Archives For Tying

The practice of so-called “self-preferencing” has come to embody the zeitgeist of competition policy for digital markets, as legislative initiatives are undertaken in jurisdictions around the world that to seek, in various ways, to constrain large digital platforms from granting favorable treatment to their own goods and services. The core concern cited by policymakers is that gatekeepers may abuse their dual role—as both an intermediary and a trader operating on the platform—to pursue a strategy of biased intermediation that entrenches their power in core markets (defensive leveraging) and extends it to associated markets (offensive leveraging).

In addition to active interventions by lawmakers, self-preferencing has also emerged as a new theory of harm before European courts and antitrust authorities. Should antitrust enforcers be allowed to pursue such a theory, they would gain significant leeway to bypass the legal standards and evidentiary burdens traditionally required to prove that a given business practice is anticompetitive. This should be of particular concern, given the broad range of practices and types of exclusionary behavior that could be characterized as self-preferencing—only some of which may, in some specific contexts, include exploitative or anticompetitive elements.

In a new working paper for the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE), I provide an overview of the relevant traditional antitrust theories of harm, as well as the emerging case law, to analyze whether and to what extent self-preferencing should be considered a new standalone offense under EU competition law. The experience to date in European case law suggests that courts have been able to address platforms’ self-preferencing practices under existing theories of harm, and that it may not be sufficiently novel to constitute a standalone theory of harm.

European Case Law on Self-Preferencing

Practices by digital platforms that might be deemed self-preferencing first garnered significant attention from European competition enforcers with the European Commission’s Google Shopping investigation, which examined whether the search engine’s results pages positioned and displayed its own comparison-shopping service more favorably than the websites of rival comparison-shopping services. According to the Commission’s findings, Google’s conduct fell outside the scope of competition on the merits and could have the effect of extending Google’s dominant position in the national markets for general Internet search into adjacent national markets for comparison-shopping services, in addition to protecting Google’s dominance in its core search market.

Rather than explicitly posit that self-preferencing (a term the Commission did not use) constituted a new theory of harm, the Google Shopping ruling described the conduct as belonging to the well-known category of “leveraging.” The Commission therefore did not need to propagate a new legal test, as it held that the conduct fell under a well-established form of abuse. The case did, however, spur debate over whether the legal tests the Commission did apply effectively imposed on Google a principle of equal treatment of rival comparison-shopping services.

But it should be noted that conduct similar to that alleged in the Google Shopping investigation actually came before the High Court of England and Wales several months earlier, this time in a dispute between Google and Streetmap. At issue in that case was favorable search results Google granted to its own maps, rather than to competing online maps. The UK Court held, however, that the complaint should have been appropriately characterized as an allegation of discrimination; it further found that Google’s conduct did not constitute anticompetitive foreclosure. A similar result was reached in May 2020 by the Amsterdam Court of Appeal in the Funda case.  

Conversely, in June 2021, the French Competition Authority (AdlC) followed the European Commission into investigating Google’s practices in the digital-advertising sector. Like the Commission, the AdlC did not explicitly refer to self-preferencing, instead describing the conduct as “favoring.”

Given this background and the proliferation of approaches taken by courts and enforcers to address similar conduct, there was significant anticipation for the judgment that the European General Court would ultimately render in the appeal of the Google Shopping ruling. While the General Court upheld the Commission’s decision, it framed self-preferencing as a discriminatory abuse. Further, the Court outlined four criteria that differentiated Google’s self-preferencing from competition on the merits.

Specifically, the Court highlighted the “universal vocation” of Google’s search engine—that it is open to all users and designed to index results containing any possible content; the “superdominant” position that Google holds in the market for general Internet search; the high barriers to entry in the market for general search services; and what the Court deemed Google’s “abnormal” conduct—behaving in a way that defied expectations, given a search engine’s business model, and that changed after the company launched its comparison-shopping service.

While the precise contours of what the Court might consider discriminatory abuse aren’t yet clear, the decision’s listed criteria appear to be narrow in scope. This stands at odds with the much broader application of self-preferencing as a standalone abuse, both by the European Commission itself and by some national competition authorities (NCAs).

Indeed, just a few weeks after the General Court’s ruling, the Italian Competition Authority (AGCM) handed down a mammoth fine against Amazon over preferential treatment granted to third-party sellers who use the company’s own logistics and delivery services. Rather than reflecting the qualified set of criteria laid out by the General Court, the Italian decision was clearly inspired by the Commission’s approach in Google Shopping. Where the Commission described self-preferencing as a new form of leveraging abuse, AGCM characterized Amazon’s practices as tying.

Self-preferencing has also been raised as a potential abuse in the context of data and information practices. In November 2020, the European Commission sent Amazon a statement of objections detailing its preliminary view that the company had infringed antitrust rules by making systematic use of non-public business data, gathered from independent retailers who sell on Amazon’s marketplace, to advantage the company’s own retail business. (Amazon responded with a set of commitments currently under review by the Commission.)

Both the Commission and the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority have lodged similar allegations against Facebook over data gathered from advertisers and then used to compete with those advertisers in markets in which Facebook is active, such as classified ads. The Commission’s antitrust proceeding against Apple over its App Store rules likewise highlights concerns that the company may use its platform position to obtain valuable data about the activities and offers of its competitors, while competing developers may be denied access to important customer data.

These enforcement actions brought by NCAs and the Commission appear at odds with the more bounded criteria set out by the General Court in Google Shopping, and raise tremendous uncertainty regarding the scope and definition of the alleged new theory of harm.

Self-Preferencing, Platform Neutrality, and the Limits of Antitrust Law

The growing tendency to invoke self-preferencing as a standalone theory of antitrust harm could serve two significant goals for European competition enforcers. As mentioned earlier, it offers a convenient shortcut that could allow enforcers to skip the legal standards and evidentiary burdens traditionally required to prove anticompetitive behavior. Moreover, it can function, in practice, as a means to impose a neutrality regime on digital gatekeepers, with the aims of both ensuring a level playing field among competitors and neutralizing the potential conflicts of interests implicated by dual-mode intermediation.

The dual roles performed by some platforms continue to fuel the never-ending debate over vertical integration, as well as related concerns that, by giving preferential treatment to its own products and services, an integrated provider may leverage its dominance in one market to related markets. From this perspective, self-preferencing is an inevitable byproduct of the emergence of ecosystems.

However, as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has recognized, self-preferencing conduct is “often benign.” Furthermore, the total value generated by an ecosystem depends on the activities of independent complementors. Those activities are not completely under the platform’s control, although the platform is required to establish and maintain the governance structures regulating access to and interactions around that ecosystem.

Given this reality, a complete ban on self-preferencing may call the very existence of ecosystems into question, challenging their design and monetization strategies. Preferential treatment can take many different forms with many different potential effects, all stemming from platforms’ many different business models. This counsels for a differentiated, case-by-case, and effects-based approach to assessing the alleged competitive harms of self-preferencing.

Antitrust law does not impose on platforms a general duty to ensure neutrality by sharing their competitive advantages with rivals. Moreover, possessing a competitive advantage does not automatically equal an anticompetitive effect. As the European Court of Justice recently stated in Servizio Elettrico Nazionale, competition law is not intended to protect the competitive structure of the market, but rather to protect consumer welfare. Accordingly, not every exclusionary effect is detrimental to competition. Distinctions must be drawn between foreclosure and anticompetitive foreclosure, as only the latter may be penalized under antitrust.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Things are heating up in the antitrust world. There is considerable pressure to pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) before the congressional recess in August—a short legislative window before members of Congress shift their focus almost entirely to campaigning for the mid-term elections. While it would not be impossible to advance the bill after the August recess, it would be a steep uphill climb.

But whether it passes or not, some of the damage from AICOA may already be done. The bill has moved the antitrust dialogue that will harm innovation and consumers. In this post, I will first explain AICOA’s fundamental flaws. Next, I discuss the negative impact that the legislation is likely to have if passed, even if courts and agencies do not aggressively enforce its provisions. Finally, I show how AICOA has already provided an intellectual victory for the approach articulated in the European Union (EU)’s Digital Markets Act (DMA). It has built momentum for a dystopian regulatory framework to break up and break into U.S. superstar firms designated as “gatekeepers” at the expense of innovation and consumers.

The Unseen of AICOA

AICOA’s drafters argue that, once passed, it will deliver numerous economic benefits. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)—the bill’s main sponsor—has stated that it will “ensure small businesses and entrepreneurs still have the opportunity to succeed in the digital marketplace. This bill will do just that while also providing consumers with the benefit of greater choice online.”

Section 3 of the bill would provide “business users” of the designated “covered platforms” with a wide range of entitlements. This includes preventing the covered platform from offering any services or products that a business user could provide (the so-called “self-preferencing” prohibition); allowing a business user access to the covered platform’s proprietary data; and an entitlement for business users to have “preferred placement” on a covered platform without having to use any of that platform’s services.

These entitlements would provide non-platform businesses what are effectively claims on the platform’s proprietary assets, notwithstanding the covered platform’s own investments to collect data, create services, and invent products—in short, the platform’s innovative efforts. As such, AICOA is redistributive legislation that creates the conditions for unfair competition in the name of “fair” and “open” competition. It treats the behavior of “covered platforms” differently than identical behavior by their competitors, without considering the deterrent effect such a framework will have on consumers and innovation. Thus, AICOA offers rent-seeking rivals a formidable avenue to reap considerable benefits at the expense of the innovators thanks to the weaponization of antitrust to subvert, not improve, competition.

In mandating that covered platforms make their data and proprietary assets freely available to “business users” and rivals, AICOA undermines the underpinning of free markets to pursue the misguided goal of “open markets.” The inevitable result will be the tragedy of the commons. Absent the covered platforms having the ability to benefit from their entrepreneurial endeavors, the law no longer encourages innovation. As Joseph Schumpeter seminally predicted: “perfect competition implies free entry into every industry … But perfectly free entry into a new field may make it impossible to enter it at all.”

To illustrate, if business users can freely access, say, a special status on the covered platforms’ ancillary services without having to use any of the covered platform’s services (as required under Section 3(a)(5)), then platforms are disincentivized from inventing zero-priced services, since they cannot cross-monetize these services with existing services. Similarly, if, under Section 3(a)(1) of the bill, business users can stop covered platforms from pre-installing or preferencing an app whenever they happen to offer a similar app, then covered platforms will be discouraged from investing in or creating new apps. Thus, the bill would generate a considerable deterrent effect for covered platforms to invest, invent, and innovate.

AICOA’s most detrimental consequences may not be immediately apparent; they could instead manifest in larger and broader downstream impacts that will be difficult to undo. As the 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat wrote: “a law gives birth not only to an effect but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause—it is seen. The others unfold in succession—they are not seen it is well for, if they are foreseen … it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come,—at the risk of a small present evil.”

To paraphrase Bastiat, AICOA offers ill-intentioned rivals a “small present good”–i.e., unconditional access to the platforms’ proprietary assets–while society suffers the loss of a greater good–i.e., incentives to innovate and welfare gains to consumers. The logic is akin to those who advocate the abolition of intellectual-property rights: The immediate (and seen) gain is obvious, concerning the dissemination of innovation and a reduction of the price of innovation, while the subsequent (and unseen) evil remains opaque, as the destruction of the institutional premises for innovation will generate considerable long-term innovation costs.

Fundamentally, AICOA weakens the benefits of scale by pursuing vertical disintegration of the covered platforms to the benefit of short-term static competition. In the long term, however, the bill would dampen dynamic competition, ultimately harming consumer welfare and the capacity for innovation. The measure’s opportunity costs will prevent covered platforms’ innovations from benefiting other business users or consumers. They personify the “unseen,” as Bastiat put it: “[they are] always in the shadow, and who, personifying what is not seen, [are] an essential element of the problem. [They make] us understand how absurd it is to see a profit in destruction.”

The costs could well amount to hundreds of billions of dollars for the U.S. economy, even before accounting for the costs of deterred innovation. The unseen is costly, the seen is cheap.

A New Robinson-Patman Act?

Most antitrust laws are terse, vague, and old: The Sherman Act of 1890, the Federal Trade Commission Act, and the Clayton Act of 1914 deal largely in generalities, with considerable deference for courts to elaborate in a common-law tradition on the specificities of what “restraints of trade,” “monopolization,” or “unfair methods of competition” mean.

In 1936, Congress passed the Robinson-Patman Act, designed to protect competitors from the then-disruptive competition of large firms who—thanks to scale and practices such as price differentiation—upended traditional incumbents to the benefit of consumers. Passed after “Congress made no factual investigation of its own, and ignored evidence that conflicted with accepted rhetoric,” the law prohibits price differentials that would benefit buyers, and ultimately consumers, in the name of less vigorous competition from more efficient, more productive firms. Indeed, under the Robinson-Patman Act, manufacturers cannot give a bigger discount to a distributor who would pass these savings onto consumers, even if the distributor performs extra services relative to others.

Former President Gerald Ford declared in 1975 that the Robinson-Patman Act “is a leading example of [a law] which restrain[s] competition and den[ies] buyers’ substantial savings…It discourages both large and small firms from cutting prices, making it harder for them to expand into new markets and pass on to customers the cost-savings on large orders.” Despite this, calls to amend or repeal the Robinson-Patman Act—supported by, among others, competition scholars like Herbert Hovenkamp and Robert Bork—have failed.

In the 1983 Abbott decision, Justice Lewis Powell wrote: “The Robinson-Patman Act has been widely criticized, both for its effects and for the policies that it seeks to promote. Although Congress is aware of these criticisms, the Act has remained in effect for almost half a century.”

Nonetheless, the act’s enforcement dwindled, thanks to wise reactions from antitrust agencies and the courts. While it is seldom enforced today, the act continues to create considerable legal uncertainty, as it raises regulatory risks for companies who engage in behavior that may conflict with its provisions. Indeed, many of the same so-called “neo-Brandeisians” who support passage of AICOA also advocate reinvigorating Robinson-Patman. More specifically, the new FTC majority has expressed that it is eager to revitalize Robinson-Patman, even as the law protects less efficient competitors. In other words, the Robinson-Patman Act is a zombie law: dead, but still moving.

Even if the antitrust agencies and courts ultimately follow the same path of regulatory and judicial restraint on AICOA that they have on Robinson-Patman, the legal uncertainty its existence will engender will act as a powerful deterrent on disruptive competition that dynamically benefits consumers and innovation. In short, like the Robinson-Patman Act, antitrust agencies and courts will either enforce AICOA–thus, generating the law’s adverse effects on consumers and innovation–or they will refrain from enforcing AICOA–but then, the legal uncertainty shall lead to unseen, harmful effects on innovation and consumers.

For instance, the bill’s prohibition on “self-preferencing” in Section 3(a)(1) will prevent covered platforms from offering consumers new products and services that happen to compete with incumbents’ products and services. Self-preferencing often is a pro-competitive, pro-efficiency practice that companies widely adopt—a reality that AICOA seems to ignore.

Would AICOA prevent, e.g., Apple from offering a bundled subscription to Apple One, which includes Apple Music, so that the company can effectively compete with incumbents like Spotify? As with Robinson-Patman, antitrust agencies and courts will have to choose whether to enforce a productivity-decreasing law, or to ignore congressional intent but, in the process, generate significant legal uncertainties.

Judge Bork once wrote that Robinson-Patman was “antitrust’s least glorious hour” because, rather than improving competition and innovation, it reduced competition from firms who happen to be more productive, innovative, and efficient than their rivals. The law infamously protected inefficient competitors rather than competition. But from the perspective of legislative history perspective, AICOA may be antitrust’s new “least glorious hour.” If adopted, it will adversely affect innovation and consumers, as opportunistic rivals will be able to prevent cost-saving practices by the covered platforms.

As with Robinson-Patman, calls to amend or repeal AICOA may follow its passage. But Robinson-Patman Act illustrates the path dependency of bad antitrust laws. However costly and damaging, AICOA would likely stay in place, with regular calls for either stronger or weaker enforcement, depending on whether the momentum shifts from populist antitrust or antitrust more consistent with dynamic competition.

Victory of the Brussels Effect

The future of AICOA does not bode well for markets, either from a historical perspective or from a comparative-law perspective. The EU’s DMA similarly targets a few large tech platforms but it is broader, harsher, and swifter. In the competition between these two examples of self-inflicted techlash, AICOA will pale in comparison with the DMA. Covered platforms will be forced to align with the DMA’s obligations and prohibitions.

Consequently, AICOA is a victory of the DMA and of the Brussels effect in general. AICOA effectively crowns the DMA as the all-encompassing regulatory assault on digital gatekeepers. While members of Congress have introduced numerous antitrust bills aimed at targeting gatekeepers, the DMA is the one-stop-shop regulation that encompasses multiple antitrust bills and imposes broader prohibitions and stronger obligations on gatekeepers. In other words, the DMA outcompetes AICOA.

Commentators seldom lament the extraterritorial impact of European regulations. Regarding regulating digital gatekeepers, U.S. officials should have pushed back against the innovation-stifling, welfare-decreasing effects of the DMA on U.S. tech companies, in particular, and on U.S. technological innovation, in general. To be fair, a few U.S. officials, such as Commerce Secretary Gina Raimundo, did voice opposition to the DMA. Indeed, well-aware of the DMA’s protectionist intent and its potential to break up and break into tech platforms, Raimundo expressed concerns that antitrust should not be about protecting competitors and deterring innovation but rather about protecting the process of competition, however disruptive may be.

The influential neo-Brandeisians and radical antitrust reformers, however, lashed out at Raimundo and effectively shamed the Biden administration into embracing the DMA (and its sister regulation, AICOA). Brussels did not have to exert its regulatory overreach; the U.S. administration happily imports and emulates European overregulation. There is no better way for European officials to see their dreams come true: a techlash against U.S. digital platforms that enjoys the support of local officials.

In that regard, AICOA has already played a significant role in shaping the intellectual mood in Washington and in altering the course of U.S. antitrust. Members of Congress designed AICOA along the lines pioneered by the DMA. Sen. Klobuchar has argued that America should emulate European competition policy regarding tech platforms. Lina Khan, now chair of the FTC, co-authored the U.S. House Antitrust Subcommittee report, which recommended adopting the European concept of “abuse of dominant position” in U.S. antitrust. In her current position, Khan now praises the DMA. Tim Wu, competition counsel for the White House, has praised European competition policy and officials. Indeed, the neo-Brandeisians’ have not only praised the European Commission’s fines against U.S. tech platforms (despite early criticisms from former President Barack Obama) but have more dramatically called for the United States to imitate the European regulatory framework.

In this regulatory race to inefficiency, the standard is set in Brussels with the blessings of U.S. officials. Not even the precedent set by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) fully captures the effects the DMA will have. Privacy laws passed by U.S. states’ privacy have mostly reacted to the reality of the GDPR. With AICOA, Congress is proactively anticipating, emulating, and welcoming the DMA before it has even been adopted. The intellectual and policy shift is historical, and so is the policy error.

AICOA and the Boulevard of Broken Dreams

AICOA is a failure similar to the Robinson-Patman Act and a victory for the Brussels effect and the DMA. Consumers will be the collateral damages, and the unseen effects on innovation will take years before they materialize. Calls for amendments and repeals of AICOA are likely to fail, so that the inevitable costs will forever bear upon consumers and innovation dynamics.

AICOA illustrates the neo-Brandeisian opposition to large innovative companies. Joseph Schumpeter warned against such hostility and its effect on disincentivizing entrepreneurs to innovate when he wrote:

Faced by the increasing hostility of the environment and by the legislative, administrative, and judicial practice born of that hostility, entrepreneurs and capitalists—in fact the whole stratum that accepts the bourgeois scheme of life—will eventually cease to function. Their standard aims are rapidly becoming unattainable, their efforts futile.

President William Howard Taft once said, “the world is not going to be saved by legislation.” AICOA will not save antitrust, nor will consumers. To paraphrase Schumpeter, the bill’s drafters “walked into our future as we walked into the war, blindfolded.” AICOA’s intentions to deliver greater competition, a fairer marketplace, greater consumer choice, and more consumer benefits will ultimately scatter across the boulevard of broken dreams.

The Baron de Montesquieu once wrote that legislators should only change laws with a “trembling hand”:

It is sometimes necessary to change certain laws. But the case is rare, and when it happens, they should be touched only with a trembling hand: such solemnities should be observed, and such precautions are taken that the people will naturally conclude that the laws are indeed sacred since it takes so many formalities to abrogate them.

AICOA’s drafters had a clumsy hand, coupled with what Friedrich Hayek would call “a pretense of knowledge.” They were certain to do social good and incapable of thinking of doing social harm. The future will remember AICOA as the new antitrust’s least glorious hour, where consumers and innovation were sacrificed on the altar of a revitalized populist view of antitrust.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Early Morning

I wake up grudgingly to the loud ring of my phone’s preset alarm sound (I swear I gave third-party alarms a fair shot). I slide my feet into the bedroom slippers and mechanically chaperone my body to the coffee machine in the living room.

“Great,” I think to myself, “Out of capsules, again.” Still in my bathrobe, I make a grumpy face and post an interoperable story on social media. “Don’t even talk to me before I’ve had my morning coffee! #HateMondays.”

I flick my thumb and get a warm, fuzzy feeling of satisfaction as I consent to a series of privacy-related pop-ups on the official incumbent’s online marketplace website (I place immense importance on my privacy) before getting ready to sit through the usual fairness presentations.

I reach for a chair, grab a notepad and crack my neck sideways as I try to focus my (still) groggy brain on the kaleidoscope of thumbnails before me. “Time to do my part,” I sigh. My eyes—trained by years of practice—dart from left to right and from right to left, carefully scrutinizing each coffee capsule on offer for an equal number of seconds (ever since the self-preferencing ban, all available products within a search category are displayed simultaneously on the screen to avoid any explicit or tacit bias that could be interpreted as giving the online marketplace incumbent’s own products an unfair advantage over competitors).

After 13 brands and at least as many flavors, I select the platforms own brand, “Basic” (it matches my coffee machine and I’ve found through trial and error that they’re the least prone to malfunctioning), and then answer a series of questions to make sure I have actually given competitors’ products fair consideration. Platforms—including the online marketplace incumbent—use sneaky and illegal ways to leverage the attention market and give a leg up to their own products, such as offering lower prices or better delivery conditions. But with enough practice you learn to see through it. Not on my watch!

Exhausted but pleased with myself, I put the notepad down and my feet up on the coffee table. Victory.

Noon

I curse as I stub my toe on the office chair. Still with a pen in my right hand, ink dripping, I whip out my phone and pick Whatsapp to answer (I’ve never felt the need to use any of the other, newer apps—since everything is interoperable now). “No, of course I didn’t forget to do the groceries,” I tell my girlfriend with a tinge of deliberate frustration. But, of course, she knows that I know that she knows that I did.

I grab my notepad and almost fall over as I try to slide into my jeans and produce a grocery itinerary (like a grocery list, but longer) at the same time. “Trader Pete’s for fruits and vegetables, Gracey’s for canned goods, HTS for HTS frozen pizza,” I scribble, nerves tense.

(Not every company has gone the way of the online marketplace incumbent and some have decided they would be better off if they just sold their own products. After all, you can’t be fined for self-preferencing if you’re only selling your own stuff. Of course, the strategy is only viable in those industries in which vertical integration hasn’t been banned).

I finish getting dressed and dash down the stairs. I instinctively glance at my phone before getting in the car and immediately regret it, as I dismiss a bunch of notifications about malware infections. “Another app store that I’m striking from the list,” I think to myself as I turn on the ignition.

Late Afternoon

My girlfriend has already ordered a soda as I sit down at the table. “Sorry I’m late,” I mumble. We talk about her day and I tell her about the capsules I ordered (she nods approvingly) before we finally decide to order. I wave to the waiter and ask about the specials. A lanky young man no older than 19 fumbles through his (empty) pad and lists a couple of dishes.

He blurts out “homemade” and immediately turns pale. I look at my girlfriend nervously, and she stares back blankly—dazed. “Do you mean to say that it was made here, in this restaurant?” I ask in disbelief, dizzy. He comes up with some sorry excuse but I’m having none of it. I make my way to the toilet—sickened—and pull out my phone with a shaky hand. I have the Federal Trade Commission on speed-dial. I call and select number one: self-preferencing. They immediately put me through with someone. Sweating, I explain that the Italian restaurant on the corner between the 5th and Madison avenues just recommended me a special dish made by them—and barely even mentioned any of the specialties offered by the kebab joint next door. I assure the voice at the other end of the line that I had nothing to do it, and that I have not ordered—let alone tasted—the dish.

I rush out of the bathroom with blinders on and pull my girlfriend by the elbow. Her coat is on and she’s clearly impatient to get the hell out of there. As I reach for my jacket by the exit, an older man with a moustache approaches us with a bowed head and literally begs us to take a bottle of wine (no doubt a bribe for my silence). He assures us that the wine is not “della casa” (made by the restaurant), and that it’s, in fact, a French wine made by a competitor. I’m not having any of it: I bid him good day and slam the door behind us.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

May 2007, Palo Alto

The California sun shone warmly on Eric Schmidt’s face as he stepped out of his car and made his way to have dinner at Madera, a chic Palo Alto restaurant.

Dining out was a welcome distraction from the endless succession of strategy meetings with the nitpickers of the law department, which had been Schmidt’s bread and butter for the last few months. The lawyers seemed to take issue with any new project that Google’s engineers came up with. “How would rivals compete with our maps?”; “Our placement should be no less favorable than rivals’’; etc. The objections were endless. 

This is not how things were supposed to be. When Schmidt became Google’s chief executive officer in 2001, his mission was to take the company public and grow the firm into markets other than search. But then something unexpected happened. After campaigning on an anti-monopoly platform, a freshman senator from Minnesota managed to get her anti-discrimination bill through Congress in just her first few months in office. All companies with a market cap of more than $150 billion were now prohibited from favoring their own products. Google had recently crossed that Rubicon, putting a stop to years of carefree expansion into new markets.

But today was different. The waiter led Schmidt to his table overlooking Silicon Valley. His acquaintance was already seated. 

With his tall and slender figure, Andy Rubin had garnered quite a reputation among Silicon Valley’s elite. After engineering stints at Apple and Motorola, developing various handheld devices, Rubin had set up his own shop. The idea was bold: develop the first open mobile platform—based on Linux, nonetheless. Rubin had pitched the project to Google in 2005 but given the regulatory uncertainty over the future of antitrust—the same wave of populist sentiment that would carry Klobuchar to office one year later—Schmidt and his team had passed.

“There’s no money in open source,” the company’s CFO ruled. Schmidt had initially objected, but with more pressing matters to deal with, he ultimately followed his CFO’s advice.

Schmidt and Rubin were exchanging pleasantries about Microsoft and Java when the meals arrived–sublime Wagyu short ribs and charred spring onions paired with a 1986 Chateau Margaux.

Rubin finally cut to the chase. “Our mobile operating system will rely on state-of-the-art touchscreen technology. Just like the device being developed by Apple. Buying Android today might be your only way to avoid paying monopoly prices to access Apple’s mobile users tomorrow.”

Schmidt knew this all too well: The future was mobile, and few companies were taking Apple’s upcoming iPhone seriously enough. Even better, as a firm, Android was treading water. Like many other startups, it had excellent software but no business model. And with the Klobuchar bill putting the brakes on startup investment—monetizing an ecosystem had become a delicate legal proposition, deterring established firms from acquiring startups–Schmidt was in the middle of a buyer’s market. “Android we could make us a force to reckon with” Schmidt thought to himself.

But he quickly shook that thought, remembering the words of his CFO: “There is no money in open source.” In an ideal world, Google would have used Android to promote its search engine—placing a search bar on Android users to draw users to its search engine—or maybe it could have tied a proprietary app store to the operating system, thus earning money from in-app purchases. But with the Klobuchar bill, these were no longer options. Not without endless haggling with Google’s planning committee of lawyers.

And they would have a point, of course. Google risked heavy fines and court-issued injunctions that would stop the project in its tracks. Such risks were not to be taken lightly. Schmidt needed a plan to make the Android platform profitable while accommodating Google’s rivals, but he had none.

The desserts were served, Schmidt steered the conversation to other topics, and the sun slowly set over Sand Hill Road.

Present Day, Cupertino

Apple continues to dominate the smartphone industry with little signs of significant competition on the horizon. While there are continuing rumors that Google, Facebook, or even TikTok might enter the market, these have so far failed to transpire.

Google’s failed partnership with Samsung, back in 2012, still looms large over the industry. After lengthy talks to create an open mobile platform failed to materialize, Google ultimately entered into an agreement with the longstanding mobile manufacturer. Unfortunately, the deal was mired by antitrust issues and clashing visions—Samsung was believed to favor a closed ecosystem, rather than the open platform envisioned by Google.

The sense that Apple is running away with the market is only reinforced by recent developments. Last week, Tim Cook unveiled the company’s new iPhone 11—the first ever mobile device to come with three cameras. With an eye-watering price tag of $1,199 for the top-of-the-line Pro model, it certainly is not cheap. In his presentation, Cook assured consumers Apple had solved the security issues that have been an important bugbear for the iPhone and its ecosystem of competing app stores.

Analysts expect the new range of devices will help Apple cement the iPhone’s 50% market share. This is especially likely given the important challenges that Apple’s main rivals continue to face.

The Windows Phone’s reputation for buggy software continues to undermine its competitive position, despite its comparatively low price point. Andy Rubin, the head of the Windows Phone, was reassuring in a press interview, but there is little tangible evidence he will manage to successfully rescue the flailing ship. Meanwhile, Huawei has come under increased scrutiny for the threats it may pose to U.S. national security. The Chinese manufacturer may face a U.S. sales ban, unless the company’s smartphone branch is sold to a U.S. buyer. Oracle is said to be a likely candidate.

The sorry state of mobile competition has become an increasingly prominent policy issue. President Klobuchar took to Twitter and called on mobile-device companies to refrain from acting as monopolists, intimating elsewhere that failure to do so might warrant tougher regulation than her anti-discrimination bill:

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

When I was a kid, I trailed behind my mother in the grocery store with a notepad and a pencil adding up the cost of each item she added to our cart. This was partly my mother’s attempt to keep my math skills sharp, but it was also a necessity. As a low-income family, there was no slack in the budget for superfluous spending. The Hostess cupcakes I longed for were a luxury item that only appeared in our cart if there was an unexpected windfall. If the antitrust populists who castigate all forms of market power succeed in their crusade to radically deconcentrate the economy, life will be much harder for low-income families like the one I grew up in.

Antitrust populists like Biden White House official Tim Wu and author Matt Stoller decry the political influence of large firms. But instead of advocating for policies that tackle this political influence directly, they seek reforms to antitrust enforcement that aim to limit the economic advantages of these firms, believing that will translate into political enfeeblement. The economic advantages arising from scale benefit consumers, particularly low-income consumers, often at the expense of smaller economic rivals. But because the protection of small businesses is so paramount to their worldview, antitrust populists blithely ignore the harm that advancing their objectives would cause to low-income families.

This desire to protect small businesses, without acknowledging the economic consequences for low-income families, is plainly obvious in calls for reinvigorated Robinson-Patman Act enforcement (a law from the 1930s for which independent businesses advocated to limit the rise of chain stores) and in plans to revise the antitrust enforcement agencies’ merger guidelines. The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently held a series of listening sessions to demonstrate the need for new guidelines. During the listening session on food and agriculture, independent grocer Anthony Pena described the difficulty he has competing with larger competitors like Walmart. He stated that:

Just months ago, I was buying a 59-ounce orange juice just north of $4 a unit, where we couldn’t get the supplier to sell it to us … Meanwhile, I go to the bigger box like a Walmart or a club store. Not only do they have it fully stocked, but they have it about half the price that I would buy it for at cost.

Half the price. Anthony Pena is complaining that competitors such as Walmart are selling the same product at half the price. To protect independent grocers like Anthony Pena, antitrust populists would have consumers, including low-income families, pay twice as much for groceries.

Walmart is an important food retailer for low-income families. Nearly a fifth of all spending through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program formerly known as food stamps, takes place at Walmart. After housing and transportation, food is the largest expense for low-income families. The share of expenditures going toward food for low-income families (i.e., families in the lowest 20% of the income distribution) is 34% higher than for high-income families (i.e., families in the highest 20% of the income distribution). This means that higher grocery prices disproportionately burden low-income families.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot, which allows SNAP recipients to use their benefits at online food retailers. The pandemic led to an explosion in the number of SNAP recipients using their benefits online—increasing from just 35,000 households in March 2020 to nearly 770,000 households just three months later. While the pilot originally only included Walmart and Amazon, the number of eligible retailers has expanded rapidly. In order to make grocery delivery more accessible to low-income families, an important service during the pandemic, Amazon reduced its Prime membership fee (which helps pay for free delivery) by 50% for SNAP recipients.

The antitrust populists are not only targeting the advantages of large brick-and-mortar retailers, such as Walmart, but also of large online retailers like Amazon. Again, these advantages largely flow to consumers—particularly low-income ones.

The proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), which was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in February and may make an appearance on the Senate floor this summer, threatens those consumer benefits. AICOA would prohibit so-called “self-preferencing” by Amazon and other large technology platforms.

Should a ban on self-preferencing come to fruition, Amazon would not be able to prominently show its own products in any capacity—even when its products are a good match for a consumer’s search. In search results, Amazon will not be able to promote its private-label products, including Amazon Basics and 365 by Whole Foods, or products for which it is a first-party seller (i.e., a reseller of another company’s product). Amazon may also have to downgrade the ranking of popular products it sells, making them harder for consumers to find. Forcing Amazon to present offers that do not correspond to products consumers want to buy or are not a good value inflicts harm on all consumers but is particularly problematic for low-income consumers. All else equal, most consumers, especially low-income ones, obviously prefer cheaper products. It is important not to take that choice away from them.

Consider the case of orange juice, the product causing so much consternation for Mr. Pena. In a recent search on Amazon for a 59-ounce orange juice, as seen in the image below, the first four “organic” search results are SNAP-eligible, first-party, or private-label products sold by Amazon and ranging in price from $3.55 to $3.79. The next two results are from third-party sellers offering two 59-ounce bottles of orange juice at $38.99 and $84.54—more than five times the unit price offered by Amazon. By prohibiting self-preferencing, Amazon would be forced to promote products to consumers that are significantly more expensive and that are not SNAP-eligible. This increases costs directly for consumers who purchase more expensive products when cheaper alternatives are available but not presented. But it also increases costs indirectly by forcing consumers to search longer for better prices and SNAP-eligible products or by discouraging them from considering timesaving, online shopping altogether. Low-income families are least able to afford these increased costs.

The upshot is that antitrust populists are choosing to support (often well-off) small-business owners at the expense of vulnerable working people. Congress should not allow them to put the squeeze on low-income families. These families are already suffering due to record-high inflation—particularly for items that constitute the largest share of their expenditures, such as transportation and food. Proposed antitrust reforms such as AICOA and reinvigorated Robinson-Patman Act enforcement will only make it harder for low-income families to make ends meet.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

If S.2992—the American Innovation and Choice Online Act or AICOA—were to become law, it would be, at the very least, an incomplete law. By design—and not for good reason, but for political expediency—AICOA is riddled with intentional uncertainty. In theory, the law’s glaring definitional deficiencies are meant to be rectified by “expert” agencies (i.e., the DOJ and FTC) after passage. But in actuality, no such certainty would ever emerge, and the law would stand as a testament to the crass political machinations and absence of rigor that undergird it. Among many other troubling outcomes, this is what the future under AICOA would hold.

Two months ago, the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Antitrust Section published a searing critique of AICOA in which it denounced the bill for being poorly written, vague, and departing from established antitrust-law principles. As Lazar Radic and I discussed in a previous post, what made the ABA’s letter to Congress so eye-opening was that it was penned by a typically staid group with a reputation for independence, professionalism, and ideational heterogeneity.

One of the main issues the ABA flagged in its letter is that the introduction of vague new concepts—like “materially harm competition,” which does not exist anywhere in current antitrust law—into the antitrust mainstream will risk substantial legal uncertainty and produce swathes of unintended consequences.

According to some, however, the bill’s inherent uncertainty is a feature, not a bug. It leaves enough space for specialist agencies to define the precise meaning of key terms without unduly narrowing the scope of the bill ex ante.

In particular, supporters of the bill have pointed to the prospect of agency guidelines under the law to rescue it from the starkest of the fundamental issues identified by the ABA. Section 4 of AICOA requires the DOJ and FTC to issue “agency enforcement guidelines” no later than 270 days after the date of enactment:

outlining policies and practices relating to conduct that may materially harm competition under section 3(a), agency interpretations of the affirmative defenses under section 3(b), and policies for determining the appropriate amount of a civil penalty to be sought under section 3(c).

In pointing to the prospect of guidelines, however, supporters are inadvertently admitting defeat—and proving the ABA’s point: AICOA is not ready for prime time.

This thinking is misguided for at least three reasons:

Guidelines are not rules

As section 4(d) of AICOA recognizes, guidelines are emphatically nonbinding:

The joint guidelines issued under this section do not … operate to bind the Commission, Department of Justice, or any person, State, or locality to the approach recommended in the guidelines.

As such, the value of guidelines in dispelling legal uncertainty is modest, at best.

This is even more so in today’s highly politicized atmosphere, where guidelines can be withdrawn at the tip of the ballot (we’ve just seen the FTC rescind the Vertical Merger Guidelines it put in place less than a year ago). Given how politicized the issuing agencies themselves have become, it’s a virtual certainty that the guidelines produced in response to AICOA would be steeped in partisan politics and immediately changed with a change in administration, thus providing no more lasting legal certainty than speculation by a member of Congress.

Guidelines are not the appropriate tool to define novel concepts

Regardless of this political reality, however, the mixture of vagueness and novelty inherent in the key concepts that underpin the infringements and affirmative defenses under AICOA—such as “fairness,” “preferencing,” “materiality”, or the “intrinsic” value of a product—undermine the usefulness (and legitimacy) of guidelines.

Indeed, while laws are sometimes purposefully vague—operating as standards rather than prescriptive rules—to allow for more flexibility, the concepts introduced by AICOA don’t even offer any cognizable standards suitable for fine-tuning.

The operative terms of AICOA don’t have definitive meanings under antitrust law, either because they are wholly foreign to accepted antitrust law (as in the case of “self-preferencing”) or because the courts have never agreed on an accepted definition (as in the case of “fairness”). Nor are they technical standards, which are better left to specialized agencies rather than to legislators to define, such as in the case of, e.g., pollution (by contrast: what is the technical standard for “fairness”?).

Indeed, as Elyse Dorsey has noted, the only certainty that would emerge from this state of affairs is the certainty of pervasive rent-seeking by non-altruistic players seeking to define the rules in their favor.

As we’ve pointed out elsewhere, the purpose of guidelines is to reflect the state of the art in a certain area of antitrust law and not to push the accepted scope of knowledge and practice in a new direction. This not only overreaches the FTC’s and DOJ’s powers, but also risks galvanizing opposition from the courts, thereby undermining the utility of adopting guidelines in the first place.

Guidelines can’t fix a fundamentally flawed law

Expecting guidelines to provide sensible, administrable content for the bill sets the bar overly high for guidelines, and unduly low for AICOA.

The alleged harms at the heart of AICOA are foreign to antitrust law, and even to the economic underpinnings of competition policy more broadly. Indeed, as Sean Sullivan has pointed out, the law doesn’t even purport to define “harms,” but only serves to make specific conduct illegal:

Even if the conduct has no effect, it’s made illegal, unless an affirmative defense is raised. And the affirmative defense requires that it doesn’t ‘harm competition.’ But ‘harm competition’ is undefined…. You have to prove that harm doesn’t result, but it’s not really ever made clear what the harm is in the first place.”

“Self-preferencing” is not a competitive defect, and simply declaring it to be so does not make it one. As I’ve noted elsewhere:

The notion that platform entry into competition with edge providers is harmful to innovation is entirely speculative. Moreover, it is flatly contrary to a range of studies showing that the opposite is likely true…. The theory of vertical discrimination harm is at odds not only with this platform-specific empirical evidence, it is also contrary to the long-standing evidence on the welfare effects of vertical restraints more broadly …

… [M]andating openness is not without costs, most importantly in terms of the effective operation of the platform and its own incentives for innovation.

Asking agencies with an expertise in competition policy to enact economically sensible guidelines to direct enforcement against such conduct is a fool’s errand. It is a recipe for purely political legislation adopted by competition agencies that does nothing to further their competition missions.

AICOA’s Catch-22 Is Its Own Doing, and Will Be Its Downfall

AICOA’s Catch-22 is that, by making the law so vague that it needs enforcement guidelines to flesh it out, AICOA renders both itself and those same guidelines irrelevant and misses the point of both legal instruments.

Ultimately, guidelines cannot resolve the fundamental rule-of-law issues raised by the bill and highlighted by the ABA in its letter. To the contrary, they confirm the ABA’s concerns that AICOA is a poorly written and indeterminate bill. Further, the contentious elements of the bill that need clarification are inherently legislative ones that—paradoxically—shouldn’t be left to competition-agency guidelines to elucidate.

The upshot is that any future under AICOA will be one marked by endless uncertainty and the extreme politicization of both competition policy and the agencies that enforce it.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Much ink has been spilled regarding the potential harm to the economy and to the rule of law that could stem from enactment of the primary federal antitrust legislative proposal, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) (see here). AICOA proponents, of course, would beg to differ, emphasizing the purported procompetitive benefits of limiting the business freedom of “Big Tech monopolists.”

There is, however, one inescapable reality—as night follows day, passage of AICOA would usher in an extended period of costly litigation over the meaning of a host of AICOA terms. As we will see, this would generate business uncertainty and dampen innovative conduct that might be covered by new AICOA statutory terms. 

The history of antitrust illustrates the difficulties inherent in clarifying the meaning of novel federal statutory language. It was not until 21 years after passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act that the Supreme Court held that Section 1 of the act’s prohibition on contracts, combinations, and conspiracies “in restraint of trade” only covered unreasonable restraints of trade (see Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911)). Furthermore, courts took decades to clarify that certain types of restraints (for example, hardcore price fixing and horizontal market division) were inherently unreasonable and thus per se illegal, while others would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis under a “rule of reason.”

In addition, even far more specific terms related to exclusive dealing, tying, and price discrimination found within the Clayton Antitrust Act gave rise to uncertainty over the scope of their application. This uncertainty had to be sorted out through judicial case-law tests developed over many decades.

Even today, there is no simple, easily applicable test to determine whether conduct in the abstract constitutes illegal monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Act. Rather, whether Section 2 has been violated in any particular instance depends upon the application of economic analysis and certain case-law principles to matter-specific facts.

As is the case with current antitrust law, the precise meaning and scope of AICOA’s terms will have to be fleshed out over many years. Scholarly critiques of AICOA’s language underscore the seriousness of this problem.

In its April 2022 public comment on AICOA, the American Bar Association (ABA)  Antitrust Law Section explains in some detail the significant ambiguities inherent in specific AICOA language that the courts will have to address. These include “ambiguous terminology … regarding fairness, preferencing, materiality, and harm to competition on covered platforms”; and “specific language establishing affirmative defenses [that] creates significant uncertainty”. The ABA comment further stresses that AICOA’s failure to include harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for a statutory violation departs from a broad-based consensus understanding within the antitrust community and could have the unintended consequence of disincentivizing efficient conduct. This departure would, of course, create additional interpretive difficulties for federal judges, further complicating the task of developing coherent case-law principles for the new statute.

Lending support to the ABA’s concerns, Northwestern University professor of economics Dan Spulber notes that AICOA “may have adverse effects on innovation and competition because of imprecise concepts and terminology.”

In a somewhat similar vein, Stanford Law School Professor (and former acting assistant attorney general for antitrust during the Clinton administration) Douglas Melamed complains that:

[AICOA] does not include the normal antitrust language (e.g., “competition in the market as a whole,” “market power”) that gives meaning to the idea of harm to competition, nor does it say that the imprecise language it does use is to be construed as that language is construed by the antitrust laws. … The bill could be very harmful if it is construed to require, not increased market power, but simply harm to rivals.

In sum, ambiguities inherent in AICOA’s new terminology will generate substantial uncertainty among affected businesses. This uncertainty will play out in the courts over a period of years. Moreover, the likelihood that judicial statutory constructions of AICOA language will support “efficiency-promoting” interpretations of behavior is diminished by the fact that AICOA’s structural scheme (which focuses on harm to rivals) does not harmonize with traditional antitrust concerns about promoting a vibrant competitive process.

Knowing this, the large high-tech firms covered by AICOA will become risk averse and less likely to innovate. (For example, they will be reluctant to improve algorithms in a manner that would increase efficiency and benefit consumers, but that might be seen as disadvantaging rivals.) As such, American innovation will slow, and consumers will suffer. (See here for an estimate of the enormous consumer-welfare gains generated by high tech platforms—gains of a type that AICOA’s enactment may be expected to jeopardize.) It is to be hoped that Congress will take note and consign AICOA to the rubbish heap of disastrous legislative policy proposals.

Winter in Helsinki

Dan Crane —  25 July 2022

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Jouko Hiltunen gazed out the window into the midday twilight. Eight stories down, across the plaza and promenade, the Helsinki harbor was already blanketed under a dusting of snow. By Christmas, the ice would be thick enough for walking out to the castle at Suomenlinna.

Jouko turned back to his computer screen. His fingers found the keys. At once, lines of code began spilling from the keyboard.

The desk phone rang. Sanna, who occupied the adjacent cubicle, arched her eyebrows. “Legal again?”

Jouko nodded. Without answering the phone, he got up and walked down three flights of stairs. The usual group was assembled in Partanen’s office: the woman in the dour gray suit who looked like an osprey, the fat man from Brussels who made them speak in English, and Partanen, the general counsel.

By habit, Jouko entered and stood behind a chair. Partanen nodded curtly. “We have an issue, Hiltunen. Again.”

“What now?”

“We’ve been watching how you’re coding the new walking tour search vertical. It seems that you are designing it to give preference to restaurants, cafès, and hotels that have been highly rated by the Tourism Board.”

“Yes, that’s right. Restaurants, cafès, and hotels that have been rated by the Tourism Board are cleaner, safer, and more convenient. That’s why they have been rated.”

“But you are forgetting that the Tourism Board is one of our investors. This will be considered self-preferencing.”

“But . . .”

“Listen, Hiltunen. We aren’t here to argue about this. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t be considered self-preferencing, but our company won’t take that risk. Do you understand?”

 “No.”

 “Then let me explain it . . .”

 But Jouko had already left. When he returned to his desk, Sanna was watching him. “Everything OK?” she asked.

Jouko shrugged. He started typing again, but more slowly than before. An hour later, the phone rang again. This time, Sanna only raised an eyebrow. Jouko gave half a nod and ambled downstairs.

“You are making it worse,” said Partanen. The osprey woman scowled and raked her fingernails across the desk.

“How am I making it worse? I did what you said and eliminated search results defaulting to rated establishments.”

“Yes, but you added a toggle for users to be shown only rated establishments.”

“Only if they decide to be shown only rated establishments. I’m giving them a choice.”

“Choice? What does choice have to do with it? Everyone who uses our search engine is choosing—” Partanen made rabbit ears in the air – “but we have a responsibility not to impede competition. If you give them a suggestive choice” – again, rabbit ears – “that will be considered self-preferencing?”

“Really?”

“Well, maybe it will and maybe it won’t, but the company won’t take the risk.”

When Jouko returned to his desk, Sanna averted her eyes. As he sat motionless behind his keyboard, hands folded in his lap, she occasionally shot him concerned glances.

The darkness outside was nearly complete when the phone rang again. Jouko let it go to voicemail and waited a long time before rising and walking wearily downstairs.

“What now? I haven’t done anything.”

“We’ve been talking and have a new idea. It would be better if you blocked from the search results any restaurants or hotels that have been rated by the Board of Tourism. That way, there is no chance that we will be accused of self-preferencing.”

“Or that people will end up in a safe, clean, or convenient restaurant.”

“That’s not your problem, is it?”

Jouko returned to his cubicle. He did not sit down at his desk, but started putting on his coat.

“Where are you going?” asked Sanna.

“I’m going to walk out towards Suomenlinna.”

Sanna’s voice rose in alarm: “But the ice has barely formed. It won’t hold you.”

Jouko shrugged. “Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. I’ll take the risk.”

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Earlier this month, Professors Fiona Scott Morton, Steve Salop, and David Dinielli penned a letter expressing their “strong support” for the proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA). In the letter, the professors address criticisms of AICOA and urge its approval, despite possible imperfections.

“Perhaps this bill could be made better if we lived in a perfect world,” the professors write, “[b]ut we believe the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, especially when change is so urgently needed.”

The problem is that the professors and other supporters of AICOA have shown neither that “change is so urgently needed” nor that the proposed law is, in fact, “good.”

Is Change ‘Urgently Needed’?

With respect to the purported urgency that warrants passage of a concededly imperfect bill, the letter authors assert two points. First, they claim that AICOA’s targets—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft (collectively, GAFAM)—“serve as the essential gatekeepers of economic, social, and political activity on the internet.” It is thus appropriate, they say, to amend the antitrust laws to do something they have never before done: saddle a handful of identified firms with special regulatory duties.

But is this oft-repeated claim about “gatekeeper” status true? The label conjures up the old Terminal Railroad case, where a group of firms controlled the only bridges over the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Freighters had no choice but to utilize their services. Do the GAFAM firms really play a similar role with respect to “economic, social, and political activity on the internet”? Hardly.

With respect to economic activity, Amazon may be a huge player, but it still accounts for only 39.5% of U.S. ecommerce sales—and far less of retail sales overall. Consumers have gobs of other ecommerce options, and so do third-party merchants, which may sell their wares using Shopify, Ebay, Walmart, Etsy, numerous other ecommerce platforms, or their own websites.

For social activity on the internet, consumers need not rely on Facebook and Instagram. They can connect with others via Snapchat, Reddit, Pinterest, TikTok, Twitter, and scores of other sites. To be sure, all these services have different niches, but the letter authors’ claim that the GAFAM firms are “essential gatekeepers” of “social… activity on the internet” is spurious.

Nor are the firms singled out by AICOA essential gatekeepers of “political activity on the internet.” The proposed law touches neither Twitter, the primary hub of political activity on the internet, nor TikTok, which is increasingly used for political messaging.

The second argument the letter authors assert in support of their claim of urgency is that “[t]he decline of antitrust enforcement in the U.S. is well known, pervasive, and has left our jurisprudence unable to protect and maintain competitive markets.” In other words, contemporary antitrust standards are anemic and have led to a lack of market competition in the United States.

The evidence for this claim, which is increasingly parroted in the press and among the punditry, is weak. Proponents primarily point to studies showing:

  1. increasing industrial concentration;
  2. higher markups on goods and services since 1980;
  3. a declining share of surplus going to labor, which could indicate monopsony power in labor markets; and
  4. a reduction in startup activity, suggesting diminished innovation. 

Examined closely, however, those studies fail to establish a domestic market power crisis.

Industrial concentration has little to do with market power in actual markets. Indeed, research suggests that, while industries may be consolidating at the national level, competition at the market (local) level is increasing, as more efficient national firms open more competitive outlets in local markets. As Geoff Manne sums up this research:

Most recently, several working papers looking at the data on concentration in detail and attempting to identify the likely cause for the observed data, show precisely the opposite relationship. The reason for increased concentration appears to be technological, not anticompetitive. And, as might be expected from that cause, its effects are beneficial. Indeed, the story is both intuitive and positive.

What’s more, while national concentration does appear to be increasing in some sectors of the economy, it’s not actually so clear that the same is true for local concentration — which is often the relevant antitrust market.

With respect to the evidence on markups, the claim of a significant increase in the price-cost margin depends crucially on the measure of cost. The studies suggesting an increase in margins since 1980 use the “cost of goods sold” (COGS) metric, which excludes a firm’s management and marketing costs—both of which have become an increasingly significant portion of firms’ costs. Measuring costs using the “operating expenses” (OPEX) metric, which includes management and marketing costs, reveals that public-company markups increased only modestly since the 1980s and that the increase was within historical variation. (It is also likely that increased markups since 1980 reflect firms’ more extensive use of technology and their greater regulatory burdens, both of which raise fixed costs and require higher markups over marginal cost.)

As for the declining labor share, that dynamic is occurring globally. Indeed, the decline in the labor share in the United States has been less severe than in Japan, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, China, Mexico, and Poland, suggesting that anemic U.S. antitrust enforcement is not to blame. (A reduction in the relative productivity of labor is a more likely culprit.)

Finally, the claim of reduced startup activity is unfounded. In its report on competition in digital markets, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee asserted that, since the advent of the major digital platforms:

  1. “[t]he number of new technology firms in the digital economy has declined”;
  2. “the entrepreneurship rate—the share of startups and young firms in the [high technology] industry as a whole—has also fallen significantly”; and
  3. “[u]nsurprisingly, there has also been a sharp reduction in early-stage funding for technology startups.” (pp. 46-47.)

Those claims, however, are based on cherry-picked evidence.

In support of the first two, the Judiciary Committee report cited a study based on data ending in 2011. As Benedict Evans has observed, “standard industry data shows that startup investment rounds have actually risen at least 4x since then.”

In support of the third claim, the report cited statistics from an article noting that the number and aggregate size of the very smallest venture capital deals—those under $1 million—fell between 2014 and 2018 (after growing substantially from 2008 to 2014). The Judiciary Committee report failed to note, however, the cited article’s observation that small venture deals ($1 million to $5 million) had not dropped and that larger venture deals (greater than $5 million) had grown substantially during the same time period. Nor did the report acknowledge that venture-capital funding has continued to increase since 2018.

Finally, there is also reason to think that AICOA’s passage would harm, not help, the startup environment:

AICOA doesn’t directly restrict startup acquisitions, but the activities it would restrict most certainly do dramatically affect the incentives that drive many startup acquisitions. If a platform is prohibited from engaging in cross-platform integration of acquired technologies, or if it can’t monetize its purchase by prioritizing its own technology, it may lose the motivation to make a purchase in the first place.

Despite the letter authors’ claims, neither a paucity of avenues for “economic, social, and political activity on the internet” nor the general state of market competition in the United States establishes an “urgent need” to re-write the antitrust laws to saddle a small group of firms with unprecedented legal obligations.

Is the Vagueness of AICOA’s Primary Legal Standard a Feature?

AICOA bars covered platforms from engaging in three broad classes of conduct (self-preferencing, discrimination among business users, and limiting business users’ ability to compete) where the behavior at issue would “materially harm competition.” It then forbids several specific business practices, but allows the defendant to avoid liability by proving that their use of the practice would not cause a “material harm to competition.”

Critics have argued that “material harm to competition”—a standard that is not used elsewhere in the antitrust laws—is too indeterminate to provide business planners and adjudicators with adequate guidance. The authors of the pro-AICOA letter, however, maintain that this “different language is a feature, not a bug.”

That is so, the letter authors say, because the language effectively signals to courts and policymakers that antitrust should prohibit more conduct. They explain:

To clarify to courts and policymakers that Congress wants something different (and stronger), new terminology is required. The bill’s language would open up a new space and move beyond the standards imposed by the Sherman Act, which has not effectively policed digital platforms.

Putting aside the weakness of the letter authors’ premise (i.e., that Sherman Act standards have proven ineffective), the legislative strategy they advocate—obliquely signal that you want “change” without saying what it should consist of—is irresponsible and risky.

The letter authors assert two reasons Congress should not worry about enacting a liability standard that has no settled meaning. One is that:

[t]he same judges who are called upon to render decisions under the existing, insufficient, antitrust regime, will also be called upon to render decisions under the new law. They will be the same people with the same worldview.

It is thus unlikely that “outcomes under the new law would veer drastically away from past understandings of core concepts….”

But this claim undermines the argument that a new standard is needed to get the courts to do “something different” and “move beyond the standards imposed by the Sherman Act.” If we don’t need to worry about an adverse outcome from a novel, ill-defined standard because courts are just going to continue applying the standard they’re familiar with, then what’s the point of changing the standard?

A second reason not to worry about the lack of clarity on AICOA’s key liability standard, the letter authors say, is that federal enforcers will define it:

The new law would mandate that the [Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice], the two expert agencies in the area of competition, together create guidelines to help courts interpret the law. Any uncertainty about the meaning of words like ‘competition’ will be resolved in those guidelines and over time with the development of caselaw.

This is no doubt music to the ears of members of Congress, who love to get credit for “doing something” legislatively, while leaving the details to an agency so that they can avoid accountability if things turn out poorly. Indeed, the letter authors explicitly play upon legislators’ unwholesome desire for credit-sans-accountability. They emphasize that “[t]he agencies must [create and] update the guidelines periodically. Congress doesn’t have to do much of anything very specific other than approve budgets; it certainly has no obligation to enact any new laws, let alone amend them.”

AICOA does not, however, confer rulemaking authority on the agencies; it merely directs them to create and periodically update “agency enforcement guidelines” and “agency interpretations” of certain affirmative defenses. Those guidelines and interpretations would not bind courts, which would be free to interpret AICOA’s new standard differently. The letter authors presume that courts would defer to the agencies’ interpretation of the vague standard, and they probably would. But that raises other problems.

For one thing, it reduces certainty, which is likely to chill innovation. Giving the enforcement agencies de facto power to determine and redetermine what behaviors “would materially harm competition” means that the rules are never settled. Administrations differ markedly in their views about what the antitrust laws should forbid, so business planners could never be certain that a product feature or revenue model that is legal today will not be deemed to “materially harm competition” by a future administration with greater solicitude for small rivals and upstarts. Such uncertainty will hinder investment in novel products, services, and business models.

Consider, for example, Google’s investment in the Android mobile operating system. Google makes money from Android—which it licenses to device manufacturers for free—by ensuring that Google’s revenue-generating services (e.g., its search engine and browser) are strongly preferenced on Android products. One administration might believe that this is a procompetitive arrangement, as it creates a different revenue model for mobile operating systems (as opposed to Apple’s generation of revenue from hardware sales), resulting in both increased choice and lower prices for consumers. A subsequent administration might conclude that the arrangement materially harms competition by making it harder for rival search engines and web browsers to gain market share. It would make scant sense for a covered platform to make an investment like Google did with Android if its underlying business model could be upended by a new administration with de facto power to rewrite the law.

A second problem with having the enforcement agencies determine and redetermine what covered platforms may do is that it effectively transforms the agencies from law enforcers into sectoral regulators. Indeed, the letter authors agree that “the ability of expert agencies to incorporate additional protections in the guidelines” means that “the bill is not a pure antitrust law but also safeguards other benefits to consumers.” They tout that “the complementarity between consumer protection and competition can be addressed in the guidelines.”

Of course, to the extent that the enforcement guidelines address concerns besides competition, they will be less useful for interpreting AICOA’s “material harm to competition” standard; they might deem a practice suspect on non-competition grounds. Moreover, it is questionable whether creating a sectoral regulator for five widely diverse firms is a good idea. The history of sectoral regulation is littered with examples of agency capture, rent-seeking, and other public-choice concerns. At a minimum, Congress should carefully examine the potential downsides of sectoral regulation, install protections to mitigate those downsides, and explicitly establish the sectoral regulator.

Will AICOA Break Popular Products and Services?

Many popular offerings by the platforms covered by AICOA involve self-preferencing, discrimination among business users, or one of the other behaviors the bill presumptively bans. Pre-installation of iPhone apps and services like Siri, for example, involves self-preferencing or discrimination among business users of Apple’s iOS platform. But iPhone consumers value having a mobile device that offers extensive services right out of the box. Consumers love that Google’s search result for an establishment offers directions to the place, which involves the preferencing of Google Maps. And consumers positively adore Amazon Prime, which can provide free expedited delivery because Amazon conditions Prime designation on a third-party seller’s use of Amazon’s efficient, reliable “Fulfillment by Amazon” service—something Amazon could not do under AICOA.

The authors of the pro-AICOA letter insist that the law will not ban attractive product features like these. AICOA, they say:

provides a powerful defense that forecloses any thoughtful concern of this sort: conduct otherwise banned under the bill is permitted if it would ‘maintain or substantially enhance the core functionality of the covered platform.’

But the authors’ confidence that this affirmative defense will adequately protect popular offerings is misplaced. The defense is narrow and difficult to mount.

First, it immunizes only those behaviors that maintain or substantially enhance the “core” functionality of the covered platform. Courts would rightly interpret AICOA to give effect to that otherwise unnecessary word, which dictionaries define as “the central or most important part of something.” Accordingly, any self-preferencing, discrimination, or other presumptively illicit behavior that enhances a covered platform’s service but not its “central or most important” functions is not even a candidate for the defense.

Even if a covered platform could establish that a challenged practice would maintain or substantially enhance the platform’s core functionality, it would also have to prove that the conduct was “narrowly tailored” and “reasonably necessary” to achieve the desired end, and, for many behaviors, the “le[ast] discriminatory means” of doing so. That is a remarkably heavy burden, and it beggars belief to suppose that business planners considering novel offerings involving self-preferencing, discrimination, or some other presumptively illicit conduct would feel confident that they could make the required showing. It is likely, then, that AICOA would break existing products and services and discourage future innovation.

Of course, Congress could mitigate this concern by specifying that AICOA does not preclude certain things, such as pre-installed apps or consumer-friendly search results. But the legislation would then lose the support of the many interest groups who want the law to preclude various popular offerings that its text would now forbid. Unlike consumers, who are widely dispersed and difficult to organize, the groups and competitors that would benefit from things like stripped-down smartphones, map-free search results, and Prime-less Amazon are effective lobbyists.

Should the US Follow Europe?

Having responded to criticisms of AICOA, the authors of the pro-AICOA letter go on offense. They assert that enactment of the bill is needed to ensure that the United States doesn’t lose ground to Europe, both in regulatory leadership and in innovation. Observing that the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) has just become law, the authors write that:

[w]ithout [AICOA], the role of protecting competition and innovation in the digital sector outside China will be left primarily to the European Union, abrogating U.S. leadership in this sector.

Moreover, if Europe implements its DMA and the United States does not adopt AICOA, the authors claim:

the center of gravity for innovation and entrepreneurship [could] shift from the U.S. to Europe, where the DMA would offer greater protections to start ups and app developers, and even makers and artisans, against exclusionary conduct by the gatekeeper platforms.

Implicit in the argument that AICOA is needed to maintain America’s regulatory leadership is the assumption that to lead in regulatory policy is to have the most restrictive rules. The most restrictive regulator will necessarily be the “leader” in the sense that it will be the one with the most control over regulated firms. But leading in the sense of optimizing outcomes and thereby serving as a model for other jurisdictions entails crafting the best policies—those that minimize the aggregate social losses from wrongly permitting bad behavior, wrongly condemning good behavior, and determining whether conduct is allowed or forbidden (i.e., those that “minimize the sum of error and decision costs”). Rarely is the most restrictive regulatory regime the one that optimizes outcomes, and as I have elsewhere explained, the rules set forth in the DMA hardly seem calibrated to do so.

As for “innovation and entrepreneurship” in the technological arena, it would be a seismic shift indeed if the center of gravity were to migrate to Europe, which is currently home to zero of the top 20 global tech companies. (The United States hosts 12; China, eight.)

It seems implausible, though, that imposing a bunch of restrictions on large tech companies that have significant resources for innovation and are scrambling to enter each other’s markets will enhance, rather than retard, innovation. The self-preferencing bans in AICOA and DMA, for example, would prevent Apple from developing its own search engine to compete with Google, as it has apparently contemplated. Why would Apple develop its own search engine if it couldn’t preference it on iPhones and iPads? And why would Google have started its shopping service to compete with Amazon if it couldn’t preference Google Shopping in search results? And why would any platform continually improve to gain more users as it neared the thresholds for enhanced duties under DMA or AICOA? It seems more likely that the DMA/AICOA approach will hinder, rather than spur, innovation.

At the very least, wouldn’t it be prudent to wait and see whether DMA leads to a flourishing of innovation and entrepreneurship in Europe before jumping on the European bandwagon? After all, technological innovations that occur in Europe won’t be available only to Europeans. Just as Europeans benefit from innovation by U.S. firms, American consumers will be able to reap the benefits of any DMA-inspired innovation occurring in Europe. Moreover, if DMA indeed furthers innovation by making it easier for entrants to gain footing, even American technology firms could benefit from the law by launching their products in Europe. There’s no reason for the tech sector to move to Europe to take advantage of a small-business-protective European law.

In fact, the optimal outcome might be to have one jurisdiction in which major tech platforms are free to innovate, enter each other’s markets via self-preferencing, etc. (the United States, under current law) and another that is more protective of upstart businesses that use the platforms (Europe under DMA). The former jurisdiction would create favorable conditions for platform innovation and inter-platform competition; the latter might enhance innovation among businesses that rely on the platforms. Consumers in each jurisdiction, however, would benefit from innovation facilitated by the other.

It makes little sense, then, for the United States to rush to adopt European-style regulation. DMA is a radical experiment. Regulatory history suggests that the sort of restrictiveness it imposes retards, rather than furthers, innovation. But in the unlikely event that things turn out differently this time, little harm would result from waiting to see DMA’s benefits before implementing its restrictive approach. 

Does AICOA Threaten Platforms’ Ability to Moderate Content and Police Disinformation?

The authors of the pro-AICOA letter conclude by addressing the concern that AICOA “will inadvertently make content moderation difficult because some of the prohibitions could be read… to cover and therefore prohibit some varieties of content moderation” by covered platforms.

The letter authors say that a reading of AICOA to prohibit content moderation is “strained.” They maintain that the act’s requirement of “competitive harm” would prevent imposition of liability based on content moderation and that the act is “plainly not intended to cover” instances of “purported censorship.” They further contend that the risk of judicial misconstrual exists with all proposed laws and therefore should not be a sufficient reason to oppose AICOA.

Each of these points is weak. Section 3(a)(3) of AICOA makes it unlawful for a covered platform to “discriminate in the application or enforcement of the terms of service of the covered platform among similarly situated business users in a manner that would materially harm competition.” It is hardly “strained” to reason that this provision is violated when, say, Google’s YouTube selectively demonetizes a business user for content that Google deems harmful or misleading. Or when Apple removes Parler, but not every other violator of service terms, from its App Store. Such conduct could “materially harm competition” by impeding the de-platformed business’ ability to compete with its rivals.

And it is hard to say that AICOA is “plainly not intended” to forbid these acts when a key supporting senator touted the bill as a means of policing content moderation and observed during markup that it would “make some positive improvement on the problem of censorship” (i.e., content moderation) because “it would provide protections to content providers, to businesses that are discriminated against because of the content of what they produce.”

At a minimum, we should expect some state attorneys general to try to use the law to police content moderation they disfavor, and the mere prospect of such legal action could chill anti-disinformation efforts and other forms of content moderation.

Of course, there’s a simple way for Congress to eliminate the risk of what the letter authors deem judicial misconstrual: It could clarify that AICOA’s prohibitions do not cover good-faith efforts to moderate content or police disinformation. Such clarification, however, would kill the bill, as several Republican legislators are supporting the act because it restricts content moderation.

The risk of judicial misconstrual with AICOA, then, is not the sort that exists with “any law, new or old,” as the letter authors contend. “Normal” misconstrual risk exists when legislators try to be clear about their intentions but, because language has its limits, some vagueness or ambiguity persists. AICOA’s architects have deliberately obscured their intentions in order to cobble together enough supporters to get the bill across the finish line.

The one thing that all AICOA supporters can agree on is that they deserve credit for “doing something” about Big Tech. If the law is construed in a way they disfavor, they can always act shocked and blame rogue courts. That’s shoddy, cynical lawmaking.

Conclusion

So, I respectfully disagree with Professors Scott Morton, Salop, and Dinielli on AICOA. There is no urgent need to pass the bill right now, especially as we are on the cusp of seeing an AICOA-like regime put to the test. The bill’s central liability standard is overly vague, and its plain terms would break popular products and services and thwart future innovation. The United States should equate regulatory leadership with the best, not the most restrictive, policies. And Congress should thoroughly debate and clarify its intentions on content moderation before enacting legislation that could upend the status quo on that important matter.

For all these reasons, Congress should reject AICOA. And for the same reasons, a future in which AICOA is adopted is extremely unlikely to resemble the Utopian world that Professors Scott Morton, Salop, and Dinielli imagine.

[The following is a guest post from Andrew Mercado, a research assistant at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an adjunct professor and research assistant at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School.]

The Competition and Transparency in Digital Advertising Act (CTDAA), introduced May 19 by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), is the latest manifestation of the congressional desire to “do something” legislatively about big digital platforms. Although different in substance from the other antitrust bills introduced this Congress, it shares one key characteristic: it is fatally flawed and should not be enacted.  

Restrictions

In brief, the CTDAA imposes revenue-based restrictions on the ownership structure of firms engaged in digital advertising. The CTDAA bars a firm with more than $20 billion in annual advertising revenue (adjusted annually for inflation) from:

  1. owning a digital-advertising exchange if it owns either a sell-side ad brokerage or a buy-side ad brokerage; and
  2. owning a sell-side brokerage if it owns a buy-side brokerage, or from owning a buy-side or sell-side brokerage if it is also a buyer or seller of advertising space.

The proposal’s ownership restrictions present the clearest harm to the future of the digital-advertising market. From an efficiency perspective, vertical integration of both sides of the market can lead to enormous gains. Since, for example, Google owns and operates an ad exchange, a sell-side broker, and a buy-side broker, there are very few frictions that exist between each side of the market. All of the systems are integrated and the supply of advertising space, demand for that space, and the marketplace conducting price-discovery auctions are automatically updated in real time.

While this instantaneous updating is not unique to Google’s system, and other buy- and sell-side firms can integrate into the system, the benefit to advertisers and publishers can be found in the cost savings that come from the integration. Since Google is able to create synergies on all sides of the market, the fees on any given transaction are lower. Further, incorporating Google’s vast trove of data allows for highly relevant and targeted ads. All of this means that advertisers spend less for the same quality of ad; publishers get more for each ad they place; and consumers see higher-quality, more relevant ads.

Without the ability to own and invest in the efficiency and transaction-cost reduction of an integrated platform, there will likely be less innovation and lower quality on all sides of the market. Further, advertisers and publishers will have to shoulder the burden of using non-integrated marketplaces and would likely pay higher fees for less-efficient brokers. Since Google is a one-stop shop for all of a company’s needs—whether that be on the advertising side or the publishing side—companies can move seamlessly from one side of the market to the other, all while paying lower costs per transaction, because of the integrated nature of the platform.

In the absence of such integration, a company would have to seek out one buy-side brokerage to place ads and another, separate sell-side brokerage to receive ads. These two brokers would then have to go to an ad exchange to facilitate the deal, bringing three different brokers into the mix. Each of these middlemen would take a proportionate cut of the deal. When comparing the situation between an integrated and non-integrated market, the fees associated with serving ads in a non-integrated market are almost certainly higher.

Additionally, under this proposal, the innovative potential of each individual firm is capped. If a firm grows big enough and gains sufficient revenue through integrating different sides of the market, they will be forced to break up their efficiency-inducing operations. Marginal improvements on each side of the market may be possible, but without integrating different sides of the market, the scale required to justify those improvements would be insurmountable.

Assumptions

The CTDAA assumes that:

  1. there is a serious competitive problem in digital advertising; and
  2. the structural separation and regulation of advertising brokerages run by huge digital-advertising platforms (as specified in the CTDAA) would enhance competition and benefit digital advertising customers and consumers.

The first assumption has not been proven and is subject to debate, while the second assumption is likely to be false.

Fundamental to the bill’s assumption that the digital-advertising market lacks competition is a misunderstanding of competitive forces and the idea that revenue and profit are inversely related to competition. While it is true that high profits can be a sign of consolidation and anticompetitive outcomes, the dynamic nature of the internet economy makes this theory unlikely.

As Christopher Kaiser and I have discussed, competition in the internet economy is incredibly dynamic. Vigorous competition can be achieved with just a handful of firms,  despite claims from some quarters that four competitors is necessarily too few. Even in highly concentrated markets, there is the omnipresent threat that new entrants will emerge to usurp an incumbent’s reign. Additionally, while some studies may show unusually large profits in those markets, when adjusted for the consumer welfare created by large tech platforms, profits should actually be significantly higher than they are.

Evidence of dynamic entry in digital markets can be found in a recently announced product offering from a small (but more than $6 billion in revenue) competitor in digital advertising. Following the outcry associated with Google’s alleged abuse with Project Bernanke, the Trade Desk developed OpenPath. This allowed the Trade Desk, a buy-side broker, to handle some of the functions of a sell-side broker and eliminate harms from Google’s alleged bid-rigging to better serve its clients.

In developing the platform, the Trade Desk said it would discontinue serving any Google-based customers, effectively severing ties with the largest advertising exchange on the market. While this runs afoul of the letter of the law spelled out in CTDAA, it is well within the spirit its sponsor’s stated goal: businesses engaging in robust free-market competition. If Google’s market power was as omnipresent and suffocating as the sponsors allege, then eliminating traffic from Google would have been a death sentence for the Trade Desk.

While various theories of vertical and horizontal competitive harm have been put forward, there has not been an empirical showing that consumers and advertising customers have failed to benefit from the admittedly efficient aspects of digital-brokerage auctions administered by Google, Facebook, and a few other platforms. The rapid and dramatic growth of digital advertising and associated commerce strongly suggests that this has been an innovative and welfare-enhancing development. Moreover, the introduction of a new integrated brokerage platform by a “small” player in the advertising market indicates there is ample opportunity to increase this welfare further.  

Interfering in brokerage operations under the unproven assumption that “monopoly rents” are being charged and that customers are being “exploited” is rhetoric unmoored from hard evidence. Furthermore, if specific platform practices are shown inefficiently to exclude potential entrants, existing antitrust law can be deployed on a case-specific basis. This approach is currently being pursued by a coalition of state attorneys general against Google (the merits of which are not relevant to this commentary).   

Even assuming for the sake of argument that there are serious competition problems in the digital-advertising market, there is no reason to believe that the arbitrary provisions and definitions found in the CTDAA would enhance welfare. Indeed, it is likely that the act would have unforeseen consequences:

  • It would lead to divestitures supervised by the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) that could destroy efficiencies derived from efficient targeting by brokerages integrated into platforms;
  • It would disincentivize improvements in advertising brokerages and likely would reduce future welfare on both the buy and sell sides of digital advertising;
  • It would require costly recordkeeping and disclosures by covered platforms that could have unforeseen consequences for privacy and potentially reduce the efficiency of bidding practices;
  • It would establish a fund for damage payments that would encourage wasteful litigation (see next two points);
  • It would spawn a great deal of wasteful private rent-seeking litigation that would discourage future platform and brokerage innovations; and
  • It would likely generate wasteful lawsuits by rent-seeking state attorneys general (and perhaps the DOJ as well).

The legislation would ultimately harm consumers who currently benefit from a highly efficient form of targeted advertising (for more on the welfare benefits of targeted advertising, see here). Since Google continually invests in creating a better search engine (to deliver ads directly to consumers) and collects more data to better target ads (to deliver ads to specific consumers), the value to advertisers of displaying ads on Google constantly increases.

Proposing a new regulatory structure that would directly affect the operations of highly efficient auction markets is the height of folly. It ignores the findings of Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan (among others) that, to justify regulation, there should first be a provable serious market failure and that, even if such a failure can be shown, the net welfare costs of government intervention should be smaller than the net welfare costs of non-intervention.

Given the likely substantial costs of government intervention and the lack of proven welfare costs from the present system (which clearly has been associated with a growth in output), the second prong of the Buchanan test clearly has not been met.

Conclusion

While there are allegations of abuses in the digital-advertising market, it is not at all clear that these abuses have had a long-term negative economic impact. As shown in a study by Erik Brynjolfsson and his student Avinash Collis—recently summarized in the Harvard Business Review (Alden Abbott offers commentary here)—the consumer surplus generated by digital platforms has far outstripped the advertising and services revenues received by the platforms. The CTDAA proposal would seek to unwind much of these gains.

If the goal is to create a multitude of small, largely inefficient advertising companies that charge high fees and provide low-quality service, this bill will deliver. The market for advertising will have a far greater number of players but it will be far less competitive, since no companies will be willing to exceed the $20 billion revenue threshold that would leave them subject to the proposal’s onerous ownership standards.

If, however, the goal is to increase consumer welfare, increase rigorous competition, and cement better outcomes for advertisers and publishers, then it is likely to fail. Ownership requirements laid out in the proposal will lead to a stagnant advertising market, higher fees for all involved, and lower-quality, less-relevant ads. Government regulatory interference in highly successful and efficient platform markets are a terrible idea.

We will learn more in the coming weeks about the fate of the proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), legislation sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that would, among other things, prohibit “self-preferencing” by large digital platforms like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. But while the bill has already been subject to significant scrutiny, a crucially important topic has been absent from that debate: the measure’s likely effect on startup acquisitions. 

Of course, AICOA doesn’t directly restrict startup acquisitions, but the activities it would restrict most certainly do dramatically affect the incentives that drive many startup acquisitions. If a platform is prohibited from engaging in cross-platform integration of acquired technologies, or if it can’t monetize its purchase by prioritizing its own technology, it may lose the motivation to make a purchase in the first place.

This would be a significant loss. As Dirk Auer, Sam Bowman, and I discuss in a recent article in the Missouri Law Review, acquisitions are arguably the most important component in providing vitality to the overall venture ecosystem:  

Startups generally have two methods for achieving liquidity for their shareholders: IPOs or acquisitions. According to the latest data from Orrick and Crunchbase, between 2010 and 2018 there were 21,844 acquisitions of tech startups for a total deal value of $1.193 trillion. By comparison, according to data compiled by Jay R. Ritter, a professor at the University of Florida, there were 331 tech IPOs for a total market capitalization of $649.6 billion over the same period. As venture capitalist Scott Kupor said in his testimony during the FTC’s hearings on “Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century,” “these large players play a significant role as acquirers of venture-backed startup companies, which is an important part of the overall health of the venture ecosystem.”

Moreover, acquisitions by large incumbents are known to provide a crucial channel for liquidity in the venture capital and startup communities: While at one time the source of the “liquidity events” required to yield sufficient returns to fuel venture capital was evenly divided between IPOs and mergers, “[t]oday that math is closer to about 80 percent M&A and about 20 percent IPOs—[with important implications for any] potential actions that [antitrust enforcers] might be considering with respect to the large platform players in this industry.” As investor and serial entrepreneur Leonard Speiser said recently, “if the DOJ starts going after tech companies for making acquisitions, venture investors will be much less likely to invest in new startups, thereby reducing competition in a far more harmful way.” (emphasis added)

Going after self-preferencing may have exactly the same harmful effect on venture investors and competition. 

It’s unclear exactly how the legislation would be applied in any given context (indeed, this uncertainty is one of the most significant problems with the bill, as the ABA Antitrust Section has argued at length). But AICOA is designed, at least in part, to keep large online platforms in their own lanes—to keep them from “leveraging their dominance” to compete against more politically favored competitors in ancillary markets. Indeed, while covered platforms potentially could defend against application of the law by demonstrating that self-preferencing is necessary to “maintain or substantially enhance the core functionality” of the service, no such defense exists for non-core (whatever that means…) functionality, the enhancement of which through self-preferencing is strictly off limits under AICOA.

As I have written (and so have many, many, many, many others), this is terrible policy on its face. But it is also likely to have significant, adverse, indirect consequences for startup acquisitions, given the enormous number of such acquisitions that are outside the covered platforms’ “core functionality.” 

Just take a quick look at a sample of the largest acquisitions made by Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Alphabet, for example. (These are screenshots of the first several acquisitions by size drawn from imperfect lists collected by Wikipedia, but for purposes of casual empiricism they are well-suited to give an idea of the diversity of acquisitions at issue):

Apple:

Microsoft:

Amazon:

Alphabet (Google):

Vanishingly few of these acquisitions go to the “core functionalities” of these platforms. Alphabet’s acquisitions, for example, involve (among many other things) cybersecurity; home automation; cloud computing; wearables, smart glasses, and AR hardware; GPS navigation software; communications security; satellite technology; and social gaming. Microsoft’s acquisitions include companies specializing in video games; social networking; software versioning; drawing software; cable television; cybersecurity; employee engagement; and e-commerce. The technologies and applications involved in acquisitions by Apple and Amazon are similarly varied.

Drilling down a bit, consider the companies Alphabet acquired and put to use in the service of Google Maps:

Which, if any, of these companies would Google have purchased if it knew it would be unable to prioritize Maps in its search results? Would Google have invested more than $1 billion in these companies—and likely significantly more in internal R&D to develop Maps—if it had to speculate whether it would be required (or even be able) to prove someday in the future that prioritizing Google Maps results would enhance its core functionality?

What about Xbox? As noted, AICOA’s terms aren’t perfectly clear, so I’m not certain it would apply to Xbox (is Xbox a “website, online or mobile application, operating system, digital assistant, or online service”?). Here are Microsoft’s video-gaming-related purchases:

The vast majority of these (and all of the acquisitions for which Wikipedia has purchase-price information, totaling some $80 billion of investment) involve video games, not the development of hardware or the functionality of the Xbox platform. Would Microsoft have made these investments if it knew it would be prohibited from prioritizing its own games or exclusively using data gleaned through these games to improve its platform? No one can say for certain, but, at the margin, it is absolutely certain that these self-preferencing bills would make such acquisitions less likely.

Perhaps the most obvious—and concerning—example of the problem arises in the context of Google’s Android platform. Google famously gives Android away for free, of course, and makes its operating system significantly open for bespoke use by all comers. In exchange, Google requires that implementers of the Android OS provide some modicum of favoritism to Google’s revenue-generating products, like Search. For all its uncertainty, there is no question that AICOA’s terms would prohibit this self-preferencing. Intentionally or not, it would thus prohibit the way in which Google monetizes Android and thus hopes to recoup some of the—literally—billions of dollars it has invested in the development and maintenance of Android. 

Here are Google’s Android-related acquisitions:

Would Google have bought Android in the first place (to say nothing of subsequent acquisitions and its massive ongoing investment in Android) if it had been foreclosed from adopting its preferred business model to monetize its investment? In the absence of Google bidding for these companies, would they have earned as much from other potential bidders? Would they even have come into existence at all?

Of course, AICOA wouldn’t preclude Google charging device makers for Android and thus raising the price of mobile devices. But that mechanism may not have been sufficient to support Google’s investment in Android, and it would certainly constrain its ability to compete. Even if rules like those proposed by AICOA didn’t undermine Google’s initial purchase of and investment in Android, it is manifestly unclear how forcing Google to adopt a business model that increases consumer prices and constrains its ability to compete head-to-head with Apple’s iOS ecosystem would benefit consumers. (This excellent series of posts—1, 2, 3, 4—by Dirk Auer on the European Commission’s misguided Android decision discusses in detail the significant costs of prohibiting self-preferencing on Android.)

There are innumerable further examples, as well. In all of these cases, it seems clear not only that an AICOA-like regime would diminish competition and reduce consumer welfare across important dimensions, but also that it would impoverish the startup ecosystem more broadly. 

And that may be an even bigger problem. Even if you think, in the abstract, that it would be better for “Big Tech” not to own these startups, there is a real danger that putting that presumption into force would drive down acquisition prices, kill at least some tech-startup exits, and ultimately imperil the initial financing of tech startups. It should go without saying that this would be a troubling outcome. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that AICOA’s proponents have even considered whether the presumed benefits of the bill would be worth this immense cost.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)—cosponsors of the American Innovation Online and Choice Act, which seeks to “rein in” tech companies like Apple, Google, Meta, and Amazon—contend that “everyone acknowledges the problems posed by dominant online platforms.”

In their framing, it is simply an acknowledged fact that U.S. antitrust law has not kept pace with developments in the digital sector, allowing a handful of Big Tech firms to exploit consumers and foreclose competitors from the market. To address the issue, the senators’ bill would bar “covered platforms” from engaging in a raft of conduct, including self-preferencing, tying, and limiting interoperability with competitors’ products.

That’s what makes the open letter to Congress published late last month by the usually staid American Bar Association’s (ABA) Antitrust Law Section so eye-opening. The letter is nothing short of a searing critique of the legislation, which the section finds to be poorly written, vague, and departing from established antitrust-law principles.

The ABA, of course, has a reputation as an independent, highly professional, and heterogenous group. The antitrust section’s membership includes not only in-house corporate counsel, but lawyers from nonprofits, consulting firms, federal and state agencies, judges, and legal academics. Given this context, the comments must be read as a high-level judgment that recent legislative and regulatory efforts to “discipline” tech fall outside the legal mainstream and would come at the cost of established antitrust principles, legal precedent, transparency, sound economic analysis, and ultimately consumer welfare.

The Antitrust Section’s Comments

As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes:

The Section has long supported the evolution of antitrust law to keep pace with evolving circumstances, economic theory, and empirical evidence. Here, however, the Section is concerned that the Bill, as written, departs in some respects from accepted principles of competition law and in so doing risks causing unpredicted and unintended consequences.

Broadly speaking, the section’s criticisms fall into two interrelated categories. The first relates to deviations from antitrust orthodoxy and the principles that guide enforcement. The second is a critique of the AICOA’s overly broad language and ambiguous terminology.

Departing from established antitrust-law principles

Substantively, the overarching concern expressed by the ABA Antitrust Law Section is that AICOA departs from the traditional role of antitrust law, which is to protect the competitive process, rather than choosing to favor some competitors at the expense of others. Indeed, the section’s open letter observes that, out of the 10 categories of prohibited conduct spelled out in the legislation, only three require a “material harm to competition.”

Take, for instance, the prohibition on “discriminatory” conduct. As it stands, the bill’s language does not require a showing of harm to the competitive process. It instead appears to enshrine a freestanding prohibition of discrimination. The bill targets tying practices that are already prohibited by U.S. antitrust law, but while similarly eschewing the traditional required showings of market power and harm to the competitive process. The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for “self-preferencing” and the “unfair” treatment of competitors.

The problem, the section’s letter to Congress argues, is not only that this increases the teleological chasm between AICOA and the overarching goals and principles of antitrust law, but that it can also easily lead to harmful unintended consequences. For instance, as the ABA Antitrust Law Section previously observed in comments to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, a prohibition of pricing discrimination can limit the extent of discounting generally. Similarly, self-preferencing conduct on a platform can be welfare-enhancing, while forced interoperability—which is also contemplated by AICOA—can increase prices for consumers and dampen incentives to innovate. Furthermore, some of these blanket prohibitions are arguably at loggerheads with established antitrust doctrine, such as in, e.g., Trinko, which established that even monopolists are generally free to decide with whom they will deal.

Arguably, the reason why the Klobuchar-Grassley bill can so seamlessly exclude or redraw such a central element of antitrust law as competitive harm is because it deliberately chooses to ignore another, preceding one. Namely, the bill omits market power as a requirement for a finding of infringement or for the legislation’s equally crucial designation as a “covered platform.” It instead prescribes size metrics—number of users, market capitalization—to define which platforms are subject to intervention. Such definitions cast an overly wide net that can potentially capture consumer-facing conduct that doesn’t have the potential to harm competition at all.

It is precisely for this reason that existing antitrust laws are tethered to market power—i.e., because it long has been recognized that only companies with market power can harm competition. As John B. Kirkwood of Seattle University School of Law has written:

Market power’s pivotal role is clear…This concept is central to antitrust because it distinguishes firms that can harm competition and consumers from those that cannot.

In response to the above, the ABA Antitrust Law Section (reasonably) urges Congress explicitly to require an effects-based showing of harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for all 10 of the infringements contemplated in the AICOA. This also means disclaiming generalized prohibitions of “discrimination” and of “unfairness” and replacing blanket prohibitions (such as the one for self-preferencing) with measured case-by-case analysis.

Opaque language for opaque ideas

Another underlying issue is that the Klobuchar-Grassley bill is shot through with indeterminate language and fuzzy concepts that have no clear limiting principles. For instance, in order either to establish liability or to mount a successful defense to an alleged violation, the bill relies heavily on inherently amorphous terms such as “fairness,” “preferencing,” and “materiality,” or the “intrinsic” value of a product. But as the ABA Antitrust Law Section letter rightly observes, these concepts are not defined in the bill, nor by existing antitrust case law. As such, they inject variability and indeterminacy into how the legislation would be administered.

Moreover, it is also unclear how some incommensurable concepts will be weighed against each other. For example, how would concerns about safety and security be weighed against prohibitions on self-preferencing or requirements for interoperability? What is a “core function” and when would the law determine it has been sufficiently “enhanced” or “maintained”—requirements the law sets out to exempt certain otherwise prohibited behavior? The lack of linguistic and conceptual clarity not only explodes legal certainty, but also invites judicial second-guessing into the operation of business decisions, something against which the U.S. Supreme Court has long warned.

Finally, the bill’s choice of language and recent amendments to its terminology seem to confirm the dynamic discussed in the previous section. Most notably, the latest version of AICOA replaces earlier language invoking “harm to the competitive process” with “material harm to competition.” As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes, this “suggests a shift away from protecting the competitive process towards protecting individual competitors.” Indeed, “material harm to competition” deviates from established categories such as “undue restraint of trade” or “substantial lessening of competition,” which have a clear focus on the competitive process. As a result, it is not unreasonable to expect that the new terminology might be interpreted as meaning that the actionable standard is material harm to competitors.

In its letter, the antitrust section urges Congress not only to define more clearly the novel terminology used in the bill, but also to do so in a manner consistent with existing antitrust law. Indeed:

The Section further recommends that these definitions direct attention to analysis consistent with antitrust principles: effects-based inquiries concerned with harm to the competitive process, not merely harm to particular competitors

Conclusion

The AICOA is a poorly written, misguided, and rushed piece of regulation that contravenes both basic antitrust-law principles and mainstream economic insights in the pursuit of a pre-established populist political goal: punishing the success of tech companies. If left uncorrected by Congress, these mistakes could have potentially far-reaching consequences for innovation in digital markets and for consumer welfare. They could also set antitrust law on a regressive course back toward a policy of picking winners and losers.