How does antitrust measure nonprice effects like political bias?

Ben Sperry —  17 September 2020

In the latest congressional hearing, purportedly analyzing Google’s “stacking the deck” in the online advertising marketplace, much of the opening statement and questioning by Senator Mike Lee and later questioning by Senator Josh Hawley focused on an episode of alleged anti-conservative bias by Google in threatening to demonetize The Federalist, a conservative publisher, unless they exercised a greater degree of control over its comments section. The senators connected this to Google’s “dominance,” arguing that it is only because Google’s ad services are essential that Google can dictate terms to a conservative website. A similar impulse motivates Section 230 reform efforts as well: allegedly anti-conservative online platforms wield their dominance to censor conservative speech, either through deplatforming or demonetization.

Before even getting into the analysis of how to incorporate political bias into antitrust analysis, though, it should be noted that there likely is no viable antitrust remedy. Even aside from the Section 230 debate, online platforms like Google are First Amendment speakers who have editorial discretion over their sites and apps, much like newspapers. An antitrust remedy compelling these companies to carry speech they disagree with would almost certainly violate the First Amendment.

But even aside from the First Amendment aspect of this debate, there is no easy way to incorporate concerns about political bias into antitrust. Perhaps the best way to understand this argument in the antitrust sense is as a non-price effects analysis. 

Political bias could be seen by end consumers as an important aspect of product quality. Conservatives have made the case that not only Google, but also Facebook and Twitter, have discriminated against conservative voices. The argument would then follow that consumer welfare is harmed when these dominant platforms leverage their control of the social media marketplace into the marketplace of ideas by censoring voices with whom they disagree. 

While this has theoretical plausibility, there are real practical difficulties. As Geoffrey Manne and I have written previously, in the context of incorporating privacy into antitrust analysis:

The Horizontal Merger Guidelines have long recognized that anticompetitive effects may “be manifested in non-price terms and conditions that adversely affect customers.” But this notion, while largely unobjectionable in the abstract, still presents significant problems in actual application. 

First, product quality effects can be extremely difficult to distinguish from price effects. Quality-adjusted price is usually the touchstone by which antitrust regulators assess prices for competitive effects analysis. Disentangling (allegedly) anticompetitive quality effects from simultaneous (neutral or pro-competitive) price effects is an imprecise exercise, at best. For this reason, proving a product-quality case alone is very difficult and requires connecting the degradation of a particular element of product quality to a net gain in advantage for the monopolist. 

Second, invariably product quality can be measured on more than one dimension. For instance, product quality could include both function and aesthetics: A watch’s quality lies in both its ability to tell time as well as how nice it looks on your wrist. A non-price effects analysis involving product quality across multiple dimensions becomes exceedingly difficult if there is a tradeoff in consumer welfare between the dimensions. Thus, for example, a smaller watch battery may improve its aesthetics, but also reduce its reliability. Any such analysis would necessarily involve a complex and imprecise comparison of the relative magnitudes of harm/benefit to consumers who prefer one type of quality to another.

Just as with privacy and other product qualities, the analysis becomes increasingly complex first when tradeoffs between price and quality are introduced, and then even more so when tradeoffs between what different consumer groups perceive as quality is added. In fact, it is more complex than privacy. All but the most exhibitionistic would prefer more to less privacy, all other things being equal. But with political media consumption, most would prefer to have more of what they want to read available, even if it comes at the expense of what others may want. There is no easy way to understand what consumer welfare means in a situation where one group’s preferences need to come at the expense of another’s in moderation decisions.

Consider the case of The Federalist again. The allegation is that Google is imposing their anticonservative bias by “forcing” the website to clean up its comments section. The argument is that since The Federalist needs Google’s advertising money, it must play by Google’s rules. And since it did so, there is now one less avenue for conservative speech.

What this argument misses is the balance Google and other online services must strike as multi-sided platforms. The goal is to connect advertisers on one side of the platform, to the users on the other. If a site wants to take advantage of the ad network, it seems inevitable that intermediaries like Google will need to create rules about what can and can’t be shown or they run the risk of losing advertisers who don’t want to be associated with certain speech or conduct. For instance, most companies don’t want to be associated with racist commentary. Thus, they will take great pains to make sure they don’t sponsor or place ads in venues associated with racism. Online platforms connecting advertisers to potential consumers must take that into consideration.

Users, like those who frequent The Federalist, have unpriced access to content across those sites and apps which are part of ad networks like Google’s. Other models, like paid subscriptions (which The Federalist also has available), are also possible. But it isn’t clear that conservative voices or conservative consumers have been harmed overall by the option of unpriced access on one side of the platform, with advertisers paying on the other side. If anything, it seems the opposite is the case since conservatives long complained about legacy media having a bias and lauded the Internet as an opportunity to gain a foothold in the marketplace of ideas.

Online platforms like Google must balance the interests of users from across the political spectrum. If their moderation practices are too politically biased in one direction or another, users could switch to another online platform with one click or swipe. Assuming online platforms wish to maximize revenue, they will have a strong incentive to limit political bias from its moderation practices. The ease of switching to another platform which markets itself as more free speech-friendly, like Parler, shows entrepreneurs can take advantage of market opportunities if Google and other online platforms go too far with political bias. 

While one could perhaps argue that the major online platforms are colluding to keep out conservative voices, this is difficult to square with the different moderation practices each employs, as well as the data that suggests conservative voices are consistently among the most shared on Facebook

Antitrust is not a cure-all law. Conservatives who normally understand this need to reconsider whether antitrust is really well-suited for litigating concerns about anti-conservative bias online.