Archives For exclusionary conduct

Last week, the DOJ cleared the merger of CVS Health and Aetna (conditional on Aetna’s divesting its Medicare Part D business), a merger that, as I previously noted at a House Judiciary hearing, “presents a creative effort by two of the most well-informed and successful industry participants to try something new to reform a troubled system.” (My full testimony is available here).

Of course it’s always possible that the experiment will fail — that the merger won’t “revolutioniz[e] the consumer health care experience” in the way that CVS and Aetna are hoping. But it’s a low (antitrust) risk effort to address some of the challenges confronting the healthcare industry — and apparently the DOJ agrees.

I discuss the weakness of the antitrust arguments against the merger at length in my testimony. What I particularly want to draw attention to here is how this merger — like many vertical mergers — represents business model innovation by incumbents.

The CVS/Aetna merger is just one part of a growing private-sector movement in the healthcare industry to adopt new (mostly) vertical arrangements that seek to move beyond some of the structural inefficiencies that have plagued healthcare in the United States since World War II. Indeed, ambitious and interesting as it is, the merger arises amidst a veritable wave of innovative, vertical healthcare mergers and other efforts to integrate the healthcare services supply chain in novel ways.

These sorts of efforts (and the current DOJ’s apparent support for them) should be applauded and encouraged. I need not rehash the economic literature on vertical restraints here (see, e.g., Lafontaine & Slade, etc.). But especially where government interventions have already impaired the efficient workings of a market (as they surely have, in spades, in healthcare), it is important not to compound the error by trying to micromanage private efforts to restructure around those constraints.   

Current trends in private-sector-driven healthcare reform

In the past, the most significant healthcare industry mergers have largely been horizontal (i.e., between two insurance providers, or two hospitals) or “traditional” business model mergers for the industry (i.e., vertical mergers aimed at building out managed care organizations). This pattern suggests a sort of fealty to the status quo, with insurers interested primarily in expanding their insurance business or providers interested in expanding their capacity to provide medical services.

Today’s health industry mergers and ventures seem more frequently to be different in character, and they portend an industry-wide experiment in the provision of vertically integrated healthcare that we should enthusiastically welcome.

Drug pricing and distribution innovations

To begin with, the CVS/Aetna deal, along with the also recently approved Cigna-Express Scripts deal, solidifies the vertical integration of pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) with insurers.

But a number of other recent arrangements and business models center around relationships among drug manufacturers, pharmacies, and PBMs, and these tend to minimize the role of insurers. While not a “vertical” arrangement, per se, Walmart’s generic drug program, for example, offers $4 prescriptions to customers regardless of insurance (the typical generic drug copay for patients covered by employer-provided health insurance is $11), and Walmart does not seek or receive reimbursement from health plans for these drugs. It’s been offering this program since 2006, but in 2016 it entered into a joint buying arrangement with McKesson, a pharmaceutical wholesaler (itself vertically integrated with Rexall pharmacies), to negotiate lower prices. The idea, presumably, is that Walmart will entice consumers to its stores with the lure of low-priced generic prescriptions in the hope that they will buy other items while they’re there. That prospect presumably makes it worthwhile to route around insurers and PBMs, and their reimbursements.

Meanwhile, both Express Scripts and CVS Health (two of the country’s largest PBMs) have made moves toward direct-to-consumer sales themselves, establishing pricing for a small number of drugs independently of health plans and often in partnership with drug makers directly.   

Also apparently focused on disrupting traditional drug distribution arrangements, Amazon has recently purchased online pharmacy PillPack (out from under Walmart, as it happens), and with it received pharmacy licenses in 49 states. The move introduces a significant new integrated distributor/retailer, and puts competitive pressure on other retailers and distributors and potentially insurers and PBMs, as well.

Whatever its role in driving the CVS/Aetna merger (and I believe it is smaller than many reports like to suggest), Amazon’s moves in this area demonstrate the fluid nature of the market, and the opportunities for a wide range of firms to create efficiencies in the market and to lower prices.

At the same time, the differences between Amazon and CVS/Aetna highlight the scope of product and service differentiation that should contribute to the ongoing competitiveness of these markets following mergers like this one.

While Amazon inarguably excels at logistics and the routinizing of “back office” functions, it seems unlikely for the foreseeable future to be able to offer (or to be interested in offering) a patient interface that can rival the service offerings of a brick-and-mortar CVS pharmacy combined with an outpatient clinic and its staff and bolstered by the capabilities of an insurer like Aetna. To be sure, online sales and fulfillment may put price pressure on important, largely mechanical functions, but, like much technology, it is first and foremost a complement to services offered by humans, rather than a substitute. (In this regard it is worth noting that McKesson has long been offering Amazon-like logistics support for both online and brick-and-mortar pharmacies. “‘To some extent, we were Amazon before it was cool to be Amazon,’ McKesson CEO John Hammergren said” on a recent earnings call).

Treatment innovations

Other efforts focus on integrating insurance and treatment functions or on bringing together other, disparate pieces of the healthcare industry in interesting ways — all seemingly aimed at finding innovative, private solutions to solve some of the costly complexities that plague the healthcare market.

Walmart, for example, announced a deal with Quest Diagnostics last year to experiment with offering diagnostic testing services and potentially other basic healthcare services inside of some Walmart stores. While such an arrangement may simply be a means of making doctor-prescribed diagnostic tests more convenient, it may also suggest an effort to expand the availability of direct-to-consumer (patient-initiated) testing (currently offered by Quest in Missouri and Colorado) in states that allow it. A partnership with Walmart to market and oversee such services has the potential to dramatically expand their use.

Capping off (for now) a buying frenzy in recent years that included the purchase of PBM, CatamaranRx, UnitedHealth is seeking approval from the FTC for the proposed merger of its Optum unit with the DaVita Medical Group — a move that would significantly expand UnitedHealth’s ability to offer medical services (including urgent care, outpatient surgeries, and health clinic services), give it a significant group of doctors’ clinics throughout the U.S., and turn UnitedHealth into the largest employer of doctors in the country. But of course this isn’t a traditional managed care merger — it represents a significant bet on the decentralized, ambulatory care model that has been slowly replacing significant parts of the traditional, hospital-centric care model for some time now.

And, perhaps most interestingly, some recent moves are bringing together drug manufacturers and diagnostic and care providers in innovative ways. Swiss pharmaceutical company, Roche, announced recently that “it would buy the rest of U.S. cancer data company Flatiron Health for $1.9 billion to speed development of cancer medicines and support its efforts to price them based on how well they work.” Not only is the deal intended to improve Roche’s drug development process by integrating patient data, it is also aimed at accommodating efforts to shift the pricing of drugs, like the pricing of medical services generally, toward an outcome-based model.

Similarly interesting, and in a related vein, early this year a group of hospital systems including Intermountain Health, Ascension, and Trinity Health announced plans to begin manufacturing generic prescription drugs. This development further reflects the perceived benefits of vertical integration in healthcare markets, and the move toward creative solutions to the unique complexity of coordinating the many interrelated layers of healthcare provision. In this case,

[t]he nascent venture proposes a private solution to ensure contestability in the generic drug market and consequently overcome the failures of contracting [in the supply and distribution of generics]…. The nascent venture, however it solves these challenges and resolves other choices, will have important implications for the prices and availability of generic drugs in the US.

More enforcement decisions like CVS/Aetna and Bayer/Monsanto; fewer like AT&T/Time Warner

In the face of all this disruption, it’s difficult to credit anticompetitive fears like those expressed by the AMA in opposing the CVS-Aetna merger and a recent CEA report on pharmaceutical pricing, both of which are premised on the assumption that drug distribution is unavoidably dominated by a few PBMs in a well-defined, highly concentrated market. Creative arrangements like the CVS-Aetna merger and the initiatives described above (among a host of others) indicate an ease of entry, the fluidity of traditional markets, and a degree of business model innovation that suggest a great deal more competitiveness than static PBM market numbers would suggest.

This kind of incumbent innovation through vertical restructuring is an increasingly important theme in antitrust, and efforts to tar such transactions with purported evidence of static market dominance is simply misguided.

While the current DOJ’s misguided (and, remarkably, continuing) attempt to stop the AT&T/Time Warner merger is an aberrant step in the wrong direction, the leadership at the Antitrust Division generally seems to get it. Indeed, in spite of strident calls for stepped-up enforcement in the always-controversial ag-biotech industry, the DOJ recently approved three vertical ag-biotech mergers in fairly rapid succession.

As I noted in a discussion of those ag-biotech mergers, but equally applicable here, regulatory humility should continue to carry the day when it comes to structural innovation by incumbent firms:

But it is also important to remember that innovation comes from within incumbent firms, as well, and, often, that the overall level of innovation in an industry may be increased by the presence of large firms with economies of scope and scale.

In sum, and to paraphrase Olympia Dukakis’ character in Moonstruck: “what [we] don’t know about [the relationship between innovation and market structure] is a lot.”

What we do know, however, is that superficial, concentration-based approaches to antitrust analysis will likely overweight presumed foreclosure effects and underweight innovation effects.

We shouldn’t fetishize entry, or access, or head-to-head competition over innovation, especially where consumer welfare may be significantly improved by a reduction in the former in order to get more of the latter.

What to make of Wednesday’s decision by the European Commission alleging that Google has engaged in anticompetitive behavior? In this post, I contrast the European Commission’s (EC) approach to competition policy with US antitrust, briefly explore the history of smartphones and then discuss the ruling.

Asked about the EC’s decision the day it was announced, FTC Chairman Joseph Simons noted that, while the market is concentrated, Apple and Google “compete pretty heavily against each other” with their mobile operating systems, in stark contrast to the way the EC defined the market. Simons also stressed that for the FTC what matters is not the structure of the market per se but whether or not there is harm to the consumer. This again contrasts with the European Commission’s approach, which does not require harm to consumers. As Simons put it:

Once they [the European Commission] find that a company is dominant… that imposes upon the company kind of like a fairness obligation irrespective of what the effect is on the consumer. Our regulatory… our antitrust regime requires that there be a harm to consumer welfare — so the consumer has to be injured — so the two tests are a little bit different.

Indeed, and as the history below shows, the popularity of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems arose because they were superior products — not because of anticompetitive conduct on the part of either Apple or Google. On the face of it, the conduct of both Apple and Google has led to consumer benefits, not harms. So, from the perspective of U.S. antitrust authorities, there is no reason to take action.

Moreover, there is a danger that by taking action as the EU has done, competition and innovation will be undermined — which would be a perverse outcome indeed. These concerns were reflected in a statement by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT):

Today’s decision by the European Commission to fine Google over $5 billion and require significant changes to its business model to satisfy EC bureaucrats has the potential to undermine competition and innovation in the United States,” Sen. Lee said. “Moreover, the decision further demonstrates the different approaches to competition policy between U.S. and EC antitrust enforcers. As discussed at the hearing held last December before the Senate’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy & Consumer Rights, U.S. antitrust agencies analyze business practices based on the consumer welfare standard. This analytical framework seeks to protect consumers rather than competitors. A competitive marketplace requires strong antitrust enforcement. However, appropriate competition policy should serve the interests of consumers and not be used as a vehicle by competitors to punish their successful rivals.

Ironically, the fundamental basis for the Commission’s decision is an analytical framework developed by economists at Harvard in the 1950s, which presumes that the structure of a market determines the conduct of the participants, which in turn presumptively affects outcomes for consumers. This “structure-conduct-performance” paradigm has been challenged both theoretically and empirically (and by “challenged,” I mean “demolished”).

Maintaining, as EC Commissioner Vestager has, that “What would serve competition is to have more players,” is to adopt a presumption regarding competition rooted in the structure of the market, without sufficient attention to the facts on the ground. As French economist Jean Tirole noted in his Nobel Prize lecture:

Economists accordingly have advocated a case-by-case or “rule of reason” approach to antitrust, away from rigid “per se” rules (which mechanically either allow or prohibit certain behaviors, ranging from price-fixing agreements to resale price maintenance). The economists’ pragmatic message however comes with a double social responsibility. First, economists must offer a rigorous analysis of how markets work, taking into account both the specificities of particular industries and what regulators do and do not know….

Second, economists must participate in the policy debate…. But of course, the responsibility here goes both ways. Policymakers and the media must also be willing to listen to economists.

In good Tirolean fashion, we begin with an analysis of how the market for smartphones developed. What quickly emerges is that the structure of the market is a function of intense competition, not its absence. And, by extension, mandating a different structure will likely impede competition, or, at the very least, will not likely contribute to it.

A brief history of smartphone competition

In 2006, Nokia’s N70 became the first smartphone to sell more than a million units. It was a beautiful device, with a simple touch screen interface and real push buttons for numbers. The following year, Apple released its first iPhone. It sold 7 million units — about the same as Nokia’s N95 and slightly less than LG’s Shine. Not bad, but paltry compared to the sales of Nokia’s 1200 series phones, which had combined sales of over 250 million that year — about twice the total of all smartphone sales in 2007.

By 2017, smartphones had come to dominate the market, with total sales of over 1.5 billion. At the same time, the structure of the market has changed dramatically. In the first quarter of 2018, Apple’s iPhone X and iPhone 8 were the two best-selling smartphones in the world. In total, Apple shipped just over 52 million phones, accounting for 14.5% of the global market. Samsung, which has a wider range of devices, sold even more: 78 million phones, or 21.7% of the market. At third and fourth place were Huawei (11%) and Xiaomi (7.5%). Nokia and LG didn’t even make it into the top 10, with market shares of only 3% and 1% respectively.

Several factors have driven this highly dynamic market. Dramatic improvements in cellular data networks have played a role. But arguably of greater importance has been the development of software that offers consumers an intuitive and rewarding experience.

Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems have proven to be enormously popular among both users and app developers. This has generated synergies — or what economists call network externalities — as more apps have been developed, so more people are attracted to the ecosystem and vice versa, leading to a virtuous circle that benefits both users and app developers.

By contrast, Nokia’s early smartphones, including the N70 and N95, ran Symbian, the operating system developed for Psion’s handheld devices, which had a clunkier user interface and was more difficult to code — so it was less attractive to both users and developers. In addition, Symbian lacked an effective means of solving the problem of fragmentation of the operating system across different devices, which made it difficult for developers to create apps that ran across the ecosystem — something both Apple (through its closed system) and Google (through agreements with carriers) were able to address. Meanwhile, Java’s MIDP used in LG’s Shine, and its successor J2ME imposed restrictions on developers (such as prohibiting access to files, hardware, and network connections) that seem to have made it less attractive than Android.

The relative superiority of their operating systems enabled Apple and the manufacturers of Android-based phones to steal a march on the early leaders in the smartphone revolution.

The fact that Google allows smartphone manufacturers to install Android for free, distributes Google Play and other apps in a free bundle, and pays such manufacturers for preferential treatment for Google Search, has also kept the cost of Android-based smartphones down. As a result, Android phones are the cheapest on the market, providing a powerful experience for as little as $50. It is reasonable to conclude from this that innovation, driven by fierce competition, has led to devices, operating systems, and apps that provide enormous benefits to consumers.

The Commission decision would harm device manufacturers, app developers and consumers

The EC’s decision seems to disregard the history of smartphone innovation and competition and their ongoing consequences. As Dirk Auer explains, the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) was created specifically to offer an effective alternative to Apple’s iPhone — and it worked. Indeed, it worked so spectacularly that Android is installed on about 80% of all new phones. This success was the result of several factors that the Commission now seeks to undermine:

First, in order to maintain order within the Android universe, and thereby ensure that apps developed for Android would function on the vast majority of Android devices, Google and the OHA sought to limit the extent to which Android “forks” could be created. (Apple didn’t face this problem because its source code is proprietary, so cannot be modified by third-party developers.) One way Google does this is by imposing restrictions on the licensing of its proprietary apps, such as the Google Play store (a repository of apps, similar to Apple’s App Store).

Device manufacturers that don’t conform to these restrictions may still build devices with their forked version of Android — but without those Google apps. Indeed, Amazon chooses to develop a non-conforming version of Android and built its own app repository for its Fire devices (though it is still possible to add the Google Play Store). That strategy seems to be working for Amazon in the tablet market; in 2017 it rose past Samsung to become the second biggest manufacturer of tablets worldwide, after Apple.

Second, in order to be able to offer Android for free to smartphone manufacturers, Google sought to develop unique revenue streams (because, although the software is offered for free, it turns out that software developers generally don’t work for free). The main way Google did this was by requiring manufacturers that choose to install Google Play also to install its browser (Chrome) and search tools, which generate revenue from advertising. At the same time, Google kept its platform open by permitting preloads of rivals’ apps and creating a marketplace where rivals can also reach scale. Mozilla’s Firefox browser, for example, has been downloaded over 100 million times on Android.

The importance of these factors to the success of Android is acknowledged by the EC. But instead of treating them as legitimate business practices that enabled the development of high-quality, low-cost smartphones and a universe of apps that benefits billions of people, the Commission simply asserts that they are harmful, anticompetitive practices.

For example, the Commission asserts that

In order to be able to pre-install on their devices Google’s proprietary apps, including the Play Store and Google Search, manufacturers had to commit not to develop or sell even a single device running on an Android fork. The Commission found that this conduct was abusive as of 2011, which is the date Google became dominant in the market for app stores for the Android mobile operating system.

This is simply absurd, to say nothing of ahistorical. As noted, the restrictions on Android forks plays an important role in maintaining the coherency of the Android ecosystem. If device manufacturers were able to freely install Google apps (and other apps via the Play Store) on devices running problematic Android forks that were unable to run the apps properly, consumers — and app developers — would be frustrated, Google’s brand would suffer, and the value of the ecosystem would be diminished. Extending this restriction to all devices produced by a specific manufacturer, regardless of whether they come with Google apps preinstalled, reinforces the importance of the prohibition to maintaining the coherency of the ecosystem.

It is ridiculous to say that something (efforts to rein in Android forking) that made perfect sense until 2011 and that was central to the eventual success of Android suddenly becomes “abusive” precisely because of that success — particularly when the pre-2011 efforts were often viewed as insufficient and unsuccessful (a January 2012 Guardian Technology Blog post, “How Google has lost control of Android,” sums it up nicely).

Meanwhile, if Google is unable to tie pre-installation of its search and browser apps to the installation of its app store, then it will have less financial incentive to continue to maintain the Android ecosystem. Or, more likely, it will have to find other ways to generate revenue from the sale of devices in the EU — such as charging device manufacturers for Android or Google Play. The result is that consumers will be harmed, either because the ecosystem will be degraded, or because smartphones will become more expensive.

The troubling absence of Apple from the Commission’s decision

In addition, the EC’s decision is troublesome in other ways. First, for its definition of the market. The ruling asserts that “Through its control over Android, Google is dominant in the worldwide market (excluding China) for licensable smart mobile operating systems, with a market share of more than 95%.” But “licensable smart mobile operating systems” is a very narrow definition, as it necessarily precludes operating systems that are not licensable — such as Apple’s iOS and RIM’s Blackberry OS. Since Apple has nearly 25% of the market share of smartphones in Europe, the European Commission has — through its definition of the market — presumed away the primary source of effective competition. As Pinar Akman has noted:

How can Apple compete with Google in the market as defined by the Commission when Apple allows only itself to use its operating system only on devices that Apple itself manufactures?

The EU then invents a series of claims regarding the lack of competition with Apple:

  • end user purchasing decisions are influenced by a variety of factors (such as hardware features or device brand), which are independent from the mobile operating system;

It is not obvious that this is evidence of a lack of competition. A better explanation is that the EU’s narrow definition of the market is defective. In fact, one could easily draw the opposite conclusion of that drawn by the Commission: the fact that purchasing decisions are driven by various factors suggests that there is substantial competition, with phone manufacturers seeking to design phones that offer a range of features, on a number of dimensions, to best capture diverse consumer preferences. They are able to do this in large part precisely because consumers are able to rely upon a generally similar operating system and continued access to the apps that they have downloaded. As Tim Cook likes to remind his investors, Apple is quite successful at targeting “Android switchers” to switch to iOS.

 

  • Apple devices are typically priced higher than Android devices and may therefore not be accessible to a large part of the Android device user base;

 

And yet, in the first quarter of 2018, Apple phones accounted for five of the top ten selling smartphones worldwide. Meanwhile, several competing phones, including the fifth and sixth best-sellers, Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and S9+, sell for similar prices to the most expensive iPhones. And a refurbished iPhone 6 can be had for less than $150.

 

  • Android device users face switching costs when switching to Apple devices, such as losing their apps, data and contacts, and having to learn how to use a new operating system;

 

This is, of course, true for any system switch. And yet the growing market share of Apple phones suggests that some users are willing to part with those sunk costs. Moreover, the increasing predominance of cloud-based and cross-platform apps, as well as Apple’s own “Move to iOS” Android app (which facilitates the transfer of users’ data from Android to iOS), means that the costs of switching border on trivial. As mentioned above, Tim Cook certainly believes in “Android switchers.”

 

  • even if end users were to switch from Android to Apple devices, this would have limited impact on Google’s core business. That’s because Google Search is set as the default search engine on Apple devices and Apple users are therefore likely to continue using Google Search for their queries.

 

This is perhaps the most bizarre objection of them all. The fact that Apple chooses to install Google search as the default demonstrates that consumers prefer that system over others. Indeed, this highlights a fundamental problem with the Commission’s own rationale, As Akman notes:

It is interesting that the case appears to concern a dominant undertaking leveraging its dominance from a market in which it is dominant (Google Play Store) into another market in which it is also dominant (internet search). As far as this author is aware, most (if not all?) cases of tying in the EU to date concerned tying where the dominant undertaking leveraged its dominance in one market to distort or eliminate competition in an otherwise competitive market.

Conclusion

As the foregoing demonstrates, the EC’s decision is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and evolution of the market for smartphones and associated applications. The statement by Commissioner Vestager quoted above — that “What would serve competition is to have more players” — belies this misunderstanding and highlights the erroneous assumptions underpinning the Commission’s analysis, which is wedded to a theory of market competition that was long ago thrown out by economists.

And, thankfully, it appears that the FTC Chairman is aware of at least some of the flaws in the EC’s conclusions.

Google will undoubtedly appeal the Commission’s decision. For the sakes of the millions of European consumers who rely on Android-based phones and the millions of software developers who provide Android apps, let’s hope that they succeed.

By Pinar Akman, Professor of Law, University of Leeds*

The European Commission’s decision in Google Android cuts a fine line between punishing a company for its success and punishing a company for falling afoul of the rules of the game. Which side of the line it actually falls on cannot be fully understood until the Commission publishes its full decision. Much depends on the intricate facts of the case. As the full decision may take months to come, this post offers merely the author’s initial thoughts on the decision on the basis of the publicly available information.

The eye-watering fine of $5.1 billion — which together with the fine of $2.7 billion in the Google Shopping decision from last year would (according to one estimate) suffice to fund for almost one year the additional yearly public spending necessary to eradicate world hunger by 2030 — will not be further discussed in this post. This is because the fine is assumed to have been duly calculated on the basis of the Commission’s relevant Guidelines, and, from a legal and commercial point of view, the absolute size of the fine is not as important as the infringing conduct and the remedy Google will need to adopt to comply with the decision.

First things first. This post proceeds on the premise that the aim of competition law is to prevent the exclusion of competitors that are (at least) as efficient as the dominant incumbent, whose exclusion would ultimately harm consumers.

Next, it needs to be noted that the Google Android case is a more conventional antitrust case than Google Shopping in the sense that one can at least envisage a potentially robust antitrust theory of harm in the former case. If a dominant undertaking ties its products together to exclude effective competition in some of these markets or if it pays off customers to exclude access by its efficient competitors to consumers, competition law intervention may be justified.

The central question in Google Android is whether on the available facts this appears to have happened.

What we know and market definition

The premise of the case is that Google used its dominance in the Google Play Store (which enables users to download apps onto their Android phones) to “cement Google’s dominant position in general internet search.”

It is interesting that the case appears to concern a dominant undertaking leveraging its dominance from a market in which it is dominant (Google Play Store) into another market in which it is also dominant (internet search). As far as this author is aware, most (if not all?) cases of tying in the EU to date concerned tying where the dominant undertaking leveraged its dominance in one market to distort or eliminate competition in an otherwise competitive market.

Thus, for example, in Microsoft (Windows Operating System —> media players), Hilti (patented cartridge strips —> nails), and Tetra Pak II (packaging machines —> non-aseptic cartons), the tied market was actually or potentially competitive, and this was why the tying was alleged to have eliminated competition. It will be interesting to see which case the Commission uses as precedent in its decision — more on that later.

Also noteworthy is that the Commission does not appear to have defined a separate mobile search market that would have been competitive but for Google’s alleged leveraging. The market has been defined as the general internet search market. So, according to the Commission, the Google Search App and Google Search engine appear to be one and the same thing, and desktop and mobile devices are equivalent (or substitutable).

Finding mobile and desktop devices to be equivalent to one another may have implications for other cases including the ongoing appeal in Google Shopping where, for example, the Commission found that “[m]obile [apps] are not a viable alternative for replacing generic search traffic from Google’s general search results pages” for comparison shopping services. The argument that mobile apps and mobile traffic are fundamental in Google Android but trivial in Google Shopping may not play out favourably for the Commission before the Court of Justice of the EU.

Another interesting market definition point is that the Commission has found Apple not to be a competitor to Google in the relevant market defined by the Commission: the market for “licensable smart mobile operating systems.” Apple does not fall within that market because Apple does not license its mobile operating system to anyone: Apple’s model eliminates all possibility of competition from the start and is by definition exclusive.

Although there is some internal logic in the Commission’s exclusion of Apple from the upstream market that it has defined, is this not a bit of a definitional stop? How can Apple compete with Google in the market as defined by the Commission when Apple allows only itself to use its operating system only on devices that Apple itself manufactures?

To be fair, the Commission does consider there to be some competition between Apple and Android devices at the level of consumers — just not sufficient to constrain Google at the upstream, manufacturer level.

Nevertheless, the implication of the Commission’s assessment that separates the upstream and downstream in this way is akin to saying that the world’s two largest corn producers that produce the corn used to make corn flakes do not compete with one another in the market for corn flakes because one of them uses its corn exclusively in its own-brand cereal.

Although the Commission cabins the use of supply-side substitutability in market definition, its own guidance on the topic notes that

Supply-side substitutability may also be taken into account when defining markets in those situations in which its effects are equivalent to those of demand substitution in terms of effectiveness and immediacy. This means that suppliers are able to switch production to the relevant products and market them in the short term….

Apple could — presumably — rather immediately and at minimal cost produce and market a version of iOS for use on third-party device makers’ devices. By the Commission’s own definition, it would seem to make sense to include Apple in the relevant market. Nevertheless, it has apparently not done so here.

The message that the Commission sends with the finding is that if Android had not been open source and freely available, and if Google competed with Apple with its own version of a walled-garden built around exclusivity, it is possible that none of its practices would have raised any concerns. Or, should Apple be expecting a Statement of Objections next from the EU Commission?

Is Microsoft really the relevant precedent?

Given that Google Android appears to revolve around the idea of tying and leveraging, the EU Commission’s infringement decision against Microsoft, which found an abusive tie in Microsoft’s tying of Windows Operating System with Windows Media Player, appears to be the most obvious precedent, at least for the tying part of the case.

There are, however, potentially important factual differences between the two cases. To take just a few examples:

  • Microsoft charged for the Windows Operating System, whereas Google does not;
  • Microsoft tied the setting of Windows Media Player as the default to OEMs’ licensing of the operating system (Windows), whereas Google ties the setting of Search as the default to device makers’ use of other Google apps, while allowing them to use the operating system (Android) without any Google apps; and
  • Downloading competing media players was difficult due to download speeds and lack of user familiarity, whereas it is trivial and commonplace for users to download apps that compete with Google’s.

Moreover, there are also some conceptual hurdles in finding the conduct to be that of tying.

First, the difference between “pre-installed,” “default,” and “exclusive” matters a lot in establishing whether effective competition has been foreclosed. The Commission’s Press Release notes that to pre-install Google Play, manufacturers have to also pre-install Google Search App and Google Chrome. It also states that Google Search is the default search engine on Google Chrome. The Press Release does not indicate that Google Search App has to be the exclusive or default search app. (It is worth noting, however, that the Statement of Objections in Google Android did allege that Google violated EU competition rules by requiring Search to be installed as the default. We will have to await the decision itself to see if this was dropped from the case or simply not mentioned in the Press Release).

In fact, the fact that the other infringement found is that of Google’s making payments to manufacturers in return for exclusively pre-installing the Google Search App indirectly suggests that not every manufacturer pre-installs Google Search App as the exclusive, pre-installed search app. This means that any other search app (provider) can also (request to) be pre-installed on these devices. The same goes for the browser app.

Of course, regardless, even if the manufacturer does not pre-install competing apps, the consumer is free to download any other app — for search or browsing — as they wish, and can do so in seconds.

In short, pre-installation on its own does not necessarily foreclose competition, and thus may not constitute an illegal tie under EU competition law. This is particularly so when download speeds are fast (unlike the case at the time of Microsoft) and consumers regularly do download numerous apps.

What may, however, potentially foreclose effective competition is where a dominant undertaking makes payments to stop its customers, as a practical matter, from selling its rivals’ products. Intel, for example, was found to have abused its dominant position through payments to a computer retailer in return for its not selling computers with its competitor AMD’s chips, and to computer manufacturers in return for delaying the launch of computers with AMD chips.

In Google Android, the exclusivity provision that would require manufacturers to pre-install Google Search App exclusively in return for financial incentives may be deemed to be similar to this.

Having said that, unlike in Intel where a given computer can have a CPU from only one given manufacturer, even the exclusive pre-installation of the Google Search App would not have prevented consumers from downloading competing apps. So, again, in theory effective competition from other search apps need not have been foreclosed.

It must also be noted that just because a Google app is pre-installed does not mean that it generates any revenue to Google — consumers have to actually choose to use that app as opposed to another one that they might prefer in order for Google to earn any revenue from it. The Commission seems to place substantial weight on pre-installation which it alleges to create “a status quo bias.”

The concern with this approach is that it is not possible to know whether those consumers who do not download competing apps do so out of a preference for Google’s apps or, instead, for other reasons that might indicate competition not to be working. Indeed, one hurdle as regards conceptualising the infringement as tying is that it would require establishing that a significant number of phone users would actually prefer to use Google Play Store (the tying product) without Google Search App (the tied product).

This is because, according to the Commission’s Guidance Paper, establishing tying starts with identifying two distinct products, and

[t]wo products are distinct if, in the absence of tying or bundling, a substantial number of customers would purchase or would have purchased the tying product without also buying the tied product from the same supplier.

Thus, if a substantial number of customers would not want to use Google Play Store without also preferring to use Google Search App, this would cause a conceptual problem for making out a tying claim.

In fact, the conduct at issue in Google Android may be closer to a refusal to supply type of abuse.

Refusal to supply also seems to make more sense regarding the prevention of the development of Android forks being found to be an abuse. In this context, it will be interesting to see how the Commission overcomes the argument that Android forks can be developed freely and Google may have legitimate business reasons in wanting to associate its own, proprietary apps only with a certain, standardised-quality version of the operating system.

More importantly, the possible underlying theory in this part of the case is that the Google apps — and perhaps even the licensed version of Android — are a “must-have,” which is close to an argument that they are an essential facility in the context of Android phones. But that would indeed require a refusal to supply type of abuse to be established, which does not appear to be the case.

What will happen next?

To answer the question raised in the title of this post — whether the Google Android decision will benefit consumers — one needs to consider what Google may do in order to terminate the infringing conduct as required by the Commission, whilst also still generating revenue from Android.

This is because unbundling Google Play Store, Google Search App and Google Chrome (to allow manufacturers to pre-install Google Play Store without the latter two) will disrupt Google’s main revenue stream (i.e., ad revenue generated through the use of Google Search App or Google Search within the Chrome app) which funds the free operating system. This could lead Google to start charging for the operating system, and limiting to whom it licenses the operating system under the Commission’s required, less-restrictive terms.

As the Commission does not seem to think that Apple constrains Google when it comes to dealings with device manufacturers, in theory, Google should be able to charge up to the monopoly level licensing fee to device manufacturers. If that happens, the price of Android smartphones may go up. It is possible that there is a new competitor lurking in the woods that will grow and constrain that exercise of market power, but how this will all play out for consumers — as well as app developers who may face increasing costs due to the forking of Android — really remains to be seen.

 

* Pinar Akman is Professor of Law, Director of Centre for Business Law and Practice, University of Leeds, UK. This piece has not been commissioned or funded by any entity. The author has not been involved in the Google Android case in any capacity. In the past, the author wrote a piece on the Commission’s Google Shopping case, ‘The Theory of Abuse in Google Search: A Positive and Normative Assessment under EU Competition Law,’ supported by a research grant from Google. The author would like to thank Peter Whelan, Konstantinos Stylianou, and Geoffrey Manne for helpful comments. All errors remain her own. The author can be contacted here.

Today the European Commission launched its latest salvo against Google, issuing a decision in its three-year antitrust investigation into the company’s agreements for distribution of the Android mobile operating system. The massive fine levied by the Commission will dominate the headlines, but the underlying legal theory and proposed remedies are just as notable — and just as problematic.

The nirvana fallacy

It is sometimes said that the most important question in all of economics is “compared to what?” UCLA economist Harold Demsetz — one of the most important regulatory economists of the past century — coined the term “nirvana fallacy” to critique would-be regulators’ tendency to compare messy, real-world economic circumstances to idealized alternatives, and to justify policies on the basis of the discrepancy between them. Wishful thinking, in other words.

The Commission’s Android decision falls prey to the nirvana fallacy. It conjures a world in which Google offers its Android operating system on unrealistic terms, prohibits it from doing otherwise, and neglects the actual consequences of such a demand.

The idea at the core of the Commission’s decision is that by making its own services (especially Google Search and Google Play Store) easier to access than competing services on Android devices, Google has effectively foreclosed rivals from effective competition. In order to correct that claimed defect, the Commission demands that Google refrain from engaging in practices that favor its own products in its Android licensing agreements:

At a minimum, Google has to stop and to not re-engage in any of the three types of practices. The decision also requires Google to refrain from any measure that has the same or an equivalent object or effect as these practices.

The basic theory is straightforward enough, but its application here reflects a troubling departure from the underlying economics and a romanticized embrace of industrial policy that is unsupported by the realities of the market.

In a recent interview, European Commission competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, offered a revealing insight into her thinking about her oversight of digital platforms, and perhaps the economy in general: “My concern is more about whether we get the right choices,” she said. Asked about Facebook, for example, she specified exactly what she thinks the “right” choice looks like: “I would like to have a Facebook in which I pay a fee each month, but I would have no tracking and advertising and the full benefits of privacy.”

Some consumers may well be sympathetic with her preference (and even share her specific vision of what Facebook should offer them). But what if competition doesn’t result in our — or, more to the point, Margrethe Vestager’s — prefered outcomes? Should competition policy nevertheless enact the idiosyncratic consumer preferences of a particular regulator? What if offering consumers the “right” choices comes at the expense of other things they value, like innovation, product quality, or price? And, if so, can antitrust enforcers actually engineer a better world built around these preferences?

Android’s alleged foreclosure… that doesn’t really foreclose anything

The Commission’s primary concern is with the terms of Google’s deal: In exchange for royalty-free access to Android and a set of core, Android-specific applications and services (like Google Search and Google Maps) Google imposes a few contractual conditions.

Google allows manufacturers to use the Android platform — in which the company has invested (and continues to invest) billions of dollars — for free. It does not require device makers to include any of its core, Google-branded features. But if a manufacturer does decide to use any of them, it must include all of them, and make Google Search the device default. In another (much smaller) set of agreements, Google also offers device makers a small share of its revenue from Search if they agree to pre-install only Google Search on their devices (although users remain free to download and install any competing services they wish).

Essentially, that’s it. Google doesn’t allow device makers to pick and choose between parts of the ecosystem of Google products, free-riding on Google’s brand and investments. But manufacturers are free to use the Android platform and to develop their own competing brand built upon Google’s technology.

Other apps may be installed in addition to Google’s core apps. Google Search need not be the exclusive search service, but it must be offered out of the box as the default. Google Play and Chrome must be made available to users, but other app stores and browsers may be pre-installed and even offered as the default. And device makers who choose to do so may share in Search revenue by pre-installing Google Search exclusively — but users can and do install a different search service.

Alternatives to all of Google’s services (including Search) abound on the Android platform. It’s trivial both to install them and to set them as the default. Meanwhile, device makers regularly choose to offer these apps alongside Google’s services, and some, like Samsung, have developed entire customized app suites of their own. Still others, like Amazon, pre-install no Google apps and use Android without any of these constraints (and whose Google-free tablets are regularly ranked as the best-rated and most popular in Europe).

By contrast, Apple bundles its operating system with its devices, bypasses third-party device makers entirely, and offers consumers access to its operating system only if they pay (lavishly) for one of the very limited number of devices the company offers, as well. It is perhaps not surprising — although it is enlightening — that Apple earns more revenue in an average quarter from iPhone sales than Google is reported to have earned in total from Android since it began offering it in 2008.

Reality — and the limits it imposes on efforts to manufacture nirvana

The logic behind Google’s approach to Android is obvious: It is the extension of Google’s “advertisers pay” platform strategy to mobile. Rather than charging device makers (and thus consumers) directly for its services, Google earns its revenue by charging advertisers for targeted access to users via Search. Remove Search from mobile devices and you remove the mechanism by which Google gets paid.

It’s true that most device makers opt to offer Google’s suite of services to European users, and that most users opt to keep Google Search as the default on their devices — that is, indeed, the hoped-for effect, and necessary to ensure that Google earns a return on its investment.

That users often choose to keep using Google services instead of installing alternatives, and that device makers typically choose to engineer their products around the Google ecosystem, isn’t primarily the result of a Google-imposed mandate; it’s the result of consumer preferences for Google’s offerings in lieu of readily available alternatives.

The EU decision against Google appears to imagine a world in which Google will continue to develop Android and allow device makers to use the platform and Google’s services for free, even if the likelihood of recouping its investment is diminished.

The Commission also assessed in detail Google’s arguments that the tying of the Google Search app and Chrome browser were necessary, in particular to allow Google to monetise its investment in Android, and concluded that these arguments were not well founded. Google achieves billions of dollars in annual revenues with the Google Play Store alone, it collects a lot of data that is valuable to Google’s search and advertising business from Android devices, and it would still have benefitted from a significant stream of revenue from search advertising without the restrictions.

For the Commission, Google’s earned enough [trust me: you should follow the link. It’s my favorite joke…].

But that world in which Google won’t alter its investment decisions based on a government-mandated reduction in its allowable return on investment doesn’t exist; it’s a fanciful Nirvana.

Google’s real alternatives to the status quo are charging for the use of Android, closing the Android platform and distributing it (like Apple) only on a fully integrated basis, or discontinuing Android.

In reality, and compared to these actual alternatives, Google’s restrictions are trivial. Remember, Google doesn’t insist that Google Search be exclusive, only that it benefit from a “leg up” by being pre-installed as the default. And on this thin reed Google finances the development and maintenance of the (free) Android operating system and all of the other (free) apps from which Google otherwise earns little or no revenue.

It’s hard to see how consumers, device makers, or app developers would be made better off without Google’s restrictions, but in the real world in which the alternative is one of the three manifestly less desirable options mentioned above.

Missing the real competition for the trees

What’s more, while ostensibly aimed at increasing competition, the Commission’s proposed remedy — like the conduct it addresses — doesn’t relate to Google’s most significant competitors at all.

Facebook, Instagram, Firefox, Amazon, Spotify, Yelp, and Yahoo, among many others, are some of the most popular apps on Android phones, including in Europe. They aren’t foreclosed by Google’s Android distribution terms, and it’s even hard to imagine that they would be more popular if only Android phones didn’t come with, say, Google Search pre-installed.

It’s a strange anticompetitive story that has Google allegedly foreclosing insignificant competitors while apparently ignoring its most substantial threats.

The primary challenges Google now faces are from Facebook drawing away the most valuable advertising and Amazon drawing away the most valuable product searches (and increasingly advertising, as well). The fact that Google’s challenged conduct has never shifted in order to target these competitors as their threat emerged, and has had no apparent effect on these competitive dynamics, says all one needs to know about the merits of the Commission’s decision and the value of its proposed remedy.

In reality, as Demsetz suggested, Nirvana cannot be designed by politicians, especially in complex, modern technology markets. Consumers’ best hope for something close — continued innovation, low prices, and voluminous choice — lies in the evolution of markets spurred by consumer demand, not regulators’ efforts to engineer them.

Our story begins on the morning of January 9, 2007. Few people knew it at the time, but the world of wireless communications was about to change forever. Steve Jobs walked on stage wearing his usual turtleneck, and proceeded to reveal the iPhone. The rest, as they say, is history. The iPhone moved the wireless communications industry towards a new paradigm. No more physical keyboards, clamshell bodies, and protruding antennae. All of these were replaced by a beautiful black design, a huge touchscreen (3.5” was big for that time), a rear-facing camera, and (a little bit later) a revolutionary new way to consume applications: the App Store. Sales soared and Apple’s stock started an upward trajectory that would see it become one of the world’s most valuable companies.

The story could very well have ended there. If it had, we might all be using iPhones today. However, years before, Google had commenced its own march into the wireless communications space by purchasing a small startup called Android. A first phone had initially been slated for release in late 2007. But Apple’s iPhone announcement sent Google back to the drawing board. It took Google and its partners until 2010 to come up with a competitive answer – the Google Nexus One produced by HTC.

Understanding the strategy that Google put in place during this three year timespan is essential to understanding the European Commission’s Google Android decision.

How to beat one of the great innovations?

In order to overthrow — or even merely just compete with — the iPhone, Google faced the same dilemma that most second-movers have to contend with: imitate or differentiate. Its solution was a mix of both. It took the touchscreen, camera, and applications, but departed on one key aspect. Whereas Apple controls the iPhone from end-to-end, Google opted for a licensed, open-source operating system that substitutes a more-decentralized approach for Apple’s so-called “walled garden.”

Google and a number of partners founded the Open Handset Alliance (“OHA”) in November 2007. This loose association of network operators, software companies and handset manufacturers became the driving force behind the Android OS. Through the OHA, Google and its partners have worked to develop minimal specifications for OHA-compliant Android devices in order to ensure that all levels of the device ecosystem — from device makers to app developers — function well together. As its initial press release boasts, through the OHA:

Handset manufacturers and wireless operators will be free to customize Android in order to bring to market innovative new products faster and at a much lower cost. Developers will have complete access to handset capabilities and tools that will enable them to build more compelling and user-friendly services, bringing the Internet developer model to the mobile space. And consumers worldwide will have access to less expensive mobile devices that feature more compelling services, rich Internet applications and easier-to-use interfaces — ultimately creating a superior mobile experience.

The open source route has a number of advantages — notably the improved division of labor — but it is not without challenges. One key difficulty lies in coordinating and incentivizing the dozens of firms that make up the alliance. Google must not only keep the diverse Android ecosystem directed toward a common, compatible goal, it also has to monetize a product that, by its very nature, is given away free of charge. It is Google’s answers to these two problems that set off the Commission’s investigation.

The first problem is a direct consequence of Android’s decentralization. Whereas there are only a small number of iPhones (the couple of models which Apple markets at any given time) running the same operating system, Android comes in a jaw-dropping array of flavors. Some devices are produced by Google itself, others are the fruit of high-end manufacturers such as Samsung and LG, there are also so-called “flagship killers” like OnePlus, and budget phones from the likes of Motorola and Honor (one of Huawei’s brands). The differences don’t stop there. Manufacturers, like Samsung, Xiaomi and LG (to name but a few) have tinkered with the basic Android setup. Samsung phones heavily incorporate its Bixby virtual assistant, while Xiaomi packs in a novel user interface. The upshot is that the Android marketplace is tremendously diverse.

Managing this variety is challenging, to say the least (preventing projects from unravelling into a myriad of forks is always an issue for open source projects). Google and the OHA have come up with an elegant solution. The alliance penalizes so-called “incompatible” devices — that is, handsets whose software or hardware stray too far from a predetermined series of specifications. When this is the case, Google may refuse to license its proprietary applications (most notably the Play Store). This minimum level of uniformity ensures that apps will run smoothly on all devices. It also provides users with a consistent experience (thereby protecting the Android brand) and reduces the cost of developing applications for Android. Unsurprisingly, Android developers have lauded these “anti-fragmentation” measures, branding the Commission’s case a disaster.

A second important problem stems from the fact that the Android OS is an open source project. Device manufacturers can thus license the software free of charge. This is no small advantage. It shaves precious dollars from the price of Android smartphones, thus opening-up the budget end of the market. Although there are numerous factors at play, it should be noted that a top of the range Samsung Galaxy S9+ is roughly 30% cheaper ($819) than its Apple counterpart, the iPhone X ($1165).

Offering a competitive operating system free of charge might provide a fantastic deal for consumers, but it poses obvious business challenges. How can Google and other members of the OHA earn a return on the significant amounts of money poured into developing, improving, and marketing and Android devices? As is often the case with open source projects, they essentially rely on complementarities. Google produces the Android OS in the hope that it will boost users’ consumption of its profitable, ad-supported services (Google Search in particular). This is sometimes referred to as a loss leader or complementary goods strategy.

Google uses two important sets of contractual provisions to cement this loss leader strategy. First, it seemingly bundles a number of proprietary applications together. Manufacturers must pre-load the Google Search and Chrome apps in order to obtain the Play Store app (the lynchpin on which the Android ecosystem sits). Second, Google has concluded a number of “revenue sharing” deals with manufacturers and network operators. These companies receive monetary compensation when the Google Search is displayed prominently on a user’s home screen. In effect, they are receiving a cut of the marginal revenue that the use of this search bar generates for Google. Both of these measures ultimately nudge users — but do not force them, as neither prevents users from installing competing apps — into using Google’s most profitable services.

Readers would be forgiven for thinking that this is a win-win situation. Users get a competitive product free of charge, while Google and other members of the OHA earn enough money to compete against Apple.

The Commission is of another mind, however.

Commission’s hubris

The European Commission believes that Google is hurting competition. Though the text of the decision is not yet available, the thrust of its argument is that Google’s anti-fragmentation measures prevent software developers from launching competing OSs, while the bundling and revenue sharing both thwart rival search engines.

This analysis runs counter to some rather obvious facts:

  • For a start, the Android ecosystem is vibrant. Numerous firms have launched forked versions of Android, both with and without Google’s apps. Amazon’s Fire line of devices is a notable example.
  • Second, although Google’s behavior does have an effect on the search engine market, there is nothing anticompetitive about it. Yahoo could very well have avoided its high-profile failure if, way back in 2005, it had understood the importance of the mobile internet. At the time, it still had a 30% market share, compared to Google’s 36%. Firms that fail to seize upon business opportunities will fall out of the market. This is not a bug; it is possibly the most important feature of market economies. It reveals the products that consumers prefer and stops resources from being allocated to less valuable propositions.
  • Last but not least, Google’s behavior does not prevent other search engines from placing their own search bars or virtual assistants on smartphones. This is essentially what Samsung has done by ditching Google’s assistant in favor of its Bixby service. In other words, Google is merely competing with other firms to place key apps on or near the home screen of devices.

Even if the Commission’s reasoning where somehow correct, the competition watchdog is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The potential repercussions for Android, the software industry, and European competition law are great:

  • For a start, the Commission risks significantly weakening Android’s competitive position relative to Apple. Android is a complex ecosystem. The idea that it is possible to bring incremental changes to its strategy without threatening the viability of the whole is a sign of the Commission’s hubris.
  • More broadly, the harsh treatment of Google could have significant incentive effects for other tech platforms. As others have already pointed out, the Commission’s decision rests on the idea that dominant firms should not be allowed to favor their own services compared to those of rivals. Taken a face value, this anti-discrimination policy will push firms to design closed platforms. If rivals are excluded from the very start, there is no one against whom to discriminate. Antitrust watchdogs are thus kept at bay (and thus the Commission is acting against Google’s marginal preference for its own services, rather than Apple’s far-more-substantial preferencing of its own services). Moving to a world of only walled gardens might harm users and innovators alike.

Over the next couple of days and weeks, many will jump to the Commission’s defense. They will see its action as a necessary step against the abstract “power” of Silicon Valley’s tech giants. Rivals will feel vindicated. But when all is done and dusted, there seems to be little doubt that the decision is misguided. The Commission will have struck a blow to the heart of the most competitive offering in the smartphone space. And consumers will be the biggest losers.

This is not what the competition laws were intended to achieve.

A few weeks ago I posted a preliminary assessment of the relative antitrust risk of a Comcast vs Disney purchase of 21st Century Fox assets. (Also available in pdf as an ICLE Issue brief, here). On the eve of Judge Leon’s decision in the AT&T/Time Warner merger case, it seems worthwhile to supplement that assessment by calling attention to Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim’s remarks at The Deal’s Corporate Governance Conference last week. Somehow these remarks seem to have passed with little notice, but, given their timing, they deserve quite a bit more attention.

In brief, Delrahim spent virtually the entirety of his short remarks making and remaking the fundamental point at the center of my own assessment of the antitrust risk of a possible Comcast/Fox deal: The DOJ’s challenge of the AT&T/Time Warner merger tells you nothing about the likelihood that the agency would challenge a Comcast/Fox merger.

To begin, in my earlier assessment I pointed out that most vertical mergers are approved by antitrust enforcers, and I quoted Bruce Hoffman, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, who noted that:

[V]ertical merger enforcement is still a small part of our merger workload….

* * *

Where horizontal mergers reduce competition on their face — though that reduction could be minimal or more than offset by benefits — vertical mergers do not…. [T]here are plenty of theories of anticompetitive harm from vertical mergers. But the problem is that those theories don’t generally predict harm from vertical mergers; they simply show that harm is possible under certain conditions.

I may not have made it very clear in that post, but, of course, most horizontal mergers are approved by enforcers, as well.

Well, now we have the head of the DOJ Antitrust Division making the same point:

I’d say 95 or 96 percent of mergers — horizontal or vertical — are cleared — routinely…. Most mergers — horizontal or vertical — are procompetitive, or have no adverse effect.

Delrahim reinforced the point in an interview with The Street in advance of his remarks. Asked by a reporter, “what are your concerns with vertical mergers?,” Delrahim quickly corrected the questioner: “Well, I don’t have any concerns with most vertical mergers….”

But Delrahim went even further, noting that nothing about the Division’s approach to vertical mergers has changed since the AT&T/Time Warner case was brought — despite the efforts of some reporters to push a different narrative:

I understand that some journalists and observers have recently expressed concern that the Antitrust Division no longer believes that vertical mergers can be efficient and beneficial to competition and consumers. Some point to our recent decision to challenge some aspects of the AT&T/Time Warner merger as a supposed bellwether for a new vertical approach. Rest assured: These concerns are misplaced…. We have long recognized that vertical integration can and does generate efficiencies that benefit consumers. Indeed, most vertical mergers are procompetitive or competitively neutral. The same is of course true in horizontal transactions. To the extent that any recent action points to a closer review of vertical mergers, it’s not new…. [But,] to reiterate, our approach to vertical mergers has not changed, and our recent enforcement efforts are consistent with the Division’s long-standing, bipartisan approach to analyzing such mergers. We’ll continue to recognize that vertical mergers, in general, can yield significant economic efficiencies and benefit to competition.

Delrahim concluded his remarks by criticizing those who assume that the agency’s future enforcement decisions can be inferred from past cases with different facts, stressing that the agency employs an evidence-based, case-by-case approach to merger review:

Lumping all vertical transactions under the same umbrella, by comparison, obscures the reality that we conduct a vigorous investigation, aided by over 50 PhD economists in these markets, to make sure that we as lawyers don’t steer too far without the benefits of their views in each of these instances.

Arguably this was a rebuke directed at those, like Disney and Fox’s board, who are quick to ascribe increased regulatory risk to a Comcast/Fox tie-up because the DOJ challenged the AT&T/Time Warner merger. Recall that, in its proxy statement, the Fox board explained that it rejected Comcast’s earlier bid in favor of Disney’s in part because of “the regulatory risks presented by the DOJ’s unanticipated opposition to the proposed vertical integration of the AT&T / Time Warner transaction.”

I’ll likely have more to add once the AT&T/Time Warner decision is out. But in the meantime (and with apologies to Mark Twain), the takeaway is clear: Reports of the death of vertical mergers have been greatly exaggerated.

As has been rumored in the press for a few weeks, today Comcast announced it is considering making a renewed bid for a large chunk of Twenty-First Century Fox’s (Fox) assets. Fox is in the process of a significant reorganization, entailing primarily the sale of its international and non-television assets. Fox itself will continue, but with a focus on its US television business.

In December of last year, Fox agreed to sell these assets to Disney, in the process rejecting a bid from Comcast. Comcast’s initial bid was some 16% higher than Disney’s, although there were other differences in the proposed deals, as well.

In April of this year, Disney and Fox filed a proxy statement with the SEC explaining the basis for the board’s decision, including predominantly the assertion that the Comcast bid (NB: Comcast is identified as “Party B” in that document) presented greater regulatory (antitrust) risk.

As noted, today Comcast announced it is in “advanced stages” of preparing another unsolicited bid. This time,

Any offer for Fox would be all-cash and at a premium to the value of the current all-share offer from Disney. The structure and terms of any offer by Comcast, including with respect to both the spin-off of “New Fox” and the regulatory risk provisions and the related termination fee, would be at least as favorable to Fox shareholders as the Disney offer.

Because, as we now know (since the April proxy filing), Fox’s board rejected Comcast’s earlier offer largely on the basis of the board’s assessment of the antitrust risk it presented, and because that risk assessment (and the difference between an all-cash and all-share offer) would now be the primary distinguishing feature between Comcast’s and Disney’s bids, it is worth evaluating that conclusion as Fox and its shareholders consider Comcast’s new bid.

In short: There is no basis for ascribing a greater antitrust risk to Comcast’s purchase of Fox’s assets than to Disney’s.

Summary of the Proposed Deal

Post-merger, Fox will continue to own Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox Sports, Fox Television Stations Group, and sports cable networks FS1, FS2, Fox Deportes, and Big Ten Network.

The deal would transfer to Comcast (or Disney) the following:

  • Primarily, international assets, including Fox International (cable channels in Latin America, the EU, and Asia), Star India (the largest cable and broadcast network in India), and Fox’s 39% interest in Sky (Europe’s largest pay TV service).
  • Fox’s film properties, including 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, and Fox Animation. These would bring along with them studios in Sydney and Los Angeles, but would not include the Fox Los Angeles backlot. Like the rest of the US film industry, the majority of Fox’s film revenue is earned overseas.
  • FX cable channels, National Geographic cable channels (of which Fox currently owns 75%), and twenty-two regional sports networks (RSNs). In terms of relative demand for the two cable networks, FX is a popular basic cable channel, but fairly far down the list of most-watched channels, while National Geographic doesn’t even crack the top 50. Among the RSNs, only one geographic overlap exists with Comcast’s current RSNs, and most of the Fox RSNs (at least 14 of the 22) are not in areas where Comcast has a substantial service presence.
  • The deal would also entail a shift in the companies’ ownership interests in Hulu. Hulu is currently owned in equal 30% shares by Disney, Comcast, and Fox, with the remaining, non-voting 10% owned by Time Warner. Either Comcast or Disney would hold a controlling 60% share of Hulu following the deal with Fox.

Analysis of the Antitrust Risk of a Comcast/Fox Merger

According to the joint proxy statement, Fox’s board discounted Comcast’s original $34.36/share offer — but not the $28.00/share offer from Disney — because of “the level of regulatory issues posed and the proposed risk allocation arrangements.” Significantly on this basis, the Fox board determined Disney’s offer to be superior.

The claim that a merger with Comcast poses sufficiently greater antitrust risk than a purchase by Disney to warrant its rejection out of hand is unsupportable, however. From an antitrust perspective, it is even plausible that a Comcast acquisition of the Fox assets would be on more-solid ground than would be a Disney acquisition.

Vertical Mergers Generally Present Less Antitrust Risk

A merger between Comcast and Fox would be predominantly vertical, while a merger between Disney and Fox, in contrast, would be primarily horizontal. Generally speaking, it is easier to get antitrust approval for vertical mergers than it is for horizontal mergers. As Bruce Hoffman, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, noted earlier this year:

[V]ertical merger enforcement is still a small part of our merger workload….

There is a strong theoretical basis for horizontal enforcement because economic models predict at least nominal potential for anticompetitive effects due to elimination of horizontal competition between substitutes.

Where horizontal mergers reduce competition on their face — though that reduction could be minimal or more than offset by benefits — vertical mergers do not…. [T]here are plenty of theories of anticompetitive harm from vertical mergers. But the problem is that those theories don’t generally predict harm from vertical mergers; they simply show that harm is possible under certain conditions.

On its face, and consistent with the last quarter century of merger enforcement by the DOJ and FTC, the Comcast acquisition would be less likely to trigger antitrust scrutiny, and the Disney acquisition raises more straightforward antitrust issues.

This is true even in light of the fact that the DOJ decided to challenge the AT&T-Time Warner (AT&T/TWX) merger.

The AT&T/TWX merger is a single data point in a long history of successful vertical mergers that attracted little scrutiny, and no litigation, by antitrust enforcers (although several have been approved subject to consent orders).

Just because the DOJ challenged that one merger does not mean that antitrust enforcers generally, nor even the DOJ in particular, have suddenly become more hostile to vertical mergers.

Of particular importance to the conclusion that the AT&T/TWX merger challenge is of minimal relevance to predicting the DOJ’s reception in this case, the theory of harm argued by the DOJ in that case is far from well-accepted, while the potential theory that could underpin a challenge to a Disney/Fox merger is. As Bruce Hoffman further remarks:

I am skeptical of arguments that vertical mergers cause harm due to an increased bargaining skill; this is likely not an anticompetitive effect because it does not flow from a reduction in competition. I would contrast that to the elimination of competition in a horizontal merger that leads to an increase in bargaining leverage that could raise price or reduce output.

The Relatively Lower Risk of a Vertical Merger Challenge Hasn’t Changed Following the DOJ’s AT&T/Time Warner Challenge

Judge Leon is expected to rule on the AT&T/TWX merger in a matter of weeks. The theory underpinning the DOJ’s challenge is problematic (to say the least), and the case it presented was decidedly weak. But no litigated legal outcome is ever certain, and the court could, of course, rule against the merger nevertheless.

Yet even if the court does rule against the AT&T/TWX merger, this hardly suggests that a Comcast/Fox deal would create a greater antitrust risk than would a Disney/Fox merger.

A single successful challenge to a vertical merger — what would be, in fact, the first successful vertical merger challenge in four decades — doesn’t mean that the courts are becoming hostile to vertical mergers any more than the DOJ’s challenge means that vertical mergers suddenly entail heightened enforcement risk. Rather, it would simply mean that that, given the specific facts of the case, the DOJ was able to make out its prima facie case, and that the defendants were unable to rebut it.  

A ruling for the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX merger challenge would be rooted in a highly fact-specific analysis that could have no direct bearing on future cases.

In the AT&T/TWX case, the court’s decision will turn on its assessment of the DOJ’s argument that the merged firm could raise subscriber prices by a few pennies per subscriber. But as AT&T’s attorney aptly pointed out at trial (echoing the testimony of AT&T’s economist, Dennis Carlton):

The government’s modeled price increase is so negligible that, given the inherent uncertainty in that predictive exercise, it is not meaningfully distinguishable from zero.

Even minor deviations from the facts or the assumptions used in the AT&T/TWX case could completely upend the analysis — and there are important differences between the AT&T/TWX merger and a Comcast/Fox merger. True, both would be largely vertical mergers that would bring together programming and distribution assets in the home video market. But the foreclosure effects touted by the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX merger are seemingly either substantially smaller or entirely non-existent in the proposed Comcast/Fox merger.

Most importantly, the content at issue in AT&T/TWX is at least arguably (and, in fact, argued by the DOJ) “must have” programming — Time Warner’s premium HBO channels and its CNN news programming, in particular, were central to the DOJ’s foreclosure argument. By contrast, the programming that Comcast would pick up as a result of the proposed merger with Fox — FX (a popular, but non-essential, basic cable channel) and National Geographic channels (which attract a tiny fraction of cable viewing) — would be extremely unlikely to merit that designation.

Moreover, the DOJ made much of the fact that AT&T, through DirectTV, has a national distribution footprint. As a result, its analysis was dependent upon the company’s potential ability to attract new subscribers decamping from competing providers from whom it withholds access to Time Warner content in every market in the country. Comcast, on the other hand, provides cable service in only about 35% of the country. This significantly limits its ability to credibly threaten competitors because its ability to recoup lost licensing fees by picking up new subscribers is so much more limited.

And while some RSNs may offer some highly prized live sports programming, the mismatch between Comcast’s footprint and the FOX RSNs (only about 8 of the 22 Fox RSNs are in Comcast service areas) severely limits any ability or incentive the company would have to leverage that content for higher fees. Again, to the extent that RSN programming is not “must-have,” and to the extent there is not overlap between the RSN’s geographic area and Comcast’s service area, the situation is manifestly not the same as the one at issue in the AT&T/TWX merger.

In sum, a ruling in favor of the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX case would be far from decisive in predicting how the agency and the courts would assess any potential concerns arising from Comcast’s ownership of Fox’s assets.

A Comcast/Fox Deal May Entail Lower Antitrust Risk than a Disney/Fox Merger

As discussed below, concerns about antitrust enforcement risk from a Comcast/Fox merger are likely overstated. Perhaps more importantly, however, to the extent these concerns are legitimate, they apply at least as much to a Disney/Fox merger. There is, at minimum, no basis for assuming a Comcast deal would present any greater regulatory risk.

The Antitrust Risk of a Comcast/Fox Merger Is Likely Overstated

The primary theory upon which antitrust enforcers could conceivably base a Comcast/Fox merger challenge would be a vertical foreclosure theory. Importantly, such a challenge would have to be based on the incremental effect of adding the Fox assets to Comcast, and not on the basis of its existing assets. Thus, for example, antitrust enforcers would not be able to base a merger challenge on the possibility that Comcast could leverage NBC content it currently owns to extract higher fees from competitors. Rather, only if the combination of NBC programming with additional content from Fox could create a new antitrust risk would a case be tenable.

Enforcers would be unlikely to view the addition of FX and National Geographic to the portfolio of programming content Comcast currently owns as sufficient to raise concerns that the merger would give Comcast anticompetitive bargaining power or the ability to foreclose access to its content.

Although even less likely, enforcers could be concerned with the (horizontal) addition of 20th Century Fox filmed entertainment to Universal’s existing film production and distribution. But the theatrical film market is undeniably competitive, with the largest studio by revenue (Disney) last year holding only 22% of the market. The combination of 20th Century Fox with Universal would still result in a market share only around 25% based on 2017 revenues (and, depending on the year, not even result in the industry’s largest share).

There is also little reason to think that a Comcast controlling interest in Hulu would attract problematic antitrust attention. Comcast has already demonstrated an interest in diversifying its revenue across cable subscriptions and licensing, broadband subscriptions, and licensing to OVDs, as evidenced by its recent deal to offer Netflix as part of its Xfinity packages. Hulu likely presents just one more avenue for pursuing this same diversification strategy. And Universal has a history (see, e.g., this, this, and this) of very broad licensing across cable providers, cable networks, OVDs, and the like.

In the case of Hulu, moreover, the fact that Comcast is vertically integrated in broadband as well as cable service likely reduces the anticompetitive risk because more-attractive OVD content has the potential to increase demand for Comcast’s broadband service. Broadband offers larger margins (and is growing more rapidly) than cable, and it’s quite possible that any loss in Comcast’s cable subscriber revenue from Hulu’s success would be more than offset by gains in its content licensing and broadband subscription revenue. The same, of course, goes for Comcast’s incentives to license content to OVD competitors like Netflix: Comcast plausibly gains broadband subscription revenue from heightened consumer demand for Netflix, and this at least partially offsets any possible harm to Hulu from Netflix’s success.

At the same time, especially relative to Netflix’s vast library of original programming (an expected $8 billion worth in 2018 alone) and content licensed from other sources, the additional content Comcast would gain from a merger with Fox is not likely to appreciably increase its bargaining leverage or its ability to foreclose Netflix’s access to its content.     

Finally, Comcast’s ownership of Fox’s RSNs could, as noted, raise antitrust enforcers’ eyebrows. Enforcers could be concerned that Comcast would condition competitors’ access to RSN programming on higher licensing fees or prioritization of its NBC Sports channels.

While this is indeed a potential risk, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that it would draw an enforcement action. Among other things, NBC is far from the market leader, and improving its competitive position relative to ESPN could be viewed as a benefit of the deal. In any case, potential problems arising from ownership of the RSNs could easily be dealt with through divestiture or behavioral conditions; they are extremely unlikely to lead to an outright merger challenge.

The Antitrust Risk of a Disney Deal May Be Greater than Expected

While a Comcast/Fox deal doesn’t entail no antitrust enforcement risk, it certainly doesn’t entail sufficient risk to deem the deal dead on arrival. Moreover, it may entail less antitrust enforcement risk than would a Disney/Fox tie-up.

Yet, curiously, the joint proxy statement doesn’t mention any antitrust risk from the Disney deal at all and seems to suggest that the Fox board applied no risk discount in evaluating Disney’s bid.

Disney — already the market leader in the filmed entertainment industry — would acquire an even larger share of box office proceeds (and associated licensing revenues) through acquisition of Fox’s film properties. Perhaps even more important, the deal would bring the movie rights to almost all of the Marvel Universe within Disney’s ambit.

While, as suggested above, even that combination probably wouldn’t trigger any sort of market power presumption, it would certainly create an entity with a larger share of the market and stronger control of the industry’s most valuable franchises than would a Comcast/Fox deal.

Another relatively larger complication for a Disney/Fox merger arises from the prospect of combining Fox’s RSNs with ESPN. Whatever ability or incentive either company would have to engage in anticompetitive conduct surrounding sports programming, that risk would seem to be more significant for undisputed market leader, Disney. At the same time, although still powerful, demand for ESPN on cable has been flagging. Disney could well see the ability to bundle ESPN with regional sports content as a way to prop up subscription revenues for ESPN — a practice, in fact, that it has employed successfully in the past.   

Finally, it must be noted that licensing of consumer products is an even bigger driver of revenue from filmed entertainment than is theatrical release. No other company comes close to Disney in this space.

Disney is the world’s largest licensor, earning almost $57 billion in 2016 from licensing properties like Star Wars and Marvel Comics. Universal is in a distant 7th place, with 2016 licensing revenue of about $6 billion. Adding Fox’s (admittedly relatively small) licensing business would enhance Disney’s substantial lead (even the number two global licensor, Meredith, earned less than half of Disney’s licensing revenue in 2016). Again, this is unlikely to be a significant concern for antitrust enforcers, but it is notable that, to the extent it might be an issue, it is one that applies to Disney and not Comcast.

Conclusion

Although I hope to address these issues in greater detail in the future, for now the preliminary assessment is clear: There is no legitimate basis for ascribing a greater antitrust risk to a Comcast/Fox deal than to a Disney/Fox deal.

What happened

Today, following a six year investigation into Google’s business practices in India, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) issued its ruling.

Two things, in particular, are remarkable about the decision. First, while the CCI’s staff recommended a finding of liability on a litany of claims (the exact number is difficult to infer from the Commission’s decision, but it appears to be somewhere in the double digits), the Commission accepted its staff’s recommendation on only three — and two of those involve conduct no longer employed by Google.

Second, nothing in the Commission’s finding of liability or in the remedy it imposes suggests it approaches the issue as the EU does. To be sure, the CCI employs rhetoric suggesting that “search bias” can be anticompetitive. But its focus remains unwaveringly on the welfare of the consumer, not on the hyperbolic claims of Google’s competitors.

What didn’t happen

In finding liability on only a single claim involving ongoing practices — the claim arising from Google’s “unfair” placement of its specialized flight search (Google Flights) results — the Commission also roundly rejected a host of other claims (more than once with strong words directed at its staff for proposing such woefully unsupported arguments). Among these are several that have been raised (and unanimously rejected) by competition regulators elsewhere in the world. These claims related to a host of Google’s practices, including:

  • Search bias involving the treatment of specialized Google content (like Google Maps, YouTube, Google Reviews, etc.) other than Google Flights
  • Search bias involving the display of Universal Search results (including local search, news search, image search, etc.), except where these results are fixed to a specific position on every results page (as was the case in India before 2010), instead of being inserted wherever most appropriate in context
  • Search bias involving OneBox results (instant answers to certain queries that are placed at the top of search results pages), even where answers are drawn from Google’s own content and specific, licensed sources (rather than from crawling the web)
  • Search bias involving sponsored, vertical search results (e.g., Google Shopping results) other than Google Flights. These results are not determined by the same algorithm that returns organic results, but are instead more like typical paid search advertising results that sometimes appear at the top of search results pages. The Commission did find that Google’s treatment of its Google Flight results (another form of sponsored result) violated India’s competition laws
  • The operation of Google’s advertising platform (AdWords), including the use of a “Quality Score” in its determination of an ad’s relevance (something Josh Wright and I discuss at length here)
  • Google’s practice of allowing advertisers to bid on trademarked keywords
  • Restrictions placed by Google upon the portability of advertising campaign data to other advertising platforms through its AdWords API
  • Distribution agreements that set Google as the default (but not exclusive) search engine on certain browsers
  • Certain restrictions in syndication agreements with publishers (websites) through which Google provides search and/or advertising (Google’s AdSense offering). The Commission found that negotiated search agreements that require Google to be the exclusive search provider on certain sites did violate India’s competition laws. It should be noted, however, that Google has very few of these agreements, and no longer enters into them, so the finding is largely historical. All of the other assertions regarding these agreements (and there were numerous claims involving a number of clauses in a range of different agreements) were rejected by the Commission.

Just like competition authorities in the US, Canada, and Taiwan that have properly focused on consumer welfare in their Google investigations, the CCI found important consumer benefits from these practices that outweigh any inconveniences they may impose on competitors. And, just as in those jurisdictions, all of them were rejected by the Commission.

Still improperly assessing Google’s dominance

The biggest problem with the CCI’s decision is its acceptance — albeit moderated in important ways — of the notion that Google owes a special duty to competitors given its position as an alleged “gateway” to the Internet:

In the present case, since Google is the gateway to the internet for a vast majority of internet users, due to its dominance in the online web search market, it is under an obligation to discharge its special responsibility. As Google has the ability and the incentive to abuse its dominant position, its “special responsibility” is critical in ensuring not only the fairness of the online web search and search advertising markets, but also the fairness of all online markets given that these are primarily accessed through search engines. (para 202)

As I’ve discussed before, a proper analysis of the relevant markets in which Google operates would make clear that Google is beset by actual and potential competitors at every turn. Access to consumers by advertisers, competing search services, other competing services, mobile app developers, and the like is readily available. The lines between markets drawn by the CCI are based on superficial distinctions that are of little importance to the actual relevant market.

Consider, for example: Users seeking product information can get it via search, but also via Amazon and Facebook; advertisers can place ad copy and links in front of millions of people on search results pages, and they can also place them in front of millions of people on Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, many specialized search competitors like Yelp receive most of their traffic from direct navigation and from their mobile apps. In short, the assumption of market dominance made by the CCI (and so many others these days) is based on a stilted conception of the relevant market, as Google is far from the only channel through which competitors can reach consumers.

The importance of innovation in the CCI’s decision

Of course, it’s undeniable that Google is an important mechanism by which competitors reach consumers. And, crucially, nowhere did the CCI adopt Google’s critics’ and competitors’ frequently asserted position that Google is, in effect, an “essential facility” requiring extremely demanding limitations on its ability to control its product when doing so might impede its rivals.

So, while the CCI defines the relevant markets and adopts legal conclusions that confer special importance on Google’s operation of its general search results pages, it stops short of demanding that Google treat competitors on equal terms to its own offerings, as would typically be required of essential facilities (or their close cousin, public utilities).

Significantly, the Commission weighs the imposition of even these “special responsibilities” against the effects of such duties on innovation, particularly with respect to product design.

The CCI should be commended for recognizing that any obligation imposed by antitrust law on a dominant company to refrain from impeding its competitors’ access to markets must stop short of requiring the company to stop innovating, even when its product innovations might make life difficult for its competitors.

Of course, some product design choices can be, on net, anticompetitive. But innovation generally benefits consumers, and it should be impeded only where doing so clearly results in net consumer harm. Thus:

[T]he Commission is cognizant of the fact that any intervention in technology markets has to be carefully crafted lest it stifles innovation and denies consumers the benefits that such innovation can offer. This can have a detrimental effect on economic welfare and economic growth, particularly in countries relying on high growth such as India…. [P]roduct design is an important and integral dimension of competition and any undue intervention in designs of SERP [Search Engine Results Pages] may affect legitimate product improvements resulting in consumer harm. (paras 203-04).

As a consequence of this cautious approach, the CCI refused to accede to its staff’s findings of liability based on Google’s treatment of its vertical search results without considering how Google’s incorporation of these specialized results improved its product for consumers. Thus, for example:

The Commission is of opinion that requiring Google to show third-party maps may cause a delay in response time (“latency”) because these maps reside on third-party servers…. Further, requiring Google to show third-party maps may break the connection between Google’s local results and the map…. That being so, the Commission is of the view that no case of contravention of the provisions of the Act is made out in Google showing its own maps along with local search results. The Commission also holds that the same consideration would apply for not showing any other specialised result designs from third parties. (para 224 (emphasis added))

The CCI’s laudable and refreshing focus on consumer welfare

Even where the CCI determined that Google’s current practices violate India’s antitrust laws (essentially only with respect to Google Flights), it imposed a remedy that does not demand alteration of the overall structure of Google’s search results, nor its algorithmic placement of those results. In fact, the most telling indication that India’s treatment of product design innovation embodies a consumer-centric approach markedly different from that pushed by Google’s competitors (and adopted by the EU) is its remedy.

Following its finding that

[p]rominent display and placement of Commercial Flight Unit with link to Google’s specialised search options/ services (Flight) amounts to an unfair imposition upon users of search services as it deprives them of additional choices (para 420),

the CCI determined that the appropriate remedy for this defect was:

So far as the contravention noted by the Commission in respect of Flight Commercial Unit is concerned, the Commission directs Google to display a disclaimer in the commercial flight unit box indicating clearly that the “search flights” link placed at the bottom leads to Google’s Flights page, and not the results aggregated by any other third party service provider, so that users are not misled. (para 422 (emphasis added))

Indeed, what is most notable — and laudable — about the CCI’s decision is that both the alleged problem, as well as the proposed remedy, are laser-focused on the effect on consumers — not the welfare of competitors.

Where the EU’s recent Google Shopping decision considers that this sort of non-neutral presentation of Google search results harms competitors and demands equal treatment by Google of rivals seeking access to Google’s search results page, the CCI sees instead that non-neutral presentation of results could be confusing to consumers. It does not demand that Google open its doors to competitors, but rather that it more clearly identify when its product design prioritizes Google’s own content rather than determine priority based on its familiar organic search results algorithm.

This distinction is significant. For all the language in the decision asserting Google’s dominance and suggesting possible impediments to competition, the CCI does not, in fact, view Google’s design of its search results pages as a contrivance intended to exclude competitors from accessing markets.

The CCI’s remedy suggests that it has no problem with Google maintaining control over its search results pages and determining what results, and in what order, to serve to consumers. Its sole concern, rather, is that Google not get a leg up at the expense of consumers by misleading them into thinking that its product design is something that it is not.

Rather than dictate how Google should innovate or force it to perpetuate an outdated design in the name of preserving access by competitors bent on maintaining the status quo, the Commission embraces the consumer benefits of Google’s evolving products, and seeks to impose only a narrowly targeted tweak aimed directly at the quality of consumers’ interactions with Google’s products.

Conclusion

As some press accounts of the CCI’s decision trumpet, the Commission did impose liability on Google for abuse of a dominant position. But its similarity with the EU’s abuse of dominance finding ends there. The CCI rejected many more claims than it adopted, and it carefully tailored its remedy to the welfare of consumers, not the lamentations of competitors. Unlike the EU, the CCI’s finding of a violation is tempered by its concern for avoiding harmful constraints on innovation and product design, and its remedy makes this clear. Whatever the defects of India’s decision, it offers a welcome return to consumer-centric antitrust.

This week the FCC will vote on Chairman Ajit Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Once implemented, the Order will rescind the 2015 Open Internet Order and return antitrust and consumer protection enforcement to primacy in Internet access regulation in the U.S.

In anticipation of that, earlier this week the FCC and FTC entered into a Memorandum of Understanding delineating how the agencies will work together to police ISPs. Under the MOU, the FCC will review informal complaints regarding ISPs’ disclosures about their blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, and congestion management practices. Where an ISP fails to make the proper disclosures, the FCC will take enforcement action. The FTC, for its part, will investigate and, where warranted, take enforcement action against ISPs for unfair, deceptive, or otherwise unlawful acts.

Critics of Chairman Pai’s plan contend (among other things) that the reversion to antitrust-agency oversight of competition and consumer protection in telecom markets (and the Internet access market particularly) would be an aberration — that the US will become the only place in the world to move backward away from net neutrality rules and toward antitrust law.

But this characterization has it exactly wrong. In fact, much of the world has been moving toward an antitrust-based approach to telecom regulation. The aberration was the telecom-specific, common-carrier regulation of the 2015 Open Internet Order.

The longstanding, global transition from telecom regulation to antitrust enforcement

The decade-old discussion around net neutrality has morphed, perhaps inevitably, to join the larger conversation about competition in the telecom sector and the proper role of antitrust law in addressing telecom-related competition issues. Today, with the latest net neutrality rules in the US on the chopping block, the discussion has grown more fervent (and even sometimes inordinately violent).

On the one hand, opponents of the 2015 rules express strong dissatisfaction with traditional, utility-style telecom regulation of innovative services, and view the 2015 rules as a meritless usurpation of antitrust principles in guiding the regulation of the Internet access market. On the other hand, proponents of the 2015 rules voice skepticism that antitrust can actually provide a way to control competitive harms in the tech and telecom sectors, and see the heavy hand of Title II, common-carrier regulation as a necessary corrective.

While the evidence seems clear that an early-20th-century approach to telecom regulation is indeed inappropriate for the modern Internet (see our lengthy discussions on this point, e.g., here and here, as well as Thom Lambert’s recent post), it is perhaps less clear whether antitrust, with its constantly evolving, common-law foundation, is up to the task.

To answer that question, it is important to understand that for decades, the arc of telecom regulation globally has been sweeping in the direction of ex post competition enforcement, and away from ex ante, sector-specific regulation.

Howard Shelanski, who served as President Obama’s OIRA Administrator from 2013-17, Director of the Bureau of Economics at the FTC from 2012-2013, and Chief Economist at the FCC from 1999-2000, noted in 2002, for instance, that

[i]n many countries, the first transition has been from a government monopoly to a privatizing entity controlled by an independent regulator. The next transformation on the horizon is away from the independent regulator and towards regulation through general competition law.

Globally, nowhere perhaps has this transition been more clearly stated than in the EU’s telecom regulatory framework which asserts:

The aim is to progressively reduce ex ante sector-specific regulation progressively as competition in markets develops and, ultimately, for electronic communications [i.e., telecommunications] to be governed by competition law only. (Emphasis added.)

To facilitate the transition and quash regulatory inconsistencies among member states, the EC identified certain markets for national regulators to decide, consistent with EC guidelines on market analysis, whether ex ante obligations were necessary in their respective countries due to an operator holding “significant market power.” In 2003 the EC identified 18 such markets. After observing technological and market changes over the next four years, the EC reduced that number to seven in 2007 and, in 2014, the number was further reduced to four markets, all wholesale markets, that could potentially require ex ante regulation.

It is important to highlight that this framework is not uniquely achievable in Europe because of some special trait in its markets, regulatory structure, or antitrust framework. Determining the right balance of regulatory rules and competition law, whether enforced by a telecom regulator, antitrust regulator, or multi-purpose authority (i.e., with authority over both competition and telecom) means choosing from a menu of options that should be periodically assessed to move toward better performance and practice. There is nothing jurisdiction-specific about this; it is simply a matter of good governance.

And since the early 2000s, scholars have highlighted that the US is in an intriguing position to transition to a merged regulator because, for example, it has both a “highly liberalized telecommunications sector and a well-established body of antitrust law.” For Shelanski, among others, the US has been ready to make the transition since 2007.

Far from being an aberrant move away from sound telecom regulation, the FCC’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order is actually a step in the direction of sensible, antitrust-based telecom regulation — one that many parts of the world have long since undertaken.

How antitrust oversight of telecom markets has been implemented around the globe

In implementing the EU’s shift toward antitrust oversight of the telecom sector since 2003, agencies have adopted a number of different organizational reforms.

Some telecom regulators assumed new duties over competition — e.g., Ofcom in the UK. Other non-European countries, including, e.g., Mexico have also followed this model.

Other European Member States have eliminated their telecom regulator altogether. In a useful case study, Roslyn Layton and Joe Kane outline Denmark’s approach, which includes disbanding its telecom regulator and passing the regulation of the sector to various executive agencies.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands and Spain each elected to merge its telecom regulator into its competition authority. New Zealand has similarly adopted this framework.

A few brief case studies will illuminate these and other reforms:

The Netherlands

In 2013, the Netherlands merged its telecom, consumer protection, and competition regulators to form the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM). The ACM’s structure streamlines decision-making on pending industry mergers and acquisitions at the managerial level, eliminating the challenges arising from overlapping agency reviews and cross-agency coordination. The reform also unified key regulatory methodologies, such as creating a consistent calculation method for the weighted average cost of capital (WACC).

The Netherlands also claims that the ACM’s ex post approach is better able to adapt to “technological developments, dynamic markets, and market trends”:

The combination of strength and flexibility allows for a problem-based approach where the authority first engages in a dialogue with a particular market player in order to discuss market behaviour and ensure the well-functioning of the market.

The Netherlands also cited a significant reduction in the risk of regulatory capture as staff no longer remain in positions for long tenures but rather rotate on a project-by-project basis from a regulatory to a competition department or vice versa. Moving staff from team to team has also added value in terms of knowledge transfer among the staff. Finally, while combining the cultures of each regulator was less difficult than expected, the government reported that the largest cause of consternation in the process was agreeing on a single IT system for the ACM.

Spain

In 2013, Spain created the National Authority for Markets and Competition (CNMC), merging the National Competition Authority with several sectoral regulators, including the telecom regulator, to “guarantee cohesion between competition rulings and sectoral regulation.” In a report to the OECD, Spain stated that moving to the new model was necessary because of increasing competition and technological convergence in the sector (i.e., the ability for different technologies to offer the substitute services (like fixed and wireless Internet access)). It added that integrating its telecom regulator with its competition regulator ensures

a predictable business environment and legal certainty [i.e., removing “any threat of arbitrariness”] for the firms. These two conditions are indispensable for network industries — where huge investments are required — but also for the rest of the business community if investment and innovation are to be promoted.

Like in the Netherlands, additional benefits include significantly lowering the risk of regulatory capture by “preventing the alignment of the authority’s performance with sectoral interests.”

Denmark

In 2011, the Danish government unexpectedly dismantled the National IT and Telecom Agency and split its duties between four regulators. While the move came as a surprise, it did not engender national debate — vitriolic or otherwise — nor did it receive much attention in the press.

Since the dismantlement scholars have observed less politicization of telecom regulation. And even though the competition authority didn’t take over telecom regulatory duties, the Ministry of Business and Growth implemented a light touch regime, which, as Layton and Kane note, has helped to turn Denmark into one of the “top digital nations” according to the International Telecommunication Union’s Measuring the Information Society Report.

New Zealand

The New Zealand Commerce Commission (NZCC) is responsible for antitrust enforcement, economic regulation, consumer protection, and certain sectoral regulations, including telecommunications. By combining functions into a single regulator New Zealand asserts that it can more cost-effectively administer government operations. Combining regulatory functions also created spillover benefits as, for example, competition analysis is a prerequisite for sectoral regulation, and merger analysis in regulated sectors (like telecom) can leverage staff with detailed and valuable knowledge. Similar to the other countries, New Zealand also noted that the possibility of regulatory capture “by the industries they regulate is reduced in an agency that regulates multiple sectors or also has competition and consumer law functions.”

Advantages identified by other organizations

The GSMA, a mobile industry association, notes in its 2016 report, Resetting Competition Policy Frameworks for the Digital Ecosystem, that merging the sector regulator into the competition regulator also mitigates regulatory creep by eliminating the prodding required to induce a sector regulator to roll back regulation as technological evolution requires it, as well as by curbing the sector regulator’s temptation to expand its authority. After all, regulators exist to regulate.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that eliminating the telecom regulator has not gone off without a hitch in every case (most notably, in Spain). It’s important to understand, however, that the difficulties that have arisen in specific contexts aren’t endemic to the nature of competition versus telecom regulation. Nothing about these cases suggests that economic-based telecom regulations are inherently essential, or that replacing sector-specific oversight with antitrust oversight can’t work.

Contrasting approaches to net neutrality in the EU and New Zealand

Unfortunately, adopting a proper framework and implementing sweeping organizational reform is no guarantee of consistent decisionmaking in its implementation. Thus, in 2015, the European Parliament and Council of the EU went against two decades of telecommunications best practices by implementing ex ante net neutrality regulations without hard evidence of widespread harm and absent any competition analysis to justify its decision. The EU placed net neutrality under the universal service and user’s rights prong of the regulatory framework, and the resulting rules lack coherence and economic rigor.

BEREC’s net neutrality guidelines, meant to clarify the EU regulations, offered an ambiguous, multi-factored standard to evaluate ISP practices like free data programs. And, as mentioned in a previous TOTM post, whether or not they allow the practice, regulators (e.g., Norway’s Nkom and the UK’s Ofcom) have lamented the lack of regulatory certainty surrounding free data programs.

Notably, while BEREC has not provided clear guidance, a 2017 report commissioned by the EU’s Directorate-General for Competition weighing competitive benefits and harms of zero rating concluded “there appears to be little reason to believe that zero-rating gives rise to competition concerns.”

The report also provides an ex post framework for analyzing such deals in the context of a two-sided market by assessing a deal’s impact on competition between ISPs and between content and application providers.

The EU example demonstrates that where a telecom regulator perceives a novel problem, competition law, grounded in economic principles, brings a clear framework to bear.

In New Zealand, if a net neutrality issue were to arise, the ISP’s behavior would be examined under the context of existing antitrust law, including a determination of whether the ISP is exercising market power, and by the Telecommunications Commissioner, who monitors competition and the development of telecom markets for the NZCC.

Currently, there is broad consensus among stakeholders, including a local content providers and networking equipment manufacturers, that there is no need for ex ante regulation of net neutrality. Wholesale ISP, Chorus, states, for example, that “in any event, the United States’ transparency and non-interference requirements [from the 2015 OIO] are arguably covered by the TCF Code disclosure rules and the provisions of the Commerce Act.”

The TCF Code is a mandatory code of practice establishing requirements concerning the information ISPs are required to disclose to consumers about their services. For example, ISPs must disclose any arrangements that prioritize certain traffic. Regarding traffic management, complaints of unfair contract terms — when not resolved by a process administered by an independent industry group — may be referred to the NZCC for an investigation in accordance with the Fair Trading Act. Under the Commerce Act, the NZCC can prohibit anticompetitive mergers, or practices that substantially lessen competition or that constitute price fixing or abuse of market power.

In addition, the NZCC has been active in patrolling vertical agreements between ISPs and content providers — precisely the types of agreements bemoaned by Title II net neutrality proponents.

In February 2017, the NZCC blocked Vodafone New Zealand’s proposed merger with Sky Network (combining Sky’s content and pay TV business with Vodafone’s broadband and mobile services) because the Commission concluded that the deal would substantially lessen competition in relevant broadband and mobile services markets. The NZCC was

unable to exclude the real chance that the merged entity would use its market power over premium live sports rights to effectively foreclose a substantial share of telecommunications customers from rival telecommunications services providers (TSPs), resulting in a substantial lessening of competition in broadband and mobile services markets.

Such foreclosure would result, the NZCC argued, from exclusive content and integrated bundles with features such as “zero rated Sky Sport viewing over mobile.” In addition, Vodafone would have the ability to prevent rivals from creating bundles using Sky Sport.

The substance of the Vodafone/Sky decision notwithstanding, the NZCC’s intervention is further evidence that antitrust isn’t a mere smokescreen for regulators to do nothing, and that regulators don’t need to design novel tools (such as the Internet conduct rule in the 2015 OIO) to regulate something neither they nor anyone else knows very much about: “not just the sprawling Internet of today, but also the unknowable Internet of tomorrow.” Instead, with ex post competition enforcement, regulators can allow dynamic innovation and competition to develop, and are perfectly capable of intervening — when and if identifiable harm emerges.

Conclusion

Unfortunately for Title II proponents — who have spent a decade at the FCC lobbying for net neutrality rules despite a lack of actionable evidence — the FCC is not acting without precedent by enabling the FTC’s antitrust and consumer protection enforcement to police conduct in Internet access markets. For two decades, the object of telecommunications regulation globally has been to transition away from sector-specific ex ante regulation to ex post competition review and enforcement. It’s high time the U.S. got on board.

The populists are on the march, and as the 2018 campaign season gets rolling we’re witnessing more examples of political opportunism bolstered by economic illiteracy aimed at increasingly unpopular big tech firms.

The latest example comes in the form of a new investigation of Google opened by Missouri’s Attorney General, Josh Hawley. Mr. Hawley — a Republican who, not coincidentally, is running for Senate in 2018alleges various consumer protection violations and unfair competition practices.

But while Hawley’s investigation may jump start his campaign and help a few vocal Google rivals intent on mobilizing the machinery of the state against the company, it is unlikely to enhance consumer welfare — in Missouri or anywhere else.  

According to the press release issued by the AG’s office:

[T]he investigation will seek to determine if Google has violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act—Missouri’s principal consumer-protection statute—and Missouri’s antitrust laws.  

The business practices in question are Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities; Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors; and Google’s alleged manipulation of search results to preference websites owned by Google and to demote websites that compete with Google.

Mr. Hawley’s justification for his investigation is a flourish of populist rhetoric:

We should not just accept the word of these corporate giants that they have our best interests at heart. We need to make sure that they are actually following the law, we need to make sure that consumers are protected, and we need to hold them accountable.

But Hawley’s “strong” concern is based on tired retreads of the same faulty arguments that Google’s competitors (Yelp chief among them), have been plying for the better part of a decade. In fact, all of his apparent grievances against Google were exhaustively scrutinized by the FTC and ultimately rejected or settled in separate federal investigations in 2012 and 2013.

The antitrust issues

To begin with, AG Hawley references the EU antitrust investigation as evidence that

this is not the first-time Google’s business practices have come into question. In June, the European Union issued Google a record $2.7 billion antitrust fine.

True enough — and yet, misleadingly incomplete. Missing from Hawley’s recitation of Google’s antitrust rap sheet are the following investigations, which were closed without any finding of liability related to Google Search, Android, Google’s advertising practices, etc.:

  • United States FTC, 2013. The FTC found no basis to pursue a case after a two-year investigation: “Challenging Google’s product design decisions in this case would require the Commission — or a court — to second-guess a firm’s product design decisions where plausible procompetitive justifications have been offered, and where those justifications are supported by ample evidence.” The investigation did result in a consent order regarding patent licensing unrelated in any way to search and a voluntary commitment by Google not to engage in certain search-advertising-related conduct.
  • South Korea FTC, 2013. The KFTC cleared Google after a two-year investigation. It opened a new investigation in 2016, but, as I have discussed, “[i]f anything, the economic conditions supporting [the KFTC’s 2013] conclusion have only gotten stronger since.”
  • Canada Competition Bureau, 2016. The CCB closed a three-year long investigation into Google’s search practices without taking any action.

Similar investigations have been closed without findings of liability (or simply lie fallow) in a handful of other countries (e.g., Taiwan and Brazil) and even several states (e.g., Ohio and Texas). In fact, of all the jurisdictions that have investigated Google, only the EU and Russia have actually assessed liability.

As Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the FTC during the Google antitrust investigation, noted upon closing the case:

Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of U.S. law.

The CCB was similarly unequivocal in its dismissal of the very same antitrust claims Missouri’s AG seems intent on pursuing against Google:

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

Unfortunately, rather than follow the lead of these agencies, Missouri’s investigation appears to have more in common with Russia’s effort to prop up a favored competitor (Yandex) at the expense of consumer welfare.

The Yelp Claim

Take Mr. Hawley’s focus on “Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors,” for example, which cleaves closely to what should become known henceforth as “The Yelp Claim.”

While the sordid history of Yelp’s regulatory crusade against Google is too long to canvas in its entirety here, the primary elements are these:

Once upon a time (in 2005), Google licensed Yelp’s content for inclusion in its local search results. In 2007 Yelp ended the deal. By 2010, and without a license from Yelp (asserting fair use), Google displayed small snippets of Yelp’s reviews that, if clicked on, led to Yelp’s site. Even though Yelp received more user traffic from those links as a result, Yelp complained, and Google removed Yelp snippets from its local results.

In its 2013 agreement with the FTC, Google guaranteed that Yelp could opt-out of having even snippets displayed in local search results by committing Google to:

make available a web-based notice form that provides website owners with the option to opt out from display on Google’s Covered Webpages of content from their website that has been crawled by Google. When a website owner exercises this option, Google will cease displaying crawled content from the domain name designated by the website owner….

The commitments also ensured that websites (like Yelp) that opt out would nevertheless remain in Google’s general index.

Ironically, Yelp now claims in a recent study that Google should show not only snippets of Yelp reviews, but even more of Yelp’s content. (For those interested, my colleagues and I have a paper explaining why the study’s claims are spurious).

The key bit here, of course, is that Google stopped pulling content from Yelp’s pages to use in its local search results, and that it implemented a simple mechanism for any other site wishing to opt out of the practice to do so.

It’s difficult to imagine why Missouri’s citizens might require more than this to redress alleged anticompetitive harms arising from the practice.

Perhaps AG Hawley thinks consumers would be better served by an opt-in mechanism? Of course, this is absurd, particularly if any of Missouri’s citizens — and their businesses — have websites. Most websites want at least some of their content to appear on Google’s search results pages as prominently as possible — see this and this, for example — and making this information more accessible to users is why Google exists.

To be sure, some websites may take issue with how much of their content Google features and where it places that content. But the easy opt out enables them to prevent Google from showing their content in a manner they disapprove of. Yelp is an outlier in this regard because it views Google as a direct competitor, especially to the extent it enables users to read some of Yelp’s reviews without visiting Yelp’s pages.

For Yelp and a few similarly situated companies the opt out suffices. But for almost everyone else the opt out is presumably rarely exercised, and any more-burdensome requirement would just impose unnecessary costs, harming instead of helping their websites.

The privacy issues

The Missouri investigation also applies to “Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities.” More pointedly, Hawley claims that “Google may be collecting more information from users than the company was telling consumers….”

Presumably this would come as news to the FTC, which, with a much larger staff and far greater expertise, currently has Google under a 20 year consent order (with some 15 years left to go) governing its privacy disclosures and information-sharing practices, thus ensuring that the agency engages in continual — and well-informed — oversight of precisely these issues.

The FTC’s consent order with Google (the result of an investigation into conduct involving Google’s short-lived Buzz social network, allegedly in violation of Google’s privacy policies), requires the company to:

  • “[N]ot misrepresent in any manner, expressly or by implication… the extent to which respondent maintains and protects the privacy and confidentiality of any [user] information…”;
  • “Obtain express affirmative consent from” users “prior to any new or additional sharing… of the Google user’s identified information with any third party” if doing so would in any way deviate from previously disclosed practices;
  • “[E]stablish and implement, and thereafter maintain, a comprehensive privacy program that is reasonably designed to [] address privacy risks related to the development and management of new and existing products and services for consumers, and (2) protect the privacy and confidentiality of [users’] information”; and
  • Along with a laundry list of other reporting requirements, “[submit] biennial assessments and reports [] from a qualified, objective, independent third-party professional…, approved by the [FTC] Associate Director for Enforcement, Bureau of Consumer Protection… in his or her sole discretion.”

What, beyond the incredibly broad scope of the FTC’s consent order, could the Missouri AG’s office possibly hope to obtain from an investigation?

Google is already expressly required to provide privacy reports to the FTC every two years. It must provide several of the items Hawley demands in his CID to the FTC; others are required to be made available to the FTC upon demand. What materials could the Missouri AG collect beyond those the FTC already receives, or has the authority to demand, under its consent order?

And what manpower and expertise could Hawley apply to those materials that would even begin to equal, let alone exceed, those of the FTC?

Lest anyone think the FTC is falling down on the job, a year after it issued that original consent order the Commission fined Google $22.5 million for violating the order in a questionable decision that was signed on to by all of the FTC’s Commissioners (both Republican and Democrat) — except the one who thought it didn’t go far enough.

That penalty is of undeniable import, not only for its amount (at the time it was the largest in FTC history) and for stemming from alleged problems completely unrelated to the issue underlying the initial action, but also because it was so easy to obtain. Having put Google under a 20-year consent order, the FTC need only prove (or threaten to prove) contempt of the consent order, rather than the specific elements of a new violation of the FTC Act, to bring the company to heel. The former is far easier to prove, and comes with the ability to impose (significant) damages.

So what’s really going on in Jefferson City?

While states are, of course, free to enforce their own consumer protection laws to protect their citizens, there is little to be gained — other than cold hard cash, perhaps — from pursuing cases that, at best, duplicate enforcement efforts already undertaken by the federal government (to say nothing of innumerable other jurisdictions).

To take just one relevant example, in 2013 — almost a year to the day following the court’s approval of the settlement in the FTC’s case alleging Google’s violation of the Buzz consent order — 37 states plus DC (not including Missouri) settled their own, follow-on litigation against Google on the same facts. Significantly, the terms of the settlement did not impose upon Google any obligation not already a part of the Buzz consent order or the subsequent FTC settlement — but it did require Google to fork over an additional $17 million.  

Not only is there little to be gained from yet another ill-conceived antitrust campaign, there is much to be lost. Such massive investigations require substantial resources to conduct, and the opportunity cost of doing so may mean real consumer issues go unaddressed. The Consumer Protection Section of the Missouri AG’s office says it receives some 100,000 consumer complaints a year. How many of those will have to be put on the back burner to accommodate an investigation like this one?

Even when not politically motivated, state enforcement of CPAs is not an unalloyed good. In fact, empirical studies of state consumer protection actions like the one contemplated by Mr. Hawley have shown that such actions tend toward overreach — good for lawyers, perhaps, but expensive for taxpayers and often detrimental to consumers. According to a recent study by economists James Cooper and Joanna Shepherd:

[I]n recent decades, this thoughtful balance [between protecting consumers and preventing the proliferation of lawsuits that harm both consumers and businesses] has yielded to damaging legislative and judicial overcorrections at the state level with a common theoretical mistake: the assumption that more CPA litigation automatically yields more consumer protection…. [C]ourts and legislatures gradually have abolished many of the procedural and remedial protections designed to cabin state CPAs to their original purpose: providing consumers with redress for actual harm in instances where tort and contract law may provide insufficient remedies. The result has been an explosion in consumer protection litigation, which serves no social function and for which consumers pay indirectly through higher prices and reduced innovation.

AG Hawley’s investigation seems almost tailored to duplicate the FTC’s extensive efforts — and to score political points. Or perhaps Mr. Hawley is just perturbed that Missouri missed out its share of the $17 million multistate settlement in 2013.

Which raises the spectre of a further problem with the Missouri case: “rent extraction.”

It’s no coincidence that Mr. Hawley’s investigation follows closely on the heels of Yelp’s recent letter to the FTC and every state AG (as well as four members of Congress and the EU’s chief competition enforcer, for good measure) alleging that Google had re-started scraping Yelp’s content, thus violating the terms of its voluntary commitments to the FTC.

It’s also no coincidence that Yelp “notified” Google of the problem only by lodging a complaint with every regulator who might listen rather than by actually notifying Google. But an action like the one Missouri is undertaking — not resolution of the issue — is almost certainly exactly what Yelp intended, and AG Hawley is playing right into Yelp’s hands.  

Google, for its part, strongly disputes Yelp’s allegation, and, indeed, has — even according to Yelp — complied fully with Yelp’s request to keep its content off Google Local and other “vertical” search pages since 18 months before Google entered into its commitments with the FTC. Google claims that the recent scraping was inadvertent, and that it would happily have rectified the problem if only Yelp had actually bothered to inform Google.

Indeed, Yelp’s allegations don’t really pass the smell test: That Google would suddenly change its practices now, in violation of its commitments to the FTC and at a time of extraordinarily heightened scrutiny by the media, politicians of all stripes, competitors like Yelp, the FTC, the EU, and a host of other antitrust or consumer protection authorities, strains belief.

But, again, identifying and resolving an actual commercial dispute was likely never the goal. As a recent, fawning New York Times article on “Yelp’s Six-Year Grudge Against Google” highlights (focusing in particular on Luther Lowe, now Yelp’s VP of Public Policy and the author of the letter):

Yelp elevated Mr. Lowe to the new position of director of government affairs, a job that more or less entails flying around the world trying to sic antitrust regulators on Google. Over the next few years, Yelp hired its first lobbyist and started a political action committee. Recently, it has started filing complaints in Brazil.

Missouri, in other words, may just be carrying Yelp’s water.

The one clear lesson of the decades-long Microsoft antitrust saga is that companies that struggle to compete in the market can profitably tax their rivals by instigating antitrust actions against them. As Milton Friedman admonished, decrying “the business community’s suicidal impulse” to invite regulation:

As a believer in the pursuit of self-interest in a competitive capitalist system, I can’t blame a businessman who goes to Washington [or is it Jefferson City?] and tries to get special privileges for his company.… Blame the rest of us for being so foolish as to let him get away with it.

Taking a tough line on Silicon Valley firms in the midst of today’s anti-tech-company populist resurgence may help with the electioneering in Mr. Hawley’s upcoming bid for a US Senate seat and serve Yelp, but it doesn’t offer any clear, actual benefits to Missourians. As I’ve wondered before: “Exactly when will regulators be a little more skeptical of competitors trying to game the antitrust laws for their own advantage?”