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Still from Squid Game, Netflix and Siren Pictures Inc., 2021

Recent commentary on the proposed merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery, as well as Amazon’s acquisition of MGM, often has included the suggestion that the online content-creation and video-streaming markets are excessively consolidated, or that they will become so absent regulatory intervention. For example, in a recent letter to the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), the American Antitrust Institute and Public Knowledge opine that:

Slow and inadequate oversight risks the streaming market going the same route as cable—where consumers have little power, few options, and where consolidation and concentration reign supreme. A number of threats to competition are clear, as discussed in this section, including: (1) market power issues surrounding content and (2) the role of platforms in “gatekeeping” to limit competition.

But the AAI/PK assessment overlooks key facts about the video-streaming industry, some of which suggest that, if anything, these markets currently suffer from too much fragmentation.

The problem is well-known: any individual video-streaming service will offer only a fraction of the content that viewers want, but budget constraints limit the number of services that a household can afford to subscribe to. It may be counterintuitive, but consolidation in the market for video-streaming can solve both problems at once.

One subscription is not enough

Surveys find that U.S. households currently maintain, on average, four video-streaming subscriptions. This explains why even critics concede that a plethora of streaming services compete for consumer eyeballs. For instance, the AAI and PK point out that:

Today, every major media company realizes the value of streaming and a bevy of services have sprung up to offer different catalogues of content.

These companies have challenged the market leader, Netflix and include: Prime Video (2006), Hulu (2007), Paramount+ (2014), ESPN+ (2018), Disney+ (2019), Apple TV+ (2019), HBO Max (2020), Peacock (2020), and Discovery+ (2021).

With content scattered across several platforms, multiple subscriptions are the only way for households to access all (or most) of the programs they desire. Indeed, other than price, library sizes and the availability of exclusive content are reportedly the main drivers of consumer purchase decisions.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with the current equilibrium in which consumers multi-home across multiple platforms. One potential explanation is demand for high-quality exclusive content, which requires tremendous investment to develop and promote. Production costs for TV series routinely run in the tens of millions of dollars per episode (see here and here). Economic theory predicts these relationship-specific investments made by both producers and distributors will cause producers to opt for exclusive distribution or vertical integration. The most sought-after content is thus exclusive to each platform. In other words, exclusivity is likely the price that users must pay to ensure that high-quality entertainment continues to be produced.

But while this paradigm has many strengths, the ensuing fragmentation can be detrimental to consumers, as this may lead to double marginalization or mundane issues like subscription fatigue. Consolidation can be a solution to both.

Substitutes, complements, or unrelated?

As Hal Varian explains in his seminal book, the relationship between two goods can range among three extremes: perfect substitutes (i.e., two goods are perfectly interchangeable); perfect complements (i.e., there is no value to owning one good without the other); or goods that exist in independent markets (i.e., the price of one good does not affect demand for the other).

These distinctions are critical when it comes to market concentration. All else equal—which is obviously not the case in reality—increased concentration leads to lower prices for complements, and higher prices for substitutes. Finally, if demand for two goods is unrelated, then bringing them under common ownership should not affect their price.

To at least some extent, streaming services should be seen as complements rather than substitutes—or, at least, as services with unrelated demand. If they were perfect substitutes, consumers would be indifferent between two Netflix subscriptions or one Netflix plan and one Amazon Prime plan. That is obviously not the case. Nor are they perfect complements, which would mean that Netflix is worthless without Amazon Prime, Disney+, and other services.

However, there is reason to believe there exists some complementarity between streaming services, or at least that demand for them is independent. Most consumers subscribe to multiple services, and almost no one subscribes to the same service twice:

SOURCE: Finance Buzz

This assertion is also supported by the ubiquitous bundling of subscriptions in the cable distribution industry, which also has recently been seen in video-streaming markets. For example, in the United States, Disney+ can be purchased in a bundle with Hulu and ESPN+.

The key question is: is each service more valuable, less valuable, or as valuable in isolation than they are when bundled? If households place some additional value on having a complete video offering (one that includes child entertainment, sports, more mature content, etc.), and if they value the convenience of accessing more of their content via a single app, then we can infer these services are to some extent complementary.

Finally, it is worth noting that any complementarity between these services would be largely endogenous. If the industry suddenly switched to a paradigm of non-exclusive content—as is broadly the case for audio streaming—the above analysis would be altered (though, as explained above, such a move would likely be detrimental to users). Streaming services would become substitutes if they offered identical catalogues.

In short, the extent to which streaming services are complements ultimately boils down to an empirical question that may fluctuate with industry practices. As things stand, there is reason to believe that these services feature some complementarities, or at least that demand for them is independent. In turn, this suggests that further consolidation within the industry would not lead to price increases and may even reduce them.

Consolidation can enable price discrimination

It is well-established that bundling entertainment goods can enable firms to better engage in price discrimination, often increasing output and reducing deadweight loss in the process.

Take George Stigler’s famous explanation for the practice of “block booking,” in which movie studios sold multiple films to independent movie theatres as a unit. Stigler assumes the underlying goods are neither substitutes nor complements:

Stigler, George J. (1963) “United States v. Loew’s Inc.: A Note on Block-Booking,” Supreme Court Review: Vol. 1963 : No. 1 , Article 2.

The upshot is that, when consumer tastes for content are idiosyncratic—as is almost certainly the case for movies and television series, movies—it can counterintuitively make sense to sell differing content as a bundle. In doing so, the distributor avoids pricing consumers out of the content upon which they place a lower value. Moreover, this solution is more efficient than price discriminating on an unbundled basis, as doing so would require far more information on the seller’s part and would be vulnerable to arbitrage.

In short, bundling enables each consumer to access a much wider variety of content. This, in turn, provides a powerful rationale for mergers in the video-streaming space—particularly where they can bring together varied content libraries. Put differently, it cuts in favor of more, not less, concentration in video-streaming markets (at least, up to a certain point).

Finally, a wide array of scale-related economies further support the case for concentration in video-streaming markets. These include potential economies of scale, network effects, and reduced transaction costs.

The simplest of these ideas is that the cost of video streaming may decrease at the margin (i.e., serving each marginal viewer might be cheaper than the previous one). In other words, mergers of video-streaming services mayenable platforms to operate at a more efficient scale. There has notably been some discussion of whether Netflix benefits from scale economies of this sort. But this is, of course, ultimately an empirical question. As I have written with Geoffrey Manne, we should not assume that this is the case for all digital platforms, or that these increasing returns are present at all ranges of output.

Likewise, the fact that content can earn greater revenues by reaching a wider audience (or a greater number of small niches) may increase a producer’s incentive to create high-quality content. For example, Netflix’s recent hit series Squid Game reportedly cost $16.8 million to produce a total of nine episodes. This is significant for a Korean-language thriller. These expenditures were likely only possible because of Netflix’s vast network of viewers. Video-streaming mergers can jump-start these effects by bringing previously fragmented audiences onto a single platform.

Finally, operating at a larger scale may enable firms and consumers to economize on various transaction and search costs. For instance, consumers don’t need to manage several subscriptions, and searching for content is easier within a single ecosystem.

Conclusion

In short, critics could hardly be more wrong in assuming that consolidation in the video-streaming industry will necessarily harm consumers. To the contrary, these mergers should be presumptively welcomed because, to a first approximation, they are likely to engender lower prices and reduce deadweight loss.

Critics routinely draw parallels between video streaming and the consolidation that previously moved through the cable industry. They suggest these events as evidence that consolidation was (and still is) inefficient and exploitative of consumers. As AAI and PK frame it:

Moreover, given the broader competition challenges that reside in those markets, and the lessons learned from a failure to ensure competition in the traditional MVPD markets, enforcers should be particularly vigilant.

But while it might not have been ideal for all consumers, the comparatively laissez-faire approach to competition in the cable industry arguably facilitated the United States’ emergence as a global leader for TV programming. We are now witnessing what appears to be a similar trend in the online video-streaming market.

This is mostly a good thing. While a single streaming service might not be the optimal industry configuration from a welfare standpoint, it would be equally misguided to assume that fragmentation necessarily benefits consumers. In fact, as argued throughout this piece, there are important reasons to believe that the status quo—with at least 10 significant players—is too fragmented and that consumers would benefit from additional consolidation.

Interrogations concerning the role that economic theory should play in policy decisions are nothing new. Milton Friedman famously drew a distinction between “positive” and “normative” economics, notably arguing that theoretical models were valuable, despite their unrealistic assumptions. Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu’s highly theoretical work on General Equilibrium Theory is widely acknowledged as one of the most important achievements of modern economics.

But for all their intellectual value and academic merit, the use of models to inform policy decisions is not uncontroversial. There is indeed a long and unfortunate history of influential economic models turning out to be poor depictions (and predictors) of real-world outcomes.

This raises a key question: should policymakers use economic models to inform their decisions and, if so, how? This post uses the economics of externalities to illustrate both the virtues and pitfalls of economic modeling. Throughout economic history, externalities have routinely been cited to support claims of market failure and calls for government intervention. However, as explained below, these fears have frequently failed to withstand empirical scrutiny.

Today, similar models are touted to support government intervention in digital industries. Externalities are notably said to prevent consumers from switching between platforms, allegedly leading to unassailable barriers to entry and deficient venture-capital investment. Unfortunately, as explained below, the models that underpin these fears are highly abstracted and far removed from underlying market realities.

Ultimately, this post argues that, while models provide a powerful way of thinking about the world, naïvely transposing them to real-world settings is misguided. This is not to say that models are useless—quite the contrary. Indeed, “falsified” models can shed powerful light on economic behavior that would otherwise prove hard to understand.

Bees

Fears surrounding economic externalities are as old as modern economics. For example, in the 1950s, economists routinely cited bee pollination as a source of externalities and, ultimately, market failure.

The basic argument was straightforward: Bees and orchards provide each other with positive externalities. Bees cross-pollinate flowers and orchards contain vast amounts of nectar upon which bees feed, thus improving honey yields. Accordingly, several famous economists argued that there was a market failure; bees fly where they please and farmers cannot prevent bees from feeding on their blossoming flowers—allegedly causing underinvestment in both. This led James Meade to conclude:

[T]he apple-farmer provides to the beekeeper some of his factors free of charge. The apple-farmer is paid less than the value of his marginal social net product, and the beekeeper receives more than the value of his marginal social net product.

A finding echoed by Francis Bator:

If, then, apple producers are unable to protect their equity in apple-nectar and markets do not impute to apple blossoms their correct shadow value, profit-maximizing decisions will fail correctly to allocate resources at the margin. There will be failure “by enforcement.” This is what I would call an ownership externality. It is essentially Meade’s “unpaid factor” case.

It took more than 20 years and painstaking research by Steven Cheung to conclusively debunk these assertions. So how did economic agents overcome this “insurmountable” market failure?

The answer, it turns out, was extremely simple. While bees do fly where they please, the relative placement of beehives and orchards has a tremendous impact on both fruit and honey yields. This is partly because bees have a very limited mean foraging range (roughly 2-3km). This left economic agents with ample scope to prevent free-riding.

Using these natural sources of excludability, they built a web of complex agreements that internalize the symbiotic virtues of beehives and fruit orchards. To cite Steven Cheung’s research

Pollination contracts usually include stipulations regarding the number and strength of the colonies, the rental fee per hive, the time of delivery and removal of hives, the protection of bees from pesticide sprays, and the strategic placing of hives. Apiary lease contracts differ from pollination contracts in two essential aspects. One is, predictably, that the amount of apiary rent seldom depends on the number of colonies, since the farmer is interested only in obtaining the rent per apiary offered by the highest bidder. Second, the amount of apiary rent is not necessarily fixed. Paid mostly in honey, it may vary according to either the current honey yield or the honey yield of the preceding year.

But what of neighboring orchards? Wouldn’t these entail a more complex externality (i.e., could one orchard free-ride on agreements concluded between other orchards and neighboring apiaries)? Apparently not:

Acknowledging the complication, beekeepers and farmers are quick to point out that a social rule, or custom of the orchards, takes the place of explicit contracting: during the pollination period the owner of an orchard either keeps bees himself or hires as many hives per area as are employed in neighboring orchards of the same type. One failing to comply would be rated as a “bad neighbor,” it is said, and could expect a number of inconveniences imposed on him by other orchard owners. This customary matching of hive densities involves the exchange of gifts of the same kind, which apparently entails lower transaction costs than would be incurred under explicit contracting, where farmers would have to negotiate and make money payments to one another for the bee spillover.

In short, not only did the bee/orchard externality model fail, but it failed to account for extremely obvious counter-evidence. Even a rapid flip through the Yellow Pages (or, today, a search on Google) would have revealed a vibrant market for bee pollination. In short, the bee externalities, at least as presented in economic textbooks, were merely an economic “fable.” Unfortunately, they would not be the last.

The Lighthouse

Lighthouses provide another cautionary tale. Indeed, Henry Sidgwick, A.C. Pigou, John Stuart Mill, and Paul Samuelson all cited the externalities involved in the provision of lighthouse services as a source of market failure.

Here, too, the problem was allegedly straightforward. A lighthouse cannot prevent ships from free-riding on its services when they sail by it (i.e., it is mostly impossible to determine whether a ship has paid fees and to turn off the lighthouse if that is not the case). Hence there can be no efficient market for light dues (lighthouses were seen as a “public good”). As Paul Samuelson famously put it:

Take our earlier case of a lighthouse to warn against rocks. Its beam helps everyone in sight. A businessman could not build it for a profit, since he cannot claim a price from each user. This certainly is the kind of activity that governments would naturally undertake.

He added that:

[E]ven if the operators were able—say, by radar reconnaissance—to claim a toll from every nearby user, that fact would not necessarily make it socially optimal for this service to be provided like a private good at a market-determined individual price. Why not? Because it costs society zero extra cost to let one extra ship use the service; hence any ships discouraged from those waters by the requirement to pay a positive price will represent a social economic loss—even if the price charged to all is no more than enough to pay the long-run expenses of the lighthouse.

More than a century after it was first mentioned in economics textbooks, Ronald Coase finally laid the lighthouse myth to rest—rebutting Samuelson’s second claim in the process.

What piece of evidence had eluded economists for all those years? As Coase observed, contemporary economists had somehow overlooked the fact that large parts of the British lighthouse system were privately operated, and had been for centuries:

[T]he right to operate a lighthouse and to levy tolls was granted to individuals by Acts of Parliament. The tolls were collected at the ports by agents (who might act for several lighthouses), who might be private individuals but were commonly customs officials. The toll varied with the lighthouse and ships paid a toll, varying with the size of the vessel, for each lighthouse passed. It was normally a rate per ton (say 1/4d or 1/2d) for each voyage. Later, books were published setting out the lighthouses passed on different voyages and the charges that would be made.

In other words, lighthouses used a simple physical feature to create “excludability” and prevent free-riding. The main reason ships require lighthouses is to avoid hitting rocks when they make their way to a port. By tying port fees and light dues, lighthouse owners—aided by mild government-enforced property rights—could easily earn a return on their investments, thus disproving the lighthouse free-riding myth.

Ultimately, this meant that a large share of the British lighthouse system was privately operated throughout the 19th century, and this share would presumably have been more pronounced if government-run “Trinity House” lighthouses had not crowded out private investment:

The position in 1820 was that there were 24 lighthouses operated by Trinity House and 22 by private individuals or organizations. But many of the Trinity House lighthouses had not been built originally by them but had been acquired by purchase or as the result of the expiration of a lease.

Of course, this system was not perfect. Some ships (notably foreign ones that did not dock in the United Kingdom) might free-ride on this arrangement. It also entailed some level of market power. The ability to charge light dues meant that prices were higher than the “socially optimal” baseline of zero (the marginal cost of providing light is close to zero). Though it is worth noting that tying port fees and light dues might also have decreased double marginalization, to the benefit of sailors.

Samuelson was particularly weary of this market power that went hand in hand with the private provision of public goods, including lighthouses:

Being able to limit a public good’s consumption does not make it a true-blue private good. For what, after all, are the true marginal costs of having one extra family tune in on the program? They are literally zero. Why then prevent any family which would receive positive pleasure from tuning in on the program from doing so?

However, as Coase explained, light fees represented only a tiny fraction of a ship’s costs. In practice, they were thus unlikely to affect market output meaningfully:

[W]hat is the gain which Samuelson sees as coming from this change in the way in which the lighthouse service is financed? It is that some ships which are now discouraged from making a voyage to Britain because of the light dues would in future do so. As it happens, the form of the toll and the exemptions mean that for most ships the number of voyages will not be affected by the fact that light dues are paid. There may be some ships somewhere which are laid up or broken up because of the light dues, but the number cannot be great, if indeed there are any ships in this category.

Samuelson’s critique also falls prey to the Nirvana Fallacy pointed out by Harold Demsetz: markets might not be perfect, but neither is government intervention. Market power and imperfect appropriability are the two (paradoxical) pitfalls of the first; “white elephants,” underinvestment, and lack of competition (and the information it generates) tend to stem from the latter.

Which of these solutions is superior, in each case, is an empirical question that early economists had simply failed to consider—assuming instead that market failure was systematic in markets that present prima facie externalities. In other words, models were taken as gospel without any circumspection about their relevance to real-world settings.

The Tragedy of the Commons

Externalities were also said to undermine the efficient use of “common pool resources,” such grazing lands, common irrigation systems, and fisheries—resources where one agent’s use diminishes that of others, and where exclusion is either difficult or impossible.

The most famous formulation of this problem is Garret Hardin’s highly influential (over 47,000 cites) “tragedy of the commons.” Hardin cited the example of multiple herdsmen occupying the same grazing ground:

The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another … But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.

In more technical terms, each economic agent purportedly exerts an unpriced negative externality on the others, thus leading to the premature depletion of common pool resources. Hardin extended this reasoning to other problems, such as pollution and allegations of global overpopulation.

Although Hardin hardly documented any real-world occurrences of this so-called tragedy, his policy prescriptions were unequivocal:

The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.

As with many other theoretical externalities, empirical scrutiny revealed that these fears were greatly overblown. In her Nobel-winning work, Elinor Ostrom showed that economic agents often found ways to mitigate these potential externalities markedly. For example, mountain villages often implement rules and norms that limit the use of grazing grounds and wooded areas. Likewise, landowners across the world often set up “irrigation communities” that prevent agents from overusing water.

Along similar lines, Julian Morris and I conjecture that informal arrangements and reputational effects might mitigate opportunistic behavior in the standard essential patent industry.

These bottom-up solutions are certainly not perfect. Many common institutions fail—for example, Elinor Ostrom documents several problematic fisheries, groundwater basins and forests, although it is worth noting that government intervention was sometimes behind these failures. To cite but one example:

Several scholars have documented what occurred when the Government of Nepal passed the “Private Forest Nationalization Act” […]. Whereas the law was officially proclaimed to “protect, manage and conserve the forest for the benefit of the entire country”, it actually disrupted previously established communal control over the local forests. Messerschmidt (1986, p.458) reports what happened immediately after the law came into effect:

Nepalese villagers began freeriding — systematically overexploiting their forest resources on a large scale.

In any case, the question is not so much whether private institutions fail, but whether they do so more often than government intervention. be it regulation or property rights. In short, the “tragedy of the commons” is ultimately an empirical question: what works better in each case, government intervention, propertization, or emergent rules and norms?

More broadly, the key lesson is that it is wrong to blindly apply models while ignoring real-world outcomes. As Elinor Ostrom herself put it:

The intellectual trap in relying entirely on models to provide the foundation for policy analysis is that scholars then presume that they are omniscient observers able to comprehend the essentials of how complex, dynamic systems work by creating stylized descriptions of some aspects of those systems.

Dvorak Keyboards

In 1985, Paul David published an influential paper arguing that market failures undermined competition between the QWERTY and Dvorak keyboard layouts. This version of history then became a dominant narrative in the field of network economics, including works by Joseph Farrell & Garth Saloner, and Jean Tirole.

The basic claim was that QWERTY users’ reluctance to switch toward the putatively superior Dvorak layout exerted a negative externality on the rest of the ecosystem (and a positive externality on other QWERTY users), thus preventing the adoption of a more efficient standard. As Paul David put it:

Although the initial lead acquired by QWERTY through its association with the Remington was quantitatively very slender, when magnified by expectations it may well have been quite sufficient to guarantee that the industry eventually would lock in to a de facto QWERTY standard. […]

Competition in the absence of perfect futures markets drove the industry prematurely into standardization on the wrong system — where decentralized decision making subsequently has sufficed to hold it.

Unfortunately, many of the above papers paid little to no attention to actual market conditions in the typewriter and keyboard layout industries. Years later, Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis undertook a detailed analysis of the keyboard layout market. They almost entirely rejected any notion that QWERTY prevailed despite it being the inferior standard:

Yet there are many aspects of the QWERTY-versus-Dvorak fable that do not survive scrutiny. First, the claim that Dvorak is a better keyboard is supported only by evidence that is both scant and suspect. Second, studies in the ergonomics literature find no significant advantage for Dvorak that can be deemed scientifically reliable. Third, the competition among producers of typewriters, out of which the standard emerged, was far more vigorous than is commonly reported. Fourth, there were far more typing contests than just the single Cincinnati contest. These contests provided ample opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of alternative keyboard arrangements. That QWERTY survived significant challenges early in the history of typewriting demonstrates that it is at least among the reasonably fit, even if not the fittest that can be imagined.

In short, there was little to no evidence supporting the view that QWERTY inefficiently prevailed because of network effects. The falsification of this narrative also weakens broader claims that network effects systematically lead to either excess momentum or excess inertia in standardization. Indeed, it is tempting to characterize all network industries with heavily skewed market shares as resulting from market failure. Yet the QWERTY/Dvorak story suggests that such a conclusion would be premature.

Killzones, Zoom, and TikTok

If you are still reading at this point, you might think that contemporary scholars would know better than to base calls for policy intervention on theoretical externalities. Alas, nothing could be further from the truth.

For instance, a recent paper by Sai Kamepalli, Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales conjectures that the interplay between mergers and network externalities discourages the adoption of superior independent platforms:

If techies expect two platforms to merge, they will be reluctant to pay the switching costs and adopt the new platform early on, unless the new platform significantly outperforms the incumbent one. After all, they know that if the entering platform’s technology is a net improvement over the existing technology, it will be adopted by the incumbent after merger, with new features melded with old features so that the techies’ adjustment costs are minimized. Thus, the prospect of a merger will dissuade many techies from trying the new technology.

Although this key behavioral assumption drives the results of the theoretical model, the paper presents no evidence to support the contention that it occurs in real-world settings. Admittedly, the paper does present evidence of reduced venture capital investments after mergers involving large tech firms. But even on their own terms, this data simply does not support the authors’ behavioral assumption.

And this is no isolated example. Over the past couple of years, several scholars have called for more muscular antitrust intervention in networked industries. A common theme is that network externalities, switching costs, and data-related increasing returns to scale lead to inefficient consumer lock-in, thus raising barriers to entry for potential rivals (here, here, here).

But there are also countless counterexamples, where firms have easily overcome potential barriers to entry and network externalities, ultimately disrupting incumbents.

Zoom is one of the most salient instances. As I have written previously:

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.

Along similar lines, Geoffrey Manne and Alec Stapp have put forward a multitude of other examples. These include: The demise of Yahoo; the disruption of early instant-messaging applications and websites; MySpace’s rapid decline; etc. In all these cases, outcomes do not match the predictions of theoretical models.

More recently, TikTok’s rapid rise offers perhaps the greatest example of a potentially superior social-networking platform taking significant market share away from incumbents. According to the Financial Times, TikTok’s video-sharing capabilities and its powerful algorithm are the most likely explanations for its success.

While these developments certainly do not disprove network effects theory, they eviscerate the common belief in antitrust circles that superior rivals are unable to overthrow incumbents in digital markets. Of course, this will not always be the case. As in the previous examples, the question is ultimately one of comparing institutions—i.e., do markets lead to more or fewer error costs than government intervention? Yet this question is systematically omitted from most policy discussions.

In Conclusion

My argument is not that models are without value. To the contrary, framing problems in economic terms—and simplifying them in ways that make them cognizable—enables scholars and policymakers to better understand where market failures might arise, and how these problems can be anticipated and solved by private actors. In other words, models alone cannot tell us that markets will fail, but they can direct inquiries and help us to understand why firms behave the way they do, and why markets (including digital ones) are organized in a given way.

In that respect, both the theoretical and empirical research cited throughout this post offer valuable insights for today’s policymakers.

For a start, as Ronald Coase famously argued in what is perhaps his most famous work, externalities (and market failure more generally) are a function of transaction costs. When these are low (relative to the value of a good), market failures are unlikely. This is perhaps clearest in the “Fable of the Bees” example. Given bees’ short foraging range, there were ultimately few real-world obstacles to writing contracts that internalized the mutual benefits of bees and orchards.

Perhaps more importantly, economic research sheds light on behavior that might otherwise be seen as anticompetitive. The rules and norms that bind farming/beekeeping communities, as well as users of common pool resources, could easily be analyzed as a cartel by naïve antitrust authorities. Yet externality theory suggests they play a key role in preventing market failure.

Along similar lines, mergers and acquisitions (as well as vertical integration, more generally) can reduce opportunism and other externalities that might otherwise undermine collaboration between firms (here, here and here). And much of the same is true for certain types of unilateral behavior. Tying video games to consoles (and pricing the console below cost) can help entrants overcome network externalities that might otherwise shield incumbents. Likewise, Google tying its proprietary apps to the open source Android operating system arguably enabled it to earn a return on its investments, thus overcoming the externality problem that plagues open source software.

All of this raises a tantalizing prospect that deserves far more attention than it is currently given in policy circles: authorities around the world are seeking to regulate the tech space. Draft legislation has notably been tabled in the United States, European Union and the United Kingdom. These draft bills would all make it harder for large tech firms to implement various economic hierarchies, including mergers and certain contractual arrangements.

This is highly paradoxical. If digital markets are indeed plagued by network externalities and high transaction costs, as critics allege, then preventing firms from adopting complex hierarchies—which have traditionally been seen as a way to solve externalities—is just as likely to exacerbate problems. In other words, like the economists of old cited above, today’s policymakers appear to be focusing too heavily on simple models that predict market failure, and far too little on the mechanisms that firms have put in place to thrive within this complex environment.

The bigger picture is that far more circumspection is required when using theoretical models in real-world policy settings. Indeed, as Harold Demsetz famously put it, the purpose of normative economics is not so much to identify market failures, but to help policymakers determine which of several alternative institutions will deliver the best outcomes for consumers:

This nirvana approach differs considerably from a comparative institution approach in which the relevant choice is between alternative real institutional arrangements. In practice, those who adopt the nirvana viewpoint seek to discover discrepancies between the ideal and the real and if discrepancies are found, they deduce that the real is inefficient. Users of the comparative institution approach attempt to assess which alternative real institutional arrangement seems best able to cope with the economic problem […].

Policy discussions about the use of personal data often have “less is more” as a background assumption; that data is overconsumed relative to some hypothetical optimal baseline. This overriding skepticism has been the backdrop for sweeping new privacy regulations, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

More recently, as part of the broad pushback against data collection by online firms, some have begun to call for creating property rights in consumers’ personal data or for data to be treated as labor. Prominent backers of the idea include New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang and computer scientist Jaron Lanier.

The discussion has escaped the halls of academia and made its way into popular media. During a recent discussion with Tesla founder Elon Musk, comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan argued that Facebook is “one gigantic information-gathering business that’s decided to take all of the data that people didn’t know was valuable and sell it and make f***ing billions of dollars.” Musk appeared to agree.

The animosity exhibited toward data collection might come as a surprise to anyone who has taken Econ 101. Goods ideally end up with those who value them most. A firm finding profitable ways to repurpose unwanted scraps is just the efficient reallocation of resources. This applies as much to personal data as to literal trash.

Unfortunately, in the policy sphere, few are willing to recognize the inherent trade-off between the value of privacy, on the one hand, and the value of various goods and services that rely on consumer data, on the other. Ideally, policymakers would look to markets to find the right balance, which they often can. When the transfer of data is hardwired into an underlying transaction, parties have ample room to bargain.

But this is not always possible. In some cases, transaction costs will prevent parties from bargaining over the use of data. The question is whether such situations are so widespread as to justify the creation of data property rights, with all of the allocative inefficiencies they entail. Critics wrongly assume the solution is both to create data property rights and to allocate them to consumers. But there is no evidence to suggest that, at the margin, heightened user privacy necessarily outweighs the social benefits that new data-reliant goods and services would generate. Recent experience in the worlds of personalized medicine and the fight against COVID-19 help to illustrate this point.

Data Property Rights and Personalized Medicine

The world is on the cusp of a revolution in personalized medicine. Advances such as the improved identification of biomarkers, CRISPR genome editing, and machine learning, could usher a new wave of treatments to markedly improve health outcomes.

Personalized medicine uses information about a person’s own genes or proteins to prevent, diagnose, or treat disease. Genetic-testing companies like 23andMe or Family Tree DNA, with the large troves of genetic information they collect, could play a significant role in helping the scientific community to further medical progress in this area.

However, despite the obvious potential of personalized medicine, many of its real-world applications are still very much hypothetical. While governments could act in any number of ways to accelerate the movement’s progress, recent policy debates have instead focused more on whether to create a system of property rights covering personal genetic data.

Some raise concerns that it is pharmaceutical companies, not consumers, who will reap the monetary benefits of the personalized medicine revolution, and that advances are achieved at the expense of consumers’ and patients’ privacy. They contend that data property rights would ensure that patients earn their “fair” share of personalized medicine’s future profits.

But it’s worth examining the other side of the coin. There are few things people value more than their health. U.S. governmental agencies place the value of a single life at somewhere between $1 million and $10 million. The commonly used quality-adjusted life year metric offers valuations that range from $50,000 to upward of $300,000 per incremental year of life.

It therefore follows that the trivial sums users of genetic-testing kits might derive from a system of data property rights would likely be dwarfed by the value they would enjoy from improved medical treatments. A strong case can be made that policymakers should prioritize advancing the emergence of new treatments, rather than attempting to ensure that consumers share in the profits generated by those potential advances.

These debates drew increased attention last year, when 23andMe signed a strategic agreement with the pharmaceutical company Almirall to license the rights related to an antibody Almirall had developed. Critics pointed out that 23andMe’s customers, whose data had presumably been used to discover the potential treatment, received no monetary benefits from the deal. Journalist Laura Spinney wrote in The Guardian newspaper:

23andMe, for example, asks its customers to waive all claims to a share of the profits arising from such research. But given those profits could be substantial—as evidenced by the interest of big pharma—shouldn’t the company be paying us for our data, rather than charging us to be tested?

In the deal’s wake, some argued that personal health data should be covered by property rights. A cardiologist quoted in Fortune magazine opined: “I strongly believe that everyone should own their medical data—and they have a right to that.” But this strong belief, however widely shared, ignores important lessons that law and economics has to teach about property rights and the role of contractual freedom.

Why Do We Have Property Rights?

Among the many important features of property rights is that they create “excludability,” the ability of economic agents to prevent third parties from using a given item. In the words of law professor Richard Epstein:

[P]roperty is not an individual conception, but is at root a social conception. The social conception is fairly and accurately portrayed, not by what it is I can do with the thing in question, but by who it is that I am entitled to exclude by virtue of my right. Possession becomes exclusive possession against the rest of the world…

Excludability helps to facilitate the trade of goods, offers incentives to create those goods in the first place, and promotes specialization throughout the economy. In short, property rights create a system of exclusion that supports creating and maintaining valuable goods, services, and ideas.

But property rights are not without drawbacks. Physical or intellectual property can lead to a suboptimal allocation of resources, namely market power (though this effect is often outweighed by increased ex ante incentives to create and innovate). Similarly, property rights can give rise to thickets that significantly increase the cost of amassing complementary pieces of property. Often cited are the historic (but contested) examples of tolling on the Rhine River or the airplane patent thicket of the early 20th century. Finally, strong property rights might also lead to holdout behavior, which can be addressed through top-down tools, like eminent domain, or private mechanisms, like contingent contracts.

In short, though property rights—whether they cover physical or information goods—can offer vast benefits, there are cases where they might be counterproductive. This is probably why, throughout history, property laws have evolved to achieve a reasonable balance between incentives to create goods and to ensure their efficient allocation and use.

Personal Health Data: What Are We Trying to Incentivize?

There are at least three critical questions we should ask about proposals to create property rights over personal health data.

  1. What goods or behaviors would these rights incentivize or disincentivize that are currently over- or undersupplied by the market?
  2. Are goods over- or undersupplied because of insufficient excludability?
  3. Could these rights undermine the efficient use of personal health data?

Much of the current debate centers on data obtained from direct-to-consumer genetic-testing kits. In this context, almost by definition, firms only obtain consumers’ genetic data with their consent. In western democracies, the rights to bodily integrity and to privacy generally make it illegal to administer genetic tests against a consumer or patient’s will. This makes genetic information naturally excludable, so consumers already benefit from what is effectively a property right.

When consumers decide to use a genetic-testing kit, the terms set by the testing firm generally stipulate how their personal data will be used. 23andMe has a detailed policy to this effect, as does Family Tree DNA. In the case of 23andMe, consumers can decide whether their personal information can be used for the purpose of scientific research:

You have the choice to participate in 23andMe Research by providing your consent. … 23andMe Research may study a specific group or population, identify potential areas or targets for therapeutics development, conduct or support the development of drugs, diagnostics or devices to diagnose, predict or treat medical or other health conditions, work with public, private and/or nonprofit entities on genetic research initiatives, or otherwise create, commercialize, and apply this new knowledge to improve health care.

Because this transfer of personal information is hardwired into the provision of genetic-testing services, there is space for contractual bargaining over the allocation of this information. The right to use personal health data will go toward the party that values it most, especially if information asymmetries are weeded out by existing regulations or business practices.

Regardless of data property rights, consumers have a choice: they can purchase genetic-testing services and agree to the provider’s data policy, or they can forgo the services. The service provider cannot obtain the data without entering into an agreement with the consumer. While competition between providers will affect parties’ bargaining positions, and thus the price and terms on which these services are provided, data property rights likely will not.

So, why do consumers transfer control over their genetic data? The main reason is that genetic information is inaccessible and worthless without the addition of genetic-testing services. Consumers must pass through the bottleneck of genetic testing for their genetic data to be revealed and transformed into usable information. It therefore makes sense to transfer the information to the service provider, who is in a much stronger position to draw insights from it. From the consumer’s perspective, the data is not even truly “transferred,” as the consumer had no access to it before the genetic-testing service revealed it. The value of this genetic information is then netted out in the price consumers pay for testing kits.

If personal health data were undersupplied by consumers and patients, testing firms could sweeten the deal and offer them more in return for their data. U.S. copyright law covers original compilations of data, while EU law gives 15 years of exclusive protection to the creators of original databases. Legal protections for trade secrets could also play some role. Thus, firms have some incentives to amass valuable health datasets.

But some critics argue that health data is, in fact, oversupplied. Generally, such arguments assert that agents do not account for the negative privacy externalities suffered by third-parties, such as adverse-selection problems in insurance markets. For example, Jay Pil Choi, Doh Shin Jeon, and Byung Cheol Kim argue:

Genetic tests are another example of privacy concerns due to informational externalities. Researchers have found that some subjects’ genetic information can be used to make predictions of others’ genetic disposition among the same racial or ethnic category.  … Because of practical concerns about privacy and/or invidious discrimination based on genetic information, the U.S. federal government has prohibited insurance companies and employers from any misuse of information from genetic tests under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).

But if these externalities exist (most of the examples cited by scholars are hypothetical), they are likely dwarfed by the tremendous benefits that could flow from the use of personal health data. Put differently, the assertion that “excessive” data collection may create privacy harms should be weighed against the possibility that the same collection may also lead to socially valuable goods and services that produce positive externalities.

In any case, data property rights would do little to limit these potential negative externalities. Consumers and patients are already free to agree to terms that allow or prevent their data from being resold to insurers. It is not clear how data property rights would alter the picture.

Proponents of data property rights often claim they should be associated with some form of collective bargaining. The idea is that consumers might otherwise fail to receive their “fair share” of genetic-testing firms’ revenue. But what critics portray as asymmetric bargaining power might simply be the market signaling that genetic-testing services are in high demand, with room for competitors to enter the market. Shifting rents from genetic-testing services to consumers would undermine this valuable price signal and, ultimately, diminish the quality of the services.

Perhaps more importantly, to the extent that they limit the supply of genetic information—for example, because firms are forced to pay higher prices for data and thus acquire less of it—data property rights might hinder the emergence of new treatments. If genetic data is a key input to develop personalized medicines, adopting policies that, in effect, ration the supply of that data is likely misguided.

Even if policymakers do not directly put their thumb on the scale, data property rights could still harm pharmaceutical innovation. If existing privacy regulations are any guide—notably, the previously mentioned GDPR and CCPA, as well as the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)—such rights might increase red tape for pharmaceutical innovators. Privacy regulations routinely limit firms’ ability to put collected data to new and previously unforeseen uses. They also limit parties’ contractual freedom when it comes to gathering consumers’ consent.

At the margin, data property rights would make it more costly for firms to amass socially valuable datasets. This would effectively move the personalized medicine space further away from a world of permissionless innovation, thus slowing down medical progress.

In short, there is little reason to believe health-care data is misallocated. Proposals to reallocate rights to such data based on idiosyncratic distributional preferences threaten to stifle innovation in the name of privacy harms that remain mostly hypothetical.

Data Property Rights and COVID-19

The trade-off between users’ privacy and the efficient use of data also has important implications for the fight against COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, several promising initiatives have been thwarted by privacy regulations and concerns about the use of personal data. This has potentially prevented policymakers, firms, and consumers from putting information to its optimal social use. High-profile issues have included:

Each of these cases may involve genuine privacy risks. But to the extent that they do, those risks must be balanced against the potential benefits to society. If privacy concerns prevent us from deploying contact tracing or green passes at scale, we should question whether the privacy benefits are worth the cost. The same is true for rules that prohibit amassing more data than is strictly necessary, as is required by data-minimization obligations included in regulations such as the GDPR.

If our initial question was instead whether the benefits of a given data-collection scheme outweighed its potential costs to privacy, incentives could be set such that competition between firms would reduce the amount of data collected—at least, where minimized data collection is, indeed, valuable to users. Yet these considerations are almost completely absent in the COVID-19-related privacy debates, as they are in the broader privacy debate. Against this backdrop, the case for personal data property rights is dubious.

Conclusion

The key question is whether policymakers should make it easier or harder for firms and public bodies to amass large sets of personal data. This requires asking whether personal data is currently under- or over-provided, and whether the additional excludability that would be created by data property rights would offset their detrimental effect on innovation.

Swaths of personal data currently lie untapped. With the proper incentive mechanisms in place, this idle data could be mobilized to develop personalized medicines and to fight the COVID-19 outbreak, among many other valuable uses. By making such data more onerous to acquire, property rights in personal data might stifle the assembly of novel datasets that could be used to build innovative products and services.

On the other hand, when dealing with diffuse and complementary data sources, transaction costs become a real issue and the initial allocation of rights can matter a great deal. In such cases, unlike the genetic-testing kits example, it is not certain that users will be able to bargain with firms, especially where their personal information is exchanged by third parties.

If optimal reallocation is unlikely, should property rights go to the person covered by the data or to the collectors (potentially subject to user opt-outs)? Proponents of data property rights assume the first option is superior. But if the goal is to produce groundbreaking new goods and services, granting rights to data collectors might be a superior solution. Ultimately, this is an empirical question.

As Richard Epstein puts it, the goal is to “minimize the sum of errors that arise from expropriation and undercompensation, where the two are inversely related.” Rather than approach the problem with the preconceived notion that initial rights should go to users, policymakers should ensure that data flows to those economic agents who can best extract information and knowledge from it.

As things stand, there is little to suggest that the trade-offs favor creating data property rights. This is not an argument for requisitioning personal information or preventing parties from transferring data as they see fit, but simply for letting markets function, unfettered by misguided public policies.

The Federal Trade Commission and 46 state attorneys general (along with the District of Columbia and the Territory of Guam) filed their long-awaited complaints against Facebook Dec. 9. The crux of the arguments in both lawsuits is that Facebook pursued a series of acquisitions over the past decade that aimed to cement its prominent position in the “personal social media networking” market. 

Make no mistake, if successfully prosecuted, these cases would represent one of the most fundamental shifts in antitrust law since passage of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act in 1976. That law required antitrust authorities to be notified of proposed mergers and acquisitions that exceed certain value thresholds, essentially shifting the paradigm for merger enforcement from ex-post to ex-ante review.

While the prevailing paradigm does not explicitly preclude antitrust enforcers from taking a second bite of the apple via ex-post enforcement, it has created an assumption among that regulatory clearance of a merger makes subsequent antitrust proceedings extremely unlikely. 

Indeed, the very point of ex-ante merger regulations is that ex-post enforcement, notably in the form of breakups, has tremendous social costs. It can scupper economies of scale and network effects on which both consumers and firms have come to rely. Moreover, the threat of costly subsequent legal proceedings will hang over firms’ pre- and post-merger investment decisions, and may thus reduce incentives to invest.

With their complaints, the FTC and state AGs threaten to undo this status quo. Even if current antitrust law allows it, pursuing this course of action threatens to quash the implicit assumption that regulatory clearance generally shields a merger from future antitrust scrutiny. Ex-post review of mergers and acquisitions does also entail some positive features, but the Facebook complaints fail to consider these complicated trade-offs. This oversight could hamper tech and other U.S. industries.

Mergers and uncertainty

Merger decisions are probabilistic. Of the thousands of corporate acquisitions each year, only a handful end up deemed “successful.” These relatively few success stories have to pay for the duds in order to preserve the incentive to invest.

Switching from ex-ante to ex-post review enables authorities to focus their attention on the most lucrative deals. It stands to reason that they will not want to launch ex-post antitrust proceedings against bankrupt firms whose assets have already been stripped. Instead, as with the Facebook complaint, authorities are far more likely to pursue high-profile cases that boost their political capital.

This would be unproblematic if:

  1. Authorities would commit to ex-post prosecution only of anticompetitive mergers; and
  2. If parties could reasonably anticipate whether their deals would be deemed anticompetitive in the future. 

If those were the conditions, ex-post enforcement would merely reduce the incentive to partake in problematic mergers. It would leave welfare-enhancing deals unscathed. But where firms could not have ex-ante knowledge that a given deal would be deemed anticompetitive, the associated error-costs should weigh against prosecuting such mergers ex post, even if such enforcement might appear desirable. The deterrent effect that would arise from such prosecutions would be applied by the market to all mergers, including efficient ones. Put differently, authorities might get the ex-post assessment right in one case, such as the Facebook proceedings, but the bigger picture remains that they could be wrong in many other cases. Firms will perceive this threat and it may hinder their investments.

There is also reason to doubt that either of the ideal conditions for ex-post enforcement could realistically be met in practice.Ex-ante merger proceedings involve significant uncertainty. Indeed, antitrust-merger clearance decisions routinely have an impact on the merging parties’ stock prices. If management and investors knew whether their transactions would be cleared, those effects would be priced-in when a deal is announced, not when it is cleared or blocked. Indeed, if firms knew a given merger would be blocked, they would not waste their resources pursuing it. This demonstrates that ex-ante merger proceedings involve uncertainty for the merging parties.

Unless the answer is markedly different for ex-post merger reviews, authorities should proceed with caution. If parties cannot properly self-assess their deals, the threat of ex-post proceedings will weigh on pre- and post-merger investments (a breakup effectively amounts to expropriating investments that are dependent upon the divested assets). 

Furthermore, because authorities will likely focus ex-post reviews on the most lucrative deals, their incentive effects can be particularly pronounced. Parties may fear that the most successful mergers will be broken up. This could have wide-reaching effects for all merging firms that do not know whether they might become “the next Facebook.” 

Accordingly, for ex-post merger reviews to be justified, it is essential that:

  1. Their outcomes be predictable for the parties; and that 
  2. Analyzing the deals after the fact leads to better decision-making (fewer false acquittals and convictions) than ex-ante reviews would yield.

If these conditions are not in place, ex-post assessments will needlessly weigh down innovation, investment and procompetitive merger activity in the economy.

Hindsight does not disentangle efficiency from market power

So, could ex-post merger reviews be so predictable and effective as to alleviate the uncertainties described above, along with the costs they entail? 

Based on the recently filed Facebook complaints, the answer appears to be no. We simply do not know what the counterfactual to Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp would look like. Hindsight does not tell us whether Facebook’s acquisitions led to efficiencies that allowed it to thrive (a pro-competitive scenario), or whether Facebook merely used these deals to kill off competitors and maintain its monopoly (an anticompetitive scenario).

As Sam Bowman and I have argued elsewhere, when discussing the leaked emails that spurred the current proceedings and on which the complaints rely heavily:

These email exchanges may not paint a particularly positive picture of Zuckerberg’s intent in doing the merger, and it is possible that at the time they may have caused antitrust agencies to scrutinise the merger more carefully. But they do not tell us that the acquisition was ultimately harmful to consumers, or about the counterfactual of the merger being blocked. While we know that Instagram became enormously popular in the years following the merger, it is not clear that it would have been just as successful without the deal, or that Facebook and its other products would be less popular today. 

Moreover, it fails to account for the fact that Facebook had the resources to quickly scale Instagram up to a level that provided immediate benefits to an enormous number of users, instead of waiting for the app to potentially grow to such scale organically.

In fact, contrary to what some have argued, hindsight might even complicate matters (again from Sam and me):

Today’s commentators have the benefit of hindsight. This inherently biases contemporary takes on the Facebook/Instagram merger. For instance, it seems almost self-evident with hindsight that Facebook would succeed and that entry in the social media space would only occur at the fringes of existing platforms (the combined Facebook/Instagram platform) – think of the emergence of TikTok. However, at the time of the merger, such an outcome was anything but a foregone conclusion.

In other words, ex-post reviews will, by definition, focus on mergers where today’s outcomes seem preordained — when, in fact, they were probabilistic. This will skew decisions toward finding anticompetitive conduct. If authorities think that Instagram was destined to become great, they are more likely to find that Facebook’s acquisition was anticompetitive because they implicitly dismiss the idea that it was the merger itself that made Instagram great.

Authorities might also confuse correlation for causality. For instance, the state AGs’ complaint ties Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp to the degradation of these services, notably in terms of privacy and advertising loads. As the complaint lays out:

127. Following the acquisition, Facebook also degraded Instagram users’ privacy by matching Instagram and Facebook Blue accounts so that Facebook could use information that users had shared with Facebook Blue to serve ads to those users on Instagram. 

180. Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp thus substantially lessened competition […]. Moreover, Facebook’s subsequent degradation of the acquired firm’s privacy features reduced consumer choice by eliminating a viable, competitive, privacy-focused option

But these changes may have nothing to do with Facebook’s acquisition of these services. At the time, nearly all tech startups focused on growth over profits in their formative years. It should be no surprise that the platforms imposed higher “prices” to users after their acquisition by Facebook; they were maturing. Further monetizing their platform would have been the logical next step, even absent the mergers.

It is just as hard to determine whether post-merger developments actually harmed consumers. For example, the FTC complaint argues that Facebook stopped developing its own photo-sharing capabilities after the Instagram acquisition,which the commission cites as evidence that the deal neutralized a competitor:

98. Less than two weeks after the acquisition was announced, Mr. Zuckerberg suggested canceling or scaling back investment in Facebook’s own mobile photo app as a direct result of the Instagram deal.

But it is not obvious that Facebook or consumers would have gained anything from the duplication of R&D efforts if Facebook continued to develop its own photo-sharing app. More importantly, this discontinuation is not evidence that Instagram could have overthrown Facebook. In other words, the fact that Instagram provided better photo-sharing capabilities does necessarily imply that it could also provide a versatile platform that posed a threat to Facebook.

Finally, if Instagram’s stellar growth and photo-sharing capabilities were certain to overthrow Facebook’s monopoly, why do the plaintiffs ignore the competitive threat posed by the likes of TikTok today? Neither of the complaints makes any mention of TikTok,even though it currently has well over 1 billion monthly active users. The FTC and state AGs would have us believe that Instagram posed an existential threat to Facebook in 2012 but that Facebook faces no such threat from TikTok today. It is exceedingly unlikely that both these statements could be true, yet both are essential to the plaintiffs’ case.

Some appropriate responses

None of this is to say that ex-post review of mergers and acquisitions should be categorically out of the question. Rather, such proceedings should be initiated only with appropriate caution and consideration for their broader consequences.

When undertaking reviews of past mergers, authorities do  not necessarily need to impose remedies every time they find a merger was wrongly cleared. The findings of these ex-post reviews could simply be used to adjust existing merger thresholds and presumptions. This would effectively create a feedback loop where false acquittals lead to meaningful policy reforms in the future. 

At the very least, it may be appropriate for policymakers to set a higher bar for findings of anticompetitive harm and imposition of remedies in such cases. This would reduce the undesirable deterrent effects that such reviews may otherwise entail, while reserving ex-post remedies for the most problematic cases.

Finally, a tougher system of ex-post review could be used to allow authorities to take more risks during ex-ante proceedings. Indeed, when in doubt, they could effectively  experiment by allowing  marginal mergers to proceed, with the understanding that bad decisions could be clawed back afterwards. In that regard, it might also be useful to set precise deadlines for such reviews and to outline the types of concerns that might prompt scrutiny  or warrant divestitures.

In short, some form of ex-post review may well be desirable. It could help antitrust authorities to learn what works and subsequently to make useful changes to ex-ante merger-review systems. But this would necessitate deep reflection on the many ramifications of ex-post reassessments. Legislative reform or, at the least, publication of guidance documents by authorities, seem like essential first steps. 

Unfortunately, this is the exact opposite of what the Facebook proceedings would achieve. Plaintiffs have chosen to ignore these complex trade-offs in pursuit of a case with extremely dubious underlying merits. Success for the plaintiffs would thus prove a pyrrhic victory, destroying far more than it intends to achieve.

What is a search engine?

Dirk Auer —  21 October 2020

What is a search engine? This might seem like an innocuous question, but it lies at the heart of the US Department of Justice and state Attorneys’ General antitrust complaint against Google, as well as the European Commission’s Google Search and Android decisions. It is also central to a report published by the UK’s Competition & Markets Authority (“CMA”). To varying degrees, all of these proceedings are premised on the assumption that Google enjoys a monopoly/dominant position over online search. But things are not quite this simple. 

Despite years of competition decisions and policy discussions, there are still many unanswered questions concerning the operation of search markets. For example, it is still unclear exactly which services compete against Google Search, and how this might evolve in the near future. Likewise, there has only been limited scholarly discussion as to how a search engine monopoly would exert its market power. In other words, what does a restriction of output look like on a search platform — particularly on the user side

Answering these questions will be essential if authorities wish to successfully bring an antitrust suit against Google for conduct involving search. Indeed, as things stand, these uncertainties greatly complicate efforts (i) to rigorously define the relevant market(s) in which Google Search operates, (ii) to identify potential anticompetitive effects, and (iii) to apply the quantitative tools that usually underpin antitrust proceedings.

In short, as explained below, antitrust authorities and other plaintiffs have their work cut out if they are to prevail in court.

Consumers demand information 

For a start, identifying the competitive constraints faced by Google presents authorities and plaintiffs with an important challenge.

Even proponents of antitrust intervention recognize that the market for search is complex. For instance, the DOJ and state AGs argue that Google dominates a narrow market for “general search services” — as opposed to specialized search services, content sites, social networks, and online marketplaces, etc. The EU Commission reached the same conclusion in its Google Search decision. Finally, commenting on the CMA’s online advertising report, Fiona Scott Morton and David Dinielli argue that: 

General search is a relevant market […]

In this way, an individual specialized search engine competes with a small fraction of what the Google search engine does, because a user could employ either for one specific type of search. The CMA concludes that, from the consumer standpoint, a specialized search engine exerts only a limited competitive constraint on Google.

(Note that the CMA stressed that it did not perform a market definition exercise: “We have not carried out a formal market definition assessment, but have instead looked at competitive constraints across the sector…”).

In other words, the above critics recognize that search engines are merely tools that can serve multiple functions, and that competitive constraints may be different for some of these. But this has wider ramifications that policymakers have so far overlooked. 

When quizzed about his involvement with Neuralink (a company working on implantable brain–machine interfaces), Elon Musk famously argued that human beings already share a near-symbiotic relationship with machines (a point already made by others):

The purpose of Neuralink [is] to create a high-bandwidth interface to the brain such that we can be symbiotic with AI. […] Because we have a bandwidth problem. You just can’t communicate through your fingers. It’s just too slow.

Commentators were quick to spot this implications of this technology for the search industry:

Imagine a world when humans would no longer require a device to search for answers on the internet, you just have to think of something and you get the answer straight in your head from the internet.

As things stand, this example still belongs to the realm of sci-fi. But it neatly illustrates a critical feature of the search industry. 

Search engines are just the latest iteration (but certainly not the last) of technology that enables human beings to access specific pieces of information more rapidly. Before the advent of online search, consumers used phone directories, paper maps, encyclopedias, and other tools to find the information they were looking for. They would read newspapers and watch television to know the weather forecast. They went to public libraries to undertake research projects (some still do), etc.

And, in some respects, the search engine is already obsolete for many of these uses. For instance, virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Google’s own Google Assistant offering can perform many functions that were previously the preserve of search engines: checking the weather, finding addresses and asking for directions, looking up recipes, answering general knowledge questions, finding goods online, etc. Granted, these virtual assistants partly rely on existing search engines to complete tasks. However, Google is much less dominant in this space, and search engines are not the sole source on which virtual assistants rely to generate results. Amazon’s Alexa provides a fitting example (here and here).

Along similar lines, it has been widely reported that 60% of online shoppers start their search on Amazon, while only 26% opt for Google Search. In other words, Amazon’s ability to rapidly show users the product they are looking for somewhat alleviates the need for a general search engine. In turn, this certainly constrains Google’s behavior to some extent. And much of the same applies to other websites that provide a specific type of content (think of Twitter, LinkedIn, Tripadvisor, Booking.com, etc.)

Finally, it is also revealing that the most common searches on Google are, in all likelihood, made to reach other websites — a function for which competition is literally endless:

The upshot is that Google Search and other search engines perform a bundle of functions. Most of these can be done via alternative means, and this will increasingly be the case as technology continues to advance. 

This is all the more important given that the vast majority of search engine revenue derives from roughly 30 percent of search terms (notably those that are linked to product searches). The remaining search terms are effectively a loss leader. And these profitable searches also happen to be those where competition from alternative means is, in all likelihood, the strongest (this includes competition from online retail platforms, and online travel agents like Booking.com or Kayak, but also from referral sites, direct marketing, and offline sources). In turn, this undermines US plaintiffs’ claims that Google faces little competition from rivals like Amazon, because they don’t compete for the entirety of Google’s search results (in other words, Google might face strong competition for the most valuable ads):

108. […] This market share understates Google’s market power in search advertising because many search-advertising competitors offer only specialized search ads and thus compete with Google only in a limited portion of the market. 

Critics might mistakenly take the above for an argument that Google has no market power because competition is “just a click away”. But the point is more subtle, and has important implications as far as market definition is concerned.

Authorities should not define the search market by arguing that no other rival is quite like Google (or one if its rivals) — as the DOJ and state AGs did in their complaint:

90. Other search tools, platforms, and sources of information are not reasonable substitutes for general search services. Offline and online resources, such as books, publisher websites, social media platforms, and specialized search providers such as Amazon, Expedia, or Yelp, do not offer consumers the same breadth of information or convenience. These resources are not “one-stop shops” and cannot respond to all types of consumer queries, particularly navigational queries. Few consumers would find alternative sources a suitable substitute for general search services. Thus, there are no reasonable substitutes for general search services, and a general search service monopolist would be able to maintain quality below the level that would prevail in a competitive market. 

And as the EU Commission did in the Google Search decision:

(162) For the reasons set out below, there is, however, limited demand side substitutability between general search services and other online services. […]

(163) There is limited substitutability between general search services and content sites. […]

(166) There is also limited substitutability between general search services and specialised search services. […]

(178) There is also limited substitutability between general search services and social networking sites.

Ad absurdum, if consumers suddenly decided to access information via other means, Google could be the only firm to provide general search results and yet have absolutely no market power. 

Take the example of Yahoo: Despite arguably remaining the most successful “web directory”, it likely lost any market power that it had when Google launched a superior — and significantly more successful — type of search engine. Google Search may not have provided a complete, literal directory of the web (as did Yahoo), but it offered users faster access to the information they wanted. In short, the Yahoo example shows that being unique is not equivalent to having market power. Accordingly, any market definition exercise that merely focuses on the idiosyncrasies of firms is likely to overstate their actual market power. 

Given what precedes, the question that authorities should ask is thus whether Google Search (or another search engine) performs so many unique functions that it may be in a position to restrict output. So far, no one appears to have convincingly answered this question.

Similar uncertainties surround the question of how a search engine might restrict output, especially on the user side of the search market. Accordingly, authorities will struggle to produce evidence (i) the Google has market power, especially on the user side of the market, and (ii) that its behavior has anticompetitive effects.

Consider the following:

The SSNIP test (which is the standard method of defining markets in antitrust proceedings) is inapplicable to the consumer side of search platforms. Indeed, it is simply impossible to apply a hypothetical 10% price increase to goods that are given away for free.

This raises a deeper question: how would a search engine exercise its market power? 

For a start, it seems unlikely that it would start charging fees to its users. For instance, empirical research pertaining to the magazine industry (also an ad-based two-sided market) suggests that increased concentration does not lead to higher magazine prices. Minjae Song notably finds that:

Taking the advantage of having structural models for both sides, I calculate equilibrium outcomes for hypothetical ownership structures. Results show that when the market becomes more concentrated, copy prices do not necessarily increase as magazines try to attract more readers.

It is also far from certain that a dominant search engine would necessarily increase the amount of adverts it displays. To the contrary, market power on the advertising side of the platform might lead search engines to decrease the number of advertising slots that are available (i.e. reducing advertising output), thus showing less adverts to users. 

Finally, it is not obvious that market power would lead search engines to significantly degrade their product (as this could ultimately hurt ad revenue). For example, empirical research by Avi Goldfarb and Catherine Tucker suggests that there is some limit to the type of adverts that search engines could profitably impose upon consumers. They notably find that ads that are both obtrusive and targeted decrease subsequent purchases:

Ads that match both website content and are obtrusive do worse at increasing purchase intent than ads that do only one or the other. This failure appears to be related to privacy concerns: the negative effect of combining targeting with obtrusiveness is strongest for people who refuse to give their income and for categories where privacy matters most.

The preceding paragraphs find some support in the theoretical literature on two-sided markets literature, which suggests that competition on the user side of search engines is likely to be particularly intense and beneficial to consumers (because they are more likely to single-home than advertisers, and because each additional user creates a positive externality on the advertising side of the market). For instance, Jean Charles Rochet and Jean Tirole find that:

The single-homing side receives a large share of the joint surplus, while the multi-homing one receives a small share.

This is just a restatement of Mark Armstrong’s “competitive bottlenecks” theory:

Here, if it wishes to interact with an agent on the single-homing side, the multi-homing side has no choice but to deal with that agent’s chosen platform. Thus, platforms have monopoly power over providing access to their single-homing customers for the multi-homing side. This monopoly power naturally leads to high prices being charged to the multi-homing side, and there will be too few agents on this side being served from a social point of view (Proposition 4). By contrast, platforms do have to compete for the single-homing agents, and high profits generated from the multi-homing side are to a large extent passed on to the single-homing side in the form of low prices (or even zero prices).

All of this is not to suggest that Google Search has no market power, or that monopoly is necessarily less problematic in the search engine industry than in other markets. 

Instead, the argument is that analyzing competition on the user side of search platforms is unlikely to yield dispositive evidence of market power or anticompetitive effects. This is because market power is hard to measure on this side of the market, and because even a monopoly platform might not significantly restrict user output. 

That might explain why the DOJ and state AGs analysis of anticompetitive effects is so limited. Take the following paragraph (provided without further supporting evidence):

167. By restricting competition in general search services, Google’s conduct has harmed consumers by reducing the quality of general search services (including dimensions such as privacy, data protection, and use of consumer data), lessening choice in general search services, and impeding innovation. 

Given these inherent difficulties, antitrust investigators would do better to focus on the side of those platforms where mainstream IO tools are much easier to apply and where a dominant search engine would likely restrict output: the advertising market. Not only is it the market where search engines are most likely to exert their market power (thus creating a deadweight loss), but — because it involves monetary transactions — this side of the market lends itself to the application of traditional antitrust tools.  

Looking at the right side of the market

Finally, and unfortunately for Google’s critics, available evidence suggests that its position on the (online) advertising market might not meet the requirements necessary to bring a monopolization case (at least in the US).

For a start, online advertising appears to exhibit the prima facie signs of a competitive market. As Geoffrey Manne, Sam Bowman and Eric Fruits have argued:

Over the past decade, the price of advertising has fallen steadily while output has risen. Spending on digital advertising in the US grew from $26 billion in 2010 to nearly $130 billion in 2019, an average increase of 20% a year. Over the same period the Producer Price Index for Internet advertising sales declined by nearly 40%. The rising spending in the face of falling prices indicates the number of ads bought and sold increased by approximately 27% a year. Since 2000, advertising spending has been falling as a share of GDP, with online advertising growing as a share of that. The combination of increasing quantity, decreasing cost, and increasing total revenues are consistent with a growing and increasingly competitive market.

Second, empirical research suggests that the market might need to be widened to include offline advertising. For instance, Avi Goldfarb and Catherine Tucker show that there can be important substitution effects between online and offline advertising channels:

Using data on the advertising prices paid by lawyers for 139 Google search terms in 195 locations, we exploit a natural experiment in “ambulance-chaser” regulations across states. When lawyers cannot contact clients by mail, advertising prices per click for search engine advertisements are 5%–7% higher. Therefore, online advertising substitutes for offline advertising.

Of course, a careful examination of the advertising industry could also lead authorities to define a narrower relevant market. For example, the DOJ and state AG complaint argued that Google dominated the “search advertising” market:

97. Search advertising in the United States is a relevant antitrust market. The search advertising market consists of all types of ads generated in response to online search queries, including general search text ads (offered by general search engines such as Google and Bing) […] and other, specialized search ads (offered by general search engines and specialized search providers such as Amazon, Expedia, or Yelp). 

Likewise, the European Commission concluded that Google dominated the market for “online search advertising” in the AdSense case (though the full decision has not yet been made public). Finally, the CMA’s online platforms report found that display and search advertising belonged to separate markets. 

But these are empirical questions that could dispositively be answered by applying traditional antitrust tools, such as the SSNIP test. And yet, there is no indication that the authorities behind the US complaint undertook this type of empirical analysis (and until its AdSense decision is made public, it is not clear that the EU Commission did so either). Accordingly, there is no guarantee that US courts will go along with the DOJ and state AGs’ findings.

In short, it is far from certain that Google currently enjoys an advertising monopoly, especially if the market is defined more broadly than that for “search advertising” (or the even narrower market for “General Search Text Advertising”). 

Concluding remarks

The preceding paragraphs have argued that a successful antitrust case against Google is anything but a foregone conclusion. In order to successfully bring a suit, authorities would notably need to figure out just what market it is that Google is monopolizing. In turn, that would require a finer understanding of what competition, and monopoly, look like in the search and advertising industries.

The writing is on the wall for Big Tech: regulation is coming. At least, that is what the House Judiciary Committee’s report into competition in digital markets would like us to believe. 

The Subcommittee’s Majority members, led by Rhode Island’s Rep. David Cicilline, are calling for a complete overhaul of America’s antitrust and regulatory apparatus. This would notably entail a break up of America’s largest tech firms, by prohibiting them from operating digital platforms and competing on them at the same time. Unfortunately, the report ignores the tremendous costs that such proposals would impose upon consumers and companies alike. 

For several years now, there has been growing pushback against the perceived “unfairness” of America’s tech industry: of large tech platforms favoring their own products at the expense of entrepreneurs who use their platforms; of incumbents acquiring startups to quash competition; of platforms overcharging  companies like Epic Games, Spotify, and the media, just because they can; and of tech companies that spy on their users and use that data to sell them things they don’t need. 

But this portrayal of America’s tech industry obscures an inconvenient possibility: supposing that these perceived ills even occur, there is every chance that the House’s reforms would merely exacerbate the status quo. The House report gives short shrift to this eventuality, but it should not.

Over the last decade, the tech sector has been the crown jewel of America’s economy. And while firms like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple, may have grown at a blistering pace, countless others have flourished in their wake.

Google and Apple’s app stores have given rise to a booming mobile software industry. Platforms like Youtube and Instagram have created new venues for advertisers and ushered in a new generation of entrepreneurs including influencers, podcasters, and marketing experts. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have disintermediated the production of news media, allowing ever more people to share their ideas with the rest of the world (mostly for better, and sometimes for worse). Amazon has opened up new markets for thousands of retailers, some of which are now going public. The recent $3.4 billion Snowflake IPO may have been the biggest public offering of a tech firm no one has heard of.

The trillion dollar question is whether it is possible to regulate this thriving industry without stifling its unparalleled dynamism. If Rep. Cicilline’s House report is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding no.

Acquisition by a Big Tech firm is one way for startups to rapidly scale and reach a wider audience, while allowing early investors to make a quick exit. Self-preferencing can enable platforms to tailor their services to the needs and desires of users (Apple and Google’s pre-installed app suites are arguably what drive users to opt for their devices). Excluding bad apples from a platform is essential to gain users’ trust and build a strong reputation. Finally, in the online retail space, copying rival products via house brands provides consumers with competitively priced goods and helps new distributors enter the market. 

All of these practices would either be heavily scrutinized or outright banned under the Subcommittee ’s proposed reforms. Beyond its direct impact on the quality of online goods and services, this huge shift would threaten the climate of permissionless innovation that has arguably been key to Silicon Valley’s success. 

More fundamentally, these reforms would mostly protect certain privileged rivals at the expense of the wider industry. Take Apple’s App Store: Epic Games and others have complained about the 30% Commission charged by Apple for in-app purchases (as is standard throughout the industry). Yet, as things stand, roughly 80% of apps pay no commission at all. Tackling this 30% commission — for instance by allowing developers to bypass Apple’s in-app payment processing — would almost certainly result in larger fees for small developers. In short, regulation could significantly impede smaller firms.

Fortunately, there is another way. For decades, antitrust law — guided by the judge-made consumer welfare standard — has been the cornerstone of economic policy in the US. During that time, America built a tech industry that is the envy of the world. This should give pause to would-be reformers. There is a real chance overbearing regulation will permanently hamper America’s tech industry. With competition from China more intense than ever, it is a risk that the US cannot afford to take.

Apple’s legal team will be relieved that “you reap what you sow” is just a proverb. After a long-running antitrust battle against Qualcomm unsurprisingly ended in failure, Apple now faces antitrust accusations of its own (most notably from Epic Games). Somewhat paradoxically, this turn of events might cause Apple to see its previous defeat in a new light. Indeed, the well-established antitrust principles that scuppered Apple’s challenge against Qualcomm will now be the rock upon which it builds its legal defense.

But while Apple’s reversal of fortunes might seem anecdotal, it neatly illustrates a fundamental – and often overlooked – principle of antitrust policy: Antitrust law is about maximizing consumer welfare. Accordingly, the allocation of surplus between two companies is only incidentally relevant to antitrust proceedings, and it certainly is not a goal in and of itself. In other words, antitrust law is not about protecting David from Goliath.

Jockeying over the distribution of surplus

Or at least that is the theory. In practice, however, most antitrust cases are but small parts of much wider battles where corporations use courts and regulators in order to jockey for market position and/or tilt the distribution of surplus in their favor. The Microsoft competition suits brought by the DOJ and the European commission (in the EU and US) partly originated from complaints, and lobbying, by Sun Microsystems, Novell, and Netscape. Likewise, the European Commission’s case against Google was prompted by accusations from Microsoft and Oracle, among others. The European Intel case was initiated following a complaint by AMD. The list goes on.

The last couple of years have witnessed a proliferation of antitrust suits that are emblematic of this type of power tussle. For instance, Apple has been notoriously industrious in using the court system to lower the royalties that it pays to Qualcomm for LTE chips. One of the focal points of Apple’s discontent was Qualcomm’s policy of basing royalties on the end-price of devices (Qualcomm charged iPhone manufacturers a 5% royalty rate on their handset sales – and Apple received further rebates):

“The whole idea of a percentage of the cost of the phone didn’t make sense to us,” [Apple COO Jeff Williams] said. “It struck at our very core of fairness. At the time we were making something really really different.”

This pricing dispute not only gave rise to high-profile court cases, it also led Apple to lobby Standard Developing Organizations (“SDOs”) in a partly successful attempt to make them amend their patent policies, so as to prevent this type of pricing. 

However, in a highly ironic turn of events, Apple now finds itself on the receiving end of strikingly similar allegations. At issue is the 30% commission that Apple charges for in app purchases on the iPhone and iPad. These “high” commissions led several companies to lodge complaints with competition authorities (Spotify and Facebook, in the EU) and file antitrust suits against Apple (Epic Games, in the US).

Of course, these complaints are couched in more sophisticated, and antitrust-relevant, reasoning. But that doesn’t alter the fact that these disputes are ultimately driven by firms trying to tilt the allocation of surplus in their favor (for a more detailed explanation, see Apple and Qualcomm).

Pushback from courts: The Qualcomm case

Against this backdrop, a string of recent cases sends a clear message to would-be plaintiffs: antitrust courts will not be drawn into rent allocation disputes that have no bearing on consumer welfare. 

The best example of this judicial trend is Qualcomm’s victory before the United States Court of Appeal for the 9th Circuit. The case centered on the royalties that Qualcomm charged to OEMs for its Standard Essential Patents (SEPs). Both the district court and the FTC found that Qualcomm had deployed a series of tactics (rebates, refusals to deal, etc) that enabled it to circumvent its FRAND pledges. 

However, the Court of Appeal was not convinced. It failed to find any consumer harm, or recognizable antitrust infringement. Instead, it held that the dispute at hand was essentially a matter of contract law:

To the extent Qualcomm has breached any of its FRAND commitments, a conclusion we need not and do not reach, the remedy for such a breach lies in contract and patent law. 

This is not surprising. From the outset, numerous critics pointed that the case lied well beyond the narrow confines of antitrust law. The scathing dissenting statement written by Commissioner Maureen Olhaussen is revealing:

[I]n the Commission’s 2-1 decision to sue Qualcomm, I face an extraordinary situation: an enforcement action based on a flawed legal theory (including a standalone Section 5 count) that lacks economic and evidentiary support, that was brought on the eve of a new presidential administration, and that, by its mere issuance, will undermine U.S. intellectual property rights in Asia and worldwide. These extreme circumstances compel me to voice my objections. 

In reaching its conclusion, the Court notably rejected the notion that SEP royalties should be systematically based upon the “Smallest Saleable Patent Practicing Unit” (or SSPPU):

Even if we accept that the modem chip in a cellphone is the cellphone’s SSPPU, the district court’s analysis is still fundamentally flawed. No court has held that the SSPPU concept is a per se rule for “reasonable royalty” calculations; instead, the concept is used as a tool in jury cases to minimize potential jury confusion when the jury is weighing complex expert testimony about patent damages.

Similarly, it saw no objection to Qualcomm licensing its technology at the OEM level (rather than the component level):

Qualcomm’s rationale for “switching” to OEM-level licensing was not “to sacrifice short-term benefits in order to obtain higher profits in the long run from the exclusion of competition,” the second element of the Aspen Skiing exception. Aerotec Int’l, 836 F.3d at 1184 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Instead, Qualcomm responded to the change in patent-exhaustion law by choosing the path that was “far more lucrative,” both in the short term and the long term, regardless of any impacts on competition. 

Finally, the Court concluded that a firm breaching its FRAND pledges did not automatically amount to anticompetitive conduct: 

We decline to adopt a theory of antitrust liability that would presume anticompetitive conduct any time a company could not prove that the “fair value” of its SEP portfolios corresponds to the prices the market appears willing to pay for those SEPs in the form of licensing royalty rates.

Taken together, these findings paint a very clear picture. The Qualcomm Court repeatedly rejected the radical idea that US antitrust law should concern itself with the prices charged by monopolists — as opposed to practices that allow firms to illegally acquire or maintain a monopoly position. The words of Learned Hand and those of Antonin Scalia (respectively, below) loom large:

The successful competitor, having been urged to compete, must not be turned upon when he wins. 

And,

To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.

Other courts (both in the US and abroad) have reached similar conclusions

For instance, a district court in Texas dismissed a suit brought by Continental Automotive Systems (which supplies electronic systems to the automotive industry) against a group of SEP holders. 

Continental challenged the patent holders’ decision to license their technology at the vehicle rather than component level (the allegation is very similar to the FTC’s complaint that Qualcomm licensed its SEPs at the OEM, rather than chipset level). However, following a forceful intervention by the DOJ, the Court ultimately held that the facts alleged by Continental were not indicative of antitrust injury. It thus dismissed the case.

Likewise, within weeks of the Qualcomm and Continental decisions, the UK Supreme court also ruled in favor of SEP holders. In its Unwired Planet ruling, the Court concluded that discriminatory licenses did not automatically infringe competition law (even though they might breach a firm’s contractual obligations):

[I]t cannot be said that there is any general presumption that differential pricing for licensees is problematic in terms of the public or private interests at stake.

In reaching this conclusion, the UK Supreme Court emphasized that the determination of whether licenses were FRAND, or not, was first and foremost a matter of contract law. In the case at hand, the most important guide to making this determination were the internal rules of the relevant SDO (as opposed to competition case law):

Since price discrimination is the norm as a matter of licensing practice and may promote objectives which the ETSI regime is intended to promote (such as innovation and consumer welfare), it would have required far clearer language in the ETSI FRAND undertaking to indicate an intention to impose the more strict, “hard-edged” non-discrimination obligation for which Huawei contends. Further, in view of the prevalence of competition laws in the major economies around the world, it is to be expected that any anti-competitive effects from differential pricing would be most appropriately addressed by those laws

All of this ultimately led the Court to rule in favor of Unwired Planet, thus dismissing Huawei’s claims that it had infringed competition law by breaching its FRAND pledges. 

In short, courts and antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have repeatedly, and unambiguously, concluded that pricing disputes (albeit in the specific context of technological standards) are generally a matter of contract law. Antitrust/competition law intercedes only when unfair/excessive/discriminatory prices are both caused by anticompetitive behavior and result in anticompetitive injury.

Apple’s Loss is… Apple’s gain.

Readers might wonder how the above cases relate to Apple’s app store. But, on closer inspection the parallels are numerous. As explained above, courts have repeatedly stressed that antitrust enforcement should not concern itself with the allocation of surplus between commercial partners. Yet that is precisely what Epic Game’s suit against Apple is all about.

Indeed, Epic’s central claim is not that it is somehow foreclosed from Apple’s App Store (for example, because Apple might have agreed to exclusively distribute the games of one of Epic’s rivals). Instead, all of its objections are down to the fact that it would like to access Apple’s store under more favorable terms:

Apple’s conduct denies developers the choice of how best to distribute their apps. Developers are barred from reaching over one billion iOS users unless they go through Apple’s App Store, and on Apple’s terms. […]

Thus, developers are dependent on Apple’s noblesse oblige, as Apple may deny access to the App Store, change the terms of access, or alter the tax it imposes on developers, all in its sole discretion and on the commercially devastating threat of the developer losing access to the entire iOS userbase. […]

By imposing its 30% tax, Apple necessarily forces developers to suffer lower profits, reduce the quantity or quality of their apps, raise prices to consumers, or some combination of the three.

And the parallels with the Qualcomm litigation do not stop there. Epic is effectively asking courts to make Apple monetize its platform at a different level than the one that it chose to maximize its profits (no more monetization at the app store level). Similarly, Epic Games omits any suggestion of profit sacrifice on the part of Apple — even though it is a critical element of most unilateral conduct theories of harm. Finally, Epic is challenging conduct that is both the industry norm and emerged in a highly competitive setting.

In short, all of Epic’s allegations are about monopoly prices, not monopoly maintenance or monopolization. Accordingly, just as the SEP cases discussed above were plainly beyond the outer bounds of antitrust enforcement (something that the DOJ repeatedly stressed with regard to the Qualcomm case), so too is the current wave of antitrust litigation against Apple. When all is said and done, Apple might thus be relieved that Qualcomm was victorious in their antitrust confrontation. Indeed, the legal principles that caused its demise against Qualcomm are precisely the ones that will, likely, enable it to prevail against Epic Games.

Much has already been said about the twin antitrust suits filed by Epic Games against Apple and Google. For those who are not familiar with the cases, the game developer – most famous for its hit title Fortnite and the “Unreal Engine” that underpins much of the game (and movie) industry – is complaining that Apple and Google are thwarting competition from rival app stores and in-app payment processors. 

Supporters have been quick to see in these suits a long-overdue challenge against the 30% commissions that Apple and Google charge. Some have even portrayed Epic as a modern-day Robin Hood, leading the fight against Big Tech to the benefit of small app developers and consumers alike. Epic itself has been keen to stoke this image, comparing its litigation to a fight for basic freedoms in the face of Big Brother:

However, upon closer inspection, cracks rapidly appear in this rosy picture. What is left is a company partaking in blatant rent-seeking that threatens to harm the sprawling ecosystems that have emerged around both Apple and Google’s app stores.

Two issues are particularly salient. First, Epic is trying to protect its own interests at the expense of the broader industry. If successful, its suit would merely lead to alternative revenue schemes that – although more beneficial to itself – would leave smaller developers to shoulder higher fees. Second, the fees that Epic portrays as extortionate were in fact key to the emergence of mobile gaming.

Epic’s utopia is not an equilibrium

Central to Epic’s claims is the idea that both Apple and Google: (i) thwart competition from rival app stores, and implement a series of measures that prevent developers from reaching gamers through alternative means (such as pre-installing apps, or sideloading them in the case of Apple’s platforms); and (ii) tie their proprietary payment processing services to their app stores. According to Epic, this ultimately enables both Apple and Google to extract “extortionate” commissions (30%) from app developers.

But Epic’s whole case is based on the unrealistic assumption that both Apple and Google will sit idly by while rival play stores and payment systems take a free-ride on the vast investments they have ploughed into their respective smartphone platforms. In other words, removing Apple and Google’s ability to charge commissions on in-app purchases does not prevent them from monetizing their platforms elsewhere.

Indeed, economic and strategic management theory tells us that so long as Apple and Google single-handedly control one of the necessary points of access to their respective ecosystems, they should be able to extract a sizable share of the revenue generated on their platforms. One can only speculate, but it is easy to imagine Apple and Google charging rival app stores for access to their respective platforms, or charging developers for access to critical APIs.

Epic itself seems to concede this point. In a recent Verge article, it argued that Apple was threatening to cut off its access to iOS and Mac developer tools, which Apple currently offers at little to no cost:

Apple will terminate Epic’s inclusion in the Apple Developer Program, a membership that’s necessary to distribute apps on iOS devices or use Apple developer tools, if the company does not “cure your breaches” to the agreement within two weeks, according to a letter from Apple that was shared by Epic. Epic won’t be able to notarize Mac apps either, a process that could make installing Epic’s software more difficult or block it altogether. Apple requires that all apps are notarized before they can be run on newer versions of macOS, even if they’re distributed outside the App Store.

There is little to prevent Apple from more heavily monetizing these tools – should Epic’s antitrust case successfully prevent it from charging commissions via its app store.

All of this raises the question: why is Epic bringing a suit that, if successful, would merely result in the emergence of alternative fee schedules (as opposed to a significant reduction of the overall fees paid by developers).

One potential answer is that the current system is highly favorable to small apps that earn little to no revenue from purchases and who benefit most from the trust created by Apple and Google’s curation of their stores. It is, however, much less favorable to developers like Epic who no longer require any curation to garner the necessary trust from consumers and who earn a large share of their revenue from in-app purchases.

In more technical terms, the fact that all in-game payments are made through Apple and Google’s payment processing enables both platforms to more easily price-discriminate. Unlike fixed fees (but just like royalties), percentage commissions are necessarily state-contingent (i.e. the same commission will lead to vastly different revenue depending on an underlying app’s success). The most successful apps thus contribute far more to a platform’s fixed costs. For instance, it is estimated that mobile games account for 72% of all app store spend. Likewise, more than 80% of the apps on Apple’s store pay no commission at all.

This likely expands app store output by getting lower value developers on board. In that sense, it is akin to Ramsey pricing (where a firm/utility expands social welfare by allocating a higher share of fixed costs to the most inelastic consumers). Unfortunately, this would be much harder to accomplish if high value developers could easily bypass Apple or Google’s payment systems.

The bottom line is that Epic appears to be fighting to change Apple and Google’s app store business models in order to obtain fee schedules that are better aligned with its own interests. This is all the more important for Epic Games, given that mobile gaming is becoming increasingly popular relative to other gaming mediums (also here).

The emergence of new gaming platforms

Up to this point, I have mostly presented a zero-sum view of Epic’s lawsuit – i.e. developers and platforms are fighting over the distribution app store profits (though some smaller developers may lose out). But this ignores what is likely the chief virtue of Apple and Google’s “closed” distribution model. Namely, that it has greatly expanded the market for mobile gaming (and other mobile software), and will likely continue to do so in the future.

Much has already been said about the significant security and trust benefits that Apple and Google’s curation of their app stores (including their control of in-app payments) provide to users. Benedict Evans and Ben Thompson have both written excellent pieces on this very topic. 

In a nutshell, the closed model allows previously unknown developers to rapidly expand because (i) users do not have to fear their apps contain some form of malware, and (ii) they greatly reduce payments frictions, most notably security related ones. But while these are indeed tremendous benefits, another important upside seems to have gone relatively unnoticed. 

The “closed” business model also gives Apple and Google (as well as other platforms) significant incentives to develop new distribution mediums (smart TVs spring to mind) and improve existing ones. In turn, this greatly expands the audience that software developers can reach. In short, developers get a smaller share of a much larger pie.

The economics of two-sided markets are enlightening in this respect. Apple and Google’s stores are what Armstrong and Wright (here and here) refer to as “competitive bottlenecks”. That is, they compete aggressively (amongst themselves, and with other gaming platforms) to attract exclusive users. They can then charge developers a premium to access those users (note, however, that in the case at hand the incidence of those platform fees is unclear).

This gives platforms significant incentives to continuously attract and retain new users. For instance, if Steve Jobs is to be believed, giving consumers better access to media such as eBooks, video and games was one of the driving forces behind the launch of the iPad

This model of innovation would be seriously undermined if developers and consumers could easily bypass platforms (as Epic games is seeking to do).

In response, some commentators have countered that platforms may use their strong market positions to squeeze developers, thereby undermining software investments. But such a course of action may ultimately be self-defeating. For instance, writing about retail platforms imitating third-party sellers, Anfrei Hagiu, Tat-How Teh and Julian Wright have argued that:

[T]he platform has an incentive to commit itself not to imitate highly innovative third-party products in order to preserve their incentives to innovate.

Seen in this light, Apple and Google’s 30% commissions can be seen as a soft commitment not to expropriate developers, thus leaving them with a sizable share of the revenue generated on each platform. This may explain why the 30% commission has become a standard in the games industry (and beyond). 

Furthermore, from an evolutionary perspective, it is hard to argue that the 30% commission is somehow extortionate. If game developers were systematically expropriated, then the gaming industry – in particular its mobile segment – would not have grown so drastically over the past years:

All of this this likely explains why a recent survey found that 81% of app developers believed regulatory intervention would be misguided:

81% of developers and publishers believe that the relationship between them and platforms is best handled within the industry, rather than through government intervention. Competition and choice mean that developers will use platforms that they work with best.

The upshot is that the “closed” model employed by Apple and Google has served the gaming industry well. There is little compelling reason to overhaul that model today.

Final thoughts

When all is said and done, there is no escaping the fact that Epic games is currently playing a high-stakes rent-seeking game. As Apple noted in its opposition to Epic’s motion for a temporary restraining order:

Epic did not, and has not, contested that it is in breach of the App Store Guidelines and the License Agreement. Epic’s plan was to violate the agreements intentionally in order to manufacture an emergency. The moment Fortnite was removed from the App Store, Epic launched an extensive PR smear campaign against Apple and a litigation plan was orchestrated to the minute; within hours, Epic had filed a 56-page complaint, and within a few days, filed nearly 200 pages with this Court in a pre-packaged “emergency” motion. And just yesterday, it even sought to leverage its request to this Court for a sales promotion, announcing a “#FreeFortniteCup” to take place on August 23, inviting players for one last “Battle Royale” across “all platforms” this Sunday, with prizes targeting Apple.

Epic is ultimately seeking to introduce its own app store on both Apple and Google’s platforms, or at least bypass their payment processing services (as Spotify is seeking to do in the EU).

Unfortunately, as this post has argued, condoning this type of free-riding could prove highly detrimental to the entire mobile software industry. Smaller companies would almost inevitably be left to foot a larger share of the bill, existing platforms would become less secure, and the development of new ones could be hindered. At the end of the day, 30% might actually be a small price to pay.

This blog post summarizes the findings of a paper published in Volume 21 of the Federalist Society Review. The paper was co-authored by Dirk Auer, Geoffrey A. Manne, Julian Morris, & Kristian Stout. It uses the analytical framework of law and economics to discuss recent patent law reforms in the US, and their negative ramifications for inventors. The full paper can be found on the Federalist Society’s website, here.

Property rights are a pillar of the free market. As Harold Demsetz famously argued, they spur specialization, investment and competition throughout the economy. And the same holds true for intellectual property rights (IPRs). 

However, despite the many social benefits that have been attributed to intellectual property protection, the past decades have witnessed the birth and growth of an powerful intellectual movement seeking to reduce the legal protections offered to inventors by patent law.

These critics argue that excessive patent protection is holding back western economies. For instance, they posit that the owners of the standard essential patents (“SEPs”) are charging their commercial partners too much for the rights to use their patents (this is referred to as patent holdup and royalty stacking). Furthermore, they argue that so-called patent trolls (“patent-assertion entities” or “PAEs”) are deterring innovation by small startups by employing “extortionate” litigation tactics.

Unfortunately, this movement has led to a deterioration of appropriate remedies in patent disputes.

The many benefits of patent protection

While patents likely play an important role in providing inventors with incentives to innovate, their role in enabling the commercialization of ideas is probably even more important.

By creating a system of clearly defined property rights, patents empower market players to coordinate their efforts in order to collectively produce innovations. In other words, patents greatly reduce the cost of concluding mutually-advantageous deals, whereby firms specialize in various aspects of the innovation process. Critically, these deals occur in the shadow of patent litigation and injunctive relief. The threat of these ensures that all parties have an incentive to take a seat at the negotiating table.

This is arguably nowhere more apparent than in the standardization space. Many of the most high-profile modern technologies are the fruit of large-scale collaboration coordinated through standards developing organizations (SDOs). These include technologies such as Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G, 5G, Blu-Ray, USB-C, and Thunderbolt 3. The coordination necessary to produce technologies of this sort is hard to imagine without some form of enforceable property right in the resulting inventions.

The shift away from injunctive relief

Of the many recent reforms to patent law, the most significant has arguably been a significant limitation of patent holders’ availability to obtain permanent injunctions. This is particularly true in the case of so-called standard essential patents (SEPs). 

However, intellectual property laws are meaningless without the ability to enforce them and remedy breaches. And injunctions are almost certainly the most powerful, and important, of these remedies.

The significance of injunctions is perhaps best understood by highlighting the weakness of damages awards when applied to intangible assets. Indeed, it is often difficult to establish the appropriate size of an award of damages when intangible property—such as invention and innovation in the case of patents—is the core property being protected. This is because these assets are almost always highly idiosyncratic. By blocking all infringing uses of an invention, injunctions thus prevent courts from having to act as price regulators. In doing so, they also ensure that innovators are adequately rewarded for their technological contributions.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling in eBay Inc. v. MercExchange, LLC significantly narrowed the circumstances under which patent holders could obtain permanent injunctions. This predictably led lower courts to grant fewer permanent injunctions in patent litigation suits. 

But while critics of injunctions had hoped that reducing their availability would spur innovation, empirical evidence suggests that this has not been the case so far. 

Other reforms

And injunctions are not the only area of patent law that have witnessed a gradual shift against the interests of patent holders. Much of the same could be said about damages awards, revised fee shifting standards, and the introduction of Inter Partes Review.

Critically, the intellectual movement to soften patent protection has also had ramifications outside of the judicial sphere. It is notably behind several legislative reforms, particularly the America Invents Act. Moreover, it has led numerous private parties – most notably Standard Developing Organizations (SDOs) – to adopt stances that have advanced the interests of technology implementers at the expense of inventors.

For instance, one of the most noteworthy reforms has been IEEE’s sweeping reforms to its IP policy, in 2015. The new rules notably prevented SEP holders from seeking permanent injunctions against so-called “willing licensees”. They also mandated that royalties pertaining to SEPs should be based upon the value of the smallest saleable component that practices the patented technology. Both of these measures ultimately sought to tilt the bargaining range in license negotiations in favor of implementers.

Concluding remarks

The developments discussed in this article might seem like small details, but they are part of a wider trend whereby U.S. patent law is becoming increasingly inhospitable for inventors. This is particularly true when it comes to the enforcement of SEPs by means of injunction.

While the short-term effect of these various reforms has yet to be quantified, there is a real risk that, by decreasing the value of patents and increasing transaction costs, these changes may ultimately limit the diffusion of innovations and harm incentives to invent.

This likely explains why some legislators have recently put forward bills that seek to reinforce the U.S. patent system (here and here).

Despite these initiatives, the fact remains that there is today a strong undercurrent pushing for weaker or less certain patent protection. If left unchecked, this threatens to undermine the utility of patents in facilitating the efficient allocation of resources for innovation and its commercialization. Policymakers should thus pay careful attention to the changes this trend may bring about and move swiftly to recalibrate the patent system where needed in order to better protect the property rights of inventors and yield more innovation overall.

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).