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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.

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.

In Collins Inkjet Corp. v. Eastman Kodak Co. (2015) (subsequently settled, leading to a withdrawal of Kodak’s petition for certiorari), the Sixth Circuit elected to apply the Cascade Health Solutions v. PeaceHealth “bundled discount attribution price-cost” methodology in upholding a preliminary injunction against Kodak’s policy of discounting the price of refurbished Kodak printheads to customers who purchased ink from Kodak, rather than from Collins.  This case illustrates the incoherence and economic irrationality of current tying doctrine, and the need for Supreme Court guidance – hopefully sooner rather than later.

The key factual and legal findings in this case, set forth by the Sixth Circuit, were as follows:

Collins is Kodak’s competitor for selling ink for Versamark printers manufactured by Kodak. Users of Versamark printers must periodically replace a printer component called a printhead; Kodak is the only provider of replacement “refurbished printheads” for such printers. In July 2013, Kodak adopted a pricing policy that raised the cost of replacing Versamark printheads, but only for customers not purchasing Kodak ink. Collins filed suit, arguing that this amounts to a tying arrangement prohibited under § 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, because it is designed to monopolize the Versamark ink market. Collins sought a preliminary injunction barring Kodak from charging Collins’ customers a higher price for refurbished printheads. The district court issued the preliminary injunction, finding a strong likelihood that Kodak’s pricing policy was a non-explicit tie that coerced Versamark owners into buying Kodak ink and that Kodak possessed sufficient market power in the market for refurbished printheads to make the tie effective.

On appeal, Kodak challenges both the legal standard the district court applied to find whether customers were coerced into using Kodak ink and the district court’s preliminary factual findings. In evaluating the likelihood of success on the merits, the district court applied a standard that unduly favored Collins to determine whether customers were coerced into buying Kodak ink. The court examined whether the policy made it likely that all or almost all customers would switch to Kodak ink, but did not examine whether this would be the result of unreasonable conduct on Kodak’s part. A tying arrangement enforced entirely through differential pricing of the tying product contravenes the Sherman Act only if the pricing policy is economically equivalent to selling the tied product below cost. The record makes it difficult to determine conclusively Kodak’s ink production costs, but the available evidence suggests that Kodak was worse off when customers bought both products, meaning that it was in effect selling ink at a loss. Thus, Collins was likely to succeed on the merits even under the correct standard.  Furthermore, the district court was correct in its consideration of the other factors for a preliminary injunction. Accordingly, the preliminary injunction was not an abuse of discretion.

The Sixth Circuit’s Collins Inkjet opinion nicely illustrates the current unsatisfactory state of tying law from an economic perspective.  Unlike in various other areas of antitrust law, such as vertical restraints, exclusionary conduct, and enforcement, the Supreme Court has failed to apply a law and economics standard to tying.  It came close on two occasions, with four Justices supporting a rule of reason standard for tying in Jefferson Parish, and with a Supreme Court majority acknowledging that “[m]any tying arrangements . . . are fully consistent with a free, competitive market” in Independent Ink (which held that it should not be presumed that a patented tying product conveyed market power).  Nevertheless, despite the broad scholarly recognition that tying may generate major economic efficiencies (even when the tying product conveys substantial market power), tying still remains subject to a peculiar rule of limited per se illegality, which is triggered when:  (1) two separate products or services are involved; (2) the sale or agreement to sell one is conditioned on the purchase of the other; (3) the seller has sufficient economic power in the market for the tying product to enable it to restrain trade in the market for the tied product; and (4) a “not insubstantial amount” of interstate commerce in the tied product is affected.  Unfortunately, it is quite possible for plaintiffs to shoehorn much welfare-enhancing conduct into this multipart test, creating a welfare-inimical disincentive for efficiency-seeking businesses to engage in such conduct.  (The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit refused to apply the per se rule to platform software in United States v. Microsoft, but other appellate courts have not been similarly inclined to flout Supreme Court precedent.)

Courts that are concerned with the efficient application of antitrust may nonetheless evade the confines of the per se rule in appropriate instances, by applying economic reasoning to the factual context presented and finding particular test conditions not met.  The Sixth Circuit’s Collins Inkjet opinion, unfortunately, failed to do so.  It is seriously problematic, in at least four respects.

First, the Sixth Circuit’s opinion agreed with the district court that “coercive” behavior created an “implicit tie,” despite the absence of formal contractual provisions that explicitly tied Kodak’s ink to sale of its refurbished printheads.

Second, it ignored potential vigorous and beneficial ex ante competition among competing producers of printers to acquire customers, which would have negated a finding of significant economic power in the printer market and thereby precluded per se condemnation.

Third, it incorrectly applied the PeaceHealth standard to the facts at hand due to faulty economic reasoning.  For a finding of anticompetitive (“exclusionary”) bundled discounting, PeaceHealth requires that, after all discounts are applied to the “competitive” product, “the resulting price of the competitive product or products is below the defendant’s incremental cost to produce them”.  In Collins Inkjet, all that was known was that Kodak “stood to make more money if customers bought ink from Collins and paid Kodak’s unmatched printhead refurbishment price than if they bought Kodak ink and paid the matched printhead refurbishment price.”  Absent additional information, however, this merely supported a finding that Kodak’s tied ink was priced below its average total cost, not below its (far lower) incremental cost.  (Applying PeaceHealth, the Collins Inkjet court attributed the printhead discount entirely to Kodak’s ink, the tied product.)  In short, absent this error in reasoning (ironically, the court justified its flawed cost analysis “as a matter of formal logic”), the Sixth Circuit could not have based a finding of anticompetitive conduct on the PeaceHealth precedent.

Fourth, and more generally, the Sixth Circuit’s opinion, in its blinkered search for a “modern” (PeaceHealth) finely-calibrated test to apply in this instance, lost sight of the Supreme Court’s broad teaching in Reiter v. Sonotone Corp. that antitrust law was designed to be “a consumer welfare prescription.”  Kodak’s pricing policy that offered discounts to buyers of its printheads and ink yielded lower prices to consumers.  There was no showing that Collins Inkjet would likely be driven out of business, or, even if it were, that consumers would eventually be harmed.  Absent any showing of likely anticompetitive effects, vertical contractual provisions, including tying, should not be subject to antitrust challenge.  Indeed, as Professor (and former Federal Trade Commissioner) Joshua Wright and I have pointed out:

[T]he potential efficiencies associated with . . . tying . . . and the fact that [tying is] prevalent in markets without significant antitrust market power, lead most commentators to believe that [it is] . . . generally procompetitive and should be analyzed under some form of rule of reason analysis. . . .  [T]he adoption of a rule of reason for tying and presumptions of legality for [tying] . . . under certain circumstances may be long overdue.  

In sum, it is high time for the Supreme Court to take an appropriate case and clarify that tying arrangements (whether explicit or “coerced”) are subject to the rule of reason, with full recognition of tying’s efficiencies.  Such a holding would enable businesses to engage in a wider variety of efficient contracts, thereby promoting consumer welfare.

Finally, while it is at it, the Court should also consider taking a loyalty discount case, to reduce harmful uncertainty in this important area (caused by such economically irrational precedents as LePage’s, Inc. v. 3M) and establish a clear standard to guide the business community.  If it takes a loyalty discount case, the Court could beneficially draw upon Wright’s observation that “economic theory and evidence suggest[s] that instances of anticompetitive loyalty discounts will be relatively rare,” and his recommendation that “an exclusive dealing framework . . . be applied in such cases.”

In a recent post, I presented an overview of the ICN’s recent Annual Conference in Sydney, Australia.  Today I briefly summarize and critique a key product approved by the Conference, a new chapter 6 of the ICN’s Workbook on Unilateral Conduct, devoted to tying and bundling.  (My analysis is based on a hard copy final version of the chapter, which shortly will be posted online at internationalcompetitionnetwork.org.)

Chapter 6 is the latest installment in the ICN’s continuing effort to present an overview of how different types of single firm conduct might be assessed by competition authorities, taking into account potential efficiencies as well as potential theories of competitive harm.  In particular, chapter 6 defines tying and bundling; focuses primarily on theories of exclusionary anticompetitive effects; lays out potential evaluative criteria (for example, when tying is efficient, it is likely to be employed by a dominant firm’s significant competitors); and discusses the characteristics of tying/bundling.  It then turns to theories of anticompetitive leveraging and foreclosure and price discrimination (avoiding taking a position as to whether price discrimination is a basis for condemning tying), and discusses how possible and actual anticompetitive effects might be observed.  It then turns to justifications and defenses for tying and bundling, including reduced manufacturing and distribution costs; reduced customer transaction and search costs; improved product performance or convenience; and quality and safety assurance.  The chapter then proclaims that “[t]he burden of demonstrating the likelihood and magnitude of actual or potential efficiencies generally is placed on an accused infringer”; states that “agencies must examine whether those claimed efficiencies actually arise from the tying arrangement, and whether there are ways to achieve the claimed efficiencies through less restrictive means”; and implicitly lends support to rule of reason balancing, noting that, “[i]n many jurisdictions if the party imposing the tie can establish that its claimed efficiencies would outweigh the anticompetitive effects then the conduct would not be deemed an infringement.”  The chapter ends with a normative suggestion:  “When the harm is likely materially greater than the efficiencies, the practice should be condemned. When the harm and the efficiencies both seem likely to be at the same rough magnitude, the general principle of non-interference in the market place may suggest that the practice not be condemned.”

Overall, chapter 6 presents a generally helpful discussion of tying and bundling, avoiding the misguided condemnations of these frequently efficient practices that characterized antitrust enforcement prior to the incorporation of modern economic analysis.  This good chapter, however, could be enhanced by drawing upon sources that explore the actual effects of tying, such as a literature review that explains there is very little empirical support for the proposition that tying or bundling are actually anticompetitive.  Chapter 6 could also benefit by setting forth a broader set of efficiency explanations for these practices, and by addressing the fact that using tying or bundling to gain market share at rivals’ expense need not imply consumer harm (the literature review noted above also addresses these points).  If chapter 6 is revised, it should discuss these issues, and also include footnote and bibliographic evidence to the extensive law and economics literature on bundling and tying.

More generally, chapter 6, and the entire Workbook, could benefit by evincing greater recognition of the limits of antitrust enforcement, in particular, the inevitability of error costs in enforcement (especially since welfare-enhancing unilateral practices may well be misunderstood by enforcers), and the general desirability of avoiding false positives that discourage aggressive but efficiency-enhancing unilateral conduct.  In this regard, chapter 6 could be improved by taking a page from the discussion of error costs in the U.S. Justice Department’s 2008 Report on Single Firm Conduct (withdrawn in 2009 by the Obama Administration).  The 2008 Report also stated, with regard to tying, “that when actual or probable harm to competition is shown, tying should be illegal only when (1) it has no procompetitive benefits, or (2) if there are procompetitive benefits, the tie produces harms substantially disproportionate to those benefits.”  As the 2008 Report further explained, the disproportionality test would make a good “default” standard for those forms of unilateral conduct that lack specific tests of illegality.  Moving toward a default disproportionality standard, however, is a long-term project, which requires rethinking of unilateral conduct enforcement policy in the United States and most other jurisdictions.