Archives For Truth on the Market

The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to debate S. 2992, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (or AICOA) during a markup session Thursday. If passed into law, the bill would force online platforms to treat rivals’ services as they would their own, while ensuring their platforms interoperate seamlessly.

The bill marks the culmination of misguided efforts to bring Big Tech to heel, regardless of the negative costs imposed upon consumers in the process. ICLE scholars have written about these developments in detail since the bill was introduced in October.

Below are 10 significant misconceptions that underpin the legislation.

1. There Is No Evidence that Self-Preferencing Is Generally Harmful

Self-preferencing is a normal part of how platforms operate, both to improve the value of their core products and to earn returns so that they have reason to continue investing in their development.

Platforms’ incentives are to maximize the value of their entire product ecosystem, which includes both the core platform and the services attached to it. Platforms that preference their own products frequently end up increasing the total market’s value by growing the share of users of a particular product. Those that preference inferior products end up hurting their attractiveness to users of their “core” product, exposing themselves to competition from rivals.

As Geoff Manne concludes, the notion that it is harmful (notably to innovation) when platforms enter into competition with edge providers is entirely speculative. Indeed, a range of studies show that the opposite is likely true. Platform competition is more complicated than simple theories of vertical discrimination would have it, and there is certainly no basis for a presumption of harm.

Consider a few examples from the empirical literature:

  1. Li and Agarwal (2017) find that Facebook’s integration of Instagram led to a significant increase in user demand both for Instagram itself and for the entire category of photography apps. Instagram’s integration with Facebook increased consumer awareness of photography apps, which benefited independent developers, as well as Facebook.
  2. Foerderer, et al. (2018) find that Google’s 2015 entry into the market for photography apps on Android created additional user attention and demand for such apps generally.
  3. Cennamo, et al. (2018) find that video games offered by console firms often become blockbusters and expand the consoles’ installed base. As a result, these games increase the potential for all independent game developers to profit from their games, even in the face of competition from first-party games.
  4. Finally, while Zhu and Liu (2018) is often held up as demonstrating harm from Amazon’s competition with third-party sellers on its platform, its findings are actually far from clear-cut. As co-author Feng Zhu noted in the Journal of Economics & Management Strategy: “[I]f Amazon’s entries attract more consumers, the expanded customer base could incentivize more third‐ party sellers to join the platform. As a result, the long-term effects for consumers of Amazon’s entry are not clear.”

2. Interoperability Is Not Costless

There are many things that could be interoperable, but aren’t. The reason not everything is interoperable is because interoperability comes with costs, as well as benefits. It may be worth letting different earbuds have different designs because, while it means we sacrifice easy interoperability, we gain the ability for better designs to be brought to market and for consumers to have choice among different kinds.

As Sam Bowman has observed, there are often costs that prevent interoperability from being worth the tradeoff, such as that:

  1. It might be too costly to implement and/or maintain.
  2. It might prescribe a certain product design and prevent experimentation and innovation.
  3. It might add too much complexity and/or confusion for users, who may prefer not to have certain choices.
  4. It might increase the risk of something not working, or of security breaches.
  5. It might prevent certain pricing models that increase output.
  6. It might compromise some element of the product or service that benefits specifically from not being interoperable.

In a market that is functioning reasonably well, we should be able to assume that competition and consumer choice will discover the desirable degree of interoperability among different products. If there are benefits to making your product interoperable that outweigh the costs of doing so, that should give you an advantage over competitors and allow you to compete them away. If the costs outweigh the benefits, the opposite will happen: consumers will choose products that are not interoperable.

In short, we cannot infer from the mere absence of interoperability that something is wrong, since we frequently observe that the costs of interoperability outweigh the benefits.

3. Consumers Often Prefer Closed Ecosystems

Digital markets could have taken a vast number of shapes. So why have they gravitated toward the very characteristics that authorities condemn? For instance, if market tipping and consumer lock-in are so problematic, why is it that new corners of the digital economy continue to emerge via closed platforms, as opposed to collaborative ones?

Indeed, if recent commentary is to be believed, it is the latter that should succeed, because they purportedly produce greater gains from trade. And if consumers and platforms cannot realize these gains by themselves, then we should see intermediaries step into that breach. But this does not seem to be happening in the digital economy.

The naïve answer is to say that the absence of “open” systems is precisely the problem. What’s harder is to try to actually understand why. As I have written, there are many reasons that consumers might prefer “closed” systems, even when they have to pay a premium for them.

Take the example of app stores. Maintaining some control over the apps that can access the store notably enables platforms to easily weed out bad players. Similarly, controlling the hardware resources that each app can use may greatly improve device performance. In other words, centralized platforms can eliminate negative externalities that “bad” apps impose on rival apps and on consumers. This is especially true when consumers struggle to attribute dips in performance to an individual app, rather than the overall platform.

It is also conceivable that consumers prefer to make many of their decisions at the inter-platform level, rather than within each platform. In simple terms, users arguably make their most important decision when they choose between an Apple or Android smartphone (or a Mac and a PC, etc.). In doing so, they can select their preferred app suite with one simple decision.

They might thus purchase an iPhone because they like the secure App Store, or an Android smartphone because they like the Chrome Browser and Google Search. Forcing too many “within-platform” choices upon users may undermine a product’s attractiveness. Indeed, it is difficult to create a high-quality reputation if each user’s experience is fundamentally different. In short, contrary to what antitrust authorities seem to believe, closed platforms might be giving most users exactly what they desire.

Too often, it is simply assumed that consumers benefit from more openness, and that shared/open platforms are the natural order of things. What some refer to as “market failures” may in fact be features that explain the rapid emergence of the digital economy. Ronald Coase said it best when he quipped that economists always find a monopoly explanation for things that they simply fail to understand.

4. Data Portability Can Undermine Security and Privacy

As explained above, platforms that are more tightly controlled can be regulated by the platform owner to avoid some of the risks present in more open platforms. Apple’s App Store, for example, is a relatively closed and curated platform, which gives users assurance that apps will meet a certain standard of security and trustworthiness.

Along similar lines, there are privacy issues that arise from data portability. Even a relatively simple requirement to make photos available for download can implicate third-party interests. Making a user’s photos more broadly available may tread upon the privacy interests of friends whose faces appear in those photos. Importing those photos to a new service potentially subjects those individuals to increased and un-bargained-for security risks.

As Sam Bowman and Geoff Manne observe, this is exactly what happened with Facebook and its Social Graph API v1.0, ultimately culminating in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Because v1.0 of Facebook’s Social Graph API permitted developers to access information about a user’s friends without consent, it enabled third-party access to data about exponentially more users. It appears that some 270,000 users granted data access to Cambridge Analytica, from which the company was able to obtain information on 50 million Facebook users.

In short, there is often no simple solution to implement interoperability and data portability. Any such program—whether legally mandated or voluntarily adopted—will need to grapple with these and other tradeoffs.

5. Network Effects Are Rarely Insurmountable

Several scholars in recent years have called for more muscular antitrust intervention in networked industries on grounds that network externalities, switching costs, and data-related increasing returns to scale lead to inefficient consumer lock-in and raise entry barriers for potential rivals (see here, here, and here). But there are countless counterexamples where firms have easily overcome potential barriers to entry and network externalities, ultimately disrupting incumbents.

Zoom is one of the most salient instances. As I wrote in April 2019 (a year before the COVID-19 pandemic):

To get to where it is today, Zoom had to compete against long-established firms with vast client bases and far deeper pockets. These include the likes of Microsoft, Cisco, and Google. Further complicating matters, the video communications market exhibits some prima facie traits that are typically associated with the existence of network effects.

Geoff Manne and Alec Stapp have put forward a multitude of other examples,  including: the demise of Yahoo; the disruption of early instant-messaging applications and websites; and MySpace’s rapid decline. In all of these cases, outcomes did not match the predictions of theoretical models.

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

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

6. Profits Facilitate New and Exciting Platforms

As I wrote in August 2020, the relatively closed model employed by several successful platforms (notably Apple’s App Store, Google’s Play Store, and the Amazon Retail Platform) allows previously unknown developers/retailers to rapidly expand because (i) users do not have to fear their apps contain some form of malware and (ii) they greatly reduce payments frictions, most notably security-related ones.

While these are, indeed, tremendous benefits, another important upside seems to have gone relatively unnoticed. The “closed” business model also gives firms significant incentives to develop new distribution mediums (smart TVs spring to mind) and to improve existing ones. In turn, this greatly expands the audience that software developers can reach. In short, developers get a smaller share of a much larger pie.

The economics of two-sided markets are enlightening here. For example, Apple and Google’s app stores are what Armstrong and Wright (here and here) refer to as “competitive bottlenecks.” That is, they compete aggressively (among themselves, and with other gaming platforms) to attract exclusive users. They can then charge developers a premium to access those users.

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

This model of innovation would be seriously undermined if developers and consumers could easily bypass platforms, as would likely be the case under the American Innovation and Choice Online Act.

7. Large Market Share Does Not Mean Anticompetitive Outcomes

Scholars routinely cite the putatively strong concentration of digital markets to argue that Big Tech firms do not face strong competition. But this is a non sequitur. Indeed, as economists like Joseph Bertrand and William Baumol have shown, what matters is not whether markets are concentrated, but whether they are contestable. If a superior rival could rapidly gain user traction, that alone will discipline incumbents’ behavior.

Markets where incumbents do not face significant entry from competitors are just as consistent with vigorous competition as they are with barriers to entry. Rivals could decline to enter either because incumbents have aggressively improved their product offerings or because they are shielded by barriers to entry (as critics suppose). The former is consistent with competition, the latter with monopoly slack.

Similarly, it would be wrong to presume, as many do, that concentration in online markets is necessarily driven by network effects and other scale-related economies. As ICLE scholars have argued elsewhere (here, here and here), these forces are not nearly as decisive as critics assume (and it is debatable that they constitute barriers to entry).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many factors could explain the relatively concentrated market structures that we see in digital industries. The absence of switching costs and capacity constraints are two such examples. These explanations, overlooked by many observers, suggest digital markets are more contestable than is commonly perceived.

Unfortunately, critics’ failure to meaningfully grapple with these issues serves to shape the “conventional wisdom” in tech-policy debates.

8. Vertical Integration Generally Benefits Consumers

Vertical behavior of digital firms—whether through mergers or through contract and unilateral action—frequently arouses the ire of critics of the current antitrust regime. Many such critics point to a few recent studies that cast doubt on the ubiquity of benefits from vertical integration. But the findings of these few studies are regularly overstated and, even if taken at face value, represent a just minuscule fraction of the collected evidence, which overwhelmingly supports vertical integration.

There is strong and longstanding empirical evidence that vertical integration is competitively benign. This includes widely acclaimed work by economists Francine Lafontaine (former director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Economics under President Barack Obama) and Margaret Slade, whose meta-analysis led them to conclude:

[U]nder most circumstances, profit-maximizing vertical integration decisions are efficient, not just from the firms’ but also from the consumers’ points of view. Although there are isolated studies that contradict this claim, the vast majority support it. Moreover, even in industries that are highly concentrated so that horizontal considerations assume substantial importance, the net effect of vertical integration appears to be positive in many instances. We therefore conclude that, faced with a vertical arrangement, the burden of evidence should be placed on competition authorities to demonstrate that that arrangement is harmful before the practice is attacked.

In short, there is a substantial body of both empirical and theoretical research showing that vertical integration (and the potential vertical discrimination and exclusion to which it might give rise) is generally beneficial to consumers. While it is possible that vertical mergers or discrimination could sometimes cause harm, the onus is on the critics to demonstrate empirically where this occurs. No legitimate interpretation of the available literature would offer a basis for imposing a presumption against such behavior.

9. There Is No Such Thing as Data Network Effects

Although data does not have the self-reinforcing characteristics of network effects, there is a sense that acquiring a certain amount of data and expertise is necessary to compete in data-heavy industries. It is (or should be) equally apparent, however, that this “learning by doing” advantage rapidly reaches a point of diminishing returns.

This is supported by significant empirical evidence. As was shown by the survey pf the empirical literature that Geoff Manne and I performed (published in the George Mason Law Review), data generally entails diminishing marginal returns:

Critics who argue that firms such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook are successful because of their superior access to data might, in fact, have the causality in reverse. Arguably, it is because these firms have come up with successful industry-defining paradigms that they have amassed so much data, and not the other way around. Indeed, Facebook managed to build a highly successful platform despite a large data disadvantage when compared to rivals like MySpace.

Companies need to innovate to attract consumer data or else consumers will switch to competitors, including both new entrants and established incumbents. As a result, the desire to make use of more and better data drives competitive innovation, with manifestly impressive results. The continued explosion of new products, services, and apps is evidence that data is not a bottleneck to competition, but a spur to drive it.

10.  Antitrust Enforcement Has Not Been Lax

The popular narrative has it that lax antitrust enforcement has led to substantially increased concentration, strangling the economy, harming workers, and expanding dominant firms’ profit margins at the expense of consumers. Much of the contemporary dissatisfaction with antitrust arises from a suspicion that overly lax enforcement of existing laws has led to record levels of concentration and a concomitant decline in competition. But both beliefs—lax enforcement and increased anticompetitive concentration—wither under more than cursory scrutiny.

As Geoff Manne observed in his April 2020 testimony to the House Judiciary Committee:

The number of Sherman Act cases brought by the federal antitrust agencies, meanwhile, has been relatively stable in recent years, but several recent blockbuster cases have been brought by the agencies and private litigants, and there has been no shortage of federal and state investigations. The vast majority of Section 2 cases dismissed on the basis of the plaintiff’s failure to show anticompetitive effect were brought by private plaintiffs pursuing treble damages; given the incentives to bring weak cases, it cannot be inferred from such outcomes that antitrust law is ineffective. But, in any case, it is highly misleading to count the number of antitrust cases and, using that number alone, to make conclusions about how effective antitrust law is. Firms act in the shadow of the law, and deploy significant legal resources to make sure they avoid activity that would lead to enforcement actions. Thus, any given number of cases brought could be just as consistent with a well-functioning enforcement regime as with an ill-functioning one.

The upshot is that naïvely counting antitrust cases (or the purported lack thereof), with little regard for the behavior that is deterred or the merits of the cases that are dismissed does not tell us whether or not antitrust enforcement levels are optimal.

Further reading:

Law review articles

Issue briefs

Shorter pieces

Activists who railed against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) a decade ago today celebrate the 10th anniversary of their day of protest, which they credit with sending the bills down to defeat.

Much of the anti-SOPA/PIPA campaign was based on a gauzy notion of “realizing [the] democratizing potential” of the Internet. Which is fine, until it isn’t.

But despite the activists’ temporary legislative victory, the methods of combating digital piracy that SOPA/PIPA contemplated have been employed successfully around the world. It may, indeed, be time for the United States to revisit that approach, as the very real problems the legislation sought to combat haven’t gone away.

From the perspective of rightsholders, the bill’s most important feature was also its most contentious: the ability to enforce judicial “site-blocking orders.” A site-blocking order is a type of remedy sometimes referred to as a no-fault injunction. Under SOPA/PIPA, a court would have been permitted to issue orders that could be used to force a range of firms—from financial providers to ISPs—to cease doing business with or suspend the service of a website that hosted infringing content.

Under current U.S. law, even when a court finds that a site has willfully engaged in infringement, stopping the infringement can be difficult, especially when the parties and their facilities are located outside the country. While Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act does allow courts to issue injunctions, there is ambiguity as to whether it allows courts to issue injunctions that obligate online service providers (“OSP”) not directly party to a case to remove infringing material.

Section 512(j), for instance, provides for issuing injunctions “against a service provider that is not subject to monetary remedies under this section.” The “not subject to monetary remedies under this section” language could be construed to mean that such injunctions may be obtained even against OSPs that have not been found at fault for the underlying infringement. But as Motion Picture Association President Stanford K. McCoy testified in 2020:

In more than twenty years … these provisions of the DMCA have never been deployed, presumably because of uncertainty about whether it is necessary to find fault against the service provider before an injunction could issue, unlike the clear no-fault injunctive remedies available in other countries.

But while no-fault injunctions for copyright infringement have not materialized in the United States, this remedy has been used widely around the world. In fact, more than 40 countries—including Denmark, Finland, France, India, England, and Wales—have enacted or are under some obligation to enact rules allowing for no-fault injunctions that direct ISPs to disable access to websites that predominantly promote copyright infringement. 

In short, precisely the approach to controlling piracy that SOPA/PIPA envisioned has been in force around the world over the last decade. This demonstrates that, if properly tailored, no-fault injunctions are an ideal tool for courts to use in the fight to combat piracy.

If anything, we should be using the anniversary of SOPA/PIPA as an opportunity to reflect on a missed opportunity. Congress should take this opportunity to amend Section 512 to grant U.S. courts authority to issue no-fault injunctions that require OSPs to block access to sites that willfully engage in mass infringement.

Intermediaries may not be the consumer welfare hero we want, but more often than not, they are one that we need.

In policy discussions about the digital economy, a background assumption that frequently underlies the discourse is that intermediaries and centralization always and only serve as a cost to consumers, and to society more generally. Thus, one commonly sees arguments that consumers would be better off if they could freely combine products from different trading partners. According to this logic, bundled goods, walled gardens, and other intermediaries are always to be regarded with suspicion, while interoperability, open source, and decentralization are laudable features of any market.

However, as with all economic goods, intermediation offers both costs and benefits. The challenge for market players is to assess these tradeoffs and, ultimately, to produce the optimal level of intermediation.

As one example, some observers assume that purchasing food directly from a producer benefits consumers because intermediaries no longer take a cut of the final purchase price. But this overlooks the tremendous efficiencies supermarkets can achieve in terms of cost savings, reduced carbon emissions (because consumers make fewer store trips), and other benefits that often outweigh the costs of intermediation.

The same anti-intermediary fallacy is plain to see in countless other markets. For instance, critics readily assume that insurance, mortgage, and travel brokers are just costly middlemen.

This unduly negative perception is perhaps even more salient in the digital world. Policymakers are quick to conclude that consumers are always better off when provided with “more choice.” Draft regulations of digital platforms have been introduced on both sides of the Atlantic that repeat this faulty argument ad nauseam, as do some antitrust decisions.

Even the venerable Tyler Cowen recently appeared to sing the praises of decentralization, when discussing the future of Web 3.0:

One person may think “I like the DeFi options at Uniswap,” while another may say, “I am going to use the prediction markets over at Hedgehog.” In this scenario there is relatively little intermediation and heavy competition for consumer attention. Thus most of the gains from competition accrue to the users. …

… I don’t know if people are up to all this work (or is it fun?). But in my view this is the best-case scenario — and the most technologically ambitious. Interestingly, crypto’s radical ability to disintermediate, if extended to its logical conclusion, could bring about a radical equalization of power that would lower the prices and values of the currently well-established crypto assets, companies and platforms.

While disintermediation certainly has its benefits, critics often gloss over its costs. For example, scams are practically nonexistent on Apple’s “centralized” App Store but are far more prevalent with Web3 services. Apple’s “power” to weed out nefarious actors certainly contributes to this difference. Similarly, there is a reason that “middlemen” like supermarkets and travel agents exist in the first place. They notably perform several complex tasks (e.g., searching for products, negotiating prices, and controlling quality) that leave consumers with a manageable selection of goods.

Returning to the crypto example, besides being a renowned scholar, Tyler Cowen is also an extremely savvy investor. What he sees as fun investment choices may be nightmarish (and potentially dangerous) decisions for less sophisticated consumers. The upshot is that intermediaries are far more valuable than they are usually given credit for.

Bringing People Together

The reason intermediaries (including online platforms) exist is to reduce transaction costs that suppliers and customers would face if they tried to do business directly. As Daniel F. Spulber argues convincingly:

Markets have two main modes of organization: decentralized and centralized. In a decentralized market, buyers and sellers match with each other and determine transaction prices. In a centralized market, firms act as intermediaries between buyers and sellers.

[W]hen there are many buyers and sellers, there can be substantial transaction costs associated with communication, search, bargaining, and contracting. Such transaction costs can make it more difficult to achieve cross-market coordination through direct communication. Intermediary firms have various means of reducing transaction costs of decentralized coordination when there are many buyers and sellers.

This echoes the findings of Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, who observed that firms emerge when they offer a cheaper alternative to multiple bilateral transactions:

The main reason why it is profitable to establish a firm would seem to be that there is a cost of using the price mechanism. The most obvious cost of “organising ” production through the price mechanism is that of discovering what the relevant prices are. […] The costs of negotiating and concluding a separate contract for each exchange transaction which takes place on a market must also be taken into account.

Economists generally agree that online platforms also serve this cost-reduction function. For instance, David Evans and Richard Schmalensee observe that:

Multi-sided platforms create value by bringing two or more different types of economic agents together and facilitating interactions between them that make all agents better off.

It’s easy to see the implications for today’s competition-policy debates, and for the online intermediaries that many critics would like to see decentralized. Particularly salient examples include app store platforms (such as the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store); online retail platforms (such as Amazon Marketplace); and online travel agents (like Booking.com and Expedia). Competition policymakers have embarked on countless ventures to “open up” these platforms to competition, essentially moving them further toward disintermediation. In most of these cases, however, policymakers appear to be fighting these businesses’ very raison d’être.

For example, the purpose of an app store is to curate the software that users can install and to offer payment solutions; in exchange, the store receives a cut of the proceeds. If performing these tasks created no value, then to a first approximation, these services would not exist. Users would simply download apps via their web browsers, and the most successful smartphones would be those that allowed users to directly install apps (“sideloading,” to use the more technical terms). Forcing these platforms to “open up” and become neutral is antithetical to the value proposition they offer.

Calls for retail and travel platforms to stop offering house brands or displaying certain products more favorably are equally paradoxical. Consumers turn to these platforms because they want a selection of goods. If that was not the case, users could simply bypass the platforms and purchase directly from independent retailers or hotels.Critics sometimes retort that some commercial arrangements, such as “most favored nation” clauses, discourage consumers from doing exactly this. But that claim only reinforces the point that online platforms must create significant value, or they would not be able to obtain such arrangements in the first place.

All of this explains why characterizing these firms as imposing a “tax” on their respective ecosystems is so deeply misleading. The implication is that platforms are merely passive rent extractors that create no value. Yet, barring the existence of market failures, both their existence and success is proof to the contrary. To argue otherwise places no faith in the ability of firms and consumers to act in their own self-interest.

A Little Evolution

This last point is even more salient when seen from an evolutionary standpoint. Today’s most successful intermediaries—be they online platforms or more traditional brick-and-mortar firms like supermarkets—mostly had to outcompete the alternative represented by disintermediated bilateral contracts.

Critics of intermediaries rarely contemplate why the app-store model outpaced the more heavily disintermediated software distribution of the desktop era. Or why hotel-booking sites exist, despite consumers’ ability to use search engines, hotel websites, and other product-search methods that offer unadulterated product selections. Or why mortgage brokers are so common when borrowers can call local banks directly. The list is endless.

Indeed, as I have argued previously:

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

Fiat Versus Emergent Disintermediation

All of this is not to say that intermediaries are perfect, or that centralization always beats decentralization. Instead, the critical point is about the competitive process. There are vast differences between centralization that stems from government fiat and that which emerges organically.

(Dis)intermediation is an economic good. Markets thus play a critical role in deciding how much or little of it is provided. Intermediaries must charge fees that cover their costs, while bilateral contracts entail transaction costs. In typically Hayekian fashion, suppliers and buyers will weigh the costs and benefits of these options.

Intermediaries are most likely to emerge in markets prone to excessive transaction costs and competitive processes ensure that only valuable intermediaries survive. Accordingly, there is no guarantee that government-mandated disintermediation would generate net benefits in any given case.

Of course, the market does not always work perfectly. Sometimes, market failures give rise to excessive (or insufficient) centralization. And policymakers should certainly be attentive to these potential problems and address them on a case-by-case basis. But there is little reason to believe that today’s most successful intermediaries are the result of market failures, and it is thus critical that policymakers do not undermine the valuable role they perform.

For example, few believe that supermarkets exist merely because government failures (such as excessive regulation) or market failures (such as monopolization) prevent the emergence of smaller rivals. Likewise, the app-store model is widely perceived as an improvement over previous software platforms; few consumers appear favorably disposed toward its replacement with sideloading of apps (for example, few Android users choose to sideload apps rather than purchase them via the Google Play Store). In fact, markets appear to be moving in the opposite direction: even traditional software platforms such as Windows OS increasingly rely on closed stores to distribute software on their platforms.

More broadly, this same reasoning can (and has) been applied to other social institutions, such as the modern family. For example, the late Steven Horwitz observed that family structures have evolved in order to adapt to changing economic circumstances. Crucially, this process is driven by the same cost-benefit tradeoff that we see in markets. In both cases, agents effectively decide which functions are better performed within a given social structure, and which ones are more efficiently completed outside of it.

Returning to Tyler Cowen’s point about the future of Web3, the case can be made that whatever level of centralization ultimately emerges is most likely the best case scenario. Sure, there may be some market failures and suboptimal outcomes along the way, but they ultimately pale in comparison to the most pervasive force: namely, economic agents’ ability to act in what they perceive to be their best interest. To put it differently, if Web3 spontaneously becomes as centralized as Web 2.0 has been, that would be testament to the tremendous role that intermediaries play throughout the economy.

Early last month, the Italian competition authority issued a record 1.128 billion euro fine against Amazon for abuse of dominance under Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). In its order, the Agenzia Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato (AGCM) essentially argues that Amazon has combined its Amazon.it marketplace and Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) services to exclude logistics rivals such as FedEx, DHL, UPS, and Poste Italiane. 

The sanctions came exactly one month after the European General Court seconded the European Commission’s “discovery” in the Google Shopping case of a new antitrust infringement known as “self-preferencing,” which also cited Article 102 TFEU. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, legislation was introduced in the United States earlier this year to prohibit the practice. Meanwhile, the EU’s legislative bodies have been busy taking steps to approve the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which would regulate so-called digital “gatekeepers.”

Italy thus joins a wave of policymakers that have either imposed heavy-handed decisions to “rein in” online platforms, or are seeking to implement ex ante regulations toward that end. Ultimately, the decision is reminiscent of the self-preferencing prohibition contained in Article 6a of the current draft of the DMA and reflects much of what is wrong with the current approach to regulating tech. It presages some of the potential problems with punishing efficient behavior for the sake of protecting competitors through “common carrier antitrust.” However, if this decision is anything to go by, these efforts will end up hurting the very consumers authorities purport to protect and lending color to more general fears over the DMA. 

In this post, we discuss how the AGCM’s reasoning departs from sound legal and economic thinking to reach a conclusion at odds with the traditional goal of competition law—i.e., the protection of consumer welfare. Neo-Brandeisians and other competition scholars who dispute the centrality of the consumer welfare standard and would use antitrust to curb “bigness” may find this result acceptable, in principle. But even they must admit that the AGCM decision ultimately serves to benefit large (if less successful) competitors, and not the “small dealers and worthy men” of progressive lore.

Relevant Market Definition

Market definition constitutes a preliminary step in any finding of abuse under Article 102 TFEU. An excessively narrow market definition can result in false positives by treating neutral or efficient conduct as anticompetitive, while an overly broad market definition might allow anticompetitive conduct to slip through the cracks, leading to false negatives. 

Amazon Italy may be an example of the former. Here, the AGCM identified two relevant markets: the leveraging market, which it identified as the Italian market for online marketplace intermediation, and the leveraged market, which it identified as the market for e-commerce logistics. The AGCM charges that Amazon is dominant in the former and that it gained an illegal advantage in the latter. It found, in this sense, that online marketplaces constitute a uniquely relevant market that is not substitutable for other offline or online sales channels, such as brick-and-mortar shops, price-comparison websites (e.g., Google Shopping), or dedicated sales websites (e.g., Nike.com/it). Similarly, it concluded that e-commerce logistics are sufficiently different from other forms of logistics as to comprise a separate market.

The AGCM’s findings combine qualitative and quantitative evidence, including retailer surveys and “small but significant and non-transitory increase in price” (SSNIP) tests. They also include a large dose of speculative reasoning.

For instance, the AGCM asserts that online marketplaces are fundamentally different from price-comparison sites because, in the latter case, purchase transactions do not take place on the platform. It asserts that e-commerce logistics are different from traditional logistics because the former require a higher degree of automation for transportation and storage. And in what can only be seen as a normative claim, rather than an objective assessment of substitutability, the Italian watchdog found that marketplaces are simply better than dedicated websites because, e.g., they offer greater visibility and allow retailers to save on marketing costs. While it is unclear what weights the AGCM assigned to each of these considerations when defining the relevant markets, it is reasonable to assume they played some part in defining the nature and scope of Amazon’s market presence in Italy.

In all of these instances, however, while the AGCM carefully delineated superficial distinctions between these markets, it did not actually establish that those differences are relevant to competition. Fetishizing granular but ultimately irrelevant differences between products and services—such as between marketplaces and shopping comparison sites—is a sure way to incur false positives, a misstep tantamount to punishing innocuous or efficient business conduct.

Dominance

The AGCM found that Amazon was “hyper-dominant” in the online marketplace intermediation market. Dominance was established by looking at revenue from marketplace sales, where Amazon’s share had risen from about 65% in 2016 to 75% in 2019. Taken in isolation, this figure might suggest that Amazon’s competitors cannot thrive in the market. A broader look at the data, however, paints a picture of more generalized growth, with some segments greatly benefiting newcomers and small, innovative marketplaces. 

For instance, virtually all companies active in the online marketplace intermediation market have experienced significant growth in terms of monthly visitors. It is true that Amazon’s visitors grew significantly, up 150%, but established competitors like Aliexpress and eBay also saw growth rates of 90% and 25%, respectively. Meanwhile, Wish grew a massive 10,000% from 2016 to 2019; while ManoMano and Zalando grew 450% and 100%, respectively.

In terms of active users (i.e., visits that result in a purchase), relative numbers seem to have stayed roughly the same, although the AGCM claims that eBay saw a 20-30% drop. The number of third-party products Amazon offered through Marketplace grew from between 100 and 500 million to between 500 million and 1 billion, while other marketplaces appear to have remained fairly constant, with some expanding and others contracting.

In sum, while Amazon has undeniably improved its position in practically all of the parameters considered by the AGCM, indicators show that the market as a whole has experienced and is experiencing growth. The improvement in Amazon’s position relative to some competitors—notably eBay, which AGCM asserts is Amazon’s biggest competitor—should therefore not obscure the fact that there is entry and expansion both at the fringes (ManoMano, Wish), and in the center of the market for online marketplace intermediation (Aliexpress).

Amazon’s Allegedly Abusive Conduct

According to the AGCM, Amazon has taken advantage of vertical integration to engage in self-preferencing. Specifically, the charge is that the company offers exclusive and purportedly crucial advantages on the Amazon.it marketplace to sellers who use Amazon’s own e-commerce logistics service, FBA. The purported advantages of this arrangement include, to name a few, the coveted Prime badge, the elimination of negative user feedback on sale or delivery, preferential algorithmic treatment, and exclusive participation in Amazon’s sales promotions (e.g., Black Friday, Cyber Monday). As a result, according to the AGCM, products sold through FBA enjoy more visibility and a better chance to win the “Buy Box.”

The AGCM claims this puts competing logistics operators like FedEx, Poste Italiane, and DHL at a disadvantage, because non-FBA products have less chance to be sold than FBA products, regardless of any efficiency or quality criteria. In the AGCM’s words, “Amazon has stolen demand for other e-commerce logistics operators.” 

Indirectly, Amazon’s “self-preferencing” purportedly also harms competing marketplaces like eBay by creating incentives for sellers to single-home—i.e., to sell only through Amazon Marketplace. The argument here is that retailers will not multi-home to avoid duplicative costs associated with FBA, e.g., storing goods in several warehouses. 

Although it is not necessary to demonstrate anticompetitive effects under Article 102 TFEU, the AGCM claims that Amazon’s behavior has caused drastic worsening in other marketplaces’ competitive position by constraining their ability to reach the minimum scale needed to enjoy direct and indirect network effects. The Italian authorities summarily assert that this results in consumer harm, although the gargantuan 250-page decision spends scarcely one paragraph on this point. 

Intuitively, however, Amazon’s behavior should, in principle, benefit consumers by offering something that most find tremendously valuable: a guarantee of quick delivery for a wide range of goods. Indeed, this is precisely why it is so misguided to condemn self-preferencing by online platforms.

As some have already argued, we cannot assume that something is bad for competition just because it is bad for certain competitors. For instance, a lot of unambiguously procompetitive behavior, like cutting prices, puts competitors at a disadvantage. The same might be true for a digital platform that preferences its own service because it is generally better than the alternatives provided by third-party sellers. In the case at hand, for example, Amazon’s granting marketplace privileges to FBA products may help users to select the products that Amazon can guarantee will best satisfy their needs. This is perfectly plausible, as customers have repeatedly shown that they often prefer less open, less neutral options.

The key question, therefore, should be whether the behavior in question excludes equally efficient rivals in such a way as to harm consumer welfare. Otherwise, we would essentially be asking companies to refrain from offering services that benefit their users in order to make competing products comparatively more attractive. This is antithetical to the nature of competition, which is based on the principle that what is good for consumers is frequently bad for competitors.

AGCM’s Theory of Harm Rests on Four Weak Pillars

Building on the logic that Amazon enjoys “hyper-dominance” in marketplace intermediation; that most online sales are marketplace sales; and that most marketplace sales are, in turn, Amazon.it sales, the AGCM decision finds that succeeding on Amazon.it is indispensable for any online retailer in Italy. This argument hinges largely on whether online and offline retailers are thought of as distinct relevant markets—i.e., whether, from the perspective of the retailer, online and offline sales channels are substitutable (see also the relevant market definition section above). 

Ultimately, the AGCM finds that they are not, as online sales enjoy such advantages as lower fixed costs, increased sale flexibility, and better geographical reach. To an outsider, the distinction between the two markets may seem artificial—and it largely is—but such theoretical market segmentation is the bread-and-butter of antitrust analysis. Still, even by EU competition law standards, the relevant market definitions on which the AGCM relies to conclude that selling on Amazon is indispensable appear excessively narrow. 

This market distinction also serves to set up the AGCM’s second, more controversial argument: that the benefits extended to products sold through the FBA channel are also indispensable for retailers’ success on the Amazon.it marketplace. Here, the AGCM seeks a middle ground between competitive advantage and indispensability, finally settling on the notion that a sufficiently large competitive advantage itself translates into indispensability.

But how big is too big? The facts that 40-45% of Amazon’s third-party retailers do not use FBA (p. 57 of the decision) and that roughly 40 of the top 100 products sold on Amazon.it are not fulfilled through Amazon’s logistics service (p. 58) would appear to suggest that FBA is more of a convenience than an obligation. At the least, it does not appear that the advantage conferred is so big as to amount to indispensability. This may be because sellers that choose not to use Amazon’s logistics service (including offline, of course) can and do cut prices to compete with FBA-sold products. If anything, this should be counted as a good thing from the perspective of consumer welfare.

Instead, and signaling the decision’s overarching preoccupation with protecting some businesses at the expense of others (and, ultimately, at the expense of consumers), the AGCM has expanded the already bloated notion of a self-preferencing offense to conclude that expecting sellers to compete on pricing parameters would unfairly slash profit margins for non-FBA sellers.

The third pillar of the AGCM’s theory of harm is the claim that the benefits conferred on products sold through FBA are not awarded based on any objective quality criteria, but purely on whether the seller has chosen FBA or third-party logistics. Thus, even if a logistics operator were, in principle, capable of offering a service as efficient as FBA’s, it would not qualify for the same benefits. 

But this is a disingenuous line of reasoning. One legitimate reason why Amazon could choose to confer exclusive advantages on products fulfilled by its own logistics operation is because no other service is, in fact, routinely as reliable. This does not necessarily mean that FBA is always superior to the alternatives, but rather that it makes sense for Amazon to adopt this presumption a general rule based on past experience, without spending the resources to constantly evaluate it. In other words, granting exclusive benefits is based on quality criteria, just on a prior measurement of quality rather than an ongoing assessment. This is presumably what a customer-obsessed business that does not want to take chances with consumer satisfaction would do. 

Fourth, the AGCM posits that Prime and FBA constitute two separate products that have been artificially tied by Amazon, thereby unfairly excluding third-party logistics operators. Co-opting Amazon’s own terminology, the AGCM claims that the company has created a flywheel of artificial interdependence, wherein Prime benefits increase the number of Prime users, which drives demand for Prime products, which creates demand for Prime-eligible FBA products, and so on. 

To support its case, the AGCM repeatedly adduces a 2015 letter in which Jeff Bezos told shareholders that Amazon Marketplace and Prime are “happily and deeply intertwined,” and that FBA is the “glue” that links them together. Instead of taking this for what it likely is—i.e., a case of legitimate, efficiency-enhancing vertical integration—the AGCM has preferred to read into it a case of illicit tying, an established offense under Article 102 TFEU whereby a dominant firm makes the purchase of one product conditional on the purchase of another, unrelated one. 

The problem with this narrative is that it is perfectly plausible that Prime and FBA are, in fact, meant to be one product that is more than the sum of its parts. For one, the inventory of sellers who use FBA is stowed in fulfillment centers, meaning that Amazon takes care of all logistics, customer service, and product returns. As Bezos put it in the same 2015 letter, this is a huge efficiency gain. It thus makes sense to nudge consumers towards products that use FBA.

In sum, the AGCM’s case rests on a series of questionable assumptions that build on each other: a narrow relevant market definition; a finding of “hyper-dominance” that downplays competitors’ growth and expansion, as well as competition from outside the narrowly defined market; a contrived notion of indispensability at two levels (Marketplace and FBA); and a refusal to contemplate the possibility that Amazon integrates its marketplace and logistics services in orders to enhance efficiency, rather than to exclude competitors.

Remedies

The AGCM sees “only one way to restore a level-playing field in e-commerce logistics”: Amazon must redesign its existing Self-Fulfilled Prime (SFP) program in such a way as to grant all logistics operators—FBA or non-FBA—equal treatment on Amazon.it, based on a set of objective, transparent, standard, uniform, and non-discriminatory criteria. Any logistics operator that demonstrates the ability to fulfill such criteria must be awarded SFP status and the accompanying Prime badge, along with all the perks associated with it. Further, SFP- and FBA-sold products must be subject to the same monitoring mechanism with regard to the observance of Prime standards, as well as to the same evaluation standards. 

In sum, Amazon Italy now has a duty to treat Marketplace sales fulfilled by third-party operators the same as those fulfilled by its own logistics service. This is a significant step toward “common carrier antitrust.” in which vertically integrated firms are expected to comply with perfect neutrality obligations with respect to customers, suppliers, and competitors

Beyond the philosophical question of whether successful private companies should be obliged by law to treat competitors analogously to its affiliates (they shouldn’t), the pitfalls of this approach are plain to see. Nearly all consumer-facing services use choice architectures as a means to highlight products that rank favorably in terms of price and quality, and ensuring consumers enjoy a seamless user experience: Supermarkets offer house brands that signal a product has certain desirable features; operating system developers pre-install certain applications to streamline users’ “out of the box “experience; app stores curate the apps that users will view; search engines use specialized boxes that anticipate the motives underlying users’ search queries, etc. Suppressing these practices through heavy-handed neutrality mandates is liable to harm consumers. 

Second, monitoring third-party logistics operators’ compliance with the requisite standards is going to come at a cost for Amazon (and, presumably, its customers)—a cost likely much higher than that of monitoring its own operations—while awarding the Prime badge liberally may deteriorate the consumer experience on Amazon Marketplace.

Thus, one way for Amazon to comply with AGCM’s remedies while also minimizing monitoring costs is simply to dilute or even remove the criteria for Prime, thereby allowing sellers using any logistics provider to be eligible for Prime. While this would presumably insulate Amazon from any future claims against exclusionary self-preferencing, it would almost certainly also harm consumer welfare. 

A final point worth noting is that vertical integration may well be subsidizing Amazon’s own first-party products. In other words, even if FBA is not fully better than other logistics operators, the revenue that it derives from FBA enables Amazon to offer low prices, as well as a range of other benefits from Prime, such as, e.g., free video. Take that source of revenue away, and those subsidized prices go up and the benefits disappear. This is another reason why it may be legitimate to consider FBA and Prime as a single product.

Of course, this argument is moot if all one cares about is how Amazon’s vertical integration affects competitors, not consumers. But consumers care about the whole package. The rationale at play in the AGCM decision ultimately ends up imposing a narrow, boring business model on all sellers, precluding them from offering interesting consumer benefits to bolster their overall product.

Conclusion

Some have openly applauded AGCM’s use of EU competition law to protect traditional logistics operators like FedEx, Poste Italiane, DHL, and UPS. Others lament the competition authority’s apparent abandonment of the consumer welfare standard in favor of a renewed interest in punishing efficiency to favor laggard competitors under the guise of safekeeping “competition.” Both sides ultimately agree on one thing, however: Amazon Italy is about favoring Amazon’s competitors. If competition authorities insist on continuing down this populist rabbit hole,  the best they can hope for is a series of Pyrrhic victories against the businesses that are most bent on customer satisfaction, i.e., the successful ones.

Some may intuitively think that this is fair; that Amazon is just too big and that it strangles small competitors. But Amazon’s “small” competitors are hardly the “worthy men” of Brandeisian mythology. They are FedEx, DHL, UPS, and the state-backed goliath Poste Italiane; they are undeniably successful companies like eBay, Alibaba – or Walmart in the United States. It is, conversely, the smallest retailers and consumers who benefit the most from Amazon’s integrated logistics and marketplace services, as the company’s meteoric rise in popularity in Italy since 2016 attests. But it seems that, in the brave new world of antitrust, such stakeholders are now too small to matter.

As a new year dawns, the Biden administration remains fixated on illogical, counterproductive “big is bad” nostrums.

Noted economist and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers correctly stressed recently that using antitrust to fight inflation represents “science denial,” tweeting that:

In his extended Twitter thread, Summers notes that labor shortages are the primary cause of inflation over time and that lowering tariffs, paring back import restrictions (such as the Buy America Act), and reducing regulatory delays are vital to combat inflation.

Summers’ points, of course, are right on the mark. Indeed, labor shortages, supply-chain issues, and a dramatic increase in regulatory burdens have been key to the dramatic run-up of prices during the Biden administration’s first year. Reducing the weight of government on the private sector and thereby enhancing incentives for increased investment, labor participation, and supply are the appropriate weapons to slow price rises and incentivize economic growth.

More specifically, administration policies can be pinpointed as the cause, not the potential solution to, rapid price increases in specific sectors, particularly the oil and gas industry. As I recently commented, policies that disincentivize new energy production, and fail to lift excessive regulatory burdens, have been a key factor in sparking rises in gasoline prices. Administration claims that anticompetitive activity is behind these prices increases should be discounted. New Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigations of oil and gas companies would waste resources and increase already large governmental burdens on those firms.

The administration, nevertheless, appears committed to using antitrust as an anti-inflationary “tool” against “big business” (or perhaps, really, as a symbolic hammer to shift blame to the private sector for rising prices). Recent  pronouncements about combatting “big meat” are a case in point.

The New ‘Big Meat’ Crusade

Part of the administration’s crusade against “big meat” involves providing direct government financial support for favored firms. A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plan to spend up to $1 billion to assist smaller meat processors is a subsidy that artificially favors one group of competitors. This misguided policy, which bears the scent of special-interest favoritism, wastes taxpayer dollars and distorts free-market outcomes. It will do nothing to cure supply and regulatory problems that affect rising meat prices. It will, however, misallocate resources.

The other key aspect of the big meat initiative smacks more of problematic, old-style, economics-free antitrust. It centers on: (1) threatening possible antitrust actions against four large meat processors based principally on their size and market share; and (2) initiating a planned rulemaking under the Packers and Stockyards Act. (That rulemaking was foreshadowed by language in the July 2021 Biden Administration Executive Order on Competition.)

The administration’s apparent focus on the “dominance” of four large meatpacking firms (which have the temerity to collectively hold greater than 50% market shares in the hog, cattle, and chicken sectors) and the 120% jump in their gross profits since the pandemic began is troubling. It echoes the structuralist “big is bad” philosophy of the 1950s and 1960s. In and of itself, large market share is not, of course, an antitrust problem, nor are large gross profits. Rather, those metrics typically signal a particular firm’s superior efficiency relative to the competition. (Gross profit “reflects the efficiency of a business in terms of making use of its labor, raw material and other supplies.”) Antitrust investigations of firms merely because they are large would inefficiently bloat those companies’ costs and discourage them from engaging in cost-reducing new capacity and production improvements. This would tend to raise, not lower, prices by major firms. It thus would lower consumer welfare, a result at odds with the guiding policy goal of antitrust, which is to promote consumer welfare.

The administration’s announcement that the USDA “will also propose rules this year to strengthen enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act” is troublesome. That act, dating back to 1921, uses broad terms that extend beyond antitrust law (such as a prohibition on “giv[ing] any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person”) and threatens to penalize efficient conduct by individual competitors. “Ratcheting up” enforcement under this act also could undermine business efficiency and paradoxically raise, not lower, prices.

Obviously, the specifics of the forthcoming proposed rules have not yet been revealed. Nevertheless, the administration’s “big is bad” approach to “big meat” strongly signals that one may expect rules to generate new costly and inefficient restrictions on meat-packer conduct. Such restrictions, of course, would be at odds with vibrant competition and consumer-welfare enhancement.    

This is not to say, of course, that meat packing should be immune from antitrust attention. Such scrutiny, however, should not be transfixed by “big is bad” concerns. Rather, it should center on the core antitrust goal of combatting harmful business conduct that unreasonably restrains competition and reduces consumer welfare. A focus on ferreting out collusive agreements among meat processors, such as price-fixing schemes, should have pride of place. The U.S. Justice Department’s already successful ongoing investigation into price fixing in the broiler-chicken industry is precisely the sort of antitrust initiative on which the administration should expend its scarce enforcement resources.

Conclusion

In sum, the Biden administration could do a lot of good in antitrust land if it would only set aside its nostalgic “big is bad” philosophy. It should return to the bipartisan enlightened understanding that antitrust is a consumer-welfare prescription that is based on sound and empirically based economics and is concerned with economically inefficient conduct that softens or destroys competition.

If it wants to stray beyond mere enforcement, the administration could turn its focus toward dismantling welfare-reducing anticompetitive federal regulatory schemes, rather than adding to private-sector regulatory burdens. For more about how to do this, we recommend that the administration consult a just-released Mercatus Center policy brief that Andrew Mercado and I co-authored.

Even as delivery services work to ship all of those last-minute Christmas presents that consumers bought this season from digital platforms and other e-commerce sites, the U.S. House and Senate are contemplating Grinch-like legislation that looks to stop or limit how Big Tech companies can “self-preference” or “discriminate” on their platforms.

A platform “self-preferences” when it blends various services into the delivery of a given product in ways that third parties couldn’t do themselves. For example, Google self-preferences when it puts a Google Shopping box at the top of a Search page for Adidas sneakers. Amazon self-preferences when it offers its own AmazonBasics USB cables alongside those offered by Apple or Anker. Costco’s placement of its own Kirkland brand of paper towels on store shelves can also be a form of self-preferencing.

Such purportedly “discriminatory” behavior constitutes much of what platforms are designed to do. Virtually every platform that offers a suite of products and services will combine them in ways that users find helpful, even if competitors find it infuriating. It surely doesn’t help Yelp if Google Search users can see a Maps results box next to a search for showtimes at a local cinema. It doesn’t help other manufacturers of charging cables if Amazon sells a cheaper version under a brand that consumers trust. But do consumers really care about Yelp or Apple’s revenues, when all they want are relevant search results and less expensive products?

Until now, competition authorities have judged this type of conduct under the consumer welfare standard: does it hurt consumers in the long run, or does it help them? This test does seek to evaluate whether the conduct deprives consumers of choice by foreclosing rivals, which could ultimately allow the platform to exploit its customers. But it doesn’t treat harm to competitors—in the form of reduced traffic and profits for Yelp, for example—as a problem in and of itself.

“Non-discrimination” bills introduced this year in both the House and Senate aim to change that, but they would do so in ways that differ in important respects.

The House bill would impose a blanket ban on virtually all “discrimination” by platforms. This means that even such benign behavior as Facebook linking to Facebook Marketplace on its homepage would become presumptively unlawful. The measure would, as I’ve written before, break a lot of the Internet as we know it, but it has the virtue of being explicit and clear about its effects.

The Senate bill is, in this sense, a lot more circumspect. Instead of a blanket ban, it would prohibit what the bill refers to as “unfair” discrimination that “materially harm[s] competition on the covered platform,” with a carve-out exception for discrimination that was “necessary” to maintain or enhance the “core functionality” of the platform. In theory, this would avoid a lot of the really crazy effects of the House bill. Apple likely still could, for example, pre-install a Camera app on the iPhone.

But this greater degree of reasonableness comes at the price of ambiguity. The bill does not define “unfair discrimination,” nor what it would mean for something to be “necessary” to improve the core functionality of a platform. Faced with this ambiguity, companies would be wise to be overly cautious, given the steep penalties they would face for conduct found to be “unfair”: 15% of total U.S. revenues earned during the period when the conduct was ongoing. That’s a lot of money to risk over a single feature!

Also unlike the House legislation, the Senate bill would not create a private right of action, thereby limiting litigation to enforce the bill’s terms to actions brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), or state attorneys general.

Put together, these features create the perfect recipe for extensive discretionary power held by a handful of agencies. With such vague criteria and such massive penalties for lawbreaking, the mere threat of a lawsuit could force a company to change its behavior. The rules are so murky that companies might even be threatened with a lawsuit over conduct in one area in order to make them change their behavior in another.

It’s hardly unprecedented for powers like this to be misused. During the Obama administration, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was alleged to have targeted conservative groups for investigation, for which the agency eventually had to apologize (and settle a lawsuit brought by some of the targeted groups). More than a decade ago, the Bank Secrecy Act was used to uncover then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s involvement in an international prostitution ring. Back in 2008, the British government used anti-terrorism powers to seize the assets of some Icelandic banks that had become insolvent and couldn’t repay their British depositors. To this day, municipal governments in Britain use anti-terrorism powers to investigate things like illegal waste dumping and people who wrongly park in spots reserved for the disabled.

The FTC itself has a history of abusing its authority. As Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson remind us, the commission was nearly shut down in the 1970s after trying to use its powers to “protect” children from seeing ads for sugary foods, interpreting its consumer-protection mandate so broadly that it considered tooth decay as falling within its scope.

As I’ve written before, both Chair Lina Khan and Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter appear to believe that the FTC ought to take a broad vision of its goals. Slaughter has argued that antitrust ought to be “antiracist.” Khan believes that the “the dispersion of political and economic control” is the proper goal of antitrust, not consumer welfare or some other economic goal.

Khan in particular does not appear especially bound by the usual norms that might constrain this sort of regulatory overreach. In recent weeks, she has pushed through contentious decisions by relying on more than 20 “zombie votes” cast by former Commissioner Rohit Chopra on the final day before he left the agency. While it has been FTC policy since 1984 to count votes cast by departed commissioners unless they are superseded by their successors, Khan’s FTC has invoked this relatively obscure rule to swing more decisions than every single predecessor combined.

Thus, while the Senate bill may avoid immediately breaking large portions of the Internet in ways the House bill would, it would instead place massive discretionary powers into the hands of authorities who have expansive views about the goals those powers ought to be used to pursue.

This ought to be concerning to anyone who disapproves of public policy being made by unelected bureaucrats, rather than the people’s chosen representatives. If Republicans find an empowered Khan-led FTC worrying today, surely Democrats ought to feel the same about an FTC run by Trump-style appointees in a few years. Both sides may come to regret creating an agency with so much unchecked power.

Antitrust policymakers around the world have taken a page out of the Silicon Valley playbook and decided to “move fast and break things.” While the slogan is certainly catchy, applying it to the policymaking world is unfortunate and, ultimately, threatens to harm consumers.

Several antitrust authorities in recent months have announced their intention to block (or, at least, challenge) a spate of mergers that, under normal circumstances, would warrant only limited scrutiny and face little prospect of outright prohibition. This is notably the case of several vertical mergers, as well as mergers between firms that are only potential competitors (sometimes framed as “killer acquisitions”). These include Facebook’s acquisition of Giphy (U.K.); Nvidia’s ARM Ltd. deal (U.S., EU, and U.K.), and Illumina’s purchase of GRAIL (EU). It is also the case for horizontal mergers in non-concentrated markets, such as WarnerMedia’s proposed merger with Discovery, which has faced significant political backlash.

Some of these deals fail even to implicate “traditional” merger-notification thresholds. Facebook’s purchase of Giphy was only notifiable because of the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority’s broad interpretation of its “share of supply test” (which eschews traditional revenue thresholds). Likewise, the European Commission relied on a highly controversial interpretation of the so-called “Article 22 referral” procedure in order to review Illumina’s GRAIL purchase.

Some have praised these interventions, claiming antitrust authorities should take their chances and prosecute high-profile deals. It certainly appears that authorities are pressing their luck because they face few penalties for wrongful prosecutions. Overly aggressive merger enforcement might even reinforce their bargaining position in subsequent cases. In other words, enforcers risk imposing social costs on firms and consumers because their incentives to prosecute mergers are not aligned with those of society as a whole.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has been following this space. As my ICLE colleagues and I have been arguing for quite a while, weakening the guardrails that surround merger-review proceedings opens the door to arbitrary interventions that are difficult (though certainly not impossible) to remediate before courts.

The negotiations that surround merger-review proceedings involve firms and authorities bargaining in the shadow of potential litigation. Whether and which concessions are made will depend chiefly on what the parties believe will be the outcome of litigation. If firms think courts will safeguard their merger, they will offer authorities few potential remedies. Conversely, if authorities believe courts will support their decision to block a merger, they are unlikely to accept concessions that stop short of the parties withdrawing their deal.

This simplified model suggests that neither enforcers nor merging parties are in position to “exploit” the merger-review process, so long as courts review decisions effectively. Under this model, overly aggressive enforcement would merely lead to defeat in court (and, expecting this, merging parties would offer few concessions to authorities).

Put differently, court proceedings are both a dispute-resolution mechanism and a source of rulemaking. The result is that only marginal cases should lead to actual disputes. Most harmful mergers will be deterred, and clearly beneficial ones will be cleared rapidly. So long as courts apply the consumer welfare standard consistently, firms’ merger decisions—along with any rulings or remedies—all should primarily serve consumers’ interests.

At least, that is the theory. But there are factors that can serve to undermine this efficient outcome. In the field of merger control, this is notably the case with court delays that prevent parties from effectively challenging merger decisions.

While delays between when a legal claim is filed and a judgment is rendered aren’t always detrimental (as Richard Posner observes, speed can be costly), it is essential that these delays be accounted for in any subsequent damages and penalties. Parties that prevail in court might otherwise only obtain reparations that are below the market rate, reducing the incentive to seek judicial review in the first place.

The problem is particularly acute when it comes to merger reviews. Merger challenges might lead the parties to abandon a deal because they estimate the transaction will no longer be commercially viable by the time courts have decided the matter. This is a problem, insofar as neither U.S. nor EU antitrust law generally requires authorities to compensate parties for wrongful merger decisions. For example, courts in the EU have declined to fully compensate aggrieved companies (e.g., the CFI in Schneider) and have set an exceedingly high bar for such claims to succeed at all.

In short, parties have little incentive to challenge merger decisions if the only positive outcome is for their deals to be posthumously sanctified. This smaller incentive to litigate may be insufficient to create enough cases that would potentially helpful precedent for future merging firms. Ultimately, the balance of bargaining power is tilted in favor of competition authorities.

Some Data on Mergers

While not necessarily dispositive, there is qualitative evidence to suggest that parties often drop their deals when authorities either block them (as in the EU) or challenge them in court (in the United States).

U.S. merging parties nearly always either reach a settlement or scrap their deal when their merger is challenged. There were 43 transactions challenged by either the U.S. Justice Department (15) or the Federal Trade Commission (28) in 2020. Of these, 15 were abandoned and almost all the remaining cases led to settlements.

The EU picture is similar. The European Commission blocks, on average, about one merger every year (30 over the last 31 years). Most in-depth investigations are settled in exchange for remedies offered by the merging firms (141 out of 239). While the EU does not publish detailed statistics concerning abandoned mergers, it is rare for firms to appeal merger-prohibition decisions. The European Court of Justice’s database lists only six such appeals over a similar timespan. The vast majority of blocked mergers are scrapped, with the parties declining to appeal.

This proclivity to abandon mergers is surprising, given firms’ high success rate in court. Of the six merger-annulment appeals in the ECJ’s database (CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd.’s acquisition of Telefónica Europe Plc; Ryanair’s acquisition of a controlling stake in Aer Lingus; a proposed merger between Deutsche Börse and NYSE Euronext; Tetra Laval’s takeover of Sidel Group; a merger between Schneider Electric SA and Legrand SA; and Airtours’ acquisition of First Choice) merging firms won four of them. While precise numbers are harder to come by in the United States, it is also reportedly rare for U.S. antitrust enforcers to win merger-challenge cases.

One explanation is that only marginal cases ever make it to court. In other words, firms with weak cases are, all else being equal, less likely to litigate. However, that is unlikely to explain all abandoned deals.

There are documented cases in which it was clearly delays, rather than self-selection, that caused firms to scrap planned mergers. In the EU’s Airtours proceedings, the merging parties dropped their transaction even though they went on to prevail in court (and First Choice, the target firm, was acquired by another rival). This is inconsistent with the notion that proposed mergers are abandoned only when the parties have a weak case to challenge (the Commission’s decision was widely seen as controversial).

Antitrust policymakers also generally acknowledge that mergers are often time-sensitive. That’s why merger rules on both sides of the Atlantic tend to impose strict timelines within which antitrust authorities must review deals.

In the end, if self-selection based on case strength were the only criteria merging firms used in deciding to appeal a merger challenge, one would not expect an equilibrium in which firms prevail in more than two-thirds of cases. If firms anticipated that a successful court case would preserve a multi-billion dollar merger, the relatively small burden of legal fees should not dissuade them from litigating, even if their chance of success was tiny. We would expect to see more firms losing in court.

The upshot is that antitrust challenges and prohibition decisions likely cause at least some firms to abandon their deals because court proceedings are not seen as an effective remedy. This perception, in turn, reinforces authorities’ bargaining position and thus encourages firms to offer excessive remedies in hopes of staving off lengthy litigation.

Conclusion

A general rule of policymaking is that rules should seek to ensure that agents internalize both the positive and negative effects of their decisions. This, in turn, should ensure that they behave efficiently.

In the field of merger control, those incentives are misaligned. Given the prevailing political climate on both sides of the Atlantic, challenging large corporate acquisitions likely generates important political capital for antitrust authorities. But wrongful merger prohibitions are unlikely to elicit the kinds of judicial rebukes that would compel authorities to proceed more carefully.

Put differently, in the field of antitrust law, court proceedings ought to serve as a guardrail to ensure that enforcement decisions ultimately benefit consumers. When that shield is removed, it is no longer a given that authorities—who, in theory, act as agents of society—will act in the best interests of that society, rather than maximize their own preferences.

Ideally, we should ensure that antitrust authorities bear the social costs of faulty decisions, by compensating, at least, the direct victims of their actions (i.e., the merging firms). However, this would likely require new legislation to that effect, as there currently are too many obstacles to such cases. It is thus unlikely to represent a short-term solution.

In the meantime, regulatory restraint appears to be the only realistic solution. Or, one might say, authorities should “move carefully and avoid breaking stuff.”

Recent antitrust forays on both sides of the Atlantic have unfortunate echoes of the oldie-but-baddie “efficiencies offense” that once plagued American and European merger analysis (and, more broadly, reflected a “big is bad” theory of antitrust). After a very short overview of the history of merger efficiencies analysis under American and European competition law, we briefly examine two current enforcement matters “on both sides of the pond” that impliedly give rise to such a concern. Those cases may regrettably foreshadow a move by enforcers to downplay the importance of efficiencies, if not openly reject them.

Background: The Grudging Acceptance of Merger Efficiencies

Not long ago, economically literate antitrust teachers in the United States enjoyed poking fun at such benighted 1960s Supreme Court decisions as Procter & Gamble (following in the wake of Brown Shoe andPhiladelphia National Bank). Those holdings—which not only rejected efficiencies justifications for mergers, but indeed “treated efficiencies more as an offense”—seemed a thing of the past, put to rest by the rise of an economic approach to antitrust. Several early European Commission merger-control decisions also arguably embraced an “efficiencies offense.”  

Starting in the 1980s, the promulgation of increasingly economically sophisticated merger guidelines in the United States led to the acceptance of efficiencies (albeit less then perfectly) as an important aspect of integrated merger analysis. Several practitioners have claimed, nevertheless, that “efficiencies are seldom credited and almost never influence the outcome of mergers that are otherwise deemed anticompetitive.” Commissioner Christine Wilson has argued that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) still have work to do in “establish[ing] clear and reasonable expectations for what types of efficiency analysis will and will not pass muster.”

In its first few years of merger review, which was authorized in 1989, the European Commission was hostile to merger-efficiency arguments.  In 2004, however, the EC promulgated horizontal merger guidelines that allow for the consideration of efficiencies, but only if three cumulative conditions (consumer benefit, merger specificity, and verifiability) are satisfied. A leading European competition practitioner has characterized several key European Commission merger decisions in the last decade as giving rather short shrift to efficiencies. In light of that observation, the practitioner has advocated that “the efficiency offence theory should, once again, be repudiated by the Commission, in order to avoid deterring notifying parties from bringing forward perfectly valid efficiency claims.”

In short, although the actual weight enforcers accord to efficiency claims is a matter of debate, efficiency justifications are cognizable, subject to constraints, as a matter of U.S. and European Union merger-enforcement policy. Whether that will remain the case is, unfortunately, uncertain, given DOJ and FTC plans to revise merger guidelines, as well as EU talk of convergence with U.S. competition law.

Two Enforcement Matters with ‘Efficiencies Offense’ Overtones

Two Facebook-related matters currently before competition enforcers—one in the United States and one in the United Kingdom—have implications for the possible revival of an antitrust “efficiencies offense” as a “respectable” element of antitrust policy. (I use the term Facebook to reference both the platform company and its corporate parent, Meta.)

FTC v. Facebook

The FTC’s 2020 federal district court monopolization complaint against Facebook, still in the motion to dismiss the amended complaint phase (see here for an overview of the initial complaint and the judge’s dismissal of it), rests substantially on claims that Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp harmed competition. As Facebook points out in its recent reply brief supporting its motion to dismiss the FTC’s amended complaint, Facebook appears to be touting merger-related efficiencies in critiquing those acquisitions. Specifically:

[The amended complaint] depends on the allegation that Facebook’s expansion of both Instagram and WhatsApp created a “protective ‘moat’” that made it harder for rivals to compete because Facebook operated these services at “scale” and made them attractive to consumers post-acquisition. . . . The FTC does not allege facts that, left on their own, Instagram and WhatsApp would be less expensive (both are free; Facebook made WhatsApp free); or that output would have been greater (their dramatic expansion at “scale” is the linchpin of the FTC’s “moat” theory); or that the products would be better in any specific way.

The FTC’s concerns about a scale-based merger-related output expansion that benefited consumers and thereby allegedly enhanced Facebook’s market position eerily echoes the commission’s concerns in Procter & Gamble that merger-related cost-reducing joint efficiencies in advertising had an anticompetitive “entrenchment” effect. Both positions, in essence, characterize output-increasing efficiencies as harmful to competition: in other words, as “efficiencies offenses.”

UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) v. Facebook

The CMA announced Dec. 1 that it had decided to block retrospectively Facebook’s 2020 acquisition of Giphy, which is “a company that provides social media and messaging platforms with animated GIF images that users can embed in posts and messages. . . .  These platforms license the use of Giphy for its users.”

The CMA theorized that Facebook could harm competition by (1) restricting access to Giphy’s digital libraries to Facebook’s competitors; and (2) prevent Giphy from developing into a potential competitor to Facebook’s display advertising business.

As a CapX analysis explains, the CMA’s theory of harm to competition, based on theoretical speculation, is problematic. First, a behavioral remedy short of divestiture, such as requiring Facebook to maintain open access to its gif libraries, would deal with the threat of restricted access. Indeed, Facebook promised at the time of the acquisition that Giphy would maintain its library and make it widely available. Second, “loss of a single, relatively small, potential competitor out of many cannot be counted as a significant loss for competition, since so many other potential and actual competitors remain.” Third, given the purely theoretical and questionable danger to future competition, the CMA “has blocked this deal on relatively speculative potential competition grounds.”

Apart from the weakness of the CMA’s case for harm to competition, the CMA appears to ignore a substantial potential dynamic integrative efficiency flowing from Facebook’s acquisition of Giphy. As David Teece explains:

Facebook’s acquisition of Giphy maintained Giphy’s assets and furthered its innovation in Facebook’s ecosystem, strengthening that ecosystem in competition with others; and via Giphy’s APIs, strengthening the ecosystems of other service providers as well.

There is no evidence that CMA seriously took account of this integrative efficiency, which benefits consumers by offering them a richer experience from Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram, and which spurs competing ecosystems to enhance their offerings to consumers as well. This is a failure to properly account for an efficiency. Moreover, to the extent that the CMA viewed these integrative benefits as somehow anticompetitive (to the extent that it enhanced Facebook’s competitive position) the improvement of Facebook’s ecosystem could have been deemed a type of “efficiencies offense.”

Are the Facebook Cases Merely Random Straws in the Wind?

It might appear at first blush to be reading too much into the apparent slighting of efficiencies in the two current Facebook cases. Nevertheless, recent policy rhetoric suggests that economic efficiencies arguments (whose status was tenuous at enforcement agencies to begin with) may actually be viewed as “offensive” by the new breed of enforcers.

In her Sept. 22 policy statement on “Vision and Priorities for the FTC,” Chair Lina Khan advocated focusing on the possible competitive harm flowing from actions of “gatekeepers and dominant middlemen,” and from “one-sided [vertical] contract provisions” that are “imposed by dominant firms.” No suggestion can be found in the statement that such vertical relationships often confer substantial benefits on consumers. This hints at a new campaign by the FTC against vertical restraints (as opposed to an emphasis on clearly welfare-inimical conduct) that could discourage a wide range of efficiency-producing contracts.

Chair Khan also sponsored the FTC’s July 2021 rescission of its Section 5 Policy Statement on Unfair Methods of Competition, which had emphasized the primacy of consumer welfare as the guiding principle underlying FTC antitrust enforcement. A willingness to set aside (or place a lower priority on) consumer welfare considerations suggests a readiness to ignore efficiency justifications that benefit consumers.

Even more troubling, a direct attack on the consideration of efficiencies is found in the statement accompanying the FTC’s September 2021 withdrawal of the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines:

The statement by the FTC majority . . . notes that the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines had improperly contravened the Clayton Act’s language with its approach to efficiencies, which are not recognized by the statute as a defense to an unlawful merger. The majority statement explains that the guidelines adopted a particularly flawed economic theory regarding purported pro-competitive benefits of mergers, despite having no basis of support in the law or market reality.

Also noteworthy is Khan’s seeming interest (found in her writings here, here, and here) in reviving Robinson-Patman Act enforcement. What’s worse, President Joe Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Competition explicitly endorses FTC investigation of “retailers’ practices on the conditions of competition in the food industries, including any practices that may violate [the] Robinson-Patman Act” (emphasis added). Those troubling statements from the administration ignore the widespread scholarly disdain for Robinson-Patman, which is almost unanimously viewed as an attack on efficiencies in distribution. For example, in recommending the act’s repeal in 2007, the congressionally established Antitrust Modernization Commission stressed that the act “protects competitors against competition and punishes the very price discounting and innovation and distribution methods that the antitrust otherwise encourage.”

Finally, newly confirmed Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Jonathan Kanter (who is widely known as a Big Tech critic) has expressed his concerns about the consumer welfare standard and the emphasis on economics in antitrust analysis. Such concerns also suggest, at least by implication, that the Antitrust Division under Kanter’s leadership may manifest a heightened skepticism toward efficiencies justifications.

Conclusion

Recent straws in the wind suggest that an anti-efficiencies hay pile is in the works. Although antitrust agencies have not yet officially rejected the consideration of efficiencies, nor endorsed an “efficiencies offense,” the signs are troubling. Newly minted agency leaders’ skepticism toward antitrust economics, combined with their de-emphasis of the consumer welfare standard and efficiencies (at least in the merger context), suggest that even strongly grounded efficiency explanations may be summarily rejected at the agency level. In foreign jurisdictions, where efficiencies are even less well-established, and enforcement based on mere theory (as opposed to empiricism) is more widely accepted, the outlook for efficiencies stories appears to be no better.     

One powerful factor, however, should continue to constrain the anti-efficiencies movement, at least in the United States: the federal courts. As demonstrated most recently in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ FTC v. Qualcomm decision, American courts remain committed to insisting on empirical support for theories of harm and on seriously considering business justifications for allegedly suspect contractual provisions. (The role of foreign courts in curbing prosecutorial excesses not grounded in economics, and in weighing efficiencies, depends upon the jurisdiction, but in general such courts are far less of a constraint on enforcers than American tribunals.)

While the DOJ and FTC (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, foreign enforcers) will have to keep the judiciary in mind in deciding to bring enforcement actions, the denigration of efficiencies by the agencies still will have an unfortunate demonstration effect on the private sector. Given the cost (both in resources and in reputational capital) associated with antitrust investigations, and the inevitable discounting for the risk of projects caught up in such inquiries, a publicly proclaimed anti-efficiencies enforcement philosophy will do damage. On the margin, it will lead businesses to introduce fewer efficiency-seeking improvements that could be (wrongly) characterized as “strengthening” or “entrenching” market dominance. Such business decisions, in turn, will be welfare-inimical; they will deny consumers the benefit of efficiencies-driven product and service enhancements, and slow the rate of business innovation.

As such, it is to be hoped that, upon further reflection, U.S. and foreign competition enforcers will see the light and publicly proclaim that they will fully weigh efficiencies in analyzing business conduct. The “efficiencies offense” was a lousy tune. That “oldie-but-baddie” should not be replayed.

On both sides of the Atlantic, 2021 has seen legislative and regulatory proposals to mandate that various digital services be made interoperable with others. Several bills to do so have been proposed in Congress; the EU’s proposed Digital Markets Act would mandate interoperability in certain contexts for “gatekeeper” platforms; and the UK’s competition regulator will be given powers to require interoperability as part of a suite of “pro-competitive interventions” that are hoped to increase competition in digital markets.

The European Commission plans to require Apple to use USB-C charging ports on iPhones to allow interoperability among different chargers (to save, the Commission estimates, two grams of waste per-European per-year). Interoperability demands for forms of interoperability have been at the center of at least two major lawsuits: Epic’s case against Apple and a separate lawsuit against Apple by the app called Coronavirus Reporter. In July, a group of pro-intervention academics published a white paper calling interoperability “the ‘Super Tool’ of Digital Platform Governance.”

What is meant by the term “interoperability” varies widely. It can refer to relatively narrow interventions in which user data from one service is made directly portable to other services, rather than the user having to download and later re-upload it. At the other end of the spectrum, it could mean regulations to require virtually any vertical integration be unwound. (Should a Tesla’s engine be “interoperable” with the chassis of a Land Rover?) And in between are various proposals for specific applications of interoperability—some product working with another made by another company.

Why Isn’t Everything Interoperable?

The world is filled with examples of interoperability that arose through the (often voluntary) adoption of standards. Credit card companies oversee massive interoperable payments networks; screwdrivers are interoperable with screws made by other manufacturers, although different standards exist; many U.S. colleges accept credits earned at other accredited institutions. The containerization revolution in shipping is an example of interoperability leading to enormous efficiency gains, with a government subsidy to encourage the adoption of a single standard.

And interoperability can emerge over time. Microsoft Word used to be maddeningly non-interoperable with other word processors. Once OpenOffice entered the market, Microsoft patched its product to support OpenOffice files; Word documents now work slightly better with products like Google Docs, as well.

But there are also lots of things that could be interoperable but aren’t, like the Tesla motors that can’t easily be removed and added to other vehicles. The charging cases for Apple’s AirPods and Sony’s wireless earbuds could, in principle, be shaped to be interoperable. Medical records could, in principle, be standardized and made interoperable among healthcare providers, and it’s easy to imagine some of the benefits that could come from being able to plug your medical history into apps like MyFitnessPal and Apple Health. Keurig pods could, in principle, be interoperable with Nespresso machines. Your front door keys could, in principle, be made interoperable with my front door lock.

The reason not everything is interoperable like this is because interoperability comes with costs as well as benefits. It may be worth letting different earbuds have different designs because, while it means we sacrifice easy interoperability, we gain the ability for better designs to be brought to market and for consumers to have choice among different kinds. We may find that, while digital health records are wonderful in theory, the compliance costs of a standardized format might outweigh those benefits.

Manufacturers may choose to sell an expensive device with a relatively cheap upfront price tag, relying on consumer “lock in” for a stream of supplies and updates to finance the “full” price over time, provided the consumer likes it enough to keep using it.

Interoperability can remove a layer of security. I don’t want my bank account to be interoperable with any payments app, because it increases the risk of getting scammed. What I like about my front door lock is precisely that it isn’t interoperable with anyone else’s key. Lots of people complain about popular Twitter accounts being obnoxious, rabble-rousing, and stupid; it’s not difficult to imagine the benefits of a new, similar service that wanted everyone to start from the same level and so did not allow users to carry their old Twitter following with them.

There thus may be particular costs that prevent interoperability from being worth the tradeoff, such as that:

  1. It might be too costly to implement and/or maintain.
  2. It might prescribe a certain product design and prevent experimentation and innovation.
  3. It might add too much complexity and/or confusion for users, who may prefer not to have certain choices.
  4. It might increase the risk of something not working, or of security breaches.
  5. It might prevent certain pricing models that increase output.
  6. It might compromise some element of the product or service that benefits specifically from not being interoperable.

In a market that is functioning reasonably well, we should be able to assume that competition and consumer choice will discover the desirable degree of interoperability among different products. If there are benefits to making your product interoperable with others that outweigh the costs of doing so, that should give you an advantage over competitors and allow you to compete them away. If the costs outweigh the benefits, the opposite will happen—consumers will choose products that are not interoperable with each other.

In short, we cannot infer from the absence of interoperability that something is wrong, since we frequently observe that the costs of interoperability outweigh the benefits.

Of course, markets do not always lead to optimal outcomes. In cases where a market is “failing”—e.g., because competition is obstructed, or because there are important externalities that are not accounted for by the market’s prices—certain goods may be under-provided. In the case of interoperability, this can happen if firms struggle to coordinate upon a single standard, or because firms’ incentives to establish a standard are not aligned with the social optimum (i.e., interoperability might be optimal and fail to emerge, or vice versa).

But the analysis cannot stop here: just because a market might not be functioning well and does not currently provide some form of interoperability, we cannot assume that if it was functioning well that it would provide interoperability.

Interoperability for Digital Platforms

Since we know that many clearly functional markets and products do not provide all forms of interoperability that we could imagine them providing, it is perfectly possible that many badly functioning markets and products would still not provide interoperability, even if they did not suffer from whatever has obstructed competition or effective coordination in that market. In these cases, imposing interoperability would destroy value.

It would therefore be a mistake to assume that more interoperability in digital markets would be better, even if you believe that those digital markets suffer from too little competition. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Facebook/Meta has market power that allows it to keep its subsidiary WhatsApp from being interoperable with other competing services. Even then, we still would not know if WhatsApp users would want that interoperability, given the trade-offs.

A look at smaller competitors like Telegram and Signal, which we have no reason to believe have market power, demonstrates that they also are not interoperable with other messaging services. Signal is run by a nonprofit, and thus has little incentive to obstruct users for the sake of market power. Why does it not provide interoperability? I don’t know, but I would speculate that the security risks and technical costs of doing so outweigh the expected benefit to Signal’s users. If that is true, it seems strange to assume away the potential costs of making WhatsApp interoperable, especially if those costs may relate to things like security or product design.

Interoperability and Contact-Tracing Apps

A full consideration of the trade-offs is also necessary to evaluate the lawsuit that Coronavirus Reporter filed against Apple. Coronavirus Reporter was a COVID-19 contact-tracing app that Apple rejected from the App Store in March 2020. Its makers are now suing Apple for, they say, stifling competition in the contact-tracing market. Apple’s defense is that it only allowed COVID-19 apps from “recognised entities such as government organisations, health-focused NGOs, companies deeply credentialed in health issues, and medical or educational institutions.” In effect, by barring it from the App Store, and offering no other way to install the app, Apple denied Coronavirus Reporter interoperability with the iPhone. Coronavirus Reporter argues it should be punished for doing so.

No doubt, Apple’s decision did reduce competition among COVID-19 contact tracing apps. But increasing competition among COVID-19 contact-tracing apps via mandatory interoperability might have costs in other parts of the market. It might, for instance, confuse users who would like a very straightforward way to download their country’s official contact-tracing app. Or it might require access to certain data that users might not want to share, preferring to let an intermediary like Apple decide for them. Narrowing choice like this can be valuable, since it means individual users don’t have to research every single possible option every time they buy or use some product. If you don’t believe me, turn off your spam filter for a few days and see how you feel.

In this case, the potential costs of the access that Coronavirus Reporter wants are obvious: while it may have had the best contact-tracing service in the world, sorting it from other less reliable and/or scrupulous apps may have been difficult and the risk to users may have outweighed the benefits. As Apple and Facebook/Meta constantly point out, the security risks involved in making their services more interoperable are not trivial.

It isn’t competition among COVID-19 apps that is important, per se. As ever, competition is a means to an end, and maximizing it in one context—via, say, mandatory interoperability—cannot be judged without knowing the trade-offs that maximization requires. Even if we thought of Apple as a monopolist over iPhone users—ignoring the fact that Apple’s iPhones obviously are substitutable with Android devices to a significant degree—it wouldn’t follow that the more interoperability, the better.

A ‘Super Tool’ for Digital Market Intervention?

The Coronavirus Reporter example may feel like an “easy” case for opponents of mandatory interoperability. Of course we don’t want anything calling itself a COVID-19 app to have totally open access to people’s iPhones! But what’s vexing about mandatory interoperability is that it’s very hard to sort the sensible applications from the silly ones, and most proposals don’t even try. The leading U.S. House proposal for mandatory interoperability, the ACCESS Act, would require that platforms “maintain a set of transparent, third-party-accessible interfaces (including application programming interfaces) to facilitate and maintain interoperability with a competing business or a potential competing business,” based on APIs designed by the Federal Trade Commission.

The only nod to the costs of this requirement are provisions that further require platforms to set “reasonably necessary” security standards, and a provision to allow the removal of third-party apps that don’t “reasonably secure” user data. No other costs of mandatory interoperability are acknowledged at all.

The same goes for the even more substantive proposals for mandatory interoperability. Released in July 2021, “Equitable Interoperability: The ‘Super Tool’ of Digital Platform Governance” is co-authored by some of the most esteemed competition economists in the business. While it details obscure points about matters like how chat groups might work across interoperable chat services, it is virtually silent on any of the costs or trade-offs of its proposals. Indeed, the first “risk” the report identifies is that regulators might be too slow to impose interoperability in certain cases! It reads like interoperability has been asked what its biggest weaknesses are in a job interview.

Where the report does acknowledge trade-offs—for example, interoperability making it harder for a service to monetize its user base, who can just bypass ads on the service by using a third-party app that blocks them—it just says that the overseeing “technical committee or regulator may wish to create conduct rules” to decide.

Ditto with the objection that mandatory interoperability might limit differentiation among competitors – like, for example, how imposing the old micro-USB standard on Apple might have stopped us from getting the Lightning port. Again, they punt: “We recommend that the regulator or the technical committee consult regularly with market participants and allow the regulated interface to evolve in response to market needs.”

But if we could entrust this degree of product design to regulators, weighing the costs of a feature against its benefits, we wouldn’t need markets or competition at all. And the report just assumes away many other obvious costs: “​​the working hypothesis we use in this paper is that the governance issues are more of a challenge than the technical issues.” Despite its illustrious panel of co-authors, the report fails to grapple with the most basic counterargument possible: its proposals have costs as well as benefits, and it’s not straightforward to decide which is bigger than which.

Strangely, the report includes a section that “looks ahead” to “Google’s Dominance Over the Internet of Things.” This, the report says, stems from the company’s “market power in device OS’s [that] allows Google to set licensing conditions that position Google to maintain its monopoly and extract rents from these industries in future.” The report claims this inevitability can only be avoided by imposing interoperability requirements.

The authors completely ignore that a smart home interoperability standard has already been developed, backed by a group of 170 companies that include Amazon, Apple, and Google, as well as SmartThings, IKEA, and Samsung. It is open source and, in principle, should allow a Google Home speaker to work with, say, an Amazon Ring doorbell. In markets where consumers really do want interoperability, it can emerge without a regulator requiring it, even if some companies have apparent incentive not to offer it.

If You Build It, They Still Might Not Come

Much of the case for interoperability interventions rests on the presumption that the benefits will be substantial. It’s hard to know how powerful network effects really are in preventing new competitors from entering digital markets, and none of the more substantial reports cited by the “Super Tool” report really try.

In reality, the cost of switching among services or products is never zero. Simply pointing out that particular costs—such as network effect-created switching costs—happen to exist doesn’t tell us much. In practice, many users are happy to multi-home across different services. I use at least eight different messaging apps every day (Signal, WhatsApp, Twitter DMs, Slack, Discord, Instagram DMs, Google Chat, and iMessage/SMS). I don’t find it particularly costly to switch among them, and have been happy to adopt new services that seemed to offer something new. Discord has built a thriving 150-million-user business, despite these switching costs. What if people don’t actually care if their Instagram DMs are interoperable with Slack?

None of this is to argue that interoperability cannot be useful. But it is often overhyped, and it is difficult to do in practice (because of those annoying trade-offs). After nearly five years, Open Banking in the UK—cited by the “Super Tool” report as an example of what it wants for other markets—still isn’t really finished yet in terms of functionality. It has required an enormous amount of time and investment by all parties involved and has yet to deliver obvious benefits in terms of consumer outcomes, let alone greater competition among the current accounts that have been made interoperable with other services. (My analysis of the lessons of Open Banking for other services is here.) Phone number portability, which is also cited by the “Super Tool” report, is another example of how hard even simple interventions can be to get right.

The world is filled with cases where we could imagine some benefits from interoperability but choose not to have them, because the costs are greater still. None of this is to say that interoperability mandates can never work, but their benefits can be oversold, especially when their costs are ignored. Many of mandatory interoperability’s more enthusiastic advocates should remember that such trade-offs exist—even for policies they really, really like.

Others already have noted that the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recently released 6(b) report on the privacy practices of Internet service providers (ISPs) fails to comprehend that widespread adoption of privacy-enabling technology—in particular, Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) and DNS over HTTPS (DoH), but also the use of virtual private networks (VPNs)—largely precludes ISPs from seeing what their customers do online.

But a more fundamental problem with the report lies in its underlying assumption that targeted advertising is inherently nefarious. Indeed, much of the report highlights not actual violations of the law by the ISPs, but “concerns” that they could use customer data for targeted advertising much like Google and Facebook already do. The final subheading before the report’s conclusion declares: “Many ISPs in Our Study Can Be At Least As Privacy-Intrusive as Large Advertising Platforms.”

The report does not elaborate on why it would be bad for ISPs to enter the targeted advertising market, which is particularly strange given the public focus regulators have shone in recent months on the supposed dominance of Google, Facebook, and Amazon in online advertising. As the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) has argued in past filings on the issue, there simply is no justification to apply sector-specific regulations to ISPs for the mere possibility that they will use customer data for targeted advertising.

ISPs Could be Competition for the Digital Advertising Market

It is ironic to witness FTC warnings about ISPs engaging in targeted advertising even as there are open antitrust cases against Google for its alleged dominance of the digital advertising market. In fact, news reports suggest the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) is preparing to join the antitrust suits against Google brought by state attorneys general. An obvious upshot of ISPs engaging in a larger amount of targeted advertising if that they could serve as a potential source of competition for Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

Despite the fears raised in the 6(b) report of rampant data collection for targeted ads, ISPs are, in fact, just a very small part of the $152.7 billion U.S. digital advertising market. As the report itself notes: “in 2020, the three largest players, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, received almost two-third of all U.S. digital advertising,” while Verizon pulled in just 3.4% of U.S. digital advertising revenues in 2018.

If the 6(b) report is correct that ISPs have access to troves of consumer data, it raises the question of why they don’t enjoy a bigger share of the digital advertising market. It could be that ISPs have other reasons not to engage in extensive advertising. Internet service provision is a two-sided market. ISPs could (and, over the years in various markets, some have) rely on advertising to subsidize Internet access. That they instead rely primarily on charging users directly for subscriptions may tell us something about prevailing demand on either side of the market.

Regardless of the reasons, the fact that ISPs have little presence in digital advertising suggests that it would be a misplaced focus for regulators to pursue industry-specific privacy regulation to crack down on ISP data collection for targeted advertising.

What’s the Harm in Targeted Advertising, Anyway?

At the heart of the FTC report is the commission’s contention that “advertising-driven surveillance of consumers’ online activity presents serious risks to the privacy of consumer data.” In Part V.B of the report, five of the six risks the FTC lists as associated with ISP data collection are related to advertising. But the only argument the report puts forth for why targeted advertising would be inherently pernicious is the assertion that it is contrary to user expectations and preferences.

As noted earlier, in a two-sided market, targeted ads could allow one side of the market to subsidize the other side. In other words, ISPs could engage in targeted advertising in order to reduce the price of access to consumers on the other side of the market. This is, indeed, one of the dominant models throughout the Internet ecosystem, so it wouldn’t be terribly unusual.

Taking away ISPs’ ability to engage in targeted advertising—particularly if it is paired with rumored net neutrality regulations from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—would necessarily put upward pricing pressure on the sector’s remaining revenue stream: subscriber fees. With bridging the so-called “digital divide” (i.e., building out broadband to rural and other unserved and underserved markets) a major focus of the recently enacted infrastructure spending package, it would be counterproductive to simultaneously take steps that would make Internet access more expensive and less accessible.

Even if the FTC were right that data collection for targeted advertising poses the risk of consumer harm, the report fails to justify why a regulatory scheme should apply solely to ISPs when they are such a small part of the digital advertising marketplace. Sector-specific regulation only makes sense if the FTC believes that ISPs are uniquely opaque among data collectors with respect to their collection practices.

Conclusion

The sector-specific approach implicitly endorsed by the 6(b) report would limit competition in the digital advertising market, even as there are already legal and regulatory inquiries into whether that market is sufficiently competitive. The report also fails to make the case the data collection for target advertising is inherently bad, or uniquely bad when done by an ISP.

There may or may not be cause for comprehensive federal privacy legislation, depending on whether it would pass cost-benefit analysis, but there is no reason to focus on ISPs alone. The FTC needs to go back to the drawing board.

The European Commission and its supporters were quick to claim victory following last week’s long-awaited General Court of the European Union ruling in the Google Shopping case. It’s hard to fault them. The judgment is ostensibly an unmitigated win for the Commission, with the court upholding nearly every aspect of its decision. 

However, the broader picture is much less rosy for both the Commission and the plaintiffs. The General Court’s ruling notably provides strong support for maintaining the current remedy package, in which rivals can bid for shopping box placement. This makes the Commission’s earlier rejection of essentially the same remedy  in 2014 look increasingly frivolous. It also pours cold water on rivals’ hopes that it might be replaced with something more far-reaching.

More fundamentally, the online world continues to move further from the idealistic conception of an “open internet” that regulators remain determined to foist on consumers. Indeed, users consistently choose convenience over openness, thus rejecting the vision of online markets upon which both the Commission’s decision and the General Court’s ruling are premised. 

The Google Shopping case will ultimately prove to be both a pyrrhic victory and a monument to the pitfalls of myopic intervention in digital markets.

Google’s big remedy win

The main point of law addressed in the Google Shopping ruling concerns the distinction between self-preferencing and refusals to deal. Contrary to Google’s defense, the court ruled that self-preferencing can constitute a standalone abuse of Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The Commission was thus free to dispense with the stringent conditions laid out in the 1998 Bronner ruling

This undoubtedly represents an important victory for the Commission, as it will enable it to launch new proceedings against both Google and other online platforms. However, the ruling will also constrain the Commission’s available remedies, and rightly so.

The origins of the Google Shopping decision are enlightening. Several rivals sought improved access to the top of the Google Search page. The Commission was receptive to those calls, but faced important legal constraints. The natural solution would have been to frame its case as a refusal to deal, which would call for a remedy in which a dominant firm grants rivals access to its infrastructure (be it physical or virtual). But going down this path would notably have required the Commission to show that effective access was “indispensable” for rivals to compete (one of the so-called Bronner conditions)—something that was most likely not the case here. 

Sensing these difficulties, the Commission framed its case in terms of self-preferencing, surmising that this would entail a much softer legal test. The General Court’s ruling vindicates this assessment (at least barring a successful appeal by Google):

240    It must therefore be concluded that the Commission was not required to establish that the conditions set out in the judgment of 26 November 1998, Bronner (C‑7/97, EU:C:1998:569), were satisfied […]. [T]he practices at issue are an independent form of leveraging abuse which involve […] ‘active’ behaviour in the form of positive acts of discrimination in the treatment of the results of Google’s comparison shopping service, which are promoted within its general results pages, and the results of competing comparison shopping services, which are prone to being demoted.

This more expedient approach, however, entails significant limits that will undercut both the Commission and rivals’ future attempts to extract more far-reaching remedies from Google.

Because the underlying harm is no longer the denial of access, but rivals being treated less favorably, the available remedies are much narrower. Google must merely ensure that it does not treat itself more preferably than rivals, regardless whether those rivals ultimately access its infrastructure and manage to compete. The General Court says this much when it explains the theory of harm in the case at hand:

287. Conversely, even if the results from competing comparison shopping services would be particularly relevant for the internet user, they can never receive the same treatment as results from Google’s comparison shopping service, whether in terms of their positioning, since, owing to their inherent characteristics, they are prone to being demoted by the adjustment algorithms and the boxes are reserved for results from Google’s comparison shopping service, or in terms of their display, since rich characters and images are also reserved to Google’s comparison shopping service. […] they can never be shown in as visible and as eye-catching a way as the results displayed in Product Universals.

Regulation 1/2003 (Art. 7.1) ensures the European Commission can only impose remedies that are “proportionate to the infringement committed and necessary to bring the infringement effectively to an end.” This has obvious ramifications for the Google Shopping remedy.

Under the remedy accepted by the Commission, Google agreed to auction off access to the Google Shopping box. Google and rivals would thus compete on equal footing to display comparison shopping results.

Illustrations taken from Graf & Mostyn, 2020

Rivals and their consultants decried this outcome; and Margrethe Vestager intimated the commission might review the remedy package. Both camps essentially argued the remedy did not meaningfully boost traffic to rival comparison shopping services (CSSs), because those services were not winning the best auction slots:

All comparison shopping services other than Google’s are hidden in plain sight, on a tab behind Google’s default comparison shopping page. Traffic cannot get to them, but instead goes to Google and on to merchants. As a result, traffic to comparison shopping services has fallen since the remedy—worsening the original abuse.

Or, as Margrethe Vestager put it:

We may see a show of rivals in the shopping box. We may see a pickup when it comes to clicks for merchants. But we still do not see much traffic for viable competitors when it comes to shopping comparison

But these arguments are entirely beside the point. If the infringement had been framed as a refusal to supply, it might be relevant that rivals cannot access the shopping box at what is, for them,  cost-effective price. Because the infringement was framed in terms of self-preferencing, all that matters is whether Google treats itself equally.

I am not aware of a credible claim that this is not the case. At best, critics have suggested the auction mechanism favors Google because it essentially pays itself:

The auction mechanism operated by Google to determine the price paid for PLA clicks also disproportionately benefits Google. CSSs are discriminated against per clickthrough, as they are forced to cede most of their profit margin in order to successfully bid […] Google, contrary to rival CSSs, does not, in reality, have to incur the auction costs and bid away a great part of its profit margins.

But this reasoning completely omits Google’s opportunity costs. Imagine a hypothetical (and oversimplified) setting where retailers are willing to pay Google or rival CSSs 13 euros per click-through. Imagine further that rival CSSs can serve these clicks at a cost of 2 euros, compared to 3 euros for Google (excluding the auction fee). Google is less efficient in this hypothetical. In this setting, rivals should be willing to bid up to 11 euros per click (the difference between what they expect to earn and their other costs). Critics claim Google will accept to bid higher because the money it pays itself during the auction is not really a cost (it ultimately flows to Google’s pockets). That is clearly false. 

To understand this, readers need only consider Google’s point of view. On the one hand, it could pay itself 11 euros (and some tiny increment) to win the auction. Its revenue per click-through would be 10 euros (13 euros per click-through, minus its cost of 3 euros). On the other hand, it could underbid rivals by a tiny increment, ensuring they bid 11 euros. When its critics argue that Google has an advantage because it pays itself, they are ultimately claiming that 10 is larger than 11.

Google’s remedy could hardly be more neutral. If it wins more auction slots than rivals CSSs, the appropriate inference should be that it is simply more efficient. Nothing in the Commission’s decision or the General Court’s ruling precludes that outcome. In short, while Google has (for the time being, at least) lost its battle to appeal the Commission’s decision, the remedy package—the same it put forward way back in 2014—has never looked stronger.

Good news for whom?

The above is mostly good news for both Google and consumers, who will be relieved that the General Court’s ruling preserves Google’s ability to show specialized boxes (of which the shopping unit is but one example). But that should not mask the tremendous downsides of both the Commission’s case and the court’s ruling. 

The Commission and rivals’ misapprehensions surrounding the Google Shopping remedy, as well as the General Court’s strong stance against self-preferencing, are revealing of a broader misunderstanding about online markets that also permeates through other digital regulation initiatives like the Digital Markets Act and the American Choice and Innovation Act. 

Policymakers wrongly imply that platform neutrality is a good in and of itself. They assume incumbent platforms generally have an incentive to favor their own services, and that preventing them from doing so is beneficial to both rivals and consumers. Yet neither of these statements is correct.

Economic research suggests self-preferencing is only harmful in exceptional circumstances. That is true of the traditional literature on platform threats (here and here), where harm is premised on the notion that rivals will use the downstream market, ultimately, to compete with an upstream incumbent. It’s also true in more recent scholarship that compares dual mode platforms to pure marketplaces and resellers, where harm hinges on a platform being able to immediately imitate rivals’ offerings. Even this ignores the significant efficiencies that might simultaneously arise from self-preferencing and closed platforms, more broadly. In short, rules that categorically prohibit self-preferening by dominant platforms overshoot the mark, and the General Court’s Google Shopping ruling is a troubling development in that regard.

It is also naïve to think that prohibiting self-preferencing will automatically benefit rivals and consumers (as opposed to harming the latter and leaving the former no better off). If self-preferencing is not anticompetitive, then propping up inefficient firms will at best be a futile exercise in preserving failing businesses. At worst, it would impose significant burdens on consumers by destroying valuable synergies between the platform and its own downstream service.

Finally, if the past years teach us anything about online markets, it is that consumers place a much heavier premium on frictionless user interfaces than on open platforms. TikTok is arguably a much more “closed” experience than other sources of online entertainment, like YouTube or Reddit (i.e. users have less direct control over their experience). Yet many observers have pinned its success, among other things, on its highly intuitive and simple interface. The emergence of Vinted, a European pre-owned goods platform, is another example of competition through a frictionless user experience.

There is a significant risk that, by seeking to boost “choice,” intervention by competition regulators against self-preferencing will ultimately remove one of the benefits users value most. By increasing the information users need to process, there is a risk that non-discrimination remedies will merely add pain points to the underlying purchasing process. In short, while Google Shopping is nominally a victory for the Commission and rivals, it is also a testament to the futility and harmfulness of myopic competition intervention in digital markets. Consumer preferences cannot be changed by government fiat, nor can the fact that certain firms are more efficient than others (at least, not without creating significant harm in the process). It is time this simple conclusion made its way into European competition thinking.

Capping months of inter-chamber legislative wrangling, President Joe Biden on Nov. 15 signed the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (also known as the bipartisan infrastructure framework, or BIF), which sets aside $65 billion of federal funding for broadband projects. While there is much to praise about the package’s focus on broadband deployment and adoption, whether that money will be well-spent  depends substantially on how the law is implemented and whether the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) adopts adequate safeguards to avoid waste, fraud, and abuse. 

The primary aim of the bill’s broadband provisions is to connect the truly unconnected—what the bill refers to as the “unserved” (those lacking a connection of at least 25/3 Mbps) and “underserved” (lacking a connection of at least 100/20 Mbps). In seeking to realize this goal, it’s important to bear in mind that dynamic analysis demonstrates that the broadband market is overwhelmingly healthy, even in locales with relatively few market participants. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) latest Broadband Progress Report, approximately 5% of U.S. consumers have no options for at least 25/3 Mbps broadband, and slightly more than 8% have no options for at least 100/10 Mbps).  

Reaching the truly unserved portions of the country will require targeting subsidies toward areas that are currently uneconomic to reach. Without properly targeted subsidies, there is a risk of dampening incentives for private investment and slowing broadband buildout. These tradeoffs must be considered. As we wrote previously in our Broadband Principles issue brief:

  • To move forward successfully on broadband infrastructure spending, Congress must take seriously the roles of both the government and the private sector in reaching the unserved.
  • Current U.S. broadband infrastructure is robust, as demonstrated by the way it met the unprecedented surge in demand for bandwidth during the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
  • To the extent it is necessary at all, public investment in broadband infrastructure should focus on providing Internet access to those who don’t have it, rather than subsidizing competition in areas that already do.
  • Highly prescriptive mandates—like requiring a particular technology or requiring symmetrical speeds— will be costly and likely to skew infrastructure spending away from those in unserved areas.
  • There may be very limited cases where municipal broadband is an effective and efficient solution to a complete absence of broadband infrastructure, but policymakers must narrowly tailor any such proposals to avoid displacing private investment or undermining competition.
  • Consumer-directed subsidies should incentivize broadband buildout and, where necessary, guarantee the availability of minimum levels of service reasonably comparable to those in competitive markets.
  • Firms that take government funding should be subject to reasonable obligations. Competitive markets should be subject to lighter-touch obligations.

The Good

The BIF’s broadband provisions ended up in a largely positive place, at least as written. There are two primary ways it seeks to achieve its goals of promoting adoption and deploying broadband to unserved/underserved areas. First, it makes permanent the Emergency Broadband Benefit program that had been created to provide temporary aid to households who struggled to afford Internet service during the COVID-19 pandemic, though it does lower the monthly user subsidy from $50 to $30. The renamed Affordable Connectivity Program can be used to pay for broadband on its own, or as part of a bundle of other services (e.g., a package that includes telephone, texting, and the rental fee on equipment).

Relatedly, the bill also subsidizes the cost of equipment by extending a one-time reimbursement of up to $100 to broadband providers when a consumer takes advantage of the provider’s discounted sale of connected devices, such as laptops, desktops, or tablet computers capable of Wi-Fi and video conferencing. 

The decision to make the emergency broadband benefit a permanent program broadly comports with recommendations we have made to employ user subsidies (such as connectivity vouchers) to encourage broadband adoption.

The second and arguably more important of the bill’s broadband provisions is its creation of the $42 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program. Under the direction of the NTIA, BEAD will direct grants to state governments to help the states expand access to and use of high-speed broadband.  

On the bright side, BEAD does appear to be designed to connect the country’s truly unserved regions—which, as noted above, account for about 8% of the nation’s households. The law explicitly requires prioritizing unserved areas before underserved areas. Even where the text references underserved areas as an additional priority, it does so in a way that won’t necessarily distort private investment.  The bill also creates preferences for projects in persistent and high-poverty areas. Thus, the targeted areas are very likely to fall on the “have-not” side of the digital divide.

On its face, the subsidy and grant approach taken in the bill is, all things considered, commendable. As we note in our broadband report, care must be taken to avoid interventions that distort private investment incentives, particularly in a successful industry like broadband. The goal, after all, is more broadband deployment. If policy interventions only replicate private options (usually at higher cost) or, worse, drive private providers from a market, broadband deployment will be slowed or reversed. The approach taken in this bill attempts to line up private incentives with regulatory goals.

As we discuss below, however, the devil is in the details. In particular, BEAD’s structure could theoretically allow enough discretion in execution that a large amount of waste, fraud, and abuse could end up frustrating the program’s goals.

The Bad

While the bill largely keeps the right focus of building out broadband in unserved areas, there are reasons to question some of its preferences and solutions. For instance, the state subgrant process puts for-profit and government-run broadband solutions on an equal playing field for the purposes of receiving funds, even though the two types of entities exist in very different institutional environments with very different incentives. 

There is also a requirement that projects provide broadband of at least 100/20 Mbps speed, even though the bill defines “unserved”as lacking at least 25/3 Mbps. While this is not terribly objectionable, the preference for 100/20 could have downstream effects on the hardest-to-connect areas. It may only be economically feasible to connect some very remote areas with a 25/3 Mbps connection. Requiring higher speeds in such areas may, despite the best intentions, slow deployment and push providers to prioritize areas that are relatively easier to connect.

For comparison, the FCC’s Connect America Fund and Rural Digital Opportunity Fund programs do place greater weight in bidding for providers that can deploy higher-speed connections. But in areas where a lower speed tier is cost-justified, a provider can still bid and win. This sort of approach would have been preferable in the infrastructure bill. 

But the bill’s largest infirmity is not in its terms or aims, but in the potential for mischief in its implementation. In particular, the BEAD grant program lacks the safeguards that have traditionally been applied to this sort of funding at the FCC. 

Typically, an aid program of this sort would be administered by the FCC under rulemaking bound by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). As cumbersome as that process may sometimes be, APA rulemaking provides a high degree of transparency that results in fairly reliable public accountability. BEAD, by contrast, eschews this process, and instead permits NTIA to work directly with governors and other relevant state officials to dole out the money.  The funds will almost certainly be distributed more quickly, but with significantly less accountability and oversight. 

A large amount of the implementation detail will be driven at the state level. By definition, this will make it more difficult to monitor how well the program’s aims are being met. It also creates a process with far more opportunities for highly interested parties to lobby state officials to direct funding to their individual pet projects. None of this is to say that BEAD funding will necessarily be misdirected, but NTIA will need to be very careful in how it proceeds.

Conclusion: The Opportunity

Although the BIF’s broadband funds are slated to be distributed next year, we may soon be able to see whether there are warning signs that the legitimate goal of broadband deployment is being derailed for political favoritism. BEAD initially grants a flat $100 million to each state; it is only additional monies over that initial amount that need to be sought through the grant program. Thus, it is highly likely that some states will begin to enact legislation and related regulations in the coming year based on that guaranteed money. This early regulatory and legislative activity could provide insight into the pitfalls the full BEAD grantmaking program will face.

The larger point, however, is that the program needs safeguards. Where Congress declined to adopt them, NTIA would do well to implement them. Obviously, this will be something short of full APA rulemaking, but the NTIA will need to make accountability and reliability a top priority to ensure that the digital divide is substantially closed.