Archives For antitrust

In a recent post at the (appallingly misnamed) ProMarket blog (the blog of the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business — George Stigler is rolling in his grave…), Marshall Steinbaum keeps alive the hipster-antitrust assertion that lax antitrust enforcement — this time in the labor market — is to blame for… well, most? all? of what’s wrong with “the labor market and the broader macroeconomic conditions” in the country.

In this entry, Steinbaum takes particular aim at the US enforcement agencies, which he claims do not consider monopsony power in merger review (and other antitrust enforcement actions) because their current consumer welfare framework somehow doesn’t recognize monopsony as a possible harm.

This will probably come as news to the agencies themselves, whose Horizontal Merger Guidelines devote an entire (albeit brief) section (section 12) to monopsony, noting that:

Mergers of competing buyers can enhance market power on the buying side of the market, just as mergers of competing sellers can enhance market power on the selling side of the market. Buyer market power is sometimes called “monopsony power.”

* * *

Market power on the buying side of the market is not a significant concern if suppliers have numerous attractive outlets for their goods or services. However, when that is not the case, the Agencies may conclude that the merger of competing buyers is likely to lessen competition in a manner harmful to sellers.

Steinbaum fails to mention the HMGs, but he does point to a US submission to the OECD to make his point. In that document, the agencies state that

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) [] do not consider employment or other non-competition factors in their antitrust analysis. The antitrust agencies have learned that, while such considerations “may be appropriate policy objectives and worthy goals overall… integrating their consideration into a competition analysis… can lead to poor outcomes to the detriment of both businesses and consumers.” Instead, the antitrust agencies focus on ensuring robust competition that benefits consumers and leave other policies such as employment to other parts of government that may be specifically charged with or better placed to consider such objectives.

Steinbaum, of course, cites only the first sentence. And he uses it as a launching-off point to attack the notion that antitrust is an improper tool for labor market regulation. But if he had just read a little bit further in the (very short) document he cites, Steinbaum might have discovered that the US antitrust agencies have, in fact, challenged the exercise of collusive monopsony power in labor markets. As footnote 19 of the OECD submission notes:

Although employment is not a relevant policy goal in antitrust analysis, anticompetitive conduct affecting terms of employment can violate the Sherman Act. See, e.g., DOJ settlement with eBay Inc. that prevents the company from entering into or maintaining agreements with other companies that restrain employee recruiting or hiring; FTC settlement with ski equipment manufacturers settling charges that companies illegally agreed not to compete for one another’s ski endorsers or employees. (Emphasis added).

And, ironically, while asserting that labor market collusion doesn’t matter to the agencies, Steinbaum himself points to “the Justice Department’s 2010 lawsuit against Silicon Valley employers for colluding not to hire one another’s programmers.”

Steinbaum instead opts for a willful misreading of the first sentence of the OECD submission. But what the OECD document refers to, of course, are situations where two firms merge, no market power is created (either in input or output markets), but people are laid off because the merged firm does not need all of, say, the IT and human resources employees previously employed in the pre-merger world.

Does Steinbaum really think this is grounds for challenging the merger on antitrust grounds?

Actually, his post suggests that he does indeed think so, although he doesn’t come right out and say it. What he does say — as he must in order to bring antitrust enforcement to bear on the low- and unskilled labor markets (e.g., burger flippers; retail cashiers; Uber drivers) he purports to care most about — is that:

Employers can have that control [over employees, as opposed to independent contractors] without first establishing themselves as a monopoly—in fact, reclassification [of workers as independent contractors] is increasingly standard operating procedure in many industries, which means that treating it as a violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act should not require that outright monopolization must first be shown. (Emphasis added).

Honestly, I don’t have any idea what he means. Somehow, because firms hire independent contractors where at one time long ago they might have hired employees… they engage in Sherman Act violations, even if they don’t have market power? Huh?

I get why he needs to try to make this move: As I intimated above, there is probably not a single firm in the world that hires low- or unskilled workers that has anything approaching monopsony power in those labor markets. Even Uber, the example he uses, has nothing like monopsony power, unless perhaps you define the market (completely improperly) as “drivers already working for Uber.” Even then Uber doesn’t have monopsony power: There can be no (or, at best, virtually no) markets in the world where an Uber driver has no other potential employment opportunities but working for Uber.

Moreover, how on earth is hiring independent contractors evidence of anticompetitive behavior? ”Reclassification” is not, in fact, “standard operating procedure.” It is the case that in many industries firms (unilaterally) often decide to contract out the hiring of low- and unskilled workers over whom they do not need to exercise direct oversight to specialized firms, thus not employing those workers directly. That isn’t “reclassification” of existing workers who have no choice but to accept their employer’s terms; it’s a long-term evolution of the economy toward specialization, enabled in part by technology.

And if we’re really concerned about what “employee” and “independent contractor” mean for workers and employment regulation, we should reconsider those outdated categories. Firms are faced with a binary choice: hire workers or independent contractors. Neither really fits many of today’s employment arrangements very well, but that’s the choice firms are given. That they sometimes choose “independent worker” over “employee” is hardly evidence of anticompetitive conduct meriting antitrust enforcement.

The point is: The notion that any of this is evidence of monopsony power, or that the antitrust enforcement agencies don’t care about monopsony power — because, Bork! — is absurd.

Even more absurd is the notion that the antitrust laws should be used to effect Steinbaum’s preferred market regulations — independent of proof of actual anticompetitive effect. I get that it’s hard to convince Congress to pass the precise laws you want all the time. But simply routing around Congress and using the antitrust statutes as a sort of meta-legislation to enact whatever happens to be Marshall Steinbaum’s preferred regulation du jour is ridiculous.

Which is a point the OECD submission made (again, if only Steinbaum had read beyond the first sentence…):

[T]wo difficulties with expanding the scope of antitrust analysis to include employment concerns warrant discussion. First, a full accounting of employment effects would require consideration of short-term effects, such as likely layoffs by the merged firm, but also long-term effects, which could include employment gains elsewhere in the industry or in the economy arising from efficiencies generated by the merger. Measuring these effects would [be extremely difficult.]. Second, unless a clear policy spelling out how the antitrust agency would assess the appropriate weight to give employment effects in relation to the proposed conduct or transaction’s procompetitive and anticompetitive effects could be developed, [such enforcement would be deeply problematic, and essentially arbitrary].

To be sure, the agencies don’t recognize enough that they already face the problem of reconciling multidimensional effects — e.g., short-, medium-, and long-term price effects, innovation effects, product quality effects, etc. But there is no reason to exacerbate the problem by asking them to also consider employment effects. Especially not in Steinbaum’s world in which certain employment effects are problematic even without evidence of market power or even actual anticompetitive harm, just because he says so.

Consider how this might play out:

Suppose that Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper… and every other soft drink company in the world attempted to merge, creating a monopoly soft drink manufacturer. In what possible employment market would even this merger create a monopsony in which anticompetitive harm could be tied to the merger? In the market for “people who know soft drink secret formulas?” Yet Steinbaum would have the Sherman Act enforced against such a merger not because it might create a product market monopoly, but because the existence of a product market monopoly means the firm must be able to bad things in other markets, as well. For Steinbaum and all the other scolds who see concentration as the source of all evil, the dearth of evidence to support such a claim is no barrier (on which, see, e.g., this recent, content-less NYT article (that, naturally, quotes Steinbaum) on how “big business may be to blame” for the slowing rate of startups).

The point is, monopoly power in a product market does not necessarily have any relationship to monopsony power in the labor market. Simply asserting that it does — and lambasting the enforcement agencies for not just accepting that assertion — is farcical.

The real question, however, is what has happened to the University of Chicago that it continues to provide a platform for such nonsense?

On July 24, as part of their newly-announced “Better Deal” campaign, congressional Democrats released an antitrust proposal (“Better Deal Antitrust Proposal” or BDAP) entitled “Cracking Down on Corporate Monopolies and the Abuse of Economic and Political Power.”  Unfortunately, this antitrust tract is really an “Old Deal” screed that rehashes long-discredited ideas about “bigness is badness” and “corporate abuses,” untethered from serious economic analysis.  (In spirit it echoes the proposal for a renewed emphasis on “fairness” in antitrust made by then Acting Assistant Attorney General Renata Hesse in 2016 – a recommendation that ran counter to sound economics, as I explained in a September 2016 Truth on the Market commentary.)  Implementation of the BDAP’s recommendations would be a “worse deal” for American consumers and for American economic vitality and growth.

The BDAP’s Portrayal of the State of Antitrust Enforcement is Factually Inaccurate, and it Ignores the Real Problems of Crony Capitalism and Regulatory Overreach

The Better Deal Antitrust Proposal begins with the assertion that antitrust has failed in recent decades:

Over the past thirty years, growing corporate influence and consolidation has led to reductions in competition, choice for consumers, and bargaining power for workers.  The extensive concentration of power in the hands of a few corporations hurts wages, undermines job growth, and threatens to squeeze out small businesses, suppliers, and new, innovative competitors.  It means higher prices and less choice for the things the American people buy every day. . .  [This is because] [o]ver the last thirty years, courts and permissive regulators have allowed large companies to get larger, resulting in higher prices and limited consumer choice in daily expenses such as travel, cable, and food and beverages.  And because concentrated market power leads to concentrated political power, these companies deploy armies of lobbyists to increase their stranglehold on Washington.  A Better Deal on competition means that we will revisit our antitrust laws to ensure that the economic freedom of all Americans—consumers, workers, and small businesses—come before big corporations that are getting even bigger.

This statement’s assertions are curious (not to mention problematic) in multiple respects.

First, since Democratic administrations have held the White House for sixteen of the past thirty years, the BDAP appears to acknowledge that Democratic presidents have overseen a failed antitrust policy.

Second, the broad claim that consumers have faced higher prices and limited consumer choice with regard to their daily expenses is baseless.  Indeed, internet commerce and new business models have sharply reduced travel and entertainment costs for the bulk of American consumers, and new “high technology” products such as smartphones and electronic games have been characterized by dramatic improvements in innovation, enhanced variety, and relatively lower costs.  Cable suppliers face vibrant competition from competitive satellite providers, fiberoptic cable suppliers (the major telcos such as Verizon), and new online methods for distributing content.  Consumer price inflation has been extremely low in recent decades, compared to the high inflationary, less innovative environment of the 1960s and 1970s – decades when federal antitrust law was applied much more vigorously.  Thus, the claim that weaker antitrust has denied consumers “economic freedom” is at war with the truth.

Third, the claim that recent decades have seen the creation of “concentrated market power,” safe from antitrust challenge, ignores the fact that, over the last three decades, apolitical government antitrust officials under both Democratic and Republican administrations have applied well-accepted economic tools (wielded by the scores of Ph.D. economists in the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission) in enforcing the antitrust laws.  Antitrust analysis has used economics to focus on inefficient business conduct that would maintain or increase market power, and large numbers of cartels have been prosecuted and questionable mergers (including a variety of major health care and communications industry mergers) have been successfully challenged.  The alleged growth of “concentrated market power,” untouched by incompetent antitrust enforcers, is a myth.  Furthermore, claims that mere corporate size and “aggregate concentration” are grounds for antitrust concern (“big is bad”) were decisively rejected by empirical economic research published in the 1970s, and are no more convincing today.  (As I pointed out in a January 2017 blog posting at this site, recent research by highly respected economists debunks a few claims that federal antitrust enforcers have been “excessively tolerant” of late in analyzing proposed mergers.)

More interesting is the BDAP’s claim that “armies of [corporate] lobbyists” manage to “increase their stranglehold on Washington.”  This is not an antitrust concern, however, but, rather, a complaint against crony capitalism and overregulation, which became an ever more serious problem under the Obama Administration.  As I explained in my October 2016 critique of the American Antitrust Institute’s September 2008 National Competition Policy Report (a Report which is very similar in tone to the BDAP), the rapid growth of excessive regulation during the Obama years has diminished competition by creating new regulatory schemes that benefit entrenched and powerful firms (such as Dodd-Frank Act banking rules that impose excessive burdens on smaller banks).  My critique emphasized that, “as Dodd-Frank and other regulatory programs illustrate, large government rulemaking schemes often are designed to favor large and wealthy well-connected rent-seekers at the expense of smaller and more dynamic competitors.”  And, more generally, excessive regulatory burdens undermine the competitive process, by distorting business decisions in a manner that detracts from competition on the merits.

It follows that, if the BDAP really wanted to challenge “unfair” corporate advantages, it would seek to roll back excessive regulation (see my November 2012 article on Trump Administration competition policy).  Indeed, the Trump Administration’s regulatory reform program (which features agency-specific regulatory reform task forces) seeks to do just that.  Perhaps then the BDAP could be rewritten to focus on endorsing President Trump’s regulatory reform initiative, rather than emphasizing a meritless “big is bad” populist antitrust policy that was consigned to the enforcement dustbin decades ago.

The BDAP’s Specific Proposals Would Harm the Economy and Reduce Consumer Welfare

Unfortunately, the BDAP does more than wax nostalgic about old-time “big is bad” antitrust policy.  It affirmatively recommends policy changes that would harm the economy.

First, the BDAP would require “a broader, longer-term view and strong presumptions that market concentration can result in anticompetitive conduct.”  Specifically, it would create “new standards to limit large mergers that unfairly consolidate corporate power,” including “mergers [that] reduce wages, cut jobs, lower product quality, limit access to services, stifle innovation, or hinder the ability of small businesses and entrepreneurs to compete.”  New standards would also “explicitly consider the ways in which control of consumer data can be used to stifle competition or jeopardize consumer privacy.”

Unlike current merger policy, which evaluates likely competitive effects, centered on price and quality, estimated in economically relevant markets, these new standards are open-ended.  They could justify challenges based on such a wide variety of factors that they would incentivize direct competitors not to merge, even in cases where the proposed merged entity would prove more efficient and able to enhance quality or innovation.  Certain less efficient competitors – say small businesses – could argue that they would be driven out of business, or that some jobs in the industry would disappear, in order to prompt government challenges.  But such challenges would tend to undermine innovation and business improvements, and the inevitable redistribution of assets to higher-valued uses that is a key benefit of corporate reorganizations and acquisitions.  (Mergers might focus instead, for example, on inefficient conglomerate acquisitions among companies in unrelated industries, which were incentivized by the overly strict 1960s rules that prohibited mergers among direct competitors.)  Such a change would represent a retreat from economic common sense, and be at odds with consensus economically-sound merger enforcement guidance that U.S. enforcers have long recommended other countries adopt.  Furthermore, questions of consumer data and privacy are more appropriately dealt with as consumer protection questions, which the Federal Trade Commission has handled successfully for years.

Second, the BDAP would require “frequent, independent [after-the-fact] reviews of mergers” and require regulators “to take corrective measures if they find abusive monopolistic conditions where previously approved [consent decree] measures fail to make good on their intended outcomes.”

While high profile mergers subject to significant divestiture or other remedial requirements have in appropriate circumstances included monitoring requirements, the tone of this recommendation is to require that far more mergers be subjected to detailed and ongoing post-acquisition reviews.  The cost of such monitoring is substantial, however, and routine reliance on it (backed by the threat of additional enforcement actions based merely on changing economic conditions) could create excessive caution in the post-merger management of newly-consolidated enterprises.  Indeed, potential merged parties might decide in close cases that this sort of oversight is not worth accepting, and therefore call off potentially efficient transactions that would have enhanced economic welfare.  (The reality of enforcement error cost, and the possibility of misdiagnosis of post-merger competitive conditions, is not acknowledged by the BDAP.)

Third, a newly created “competition advocate” independent of the existing federal antitrust enforcers would be empowered to publicly recommend investigations, with the enforcers required to justify publicly why they chose not to pursue a particular recommended investigation.  The advocate would ensure that antitrust enforcers are held “accountable,” assure that complaints about “market exploitation and anticompetitive conduct” are heard, and publish data on “concentration and abuses of economic power” with demographic breakdowns.

This third proposal is particularly egregious.  It is at odds with the long tradition of prosecutorial discretion that has been enjoyed by the federal antitrust enforcers (and law enforcers in general).  It would also empower a special interest intervenor to promote the complaints of interest groups that object to efficiency-seeking business conduct, thereby undermining the careful economic and legal analysis that is consistently employed by the expert antitrust agencies.  The references to “concentration” and “economic power” clarify that the “advocate” would have an untrammeled ability to highlight non-economic objections to transactions raised by inefficient competitors, jealous rivals, or self-styled populists who object to excessive “bigness.”  This would strike at the heart of our competitive process, which presumes that private parties will be allowed to fulfill their own goals, free from government micromanagement, absent indications of a clear and well-defined violation of law.  In sum, the “competition advocate” is better viewed as a “special interest” advocate empowered to ignore normal legal constraints and unjustifiably interfere in business transactions.  If empowered to operate freely, such an advocate (better viewed as an albatross) would undoubtedly chill a wide variety of business arrangements, to the detriment of consumers and economic innovation.

Finally, the BDAP refers to a variety of ills that are said to affect specific named industries, in particular airlines, cable/telecom, beer, food prices, and eyeglasses.  Airlines are subject to a variety of capacity limitations (limitations on landing slots and the size/number of airports) and regulatory constraints (prohibitions on foreign entry or investment) that may affect competitive conditions, but airlines mergers are closely reviewed by the Justice Department.  Cable and telecom companies face a variety of federal, state, and local regulations, and their mergers also are closely scrutinized.  The BDAP’s reference to the proposed AT&T/Time Warner merger ignores the potential efficiencies of this “vertical” arrangement involving complementary assets (see my coauthored commentary here), and resorts to unsupported claims about wrongful “discrimination” by “behemoths” – issues that in any event are examined in antitrust merger reviews.  Unsupported references to harm to competition and consumer choice are thrown out in the references to beer and agrochemical mergers, which also receive close economically-focused merger scrutiny under existing law.  Concerns raised about the price of eyeglasses ignore the role of potentially anticompetitive regulation – that is, bad government – in harming consumer welfare in this sector.  In short, the alleged competitive “problems” the BDAP raises with respect to particular industries are no more compelling than the rest of its analysis.  The Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission are hard at work applying sound economics to these sectors.  They should be left to do their jobs, and the BDAP’s industry-specific commentary (sadly, like the rest of its commentary) should be accorded no weight.

Conclusion

Congressional Democrats would be well-advised to ditch their efforts to resurrect the counterproductive antitrust policy from days of yore, and instead focus on real economic problems, such as excessive and inappropriate government regulation, as well as weak protection for U.S. intellectual property rights, here and abroad (see here, for example).  Such a change in emphasis would redound to the benefit of American consumers and producers.

 

 

Last week the editorial board of the Washington Post penned an excellent editorial responding to the European Commission’s announcement of its decision in its Google Shopping investigation. Here’s the key language from the editorial:

Whether the demise of any of [the complaining comparison shopping sites] is specifically traceable to Google, however, is not so clear. Also unclear is the aggregate harm from Google’s practices to consumers, as opposed to the unlucky companies. Birkenstock-seekers may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first, instead of clicking around to other sites…. Those who aren’t happy anyway have other options. Indeed, the rise of comparison shopping on giants such as Amazon and eBay makes concerns that Google might exercise untrammeled power over e-commerce seem, well, a bit dated…. Who knows? In a few years we might be talking about how Facebook leveraged its 2 billion users to disrupt the whole space.

That’s actually a pretty thorough, if succinct, summary of the basic problems with the Commission’s case (based on its PR and Factsheet, at least; it hasn’t released the full decision yet).

I’ll have more to say on the decision in due course, but for now I want to elaborate on two of the points raised by the WaPo editorial board, both in service of its crucial rejoinder to the Commission that “Also unclear is the aggregate harm from Google’s practices to consumers, as opposed to the unlucky companies.”

First, the WaPo editorial board points out that:

Birkenstock-seekers may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first, instead of clicking around to other sites.

It is undoubtedly true that users “may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first.” It’s also crucial to understanding the changes in Google’s search results page that have given rise to the current raft of complaints.

As I noted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed two years ago:

It’s a mistake to consider “general search” and “comparison shopping” or “product search” to be distinct markets.

From the moment it was technologically feasible to do so, Google has been adapting its traditional search results—that familiar but long since vanished page of 10 blue links—to offer more specialized answers to users’ queries. Product search, which is what is at issue in the EU complaint, is the next iteration in this trend.

Internet users today seek information from myriad sources: Informational sites (Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database); review sites (Yelp and TripAdvisor); retail sites (Amazon and eBay); and social-media sites (Facebook and Twitter). What do these sites have in common? They prioritize certain types of data over others to improve the relevance of the information they provide.

“Prioritization” of Google’s own shopping results, however, is the core problem for the Commission:

Google has systematically given prominent placement to its own comparison shopping service: when a consumer enters a query into the Google search engine in relation to which Google’s comparison shopping service wants to show results, these are displayed at or near the top of the search results. (Emphasis in original).

But this sort of prioritization is the norm for all search, social media, e-commerce and similar platforms. And this shouldn’t be a surprise: The value of these platforms to the user is dependent upon their ability to sort the wheat from the chaff of the now immense amount of information coursing about the Web.

As my colleagues and I noted in a paper responding to a methodologically questionable report by Tim Wu and Yelp leveling analogous “search bias” charges in the context of local search results:

Google is a vertically integrated company that offers general search, but also a host of other products…. With its well-developed algorithm and wide range of products, it is hardly surprising that Google can provide not only direct answers to factual questions, but also a wide range of its own products and services that meet users’ needs. If consumers choose Google not randomly, but precisely because they seek to take advantage of the direct answers and other options that Google can provide, then removing the sort of “bias” alleged by [complainants] would affirmatively hurt, not help, these users. (Emphasis added).

And as Josh Wright noted in an earlier paper responding to yet another set of such “search bias” charges (in that case leveled in a similarly methodologically questionable report by Benjamin Edelman and Benjamin Lockwood):

[I]t is critical to recognize that bias alone is not evidence of competitive harm and it must be evaluated in the appropriate antitrust economic context of competition and consumers, rather individual competitors and websites. Edelman & Lockwood´s analysis provides a useful starting point for describing how search engines differ in their referrals to their own content. However, it is not useful from an antitrust policy perspective because it erroneously—and contrary to economic theory and evidence—presumes natural and procompetitive product differentiation in search rankings to be inherently harmful. (Emphasis added).

We’ll have to see what kind of analysis the Commission relies upon in its decision to reach its conclusion that prioritization is an antitrust problem, but there is reason to be skeptical that it will turn out to be compelling. The Commission states in its PR that:

The evidence shows that consumers click far more often on results that are more visible, i.e. the results appearing higher up in Google’s search results. Even on a desktop, the ten highest-ranking generic search results on page 1 together generally receive approximately 95% of all clicks on generic search results (with the top result receiving about 35% of all the clicks). The first result on page 2 of Google’s generic search results receives only about 1% of all clicks. This cannot just be explained by the fact that the first result is more relevant, because evidence also shows that moving the first result to the third rank leads to a reduction in the number of clicks by about 50%. The effects on mobile devices are even more pronounced given the much smaller screen size.

This means that by giving prominent placement only to its own comparison shopping service and by demoting competitors, Google has given its own comparison shopping service a significant advantage compared to rivals. (Emphasis added).

Whatever truth there is in the characterization that placement is more important than relevance in influencing user behavior, the evidence cited by the Commission to demonstrate that doesn’t seem applicable to what’s happening on Google’s search results page now.

Most crucially, the evidence offered by the Commission refers only to how placement affects clicks on “generic search results” and glosses over the fact that the “prominent placement” of Google’s “results” is not only a difference in position but also in the type of result offered.

Google Shopping results (like many of its other “vertical results” and direct answers) are very different than the 10 blue links of old. These “universal search” results are, for one thing, actual answers rather than merely links to other sites. They are also more visually rich and attractively and clearly displayed.

Ironically, Tim Wu and Yelp use the claim that users click less often on Google’s universal search results to support their contention that increased relevance doesn’t explain Google’s prioritization of its own content. Yet, as we note in our response to their study:

[I]f a consumer is using a search engine in order to find a direct answer to a query rather than a link to another site to answer it, click-through would actually represent a decrease in consumer welfare, not an increase.

In fact, the study fails to incorporate this dynamic even though it is precisely what the authors claim the study is measuring.

Further, as the WaPo editorial intimates, these universal search results (including Google Shopping results) are quite plausibly more valuable to users. As even Tim Wu and Yelp note:

No one truly disagrees that universal search, in concept, can be an important innovation that can serve consumers.

Google sees it exactly this way, of course. Here’s Tim Wu and Yelp again:

According to Google, a principal difference between the earlier cases and its current conduct is that universal search represents a pro-competitive, user-serving innovation. By deploying universal search, Google argues, it has made search better. As Eric Schmidt argues, “if we know the answer it is better for us to answer that question so [the user] doesn’t have to click anywhere, and in that sense we… use data sources that are our own because we can’t engineer it any other way.”

Of course, in this case, one would expect fewer clicks to correlate with higher value to users — precisely the opposite of the claim made by Tim Wu and Yelp, which is the surest sign that their study is faulty.

But the Commission, at least according to the evidence cited in its PR, doesn’t even seem to measure the relative value of the very different presentations of information at all, instead resting on assertions rooted in the irrelevant difference in user propensity to click on generic (10 blue links) search results depending on placement.

Add to this Pinar Akman’s important point that Google Shopping “results” aren’t necessarily search results at all, but paid advertising:

[O]nce one appreciates the fact that Google’s shopping results are simply ads for products and Google treats all ads with the same ad-relevant algorithm and all organic results with the same organic-relevant algorithm, the Commission’s order becomes impossible to comprehend. Is the Commission imposing on Google a duty to treat non-sponsored results in the same way that it treats sponsored results? If so, does this not provide an unfair advantage to comparison shopping sites over, for example, Google’s advertising partners as well as over Amazon, eBay, various retailers, etc…?

Randy Picker also picks up on this point:

But those Google shopping boxes are ads, Picker told me. “I can’t imagine what they’re thinking,” he said. “Google is in the advertising business. That’s how it makes its money. It has no obligation to put other people’s ads on its website.”

The bottom line here is that the WaPo editorial board does a better job characterizing the actual, relevant market dynamics in a single sentence than the Commission seems to have done in its lengthy releases summarizing its decision following seven full years of investigation.

The second point made by the WaPo editorial board to which I want to draw attention is equally important:

Those who aren’t happy anyway have other options. Indeed, the rise of comparison shopping on giants such as Amazon and eBay makes concerns that Google might exercise untrammeled power over e-commerce seem, well, a bit dated…. Who knows? In a few years we might be talking about how Facebook leveraged its 2 billion users to disrupt the whole space.

The Commission dismisses this argument in its Factsheet:

The Commission Decision concerns the effect of Google’s practices on comparison shopping markets. These offer a different service to merchant platforms, such as Amazon and eBay. Comparison shopping services offer a tool for consumers to compare products and prices online and find deals from online retailers of all types. By contrast, they do not offer the possibility for products to be bought on their site, which is precisely the aim of merchant platforms. Google’s own commercial behaviour reflects these differences – merchant platforms are eligible to appear in Google Shopping whereas rival comparison shopping services are not.

But the reality is that “comparison shopping,” just like “general search,” is just one technology among many for serving information and ads to consumers online. Defining the relevant market or limiting the definition of competition in terms of the particular mechanism that Google (or Foundem, or Amazon, or Facebook…) happens to use doesn’t reflect the extent of substitutability between these different mechanisms.

Properly defined, the market in which Google competes online is not search, but something more like online “matchmaking” between advertisers, retailers and consumers. And this market is enormously competitive. The same goes for comparison shopping.

And the fact that Amazon and eBay “offer the possibility for products to be bought on their site” doesn’t take away from the fact that they also “offer a tool for consumers to compare products and prices online and find deals from online retailers of all types.” Not only do these sites contain enormous amounts of valuable (and well-presented) information about products, including product comparisons and consumer reviews, but they also actually offer comparisons among retailers. In fact, Fifty percent of the items sold through Amazon’s platform, for example, are sold by third-party retailers — the same sort of retailers that might also show up on a comparison shopping site.

More importantly, though, as the WaPo editorial rightly notes, “[t]hose who aren’t happy anyway have other options.” Google just isn’t the indispensable gateway to the Internet (and definitely not to shopping on the Internet) that the Commission seems to think.

Today over half of product searches in the US start on Amazon. The majority of web page referrals come from Facebook. Yelp’s most engaged users now access it via its app (which has seen more than 3x growth in the past five years). And a staggering 40 percent of mobile browsing on both Android and iOS now takes place inside the Facebook app.

Then there are “closed” platforms like the iTunes store and innumerable other apps that handle copious search traffic (including shopping-related traffic) but also don’t figure in the Commission’s analysis, apparently.

In fact, billions of users reach millions of companies every day through direct browser navigation, social media, apps, email links, review sites, blogs, and countless other means — all without once touching Google.com. So-called “dark social” interactions (email, text messages, and IMs) drive huge amounts of some of the most valuable traffic on the Internet, in fact.

All of this, in turn, has led to a competitive scramble to roll out completely new technologies to meet consumers’ informational (and merchants’ advertising) needs. The already-arriving swarm of VR, chatbots, digital assistants, smart-home devices, and more will offer even more interfaces besides Google through which consumers can reach their favorite online destinations.

The point is this: Google’s competitors complaining that the world is evolving around them don’t need to rely on Google. That they may choose to do so does not saddle Google with an obligation to ensure that they can always do so.

Antitrust laws — in Europe, no less than in the US — don’t require Google or any other firm to make life easier for competitors. That’s especially true when doing so would come at the cost of consumer-welfare-enhancing innovations. The Commission doesn’t seem to have grasped this fundamental point, however.

The WaPo editorial board gets it, though:

The immense size and power of all Internet giants are a legitimate focus for the antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Brussels vs. Google, however, seems to be a case of punishment without crime.

Regardless of the merits and soundness (or lack thereof) of this week’s European Commission Decision in the Google Shopping case — one cannot assess this until we have the text of the decision — two comments really struck me during the press conference.

First, it was said that Google’s conduct had essentially reduced innovation. If I heard correctly, this is a formidable statement. In 2016, another official EU service published stats that described Alphabet as increasing its R&D by 22% and ranked it as the world’s 4th top R&D investor. Sure it can always be better. And sure this does not excuse everything. But still. The press conference language on incentives to innovate was a bit of an oversell, to say the least.

Second, the Commission views this decision as a “precedent” or as a “framework” that will inform the way dominant Internet platforms should display, intermediate and market their services and those of their competitors. This may fuel additional complaints by other vertical search rivals against (i) Google in relation to other product lines, but also against (ii) other large platform players.

Beyond this, the Commission’s approach raises a gazillion questions of law and economics. Pending the disclosure of the economic evidence in the published decision, let me share some thoughts on a few (arbitrarily) selected legal issues.

First, the Commission has drawn the lesson of the Microsoft remedy quagmire. The Commission refrains from using a trustee to ensure compliance with the decision. This had been a bone of contention in the 2007 Microsoft appeal. Readers will recall that the Commission had imposed on Microsoft to appoint a monitoring trustee, who was supposed to advise on possible infringements in the implementation of the decision. On appeal, the Court eventually held that the Commission was solely responsible for this, and could not delegate those powers. Sure, the Commission could “retai[n] its own external expert to provide advice when it investigates the implementation of the remedies.” But no more than that.

Second, we learn that the Commission is no longer in the business of software design. Recall the failed untying of WMP and Windows — Windows Naked sold only 11,787 copies, likely bought by tech bootleggers willing to acquire the first piece of software ever designed by antitrust officials — or the browser “Choice Screen” compliance saga which eventually culminated with a €561 million fine. Nothing of this can be found here. The Commission leaves remedial design to the abstract concept of “equal treatment”.[1] This, certainly, is a (relatively) commendable approach, and one that could inspire remedies in other unilateral conduct cases, in particular, exploitative conduct ones where pricing remedies are both costly, impractical, and consequentially inefficient.

On the other hand, readers will also not fail to see the corollary implication of “equal treatment”: search neutrality could actually cut both ways, and lead to a lawful degradation in consumer welfare if Google were ever to decide to abandon rich format displays for both its own shopping services and those of rivals.

Third, neither big data nor algorithmic design is directly vilified in the case (“The Commission Decision does not object to the design of Google’s generic search algorithms or to demotions as such, nor to the way that Google displays or organises its search results pages”). In fact, the Commission objects to the selective application of Google’s generic search algorithms to its own products. This is an interesting, and subtle, clarification given all the coverage that this topic has attracted in recent antitrust literature. We are in fact very close to a run of the mill claim of disguised market manipulation, not causally related to data or algorithmic technology.

Fourth, Google said it contemplated a possible appeal of the decision. Now, here’s a challenging question: can an antitrust defendant effectively exercise its right to judicial review of an administrative agency (and more generally its rights of defense), when it operates under the threat of antitrust sanctions in ongoing parallel cases investigated by the same agency (i.e., the antitrust inquiries related to Android and Ads)? This question cuts further than the Google Shopping case. Say firm A contemplates a merger with firm B in market X, while it is at the same time subject to antitrust investigations in market Z. And assume that X and Z are neither substitutes nor complements so there is little competitive relationship between both products. Can the Commission leverage ongoing antitrust investigations in market Z to extract merger concessions in market X? Perhaps more to the point, can the firm interact with the Commission as if the investigations are completely distinct, or does it have to play a more nuanced game and consider the ramifications of its interactions with the Commission in both markets?

Fifth, as to the odds of a possible appeal, I don’t believe that arguments on the economic evidence or legal theory of liability will ever be successful before the General Court of the EU. The law and doctrine in unilateral conduct cases are disturbingly — and almost irrationally — severe. As I have noted elsewhere, the bottom line in the EU case-law on unilateral conduct is to consider the genuine requirement of “harm to competition” as a rhetorical question, not an empirical one. In EU unilateral conduct law, exclusion of every and any firm is a per se concern, regardless of evidence of efficiency, entry or rivalry.

In turn, I tend to opine that Google has a stronger game from a procedural standpoint, having been left with (i) the expectation of a settlement (it played ball three times by making proposals); (ii) a corollary expectation of the absence of a fine (settlement discussions are not appropriate for cases that could end with fines); and (iii) a full seven long years of an investigatory cloud. We know from the past that EU judges like procedural issues, but like comparably less to debate the substance of the law in unilateral conduct cases. This case could thus be a test case in terms of setting boundaries on how freely the Commission can U-turn a case (the Commissioner said “take the case forward in a different way”).

Today I published an article in The Daily Signal bemoaning the European Commission’s June 27 decision to fine Google $2.7 billion for engaging in procompetitive, consumer welfare-enhancing conduct.  The article is reproduced below (internal hyperlinks omitted), in italics:

On June 27, the European Commission—Europe’s antitrust enforcer—fined Google over $2.7 billion for a supposed violation of European antitrust law that bestowed benefits, not harm, on consumers.

And that’s just for starters. The commission is vigorously pursuing other antitrust investigations of Google that could lead to the imposition of billions of dollars in additional fines by European bureaucrats.

The legal outlook for Google is cloudy at best. Although the commission’s decisions can be appealed to European courts, European Commission bureaucrats have a generally good track record in winning before those tribunals.

But the problem is even bigger than that.

Recently, questionable antitrust probes have grown like topsy around the world, many of them aimed at America’s most creative high-tech firms. Beneficial innovations have become legal nightmares—good for defense lawyers, but bad for free market competition and the health of the American economy.

What great crime did Google commit to merit the huge European Commission fine?

The commission claims that Google favored its own comparison shopping service over others in displaying Google search results.

Never mind that consumers apparently like the shopping-related service links they find on Google (after all, they keep using its search engine in droves), or can patronize any other search engine or specialized comparison shopping service that can be found with a few clicks of the mouse.

This is akin to saying that Kroger or Walmart harm competition when they give favorable shelf space displays to their house brands. That’s ridiculous.

Somehow, such “favoritism” does not prevent consumers from flocking to those successful chains, or patronizing their competitors if they so choose. It is the essence of vigorous free market rivalry.  

The commission’s theory of anticompetitive behavior doesn’t hold water, as I explained in an earlier article. The Federal Trade Commission investigated Google’s search engine practices several years ago and found no evidence that alleged Google search engine display bias harmed consumers.

To the contrary, as former FTC Commissioner (and leading antitrust expert) Josh Wright has pointed out, and as the FTC found:

Google likely benefited consumers by prominently displaying its vertical content on its search results page. The Commission reached this conclusion based upon, among other things, analyses of actual consumer behavior—so-called ‘click through’ data—which showed how consumers reacted to Google’s promotion of its vertical properties.

In short, Google’s search policies benefit consumers. Antitrust is properly concerned with challenging business practices that harm consumer welfare and the overall competitive process, not with propping up particular competitors.

Absent a showing of actual harm to consumers, government antitrust cops—whether in Europe, the U.S., or elsewhere—should butt out.

Unfortunately, the European Commission shows no sign of heeding this commonsense advice. The Europeans have also charged Google with antitrust violations—with multibillion-dollar fines in the offing—based on the company’s promotion of its Android mobile operating service and its AdSense advertising service.

(That’s not all—other European Commission Google inquiries are also pending.)

As in the shopping services case, these investigations appear to be woefully short on evidence of harm to competition and consumer welfare.

The bigger question raised by the Google matters is the ability of any highly successful individual competitor to efficiently promote and favor its own offerings—something that has long been understood by American enforcers to be part and parcel of free-market competition.

As law Professor Michael Carrier points outs, any changes the EU forces on Google’s business model “could eventually apply to any way that Amazon, Facebook or anyone else offers to search for products or services.”

This is troublesome. Successful American information-age companies have already run afoul of the commission’s regulatory cops.

Microsoft and Intel absorbed multibillion-dollar European Commission antitrust fines in recent years, based on other theories of competitive harm. Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, among others, have faced European probes of their competitive practices and “privacy policies”—the terms under which they use or share sensitive information from consumers.

Often, these probes have been supported by less successful rivals who would rather rely on government intervention than competition on the merits.

Of course, being large and innovative is not a legal shield. Market-leading companies merit being investigated for actions that are truly harmful. The law applies equally to everyone.

But antitrust probes of efficient practices that confer great benefits on consumers (think how much the Google search engine makes it easier and cheaper to buy desired products and services and obtain useful information), based merely on the theory that some rivals may lose business, do not advance the free market. They retard it.

Who loses when zealous bureaucrats target efficient business practices by large, highly successful firms, as in the case of the European Commission’s Google probes and related investigations? The general public.

“Platform firms” like Google and Amazon that bring together consumers and other businesses will invest less in improving their search engines and other consumer-friendly features, for fear of being accused of undermining less successful competitors.

As a result, the supply of beneficial innovations will slow, and consumers will be less well off.

What’s more, competition will weaken, as the incentive to innovate to compete effectively with market leaders will be reduced. Regulation and government favor will substitute for welfare-enhancing improvement in goods, services, and platform quality. Economic vitality will inevitably be reduced, to the public’s detriment.

Europe is not the only place where American market leaders face unwarranted antitrust challenges.

For example, Qualcomm and InterDigital, U.S. firms that are leaders in smartphone communications technologies that power mobile interconnections, have faced large antitrust fines for, in essence, “charging too much” for licenses to their patented technologies.

South Korea also claimed to impose a “global remedy” that imposed its artificially low royalty rates on all of Qualcomm’s licensing agreements around the world.

(All this is part and parcel of foreign government attacks on American intellectual property—patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets—that cost U.S. innovators hundreds of billions of dollars a year.)

 

A lack of basic procedural fairness in certain foreign antitrust proceedings has also bedeviled American companies, preventing them from being able to defend their conduct. Foreign antitrust has sometimes been perverted into a form of “industrial policy” that discriminates against American companies in favor of domestic businesses.

What can be done to confront these problems?

In 2016, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce convened a group of trade and antitrust experts to examine the problem. In March 2017, the chamber released a report by the experts describing the nature of the problem and making specific recommendations for U.S. government action to deal with it.

Specifically, the experts urged that a White House-led interagency task force be set up to develop a strategy for dealing with unwarranted antitrust attacks on American businesses—including both misapplication of legal rules and violations of due process.

The report also called for the U.S. government to work through existing international institutions and trade negotiations to promote a convergence toward sounder antitrust practices worldwide.

The Trump administration should take heed of the experts’ report and act decisively to combat harmful foreign antitrust distortions. Antitrust policy worldwide should focus on helping the competitive process work more efficiently, not on distorting it by shacking successful innovators.

One more point, not mentioned in the article, merits being stressed.  Although the United States Government cannot control a foreign sovereign’s application of its competition law, it can engage in rhetoric and public advocacy aimed at convincing that sovereign to apply its law in a manner that promotes consumer welfare, competition on the merits, and economic efficiency.  Regrettably, the Obama Administration, particularly in the latter part of its second term, did a miserable job in promoting a facts-based, empirical approach to antitrust enforcement, centered on hard facts, not on mere speculative theories of harm.  In particular, certain political appointees lent lip service or silent acquiescence to inappropriate antitrust attacks on the unilateral exercise of intellectual property rights.  In addition, those senior officials made statements that could have been interpreted as supportive of populist “big is bad” conceptions of antitrust that had been discredited decades ago – through sound scholarship, by U.S. enforcement policies, and in judicial decisions.  The Trump Administration will have an opportunity to correct those errors, and to restore U.S. policy leadership in support of sound, pro-free market antitrust principles.  Let us hope that it does so, and soon.

Last October 26, Heritage scholar James Gattuso and I published an essay in The Daily Signal, explaining that the proposed vertical merger (a merger between firms at different stages of the distribution chain) of AT&T and Time Warner (currently undergoing Justice Department antitrust review) may have the potential to bestow substantial benefits on consumers – and that congressional calls to block it, uninformed by fact-based economic analysis, could prove detrimental to consumer welfare.  We explained:

[E]ven though the proposed union of AT&T and Time Warner is not guaranteed to benefit shareholders or consumers, that is no reason for the government to block it. Absent a strong showing of likely harm to the competitive process (which does not appear to be the case here), the government has no business interfering in corporate acquisitions.  Market forces should be allowed to sort out the welfare-enhancing transactional sheep from the unprofitable goats.  Shareholders are in a position to “vote with their feet” and reward or punish a merged company, based on information generated in the marketplace. 

[M]arket transactors are better placed and better incentivized than bureaucrats to uncover and apply the information needed to yield an efficient allocation of resources.

In short, government meddling in mergers in the absence of likely market failure (and of reason to believe that the government’s actions will yield results superior to those of an imperfect market) is a recipe for a diminution in—not an improvement in—consumer welfare.

Furthermore, by arbitrarily intervening in proposed mergers that are not anti-competitive, government disincentivizes firms from acting boldly to seek out new opportunities to create wealth and enhance the welfare of consumers.

What’s worse, the knowledge that government may intervene in mergers without regard to their likely competitive effects will prompt wasteful expenditures by special interests opposing particular transactions, causing a further diminution in economic welfare.

Unfortunately, the congressional critics of this deal are still out there, louder than ever, and, once again, need to be reminded about the dangers of unwarranted antitrust interventions – and the problem with “big is bad” rhetoric.  Scalia Law School Professor (and former Federal Trade Commissioner) Joshua Wright ably deconstructs the problems with the latest Capitol Hill  criticisms of this proposed merger, set forth in a June 21 letter to the Justice Department from eleven U.S. Senators (including Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, and Bernie Sanders).  As Professor Wright explains in a June 26 article published by The Hill:

Over the past several decades, there has been resounding and bipartisan agreement — amongst mainstream antitrust economists, practitioners, enforcement agencies, and even politicians — that while mergers between vertically aligned companies, like AT&T and Time Warner, can in rare circumstances harm competition, they usually make consumers better off. The opposition letter is a call to disrupt that consensus with a “new” view that vertical mergers are presumptively a bad deal for consumers and violate the antitrust laws.

The call for an antitrust revolution with respect to vertical mergers should not go unanswered. Revolution actually overstates things. The “new” antitrust is really a thinly veiled attempt to return to the antitrust approach of the 1960s where everything “big” was bad and virtually all deals, vertical ones included, violated the antitrust laws. That approach gained traction in part because it is easy to develop supporting rhetoric that is inflammatory and easily digestible. . . .

[However,] [a]s a matter of fact, the overwhelming weight of economic analysis and empirical evidence serves as a much-needed dose of cold water for the fiery rhetoric in the opposition letter and the commonly held intuition that all mergers between big firms make consumers worse off. . . .

[C]onsider the conclusion of a widely cited summary of dozens of studies authored by Francine LaFontaine and Margaret Slade, two very well respected industrial organization economists (one who served as director of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s bureau of economics during the Obama administration). It found that “consumers are often worse off when governments require vertical separation in markets where firms would have chosen otherwise.” Or consider the conclusion of four former enforcement agency economists reviewing the same body of evidence that “there is a paucity of support for the proposition that vertical restraints [or] vertical integration are likely to harm consumers.”

This evidence by no means suggests vertical mergers are incapable of harming consumers or violating the antitrust laws. The data do suggest an evidence-based antitrust enforcement approach aimed at protecting consumers will not presume that they are harmful without careful, rigorous, and objective analysis. Antitrust analysis is — or at least should be — a fact-specific exercise. Weighing concrete economic evidence is critical when assessing mergers, particularly when assessing vertical mergers where procompetitive virtues are almost always present. . . .

The economic and legal framework for analyzing vertical mergers is well understood by the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division and its staff of expert lawyers and economists. The antitrust division has not hesitated to determine an appropriate remedy in the rare instance where a vertical merger has been found likely to harm competition. The [Senators’] opposition letter is correct that a careful and rigorous analysis of the proposed acquisition is called for — as is the case with all mergers. That review process should, however, be guided by careful and objective analysis and not the fiery political rhetoric [of the Senators’ letter].

Under the leadership of soon-to-be U.S. Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, an experienced antitrust lawyer and antitrust enforcement agency veteran, the Justice Department antitrust division staff will be empowered to conduct precisely that type of analysis and reach a decision that best protects competition and consumers.

Professor Wright’s excellent essay merits being read in full.

Too much ink has been spilled in an attempt to gin up antitrust controversies regarding efforts by holders of “standard essential patents” (SEPs, patents covering technologies that are adopted as part of technical standards relied upon by manufacturers) to obtain reasonable returns to their property. Antitrust theories typically revolve around claims that SEP owners engage in monopolistic “hold-up” when they threaten injunctions or seek “excessive” royalties (or other “improperly onerous” terms) from potential licensees in patent licensing negotiations, in violation of pledges (sometimes imposed by standard-setting organizations) to license on “fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory” (FRAND) terms. As Professors Joshua Wright and Douglas Ginsburg, among others, have explained, contract law, tort law, and patent law are far better placed to handle “FRAND-related” SEP disputes than antitrust law. Adding antitrust to the litigation mix generates unnecessary costs and inefficiently devalues legitimate private property rights.

Concerns by antitrust mavens that other areas of law are insufficient to cope adequately with SEP-FRAND disputes are misplaced. A fascinating draft law review article by Koren Wrong-Ervin, Director of the Scalia Law School’s Global Antitrust Institute, and Anne Layne-Farrar, Vice President of Charles River Associates, does an admirable job of summarizing key decisions by U.S. and foreign courts involved in determining FRAND rates in SEP litigation, and in highlighting key economic concepts underlying these holdings. As explained in the article’s abstract:

In the last several years, courts around the world, including in China, the European Union, India, and the United States, have ruled on appropriate methodologies for calculating either a reasonable royalty rate or reasonable royalty damages on standard-essential patents (SEPs) upon which a patent holder has made an assurance to license on fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms. Included in these decisions are determinations about patent holdup, licensee holdout, the seeking of injunctive relief, royalty stacking, the incremental value rule, reliance on comparable licenses, the appropriate revenue base for royalty calculations, and the use of worldwide portfolio licensing. This article provides an economic and comparative analysis of the case law to date, including the landmark 2013 FRAND-royalty determination issued by the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court (and affirmed by the Guangdong Province High People’s Court) in Huawei v. InterDigital; numerous U.S. district court decisions; recent seminal decisions from the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Ericsson v. D-Link and CISCO v. CSIRO; the six recent decisions involving Ericsson issued by the Delhi High Court; the European Court of Justice decision in Huawei v. ZTE; and numerous post- Huawei v. ZTE decisions by European Union member states. While this article focuses on court decisions, discussions of the various agency decisions from around the world are also included throughout.   

To whet the reader’s appetite, key economic policy and factual “takeaways” from the article, which are reflected implicitly in a variety of U.S. and foreign judicial holdings, are as follows:

  • Holdup of any form requires lock-in, i.e., standard-implementing companies with asset-specific investments locked in to the technologies defining the standard or SEP holders locked in to licensing in the context of a standard because of standard-specific research and development (R&D) leading to standard-specific patented technologies.
  • Lock-in is a necessary condition for holdup, but it is not sufficient. For holdup in any guise to actually occur, there also must be an exploitative action taken by the relevant party once lock-in has happened. As a result, the mere fact that a license agreement was signed after a patent was included in a standard is not enough to establish that the patent holder is practicing holdup—there must also be evidence that the SEP holder took advantage of the licensee’s lock-in, for example by charging supra-FRAND royalties that it could not otherwise have charged but for the lock-in.
  • Despite coming after a particular standard is published, the vast majority of SEP licenses are concluded in arm’s length, bilateral negotiations with no allegations of holdup or opportunistic behavior. This follows because market mechanisms impose a number of constraints that militate against acting on the opportunity for holdup.
  • In order to support holdup claims, an expert must establish that the terms and conditions in an SEP licensing agreement generate payments that exceed the value conveyed by the patented technology to the licensor that signed the agreement.
  • The threat of seeking injunctive relief, on its own, cannot lead to holdup unless that threat is both credible and actionable. Indeed, the in terrorem effect of filing for an injunction depends on the likelihood of its being granted. Empirical evidence shows a significant decline in the number of injunctions sought as well as in the actual rate of injunctions granted in the United States following the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in eBay v. MercExchange LLC, which ended the prior nearly automatic granting of injunctions to patentees and instead required courts to apply a traditional four-part equitable test for granting injunctive relief.
  • The Federal Circuit has recognized that an SEP holder’s ability to seek injunctive relief is an important safeguard to help prevent potential licensee holdout, whereby an SEP infringer unilaterally refuses a FRAND royalty or unreasonably delays negotiations to the same effect.
  • Related to the previous point, seeking an injunction against a licensee who is delaying or not negotiating in good faith need not actually result in an injunction. The fact that a court finds a licensee is holding out and/or not engaging in good faith licensing discussions can be enough to spur a license agreement as opposed to a permanent injunction.
  • FRAND rates should reflect the value of the SEPs at issue, so it makes no economic sense to estimate an aggregate rate for a standard by assuming that all SEP holders would charge the same rate as the one being challenged in the current lawsuit.
  • Moreover, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has held, allegations of “royalty stacking” – the allegedly “excessive” aggregate burden of high licensing fees stemming from multiple patents that cover a single product – should be backed by case-specific evidence.
  • Most importantly, when a judicial FRAND assessment is focused on the value that the SEP portfolio at issue has contributed to the standard and products embodying the standard, the resulting rates and terms will necessarily avoid both patent holdup and royalty stacking.

In sum, the Wong-Ervin and Layne-Farrar article highlights economic insights that are reflected in the sounder judicial opinions dealing with the determination of FRAND royalties.  The article points the way toward methodologies that provide SEP holders sufficient returns on their intellectual property to reward innovation and maintain incentives to invest in technologies that enhance the value of standards.  Read it and learn.

I’ll be participating in two excellent antitrust/consumer protection events next week in DC, both of which may be of interest to our readers:

5th Annual Public Policy Conference on the Law & Economics of Privacy and Data Security

hosted by the GMU Law & Economics Center’s Program on Economics & Privacy, in partnership with the Future of Privacy Forum, and the Journal of Law, Economics & Policy.

Conference Description:

Data flows are central to an increasingly large share of the economy. A wide array of products and business models—from the sharing economy and artificial intelligence to autonomous vehicles and embedded medical devices—rely on personal data. Consequently, privacy regulation leaves a large economic footprint. As with any regulatory enterprise, the key to sound data policy is striking a balance between competing interests and norms that leaves consumers better off; finding an approach that addresses privacy concerns, but also supports the benefits of technology is an increasingly complex challenge. Not only is technology continuously advancing, but individual attitudes, expectations, and participation vary greatly. New ideas and approaches to privacy must be identified and developed at the same pace and with the same focus as the technologies they address.

This year’s symposium will include panels on Unfairness under Section 5: Unpacking “Substantial Injury”, Conceptualizing the Benefits and Costs from Data Flows, and The Law and Economics of Data Security.

I will be presenting a draft paper, co-authored with Kristian Stout, on the FTC’s reasonableness standard in data security cases following the Commission decision in LabMD, entitled, When “Reasonable” Isn’t: The FTC’s Standard-less Data Security Standard.

Conference Details:

  • Thursday, June 8, 2017
  • 8:00 am to 3:40 pm
  • at George Mason University, Founders Hall (next door to the Law School)
    • 3351 Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA 22201

Register here

View the full agenda here

 

The State of Antitrust Enforcement

hosted by the Federalist Society.

Panel Description:

Antitrust policy during much of the Obama Administration was a continuation of the Bush Administration’s minimal involvement in the market. However, at the end of President Obama’s term, there was a significant pivot to investigations and blocks of high profile mergers such as Halliburton-Baker Hughes, Comcast-Time Warner Cable, Staples-Office Depot, Sysco-US Foods, and Aetna-Humana and Anthem-Cigna. How will or should the new Administration analyze proposed mergers, including certain high profile deals like Walgreens-Rite Aid, AT&T-Time Warner, Inc., and DraftKings-FanDuel?

Join us for a lively luncheon panel discussion that will cover these topics and the anticipated future of antitrust enforcement.

Speakers:

  • Albert A. Foer, Founder and Senior Fellow, American Antitrust Institute
  • Profesor Geoffrey A. Manne, Executive Director, International Center for Law & Economics
  • Honorable Joshua D. Wright, Professor of Law, George Mason University School of Law
  • Moderator: Honorable Ronald A. Cass, Dean Emeritus, Boston University School of Law and President, Cass & Associates, PC

Panel Details:

  • Friday, June 09, 2017
  • 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm
  • at the National Press Club, MWL Conference Rooms
    • 529 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20045

Register here

Hope to see everyone at both events!

  1. Introduction

The International Competition Network (ICN), a “virtual” organization comprised of most of the world’s competition (antitrust) agencies and expert non-governmental advisors (NGAs), held its Sixteenth Annual Conference in Porto, Portugal from May 10-12. (I attended this Conference as an NGA.) Now that the ICN has turned “sweet sixteen,” a stocktaking is appropriate. The ICN can point to some significant accomplishments, but faces major future challenges. After describing those challenges, I advance four recommendations for U.S.-led initiatives to enhance the future effectiveness of the ICN.

  1. ICN Background and Successes

The ICN, whose key objective is to promote “soft convergence” among competition law regimes, has much to celebrate. It has gone from a small core of competition authorities focused on a limited set of issues to a collection of 135 agencies from 122 far-flung jurisdictions, plus a large cadre of NGA lawyers and economists who provide practical and theoretical advice. The ICN’s nature and initiatives are concisely summarized on its website:

The ICN provides competition authorities with a specialized yet informal venue for maintaining regular contacts and addressing practical competition concerns. This allows for a dynamic dialogue that serves to build consensus and convergence towards sound competition policy principles across the global antitrust community.

The ICN is unique as it is the only international body devoted exclusively to competition law enforcement and its members represent national and multinational competition authorities. Members produce work products through their involvement in flexible project-oriented and results-based working groups. Working group members work together largely by Internet, telephone, teleseminars and webinars.

Annual conferences and workshops provide opportunities to discuss working group projects and their implications for enforcement. The ICN does not exercise any rule-making function. Where the ICN reaches consensus on recommendations, or “best practices”, arising from the projects, individual competition authorities decide whether and how to implement the recommendations, through unilateral, bilateral or multilateral arrangements, as appropriate.

The Porto Conference highlighted the extent of the ICN’s influence. Representatives from key international organizations that focus on economic growth and development (and at one time were viewed as ICN “rivals”), including the OECD, the World Bank, and UNCTAD, participated in the Conference. A feature in recent years, the one-day “Pre-ICN” Forum jointly sponsored by the World Bank, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the International Bar Association, this year shared the spotlight with other “sidebar” events (for example, an antitrust symposium cosponsored by UNCTAD and the Japan Fair Trade Commission, an “African Competition Forum,” and a roundtable of former senior officials and academics sponsored by a journal). The Porto Conference formally adopted an impressive array of documents generated over the past year by the ICN’s various Working Groups (the Advocacy, Agency Effectiveness, Cartel, Merger, and Unilateral Conduct Working Groups) (see here and here). This work product focuses on offering practical advice to agencies, rather than theoretical academic speculation. If recent history is in any indication, a substantial portion of this advice will be incorporated within some national laws, and various agencies guidance documents, and strategic plans.

In sum, the ICN is an increasingly influential organization. More importantly, it has, on balance, been a force for the promotion of sound policies on such issues as pre-merger notifications and cartel enforcement – policies that reduce transaction costs for the private sector and tend to improve the quality of antitrust enforcement. It has produced valuable training materials for agencies. Furthermore, the ICN’s Advocacy Working Group, buoyed by a growing amount of academic research (some of it supported by the World Bank), increasingly has highlighted the costs of anticompetitive government laws and regulations, and provided a template for assessing and critiquing regulatory schemes that undermine the competitive process. Most recently, the revised chapter on the “analytical framework for evaluating unilateral exclusionary conduct” issued at the 2017 Porto Conference did a solid job of describing the nature of harm to the competitive process and the need to consider error costs in evaluating such conduct. Other examples of welfare-enhancing ICN proposals abound.

  1. Grounds for Caution Going Forward

Nevertheless, despite its generally good record, one must be cautious in evaluating the ICN’s long-term prospects, for at least five reasons.

First, as the ICN tackles increasingly contentious issues (such as the assessment of vertical restraints, which are part of the 2017-2018 ICN Work Plan, and “dominant” single firm “platforms,” cited specifically by ICN Chairman Andreas Mundt in Porto), the possibility for controversy and difficulty in crafting recommendations rises.

Second, most ICN members have adopted heavily administrative competition law frameworks that draw upon an inquisitorial civil law model, as opposed to the common law adversarial legal system in which independent courts conduct full legal reviews of agency conclusions. Public choice analysis (not to mention casual empiricism and common sense) indicates that as they become established, administrative agencies will have a strong incentive to “do something” in order to expand their authority. Generally speaking, sound economic analysis (bolstered by large staffs of economists) that stresses consumer welfare has been incorporated into U.S. federal antitrust enforcement decisions and federal antitrust jurisprudence – but that is not the case in large parts of the world. As its newer member agencies grow in size and influence, the ICN may be challenged by those authorities to address “novel” practices that stray beyond well-understood competition law categories. As a result, innovative welfare-enhancing business innovations could be given unwarranted scrutiny and thereby discouraged.

Third, as various informed commentators in Porto noted, many competition laws explicitly permit consideration of non-economic welfare-based goals, such as “industrial policy” (including promotion of “national champion” competitors), “fairness,” and general “public policy.” Such ill-defined statutory goals allow competition agencies (and, of course, politicians who may exercise influence over those agencies) to apply competition statutes in an unpredictable manner that has nothing to do with (indeed, may be antithetical to) promotion of a vigorous competitive process and consumer welfare. With the proliferation of international commerce, the costly uncertainty injected into business decision-making by malleable antitrust statutes becomes increasingly significant. The ICN, which issues non-binding recommendations and advice and relies on voluntary interagency cooperation, may have little practical ability to fend off such welfare-inimical politicization of antitrust.

Fourth, for nearly a decade United States antitrust agencies have expressed concern in international forums about lack of due process in competition enforcement. Commendably, in 2015 the ICN did issue guidance regarding “key investigative principles and practices important to effective and fair investigative process”, but this guidance did not address administrative hearings and enforcement actions, which remain particularly serious concerns. The ICN’s ability to drive a “due process improvements” agenda may be inherently limited, due to differences among ICN members’ legal systems and sensitivities regarding the second-guessing of national enforcement norms associated with the concept of “due process.”

Fifth, there is “the elephant outside the room.” One major jurisdiction, China, still has not joined the ICN. Given China’s size, importance in the global economy, and vigorous enforcement of its completion law, China’s “absence from “the table” is a significant limitation on the ICN’s ability to promote economically meaningful global policy convergence. (Since Hong Kong, a “special administrative region” of China, has joined the ICN, one may hope that China itself will consider opting for ICN membership in the not too distant future.)

  1. What Should the U.S. Antitrust Agencies Do?

Despite the notes of caution regarding the ICN’s future initiatives and effectiveness, the ICN will remain for the foreseeable future a useful forum for “nudging” members toward improvements in their competition law systems, particularly in key areas such as cartel enforcement, merger review, and agency effectiveness (internal improvements in agency management may improve the quality of enforcement and advocacy initiatives). Thus, the U.S. federal antitrust agencies, the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), should (and undoubtedly will) remain fully engaged with the ICN. DOJ and the FTC not only should remain fully engaged in the ICN’s Working Groups, they should also develop a strategy for minimizing the negative effects of the ICN’s limitations and capitalizing on its strengths. What should such a strategy entail? Four key elements come to mind.

First, the FTC and DOJ should strongly advocate against an ICN focus on expansive theories of liability for unilateral conduct (particularly involving such areas as popular Internet “platforms” (e.g., Google, Facebook, and Amazon, among others) and vertical restraints), not tied to showings of harm to the competitive process. The proliferation of cases based on such theories could chill economically desirable business innovations. In countering such novel and expansive condemnations of unilateral conduct, the U.S. agencies could draw upon the extensive law and economics literature on efficiencies and unilateral conduct in speeches, publications, and presentations to ICN Working Groups. To provide further support for their advocacy, the FTC and DOJ should also consider issuing a new joint statement of unilateral conduct enforcement principles, inspired by the general lines of the 2008 DOJ Report on Single Firm Conduct Under Section 2 of the Sherman Act (regrettably withdrawn by the Obama Administration DOJ in 2009). Relatedly, the FTC and DOJ should advocate the right of intellectual property (IP) holders legitimately to maximize returns on their holdings. The U.S. agencies also should be prepared to argue against novel theories of antitrust liability untethered from traditional concepts of antitrust harm, based on the unilateral exploitation of IP rights (see here, here, here, and here).

Second, the U.S. agencies should promote a special ICN project on decision theory and competition law enforcement (see my Heritage Foundation commentary here), under the aegis of the ICN’s Agency Effectiveness Working Group. A decision-theoretic framework aims to minimize the costs of antitrust administration and enforcement error, in order to promote cost-beneficial enforcement outcomes. ICN guidance on decision theory (which would stress the primacy of empirical analysis and the need for easily administrable rules) hopefully would encourage competition agencies to focus on clearly welfare-inimical practices, and avoid pursuing fanciful new theories of antitrust violations unmoored from robust theories of competitive harm. The FTC and DOJ should also work to inculcate decision theory into the work of the core ICN Cartel and Merger Working Groups (see here).

Third, the U.S. agencies should also encourage the ICN’s Agency Effectiveness Working Group to pursue a comprehensive “due process” initiative, focused on guaranteeing fundamental fairness to parties at all stages of a competition law proceeding.  An emphasis on basic universal notions of fairness would transcend the differences inherent in civil law and common law administrative processes. It would suggest a path forward whereby agencies could agree on the nature of basic rights owed litigants, while still preserving differences among administrative enforcement models. Administrative procedure recommendations developed by the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Section in 2015 (see here) offer a good template for consideration, and 2012 OECD deliberations on fairness and transparency (see here) yield valuable background analysis. Consistent with these materials, the U.S. agencies could stress that due process reforms to protect basic rights would not only improve the quality of competition authority decision-making, it would also enhance economic welfare and encourage firms from around the world to do business in reforming jurisdictions. (As discussed above, due process raises major sensitivities, and thus the push for due process improvements should be viewed as a long-term project that will have to be pursued vigorously and very patiently.)

Fourth, working through the ICN’s Advocacy Working Group, the FTC and DOJ should push to substantially raise the profile of competition advocacy at the ICN. A growing body of economic research reveals the enormous economic gains that could be unlocked within individual countries by the removal of anticompetitive laws and rules, particularly those that create artificial barriers to entry and distort trade (see, for example, here and here). The U.S. agencies should emphasize the negative consequences for poorer consumers, reduced innovation, and foregone national income due to many of these anticompetitive barriers, drawing upon research by World Bank and OECD scholars (see here). (Fortunately, the ICN already works with the World Bank to promote an annual contest that showcases economic “success stories” due to agency advocacy.) The FTC and DOJ should also use the ICN as a forum to recommend that national competition authorities accord competition advocacy aimed at domestic regulatory reform relatively more resources and attention, particularly compared to investigations of vertical restraints and novel unilateral conduct. It should also work within the ICN’s guidance and oversight body, the “Steering Group,” to make far-reaching competition advocacy initiatives a top ICN priority.

  1. Conclusion

The ICN is a worthwhile international organization that stands at a crossroads. Having no permanent bureaucracy (its website is maintained by the Canadian Competition Bureau), and relying in large part on online communications among agency staff and NGAs to carry out its work, the ICN represents a very good investment of scare resources by the U.S. Government. Absent thoughtful guidance, however, there is a danger that it could drift and become less effective at promoting welfare-enhancing competition law improvements around the world. To avert such an outcome, U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies (joined by like-minded ICN members from other jurisdictions) should proactively seek to have the ICN take up new projects that hold out the promise for substantive and process-based improvements in competition policy worldwide, including far-reaching regulatory reform. A positive ICN response to such initiatives would enhance the quality of competition policy. Moreover, it could contribute in no small fashion to increased economic welfare and innovation in those jurisdictions that adopted reforms in response to the ICN’s call. American businesses operating internationally also would benefit from improvements in the global competition climate generated by ICN-incentivized reforms.

 

 

 

Today the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) Antitrust and Consumer Protection Research Program released a new white paper by Geoffrey A. Manne and Allen Gibby entitled:

A Brief Assessment of the Procompetitive Effects of Organizational Restructuring in the Ag-Biotech Industry

Over the past two decades, rapid technological innovation has transformed the industrial organization of the ag-biotech industry. These developments have contributed to an impressive increase in crop yields, a dramatic reduction in chemical pesticide use, and a substantial increase in farm profitability.

One of the most striking characteristics of this organizational shift has been a steady increase in consolidation. The recent announcements of mergers between Dow and DuPont, ChemChina and Syngenta, and Bayer and Monsanto suggest that these trends are continuing in response to new market conditions and a marked uptick in scientific and technological advances.

Regulators and industry watchers are often concerned that increased consolidation will lead to reduced innovation, and a greater incentive and ability for the largest firms to foreclose competition and raise prices. But ICLE’s examination of the underlying competitive dynamics in the ag-biotech industry suggests that such concerns are likely unfounded.

In fact, R&D spending within the seeds and traits industry increased nearly 773% between 1995 and 2015 (from roughly $507 million to $4.4 billion), while the combined market share of the six largest companies in the segment increased by more than 550% (from about 10% to over 65%) during the same period.

Firms today are consolidating in order to innovate and remain competitive in an industry replete with new entrants and rapidly evolving technological and scientific developments.

According to ICLE’s analysis, critics have unduly focused on the potential harms from increased integration, without properly accounting for the potential procompetitive effects. Our brief white paper highlights these benefits and suggests that a more nuanced and restrained approach to enforcement is warranted.

Our analysis suggests that, as in past periods of consolidation, the industry is well positioned to see an increase in innovation as these new firms unite complementary expertise to pursue more efficient and effective research and development. They should also be better able to help finance, integrate, and coordinate development of the latest scientific and technological developments — particularly in rapidly growing, data-driven “digital farming” —  throughout the industry.

Download the paper here.

And for more on the topic, revisit TOTM’s recent blog symposium, “Agricultural and Biotech Mergers: Implications for Antitrust Law and Economics in Innovative Industries,” here.