AICOA Is Neither Urgently Needed Nor Good: A Response to Professors Scott Morton, Salop, and Dinielli

Thom Lambert —  25 July 2022 — 1 Comment

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Earlier this month, Professors Fiona Scott Morton, Steve Salop, and David Dinielli penned a letter expressing their “strong support” for the proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA). In the letter, the professors address criticisms of AICOA and urge its approval, despite possible imperfections.

“Perhaps this bill could be made better if we lived in a perfect world,” the professors write, “[b]ut we believe the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, especially when change is so urgently needed.”

The problem is that the professors and other supporters of AICOA have shown neither that “change is so urgently needed” nor that the proposed law is, in fact, “good.”

Is Change ‘Urgently Needed’?

With respect to the purported urgency that warrants passage of a concededly imperfect bill, the letter authors assert two points. First, they claim that AICOA’s targets—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft (collectively, GAFAM)—“serve as the essential gatekeepers of economic, social, and political activity on the internet.” It is thus appropriate, they say, to amend the antitrust laws to do something they have never before done: saddle a handful of identified firms with special regulatory duties.

But is this oft-repeated claim about “gatekeeper” status true? The label conjures up the old Terminal Railroad case, where a group of firms controlled the only bridges over the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Freighters had no choice but to utilize their services. Do the GAFAM firms really play a similar role with respect to “economic, social, and political activity on the internet”? Hardly.

With respect to economic activity, Amazon may be a huge player, but it still accounts for only 39.5% of U.S. ecommerce sales—and far less of retail sales overall. Consumers have gobs of other ecommerce options, and so do third-party merchants, which may sell their wares using Shopify, Ebay, Walmart, Etsy, numerous other ecommerce platforms, or their own websites.

For social activity on the internet, consumers need not rely on Facebook and Instagram. They can connect with others via Snapchat, Reddit, Pinterest, TikTok, Twitter, and scores of other sites. To be sure, all these services have different niches, but the letter authors’ claim that the GAFAM firms are “essential gatekeepers” of “social… activity on the internet” is spurious.

Nor are the firms singled out by AICOA essential gatekeepers of “political activity on the internet.” The proposed law touches neither Twitter, the primary hub of political activity on the internet, nor TikTok, which is increasingly used for political messaging.

The second argument the letter authors assert in support of their claim of urgency is that “[t]he decline of antitrust enforcement in the U.S. is well known, pervasive, and has left our jurisprudence unable to protect and maintain competitive markets.” In other words, contemporary antitrust standards are anemic and have led to a lack of market competition in the United States.

The evidence for this claim, which is increasingly parroted in the press and among the punditry, is weak. Proponents primarily point to studies showing:

  1. increasing industrial concentration;
  2. higher markups on goods and services since 1980;
  3. a declining share of surplus going to labor, which could indicate monopsony power in labor markets; and
  4. a reduction in startup activity, suggesting diminished innovation. 

Examined closely, however, those studies fail to establish a domestic market power crisis.

Industrial concentration has little to do with market power in actual markets. Indeed, research suggests that, while industries may be consolidating at the national level, competition at the market (local) level is increasing, as more efficient national firms open more competitive outlets in local markets. As Geoff Manne sums up this research:

Most recently, several working papers looking at the data on concentration in detail and attempting to identify the likely cause for the observed data, show precisely the opposite relationship. The reason for increased concentration appears to be technological, not anticompetitive. And, as might be expected from that cause, its effects are beneficial. Indeed, the story is both intuitive and positive.

What’s more, while national concentration does appear to be increasing in some sectors of the economy, it’s not actually so clear that the same is true for local concentration — which is often the relevant antitrust market.

With respect to the evidence on markups, the claim of a significant increase in the price-cost margin depends crucially on the measure of cost. The studies suggesting an increase in margins since 1980 use the “cost of goods sold” (COGS) metric, which excludes a firm’s management and marketing costs—both of which have become an increasingly significant portion of firms’ costs. Measuring costs using the “operating expenses” (OPEX) metric, which includes management and marketing costs, reveals that public-company markups increased only modestly since the 1980s and that the increase was within historical variation. (It is also likely that increased markups since 1980 reflect firms’ more extensive use of technology and their greater regulatory burdens, both of which raise fixed costs and require higher markups over marginal cost.)

As for the declining labor share, that dynamic is occurring globally. Indeed, the decline in the labor share in the United States has been less severe than in Japan, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, China, Mexico, and Poland, suggesting that anemic U.S. antitrust enforcement is not to blame. (A reduction in the relative productivity of labor is a more likely culprit.)

Finally, the claim of reduced startup activity is unfounded. In its report on competition in digital markets, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee asserted that, since the advent of the major digital platforms:

  1. “[t]he number of new technology firms in the digital economy has declined”;
  2. “the entrepreneurship rate—the share of startups and young firms in the [high technology] industry as a whole—has also fallen significantly”; and
  3. “[u]nsurprisingly, there has also been a sharp reduction in early-stage funding for technology startups.” (pp. 46-47.)

Those claims, however, are based on cherry-picked evidence.

In support of the first two, the Judiciary Committee report cited a study based on data ending in 2011. As Benedict Evans has observed, “standard industry data shows that startup investment rounds have actually risen at least 4x since then.”

In support of the third claim, the report cited statistics from an article noting that the number and aggregate size of the very smallest venture capital deals—those under $1 million—fell between 2014 and 2018 (after growing substantially from 2008 to 2014). The Judiciary Committee report failed to note, however, the cited article’s observation that small venture deals ($1 million to $5 million) had not dropped and that larger venture deals (greater than $5 million) had grown substantially during the same time period. Nor did the report acknowledge that venture-capital funding has continued to increase since 2018.

Finally, there is also reason to think that AICOA’s passage would harm, not help, the startup environment:

AICOA doesn’t directly restrict startup acquisitions, but the activities it would restrict most certainly do dramatically affect the incentives that drive many startup acquisitions. If a platform is prohibited from engaging in cross-platform integration of acquired technologies, or if it can’t monetize its purchase by prioritizing its own technology, it may lose the motivation to make a purchase in the first place.

Despite the letter authors’ claims, neither a paucity of avenues for “economic, social, and political activity on the internet” nor the general state of market competition in the United States establishes an “urgent need” to re-write the antitrust laws to saddle a small group of firms with unprecedented legal obligations.

Is the Vagueness of AICOA’s Primary Legal Standard a Feature?

AICOA bars covered platforms from engaging in three broad classes of conduct (self-preferencing, discrimination among business users, and limiting business users’ ability to compete) where the behavior at issue would “materially harm competition.” It then forbids several specific business practices, but allows the defendant to avoid liability by proving that their use of the practice would not cause a “material harm to competition.”

Critics have argued that “material harm to competition”—a standard that is not used elsewhere in the antitrust laws—is too indeterminate to provide business planners and adjudicators with adequate guidance. The authors of the pro-AICOA letter, however, maintain that this “different language is a feature, not a bug.”

That is so, the letter authors say, because the language effectively signals to courts and policymakers that antitrust should prohibit more conduct. They explain:

To clarify to courts and policymakers that Congress wants something different (and stronger), new terminology is required. The bill’s language would open up a new space and move beyond the standards imposed by the Sherman Act, which has not effectively policed digital platforms.

Putting aside the weakness of the letter authors’ premise (i.e., that Sherman Act standards have proven ineffective), the legislative strategy they advocate—obliquely signal that you want “change” without saying what it should consist of—is irresponsible and risky.

The letter authors assert two reasons Congress should not worry about enacting a liability standard that has no settled meaning. One is that:

[t]he same judges who are called upon to render decisions under the existing, insufficient, antitrust regime, will also be called upon to render decisions under the new law. They will be the same people with the same worldview.

It is thus unlikely that “outcomes under the new law would veer drastically away from past understandings of core concepts….”

But this claim undermines the argument that a new standard is needed to get the courts to do “something different” and “move beyond the standards imposed by the Sherman Act.” If we don’t need to worry about an adverse outcome from a novel, ill-defined standard because courts are just going to continue applying the standard they’re familiar with, then what’s the point of changing the standard?

A second reason not to worry about the lack of clarity on AICOA’s key liability standard, the letter authors say, is that federal enforcers will define it:

The new law would mandate that the [Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice], the two expert agencies in the area of competition, together create guidelines to help courts interpret the law. Any uncertainty about the meaning of words like ‘competition’ will be resolved in those guidelines and over time with the development of caselaw.

This is no doubt music to the ears of members of Congress, who love to get credit for “doing something” legislatively, while leaving the details to an agency so that they can avoid accountability if things turn out poorly. Indeed, the letter authors explicitly play upon legislators’ unwholesome desire for credit-sans-accountability. They emphasize that “[t]he agencies must [create and] update the guidelines periodically. Congress doesn’t have to do much of anything very specific other than approve budgets; it certainly has no obligation to enact any new laws, let alone amend them.”

AICOA does not, however, confer rulemaking authority on the agencies; it merely directs them to create and periodically update “agency enforcement guidelines” and “agency interpretations” of certain affirmative defenses. Those guidelines and interpretations would not bind courts, which would be free to interpret AICOA’s new standard differently. The letter authors presume that courts would defer to the agencies’ interpretation of the vague standard, and they probably would. But that raises other problems.

For one thing, it reduces certainty, which is likely to chill innovation. Giving the enforcement agencies de facto power to determine and redetermine what behaviors “would materially harm competition” means that the rules are never settled. Administrations differ markedly in their views about what the antitrust laws should forbid, so business planners could never be certain that a product feature or revenue model that is legal today will not be deemed to “materially harm competition” by a future administration with greater solicitude for small rivals and upstarts. Such uncertainty will hinder investment in novel products, services, and business models.

Consider, for example, Google’s investment in the Android mobile operating system. Google makes money from Android—which it licenses to device manufacturers for free—by ensuring that Google’s revenue-generating services (e.g., its search engine and browser) are strongly preferenced on Android products. One administration might believe that this is a procompetitive arrangement, as it creates a different revenue model for mobile operating systems (as opposed to Apple’s generation of revenue from hardware sales), resulting in both increased choice and lower prices for consumers. A subsequent administration might conclude that the arrangement materially harms competition by making it harder for rival search engines and web browsers to gain market share. It would make scant sense for a covered platform to make an investment like Google did with Android if its underlying business model could be upended by a new administration with de facto power to rewrite the law.

A second problem with having the enforcement agencies determine and redetermine what covered platforms may do is that it effectively transforms the agencies from law enforcers into sectoral regulators. Indeed, the letter authors agree that “the ability of expert agencies to incorporate additional protections in the guidelines” means that “the bill is not a pure antitrust law but also safeguards other benefits to consumers.” They tout that “the complementarity between consumer protection and competition can be addressed in the guidelines.”

Of course, to the extent that the enforcement guidelines address concerns besides competition, they will be less useful for interpreting AICOA’s “material harm to competition” standard; they might deem a practice suspect on non-competition grounds. Moreover, it is questionable whether creating a sectoral regulator for five widely diverse firms is a good idea. The history of sectoral regulation is littered with examples of agency capture, rent-seeking, and other public-choice concerns. At a minimum, Congress should carefully examine the potential downsides of sectoral regulation, install protections to mitigate those downsides, and explicitly establish the sectoral regulator.

Will AICOA Break Popular Products and Services?

Many popular offerings by the platforms covered by AICOA involve self-preferencing, discrimination among business users, or one of the other behaviors the bill presumptively bans. Pre-installation of iPhone apps and services like Siri, for example, involves self-preferencing or discrimination among business users of Apple’s iOS platform. But iPhone consumers value having a mobile device that offers extensive services right out of the box. Consumers love that Google’s search result for an establishment offers directions to the place, which involves the preferencing of Google Maps. And consumers positively adore Amazon Prime, which can provide free expedited delivery because Amazon conditions Prime designation on a third-party seller’s use of Amazon’s efficient, reliable “Fulfillment by Amazon” service—something Amazon could not do under AICOA.

The authors of the pro-AICOA letter insist that the law will not ban attractive product features like these. AICOA, they say:

provides a powerful defense that forecloses any thoughtful concern of this sort: conduct otherwise banned under the bill is permitted if it would ‘maintain or substantially enhance the core functionality of the covered platform.’

But the authors’ confidence that this affirmative defense will adequately protect popular offerings is misplaced. The defense is narrow and difficult to mount.

First, it immunizes only those behaviors that maintain or substantially enhance the “core” functionality of the covered platform. Courts would rightly interpret AICOA to give effect to that otherwise unnecessary word, which dictionaries define as “the central or most important part of something.” Accordingly, any self-preferencing, discrimination, or other presumptively illicit behavior that enhances a covered platform’s service but not its “central or most important” functions is not even a candidate for the defense.

Even if a covered platform could establish that a challenged practice would maintain or substantially enhance the platform’s core functionality, it would also have to prove that the conduct was “narrowly tailored” and “reasonably necessary” to achieve the desired end, and, for many behaviors, the “le[ast] discriminatory means” of doing so. That is a remarkably heavy burden, and it beggars belief to suppose that business planners considering novel offerings involving self-preferencing, discrimination, or some other presumptively illicit conduct would feel confident that they could make the required showing. It is likely, then, that AICOA would break existing products and services and discourage future innovation.

Of course, Congress could mitigate this concern by specifying that AICOA does not preclude certain things, such as pre-installed apps or consumer-friendly search results. But the legislation would then lose the support of the many interest groups who want the law to preclude various popular offerings that its text would now forbid. Unlike consumers, who are widely dispersed and difficult to organize, the groups and competitors that would benefit from things like stripped-down smartphones, map-free search results, and Prime-less Amazon are effective lobbyists.

Should the US Follow Europe?

Having responded to criticisms of AICOA, the authors of the pro-AICOA letter go on offense. They assert that enactment of the bill is needed to ensure that the United States doesn’t lose ground to Europe, both in regulatory leadership and in innovation. Observing that the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) has just become law, the authors write that:

[w]ithout [AICOA], the role of protecting competition and innovation in the digital sector outside China will be left primarily to the European Union, abrogating U.S. leadership in this sector.

Moreover, if Europe implements its DMA and the United States does not adopt AICOA, the authors claim:

the center of gravity for innovation and entrepreneurship [could] shift from the U.S. to Europe, where the DMA would offer greater protections to start ups and app developers, and even makers and artisans, against exclusionary conduct by the gatekeeper platforms.

Implicit in the argument that AICOA is needed to maintain America’s regulatory leadership is the assumption that to lead in regulatory policy is to have the most restrictive rules. The most restrictive regulator will necessarily be the “leader” in the sense that it will be the one with the most control over regulated firms. But leading in the sense of optimizing outcomes and thereby serving as a model for other jurisdictions entails crafting the best policies—those that minimize the aggregate social losses from wrongly permitting bad behavior, wrongly condemning good behavior, and determining whether conduct is allowed or forbidden (i.e., those that “minimize the sum of error and decision costs”). Rarely is the most restrictive regulatory regime the one that optimizes outcomes, and as I have elsewhere explained, the rules set forth in the DMA hardly seem calibrated to do so.

As for “innovation and entrepreneurship” in the technological arena, it would be a seismic shift indeed if the center of gravity were to migrate to Europe, which is currently home to zero of the top 20 global tech companies. (The United States hosts 12; China, eight.)

It seems implausible, though, that imposing a bunch of restrictions on large tech companies that have significant resources for innovation and are scrambling to enter each other’s markets will enhance, rather than retard, innovation. The self-preferencing bans in AICOA and DMA, for example, would prevent Apple from developing its own search engine to compete with Google, as it has apparently contemplated. Why would Apple develop its own search engine if it couldn’t preference it on iPhones and iPads? And why would Google have started its shopping service to compete with Amazon if it couldn’t preference Google Shopping in search results? And why would any platform continually improve to gain more users as it neared the thresholds for enhanced duties under DMA or AICOA? It seems more likely that the DMA/AICOA approach will hinder, rather than spur, innovation.

At the very least, wouldn’t it be prudent to wait and see whether DMA leads to a flourishing of innovation and entrepreneurship in Europe before jumping on the European bandwagon? After all, technological innovations that occur in Europe won’t be available only to Europeans. Just as Europeans benefit from innovation by U.S. firms, American consumers will be able to reap the benefits of any DMA-inspired innovation occurring in Europe. Moreover, if DMA indeed furthers innovation by making it easier for entrants to gain footing, even American technology firms could benefit from the law by launching their products in Europe. There’s no reason for the tech sector to move to Europe to take advantage of a small-business-protective European law.

In fact, the optimal outcome might be to have one jurisdiction in which major tech platforms are free to innovate, enter each other’s markets via self-preferencing, etc. (the United States, under current law) and another that is more protective of upstart businesses that use the platforms (Europe under DMA). The former jurisdiction would create favorable conditions for platform innovation and inter-platform competition; the latter might enhance innovation among businesses that rely on the platforms. Consumers in each jurisdiction, however, would benefit from innovation facilitated by the other.

It makes little sense, then, for the United States to rush to adopt European-style regulation. DMA is a radical experiment. Regulatory history suggests that the sort of restrictiveness it imposes retards, rather than furthers, innovation. But in the unlikely event that things turn out differently this time, little harm would result from waiting to see DMA’s benefits before implementing its restrictive approach. 

Does AICOA Threaten Platforms’ Ability to Moderate Content and Police Disinformation?

The authors of the pro-AICOA letter conclude by addressing the concern that AICOA “will inadvertently make content moderation difficult because some of the prohibitions could be read… to cover and therefore prohibit some varieties of content moderation” by covered platforms.

The letter authors say that a reading of AICOA to prohibit content moderation is “strained.” They maintain that the act’s requirement of “competitive harm” would prevent imposition of liability based on content moderation and that the act is “plainly not intended to cover” instances of “purported censorship.” They further contend that the risk of judicial misconstrual exists with all proposed laws and therefore should not be a sufficient reason to oppose AICOA.

Each of these points is weak. Section 3(a)(3) of AICOA makes it unlawful for a covered platform to “discriminate in the application or enforcement of the terms of service of the covered platform among similarly situated business users in a manner that would materially harm competition.” It is hardly “strained” to reason that this provision is violated when, say, Google’s YouTube selectively demonetizes a business user for content that Google deems harmful or misleading. Or when Apple removes Parler, but not every other violator of service terms, from its App Store. Such conduct could “materially harm competition” by impeding the de-platformed business’ ability to compete with its rivals.

And it is hard to say that AICOA is “plainly not intended” to forbid these acts when a key supporting senator touted the bill as a means of policing content moderation and observed during markup that it would “make some positive improvement on the problem of censorship” (i.e., content moderation) because “it would provide protections to content providers, to businesses that are discriminated against because of the content of what they produce.”

At a minimum, we should expect some state attorneys general to try to use the law to police content moderation they disfavor, and the mere prospect of such legal action could chill anti-disinformation efforts and other forms of content moderation.

Of course, there’s a simple way for Congress to eliminate the risk of what the letter authors deem judicial misconstrual: It could clarify that AICOA’s prohibitions do not cover good-faith efforts to moderate content or police disinformation. Such clarification, however, would kill the bill, as several Republican legislators are supporting the act because it restricts content moderation.

The risk of judicial misconstrual with AICOA, then, is not the sort that exists with “any law, new or old,” as the letter authors contend. “Normal” misconstrual risk exists when legislators try to be clear about their intentions but, because language has its limits, some vagueness or ambiguity persists. AICOA’s architects have deliberately obscured their intentions in order to cobble together enough supporters to get the bill across the finish line.

The one thing that all AICOA supporters can agree on is that they deserve credit for “doing something” about Big Tech. If the law is construed in a way they disfavor, they can always act shocked and blame rogue courts. That’s shoddy, cynical lawmaking.

Conclusion

So, I respectfully disagree with Professors Scott Morton, Salop, and Dinielli on AICOA. There is no urgent need to pass the bill right now, especially as we are on the cusp of seeing an AICOA-like regime put to the test. The bill’s central liability standard is overly vague, and its plain terms would break popular products and services and thwart future innovation. The United States should equate regulatory leadership with the best, not the most restrictive, policies. And Congress should thoroughly debate and clarify its intentions on content moderation before enacting legislation that could upend the status quo on that important matter.

For all these reasons, Congress should reject AICOA. And for the same reasons, a future in which AICOA is adopted is extremely unlikely to resemble the Utopian world that Professors Scott Morton, Salop, and Dinielli imagine.

Thom Lambert

Posts

I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.

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