Archives For Tying

There has been a wave of legislative proposals on both sides of the Atlantic that purport to improve consumer choice and the competitiveness of digital markets. In a new working paper published by the Stanford-Vienna Transatlantic Technology Law Forum, I analyzed five such bills: the EU Digital Services Act, the EU Digital Markets Act, and U.S. bills sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). I concluded that all those bills would have negative and unaddressed consequences in terms of information privacy and security.

In this post, I present the main points from the working paper regarding two regulatory solutions: (1) mandating interoperability and (2) mandating device neutrality (which leads to a possibility of sideloading applications, a special case of interoperability.) The full working paper  also covers the risks of compulsory data access (by vetted researchers or by authorities).

Interoperability

Interoperability is increasingly presented as a potential solution to some of the alleged problems associated with digital services and with large online platforms, in particular (see, e.g., here and here). For example, interoperability might allow third-party developers to offer different “flavors” of social-media newsfeeds, with varying approaches to content ranking and moderation. This way, it might matter less than it does now what content moderation decisions Facebook or other platforms make. Facebook users could choose alternative content moderators, delivering the kind of news feed that those users expect.

The concept of interoperability is popular not only among thought leaders, but also among legislators. The DMA, as well as the U.S. bills by Rep. Scanlon, Rep. Cicilline, and Sen. Klobuchar, all include interoperability mandates.

At the most basic level, interoperability means a capacity to exchange information between computer systems. Email is an example of an interoperable standard that most of us use today. It is telling that supporters of interoperability mandates use services like email as their model examples. Email (more precisely, the SMTP protocol) originally was designed in a notoriously insecure way. It is a perfect example of the opposite of privacy by design. A good analogy for the levels of privacy and security provided by email, as originally conceived, is that of a postcard message sent without an envelope that passes through many hands before reaching the addressee. Even today, email continues to be a source of security concerns, due to its prioritization of interoperability (see, e.g., here).

Using currently available technology to provide alternative interfaces or moderation services for social-media platforms, third-party developers would have to be able to access much of the platform content that is potentially available to a user. This would include not just content produced by users who explicitly agree to share their data with third parties, but also content—e.g., posts, comments, likes—created by others who may have strong objections to such sharing. It does not require much imagination to see how, without adequate safeguards, mandating this kind of information exchange would inevitably result in something akin to the 2018 Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

There are several constraints for interoperability frameworks that must be in place to safeguard privacy and security effectively.

First, solutions should be targeted toward real users of digital services, without assuming away some common but inconvenient characteristics. In particular, solutions should not assume unrealistic levels of user interest and technical acumen.

Second, solutions must address the issue of effective enforcement. Even the best information privacy and security laws do not, in and of themselves, solve any problems. Such rules must be followed, which requires addressing the problems of procedure and enforcement. In both the EU and the United States, the current framework and practice of privacy law enforcement offers little confidence that misuses of broadly construed interoperability would be detected and prosecuted, much less that they would be prevented. This is especially true for smaller and “judgment-proof” rulebreakers, including those from foreign jurisdictions.

If the service providers are placed under a broad interoperability mandate with non-discrimination provisions (preventing effective vetting of third parties, unilateral denials of access, and so on), then the burden placed on law enforcement will be mammoth. Just one bad actor, perhaps working from Russia or North Korea, could cause immense damage by taking advantage of interoperability mandates to exfiltrate user data or to execute a hacking (e.g., phishing) campaign. Of course, such foreign bad actors would be in violation of the EU GDPR, but that is unlikely to have any practical significance.

It would not be sufficient to allow (or require) service providers to enforce merely technical filters, such as a requirement to check whether the interoperating third parties’ IP address comes from a jurisdiction with sufficient privacy protections. Working around such technical limitations does not pose a significant difficulty to motivated bad actors.

Art 6(1) of the original DMA proposal included some general interoperability provisions applicable to “gatekeepers”—i.e., the largest online platforms. Those interoperability mandates were somewhat limited – applying only to “ancillary services” (e.g., payment or identification services) or requiring only one-way data portability. However, even here, there may be some risks. For example, users may choose poorly secured identification services and thus become victims of attacks. Therefore, it is important that gatekeepers not be prevented from protecting their users adequately.

The drafts of the DMA adopted by the European Council and by the European Parliament attempt to address that, but they only allow gatekeepers to do what is “strictly necessary” (Council) or “indispensable” (Parliament). This standard may be too high and could push gatekeepers to offer lower security to avoid liability for adopting measures that would be judged by EU institutions and the courts as going beyond what is strictly necessary or indispensable.

The more recent DMA proposal from the European Parliament goes significantly beyond the original proposal, mandating full interoperability of a number of “independent interpersonal communication services” and of social-networking services. The Parliament’s proposals are good examples of overly broad and irresponsible interoperability mandates. They would cover “any providers” wanting to interconnect with gatekeepers, without adequate vetting. The safeguard proviso mentioning “high level of security and personal data protection” does not come close to addressing the seriousness of the risks created by the mandate. Instead of facing up to the risks and ensuring that the mandate itself be limited in ways that minimize them, the proposal seems just to expect that the gatekeepers can solve the problems if they only “nerd harder.”

All U.S. bills considered here introduce some interoperability mandates and none of them do so in a way that would effectively safeguard information privacy and security. For example, Rep. Cicilline’s American Choice and Innovation Online Act (ACIOA) would make it unlawful (in Section 2(b)(1)) to:

All U.S. bills considered here introduce some interoperability mandates and none of them do so in a way that would effectively safeguard information privacy and security. For example, Rep. Cicilline’s American Choice and Innovation Online Act (ACIOA) would make it unlawful (in Section 2(b)(1)) to:

restrict or impede the capacity of a business user to access or interoperate with the same platform, operating system, hardware and software features that are available to the covered platform operator’s own products, services, or lines of business.

The language of the prohibition in Sen. Klobuchar’s American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) is similar (also in Section 2(b)(1)). Both ACIOA and AICOA allow for affirmative defenses that a service provider could use if sued under the statute. While those defenses mention privacy and security, they are narrow (“narrowly tailored, could not be achieved through a less discriminatory means, was nonpretextual, and was necessary”) and would not prevent service providers from incurring significant litigation costs. Hence, just like the provisions of the DMA, they would heavily incentivize covered service providers not to adopt the most effective protections of privacy and security.

Device Neutrality (Sideloading)

Article 6(1)(c) of the DMA contains specific provisions about “sideloading”—i.e., allowing installation of third-party software through alternative app stores other than the one provided by the manufacturer (e.g., Apple’s App Store for iOS devices). A similar express provision for sideloading is included in Sen. Blumenthal’s Open App Markets Act (Section 3(d)(2)). Moreover, the broad interoperability provisions in the other U.S. bills discussed above may also be interpreted to require permitting sideloading.

A sideloading mandate aims to give users more choice. It can only achieve this, however, by taking away the option of choosing a device with a “walled garden” approach to privacy and security (such as is taken by Apple with iOS). By taking away the choice of a walled garden environment, a sideloading mandate will effectively force users to use whatever alternative app stores are preferred by particular app developers. App developers would have strong incentive to set up their own app stores or to move their apps to app stores with the least friction (for developers, not users), which would also mean the least privacy and security scrutiny.

This is not to say that Apple’s app scrutiny is perfect, but it is reasonable for an ordinary user to prefer Apple’s approach because it provides greater security (see, e.g., here and here). Thus, a legislative choice to override the revealed preference of millions of users for a “walled garden” approach should not be made lightly. 

Privacy and security safeguards in the DMA’s sideloading provisions, as amended by the European Council and by the European Parliament, as well as in Sen. Blumenthal’s Open App Markets Act, share the same problem of narrowness as the safeguards discussed above.

There is a more general privacy and security issue here, however, that those safeguards cannot address. The proposed sideloading mandate would prohibit outright a privacy and security-protection model that many users rationally choose today. Even with broader exemptions, this loss will be genuine. It is unclear whether taking away this choice from users is justified.

Conclusion

All the U.S. and EU legislative proposals considered here betray a policy preference of privileging uncertain and speculative competition gains at the expense of introducing a new and clear danger to information privacy and security. The proponents of these (or even stronger) legislative interventions seem much more concerned, for example, that privacy safeguards are “not abused by Apple and Google to protect their respective app store monopoly in the guise of user security” (source).

Given the problems with ensuring effective enforcement of privacy protections (especially with respect to actors coming from outside the EU, the United States, and other broadly privacy-respecting jurisdictions), the lip service paid by the legislative proposals to privacy and security is not much more than that. Policymakers should be expected to offer a much more detailed vision of concrete safeguards and mechanisms of enforcement when proposing rules that come with significant and entirely predictable privacy and security risks. Such vision is lacking on both sides of the Atlantic.

I do not want to suggest that interoperability is undesirable. The argument of this paper was focused on legally mandated interoperability. Firms experiment with interoperability all the time—the prevalence of open APIs on the Internet is testament to this. My aim, however, is to highlight that interoperability is complex and exposes firms and their users to potentially large-scale cyber vulnerabilities.

Generalized obligations on firms to open their data, or to create service interoperability, can short-circuit the private ordering processes that seek out those forms of interoperability and sharing that pass a cost-benefit test. The result will likely be both overinclusive and underinclusive. It would be overinclusive to require all firms in the regulated class to broadly open their services and data to all interested parties, even where it wouldn’t make sense for privacy, security, or other efficiency reasons. It is underinclusive in that the broad mandate will necessarily sap regulated firms’ resources and deter them from looking for new innovative uses that might make sense, but that are outside of the broad mandate. Thus, the likely result is less security and privacy, more expense, and less innovation.

In a new paper, Giuseppe Colangelo and Oscar Borgogno investigate whether antitrust policy is sufficiently flexible to keep up with the dynamics of digital app stores, and whether regulatory interventions are required in order to address their unique features. The authors summarize their findings in this blog post.

App stores are at the forefront of policy debates surrounding digital markets. The gatekeeping position of Apple and Google in the App Store and Google Play Store, respectively, and related concerns about the companies’ rule-setting and dual role, have been the subject of market studies launched by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), the Netherlands Authority for Consumers & Markets (ACM), the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the Japan Federal Trade Commission (JFTC), and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Likewise, the terms and conditions for accessing app stores—such as in-app purchasing rules, restrictions on freedom of choice for smartphone payment apps, and near field communication (NFC) limitations—face scrutiny from courts and antitrust authorities around the world.

Finally, legislative initiatives envisage obligations explicitly addressed to app stores. Notably, the European Digital Markets Act (DMA) and some U.S. bills (e.g., the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the Open App Markets Act, both of which are scheduled to be marked up Jan. 20 by the Senate Judiciary Committee) prohibit designated platforms from, for example: discriminating among users by engaging in self-preferencing and applying unfair access conditions; preventing users from sideloading and uninstalling pre-installed apps; impeding data portability and interoperability; or imposing anti-steering provisions. Likewise, South Korea has recently prohibited app-store operators in dominant market positions from forcing payment systems upon content providers and inappropriately delaying the review of, or deleting, mobile content from app markets.

Despite their differences, these international legislative initiatives do share the same aims and concerns. By and large, they question the role of competition law in the digital economy. In the case of app stores, these regulatory interventions attempt to introduce a neutrality regime, with the aim of increasing contestability, facilitating the possibility of switching by users, tackling conflicts of interests, and addressing imbalances in the commercial relationship. Ultimately, these proposals would treat online platforms as akin to common carriers or public utilities.

All of these initiatives assume antitrust is currently falling, because competition rules apply ex post and require an extensive investigation on a case-by-case basis. But is that really the case?

Platform and Device Neutrality Regime

Focusing on the content of the European, German, and U.S. legislative initiatives, the neutrality regime envisaged for app stores would introduce obligations in terms of both device and platform neutrality. The former includes provisions on app uninstalling, sideloading, app switching, access to technical functionality, and the possibility of changing default settings.  The latter entail data portability and interoperability obligations, and the ban on self-preferencing, Sherlocking, and unfair access conditions.

App Store Obligations: Comparison of EU, German, and U.S. Initiatives

Antitrust v. Regulation

Despite the growing consensus regarding the need to rely on ex ante regulation to govern digital markets and tackle the practices of large online platforms, recent and ongoing antitrust investigations demonstrate that standard competition law still provides a flexible framework to scrutinize several practices sometimes described as new and peculiar to app stores.

This is particularly true in Europe, where the antitrust framework grants significant leeway to antitrust enforcers relative to the U.S. scenario, as illustrated by the recent Google Shopping decision.

Indeed, considering legislative proposals to modernize antitrust law and to strengthen its enforcement, the U.S. House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, along with some authoritative scholars, have suggested emulating the European model—imposing particular responsibility on dominant firms through the notion of abuse of dominant position and overriding several Supreme Court decisions in order to clarify the prohibitions on monopoly leveraging, predatory pricing, denial of essential facilities, refusals to deal, and tying.

By contrast, regulation appears better suited to support interventions intended to implement industrial-policy objectives. This applies, in particular, to provisions prohibiting app stores from impeding or restricting sideloading, app uninstalling, the possibility of choosing third-party apps and app stores as defaults, as well as provisions that would mandate data portability and interoperability.

However, such regulatory proposals may ultimately harm consumers. Indeed, by questioning the core of digital platform business models and affecting their governance design, these interventions entrust public authorities with mammoth tasks that could ultimately jeopardize the profitability of app-store ecosystems. They also overlook the differences that may exist between the business models of different platforms, such as Google and Apple’s app stores.

To make matters worse, the  difficulties encountered by regulators that have imposed product-design remedies on firms suggest that regulators may struggle to craft feasible and effective solutions. For instance, when the European General Court found that Google favored its own services in the Google Shopping case, it noted that this finding rested on the differential positioning and display of Shopping Units when compared to generic results. As a consequence, it could be argued that Google’s proposed auction remedy (whereby Google would compete with rivals for Shopping box placement) is compliant with the Court’s ruling because there is no dicrimination, regardless of the fact that Google might ultimately outbid its rivals (see here).

Finally, the neutrality principle cannot be transposed perfectly to all online platforms. Indeed, the workings of the app-discovery and distribution markets differ from broadband networks, as rankings and mobile services by definition involve some form of continuous selection and differentiated treatment to optimize the mobile-customer experience.

For all these reasons, our analysis suggests that antitrust law provides a less intrusive and more individualized approach, which would eventually benefit consumers by safeguarding quality and innovation.

Intermediaries may not be the consumer welfare hero we want, but more often than not, they are one that we need.

In policy discussions about the digital economy, a background assumption that frequently underlies the discourse is that intermediaries and centralization always and only serve as a cost to consumers, and to society more generally. Thus, one commonly sees arguments that consumers would be better off if they could freely combine products from different trading partners. According to this logic, bundled goods, walled gardens, and other intermediaries are always to be regarded with suspicion, while interoperability, open source, and decentralization are laudable features of any market.

However, as with all economic goods, intermediation offers both costs and benefits. The challenge for market players is to assess these tradeoffs and, ultimately, to produce the optimal level of intermediation.

As one example, some observers assume that purchasing food directly from a producer benefits consumers because intermediaries no longer take a cut of the final purchase price. But this overlooks the tremendous efficiencies supermarkets can achieve in terms of cost savings, reduced carbon emissions (because consumers make fewer store trips), and other benefits that often outweigh the costs of intermediation.

The same anti-intermediary fallacy is plain to see in countless other markets. For instance, critics readily assume that insurance, mortgage, and travel brokers are just costly middlemen.

This unduly negative perception is perhaps even more salient in the digital world. Policymakers are quick to conclude that consumers are always better off when provided with “more choice.” Draft regulations of digital platforms have been introduced on both sides of the Atlantic that repeat this faulty argument ad nauseam, as do some antitrust decisions.

Even the venerable Tyler Cowen recently appeared to sing the praises of decentralization, when discussing the future of Web 3.0:

One person may think “I like the DeFi options at Uniswap,” while another may say, “I am going to use the prediction markets over at Hedgehog.” In this scenario there is relatively little intermediation and heavy competition for consumer attention. Thus most of the gains from competition accrue to the users. …

… I don’t know if people are up to all this work (or is it fun?). But in my view this is the best-case scenario — and the most technologically ambitious. Interestingly, crypto’s radical ability to disintermediate, if extended to its logical conclusion, could bring about a radical equalization of power that would lower the prices and values of the currently well-established crypto assets, companies and platforms.

While disintermediation certainly has its benefits, critics often gloss over its costs. For example, scams are practically nonexistent on Apple’s “centralized” App Store but are far more prevalent with Web3 services. Apple’s “power” to weed out nefarious actors certainly contributes to this difference. Similarly, there is a reason that “middlemen” like supermarkets and travel agents exist in the first place. They notably perform several complex tasks (e.g., searching for products, negotiating prices, and controlling quality) that leave consumers with a manageable selection of goods.

Returning to the crypto example, besides being a renowned scholar, Tyler Cowen is also an extremely savvy investor. What he sees as fun investment choices may be nightmarish (and potentially dangerous) decisions for less sophisticated consumers. The upshot is that intermediaries are far more valuable than they are usually given credit for.

Bringing People Together

The reason intermediaries (including online platforms) exist is to reduce transaction costs that suppliers and customers would face if they tried to do business directly. As Daniel F. Spulber argues convincingly:

Markets have two main modes of organization: decentralized and centralized. In a decentralized market, buyers and sellers match with each other and determine transaction prices. In a centralized market, firms act as intermediaries between buyers and sellers.

[W]hen there are many buyers and sellers, there can be substantial transaction costs associated with communication, search, bargaining, and contracting. Such transaction costs can make it more difficult to achieve cross-market coordination through direct communication. Intermediary firms have various means of reducing transaction costs of decentralized coordination when there are many buyers and sellers.

This echoes the findings of Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, who observed that firms emerge when they offer a cheaper alternative to multiple bilateral transactions:

The main reason why it is profitable to establish a firm would seem to be that there is a cost of using the price mechanism. The most obvious cost of “organising ” production through the price mechanism is that of discovering what the relevant prices are. […] The costs of negotiating and concluding a separate contract for each exchange transaction which takes place on a market must also be taken into account.

Economists generally agree that online platforms also serve this cost-reduction function. For instance, David Evans and Richard Schmalensee observe that:

Multi-sided platforms create value by bringing two or more different types of economic agents together and facilitating interactions between them that make all agents better off.

It’s easy to see the implications for today’s competition-policy debates, and for the online intermediaries that many critics would like to see decentralized. Particularly salient examples include app store platforms (such as the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store); online retail platforms (such as Amazon Marketplace); and online travel agents (like Booking.com and Expedia). Competition policymakers have embarked on countless ventures to “open up” these platforms to competition, essentially moving them further toward disintermediation. In most of these cases, however, policymakers appear to be fighting these businesses’ very raison d’être.

For example, the purpose of an app store is to curate the software that users can install and to offer payment solutions; in exchange, the store receives a cut of the proceeds. If performing these tasks created no value, then to a first approximation, these services would not exist. Users would simply download apps via their web browsers, and the most successful smartphones would be those that allowed users to directly install apps (“sideloading,” to use the more technical terms). Forcing these platforms to “open up” and become neutral is antithetical to the value proposition they offer.

Calls for retail and travel platforms to stop offering house brands or displaying certain products more favorably are equally paradoxical. Consumers turn to these platforms because they want a selection of goods. If that was not the case, users could simply bypass the platforms and purchase directly from independent retailers or hotels.Critics sometimes retort that some commercial arrangements, such as “most favored nation” clauses, discourage consumers from doing exactly this. But that claim only reinforces the point that online platforms must create significant value, or they would not be able to obtain such arrangements in the first place.

All of this explains why characterizing these firms as imposing a “tax” on their respective ecosystems is so deeply misleading. The implication is that platforms are merely passive rent extractors that create no value. Yet, barring the existence of market failures, both their existence and success is proof to the contrary. To argue otherwise places no faith in the ability of firms and consumers to act in their own self-interest.

A Little Evolution

This last point is even more salient when seen from an evolutionary standpoint. Today’s most successful intermediaries—be they online platforms or more traditional brick-and-mortar firms like supermarkets—mostly had to outcompete the alternative represented by disintermediated bilateral contracts.

Critics of intermediaries rarely contemplate why the app-store model outpaced the more heavily disintermediated software distribution of the desktop era. Or why hotel-booking sites exist, despite consumers’ ability to use search engines, hotel websites, and other product-search methods that offer unadulterated product selections. Or why mortgage brokers are so common when borrowers can call local banks directly. The list is endless.

Indeed, as I have argued previously:

Digital markets could have taken a vast number of shapes, so why have they systematically gravitated towards those very characteristics that authorities condemn? For instance, if market tipping and consumer lock-in are so problematic, why is it that new corners of the digital economy continue to emerge via closed platforms, as opposed to collaborative ones? Indeed, if recent commentary is to be believed, it is the latter that should succeed because they purportedly produce greater gains from trade. And if consumers and platforms cannot realize these gains by themselves, then we should see [other] intermediaries step into the breach – i.e. arbitrage. This does not seem to be happening in the digital economy. The naïve answer is to say that this is precisely the problem, the harder one is to actually understand why.

Fiat Versus Emergent Disintermediation

All of this is not to say that intermediaries are perfect, or that centralization always beats decentralization. Instead, the critical point is about the competitive process. There are vast differences between centralization that stems from government fiat and that which emerges organically.

(Dis)intermediation is an economic good. Markets thus play a critical role in deciding how much or little of it is provided. Intermediaries must charge fees that cover their costs, while bilateral contracts entail transaction costs. In typically Hayekian fashion, suppliers and buyers will weigh the costs and benefits of these options.

Intermediaries are most likely to emerge in markets prone to excessive transaction costs and competitive processes ensure that only valuable intermediaries survive. Accordingly, there is no guarantee that government-mandated disintermediation would generate net benefits in any given case.

Of course, the market does not always work perfectly. Sometimes, market failures give rise to excessive (or insufficient) centralization. And policymakers should certainly be attentive to these potential problems and address them on a case-by-case basis. But there is little reason to believe that today’s most successful intermediaries are the result of market failures, and it is thus critical that policymakers do not undermine the valuable role they perform.

For example, few believe that supermarkets exist merely because government failures (such as excessive regulation) or market failures (such as monopolization) prevent the emergence of smaller rivals. Likewise, the app-store model is widely perceived as an improvement over previous software platforms; few consumers appear favorably disposed toward its replacement with sideloading of apps (for example, few Android users choose to sideload apps rather than purchase them via the Google Play Store). In fact, markets appear to be moving in the opposite direction: even traditional software platforms such as Windows OS increasingly rely on closed stores to distribute software on their platforms.

More broadly, this same reasoning can (and has) been applied to other social institutions, such as the modern family. For example, the late Steven Horwitz observed that family structures have evolved in order to adapt to changing economic circumstances. Crucially, this process is driven by the same cost-benefit tradeoff that we see in markets. In both cases, agents effectively decide which functions are better performed within a given social structure, and which ones are more efficiently completed outside of it.

Returning to Tyler Cowen’s point about the future of Web3, the case can be made that whatever level of centralization ultimately emerges is most likely the best case scenario. Sure, there may be some market failures and suboptimal outcomes along the way, but they ultimately pale in comparison to the most pervasive force: namely, economic agents’ ability to act in what they perceive to be their best interest. To put it differently, if Web3 spontaneously becomes as centralized as Web 2.0 has been, that would be testament to the tremendous role that intermediaries play throughout the economy.

Early last month, the Italian competition authority issued a record 1.128 billion euro fine against Amazon for abuse of dominance under Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). In its order, the Agenzia Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato (AGCM) essentially argues that Amazon has combined its Amazon.it marketplace and Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) services to exclude logistics rivals such as FedEx, DHL, UPS, and Poste Italiane. 

The sanctions came exactly one month after the European General Court seconded the European Commission’s “discovery” in the Google Shopping case of a new antitrust infringement known as “self-preferencing,” which also cited Article 102 TFEU. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, legislation was introduced in the United States earlier this year to prohibit the practice. Meanwhile, the EU’s legislative bodies have been busy taking steps to approve the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which would regulate so-called digital “gatekeepers.”

Italy thus joins a wave of policymakers that have either imposed heavy-handed decisions to “rein in” online platforms, or are seeking to implement ex ante regulations toward that end. Ultimately, the decision is reminiscent of the self-preferencing prohibition contained in Article 6a of the current draft of the DMA and reflects much of what is wrong with the current approach to regulating tech. It presages some of the potential problems with punishing efficient behavior for the sake of protecting competitors through “common carrier antitrust.” However, if this decision is anything to go by, these efforts will end up hurting the very consumers authorities purport to protect and lending color to more general fears over the DMA. 

In this post, we discuss how the AGCM’s reasoning departs from sound legal and economic thinking to reach a conclusion at odds with the traditional goal of competition law—i.e., the protection of consumer welfare. Neo-Brandeisians and other competition scholars who dispute the centrality of the consumer welfare standard and would use antitrust to curb “bigness” may find this result acceptable, in principle. But even they must admit that the AGCM decision ultimately serves to benefit large (if less successful) competitors, and not the “small dealers and worthy men” of progressive lore.

Relevant Market Definition

Market definition constitutes a preliminary step in any finding of abuse under Article 102 TFEU. An excessively narrow market definition can result in false positives by treating neutral or efficient conduct as anticompetitive, while an overly broad market definition might allow anticompetitive conduct to slip through the cracks, leading to false negatives. 

Amazon Italy may be an example of the former. Here, the AGCM identified two relevant markets: the leveraging market, which it identified as the Italian market for online marketplace intermediation, and the leveraged market, which it identified as the market for e-commerce logistics. The AGCM charges that Amazon is dominant in the former and that it gained an illegal advantage in the latter. It found, in this sense, that online marketplaces constitute a uniquely relevant market that is not substitutable for other offline or online sales channels, such as brick-and-mortar shops, price-comparison websites (e.g., Google Shopping), or dedicated sales websites (e.g., Nike.com/it). Similarly, it concluded that e-commerce logistics are sufficiently different from other forms of logistics as to comprise a separate market.

The AGCM’s findings combine qualitative and quantitative evidence, including retailer surveys and “small but significant and non-transitory increase in price” (SSNIP) tests. They also include a large dose of speculative reasoning.

For instance, the AGCM asserts that online marketplaces are fundamentally different from price-comparison sites because, in the latter case, purchase transactions do not take place on the platform. It asserts that e-commerce logistics are different from traditional logistics because the former require a higher degree of automation for transportation and storage. And in what can only be seen as a normative claim, rather than an objective assessment of substitutability, the Italian watchdog found that marketplaces are simply better than dedicated websites because, e.g., they offer greater visibility and allow retailers to save on marketing costs. While it is unclear what weights the AGCM assigned to each of these considerations when defining the relevant markets, it is reasonable to assume they played some part in defining the nature and scope of Amazon’s market presence in Italy.

In all of these instances, however, while the AGCM carefully delineated superficial distinctions between these markets, it did not actually establish that those differences are relevant to competition. Fetishizing granular but ultimately irrelevant differences between products and services—such as between marketplaces and shopping comparison sites—is a sure way to incur false positives, a misstep tantamount to punishing innocuous or efficient business conduct.

Dominance

The AGCM found that Amazon was “hyper-dominant” in the online marketplace intermediation market. Dominance was established by looking at revenue from marketplace sales, where Amazon’s share had risen from about 65% in 2016 to 75% in 2019. Taken in isolation, this figure might suggest that Amazon’s competitors cannot thrive in the market. A broader look at the data, however, paints a picture of more generalized growth, with some segments greatly benefiting newcomers and small, innovative marketplaces. 

For instance, virtually all companies active in the online marketplace intermediation market have experienced significant growth in terms of monthly visitors. It is true that Amazon’s visitors grew significantly, up 150%, but established competitors like Aliexpress and eBay also saw growth rates of 90% and 25%, respectively. Meanwhile, Wish grew a massive 10,000% from 2016 to 2019; while ManoMano and Zalando grew 450% and 100%, respectively.

In terms of active users (i.e., visits that result in a purchase), relative numbers seem to have stayed roughly the same, although the AGCM claims that eBay saw a 20-30% drop. The number of third-party products Amazon offered through Marketplace grew from between 100 and 500 million to between 500 million and 1 billion, while other marketplaces appear to have remained fairly constant, with some expanding and others contracting.

In sum, while Amazon has undeniably improved its position in practically all of the parameters considered by the AGCM, indicators show that the market as a whole has experienced and is experiencing growth. The improvement in Amazon’s position relative to some competitors—notably eBay, which AGCM asserts is Amazon’s biggest competitor—should therefore not obscure the fact that there is entry and expansion both at the fringes (ManoMano, Wish), and in the center of the market for online marketplace intermediation (Aliexpress).

Amazon’s Allegedly Abusive Conduct

According to the AGCM, Amazon has taken advantage of vertical integration to engage in self-preferencing. Specifically, the charge is that the company offers exclusive and purportedly crucial advantages on the Amazon.it marketplace to sellers who use Amazon’s own e-commerce logistics service, FBA. The purported advantages of this arrangement include, to name a few, the coveted Prime badge, the elimination of negative user feedback on sale or delivery, preferential algorithmic treatment, and exclusive participation in Amazon’s sales promotions (e.g., Black Friday, Cyber Monday). As a result, according to the AGCM, products sold through FBA enjoy more visibility and a better chance to win the “Buy Box.”

The AGCM claims this puts competing logistics operators like FedEx, Poste Italiane, and DHL at a disadvantage, because non-FBA products have less chance to be sold than FBA products, regardless of any efficiency or quality criteria. In the AGCM’s words, “Amazon has stolen demand for other e-commerce logistics operators.” 

Indirectly, Amazon’s “self-preferencing” purportedly also harms competing marketplaces like eBay by creating incentives for sellers to single-home—i.e., to sell only through Amazon Marketplace. The argument here is that retailers will not multi-home to avoid duplicative costs associated with FBA, e.g., storing goods in several warehouses. 

Although it is not necessary to demonstrate anticompetitive effects under Article 102 TFEU, the AGCM claims that Amazon’s behavior has caused drastic worsening in other marketplaces’ competitive position by constraining their ability to reach the minimum scale needed to enjoy direct and indirect network effects. The Italian authorities summarily assert that this results in consumer harm, although the gargantuan 250-page decision spends scarcely one paragraph on this point. 

Intuitively, however, Amazon’s behavior should, in principle, benefit consumers by offering something that most find tremendously valuable: a guarantee of quick delivery for a wide range of goods. Indeed, this is precisely why it is so misguided to condemn self-preferencing by online platforms.

As some have already argued, we cannot assume that something is bad for competition just because it is bad for certain competitors. For instance, a lot of unambiguously procompetitive behavior, like cutting prices, puts competitors at a disadvantage. The same might be true for a digital platform that preferences its own service because it is generally better than the alternatives provided by third-party sellers. In the case at hand, for example, Amazon’s granting marketplace privileges to FBA products may help users to select the products that Amazon can guarantee will best satisfy their needs. This is perfectly plausible, as customers have repeatedly shown that they often prefer less open, less neutral options.

The key question, therefore, should be whether the behavior in question excludes equally efficient rivals in such a way as to harm consumer welfare. Otherwise, we would essentially be asking companies to refrain from offering services that benefit their users in order to make competing products comparatively more attractive. This is antithetical to the nature of competition, which is based on the principle that what is good for consumers is frequently bad for competitors.

AGCM’s Theory of Harm Rests on Four Weak Pillars

Building on the logic that Amazon enjoys “hyper-dominance” in marketplace intermediation; that most online sales are marketplace sales; and that most marketplace sales are, in turn, Amazon.it sales, the AGCM decision finds that succeeding on Amazon.it is indispensable for any online retailer in Italy. This argument hinges largely on whether online and offline retailers are thought of as distinct relevant markets—i.e., whether, from the perspective of the retailer, online and offline sales channels are substitutable (see also the relevant market definition section above). 

Ultimately, the AGCM finds that they are not, as online sales enjoy such advantages as lower fixed costs, increased sale flexibility, and better geographical reach. To an outsider, the distinction between the two markets may seem artificial—and it largely is—but such theoretical market segmentation is the bread-and-butter of antitrust analysis. Still, even by EU competition law standards, the relevant market definitions on which the AGCM relies to conclude that selling on Amazon is indispensable appear excessively narrow. 

This market distinction also serves to set up the AGCM’s second, more controversial argument: that the benefits extended to products sold through the FBA channel are also indispensable for retailers’ success on the Amazon.it marketplace. Here, the AGCM seeks a middle ground between competitive advantage and indispensability, finally settling on the notion that a sufficiently large competitive advantage itself translates into indispensability.

But how big is too big? The facts that 40-45% of Amazon’s third-party retailers do not use FBA (p. 57 of the decision) and that roughly 40 of the top 100 products sold on Amazon.it are not fulfilled through Amazon’s logistics service (p. 58) would appear to suggest that FBA is more of a convenience than an obligation. At the least, it does not appear that the advantage conferred is so big as to amount to indispensability. This may be because sellers that choose not to use Amazon’s logistics service (including offline, of course) can and do cut prices to compete with FBA-sold products. If anything, this should be counted as a good thing from the perspective of consumer welfare.

Instead, and signaling the decision’s overarching preoccupation with protecting some businesses at the expense of others (and, ultimately, at the expense of consumers), the AGCM has expanded the already bloated notion of a self-preferencing offense to conclude that expecting sellers to compete on pricing parameters would unfairly slash profit margins for non-FBA sellers.

The third pillar of the AGCM’s theory of harm is the claim that the benefits conferred on products sold through FBA are not awarded based on any objective quality criteria, but purely on whether the seller has chosen FBA or third-party logistics. Thus, even if a logistics operator were, in principle, capable of offering a service as efficient as FBA’s, it would not qualify for the same benefits. 

But this is a disingenuous line of reasoning. One legitimate reason why Amazon could choose to confer exclusive advantages on products fulfilled by its own logistics operation is because no other service is, in fact, routinely as reliable. This does not necessarily mean that FBA is always superior to the alternatives, but rather that it makes sense for Amazon to adopt this presumption a general rule based on past experience, without spending the resources to constantly evaluate it. In other words, granting exclusive benefits is based on quality criteria, just on a prior measurement of quality rather than an ongoing assessment. This is presumably what a customer-obsessed business that does not want to take chances with consumer satisfaction would do. 

Fourth, the AGCM posits that Prime and FBA constitute two separate products that have been artificially tied by Amazon, thereby unfairly excluding third-party logistics operators. Co-opting Amazon’s own terminology, the AGCM claims that the company has created a flywheel of artificial interdependence, wherein Prime benefits increase the number of Prime users, which drives demand for Prime products, which creates demand for Prime-eligible FBA products, and so on. 

To support its case, the AGCM repeatedly adduces a 2015 letter in which Jeff Bezos told shareholders that Amazon Marketplace and Prime are “happily and deeply intertwined,” and that FBA is the “glue” that links them together. Instead of taking this for what it likely is—i.e., a case of legitimate, efficiency-enhancing vertical integration—the AGCM has preferred to read into it a case of illicit tying, an established offense under Article 102 TFEU whereby a dominant firm makes the purchase of one product conditional on the purchase of another, unrelated one. 

The problem with this narrative is that it is perfectly plausible that Prime and FBA are, in fact, meant to be one product that is more than the sum of its parts. For one, the inventory of sellers who use FBA is stowed in fulfillment centers, meaning that Amazon takes care of all logistics, customer service, and product returns. As Bezos put it in the same 2015 letter, this is a huge efficiency gain. It thus makes sense to nudge consumers towards products that use FBA.

In sum, the AGCM’s case rests on a series of questionable assumptions that build on each other: a narrow relevant market definition; a finding of “hyper-dominance” that downplays competitors’ growth and expansion, as well as competition from outside the narrowly defined market; a contrived notion of indispensability at two levels (Marketplace and FBA); and a refusal to contemplate the possibility that Amazon integrates its marketplace and logistics services in orders to enhance efficiency, rather than to exclude competitors.

Remedies

The AGCM sees “only one way to restore a level-playing field in e-commerce logistics”: Amazon must redesign its existing Self-Fulfilled Prime (SFP) program in such a way as to grant all logistics operators—FBA or non-FBA—equal treatment on Amazon.it, based on a set of objective, transparent, standard, uniform, and non-discriminatory criteria. Any logistics operator that demonstrates the ability to fulfill such criteria must be awarded SFP status and the accompanying Prime badge, along with all the perks associated with it. Further, SFP- and FBA-sold products must be subject to the same monitoring mechanism with regard to the observance of Prime standards, as well as to the same evaluation standards. 

In sum, Amazon Italy now has a duty to treat Marketplace sales fulfilled by third-party operators the same as those fulfilled by its own logistics service. This is a significant step toward “common carrier antitrust.” in which vertically integrated firms are expected to comply with perfect neutrality obligations with respect to customers, suppliers, and competitors

Beyond the philosophical question of whether successful private companies should be obliged by law to treat competitors analogously to its affiliates (they shouldn’t), the pitfalls of this approach are plain to see. Nearly all consumer-facing services use choice architectures as a means to highlight products that rank favorably in terms of price and quality, and ensuring consumers enjoy a seamless user experience: Supermarkets offer house brands that signal a product has certain desirable features; operating system developers pre-install certain applications to streamline users’ “out of the box “experience; app stores curate the apps that users will view; search engines use specialized boxes that anticipate the motives underlying users’ search queries, etc. Suppressing these practices through heavy-handed neutrality mandates is liable to harm consumers. 

Second, monitoring third-party logistics operators’ compliance with the requisite standards is going to come at a cost for Amazon (and, presumably, its customers)—a cost likely much higher than that of monitoring its own operations—while awarding the Prime badge liberally may deteriorate the consumer experience on Amazon Marketplace.

Thus, one way for Amazon to comply with AGCM’s remedies while also minimizing monitoring costs is simply to dilute or even remove the criteria for Prime, thereby allowing sellers using any logistics provider to be eligible for Prime. While this would presumably insulate Amazon from any future claims against exclusionary self-preferencing, it would almost certainly also harm consumer welfare. 

A final point worth noting is that vertical integration may well be subsidizing Amazon’s own first-party products. In other words, even if FBA is not fully better than other logistics operators, the revenue that it derives from FBA enables Amazon to offer low prices, as well as a range of other benefits from Prime, such as, e.g., free video. Take that source of revenue away, and those subsidized prices go up and the benefits disappear. This is another reason why it may be legitimate to consider FBA and Prime as a single product.

Of course, this argument is moot if all one cares about is how Amazon’s vertical integration affects competitors, not consumers. But consumers care about the whole package. The rationale at play in the AGCM decision ultimately ends up imposing a narrow, boring business model on all sellers, precluding them from offering interesting consumer benefits to bolster their overall product.

Conclusion

Some have openly applauded AGCM’s use of EU competition law to protect traditional logistics operators like FedEx, Poste Italiane, DHL, and UPS. Others lament the competition authority’s apparent abandonment of the consumer welfare standard in favor of a renewed interest in punishing efficiency to favor laggard competitors under the guise of safekeeping “competition.” Both sides ultimately agree on one thing, however: Amazon Italy is about favoring Amazon’s competitors. If competition authorities insist on continuing down this populist rabbit hole,  the best they can hope for is a series of Pyrrhic victories against the businesses that are most bent on customer satisfaction, i.e., the successful ones.

Some may intuitively think that this is fair; that Amazon is just too big and that it strangles small competitors. But Amazon’s “small” competitors are hardly the “worthy men” of Brandeisian mythology. They are FedEx, DHL, UPS, and the state-backed goliath Poste Italiane; they are undeniably successful companies like eBay, Alibaba – or Walmart in the United States. It is, conversely, the smallest retailers and consumers who benefit the most from Amazon’s integrated logistics and marketplace services, as the company’s meteoric rise in popularity in Italy since 2016 attests. But it seems that, in the brave new world of antitrust, such stakeholders are now too small to matter.

A lawsuit filed by the State of Texas and nine other states in December 2020 alleges, among other things, that Google has engaged in anticompetitive conduct related to its online display-advertising business.

Broadly, the Texas complaint (previously discussed in this TOTM symposium) alleges that Google possesses market power in ad-buying tools and in search, illustrated in the figure below.

The complaint also alleges anticompetitive conduct by Google with respect to YouTube in a separate “inline video-advertising market.” According to the complaint, this market power is leveraged to force transactions through Google’s exchange, AdX, and its network, Google Display Network. The leverage is further exercised by forcing publishers to license Google’s ad server, Google Ad Manager.

Although the Texas complaint raises many specific allegations, the key ones constitute four broad claims: 

  1. Google forces publishers to license Google’s ad server and trade in Google’s ad exchange;
  2. Google uses its control over publishers’ inventory to block exchange competition;
  3. Google has disadvantaged technology known as “header bidding” in order to prevent publishers from accessing its competitors; and
  4. Google prevents rival ad-placement services from competing by not allowing them to buy YouTube ad space.

Alleged harms

The Texas complaint alleges Google’s conduct has caused harm to competing networks, exchanges, and ad servers. The complaint also claims that the plaintiff states’ economies have been harmed “by depriving the Plaintiff States and the persons within each Plaintiff State of the benefits of competition.”

In a nod to the widely accepted Consumer Welfare Standard, the Texas complaint alleges harm to three categories of consumers:

  1. Advertisers who pay for their ads to be displayed, but should be paying less;
  2. Publishers who are paid to provide space on their sites to display ads, but should be paid more; and
  3. Users who visit the sites, view the ads, and purchase or use the advertisers’ and publishers’ products and services.

The complaint claims users are harmed by above-competitive prices paid by advertisers, in that these higher costs are passed on in the form of higher prices and lower quality for the products and services they purchase from those advertisers. The complaint simultaneously claims that users are harmed by the below-market prices received by publishers in the form of “less content (lower output of content), lower-quality content, less innovation in content delivery, more paywalls, and higher subscription fees.”

Without saying so explicitly, the complaint insinuates that if intermediaries (e.g., Google and competing services) charged lower fees for their services, advertisers would pay less, publishers would be paid more, and consumers would be better off in the form of lower prices and better products from advertisers, as well as improved content and lower fees on publishers’ sites.

Effective competition is not an antitrust offense

A flawed premise underlies much of the Texas complaint. It asserts that conduct by a dominant incumbent firm that makes competition more difficult for competitors is inherently anticompetitive, even if that conduct confers benefits on users.

This amounts to a claim that Google is acting anti-competitively by innovating and developing products and services to benefit one or more display-advertising constituents (e.g., advertisers, publishers, or consumers) or by doing things that benefit the advertising ecosystem more generally. These include creating new and innovative products, lowering prices, reducing costs through vertical integration, or enhancing interoperability.

The argument, which is made explicitly elsewhere, is that Google must show that it has engineered and implemented its products to minimize obstacles its rivals face, and that any efficiencies created by its products must be shown to outweigh the costs imposed by those improvements on the company’s competitors.

Similarly, claims that Google has acted in an anticompetitive fashion rest on the unsupportable notion that the company acts unfairly when it designs products to benefit itself without considering how those designs would affect competitors. Google could, it is argued, choose alternate arrangements and practices that would possibly confer greater revenue on publishers or lower prices on advertisers without imposing burdens on competitors.

For example, a report published by the Omidyar Network sketching a “roadmap” for a case against Google claims that, if Google’s practices could possibly be reimagined to achieve the same benefits in ways that foster competition from rivals, then the practices should be condemned as anticompetitive:

It is clear even to us as lay people that there are less anticompetitive ways of delivering effective digital advertising—and thereby preserving the substantial benefits from this technology—than those employed by Google.

– Fiona M. Scott Morton & David C. Dinielli, “Roadmap for a Digital Advertising Monopolization Case Against Google”

But that’s not how the law—or the economics—works. This approach converts beneficial aspects of Google’s ad-tech business into anticompetitive defects, essentially arguing that successful competition and innovation create barriers to entry that merit correction through antitrust enforcement.

This approach turns U.S. antitrust law (and basic economics) on its head. As some of the most well-known words of U.S. antitrust jurisprudence have it:

A single producer may be the survivor out of a group of active competitors, merely by virtue of his superior skill, foresight and industry. In such cases a strong argument can be made that, although, the result may expose the public to the evils of monopoly, the Act does not mean to condemn the resultant of those very forces which it is its prime object to foster: finis opus coronat. The successful competitor, having been urged to compete, must not be turned upon when he wins.

– United States v. Aluminum Co. of America, 148 F.2d 416 (2d Cir. 1945)

U.S. antitrust law is intended to foster innovation that creates benefits for consumers, including innovation by incumbents. The law does not proscribe efficiency-enhancing unilateral conduct on the grounds that it might also inconvenience competitors, or that there is some other arrangement that could be “even more” competitive. Under U.S. antitrust law, firms are “under no duty to help [competitors] survive or expand.”  

To be sure, the allegations against Google are couched in terms of anticompetitive effect, rather than being described merely as commercial disagreements over the distribution of profits. But these effects are simply inferred, based on assumptions that Google’s vertically integrated business model entails an inherent ability and incentive to harm rivals.

The Texas complaint claims Google can surreptitiously derive benefits from display advertisers by leveraging its search-advertising capabilities, or by “withholding YouTube inventory,” rather than altruistically opening Google Search and YouTube up to rival ad networks. The complaint alleges Google uses its access to advertiser, publisher, and user data to improve its products without sharing this data with competitors.

All these charges may be true, but they do not describe inherently anticompetitive conduct. Under U.S. law, companies are not obliged to deal with rivals and certainly are not obliged to do so on those rivals’ preferred terms

As long ago as 1919, the U.S. Supreme Court held that:

In the absence of any purpose to create or maintain a monopoly, the [Sherman Act] does not restrict the long recognized right of [a] trader or manufacturer engaged in an entirely private business, freely to exercise his own independent discretion as to parties with whom he will deal.

– United States v. Colgate & Co.

U.S. antitrust law does not condemn conduct on the basis that an enforcer (or a court) is able to identify or hypothesize alternative conduct that might plausibly provide similar benefits at lower cost. In alleging that there are ostensibly “better” ways that Google could have pursued its product design, pricing, and terms of dealing, both the Texas complaint and Omidyar “roadmap” assert that, had the firm only selected a different path, an alternative could have produced even more benefits or an even more competitive structure.

The purported cure of tinkering with benefit-producing unilateral conduct by applying an “even more competition” benchmark is worse than the supposed disease. The adjudicator is likely to misapply such a benchmark, deterring the very conduct the law seeks to promote.

For example, Texas complaint alleges: “Google’s ad server passed inside information to Google’s exchange and permitted Google’s exchange to purchase valuable impressions at artificially depressed prices.” The Omidyar Network’s “roadmap” claims that “after purchasing DoubleClick, which became its publisher ad server, Google apparently lowered its prices to publishers by a factor of ten, at least according to one publisher’s account related to the CMA. Low prices for this service can force rivals to depart, thereby directly reducing competition.”

In contrast, as current U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer once explained, in the context of above-cost low pricing, “the consequence of a mistake here is not simply to force a firm to forego legitimate business activity it wishes to pursue; rather, it is to penalize a procompetitive price cut, perhaps the most desirable activity (from an antitrust perspective) that can take place in a concentrated industry where prices typically exceed costs.”  That commentators or enforcers may be able to imagine alternative or theoretically more desirable conduct is beside the point.

It has been reported that the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) may join the Texas suit or bring its own similar action against Google in the coming months. If it does, it should learn from the many misconceptions and errors in the Texas complaint that leave it on dubious legal and economic grounds.

The dystopian novel is a powerful literary genre. It has given us such masterpieces as Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451. Though these novels often shed light on the risks of contemporary society and the zeitgeist of the era in which they were written, they also almost always systematically overshoot the mark (intentionally or not) and severely underestimate the radical improvements that stem from the technologies (or other causes) that they fear.

But dystopias are not just a literary phenomenon; they are also a powerful force in policy circles. This is epitomized by influential publications such as The Club of Rome’s 1972 report The Limits of Growth, whose dire predictions of Malthusian catastrophe have largely failed to materialize.

In an article recently published in the George Mason Law Review, we argue that contemporary antitrust scholarship and commentary is similarly afflicted by dystopian thinking. In that respect, today’s antitrust pessimists have set their sights predominantly on the digital economy—”Big Tech” and “Big Data”—in the process of alleging a vast array of potential harms.

Scholars have notably argued that the data created and employed by the digital economy produces network effects that inevitably lead to tipping and to more concentrated markets (e.g., here and here). In other words, firms will allegedly accumulate insurmountable data advantages and thus thwart competitors for extended periods of time.

Some have gone so far as to argue that this threatens the very fabric of western democracy. For instance, parallels between the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and the power of large digital platforms were plain to see when Epic Games launched an antitrust suit against Apple and its App Store in August 2020. The gaming company released a short video clip parodying Apple’s famous “1984” ad (which, upon its release, was itself widely seen as a critique of the tech incumbents of the time). Similarly, a piece in the New Statesman—titled “Slouching Towards Dystopia: The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism and the Death of Privacy”—concluded that:

Our lives and behaviour have been turned into profit for the Big Tech giants—and we meekly click ‘Accept.’ How did we sleepwalk into a world without privacy?

In our article, we argue that these fears are symptomatic of two different but complementary phenomena, which we refer to as “Antitrust Dystopia” and “Antitrust Nostalgia.”

Antitrust Dystopia is the pessimistic tendency among competition scholars and enforcers to assert that novel business conduct will cause technological advances to have unprecedented, anticompetitive consequences. This is almost always grounded in the belief that “this time is different”—that, despite the benign or positive consequences of previous, similar technological advances, this time those advances will have dire, adverse consequences absent enforcement to stave off abuse.

Antitrust Nostalgia is the biased assumption—often built into antitrust doctrine itself—that change is bad. Antitrust Nostalgia holds that, because a business practice has seemingly benefited competition before, changing it will harm competition going forward. Thus, antitrust enforcement is often skeptical of, and triggered by, various deviations from status quo conduct and relationships (i.e., “nonstandard” business arrangements) when change is, to a first approximation, the hallmark of competition itself.

Our article argues that these two worldviews are premised on particularly questionable assumptions about the way competition unfolds, in this case, in data-intensive markets.

The Case of Big Data Competition

The notion that digital markets are inherently more problematic than their brick-and-mortar counterparts—if there even is a meaningful distinction—is advanced routinely by policymakers, journalists, and other observers. The fear is that, left to their own devices, today’s dominant digital platforms will become all-powerful, protected by an impregnable “data barrier to entry.” Against this alarmist backdrop, nostalgic antitrust scholars have argued for aggressive antitrust intervention against the nonstandard business models and contractual arrangements that characterize these markets.

But as our paper demonstrates, a proper assessment of the attributes of data-intensive digital markets does not support either the dire claims or the proposed interventions.

  1. Data is information

One of the most salient features of the data created and consumed by online firms is that, jargon aside, it is just information. As with other types of information, it thus tends to have at least some traits usually associated with public goods (i.e., goods that are non-rivalrous in consumption and not readily excludable). As the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Catherine Tucker argues, data “has near-zero marginal cost of production and distribution even over long distances,” making it very difficult to exclude others from accessing it. Meanwhile, multiple economic agents can simultaneously use the same data, making it non-rivalrous in consumption.

As we explain in our paper, these features make the nature of modern data almost irreconcilable with the alleged hoarding and dominance that critics routinely associate with the tech industry.

2. Data is not scarce; expertise is

Another important feature of data is that it is ubiquitous. The predominant challenge for firms is not so much in obtaining data but, rather, in drawing useful insights from it. This has two important implications for antitrust policy.

First, although data does not have the self-reinforcing characteristics of network effects, there is a sense that acquiring a certain amount of data and expertise is necessary to compete in data-heavy industries. It is (or should be) equally apparent, however, that this “learning by doing” advantage rapidly reaches a point of diminishing returns.

This is supported by significant empirical evidence. As our survey of the empirical literature shows, data generally entails diminishing marginal returns:

Second, it is firms’ capabilities, rather than the data they own, that lead to success in the marketplace. Critics who argue that firms such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook are successful because of their superior access to data might, in fact, have the causality in reverse. Arguably, it is because these firms have come up with successful industry-defining paradigms that they have amassed so much data, and not the other way around.

This dynamic can be seen at play in the early days of the search-engine market. In 2013, The Atlantic ran a piece titled “What the Web Looked Like Before Google.” By comparing the websites of Google and its rivals in 1998 (when Google Search was launched), the article shows how the current champion of search marked a radical departure from the status quo.

Even if it stumbled upon it by chance, Google immediately identified a winning formula for the search-engine market. It ditched the complicated classification schemes favored by its rivals and opted, instead, for a clean page with a single search box. This ensured that users could access the information they desired in the shortest possible amount of time—thanks, in part, to Google’s PageRank algorithm.

It is hardly surprising that Google’s rivals struggled to keep up with this shift in the search-engine industry. The theory of dynamic capabilities tells us that firms that have achieved success by indexing the web will struggle when the market rapidly moves toward a new paradigm (in this case, Google’s single search box and ten blue links). During the time it took these rivals to identify their weaknesses and repurpose their assets, Google kept on making successful decisions: notably, the introduction of Gmail, its acquisitions of YouTube and Android, and the introduction of Google Maps, among others.

Seen from this evolutionary perspective, Google thrived because its capabilities were perfect for the market at that time, while rivals were ill-adapted.

3.    Data as a byproduct of, and path to, platform monetization

Policymakers should also bear in mind that platforms often must go to great lengths in order to create data about their users—data that these same users often do not know about themselves. Under this framing, data is a byproduct of firms’ activity, rather than an input necessary for rivals to launch a business.

This is especially clear when one looks at the formative years of numerous online platforms. Most of the time, these businesses were started by entrepreneurs who did not own much data but, instead, had a brilliant idea for a service that consumers would value. Even if data ultimately played a role in the monetization of these platforms, it does not appear that it was necessary for their creation.

Data often becomes significant only at a relatively late stage in these businesses’ development. A quick glance at the digital economy is particularly revealing in this regard. Google and Facebook, in particular, both launched their platforms under the assumption that building a successful product would eventually lead to significant revenues.

It took five years from its launch for Facebook to start making a profit. Even at that point, when the platform had 300 million users, it still was not entirely clear whether it would generate most of its income from app sales or online advertisements. It was another three years before Facebook started to cement its position as one of the world’s leading providers of online ads. During this eight-year timespan, Facebook prioritized user growth over the monetization of its platform. The company appears to have concluded (correctly, it turns out) that once its platform attracted enough users, it would surely find a way to make itself highly profitable.

This might explain how Facebook managed to build a highly successful platform despite a large data disadvantage when compared to rivals like MySpace. And Facebook is no outlier. The list of companies that prevailed despite starting with little to no data (and initially lacking a data-dependent monetization strategy) is lengthy. Other examples include TikTok, Airbnb, Amazon, Twitter, PayPal, Snapchat, and Uber.

Those who complain about the unassailable competitive advantages enjoyed by companies with troves of data have it exactly backward. Companies need to innovate to attract consumer data or else consumers will switch to competitors, including both new entrants and established incumbents. As a result, the desire to make use of more and better data drives competitive innovation, with manifestly impressive results. The continued explosion of new products, services, and apps is evidence that data is not a bottleneck to competition, but a spur to drive it.

We’ve Been Here Before: The Microsoft Antitrust Saga

Dystopian and nostalgic discussions concerning the power of successful technology firms are nothing new. Throughout recent history, there have been repeated calls for antitrust authorities to reign in these large companies. These calls for regulation have often led to increased antitrust scrutiny of some form. The Microsoft antitrust cases—which ran from the 1990s to the early 2010s on both sides of the Atlantic—offer a good illustration of the misguided “Antitrust Dystopia.”

In the mid-1990s, Microsoft was one of the most successful and vilified companies in America. After it obtained a commanding position in the desktop operating system market, the company sought to establish a foothold in the burgeoning markets that were developing around the Windows platform (many of which were driven by the emergence of the Internet). These included the Internet browser and media-player markets.

The business tactics employed by Microsoft to execute this transition quickly drew the ire of the press and rival firms, ultimately landing Microsoft in hot water with antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, as we show in our article, though there were numerous calls for authorities to adopt a precautionary principle-type approach to dealing with Microsoft—and antitrust enforcers were more than receptive to these calls—critics’ worst fears never came to be.

This positive outcome is unlikely to be the result of the antitrust cases that were brought against Microsoft. In other words, the markets in which Microsoft operated seem to have self-corrected (or were misapprehended as competitively constrained) and, today, are generally seen as being unproblematic.

This is not to say that antitrust interventions against Microsoft were necessarily misguided. Instead, our critical point is that commentators and antitrust decisionmakers routinely overlooked or misinterpreted the existing and nonstandard market dynamics that ultimately prevented the worst anticompetitive outcomes from materializing. This is supported by several key factors.

First, the remedies that were imposed against Microsoft by antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic were ultimately quite weak. It is thus unlikely that these remedies, by themselves, prevented Microsoft from dominating its competitors in adjacent markets.

Note that, if this assertion is wrong, and antitrust enforcement did indeed prevent Microsoft from dominating online markets, then there is arguably no need to reform the antitrust laws on either side of the Atlantic, nor even to adopt a particularly aggressive enforcement position. The remedies that were imposed on Microsoft were relatively localized. Accordingly, if antitrust enforcement did indeed prevent Microsoft from dominating other online markets, then it is antitrust enforcement’s deterrent effect that is to thank, and not the remedies actually imposed.

Second, Microsoft lost its bottleneck position. One of the biggest changes that took place in the digital space was the emergence of alternative platforms through which consumers could access the Internet. Indeed, as recently as January 2009, roughly 94% of all Internet traffic came from Windows-based computers. Just over a decade later, this number has fallen to about 31%. Android, iOS, and OS X have shares of roughly 41%, 16%, and 7%, respectively. Consumers can thus access the web via numerous platforms. The emergence of these alternatives reduced the extent to which Microsoft could use its bottleneck position to force its services on consumers in online markets.

Third, it is possible that Microsoft’s own behavior ultimately sowed the seeds of its relative demise. In particular, the alleged barriers to entry (rooted in nostalgic market definitions and skeptical analysis of “ununderstandable” conduct) that were essential to establishing the antitrust case against the company may have been pathways to entry as much as barriers.

Consider this error in the Microsoft court’s analysis of entry barriers: the court pointed out that new entrants faced a barrier that Microsoft didn’t face, in that Microsoft didn’t have to contend with a powerful incumbent impeding its entry by tying up application developers.

But while this may be true, Microsoft did face the absence of any developers at all, and had to essentially create (or encourage the creation of) businesses that didn’t previously exist. Microsoft thus created a huge positive externality for new entrants: existing knowledge and organizations devoted to software development, industry knowledge, reputation, awareness, and incentives for schools to offer courses. It could well be that new entrants, in fact, faced lower barriers with respect to app developers than did Microsoft when it entered.

In short, new entrants may face even more welcoming environments because of incumbents. This enabled Microsoft’s rivals to thrive.

Conclusion

Dystopian antitrust prophecies are generally doomed to fail, just like those belonging to the literary world. The reason is simple. While it is easy to identify what makes dominant firms successful in the present (i.e., what enables them to hold off competitors in the short term), it is almost impossible to conceive of the myriad ways in which the market could adapt. Indeed, it is today’s supra-competitive profits that spur the efforts of competitors.

Surmising that the economy will come to be dominated by a small number of successful firms is thus the same as believing that all market participants can be outsmarted by a few successful ones. This might occur in some cases or for some period of time, but as our article argues, it is bound to happen far less often than pessimists fear.

In short, dystopian scholars have not successfully made the case for precautionary antitrust. Indeed, the economic features of data make it highly unlikely that today’s tech giants could anticompetitively maintain their advantage for an indefinite amount of time, much less leverage this advantage in adjacent markets.

With this in mind, there is one dystopian novel that offers a fitting metaphor to end this Article. The Man in the High Castle tells the story of an alternate present, where Axis forces triumphed over the Allies during the second World War. This turns the dystopia genre on its head: rather than argue that the world is inevitably sliding towards a dark future, The Man in the High Castle posits that the present could be far worse than it is.

In other words, we should not take any of the luxuries we currently enjoy for granted. In the world of antitrust, critics routinely overlook that the emergence of today’s tech industry might have occurred thanks to, and not in spite of, existing antitrust doctrine. Changes to existing antitrust law should thus be dictated by a rigorous assessment of the various costs and benefits they would entail, rather than a litany of hypothetical concerns. The most recent wave of calls for antitrust reform have so far failed to clear this low bar.

The American Choice and Innovation Online Act (previously called the Platform Anti-Monopoly Act), introduced earlier this summer by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), would significantly change the nature of digital platforms and, with them, the internet itself. Taken together, the bill’s provisions would turn platforms into passive intermediaries, undermining many of the features that make them valuable to consumers. This seems likely to remain the case even after potential revisions intended to minimize the bill’s unintended consequences.

In its current form, the bill is split into two parts that each is dangerous in its own right. The first, Section 2(a), would prohibit almost any kind of “discrimination” by platforms. Because it is so open-ended, lawmakers might end up removing it in favor of the nominally more focused provisions of Section 2(b), which prohibit certain named conduct. But despite being more specific, this section of the bill is incredibly far-reaching and would effectively ban swaths of essential services.

I will address the potential effects of these sections point-by-point, but both elements of the bill suffer from the same problem: a misguided assumption that “discrimination” by platforms is necessarily bad from a competition and consumer welfare point of view. On the contrary, this conduct is often exactly what consumers want from platforms, since it helps to bring order and legibility to otherwise-unwieldy parts of the Internet. Prohibiting it, as both main parts of the bill do, would make the Internet harder to use and less competitive.

Section 2(a)

Section 2(a) essentially prohibits any behavior by a covered platform that would advantage that platform’s services over any others that also uses that platform; it characterizes this preferencing as “discrimination.”

As we wrote when the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust bills were first announced, this prohibition on “discrimination” is so broad that, if it made it into law, it would prevent platforms from excluding or disadvantaging any product of another business that uses the platform or advantaging their own products over those of their competitors.

The underlying assumption here is that platforms should be like telephone networks: providing a way for different sides of a market to communicate with each other, but doing little more than that. When platforms do do more—for example, manipulating search results to favor certain businesses or to give their own products prominence —it is seen as exploitative “leveraging.”

But consumers often want platforms to be more than just a telephone network or directory, because digital markets would be very difficult to navigate without some degree of “discrimination” between sellers. The Internet is so vast and sellers are often so anonymous that any assistance which helps you choose among options can serve to make it more navigable. As John Gruber put it:

From what I’ve seen over the last few decades, the quality of the user experience of every computing platform is directly correlated to the amount of control exerted by its platform owner. The current state of the ownerless world wide web speaks for itself.

Sometimes, this manifests itself as “self-preferencing” of another service, to reduce additional time spent searching for the information you want. When you search for a restaurant on Google, it can be very useful to get information like user reviews, the restaurant’s phone number, a button on mobile to phone them directly, estimates of how busy it is, and a link to a Maps page to see how to actually get there.

This is, undoubtedly, frustrating for competitors like Yelp, who would like this information not to be there and for users to have to click on either a link to Yelp or a link to Google Maps. But whether it is good or bad for Yelp isn’t relevant to whether it is good for users—and it is at least arguable that it is, which makes a blanket prohibition on this kind of behavior almost inevitably harmful.

If it isn’t obvious why removing this kind of feature would be harmful for users, ask yourself why some users search in Yelp’s app directly for this kind of result. The answer, I think, is that Yelp gives you all the information above that Google does (and sometimes is better, although I tend to trust Google Maps’ reviews over Yelp’s), and it’s really convenient to have all that on the same page. If Google could not provide this kind of “rich” result, many users would probably stop using Google Search to look for restaurant information in the first place, because a new friction would have been added that made the experience meaningfully worse. Removing that option would be good for Yelp, but mainly because it removes a competitor.

If all this feels like stating the obvious, then it should highlight a significant problem with Section 2(a) in the Cicilline bill: it prohibits conduct that is directly value-adding for consumers, and that creates competition for dedicated services like Yelp that object to having to compete with this kind of conduct.

This is true across all the platforms the legislation proposes to regulate. Amazon prioritizes some third-party products over others on the basis of user reviews, rates of returns and complaints, and so on; Amazon provides private label products to fill gaps in certain product lines where existing offerings are expensive or unreliable; Apple pre-installs a Camera app on the iPhone that, obviously, enjoys an advantage over rival apps like Halide.

Some or all of this behavior would be prohibited under Section 2(a) of the Cicilline bill. Combined with the bill’s presumption that conduct must be defended affirmatively—that is, the platform is presumed guilty unless it can prove that the challenged conduct is pro-competitive, which may be very difficult to do—and the bill could prospectively eliminate a huge range of socially valuable behavior.

Supporters of the bill have already been left arguing that the law simply wouldn’t be enforced in these cases of benign discrimination. But this would hardly be an improvement. It would mean the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) have tremendous control over how these platforms are built, since they could challenge conduct in virtually any case. The regulatory uncertainty alone would complicate the calculus for these firms as they refine, develop, and deploy new products and capabilities. 

So one potential compromise might be to do away with this broad-based rule and proscribe specific kinds of “discriminatory” conduct instead. This approach would involve removing Section 2(a) from the bill but retaining Section 2(b), which enumerates 10 practices it deems to be “other discriminatory conduct.” This may seem appealing, as it would potentially avoid the worst abuses of the broad-based prohibition. In practice, however, it would carry many of the same problems. In fact, many of 2(b)’s provisions appear to go even further than 2(a), and would proscribe even more procompetitive conduct that consumers want.

Sections 2(b)(1) and 2(b)(9)

The wording of these provisions is extremely broad and, as drafted, would seem to challenge even the existence of vertically integrated products. As such, these prohibitions are potentially even more extensive and invasive than Section 2(a) would have been. Even a narrower reading here would seem to preclude safety and privacy features that are valuable to many users. iOS’s sandboxing of apps, for example, serves to limit the damage that a malware app can do on a user’s device precisely because of the limitations it imposes on what other features and hardware the app can access.

Section 2(b)(2)

This provision would preclude a firm from conditioning preferred status on use of another service from that firm. This would likely undermine the purpose of platforms, which is to absorb and counter some of the risks involved in doing business online. An example of this is Amazon’s tying eligibility for its Prime program to sellers that use Amazon’s delivery service (FBA – Fulfilled By Amazon). The bill seems to presume in an example like this that Amazon is leveraging its power in the market—in the form of the value of the Prime label—to profit from delivery. But Amazon could, and already does, charge directly for listing positions; it’s unclear why it would benefit from charging via FBA when it could just charge for the Prime label.

An alternate, simpler explanation is that FBA improves the quality of the service, by granting customers greater assurance that a Prime product will arrive when Amazon says it will. Platforms add value by setting out rules and providing services that reduce the uncertainties between buyers and sellers they’d otherwise experience if they transacted directly with each other. This section’s prohibition—which, as written, would seem to prevent any kind of quality assurance—likely would bar labelling by a platform, even where customers explicitly want it.

Section 2(b)(3)

As written, this would prohibit platforms from using aggregated data to improve their services at all. If Apple found that 99% of its users uninstalled an app immediately after it was installed, it would be reasonable to conclude that the app may be harmful or broken in some way, and that Apple should investigate. This provision would ban that.

Sections 2(b)(4) and 2(b)(6)

These two provisions effectively prohibit a platform from using information it does not also provide to sellers. Such prohibitions ignore the fact that it is often good for sellers to lack certain information, since withholding information can prevent abuse by malicious users. For example, a seller may sometimes try to bribe their customers to post positive reviews of their products, or even threaten customers who have posted negative ones. Part of the role of a platform is to combat that kind of behavior by acting as a middleman and forcing both consumer users and business users to comply with the platform’s own mechanisms to control that kind of behavior.

If this seems overly generous to platforms—since, obviously, it gives them a lot of leverage over business users—ask yourself why people use platforms at all. It is not a coincidence that people often prefer Amazon to dealing with third-party merchants and having to navigate those merchants’ sites themselves. The assurance that Amazon provides is extremely valuable for users. Much of it comes from the company’s ability to act as a middleman in this way, lowering the transaction costs between buyers and sellers.

Section 2(b)(5)

This provision restricts the treatment of defaults. It is, however, relatively restrained when compared to, for example, the DOJ’s lawsuit against Google, which treats as anticompetitive even payment for defaults that can be changed. Still, many of the arguments that apply in that case also apply here: default status for apps can be a way to recoup income foregone elsewhere (e.g., a browser provided for free that makes its money by selling the right to be the default search engine).

Section 2(b)(7)

This section gets to the heart of why “discrimination” can often be procompetitive: that it facilitates competition between platforms. The kind of self-preferencing that this provision would prohibit can allow firms that have a presence in one market to extend that position into another, increasing competition in the process. Both Apple and Amazon have used their customer bases in smartphones and e-commerce, respectively, to grow their customer bases for video streaming, in competition with Netflix, Google’s YouTube, cable television, and each other. If Apple designed a search engine to compete with Google, it would do exactly the same thing, and we would be better off because of it. Restricting this kind of behavior is, perversely, exactly what you would do if you wanted to shield these incumbents from competition.

Section 2(b)(8)

As with other provisions, this one would preclude one of the mechanisms by which platforms add value: creating assurance for customers about the products they can expect if they visit the platform. Some of this relates to child protection; some of the most frustrating stories involve children being overcharged when they use an iPhone or Android app, and effectively being ripped off because of poor policing of the app (or insufficiently strict pricing rules by Apple or Google). This may also relate to rules that state that the seller cannot offer a cheaper product elsewhere (Amazon’s “General Pricing Rule” does this, for example). Prohibiting this would simply impose a tax on customers who cannot shop around and would prefer to use a platform that they trust has the lowest prices for the item they want.

Section 2(b)(10)

Ostensibly a “whistleblower” provision, this section could leave platforms with no recourse, not even removing a user from its platform, in response to spurious complaints intended purely to extract value for the complaining business rather than to promote competition. On its own, this sort of provision may be fairly harmless, but combined with the provisions above, it allows the bill to add up to a rent-seekers’ charter.

Conclusion

In each case above, it’s vital to remember that a reversed burden of proof applies. So, there is a high chance that the law will side against the defendant business, and a large downside for conduct that ends up being found to violate these provisions. That means that platforms will likely err on the side of caution in many cases, avoiding conduct that is ambiguous, and society will probably lose a lot of beneficial behavior in the process.

Put together, the provisions undermine much of what has become an Internet platform’s role: to act as an intermediary, de-risk transactions between customers and merchants who don’t know each other, and tweak the rules of the market to maximize its attractiveness as a place to do business. The “discrimination” that the bill would outlaw is, in practice, behavior that makes it easier for consumers to navigate marketplaces of extreme complexity and uncertainty, in which they often know little or nothing about the firms with whom they are trying to transact business.

Customers do not want platforms to be neutral, open utilities. They can choose platforms that are like that already, such as eBay. They generally tend to prefer ones like Amazon, which are not neutral and which carefully cultivate their service to be as streamlined, managed, and “discriminatory” as possible. Indeed, many of people’s biggest complaints with digital platforms relate to their openness: the fake reviews, counterfeit products, malware, and spam that come with letting more unknown businesses use your service. While these may be unavoidable by-products of running a platform, platforms compete on their ability to ferret them out. Customers are unlikely to thank legislators for regulating Amazon into being another eBay.

[This post adapts elements of “Should ASEAN Antitrust Laws Emulate European Competition Policy?”, published in the Singapore Economic Review (2021). Open access working paper here.]

U.S. and European competition laws diverge in numerous ways that have important real-world effects. Understanding these differences is vital, particularly as lawmakers in the United States, and the rest of the world, consider adopting a more “European” approach to competition.

In broad terms, the European approach is more centralized and political. The European Commission’s Directorate General for Competition (DG Comp) has significant de facto discretion over how the law is enforced. This contrasts with the common law approach of the United States, in which courts elaborate upon open-ended statutes through an iterative process of case law. In other words, the European system was built from the top down, while U.S. antitrust relies on a bottom-up approach, derived from arguments made by litigants (including the government antitrust agencies) and defendants (usually businesses).

This procedural divergence has significant ramifications for substantive law. European competition law includes more provisions akin to de facto regulation. This is notably the case for the “abuse of dominance” standard, in which a “dominant” business can be prosecuted for “abusing” its position by charging high prices or refusing to deal with competitors. By contrast, the U.S. system places more emphasis on actual consumer outcomes, rather than the nature or “fairness” of an underlying practice.

The American system thus affords firms more leeway to exclude their rivals, so long as this entails superior benefits for consumers. This may make the U.S. system more hospitable to innovation, since there is no built-in regulation of conduct for innovators who acquire a successful market position fairly and through normal competition.

In this post, we discuss some key differences between the two systems—including in areas like predatory pricing and refusals to deal—as well as the discretionary power the European Commission enjoys under the European model.

Exploitative Abuses

U.S. antitrust is, by and large, unconcerned with companies charging what some might consider “excessive” prices. The late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Supreme Court majority in the 2003 case Verizon v. Trinko, observed that:

The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices—at least for a short period—is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth.

This contrasts with European competition-law cases, where firms may be found to have infringed competition law because they charged excessive prices. As the European Court of Justice (ECJ) held in 1978’s United Brands case: “In this case charging a price which is excessive because it has no reasonable relation to the economic value of the product supplied would be such an abuse.”

While United Brands was the EU’s foundational case for excessive pricing, and the European Commission reiterated that these allegedly exploitative abuses were possible when it published its guidance paper on abuse of dominance cases in 2009, the commission had for some time demonstrated apparent disinterest in bringing such cases. In recent years, however, both the European Commission and some national authorities have shown renewed interest in excessive-pricing cases, most notably in the pharmaceutical sector.

European competition law also penalizes so-called “margin squeeze” abuses, in which a dominant upstream supplier charges a price to distributors that is too high for them to compete effectively with that same dominant firm downstream:

[I]t is for the referring court to examine, in essence, whether the pricing practice introduced by TeliaSonera is unfair in so far as it squeezes the margins of its competitors on the retail market for broadband connection services to end users. (Konkurrensverket v TeliaSonera Sverige, 2011)

As Scalia observed in Trinko, forcing firms to charge prices that are below a market’s natural equilibrium affects firms’ incentives to enter markets, notably with innovative products and more efficient means of production. But the problem is not just one of market entry and innovation.  Also relevant is the degree to which competition authorities are competent to determine the “right” prices or margins.

As Friedrich Hayek demonstrated in his influential 1945 essay The Use of Knowledge in Society, economic agents use information gleaned from prices to guide their business decisions. It is this distributed activity of thousands or millions of economic actors that enables markets to put resources to their most valuable uses, thereby leading to more efficient societies. By comparison, the efforts of central regulators to set prices and margins is necessarily inferior; there is simply no reasonable way for competition regulators to make such judgments in a consistent and reliable manner.

Given the substantial risk that investigations into purportedly excessive prices will deter market entry, such investigations should be circumscribed. But the court’s precedents, with their myopic focus on ex post prices, do not impose such constraints on the commission. The temptation to “correct” high prices—especially in the politically contentious pharmaceutical industry—may thus induce economically unjustified and ultimately deleterious intervention.

Predatory Pricing

A second important area of divergence concerns predatory-pricing cases. U.S. antitrust law subjects allegations of predatory pricing to two strict conditions:

  1. Monopolists must charge prices that are below some measure of their incremental costs; and
  2. There must be a realistic prospect that they will able to recoup these initial losses.

In laying out its approach to predatory pricing, the U.S. Supreme Court has identified the risk of false positives and the clear cost of such errors to consumers. It thus has particularly stressed the importance of the recoupment requirement. As the court found in 1993’s Brooke Group Ltd. v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., without recoupment, “predatory pricing produces lower aggregate prices in the market, and consumer welfare is enhanced.”

Accordingly, U.S. authorities must prove that there are constraints that prevent rival firms from entering the market after the predation scheme, or that the scheme itself would effectively foreclose rivals from entering the market in the first place. Otherwise, the predator would be undercut by competitors as soon as it attempts to recoup its losses by charging supra-competitive prices.

Without the strong likelihood that a monopolist will be able to recoup lost revenue from underpricing, the overwhelming weight of economic evidence (to say nothing of simple logic) is that predatory pricing is not a rational business strategy. Thus, apparent cases of predatory pricing are most likely not, in fact, predatory; deterring or punishing them would actually harm consumers.

By contrast, the EU employs a more expansive legal standard to define predatory pricing, and almost certainly risks injuring consumers as a result. Authorities must prove only that a company has charged a price below its average variable cost, in which case its behavior is presumed to be predatory. Even when a firm charges prices that are between its average variable and average total cost, it can be found guilty of predatory pricing if authorities show that its behavior was part of a plan to eliminate a competitor. Most significantly, in neither case is it necessary for authorities to show that the scheme would allow the monopolist to recoup its losses.

[I]t does not follow from the case‑law of the Court that proof of the possibility of recoupment of losses suffered by the application, by an undertaking in a dominant position, of prices lower than a certain level of costs constitutes a necessary precondition to establishing that such a pricing policy is abusive. (France Télécom v Commission, 2009).

This aspect of the legal standard has no basis in economic theory or evidence—not even in the “strategic” economic theory that arguably challenges the dominant Chicago School understanding of predatory pricing. Indeed, strategic predatory pricing still requires some form of recoupment, and the refutation of any convincing business justification offered in response. For example, ​​in a 2017 piece for the Antitrust Law Journal, Steven Salop lays out the “raising rivals’ costs” analysis of predation and notes that recoupment still occurs, just at the same time as predation:

[T]he anticompetitive conditional pricing practice does not involve discrete predatory and recoupment periods, as in the case of classical predatory pricing. Instead, the recoupment occurs simultaneously with the conduct. This is because the monopolist is able to maintain its current monopoly power through the exclusionary conduct.

The case of predatory pricing illustrates a crucial distinction between European and American competition law. The recoupment requirement embodied in American antitrust law serves to differentiate aggressive pricing behavior that improves consumer welfare—because it leads to overall price decreases—from predatory pricing that reduces welfare with higher prices. It is, in other words, entirely focused on the welfare of consumers.

The European approach, by contrast, reflects structuralist considerations far removed from a concern for consumer welfare. Its underlying fear is that dominant companies could use aggressive pricing to engender more concentrated markets. It is simply presumed that these more concentrated markets are invariably detrimental to consumers. Both the Tetra Pak and France Télécom cases offer clear illustrations of the ECJ’s reasoning on this point:

[I]t would not be appropriate, in the circumstances of the present case, to require in addition proof that Tetra Pak had a realistic chance of recouping its losses. It must be possible to penalize predatory pricing whenever there is a risk that competitors will be eliminated… The aim pursued, which is to maintain undistorted competition, rules out waiting until such a strategy leads to the actual elimination of competitors. (Tetra Pak v Commission, 1996).

Similarly:

[T]he lack of any possibility of recoupment of losses is not sufficient to prevent the undertaking concerned reinforcing its dominant position, in particular, following the withdrawal from the market of one or a number of its competitors, so that the degree of competition existing on the market, already weakened precisely because of the presence of the undertaking concerned, is further reduced and customers suffer loss as a result of the limitation of the choices available to them.  (France Télécom v Commission, 2009).

In short, the European approach leaves less room to analyze the concrete effects of a given pricing scheme, leaving it more prone to false positives than the U.S. standard explicated in the Brooke Group decision. Worse still, the European approach ignores not only the benefits that consumers may derive from lower prices, but also the chilling effect that broad predatory pricing standards may exert on firms that would otherwise seek to use aggressive pricing schemes to attract consumers.

Refusals to Deal

U.S. and EU antitrust law also differ greatly when it comes to refusals to deal. While the United States has limited the ability of either enforcement authorities or rivals to bring such cases, EU competition law sets a far lower threshold for liability.

As Justice Scalia wrote in Trinko:

Aspen Skiing is at or near the outer boundary of §2 liability. The Court there found significance in the defendant’s decision to cease participation in a cooperative venture. The unilateral termination of a voluntary (and thus presumably profitable) course of dealing suggested a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve an anticompetitive end. (Verizon v Trinko, 2003.)

This highlights two key features of American antitrust law with regard to refusals to deal. To start, U.S. antitrust law generally does not apply the “essential facilities” doctrine. Accordingly, in the absence of exceptional facts, upstream monopolists are rarely required to supply their product to downstream rivals, even if that supply is “essential” for effective competition in the downstream market. Moreover, as Justice Scalia observed in Trinko, the Aspen Skiing case appears to concern only those limited instances where a firm’s refusal to deal stems from the termination of a preexisting and profitable business relationship.

While even this is not likely the economically appropriate limitation on liability, its impetus—ensuring that liability is found only in situations where procompetitive explanations for the challenged conduct are unlikely—is completely appropriate for a regime concerned with minimizing the cost to consumers of erroneous enforcement decisions.

As in most areas of antitrust policy, EU competition law is much more interventionist. Refusals to deal are a central theme of EU enforcement efforts, and there is a relatively low threshold for liability.

In theory, for a refusal to deal to infringe EU competition law, it must meet a set of fairly stringent conditions: the input must be indispensable, the refusal must eliminate all competition in the downstream market, and there must not be objective reasons that justify the refusal. Moreover, if the refusal to deal involves intellectual property, it must also prevent the appearance of a new good.

In practice, however, all of these conditions have been relaxed significantly by EU courts and the commission’s decisional practice. This is best evidenced by the lower court’s Microsoft ruling where, as John Vickers notes:

[T]he Court found easily in favor of the Commission on the IMS Health criteria, which it interpreted surprisingly elastically, and without relying on the special factors emphasized by the Commission. For example, to meet the “new product” condition it was unnecessary to identify a particular new product… thwarted by the refusal to supply but sufficient merely to show limitation of technical development in terms of less incentive for competitors to innovate.

EU competition law thus shows far less concern for its potential chilling effect on firms’ investments than does U.S. antitrust law.

Vertical Restraints

There are vast differences between U.S. and EU competition law relating to vertical restraints—that is, contractual restraints between firms that operate at different levels of the production process.

On the one hand, since the Supreme Court’s Leegin ruling in 2006, even price-related vertical restraints (such as resale price maintenance (RPM), under which a manufacturer can stipulate the prices at which retailers must sell its products) are assessed under the rule of reason in the United States. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that, in practice, U.S. case law on RPM almost amounts to per se legality.

Conversely, EU competition law treats RPM as severely as it treats cartels. Both RPM and cartels are considered to be restrictions of competition “by object”—the EU’s equivalent of a per se prohibition. This severe treatment also applies to non-price vertical restraints that tend to partition the European internal market.

Furthermore, in the Consten and Grundig ruling, the ECJ rejected the consequentialist, and economically grounded, principle that inter-brand competition is the appropriate framework to assess vertical restraints:

Although competition between producers is generally more noticeable than that between distributors of products of the same make, it does not thereby follow that an agreement tending to restrict the latter kind of competition should escape the prohibition of Article 85(1) merely because it might increase the former. (Consten SARL & Grundig-Verkaufs-GMBH v. Commission of the European Economic Community, 1966).

This treatment of vertical restrictions flies in the face of longstanding mainstream economic analysis of the subject. As Patrick Rey and Jean Tirole conclude:

Another major contribution of the earlier literature on vertical restraints is to have shown that per se illegality of such restraints has no economic foundations.

Unlike the EU, the U.S. Supreme Court in Leegin took account of the weight of the economic literature, and changed its approach to RPM to ensure that the law no longer simply precluded its arguable consumer benefits, writing: “Though each side of the debate can find sources to support its position, it suffices to say here that economics literature is replete with procompetitive justifications for a manufacturer’s use of resale price maintenance.” Further, the court found that the prior approach to resale price maintenance restraints “hinders competition and consumer welfare because manufacturers are forced to engage in second-best alternatives and because consumers are required to shoulder the increased expense of the inferior practices.”

The EU’s continued per se treatment of RPM, by contrast, strongly reflects its “precautionary principle” approach to antitrust. European regulators and courts readily condemn conduct that could conceivably injure consumers, even where such injury is, according to the best economic understanding, exceedingly unlikely. The U.S. approach, which rests on likelihood rather than mere possibility, is far less likely to condemn beneficial conduct erroneously.

Political Discretion in European Competition Law

EU competition law lacks a coherent analytical framework like that found in U.S. law’s reliance on the consumer welfare standard. The EU process is driven by a number of laterally equivalent—and sometimes mutually exclusive—goals, including industrial policy and the perceived need to counteract foreign state ownership and subsidies. Such a wide array of conflicting aims produces lack of clarity for firms seeking to conduct business. Moreover, the discretion that attends this fluid arrangement of goals yields an even larger problem.

The Microsoft case illustrates this problem well. In Microsoft, the commission could have chosen to base its decision on various potential objectives. It notably chose to base its findings on the fact that Microsoft’s behavior reduced “consumer choice.”

The commission, in fact, discounted arguments that economic efficiency may lead to consumer welfare gains, because it determined “consumer choice” among media players was more important:

Another argument relating to reduced transaction costs consists in saying that the economies made by a tied sale of two products saves resources otherwise spent for maintaining a separate distribution system for the second product. These economies would then be passed on to customers who could save costs related to a second purchasing act, including selection and installation of the product. Irrespective of the accuracy of the assumption that distributive efficiency gains are necessarily passed on to consumers, such savings cannot possibly outweigh the distortion of competition in this case. This is because distribution costs in software licensing are insignificant; a copy of a software programme can be duplicated and distributed at no substantial effort. In contrast, the importance of consumer choice and innovation regarding applications such as media players is high. (Commission Decision No. COMP. 37792 (Microsoft)).

It may be true that tying the products in question was unnecessary. But merely dismissing this decision because distribution costs are near-zero is hardly an analytically satisfactory response. There are many more costs involved in creating and distributing complementary software than those associated with hosting and downloading. The commission also simply asserts that consumer choice among some arbitrary number of competing products is necessarily a benefit. This, too, is not necessarily true, and the decision’s implication that any marginal increase in choice is more valuable than any gains from product design or innovation is analytically incoherent.

The Court of First Instance was only too happy to give the commission a pass in its breezy analysis; it saw no objection to these findings. With little substantive reasoning to support its findings, the court fully endorsed the commission’s assessment:

As the Commission correctly observes (see paragraph 1130 above), by such an argument Microsoft is in fact claiming that the integration of Windows Media Player in Windows and the marketing of Windows in that form alone lead to the de facto standardisation of the Windows Media Player platform, which has beneficial effects on the market. Although, generally, standardisation may effectively present certain advantages, it cannot be allowed to be imposed unilaterally by an undertaking in a dominant position by means of tying.

The Court further notes that it cannot be ruled out that third parties will not want the de facto standardisation advocated by Microsoft but will prefer it if different platforms continue to compete, on the ground that that will stimulate innovation between the various platforms. (Microsoft Corp. v Commission, 2007)

Pointing to these conflicting effects of Microsoft’s bundling decision, without weighing either, is a weak basis to uphold the commission’s decision that consumer choice outweighs the benefits of standardization. Moreover, actions undertaken by other firms to enhance consumer choice at the expense of standardization are, on these terms, potentially just as problematic. The dividing line becomes solely which theory the commission prefers to pursue.

What such a practice does is vest the commission with immense discretionary power. Any given case sets up a “heads, I win; tails, you lose” situation in which defendants are easily outflanked by a commission that can change the rules of its analysis as it sees fit. Defendants can play only the cards that they are dealt. Accordingly, Microsoft could not successfully challenge a conclusion that its behavior harmed consumers’ choice by arguing that it improved consumer welfare, on net.

By selecting, in this instance, “consumer choice” as the standard to be judged, the commission was able to evade the constraints that might have been imposed by a more robust welfare standard. Thus, the commission can essentially pick and choose the objectives that best serve its interests in each case. This vastly enlarges the scope of potential antitrust liability, while also substantially decreasing the ability of firms to predict when their behavior may be viewed as problematic. It leads to what, in U.S. courts, would be regarded as an untenable risk of false positives that chill innovative behavior and create nearly unwinnable battles for targeted firms.

Interrogations concerning the role that economic theory should play in policy decisions are nothing new. Milton Friedman famously drew a distinction between “positive” and “normative” economics, notably arguing that theoretical models were valuable, despite their unrealistic assumptions. Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu’s highly theoretical work on General Equilibrium Theory is widely acknowledged as one of the most important achievements of modern economics.

But for all their intellectual value and academic merit, the use of models to inform policy decisions is not uncontroversial. There is indeed a long and unfortunate history of influential economic models turning out to be poor depictions (and predictors) of real-world outcomes.

This raises a key question: should policymakers use economic models to inform their decisions and, if so, how? This post uses the economics of externalities to illustrate both the virtues and pitfalls of economic modeling. Throughout economic history, externalities have routinely been cited to support claims of market failure and calls for government intervention. However, as explained below, these fears have frequently failed to withstand empirical scrutiny.

Today, similar models are touted to support government intervention in digital industries. Externalities are notably said to prevent consumers from switching between platforms, allegedly leading to unassailable barriers to entry and deficient venture-capital investment. Unfortunately, as explained below, the models that underpin these fears are highly abstracted and far removed from underlying market realities.

Ultimately, this post argues that, while models provide a powerful way of thinking about the world, naïvely transposing them to real-world settings is misguided. This is not to say that models are useless—quite the contrary. Indeed, “falsified” models can shed powerful light on economic behavior that would otherwise prove hard to understand.

Bees

Fears surrounding economic externalities are as old as modern economics. For example, in the 1950s, economists routinely cited bee pollination as a source of externalities and, ultimately, market failure.

The basic argument was straightforward: Bees and orchards provide each other with positive externalities. Bees cross-pollinate flowers and orchards contain vast amounts of nectar upon which bees feed, thus improving honey yields. Accordingly, several famous economists argued that there was a market failure; bees fly where they please and farmers cannot prevent bees from feeding on their blossoming flowers—allegedly causing underinvestment in both. This led James Meade to conclude:

[T]he apple-farmer provides to the beekeeper some of his factors free of charge. The apple-farmer is paid less than the value of his marginal social net product, and the beekeeper receives more than the value of his marginal social net product.

A finding echoed by Francis Bator:

If, then, apple producers are unable to protect their equity in apple-nectar and markets do not impute to apple blossoms their correct shadow value, profit-maximizing decisions will fail correctly to allocate resources at the margin. There will be failure “by enforcement.” This is what I would call an ownership externality. It is essentially Meade’s “unpaid factor” case.

It took more than 20 years and painstaking research by Steven Cheung to conclusively debunk these assertions. So how did economic agents overcome this “insurmountable” market failure?

The answer, it turns out, was extremely simple. While bees do fly where they please, the relative placement of beehives and orchards has a tremendous impact on both fruit and honey yields. This is partly because bees have a very limited mean foraging range (roughly 2-3km). This left economic agents with ample scope to prevent free-riding.

Using these natural sources of excludability, they built a web of complex agreements that internalize the symbiotic virtues of beehives and fruit orchards. To cite Steven Cheung’s research

Pollination contracts usually include stipulations regarding the number and strength of the colonies, the rental fee per hive, the time of delivery and removal of hives, the protection of bees from pesticide sprays, and the strategic placing of hives. Apiary lease contracts differ from pollination contracts in two essential aspects. One is, predictably, that the amount of apiary rent seldom depends on the number of colonies, since the farmer is interested only in obtaining the rent per apiary offered by the highest bidder. Second, the amount of apiary rent is not necessarily fixed. Paid mostly in honey, it may vary according to either the current honey yield or the honey yield of the preceding year.

But what of neighboring orchards? Wouldn’t these entail a more complex externality (i.e., could one orchard free-ride on agreements concluded between other orchards and neighboring apiaries)? Apparently not:

Acknowledging the complication, beekeepers and farmers are quick to point out that a social rule, or custom of the orchards, takes the place of explicit contracting: during the pollination period the owner of an orchard either keeps bees himself or hires as many hives per area as are employed in neighboring orchards of the same type. One failing to comply would be rated as a “bad neighbor,” it is said, and could expect a number of inconveniences imposed on him by other orchard owners. This customary matching of hive densities involves the exchange of gifts of the same kind, which apparently entails lower transaction costs than would be incurred under explicit contracting, where farmers would have to negotiate and make money payments to one another for the bee spillover.

In short, not only did the bee/orchard externality model fail, but it failed to account for extremely obvious counter-evidence. Even a rapid flip through the Yellow Pages (or, today, a search on Google) would have revealed a vibrant market for bee pollination. In short, the bee externalities, at least as presented in economic textbooks, were merely an economic “fable.” Unfortunately, they would not be the last.

The Lighthouse

Lighthouses provide another cautionary tale. Indeed, Henry Sidgwick, A.C. Pigou, John Stuart Mill, and Paul Samuelson all cited the externalities involved in the provision of lighthouse services as a source of market failure.

Here, too, the problem was allegedly straightforward. A lighthouse cannot prevent ships from free-riding on its services when they sail by it (i.e., it is mostly impossible to determine whether a ship has paid fees and to turn off the lighthouse if that is not the case). Hence there can be no efficient market for light dues (lighthouses were seen as a “public good”). As Paul Samuelson famously put it:

Take our earlier case of a lighthouse to warn against rocks. Its beam helps everyone in sight. A businessman could not build it for a profit, since he cannot claim a price from each user. This certainly is the kind of activity that governments would naturally undertake.

He added that:

[E]ven if the operators were able—say, by radar reconnaissance—to claim a toll from every nearby user, that fact would not necessarily make it socially optimal for this service to be provided like a private good at a market-determined individual price. Why not? Because it costs society zero extra cost to let one extra ship use the service; hence any ships discouraged from those waters by the requirement to pay a positive price will represent a social economic loss—even if the price charged to all is no more than enough to pay the long-run expenses of the lighthouse.

More than a century after it was first mentioned in economics textbooks, Ronald Coase finally laid the lighthouse myth to rest—rebutting Samuelson’s second claim in the process.

What piece of evidence had eluded economists for all those years? As Coase observed, contemporary economists had somehow overlooked the fact that large parts of the British lighthouse system were privately operated, and had been for centuries:

[T]he right to operate a lighthouse and to levy tolls was granted to individuals by Acts of Parliament. The tolls were collected at the ports by agents (who might act for several lighthouses), who might be private individuals but were commonly customs officials. The toll varied with the lighthouse and ships paid a toll, varying with the size of the vessel, for each lighthouse passed. It was normally a rate per ton (say 1/4d or 1/2d) for each voyage. Later, books were published setting out the lighthouses passed on different voyages and the charges that would be made.

In other words, lighthouses used a simple physical feature to create “excludability” and prevent free-riding. The main reason ships require lighthouses is to avoid hitting rocks when they make their way to a port. By tying port fees and light dues, lighthouse owners—aided by mild government-enforced property rights—could easily earn a return on their investments, thus disproving the lighthouse free-riding myth.

Ultimately, this meant that a large share of the British lighthouse system was privately operated throughout the 19th century, and this share would presumably have been more pronounced if government-run “Trinity House” lighthouses had not crowded out private investment:

The position in 1820 was that there were 24 lighthouses operated by Trinity House and 22 by private individuals or organizations. But many of the Trinity House lighthouses had not been built originally by them but had been acquired by purchase or as the result of the expiration of a lease.

Of course, this system was not perfect. Some ships (notably foreign ones that did not dock in the United Kingdom) might free-ride on this arrangement. It also entailed some level of market power. The ability to charge light dues meant that prices were higher than the “socially optimal” baseline of zero (the marginal cost of providing light is close to zero). Though it is worth noting that tying port fees and light dues might also have decreased double marginalization, to the benefit of sailors.

Samuelson was particularly weary of this market power that went hand in hand with the private provision of public goods, including lighthouses:

Being able to limit a public good’s consumption does not make it a true-blue private good. For what, after all, are the true marginal costs of having one extra family tune in on the program? They are literally zero. Why then prevent any family which would receive positive pleasure from tuning in on the program from doing so?

However, as Coase explained, light fees represented only a tiny fraction of a ship’s costs. In practice, they were thus unlikely to affect market output meaningfully:

[W]hat is the gain which Samuelson sees as coming from this change in the way in which the lighthouse service is financed? It is that some ships which are now discouraged from making a voyage to Britain because of the light dues would in future do so. As it happens, the form of the toll and the exemptions mean that for most ships the number of voyages will not be affected by the fact that light dues are paid. There may be some ships somewhere which are laid up or broken up because of the light dues, but the number cannot be great, if indeed there are any ships in this category.

Samuelson’s critique also falls prey to the Nirvana Fallacy pointed out by Harold Demsetz: markets might not be perfect, but neither is government intervention. Market power and imperfect appropriability are the two (paradoxical) pitfalls of the first; “white elephants,” underinvestment, and lack of competition (and the information it generates) tend to stem from the latter.

Which of these solutions is superior, in each case, is an empirical question that early economists had simply failed to consider—assuming instead that market failure was systematic in markets that present prima facie externalities. In other words, models were taken as gospel without any circumspection about their relevance to real-world settings.

The Tragedy of the Commons

Externalities were also said to undermine the efficient use of “common pool resources,” such grazing lands, common irrigation systems, and fisheries—resources where one agent’s use diminishes that of others, and where exclusion is either difficult or impossible.

The most famous formulation of this problem is Garret Hardin’s highly influential (over 47,000 cites) “tragedy of the commons.” Hardin cited the example of multiple herdsmen occupying the same grazing ground:

The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another … But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.

In more technical terms, each economic agent purportedly exerts an unpriced negative externality on the others, thus leading to the premature depletion of common pool resources. Hardin extended this reasoning to other problems, such as pollution and allegations of global overpopulation.

Although Hardin hardly documented any real-world occurrences of this so-called tragedy, his policy prescriptions were unequivocal:

The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.

As with many other theoretical externalities, empirical scrutiny revealed that these fears were greatly overblown. In her Nobel-winning work, Elinor Ostrom showed that economic agents often found ways to mitigate these potential externalities markedly. For example, mountain villages often implement rules and norms that limit the use of grazing grounds and wooded areas. Likewise, landowners across the world often set up “irrigation communities” that prevent agents from overusing water.

Along similar lines, Julian Morris and I conjecture that informal arrangements and reputational effects might mitigate opportunistic behavior in the standard essential patent industry.

These bottom-up solutions are certainly not perfect. Many common institutions fail—for example, Elinor Ostrom documents several problematic fisheries, groundwater basins and forests, although it is worth noting that government intervention was sometimes behind these failures. To cite but one example:

Several scholars have documented what occurred when the Government of Nepal passed the “Private Forest Nationalization Act” […]. Whereas the law was officially proclaimed to “protect, manage and conserve the forest for the benefit of the entire country”, it actually disrupted previously established communal control over the local forests. Messerschmidt (1986, p.458) reports what happened immediately after the law came into effect:

Nepalese villagers began freeriding — systematically overexploiting their forest resources on a large scale.

In any case, the question is not so much whether private institutions fail, but whether they do so more often than government intervention. be it regulation or property rights. In short, the “tragedy of the commons” is ultimately an empirical question: what works better in each case, government intervention, propertization, or emergent rules and norms?

More broadly, the key lesson is that it is wrong to blindly apply models while ignoring real-world outcomes. As Elinor Ostrom herself put it:

The intellectual trap in relying entirely on models to provide the foundation for policy analysis is that scholars then presume that they are omniscient observers able to comprehend the essentials of how complex, dynamic systems work by creating stylized descriptions of some aspects of those systems.

Dvorak Keyboards

In 1985, Paul David published an influential paper arguing that market failures undermined competition between the QWERTY and Dvorak keyboard layouts. This version of history then became a dominant narrative in the field of network economics, including works by Joseph Farrell & Garth Saloner, and Jean Tirole.

The basic claim was that QWERTY users’ reluctance to switch toward the putatively superior Dvorak layout exerted a negative externality on the rest of the ecosystem (and a positive externality on other QWERTY users), thus preventing the adoption of a more efficient standard. As Paul David put it:

Although the initial lead acquired by QWERTY through its association with the Remington was quantitatively very slender, when magnified by expectations it may well have been quite sufficient to guarantee that the industry eventually would lock in to a de facto QWERTY standard. […]

Competition in the absence of perfect futures markets drove the industry prematurely into standardization on the wrong system — where decentralized decision making subsequently has sufficed to hold it.

Unfortunately, many of the above papers paid little to no attention to actual market conditions in the typewriter and keyboard layout industries. Years later, Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis undertook a detailed analysis of the keyboard layout market. They almost entirely rejected any notion that QWERTY prevailed despite it being the inferior standard:

Yet there are many aspects of the QWERTY-versus-Dvorak fable that do not survive scrutiny. First, the claim that Dvorak is a better keyboard is supported only by evidence that is both scant and suspect. Second, studies in the ergonomics literature find no significant advantage for Dvorak that can be deemed scientifically reliable. Third, the competition among producers of typewriters, out of which the standard emerged, was far more vigorous than is commonly reported. Fourth, there were far more typing contests than just the single Cincinnati contest. These contests provided ample opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of alternative keyboard arrangements. That QWERTY survived significant challenges early in the history of typewriting demonstrates that it is at least among the reasonably fit, even if not the fittest that can be imagined.

In short, there was little to no evidence supporting the view that QWERTY inefficiently prevailed because of network effects. The falsification of this narrative also weakens broader claims that network effects systematically lead to either excess momentum or excess inertia in standardization. Indeed, it is tempting to characterize all network industries with heavily skewed market shares as resulting from market failure. Yet the QWERTY/Dvorak story suggests that such a conclusion would be premature.

Killzones, Zoom, and TikTok

If you are still reading at this point, you might think that contemporary scholars would know better than to base calls for policy intervention on theoretical externalities. Alas, nothing could be further from the truth.

For instance, a recent paper by Sai Kamepalli, Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales conjectures that the interplay between mergers and network externalities discourages the adoption of superior independent platforms:

If techies expect two platforms to merge, they will be reluctant to pay the switching costs and adopt the new platform early on, unless the new platform significantly outperforms the incumbent one. After all, they know that if the entering platform’s technology is a net improvement over the existing technology, it will be adopted by the incumbent after merger, with new features melded with old features so that the techies’ adjustment costs are minimized. Thus, the prospect of a merger will dissuade many techies from trying the new technology.

Although this key behavioral assumption drives the results of the theoretical model, the paper presents no evidence to support the contention that it occurs in real-world settings. Admittedly, the paper does present evidence of reduced venture capital investments after mergers involving large tech firms. But even on their own terms, this data simply does not support the authors’ behavioral assumption.

And this is no isolated example. Over the past couple of years, several scholars have called for more muscular antitrust intervention in networked industries. A common theme is that network externalities, switching costs, and data-related increasing returns to scale lead to inefficient consumer lock-in, thus raising barriers to entry for potential rivals (here, here, here).

But there are also countless counterexamples, where firms have easily overcome potential barriers to entry and network externalities, ultimately disrupting incumbents.

Zoom is one of the most salient instances. As I have written previously:

To get to where it is today, Zoom had to compete against long-established firms with vast client bases and far deeper pockets. These include the likes of Microsoft, Cisco, and Google. Further complicating matters, the video communications market exhibits some prima facie traits that are typically associated with the existence of network effects.

Along similar lines, Geoffrey Manne and Alec Stapp have put forward a multitude of other examples. These include: The demise of Yahoo; the disruption of early instant-messaging applications and websites; MySpace’s rapid decline; etc. In all these cases, outcomes do not match the predictions of theoretical models.

More recently, TikTok’s rapid rise offers perhaps the greatest example of a potentially superior social-networking platform taking significant market share away from incumbents. According to the Financial Times, TikTok’s video-sharing capabilities and its powerful algorithm are the most likely explanations for its success.

While these developments certainly do not disprove network effects theory, they eviscerate the common belief in antitrust circles that superior rivals are unable to overthrow incumbents in digital markets. Of course, this will not always be the case. As in the previous examples, the question is ultimately one of comparing institutions—i.e., do markets lead to more or fewer error costs than government intervention? Yet this question is systematically omitted from most policy discussions.

In Conclusion

My argument is not that models are without value. To the contrary, framing problems in economic terms—and simplifying them in ways that make them cognizable—enables scholars and policymakers to better understand where market failures might arise, and how these problems can be anticipated and solved by private actors. In other words, models alone cannot tell us that markets will fail, but they can direct inquiries and help us to understand why firms behave the way they do, and why markets (including digital ones) are organized in a given way.

In that respect, both the theoretical and empirical research cited throughout this post offer valuable insights for today’s policymakers.

For a start, as Ronald Coase famously argued in what is perhaps his most famous work, externalities (and market failure more generally) are a function of transaction costs. When these are low (relative to the value of a good), market failures are unlikely. This is perhaps clearest in the “Fable of the Bees” example. Given bees’ short foraging range, there were ultimately few real-world obstacles to writing contracts that internalized the mutual benefits of bees and orchards.

Perhaps more importantly, economic research sheds light on behavior that might otherwise be seen as anticompetitive. The rules and norms that bind farming/beekeeping communities, as well as users of common pool resources, could easily be analyzed as a cartel by naïve antitrust authorities. Yet externality theory suggests they play a key role in preventing market failure.

Along similar lines, mergers and acquisitions (as well as vertical integration, more generally) can reduce opportunism and other externalities that might otherwise undermine collaboration between firms (here, here and here). And much of the same is true for certain types of unilateral behavior. Tying video games to consoles (and pricing the console below cost) can help entrants overcome network externalities that might otherwise shield incumbents. Likewise, Google tying its proprietary apps to the open source Android operating system arguably enabled it to earn a return on its investments, thus overcoming the externality problem that plagues open source software.

All of this raises a tantalizing prospect that deserves far more attention than it is currently given in policy circles: authorities around the world are seeking to regulate the tech space. Draft legislation has notably been tabled in the United States, European Union and the United Kingdom. These draft bills would all make it harder for large tech firms to implement various economic hierarchies, including mergers and certain contractual arrangements.

This is highly paradoxical. If digital markets are indeed plagued by network externalities and high transaction costs, as critics allege, then preventing firms from adopting complex hierarchies—which have traditionally been seen as a way to solve externalities—is just as likely to exacerbate problems. In other words, like the economists of old cited above, today’s policymakers appear to be focusing too heavily on simple models that predict market failure, and far too little on the mechanisms that firms have put in place to thrive within this complex environment.

The bigger picture is that far more circumspection is required when using theoretical models in real-world policy settings. Indeed, as Harold Demsetz famously put it, the purpose of normative economics is not so much to identify market failures, but to help policymakers determine which of several alternative institutions will deliver the best outcomes for consumers:

This nirvana approach differs considerably from a comparative institution approach in which the relevant choice is between alternative real institutional arrangements. In practice, those who adopt the nirvana viewpoint seek to discover discrepancies between the ideal and the real and if discrepancies are found, they deduce that the real is inefficient. Users of the comparative institution approach attempt to assess which alternative real institutional arrangement seems best able to cope with the economic problem […].

Democratic leadership of the House Judiciary Committee have leaked the approach they plan to take to revise U.S. antitrust law and enforcement, with a particular focus on digital platforms. 

Broadly speaking, the bills would: raise fees for larger mergers and increase appropriations to the FTC and DOJ; require data portability and interoperability; declare that large platforms can’t own businesses that compete with other businesses that use the platform; effectively ban large platforms from making any acquisitions; and generally declare that large platforms cannot preference their own products or services. 

All of these are ideas that have been discussed before. They are very much in line with the EU’s approach to competition, which places more regulation-like burdens on big businesses, and which is introducing a Digital Markets Act that mirrors the Democrats’ proposals. Some Republicans are reportedly supportive of the proposals, which is surprising since they mean giving broad, discretionary powers to antitrust authorities that are controlled by Democrats who take an expansive view of antitrust enforcement as a way to achieve their other social and political goals. The proposals may also be unpopular with consumers if, for example, they would mean that popular features like integrating Maps into relevant Google Search results becomes prohibited.

The multi-bill approach here suggests that the committee is trying to throw as much at the wall as possible to see what sticks. It may reflect a lack of confidence among the proposers in their ability to get their proposals through wholesale, especially given that Amy Klobuchar’s CALERA bill in the Senate creates an alternative that, while still highly interventionist, does not create ex ante regulation of the Internet the same way these proposals do.

In general, the bills are misguided for three main reasons. 

One, they seek to make digital platforms into narrow conduits for other firms to operate on, ignoring the value created by platforms curating their own services by, for example, creating quality controls on entry (as Apple does on its App Store) or by integrating their services with related products (like, say, Google adding events from Gmail to users’ Google Calendars). 

Two, they ignore the procompetitive effects of digital platforms extending into each other’s markets and competing with each other there, in ways that often lead to far more intense competition—and better outcomes for consumers—than if the only firms that could compete with the incumbent platform were small startups.

Three, they ignore the importance of incentives for innovation. Platforms invest in new and better products when they can make money from doing so, and limiting their ability to do that means weakened incentives to innovate. Startups and their founders and investors are driven, in part, by the prospect of being acquired, often by the platforms themselves. Making those acquisitions more difficult, or even impossible, means removing one of the key ways startup founders can exit their firms, and hence one of the key rewards and incentives for starting an innovative new business. 

For more, our “Joint Submission of Antitrust Economists, Legal Scholars, and Practitioners” set out why many of the House Democrats’ assumptions about the state of the economy and antitrust enforcement were mistaken. And my post, “Buck’s “Third Way”: A Different Road to the Same Destination”, argued that House Republicans like Ken Buck were misguided in believing they could support some of the proposals and avoid the massive regulatory oversight that they said they rejected.

Platform Anti-Monopoly Act 

The flagship bill, introduced by Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), establishes a definition of “covered platform” used by several of the other bills. The measures would apply to platforms with at least 500,000 U.S.-based users, a market capitalization of more than $600 billion, and that is deemed a “critical trading partner” with the ability to restrict or impede the access that a “dependent business” has to its users or customers.

Cicilline’s bill would bar these covered platforms from being able to promote their own products and services over the products and services of competitors who use the platform. It also defines a number of other practices that would be regarded as discriminatory, including: 

  • Restricting or impeding “dependent businesses” from being able to access the platform or its software on the same terms as the platform’s own lines of business;
  • Conditioning access or status on purchasing other products or services from the platform; 
  • Using user data to support the platform’s own products in ways not extended to competitors; 
  • Restricting the platform’s commercial users from using or accessing data generated on the platform from their own customers;
  • Restricting platform users from uninstalling software pre-installed on the platform;
  • Restricting platform users from providing links to facilitate business off of the platform;
  • Preferencing the platform’s own products or services in search results or rankings;
  • Interfering with how a dependent business prices its products; 
  • Impeding a dependent business’ users from connecting to services or products that compete with those offered by the platform; and
  • Retaliating against users who raise concerns with law enforcement about potential violations of the act.

On a basic level, these would prohibit lots of behavior that is benign and that can improve the quality of digital services for users. Apple pre-installing a Weather app on the iPhone would, for example, run afoul of these rules, and the rules as proposed could prohibit iPhones from coming with pre-installed apps at all. Instead, users would have to manually download each app themselves, if indeed Apple was allowed to include the App Store itself pre-installed on the iPhone, given that this competes with other would-be app stores.

Apart from the obvious reduction in the quality of services and convenience for users that this would involve, this kind of conduct (known as “self-preferencing”) is usually procompetitive. For example, self-preferencing allows platforms to compete with one another by using their strength in one market to enter a different one; Google’s Shopping results in the Search page increase the competition that Amazon faces, because it presents consumers with a convenient alternative when they’re shopping online for products. Similarly, Amazon’s purchase of the video-game streaming service Twitch, and the self-preferencing it does to encourage Amazon customers to use Twitch and support content creators on that platform, strengthens the competition that rivals like YouTube face. 

It also helps innovation, because it gives firms a reason to invest in services that would otherwise be unprofitable for them. Google invests in Android, and gives much of it away for free, because it can bundle Google Search into the OS, and make money from that. If Google could not self-preference Google Search on Android, the open source business model simply wouldn’t work—it wouldn’t be able to make money from Android, and would have to charge for it in other ways that may be less profitable and hence give it less reason to invest in the operating system. 

This behavior can also increase innovation by the competitors of these companies, both by prompting them to improve their products (as, for example, Google Android did with Microsoft’s mobile operating system offerings) and by growing the size of the customer base for products of this kind. For example, video games published by console manufacturers (like Nintendo’s Zelda and Mario games) are often blockbusters that grow the overall size of the user base for the consoles, increasing demand for third-party titles as well.

For more, check out “Against the Vertical Discrimination Presumption” by Geoffrey Manne and Dirk Auer’s piece “On the Origin of Platforms: An Evolutionary Perspective”.

Ending Platform Monopolies Act 

Sponsored by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), this bill would make it illegal for covered platforms to control lines of business that pose “irreconcilable conflicts of interest,” enforced through civil litigation powers granted to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ).

Specifically, the bill targets lines of business that create “a substantial incentive” for the platform to advantage its own products or services over those of competitors that use the platform, or to exclude or disadvantage competing businesses from using the platform. The FTC and DOJ could potentially order that platforms divest lines of business that violate the act.

This targets similar conduct as the previous bill, but involves the forced separation of different lines of business. It also appears to go even further, seemingly implying that companies like Google could not even develop services like Google Maps or Chrome because their existence would create such “substantial incentives” to self-preference them over the products of their competitors. 

Apart from the straightforward loss of innovation and product developments this would involve, requiring every tech company to be narrowly focused on a single line of business would substantially entrench Big Tech incumbents, because it would make it impossible for them to extend into adjacent markets to compete with one another. For example, Apple could not develop a search engine to compete with Google under these rules, and Amazon would be forced to sell its video-streaming services that compete with Netflix and Youtube.

For more, check out Geoffrey Manne’s written testimony to the House Antitrust Subcommittee and “Platform Self-Preferencing Can Be Good for Consumers and Even Competitors” by Geoffrey and me. 

Platform Competition and Opportunity Act

Introduced by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), this bill would bar covered platforms from making essentially any acquisitions at all. To be excluded from the ban on acquisitions, the platform would have to present “clear and convincing evidence” that the acquired business does not compete with the platform for any product or service, does not pose a potential competitive threat to the platform, and would not in any way enhance or help maintain the acquiring platform’s market position. 

The two main ways that founders and investors can make a return on a successful startup are to float the company at IPO or to be acquired by another business. The latter of these, acquisitions, is extremely important. Between 2008 and 2019, 90 percent of U.S. start-up exits happened through acquisition. In a recent survey, half of current startup executives said they aimed to be acquired. One study found that countries that made it easier for firms to be taken over saw a 40-50 percent increase in VC activity, and that U.S. states that made acquisitions harder saw a 27 percent decrease in VC investment deals

So this proposal would probably reduce investment in U.S. startups, since it makes it more difficult for them to be acquired. It would therefore reduce innovation as a result. It would also reduce inter-platform competition by banning deals that allow firms to move into new markets, like the acquisition of Beats that helped Apple to build a Spotify competitor, or the deals that helped Google, Microsoft, and Amazon build cloud-computing services that all compete with each other. It could also reduce competition faced by old industries, by preventing tech companies from buying firms that enable it to move into new markets—like Amazon’s acquisitions of health-care companies that it has used to build a health-care offering. Even Walmart’s acquisition of Jet.com, which it has used to build an Amazon competitor, could have been banned under this law if Walmart had had a higher market cap at the time.

For more, check out Dirk Auer’s piece “Facebook and the Pros and Cons of Ex Post Merger Reviews” and my piece “Cracking down on mergers would leave us all worse off”. 

ACCESS Act

The Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Act, sponsored by Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), would establish data portability and interoperability requirements for platforms. 

Under terms of the legislation, covered platforms would be required to allow third parties to transfer data to their users or, with the user’s consent, to a competing business. It also would require platforms to facilitate compatible and interoperable communications with competing businesses. The law directs the FTC to establish technical committees to promulgate the standards for portability and interoperability. 

Data portability and interoperability involve trade-offs in terms of security and usability, and overseeing them can be extremely costly and difficult. In security terms, interoperability requirements prevent companies from using closed systems to protect users from hostile third parties. Mandatory openness means increasing—sometimes, substantially so—the risk of data breaches and leaks. In practice, that could mean users’ private messages or photos being leaked more frequently, or activity on a social media page that a user considers to be “their” private data, but that “belongs” to another user under the terms of use, can be exported and publicized as such. 

It can also make digital services more buggy and unreliable, by requiring that they are built in a more “open” way that may be more prone to unanticipated software mismatches. A good example is that of Windows vs iOS; Windows is far more interoperable with third-party software than iOS is, but tends to be less stable as a result, and users often prefer the closed, stable system. 

Interoperability requirements also entail ongoing regulatory oversight, to make sure data is being provided to third parties reliably. It’s difficult to build an app around another company’s data without assurance that the data will be available when users want it. For a requirement as broad as this bill’s, that could mean setting up quite a large new de facto regulator. 

In the UK, Open Banking (an interoperability requirement imposed on British retail banks) has suffered from significant service outages, and targets a level of uptime that many developers complain is too low for them to build products around. Nor has Open Banking yet led to any obvious competition benefits.

For more, check out Gus Hurwitz’s piece “Portable Social Media Aren’t Like Portable Phone Numbers” and my piece “Why Data Interoperability Is Harder Than It Looks: The Open Banking Experience”.

Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act

A bill that mirrors language in the Endless Frontier Act recently passed by the U.S. Senate, would significantly raise filing fees for the largest mergers. Rather than the current cap of $280,000 for mergers valued at more than $500 million, the bill—sponsored by Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.)–the new schedule would assess fees of $2.25 million for mergers valued at more than $5 billion; $800,000 for those valued at between $2 billion and $5 billion; and $400,000 for those between $1 billion and $2 billion.

Smaller mergers would actually see their filing fees cut: from $280,000 to $250,000 for those between $500 million and $1 billion; from $125,000 to $100,000 for those between $161.5 million and $500 million; and from $45,000 to $30,000 for those less than $161.5 million. 

In addition, the bill would appropriate $418 million to the FTC and $252 million to the DOJ’s Antitrust Division for Fiscal Year 2022. Most people in the antitrust world are generally supportive of more funding for the FTC and DOJ, although whether this is actually good or not depends both on how it’s spent at those places. 

It’s hard to object if it goes towards deepening the agencies’ capacities and knowledge, by hiring and retaining higher quality staff with salaries that are more competitive with those offered by the private sector, and on greater efforts to study the effects of the antitrust laws and past cases on the economy. If it goes toward broadening the activities of the agencies, by doing more and enabling them to pursue a more aggressive enforcement agenda, and supporting whatever of the above proposals make it into law, then it could be very harmful. 

For more, check out my post “Buck’s “Third Way”: A Different Road to the Same Destination” and Thom Lambert’s post “Bad Blood at the FTC”.

Politico has released a cache of confidential Federal Trade Commission (FTC) documents in connection with a series of articles on the commission’s antitrust probe into Google Search a decade ago. The headline of the first piece in the series argues the FTC “fumbled the future” by failing to follow through on staff recommendations to pursue antitrust intervention against the company. 

But while the leaked documents shed interesting light on the inner workings of the FTC, they do very little to substantiate the case that the FTC dropped the ball when the commissioners voted unanimously not to bring an action against Google.

Drawn primarily from memos by the FTC’s lawyers, the Politico report purports to uncover key revelations that undermine the FTC’s decision not to sue Google. None of the revelations, however, provide evidence that Google’s behavior actually harmed consumers.

The report’s overriding claim—and the one most consistently forwarded by antitrust activists on Twitter—is that FTC commissioners wrongly sided with the agency’s economists (who cautioned against intervention) rather than its lawyers (who tenuously recommended very limited intervention). 

Indeed, the overarching narrative is that the lawyers knew what was coming and the economists took wildly inaccurate positions that turned out to be completely off the mark:

But the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed:

— They saw only “limited potential for growth” in ads that track users across the web — now the backbone of Google parent company Alphabet’s $182.5 billion in annual revenue.

— They expected consumers to continue relying mainly on computers to search for information. Today, about 62 percent of those queries take place on mobile phones and tablets, nearly all of which use Google’s search engine as the default.

— They thought rivals like Microsoft, Mozilla or Amazon would offer viable competition to Google in the market for the software that runs smartphones. Instead, nearly all U.S. smartphones run on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.

— They underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic.

The report thus asserts that:

The agency ultimately voted against taking action, saying changes Google made to its search algorithm gave consumers better results and therefore didn’t unfairly harm competitors.

That conclusion underplays what the FTC’s staff found during the probe. In 312 pages of documents, the vast majority never publicly released, staffers outlined evidence that Google had taken numerous steps to ensure it would continue to dominate the market — including emerging arenas such as mobile search and targeted advertising. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

What really emerges from the leaked memos, however, is analysis by both the FTC’s lawyers and economists infused with a healthy dose of humility. There were strong political incentives to bring a case. As one of us noted upon the FTC’s closing of the investigation: “It’s hard to imagine an agency under more pressure, from more quarters (including the Hill), to bring a case around search.” Yet FTC staff and commissioners resisted that pressure, because prediction is hard. 

Ironically, the very prediction errors that the agency’s staff cautioned against are now being held against them. Yet the claims that these errors (especially the economists’) systematically cut in one direction (i.e., against enforcement) and that all of their predictions were wrong are both wide of the mark. 

Decisions Under Uncertainty

In seeking to make an example out of the FTC economists’ inaccurate predictions, critics ignore that antitrust investigations in dynamic markets always involve a tremendous amount of uncertainty; false predictions are the norm. Accordingly, the key challenge for policymakers is not so much to predict correctly, but to minimize the impact of incorrect predictions.

Seen in this light, the FTC economists’ memo is far from the laissez-faire manifesto that critics make it out to be. Instead, it shows agency officials wrestling with uncertain market outcomes, and choosing a course of action under the assumption the predictions they make might indeed be wrong. 

Consider the following passage from FTC economist Ken Heyer’s memo:

The great American philosopher Yogi Berra once famously remarked “Predicting is difficult, especially about the future.” How right he was. And yet predicting, and making decisions based on those predictions, is what we are charged with doing. Ignoring the potential problem is not an option. So I will be reasonably clear about my own tentative conclusions and recommendation, recognizing that reasonable people, perhaps applying a somewhat different standard, may disagree. My recommendation derives from my read of the available evidence, combined with the standard I personally find appropriate to apply to Commission intervention. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

In other words, contrary to what many critics have claimed, it simply is not the case that the FTC’s economists based their recommendations on bullish predictions about the future that ultimately failed to transpire. Instead, they merely recognized that, in a dynamic and unpredictable environment, antitrust intervention requires both a clear-cut theory of anticompetitive harm and a reasonable probability that remedies can improve consumer welfare. According to the economists, those conditions were absent with respect to Google Search.

Perhaps more importantly, it is worth asking why the economists’ erroneous predictions matter at all. Do critics believe that developments the economists missed warrant a different normative stance today?

In that respect, it is worth noting that the economists’ skepticism appeared to have rested first and foremost on the speculative nature of the harms alleged and the difficulty associated with designing appropriate remedies. And yet, if anything, these two concerns appear even more salient today. 

Indeed, the remedies imposed against Google in the EU have not delivered the outcomes that enforcers expected (here and here). This could either be because the remedies were insufficient or because Google’s market position was not due to anticompetitive conduct. Similarly, there is still no convincing economic theory or empirical research to support the notion that exclusive pre-installation and self-preferencing by incumbents harm consumers, and a great deal of reason to think they benefit them (see, e.g., our discussions of the issue here and here). 

Against this backdrop, criticism of the FTC economists appears to be driven more by a prior assumption that intervention is necessary—and that it was and is disingenuous to think otherwise—than evidence that erroneous predictions materially affected the outcome of the proceedings.

To take one example, the fact that ad tracking grew faster than the FTC economists believed it would is no less consistent with vigorous competition—and Google providing a superior product—than with anticompetitive conduct on Google’s part. The same applies to the growth of mobile operating systems. Ditto the fact that no rival has managed to dislodge Google in its most important markets. 

In short, not only were the economist memos informed by the very prediction difficulties that critics are now pointing to, but critics have not shown that any of the staff’s (inevitably) faulty predictions warranted a different normative outcome.

Putting Erroneous Predictions in Context

So what were these faulty predictions, and how important were they? Politico asserts that “the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed,” tying this to the FTC’s failure to intervene against Google over “tactics that European regulators and the U.S. Justice Department would later label antitrust violations.” The clear message is that the current actions are presumptively valid, and that the FTC’s economists thwarted earlier intervention based on faulty analysis.

But it is far from clear that these faulty predictions would have justified taking a tougher stance against Google. One key question for antitrust authorities is whether they can be reasonably certain that more efficient competitors will be unable to dislodge an incumbent. This assessment is necessarily forward-looking. Framed this way, greater market uncertainty (for instance, because policymakers are dealing with dynamic markets) usually cuts against antitrust intervention.

This does not entirely absolve the FTC economists who made the faulty predictions. But it does suggest the right question is not whether the economists made mistakes, but whether virtually everyone did so. The latter would be evidence of uncertainty, and thus weigh against antitrust intervention.

In that respect, it is worth noting that the staff who recommended that the FTC intervene also misjudged the future of digital markets.For example, while Politico surmises that the FTC “underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic,” there is a case to be made that the FTC overestimated this power. If anything, Google’s continued growth has opened new niches in the online advertising space.

Pinterest provides a fitting example; despite relying heavily on Google for traffic, its ad-funded service has witnessed significant growth. The same is true of other vertical search engines like Airbnb, Booking.com, and Zillow. While we cannot know the counterfactual, the vertical search industry has certainly not been decimated by Google’s “monopoly”; quite the opposite. Unsurprisingly, this has coincided with a significant decrease in the cost of online advertising, and the growth of online advertising relative to other forms.

Politico asserts not only that the economists’ market share and market power calculations were wrong, but that the lawyers knew better:

The economists, relying on data from the market analytics firm Comscore, found that Google had only limited impact. They estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of traffic to those types of sites generally came from the search engine.

FTC attorneys, though, used numbers provided by Yelp and found that 92 percent of users visited local review sites from Google. For shopping sites like eBay and TheFind, the referral rate from Google was between 67 and 73 percent.

This compares apples and oranges, or maybe oranges and grapefruit. The economists’ data, from Comscore, applied to vertical search overall. They explicitly noted that shares for particular sites could be much higher or lower: for comparison shopping, for example, “ranging from 56% to less than 10%.” This, of course, highlights a problem with the data provided by Yelp, et al.: it concerns only the websites of companies complaining about Google, not the overall flow of traffic for vertical search.

But the more important point is that none of the data discussed in the memos represents the overall flow of traffic for vertical search. Take Yelp, for example. According to the lawyers’ memo, 92 percent of Yelp searches were referred from Google. Only, that’s not true. We know it’s not true because, as Yelp CEO Jerry Stoppelman pointed out around this time in Yelp’s 2012 Q2 earnings call: 

When you consider that 40% of our searches come from mobile apps, there is quite a bit of un-monetized mobile traffic that we expect to unlock in the near future.

The numbers being analyzed by the FTC staff were apparently limited to referrals to Yelp’s website from browsers. But is there any reason to think that is the relevant market, or the relevant measure of customer access? Certainly there is nothing in the staff memos to suggest they considered the full scope of the market very carefully here. Indeed, the footnote in the lawyers’ memo presenting the traffic data is offered in support of this claim:

Vertical websites, such as comparison shopping and local websites, are heavily dependent on Google’s web search results to reach users. Thus, Google is in the unique position of being able to “make or break any web-based business.”

It’s plausible that vertical search traffic is “heavily dependent” on Google Search, but the numbers offered in support of that simply ignore the (then) 40 percent of traffic that Yelp acquired through its own mobile app, with no Google involvement at all. In any case, it is also notable that, while there are still somewhat fewer app users than web users (although the number has consistently increased), Yelp’s app users view significantly more pages than its website users do — 10 times as many in 2015, for example.

Also noteworthy is that, for whatever speculative harm Google might be able to visit on the company, at the time of the FTC’s analysis Yelp’s local ad revenue was consistently increasing — by 89% in Q3 2012. And that was without any ad revenue coming from its app (display ads arrived on Yelp’s mobile app in Q1 2013, a few months after the staff memos were written and just after the FTC closed its Google Search investigation). 

In short, the search-engine industry is extremely dynamic and unpredictable. Contrary to what many have surmised from the FTC staff memo leaks, this cuts against antitrust intervention, not in favor of it.

The FTC Lawyers’ Weak Case for Prosecuting Google

At the same time, although not discussed by Politico, the lawyers’ memo also contains errors, suggesting that arguments for intervention were also (inevitably) subject to erroneous prediction.

Among other things, the FTC attorneys’ memo argued the large upfront investments were required to develop cutting-edge algorithms, and that these effectively shielded Google from competition. The memo cites the following as a barrier to entry:

A search engine requires algorithmic technology that enables it to search the Internet, retrieve and organize information, index billions of regularly changing web pages, and return relevant results instantaneously that satisfy the consumer’s inquiry. Developing such algorithms requires highly specialized personnel with high levels of training and knowledge in engineering, economics, mathematics, sciences, and statistical analysis.

If there are barriers to entry in the search-engine industry, algorithms do not seem to be the source. While their market shares may be smaller than Google’s, rival search engines like DuckDuckGo and Bing have been able to enter and gain traction; it is difficult to say that algorithmic technology has proven a barrier to entry. It may be hard to do well, but it certainly has not proved an impediment to new firms entering and developing workable and successful products. Indeed, some extremely successful companies have entered into similar advertising markets on the backs of complex algorithms, notably Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. All of these compete with Google for advertising dollars.

The FTC’s legal staff also failed to see that Google would face serious competition in the rapidly growing voice assistant market. In other words, even its search-engine “moat” is far less impregnable than it might at first appear.

Moreover, as Ben Thompson argues in his Stratechery newsletter: 

The Staff memo is completely wrong too, at least in terms of the potential for their proposed remedies to lead to any real change in today’s market. This gets back to why the fundamental premise of the Politico article, along with much of the antitrust chatter in Washington, misses the point: Google is dominant because consumers like it.

This difficulty was deftly highlighted by Heyer’s memo:

If the perceived problems here can be solved only through a draconian remedy of this sort, or perhaps through a remedy that eliminates Google’s legitimately obtained market power (and thus its ability to “do evil”), I believe the remedy would be disproportionate to the violation and that its costs would likely exceed its benefits. Conversely, if a remedy well short of this seems likely to prove ineffective, a remedy would be undesirable for that reason. In brief, I do not see a feasible remedy for the vertical conduct that would be both appropriate and effective, and which would not also be very costly to implement and to police. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

Of course, we now know that this turned out to be a huge issue with the EU’s competition cases against Google. The remedies in both the EU’s Google Shopping and Android decisions were severely criticized by rival firms and consumer-defense organizations (here and here), but were ultimately upheld, in part because even the European Commission likely saw more forceful alternatives as disproportionate.

And in the few places where the legal staff concluded that Google’s conduct may have caused harm, there is good reason to think that their analysis was flawed.

Google’s ‘revenue-sharing’ agreements

It should be noted that neither the lawyers nor the economists at the FTC were particularly bullish on bringing suit against Google. In most areas of the investigation, neither recommended that the commission pursue a case. But one of the most interesting revelations from the recent leaks is that FTC lawyers did advise the commission’s leadership to sue Google over revenue-sharing agreements that called for it to pay Apple and other carriers and manufacturers to pre-install its search bar on mobile devices:

FTC staff urged the agency’s five commissioners to sue Google for signing exclusive contracts with Apple and the major wireless carriers that made sure the company’s search engine came pre-installed on smartphones.

The lawyers’ stance is surprising, and, despite actions subsequently brought by the EU and DOJ on similar claims, a difficult one to countenance. 

To a first approximation, this behavior is precisely what antitrust law seeks to promote: we want companies to compete aggressively to attract consumers. This conclusion is in no way altered when competition is “for the market” (in this case, firms bidding for exclusive placement of their search engines) rather than “in the market” (i.e., equally placed search engines competing for eyeballs).

Competition for exclusive placement has several important benefits. For a start, revenue-sharing agreements effectively subsidize consumers’ mobile device purchases. As Brian Albrecht aptly puts it:

This payment from Google means that Apple can lower its price to better compete for consumers. This is standard; some of the payment from Google to Apple will be passed through to consumers in the form of lower prices.

This finding is not new. For instance, Ronald Coase famously argued that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was wrong to ban the broadcasting industry’s equivalent of revenue-sharing agreements, so-called payola:

[I]f the playing of a record by a radio station increases the sales of that record, it is both natural and desirable that there should be a charge for this. If this is not done by the station and payola is not allowed, it is inevitable that more resources will be employed in the production and distribution of records, without any gain to consumers, with the result that the real income of the community will tend to decline. In addition, the prohibition of payola may result in worse record programs, will tend to lessen competition, and will involve additional expenditures for regulation. The gain which the ban is thought to bring is to make the purchasing decisions of record buyers more efficient by eliminating “deception.” It seems improbable to me that this problematical gain will offset the undoubted losses which flow from the ban on Payola.

Applying this logic to Google Search, it is clear that a ban on revenue-sharing agreements would merely lead both Google and its competitors to attract consumers via alternative means. For Google, this might involve “complete” vertical integration into the mobile phone market, rather than the open-licensing model that underpins the Android ecosystem. Valuable specialization may be lost in the process.

Moreover, from Apple’s standpoint, Google’s revenue-sharing agreements are profitable only to the extent that consumers actually like Google’s products. If it turns out they don’t, Google’s payments to Apple may be outweighed by lower iPhone sales. It is thus unlikely that these agreements significantly undermined users’ experience. To the contrary, Apple’s testimony before the European Commission suggests that “exclusive” placement of Google’s search engine was mostly driven by consumer preferences (as the FTC economists’ memo points out):

Apple would not offer simultaneous installation of competing search or mapping applications. Apple’s focus is offering its customers the best products out of the box while allowing them to make choices after purchase. In many countries, Google offers the best product or service … Apple believes that offering additional search boxes on its web browsing software would confuse users and detract from Safari’s aesthetic. Too many choices lead to consumer confusion and greatly affect the ‘out of the box’ experience of Apple products.

Similarly, Kevin Murphy and Benjamin Klein have shown that exclusive contracts intensify competition for distribution. In other words, absent theories of platform envelopment that are arguably inapplicable here, competition for exclusive placement would lead competing search engines to up their bids, ultimately lowering the price of mobile devices for consumers.

Indeed, this revenue-sharing model was likely essential to spur the development of Android in the first place. Without this prominent placement of Google Search on Android devices (notably thanks to revenue-sharing agreements with original equipment manufacturers), Google would likely have been unable to monetize the investment it made in the open source—and thus freely distributed—Android operating system. 

In short, Politico and the FTC legal staff do little to show that Google’s revenue-sharing payments excluded rivals that were, in fact, as efficient. In other words, Bing and Yahoo’s failure to gain traction may simply be the result of inferior products and cost structures. Critics thus fail to show that Google’s behavior harmed consumers, which is the touchstone of antitrust enforcement.

Self-preferencing

Another finding critics claim as important is that FTC leadership declined to bring suit against Google for preferencing its own vertical search services (this information had already been partially leaked by the Wall Street Journal in 2015). Politico’s framing implies this was a mistake:

When Google adopted one algorithm change in 2011, rival sites saw significant drops in traffic. Amazon told the FTC that it saw a 35 percent drop in traffic from the comparison-shopping sites that used to send it customers

The focus on this claim is somewhat surprising. Even the leaked FTC legal staff memo found this theory of harm had little chance of standing up in court:

Staff has investigated whether Google has unlawfully preferenced its own content over that of rivals, while simultaneously demoting rival websites…. 

…Although it is a close call, we do not recommend that the Commission proceed on this cause of action because the case law is not favorable to our theory, which is premised on anticompetitive product design, and in any event, Google’s efficiency justifications are strong. Most importantly, Google can legitimately claim that at least part of the conduct at issue improves its product and benefits users. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

More importantly, as one of us has argued elsewhere, the underlying problem lies not with Google, but with a standard asset-specificity trap:

A content provider that makes itself dependent upon another company for distribution (or vice versa, of course) takes a significant risk. Although it may benefit from greater access to users, it places itself at the mercy of the other — or at least faces great difficulty (and great cost) adapting to unanticipated, crucial changes in distribution over which it has no control…. 

…It was entirely predictable, and should have been expected, that Google’s algorithm would evolve. It was also entirely predictable that it would evolve in ways that could diminish or even tank Foundem’s traffic. As one online marketing/SEO expert puts it: On average, Google makes about 500 algorithm changes per year. 500!….

…In the absence of an explicit agreement, should Google be required to make decisions that protect a dependent company’s “asset-specific” investments, thus encouraging others to take the same, excessive risk? 

Even if consumers happily visited rival websites when they were higher-ranked and traffic subsequently plummeted when Google updated its algorithm, that drop in traffic does not amount to evidence of misconduct. To hold otherwise would be to grant these rivals a virtual entitlement to the state of affairs that exists at any given point in time. 

Indeed, there is good reason to believe Google’s decision to favor its own content over that of other sites is procompetitive. Beyond determining and ensuring relevance, Google surely has the prerogative to compete vigorously and decide how to design its products to keep up with a changing market. In this case, that means designing, developing, and offering its own content in ways that partially displace the original “ten blue links” design of its search results page and instead offer its own answers to users’ queries.

Competitor Harm Is Not an Indicator of the Need for Intervention

Some of the other information revealed by the leak is even more tangential, such as that the FTC ignored complaints from Google’s rivals:

Amazon and Facebook privately complained to the FTC about Google’s conduct, saying their business suffered because of the company’s search bias, scraping of content from rival sites and restrictions on advertisers’ use of competing search engines. 

Amazon said it was so concerned about the prospect of Google monopolizing the search advertising business that it willingly sacrificed revenue by making ad deals aimed at keeping Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo’s search engine afloat.

But complaints from rivals are at least as likely to stem from vigorous competition as from anticompetitive exclusion. This goes to a core principle of antitrust enforcement: antitrust law seeks to protect competition and consumer welfare, not rivals. Competition will always lead to winners and losers. Antitrust law protects this process and (at least theoretically) ensures that rivals cannot manipulate enforcers to safeguard their economic rents. 

This explains why Frank Easterbrook—in his seminal work on “The Limits of Antitrust”—argued that enforcers should be highly suspicious of complaints lodged by rivals:

Antitrust litigation is attractive as a method of raising rivals’ costs because of the asymmetrical structure of incentives…. 

…One line worth drawing is between suits by rivals and suits by consumers. Business rivals have an interest in higher prices, while consumers seek lower prices. Business rivals seek to raise the costs of production, while consumers have the opposite interest…. 

…They [antitrust enforcers] therefore should treat suits by horizontal competitors with the utmost suspicion. They should dismiss outright some categories of litigation between rivals and subject all such suits to additional scrutiny.

Google’s competitors spent millions pressuring the FTC to bring a case against the company. But why should it be a failing for the FTC to resist such pressure? Indeed, as then-commissioner Tom Rosch admonished in an interview following the closing of the case:

They [Google’s competitors] can darn well bring [a case] as a private antitrust action if they think their ox is being gored instead of free-riding on the government to achieve the same result.

Not that they would likely win such a case. Google’s introduction of specialized shopping results (via the Google Shopping box) likely enabled several retailers to bypass the Amazon platform, thus increasing competition in the retail industry. Although this may have temporarily reduced Amazon’s traffic and revenue (Amazon’s sales have grown dramatically since then), it is exactly the outcome that antitrust laws are designed to protect.

Conclusion

When all is said and done, Politico’s revelations provide a rarely glimpsed look into the complex dynamics within the FTC, which many wrongly imagine to be a monolithic agency. Put simply, the FTC’s commissioners, lawyers, and economists often disagree vehemently about the appropriate course of conduct. This is a good thing. As in many other walks of life, having a market for ideas is a sure way to foster sound decision making.

But in the final analysis, what the revelations do not show is that the FTC’s market for ideas failed consumers a decade ago when it declined to bring an antitrust suit against Google. They thus do little to cement the case for antitrust intervention—whether a decade ago, or today.

Critics of big tech companies like Google and Amazon are increasingly focused on the supposed evils of “self-preferencing.” This refers to when digital platforms like Amazon Marketplace or Google Search, which connect competing services with potential customers or users, also offer (and sometimes prioritize) their own in-house products and services. 

The objection, raised by several members and witnesses during a Feb. 25 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, is that it is unfair to third parties that use those sites to allow the site’s owner special competitive advantages. Is it fair, for example, for Amazon to use the data it gathers from its service to design new products if third-party merchants can’t access the same data? This seemingly intuitive complaint was the basis for the European Commission’s landmark case against Google

But we cannot assume that something is bad for competition just because it is bad for certain competitors. A lot of unambiguously procompetitive behavior, like cutting prices, also tends to make life difficult for competitors. The same is true when a digital platform provides a service that is better than alternatives provided by the site’s third-party sellers. 

It’s probably true that Amazon’s access to customer search and purchase data can help it spot products it can undercut with its own versions, driving down prices. But that’s not unusual; most retailers do this, many to a much greater extent than Amazon. For example, you can buy AmazonBasics batteries for less than half the price of branded alternatives, and they’re pretty good.

There’s no doubt this is unpleasant for merchants that have to compete with these offerings. But it is also no different from having to compete with more efficient rivals who have lower costs or better insight into consumer demand. Copying products and seeking ways to offer them with better features or at a lower price, which critics of self-preferencing highlight as a particular concern, has always been a fundamental part of market competition—indeed, it is the primary way competition occurs in most markets. 

Store-branded versions of iPhone cables and Nespresso pods are certainly inconvenient for those companies, but they offer consumers cheaper alternatives. Where such copying may be problematic (say, by deterring investments in product innovations), the law awards and enforces patents and copyrights to reward novel discoveries and creative works, and trademarks to protect brand identity. But in the absence of those cases where a company has intellectual property, this is simply how competition works. 

The fundamental question is “what benefits consumers?” Services like Yelp object that they cannot compete with Google when Google embeds its Google Maps box in Google Search results, while Yelp cannot do the same. But for users, the Maps box adds valuable information to the results page, making it easier to get what they want. Google is not making Yelp worse by making its own product better. Should it have to refrain from offering services that benefit its users because doing so might make competing products comparatively less attractive?

Self-preferencing also enables platforms to promote their offerings in other markets, which is often how large tech companies compete with each other. Amazon has a photo-hosting app that competes with Google Photos and Apple’s iCloud. It recently emailed its customers to promote it. That is undoubtedly self-preferencing, since other services cannot market themselves to Amazon’s customers like this, but if it makes customers aware of an alternative they might not have otherwise considered, that is good for competition. 

This kind of behavior also allows companies to invest in offering services inexpensively, or for free, that they intend to monetize by preferencing their other, more profitable products. For example, Google invests in Android’s operating system and gives much of it away for free precisely because it can encourage Android customers to use the profitable Google Search service. Despite claims to the contrary, it is difficult to see this sort of cross-subsidy as harmful to consumers.

Self-preferencing can even be good for competing services, including third-party merchants. In many cases, it expands the size of their potential customer base. For example, blockbuster video games released by Sony and Microsoft increase demand for games by other publishers because they increase the total number of people who buy Playstations and Xboxes. This effect is clear on Amazon’s Marketplace, which has grown enormously for third-party merchants even as Amazon has increased the number of its own store-brand products on the site. By making the Amazon Marketplace more attractive, third-party sellers also benefit.

All platforms are open or closed to varying degrees. Retail “platforms,” for example, exist on a spectrum on which Craigslist is more open and neutral than eBay, which is more so than Amazon, which is itself relatively more so than, say, Walmart.com. Each position on this spectrum offers its own benefits and trade-offs for consumers. Indeed, some customers’ biggest complaint against Amazon is that it is too open, filled with third parties who leave fake reviews, offer counterfeit products, or have shoddy returns policies. Part of the role of the site is to try to correct those problems by making better rules, excluding certain sellers, or just by offering similar options directly. 

Regulators and legislators often act as if the more open and neutral, the better, but customers have repeatedly shown that they often prefer less open, less neutral options. And critics of self-preferencing frequently find themselves arguing against behavior that improves consumer outcomes, because it hurts competitors. But that is the nature of competition: what’s good for consumers is frequently bad for competitors. If we have to choose, it’s consumers who should always come first.