Critics of big tech companies like Google and Amazon are increasingly focused on the supposed evils of “self-preferencing.” This refers to when digital platforms like Amazon Marketplace or Google Search, which connect competing services with potential customers or users, also offer (and sometimes prioritize) their own in-house products and services.
The objection, raised by several members and witnesses during a Feb. 25 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, is that it is unfair to third parties that use those sites to allow the site’s owner special competitive advantages. Is it fair, for example, for Amazon to use the data it gathers from its service to design new products if third-party merchants can’t access the same data? This seemingly intuitive complaint was the basis for the European Commission’s landmark case against Google.
But we cannot assume that something is bad for competition just because it is bad for certain competitors. A lot of unambiguously procompetitive behavior, like cutting prices, also tends to make life difficult for competitors. The same is true when a digital platform provides a service that is better than alternatives provided by the site’s third-party sellers.
It’s probably true that Amazon’s access to customer search and purchase data can help it spot products it can undercut with its own versions, driving down prices. But that’s not unusual; most retailers do this, many to a much greater extent than Amazon. For example, you can buy AmazonBasics batteries for less than half the price of branded alternatives, and they’re pretty good.
There’s no doubt this is unpleasant for merchants that have to compete with these offerings. But it is also no different from having to compete with more efficient rivals who have lower costs or better insight into consumer demand. Copying products and seeking ways to offer them with better features or at a lower price, which critics of self-preferencing highlight as a particular concern, has always been a fundamental part of market competition—indeed, it is the primary way competition occurs in most markets.
Store-branded versions of iPhone cables and Nespresso pods are certainly inconvenient for those companies, but they offer consumers cheaper alternatives. Where such copying may be problematic (say, by deterring investments in product innovations), the law awards and enforces patents and copyrights to reward novel discoveries and creative works, and trademarks to protect brand identity. But in the absence of those cases where a company has intellectual property, this is simply how competition works.
The fundamental question is “what benefits consumers?” Services like Yelp object that they cannot compete with Google when Google embeds its Google Maps box in Google Search results, while Yelp cannot do the same. But for users, the Maps box adds valuable information to the results page, making it easier to get what they want. Google is not making Yelp worse by making its own product better. Should it have to refrain from offering services that benefit its users because doing so might make competing products comparatively less attractive?
Self-preferencing also enables platforms to promote their offerings in other markets, which is often how large tech companies compete with each other. Amazon has a photo-hosting app that competes with Google Photos and Apple’s iCloud. It recently emailed its customers to promote it. That is undoubtedly self-preferencing, since other services cannot market themselves to Amazon’s customers like this, but if it makes customers aware of an alternative they might not have otherwise considered, that is good for competition.
This kind of behavior also allows companies to invest in offering services inexpensively, or for free, that they intend to monetize by preferencing their other, more profitable products. For example, Google invests in Android’s operating system and gives much of it away for free precisely because it can encourage Android customers to use the profitable Google Search service. Despite claims to the contrary, it is difficult to see this sort of cross-subsidy as harmful to consumers.
Self-preferencing can even be good for competing services, including third-party merchants. In many cases, it expands the size of their potential customer base. For example, blockbuster video games released by Sony and Microsoft increase demand for games by other publishers because they increase the total number of people who buy Playstations and Xboxes. This effect is clear on Amazon’s Marketplace, which has grown enormously for third-party merchants even as Amazon has increased the number of its own store-brand products on the site. By making the Amazon Marketplace more attractive, third-party sellers also benefit.
All platforms are open or closed to varying degrees. Retail “platforms,” for example, exist on a spectrum on which Craigslist is more open and neutral than eBay, which is more so than Amazon, which is itself relatively more so than, say, Walmart.com. Each position on this spectrum offers its own benefits and trade-offs for consumers. Indeed, some customers’ biggest complaint against Amazon is that it is too open, filled with third parties who leave fake reviews, offer counterfeit products, or have shoddy returns policies. Part of the role of the site is to try to correct those problems by making better rules, excluding certain sellers, or just by offering similar options directly.
Regulators and legislators often act as if the more open and neutral, the better, but customers have repeatedly shown that they often prefer less open, less neutral options. And critics of self-preferencing frequently find themselves arguing against behavior that improves consumer outcomes, because it hurts competitors. But that is the nature of competition: what’s good for consumers is frequently bad for competitors. If we have to choose, it’s consumers who should always come first.