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

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

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

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

First, the WaPo editorial board points out that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Randy Picker also picks up on this point:

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

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

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

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

The Commission dismisses this argument in its Factsheet:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The WaPo editorial board gets it, though:

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

This week, the International Center for Law & Economics filed comments  on the proposed revision to the joint U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust-IP Licensing Guidelines. Overall, the guidelines present a commendable framework for the IP-Antitrust intersection, in particular as they broadly recognize the value of IP and licensing in spurring both innovation and commercialization.

Although our assessment of the proposed guidelines is generally positive,  we do go on to offer some constructive criticism. In particular, we believe, first, that the proposed guidelines should more strongly recognize that a refusal to license does not deserve special scrutiny; and, second, that traditional antitrust analysis is largely inappropriate for the examination of innovation or R&D markets.

On refusals to license,

Many of the product innovation cases that have come before the courts rely upon what amounts to an implicit essential facilities argument. The theories that drive such cases, although not explicitly relying upon the essential facilities doctrine, encourage claims based on variants of arguments about interoperability and access to intellectual property (or products protected by intellectual property). But, the problem with such arguments is that they assume, incorrectly, that there is no opportunity for meaningful competition with a strong incumbent in the face of innovation, or that the absence of competitors in these markets indicates inefficiency … Thanks to the very elements of IP that help them to obtain market dominance, firms in New Economy technology markets are also vulnerable to smaller, more nimble new entrants that can quickly enter and supplant incumbents by leveraging their own technological innovation.

Further, since a right to exclude is a fundamental component of IP rights, a refusal to license IP should continue to be generally considered as outside the scope of antitrust inquiries.

And, with respect to conducting antitrust analysis of R&D or innovation “markets,” we note first that “it is the effects on consumer welfare against which antitrust analysis and remedies are measured” before going on to note that the nature of R&D makes it effects very difficult to measure on consumer welfare. Thus, we recommend that the the agencies continue to focus on actual goods and services markets:

[C]ompetition among research and development departments is not necessarily a reliable driver of innovation … R&D “markets” are inevitably driven by a desire to innovate with no way of knowing exactly what form or route such an effort will take. R&D is an inherently speculative endeavor, and standard antitrust analysis applied to R&D will be inherently flawed because “[a] challenge for any standard applied to innovation is that antitrust analysis is likely to occur after the innovation, but ex post outcomes reveal little about whether the innovation was a good decision ex ante, when the decision was made.”

Today ICLE released a white paper entitled, A critical assessment of the latest charge of Google’s anticompetitive bias from Yelp and Tim Wu.

The paper is a comprehensive response to a study by Michael Luca, Timothy Wu, Sebastian Couvidat, Daniel Frank, & William Seltzer, entitled, Is Google degrading search? Consumer harm from Universal Search.

The Wu, et al. paper will be one of the main topics of discussion at today’s Capitol Forum and George Washington Institute of Public Policy event on Dominant Platforms Under the Microscope: Policy Approaches in the US and EU, at which I will be speaking — along with a host of luminaries including, inter alia, Josh Wright, Jonathan Kanter, Allen Grunes, Catherine Tucker, and Michael Luca — one of the authors of the Universal Search study.

Follow the link above to register — the event starts at noon today at the National Press Club.

Meanwhile, here’s a brief description of our paper:

Late last year, Tim Wu of Columbia Law School (and now the White House Office of Management and Budget), Michael Luca of Harvard Business School (and a consultant for Yelp), and a group of Yelp data scientists released a study claiming that Google has been purposefully degrading search results from its more-specialized competitors in the area of local search. The authors’ claim is that Google is leveraging its dominant position in general search to thwart competition from specialized search engines by favoring its own, less-popular, less-relevant results over those of its competitors:

To improve the popularity of its specialized search features, Google has used the power of its dominant general search engine. The primary means for doing so is what is called the “universal search” or the “OneBox.”

This is not a new claim, and researchers have been attempting (and failing) to prove Google’s “bias” for some time. Likewise, these critics have drawn consistent policy conclusions from their claims, asserting that antitrust violations lie at the heart of the perceived bias. But the studies are systematically marred by questionable methodology and bad economics.

This latest study by Tim Wu, along with a cadre of researchers employed by Yelp (one of Google’s competitors and one of its chief antitrust provocateurs), fares no better, employing slightly different but equally questionable methodology, bad economics, and a smattering of new, but weak, social science. (For a thorough criticism of the inherent weaknesses of Wu et al.’s basic social science methodology, see Miguel de la Mano, Stephen Lewis, and Andrew Leyden, Focus on the Evidence: A Brief Rebuttal of Wu, Luca, et al (2016), available here).

The basic thesis of the study is that Google purposefully degrades its local searches (e.g., for restaurants, hotels, services, etc.) to the detriment of its specialized search competitors, local businesses, consumers, and even Google’s bottom line — and that this is an actionable antitrust violation.

But in fact the study shows nothing of the kind. Instead, the study is marred by methodological problems that, in the first instance, make it impossible to draw any reliable conclusions. Nor does the study show that Google’s conduct creates any antitrust-relevant problems. Rather, the construction of the study and the analysis of its results reflect a superficial and inherently biased conception of consumer welfare that completely undermines the study’s purported legal and economic conclusions.

Read the whole thing here.

Since the European Commission (EC) announced its first inquiry into Google’s business practices in 2010, the company has been the subject of lengthy investigations by courts and competition agencies around the globe. Regulatory authorities in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, and South Korea have all opened and rejected similar antitrust claims.

And yet the EC marches on, bolstered by Google’s myriad competitors, who continue to agitate for further investigations and enforcement actions, even as we — companies and consumers alike — enjoy the benefits of an increasingly dynamic online marketplace.

Indeed, while the EC has spent more than half a decade casting about for some plausible antitrust claim, the online economy has thundered ahead. Since 2010, Facebook has tripled its active users and multiplied its revenue ninefold; the number of apps available in the Amazon app store has grown from less than 4000 to over 400,000 today; and there are almost 1.5 billion more Internet users globally than there were in 2010. And consumers are increasingly using new and different ways to search for information: Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Facebook’s Messenger are a few of the many new innovations challenging traditional search engines.

Advertisers have adapted to this evolution, moving increasingly online, and from search to display ads as mobile adoption has skyrocketedSocial networks like Twitter and Snapchat have come into their own, competing for the same (and ever-increasing) advertising dollars. For marketers, advertising on social networks is now just as important as advertising in search. No wonder e-commerce sales have more than doubled, to almost $2 trillion worldwide; for the first time, consumers purchased more online than in stores this past year.

To paraphrase Louis C.K.: Everything is amazing — and no one at the European Commission is happy.

The EC’s market definition is fatally flawed

Like its previous claims, the Commission’s most recent charges are rooted in the assertion that Google abuses its alleged dominance in “general search” advertising to unfairly benefit itself and to monopolize other markets. But European regulators continue to miss the critical paradigm shift among online advertisers and consumers that has upended this stale view of competition on the Internet. The reality is that Google’s competition may not, and need not, look exactly like Google itself, but it is competition nonetheless. And it’s happening in spades.

The key to understanding why the European Commission’s case is fundamentally flawed lies in an examination of how it defines the relevant market. Through a series of economically and factually unjustified assumptions, the Commission defines search as a distinct market in which Google faces limited competition and enjoys an 80% market share. In other words, for the EC, “general search” apparently means only nominal search providers like Google and Bing; it doesn’t mean companies like Amazon, Facebook and Twitter — Google’s biggest competitors.  

But the reality is that “general search” is just one technology among many for serving information and ads to consumers online. Defining the relevant market or limiting the definition of competition in terms of the particular mechanism that Google happens to use to match consumers and advertisers doesn’t reflect the substitutability of other mechanisms that do the same thing — merely because these mechanisms aren’t called “search.”

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

Consumers today are increasingly using platforms like Amazon and Facebook as substitutes for the searches they might have run on Google or Bing. “Closed” platforms like the iTunes store and innumerable apps handle copious search traffic but also don’t figure in the EC’s market calculations. And so-called “dark social” interactions like email, text messages, and IMs, drive huge amounts of some of the most valuable traffic on the Internet. This, in turn, has led to a competitive scramble to roll out completely new technologies like chatbots to meet consumers’ informational (and merchants’ advertising) needs.

Properly construed, Google’s market position is precarious

Like Facebook and Twitter (and practically every other Internet platform), advertising is Google’s primary source of revenue. Instead of charging for fancy hardware or offering services to users for a fee, Google offers search, the Android operating system, and a near-endless array of other valuable services for free to users. The company’s very existence relies on attracting Internet users and consumers to its properties in order to effectively connect them with advertisers.

But being an online matchmaker is a difficult and competitive enterprise. Among other things, the ability to generate revenue turns crucially on the quality of the match: All else equal, an advertiser interested in selling widgets will pay more for an ad viewed by a user who can be reliably identified as being interested in buying widgets.

Google’s primary mechanism for attracting users to match with advertisers — general search — is substantially about information, not commerce, and the distinction between product and informational searches is crucially important to understanding Google’s market and the surprisingly limited and tenuous market power it possesses.

General informational queries aren’t nearly as valuable to advertisers: Significantly, only about 30 percent of Google’s searches even trigger any advertising at all. Meanwhile, as of 2012, one-third of product searches started on Amazon while only 13% started on a general search engine.

As economist Hal Singer aptly noted in 2012,

[the data] suggest that Google lacks market power in a critical segment of search — namely, product searches. Even though searches for items such as power tools or designer jeans account for only 10 to 20 percent of all searches, they are clearly some of the most important queries for search engines from a business perspective, as they are far easier to monetize than informational queries like “Kate Middleton.”

While Google Search clearly offers substantial value to advertisers, its ability to continue to do so is precarious when confronted with the diverse array of competitors that, like Facebook, offer a level of granularity in audience targeting that general search can’t match, or that, like Amazon, systematically offer up the most valuable searchers.

In order to compete in this market — one properly defined to include actual competitors — Google has had to constantly innovate to maintain its position. Unlike a complacent monopolist, it has evolved to meet changing consumer demand, shifting technology and inventive competitors. Thus, Google’s search algorithm has changed substantially over the years to make more effective use of the information available to ensure relevance; search results have evolved to give consumers answers to queries rather than just links, and to provide more-direct access to products and services; and, as users have shifted more and more of their time and attention to mobile devices, search has incorporated more-localized results.

Competitors want a free lunch

Critics complain, nevertheless, that these developments have made it harder, in one way or another, for rivals to compete. And the EC has provided a willing ear. According to Commissioner Vestager last week:

Google has come up with many innovative products that have made a difference to our lives. But that doesn’t give Google the right to deny other companies the chance to compete and innovate. Today, we have further strengthened our case that Google has unduly favoured its own comparison shopping service in its general search result pages…. (Emphasis added).

Implicit in this statement is the remarkable assertion that by favoring its own comparison shopping services, Google “den[ies] other companies the chance to compete and innovate.” Even assuming Google does “favor” its own results, this is an astounding claim.

First, it is not a violation of competition law simply to treat competitors’ offerings differently than one’s own, even for a dominant firm. Instead, conduct must actually exclude competitors from the market, without offering countervailing advantages to consumers. But Google’s conduct is not exclusionary, and there are many benefits to consumers.

As it has from the start of its investigations of Google, the EC begins with a flawed assumption: that Google’s competitors both require, and may be entitled to, unfettered access to Google’s property in order to compete. But this is patently absurd. Google is not an essential facility: Billions of users reach millions of companies everyday through direct browser navigation, apps, email links, review sites and blogs, and countless other means — all without once touching Google.com.

Google Search results do not exclude competitors, whether comparison shopping sites or others. For example, 72% of TripAdvisor’s U.S. traffic comes from search, and almost all of that from organic results; other specialized search sites see similar traffic volumes.

More important, however, in addition to continuing to reach rival sites through Google Search, billions of consumers access rival services directly through their mobile apps. In fact, for Yelp,

Approximately 21 million unique devices accessed Yelp via the mobile app on a monthly average basis in the first quarter of 2016, an increase of 32% compared to the same period in 2015. App users viewed approximately 70% of page views in the first quarter and were more than 10 times as engaged as website users, as measured by number of pages viewed. (Emphasis added).

And a staggering 40 percent of mobile browsing is now happening inside the Facebook app, competing with the browsers and search engines pre-loaded on smartphones.

Millions of consumers also directly navigate to Google’s rivals via their browser by simply typing, for example, “Yelp.com” in their address bar. And as noted above, consumers are increasingly using Google rivals’ new disruptive information engines like Alexa and Siri for their search needs. Even the traditional search engine space is competitive — in fact, according to Wired, as of July 2016:

Microsoft has now captured more than one-third of Internet searches. Microsoft’s transformation from a company that sells boxed software to one that sells services in the cloud is well underway. (Emphasis added).

With such numbers, it’s difficult to see how rivals are being foreclosed from reaching consumers in any meaningful way.

Meanwhile, the benefits to consumers are obvious: Google is directly answering questions for consumers rather than giving them a set of possible links to click through and further search. In some cases its results present entirely new and valuable forms of information (e.g., search trends and structured data); in others they serve to hone searches by suggesting further queries, or to help users determine which organic results (including those of its competitors) may be most useful. And, of course, consumers aren’t forced to endure these innovations if they don’t find them useful, as they can quickly switch to other providers.  

Nostalgia makes for bad regulatory policy

Google is not the unstoppable monopolist of the EU competition regulators’ imagining. Rather, it is a continual innovator, forced to adapt to shifting consumer demand, changing technology, and competitive industry dynamics. And, instead of trying to hamstring Google, if they are to survive, Google’s competitors (and complainants) must innovate as well.

Dominance in technology markets — especially online — has always been ephemeral. Once upon a time, MySpace, AOL, and Yahoo were the dominant Internet platforms. Kodak, once practically synonymous with “instant camera” let the digital revolution pass it by. The invincible Sony Walkman was upended by mp3s and the iPod. Staid, keyboard-operated Blackberries and Nokias simply couldn’t compete with app-driven, graphical platforms from Apple and Samsung. Even today, startups like Snapchat, Slack, and Spotify gain massive scale and upend entire industries with innovative new technology that can leave less-nimble incumbents in the dustbin of tech history.

Put differently, companies that innovate are able to thrive, while those that remain dependent on yesterday’s technology and outdated business models usually fail — and deservedly so. It should never be up to regulators to pick winners and losers in a highly dynamic and competitive market, particularly if doing so constrains the market’s very dynamism. As Alfonso Lamadrid has pointed out:

It is companies and not competition enforcers which will strive or fail in the adoption of their business models, and it is therefore companies and not competition enforcers who are to decide on what business models to use. Some will prove successful and others will not; some companies will thrive and some will disappear, but with experimentation with business models, success and failure are and have always been part of the game.

In other words, we should not forget that competition law is, or should be, business-model agnostic, and that regulators are – like anyone else – far from omniscient.

Like every other technology company before them, Google and its competitors must be willing and able to adapt in order to keep up with evolving markets — just as for Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Google confronts a near-constantly evolving marketplace and fierce competition from unanticipated quarters; companies that build their businesses around Google face a near-constantly evolving Google. In the face of such relentless market dynamism, neither consumers nor firms are well served by regulatory policy rooted in nostalgia.  

Today’s Canadian Competition Bureau (CCB) Google decision marks yet another regulator joining the chorus of competition agencies around the world that have already dismissed similar complaints relating to Google’s Search or Android businesses (including the US FTC, the Korea FTC, the Taiwan FTC, and AG offices in Texas and Ohio).

A number of courts around the world have also rejected competition complaints against the company, including courts in the US, France, the UK, Germany, and Brazil.

After an extensive, three-year investigation into Google’s business practices in Canada, the CCB

did not find sufficient evidence that Google engaged in [search manipulation, preferential treatment of Google services, syndication agreements, distribution agreements, exclusion of competitors from its YouTube mobile app, or tying of mobile ads with those on PCs and tablets] for an anti-competitive purpose, and/or that the practices resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in any relevant market.

Like the US FTC, the CCB did find fault with Google’s use of restriction on its AdWords API — but Google had already revised those terms worldwide following the FTC investigation, and has committed to the CCB to maintain the revised terms for at least another 5 years.

Other than a negative ruling from Russia’s competition agency last year in favor of Yandex — essentially “the Russian Google,” and one of only a handful of Russian tech companies of significance (surely a coincidence…) — no regulator has found against Google on the core claims brought against it.

True, investigations in a few jurisdictions, including the EU and India, are ongoing. And a Statement of Objections in the EU’s Android competition investigation appears imminent. But at some point, regulators are going to have to take a serious look at the motivations of the entities that bring complaints before wasting more investigatory resources on their behalf.

Competitor after competitor has filed complaints against Google that amount to, essentially, a claim that Google’s superior services make it too hard to compete. But competition law doesn’t require that Google or any other large firm make life easier for competitors. Without a finding of exclusionary harm/abuse of dominance (and, often, injury to consumers), this just isn’t anticompetitive conduct — it’s competition. And the overwhelming majority of competition authorities that have examined the company have agreed.

Exactly when will regulators be a little more skeptical of competitors trying to game the antitrust laws for their own advantage?

Canada joins the chorus

The Canadian decision mirrors the reasoning that regulators around the world have employed in reaching the decision that Google hasn’t engaged in anticompetitive conduct.

Two of the more important results in the CCB’s decision relate to preferential treatment of Google’s services (e.g., promotion of its own Map or Shopping results, instead of links to third-party aggregators of the same services) — the tired “search bias” claim that started all of this — and the distribution agreements that Google enters into with device manufacturers requiring inclusion of Google search as a default installation on Google Android phones.

On these key issues the CCB was unequivocal in its conclusions.

On search bias:

The Bureau sought evidence of the harm allegedly caused to market participants in Canada as a result of any alleged preferential treatment of Google’s services. The Bureau did not find adequate evidence to support the conclusion that this conduct has had an exclusionary effect on rivals, or that it has resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in a market.

And on search distribution agreements:

Google competes with other search engines for the business of hardware manufacturers and software developers. Other search engines can and do compete for these agreements so they appear as the default search engine…. Consumers can and do change the default search engine on their desktop and mobile devices if they prefer a different one to the pre-loaded default…. Google’s distribution agreements have not resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in Canada.

And here is the crucial point of the CCB’s insight (which, so far, everyone but Russia seems to appreciate): Despite breathless claims from rivals alleging they can’t compete in the face of their placement in Google’s search results, data barriers to entry, or default Google search on mobile devices, Google does actually face significant competition. Both the search bias and Android distribution claims were dismissed essentially because, whatever competitors may prefer Google do, its conduct doesn’t actually preclude access to competing services.

The True North strong and free [of meritless competitor complaints]

Exclusionary conduct must, well, exclude. But surfacing Google’s own “subjective” search results, even if they aren’t as high quality, doesn’t exclude competitors, according to the CCB and the other regulatory agencies that have also dismissed such claims. Similarly, consumers’ ability to switch search engines (“competition is just a click away,” remember), as well as OEMs’ ability to ship devices with different search engine defaults, ensure that search competitors can access consumers.

Former FTC Commissioner Josh Wright’s analysis of “search bias” in Google’s results applies with equal force to these complaints:

It is critical to recognize that bias alone is not evidence of competitive harm and it must be evaluated in the appropriate antitrust economic context of competition and consumers, rather [than] individual competitors and websites… [but these results] are not useful from an antitrust policy perspective because they erroneously—and contrary to economic theory and evidence—presume natural and procompetitive product differentiation in search rankings to be inherently harmful.

The competitors that bring complaints to antitrust authorities seek to make a demand of Google that is rarely made of any company: that it must provide access to its competitors on equal terms. But one can hardly imagine a valid antitrust complaint arising because McDonald’s refuses to sell a Whopper. The law on duties to deal is heavily circumscribed for good reason, as Josh Wright and I have pointed out:

The [US Supreme] Court [in Trinko] warned that the imposition of a duty to deal would threaten to “lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in… economically beneficial facilities.”… Because imposition of a duty to deal with rivals threatens to decrease the incentive to innovate by creating new ways of producing goods at lower costs, satisfying consumer demand, or creating new markets altogether, courts and antitrust agencies have been reluctant to expand the duty.

Requiring Google to link to other powerful and sophisticated online search companies, or to provide them with placement on Google Android mobile devices, on the precise terms it does its own products would reduce the incentives of everyone to invest in their underlying businesses to begin with.

This is the real threat to competition. And kudos to the CCB for recognizing it.

The CCB’s investigation was certainly thorough, and its decision appears to be well-reasoned. Other regulators should take note before moving forward with yet more costly investigations.

It appears that White House’s zeal for progressive-era legal theory has … progressed (or regressed?) further. Late last week President Obama signed an Executive Order that nominally claims to direct executive agencies (and “strongly encourages” independent agencies) to adopt “pro-competitive” policies. It’s called Steps to Increase Competition and Better Inform Consumers and Workers to Support Continued Growth of the American Economy, and was produced alongside an issue brief from the Council of Economic Advisors titled Benefits of Competition and Indicators of Market Power.

TL;DR version: the Order and its brief do not appear so much aimed at protecting consumers or competition, as they are at providing justification for favored regulatory adventures.

In truth, it’s not exactly clear what problem the President is trying to solve. And there is language in both the Order and the brief that could be interpreted in a positive light, and, likewise, language that could be more of a shot across the bow of “unruly” corporate citizens who have not gotten in line with the President’s agenda. Most of the Order and the corresponding CEA brief read as a rote recital of basic antitrust principles: price fixing bad, collusion bad, competition good. That said, there were two items in the Order that particularly stood out.

The (Maybe) Good

Section 2 of the Order states that

Executive departments … with authorities that could be used to enhance competition (agencies) shall … use those authorities to promote competition, arm consumers and workers with the information they need to make informed choices, and eliminate regulations that restrict competition without corresponding benefits to the American public. (emphasis added)

Obviously this is music to the ears of anyone who has thought that agencies should be required to do a basic economic analysis before undertaking brave voyages of regulatory adventure. And this is what the Supreme Court was getting at in Michigan v. EPA when it examined the meaning of the phrase “appropriate” in connection with environmental regulations:

One would not say that it is even rational, never mind “appropriate,” to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.

Thus, if this Order follows the direction of Michigan v. EPA, and it becomes the standard for agencies to conduct cost-benefit analyses before issuing regulation (and to review old regulations through such an analysis), then wonderful! Moreover, this mandate to agencies to reduce regulations that restrict competition could lead to an unexpected reformation of a variety of regulations – even outside of the agencies themselves. For instance, the FTC is laudable in its ongoing efforts both to correct anticompetitive state licensing laws as well as to resist state-protected incumbents, such as taxi-cab companies.

Still, I have trouble believing that the President — and this goes for any president, really, regardless of party — would truly intend for agencies under his control to actually cede regulatory ground when a little thing like economic reality points in a different direction than official policy. After all, there was ample information available that the Title II requirements on broadband providers would be both costly and result in reduced capital expenditures, and the White House nonetheless encouraged the FCC to go ahead with reclassification.

And this isn’t the first time that the President has directed agencies to perform retrospective review of regulation (see the Identifying and Reducing Regulatory Burdens Order of 2012). To date, however, there appears to be little evidence that the burdens of the regulatory state have lessened. Last year set a record for the page count of the Federal Register (80k+ pages), and the data suggest that the cost of the regulatory state is only increasing. Thus, despite the pleasant noises the Order makes with regard to imposing economic discipline on agencies – and despite the good example Canada has set for us in this regard – I am not optimistic of the actual result.

And the (maybe) good builds an important bridge to the (probably) bad of the Order. It is well and good to direct agencies to engage in economic calculation when they write and administer regulations, but such calculation must be in earnest, and must be directed by the learning that was hard earned over the course of the development of antitrust jurisprudence in the US. As Geoffrey Manne and Josh Wright have noted:

Without a serious methodological commitment to economic science, the incorporation of economics into antitrust is merely a façade, allowing regulators and judges to select whichever economic model fits their earlier beliefs or policy preferences rather than the model that best fits the real‐world data. Still, economic theory remains essential to antitrust law. Economic analysis constrains and harnesses antitrust law so that it protects consumers rather than competitors.

Unfortunately, the brief does not indicate that it is interested in more than a façade of economic rigor. For instance, it relies on the outmoded 50 firm revenue concentration numbers gathered by the Census Bureau to support the proposition that the industries themselves are highly concentrated and, therefore, are anticompetitive. But, it’s been fairly well understood since the 1970s that concentration says nothing directly about monopoly power and its exercise. In fact, concentration can often be seen as an indicator of superior efficiency that results in better outcomes for consumers (depending on the industry).

The (Probably) Bad

Apart from general concerns (such as having a host of federal agencies with no antitrust expertise now engaging in competition turf wars) there is one specific area that could have a dramatically bad result for long term policy, and that moreover reflects either ignorance or willful blindness of antitrust jurisprudence. Specifically, the Order directs agencies to

identify specific actions that they can take in their areas of responsibility to build upon efforts to detect abuses such as price fixing, anticompetitive behavior in labor and other input markets, exclusionary conduct, and blocking access to critical resources that are needed for competitive entry. (emphasis added).

It then goes on to say that

agencies shall submit … an initial list of … any specific practices, such as blocking access to critical resources, that potentially restrict meaningful consumer or worker choice or unduly stifle new market entrants (emphasis added)

The generally uncontroversial language regarding price fixing and exclusionary conduct are bromides – after all, as the Order notes, we already have the FTC and DOJ very actively policing this sort of conduct. What’s novel here, however, is that the highlighted language above seems to amount to a mandate to executive agencies (and a strong suggestion to independent agencies) that they begin to seek out “essential facilities” within their regulated industries.

But “critical resources … needed for competitive entry” could mean nearly anything, depending on how you define competition and relevant markets. And asking non-antitrust agencies to integrate one of the more esoteric (and controversial) parts of antitrust law into their mission is going to be a recipe for disaster.

In fact, this may be one of the reasons why the Supreme Court declined to recognize the essential facilities doctrine as a distinct rule in Trinko, where it instead characterized the exclusionary conduct in Aspen Skiing as ‘at or near the outer boundary’ of Sherman Act § 2 liability.

In short, the essential facilities doctrine is widely criticized, by pretty much everyone. In their respected treatise, Antitrust Law, Herbert Hovenkamp and Philip Areeda have said that “the essential facility doctrine is both harmful and unnecessary and should be abandoned”; Michael Boudin has noted that the doctrine is full of “embarrassing weaknesses”; and Gregory Werden has opined that “Courts should reject the doctrine.” One important reason for the broad criticism is because

At bottom, a plaintiff … is saying that the defendant has a valuable facility that it would be difficult to reproduce … But … the fact that the defendant has a highly valued facility is a reason to reject sharing, not to require it, since forced sharing “may lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in those economically beneficial facilities.” (quoting Trinko)

Further, it’s really hard to say when one business is so critical to a particular market that its own internal functions need to be exposed for competitors’ advantage. For instance, is Big Data – which the CEA brief specifically notes as a potential “critical resource” — an essential facility when one company serves so many consumers that it has effectively developed an entire market that it dominates? ( In case you are wondering, it’s actually not). When exactly does a firm so outcompete its rivals that access to its business infrastructure can be seen by regulators as “essential” to competition? And is this just a set-up for punishing success — which hardly promotes competition, innovation or consumer welfare?

And, let’s be honest here, when the CEA is considering Big Data as an essential facility they are at least partially focused on Google and its various search properties. Google is frequently the target for “essentialist” critics who argue, among other things, that Google’s prioritization of its own properties in its own search results violates antitrust rules. The story goes that Google search is so valuable that when Google publishes its own shopping results ahead of its various competitors, it is engaging in anticompetitive conduct. But this is a terribly myopic view of what the choices are for search services because, as Geoffrey Manne has so ably noted before, “competitors denied access to the top few search results at Google’s site are still able to advertise their existence and attract users through a wide range of other advertising outlets[.]”

Moreover, as more and more users migrate to specialized apps on their mobile devices for a variety of content, Google’s desktop search becomes just one choice among many for finding information. All of this leaves to one side, of course, the fact that for some categories, Google has incredibly stiff competition.

Thus it is that

to the extent that inclusion in Google search results is about “Stiglerian” search-cost reduction for websites (and it can hardly be anything else), the range of alternate facilities for this function is nearly limitless.

The troubling thing here is that, given the breezy analysis of the Order and the CEA brief, I don’t think the White House is really considering the long-term legal and economic implications of its command; the Order appears to be much more about political support for favored agency actions already under way.

Indeed, despite the length of the CEA brief and the variety of antitrust principles recited in the Order itself, an accompanying release points to what is really going on (at least in part). The White House, along with the FCC, seems to think that the embedded streams in a cable or satellite broadcast should be considered a form of essential facility that is an indispensable component of video consumers’ choice (which is laughable given the magnitude of choice in video consumption options that consumers enjoy today).

And, to the extent that courts might apply the (controversial) essential facilities doctrine, an “indispensable requirement … is the unavailability of access to the ‘essential facilities’[.]” This is clearly not the case with much of what the CEA brief points to as examples of ostensibly laudable pro-competitive regulation.

The doctrine wouldn’t apply, for instance, to the FCC’s Open Internet Order since edge providers have access to customers over networks, even where network providers want to zero-rate, employ usage-based billing or otherwise negotiate connection fees and prioritization. And it also doesn’t apply to the set-top box kerfuffle; while third-parties aren’t able to access the video streams that make-up a cable broadcast, the market for consuming those streams is a single part of the entire video ecosystem. What really matters there is access to viewers, and the ability to provide services to consumers and compete for their business.

Yet, according to the White House, “the set-top box is the mascot” for the administration’s competition Order, because, apparently, cable boxes represent “what happens when you don’t have the choice to go elsewhere.” ( “Elsewhere” to the White House, I assume, cannot include Roku, Apple TV, Hulu, Netflix, and a myriad of other video options  that consumers can currently choose among.)

The set-top box is, according to the White House, a prime example of the problem that

[a]cross our economy, too many consumers are dealing with inferior or overpriced products, too many workers aren’t getting the wage increases they deserve, too many entrepreneurs and small businesses are getting squeezed out unfairly by their bigger competitors, and overall we are not seeing the level of innovative growth we would like to see.

This is, of course, nonsense. Consumers enjoy an incredible amount of low-cost, high quality goods (including video options) – far more than at any point in history.  After all:

From cable to Netflix to Roku boxes to Apple TV to Amazon FireStick, we have more ways to find and watch TV than ever — and we can do so in our living rooms, on our phones and tablets, and on seat-back screens at 30,000 feet. Oddly enough, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler … agrees: “American consumers enjoy unprecedented choice in how they view entertainment, news and sports programming. You can pretty much watch what you want, where you want, when you want.”

Thus, I suspect that the White House has its eye on a broader regulatory agenda.

For instance, the Department of Labor recently announced that it would be extending its reach in the financial services industry by changing the standard for when financial advice might give rise to a fiduciary relationship under ERISA. It seems obvious that the SEC or FINRA could have taken up the slack for any financial services regulatory issues – it’s certainly within their respective wheelhouses. But that’s not the direction the administration took, possibly because SEC and FINRA are independent agencies. Thus, the DOL – an agency with substantially less financial and consumer protection experience than either the SEC or FINRA — has expansive new authority.

And that’s where more of the language in the Order comes into focus. It directs agencies to “ensur[e] that consumers and workers have access to the information needed to make informed choices[.]” The text of the DOL rule develops for itself a basis in competition law as well:

The current proposal’s defined boundaries between fiduciary advice, education, and sales activity directed at large plans, may bring greater clarity to the IRA and plan services markets. Innovation in new advice business models, including technology-driven models, may be accelerated, and nudged away from conflicts and toward transparency, thereby promoting healthy competition in the fiduciary advice market.

Thus, it’s hard to see what the White House is doing in the Order, other than laying the groundwork for expansive authority of non-independent executive agencies under the thin guise of promoting competition. Perhaps the President believes that couching this expansion in free market terms ( i.e. that its “pro-competition”) will somehow help the initiatives go through with minimal friction. But there is nothing in the Order or the CEA brief to provide any confidence that competition will, in fact, be promoted. And in the end I have trouble seeing how this sort of regulatory adventurism does not run afoul of separation of powers issues, as well as assorted other legal challenges.

Finally, conjuring up a regulatory version of the essential facilities doctrine as a support for this expansion is simply a terrible idea — one that smacks much more of industrial policy than of sound regulatory reform or consumer protection.

The American Bar Association’s (ABA) “Antitrust in Asia:  China” Conference, held in Beijing May 21-23 (with Chinese Government and academic support), cast a spotlight on the growing economic importance of China’s six-year old Anti-Monopoly Law (AML).  The Conference brought together 250 antitrust practitioners and government officials to discuss AML enforcement policy.  These included the leaders (Directors General) of the three Chinese competition agencies (those agencies are units within the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC), the Ministry of Foreign Commerce (MOFCOM), and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)), plus senior competition officials from Europe, Asia, and the United States.  This was noteworthy in itself, in that the three Chinese antitrust enforcers seldom appear jointly, let alone with potential foreign critics.  The Chinese agencies conceded that Chinese competition law enforcement is not problem free and that substantial improvements in the implementation of the AML are warranted.

With the proliferation of international business arrangements subject to AML jurisdiction, multinational companies have a growing stake in the development of economically sound Chinese antitrust enforcement practices.  Achieving such a result is no mean feat, in light of the AML’s (Article 27) explicit inclusion of industrial policy factors, significant institutional constraints on the independence of the Chinese judiciary, and remaining concerns about transparency of enforcement policy, despite some progress.  Nevertheless, Chinese competition officials and academics at the Conference repeatedly emphasized the growing importance of competition and the need to improve Chinese antitrust administration, given the general pro-market tilt of the 18th Communist Party Congress.  (The references to Party guidance illustrate, of course, the continuing dependence of Chinese antitrust enforcement patterns on political forces that are beyond the scope of standard legal and policy analysis.)

While the Conference covered the AML’s application to the standard antitrust enforcement topics (mergers, joint conduct, cartels, unilateral conduct, and private litigation), the treatment of price-related “abuses” and intellectual property (IP) merit particular note.

In a panel dealing with the investigation of price-related conduct by the NDRC (the agency responsible for AML non-merger pricing violations), NDRC Director General Xu Kunlin revealed that the agency is deemphasizing much-criticized large-scale price regulation and price supervision directed at numerous firms, and is focusing more on abuses of dominance, such as allegedly exploitative “excessive” pricing by such firms as InterDigital and Qualcomm.  (Resale price maintenance also remains a source of some interest.)  On May 22, 2014, the second day of the Conference, the NDRC announced that it had suspended its investigation of InterDigital, given that company’s commitment not to charge Chinese companies “discriminatory” high-priced patent licensing fees, not to bundle licenses for non-standard essential patents and “standard essential patents” (see below), and not to litigate to make Chinese companies accept “unreasonable” patent license conditions.  The NDRC also continues to investigate Qualcomm for allegedly charging discriminatorily high patent licensing rates to Chinese customers.  Having the world’s largest consumer market, and fast growing manufacturers who license overseas patents, China possesses enormous leverage over these and other foreign patent licensors, who may find it necessary to sacrifice substantial licensing revenues in order to continue operating in China.

The theme of ratcheting down on patent holders’ profits was reiterated in a presentation by SAIC Director General Ren Airong (responsible for AML non-merger enforcement not directly involving price) on a panel discussing abuse of dominance and the antitrust-IP interface.  She revealed that key patents (and, in particular, patents that “read on” and are necessary to practice a standard, or “standard essential patents”) may well be deemed “necessary” or “essential” facilities under the final version of the proposed SAIC IP-Antitrust Guidelines.  In effect, implementation of this requirement would mean that foreign patent holders would have to grant licenses to third parties under unfavorable government-set terms – a recipe for disincentivizing future R&D investments and technological improvements.  Emphasizing this negative effect, co-panelists FTC Commissioner Ohlhausen and I pointed out that the “essential facilities” doctrine has been largely discredited by leading American antitrust scholars.  (In a separate speech, FTC Chairwoman Ramirez also argued against treating patents as essential facilities.)  I added that IP does not possess the “natural monopoly” characteristics of certain physical capital facilities such as an electric grid (declining average variable cost and uneconomic to replicate), and that competitors’ incentives to develop alternative and better technology solutions would be blunted if they were given automatic cheap access to “important” patents.  In short, the benefits of dynamic competition would be undermined by treating patents as essential facilities.  I also noted that, consistent with decision theory, wise competition enforcers should be very cautious before condemning single firm behavior, so as not to chill efficiency-enhancing unilateral conduct.  Director General Ren did not respond to these comments.

If China is to achieve its goal of economic growth driven by innovation, it should seek to avoid legally handicapping technology market transactions by mandating access to, or otherwise restricting returns to, patents.  As recognized in the U.S. Justice Department-Federal Trade Commission 1995 IP-Antitrust Guidelines and 2007 IP-Antitrust Report, allowing the IP holder to seek maximum returns within the scope of its property right advances innovative welfare-enhancing economic growth.  As China’s rapidly growing stock of IP matures and gains in value, it hopefully will gain greater appreciation for that insight, and steer its competition policy away from the essential facilities doctrine and other retrograde limitations on IP rights holders that are inimical to long term innovation and welfare.

By Berin Szoka, Geoffrey Manne & Ryan Radia

As has become customary with just about every new product announcement by Google these days, the company’s introduction on Tuesday of its new “Search, plus Your World” (SPYW) program, which aims to incorporate a user’s Google+ content into her organic search results, has met with cries of antitrust foul play. All the usual blustering and speculation in the latest Google antitrust debate has obscured what should, however, be the two key prior questions: (1) Did Google violate the antitrust laws by not including data from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks in its new SPYW program alongside Google+ content; and (2) How might antitrust restrain Google in conditioning participation in this program in the future?

The answer to the first is a clear no. The second is more complicated—but also purely speculative at this point, especially because it’s not even clear Facebook and Twitter really want to be included or what their price and conditions for doing so would be. So in short, it’s hard to see what there is to argue about yet.

Let’s consider both questions in turn.

Should Google Have Included Other Services Prior to SPYW’s Launch?

Google says it’s happy to add non-Google content to SPYW but, as Google fellow Amit Singhal told Danny Sullivan, a leading search engine journalist:

Facebook and Twitter and other services, basically, their terms of service don’t allow us to crawl them deeply and store things. Google+ is the only [network] that provides such a persistent service,… Of course, going forward, if others were willing to change, we’d look at designing things to see how it would work.

In a follow-up story, Sullivan quotes his interview with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt about how this would work:

“To start with, we would have a conversation with them,” Schmidt said, about settling any differences.

I replied that with the Google+ suggestions now hitting Google, there was no need to have any discussions or formal deals. Google’s regular crawling, allowed by both Twitter and Facebook, was a form of “automated conversation” giving Google material it could use.

“Anything we do with companies like that, it’s always better to have a conversion,” Schmidt said.

MG Siegler calls this “doublespeak” and seems to think Google violated the antitrust laws by not making SPYW more inclusive right out of the gate. He insists Google didn’t need permission to include public data in SPYW:

Both Twitter and Facebook have data that is available to the public. It’s data that Google crawls. It’s data that Google even has some social context for thanks to older Google Profile features, as Sullivan points out.

It’s not all the data inside the walls of Twitter and Facebook — hence the need for firehose deals. But the data Google can get is more than enough for many of the high level features of Search+ — like the “People and Places” box, for example.

It’s certainly true that if you search Google for “site:twitter.com” or “site:facebook.com,” you’ll get billions of search results from publicly-available Facebook and Twitter pages, and that Google already has some friend connection data via social accounts you might have linked to your Google profile (check out this dashboard), as Sullivan notes. But the public data isn’t available in real-time, and the private, social connection data is limited and available only for users who link their accounts. For Google to access real-time results and full social connection data would require… you guessed it… permission from Twitter (or Facebook)! As it happens, Twitter and Google had a deal for a “data firehose” so that Google could display tweets in real-time under the “personalized search” program for public social information that SPYW builds on top of. But Twitter ended the deal last May for reasons neither company has explained.

At best, therefore, Google might have included public, relatively stale social information from Twitter and Facebook in SPYW—content that is, in any case, already included in basic search results and remains available there. The real question, however, isn’t could Google have included this data in SPYW, but rather need they have? If Google’s engineers and executives decided that the incorporation of this limited data would present an inconsistent user experience or otherwise diminish its uniquely new social search experience, it’s hard to fault the company for deciding to exclude it. Moreover, as an antitrust matter, both the economics and the law of anticompetitive product design are uncertain. In general, as with issues surrounding the vertical integration claims against Google, product design that hurts rivals can (it should be self-evident) be quite beneficial for consumers. Here, it’s difficult to see how the exclusion of non-Google+ social media from SPYW could raise the costs of Google’s rivals, result in anticompetitive foreclosure, retard rivals’ incentives for innovation, or otherwise result in anticompetitive effects (as required to establish an antitrust claim).

Further, it’s easy to see why Google’s lawyers would prefer express permission from competitors before using their content in this way. After all, Google was denounced last year for “scraping” a different type of social content, user reviews, most notably by Yelp’s CEO at the contentious Senate antitrust hearing in September. Perhaps one could distinguish that situation from this one, but it’s not obvious where to draw the line between content Google has a duty to include without “making excuses” about needing permission and content Google has a duty not to include without express permission. Indeed, this seems like a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” It seems only natural for Google to be gun-shy about “scraping” other services’ public content for use in its latest search innovation without at least first conducting, as Eric Schmidt puts it, a “conversation.”

And as we noted, integrating non-public content would require not just permission but active coordination about implementation. SPYW displays Google+ content only to users who are logged into their Google+ account. Similarly, to display content shared with a user’s friends (but not the world) on Facebook, or protected tweets, Google would need a feed of that private data and a way of logging the user into his or her account on those sites.

Now, if Twitter truly wants Google to feature tweets in Google’s personalized search results, why did Twitter end its agreement with Google last year? Google responded to Twitter’s criticism of its SPYW launch last night with a short Google+ statement:

We are a bit surprised by Twitter’s comments about Search plus Your World, because they chose not to renew their agreement with us last summer, and since then we have observed their rel=nofollow instructions [by removing Twitter content results from “personalized search” results].

Perhaps Twitter simply got a better deal: Microsoft may have paid Twitter $30 million last year for a similar deal allowing Bing users to receive Twitter results. If Twitter really is playing hardball, Google is not guilty of discriminating against Facebook and Twitter in favor of its own social platform. Rather, it’s simply unwilling to pony up the cash that Facebook and Twitter are demanding—and there’s nothing illegal about that.

Indeed, the issue may go beyond a simple pricing dispute. If you were CEO of Twitter or Facebook, would you really think it was a net-win if your users could use Google search as an interface for your site? After all, these social networking sites are in an intense war for eyeballs: the more time users spend on Google, the more ads Google can sell, to the detriment of Facebook or Twitter. Facebook probably sees itself increasingly in direct competition with Google as a tool for finding information. Its social network has vastly more users than Google+ (800 million v 62 million, but even larger lead in active users), and, in most respects, more social functionality. The one area where Facebook lags is search functionality. Would Facebook really want to let Google become the tool for searching social networks—one social search engine “to rule them all“? Or would Facebook prefer to continue developing “social search” in partnership with Bing? On Bing, it can control how its content appears—and Facebook sees Microsoft as a partner, not a rival (at least until it can build its own search functionality inside the web’s hottest property).

Adding to this dynamic, and perhaps ultimately fueling some of the fire against SPYW, is the fact that many Google+ users seem to be multi-homing, using both Facebook and Google+ (and other social networks) at the same time, and even using various aggregators and syncing tools (Start Google+, for example) to unify social media streams and share content among them. Before SPYW, this might have seemed like a boon to Facebook, staunching any potential defectors from its network onto Google+ by keeping them engaged with both, with a kind of “Facebook primacy” ensuring continued eyeball time on its site. But Facebook might see SPYW as a threat to this primacy—in effect, reversing users’ primary “home” as they effectively import their Facebook data into SPYW via their Google+ accounts (such as through Start Google+). If SPYW can effectively facilitate indirect Google searching of private Facebook content, the fears we suggest above may be realized, and more users may forego vistiing Facebook.com (and seeing its advertisers), accessing much of their Facebook content elsewhere—where Facebook cannot monetize their attention.

Amidst all the antitrust hand-wringing over SPYW and Google’s decision to “go it alone” for now, it’s worth noting that Facebook has remained silent. Even Twitter has said little more than a tweet’s worth about the issue. It’s simply not clear that Google’s rivals would even want to participate in SPYW. This could still be bad for consumers, but in that case, the source of the harm, if any, wouldn’t be Google. If this all sounds speculative, it is—and that’s precisely the point. No one really knows. So, again, what’s to argue about on Day 3 of the new social search paradigm?

The Debate to Come: Conditioning Access to SPYW

While Twitter and Facebook may well prefer that Google not index their content on SPYW—at least, not unless Google is willing to pay up—suppose the social networking firms took Google up on its offer to have a “conversation” about greater cooperation. Google hasn’t made clear on what terms it would include content from other social media platforms. So it’s at least conceivable that, when pressed to make good on its lofty-but-vague offer to include other platforms, Google might insist on unacceptable terms. In principle, there are essentially three possibilities here:

  1. Antitrust law requires nothing because there are pro-consumer benefits for Google to make SPYW exclusive and no clear harm to competition (as distinct from harm to competitors) for doing so, as our colleague Josh Wright argues.
  2. Antitrust law requires Google to grant competitors access to SPYW on commercially reasonable terms.
  3. Antitrust law requires Google to grant such access on terms dictated by its competitors, even if unreasonable to Google.

Door #3 is a legal non-starter. In Aspen Skiing v. Aspen Highlands (1985), the Supreme Court came the closest it has ever come to endorsing the “essential facilities” doctrine by which a competitor has a duty to offer its facilities to competitors. But in Verizon Communications v. Trinko (2004), the Court made clear that even Aspen Skiing is “at or near the outer boundary of § 2 liability.” Part of the basis for the decision in Aspen Skiing was the existence of a prior, profitable relationship between the “essential facility” in question and the competitor seeking access. Although the assumption is neither warranted nor sufficient (circumstances change, of course, and merely “profitable” is not the same thing as “best available use of a resource”), the Court in Aspen Skiing seems to have been swayed by the view that the access in question was otherwise profitable for the company that was denying it. Trinko limited the reach of the doctrine to the extraordinary circumstances of Aspen Skiing, and thus, as the Court affirmed in Pacific Bell v. LinkLine (2008), it seems there is no antitrust duty for a firm to offer access to a competitor on commercially unreasonable terms (as Geoff Manne discusses at greater length in his chapter on search bias in TechFreedom’s free ebook, The Next Digital Decade).

So Google either has no duty to deal at all, or a duty to deal only on reasonable terms. But what would a competitor have to show to establish such a duty? And how would “reasonableness” be defined?

First, this issue parallels claims made more generally about Google’s supposed “search bias.” As Josh Wright has said about those claims, “[p]roperly articulated vertical foreclosure theories proffer both that bias is (1) sufficient in magnitude to exclude Google’s rivals from achieving efficient scale, and (2) actually directed at Google’s rivals.” Supposing (for the moment) that the second point could be established, it’s hard to see how Facebook or Twitter could really show that being excluded from SPYW—while still having their available content show up as it always has in Google’s “organic” search results—would actually “render their efforts to compete for distribution uneconomical,” which, as Josh explains, antitrust law would require them to show. Google+ is a tiny service compared to Google or Facebook. And even Google itself, for all the awe and loathing it inspires, lags in the critical metric of user engagement, keeping the average user on site for only a quarter as much time as Facebook.

Moreover, by these same measures, it’s clear that Facebook and Twitter don’t need access to Google search results at all, much less its relatively trivial SPYW results, in order find, and be found by, users; it’s difficult to know from what even vaguely relevant market they could possibly be foreclosed by their absence from SPYW results. Does SPYW potentially help Google+, to Facebook’s detriment? Yes. Just as Facebook’s deal with Microsoft hurts Google. But this is called competition. The world would be a desolate place if antitrust laws effectively prohibited firms from making decisions that helped themselves at their competitors’ expense.

After all, no one seems to be suggesting that Microsoft should be forced to include Google+ results in Bing—and rightly so. Microsoft’s exclusive partnership with Facebook is an important example of how a market leader in one area (Facebook in social) can help a market laggard in another (Microsoft in search) compete more effectively with a common rival (Google). In other words, banning exclusive deals can actually make it more difficult to unseat an incumbent (like Google), especially where the technologies involved are constantly evolving, as here.

Antitrust meddling in such arrangements, particularly in high-risk, dynamic markets where large up-front investments are frequently required (and lost), risks deterring innovation and reducing the very dynamism from which consumers reap such incredible rewards. “Reasonable” is a dangerously slippery concept in such markets, and a recipe for costly errors by the courts asked to define the concept. We suspect that disputes arising out of these sorts of deals will largely boil down to skirmishes over pricing, financing and marketing—the essential dilemma of new media services whose business models are as much the object of innovation as their technologies. Turning these, by little more than innuendo, into nefarious anticompetitive schemes is extremely—and unnecessarily—risky. Continue Reading…

No surprise here.  The WSJ announced it was coming yesterday, and today Google publicly acknowledged that it has received subpoenas related to the Commission’s investigation.  Amit Singhal of Google acknowledged the FTC subpoenas at the Google Public Policy Blog:

At Google, we’ve always focused on putting the user first. We aim to provide relevant answers as quickly as possible—and our product innovation and engineering talent have delivered results that users seem to like, in a world where the competition is only one click away. Still, we recognize that our success has led to greater scrutiny. Yesterday, we received formal notification from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission that it has begun a review of our business. We respect the FTC’s process and will be working with them (as we have with other agencies) over the coming months to answer questions about Google and our services.

It’s still unclear exactly what the FTC’s concerns are, but we’re clear about where we stand. Since the beginning, we have been guided by the idea that, if we focus on the user, all else will follow. No matter what you’re looking for—buying a movie ticket, finding the best burger nearby, or watching a royal wedding—we want to get you the information you want as quickly as possible. Sometimes the best result is a link to another website. Other times it’s a news article, sports score, stock quote, a video or a map.

It is too early to know the precise details of the FTC’s interest.  However, We’ve been discussing various aspects of the investigation here at TOTM for the last year.  Indeed, we’ve written two articles focused upon framing and evaluating a potential antitrust case against Google as well as the misguided attempts to use the antitrust laws to impose “search neutrality.”  We’ve also written a number of blog posts on Google and antitrust (see here for an archive).

For now, until more details become available, it strikes us that the following points should be emphasized:

  • For several reasons, the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation into Google’s business practices seems misguided from the perspective of competition policy directed toward protecting consumer welfare.  We hope and expect that the agency will conclude its investigation quickly and without any enforcement action against the company.  But it is important to note that this is merely an investigation–and at that, one that is not necessarily new.  More importantly, it is not a full-fledged enforcement action, much less a successful one; and although such investigations are extraordinarily costly for their targets, there is not yet (and there may never be) even any allegation of liability inherent in an investigation.
  • In any such case, the focus of concern must always be on consumer harm–not harm to certain competitors.  This is a well known antitrust maxim, but it is certainly appropriately applied here.  We are skeptical that consumer harm is present in this case, and our writings have explored this issue at length.  In brief, Google of today is not the Microsoft of 1998, and the issues and circumstances that gave rise to liability in the Microsoft case are uniformly absent here.
  • Related, most of the claims we have seen surrounding Google’s conduct here are of the vertical sort–where Google has incorporated (either by merger, business development or technological development) and developed new products or processes to evolve its basic search engine in novel ways by, for instance, offering results in the form of maps or videos, or integrating travel-related search results into its traditional offerings.  As we’ve written, these sorts of vertical activities are almost always pro-competitive, despite claims to the contrary by aggrieved competitors, and we should confront such claims with extreme skepticism.   Vertical claims instigated by rivals are historically viewed with skepticism in antitrust circles.  Failing to subject these claims to scrutiny focused on consumer welfare risks would be a mistake whose costs would be borne largely by consumers.
  • The fact that Google’s rivals–including most importantly Microsoft itself–are complaining about the company is, ironically, some of the very best evidence that Google’s practices are in fact pro-consumer and pro-competitive.  It is always problematic when competitors use the regulatory system to try to hamstring their rivals, and we should be extremely wary of claims arising from such conduct.
  • We are also troubled by statements emanating from FTC Commissioners suggesting that the agency intends to pursue this case as a so-called “Section 5” case rather than the more traditional “Section 2” case.  We will have to wait to see whether any complaint is actually brought and, if so, under what statutory authority, but a Section 5 case against Google raises serious concerns about effective and efficient antitrust enforcement.  Commissioner Rosch has claimed that Section 5 could address conduct that has the effect of “reducing consumer choice”—an effect that some commentators support without requiring any evidence that the conduct actually reduces consumer welfare.  Troublingly, “reducing consumer choice” seems to be a euphemism for “harm to competitors, not competition,” where the reduction in choice is the reduction of choice of competitors who may be put out of business by pro-competitive behavior.  This would portend an extremely problematic shift in direction for US antitrust law.

Together Geoffrey Manne and Joshua Wright are the authors of two articles on the antitrust law and economics of Google and search engines more broadly, Google and the Limits of Antitrust: The Case Against the Case Against Google, and If Search Neutrality Is the Answer, What’s the Question?

Manne is also the author of “The Problem of Search Engines as Essential Facilities: An Economic & Legal Assessment,” an essay debunking arguments for regulation of search engines to preserve so-called “search neutrality” in TechFreedom’s 2011 book, The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet.

Among our recent blog posts on the topic are the following:

What’s Really Motivating the Pursuit of Google

Barnett v. Barnett on Antitrust

Sacrificing Consumer Welfare in the Search Bias Debate

Type I Errors in Action, Google Edition

Google, Antitrust, and First Principles

Microsoft Comes Full Circle

Search Bias and Antitrust

The EU Tightens the Noose Around Google

When Google’s Competitors Attack

Antitrust Karma, The Microsoft-Google Wars, and a Question for Rick Rule

DOJ Gears Up to Challenge the Proposed Google ITA Merger

Today at 12:30 at the Capitol Visitor Center, TechFreedom is hosting a discussion on the regulation of search engines:  “Search Engine Regulation: A Solution in Search of a Problem?”

The basics:

Allegations of “search bias” have led to increased scrutiny of Google, including active investigations in the European Union and Texas, a possible FTC investigation, and sharply-worded inquiries from members of Congress. But what does “search bias” really mean? Does it demand preemptive “search neutrality” regulation, requiring government oversight of how search results are ranked? Is antitrust intervention required to protect competition? Or can market forces deal with these concerns?

A panel of leading thinkers on Internet law will explore these questions at a luncheon hosted by TechFreedom, a new digital policy think tank. The event will take place at the Capitol Visitor Center room SVC-210/212 onTuesday, June 14 from 12:30 to 2:30pm, and include a complimentary lunch. CNET’s Declan McCullagh, a veteran tech policy journalist, will moderate a panel of four legal experts:

More details are here, and the event will be streaming live from that link as well.  If all goes well, it will also be accessible right here:

http://www.ustream.tv/flash/viewer.swf

Live Broadcasting by Ustream