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Hardly a day goes by without news of further competition-related intervention in the digital economy. The past couple of weeks alone have seen the European Commission announce various investigations into Apple’s App Store (here and here), as well as reaffirming its desire to regulate so-called “gatekeeper” platforms. Not to mention the CMA issuing its final report regarding online platforms and digital advertising.

While the limits of these initiatives have already been thoroughly dissected (e.g. here, here, here), a fundamental question seems to have eluded discussions: What are authorities trying to achieve here?

At first sight, the answer might appear to be extremely simple. Authorities want to “bring more competition” to digital markets. Furthermore, they believe that this competition will not arise spontaneously because of the underlying characteristics of digital markets (network effects, economies of scale, tipping, etc). But while it may have some intuitive appeal, this answer misses the forest for the trees.

Let us take a step back. Digital markets could have taken a vast number of shapes, so why have they systematically gravitated towards those very characteristics that authorities condemn? For instance, if market tipping and consumer lock-in are so problematic, why is it that new corners of the digital economy continue to emerge via closed platforms, as opposed to collaborative ones? Indeed, if recent commentary is to be believed, it is the latter that should succeed because they purportedly produce greater gains from trade. And if consumers and platforms cannot realize these gains by themselves, then we should see intermediaries step into the breach – i.e. arbitrage. This does not seem to be happening in the digital economy. The naïve answer is to say that this is precisely the problem, the harder one is to actually understand why.

To draw a parallel with evolution, in the late 18th century, botanists discovered an orchid with an unusually long spur (above). This made its nectar incredibly hard to reach for insects. Rational observers at the time could be forgiven for thinking that this plant made no sense, that its design was suboptimal. And yet, decades later, Darwin conjectured that the plant could be explained by a (yet to be discovered) species of moth with a proboscis that was long enough to reach the orchid’s nectar. Decades after his death, the discovery of the xanthopan moth proved him right.

Returning to the digital economy, we thus need to ask why the platform business models that authorities desire are not the ones that emerge organically. Unfortunately, this complex question is mostly overlooked by policymakers and commentators alike.

Competition law on a spectrum

To understand the above point, let me start with an assumption: the digital platforms that have been subject to recent competition cases and investigations can all be classified along two (overlapping) dimensions: the extent to which they are open (or closed) to “rivals” and the extent to which their assets are propertized (as opposed to them being shared). This distinction borrows heavily from Jonathan Barnett’s work on the topic. I believe that by applying such a classification, we would obtain a graph that looks something like this:

While these classifications are certainly not airtight, this would be my reasoning:

In the top-left quadrant, Apple and Microsoft, both operate closed platforms that are highly propertized (Apple’s platform is likely even more closed than Microsoft’s Windows ever was). Both firms notably control who is allowed on their platform and how they can interact with users. Apple notably vets the apps that are available on its App Store and influences how payments can take place. Microsoft famously restricted OEMs freedom to distribute Windows PCs as they saw fit (notably by “imposing” certain default apps and, arguably, limiting the compatibility of Microsoft systems with servers running other OSs). 

In the top right quadrant, the business models of Amazon and Qualcomm are much more “open”, yet they remain highly propertized. Almost anyone is free to implement Qualcomm’s IP – so long as they conclude a license agreement to do so. Likewise, there are very few limits on the goods that can be sold on Amazon’s platform, but Amazon does, almost by definition, exert a significant control on the way in which the platform is monetized. Retailers can notably pay Amazon for product placement, fulfilment services, etc. 

Finally, Google Search and Android sit in the bottom left corner. Both of these services are weakly propertized. The Android source code is shared freely via an open source license, and Google’s apps can be preloaded by OEMs free of charge. The only limit is that Google partially closes its platform, notably by requiring that its own apps (if they are pre-installed) receive favorable placement. Likewise, Google’s search engine is only partially “open”. While any website can be listed on the search engine, Google selects a number of specialized results that are presented more prominently than organic search results (weather information, maps, etc). There is also some amount of propertization, namely that Google sells the best “real estate” via ad placement. 

Enforcement

Readers might ask what is the point of this classification? The answer is that in each of the above cases, competition intervention attempted (or is attempting) to move firms/platforms towards more openness and less propertization – the opposite of their original design.

The Microsoft cases and the Apple investigation, both sought/seek to bring more openness and less propetization to these respective platforms. Microsoft was made to share proprietary data with third parties (less propertization) and open up its platform to rival media players and web browsers (more openness). The same applies to Apple. Available information suggests that the Commission is seeking to limit the fees that Apple can extract from downstream rivals (less propertization), as well as ensuring that it cannot exclude rival mobile payment solutions from its platform (more openness).

The various cases that were brought by EU and US authorities against Qualcomm broadly sought to limit the extent to which it was monetizing its intellectual property. The European Amazon investigation centers on the way in which the company uses data from third-party sellers (and ultimately the distribution of revenue between them and Amazon). In both of these cases, authorities are ultimately trying to limit the extent to which these firms propertize their assets.

Finally, both of the Google cases, in the EU, sought to bring more openness to the company’s main platform. The Google Shopping decision sanctioned Google for purportedly placing its services more favorably than those of its rivals. And the Android decision notably sought to facilitate rival search engines’ and browsers’ access to the Android ecosystem. The same appears to be true of ongoing investigations in the US.

What is striking about these decisions/investigations is that authorities are pushing back against the distinguishing features of the platforms they are investigating. Closed -or relatively closed- platforms are being opened-up, and firms with highly propertized assets are made to share them (or, at the very least, monetize them less aggressively).

The empty quadrant

All of this would not be very interesting if it weren’t for a final piece of the puzzle: the model of open and shared platforms that authorities apparently favor has traditionally struggled to gain traction with consumers. Indeed, there seem to be very few successful consumer-oriented products and services in this space.

There have been numerous attempts to introduce truly open consumer-oriented operating systems – both in the mobile and desktop segments. For the most part, these have ended in failure. Ubuntu and other Linux distributions remain fringe products. There have been attempts to create open-source search engines, again they have not been met with success. The picture is similar in the online retail space. Amazon appears to have beaten eBay despite the latter being more open and less propertized – Amazon has historically charged higher fees than eBay and offers sellers much less freedom in the way they sell their goods. This theme is repeated in the standardization space. There have been innumerable attempts to impose open royalty-free standards. At least in the mobile internet industry, few if any of these have taken off (5G and WiFi are the best examples of this trend). That pattern is repeated in other highly-standardized industries, like digital video formats. Most recently, the proprietary Dolby Vision format seems to be winning the war against the open HDR10+ format. 

This is not to say there haven’t been any successful ventures in this space – the internet, blockchain and Wikipedia all spring to mind – or that we will not see more decentralized goods in the future. But by and large firms and consumers have not yet taken to the idea of open and shared platforms. And while some “open” projects have achieved tremendous scale, the consumer-facing side of these platforms is often dominated by intermediaries that opt for much more traditional business models (think of Coinbase and Blockchain, or Android and Linux).

An evolutionary explanation?

The preceding paragraphs have posited a recurring reality: the digital platforms that competition authorities are trying to to bring about are fundamentally different from those that emerge organically. This begs the question: why have authorities’ ideal platforms, so far, failed to achieve truly meaningful success at consumers’ end of the market? 

I can see at least three potential explanations:

  1. Closed/propertized platforms have systematically -and perhaps anticompetitively- thwarted their open/shared rivals;
  2. Shared platforms have failed to emerge because they are much harder to monetize (and there is thus less incentive to invest in them);
  3. Consumers have opted for closed systems precisely because they are closed.

I will not go into details over the merits of the first conjecture. Current antitrust debates have endlessly rehashed this proposition. However, it is worth mentioning that many of today’s dominant platforms overcame open/shared rivals well before they achieved their current size (Unix is older than Windows, Linux is older than iOs, eBay and Amazon are basically the same age, etc). It is thus difficult to make the case that the early success of their business models was down to anticompetitive behavior.

Much more interesting is the fact that options (2) and (3) are almost systematically overlooked – especially by antitrust authorities. And yet, if true, both of them would strongly cut against current efforts to regulate digital platforms and ramp-up antitrust enforcement against them. 

For a start, it is not unreasonable to suggest that highly propertized platforms are generally easier to monetize than shared ones (2). For example, open-source platforms often rely on complementarities for monetization, but this tends to be vulnerable to outside competition and free-riding. If this is true, then there is a natural incentive for firms to invest and innovate in more propertized environments. In turn, competition enforcement that limits a platforms’ ability to propertize their assets may harm innovation.

Similarly, authorities should at the very least reflect on whether consumers really want the more “competitive” ecosystems that they are trying to design (3)

For instance, it is striking that the European Commission has a long track record of seeking to open-up digital platforms (the Microsoft decisions are perhaps the most salient example). And yet, even after these interventions, new firms have kept on using the very business model that the Commission reprimanded. Apple tied the Safari browser to its iPhones, Google went to some length to ensure that Chrome was preloaded on devices, Samsung phones come with Samsung Internet as default. But this has not deterred consumers. A sizable share of them notably opted for Apple’s iPhone, which is even more centrally curated than Microsoft Windows ever was (and the same is true of Apple’s MacOS). 

Finally, it is worth noting that the remedies imposed by competition authorities are anything but unmitigated successes. Windows XP N (the version of Windows that came without Windows Media Player) was an unprecedented flop – it sold a paltry 1,787 copies. Likewise, the internet browser ballot box imposed by the Commission was so irrelevant to consumers that it took months for authorities to notice that Microsoft had removed it, in violation of the Commission’s decision. 

There are many reasons why consumers might prefer “closed” systems – even when they have to pay a premium for them. Take the example of app stores. Maintaining some control over the apps that can access the store notably enables platforms to easily weed out bad players. Similarly, controlling the hardware resources that each app can use may greatly improve device performance. In other words, centralized platforms can eliminate negative externalities that “bad” apps impose on rival apps and consumers. This is especially true when consumers struggle to attribute dips in performance to an individual app, rather than the overall platform. 

It is also conceivable that consumers prefer to make many of their decisions at the inter-platform level, rather than within each platform. In simple terms, users arguably make their most important decision when they choose between an Apple or Android smartphone (or a Mac and a PC, etc.). In doing so, they can select their preferred app suite with one simple decision. They might thus purchase an iPhone because they like the secure App Store, or an Android smartphone because they like the Chrome Browser and Google Search. Furthermore, forcing too many “within-platform” choices upon users may undermine a product’s attractiveness. Indeed, it is difficult to create a high-quality reputation if each user’s experience is fundamentally different. In short, contrary to what antitrust authorities seem to believe, closed platforms might be giving most users exactly what they desire. 

To conclude, consumers and firms appear to gravitate towards both closed and highly propertized platforms, the opposite of what the Commission and many other competition authorities favor. The reasons for this trend are still misunderstood, and mostly ignored. Too often, it is simply assumed that consumers benefit from more openness, and that shared/open platforms are the natural order of things. This post certainly does not purport to answer the complex question of “the origin of platforms”, but it does suggest that what some refer to as “market failures” may in fact be features that explain the rapid emergence of the digital economy. Ronald Coase said this best when he quipped that economists always find a monopoly explanation for things that they fail to understand. The digital economy might just be the latest in this unfortunate trend.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Dirk Auer, (Senior Researcher, Liege Competition & Innovation Institute; Senior Fellow, ICLE).]

Privacy absolutism is the misguided belief that protecting citizens’ privacy supersedes all other policy goals, especially economic ones. This is a mistake. Privacy is one value among many, not an end in itself. Unfortunately, the absolutist worldview has filtered into policymaking and is beginning to have very real consequences. Readers need look no further than contact tracing applications and the fight against Covid-19.

Covid-19 has presented the world with a privacy conundrum worthy of the big screen. In fact, it’s a plotline we’ve seen before. Moviegoers will recall that, in the wildly popular film “The Dark Knight”, Batman has to decide between preserving the privacy of Gotham’s citizens or resorting to mass surveillance in order to defeat the Joker. Ultimately, the caped crusader begrudgingly chooses the latter. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, this might have seemed like an unrealistic plot twist. Fast forward a couple of months, and it neatly illustrates the difficult decision that most western societies urgently need to make as they consider the use of contract tracing apps to fight Covid-19.

Contact tracing is often cited as one of the most promising tools to safely reopen Covid-19-hit economies. Unfortunately, its adoption has been severely undermined by a barrage of overblown privacy fears.

Take the contact tracing API and App co-developed by Apple and Google. While these firms’ efforts to rapidly introduce contact tracing tools are laudable, it is hard to shake the feeling that they have been holding back slightly. 

In an overt attempt to protect users’ privacy, Apple and Google’s joint offering does not collect any location data (a move that has irked some states). Similarly, both firms have repeatedly stressed that users will have to opt-in to their contact tracing solution (as opposed to the API functioning by default). And, of course, all the data will be anonymous – even for healthcare authorities. 

This is a missed opportunity. Google and Apple’s networks include billions of devices. That puts them in a unique position to rapidly achieve the scale required to successfully enable the tracing of Covid-19 infections. Contact tracing applications need to reach a critical mass of users to be effective. For instance, some experts have argued that an adoption rate of at least 60% is necessary. Unfortunately, existing apps – notably in Singapore, Australia, Norway and Iceland – have struggled to get anywhere near this number. Forcing users to opt-out of Google and Apple’s services could go a long way towards inverting this trend. Businesses could also boost these numbers by making them mandatory for their employees and consumers.

However, it is hard to blame Google or Apple for not pushing the envelope a little bit further. For the best part of a decade, they and other firms have repeatedly faced specious accusations of “surveillance capitalism”. This has notably resulted in heavy-handed regulation (including the GDPR, in the EU, and the CCPA, in California), as well as significant fines and settlements

Those chickens have now come home to roost. The firms that are probably best-placed to implement an effective contact tracing solution simply cannot afford the privacy-related risks. This includes the risk associated with violating existing privacy law, but also potential reputational consequences. 

Matters have also been exacerbated by the overly cautious stance of many western governments, as well as their citizens: 

  • The European Data Protection Board cautioned governments and private sector actors to anonymize location data collected via contact tracing apps. The European Parliament made similar pronouncements.
  • A group of Democratic Senators pushed back against Apple and Google’s contact tracing solution, notably due to privacy considerations.
  • And public support for contact tracing is also critically low. Surveys in the US show that contact tracing is significantly less popular than more restrictive policies, such as business and school closures. Similarly, polls in the UK suggest that between 52% and 62% of Britons would consider using contact tracing applications.
  • Belgium’s initial plans for a contact tracing application were struck down by its data protection authority on account that they did not comply with the GDPR.
  • Finally, across the globe, there has been pushback against so-called “centralized” tracing apps, notably due to privacy fears.

In short, the West’s insistence on maximizing privacy protection is holding back its efforts to combat the joint threats posed by Covid-19 and the unfolding economic recession. 

But contrary to the mass surveillance portrayed in the Dark Knight, the privacy risks entailed by contact tracing are for the most part negligible. State surveillance is hardly a prospect in western democracies. And the risk of data breaches is no greater here than with many other apps and services that we all use daily. To wit, password, email, and identity theft are still, by far, the most common targets for cyber attackers. Put differently, cyber criminals appear to be more interested in stealing assets that can be readily monetized, rather than location data that is almost worthless. This suggests that contact tracing applications, whether centralized or not, are unlikely to be an important target for cyberattackers.

The meagre risks entailed by contact tracing – regardless of how it is ultimately implemented – are thus a tiny price to pay if they enable some return to normalcy. At the time of writing, at least 5,8 million human beings have been infected with Covid-19, causing an estimated 358,000 deaths worldwide. Both Covid-19 and the measures destined to combat it have resulted in a collapse of the global economy – what the IMF has called “the worst economic downturn since the great depression”. Freedoms that the west had taken for granted have suddenly evaporated: the freedom to work, to travel, to see loved ones, etc. Can anyone honestly claim that is not worth temporarily sacrificing some privacy to partially regain these liberties?

More generally, it is not just contact tracing applications and the fight against Covid-19 that have suffered because of excessive privacy fears. The European GDPR offers another salient example. Whatever one thinks about the merits of privacy regulation, it is becoming increasingly clear that the EU overstepped the mark. For instance, an early empirical study found that the entry into force of the GDPR markedly decreased venture capital investments in Europe. Michal Gal aptly summarizes the implications of this emerging body of literature:

The price of data protection through the GDPR is much higher than previously recognized. The GDPR creates two main harmful effects on competition and innovation: it limits competition in data markets, creating more concentrated market structures and entrenching the market power of those who are already strong; and it limits data sharing between different data collectors, thereby preventing the realization of some data synergies which may lead to better data-based knowledge. […] The effects on competition and innovation identified may justify a reevaluation of the balance reached to ensure that overall welfare is increased. 

In short, just like the Dark Knight, policymakers, firms and citizens around the world need to think carefully about the tradeoff that exists between protecting privacy and other objectives, such as saving lives, promoting competition, and increasing innovation. As things stand, however, it seems that many have veered too far on the privacy end of the scale.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Dirk Auer, (Senior Researcher, Liege Competition & Innovation Institute; Senior Fellow, ICLE).]

Across the globe, millions of people are rapidly coming to terms with the harsh realities of life under lockdown. As governments impose ever-greater social distancing measures, many of the daily comforts we took for granted are no longer available to us. 

And yet, we can all take solace in the knowledge that our current predicament would have been far less tolerable if the COVID-19 outbreak had hit us twenty years ago. Among others, we have Big Tech firms to thank for this silver lining. 

Contrary to the claims of critics, such as Senator Josh Hawley, Big Tech has produced game-changing innovations that dramatically improve our ability to fight COVID-19. 

The previous post in this series showed that innovations produced by Big Tech provide us with critical information, allow us to maintain some level of social interactions (despite living under lockdown), and have enabled companies, universities and schools to continue functioning (albeit at a severely reduced pace).

But apart from information, social interactions, and online working (and learning); what has Big Tech ever done for us?

One of the most underappreciated ways in which technology (mostly pioneered by Big Tech firms) is helping the world deal with COVID-19 has been a rapid shift towards contactless economic transactions. Not only are consumers turning towards digital goods to fill their spare time, but physical goods (most notably food) are increasingly being exchanged without any direct contact.

These ongoing changes would be impossible without the innovations and infrastructure that have emerged from tech and telecommunications companies over the last couple of decades. 

Of course, the overall picture is still bleak. The shift to contactless transactions has only slightly softened the tremendous blow suffered by the retail and restaurant industries – some predictions suggest their overall revenue could fall by at least 50% in the second quarter of 2020. Nevertheless, as explained below, this situation would likely be significantly worse without the many innovations produced by Big Tech companies. For that we would be thankful.

1. Food and other goods

For a start, the COVID-19 outbreak (and government measures to combat it) has caused many brick & mortar stores and restaurants to shut down. These closures would have been far harder to implement before the advent of online retail and food delivery platforms.

At the time of writing, e-commerce websites already appear to have witnessed a 20-30% increase in sales (other sources report 52% increase, compared to the same time last year). This increase will likely continue in the coming months.

The Amazon Retail platform has been at the forefront of this online shift.

  • Having witnessed a surge in online shopping, Amazon announced that it would be hiring 100.000 distribution workers to cope with the increased demand. Amazon’s staff have also been asked to work overtime in order to meet increased demand (in exchange, Amazon has doubled their pay for overtime hours).
  • To attract these new hires and ensure that existing ones continue working, Amazon simultaneously announced that it would be increasing wages in virus-hit countries (from $15 to $17, in the US) .
  • Amazon also stopped accepting “non-essential” goods in its warehouses, in order to prioritize the sale of household essentials and medical goods that are in high demand.
  • Finally, in Italy, Amazon decided not to stop its operations, despite some employees testing positive for COVID-19. Controversial as this move may be, Amazon’s private interests are aligned with those of society – maintaining the supply of essential goods is now more important than ever. 

And it is not just Amazon that is seeking to fill the breach left temporarily by brick & mortar retail. Other retailers are also stepping up efforts to distribute their goods online.

  • The apps of traditional retail chains have witnessed record daily downloads (thus relying on the smartphone platforms pioneered by Google and Apple).
  •  Walmart has become the go-to choice for online food purchases:

(Source: Bloomberg)

The shift to online shopping mimics what occurred in China, during its own COVID-19 lockdown. 

  • According to an article published in HBR, e-commerce penetration reached 36.6% of retail sales in China (compared to 29.7% in 2019). The same article explains how Alibaba’s technology is enabling traditional retailers to better manage their supply chains, ultimately helping them to sell their goods online.
  • A study by Nielsen ratings found that 67% of retailers would expand online channels. 
  • One large retailer shut many of its physical stores and redeployed many of its employees to serve as online influencers on WeChat, thus attempting to boost online sales.
  • Spurred by compassion and/or a desire to boost its brand abroad, Alibaba and its founder, Jack Ma, have made large efforts to provide critical medical supplies (notably tests kits and surgical masks) to COVID-hit countries such as the US and Belgium.

And it is not just retail that is adapting to the outbreak. Many restaurants are trying to stay afloat by shifting from in-house dining to deliveries. These attempts have been made possible by the emergence of food delivery platforms, such as UberEats and Deliveroo. 

These platforms have taken several steps to facilitate food deliveries during the outbreak.

  • UberEats announced that it would be waiving delivery fees for independent restaurants.
  • Both UberEats and Deliveroo have put in place systems for deliveries to take place without direct physical contact. While not entirely risk-free, meal delivery can provide welcome relief to people experiencing stressful lockdown conditions.

Similarly, the shares of Blue Apron – an online meal-kit delivery service – have surged more than 600% since the start of the outbreak.

In short, COVID-19 has caused a drastic shift towards contactless retail and food delivery services. It is an open question how much of this shift would have been possible without the pioneering business model innovations brought about by Amazon and its online retail platform, as well as modern food delivery platforms, such as UberEats and Deliveroo. At the very least, it seems unlikely that it would have happened as fast.

The entertainment industry is another area where increasing digitization has made lockdowns more bearable. The reason is obvious: locked-down consumers still require some form of amusement. With physical supply chains under tremendous strain, and social gatherings no longer an option, digital media has thus become the default choice for many.

Data published by Verizon shows a sharp increase (in the week running from March 9 to March 16) in the consumption of digital entertainment, especially gaming:

This echoes other sources, which also report that the use of traditional streaming platforms has surged in areas hit by COVID-19.

  • Netflix subscriptions are said to be spiking in locked-down communities. During the first week of March, Netflix installations increased by 77% in Italy and 33% in Spain, compared to the February average. Netflix app downloads increased by 33% in Hong kong and South Korea. The Amazon Prime app saw a similar increase.
  • YouTube has also witnessed a surge in usage. 
  • Live streaming (on platforms such as Periscope, Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc) has also increased in popularity. It is notably being used for everything from concerts and comedy clubs to religious services, and even zoo visits.
  • Disney Plus has also been highly popular. According to one source, half of US homes with children under the age of 10 purchased a Disney Plus subscription. This trend is expected to continue during the COVID-19 outbreak. Disney even released Frozen II three months ahead of schedule in order to boost new subscriptions.
  • Hollywood studios have started releasing some of their lower-profile titles directly on streaming services.

Traffic has also increased significantly on popular gaming platforms.

These are just a tiny sample of the many ways in which digital entertainment is filling the void left by social gatherings. It is thus central to the lives of people under lockdown.

2. Cashless payments

But all of the services that are listed above rely on cashless payments – be it to limit the risk or contagion or because these transactions take place remotely. Fintech innovations have thus turned out to be one of the foundations that make social distancing policies viable. 

This is particularly evident in the food industry. 

  • Food delivery platforms, like UberEats and Deliveroo, already relied on mobile payments.
  • Costa coffee (a UK equivalent to starbucks) went cashless in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19.
  • Domino’s Pizza, among other franchises, announced that it would move to contactless deliveries.
  • President Donald Trump is said to have discussed plans to keep drive-thru restaurants open during the outbreak. This would also certainly imply exclusively digital payments.
  • And although doubts remain concerning the extent to which the SARS-CoV-2 virus may, or may not, be transmitted via banknotes and coins, many other businesses have preemptively ceased to accept cash payments

As the Jodie Kelley – the CEO of the Electronic Transactions Association – put it, in a CNBC interview:

Contactless payments have come up as a new option for consumers who are much more conscious of what they touch. 

This increased demand for cashless payments has been a blessing for Fintech firms. 

  • Though it is too early to gage the magnitude of this shift, early signs – notably from China – suggest that mobile payments have become more common during the outbreak.
  • In China, Alipay announced that it expected to radically expand its services to new sectors – restaurants, cinema bookings, real estate purchases – in an attempt to compete with WeChat.
  • PayPal has also witnessed an uptick in transactions, though this growth might ultimately be weighed-down by declining economic activity.
  • In the past, Facebook had revealed plans to offer mobile payments across its platforms – Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram & Libra. Those plans may not have been politically viable at the time. The COVID-19 could conceivably change this.

In short, the COVID-19 outbreak has increased our reliance on digital payments, as these can both take place remotely and, potentially, limit contamination via banknotes. None of this would have been possible twenty years ago when industry pioneers, such as PayPal, were in their infancy. 

3. High speed internet access

Similarly, it goes without saying that none of the above would be possible without the tremendous investments that have been made in broadband infrastructure, most notably by internet service providers. Though these companies have often faced strong criticism from the public, they provide the backbone upon which outbreak-stricken economies can function.

By causing so many activities to move online, the COVID-19 outbreak has put broadband networks to the test. So for, broadband infrastructure around the world has been up to the task. This is partly because the spike in usage has occurred in daytime hours (where network’s capacity is less straine), but also because ISPs traditionally rely on a number of tools to limit peak-time usage.

The biggest increases in usage seem to have occurred in daytime hours. As data from OpenVault illustrates:

According to BT, one of the UK’s largest telecoms operators, daytime internet usage is up by 50%, but peaks are still well within record levels (and other UK operators have made similar claims):

Anecdotal data also suggests that, so far, fixed internet providers have not significantly struggled to handle this increased traffic (the same goes for Content Delivery Networks). Not only were these networks already designed to withstand high peaks in demand, but ISPs have, such as Verizon, increased their  capacity to avoid potential issues.

For instance, internet speed tests performed using Ookla suggest that average download speeds only marginally decreased, it at all, in locked-down regions, compared to previous levels:

However, the same data suggests that mobile networks have faced slightly larger decreases in performance, though these do not appear to be severe. For instance, contrary to contemporaneous reports, a mobile network outage that occurred in the UK is unlikely to have been caused by a COVID-related surge. 

The robustness exhibited by broadband networks is notably due to long-running efforts by ISPs (spurred by competition) to improve download speeds and latency. As one article put it:

For now, cable operators’ and telco providers’ networks are seemingly withstanding the increased demands, which is largely due to the upgrades that they’ve done over the past 10 or so years using technologies such as DOCSIS 3.1 or PON.

Pushed in part by Google Fiber’s launch back in 2012, the large cable operators and telcos, such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Charter Communications, have spent years upgrading their networks to 1-Gig speeds. Prior to those upgrades, cable operators in particular struggled with faster upload speeds, and the slowdown of broadband services during peak usage times, such as after school and in the evenings, as neighborhood nodes became overwhelmed.

This is not without policy ramifications.

For a start, these developments might vindicate antitrust enforcers that allowed mergers that led to higher investments, sometimes at the expense of slight reductions in price competition. This is notably the case for so-called 4 to 3 mergers in the wireless telecommunications industry. As an in-depth literature review by ICLE scholars concludes:

Studies of investment also found that markets with three facilities-based operators had significantly higher levels of investment by individual firms.

Similarly, the COVID-19 outbreak has also cast further doubts over the appropriateness of net neutrality regulations. Indeed, an important criticism of such regulations is that they prevent ISPs from using the price mechanism to manage congestion

It is these fears of congestion, likely unfounded (see above), that led the European Union to urge streaming companies to voluntarily reduce the quality of their products. To date, Netflix, Youtube, Amazon Prime, Apple, Facebook and Disney have complied with the EU’s request. 

This may seem like a trivial problem, but it was totally avoidable. As a result of net neutrality regulation, European authorities and content providers have been forced into an awkward position (likely unfounded) that unnecessarily penalizes those consumers and ISPs who do not face congestion issues (conversely, it lets failing ISPs off the hook and disincentivizes further investments on their part). This is all the more unfortunate that, as argued above, streaming services are essential to locked-down consumers. 

Critics may retort that small quality decreases hardly have any impact on consumers. But, if this is indeed the case, then content providers were using up unnecessary amounts of bandwidth before the COVID-19 outbreak (something that is less likely to occur without net neutrality obligations). And if not, then European consumers have indeed been deprived of something they valued. The shoe is thus on the other foot.

These normative considerations aside, the big point is that we can all be thankful to live in an era of high-speed internet.

 4. Concluding remarks 

Big Tech is rapidly emerging as one of the heroes of the COVID-19 crisis. Companies that were once on the receiving end of daily reproaches – by the press, enforcers, and scholars alike – are gaining renewed appreciation from the public. Times have changed since the early days of these companies – where consumers marvelled at the endless possibilities that their technologies offered. Today we are coming to realize how essential tech companies have become to our daily lives, and how they make society more resilient in the face of fat-tailed events, like pandemics.

The move to a contactless, digital, economy is a critical part of what makes contemporary societies better-equipped to deal with COVID-19. As this post has argued, online delivery, digital entertainment, contactless payments and high speed internet all play a critical role. 

To think that we receive some of these services for free…

Last year, Erik Brynjolfsson, Avinash Collins and Felix Eggers published a paper in PNAS, showing that consumers were willing to pay significant sums for online goods they currently receive free of charge. One can only imagine how much larger those sums would be if that same experiment were repeated today.

Even Big Tech’s critics are willing to recognize the huge debt we owe to these companies. As Stephen Levy wrote, in an article titled “Has the Coronavirus Killed the Techlash?”:

Who knew the techlash was susceptible to a virus?

The pandemic does not make any of the complaints about the tech giants less valid. They are still drivers of surveillance capitalism who duck their fair share of taxes and abuse their power in the marketplace. We in the press must still cover them aggressively and skeptically. And we still need a reckoning that protects the privacy of citizens, levels the competitive playing field, and holds these giants to account. But the momentum for that reckoning doesn’t seem sustainable at a moment when, to prop up our diminished lives, we are desperately dependent on what they’ve built. And glad that they built it.

While it is still early to draw policy lessons from the outbreak, one thing seems clear: the COVID-19 pandemic provides yet further evidence that tech policymakers should be extremely careful not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, by promoting regulations that may thwart innovation (or the opposite).

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Dirk Auer, (Senior Fellow of Law & Economics, International Center for Law & Economics).]

Republican Senator Josh Hawley infamously argued that Big Tech is overrated. In his words:

My biggest critique of big tech is: what big innovation have they really given us? What is it now that in the last 15, 20 years that people who say they are the brightest minds in the country have given this country? What are their great innovations?

To Senator Hawley these questions seemed rhetorical. Big Tech’s innovations were trivial gadgets: “autoplay” and “snap streaks”, to quote him once more.

But, as any Monty Python connoisseur will tell you, rhetorical questions have a way of being … not so rhetorical. In one of Python’s most famous jokes, members of the “People’s Front of Judea” ask “what have the Romans ever done for us”? To their own surprise, the answer turns out to be a great deal:

This post is the first in a series examining some of the many ways in which Big Tech is making Coronavirus-related lockdowns and social distancing more bearable, and how Big Tech is enabling our economies to continue functioning (albeit at a severely reduced pace) throughout the outbreak. 

Although Big Tech’s contributions are just a small part of a much wider battle, they suggest that the world is drastically better situated to deal with COVID-19 than it would have been twenty years ago – and this is in no small part thanks to Big Tech’s numerous innovations.

Of course, some will say that the world would be even better equipped to handle COVID-19, if Big Tech had only been subject to more (or less) regulation. Whether these critiques are correct, or not, they are not the point of this post. For many, like Senator Hawley, it is apparently undeniable that tech does more harm than good. But, as this post suggests, that is surely not the case. And before we do decide whether and how we want to regulate it in the future, we should be particularly mindful of what aspects of “Big Tech” seem particularly suited to dealing with the current crisis, and ensure that we don’t adopt regulations that thoughtlessly undermine these.

1. Priceless information 

One of the most important ways in which Big Tech firms have supported international attempts to COVID-19 has been their role as  information intermediaries. 

As the title of a New York Times article put it:

When Facebook Is More Trustworthy Than the President: Social media companies are delivering reliable information in the coronavirus crisis. Why can’t they do that all the time?

The author is at least correct on the first part. Big Tech has become a cornucopia of reliable information about the virus:

  • Big Tech firms are partnering with the White House and other agencies to analyze massive COVID-19 datasets in order to help discover novel answers to questions about transmission, medical care, and other interventions. This partnership is possible thanks to the massive investments in AI infrastructure that the leading tech firms have made. 
  • Google Scholar has partnered with renowned medical journals (as well as public authorities) to guide citizens towards cutting edge scholarship relating to COVID-19. This a transformative ressource in a world of lockdows and overburdened healthcare providers.
  • Google has added a number of features to its main search engine – such as a “Coronavirus Knowledge Panel” and SOS alerts – in order to help users deal with the spread of the virus.
  • On Twitter, information and insights about COVID-19 compete in the market for ideas. Numerous news outlets have published lists of recommended people to follow (Fortune, Forbes). 

    Furthermore – to curb some of the unwanted effects of an unrestrained market for ideas – Twitter (and most other digital platforms) links to the websites of public authorities when users search for COVID-related hashtags.
  • This flow of information is a two-way street: Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, among others, enable citizens and experts to weigh in on the right policy approach to COVID-19. 

    Though the results are sometimes far from perfect, these exchanges may prove invaluable in critical times where usual methods of policy-making (such as hearings and conferences) are mostly off the table.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the Internet is a precious source of knowledge about how to deal with an emerging virus, as well as life under lockdown. We often take for granted how much of our lives benefit from extreme specialization. These exchanges are severely restricted under lockdown conditions. Luckily, with the internet and modern search engines (pioneered by Google), most of the world’s information is but a click away.

    For example, Facebook Groups have been employed by users of the social media platform in order to better coordinate necessary activity among community members — like giving blood — while still engaging in social distancing.

In short, search engines and social networks have been beacons of information regarding COVID-19. Their mostly bottom-up approach to knowledge generation (i.e. popular topics emerge organically) is essential in a world of extreme uncertainty. This has ultimately enabled these players to stay ahead of the curve in bringing valuable information to citizens around the world.

2. Social interactions

This is probably the most obvious way in which Big Tech is making life under lockdown more bearable for everyone. 

  • In Italy, Whatsapp messages and calls jumped by 20% following the outbreak of COVID-19. And Microsoft claims that the use of Skype jumped by 100%.
  • Younger users are turning to social networks, like TikTok, to deal with the harsh realities of the pandemic.
  • Strangers are using Facebook groups to support each other through difficult times.
  • And institutions, like the WHO, are piggybacking on this popularity to further raise awareness about COVID-19 via social media. 
  • In South Africa, health authorities even created a whatsapp contact to answer users questions about the virus.
  • Most importantly, social media is a godsend for senior citizens and anyone else who may have to live in almost total isolation for the foreseeable future. For instance, nursing homes are putting communications apps, like Skype and WhatsApp, in the hands of their patients, to keep up their morale (here and here).

And with the economic effects of COVID-19 starting to gather speed, users will more than ever be grateful to receive these services free of charge. Sharing data – often very limited amounts – with a platform is an insignificant price to pay in times of economic hardship. 

3. Working & Learning

It will also be impossible to effectively fight COVID-19 if we cannot maintain the economy afloat. Stock markets have already plunged by record amounts. Surely, these losses would be unfathomably worse if many of us were not lucky enough to be able to work, and from the safety of our own homes. And for those individuals who are unable to work from home, their own exposure is dramatically reduced thanks to a significant proportion of the population that can stay out of public.

Once again, we largely have Big Tech to thank for this. 

  • Downloads of Microsoft Teams and Zoom are surging on both Google and Apple’s app stores. This is hardly surprising. With much of the workforce staying at home, these video-conference applications have become essential. The increased load generated by people working online might even have caused Microsoft Teams to crash in Europe.
  • According to Microsoft, the number of Microsoft Teams meetings increased by 500 percent in China.
  • Sensing that the current crisis may last for a while, some firms have also started to conduct job interviews online; populars apps for doing so include Skype, Zoom and Whatsapp. 
  • Slack has also seen a surge in usage, as firms set themselves up to work remotely. It has started offering free training, to help firms move online.
  • Along similar lines, Google recently announced that its G suite of office applications – which enables users to share and work on documents online – had recently passed 2 Billion users.
  • Some tech firms (including Google, Microsoft and Zoom) have gone a step further and started giving away some of their enterprise productivity software, in order to help businesses move their workflows online.

And Big Tech is also helping universities, schools and parents to continue providing coursework and lectures to their students/children.

  • Zoom and Microsoft Teams have been popular choices for online learning. To facilitate the transition to online learning, Zoom has notably lifted time limits relating to the free version of its app (for schools in the most affected areas).
  • Even in the US, where the virus outbreak is currently smaller than in Europe, thousands of students are already being taught online.
  • Much of the online learning being conducted for primary school children is being done with affordable Chromebooks. And some of these Chromebooks are distributed to underserved schools through grant programs administered by Google.
  • Moreover, at the time of writing, most of the best selling books on Amazon.com are pre-school learning books:

Finally, the advent of online storage services, such as Dropbox and Google Drive, has largely alleviated the need for physical copies of files. In turn, this enables employees to remotely access all the files they need to stay productive. While this may be convenient under normal circumstances, it becomes critical when retrieving a binder in the office is no longer an option.

4. So what has Big Tech ever done for us?

With millions of families around the world currently under forced lockdown, it is becoming increasingly evident that Big Tech’s innovations are anything but trivial. Innovations that seemed like convenient tools only a couple of days ago, are now becoming essential parts of our daily lives (or, at least, we are finally realizing how powerful they truly are). 

The fight against COVID-19 will be hard. We can at least be thankful that we have Big Tech by our side. Paraphrasing the Monty Python crew: 

Q: What has Big Tech ever done for us? 

A: Abundant, free, and easily accessible information. Precious social interactions. Online working and learning.

Q: But apart from information, social interactions, and online working (and learning); what has Big Tech ever done for us?

For the answer to this question, I invite you to stay tuned for the next post in this series.

This is the fourth, and last, in a series of TOTM blog posts discussing the Commission’s recently published Google Android decision (the first post can be found here, and the second here, and the third here). It draws on research from a soon-to-be published ICLE white paper.

The previous parts of this series have mostly focused on the Commission’s factual and legal conclusions. However, as this blog post points out, the case’s economic underpinnings also suffer from important weaknesses.

Two problems are particularly salient: First, the economic models cited by the Commission (discussed in an official paper, but not directly in the decision) poorly match the underlying facts. Second, the Commission’s conclusions on innovation harms are out of touch with the abundant economic literature regarding the potential link between market structure and innovation.

The wrong economic models

The Commission’s Chief Economist team outlined its economic reasoning in an article published shortly after the Android decision was published. The article reveals that the Commission relied upon three economic papers to support its conclusion that Google’s tying harmed consumer welfare.

Each of these three papers attempts to address the same basic problem. Ever since the rise of the Chicago-School, it is widely accepted that a monopolist cannot automatically raise its profits by entering an adjacent market (i.e. leveraging its monopoly position), for instance through tying. This has sometimes been called the single-monopoly-profit theory. In more recent years, various scholars have refined this Chicago-School intuition, and identified instances where the theory fails.

While the single monopoly profit theory has been criticized in academic circles, it is important to note that the three papers cited by the Commission accept its basic premise. They thus attempt to show why the theory fails in the context of the Google Android case. 

Unfortunately, the assumptions upon which they rely to reach this conclusion markedly differ from the case’s fact pattern. These papers thus offer little support to the Commission’s economic conclusions.

For a start, the authors of the first paper cited by the Commission concede that their own model does not apply to the Google case:

Actual antitrust cases are fact-intensive and our model does not perfectly fit with the current Google case in one important aspect.

The authors thus rely on important modifications, lifted from a paper by Frederico Etro and Cristina Caffara (the second paper cited by the Commission), to support their conclusion that Google’s tying was anticompetitive. 

The second paper cited by the Commission, however, is equally problematic

The authors’ underlying intuition is relatively straightforward: because Google bundles its suite of Google Apps (including Search) with the Play Store, a rival search engine would have to pay a premium in order to be pre-installed and placed on the home screen, because OEMs would have to entirely forgo Google’s suite of applications. The key assumption here is that OEMs cannot obtain the Google Play app and pre-install and place favorably a rival search app

But this is simply not true of Google’s contractual terms. The best evidence is that rivals search apps have indeed concluded deals with OEMs to pre-install their search apps, without these OEMs losing access to Google’s suite of proprietary apps. Google’s contractual terms simply do not force OEMs to choose between the Google Play app and the pre-installation of a rival search app. Etro and Caffara’s model thus falls flat.

More fundamentally, even if Google’s contractual terms did prevent OEMs from pre-loading rival apps, the paper’s conclusions would still be deeply flawed. The authors essentially assume that the only way for consumers to obtain a rival app is through pre-installation. But this is a severe misreading of the prevailing market conditions. 

Users remain free to independently download rival search apps. If Google did indeed purchase exclusive pre-installation, users would not have to choose between a “full Android” device and one with a rival search app but none of Google’s apps. Instead, they could download the rival app and place it alongside Google’s applications. 

A more efficient rival could even provide side payments, of some sort, to encourage consumers to download its app. Exclusive pre-installation thus generates a much smaller advantage than Etro and Caffara assume, and their model fails to reflect this.

Finally, the third paper by Alexandre de Cornière and Greg Taylor, suffers from the exact same problem. The authors clearly acknowledge that their findings only hold if OEMs (and consumers) are effectively prevented from (pre-)installing applications that compete with Google’s apps. In their own words:

Upstream firms offer contracts to the downstream firm, who chooses which component(s) to use and then sells to consumers. For our theory to apply, the following three conditions need to hold: (i) substitutability between the two versions of B leads the downstream firm to install at most one version.

The upshot is that all three of the economic models cited by the Commission cease to be relevant in the specific context of the Google Android decision. The Commission is thus left with little to no economic evidence to support its finding of anticompetitive effects.

Critics might argue that direct downloads by consumers are but a theoretical possibility. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Take the web browser market: The Samsung Internet Browser has more than 1 Billion downloads on Google’s Play Store. The Opera, Opera Mini and Firefox browsers each have over a 100 million downloads. The Brave browser has more than 10 million downloads, but is growing rapidly.

In short the economic papers on which the Commission relies are based on a world that does not exist. They thus fail to support the Commission’s economic findings.

An incorrect view of innovation

In its decision, the Commission repeatedly claimed that Google’s behavior stifled innovation because it prevented rivals from entering the market. However, the Commission offered no evidence to support its assumption that reduced market entry on would lead to a decrease in innovation:

(858) For the reasons set out in this Section, the Commission concludes that the tying of the Play Store and the Google Search app helps Google to maintain and strengthen its dominant position in each national market for general search services, increases barriers to entry, deters innovation and tends to harm, directly or indirectly, consumers.

(859) First, Google’s conduct makes it harder for competing general search services to gain search queries and the respective revenues and data needed to improve their services.

(861) Second, Google’s conduct increases barriers to entry by shielding Google from competition from general search services that could challenge its dominant position in the national markets for general search services:

(862) Third, by making it harder for competing general search services to gain search queries including the respective revenues and data needed to improve their services, Google’s conduct reduces the incentives of competing general search services to invest in developing innovative features, such as innovation in algorithm and user experience design.

In a nutshell, the Commission’s findings rest on the assumption that barriers to entry and more concentrated market structures necessarily reduce innovation. But this assertion is not supported by the empirical economic literature on the topic.

For example, a 2006 paper published by Richard Gilbert surveys 24 empirical studies on the topic. These studies examine the link between market structure (or firm size) and innovation. Though earlier studies tended to identify a positive relationship between concentration, as well as firm size, and innovation, more recent empirical techniques found no significant relationship. Gilbert thus suggests that:

These econometric studies suggest that whatever relationship exists at a general economy-wide level between industry structure and R&D is masked by differences across industries in technological opportunities, demand, and the appropriability of inventions.

This intuition is confirmed by another high-profile empirical paper by Aghion, Bloom, Blundell, Griffith, and Howitt. The authors identify an inverted-U relationship between competition and innovation. Perhaps more importantly, they point out that this relationship is affected by a number of sector-specific factors.

Finally, reviewing fifty years of research on innovation and market structure, Wesley Cohen concludes that:

Even before one controls for industry effects, the variance in R&D intensity explained by market concentration is small. Moreover, whatever relationship that exists in cross sections becomes imperceptible with the inclusion of controls for industry characteristics, whether expressed as industry fixed effects or in the form of survey-based and other measures of industry characteristics such as technological opportunity, appropriability conditions, and demand. In parallel to a decades-long accumulation of mixed results, theorists have also spawned an almost equally voluminous and equivocal literature on the link between market structure and innovation.[16]

The Commission’s stance is further weakened by the fact that investments in the Android operating system are likely affected by a weak appropriability regime. In other words, because of its open source nature, it is hard for Google to earn a return on investments in the Android OS (anyone can copy, modify and offer their own version of the OS). 

Loosely tying Google’s proprietary applications to the OS is arguably one way to solve this appropriability problem. Unfortunately, the Commission brushed these considerations aside. It argued that Google could earn some revenue from the Google Play app, as well as other potential venues. However, the Commission did not question whether these sources of income were even comparable to the sums invested by Google in the Android OS. It is thus possible that the Commission’s decision will prevent Google from earning a positive return on some future investments in the Android OS, ultimately causing it to cut back its investments and slowing innovation.

The upshot is that the Commission was simply wrong to assume that barriers to entry and more concentrated market structures would necessarily reduce innovation. This is especially true, given that Google may struggle to earn a return on its investments, absent the contractual provisions challenged by the Commission.

Conclusion

In short, the Commission’s economic analysis was severely lacking. It relied on economic models that had little to say about the market it which Google and its rivals operated. Its decisions thus reveals the inherent risk of basing antitrust decisions upon overfitted economic models. 

As if that were not enough, the Android decision also misrepresents the economic literature concerning the link (or absence thereof) between market structure and innovation. As a result, there is no reason to believe that Google’s behavior reduced innovation.

This is the third in a series of TOTM blog posts discussing the Commission’s recently published Google Android decision (the first post can be found here, and the second here). It draws on research from a soon-to-be published ICLE white paper.

(Comparison of Google and Apple’s smartphone business models. Red $ symbols represent money invested; Green $ symbols represent sources of revenue; Black lines show the extent of Google and Apple’s control over their respective platforms)

For the third in my series of posts about the Google Android decision, I will delve into the theories of harm identified by the Commission. 

The big picture is that the Commission’s analysis was particularly one-sided. The Commission failed to adequately account for the complex business challenges that Google faced – such as monetizing the Android platform and shielding it from fragmentation. To make matters worse, its decision rests on dubious factual conclusions and extrapolations. The result is a highly unbalanced assessment that could ultimately hamstring Google and prevent it from effectively competing with its smartphone rivals, Apple in particular.

1. Tying without foreclosure

The first theory of harm identified by the Commission concerned the tying of Google’s Search app with the Google Play app, and of Google’s Chrome app with both the Google Play and Google Search apps.

Oversimplifying, Google required its OEMs to choose between either pre-installing a bundle of Google applications, or forgoing some of the most important ones (notably Google Play). The Commission argued that this gave Google a competitive advantage that rivals could not emulate (even though Google’s terms did not preclude OEMs from simultaneously pre-installing rival web browsers and search apps). 

To support this conclusion, the Commission notably asserted that no alternative distribution channel would enable rivals to offset the competitive advantage that Google obtained from tying. This finding is, at best, dubious. 

For a start, the Commission claimed that user downloads were not a viable alternative distribution channel, even though roughly 250 million apps are downloaded on Google’s Play store every day.

The Commission sought to overcome this inconvenient statistic by arguing that Android users were unlikely to download apps that duplicated the functionalities of a pre-installed app – why download a new browser if there is already one on the user’s phone?

But this reasoning is far from watertight. For instance, the 17th most-downloaded Android app, the “Super-Bright Led Flashlight” (with more than 587million downloads), mostly replicates a feature that is pre-installed on all Android devices. Moreover, the five most downloaded Android apps (Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, Instagram and Skype) provide functionalities that are, to some extent at least, offered by apps that have, at some point or another, been preinstalled on many Android devices (notably Google Hangouts, Google Photos and Google+).

The Commission countered that communications apps were not appropriate counterexamples, because they benefit from network effects. But this overlooks the fact that the most successful communications and social media apps benefited from very limited network effects when they were launched, and that they succeeded despite the presence of competing pre-installed apps. Direct user downloads are thus a far more powerful vector of competition than the Commission cared to admit.

Similarly concerning is the Commission’s contention that paying OEMs or Mobile Network Operators (“MNOs”) to pre-install their search apps was not a viable alternative for Google’s rivals. Some of the reasons cited by the Commission to support this finding are particularly troubling.

For instance, the Commission claimed that high transaction costs prevented parties from concluding these pre installation deals. 

But pre-installation agreements are common in the smartphone industry. In recent years, Microsoft struck a deal with Samsung to pre-install some of its office apps on the Galaxy Note 10. It also paid Verizon to pre-install the Bing search app on a number of Samsung phones, in 2010. Likewise, a number of Russian internet companies have been in talks with Huawei to pre-install their apps on its devices. And Yahoo reached an agreement with Mozilla to make it the default search engine for its web browser. Transaction costs do not appear to  have been an obstacle in any of these cases.

The Commission also claimed that duplicating too many apps would cause storage space issues on devices. 

And yet, a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that storage space is unlikely to be a major issue. For instance, the Bing Search app has a download size of 24MB, whereas typical entry-level smartphones generally have an internal memory of at least 64GB (that can often be extended to more than 1TB with the addition of an SD card). The Bing Search app thus takes up less than one-thousandth of these devices’ internal storage. Granted, the Yahoo search app is slightly larger than Microsoft’s, weighing almost 100MB. But this is still insignificant compared to a modern device’s storage space.

Finally, the Commission claimed that rivals were contractually prevented from concluding exclusive pre-installation deals because Google’s own apps would also be pre-installed on devices.

However, while it is true that Google’s apps would still be present on a device, rivals could still pay for their applications to be set as default. Even Yandex – a plaintiff – recognized that this would be a valuable solution. In its own words (taken from the Commission’s decision):

Pre-installation alongside Google would be of some benefit to an alternative general search provider such as Yandex […] given the importance of default status and pre-installation on home screen, a level playing field will not be established unless there is a meaningful competition for default status instead of Google.

In short, the Commission failed to convincingly establish that Google’s contractual terms prevented as-efficient rivals from effectively distributing their applications on Android smartphones. The evidence it adduced was simply too thin to support anything close to that conclusion.

2. The threat of fragmentation

The Commission’s second theory of harm concerned the so-called “antifragmentation” agreements concluded between Google and OEMs. In a nutshell, Google only agreed to license the Google Search and Google Play apps to OEMs that sold “Android Compatible” devices (i.e. devices sold with a version of Android did not stray too far from Google’s most recent version).

According to Google, this requirement was necessary to limit the number of Android forks that were present on the market (as well as older versions of the standard Android). This, in turn, reduced development costs and prevented the Android platform from unraveling.

The Commission disagreed, arguing that Google’s anti-fragmentation provisions thwarted competition from potential Android forks (i.e. modified versions of the Android OS).

This conclusion raises at least two critical questions: The first is whether these agreements were necessary to ensure the survival and competitiveness of the Android platform, and the second is why “open” platforms should be precluded from partly replicating a feature that is essential to rival “closed” platforms, such as Apple’s iOS.

Let us start with the necessity, or not, of Google’s contractual terms. If fragmentation did indeed pose an existential threat to the Android ecosystem, and anti-fragmentation agreements averted this threat, then it is hard to make a case that they thwarted competition. The Android platform would simply not have been as viable without them.

The Commission dismissed this possibility, relying largely on statements made by Google’s rivals (many of whom likely stood to benefit from the suppression of these agreements). For instance, the Commission cited comments that it received from Yandex – one of the plaintiffs in the case:

(1166) The fact that fragmentation can bring significant benefits is also confirmed by third-party respondents to requests for information:

[…]

(2) Yandex, which stated: “Whilst the development of Android forks certainly has an impact on the fragmentation of the Android ecosystem in terms of additional development being required to adapt applications for various versions of the OS, the benefits of fragmentation outweigh the downsides…”

Ironically, the Commission relied on Yandex’s statements while, at the same time, it dismissed arguments made by Android app developers, on account that they were conflicted. In its own words:

Google attached to its Response to the Statement of Objections 36 letters from OEMs and app developers supporting Google’s views about the dangers of fragmentation […] It appears likely that the authors of the 36 letters were influenced by Google when drafting or signing those letters.

More fundamentally, the Commission’s claim that fragmentation was not a significant threat is at odds with an almost unanimous agreement among industry insiders.

For example, while it is not dispositive, a rapid search for the terms “Google Android fragmentation”, using the DuckDuckGo search engine, leads to results that cut strongly against the Commission’s conclusions. Of the ten first results, only one could remotely be construed as claiming that fragmentation was not an issue. The others paint a very different picture (below are some of the most salient excerpts):

“There’s a fairly universal perception that Android fragmentation is a barrier to a consistent user experience, a security risk, and a challenge for app developers.” (here)

“Android fragmentation, a problem with the operating system from its inception, has only become more acute an issue over time, as more users clamor for the latest and greatest software to arrive on their phones.” (here)

“Android Fragmentation a Huge Problem: Study.” (here)

“Google’s Android fragmentation fix still isn’t working at all.” (here)

“Does Google care about Android fragmentation? Not now—but it should.” (here).

“This is very frustrating to users and a major headache for Google… and a challenge for corporate IT,” Gold said, explaining that there are a large number of older, not fully compatible devices running various versions of Android.” (here)

Perhaps more importantly, one might question why Google should be treated differently than rivals that operate closed platforms, such as Apple, Microsoft and Blackberry (before the last two mostly exited the Mobile OS market). By definition, these platforms limit all potential forks (because they are based on proprietary software).

The Commission argued that Apple, Microsoft and Blackberry had opted to run “closed” platforms, which gave them the right to prevent rivals from copying their software.

While this answer has some superficial appeal, it is incomplete. Android may be an open source project, but this is not true of Google’s proprietary apps. Why should it be forced to offer them to rivals who would use them to undermine its platform? The Commission did not meaningfully consider this question.

And yet, industry insiders routinely compare the fragmentation of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android OS, in order to gage the state of competition between both firms. For instance, one commentator noted:

[T]he gap between iOS and Android users running the latest major versions of their operating systems has never looked worse for Google.

Likewise, an article published in Forbes concluded that Google’s OEMs were slow at providing users with updates, and that this might drive users and developers away from the Android platform:

For many users the Android experience isn’t as up-to-date as Apple’s iOS. Users could buy the latest Android phone now and they may see one major OS update and nothing else. […] Apple users can be pretty sure that they’ll get at least two years of updates, although the company never states how long it intends to support devices.

However this problem, in general, makes it harder for developers and will almost certainly have some inherent security problems. Developers, for example, will need to keep pushing updates – particularly for security issues – to many different versions. This is likely a time-consuming and expensive process.

To recap, the Commission’s decision paints a world that is either black or white: either firms operate closed platforms, and they are then free to limit fragmentation as they see fit, or they create open platforms, in which case they are deemed to have accepted much higher levels of fragmentation.

This stands in stark contrast to industry coverage, which suggests that users and developers of both closed and open platforms care a great deal about fragmentation, and demand that measures be put in place to address it. If this is true, then the relative fragmentation of open and closed platforms has an important impact on their competitive performance, and the Commission was wrong to reject comparisons between Google and its closed ecosystem rivals. 

3. Google’s revenue sharing agreements

The last part of the Commission’s case centered on revenue sharing agreements between Google and its OEMs/MNOs. Google paid these parties to exclusively place its search app on the homescreen of their devices. According to the Commission, these payments reduced OEMs and MNOs’ incentives to pre-install competing general search apps.

However, to reach this conclusion, the Commission had to make the critical (and highly dubious) assumption that rivals could not match Google’s payments.

To get to that point, it notably assumed that rival search engines would be unable to increase their share of mobile search results beyond their share of desktop search results. The underlying intuition appears to be that users who freely chose Google Search on desktop (Google Search & Chrome are not set as default on desktop PCs) could not be convinced to opt for a rival search engine on mobile.

But this ignores the possibility that rivals might offer an innovative app that swayed users away from their preferred desktop search engine. 

More importantly, this reasoning cuts against the Commission’s own claim that pre-installation and default placement were critical. If most users, dismiss their device’s default search app and search engine in favor of their preferred ones, then pre-installation and default placement are largely immaterial, and Google’s revenue sharing agreements could not possibly have thwarted competition (because they did not prevent users from independently installing their preferred search app). On the other hand, if users are easily swayed by default placement, then there is no reason to believe that rivals could not exceed their desktop market share on mobile phones.

The Commission was also wrong when it claimed that rival search engines were at a disadvantage because of the structure of Google’s revenue sharing payments. OEMs and MNOs allegedly lost all of their payments from Google if they exclusively placed a rival’s search app on the home screen of a single line of handsets.

The key question is the following: could Google automatically tilt the scales to its advantage by structuring the revenue sharing payments in this way? The answer appears to be no. 

For instance, it has been argued that exclusivity may intensify competition for distribution. Conversely, other scholars have claimed that exclusivity may deter entry in network industries. Unfortunately, the Commission did not examine whether Google’s revenue sharing agreements fell within this category. 

It thus provided insufficient evidence to support its conclusion that the revenue sharing agreements reduced OEMs’ (and MNOs’) incentives to pre-install competing general search apps, rather than merely increasing competition “for the market”.

4. Conclusion

To summarize, the Commission overestimated the effect that Google’s behavior might have on its rivals. It almost entirely ignored the justifications that Google put forward and relied heavily on statements made by its rivals. The result is a one-sided decision that puts undue strain on the Android Business model, while providing few, if any, benefits in return.

This is the second in a series of TOTM blog posts discussing the Commission’s recently published Google Android decision (the first post can be found here). It draws on research from a soon-to-be published ICLE white paper.

(Left, Android 10 Website; Right, iOS 13 Website)

In a previous post, I argued that the Commission failed to adequately define the relevant market in its recently published Google Android decision

This improper market definition might not be so problematic if the Commission had then proceeded to undertake a detailed (and balanced) assessment of the competitive conditions that existed in the markets where Google operates (including the competitive constraints imposed by Apple). 

Unfortunately, this was not the case. The following paragraphs respond to some of the Commission’s most problematic arguments regarding the existence of barriers to entry, and the absence of competitive constraints on Google’s behavior.

The overarching theme is that the Commission failed to quantify its findings and repeatedly drew conclusions that did not follow from the facts cited. As a result, it was wrong to conclude that Google faced little competitive pressure from Apple and other rivals.

1. Significant investments and network effects ≠ barriers to entry

In its decision, the Commission notably argued that significant investments (millions of euros) are required to set up a mobile OS and App store. It also argued that market for licensable mobile operating systems gave rise to network effects. 

But contrary to the Commission’s claims, neither of these two factors is, in and of itself, sufficient to establish the existence of barriers to entry (even under EU competition law’s loose definition of the term, rather than Stigler’s more technical definition)

Take the argument that significant investments are required to enter the mobile OS market.

The main problem is that virtually every market requires significant investments on the part of firms that seek to enter. Not all of these costs can be seen as barriers to entry, or the concept would lose all practical relevance. 

For example, purchasing a Boeing 737 Max airplane reportedly costs at least $74 million. Does this mean that incumbents in the airline industry are necessarily shielded from competition? Of course not. 

Instead, the relevant question is whether an entrant with a superior business model could access the capital required to purchase an airplane and challenge the industry’s incumbents.

Returning to the market for mobile OSs, the Commission should thus have questioned whether as-efficient rivals could find the funds required to produce a mobile OS. If the answer was yes, then the investments highlighted by the Commission were largely immaterial. As it happens, several firms have indeed produced competing OSs, including CyanogenMod, LineageOS and Tizen.

The same is true of Commission’s conclusion that network effects shielded Google from competitors. While network effects almost certainly play some role in the mobile OS and app store markets, it does not follow that they act as barriers to entry in competition law terms. 

As Paul Belleflamme recently argued, it is a myth that network effects can never be overcome. And as I have written elsewhere, the most important question is whether users could effectively coordinate their behavior and switch towards a superior platform, if one arose (See also Dan Spulber’s excellent article on this point).

The Commission completely ignored this critical interrogation during its discussion of network effects.

2. The failure of competitors is not proof of barriers to entry

Just as problematically, the Commission wrongly concluded that the failure of previous attempts to enter the market was proof of barriers to entry. 

This is the epitome of the Black Swan fallacy (i.e. inferring that all swans are white because you have never seen a relatively rare, but not irrelevant, black swan).

The failure of rivals is equally consistent with any number of propositions: 

  • There were indeed barriers to entry; 
  • Google’s products were extremely good (in ways that rivals and the Commission failed to grasp); 
  • Google responded to intense competitive pressure by continuously improving its product (and rivals thus chose to stay out of the market); 
  • Previous rivals were persistently inept (to take the words of Oliver Williamson); etc. 

The Commission did not demonstrate that its own inference was the right one, nor did it even demonstrate any awareness that other explanations were at least equally plausible.

3. First mover advantage?

Much of the same can be said about the Commission’s observation that Google enjoyed a first mover advantage

The elephant in the room is that Google was not the first mover in the smartphone market (and even less so in the mobile phone industry). The Commission attempted to sidestep this uncomfortable truth by arguing that Google was the first mover in the Android app store market. It then concluded that Google had an advantage because users were familiar with Android’s app store.

To call this reasoning “naive” would be too kind. Maybe consumers are familiar with Google’s products today, but they certainly weren’t when Google entered the market. 

Why would something that did not hinder Google (i.e. users’ lack of familiarity with its products, as opposed to those of incumbents such as Nokia or Blackberry) have the opposite effect on its future rivals? 

Moreover, even if rivals had to replicate Android’s user experience (and that of its app store) to prove successful, the Commission did not show that there was anything that prevented them from doing so — a particularly glaring omission given the open-source nature of the Android OS.

The result is that, at best, the Commission identified a correlation but not causality. Google may arguably have been the first, and users might have been more familiar with its offerings, but this still does not prove that Android flourished (and rivals failed) because of this.

4. It does not matter that users “do not take the OS into account” when they purchase a device

The Commission also concluded that alternatives to Android (notably Apple’s iOS and App Store) exercised insufficient competitive constraints on Google. Among other things, it argued that this was because users do not take the OS into account when they purchase a smartphone (so Google could allegedly degrade Android without fear of losing users to Apple)..

In doing so, the Commission failed to grasp that buyers might base their purchases on a devices’ OS without knowing it.

Some consumers will simply follow the advice of a friend, family member or buyer’s guide. Acutely aware of their own shortcomings, they thus rely on someone else who does take the phone’s OS into account. 

But even when they are acting independently, unsavvy consumers may still be driven by technical considerations. They might rely on a brand’s reputation for providing cutting edge devices (which, per the Commission, is the most important driver of purchase decisions), or on a device’s “feel” when they try it in a showroom. In both cases, consumers’ choices could indirectly be influenced by a phone’s OS.

In more technical terms, a phone’s hardware and software are complementary goods. In these settings, it is extremely difficult to attribute overall improvements to just one of the two complements. For instance, a powerful OS and chipset are both equally necessary to deliver a responsive phone. The fact that consumers may misattribute a device’s performance to one of these two complements says nothing about their underlying contribution to a strong end-product (which, in turn, drives purchase decisions). Likewise, battery life is reportedly one of the most important features for users, yet few realize that a phone’s OS has a large impact on it.

Finally, if consumers were really indifferent to the phone’s operating system, then the Commission should have dropped at least part of its case against Google. The Commission’s claim that Google’s anti-fragmentation agreements harmed consumers (by reducing OS competition) has no purchase if Android is provided free of charge and consumers are indifferent to non-price parameters, such as the quality of a phone’s OS. 

5. Google’s users were not “captured”

Finally, the Commission claimed that consumers are loyal to their smartphone brand and that competition for first time buyers was insufficient to constrain Google’s behavior against its “captured” installed base.

It notably found that 82% of Android users stick with Android when they change phones (compared to 78% for Apple), and that 75% of new smartphones are sold to existing users. 

The Commission asserted, without further evidence, that these numbers proved there was little competition between Android and iOS.

But is this really so? In almost all markets consumers likely exhibit at least some loyalty to their preferred brand. At what point does this become an obstacle to interbrand competition? The Commission offered no benchmark mark against which to assess its claims.

And although inter-industry comparisons of churn rates should be taken with a pinch of salt, it is worth noting that the Commission’s implied 18% churn rate for Android is nothing out of the ordinary (see, e.g., here, here, and here), including for industries that could not remotely be called anticompetitive.

To make matters worse, the Commission’s own claimed figures suggest that a large share of sales remained contestable (roughly 39%).

Imagine that, every year, 100 devices are sold in Europe (75 to existing users and 25 to new users, according to the Commission’s figures). Imagine further that the installed base of users is split 76–24 in favor of Android. Under the figures cited by the Commission, it follows that at least 39% of these sales are contestable.

According to the Commission’s figures, there would be 57 existing Android users (76% of 75) and 18 Apple users (24% of 75), of which roughly 10 (18%) and 4 (22%), respectively, switch brands in any given year. There would also be 25 new users who, even according to the Commission, do not display brand loyalty. The result is that out of 100 purchasers, 25 show no brand loyalty and 14 switch brands. And even this completely ignores the number of consumers who consider switching but choose not to after assessing the competitive options.

Conclusion

In short, the preceding paragraphs argue that the Commission did not meet the requisite burden of proof to establish Google’s dominance. Of course, it is one thing to show that the Commission’s reasoning was unsound (it is) and another to establish that its overall conclusion was wrong.

At the very least, I hope these paragraphs will convey a sense that the Commission loaded the dice, so to speak. Throughout the first half of its lengthy decision, it interpreted every piece of evidence against Google, drew significant inferences from benign pieces of information, and often resorted to circular reasoning.

The following post in this blog series argues that these errors also permeate the Commission’s analysis of Google’s allegedly anticompetitive behavior.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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This is the first in a series of TOTM blog posts discussing the Commission’s recently published Google Android decision. It draws on research from a soon-to-be published ICLE white paper.

The European Commission’s recent Google Android decision will surely go down as one of the most important competition proceedings of the past decade. And yet, an in-depth reading of the 328 page decision should leave attentive readers with a bitter taste.

One of the Commission’s most significant findings is that the Android operating system and Apple’s iOS are not in the same relevant market, along with the related conclusion that Apple’s App Store and Google Play are also in separate markets.

This blog post points to a series of flaws that undermine the Commission’s reasoning on this point. As a result, the Commission’s claim that Google and Apple operate in separate markets is mostly unsupported.

1. Everyone but the European Commission thinks that iOS competes with Android

Surely the assertion that the two predominant smartphone ecosystems in Europe don’t compete with each other will come as a surprise to… anyone paying attention: 

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Apple 10-K:

The Company believes the availability of third-party software applications and services for its products depends in part on the developers’ perception and analysis of the relative benefits of developing, maintaining and upgrading such software and services for the Company’s products compared to competitors’ platforms, such as Android for smartphones and tablets and Windows for personal computers.

Google 10-K:

We face competition from: Companies that design, manufacture, and market consumer electronics products, including businesses that have developed proprietary platforms.

This leads to a critical question: Why did the Commission choose to depart from the instinctive conclusion that Google and Apple compete vigorously against each other in the smartphone and mobile operating system market? 

As explained below, its justifications for doing so were deeply flawed.

2. It does not matter that OEMs cannot license iOS (or the App Store)

One of the main reasons why the Commission chose to exclude Apple from the relevant market is that OEMs cannot license Apple’s iOS or its App Store.

But is it really possible to infer that Google and Apple do not compete against each other because their products are not substitutes from OEMs’ point of view? 

The answer to this question is likely no.

Relevant markets, and market shares, are merely a proxy for market power (which is the appropriate baseline upon which build a competition investigation). As Louis Kaplow puts it:

[T]he entire rationale for the market definition process is to enable an inference about market power.

If there is a competitive market for Android and Apple smartphones, then it is somewhat immaterial that Google is the only firm to successfully offer a licensable mobile operating system (as opposed to Apple and Blackberry’s “closed” alternatives).

By exercising its “power” against OEMs by, for instance, degrading the quality of Android, Google would, by the same token, weaken its competitive position against Apple. Google’s competition with Apple in the smartphone market thus constrains Google’s behavior and limits its market power in Android-specific aftermarkets (on this topic, see Borenstein et al., and Klein).

This is not to say that Apple’s iOS (and App Store) is, or is not, in the same relevant market as Google Android (and Google Play). But the fact that OEMs cannot license iOS or the App Store is mostly immaterial for market  definition purposes.

 3. Google would find itself in a more “competitive” market if it decided to stop licensing the Android OS

The Commission’s reasoning also leads to illogical outcomes from a policy standpoint. 

Google could suddenly find itself in a more “competitive” market if it decided to stop licensing the Android OS and operated a closed platform (like Apple does). The direct purchasers of its products – consumers – would then be free to switch between Apple and Google’s products.

As a result, an act that has no obvious effect on actual market power — and that could have a distinctly negative effect on consumers — could nevertheless significantly alter the outcome of competition proceedings on the Commission’s theory. 

One potential consequence is that firms might decide to close their platforms (or refuse to open them in the first place) in order to avoid competition scrutiny (because maintaining a closed platform might effectively lead competition authorities to place them within a wider relevant market). This might ultimately reduce product differentiation among mobile platforms (due to the disappearance of open ecosystems) – the exact opposite of what the Commission sought to achieve with its decision.

This is, among other things, what Antonin Scalia objected to in his Eastman Kodak dissent: 

It is quite simply anomalous that a manufacturer functioning in a competitive equipment market should be exempt from the per se rule when it bundles equipment with parts and service, but not when it bundles parts with service [when the manufacturer has a high share of the “market” for its machines’ spare parts]. This vast difference in the treatment of what will ordinarily be economically similar phenomena is alone enough to call today’s decision into question.

4. Market shares are a poor proxy for market power, especially in narrowly defined markets

Finally, the problem with the Commission’s decision is not so much that it chose to exclude Apple from the relevant markets, but that it then cited the resulting market shares as evidence of Google’s alleged dominance:

(440) Google holds a dominant position in the worldwide market (excluding China) for the licensing of smart mobile OSs since 2011. This conclusion is based on: 

(1) the market shares of Google and competing developers of licensable smart mobile OSs […]

In doing so, the Commission ignored one of the critical findings of the law & economics literature on market definition and market power: Although defining a narrow relevant market may not itself be problematic, the market shares thus adduced provide little information about a firm’s actual market power. 

For instance, Richard Posner and William Landes have argued that:

If instead the market were defined narrowly, the firm’s market share would be larger but the effect on market power would be offset by the higher market elasticity of demand; when fewer substitutes are included in the market, substitution of products outside of the market is easier. […]

If all the submarket approach signifies is willingness in appropriate cases to call a narrowly defined market a relevant market for antitrust purposes, it is unobjectionable – so long as appropriately less weight is given to market shares computed in such a market.

Likewise, Louis Kaplow observes that:

In choosing between a narrower and a broader market (where, as mentioned, we are supposing that the truth lies somewhere in between), one would ask whether the inference from the larger market share in the narrower market overstates market power by more than the inference from the smaller market share in the broader market understates market power. If the lesser error lies with the former choice, then the narrower market is the relevant market; if the latter minimizes error, then the broader market is best.

The Commission failed to heed these important findings.

5. Conclusion

The upshot is that Apple should not have been automatically excluded from the relevant market. 

To be clear, the Commission did discuss this competition from Apple later in the decision. And it also asserted that its findings would hold even if Apple were included in the OS and App Store markets, because Android’s share of devices sold would have ranged from 45% to 79%, depending on the year (although this ignores other potential metrics such as the value of devices sold or Google’s share of advertising revenue

However, by gerrymandering the market definition (which European case law likely permitted it to do), the Commission ensured that Google would face an uphill battle, starting from a very high market share and thus a strong presumption of dominance. 

Moreover, that it might reach the same result by adopting a more accurate market definition is no excuse for adopting a faulty one and resting its case (and undertaking its entire analysis) on it. In fact, the Commission’s choice of a faulty market definition underpins its entire analysis, and is far from a “harmless error.” 

I shall discuss the consequences of this error in an upcoming blog post. Stay tuned.

Ursula von der Leyen has just announced the composition of the next European Commission. For tech firms, the headline is that Margrethe Vestager will not only retain her job as the head of DG Competition, she will also oversee the EU’s entire digital markets policy in her new role as Vice-President in charge of digital policy. Her promotion within the Commission as well as her track record at DG Competition both suggest that the digital economy will continue to be the fulcrum of European competition and regulatory intervention for the next five years.

The regulation (or not) of digital markets is an extremely important topic. Not only do we spend vast swaths of both our professional and personal lives online, but firms operating in digital markets will likely employ an ever-increasing share of the labor force in the near future

Likely recognizing the growing importance of the digital economy, the previous EU Commission intervened heavily in the digital sphere over the past five years. This resulted in a series of high-profile regulations (including the GDPR, the platform-to-business regulation, and the reform of EU copyright) and competition law decisions (most notably the Google cases). 

Lauded by supporters of the administrative state, these interventions have drawn flak from numerous corners. This includes foreign politicians (especially  Americans) who see in these measures an attempt to protect the EU’s tech industry from its foreign rivals, as well as free market enthusiasts who argue that the old continent has moved further in the direction of digital paternalism. 

Vestager’s increased role within the new Commission, the EU’s heavy regulation of digital markets over the past five years, and early pronouncements from Ursula von der Leyen all suggest that the EU is in for five more years of significant government intervention in the digital sphere.

Vestager the slayer of Big Tech

During her five years as Commissioner for competition, Margrethe Vestager has repeatedly been called the most powerful woman in Brussels (see here and here), and it is easy to see why. Yielding the heavy hammer of European competition and state aid enforcement, she has relentlessly attacked the world’s largest firms, especially American’s so-called “Tech Giants”. 

The record-breaking fines imposed on Google were probably her most high-profile victory. When Vestager entered office, in 2014, the EU’s case against Google had all but stalled. The Commission and Google had spent the best part of four years haggling over a potential remedy that was ultimately thrown out. Grabbing the bull by the horns, Margrethe Vestager made the case her own. 

Five years, three infringement decisions, and 8.25 billion euros later, Google probably wishes it had managed to keep the 2014 settlement alive. While Vestager’s supporters claim that justice was served, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, among others, branded her a protectionist (although, as Geoffrey Manne and I have noted, the evidence for this is decidedly mixed). Critics also argued that her decisions would harm innovation and penalize consumers (see here and here). Regardless, the case propelled Vestager into the public eye. It turned her into one of the most important political forces in Brussels. Cynics might even suggest that this was her plan all along.

But Google is not the only tech firm to have squared off with Vestager. Under her watch, Qualcomm was slapped with a total of €1.239 Billion in fines. The Commission also opened an investigation into Amazon’s operation of its online marketplace. If previous cases are anything to go by, the probe will most probably end with a headline-grabbing fine. The Commission even launched a probe into Facebook’s planned Libra cryptocurrency, even though it has yet to be launched, and recent talk suggests it may never be. Finally, in the area of state aid enforcement, the Commission ordered Ireland to recover €13 Billion in allegedly undue tax benefits from Apple.   

Margrethe Vestager also initiated a large-scale consultation on competition in the digital economy. The ensuing report concluded that the answer was more competition enforcement. Its findings will likely be cited by the Commission as further justification to ramp up its already significant competition investigations in the digital sphere.

Outside of the tech sector, Vestager has shown that she is not afraid to adopt controversial decisions. Blocking the proposed merger between Siemens and Alstom notably drew the ire of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, as the deal would have created a European champion in the rail industry (a key political demand in Germany and France). 

These numerous interventions all but guarantee that Vestager will not be pushing for light touch regulation in her new role as Vice-President in charge of digital policy. Vestager is also unlikely to put a halt to some of the “Big Tech” investigations that she herself launched during her previous spell at DG Competition. Finally, given her evident political capital in Brussels, it’s a safe bet that she will be given significant leeway to push forward landmark initiatives of her choosing. 

Vestager the prophet

Beneath these attempts to rein-in “Big Tech” lies a deeper agenda that is symptomatic of the EU’s current zeitgeist. Over the past couple of years, the EU has been steadily blazing a trail in digital market regulation (although much less so in digital market entrepreneurship and innovation). Underlying this push is a worldview that sees consumers and small startups as the uninformed victims of gigantic tech firms. True to form, the EU’s solution to this problem is more regulation and government intervention. This is unlikely to change given the Commission’s new (old) leadership.

If digital paternalism is the dogma, then Margrethe Vestager is its prophet. As Thibault Schrepel has shown, her speeches routinely call for digital firms to act “fairly”, and for policymakers to curb their “power”. According to her, it is our democracy that is at stake. In her own words, “you can’t sensibly talk about democracy today, without appreciating the enormous power of digital technology”. And yet, if history tells us one thing, it is that heavy-handed government intervention is anathema to liberal democracy. 

The Commission’s Google decisions neatly illustrate this worldview. For instance, in Google Shopping, the Commission concluded that Google was coercing consumers into using its own services, to the detriment of competition. But the Google Shopping decision focused entirely on competitors, and offered no evidence showing actual harm to consumers (see here). Could it be that users choose Google’s products because they actually prefer them? Rightly or wrongly, the Commission went to great lengths to dismiss evidence that arguably pointed in this direction (see here, §506-538).

Other European forays into the digital space are similarly paternalistic. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) assumes that consumers are ill-equipped to decide what personal information they share with online platforms. Queue a deluge of time-consuming consent forms and cookie-related pop-ups. The jury is still out on whether the GDPR has improved users’ privacy. But it has been extremely costly for businesses — American S&P 500 companies and UK FTSE 350 companies alone spent an estimated total of $9 billion to comply with the GDPR — and has at least temporarily slowed venture capital investment in Europe. 

Likewise, the recently adopted Regulation on platform-to-business relations operates under the assumption that small firms routinely fall prey to powerful digital platforms: 

Given that increasing dependence, the providers of those services [i.e. digital platforms] often have superior bargaining power, which enables them to, in effect, behave unilaterally in a way that can be unfair and that can be harmful to the legitimate interests of their businesses users and, indirectly, also of consumers in the Union. For instance, they might unilaterally impose on business users practices which grossly deviate from good commercial conduct, or are contrary to good faith and fair dealing. 

But the platform-to-business Regulation conveniently overlooks the fact that economic opportunism is a two-way street. Small startups are equally capable of behaving in ways that greatly harm the reputation and profitability of much larger platforms. The Cambridge Analytica leak springs to mind. And what’s “unfair” to one small business may offer massive benefits to other businesses and consumers

Make what you will about the underlying merits of these individual policies, we should at least recognize that they are part of a greater whole, where Brussels is regulating ever greater aspects of our online lives — and not clearly for the benefit of consumers. 

With Margrethe Vestager now overseeing even more of these regulatory initiatives, readers should expect more of the same. The Mission Letter she received from Ursula von der Leyen is particularly enlightening in that respect: 

I want you to coordinate the work on upgrading our liability and safety rules for digital platforms, services and products as part of a new Digital Services Act…. 

I want you to focus on strengthening competition enforcement in all sectors. 

A hard rain’s a gonna fall… on Big Tech

Today’s announcements all but confirm that the EU will stay its current course in digital markets. This is unfortunate.

Digital firms currently provide consumers with tremendous benefits at no direct charge. A recent study shows that median users would need to be paid €15,875 to give up search engines for a year. They would also require €536 in order to forgo WhatsApp for a month, €97 for Facebook, and €59 to drop digital maps for the same duration. 

By continuing to heap ever more regulations on successful firms, the EU risks killing the goose that laid the golden egg. This is not just a theoretical possibility. The EU’s policies have already put technology firms under huge stress, and it is not clear that this has always been outweighed by benefits to consumers. The GDPR has notably caused numerous foreign firms to stop offering their services in Europe. And the EU’s Google decisions have forced it to start charging manufacturers for some of its apps. Are these really victories for European consumers?

It is also worth asking why there are so few European leaders in the digital economy. Not so long ago, European firms such as Nokia and Ericsson were at the forefront of the digital revolution. Today, with the possible exception of Spotify, the EU has fallen further down the global pecking order in the digital economy. 

The EU knows this, and plans to invest €100 Billion in order to boost European tech startups. But these sums will be all but wasted if excessive regulation threatens the long-term competitiveness of European startups. 

So if more of the same government intervention isn’t the answer, then what is? Recognizing that consumers have agency and are responsible for their own decisions might be a start. If you don’t like Facebook, close your account. Want a search engine that protects your privacy? Try DuckDuckGo. If YouTube and Spotify’s suggestions don’t appeal to you, create your own playlists and turn off the autoplay functions. The digital world has given us more choice than we could ever have dreamt of; but this comes with responsibility. Both Margrethe Vestager and the European institutions have often seemed oblivious to this reality. 

If the EU wants to turn itself into a digital economy powerhouse, it will have to switch towards light-touch regulation that allows firms to experiment with disruptive services, flexible employment options, and novel monetization strategies. But getting there requires a fundamental rethink — one that the EU’s previous leadership refused to contemplate. Margrethe Vestager’s dual role within the next Commission suggests that change isn’t coming any time soon.

[TOTM: The following is the eighth in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the FTC v. Qualcomm case recently decided by Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California. Other posts in this series are here. The blog post is based on a forthcoming paper regarding patent holdup, co-authored by Dirk Auer and Julian Morris.]

Samsung SGH-F480V – controller board – Qualcomm MSM6280

In his latest book, Tyler Cowen calls big business an “American anti-hero”. Cowen argues that the growing animosity towards successful technology firms is to a large extent unwarranted. After all, these companies have generated tremendous prosperity and jobs.

Though it is less known to the public than its Silicon Valley counterparts, Qualcomm perfectly fits the anti-hero mold. Despite being a key contributor to the communications standards that enabled the proliferation of smartphones around the globe – an estimated 5 Billion people currently own a device – Qualcomm has been on the receiving end of considerable regulatory scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic (including two in the EU; see here and here). 

In the US, Judge Lucy Koh recently ruled that a combination of anticompetitive practices had enabled Qualcomm to charge “unreasonably high royalty rates” for its CDMA and LTE cellular communications technology. Chief among these practices was Qualcomm’s so-called “no license, no chips” policy, whereby the firm refuses to sell baseband processors to implementers that have not taken out a license for its communications technology. Other grievances included Qualcomm’s purported refusal to license its patents to rival chipmakers, and allegations that it attempted to extract exclusivity obligations from large handset manufacturers, such as Apple. According to Judge Koh, these practices resulted in “unreasonably high” royalty rates that failed to comply with Qualcomm’s FRAND obligations.

Judge Koh’s ruling offers an unfortunate example of the numerous pitfalls that decisionmakers face when they second-guess the distributional outcomes achieved through market forces. This is particularly true in the complex standardization space.

The elephant in the room

The first striking feature of Judge Koh’s ruling is what it omits. Throughout the more than two-hundred-page long document, there is not a single reference to the concepts of holdup or holdout (crucial terms of art for a ruling that grapples with the prices charged by an SEP holder). 

At first sight, this might seem like a semantic quibble. But words are important. Patent holdup (along with the “unreasonable” royalties to which it arguably gives rise) is possible only when a number of cumulative conditions are met. Most importantly, the foundational literature on economic opportunism (here and here) shows that holdup (and holdout) mostly occur when parties have made asset-specific sunk investments. This focus on asset-specific investments is echoed by even the staunchest critics of the standardization status quo (here).

Though such investments may well have been present in the case at hand, there is no evidence that they played any part in the court’s decision. This is not without consequences. If parties did not make sunk relationship-specific investments, then the antitrust case against Qualcomm should have turned upon the alleged exclusion of competitors, not the level of Qualcomm’s royalties. The DOJ said this much in its statement of interest concerning Qualcomm’s motion for partial stay of injunction pending appeal. Conversely, if these investments existed, then patent holdout (whereby implementers refuse to license key pieces of intellectual property) was just as much of a risk as patent holdup (here and here). And yet the court completely overlooked this possibility.

The misguided push for component level pricing

The court also erred by objecting to Qualcomm’s practice of basing license fees on the value of handsets, rather than that of modem chips. In simplified terms, implementers paid Qualcomm a percentage of their devices’ resale price. The court found that this was against Federal Circuit law. Instead, it argued that royalties should be based on the value the smallest salable patent-practicing component (in this case, baseband chips). This conclusion is dubious both as a matter of law and of policy.

From a legal standpoint, the question of the appropriate royalty base seems far less clear-cut than Judge Koh’s ruling might suggest. For instance, Gregory Sidak observes that in TCL v. Ericsson Judge Selna used a device’s net selling price as a basis upon which to calculate FRAND royalties. Likewise, in CSIRO v. Cisco, the Court also declined to use the “smallest saleable practicing component” as a royalty base. And finally, as Jonathan Barnett observes, the Circuit Laser Dynamics case law cited  by Judge Koh relates to the calculation of damages in patent infringement suits. There is no legal reason to believe that its findings should hold any sway outside of that narrow context. It is one thing for courts to decide upon the methodology that they will use to calculate damages in infringement cases – even if it is a contested one. It is a whole other matter to shoehorn private parties into adopting this narrow methodology in their private dealings. 

More importantly, from a policy standpoint, there are important advantages to basing royalty rates on the price of an end-product, rather than that of an intermediate component. This type of pricing notably enables parties to better allocate the risk that is inherent in launching a new product. In simplified terms: implementers want to avoid paying large (fixed) license fees for failed devices; and patent holders want to share in the benefits of successful devices that rely on their inventions. The solution, as Alain Bousquet and his co-authors explain, is to agree on royalty payments that are contingent on success in the market:

Because the demand for a new product is uncertain and/or the potential cost reduction of a new technology is not perfectly known, both seller and buyer may be better off if the payment for the right to use an innovation includes a state-contingent royalty (rather than consisting of just a fixed fee). The inventor wants to benefit from a growing demand for a new product, and the licensee wishes to avoid high payments in case of disappointing sales.

While this explains why parties might opt for royalty-based payments over fixed fees, it does not entirely elucidate the practice of basing royalties on the price of an end device. One explanation is that a technology’s value will often stem from its combination with other goods or technologies. Basing royalties on the value of an end-device enables patent holders to more effectively capture the social benefits that flow from these complementarities.

Imagine the price of the smallest saleable component is identical across all industries, despite it being incorporated into highly heterogeneous devices. For instance, the same modem chip could be incorporated into smartphones (of various price ranges), tablets, vehicles, and other connected devices. The Bousquet line of reasoning (above) suggests that it is efficient for the patent holder to earn higher royalties (from the IP that underpins the modem chips) in those segments where market demand is strongest (i.e. where there are stronger complementarities between the modem chip and the end device).

One way to make royalties more contingent on market success is to use the price of the modem (which is presumably identical across all segments) as a royalty base and negotiate a separate royalty rate for each end device (charging a higher rate for devices that will presumably benefit from stronger consumer demand). But this has important drawbacks. For a start, identifying those segments (or devices) that are most likely to be successful is informationally cumbersome for the inventor. Moreover, this practice could land the patent holder in hot water. Antitrust authorities might naïvely conclude that these varying royalty rates violate the “non-discriminatory” part of FRAND.

A much simpler solution is to apply a single royalty rate (or at least attempt to do so) but use the price of the end device as a royalty base. This ensures that the patent holder’s rewards are not just contingent on the number of devices sold, but also on their value. Royalties will thus more closely track the end-device’s success in the marketplace.   

In short, basing royalties on the value of an end-device is an informationally light way for the inventor to capture some of the unforeseen value that might stem from the inclusion of its technology in an end device. Mandating that royalty rates be based on the value of the smallest saleable component ignores this complex reality.

Prices are almost impossible to reconstruct

Judge Koh was similarly imperceptive when assessing Qualcomm’s contribution to the value of key standards, such as LTE and CDMA. 

For a start, she reasoned that Qualcomm’s royalties were large compared to the number of patents it had contributed to these technologies:

Moreover, Qualcomm’s own documents also show that Qualcomm is not the top standards contributor, which confirms Qualcomm’s own statements that QCT’s monopoly chip market share rather than the value of QTL’s patents sustain QTL’s unreasonably high royalty rates.

Given the tremendous heterogeneity that usually exists between the different technologies that make up a standard, simply counting each firm’s contributions is a crude and misleading way to gauge the value of their patent portfolios. Accordingly, Qualcomm argued that it had made pioneering contributions to technologies such as CDMA, and 4G/5G. Though the value of Qualcomm’s technologies is ultimately an empirical question, the court’s crude patent counting  was unlikely to provide a satisfying answer.

Just as problematically, the court also concluded that Qualcomm’s royalties were unreasonably high because “modem chips do not drive handset value.” In its own words:

Qualcomm’s intellectual property is for communication, and Qualcomm does not own intellectual property on color TFT LCD panel, mega-pixel DSC module, user storage memory, decoration, and mechanical parts. The costs of these non-communication-related components have become more expensive and now contribute 60-70% of the phone value. The phone is not just for communication, but also for computing, movie-playing, video-taking, and data storage.

As Luke Froeb and his co-authors have also observed, the court’s reasoning on this point is particularly unfortunate. Though it is clearly true that superior LCD panels, cameras, and storage increase a handset’s value – regardless of the modem chip that is associated with them – it is equally obvious that improvements to these components are far more valuable to consumers when they are also associated with high-performance communications technology.

For example, though there is undoubtedly standalone value in being able to take improved pictures on a smartphone, this value is multiplied by the ability to instantly share these pictures with friends, and automatically back them up on the cloud. Likewise, improving a smartphone’s LCD panel is more valuable if the device is also equipped with a cutting edge modem (both are necessary for consumers to enjoy high-definition media online).

In more technical terms, the court fails to acknowledge that, in the presence of perfect complements, each good makes an incremental contribution of 100% to the value of the whole. A smartphone’s components would be far less valuable to consumers if they were not associated with a high-performance modem, and vice versa. The fallacy to which the court falls prey is perfectly encapsulated by a quote it cites from Apple’s COO:

Apple invests heavily in the handset’s physical design and enclosures to add value, and those physical handset features clearly have nothing to do with Qualcomm’s cellular patents, it is unfair for Qualcomm to receive royalty revenue on that added value.

The question the court should be asking, however, is whether Apple would have gone to the same lengths to improve its devices were it not for Qualcomm’s complementary communications technology. By ignoring this question, Judge Koh all but guaranteed that her assessment of Qualcomm’s royalty rates would be wide of the mark.

Concluding remarks

In short, the FTC v. Qualcomm case shows that courts will often struggle when they try to act as makeshift price regulators. It thus lends further credence to Gergory Werden and Luke Froeb’s conclusion that:

Nothing is more alien to antitrust than enquiring into the reasonableness of prices. 

This is especially true in complex industries, such as the standardization space. The colossal number of parameters that affect the price for a technology are almost impossible to reproduce in a top-down fashion, as the court attempted to do in the Qualcomm case. As a result, courts will routinely draw poor inferences from factors such as the royalty base agreed upon by parties, the number of patents contributed by a firm, and the complex manner in which an individual technology may contribute to the value of an end-product. Antitrust authorities and courts would thus do well to recall the wise words of Friedrich Hayek:

If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them. We cannot expect that this problem will be solved by first communicating all this knowledge to a central board which, after integrating all knowledge, issues its orders. We must solve it by some form of decentralization.

Zoom, one of Silicon Valley’s lesser-known unicorns, has just gone public. At the time of writing, its shares are trading at about $65.70, placing the company’s value at $16.84 billion. There are good reasons for this success. According to its Form S-1, Zoom’s revenue rose from about $60 million in 2017 to a projected $330 million in 2019, and the company has already surpassed break-even . This growth was notably fueled by a thriving community of users who collectively spend approximately 5 billion minutes per month in Zoom meetings.

To get to where it is today, Zoom had to compete against long-established firms with vast client bases and far deeper pockets. These include the likes of Microsoft, Cisco, and Google. Further complicating matters, the video communications market exhibits some prima facie traits that are typically associated with the existence of network effects. For instance, the value of Skype to one user depends – at least to some extent – on the number of other people that might be willing to use the network. In these settings, it is often said that positive feedback loops may cause the market to tip in favor of a single firm that is then left with an unassailable market position. Although Zoom still faces significant competitive challenges, it has nonetheless established a strong position in a market previously dominated by powerful incumbents who could theoretically count on network effects to stymie its growth.

Further complicating matters, Zoom chose to compete head-on with these incumbents. It did not create a new market or a highly differentiated product. Zoom’s Form S-1 is quite revealing. The company cites the quality of its product as its most important competitive strength. Similarly, when listing the main benefits of its platform, Zoom emphasizes that its software is “easy to use”, “easy to deploy and manage”, “reliable”, etc. In its own words, Zoom has thus gained a foothold by offering an existing service that works better than that of its competitors.

And yet, this is precisely the type of story that a literal reading of the network effects literature would suggest is impossible, or at least highly unlikely. For instance, the foundational papers on network effects often cite the example of the DVORAK keyboard (David, 1985; and Farrell & Saloner, 1985). These early scholars argued that, despite it being the superior standard, the DVORAK layout failed to gain traction because of the network effects protecting the QWERTY standard. In other words, consumers failed to adopt the superior DVORAK layout because they were unable to coordinate on their preferred option. It must be noted, however, that the conventional telling of this story was forcefully criticized by Liebowitz & Margolis in their classic 1995 article, The Fable of the Keys.

Despite Liebowitz & Margolis’ critique, the dominance of the underlying network effects story persists in many respects. And in that respect, the emergence of Zoom is something of a cautionary tale. As influential as it may be, the network effects literature has tended to overlook a number of factors that may mitigate, or even eliminate, the likelihood of problematic outcomes. Zoom is yet another illustration that policymakers should be careful when they make normative inferences from positive economics.

A Coasian perspective

It is now widely accepted that multi-homing and the absence of switching costs can significantly curtail the potentially undesirable outcomes that are sometimes associated with network effects. But other possibilities are often overlooked. For instance, almost none of the foundational network effects papers pay any notice to the application of the Coase theorem (though it has been well-recognized in the two-sided markets literature).

Take a purported market failure that is commonly associated with network effects: an installed base of users prevents the market from switching towards a new standard, even if it is superior (this is broadly referred to as “excess inertia,” while the opposite scenario is referred to as “excess momentum”). DVORAK’s failure is often cited as an example.

Astute readers will quickly recognize that this externality problem is not fundamentally different from those discussed in Ronald Coase’s masterpiece, “The Problem of Social Cost,” or Steven Cheung’s “The Fable of the Bees” (to which Liebowitz & Margolis paid homage in their article’s title). In the case at hand, there are at least two sets of externalities at play. First, early adopters of the new technology impose a negative externality on the old network’s installed base (by reducing its network effects), and a positive externality on other early adopters (by growing the new network). Conversely, installed base users impose a negative externality on early adopters and a positive externality on other remaining users.

Describing these situations (with a haughty confidence reminiscent of Paul Samuelson and Arthur Cecil Pigou), Joseph Farrell and Garth Saloner conclude that:

In general, he or she [i.e. the user exerting these externalities] does not appropriately take this into account.

Similarly, Michael Katz and Carl Shapiro assert that:

In terms of the Coase theorem, it is very difficult to design a contract where, say, the (potential) future users of HDTV agree to subsidize today’s buyers of television sets to stop buying NTSC sets and start buying HDTV sets, thereby stimulating the supply of HDTV programming.

And yet it is far from clear that consumers and firms can never come up with solutions that mitigate these problems. As Daniel Spulber has suggested, referral programs offer a case in point. These programs usually allow early adopters to receive rewards in exchange for bringing new users to a network. One salient feature of these programs is that they do not simply charge a lower price to early adopters; instead, in order to obtain a referral fee, there must be some agreement between the early adopter and the user who is referred to the platform. This leaves ample room for the reallocation of rewards. Users might, for instance, choose to split the referral fee. Alternatively, the early adopter might invest time to familiarize the switching user with the new platform, hoping to earn money when the user jumps ship. Both of these arrangements may reduce switching costs and mitigate externalities.

Danial Spulber also argues that users may coordinate spontaneously. For instance, social groups often decide upon the medium they will use to communicate. Families might choose to stay on the same mobile phone network. And larger groups (such as an incoming class of students) may agree upon a social network to share necessary information, etc. In these contexts, there is at least some room to pressure peers into adopting a new platform.

Finally, firms and other forms of governance may also play a significant role. For instance, employees are routinely required to use a series of networked goods. Common examples include office suites, email clients, social media platforms (such as Slack), or video communications applications (Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.). In doing so, firms presumably act as islands of top-down decision-making and impose those products that maximize the collective preferences of employers and employees. Similarly, a single firm choosing to join a network (notably by adopting a standard) may generate enough momentum for a network to gain critical mass. Apple’s decisions to adopt USB-C connectors on its laptops and to ditch headphone jacks on its iPhones both spring to mind. Likewise, it has been suggested that distributed ledger technology and initial coin offerings may facilitate the creation of new networks. The intuition is that so-called “utility tokens” may incentivize early adopters to join a platform, despite initially weak network effects, because they expect these tokens to increase in value as the network expands.

A combination of these arrangements might explain how Zoom managed to grow so rapidly, despite the presence of powerful incumbents. In its own words:

Our rapid adoption is driven by a virtuous cycle of positive user experiences. Individuals typically begin using our platform when a colleague or associate invites them to a Zoom meeting. When attendees experience our platform and realize the benefits, they often become paying customers to unlock additional functionality.

All of this is not to say that network effects will always be internalized through private arrangements, but rather that it is equally wrong to assume that transaction costs systematically prevent efficient coordination among users.

Misguided regulatory responses

Over the past couple of months, several antitrust authorities around the globe have released reports concerning competition in digital markets (UK, EU, Australia), or held hearings on this topic (US). A recurring theme throughout their published reports is that network effects almost inevitably weaken competition in digital markets.

For instance, the report commissioned by the European Commission mentions that:

Because of very strong network externalities (especially in multi-sided platforms), incumbency advantage is important and strict scrutiny is appropriate. We believe that any practice aimed at protecting the investment of a dominant platform should be minimal and well targeted.

The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission concludes that:

There are considerable barriers to entry and expansion for search platforms and social media platforms that reinforce and entrench Google and Facebook’s market power. These include barriers arising from same-side and cross-side network effects, branding, consumer inertia and switching costs, economies of scale and sunk costs.

Finally, a panel of experts in the United Kingdom found that:

Today, network effects and returns to scale of data appear to be even more entrenched and the market seems to have stabilised quickly compared to the much larger degree of churn in the early days of the World Wide Web.

To address these issues, these reports suggest far-reaching policy changes. These include shifting the burden of proof in competition cases from authorities to defendants, establishing specialized units to oversee digital markets, and imposing special obligations upon digital platforms.

The story of Zoom’s emergence and the important insights that can be derived from the Coase theorem both suggest that these fears may be somewhat overblown.

Rivals do indeed find ways to overthrow entrenched incumbents with some regularity, even when these incumbents are shielded by network effects. Of course, critics may retort that this is not enough, that competition may sometimes arrive too late (excess inertia, i.e., “ a socially excessive reluctance to switch to a superior new standard”) or too fast (excess momentum, i.e., “the inefficient adoption of a new technology”), and that the problem is not just one of network effects, but also one of economies of scale, information asymmetry, etc. But this comes dangerously close to the Nirvana fallacy. To begin, it assumes that regulators are able to reliably navigate markets toward these optimal outcomes — which is questionable, at best. Moreover, the regulatory cost of imposing perfect competition in every digital market (even if it were possible) may well outweigh the benefits that this achieves. Mandating far-reaching policy changes in order to address sporadic and heterogeneous problems is thus unlikely to be the best solution.

Instead, the optimal policy notably depends on whether, in a given case, users and firms can coordinate their decisions without intervention in order to avoid problematic outcomes. A case-by-case approach thus seems by far the best solution.

And competition authorities need look no further than their own decisional practice. The European Commission’s decision in the Facebook/Whatsapp merger offers a good example (this was before Margrethe Vestager’s appointment at DG Competition). In its decision, the Commission concluded that the fast-moving nature of the social network industry, widespread multi-homing, and the fact that neither Facebook nor Whatsapp controlled any essential infrastructure, prevented network effects from acting as a barrier to entry. Regardless of its ultimate position, this seems like a vastly superior approach to competition issues in digital markets. The Commission adopted a similar reasoning in the Microsoft/Skype merger. Unfortunately, the Commission seems to have departed from this measured attitude in more recent decisions. In the Google Search case, for example, the Commission assumes that the mere existence of network effects necessarily increases barriers to entry:

The existence of positive feedback effects on both sides of the two-sided platform formed by general search services and online search advertising creates an additional barrier to entry.

A better way forward

Although the positive economics of network effects are generally correct and most definitely useful, some of the normative implications that have been derived from them are deeply flawed. Too often, policymakers and commentators conclude that these potential externalities inevitably lead to stagnant markets where competition is unable to flourish. But this does not have to be the case. The emergence of Zoom shows that superior products may prosper despite the presence of strong incumbents and network effects.

Basing antitrust policies on sweeping presumptions about digital competition – such as the idea that network effects are rampant or the suggestion that online platforms necessarily imply “extreme returns to scale” – is thus likely to do more harm than good. Instead, Antitrust authorities should take a leaf out of Ronald Coase’s book, and avoid blackboard economics in favor of a more granular approach.

Last month, the European Commission slapped another fine upon Google for infringing European competition rules (€1.49 billion this time). This brings Google’s contribution to the EU budget to a dizzying total of €8.25 billion (to put this into perspective, the total EU budget for 2019 is €165.8 billion). Given this massive number, and the geographic location of Google’s headquarters, it is perhaps not surprising that some high-profile commentators, including former President Obama and President Trump, have raised concerns about potential protectionism on the Commission’s part.

In a new ICLE Issue Brief, we question whether there is any merit to these claims of protectionism. We show that, since the entry into force of Regulation 1/2003 (the main piece of legislation that implements the competition provisions of the EU treaties), US firms have borne the lion’s share of monetary penalties imposed by the Commission for breaches of competition law.

For instance, US companies have been fined a total of €10.91 billion by the European Commission, compared to €1.17 billion for their European counterparts:

Although this discrepancy seems to point towards protectionism, we believe that the case is not so clear-cut. The large fines paid by US firms are notably driven by a small subset of decisions in the tech sector, where the plaintiffs were also American companies. Tech markets also exhibit various features which tend to inflate the amount of fines.

Despite the plausibility of these potential alternative explanations, there may still be some legitimacy to the allegations of protectionism. The European Commission is, by design, a political body. One may thus question the extent to which Europe’s paucity of tech sector giants is driving the Commission’s ideological preference for tech-sector intervention and the protection of the industry’s small competitors.

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