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[This post is the seventh in an ongoing symposium on “Should We Break Up Big Tech?” that features analysis and opinion from various perspectives.]

[This post is authored by Alec Stapp, Research Fellow at the International Center for Law & Economics]

Should we break up Microsoft? 

In all the talk of breaking up “Big Tech,” no one seems to mention the biggest tech company of them all. Microsoft’s market cap is currently higher than those of Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. If big is bad, then, at the moment, Microsoft is the worst.

Apart from size, antitrust activists also claim that the structure and behavior of the Big Four — Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon — is why they deserve to be broken up. But they never include Microsoft, which is curious given that most of their critiques also apply to the largest tech giant:

  1. Microsoft is big (current market cap exceeds $1 trillion)
  2. Microsoft is dominant in narrowly-defined markets (e.g., desktop operating systems)
  3. Microsoft is simultaneously operating and competing on a platform (i.e., the Microsoft Store)
  4. Microsoft is a conglomerate capable of leveraging dominance from one market into another (e.g., Windows, Office 365, Azure)
  5. Microsoft has its own “kill zone” for startups (196 acquisitions since 1994)
  6. Microsoft operates a search engine that preferences its own content over third-party content (i.e., Bing)
  7. Microsoft operates a platform that moderates user-generated content (i.e., LinkedIn)

To be clear, this is not to say that an antitrust case against Microsoft is as strong as the case against the others. Rather, it is to say that the cases against the Big Four on these dimensions are as weak as the case against Microsoft, as I will show below.

Big is bad

Tim Wu published a book last year arguing for more vigorous antitrust enforcement — including against Big Tech — called “The Curse of Bigness.” As you can tell by the title, he argues, in essence, for a return to the bygone era of “big is bad” presumptions. In his book, Wu mentions “Microsoft” 29 times, but only in the context of its 1990s antitrust case. On the other hand, Wu has explicitly called for antitrust investigations of Amazon, Facebook, and Google. It’s unclear why big should be considered bad when it comes to the latter group but not when it comes to Microsoft. Maybe bigness isn’t actually a curse, after all.

As the saying goes in antitrust, “Big is not bad; big behaving badly is bad.” This aphorism arose to counter erroneous reasoning during the era of structure-conduct-performance when big was presumed to mean bad. Thanks to an improved theoretical and empirical understanding of the nature of the competitive process, there is now a consensus that firms can grow large either via superior efficiency or by engaging in anticompetitive behavior. Size alone does not tell us how a firm grew big — so it is not a relevant metric.

Dominance in narrowly-defined markets

Critics of Google say it has a monopoly on search and critics of Facebook say it has a monopoly on social networking. Microsoft is similarly dominant in at least a few narrowly-defined markets, including desktop operating systems (Windows has a 78% market share globally): 

Source: StatCounter

Microsoft is also dominant in the “professional networking platform” market after its acquisition of LinkedIn in 2016. And the legacy tech giant is still the clear leader in the “paid productivity software” market. (Microsoft’s Office 365 revenue is roughly 10x Google’s G Suite revenue).

The problem here is obvious. These are overly-narrow market definitions for conducting an antitrust analysis. Is it true that Facebook’s platforms are the only service that can connect you with your friends? Should we really restrict the productivity market to “paid”-only options (as the EU similarly did in its Android decision) when there are so many free options available? These questions are laughable. Proper market definition requires considering whether a hypothetical monopolist could profitably impose a small but significant and non-transitory increase in price (SSNIP). If not (which is likely the case in the narrow markets above), then we should employ a broader market definition in each case.

Simultaneously operating and competing on a platform

Elizabeth Warren likes to say that if you own a platform, then you shouldn’t both be an umpire and have a team in the game. Let’s put aside the problems with that flawed analogy for now. What she means is that you shouldn’t both run the platform and sell products, services, or apps on that platform (because it’s inherently unfair to the other sellers). 

Warren’s solution to this “problem” would be to create a regulated class of businesses called “platform utilities” which are “companies with an annual global revenue of $25 billion or more and that offer to the public an online marketplace, an exchange, or a platform for connecting third parties.” Microsoft’s revenue last quarter was $32.5 billion, so it easily meets the first threshold. And Windows obviously qualifies as “a platform for connecting third parties.”

Just as in mobile operating systems, desktop operating systems are compatible with third-party applications. These third-party apps can be free (e.g., iTunes) or paid (e.g., Adobe Photoshop). Of course, Microsoft also makes apps for Windows (e.g., Word, PowerPoint, Excel, etc.). But the more you think about the technical details, the blurrier the line between the operating system and applications becomes. Is the browser an add-on to the OS or a part of it (as Microsoft Edge appears to be)? The most deeply-embedded applications in an OS are simply called “features.”

Even though Warren hasn’t explicitly mentioned that her plan would cover Microsoft, it almost certainly would. Previously, she left Apple out of the Medium post announcing her policy, only to later tell a journalist that the iPhone maker would also be prohibited from producing its own apps. But what Warren fails to include in her announcement that she would break up Apple is that trying to police the line between a first-party platform and third-party applications would be a nightmare for companies and regulators, likely leading to less innovation and higher prices for consumers (as they attempt to rebuild their previous bundles).

Leveraging dominance from one market into another

The core critique in Lina Khan’s “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” is that the very structure of Amazon itself is what leads to its anticompetitive behavior. Khan argues (in spite of the data) that Amazon uses profits in some lines of business to subsidize predatory pricing in other lines of businesses. Furthermore, she claims that Amazon uses data from its Amazon Web Services unit to spy on competitors and snuff them out before they become a threat.

Of course, this is similar to the theory of harm in Microsoft’s 1990s antitrust case, that the desktop giant was leveraging its monopoly from the operating system market into the browser market. Why don’t we hear the same concern today about Microsoft? Like both Amazon and Google, you could uncharitably describe Microsoft as extending its tentacles into as many sectors of the economy as possible. Here are some of the markets in which Microsoft competes (and note how the Big Four also compete in many of these same markets):

What these potential antitrust harms leave out are the clear consumer benefits from bundling and vertical integration. Microsoft’s relationships with customers in one market might make it the most efficient vendor in related — but separate — markets. It is unsurprising, for example, that Windows customers would also frequently be Office customers. Furthermore, the zero marginal cost nature of software makes it an ideal product for bundling, which redounds to the benefit of consumers.

The “kill zone” for startups

In a recent article for The New York Times, Tim Wu and Stuart A. Thompson criticize Facebook and Google for the number of acquisitions they have made. They point out that “Google has acquired at least 270 companies over nearly two decades” and “Facebook has acquired at least 92 companies since 2007”, arguing that allowing such a large number of acquisitions to occur is conclusive evidence of regulatory failure.

Microsoft has made 196 acquisitions since 1994, but they receive no mention in the NYT article (or in most of the discussion around supposed “kill zones”). But the acquisitions by Microsoft or Facebook or Google are, in general, not problematic. They provide a crucial channel for liquidity in the venture capital and startup communities (the other channel being IPOs). According to the latest data from Orrick and Crunchbase, between 2010 and 2018, there were 21,844 acquisitions of tech startups for a total deal value of $1.193 trillion

By comparison, according to data compiled by Jay R. Ritter, a professor at the University of Florida, there were 331 tech IPOs for a total market capitalization of $649.6 billion over the same period. Making it harder for a startup to be acquired would not result in more venture capital investment (and therefore not in more IPOs), according to recent research by Gordon M. Phillips and Alexei Zhdanov. The researchers show that “the passage of a pro-takeover law in a country is associated with more subsequent VC deals in that country, while the enactment of a business combination antitakeover law in the U.S. has a negative effect on subsequent VC investment.”

As investor and serial entrepreneur Leonard Speiser said recently, “If the DOJ starts going after tech companies for making acquisitions, venture investors will be much less likely to invest in new startups, thereby reducing competition in a far more harmful way.” 

Search engine bias

Google is often accused of biasing its search results to favor its own products and services. The argument goes that if we broke them up, a thousand search engines would bloom and competition among them would lead to less-biased search results. While it is a very difficult — if not impossible — empirical question to determine what a “neutral” search engine would return, one attempt by Josh Wright found that “own-content bias is actually an infrequent phenomenon, and Google references its own content more favorably than other search engines far less frequently than does Bing.” 

The report goes on to note that “Google references own content in its first results position when no other engine does in just 6.7% of queries; Bing does so over twice as often (14.3%).” Arguably, users of a particular search engine might be more interested in seeing content from that company because they have a preexisting relationship. But regardless of how we interpret these results, it’s clear this not a frequent phenomenon.

So why is Microsoft being left out of the antitrust debate now?

One potential reason why Google, Facebook, and Amazon have been singled out for criticism of practices that seem common in the tech industry (and are often pro-consumer) may be due to the prevailing business model in the journalism industry. Google and Facebook are by far the largest competitors in the digital advertising market, and Amazon is expected to be the third-largest player by next year, according to eMarketer. As Ramsi Woodcock pointed out, news publications are also competing for advertising dollars, the type of conflict of interest that usually would warrant disclosure if, say, a journalist held stock in a company they were covering.

Or perhaps Microsoft has successfully avoided receiving the same level of antitrust scrutiny as the Big Four because it is neither primarily consumer-facing like Apple or Amazon nor does it operate a platform with a significant amount of political speech via user-generated content (UGC) like Facebook or Google (YouTube). Yes, Microsoft moderates content on LinkedIn, but the public does not get outraged when deplatforming merely prevents someone from spamming their colleagues with requests “to add you to my professional network.”

Microsoft’s core areas are in the enterprise market, which allows it to sidestep the current debates about the supposed censorship of conservatives or unfair platform competition. To be clear, consumer-facing companies or platforms with user-generated content do not uniquely merit antitrust scrutiny. On the contrary, the benefits to consumers from these platforms are manifest. If this theory about why Microsoft has escaped scrutiny is correct, it means the public discussion thus far about Big Tech and antitrust has been driven by perception, not substance.


[This post is the sixth in an ongoing symposium on “Should We Break Up Big Tech?” that features analysis and opinion from various perspectives.]

[This post is authored by Thibault Schrepel, Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center at Harvard University and Assistant Professor in European Economic Law at Utrecht University School of Law.]

The pretense of ignorance

Over the last few years, I have published a series of antitrust conversations with Nobel laureates in economics. I have discussed big tech dominance with most of them, and although they have different perspectives, all of them agreed on one thing: they do not know what the effect of breaking up big tech would be. In fact, I have never spoken with any economist who was able to show me convincing empirical evidence that breaking up big tech would on net be good for consumers. The same goes for political scientists; I have never read any article that, taking everything into consideration, proves empirically that breaking up tech companies would be good for protecting democracies, if that is the objective (please note that I am not even discussing the fact that using antitrust law to do that would violate the rule of law, for more on the subject, click here).

This reminds me of Friedrich Hayek’s Nobel memorial lecture, in which he discussed the “pretense of knowledge.” He argued that some issues will always remain too complex for humans (even helped by quantum computers and the most advanced AI; that’s right!). Breaking up big tech is one such issue; it is simply impossible simultaneously to consider the micro and macro-economic impacts of such an enormous undertaking, which would affect, literally, billions of people. Not to mention the political, sociological and legal issues, all of which combined are beyond human understanding.

Ignorance + fear = fame

In the absence of clear-cut conclusions, here is why (I think), some officials are arguing for breaking up big tech. First, it may be possible that some of them actually believe that it would be great. But I am sure we agree that beliefs should not be a valid basis for such actions. More realistically, the answer can be found in the work of another Nobel laureate, James Buchanan, and in particular his 1978 lecture in Vienna entitled “Politics Without Romance.”

In his lecture and the paper that emerged from it, Buchanan argued that while markets fail, so do governments. The latter is especially relevant insofar as top officials entrusted with public power may, occasionally at least, use that power to benefit their personal interests rather than the public interest. Thus, the presumption that government-imposed corrections for market failures always accomplish the desired objectives must be rejected. Taking that into consideration, it follows that the expected effectiveness of public action should always be established as precisely and scientifically as possible before taking action. Integrating these insights from Hayek and Buchanan, we must conclude that it is not possible to know whether the effects of breaking up big tech would on net be positive.

The question then is why, in the absence of positive empirical evidence, are some officials arguing for breaking up tech giants then? Well, because defending such actions may help them achieve their personal goals. Often, it is more important for public officials to show their muscle and take action, rather showing great care about reaching a positive net result for society. This is especially true when it is practically impossible to evaluate the outcome due to the scale and complexity of the changes that ensue. That enables these officials to take credit for being bold while avoiding blame for the harms.

But for such a call to be profitable for the public officials, they first must legitimize the potential action in the eyes of the majority of the public. Until now, most consumers evidently like the services of tech giants, which is why it is crucial for the top officials engaged in such a strategy to demonize those companies and further explain to consumers why they are wrong to enjoy them. Only then does defending the breakup of tech giants becomes politically valuable.

Some data, one trend

In a recent paper entitled “Antitrust Without Romance,” I have analyzed the speeches of the five current FTC commissioners, as well as the speeches of the current and three previous EU Competition Commissioners. What I found is an increasing trend to demonize big tech companies. In other words, public officials increasingly seek to prepare the general public for the idea that breaking up tech giants would be great.

In Europe, current Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager has sought to establish an opposition between the people (referred under the pronoun “us”) and tech companies (referred under the pronoun “them”) in more than 80% of her speeches. She further describes these companies as engaging in manipulation of the public and unleashing violence. She says they, “distort or fabricate information, manipulate people’s views and degrade public debate” and help “harmful, untrue information spread faster than ever, unleashing violence and undermining democracy.” Furthermore, she says they cause, “danger of death.” On this basis, she mentions the possibility of breaking them up (for more data about her speeches, see this link).

In the US, we did not observe a similar trend. Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who has responsibility for antitrust enforcement at the Department of Justice, describes the relationship between people and companies as being in opposition in fewer than 10% of his speeches. The same goes for most of the FTC commissioners (to see all the data about their speeches, see this link). The exceptions are FTC Chairman Joseph J. Simons, who describes companies’ behavior as “bad” from time to time (and underlines that consumers “deserve” better) and Commissioner Rohit Chopra, who describes the relationship between companies and the people as being in opposition to one another in 30% of his speeches. Chopra also frequently labels companies as “bad.” These are minor signs of big tech demonization compared to what is currently done by European officials. But, unfortunately, part of the US doctrine (which does not hide political objectives) pushes for demonizing big tech companies. One may have reason to fear that such a trend will grow in the US as it has in Europe, especially considering the upcoming presidential campaign in which far-right and far-left politicians seem to agree about the need to break up big tech.

And yet, let’s remember that no-one has any documented, tangible, and reproducible evidence that breaking up tech giants would be good for consumers, or societies at large, or, in fact, for anyone (even dolphins, okay). It might be a good idea; it might be a bad idea. Who knows? But the lack of evidence either way militates against taking such action. Meanwhile, there is strong evidence that these discussions are fueled by a handful of individuals wishing to benefit from such a call for action. They do so, first, by depicting tech giants as representing the new elite in opposition to the people and they then portray themselves as the only saviors capable of taking action.

Epilogue: who knows, life is not a Tarantino movie

For the last 30 years, antitrust law has been largely immune to strategic takeover by political interests. It may now be returning to a previous era in which it was the instrument of a few. This transformation is already happening in Europe (it is expected to hit case law there quite soon) and is getting real in the US, where groups display political goals and make antitrust law a Trojan horse for their personal interests.The only semblance of evidence they bring is a few allegedly harmful micro-practices (see Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox), which they use as a basis for defending the urgent need of macro, structural measures, such as breaking up tech companies. This is disproportionate, but most of all and in the absence of better knowledge, purely opportunistic and potentially foolish. Who knows at this point whether antitrust law will come out intact of this populist and moralist episode? And who knows what the next idea of those who want to use antitrust law for purely political purposes will be. Life is not a Tarantino movie; it may end up badly.

[This post is the fifth in an ongoing symposium on “Should We Break Up Big Tech?” that features analysis and opinion from various perspectives.]

[This post is authored by William Rinehart, Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at American Action Forum.]

Back in May, the New York Times published an op-ed by Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook, in which he called for the break up of his former firm. Hughes joins a growing chorus, including Senator Warren, Roger McNamee and others who have called for the break up of “Big Tech” companies. If Business Insider’s polling is correct, this chorus seems to be quite effective: Nearly 40 percent of Americans now support breaking up Facebook. 

Hughes’ position is perhaps understandable given his other advocacy activities. But it is also worth bearing in mind that he likely was never particularly familiar with or involved in Facebook’s technical backend or business development or sales. Rather, he was important in setting up the public relations and feedback mechanisms. This is relevant because the technical and organizational challenges in breaking up big tech are enormous and underappreciated. 

The Technics of Structural Remedies

As I explained at AAF last year,

Any trust-busting action would also require breaking up the company’s technology stack — a general name for the suite of technologies powering web sites. For example, Facebook developed its technology stack in-house to address the unique problems facing Facebook’s vast troves of data. Facebook created BigPipe to dynamically serve pages faster, Haystack to store billions of photos efficiently, Unicorn for searching the social graph, TAO for storing graph information, Peregrine for querying, and MysteryMachine to help with end-to-end performance analysis. The company also invested billions in data centers to quickly deliver video, and it split the cost of an undersea cable with Microsoft to speed up information travel. Where do you cut these technologies when splitting up the company?

That list, however, leaves out the company’s backend AI platform, known as Horizon. As Christopher Mims reported in the Wall Street Journal, Facebook put serious resources into creating Horizon and it has paid off. About a fourth of the engineers at the company were using this platform in 2017, even though only 30 percent of them were experts in it. The system, as Joaquin Candela explained, is powerful because it was built to be “a very modular layered cake where you can plug in at any level you want.” As Mim was careful to explain, the platform was designed to be “domain-specific,”  or highly modular. In other words, Horizon was meant to be useful across a range of complex problems and different domains. If WhatsApp and Instagram were separated from Facebook, who gets that asset? Does Facebook retain the core tech and then have to sell it at a regulated rate?

Lessons from Attempts to Manage Competition in the Tobacco Industry 

For all of the talk about breaking up Facebook and other tech companies, few really grasp just how lackluster this remedy has been in the past. The classic case to study isn’t AT&T or Standard Oil, but American Tobacco Company

The American Tobacco Company came about after a series of mergers in 1890 orchestrated by J.B. Duke. Then, between 1907 and 1911, the federal government filed and eventually won an antitrust lawsuit, which dissolved the trust into three companies. 

Duke was unique for his time because he worked to merge all of the previous companies into a working coherent firm. The organization that stood trial in 1907 was a modern company, organized around a functional structure. A single purchasing department managed all the leaf purchasing. Tobacco processing plants were dedicated to specific products without any concern for their previous ownership. The American Tobacco Company was rational in a way few other companies were at the time.  

These divisions were pulled apart over eight months. Factories, distribution and storage facilities, back offices and name brands were all separated by government fiat. It was a difficult task. As historian Allan M. Brandt details in “The Cigarette Century,”

It was one thing to identify monopolistic practices and activities in restraint of trade, and quite another to figure out how to return the tobacco industry to some form of regulated competition. Even those who applauded the breakup of American Tobacco soon found themselves critics of the negotiated decree restructuring the industry. This would not be the last time that the tobacco industry would successfully turn a regulatory intervention to its own advantage.

So how did consumers fare after the breakup? Most research suggests that the breakup didn’t substantially change the markets where American Tobacco was involved. Real cigarette prices for consumers were stable, suggesting there wasn’t price competition. The three companies coming out of the suit earned the same profit from 1912 to 1949 as the original American Tobacco Company Trust earned in its heyday from 1898 to 1908. As for the upstream suppliers, the price paid to tobacco farmers didn’t change either. The breakup was a bust.  

The difficulties in breaking up American Tobacco stand in contrast to the methods employed with Standard Oil and AT&T. For them, the split was made along geographic lines. Standard Oil was broken into 34 regional companies. Standard Oil of New Jersey became Exxon, while Standard Oil of California changed its name to Chevron. In the same way, AT&T was broken up in Regional Bell Operating Companies. Facebook doesn’t have geographic lines.

The Lessons of the Past Applied to Facebook

Facebook combines elements of the two primary firm structures and is thus considered a “matrix form” company. While the American Tobacco Company employed a functional organization, the most common form of company organization today is the divisional form. This method of firm rationalization separates the company’s operational functions by product, in order to optimize efficiencies. Under a divisional structure, each product is essentially a company unto itself. Engineering, finance, sales, and customer service are all unified within one division, which sits separate from other divisions within a company. Like countless other tech companies, Facebook merges elements of the two forms. It relies upon flexible teams to solve problems that tend to cross the normal divisional and functional bounds. Communication and coordination is prioritized among teams and Facebook invests heavily to ensure cross-company collaboration. 

Advocates think that undoing the WhatsApp and Instagram mergers will be easy, but there aren’t clean divisional lines within the company. Indeed, Facebook has been working towards a vast reengineering of its backend for some time that, when completed later this year or early 2020, will effectively merge all of the companies into one ecosystem.  Attempting to dismember this ecosystem would almost certainly be disastrous; not just a legal nightmare, but a technical and organizational nightmare as well.

Much like American Tobacco, any attempt to split off WhatsApp and Instagram from Facebook will probably fall flat on its face because government officials will have to create three regulated firms, each with essentially duplicative structures. As a result, the quality of services offered to consumers will likely be inferior to those available from the integrated firm. In other words, this would be a net loss to consumers.

[This post is the fourth in an ongoing symposium on “Should We Break Up Big Tech?“that features analysis and opinion from various perspectives.]

[This post is authored by Pallavi Guniganti, editor of Global Competition Review.]

Start with the assumption that there is a problem

The European Commission and Austria’s Federal Competition Authority are investigating Amazon over its use of Marketplace sellers’ data. US senator Elizabeth Warren has said that one reason to require “large tech platforms to be designated as ‘Platform Utilities’ and broken apart from any participant on that platform” is to prevent them from using data they obtain from third parties on the platform to benefit their own participation on the platform.

Amazon tweeted in response to Warren: “We don’t use individual sellers’ data to launch private label products.” However, an Amazon spokeswoman would not answer questions about whether it uses aggregated non-public data about sellers, or data from buyers; and whether any formal firewall prevents Amazon’s retail operation from accessing Marketplace data.

If the problem is solely that Amazon’s own retail operation can access data from the Marketplace, structurally breaking up the company and forbidding it and other platforms from participating on those platforms may be a far more extensive intervention than is needed. A targeted response such as a firewall could remedy the specific competitive harm.

Germany’s Federal Cartel Office implicitly recognised this with its Facebook decision, which did not demand the divestiture of every business beyond the core social network – the “Mark Zuckerberg Production” that began in 2004. Instead, the competition authority prohibited Facebook from conditioning the use of that social network on consent to the collection and combination of data from WhatsApp, Oculus, Masquerade, Instagram and any other sites or apps where Facebook might track them.

The decision does not limit data collection on Facebook itself. “It is taken into account that an advertising-funded social network generally needs to process a large amount of personal data,” the authority said. “However, the Bundeskartellamt holds that the efficiencies in a business model based on personalised advertising do not outweigh the interests of the users when it comes to processing data from sources outside of the social network.”

The Federal Cartel Office thus aims to wall off the data collected on Facebook from data that can be collected anywhere else. It ordered Facebook to present a road map for how it would implement these changes within four months of the February 2019 decision, but the time limit was suspended by the company’s emergency appeal to the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court.

Federal Cartel Office president Andreas Mundt has described the kind of remedy he had ordered for Facebook as not exactly structural, but going in a “structural direction” that might work for other cases as well. Keeping the data apart is a way to “break up this market power” without literally breaking up the corporation, and the first step to an “internal divestiture”, he said.

Mundt claimed that this kind of remedy gets to “the core of the problem”: big internet companies being able to out-compete new entrants, because the former can obtain and process data even beyond what they collected on a single service that has attracted a large number of users.

He used terms like “silo” rather than “firewall”, but the essential idea is to protect competition by preventing the dissemination of certain information. Antitrust authorities worldwide have considered firewalls, particularly in vertical merger remedies, as a way to prevent the anticompetitive movement of data while still allowing for some efficiencies of business units being under the same corporate umbrella.

Notwithstanding Mundt’s reference to a “structural direction”, competition authorities including his own have traditionally classified firewalls as a behavioural or conduct remedy. They purport to solve a specific problem: the movement of information.

Other aspects of big companies that can give them an advantage – such as the use of profits from one part of a company to invest in another part, perhaps to undercut rivals on prices – would not be addressed by firewalls. They would more likely would require dividing up a company at the corporate level.

But if data are the central concern, then the way forward might be found in firewalls.

What do the enforcers say?

Germany

The Federal Cartel Office’s May 2017 guidance on merger remedies disfavours firewalls, stating that such obligations are “not suitable to remedy competitive harm” because they require continuous oversight. Employees of a corporation in almost any sector will commonly exchange information on a daily basis in almost every industry, making it “extremely difficult to identify, stop and prevent non-compliance with the firewall obligations”, the guidance states. In a footnote, it acknowledges that other, unspecified jurisdictions have regarded firewalls “as an effective remedy to remove competition concerns”.

UK

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority takes a more optimistic view of the ability to keep a firewall in place, at least in the context of a vertical integration to prevent the use of “privileged information generated by competitors’ use of the merged company’s facilities or products”. In addition to setting up the company to restrict information flows, staff interactions and the sharing of services, physical premises and management, the CMA also requires the commitment of “significant resources to educating staff about the requirements of the measures and supporting the measures with disciplinary procedures and independent monitoring”. 

EU

The European Commission’s merger remedies notice is quite short. It does not mention firewalls or Chinese walls by name, simply noting that any non-structural remedy is problematic “due to the absence of effective monitoring of its implementation” by the commission or even other market participants. A 2011 European Commission submission to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was gloomier: “We have also found that firewalls are virtually impossible to monitor.”

US DOJ

The US antitrust agencies have been inconsistent in their views, and not on a consistent partisan basis. Under George W Bush, the Department of Justice’s antitrust division’s 2004 merger guidance said “a properly designed and enforced firewall” could prevent certain competition harms. But it also would require the DOJ and courts to expend “considerable time and effort” on monitoring, and “may frequently destroy the very efficiency that the merger was designed to generate. For these reasons, the use of firewalls in division decrees is the exception and not the rule.”

 Under Barack Obama, the Antitrust Division revised its guidance in 2011 to omit the most sceptical language about firewalls, replacing it with a single sentence about the need for effective monitoring. Under Donald Trump, the Antitrust Division has withdrawn the 2011 guidance, and the 2004 guidance is operative.

US FTC

At the Federal Trade Commission, on the other hand, firewalls had long been relatively uncontroversial among both Republicans and Democrats. For example, the commissioners unanimously agreed to a firewall remedy for PepsiCo’s and Coca-Cola’s separate 2010 acquisitions of bottlers and distributors that also dealt with rival a rival beverage maker, the Dr Pepper Snapple Group. (The FTC later emphasised the importance in those cases of obtaining industry expert monitors, who “have provided commission staff with invaluable insight and evaluation regarding each company’s compliance with the commission’s orders”.)

In 2017, the two commissioners who remained from the Obama administration both signed off on the Broadcom/Brocade merger based on a firewall – as did the European Commission, which also mandated interoperability commitments. And the Democratic commissioners appointed by President Trump voted with their Republican colleagues in 2018 to clear the Northrop Grumman/Orbital ATK deal subject to a behavioural remedy that included supply commitments and firewalls.

Several months later, however, those Democrats dissented from the FTC’s approval of Staples/Essendant, which the agency conditioned solely on a firewall between Essendant’s wholesale business and the Staples unit that handles corporate sales. While a firewall to prevent Staples from exploiting Essendant’s commercially-sensitive data about Staples’ rivals “will reduce the chance of misuse of data, it does not eliminate it,” Commissioner Rohit Chopra said. He emphasised the difficulty of policing oral communications, and said the FTC instead could have required Essendant to return its customers’ data. Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter said she shared Chopra’s “concerns about the efficacy of the firewall to remedy the information sharing harm”.

The majority defended firewalls’ effectiveness, noting that it had used them solve competition concerns in past vertical mergers, “and the integrity of those firewalls was robust.” The Republican commissioners cited the FTC’s review of the merger remedies it had imposed from 2006 to 2012, which concluded: “All vertical merger orders were judged successful.”

Republican commissioner Christine Wilson wrote separately about the importance of choosing “a remedy that is narrowly tailored to address the likely competitive harms without doing collateral damage.” Certain behavioural remedies for past vertical mergers had gone too far and even resulted in less competition, she said. “I have substantially fewer qualms about long-standing and less invasive tools, such as the ‘firewalls, fair dealing, and transparency provisions’ the Antitrust Division endorsed in the 2004 edition of its Policy Guide.”

Why firewalls don’t work, especially for big tech

Firewalls are designed to prevent the anticompetitive harm of information exchange, but whether they work depends on whether the companies and their employees behave themselves – and if they do not, on whether antitrust enforcers can know it and prove it. Deputy assistant attorney general Barry Nigro at the Antitrust Division has questioned the effectiveness of firewalls as a remedy for deals where the relevant business units are operationally close. The same problem may arise outside the merger context.

For example, Amazon’s investment fund for products to complement its Alexa virtual assistant could be seen as having the kind of firewall that is undercut by the practicalities of how a business operates. CNBC reported in September 2017 that “Alexa Fund representatives called a handful of its portfolio companies to say a clear ‘firewall’ exists between the Alexa Fund and Amazon’s product development teams.” The chief executive from Nucleus, one of those portfolio companies, had complained that Amazon’s Echo Show was a copycat of Nucleus’s product. While Amazon claimed that the Alexa Fund has “measures” to ensure “appropriate treatment” of confidential information, the companies said the process of obtaining the fund’s investment required them to work closely with Amazon’s product teams.

CNBC contrasted with Intel Capital – a division of the technology company that manages venture capital and investment – where a former managing director said he and his colleagues “tried to be extra careful not to let trade secrets flow across the firewall into its parent company”.

Firewalls are commonplace to corporate lawyers, who instill temporary blocks to prevent transmission of information in a variety of situations, such as during due diligence on a deal. This experience may lead such attorneys to put more faith in firewalls than enforcement advocates do.

Diana Moss, the president of the American Antitrust Institute, says that like other behavioral remedies, firewalls “don’t change any incentive to exercise market power”. In contrast, structural remedies eliminate that incentive by removing the part of the business that would make the exercise of market power profitable.

No internal monitoring or compliance ensures the firewall is respected, Moss says, unless a government consent order installs a monitor in a company to make sure the business units aren’t sharing information. This would be unlikely to occur, she says.

Moss’s 2011 white paper on behavioural merger remedies, co-authored with John Kwoka, reviews how well such remedies have worked. It notes that “information firewalls in Google-ITA and Comcast-NBCU clearly impede the joint operation and coordination of business divisions that would otherwise naturally occur.” 

Lina Khan’s 2019 Columbia Law Review article, “The Separation of Platforms and Commerce,” repeatedly cites Moss and Kwoka in the course of arguing that non-separation solutions such as firewalls do not work.

Khan concedes that information firewalls “in theory could help prevent information appropriation by dominant integrated firms.” But regulating the dissemination of information is especially difficult “in multibillion dollar markets built around the intricate collection, combination, and sale of data”, as companies in those markets “will have an even greater incentive to combine different sets of information”.

Why firewalls might work, especially for big tech

Yet neither Khan nor Moss points to an example of a firewall that clearly did not work. Khan writes: “Whether the [Google-ITA] information firewall was successful in preventing Google from accessing rivals’ business information is not publicly known. A year after the remedy expired, Google shut down” the application programming interface, through which ITA had provided its customisable flight search engine.

Even as enforcement advocates throw doubt on firewalls, enforcers keep requiring them. China’s Ministry of Commerce even used them to remedy a horizontal merger, in two stages of its conditions on Western Digital’s acquisition of Hitachi’s hard disk drive.

If German courts allow Andreas Mundt’s remedy for Facebook to go into effect, it will provide an example of just how effective a firewall can be on a platform. The decision requires Facebook to detail its technical plan to implement the obligation not to share data on users from its subsidiaries and its tracking on independent websites and apps.

A section of the “frequently asked questions” about the Federal Cartel Office’s Facebook case includes: “How can the Bundeskartellamt enforce the implementation of its decision?” The authority can impose fines for known non-compliance, but that assume it could detect violations of its order. Somewhat tentatively, the agency says it could carry out random monitoring, which is “possible in principle… as the actual flow of data eg from websites to Facebook can be monitored by analysing websites and their components or by recording signals.”

As perhaps befits the digital difference between Staples and Facebook, the German authority posits monitoring that would not be able to catch the kind of “oral communications” that Commissioner Chopra worried about when the US FTC cleared Staples’ acquisition of Essendant. But the use of such high-monitors could make firewalls even more appropriate as a remedy for platforms – which look to large data flows for a competitive advantage – than for old economy sales teams that could harm competition with just a few minutes of conversation.

Rather than a human monitor installed in a company to guard against firewall breaches, which Moss said was unlikely, software installed on employee computers and email systems might detect data flows between business units that should be walled off from each other. Breakups and firewalls are both longstanding remedies, but the latter may be more amenable to the kind of solutions that “big tech” itself has provided.

Big Tech and Antitrust

John Lopatka —  19 July 2019

[This post is the third in an ongoing symposium on “Should We Break Up Big Tech?” that will feature analysis and opinion from various perspectives.]

[This post is authored by John E. Lopatka, Robert Noll Distinguished Professor of Law, School of Law, The Pennsylvania State University]

Big Tech firms stand accused of many evils, and the clamor to break them up is loud.  Should we fetch our pitchforks? The antitrust laws are designed to address a range of wrongs and authorize a set of remedies, which include but do not emphasize divestiture.  When the harm caused by a Big Tech company is of a kind the antitrust laws are intended to prevent, an appropriate antitrust remedy can be devised. In such a case, it makes sense to use antitrust: If antitrust and its remedies are adequate to do the job fully, no legislative changes are required.  When the harm falls outside the ambit of antitrust and any other pertinent statute, a choice must be made. Antitrust can be expanded; other statutes can be amended or enacted; or any harms that are not perfectly addressed by existing statutory and common law can be left alone, for legal institutions are never perfect, and a disease can be less harmful than a cure.

A comprehensive list of the myriad and changing attacks on Big Tech firms would be difficult to compile.  Indeed, the identity of the offenders is not self-evident, though Google (Alphabet), Facebook, Amazon, and Apple have lately attracted the most attention.  The principal charges against Big Tech firms seem to be these: 1) compromising consumer privacy; 2) manipulating the news; 3) accumulating undue social and political influence; 4) stifling innovation by acquiring creative upstarts; 5) using market power in one market to injure competitors in adjacent markets; 6) exploiting input suppliers; 7) exploiting their own employees; and 8) damaging communities by location choices.

These charges are not uniform across the Big Tech targets.  Some charges have been directed more forcefully against some firms than others.  For instance, infringement of consumer privacy has been a focus of attacks on Facebook.  Both Facebook and Google have been accused of manipulating the news. And claims about the exploitation of input suppliers and employees and the destruction of communities have largely been directed at Amazon.

What is “Big Tech”?

Despite the variance among firms, the attacks against all of them proceed from the same syllogism: Some tech firms are big; big tech firms do social harm; therefore, big tech firms should be broken up.   From an antitrust perspective, something is missing. Start with the definition of a “tech” firm. In the modern economy, every firm relies on sophisticated technology – from an auto repair shop to an airplane manufacturer to a social media website operator.  Every firm is a tech firm. But critics have a more limited concept in mind. They are concerned about platforms, or intermediaries, in multi-sided markets. These markets exhibit indirect network effects. In a two-sided market, for instance, each side of the market benefits as the size of the other side grows.  Platforms provide value by coordinating the demand and supply of different groups of economic actors where the actors could not efficiently interact by themselves. In short, platforms reduce transaction costs. They have been around for centuries, but their importance has been magnified in recent years by rapid advances in technology.  Rational observers can sensibly ask whether platforms are peculiarly capable of causing harm. But critics tend to ignore or at least to discount the value that platforms provide, and doing so presents a distorted image that breeds bad policy.

Assuming we know what a tech firm is, what is “big”?  One could measure size by many standards. Most critics do not bother to define “big,” though at least Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed defining one category of bigness as firms with annual global revenue of $25 billion or more and a second category as those with annual global revenue of between $90 million and $25 billion.  The proper standard for determining whether tech firms are objectionably large is not self-evident. Indeed, a size threshold embodied in any legal policy will almost always be somewhat arbitrary. That by itself is not a failing of a policy prescription. But why use a size screen at all? A few answers are possible. Large firms may do more harm than small firms when harm is proportionate to size.  Size may matter because government intervention is costly and less sensitive to firm size than is harm, implying that only harm caused by large firms is large enough to outweigh the costs of enforcement. And most important, the size of a firm may be related to the kind of harm the firm is accused of doing. Perhaps only a firm of a certain size can inflict a particular kind of injury. A clear standard of size and its justification ought to precede any policy prescription.

What’s the (antitrust) beef?

The social harms that Big Tech firms are accused of doing are a hodgepodge.  Some are familiar to antitrust scholars as either current or past objects of antitrust concern; others are not.  Antitrust protects against a certain kind of economic harm: The loss of economic welfare caused by a restriction on competition.  Though the terms are sometimes used in different ways, the core concept is reasonably clear and well accepted. In most cases, economic welfare is synonymous with consumer welfare.  Economic welfare, though, is a broader concept. For example, economic welfare is reduced when buyers exercise market power to the detriment of sellers and by productive inefficiencies.  But despite the claim of some Big Tech critics, when consumer welfare is at stake, it is not measured exclusively by the price consumers pay. Economists often explicitly refer to quality-adjusted prices and implicitly have the qualification in mind in any analysis of price.  Holding quality constant makes quantitative models easier to construct, but a loss of quality is a matter of conventional antitrust concern. The federal antitrust agencies’ horizontal merger guidelines recognize that “reduced product quality, reduced product variety, reduced service, [and] diminished innovation” are all cognizable adverse effects.  The scope of antitrust is not as constricted as some critics assert. Still, it has limits.

Leveraging market power is standard antitrust fare, though it is not nearly as prevalent as once thought.  Horizontal mergers that reduce economic welfare are an antitrust staple. The acquisition and use of monopsony power to the detriment of input suppliers is familiar antitrust ground.  If Big Tech firms have committed antitrust violations of this ilk, the offenses can be remedied under the antitrust laws.

Other complaints against the Big Tech firms do not fit comfortably or at all within the ambit of antitrust.  Antitrust does not concern itself with political or social influence. Influence is a function of size, but not relative to any antitrust market.  Firms that have more resources than other firms may have more influence, but the deployment of those resources across the economy is irrelevant. The use of antitrust to attack conglomerate mergers was an inglorious period in antitrust history.  Injuries to communities or to employees are not a proper antitrust concern when they result from increased efficiency. Acquisitions might stifle innovation, which is a proper antitrust concern, but they might spur innovation by inducing firms to create value and thereby become attractive acquisition targets or by facilitating integration.  Whether the consumer interest in informational privacy has much to do with competition is difficult to say. Privacy in this context means the collection and use of data. In a multi-sided market, one group of participants may value not only the size but also the composition and information about another group. Competition among platforms might or might not occur on the dimension of privacy.  For any platform, however, a reduction in the amount of valuable data it can collect from one side and provide to another side will reduce the price it can charge the second side, which can flow back and injure the first side. In all, antitrust falters when it is asked to do what it cannot do well, and whether other laws should be brought to bear depends on a cost/benefit calculus.

Does Big Tech’s conduct merit antitrust action?

When antitrust is used, it unquestionably requires a causal connection between conduct and harm.  Conduct must restrain competition, and the restraint must cause cognizable harm. Most of the attacks against Big Tech firms if pursued under the antitrust laws would proceed as monopolization claims.  A firm must have monopoly power in a relevant market; the firm must engage in anticompetitive conduct, typically conduct that excludes rivals without increasing efficiency; and the firm must have or retain its monopoly power because of the anticompetitive conduct.

Put aside the flaccid assumption that all the targeted Big Tech platforms have monopoly power in relevant markets.  Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but an assumption is unwarranted. Focus instead on the conduct element of monopolization.  Most of the complaints about Big Tech firms concern their use of whatever power they have. Use isn’t enough. Each of the firms named above has achieved its prominence by extraordinary innovation, shrewd planning, and effective execution in an unforgiving business climate, one in which more platforms have failed than have succeeded.  This does not look like promising ground for antitrust.

Of course, even firms that generally compete lawfully can stray.  But to repeat, monopolists do not monopolize unless their unlawful conduct is causally connected to their market power.  The complaints against the Big Tech firms are notably weak on allegations of anticompetitive conduct that resulted in the acquisition or maintenance of their market positions.  Some critics have assailed Facebook’s acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram. Even assuming these firms competed with Facebook in well-defined antitrust markets, the claim that Facebook’s dominance in its core business was created or maintained by these acquisitions is a stretch.  

The difficulty fashioning remedies

The causal connection between conduct and monopoly power becomes particularly important when remedies are fashioned for monopolization.  Microsoft, the first major monopolization case against a high tech platform, is instructive.  DOJ in its complaint sought only conduct remedies for Microsoft’s alleged unlawful maintenance of a monopoly in personal computer operating systems.  The trial court found that Microsoft had illegally maintained its monopoly by squelching Netscape’s Navigator and Sun’s Java technologies, and by the end of trial DOJ sought and the court ordered structural relief in the form of “vertical” divestiture, separating Microsoft’s operating system business from its applications business.  Some commentators at the time argued for various kinds of “horizontal” divestiture, which would have created competing operating system platforms. The appellate court set aside the order, emphasizing that an antitrust remedy must bear a close causal connection to proven anticompetitive conduct. Structural remedies are drastic, and a plaintiff must meet a heightened standard of proof of causation to justify any kind of divestiture in a monopolization case.  On remand, DOJ abandoned its request for divestiture. The evidence that Microsoft maintained its market position by inhibiting the growth of middleware was sufficient to support liability, but not structural relief.

The court’s trepidation was well-founded.  Divestiture makes sense when monopoly power results from acquisitions, because the mergers expose joints at which the firm might be separated without rending fully integrated operations.  But imposing divestiture on a monopolist for engaging in single-firm exclusionary conduct threatens to destroy the integration that is the essence of any firm and is almost always disproportional to the offense.  Even if conduct remedies can be more costly to enforce than structural relief, the additional cost is usually less than the cost to the economy of forgone efficiency.   

The proposals to break up the Big Tech firms are ill-defined.  Based on what has been reported, no structural relief could be justified as antitrust relief.  Whatever conduct might have been unlawful was overwhelmingly unilateral. The few acquisitions that have occurred didn’t appreciably create or preserve monopoly power, and divestiture wouldn’t do much to correct the misbehavior critics see anyway.  Big Tech firms could be restructured through new legislation, but that would be a mistake. High tech platform markets typically yield dominant firms, though heterogeneous demand often creates space for competitors. Markets are better at achieving efficient structures than are government planners.  Legislative efforts at restructuring are likely to invite circumvention or lock in inefficiency.

Regulate “Big Tech” instead?

In truth, many critics are willing to put up with dominant tech platforms but want them regulated.  If we learned any lesson from the era of pervasive economic regulation of public utilities, it is that regulation is costly and often yields minimal benefits.  George Stigler and Claire Friedland demonstrated 57 years ago that electric utility regulation had little impact. The era of regulation was followed by an era of deregulation.  Yet the desire to regulate remains strong, and as Stigler and Friedland observed, “if wishes were horses, one would buy stock in a harness factory.” And just how would Big Tech platform regulators regulate?  Senator Warren offers a glimpse of the kind of regulation that critics might impose: “Platform utilities would be required to meet a standard of fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory dealing with users.” This kind of standard has some meaning in the context of a standard-setting organization dealing with patent holders.  What it would mean in the context of a social media platform, for example, is anyone’s guess. Would it prevent biasing of information for political purposes, and what government official should be entrusted with that determination? What is certain is that it would invite government intervention into markets that are working well, if not perfectly.  It would invite public officials to tradeoff economic welfare for a host of values embedded in the concept of fairness. Federal agencies charged with promoting the “public interest” have a difficult enough time reaching conclusions where competition is one of several specific values to be considered. Regulation designed to address all the evils high tech platforms are thought to perpetrate would make traditional economic or public-interest regulation look like child’s play.

Concluding remarks

Big Tech firms have generated immense value.  They may do real harm. From all that can now be gleaned, any harm has had little to do with antitrust, and it certainly doesn’t justify breaking them up.  Nor should they be broken up as an exercise in central economic planning. If abuses can be identified, such as undesirable invasions of privacy, focused legislation may be in order, but even then only if the government action is predictably less costly than the abuses.

[This post is the second in an ongoing symposium on “Should We Break Up Big Tech?” that will feature analysis and opinion from various perspectives.]

[This post is authored by Philip Marsden, Bank of England & College of Europe, IG/Twitter:  @competition_flaneur]

Since the release of our Furman Report, I have been blessed with an uptick in #antitrusttourism. Everywhere I go, people are talking about what to do about Big Tech. Europe, the Middle East, LatAm, Asia, Down Under — and everyone has slightly different views. But the direction of travel is similar: something is going to be done, some action will be taken. The discussions I’ve been privileged to have with agency officials, advisors, tech in-house counsel and complainants have been balanced and fair. Disagreements tend to focus on the “how, now” rather than on re-hashing arguments about whether anything need be done at all. However, there is one jurisdiction which is the exception — and that is the US.   There, pragmatism seems to have been defenestrated — it is all or nothing: we break tech up, or we praise tech from the rooftops. The thing is, neither is an appropriate response, and the longer the debate paralyses the US antitrust community, the more the rest of the world will say “maybe we should see other people” and break with the hard-earned precedent of evidence-based inquiries for which the US agencies are famous.

In the Land of the Free, there is so much broad-brush polarisation. Of course, there is the political main stage, and we have our share of that in the UK too. But in the theatre of American antitrust we have Chicken Littles running around shrieking that all tech platforms are run by creeps, there is an evil design behind every algo tweak or acqui-hire, and the only solution is to ditch antitrust, and move fast and break things, especially break up the G-MAFIA and the upcoming BAT from Asia, ASAP. The Chicken Littles run rings around another group, the ostriches with their heads in the sand saying “nothing to look at here”, the platforms are only forces for good, markets tip tip and tip again, sit back and enjoy the “free” goodies, and leave any mopping up of the tears of whining complainants to fresh “studies” by antitrust enforcers.  

There is also an endemic American debate which is pitched as a deep existential crisis, but seems more of a distraction: this says let’s change the consumer welfare standard and import broader social concerns — which is matched by a shocked response that price-based consumer welfare analysis is surely tried and true, and any alteration would send the heavens crashing down again. I view this as a distraction because from my experience as an enforcer and advisor, I only see an enlightened use of the consumer welfare standard as already considering harms to innovation, non-price effects, and lately privacy. So it may be interesting academic conference-fodder, but it largely misses the point that modern antitrust analysis is far broader, and more aware of non-price harms than it is portrayed.   

The US though is the only jurisdiction I’ve been to lately that seems to generate the most heat in the debates, and the least light. It is also where demands for tech break-ups are loudest but where any suggestion of regulatory intervention is knee-jerk rejected with abject horror. So there is a lot of noise but not much signal. The US seems disconnected from the international consensus on the need for actual action — and is a lone singleton debating its split-brain into the ground. And when they travel to the rest of the world — many American enforcers say — commendably with honesty — “Hey it’s not me, it’s you.”   “You’re the crazy ones with your Google fines, your Amazon own-sales bans, and your Facebook privacy abuse cases, we’ll just press ahead with our usual measured prosecutorial approach — oh and do a big study.”   

The thing is: no one believes the US will be anti-NIKE and “just do nothing”. If that was true there wouldn’t have been a massive drop of tech stock value on the announcement of DOJ, FTC and particularly Senate inquiries.   So some action will come stateside too… but what should that look like?

What I’d like to see is more engagement in the US with the international proposals. In our Furman Report, we supported a consumer welfare standard, but not laissez-faire. We supported a regulatory model developed through participative antitrust, but not common carrier regulation. And we did not favour breakups or presumptions against acquisitions by tech firms.  We tried to do some good, while preventing greater evils. Now, I still think that the most anti-competitive activity I’ve ever seen comes from government not from the abuses of market power of firms, so we do need to tread very carefully in designing our solutions and remedies. But we must remain vigilant against competitive problems in the tech sector and try to get ahead of them, particularly where they are created through structural aspects of these multi-sided markets, consumer inertia, entrenchment and enveloping, even in a world of “free” “goods” and “services”  (all in quotes since not everything online is free, or good, or even a service). So in Furman, we engaged with the debate but we avoided non-informative polarisation; not out of cowardice but to produce something hopefully relevant, informative, and which can actually be acted upon. It is an honour that our current Prime Minister and Chancellor have supported our work, and there are active moves to implement almost all of our proposals.   

We grounded our work in maintaining a focus on a dynamic consumer welfare standard, but we still firmly agreed that more intervention was needed. We concluded this after laying out our findings of myriad structural reasons for regulatory intervention (with no antitrust cause of complaint), and improving antitrust enforcement to address bad conduct as well. We sought to #dialupantitrust — through speeding up enforcement, and modernising merger control analysis — as well as #unlockingdigitalcompetition by developing a pro-competitive code of conduct, and data mobility (not just portability) and open API and similar remedies. There’s been lots of talk about that, and similarly-directed reports from the EU Trio and the Stigler Centre. I think discussing this sort of approach is the most pragmatic, evidence-based way forward: namely a model of participative antitrust, where the tech companies, their customers, consumer groups and government work out how to ensure platforms with strategic market status take on firm conduct obligations to get ahead of problems ex ante, and clear out many of the most toxic exclusionary or exploitative practices.  

Our approach would leave antitrust authorities to focus on the more nuanced behaviour, where #evidencematters and economic analysis and judgment really need to be brought to bear. This will primarily be in merger control — which we argue needs to be more forward-looking, more focussed on dynamic non-price impacts, and more able to address both the likelihood and magnitude of harms in a balanced way. This may also mean that authorities are less accepting of even heavily-sweated entry stories from merging parties. In ex post antitrust enforcement the main problem is speed, and we need to adjust the overall investigatory and appeal mechanism to ensure it is not captured not so much by the defendants and their armies of lawyers and economists, but by the mistaken focus on victory of our own team.   

I’ve seen senior agency lawyers refuse to release a decision until it has been sweated by 10 litigators and 3 QC’s and is “appeal-proof” — which no decision ever is — adding months or even years to the process. And woe betide a case team, inquiry chair or agency head who tries to cut through that — for the response is always “oh so you’re (much sucking of teeth and shaking of heads) content with Legal Risk???”.   This is lazy — I’d much rather work with lawyers whose default is “What are we trying to achieve?” not “I’ll just say No and then head off home” — a flaw that pervades some in-house counsel too. Legal risk is inherent in antitrust enforcement, not something to be feared. Frankly so many agencies have too many levels of internal scrutiny now which — when married to a system of full merits appeals — makes it incredible that any enforcement ever happens at all. And don’t get me started on the gaming inherent in negotiating commitments that may not even be effective but don’t even get a chance to operate before going through years of  review processes dominated by third party “market tests”. These flaws in enforcement systems contribute to the perception (and reality) of antitrust law’s weakness, slowness and inapplicability to reality — and hence fuel the calls for much stronger, much more intrusive and more chilling regulation, that could truly stifle a lot of genuine innovation.   

So our Furman report tries to cut through this, by speeding up antitrust enforcement, making merger control more forward looking — without achieving mathematical certainty but still allowing judgement of what is harmful on balance — and proposes a pro-competitive code of conduct for tech firms to help develop and “walk the talk”.   Developing that code will be a key challenge as we need to further refine what level of economic dependency on a platform customers and suppliers need to have, before that tech co is deemed to have strategic market status and must take on additional responsibilities to act fairly with respect to its customers, users, and suppliers. Fortunately, the British Government’s approval of our plans for a Digital Markets Unit means we can get started — so watch this space.

I’ve never said that this will be easy to do. We have a model in the Groceries Code Adjudicator — which was set up as a competition remedy — after a long market investigation of the offline retail platform market identified a range of harms that could occur, that might even be price-lowering to consumers but could harm innovation, choice and legitimate competition on the merits. A list of platforms was drawn up, a code was applied, and a range of toxic exploitative and exclusionary conduct was driven out of the market, and while not everything is perfect in retailing, far fewer complaints are landing on the CEO’s desk at the Competition & Markets Authority — so it can focus on other priorities. Our view is similar — while recognising that tech is a lot more complicated. Part of our model is thus also drawn on other CMA work with which I was honoured to be involved, a two year investigation of the retail banking platforms, and a degree of supply side and demand side inertia that I had never seen before, except maybe in energy. Here the solution was not — as politicians wanted — to break up the big banks. That would have done nothing good, and a lot of bad. Instead we found that the dynamic between supply and demand was so broken that remedies on both sides of the equation were needed. Here it was truly an example not of “it’s not you, it’s me” but “it’s both of us”: suppliers and consumers were contributing to the problem. We decided not to break up the platforms, though — but open them up — making data they were just sitting on (and which was a form of barrier to entry) available to fintech intermediaries, who would compete to access the data, train their new algos and thereby offer new choice tools to consumers.    

Breakups wold have added limping suppliers to the market, but much less competitive constraint. Opening up their data banks spurred the incumbents on to innovate faster than they might have, and customers to engage more with their banks. Our measure of success wasn’t switching — there is firm evidence that Britons switch their spouses more often than they switch their banks. So the remedy wasn’t breakup, and the KPI isn’t divorce, but is… engagement, on both sides of the relationship. And if it resulted in “maybe we should see other people” and multi-bank, then that is all to the overall good, for customer satisfaction, better engagement, and a more innovative retail banking ecosystem.  

And that is where I think we should seek new remedies in the tech sphere. Breakups wouldn’t help us stimulate a more innovative creative ecosystem. But only opening up platforms after litigating on an essential facilities doctrine for 8 years wouldn’t get us there either. We need informed analysis, with tech experts and competition and consumer officials, to identify the drivers of business developments, to balance the myriad issues that we all have as citizens, and voters, and shoppers, and then to act surgically when we see that a competition law problem of abuse of market power, or structural economic dependency, is causing real harm.  

I believe that the Furman report, and other international proposals from Australia, Canada, the EU, the UK’s Digital Markets Strategy, and enforcement action in the EU, Spain, Germany, Italy and elsewhere will help provide us with natural experiments and targeted solutions to specific problems. And in the process, will help fend off calls for short-term ‘fixes’ like breakups and other regulation that are retrograde and chill rather than go with the flow of — or better — stimulate innovation.   

Finally, we must not lose sight of one of my current bugbears, the incredible dependency we have allowed our governments and private sector to have on a handful of cloud computing companies. This may well have developed through superior skill, foresight and industry, and may be subject to rigorous procurement procedures and testing, but frankly, this is a ‘market’ that is too important to ignore. Social media and advertising may be pervasive but cloud is huge — with defence departments and banks and key infrastructure dependent on what are essentially private sector resiliency programmes. Even more than Facebook’s proposed currency Libra becoming “instantly systemic”, I fear we are already there with cloud: huge benefits, amazing efficiencies, but with it some zombie-apocalypse-level systemic risks not of one bank falling over, but many. Here it may well be that the bigger they are the more resilient they are, and the more able they are to police and rectify problems… but we have heard that before in other sectors and I just hope we can apply our developing proposals for digital platforms, to new challenges as well. The way tech is developing, we can’t live without it — but to live with it, we need to accept more responsibilities as enforcers, consumers and providers of these crucial services. So let’s stay together and work harder to #makeantitrustgreatagain and #unlockdigitalcompetition.   

[This post is the first in an ongoing symposium on “Should We Break Up Big Tech?” that will feature analysis and opinion from various perspectives.]

[This post is authored by Randal C. Picker, James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law at The University of Chicago Law School]

The European Commission just announced that it is investigating Amazon. The Commission’s concern is that Amazon is simultaneously acting as a ref and player: Amazon sells goods directly as a first party but also operates a platform on which it hosts goods sold by third parties (resellers) and those goods sometimes compete. And, next step, Amazon is said to choose which markets to enter as a private-label seller at least in part by utilizing information it gleans from the third-party sales it hosts.

Assuming there is a problem …

Were Amazon’s activities thought to be a problem, the natural remedies, whether through antitrust or more direct sector, industry-specific regulation, might be to bar Amazon from both being a direct seller and a platform. India has already passed a statute that effectuates some of those results, though it seems targeted at non-domestic companies.

A broad regulation that barred Amazon from being simultaneously a seller of first-party inventory and of third-party inventory presumably would lead to a dissolution of the company into separate companies in each of those businesses. A different remedy—a classic that goes back at least as far in the United States as the 1887 Commerce Act—would be to impose some sort of nondiscrimination obligation on Amazon and perhaps to couple that with some sort of business-line restriction—a quarantine—that would bar Amazon from entering markets though private labels.

But is there a problem?

Private labels have been around a long time and large retailers have faced buy-vs.-build decisions along the way. Large, sophisticated retailers like A&P in a different era and Walmart and Costco today, just to choose two examples, are constantly rebalancing their inventory between that which they buy from third parties and that which they produce for themselves. As I discuss below, being a platform matters for the buy-vs.-build decision, but it is far from clear that being both a store and a platform simultaneously matters importantly for how we should look at these issues.

Of course, when Amazon opened for business in July 1995 it didn’t quite face these issues immediately. Amazon sold books—it billed itself as “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore”—but there is no private label possibility for books, no effort to substitute into just selling say “The Wit and Wisdom of Jeff Bezos.” You could of course build an ebooks platform—call that a Kindle—but that would be a decade or so down the road. But as Amazon expanded into more pedestrian goods, it would, like other retailers, naturally make decisions about which inventory to source internally and which to buy from third parties.

In September 1999, Amazon opened up what was being described as an online mall. Amazon called it zShops and the idea was clear: many customers came to Amazon to buy things that Amazon wasn’t offering and Amazon would bring that audience and a variety of transaction services to third parties. Third parties would in turn pay Amazon a monthly fee and a variety of transaction fees. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos noted (as reported in The Wall Street Journal) that those prices had been set in a way to make Amazon generally “neutral” in choosing whether to enter a market through first-party inventory or through third-party inventory.

Note that a traditional retailer and the original Amazon faced a natural question which was which goods to carry in inventory? When Amazon opened its platform, Amazon changed powerfully the question of which goods to stock. Even a Walmart Supercenter has limited physical shelf space and has to take something off of the shelves to stock a new product. By becoming a platform, Amazon largely outsourced the product selection and shelf space allocation question to third parties. The new Amazon resellers would get access to Amazon’s substantial customer base—its audience—and to a variety of transactional services that Amazon would provide them.

An online retailer has some real informational advantages over physical stores, as the online retailer sees every product that customers search for. It is much harder, though not impossible, for a physical store to capture that information. But as Amazon became a platform it would no longer just observe search queries for goods but it would see actual sales by the resellers. And a physical store isn’t a platform in the way that Amazon is as the physical store is constrained by limited shelf space. But the real target here is the marginal information Amazon gets from third-party sales relative to what it would see from product searches at Amazon, its own first-party sales and from clicks on the growing amount of advertising it sells on its website.

All of that might matter for running product and inventory experiments and the corresponding pace of learning what goods customers want at what price. A physical store has to remove some item from its shelves to experiment with a new item and has to buy the item to stock it, though how much of a risk it is taking there will depend on whether the retailer can return unsold goods to the inventory supplier. A platform retailer like Amazon doesn’t have to make those tradeoffs and an online mall could offer almost an infinite inventory of items. A store or product ready for every possible search.

A possible strategy

All of this suggests a possible business strategy for a platform: let third parties run inventory experiments where the platform gets to see the results. Products that don’t sell are failed experiments and the platform doesn’t enter those markets. But when a third-party sells a product in real numbers, start selling that product as first-party inventory. Amazon then would face buy vs. build on that and that should make clear that the private brands question is distinct from the question of whether Amazon can leverage third-party reseller information to their detriment. It can certainly do just that by buying competing goods from a wholesaler and stocking that item as first-party Amazon inventory.

If Amazon is playing this strategy, it seems to be playing it slowly and poorly. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos includes a letter each year to open Amazon’s annual report to shareholders. In the 2018 letter, Bezos opened by noting that “[s]omething strange and remarkable has happened over the last 20 years.” What was that? In 1999, the relevant number was 3%; five years later, in 2004, it was 25%, then 31% in 2009, 49% in 2014 and 58% in 2018. These were the percentage of physical gross merchandise sales by third-party sellers through Amazon. In 1993, 97% of Amazon’s sales were of its own first-party inventory but the percentage of third-party sales had steadily risen over 20 years and over the last four years of that period, third-party inventory sales exceeded Amazon’s own internal sales. As Bezos noted, Amazon’s first-party sales had grown dramatically—a 25% annual compound growth rate over that period—but in 2018, total third-party sales revenues were $160 billion while Amazon’s own first-party sales were at $117 billion. Bezos had a perspective on all of that—“Third-party sellers are kicking our first party butt. Badly.”—but if you believed the original vision behind creating the Amazon platform, Amazon should be indifferent between first-party sales and third-party sales, as long as all of that happens at Amazon.

This isn’t new

Given all of that, it isn’t crystal clear to me why Amazon gets as much attention as it does. The heart of this dynamic isn’t new. Sears started its catalogue business in 1888 and then started using the Craftsman and Kenmore brands as in-house brands in 1927. Sears was acquiring inventory from third parties and obviously knew exactly which ones were selling well and presumably made decisions about which markets to enter and which to stay out of based on that information. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, has a number of well-known private brands and firms negotiating with Walmart know full well that Walmart can enter their markets, subject of course to otherwise applicable restraints on entry such as intellectual property laws.

As suggested above, I think that is possible to tease out advantages that a platform has regarding inventory experimentation. It can outsource some of those costs to third parties, though sophisticated third parties should understand where they can and cannot have a sustainable advantage given Amazon’s ability to move to build-or-bought first-party inventory. We have entire bodies of law— copyright, patent, trademark and more—that limit the ability of competitors to appropriate works, inventions and symbols. Those legal systems draw very carefully considered lines regarding permitted and forbidden uses. And antitrust law generally favors entry into markets and doesn’t look to create barriers that block firms, large or small, from entering new markets.

In conclusion

There is a great deal more to say about a company as complex as Amazon, but two thoughts in closing. One story here is that Amazon has built a superior business model in combining first-party and third-party inventory sales and that is exactly the kind of business model innovation that we should applaud. Amazon has enjoyed remarkable growth but Walmart is still vastly larger than Amazon (ballpark numbers for 2018 are roughly $510 billion in net sales for Walmart vs. roughly $233 billion for Amazon – including all 3rd party sales, as well as Amazon Web Services). The second story is the remarkable growth of sales by resellers at Amazon.

If Amazon is creating private-label goods based on information it sees on its platform, nothing suggests that it is doing that particularly rapidly. And even if it is entering those markets, it still might do that were we to break up Amazon and separate the platform piece of Amazon (call it Amazon Platform) from the original first-party version of Amazon (say Amazon Classic) as traditional retailers have for a very, very long time been making buy-vs.-build decisions on their first-party inventory and using their internal information to make those decisions.