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The dust has barely settled on the European Commission’s record-breaking €4.3 Billion Google Android fine, but already the European Commission is gearing up for its next high-profile case. Last month, Margrethe Vestager dropped a competition bombshell: the European watchdog is looking into the behavior of Amazon. Should the Commission decide to move further with the investigation, Amazon will likely join other US tech firms such as Microsoft, Intel, Qualcomm and, of course, Google, who have all been on the receiving end of European competition enforcement.
The Commission’s move – though informal at this stage – is not surprising. Over the last couples of years, Amazon has become one of the world’s largest and most controversial companies. The animosity against it is exemplified in a paper by Lina Khan, which uses the example of Amazon to highlight the numerous ills that allegedly plague modern antitrust law. The paper is widely regarded as the starting point of the so-called “hipster antitrust” movement.
But is there anything particularly noxious about Amazon’s behavior, or is it just the latest victim of a European crusade against American tech companies?
Where things stand so far
As is often the case in such matters, publicly available information regarding the Commission’s “probe” (the European watchdog is yet to open a formal investigation) is particularly thin. What we know so far comes from a number of declarations made by Margrethe Vestager (here and here) and a leaked questionnaire that was sent to Amazon’s rivals. Going on this limited information, it appears that the Commission is preoccupied about the manner in which Amazon uses the data that it gathers from its online merchants. In Vestager’s own words:
The question here is about the data, because if you as Amazon get the data from the smaller merchants that you host […] do you then also use this data to do your own calculations? What is the new big thing, what is it that people want, what kind of offers do they like to receive, what makes them buy things.
These concerns relate to the fact that Amazon acts as both a retailer in its own right and a platform for other retailers, which allegedly constitutes a “conflict of interest”. As a retailer, Amazon sells a wide range of goods directly to consumers. Meanwhile, its marketplace platform enables third party merchants to offer their goods in exchange for referral fees when items are sold (these fees typically range from 8% to 15%, depending on the type of good). Merchants can either execute theses orders themselves or opt for fulfilment by Amazon, in which case it handles storage and shipping. In addition to its role as a platform operator, As of 2017, more than 50% of units sold on the Amazon marketplace where fulfilled by third-party sellers, although Amazon derived three times more revenue from its own sales than from those of third parties (note that Amazon Web Services is still by far its largest source of profits).
Mirroring concerns raised by Khan, the Commission worries that Amazon uses the data it gathers from third party retailers on its platform to outcompete them. More specifically, the concern is that Amazon might use this data to identify and enter the most profitable segments of its online platform, excluding other retailers in the process (or deterring them from joining the platform in the first place). Although there is some empirical evidence to support such claims, it is far from clear that this is in any way harmful to competition or consumers. Indeed, the authors of the paper that found evidence in support of the claims note:
Amazon is less likely to enter product spaces that require greater seller efforts to grow, suggesting that complementors’ platform‐specific investments influence platform owners’ entry decisions. While Amazon’s entry discourages affected third‐party sellers from subsequently pursuing growth on the platform, it increases product demand and reduces shipping costs for consumers.
Thou shalt not punish efficient behavior
The question is whether Amazon using data on rivals’ sales to outcompete them should raise competition concerns? After all, this is a standard practice in the brick-and-mortar industry, where most large retailers use house brands to go after successful, high-margin third-party brands. Some, such as Costco, even eliminate some third-party products from their shelves once they have a successful own-brand product. Granted, as Khan observes, Amazon may be doing this more effectively because it has access to vastly superior data. But does that somehow make Amazon’s practice harmful to social social welfare? Absent further evidence, I believe not.
The basic problem is the following. Assume that Amazon does indeed have a monopoly in the market for online retail platforms (or, in other words, that the Amazon marketplace is a bottleneck for online retailers). Why would it move into direct retail competition against its third party sellers if it is less efficient than them? Amazon would either have to sell at a loss or hope that consumers saw something in its products that warrants a higher price. A more profitable alternative would be to stay put and increase its fees. It could thereby capture all the profits of its independent retailers. Not that Amazon would necessarily want to do so, as this could potentially deter other retailers from joining its platform. The upshot is that Amazon has little incentive to exclude more efficient retailers.
Astute readers, will have observed that this is simply a restatement of the Chicago school’s Single Monopoly Theory, which broadly holds that, absent efficiencies, a monopolist in one line of commerce cannot increase its profits by entering the competitive market for a complementary good. Although the theory has drawn some criticism, it remains a crucial starting point with which enforcers must contend before they conclude that a monopolist’s behavior is anticompetitive.
So why does Amazon move into retail segments that are already occupied by its rivals? The most likely explanation is simply that it can source and sell these goods more efficiently than them, and that these efficiencies cannot be achieved through contracts with the said rivals. Once we accept the possibility that Amazon is simply more efficient, the picture changes dramatically. The sooner it overthrows less efficient rivals the better. Doing so creates valuable surplus that can flow to either itself or its consumers. This is true regardless of whether Amazon has a marketplace monopoly or not. Even if it does have a monopoly (which is doubtful given competition from the likes of Zalando, AliExpress, Google Search and eBay), at least some of these efficiencies will likely be passed on to consumers. Such a scenario is also perfectly compatible with increased profits for Amazon. The real test is whether output increases when Amazon enters segments that were previously occupied by rivals.
Of course, the usual critiques voiced against the “Single Monopoly Profit” theory apply here. It is plausible that, by excluding its retail rivals, Amazon is simply seeking to protect its alleged platform monopoly. However, the anecdotal evidence that has been raised thus far does not support this conclusion.
But what about innovation?
Possibly sensing the weakness of the “inefficiency” line of arguments against Amazon, critics will likely put put forward a second theory of harm. The claim is that by capturing the rents of potentially innovative retailers, Amazon may hamper their incentives to innovate and will therefore harm consumer choice. Margrethe Vestager intimated this much in a Bloomberg interview. Though this framing might seem tempting at first, it falters under close inspection.
The effects of Amazon’s behavior could first be framed in terms of appropriability — that is: the extent to which an innovator captures the social benefits of its innovation. The higher its share of those benefits, the larger its incentives to innovate. By forcing out its retail rivals, it is plausible that Amazon is reducing the returns which they earn on their potential innovations.
Another potential framing is that of holdup theory. Applied to this case, one could argue that rival retailers made sunk investments (potentially innovation-related) to join the Amazon platform, and that Amazon is behaving opportunistically by capturing their surplus. With hindsight, merchants might thus have opted to stay out of the Amazon marketplace.
Unfortunately for Amazon’s critics, there are numerous objections to these two framings. For a start, the business implication of both the appropriability and holdup theories is that firms can and should take sensible steps to protect their investments. The recent empirical paper mentioned above stresses that these actions are critical for the sake of Amazon’s retailers.
Potential solutions abound. Retailers could in principle enter into long-term exclusivity agreements with their suppliers (which would keep Amazon out of the market if there are no alternative suppliers). Alternatively, they could sign non-compete clauses with Amazon, exchange assets, or even outright merge. In fact, there is at least some evidence of this last possibility occurring, as Amazon has acquired some of its online retailers. The fact that some retailers have not opted for these safety measures (or other methods of appropriability) suggests that they either don’t perceive a threat or are unwilling to make the necessary investments. It might also be due to bad business judgement on their part).
Which brings us to the big question. Should competition law step into the breach in those cases where firms have refused to take even basic steps to protect their investments? The answer is probably no.
For a start, condoning this poor judgement encourages firms to rely on competition enforcement rather than private solutions to solve appropriability and holdup issues. This is best understood with reference to moral hazard. By insuring firms against the capture of their profits, competition authorities disincentivize all forms of risk-mitigation on the part of those firms. This will ultimately raise enforcement costs (as firms become increasingly reliant on the antitrust system for protection).
It is also informationally much more burdensome, as authorities will systematically have to rule on the appropriate share of profits between parties to a case.
Finally, overprotecting these investments would go against the philosophy of the European Court of Justice’s Huawei ruling. Albeit in the specific context of injunctions relating to SEPs, the Court conditioned competition liability on firms showing that they have taken a series of reasonable steps to sort out their disputes privately.
This is not to say that competition intervention should categorically be proscribed. But rather that the capture of a retailer’s investments by Amazon is an insufficient condition for enforcement actions. Instead, the Commission should question whether Amazon’s actions are truly detrimental to consumer welfare and output. Absent strong evidence that an excluded retailer offered superior products, or that Amazon’s move was merely a strategic play to prevent entry, competition authorities should let the chips fall where they may.
As things stand, there is simply no evidence to indicate that anything out of the ordinary is occurring on the Amazon marketplace. By shining the spotlight on Amazon, the Commission is putting itself under tremendous political pressure to move forward with a formal investigation (all the more so, given the looming European Parliament elections). This is regrettable, as there are surely more pressing matters for the European regulator to deal with. The Commission would thus do well to recall the words of Shakespeare in the Merchant of Venice: “All that glisters is not gold”. Applied in competition circles this translates to “all that is big is not inefficient”.
The EC’s Android decision is expected sometime in the next couple of weeks. Current speculation is that the EC may issue a fine exceeding last year’s huge 2.4B EU fine for Google’s alleged antitrust violations related to the display of general search results. Based on the statement of objections (“SO”), I expect the Android decision will be a muddle of legal theory that not only fails to connect to facts and marketplace realities, but also will perversely incentivize platform operators to move toward less open ecosystems.
As has been amply demonstrated (see, e.g., here and here), the Commission has made fundamental errors with its market definition analysis in this case. Chief among its failures is the EC’s incredible decision to treat the relevant market as licensable mobile operating systems, which notably excludes the largest smartphone player by revenue, Apple.
This move, though perhaps expedient for the EC, leads the Commission to view with disapproval an otherwise competitively justifiable set of licensing requirements that Google imposes on its partners. This includes anti-fragmentation and app-bundling provisions (“Provisions”) in the agreements that partners sign in order to be able to distribute Google Mobile Services (“GMS”) with their devices. Among other things, the Provisions guarantee that a basic set of Google’s apps and services will be non-exclusively featured on partners’ devices.
The Provisions — when viewed in a market in which Apple is a competitor — are clearly procompetitive. The critical mass of GMS-flavored versions of Android (as opposed to vanilla Android Open Source Project (“AOSP”) devices) supplies enough predictability to an otherwise unruly universe of disparate Android devices such that software developers will devote the sometimes considerable resources necessary for launching successful apps on Android.
Open source software like AOSP is great, but anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Linux recognizes that the open source movement often fails to produce consumer-friendly software. In order to provide a critical mass of users that attract developers to Android, Google provides a significant service to the Android market as a whole by using the Provisions to facilitate a predictable user (and developer) experience.
Generativity on platforms is a complex phenomenon
To some extent, the EC’s complaint is rooted in a bias that Android act as a more “generative” platform such that third-party developers are relatively better able to reach users of Android devices. But this effort by the EC to undermine the Provisions will be ultimately self-defeating as it will likely push mobile platform providers to converge on similar, relatively more closed business models that provide less overall consumer choice.
Even assuming that the Provisions somehow prevent third-party app installs or otherwise develop a kind of path-dependency among users such that they never seek out new apps (which the data clearly shows is not happening), focusing on third-party developers as the sole or primary source of innovation on Android is a mistake.
The control that platform operators like Apple and Google exert over their respective ecosystems does not per se create more or less generativity on the platforms. As Gus Hurwitz has noted, “literature and experience amply demonstrate that ‘open’ platforms, or general-purpose technologies generally, can promote growth and increase social welfare, but they also demonstrate that open platforms can also limit growth and decrease welfare.” Conversely, tighter vertical integration (the Apple model) can also produce more innovation than open platforms.
What is important is the balance between control and freedom, and the degree to which third-party developers are able to innovate within the context of a platform’s constraints. The existence of constraints — either Apple’s more tightly controlled terms, or Google’s more generous Provisions — themselves facilitate generativity.
In short, it is overly simplistic to view generativity as something that happens at the edges without respect to structural constraints at the core. The interplay between platform and developer is complex and complementary, and needs to be viewed as a dynamic process.
Whither platform diversity?
I love Apple’s devices and I am quite happy living within its walled garden. But I certainly do not believe that Apple’s approach is the only one that makes sense. Yet, in its SO, the EC blesses Apple’s approach as the proper way to manage a mobile ecosystem. It explicitly excluded Apple from a competitive analysis, and attacked Google on the basis that it imposed restrictions in the context of licensing its software. Thus, had Google opted instead to create a separate walled garden of its own on the Apple model, everything it had done would have otherwise been fine. This means that Google is now subject to an antitrust investigation for attempting to develop a more open platform.
With this SO, the EC is basically asserting that Google is anticompetitively bundling without being able to plausibly assert foreclosure (because, again, third-party app installs are easy to do and are easily shown to number in the billions). I’m sure Google doesn’t want to move in the direction of having a more closed system, but the lesson of this case will loom large for tomorrow’s innovators.
In the face of eager antitrust enforcers like those in the EU, the easiest path for future innovators will be to keep everything tightly controlled so as to prevent both fragmentation and misguided regulatory intervention.
Two things, in particular, are remarkable about the decision. First, while the CCI’s staff recommended a finding of liability on a litany of claims (the exact number is difficult to infer from the Commission’s decision, but it appears to be somewhere in the double digits), the Commission accepted its staff’s recommendation on only three — and two of those involve conduct no longer employed by Google.
Second, nothing in the Commission’s finding of liability or in the remedy it imposes suggests it approaches the issue as the EU does. To be sure, the CCI employs rhetoric suggesting that “search bias” can be anticompetitive. But its focus remains unwaveringly on the welfare of the consumer, not on the hyperbolic claims of Google’s competitors.
What didn’t happen
In finding liability on only a single claim involving ongoing practices — the claim arising from Google’s “unfair” placement of its specialized flight search (Google Flights) results — the Commission also roundly rejected a host of other claims (more than once with strong words directed at its staff for proposing such woefully unsupported arguments). Among these are several that have been raised (and unanimously rejected) by competition regulators elsewhere in the world. These claims related to a host of Google’s practices, including:
- Search bias involving the treatment of specialized Google content (like Google Maps, YouTube, Google Reviews, etc.) other than Google Flights
- Search bias involving the display of Universal Search results (including local search, news search, image search, etc.), except where these results are fixed to a specific position on every results page (as was the case in India before 2010), instead of being inserted wherever most appropriate in context
- Search bias involving OneBox results (instant answers to certain queries that are placed at the top of search results pages), even where answers are drawn from Google’s own content and specific, licensed sources (rather than from crawling the web)
- Search bias involving sponsored, vertical search results (e.g., Google Shopping results) other than Google Flights. These results are not determined by the same algorithm that returns organic results, but are instead more like typical paid search advertising results that sometimes appear at the top of search results pages. The Commission did find that Google’s treatment of its Google Flight results (another form of sponsored result) violated India’s competition laws
- The operation of Google’s advertising platform (AdWords), including the use of a “Quality Score” in its determination of an ad’s relevance (something Josh Wright and I discuss at length here)
- Google’s practice of allowing advertisers to bid on trademarked keywords
- Restrictions placed by Google upon the portability of advertising campaign data to other advertising platforms through its AdWords API
- Distribution agreements that set Google as the default (but not exclusive) search engine on certain browsers
- Certain restrictions in syndication agreements with publishers (websites) through which Google provides search and/or advertising (Google’s AdSense offering). The Commission found that negotiated search agreements that require Google to be the exclusive search provider on certain sites did violate India’s competition laws. It should be noted, however, that Google has very few of these agreements, and no longer enters into them, so the finding is largely historical. All of the other assertions regarding these agreements (and there were numerous claims involving a number of clauses in a range of different agreements) were rejected by the Commission.
Just like competition authorities in the US, Canada, and Taiwan that have properly focused on consumer welfare in their Google investigations, the CCI found important consumer benefits from these practices that outweigh any inconveniences they may impose on competitors. And, just as in those jurisdictions, all of them were rejected by the Commission.
Still improperly assessing Google’s dominance
The biggest problem with the CCI’s decision is its acceptance — albeit moderated in important ways — of the notion that Google owes a special duty to competitors given its position as an alleged “gateway” to the Internet:
In the present case, since Google is the gateway to the internet for a vast majority of internet users, due to its dominance in the online web search market, it is under an obligation to discharge its special responsibility. As Google has the ability and the incentive to abuse its dominant position, its “special responsibility” is critical in ensuring not only the fairness of the online web search and search advertising markets, but also the fairness of all online markets given that these are primarily accessed through search engines. (para 202)
As I’ve discussed before, a proper analysis of the relevant markets in which Google operates would make clear that Google is beset by actual and potential competitors at every turn. Access to consumers by advertisers, competing search services, other competing services, mobile app developers, and the like is readily available. The lines between markets drawn by the CCI are based on superficial distinctions that are of little importance to the actual relevant market.
Consider, for example: Users seeking product information can get it via search, but also via Amazon and Facebook; advertisers can place ad copy and links in front of millions of people on search results pages, and they can also place them in front of millions of people on Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, many specialized search competitors like Yelp receive most of their traffic from direct navigation and from their mobile apps. In short, the assumption of market dominance made by the CCI (and so many others these days) is based on a stilted conception of the relevant market, as Google is far from the only channel through which competitors can reach consumers.
The importance of innovation in the CCI’s decision
Of course, it’s undeniable that Google is an important mechanism by which competitors reach consumers. And, crucially, nowhere did the CCI adopt Google’s critics’ and competitors’ frequently asserted position that Google is, in effect, an “essential facility” requiring extremely demanding limitations on its ability to control its product when doing so might impede its rivals.
So, while the CCI defines the relevant markets and adopts legal conclusions that confer special importance on Google’s operation of its general search results pages, it stops short of demanding that Google treat competitors on equal terms to its own offerings, as would typically be required of essential facilities (or their close cousin, public utilities).
Significantly, the Commission weighs the imposition of even these “special responsibilities” against the effects of such duties on innovation, particularly with respect to product design.
The CCI should be commended for recognizing that any obligation imposed by antitrust law on a dominant company to refrain from impeding its competitors’ access to markets must stop short of requiring the company to stop innovating, even when its product innovations might make life difficult for its competitors.
Of course, some product design choices can be, on net, anticompetitive. But innovation generally benefits consumers, and it should be impeded only where doing so clearly results in net consumer harm. Thus:
[T]he Commission is cognizant of the fact that any intervention in technology markets has to be carefully crafted lest it stifles innovation and denies consumers the benefits that such innovation can offer. This can have a detrimental effect on economic welfare and economic growth, particularly in countries relying on high growth such as India…. [P]roduct design is an important and integral dimension of competition and any undue intervention in designs of SERP [Search Engine Results Pages] may affect legitimate product improvements resulting in consumer harm. (paras 203-04).
As a consequence of this cautious approach, the CCI refused to accede to its staff’s findings of liability based on Google’s treatment of its vertical search results without considering how Google’s incorporation of these specialized results improved its product for consumers. Thus, for example:
The Commission is of opinion that requiring Google to show third-party maps may cause a delay in response time (“latency”) because these maps reside on third-party servers…. Further, requiring Google to show third-party maps may break the connection between Google’s local results and the map…. That being so, the Commission is of the view that no case of contravention of the provisions of the Act is made out in Google showing its own maps along with local search results. The Commission also holds that the same consideration would apply for not showing any other specialised result designs from third parties. (para 224 (emphasis added))
The CCI’s laudable and refreshing focus on consumer welfare
Even where the CCI determined that Google’s current practices violate India’s antitrust laws (essentially only with respect to Google Flights), it imposed a remedy that does not demand alteration of the overall structure of Google’s search results, nor its algorithmic placement of those results. In fact, the most telling indication that India’s treatment of product design innovation embodies a consumer-centric approach markedly different from that pushed by Google’s competitors (and adopted by the EU) is its remedy.
Following its finding that
[p]rominent display and placement of Commercial Flight Unit with link to Google’s specialised search options/ services (Flight) amounts to an unfair imposition upon users of search services as it deprives them of additional choices (para 420),
the CCI determined that the appropriate remedy for this defect was:
So far as the contravention noted by the Commission in respect of Flight Commercial Unit is concerned, the Commission directs Google to display a disclaimer in the commercial flight unit box indicating clearly that the “search flights” link placed at the bottom leads to Google’s Flights page, and not the results aggregated by any other third party service provider, so that users are not misled. (para 422 (emphasis added))
Indeed, what is most notable — and laudable — about the CCI’s decision is that both the alleged problem, as well as the proposed remedy, are laser-focused on the effect on consumers — not the welfare of competitors.
Where the EU’s recent Google Shopping decision considers that this sort of non-neutral presentation of Google search results harms competitors and demands equal treatment by Google of rivals seeking access to Google’s search results page, the CCI sees instead that non-neutral presentation of results could be confusing to consumers. It does not demand that Google open its doors to competitors, but rather that it more clearly identify when its product design prioritizes Google’s own content rather than determine priority based on its familiar organic search results algorithm.
This distinction is significant. For all the language in the decision asserting Google’s dominance and suggesting possible impediments to competition, the CCI does not, in fact, view Google’s design of its search results pages as a contrivance intended to exclude competitors from accessing markets.
The CCI’s remedy suggests that it has no problem with Google maintaining control over its search results pages and determining what results, and in what order, to serve to consumers. Its sole concern, rather, is that Google not get a leg up at the expense of consumers by misleading them into thinking that its product design is something that it is not.
Rather than dictate how Google should innovate or force it to perpetuate an outdated design in the name of preserving access by competitors bent on maintaining the status quo, the Commission embraces the consumer benefits of Google’s evolving products, and seeks to impose only a narrowly targeted tweak aimed directly at the quality of consumers’ interactions with Google’s products.
As some press accounts of the CCI’s decision trumpet, the Commission did impose liability on Google for abuse of a dominant position. But its similarity with the EU’s abuse of dominance finding ends there. The CCI rejected many more claims than it adopted, and it carefully tailored its remedy to the welfare of consumers, not the lamentations of competitors. Unlike the EU, the CCI’s finding of a violation is tempered by its concern for avoiding harmful constraints on innovation and product design, and its remedy makes this clear. Whatever the defects of India’s decision, it offers a welcome return to consumer-centric antitrust.
This week the FCC will vote on Chairman Ajit Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Once implemented, the Order will rescind the 2015 Open Internet Order and return antitrust and consumer protection enforcement to primacy in Internet access regulation in the U.S.
In anticipation of that, earlier this week the FCC and FTC entered into a Memorandum of Understanding delineating how the agencies will work together to police ISPs. Under the MOU, the FCC will review informal complaints regarding ISPs’ disclosures about their blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, and congestion management practices. Where an ISP fails to make the proper disclosures, the FCC will take enforcement action. The FTC, for its part, will investigate and, where warranted, take enforcement action against ISPs for unfair, deceptive, or otherwise unlawful acts.
Critics of Chairman Pai’s plan contend (among other things) that the reversion to antitrust-agency oversight of competition and consumer protection in telecom markets (and the Internet access market particularly) would be an aberration — that the US will become the only place in the world to move backward away from net neutrality rules and toward antitrust law.
But this characterization has it exactly wrong. In fact, much of the world has been moving toward an antitrust-based approach to telecom regulation. The aberration was the telecom-specific, common-carrier regulation of the 2015 Open Internet Order.
The longstanding, global transition from telecom regulation to antitrust enforcement
The decade-old discussion around net neutrality has morphed, perhaps inevitably, to join the larger conversation about competition in the telecom sector and the proper role of antitrust law in addressing telecom-related competition issues. Today, with the latest net neutrality rules in the US on the chopping block, the discussion has grown more fervent (and even sometimes inordinately violent).
On the one hand, opponents of the 2015 rules express strong dissatisfaction with traditional, utility-style telecom regulation of innovative services, and view the 2015 rules as a meritless usurpation of antitrust principles in guiding the regulation of the Internet access market. On the other hand, proponents of the 2015 rules voice skepticism that antitrust can actually provide a way to control competitive harms in the tech and telecom sectors, and see the heavy hand of Title II, common-carrier regulation as a necessary corrective.
While the evidence seems clear that an early-20th-century approach to telecom regulation is indeed inappropriate for the modern Internet (see our lengthy discussions on this point, e.g., here and here, as well as Thom Lambert’s recent post), it is perhaps less clear whether antitrust, with its constantly evolving, common-law foundation, is up to the task.
To answer that question, it is important to understand that for decades, the arc of telecom regulation globally has been sweeping in the direction of ex post competition enforcement, and away from ex ante, sector-specific regulation.
Howard Shelanski, who served as President Obama’s OIRA Administrator from 2013-17, Director of the Bureau of Economics at the FTC from 2012-2013, and Chief Economist at the FCC from 1999-2000, noted in 2002, for instance, that
[i]n many countries, the first transition has been from a government monopoly to a privatizing entity controlled by an independent regulator. The next transformation on the horizon is away from the independent regulator and towards regulation through general competition law.
Globally, nowhere perhaps has this transition been more clearly stated than in the EU’s telecom regulatory framework which asserts:
The aim is to progressively reduce ex ante sector-specific regulation progressively as competition in markets develops and, ultimately, for electronic communications [i.e., telecommunications] to be governed by competition law only. (Emphasis added.)
To facilitate the transition and quash regulatory inconsistencies among member states, the EC identified certain markets for national regulators to decide, consistent with EC guidelines on market analysis, whether ex ante obligations were necessary in their respective countries due to an operator holding “significant market power.” In 2003 the EC identified 18 such markets. After observing technological and market changes over the next four years, the EC reduced that number to seven in 2007 and, in 2014, the number was further reduced to four markets, all wholesale markets, that could potentially require ex ante regulation.
It is important to highlight that this framework is not uniquely achievable in Europe because of some special trait in its markets, regulatory structure, or antitrust framework. Determining the right balance of regulatory rules and competition law, whether enforced by a telecom regulator, antitrust regulator, or multi-purpose authority (i.e., with authority over both competition and telecom) means choosing from a menu of options that should be periodically assessed to move toward better performance and practice. There is nothing jurisdiction-specific about this; it is simply a matter of good governance.
And since the early 2000s, scholars have highlighted that the US is in an intriguing position to transition to a merged regulator because, for example, it has both a “highly liberalized telecommunications sector and a well-established body of antitrust law.” For Shelanski, among others, the US has been ready to make the transition since 2007.
Far from being an aberrant move away from sound telecom regulation, the FCC’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order is actually a step in the direction of sensible, antitrust-based telecom regulation — one that many parts of the world have long since undertaken.
How antitrust oversight of telecom markets has been implemented around the globe
In implementing the EU’s shift toward antitrust oversight of the telecom sector since 2003, agencies have adopted a number of different organizational reforms.
Other European Member States have eliminated their telecom regulator altogether. In a useful case study, Roslyn Layton and Joe Kane outline Denmark’s approach, which includes disbanding its telecom regulator and passing the regulation of the sector to various executive agencies.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands and Spain each elected to merge its telecom regulator into its competition authority. New Zealand has similarly adopted this framework.
A few brief case studies will illuminate these and other reforms:
In 2013, the Netherlands merged its telecom, consumer protection, and competition regulators to form the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM). The ACM’s structure streamlines decision-making on pending industry mergers and acquisitions at the managerial level, eliminating the challenges arising from overlapping agency reviews and cross-agency coordination. The reform also unified key regulatory methodologies, such as creating a consistent calculation method for the weighted average cost of capital (WACC).
The combination of strength and flexibility allows for a problem-based approach where the authority first engages in a dialogue with a particular market player in order to discuss market behaviour and ensure the well-functioning of the market.
The Netherlands also cited a significant reduction in the risk of regulatory capture as staff no longer remain in positions for long tenures but rather rotate on a project-by-project basis from a regulatory to a competition department or vice versa. Moving staff from team to team has also added value in terms of knowledge transfer among the staff. Finally, while combining the cultures of each regulator was less difficult than expected, the government reported that the largest cause of consternation in the process was agreeing on a single IT system for the ACM.
In 2013, Spain created the National Authority for Markets and Competition (CNMC), merging the National Competition Authority with several sectoral regulators, including the telecom regulator, to “guarantee cohesion between competition rulings and sectoral regulation.” In a report to the OECD, Spain stated that moving to the new model was necessary because of increasing competition and technological convergence in the sector (i.e., the ability for different technologies to offer the substitute services (like fixed and wireless Internet access)). It added that integrating its telecom regulator with its competition regulator ensures
a predictable business environment and legal certainty [i.e., removing “any threat of arbitrariness”] for the firms. These two conditions are indispensable for network industries — where huge investments are required — but also for the rest of the business community if investment and innovation are to be promoted.
Like in the Netherlands, additional benefits include significantly lowering the risk of regulatory capture by “preventing the alignment of the authority’s performance with sectoral interests.”
In 2011, the Danish government unexpectedly dismantled the National IT and Telecom Agency and split its duties between four regulators. While the move came as a surprise, it did not engender national debate — vitriolic or otherwise — nor did it receive much attention in the press.
Since the dismantlement scholars have observed less politicization of telecom regulation. And even though the competition authority didn’t take over telecom regulatory duties, the Ministry of Business and Growth implemented a light touch regime, which, as Layton and Kane note, has helped to turn Denmark into one of the “top digital nations” according to the International Telecommunication Union’s Measuring the Information Society Report.
The New Zealand Commerce Commission (NZCC) is responsible for antitrust enforcement, economic regulation, consumer protection, and certain sectoral regulations, including telecommunications. By combining functions into a single regulator New Zealand asserts that it can more cost-effectively administer government operations. Combining regulatory functions also created spillover benefits as, for example, competition analysis is a prerequisite for sectoral regulation, and merger analysis in regulated sectors (like telecom) can leverage staff with detailed and valuable knowledge. Similar to the other countries, New Zealand also noted that the possibility of regulatory capture “by the industries they regulate is reduced in an agency that regulates multiple sectors or also has competition and consumer law functions.”
Advantages identified by other organizations
The GSMA, a mobile industry association, notes in its 2016 report, Resetting Competition Policy Frameworks for the Digital Ecosystem, that merging the sector regulator into the competition regulator also mitigates regulatory creep by eliminating the prodding required to induce a sector regulator to roll back regulation as technological evolution requires it, as well as by curbing the sector regulator’s temptation to expand its authority. After all, regulators exist to regulate.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that eliminating the telecom regulator has not gone off without a hitch in every case (most notably, in Spain). It’s important to understand, however, that the difficulties that have arisen in specific contexts aren’t endemic to the nature of competition versus telecom regulation. Nothing about these cases suggests that economic-based telecom regulations are inherently essential, or that replacing sector-specific oversight with antitrust oversight can’t work.
Contrasting approaches to net neutrality in the EU and New Zealand
Unfortunately, adopting a proper framework and implementing sweeping organizational reform is no guarantee of consistent decisionmaking in its implementation. Thus, in 2015, the European Parliament and Council of the EU went against two decades of telecommunications best practices by implementing ex ante net neutrality regulations without hard evidence of widespread harm and absent any competition analysis to justify its decision. The EU placed net neutrality under the universal service and user’s rights prong of the regulatory framework, and the resulting rules lack coherence and economic rigor.
BEREC’s net neutrality guidelines, meant to clarify the EU regulations, offered an ambiguous, multi-factored standard to evaluate ISP practices like free data programs. And, as mentioned in a previous TOTM post, whether or not they allow the practice, regulators (e.g., Norway’s Nkom and the UK’s Ofcom) have lamented the lack of regulatory certainty surrounding free data programs.
Notably, while BEREC has not provided clear guidance, a 2017 report commissioned by the EU’s Directorate-General for Competition weighing competitive benefits and harms of zero rating concluded “there appears to be little reason to believe that zero-rating gives rise to competition concerns.”
The report also provides an ex post framework for analyzing such deals in the context of a two-sided market by assessing a deal’s impact on competition between ISPs and between content and application providers.
The EU example demonstrates that where a telecom regulator perceives a novel problem, competition law, grounded in economic principles, brings a clear framework to bear.
In New Zealand, if a net neutrality issue were to arise, the ISP’s behavior would be examined under the context of existing antitrust law, including a determination of whether the ISP is exercising market power, and by the Telecommunications Commissioner, who monitors competition and the development of telecom markets for the NZCC.
Currently, there is broad consensus among stakeholders, including a local content providers and networking equipment manufacturers, that there is no need for ex ante regulation of net neutrality. Wholesale ISP, Chorus, states, for example, that “in any event, the United States’ transparency and non-interference requirements [from the 2015 OIO] are arguably covered by the TCF Code disclosure rules and the provisions of the Commerce Act.”
The TCF Code is a mandatory code of practice establishing requirements concerning the information ISPs are required to disclose to consumers about their services. For example, ISPs must disclose any arrangements that prioritize certain traffic. Regarding traffic management, complaints of unfair contract terms — when not resolved by a process administered by an independent industry group — may be referred to the NZCC for an investigation in accordance with the Fair Trading Act. Under the Commerce Act, the NZCC can prohibit anticompetitive mergers, or practices that substantially lessen competition or that constitute price fixing or abuse of market power.
In addition, the NZCC has been active in patrolling vertical agreements between ISPs and content providers — precisely the types of agreements bemoaned by Title II net neutrality proponents.
In February 2017, the NZCC blocked Vodafone New Zealand’s proposed merger with Sky Network (combining Sky’s content and pay TV business with Vodafone’s broadband and mobile services) because the Commission concluded that the deal would substantially lessen competition in relevant broadband and mobile services markets. The NZCC was
unable to exclude the real chance that the merged entity would use its market power over premium live sports rights to effectively foreclose a substantial share of telecommunications customers from rival telecommunications services providers (TSPs), resulting in a substantial lessening of competition in broadband and mobile services markets.
Such foreclosure would result, the NZCC argued, from exclusive content and integrated bundles with features such as “zero rated Sky Sport viewing over mobile.” In addition, Vodafone would have the ability to prevent rivals from creating bundles using Sky Sport.
The substance of the Vodafone/Sky decision notwithstanding, the NZCC’s intervention is further evidence that antitrust isn’t a mere smokescreen for regulators to do nothing, and that regulators don’t need to design novel tools (such as the Internet conduct rule in the 2015 OIO) to regulate something neither they nor anyone else knows very much about: “not just the sprawling Internet of today, but also the unknowable Internet of tomorrow.” Instead, with ex post competition enforcement, regulators can allow dynamic innovation and competition to develop, and are perfectly capable of intervening — when and if identifiable harm emerges.
Unfortunately for Title II proponents — who have spent a decade at the FCC lobbying for net neutrality rules despite a lack of actionable evidence — the FCC is not acting without precedent by enabling the FTC’s antitrust and consumer protection enforcement to police conduct in Internet access markets. For two decades, the object of telecommunications regulation globally has been to transition away from sector-specific ex ante regulation to ex post competition review and enforcement. It’s high time the U.S. got on board.
In recent years, the European Union’s (EU) administrative body, the European Commission (EC), increasingly has applied European competition law in a manner that undermines free market dynamics. In particular, its approach to “dominant” firm conduct disincentivizes highly successful companies from introducing product and service innovations that enhance consumer welfare and benefit the economy – merely because they threaten to harm less efficient competitors.
For example, the EC fined Microsoft 561 million euros in 2013 for its failure to adhere to an order that it offer a version of its Window software suite that did not include its popular Windows Media Player (WMP) – despite the lack of consumer demand for a “dumbed down” Windows without WMP. This EC intrusion into software design has been described as a regulatory “quagmire.”
In June 2017 the EC fined Google 2.42 billion euros for allegedly favoring its own comparison shopping service over others favored in displaying Google search results – ignoring economic research that shows Google’s search policies benefit consumers. Google also faces potentially higher EC antitrust fines due to alleged abuses involving android software (bundling of popular Google search and Chrome apps), a product that has helped spur dynamic smartphone innovations and foster new markets.
Furthermore, other highly innovative single firms, such as Apple and Amazon (favorable treatment deemed “state aids”), Qualcomm (alleged anticompetitive discounts), and Facebook (in connection with its WhatsApp acquisition), face substantial EC competition law penalties.
Underlying the EC’s current enforcement philosophy is an implicit presumption that innovations by dominant firms violate competition law if they in any way appear to disadvantage competitors. That presumption forgoes considering the actual effects on the competitive process of dominant firm activities. This is a recipe for reduced innovation, as successful firms “pull their competitive punches” to avoid onerous penalties.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) implicitly recognized this problem in its September 6, 2017 decision setting aside the European General Court’s affirmance of the EC’s 2009 1.06 billion euro fine against Intel. Intel involved allegedly anticompetitive “loyalty rebates” by Intel, which allowed buyers to achieve cost savings in Intel chip purchases. In remanding the Intel case to the General Court for further legal and factual analysis, the ECJ’s opinion stressed that the EC needed to do more than find a dominant position and categorize the rebates in order to hold Intel liable. The EC also needed to assess the “capacity of [Intel’s] . . . practice to foreclose competitors which are at least as efficient” and whether any exclusionary effect was outweighed by efficiencies that also benefit consumers. In short, evidence-based antitrust analysis was required. Mere reliance on presumptions was not enough. Why? Because competition on the merits is centered on the recognition that the departure of less efficient competitors is part and parcel of consumer welfare-based competition on the merits. As the ECJ cogently put it:
[I]t must be borne in mind that it is in no way the purpose of Article 102 TFEU [which prohibits abuse of a dominant position] to prevent an undertaking from acquiring, on its own merits, the dominant position on a market. Nor does that provision seek to ensure that competitors less efficient than the undertaking with the dominant position should remain on the market . . . . [N]ot every exclusionary effect is necessarily detrimental to competition. Competition on the merits may, by definition, lead to the departure from the market or the marginalisation of competitors that are less efficient and so less attractive to consumers from the point of view of, among other things, price, choice, quality or innovation[.]
Although the ECJ’s recent decision is commendable, it does not negate the fact that Intel had to wait eight years to have its straightforward arguments receive attention – and the saga is far from over, since the General Court has to address this matter once again. These sorts of long-term delays, during which firms face great uncertainty (and the threat of further EC investigations and fines), are antithetical to innovative activity by enterprises deemed dominant. In short, unless and until the EC changes its competition policy perspective on dominant firm conduct (and there are no indications that such a change is imminent), innovation and economic dynamism will suffer.
Even if the EC dithers, the United Kingdom’s (UK) imminent withdrawal from the EU (Brexit) provides it with a unique opportunity to blaze a new competition policy trail – and perhaps in so doing influence other jurisdictions.
In particular, Brexit will enable the UK’s antitrust enforcer, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), to adopt an outlook on competition policy in general – and on single firm conduct in particular – that is more sensitive to innovation and economic dynamism. What might such a CMA enforcement policy look like? It should reject the EC’s current approach. It should focus instead on the actual effects of competitive activity. In particular, it should incorporate the insights of decision theory (see here, for example) and place great weight on efficiencies (see here, for example).
Let us hope that the CMA acts boldly – carpe diem. Such action, combined with other regulatory reforms, could contribute substantially to the economic success of Brexit (see here).
Today I published an article in The Daily Signal bemoaning the European Commission’s June 27 decision to fine Google $2.7 billion for engaging in procompetitive, consumer welfare-enhancing conduct. The article is reproduced below (internal hyperlinks omitted), in italics:
On June 27, the European Commission—Europe’s antitrust enforcer—fined Google over $2.7 billion for a supposed violation of European antitrust law that bestowed benefits, not harm, on consumers.
And that’s just for starters. The commission is vigorously pursuing other antitrust investigations of Google that could lead to the imposition of billions of dollars in additional fines by European bureaucrats.
The legal outlook for Google is cloudy at best. Although the commission’s decisions can be appealed to European courts, European Commission bureaucrats have a generally good track record in winning before those tribunals.
But the problem is even bigger than that.
Recently, questionable antitrust probes have grown like topsy around the world, many of them aimed at America’s most creative high-tech firms. Beneficial innovations have become legal nightmares—good for defense lawyers, but bad for free market competition and the health of the American economy.
What great crime did Google commit to merit the huge European Commission fine?
The commission claims that Google favored its own comparison shopping service over others in displaying Google search results.
Never mind that consumers apparently like the shopping-related service links they find on Google (after all, they keep using its search engine in droves), or can patronize any other search engine or specialized comparison shopping service that can be found with a few clicks of the mouse.
This is akin to saying that Kroger or Walmart harm competition when they give favorable shelf space displays to their house brands. That’s ridiculous.
Somehow, such “favoritism” does not prevent consumers from flocking to those successful chains, or patronizing their competitors if they so choose. It is the essence of vigorous free market rivalry.
The commission’s theory of anticompetitive behavior doesn’t hold water, as I explained in an earlier article. The Federal Trade Commission investigated Google’s search engine practices several years ago and found no evidence that alleged Google search engine display bias harmed consumers.
To the contrary, as former FTC Commissioner (and leading antitrust expert) Josh Wright has pointed out, and as the FTC found:
Google likely benefited consumers by prominently displaying its vertical content on its search results page. The Commission reached this conclusion based upon, among other things, analyses of actual consumer behavior—so-called ‘click through’ data—which showed how consumers reacted to Google’s promotion of its vertical properties.
In short, Google’s search policies benefit consumers. Antitrust is properly concerned with challenging business practices that harm consumer welfare and the overall competitive process, not with propping up particular competitors.
Absent a showing of actual harm to consumers, government antitrust cops—whether in Europe, the U.S., or elsewhere—should butt out.
Unfortunately, the European Commission shows no sign of heeding this commonsense advice. The Europeans have also charged Google with antitrust violations—with multibillion-dollar fines in the offing—based on the company’s promotion of its Android mobile operating service and its AdSense advertising service.
(That’s not all—other European Commission Google inquiries are also pending.)
As in the shopping services case, these investigations appear to be woefully short on evidence of harm to competition and consumer welfare.
The bigger question raised by the Google matters is the ability of any highly successful individual competitor to efficiently promote and favor its own offerings—something that has long been understood by American enforcers to be part and parcel of free-market competition.
As law Professor Michael Carrier points outs, any changes the EU forces on Google’s business model “could eventually apply to any way that Amazon, Facebook or anyone else offers to search for products or services.”
This is troublesome. Successful American information-age companies have already run afoul of the commission’s regulatory cops.
Microsoft and Intel absorbed multibillion-dollar European Commission antitrust fines in recent years, based on other theories of competitive harm. Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, among others, have faced European probes of their competitive practices and “privacy policies”—the terms under which they use or share sensitive information from consumers.
Often, these probes have been supported by less successful rivals who would rather rely on government intervention than competition on the merits.
Of course, being large and innovative is not a legal shield. Market-leading companies merit being investigated for actions that are truly harmful. The law applies equally to everyone.
But antitrust probes of efficient practices that confer great benefits on consumers (think how much the Google search engine makes it easier and cheaper to buy desired products and services and obtain useful information), based merely on the theory that some rivals may lose business, do not advance the free market. They retard it.
Who loses when zealous bureaucrats target efficient business practices by large, highly successful firms, as in the case of the European Commission’s Google probes and related investigations? The general public.
“Platform firms” like Google and Amazon that bring together consumers and other businesses will invest less in improving their search engines and other consumer-friendly features, for fear of being accused of undermining less successful competitors.
As a result, the supply of beneficial innovations will slow, and consumers will be less well off.
What’s more, competition will weaken, as the incentive to innovate to compete effectively with market leaders will be reduced. Regulation and government favor will substitute for welfare-enhancing improvement in goods, services, and platform quality. Economic vitality will inevitably be reduced, to the public’s detriment.
Europe is not the only place where American market leaders face unwarranted antitrust challenges.
For example, Qualcomm and InterDigital, U.S. firms that are leaders in smartphone communications technologies that power mobile interconnections, have faced large antitrust fines for, in essence, “charging too much” for licenses to their patented technologies.
South Korea also claimed to impose a “global remedy” that imposed its artificially low royalty rates on all of Qualcomm’s licensing agreements around the world.
(All this is part and parcel of foreign government attacks on American intellectual property—patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets—that cost U.S. innovators hundreds of billions of dollars a year.)
A lack of basic procedural fairness in certain foreign antitrust proceedings has also bedeviled American companies, preventing them from being able to defend their conduct. Foreign antitrust has sometimes been perverted into a form of “industrial policy” that discriminates against American companies in favor of domestic businesses.
What can be done to confront these problems?
In 2016, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce convened a group of trade and antitrust experts to examine the problem. In March 2017, the chamber released a report by the experts describing the nature of the problem and making specific recommendations for U.S. government action to deal with it.
Specifically, the experts urged that a White House-led interagency task force be set up to develop a strategy for dealing with unwarranted antitrust attacks on American businesses—including both misapplication of legal rules and violations of due process.
The report also called for the U.S. government to work through existing international institutions and trade negotiations to promote a convergence toward sounder antitrust practices worldwide.
The Trump administration should take heed of the experts’ report and act decisively to combat harmful foreign antitrust distortions. Antitrust policy worldwide should focus on helping the competitive process work more efficiently, not on distorting it by shacking successful innovators.
One more point, not mentioned in the article, merits being stressed. Although the United States Government cannot control a foreign sovereign’s application of its competition law, it can engage in rhetoric and public advocacy aimed at convincing that sovereign to apply its law in a manner that promotes consumer welfare, competition on the merits, and economic efficiency. Regrettably, the Obama Administration, particularly in the latter part of its second term, did a miserable job in promoting a facts-based, empirical approach to antitrust enforcement, centered on hard facts, not on mere speculative theories of harm. In particular, certain political appointees lent lip service or silent acquiescence to inappropriate antitrust attacks on the unilateral exercise of intellectual property rights. In addition, those senior officials made statements that could have been interpreted as supportive of populist “big is bad” conceptions of antitrust that had been discredited decades ago – through sound scholarship, by U.S. enforcement policies, and in judicial decisions. The Trump Administration will have an opportunity to correct those errors, and to restore U.S. policy leadership in support of sound, pro-free market antitrust principles. Let us hope that it does so, and soon.