137-38 (1969). The proponent of the failing firm defense bears the burden to prove each element, and failure to prove a single element is fatal. In re Otto Bock, FTC No. 171-0231, Docket No. 9378 Commission Opinion (Nov. 2019) at 43; see also Citizen Publ’g, 394 U.S. at 138-39.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Will Rinehart, (Senior Research Fellow, Center for Growth and Opportunity).]

Nellie Bowles, a longtime critic of tech, recently had a change of heart about tech, which she relayed in the New York Times:

Before the coronavirus, there was something I used to worry about. It was called screen time. Perhaps you remember it.

I thought about it. I wrote about it. A lot. I would try different digital detoxes as if they were fad diets, each working for a week or two before I’d be back on that smooth glowing glass.

Now I have thrown off the shackles of screen-time guilt. My television is on. My computer is open. My phone is unlocked, glittering. I want to be covered in screens. If I had a virtual reality headset nearby, I would strap it on.

Bowles isn’t alone. The Washington Post recently documented how social distancing has caused people to “rethink of one of the great villains of modern technology: screens.” Matthew Yglesias of Vox has been critical of tech in the past as well, but recently admitted that these tools are “making our lives much better.” Cal Newport might have called for Twitter to be shut down, but now thinks the service can be useful. These anecdotes speak to a larger trend. According to one national poll, some 88 percent of Americans now have a better appreciation for technology since this pandemic has forced them to rely upon it. 

Before COVID-19, catchy headlines like “Heavy Social Media Use Linked With Mental Health Issues In Teens” and “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” were met with nods and approvals. These concerns found backing in legislation like Senator Josh Hawley’s “Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act” or SMART Act. The opening lines of the SMART Act make it clear the legislation would “prohibit social media companies from using practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of choice, [and] to require social media companies to take measures to mitigate the risks of internet addiction and psychological exploitation.”  

Most psychologists steer clear of using the term addiction because it means a person engages in hazardous use, shows tolerance, and neglects social roles. Because social media, gaming, and cell phone use don’t meet this threshold, the profession tends to describe those who experience negative impacts as engaging in problematic use of the tech, which is only applied to a small minority. According to one estimate, for example, only half of a percent of gamers have patterns of problematic use. 

Even though tech use doesn’t meet the criteria for addiction, the term addiction finds purchase in policy discussions and media outlets because it suggests a healthier norm. Computer games have prosocial benefits, yet it is common to hear that the activity is no match for going outside to play. The same kind of argument exists with social media and phone use; face-to-face communication is preferred to tech-enabled communication. 

But the coronavirus has inverted the normal conditions. Social distancing doesn’t allow us to connect in person or play outside with friends. Faced with no other alternative, technology has been embraced. Videoconferencing is up, as is social media use. This new norm has  brought with it a needed rethink of critiques of tech. Even before this moment, however, the research on tech effects has had its problems.    

To begin, even though it has been researched extensively, screen time and social media use aren’t shown to clearly cause harm. Earlier this year, psychologists Candice Odgers and Michaeline Jensen conducted a massive literature review and summarized the research as “a mix of often conflicting small positive, negative and null associations.” The researchers also point out that studies finding a negative relationship between well-being and tech use tend to be correlational, not causational, and thus are “unlikely to be of clinical or practical significance” to parents or therapists.  

Through no fault of their own, researchers tend to focus a limited number of relationships when it comes to tech use. But professors Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski were able to sidestep these problems by getting computers to test every theoretically defensible hypothesis. In a writeup appropriately titled “Beyond Cherry-Picking,” the duo explained why this method is important to policy makers:

Although statistical significance is often used as an indicator that findings are practically significant, the paper moves beyond this surrogate to put its findings in a real-world context.  In one dataset, for example, the negative effect of wearing glasses on adolescent well-being is significantly higher than that of social media use. Yet policymakers are currently not contemplating pumping billions into interventions that aim to decrease the use of glasses.

Their academic paper throws cold water on the screen time and tech use debate. Since social media explains only 0.4% of the variation in well-being, much greater welfare gains can be made by concentrating on other policy issues. For example, regularly eating breakfast, getting enough sleep, and avoiding marijuana use play much larger roles in the well-being of adolescents. Social media is only a tiny portion of what determines well-being as the chart below helps to illustrate. 

Second, most social media research relies on self-reporting methods, which are systematically biased and often unreliable. Communication professor Michael Scharkow, for example, compared self-reports of Internet use with the computer log files, which show everything that a computer has done and when, and found that “survey data are only moderately correlated with log file data.” A quartet of psychology professors in the UK discovered that self-reported smartphone use and social media addiction scales face similar problems in that they don’t correctly capture reality. Patrick Markey, Professor and Director of the IR Laboratory at Villanova University, summarized the work, “the fear of smartphones and social media was built on a castle made of sand.”  

Expert bodies have also been changing their tune as well. The American Academy of Pediatrics took a hardline stance for years, preaching digital abstinence. But the organization has since backpedaled and now says that screens are fine in moderation. The organization now suggests that parents and children should work together to create boundaries. 

Once this pandemic is behind us, policymakers and experts should reconsider the screen time debate. We need to move from loaded terms like addiction and embrace a more realistic model of the world. The truth is that everyone’s relationship with technology is complicated. Instead of paternalistic legislation, leaders should place the onus on parents and individuals to figure out what is right for them.