Breaking Down the American Choice and Innovation Online Act

Sam Bowman —  1 September 2021 — Leave a comment

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.

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