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As Thomas Sowell has noted many times, political debates often involve the use of words which if taken literally mean something very different than the connotations which are conveyed. Examples abound in the debate about broadband buildout. 

There is a general consensus on the need to subsidize aspects of broadband buildout to rural areas in order to close the digital divide. But this real need allows for strategic obfuscation of key terms in this debate by parties hoping to achieve political or competitive gain. 

“Access” and “high-speed broadband”

For instance, nearly everyone would agree that Internet policy should “promote access to high-speed broadband.” But how some academics and activists define “access” and “high-speed broadband” are much different than the average American would expect.

A commonsense definition of access is that consumers have the ability to buy broadband sufficient to meet their needs, considering the costs and benefits they face. In the context of the digital divide between rural and urban areas, the different options available to consumers in each area is a reflection of the very real costs and other challenges of providing service. In rural areas with low population density, it costs broadband providers considerably more per potential subscriber to build the infrastructure needed to provide service. At some point, depending on the technology, it is no longer profitable to build out to the next customer several miles down the road. The options and prices available to rural consumers reflects this unavoidable fact. Holding price constant, there is no doubt that many rural consumers would prefer higher speeds than are currently available to them. But this is not the real-world choice which presents itself. 

But access in this debate instead means the availability of the same broadband options regardless of where people live. Rather than being seen as a reflection of underlying economic realities, the fact that rural Americans do not have the same options available to them that urban Americans do is seen as a problem which calls out for a political solution. Thus, billions of dollars are spent in an attempt to “close the digital divide” by subsidizing broadband providers to build infrastructure to  rural areas. 

“High-speed broadband” similarly has a meaning in this debate significantly different from what many consumers, especially those lacking “high speed” service, expect. For consumers, fast enough is what allows them to use the Internet in the ways they desire. What is fast enough does change over time as more and more uses for the Internet become common. This is why the FCC has changed the technical definition of broadband multiple times over the years as usage patterns and bandwidth requirements change. Currently, the FCC uses 25Mbps down/3 Mbps up as the baseline for broadband.

However, for some, like Jonathan Sallet, this is thoroughly insufficient. In his Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, he instead proposes “100 Mbps symmetrical service without usage limits.” The disconnect between consumer demand as measured in the marketplace in light of real trade-offs between cost and performance and this arbitrary number is not well-explained in this study. The assumption is simply that faster is better, and that the building of faster networks is a mere engineering issue once sufficiently funded and executed with enough political will.

But there is little evidence that consumers “need” faster Internet than the market is currently providing. In fact, one Wall Street Journal study suggests “typical U.S. households don’t use most of their bandwidth while streaming and get marginal gains from upgrading speeds.” Moreover, there is even less evidence that most consumers or businesses need anything close to upload speeds of 100 Mbps. For even intensive uses like high-resolution live streaming, recommended upload speeds still fall far short of 100 Mbps. 

“Competition” and “Overbuilding”

Similarly, no one objects to the importance of “competition in the broadband marketplace.” But what is meant by this term is subject to vastly different interpretations.

The number of competitors is not the same as the amount of competition. Competition is a process by which market participants discover the best way to serve consumers at lowest cost. Specific markets are often subject to competition not only from the firms which exist within those markets, but also from potential competitors who may enter the market any time potential profits reach a point high enough to justify the costs of entry. An important inference from this is that temporary monopolies, in the sense that one firm has a significant share of the market, is not in itself illegal under antitrust law, even if they are charging monopoly prices. Potential entry is as real in its effects as actual competitors in forcing incumbents to continue to innovate and provide value to consumers. 

However, many assume the best way to encourage competition in broadband buildout is to simply promote more competitors. A significant portion of Broadband for America’s Future emphasizes the importance of subsidizing new competition in order to increase buildout, increase quality, and bring down prices. In particular, Sallet emphasizes the benefits of municipal broadband, i.e. when local governments build and run their own networks. 

In fact, Sallet argues that fears of “overbuilding” are really just fears of competition by incumbent broadband ISPs:

Language here is important. There is a tendency to call the construction of new, competitive networks in a locality with an existing network “overbuilding”—as if it were an unnecessary thing, a useless piece of engineering. But what some call “overbuilding” should be called by a more familiar term: “Competition.” “Overbuilding” is an engineering concept; “competition” is an economic concept that helps consumers because it shifts the focus from counting broadband networks to counting the dollars that consumers save when they have competitive choices. The difference is fundamental—overbuilding asks whether the dollars spent to build another network are necessary for the delivery of a communications service; economics asks whether spending those dollars will lead to competition that allows consumers to spend less and get more. 

Sallet makes two rhetorical moves here to make his argument. 

The first is redefining “overbuilding,” which refers to literally building a new network on top of (that is, “over”) previously built architecture, as a ploy by ISPs to avoid competition. But this is truly Orwellian. When a new entrant can build over an incumbent and take advantage of the first-mover’s investments to enter at a lower cost, a failure to compensate the first-mover is free riding. If the government compels such free riding, it reduces incentives for firms to make the initial investment to build the infrastructure.

The second is defining competition as the number of competitors, even if those competitors need to be subsidized by the government in order to enter the marketplace.  

But there is no way to determine the “right” number of competitors in a given market in advance. In the real world, markets don’t match blackboard descriptions of perfect competition. In fact, there are sometimes high fixed costs which limit the number of firms which will likely exist in a competitive market. In some markets, known as natural monopolies, high infrastructural costs and other barriers to entry relative to the size of the market lead to a situation where it is cheaper for a monopoly to provide a good or service than multiple firms in a market. But it is important to note that only firms operating under market pressures can assess the viability of competition. This is why there is a significant risk in government subsidizing entry. 

Competition drives sustained investment in the capital-intensive architecture of broadband networks, which suggests that ISPs are not natural monopolies. If they were, then having a monopoly provider regulated by the government to ensure the public interest, or government-run broadband companies, may make sense. In fact, Sallet denies ISPs are natural monopolies, stating that “the history of telecommunications regulation in the United States suggests that monopolies were a result of policy choices, not mandated by any iron law of economics” and “it would be odd for public policy to treat the creation of a monopoly as a success.” 

As noted by economist George Ford in his study, The Impact of Government-Owned Broadband Networks on Private Investment and Consumer Welfare, unlike the threat of entry which often causes incumbents to act competitively even in the absence of competitors, the threat of subsidized entry reduces incentives for private entities to invest in those markets altogether. This includes both the incentive to build the network and update it. Subsidized entry may, in fact, tip the scales from competition that promotes consumer welfare to that which could harm it. If the market only profitably sustains one or two competitors, adding another through municipal broadband or subsidizing a new entrant may reduce the profitability of the incumbent(s) and eventually lead to exit. When this happens, only the government-run or subsidized network may survive because the subsidized entrant is shielded from the market test of profit-and-loss.

The “Donut Hole” Problem

The term “donut hole” is a final example to consider of how words can be used to confuse rather than enlighten in this debate.

There is broad agreement that to generate the positive externalities from universal service, there needs to be subsidies for buildout to high-cost rural areas. However, this seeming agreement masks vastly different approaches. 

For instance, some critics of the current subsidy approach have identified a phenomenon where the city center has multiple competitive ISPs and government policy extends subsidies to ISPs to build out broadband coverage into rural areas, but there is relatively paltry Internet services in between due to a lack of private or public investment. They describe this as a “donut hole” because the “unserved” rural areas receive subsidies while “underserved” outlying parts immediately surrounding town centers receive nothing under current policy.

Conceptually, this is not a donut hole. It is actually more like a target or bullseye, where the city center is served by private investment and the rural areas receive subsidies to be served. 

Indeed, there is a different use of the term donut hole, which describes how public investment in city centers can create a donut hole of funding needed to support rural build-out. Most Internet providers rely on profits from providing lower-cost service to higher-population areas (like city centers) to cross-subsidize the higher cost of providing service in outlying and rural areas. But municipal providers generally only provide municipal service — they only provide lower-cost service. This hits the carriers that serve higher-cost areas with a double whammy. First, every customer that municipal providers take from private carriers cuts the revenue that those carriers rely on to provide service elsewhere. Second, and even more problematic, because the municipal providers have lower costs (because they tend not to serve the higher-cost outlying areas), they can offer lower prices for service. This “competition” exerts downward pressure on the private firms’ prices, further reducing revenue across their entire in-town customer base. 

This version of the “donut hole,” in which the revenues that private firms rely on from the city center to support the costs of providing service to outlying areas has two simultaneous effects. First, it directly reduces the funding available to serve more rural areas. And, second, it increases the average cost of providing service across its network (because it is no longer recovering as much of its costs from the lower-cost city core), which increases the prices that need to be charged to rural users in order to justify offering service at all.

Conclusion

Overcoming the problem of the rural digital divide starts with understanding why it exists. It is simply more expensive to build networks in areas with low population density. If universal service is the goal, subsidies, whether explicit subsidies from government or implicit cross-subsidies by broadband companies, are necessary to build out to these areas. But obfuscations about increasing “access to high-speed broadband” by promoting “competition” shouldn’t control the debate.

Instead, there needs to be a nuanced understanding of how government-subsidized entry into the broadband marketplace can discourage private investment and grow the size of the “donut hole,” thereby leading to demand for even greater subsidies. Policymakers should avoid exacerbating the digital divide by prioritizing subsidized competition over market processes.

During last week’s antitrust hearing, Representative Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) provided a sound bite that served as a salvo: “In the 19th century we had the robber barons, in the 21st century we get the cyber barons.” But with sound bites, much like bumper stickers, there’s no room for nuance or scrutiny.

The news media has extensively covered the “questioning” of the CEOs of Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon (collectively “Big Tech”). Of course, most of this questioning was actually political posturing with little regard for the actual answers or antitrust law. But just like with the so-called robber barons, the story of Big Tech is much more interesting and complex. 

The myth of the robber barons: Market entrepreneurs vs. political entrepreneurs

The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861–1901 (1934) by Matthew Josephson, was written in the midst of America’s Great Depression. Josephson, a Marxist with sympathies for the Soviet Union, made the case that the 19th century titans of industry were made rich on the backs of the poor during the industrial revolution. This idea that the rich are wealthy due to their robbing of the rest of us is an idea that has long outlived Josephson and Marx down to the present day, as exemplified by the writings of Matt Stoller and the politics of the House Judiciary Committee.

In his Myth of the Robber Barons, Burton Folsom, Jr. makes the case that much of the received wisdom on the great 19th century businessmen is wrong. He distinguishes between the market entrepreneurs, which generated wealth by selling newer, better, or less expensive products on the free market without any government subsidies, and the political entrepreneurs, who became rich primarily by influencing the government to subsidize their businesses, or enacting legislation or regulation that harms their competitors. 

Folsom narrates the stories of market entrepreneurs, like Thomas Gibbons & Cornelius Vanderbilt (steamships), James Hill (railroads), the Scranton brothers (iron rails), Andrew Carnegie & Charles Schwab (steel), and John D. Rockefeller (oil), who created immense value for consumers by drastically reducing the prices of the goods and services their companies provided. Yes, these men got rich. But the value society received was arguably even greater. Wealth was created because market exchange is a positive-sum game.

On the other hand, the political entrepreneurs, like Robert Fulton & Edward Collins (steamships), and Leland Stanford & Henry Villard (railroads), drained societal resources by using taxpayer money to create inefficient monopolies. Because they were not subject to the same market discipline due to their favored position, cutting costs and prices were less important to them than the market entrepreneurs. Their wealth was at the expense of the rest of society, because political exchange is a zero-sum game.

Big Tech makes society better off

Today’s titans of industry, i.e. Big Tech, have created enormous value for society. This is almost impossible to deny, though some try. From zero-priced search on Google, to the convenience and price of products on Amazon, to the nominally free social network(s) of Facebook, to the plethora of options in Apple’s App Store, consumers have greatly benefited from Big Tech. Consumers flock to use Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple for a reason: they believe they are getting a great deal. 

By and large, the techlash comes from “intellectuals” who think they know better than consumers acting in the marketplace about what is good for them. And as noted by Alec Stapp, Americans in opinion polls consistently put a great deal of trust in Big Tech, at least compared to government institutions:

One of the basic building blocks of economics is that both parties benefit from voluntary exchanges ex ante, or else they would not be willing to engage in it. The fact that consumers use Big Tech to the extent they do is overwhelming evidence of their value. Obfuscations like “market power” mislead more than they inform. In the absence of governmental barriers to entry, consumers voluntarily choosing Big Tech does not mean they have power, it means they provide great service.

Big Tech companies are run by entrepreneurs who must ultimately answer to consumers. In a market economy, profits are a signal that entrepreneurs have successfully brought value to society. But they are also a signal to potential competitors. If Big Tech companies don’t continue to serve the interests of their consumers, they risk losing them to competitors.

Big Tech’s CEOs seem to get this. For instance, Jeff Bezos’ written testimony emphasized the importance of continual innovation at Amazon as a reason for its success:

Since our founding, we have strived to maintain a “Day One” mentality at the company. By that I mean approaching everything we do with the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of Day One. Even though Amazon is a large company, I have always believed that if we commit ourselves to maintaining a Day One mentality as a critical part of our DNA, we can have both the scope and capabilities of a large company and the spirit and heart of a small one. 

In my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the best way to achieve and maintain Day One vitality. Why? Because customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and a constant desire to delight customers drives us to constantly invent on their behalf. As a result, by focusing obsessively on customers, we are internally driven to improve our services, add benefits and features, invent new products, lower prices, and speed up shipping times—before we have to. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it. And I could give you many such examples. Not every business takes this customer-first approach, but we do, and it’s our greatest strength.

The economics of multi-sided platforms: How Big Tech does it

Economically speaking, Big Tech companies are (mostly) multi-sided platforms. Multi-sided platforms differ from regular firms in that they have to serve two or more of these distinct types of consumers to generate demand from any of them.

Economist David Evans, who has done as much as any to help us understand multi-sided platforms, has identified three different types:

  1. Market-Makers enable members of distinct groups to transact with each other. Each member of a group values the service more highly if there are more members of the other group, thereby increasing the likelihood of a match and reducing the time it takes to find an acceptable match. (Amazon and Apple’s App Store)
  2. Audience-Makers match advertisers to audiences. Advertisers value a service more if there are more members of an audience who will react positively to their messages; audiences value a service more if there is more useful “content” provided by audience-makers. (Google, especially through YouTube, and Facebook, especially through Instagram)
  3. Demand-Coordinators make goods and services that generate indirect network effects across two or more groups. These platforms do not strictly sell “transactions” like a market maker or “messages” like an audience-maker; they are a residual category much like irregular verbs – numerous, heterogeneous, and important. Software platforms such as Windows and the Palm OS, payment systems such as credit cards, and mobile telephones are demand coordinators. (Android, iOS)

In order to bring value, Big Tech has to consider consumers on all sides of the platform they operate. Sometimes, this means consumers on one side of the platform subsidize the other. 

For instance, Google doesn’t charge its users to use its search engine, YouTube, or Gmail. Instead, companies pay Google to advertise to their users. Similarly, Facebook doesn’t charge the users of its social network, advertisers on the other side of the platform subsidize them. 

As their competitors and critics love to point out, there are some complications in that some platforms also compete in the markets they create. For instance, Apple does place its own apps inits App Store, and Amazon does engage in some first-party sales on its platform. But generally speaking, both Apple and Amazon act as matchmakers for exchanges between users and third parties.

The difficulty for multi-sided platforms is that they need to balance the interests of each part of the platform in a way that maximizes its value. 

For Google and Facebook, they need to balance the interests of users and advertisers. In the case of each, this means a free service for users that is subsidized by the advertisers. But the advertisers gain a lot of value by tailoring ads based upon search history, browsing history, and likes and shares. For Apple and Amazon they need to create platforms which are valuable for buyers and sellers, and balance how much first-party competition they want to have before they lose the benefits of third-party sales.

There are no easy answers to creating a search engine, a video service, a social network, an App store, or an online marketplace. Everything from moderation practices, to pricing on each side of the platform, to the degree of competition from the platform operators themselves needs to be balanced right or these platforms would lose participants on one side of the platform or the other to competitors. 

Conclusion

Representative Raskin’s “cyber barons” were raked through the mud by Congress. But much like the falsely identified robber barons of the 19th century who were truly market entrepreneurs, the Big Tech companies of today are wrongfully maligned.

No one is forcing consumers to use these platforms. The incredible benefits they have brought to society through market processes shows they are not robbing anyone. Instead, they are constantly innovating and attempting to strike a balance between consumers on each side of their platform. 

The myth of the cyber barons need not live on any longer than last week’s farcical antitrust hearing.

The great Dr. Thomas Sowell

One of the great scholars of law & economics turns 90 years old today. In his long and distinguished career, Thomas Sowell has written over 40 books and countless opinion columns. He has been a professor of economics and a long-time Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He received a National Humanities Medal in 2002 for a lifetime of scholarship, which has only continued since then. His ability to look at issues with an international perspective, using the analytical tools of economics to better understand institutions, is an inspiration to us at the International Center for Law & Economics.

Here, almost as a blog post festschrift as a long-time reader of his works, I want to briefly write about how Sowell’s voluminous writings on visions, law, race, and economics could be the basis for a positive agenda to achieve a greater measure of racial justice in the United States.

The Importance of Visions

One of the most important aspects of Sowell’s work is his ability to distill wide-ranging issues into debates involving different mental models, or a “Conflict of Visions.” He calls one vision the “tragic” or “constrained” vision, which sees all humans as inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and fundamentally self-interested even at their best. The other vision is the “utopian” or “unconstrained” vision, which sees human limitations as artifacts of social arrangements and cultures, and that there are some capable by virtue of superior knowledge and morality that can redesign society to create a better world. 

An implication of the constrained vision is that the difference in knowledge and virtue between the best and the worst in society is actually quite small. As a result, no one person or group of people can be trusted with redesigning institutions which have spontaneously evolved. The best we can hope for is institutions that reasonably deter bad conduct and allow people the freedom to solve their own problems. 

An important implication of the unconstrained vision, on the other hand,  is that there are some who because of superior enlightenment, which Sowell calls the “Vision of the Anointed,” can redesign institutions to fundamentally change human nature, which is seen as malleable. Institutions are far more often seen as the result of deliberate human design and choice, and that failures to change them to be more just or equal is a result of immorality or lack of will.

The importance of visions to how we view things like justice and institutions makes all the difference. In the constrained view, institutions like language, culture, and even much of the law result from the “spontaneous ordering” that is the result of human action but not of human design. Limited government, markets, and tradition are all important in helping individuals coordinate action. Markets work because self-interested individuals benefit when they serve others. There are no solutions to difficult societal problems, including racism, only trade-offs. 

But in the unconstrained view, limits on government power are seen as impediments to public-spirited experts creating a better society. Markets, traditions, and cultures are to be redesigned from the top down by those who are forward-looking, relying on their articulated reason. There is a belief that solutions could be imposed if only there is sufficient political will and the right people in charge. When it comes to an issue like racism, those who are sufficiently “woke” should be in charge of redesigning institutions to provide for a solution to things like systemic racism.

For Sowell, what he calls “traditional justice” is achieved by processes that hold people accountable for harms to others. Its focus is on flesh-and-blood human beings, not abstractions like all men or blacks versus whites. Differences in outcomes are not just or unjust, by this point of view, what is important is that the processes are just. These processes should focus on institutional incentives of participants. Reforms should be careful not to upset important incentive structures which have evolved over time as the best way for limited human beings to coordinate behavior.

The “Quest for Cosmic Justice,” on the other hand, flows from the unconstrained vision. Cosmic justice sees disparities between abstract groups, like whites and blacks, as unjust and in need of correction. If results from impartial processes like markets or law result in disparities, those with an unconstrained vision often see those processes as themselves racist. The conclusion is that the law should intervene to create better outcomes. This presumes considerable knowledge and morality on behalf of those who are in charge of the interventions. 

For Sowell, a large part of his research project has been showing that those with the unconstrained vision often harm those they are proclaiming the intention to help in their quest for cosmic justice. 

A Constrained Vision of Racial Justice

Sowell has written quite a lot on race, culture, intellectuals, economics, and public policy. One of the main thrusts of his argument about race is that attempts at cosmic justice often harm living flesh-and-blood individuals in the name of intertemporal abstractions like “social justice” for black Americans. Sowell nowhere denies that racism is an important component of understanding the history of black Americans. But his constant challenge is that racism can’t be the only variable which explains disparities. Sowell points to the importance of culture and education in building human capital to be successful in market economies. Without taking those other variables into account, there is no way to determine the extent that racism is the cause of disparities. 

This has important implications for achieving racial justice today. When it comes to policies pursued in the name of racial justice, Sowell has argued that many programs often harm not only members of disfavored groups, but the members of the favored groups.

For instance, Sowell has argued that affirmative action actually harms not only flesh-and-blood white and Asian-Americans who are passed over, but also harms those African-Americans who are “mismatched” in their educational endeavors and end up failing or dropping out of schools when they could have been much better served by attending schools where they would have been very successful. Another example Sowell often points to is minimum wage legislation, which is often justified in the name of helping the downtrodden, but has the effect of harming low-skilled workers by increasing unemployment, most especially young African-American males. 

Any attempts at achieving racial justice, in terms of correcting historical injustices, must take into account how changes in processes could actually end up hurting flesh-and-blood human beings, especially when those harmed are black Americans. 

A Positive Agenda for Policy Reform

In Sowell’s constrained vision, a large part of the equation for African-American improvement is going to be cultural change. However, white Americans should not think that this means they have no responsibility in working towards racial justice. A positive agenda must take into consideration real harms experienced by African-Americans due to government action (and inaction). Thus, traditional justice demands institutional reforms, and in some cases, recompense.

The policy part of this equation outlined below is motivated by traditional justice concerns that hold people accountable under the rule of law for violations of constitutional rights and promotes institutional reforms to more properly align incentives. 

What follows below are policy proposals aimed at achieving a greater degree of racial justice for black Americans, but fundamentally informed by the constrained vision and traditional justice concerns outlined by Sowell. Most of these proposals are not on issues Sowell has written a lot on. In fact, some proposals may actually not be something he would support, but are—in my opinion—consistent with the constrained vision and traditional justice.

Reparations for Historical Rights Violations

Sowell once wrote this in regards to reparations for black Americans:

Nevertheless, it remains painfully clear that those people who were torn from their homes in Africa in centuries past and forcibly brought across the Atlantic in chains suffered not only horribly, but unjustly. Were they and their captors still alive, the reparations and retribution owed would be staggering. Time and death, however, cheat us of such opportunities for justice, however galling that may be. We can, of course, create new injustices among our flesh-and-blood contemporaries for the sake of symbolic expiation, so that the son or daughter of a black doctor or executive can get into an elite college ahead of the son or daughter of a white factory worker or farmer, but only believers in the vision of cosmic justice are likely to take moral solace from that. We can only make our choices among alternatives actually available, and rectifying the past is not one of those options.

In other words, if the victims and perpetrators of injustice are no longer alive, it is not just to hold entire members of respective races accountable for crimes which they did not commit. However, this would presumably leave open the possibility of applying traditional justice concepts in those cases where death has not cheated us.

For instance, there are still black Americans alive who suffered from Jim Crow, as well as children and family members of those lynched. While it is too little, too late, it seems consistent with traditional justice to still seek out and prosecute criminally perpetrators who committed heinous acts but a few generations ago against still living victims. This is not unprecedented. Old Nazis are still prosecuted for crimes against Jews. A similar thing could be done in the United States.

Similarly, civil rights lawsuits for the damages caused by Jim Crow could be another way to recompense those who were harmed. Alternatively, it could be done by legislation. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed under President Reagan and gave living Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II some limited reparations. A similar system could be set up for living victims of Jim Crow. 

Statutes of limitations may need to be changed to facilitate these criminal prosecutions and civil rights lawsuits, but it is quite clearly consistent with the idea of holding flesh-and-blood persons accountable for their unlawful actions.

Holding flesh-and-blood perpetrators accountable for rights violations should not be confused with the cosmic justice idea—that Sowell consistently decries—that says intertemporal abstractions can be held accountable for crimes. In other words, this is not holding “whites” accountable for all historical injustices to “blacks.” This is specifically giving redress to victims and deterring future bad conduct.  

End Qualified Immunity

Another way to promote racial justice consistent with the constrained vision is to end one of the Warren Court’s egregious examples of judicial activism: qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is nowhere mentioned in the statute for civil rights, 42 USC § 1983. As Sowell argues in his writings, judges in the constrained vision are supposed to declare what the law is, not what they believe it should be, unlike those in the unconstrained vision who—according to Sowell— believe they have the right to amend the laws through judicial edict. The introduction of qualified immunity into the law by the activist Warren Court should be overturned.

Currently, qualified immunity effectively subsidizes police brutality, to the detriment of all Americans, but disproportionately affecting black Americans. The law & economics case against qualified immunity is pretty straightforward: 

In a civil rights lawsuit, the goal is to make the victim (or their families) of a rights violation whole by monetary damages. From a legal perspective, this is necessary to give the victim justice. From an economic perspective this is necessary to deter future bad conduct and properly align ex ante incentives going forward. Under a well-functioning system, juries would, after hearing all the evidence, make a decision about whether constitutional rights were violated and the extent of damages. A functioning system of settlements would result as a common law develops determining what counts as reasonable or unreasonable uses of force. This doesn’t mean plaintiffs always win, either. Officers may be determined to be acting reasonably under the circumstances once all the evidence is presented to a jury.

However, one of the greatest obstacles to holding police officers accountable in misconduct cases is the doctrine of qualified immunity… courts have widely expanded its scope to the point that qualified immunity is now protecting officers even when their conduct violates the law, as long as the officers weren’t on clear notice from specific judicial precedent that what they did was illegal when they did it… This standard has predictably led to a situation where officer misconduct which judges and juries would likely find egregious never makes it to court. The Cato Institute’s website Unlawful Shield details many cases where federal courts found an officer’s conduct was illegal yet nonetheless protected by qualified immunity.

Immunity of this nature has profound consequences on the incentive structure facing police officers. Police officers, as well as the departments that employ them, are insufficiently accountable when gross misconduct does not get past a motion to dismiss for qualified immunity… The result is to encourage police officers to take insufficient care when making the choice about the level of force to use. 

Those with a constrained vision focus on processes and incentives. In this case, it is police officers who have insufficient incentives to take reasonable care when they receive qualified immunity for their conduct.

End the Drug War

While not something he has written a lot on, Sowell has argued for the decriminalization of drugs, comparing the War on Drugs to the earlier attempts at Prohibition of alcohol. This is consistent with the constrained vision, which cares about the institutional incentives created by law. 

Interestingly, work by Michelle Alexander in the second chapter of The New Jim Crow is largely consistent with Sowell’s point of view. There she argued the institutional incentives of police departments were systematically changed when the drug war was ramped up. 

Alexander asks a question which is right in line with the constrained vision:

[I]t is fair to wonder why the police would choose to arrest such an astonishing percentage of the American public for minor drug crimes. The fact that police are legally allowed to engage in a wholesale roundup of nonviolent drug offenders does not answer the question why they would choose to do so, particularly when most police departments have far more serious crimes to prevent and solve. Why would police prioritize drug-law enforcement? Drug use and abuse is nothing new; in fact, it was on the decline, not on the rise, when the War on Drugs began.

Alexander locates the impetus for ramping up the drug war in federal subsidies:

In 1988, at the behest of the Reagan administration, Congress revised the program that provides federal aid to law enforcement, renaming it the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program after a New York City police officer who was shot to death while guarding the home of a drug-case witness. The Byrne program was designed to encourage every federal grant recipient to help fight the War on Drugs. Millions of dollars in federal aid have been offered to state and local law enforcement agencies willing to wage the war. By the late 1990s, the overwhelming majority of state and local police forces in the country had availed themselves of the newly available resources and added a significant military component to buttress their drug-war operations. 

On top of that, police departments were benefited by civil asset forfeiture:

As if the free military equipment, training, and cash grants were not enough, the Reagan administration provided law enforcement with yet another financial incentive to devote extraordinary resources to drug law enforcement, rather than more serious crimes: state and local law enforcement agencies were granted the authority to keep, for their own use, the vast majority of cash and assets they seize when waging the drug war. This dramatic change in policy gave state and local police an enormous stake in the War on Drugs—not in its success, but in its perpetual existence. Suddenly, police departments were capable of increasing the size of their budgets, quite substantially, simply by taking the cash, cars, and homes of people suspected of drug use or sales. Because those who were targeted were typically poor or of moderate means, they often lacked the resources to hire an attorney or pay the considerable court costs. As a result, most people who had their cash or property seized did not challenge the government’s action, especially because the government could retaliate by filing criminal charges—baseless or not.

As Alexander notes, black Americans (and other minorities) were largely targeted in this ramped up War on Drugs, noting the drug war’s effects have been to disproportionately imprison black Americans even though drug usage and sales are relatively similar across races. Police officers have incredible discretion in determining who to investigate and bring charges against. When it comes to the drug war, this discretion is magnified because the activity is largely consensual, meaning officers can’t rely on victims to come to them to start an investigation. Alexander finds the reason the criminal justice system has targeted black Americans is because of implicit bias in police officers, prosecutors, and judges, which mirrors the bias shown in media coverage and in larger white American society. 

Anyone inspired by Sowell would need to determine whether this is because of racism or some other variable. It is important to note here that Sowell never denies that racism exists or is a real problem in American society. But he does challenge us to determine whether this alone is the cause of disparities. Here, Alexander makes a strong case that it is implicit racism that causes the disparities in enforcement of the War on Drugs. A race-neutral explanation could be as follows, even though it still suggests ending the War on Drugs: the enforcement costs against those unable to afford to challenge the system are lower. And black Americans are disproportionately represented among the poor in this country. As will be discussed below in the section on reforming indigent criminal defense, most prosecutions are initiated against defendants who can’t afford a lawyer. The result could be racially disparate even without a racist motivation. 

Regardless of whether racism is the variable that explains the disparate impact of the War on Drugs, it should be ended. This may be an area where traditional and cosmic justice concerns can be united in an effort to reform the criminal justice system.

Reform Indigent Criminal Defense

A related aspect of how the criminal justice system has created a real barrier for far too many black Americans is the often poor quality of indigent criminal defense. Indigent defense is a large part of criminal defense in this country since a very high number of criminal prosecutions are initiated against those who are often too poor to afford a lawyer (roughly 80%). Since black Americans are disproportionately represented among the indigent and those in the criminal justice system, it should be no surprise that black Americans are disproportionately represented by public defenders in this country.

According to the constrained vision, it is important to look at the institutional incentives of public defenders. Considering the extremely high societal costs of false convictions, it is important to get these incentives right.

David Friedman and Stephen Schulhofer’s seminal article exploring the law & economics of indigent criminal defense highlighted the conflict of interest inherent in government choosing who represents criminal defendants when the government is in charge of prosecuting. They analyzed each of the models used in the United States for indigent defense from an economic point of view and found each wanting. On top of that, there is also a calculation problem inherent in government-run public defender’s offices whereby defendants may be systematically deprived of viable defense strategies because of a lack of price signals. 

An interesting alternative proposed by Friedman and Schulhofer is a voucher system. This is similar to the voucher system Sowell has often touted for education. The idea would be that indigent criminal defendants get to pick the lawyer of their choosing that is part of the voucher program. The government would subsidize the provision of indigent defense, in this model, but would not actually pick the lawyer or run the public defender organization. Incentives would be more closely aligned between the defendant and counsel. 

Conclusion

While much more could be said consistent with the constrained vision that could help flesh-and-blood black Americans, including abolishing occupational licensing, ending wage controls, promoting school choice, and ending counterproductive welfare policies, this is enough for now. Racial justice demands holding rights violators accountable and making victims whole. Racial justice also means reforming institutions to make sure incentives are right to deter conduct which harms black Americans. However, the growing desire to do something to promote racial justice in this country should not fall into the trap of cosmic justice thinking, which often ends up hurting flesh-and-blood people of all races in the present in the name of intertemporal abstractions. 

Happy 90th birthday to one of the greatest law & economics scholars ever, Dr. Thomas Sowell. 

Twitter’s decision to begin fact-checking the President’s tweets caused a long-simmering distrust between conservatives and online platforms to boil over late last month. This has led some conservatives to ask whether Section 230, the ‘safe harbour’ law that protects online platforms from certain liability stemming from content posted on their websites by users, is allowing online platforms to unfairly target conservative speech. 

In response to Twitter’s decision, along with an Executive Order released by the President that attacked Section 230, Senator Josh Hawley (R – MO) offered a new bill targeting online platforms, the “Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act”. This would require online platforms to engage in “good faith” moderation according to clearly stated terms of service – in effect, restricting Section 230’s protections to online platforms deemed to have done enough to moderate content ‘fairly’.  

While seemingly a sensible standard, if enacted, this approach would violate the First Amendment as an unconstitutional condition to a government benefit, thereby  undermining long-standing conservative principles and the ability of conservatives to be treated fairly online. 

There is established legal precedent that Congress may not grant benefits on conditions that violate Constitutionally-protected rights. In Rumsfeld v. FAIR, the Supreme Court stated that a law that withheld funds from universities that did not allow military recruiters on campus would be unconstitutional if it constrained those universities’ First Amendment rights to free speech. Since the First Amendment protects the right to editorial discretion, including the right of online platforms to make their own decisions on moderation, Congress may not condition Section 230 immunity on platforms taking a certain editorial stance it has dictated. 

Aware of this precedent, the bill attempts to circumvent the obstacle by taking away Section 230 immunity for issues unrelated to anti-conservative bias in moderation. Specifically, Senator Hawley’s bill attempts to condition immunity for platforms on having terms of service for content moderation, and making them subject to lawsuits if they do not act in “good faith” in policing them. 

It’s not even clear that the bill would do what Senator Hawley wants it to. The “good faith” standard only appears to apply to the enforcement of an online platform’s terms of service. It can’t, under the First Amendment, actually dictate what those terms of service say. So an online platform could, in theory, explicitly state in their terms of service that they believe some forms of conservative speech are “hate speech” they will not allow.

Mandating terms of service on content moderation is arguably akin to disclosures like labelling requirements, because it makes clear to platforms’ customers what they’re getting. There are, however, some limitations under the commercial speech doctrine as to what government can require. Under National Institute of Family & Life Advocates v. Becerra, a requirement for terms of service outlining content moderation policies would be upheld unless “unjustified or unduly burdensome.” A disclosure mandate alone would not be unconstitutional. 

But it is clear from the statutory definition of “good faith” that Senator Hawley is trying to overwhelm online platforms with lawsuits on the grounds that they have enforced these rules selectively and therefore not in “good faith”.

These “selective enforcement” lawsuits would make it practically impossible for platforms to moderate content at all, because they would open them up to being sued for any moderation, including moderation  completely unrelated to any purported anti-conservative bias. Any time a YouTuber was aggrieved about a video being pulled down as too sexually explicit, for example, they could file suit and demand that Youtube release information on whether all other similarly situated users were treated the same way. Any time a post was flagged on Facebook, for example for engaging in online bullying or for spreading false information, it could similarly lead to the same situation. 

This would end up requiring courts to act as the arbiter of decency and truth in order to even determine whether online platforms are “selectively enforcing” their terms of service.

Threatening liability for all third-party content is designed to force online platforms to give up moderating content on a perceived political basis. The result will be far less content moderation on a whole range of other areas. It is precisely this scenario that Section 230 was designed to prevent, in order to encourage platforms to moderate things like pornography that would otherwise proliferate on their sites, without exposing themselves to endless legal challenge.

It is likely that this would be unconstitutional as well. Forcing online platforms to choose between exercising their First Amendment rights to editorial discretion and retaining the benefits of Section 230 is exactly what the “unconstitutional conditions” jurisprudence is about. 

This is why conservatives have long argued the government has no business compelling speech. They opposed the “fairness doctrine” which required that radio stations provide a “balanced discussion”, and in practice allowed courts or federal agencies to determine content  until President Reagan overturned it. Later, President Bush appointee and then-FTC Chairman Tim Muris rejected a complaint against Fox News for its “Fair and Balanced” slogan, stating:

I am not aware of any instance in which the Federal Trade Commission has investigated the slogan of a news organization. There is no way to evaluate this petition without evaluating the content of the news at issue. That is a task the First Amendment leaves to the American people, not a government agency.

And recently conservatives were arguing businesses like Masterpiece Cakeshop should not be compelled to exercise their First Amendment rights against their will. All of these cases demonstrate once the state starts to try to stipulate what views can and cannot be broadcast by private organisations, conservatives will be the ones who suffer.

Senator Hawley’s bill fails to acknowledge this. Worse, it fails to live up to the Constitution, and would trample over the rights to freedom of speech that it gives. Conservatives should reject it.

Yet another sad story was caught on camera this week showing a group of police officers killing an unarmed African-American man named George Floyd. While the officers were fired from the police department, there is still much uncertainty about what will happen next to hold those officers accountable as a legal matter. 

A well-functioning legal system should protect the constitutional rights of American citizens to be free of unreasonable force from police officers, while also allowing police officers the ability to do their jobs safely and well. In theory, civil rights lawsuits are supposed to strike that balance.

In a civil rights lawsuit, the goal is to make the victim (or their families) of a rights violation whole by monetary damages. From a legal perspective, this is necessary to give the victim justice. From an economic perspective this is necessary to deter future bad conduct and properly align ex ante incentives going forward. Under a well-functioning system, juries would, after hearing all the evidence, make a decision about whether constitutional rights were violated and the extent of damages. A functioning system of settlements would result as a common law develops determining what counts as reasonable or unreasonable uses of force. This doesn’t mean plaintiffs always win, either. Officers may be determined to be acting reasonably under the circumstances once all the evidence is presented to a jury.

However, one of the greatest obstacles to holding police officers accountable in misconduct cases is the doctrine of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity started as a mechanism to protect officers from suit when they acted in “good faith.” Over time, though, the doctrine has evolved away from a subjective test based upon the actor’s good faith to an objective test based upon notice in judicial precedent. As a result, courts have widely expanded its scope to the point that qualified immunity is now protecting officers even when their conduct violates the law, as long as the officers weren’t on clear notice from specific judicial precedent that what they did was illegal when they did it. In the words of the Supreme Court, qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” 

This standard has predictably led to a situation where officer misconduct which judges and juries would likely find egregious never makes it to court. The Cato Institute’s website Unlawful Shield details many cases where federal courts found an officer’s conduct was illegal yet nonetheless protected by qualified immunity.

Immunity of this nature has profound consequences on the incentive structure facing police officers. Police officers, as well as the departments that employ them, are insufficiently accountable when gross misconduct does not get past a motion to dismiss for qualified immunity. On top of that, the regular practice of governments is to indemnify officers even when there is a settlement or a judgment. The result is to encourage police officers to take insufficient care when making the choice about the level of force to use. 

Economics 101 makes a clear prediction: When unreasonable uses of force are not held accountable, you get more unreasonable uses of force. Unfortunately, the news continues to illustrate the accuracy of this prediction.

In the wake of the launch of Facebook’s content oversight board, Republican Senator Josh Hawley and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, among others, have taken to Twitter to levy criticisms at the firm and, in the process, demonstrate just how far the Right has strayed from its first principles around free speech and private property. For his part, Commissioner Carr’s thread makes the case that the members of the board are highly partisan and mostly left-wing and can’t be trusted with the responsibility of oversight. While Senator Hawley took the approach that the Board’s very existence is just further evidence of the need to break Facebook up. 

Both Hawley and Carr have been lauded in rightwing circles, but in reality their positions contradict conservative notions of the free speech and private property protections given by the First Amendment.  

This blog post serves as a sequel to a post I wrote last year here at TOTM explaining how There’s nothing “conservative” about Trump’s views on free speech and the regulation of social media. As I wrote there:

I have noted in several places before that there is a conflict of visions when it comes to whether the First Amendment protects a negative or positive conception of free speech. For those unfamiliar with the distinction: it comes from philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who identified negative liberty as freedom from external interference, and positive liberty as freedom to do something, including having the power and resources necessary to do that thing. Discussions of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech often elide over this distinction.

With respect to speech, the negative conception of liberty recognizes that individual property owners can control what is said on their property, for example. To force property owners to allow speakers/speech on their property that they don’t desire would actually be a violation of their liberty — what the Supreme Court calls “compelled speech.” The First Amendment, consistent with this view, generally protects speech from government interference (with very few, narrow exceptions), while allowing private regulation of speech (again, with very few, narrow exceptions).

Commissioner Carr’s complaint and Senator Hawley’s antitrust approach of breaking up Facebook has much more in common with the views traditionally held by left-wing Democrats on the need for the government to regulate private actors in order to promote speech interests. Originalists and law & economics scholars, on the other hand, have consistently taken the opposite point of view that the First Amendment protects against government infringement of speech interests, including protecting the right to editorial discretion. While there is clearly a conflict of visions in First Amendment jurisprudence, the conservative (and, in my view, correct) point of view should not be jettisoned by Republicans to achieve short-term political gains.

The First Amendment restricts government action, not private action

The First Amendment, by its very text, only applies to government action: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” This applies to the “State[s]” through the Fourteenth Amendment. There is extreme difficulty in finding any textual hook to say the First Amendment protects against private action, like that of Facebook. 

Originalists have consistently agreed. Most recently, in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, Justice Kavanaugh—on behalf of the conservative bloc and the Court—wrote:

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment provides in relevant part that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment makes the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause applicable against the States: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . .” §1. The text and original meaning of those Amendments, as well as this Court’s longstanding precedents, establish that the Free Speech Clause prohibits only governmental abridgment of speech. The Free Speech Clause does not prohibit private abridgment of speech… In accord with the text and structure of the Constitution, this Court’s state-action doctrine distinguishes the government from individuals and private entities. By enforcing that constitutional boundary between the governmental and the private, the state-action doctrine protects a robust sphere of individual liberty. (Emphasis added).

This was true at the adoption of the First Amendment and remains true today in a high-tech world. Federal district courts have consistently dismissed First Amendment lawsuits against Facebook on the grounds there is no state action. 

For instance, in Nyawba v. Facebook, the plaintiff initiated a civil rights lawsuit against Facebook for restricting his use of the platform. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed the case, noting 

Because the First Amendment governs only governmental restrictions on speech, Nyabwa has not stated a cause of action against FaceBook… Like his free speech claims, Nyabwa’s claims for violation of his right of association and violation of his due process rights are claims that may be vindicated against governmental actors pursuant to § 1983, but not a private entity such as FaceBook.

Similarly, in Young v. Facebook, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California rejected a claim that Facebook violated the First Amendment by deactivating the plaintiff’s Facebook page. The court declined to subject Facebook to the First Amendment analysis, stating that “because Young has not alleged any action under color of state law, she fails to state a claim under § 1983.”

The First Amendment restricts antitrust actions against Facebook, not Facebook’s editorial discretion over its platform

Far from restricting Facebook, the First Amendment actually restricts government actions aimed at platforms like Facebook when they engage in editorial discretion by moderating content. If an antitrust plaintiff was to act on the impulse to “break up” Facebook because of alleged political bias in its editorial discretion, the lawsuit would be running headlong into the First Amendment’s protections.

There is no basis for concluding online platforms do not have editorial discretion under the law. In fact, the position of Facebook here is very similar to the newspaper in Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, in which the Supreme Court considered a state law giving candidates for public office a right to reply in newspapers to editorials written about them. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the statute, finding it furthered the “broad societal interest in the free flow of information to the public.” The U.S. Supreme Court, despite noting the level of concentration in the newspaper industry, nonetheless reversed. The Court explicitly found the newspaper had a First Amendment right to editorial discretion:

The choice of material to go into a newspaper, and the decisions made as to limitations on the size and content of the paper, and treatment of public issues and public officials — whether fair or unfair — constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment. It has yet to be demonstrated how governmental regulation of this crucial process can be exercised consistent with First Amendment guarantees of a free press as they have evolved to this time. 

Online platforms have the same First Amendment protections for editorial discretion. For instance, in both Search King v. Google and Langdon v. Google, two different federal district courts ruled Google’s search results are subject to First Amendment protections, both citing Tornillo

In Zhang v. Baidu.com, another district court went so far as to grant a Chinese search engine the right to editorial discretion in limiting access to democracy movements in China. The court found that the search engine “inevitably make[s] editorial judgments about what information (or kinds of information) to include in the results and how and where to display that information.” Much like the search engine in Zhang, Facebook is clearly making editorial judgments about what information shows up in newsfeed and where to display it. 

None of this changes because the generally applicable law is antitrust rather than some other form of regulation. For instance, in Tornillo, the Supreme Court took pains to distinguish the case from an earlier antitrust case against newspapers, Associated Press v. United States, which found that there was no broad exemption from antitrust under the First Amendment.

The Court foresaw the problems relating to government-enforced access as early as its decision in Associated Press v. United States, supra. There it carefully contrasted the private “compulsion to print” called for by the Association’s bylaws with the provisions of the District Court decree against appellants which “does not compel AP or its members to permit publication of anything which their `reason’ tells them should not be published.”

In other words, the Tornillo and Associated Press establish the government may not compel speech through regulation, including an antitrust remedy. 

Once it is conceded that there is a speech interest here, the government must justify the use of antitrust law to compel Facebook to display the speech of users in the newsfeeds of others under the strict scrutiny test of the First Amendment. In other words, the use of antitrust law must be narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest. Even taking for granted that there may be a compelling government interest in facilitating a free and open platform (which is by no means certain), it is clear that this would not be narrowly tailored action. 

First, “breaking up” Facebook is clearly overbroad as compared to the goal of promoting free speech on the platform. There is no need to break it up just because it has an Oversight Board that engages in editorial responsibilities. There are many less restrictive means, including market competition, which has greatly expanded consumer choice for communications and connections. Second, antitrust does not even really have a remedy for free speech issues complained of here, as it would require courts to engage in long-term oversight and engage in compelled speech foreclosed by Associated Press

Note that this makes good sense from a law & economics perspective. Platforms like Facebook should be free to regulate the speech on their platforms as they see fit and consumers are free to decide which platforms they wish to use based upon that information. While there are certainly network effects to social media, the plethora of options currently available with low switching costs suggests that there is no basis for antitrust action against Facebook because consumers are unable to speak. In other words, the least restrictive means test of the First Amendment is best fulfilled by market competition in this case.

If there were a basis for antitrust intervention against Facebook, either through merger review or as a standalone monopoly claim, the underlying issue would be harm to competition. While this would have implications for speech concerns (which may be incorporated into an analysis through quality-adjusted price), it is inconceivable how an antitrust remedy could be formed on speech issues consistent with the First Amendment. 

Conclusion

Despite now well-worn complaints by so-called conservatives in and out of the government about the baneful influence of Facebook and other Big Tech companies, the First Amendment forecloses government actions to violate the editorial discretion of these companies. Even if Commissioner Carr is right, this latest call for antitrust enforcement against Facebook by Senator Hawley should be rejected for principled conservative reasons.

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

This post is authored by Ben Sperry, (Associate Director, Legal Research, International Center for Law & Economics).]

The visceral reaction to the New York Times’ recent story on Matt Colvin, the man who had 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer with nowhere to sell them, shows there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of prices and the informational function they serve in the economy. Calls to enforce laws against “price gouging” may actually prove more harmful to consumers and society than allowing prices to rise (or fall, of course) in response to market conditions. 

Nobel-prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek explained how price signals serve as information that allows for coordination in a market society:

We must look at the price system as such a mechanism for communicating information if we want to understand its real function… The most significant fact about this system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action. In abbreviated form, by a kind of symbol, only the most essential information is passed on and passed on only to those concerned. It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as a kind of machinery for registering change, or a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement.

Economic actors don’t need a PhD in economics or even to pay attention to the news about the coronavirus to change their behavior. Higher prices for goods or services alone give important information to individuals — whether consumers, producers, distributors, or entrepreneurs — to conserve scarce resources, produce more, and look for (or invest in creating!) alternatives.

Prices are fundamental to rationing scarce resources, especially during an emergency. Allowing prices to rapidly rise has three salutary effects (as explained by Professor Michael Munger in his terrific twitter thread):

  1. Consumers ration how much they really need;
  2. Producers respond to the rising prices by ramping up supply and distributors make more available; and
  3. Entrepreneurs find new substitutes in order to innovate around bottlenecks in the supply chain. 

Despite the distaste with which the public often treats “price gouging,” officials should take care to ensure that they don’t prevent these three necessary responses from occurring. 

Rationing by consumers

During a crisis, if prices for goods that are in high demand but short supply are forced to stay at pre-crisis levels, the informational signal of a shortage isn’t given — at least by the market directly. This encourages consumers to buy more than is rationally justified under the circumstances. This stockpiling leads to shortages. 

Companies respond by rationing in various ways, like instituting shorter hours or placing limits on how much of certain high-demand goods can be bought by any one consumer. Lines (and unavailability), instead of price, become the primary cost borne by consumers trying to obtain the scarce but underpriced goods. 

If, instead, prices rise in light of the short supply and high demand, price-elastic consumers will buy less, freeing up supply for others. And, critically, price-inelastic consumers (i.e. those who most need the good) will be provided a better shot at purchase.

According to the New York Times story on Mr. Colvin, he focused on buying out the hand sanitizer in rural areas of Tennessee and Kentucky, since the major metro areas were already cleaned out. His goal was to then sell these hand sanitizers (and other high-demand goods) online at market prices. He was essentially acting as a speculator and bringing information to the market (much like an insider trader). If successful, he would be coordinating supply and demand between geographical areas by successfully arbitraging. This often occurs when emergencies are localized, like post-Katrina New Orleans or post-Irma Florida. In those cases, higher prices induced suppliers to shift goods and services from around the country to the affected areas. Similarly, here Mr. Colvin was arguably providing a beneficial service, by shifting the supply of high-demand goods from low-demand rural areas to consumers facing localized shortages. 

For those who object to Mr. Colvin’s bulk purchasing-for-resale scheme, the answer is similar to those who object to ticket resellers: the retailer should raise the price. If the Walmarts, Targets, and Dollar Trees raised prices or rationed supply like the supermarket in Denmark, Mr. Colvin would not have been able to afford nearly as much hand sanitizer. (Of course, it’s also possible — had those outlets raised prices — that Mr. Colvin would not have been able to profitably re-route the excess local supply to those in other parts of the country most in need.)

The role of “price gouging” laws and social norms

A common retort, of course, is that Colvin was able to profit from the pandemic precisely because he was able to purchase a large amount of stock at normal retail prices, even after the pandemic began. Thus, he was not a producer who happened to have a restricted amount of supply in the face of new demand, but a mere reseller who exacerbated the supply shortage problems.

But such an observation truncates the analysis and misses the crucial role that social norms against “price gouging” and state “price gouging” laws play in facilitating shortages during a crisis.

Under these laws, typically retailers may raise prices by at most 10% during a declared state of emergency. But even without such laws, brick-and-mortar businesses are tied to a location in which they are repeat players, and they may not want to take a reputational hit by raising prices during an emergency and violating the “price gouging” norm. By contrast, individual sellers, especially pseudonymous third-party sellers using online platforms, do not rely on repeat interactions to the same degree, and may be harder to track down for prosecution. 

Thus, the social norms and laws exacerbate the conditions that create the need for emergency pricing, and lead to outsized arbitrage opportunities for those willing to violate norms and the law. But, critically, this violation is only a symptom of the larger problem that social norms and laws stand in the way, in the first instance, of retailers using emergency pricing to ration scarce supplies.

Normally, third-party sales sites have much more dynamic pricing than brick and mortar outlets, which just tend to run out of underpriced goods for a period of time rather than raise prices. This explains why Mr. Colvin was able to sell hand sanitizer for prices much higher than retail on Amazon before the site suspended his ability to do so. On the other hand, in response to public criticism, Amazon, Walmart, eBay, and other platforms continue to crack down on third party “price-gouging” on their sites

But even PR-centric anti-gouging campaigns are not ultimately immune to the laws of supply and demand. Even Amazon.com, as a first party seller, ends up needing to raise prices, ostensibly as the pricing feedback mechanisms respond to cost increases up and down the supply chain. 

But without a willingness to allow retailers and producers to use the informational signal of higher prices, there will continue to be more extreme shortages as consumers rush to stockpile underpriced resources.

The desire to help the poor who cannot afford higher priced essentials is what drives the policy responses, but in reality no one benefits from shortages. Those who stockpile the in-demand goods are unlikely to be poor because doing so entails a significant upfront cost. And if they are poor, then the potential for resale at a higher price would be a benefit.

Increased production and distribution

During a crisis, it is imperative that spiking demand is met by increased production. Prices are feedback mechanisms that provide realistic estimates of demand to producers. Even if good-hearted producers forswearing the profit motive want to increase production as an act of charity, they still need to understand consumer demand in order to produce the correct amount. 

Of course, prices are not the only source of information. Producers reading the news that there is a shortage undoubtedly can ramp up their production. But even still, in order to optimize production (i.e., not just blindly increase output and hope they get it right), they need a feedback mechanism. Prices are the most efficient mechanism available for quickly translating the amount of social need (demand) for a given product to guarantee that producers do not undersupply the product  (leaving more people without than need the good), or oversupply the product (consuming more resources than necessary in a time of crisis). Prices, when allowed to adjust to actual demand, thus allow society to avoid exacerbating shortages and misallocating resources.

The opportunity to earn more profit incentivizes distributors all along the supply chain. Amazon is hiring 100,000 workers to help ship all the products which are being ordered right now. Grocers and retailers are doing their best to line the shelves with more in-demand food and supplies

Distributors rely on more than just price signals alone, obviously, such as information about how quickly goods are selling out. But even as retail prices stay low for consumers for many goods, distributors often are paying more to producers in order to keep the shelves full, as in the case of eggs. These are the relevant price signals for producers to increase production to meet demand.

For instance, hand sanitizer companies like GOJO and EO Products are ramping up production in response to known demand (so much that the price of isopropyl alcohol is jumping sharply). Farmers are trying to produce as much as is necessary to meet the increased orders (and prices) they are receiving. Even previously low-demand goods like beans are facing a boom time. These instances are likely caused by a mix of anticipatory response based on general news, as well as the slightly laggier price signals flowing through the supply chain. But, even with an “early warning” from the media, the manufacturers still need to ultimately shape their behavior with more precise information. This comes in the form of orders from retailers at increased frequencies and prices, which are both rising because of insufficient supply. In search of the most important price signal, profits, manufacturers and farmers are increasing production.

These responses to higher prices have the salutary effect of making available more of the products consumers need the most during a crisis. 

Entrepreneurs innovate around bottlenecks 

But the most interesting thing that occurs when prices rise is that entrepreneurs create new substitutes for in-demand products. For instance, distillers have started creating their own hand sanitizers

Unfortunately, however, government regulations on sales of distilled products and concerns about licensing have led distillers to give away those products rather than charge for them. Thus, beneficial as this may be, without the ability to efficiently price such products, not nearly as much will be produced as would otherwise be. The non-emergency price of zero effectively guarantees continued shortages because the demand for these free alternatives will far outstrip supply.

Another example is car companies in the US are now producing ventilators. The FDA waived regulations on the production of new ventilators after General Motors, Ford, and Tesla announced they would be willing to use idle production capacity for the production of ventilators.

As consumers demand more toilet paper, bottled water, and staple foods than can be produced quickly, entrepreneurs respond by refocusing current capabilities on these goods. Examples abound:

Without price signals, entrepreneurs would have far less incentive to shift production and distribution to the highest valued use. 

Conclusion

While stories like that of Mr. Colvin buying all of the hand sanitizer in Tennessee understandably bother people, government efforts to prevent prices from adjusting only impede the information sharing processes inherent in markets. 

If the concern is to help the poor, it would be better to pursue less distortionary public policy than arbitrarily capping prices. The US government, for instance, is currently considering a progressively tiered one-time payment to lower income individuals. 

Moves to create new and enforce existing “price-gouging” laws are likely to become more prevalent the longer shortages persist. Platforms will likely continue to receive pressure to remove “price-gougers,” as well. These policies should be resisted. Not only will these moves not prevent shortages, they will exacerbate them and push the sale of high-demand goods into grey markets where prices will likely be even higher. 

Prices are an important source of information not only for consumers, but for producers, distributors, and entrepreneurs. Short circuiting this signal will only be to the detriment of society.  

Since the LabMD decision, in which the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals told the FTC that its orders were unconstitutionally vague, the FTC has been put on notice that it needs to reconsider how it develops and substantiates its claims in data security enforcement actions brought under Section 5. 

Thus, on January 6, the FTC announced on its blog that it will have “New and improved FTC data security orders: Better guidance for companies, better protection for consumers.” However, the changes the Commission highlights only get to a small part of what we have previously criticized when it comes to their “common law” of data security (see here and here). 

While the new orders do list more specific requirements to help explain what the FTC believes is a “comprehensive data security program”, there is still no legal analysis in either the orders or the complaints that would give companies fair notice of what the law requires. Furthermore, nothing about the underlying FTC process has changed, which means there is still enormous pressure for companies to settle rather than litigate the contours of what “reasonable” data security practices look like. Thus, despite the Commission’s optimism, the recent orders and complaints do little to nothing to remedy the problems that plague the Commission’s data security enforcement program.

The changes

In his blog post, the director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC describes how new orders in data security enforcement actions are more specific, with one of the main goals being more guidance to businesses trying to follow the law.

Since the early 2000s, our data security orders had contained fairly standard language. For example, these orders typically required a company to implement a comprehensive information security program subject to a biennial outside assessment. As part of the FTC’s Hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century, we held a hearing in December 2018 that specifically considered how we might improve our data security orders. We were also mindful of the 11th Circuit’s 2018 LabMD decision, which struck down an FTC data security order as unenforceably vague.

Based on this learning, in 2019 the FTC made significant improvements to its data security orders. These improvements are reflected in seven orders announced this year against an array of diverse companies: ClixSense (pay-to-click survey company), i-Dressup (online games for kids), DealerBuilt (car dealer software provider), D-Link (Internet-connected routers and cameras), Equifax (credit bureau), Retina-X (monitoring app), and Infotrax (service provider for multilevel marketers)…

[T]he orders are more specific. They continue to require that the company implement a comprehensive, process-based data security program, and they require the company to implement specific safeguards to address the problems alleged in the complaint. Examples have included yearly employee training, access controls, monitoring systems for data security incidents, patch management systems, and encryption. These requirements not only make the FTC’s expectations clearer to companies, but also improve order enforceability.

Why the FTC’s data security enforcement regime fails to provide fair notice or develop law (and is not like the common law)

While these changes are long overdue, it is just one step in the direction of a much-needed process reform at the FTC in how it prosecutes cases with its unfairness authority, particularly in the realm of data security. It’s helpful to understand exactly why the historical failures of the FTC process are problematic in order to understand why the changes it is undertaking are insufficient.

For instance, Geoffrey Manne and I previously highlighted  the various ways the FTC’s data security consent order regime fails in comparison with the common law: 

In Lord Mansfield’s characterization, “the common law ‘does not consist of particular cases, but of general principles, which are illustrated and explained by those cases.’” Further, the common law is evolutionary in nature, with the outcome of each particular case depending substantially on the precedent laid down in previous cases. The common law thus emerges through the accretion of marginal glosses on general rules, dictated by new circumstances. 

The common law arguably leads to legal rules with at least two substantial benefits—efficiency and predictability or certainty. The repeated adjudication of inefficient or otherwise suboptimal rules results in a system that generally offers marginal improvements to the law. The incentives of parties bringing cases generally means “hard cases,” and thus judicial decisions that have to define both what facts and circumstances violate the law and what facts and circumstances don’t. Thus, a benefit of a “real” common law evolution is that it produces a body of law and analysis that actors can use to determine what conduct they can undertake without risk of liability and what they cannot. 

In the abstract, of course, the FTC’s data security process is neither evolutionary in nature nor does it produce such well-defined rules. Rather, it is a succession of wholly independent cases, without any precedent, narrow in scope, and binding only on the parties to each particular case. Moreover it is generally devoid of analysis of the causal link between conduct and liability and entirely devoid of analysis of which facts do not lead to liability. Like all regulation it tends to be static; the FTC is, after all, an enforcement agency, charged with enforcing the strictures of specific and little-changing pieces of legislation and regulation. For better or worse, much of the FTC’s data security adjudication adheres unerringly to the terms of the regulations it enforces with vanishingly little in the way of gloss or evolution. As such (and, we believe, for worse), the FTC’s process in data security cases tends to reject the ever-evolving “local knowledge” of individual actors and substitutes instead the inherently limited legislative and regulatory pronouncements of the past. 

By contrast, real common law, as a result of its case-by-case, bottom-up process, adapts to changing attributes of society over time, largely absent the knowledge and rent-seeking problems of legislatures or administrative agencies. The mechanism of constant litigation of inefficient rules allows the common law to retain a generally efficient character unmatched by legislation, regulation, or even administrative enforcement. 

Because the common law process depends on the issues selected for litigation and the effects of the decisions resulting from that litigation, both the process by which disputes come to the decision-makers’ attention, as well as (to a lesser extent, because errors will be corrected over time) the incentives and ability of the decision-maker to render welfare-enhancing decisions, determine the value of the common law process. These are decidedly problematic at the FTC.

In our analysis, we found the FTC’s process to be wanting compared to the institution of the common law. The incentives of the administrative complaint process put a relatively larger pressure on companies to settle data security actions brought by the FTC compared to private litigants. This is because the FTC can use its investigatory powers as a public enforcer to bypass the normal discovery process to which private litigants are subject, and over which independent judges have authority. 

In a private court action, plaintiffs can’t engage in discovery unless their complaint survives a motion to dismiss from the defendant. Discovery costs remain a major driver of settlements, so this important judicial review is necessary to make sure there is actually a harm present before putting those costs on defendants. 

Furthermore, the FTC can also bring cases in a Part III adjudicatory process which starts in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ) but is then appealable to the FTC itself. Former Commissioner Joshua Wright noted in 2013 that “in the past nearly twenty years… after the administrative decision was appealed to the Commission, the Commission ruled in favor of FTC staff. In other words, in 100 percent of cases where the ALJ ruled in favor of the FTC, the Commission affirmed; and in 100 percent of the cases in which the ALJ ruled against the FTC, the Commission reversed.” In other words, the FTC nearly always rules in favor of itself on appeal if the ALJ finds there is no case, as it did in LabMD. The combination of investigation costs before any complaint at all and the high likelihood of losing through several stages of litigation makes the intelligent business decision to simply agree to a consent decree.

The results of this asymmetrical process show the FTC has not really been building a common law. In all but two cases (Wyndham and LabMD), the companies who have been targeted for investigation by the FTC on data security enforcement have settled. We also noted how the FTC’s data security orders tended to be nearly identical from case-to-case, reflecting the standards of the FTC’s Safeguards Rule. Since the orders were giving nearly identical—and as LabMD found, vague—remedies in each case, it cannot be said there was a common law developing over time.  

What LabMD addressed and what it didn’t

In its decision, the Eleventh Circuit sidestepped fundamental substantive problems with the FTC’s data security practice (which we have made in both our scholarship and LabMD amicus brief) about notice or substantial injury. Instead, the court decided to assume the FTC had proven its case and focused exclusively on the remedy. 

We will assume arguendo that the Commission is correct and that LabMD’s negligent failure to design and maintain a reasonable data-security program invaded consumers’ right of privacy and thus constituted an unfair act or practice.

What the Eleventh Circuit did address, though, was that the remedies the FTC had been routinely applying to businesses through its data enforcement actions lacked the necessary specificity in order to be enforceable through injunctions or cease and desist orders.

In the case at hand, the cease and desist order contains no prohibitions. It does not instruct LabMD to stop committing a specific act or practice. Rather, it commands LabMD to overhaul and replace its data-security program to meet an indeterminable standard of reasonableness. This command is unenforceable. Its unenforceability is made clear if we imagine what would take place if the Commission sought the order’s enforcement…

The Commission moves the district court for an order requiring LabMD to show cause why it should not be held in contempt for violating the following injunctive provision:

[T]he respondent shall … establish and implement, and thereafter maintain, a comprehensive information security program that is reasonably designed to protect the security, confidentiality, and integrity of personal information collected from or about consumers…. Such program… shall contain administrative, technical, and physical safeguards appropriate to respondent’s size and complexity, the nature and scope of respondent’s activities, and the sensitivity of the personal information collected from or about consumers….

The Commission’s motion alleges that LabMD’s program failed to implement “x” and is therefore not “reasonably designed.” The court concludes that the Commission’s alleged failure is within the provision’s language and orders LabMD to show cause why it should not be held in contempt.

At the show cause hearing, LabMD calls an expert who testifies that the data-security program LabMD implemented complies with the injunctive provision at issue. The expert testifies that “x” is not a necessary component of a reasonably designed data-security program. The Commission, in response, calls an expert who disagrees. At this point, the district court undertakes to determine which of the two equally qualified experts correctly read the injunctive provision. Nothing in the provision, however, indicates which expert is correct. The provision contains no mention of “x” and is devoid of any meaningful standard informing the court of what constitutes a “reasonably designed” data-security program. The court therefore has no choice but to conclude that the Commission has not proven — and indeed cannot prove — LabMD’s alleged violation by clear and convincing evidence.

In other words, the Eleventh Circuit found that an order requiring a reasonable data security program is not specific enough to make it enforceable. This leaves questions as to whether the FTC’s requirement of a “reasonable data security program” is specific enough to survive a motion to dismiss and/or a fair notice challenge going forward.

Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a plaintiff must provide “a short and plain statement . . . showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), including “enough facts to state a claim . . . that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “[T]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements” will not suffice. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). In FTC v. D-Link, for instance, the Northern District of California dismissed the unfairness claims because the FTC did not sufficiently plead injury. 

[T]hey make out a mere possibility of injury at best. The FTC does not identify a single incident where a consumer’s financial, medical or other sensitive personal information has been accessed, exposed or misused in any way, or whose IP camera has been compromised by unauthorized parties, or who has suffered any harm or even simple annoyance and inconvenience from the alleged security flaws in the DLS devices. The absence of any concrete facts makes it just as possible that DLS’s devices are not likely to substantially harm consumers, and the FTC cannot rely on wholly conclusory allegations about potential injury to tilt the balance in its favor. 

The fair notice question wasn’t reached in LabMD, though it was in FTC v. Wyndham. But the Third Circuit did not analyze the FTC’s data security regime under the “ascertainable certainty” standard applied to agency interpretation of a statute.

Wyndham’s position is unmistakable: the FTC has not yet declared that cybersecurity practices can be unfair; there is no relevant FTC rule, adjudication or document that merits deference; and the FTC is asking the federal courts to interpret § 45(a) in the first instance to decide whether it prohibits the alleged conduct here. The implication of this position is similarly clear: if the federal courts are to decide whether Wyndham’s conduct was unfair in the first instance under the statute without deferring to any FTC interpretation, then this case involves ordinary judicial interpretation of a civil statute, and the ascertainable certainty standard does not apply. The relevant question is not whether Wyndham had fair notice of the FTC’s interpretation of the statute, but whether Wyndham had fair notice of what the statute itself requires.

In other words, Wyndham boxed itself into a corner arguing that they did not have fair notice that the FTC could bring a data security enforcement action against the under Section 5 unfairness. LabMD, on the other hand, argued they did not have fair notice as to how the FTC would enforce its data security standards. Cf. ICLE-Techfreedom Amicus Brief at 19. The Third Circuit even suggested that under an “ascertainable certainty” standard, the FTC failed to provide fair notice: “we agree with Wyndham that the guidebook could not, on its own, provide ‘ascertainable certainty’ of the FTC’s interpretation of what specific cybersecurity practices fail § 45(n).” Wyndham, 799 F.3d at 256 n.21

Most importantly, the Eleventh Circuit did not actually get to the issue of whether LabMD actually violated the law under the factual record developed in the case. This means there is still no caselaw (aside from the ALJ decision in this case) which would allow a company to learn what is and what is not reasonable data security, or what counts as a substantial injury for the purposes of Section 5 unfairness in data security cases. 

How FTC’s changes fundamentally fail to address its failures of process

The FTC’s new approach to its orders is billed as directly responsive to what the Eleventh Circuit did reach in the LabMD decision, but it leaves so much of what makes the process insufficient in place.

First, it is notable that while the FTC highlights changes to its orders, there is still a lack of legal analysis in the orders that would allow a company to accurately predict whether its data security practices are enough under the law. A listing of what specific companies under consent orders are required to do is helpful. But these consent decrees do not require companies to admit liability or contain anything close to the reasoning that accompanies court opinions or normal agency guidance on complying with the law. 

For instance, the general formulation in these 2019 orders is that the company must “establish, implement, and maintain a comprehensive information/software security program that is designed to protect the security, confidentiality, and integrity of such personal information. To satisfy this requirement, Respondent/Defendant must, at a minimum…” (emphasis added), followed by a list of pretty similar requirements with variation depending on the business. Even if a company does all of the listed requirements but a breach occurs, the FTC is not obligated to find the data security program was legally sufficient. There is no safe harbor or presumptive reasonableness that attaches even for the business subject to the order, nonetheless companies looking for guidance. 

While the FTC does now require more specific things, like “yearly employee training, access controls, monitoring systems for data security incidents, patch management systems, and encryption,” there is still no analysis on how to meet the standard of reasonableness the FTC relies upon. In other words, it is not clear that this new approach to orders does anything to increase fair notice to companies as to what the FTC requires under Section 5 unfairness.

Second, nothing about the underlying process has really changed. The FTC can still investigate and prosecute cases through administrative law courts with itself as initial court of appeal. This makes the FTC the police, prosecutor, and judge in its own case. In the case of LabMD, who actually won after many appeals, this process ended in bankruptcy. It is no surprise that since the LabMD decision, each of the FTC’s data security enforcement cases have been settled with consent orders, just as they were before the Eleventh Circuit opinion. 

Unfortunately, if the FTC really wants to evolve its data security process like the common law, it needs to engage in an actual common law process. Without caselaw on the facts necessary to establish substantial injury, “unreasonable” data security practices, and causation, there will continue to be more questions than answers about what the law requires. And without changes to the process, the FTC will continue to be able to strong-arm companies into consent decrees.

Every 5 years, Congress has to reauthorize the sunsetting provisions of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA). And the deadline for renewing the law is quickly approaching (Dec. 31). While sunsetting is, in the abstract, seemingly a good thing to ensure rules don’t become outdated, there are an interlocking set of interest groups who, generally speaking, only support reauthorizing the law because they are locked in a regulatory stalemate. STELA no longer represents an optimal outcome for many if not most of the affected parties. The time is now for finally allowing STELA to sunset, and using this occasion to further reform the underlying regulatory morass it is built upon.

Since the creation of STELA in 1988, much has changed in the marketplace. At the time of the 1992 Cable Act (the first year data from the FCC’s Video Competition Reports is available), cable providers served 95% of multichannel video subscribers. Now, the power of cable has waned to the extent that 2 of the top 4 multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) are satellite providers, without even considering the explosion in competition from online video distributors like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Given these developments, Congress should reconsider whether STELA is necessary at all, along with the whole complex regulatory structure undergirding it, and consider the relative simplicity with which copyright and antitrust law are capable of adequately facilitating the market for broadcast content negotiations. An approach building upon that contemplated in the bipartisan Modern Television Act of 2019 by Congressman Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-CA)—which would repeal the compulsory license/retransmission consent regime for both cable and satellite—would be a step in the right direction.

A brief history of STELA

STELA, originally known as the 1988 Satellite Home Viewer Act, was originally justified as necessary to promote satellite competition against incumbent cable networks and to give satellite companies stronger negotiating positions against network broadcasters. In particular, the goal was to give satellite providers the ability to transmit terrestrial network broadcasts to subscribers. To do this, this regulatory structure modified the Communications Act and the Copyright Act. 

With the 1988 Satellite Home Viewer Act, Congress created a compulsory license for satellite retransmissions under Section 119 of the Copyright Act. This compulsory license provision mandated, just as the Cable Act did for cable providers, that satellite would have the right to certain network broadcast content in exchange for a government-set price (despite the fact that local network affiliates don’t necessarily own the copyrights themselves). The retransmission consent provision requires satellite providers (and cable providers under the Cable Act) to negotiate with network broadcasters for the fee to be paid for the right to network broadcast content. 

Alternatively, broadcasters can opt to impose must-carry provisions on cable and satellite  in lieu of retransmission consent negotiations. These provisions require satellite and cable operators to carry many channels from network broadcasters in order to have access to their content. As ICLE President Geoffrey Manne explained to Congress previously:

The must-carry rules require that, for cable providers offering 12 or more channels in their basic tier, at least one-third of these be local broadcast retransmissions. The forced carriage of additional, less-favored local channels results in a “tax on capacity,” and at the margins causes a reduction in quality… In the end, must-carry rules effectively transfer significant programming decisions from cable providers to broadcast stations, to the detriment of consumers… Although the ability of local broadcasters to opt in to retransmission consent in lieu of must-carry permits negotiation between local broadcasters and cable providers over the price of retransmission, must-carry sets a floor on this price, ensuring that payment never flows from broadcasters to cable providers for carriage, even though for some content this is surely the efficient transaction.

The essential question about the reauthorization of STELA regards the following provisions: 

  1. an exemption from retransmission consent requirements for satellite operators for the carriage of distant network signals to “unserved households” while maintaining the compulsory license right for those signals (modification of the compulsory license/retransmission consent regime);
  2. the prohibition on exclusive retransmission consent contracts between MVPDs and network broadcasters (per se ban on a business model); and
  3. the requirement that television broadcast stations and MVPDs negotiate in good faith (nebulous negotiating standard reviewed by FCC).

This regulatory scheme was supposed to sunset after 5 years. Instead of actually sunsetting, Congress has consistently reauthorized STELA ( in 1994, 1999, 2004, 2010, and 2014).

Each time, satellite companies like DirecTV & Dish Network, as well as interest groups representing rural customers who depend heavily on satellite for cable television, strongly supported the renewal of the legislation. Over time, though, the reauthorization has led to amendments supported by major players from each side of the negotiating table and broad support for what is widely considered “must-pass” legislation. In other words, every affected industry found something they liked about the compromise legislation.

As it stands, the sunset provision of STELA has meant that it gives each side negotiating leverage during the next round of reauthorization talks, and often concessions are drawn. But rather than simplifying this regulatory morass, STELA reauthorization simply extends rules that have outlived their purpose.

Current marketplace competition undermines the necessity of STELA reauthorization

The marketplace is very different in 2019 than it was when STELA’s predecessors were adopted and reauthorized. No longer is it the case that cable dominates and that satellite and other providers need a leg up just to compete. Moreover, there are now services that didn’t even exist when the STELA framework was first developed. Competition is thriving.

Wikipedia:

RankServiceSubscribersProviderType
1.Xfinity21,986,000ComcastCable
2.DirecTV19,222,000AT&TSatellite
3.Spectrum16,606,000CharterCable
4.Dish9,905,000Dish NetworkSatellite
5.Verizon Fios TV4,451,000VerizonFiber-Optic
6.Cox Cable TV4,015,000Cox EnterprisesCable
7.U-Verse TV3,704,000AT&TFiber-Optic
8.Optimum/Suddenlink3,307,500Altice USACable
9.Sling TV*2,417,000Dish NetworkLive Streaming
10.Hulu with Live TV2,000,000Hulu(Disney, Comcast, AT&T)Live Streaming
11.DirecTV Now1,591,000AT&TLive Streaming
12.YouTube TV1,000,000Google(Alphabet)Live Streaming
13.Frontier FiOS838,000FrontierFiber-Optic
14.Mediacom776,000MediacomCable
15.PlayStation Vue500,000SonyLive Streaming
16.CableOne Cable TV326,423Cable OneCable
17.FuboTV250,000FuboTVLive Streaming

A 2018 accounting of the largest MVPDs by subscribers shows that satellite is 2 of the top 4, and that over-the-top services like Sling TV, Hulu with LiveTV, and YouTube TV are gaining significantly. And this does not even consider (non-live) streaming services such as Netflix (approximately 60 million US subscribers), Hulu (about 28 million US subscribers) and Amazon Prime Video (which has about 40 million users in the US). It is not clear from these numbers that satellite needs special rules in order to compete with cable, or that the complex regulatory regime underlying STELA is necessary anymore.

On the contrary, there seems to be a lot of reason to believe that content is king, and the market for the distribution of that content is thriving. Competition among platforms is intense, not only among MVPDs like Comcast, DirecTV, Charter, and Dish Network, but from streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and HBONow. Distribution networks heavily invest in exclusive content to attract consumers. There is no reason to think that we need selective forbearance from the byzantine regulations in this space in order to promote satellite adoption when satellite companies are just as good as any at contracting for high-demand content (for instance DirecTV with NFL Sunday Ticket). 

A better way forward: Streamlined regulation in the form of copyright and antitrust

As Geoffrey Manne said in his Congressional testimony on STELA reauthorization back in 2013: 

behind all these special outdated regulations are laws of general application that govern the rest of the economy: antitrust and copyright. These are better, more resilient rules. They are simple rules for a complex world. They will stand up far better as video technology evolves–and they don’t need to be sunsetted.

Copyright law establishes clearly defined rights, thereby permitting efficient bargaining between content owners and distributors. But under the compulsory license system, the copyright holders’ right to a performance license is fundamentally abridged. Retransmission consent normally requires fees to be paid for the content that MVPDs have available to them. But STELA exempts certain network broadcasts (“distant signals” for “unserved households”) from retransmission consent requirements. This reduces incentives to develop content subject to STELA, which at the margin harms both content creators and viewers. It also gives satellite an unfair advantage vis-a-vis cable in those cases it does not need to pay ever-rising retransmission consent fees. Ironically, it also reduces the incentive for satellite providers (DirecTV, at least) to work to provide local content to some rural consumers. Congress should reform the law to allow copyright holders to have their full rights under the Copyright Act again. Congress should also repeal the compulsory license and must-carry provisions that work at cross-purposes and allow true marketplace negotiations.

The initial allocation of property rights guaranteed under copyright law would allow for MVPDs, including satellite providers, to negotiate with copyright holders for content, and thereby realize a more efficient set of content distribution outcomes than is otherwise possible. Under the compulsory license/retransmission consent regime underlying both STELA and the Cable Act, the outcomes at best approximate those that would occur through pure private ordering but in most cases lead to economically inefficient results because of the thumb on the scale in favor of the broadcasters. 

In a similar way, just as copyright law provides a superior set of bargaining conditions for content negotiation, antitrust law provides a superior mechanism for policing potentially problematic conduct between the firms involved. Under STELA, the FCC polices transactions with a “good faith” standard. In an important sense, this ambiguous regulatory discretion provides little information to prospective buyers and sellers of licenses as to what counts as “good faith” negotiations (aside from the specific practices listed).

By contrast, antitrust law, guided by the consumer welfare standard and decades of case law, is designed both to deter potential anticompetitive foreclosure and also to provide a clear standard for firms engaged in the marketplace. The effect of relying on antitrust law to police competitive harms is — as the name of the standard suggest — a net increase in the welfare of consumers, the ultimate beneficiaries of a well functioning market. 

For instance, consider a hypothetical dispute between a network broadcaster and a satellite provider. Under the FCC’s “good faith” oversight, bargaining disputes, which are increasingly resulting in blackouts, are reviewed for certain negotiating practices deemed to be unfair, 47 CFR § 76.65(b)(1), and by a more general “totality of the circumstances” standard, 47 CFR § 76.65(b)(2). This is both over- and under-inclusive as the negotiating practices listed in (b)(1) may have procompetitive benefits in certain circumstances, and the (b)(2) totality of the circumstances standard is vague and ill-defined. By comparison, antitrust claims would be adjudicated through a foreseeable process with reference to a consumer welfare standard illuminated by economic evidence and case law.

If a satellite provider alleges anticompetitive foreclosure by a refusal to license, its claims would be subject to analysis under the Sherman Act. In order to prove its case, it would need to show that the network broadcaster has power in a properly defined market and is using that market power to foreclose competition by leveraging its ownership over network content to the detriment of consumer welfare. A court would then analyze whether this refusal of a duty to deal is a violation of antitrust law under the Trinko and Aspen Skiing standards. Economic evidence would need to be introduced that supports the allegation. 

And, critically, in this process, the defendants would be entitled to raise evidence in their case — both evidence suggesting that there was no foreclosure, as well as evidence of procompetitive justifications for decisions that otherwise may be considered foreclosure. Ultimately, a court, bound by established, nondiscretionary standards would weigh the evidence and make a determination. It is, of course, possible, that a review for “good faith” conduct could reach the correct result, but there is simply not a similarly rigorous process available to consistently push it in that direction.

The above-mentioned Modern Television Act of 2019 does represent a step in the right direction, as it would repeal the compulsory license/retransmission consent regime applied to both cable and satellite operators. However, it is imperfect as it does leave must carry requirements in place for local content and retains the “good faith” negotiating standard to be enforced by the FCC. 

Expiration is better than the status quo even if fundamental reform is not possible

Some scholars who have written on this issue, and very much agree that fundamental reform is needed, nonetheless argue that STELA should be renewed if more fundamental reforms like those described above can’t be achieved. For instance, George Ford recently wrote that 

With limited days left in the legislative calendar before STELAR expires, there is insufficient time for a sensible solution to this complex issue. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) has offered a “clean” STELAR reauthorization bill to maintain the status quo, which would provide Congress with some much-needed breathing room to begin tackling the gnarly issue of how broadcast signals can be both widely retransmitted and compensated. Congress and the Trump administration should welcome this opportunity.

However, even in a world without more fundamental reform, it is not clear that satellite needs distant signals in order to compete with cable. The number of “short markets”—i.e. those without access to all four local network broadcasts—implicated by the loss of distant signals is relatively few. Regardless of how bad the overall regulatory scheme needs to be updated, it makes no sense to continue to preserve STELA’s provisions that benefit satellite when it is no longer necessary on competition grounds.

Conclusion

Congress should not only let STELA sunset, but it should consider reforming the entire compulsory license/retransmission consent regime as the Modern Television Act of 2019 aims to do. In fact, reformers should look to go even further in repealing must-carry provisions and the good faith negotiating standard enforced by the FCC. Copyright and antitrust law are much better rules for this constantly evolving space than the current sector-specific rules. 

For previous work from ICLE on STELA see The Future of Video Marketplace Regulation (written testimony of ICLE President Geoffrey Manne from June 12, 2013) and Joint Comments of ICLE and TechFreedom, In the Matter of STELA Reauthorization and Video Programming Reform (March 19, 2014). 

Today, I filed a regulatory comment in the FTC’s COPPA Rule Review on behalf of the International Center for Law & Economics. Building on prior work, I argue the FTC’s 2013 amendments to the COPPA Rule should be repealed. 

The amendments ignored the purpose of COPPA by focusing on protecting children from online targeted advertising rather than protecting children from online predators, as the drafters had intended. The amendment to the definition of personal information to include “persistent identifiers” by themselves is inconsistent with the statute’s text. The legislative history is explicit in identifying the protection of children from online predators as a purpose of COPPA, but there is nothing in the statute or the legislative history that states a purpose is to protect children from online targeted advertising.

The YouTube enforcement action and the resulting compliance efforts by YouTube will make the monetization of children-friendly content very difficult. Video game creators, family vloggers, toy reviewers, children’s apps, and educational technology will all be implicated by the changes on YouTube’s platform. The economic consequences are easy to predict: there will likely be less zero-priced family-friendly content available.

The 2013 amendments have uncertain benefits to children’s privacy. While some may feel there is a benefit to having less targeted advertising towards children, there is also a cost in restricting the ability of children’s content creators to monetize their work. The FTC should not presume parents do not balance costs and benefits about protecting their children from targeted advertising and often choose to allow their kids to use YouTube and apps on devices they bought for them.

The full comments are here.

The Economists' Hour

John Maynard Keynes wrote in his famous General Theory that “[t]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” 

This is true even of those who wish to criticize the effect of economic thinking on society. In his new book, The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society,  New York Times economics reporter Binyamin Appelbaum aims to show that economists have had a detrimental effect on public policy. But the central irony of the Economists’ Hour is that in criticizing the influence of economists over policy, Appelbaum engages in a great deal of economic speculation himself. Appelbaum would discard the opinions of economists in favor of “the lessons of history,” but all he is left with is unsupported economic reasoning. 

Much of The Economists’ Hour is about the history of ideas. To his credit, Appelbaum does a fair job describing Anglo-American economic thought post-New Deal until the start of the 21st century. Part I mainly focuses on macroeconomics, detailing the demise of the Keynesian consensus and the rise of the monetarists and supply-siders. If the author were not so cynical about the influence of economists, he might have represented these changes in dominant economic paradigms as an example of how science progresses over time.  

Interestingly, Appelbaum often makes the case that the insights of economists have been incredibly beneficial. For instance, in the opening chapter, he describes how Milton Friedman (one of the main protagonists/antagonists of the book, depending on your point of view) and a band of economists (including Martin Anderson and Walter Oi) fought the military establishment and ended the draft. For that, I’m sure most of us born in the past fifty years would be thankful. One suspects that group includes Appelbaum, though he tries to find objections, claiming for example that “by making war more efficient and more remote from the lives of most Americans, the end of the draft may also have made war more likely.” 

Appelbaum also notes positively that economists, most prominently Alfred Kahn in the United States, led the charge in a largely beneficial deregulation of the airline and trucking industries in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

Yet, overall, it is clear that Appelbaum believes the “outsized” influence of economists over policymaking itself fails the cost-benefit analysis. Appelbaum focuses on the costs of listening too much to economists on antitrust law, trade and development, interest rates and currency, the use of cost-benefit analysis in regulation, and the deregulation of the financial services industry. He sees the deregulation of airlines and trucking as the height of the economists’ hour, and its close with the financial crisis of the late-2000s. His thesis is that (his interpretation of) economists’ notions of efficiency, their (alleged) lack of concern about distributional effects, and their (alleged) myopia has harmed society as their influence over policy has grown.

In his chapter on antitrust, for instance, Appelbaum admits that even though “[w]e live in a new era of giant corporations… there is little evidence consumers are suffering.” Appelbaum argues instead that lax antitrust enforcement has resulted in market concentration harmful to workers, democracy, and innovation. In order to make those arguments, he uncritically cites the work of economists and non-economist legal scholars that make economic claims. A closer inspection of each of these (economic) arguments suggests there is more to the story.

First, recent research questions the narrative that increasing market concentration has resulted in harm to consumers, workers, or society. In their recent paper, “The Industrial Revolution in Services,” Chang-Tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg of Princeton University argue that increasing concentration is primarily due to technological innovation in services, retail, and wholesale sectors. While there has been greater concentration at the national level, this has been accompanied by increased competition locally as national chains expanded to more local markets. Of note, employment has increased in the sectors where national concentration is rising.

The rise in national industry concentration in the US between 1977 and 2013 is driven by a new industrial revolution in three broad non-traded sectors: services, retail, and wholesale. Sectors where national concentration is rising have increased their share of employment, and the expansion is entirely driven by the number of local markets served by firms. Firm employment per market has either increased slightly at the MSA level, or decreased substantially at the county or establishment levels. In industries with increasing concentration, the expansion into more markets is more pronounced for the top 10% firms, but is present for the bottom 90% as well. These trends have not been accompanied by economy-wide concentration. Top U.S. firms are increasingly specialized in sectors with rising industry concentration, but their aggregate employment share has remained roughly stable. We argue that these facts are consistent with the availability of a new set of fixed-cost technologies that enable adopters to produce at lower marginal costs in all markets. We present a simple model of firm size and market entry to describe the menu of new technologies and trace its implications.

In other words, any increase in concentration has been sector-specific and primarily due to more efficient national firms expanding into local markets. This has been associated with lower prices for consumers and more employment opportunities for workers in those sectors.

Appelbaum also looks to Lina Khan’s law journal article, which attacks Amazon for allegedly engaging in predatory pricing, as an example of a new group of young scholars coming to the conclusion that there is a need for more antitrust scrutiny. But, as ICLE scholars Alec Stapp and Kristian Stout have pointed out, there is very little evidence Amazon is actually engaging in predatory pricing. Khan’s article is a challenge to the consensus on how to think about predatory pricing and consumer welfare, but her underlying economic theory is premised on Amazon having such a long time horizon that they can lose money on retail for decades (even though it has been profitable for some time), on the theory that someday down the line they can raise prices after they have run all retail competition out.

Second, Appelbaum argues that mergers and acquisitions in the technology sector, especially acquisitions by Google and Facebook of potential rivals, has decreased innovation. Appelbaum’s belief is that innovation is spurred when government forces dominant players “to make room” for future competition. Here he draws in part on claims by some economists that dominant firms sometimes engage in “killer acquisitions” — acquiring nascent competitors in order to reduce competition, to the detriment of consumer welfare. But a simple model of how that results in reduced competition must be balanced by a recognition that many companies, especially technology startups, are incentivized to innovate in part by the possibility that they will be bought out. As noted by the authors of the leading study on the welfare effects of alleged “killer acquisitions”,

“it is possible that the presence of an acquisition channel also has a positive effect on welfare if the prospect of entrepreneurial exit through acquisition (by an incumbent) spurs ex-ante innovation …. Whereas in our model entrepreneurs are born with a project and thus do not have to exert effort to come up with an idea, it is plausible that the prospect of later acquisition may motivate the origination of entrepreneurial ideas in the first place… If, on the other hand, killer acquisitions do increase ex-ante innovation, this potential welfare gain will have to be weighed against the ex-post efficiency loss due to reduced competition. Whether the former positive or the latter negative effect dominates will depend on the elasticity of the entrepreneur’s innovation response.”

This analysis suggests that a case-by-case review is necessary if antitrust plaintiffs can show evidence that harm to consumers is likely to occur due to a merger.. But shifting the burden to merging entities, as Applebaum seems to suggest, will come with its own costs. In other words, more economics is needed to understand this area, not less.

Third, Appelbaum’s few concrete examples of harm to consumers resulting from “lax antitrust enforcement” in the United States come from airline mergers and telecommunications. In both cases, he sees the increased attention from competition authorities in Europe compared to the U.S. at the explanation for better outcomes. Neither is a clear example of harm to consumers, nor can be used to show superior antitrust frameworks in Europe versus the United States.

In the case of airline mergers, Appelbaum argues the gains from deregulation of the industry have been largely given away due to poor antitrust enforcement and prices stopped falling, leading to a situation where “[f]or the first time since the dawn of aviation, it is generally cheaper to fly in Europe than in the United States.” This is hard to square with the data. 

As explained in a recent blog post on Truth on the Market by ICLE’s chief economist Eric Fruits: 

While the concentration and profits story fits the antitrust populist narrative, other observations run contrary to [this] conclusion. For example, airline prices, as measured by price indexes, show that changes in U.S. and EU airline prices have fairly closely tracked each other until 2014, when U.S. prices began dropping. Sure, airlines have instituted baggage fees, but the CPI includes taxes, fuel surcharges, airport, security, and baggage fees. It’s not obvious that U.S. consumers are worse off in the so-called era of rising concentration. 

In fact, one recent study, titled Are legacy airline mergers pro- or anti-competitive? Evidence from recent U.S. airline mergers takes it a step further. Data from legacy U.S. airline mergers appears to show they have resulted in pro-consumer benefits once quality-adjusted fares are taken into account:

Our main conclusion is simple: The recent legacy carrier mergers have been associated with pro-competitive outcomes. We find that, on average across all three mergers combined, nonstop overlap routes (on which both merging parties were present pre-merger) experienced statistically significant output increases and statistically insignificant nominal fare decreases relative to non-overlap routes. This pattern also holds when we study each of the three mergers individually. We find that nonstop overlap routes experienced statistically significant output and capacity increases following all three legacy airline mergers, with statistically significant nominal fare decreases following Delta/Northwest and American/USAirways mergers, and statistically insignificant nominal fare decreases following the United/Continental merger… 

One implication of our findings is that any fare increases that have been observed since the mergers were very unlikely to have been caused by the mergers. In particular, our results demonstrate pro-competitive output expansions on nonstop overlap routes indicating reductions in quality-adjusted fares and a lack of significant anti-competitive effects on connecting overlaps. Hence ,our results demonstrate consumer welfare gains on overlap routes, without even taking credit for the large benefits on non-overlap routes (due to new online service, improved service networks at airports, fleet reallocation, etc.). While some of our results indicate that passengers on non-overlap routes also benefited from the mergers, we leave the complete exploration of such network effects for future research.

In other words, neither part of Applebaum’s proposition, that Europe has cheaper fares and that concentration has led to worse outcomes for consumers in the United States, appears to be true. Perhaps the influence of economists over antitrust law in the United States has not been so bad after all.

Appelbaum also touts the lower prices for broadband in Europe as an example of better competition policy over telecommunications in Europe versus the United States. While prices are lower on average in Europe for broadband, this obfuscates distribution of prices depending on speed tiers. UPenn Professor Christopher Yoo’s 2014 study titled U.S. vs. European Broadband Deployment: What Do the Data Say? found:

U.S. broadband was cheaper than European broadband for all speed tiers below 12 Mbps. U.S. broadband was more expensive for higher speed tiers, although the higher cost was justified in no small part by the fact that U.S. Internet users on average consumed 50% more bandwidth than their European counterparts.

Population density also helps explain differences between Europe and the United States. The closer people are together, the easier it is to build out infrastructure like broadband Internet. The United States is considerably more rural than most European countries. As a result, consideration of prices and speed need to be adjusted to reflect those differences. For instance, the FCC’s 2018 International Broadband Data Report shows a move in position from 23rd to 14th for the United States compared to 28 (mostly European) other countries once population density and income are taken into consideration for fixed broadband prices (Model 1 to Model 2). The United States climbs even further to 6th out of the 29 countries studied if data usage is included and 7th if quality (i.e. websites available in language) is taken into consideration (Model 4).

Country Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Price Rank Price Rank Price Rank Price Rank
Australia $78.30 28 $82.81 27 $102.63 26 $84.45 23
Austria $48.04 17 $60.59 15 $73.17 11 $74.02 17
Belgium $46.82 16 $66.62 21 $75.29 13 $81.09 22
Canada $69.66 27 $74.99 25 $92.73 24 $76.57 19
Chile $33.42 8 $73.60 23 $83.81 20 $88.97 25
Czech Republic $26.83 3 $49.18 6 $69.91 9 $60.49 6
Denmark $43.46 14 $52.27 8 $69.37 8 $63.85 8
Estonia $30.65 6 $56.91 12 $81.68 19 $69.06 12
Finland $35.00 9 $37.95 1 $57.49 2 $51.61 1
France $30.12 5 $44.04 4 $61.96 4 $54.25 3
Germany $36.00 12 $53.62 10 $75.09 12 $66.06 11
Greece $35.38 10 $64.51 19 $80.72 17 $78.66 21
Iceland $65.78 25 $73.96 24 $94.85 25 $90.39 26
Ireland $56.79 22 $62.37 16 $76.46 14 $64.83 9
Italy $29.62 4 $48.00 5 $68.80 7 $59.00 5
Japan $40.12 13 $53.58 9 $81.47 18 $72.12 15
Latvia $20.29 1 $42.78 3 $63.05 5 $52.20 2
Luxembourg $56.32 21 $54.32 11 $76.83 15 $72.51 16
Mexico $35.58 11 $91.29 29 $120.40 29 $109.64 29
Netherlands $44.39 15 $63.89 18 $89.51 21 $77.88 20
New Zealand $59.51 24 $81.42 26 $90.55 22 $76.25 18
Norway $88.41 29 $71.77 22 $103.98 27 $96.95 27
Portugal $30.82 7 $58.27 13 $72.83 10 $71.15 14
South Korea $25.45 2 $42.07 2 $52.01 1 $56.28 4
Spain $54.95 20 $87.69 28 $115.51 28 $106.53 28
Sweden $52.48 19 $52.16 7 $61.08 3 $70.41 13
Switzerland $66.88 26 $65.01 20 $91.15 23 $84.46 24
United Kingdom $50.77 18 $63.75 17 $79.88 16 $65.44 10
United States $58.00 23 $59.84 14 $64.75 6 $62.94 7
Average $46.55 $61.70 $80.24 $73.73

Model 1: Unadjusted for demographics and content quality

Model 2: Adjusted for demographics but not content quality

Model 3: Adjusted for demographics and data usage

Model 4: Adjusted for demographics and content quality

Furthermore, investment and buildout are other important indicators of how well the United States is doing compared to Europe. Appelbaum fails to consider all of these factors when comparing the European model of telecommunications to the United States’. Yoo’s conclusion is an appropriate response:

The increasing availability of high-quality data has the promise to effect a sea change in broadband policy. Debates that previously relied primarily on anecdotal evidence and personal assertions of visions for the future can increasingly take place on a firmer empirical footing. 

In particular, these data can resolve the question whether the U.S. is running behind Europe in the broadband race or vice versa. The U.S. and European mapping studies are clear and definitive: These data indicate that the U.S. is ahead of Europe in terms of the availability of Next Generation Access (NGA) networks. The U.S. advantage is even starker in terms of rural NGA coverage and with respect to key technologies such as FTTP and LTE. 

Empirical analysis, both in terms of top-level statistics and in terms of eight country case studies, also sheds light into the key policy debate between facilities-based competition and service-based competition. The evidence again is fairly definitive, confirming that facilities-based competition is more effective in terms of driving broadband investment than service-based competition. 

In other words, Appelbaum relies on bad data to come to his conclusion that listening to economists has been wrong for American telecommunications policy. Perhaps it is his economic assumptions that need to be questioned.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, in antitrust, environmental regulation, and other areas he reviewed, Appelbaum does not believe economic efficiency should be the primary concern anyway.  For instance, he repeats the common historical argument that the purpose of the Sherman Act was to protect small businesses from bigger, and often more efficient, competitors. 

So applying economic analysis to Appelbaum’s claims may itself be an illustration of caring too much about economic models instead of learning “the lessons of history.” But Appelbaum inescapably assumes economic models of its own. And these models appear less grounded in empirical data than those of the economists he derides. There’s no escaping mental models to understand the world. It is just a question of whether we are willing to change our mind if a better way of understanding the world presents itself. As Keynes is purported to have said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

For all the criticism of economists, there at least appears to be a willingness among them to change their minds, as illustrated by the increasing appreciation for anti-inflationary monetary policy among macroeconomists described in The Economists’ Hour. The question which remains is whether Appelbaum and other critics of the economic way of thinking are as willing to reconsider their strongly held views when they conflict with the evidence.

A spate of recent newspaper investigations and commentary have focused on Apple allegedly discriminating against rivals in the App Store. The underlying assumption is that Apple, as a vertically integrated entity that operates both a platform for third-party apps and also makes it own apps, is acting nefariously whenever it “discriminates” against rival apps through prioritization, enters into popular app markets, or charges a “tax” or “surcharge” on rival apps. 

For most people, the word discrimination has a pejorative connotation of animus based upon prejudice: racism, sexism, homophobia. One of the definitions you will find in the dictionary reflects this. But another definition is a lot less charged: the act of making or perceiving a difference. (This is what people mean when they say that a person has a discriminating palate, or a discriminating taste in music, for example.)

In economics, discrimination can be a positive attribute. For instance, effective price discrimination can result in wealthier consumers paying a higher price than less well off consumers for the same product or service, and it can ensure that products and services are in fact available for less-wealthy consumers in the first place. That would seem to be a socially desirable outcome (although under some circumstances, perfect price discrimination can be socially undesirable). 

Antitrust law rightly condemns conduct only when it harms competition and not simply when it harms a competitor. This is because it is competition that enhances consumer welfare, not the presence or absence of a competitor — or, indeed, the profitability of competitors. The difficult task for antitrust enforcers is to determine when a vertically integrated firm with “market power” in an upstream market is able to effectively discriminate against rivals in a downstream market in a way that harms consumers

Even assuming the claims of critics are true, alleged discrimination by Apple against competitor apps in the App Store may harm those competitors, but it doesn’t necessarily harm either competition or consumer welfare.

The three potential antitrust issues facing Apple can be summarized as:

There is nothing new here economically. All three issues are analogous to claims against other tech companies. But, as I detail below, the evidence to establish any of these claims at best represents harm to competitors, and fails to establish any harm to the competitive process or to consumer welfare.

Prioritization

Antitrust enforcers have rejected similar prioritization claims against Google. For instance, rivals like Microsoft and Yelp have funded attacks against Google, arguing the search engine is harming competition by prioritizing its own services in its product search results over competitors. As ICLE and affiliated scholars have pointed out, though, there is nothing inherently harmful to consumers about such prioritization. There are also numerous benefits in platforms directly answering queries, even if it ends up directing users to platform-owned products or services.

As Geoffrey Manne has observed:

there is good reason to believe that Google’s decision to favor its own content over that of other sites is procompetitive. Beyond determining and ensuring relevance, Google surely has the prerogative to vigorously compete and to decide how to design its products to keep up with a changing market. In this case, that means designing, developing, and offering its own content to partially displace the original “ten blue links” design of its search results page and offer its own answers to users’ queries in its stead. 

Here, the antitrust case against Apple for prioritization is similarly flawed. For example, as noted in a recent article in the WSJ, users often use the App Store search in order to find apps they already have installed:

“Apple customers have a very strong connection to our products and many of them use search as a way to find and open their apps,” Apple said in a statement. “This customer usage is the reason Apple has strong rankings in search, and it’s the same reason Uber, Microsoft and so many others often have high rankings as well.” 

If a substantial portion of searches within the App Store are for apps already on the iPhone, then showing the Apple app near the top of the search results could easily be consumer welfare-enhancing. 

Apple is also theoretically leaving money on the table by prioritizing its (already pre-loaded) apps over third party apps. If its algorithm promotes its own apps over those that may earn it a 30% fee — additional revenue — the prioritization couldn’t plausibly be characterized as a “benefit” to Apple. Apple is ultimately in the business of selling hardware. Losing customers of the iPhone or iPad by prioritizing apps consumers want less would not be a winning business strategy.

Further, it stands to reason that those who use an iPhone may have a preference for Apple apps. Such consumers would be naturally better served by seeing Apple’s apps prioritized over third-party developer apps. And if consumers do not prefer Apple’s apps, rival apps are merely seconds of scrolling away.

Moreover, all of the above assumes that Apple is engaging in sufficiently pervasive discrimination through prioritzation to have a major impact on the app ecosystem. But substantial evidence exists that the universe of searches for which Apple’s algorithm prioritizes Apple apps is small. For instance, most searches are for branded apps already known by the searcher:

Keywords: how many are brands?

  • Top 500: 58.4%
  • Top 400: 60.75%
  • Top 300: 68.33%
  • Top 200: 80.5%
  • Top 100: 86%
  • Top 50: 90%
  • Top 25: 92%
  • Top 10: 100%

This is corroborated by data from the NYT’s own study, which suggests Apple prioritized its own apps first in only roughly 1% of the overall keywords queried: 

Whatever the precise extent of increase in prioritization, it seems like any claims of harm are undermined by the reality that almost 99% of App Store results don’t list Apple apps first. 

The fact is, very few keyword searches are even allegedly affected by prioritization. And the algorithm is often adjusting to searches for apps already pre-loaded on the device. Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to conclude consumers are being harmed by prioritization in search results of the App Store.

Entry

The issue of Apple building apps to compete with popular apps in its marketplace is similar to complaints about Amazon creating its own brands to compete with what is sold by third parties on its platform. For instance, as reported multiple times in the Washington Post:

Clue, a popular app that women use to track their periods, recently rocketed to the top of the App Store charts. But the app’s future is now in jeopardy as Apple incorporates period and fertility tracking features into its own free Health app, which comes preinstalled on every device. Clue makes money by selling subscriptions and services in its free app. 

However, there is nothing inherently anticompetitive about retailers selling their own brands. If anything, entry into the market is normally procompetitive. As Randy Picker recently noted with respect to similar claims against Amazon: 

The heart of this dynamic isn’t new. Sears started its catalogue business in 1888 and then started using the Craftsman and Kenmore brands as in-house brands in 1927. Sears was acquiring inventory from third parties and obviously knew exactly which ones were selling well and presumably made decisions about which markets to enter and which to stay out of based on that information. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, has a number of well-known private brands and firms negotiating with Walmart know full well that Walmart can enter their markets, subject of course to otherwise applicable restraints on entry such as intellectual property laws… I think that is possible to tease out advantages that a platform has regarding inventory experimentation. It can outsource some of those costs to third parties, though sophisticated third parties should understand where they can and cannot have a sustainable advantage given Amazon’s ability to move to build-or-bought first-party inventory. We have entire bodies of law— copyright, patent, trademark and more—that limit the ability of competitors to appropriate works, inventions and symbols. Those legal systems draw very carefully considered lines regarding permitted and forbidden uses. And antitrust law generally favors entry into markets and doesn’t look to create barriers that block firms, large or small, from entering new markets.

If anything, Apple is in an even better position than Amazon. Apple invests revenue in app development, not because the apps themselves generate revenue, but because it wants people to use the hardware, i.e. the iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches. The reason Apple created an App Store in the first place is because this allows Apple to make more money from selling devices. In order to promote security on those devices, Apple institutes rules for the App Store, but it ultimately decides whether to create its own apps and provide access to other apps based upon its desire to maximize the value of the device. If Apple chooses to create free apps in order to improve iOS for users and sell more hardware, it is not a harm to competition.

Apple’s ability to enter into popular app markets should not be constrained unless it can be shown that by giving consumers another choice, consumers are harmed. As noted above, most searches in the App Store are for branded apps to begin with. If consumers already know what they want in an app, it hardly seems harmful for Apple to offer — and promote — its own, additional version as well. 

In the case of Clue, if Apple creates a free health app, it may hurt sales for Clue. But it doesn’t hurt consumers who want the functionality and would prefer to get it from Apple for free. This sort of product evolution is not harming competition, but enhancing it. And, it must be noted, Apple doesn’t exclude Clue from its devices. If, indeed, Clue offers a better product, or one that some users prefer, they remain able to find it and use it.

The so-called App Store “Tax”

The argument that Apple has an unfair competitive advantage over rival apps which have to pay commissions to Apple to be on the App Store (a “tax” or “surcharge”) has similarly produced no evidence of harm to consumers. 

Apple invested a lot into building the iPhone and the App Store. This infrastructure has created an incredibly lucrative marketplace for app developers to exploit. And, lest we forget a point fundamental to our legal system, Apple’s App Store is its property

The WSJ and NYT stories give the impression that Apple uses its commissions on third party apps to reduce competition for its own apps. However, this is inconsistent with how Apple charges its commission

For instance, Apple doesn’t charge commissions on free apps, which make up 84% of the App Store. Apple also doesn’t charge commissions for apps that are free to download but are supported by advertising — including hugely popular apps like Yelp, Buzzfeed, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook. Even apps which are “readers” where users purchase or subscribe to content outside the app but use the app to access that content are not subject to commissions, like Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Kindle, and Audible. Apps for “physical goods and services” — like Amazon, Airbnb, Lyft, Target, and Uber — are also free to download and are not subject to commissions. The class of apps which are subject to a 30% commission include:

  • paid apps (like many games),
  • free apps that then have in-app purchases (other games and services like Skype and TikTok), 
  • and free apps with digital subscriptions (Pandora, Hulu, which have 30% commission first year and then 15% in subsequent years), and
  • cross-platform apps (Dropbox, Hulu, and Minecraft) which allow for digital goods and services to be purchased in-app and Apple collects commission on in-app sales, but not sales from other platforms. 

Despite protestations to the contrary, these costs are hardly unreasonable: third party apps receive the benefit not only of being in Apple’s App Store (without which they wouldn’t have any opportunity to earn revenue from sales on Apple’s platform), but also of the features and other investments Apple continues to pour into its platform — investments that make the ecosystem better for consumers and app developers alike. There is enormous value to the platform Apple has invested in, and a great deal of it is willingly shared with developers and consumers.  It does not make it anticompetitive to ask those who use the platform to pay for it. 

In fact, these benefits are probably even more important for smaller developers rather than bigger ones who can invest in the necessary back end to reach consumers without the App Store, like Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Kindle. For apps without brand reputation (and giant marketing budgets), the ability for consumers to trust that downloading the app will not lead to the installation of malware (as often occurs when downloading from the web) is surely essential to small developers’ ability to compete. The App Store offers this.

Despite the claims made in Spotify’s complaint against Apple, Apple doesn’t have a duty to deal with app developers. Indeed, Apple could theoretically fill the App Store with only apps that it developed itself, like Apple Music. Instead, Apple has opted for a platform business model, which entails the creation of a new outlet for others’ innovation and offerings. This is pro-consumer in that it created an entire marketplace that consumers probably didn’t even know they wanted — and certainly had no means to obtain — until it existed. Spotify, which out-competed iTunes to the point that Apple had to go back to the drawing board and create Apple Music, cannot realistically complain that Apple’s entry into music streaming is harmful to competition. Rather, it is precisely what vigorous competition looks like: the creation of more product innovation, lower prices, and arguably (at least for some) higher quality.

Interestingly, Spotify is not even subject to the App Store commission. Instead, Spotify offers a work-around to iPhone users to obtain its premium version without ads on iOS. What Spotify actually desires is the ability to sell premium subscriptions to Apple device users without paying anything above the de minimis up-front cost to Apple for the creation and maintenance of the App Store. It is unclear how many potential Spotify users are affected by the inability to directly buy the ad-free version since Spotify discontinued offering it within the App Store. But, whatever the potential harm to Spotify itself, there’s little reason to think consumers or competition bear any of it. 

Conclusion

There is no evidence that Apple’s alleged “discrimination” against rival apps harms consumers. Indeed, the opposite would seem to be the case. The regulatory discrimination against successful tech platforms like Apple and the App Store is far more harmful to consumers.