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By Pinar Akman, Professor of Law, University of Leeds*

The European Commission’s decision in Google Android cuts a fine line between punishing a company for its success and punishing a company for falling afoul of the rules of the game. Which side of the line it actually falls on cannot be fully understood until the Commission publishes its full decision. Much depends on the intricate facts of the case. As the full decision may take months to come, this post offers merely the author’s initial thoughts on the decision on the basis of the publicly available information.

The eye-watering fine of $5.1 billion — which together with the fine of $2.7 billion in the Google Shopping decision from last year would (according to one estimate) suffice to fund for almost one year the additional yearly public spending necessary to eradicate world hunger by 2030 — will not be further discussed in this post. This is because the fine is assumed to have been duly calculated on the basis of the Commission’s relevant Guidelines, and, from a legal and commercial point of view, the absolute size of the fine is not as important as the infringing conduct and the remedy Google will need to adopt to comply with the decision.

First things first. This post proceeds on the premise that the aim of competition law is to prevent the exclusion of competitors that are (at least) as efficient as the dominant incumbent, whose exclusion would ultimately harm consumers.

Next, it needs to be noted that the Google Android case is a more conventional antitrust case than Google Shopping in the sense that one can at least envisage a potentially robust antitrust theory of harm in the former case. If a dominant undertaking ties its products together to exclude effective competition in some of these markets or if it pays off customers to exclude access by its efficient competitors to consumers, competition law intervention may be justified.

The central question in Google Android is whether on the available facts this appears to have happened.

What we know and market definition

The premise of the case is that Google used its dominance in the Google Play Store (which enables users to download apps onto their Android phones) to “cement Google’s dominant position in general internet search.”

It is interesting that the case appears to concern a dominant undertaking leveraging its dominance from a market in which it is dominant (Google Play Store) into another market in which it is also dominant (internet search). As far as this author is aware, most (if not all?) cases of tying in the EU to date concerned tying where the dominant undertaking leveraged its dominance in one market to distort or eliminate competition in an otherwise competitive market.

Thus, for example, in Microsoft (Windows Operating System —> media players), Hilti (patented cartridge strips —> nails), and Tetra Pak II (packaging machines —> non-aseptic cartons), the tied market was actually or potentially competitive, and this was why the tying was alleged to have eliminated competition. It will be interesting to see which case the Commission uses as precedent in its decision — more on that later.

Also noteworthy is that the Commission does not appear to have defined a separate mobile search market that would have been competitive but for Google’s alleged leveraging. The market has been defined as the general internet search market. So, according to the Commission, the Google Search App and Google Search engine appear to be one and the same thing, and desktop and mobile devices are equivalent (or substitutable).

Finding mobile and desktop devices to be equivalent to one another may have implications for other cases including the ongoing appeal in Google Shopping where, for example, the Commission found that “[m]obile [apps] are not a viable alternative for replacing generic search traffic from Google’s general search results pages” for comparison shopping services. The argument that mobile apps and mobile traffic are fundamental in Google Android but trivial in Google Shopping may not play out favourably for the Commission before the Court of Justice of the EU.

Another interesting market definition point is that the Commission has found Apple not to be a competitor to Google in the relevant market defined by the Commission: the market for “licensable smart mobile operating systems.” Apple does not fall within that market because Apple does not license its mobile operating system to anyone: Apple’s model eliminates all possibility of competition from the start and is by definition exclusive.

Although there is some internal logic in the Commission’s exclusion of Apple from the upstream market that it has defined, is this not a bit of a definitional stop? How can Apple compete with Google in the market as defined by the Commission when Apple allows only itself to use its operating system only on devices that Apple itself manufactures?

To be fair, the Commission does consider there to be some competition between Apple and Android devices at the level of consumers — just not sufficient to constrain Google at the upstream, manufacturer level.

Nevertheless, the implication of the Commission’s assessment that separates the upstream and downstream in this way is akin to saying that the world’s two largest corn producers that produce the corn used to make corn flakes do not compete with one another in the market for corn flakes because one of them uses its corn exclusively in its own-brand cereal.

Although the Commission cabins the use of supply-side substitutability in market definition, its own guidance on the topic notes that

Supply-side substitutability may also be taken into account when defining markets in those situations in which its effects are equivalent to those of demand substitution in terms of effectiveness and immediacy. This means that suppliers are able to switch production to the relevant products and market them in the short term….

Apple could — presumably — rather immediately and at minimal cost produce and market a version of iOS for use on third-party device makers’ devices. By the Commission’s own definition, it would seem to make sense to include Apple in the relevant market. Nevertheless, it has apparently not done so here.

The message that the Commission sends with the finding is that if Android had not been open source and freely available, and if Google competed with Apple with its own version of a walled-garden built around exclusivity, it is possible that none of its practices would have raised any concerns. Or, should Apple be expecting a Statement of Objections next from the EU Commission?

Is Microsoft really the relevant precedent?

Given that Google Android appears to revolve around the idea of tying and leveraging, the EU Commission’s infringement decision against Microsoft, which found an abusive tie in Microsoft’s tying of Windows Operating System with Windows Media Player, appears to be the most obvious precedent, at least for the tying part of the case.

There are, however, potentially important factual differences between the two cases. To take just a few examples:

  • Microsoft charged for the Windows Operating System, whereas Google does not;
  • Microsoft tied the setting of Windows Media Player as the default to OEMs’ licensing of the operating system (Windows), whereas Google ties the setting of Search as the default to device makers’ use of other Google apps, while allowing them to use the operating system (Android) without any Google apps; and
  • Downloading competing media players was difficult due to download speeds and lack of user familiarity, whereas it is trivial and commonplace for users to download apps that compete with Google’s.

Moreover, there are also some conceptual hurdles in finding the conduct to be that of tying.

First, the difference between “pre-installed,” “default,” and “exclusive” matters a lot in establishing whether effective competition has been foreclosed. The Commission’s Press Release notes that to pre-install Google Play, manufacturers have to also pre-install Google Search App and Google Chrome. It also states that Google Search is the default search engine on Google Chrome. The Press Release does not indicate that Google Search App has to be the exclusive or default search app. (It is worth noting, however, that the Statement of Objections in Google Android did allege that Google violated EU competition rules by requiring Search to be installed as the default. We will have to await the decision itself to see if this was dropped from the case or simply not mentioned in the Press Release).

In fact, the fact that the other infringement found is that of Google’s making payments to manufacturers in return for exclusively pre-installing the Google Search App indirectly suggests that not every manufacturer pre-installs Google Search App as the exclusive, pre-installed search app. This means that any other search app (provider) can also (request to) be pre-installed on these devices. The same goes for the browser app.

Of course, regardless, even if the manufacturer does not pre-install competing apps, the consumer is free to download any other app — for search or browsing — as they wish, and can do so in seconds.

In short, pre-installation on its own does not necessarily foreclose competition, and thus may not constitute an illegal tie under EU competition law. This is particularly so when download speeds are fast (unlike the case at the time of Microsoft) and consumers regularly do download numerous apps.

What may, however, potentially foreclose effective competition is where a dominant undertaking makes payments to stop its customers, as a practical matter, from selling its rivals’ products. Intel, for example, was found to have abused its dominant position through payments to a computer retailer in return for its not selling computers with its competitor AMD’s chips, and to computer manufacturers in return for delaying the launch of computers with AMD chips.

In Google Android, the exclusivity provision that would require manufacturers to pre-install Google Search App exclusively in return for financial incentives may be deemed to be similar to this.

Having said that, unlike in Intel where a given computer can have a CPU from only one given manufacturer, even the exclusive pre-installation of the Google Search App would not have prevented consumers from downloading competing apps. So, again, in theory effective competition from other search apps need not have been foreclosed.

It must also be noted that just because a Google app is pre-installed does not mean that it generates any revenue to Google — consumers have to actually choose to use that app as opposed to another one that they might prefer in order for Google to earn any revenue from it. The Commission seems to place substantial weight on pre-installation which it alleges to create “a status quo bias.”

The concern with this approach is that it is not possible to know whether those consumers who do not download competing apps do so out of a preference for Google’s apps or, instead, for other reasons that might indicate competition not to be working. Indeed, one hurdle as regards conceptualising the infringement as tying is that it would require establishing that a significant number of phone users would actually prefer to use Google Play Store (the tying product) without Google Search App (the tied product).

This is because, according to the Commission’s Guidance Paper, establishing tying starts with identifying two distinct products, and

[t]wo products are distinct if, in the absence of tying or bundling, a substantial number of customers would purchase or would have purchased the tying product without also buying the tied product from the same supplier.

Thus, if a substantial number of customers would not want to use Google Play Store without also preferring to use Google Search App, this would cause a conceptual problem for making out a tying claim.

In fact, the conduct at issue in Google Android may be closer to a refusal to supply type of abuse.

Refusal to supply also seems to make more sense regarding the prevention of the development of Android forks being found to be an abuse. In this context, it will be interesting to see how the Commission overcomes the argument that Android forks can be developed freely and Google may have legitimate business reasons in wanting to associate its own, proprietary apps only with a certain, standardised-quality version of the operating system.

More importantly, the possible underlying theory in this part of the case is that the Google apps — and perhaps even the licensed version of Android — are a “must-have,” which is close to an argument that they are an essential facility in the context of Android phones. But that would indeed require a refusal to supply type of abuse to be established, which does not appear to be the case.

What will happen next?

To answer the question raised in the title of this post — whether the Google Android decision will benefit consumers — one needs to consider what Google may do in order to terminate the infringing conduct as required by the Commission, whilst also still generating revenue from Android.

This is because unbundling Google Play Store, Google Search App and Google Chrome (to allow manufacturers to pre-install Google Play Store without the latter two) will disrupt Google’s main revenue stream (i.e., ad revenue generated through the use of Google Search App or Google Search within the Chrome app) which funds the free operating system. This could lead Google to start charging for the operating system, and limiting to whom it licenses the operating system under the Commission’s required, less-restrictive terms.

As the Commission does not seem to think that Apple constrains Google when it comes to dealings with device manufacturers, in theory, Google should be able to charge up to the monopoly level licensing fee to device manufacturers. If that happens, the price of Android smartphones may go up. It is possible that there is a new competitor lurking in the woods that will grow and constrain that exercise of market power, but how this will all play out for consumers — as well as app developers who may face increasing costs due to the forking of Android — really remains to be seen.

 

* Pinar Akman is Professor of Law, Director of Centre for Business Law and Practice, University of Leeds, UK. This piece has not been commissioned or funded by any entity. The author has not been involved in the Google Android case in any capacity. In the past, the author wrote a piece on the Commission’s Google Shopping case, ‘The Theory of Abuse in Google Search: A Positive and Normative Assessment under EU Competition Law,’ supported by a research grant from Google. The author would like to thank Peter Whelan, Konstantinos Stylianou, and Geoffrey Manne for helpful comments. All errors remain her own. The author can be contacted here.

What happened

Today, following a six year investigation into Google’s business practices in India, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) issued its ruling.

Two things, in particular, are remarkable about the decision. First, while the CCI’s staff recommended a finding of liability on a litany of claims (the exact number is difficult to infer from the Commission’s decision, but it appears to be somewhere in the double digits), the Commission accepted its staff’s recommendation on only three — and two of those involve conduct no longer employed by Google.

Second, nothing in the Commission’s finding of liability or in the remedy it imposes suggests it approaches the issue as the EU does. To be sure, the CCI employs rhetoric suggesting that “search bias” can be anticompetitive. But its focus remains unwaveringly on the welfare of the consumer, not on the hyperbolic claims of Google’s competitors.

What didn’t happen

In finding liability on only a single claim involving ongoing practices — the claim arising from Google’s “unfair” placement of its specialized flight search (Google Flights) results — the Commission also roundly rejected a host of other claims (more than once with strong words directed at its staff for proposing such woefully unsupported arguments). Among these are several that have been raised (and unanimously rejected) by competition regulators elsewhere in the world. These claims related to a host of Google’s practices, including:

  • Search bias involving the treatment of specialized Google content (like Google Maps, YouTube, Google Reviews, etc.) other than Google Flights
  • Search bias involving the display of Universal Search results (including local search, news search, image search, etc.), except where these results are fixed to a specific position on every results page (as was the case in India before 2010), instead of being inserted wherever most appropriate in context
  • Search bias involving OneBox results (instant answers to certain queries that are placed at the top of search results pages), even where answers are drawn from Google’s own content and specific, licensed sources (rather than from crawling the web)
  • Search bias involving sponsored, vertical search results (e.g., Google Shopping results) other than Google Flights. These results are not determined by the same algorithm that returns organic results, but are instead more like typical paid search advertising results that sometimes appear at the top of search results pages. The Commission did find that Google’s treatment of its Google Flight results (another form of sponsored result) violated India’s competition laws
  • The operation of Google’s advertising platform (AdWords), including the use of a “Quality Score” in its determination of an ad’s relevance (something Josh Wright and I discuss at length here)
  • Google’s practice of allowing advertisers to bid on trademarked keywords
  • Restrictions placed by Google upon the portability of advertising campaign data to other advertising platforms through its AdWords API
  • Distribution agreements that set Google as the default (but not exclusive) search engine on certain browsers
  • Certain restrictions in syndication agreements with publishers (websites) through which Google provides search and/or advertising (Google’s AdSense offering). The Commission found that negotiated search agreements that require Google to be the exclusive search provider on certain sites did violate India’s competition laws. It should be noted, however, that Google has very few of these agreements, and no longer enters into them, so the finding is largely historical. All of the other assertions regarding these agreements (and there were numerous claims involving a number of clauses in a range of different agreements) were rejected by the Commission.

Just like competition authorities in the US, Canada, and Taiwan that have properly focused on consumer welfare in their Google investigations, the CCI found important consumer benefits from these practices that outweigh any inconveniences they may impose on competitors. And, just as in those jurisdictions, all of them were rejected by the Commission.

Still improperly assessing Google’s dominance

The biggest problem with the CCI’s decision is its acceptance — albeit moderated in important ways — of the notion that Google owes a special duty to competitors given its position as an alleged “gateway” to the Internet:

In the present case, since Google is the gateway to the internet for a vast majority of internet users, due to its dominance in the online web search market, it is under an obligation to discharge its special responsibility. As Google has the ability and the incentive to abuse its dominant position, its “special responsibility” is critical in ensuring not only the fairness of the online web search and search advertising markets, but also the fairness of all online markets given that these are primarily accessed through search engines. (para 202)

As I’ve discussed before, a proper analysis of the relevant markets in which Google operates would make clear that Google is beset by actual and potential competitors at every turn. Access to consumers by advertisers, competing search services, other competing services, mobile app developers, and the like is readily available. The lines between markets drawn by the CCI are based on superficial distinctions that are of little importance to the actual relevant market.

Consider, for example: Users seeking product information can get it via search, but also via Amazon and Facebook; advertisers can place ad copy and links in front of millions of people on search results pages, and they can also place them in front of millions of people on Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, many specialized search competitors like Yelp receive most of their traffic from direct navigation and from their mobile apps. In short, the assumption of market dominance made by the CCI (and so many others these days) is based on a stilted conception of the relevant market, as Google is far from the only channel through which competitors can reach consumers.

The importance of innovation in the CCI’s decision

Of course, it’s undeniable that Google is an important mechanism by which competitors reach consumers. And, crucially, nowhere did the CCI adopt Google’s critics’ and competitors’ frequently asserted position that Google is, in effect, an “essential facility” requiring extremely demanding limitations on its ability to control its product when doing so might impede its rivals.

So, while the CCI defines the relevant markets and adopts legal conclusions that confer special importance on Google’s operation of its general search results pages, it stops short of demanding that Google treat competitors on equal terms to its own offerings, as would typically be required of essential facilities (or their close cousin, public utilities).

Significantly, the Commission weighs the imposition of even these “special responsibilities” against the effects of such duties on innovation, particularly with respect to product design.

The CCI should be commended for recognizing that any obligation imposed by antitrust law on a dominant company to refrain from impeding its competitors’ access to markets must stop short of requiring the company to stop innovating, even when its product innovations might make life difficult for its competitors.

Of course, some product design choices can be, on net, anticompetitive. But innovation generally benefits consumers, and it should be impeded only where doing so clearly results in net consumer harm. Thus:

[T]he Commission is cognizant of the fact that any intervention in technology markets has to be carefully crafted lest it stifles innovation and denies consumers the benefits that such innovation can offer. This can have a detrimental effect on economic welfare and economic growth, particularly in countries relying on high growth such as India…. [P]roduct design is an important and integral dimension of competition and any undue intervention in designs of SERP [Search Engine Results Pages] may affect legitimate product improvements resulting in consumer harm. (paras 203-04).

As a consequence of this cautious approach, the CCI refused to accede to its staff’s findings of liability based on Google’s treatment of its vertical search results without considering how Google’s incorporation of these specialized results improved its product for consumers. Thus, for example:

The Commission is of opinion that requiring Google to show third-party maps may cause a delay in response time (“latency”) because these maps reside on third-party servers…. Further, requiring Google to show third-party maps may break the connection between Google’s local results and the map…. That being so, the Commission is of the view that no case of contravention of the provisions of the Act is made out in Google showing its own maps along with local search results. The Commission also holds that the same consideration would apply for not showing any other specialised result designs from third parties. (para 224 (emphasis added))

The CCI’s laudable and refreshing focus on consumer welfare

Even where the CCI determined that Google’s current practices violate India’s antitrust laws (essentially only with respect to Google Flights), it imposed a remedy that does not demand alteration of the overall structure of Google’s search results, nor its algorithmic placement of those results. In fact, the most telling indication that India’s treatment of product design innovation embodies a consumer-centric approach markedly different from that pushed by Google’s competitors (and adopted by the EU) is its remedy.

Following its finding that

[p]rominent display and placement of Commercial Flight Unit with link to Google’s specialised search options/ services (Flight) amounts to an unfair imposition upon users of search services as it deprives them of additional choices (para 420),

the CCI determined that the appropriate remedy for this defect was:

So far as the contravention noted by the Commission in respect of Flight Commercial Unit is concerned, the Commission directs Google to display a disclaimer in the commercial flight unit box indicating clearly that the “search flights” link placed at the bottom leads to Google’s Flights page, and not the results aggregated by any other third party service provider, so that users are not misled. (para 422 (emphasis added))

Indeed, what is most notable — and laudable — about the CCI’s decision is that both the alleged problem, as well as the proposed remedy, are laser-focused on the effect on consumers — not the welfare of competitors.

Where the EU’s recent Google Shopping decision considers that this sort of non-neutral presentation of Google search results harms competitors and demands equal treatment by Google of rivals seeking access to Google’s search results page, the CCI sees instead that non-neutral presentation of results could be confusing to consumers. It does not demand that Google open its doors to competitors, but rather that it more clearly identify when its product design prioritizes Google’s own content rather than determine priority based on its familiar organic search results algorithm.

This distinction is significant. For all the language in the decision asserting Google’s dominance and suggesting possible impediments to competition, the CCI does not, in fact, view Google’s design of its search results pages as a contrivance intended to exclude competitors from accessing markets.

The CCI’s remedy suggests that it has no problem with Google maintaining control over its search results pages and determining what results, and in what order, to serve to consumers. Its sole concern, rather, is that Google not get a leg up at the expense of consumers by misleading them into thinking that its product design is something that it is not.

Rather than dictate how Google should innovate or force it to perpetuate an outdated design in the name of preserving access by competitors bent on maintaining the status quo, the Commission embraces the consumer benefits of Google’s evolving products, and seeks to impose only a narrowly targeted tweak aimed directly at the quality of consumers’ interactions with Google’s products.

Conclusion

As some press accounts of the CCI’s decision trumpet, the Commission did impose liability on Google for abuse of a dominant position. But its similarity with the EU’s abuse of dominance finding ends there. The CCI rejected many more claims than it adopted, and it carefully tailored its remedy to the welfare of consumers, not the lamentations of competitors. Unlike the EU, the CCI’s finding of a violation is tempered by its concern for avoiding harmful constraints on innovation and product design, and its remedy makes this clear. Whatever the defects of India’s decision, it offers a welcome return to consumer-centric antitrust.

Today I published an article in The Daily Signal bemoaning the European Commission’s June 27 decision to fine Google $2.7 billion for engaging in procompetitive, consumer welfare-enhancing conduct.  The article is reproduced below (internal hyperlinks omitted), in italics:

On June 27, the European Commission—Europe’s antitrust enforcer—fined Google over $2.7 billion for a supposed violation of European antitrust law that bestowed benefits, not harm, on consumers.

And that’s just for starters. The commission is vigorously pursuing other antitrust investigations of Google that could lead to the imposition of billions of dollars in additional fines by European bureaucrats.

The legal outlook for Google is cloudy at best. Although the commission’s decisions can be appealed to European courts, European Commission bureaucrats have a generally good track record in winning before those tribunals.

But the problem is even bigger than that.

Recently, questionable antitrust probes have grown like topsy around the world, many of them aimed at America’s most creative high-tech firms. Beneficial innovations have become legal nightmares—good for defense lawyers, but bad for free market competition and the health of the American economy.

What great crime did Google commit to merit the huge European Commission fine?

The commission claims that Google favored its own comparison shopping service over others in displaying Google search results.

Never mind that consumers apparently like the shopping-related service links they find on Google (after all, they keep using its search engine in droves), or can patronize any other search engine or specialized comparison shopping service that can be found with a few clicks of the mouse.

This is akin to saying that Kroger or Walmart harm competition when they give favorable shelf space displays to their house brands. That’s ridiculous.

Somehow, such “favoritism” does not prevent consumers from flocking to those successful chains, or patronizing their competitors if they so choose. It is the essence of vigorous free market rivalry.  

The commission’s theory of anticompetitive behavior doesn’t hold water, as I explained in an earlier article. The Federal Trade Commission investigated Google’s search engine practices several years ago and found no evidence that alleged Google search engine display bias harmed consumers.

To the contrary, as former FTC Commissioner (and leading antitrust expert) Josh Wright has pointed out, and as the FTC found:

Google likely benefited consumers by prominently displaying its vertical content on its search results page. The Commission reached this conclusion based upon, among other things, analyses of actual consumer behavior—so-called ‘click through’ data—which showed how consumers reacted to Google’s promotion of its vertical properties.

In short, Google’s search policies benefit consumers. Antitrust is properly concerned with challenging business practices that harm consumer welfare and the overall competitive process, not with propping up particular competitors.

Absent a showing of actual harm to consumers, government antitrust cops—whether in Europe, the U.S., or elsewhere—should butt out.

Unfortunately, the European Commission shows no sign of heeding this commonsense advice. The Europeans have also charged Google with antitrust violations—with multibillion-dollar fines in the offing—based on the company’s promotion of its Android mobile operating service and its AdSense advertising service.

(That’s not all—other European Commission Google inquiries are also pending.)

As in the shopping services case, these investigations appear to be woefully short on evidence of harm to competition and consumer welfare.

The bigger question raised by the Google matters is the ability of any highly successful individual competitor to efficiently promote and favor its own offerings—something that has long been understood by American enforcers to be part and parcel of free-market competition.

As law Professor Michael Carrier points outs, any changes the EU forces on Google’s business model “could eventually apply to any way that Amazon, Facebook or anyone else offers to search for products or services.”

This is troublesome. Successful American information-age companies have already run afoul of the commission’s regulatory cops.

Microsoft and Intel absorbed multibillion-dollar European Commission antitrust fines in recent years, based on other theories of competitive harm. Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, among others, have faced European probes of their competitive practices and “privacy policies”—the terms under which they use or share sensitive information from consumers.

Often, these probes have been supported by less successful rivals who would rather rely on government intervention than competition on the merits.

Of course, being large and innovative is not a legal shield. Market-leading companies merit being investigated for actions that are truly harmful. The law applies equally to everyone.

But antitrust probes of efficient practices that confer great benefits on consumers (think how much the Google search engine makes it easier and cheaper to buy desired products and services and obtain useful information), based merely on the theory that some rivals may lose business, do not advance the free market. They retard it.

Who loses when zealous bureaucrats target efficient business practices by large, highly successful firms, as in the case of the European Commission’s Google probes and related investigations? The general public.

“Platform firms” like Google and Amazon that bring together consumers and other businesses will invest less in improving their search engines and other consumer-friendly features, for fear of being accused of undermining less successful competitors.

As a result, the supply of beneficial innovations will slow, and consumers will be less well off.

What’s more, competition will weaken, as the incentive to innovate to compete effectively with market leaders will be reduced. Regulation and government favor will substitute for welfare-enhancing improvement in goods, services, and platform quality. Economic vitality will inevitably be reduced, to the public’s detriment.

Europe is not the only place where American market leaders face unwarranted antitrust challenges.

For example, Qualcomm and InterDigital, U.S. firms that are leaders in smartphone communications technologies that power mobile interconnections, have faced large antitrust fines for, in essence, “charging too much” for licenses to their patented technologies.

South Korea also claimed to impose a “global remedy” that imposed its artificially low royalty rates on all of Qualcomm’s licensing agreements around the world.

(All this is part and parcel of foreign government attacks on American intellectual property—patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets—that cost U.S. innovators hundreds of billions of dollars a year.)

 

A lack of basic procedural fairness in certain foreign antitrust proceedings has also bedeviled American companies, preventing them from being able to defend their conduct. Foreign antitrust has sometimes been perverted into a form of “industrial policy” that discriminates against American companies in favor of domestic businesses.

What can be done to confront these problems?

In 2016, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce convened a group of trade and antitrust experts to examine the problem. In March 2017, the chamber released a report by the experts describing the nature of the problem and making specific recommendations for U.S. government action to deal with it.

Specifically, the experts urged that a White House-led interagency task force be set up to develop a strategy for dealing with unwarranted antitrust attacks on American businesses—including both misapplication of legal rules and violations of due process.

The report also called for the U.S. government to work through existing international institutions and trade negotiations to promote a convergence toward sounder antitrust practices worldwide.

The Trump administration should take heed of the experts’ report and act decisively to combat harmful foreign antitrust distortions. Antitrust policy worldwide should focus on helping the competitive process work more efficiently, not on distorting it by shacking successful innovators.

One more point, not mentioned in the article, merits being stressed.  Although the United States Government cannot control a foreign sovereign’s application of its competition law, it can engage in rhetoric and public advocacy aimed at convincing that sovereign to apply its law in a manner that promotes consumer welfare, competition on the merits, and economic efficiency.  Regrettably, the Obama Administration, particularly in the latter part of its second term, did a miserable job in promoting a facts-based, empirical approach to antitrust enforcement, centered on hard facts, not on mere speculative theories of harm.  In particular, certain political appointees lent lip service or silent acquiescence to inappropriate antitrust attacks on the unilateral exercise of intellectual property rights.  In addition, those senior officials made statements that could have been interpreted as supportive of populist “big is bad” conceptions of antitrust that had been discredited decades ago – through sound scholarship, by U.S. enforcement policies, and in judicial decisions.  The Trump Administration will have an opportunity to correct those errors, and to restore U.S. policy leadership in support of sound, pro-free market antitrust principles.  Let us hope that it does so, and soon.

The precise details underlying the European Commission’s (EC) April 15 Statement of Objections (SO), the EC’s equivalent of an antitrust complaint, against Google, centered on the company’s promotion of its comparison shopping service (CSS), “Google Shopping,” have not yet been made public.  Nevertheless, the EC’s fact sheet describing the theory of the case is most discouraging to anyone who believes in economically sound, consumer welfare-oriented antitrust enforcement.   Put simply, the SO alleges that Google is “abusing its dominant position” in online search services throughout Europe by systematically positioning and prominently displaying its CSS in its general search result pages, “irrespective of its merits,” causing the Google CSS to achieve higher rates of growth than CSSs promoted by rivals.  According to the EC, this behavior “has a negative impact on consumers and innovation”.  Why so?  Because this “means that users do not necessarily see the most relevant shopping results in response to their queries, and that incentives to innovate from rivals are lowered as they know that however good their product, they will not benefit from the same prominence as Google’s product.”  (Emphasis added.)  The EC’s proposed solution?  “Google should treat its own comparison shopping services and those of rivals in the same way.”

The EC’s latest action may represent only “the tip of a Google EC antitrust iceberg,” since the EC has stated that it is continuing to investigate other aspects of Google’s behavior, including Google agreements with respect to the Android operating system, plus “the favourable treatment by Google in its general search results of other specialised search services, and concerns with regard to copying of rivals’ web content (known as ‘scraping’), advertising exclusivity and undue restrictions on advertisers.”  For today, I focus on the tip, leaving consideration of the bulk of the iceberg to future commentaries, as warranted.  (Truth on the Market has addressed Google-related antitrust issues previously — see, for example, here, here, and here.)

The EC’s April 15 Google SO is troublesome in multiple ways.

First, the claim that Google does not “necessarily” array the most relevant search results in a manner desired by consumers appears to be in tension with the findings of an exhaustive U.S. antitrust investigation of the company.  As U.S. Federal Trade Commissioner Josh Wright pointed out in a recent speech, the FTC’s 2013 “closing statement [in its Google investigation] indicates that Google’s so-called search bias did not, in fact, harm consumers; to the contrary, the evidence suggested that ‘Google likely benefited consumers by prominently displaying its vertical content on its search results page.’  The Commission reached this conclusion based upon, among other things, analyses of actual consumer behavior – so-called ‘click through’ data – which showed how consumers reacted to Google’s promotion of its vertical properties.”

Second, even assuming that Google’s search engine practices have weakened competing CSSs, that would not justify EC enforcement action against Google.  As Commissioner Wright also explained, the FTC “accepted arguments made by competing websites that Google’s practices injured them and strengthened Google’s market position, but correctly found that these were not relevant considerations in a proper antitrust analysis focused upon consumer welfare rather than harm to competitors.”  The EC should keep this in mind, given that, as former EC Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia emphasized, “[c]onsumer welfare is not just a catchy phrase.  It is the cornerstone, the guiding principle of EU competition policy.”

Third, and perhaps most fundamentally, although EC disclaims an interest in “interfere[ing] with” Google’s search engine algorithm, dictating an “equal treatment of competitors” result implicitly would require intrusive micromanagement of Google’s search engine – a search engine which is at the heart of the company’s success and has bestowed enormous welfare benefits on consumers and producers alike.  There is no reason to believe that EC policing of EC CSS listings to promote an “equal protection of competitors” mandate would result in a search experience that better serves consumers than the current Google policy.  Consistent with this point, in its 2013 Google closing statement, the FTC observed that it lacked the ability to “second-guess” product improvements that plausibly benefit consumers, and it stressed that “condemning legitimate product improvements risks harming consumers.”

Fourth, competing CSSs have every incentive to inform consumers if they believe that Google search results are somehow “inferior” to their offerings.  They are free to advertise and publicize the merits of their services, and third party intermediaries that rate browsers may be expected to report if Google Shopping consistently offers suboptimal consumer services.  In short, “the word will get out.”  Even in the absence of perfect information, consumers can readily at low cost browse alternative CSSs to determine whether they prefer their services to Google’s – “help is only a click away.”

Fifth, the most likely outcome of an EC “victory” in this case would be a reduced incentive for Google to invest in improving its search engine, knowing that its ability to monetize search engine improvements could be compromised by future EC decisions to prevent an improved search engine from harming rivals.  What’s worse, other developers of service platforms and other innovative business improvements would similarly “get the message” that it would not be worth their while to innovate to the point of dominance, because their returns to such innovation would be constrained.  In sum, companies in a wide variety of sectors would have less of an incentive to innovate, and this in turn would lead to reduced welfare gains and benefits to consumers.  This would yield (as the EC’s fact sheet put it) “a negative impact on consumers and innovation”, because companies across industries operating in Europe would know that if their product were too good, they would attract the EC’s attention and be put in their place.  In other words, a successful EC intervention here could spawn the very welfare losses (magnified across sectors) that the Commission cited as justification for reining in Google in the first place!

Finally, it should come as no surprise that a coalition of purveyors of competing search engines and online shopping sites lobbied hard for EC antitrust action against Google.  When government intervenes heavily and often in markets to “correct” perceived “abuses,” private actors have a strong incentive to expend resources on achieving government actions that disadvantage their rivals – resources that could otherwise have been used to compete more vigorously and effectively.  In short, the very existence of expansive regulatory schemes disincentivizes competition on the merits, and in that regard tends to undermine welfare.  Government officials should keep that firmly in mind when private actors urge them to act decisively to “cure” marketplace imperfections by limiting a rival’s freedom of action.

Let us hope that the EC takes these concerns to heart before taking further action against Google.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the FTC Bureau of Competition staff report to the commissioners in the Google antitrust investigation recommended that the Commission approve an antitrust suit against the company.

While this is excellent fodder for a few hours of Twitter hysteria, it takes more than 140 characters to delve into the nuances of a 20-month federal investigation. And the bottom line is, frankly, pretty ho-hum.

As I said recently,

One of life’s unfortunate certainties, as predictable as death and taxes, is this: regulators regulate.

The Bureau of Competition staff is made up of professional lawyers — many of them litigators, whose existence is predicated on there being actual, you know, litigation. If you believe in human fallibility at all, you have to expect that, when they err, FTC staff errs on the side of too much, rather than too little, enforcement.

So is it shocking that the FTC staff might recommend that the Commission undertake what would undoubtedly have been one of the agency’s most significant antitrust cases? Hardly.

Nor is it surprising that the commissioners might not always agree with staff. In fact, staff recommendations are ignored all the time, for better or worse. Here are just a few examples: R.J Reynolds/Brown & Williamson merger, POM Wonderful , Home Shopping Network/QVC merger, cigarette advertising. No doubt there are many, many more.

Regardless, it also bears pointing out that the staff did not recommend the FTC bring suit on the central issue of search bias “because of the strong procompetitive justifications Google has set forth”:

Complainants allege that Google’s conduct is anticompetitive because if forecloses alternative search platforms that might operate to constrain Google’s dominance in search and search advertising. Although it is a close call, we do not recommend that the Commission issue a complaint against Google for this conduct.

But this caveat is enormous. To report this as the FTC staff recommending a case is seriously misleading. Here they are forbearing from bringing 99% of the case against Google, and recommending suit on the marginal 1% issues. It would be more accurate to say, “FTC staff recommends no case against Google, except on a couple of minor issues which will be immediately settled.”

And in fact it was on just these minor issues that Google agreed to voluntary commitments to curtail some conduct when the FTC announced it was not bringing suit against the company.

The Wall Street Journal quotes some other language from the staff report bolstering the conclusion that this is a complex market, the conduct at issue was ambiguous (at worst), and supporting the central recommendation not to sue:

We are faced with a set of facts that can most plausibly be accounted for by a narrative of mixed motives: one in which Google’s course of conduct was premised on its desire to innovate and to produce a high quality search product in the face of competition, blended with the desire to direct users to its own vertical offerings (instead of those of rivals) so as to increase its own revenues. Indeed, the evidence paints a complex portrait of a company working toward an overall goal of maintaining its market share by providing the best user experience, while simultaneously engaging in tactics that resulted in harm to many vertical competitors, and likely helped to entrench Google’s monopoly power over search and search advertising.

On a global level, the record will permit Google to show substantial innovation, intense competition from Microsoft and others, and speculative long-run harm.

This is exactly when you want antitrust enforcers to forbear. Predicting anticompetitive effects is difficult, and conduct that could be problematic is simultaneously potentially vigorous competition.

That the staff concluded that some of what Google was doing “harmed competitors” isn’t surprising — there were lots of competitors parading through the FTC on a daily basis claiming Google harmed them. But antitrust is about protecting consumers, not competitors. Far more important is the staff finding of “substantial innovation, intense competition from Microsoft and others, and speculative long-run harm.”

Indeed, the combination of “substantial innovation,” “intense competition from Microsoft and others,” and “Google’s strong procompetitive justifications” suggests a well-functioning market. It similarly suggests an antitrust case that the FTC would likely have lost. The FTC’s litigators should probably be grateful that the commissioners had the good sense to vote to close the investigation.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal also reports that the FTC’s Bureau of Economics simultaneously recommended that the Commission not bring suit at all against Google. It is not uncommon for the lawyers and the economists at the Commission to disagree. And as a general (though not inviolable) rule, we should be happy when the Commissioners side with the economists.

While the press, professional Google critics, and the company’s competitors may want to make this sound like a big deal, the actual facts of the case and a pretty simple error-cost analysis suggests that not bringing a case was the correct course.

Geoffrey A. Manne is the President & Founder at the International Center for Law & Economics. Kristian Stout is the Associate Director of Innovation Policy at the International Center for Law & Economics.

The submissions in this symposium thus far highlight, in different ways, what must be considered the key lesson of the Amazon/Whole Foods merger: It has brought about immense and largely unforeseen (in its particulars, at least) competition — and that competition has been remarkably successful in driving innovations that will likely bring immense benefits to consumers and the economy as a whole.

Both before and after the merger was announced, claims of the coming retail apocalypse — the demise of brick-and-mortar retail at Amazon’s hands — were legion. Grocery stores were just the next notch on Amazon’s belt, and a stepping stone to world domination.

What actually happened in the year following the merger is nearly the opposite: Competition among grocery stores has been more fierce than ever. “Offline” retailers are expanding — and innovating — to meet Amazon’s challenge, and many of them are booming. Disruption is never neat and tidy, but, in addition to saving Whole Foods from potential oblivion, the merger seems to have lit a fire under the rest of the industry.

This result should not be surprising to anyone who understands the nature of the competitive process. But it does highlight an important lesson: competition often comes from unexpected quarters and evolves in unpredictable ways, emerging precisely out of the kinds of adversity opponents of the merger bemoaned. Even when critics were right about some of the potential effects of the merger (lower prices, for example), they were absolutely wrong about the allegedly disastrous consequences they claimed would result.

Of course, one must always be careful drawing lessons from limited data, and a year is not very long in the scheme of things — and certainly not in the grand (and fascinating) history of the grocery store. But the signs thus far are remarkably telling.

Change is the rule in the retail grocery industry (as in every other competitive market)

The ultimate consequences of the Amazon/Whole Foods merger won’t be known for quite some time. Nor will it follow the exact same patterns as previous retail disruptions. Yet there will undoubtedly be some commonality, as there has been in the past. Among other things, the history of the grocery business is intimately tied up with the history of A&P, as William Ruhlman recounts in his fascinating book, Grocery, and as Tim Muris and Jon Nuechterlein discuss, focusing on the antitrust angle, in their article, Antitrust in the Internet Era: The Legacy of United States v. A&P. The main takeaway from that saga is, as Muris & Nuechterlein write, that:

Increasingly integrated and efficient retailers — first A&P, then “big box” brick-and-mortar stores, and now online retailers — have challenged traditional retail models by offering consumers lower prices and greater convenience. For decades, critics on the right and left have reacted to such disruption by urging Congress, the courts, and the enforcement agencies to stop these American success stories by revising antitrust doctrine to protect small businesses rather than the interests of consumers. Using antitrust law to punish pro-competitive behavior makes no more sense today than it did when the government attacked A&P for cutting consumers too good a deal on groceries.

Just as Amazon is feared today, and Walmart was reviled in the 90s and 2000s, A&P was loathed in the first half of the twentieth century for its role in decimating small business. A&P grew to the size it did — at one point the largest retailer in the world — by driving down both costs and prices. That is to say, just as Walmart and Amazon do, A&P discovered the waste in the distribution and retailing system and found ways to better deliver goods and services to consumers on their own terms.

For all the hand wringing (and, of course, antitrust action) surrounding grocery stores in the past (including the misguided FTC action challenging the Whole Foods/Wild Oats merger in 2007), history has demonstrated that the grocery industry is constantly evolving toward better methods of distribution that meet customers’ idiosyncratic — and likewise evolving — preferences. Frequently, this has led to well-established methods of retailing being abandoned, as when the model of having separate vendors for meat, baked goods, dry goods, etc., gave way to the first centralized supermarkets.

What we are witnessing now — and what Amazon/Whole Foods is really emblematic of — is yet another growth spurt in the industry, one where consumer demand for both a high degree of convenience (e.g., same-day delivery) is coupled with the ability to provision fresh, unique goods (e.g., organic, locally-sourced, etc).

But… is this time different — because, you know, Amazon?

Notwithstanding some advocates’ preference for treating digital and analog retailing as distinct “markets,” what’s really happening in the brick-and-mortar world is that retailers understand that, in terms of reaching customers, there is only one “retail” market.

Traditionally offline retailers, like Walmart and Target, as well as supermarkets like Kroger and Giant, were among the landrush to integrate tech-startup, on-demand technologies following the close of the merger. At the same time, online stalwarts have emerged as surprise players in the once staid grocery market. Google, most important among them, has been establishing partnerships with offline retailers in order to provide the digital interfaces to facilitate the online marketing and on-demand delivery needs of the traditionally offline companies.

All of this activity may have been spurred on by the merger, but it is part and parcel of the age-old competitive process — efforts by industry to try to anticipate how consumers, competitors, and… everyone else will behave going forward, and to capture more of the market when they do.

Moreover, it is exemplary of the nature of the grocery industry’s particular evolution, and, although, again, the merger may have served as a proximate trigger for the flurry of activity, the integration of offline and online retailing was basically an inevitability given the development of commerce and technology over the last two decades.

Whatever the very long-term consequences of the merger (and Steve Horwitz, among others, has suggested one plausible consequence: the “hollowing out” of the traditional supermarket, leaving fresh and prepared foods behind in stores and moving dry goods and housewares online), the short-term consequences seem extremely telling.

In short, the death of brick-and-mortar retail is, as Dirk Auer put it (beating us to the punch), greatly exaggerated.

For all the talk of retail dying, the stores that are actually dying are the ones that fail to cater to their customers, not the ones that happen to be offline. In fact, as one article puts it:

Right now, there are at least a dozen new companies in the midst of opening hundreds of new retail stores. And why are they doing this? Because the stores they currently have are making money hand over fist.

You’ve probably heard some of the names: Allbirds, Casper, Birchbox, Boll & Branch. According to real-estate data company CoStar Group, these online-first stores have increased their retail space tenfold over the last five years. Warby Parker is averaging $3,000 per square foot of retail space, which is almost as good as Tiffany’s (!). (Emphasis added)

For every failing Sears store (the chain closed some 250 Sears and Kmart stores in 2017), there are several other retail outlets opening: Last year some 4,000 more retail stores opened than closed.

The same thing is happening in grocery, as well. It’s not that all brick-and-mortar groceries are shuttering; it’s that the un-dynamic, unsuccessful ones are. That’s not a cause for concern; it’s a cause for celebration. As the author of a February 2018 industry analysis notes:

“Retailers die but retail does not,” Cook said about the ongoing evolution in the grocery space. “There’s just churn as retailers are either disrupted by new business models, or they go out of fashion.”

* * *

The most successful grocers today have well-known private labels, fresh food at affordable prices and digital platforms that allow for shopping online, Cook said.

“We’ve got two types of classes in grocery right now: One is about offering the best goods at the lowest prices — it’s a price play that’s targeted at the families in America shopping on a budget, so someone like Aldi is a part of that,” he said. “Another avenue of success is offering a great shopping experience to shoppers who aren’t as price sensitive — those leaders are Whole Foods and Wegmans.” (Emphasis added)

Competition through innovation — and not just online, and not just by Amazon

To be sure, the rise of e-commerce has put pressure on offline retail’s old business models, and it has required it to stake out its comparative advantage, offering services and “experiences” that online retailers can’t easily match.

But the fundamental market reality brought on by the Internet, the emergence of e-commerce, and the blossoming of Amazon in particular is expanded competition. Lackluster retail outlets, particularly in small or remote towns — the ones that some neo-Brandeisians want to preserve at all costs — could, at one time, coast on the protection afforded by geographic isolation (a protection that has, of course, long been under assault by Walmart). But e-commerce can reach everywhere a delivery service can reach, which is to say everywhere — and you don’t even have to drive the 20 miles to Walmart.

Not only that, e-commerce promises not just the local food market’s few thousand products, or even Walmart’s hundreds of thousands, but virtually every product sold virtually anywhere in the world. Amazon — which directly sells only about 30% of the products sold through its platform, and, as a platform, accounts for less than half of e-commerce — has about 500 million products listed.

The point is this: Amazon’s biggest effect on retail isn’t that it’s overpowering its closest brick-and-mortar rivals, decimating the last vestiges of competition, and moving all sales online (after all, e-commerce is still only some 10% of retail sales); it’s that the company is bringing competition to places that haven’t seen very much of it, and picking off the weak and complacent competitors — much to everyone’s benefit.

Those retailers that do survive the alleged “retail apocalypse” will be those that figure out how to offer something better or different than Amazon, with or without Whole Foods:

The truth is that the bigger Amazon gets, the more opportunity it creates for fresh, local alternatives. The more Amazon pushes robot-powered efficiency, the more space there is for warm and individualized service. The more that people interact with Amazon through its AI-based assistant Alexa, the more they will crave the insight and personal connection of fellow humans.

“The idea that everybody needs to be terrified of Amazon is completely wrong,” says Brian Spaly, who co-founded two e-commerce-centric startups, Bonobos (menswear) and Trunk Club (a wardrobe-in-a-box service), which sold to Walmart and Nordstrom, respectively, for nine-figure sums. “Everybody needs to figure out what makes them special and use those weapons to compete.” (Emphasis added)

To put it into an antitrust context, “post-merger product repositioning,” although perpetually (and wrongfully) disregarded by proponents of stronger merger enforcement, is the nature of the beast. Competition need not — indeed, rarely does — replicate the status quo; it evolves beyond it. Amazon combined with Whole Foods isn’t offering exactly what the companies separately offered pre-merger — and their competitors aren’t doing so, either. That’s a good thing, and it creates new opportunities and new mechanisms for fulfilling consumer preferences.

Some of that means further shifting the mix of retail sales that take place in physical stores and online — and even blurring the lines between them, such that online purchases may be picked up at a physical store, or product samples may be browsed, handled, and sized in a retail store and then ordered online and shipped.

But whatever the extent of the slow transition to online services, where grocery retailers think they can still compete offline (which is to say, everywhere), their investments have increased — substantially — since the merger. Take Aldi, for example:

Discounters like Aldi, known for its no-frills stores and highly coveted private label, have put pressure on traditional grocers, which are also trying to prepare for an e-commerce future likely to be remade by Amazon and its acquisition of Whole Foods.

* * *

Aldi, with currently some 1,600 U.S. stores, has said it will invest $3.4 billion in order to up its U.S. store count to 2,500 by 2022. The additional stores would make Aldi the third-biggest seller of food in the U.S. behind Walmart and Kroger. (Emphasis added)

The country’s biggest grocery chains, Walmart and Kroger — each of them substantially larger than even Amazon and Whole Foods combined — are likewise expanding, not contracting, in the face of the new competition the merger has brought. And this is happening not just online, but in physical stores, as well. Take Walmart, for example:

Walmart is making headway in its pitched battle against Amazon, with online sales soaring in the most recent quarter.

Those sales leaped 40 percent in the U.S., a sign that Walmart’s aggressive moves to bolster its e-commerce business by ramping up fashion, adding thousands of new choices, and scooping up other, niche sites, is paying off.

Physical stores held their own as well during the company’s latest quarter, which spanned May through July. Sales at locations open at least a year rose 4.5 percent, the biggest uptick in more than a decade, as shoppers flocked to their local Walmart to pick up groceries, clothing and seasonal items.

Not only did more customers head to their stores, increasing foot traffic 2.2 percent, they spent more money while they were there. (Emphasis added)

These stores aren’t just maintaining the status quo despite the merger; they are also improving their services to reflect the actual and expected increase in competition.

And this positive effect is reflected in the retail labor landscape as well. Despite the bold, Chicken-Little assertions by some critics, Amazon’s effect on retail labor — and the effect of the Whole Foods merger on grocery store labor in particular — hasn’t been to decimate the market. Instead, employment has expanded significantly in 2018, “largely due to a resurgence in two categories that had been contracting, retail and manufacturing. [In fact,] retailers added an average of 12,000 [workers] each month this year.”

But really. Are we just missing an unstoppable monopoly in its incipiency?

All of the foregoing good news notwithstanding, it could be the case that we are complacently snoozing while an unstoppable future monopoly is in its incipiency. Perhaps Amazon is using its already incredible online power to build a path to success that none will be able to rival. Lina Khan, for one, would have you believe that.

But the evidence we have does not suggest that this is at all a realistic concern.

In the first place, in the one area where you could conceivably cite to Amazon’s supremacy — online retail — it doesn’t even remotely behave like a monopolist. Aside from the obvious fact that it has consistently worked to deliver more output and lower prices (which the Fed Chairman has speculated may be contributing to low inflation), Amazon has (to outward appearances, at the very least) worked very hard to deliver a superior customer experience. It vets and monitors merchants in order to prevent fraud, and when it happens Amazon eats the cost of fraud-related losses. And Amazon is well known for its generous return policy. These are not the practices of a complacent monopolist selling to customers with no, or even few, other purchasing alternatives.

But more importantly, there is nothing that Amazon can do that competitors cannot also do, despite the bare assertions of critics.

Last year, for example, Marshall Steinbaum asserted that, with respect to the Whole Foods merger, and the potential for Instacart and Wegman’s to compete with Amazon for grocery delivery,  

Instacart has nowhere near the existing infrastructure or access to capital to make that viable… There’s increasingly no plausible way around Amazon. Wegmans is not going to front an all-out assault on Amazon in e-commerce. Walmart is only now doing it, and only just. Amazon is already dominant and already anticompetitive. There’s also, dare I say it, the threat of antitrust… I think it’s fair to say the agencies have been favorable to Amazon in the past and would-be competitors might assume they will be going forward.

This account is hard to take seriously, particularly since it’s predicated on the idea that there are monopoly profits to be earned in the grocery delivery space. Why exactly wouldn’t Wegman’s (or someone else) partner with Instacart in order to realize some portion of those profits — to innovate to offer enhanced services (over and above its already uniquely pleasant grocery-shopping experience)?

And just one year later, it appears that Amazon’s competitors do indeed intend an “all-out assault on Amazon” in precisely this fashion.

German discount giant Aldi has stepped up to bolster Instacart’s deal with Wegman’s and is using the company’s services to help it succeed in its massive push into the US market.

And meanwhile, on the direct investment front, Instacart has managed to raise $200M in new funding to help it expand its operations, boosting its valuation to a whopping $4.2 billion. This is a “vote of confidence from the venture capital community” and “a far cry from the uncertainty swirling around the grocery startup after the Amazon-Whole Foods deal last year.”

Thus just a single year’s worth of investment and expanded activity — especially coming as it has in the immediate aftermath of the Amazon/Whole Foods merger — fully rebuts Steinbaum’s absurd claim (echoed by others) that “[t]here’s increasingly no plausible way around Amazon.”

And the reason for Instacart’s success is (or should be, to anyone paying attention) entirely predictable, and tied to the reason that the Amazon/Whole Foods merger should continue to be welcomed rather than reviled: competition. Instacart’s success is tied to that of Kroger and Aldi and every other grocer and retailer threatened by competition from Amazon. For now, at least, these stores see same-day delivery of fresh produce and other perishables as key to their ability to take on and even best the combined Amazon/Whole Foods. And it’s been working:

The first and most obvious impact was the pressure that supermarkets like Kroger felt when Amazon began lowering prices at Whole Foods. However, after having its shares rattled by Amazon, Kroger was able to regain investor confidence by partnering with Instacart and several other grocery delivery services, allowing it to outpace Amazon over the past three months. (Emphasis added)

Where exactly the next challenge from Amazon will arise, and from whence exactly the competitive response will emerge, is uncertain. But what we’ve seen thus far should reassure us that both the challenge and the response will happen. Before we pronounce the death of retail, the end of living wages, and the destruction of democracy at Amazon’s hands — and seek out the antitrust laws to thwart every social ill critics can conjure — we should review the tape every so often. And, so far, it seems to suggest that the alarms are dramatically premature.

In recent years, the European Union’s (EU) administrative body, the European Commission (EC), increasingly has applied European competition law in a manner that undermines free market dynamics.  In particular, its approach to “dominant” firm conduct disincentivizes highly successful companies from introducing product and service innovations that enhance consumer welfare and benefit the economy – merely because they threaten to harm less efficient competitors.

For example, the EC fined Microsoft 561 million euros in 2013 for its failure to adhere to an order that it offer a version of its Window software suite that did not include its popular Windows Media Player (WMP) – despite the lack of consumer demand for a “dumbed down” Windows without WMP.  This EC intrusion into software design has been described as a regulatory “quagmire.”

In June 2017 the EC fined Google 2.42 billion euros for allegedly favoring its own comparison shopping service over others favored in displaying Google search results – ignoring economic research that shows Google’s search policies benefit consumers.  Google also faces potentially higher EC antitrust fines due to alleged abuses involving android software (bundling of popular Google search and Chrome apps), a product that has helped spur dynamic smartphone innovations and foster new markets.

Furthermore, other highly innovative single firms, such as Apple and Amazon (favorable treatment deemed “state aids”), Qualcomm (alleged anticompetitive discounts), and Facebook (in connection with its WhatsApp acquisition), face substantial EC competition law penalties.

Underlying the EC’s current enforcement philosophy is an implicit presumption that innovations by dominant firms violate competition law if they in any way appear to disadvantage competitors.  That presumption forgoes considering the actual effects on the competitive process of dominant firm activities.  This is a recipe for reduced innovation, as successful firms “pull their competitive punches” to avoid onerous penalties.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) implicitly recognized this problem in its September 6, 2017 decision setting aside the European General Court’s affirmance of the EC’s 2009 1.06 billion euro fine against Intel.  Intel involved allegedly anticompetitive “loyalty rebates” by Intel, which allowed buyers to achieve cost savings in Intel chip purchases.  In remanding the Intel case to the General Court for further legal and factual analysis, the ECJ’s opinion stressed that the EC needed to do more than find a dominant position and categorize the rebates in order to hold Intel liable.  The EC also needed to assess the “capacity of [Intel’s] . . . practice to foreclose competitors which are at least as efficient” and whether any exclusionary effect was outweighed by efficiencies that also benefit consumers.  In short, evidence-based antitrust analysis was required.  Mere reliance on presumptions was not enough.  Why?  Because competition on the merits is centered on the recognition that the departure of less efficient competitors is part and parcel of consumer welfare-based competition on the merits.  As the ECJ cogently put it:

[I]t must be borne in mind that it is in no way the purpose of Article 102 TFEU [which prohibits abuse of a dominant position] to prevent an undertaking from acquiring, on its own merits, the dominant position on a market.  Nor does that provision seek to ensure that competitors less efficient than the undertaking with the dominant position should remain on the market . . . .  [N]ot every exclusionary effect is necessarily detrimental to competition. Competition on the merits may, by definition, lead to the departure from the market or the marginalisation of competitors that are less efficient and so less attractive to consumers from the point of view of, among other things, price, choice, quality or innovation[.]

Although the ECJ’s recent decision is commendable, it does not negate the fact that Intel had to wait eight years to have its straightforward arguments receive attention – and the saga is far from over, since the General Court has to address this matter once again.  These sorts of long-term delays, during which firms face great uncertainty (and the threat of further EC investigations and fines), are antithetical to innovative activity by enterprises deemed dominant.  In short, unless and until the EC changes its competition policy perspective on dominant firm conduct (and there are no indications that such a change is imminent), innovation and economic dynamism will suffer.

Even if the EC dithers, the United Kingdom’s (UK) imminent withdrawal from the EU (Brexit) provides it with a unique opportunity to blaze a new competition policy trail – and perhaps in so doing influence other jurisdictions.

In particular, Brexit will enable the UK’s antitrust enforcer, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), to adopt an outlook on competition policy in general – and on single firm conduct in particular – that is more sensitive to innovation and economic dynamism.  What might such a CMA enforcement policy look like?  It should reject the EC’s current approach.  It should focus instead on the actual effects of competitive activity.  In particular, it should incorporate the insights of decision theory (see here, for example) and place great weight on efficiencies (see here, for example).

Let us hope that the CMA acts boldly – carpe diem.  Such action, combined with other regulatory reforms, could contribute substantially to the economic success of Brexit (see here).

I recently published a piece in the Hill welcoming the Canadian Supreme Court’s decision in Google v. Equustek. In this post I expand (at length) upon my assessment of the case.

In its decision, the Court upheld injunctive relief against Google, directing the company to avoid indexing websites offering the infringing goods in question, regardless of the location of the sites (and even though Google itself was not a party in the case nor in any way held liable for the infringement). As a result, the Court’s ruling would affect Google’s conduct outside of Canada as well as within it.

The case raises some fascinating and thorny issues, but, in the end, the Court navigated them admirably.

Some others, however, were not so… welcoming of the decision (see, e.g., here and here).

The primary objection to the ruling seems to be, in essence, that it is the top of a slippery slope: “If Canada can do this, what’s to stop Iran or China from doing it? Free expression as we know it on the Internet will cease to exist.”

This is a valid concern, of course — in the abstract. But for reasons I explain below, we should see this case — and, more importantly, the approach adopted by the Canadian Supreme Court — as reassuring, not foreboding.

Some quick background on the exercise of extraterritorial jurisdiction in international law

The salient facts in, and the fundamental issue raised by, the case were neatly summarized by Hugh Stephens:

[The lower Court] issued an interim injunction requiring Google to de-index or delist (i.e. not return search results for) the website of a firm (Datalink Gateways) that was marketing goods online based on the theft of trade secrets from Equustek, a Vancouver, B.C., based hi-tech firm that makes sophisticated industrial equipment. Google wants to quash a decision by the lower courts on several grounds, primarily that the basis of the injunction is extra-territorial in nature and that if Google were to be subject to Canadian law in this case, this could open a Pandora’s box of rulings from other jurisdictions that would require global delisting of websites thus interfering with freedom of expression online, and in effect “break the Internet”.

The question of jurisdiction with regard to cross-border conduct is clearly complicated and evolving. But, in important ways, it isn’t anything new just because the Internet is involved. As Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu (yes, Tim Wu) wrote (way back in 2006) in Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World:

A government’s responsibility for redressing local harms caused by a foreign source does not change because the harms are caused by an Internet communication. Cross-border harms that occur via the Internet are not any different than those outside the Net. Both demand a response from governmental authorities charged with protecting public values.

As I have written elsewhere, “[g]lobal businesses have always had to comply with the rules of the territories in which they do business.”

Traditionally, courts have dealt with the extraterritoriality problem by applying a rule of comity. As my colleague, Geoffrey Manne (Founder and Executive Director of ICLE), reminds me, the principle of comity largely originated in the work of the 17th Century Dutch legal scholar, Ulrich Huber. Huber wrote that comitas gentium (“courtesy of nations”) required the application of foreign law in certain cases:

[Sovereigns will] so act by way of comity that rights acquired within the limits of a government retain their force everywhere so far as they do not cause prejudice to the powers or rights of such government or of their subjects.

And, notably, Huber wrote that:

Although the laws of one nation can have no force directly with another, yet nothing could be more inconvenient to commerce and to international usage than that transactions valid by the law of one place should be rendered of no effect elsewhere on account of a difference in the law.

The basic principle has been recognized and applied in international law for centuries. Of course, the flip side of the principle is that sovereign nations also get to decide for themselves whether to enforce foreign law within their jurisdictions. To summarize Huber (as well as Lord Mansfield, who brought the concept to England, and Justice Story, who brought it to the US):

All three jurists were concerned with deeply polarizing public issues — nationalism, religious factionalism, and slavery. For each, comity empowered courts to decide whether to defer to foreign law out of respect for a foreign sovereign or whether domestic public policy should triumph over mere courtesy. For each, the court was the agent of the sovereign’s own public law.

The Canadian Supreme Court’s well-reasoned and admirably restrained approach in Equustek

Reconciling the potential conflict between the laws of Canada and those of other jurisdictions was, of course, a central subject of consideration for the Canadian Court in Equustek. The Supreme Court, as described below, weighed a variety of factors in determining the appropriateness of the remedy. In analyzing the competing equities, the Supreme Court set out the following framework:

[I]s there a serious issue to be tried; would the person applying for the injunction suffer irreparable harm if the injunction were not granted; and is the balance of convenience in favour of granting the interlocutory injunction or denying it. The fundamental question is whether the granting of an injunction is just and equitable in all of the circumstances of the case. This will necessarily be context-specific. [Here, as throughout this post, bolded text represents my own, added emphasis.]

Applying that standard, the Court held that because ordering an interlocutory injunction against Google was the only practical way to prevent Datalink from flouting the court’s several orders, and because there were no sufficient, countervailing comity or freedom of expression concerns in this case that would counsel against such an order being granted, the interlocutory injunction was appropriate.

I draw particular attention to the following from the Court’s opinion:

Google’s argument that a global injunction violates international comity because it is possible that the order could not have been obtained in a foreign jurisdiction, or that to comply with it would result in Google violating the laws of that jurisdiction is, with respect, theoretical. As Fenlon J. noted, “Google acknowledges that most countries will likely recognize intellectual property rights and view the selling of pirated products as a legal wrong”.

And while it is always important to pay respectful attention to freedom of expression concerns, particularly when dealing with the core values of another country, I do not see freedom of expression issues being engaged in any way that tips the balance of convenience towards Google in this case. As Groberman J.A. concluded:

In the case before us, there is no realistic assertion that the judge’s order will offend the sensibilities of any other nation. It has not been suggested that the order prohibiting the defendants from advertising wares that violate the intellectual property rights of the plaintiffs offends the core values of any nation. The order made against Google is a very limited ancillary order designed to ensure that the plaintiffs’ core rights are respected.

In fact, as Andrew Keane Woods writes at Lawfare:

Under longstanding conflicts of laws principles, a court would need to weigh the conflicting and legitimate governments’ interests at stake. The Canadian court was eager to undertake that comity analysis, but it couldn’t do so because the necessary ingredient was missing: there was no conflict of laws.

In short, the Canadian Supreme Court, while acknowledging the importance of comity and appropriate restraint in matters with extraterritorial effect, carefully weighed the equities in this case and found that they favored the grant of extraterritorial injunctive relief. As the Court explained:

Datalink [the direct infringer] and its representatives have ignored all previous court orders made against them, have left British Columbia, and continue to operate their business from unknown locations outside Canada. Equustek has made efforts to locate Datalink with limited success. Datalink is only able to survive — at the expense of Equustek’s survival — on Google’s search engine which directs potential customers to Datalink’s websites. This makes Google the determinative player in allowing the harm to occur. On balance, since the world‑wide injunction is the only effective way to mitigate the harm to Equustek pending the trial, the only way, in fact, to preserve Equustek itself pending the resolution of the underlying litigation, and since any countervailing harm to Google is minimal to non‑existent, the interlocutory injunction should be upheld.

As I have stressed, key to the Court’s reasoning was its close consideration of possible countervailing concerns and its entirely fact-specific analysis. By the very terms of the decision, the Court made clear that its balancing would not necessarily lead to the same result where sensibilities or core values of other nations would be offended. In this particular case, they were not.

How critics of the decision (and there are many) completely miss the true import of the Court’s reasoning

In other words, the holding in this case was a function of how, given the facts of the case, the ruling would affect the particular core concerns at issue: protection and harmonization of global intellectual property rights on the one hand, and concern for the “sensibilities of other nations,” including their concern for free expression, on the other.

This should be deeply reassuring to those now criticizing the decision. And yet… it’s not.

Whether because they haven’t actually read or properly understood the decision, or because they are merely grandstanding, some commenters are proclaiming that the decision marks the End Of The Internet As We Know It — you know, it’s going to break the Internet. Or something.

Human Rights Watch, an organization I generally admire, issued a statement including the following:

The court presumed no one could object to delisting someone it considered an intellectual property violator. But other countries may soon follow this example, in ways that more obviously force Google to become the world’s censor. If every country tries to enforce its own idea of what is proper to put on the Internet globally, we will soon have a race to the bottom where human rights will be the loser.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association added:

Here it was technical details of a product, but you could easily imagine future cases where we might be talking about copyright infringement, or other things where people in private lawsuits are wanting things to be taken down off  the internet that are more closely connected to freedom of expression.

From the other side of the traditional (if insufficiently nuanced) “political spectrum,” AEI’s Ariel Rabkin asserted that

[O]nce we concede that Canadian courts can regulate search engine results in Turkey, it is hard to explain why a Turkish court shouldn’t have the reciprocal right. And this is no hypothetical — a Turkish court has indeed ordered Twitter to remove a user (AEI scholar Michael Rubin) within the United States for his criticism of Erdogan. Once the jurisdictional question is decided, it is no use raising free speech as an issue. Other countries do not have our free speech norms, nor Canada’s. Once Canada concedes that foreign courts have the right to regulate Canadian search results, they are on the internet censorship train, and there is no egress before the end of the line.

In this instance, in particular, it is worth noting not only the complete lack of acknowledgment of the Court’s articulated constraints on taking action with extraterritorial effect, but also the fact that Turkey (among others) has hardly been waiting for approval from Canada before taking action.   

And then there’s EFF (of course). EFF, fairly predictably, suggests first — with unrestrained hyperbole — that the Supreme Court held that:

A country has the right to prevent the world’s Internet users from accessing information.

Dramatic hyperbole aside, that’s also a stilted way to characterize the content at issue in the case. But it is important to EFF’s misleading narrative to begin with the assertion that offering infringing products for sale is “information” to which access by the public is crucial. But, of course, the distribution of infringing products is hardly “expression,” as most of us would understand that term. To claim otherwise is to denigrate the truly important forms of expression that EFF claims to want to protect.

And, it must be noted, even if there were expressive elements at issue, infringing “expression” is always subject to restriction under the copyright laws of virtually every country in the world (and free speech laws, where they exist).

Nevertheless, EFF writes that the decision:

[W]ould cut off access to information for U.S. users would set a dangerous precedent for online speech. In essence, it would expand the power of any court in the world to edit the entire Internet, whether or not the targeted material or site is lawful in another country. That, we warned, is likely to result in a race to the bottom, as well-resourced individuals engage in international forum-shopping to impose the one country’s restrictive laws regarding free expression on the rest of the world.

Beyond the flaws of the ruling itself, the court’s decision will likely embolden other countries to try to enforce their own speech-restricting laws on the Internet, to the detriment of all users. As others have pointed out, it’s not difficult to see repressive regimes such as China or Iran use the ruling to order Google to de-index sites they object to, creating a worldwide heckler’s veto.

As always with EFF missives, caveat lector applies: None of this is fair or accurate. EFF (like the other critics quoted above) is looking only at the result — the specific contours of the global order related to the Internet — and not to the reasoning of the decision itself.

Quite tellingly, EFF urges its readers to ignore the case in front of them in favor of a theoretical one. That is unfortunate. Were EFF, et al. to pay closer attention, they would be celebrating this decision as a thoughtful, restrained, respectful, and useful standard to be employed as a foundational decision in the development of global Internet governance.

The Canadian decision is (as I have noted, but perhaps still not with enough repetition…) predicated on achieving equity upon close examination of the facts, and giving due deference to the sensibilities and core values of other nations in making decisions with extraterritorial effect.

Properly understood, the ruling is a shield against intrusions that undermine freedom of expression, and not an attack on expression.

EFF subverts the reasoning of the decision and thus camouflages its true import, all for the sake of furthering its apparently limitless crusade against all forms of intellectual property. The ruling can be read as an attack on expression only if one ascribes to the distribution of infringing products the status of protected expression — so that’s what EFF does. But distribution of infringing products is not protected expression.

Extraterritoriality on the Internet is complicated — but that undermines, rather than justifies, critics’ opposition to the Court’s analysis

There will undoubtedly be other cases that present more difficult challenges than this one in defining the jurisdictional boundaries of courts’ abilities to address Internet-based conduct with multi-territorial effects. But the guideposts employed by the Supreme Court of Canada will be useful in informing such decisions.

Of course, some states don’t (or won’t, when it suits them), adhere to principles of comity. But that was true long before the Equustek decision. And, frankly, the notion that this decision gives nations like China or Iran political cover for global censorship is ridiculous. Nations that wish to censor the Internet will do so regardless. If anything, reference to this decision (which, let me spell it out again, highlights the importance of avoiding relief that would interfere with core values or sensibilities of other nations) would undermine their efforts.

Rather, the decision will be far more helpful in combating censorship and advancing global freedom of expression. Indeed, as noted by Hugh Stephens in a recent blog post:

While the EFF, echoed by its Canadian proxy OpenMedia, went into hyperventilation mode with the headline, “Top Canadian Court permits Worldwide Internet Censorship”, respected organizations like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) welcomed the decision as having achieved the dual objectives of recognizing the importance of freedom of expression and limiting any order that might violate that fundamental right. As the CCLA put it,

While today’s decision upholds the worldwide order against Google, it nevertheless reflects many of the freedom of expression concerns CCLA had voiced in our interventions in this case.

As I noted in my piece in the Hill, this decision doesn’t answer all of the difficult questions related to identifying proper jurisdiction and remedies with respect to conduct that has global reach; indeed, that process will surely be perpetually unfolding. But, as reflected in the comments of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, it is a deliberate and well-considered step toward a fair and balanced way of addressing Internet harms.

With apologies for quoting myself, I noted the following in an earlier piece:

I’m not unsympathetic to Google’s concerns. As a player with a global footprint, Google is legitimately concerned that it could be forced to comply with the sometimes-oppressive and often contradictory laws of countries around the world. But that doesn’t make it — or any other Internet company — unique. Global businesses have always had to comply with the rules of the territories in which they do business… There will be (and have been) cases in which taking action to comply with the laws of one country would place a company in violation of the laws of another. But principles of comity exist to address the problem of competing demands from sovereign governments.

And as Andrew Keane Woods noted:

Global takedown orders with no limiting principle are indeed scary. But Canada’s order has a limiting principle. As long as there is room for Google to say to Canada (or France), “Your order will put us in direct and significant violation of U.S. law,” the order is not a limitless assertion of extraterritorial jurisdiction. In the instance that a service provider identifies a conflict of laws, the state should listen.

That is precisely what the Canadian Supreme Court’s decision contemplates.

No one wants an Internet based on the lowest common denominator of acceptable speech. Yet some appear to want an Internet based on the lowest common denominator for the protection of original expression. These advocates thus endorse theories of jurisdiction that would deny societies the ability to enforce their own laws, just because sometimes those laws protect intellectual property.

And yet that reflects little more than an arbitrary prioritization of those critics’ personal preferences. In the real world (including the real online world), protection of property is an important value, deserving reciprocity and courtesy (comity) as much as does speech. Indeed, the G20 Digital Economy Ministerial Declaration adopted in April of this year recognizes the importance to the digital economy of promoting security and trust, including through the provision of adequate and effective intellectual property protection. Thus the Declaration expresses the recognition of the G20 that:

[A]pplicable frameworks for privacy and personal data protection, as well as intellectual property rights, have to be respected as they are essential to strengthening confidence and trust in the digital economy.

Moving forward in an interconnected digital universe will require societies to make a series of difficult choices balancing both competing values and competing claims from different jurisdictions. Just as it does in the offline world, navigating this path will require flexibility and skepticism (if not rejection) of absolutism — including with respect to the application of fundamental values. Even things like freedom of expression, which naturally require a balancing of competing interests, will need to be reexamined. We should endeavor to find that fine line between allowing individual countries to enforce their own national judgments and a tolerance for those countries that have made different choices. This will not be easy, as well manifested in something that Alice Marwick wrote earlier this year:

But a commitment to freedom of speech above all else presumes an idealistic version of the internet that no longer exists. And as long as we consider any content moderation to be censorship, minority voices will continue to be drowned out by their aggressive majority counterparts.

* * *

We need to move beyond this simplistic binary of free speech/censorship online. That is just as true for libertarian-leaning technologists as it is neo-Nazi provocateurs…. Aggressive online speech, whether practiced in the profanity and pornography-laced environment of 4Chan or the loftier venues of newspaper comments sections, positions sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism (and so forth) as issues of freedom of expression rather than structural oppression.

Perhaps we might want to look at countries like Canada and the United Kingdom, which take a different approach to free speech than does the United States. These countries recognize that unlimited free speech can lead to aggression and other tactics which end up silencing the speech of minorities — in other words, the tyranny of the majority. Creating online communities where all groups can speak may mean scaling back on some of the idealism of the early internet in favor of pragmatism. But recognizing this complexity is an absolutely necessary first step.

While I (and the Canadian Supreme Court, for that matter) share EFF’s unease over the scope of extraterritorial judgments, I fundamentally disagree with EFF that the Equustek decision “largely sidesteps the question of whether such a global order would violate foreign law or intrude on Internet users’ free speech rights.”

In fact, it is EFF’s position that comes much closer to a position indifferent to the laws and values of other countries; in essence, EFF’s position would essentially always prioritize the particular speech values adopted in the US, regardless of whether they had been adopted by the countries affected in a dispute. It is therefore inconsistent with the true nature of comity.

Absolutism and exceptionalism will not be a sound foundation for achieving global consensus and the effective operation of law. As stated by the Canadian Supreme Court in Equustek, courts should enforce the law — whatever the law is — to the extent that such enforcement does not substantially undermine the core sensitivities or values of nations where the order will have effect.

EFF ignores the process in which the Court engaged precisely because EFF — not another country, but EFF — doesn’t find the enforcement of intellectual property rights to be compelling. But that unprincipled approach would naturally lead in a different direction where the court sought to protect a value that EFF does care about. Such a position arbitrarily elevates EFF’s idiosyncratic preferences. That is simply not a viable basis for constructing good global Internet governance.

If the Internet is both everywhere and nowhere, our responses must reflect that reality, and be based on the technology-neutral application of laws, not the abdication of responsibility premised upon an outdated theory of tech exceptionalism under which cyberspace is free from the application of the laws of sovereign nations. That is not the path to either freedom or prosperity.

To realize the economic and social potential of the Internet, we must be guided by both a determination to meaningfully address harms, and a sober reservation about interfering in the affairs of other states. The Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Google v. Equustek has planted a flag in this space. It serves no one to pretend that the Court decided that a country has the unfettered right to censor the Internet. That’s not what it held — and we should be grateful for that. To suggest otherwise may indeed be self-fulfilling.

It appears that White House’s zeal for progressive-era legal theory has … progressed (or regressed?) further. Late last week President Obama signed an Executive Order that nominally claims to direct executive agencies (and “strongly encourages” independent agencies) to adopt “pro-competitive” policies. It’s called Steps to Increase Competition and Better Inform Consumers and Workers to Support Continued Growth of the American Economy, and was produced alongside an issue brief from the Council of Economic Advisors titled Benefits of Competition and Indicators of Market Power.

TL;DR version: the Order and its brief do not appear so much aimed at protecting consumers or competition, as they are at providing justification for favored regulatory adventures.

In truth, it’s not exactly clear what problem the President is trying to solve. And there is language in both the Order and the brief that could be interpreted in a positive light, and, likewise, language that could be more of a shot across the bow of “unruly” corporate citizens who have not gotten in line with the President’s agenda. Most of the Order and the corresponding CEA brief read as a rote recital of basic antitrust principles: price fixing bad, collusion bad, competition good. That said, there were two items in the Order that particularly stood out.

The (Maybe) Good

Section 2 of the Order states that

Executive departments … with authorities that could be used to enhance competition (agencies) shall … use those authorities to promote competition, arm consumers and workers with the information they need to make informed choices, and eliminate regulations that restrict competition without corresponding benefits to the American public. (emphasis added)

Obviously this is music to the ears of anyone who has thought that agencies should be required to do a basic economic analysis before undertaking brave voyages of regulatory adventure. And this is what the Supreme Court was getting at in Michigan v. EPA when it examined the meaning of the phrase “appropriate” in connection with environmental regulations:

One would not say that it is even rational, never mind “appropriate,” to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.

Thus, if this Order follows the direction of Michigan v. EPA, and it becomes the standard for agencies to conduct cost-benefit analyses before issuing regulation (and to review old regulations through such an analysis), then wonderful! Moreover, this mandate to agencies to reduce regulations that restrict competition could lead to an unexpected reformation of a variety of regulations – even outside of the agencies themselves. For instance, the FTC is laudable in its ongoing efforts both to correct anticompetitive state licensing laws as well as to resist state-protected incumbents, such as taxi-cab companies.

Still, I have trouble believing that the President — and this goes for any president, really, regardless of party — would truly intend for agencies under his control to actually cede regulatory ground when a little thing like economic reality points in a different direction than official policy. After all, there was ample information available that the Title II requirements on broadband providers would be both costly and result in reduced capital expenditures, and the White House nonetheless encouraged the FCC to go ahead with reclassification.

And this isn’t the first time that the President has directed agencies to perform retrospective review of regulation (see the Identifying and Reducing Regulatory Burdens Order of 2012). To date, however, there appears to be little evidence that the burdens of the regulatory state have lessened. Last year set a record for the page count of the Federal Register (80k+ pages), and the data suggest that the cost of the regulatory state is only increasing. Thus, despite the pleasant noises the Order makes with regard to imposing economic discipline on agencies – and despite the good example Canada has set for us in this regard – I am not optimistic of the actual result.

And the (maybe) good builds an important bridge to the (probably) bad of the Order. It is well and good to direct agencies to engage in economic calculation when they write and administer regulations, but such calculation must be in earnest, and must be directed by the learning that was hard earned over the course of the development of antitrust jurisprudence in the US. As Geoffrey Manne and Josh Wright have noted:

Without a serious methodological commitment to economic science, the incorporation of economics into antitrust is merely a façade, allowing regulators and judges to select whichever economic model fits their earlier beliefs or policy preferences rather than the model that best fits the real‐world data. Still, economic theory remains essential to antitrust law. Economic analysis constrains and harnesses antitrust law so that it protects consumers rather than competitors.

Unfortunately, the brief does not indicate that it is interested in more than a façade of economic rigor. For instance, it relies on the outmoded 50 firm revenue concentration numbers gathered by the Census Bureau to support the proposition that the industries themselves are highly concentrated and, therefore, are anticompetitive. But, it’s been fairly well understood since the 1970s that concentration says nothing directly about monopoly power and its exercise. In fact, concentration can often be seen as an indicator of superior efficiency that results in better outcomes for consumers (depending on the industry).

The (Probably) Bad

Apart from general concerns (such as having a host of federal agencies with no antitrust expertise now engaging in competition turf wars) there is one specific area that could have a dramatically bad result for long term policy, and that moreover reflects either ignorance or willful blindness of antitrust jurisprudence. Specifically, the Order directs agencies to

identify specific actions that they can take in their areas of responsibility to build upon efforts to detect abuses such as price fixing, anticompetitive behavior in labor and other input markets, exclusionary conduct, and blocking access to critical resources that are needed for competitive entry. (emphasis added).

It then goes on to say that

agencies shall submit … an initial list of … any specific practices, such as blocking access to critical resources, that potentially restrict meaningful consumer or worker choice or unduly stifle new market entrants (emphasis added)

The generally uncontroversial language regarding price fixing and exclusionary conduct are bromides – after all, as the Order notes, we already have the FTC and DOJ very actively policing this sort of conduct. What’s novel here, however, is that the highlighted language above seems to amount to a mandate to executive agencies (and a strong suggestion to independent agencies) that they begin to seek out “essential facilities” within their regulated industries.

But “critical resources … needed for competitive entry” could mean nearly anything, depending on how you define competition and relevant markets. And asking non-antitrust agencies to integrate one of the more esoteric (and controversial) parts of antitrust law into their mission is going to be a recipe for disaster.

In fact, this may be one of the reasons why the Supreme Court declined to recognize the essential facilities doctrine as a distinct rule in Trinko, where it instead characterized the exclusionary conduct in Aspen Skiing as ‘at or near the outer boundary’ of Sherman Act § 2 liability.

In short, the essential facilities doctrine is widely criticized, by pretty much everyone. In their respected treatise, Antitrust Law, Herbert Hovenkamp and Philip Areeda have said that “the essential facility doctrine is both harmful and unnecessary and should be abandoned”; Michael Boudin has noted that the doctrine is full of “embarrassing weaknesses”; and Gregory Werden has opined that “Courts should reject the doctrine.” One important reason for the broad criticism is because

At bottom, a plaintiff … is saying that the defendant has a valuable facility that it would be difficult to reproduce … But … the fact that the defendant has a highly valued facility is a reason to reject sharing, not to require it, since forced sharing “may lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in those economically beneficial facilities.” (quoting Trinko)

Further, it’s really hard to say when one business is so critical to a particular market that its own internal functions need to be exposed for competitors’ advantage. For instance, is Big Data – which the CEA brief specifically notes as a potential “critical resource” — an essential facility when one company serves so many consumers that it has effectively developed an entire market that it dominates? ( In case you are wondering, it’s actually not). When exactly does a firm so outcompete its rivals that access to its business infrastructure can be seen by regulators as “essential” to competition? And is this just a set-up for punishing success — which hardly promotes competition, innovation or consumer welfare?

And, let’s be honest here, when the CEA is considering Big Data as an essential facility they are at least partially focused on Google and its various search properties. Google is frequently the target for “essentialist” critics who argue, among other things, that Google’s prioritization of its own properties in its own search results violates antitrust rules. The story goes that Google search is so valuable that when Google publishes its own shopping results ahead of its various competitors, it is engaging in anticompetitive conduct. But this is a terribly myopic view of what the choices are for search services because, as Geoffrey Manne has so ably noted before, “competitors denied access to the top few search results at Google’s site are still able to advertise their existence and attract users through a wide range of other advertising outlets[.]”

Moreover, as more and more users migrate to specialized apps on their mobile devices for a variety of content, Google’s desktop search becomes just one choice among many for finding information. All of this leaves to one side, of course, the fact that for some categories, Google has incredibly stiff competition.

Thus it is that

to the extent that inclusion in Google search results is about “Stiglerian” search-cost reduction for websites (and it can hardly be anything else), the range of alternate facilities for this function is nearly limitless.

The troubling thing here is that, given the breezy analysis of the Order and the CEA brief, I don’t think the White House is really considering the long-term legal and economic implications of its command; the Order appears to be much more about political support for favored agency actions already under way.

Indeed, despite the length of the CEA brief and the variety of antitrust principles recited in the Order itself, an accompanying release points to what is really going on (at least in part). The White House, along with the FCC, seems to think that the embedded streams in a cable or satellite broadcast should be considered a form of essential facility that is an indispensable component of video consumers’ choice (which is laughable given the magnitude of choice in video consumption options that consumers enjoy today).

And, to the extent that courts might apply the (controversial) essential facilities doctrine, an “indispensable requirement … is the unavailability of access to the ‘essential facilities’[.]” This is clearly not the case with much of what the CEA brief points to as examples of ostensibly laudable pro-competitive regulation.

The doctrine wouldn’t apply, for instance, to the FCC’s Open Internet Order since edge providers have access to customers over networks, even where network providers want to zero-rate, employ usage-based billing or otherwise negotiate connection fees and prioritization. And it also doesn’t apply to the set-top box kerfuffle; while third-parties aren’t able to access the video streams that make-up a cable broadcast, the market for consuming those streams is a single part of the entire video ecosystem. What really matters there is access to viewers, and the ability to provide services to consumers and compete for their business.

Yet, according to the White House, “the set-top box is the mascot” for the administration’s competition Order, because, apparently, cable boxes represent “what happens when you don’t have the choice to go elsewhere.” ( “Elsewhere” to the White House, I assume, cannot include Roku, Apple TV, Hulu, Netflix, and a myriad of other video options  that consumers can currently choose among.)

The set-top box is, according to the White House, a prime example of the problem that

[a]cross our economy, too many consumers are dealing with inferior or overpriced products, too many workers aren’t getting the wage increases they deserve, too many entrepreneurs and small businesses are getting squeezed out unfairly by their bigger competitors, and overall we are not seeing the level of innovative growth we would like to see.

This is, of course, nonsense. Consumers enjoy an incredible amount of low-cost, high quality goods (including video options) – far more than at any point in history.  After all:

From cable to Netflix to Roku boxes to Apple TV to Amazon FireStick, we have more ways to find and watch TV than ever — and we can do so in our living rooms, on our phones and tablets, and on seat-back screens at 30,000 feet. Oddly enough, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler … agrees: “American consumers enjoy unprecedented choice in how they view entertainment, news and sports programming. You can pretty much watch what you want, where you want, when you want.”

Thus, I suspect that the White House has its eye on a broader regulatory agenda.

For instance, the Department of Labor recently announced that it would be extending its reach in the financial services industry by changing the standard for when financial advice might give rise to a fiduciary relationship under ERISA. It seems obvious that the SEC or FINRA could have taken up the slack for any financial services regulatory issues – it’s certainly within their respective wheelhouses. But that’s not the direction the administration took, possibly because SEC and FINRA are independent agencies. Thus, the DOL – an agency with substantially less financial and consumer protection experience than either the SEC or FINRA — has expansive new authority.

And that’s where more of the language in the Order comes into focus. It directs agencies to “ensur[e] that consumers and workers have access to the information needed to make informed choices[.]” The text of the DOL rule develops for itself a basis in competition law as well:

The current proposal’s defined boundaries between fiduciary advice, education, and sales activity directed at large plans, may bring greater clarity to the IRA and plan services markets. Innovation in new advice business models, including technology-driven models, may be accelerated, and nudged away from conflicts and toward transparency, thereby promoting healthy competition in the fiduciary advice market.

Thus, it’s hard to see what the White House is doing in the Order, other than laying the groundwork for expansive authority of non-independent executive agencies under the thin guise of promoting competition. Perhaps the President believes that couching this expansion in free market terms ( i.e. that its “pro-competition”) will somehow help the initiatives go through with minimal friction. But there is nothing in the Order or the CEA brief to provide any confidence that competition will, in fact, be promoted. And in the end I have trouble seeing how this sort of regulatory adventurism does not run afoul of separation of powers issues, as well as assorted other legal challenges.

Finally, conjuring up a regulatory version of the essential facilities doctrine as a support for this expansion is simply a terrible idea — one that smacks much more of industrial policy than of sound regulatory reform or consumer protection.

Recent years have seen an increasing interest in incorporating privacy into antitrust analysis. The FTC and regulators in Europe have rejected these calls so far, but certain scholars and activists continue their attempts to breathe life into this novel concept. Elsewhere we have written at length on the scholarship addressing the issue and found the case for incorporation wanting. Among the errors proponents make is a persistent (and woefully unsubstantiated) assertion that online data can amount to a barrier to entry, insulating incumbent services from competition and ensuring that only the largest providers thrive. This data barrier to entry, it is alleged, can then allow firms with monopoly power to harm consumers, either directly through “bad acts” like price discrimination, or indirectly by raising the costs of advertising, which then get passed on to consumers.

A case in point was on display at last week’s George Mason Law & Economics Center Briefing on Big Data, Privacy, and Antitrust. Building on their growing body of advocacy work, Nathan Newman and Allen Grunes argued that this hypothesized data barrier to entry actually exists, and that it prevents effective competition from search engines and social networks that are interested in offering services with heightened privacy protections.

According to Newman and Grunes, network effects and economies of scale ensure that dominant companies in search and social networking (they specifically named Google and Facebook — implying that they are in separate markets) operate without effective competition. This results in antitrust harm, they assert, because it precludes competition on the non-price factor of privacy protection.

In other words, according to Newman and Grunes, even though Google and Facebook offer their services for a price of $0 and constantly innovate and upgrade their products, consumers are nevertheless harmed because the business models of less-privacy-invasive alternatives are foreclosed by insufficient access to data (an almost self-contradicting and silly narrative for many reasons, including the big question of whether consumers prefer greater privacy protection to free stuff). Without access to, and use of, copious amounts of data, Newman and Grunes argue, the algorithms underlying search and targeted advertising are necessarily less effective and thus the search product without such access is less useful to consumers. And even more importantly to Newman, the value to advertisers of the resulting consumer profiles is diminished.

Newman has put forth a number of other possible antitrust harms that purportedly result from this alleged data barrier to entry, as well. Among these is the increased cost of advertising to those who wish to reach consumers. Presumably this would harm end users who have to pay more for goods and services because the costs of advertising are passed on to them. On top of that, Newman argues that ad networks inherently facilitate price discrimination, an outcome that he asserts amounts to antitrust harm.

FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen (who also spoke at the George Mason event) recently made the case that antitrust law is not well-suited to handling privacy problems. She argues — convincingly — that competition policy and consumer protection should be kept separate to preserve doctrinal stability. Antitrust law deals with harms to competition through the lens of economic analysis. Consumer protection law is tailored to deal with broader societal harms and aims at protecting the “sanctity” of consumer transactions. Antitrust law can, in theory, deal with privacy as a non-price factor of competition, but this is an uneasy fit because of the difficulties of balancing quality over two dimensions: Privacy may be something some consumers want, but others would prefer a better algorithm for search and social networks, and targeted ads with free content, for instance.

In fact, there is general agreement with Commissioner Ohlhausen on her basic points, even among critics like Newman and Grunes. But, as mentioned above, views diverge over whether there are some privacy harms that should nevertheless factor into competition analysis, and on whether there is in fact  a data barrier to entry that makes these harms possible.

As we explain below, however, the notion of data as an antitrust-relevant barrier to entry is simply a myth. And, because all of the theories of “privacy as an antitrust harm” are essentially predicated on this, they are meritless.

First, data is useful to all industries — this is not some new phenomenon particular to online companies

It bears repeating (because critics seem to forget it in their rush to embrace “online exceptionalism”) that offline retailers also receive substantial benefit from, and greatly benefit consumers by, knowing more about what consumers want and when they want it. Through devices like coupons and loyalty cards (to say nothing of targeted mailing lists and the age-old practice of data mining check-out receipts), brick-and-mortar retailers can track purchase data and better serve consumers. Not only do consumers receive better deals for using them, but retailers know what products to stock and advertise and when and on what products to run sales. For instance:

  • Macy’s analyzes tens of millions of terabytes of data every day to gain insights from social media and store transactions. Over the past three years, the use of big data analytics alone has helped Macy’s boost its revenue growth by 4 percent annually.
  • Following its acquisition of Kosmix in 2011, Walmart established @WalmartLabs, which created its own product search engine for online shoppers. In the first year of its use alone, the number of customers buying a product on Walmart.com after researching a purchase increased by 20 percent. According to Ron Bensen, the vice president of engineering at @WalmartLabs, the combination of in-store and online data could give brick-and-mortar retailers like Walmart an advantage over strictly online stores.
  • Panera and a whole host of restaurants, grocery stores, drug stores and retailers use loyalty cards to advertise and learn about consumer preferences.

And of course there is a host of others uses for data, as well, including security, fraud prevention, product optimization, risk reduction to the insured, knowing what content is most interesting to readers, etc. The importance of data stretches far beyond the online world, and far beyond mere retail uses more generally. To describe even online giants like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google as having a monopoly on data is silly.

Second, it’s not the amount of data that leads to success but building a better mousetrap

The value of knowing someone’s birthday, for example, is not in that tidbit itself, but in the fact that you know this is a good day to give that person a present. Most of the data that supports the advertising networks underlying the Internet ecosphere is of this sort: Information is important to companies because of the value that can be drawn from it, not for the inherent value of the data itself. Companies don’t collect information about you to stalk you, but to better provide goods and services to you.

Moreover, data itself is not only less important than what can be drawn from it, but data is also less important than the underlying product it informs. For instance, Snapchat created a challenger to  Facebook so successfully (and in such short time) that Facebook attempted to buy it for $3 billion (Google offered $4 billion). But Facebook’s interest in Snapchat wasn’t about its data. Instead, Snapchat was valuable — and a competitive challenge to Facebook — because it cleverly incorporated the (apparently novel) insight that many people wanted to share information in a more private way.

Relatedly, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Yelp, Pinterest (and Facebook itself) all started with little (or no) data and they have had a lot of success. Meanwhile, despite its supposed data advantages, Google’s attempts at social networking — Google+ — have never caught up to Facebook in terms of popularity to users (and thus not to advertisers either). And scrappy social network Ello is starting to build a significant base without data collection for advertising at all.

At the same time it’s simply not the case that the alleged data giants — the ones supposedly insulating themselves behind data barriers to entry — actually have the type of data most relevant to startups anyway. As Andres Lerner has argued, if you wanted to start a travel business, the data from Kayak or Priceline would be far more relevant. Or if you wanted to start a ride-sharing business, data from cab companies would be more useful than the broad, market-cross-cutting profiles Google and Facebook have. Consider companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar that had no customer data when they began to challenge established cab companies that did possess such data. If data were really so significant, they could never have competed successfully. But Uber, Lyft and Sidecar have been able to effectively compete because they built products that users wanted to use — they came up with an idea for a better mousetrap.The data they have accrued came after they innovated, entered the market and mounted their successful challenges — not before.

In reality, those who complain about data facilitating unassailable competitive advantages have it exactly backwards. Companies need to innovate to attract consumer data, otherwise consumers will switch to competitors (including both new entrants and established incumbents). As a result, the desire to make use of more and better data drives competitive innovation, with manifestly impressive results: The continued explosion of new products, services and other apps is evidence that data is not a bottleneck to competition but a spur to drive it.

Third, competition online is one click or thumb swipe away; that is, barriers to entry and switching costs are low

Somehow, in the face of alleged data barriers to entry, competition online continues to soar, with newcomers constantly emerging and triumphing. This suggests that the barriers to entry are not so high as to prevent robust competition.

Again, despite the supposed data-based monopolies of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and others, there exist powerful competitors in the marketplaces they compete in:

  • If consumers want to make a purchase, they are more likely to do their research on Amazon than Google.
  • Google flight search has failed to seriously challenge — let alone displace —  its competitors, as critics feared. Kayak, Expedia and the like remain the most prominent travel search sites — despite Google having literally purchased ITA’s trove of flight data and data-processing acumen.
  • People looking for local reviews go to Yelp and TripAdvisor (and, increasingly, Facebook) as often as Google.
  • Pinterest, one of the most highly valued startups today, is now a serious challenger to traditional search engines when people want to discover new products.
  • With its recent acquisition of the shopping search engine, TheFind, and test-run of a “buy” button, Facebook is also gearing up to become a major competitor in the realm of e-commerce, challenging Amazon.
  • Likewise, Amazon recently launched its own ad network, “Amazon Sponsored Links,” to challenge other advertising players.

Even assuming for the sake of argument that data creates a barrier to entry, there is little evidence that consumers cannot easily switch to a competitor. While there are sometimes network effects online, like with social networking, history still shows that people will switch. MySpace was considered a dominant network until it made a series of bad business decisions and everyone ended up on Facebook instead. Similarly, Internet users can and do use Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yahoo, and a plethora of more specialized search engines on top of and instead of Google. And don’t forget that Google itself was once an upstart new entrant that replaced once-household names like Yahoo and AltaVista.

Fourth, access to data is not exclusive

Critics like Newman have compared Google to Standard Oil and argued that government authorities need to step in to limit Google’s control over data. But to say data is like oil is a complete misnomer. If Exxon drills and extracts oil from the ground, that oil is no longer available to BP. Data is not finite in the same way. To use an earlier example, Google knowing my birthday doesn’t limit the ability of Facebook to know my birthday, as well. While databases may be proprietary, the underlying data is not. And what matters more than the data itself is how well it is analyzed.

This is especially important when discussing data online, where multi-homing is ubiquitous, meaning many competitors end up voluntarily sharing access to data. For instance, I can use the friend-finder feature on WordPress to find Facebook friends, Google connections, and people I’m following on Twitter who also use the site for blogging. Using this feature allows WordPress to access your contact list on these major online players.

Friend-Finder

Further, it is not apparent that Google’s competitors have less data available to them. Microsoft, for instance, has admitted that it may actually have more data. And, importantly for this discussion, Microsoft may have actually garnered some of its data for Bing from Google.

If Google has a high cost per click, then perhaps it’s because it is worth it to advertisers: There are more eyes on Google because of its superior search product. Contra Newman and Grunes, Google may just be more popular for consumers and advertisers alike because the algorithm makes it more useful, not because it has more data than everyone else.

Fifth, the data barrier to entry argument does not have workable antitrust remedies

The misguided logic of data barrier to entry arguments leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Perhaps most important among these is the question of remedies. What remedy would apply to a company found guilty of leveraging its market power with data?

It’s actually quite difficult to conceive of a practical means for a competition authority to craft remedies that would address the stated concerns without imposing enormous social costs. In the unilateral conduct context, the most obvious remedy would involve the forced sharing of data.

On the one hand, as we’ve noted, it’s not clear this would actually accomplish much. If competitors can’t actually make good use of data, simply having more of it isn’t going to change things. At the same time, such a result would reduce the incentive to build data networks to begin with. In their startup stage, companies like Uber and Facebook required several months and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to design and develop just the first iteration of the products consumers love. Would any of them have done it if they had to share their insights? In fact, it may well be that access to these free insights is what competitors actually want; it’s not the data they’re lacking, but the vision or engineering acumen to use it.

Other remedies limiting collection and use of data are not only outside of the normal scope of antitrust remedies, they would also involve extremely costly court supervision and may entail problematic “collisions between new technologies and privacy rights,” as the last year’s White House Report on Big Data and Privacy put it.

It is equally unclear what an antitrust enforcer could do in the merger context. As Commissioner Ohlhausen has argued, blocking specific transactions does not necessarily stop data transfer or promote privacy interests. Parties could simply house data in a standalone entity and enter into licensing arrangements. And conditioning transactions with forced data sharing requirements would lead to the same problems described above.

If antitrust doesn’t provide a remedy, then it is not clear why it should apply at all. The absence of workable remedies is in fact a strong indication that data and privacy issues are not suitable for antitrust. Instead, such concerns would be better dealt with under consumer protection law or by targeted legislation.