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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants to review in advance all future acquisitions by Facebook parent Meta Platforms. According to a Sept. 2 Bloomberg report, in connection with its challenge to Meta’s acquisition of fitness-app maker Within Unlimited,  the commission “has asked its in-house court to force both Meta and [Meta CEO Mark] Zuckerberg to seek approval from the FTC before engaging in any future deals.”

This latest FTC decision is inherently hyper-regulatory, anti-free market, and contrary to the rule of law. It also is profoundly anti-consumer.

Like other large digital-platform companies, Meta has conferred enormous benefits on consumers (net of payments to platforms) that are not reflected in gross domestic product statistics. In a December 2019 Harvard Business Review article, Erik Brynjolfsson and Avinash Collis reported research finding that Facebook:

…generates a median consumer surplus of about $500 per person annually in the United States, and at least that much for users in Europe. … [I]ncluding the consumer surplus value of just one digital good—Facebook—in GDP would have added an average of 0.11 percentage points a year to U.S. GDP growth from 2004 through 2017.

The acquisition of complementary digital assets—like the popular fitness app produced by Within—enables Meta to continually enhance the quality of its offerings to consumers and thereby expand consumer surplus. It reflects the benefits of economic specialization, as specialized assets are made available to enhance the quality of Meta’s offerings. Requiring Meta to develop complementary assets in-house, when that is less efficient than a targeted acquisition, denies these benefits.

Furthermore, in a recent editorial lambasting the FTC’s challenge to a Meta-Within merger as lacking a principled basis, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that the challenge also removes incentive for venture-capital investments in promising startups, a result at odds with free markets and innovation:

Venture capitalists often fund startups on the hope that they will be bought by larger companies. [FTC Chair Lina] Khan is setting down the marker that the FTC can block acquisitions merely to prevent big companies from getting bigger, even if they don’t reduce competition or harm consumers. This will chill investment and innovation, and it deserves a burial in court.

This is bad enough. But the commission’s proposal to require blanket preapprovals of all future Meta mergers (including tiny acquisitions well under regulatory pre-merger reporting thresholds) greatly compounds the harm from its latest ill-advised merger challenge. Indeed, it poses a blatant challenge to free-market principles and the rule of law, in at least three ways.

  1. It substitutes heavy-handed ex ante regulatory approval for a reliance on competition, with antitrust stepping in only in those limited instances where the hard facts indicate a transaction will be anticompetitive. Indeed, in one key sense, it is worse than traditional economic regulation. Empowering FTC staff to carry out case-by-case reviews of all proposed acquisitions inevitably will generate arbitrary decision-making, perhaps based on a variety of factors unrelated to traditional consumer-welfare-based antitrust. FTC leadership has abandoned sole reliance on consumer welfare as the touchstone of antitrust analysis, paving the wave for potentially abusive and arbitrary enforcement decisions. By contrast, statutorily based economic regulation, whatever its flaws, at least imposes specific standards that staff must apply when rendering regulatory determinations.
  2. By abandoning sole reliance on consumer-welfare analysis, FTC reviews of proposed Meta acquisitions may be expected to undermine the major welfare benefits that Meta has previously bestowed upon consumers. Given the untrammeled nature of these reviews, Meta may be expected to be more cautious in proposing transactions that could enhance consumer offerings. What’s more, the general anti-merger bias by current FTC leadership would undoubtedly prompt them to reject some, if not many, procompetitive transactions that would confer new benefits on consumers.
  3. Instituting a system of case-by-case assessment and approval of transactions is antithetical to the normal American reliance on free markets, featuring limited government intervention in market transactions based on specific statutory guidance. The proposed review system for Meta lacks statutory warrant and (as noted above) could promote arbitrary decision-making. As such, it seriously flouts the rule of law and threatens substantial economic harm (sadly consistent with other ill-considered initiatives by FTC Chair Khan, see here and here).

In sum, internet-based industries, and the big digital platforms, have thrived under a system of American technological freedom characterized as “permissionless innovation.” Under this system, the American people—consumers and producers—have been the winners.

The FTC’s efforts to micromanage future business decision-making by Meta, prompted by the challenge to a routine merger, would seriously harm welfare. To the extent that the FTC views such novel interventionism as a bureaucratic template applicable to other disfavored large companies, the American public would be the big-time loser.

A recent viral video captures a prevailing sentiment in certain corners of social media, and among some competition scholars, about how mergers supposedly work in the real world: firms start competing on price, one firm loses out, that firm agrees to sell itself to the other firm and, finally, prices are jacked up.(Warning: Keep the video muted. The voice-over is painful.)

The story ends there. In this narrative, the combination offers no possible cost savings. The owner of the firm who sold doesn’t start a new firm and begin competing tomorrow, and nor does anyone else. The story ends with customers getting screwed.

And in this telling, it’s not just horizontal mergers that look like the one in the viral egg video. It is becoming a common theory of harm regarding nonhorizontal acquisitions that they are, in fact, horizontal acquisitions in disguise. The acquired party may possibly, potentially, with some probability, in the future, become a horizontal competitor. And of course, the story goes, all horizontal mergers are anticompetitive.

Therefore, we should have the same skepticism toward all mergers, regardless of whether they are horizontal or vertical. Steve Salop has argued that a problem with the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) 2020 vertical merger guidelines is that they failed to adopt anticompetitive presumptions.

This perspective is not just a meme on Twitter. The FTC and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) are currently revising their guidelines for merger enforcement and have issued a request for information (RFI). The working presumption in the RFI (and we can guess this will show up in the final guidelines) is exactly the takeaway from the video: Mergers are bad. Full stop.

The RFI repeatedly requests information that would support the conclusion that the agencies should strengthen merger enforcement, rather than information that might point toward either stronger or weaker enforcement. For example, the RFI asks:

What changes in standards or approaches would appropriately strengthen enforcement against mergers that eliminate a potential competitor?

This framing presupposes that enforcement should be strengthened against mergers that eliminate a potential competitor.

Do Monopoly Profits Always Exceed Joint Duopoly Profits?

Should we assume enforcement, including vertical enforcement, needs to be strengthened? In a world with lots of uncertainty about which products and companies will succeed, why would an incumbent buy out every potential competitor? The basic idea is that, since profits are highest when there is only a single monopolist, that seller will always have an incentive to buy out any competitors.

The punchline for this anti-merger presumption is “monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits.” The argument is laid out most completely by Salop, although the argument is not unique to him. As Salop points out:

I do not think that any of the analysis in the article is new. I expect that all the points have been made elsewhere by others and myself.

Under the model that Salop puts forward, there should, in fact, be a presumption against any acquisition, not just horizontal acquisitions. He argues that:

Acquisitions of potential or nascent competitors by a dominant firm raise inherent anticompetitive concerns. By eliminating the procompetitive impact of the entry, an acquisition can allow the dominant firm to continue to exercise monopoly power and earn monopoly profits. The dominant firm also can neutralize the potential innovation competition that the entrant would provide.

We see a presumption against mergers in the recent FTC challenge of Meta’s purchase of Within. While Meta owns Oculus, a virtual-reality headset and Within owns virtual-reality fitness apps, the FTC challenged the acquisition on grounds that:

The Acquisition would cause anticompetitive effects by eliminating potential competition from Meta in the relevant market for VR dedicated fitness apps.

Given the prevalence of this perspective, it is important to examine the basic model’s assumptions. In particular, is it always true that—since monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits—incumbents have an incentive to eliminate potential competition for anticompetitive reasons?

I will argue no. The notion that monopoly profits exceed joint-duopoly profits rests on two key assumptions that hinder the simple application of the “merge to monopoly” model to antitrust.

First, even in a simple model, it is not always true that monopolists have both the ability and incentive to eliminate any potential entrant, simply because monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits.

For the simplest complication, suppose there are two possible entrants, rather than the common assumption of just one entrant at a time. The monopolist must now pay each of the entrants enough to prevent entry. But how much? If the incumbent has already paid one potential entrant not to enter, the second could then enter the market as a duopolist, rather than as one of three oligopolists. Therefore, the incumbent must pay the second entrant an amount sufficient to compensate a duopolist, not their share of a three-firm oligopoly profit. The same is true for buying the first entrant. To remain a monopolist, the incumbent would have to pay each possible competitor duopoly profits.

Because monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits, it is profitable to pay a single entrant half of the duopoly profit to prevent entry. It is not, however, necessarily profitable for the incumbent to pay both potential entrants half of the duopoly profit to avoid entry by either. 

Now go back to the video. Suppose two passersby, who also happen to have chickens at home, notice that they can sell their eggs. The best part? They don’t have to sit around all day; the lady on the right will buy them. The next day, perhaps, two new egg sellers arrive.

For a simple example, consider a Cournot oligopoly model with an industry-inverse demand curve of P(Q)=1-Q and constant marginal costs that are normalized to zero. In a market with N symmetric sellers, each seller earns 1/((N+1)^2) in profits. A monopolist makes a profit of 1/4. A duopolist can expect to earn a profit of 1/9. If there are three potential entrants, plus the incumbent, the monopolist must pay each the duopoly profit of 3*1/9=1/3, which exceeds the monopoly profits of 1/4.

In the Nash/Cournot equilibrium, the incumbent will not acquire any of the competitors, since it is too costly to keep them all out. With enough potential entrants, the monopolist in any market will not want to buy any of them out. In that case, the outcome involves no acquisitions.

If we observe an acquisition in a market with many potential entrants, which any given market may or may not have, it cannot be that the merger is solely about obtaining monopoly profits, since the model above shows that the incumbent doesn’t have incentives to do that.

If our model captures the dynamics of the market (which it may or may not, depending on a given case’s circumstances) but we observe mergers, there must be another reason for that deal besides maintaining a monopoly. The presence of multiple potential entrants overturns the antitrust implications of the truism that monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits. The question turns instead to empirical analysis of the merger and market in question, as to whether it would be profitable to acquire all potential entrants.

The second simplifying assumption that restricts the applicability of Salop’s baseline model is that the incumbent has the lowest cost of production. He rules out the possibility of lower-cost entrants in Footnote 2:

Monopoly profits are not always higher. The entrant may have much lower costs or a better or highly differentiated product. But higher monopoly profits are more usually the case.

If one allows the possibility that an entrant may have lower costs (even if those lower costs won’t be achieved until the future, when the entrant gets to scale), it does not follow that monopoly profits (under the current higher-cost monopolist) necessarily exceed duopoly profits (with a lower-cost producer involved).

One cannot simply assume that all firms have the same costs or that the incumbent is always the lowest-cost producer. This is not just a modeling choice but has implications for how we think about mergers. As Geoffrey Manne, Sam Bowman, and Dirk Auer have argued:

Although it is convenient in theoretical modeling to assume that similarly situated firms have equivalent capacities to realize profits, in reality firms vary greatly in their capabilities, and their investment and other business decisions are dependent on the firm’s managers’ expectations about their idiosyncratic abilities to recognize profit opportunities and take advantage of them—in short, they rest on the firm managers’ ability to be entrepreneurial.

Given the assumptions that all firms have identical costs and there is only one potential entrant, Salop’s framework would find that all possible mergers are anticompetitive and that there are no possible efficiency gains from any merger. That’s the thrust of the video. We assume that the whole story is two identical-seeming women selling eggs. Since the acquired firm cannot, by assumption, have lower costs of production, it cannot improve on the incumbent’s costs of production.

Many Reasons for Mergers

But whether a merger is efficiency-reducing and bad for competition and consumers needs to be proven, not just assumed.

If we take the basic acquisition model literally, every industry would have just one firm. Every incumbent would acquire every possible competitor, no matter how small. After all, monopoly profits are higher than duopoly profits, and so the incumbent both wants to and can preserve its monopoly profits. The model does not give us a way to disentangle when mergers would stop without antitrust enforcement.

Mergers do not affect the production side of the economy, under this assumption, but exist solely to gain the market power to manipulate prices. Since the model finds no downsides for the incumbent to acquiring a competitor, it would naturally acquire every last potential competitor, no matter how small, unless prevented by law. 

Once we allow for the possibility that firms differ in productivity, however, it is no longer true that monopoly profits are greater than industry duopoly profits. We can see this most clearly in situations where there is “competition for the market” and the market is winner-take-all. If the entrant to such a market has lower costs, the profit under entry (when one firm wins the whole market) can be greater than the original monopoly profits. In such cases, monopoly maintenance alone cannot explain an entrant’s decision to sell.

An acquisition could therefore be both procompetitive and increase consumer welfare. For example, the acquisition could allow the lower-cost entrant to get to scale quicker. The acquisition of Instagram by Facebook, for example, brought the photo-editing technology that Instagram had developed to a much larger market of Facebook users and provided a powerful monetization mechanism that was otherwise unavailable to Instagram.

In short, the notion that incumbents can systematically and profitably maintain their market position by acquiring potential competitors rests on assumptions that, in practice, will regularly and consistently fail to materialize. It is thus improper to assume that most of these acquisitions reflect efforts by an incumbent to anticompetitively maintain its market position.

Having earlier passed through subcommittee, the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA) has now been cleared for floor consideration by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. Before the markup, we noted that the ADPPA mimics some of the worst flaws found in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), while creating new problems that the GDPR had avoided. Alas, the amended version of the legislation approved by the committee not only failed to correct those flaws, but in some cases it actually undid some of the welcome corrections that had been made to made to the original discussion draft.

Is Targeted Advertising ‘Strictly Necessary’?

The ADPPA’s original discussion draft classified “information identifying an individual’s online activities over time or across third party websites” in the broader category of “sensitive covered data,” for which a consumer’s expression of affirmative consent (“cookie consent”) would be required to collect or process. Perhaps noticing the questionable utility of such a rule, the bill’s sponsors removed “individual’s online activities” from the definition of “sensitive covered data” in the version of ADPPA that was ultimately introduced.

The manager’s amendment from Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) reverted that change and “individual’s online activities” are once again deemed to be “sensitive covered data.” However, the marked-up version of the ADPPA doesn’t require express consent to collect sensitive covered data. In fact, it seems not to consider the possibility of user consent; firms will instead be asked to prove that their collection of sensitive data was a “strict necessity.”

The new rule for sensitive data—in Section 102(2)—is that collecting or processing such data is allowed “where such collection or processing is strictly necessary to provide or maintain a specific product or service requested by the individual to whom the covered data pertains, or is strictly necessary to effect a purpose enumerated” in Section 101(b) (though with exceptions—notably for first-party advertising and targeted advertising).

This raises the question of whether, e.g., the use of targeted advertising based on a user’s online activities is “strictly necessary” to provide or maintain Facebook’s social network? Even if the courts eventually decide, in some cases, that it is necessary, we can expect a good deal of litigation on this point. This litigation risk will impose significant burdens on providers of ad-supported online services. Moreover, it would effectively invite judges to make business decisions, a role for which they are profoundly ill-suited.

Given that the ADPPA includes the “right to opt-out of targeted advertising”—in Section 204(c)) and a special targeted advertising “permissible purpose” in Section 101(b)(17)—this implies that it must be possible for businesses to engage in targeted advertising. And if it is possible, then collecting and processing the information needed for targeted advertising—including information on an “individual’s online activities,” e.g., unique identifiers – Section 2(39)—must be capable of being “strictly necessary to provide or maintain a specific product or service requested by the individual.” (Alternatively, it could have been strictly necessary for one of the other permissible purposes from Section 101(b), but none of them appear to apply to collecting data for the purpose of targeted advertising).

The ADPPA itself thus provides for the possibility of targeted advertising. Therefore, there should be no reason for legal ambiguity about when collecting “individual’s online activities” is “strictly necessary to provide or maintain a specific product or service requested by the individual.” Do we want judges or other government officials to decide which ad-supported services “strictly” require targeted advertising? Choosing business models for private enterprises is hardly an appropriate role for the government. The easiest way out of this conundrum would be simply to revert back to the ill-considered extension of “sensitive covered data” in the ADPPA version that was initially introduced.

Developing New Products and Services

As noted previously, the original ADPPA discussion draft allowed first-party use of personal data to “provide or maintain a specific product or service requested by an individual” (Section 101(a)(1)). What about using the data to develop new products and services? Can a business even request user consent for that? Under the GDPR, that is possible. Under the ADPPA, it may not be.

The general limitation on data use (“provide or maintain a specific product or service requested by an individual”) was retained from the ADPPA original discussion in the version approved by the committee. As originally introduced, the bill included an exception that could have partially addressed the concern in Section 101(b)(2) (emphasis added):

With respect to covered data previously collected in accordance with this Act, notwithstanding this exception, to process such data as necessary to perform system maintenance or diagnostics, to maintain a product or service for which such data was collected, to conduct internal research or analytics, to improve a product or service for which such data was collected …

Arguably, developing new products and services largely involves “internal research or analytics,” which would be covered under this exception. If the business later wanted to invite users of an old service to use a new service, the business could contact them based on a separate exception for first-party marketing and advertising (Section 101(b)(11) of the introduced bill).

This welcome development was reversed in the manager’s amendment. The new text of the exception (now Section 101(b)(2)(C)) is narrower in a key way (emphasis added): “to conduct internal research or analytics to improve a product or service for which such data was collected.” Hence, it still looks like businesses will find it difficult to use first-party data to develop new products or services.

‘De-Identified Data’ Remains Unclear

Our earlier analysis noted significant confusion in the ADPPA’s concept of “de-identified data.” Neither the introduced version nor the markup amendments addressed those concerns, so it seems worthwhile to repeat and update the criticism here. The drafters seemed to be aiming for a partial exemption from the default data-protection regime for datasets that no longer contain personally identifying information, but that are derived from datasets that once did. Instead of providing such an exemption, however, the rules for de-identified data essentially extend the ADPPA’s scope to nonpersonal data, while also creating a whole new set of problems.

The basic problem is that the definition of “de-identified data” in the ADPPA is not limited to data derived from identifiable data. In the marked-up version, the definition covers: “information that does not identify and is not linked or reasonably linkable to a distinct individual or a device, regardless of whether the information is aggregated.” In other words, it is the converse of “covered data” (personal data): whatever is not “covered data” is “de-identified data.” Even if some data are not personally identifiable and are not a result of a transformation of data that was personally identifiable, they still count as “de-identified data.” If this reading is correct, it creates an absurd result that sweeps all information into the scope of the ADPPA.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that this confusion can be fixed and that the definition of “de-identified data” is limited to data that is:

  1. derived from identifiable data but
  2. that hold a possibility of re-identification (weaker than “reasonably linkable”) and
  3. are processed by the entity that previously processed the original identifiable data.

Remember that we are talking about data that are not “reasonably linkable to an individual.” Hence, the intent appears to be that the rules on de-identified data would apply to nonpersonal data that would otherwise not be covered by the ADPPA.

The rationale for this may be that it is difficult, legally and practically, to differentiate between personally identifiable data and data that are not personally identifiable. A good deal of seemingly “anonymous” data may be linked to an individual—e.g., by connecting the dataset at hand with some other dataset.

The case for regulation in an example where a firm clearly dealt with personal data, and then derived some apparently de-identified data from them, may actually be stronger than in the case of a dataset that was never directly derived from personal data. But is that case sufficient to justify the ADPPA’s proposed rules?

The ADPPA imposes several duties on entities dealing with “de-identified data” in Section 2(12) of the marked-up version:

  1. To take “reasonable technical measures to ensure that the information cannot, at any point, be used to re-identify any individual or device that identifies or is linked or reasonably linkable to an individual”;
  2. To publicly commit “in a clear and conspicuous manner—
    1. to process and transfer the information solely in a de-identified form without any reasonable means for re-identification; and
    1. to not attempt to re-identify the information with any individual or device that identifies or is linked or reasonably linkable to an individual;”
  3. To “contractually obligate[] any person or entity that receives the information from the covered entity or service provider” to comply with all of the same rules and to include such an obligation “in all subsequent instances for which the data may be received.”

The first duty is superfluous and adds interpretative confusion, given that de-identified data, by definition, are not “reasonably linkable” with individuals.

The second duty — public commitment — unreasonably restricts what can be done with nonpersonal data. Firms may have many legitimate reasons to de-identify data and then to re-identify them later. This provision would effectively prohibit firms from attempts at data minimization (resulting in de-identification) if those firms may at any point in the future need to link the data with individuals. It seems that the drafters had some very specific (and likely rare) mischief in mind here, but ended up prohibiting a vast sphere of innocuous activity.

Note that, for data to become “de-identified data,” they must first be collected and processed as “covered data” in conformity with the ADPPA and then transformed (de-identified) in such a way as to no longer meet the definition of “covered data.” If someone then re-identifies the data, this will again constitute “collection” of “covered data” under the ADPPA. At every point of the process, personally identifiable data is covered by the ADPPA rules on “covered data.”

Finally, the third duty—“share alike” (to “contractually obligate[] any person or entity that receives the information from the covered entity to comply”)—faces a very similar problem as the second duty. Under this provision, the only way to preserve the option for a third party to identify the individuals linked to the data will be for the third party to receive the data in a personally identifiable form. In other words, this provision makes it impossible to share data in a de-identified form while preserving the possibility of re-identification.

Logically speaking, we would have expected a possibility to share the data in a de-identified form; this would align with the principle of data minimization. What the ADPPA does instead is to effectively impose a duty to share de-identified personal data together with identifying information. This is a truly bizarre result, directly contrary to the principle of data minimization.

Fundamental Issues with Enforcement

One of the most important problems with the ADPPA is its enforcement provisions. Most notably, the private right of action creates pernicious incentives for excessive litigation by providing for both compensatory damages and open-ended injunctive relief. Small businesses have a right to cure before damages can be sought, but many larger firms are not given a similar entitlement. Given such open-ended provisions as whether using web-browsing behavior is “strictly necessary” to improve a product or service, the litigation incentives become obvious. At the very least, there should be a general opportunity to cure, particularly given the broad restrictions placed on essentially all data use.

The bill also creates multiple overlapping power centers for enforcement (as we have previously noted):

The bill carves out numerous categories of state law that would be excluded from pre-emption… as well as several specific state laws that would be explicitly excluded, including Illinois’ Genetic Information Privacy Act and elements of the California Consumer Privacy Act. These broad carve-outs practically ensure that ADPPA will not create a uniform and workable system, and could potentially render the entire pre-emption section a dead letter. As written, it offers the worst of both worlds: a very strict federal baseline that also permits states to experiment with additional data-privacy laws.

Unfortunately, the marked-up version appears to double down on these problems. For example, the bill pre-empts the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) from enforcing sections 222, 338(i), and 631 of the Communications Act, which pertain to privacy and data security. An amendment was offered that would have pre-empted the FCC from enforcing any provisions of the Communications Act (e.g., sections 201 and 202) for data-security and privacy purposes, but it was withdrawn. Keeping two federal regulators on the beat for a single subject area creates an inefficient regime. The FCC should be completely pre-empted from regulating privacy issues for covered entities.

The amended bill also includes an ambiguous provision that appears to serve as a partial carveout for enforcement by the California Privacy Protection Agency (CCPA). Some members of the California delegation—notably, committee members Anna Eshoo and Doris Matsui (both D-Calif.)—have expressed concern that the bill would pre-empt California’s own California Privacy Rights Act. A proposed amendment by Eshoo to clarify that the bill was merely a federal “floor” and that state laws may go beyond ADPPA’s requirements failed in a 48-8 roll call vote. However, the marked-up version of the legislation does explicitly specify that the CPPA “may enforce this Act, in the same manner, it would otherwise enforce the California Consumer Privacy Act.” How courts might interpret this language should the CPPA seek to enforce provisions of the CCPA that otherwise conflict with the ADPPA is unclear, thus magnifying the problem of compliance with multiple regulators.

Conclusion

As originally conceived, the basic conceptual structure of the ADPPA was, to a very significant extent, both confused and confusing. Not much, if anything, has since improved—especially in the marked-up version that regressed the ADPPA to some of the notably bad features of the original discussion draft. The rules on de-identified data are also very puzzling: their effect contradicts the basic principle of data minimization that the ADPPA purports to uphold. Those examples strongly suggest that the ADPPA is still far from being a properly considered candidate for a comprehensive federal privacy legislation.

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

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

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

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

Is Change ‘Urgently Needed’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will AICOA Break Popular Products and Services?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should the US Follow Europe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Restrictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assumptions

The CTDAA assumes that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple:

Microsoft:

Amazon:

Alphabet (Google):

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are Google’s Android-related acquisitions:

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

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

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

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

The wave of populist antitrust that has been embraced by regulators and legislators in the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, and other jurisdictions rests on the assumption that currently dominant platforms occupy entrenched positions that only government intervention can dislodge. Following this view, Facebook will forever dominate social networking, Amazon will forever dominate cloud computing, Uber and Lyft will forever dominate ridesharing, and Amazon and Netflix will forever dominate streaming. This assumption of platform invincibility is so well-established that some policymakers advocate significant interventions without making any meaningful inquiry into whether a seemingly dominant platform actually exercises market power.

Yet this assumption is not supported by historical patterns in platform markets. It is true that network effects drive platform markets toward “winner-take-most” outcomes. But the winner is often toppled quickly and without much warning. There is no shortage of examples.

In 2007, a columnist in The Guardian observed that “it may already be too late for competitors to dislodge MySpace” and quoted an economist as authority for the proposition that “MySpace is well on the way to becoming … a natural monopoly.” About one year later, Facebook had overtaken MySpace “monopoly” in the social-networking market. Similarly, it was once thought that Blackberry would forever dominate the mobile-communications device market, eBay would always dominate the online e-commerce market, and AOL would always dominate the internet-service-portal market (a market that no longer even exists). The list of digital dinosaurs could go on.

All those tech leaders were challenged by entrants and descended into irrelevance (or reduced relevance, in eBay’s case). This occurred through the force of competition, not government intervention.

Why This Time is Probably Not Different

Given this long line of market precedents, current legislative and regulatory efforts to “restore” competition through extensive intervention in digital-platform markets require that we assume that “this time is different.” Just as that slogan has been repeatedly rebutted in the financial markets, so too is it likely to be rebutted in platform markets. 

There is already supporting evidence. 

In the cloud market, Amazon’s AWS now faces vigorous competition from Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud. In the streaming market, Amazon and Netflix face stiff competition from Disney+ and Apple TV+, just to name a few well-resourced rivals. In the social-networking market, Facebook now competes head-to-head with TikTok and seems to be losing. The market power once commonly attributed to leading food-delivery platforms such as Grubhub, UberEats, and DoorDash is implausible after persistent losses in most cases, and the continuous entry of new services into a rich variety of local and product-market niches.

Those who have advocated antitrust intervention on a fast-track schedule may remain unconvinced by these inconvenient facts. But the market is not. 

Investors have already recognized Netflix’s vulnerability to competition, as reflected by a 35% fall in its stock price on April 20 and a decline of more than 60% over the past 12 months. Meta, Facebook’s parent, also experienced a reappraisal, falling more than 26% on Feb. 3 and more than 35% in the past 12 months. Uber, the pioneer of the ridesharing market, has declined by almost 50% over the past 12 months, while Lyft, its principal rival, has lost more than 60% of its value. These price freefalls suggest that antitrust populists may be pursuing solutions to a problem that market forces are already starting to address.

The Forgotten Curse of the Incumbent

For some commentators, the sharp downturn in the fortunes of the so-called “Big Tech” firms would not come as a surprise.

It has long been observed by some scholars and courts that a dominant firm “carries the seeds of its own destruction”—a phrase used by then-professor and later-Judge Richard Posner, writing in the University of Chicago Law Review in 1971. The reason: a dominant firm is liable to exhibit high prices, mediocre quality, or lackluster innovation, which then invites entry by more adept challengers. However, this view has been dismissed as outdated in digital-platform markets, where incumbents are purportedly protected by network effects and switching costs that make it difficult for entrants to attract users. Depending on the set of assumptions selected by an economic modeler, each contingency is equally plausible in theory.

The plunging values of leading platforms supplies real-world evidence that favors the self-correction hypothesis. It is often overlooked that network effects can work in both directions, resulting in a precipitous fall from market leader to laggard. Once users start abandoning a dominant platform for a new competitor, network effects operating in reverse can cause a “run for the exits” that leaves the leader with little time to recover. Just ask Nokia, the world’s leading (and seemingly unbeatable) smartphone brand until the Apple iPhone came along.

Why Market Self-Correction Outperforms Regulatory Correction

Market self-correction inherently outperforms regulatory correction: it operates far more rapidly and relies on consumer preferences to reallocate market leadership—a result perfectly consistent with antitrust’s mission to preserve “competition on the merits.” In contrast, policymakers can misdiagnose the competitive effects of business practices; are susceptible to the influence of private interests (especially those that are unable to compete on the merits); and often mispredict the market’s future trajectory. For Exhibit A, see the protracted antitrust litigation by the U.S. Department against IBM, which started in 1975 and ended in withdrawal of the suit in 1982. Given the launch of the Apple II in 1977, the IBM PC in 1981, and the entry of multiple “PC clones,” the forces of creative destruction swiftly displaced IBM from market leadership in the computing industry.

Regulators and legislators around the world have emphasized the urgency of taking dramatic action to correct claimed market failures in digital environments, casting aside prudential concerns over the consequences if any such failure proves to be illusory or temporary. 

But the costs of regulatory failure can be significant and long-lasting. Markets must operate under unnecessary compliance burdens that are difficult to modify. Regulators’ enforcement resources are diverted, and businesses are barred from adopting practices that would benefit consumers. In particular, proposed breakup remedies advocated by some policymakers would undermine the scale economies that have enabled platforms to push down prices, an important consideration in a time of accelerating inflation.

Conclusion

The high concentration levels and certain business practices in digital-platform markets certainly raise important concerns as a matter of antitrust (as well as privacy, intellectual property, and other bodies of) law. These concerns merit scrutiny and may necessitate appropriately targeted interventions. Yet, any policy steps should be anchored in the factually grounded analysis that has characterized decades of regulatory and judicial action to implement the antitrust laws with appropriate care. Abandoning this nuanced framework for a blunt approach based on reflexive assumptions of market power is likely to undermine, rather than promote, the public interest in competitive markets.

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

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

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

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

The Antitrust Section’s Comments

As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes:

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

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

Departing from established antitrust-law principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opaque language for opaque ideas

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

The following post was authored by counsel with White & Case LLP, who represented the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) in an amicus brief filed on behalf of itself and 12 distinguished law & economics scholars with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in support of affirming U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg’s dismissal of various States Attorneys General’s antitrust case brought against Facebook (now, Meta Platforms).

Introduction

The States brought an antitrust complaint against Facebook alleging that various conduct violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act. The ICLE brief addresses the States’ allegations that Facebook refused to provide access to an input, a set of application-programming interfaces that developers use in order to access Facebook’s network of social-media users (Facebook’s Platform), in order to prevent those third parties from using that access to export Facebook data to competitors or to compete directly with Facebook.

Judge Boasberg dismissed the States’ case without leave to amend, relying on recent Supreme Court precedent, including Trinko and Linkline, on refusals to deal. The Supreme Court strongly disfavors forced sharing, as shown by its decisions that recognize very few exceptions to the ability of firms to deal with whom they choose. Most notably, Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing is a 1985 decision recognizing an exception to the general rule that firms may deal with whom they want that was limited, though not expressly overturned, by Trinko in 2004. The States appealed to the D.C. Circuit on several grounds, including by relying on Aspen Skiing, and advocating for a broader view of refusals to deal than dictated by current jurisprudence. 

ICLE’s brief addresses whether the District Court was correct to dismiss the States’ allegations that Facebook’s Platform policies violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act in light of the voluminous body of precedent and scholarship concerning refusals to deal. ICLE’s brief argues that Judge Boasberg’s opinion is consistent with economic and legal principles, allowing firms to choose with whom they deal. Furthermore, the States’ allegations did not make out a claim under Aspen Skiing, which sets forth extremely narrow circumstances that may constitute an improper refusal to deal.  Finally, ICLE takes issue with the States’ attempt to create an amorphous legal standard for refusals to deal or otherwise shoehorn their allegations into a “conditional dealing” framework.

Economic Actors Should Be Able to Choose Their Business Partners

ICLE’s basic premise is that firms in a free-market system should be able to choose their business partners. Forcing firms to enter into certain business relationships can have the effect of stifling innovation, because the firm getting the benefit of the forced dealing then lacks incentive to create their own inputs. On the other side of the forced dealing, the owner would have reduced incentives to continue to innovate, invest, or create intellectual property. Forced dealing, therefore, has an adverse effect on the fundamental nature of competition. As the Supreme Court stated in Trinko, this compelled sharing creates “tension with the underlying purpose of antitrust law, since it may lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in those economically beneficial facilities.” 

Courts Are Ill-Equipped to Regulate the Kind of Forced Sharing Advocated by the States

ICLE also notes the inherent difficulties of a court’s assessing forced access and the substantial risk of error that could create harm to competition. This risk, ICLE notes, is not merely theoretical and would require the court to scrutinize intricate details of a dynamic industry and determine which decisions are lawful or not. Take the facts of New York v. Facebook: more than 10 million apps and websites had access to Platform during the relevant period and the States took issue with only seven instances where Facebook had allegedly improperly prevented access to Platform. Assessing whether conduct would create efficiency in one circumstance versus another is challenging at best and always risky. As Frank Easterbook wrote: “Anyone who thinks that judges would be good at detecting the few situations in which cooperation would do more good than harm has not studied the history of antitrust.”

Even assuming a court has rightly identified a potentially anticompetitive refusal to deal, it would then be put to the task of remedying it. But imposing a remedy, and in effect assuming the role of a regulator, is similarly complicated. This is particularly true in dynamic, quickly evolving industries, such as social media. This concern is highlighted by the broad injunction the States seek in this case: to “enjoin[] and restrain [Facebook] from continuing to engage in any anticompetitive conduct and from adopting in the future any practice, plan, program, or device having a similar purpose or effect to the anticompetitive actions set forth above.”  Such a remedy would impose conditions on Facebook’s dealings with competitors for years to come—regardless of how the industry evolves.

Courts Should Not Expand Refusal-to-Deal Analysis Beyond the Narrow Circumstances of Aspen Skiing

In light of the principles above, the Supreme Court, as stated in Trinko, “ha[s] been very cautious in recognizing [refusal-to-deal] exceptions, because of the uncertain virtue of forced sharing and the difficulty of identifying and remedying anticompetitive conduct by a single firm.” Various scholars (e.g., Carlton, Meese, Lopatka, Epstein) have analyzed Aspen Skiing consistently with Trinko as, at most, “at or near the boundary of § 2 liability.”

So is a refusal-to-deal claim ever viable?  ICLE argues that refusal-to-deal claims have been rare (rightly so) and, at most, should only go forward under the delineated circumstances in Aspen Skiing. ICLE sets forth the 10th U.S. Circuit’s framework in Novell, which makes clear that “the monopolist’s conduct must be irrational but for its anticompetitive effect.”

  • First, “there must be a preexisting voluntary and presumably profitable course of dealing between the monopolist and rival.”
  • Second, “the monopolist’s discontinuation of the preexisting course of dealing must suggest a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve an anti-competitive end.”
  • Finally, even if these two factors are present, the court recognized that “firms routinely sacrifice short-term profits for lots of legitimate reasons that enhance consumer welfare.”

The States seek to broaden Aspen Skiing in order to sinisterize Facebook’s Platform policies, but the facts do not fit. The States do not plead an about-face with respect to Facebook’s Platform policies; the States do not allege that Facebook’s changes to its policies were irrational (particularly in light of the dynamic industry in which Facebook operates); and the States do not allege that Facebook engaged in less efficient behavior with the goal of hurting rivals. Indeed, Facebook changed its policies to retain users—which is essential to its business model (and therefore, rational).

The States try to evade these requirements by arguing for a looser refusal-to-deal standard (and by trying to shoehorn the conduct as “conditional dealing”)—but as ICLE explains, allowing such a claim to go forward would fly in the face of the economic and policy goals upheld by the current jurisprudence. 

Conclusion

The District Court was correct to dismiss the States’ allegations concerning Facebook’s Platform policies. Allowing a claim against Facebook to progress under the circumstances alleged in the States’ complaint would violate the principle that a firm, even one that is a monopolist, should not be held liable for refusing to deal with a certain business partner. The District Court’s decision is in line with key economic principles concerning refusals to deal and consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision in Aspen Skiing. Aspen Skiing is properly read to severely limit the circumstances giving rise to a refusal-to-deal claim, or else risk adverse effects such as reduced incentive to innovate.  

Amici Scholars Signing on to the Brief

(The ICLE brief presents the views of the individual signers listed below. Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.)

Henry Butler
Henry G. Manne Chair in Law and Economics and Executive Director of the Law & Economics Center, Scalia Law School
Daniel Lyons
Professor of Law, Boston College Law School
Richard A. Epstein
Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at NY School of Law, the Peter and Kirsten Bedford Senior Lecturer at the Hoover Institution, and the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus
Geoffrey A. Manne
President and Founder, International Center for Law & Economics, Distinguished Fellow Northwestern University Center on Law, Business & Economics
Thomas Hazlett
H.H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics and Director of the Information Economy Project, Clemson University
Alan J. Meese
Ball Professor of Law, Co-Director, Center for the Study of Law and Markets, William & Mary Law School
Justin (Gus) Hurwitz
Professor of Law and Menard Director of the Nebraska Governance and Technology Center, University of Nebraska College of Law
Paul H. Rubin
Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics Emeritus, Emory University
Jonathan Klick
Charles A. Heimbold, Jr. Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law; Erasmus Chair of Empirical Legal Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam
Michael Sykuta
Associate Professor of Economics and Executive Director of Financial Research Institute, University of Missouri Division of Applied Social Sciences
Thomas A. Lambert
Wall Chair in Corporate Law and Governance, University of Missouri Law School
John Yun
Associate Professor of Law and Deputy Executive Director of the Global Antitrust Institute, Scalia Law School

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is at it again, threatening new sorts of regulatory interventions in the legitimate welfare-enhancing activities of businesses—this time in the realm of data collection by firms.

Discussion

In an April 11 speech at the International Association of Privacy Professionals’ Global Privacy Summit, FTC Chair Lina Khan set forth a litany of harms associated with companies’ data-acquisition practices. Certainly, fraud and deception with respect to the use of personal data has the potential to cause serious harm to consumers and is the legitimate target of FTC enforcement activity. At the same time, the FTC should take into account the substantial benefits that private-sector data collection may bestow on the public (see, for example, here, here, and here) in order to formulate economically beneficial law-enforcement protocols.

Chair Khan’s speech, however, paid virtually no attention to the beneficial side of data collection. To the contrary, after highlighting specific harmful data practices, Khan then waxed philosophical in condemning private data-collection activities (citations omitted):

Beyond these specific harms, the data practices of today’s surveillance economy can create and exacerbate deep asymmetries of information—exacerbating, in turn, imbalances of power. As numerous scholars have noted, businesses’ access to and control over such vast troves of granular data on individuals can give those firms enormous power to predict, influence, and control human behavior. In other words, what’s at stake with these business practices is not just one’s subjective preference for privacy, but—over the long term—one’s freedom, dignity, and equal participation in our economy and society.

Even if one accepts that private-sector data practices have such transcendent social implications, are the FTC’s philosopher kings ideally equipped to devise optimal policies that promote “freedom, dignity, and equal participation in our economy and society”? Color me skeptical. (Indeed, one could argue that the true transcendent threat to society from fast-growing growing data collection comes not from businesses but, rather, from the government, which unlike private businesses holds a legal monopoly on the right to use or authorize the use of force. This question is, however, beyond the scope of my comments.)

Chair Khan turned from these highfalutin musings to a more prosaic and practical description of her plans for “adapting the commission’s existing authority to address and rectify unlawful data practices.” She stressed “focusing on firms whose business practices cause widespread harm”; “assessing data practices through both a consumer protection and competition lens”; and “designing effective remedies that are informed by the business strategies that specific markets favor and reward.” These suggestions are not inherently problematic, but they need to be fleshed out in far greater detail. For example, there are potentially major consumer-protection risks posed by applying antitrust to “big data” problems (see here, here and here, for example).

Khan ended her presentation by inviting us “to consider how we might need to update our [FTC] approach further yet.” Her suggested “updates” raise significant problems.

First, she stated that the FTC “is considering initiating a rulemaking to address commercial surveillance and lax data security practices.” Even assuming such a rulemaking could withstand legal scrutiny (its best shot would be to frame it as a consumer protection rule, not a competition rule), it would pose additional serious concerns. One-size-fits-all rules prevent consideration of possible economic efficiencies associated with specific data-security and surveillance practices. Thus, some beneficial practices would be wrongly condemned. Such rules would also likely deter firms from experimenting and innovating in ways that could have led to improved practices. In both cases, consumer welfare would suffer.

Second, Khan asserted “the need to reassess the frameworks we presently use to assess unlawful conduct. Specifically, I am concerned that present market realities may render the ‘notice and consent’ paradigm outdated and insufficient.” Accordingly, she recommended that “we should approach data privacy and security protections by considering substantive limits rather than just procedural protections, which tend to create process requirements while sidestepping more fundamental questions about whether certain types of data collection should be permitted in the first place.”  

In support of this startling observation, Khan approvingly cites Daniel Solove’s article “The Myth of the Privacy Paradox,” which claims that “[t]he fact that people trade their privacy for products or services does not mean that these transactions are desirable in their current form. … [T]he mere fact that people make a tradeoff doesn’t mean that the tradeoff is fair, legitimate, or justifiable.”

Khan provides no economic justification for a data-collection ban. The implication that the FTC would consider banning certain types of otherwise legal data collection is at odds with free-market principles and would have disastrous economic consequences for both consumers and producers. It strikes at voluntary exchange, a basic principle of market economics that benefits transactors and enables markets to thrive.

Businesses monetize information provided by consumers to offer a host of goods and services that satisfy consumer interests. This is particularly true in the case of digital platforms. Preventing the voluntary transfer of data from consumers to producers based on arbitrary government concerns about “fairness” (for example) would strike at firms’ ability to monetize data and thereby generate additional consumer and producer surplus. The arbitrary destruction of such potential economic value by government fiat would be the essence of “unfairness.”

In particular, the consumer welfare benefits generated by digital platforms, which depend critically on large volumes of data, are enormous. As Erik Brynjolfsson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his student Avinash Collis explained in a December 2019 article in the Harvard Business Review, such benefits far exceed those measured by conventional GDP. Online choice experiments based on digital-survey techniques enabled the authors “to estimate the consumer surplus for a great variety of goods, including free ones that are missing from GDP statistics.” Brynjolfsson and Collis found, for example, that U.S. consumers derived $231 billion in value from Facebook since its inception in 2004. Furthermore:

[O]ur estimates indicate that the [Facebook] platform generates a median consumer surplus of about $500 per person annually in the United States, and at least that much for users in Europe. In contrast, average revenue per user is only around $140 per year in United States and $44 per year in Europe. In other words, Facebook operates one of the most advanced advertising platforms, yet its ad revenues represent only a fraction of the total consumer surplus it generates. This reinforces research by NYU Stern School’s Michael Spence and Stanford’s Bruce Owen that shows that advertising revenues and consumer surplus are not always correlated: People can get a lot of value from content that doesn’t generate much advertising, such as Wikipedia or email. So it is a mistake to use advertising revenues as a substitute for consumer surplus…

In a similar vein, the authors found that various user-fee-based digital services yield consumer surplus five to ten times what users paid to access them. What’s more:

The effect of consumer surplus is even stronger when you look at categories of digital goods. We conducted studies to measure it for the most popular categories in the United States and found that search is the most valued category (with a median valuation of more than $17,000 a year), followed by email and maps. These categories do not have comparable off-line substitutes, and many people consider them essential for work and everyday life. When we asked participants how much they would need to be compensated to give up an entire category of digital goods, we found that the amount was higher than the sum of the value of individual applications in it. That makes sense, since goods within a category are often substitutes for one another.

In sum, the authors found:

To put the economic contributions of digital goods in perspective, we find that including the consumer surplus value of just one digital good—Facebook—in GDP would have added an average of 0.11 percentage points a year to U.S. GDP growth from 2004 through 2017. During this period, GDP rose by an average of 1.83% a year. Clearly, GDP has been substantially underestimated over that time.

Although far from definitive, this research illustrates how a digital-services model, based on voluntary data transfer and accumulation, has brought about enormous economic welfare benefits. Accordingly, FTC efforts to tamper with such a success story on abstruse philosophical grounds not only would be unwarranted, but would be economically disastrous. 

Conclusion

The FTC clearly plans to focus on “abuses” in private-sector data collection and usage. In so doing, it should hone in on those practices that impose clear harm to consumers, particularly in the areas of deception and fraud. It is not, however, the FTC’s role to restructure data-collection activities by regulatory fiat, through far-reaching inflexible rules and, worst of all, through efforts to ban collection of “inappropriate” information.

Such extreme actions would predictably impose substantial harm on consumers and producers. They would also slow innovation in platform practices and retard efficient welfare-generating business initiatives tied to the availability of broad collections of data. Eventually, the courts would likely strike down most harmful FTC data-related enforcement and regulatory initiatives, but substantial welfare losses (including harm due to a chilling effect on efficient business conduct) would be borne by firms and consumers in the interim. In short, the enforcement “updates” Khan recommends would reduce economic welfare—the opposite of what (one assumes) is intended.

For these reasons, the FTC should reject the chair’s overly expansive “updates.” It should instead make use of technologists, economists, and empirical research to unearth and combat economically harmful data practices. In doing so, the commission should pay attention to cost-benefit analysis and error-cost minimization. One can only hope that Khan’s fellow commissioners promptly endorse this eminently reasonable approach.   

A raft of progressive scholars in recent years have argued that antitrust law remains blind to the emergence of so-called “attention markets,” in which firms compete by converting user attention into advertising revenue. This blindness, the scholars argue, has caused antitrust enforcers to clear harmful mergers in these industries.

It certainly appears the argument is gaining increased attention, for lack of a better word, with sympathetic policymakers. In a recent call for comments regarding their joint merger guidelines, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ask:

How should the guidelines analyze mergers involving competition for attention? How should relevant markets be defined? What types of harms should the guidelines consider?

Unfortunately, the recent scholarly inquiries into attention markets remain inadequate for policymaking purposes. For example, while many progressives focus specifically on antitrust authorities’ decisions to clear Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram and 2014 purchase of WhatsApp, they largely tend to ignore the competitive constraints Facebook now faces from TikTok (here and here).

When firms that compete for attention seek to merge, authorities need to infer whether the deal will lead to an “attention monopoly” (if the merging firms are the only, or primary, market competitors for some consumers’ attention) or whether other “attention goods” sufficiently constrain the merged entity. Put another way, the challenge is not just in determining which firms compete for attention, but in evaluating how strongly each constrains the others.

As this piece explains, recent attention-market scholarship fails to offer objective, let alone quantifiable, criteria that might enable authorities to identify firms that are unique competitors for user attention. These limitations should counsel policymakers to proceed with increased rigor when they analyze anticompetitive effects.

The Shaky Foundations of Attention Markets Theory

Advocates for more vigorous antitrust intervention have raised (at least) three normative arguments that pertain attention markets and merger enforcement.

  • First, because they compete for attention, firms may be more competitively related than they seem at first sight. It is sometimes said that these firms are nascent competitors.
  • Second, the scholars argue that all firms competing for attention should not automatically be included in the same relevant market.
  • Finally, scholars argue that enforcers should adopt policy tools to measure market power in these attention markets—e.g., by applying a SSNIC test (“small but significant non-transitory increase in cost”), rather than a SSNIP test (“small but significant non-transitory increase in price”).

There are some contradictions among these three claims. On the one hand, proponents advocate adopting a broad notion of competition for attention, which would ensure that firms are seen as competitively related and thus boost the prospects that antitrust interventions targeting them will be successful. When the shoe is on the other foot, however, proponents fail to follow the logic they have sketched out to its natural conclusion; that is to say, they underplay the competitive constraints that are necessarily imposed by wider-ranging targets for consumer attention. In other words, progressive scholars are keen to ensure the concept is not mobilized to draw broader market definitions than is currently the case:

This “massive market” narrative rests on an obvious fallacy. Proponents argue that the relevant market includes all substitutable sources of attention depletion,” so the market is “enormous.”

Faced with this apparent contradiction, scholars retort that the circle can be squared by deploying new analytical tools that measure attention for competition, such as the so-called SSNIC test. But do these tools actually resolve the contradiction? It would appear, instead, that they merely enable enforcers to selectively mobilize the attention-market concept in ways that fit their preferences. Consider the following description of the SSNIC test, by John Newman:

But if the focus is on the zero-price barter exchange, the SSNIP test requires modification. In such cases, the “SSNIC” (Small but Significant and Non-transitory Increase in Cost) test can replace the SSNIP. Instead of asking whether a hypothetical monopolist would increase prices, the analyst should ask whether the monopolist would likely increase attention costs. The relevant cost increases can take the form of more time or space being devoted to advertisements, or the imposition of more distracting advertisements. Alternatively, one might ask whether the hypothetical monopolist would likely impose an “SSNDQ” (Small but Significant and Non-Transitory Decrease in Quality). The latter framing should generally be avoided, however, for reasons discussed below in the context of anticompetitive effects. Regardless of framing, however, the core question is what would happen if the ratio between desired content to advertising load were to shift.

Tim Wu makes roughly the same argument:

The A-SSNIP would posit a hypothetical monopolist who adds a 5-second advertisement before the mobile map, and leaves it there for a year. If consumers accepted the delay, instead of switching to streaming video or other attentional options, then the market is correctly defined and calculation of market shares would be in order.

The key problem is this: consumer switching among platforms is consistent both with competition and with monopoly power. In fact, consumers are more likely to switch to other goods when they are faced with a monopoly. Perhaps more importantly, consumers can and do switch to a whole range of idiosyncratic goods. Absent some quantifiable metric, it is simply impossible to tell which of these alternatives are significant competitors.

None of this is new, of course. Antitrust scholars have spent decades wrestling with similar issues in connection with the price-related SSNIP test. The upshot of those debates is that the SSNIP test does not measure whether price increases cause users to switch. Instead, it examines whether firms can profitably raise prices above the competitive baseline. Properly understood, this nuance renders proposed SSNIC and SSNDQ tests (“small but significant non-transitory decrease in quality”) unworkable.

First and foremost, proponents wrongly presume to know how firms would choose to exercise their market power, rendering the resulting tests unfit for policymaking purposes. This mistake largely stems from the conflation of price levels and price structures in two-sided markets. In a two-sided market, the price level refers to the cumulative price charged to both sides of a platform. Conversely, the price structure refers to the allocation of prices among users on both sides of a platform (i.e., how much users on each side contribute to the costs of the platform). This is important because, as Jean Charles Rochet and Jean Tirole show in their Nobel-winning work, changes to either the price level or the price structure both affect economic output in two-sided markets.

This has powerful ramifications for antitrust policy in attention markets. To be analytically useful, SSNIC and SSNDQ tests would have to alter the price level while holding the price structure equal. This is the opposite of what attention-market theory advocates are calling for. Indeed, increasing ad loads or decreasing the quality of services provided by a platform, while holding ad prices constant, evidently alters platforms’ chosen price structure.

This matters. Even if the proposed tests were properly implemented (which would be difficult: it is unclear what a 5% quality degradation would look like), the tests would likely lead to false negatives, as they force firms to depart from their chosen (and, thus, presumably profit-maximizing) price structure/price level combinations.

Consider the following illustration: to a first approximation, increasing the quantity of ads served on YouTube would presumably decrease Google’s revenues, as doing so would simultaneously increase output in the ad market (note that the test becomes even more absurd if ad revenues are held constant). In short, scholars fail to recognize that the consumer side of these markets is intrinsically related to the ad side. Each side affects the other in ways that prevent policymakers from using single-sided ad-load increases or quality decreases as an independent variable.

This leads to a second, more fundamental, flaw. To be analytically useful, these increased ad loads and quality deteriorations would have to be applied from the competitive baseline. Unfortunately, it is not obvious what this baseline looks like in two-sided markets.

Economic theory tells us that, in regular markets, goods are sold at marginal cost under perfect competition. However, there is no such shortcut in two-sided markets. As David Evans and Richard Schmalensee aptly summarize:

An increase in marginal cost on one side does not necessarily result in an increase in price on that side relative to price on the other. More generally, the relationship between price and cost is complex, and the simple formulas that have been derived by single-handed markets do not apply.

In other words, while economic theory suggests perfect competition among multi-sided platforms should result in zero economic profits, it does not say what the allocation of prices will look like in this scenario. There is thus no clearly defined competitive baseline upon which to apply increased ad loads or quality degradations. And this makes the SSNIC and SSNDQ tests unsuitable.

In short, the theoretical foundations necessary to apply the equivalent of a SSNIP test on the “free” side of two-sided platforms are largely absent (or exceedingly hard to apply in practice). Calls to implement SSNIC and SSNDQ tests thus greatly overestimate the current state of the art, as well as decision-makers’ ability to solve intractable economic conundrums. The upshot is that, while proposals to apply the SSNIP test to attention markets may have the trappings of economic rigor, the resemblance is superficial. As things stand, these tests fail to ascertain whether given firms are in competition, and in what market.

The Bait and Switch: Qualitative Indicia

These problems with the new quantitative metrics likely explain why proponents of tougher enforcement in attention markets often fall back upon qualitative indicia to resolve market-definition issues. As John Newman writes:

Courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have long employed practical indicia as a flexible, workable means of defining relevant markets. This approach considers real-world factors: products’ functional characteristics, the presence or absence of substantial price differences between products, whether companies strategically consider and respond to each other’s competitive conduct, and evidence that industry participants or analysts themselves identify a grouping of activity as a discrete sphere of competition. …The SSNIC test may sometimes be massaged enough to work in attention markets, but practical indicia will often—perhaps usually—be the preferable method

Unfortunately, far from resolving the problems associated with measuring market power in digital markets (and of defining relevant markets in antitrust proceedings), this proposed solution would merely focus investigations on subjective and discretionary factors.

This can be easily understood by looking at the FTC’s Facebook complaint regarding its purchases of WhatsApp and Instagram. The complaint argues that Facebook—a “social networking service,” in the eyes of the FTC—was not interchangeable with either mobile-messaging services or online-video services. To support this conclusion, it cites a series of superficial differences. For instance, the FTC argues that online-video services “are not used primarily to communicate with friends, family, and other personal connections,” while mobile-messaging services “do not feature a shared social space in which users can interact, and do not rely upon a social graph that supports users in making connections and sharing experiences with friends and family.”

This is a poor way to delineate relevant markets. It wrongly portrays competitive constraints as a binary question, rather than a matter of degree. Pointing to the functional differences that exist among rival services mostly fails to resolve this question of degree. It also likely explains why advocates of tougher enforcement have often decried the use of qualitative indicia when the shoe is on the other foot—e.g., when authorities concluded that Facebook did not, in fact, compete with Instagram because their services were functionally different.

A second, and related, problem with the use of qualitative indicia is that they are, almost by definition, arbitrary. Take two services that may or may not be competitors, such as Instagram and TikTok. The two share some similarities, as well as many differences. For instance, while both services enable users to share and engage with video content, they differ significantly in the way this content is displayed. Unfortunately, absent quantitative evidence, it is simply impossible to tell whether, and to what extent, the similarities outweigh the differences. 

There is significant risk that qualitative indicia may lead to arbitrary enforcement, where markets are artificially narrowed by pointing to superficial differences among firms, and where competitive constraints are overemphasized by pointing to consumer switching. 

The Way Forward

The difficulties discussed above should serve as a good reminder that market definition is but a means to an end.

As William Landes, Richard Posner, and Louis Kaplow have all observed (here and here), market definition is merely a proxy for market power, which in turn enables policymakers to infer whether consumer harm (the underlying question to be answered) is likely in a given case.

Given the difficulties inherent in properly defining markets, policymakers should redouble their efforts to precisely measure both potential barriers to entry (the obstacles that may lead to market power) or anticompetitive effects (the potentially undesirable effect of market power), under a case-by-case analysis that looks at both sides of a platform.

Unfortunately, this is not how the FTC has proceeded in recent cases. The FTC’s Facebook complaint, to cite but one example, merely assumes the existence of network effects (a potential barrier to entry) with no effort to quantify their magnitude. Likewise, the agency’s assessment of consumer harm is just two pages long and includes superficial conclusions that appear plucked from thin air:

The benefits to users of additional competition include some or all of the following: additional innovation … ; quality improvements … ; and/or consumer choice … . In addition, by monopolizing the U.S. market for personal social networking, Facebook also harmed, and continues to harm, competition for the sale of advertising in the United States.

Not one of these assertions is based on anything that could remotely be construed as empirical or even anecdotal evidence. Instead, the FTC’s claims are presented as self-evident. Given the difficulties surrounding market definition in digital markets, this superficial analysis of anticompetitive harm is simply untenable.

In short, discussions around attention markets emphasize the important role of case-by-case analysis underpinned by the consumer welfare standard. Indeed, the fact that some of antitrust enforcement’s usual benchmarks are unreliable in digital markets reinforces the conclusion that an empirically grounded analysis of barriers to entry and actual anticompetitive effects must remain the cornerstones of sound antitrust policy. Or, put differently, uncertainty surrounding certain aspects of a case is no excuse for arbitrary speculation. Instead, authorities must meet such uncertainty with an even more vigilant commitment to thoroughness.

After years of debate and negotiations, European Lawmakers have agreed upon what will most likely be the final iteration of the Digital Markets Act (“DMA”), following the March 24 final round of “trilogue” talks. 

For the uninitiated, the DMA is one in a string of legislative proposals around the globe intended to “rein in” tech companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple through mandated interoperability requirements and other regulatory tools, such as bans on self-preferencing. Other important bills from across the pond include the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, the ACCESS Act, and the Open App Markets Act

In many ways, the final version of the DMA represents the worst possible outcome, given the items that were still up for debate. The Commission caved to some of the Parliament’s more excessive demands—such as sweeping interoperability provisions that would extend not only to “ancillary” services, such as payments, but also to messaging services’ basic functionalities. Other important developments include the addition of voice assistants and web browsers to the list of Core Platform Services (“CPS”), and symbolically higher “designation” thresholds that further ensure the act will apply overwhelmingly to just U.S. companies. On a brighter note, lawmakers agreed that companies could rebut their designation as “gatekeepers,” though it remains to be seen how feasible that will be in practice. 

We offer here an overview of the key provisions included in the final version of the DMA and a reminder of the shaky foundations it rests on.

Interoperability

Among the most important of the DMA’s new rules concerns mandatory interoperability among online platforms. In a nutshell, digital platforms that are designated as “gatekeepers” will be forced to make their services “interoperable” (i.e., compatible) with those of rivals. It is argued that this will make online markets more contestable and thus boost consumer choice. But as ICLE scholars have been explaining for some time, this is unlikely to be the case (here, here, and here). Interoperability is not the panacea EU legislators claim it to be. As former ICLE Director of Competition Policy Sam Bowman has written, there are many things that could be interoperable, but aren’t. The reason is that interoperability comes with costs as well as benefits. For instance, it may be worth letting different earbuds have different designs because, while it means we sacrifice easy interoperability, we gain the ability for better designs to be brought to the market and for consumers to be able to choose among them. Economists Michael L. Katz and Carl Shapiro concur:

Although compatibility has obvious benefits, obtaining and maintaining compatibility often involves a sacrifice in terms of product variety or restraints on innovation.

There are other potential downsides to interoperability.  For instance, a given set of interoperable standards might be too costly to implement and/or maintain; it might preclude certain pricing models that increase output; or it might compromise some element of a product or service that offers benefits specifically because it is not interoperable (such as, e.g., security features). Consumers may also genuinely prefer closed (i.e., non-interoperable) platforms. Indeed: “open” and “closed” are not synonyms for “good” and “bad.” Instead, as Boston University’s Andrei Hagiu has shown, there are fundamental welfare tradeoffs at play that belie simplistic characterizations of one being inherently superior to the other. 

Further, as Sam Bowman observed, narrowing choice through a more curated experience can also be valuable for users, as it frees them from having to research every possible option every time they buy or use some product (if you’re unconvinced, try turning off your spam filter for a couple of days). Instead, the relevant choice consumers exercise might be in choosing among brands. In sum, where interoperability is a desirable feature, consumer preferences will tend to push for more of it. However, it is fundamentally misguided to treat mandatory interoperability as a cure-all elixir or a “super tool” of “digital platform governance.” In a free-market economy, it is not—or, it should not—be up to courts and legislators to substitute for businesses’ product-design decisions and consumers’ revealed preferences with their own, based on diffuse notions of “fairness.” After all, if we could entrust such decisions to regulators, we wouldn’t need markets or competition in the first place.

Of course, it was always clear that the DMA would contemplate some degree of mandatory interoperability – indeed, this was arguably the new law’s biggest selling point. What was up in the air until now was the scope of such obligations. The Commission had initially pushed for a comparatively restrained approach, requiring interoperability “only” in ancillary services, such as payment systems (“vertical interoperability”). By contrast, the European Parliament called for more expansive requirements that would also encompass social-media platforms and other messaging services (“horizontal interoperability”). 

The problem with such far-reaching interoperability requirements is that they are fundamentally out of pace with current privacy and security capabilities. As ICLE Senior Scholar Mikolaj Barczentewicz has repeatedly argued, the Parliament’s insistence on going significantly beyond the original DMA’s proposal and mandating interoperability of messaging services is overly broad and irresponsible. Indeed, as Mikolaj notes, the “likely result is less security and privacy, more expenses, and less innovation.”The DMA’s defensers would retort that the law allows gatekeepers to do what is “strictly necessary” (Council) or “indispensable” (Parliament) to protect safety and privacy (it is not yet clear which wording the final version has adopted). Either way, however, the standard may be too high and companies may very well offer lower security to avoid liability for adopting measures that would be judged by the Commission and the courts as going beyond what is “strictly necessary” or “indispensable.” These safeguards will inevitably be all the more indeterminate (and thus ineffectual) if weighed against other vague concepts at the heart of the DMA, such as “fairness.”

Gatekeeper Thresholds and the Designation Process

Another important issue in the DMA’s construction concerns the designation of what the law deems “gatekeepers.” Indeed, the DMA will only apply to such market gatekeepers—so-designated because they meet certain requirements and thresholds. Unfortunately, the factors that the European Commission will consider in conducting this designation process—revenues, market capitalization, and user base—are poor proxies for firms’ actual competitive position. This is not surprising, however, as the procedure is mainly designed to ensure certain high-profile (and overwhelmingly American) platforms are caught by the DMA.

From this perspective, the last-minute increase in revenue and market-capitalization thresholds—from 6.5 billion euros to 7.5 billion euros, and from 65 billion euros to 75 billion euros, respectively—won’t change the scope of the companies covered by the DMA very much. But it will serve to confirm what we already suspected: that the DMA’s thresholds are mostly tailored to catch certain U.S. companies, deliberately leaving out EU and possibly Chinese competitors (see here and here). Indeed, what would have made a difference here would have been lowering the thresholds, but this was never really on the table. Ultimately, tilting the European Union’s playing field against its top trading partner, in terms of exports and trade balance, is economically, politically, and strategically unwise.

As a consolation of sorts, it seems that the Commission managed to squeeze in a rebuttal mechanism for designated gatekeepers. Imposing far-reaching obligations on companies with no  (or very limited) recourse to escape the onerous requirements of the DMA would be contrary to the basic principles of procedural fairness. Still, it remains to be seen how this mechanism will be articulated and whether it will actually be viable in practice.

Double (and Triple?) Jeopardy

Two recent judgments from the European Court of Justice (ECJ)—Nordzucker and bpost—are likely to underscore the unintended effects of cumulative application of both the DMA and EU and/or national competition laws. The bpost decision is particularly relevant, because it lays down the conditions under which cases that evaluate the same persons and the same facts in two separate fields of law (sectoral regulation and competition law) do not violate the principle of ne bis in idem, also known as “double jeopardy.” As paragraph 51 of the judgment establishes:

  1. There must be precise rules to determine which acts or omissions are liable to be subject to duplicate proceedings;
  2. The two sets of proceedings must have been conducted in a sufficiently coordinated manner and within a similar timeframe; and
  3. The overall penalties must match the seriousness of the offense. 

It is doubtful whether the DMA fulfills these conditions. This is especially unfortunate considering the overlapping rules, features, and goals among the DMA and national-level competition laws, which are bound to lead to parallel procedures. In a word: expect double and triple jeopardy to be hotly litigated in the aftermath of the DMA.

Of course, other relevant questions have been settled which, for reasons of scope, we will have to leave for another time. These include the level of fines (up to 10% worldwide revenue, or 20% in the case of repeat offenses); the definition and consequences of systemic noncompliance (it seems that the Parliament’s draconian push for a general ban on acquisitions in case of systemic noncompliance has been dropped); and the addition of more core platform services (web browsers and voice assistants).

The DMA’s Dubious Underlying Assumptions

The fuss and exhilaration surrounding the impending adoption of the EU’s most ambitious competition-related proposal in decades should not obscure some of the more dubious assumptions which underpin it, such as that:

  1. It is still unclear that intervention in digital markets is necessary, let alone urgent.
  2. Even if it were clear, there is scant evidence to suggest that tried and tested ex post instruments, such as those envisioned in EU competition law, are not up to the task.
  3. Even if the prior two points had been established beyond any reasonable doubt (which they haven’t), it is still far from clear that DMA-style ex ante regulation is the right tool to address potential harms to competition and to consumers that arise in digital markets.

It is unclear that intervention is necessary

Despite a mounting moral panic around and zealous political crusading against Big Tech (an epithet meant to conjure antipathy and distrust), it is still unclear that intervention in digital markets is necessary. Much of the behavior the DMA assumes to be anti-competitive has plausible pro-competitive justifications. Self-preferencing, for instance, is a normal part of how platforms operate, both to improve the value of their core products and to earn returns to reinvest in their development. As ICLE’s Dirk Auer points out, since platforms’ incentives are to maximize the value of their entire product ecosystem, those that preference their own products frequently end up increasing the total market’s value by growing the share of users of a particular product (the example of Facebook’s integration of Instagram is a case in point). Thus, while self-preferencing may, in some cases, be harmful, a blanket presumption of harm is thoroughly unwarranted

Similarly, the argument that switching costs and data-related increasing returns to scale (in fact, data generally entails diminishing returns) have led to consumer lock-in and thereby raised entry barriers has also been exaggerated to epic proportions (pun intended). As we have discussed previously, there are plenty of counterexamples where firms have easily overcome seemingly “insurmountable” barriers to entry, switching costs, and network effects to disrupt incumbents. 

To pick a recent case: how many of us had heard of Zoom before the pandemic? Where was TikTok three years ago? (see here for a multitude of other classic examples, including Yahoo and Myspace).

Can you really say, with a straight face, that switching costs between messaging apps are prohibitive? I’m not even that active and I use at least six such apps on a daily basis: Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, Instagram, Twitter, Viber, Telegram, and Slack (it took me all of three minutes to download and start using Slack—my newest addition). In fact, chances are that, like me, you have always multihomed nonchalantly and had never even considered that switching costs were impossibly high (or that they were a thing) until the idea that you were “locked-in” by Big Tech was drilled into your head by politicians and other busybodies looking for trophies to adorn their walls.

What about the “unprecedented,” quasi-fascistic levels of economic concentration? First, measures of market concentration are sometimes anchored in flawed methodology and market definitions  (see, e.g., Epic’s insistence that Apple is a monopolist in the market for operating systems, conveniently ignoring that competition occurs at the smartphone level, where Apple has a worldwide market share of 15%—see pages 45-46 here). But even if such measurements were accurate, high levels of concentration don’t necessarily mean that firms do not face strong competition. In fact, as Nicolas Petit has shown, tech companies compete vigorously against each other across markets.

But perhaps the DMA’s raison d’etre rests less on market failure, but rather on a legal or enforcement failure? This, too, is misguided.

EU competition law is already up to the task

As Giuseppe Colangelo has argued persuasively (here and here), it is not at all clear that ex post competition regulation is insufficient to tackle anti-competitive behavior in the digital sector:

Ongoing antitrust investigations demonstrate that standard competition law still provides a flexible framework to scrutinize several practices described as new and peculiar to app stores. 

The recent Google Shopping decision, in which the Commission found that Google had abused its dominant position by preferencing its own online-shopping service in Google Search results, is a case in point (the decision was confirmed by the General Court and is now pending review before the European Court of Justice). The “self-preferencing” category has since been applied by other EU competition authorities. The Italian competition authority, for instance, fined Amazon 1 billion euros for preferencing its own distribution service, Fulfilled by Amazon, on the Amazon marketplace (i.e., Amazon.it). Thus, Article 102, which includes prohibitions on “applying dissimilar conditions to similar transactions,” appears sufficiently flexible to cover self-preferencing, as well as other potentially anti-competitive offenses relevant to digital markets (e.g., essential facilities).

For better or for worse, EU competition law has historically been sufficiently pliable to serve a range of goals and values. It has also allowed for experimentation and incorporated novel theories of harm and economic insights. Here, the advantage of competition law is that it allows for a more refined, individualized approach that can avoid some of the pitfalls of applying a one-size fits all model across all digital platforms. Those pitfalls include: harming consumers, jeopardizing the business models of some of the most successful and pro-consumer companies in existence, and ignoring the differences among platforms, such as between Google and Apple’s app stores. I turn to these issues next.

Ex ante regulation probably isn’t the right tool

Even if it were clear that intervention is necessary and that existing competition law was insufficient, it is not clear that the DMA is the right regulatory tool to address any potential harms to competition and consumers that may arise in the digital markets. Here, legislators need to be wary of unintended consequences, trade-offs, and regulatory fallibility. For one, It is possible that the DMA will essentially consolidate the power of tech platforms, turning them into de facto public utilities. This will not foster competition, but rather will make smaller competitors systematically dependent on so-called gatekeepers. Indeed, why become the next Google if you can just free ride off of the current Google? Why download an emerging messaging app if you can already interact with its users through your current one? In a way, then, the DMA may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Moreover, turning closed or semi-closed platforms such as the iOS into open platforms more akin to Android blurs the distinctions among products and dampens interbrand competition. It is a supreme paradox that interoperability and sideloading requirements purportedly give users more choice by taking away the option of choosing a “walled garden” model. As discussed above, overriding the revealed preferences of millions of users is neither pro-competitive nor pro-consumer (but it probably favors some competitors at the expense of those two things). 

Nor are many of the other obligations contemplated in the DMA necessarily beneficial to consumers. Do users really not want to have default apps come preloaded on their devices and instead have to download and install them manually? Ditto for operating systems. What is the point of an operating system if it doesn’t come with certain functionalities, such as a web browser? What else should we unbundle—keyboard on iOS? Flashlight? Do consumers really want to choose from dozens of app stores when turning on their new phone for the first time? Do they really want to have their devices cluttered with pointless split-screens? Do users really want to find all their contacts (and be found by all their contacts) across all messaging services? (I switched to Viber because I emphatically didn’t.) Do they really want to have their privacy and security compromised because of interoperability requirements?Then there is the question of regulatory fallibility. As Alden Abott has written on the DMA and other ex ante regulatory proposals aimed at “reining in” tech companies:

Sorely missing from these regulatory proposals is any sense of the fallibility of regulation. Indeed, proponents of new regulatory proposals seem to implicitly assume that government regulation of platforms will enhance welfare, ignoring real-life regulatory costs and regulatory failures (see here, for example). 

This brings us back to the second point: without evidence that antitrust law is “not up to the task,” far-reaching and untested regulatory initiatives with potentially high error costs are put forth as superior to long-established, consumer-based antitrust enforcement. Yes, antitrust may have downsides (e.g., relative indeterminacy and slowness), but these pale in comparison to the DMA’s (e.g., large error costs resulting from high information requirements, rent-seeking, agency capture).

Conclusion

The DMA is an ambitious piece of regulation purportedly aimed at ensuring “fair and open digital markets.” This implies that markets are not fair and open; or that they risk becoming unfair and closed absent far-reaching regulatory intervention at EU level. However, it is unclear to what extent such assumptions are borne out by the reality of markets. Are digital markets really closed? Are they really unfair? If so, is it really certain that regulation is necessary? Has antitrust truly proven insufficient? It also implies that DMA-style ex ante regulation is necessary to tackle it, and that the costs won’t outweigh the benefits. These are heroic assumptions that have never truly been seriously put to the test. 

Considering such brittle empirical foundations, the DMA was always going to be a contentious piece of legislation. However, there was always the hope that EU legislators would show restraint in the face of little empirical evidence and high error costs. Today, these hopes have been dashed. With the adoption of the DMA, the Commission, Council, and the Parliament have arguably taken a bad piece of legislation and made it worse. The interoperability requirements in messaging services, which are bound to be a bane for user privacy and security, are a case in point.

After years trying to anticipate the whims of EU legislators, we finally know where we’re going, but it’s still not entirely sure why we’re going there.