Archives For Barriers to Entry

[Judge Douglas Ginsburg was invited to respond to the Beesley Lecture given by Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). Both the lecture and Judge Ginsburg’s response were broadcast by the BBC on Oct. 28, 2021. The text of Mr. Coscelli’s Beesley lecture is available on the CMA’s website. Judge Ginsburg’s response follows below.]

Thank you, Victoria, for the invitation to respond to Mr. Coscelli and his proposal for a legislatively founded Digital Markets Unit. Mr. Coscelli is one of the most talented, successful, and creative heads a competition agency has ever had. In the case of the DMU [ed., Digital Markets Unit], however, I think he has let hope triumph over experience and prudence. This is often the case with proposals for governmental reform: Indeed, it has a name, the Nirvana Fallacy, which comes from comparing the imperfectly functioning marketplace with the perfectly functioning government agency. Everything we know about the regulation of competition tells us the unintended consequences may dwarf the intended benefits and the result may be a less, not more, competitive economy. The precautionary principle counsels skepticism about such a major and inherently risky intervention.

Mr. Coscelli made a point in passing that highlights the difference in our perspectives: He said the SMS [ed., strategic market status] merger regime would entail “a more cautious standard of proof.” In our shared Anglo-American legal culture, a more cautious standard of proof means the government would intervene in fewer, not more, market activities; proof beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal cases is a more cautious standard than a mere preponderance of the evidence. I, too, urge caution, but of the traditional kind.

I will highlight five areas of concern with the DMU proposal.

I. Chilling Effects

The DMU’s ability to designate a firm as being of strategic market significance—or SMS—will place a potential cloud over innovative activity in far more sectors than Mr. Coscelli could mention in his lecture. He views the DMU’s reach as limited to a small number of SMS-designated firms; and that may prove true, but there is nothing in the proposal limiting DMU’s reach.

Indeed, the DMU’s authority to regulate digital markets is surely going to be difficult to confine. Almost every major retail activity or consumer-facing firm involves an increasingly significant digital component, particularly after the pandemic forced many more firms online. Deciding which firms the DMU should cover seems easy in theory, but will prove ever more difficult and cumbersome in practice as digital technology continues to evolve. For instance, now that money has gone digital, a bank is little more than a digital platform bringing together lenders (called depositors) and borrowers, much as Amazon brings together buyers and sellers; so, is every bank with market power and an entrenched position to be subject to rules and remedies laid down by the DMU as well as supervision by the bank regulators? Is Aldi in the crosshairs now that it has developed an online retail platform? Match.com, too? In short, the number of SMS firms will likely grow apace in the next few years.

II. SMS Designations Should Not Apply to the Whole Firm

The CMA’s proposal would apply each SMS designation firm-wide, even if the firm has market power in a single line of business. This will inhibit investment in further diversification and put an SMS firm at a competitive disadvantage across all its businesses.

Perhaps company-wide SMS designations could be justified if the unintended costs were balanced by expected benefits to consumers, but this will not likely be the case. First, there is little evidence linking consumer harm to lines of business in which large digital firms do not have market power. On the contrary, despite the discussion of Amazon’s supposed threat to competition, consumers enjoy lower prices from many more retailers because of the competitive pressure Amazon brings to bear upon them.

Second, the benefits Mr. Coscelli expects the economy to reap from faster government enforcement are, at best, a mixed blessing. The proposal, you see, reverses the usual legal norm, instead making interim relief the rule rather than the exception. If a firm appeals its SMS designation, then under the CMA’s proposal, the DMU’s SMS designations and pro-competition interventions, or PCIs, will not be stayed pending appeal, raising the prospect that a firm’s activities could be regulated for a significant period even though it was improperly designated. Even prevailing in the courts may be a Pyrrhic victory because opportunities will have slipped away. Making matters worse, the DMU’s designation of a firm as SMS will likely receive a high degree of judicial deference, so that errors may never be corrected.

III. The DMU Cannot Be Evidence-based Given its Goals and Objectives

The DMU’s stated goal is to “further the interests of consumers and citizens in digital markets by promoting competition and innovation.”[1] DMU’s objectives for developing codes of conduct are: fair trading, open choices, and trust and transparency.[2] Fairness, openness, trust, and transparency are all concepts that are difficult to define and probably impossible to quantify. Therefore, I fear Mr. Coscelli’s aspiration that the DMU will be an evidence-based, tailored, and predictable regime seem unrealistic. The CMA’s idea of “an evidence-based regime” seems destined to rely mostly upon qualitative conjecture about the potential for the code of conduct to set “rules of the game” that encourage fair trading, open choices, trust, and transparency. Even if the DMU commits to considering empirical evidence at every step of its process, these fuzzy, qualitative objectives will allow it to come to virtually any conclusion about how a firm should be regulated.

Implementing those broad goals also throws into relief the inevitable tensions among them. Some potential conflicts between DMU’s objectives for developing codes of conduct are clear from the EU’s experience. For example, one of the things DMU has considered already is stronger protection for personal data. The EU’s experience with the GDPR shows that data protection is costly and, like any costly requirement, tends to advantage incumbents and thereby discourage new entry. In other words, greater data protections may come at the expense of start-ups or other new entrants and the contribution they would otherwise have made to competition, undermining open choices in the name of data transparency.

Another example of tension is clear from the distinction between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android ecosystems. They take different approaches to the trade-off between data privacy and flexibility in app development. Apple emphasizes consumer privacy at the expense of allowing developers flexibility in their design choices and offers its products at higher prices. Android devices have fewer consumer-data protections but allow app developers greater freedom to design their apps to satisfy users and are offered at lower prices. The case of Epic Games v. Apple put on display the purportedly pro-competitive arguments the DMU could use to justify shutting down Apple’s “walled garden,” whereas the EU’s GDPR would cut against Google’s open ecosystem with limited consumer protections. Apple’s model encourages consumer trust and adoption of a single, transparent model for app development, but Google’s model encourages app developers to choose from a broader array of design and payment options and allows consumers to choose between the options; no matter how the DMU designs its code of conduct, it will be creating winners and losers at the cost of either “open choices” or “trust and transparency.” As experience teaches is always the case, it is simply not possible for an agency with multiple goals to serve them all at the same time. The result is an unreviewable discretion to choose among them ad hoc.

Finally, notice that none of the DMU’s objectives—fair trading, open choices, and trust and transparency—revolves around quantitative evidence; at bottom, these goals are not amenable to the kind of rigor Mr. Coscelli hopes for.

IV. Speed of Proposals

Mr. Coscelli has emphasized the slow pace of competition law matters; while I empathize, surely forcing merging parties to prove a negative and truncating their due process rights is not the answer.

As I mentioned earlier, it seems a more cautious standard of proof to Mr. Coscelli is one in which an SMS firm’s proposal to acquire another firm is presumed, or all but presumed, to be anticompetitive and unlawful. That is, the DMU would block the transaction unless the firms can prove their deal would not be anticompetitive—an extremely difficult task. The most self-serving version of the CMA’s proposal would require it to prove only that the merger poses a “realistic prospect” of lessening competition, which is vague, but may in practice be well below a 50% chance. Proving that the merged entity does not harm competition will still require a predictive forward-looking assessment with inherent uncertainty, but the CMA wants the costs of uncertainty placed upon firms, rather than it. Given the inherent uncertainty in merger analysis, the CMA’s proposal would pose an unprecedented burden of proof on merging parties.

But it is not only merging parties the CMA would deprive of due process; the DMU’s so-called pro-competitive interventions, or PCI, SMS designations, and code-of-conduct requirements generally would not be stayed pending appeal. Further, an SMS firm could overturn the CMA’s designation only if it could overcome substantial deference to the DMU’s fact-finding. It is difficult to discern, then, the difference between agency decisions and final orders.

The DMU would not have to show or even assert an extraordinary need for immediate relief. This is the opposite of current practice in every jurisdiction with which I am familiar.  Interim orders should take immediate effect only in exceptional circumstances, when there would otherwise be significant and irreversible harm to consumers, not in the ordinary course of agency decision making.

V. Antitrust Is Not Always the Answer

Although one can hardly disagree with Mr. Coscelli’s premise that the digital economy raises new legal questions and practical challenges, it is far from clear that competition law is the answer to them all. Some commentators of late are proposing to use competition law to solve consumer protection and even labor market problems. Unfortunately, this theme also recurs in Mr. Coscelli’s lecture. He discusses concerns with data privacy and fair and reasonable contract terms, but those have long been the province of consumer protection and contract law; a government does not need to step in and regulate all realms of activity by digital firms and call it competition law. Nor is there reason to confine needed protections of data privacy or fair terms of use to SMS firms.

Competition law remedies are sometimes poorly matched to the problems a government is trying to correct. Mr. Coscelli discusses the possibility of strong interventions, such as forcing the separation of a platform from its participation in retail markets; for example, the DMU could order Amazon to spin off its online business selling and shipping its own brand of products. Such powerful remedies can be a sledgehammer; consider forced data sharing or interoperability to make it easier for new competitors to enter. For example, if Apple’s App Store is required to host all apps submitted to it in the interest of consumer choice, then Apple loses its ability to screen for security, privacy, and other consumer benefits, as its refusal   to deal is its only way to prevent participation in its store. Further, it is not clear consumers want Apple’s store to change; indeed, many prefer Apple products because of their enhanced security.

Forced data sharing would also be problematic; the hiQ v. LinkedIn case in the United States should serve as a cautionary tale. The trial court granted a preliminary injunction forcing LinkedIn to allow hiQ to scrape its users’ profiles while the suit was ongoing. LinkedIn ultimately won the suit because it did not have market power, much less a monopoly, in any relevant market. The court concluded each theory of anticompetitive conduct was implausible, but meanwhile LinkedIn had been forced to allow hiQ to scrape its data for an extended period before the final decision. There is no simple mechanism to “unshare” the data now that LinkedIn has prevailed. This type of case could be common under the CMA proposal because the DMU’s orders will go into immediate effect.

There is potentially much redeeming power in the Digital Regulation Co-operation Forum as Mr. Coscelli described it, but I take a different lesson from this admirable attempt to coordinate across agencies: Perhaps it is time to look beyond antitrust to solve problems that are not based upon market power. As the DRCF highlights, there are multiple agencies with overlapping authority in the digital market space. ICO and Ofcom each have authority to take action against a firm that disseminates fake news or false advertisements. Mr. Coscelli says it would be too cumbersome to take down individual bad actors, but, if so, then the solution is to adopt broader consumer protection rules, not apply an ill-fitting set of competition law rules. For example, the U.K. could change its notice-and-takedown rules to subject platforms to strict liability if they host fake news, even without knowledge that they are doing so, or perhaps only if they are negligent in discharging their obligation to police against it.

Alternatively, the government could shrink the amount of time platforms have to take down information; France gives platforms only about an hour to remove harmful information. That sort of solution does not raise the same prospect of broadly chilling market activity, but still addresses one of the concerns Mr. Coscelli raises with digital markets.

In sum, although Mr. Coscelli is of course correct that competition authorities and governments worldwide are considering whether to adopt broad reforms to their competition laws, the case against broadening remains strong. Instead of relying upon the self-corrective potential of markets, which is admittedly sometimes slower than anyone would like, the CMA assumes markets need regulation until firms prove otherwise. Although clearly well-intentioned, the DMU proposal is in too many respects not met to the task of protecting competition in digital markets; at worst, it will inhibit innovation in digital markets to the point of driving startups and other innovators out of the U.K.


[1] See Digital markets Taskforce, A new pro-competition regime for digital markets, at 22, Dec. 2020, available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5fce7567e90e07562f98286c/Digital_Taskforce_-_Advice.pdf; Oliver Dowden & Kwasi Kwarteng, A New Pro-competition Regime for Digital Markets, July 2021, available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/a-new-pro-competition-regime-for-digital-markets, at ¶ 27.

[2] Sam Bowman, Sam Dumitriu & Aria Babu, Conflicting Missions:The Risks of the Digital Markets Unit to Competition and Innovation, Int’l Center for L. & Econ., June 2021, at 13.

Why do digital industries routinely lead to one company having a very large share of the market (at least if one defines markets narrowly)? To anyone familiar with competition policy discussions, the answer might seem obvious: network effects, scale-related economies, and other barriers to entry lead to winner-take-all dynamics in platform industries. Accordingly, it is that believed the first platform to successfully unlock a given online market enjoys a determining first-mover advantage.

This narrative has become ubiquitous in policymaking circles. Thinking of this sort notably underpins high-profile reports on competition in digital markets (here, here, and here), as well ensuing attempts to regulate digital platforms, such as the draft American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the EU’s Digital Markets Act.

But are network effects and the like the only ways to explain why these markets look like this? While there is no definitive answer, scholars routinely overlook an alternative explanation that tends to undercut the narrative that tech markets have become non-contestable.

The alternative model is simple: faced with zero prices and the almost complete absence of switching costs, users have every reason to join their preferred platform. If user preferences are relatively uniform and one platform has a meaningful quality advantage, then there is every reason to expect that most consumers will all join the same one—even though the market remains highly contestable. On the other side of the equation, because platforms face very few capacity constraints, there are few limits to a given platform’s growth. As will be explained throughout this piece, this intuition is as old as economics itself.

The Bertrand Paradox

In 1883, French mathematician Joseph Bertrand published a powerful critique of two of the most high-profile economic thinkers of his time: the late Antoine Augustin Cournot and Léon Walras (it would be another seven years before Alfred Marshall published his famous principles of economics).

Bertrand criticized several of Cournot and Walras’ widely accepted findings. This included Cournot’s conclusion that duopoly competition would lead to prices above marginal cost—or, in other words, that duopolies were imperfectly competitive.

By reformulating the problem slightly, Bertand arrived at the opposite conclusion. He argued that each firm’s incentive to undercut its rival would ultimately lead to marginal cost pricing, and one seller potentially capturing the entire market:

There is a decisive objection [to Cournot’s model]: According to his hypothesis, no [supracompetitive] equilibrium is possible. There is no limit to price decreases; whatever the joint price being charged by firms, a competitor could always undercut this price and, with few exceptions, attract all consumers. If the competitor is allowed to get away with this [i.e. the rival does not react], it will double its profits.

This result is mainly driven by the assumption that, unlike in Cournot’s model, firms can immediately respond to their rival’s chosen price/quantity. In other words, Bertrand implicitly framed the competitive process as price competition, rather than quantity competition (under price competition, firms do not face any capacity constraints and they cannot commit to producing given quantities of a good):

If Cournot’s calculations mask this result, it is because of a remarkable oversight. Referring to them as D and D’, Cournot deals with the quantities sold by each of the two competitors and treats them as independent variables. He assumes that if one were to change by the will of one of the two sellers, the other one could remain fixed. The opposite is evidently true.

This later came to be known as the “Bertrand paradox”—the notion that duopoly-market configurations can produce the same outcome as perfect competition (i.e., P=MC).

But while Bertrand’s critique was ostensibly directed at Cournot’s model of duopoly competition, his underlying point was much broader. Above all, Bertrand seemed preoccupied with the notion that expressing economic problems mathematically merely gives them a veneer of accuracy. In that sense, he was one of the first economists (at least to my knowledge) to argue that the choice of assumptions has a tremendous influence on the predictions of economic models, potentially rendering them unreliable:

On other occasions, Cournot introduces assumptions that shield his reasoning from criticism—scholars can always present problems in a way that suits their reasoning.

All of this is not to say that Bertrand’s predictions regarding duopoly competition necessarily hold in real-world settings; evidence from experimental settings is mixed. Instead, the point is epistemological. Bertrand’s reasoning was groundbreaking because he ventured that market structures are not the sole determinants of consumer outcomes. More broadly, he argued that assumptions regarding the competitive process hold significant sway over the results that a given model may produce (and, as a result, over normative judgements concerning the desirability of given market configurations).

The Theory of Contestable Markets

Bertrand is certainly not the only economist to have suggested market structures alone do not determine competitive outcomes. In the early 1980s, William Baumol (and various co-authors) went one step further. Baumol argued that, under certain conditions, even monopoly market structures could deliver perfectly competitive outcomes. This thesis thus rejected the Structure-Conduct-Performance (“SCP”) Paradigm that dominated policy discussions of the time.

Baumol’s main point was that industry structure is not the main driver of market “contestability,” which is the key determinant of consumer outcomes. In his words:

In the limit, when entry and exit are completely free, efficient incumbent monopolists and oligopolists may in fact be able to prevent entry. But they can do so only by behaving virtuously, that is, by offering to consumers the benefits which competition would otherwise bring. For every deviation from good behavior instantly makes them vulnerable to hit-and-run entry.

For instance, it is widely accepted that “perfect competition” leads to low prices because firms are price-takers; if one does not sell at marginal cost, it will be undercut by rivals. Observers often assume this is due to the number of independent firms on the market. Baumol suggests this is wrong. Instead, the result is driven by the sanction that firms face for deviating from competitive pricing.

In other words, numerous competitors are a sufficient, but not necessary condition for competitive pricing. Monopolies can produce the same outcome when there is a present threat of entry and an incumbent’s deviation from competitive pricing would be sanctioned. This is notably the case when there are extremely low barriers to entry.

Take this hypothetical example from the world of cryptocurrencies. It is largely irrelevant to a user whether there are few or many crypto exchanges on which to trade coins, nonfungible tokens (NFTs), etc. What does matter is that there is at least one exchange that meets one’s needs in terms of both price and quality of service. This could happen because there are many competing exchanges, or because a failure to meet my needs by the few (or even one) exchange that does exist would attract the entry of others to which I could readily switch—thus keeping the behavior of the existing exchanges in check.

This has far-reaching implications for antitrust policy, as Baumol was quick to point out:

This immediately offers what may be a new insight on antitrust policy. It tells us that a history of absence of entry in an industry and a high concentration index may be signs of virtue, not of vice. This will be true when entry costs in our sense are negligible.

Given what precedes, Baumol surmised that industry structure must be driven by endogenous factors—such as firms’ cost structures—rather than the intensity of competition that they face. For instance, scale economies might make monopoly (or another structure) the most efficient configuration in some industries. But so long as rivals can sanction incumbents for failing to compete, the market remains contestable. Accordingly, at least in some industries, both the most efficient and the most contestable market configuration may entail some level of concentration.

To put this last point in even more concrete terms, online platform markets may have features that make scale (and large market shares) efficient. If so, there is every reason to believe that competition could lead to more, not less, concentration. 

How Contestable Are Digital Markets?

The insights of Bertrand and Baumol have important ramifications for contemporary antitrust debates surrounding digital platforms. Indeed, it is critical to ascertain whether the (relatively) concentrated market structures we see in these industries are a sign of superior efficiency (and are consistent with potentially intense competition), or whether they are merely caused by barriers to entry.

The barrier-to-entry explanation has been repeated ad nauseam in recent scholarly reports, competition decisions, and pronouncements by legislators. There is thus little need to restate that thesis here. On the other hand, the contestability argument is almost systematically ignored.

Several factors suggest that online platform markets are far more contestable than critics routinely make them out to be.

First and foremost, consumer switching costs are extremely low for most online platforms. To cite but a few examples: Changing your default search engine requires at most a couple of clicks; joining a new social network can be done by downloading an app and importing your contacts to the app; and buying from an alternative online retailer is almost entirely frictionless, thanks to intermediaries such as PayPal.

These zero or near-zero switching costs are compounded by consumers’ ability to “multi-home.” In simple terms, joining TikTok does not require users to close their Facebook account. And the same applies to other online services. As a result, there is almost no opportunity cost to join a new platform. This further reduces the already tiny cost of switching.

Decades of app development have greatly improved the quality of applications’ graphical user interfaces (GUIs), to such an extent that costs to learn how to use a new app are mostly insignificant. Nowhere is this more apparent than for social media and sharing-economy apps (it may be less true for productivity suites that enable more complex operations). For instance, remembering a couple of intuitive swipe motions is almost all that is required to use TikTok. Likewise, ridesharing and food-delivery apps merely require users to be familiar with the general features of other map-based applications. It is almost unheard of for users to complain about usability—something that would have seemed impossible in the early 21st century, when complicated interfaces still plagued most software.

A second important argument in favor of contestability is that, by and large, online platforms face only limited capacity constraints. In other words, platforms can expand output rapidly (though not necessarily costlessly).

Perhaps the clearest example of this is the sudden rise of the Zoom service in early 2020. As a result of the COVID pandemic, Zoom went from around 10 million daily active users in early 2020 to more than 300 million by late April 2020. Despite being a relatively data-intensive service, Zoom did not struggle to meet this new demand from a more than 30-fold increase in its user base. The service never had to turn down users, reduce call quality, or significantly increase its price. In short, capacity largely followed demand for its service. Online industries thus seem closer to the Bertrand model of competition, where the best platform can almost immediately serve any consumers that demand its services.

Conclusion

Of course, none of this should be construed to declare that online markets are perfectly contestable. The central point is, instead, that critics are too quick to assume they are not. Take the following examples.

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. As Bertrand and Baumol (and others) show, what matters is not whether digital markets are concentrated, but whether they are contestable. If a superior rival could rapidly gain user traction, this alone will discipline the behavior of incumbents.

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

In short, critics’ failure to meaningfully grapple with these issues serves to shape the prevailing zeitgeist in tech-policy debates. Cournot and Bertrand’s intuitions about oligopoly competition may be more than a century old, but they continue to be tested empirically. It is about time those same standards were applied to tech-policy debates.

A lawsuit filed by the State of Texas and nine other states in December 2020 alleges, among other things, that Google has engaged in anticompetitive conduct related to its online display-advertising business.

Broadly, the Texas complaint (previously discussed in this TOTM symposium) alleges that Google possesses market power in ad-buying tools and in search, illustrated in the figure below.

The complaint also alleges anticompetitive conduct by Google with respect to YouTube in a separate “inline video-advertising market.” According to the complaint, this market power is leveraged to force transactions through Google’s exchange, AdX, and its network, Google Display Network. The leverage is further exercised by forcing publishers to license Google’s ad server, Google Ad Manager.

Although the Texas complaint raises many specific allegations, the key ones constitute four broad claims: 

  1. Google forces publishers to license Google’s ad server and trade in Google’s ad exchange;
  2. Google uses its control over publishers’ inventory to block exchange competition;
  3. Google has disadvantaged technology known as “header bidding” in order to prevent publishers from accessing its competitors; and
  4. Google prevents rival ad-placement services from competing by not allowing them to buy YouTube ad space.

Alleged harms

The Texas complaint alleges Google’s conduct has caused harm to competing networks, exchanges, and ad servers. The complaint also claims that the plaintiff states’ economies have been harmed “by depriving the Plaintiff States and the persons within each Plaintiff State of the benefits of competition.”

In a nod to the widely accepted Consumer Welfare Standard, the Texas complaint alleges harm to three categories of consumers:

  1. Advertisers who pay for their ads to be displayed, but should be paying less;
  2. Publishers who are paid to provide space on their sites to display ads, but should be paid more; and
  3. Users who visit the sites, view the ads, and purchase or use the advertisers’ and publishers’ products and services.

The complaint claims users are harmed by above-competitive prices paid by advertisers, in that these higher costs are passed on in the form of higher prices and lower quality for the products and services they purchase from those advertisers. The complaint simultaneously claims that users are harmed by the below-market prices received by publishers in the form of “less content (lower output of content), lower-quality content, less innovation in content delivery, more paywalls, and higher subscription fees.”

Without saying so explicitly, the complaint insinuates that if intermediaries (e.g., Google and competing services) charged lower fees for their services, advertisers would pay less, publishers would be paid more, and consumers would be better off in the form of lower prices and better products from advertisers, as well as improved content and lower fees on publishers’ sites.

Effective competition is not an antitrust offense

A flawed premise underlies much of the Texas complaint. It asserts that conduct by a dominant incumbent firm that makes competition more difficult for competitors is inherently anticompetitive, even if that conduct confers benefits on users.

This amounts to a claim that Google is acting anti-competitively by innovating and developing products and services to benefit one or more display-advertising constituents (e.g., advertisers, publishers, or consumers) or by doing things that benefit the advertising ecosystem more generally. These include creating new and innovative products, lowering prices, reducing costs through vertical integration, or enhancing interoperability.

The argument, which is made explicitly elsewhere, is that Google must show that it has engineered and implemented its products to minimize obstacles its rivals face, and that any efficiencies created by its products must be shown to outweigh the costs imposed by those improvements on the company’s competitors.

Similarly, claims that Google has acted in an anticompetitive fashion rest on the unsupportable notion that the company acts unfairly when it designs products to benefit itself without considering how those designs would affect competitors. Google could, it is argued, choose alternate arrangements and practices that would possibly confer greater revenue on publishers or lower prices on advertisers without imposing burdens on competitors.

For example, a report published by the Omidyar Network sketching a “roadmap” for a case against Google claims that, if Google’s practices could possibly be reimagined to achieve the same benefits in ways that foster competition from rivals, then the practices should be condemned as anticompetitive:

It is clear even to us as lay people that there are less anticompetitive ways of delivering effective digital advertising—and thereby preserving the substantial benefits from this technology—than those employed by Google.

– Fiona M. Scott Morton & David C. Dinielli, “Roadmap for a Digital Advertising Monopolization Case Against Google”

But that’s not how the law—or the economics—works. This approach converts beneficial aspects of Google’s ad-tech business into anticompetitive defects, essentially arguing that successful competition and innovation create barriers to entry that merit correction through antitrust enforcement.

This approach turns U.S. antitrust law (and basic economics) on its head. As some of the most well-known words of U.S. antitrust jurisprudence have it:

A single producer may be the survivor out of a group of active competitors, merely by virtue of his superior skill, foresight and industry. In such cases a strong argument can be made that, although, the result may expose the public to the evils of monopoly, the Act does not mean to condemn the resultant of those very forces which it is its prime object to foster: finis opus coronat. The successful competitor, having been urged to compete, must not be turned upon when he wins.

– United States v. Aluminum Co. of America, 148 F.2d 416 (2d Cir. 1945)

U.S. antitrust law is intended to foster innovation that creates benefits for consumers, including innovation by incumbents. The law does not proscribe efficiency-enhancing unilateral conduct on the grounds that it might also inconvenience competitors, or that there is some other arrangement that could be “even more” competitive. Under U.S. antitrust law, firms are “under no duty to help [competitors] survive or expand.”  

To be sure, the allegations against Google are couched in terms of anticompetitive effect, rather than being described merely as commercial disagreements over the distribution of profits. But these effects are simply inferred, based on assumptions that Google’s vertically integrated business model entails an inherent ability and incentive to harm rivals.

The Texas complaint claims Google can surreptitiously derive benefits from display advertisers by leveraging its search-advertising capabilities, or by “withholding YouTube inventory,” rather than altruistically opening Google Search and YouTube up to rival ad networks. The complaint alleges Google uses its access to advertiser, publisher, and user data to improve its products without sharing this data with competitors.

All these charges may be true, but they do not describe inherently anticompetitive conduct. Under U.S. law, companies are not obliged to deal with rivals and certainly are not obliged to do so on those rivals’ preferred terms

As long ago as 1919, the U.S. Supreme Court held that:

In the absence of any purpose to create or maintain a monopoly, the [Sherman Act] does not restrict the long recognized right of [a] trader or manufacturer engaged in an entirely private business, freely to exercise his own independent discretion as to parties with whom he will deal.

– United States v. Colgate & Co.

U.S. antitrust law does not condemn conduct on the basis that an enforcer (or a court) is able to identify or hypothesize alternative conduct that might plausibly provide similar benefits at lower cost. In alleging that there are ostensibly “better” ways that Google could have pursued its product design, pricing, and terms of dealing, both the Texas complaint and Omidyar “roadmap” assert that, had the firm only selected a different path, an alternative could have produced even more benefits or an even more competitive structure.

The purported cure of tinkering with benefit-producing unilateral conduct by applying an “even more competition” benchmark is worse than the supposed disease. The adjudicator is likely to misapply such a benchmark, deterring the very conduct the law seeks to promote.

For example, Texas complaint alleges: “Google’s ad server passed inside information to Google’s exchange and permitted Google’s exchange to purchase valuable impressions at artificially depressed prices.” The Omidyar Network’s “roadmap” claims that “after purchasing DoubleClick, which became its publisher ad server, Google apparently lowered its prices to publishers by a factor of ten, at least according to one publisher’s account related to the CMA. Low prices for this service can force rivals to depart, thereby directly reducing competition.”

In contrast, as current U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer once explained, in the context of above-cost low pricing, “the consequence of a mistake here is not simply to force a firm to forego legitimate business activity it wishes to pursue; rather, it is to penalize a procompetitive price cut, perhaps the most desirable activity (from an antitrust perspective) that can take place in a concentrated industry where prices typically exceed costs.”  That commentators or enforcers may be able to imagine alternative or theoretically more desirable conduct is beside the point.

It has been reported that the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) may join the Texas suit or bring its own similar action against Google in the coming months. If it does, it should learn from the many misconceptions and errors in the Texas complaint that leave it on dubious legal and economic grounds.

The dystopian novel is a powerful literary genre. It has given us such masterpieces as Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451. Though these novels often shed light on the risks of contemporary society and the zeitgeist of the era in which they were written, they also almost always systematically overshoot the mark (intentionally or not) and severely underestimate the radical improvements that stem from the technologies (or other causes) that they fear.

But dystopias are not just a literary phenomenon; they are also a powerful force in policy circles. This is epitomized by influential publications such as The Club of Rome’s 1972 report The Limits of Growth, whose dire predictions of Malthusian catastrophe have largely failed to materialize.

In an article recently published in the George Mason Law Review, we argue that contemporary antitrust scholarship and commentary is similarly afflicted by dystopian thinking. In that respect, today’s antitrust pessimists have set their sights predominantly on the digital economy—”Big Tech” and “Big Data”—in the process of alleging a vast array of potential harms.

Scholars have notably argued that the data created and employed by the digital economy produces network effects that inevitably lead to tipping and to more concentrated markets (e.g., here and here). In other words, firms will allegedly accumulate insurmountable data advantages and thus thwart competitors for extended periods of time.

Some have gone so far as to argue that this threatens the very fabric of western democracy. For instance, parallels between the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and the power of large digital platforms were plain to see when Epic Games launched an antitrust suit against Apple and its App Store in August 2020. The gaming company released a short video clip parodying Apple’s famous “1984” ad (which, upon its release, was itself widely seen as a critique of the tech incumbents of the time). Similarly, a piece in the New Statesman—titled “Slouching Towards Dystopia: The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism and the Death of Privacy”—concluded that:

Our lives and behaviour have been turned into profit for the Big Tech giants—and we meekly click ‘Accept.’ How did we sleepwalk into a world without privacy?

In our article, we argue that these fears are symptomatic of two different but complementary phenomena, which we refer to as “Antitrust Dystopia” and “Antitrust Nostalgia.”

Antitrust Dystopia is the pessimistic tendency among competition scholars and enforcers to assert that novel business conduct will cause technological advances to have unprecedented, anticompetitive consequences. This is almost always grounded in the belief that “this time is different”—that, despite the benign or positive consequences of previous, similar technological advances, this time those advances will have dire, adverse consequences absent enforcement to stave off abuse.

Antitrust Nostalgia is the biased assumption—often built into antitrust doctrine itself—that change is bad. Antitrust Nostalgia holds that, because a business practice has seemingly benefited competition before, changing it will harm competition going forward. Thus, antitrust enforcement is often skeptical of, and triggered by, various deviations from status quo conduct and relationships (i.e., “nonstandard” business arrangements) when change is, to a first approximation, the hallmark of competition itself.

Our article argues that these two worldviews are premised on particularly questionable assumptions about the way competition unfolds, in this case, in data-intensive markets.

The Case of Big Data Competition

The notion that digital markets are inherently more problematic than their brick-and-mortar counterparts—if there even is a meaningful distinction—is advanced routinely by policymakers, journalists, and other observers. The fear is that, left to their own devices, today’s dominant digital platforms will become all-powerful, protected by an impregnable “data barrier to entry.” Against this alarmist backdrop, nostalgic antitrust scholars have argued for aggressive antitrust intervention against the nonstandard business models and contractual arrangements that characterize these markets.

But as our paper demonstrates, a proper assessment of the attributes of data-intensive digital markets does not support either the dire claims or the proposed interventions.

  1. Data is information

One of the most salient features of the data created and consumed by online firms is that, jargon aside, it is just information. As with other types of information, it thus tends to have at least some traits usually associated with public goods (i.e., goods that are non-rivalrous in consumption and not readily excludable). As the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Catherine Tucker argues, data “has near-zero marginal cost of production and distribution even over long distances,” making it very difficult to exclude others from accessing it. Meanwhile, multiple economic agents can simultaneously use the same data, making it non-rivalrous in consumption.

As we explain in our paper, these features make the nature of modern data almost irreconcilable with the alleged hoarding and dominance that critics routinely associate with the tech industry.

2. Data is not scarce; expertise is

Another important feature of data is that it is ubiquitous. The predominant challenge for firms is not so much in obtaining data but, rather, in drawing useful insights from it. This has two important implications for antitrust policy.

First, 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 our survey of the empirical literature shows, data generally entails diminishing marginal returns:

Second, it is firms’ capabilities, rather than the data they own, that lead to success in the marketplace. 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.

This dynamic can be seen at play in the early days of the search-engine market. In 2013, The Atlantic ran a piece titled “What the Web Looked Like Before Google.” By comparing the websites of Google and its rivals in 1998 (when Google Search was launched), the article shows how the current champion of search marked a radical departure from the status quo.

Even if it stumbled upon it by chance, Google immediately identified a winning formula for the search-engine market. It ditched the complicated classification schemes favored by its rivals and opted, instead, for a clean page with a single search box. This ensured that users could access the information they desired in the shortest possible amount of time—thanks, in part, to Google’s PageRank algorithm.

It is hardly surprising that Google’s rivals struggled to keep up with this shift in the search-engine industry. The theory of dynamic capabilities tells us that firms that have achieved success by indexing the web will struggle when the market rapidly moves toward a new paradigm (in this case, Google’s single search box and ten blue links). During the time it took these rivals to identify their weaknesses and repurpose their assets, Google kept on making successful decisions: notably, the introduction of Gmail, its acquisitions of YouTube and Android, and the introduction of Google Maps, among others.

Seen from this evolutionary perspective, Google thrived because its capabilities were perfect for the market at that time, while rivals were ill-adapted.

3.    Data as a byproduct of, and path to, platform monetization

Policymakers should also bear in mind that platforms often must go to great lengths in order to create data about their users—data that these same users often do not know about themselves. Under this framing, data is a byproduct of firms’ activity, rather than an input necessary for rivals to launch a business.

This is especially clear when one looks at the formative years of numerous online platforms. Most of the time, these businesses were started by entrepreneurs who did not own much data but, instead, had a brilliant idea for a service that consumers would value. Even if data ultimately played a role in the monetization of these platforms, it does not appear that it was necessary for their creation.

Data often becomes significant only at a relatively late stage in these businesses’ development. A quick glance at the digital economy is particularly revealing in this regard. Google and Facebook, in particular, both launched their platforms under the assumption that building a successful product would eventually lead to significant revenues.

It took five years from its launch for Facebook to start making a profit. Even at that point, when the platform had 300 million users, it still was not entirely clear whether it would generate most of its income from app sales or online advertisements. It was another three years before Facebook started to cement its position as one of the world’s leading providers of online ads. During this eight-year timespan, Facebook prioritized user growth over the monetization of its platform. The company appears to have concluded (correctly, it turns out) that once its platform attracted enough users, it would surely find a way to make itself highly profitable.

This might explain how Facebook managed to build a highly successful platform despite a large data disadvantage when compared to rivals like MySpace. And Facebook is no outlier. The list of companies that prevailed despite starting with little to no data (and initially lacking a data-dependent monetization strategy) is lengthy. Other examples include TikTok, Airbnb, Amazon, Twitter, PayPal, Snapchat, and Uber.

Those who complain about the unassailable competitive advantages enjoyed by companies with troves of data have it exactly backward. 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.

We’ve Been Here Before: The Microsoft Antitrust Saga

Dystopian and nostalgic discussions concerning the power of successful technology firms are nothing new. Throughout recent history, there have been repeated calls for antitrust authorities to reign in these large companies. These calls for regulation have often led to increased antitrust scrutiny of some form. The Microsoft antitrust cases—which ran from the 1990s to the early 2010s on both sides of the Atlantic—offer a good illustration of the misguided “Antitrust Dystopia.”

In the mid-1990s, Microsoft was one of the most successful and vilified companies in America. After it obtained a commanding position in the desktop operating system market, the company sought to establish a foothold in the burgeoning markets that were developing around the Windows platform (many of which were driven by the emergence of the Internet). These included the Internet browser and media-player markets.

The business tactics employed by Microsoft to execute this transition quickly drew the ire of the press and rival firms, ultimately landing Microsoft in hot water with antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, as we show in our article, though there were numerous calls for authorities to adopt a precautionary principle-type approach to dealing with Microsoft—and antitrust enforcers were more than receptive to these calls—critics’ worst fears never came to be.

This positive outcome is unlikely to be the result of the antitrust cases that were brought against Microsoft. In other words, the markets in which Microsoft operated seem to have self-corrected (or were misapprehended as competitively constrained) and, today, are generally seen as being unproblematic.

This is not to say that antitrust interventions against Microsoft were necessarily misguided. Instead, our critical point is that commentators and antitrust decisionmakers routinely overlooked or misinterpreted the existing and nonstandard market dynamics that ultimately prevented the worst anticompetitive outcomes from materializing. This is supported by several key factors.

First, the remedies that were imposed against Microsoft by antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic were ultimately quite weak. It is thus unlikely that these remedies, by themselves, prevented Microsoft from dominating its competitors in adjacent markets.

Note that, if this assertion is wrong, and antitrust enforcement did indeed prevent Microsoft from dominating online markets, then there is arguably no need to reform the antitrust laws on either side of the Atlantic, nor even to adopt a particularly aggressive enforcement position. The remedies that were imposed on Microsoft were relatively localized. Accordingly, if antitrust enforcement did indeed prevent Microsoft from dominating other online markets, then it is antitrust enforcement’s deterrent effect that is to thank, and not the remedies actually imposed.

Second, Microsoft lost its bottleneck position. One of the biggest changes that took place in the digital space was the emergence of alternative platforms through which consumers could access the Internet. Indeed, as recently as January 2009, roughly 94% of all Internet traffic came from Windows-based computers. Just over a decade later, this number has fallen to about 31%. Android, iOS, and OS X have shares of roughly 41%, 16%, and 7%, respectively. Consumers can thus access the web via numerous platforms. The emergence of these alternatives reduced the extent to which Microsoft could use its bottleneck position to force its services on consumers in online markets.

Third, it is possible that Microsoft’s own behavior ultimately sowed the seeds of its relative demise. In particular, the alleged barriers to entry (rooted in nostalgic market definitions and skeptical analysis of “ununderstandable” conduct) that were essential to establishing the antitrust case against the company may have been pathways to entry as much as barriers.

Consider this error in the Microsoft court’s analysis of entry barriers: the court pointed out that new entrants faced a barrier that Microsoft didn’t face, in that Microsoft didn’t have to contend with a powerful incumbent impeding its entry by tying up application developers.

But while this may be true, Microsoft did face the absence of any developers at all, and had to essentially create (or encourage the creation of) businesses that didn’t previously exist. Microsoft thus created a huge positive externality for new entrants: existing knowledge and organizations devoted to software development, industry knowledge, reputation, awareness, and incentives for schools to offer courses. It could well be that new entrants, in fact, faced lower barriers with respect to app developers than did Microsoft when it entered.

In short, new entrants may face even more welcoming environments because of incumbents. This enabled Microsoft’s rivals to thrive.

Conclusion

Dystopian antitrust prophecies are generally doomed to fail, just like those belonging to the literary world. The reason is simple. While it is easy to identify what makes dominant firms successful in the present (i.e., what enables them to hold off competitors in the short term), it is almost impossible to conceive of the myriad ways in which the market could adapt. Indeed, it is today’s supra-competitive profits that spur the efforts of competitors.

Surmising that the economy will come to be dominated by a small number of successful firms is thus the same as believing that all market participants can be outsmarted by a few successful ones. This might occur in some cases or for some period of time, but as our article argues, it is bound to happen far less often than pessimists fear.

In short, dystopian scholars have not successfully made the case for precautionary antitrust. Indeed, the economic features of data make it highly unlikely that today’s tech giants could anticompetitively maintain their advantage for an indefinite amount of time, much less leverage this advantage in adjacent markets.

With this in mind, there is one dystopian novel that offers a fitting metaphor to end this Article. The Man in the High Castle tells the story of an alternate present, where Axis forces triumphed over the Allies during the second World War. This turns the dystopia genre on its head: rather than argue that the world is inevitably sliding towards a dark future, The Man in the High Castle posits that the present could be far worse than it is.

In other words, we should not take any of the luxuries we currently enjoy for granted. In the world of antitrust, critics routinely overlook that the emergence of today’s tech industry might have occurred thanks to, and not in spite of, existing antitrust doctrine. Changes to existing antitrust law should thus be dictated by a rigorous assessment of the various costs and benefits they would entail, rather than a litany of hypothetical concerns. The most recent wave of calls for antitrust reform have so far failed to clear this low bar.

Over the past decade and a half, virtually every branch of the federal government has taken steps to weaken the patent system. As reflected in President Joe Biden’s July 2021 executive order, these restraints on patent enforcement are now being coupled with antitrust policies that, in large part, adopt a “big is bad” approach in place of decades of economically grounded case law and agency guidelines.

This policy bundle is nothing new. It largely replicates the innovation policies pursued during the late New Deal and the postwar decades. That historical experience suggests that a “weak-patent/strong-antitrust” approach is likely to encourage neither innovation nor competition.

The Overlooked Shortfalls of New Deal Innovation Policy

Starting in the early 1930s, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a sequence of decisions that raised obstacles to patent enforcement. The Franklin Roosevelt administration sought to take this policy a step further, advocating compulsory licensing for all patents. While Congress did not adopt this proposal, it was partially implemented as a de facto matter through antitrust enforcement. Starting in the early 1940s and continuing throughout the postwar decades, the antitrust agencies secured judicial precedents that treated a broad range of licensing practices as per se illegal. Perhaps most dramatically, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) secured more than 100 compulsory licensing orders against some of the nation’s largest companies. 

The rationale behind these policies was straightforward. By compelling access to incumbents’ patented technologies, courts and regulators would lower barriers to entry and competition would intensify. The postwar economy declined to comply with policymakers’ expectations. Implementation of a weak-IP/strong-antitrust innovation policy over the course of four decades yielded the opposite of its intended outcome. 

Market concentration did not diminish, turnover in market leadership was slow, and private research and development (R&D) was confined mostly to the research labs of the largest corporations (who often relied on generous infusions of federal defense funding). These tendencies are illustrated by the dramatically unequal allocation of innovation capital in the postwar economy.  As of the late 1950s, small firms represented approximately 7% of all private U.S. R&D expenditures.  Two decades later, that figure had fallen even further. By the late 1970s, patenting rates had plunged, and entrepreneurship and innovation were in a state of widely lamented decline.

Why Weak IP Raises Entry Costs and Promotes Concentration

The decline in entrepreneurial innovation under a weak-IP regime was not accidental. Rather, this outcome can be derived logically from the economics of information markets.

Without secure IP rights to establish exclusivity, engage securely with business partners, and deter imitators, potential innovator-entrepreneurs had little hope to obtain funding from investors. In contrast, incumbents could fund R&D internally (or with federal funds that flowed mostly to the largest computing, communications, and aerospace firms) and, even under a weak-IP regime, were protected by difficult-to-match production and distribution efficiencies. As a result, R&D mostly took place inside the closed ecosystems maintained by incumbents such as AT&T, IBM, and GE.

Paradoxically, the antitrust campaign against patent “monopolies” most likely raised entry barriers and promoted industry concentration by removing a critical tool that smaller firms might have used to challenge incumbents that could outperform on every competitive parameter except innovation. While the large corporate labs of the postwar era are rightly credited with technological breakthroughs, incumbents such as AT&T were often slow in transforming breakthroughs in basic research into commercially viable products and services for consumers. Without an immediate competitive threat, there was no rush to do so. 

Back to the Future: Innovation Policy in the New New Deal

Policymakers are now at work reassembling almost the exact same policy bundle that ended in the innovation malaise of the 1970s, accompanied by a similar reliance on public R&D funding disbursed through administrative processes. However well-intentioned, these processes are inherently exposed to political distortions that are absent in an innovation environment that relies mostly on private R&D funding governed by price signals. 

This policy bundle has emerged incrementally since approximately the mid-2000s, through a sequence of complementary actions by every branch of the federal government.

  • In 2011, Congress enacted the America Invents Act, which enables any party to challenge the validity of an issued patent through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB). Since PTAB’s establishment, large information-technology companies that advocated for the act have been among the leading challengers.
  • In May 2021, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) declared its support for a worldwide suspension of IP protections over Covid-19-related innovations (rather than adopting the more nuanced approach of preserving patent protections and expanding funding to accelerate vaccine distribution).  
  • President Biden’s July 2021 executive order states that “the Attorney General and the Secretary of Commerce are encouraged to consider whether to revise their position on the intersection of the intellectual property and antitrust laws, including by considering whether to revise the Policy Statement on Remedies for Standard-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments.” This suggests that the administration has already determined to retract or significantly modify the 2019 joint policy statement in which the DOJ, USPTO, and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) had rejected the view that standard-essential patent owners posed a high risk of patent holdup, which would therefore justify special limitations on enforcement and licensing activities.

The history of U.S. technology markets and policies casts great doubt on the wisdom of this weak-IP policy trajectory. The repeated devaluation of IP rights is likely to be a “lose-lose” approach that does little to promote competition, while endangering the incentive and transactional structures that sustain robust innovation ecosystems. A weak-IP regime is particularly likely to disadvantage smaller firms in biotech, medical devices, and certain information-technology segments that rely on patents to secure funding from venture capital and to partner with larger firms that can accelerate progress toward market release. The BioNTech/Pfizer alliance in the production and distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine illustrates how patents can enable such partnerships to accelerate market release.  

The innovative contribution of BioNTech is hardly a one-off occurrence. The restoration of robust patent protection in the early 1980s was followed by a sharp increase in the percentage of private R&D expenditures attributable to small firms, which jumped from about 5% as of 1980 to 21% by 1992. This contrasts sharply with the unequal allocation of R&D activities during the postwar period.

Remarkably, the resurgence of small-firm innovation following the strong-IP policy shift, starting in the late 20th century, mimics tendencies observed during the late 19th and early-20th centuries, when U.S. courts provided a hospitable venue for patent enforcement; there were few antitrust constraints on licensing activities; and innovation was often led by small firms in partnership with outside investors. This historical pattern, encompassing more than a century of U.S. technology markets, strongly suggests that strengthening IP rights tends to yield a policy “win-win” that bolsters both innovative and competitive intensity. 

An Alternate Path: ‘Bottom-Up’ Innovation Policy

To be clear, the alternative to the policy bundle of weak-IP/strong antitrust does not consist of a simple reversion to blind enforcement of patents and lax administration of the antitrust laws. A nuanced innovation policy would couple modern antitrust’s commitment to evidence-based enforcement—which, in particular cases, supports vigorous intervention—with a renewed commitment to protecting IP rights for innovator-entrepreneurs. That would promote competition from the “bottom up” by bolstering maverick innovators who are well-positioned to challenge (or sometimes partner with) incumbents and maintaining the self-starting engine of creative disruption that has repeatedly driven entrepreneurial innovation environments. Tellingly, technology incumbents have often been among the leading advocates for limiting patent and copyright protections.  

Advocates of a weak-patent/strong-antitrust policy believe it will enhance competitive and innovative intensity in technology markets. History suggests that this combination is likely to produce the opposite outcome.  

Jonathan M. Barnett is the Torrey H. Webb Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law. This post is based on the author’s recent publications, Innovators, Firms, and Markets: The Organizational Logic of Intellectual Property (Oxford University Press 2021) and “The Great Patent Grab,” in Battles Over Patents: History and the Politics of Innovation (eds. Stephen H. Haber and Naomi R. Lamoreaux, Oxford University Press 2021).

President Joe Biden named his post-COVID-19 agenda “Build Back Better,” but his proposals to prioritize support for government-run broadband service “with less pressure to turn profits” and to “reduce Internet prices for all Americans” will slow broadband deployment and leave taxpayers with an enormous bill.

Policymakers should pay particular heed to this danger, amid news that the Senate is moving forward with considering a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, and that the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service will coordinate on spending broadband subsidy dollars.

In order to ensure that broadband subsidies lead to greater buildout and adoption, policymakers must correctly understand the state of competition in broadband and not assume that increasing the number of firms in a market will necessarily lead to better outcomes for consumers or the public.

A recent white paper published by us here at the International Center for Law & Economics makes the case that concentration is a poor predictor of competitiveness, while offering alternative policies for reaching Americans who don’t have access to high-speed Internet service.

The data show that the state of competition in broadband is generally healthy. ISPs routinely invest billions of dollars per year in building, maintaining, and upgrading their networks to be faster, more reliable, and more available to consumers. FCC data show that average speeds available to consumers, as well as the number of competitors providing higher-speed tiers, have increased each year. And prices for broadband, as measured by price-per-Mbps, have fallen precipitously, dropping 98% over the last 20 years. None of this makes sense if the facile narrative about the absence of competition were true.

In our paper, we argue that the real public policy issue for broadband isn’t curbing the pursuit of profits or adopting price controls, but making sure Americans have broadband access and encouraging adoption. In areas where it is very costly to build out broadband networks, like rural areas, there tend to be fewer firms in the market. But having only one or two ISPs available is far less of a problem than having none at all. Understanding the underlying market conditions and how subsidies can both help and hurt the availability and adoption of broadband is an important prerequisite to good policy.

The basic problem is that those who have decried the lack of competition in broadband often look at the number of ISPs in a given market to determine whether a market is competitive. But this is not how economists think of competition. Instead, economists look at competition as a dynamic process where changes in supply and demand factors are constantly pushing the market toward new equilibria.

In general, where a market is “contestable”—that is, where existing firms face potential competition from the threat of new entry—even just a single existing firm may have to act as if it faces vigorous competition. Such markets often have characteristics (e.g., price, quality, and level of innovation) similar or even identical to those with multiple existing competitors. This dynamic competition, driven by changes in technology or consumer preferences, ensures that such markets are regularly disrupted by innovative products and services—a process that does not always favor incumbents.

Proposals focused on increasing the number of firms providing broadband can actually reduce consumer welfare. Whether through overbuilding—by allowing new private entrants to free-ride on the initial investment by incumbent companies—or by going into the Internet business itself through municipal broadband, government subsidies can increase the number of firms providing broadband. But it can’t do so without costs―which include not just the cost of the subsidies themselves, which ultimately come from taxpayers, but also the reduced incentives for unsubsidized private firms to build out broadband in the first place.

If underlying supply and demand conditions in rural areas lead to a situation where only one provider can profitably exist, artificially adding another completely reliant on subsidies will likely just lead to the exit of the unsubsidized provider. Or, where a community already has municipal broadband, it is unlikely that a private ISP will want to enter and compete with a firm that doesn’t have to turn a profit.

A much better alternative for policymakers is to increase the demand for buildout through targeted user subsidies, while reducing regulatory barriers to entry that limit supply.

For instance, policymakers should consider offering connectivity vouchers to unserved households in order to stimulate broadband deployment and consumption. Current subsidy programs rely largely on subsidizing the supply side, but this requires the government to determine the who and where of entry. Connectivity vouchers would put the choice in the hands of consumers, while encouraging more buildout to areas that may currently be uneconomic to reach due to low population density or insufficient demand due to low adoption rates.

Local governments could also facilitate broadband buildout by reducing unnecessary regulatory barriers. Local building codes could adopt more connection-friendly standards. Local governments could also reduce the cost of access to existing poles and other infrastructure. Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) requirements could also be eliminated, because they deter potential providers from seeking funds for buildout (and don’t offer countervailing benefits).

Albert Einstein once said: “if I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem, and one minute resolving it.” When it comes to encouraging broadband buildout, policymakers should make sure they are solving the right problem. The problem is that the cost of building out broadband to unserved areas is too high or the demand too low—not that there are too few competitors.

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

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

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

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

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

Bees

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

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

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

A finding echoed by Francis Bator:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lighthouse

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

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

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

He added that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tragedy of the Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dvorak Keyboards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killzones, Zoom, and TikTok

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politico has released a cache of confidential Federal Trade Commission (FTC) documents in connection with a series of articles on the commission’s antitrust probe into Google Search a decade ago. The headline of the first piece in the series argues the FTC “fumbled the future” by failing to follow through on staff recommendations to pursue antitrust intervention against the company. 

But while the leaked documents shed interesting light on the inner workings of the FTC, they do very little to substantiate the case that the FTC dropped the ball when the commissioners voted unanimously not to bring an action against Google.

Drawn primarily from memos by the FTC’s lawyers, the Politico report purports to uncover key revelations that undermine the FTC’s decision not to sue Google. None of the revelations, however, provide evidence that Google’s behavior actually harmed consumers.

The report’s overriding claim—and the one most consistently forwarded by antitrust activists on Twitter—is that FTC commissioners wrongly sided with the agency’s economists (who cautioned against intervention) rather than its lawyers (who tenuously recommended very limited intervention). 

Indeed, the overarching narrative is that the lawyers knew what was coming and the economists took wildly inaccurate positions that turned out to be completely off the mark:

But the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed:

— They saw only “limited potential for growth” in ads that track users across the web — now the backbone of Google parent company Alphabet’s $182.5 billion in annual revenue.

— They expected consumers to continue relying mainly on computers to search for information. Today, about 62 percent of those queries take place on mobile phones and tablets, nearly all of which use Google’s search engine as the default.

— They thought rivals like Microsoft, Mozilla or Amazon would offer viable competition to Google in the market for the software that runs smartphones. Instead, nearly all U.S. smartphones run on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.

— They underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic.

The report thus asserts that:

The agency ultimately voted against taking action, saying changes Google made to its search algorithm gave consumers better results and therefore didn’t unfairly harm competitors.

That conclusion underplays what the FTC’s staff found during the probe. In 312 pages of documents, the vast majority never publicly released, staffers outlined evidence that Google had taken numerous steps to ensure it would continue to dominate the market — including emerging arenas such as mobile search and targeted advertising. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

What really emerges from the leaked memos, however, is analysis by both the FTC’s lawyers and economists infused with a healthy dose of humility. There were strong political incentives to bring a case. As one of us noted upon the FTC’s closing of the investigation: “It’s hard to imagine an agency under more pressure, from more quarters (including the Hill), to bring a case around search.” Yet FTC staff and commissioners resisted that pressure, because prediction is hard. 

Ironically, the very prediction errors that the agency’s staff cautioned against are now being held against them. Yet the claims that these errors (especially the economists’) systematically cut in one direction (i.e., against enforcement) and that all of their predictions were wrong are both wide of the mark. 

Decisions Under Uncertainty

In seeking to make an example out of the FTC economists’ inaccurate predictions, critics ignore that antitrust investigations in dynamic markets always involve a tremendous amount of uncertainty; false predictions are the norm. Accordingly, the key challenge for policymakers is not so much to predict correctly, but to minimize the impact of incorrect predictions.

Seen in this light, the FTC economists’ memo is far from the laissez-faire manifesto that critics make it out to be. Instead, it shows agency officials wrestling with uncertain market outcomes, and choosing a course of action under the assumption the predictions they make might indeed be wrong. 

Consider the following passage from FTC economist Ken Heyer’s memo:

The great American philosopher Yogi Berra once famously remarked “Predicting is difficult, especially about the future.” How right he was. And yet predicting, and making decisions based on those predictions, is what we are charged with doing. Ignoring the potential problem is not an option. So I will be reasonably clear about my own tentative conclusions and recommendation, recognizing that reasonable people, perhaps applying a somewhat different standard, may disagree. My recommendation derives from my read of the available evidence, combined with the standard I personally find appropriate to apply to Commission intervention. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

In other words, contrary to what many critics have claimed, it simply is not the case that the FTC’s economists based their recommendations on bullish predictions about the future that ultimately failed to transpire. Instead, they merely recognized that, in a dynamic and unpredictable environment, antitrust intervention requires both a clear-cut theory of anticompetitive harm and a reasonable probability that remedies can improve consumer welfare. According to the economists, those conditions were absent with respect to Google Search.

Perhaps more importantly, it is worth asking why the economists’ erroneous predictions matter at all. Do critics believe that developments the economists missed warrant a different normative stance today?

In that respect, it is worth noting that the economists’ skepticism appeared to have rested first and foremost on the speculative nature of the harms alleged and the difficulty associated with designing appropriate remedies. And yet, if anything, these two concerns appear even more salient today. 

Indeed, the remedies imposed against Google in the EU have not delivered the outcomes that enforcers expected (here and here). This could either be because the remedies were insufficient or because Google’s market position was not due to anticompetitive conduct. Similarly, there is still no convincing economic theory or empirical research to support the notion that exclusive pre-installation and self-preferencing by incumbents harm consumers, and a great deal of reason to think they benefit them (see, e.g., our discussions of the issue here and here). 

Against this backdrop, criticism of the FTC economists appears to be driven more by a prior assumption that intervention is necessary—and that it was and is disingenuous to think otherwise—than evidence that erroneous predictions materially affected the outcome of the proceedings.

To take one example, the fact that ad tracking grew faster than the FTC economists believed it would is no less consistent with vigorous competition—and Google providing a superior product—than with anticompetitive conduct on Google’s part. The same applies to the growth of mobile operating systems. Ditto the fact that no rival has managed to dislodge Google in its most important markets. 

In short, not only were the economist memos informed by the very prediction difficulties that critics are now pointing to, but critics have not shown that any of the staff’s (inevitably) faulty predictions warranted a different normative outcome.

Putting Erroneous Predictions in Context

So what were these faulty predictions, and how important were they? Politico asserts that “the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed,” tying this to the FTC’s failure to intervene against Google over “tactics that European regulators and the U.S. Justice Department would later label antitrust violations.” The clear message is that the current actions are presumptively valid, and that the FTC’s economists thwarted earlier intervention based on faulty analysis.

But it is far from clear that these faulty predictions would have justified taking a tougher stance against Google. One key question for antitrust authorities is whether they can be reasonably certain that more efficient competitors will be unable to dislodge an incumbent. This assessment is necessarily forward-looking. Framed this way, greater market uncertainty (for instance, because policymakers are dealing with dynamic markets) usually cuts against antitrust intervention.

This does not entirely absolve the FTC economists who made the faulty predictions. But it does suggest the right question is not whether the economists made mistakes, but whether virtually everyone did so. The latter would be evidence of uncertainty, and thus weigh against antitrust intervention.

In that respect, it is worth noting that the staff who recommended that the FTC intervene also misjudged the future of digital markets.For example, while Politico surmises that the FTC “underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic,” there is a case to be made that the FTC overestimated this power. If anything, Google’s continued growth has opened new niches in the online advertising space.

Pinterest provides a fitting example; despite relying heavily on Google for traffic, its ad-funded service has witnessed significant growth. The same is true of other vertical search engines like Airbnb, Booking.com, and Zillow. While we cannot know the counterfactual, the vertical search industry has certainly not been decimated by Google’s “monopoly”; quite the opposite. Unsurprisingly, this has coincided with a significant decrease in the cost of online advertising, and the growth of online advertising relative to other forms.

Politico asserts not only that the economists’ market share and market power calculations were wrong, but that the lawyers knew better:

The economists, relying on data from the market analytics firm Comscore, found that Google had only limited impact. They estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of traffic to those types of sites generally came from the search engine.

FTC attorneys, though, used numbers provided by Yelp and found that 92 percent of users visited local review sites from Google. For shopping sites like eBay and TheFind, the referral rate from Google was between 67 and 73 percent.

This compares apples and oranges, or maybe oranges and grapefruit. The economists’ data, from Comscore, applied to vertical search overall. They explicitly noted that shares for particular sites could be much higher or lower: for comparison shopping, for example, “ranging from 56% to less than 10%.” This, of course, highlights a problem with the data provided by Yelp, et al.: it concerns only the websites of companies complaining about Google, not the overall flow of traffic for vertical search.

But the more important point is that none of the data discussed in the memos represents the overall flow of traffic for vertical search. Take Yelp, for example. According to the lawyers’ memo, 92 percent of Yelp searches were referred from Google. Only, that’s not true. We know it’s not true because, as Yelp CEO Jerry Stoppelman pointed out around this time in Yelp’s 2012 Q2 earnings call: 

When you consider that 40% of our searches come from mobile apps, there is quite a bit of un-monetized mobile traffic that we expect to unlock in the near future.

The numbers being analyzed by the FTC staff were apparently limited to referrals to Yelp’s website from browsers. But is there any reason to think that is the relevant market, or the relevant measure of customer access? Certainly there is nothing in the staff memos to suggest they considered the full scope of the market very carefully here. Indeed, the footnote in the lawyers’ memo presenting the traffic data is offered in support of this claim:

Vertical websites, such as comparison shopping and local websites, are heavily dependent on Google’s web search results to reach users. Thus, Google is in the unique position of being able to “make or break any web-based business.”

It’s plausible that vertical search traffic is “heavily dependent” on Google Search, but the numbers offered in support of that simply ignore the (then) 40 percent of traffic that Yelp acquired through its own mobile app, with no Google involvement at all. In any case, it is also notable that, while there are still somewhat fewer app users than web users (although the number has consistently increased), Yelp’s app users view significantly more pages than its website users do — 10 times as many in 2015, for example.

Also noteworthy is that, for whatever speculative harm Google might be able to visit on the company, at the time of the FTC’s analysis Yelp’s local ad revenue was consistently increasing — by 89% in Q3 2012. And that was without any ad revenue coming from its app (display ads arrived on Yelp’s mobile app in Q1 2013, a few months after the staff memos were written and just after the FTC closed its Google Search investigation). 

In short, the search-engine industry is extremely dynamic and unpredictable. Contrary to what many have surmised from the FTC staff memo leaks, this cuts against antitrust intervention, not in favor of it.

The FTC Lawyers’ Weak Case for Prosecuting Google

At the same time, although not discussed by Politico, the lawyers’ memo also contains errors, suggesting that arguments for intervention were also (inevitably) subject to erroneous prediction.

Among other things, the FTC attorneys’ memo argued the large upfront investments were required to develop cutting-edge algorithms, and that these effectively shielded Google from competition. The memo cites the following as a barrier to entry:

A search engine requires algorithmic technology that enables it to search the Internet, retrieve and organize information, index billions of regularly changing web pages, and return relevant results instantaneously that satisfy the consumer’s inquiry. Developing such algorithms requires highly specialized personnel with high levels of training and knowledge in engineering, economics, mathematics, sciences, and statistical analysis.

If there are barriers to entry in the search-engine industry, algorithms do not seem to be the source. While their market shares may be smaller than Google’s, rival search engines like DuckDuckGo and Bing have been able to enter and gain traction; it is difficult to say that algorithmic technology has proven a barrier to entry. It may be hard to do well, but it certainly has not proved an impediment to new firms entering and developing workable and successful products. Indeed, some extremely successful companies have entered into similar advertising markets on the backs of complex algorithms, notably Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. All of these compete with Google for advertising dollars.

The FTC’s legal staff also failed to see that Google would face serious competition in the rapidly growing voice assistant market. In other words, even its search-engine “moat” is far less impregnable than it might at first appear.

Moreover, as Ben Thompson argues in his Stratechery newsletter: 

The Staff memo is completely wrong too, at least in terms of the potential for their proposed remedies to lead to any real change in today’s market. This gets back to why the fundamental premise of the Politico article, along with much of the antitrust chatter in Washington, misses the point: Google is dominant because consumers like it.

This difficulty was deftly highlighted by Heyer’s memo:

If the perceived problems here can be solved only through a draconian remedy of this sort, or perhaps through a remedy that eliminates Google’s legitimately obtained market power (and thus its ability to “do evil”), I believe the remedy would be disproportionate to the violation and that its costs would likely exceed its benefits. Conversely, if a remedy well short of this seems likely to prove ineffective, a remedy would be undesirable for that reason. In brief, I do not see a feasible remedy for the vertical conduct that would be both appropriate and effective, and which would not also be very costly to implement and to police. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

Of course, we now know that this turned out to be a huge issue with the EU’s competition cases against Google. The remedies in both the EU’s Google Shopping and Android decisions were severely criticized by rival firms and consumer-defense organizations (here and here), but were ultimately upheld, in part because even the European Commission likely saw more forceful alternatives as disproportionate.

And in the few places where the legal staff concluded that Google’s conduct may have caused harm, there is good reason to think that their analysis was flawed.

Google’s ‘revenue-sharing’ agreements

It should be noted that neither the lawyers nor the economists at the FTC were particularly bullish on bringing suit against Google. In most areas of the investigation, neither recommended that the commission pursue a case. But one of the most interesting revelations from the recent leaks is that FTC lawyers did advise the commission’s leadership to sue Google over revenue-sharing agreements that called for it to pay Apple and other carriers and manufacturers to pre-install its search bar on mobile devices:

FTC staff urged the agency’s five commissioners to sue Google for signing exclusive contracts with Apple and the major wireless carriers that made sure the company’s search engine came pre-installed on smartphones.

The lawyers’ stance is surprising, and, despite actions subsequently brought by the EU and DOJ on similar claims, a difficult one to countenance. 

To a first approximation, this behavior is precisely what antitrust law seeks to promote: we want companies to compete aggressively to attract consumers. This conclusion is in no way altered when competition is “for the market” (in this case, firms bidding for exclusive placement of their search engines) rather than “in the market” (i.e., equally placed search engines competing for eyeballs).

Competition for exclusive placement has several important benefits. For a start, revenue-sharing agreements effectively subsidize consumers’ mobile device purchases. As Brian Albrecht aptly puts it:

This payment from Google means that Apple can lower its price to better compete for consumers. This is standard; some of the payment from Google to Apple will be passed through to consumers in the form of lower prices.

This finding is not new. For instance, Ronald Coase famously argued that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was wrong to ban the broadcasting industry’s equivalent of revenue-sharing agreements, so-called payola:

[I]f the playing of a record by a radio station increases the sales of that record, it is both natural and desirable that there should be a charge for this. If this is not done by the station and payola is not allowed, it is inevitable that more resources will be employed in the production and distribution of records, without any gain to consumers, with the result that the real income of the community will tend to decline. In addition, the prohibition of payola may result in worse record programs, will tend to lessen competition, and will involve additional expenditures for regulation. The gain which the ban is thought to bring is to make the purchasing decisions of record buyers more efficient by eliminating “deception.” It seems improbable to me that this problematical gain will offset the undoubted losses which flow from the ban on Payola.

Applying this logic to Google Search, it is clear that a ban on revenue-sharing agreements would merely lead both Google and its competitors to attract consumers via alternative means. For Google, this might involve “complete” vertical integration into the mobile phone market, rather than the open-licensing model that underpins the Android ecosystem. Valuable specialization may be lost in the process.

Moreover, from Apple’s standpoint, Google’s revenue-sharing agreements are profitable only to the extent that consumers actually like Google’s products. If it turns out they don’t, Google’s payments to Apple may be outweighed by lower iPhone sales. It is thus unlikely that these agreements significantly undermined users’ experience. To the contrary, Apple’s testimony before the European Commission suggests that “exclusive” placement of Google’s search engine was mostly driven by consumer preferences (as the FTC economists’ memo points out):

Apple would not offer simultaneous installation of competing search or mapping applications. Apple’s focus is offering its customers the best products out of the box while allowing them to make choices after purchase. In many countries, Google offers the best product or service … Apple believes that offering additional search boxes on its web browsing software would confuse users and detract from Safari’s aesthetic. Too many choices lead to consumer confusion and greatly affect the ‘out of the box’ experience of Apple products.

Similarly, Kevin Murphy and Benjamin Klein have shown that exclusive contracts intensify competition for distribution. In other words, absent theories of platform envelopment that are arguably inapplicable here, competition for exclusive placement would lead competing search engines to up their bids, ultimately lowering the price of mobile devices for consumers.

Indeed, this revenue-sharing model was likely essential to spur the development of Android in the first place. Without this prominent placement of Google Search on Android devices (notably thanks to revenue-sharing agreements with original equipment manufacturers), Google would likely have been unable to monetize the investment it made in the open source—and thus freely distributed—Android operating system. 

In short, Politico and the FTC legal staff do little to show that Google’s revenue-sharing payments excluded rivals that were, in fact, as efficient. In other words, Bing and Yahoo’s failure to gain traction may simply be the result of inferior products and cost structures. Critics thus fail to show that Google’s behavior harmed consumers, which is the touchstone of antitrust enforcement.

Self-preferencing

Another finding critics claim as important is that FTC leadership declined to bring suit against Google for preferencing its own vertical search services (this information had already been partially leaked by the Wall Street Journal in 2015). Politico’s framing implies this was a mistake:

When Google adopted one algorithm change in 2011, rival sites saw significant drops in traffic. Amazon told the FTC that it saw a 35 percent drop in traffic from the comparison-shopping sites that used to send it customers

The focus on this claim is somewhat surprising. Even the leaked FTC legal staff memo found this theory of harm had little chance of standing up in court:

Staff has investigated whether Google has unlawfully preferenced its own content over that of rivals, while simultaneously demoting rival websites…. 

…Although it is a close call, we do not recommend that the Commission proceed on this cause of action because the case law is not favorable to our theory, which is premised on anticompetitive product design, and in any event, Google’s efficiency justifications are strong. Most importantly, Google can legitimately claim that at least part of the conduct at issue improves its product and benefits users. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

More importantly, as one of us has argued elsewhere, the underlying problem lies not with Google, but with a standard asset-specificity trap:

A content provider that makes itself dependent upon another company for distribution (or vice versa, of course) takes a significant risk. Although it may benefit from greater access to users, it places itself at the mercy of the other — or at least faces great difficulty (and great cost) adapting to unanticipated, crucial changes in distribution over which it has no control…. 

…It was entirely predictable, and should have been expected, that Google’s algorithm would evolve. It was also entirely predictable that it would evolve in ways that could diminish or even tank Foundem’s traffic. As one online marketing/SEO expert puts it: On average, Google makes about 500 algorithm changes per year. 500!….

…In the absence of an explicit agreement, should Google be required to make decisions that protect a dependent company’s “asset-specific” investments, thus encouraging others to take the same, excessive risk? 

Even if consumers happily visited rival websites when they were higher-ranked and traffic subsequently plummeted when Google updated its algorithm, that drop in traffic does not amount to evidence of misconduct. To hold otherwise would be to grant these rivals a virtual entitlement to the state of affairs that exists at any given point in time. 

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

Competitor Harm Is Not an Indicator of the Need for Intervention

Some of the other information revealed by the leak is even more tangential, such as that the FTC ignored complaints from Google’s rivals:

Amazon and Facebook privately complained to the FTC about Google’s conduct, saying their business suffered because of the company’s search bias, scraping of content from rival sites and restrictions on advertisers’ use of competing search engines. 

Amazon said it was so concerned about the prospect of Google monopolizing the search advertising business that it willingly sacrificed revenue by making ad deals aimed at keeping Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo’s search engine afloat.

But complaints from rivals are at least as likely to stem from vigorous competition as from anticompetitive exclusion. This goes to a core principle of antitrust enforcement: antitrust law seeks to protect competition and consumer welfare, not rivals. Competition will always lead to winners and losers. Antitrust law protects this process and (at least theoretically) ensures that rivals cannot manipulate enforcers to safeguard their economic rents. 

This explains why Frank Easterbrook—in his seminal work on “The Limits of Antitrust”—argued that enforcers should be highly suspicious of complaints lodged by rivals:

Antitrust litigation is attractive as a method of raising rivals’ costs because of the asymmetrical structure of incentives…. 

…One line worth drawing is between suits by rivals and suits by consumers. Business rivals have an interest in higher prices, while consumers seek lower prices. Business rivals seek to raise the costs of production, while consumers have the opposite interest…. 

…They [antitrust enforcers] therefore should treat suits by horizontal competitors with the utmost suspicion. They should dismiss outright some categories of litigation between rivals and subject all such suits to additional scrutiny.

Google’s competitors spent millions pressuring the FTC to bring a case against the company. But why should it be a failing for the FTC to resist such pressure? Indeed, as then-commissioner Tom Rosch admonished in an interview following the closing of the case:

They [Google’s competitors] can darn well bring [a case] as a private antitrust action if they think their ox is being gored instead of free-riding on the government to achieve the same result.

Not that they would likely win such a case. Google’s introduction of specialized shopping results (via the Google Shopping box) likely enabled several retailers to bypass the Amazon platform, thus increasing competition in the retail industry. Although this may have temporarily reduced Amazon’s traffic and revenue (Amazon’s sales have grown dramatically since then), it is exactly the outcome that antitrust laws are designed to protect.

Conclusion

When all is said and done, Politico’s revelations provide a rarely glimpsed look into the complex dynamics within the FTC, which many wrongly imagine to be a monolithic agency. Put simply, the FTC’s commissioners, lawyers, and economists often disagree vehemently about the appropriate course of conduct. This is a good thing. As in many other walks of life, having a market for ideas is a sure way to foster sound decision making.

But in the final analysis, what the revelations do not show is that the FTC’s market for ideas failed consumers a decade ago when it declined to bring an antitrust suit against Google. They thus do little to cement the case for antitrust intervention—whether a decade ago, or today.

In current discussions of technology markets, few words are heard more often than “platform.” Initial public offering (IPO) prospectuses use “platform” to describe a service that is bound to dominate a digital market. Antitrust regulators use “platform” to describe a service that dominates a digital market or threatens to do so. In either case, “platform” denotes power over price. For investors, that implies exceptional profits; for regulators, that implies competitive harm.

Conventional wisdom holds that platforms enjoy high market shares, protected by high barriers to entry, which yield high returns. This simple logic drives the market’s attribution of dramatically high valuations to dramatically unprofitable businesses and regulators’ eagerness to intervene in digital platform markets characterized by declining prices, increased convenience, and expanded variety, often at zero out-of-pocket cost. In both cases, “burning cash” today is understood as the path to market dominance and the ability to extract a premium from consumers in the future.

This logic is usually wrong. 

The Overlooked Basics of Platform Economics

To appreciate this perhaps surprising point, it is necessary to go back to the increasingly overlooked basics of platform economics. A platform can refer to any service that matches two complementary populations. A search engine matches advertisers with consumers, an online music service matches performers and labels with listeners, and a food-delivery service matches restaurants with home diners. A platform benefits everyone by facilitating transactions that otherwise might never have occurred.

A platform’s economic value derives from its ability to lower transaction costs by funneling a multitude of individual transactions into a single convenient hub.  In pursuit of minimum costs and maximum gains, users on one side of the platform will tend to favor the most popular platforms that offer the largest number of users on the other side of the platform. (There are partial exceptions to this rule when users value being matched with certain typesof other users, rather than just with more users.) These “network effects” mean that any successful platform market will always converge toward a handful of winners. This positive feedback effect drives investors’ exuberance and regulators’ concerns.

There is a critical point, however, that often seems to be overlooked.

Market share only translates into market power to the extent the incumbent is protected against entry within some reasonable time horizon.  If Warren Buffett’s moat requirement is not met, market share is immaterial. If XYZ.com owns 100% of the online pet food delivery market but entry costs are asymptotic, then market power is negligible. There is another important limiting principle. In platform markets, the depth of the moat depends not only on competitors’ costs to enter the market, but users’ costs in switching from one platform to another or alternating between multiple platforms. If users can easily hop across platforms, then market share cannot confer market power given the continuous threat of user defection. Put differently: churn limits power over price.

Contrary to natural intuitions, this is why a platform market consisting of only a few leaders can still be intensely competitive, keeping prices low (down to and including $0) even if the number of competitors is low. It is often asserted, however, that users are typically locked into the dominant platform and therefore face high switching costs, which therefore implicitly satisfies the moat requirement. If that is true, then the “high churn” scenario is a theoretical curiosity and a leading platform’s high market share would be a reliable signal of market power. In fact, this common assumption likely describes the atypical case. 

AWS and the Cloud Data-Storage Market

This point can be illustrated by considering the cloud data-storage market. This would appear to be an easy case where high switching costs (due to the difficulty in shifting data among storage providers) insulate the market leader against entry threats. Yet the real world does not conform to these expectations. 

While Amazon Web Services pioneered the $100 billion-plus market and is still the clear market leader, it now faces vigorous competition from Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and other data-storage or other cloud-related services. This may reflect the fact that the data storage market is far from saturated, so new users are up for grabs and existing customers can mitigate lock-in by diversifying across multiple storage providers. Or it may reflect the fact that the market’s structure is fluid as a function of technological changes, enabling entry at formerly bundled portions of the cloud data-services package. While it is not always technologically feasible, the cloud storage market suggests that users’ resistance to platform capture can represent a competitive opportunity for entrants to challenge dominant vendors on price, quality, and innovation parameters.

The Surprising Instability of Platform Dominance

The instability of leadership positions in the cloud storage market is not exceptional. 

Consider a handful of once-powerful platforms that were rapidly dethroned once challenged by a more efficient or innovative rival: Yahoo and Alta Vista in the search-engine market (displaced by Google); Netscape in the browser market (displaced by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, then displaced by Google Chrome); Nokia and then BlackBerry in the mobile wireless-device market (displaced by Apple and Samsung); and Friendster in the social-networking market (displaced by Myspace, then displaced by Facebook). AOL was once thought to be indomitable; now it is mostly referenced as a vintage email address. The list could go on.

Overestimating platform dominance—or more precisely, assuming platform dominance without close factual inquiry—matters because it promotes overestimates of market power. That, in turn, cultivates both market and regulatory bubbles: investors inflate stock valuations while regulators inflate the risk of competitive harm. 

DoorDash and the Food-Delivery Services Market

Consider the DoorDash IPO that launched in early December 2020. The market’s current approximately $50 billion valuation of a business that has been almost consistently unprofitable implicitly assumes that DoorDash will maintain and expand its position as the largest U.S. food-delivery platform, which will then yield power over price and exceptional returns for investors. 

There are reasons to be skeptical. Even where DoorDash captures and holds a dominant market share in certain metropolitan areas, it still faces actual and potential competition from other food-delivery services, in-house delivery services (especially by well-resourced national chains), and grocery and other delivery services already offered by regional and national providers. There is already evidence of these expected responses to DoorDash’s perceived high delivery fees, a classic illustration of the disciplinary effect of competitive forces on the pricing choices of an apparently dominant market leader. These “supply-side” constraints imposed by competitors are compounded by “demand-side” constraints imposed by customers. Home diners incur no more than minimal costs when swiping across food-delivery icons on a smartphone interface, casting doubt that high market share is likely to translate in this context into market power.

Deliveroo and the Costs of Regulatory Autopilot

Just as the stock market can suffer from delusions of platform grandeur, so too some competition regulators appear to have fallen prey to the same malady. 

A vivid illustration is provided by the 2019 decision by the Competition Markets Authority (CMA), the British competition regulator, to challenge Amazon’s purchase of a 16% stake in Deliveroo, one of three major competitors in the British food-delivery services market. This intervention provides perhaps the clearest illustration of policy action based on a reflexive assumption of market power, even in the face of little to no indication that the predicate conditions for that assumption could plausibly be satisfied.

Far from being a dominant platform, Deliveroo was (and is) a money-losing venture lagging behind money-losing Just Eat (now Just Eat Takeaway) and Uber Eats in the U.K. food-delivery services market. Even Amazon had previously closed its own food-delivery service in the U.K. due to lack of profitability. Despite Deliveroo’s distressed economic circumstances and the implausibility of any market power arising from Amazon’s investment, the CMA nonetheless elected to pursue the fullest level of investigation. While the transaction was ultimately approved in August 2020, this intervention imposed a 15-month delay and associated costs in connection with an investment that almost certainly bolstered competition in a concentrated market by funding a firm reportedly at risk of insolvency.  This is the equivalent of a competition regulator driving in reverse.

Concluding Thoughts

There seems to be an increasingly common assumption in commentary by the press, policymakers, and even some scholars that apparently dominant platforms usually face little competition and can set, at will, the terms of exchange. For investors, this is a reason to buy; for regulators, this is a reason to intervene. This assumption is sometimes realized, and, in that case, antitrust intervention is appropriate whenever there is reasonable evidence that market power is being secured through something other than “competition on the merits.” However, several conditions must be met to support the market power assumption without which any such inquiry would be imprudent. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the economics and history of platform markets suggest that those conditions are infrequently satisfied.

Without closer scrutiny, reflexively equating market share with market power is prone to lead both investors and regulators astray.  

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge next month to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2020 decision in NCAA v. Alston. Alston affirmed a district court decision that enjoined the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) from enforcing rules that restrict the education-related benefits its member institutions may offer students who play Football Bowl Subdivision football and Division I basketball.

This will be the first Supreme Court review of NCAA practices since NCAA v. Board of Regents in 1984, which applied the antitrust rule of reason in striking down the NCAA’s “artificial limit” on the quantity of televised college football games, but also recognized that “this case involves an industry in which horizontal restraints on competition are essential if the product [intercollegiate athletic contests] is to be available at all.” Significantly, in commenting on the nature of appropriate, competition-enhancing NCAA restrictions, the court in Board of Regents stated that:

[I]n order to preserve the character and quality of the [NCAA] ‘product,’ athletes must not be paid, must be required to attend class, and the like. And the integrity of the ‘product’ cannot be preserved except by mutual agreement; if an institution adopted such restrictions unilaterally, its effectiveness as a competitor on the playing field might soon be destroyed. Thus, the NCAA plays a vital role in enabling college football to preserve its character, and as a result enables a product to be marketed which might otherwise be unavailable. In performing this role, its actions widen consumer choice – not only the choices available to sports fans but also those available to athletes – and hence can be viewed as procompetitive. [footnote citation omitted]

One’s view of the Alston case may be shaped by one’s priors regarding the true nature of the NCAA. Is the NCAA a benevolent Dr. Jekyll, which seeks to promote amateurism and fairness in college sports to the benefit of student athletes and the general public?  Or is its benevolent façade a charade?  Although perhaps a force for good in its early years, has the NCAA transformed itself into an evil Mr. Hyde, using restrictive rules to maintain welfare-inimical monopoly power as a seller cartel of athletic events and a monopsony employer cartel that suppresses athletes’ wages? I will return to this question—and its bearing on the appropriate resolution of this legal dispute—after addressing key contentions by both sides in Alston.

Summarizing the Arguments in NCAA v Alston

The Alston class-action case followed in the wake of the 9th Circuit’s decision in O’Bannon v. NCAA (2015). O’Bannon affirmed in large part a district court’s ruling that the NCAA illegally restrained trade, in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, by preventing football and men’s basketball players from receiving compensation for the use of their names, images, and likenesses. It also affirmed the district court’s injunction insofar as it required the NCAA to implement the less restrictive alternative of permitting athletic scholarships for the full cost of attendance. (I commented approvingly on the 9th Circuit’s decision in a previous TOTM post.) 

Subsequent antitrust actions by student-athletes were consolidated in the district court. After a bench trial, the district court entered judgment for the student-athletes, concluding in part that NCAA limits on education-related benefits were unreasonable restraints of trade. It enjoined those limits but declined to hold that other NCAA limits on compensation unrelated to education likewise violated Section 1.

In May 2020, a 9th Circuit panel held that the district court properly applied the three-step Sherman Act Section 1 rule of reason analysis in determining that the enjoined rules were unlawful restraints of trade.

First, the panel concluded that the student-athletes carried their burden at step one by showing that the restraints produced significant anticompetitive effects within the relevant market for student-athletes’ labor.

At step two, the NCAA was required to come forward with evidence of the restraints’ procompetitive effects. The panel endorsed the district court’s conclusion that only some of the challenged NCAA rules served the procompetitive purpose of preserving amateurism and thus improving consumer choice by maintaining a distinction between college and professional sports. Those rules were limits on above-cost-of-attendance payments unrelated to education, the cost-of-attendance cap on athletic scholarships, and certain restrictions on cash academic or graduation awards and incentives. The panel affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the remaining rules—restricting non-cash education-related benefits—did nothing to foster or preserve consumer demand. The panel held that the record amply supported the findings of the district court, which relied on demand analysis, survey evidence, and NCAA testimony.

The panel also affirmed the district court’s conclusion that, at step three, the student-athletes showed that any legitimate objectives could be achieved in a substantially less restrictive manner. The district court identified a less restrictive alternative of prohibiting the NCAA from capping certain education-related benefits and limiting academic or graduation awards or incentives below the maximum amount that an individual athlete may receive in athletic participation awards, while permitting individual conferences to set limits on education-related benefits. The panel held that the district court did not clearly err in determining that this alternative would be virtually as effective in serving the procompetitive purposes of the NCAA’s current rules and could be implemented without significantly increased cost.

Finally, the panel held that the district court’s injunction was not impermissibly vague and did not usurp the NCAA’s role as the superintendent of college sports. The panel also declined to broaden the injunction to include all NCAA compensation limits, including those on payments untethered to education. The panel concluded that the district court struck the right balance in crafting a remedy that both prevented anticompetitive harm to student-athletes while serving the procompetitive purpose of preserving the popularity of college sports.

The NCAA appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted the NCAA’s petition for certiorari Dec. 16, 2020. The NCAA contends that under Board of Regents, the NCAA rules regarding student-athlete compensation are reasonably related to preserving amateurism in college sports, are procompetitive, and should have been upheld after a short deferential review, rather than the full three-step rule of reason. According to the NCAA’s petition for certiorari, even under the detailed rule of reason, the 9th Circuit’s decision was defective. Specifically:

The Ninth Circuit … relieved plaintiffs of their burden to prove that the challenged rules unreasonably restrain trade, instead placing a “heavy burden” on the NCAA … to prove that each category of its rules is procompetitive and that an alternative compensation regime created by the district court could not preserve the procompetitive distinction between college and professional sports. That alternative regime—under which the NCAA must permit student-athletes to receive unlimited “education-related benefits,” including post-eligibility internships that pay unlimited amounts in cash and can be used for recruiting or retention—will vitiate the distinction between college and professional sports. And via the permanent injunction the Ninth Circuit upheld, the alternative regime will also effectively make a single judge in California the superintendent of a significant component of college sports. The Ninth Circuit’s approval of this judicial micromanagement of the NCAA denies the NCAA the latitude this Court has said it needs, and endorses unduly stringent scrutiny of agreements that define the central features of sports leagues’ and other joint ventures’ products. The decision thus twists the rule of reason into a tool to punish (and thereby deter) procompetitive activity.

Two amicus briefs support the NCAA’s position. One, filed on behalf of “antitrust law and business school professors,” stresses that the 9th Circuit’s decision misapplied the third step of the rule of reason by requiring defendants to show that their conduct was the least restrictive means available (instead of requiring plaintiff to prove the existence of an equally effective but less restrictive rule). More broadly:

[This approach] permits antitrust plaintiffs to commandeer the judiciary and use it to regulate and modify routine business conduct, so long as that conduct is not the least restrictive conduct imaginable by a plaintiff’s attorney or district judge. In turn, the risk that procompetitive ventures may be deemed unlawful and subject to treble damages liability simply because they could have operated in a marginally less restrictive manner is likely to chill beneficial business conduct.

A second brief, filed on behalf of “antitrust economists,” emphasizes that the NCAA has adapted the rules governing design of its product (college amateur sports) over time to meet consumer demand and to prevent colleges from pursuing their own interests (such as “pay to  play”) in ways that would conflict with the overall procompetitive aims of the collaboration. While acknowledging that antitrust courts are free to scrutinize collaborations’ rules that go beyond the design of the product itself (such as the NCAA’s broadcast restrictions), the brief cites key Supreme Court decisions (NCAA v. Board of Regents and Texaco Inc. v. Dagher), for the proposition that courts should stay out of restrictions on the core activity of the joint venture itself. It then summarizes the policy justification for such judicial non-interference:

Permitting judges and juries to apply the Sherman Act to such decisions [regarding core joint venture activity] will inevitably create uncertainty that undermines innovation and investment incentives across any number of industries and collaborative ventures. In these circumstances, antitrust courts would be making public policy regarding the desirability of a product with particular features, as opposed to ferreting out agreements or unilateral conduct that restricts output, raises prices, or reduces innovation to the detriment of consumers.

In their brief opposing certiorari, counsel for Alston take the position that, in reality, the NCAA is seeking a special antitrust exemption for its competitively restrictive conduct—an issue that should be determined by Congress, not courts. Their brief notes that the concept of “amateurism” has changed over the years and that some increases in athletes’ compensation have been allowed over time. Thus, in the context of big-time college football and basketball:

[A]mateurism is little more than a pretext. It is certainly not a Sherman Act concept, much less a get-out-of-jail-free card that insulates any particular set of NCAA restraints from scrutiny.

Who Has the Better Case?

The NCAA’s position is a strong one. Association rules touching on compensation for college athletes are part of the core nature of the NCAA’s “amateur sports” product, as the Supreme Court stated (albeit in dictum) in Board of Regents. Furthermore, subsequent Supreme Court jurisprudence (see 2010’s American Needle Inc. v. NFL) has eschewed second-guessing of joint-venture product design decisions—which, in the case of the NCAA, involve formulating the restrictions (such as whether and how to compensate athletes) that are deemed key to defining amateurism.

The Alston amicus curiae briefs ably set forth the strong policy considerations that support this approach, centered on preserving incentives for the development of efficient welfare-generating joint ventures. Requiring joint venturers to provide “least restrictive means” justifications for design decisions discourages innovative activity and generates costly uncertainty for joint-venture planners, to the detriment of producers and consumers (who benefit from joint-venture innovations) alike. Claims by defendant Alston that the NCAA is in effect seeking to obtain a judicial antitrust exemption miss the mark; rather, the NCAA merely appears to be arguing that antitrust should be limited to evaluating restrictions that fall outside the scope of the association’s core mission. Significantly, as discussed in the NCAA’s brief petitioning for certiorari, other federal courts of appeals decisions in the 3rd, 5th, and 7th Circuits have treated NCAA bylaws going to the definition of amateurism in college sports as presumptively procompetitive and not subject to close scrutiny. Thus, based on the arguments set forth by litigants, a Supreme Court victory for the NCAA in Alston would appear sound as a matter of law and economics.

There may, however, be a catch. Some popular commentary has portrayed the NCAA as a malign organization that benefits affluent universities (and their well-compensated coaches) while allowing member colleges to exploit athletes by denying them fair pay—in effect, an institutional Mr. Hyde.

What’s more, consistent with the Mr. Hyde story, a number of major free-market economists (including, among others, Nobel laureate Gary Becker) have portrayed the NCAA as an anticompetitive monopsony employer cartel that has suppressed the labor market demand for student athletes, thereby limiting their wages, fringe benefits, and employment opportunities. (In a similar vein, the NCAA is seen as a monopolist seller cartel in the market for athletic events.) Consistent with this perspective, promoting the public good of amateurism (the Dr. Jekyll story) is merely a pretextual façade (a cover story, if you will) for welfare-inimical naked cartel conduct. If one buys this alternative story, all core product restrictions adopted by the NCAA should be fair game for close antitrust scrutiny—and thus, the 9th Circuit’s decision in Alston merits affirmation as a matter of antitrust policy.

There is, however, a persuasive response to the cartel story, set forth in Richard McKenzie and Dwight Lee’s essay “The NCAA:  A Case Study of the Misuse of the Monopsony and Monopoly Models” (Chapter 8 of their 2008 book “In Defense of Monopoly:  How Market Power Fosters Creative Production”). McKenzie and Lee examine the evidence bearing on economists’ monopsony cartel assertions (and, in particular, the evidence presented in a 1992 study by Arthur Fleischer, Brian Goff, and Richard Tollison) and find it wanting:

Our analysis leads inexorably to the conclusion that the conventional economic wisdom regarding the intent and consequences of NCAA restrictions is hardly as solid, on conceptual grounds, as the NCAA critics assert, often without citing relevant court cases. We have argued that the conventional wisdom is wrong in suggesting that, as a general proposition,

• college athletes are materially “underpaid” and are “exploited”;

• cheating on NCAA rules is prima facie evidence of a cartel intending to restrict employment and suppress athletes’ wages;

• NCAA rules violate conventional antitrust doctrine;          

• barriers to entry ensure the continuance of the NCAA’s monopsony powers over athletes.

No such entry barriers (other than normal organizational costs, which need to be covered to meet any known efficiency test for new entrants) exist. In addition, the Supreme Court’s decision in NCAA indicates that the NCAA would be unable to prevent through the courts the emergence of competing athletic associations. The actual existence of other athletic associations indicates that entry would be not only possible but also practical if athletes’ wages were materially suppressed.

Conventional economic analysis of NCAA rules that we have challenged also is misleading in suggesting that collegiate sports would necessarily be improved if the NCAA were denied the authority to regulate the payment of athletes. Given the absence of legal barriers to entry into the athletic association market, it appears that if athletes’ wages were materially suppressed (or as grossly suppressed as the critics claim), alternative sports associations would form or expand, and the NCAA would be unable to maintain its presumed monopsony market position. The incentive for colleges and universities to break with the NCAA would be overwhelming.

From our interpretation of NCAA rules, it does not follow necessarily that athletes should not receive any more compensation than they do currently. Clearly, market conditions change, and NCAA rules often must be adjusted to accommodate those changes. In the absence of entry barriers, we can expect the NCAA to adjust, as it has adjusted, in a competitive manner its rules of play, recruitment, and retention of athletes. Our central point is that contrary to the proponents of the monopsony thesis, the collegiate athletic market is subject to the self-correcting mechanism of market pressures. We have reason to believe that the proposed extension of the antitrust enforcement to the NCAA rules or proposed changes in sports law explicitly or implicitly recommended by the proponents of the cartel thesis would be not only unnecessary but also counterproductive.

Although a closer examination of the McKenzie and Lee’s critique of the economists’ cartel story is beyond the scope of this comment, I find it compelling.

Conclusion

In sum, the claim that antitrust may properly be applied to combat the alleged “exploitation” of college athletes by NCAA compensation regulations does not stand up to scrutiny. The NCAA’s rules that define the scope of amateurism may be imperfect, but there is no reason to think that empowering federal judges to second guess and reformulate NCAA athletic compensation rules would yield a more socially beneficial (let alone optimal) outcome. (Believing that the federal judiciary can optimally reengineer core NCAA amateurism rules is a prime example of the Nirvana fallacy at work.)  Furthermore, a Supreme Court decision affirming the 9th Circuit could do broad mischief by undermining case law that has accorded joint venturers substantial latitude to design the core features of their collective enterprise without judicial second-guessing. It is to be hoped that the Supreme Court will do the right thing and strongly reaffirm the NCAA’s authority to design and reformulate its core athletic amateurism product as it sees fit.

The European Commission has unveiled draft legislation (the Digital Services Act, or “DSA”) that would overhaul the rules governing the online lives of its citizens. The draft rules are something of a mixed bag. While online markets present important challenges for law enforcement, the DSA would significantly increase the cost of doing business in Europe and harm the very freedoms European lawmakers seek to protect. The draft’s newly proposed “Know Your Business Customer” (KYBC) obligations, however, will enable smoother operation of the liability regimes that currently apply to online intermediaries. 

These reforms come amid a rash of headlines about election meddling, misinformation, terrorist propaganda, child pornography, and other illegal and abhorrent content spread on digital platforms. These developments have galvanized debate about online liability rules.

Existing rules, codified in the e-Commerce Directive, largely absolve “passive” intermediaries that “play a neutral, merely technical and passive role” from liability for content posted by their users so long as they remove it once notified. “Active” intermediaries have more legal exposure. This regime isn’t perfect, but it seems to have served the EU well in many ways.

With its draft regulation, the European Commission is effectively arguing that those rules fail to address the legal challenges posed by the emergence of digital platforms. As the EC’s press release puts it:

The landscape of digital services is significantly different today from 20 years ago, when the eCommerce Directive was adopted. […]  Online intermediaries […] can be used as a vehicle for disseminating illegal content, or selling illegal goods or services online. Some very large players have emerged as quasi-public spaces for information sharing and online trade. They have become systemic in nature and pose particular risks for users’ rights, information flows and public participation.

Online platforms initially hoped lawmakers would agree to some form of self-regulation, but those hopes were quickly dashed. Facebook released a white paper this Spring proposing a more moderate path that would expand regulatory oversight to “ensure companies are making decisions about online speech in a way that minimizes harm but also respects the fundamental right to free expression.” The proposed regime would not impose additional liability for harmful content posted by users, a position that Facebook and other internet platforms reiterated during congressional hearings in the United States.

European lawmakers were not moved by these arguments. EU Commissioner for Internal Market and Services Thierry Breton, among other European officials, dismissed Facebook’s proposal within hours of its publication, saying:

It’s not enough. It’s too slow, it’s too low in terms of responsibility and regulation.

Against this backdrop, the draft DSA includes many far-reaching measures: transparency requirements for recommender systems, content moderation decisions, and online advertising; mandated sharing of data with authorities and researchers; and numerous compliance measures that include internal audits and regular communication with authorities. Moreover, the largest online platforms—so-called “gatekeepers”—will have to comply with a separate regulation that gives European authorities new tools to “protect competition” in digital markets (the Digital Markets Act, or “DMA”).

The upshot is that, if passed into law, the draft rules will place tremendous burdens upon online intermediaries. This would be self-defeating. 

Excessive regulation or liability would significantly increase their cost of doing business, leading to significantly smaller networks and significantly increased barriers to access for many users. Stronger liability rules would also encourage platforms to play it safe, such as by quickly de-platforming and refusing access to anyone who plausibly engaged in illegal activity. Such an outcome would harm the very freedoms European lawmakers seek to protect.

This could prove particularly troublesome for small businesses that find it harder to compete against large platforms due to rising compliance costs. In effect, the new rules will increase barriers to entry, as has already been seen with the GDPR.

In the commission’s defense, some of the proposed reforms are more appealing. This is notably the case with the KYBC requirements, as well as the decision to leave most enforcement to member states, where services providers have their main establishments. The latter is likely to preserve regulatory competition among EU members to attract large tech firms, potentially limiting regulatory overreach. 

Indeed, while the existing regime does, to some extent, curb the spread of online crime, it does little for the victims of cybercrime, who ultimately pay the price. Removing illegal content doesn’t prevent it from reappearing in the future, sometimes on the same platform. Importantly, hosts have no obligation to provide the identity of violators to authorities, or even to know their identity in the first place. The result is an endless game of “whack-a-mole”: illegal content is taken down, but immediately reappears elsewhere. This status quo enables malicious users to upload illegal content, such as that which recently led card networks to cut all ties with Pornhub

Victims arguably need additional tools. This is what the Commission seeks to achieve with the DSA’s “traceability of traders” requirement, a form of KYBC:

Where an online platform allows consumers to conclude distance contracts with traders, it shall ensure that traders can only use its services to promote messages on or to offer products or services to consumers located in the Union if, prior to the use of its services, the online platform has obtained the following information: […]

Instead of rewriting the underlying liability regime—with the harmful unintended consequences that would likely entail—the draft DSA creates parallel rules that require platforms to better protect victims.

Under the proposed rules, intermediaries would be required to obtain the true identity of commercial clients (as opposed to consumers) and to sever ties with businesses that refuse to comply (rather than just take down their content). Such obligations would be, in effect, a version of the “Know Your Customer” regulations that exist in other industries. Banks, for example, are required to conduct due diligence to ensure scofflaws can’t use legitimate financial services to further criminal enterprises. It seems reasonable to expect analogous due diligence from the Internet firms that power so much of today’s online economy.

Obligations requiring platforms to vet their commercial relationships may seem modest, but they’re likely to enable more effective law enforcement against the actual perpetrators of online harms without diminishing platform’s innovation and the economic opportunity they provide (and that everyone agrees is worth preserving).

There is no silver bullet. Illegal activity will never disappear entirely from the online world, just as it has declined, but not vanished, from other walks of life. But small regulatory changes that offer marginal improvements can have a substantial effect. Modest informational requirements would weed out the most blatant crimes without overly burdening online intermediaries. In short, it would make the Internet a safer place for European citizens.

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

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

“Access” and “high-speed broadband”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Competition” and “Overbuilding”

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

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

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

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

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

Sallet makes two rhetorical moves here to make his argument. 

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

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

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

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

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

The “Donut Hole” Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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