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

Introduction

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

Strategic Approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policy Priorities

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

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

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

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

Operational Objectives

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

Evaluating the VP Memo: 4 Key Takeaways

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

​​Relevant market

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offline advertising vs. online advertising

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

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

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

Display ads vs. search ads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It shouldn’t be allowed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case of Big Data Competition

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

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

  1. Data is information

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

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

2. Data is not scarce; expertise is

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

First, although data does not have the self-reinforcing characteristics of network effects, there is a sense that acquiring a certain amount of data and expertise is necessary to compete in data-heavy industries. It is (or should be) equally apparent, however, that this “learning by doing” advantage rapidly reaches a point of diminishing returns.

This is supported by significant empirical evidence. As our survey of the empirical literature shows, data generally entails diminishing marginal returns:

Second, it is firms’ capabilities, rather than the data they own, that lead to success in the marketplace. Critics who argue that firms such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook are successful because of their superior access to data might, in fact, have the causality in reverse. Arguably, it is because these firms have come up with successful industry-defining paradigms that they have amassed so much data, and not the other way around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those who complain about the unassailable competitive advantages enjoyed by companies with troves of data have it exactly backward. Companies need to innovate to attract consumer data or else consumers will switch to competitors, including both new entrants and established incumbents. As a result, the desire to make use of more and better data drives competitive innovation, with manifestly impressive results. The continued explosion of new products, services, and apps is evidence that data is not a bottleneck to competition, but a spur to drive it.

We’ve Been Here Before: The Microsoft Antitrust Saga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patents Spawn Welfare-Enhancing ‘Design Around’ Competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Section 2(a)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 2(b)(2)

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

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

Section 2(b)(3)

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

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

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

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

Section 2(b)(5)

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

Section 2(b)(7)

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

Section 2(b)(8)

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

Section 2(b)(10)

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[This post adapts elements of “Technology Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control,” forthcoming in the Missouri Law Review.]

In recent years, a growing chorus of voices has argued that existing merger rules fail to apprehend competitively significant mergers, either because they fall below existing merger-filing thresholds or because they affect innovation in ways that are purportedly ignored.

These fears are particularly acute in the pharmaceutical and tech industries, where several high-profile academic articles and reports claim to have identified important gaps in current merger-enforcement rules, particularly with respect to acquisitions involving nascent and potential competitors (here, here, and here, among many others).

Such fears have led activists, lawmakers, and enforcers to call for tougher rules, including the introduction of more stringent merger-filing thresholds and other substantive changes, such as the inversion of the burden of proof when authorities review mergers and acquisitions involving digital platforms.

However, as we discuss in a recent working paper—forthcoming in the Missouri Law Review and available on SSRN—these proposals tend to overlook the important tradeoffs that would ensue from attempts to decrease the number of false positives under existing merger rules and thresholds.

The paper draws from two key strands of economic literature that are routinely overlooked (or summarily dismissed) by critics of the status quo.

For a start, antitrust enforcement is not costless. In the case of merger enforcement, not only is it expensive for agencies to detect anticompetitive deals but, more importantly, overbearing rules may deter beneficial merger activity that creates value for consumers.

Second, critics tend to overlook the possibility that incumbents’ superior managerial or other capabilities (i.e., what made them successful in the first place) makes them the ideal acquisition partners for entrepreneurs and startup investors looking to sell.

The result is a body of economic literature that focuses almost entirely on hypothetical social costs, while ignoring the redeeming benefits of corporate acquisitions, as well as the social cost of enforcement.

Kill Zones

One of the most significant allegations leveled against large tech firms is that their very presence in a market may hinder investments, entry, and innovation, creating what some have called a “kill zone.” The strongest expression in the economic literature of this idea of a kill zone stems from a working paper by Sai Krishna Kamepalli, Raghuram Rajan, and Luigi Zingales.

The paper makes two important claims, one theoretical and one empirical. From a theoretical standpoint, the authors argue that the prospect of an acquisition by a dominant platform deters consumers from joining rival platforms, and that this, in turn, hampers the growth of these rivals. The authors then test a similar hypothesis empirically. They find that acquisitions by a dominant platform—such as Google or Facebook—decrease investment levels and venture capital deals in markets that are “similar” to that of the target firm.

But both findings are problematic. For a start, Zingales and his co-authors’ theoretical model is premised on questionable assumptions about the way in which competition develops in the digital space. The first is that early adopters of new platforms—called “techies” in the authors’ parlance—face high switching costs because of their desire to learn these platforms in detail. As an initial matter, it would appear facially contradictory that “techies” both are the group with the highest switching costs and that they switch the most. The authors further assume that “techies” would incur lower adoption costs if they remained on the incumbent platform and waited for the rival platform to be acquired.

Unfortunately, while these key behavioral assumptions drive the results of the theoretical model, the paper presents no evidence to support their presence in real-world settings. In that sense, the authors commit the same error as previous theoretical work concerning externalities, which have tended to overestimate their frequency.

Second, the empirical analysis put forward in the paper is unreliable for policymaking purposes. The authors notably find that:

[N]ormalized VC investments in start-ups in the same space as the company acquired by Google and Facebook drop by over 40% and the number of deals falls by over 20% in the three years following an acquisition.

However, the results of this study are derived from the analysis of only nine transactions. The study also fails to clearly show that firms in the treatment and controls are qualitatively similar. In a nutshell, the study compares industry acquisitions exceeding $500 million to Facebook and Google’s acquisitions that exceed that amount. This does not tell us whether the mergers in both groups involved target companies with similar valuations or similar levels of maturity. This does not necessarily invalidate the results, but it does suggest that policymakers should be circumspect in interpreting those results.

Finally, the paper fails to demonstrate evidence that existing antitrust regimes fail to achieve an optimal error-cost balance. The central problem is that the paper has indeterminate welfare implications. For instance, as the authors note, the declines in investment in spaces adjacent to the incumbent platforms occurred during a time of rapidly rising venture capital investment, both in terms of the number of deals and dollars invested. It is entirely plausible that venture capital merely shifted to other sectors.

Put differently, on its own terms, the evidence merely suggests that acquisitions by Google and Facebook affected the direction of innovation, not its overall rate. And there is little to suggest that this shift was suboptimal, from a welfare standpoint.

In short, as the authors themselves conclude: “[i]t would be premature to draw any policy conclusion on antitrust enforcement based solely on our model and our limited evidence.”

Mergers and Potential Competition

Scholars have also posited more direct effects from acquisitions of startups or nascent companies by incumbent technology market firms.

Some scholars argue that incumbents might acquire rivals that do not yet compete with them directly, in order to reduce the competitive pressure they will face in the future. In his paper “Potential Competition and Antitrust Analysis: Monopoly Profits Exceed Duopoly Profits,” Steven Salop argues:

Acquisitions of potential or nascent competitors by a dominant firm raise inherent anticompetitive concerns. By eliminating the procompetitive impact of the entry, an acquisition can allow the dominant firm to continue to exercise monopoly power and earn monopoly profits. The dominant firm also can neutralize the potential innovation competition that the entrant would provide.

However, these antitrust theories of harm suffer from several important flaws. They rest upon several restrictive assumptions that are not certain to occur in real-world settings. Most are premised on the notion that, in a given market, monopoly profits generally exceed joint duopoly profits. This allegedly makes it profitable, and mutually advantageous, for an incumbent to protect its monopoly position by preemptively acquiring potential rivals.

Accordingly, under these theories, anticompetitive mergers are only possible when the acquired rival could effectively challenge the incumbent. But these are, of course, only potential challengers; there is no guarantee that any one of them could or would mount a viable competitive threat.

Less obviously, it must be the case that the rival can hope to share only duopoly profits, as opposed to completely overthrowing the incumbent or surpassing them with a significantly larger share of the market. Where competition is “for the market” itself, monopoly maintenance would fail to explain a rival’s decision to sell.  Because there would be no asymmetry between the expected profits of the incumbent and the rival, monopoly maintenance alone would not give rise to mutually advantageous deals.

Second, potential competition does not always increase consumer welfare.  Indeed, while the presence of potential competitors might increase price competition, it can also have supply-side effects that cut in the opposite direction.

For example, as Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz observed, a monopolist threatened by potential competition may invest in socially wasteful R&D efforts or entry-deterrence mechanisms, and it may operate at below-optimal scale in anticipation of future competitive entry.

There are also pragmatic objections. Analyzing a merger’s effect on potential competition would compel antitrust authorities and courts to make increasingly speculative assessments concerning the counterfactual setting of proposed acquisitions.

In simple terms, it is far easier to determine whether a merger between McDonald’s and Burger King would lead to increased hamburger prices in the short run than it is to determine whether a gaming platform like Steam or the Epic Games Store might someday compete with video-streaming or music-subscription platforms like Netflix or Spotify. It is not that the above models are necessarily wrong, but rather that applying them to practical cases would require antitrust enforcers to estimate mostly unknowable factors.

Finally, the real test for regulators is not just whether they can identify possibly anticompetitive mergers, but whether they can do so in a cost-effective manner. Whether it is desirable to implement a given legal test is not simply a function of its accuracy, the cost to administer it, and the respective costs of false positives and false negatives. It also critically depends on how prevalent the conduct is that adjudicators would be seeking to foreclose.

Consider two hypothetical settings. Imagine there are 10,000 tech mergers in a given year, of which either 1,000 or 2,500 are anticompetitive (the remainder are procompetitive or competitively neutral). Suppose that authorities can either attempt to identify anticompetitive mergers with 75% accuracy, or perform no test at all—i.e., letting all mergers go through unchallenged.

If there are 1,000 anticompetitive mergers, applying the test would result in 7,500 correct decisions and 2,500 incorrect ones (2,250 false positives and 250 false negatives). Doing nothing would lead to 9,000 correct decisions and 1,000 false negatives. If the number of anticompetitive deals were 2,500, applying the test would lead to the same number of incorrect decisions as not applying it (1,875 false positives and 625 false negatives, versus 2,500 false negatives). The advantage would tilt toward applying the test if anticompetitive mergers were even more widespread.

This hypothetical example holds a simple lesson for policymakers: the rarer the conduct that they are attempting to identify, the more accurate their identification method must be, and the more costly false negatives must be relative to false positives.

As discussed below, current empirical evidence does not suggest that anticompetitive mergers of this sort are particularly widespread, nor does it offer accurate heuristics to detect the ones that are. Finally, there is little sense that the cost of false negatives significantly outweighs that of false positives. In short, there is currently little evidence to suggest that tougher enforcement would benefit consumers.

Killer Acquisitions

Killer acquisitions are, effectively, a subset of the “potential competitor” mergers discussed in the previous section. As defined by Colleen Cunningham, Florian Ederer, and Song Ma, they are those deals where “an incumbent firm may acquire an innovative target and terminate the development of the target’s innovations to preempt future competition.”

Cunningham, Ederer, and Ma’s highly influential paper on killer acquisitions has been responsible for much of the recent renewed interest in the effect that mergers exert on innovation. The authors studied thousands of pharmaceutical mergers and concluded that between 5.3% and 7.4% of them were killer acquisitions. As they write:

[W]e empirically compare development probabilities of overlapping acquisitions, which are, in our theory, motivated by a mix of killer and development intentions, and non-overlapping acquisitions, which are motivated only by development intentions. We find an increase in acquisition probability and a decrease in post-acquisition development for overlapping acquisitions and interpret that as evidence for killer acquisitions. […]

[W]e find that projects acquired by an incumbent with an overlapping drug are 23.4% less likely to have continued development activity compared to drugs acquired by non-overlapping incumbents.

From a policy standpoint, the question is what weight antitrust authorities, courts, and legislators should give to these findings. Stated differently, does the paper provide sufficient evidence to warrant reform of existing merger-filing thresholds and review standards? There are several factors counseling that policymakers should proceed with caution.

To start, the study’s industry-specific methodology means that it may not be a useful guide to understand acquisitions in other industries, like the tech sector, for example.

Second, even if one assumes that the findings of Cunningham, et al., are correct and apply with equal force in the tech sector (as some official reports have), it remains unclear whether the 5.3–7.4% of mergers they describe warrant a departure from the status quo.

Antitrust enforcers operate under uncertainty. The critical policy question is thus whether this subset of anticompetitive deals can be identified ex-ante. If not, is there a heuristic that would enable enforcers to identify more of these anticompetitive deals without producing excessive false positives?

The authors focus on the effect that overlapping R&D pipelines have on project discontinuations. In the case of non-overlapping mergers, acquired projects continue 17.5% of the time, while this number is 13.4% when there are overlapping pipelines. The authors argue that this gap is evidence of killer acquisitions. But it misses the bigger picture: under the authors’ own numbers and definition of a “killer acquisition,” a vast majority of overlapping acquisitions are perfectly benign; prohibiting them would thus have important social costs.

Third, there are several problems with describing this kind of behavior as harmful. Indeed, Cunningham, et al., acknowledge that this kind of behavior could increase innovation by boosting the returns to innovation.

And even if one ignores incentives to innovate, product discontinuations can improve consumer welfare. This question ultimately boils down to identifying the counterfactual to a merger. As John Yun writes:

For instance, an acquisition that results in a discontinued product is not per se evidence of either consumer harm or benefit. The answer involves comparing the counterfactual world without the acquisition with the world with the acquisition. The comparison includes potential efficiencies that were gained from the acquisition, including integration of intellectual property, the reduction of transaction costs, economies of scope, and better allocation of skilled labor.

One of the reasons R&D project discontinuation may be beneficial is simply cost savings. R&D is expensive. Pharmaceutical firms spend up to 27.8% of their annual revenue on R&D. Developing a new drug has an estimated median cost of $985.3 million. Cost-cutting—notably as it concerns R&D—is thus a critical part of pharmaceutical (as well as tech) companies’ businesses. As a report by McKinsey concludes:

The recent boom in M&A in the pharma industry is partly the result of attempts to address short-term productivity challenges. An acquiring or merging company typically designs organization-wide integration programs to capture synergies, especially in costs. Such programs usually take up to three years to complete and deliver results.

Another report finds that:

Maximizing the efficiency of production labor and equipment is one important way top-quartile drugmakers break out of the pack. Their rates of operational-equipment effectiveness are more than twice those of bottom-quartile companies (Exhibit 1), and when we looked closely we found that processes account for two-thirds of the difference.

In short, pharmaceutical companies do not just compete along innovation-related parameters, though these are obviously important, but also on more traditional grounds such as cost-rationalization. Accordingly, as the above reports suggest, pharmaceutical mergers are often about applying an incumbent’s superior managerial efficiency to the acquired firm’s assets through operation of the market for corporate control.

This cost-cutting (and superior project selection) ultimately enables companies to offer lower prices, thereby benefiting consumers and increasing their incentives to invest in R&D in the first place by making successfully developed drugs more profitable.

In that sense, Henry Manne’s seminal work relating to mergers and the market for corporate control sheds at least as much light on pharmaceutical (and tech) mergers as the killer acquisitions literature. And yet, it is hardly ever mentioned in modern economic literature on this topic.

While Colleen Cunningham and her co-authors do not entirely ignore these considerations, as we discuss in our paper, their arguments for dismissing them are far from watertight.

A natural extension of the killer acquisitions work is to question whether mergers of this sort also take place in the tech industry. Interest in this question is notably driven by the central role that digital markets currently occupy in competition-policy discussion, but also by the significant number of startup acquisitions that take place in the tech industry. However, existing studies provide scant evidence that killer acquisitions are a common occurrence in these markets.

This is not surprising. Unlike in the pharmaceutical industry—where drugs need to go through a lengthy and visible regulatory pipeline before they can be sold—incumbents in digital industries will likely struggle to identify their closest rivals and prevent firms from rapidly pivoting to seize new commercial opportunities. As a result, the basic conditions for killer acquisitions to take place (i.e., firms knowing they are in a position to share monopoly profits) are less likely to be present; it also would be harder to design research methods to detect these mergers.

The empirical literature on killer acquisitions in the tech sector is still in its infancy. But, as things stand, no study directly examines whether killer acquisitions actually take place in digital industries (i.e., whether post-merger project discontinuations are more common in overlapping than non-overlapping tech mergers). This is notably the case for studies by Axel Gautier & Joe Lamesch, and Elena Argentesi and her co-authors. Instead, these studies merely show that product discontinuations are common after an acquisition by a big tech company.

To summarize, while studies of this sort might suggest that the clearance of certain mergers might not have been optimal, it is hardly a sufficient basis on which to argue that enforcement should be tightened.

The reason for this is simple. The fact that some anticompetitive mergers may have escaped scrutiny and/or condemnation is never a sufficient basis to tighten rules. For that, it is also necessary to factor in the administrative costs of increased enforcement, as well as potential false convictions to which it might give rise. As things stand, economic research on killer acquisitions in the tech sector does not warrant tougher antitrust enforcement, though it does show the need for further empirical research on the topic.

Conclusion

Many proposed merger-enforcement reforms risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Mergers are largely beneficial to society (here, here and here); anticompetitive ones are rare; and there is little way, at the margin, to tell good from bad. To put it mildly, there is a precious baby that needs to be preserved and relatively little bathwater to throw out.

Take the fulcrum of policy debates that is the pharmaceutical industry. It is not hard to point to pharmaceutical mergers (or long-term agreements) that have revolutionized patient outcomes. Most recently, Pfizer and BioNTech’s efforts to successfully market an mRNA vaccine against COVID-19 offers a case in point.

The deal struck by both firms could naïvely be construed as bearing hallmarks of a killer acquisition or an anticompetitive agreement (long-term agreements can easily fall into either of these categories). Pfizer was a powerful incumbent in the vaccine industry; BioNTech threatened to disrupt the industry with new technology; and the deal likely caused Pfizer to forgo some independent R&D efforts. And yet, it also led to the first approved COVID-19 vaccine and groundbreaking advances in vaccine technology.

Of course, the counterfactual is unclear, and the market might be more competitive absent the deal, just as there might be only one approved mRNA vaccine today instead of two—we simply do not know. More importantly, this counterfactual was even less knowable at the time of the deal. And much the same could be said about countless other pharmaceutical mergers.

The key policy question is how authorities should handle this uncertainty. Critics of the status quo argue that current rules and thresholds leave certain anticompetitive deals unchallenged. But these calls for tougher enforcement fail to satisfy the requirements of the error-cost framework. Critics have so far failed to show that, on balance, mergers harm social welfare—even overlapping ones or mergers between potential competitors—just as they are yet to suggest alternative institutional arrangements that would improve social welfare.

In other words, they mistakenly analyze purported false negatives of merger-enforcement regimes in isolation. In doing so, they ignore how measures that aim to reduce such judicial errors may lead to other errors, as well as higher enforcement costs. In short, they paint a world where policy decisions involve facile tradeoffs, and this undermines their policy recommendations.

Given these significant limitations, this body of academic research should be met with an appropriate degree of caution. For all the criticism it has faced, the current merger-review system is mostly a resounding success. It is administrable, predictable, and timely. Yet it also eliminates a vast majority of judicial errors: even its critics concede that false negatives make up only a tiny fraction of decisions. Policymakers must decide whether the benefits from catching the very few arguably anticompetitive mergers that currently escape prosecution outweigh the significant costs that are required to achieve this goal. There is currently little evidence to suggest that this is, indeed, the case.

The language of the federal antitrust laws is extremely general. Over more than a century, the federal courts have applied common-law techniques to construe this general language to provide guidance to the private sector as to what does or does not run afoul of the law. The interpretive process has been fraught with some uncertainty, as judicial approaches to antitrust analysis have changed several times over the past century. Nevertheless, until very recently, judges and enforcers had converged toward relying on a consumer welfare standard as the touchstone for antitrust evaluations (see my antitrust primer here, for an overview).

While imperfect and subject to potential error in application—a problem of legal interpretation generally—the consumer welfare principle has worked rather well as the focus both for antitrust-enforcement guidance and judicial decision-making. The general stability and predictability of antitrust under a consumer welfare framework has advanced the rule of law. It has given businesses sufficient information to plan transactions in a manner likely to avoid antitrust liability. It thereby has cabined uncertainty and increased the probability that private parties would enter welfare-enhancing commercial arrangements, to the benefit of society.

In a very thoughtful 2017 speech, then Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Andrew Finch commented on the importance of the rule of law to principled antitrust enforcement. He noted:

[H]ow do we administer the antitrust laws more rationally, accurately, expeditiously, and efficiently? … Law enforcement requires stability and continuity both in rules and in their application to specific cases.

Indeed, stability and continuity in enforcement are fundamental to the rule of law. The rule of law is about notice and reliance. When it is impossible to make reasonable predictions about how a law will be applied, or what the legal consequences of conduct will be, these important values are diminished. To call our antitrust regime a “rule of law” regime, we must enforce the law as written and as interpreted by the courts and advance change with careful thought.

The reliance fostered by stability and continuity has obvious economic benefits. Businesses invest, not only in innovation but in facilities, marketing, and personnel, and they do so based on the economic and legal environment they expect to face.

Of course, we want businesses to make those investments—and shape their overall conduct—in accordance with the antitrust laws. But to do so, they need to be able to rely on future application of those laws being largely consistent with their expectations. An antitrust enforcement regime with frequent changes is one that businesses cannot plan for, or one that they will plan for by avoiding certain kinds of investments.

That is certainly not to say there has not been positive change in the antitrust laws in the past, or that we would have been better off without those changes. U.S. antitrust law has been refined, and occasionally recalibrated, with the courts playing their appropriate interpretive role. And enforcers must always be on the watch for new or evolving threats to competition.  As markets evolve and products develop over time, our analysis adapts. But as those changes occur, we pursue reliability and consistency in application in the antitrust laws as much as possible.

Indeed, we have enjoyed remarkable continuity and consensus for many years. Antitrust law in the U.S. has not been a “paradox” for quite some time, but rather a stable and valuable law enforcement regime with appropriately widespread support.

Unfortunately, policy decisions taken by the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) leadership in recent weeks have rejected antitrust continuity and consensus. They have injected substantial uncertainty into the application of competition-law enforcement by the FTC. This abrupt change in emphasis undermines the rule of law and threatens to reduce economic welfare.

As of now, the FTC’s departure from the rule of law has been notable in two areas:

  1. Its rejection of previous guidance on the agency’s “unfair methods of competition” authority, the FTC’s primary non-merger-related enforcement tool; and
  2. Its new advice rejecting time limits for the review of generally routine proposed mergers.

In addition, potential FTC rulemakings directed at “unfair methods of competition” would, if pursued, prove highly problematic.

Rescission of the Unfair Methods of Competition Policy Statement

The FTC on July 1 voted 3-2 to rescind the 2015 FTC Policy Statement Regarding Unfair Methods of Competition under Section 5 of the FTC Act (UMC Policy Statement).

The bipartisan UMC Policy Statement has originally been supported by all three Democratic commissioners, including then-Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. The policy statement generally respected and promoted the rule of law by emphasizing that, in applying the facially broad “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) language, the FTC would be guided by the well-established principles of the antitrust rule of reason (including considering any associated cognizable efficiencies and business justifications) and the consumer welfare standard. The FTC also explained that it would not apply “standalone” Section 5 theories to conduct that would violate the Sherman or Clayton Acts.

In short, the UMC Policy Statement sent a strong signal that the commission would apply UMC in a manner fully consistent with accepted and well-understood antitrust policy principles. As in the past, the vast bulk of FTC Section 5 prosecutions would be brought against conduct that violated the core antitrust laws. Standalone Section 5 cases would be directed solely at those few practices that harmed consumer welfare and competition, but somehow fell into a narrow crack in the basic antitrust statutes (such as, perhaps, “invitations to collude” that lack plausible efficiency justifications). Although the UMC Statement did not answer all questions regarding what specific practices would justify standalone UMC challenges, it substantially limited business uncertainty by bringing Section 5 within the boundaries of settled antitrust doctrine.

The FTC’s announcement of the UMC Policy Statement rescission unhelpfully proclaimed that “the time is right for the Commission to rethink its approach and to recommit to its mandate to police unfair methods of competition even if they are outside the ambit of the Sherman or Clayton Acts.” As a dissenting statement by Commissioner Christine S. Wilson warned, consumers would be harmed by the commission’s decision to prioritize other unnamed interests. And as Commissioner Noah Joshua Phillips stressed in his dissent, the end result would be reduced guidance and greater uncertainty.

In sum, by suddenly leaving private parties in the dark as to how to conform themselves to Section 5’s UMC requirements, the FTC’s rescission offends the rule of law.

New Guidance to Parties Considering Mergers

For decades, parties proposing mergers that are subject to statutory Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act pre-merger notification requirements have operated under the understanding that:

  1. The FTC and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) will routinely grant “early termination” of review (before the end of the initial 30-day statutory review period) to those transactions posing no plausible competitive threat; and
  2. An enforcement agency’s decision not to request more detailed documents (“second requests”) after an initial 30-day pre-merger review effectively serves as an antitrust “green light” for the proposed acquisition to proceed.

Those understandings, though not statutorily mandated, have significantly reduced antitrust uncertainty and related costs in the planning of routine merger transactions. The rule of law has been advanced through an effective assurance that business combinations that appear presumptively lawful will not be the target of future government legal harassment. This has advanced efficiency in government, as well; it is a cost-beneficial optimal use of resources for DOJ and the FTC to focus exclusively on those proposed mergers that present a substantial potential threat to consumer welfare.

Two recent FTC pronouncements (one in tandem with DOJ), however, have generated great uncertainty by disavowing (at least temporarily) those two welfare-promoting review policies. Joined by DOJ, the FTC on Feb. 4 announced that the agencies would temporarily suspend early terminations, citing an “unprecedented volume of filings” and a transition to new leadership. More than six months later, this “temporary” suspension remains in effect.

Citing “capacity constraints” and a “tidal wave of merger filings,” the FTC subsequently published an Aug. 3 blog post that effectively abrogated the 30-day “green lighting” of mergers not subject to a second request. It announced that it was sending “warning letters” to firms reminding them that FTC investigations remain open after the initial 30-day period, and that “[c]ompanies that choose to proceed with transactions that have not been fully investigated are doing so at their own risk.”

The FTC’s actions interject unwarranted uncertainty into merger planning and undermine the rule of law. Preventing early termination on transactions that have been approved routinely not only imposes additional costs on business; it hints that some transactions might be subject to novel theories of liability that fall outside the antitrust consensus.

Perhaps more significantly, as three prominent antitrust practitioners point out, the FTC’s warning letters states that:

[T]he FTC may challenge deals that “threaten to reduce competition and harm consumers, workers, and honest businesses.” Adding in harm to both “workers and honest businesses” implies that the FTC may be considering more ways that transactions can have an adverse impact other than just harm to competition and consumers [citation omitted].

Because consensus antitrust merger analysis centers on consumer welfare, not the protection of labor or business interests, any suggestion that the FTC may be extending its reach to these new areas is inconsistent with established legal principles and generates new business-planning risks.

More generally, the Aug. 6 FTC “blog post could be viewed as an attempt to modify the temporal framework of the HSR Act”—in effect, an effort to displace an implicit statutory understanding in favor of an agency diktat, contrary to the rule of law. Commissioner Wilson sees the blog post as a means to keep investigations open indefinitely and, thus, an attack on the decades-old HSR framework for handling most merger reviews in an expeditious fashion (see here). Commissioner Phillips is concerned about an attempt to chill legal M&A transactions across the board, particularly unfortunate when there is no reason to conclude that particular transactions are illegal (see here).

Finally, the historical record raises serious questions about the “resource constraint” justification for the FTC’s new merger review policies:

Through the end of July 2021, more than 2,900 transactions were reported to the FTC. It is not clear, however, whether these record-breaking HSR filing numbers have led (or will lead) to more deals being investigated. Historically, only about 13 percent of all deals reported are investigated in some fashion, and roughly 3 percent of all deals reported receive a more thorough, substantive review through the issuance of a Second Request. Even if more deals are being reported, for the majority of transactions, the HSR process is purely administrative, raising no antitrust concerns, and, theoretically, uses few, if any, agency resources. [Citations omitted.]

Proposed FTC Competition Rulemakings

The new FTC leadership is strongly considering competition rulemakings. As I explained in a recent Truth on the Market post, such rulemakings would fail a cost-benefit test. They raise serious legal risks for the commission and could impose wasted resource costs on the FTC and on private parties. More significantly, they would raise two very serious economic policy concerns:

First, competition rules would generate higher error costs than adjudications. Adjudications cabin error costs by allowing for case-specific analysis of likely competitive harms and procompetitive benefits. In contrast, competition rules inherently would be overbroad and would suffer from a very high rate of false positives. By characterizing certain practices as inherently anticompetitive without allowing for consideration of case-specific facts bearing on actual competitive effects, findings of rule violations inevitably would condemn some (perhaps many) efficient arrangements.

Second, competition rules would undermine the rule of law and thereby reduce economic welfare. FTC-only competition rules could lead to disparate legal treatment of a firm’s business practices, depending upon whether the FTC or the U.S. Justice Department was the investigating agency. Also, economic efficiency gains could be lost due to the chilling of aggressive efficiency-seeking business arrangements in those sectors subject to rules. [Emphasis added.]

In short, common law antitrust adjudication, focused on the consumer welfare standard, has done a good job of promoting a vibrant competitive economy in an efficient fashion. FTC competition rulemaking would not.

Conclusion

Recent FTC actions have undermined consensus antitrust-enforcement standards and have departed from established merger-review procedures with respect to seemingly uncontroversial consolidations. Those decisions have imposed costly uncertainty on the business sector and are thereby likely to disincentivize efficiency-seeking arrangements. What’s more, by implicitly rejecting consensus antitrust principles, they denigrate the primacy of the rule of law in antitrust enforcement. The FTC’s pursuit of competition rulemaking would further damage the rule of law by imposing arbitrary strictures that ignore matter-specific considerations bearing on the justifications for particular business decisions.

Fortunately, these are early days in the Biden administration. The problematic initial policy decisions delineated in this comment could be reversed based on further reflection and deliberation within the commission. Chairwoman Lina Khan and her fellow Democratic commissioners would benefit by consulting more closely with Commissioners Wilson and Phillips to reach agreement on substantive and procedural enforcement policies that are better tailored to promote consumer welfare and enhance vibrant competition. Such policies would benefit the U.S. economy in a manner consistent with the rule of law.

[This post adapts elements of “Should ASEAN Antitrust Laws Emulate European Competition Policy?”, published in the Singapore Economic Review (2021). Open access working paper here.]

U.S. and European competition laws diverge in numerous ways that have important real-world effects. Understanding these differences is vital, particularly as lawmakers in the United States, and the rest of the world, consider adopting a more “European” approach to competition.

In broad terms, the European approach is more centralized and political. The European Commission’s Directorate General for Competition (DG Comp) has significant de facto discretion over how the law is enforced. This contrasts with the common law approach of the United States, in which courts elaborate upon open-ended statutes through an iterative process of case law. In other words, the European system was built from the top down, while U.S. antitrust relies on a bottom-up approach, derived from arguments made by litigants (including the government antitrust agencies) and defendants (usually businesses).

This procedural divergence has significant ramifications for substantive law. European competition law includes more provisions akin to de facto regulation. This is notably the case for the “abuse of dominance” standard, in which a “dominant” business can be prosecuted for “abusing” its position by charging high prices or refusing to deal with competitors. By contrast, the U.S. system places more emphasis on actual consumer outcomes, rather than the nature or “fairness” of an underlying practice.

The American system thus affords firms more leeway to exclude their rivals, so long as this entails superior benefits for consumers. This may make the U.S. system more hospitable to innovation, since there is no built-in regulation of conduct for innovators who acquire a successful market position fairly and through normal competition.

In this post, we discuss some key differences between the two systems—including in areas like predatory pricing and refusals to deal—as well as the discretionary power the European Commission enjoys under the European model.

Exploitative Abuses

U.S. antitrust is, by and large, unconcerned with companies charging what some might consider “excessive” prices. The late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Supreme Court majority in the 2003 case Verizon v. Trinko, observed that:

The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices—at least for a short period—is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth.

This contrasts with European competition-law cases, where firms may be found to have infringed competition law because they charged excessive prices. As the European Court of Justice (ECJ) held in 1978’s United Brands case: “In this case charging a price which is excessive because it has no reasonable relation to the economic value of the product supplied would be such an abuse.”

While United Brands was the EU’s foundational case for excessive pricing, and the European Commission reiterated that these allegedly exploitative abuses were possible when it published its guidance paper on abuse of dominance cases in 2009, the commission had for some time demonstrated apparent disinterest in bringing such cases. In recent years, however, both the European Commission and some national authorities have shown renewed interest in excessive-pricing cases, most notably in the pharmaceutical sector.

European competition law also penalizes so-called “margin squeeze” abuses, in which a dominant upstream supplier charges a price to distributors that is too high for them to compete effectively with that same dominant firm downstream:

[I]t is for the referring court to examine, in essence, whether the pricing practice introduced by TeliaSonera is unfair in so far as it squeezes the margins of its competitors on the retail market for broadband connection services to end users. (Konkurrensverket v TeliaSonera Sverige, 2011)

As Scalia observed in Trinko, forcing firms to charge prices that are below a market’s natural equilibrium affects firms’ incentives to enter markets, notably with innovative products and more efficient means of production. But the problem is not just one of market entry and innovation.  Also relevant is the degree to which competition authorities are competent to determine the “right” prices or margins.

As Friedrich Hayek demonstrated in his influential 1945 essay The Use of Knowledge in Society, economic agents use information gleaned from prices to guide their business decisions. It is this distributed activity of thousands or millions of economic actors that enables markets to put resources to their most valuable uses, thereby leading to more efficient societies. By comparison, the efforts of central regulators to set prices and margins is necessarily inferior; there is simply no reasonable way for competition regulators to make such judgments in a consistent and reliable manner.

Given the substantial risk that investigations into purportedly excessive prices will deter market entry, such investigations should be circumscribed. But the court’s precedents, with their myopic focus on ex post prices, do not impose such constraints on the commission. The temptation to “correct” high prices—especially in the politically contentious pharmaceutical industry—may thus induce economically unjustified and ultimately deleterious intervention.

Predatory Pricing

A second important area of divergence concerns predatory-pricing cases. U.S. antitrust law subjects allegations of predatory pricing to two strict conditions:

  1. Monopolists must charge prices that are below some measure of their incremental costs; and
  2. There must be a realistic prospect that they will able to recoup these initial losses.

In laying out its approach to predatory pricing, the U.S. Supreme Court has identified the risk of false positives and the clear cost of such errors to consumers. It thus has particularly stressed the importance of the recoupment requirement. As the court found in 1993’s Brooke Group Ltd. v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., without recoupment, “predatory pricing produces lower aggregate prices in the market, and consumer welfare is enhanced.”

Accordingly, U.S. authorities must prove that there are constraints that prevent rival firms from entering the market after the predation scheme, or that the scheme itself would effectively foreclose rivals from entering the market in the first place. Otherwise, the predator would be undercut by competitors as soon as it attempts to recoup its losses by charging supra-competitive prices.

Without the strong likelihood that a monopolist will be able to recoup lost revenue from underpricing, the overwhelming weight of economic evidence (to say nothing of simple logic) is that predatory pricing is not a rational business strategy. Thus, apparent cases of predatory pricing are most likely not, in fact, predatory; deterring or punishing them would actually harm consumers.

By contrast, the EU employs a more expansive legal standard to define predatory pricing, and almost certainly risks injuring consumers as a result. Authorities must prove only that a company has charged a price below its average variable cost, in which case its behavior is presumed to be predatory. Even when a firm charges prices that are between its average variable and average total cost, it can be found guilty of predatory pricing if authorities show that its behavior was part of a plan to eliminate a competitor. Most significantly, in neither case is it necessary for authorities to show that the scheme would allow the monopolist to recoup its losses.

[I]t does not follow from the case‑law of the Court that proof of the possibility of recoupment of losses suffered by the application, by an undertaking in a dominant position, of prices lower than a certain level of costs constitutes a necessary precondition to establishing that such a pricing policy is abusive. (France Télécom v Commission, 2009).

This aspect of the legal standard has no basis in economic theory or evidence—not even in the “strategic” economic theory that arguably challenges the dominant Chicago School understanding of predatory pricing. Indeed, strategic predatory pricing still requires some form of recoupment, and the refutation of any convincing business justification offered in response. For example, ​​in a 2017 piece for the Antitrust Law Journal, Steven Salop lays out the “raising rivals’ costs” analysis of predation and notes that recoupment still occurs, just at the same time as predation:

[T]he anticompetitive conditional pricing practice does not involve discrete predatory and recoupment periods, as in the case of classical predatory pricing. Instead, the recoupment occurs simultaneously with the conduct. This is because the monopolist is able to maintain its current monopoly power through the exclusionary conduct.

The case of predatory pricing illustrates a crucial distinction between European and American competition law. The recoupment requirement embodied in American antitrust law serves to differentiate aggressive pricing behavior that improves consumer welfare—because it leads to overall price decreases—from predatory pricing that reduces welfare with higher prices. It is, in other words, entirely focused on the welfare of consumers.

The European approach, by contrast, reflects structuralist considerations far removed from a concern for consumer welfare. Its underlying fear is that dominant companies could use aggressive pricing to engender more concentrated markets. It is simply presumed that these more concentrated markets are invariably detrimental to consumers. Both the Tetra Pak and France Télécom cases offer clear illustrations of the ECJ’s reasoning on this point:

[I]t would not be appropriate, in the circumstances of the present case, to require in addition proof that Tetra Pak had a realistic chance of recouping its losses. It must be possible to penalize predatory pricing whenever there is a risk that competitors will be eliminated… The aim pursued, which is to maintain undistorted competition, rules out waiting until such a strategy leads to the actual elimination of competitors. (Tetra Pak v Commission, 1996).

Similarly:

[T]he lack of any possibility of recoupment of losses is not sufficient to prevent the undertaking concerned reinforcing its dominant position, in particular, following the withdrawal from the market of one or a number of its competitors, so that the degree of competition existing on the market, already weakened precisely because of the presence of the undertaking concerned, is further reduced and customers suffer loss as a result of the limitation of the choices available to them.  (France Télécom v Commission, 2009).

In short, the European approach leaves less room to analyze the concrete effects of a given pricing scheme, leaving it more prone to false positives than the U.S. standard explicated in the Brooke Group decision. Worse still, the European approach ignores not only the benefits that consumers may derive from lower prices, but also the chilling effect that broad predatory pricing standards may exert on firms that would otherwise seek to use aggressive pricing schemes to attract consumers.

Refusals to Deal

U.S. and EU antitrust law also differ greatly when it comes to refusals to deal. While the United States has limited the ability of either enforcement authorities or rivals to bring such cases, EU competition law sets a far lower threshold for liability.

As Justice Scalia wrote in Trinko:

Aspen Skiing is at or near the outer boundary of §2 liability. The Court there found significance in the defendant’s decision to cease participation in a cooperative venture. The unilateral termination of a voluntary (and thus presumably profitable) course of dealing suggested a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve an anticompetitive end. (Verizon v Trinko, 2003.)

This highlights two key features of American antitrust law with regard to refusals to deal. To start, U.S. antitrust law generally does not apply the “essential facilities” doctrine. Accordingly, in the absence of exceptional facts, upstream monopolists are rarely required to supply their product to downstream rivals, even if that supply is “essential” for effective competition in the downstream market. Moreover, as Justice Scalia observed in Trinko, the Aspen Skiing case appears to concern only those limited instances where a firm’s refusal to deal stems from the termination of a preexisting and profitable business relationship.

While even this is not likely the economically appropriate limitation on liability, its impetus—ensuring that liability is found only in situations where procompetitive explanations for the challenged conduct are unlikely—is completely appropriate for a regime concerned with minimizing the cost to consumers of erroneous enforcement decisions.

As in most areas of antitrust policy, EU competition law is much more interventionist. Refusals to deal are a central theme of EU enforcement efforts, and there is a relatively low threshold for liability.

In theory, for a refusal to deal to infringe EU competition law, it must meet a set of fairly stringent conditions: the input must be indispensable, the refusal must eliminate all competition in the downstream market, and there must not be objective reasons that justify the refusal. Moreover, if the refusal to deal involves intellectual property, it must also prevent the appearance of a new good.

In practice, however, all of these conditions have been relaxed significantly by EU courts and the commission’s decisional practice. This is best evidenced by the lower court’s Microsoft ruling where, as John Vickers notes:

[T]he Court found easily in favor of the Commission on the IMS Health criteria, which it interpreted surprisingly elastically, and without relying on the special factors emphasized by the Commission. For example, to meet the “new product” condition it was unnecessary to identify a particular new product… thwarted by the refusal to supply but sufficient merely to show limitation of technical development in terms of less incentive for competitors to innovate.

EU competition law thus shows far less concern for its potential chilling effect on firms’ investments than does U.S. antitrust law.

Vertical Restraints

There are vast differences between U.S. and EU competition law relating to vertical restraints—that is, contractual restraints between firms that operate at different levels of the production process.

On the one hand, since the Supreme Court’s Leegin ruling in 2006, even price-related vertical restraints (such as resale price maintenance (RPM), under which a manufacturer can stipulate the prices at which retailers must sell its products) are assessed under the rule of reason in the United States. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that, in practice, U.S. case law on RPM almost amounts to per se legality.

Conversely, EU competition law treats RPM as severely as it treats cartels. Both RPM and cartels are considered to be restrictions of competition “by object”—the EU’s equivalent of a per se prohibition. This severe treatment also applies to non-price vertical restraints that tend to partition the European internal market.

Furthermore, in the Consten and Grundig ruling, the ECJ rejected the consequentialist, and economically grounded, principle that inter-brand competition is the appropriate framework to assess vertical restraints:

Although competition between producers is generally more noticeable than that between distributors of products of the same make, it does not thereby follow that an agreement tending to restrict the latter kind of competition should escape the prohibition of Article 85(1) merely because it might increase the former. (Consten SARL & Grundig-Verkaufs-GMBH v. Commission of the European Economic Community, 1966).

This treatment of vertical restrictions flies in the face of longstanding mainstream economic analysis of the subject. As Patrick Rey and Jean Tirole conclude:

Another major contribution of the earlier literature on vertical restraints is to have shown that per se illegality of such restraints has no economic foundations.

Unlike the EU, the U.S. Supreme Court in Leegin took account of the weight of the economic literature, and changed its approach to RPM to ensure that the law no longer simply precluded its arguable consumer benefits, writing: “Though each side of the debate can find sources to support its position, it suffices to say here that economics literature is replete with procompetitive justifications for a manufacturer’s use of resale price maintenance.” Further, the court found that the prior approach to resale price maintenance restraints “hinders competition and consumer welfare because manufacturers are forced to engage in second-best alternatives and because consumers are required to shoulder the increased expense of the inferior practices.”

The EU’s continued per se treatment of RPM, by contrast, strongly reflects its “precautionary principle” approach to antitrust. European regulators and courts readily condemn conduct that could conceivably injure consumers, even where such injury is, according to the best economic understanding, exceedingly unlikely. The U.S. approach, which rests on likelihood rather than mere possibility, is far less likely to condemn beneficial conduct erroneously.

Political Discretion in European Competition Law

EU competition law lacks a coherent analytical framework like that found in U.S. law’s reliance on the consumer welfare standard. The EU process is driven by a number of laterally equivalent—and sometimes mutually exclusive—goals, including industrial policy and the perceived need to counteract foreign state ownership and subsidies. Such a wide array of conflicting aims produces lack of clarity for firms seeking to conduct business. Moreover, the discretion that attends this fluid arrangement of goals yields an even larger problem.

The Microsoft case illustrates this problem well. In Microsoft, the commission could have chosen to base its decision on various potential objectives. It notably chose to base its findings on the fact that Microsoft’s behavior reduced “consumer choice.”

The commission, in fact, discounted arguments that economic efficiency may lead to consumer welfare gains, because it determined “consumer choice” among media players was more important:

Another argument relating to reduced transaction costs consists in saying that the economies made by a tied sale of two products saves resources otherwise spent for maintaining a separate distribution system for the second product. These economies would then be passed on to customers who could save costs related to a second purchasing act, including selection and installation of the product. Irrespective of the accuracy of the assumption that distributive efficiency gains are necessarily passed on to consumers, such savings cannot possibly outweigh the distortion of competition in this case. This is because distribution costs in software licensing are insignificant; a copy of a software programme can be duplicated and distributed at no substantial effort. In contrast, the importance of consumer choice and innovation regarding applications such as media players is high. (Commission Decision No. COMP. 37792 (Microsoft)).

It may be true that tying the products in question was unnecessary. But merely dismissing this decision because distribution costs are near-zero is hardly an analytically satisfactory response. There are many more costs involved in creating and distributing complementary software than those associated with hosting and downloading. The commission also simply asserts that consumer choice among some arbitrary number of competing products is necessarily a benefit. This, too, is not necessarily true, and the decision’s implication that any marginal increase in choice is more valuable than any gains from product design or innovation is analytically incoherent.

The Court of First Instance was only too happy to give the commission a pass in its breezy analysis; it saw no objection to these findings. With little substantive reasoning to support its findings, the court fully endorsed the commission’s assessment:

As the Commission correctly observes (see paragraph 1130 above), by such an argument Microsoft is in fact claiming that the integration of Windows Media Player in Windows and the marketing of Windows in that form alone lead to the de facto standardisation of the Windows Media Player platform, which has beneficial effects on the market. Although, generally, standardisation may effectively present certain advantages, it cannot be allowed to be imposed unilaterally by an undertaking in a dominant position by means of tying.

The Court further notes that it cannot be ruled out that third parties will not want the de facto standardisation advocated by Microsoft but will prefer it if different platforms continue to compete, on the ground that that will stimulate innovation between the various platforms. (Microsoft Corp. v Commission, 2007)

Pointing to these conflicting effects of Microsoft’s bundling decision, without weighing either, is a weak basis to uphold the commission’s decision that consumer choice outweighs the benefits of standardization. Moreover, actions undertaken by other firms to enhance consumer choice at the expense of standardization are, on these terms, potentially just as problematic. The dividing line becomes solely which theory the commission prefers to pursue.

What such a practice does is vest the commission with immense discretionary power. Any given case sets up a “heads, I win; tails, you lose” situation in which defendants are easily outflanked by a commission that can change the rules of its analysis as it sees fit. Defendants can play only the cards that they are dealt. Accordingly, Microsoft could not successfully challenge a conclusion that its behavior harmed consumers’ choice by arguing that it improved consumer welfare, on net.

By selecting, in this instance, “consumer choice” as the standard to be judged, the commission was able to evade the constraints that might have been imposed by a more robust welfare standard. Thus, the commission can essentially pick and choose the objectives that best serve its interests in each case. This vastly enlarges the scope of potential antitrust liability, while also substantially decreasing the ability of firms to predict when their behavior may be viewed as problematic. It leads to what, in U.S. courts, would be regarded as an untenable risk of false positives that chill innovative behavior and create nearly unwinnable battles for targeted firms.

Over the past decade and a half, virtually every branch of the federal government has taken steps to weaken the patent system. As reflected in President Joe Biden’s July 2021 executive order, these restraints on patent enforcement are now being coupled with antitrust policies that, in large part, adopt a “big is bad” approach in place of decades of economically grounded case law and agency guidelines.

This policy bundle is nothing new. It largely replicates the innovation policies pursued during the late New Deal and the postwar decades. That historical experience suggests that a “weak-patent/strong-antitrust” approach is likely to encourage neither innovation nor competition.

The Overlooked Shortfalls of New Deal Innovation Policy

Starting in the early 1930s, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a sequence of decisions that raised obstacles to patent enforcement. The Franklin Roosevelt administration sought to take this policy a step further, advocating compulsory licensing for all patents. While Congress did not adopt this proposal, it was partially implemented as a de facto matter through antitrust enforcement. Starting in the early 1940s and continuing throughout the postwar decades, the antitrust agencies secured judicial precedents that treated a broad range of licensing practices as per se illegal. Perhaps most dramatically, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) secured more than 100 compulsory licensing orders against some of the nation’s largest companies. 

The rationale behind these policies was straightforward. By compelling access to incumbents’ patented technologies, courts and regulators would lower barriers to entry and competition would intensify. The postwar economy declined to comply with policymakers’ expectations. Implementation of a weak-IP/strong-antitrust innovation policy over the course of four decades yielded the opposite of its intended outcome. 

Market concentration did not diminish, turnover in market leadership was slow, and private research and development (R&D) was confined mostly to the research labs of the largest corporations (who often relied on generous infusions of federal defense funding). These tendencies are illustrated by the dramatically unequal allocation of innovation capital in the postwar economy.  As of the late 1950s, small firms represented approximately 7% of all private U.S. R&D expenditures.  Two decades later, that figure had fallen even further. By the late 1970s, patenting rates had plunged, and entrepreneurship and innovation were in a state of widely lamented decline.

Why Weak IP Raises Entry Costs and Promotes Concentration

The decline in entrepreneurial innovation under a weak-IP regime was not accidental. Rather, this outcome can be derived logically from the economics of information markets.

Without secure IP rights to establish exclusivity, engage securely with business partners, and deter imitators, potential innovator-entrepreneurs had little hope to obtain funding from investors. In contrast, incumbents could fund R&D internally (or with federal funds that flowed mostly to the largest computing, communications, and aerospace firms) and, even under a weak-IP regime, were protected by difficult-to-match production and distribution efficiencies. As a result, R&D mostly took place inside the closed ecosystems maintained by incumbents such as AT&T, IBM, and GE.

Paradoxically, the antitrust campaign against patent “monopolies” most likely raised entry barriers and promoted industry concentration by removing a critical tool that smaller firms might have used to challenge incumbents that could outperform on every competitive parameter except innovation. While the large corporate labs of the postwar era are rightly credited with technological breakthroughs, incumbents such as AT&T were often slow in transforming breakthroughs in basic research into commercially viable products and services for consumers. Without an immediate competitive threat, there was no rush to do so. 

Back to the Future: Innovation Policy in the New New Deal

Policymakers are now at work reassembling almost the exact same policy bundle that ended in the innovation malaise of the 1970s, accompanied by a similar reliance on public R&D funding disbursed through administrative processes. However well-intentioned, these processes are inherently exposed to political distortions that are absent in an innovation environment that relies mostly on private R&D funding governed by price signals. 

This policy bundle has emerged incrementally since approximately the mid-2000s, through a sequence of complementary actions by every branch of the federal government.

  • In 2011, Congress enacted the America Invents Act, which enables any party to challenge the validity of an issued patent through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB). Since PTAB’s establishment, large information-technology companies that advocated for the act have been among the leading challengers.
  • In May 2021, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) declared its support for a worldwide suspension of IP protections over Covid-19-related innovations (rather than adopting the more nuanced approach of preserving patent protections and expanding funding to accelerate vaccine distribution).  
  • President Biden’s July 2021 executive order states that “the Attorney General and the Secretary of Commerce are encouraged to consider whether to revise their position on the intersection of the intellectual property and antitrust laws, including by considering whether to revise the Policy Statement on Remedies for Standard-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments.” This suggests that the administration has already determined to retract or significantly modify the 2019 joint policy statement in which the DOJ, USPTO, and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) had rejected the view that standard-essential patent owners posed a high risk of patent holdup, which would therefore justify special limitations on enforcement and licensing activities.

The history of U.S. technology markets and policies casts great doubt on the wisdom of this weak-IP policy trajectory. The repeated devaluation of IP rights is likely to be a “lose-lose” approach that does little to promote competition, while endangering the incentive and transactional structures that sustain robust innovation ecosystems. A weak-IP regime is particularly likely to disadvantage smaller firms in biotech, medical devices, and certain information-technology segments that rely on patents to secure funding from venture capital and to partner with larger firms that can accelerate progress toward market release. The BioNTech/Pfizer alliance in the production and distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine illustrates how patents can enable such partnerships to accelerate market release.  

The innovative contribution of BioNTech is hardly a one-off occurrence. The restoration of robust patent protection in the early 1980s was followed by a sharp increase in the percentage of private R&D expenditures attributable to small firms, which jumped from about 5% as of 1980 to 21% by 1992. This contrasts sharply with the unequal allocation of R&D activities during the postwar period.

Remarkably, the resurgence of small-firm innovation following the strong-IP policy shift, starting in the late 20th century, mimics tendencies observed during the late 19th and early-20th centuries, when U.S. courts provided a hospitable venue for patent enforcement; there were few antitrust constraints on licensing activities; and innovation was often led by small firms in partnership with outside investors. This historical pattern, encompassing more than a century of U.S. technology markets, strongly suggests that strengthening IP rights tends to yield a policy “win-win” that bolsters both innovative and competitive intensity. 

An Alternate Path: ‘Bottom-Up’ Innovation Policy

To be clear, the alternative to the policy bundle of weak-IP/strong antitrust does not consist of a simple reversion to blind enforcement of patents and lax administration of the antitrust laws. A nuanced innovation policy would couple modern antitrust’s commitment to evidence-based enforcement—which, in particular cases, supports vigorous intervention—with a renewed commitment to protecting IP rights for innovator-entrepreneurs. That would promote competition from the “bottom up” by bolstering maverick innovators who are well-positioned to challenge (or sometimes partner with) incumbents and maintaining the self-starting engine of creative disruption that has repeatedly driven entrepreneurial innovation environments. Tellingly, technology incumbents have often been among the leading advocates for limiting patent and copyright protections.  

Advocates of a weak-patent/strong-antitrust policy believe it will enhance competitive and innovative intensity in technology markets. History suggests that this combination is likely to produce the opposite outcome.  

Jonathan M. Barnett is the Torrey H. Webb Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law. This post is based on the author’s recent publications, Innovators, Firms, and Markets: The Organizational Logic of Intellectual Property (Oxford University Press 2021) and “The Great Patent Grab,” in Battles Over Patents: History and the Politics of Innovation (eds. Stephen H. Haber and Naomi R. Lamoreaux, Oxford University Press 2021).