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Last week, the DOJ cleared the merger of CVS Health and Aetna (conditional on Aetna’s divesting its Medicare Part D business), a merger that, as I previously noted at a House Judiciary hearing, “presents a creative effort by two of the most well-informed and successful industry participants to try something new to reform a troubled system.” (My full testimony is available here).

Of course it’s always possible that the experiment will fail — that the merger won’t “revolutioniz[e] the consumer health care experience” in the way that CVS and Aetna are hoping. But it’s a low (antitrust) risk effort to address some of the challenges confronting the healthcare industry — and apparently the DOJ agrees.

I discuss the weakness of the antitrust arguments against the merger at length in my testimony. What I particularly want to draw attention to here is how this merger — like many vertical mergers — represents business model innovation by incumbents.

The CVS/Aetna merger is just one part of a growing private-sector movement in the healthcare industry to adopt new (mostly) vertical arrangements that seek to move beyond some of the structural inefficiencies that have plagued healthcare in the United States since World War II. Indeed, ambitious and interesting as it is, the merger arises amidst a veritable wave of innovative, vertical healthcare mergers and other efforts to integrate the healthcare services supply chain in novel ways.

These sorts of efforts (and the current DOJ’s apparent support for them) should be applauded and encouraged. I need not rehash the economic literature on vertical restraints here (see, e.g., Lafontaine & Slade, etc.). But especially where government interventions have already impaired the efficient workings of a market (as they surely have, in spades, in healthcare), it is important not to compound the error by trying to micromanage private efforts to restructure around those constraints.   

Current trends in private-sector-driven healthcare reform

In the past, the most significant healthcare industry mergers have largely been horizontal (i.e., between two insurance providers, or two hospitals) or “traditional” business model mergers for the industry (i.e., vertical mergers aimed at building out managed care organizations). This pattern suggests a sort of fealty to the status quo, with insurers interested primarily in expanding their insurance business or providers interested in expanding their capacity to provide medical services.

Today’s health industry mergers and ventures seem more frequently to be different in character, and they portend an industry-wide experiment in the provision of vertically integrated healthcare that we should enthusiastically welcome.

Drug pricing and distribution innovations

To begin with, the CVS/Aetna deal, along with the also recently approved Cigna-Express Scripts deal, solidifies the vertical integration of pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) with insurers.

But a number of other recent arrangements and business models center around relationships among drug manufacturers, pharmacies, and PBMs, and these tend to minimize the role of insurers. While not a “vertical” arrangement, per se, Walmart’s generic drug program, for example, offers $4 prescriptions to customers regardless of insurance (the typical generic drug copay for patients covered by employer-provided health insurance is $11), and Walmart does not seek or receive reimbursement from health plans for these drugs. It’s been offering this program since 2006, but in 2016 it entered into a joint buying arrangement with McKesson, a pharmaceutical wholesaler (itself vertically integrated with Rexall pharmacies), to negotiate lower prices. The idea, presumably, is that Walmart will entice consumers to its stores with the lure of low-priced generic prescriptions in the hope that they will buy other items while they’re there. That prospect presumably makes it worthwhile to route around insurers and PBMs, and their reimbursements.

Meanwhile, both Express Scripts and CVS Health (two of the country’s largest PBMs) have made moves toward direct-to-consumer sales themselves, establishing pricing for a small number of drugs independently of health plans and often in partnership with drug makers directly.   

Also apparently focused on disrupting traditional drug distribution arrangements, Amazon has recently purchased online pharmacy PillPack (out from under Walmart, as it happens), and with it received pharmacy licenses in 49 states. The move introduces a significant new integrated distributor/retailer, and puts competitive pressure on other retailers and distributors and potentially insurers and PBMs, as well.

Whatever its role in driving the CVS/Aetna merger (and I believe it is smaller than many reports like to suggest), Amazon’s moves in this area demonstrate the fluid nature of the market, and the opportunities for a wide range of firms to create efficiencies in the market and to lower prices.

At the same time, the differences between Amazon and CVS/Aetna highlight the scope of product and service differentiation that should contribute to the ongoing competitiveness of these markets following mergers like this one.

While Amazon inarguably excels at logistics and the routinizing of “back office” functions, it seems unlikely for the foreseeable future to be able to offer (or to be interested in offering) a patient interface that can rival the service offerings of a brick-and-mortar CVS pharmacy combined with an outpatient clinic and its staff and bolstered by the capabilities of an insurer like Aetna. To be sure, online sales and fulfillment may put price pressure on important, largely mechanical functions, but, like much technology, it is first and foremost a complement to services offered by humans, rather than a substitute. (In this regard it is worth noting that McKesson has long been offering Amazon-like logistics support for both online and brick-and-mortar pharmacies. “‘To some extent, we were Amazon before it was cool to be Amazon,’ McKesson CEO John Hammergren said” on a recent earnings call).

Treatment innovations

Other efforts focus on integrating insurance and treatment functions or on bringing together other, disparate pieces of the healthcare industry in interesting ways — all seemingly aimed at finding innovative, private solutions to solve some of the costly complexities that plague the healthcare market.

Walmart, for example, announced a deal with Quest Diagnostics last year to experiment with offering diagnostic testing services and potentially other basic healthcare services inside of some Walmart stores. While such an arrangement may simply be a means of making doctor-prescribed diagnostic tests more convenient, it may also suggest an effort to expand the availability of direct-to-consumer (patient-initiated) testing (currently offered by Quest in Missouri and Colorado) in states that allow it. A partnership with Walmart to market and oversee such services has the potential to dramatically expand their use.

Capping off (for now) a buying frenzy in recent years that included the purchase of PBM, CatamaranRx, UnitedHealth is seeking approval from the FTC for the proposed merger of its Optum unit with the DaVita Medical Group — a move that would significantly expand UnitedHealth’s ability to offer medical services (including urgent care, outpatient surgeries, and health clinic services), give it a significant group of doctors’ clinics throughout the U.S., and turn UnitedHealth into the largest employer of doctors in the country. But of course this isn’t a traditional managed care merger — it represents a significant bet on the decentralized, ambulatory care model that has been slowly replacing significant parts of the traditional, hospital-centric care model for some time now.

And, perhaps most interestingly, some recent moves are bringing together drug manufacturers and diagnostic and care providers in innovative ways. Swiss pharmaceutical company, Roche, announced recently that “it would buy the rest of U.S. cancer data company Flatiron Health for $1.9 billion to speed development of cancer medicines and support its efforts to price them based on how well they work.” Not only is the deal intended to improve Roche’s drug development process by integrating patient data, it is also aimed at accommodating efforts to shift the pricing of drugs, like the pricing of medical services generally, toward an outcome-based model.

Similarly interesting, and in a related vein, early this year a group of hospital systems including Intermountain Health, Ascension, and Trinity Health announced plans to begin manufacturing generic prescription drugs. This development further reflects the perceived benefits of vertical integration in healthcare markets, and the move toward creative solutions to the unique complexity of coordinating the many interrelated layers of healthcare provision. In this case,

[t]he nascent venture proposes a private solution to ensure contestability in the generic drug market and consequently overcome the failures of contracting [in the supply and distribution of generics]…. The nascent venture, however it solves these challenges and resolves other choices, will have important implications for the prices and availability of generic drugs in the US.

More enforcement decisions like CVS/Aetna and Bayer/Monsanto; fewer like AT&T/Time Warner

In the face of all this disruption, it’s difficult to credit anticompetitive fears like those expressed by the AMA in opposing the CVS-Aetna merger and a recent CEA report on pharmaceutical pricing, both of which are premised on the assumption that drug distribution is unavoidably dominated by a few PBMs in a well-defined, highly concentrated market. Creative arrangements like the CVS-Aetna merger and the initiatives described above (among a host of others) indicate an ease of entry, the fluidity of traditional markets, and a degree of business model innovation that suggest a great deal more competitiveness than static PBM market numbers would suggest.

This kind of incumbent innovation through vertical restructuring is an increasingly important theme in antitrust, and efforts to tar such transactions with purported evidence of static market dominance is simply misguided.

While the current DOJ’s misguided (and, remarkably, continuing) attempt to stop the AT&T/Time Warner merger is an aberrant step in the wrong direction, the leadership at the Antitrust Division generally seems to get it. Indeed, in spite of strident calls for stepped-up enforcement in the always-controversial ag-biotech industry, the DOJ recently approved three vertical ag-biotech mergers in fairly rapid succession.

As I noted in a discussion of those ag-biotech mergers, but equally applicable here, regulatory humility should continue to carry the day when it comes to structural innovation by incumbent firms:

But it is also important to remember that innovation comes from within incumbent firms, as well, and, often, that the overall level of innovation in an industry may be increased by the presence of large firms with economies of scope and scale.

In sum, and to paraphrase Olympia Dukakis’ character in Moonstruck: “what [we] don’t know about [the relationship between innovation and market structure] is a lot.”

What we do know, however, is that superficial, concentration-based approaches to antitrust analysis will likely overweight presumed foreclosure effects and underweight innovation effects.

We shouldn’t fetishize entry, or access, or head-to-head competition over innovation, especially where consumer welfare may be significantly improved by a reduction in the former in order to get more of the latter.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that unwanted telephone calls are among the most reviled annoyances known to man. But this does not mean that laws intended to prohibit these calls are themselves necessarily good. Indeed, in one sense we know intuitively that they are not good. These laws have proven wholly ineffective at curtailing the robocall menace — it is hard to call any law as ineffective as these “good”. And these laws can be bad in another sense: because they fail to curtail undesirable speech but may burden desirable speech, they raise potentially serious First Amendment concerns.

I presented my exploration of these concerns, coming out soon in the Brooklyn Law Review, last month at TPRC. The discussion, which I get into below, focuses on the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), the main law that we have to fight against robocalls. It considers both narrow First Amendment concerns raised by the TCPA as well as broader concerns about the Act in the modern technological setting.

Telemarketing Sucks

It is hard to imagine that there is a need to explain how much of a pain telemarketing is. Indeed, it is rare that I give a talk on the subject without receiving a call during the talk. At the last FCC Open Meeting, after the Commission voted on a pair of enforcement actions taken against telemarketers, Commissioner Rosenworcel picked up her cell phone to share that she had received a robocall during the vote. Robocalls are the most complained of issue at both the FCC and FTC. Today, there are well over 4 billion robocalls made every month. It’s estimated that half of all phone calls made in 2019 will be scams (most of which start with a robocall). .

It’s worth noting that things were not always this way. Unsolicited and unwanted phone calls have been around for decades — but they have become something altogether different and more problematic in the past 10 years. The origin of telemarketing was the simple extension of traditional marketing to the medium of the telephone. This form of telemarketing was a huge annoyance — but fundamentally it was, or at least was intended to be, a mere extension of legitimate business practices. There was almost always a real business on the other end of the line, trying to advertise real business opportunities.

This changed in the 2000s with the creation of the Do Not Call (DNC) registry. The DNC registry effectively killed the “legitimate” telemarketing business. Companies faced significant penalties if they called individuals on the DNC registry, and most telemarketing firms tied the registry into their calling systems so that numbers on it could not be called. And, unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority of Americans put their phone numbers on the registry. As a result the business proposition behind telemarketing quickly dried up. There simply weren’t enough individuals not on the DNC list to justify the risk of accidentally calling individuals who were on the list.

Of course, anyone with a telephone today knows that the creation of the DNC registry did not eliminate robocalls. But it did change the nature of the calls. The calls we receive today are, overwhelmingly, not coming from real businesses trying to market real services or products. Rather, they’re coming from hucksters, fraudsters, and scammers — from Rachels from Cardholder Services and others who are looking for opportunities to defraud. Sometimes they may use these calls to find unsophisticated consumers who can be conned out of credit card information. Other times they are engaged in any number of increasingly sophisticated scams designed to trick consumers into giving up valuable information.

There is, however, a more important, more basic difference between pre-DNC calls and the ones we receive today. Back in the age of legitimate businesses trying to use the telephone for marketing, the relationship mattered. Those businesses couldn’t engage in business anonymously. But today’s robocallers are scam artists. They need no identity to pull off their scams. Indeed, a lack of identity can be advantageous to them. And this means that legal tools such as the DNC list or the TCPA (which I turn to below), which are premised on the ability to take legal action against bad actors who can be identified and who have assets than can be attached through legal proceedings, are wholly ineffective against these newfangled robocallers.

The TCPA Sucks

The TCPA is the first law that was adopted to fight unwanted phone calls. Adopted in 1992, it made it illegal to call people using autodialers or prerecorded messages without prior express consent. (The details have more nuance than this, but that’s the gist.) It also created a private right of action with significant statutory damages of up to $1,500 per call.

Importantly, the justification for the TCPA wasn’t merely “telemarketing sucks.” Had it been, the TCPA would have had a serious problem: telemarketing, although exceptionally disliked, is speech, which means that it is protected by the First Amendment. Rather, the TCPA was enacted primarily upon two grounds. First, telemarketers were invading the privacy of individuals’ homes. The First Amendment is license to speak; it is not license to break into someone’s home and force them to listen. And second, telemarketing calls could impose significant real costs on the recipients of calls. At the time, receiving a telemarketing call could, for instance, cost cellular customers several dollars; and due to the primitive technologies used for autodialing, these calls would regularly tie up residential and commercial phone lines for extended periods of time, interfere with emergency calls, and fill up answering machine tapes.

It is no secret that the TCPA was not particularly successful. As the technologies for making robocalls improved throughout the 1990s and their costs went down, firms only increased their use of them. And we were still in a world of analog telephones, and Caller ID was still a new and not universally-available technology, which made it exceptionally difficult to bring suits under the TCPA. Perhaps more important, while robocalls were annoying, they were not the omnipresent fact of life that they are today: cell phones were still rare; most of these calls came to landline phones during dinner where they were simply ignored.

As discussed above, the first generation of robocallers and telemarketers quickly died off following adoption of the DNC registry.

And the TCPA is proving no more effective during this second generation of robocallers. This is unsurprising. Callers who are willing to blithely ignore the DNC registry are just as willing to blithely ignore the TCPA. Every couple of months the FCC or FTC announces a large fine — millions or tens of millions of dollars — against a telemarketing firm that was responsible for making millions or tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of calls over a multi-month period. At a time when there are over 4 billion of these calls made every month, such enforcement actions are a drop in the ocean.

Which brings us to the FIrst Amendment and the TCPA, presented in very cursory form here (see the paper for more detailed analysis). First, it must be acknowledged that the TCPA was challenged several times following its adoption and was consistently upheld by courts applying intermediate scrutiny to it, on the basis that it was regulation of commercial speech (which traditionally has been reviewed under that more permissive standard). However, recent Supreme Court opinions, most notably that in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, suggest that even the commercial speech at issue in the TCPA may need to be subject to the more probing review of strict scrutiny — a conclusion that several lower courts have reached.

But even putting the question of whether the TCPA should be reviewed subject to strict or intermediate scrutiny, a contemporary facial challenge to the TCPA on First Amendment grounds would likely succeed (no matter what standard of review was applied). Generally, courts are very reluctant to allow regulation of speech that is either under- or over-inclusive — and the TCPA is substantially both. We know that it is under-inclusive because robocalls have been a problem for a long time and the problem is only getting worse. And, at the same time, there are myriad stories of well-meaning companies getting caught up on the TCPA’s web of strict liability for trying to do things that clearly should not be deemed illegal: sports venues sending confirmation texts when spectators participate in text-based games on the jumbotron; community banks getting sued by their own members for trying to send out important customer information; pharmacies reminding patients to get flu shots. There is discussion to be had about how and whether calls like these should be permitted — but they are unquestionably different in kind from the sort of telemarketing robocalls animating the TCPA (and general public outrage).

In other words the TCPA prohibits some amount of desirable, Constitutionally-protected, speech in a vainglorious and wholly ineffective effort to curtail robocalls. That is a recipe for any law to be deemed an unconstitutional restriction on speech under the First Amendment.

Good News: Things Don’t Need to Suck!

But there is another, more interesting, reason that the TCPA would likely not survive a First Amendment challenge today: there are lots of alternative approaches to addressing the problem of robocalls. Interestingly, the FCC itself has the ability to direct implementation of some of these approaches. And, more important, the FCC itself is the greatest impediment to some of them being implemented. In the language of the First Amendment, restrictions on speech need to be narrowly tailored. It is hard to say that a law is narrowly tailored when the government itself controls the ability to implement more tailored approaches to addressing a speech-related problem. And it is untenable to say that the government can restrict speech to address a problem that is, in fact, the result of the government’s own design.

In particular, the FCC regulates a great deal of how the telephone network operates, including over the protocols that carriers use for interconnection and call completion. Large parts of the telephone network are built upon protocols first developed in the era of analog phones and telephone monopolies. And the FCC itself has long prohibited carriers from blocking known-scam calls (on the ground that, as common carriers, it is their principal duty to carry telephone traffic without regard to the content of the calls).

Fortunately, some of these rules are starting to change. The Commission is working to implement rules that will give carriers and their customers greater ability to block calls. And we are tantalizingly close to transitioning the telephone network away from its traditional unauthenticated architecture to one that uses a strong cyrptographic infrastructure to provide fully authenticated calls (in other words, Caller ID that actually works).

The irony of these efforts is that they demonstrate the unconstitutionality of the TCPA: today there are better, less burdensome, more effective ways to deal with the problems of uncouth telemarketers and robocalls. At the time the TCPA was adopted, these approaches were technologically infeasible, so the its burdens upon speech were more reasonable. But that cannot be said today. The goal of the FCC and legislators (both of whom are looking to update the TCPA and its implementation) should be less about improving the TCPA and more about improving our telecommunications architecture so that we have less need for cludgel-like laws in the mold of the TCPA.

 

Last week, I objected to Senator Warner relying on the flawed AOL/Time Warner merger conditions as a template for tech regulatory policy, but there is a much deeper problem contained in his proposals.  Although he does not explicitly say “big is bad” when discussing competition issues, the thrust of much of what he recommends would serve to erode the power of larger firms in favor of smaller firms without offering a justification for why this would result in a superior state of affairs. And he makes these recommendations without respect to whether those firms actually engage in conduct that is harmful to consumers.

In the Data Portability section, Warner says that “As platforms grow in size and scope, network effects and lock-in effects increase; consumers face diminished incentives to contract with new providers, particularly if they have to once again provide a full set of data to access desired functions.“ Thus, he recommends a data portability mandate, which would theoretically serve to benefit startups by providing them with the data that large firms possess. The necessary implication here is that it is a per se good that small firms be benefited and large firms diminished, as the proposal is not grounded in any evaluation of the competitive behavior of the firms to which such a mandate would apply.

Warner also proposes an “interoperability” requirement on “dominant platforms” (which I criticized previously) in situations where, “data portability alone will not produce procompetitive outcomes.” Again, the necessary implication is that it is a per se good that established platforms share their services with start ups without respect to any competitive analysis of how those firms are behaving. The goal is preemptively to “blunt their ability to leverage their dominance over one market or feature into complementary or adjacent markets or products.”

Perhaps most perniciously, Warner recommends treating large platforms as essential facilities in some circumstances. To this end he states that:

Legislation could define thresholds – for instance, user base size, market share, or level of dependence of wider ecosystems – beyond which certain core functions/platforms/apps would constitute ‘essential facilities’, requiring a platform to provide third party access on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms and preventing platforms from engaging in self-dealing or preferential conduct.

But, as  i’ve previously noted with respect to imposing “essential facilities” requirements on tech platforms,

[T]he essential facilities doctrine is widely criticized, by pretty much everyone. In their respected treatise, Antitrust Law, Herbert Hovenkamp and Philip Areeda have said that “the essential facility doctrine is both harmful and unnecessary and should be abandoned”; Michael Boudin has noted that the doctrine is full of “embarrassing weaknesses”; and Gregory Werden has opined that “Courts should reject the doctrine.”

Indeed, as I also noted, “the Supreme Court declined to recognize the essential facilities doctrine as a distinct rule in Trinko, where it instead characterized the exclusionary conduct in Aspen Skiing as ‘at or near the outer boundary’ of Sherman Act § 2 liability.”

In short, it’s very difficult to know when access to a firm’s internal functions might be critical to the facilitation of a market. It simply cannot be true that a firm becomes bound under onerous essential facilities requirements (or classification as a public utility) simply because other firms find it more convenient to use its services than to develop their own.

The truth of what is actually happening in these cases, however, is that third-party firms are choosing to anchor their business to the processes of another firm which generates an “asset specificity” problem that they then seek the government to remedy:

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

This is naturally a calculated risk that a firm may choose to make, but it is a risk. To pry open Google or Facebook for the benefit of competitors that choose to play to Google and Facebook’s user base, rather than opening markets of their own, punishes the large players for being successful while also rewarding behavior that shies away from innovation. Further, such a policy would punish the large platforms whenever they innovate with their services in any way that might frustrate third-party “integrators” (see, e.g., Foundem’s claims that Google’s algorithm updates meant to improve search quality for users harmed Foundem’s search rankings).  

Rather than encouraging innovation, blessing this form of asset specificity would have the perverse result of entrenching the status quo.

In all of these recommendations from Senator Warner, there is no claim that any of the targeted firms will have behaved anticompetitively, but merely that they are above a certain size. This is to say that, in some cases, big is bad.

Senator Warner’s policies would harm competition and innovation

As Geoffrey Manne and Gus Hurwitz have recently noted these views run completely counter to the last half-century or more of economic and legal learning that has occurred in antitrust law. From its murky, politically-motivated origins through the early 60’s when the Structure-Conduct-Performance (“SCP”) interpretive framework was ascendant, antitrust law was more or less guided by the gut feeling of regulators that big business necessarily harmed the competitive process.

Thus, at its height with SCP, “big is bad” antitrust relied on presumptions that large firms over a certain arbitrary threshold were harmful and should be subjected to more searching judicial scrutiny when merging or conducting business.

A paradigmatic example of this approach can be found in Von’s Grocery where the Supreme Court prevented the merger of two relatively small grocery chains. Combined, the two chains would have constitutes a mere 9 percent of the market, yet the Supreme Court, relying on the SCP aversion to concentration in itself, prevented the merger despite any procompetitive justifications that would have allowed the combined entity to compete more effectively in a market that was coming to be dominated by large supermarkets.

As Manne and Hurwitz observe: “this decision meant breaking up a merger that did not harm consumers, on the one hand, while preventing firms from remaining competitive in an evolving market by achieving efficient scale, on the other.” And this gets to the central defect of Senator Warner’s proposals. He ties his decisions to interfere in the operations of large tech firms to their size without respect to any demonstrable harm to consumers.

To approach antitrust this way — that is, to roll the clock back to a period before there was a well-defined and administrable standard for antitrust — is to open the door for regulation by political whim. But the value of the contemporary consumer welfare test is that it provides knowable guidance that limits both the undemocratic conduct of politically motivated enforcers as well as the opportunities for private firms to engage in regulatory capture. As Manne and Hurwitz observe:

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the consumer welfare standard is not that it is the best antitrust standard (although it is) — it’s simply that it is a standard. The story of antitrust law for most of the 20th century was one of standard-less enforcement for political ends. It was a tool by which any entrenched industry could harness the force of the state to maintain power or stifle competition.

While it is unlikely that Senator Warner intends to entrench politically powerful incumbents, or enable regulation by whim, those are the likely effects of his proposals.

Antitrust law has a rich set of tools for dealing with competitive harm. Introducing legislation to define arbitrary thresholds for limiting the potential power of firms will ultimately undermine the power of those tools and erode the welfare of consumers.

 

Senator Mark Warner has proposed 20 policy prescriptions for bringing “big tech” to heel. The proposals — which run the gamut from policing foreign advertising on social networks to regulating feared competitive harms — provide much interesting material for Congress to consider.

On the positive side, Senator Warner introduces the idea that online platforms may be able to function as least-cost avoiders with respect to certain tortious behavior of their users. He advocates for platforms to implement technology that would help control the spread of content that courts have found violated certain rights of third-parties.

Yet, on other accounts — specifically the imposition of an “interoperability” mandate on platforms — his proposals risk doing more harm than good.

The interoperability mandate was included by Senator Warner in order to “blunt [tech platforms’] ability to leverage their dominance over one market or feature into complementary or adjacent markets or products.” According to Senator Warner, such a measure would enable startups to offset the advantages that arise from network effects on large tech platforms by building their services more easily on the backs of successful incumbents.

Whatever you think of the moats created by network effects, the example of “successful” previous regulation on this issue that Senator Warner relies upon is perplexing:

A prominent template for [imposing interoperability requirements] was in the AOL/Time Warner merger, where the FCC identified instant messaging as the ‘killer app’ – the app so popular and dominant that it would drive consumers to continue to pay for AOL service despite the existence of more innovative and efficient email and internet connectivity services. To address this, the FCC required AOL to make its instant messaging service (AIM, which also included a social graph) interoperable with at least one rival immediately and with two other rivals within 6 months.

But the AOL/Time Warner merger and the FCC’s conditions provide an example that demonstrates the exact opposite of what Senator Warner suggests. The much-feared 2001 megamerger prompted, as the Senator notes, fears that the new company would be able to leverage its dominance in the nascent instant messaging market to extend its influence into adjacent product markets.

Except, by 2003, despite it being unclear that AOL had developed interoperable systems, two large competitors had arisen that did not run interoperable IM networks (Yahoo! and Microsoft). In that same period, AOL’s previously 100% IM market share had declined by about half. By 2009, after eight years of heavy losses, Time Warner shed AOL, and by last year AIM was completely dead.

Not only was it not clear that AOL was able to make AIM interoperable, AIM was never able to catch up once better, rival services launched. What the conditions did do, however, was prevent AOL from launching competitive video chat services as it flailed about in the wake of the deal, thus forcing it to miss out on a market opportunity available to unencumbered competitors like Microsoft and Yahoo!

And all of this of course ignores the practical impossibility entailed in interfering in highly integrated technology platforms.

The AOL/Time Warner merger conditions are no template for successful tech regulation. Congress would be ill-advised to rely upon such templates for crafting policy around tech and innovation.

What to make of Wednesday’s decision by the European Commission alleging that Google has engaged in anticompetitive behavior? In this post, I contrast the European Commission’s (EC) approach to competition policy with US antitrust, briefly explore the history of smartphones and then discuss the ruling.

Asked about the EC’s decision the day it was announced, FTC Chairman Joseph Simons noted that, while the market is concentrated, Apple and Google “compete pretty heavily against each other” with their mobile operating systems, in stark contrast to the way the EC defined the market. Simons also stressed that for the FTC what matters is not the structure of the market per se but whether or not there is harm to the consumer. This again contrasts with the European Commission’s approach, which does not require harm to consumers. As Simons put it:

Once they [the European Commission] find that a company is dominant… that imposes upon the company kind of like a fairness obligation irrespective of what the effect is on the consumer. Our regulatory… our antitrust regime requires that there be a harm to consumer welfare — so the consumer has to be injured — so the two tests are a little bit different.

Indeed, and as the history below shows, the popularity of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems arose because they were superior products — not because of anticompetitive conduct on the part of either Apple or Google. On the face of it, the conduct of both Apple and Google has led to consumer benefits, not harms. So, from the perspective of U.S. antitrust authorities, there is no reason to take action.

Moreover, there is a danger that by taking action as the EU has done, competition and innovation will be undermined — which would be a perverse outcome indeed. These concerns were reflected in a statement by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT):

Today’s decision by the European Commission to fine Google over $5 billion and require significant changes to its business model to satisfy EC bureaucrats has the potential to undermine competition and innovation in the United States,” Sen. Lee said. “Moreover, the decision further demonstrates the different approaches to competition policy between U.S. and EC antitrust enforcers. As discussed at the hearing held last December before the Senate’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy & Consumer Rights, U.S. antitrust agencies analyze business practices based on the consumer welfare standard. This analytical framework seeks to protect consumers rather than competitors. A competitive marketplace requires strong antitrust enforcement. However, appropriate competition policy should serve the interests of consumers and not be used as a vehicle by competitors to punish their successful rivals.

Ironically, the fundamental basis for the Commission’s decision is an analytical framework developed by economists at Harvard in the 1950s, which presumes that the structure of a market determines the conduct of the participants, which in turn presumptively affects outcomes for consumers. This “structure-conduct-performance” paradigm has been challenged both theoretically and empirically (and by “challenged,” I mean “demolished”).

Maintaining, as EC Commissioner Vestager has, that “What would serve competition is to have more players,” is to adopt a presumption regarding competition rooted in the structure of the market, without sufficient attention to the facts on the ground. As French economist Jean Tirole noted in his Nobel Prize lecture:

Economists accordingly have advocated a case-by-case or “rule of reason” approach to antitrust, away from rigid “per se” rules (which mechanically either allow or prohibit certain behaviors, ranging from price-fixing agreements to resale price maintenance). The economists’ pragmatic message however comes with a double social responsibility. First, economists must offer a rigorous analysis of how markets work, taking into account both the specificities of particular industries and what regulators do and do not know….

Second, economists must participate in the policy debate…. But of course, the responsibility here goes both ways. Policymakers and the media must also be willing to listen to economists.

In good Tirolean fashion, we begin with an analysis of how the market for smartphones developed. What quickly emerges is that the structure of the market is a function of intense competition, not its absence. And, by extension, mandating a different structure will likely impede competition, or, at the very least, will not likely contribute to it.

A brief history of smartphone competition

In 2006, Nokia’s N70 became the first smartphone to sell more than a million units. It was a beautiful device, with a simple touch screen interface and real push buttons for numbers. The following year, Apple released its first iPhone. It sold 7 million units — about the same as Nokia’s N95 and slightly less than LG’s Shine. Not bad, but paltry compared to the sales of Nokia’s 1200 series phones, which had combined sales of over 250 million that year — about twice the total of all smartphone sales in 2007.

By 2017, smartphones had come to dominate the market, with total sales of over 1.5 billion. At the same time, the structure of the market has changed dramatically. In the first quarter of 2018, Apple’s iPhone X and iPhone 8 were the two best-selling smartphones in the world. In total, Apple shipped just over 52 million phones, accounting for 14.5% of the global market. Samsung, which has a wider range of devices, sold even more: 78 million phones, or 21.7% of the market. At third and fourth place were Huawei (11%) and Xiaomi (7.5%). Nokia and LG didn’t even make it into the top 10, with market shares of only 3% and 1% respectively.

Several factors have driven this highly dynamic market. Dramatic improvements in cellular data networks have played a role. But arguably of greater importance has been the development of software that offers consumers an intuitive and rewarding experience.

Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems have proven to be enormously popular among both users and app developers. This has generated synergies — or what economists call network externalities — as more apps have been developed, so more people are attracted to the ecosystem and vice versa, leading to a virtuous circle that benefits both users and app developers.

By contrast, Nokia’s early smartphones, including the N70 and N95, ran Symbian, the operating system developed for Psion’s handheld devices, which had a clunkier user interface and was more difficult to code — so it was less attractive to both users and developers. In addition, Symbian lacked an effective means of solving the problem of fragmentation of the operating system across different devices, which made it difficult for developers to create apps that ran across the ecosystem — something both Apple (through its closed system) and Google (through agreements with carriers) were able to address. Meanwhile, Java’s MIDP used in LG’s Shine, and its successor J2ME imposed restrictions on developers (such as prohibiting access to files, hardware, and network connections) that seem to have made it less attractive than Android.

The relative superiority of their operating systems enabled Apple and the manufacturers of Android-based phones to steal a march on the early leaders in the smartphone revolution.

The fact that Google allows smartphone manufacturers to install Android for free, distributes Google Play and other apps in a free bundle, and pays such manufacturers for preferential treatment for Google Search, has also kept the cost of Android-based smartphones down. As a result, Android phones are the cheapest on the market, providing a powerful experience for as little as $50. It is reasonable to conclude from this that innovation, driven by fierce competition, has led to devices, operating systems, and apps that provide enormous benefits to consumers.

The Commission decision would harm device manufacturers, app developers and consumers

The EC’s decision seems to disregard the history of smartphone innovation and competition and their ongoing consequences. As Dirk Auer explains, the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) was created specifically to offer an effective alternative to Apple’s iPhone — and it worked. Indeed, it worked so spectacularly that Android is installed on about 80% of all new phones. This success was the result of several factors that the Commission now seeks to undermine:

First, in order to maintain order within the Android universe, and thereby ensure that apps developed for Android would function on the vast majority of Android devices, Google and the OHA sought to limit the extent to which Android “forks” could be created. (Apple didn’t face this problem because its source code is proprietary, so cannot be modified by third-party developers.) One way Google does this is by imposing restrictions on the licensing of its proprietary apps, such as the Google Play store (a repository of apps, similar to Apple’s App Store).

Device manufacturers that don’t conform to these restrictions may still build devices with their forked version of Android — but without those Google apps. Indeed, Amazon chooses to develop a non-conforming version of Android and built its own app repository for its Fire devices (though it is still possible to add the Google Play Store). That strategy seems to be working for Amazon in the tablet market; in 2017 it rose past Samsung to become the second biggest manufacturer of tablets worldwide, after Apple.

Second, in order to be able to offer Android for free to smartphone manufacturers, Google sought to develop unique revenue streams (because, although the software is offered for free, it turns out that software developers generally don’t work for free). The main way Google did this was by requiring manufacturers that choose to install Google Play also to install its browser (Chrome) and search tools, which generate revenue from advertising. At the same time, Google kept its platform open by permitting preloads of rivals’ apps and creating a marketplace where rivals can also reach scale. Mozilla’s Firefox browser, for example, has been downloaded over 100 million times on Android.

The importance of these factors to the success of Android is acknowledged by the EC. But instead of treating them as legitimate business practices that enabled the development of high-quality, low-cost smartphones and a universe of apps that benefits billions of people, the Commission simply asserts that they are harmful, anticompetitive practices.

For example, the Commission asserts that

In order to be able to pre-install on their devices Google’s proprietary apps, including the Play Store and Google Search, manufacturers had to commit not to develop or sell even a single device running on an Android fork. The Commission found that this conduct was abusive as of 2011, which is the date Google became dominant in the market for app stores for the Android mobile operating system.

This is simply absurd, to say nothing of ahistorical. As noted, the restrictions on Android forks plays an important role in maintaining the coherency of the Android ecosystem. If device manufacturers were able to freely install Google apps (and other apps via the Play Store) on devices running problematic Android forks that were unable to run the apps properly, consumers — and app developers — would be frustrated, Google’s brand would suffer, and the value of the ecosystem would be diminished. Extending this restriction to all devices produced by a specific manufacturer, regardless of whether they come with Google apps preinstalled, reinforces the importance of the prohibition to maintaining the coherency of the ecosystem.

It is ridiculous to say that something (efforts to rein in Android forking) that made perfect sense until 2011 and that was central to the eventual success of Android suddenly becomes “abusive” precisely because of that success — particularly when the pre-2011 efforts were often viewed as insufficient and unsuccessful (a January 2012 Guardian Technology Blog post, “How Google has lost control of Android,” sums it up nicely).

Meanwhile, if Google is unable to tie pre-installation of its search and browser apps to the installation of its app store, then it will have less financial incentive to continue to maintain the Android ecosystem. Or, more likely, it will have to find other ways to generate revenue from the sale of devices in the EU — such as charging device manufacturers for Android or Google Play. The result is that consumers will be harmed, either because the ecosystem will be degraded, or because smartphones will become more expensive.

The troubling absence of Apple from the Commission’s decision

In addition, the EC’s decision is troublesome in other ways. First, for its definition of the market. The ruling asserts that “Through its control over Android, Google is dominant in the worldwide market (excluding China) for licensable smart mobile operating systems, with a market share of more than 95%.” But “licensable smart mobile operating systems” is a very narrow definition, as it necessarily precludes operating systems that are not licensable — such as Apple’s iOS and RIM’s Blackberry OS. Since Apple has nearly 25% of the market share of smartphones in Europe, the European Commission has — through its definition of the market — presumed away the primary source of effective competition. As Pinar Akman has noted:

How can Apple compete with Google in the market as defined by the Commission when Apple allows only itself to use its operating system only on devices that Apple itself manufactures?

The EU then invents a series of claims regarding the lack of competition with Apple:

  • end user purchasing decisions are influenced by a variety of factors (such as hardware features or device brand), which are independent from the mobile operating system;

It is not obvious that this is evidence of a lack of competition. A better explanation is that the EU’s narrow definition of the market is defective. In fact, one could easily draw the opposite conclusion of that drawn by the Commission: the fact that purchasing decisions are driven by various factors suggests that there is substantial competition, with phone manufacturers seeking to design phones that offer a range of features, on a number of dimensions, to best capture diverse consumer preferences. They are able to do this in large part precisely because consumers are able to rely upon a generally similar operating system and continued access to the apps that they have downloaded. As Tim Cook likes to remind his investors, Apple is quite successful at targeting “Android switchers” to switch to iOS.

 

  • Apple devices are typically priced higher than Android devices and may therefore not be accessible to a large part of the Android device user base;

 

And yet, in the first quarter of 2018, Apple phones accounted for five of the top ten selling smartphones worldwide. Meanwhile, several competing phones, including the fifth and sixth best-sellers, Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and S9+, sell for similar prices to the most expensive iPhones. And a refurbished iPhone 6 can be had for less than $150.

 

  • Android device users face switching costs when switching to Apple devices, such as losing their apps, data and contacts, and having to learn how to use a new operating system;

 

This is, of course, true for any system switch. And yet the growing market share of Apple phones suggests that some users are willing to part with those sunk costs. Moreover, the increasing predominance of cloud-based and cross-platform apps, as well as Apple’s own “Move to iOS” Android app (which facilitates the transfer of users’ data from Android to iOS), means that the costs of switching border on trivial. As mentioned above, Tim Cook certainly believes in “Android switchers.”

 

  • even if end users were to switch from Android to Apple devices, this would have limited impact on Google’s core business. That’s because Google Search is set as the default search engine on Apple devices and Apple users are therefore likely to continue using Google Search for their queries.

 

This is perhaps the most bizarre objection of them all. The fact that Apple chooses to install Google search as the default demonstrates that consumers prefer that system over others. Indeed, this highlights a fundamental problem with the Commission’s own rationale, As Akman notes:

It is interesting that the case appears to concern a dominant undertaking leveraging its dominance from a market in which it is dominant (Google Play Store) into another market in which it is also dominant (internet search). As far as this author is aware, most (if not all?) cases of tying in the EU to date concerned tying where the dominant undertaking leveraged its dominance in one market to distort or eliminate competition in an otherwise competitive market.

Conclusion

As the foregoing demonstrates, the EC’s decision is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and evolution of the market for smartphones and associated applications. The statement by Commissioner Vestager quoted above — that “What would serve competition is to have more players” — belies this misunderstanding and highlights the erroneous assumptions underpinning the Commission’s analysis, which is wedded to a theory of market competition that was long ago thrown out by economists.

And, thankfully, it appears that the FTC Chairman is aware of at least some of the flaws in the EC’s conclusions.

Google will undoubtedly appeal the Commission’s decision. For the sakes of the millions of European consumers who rely on Android-based phones and the millions of software developers who provide Android apps, let’s hope that they succeed.

By Pinar Akman, Professor of Law, University of Leeds*

The European Commission’s decision in Google Android cuts a fine line between punishing a company for its success and punishing a company for falling afoul of the rules of the game. Which side of the line it actually falls on cannot be fully understood until the Commission publishes its full decision. Much depends on the intricate facts of the case. As the full decision may take months to come, this post offers merely the author’s initial thoughts on the decision on the basis of the publicly available information.

The eye-watering fine of $5.1 billion — which together with the fine of $2.7 billion in the Google Shopping decision from last year would (according to one estimate) suffice to fund for almost one year the additional yearly public spending necessary to eradicate world hunger by 2030 — will not be further discussed in this post. This is because the fine is assumed to have been duly calculated on the basis of the Commission’s relevant Guidelines, and, from a legal and commercial point of view, the absolute size of the fine is not as important as the infringing conduct and the remedy Google will need to adopt to comply with the decision.

First things first. This post proceeds on the premise that the aim of competition law is to prevent the exclusion of competitors that are (at least) as efficient as the dominant incumbent, whose exclusion would ultimately harm consumers.

Next, it needs to be noted that the Google Android case is a more conventional antitrust case than Google Shopping in the sense that one can at least envisage a potentially robust antitrust theory of harm in the former case. If a dominant undertaking ties its products together to exclude effective competition in some of these markets or if it pays off customers to exclude access by its efficient competitors to consumers, competition law intervention may be justified.

The central question in Google Android is whether on the available facts this appears to have happened.

What we know and market definition

The premise of the case is that Google used its dominance in the Google Play Store (which enables users to download apps onto their Android phones) to “cement Google’s dominant position in general internet search.”

It is interesting that the case appears to concern a dominant undertaking leveraging its dominance from a market in which it is dominant (Google Play Store) into another market in which it is also dominant (internet search). As far as this author is aware, most (if not all?) cases of tying in the EU to date concerned tying where the dominant undertaking leveraged its dominance in one market to distort or eliminate competition in an otherwise competitive market.

Thus, for example, in Microsoft (Windows Operating System —> media players), Hilti (patented cartridge strips —> nails), and Tetra Pak II (packaging machines —> non-aseptic cartons), the tied market was actually or potentially competitive, and this was why the tying was alleged to have eliminated competition. It will be interesting to see which case the Commission uses as precedent in its decision — more on that later.

Also noteworthy is that the Commission does not appear to have defined a separate mobile search market that would have been competitive but for Google’s alleged leveraging. The market has been defined as the general internet search market. So, according to the Commission, the Google Search App and Google Search engine appear to be one and the same thing, and desktop and mobile devices are equivalent (or substitutable).

Finding mobile and desktop devices to be equivalent to one another may have implications for other cases including the ongoing appeal in Google Shopping where, for example, the Commission found that “[m]obile [apps] are not a viable alternative for replacing generic search traffic from Google’s general search results pages” for comparison shopping services. The argument that mobile apps and mobile traffic are fundamental in Google Android but trivial in Google Shopping may not play out favourably for the Commission before the Court of Justice of the EU.

Another interesting market definition point is that the Commission has found Apple not to be a competitor to Google in the relevant market defined by the Commission: the market for “licensable smart mobile operating systems.” Apple does not fall within that market because Apple does not license its mobile operating system to anyone: Apple’s model eliminates all possibility of competition from the start and is by definition exclusive.

Although there is some internal logic in the Commission’s exclusion of Apple from the upstream market that it has defined, is this not a bit of a definitional stop? How can Apple compete with Google in the market as defined by the Commission when Apple allows only itself to use its operating system only on devices that Apple itself manufactures?

To be fair, the Commission does consider there to be some competition between Apple and Android devices at the level of consumers — just not sufficient to constrain Google at the upstream, manufacturer level.

Nevertheless, the implication of the Commission’s assessment that separates the upstream and downstream in this way is akin to saying that the world’s two largest corn producers that produce the corn used to make corn flakes do not compete with one another in the market for corn flakes because one of them uses its corn exclusively in its own-brand cereal.

Although the Commission cabins the use of supply-side substitutability in market definition, its own guidance on the topic notes that

Supply-side substitutability may also be taken into account when defining markets in those situations in which its effects are equivalent to those of demand substitution in terms of effectiveness and immediacy. This means that suppliers are able to switch production to the relevant products and market them in the short term….

Apple could — presumably — rather immediately and at minimal cost produce and market a version of iOS for use on third-party device makers’ devices. By the Commission’s own definition, it would seem to make sense to include Apple in the relevant market. Nevertheless, it has apparently not done so here.

The message that the Commission sends with the finding is that if Android had not been open source and freely available, and if Google competed with Apple with its own version of a walled-garden built around exclusivity, it is possible that none of its practices would have raised any concerns. Or, should Apple be expecting a Statement of Objections next from the EU Commission?

Is Microsoft really the relevant precedent?

Given that Google Android appears to revolve around the idea of tying and leveraging, the EU Commission’s infringement decision against Microsoft, which found an abusive tie in Microsoft’s tying of Windows Operating System with Windows Media Player, appears to be the most obvious precedent, at least for the tying part of the case.

There are, however, potentially important factual differences between the two cases. To take just a few examples:

  • Microsoft charged for the Windows Operating System, whereas Google does not;
  • Microsoft tied the setting of Windows Media Player as the default to OEMs’ licensing of the operating system (Windows), whereas Google ties the setting of Search as the default to device makers’ use of other Google apps, while allowing them to use the operating system (Android) without any Google apps; and
  • Downloading competing media players was difficult due to download speeds and lack of user familiarity, whereas it is trivial and commonplace for users to download apps that compete with Google’s.

Moreover, there are also some conceptual hurdles in finding the conduct to be that of tying.

First, the difference between “pre-installed,” “default,” and “exclusive” matters a lot in establishing whether effective competition has been foreclosed. The Commission’s Press Release notes that to pre-install Google Play, manufacturers have to also pre-install Google Search App and Google Chrome. It also states that Google Search is the default search engine on Google Chrome. The Press Release does not indicate that Google Search App has to be the exclusive or default search app. (It is worth noting, however, that the Statement of Objections in Google Android did allege that Google violated EU competition rules by requiring Search to be installed as the default. We will have to await the decision itself to see if this was dropped from the case or simply not mentioned in the Press Release).

In fact, the fact that the other infringement found is that of Google’s making payments to manufacturers in return for exclusively pre-installing the Google Search App indirectly suggests that not every manufacturer pre-installs Google Search App as the exclusive, pre-installed search app. This means that any other search app (provider) can also (request to) be pre-installed on these devices. The same goes for the browser app.

Of course, regardless, even if the manufacturer does not pre-install competing apps, the consumer is free to download any other app — for search or browsing — as they wish, and can do so in seconds.

In short, pre-installation on its own does not necessarily foreclose competition, and thus may not constitute an illegal tie under EU competition law. This is particularly so when download speeds are fast (unlike the case at the time of Microsoft) and consumers regularly do download numerous apps.

What may, however, potentially foreclose effective competition is where a dominant undertaking makes payments to stop its customers, as a practical matter, from selling its rivals’ products. Intel, for example, was found to have abused its dominant position through payments to a computer retailer in return for its not selling computers with its competitor AMD’s chips, and to computer manufacturers in return for delaying the launch of computers with AMD chips.

In Google Android, the exclusivity provision that would require manufacturers to pre-install Google Search App exclusively in return for financial incentives may be deemed to be similar to this.

Having said that, unlike in Intel where a given computer can have a CPU from only one given manufacturer, even the exclusive pre-installation of the Google Search App would not have prevented consumers from downloading competing apps. So, again, in theory effective competition from other search apps need not have been foreclosed.

It must also be noted that just because a Google app is pre-installed does not mean that it generates any revenue to Google — consumers have to actually choose to use that app as opposed to another one that they might prefer in order for Google to earn any revenue from it. The Commission seems to place substantial weight on pre-installation which it alleges to create “a status quo bias.”

The concern with this approach is that it is not possible to know whether those consumers who do not download competing apps do so out of a preference for Google’s apps or, instead, for other reasons that might indicate competition not to be working. Indeed, one hurdle as regards conceptualising the infringement as tying is that it would require establishing that a significant number of phone users would actually prefer to use Google Play Store (the tying product) without Google Search App (the tied product).

This is because, according to the Commission’s Guidance Paper, establishing tying starts with identifying two distinct products, and

[t]wo products are distinct if, in the absence of tying or bundling, a substantial number of customers would purchase or would have purchased the tying product without also buying the tied product from the same supplier.

Thus, if a substantial number of customers would not want to use Google Play Store without also preferring to use Google Search App, this would cause a conceptual problem for making out a tying claim.

In fact, the conduct at issue in Google Android may be closer to a refusal to supply type of abuse.

Refusal to supply also seems to make more sense regarding the prevention of the development of Android forks being found to be an abuse. In this context, it will be interesting to see how the Commission overcomes the argument that Android forks can be developed freely and Google may have legitimate business reasons in wanting to associate its own, proprietary apps only with a certain, standardised-quality version of the operating system.

More importantly, the possible underlying theory in this part of the case is that the Google apps — and perhaps even the licensed version of Android — are a “must-have,” which is close to an argument that they are an essential facility in the context of Android phones. But that would indeed require a refusal to supply type of abuse to be established, which does not appear to be the case.

What will happen next?

To answer the question raised in the title of this post — whether the Google Android decision will benefit consumers — one needs to consider what Google may do in order to terminate the infringing conduct as required by the Commission, whilst also still generating revenue from Android.

This is because unbundling Google Play Store, Google Search App and Google Chrome (to allow manufacturers to pre-install Google Play Store without the latter two) will disrupt Google’s main revenue stream (i.e., ad revenue generated through the use of Google Search App or Google Search within the Chrome app) which funds the free operating system. This could lead Google to start charging for the operating system, and limiting to whom it licenses the operating system under the Commission’s required, less-restrictive terms.

As the Commission does not seem to think that Apple constrains Google when it comes to dealings with device manufacturers, in theory, Google should be able to charge up to the monopoly level licensing fee to device manufacturers. If that happens, the price of Android smartphones may go up. It is possible that there is a new competitor lurking in the woods that will grow and constrain that exercise of market power, but how this will all play out for consumers — as well as app developers who may face increasing costs due to the forking of Android — really remains to be seen.

 

* Pinar Akman is Professor of Law, Director of Centre for Business Law and Practice, University of Leeds, UK. This piece has not been commissioned or funded by any entity. The author has not been involved in the Google Android case in any capacity. In the past, the author wrote a piece on the Commission’s Google Shopping case, ‘The Theory of Abuse in Google Search: A Positive and Normative Assessment under EU Competition Law,’ supported by a research grant from Google. The author would like to thank Peter Whelan, Konstantinos Stylianou, and Geoffrey Manne for helpful comments. All errors remain her own. The author can be contacted here.

Today the European Commission launched its latest salvo against Google, issuing a decision in its three-year antitrust investigation into the company’s agreements for distribution of the Android mobile operating system. The massive fine levied by the Commission will dominate the headlines, but the underlying legal theory and proposed remedies are just as notable — and just as problematic.

The nirvana fallacy

It is sometimes said that the most important question in all of economics is “compared to what?” UCLA economist Harold Demsetz — one of the most important regulatory economists of the past century — coined the term “nirvana fallacy” to critique would-be regulators’ tendency to compare messy, real-world economic circumstances to idealized alternatives, and to justify policies on the basis of the discrepancy between them. Wishful thinking, in other words.

The Commission’s Android decision falls prey to the nirvana fallacy. It conjures a world in which Google offers its Android operating system on unrealistic terms, prohibits it from doing otherwise, and neglects the actual consequences of such a demand.

The idea at the core of the Commission’s decision is that by making its own services (especially Google Search and Google Play Store) easier to access than competing services on Android devices, Google has effectively foreclosed rivals from effective competition. In order to correct that claimed defect, the Commission demands that Google refrain from engaging in practices that favor its own products in its Android licensing agreements:

At a minimum, Google has to stop and to not re-engage in any of the three types of practices. The decision also requires Google to refrain from any measure that has the same or an equivalent object or effect as these practices.

The basic theory is straightforward enough, but its application here reflects a troubling departure from the underlying economics and a romanticized embrace of industrial policy that is unsupported by the realities of the market.

In a recent interview, European Commission competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, offered a revealing insight into her thinking about her oversight of digital platforms, and perhaps the economy in general: “My concern is more about whether we get the right choices,” she said. Asked about Facebook, for example, she specified exactly what she thinks the “right” choice looks like: “I would like to have a Facebook in which I pay a fee each month, but I would have no tracking and advertising and the full benefits of privacy.”

Some consumers may well be sympathetic with her preference (and even share her specific vision of what Facebook should offer them). But what if competition doesn’t result in our — or, more to the point, Margrethe Vestager’s — prefered outcomes? Should competition policy nevertheless enact the idiosyncratic consumer preferences of a particular regulator? What if offering consumers the “right” choices comes at the expense of other things they value, like innovation, product quality, or price? And, if so, can antitrust enforcers actually engineer a better world built around these preferences?

Android’s alleged foreclosure… that doesn’t really foreclose anything

The Commission’s primary concern is with the terms of Google’s deal: In exchange for royalty-free access to Android and a set of core, Android-specific applications and services (like Google Search and Google Maps) Google imposes a few contractual conditions.

Google allows manufacturers to use the Android platform — in which the company has invested (and continues to invest) billions of dollars — for free. It does not require device makers to include any of its core, Google-branded features. But if a manufacturer does decide to use any of them, it must include all of them, and make Google Search the device default. In another (much smaller) set of agreements, Google also offers device makers a small share of its revenue from Search if they agree to pre-install only Google Search on their devices (although users remain free to download and install any competing services they wish).

Essentially, that’s it. Google doesn’t allow device makers to pick and choose between parts of the ecosystem of Google products, free-riding on Google’s brand and investments. But manufacturers are free to use the Android platform and to develop their own competing brand built upon Google’s technology.

Other apps may be installed in addition to Google’s core apps. Google Search need not be the exclusive search service, but it must be offered out of the box as the default. Google Play and Chrome must be made available to users, but other app stores and browsers may be pre-installed and even offered as the default. And device makers who choose to do so may share in Search revenue by pre-installing Google Search exclusively — but users can and do install a different search service.

Alternatives to all of Google’s services (including Search) abound on the Android platform. It’s trivial both to install them and to set them as the default. Meanwhile, device makers regularly choose to offer these apps alongside Google’s services, and some, like Samsung, have developed entire customized app suites of their own. Still others, like Amazon, pre-install no Google apps and use Android without any of these constraints (and whose Google-free tablets are regularly ranked as the best-rated and most popular in Europe).

By contrast, Apple bundles its operating system with its devices, bypasses third-party device makers entirely, and offers consumers access to its operating system only if they pay (lavishly) for one of the very limited number of devices the company offers, as well. It is perhaps not surprising — although it is enlightening — that Apple earns more revenue in an average quarter from iPhone sales than Google is reported to have earned in total from Android since it began offering it in 2008.

Reality — and the limits it imposes on efforts to manufacture nirvana

The logic behind Google’s approach to Android is obvious: It is the extension of Google’s “advertisers pay” platform strategy to mobile. Rather than charging device makers (and thus consumers) directly for its services, Google earns its revenue by charging advertisers for targeted access to users via Search. Remove Search from mobile devices and you remove the mechanism by which Google gets paid.

It’s true that most device makers opt to offer Google’s suite of services to European users, and that most users opt to keep Google Search as the default on their devices — that is, indeed, the hoped-for effect, and necessary to ensure that Google earns a return on its investment.

That users often choose to keep using Google services instead of installing alternatives, and that device makers typically choose to engineer their products around the Google ecosystem, isn’t primarily the result of a Google-imposed mandate; it’s the result of consumer preferences for Google’s offerings in lieu of readily available alternatives.

The EU decision against Google appears to imagine a world in which Google will continue to develop Android and allow device makers to use the platform and Google’s services for free, even if the likelihood of recouping its investment is diminished.

The Commission also assessed in detail Google’s arguments that the tying of the Google Search app and Chrome browser were necessary, in particular to allow Google to monetise its investment in Android, and concluded that these arguments were not well founded. Google achieves billions of dollars in annual revenues with the Google Play Store alone, it collects a lot of data that is valuable to Google’s search and advertising business from Android devices, and it would still have benefitted from a significant stream of revenue from search advertising without the restrictions.

For the Commission, Google’s earned enough [trust me: you should follow the link. It’s my favorite joke…].

But that world in which Google won’t alter its investment decisions based on a government-mandated reduction in its allowable return on investment doesn’t exist; it’s a fanciful Nirvana.

Google’s real alternatives to the status quo are charging for the use of Android, closing the Android platform and distributing it (like Apple) only on a fully integrated basis, or discontinuing Android.

In reality, and compared to these actual alternatives, Google’s restrictions are trivial. Remember, Google doesn’t insist that Google Search be exclusive, only that it benefit from a “leg up” by being pre-installed as the default. And on this thin reed Google finances the development and maintenance of the (free) Android operating system and all of the other (free) apps from which Google otherwise earns little or no revenue.

It’s hard to see how consumers, device makers, or app developers would be made better off without Google’s restrictions, but in the real world in which the alternative is one of the three manifestly less desirable options mentioned above.

Missing the real competition for the trees

What’s more, while ostensibly aimed at increasing competition, the Commission’s proposed remedy — like the conduct it addresses — doesn’t relate to Google’s most significant competitors at all.

Facebook, Instagram, Firefox, Amazon, Spotify, Yelp, and Yahoo, among many others, are some of the most popular apps on Android phones, including in Europe. They aren’t foreclosed by Google’s Android distribution terms, and it’s even hard to imagine that they would be more popular if only Android phones didn’t come with, say, Google Search pre-installed.

It’s a strange anticompetitive story that has Google allegedly foreclosing insignificant competitors while apparently ignoring its most substantial threats.

The primary challenges Google now faces are from Facebook drawing away the most valuable advertising and Amazon drawing away the most valuable product searches (and increasingly advertising, as well). The fact that Google’s challenged conduct has never shifted in order to target these competitors as their threat emerged, and has had no apparent effect on these competitive dynamics, says all one needs to know about the merits of the Commission’s decision and the value of its proposed remedy.

In reality, as Demsetz suggested, Nirvana cannot be designed by politicians, especially in complex, modern technology markets. Consumers’ best hope for something close — continued innovation, low prices, and voluminous choice — lies in the evolution of markets spurred by consumer demand, not regulators’ efforts to engineer them.

Regardless of which standard you want to apply to competition law – consumer welfare, total welfare, hipster, or redneck antitrust – it’s never good when competition/antitrust agencies are undermining innovation. Yet, this is precisely what the European Commission is doing.

Today, the agency announced a €4.34 billion fine against Alphabet (Google). It represents more than 30% of what the company invests annually in R&D (based on 2017 figures). This is more than likely to force Google to cut its R&D investments, or, at least, to slow them down.

In fact, the company says in a recent 10-K filing with the SEC that it is uncertain as to the impact of these sanctions on its financial stability. It follows that the European Commission necessarily is ignorant of such concerns, as well, which is thus clearly not reflected in the calculation of its fine.

One thing is for sure, however: In the end, consumers will suffer if the failure to account for the fine’s effect on innovation will lead to less of it from Google.

And Google is not alone in this situation. In a paper just posted by the International Center for Law & Economics, I conduct an empirical study comparing all the fines imposed by the European Commission on the basis of Article 102 TFEU over the period 2004 to 2018 (Android included) with the annual R&D investments by the targeted companies.

The results are indisputable: The European Commission’s fines are disproportionate in this regard and have the probable effect of slowing down the innovation of numerous sanctioned companies.

For this reason, an innovation protection mechanism should be incorporated into the calculation of the EU’s Article 102 fines. I propose doing so by introducing a new limit that caps Article 102 fines at a certain percentage of companies’ investment in R&D.

The full paper is available here.

Our story begins on the morning of January 9, 2007. Few people knew it at the time, but the world of wireless communications was about to change forever. Steve Jobs walked on stage wearing his usual turtleneck, and proceeded to reveal the iPhone. The rest, as they say, is history. The iPhone moved the wireless communications industry towards a new paradigm. No more physical keyboards, clamshell bodies, and protruding antennae. All of these were replaced by a beautiful black design, a huge touchscreen (3.5” was big for that time), a rear-facing camera, and (a little bit later) a revolutionary new way to consume applications: the App Store. Sales soared and Apple’s stock started an upward trajectory that would see it become one of the world’s most valuable companies.

The story could very well have ended there. If it had, we might all be using iPhones today. However, years before, Google had commenced its own march into the wireless communications space by purchasing a small startup called Android. A first phone had initially been slated for release in late 2007. But Apple’s iPhone announcement sent Google back to the drawing board. It took Google and its partners until 2010 to come up with a competitive answer – the Google Nexus One produced by HTC.

Understanding the strategy that Google put in place during this three year timespan is essential to understanding the European Commission’s Google Android decision.

How to beat one of the great innovations?

In order to overthrow — or even merely just compete with — the iPhone, Google faced the same dilemma that most second-movers have to contend with: imitate or differentiate. Its solution was a mix of both. It took the touchscreen, camera, and applications, but departed on one key aspect. Whereas Apple controls the iPhone from end-to-end, Google opted for a licensed, open-source operating system that substitutes a more-decentralized approach for Apple’s so-called “walled garden.”

Google and a number of partners founded the Open Handset Alliance (“OHA”) in November 2007. This loose association of network operators, software companies and handset manufacturers became the driving force behind the Android OS. Through the OHA, Google and its partners have worked to develop minimal specifications for OHA-compliant Android devices in order to ensure that all levels of the device ecosystem — from device makers to app developers — function well together. As its initial press release boasts, through the OHA:

Handset manufacturers and wireless operators will be free to customize Android in order to bring to market innovative new products faster and at a much lower cost. Developers will have complete access to handset capabilities and tools that will enable them to build more compelling and user-friendly services, bringing the Internet developer model to the mobile space. And consumers worldwide will have access to less expensive mobile devices that feature more compelling services, rich Internet applications and easier-to-use interfaces — ultimately creating a superior mobile experience.

The open source route has a number of advantages — notably the improved division of labor — but it is not without challenges. One key difficulty lies in coordinating and incentivizing the dozens of firms that make up the alliance. Google must not only keep the diverse Android ecosystem directed toward a common, compatible goal, it also has to monetize a product that, by its very nature, is given away free of charge. It is Google’s answers to these two problems that set off the Commission’s investigation.

The first problem is a direct consequence of Android’s decentralization. Whereas there are only a small number of iPhones (the couple of models which Apple markets at any given time) running the same operating system, Android comes in a jaw-dropping array of flavors. Some devices are produced by Google itself, others are the fruit of high-end manufacturers such as Samsung and LG, there are also so-called “flagship killers” like OnePlus, and budget phones from the likes of Motorola and Honor (one of Huawei’s brands). The differences don’t stop there. Manufacturers, like Samsung, Xiaomi and LG (to name but a few) have tinkered with the basic Android setup. Samsung phones heavily incorporate its Bixby virtual assistant, while Xiaomi packs in a novel user interface. The upshot is that the Android marketplace is tremendously diverse.

Managing this variety is challenging, to say the least (preventing projects from unravelling into a myriad of forks is always an issue for open source projects). Google and the OHA have come up with an elegant solution. The alliance penalizes so-called “incompatible” devices — that is, handsets whose software or hardware stray too far from a predetermined series of specifications. When this is the case, Google may refuse to license its proprietary applications (most notably the Play Store). This minimum level of uniformity ensures that apps will run smoothly on all devices. It also provides users with a consistent experience (thereby protecting the Android brand) and reduces the cost of developing applications for Android. Unsurprisingly, Android developers have lauded these “anti-fragmentation” measures, branding the Commission’s case a disaster.

A second important problem stems from the fact that the Android OS is an open source project. Device manufacturers can thus license the software free of charge. This is no small advantage. It shaves precious dollars from the price of Android smartphones, thus opening-up the budget end of the market. Although there are numerous factors at play, it should be noted that a top of the range Samsung Galaxy S9+ is roughly 30% cheaper ($819) than its Apple counterpart, the iPhone X ($1165).

Offering a competitive operating system free of charge might provide a fantastic deal for consumers, but it poses obvious business challenges. How can Google and other members of the OHA earn a return on the significant amounts of money poured into developing, improving, and marketing and Android devices? As is often the case with open source projects, they essentially rely on complementarities. Google produces the Android OS in the hope that it will boost users’ consumption of its profitable, ad-supported services (Google Search in particular). This is sometimes referred to as a loss leader or complementary goods strategy.

Google uses two important sets of contractual provisions to cement this loss leader strategy. First, it seemingly bundles a number of proprietary applications together. Manufacturers must pre-load the Google Search and Chrome apps in order to obtain the Play Store app (the lynchpin on which the Android ecosystem sits). Second, Google has concluded a number of “revenue sharing” deals with manufacturers and network operators. These companies receive monetary compensation when the Google Search is displayed prominently on a user’s home screen. In effect, they are receiving a cut of the marginal revenue that the use of this search bar generates for Google. Both of these measures ultimately nudge users — but do not force them, as neither prevents users from installing competing apps — into using Google’s most profitable services.

Readers would be forgiven for thinking that this is a win-win situation. Users get a competitive product free of charge, while Google and other members of the OHA earn enough money to compete against Apple.

The Commission is of another mind, however.

Commission’s hubris

The European Commission believes that Google is hurting competition. Though the text of the decision is not yet available, the thrust of its argument is that Google’s anti-fragmentation measures prevent software developers from launching competing OSs, while the bundling and revenue sharing both thwart rival search engines.

This analysis runs counter to some rather obvious facts:

  • For a start, the Android ecosystem is vibrant. Numerous firms have launched forked versions of Android, both with and without Google’s apps. Amazon’s Fire line of devices is a notable example.
  • Second, although Google’s behavior does have an effect on the search engine market, there is nothing anticompetitive about it. Yahoo could very well have avoided its high-profile failure if, way back in 2005, it had understood the importance of the mobile internet. At the time, it still had a 30% market share, compared to Google’s 36%. Firms that fail to seize upon business opportunities will fall out of the market. This is not a bug; it is possibly the most important feature of market economies. It reveals the products that consumers prefer and stops resources from being allocated to less valuable propositions.
  • Last but not least, Google’s behavior does not prevent other search engines from placing their own search bars or virtual assistants on smartphones. This is essentially what Samsung has done by ditching Google’s assistant in favor of its Bixby service. In other words, Google is merely competing with other firms to place key apps on or near the home screen of devices.

Even if the Commission’s reasoning where somehow correct, the competition watchdog is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The potential repercussions for Android, the software industry, and European competition law are great:

  • For a start, the Commission risks significantly weakening Android’s competitive position relative to Apple. Android is a complex ecosystem. The idea that it is possible to bring incremental changes to its strategy without threatening the viability of the whole is a sign of the Commission’s hubris.
  • More broadly, the harsh treatment of Google could have significant incentive effects for other tech platforms. As others have already pointed out, the Commission’s decision rests on the idea that dominant firms should not be allowed to favor their own services compared to those of rivals. Taken a face value, this anti-discrimination policy will push firms to design closed platforms. If rivals are excluded from the very start, there is no one against whom to discriminate. Antitrust watchdogs are thus kept at bay (and thus the Commission is acting against Google’s marginal preference for its own services, rather than Apple’s far-more-substantial preferencing of its own services). Moving to a world of only walled gardens might harm users and innovators alike.

Over the next couple of days and weeks, many will jump to the Commission’s defense. They will see its action as a necessary step against the abstract “power” of Silicon Valley’s tech giants. Rivals will feel vindicated. But when all is done and dusted, there seems to be little doubt that the decision is misguided. The Commission will have struck a blow to the heart of the most competitive offering in the smartphone space. And consumers will be the biggest losers.

This is not what the competition laws were intended to achieve.

The EC’s Android decision is expected sometime in the next couple of weeks. Current speculation is that the EC may issue a fine exceeding last year’s huge 2.4B EU fine for Google’s alleged antitrust violations related to the display of general search results. Based on the statement of objections (“SO”), I expect the Android decision will be a muddle of legal theory that not only fails to connect to facts and marketplace realities, but also will  perversely incentivize platform operators to move toward less open ecosystems.

As has been amply demonstrated (see, e.g., here and here), the Commission has made fundamental errors with its market definition analysis in this case. Chief among its failures is the EC’s incredible decision to treat the relevant market as licensable mobile operating systems, which notably excludes the largest smartphone player by revenue, Apple.

This move, though perhaps expedient for the EC, leads the Commission to view with disapproval an otherwise competitively justifiable set of licensing requirements that Google imposes on its partners. This includes anti-fragmentation and app-bundling provisions (“Provisions”) in the agreements that partners sign in order to be able to distribute Google Mobile Services (“GMS”) with their devices. Among other things, the Provisions guarantee that a basic set of Google’s apps and services will be non-exclusively featured on partners’ devices.

The Provisions — when viewed in a market in which Apple is a competitor — are clearly procompetitive. The critical mass of GMS-flavored versions of Android (as opposed to vanilla Android Open Source Project (“AOSP”) devices) supplies enough predictability to an otherwise unruly universe of disparate Android devices such that software developers will devote the sometimes considerable resources necessary for launching successful apps on Android.

Open source software like AOSP is great, but anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Linux recognizes that the open source movement often fails to produce consumer-friendly software. In order to provide a critical mass of users that attract developers to Android, Google provides a significant service to the Android market as a whole by using the Provisions to facilitate a predictable user (and developer) experience.

Generativity on platforms is a complex phenomenon

To some extent, the EC’s complaint is rooted in a bias that Android act as a more “generative” platform such that third-party developers are relatively better able to reach users of Android devices. But this effort by the EC to undermine the Provisions will be ultimately self-defeating as it will likely push mobile platform providers to converge on similar, relatively more closed business models that provide less overall consumer choice.

Even assuming that the Provisions somehow prevent third-party app installs or otherwise develop a kind of path-dependency among users such that they never seek out new apps (which the data clearly shows is not happening), focusing on third-party developers as the sole or primary source of innovation on Android is a mistake.

The control that platform operators like Apple and Google exert over their respective ecosystems does not per se create more or less generativity on the platforms. As Gus Hurwitz has noted, “literature and experience amply demonstrate that ‘open’ platforms, or general-purpose technologies generally, can promote growth and increase social welfare, but they also demonstrate that open platforms can also limit growth and decrease welfare.” Conversely, tighter vertical integration (the Apple model) can also produce more innovation than open platforms.

What is important is the balance between control and freedom, and the degree to which third-party developers are able to innovate within the context of a platform’s constraints. The existence of constraints — either Apple’s more tightly controlled terms, or Google’s more generous Provisions — themselves facilitate generativity.

In short, it is overly simplistic to view generativity as something that happens at the edges without respect to structural constraints at the core. The interplay between platform and developer is complex and complementary, and needs to be viewed as a dynamic process.

Whither platform diversity?

I love Apple’s devices and I am quite happy living within its walled garden. But I certainly do not believe that Apple’s approach is the only one that makes sense. Yet, in its SO, the EC blesses Apple’s approach as the proper way to manage a mobile ecosystem. It explicitly excluded Apple from a competitive analysis, and attacked Google on the basis that it imposed restrictions in the context of licensing its software. Thus, had Google opted instead to create a separate walled garden of its own on the Apple model, everything it had done would have otherwise been fine. This means that Google is now subject to an antitrust investigation for attempting to develop a more open platform.

With this SO, the EC is basically asserting that Google is anticompetitively bundling without being able to plausibly assert foreclosure (because, again, third-party app installs are easy to do and are easily shown to number in the billions). I’m sure Google doesn’t want to move in the direction of having a more closed system, but the lesson of this case will loom large for tomorrow’s innovators.

In the face of eager antitrust enforcers like those in the EU, the easiest path for future innovators will be to keep everything tightly controlled so as to prevent both fragmentation and misguided regulatory intervention.