Going Back to Antitrust Basics

Jonathan M. Barnett —  1 July 2021 — Leave a comment

Advocates of legislative action to “reform” antitrust law have already pointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s dismissal of the state attorneys general’s case and the “conditional” dismissal of the Federal Trade Commission’s case against Facebook as evidence that federal antitrust case law is lax and demands correction. In fact, the court’s decisions support the opposite implication. 

The Risks of Antitrust by Anecdote

The failure of a well-resourced federal regulator, and more than 45 state attorney-general offices, to avoid dismissal at an early stage of the litigation testifies to the dangers posed by a conclusory approach toward antitrust enforcement that seeks to unravel acquisitions consummated almost a decade ago without even demonstrating the factual predicates to support consideration of such far-reaching interventions. The dangers to the rule of law are self-evident. Irrespective of one’s views on the appropriate direction of antitrust law, this shortcut approach would substitute prosecutorial fiat, ideological predilection, and popular sentiment for decades of case law and agency guidelines grounded in the rigorous consideration of potential evidence of competitive harm. 

The paucity of empirical support for the exceptional remedial action sought by the FTC is notable. As the district court observed, there was little systematic effort made to define the economically relevant market or provide objective evidence of market power, beyond the assertion that Facebook has a market share of “in excess of 60%.” Remarkably, the denominator behind that 60%-plus assertion is not precisely defined, since the FTC’s brief does not supply any clear metric by which to measure market share. As the court pointed out, this is a nontrivial task in multi-sided environments in which one side of the potentially relevant market delivers services to users at no charge.  

While the point may seem uncontroversial, it is important to re-appreciate why insisting on a rigorous demonstration of market power is critical to preserving a coherent body of law that provides the market with a basis for reasonably anticipating the likelihood of antitrust intervention. At least since the late 1970s, courts have recognized that “big is not always bad” and can often yield cost savings that ultimately redound to consumers’ benefit. That is: firm size and consumer welfare do not stand in inherent opposition. If courts were to abandon safeguards against suits that cannot sufficiently define the relevant market and plausibly show market power, antitrust litigation could easily be used as a tool to punish successful firms that prevail over competitors simply by being more efficient. In other words: antitrust law could become a tool to preserve competitor welfare at the expense of consumer welfare.

The Specter of No-Fault Antitrust Liability

The absence of any specific demonstration of market power suggests deficient lawyering or the inability to gather supporting evidence. Giving the FTC litigation team the benefit of the doubt, the latter becomes the stronger possibility. If that is the case, this implies an effort to persuade courts to adopt a de facto rule of per se illegality for any firm that achieves a certain market share. (The same concept lies behind legislative proposals to bar acquisitions for firms that cross a certain revenue or market capitalization threshold.) Effectively, any firm that reached a certain size would operate under the presumption that it has market power and has secured or maintained such power due to anticompetitive practices, rather than business prowess. This would effectively convert leading digital platforms into quasi-public utilities subject to continuous regulatory intervention. Such an approach runs counter to antitrust law’s mission to preserve, rather than displace, private ordering by market forces.  

Even at the high-water point of post-World War II antitrust zealotry (a period that ultimately ended in economic malaise), proposals to adopt a rule of no-fault liability for alleged monopolization were rejected. This was for good reason. Any such rule would likely injure consumers by precluding them from enjoying the cost savings that result from the “sweet spot” scenario in which the scale and scope economies of large firms are combined with sufficiently competitive conditions to yield reduced prices and increased convenience for consumers. Additionally, any such rule would eliminate incumbents’ incentives to work harder to offer consumers reduced prices and increased convenience, since any market share preserved or acquired as a result would simply invite antitrust scrutiny as a reward.

Remembering Why Market Power Matters

To be clear, this is not to say that “Big Tech” does not deserve close antitrust scrutiny, does not wield market power in certain segments, or has not potentially engaged in anticompetitive practices.  The fundamental point is that assertions of market power and anticompetitive conduct must be demonstrated, rather than being assumed or “proved” based largely on suggestive anecdotes.  

Perhaps market power will be shown sufficiently in Facebook’s case if the FTC elects to respond to the court’s invitation to resubmit its brief with a plausible definition of the relevant market and indication of market power at this stage of the litigation. If that threshold is satisfied, then thorough consideration of the allegedly anticompetitive effect of Facebook’s WhatsApp and Instagram acquisitions may be merited. However, given the policy interest in preserving the market’s confidence in relying on the merger-review process under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act, the burden of proof on the government should be appropriately enhanced to reflect the significant time that has elapsed since regulatory decisions not to intervene in those transactions.  

It would once have seemed mundane to reiterate that market power must be reasonably demonstrated to support a monopolization claim that could lead to a major divestiture remedy. Given the populist thinking that now leads much of the legislative and regulatory discussion on antitrust policy, it is imperative to reiterate the rationale behind this elementary principle. 

This principle reflects the fact that, outside collusion scenarios, antitrust law is typically engaged in a complex exercise to balance the advantages of scale against the risks of anticompetitive conduct. At its best, antitrust law weighs competing facts in a good faith effort to assess the net competitive harm posed by a particular practice. While this exercise can be challenging in digital markets that naturally converge upon a handful of leading platforms or multi-dimensional markets that can have offsetting pro- and anti-competitive effects, these are not reasons to treat such an exercise as an anachronistic nuisance. Antitrust cases are inherently challenging and proposed reforms to make them easier to win are likely to endanger, rather than preserve, competitive markets.

Jonathan M. Barnett

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Jonathan M. Barnett is the Torrey H. Webb Professor of Law at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law.

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