Neither side in the debate over Section 230 is blameless for the current state of affairs. Reform/repeal proponents have tended to offer ill-considered, irrelevant, or often simply incorrect justifications for amending or tossing Section 230. Meanwhile, many supporters of the law in its current form are reflexively resistant to any change and too quick to dismiss the more reasonable concerns that have been voiced.
Most of all, the urge to politicize this issue — on all sides — stands squarely in the way of any sensible discussion and thus of any sensible reform.
[TOTM: The following is the fourth in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the FTC v. Qualcomm case, currently awaiting decision by Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California. The entire series of posts is available here.This post originally appeared on the Federalist Society Blog.]
The courtroom trial in the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC’s) antitrust case against Qualcomm ended in January with a promise from the judge in the case, Judge Lucy Koh, to issue a ruling as quickly as possible — caveated by her acknowledgement that the case is complicated and the evidence voluminous. Well, things have only gotten more complicated since the end of the trial. Not only did Apple and Qualcomm reach a settlement in the antitrust case against Qualcomm that Apple filed just three days after the FTC brought its suit, but the abbreviated trial in that case saw the presentation by Qualcomm of some damning evidence that, if accurate, seriously calls into (further) question the merits of the FTC’s case.
Apple v. Qualcomm settles — and the DOJ takes notice
The Apple v. Qualcomm case, which was based on substantially the same arguments brought by the FTC in its case, ended abruptly last month after only a day and a half of trial — just enough time for the parties to make their opening statements — when Apple and Qualcomm reached an out-of-court settlement. The settlement includes a six-year global patent licensing deal, a multi-year chip supplier agreement, an end to all of the patent disputes around the world between the two companies, and a $4.5 billion settlement payment from Apple to Qualcomm.
That alone complicates the economic environment into which Judge Koh will issue her ruling. But the Apple v. Qualcomm trial also appears to have induced the Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) to weigh in on the FTC’s case with a Statement of Interest requesting Judge Koh to use caution in fashioning a remedy in the case should she side with the FTC, followed by a somewhat snarky Reply from the FTC arguing the DOJ’s filing was untimely (and, reading the not-so-hidden subtext, unwelcome).
But buried in the DOJ’s Statement is an important indication of why it filed its Statement when it did, just about a week after the end of the Apple v. Qualcomm case, and a pointer to a much larger issue that calls the FTC’s case against Qualcomm even further into question (I previously wrote about the lack of theoretical and evidentiary merit in the FTC’s case here).
Footnote 6 of the DOJ’s Statement reads:
Internal Apple documents that recently became public describe how, in an effort to “[r]educe Apple’s net royalty to Qualcomm,” Apple planned to “[h]urt Qualcomm financially” and “[p]ut Qualcomm’s licensing model at risk,” including by filing lawsuits raising claims similar to the FTC’s claims in this case …. One commentator has observed that these documents “potentially reveal that Apple was engaging in a bad faith argument both in front of antitrust enforcers as well as the legal courts about the actual value and nature of Qualcomm’s patented innovation.” (Emphasis added).
Indeed, the slides presented by Qualcomm during that single day of trial in Apple v. Qualcomm are significant, not only for what they say about Apple’s conduct, but, more importantly, for what they say about the evidentiary basis for the FTC’s claims against the company.
The evidence presented by Qualcomm in its opening statement suggests some troubling conduct by Apple
Others have pointed to Qualcomm’s opening slides and the Apple internal documents they present to note Apple’s apparent bad conduct. As one commentator sums it up:
Although we really only managed to get a small glimpse of Qualcomm’s evidence demonstrating the extent of Apple’s coordinated strategy to manipulate the FRAND license rate, that glimpse was particularly enlightening. It demonstrated a decade-long coordinated effort within Apple to systematically engage in what can only fairly be described as manipulation (if not creation of evidence) and classic holdout.
Qualcomm showed during opening arguments that, dating back to at least 2009, Apple had been laying the foundation for challenging its longstanding relationship with Qualcomm. (Emphasis added).
The internal Apple documents presented by Qualcomm to corroborate this claim appear quite damning. Of course, absent explanation and cross-examination, it’s impossible to know for certain what the documents mean. But on their face they suggest Apple knowingly undertook a deliberate scheme (and knowingly took upon itself significant legal risk in doing so) to devalue comparable patent portfolios to Qualcomm’s:
The apparent purpose of this scheme was to devalue comparable patent licensing agreements where Apple had the power to do so (through litigation or the threat of litigation) in order to then use those agreements to argue that Qualcomm’s royalty rates were above the allowable, FRAND level, and to undermine the royalties Qualcomm would be awarded in courts adjudicating its FRAND disputes with the company. As one commentator put it:
Apple embarked upon a coordinated scheme to challenge weaker patents in order to beat down licensing prices. Once the challenges to those weaker patents were successful, and the licensing rates paid to those with weaker patent portfolios were minimized, Apple would use the lower prices paid for weaker patent portfolios as proof that Qualcomm was charging a super-competitive licensing price; a licensing price that violated Qualcomm’s FRAND obligations. (Emphasis added).
That alone is a startling revelation, if accurate, and one that would seem to undermine claims that patent holdout isn’t a real problem. It also would undermine Apple’s claims that it is a “willing licensee,” engaging with SEP licensors in good faith. (Indeed, this has been called into question before, and one Federal Circuit judge has noted in dissent that “[t]he record in this case shows evidence that Apple may have been a hold out.”). If the implications drawn from the Apple documents shown in Qualcomm’s opening statement are accurate, there is good reason to doubt that Apple has been acting in good faith.
Even more troubling is what it means for the strength of the FTC’s case
But the evidence offered in Qualcomm’s opening argument point to another, more troubling implication, as well. We know that Apple has been coordinating with the FTC and was likely an important impetus for the FTC’s decision to bring an action in the first place. It seems reasonable to assume that Apple used these “manipulated” agreements to help make its case.
But what is most troubling is the extent to which it appears to have worked.
Qualcomm’s practices, including no license, no chips, skewed negotiations towards the outcomes that favor Qualcomm and lead to higher royalties. Qualcomm is committed to license its standard essential patents on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms. But even before doing market comparison, we know that the license rates charged by Qualcomm are too high and above FRAND because Qualcomm uses its chip power to require a license.
* * *
Mr. Michael Lasinski [the FTC’s patent valuation expert] compared the royalty rates received by Qualcomm to … the range of FRAND rates that ordinarily would form the boundaries of a negotiation … Mr. Lasinski’s expert opinion … is that Qualcomm’s royalty rates are far above any indicators of fair and reasonable rates. (Emphasis added).
The key question is what constitutes the “range of FRAND rates that ordinarily would form the boundaries of a negotiation”?
Because they were discussed under seal, we don’t know the precise agreements that the FTC’s expert, Mr. Lasinski, used for his analysis. But we do know something about them: His analysis entailed a study of only eight licensing agreements; in six of them, the licensee was either Apple or Samsung; and in all of them the licensor was either Interdigital, Nokia, or Ericsson. We also know that Mr. Lasinski’s valuation study did not include any Qualcomm licenses, and that the eight agreements he looked at were all executed after the district court’s decision in Microsoft vs. Motorola in 2013.
A curiously small number of agreements
Right off the bat there is a curiosity in the FTC’s valuation analysis. Even though there are hundreds of SEP license agreements involving the relevant standards, the FTC’s analysis relied on only eight, three-quarters of which involved licensing by only two companies: Apple and Samsung.
Indeed, even since 2013 (a date to which we will return) there have been scads of licenses (see, e.g., here, here, and here). Not only Apple and Samsung make CDMA and LTE devices; there are — quite literally — hundreds of other manufacturers out there, all of them licensing essentially the same technology — including global giants like LG, Huawei, HTC, Oppo, Lenovo, and Xiaomi. Why were none of their licenses included in the analysis?
At the same time, while Interdigital, Nokia, and Ericsson are among the largest holders of CDMA and LTE SEPs, several dozen companies have declared such patents, including Motorola (Alphabet), NEC, Huawei, Samsung, ZTE, NTT DOCOMO, etc. Again — why were none of their licenses included in the analysis?
All else equal, more data yields better results. This is particularly true where the data are complex license agreements which are often embedded in larger, even-more-complex commercial agreements and which incorporate widely varying patent portfolios, patent implementers, and terms.
Yet the FTC relied on just eight agreements in its comparability study, covering a tiny fraction of the industry’s licensors and licensees, and, notably, including primarily licenses taken by the two companies (Samsung and Apple) that have most aggressively litigated their way to lower royalty rates.
A curiously crabbed selection of licensors
And it is not just that the selected licensees represent a weirdly small and biased sample; it is also not necessarily even a particularly comparable sample.
One thing we can be fairly confident of, given what we know of the agreements used, is that at least one of the license agreements involved Nokia licensing to Apple, and another involved InterDigital licensing to Apple. But these companies’ patent portfolios are not exactly comparable to Qualcomm’s. About Nokia’s patents, Apple said:
And about InterDigital’s:
Meanwhile, Apple’s view of Qualcomm’s patent portfolio (despite its public comments to the contrary) was that it was considerably better than the others’:
The FTC’s choice of such a limited range of comparable license agreements is curious for another reason, as well: It includes no Qualcomm agreements. Qualcomm is certainly one of the biggest players in the cellular licensing space, and no doubt more than a few license agreements involve Qualcomm. While it might not make sense to include Qualcomm licenses that the FTC claims incorporate anticompetitive terms, that doesn’t describe the huge range of Qualcomm licenses with which the FTC has no quarrel. Among other things, Qualcomm licenses from before it began selling chips would not have been affected by its alleged “no license, no chips” scheme, nor would licenses granted to companies that didn’t also purchase Qualcomm chips. Furthermore, its licenses for technology reading on the WCDMA standard are not claimed to be anticompetitive by the FTC.
And yet none of these licenses were deemed “comparable” by the FTC’s expert, even though, on many dimensions — most notably, with respect to the underlying patent portfolio being valued — they would have been the most comparable (i.e., identical).
A curiously circumscribed timeframe
That the FTC’s expert should use the 2013 cut-off date is also questionable. According to Lasinski, he chose to use agreements after 2013 because it was in 2013 that the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington decided the Microsoft v. Motorola case. Among other things, the court in Microsoft v Motorola held that the proper value of a SEP is its “intrinsic” patent value, including its value to the standard, but not including the additional value it derives from being incorporatedinto a widely used standard.
According to the FTC’s expert,
prior to [Microsoft v. Motorola], people were trying to value … the standard and the license based on the value of the standard, not the value of the patents ….
Asked by Qualcomm’s counsel if his concern was that the “royalty rates derived in license agreements for cellular SEPs [before Microsoft v. Motorola] could very well have been above FRAND,” Mr. Lasinski concurred.
The problem with this approach is that it’s little better than arbitrary. The Motorola decision was an important one, to be sure, but the notion that sophisticated parties in a multi-billion dollar industry were systematically agreeing to improper terms until a single court in Washington suggested otherwise is absurd. To be sure, such agreements are negotiated in “the shadow of the law,” and judicial decisions like the one in Washington (later upheld by the Ninth Circuit) can affect the parties’ bargaining positions.
But even if it were true that the court’s decision had some effect on licensing rates, the decision would still have been only one of myriad factors determining parties’ relative bargaining power and their assessment of the proper valuation of SEPs. There is no basis to support the assertion that the Motorola decision marked a sea-change between “improper” and “proper” patent valuations. And, even if it did, it was certainly not alone in doing so, and the FTC’s expert offers no justification for determining that agreements reached before, say, the European Commission’s decision against Qualcomm in 2018 were “proper,” or that the Korea FTC’s decision against Qualcomm in 2009 didn’t have the same sort of corrective effect as the Motorola court’s decision in 2013.
At the same time, a review of a wider range of agreements suggested that Qualcomm’s licensing royalties weren’t inflated
Meanwhile, one of Qualcomm’s experts in the FTC case, former DOJ Chief Economist Aviv Nevo, looked at whether the FTC’s theory of anticompetitive harm was borne out by the data by looking at Qualcomm’s royalty rates across time periods and standards, and using a much larger set of agreements. Although his remit was different than Mr. Lasinski’s, and although he analyzed only Qualcomm licenses, his analysis still sheds light on Mr. Lasinski’s conclusions:
[S]pecifically what I looked at was the predictions from the theory to see if they’re actually borne in the data….
[O]ne of the clear predictions from the theory is that during periods of alleged market power, the theory predicts that we should see higher royalty rates.
So that’s a very clear prediction that you can take to data. You can look at the alleged market power period, you can look at the royalty rates and the agreements that were signed during that period and compare to other periods to see whether we actually see a difference in the rates.
Dr. Nevo’s analysis, which looked at royalty rates in Qualcomm’s SEP license agreements for CDMA, WCDMA, and LTE ranging from 1990 to 2017, found no differences in rates between periods when Qualcomm was alleged to have market power and when it was not alleged to have market power (or could not have market power, on the FTC’s theory, because it did not sell corresponding chips).
The reason this is relevant is that Mr. Lasinski’s assessment implies that Qualcomm’s higher royalty rates weren’t attributable to its superior patent portfolio, leaving either anticompetitive conduct or non-anticompetitive, superior bargaining ability as the explanation. No one thinks Qualcomm has cornered the market on exceptional negotiators, so really the only proffered explanation for the results of Mr. Lasinski’s analysis is anticompetitive conduct. But this assumes that his analysis is actually reliable. Prof. Nevo’s analysis offers some reason to think that it is not.
All of the agreements studied by Mr. Lasinski were drawn from the period when Qualcomm is alleged to have employed anticompetitive conduct to elevate its royalty rates above FRAND. But when the actual royalties charged by Qualcomm during its alleged exercise of market power are compared to those charged when and where it did not have market power, the evidence shows it received identical rates. Mr Lasinki’s results, then, would imply that Qualcomm’s royalties were “too high” not only while it was allegedly acting anticompetitively, but also when it was not. That simple fact suggests on its face that Mr. Lasinski’s analysis may have been flawed, and that it systematically under-valued Qualcomm’s patents.
Connecting the dots and calling into question the strength of the FTC’s case
In its closing argument, the FTC pulled together the implications of its allegations of anticompetitive conduct by pointing to Mr. Lasinski’s testimony:
Now, looking at the effect of all of this conduct, Qualcomm’s own documents show that it earned many times the licensing revenue of other major licensors, like Ericsson.
* * *
Mr. Lasinski analyzed whether this enormous difference in royalties could be explained by the relative quality and size of Qualcomm’s portfolio, but that massive disparity was not explained.
Qualcomm’s royalties are disproportionate to those of other SEP licensors and many times higher than any plausible calculation of a FRAND rate.
* * *
The overwhelming direct evidence, some of which is cited here, shows that Qualcomm’s conduct led licensees to pay higher royalties than they would have in fair negotiations.
It is possible, of course, that Lasinki’s methodology was flawed; indeed, at trial Qualcomm argued exactly this in challenging his testimony. But it is also possible that, whether his methodology was flawed or not, his underlying data was flawed.
It is impossible from the publicly available evidence to definitively draw this conclusion, but the subsequent revelation that Apple may well have manipulated at least a significant share of the eight agreements that constituted Mr. Lasinski’s data certainly increases the plausibility of this conclusion: We now know, following Qualcomm’s opening statement in Apple v. Qualcomm, that that stilted set of comparable agreements studied by the FTC’s expert also happens to be tailor-made to be dominated by agreements that Apple may have manipulated to reflect lower-than-FRAND rates.
What is most concerning is that the FTC may have built up its case on such questionable evidence, either by intentionally cherry picking the evidence upon which it relied, or inadvertently because it rested on such a needlessly limited range of data, some of which may have been tainted.
Intentionally or not, the FTC appears to have performed its valuation analysis using a needlessly circumscribed range of comparable agreements and justified its decision to do so using questionable assumptions. This seriously calls into question the strength of the FTC’s case.
[TOTM: The following is the first in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the FTC v. Qualcomm case, currently awaiting decision by Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California. The entire series of posts is available here.This post originally appeared on the Federalist Society Blog.]
Just days before leaving office, the outgoing Obama FTC left what should have been an unwelcome parting gift for the incoming Commission: an antitrust suit against Qualcomm. This week the FTC — under a new Chairman and with an entirely new set of Commissioners — finished unwrapping its present, and rested its case in the trial begun earlier this month in FTC v Qualcomm.
This complex case is about an overreaching federal agency seeking to set prices and dictate the business model of one of the world’s most innovative technology companies. As soon-to-be Acting FTC Chairwoman, Maureen Ohlhausen, noted in her dissent from the FTC’s decision to bring the case, it is “an enforcement action based on a flawed legal theory… that lacks economic and evidentiary support…, and that, by its mere issuance, will undermine U.S. intellectual property rights… worldwide.”
Implicit in the FTC’s case is the assumption that Qualcomm charges smartphone makers “too much” for its wireless communications patents — patents that are essential to many smartphones. But, as former FTC and DOJ chief economist, Luke Froeb, puts it, “[n]othing is more alien to antitrust than enquiring into the reasonableness of prices.” Even if Qualcomm’s royalty rates could somehow be deemed “too high” (according to whom?), excessive pricing on its own is not an antitrust violation under U.S. law.
Knowing this, the FTC “dances around that essential element” (in Ohlhausen’s words) and offers instead a convoluted argument that Qualcomm’s business model is anticompetitive. Qualcomm both sells wireless communications chipsets used in mobile phones, as well as licenses the technology on which those chips rely. According to the complaint, by licensing its patents only to end-users (mobile device makers) instead of to chip makers further up the supply chain, Qualcomm is able to threaten to withhold the supply of its chipsets to its licensees and thereby extract onerous terms in its patent license agreements.
There are numerous problems with the FTC’s case. Most fundamental among them is the “no duh” problem: Of course Qualcomm conditions the purchase of its chips on the licensing of its intellectual property; how could it be any other way? The alternative would require Qualcomm to actually facilitate the violation of its property rights by forcing it to sell its chips to device makers even if they refuse its patent license terms. In that world, what device maker would ever agree to pay more than a pittance for a patent license? The likely outcome is that Qualcomm charges more for its chips to compensate (or simply stops making them). Great, the FTC says; then competitors can fill the gap and — voila: the market is more competitive, prices will actually fall, and consumers will reap the benefits.
Except it doesn’t work that way. As many economists, including both the current and a prominent former chief economist of the FTC, have demonstrated, forcing royalty rates lower in such situations is at least as likely to harm competition as to benefit it. There is no sound theoretical or empirical basis for concluding that using antitrust to move royalty rates closer to some theoretical ideal will actually increase consumer welfare. All it does for certain is undermine patent holders’ property rights, virtually ensuring there will be less innovation.
In fact, given this inescapable reality, it is unclear why the current Commission is continuing to pursue the case at all. The bottom line is that, if it wins the case, the current FTC will have done more to undermine intellectual property rights than any other administration’s Commission has been able to accomplish.
It is not difficult to identify the frailties of the case that would readily support the agency backing away from pursuing it further. To begin with, the claim that device makers cannot refuse Qualcomm’s terms because the company effectively controls the market’s supply of mobile broadband modem chips is fanciful. While it’s true that Qualcomm is the largest supplier of these chipsets, it’s an absurdity to claim that device makers have no alternatives. In fact, Qualcomm has faced stiff competition from some of the world’s other most successful companies since well before the FTC brought its case. Samsung — the largest maker of Android phones — developed its own chip to replace Qualcomm’s in 2015, for example. More recently, Intel has provided Apple with all of the chips for its 2018 iPhones, and Apple is rumored to be developing its own 5G cellular chips in-house. In any case, the fact that most device makers have preferred to use Qualcomm’s chips in the past says nothing about the ability of other firms to take business from it.
The possibility (and actuality) of entry from competitors like Intel ensures that sophisticated purchasers like Apple have bargaining leverage. Yet, ironically, the FTC points to Apple’s claimthat Qualcomm “forced” it to use Intel modems in its latest iPhones as evidence of Qualcomm’s dominance. Think about that: Qualcomm “forced” a company worth many times its own value to use a competitor’s chips in its new iPhones — and that shows Qualcomm has a stranglehold on the market?
The FTC implies that Qualcomm’s refusal to license its patents to competing chip makers means that competitors cannot reliably supply the market. Yet Qualcomm has never asserted its patents against a competing chip maker, every one of which uses Qualcomm’s technology without paying any royalties to do so. The FTC nevertheless paints the decision to license only to device makers as the aberrant choice of an exploitative, dominant firm. The reality, however, is that device-level licensing is the norm practiced by every company in the industry — and has been since the 1980s.
Not only that, but Qualcomm has not altered its licensing terms or practices since it was decidedly an upstart challenger in the market — indeed, since before it even started producing chips, and thus before it even had the supposed means to leverage its chip sales to extract anticompetitive licensing terms. It would be a remarkable coincidence if precisely the same licensing structure and the exact same royalty rate served the company’s interests both as a struggling startup and as an alleged rapacious monopolist. Yet that is the implication of the FTC’s theory.
When Qualcomm introduced CDMA technology to the mobile phone industry in 1989, it was a promising but unproven new technology in an industry dominated by different standards. Qualcomm happily encouraged chip makers to promote the standard by enabling them to produce compliant components without paying any royalties; and it willingly licensed its patents to device makers based on a percentage of sales of the handsets that incorporated CDMA chips. Qualcomm thus shared both the financial benefits and the financial risk associated with the development and sales of devices implementing its new technology.
Qualcomm’s favorable (to handset makers) licensing terms may have helped CDMA become one of the industry standards for 2G and 3G devices. But it’s an unsupportable assertion to say that those identical terms are suddenly the source of anticompetitive power, particularly as 2G and 3G are rapidly disappearing from the market and as competing patent holders gain prominence with each successive cellular technology standard.
To be sure, successful handset makers like Apple that sell their devices at a significant premium would prefer to share less of their revenue with Qualcomm. But their success was built in large part on Qualcomm’s technology. They may regret the terms of the deal that propelled CDMA technology to prominence, but Apple’s regret is not the basis of a sound antitrust case.
And although it’s unsurprising that manufacturers of premium handsets would like to use antitrust law to extract better terms from their negotiations with standard-essential patent holders, it is astonishing that the current FTC is carrying on the Obama FTC’s willingness to do it for them.
None of this means that Qualcomm is free to charge an unlimited price: standard-essential patents must be licensed on “FRAND” terms, meaning they must be fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory. It is difficult to asses what constitutes FRAND, but the most restrictive method is to estimate what negotiated terms would look like before a patent was incorporated into a standard. “[R]oyalties that are or would be negotiated ex ante with full information are a market bench-mark reflecting legitimate return to innovation,” writes Carl Shapiro, the FTC’s own economic expert in the case.
And that is precisely what happened here: We don’t have to guess what the pre-standard terms of trade would look like; we know them, because they are the same terms that Qualcomm offers now.
We don’t know exactly what the consequence would be for consumers, device makers, and competitors if Qualcomm were forced to accede to the FTC’s benighted vision of how the market should operate. But we do know that the market we actually have is thriving, with new entry at every level, enormous investment in R&D, and continuous technological advance. These aren’t generally the characteristics of a typical monopoly market. While the FTC’s effort to “fix” the market may help Apple and Samsung reap a larger share of the benefits, it will undoubtedly end up only hurting consumers.
Last week, the DOJ cleared the merger of CVS Health and Aetna (conditional on Aetna’s divesting its Medicare Part D business), a merger that, as I previously noted at a House Judiciary hearing, “presents a creative effort by two of the most well-informed and successful industry participants to try something new to reform a troubled system.” (My full testimony is available here).
Of course it’s always possible that the experiment will fail — that the merger won’t “revolutioniz[e] the consumer health care experience” in the way that CVS and Aetna are hoping. But it’s a low (antitrust) risk effort to address some of the challenges confronting the healthcare industry — and apparently the DOJ agrees.
I discuss the weakness of the antitrust arguments against the merger at length in my testimony. What I particularly want to draw attention to here is how this merger — like many vertical mergers — represents business model innovation by incumbents.
The CVS/Aetna merger is just one part of a growing private-sector movement in the healthcare industry to adopt new (mostly) vertical arrangements that seek to move beyond some of the structural inefficiencies that have plagued healthcare in the United States since World War II. Indeed, ambitious and interesting as it is, the merger arises amidst a veritable wave of innovative, vertical healthcare mergers and other efforts to integrate the healthcare services supply chain in novel ways.
These sorts of efforts (and the current DOJ’s apparent support for them) should be applauded and encouraged. I need not rehash the economic literature on vertical restraints here (see, e.g., Lafontaine & Slade, etc.). But especially where government interventions have already impaired the efficient workings of a market (as they surely have, in spades, in healthcare), it is important not to compound the error by trying to micromanage private efforts to restructure around those constraints.
Current trends in private-sector-driven healthcare reform
In the past, the most significant healthcare industry mergers have largely been horizontal (i.e., between two insurance providers, or two hospitals) or “traditional” business model mergers for the industry (i.e., vertical mergers aimed at building out managed care organizations). This pattern suggests a sort of fealty to the status quo, with insurers interested primarily in expanding their insurance business or providers interested in expanding their capacity to provide medical services.
Today’s health industry mergers and ventures seem more frequently to be different in character, and they portend an industry-wide experiment in the provision of vertically integrated healthcare that we should enthusiastically welcome.
But a number of other recent arrangements and business models center around relationships among drug manufacturers, pharmacies, and PBMs, and these tend to minimize the role of insurers. While not a “vertical” arrangement, per se, Walmart’s generic drug program, for example, offers $4 prescriptions to customers regardless of insurance (the typical generic drug copay for patients covered by employer-provided health insurance is $11), and Walmart does not seek or receive reimbursement from health plans for these drugs. It’s been offering this program since 2006, but in 2016 it entered into a joint buying arrangement with McKesson, a pharmaceutical wholesaler (itself vertically integrated with Rexall pharmacies), to negotiate lower prices. The idea, presumably, is that Walmart will entice consumers to its stores with the lure of low-priced generic prescriptions in the hope that they will buy other items while they’re there. That prospect presumably makes it worthwhile to route around insurers and PBMs, and their reimbursements.
Meanwhile, both Express Scripts and CVS Health (two of the country’s largest PBMs) have made moves toward direct-to-consumer sales themselves, establishing pricing for a small number of drugs independently of health plans and often in partnership with drug makers directly.
Also apparently focused on disrupting traditional drug distribution arrangements, Amazon has recently purchased online pharmacy PillPack (out from under Walmart, as it happens), and with it received pharmacy licenses in 49 states. The move introduces a significant new integrated distributor/retailer, and puts competitive pressure on other retailers and distributors and potentially insurers and PBMs, as well.
Whatever its role in driving the CVS/Aetna merger (and I believe it is smaller than many reports like to suggest), Amazon’s moves in this area demonstrate the fluid nature of the market, and the opportunities for a wide range of firms to create efficiencies in the market and to lower prices.
At the same time, the differences between Amazon and CVS/Aetna highlight the scope of product and service differentiation that should contribute to the ongoing competitiveness of these markets following mergers like this one.
While Amazon inarguably excels at logistics and the routinizing of “back office” functions, it seems unlikely for the foreseeable future to be able to offer (or to be interested in offering) a patient interface that can rival the service offerings of a brick-and-mortar CVS pharmacy combined with an outpatient clinic and its staff and bolstered by the capabilities of an insurer like Aetna. To be sure, online sales and fulfillment may put price pressure on important, largely mechanical functions, but, like much technology, it is first and foremost a complement to services offered by humans, rather than a substitute. (In this regard it is worth noting that McKesson has long been offering Amazon-like logistics support for both online and brick-and-mortar pharmacies. “‘To some extent, we were Amazon before it was cool to be Amazon,’ McKesson CEO John Hammergren said” on a recent earnings call).
Other efforts focus on integrating insurance and treatment functions or on bringing together other, disparate pieces of the healthcare industry in interesting ways — all seemingly aimed at finding innovative, private solutions to solve some of the costly complexities that plague the healthcare market.
Walmart, for example, announced a deal with Quest Diagnostics last year to experiment with offering diagnostic testing services and potentially other basic healthcare services inside of some Walmart stores. While such an arrangement may simply be a means of making doctor-prescribed diagnostic tests more convenient, it may also suggest an effort to expand the availability of direct-to-consumer (patient-initiated) testing (currently offered by Quest in Missouri and Colorado) in states that allow it. A partnership with Walmart to market and oversee such services has the potential to dramatically expand their use.
Capping off (for now) a buying frenzy in recent years that included the purchase of PBM, CatamaranRx, UnitedHealth is seeking approval from the FTC for the proposed merger of its Optum unit with the DaVita Medical Group — a move that would significantly expand UnitedHealth’s ability to offer medical services (including urgent care, outpatient surgeries, and health clinic services), give it a significant group of doctors’ clinics throughout the U.S., and turn UnitedHealth into the largest employer of doctors in the country. But of course this isn’t a traditional managed care merger — it represents a significant bet on the decentralized, ambulatory care model that has been slowly replacing significant parts of the traditional, hospital-centric care model for some time now.
And, perhaps most interestingly, some recent moves are bringing together drug manufacturers and diagnostic and care providers in innovative ways. Swiss pharmaceutical company, Roche, announced recently that “it would buy the rest of U.S. cancer data company Flatiron Health for $1.9 billion to speed development of cancer medicines and support its efforts to price them based on how well they work.” Not only is the deal intended to improve Roche’s drug development process by integrating patient data, it is also aimed at accommodating efforts to shift the pricing of drugs, like the pricing of medical services generally, toward an outcome-based model.
Similarly interesting, and in a related vein, early this year a group of hospital systems including Intermountain Health, Ascension, and Trinity Health announced plans to begin manufacturing generic prescription drugs. This development further reflects the perceived benefits of vertical integration in healthcare markets, and the move toward creative solutions to the unique complexity of coordinating the many interrelated layers of healthcare provision. In this case,
[t]he nascent venture proposes a private solution to ensure contestability in the generic drug market and consequently overcome the failures of contracting [in the supply and distribution of generics]…. The nascent venture, however it solves these challenges and resolves other choices, will have important implications for the prices and availability of generic drugs in the US.
More enforcement decisions like CVS/Aetna and Bayer/Monsanto; fewer like AT&T/Time Warner
In the face of all this disruption, it’s difficult to credit anticompetitive fears like those expressed by the AMA in opposing the CVS-Aetna merger and a recent CEA report on pharmaceutical pricing, both of which are premised on the assumption that drug distribution is unavoidably dominated by a few PBMs in a well-defined, highly concentrated market. Creative arrangements like the CVS-Aetna merger and the initiatives described above (among a host of others) indicate an ease of entry, the fluidity of traditional markets, and a degree of business model innovation that suggest a great deal more competitiveness than static PBM market numbers would suggest.
This kind of incumbent innovation through vertical restructuring is an increasingly important theme in antitrust, and efforts to tar such transactions with purported evidence of static market dominance is simply misguided.
While the current DOJ’s misguided (and, remarkably, continuing) attempt to stop the AT&T/Time Warner merger is an aberrant step in the wrong direction, the leadership at the Antitrust Division generally seems to get it. Indeed, in spite of strident calls for stepped-up enforcement in the always-controversial ag-biotech industry, the DOJ recently approved three vertical ag-biotech mergers in fairly rapid succession.
As I noted in a discussion of those ag-biotech mergers, but equally applicable here, regulatory humility should continue to carry the day when it comes to structural innovation by incumbent firms:
But it is also important to remember that innovation comes from within incumbent firms, as well, and, often, that the overall level of innovation in an industry may be increased by the presence of large firms with economies of scope and scale.
In sum, and to paraphrase Olympia Dukakis’ character in Moonstruck: “what [we] don’t know about [the relationship between innovation and market structure] is a lot.”
What we do know, however, is that superficial, concentration-based approaches to antitrust analysis will likely overweight presumed foreclosure effects and underweight innovation effects.
We shouldn’t fetishize entry, or access, or head-to-head competition over innovation, especially where consumer welfare may be significantly improved by a reduction in the former in order to get more of the latter.
Today the European Commission launched its latest salvo against Google, issuing a decision in its three-year antitrust investigation into the company’s agreements for distribution of the Android mobile operating system. The massive fine levied by the Commission will dominate the headlines, but the underlying legal theory and proposed remedies are just as notable — and just as problematic.
The nirvana fallacy
It is sometimes said that the most important question in all of economics is “compared to what?” UCLA economist Harold Demsetz — one of the most important regulatory economists of the past century — coined the term “nirvana fallacy” to critique would-be regulators’ tendency to compare messy, real-world economic circumstances to idealized alternatives, and to justify policies on the basis of the discrepancy between them. Wishful thinking, in other words.
The Commission’s Android decision falls prey to the nirvana fallacy. It conjures a world in which Google offers its Android operating system on unrealistic terms, prohibits it from doing otherwise, and neglects the actual consequences of such a demand.
The idea at the core of the Commission’s decision is that by making its own services (especially Google Search and Google Play Store) easier to access than competing services on Android devices, Google has effectively foreclosed rivals from effective competition. In order to correct that claimed defect, the Commission demands that Google refrain from engaging in practices that favor its own products in its Android licensing agreements:
At a minimum, Google has to stop and to not re-engage in any of the three types of practices. The decision also requires Google to refrain from any measure that has the same or an equivalent object or effect as these practices.
The basic theory is straightforward enough, but its application here reflects a troubling departure from the underlying economics and a romanticized embrace of industrial policy that is unsupported by the realities of the market.
In a recent interview, European Commission competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, offered a revealing insight into her thinking about her oversight of digital platforms, and perhaps the economy in general: “My concern is more about whether we get the right choices,” she said. Asked about Facebook, for example, she specified exactly what she thinks the “right” choice looks like: “I would like to have a Facebook in which I pay a fee each month, but I would have no tracking and advertising and the full benefits of privacy.”
Some consumers may well be sympathetic with her preference (and even share her specific vision of what Facebook should offer them). But what if competition doesn’t result in our — or, more to the point, Margrethe Vestager’s — prefered outcomes? Should competition policy nevertheless enact the idiosyncratic consumer preferences of a particular regulator? What if offering consumers the “right” choices comes at the expense of other things they value, like innovation, product quality, or price? And, if so, can antitrust enforcers actually engineer a better world built around these preferences?
Android’s alleged foreclosure… that doesn’t really foreclose anything
The Commission’s primary concern is with the terms of Google’s deal: In exchange for royalty-free access to Android and a set of core, Android-specific applications and services (like Google Search and Google Maps) Google imposes a few contractual conditions.
Google allows manufacturers to use the Android platform — in which the company has invested (and continues to invest) billions of dollars — for free. It does not require device makers to include any of its core, Google-branded features. But if a manufacturer does decide to use any of them, it must include all of them, and make Google Search the device default. In another (much smaller) set of agreements, Google also offers device makers a small share of its revenue from Search if they agree to pre-install only Google Search on their devices (although users remain free to download and install any competing services they wish).
Essentially, that’s it. Google doesn’t allow device makers to pick and choose between parts of the ecosystem of Google products, free-riding on Google’s brand and investments. But manufacturers are free to use the Android platform and to develop their own competing brand built upon Google’s technology.
Other apps may be installed in addition to Google’s core apps. Google Search need not be the exclusive search service, but it must be offered out of the box as the default. Google Play and Chrome must be made available to users, but other app stores and browsers may be pre-installed and even offered as the default. And device makers who choose to do so may share in Search revenue by pre-installing Google Search exclusively — but users can and do install a different search service.
Alternatives to all of Google’s services (including Search) abound on the Android platform. It’s trivial both to install them and to set them as the default. Meanwhile, device makers regularly choose to offer these apps alongside Google’s services, and some, like Samsung, have developed entire customized app suites of their own. Still others, like Amazon, pre-install no Google apps and use Android without any of these constraints (and whose Google-free tablets are regularly ranked as the best-rated and most popular in Europe).
By contrast, Apple bundles its operating system with its devices, bypasses third-party device makers entirely, and offers consumers access to its operating system only if they pay (lavishly) for one of the very limited number of devices the company offers, as well. It is perhaps not surprising — although it is enlightening — that Apple earns more revenue in an average quarter from iPhone sales than Google is reported to have earnedin total from Android since it began offering it in 2008.
Reality — and the limits it imposes on efforts to manufacture nirvana
The logic behind Google’s approach to Android is obvious: It is the extension of Google’s “advertisers pay” platform strategy to mobile. Rather than charging device makers (and thus consumers) directly for its services, Google earns its revenue by charging advertisers for targeted access to users via Search. Remove Search from mobile devices and you remove the mechanism by which Google gets paid.
It’s true that most device makers opt to offer Google’s suite of services to European users, and that most users opt to keep Google Search as the default on their devices — that is, indeed, the hoped-for effect, and necessary to ensure that Google earns a return on its investment.
That users often choose to keep using Google services instead of installing alternatives, and that device makers typically choose to engineer their products around the Google ecosystem, isn’t primarily the result of a Google-imposed mandate; it’s the result of consumer preferences for Google’s offerings in lieu of readily available alternatives.
The EU decision against Google appears to imagine a world in which Google will continue to develop Android and allow device makers to use the platform and Google’s services for free, even if the likelihood of recouping its investment is diminished.
The Commission also assessed in detail Google’s arguments that the tying of the Google Search app and Chrome browser were necessary, in particular to allow Google to monetise its investment in Android, and concluded that these arguments were not well founded. Google achieves billions of dollars in annual revenues with the Google Play Store alone, it collects a lot of data that is valuable to Google’s search and advertising business from Android devices, and it would still have benefitted from a significant stream of revenue from search advertising without the restrictions.
But that world in which Google won’t alter its investment decisions based on a government-mandated reduction in its allowable return on investment doesn’t exist; it’s a fanciful Nirvana.
Google’s real alternatives to the status quo are charging for the use of Android, closing the Android platform and distributing it (like Apple) only on a fully integrated basis, or discontinuing Android.
In reality, and compared to these actual alternatives, Google’s restrictions are trivial. Remember, Google doesn’t insist that Google Search be exclusive, only that it benefit from a “leg up” by being pre-installed as the default. And on this thin reed Google finances the development and maintenance of the (free) Android operating system and all of the other (free) apps from which Google otherwise earns little or no revenue.
It’s hard to see how consumers, device makers, or app developers would be made better off without Google’s restrictions, but in the real world in which the alternative is one of the three manifestly less desirable options mentioned above.
Missing the real competition for the trees
What’s more, while ostensibly aimed at increasing competition, the Commission’s proposed remedy — like the conduct it addresses — doesn’t relate to Google’s most significant competitors at all.
Facebook, Instagram, Firefox, Amazon, Spotify, Yelp, and Yahoo, among many others, are some of the most popular apps on Android phones, including in Europe. They aren’t foreclosed by Google’s Android distribution terms, and it’s even hard to imagine that they would be more popular if only Android phones didn’t come with, say, Google Search pre-installed.
It’s a strange anticompetitive story that has Google allegedly foreclosing insignificant competitors while apparently ignoring its most substantial threats.
The primary challenges Google now faces are from Facebook drawing away the most valuable advertising and Amazon drawing away the most valuable product searches (and increasingly advertising, as well). The fact that Google’s challenged conduct has never shifted in order to target these competitors as their threat emerged, and has had no apparent effect on these competitive dynamics, says all one needs to know about the merits of the Commission’s decision and the value of its proposed remedy.
In reality, as Demsetz suggested, Nirvana cannot be designed by politicians, especially in complex, modern technology markets. Consumers’ best hope for something close — continued innovation, low prices, and voluminous choice — lies in the evolution of markets spurred by consumer demand, not regulators’ efforts to engineer them.
In brief, Delrahim spent virtually the entirety of his short remarks making and remaking the fundamental point at the center of my own assessment of the antitrust risk of a possible Comcast/Fox deal: The DOJ’s challenge of the AT&T/Time Warner merger tells you nothing about the likelihood that the agency would challenge a Comcast/Fox merger.
To begin, in my earlier assessment I pointed out that most vertical mergers are approved by antitrust enforcers, and I quoted Bruce Hoffman, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, who noted that:
[V]ertical merger enforcement is still a small part of our merger workload….
* * *
Where horizontal mergers reduce competition on their face — though that reduction could be minimal or more than offset by benefits — vertical mergers do not…. [T]here are plenty of theories of anticompetitive harm from vertical mergers. But the problem is that those theories don’t generally predict harm from vertical mergers; they simply show that harm is possible under certain conditions.
I may not have made it very clear in that post, but, of course, most horizontal mergers are approved by enforcers, as well.
Well, now we have the head of the DOJ Antitrust Division making the same point:
I’d say 95 or 96 percent of mergers — horizontal or vertical — are cleared — routinely…. Most mergers — horizontal or vertical — are procompetitive, or have no adverse effect.
Delrahim reinforced the point in an interview with The Street in advance of his remarks. Asked by a reporter, “what are your concerns with vertical mergers?,” Delrahim quickly corrected the questioner: “Well, I don’t have any concerns with most vertical mergers….”
But Delrahim went even further, noting that nothing about the Division’s approach to vertical mergers has changed since the AT&T/Time Warner case was brought — despite the efforts of some reporters to push a different narrative:
I understand that some journalists and observers have recently expressed concern that the Antitrust Division no longer believes that vertical mergers can be efficient and beneficial to competition and consumers. Some point to our recent decision to challenge some aspects of the AT&T/Time Warner merger as a supposed bellwether for a new vertical approach. Rest assured: These concerns are misplaced…. We have long recognized that vertical integration can and does generate efficiencies that benefit consumers. Indeed, most vertical mergers are procompetitive or competitively neutral. The same is of course true in horizontal transactions. To the extent that any recent action points to a closer review of vertical mergers, it’s not new…. [But,] to reiterate, our approach to vertical mergers has not changed, and our recent enforcement efforts are consistent with the Division’s long-standing, bipartisan approach to analyzing such mergers. We’ll continue to recognize that vertical mergers, in general, can yield significant economic efficiencies and benefit to competition.
Delrahim concluded his remarks by criticizing those who assume that the agency’s future enforcement decisions can be inferred from past cases with different facts, stressing that the agency employs an evidence-based, case-by-case approach to merger review:
Lumping all vertical transactions under the same umbrella, by comparison, obscures the reality that we conduct a vigorous investigation, aided by over 50 PhD economists in these markets, to make sure that we as lawyers don’t steer too far without the benefits of their views in each of these instances.
Arguably this was a rebuke directed at those, like Disney and Fox’s board, who are quick to ascribe increased regulatory risk to a Comcast/Fox tie-up because the DOJ challenged the AT&T/Time Warner merger. Recall that, in its proxy statement, the Fox board explained that it rejected Comcast’s earlier bid in favor of Disney’s in part because of “the regulatory risks presented by the DOJ’s unanticipated opposition to the proposed vertical integration of the AT&T / Time Warner transaction.”
I’ll likely have more to add once the AT&T/Time Warner decision is out. But in the meantime (and with apologies to Mark Twain), the takeaway is clear: Reports of the death of vertical mergers have been greatly exaggerated.
As has been rumored in the press for a few weeks, today Comcast announced it is considering making a renewed bid for a large chunk of Twenty-First Century Fox’s (Fox) assets. Fox is in the process of a significant reorganization, entailing primarily the sale of its international and non-television assets. Fox itself will continue, but with a focus on its US television business.
In December of last year, Fox agreed to sell these assets to Disney, in the process rejecting a bid from Comcast. Comcast’s initial bid was some 16% higher than Disney’s, although there were other differences in the proposed deals, as well.
In April of this year, Disney and Fox filed a proxy statement with the SEC explaining the basis for the board’s decision, including predominantly the assertion that the Comcast bid (NB: Comcast is identified as “Party B” in that document) presented greater regulatory (antitrust) risk.
As noted, today Comcast announced it is in “advanced stages” of preparing another unsolicited bid. This time,
Any offer for Fox would be all-cash and at a premium to the value of the current all-share offer from Disney. The structure and terms of any offer by Comcast, including with respect to both the spin-off of “New Fox” and the regulatory risk provisions and the related termination fee, would be at least as favorable to Fox shareholders as the Disney offer.
Because, as we now know (since the April proxy filing), Fox’s board rejected Comcast’s earlier offer largely on the basis of the board’s assessment of the antitrust risk it presented, and because that risk assessment (and the difference between an all-cash and all-share offer) would now be the primary distinguishing feature between Comcast’s and Disney’s bids, it is worth evaluating that conclusion as Fox and its shareholders consider Comcast’s new bid.
In short: There is no basis for ascribing a greater antitrust risk to Comcast’s purchase of Fox’s assets than to Disney’s.
Summary of the Proposed Deal
Post-merger, Fox will continue to own Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox Sports, Fox Television Stations Group, and sports cable networks FS1, FS2, Fox Deportes, and Big Ten Network.
The deal would transfer to Comcast (or Disney) the following:
Primarily, international assets, including Fox International (cable channels in Latin America, the EU, and Asia), Star India (the largest cable and broadcast network in India), and Fox’s 39% interest in Sky (Europe’s largest pay TV service).
Fox’s film properties, including 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, and Fox Animation. These would bring along with them studios in Sydney and Los Angeles, but would not include the Fox Los Angeles backlot. Like the rest of the US film industry, the majority of Fox’s film revenue is earned overseas.
FX cable channels, National Geographic cable channels (of which Fox currently owns 75%), and twenty-two regional sports networks (RSNs). In terms of relative demand for the two cable networks, FX is a popular basic cable channel, but fairly far down the list of most-watched channels, while National Geographic doesn’t even crack the top 50. Among the RSNs, only one geographic overlap exists with Comcast’s current RSNs, and most of the Fox RSNs (at least 14 of the 22) are not in areas where Comcast has a substantial service presence.
The deal would also entail a shift in the companies’ ownership interests in Hulu. Hulu is currently owned in equal 30% shares by Disney, Comcast, and Fox, with the remaining, non-voting 10% owned by Time Warner. Either Comcast or Disney would hold a controlling 60% share of Hulu following the deal with Fox.
Analysis of the Antitrust Risk of a Comcast/Fox Merger
According to the joint proxy statement, Fox’s board discounted Comcast’s original $34.36/share offer — but not the $28.00/share offer from Disney — because of “the level of regulatory issues posed and the proposed risk allocation arrangements.” Significantly on this basis, the Fox board determined Disney’s offer to be superior.
The claim that a merger with Comcast poses sufficiently greater antitrust risk than a purchase by Disney to warrant its rejection out of hand is unsupportable, however. From an antitrust perspective, it is even plausible that a Comcast acquisition of the Fox assets would be on more-solid ground than would be a Disney acquisition.
Vertical Mergers Generally Present Less Antitrust Risk
A merger between Comcast and Fox would be predominantly vertical, while a merger between Disney and Fox, in contrast, would be primarily horizontal. Generally speaking, it is easier to get antitrust approval for vertical mergers than it is for horizontal mergers. As Bruce Hoffman, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, noted earlier this year:
[V]ertical merger enforcement is still a small part of our merger workload….
There is a strong theoretical basis for horizontal enforcement because economic models predict at least nominal potential for anticompetitive effects due to elimination of horizontal competition between substitutes.
Where horizontal mergers reduce competition on their face — though that reduction could be minimal or more than offset by benefits — vertical mergers do not…. [T]here are plenty of theories of anticompetitive harm from vertical mergers. But the problem is that those theories don’t generally predict harm from vertical mergers; they simply show that harm is possible under certain conditions.
On its face, and consistent with the last quarter century of merger enforcement by the DOJ and FTC, the Comcast acquisition would be less likely to trigger antitrust scrutiny, and the Disney acquisition raises more straightforward antitrust issues.
This is true even in light of the fact that the DOJ decided to challenge the AT&T-Time Warner (AT&T/TWX) merger.
The AT&T/TWX merger is a single data point in a long history of successful vertical mergers that attracted little scrutiny, and no litigation, by antitrust enforcers (although several have been approved subject to consent orders).
Just because the DOJ challenged that one merger does not mean that antitrust enforcers generally, nor even the DOJ in particular, have suddenly become more hostile to vertical mergers.
Of particular importance to the conclusion that the AT&T/TWX merger challenge is of minimal relevance to predicting the DOJ’s reception in this case, the theory of harm argued by the DOJ in that case is far from well-accepted, while the potential theory that could underpin a challenge to a Disney/Fox merger is. As Bruce Hoffman further remarks:
I am skeptical of arguments that vertical mergers cause harm due to an increased bargaining skill; this is likely not an anticompetitive effect because it does not flow from a reduction in competition. I would contrast that to the elimination of competition in a horizontal merger that leads to an increase in bargaining leverage that could raise price or reduce output.
The Relatively Lower Risk of a Vertical Merger Challenge Hasn’t Changed Following the DOJ’s AT&T/Time Warner Challenge
Judge Leon is expected to rule on the AT&T/TWX merger in a matter of weeks. The theory underpinning the DOJ’s challenge is problematic (to say the least), and the case it presented was decidedly weak. But no litigated legal outcome is ever certain, and the court could, of course, rule against the merger nevertheless.
Yet even if the court does rule against the AT&T/TWX merger, this hardly suggests that a Comcast/Fox deal would create a greater antitrust risk than would a Disney/Fox merger.
A single successful challenge to a vertical merger — what would be, in fact, the first successful vertical merger challenge in four decades — doesn’t mean that the courts are becoming hostile to vertical mergers any more than the DOJ’s challenge means that vertical mergers suddenly entail heightened enforcement risk. Rather, it would simply mean that that, given the specific facts of the case, the DOJ was able to make out its prima facie case, and that the defendants were unable to rebut it.
A ruling for the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX merger challenge would be rooted in a highly fact-specific analysis that could have no direct bearing on future cases.
In the AT&T/TWX case, the court’s decision will turn on its assessment of the DOJ’s argument that the merged firm could raise subscriber prices by a few pennies per subscriber. But as AT&T’s attorney aptly pointed out at trial (echoing the testimony of AT&T’s economist, Dennis Carlton):
The government’s modeled price increase is so negligible that, given the inherent uncertainty in that predictive exercise, it is not meaningfully distinguishable from zero.
Even minor deviations from the facts or the assumptions used in the AT&T/TWX case could completely upend the analysis — and there are important differences between the AT&T/TWX merger and a Comcast/Fox merger. True, both would be largely vertical mergers that would bring together programming and distribution assets in the home video market. But the foreclosure effects touted by the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX merger are seemingly either substantially smaller or entirely non-existent in the proposed Comcast/Fox merger.
Most importantly, the content at issue in AT&T/TWX is at least arguably (and, in fact, argued by the DOJ) “must have” programming — Time Warner’s premium HBO channels and its CNN news programming, in particular, were central to the DOJ’s foreclosure argument. By contrast, the programming that Comcast would pick up as a result of the proposed merger with Fox — FX (a popular, but non-essential, basic cable channel) and National Geographic channels (which attract a tiny fraction of cable viewing) — would be extremely unlikely to merit that designation.
Moreover, the DOJ made much of the fact that AT&T, through DirectTV, has a national distribution footprint. As a result, its analysis was dependent upon the company’s potential ability to attract new subscribers decamping from competing providers from whom it withholds access to Time Warner content in every market in the country. Comcast, on the other hand, provides cable service in only about 35% of the country. This significantly limits its ability to credibly threaten competitors because its ability to recoup lost licensing fees by picking up new subscribers is so much more limited.
And while some RSNs may offer some highly prized live sports programming, the mismatch between Comcast’s footprint and the FOX RSNs (only about 8 of the 22 Fox RSNs are in Comcast service areas) severely limits any ability or incentive the company would have to leverage that content for higher fees. Again, to the extent that RSN programming is not “must-have,” and to the extent there is not overlap between the RSN’s geographic area and Comcast’s service area, the situation is manifestly not the same as the one at issue in the AT&T/TWX merger.
In sum, a ruling in favor of the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX case would be far from decisive in predicting how the agency and the courts would assess any potential concerns arising from Comcast’s ownership of Fox’s assets.
A Comcast/Fox Deal May Entail Lower Antitrust Risk than a Disney/Fox Merger
As discussed below, concerns about antitrust enforcement risk from a Comcast/Fox merger are likely overstated. Perhaps more importantly, however, to the extent these concerns are legitimate, they apply at least as much to a Disney/Fox merger. There is, at minimum, no basis for assuming a Comcast deal would present any greater regulatory risk.
The Antitrust Risk of a Comcast/Fox Merger Is Likely Overstated
The primary theory upon which antitrust enforcers could conceivably base a Comcast/Fox merger challenge would be a vertical foreclosure theory. Importantly, such a challenge would have to be based on the incremental effect of adding the Fox assets to Comcast, and not on the basis of its existing assets. Thus, for example, antitrust enforcers would not be able to base a merger challenge on the possibility that Comcast could leverage NBC content it currently owns to extract higher fees from competitors. Rather, only if the combination of NBC programming with additional content from Fox could create a new antitrust risk would a case be tenable.
Enforcers would be unlikely to view the addition of FX and National Geographic to the portfolio of programming content Comcast currently owns as sufficient to raise concerns that the merger would give Comcast anticompetitive bargaining power or the ability to foreclose access to its content.
Although even less likely, enforcers could be concerned with the (horizontal) addition of 20th Century Fox filmed entertainment to Universal’s existing film production and distribution. But the theatrical film market is undeniably competitive, with the largest studio by revenue (Disney) last year holding only 22% of the market. The combination of 20th Century Fox with Universal would still result in a market share only around 25% based on 2017 revenues (and, depending on the year, not even result in the industry’s largest share).
There is also little reason to think that a Comcast controlling interest in Hulu would attract problematic antitrust attention. Comcast has already demonstrated an interest in diversifying its revenue across cable subscriptions and licensing, broadband subscriptions, and licensing to OVDs, as evidenced by its recent deal to offer Netflix as part of its Xfinity packages. Hulu likely presents just one more avenue for pursuing this same diversification strategy. And Universal has a history (see, e.g., this, this, and this) of very broad licensing across cable providers, cable networks, OVDs, and the like.
In the case of Hulu, moreover, the fact that Comcast is vertically integrated in broadband as well as cable service likely reduces the anticompetitive risk because more-attractive OVD content has the potential to increase demand for Comcast’s broadband service. Broadband offers larger margins (and is growing more rapidly) than cable, and it’s quite possible that any loss in Comcast’s cable subscriber revenue from Hulu’s success would be more than offset by gains in its content licensing and broadband subscription revenue. The same, of course, goes for Comcast’s incentives to license content to OVD competitors like Netflix: Comcast plausibly gains broadband subscription revenue from heightened consumer demand for Netflix, and this at least partially offsets any possible harm to Hulu from Netflix’s success.
At the same time, especially relative to Netflix’s vast library of original programming (an expected $8 billion worth in 2018 alone) and content licensed from other sources, the additional content Comcast would gain from a merger with Fox is not likely to appreciably increase its bargaining leverage or its ability to foreclose Netflix’s access to its content.
Finally, Comcast’s ownership of Fox’s RSNs could, as noted, raise antitrust enforcers’ eyebrows. Enforcers could be concerned that Comcast would condition competitors’ access to RSN programming on higher licensing fees or prioritization of its NBC Sports channels.
While this is indeed a potential risk, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that it would draw an enforcement action. Among other things, NBC is far from the market leader, and improving its competitive position relative to ESPN could be viewed as a benefit of the deal. In any case, potential problems arising from ownership of the RSNs could easily be dealt with through divestiture or behavioral conditions; they are extremely unlikely to lead to an outright merger challenge.
The Antitrust Risk of a Disney Deal May Be Greater than Expected
While a Comcast/Fox deal doesn’t entail no antitrust enforcement risk, it certainly doesn’t entail sufficient risk to deem the deal dead on arrival. Moreover, it may entail less antitrust enforcement risk than would a Disney/Fox tie-up.
Yet, curiously, the joint proxy statement doesn’t mention any antitrust risk from the Disney deal at all and seems to suggest that the Fox board applied no risk discount in evaluating Disney’s bid.
Disney — already the market leader in the filmed entertainment industry — would acquire an even larger share of box office proceeds (and associated licensing revenues) through acquisition of Fox’s film properties. Perhaps even more important, the deal would bring the movie rights to almost all of the Marvel Universe within Disney’s ambit.
While, as suggested above, even that combination probably wouldn’t trigger any sort of market power presumption, it would certainly create an entity with a larger share of the market and stronger control of the industry’s most valuable franchises than would a Comcast/Fox deal.
Another relatively larger complication for a Disney/Fox merger arises from the prospect of combining Fox’s RSNs with ESPN. Whatever ability or incentive either company would have to engage in anticompetitive conduct surrounding sports programming, that risk would seem to be more significant for undisputed market leader, Disney. At the same time, although still powerful, demand for ESPN on cable has been flagging. Disney could well see the ability to bundle ESPN with regional sports content as a way to prop up subscription revenues for ESPN — a practice, in fact, that it has employed successfully in the past.
Disney is the world’s largest licensor, earning almost $57 billion in 2016 from licensing properties like Star Wars and Marvel Comics. Universal is in a distant 7th place, with 2016 licensing revenue of about $6 billion. Adding Fox’s (admittedly relatively small) licensing business would enhance Disney’s substantial lead (even the number two global licensor, Meredith, earned less than half of Disney’s licensing revenue in 2016). Again, this is unlikely to be a significant concern for antitrust enforcers, but it is notable that, to the extent it might be an issue, it is one that applies to Disney and not Comcast.
Although I hope to address these issues in greater detail in the future, for now the preliminary assessment is clear: There is no legitimate basis for ascribing a greater antitrust risk to a Comcast/Fox deal than to a Disney/Fox deal.
Today would have been Henry Manne’s 90th birthday. When he passed away in 2015 he left behind an immense and impressive legacy. In 1991, at the inaugural meeting of the American Law & Economics Association (ALEA), Manne was named a Life Member of ALEA and, along with Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase, and federal appeals court judges Richard Posner and Guido Calabresi, one of the four Founders of Law and Economics. The organization I founded, the International Center for Law & Economics is dedicated to his memory, along with that of his great friend and mentor, UCLA economist Armen Alchian.
Manne is best known for his work in corporate governance and securities law and regulation, of course. But sometimes forgotten is that his work on the market for corporate control was motivated by concerns about analytical flaws in merger enforcement. As former FTC commissioners Maureen Ohlhausen and Joshua Wright noted in a 2015 dissenting statement:
The notion that the threat of takeover would induce current managers to improve firm performance to the benefit of shareholders was first developed by Henry Manne. Manne’s pathbreaking work on the market for corporate control arose out of a concern that antitrust constraints on horizontal mergers would distort its functioning. See Henry G. Manne, Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control, 73 J. POL. ECON. 110 (1965).
But Manne’s focus on antitrust didn’t end in 1965. Moreover, throughout his life he was a staunch critic of misguided efforts to expand the power of government, especially when these efforts claimed to have their roots in economic reasoning — which, invariably, was hopelessly flawed. As his obituary notes:
In his teaching, his academic writing, his frequent op-eds and essays, and his work with organizations like the Cato Institute, the Liberty Fund, the Institute for Humane Studies, and the Mont Pèlerin Society, among others, Manne advocated tirelessly for a clearer understanding of the power of markets and competition and the importance of limited government and economically sensible regulation.
Thus it came to be, in 1974, that Manne was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, on Michigan Senator Philip A. Hart’s proposed Industrial Reorganization Act. His testimony is a tour de force, and a prescient rejoinder to the faddish advocates of today’s “hipster antitrust”— many of whom hearken longingly back to the antitrust of the 1960s and its misguided “gurus.”
Henry Manne’s trenchant testimony critiquing the Industrial Reorganization Act and its (ostensible) underpinnings is reprinted in full in this newly released ICLE white paper (with introductory material by Geoffrey Manne):
Sen. Hart proposed the Industrial Reorganization Act in order to address perceived problems arising from industrial concentration. The bill was rooted in the belief that industry concentration led inexorably to monopoly power; that monopoly power, however obtained, posed an inexorable threat to freedom and prosperity; and that the antitrust laws (i.e., the Sherman and Clayton Acts) were insufficient to address the purported problems.
That sentiment — rooted in the reflexive application of the (largely-discredited structure-conduct-performance (SCP) paradigm) — had already become largely passé among economists in the 70s, but it has resurfaced today as the asserted justification for similar (although less onerous) antitrust reform legislation and the general approach to antitrust analysis commonly known as “hipster antitrust.”
The critiques leveled against the asserted economic underpinnings of efforts like the Industrial Reorganization Act are as relevant today as they were then. As Henry Manne notes in his testimony:
To be successful in this stated aim [“getting the government out of the market”] the following dreams would have to come true: The members of both the special commission and the court established by the bill would have to be satisfied merely to complete their assigned task and then abdicate their tremendous power and authority; they would have to know how to satisfactorily define and identify the limits of the industries to be restructured; the Government’s regulation would not sacrifice significant efficiencies or economies of scale; and the incentive for new firms to enter an industry would not be diminished by the threat of a punitive response to success.
The lessons of history, economic theory, and practical politics argue overwhelmingly against every one of these assumptions.
Both the subject matter of and impetus for the proposed bill (as well as Manne’s testimony explaining its economic and political failings) are eerily familiar. The preamble to the Industrial Reorganization Act asserts that
competition… preserves a democratic society, and provides an opportunity for a more equitable distribution of wealth while avoiding the undue concentration of economic, social, and political power; [and] the decline of competition in industries with oligopoly or monopoly power has contributed to unemployment, inflation, inefficiency, an underutilization of economic capacity, and the decline of exports….
[C]oncentration that leads to market power and anticompetitive conduct makes it more difficult for people in the United States to start their own businesses, depresses wages, and increases economic inequality;
undue market concentration also contributes to the consolidation of political power, undermining the health of democracy in the United States; [and]
the anticompetitive effects of market power created by concentration include higher prices, lower quality, significantly less choice, reduced innovation, foreclosure of competitors, increased entry barriers, and monopsony power.
Remarkably, Sen. Hart introduced his bill as “an alternative to government regulation and control.” Somehow, it was the antithesis of “government control” to introduce legislation that, in Sen. Hart’s words,
involves changing the life styles of many of our largest corporations, even to the point of restructuring whole industries. It involves positive government action, not to control industry but to restore competition and freedom of enterprise in the economy
Like today’s advocates of increased government intervention to design the structure of the economy, Sen. Hart sought — without a trace of irony — to “cure” the problem of politicized, ineffective enforcement by doubling down on the power of the enforcers.
Henry Manne was having none of it. As he pointedly notes in his testimony, the worst problems of monopoly power are of the government’s own making. The real threat to democracy, freedom, and prosperity is the political power amassed in the bureaucratic apparatus that frequently confers monopoly, at least as much as the monopoly power it spawns:
[I]t takes two to make that bargain [political protection and subsidies in exchange for lobbying]. And as we look around at various industries we are constrained to ask who has not done this. And more to the point, who has not succeeded?
It is unhappily almost impossible to name a significant industry in the United States that has not gained some degree of protection from the rigors of competition from Federal, State or local governments.
* * *
But the solution to inefficiencies created by Government controls cannot lie in still more controls. The politically responsible task ahead for Congress is to dismantle our existing regulatory monster before it strangles us.
We have spawned a gigantic bureaucracy whose own political power threatens the democratic legitimacy of government.
We are rapidly moving toward the worst features of a centrally planned economy with none of the redeeming political, economic, or ethical features usually claimed for such systems.
The new white paper includes Manne’s testimony in full, including his exchange with Sen. Hart and committee staffers following his prepared remarks.
It is, sadly, nearly as germane today as it was then.
One final note: The subtitle for the paper is a reference to the song “What Is Hip?” by Tower of Power. Its lyrics are decidedly apt:
You done went and found you a guru,
In your effort to find you a new you,
And maybe even managed
To raise your conscious level.
While you’re striving to find the right road,
There’s one thing you should know:
What’s hip today
Might become passé.
— Tower of Power, What Is Hip? (Emilio Castillo, John David Garibaldi & Stephen M. Kupka, What Is Hip? (Bob-A-Lew Songs 1973), from the album TOWER OF POWER (Warner Bros. 1973))
Following is the (slightly expanded and edited) text of my remarks from the panel, Antitrust and the Tech Industry: What Is at Stake?, hosted last Thursday by CCIA. Bruce Hoffman (keynote), Bill Kovacic, Nicolas Petit, and Christine Caffarra also spoke. If we’re lucky Bruce will post his remarks on the FTC website; they were very good.
(NB: Some of these comments were adapted (or lifted outright) from a forthcoming Cato Policy Report cover story co-authored with Gus Hurwitz, so Gus shares some of the credit/blame.)
The urge to treat antitrust as a legal Swiss Army knife capable of correcting all manner of social and economic ills is apparently difficult for some to resist. Conflating size with market power, and market power with political power, many recent calls for regulation of industry — and the tech industry in particular — are framed in antitrust terms. Take Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example:
[T]oday, in America, competition is dying. Consolidation and concentration are on the rise in sector after sector. Concentration threatens our markets, threatens our economy, and threatens our democracy.
According to critics, these firms impose all manner of alleged harms — from fake news, to the demise of local retail, to low wages, to the veritable destruction of democracy — because of their size. What is needed, they say, is industrial policy that shackles large companies or effectively mandates smaller firms in order to keep their economic and political power in check.
But consider the relationship between firm size and political power and democracy.
Say you’re successful in reducing the size of today’s largest tech firms and in deterring the creation of new, very-large firms: What effect might we expect this to have on their political power and influence?
For the critics, the effect is obvious: A re-balancing of wealth and thus the reduction of political influence away from Silicon Valley oligarchs and toward the middle class — the “rudder that steers American democracy on an even keel.”
But consider a few (and this is by no means all) countervailing points:
To begin, at the margin, if you limit firm growth as a means of competing with rivals, you make correspondingly more important competition through political influence. Erecting barriers to entry and raising rivals’ costs through regulation are time-honored American political traditions, and rent-seeking by smaller firms could both be more prevalent, and, paradoxically, ultimately lead to increased concentration.
Next, by imbuing antitrust with an ill-defined set of vague political objectives, you also make antitrust into a sort of “meta-legislation.” As a result, the return on influencing a handful of government appointments with authority over antitrust becomes huge — increasing the ability and the incentive to do so.
And finally, if the underlying basis for antitrust enforcement is extended beyond economic welfare effects, how long can we expect to resist calls to restrain enforcement precisely to further those goals? All of a sudden the effort and ability to get exemptions will be massively increased as the persuasiveness of the claimed justifications for those exemptions, which already encompass non-economic goals, will be greatly enhanced. We might even find, again, that we end up with even more concentration because the exceptions could subsume the rules.
All of which of course highlights the fundamental, underlying problem: If you make antitrust more political, you’ll get less democratic, more politically determined, results — precisely the opposite of what proponents claim to want.
Then there’s democracy, and calls to break up tech in order to save it. Calls to do so are often made with reference to the original intent of the Sherman Act and Louis Brandeis and his “curse of bigness.” But intentional or not, these are rallying cries for the assertion, not the restraint, of political power.
The Sherman Act’s origin was ambivalent: although it was intended to proscribe business practices that harmed consumers, it was also intended to allow politically-preferred firms to maintain high prices in the face of competition from politically-disfavored businesses.
The years leading up to the adoption of the Sherman Act in 1890 were characterized by dramatic growth in the efficiency-enhancing, high-tech industries of the day. For many, the purpose of the Sherman Act was to stem this growth: to prevent low prices — and, yes, large firms — from “driving out of business the small dealers and worthy men whose lives have been spent therein,” in the words of Trans-Missouri Freight, one of the early Supreme Court decisions applying the Act.
Left to the courts, however, the Sherman Act didn’t quite do the trick. By 1911 (in Standard Oil and American Tobacco) — and reflecting consumers’ preferences for low prices over smaller firms — only “unreasonable” conduct was actionable under the Act. As one of the prime intellectual engineers behind the Clayton Antitrust Act and the Federal Trade Commission in 1914, Brandeis played a significant role in the (partial) legislative and administrative overriding of the judiciary’s excessive support for economic efficiency.
Brandeis was motivated by the belief that firms could become large only by illegitimate means and by deceiving consumers. But Brandeis was no advocate for consumer sovereignty. In fact, consumers, in Brandeis’ view, needed to be saved from themselves because they were, at root, “servile, self-indulgent, indolent, ignorant.”
There’s a lot that today we (many of us, at least) would find anti-democratic in the underpinnings of progressivism in US history: anti-consumerism; racism; elitism; a belief in centrally planned, technocratic oversight of the economy; promotion of social engineering, including through eugenics; etc. The aim of limiting economic power was manifestly about stemming the threat it posed to powerful people’s conception of what political power could do: to mold and shape the country in their image — what economist Thomas Sowell calls “the vision of the anointed.”
That may sound great when it’s your vision being implemented, but today’s populist antitrust resurgence comes while Trump is in the White House. It’s baffling to me that so many would expand and then hand over the means to design the economy and society in their image to antitrust enforcers in the executive branch and presidentially appointed technocrats.
Throughout US history, it is the courts that have often been the bulwark against excessive politicization of the economy, and it was the courts that shepherded the evolution of antitrust away from its politicized roots toward rigorous, economically grounded policy. And it was progressives like Brandeis who worked to take antitrust away from the courts. Now, with efforts like Senator Klobuchar’s merger bill, the “New Brandeisians” want to rein in the courts again — to get them out of the way of efforts to implement their “big is bad” vision.
But the evidence that big is actually bad, least of all on those non-economic dimensions, is thin and contested.
While Zuckerberg is grilled in Congress over perceived, endemic privacy problems, politician after politician and news article after news article rushes to assert that the real problem is Facebook’s size. Yet there is no convincing analysis (maybe no analysis of any sort) that connects its size with the problem, or that evaluates whether the asserted problem would actually be cured by breaking up Facebook.
Barry Lynn claims that the origins of antitrust are in the checks and balances of the Constitution, extended to economic power. But if that’s right, then the consumer welfare standard and the courts are the only things actually restraining the disruption of that order. If there may be gains to be had from tweaking the minutiae of the process of antitrust enforcement and adjudication, by all means we should have a careful, lengthy discussion about those tweaks.
But throwing the whole apparatus under the bus for the sake of an unsubstantiated, neo-Brandeisian conception of what the economy should look like is a terrible idea.
Today, following a six year investigation into Google’s business practices in India, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) issued its ruling.
Two things, in particular, are remarkable about the decision. First, while the CCI’s staff recommended a finding of liability on a litany of claims (the exact number is difficult to infer from the Commission’s decision, but it appears to be somewhere in the double digits), the Commission accepted its staff’s recommendation on only three — and two of those involve conduct no longer employed by Google.
Second, nothing in the Commission’s finding of liability or in the remedy it imposes suggests it approaches the issue as the EU does. To be sure, the CCI employs rhetoric suggesting that “search bias” can be anticompetitive. But its focus remains unwaveringly on the welfare of the consumer, not on the hyperbolic claims of Google’s competitors.
What didn’t happen
In finding liability on only a single claim involving ongoing practices — the claim arising from Google’s “unfair” placement of its specialized flight search (Google Flights) results — the Commission also roundly rejected a host of other claims (more than once with strong words directed at its staff for proposing such woefully unsupported arguments). Among these are several that have been raised (and unanimously rejected) by competition regulators elsewhere in the world. These claims related to a host of Google’s practices, including:
Search bias involving the treatment of specialized Google content (like Google Maps, YouTube, Google Reviews, etc.) other than Google Flights
Search bias involving the display of Universal Search results (including local search, news search, image search, etc.), except where these results are fixed to a specific position on every results page (as was the case in India before 2010), instead of being inserted wherever most appropriate in context
Search bias involving OneBox results (instant answers to certain queries that are placed at the top of search results pages), even where answers are drawn from Google’s own content and specific, licensed sources (rather than from crawling the web)
Search bias involving sponsored, vertical search results (e.g., Google Shopping results) other than Google Flights. These results are not determined by the same algorithm that returns organic results, but are instead more like typical paid search advertising results that sometimes appear at the top of search results pages. The Commission did find that Google’s treatment of its Google Flight results (another form of sponsored result) violated India’s competition laws
The operation of Google’s advertising platform (AdWords), including the use of a “Quality Score” in its determination of an ad’s relevance (something Josh Wright and I discuss at length here)
Google’s practice of allowing advertisers to bid on trademarked keywords
Restrictions placed by Google upon the portability of advertising campaign data to other advertising platforms through its AdWords API
Distribution agreements that set Google as the default (but not exclusive) search engine on certain browsers
Certain restrictions in syndication agreements with publishers (websites) through which Google provides search and/or advertising (Google’s AdSense offering). The Commission found that negotiated search agreements that require Google to be the exclusive search provider on certain sites did violate India’s competition laws. It should be noted, however, that Google has very few of these agreements, and no longer enters into them, so the finding is largely historical. All of the other assertions regarding these agreements (and there were numerous claims involving a number of clauses in a range of different agreements) were rejected by the Commission.
Just like competition authorities in the US, Canada, and Taiwan that have properly focused on consumer welfare in their Google investigations, the CCI found important consumer benefits from these practices that outweigh any inconveniences they may impose on competitors. And, just as in those jurisdictions, all of them were rejected by the Commission.
Still improperly assessing Google’s dominance
The biggest problem with the CCI’s decision is its acceptance — albeit moderated in important ways — of the notion that Google owes a special duty to competitors given its position as an alleged “gateway” to the Internet:
In the present case, since Google is the gateway to the internet for a vast majority of internet users, due to its dominance in the online web search market, it is under an obligation to discharge its special responsibility. As Google has the ability and the incentive to abuse its dominant position, its “special responsibility” is critical in ensuring not only the fairness of the online web search and search advertising markets, but also the fairness of all online markets given that these are primarily accessed through search engines. (para 202)
As I’ve discussed before, a proper analysis of the relevant markets in which Google operates would make clear that Google is beset by actual and potential competitors at every turn. Access to consumers by advertisers, competing search services, other competing services, mobile app developers, and the like is readily available. The lines between markets drawn by the CCI are based on superficial distinctions that are of little importance to the actual relevant market.
Consider, for example: Users seeking product information can get it via search, but also via Amazon and Facebook; advertisers can place ad copy and links in front of millions of people on search results pages, and they can also place them in front of millions of people on Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, many specialized search competitors like Yelp receive most of their traffic from direct navigation and from their mobile apps. In short, the assumption of market dominance made by the CCI (and so many others these days) is based on a stilted conception of the relevant market, as Google is far from the only channel through which competitors can reach consumers.
The importance of innovation in the CCI’s decision
Of course, it’s undeniable that Google is an important mechanism by which competitors reach consumers. And, crucially, nowhere did the CCI adopt Google’s critics’ and competitors’ frequently asserted position that Google is, in effect, an “essential facility” requiring extremely demanding limitations on its ability to control its product when doing so might impede its rivals.
So, while the CCI defines the relevant markets and adopts legal conclusions that confer special importance on Google’s operation of its general search results pages, it stops short of demanding that Google treat competitors on equal terms to its own offerings, as would typically be required of essential facilities (or their close cousin, public utilities).
Significantly, the Commission weighs the imposition of even these “special responsibilities” against the effects of such duties on innovation, particularly with respect to product design.
The CCI should be commended for recognizing that any obligation imposed by antitrust law on a dominant company to refrain from impeding its competitors’ access to markets must stop short of requiring the company to stop innovating, even when its product innovations might make life difficult for its competitors.
Of course, some product design choices can be, on net, anticompetitive. But innovation generally benefits consumers, and it should be impeded only where doing so clearly results in net consumer harm. Thus:
[T]he Commission is cognizant of the fact that any intervention in technology markets has to be carefully crafted lest it stifles innovation and denies consumers the benefits that such innovation can offer. This can have a detrimental effect on economic welfare and economic growth, particularly in countries relying on high growth such as India…. [P]roduct design is an important and integral dimension of competition and any undue intervention in designs of SERP [Search Engine Results Pages] may affect legitimate product improvements resulting in consumer harm. (paras 203-04).
As a consequence of this cautious approach, the CCI refused to accede to its staff’s findings of liability based on Google’s treatment of its vertical search results without considering how Google’s incorporation of these specialized results improved its product for consumers. Thus, for example:
The Commission is of opinion that requiring Google to show third-party maps may cause a delay in response time (“latency”) because these maps reside on third-party servers…. Further, requiring Google to show third-party maps may break the connection between Google’s local results and the map…. That being so, the Commission is of the view that no case of contravention of the provisions of the Act is made out in Google showing its own maps along with local search results. The Commission also holds that the same consideration would apply for not showing any other specialised result designs from third parties. (para 224 (emphasis added))
The CCI’s laudable and refreshing focus on consumer welfare
Even where the CCI determined that Google’s current practices violate India’s antitrust laws (essentially only with respect to Google Flights), it imposed a remedy that does not demand alteration of the overall structure of Google’s search results, nor its algorithmic placement of those results. In fact, the most telling indication that India’s treatment of product design innovation embodies a consumer-centric approach markedly different from that pushed by Google’s competitors (and adopted by the EU) is its remedy.
Following its finding that
[p]rominent display and placement of Commercial Flight Unit with link to Google’s specialised search options/ services (Flight) amounts to an unfair imposition upon users of search services as it deprives them of additional choices (para 420),
the CCI determined that the appropriate remedy for this defect was:
So far as the contravention noted by the Commission in respect of Flight Commercial Unit is concerned, the Commission directs Google to display a disclaimer in the commercial flight unit box indicating clearly that the “search flights” link placed at the bottom leads to Google’s Flights page, and not the results aggregated by any other third party service provider, so that users are not misled. (para 422 (emphasis added))
Indeed, what is most notable — and laudable — about the CCI’s decision is that both the alleged problem, as well as the proposed remedy, are laser-focused on the effect on consumers — not the welfare of competitors.
Where the EU’s recent Google Shopping decision considers that this sort of non-neutral presentation of Google search results harms competitors and demands equal treatment by Google of rivals seeking access to Google’s search results page, the CCI sees instead that non-neutral presentation of results could be confusing to consumers. It does not demand that Google open its doors to competitors, but rather that it more clearly identify when its product design prioritizes Google’s own content rather than determine priority based on its familiar organic search results algorithm.
This distinction is significant. For all the language in the decision asserting Google’s dominance and suggesting possible impediments to competition, the CCI does not, in fact, view Google’s design of its search results pages as a contrivance intended to exclude competitors from accessing markets.
The CCI’s remedy suggests that it has no problem with Google maintaining control over its search results pages and determining what results, and in what order, to serve to consumers. Its sole concern, rather, is that Google not get a leg up at the expense of consumers by misleading them into thinking that its product design is something that it is not.
Rather than dictate how Google should innovate or force it to perpetuate an outdated design in the name of preserving access by competitors bent on maintaining the status quo, the Commission embraces the consumer benefits of Google’s evolving products, and seeks to impose only a narrowly targeted tweak aimed directly at the quality of consumers’ interactions with Google’s products.
As some press accounts of the CCI’s decision trumpet, the Commission did impose liability on Google for abuse of a dominant position. But its similarity with the EU’s abuse of dominance finding ends there. The CCI rejected many more claims than it adopted, and it carefully tailored its remedy to the welfare of consumers, not the lamentations of competitors. Unlike the EU, the CCI’s finding of a violation is tempered by its concern for avoiding harmful constraints on innovation and product design, and its remedy makes this clear. Whatever the defects of India’s decision, it offers a welcome return to consumer-centric antitrust.