The practice of so-called “self-preferencing” has come to embody the zeitgeist of competition policy for digital markets, as legislative initiatives are undertaken in jurisdictions around the world that to seek, in various ways, to constrain large digital platforms from granting favorable treatment to their own goods and services. The core concern cited by policymakers is that gatekeepers may abuse their dual role—as both an intermediary and a trader operating on the platform—to pursue a strategy of biased intermediation that entrenches their power in core markets (defensive leveraging) and extends it to associated markets (offensive leveraging).
In addition to active interventions by lawmakers, self-preferencing has also emerged as a new theory of harm before European courts and antitrust authorities. Should antitrust enforcers be allowed to pursue such a theory, they would gain significant leeway to bypass the legal standards and evidentiary burdens traditionally required to prove that a given business practice is anticompetitive. This should be of particular concern, given the broad range of practices and types of exclusionary behavior that could be characterized as self-preferencing—only some of which may, in some specific contexts, include exploitative or anticompetitive elements.
In a new working paper for the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE), I provide an overview of the relevant traditional antitrust theories of harm, as well as the emerging case law, to analyze whether and to what extent self-preferencing should be considered a new standalone offense under EU competition law. The experience to date in European case law suggests that courts have been able to address platforms’ self-preferencing practices under existing theories of harm, and that it may not be sufficiently novel to constitute a standalone theory of harm.
European Case Law on Self-Preferencing
Practices by digital platforms that might be deemed self-preferencing first garnered significant attention from European competition enforcers with the European Commission’s Google Shoppinginvestigation, which examined whether the search engine’s results pages positioned and displayed its own comparison-shopping service more favorably than the websites of rival comparison-shopping services. According to the Commission’s findings, Google’s conduct fell outside the scope of competition on the merits and could have the effect of extending Google’s dominant position in the national markets for general Internet search into adjacent national markets for comparison-shopping services, in addition to protecting Google’s dominance in its core search market.
Rather than explicitly posit that self-preferencing (a term the Commission did not use) constituted a new theory of harm, the Google Shopping ruling described the conduct as belonging to the well-known category of “leveraging.” The Commission therefore did not need to propagate a new legal test, as it held that the conduct fell under a well-established form of abuse. The case did, however, spur debate over whether the legal tests the Commission did apply effectively imposed on Google a principle of equal treatment of rival comparison-shopping services.
But it should be noted that conduct similar to that alleged in the Google Shopping investigation actually came before the High Court of England and Wales several months earlier, this time in a dispute between Google and Streetmap. At issue in that case was favorable search results Google granted to its own maps, rather than to competing online maps. The UK Court held, however, that the complaint should have been appropriately characterized as an allegation of discrimination; it further found that Google’s conduct did not constitute anticompetitive foreclosure. A similar result was reached in May 2020 by the Amsterdam Court of Appeal in the Funda case.
Conversely, in June 2021, the French Competition Authority (AdlC) followed the European Commission into investigating Google’s practices in the digital-advertising sector. Like the Commission, the AdlC did not explicitly refer to self-preferencing, instead describing the conduct as “favoring.”
Given this background and the proliferation of approaches taken by courts and enforcers to address similar conduct, there was significant anticipation for the judgment that the European General Court would ultimately render in the appeal of the Google Shopping ruling. While the General Court upheld the Commission’s decision, it framed self-preferencing as a discriminatory abuse. Further, the Court outlined four criteria that differentiated Google’s self-preferencing from competition on the merits.
Specifically, the Court highlighted the “universal vocation” of Google’s search engine—that it is open to all users and designed to index results containing any possible content; the “superdominant” position that Google holds in the market for general Internet search; the high barriers to entry in the market for general search services; and what the Court deemed Google’s “abnormal” conduct—behaving in a way that defied expectations, given a search engine’s business model, and that changed after the company launched its comparison-shopping service.
While the precise contours of what the Court might consider discriminatory abuse aren’t yet clear, the decision’s listed criteria appear to be narrow in scope. This stands at odds with the much broader application of self-preferencing as a standalone abuse, both by the European Commission itself and by some national competition authorities (NCAs).
Indeed, just a few weeks after the General Court’s ruling, the Italian Competition Authority (AGCM) handed down a mammoth fine against Amazon over preferential treatment granted to third-party sellers who use the company’s own logistics and delivery services. Rather than reflecting the qualified set of criteria laid out by the General Court, the Italian decision was clearly inspired by the Commission’s approach in Google Shopping. Where the Commission described self-preferencing as a new form of leveraging abuse, AGCM characterized Amazon’s practices as tying.
Self-preferencing has also been raised as a potential abuse in the context of data and information practices. In November 2020, the European Commission sent Amazon a statement of objections detailing its preliminary view that the company had infringed antitrust rules by making systematic use of non-public business data, gathered from independent retailers who sell on Amazon’s marketplace, to advantage the company’s own retail business. (Amazon responded with a set of commitments currently under review by the Commission.)
Both the Commission and the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority have lodged similar allegations against Facebook over data gathered from advertisers and then used to compete with those advertisers in markets in which Facebook is active, such as classified ads. The Commission’s antitrust proceeding against Apple over its App Store rules likewise highlights concerns that the company may use its platform position to obtain valuable data about the activities and offers of its competitors, while competing developers may be denied access to important customer data.
These enforcement actions brought by NCAs and the Commission appear at odds with the more bounded criteria set out by the General Court in Google Shopping, and raise tremendous uncertainty regarding the scope and definition of the alleged new theory of harm.
Self-Preferencing, Platform Neutrality, and the Limits of Antitrust Law
The growing tendency to invoke self-preferencing as a standalone theory of antitrust harm could serve two significant goals for European competition enforcers. As mentioned earlier, it offers a convenient shortcut that could allow enforcers to skip the legal standards and evidentiary burdens traditionally required to prove anticompetitive behavior. Moreover, it can function, in practice, as a means to impose a neutrality regime on digital gatekeepers, with the aims of both ensuring a level playing field among competitors and neutralizing the potential conflicts of interests implicated by dual-mode intermediation.
The dual roles performed by some platforms continue to fuel the never-ending debate over vertical integration, as well as related concerns that, by giving preferential treatment to its own products and services, an integrated provider may leverage its dominance in one market to related markets. From this perspective, self-preferencing is an inevitable byproduct of the emergence of ecosystems.
However, as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has recognized, self-preferencing conduct is “often benign.” Furthermore, the total value generated by an ecosystem depends on the activities of independent complementors. Those activities are not completely under the platform’s control, although the platform is required to establish and maintain the governance structures regulating access to and interactions around that ecosystem.
Given this reality, a complete ban on self-preferencing may call the very existence of ecosystems into question, challenging their design and monetization strategies. Preferential treatment can take many different forms with many different potential effects, all stemming from platforms’ many different business models. This counsels for a differentiated, case-by-case, and effects-based approach to assessing the alleged competitive harms of self-preferencing.
Antitrust law does not impose on platforms a general duty to ensure neutrality by sharing their competitive advantages with rivals. Moreover, possessing a competitive advantage does not automatically equal an anticompetitive effect. As the European Court of Justice recently stated in Servizio Elettrico Nazionale, competition law is not intended to protect the competitive structure of the market, but rather to protect consumer welfare. Accordingly, not every exclusionary effect is detrimental to competition. Distinctions must be drawn between foreclosure and anticompetitive foreclosure, as only the latter may be penalized under antitrust.
[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]
Things are heating up in the antitrust world. There is considerable pressure to pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) before the congressional recess in August—a short legislative window before members of Congress shift their focus almost entirely to campaigning for the mid-term elections. While it would not be impossible to advance the bill after the August recess, it would be a steep uphill climb.
But whether it passes or not, some of the damage from AICOA may already be done. The bill has moved the antitrust dialogue that will harm innovation and consumers. In this post, I will first explain AICOA’s fundamental flaws. Next, I discuss the negative impact that the legislation is likely to have if passed, even if courts and agencies do not aggressively enforce its provisions. Finally, I show how AICOA has already provided an intellectual victory for the approach articulated in the European Union (EU)’s Digital Markets Act (DMA). It has built momentum for a dystopian regulatory framework to break up and break into U.S. superstar firms designated as “gatekeepers” at the expense of innovation and consumers.
The Unseen of AICOA
AICOA’s drafters argue that, once passed, it will deliver numerous economic benefits. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)—the bill’s main sponsor—has stated that it will “ensure small businesses and entrepreneurs still have the opportunity to succeed in the digital marketplace. This bill will do just that while also providing consumers with the benefit of greater choice online.”
Section 3 of the bill would provide “business users” of the designated “covered platforms” with a wide range of entitlements. This includes preventing the covered platform from offering any services or products that a business user could provide (the so-called “self-preferencing” prohibition); allowing a business user access to the covered platform’s proprietary data; and an entitlement for business users to have “preferred placement” on a covered platform without having to use any of that platform’s services.
These entitlements would provide non-platform businesses what are effectively claims on the platform’s proprietary assets, notwithstanding the covered platform’s own investments to collect data, create services, and invent products—in short, the platform’s innovative efforts. As such, AICOA is redistributive legislation that creates the conditions for unfair competition in the name of “fair” and “open” competition. It treats the behavior of “covered platforms” differently than identical behavior by their competitors, without considering the deterrent effect such a framework will have on consumers and innovation. Thus, AICOA offers rent-seeking rivals a formidable avenue to reap considerable benefits at the expense of the innovators thanks to the weaponization of antitrust to subvert, not improve, competition.
In mandating that covered platforms make their data and proprietary assets freely available to “business users” and rivals, AICOA undermines the underpinning of free markets to pursue the misguided goal of “open markets.” The inevitable result will be the tragedy of the commons. Absent the covered platforms having the ability to benefit from their entrepreneurial endeavors, the law no longer encourages innovation. As Joseph Schumpeter seminally predicted: “perfect competition implies free entry into every industry … But perfectly free entry into a new field may make it impossible to enter it at all.”
To illustrate, if business users can freely access, say, a special status on the covered platforms’ ancillary services without having to use any of the covered platform’s services (as required under Section 3(a)(5)), then platforms are disincentivized from inventing zero-priced services, since they cannot cross-monetize these services with existing services. Similarly, if, under Section 3(a)(1) of the bill, business users can stop covered platforms from pre-installing or preferencing an app whenever they happen to offer a similar app, then covered platforms will be discouraged from investing in or creating new apps. Thus, the bill would generate a considerable deterrent effect for covered platforms to invest, invent, and innovate.
AICOA’s most detrimental consequences may not be immediately apparent; they could instead manifest in larger and broader downstream impacts that will be difficult to undo. As the 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat wrote: “a law gives birth not only to an effect but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause—it is seen. The others unfold in succession—they are not seen it is well for, if they are foreseen … it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come,—at the risk of a small present evil.”
To paraphrase Bastiat, AICOA offers ill-intentioned rivals a “small present good”–i.e., unconditional access to the platforms’ proprietary assets–while society suffers the loss of a greater good–i.e., incentives to innovate and welfare gains to consumers. The logic is akin to those who advocate the abolition of intellectual-property rights: The immediate (and seen) gain is obvious, concerning the dissemination of innovation and a reduction of the price of innovation, while the subsequent (and unseen) evil remains opaque, as the destruction of the institutional premises for innovation will generate considerable long-term innovation costs.
Fundamentally, AICOA weakens the benefits of scale by pursuing vertical disintegration of the covered platforms to the benefit of short-term static competition. In the long term, however, the bill would dampen dynamic competition, ultimately harming consumer welfare and the capacity for innovation. Themeasure’s opportunity costs will prevent covered platforms’ innovations from benefiting other business users or consumers. They personify the “unseen,” as Bastiat put it: “[they are] always in the shadow, and who, personifying what is not seen, [are] an essential element of the problem. [They make] us understand how absurd it is to see a profit in destruction.”
The costs could well amount to hundreds of billions of dollars for the U.S. economy, even before accounting for the costs of deterred innovation. The unseen is costly, the seen is cheap.
A New Robinson-Patman Act?
Most antitrust laws are terse, vague, and old: The Sherman Act of 1890, the Federal Trade Commission Act, and the Clayton Act of 1914 deal largely in generalities, with considerable deference for courts to elaborate in a common-law tradition on the specificities of what “restraints of trade,” “monopolization,” or “unfair methods of competition” mean.
In 1936, Congress passed the Robinson-Patman Act, designed to protect competitors from the then-disruptive competition of large firms who—thanks to scale and practices such as price differentiation—upended traditional incumbents to the benefit of consumers. Passed after “Congress made no factual investigation of its own, and ignored evidence that conflicted with accepted rhetoric,” the law prohibits price differentials that would benefit buyers, and ultimately consumers, in the name of less vigorous competition from more efficient, more productive firms. Indeed, under the Robinson-Patman Act, manufacturers cannot give a bigger discount to a distributor who would pass these savings onto consumers, even if the distributor performs extra services relative to others.
Former President Gerald Ford declared in 1975 that the Robinson-Patman Act “is a leading example of [a law] which restrain[s] competition and den[ies] buyers’ substantial savings…It discourages both large and small firms from cutting prices, making it harder for them to expand into new markets and pass on to customers the cost-savings on large orders.” Despite this, calls to amend or repeal the Robinson-Patman Act—supported by, among others, competition scholars like Herbert Hovenkamp and Robert Bork—have failed.
In the 1983 Abbott decision, Justice Lewis Powell wrote: “The Robinson-Patman Act has been widely criticized, both for its effects and for the policies that it seeks to promote. Although Congress is aware of these criticisms, the Act has remained in effect for almost half a century.”
Nonetheless, the act’s enforcement dwindled, thanks to wise reactions from antitrust agencies and the courts. While it is seldom enforced today, the act continues to create considerable legal uncertainty, as it raises regulatory risks for companies who engage in behavior that may conflict with its provisions. Indeed, many of the same so-called “neo-Brandeisians” who support passage of AICOA also advocate reinvigorating Robinson-Patman. More specifically, the new FTC majority has expressed that it is eager to revitalizeRobinson-Patman, even as the law protects less efficient competitors. In other words, the Robinson-Patman Act is a zombie law: dead, but still moving.
Even if the antitrust agencies and courts ultimately follow the same path of regulatory and judicial restraint on AICOA that they have on Robinson-Patman, the legal uncertainty its existence will engender will act as a powerful deterrent on disruptive competition that dynamically benefits consumers and innovation. In short, like the Robinson-Patman Act, antitrust agencies and courts will either enforce AICOA–thus, generating the law’s adverse effects on consumers and innovation–or they will refrain from enforcing AICOA–but then, the legal uncertainty shall lead to unseen, harmful effects on innovation and consumers.
For instance, the bill’s prohibition on “self-preferencing” in Section 3(a)(1) will prevent covered platforms from offering consumers new products and services that happen to compete with incumbents’ products and services. Self-preferencing often is a pro-competitive, pro-efficiency practice that companies widely adopt—a reality that AICOA seems to ignore.
Would AICOA prevent, e.g., Apple from offering a bundled subscription to Apple One, which includes Apple Music, so that the company can effectively compete with incumbents like Spotify? As with Robinson-Patman, antitrust agencies and courts will have to choose whether to enforce a productivity-decreasing law, or to ignore congressional intent but, in the process, generate significant legal uncertainties.
Judge Bork once wrote that Robinson-Patman was “antitrust’s least glorious hour” because, rather than improving competition and innovation, it reduced competition from firms who happen to be more productive, innovative, and efficient than their rivals. The law infamously protected inefficient competitors rather than competition. But from the perspective of legislative history perspective, AICOA may be antitrust’s new “least glorious hour.” If adopted, it will adversely affect innovation and consumers, as opportunistic rivals will be able to prevent cost-saving practices by the covered platforms.
As with Robinson-Patman, calls to amend or repeal AICOA may follow its passage. But Robinson-Patman Act illustrates the path dependency of bad antitrust laws. However costly and damaging, AICOA would likely stay in place, with regular calls for either stronger or weaker enforcement, depending on whether the momentum shifts from populist antitrust or antitrust more consistent with dynamic competition.
Victory of the Brussels Effect
The future of AICOA does not bode well for markets, either from a historical perspective or from a comparative-law perspective. The EU’s DMA similarly targets a few large tech platforms but it isbroader, harsher, and swifter. In the competition between these two examples of self-inflicted techlash, AICOA will pale in comparison with the DMA. Covered platforms will be forced to align with theDMA’s obligations and prohibitions.
Consequently, AICOA is a victory of the DMA and of the Brussels effect in general. AICOA effectively crowns the DMA as the all-encompassing regulatory assault on digital gatekeepers. While members of Congress have introduced numerous antitrust bills aimed at targeting gatekeepers, the DMA is the one-stop-shop regulation that encompasses multiple antitrust bills and imposes broader prohibitions and stronger obligations on gatekeepers. In other words, the DMA outcompetes AICOA.
Commentators seldom lament the extraterritorial impact of European regulations. Regarding regulating digital gatekeepers, U.S. officials should have pushed back against the innovation-stifling, welfare-decreasing effects of the DMA on U.S. tech companies, in particular, and on U.S. technological innovation, in general. To be fair, a few U.S. officials, such as Commerce Secretary Gina Raimundo, didvoice opposition to the DMA. Indeed, well-aware of the DMA’s protectionist intent and its potential tobreak up and break into tech platforms, Raimundoexpressed concerns that antitrust should not be about protecting competitors and deterring innovation but rather about protecting the process of competition, however disruptive may be.
The influential neo-Brandeisians and radical antitrust reformers, however,lashed out at Raimundo andeffectively shamed the Biden administration into embracing the DMA (and its sister regulation, AICOA). Brussels did not have to exert its regulatory overreach; the U.S. administration happily imports and emulates European overregulation. There is no better way for European officials to see their dreams come true: a techlash against U.S. digital platforms that enjoys the support of local officials.
In that regard, AICOA has already played a significant role in shaping the intellectual mood in Washington and in altering the course of U.S. antitrust. Members of Congress designed AICOA along the linespioneered by the DMA. Sen. Klobuchar has argued that America should emulate European competition policy regarding tech platforms. Lina Khan, now chair of the FTC, co-authoredthe U.S. House Antitrust Subcommittee report, which recommended adopting the European concept of “abuse of dominant position” in U.S. antitrust. In her current position, Khan nowpraises the DMA. Tim Wu, competition counsel for the White House,has praised European competition policy and officials. Indeed, the neo-Brandeisians’ have not only praised the European Commission’s fines against U.S. tech platforms (despiteearly criticisms from former President Barack Obama) but have more dramatically called for the United States to imitate the European regulatory framework.
In this regulatory race to inefficiency, the standard is set in Brussels with the blessings of U.S. officials. Not even the precedent set by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) fully captures the effects the DMA will have. Privacy laws passed by U.S. states’ privacy have mostly reacted to the reality of the GDPR. With AICOA, Congress is proactively anticipating, emulating, and welcoming the DMA before it has even been adopted. The intellectual and policy shift is historical, and so is the policy error.
AICOA and the Boulevard of Broken Dreams
AICOA is a failure similar to the Robinson-Patman Act and a victory for the Brussels effect and the DMA. Consumers will be the collateral damages, and the unseen effects on innovation will take years before they materialize. Calls for amendments and repeals of AICOA are likely to fail, so that the inevitable costs will forever bear upon consumers and innovation dynamics.
AICOA illustrates the neo-Brandeisian opposition to large innovative companies. Joseph Schumpeter warned against such hostility and its effect on disincentivizing entrepreneurs to innovate when he wrote:
Faced by the increasing hostility of the environment and by the legislative, administrative, and judicial practice born of that hostility, entrepreneurs and capitalists—in fact the whole stratum that accepts the bourgeois scheme of life—will eventually cease to function. Their standard aims are rapidly becoming unattainable, their efforts futile.
President William Howard Taft once said, “the world is not going to be saved by legislation.” AICOA will not save antitrust, nor will consumers. To paraphrase Schumpeter, the bill’s drafters “walked into our future as we walked into the war, blindfolded.” AICOA’s intentions to deliver greater competition, a fairer marketplace, greater consumer choice, and more consumer benefits will ultimately scatter across the boulevard of broken dreams.
The Baron de Montesquieu once wrote that legislators should only change laws with a “trembling hand”:
It is sometimes necessary to change certain laws. But the case is rare, and when it happens, they should be touched only with a trembling hand: such solemnities should be observed, and such precautions are taken that the people will naturally conclude that the laws are indeed sacred since it takes so many formalities to abrogate them.
AICOA’s drafters had a clumsy hand, coupled with what Friedrich Hayek would call “a pretense of knowledge.” They were certain to do social good and incapable of thinking of doing social harm. The future will remember AICOA as the new antitrust’s least glorious hour, where consumers and innovation were sacrificed on the altar of a revitalized populist view of antitrust.
[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]
May 2007, Palo Alto
The California sun shone warmly on Eric Schmidt’s face as he stepped out of his car and made his way to have dinner at Madera, a chic Palo Alto restaurant.
Dining out was a welcome distraction from the endless succession of strategy meetings with the nitpickers of the law department, which had been Schmidt’s bread and butter for the last few months. The lawyers seemed to take issue with any new project that Google’s engineers came up with. “How would rivals compete with our maps?”; “Our placement should be no less favorable than rivals’’; etc. The objections were endless.
This is not how things were supposed to be. When Schmidt became Google’s chief executive officer in 2001, his mission was to take the company public and grow the firm into markets other than search. But then something unexpected happened. After campaigning on an anti-monopoly platform, a freshman senator from Minnesota managed to get her anti-discrimination bill through Congress in just her first few months in office. All companies with a market cap of more than $150 billion were now prohibited from favoring their own products. Google had recently crossed that Rubicon, putting a stop to years of carefree expansion into new markets.
But today was different. The waiter led Schmidt to his table overlooking Silicon Valley. His acquaintance was already seated.
With his tall and slender figure, Andy Rubin had garnered quite a reputation among Silicon Valley’s elite. After engineering stints at Apple and Motorola, developing various handheld devices, Rubin had set up his own shop. The idea was bold: develop the first open mobile platform—based on Linux, nonetheless. Rubin had pitched the project to Google in 2005 but given the regulatory uncertainty over the future of antitrust—the same wave of populist sentiment that would carry Klobuchar to office one year later—Schmidt and his team had passed.
“There’s no money in open source,” the company’s CFO ruled. Schmidt had initially objected, but with more pressing matters to deal with, he ultimately followed his CFO’s advice.
Schmidt and Rubin were exchanging pleasantries about Microsoft and Java when the meals arrived–sublime Wagyu short ribs and charred spring onions paired with a 1986 Chateau Margaux.
Rubin finally cut to the chase. “Our mobile operating system will rely on state-of-the-art touchscreen technology. Just like the device being developed by Apple. Buying Android today might be your only way to avoid paying monopoly prices to access Apple’s mobile users tomorrow.”
Schmidt knew this all too well: The future was mobile, and few companies were taking Apple’s upcoming iPhone seriously enough. Even better, as a firm, Android was treading water. Like many other startups, it had excellent software but no business model. And with the Klobuchar bill putting the brakes on startup investment—monetizing an ecosystem had become a delicate legal proposition, deterring established firms from acquiring startups–Schmidt was in the middle of a buyer’s market. “Android we could make us a force to reckon with” Schmidt thought to himself.
But he quickly shook that thought, remembering the words of his CFO: “There is no money in open source.” In an ideal world, Google would have used Android to promote its search engine—placing a search bar on Android users to draw users to its search engine—or maybe it could have tied a proprietary app store to the operating system, thus earning money from in-app purchases. But with the Klobuchar bill, these were no longer options. Not without endless haggling with Google’s planning committee of lawyers.
And they would have a point, of course. Google risked heavy fines and court-issued injunctions that would stop the project in its tracks. Such risks were not to be taken lightly. Schmidt needed a plan to make the Android platform profitable while accommodating Google’s rivals, but he had none.
The desserts were served, Schmidt steered the conversation to other topics, and the sun slowly set over Sand Hill Road.
Present Day, Cupertino
Apple continues to dominate the smartphone industry with little signs of significant competition on the horizon. While there are continuing rumors that Google, Facebook, or even TikTok might enter the market, these have so far failed to transpire.
Google’s failed partnership with Samsung, back in 2012, still looms large over the industry. After lengthy talks to create an open mobile platform failed to materialize, Google ultimately entered into an agreement with the longstanding mobile manufacturer. Unfortunately, the deal was mired by antitrust issues and clashing visions—Samsung was believed to favor a closed ecosystem, rather than the open platform envisioned by Google.
The sense that Apple is running away with the market is only reinforced by recent developments. Last week, Tim Cook unveiled the company’s new iPhone 11—the first ever mobile device to come with three cameras. With an eye-watering price tag of $1,199 for the top-of-the-line Pro model, it certainly is not cheap. In his presentation, Cook assured consumers Apple had solved the security issues that have been an important bugbear for the iPhone and its ecosystem of competing app stores.
Analysts expect the new range of devices will help Apple cement the iPhone’s 50% market share. This is especially likely given the important challenges that Apple’s main rivals continue to face.
The Windows Phone’s reputation for buggy software continues to undermine its competitive position, despite its comparatively low price point. Andy Rubin, the head of the Windows Phone, was reassuring in a press interview, but there is little tangible evidence he will manage to successfully rescue the flailing ship. Meanwhile, Huawei has come under increased scrutiny for the threats it may pose to U.S. national security. The Chinese manufacturer may face a U.S. sales ban, unless the company’s smartphone branch is sold to a U.S. buyer. Oracle is said to be a likely candidate.
The sorry state of mobile competition has become an increasingly prominent policy issue. President Klobuchar took to Twitter and called on mobile-device companies to refrain from acting as monopolists, intimating elsewhere that failure to do so might warrant tougher regulation than her anti-discrimination bill:
[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]
When I was a kid, I trailed behind my mother in the grocery store with a notepad and a pencil adding up the cost of each item she added to our cart. This was partly my mother’s attempt to keep my math skills sharp, but it was also a necessity. As a low-income family, there was no slack in the budget for superfluous spending. The Hostess cupcakes I longed for were a luxury item that only appeared in our cart if there was an unexpected windfall. If the antitrust populists who castigate all forms of market power succeed in their crusade to radically deconcentrate the economy, life will be much harder for low-income families like the one I grew up in.
Antitrust populists like Biden White House officialTim Wu and authorMatt Stoller decry the political influence of large firms. But instead of advocating for policies that tackle this political influence directly, they seek reforms to antitrust enforcement that aim to limit the economic advantages of these firms, believing that will translate into political enfeeblement. The economic advantages arising from scale benefit consumers, particularly low-income consumers, often at the expense of smaller economic rivals. But because the protection of small businesses is so paramount to their worldview, antitrust populists blithely ignore the harm that advancing their objectives would cause to low-income families.
This desire to protect small businesses, without acknowledging the economic consequences for low-income families, is plainly obvious in calls for reinvigorated Robinson-Patman Act enforcement (a law from the 1930s for which independent businesses advocated to limit the rise of chain stores) and in plans to revise the antitrust enforcement agencies’ merger guidelines. The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently held a series of listening sessions to demonstrate the need for new guidelines. During the listening session on food and agriculture, independent grocer Anthony Pena described the difficulty he has competing with larger competitors like Walmart. He stated that:
Just months ago, I was buying a 59-ounce orange juice just north of $4 a unit, where we couldn’t get the supplier to sell it to us … Meanwhile, I go to the bigger box like a Walmart or a club store. Not only do they have it fully stocked, but they have it about half the price that I would buy it for at cost.
Half the price. Anthony Pena is complaining that competitors such as Walmart are selling the same product at half the price. To protect independent grocers like Anthony Pena, antitrust populists would have consumers, including low-income families, pay twice as much for groceries.
Walmart is an important food retailer for low-income families.Nearly a fifth of all spending through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program formerly known as food stamps, takes place at Walmart. After housing and transportation, food is the largest expense for low-income families. The share of expenditures going toward food for low-income families (i.e., families in the lowest 20% of the income distribution) is34% higher than for high-income families (i.e., families in the highest 20% of the income distribution). This means that higher grocery prices disproportionately burden low-income families.
In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched theSNAP Online Purchasing Pilot, which allows SNAP recipients to use their benefits at online food retailers. The pandemic led to an explosion in the number ofSNAP recipients using their benefits online—increasing from just 35,000 households in March 2020 to nearly 770,000 households just three months later. While the pilot originally only included Walmart and Amazon, thenumber of eligible retailers has expanded rapidly. In order to make grocery delivery more accessible to low-income families, an important service during the pandemic, Amazon reduced itsPrime membership fee (which helps pay for free delivery) by 50% for SNAP recipients.
The antitrust populists are not only targeting the advantages of large brick-and-mortar retailers, such as Walmart, but also of large online retailers like Amazon. Again, these advantages largely flow to consumers—particularly low-income ones.
The proposedAmerican Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), which was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in February and may make an appearance on the Senate floor this summer, threatens those consumer benefits. AICOA would prohibit so-called “self-preferencing” by Amazon and other large technology platforms.
Should a ban on self-preferencing come to fruition, Amazon would not be able to prominently show its own products in any capacity—even when its products are a good match for a consumer’s search. In search results, Amazon will not be able to promote its private-label products, including Amazon Basics and 365 by Whole Foods, or products for which it is a first-party seller (i.e., a reseller of another company’s product). Amazon may also have to downgrade the ranking of popular products it sells, making them harder for consumers to find. Forcing Amazon to present offers that do not correspond to products consumers want to buy or are not a good value inflicts harm on all consumers but is particularly problematic for low-income consumers. All else equal, most consumers, especially low-income ones, obviously prefer cheaper products. It is important not to take that choice away from them.
Consider the case of orange juice, the product causing so much consternation for Mr. Pena. In a recent search on Amazon for a 59-ounce orange juice, as seen in the image below, the first four “organic” search results are SNAP-eligible, first-party, or private-label products sold by Amazon and ranging in price from $3.55 to $3.79. The next two results are from third-party sellers offering two 59-ounce bottles of orange juice at $38.99 and $84.54—more than five times the unit price offered by Amazon. By prohibiting self-preferencing, Amazon would be forced to promote products to consumers that are significantly more expensive and that are not SNAP-eligible. This increases costs directly for consumers who purchase more expensive products when cheaper alternatives are available but not presented. But it also increases costs indirectly by forcing consumers to search longer for better prices and SNAP-eligible products or by discouraging them from considering timesaving, online shopping altogether. Low-income families are least able to afford these increased costs.
The upshot is that antitrust populists are choosing to support (often well-off) small-business owners at the expense of vulnerable working people. Congress should not allow them to put the squeeze on low-income families. These families are already suffering due to record-high inflation—particularly for items that constitute the largest share of their expenditures, such as transportation and food. Proposed antitrust reforms such as AICOA and reinvigorated Robinson-Patman Act enforcement will only make it harder for low-income families to make ends meet.
[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]
Jouko Hiltunen gazed out the window into the midday twilight. Eight stories down, across the plaza and promenade, the Helsinki harbor was already blanketed under a dusting of snow. By Christmas, the ice would be thick enough for walking out to the castle at Suomenlinna.
Jouko turned back to his computer screen. His fingers found the keys. At once, lines of code began spilling from the keyboard.
The desk phone rang. Sanna, who occupied the adjacent cubicle, arched her eyebrows. “Legal again?”
Jouko nodded. Without answering the phone, he got up and walked down three flights of stairs. The usual group was assembled in Partanen’s office: the woman in the dour gray suit who looked like an osprey, the fat man from Brussels who made them speak in English, and Partanen, the general counsel.
By habit, Jouko entered and stood behind a chair. Partanen nodded curtly. “We have an issue, Hiltunen. Again.”
“We’ve been watching how you’re coding the new walking tour search vertical. It seems that you are designing it to give preference to restaurants, cafès, and hotels that have been highly rated by the Tourism Board.”
“Yes, that’s right. Restaurants, cafès, and hotels that have been rated by the Tourism Board are cleaner, safer, and more convenient. That’s why they have been rated.”
“But you are forgetting that the Tourism Board is one of our investors. This will be considered self-preferencing.”
“But . . .”
“Listen, Hiltunen. We aren’t here to argue about this. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t be considered self-preferencing, but our company won’t take that risk. Do you understand?”
“Then let me explain it . . .”
But Jouko had already left. When he returned to his desk, Sanna was watching him. “Everything OK?” she asked.
Jouko shrugged. He started typing again, but more slowly than before. An hour later, the phone rang again. This time, Sanna only raised an eyebrow. Jouko gave half a nod and ambled downstairs.
“You are making it worse,” said Partanen. The osprey woman scowled and raked her fingernails across the desk.
“How am I making it worse? I did what you said and eliminated search results defaulting to rated establishments.”
“Yes, but you added a toggle for users to be shown only rated establishments.”
“Only if they decide to be shown only rated establishments. I’m giving them a choice.”
“Choice? What does choice have to do with it? Everyone who uses our search engine is choosing—” Partanen made rabbit ears in the air – “but we have a responsibility not to impede competition. If you give them a suggestive choice” – again, rabbit ears – “that will be considered self-preferencing?”
“Well, maybe it will and maybe it won’t, but the company won’t take the risk.”
When Jouko returned to his desk, Sanna averted her eyes. As he sat motionless behind his keyboard, hands folded in his lap, she occasionally shot him concerned glances.
The darkness outside was nearly complete when the phone rang again. Jouko let it go to voicemail and waited a long time before rising and walking wearily downstairs.
“What now? I haven’t done anything.”
“We’ve been talking and have a new idea. It would be better if you blocked from the search results any restaurants or hotels that have been rated by the Board of Tourism. That way, there is no chance that we will be accused of self-preferencing.”
“Or that people will end up in a safe, clean, or convenient restaurant.”
“That’s not your problem, is it?”
Jouko returned to his cubicle. He did not sit down at his desk, but started putting on his coat.
“Where are you going?” asked Sanna.
“I’m going to walk out towards Suomenlinna.”
Sanna’s voice rose in alarm: “But the ice has barely formed. It won’t hold you.”
Jouko shrugged. “Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. I’ll take the risk.”
We will learn more in the coming weeks about the fate of the proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), legislation sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that would, among other things, prohibit “self-preferencing” by large digital platforms like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. But while the bill has already been subject to significant scrutiny, a crucially important topic has been absent from that debate: the measure’s likely effect on startup acquisitions.
Of course, AICOA doesn’t directly restrict startup acquisitions, but the activities it would restrict most certainly do dramatically affect the incentives that drive many startup acquisitions. If a platform is prohibited from engaging in cross-platform integration of acquired technologies, or if it can’t monetize its purchase by prioritizing its own technology, it may lose the motivation to make a purchase in the first place.
This would be a significant loss. As Dirk Auer, Sam Bowman, and I discuss in a recent article in the Missouri Law Review, acquisitions are arguably the most important component in providing vitality to the overall venture ecosystem:
Startups generally have two methods for achieving liquidity for their shareholders: IPOs or acquisitions. According to the latest data from Orrick and Crunchbase, between 2010 and 2018 there were 21,844 acquisitions of tech startups for a total deal value of $1.193 trillion. By comparison, according to data compiled by Jay R. Ritter, a professor at the University of Florida, there were 331 tech IPOs for a total market capitalization of $649.6 billion over the same period. As venture capitalist Scott Kupor said in his testimony during the FTC’s hearings on “Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century,” “these large players play a significant role as acquirers of venture-backed startup companies, which is an important part of the overall health of the venture ecosystem.”
Moreover, acquisitions by large incumbents are known to provide a crucial channel for liquidity in the venture capital and startup communities: While at one time the source of the “liquidity events” required to yield sufficient returns to fuel venture capital was evenly divided between IPOs and mergers, “[t]oday that math is closer to about 80 percent M&A and about 20 percent IPOs—[with important implications for any] potential actions that [antitrust enforcers] might be considering with respect to the large platform players in this industry.” As investor and serial entrepreneur Leonard Speiser said recently, “if the DOJ starts going after tech companies for making acquisitions, venture investors will be much less likely to invest in new startups, thereby reducing competition in a far more harmful way.” (emphasis added)
Going after self-preferencing may have exactly the same harmful effect on venture investors and competition.
It’s unclear exactly how the legislation would be applied in any given context (indeed, this uncertainty is one of the most significant problems with the bill, as the ABA Antitrust Section has argued at length). But AICOA is designed, at least in part, to keep large online platforms in their own lanes—to keep them from “leveraging their dominance” to compete against more politically favored competitors in ancillary markets. Indeed, while covered platforms potentially could defend against application of the law by demonstrating that self-preferencing is necessary to “maintain or substantially enhance the core functionality” of the service, no such defense exists for non-core (whatever that means…) functionality, the enhancement of which through self-preferencing is strictly off limits under AICOA.
As I have written (and so have many, many, many, many others), this is terrible policy on its face. But it is also likely to have significant, adverse, indirect consequences for startup acquisitions, given the enormous number of such acquisitions that are outside the covered platforms’ “core functionality.”
Just take a quick look at a sample of the largest acquisitions made by Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Alphabet, for example. (These are screenshots of the first several acquisitions by size drawn from imperfect lists collected by Wikipedia, but for purposes of casual empiricism they are well-suited to give an idea of the diversity of acquisitions at issue):
Vanishingly few of these acquisitions go to the “core functionalities” of these platforms. Alphabet’s acquisitions, for example, involve (among many other things) cybersecurity; home automation; cloud computing; wearables, smart glasses, and AR hardware; GPS navigation software; communications security; satellite technology; and social gaming. Microsoft’s acquisitions include companies specializing in video games; social networking; software versioning; drawing software; cable television; cybersecurity; employee engagement; and e-commerce. The technologies and applications involved in acquisitions by Apple and Amazon are similarly varied.
Drilling down a bit, consider the companies Alphabet acquired and put to use in the service of Google Maps:
Which, if any, of these companies would Google have purchased if it knew it would be unable to prioritize Maps in its search results? Would Google have invested more than $1 billion in these companies—and likely significantly more in internal R&D to develop Maps—if it had to speculate whether it would be required (or even be able) to prove someday in the future that prioritizing Google Maps results would enhance its core functionality?
What about Xbox? As noted, AICOA’s terms aren’t perfectly clear, so I’m not certain it would apply to Xbox (is Xbox a “website, online or mobile application, operating system, digital assistant, or online service”?). Here are Microsoft’s video-gaming-related purchases:
The vast majority of these (and all of the acquisitions for which Wikipedia has purchase-price information, totaling some $80 billion of investment) involve video games, not the development of hardware or the functionality of the Xbox platform. Would Microsoft have made these investments if it knew it would be prohibited from prioritizing its own games or exclusively using data gleaned through these games to improve its platform? No one can say for certain, but, at the margin, it is absolutely certain that these self-preferencing bills would make such acquisitions less likely.
Perhaps the most obvious—and concerning—example of the problem arises in the context of Google’s Android platform. Google famously gives Android away for free, of course, and makes its operating system significantly open for bespoke use by all comers. In exchange, Google requires that implementers of the Android OS provide some modicum of favoritism to Google’s revenue-generating products, like Search. For all its uncertainty, there is no question that AICOA’s terms would prohibit this self-preferencing. Intentionally or not, it would thus prohibit the way in which Google monetizes Android and thus hopes to recoup some of the—literally—billions of dollars it has invested in the development and maintenance of Android.
Here are Google’s Android-related acquisitions:
Would Google have bought Android in the first place (to say nothing of subsequent acquisitions and its massive ongoing investment in Android) if it had been foreclosed from adopting its preferred business model to monetize its investment? In the absence of Google bidding for these companies, would they have earned as much from other potential bidders? Would they even have come into existence at all?
Of course, AICOA wouldn’t preclude Google chargingdevice makers for Android and thus raising the price of mobile devices. But that mechanism may not have been sufficient to support Google’s investment in Android, and it would certainly constrain its ability to compete. Even if rules like those proposed by AICOA didn’t undermine Google’s initial purchase of and investment in Android, it is manifestly unclear how forcing Google to adopt a business model that increases consumer prices and constrains its ability to compete head-to-head with Apple’s iOS ecosystem would benefit consumers. (This excellent series of posts—1, 2, 3, 4—by Dirk Auer on the European Commission’s misguided Android decision discusses in detail the significant costs of prohibiting self-preferencing on Android.)
There are innumerable further examples, as well. In all of these cases, it seems clear not only that an AICOA-like regime would diminish competition and reduce consumer welfare across important dimensions, but also that it would impoverish the startup ecosystem more broadly.
And that may be an even bigger problem. Even if you think, in the abstract, that it would be better for “Big Tech” not to own these startups, there is a real danger that putting that presumption into force would drive down acquisition prices, kill at least some tech-startup exits, and ultimately imperil the initial financing of tech startups. It should go without saying that this would be a troubling outcome. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that AICOA’s proponents have even considered whether the presumed benefits of the bill would be worth this immense cost.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)—cosponsors of the American Innovation Online and Choice Act, which seeks to “rein in” tech companies like Apple, Google, Meta, and Amazon—contend that “everyone acknowledges the problems posed by dominant online platforms.”
In their framing, it is simply an acknowledged fact that U.S. antitrust law has not kept pace with developments in the digital sector, allowing a handful of Big Tech firms to exploit consumers and foreclose competitors from the market. To address the issue, the senators’ bill would bar “covered platforms” from engaging in a raft of conduct, including self-preferencing, tying, and limiting interoperability with competitors’ products.
That’s what makes the open letter to Congress published late last month by the usually staid American Bar Association’s (ABA) Antitrust Law Section so eye-opening. The letter is nothing short of a searing critique of the legislation, which the section finds to be poorly written, vague, and departing from established antitrust-law principles.
The ABA, of course, has a reputation as an independent, highly professional, and heterogenous group. The antitrust section’s membership includes not only in-house corporate counsel, but lawyers from nonprofits, consulting firms, federal and state agencies, judges, and legal academics. Given this context, the comments must be read as a high-level judgment that recent legislative and regulatory efforts to “discipline” tech fall outside the legal mainstream and would come at the cost of established antitrust principles, legal precedent, transparency, sound economic analysis, and ultimately consumer welfare.
The Antitrust Section’s Comments
As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes:
The Section has long supported the evolution of antitrust law to keep pace with evolving circumstances, economic theory, and empirical evidence. Here, however, the Section is concerned that the Bill, as written, departs in some respects from accepted principles of competition law and in so doing risks causing unpredicted and unintended consequences.
Broadly speaking, the section’s criticisms fall into two interrelated categories. The first relates to deviations from antitrust orthodoxy and the principles that guide enforcement. The second is a critique of the AICOA’s overly broad language and ambiguous terminology.
Departing from established antitrust-law principles
Substantively, the overarching concern expressed by the ABA Antitrust Law Section is that AICOA departs from the traditional role of antitrust law, which is to protect the competitive process, rather than choosing to favor some competitors at the expense of others. Indeed, the section’s open letter observes that, out of the 10 categories of prohibited conduct spelled out in the legislation, only three require a “material harm to competition.”
Take, for instance, the prohibition on “discriminatory” conduct. As it stands, the bill’s language does not require a showing of harm to the competitive process. It instead appears to enshrine a freestanding prohibition of discrimination. The bill targets tying practices that are already prohibited by U.S. antitrust law, but while similarly eschewing the traditional required showings of market power and harm to the competitive process. The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for “self-preferencing” and the “unfair” treatment of competitors.
The problem, the section’s letter to Congress argues, is not only that this increases the teleological chasm between AICOA and the overarching goals and principles of antitrust law, but that it can also easily lead to harmful unintended consequences. For instance, as the ABA Antitrust Law Section previously observed in comments to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, a prohibition of pricing discrimination can limit the extent of discounting generally. Similarly, self-preferencing conduct on a platform can be welfare-enhancing, while forced interoperability—which is also contemplated by AICOA—can increase prices for consumers and dampen incentives to innovate. Furthermore, some of these blanket prohibitions are arguably at loggerheads with established antitrust doctrine, such as in, e.g., Trinko, which established that even monopolists are generally free to decide with whom they will deal.
Arguably, the reason why the Klobuchar-Grassley bill can so seamlessly exclude or redraw such a central element of antitrust law as competitive harm is because it deliberately chooses to ignore another, preceding one. Namely, the bill omits market power as a requirement for a finding of infringement or for the legislation’s equally crucial designation as a “covered platform.” It instead prescribes size metrics—number of users, market capitalization—to define which platforms are subject to intervention. Such definitions cast an overly wide net that can potentially capture consumer-facing conduct that doesn’t have the potential to harm competition at all.
It is precisely for this reason that existing antitrust laws are tethered to market power—i.e., because it long has been recognized that only companies with market power can harm competition. As John B. Kirkwood of Seattle University School of Law has written:
Market power’s pivotal role is clear…This concept is central to antitrust because it distinguishes firms that can harm competition and consumers from those that cannot.
In response to the above, the ABA Antitrust Law Section (reasonably) urges Congress explicitly to require an effects-based showing of harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for all 10 of the infringements contemplated in the AICOA. This also means disclaiming generalized prohibitions of “discrimination” and of “unfairness” and replacing blanket prohibitions (such as the one for self-preferencing) with measured case-by-case analysis.
Opaque language for opaque ideas
Another underlying issue is that the Klobuchar-Grassley bill is shot through with indeterminate language and fuzzy concepts that have no clear limiting principles. For instance, in order either to establish liability or to mount a successful defense to an alleged violation, the bill relies heavily on inherently amorphous terms such as “fairness,” “preferencing,” and “materiality,” or the “intrinsic” value of a product. But as the ABA Antitrust Law Section letter rightly observes, these concepts are not defined in the bill, nor by existing antitrust case law. As such, they inject variability and indeterminacy into how the legislation would be administered.
Moreover, it is also unclear how some incommensurable concepts will be weighed against each other. For example, how would concerns about safety and security be weighed against prohibitions on self-preferencing or requirements for interoperability? What is a “core function” and when would the law determine it has been sufficiently “enhanced” or “maintained”—requirements the law sets out to exempt certain otherwise prohibited behavior? The lack of linguistic and conceptual clarity not only explodes legal certainty, but also invites judicial second-guessing into the operation of business decisions, something against which the U.S. Supreme Court has long warned.
Finally, the bill’s choice of language and recent amendments to its terminology seem to confirm the dynamic discussed in the previous section. Most notably, the latest version of AICOA replaces earlier language invoking “harm to the competitive process” with “material harm to competition.” As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes, this “suggests a shift away from protecting the competitive process towards protecting individual competitors.” Indeed, “material harm to competition” deviates from established categories such as “undue restraint of trade” or “substantial lessening of competition,” which have a clear focus on the competitive process. As a result, it is not unreasonable to expect that the new terminology might be interpreted as meaning that the actionable standard is material harm to competitors.
In its letter, the antitrust section urges Congress not only to define more clearly the novel terminology used in the bill, but also to do so in a manner consistent with existing antitrust law. Indeed:
The Section further recommends that these definitions direct attention to analysis consistent with antitrust principles: effects-based inquiries concerned with harm to the competitive process, not merely harm to particular competitors
The AICOA is a poorly written, misguided, and rushed piece of regulation that contravenes both basic antitrust-law principles and mainstream economic insights in the pursuit of a pre-established populist political goal: punishing the success of tech companies. If left uncorrected by Congress, these mistakes could have potentially far-reaching consequences for innovation in digital markets and for consumer welfare. They could also set antitrust law on a regressive course back toward a policy of picking winners and losers.
Biden administration enforcers at the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have prioritized labor-market monopsony issues for antitrust scrutiny (see, for example, here and here). This heightened interest comes in light of claims that labor markets are highly concentrated and are rife with largely neglected competitive problems that depress workers’ income. Such concerns are reflected in a March 2022 U.S. Treasury Department report on “The State of Labor Market Competition.”
Monopsony is the “flip side” of monopoly and U.S. antitrust law clearly condemns agreements designed to undermine the “buyer side” competitive process (see, for example, this U.S. government submission to the OECD). But is a special new emphasis on labor markets warranted, given that antitrust enforcers ideally should seek to allocate their scarce resources to the most pressing (highest valued) areas of competitive concern?
A May 2022 Information Technology & Innovation (ITIF) study from ITIF Associate Director (and former FTC economist) Julie Carlson indicates that the degree of emphasis the administration’s antitrust enforcers are placing on labor issues may be misplaced. In particular, the ITIF study debunks the Treasury report’s findings of high levels of labor-market concentration and the claim that workers face a “decrease in wages [due to labor market power] at roughly 20 percent relative to the level in a fully competitive market.” Furthermore, while noting the importance of DOJ antitrust prosecutions of hard-core anticompetitive agreements among employers (wage-fixing and no-poach agreements), the ITIF report emphasizes policy reforms unrelated to antitrust as key to improving workers’ lot.
Key takeaways from the ITIF report include:
Labor markets are not highly concentrated. Local labor-market concentration has been declining for decades, with the most concentrated markets seeing the largest declines.
Labor-market power is largely due to labor-market frictions, such as worker preferences, search costs, bargaining, and occupational licensing, rather than concentration.
As a case study, changes in concentration in the labor market for nurses have little to no effect on wages, whereas nurses’ preferences over job location are estimated to lead to wage markdowns of 50%.
Firms are not profiting at the expense of workers. The decline in the labor share of national income is primarily due to rising home values, not increased labor-market concentration.
Policy reform should focus on reducing labor-market frictions and strengthening workers’ ability to collectively bargain. Policies targeting concentration are misguided and will be ineffective at improving outcomes for workers.
Introducing the evaluation of labor market effects unnecessarily complicates merger review and needlessly ties up agency resources at a time when the agencies are facing severe resource constraints.48 As discussed previously, labor markets are not highly concentrated, nor is labor market concentration a key factor driving down wages.
A proposed merger that is reportable to the agencies under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act and likely to have an anticompetitive effect in a relevant labor market is also likely to have an anticompetitive effect in a relevant product market. … Evaluating mergers for labor market effects is unnecessary and costly for both firms and the agencies. The current merger guidelines adequately address competition concerns in input markets, so any contemplated revision to the guidelines should not incorporate a “framework to analyze mergers that may lessen competition in labor markets.” [Citation to Request for Information on Merger Enforcement omitted.]
In sum, the administration’s recent pronouncements about highly anticompetitive labor markets that have resulted in severely underpaid workers—used as the basis to justify heightened antitrust emphasis on labor issues—appear to be based on false premises. As such, they are a species of government misinformation, which, if acted upon, threatens to misallocate scarce enforcement resources and thereby undermine efficient government antitrust enforcement. What’s more, an unnecessary overemphasis on labor-market antitrust questions could impose unwarranted investigative costs on companies and chill potentially efficient business transactions. (Think of a proposed merger that would reduce production costs and benefit consumers but result in a workforce reduction by the merged firm.)
Perhaps the administration will take heed of the ITIF report and rethink its plans to ramp up labor-market antitrust-enforcement initiatives. Promoting pro-market regulatory reforms that benefit both labor and consumers (for instance, excessive occupational-licensing restrictions) would be a welfare-superior and cheaper alternative to misbegotten antitrust actions.
[The tenth entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium comes from guest contributor Kacyn H. Fujii, a 2022 J.D. Candidate at the University of Michigan Law School. Kacyn’s entry comes via Truth on the Market‘s “New Voices” competition, open to untenured or aspiring academics (including students and fellows). You can find other posts at thesymposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]
On July 9, 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to “curtail the unfair use of noncompete clauses and other clauses or agreements that may unfairly limit worker mobility.” This executive order raises two questions. First, does the FTC have the authority to issue such a rule? And second, is FTC rulemaking a better solution than adjudication to solve the widespread use of noncompetes? This post contends that the FTC possesses rulemaking authority and that FTC rulemaking is a better solution than adjudication for the problem of noncompete use, especially for low-wage workers.
FTC’s Rulemaking Authority
In 1973, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC held that the Federal Trade Commission Act permitted the FTC to promulgate rules under its unfair methods of competition (UMC) authority. Specifically, it interpreted Section 6(g), which gives the FTC the authority “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions in this subchapter,” to allow rulemaking to carry out the FTC’s Section 5 authority. In his remarks at the 2020 FTC workshop on noncompetes, Richard Pierce of George Washington University School of Law argued that no court today would follow National Petroleum’s reasoning, even going so far as to call its logic “preposterous.” BYU Law’s Aaron Nielson agreed that some of National Petroleum’s reasoning was outdated but conceded that its judgment might have been correct. Meanwhile, FTC Chair Lina Khan and former FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra have spoken in favor of the FTC’s competition-rulemaking authority, both from a legal and policy perspective.
National Petroleum’s focus on text is consistent with the approaches that courts today take. The court first addressed appellees’ argument that the FTC may carry out Section 5 only through adjudication, because adjudication was the only form of implementation explicitly mentioned in Section 5. The D.C. Circuit noted that, although Section 5(b) granted the FTC adjudicative authority, nothing in the text limited the FTC only to adjudication as a means to implement Section 5’s substantive protections. It dismissed the appellee’s argument that expressio unius meant that adjudication was the only mechanism the agency had available to implement Section 5. The D.C. Circuit also rejected the district court’s interpretation of the legislative history, because it was too ambiguous to find Congress’s “specific intent.” Similar to the approach courts take today, National Petroleum gave the text primacy over legislative history, putting significant weight on the fact that the language of Sections 5 and 6(g) is broad.
It is true that, as Nielson notes, courts today would not so readily dismiss employing canons like expressio unius. But courts today would not necessarily employ expressio unius either. The language of Section 6(g) authorizing FTC use of rulemaking is clear and broad, expressly including Section 5 among the sections the FTC may implement through rulemaking, so Congress may have not thought it necessary to explicitly mention rulemaking in Section 5. Given how clear the language is, it also does not seem so farfetched that a court today would decide to not apply the expressio unius canon to imply an exception to the language. As the Court has commented in rejecting the expressio unius canon’s implications, “the force of any negative implication [from this canon] depends on context,” and can be negated by indications that an enactment was “not meant to signal any exclusion.”
Others argue that National Petroleum’s interpretation of Sections 5 and 6(g) would not hold up in light of newer interpretive moves deployed by courts. For example, former FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen and former Assistant Attorney General James Rill contend that the FTC should not have broad competition-rulemaking authority because of the “elephants-in-mouseholes” doctrine articulated in Whitman v. American Trucking. They invoke AMG Capital Management v. FTC as evidence that the Court is wary about “allow[ing] a small statutory tail to wag a very large dog.” The Court in AMG considered whether Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which expressly authorized the FTC to seek injunctive relief from the federal courts, also permitted the agency to seek monetary damages. The Court concluded that the FTC could not seek monetary damages from courts. Permitting this would allow the FTC to bypass its administrative process altogether, thus contravening Congress’ goals by failing to “produce a coherent enforcement scheme.” However, Sections 5 and 6(g) are distinguishable from the statutory provision at issue in AMG. Unlike Section 13(b), which did not explicitly grant the FTC authority to seek monetary damages, Section 6(g) does explicitly give the FTC rulemaking authority to carry out the other provisions of the Act with no limitations on this broad language. Meanwhile, there is no “coherent enforcement scheme” that would be served by limiting Section 6 only to methods to carry out Section 5’s adjudicative authority. Rulemaking authority does not detract from the FTC’s ability to adjudicate.
One could also argue that, according to the “specific over the general” canon, adjudication should be the FTC’s primary implementation method: Section 5(b), which is very specific in its description of the FTC’s adjudicative authority, should govern over Section 6(g), which discusses rulemaking only in general language. But there is no inherent conflict between the general and specific provisions here. Even if adjudication was intended as the primary implementation method, Section 5 does not explicitly preclude rulemaking as an option in its text. There may be valid functional reasons that Congress would want an agency that acts primarily through adjudication to also have substantive rulemaking authority. National Petroleum itself observed that “the evolution of bright-line rules [through adjudication] is often a slow process” and that “legislative-type” rulemaking procedures allow the agency to consider “broad range of data and argument from all those potentially affected.” In addition, as Emily Bremer of Notre Dame Law School observes, Congress consistently sets more specific guidelines for adjudication to meet individual agency and program needs, resulting in “extraordinary procedural diversity” across adjudication regimes. The greater level of specificity with respect to adjudication in Section 5(b) of the FTC Act may simply reflect Congress’ perceived need to delineate adjudication regimes in further detail than it does for rulemaking.
In addition, some who are doubtful about the FTC’s rulemaking authority have cited legislative context. Specifically, Ohlhausen and Rill argue that the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act demonstrates Congress’ concern with the FTC having expansive rulemaking power. Thus, broad competition-rulemaking authority would be inconsistent with the approach Congress took in Magnuson-Moss. However, the passage of Magnuson-Moss also implies that Congress thought the FTC had existing rulemaking power that Congress could limit—thus validating National Petroleum’s overall holding that the FTC did have rulemaking authority. In addition, Congress could have also extended Magnuson-Moss’s limits on rulemakings to competition-rulemaking authority but decided to apply it only to the FTC’s consumer-protection authority. This interpretation is supported by the text as well. The Magnuson-Moss provision expressly states that its changes “shall not affect any authority of the Commission to prescribe rules (including interpretive rules), and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.” Congress specifically exempted competition rulemaking from Magnuson-Moss’s additional procedural requirements. If anything, this demonstrates that Congress did not want to interfere with the FTC’s competition authority.
The history of the FTC Act also supports that Congress would not have wanted to create an expert agency limited only to adjudicative authority. The FTC Act was passed during a time of unprecedented business growth, in spite of the passage of the Sherman Act in 1890. More specifically, Congress enacted the FTC Act in response to Standard Oil. Standard Oil established rule-of-reason analysis that some decried as a judicial “power grab.” Even though members of Congress disagreed about the proper scope of the FTC’s authority, all of the proposed plans for the FTC reflected Congress’ deep objections to the existing common law approach to antitrust enforcement. Congress was concerned that the existing approach was “yielding a body of law that was inconsistent, unpredictable, and unmoored from congressional intent.” Its solution was to create the FTC. The legislative context supports interpreting the statute to give the FTC all of the tools—including rulemaking—to respond effectively to nascent antitrust threats.
Finally, the FTC’s historical reliance on adjudication does not mean that it lacks the authority to promulgate rules. Assuming the relevance of historical practice—an assumption AMG cast doubt upon when it spurned the FTC’s longstanding interpretation of the FTC Act—there are reasons that an agency may choose adjudication over rulemaking that have nothing to do with its views of its statutory authority. The FTC’s preference for adjudication may simply have reflected the policy-focused views of its leadership. For example, James Miller, who chaired the FTC from 1981 to 1985, had “fundamental objections to marketplace regulation through rulemaking” because he thought Congress would exert too much pressure on rulemaking efforts. He attempted to thwart ongoing rulemaking efforts and instead vowed to take an “aggressive” approach to enforcement through adjudication. But this does not mean he thought the FTC lacked the authority to promulgate rules at all. Over the past several decades, the courts and federal antitrust enforcers have taken a non-interventionist or laissez-faire approach to enforcement. The FTC’s history of not relying on rulemaking may simply be indicators of the agency’s policy preferences and not its views of its authority.
In short, National Petroleum’s interpretive moves are sound and its conclusion that the FTC possesses UMC-rulemaking authority should stand the test of time.
Benefits of FTC Rulemaking for Curbing Non-Compete Use
President Biden’s executive order also raised the question of whether FTC rulemaking is the right tool to address the problem of liberal noncompete use. This post argues that FTC rulemaking would have tangible benefits over adjudication, especially for noncompetes that bind low-wage workers.
The Problem with Noncompetes
Noncompete clauses, which restrict where an employee may work after they leave their employer, have been used widely even in contexts divorced from the justifications for noncompetes. Typical justifications for noncompetes include protecting trade secrets and goodwill, increasing employers’ incentives to invest in training, and improving employers’ leverage in negotiations with employees. Despite these justifications, noncompetes are used for workers who have no access to trade secrets or customer lists. According to a survey conducted in 2014, 13.3% of workers that made $40,000 per-year or less were subject to a noncompete, and 33% of those workers reported being subject to a noncompete at some point in the past. Noncompete use reduces worker mobility, even for those workers not themselves bound by noncompetes. It also results in lower wages for those bound by noncompetes. Interestingly, these effects on worker mobility and wages are present even in states where noncompetes are unenforceable.
Although noncompetes are typically governed on the state level, the magnitude of noncompete use could pose an antitrust problem. Noncompetes help employers maintain “high levels of market concentration,” which “reduce[s] competition rather than spur[ring] innovation.” However, it can be very difficult for private parties and state enforcers to challenge noncompete use under antitrust law. One employer’s use of noncompetes is unlikely to have an appreciable difference on the labor market. The harm to labor markets is only detectable in aggregate, making it virtually impossible to succeed on an antitrust challenge against an employer’s use of noncompetes. Indeed, University of Chicago Law’s Eric Posner has observed that, as of 2020, there were “a grand total of zero cases in which an employee noncompete was successfully challenged under the antitrust laws.” According to Posner, courts either claim that noncompetes involve “de minimis” effects on competition or do not create “public” injuries for antitrust law to address.
And while there have been a handful of settlements between state attorneys general and companies that use noncompetes—like the settlement between then-New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood and WeWork in 2018—these settlements capture only the most egregious uses of noncompetes. There are likely many other companies who use noncompetes in anticompetitive ways, but they do not operate at such scale as to warrant an investigation. State attorneys general have resource constraints that limit them to challenge only the most harmful restraints on workers. Even if these cases went to trial, instead of settling, their precedential effect would thus set only the upper bound for what is an anticompetitive use of noncompete agreements.
Further, the FTC’s current approach of relying on adjudication is unlikely to be effective in curbing widespread noncompete use. Scholars have critiqued the FTC’s historical reliance on adjudication, saying that it has failed to generate “any meaningful guidance as to what constitutes an unfair method of competition.” Part of this is because antitrust law largely relies on rule-of-reason analysis, which involves a “broad and open-ended inquiry” into the competitive effects of particular conduct. Given the highly fact-specific nature of rule-of-reason analysis, the holding of one case can be difficult to extend to another and thus leads to problems in administrability and efficiency. Even judges “have criticized antitrust standards for being highly difficult to administer.” Reliance on the rule of reason also leads to a lack of predictability, which means that market participants and the public have less notice about what the law is.
In addition, private parties cannot litigate UMC claims under Section 5 of the FTC Act; the agency itself must determine what counts as an unfair method of competition. Perhaps because of resource constraints, the FTC has only brought a “modest number” of cases that “provide an insufficient basis from which to attempt to generate substantive rules defining the Commission’s Section 5 authority.”
Benefits of Rulemaking
FTC rulemaking under its UMC authority would avoid many of the problems of a case-by-case approach. First, rulemaking would provide clarity and efficiency. For example, a rule could declare it illegal for employers to use noncompetes for employees making under the median national income. Such a rule clearly articulates the FTC’s policy and is easy to apply. This demonstrates how rulemaking can be more efficient than adjudication. In order to implement a similar policy through adjudication, the FTC may have to bring many cases covering various industries and defendants that employ low-wage workers, given the nature of rule-of-reason analysis.
A uniform approach through rulemaking means that more workers will be on notice of the FTC’s policy. Worker education is an important factor in solving the problem. Even in states where noncompetes are not enforceable, employers still use and threaten to enforce noncompetes, which reduces worker mobility. A clear policy articulated by the FTC may help workers to understand their rights, perhaps because a national rule will get more media attention than individual adjudications.
Although it may be true that rulemaking is, in general, less adaptable than adjudication, there may be a category of cases where our understanding is unlikely to change over time. For example, agreements to fix prices are so clearly anticompetitive that they are per se illegal under the antitrust laws. Our understanding of the anticompetitive nature of price fixing is highly unlikely to change over time.
Noncompetes for low-wage workers should be in this category of cases. This use of noncompetes is divorced from traditional justifications for noncompetes. The nature of the work for low-wage workers—say, for janitors or cashiers—is unlikely to ever require significant employer resources for training or disclosure of customer lists or trade secrets. Given the negative effects that noncompetes can have on mobility and wages, even in states where they are not enforceable, they clearly do more harm than good to the labor market. It is difficult to imagine that market conditions or economic understanding would change this.
Further, even though rulemaking can take time, the FTC’s adjudicative process is not necessarily much better. In 2015, adjudications through the FTC’s administrative process typically took two years. Former FTC Commissioner Philip Elman once observed that case-by-case adjudication “may simply be too slow and cumbersome to produce specific and clear standards adequate to the needs of businessmen, the private bar, and the government agencies.” Even if rulemaking takes longer, it may still be more efficient because of a rule’s ability to apply across the board to different industries and types of workers. It may also be more efficient because it is better able to capture all of the relevant considerations through the notice-and-comment process.
It is true that some states already have a bright-line rule against noncompetes by making noncompetes unenforceable. Even so, there is value in establishing a bright-line rule through rulemaking at a federal level: this provides greater uniformity across states. In addition, rulemaking could have some value if it is used to establish notice requirements—for example, the FTC could promulgate a rule requiring employers to notify employees of the relevant noncompete laws. Notice requirements are one example where case-by-case adjudication would be especially ineffective.
In certain contexts, rulemaking is a better alternative to adjudication. Noncompete use for low-wage workers is one such example. Rulemaking provides more uniformity, notice, and opportunity to participate for low-wage workers than adjudication does. And given that both state noncompete law and federal antitrust law require such fact-specific inquiries, rulemaking is also more efficient than adjudication. Thus, the FTC should use its competition-rulemaking authority to ban noncompete use for low-wage workers instead of relying only on adjudication.
The following post was authored by counsel with White & Case LLP, who represented the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) in an amicus brief filed on behalf of itself and 12 distinguished law & economics scholars with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in support of affirming U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg’s dismissal of various States Attorneys General’s antitrust case brought against Facebook (now, Meta Platforms).
The States brought an antitrust complaint against Facebook alleging that various conduct violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act. The ICLE brief addresses the States’ allegations that Facebook refused to provide access to an input, a set of application-programming interfaces that developers use in order to access Facebook’s network of social-media users (Facebook’s Platform), in order to prevent those third parties from using that access to export Facebook data to competitors or to compete directly with Facebook.
Judge Boasberg dismissed the States’ case without leave to amend, relying on recent Supreme Court precedent, including TrinkoandLinkline, on refusals to deal. The Supreme Court strongly disfavors forced sharing, as shown by its decisions that recognize very few exceptions to the ability of firms to deal with whom they choose. Most notably, Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing is a 1985 decision recognizing an exception to the general rule that firms may deal with whom they want that was limited, though not expressly overturned, by Trinko in 2004. The States appealed to the D.C. Circuit on several grounds, including by relying on Aspen Skiing, and advocating for a broader view of refusals to deal than dictated by current jurisprudence.
ICLE’s brief addresses whether the District Court was correct to dismiss the States’ allegations that Facebook’s Platform policies violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act in light of the voluminous body of precedent and scholarship concerning refusals to deal. ICLE’s brief argues that Judge Boasberg’s opinion is consistent with economic and legal principles, allowing firms to choose with whom they deal. Furthermore, the States’ allegations did not make out a claim under Aspen Skiing, which sets forth extremely narrow circumstances that may constitute an improper refusal to deal. Finally, ICLE takes issue with the States’ attempt to create an amorphous legal standard for refusals to deal or otherwise shoehorn their allegations into a “conditional dealing” framework.
Economic Actors Should Be Able to Choose Their Business Partners
ICLE’s basic premise is that firms in a free-market system should be able to choose their business partners. Forcing firms to enter into certain business relationships can have the effect of stifling innovation, because the firm getting the benefit of the forced dealing then lacks incentive to create their own inputs. On the other side of the forced dealing, the owner would have reduced incentives to continue to innovate, invest, or create intellectual property. Forced dealing, therefore, has an adverse effect on the fundamental nature of competition. As the Supreme Court stated in Trinko, this compelled sharing creates “tension with the underlying purpose of antitrust law, since it may lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in those economically beneficial facilities.”
Courts Are Ill-Equipped to Regulate the Kind of Forced Sharing Advocated by the States
ICLE also notes the inherent difficulties of a court’s assessing forced access and the substantial risk of error that could create harm to competition. This risk, ICLE notes, is not merely theoretical and would require the court to scrutinize intricate details of a dynamic industry and determine which decisions are lawful or not. Take the facts of New York v. Facebook: more than 10 million apps and websites had access to Platform during the relevant period and the States took issue with only seven instances where Facebook had allegedly improperly prevented access to Platform. Assessing whether conduct would create efficiency in one circumstance versus another is challenging at best and always risky. As Frank Easterbook wrote: “Anyone who thinks that judges would be good at detecting the few situations in which cooperation would do more good than harm has not studied the history of antitrust.”
Even assuming a court has rightly identified a potentially anticompetitive refusal to deal, it would then be put to the task of remedying it. But imposing a remedy, and in effect assuming the role of a regulator, is similarly complicated. This is particularly true in dynamic, quickly evolving industries, such as social media. This concern is highlighted by the broad injunction the States seek in this case: to “enjoin and restrain [Facebook] from continuing to engage in any anticompetitive conduct and from adopting in the future any practice, plan, program, or device having a similar purpose or effect to the anticompetitive actions set forth above.” Such a remedy would impose conditions on Facebook’s dealings with competitors for years to come—regardless of how the industry evolves.
Courts Should Not Expand Refusal-to-Deal Analysis Beyond the Narrow Circumstances of Aspen Skiing
In light of the principles above, the Supreme Court, as stated in Trinko, “ha[s] been very cautious in recognizing [refusal-to-deal] exceptions, because of the uncertain virtue of forced sharing and the difficulty of identifying and remedying anticompetitive conduct by a single firm.” Various scholars (e.g., Carlton, Meese, Lopatka, Epstein) have analyzed Aspen Skiing consistently with Trinko as, at most, “at or near the boundary of § 2 liability.”
So is a refusal-to-deal claim ever viable? ICLE argues that refusal-to-deal claims have been rare (rightly so) and, at most, should only go forward under the delineated circumstances in Aspen Skiing. ICLE sets forth the 10th U.S. Circuit’s framework in Novell, which makes clear that “the monopolist’s conduct must be irrational but for its anticompetitive effect.”
First, “there must be a preexisting voluntary and presumably profitable course of dealing between the monopolist and rival.”
Second, “the monopolist’s discontinuation of the preexisting course of dealing must suggest a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve an anti-competitive end.”
Finally, even if these two factors are present, the court recognized that “firms routinely sacrifice short-term profits for lots of legitimate reasons that enhance consumer welfare.”
The States seek to broaden Aspen Skiing in order to sinisterize Facebook’s Platform policies, but the facts do not fit. The States do not plead an about-face with respect to Facebook’s Platform policies; the States do not allege that Facebook’s changes to its policies were irrational (particularly in light of the dynamic industry in which Facebook operates); and the States do not allege that Facebook engaged in less efficient behavior with the goal of hurting rivals. Indeed, Facebook changed its policies to retain users—which is essential to its business model (and therefore, rational).
The States try to evade these requirements by arguing for a looser refusal-to-deal standard (and by trying to shoehorn the conduct as “conditional dealing”)—but as ICLE explains, allowing such a claim to go forward would fly in the face of the economic and policy goals upheld by the current jurisprudence.
The District Court was correct to dismiss the States’ allegations concerning Facebook’s Platform policies. Allowing a claim against Facebook to progress under the circumstances alleged in the States’ complaint would violate the principle that a firm, even one that is a monopolist, should not be held liable for refusing to deal with a certain business partner. The District Court’s decision is in line with key economic principles concerning refusals to deal and consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision in Aspen Skiing. Aspen Skiing is properly read to severely limit the circumstances giving rise to a refusal-to-deal claim, or else risk adverse effects such as reduced incentive to innovate.
Amici Scholars Signing on to the Brief
(The ICLE brief presents the views of the individual signers listed below. Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.)
Henry Butler Henry G. Manne Chair in Law and Economics and Executive Director of the Law & Economics Center, Scalia Law School
Daniel Lyons Professor of Law, Boston College Law School
Richard A. Epstein Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at NY School of Law, the Peter and Kirsten Bedford Senior Lecturer at the Hoover Institution, and the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus
Geoffrey A. Manne President and Founder, International Center for Law & Economics, Distinguished Fellow Northwestern University Center on Law, Business & Economics
Thomas Hazlett H.H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics and Director of the Information Economy Project, Clemson University
Alan J. Meese Ball Professor of Law, Co-Director, Center for the Study of Law and Markets, William & Mary Law School
Justin (Gus) Hurwitz Professor of Law and Menard Director of the Nebraska Governance and Technology Center, University of Nebraska College of Law
Paul H. Rubin Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics Emeritus, Emory University
Jonathan Klick Charles A. Heimbold, Jr. Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law; Erasmus Chair of Empirical Legal Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam
Michael Sykuta Associate Professor of Economics and Executive Director of Financial Research Institute, University of Missouri Division of Applied Social Sciences
Thomas A. Lambert Wall Chair in Corporate Law and Governance, University of Missouri Law School
John Yun Associate Professor of Law and Deputy Executive Director of the Global Antitrust Institute, Scalia Law School
The International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) filed an amicus brief on behalf of itself and 26 distinguished law & economics scholars with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the hotly anticipated and intensely important Epic Games v Apple case.
A fantastic group of attorneys from White & Case generously assisted us with the writing and filing of the brief, including George Paul, Jack Pace, Gina Chiapetta, and Nicholas McGuire. The scholars who signed the brief are listed at the end of this post. A summary of the brief’s arguments follows. For some of our previous writings on the case, see here, here, here, and here.
In Epic Games v. Apple, Epic challenged Apple’s prohibition of third-party app stores and in-app payments (IAP) systems from operating on its proprietary iOS platform as a violation of antitrust law. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled against Epic, finding that Epic’s real concern is its own business interests in the face of Apple’s business model—in particular, the commission Apple charges for use of its IAP system—rather than harm to consumers and to competition more broadly.
Epic appealed to the 9th Circuit on several grounds. Our brief primarily addresses two of Epic’s arguments:
First, Epic takes issue with the district court’s proper finding that Apple’s procompetitive justifications outweigh the anticompetitive effects of Apple’s business model. But Epic’s case fails at step one of the rule-of-reason analysis, as it didn’t demonstrate that Apple’s app distribution and IAP practices caused the significant, market-wide, anticompetitive effects that the Supreme Court, in 2018’sOhio v. American Express (“Amex”), deemed necessary to show anticompetitive harm in cases involving two-sided transaction markets (like Apple’s App Store).
Second, Epic argues that the theoretical existence of less restrictive alternatives (“LRA”) to Apple’s business model is sufficient to meet its burden under the rule of reason. But the reliance on LRA in this case is misplaced. Forcing Apple to adopt the “open” platform that Epic champions would reduce interbrand competition and improperly permit antitrust plaintiffs to commandeer the judiciary to modify routine business conduct any time a plaintiff’s attorney or district court can imagine a less restrictive version of a challenged practice—irrespective of whether the practice promotes consumer welfare. This is especially true in the context of two-sided platform businesses, where such an approach would sacrifice interbrand, systems-level competition for the sake of a superficial increase in competition among a small subset of platform users.
Competitive Effects in Two-Sided Markets
Two-sided markets connect distinct sets of users whose demands for the platform are interdependent—i.e., consumers’ demand for a platform increases as more products are available, and conversely, product developers’ demand for a platform increases as additional consumers use the platform, increasing the overall potential for transactions. As a result of these complex dynamics, conduct that may appear anticompetitive when considering the effects on only one set of customers may be entirely consistent with—and actually promote—healthy competition when examining the effects on both sides.
That’s why the Supreme Court recognized in Amex that it was improper to focus on only one side of a two-sided platform. And this holding doesn’t require adherence to the Court’s contentious finding of a two-sided relevant market in Amex. Indeed, even scholars highly critical of the Amex decision recognize the importance of considering effects on both sides of a two-sided platform.
While the district court did find that Epic demonstrated some anticompetitive effects, Epic’s evidence focused only on the effects that Apple’s conduct had on certain app developers; it failed to appropriately examine whether consumers were harmed overall. As Geoffrey Manne has observed, in two-sided markets, “some harm” is not the same thing as “competitively relevant harm.” Supracompetitive prices on one side do not tell us much about the existence or exercise of (harmful) market power in two-sided markets. As the Supreme Court held in Amex:
The fact that two-sided platforms charge one side a price that is below or above cost reflects differences in the two sides’ demand elasticity, not market power or anticompetitive pricing. Price increases on one side of the platform likewise do not suggest anticompetitive effects without some evidence that they have increased the overall cost of the platform’s services.
Without further evidence of the effect of Apple’s practices on consumers, no conclusions can be drawn about the competitive effects of Apple’s conduct.
Nor can an appropriate examination of anticompetitive effects ignore output. The ability to restrict output, after all, is what allows a monopolist to increase prices. Whereas price effects alone might appear predatory on one side of the market and supra-competitive on the other, output reflects what is happening in the market as a whole. It is therefore the most appropriate measure for antitrust law generally, and it is especially useful in two-sided markets, where asymmetrical price changes are of little use in determining anticompetitive effects.
Ultimately, the question before the court must be whether Apple’s overall pricing structure and business model reduces output, either by deterring app developers from participating in the market or by deterring users from purchasing apps (or iOS devices) as a consequence of the app-developer commission. The district court here noted that it could not ascertain whether Apple’s alleged restrictions had a “positive or negative impact on game transaction volume.”
Thus, Epic’s case fails at step one of the rule of reason analysis because it simply hasn’t demonstrated the requisite harm to competition.
Less Restrictive Alternatives and the Rule of Reason
But even if that weren’t the case, Epic’s claims also don’t make it past step three of the rule of reason analysis.
Epic’s appeal relies on theoretical “less restrictive alternatives” (LRA) to Apple’s business model, which highlights longstanding questions about the role and limits of LRA analysis under the rule of reason.
According to Epic, because the district court identified some anticompetitive effects on one side of the market, and because alternative business models could, in theory, be implemented to achieve the same procompetitive benefits as Apple’s current business model, the court should have ruled in Epic’s favor at step three.
There are several problems with this.
First, the existence of an LRA is irrelevant if anticompetitive harm has not been established, of course (as is the case here).
Nor does the fact that some hypothetically less restrictive alternative exists automatically render the conduct under consideration anticompetitive. As the Court held in Trinko, antitrust laws do not “give judges carte blanche to insist that a monopolist alter its way of doing business whenever some other approach might yield greater competition.”
While, following the Supreme Court’s recent Alston decision, LRA analysis may well be appropriate in some contexts to identify anticompetitive conduct in the face of procompetitive justifications, there is no holding (in either the 9th Circuit or the Supreme Court) requiring it in the context of two-sided markets. (Amex refers to LRA analysis as constituting step three, but because that case was resolved at step one, it must be viewed as mere dictum).And for good reason. In the context of two-sided platforms, an LRA approach would inevitably require courts to second guess the particular allocation of costs, prices, and product attributes across platform users. As Tom Nachbar writes:
Platform defendants, even if they are able to establish the general procompetitive justifications for charging above and below cost prices on the two sides of their platforms, will have to defend the precise combination of prices they have chosen [under an LRA approach] . . . . The relative difficulty of defending any particular allocation of costs will present considerable risk of destabilizing platform markets.
Moreover, LRAs—like the ones proposed by Epic—that are based on maximizing competitor effectiveness by “opening” an incumbent’s platform would convert the rule of reason into a regulatory tool that may not promote competition at all. As Alan Devlin deftly puts it:
This construction of antitrust law—that dominant companies must affirmatively support their fringe rivals’ ability to compete effectively—adopts a perspective of antitrust that is regulatory in nature. . . . [I]f one adopts the increasingly prevalent view that antitrust must facilitate unfettered access to markets, thus spurring free entry and expansion by incumbent rivals, the Sherman Act goes from being a prophylactic device aimed at protecting consumers against welfare-reducing acts to being a misplaced regulatory tool that potentially sacrifices both consumer welfare and efficiency in a misguided pursuit of more of both.
Open Platforms Are not Necessarily Less Restrictive Platforms
It is also important to note that Epic’s claimed LRAs are neither viable alternatives nor actually “less restrictive.” Epic’s proposal would essentially turn Apple’s iOS into an open platform more similar to Google’s Android, its largest market competitor.
“Open” and “closed” platforms both have distinct benefits and drawbacks; one is not inherently superior to the other. Closed proprietary platforms like Apple’s iOS create incentives for companies to internalize positive indirect network effects, which can lead to higher levels of product variety, user adoption, and total social welfare. As Andrei Hagiu has written:
A proprietary platform may in fact induce more developer entry (i.e., product variety), user adoption and higher total social welfare than an open platform.
For example, by filtering which apps can access the App Store and precluding some transactions from taking place on it, a closed or semi-closed platform like Apple’s may ultimately increase the number of apps and transactions on its platform, where doing so makes the iOS ecosystem more attractive to both consumers and developers.
Any analysis of a supposedly less restrictive alternative to Apple’s “walled garden” model thus needs to account for the tradeoffs between open and closed platforms, and not merely assume that “open” equates to “good,” and “closed” to “bad.”
Further, such analysis also must consider tradeoffs among consumers and among developers. More vigilant users might be better served by an “open” platform because they find it easier to avoid harmful content; less vigilant ones may want more active assistance in screening for malware, spyware, or software that simply isn’t optimized for the user’s device. There are similar tradeoffs on the developer side: Apple’s model lowers the cost to join the App store, which particularly benefits smaller developers and those whose apps fall outside the popular gaming sector. In a nutshell, the IAP fee cross-subsidizes the delivery of services to the approximately 80% of apps on the App Store that are free and pay no IAP fees.
In fact, the overwhelming irony of Epic’s proposed approach is that Apple could avoid condemnation if it made its overall platform more restrictive. If, for example, Apple had not adopted an App Store model and offered a completely closed and fully integrated device, there would be no question of relative costs and benefits imposed on independent app developers; there would be no independent developers on the iOS platform at all.
Thus, Epic’s proposed LRA approach, which amounts to converting iOS to an open platform, proves too much. It would enable any contractual or employment relationship for a complementary product or service to be challenged because it could be offered through a “less restrictive” open market mechanism—in other words, that any integrated firm should be converted into an open platform.
At least since the Supreme Court’s seminal 1977 Sylvania ruling, U.S. antitrust law has been unequivocal in its preference for interbrand over intrabrand competition. Paradoxically, turning a closed platform into an open one (as Epic intends) would, under the guise of protecting competition, actually destroy competition where it matters most: at the interbrand, systems level.
Forcing Apple to adopt the “open” platform that Epic champions would reduce interbrand competition among platform providers. It would also more broadly allow antitrust plaintiffs to insist the courts modify routine business conduct any time a plaintiff’s attorney or district court can imagine a less restrictive version of a challenged practice, regardless of whether that practice nevertheless promotes consumer welfare. In the context of two-sided platform businesses, this would mean sacrificing systems-level competition for the sake of a superficial increase in competition among a small subset of platform users.
The bottom line is that an order compelling Apple to allow competing app stores would require the company to change the way in which it monetizes the App Store. This might have far-reaching distributional consequences for both groups— consumers and distributors. Courts (and, obviously, competitors) are ill-suited to act as social planners and to balance out such complex tradeoffs, especially in the absence of clear anticompetitive harm and the presence of plausible procompetitive benefits.
Amici Scholars Signing on to the Brief
(The ICLE brief presents the views of the individual signers listed below. Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.)
Alden Abbott Senior Research Fellow, Mercatus Center, George Mason University Former General Counsel, U.S. Federal Trade Commission
Ben Klein Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of California Los Angeles
Thomas C. Arthur L. Q. C. Lamar Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law
Peter Klein Professor of Entrepreneurship and Corporate Innovation, Baylor University, Hankamer School of Business
Dirk Auer Director of Competition Policy, International Center for Law & Economics Adjunct Professor, University of Liège (Belgium)
Jonathan Klick Charles A. Heimbold, Jr. Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School
Jonathan M. Barnett Torrey H. Webb Professor of Law, University of Southern California, Gould School of Law
Daniel Lyons Professor of Law, Boston College Law School
Donald J. Boudreaux Professor of Economics, former Economics Department Chair, George Mason University
Geoffrey A. Manne President and Founder, International Center for Law & Economics Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business & Economics
Giuseppe Colangelo Jean Monnet Chair in European Innovation Policy and Associate Professor of Competition Law and Economics, University of Basilicata and Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali
Francisco Marcos Associate Professor of Law, IE University Law School (Spain)
Anthony Dukes Chair and Professor of Marketing, University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business
Scott E. Masten Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy, University of Michigan, Ross Business School
Richard A. Epstein Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law, New York University, School of Law James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law Emeritus, University of Chicago Law School
Alan J. Meese Ball Professor of Law, College of William & Mary Law School
Vivek Ghosal Economics Department Chair and Virginia and Lloyd W. Rittenhouse Professor of Economics, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Igor Nikolic Research Fellow, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute (Italy)
Janice Hauge Professor of Economics, University of North Texas
Paul H. Rubin Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics Emeritus, Emory University
Justin (Gus) Hurwitz Professor of Law, University of Nebraska College of Law
Vernon L. Smith George L. Argyros Endowed Chair in Finance and Economics and Professor of Economics and Law, Chapman University Nobel Laureate in Economics (2002)
Michael S. Jacobs Distinguished Research Professor of Law Emeritus, DePaul University College of Law
Michael Sykuta Associate Professor of Economics, University of Missouri
Mark A. Jamison Gerald Gunter Professor of the Public Utility Research Center, University of Florida, Warrington College of Business
Alexander “Sasha” Volokh Associate Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law
First, some background for readers who haven’t followed the case.
Epic, maker of the popular Fortnite video game, brought antitrust challenges against two policies Apple enforces against developers of third-party apps that run on iOS, the mobile operating system for Apple’s popular iPhones and iPads. One policy requires that all iOS apps be distributed through Apple’s own App Store. The other requires that any purchases of digital goods made while using an iOS app utilize Apple’s In App Purchase system (IAP). Apple collects a share of the revenue from sales made through its App Store and using IAP, so these two policies provide a way for it to monetize its innovative app platform.
Epic maintains that Apple’s app policies violate the federal antitrust laws. Following a trial, the district court disagreed, though it condemned another of Apple’s policies under California state law. Epic has appealed the antitrust rulings against it.
My fellow amici and I submitted our brief in support of Apple to draw the Ninth Circuit’s attention to a distinction that is crucial to ensuring that antitrust promotes long-term consumer welfare: the distinction between the mere extraction of surplus through the exercise of market power and the enhancement of market power via the weakening of competitive constraints.
The central claim of our brief is that Epic’s antitrust challenges to Apple’s app store policies should fail because Epic has not shown that the policies enhance Apple’s market power in any market. Moreover, condemnation of the practices would likely induce Apple to use its legitimately obtained market power to extract surplus in a different way that would leave consumers worse off than they are under the status quo.
Mere Surplus Extraction vs. Market Power Extension
As the Supreme Court has observed, “Congress designed the Sherman Act as a ‘consumer welfare prescription.’” The Act endeavors to protect consumers from harm resulting from “market power,” which is the ability of a firm lacking competitive constraints to enhance its profits by reducing its output—either quantitively or qualitatively—from the level that would persist if the firm faced vigorous competition. A monopolist, for example, might cut back on the quantity it produces (to drive up market price) or it might skimp on quality (to enhance its per-unit profit margin). A firm facing vigorous competition, by contrast, couldn’t raise market price simply by reducing its own production, and it would lose significant sales to rivals if it raised its own price or unilaterally cut back on product quality. Market power thus stems from deficient competition.
As Dennis Carlton and Ken Heyer have observed, two different types of market power-related business behavior may injure consumers and are thus candidates for antitrust prohibition. One is an exercise of market power: an action whereby a firm lacking competitive constraints increases its returns by constricting its output so as to raise price or otherwise earn higher profit margins. When a firm engages in this sort of conduct, it extracts a greater proportion of the wealth, or “surplus,” generated by its transactions with its customers.
Every voluntary transaction between a buyer and seller creates surplus, which is the difference between the subjective value the consumer attaches to an item produced and the cost of producing and distributing it. Price and other contract terms determine how that surplus is allocated between the buyer and the seller. When a firm lacking competitive constraints exercises its market power by, say, raising price, it extracts for itself a greater proportion of the surplus generated by its sale.
The other sort of market power-related business behavior involves an effort by a firm to enhance its market power by weakening competitive constraints. For example, when a firm engages in unreasonably exclusionary conduct that drives its rivals from the market or increases their costs so as to render them less formidable competitors, its market power grows.
U.S. antitrust law treats these two types of market power-related conduct differently. It forbids behavior that enhances market power and injures consumers, but it permits actions that merely exercise legitimately obtained market power without somehow enhancing it. For example, while charging a monopoly price creates immediate consumer harm by extracting for the monopolist a greater share of the surplus created by the transaction, the Supreme Court observed in Trinko that “[t]he mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not . . . unlawful.” (See also linkLine: “Simply possessing monopoly power and charging monopoly prices does not violate [Sherman Act] § 2….”)
Courts have similarly refused to condemn mere exercises of market power in cases involving surplus-extractive arrangements more complicated than simple monopoly pricing. For example, in its Independent Ink decision, the U.S. Supreme Court expressly declined to adopt a rule that would have effectively banned “metering” tie-ins.
In a metering tie-in, a seller with market power on some unique product that is used with a competitively supplied complement that is consumed in varying amounts—say, a highly unique printer that uses standard ink—reduces the price of its unique product (the printer), requires buyers to also purchase from it their requirements of the complement (the ink), and then charges a supracompetitive price for the latter product. This allows the seller to charge higher effective prices to high-volume users of its unique tying product (buyers who use lots of ink) and lower prices to lower-volume users.
Assuming buyers’ use of the unique product correlates with the value they ascribe to it, a metering tie-in allows the seller to price discriminate, charging higher prices to buyers who value its unique product more. This allows the seller to extract more of the surplus generated by sales of its product, but it in no way extends the seller’s market power.
In refusing to adopt a rule that would have condemned most metering tie-ins, the Independent Ink Court observed that “it is generally recognized that [price discrimination] . . . occurs in fully competitive markets” and that tying arrangements involving requirements ties may be “fully consistent with a free, competitive market.” The Court thus reasoned that mere price discrimination and surplus extraction, even when accomplished through some sort of contractual arrangement like a tie-in, are not by themselves anticompetitive harms warranting antitrust’s condemnation.
The Ninth Circuit has similarly recognized that conduct that exercises market power to extract surplus but does not somehow enhance that power does not create antitrust liability. In Qualcomm, the court refused to condemn the chipmaker’s “no license, no chips” policy, which enabled it to enhance its profits by earning royalties on original equipment manufacturers’ sales of their high-priced products.
In reversing the district court’s judgment in favor of the FTC, the Ninth Circuit conceded that Qualcomm’s policies were novel and that they allowed it to enhance its profits by extracting greater surplus. The court refused to condemn the policies, however, because they did not injure competition by weakening competitive constraints:
This is not to say that Qualcomm’s “no license, no chips” policy is not “unique in the industry” (it is), or that the policy is not designed to maximize Qualcomm’s profits (Qualcomm has admitted as much). But profit-seeking behavior alone is insufficient to establish antitrust liability. As the Supreme Court stated in Trinko, the opportunity to charge monopoly prices “is an important element of the free-market system” and “is what attracts ‘business acumen’ in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth.”
The Qualcomm court’s reference to Trinko highlights one reason courts should not condemn exercises of market power that merely extract surplus without enhancing market power: allowing such surplus extraction furthers dynamic efficiency—welfare gain that accrues over time from the development of new and improved products and services.
Dynamic efficiency results from innovation, which entails costs and risks. Firms are more willing to incur those costs and risks if their potential payoff is higher, and an innovative firm’s ability to earn supracompetitive profits off its “better mousetrap” enhances its payoff.
Allowing innovators to extract such profits also helps address the fact most of the benefits of product innovation inure to people other than the innovator. Private actors often engage in suboptimal levels of behaviors that produce such benefit spillovers, or “positive externalities,” because they bear all the costs of those behaviors but capture just a fraction of the benefit produced. By enhancing the benefits innovators capture from their innovative efforts, allowing non-power-enhancing surplus extraction helps generate a closer-to-optimal level of innovative activity.
Not only do supracompetitive profits extracted through the exercise of legitimately obtained market power motivate innovation, they also enable it by helping to fund innovative efforts. Whereas businesses that are forced by competition to charge prices near their incremental cost must secure external funding for significant research and development (R&D) efforts, firms collecting supracompetitive returns can finance R&D internally. Indeed, of the top fifteen global spenders on R&D in 2018, eleven were either technology firms accused of possessing monopoly power (#1 Apple, #2 Alphabet/Google, #5 Intel, #6 Microsoft, #7 Apple, and #14 Facebook) or pharmaceutical companies whose patent protections insulate their products from competition and enable supracompetitive pricing (#8 Roche, #9 Johnson & Johnson, #10 Merck, #12 Novartis, and #15 Pfizer).
In addition to fostering dynamic efficiency by motivating and enabling innovative efforts, a policy acquitting non-power-enhancing exercises of market power allows courts to avoid an intractable question: which instances of mere surplus extraction should be precluded?
Precluding all instances of surplus extraction by firms with market power would conflict with precedents like Trinko and linkLine (which say that legitimate monopolists may legally charge monopoly prices) and would be impracticable given the ubiquity of above-cost pricing in niche and brand-differentiated markets.
A rule precluding surplus extraction when accomplished by a practice more complicated that simple monopoly pricing—say, some practice that allows price discrimination against buyers who highly value a product—would be both arbitrary and backward. The rule would be arbitrary because allowing supracompetitive profits from legitimately obtained market power motivates and enables innovation regardless of the means used to extract surplus. The rule would be backward because, while simple monopoly pricing always reduces overall market output (as output-reduction is the very means by which the producer causes price to rise), more complicated methods of extracting surplus, such as metering tie-ins, often enhance market output and overall social welfare.
A third possibility would be to preclude exercising market power to extract more surplus than is necessary to motivate and enable innovation. That position, however, would require courts to determine how much surplus extraction is required to induce innovative efforts. Courts are poorly positioned to perform such a task, and their inevitable mistakes could significantly chill entrepreneurial activity.
Consider, for example, a firm contemplating a $5 million investment that might return up to $50 million. Suppose the managers of the firm weighed expected costs and benefits and decided the risky gamble was just worth taking. If the gamble paid off but a court stepped in and capped the firm’s returns at $20 million—a seemingly generous quadrupling of the firm’s investment—future firms in the same position would not make similar investments. After all, the firm here thought this gamble was just barely worth taking, given the high risk of failure, when available returns were $50 million.
In the end, then, the best policy is to draw the line as both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit have done: Whereas enhancements of market power are forbidden, merely exercising legitimately obtained market power to extract surplus is permitted.
Apple’s Policies Do Not Enhance Its Market Power
Under the legal approach described above, the two Apple policies Epic has challenged do not give rise to antitrust liability. While the policies may boost Apple’s profits by facilitating its extraction of surplus from app transactions on its mobile devices, they do not enhance Apple’s market power in any conceivable market.
As the creator and custodian of the iOS operating system, Apple has the ability to control which applications will run on its iPhones and iPads. Developers cannot produce operable iOS apps unless Apple grants them access to the Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) required to enable the functionality of the operating system and hardware. In addition, Apple can require developers to obtain digital certificates that will enable their iOS apps to operate. As the district court observed, “no certificate means the code will not run.”
Because Apple controls which apps will work on the operating system it created and maintains, Apple could collect the same proportion of surplus it currently extracts from iOS app sales and in-app purchases on iOS apps even without the policies Epic is challenging. It could simply withhold access to the APIs or digital certificates needed to run iOS apps unless developers promised to pay it 30% of their revenues from app sales and in-app purchases of digital goods.
This means that the challenged policies do not give Apple any power it doesn’t already possess in the putative markets Epic identified: the markets for “iOS app distribution” and “iOS in-app payment processing.”
The district court rejected those market definitions on the ground that Epic had not established cognizable aftermarkets for iOS-specific services. It defined the relevant market instead as “mobile gaming transactions.” But no matter. The challenged policies would not enhance Apple’s market power in that broader market either.
In “mobile gaming transactions” involving non-iOS (e.g., Android) mobile apps, Apple’s policies give it no power at all. Apple doesn’t distribute non-iOS apps or process in-app payments on such apps. Moreover, even if Apple were to being doing so—say, by distributing Android apps in its App Store or allowing producers of Android apps to include IAP as their in-app payment system—it is implausible that Apple’s policies would allow it to gain new market power. There are giant, formidable competitors in non-iOS app distribution (e.g., Google’s Play Store) and in payment processing for non-iOS in-app purchases (e.g., Google Play Billing). It is inconceivable that Apple’s policies would allow it to usurp so much scale from those rivals that Apple could gain market power over non-iOS mobile gaming transactions.
That leaves only the iOS segment of the mobile gaming transactions market. And, as we have just seen, Apple’s policies give it no new power to extract surplus from those transactions; because it controls access to iOS, it could do so using other means.
Nor do the challenged policies enable Apple to maintain its market power in any conceivable market. This is not a situation like Microsoft where a firm in a market adjacent to a monopolist’s could somehow pose a challenge to that monopolist, and the monopolist nips the potential competition in the bud by reducing the potential rival’s scale. There is no evidence in the record to support the (implausible) notion that rival iOS app stores or in-app payment processing systems could ever evolve in a manner that would pose a challenge to Apple’s position in mobile devices, mobile operating systems, or any other market in which it conceivably has market power.
Epic might retort that but for the challenged policies, rivals could challenge Apple’s market share in iOS app distribution and in-app purchase processing. Rivals could not, however, challenge Apple’s market power in such markets, as that power stems from its control of iOS. The challenged policies therefore do not enable Apple to shore up any existing market power.
Alternative Means of Extracting Surplus Would Likely Reduce Consumer Welfare
Because the policies Epic has challenged are not the source of Apple’s ability to extract surplus from iOS app transactions, judicial condemnation of the policies would likely induce Apple to extract surplus using different means. Changing how it earns profits off iOS app usage, however, would likely leave consumers worse off than they are under the status quo.
Apple could simply charge third-party app developers a flat fee for access to the APIs needed to produce operable iOS apps but then allow them to distribute their apps and process in-app payments however they choose. Such an approach would allow Apple to monetize its innovative app platform while permitting competition among providers of iOS app distribution and in-app payment processing services. Relative to the status quo, though, such a model would likely reduce consumer welfare by:
Reducing the number of free and niche apps,as app developers could no longer avoid a fee to Apple by adopting a free (likely ad-supported) business model, and producers of niche apps may not generate enough revenue to justify Apple’s flat fee;
Raising business risks for app developers, who, if Apple cannot earn incremental revenue off sales and use of their apps, may face a greater likelihood that the functionality of those apps will be incorporated into future versions of iOS;
Reducing Apple’s incentive to improve iOS and its mobile devices, as eliminating Apple’s incremental revenue from app usage reduces its motivation to make costly enhancements that keep users on their iPhones and iPads;
Raising the price of iPhones and iPadsand generating deadweight loss, as Apple could no longer charge higher effective prices to people who use apps more heavily and would thus likely hike up its device prices, driving marginal consumers from the market; and
Reducing user privacy and security, as jettisoning a closed app distribution model (App Store only) would impair Apple’s ability to screen iOS apps for features and bugs that create security and privacy risks.
An alternative approach—one that would avoid many of the downsides just stated by allowing Apple to continue earning incremental revenue off iOS app usage—would be for Apple to charge app developers a revenue-based fee for access to the APIs and other amenities needed to produce operable iOS apps. That approach, however, would create other costs that would likely leave consumers worse off than they are under the status quo.
The policies Epic has challenged allow Apple to collect a share of revenues from iOS app transactions immediately at the point of sale. Replacing those policies with a revenue-based API license system would require Apple to incur additional costs of collecting revenues and ensuring that app developers are accurately reporting them. In order to extract the same surplus it currently collects—and to which it is entitled given its legitimately obtained market power—Apple would have to raise its revenue-sharing percentage above its current commission rate to cover its added collection and auditing costs.
The fact that Apple has elected not to adopt this alternative means of collecting the revenues to which it is entitled suggests that the added costs of moving to the alternative approach (extra collection and auditing costs) would exceed any additional consumer benefit such a move would produce. Because Apple can collect the same revenue percentage from app transactions two different ways, it has an incentive to select the approach that maximizes iOS app transaction revenues. That is the approach that creates the greatest value for consumers and also for Apple.
If Apple believed that the benefits to app users of competition in app distribution and in-app payment processing would exceed the extra costs of collection and auditing, it would have every incentive to switch to a revenue-based licensing regime and increase its revenue share enough to cover its added collection and auditing costs. As such an approach would enhance the net value consumers receive when buying apps and making in-app purchases, it would raise overall app revenues, boosting Apple’s bottom line. The fact that Apple has not gone in this direction, then, suggests that it does not believe consumers would receive greater benefit under the alternative system. Apple might be wrong, of course. But it has a strong motivation to make the consumer welfare-enhancing decision here, as doing so maximizes its own profits.
The policies Epic has challenged do not enhance or shore up Apple’s market power, a salutary pre-requisite to antitrust liability. Furthermore, condemning the policies would likely lead Apple to monetize its innovative app platform in a manner that would reduce consumer welfare relative to the status quo. The Ninth Circuit should therefore affirm the district court’s rejection of Epic’s antitrust claims.