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This week the FCC will vote on Chairman Ajit Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Once implemented, the Order will rescind the 2015 Open Internet Order and return antitrust and consumer protection enforcement to primacy in Internet access regulation in the U.S.

In anticipation of that, earlier this week the FCC and FTC entered into a Memorandum of Understanding delineating how the agencies will work together to police ISPs. Under the MOU, the FCC will review informal complaints regarding ISPs’ disclosures about their blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, and congestion management practices. Where an ISP fails to make the proper disclosures, the FCC will take enforcement action. The FTC, for its part, will investigate and, where warranted, take enforcement action against ISPs for unfair, deceptive, or otherwise unlawful acts.

Critics of Chairman Pai’s plan contend (among other things) that the reversion to antitrust-agency oversight of competition and consumer protection in telecom markets (and the Internet access market particularly) would be an aberration — that the US will become the only place in the world to move backward away from net neutrality rules and toward antitrust law.

But this characterization has it exactly wrong. In fact, much of the world has been moving toward an antitrust-based approach to telecom regulation. The aberration was the telecom-specific, common-carrier regulation of the 2015 Open Internet Order.

The longstanding, global transition from telecom regulation to antitrust enforcement

The decade-old discussion around net neutrality has morphed, perhaps inevitably, to join the larger conversation about competition in the telecom sector and the proper role of antitrust law in addressing telecom-related competition issues. Today, with the latest net neutrality rules in the US on the chopping block, the discussion has grown more fervent (and even sometimes inordinately violent).

On the one hand, opponents of the 2015 rules express strong dissatisfaction with traditional, utility-style telecom regulation of innovative services, and view the 2015 rules as a meritless usurpation of antitrust principles in guiding the regulation of the Internet access market. On the other hand, proponents of the 2015 rules voice skepticism that antitrust can actually provide a way to control competitive harms in the tech and telecom sectors, and see the heavy hand of Title II, common-carrier regulation as a necessary corrective.

While the evidence seems clear that an early-20th-century approach to telecom regulation is indeed inappropriate for the modern Internet (see our lengthy discussions on this point, e.g., here and here, as well as Thom Lambert’s recent post), it is perhaps less clear whether antitrust, with its constantly evolving, common-law foundation, is up to the task.

To answer that question, it is important to understand that for decades, the arc of telecom regulation globally has been sweeping in the direction of ex post competition enforcement, and away from ex ante, sector-specific regulation.

Howard Shelanski, who served as President Obama’s OIRA Administrator from 2013-17, Director of the Bureau of Economics at the FTC from 2012-2013, and Chief Economist at the FCC from 1999-2000, noted in 2002, for instance, that

[i]n many countries, the first transition has been from a government monopoly to a privatizing entity controlled by an independent regulator. The next transformation on the horizon is away from the independent regulator and towards regulation through general competition law.

Globally, nowhere perhaps has this transition been more clearly stated than in the EU’s telecom regulatory framework which asserts:

The aim is to progressively reduce ex ante sector-specific regulation progressively as competition in markets develops and, ultimately, for electronic communications [i.e., telecommunications] to be governed by competition law only. (Emphasis added.)

To facilitate the transition and quash regulatory inconsistencies among member states, the EC identified certain markets for national regulators to decide, consistent with EC guidelines on market analysis, whether ex ante obligations were necessary in their respective countries due to an operator holding “significant market power.” In 2003 the EC identified 18 such markets. After observing technological and market changes over the next four years, the EC reduced that number to seven in 2007 and, in 2014, the number was further reduced to four markets, all wholesale markets, that could potentially require ex ante regulation.

It is important to highlight that this framework is not uniquely achievable in Europe because of some special trait in its markets, regulatory structure, or antitrust framework. Determining the right balance of regulatory rules and competition law, whether enforced by a telecom regulator, antitrust regulator, or multi-purpose authority (i.e., with authority over both competition and telecom) means choosing from a menu of options that should be periodically assessed to move toward better performance and practice. There is nothing jurisdiction-specific about this; it is simply a matter of good governance.

And since the early 2000s, scholars have highlighted that the US is in an intriguing position to transition to a merged regulator because, for example, it has both a “highly liberalized telecommunications sector and a well-established body of antitrust law.” For Shelanski, among others, the US has been ready to make the transition since 2007.

Far from being an aberrant move away from sound telecom regulation, the FCC’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order is actually a step in the direction of sensible, antitrust-based telecom regulation — one that many parts of the world have long since undertaken.

How antitrust oversight of telecom markets has been implemented around the globe

In implementing the EU’s shift toward antitrust oversight of the telecom sector since 2003, agencies have adopted a number of different organizational reforms.

Some telecom regulators assumed new duties over competition — e.g., Ofcom in the UK. Other non-European countries, including, e.g., Mexico have also followed this model.

Other European Member States have eliminated their telecom regulator altogether. In a useful case study, Roslyn Layton and Joe Kane outline Denmark’s approach, which includes disbanding its telecom regulator and passing the regulation of the sector to various executive agencies.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands and Spain each elected to merge its telecom regulator into its competition authority. New Zealand has similarly adopted this framework.

A few brief case studies will illuminate these and other reforms:

The Netherlands

In 2013, the Netherlands merged its telecom, consumer protection, and competition regulators to form the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM). The ACM’s structure streamlines decision-making on pending industry mergers and acquisitions at the managerial level, eliminating the challenges arising from overlapping agency reviews and cross-agency coordination. The reform also unified key regulatory methodologies, such as creating a consistent calculation method for the weighted average cost of capital (WACC).

The Netherlands also claims that the ACM’s ex post approach is better able to adapt to “technological developments, dynamic markets, and market trends”:

The combination of strength and flexibility allows for a problem-based approach where the authority first engages in a dialogue with a particular market player in order to discuss market behaviour and ensure the well-functioning of the market.

The Netherlands also cited a significant reduction in the risk of regulatory capture as staff no longer remain in positions for long tenures but rather rotate on a project-by-project basis from a regulatory to a competition department or vice versa. Moving staff from team to team has also added value in terms of knowledge transfer among the staff. Finally, while combining the cultures of each regulator was less difficult than expected, the government reported that the largest cause of consternation in the process was agreeing on a single IT system for the ACM.

Spain

In 2013, Spain created the National Authority for Markets and Competition (CNMC), merging the National Competition Authority with several sectoral regulators, including the telecom regulator, to “guarantee cohesion between competition rulings and sectoral regulation.” In a report to the OECD, Spain stated that moving to the new model was necessary because of increasing competition and technological convergence in the sector (i.e., the ability for different technologies to offer the substitute services (like fixed and wireless Internet access)). It added that integrating its telecom regulator with its competition regulator ensures

a predictable business environment and legal certainty [i.e., removing “any threat of arbitrariness”] for the firms. These two conditions are indispensable for network industries — where huge investments are required — but also for the rest of the business community if investment and innovation are to be promoted.

Like in the Netherlands, additional benefits include significantly lowering the risk of regulatory capture by “preventing the alignment of the authority’s performance with sectoral interests.”

Denmark

In 2011, the Danish government unexpectedly dismantled the National IT and Telecom Agency and split its duties between four regulators. While the move came as a surprise, it did not engender national debate — vitriolic or otherwise — nor did it receive much attention in the press.

Since the dismantlement scholars have observed less politicization of telecom regulation. And even though the competition authority didn’t take over telecom regulatory duties, the Ministry of Business and Growth implemented a light touch regime, which, as Layton and Kane note, has helped to turn Denmark into one of the “top digital nations” according to the International Telecommunication Union’s Measuring the Information Society Report.

New Zealand

The New Zealand Commerce Commission (NZCC) is responsible for antitrust enforcement, economic regulation, consumer protection, and certain sectoral regulations, including telecommunications. By combining functions into a single regulator New Zealand asserts that it can more cost-effectively administer government operations. Combining regulatory functions also created spillover benefits as, for example, competition analysis is a prerequisite for sectoral regulation, and merger analysis in regulated sectors (like telecom) can leverage staff with detailed and valuable knowledge. Similar to the other countries, New Zealand also noted that the possibility of regulatory capture “by the industries they regulate is reduced in an agency that regulates multiple sectors or also has competition and consumer law functions.”

Advantages identified by other organizations

The GSMA, a mobile industry association, notes in its 2016 report, Resetting Competition Policy Frameworks for the Digital Ecosystem, that merging the sector regulator into the competition regulator also mitigates regulatory creep by eliminating the prodding required to induce a sector regulator to roll back regulation as technological evolution requires it, as well as by curbing the sector regulator’s temptation to expand its authority. After all, regulators exist to regulate.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that eliminating the telecom regulator has not gone off without a hitch in every case (most notably, in Spain). It’s important to understand, however, that the difficulties that have arisen in specific contexts aren’t endemic to the nature of competition versus telecom regulation. Nothing about these cases suggests that economic-based telecom regulations are inherently essential, or that replacing sector-specific oversight with antitrust oversight can’t work.

Contrasting approaches to net neutrality in the EU and New Zealand

Unfortunately, adopting a proper framework and implementing sweeping organizational reform is no guarantee of consistent decisionmaking in its implementation. Thus, in 2015, the European Parliament and Council of the EU went against two decades of telecommunications best practices by implementing ex ante net neutrality regulations without hard evidence of widespread harm and absent any competition analysis to justify its decision. The EU placed net neutrality under the universal service and user’s rights prong of the regulatory framework, and the resulting rules lack coherence and economic rigor.

BEREC’s net neutrality guidelines, meant to clarify the EU regulations, offered an ambiguous, multi-factored standard to evaluate ISP practices like free data programs. And, as mentioned in a previous TOTM post, whether or not they allow the practice, regulators (e.g., Norway’s Nkom and the UK’s Ofcom) have lamented the lack of regulatory certainty surrounding free data programs.

Notably, while BEREC has not provided clear guidance, a 2017 report commissioned by the EU’s Directorate-General for Competition weighing competitive benefits and harms of zero rating concluded “there appears to be little reason to believe that zero-rating gives rise to competition concerns.”

The report also provides an ex post framework for analyzing such deals in the context of a two-sided market by assessing a deal’s impact on competition between ISPs and between content and application providers.

The EU example demonstrates that where a telecom regulator perceives a novel problem, competition law, grounded in economic principles, brings a clear framework to bear.

In New Zealand, if a net neutrality issue were to arise, the ISP’s behavior would be examined under the context of existing antitrust law, including a determination of whether the ISP is exercising market power, and by the Telecommunications Commissioner, who monitors competition and the development of telecom markets for the NZCC.

Currently, there is broad consensus among stakeholders, including a local content providers and networking equipment manufacturers, that there is no need for ex ante regulation of net neutrality. Wholesale ISP, Chorus, states, for example, that “in any event, the United States’ transparency and non-interference requirements [from the 2015 OIO] are arguably covered by the TCF Code disclosure rules and the provisions of the Commerce Act.”

The TCF Code is a mandatory code of practice establishing requirements concerning the information ISPs are required to disclose to consumers about their services. For example, ISPs must disclose any arrangements that prioritize certain traffic. Regarding traffic management, complaints of unfair contract terms — when not resolved by a process administered by an independent industry group — may be referred to the NZCC for an investigation in accordance with the Fair Trading Act. Under the Commerce Act, the NZCC can prohibit anticompetitive mergers, or practices that substantially lessen competition or that constitute price fixing or abuse of market power.

In addition, the NZCC has been active in patrolling vertical agreements between ISPs and content providers — precisely the types of agreements bemoaned by Title II net neutrality proponents.

In February 2017, the NZCC blocked Vodafone New Zealand’s proposed merger with Sky Network (combining Sky’s content and pay TV business with Vodafone’s broadband and mobile services) because the Commission concluded that the deal would substantially lessen competition in relevant broadband and mobile services markets. The NZCC was

unable to exclude the real chance that the merged entity would use its market power over premium live sports rights to effectively foreclose a substantial share of telecommunications customers from rival telecommunications services providers (TSPs), resulting in a substantial lessening of competition in broadband and mobile services markets.

Such foreclosure would result, the NZCC argued, from exclusive content and integrated bundles with features such as “zero rated Sky Sport viewing over mobile.” In addition, Vodafone would have the ability to prevent rivals from creating bundles using Sky Sport.

The substance of the Vodafone/Sky decision notwithstanding, the NZCC’s intervention is further evidence that antitrust isn’t a mere smokescreen for regulators to do nothing, and that regulators don’t need to design novel tools (such as the Internet conduct rule in the 2015 OIO) to regulate something neither they nor anyone else knows very much about: “not just the sprawling Internet of today, but also the unknowable Internet of tomorrow.” Instead, with ex post competition enforcement, regulators can allow dynamic innovation and competition to develop, and are perfectly capable of intervening — when and if identifiable harm emerges.

Conclusion

Unfortunately for Title II proponents — who have spent a decade at the FCC lobbying for net neutrality rules despite a lack of actionable evidence — the FCC is not acting without precedent by enabling the FTC’s antitrust and consumer protection enforcement to police conduct in Internet access markets. For two decades, the object of telecommunications regulation globally has been to transition away from sector-specific ex ante regulation to ex post competition review and enforcement. It’s high time the U.S. got on board.

The populists are on the march, and as the 2018 campaign season gets rolling we’re witnessing more examples of political opportunism bolstered by economic illiteracy aimed at increasingly unpopular big tech firms.

The latest example comes in the form of a new investigation of Google opened by Missouri’s Attorney General, Josh Hawley. Mr. Hawley — a Republican who, not coincidentally, is running for Senate in 2018alleges various consumer protection violations and unfair competition practices.

But while Hawley’s investigation may jump start his campaign and help a few vocal Google rivals intent on mobilizing the machinery of the state against the company, it is unlikely to enhance consumer welfare — in Missouri or anywhere else.  

According to the press release issued by the AG’s office:

[T]he investigation will seek to determine if Google has violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act—Missouri’s principal consumer-protection statute—and Missouri’s antitrust laws.  

The business practices in question are Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities; Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors; and Google’s alleged manipulation of search results to preference websites owned by Google and to demote websites that compete with Google.

Mr. Hawley’s justification for his investigation is a flourish of populist rhetoric:

We should not just accept the word of these corporate giants that they have our best interests at heart. We need to make sure that they are actually following the law, we need to make sure that consumers are protected, and we need to hold them accountable.

But Hawley’s “strong” concern is based on tired retreads of the same faulty arguments that Google’s competitors (Yelp chief among them), have been plying for the better part of a decade. In fact, all of his apparent grievances against Google were exhaustively scrutinized by the FTC and ultimately rejected or settled in separate federal investigations in 2012 and 2013.

The antitrust issues

To begin with, AG Hawley references the EU antitrust investigation as evidence that

this is not the first-time Google’s business practices have come into question. In June, the European Union issued Google a record $2.7 billion antitrust fine.

True enough — and yet, misleadingly incomplete. Missing from Hawley’s recitation of Google’s antitrust rap sheet are the following investigations, which were closed without any finding of liability related to Google Search, Android, Google’s advertising practices, etc.:

  • United States FTC, 2013. The FTC found no basis to pursue a case after a two-year investigation: “Challenging Google’s product design decisions in this case would require the Commission — or a court — to second-guess a firm’s product design decisions where plausible procompetitive justifications have been offered, and where those justifications are supported by ample evidence.” The investigation did result in a consent order regarding patent licensing unrelated in any way to search and a voluntary commitment by Google not to engage in certain search-advertising-related conduct.
  • South Korea FTC, 2013. The KFTC cleared Google after a two-year investigation. It opened a new investigation in 2016, but, as I have discussed, “[i]f anything, the economic conditions supporting [the KFTC’s 2013] conclusion have only gotten stronger since.”
  • Canada Competition Bureau, 2016. The CCB closed a three-year long investigation into Google’s search practices without taking any action.

Similar investigations have been closed without findings of liability (or simply lie fallow) in a handful of other countries (e.g., Taiwan and Brazil) and even several states (e.g., Ohio and Texas). In fact, of all the jurisdictions that have investigated Google, only the EU and Russia have actually assessed liability.

As Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the FTC during the Google antitrust investigation, noted upon closing the case:

Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of U.S. law.

The CCB was similarly unequivocal in its dismissal of the very same antitrust claims Missouri’s AG seems intent on pursuing against Google:

The Bureau sought evidence of the harm allegedly caused to market participants in Canada as a result of any alleged preferential treatment of Google’s services. The Bureau did not find adequate evidence to support the conclusion that this conduct has had an exclusionary effect on rivals, or that it has resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in a market.

Unfortunately, rather than follow the lead of these agencies, Missouri’s investigation appears to have more in common with Russia’s effort to prop up a favored competitor (Yandex) at the expense of consumer welfare.

The Yelp Claim

Take Mr. Hawley’s focus on “Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors,” for example, which cleaves closely to what should become known henceforth as “The Yelp Claim.”

While the sordid history of Yelp’s regulatory crusade against Google is too long to canvas in its entirety here, the primary elements are these:

Once upon a time (in 2005), Google licensed Yelp’s content for inclusion in its local search results. In 2007 Yelp ended the deal. By 2010, and without a license from Yelp (asserting fair use), Google displayed small snippets of Yelp’s reviews that, if clicked on, led to Yelp’s site. Even though Yelp received more user traffic from those links as a result, Yelp complained, and Google removed Yelp snippets from its local results.

In its 2013 agreement with the FTC, Google guaranteed that Yelp could opt-out of having even snippets displayed in local search results by committing Google to:

make available a web-based notice form that provides website owners with the option to opt out from display on Google’s Covered Webpages of content from their website that has been crawled by Google. When a website owner exercises this option, Google will cease displaying crawled content from the domain name designated by the website owner….

The commitments also ensured that websites (like Yelp) that opt out would nevertheless remain in Google’s general index.

Ironically, Yelp now claims in a recent study that Google should show not only snippets of Yelp reviews, but even more of Yelp’s content. (For those interested, my colleagues and I have a paper explaining why the study’s claims are spurious).

The key bit here, of course, is that Google stopped pulling content from Yelp’s pages to use in its local search results, and that it implemented a simple mechanism for any other site wishing to opt out of the practice to do so.

It’s difficult to imagine why Missouri’s citizens might require more than this to redress alleged anticompetitive harms arising from the practice.

Perhaps AG Hawley thinks consumers would be better served by an opt-in mechanism? Of course, this is absurd, particularly if any of Missouri’s citizens — and their businesses — have websites. Most websites want at least some of their content to appear on Google’s search results pages as prominently as possible — see this and this, for example — and making this information more accessible to users is why Google exists.

To be sure, some websites may take issue with how much of their content Google features and where it places that content. But the easy opt out enables them to prevent Google from showing their content in a manner they disapprove of. Yelp is an outlier in this regard because it views Google as a direct competitor, especially to the extent it enables users to read some of Yelp’s reviews without visiting Yelp’s pages.

For Yelp and a few similarly situated companies the opt out suffices. But for almost everyone else the opt out is presumably rarely exercised, and any more-burdensome requirement would just impose unnecessary costs, harming instead of helping their websites.

The privacy issues

The Missouri investigation also applies to “Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities.” More pointedly, Hawley claims that “Google may be collecting more information from users than the company was telling consumers….”

Presumably this would come as news to the FTC, which, with a much larger staff and far greater expertise, currently has Google under a 20 year consent order (with some 15 years left to go) governing its privacy disclosures and information-sharing practices, thus ensuring that the agency engages in continual — and well-informed — oversight of precisely these issues.

The FTC’s consent order with Google (the result of an investigation into conduct involving Google’s short-lived Buzz social network, allegedly in violation of Google’s privacy policies), requires the company to:

  • “[N]ot misrepresent in any manner, expressly or by implication… the extent to which respondent maintains and protects the privacy and confidentiality of any [user] information…”;
  • “Obtain express affirmative consent from” users “prior to any new or additional sharing… of the Google user’s identified information with any third party” if doing so would in any way deviate from previously disclosed practices;
  • “[E]stablish and implement, and thereafter maintain, a comprehensive privacy program that is reasonably designed to [] address privacy risks related to the development and management of new and existing products and services for consumers, and (2) protect the privacy and confidentiality of [users’] information”; and
  • Along with a laundry list of other reporting requirements, “[submit] biennial assessments and reports [] from a qualified, objective, independent third-party professional…, approved by the [FTC] Associate Director for Enforcement, Bureau of Consumer Protection… in his or her sole discretion.”

What, beyond the incredibly broad scope of the FTC’s consent order, could the Missouri AG’s office possibly hope to obtain from an investigation?

Google is already expressly required to provide privacy reports to the FTC every two years. It must provide several of the items Hawley demands in his CID to the FTC; others are required to be made available to the FTC upon demand. What materials could the Missouri AG collect beyond those the FTC already receives, or has the authority to demand, under its consent order?

And what manpower and expertise could Hawley apply to those materials that would even begin to equal, let alone exceed, those of the FTC?

Lest anyone think the FTC is falling down on the job, a year after it issued that original consent order the Commission fined Google $22.5 million for violating the order in a questionable decision that was signed on to by all of the FTC’s Commissioners (both Republican and Democrat) — except the one who thought it didn’t go far enough.

That penalty is of undeniable import, not only for its amount (at the time it was the largest in FTC history) and for stemming from alleged problems completely unrelated to the issue underlying the initial action, but also because it was so easy to obtain. Having put Google under a 20-year consent order, the FTC need only prove (or threaten to prove) contempt of the consent order, rather than the specific elements of a new violation of the FTC Act, to bring the company to heel. The former is far easier to prove, and comes with the ability to impose (significant) damages.

So what’s really going on in Jefferson City?

While states are, of course, free to enforce their own consumer protection laws to protect their citizens, there is little to be gained — other than cold hard cash, perhaps — from pursuing cases that, at best, duplicate enforcement efforts already undertaken by the federal government (to say nothing of innumerable other jurisdictions).

To take just one relevant example, in 2013 — almost a year to the day following the court’s approval of the settlement in the FTC’s case alleging Google’s violation of the Buzz consent order — 37 states plus DC (not including Missouri) settled their own, follow-on litigation against Google on the same facts. Significantly, the terms of the settlement did not impose upon Google any obligation not already a part of the Buzz consent order or the subsequent FTC settlement — but it did require Google to fork over an additional $17 million.  

Not only is there little to be gained from yet another ill-conceived antitrust campaign, there is much to be lost. Such massive investigations require substantial resources to conduct, and the opportunity cost of doing so may mean real consumer issues go unaddressed. The Consumer Protection Section of the Missouri AG’s office says it receives some 100,000 consumer complaints a year. How many of those will have to be put on the back burner to accommodate an investigation like this one?

Even when not politically motivated, state enforcement of CPAs is not an unalloyed good. In fact, empirical studies of state consumer protection actions like the one contemplated by Mr. Hawley have shown that such actions tend toward overreach — good for lawyers, perhaps, but expensive for taxpayers and often detrimental to consumers. According to a recent study by economists James Cooper and Joanna Shepherd:

[I]n recent decades, this thoughtful balance [between protecting consumers and preventing the proliferation of lawsuits that harm both consumers and businesses] has yielded to damaging legislative and judicial overcorrections at the state level with a common theoretical mistake: the assumption that more CPA litigation automatically yields more consumer protection…. [C]ourts and legislatures gradually have abolished many of the procedural and remedial protections designed to cabin state CPAs to their original purpose: providing consumers with redress for actual harm in instances where tort and contract law may provide insufficient remedies. The result has been an explosion in consumer protection litigation, which serves no social function and for which consumers pay indirectly through higher prices and reduced innovation.

AG Hawley’s investigation seems almost tailored to duplicate the FTC’s extensive efforts — and to score political points. Or perhaps Mr. Hawley is just perturbed that Missouri missed out its share of the $17 million multistate settlement in 2013.

Which raises the spectre of a further problem with the Missouri case: “rent extraction.”

It’s no coincidence that Mr. Hawley’s investigation follows closely on the heels of Yelp’s recent letter to the FTC and every state AG (as well as four members of Congress and the EU’s chief competition enforcer, for good measure) alleging that Google had re-started scraping Yelp’s content, thus violating the terms of its voluntary commitments to the FTC.

It’s also no coincidence that Yelp “notified” Google of the problem only by lodging a complaint with every regulator who might listen rather than by actually notifying Google. But an action like the one Missouri is undertaking — not resolution of the issue — is almost certainly exactly what Yelp intended, and AG Hawley is playing right into Yelp’s hands.  

Google, for its part, strongly disputes Yelp’s allegation, and, indeed, has — even according to Yelp — complied fully with Yelp’s request to keep its content off Google Local and other “vertical” search pages since 18 months before Google entered into its commitments with the FTC. Google claims that the recent scraping was inadvertent, and that it would happily have rectified the problem if only Yelp had actually bothered to inform Google.

Indeed, Yelp’s allegations don’t really pass the smell test: That Google would suddenly change its practices now, in violation of its commitments to the FTC and at a time of extraordinarily heightened scrutiny by the media, politicians of all stripes, competitors like Yelp, the FTC, the EU, and a host of other antitrust or consumer protection authorities, strains belief.

But, again, identifying and resolving an actual commercial dispute was likely never the goal. As a recent, fawning New York Times article on “Yelp’s Six-Year Grudge Against Google” highlights (focusing in particular on Luther Lowe, now Yelp’s VP of Public Policy and the author of the letter):

Yelp elevated Mr. Lowe to the new position of director of government affairs, a job that more or less entails flying around the world trying to sic antitrust regulators on Google. Over the next few years, Yelp hired its first lobbyist and started a political action committee. Recently, it has started filing complaints in Brazil.

Missouri, in other words, may just be carrying Yelp’s water.

The one clear lesson of the decades-long Microsoft antitrust saga is that companies that struggle to compete in the market can profitably tax their rivals by instigating antitrust actions against them. As Milton Friedman admonished, decrying “the business community’s suicidal impulse” to invite regulation:

As a believer in the pursuit of self-interest in a competitive capitalist system, I can’t blame a businessman who goes to Washington [or is it Jefferson City?] and tries to get special privileges for his company.… Blame the rest of us for being so foolish as to let him get away with it.

Taking a tough line on Silicon Valley firms in the midst of today’s anti-tech-company populist resurgence may help with the electioneering in Mr. Hawley’s upcoming bid for a US Senate seat and serve Yelp, but it doesn’t offer any clear, actual benefits to Missourians. As I’ve wondered before: “Exactly when will regulators be a little more skeptical of competitors trying to game the antitrust laws for their own advantage?”

Unexpectedly, on the day that the white copy of the upcoming repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order was published, a mobile operator in Portugal with about 7.5 million subscribers is garnering a lot of attention. Curiously, it’s not because Portugal is a beautiful country (Iker Casillas’ Instagram feed is dope) nor because Portuguese is a beautiful romance language.

Rather it’s because old-fashioned misinformation is being peddled to perpetuate doomsday images that Portuguese ISPs have carved the Internet into pieces — and if the repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order passes, the same butchery is coming to an AT&T store near you.

Much ado about data

This tempest in the teacup is about mobile data plans, specifically the ability of mobile subscribers to supplement their data plan (typically ranging from 200 MB to 3 GB per month) with additional 10 GB data packages containing specific bundles of apps – messaging apps, social apps, video apps, music apps, and email and cloud apps. Each additional 10 GB data package costs EUR 6.99 per month and Meo (the mobile operator) also offers its own zero rated apps. Similar plans have been offered in Portugal since at least 2012.

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These data packages are a clear win for mobile subscribers, especially pre-paid subscribers who tend to be at a lower income level than post-paid subscribers. They allow consumers to customize their plan beyond their mobile broadband subscription, enabling them to consume data in ways that are better attuned to their preferences. Without access to these data packages, consuming an additional 10 GB of data would cost each user an additional EUR 26 per month and require her to enter into a two year contract.

These discounted data packages also facilitate product differentiation among mobile operators that offer a variety of plans. Keeping with the Portugal example, Vodafone Portugal offers 20 GB of additional data for certain apps (Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, and Skype, among others) with the purchase of a 3 GB mobile data plan. Consumers can pick which operator offers the best plan for them.

In addition, data packages like the ones in question here tend to increase the overall consumption of content, reduce users’ cost of obtaining information, and allow for consumers to experiment with new, less familiar apps. In short, they are overwhelmingly pro-consumer.

Even if Portugal actually didn’t have net neutrality rules, this would be the furthest thing from the apocalypse critics make it out to be.

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Net Neutrality in Portugal

But, contrary to activists’ misinformation, Portugal does have net neutrality rules. The EU implemented its net neutrality framework in November 2015 as a regulation, meaning that the regulation became the law of the EU when it was enacted, and national governments, including Portugal, did not need to transpose it into national legislation.

While the regulation was automatically enacted in Portugal, the regulation and the 2016 EC guidelines left the decision of whether to allow sponsored data and zero rating plans (the Regulation likely classifies data packages at issue here to be zero rated plans because they give users a lot of data for a low price) in the hands of national regulators. While Portugal is still formulating the standard it will use to evaluate sponsored data and zero rating under the EU’s framework, there is little reason to think that this common practice would be disallowed in Portugal.

On average, in fact, despite its strong net neutrality regulation, the EU appears to be softening its stance toward zero rating. This was evident in a recent EC competition policy authority (DG-Comp) study concluding that there is little reason to believe that such data practices raise concerns.

The activists’ willful misunderstanding of clearly pro-consumer data plans and purposeful mischaracterization of Portugal as not having net neutrality rules are inflammatory and deceitful. Even more puzzling for activists (but great for consumers) is their position given there is nothing in the 2015 Open Internet Order that would prevent these types of data packages from being offered in the US so long as ISPs are transparent with consumers.

Today the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) submitted an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to review the DC Circuit’s 2016 decision upholding the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order. The brief was authored by Geoffrey A. Manne, Executive Director of ICLE, and Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska College of Law and ICLE affiliate, with able assistance from Kristian Stout and Allen Gibby of ICLE. Jeffrey A. Mandell of the Wisconsin law firm of Stafford Rosenbaum collaborated in drafting the brief and provided invaluable pro bono legal assistance, for which we are enormously grateful. Laura Lamansky of Stafford Rosenbaum also assisted. 

The following post discussing the brief was written by Jeff Mandell (originally posted here).

Courts generally defer to agency expertise when reviewing administrative rules that regulate conduct in areas where Congress has delegated authority to specialized executive-branch actors. An entire body of law—administrative law—governs agency actions and judicial review of those actions. And at the federal level, courts grant agencies varying degrees of deference, depending on what kind of function the agency is performing, how much authority Congress delegated, and the process by which the agency adopts or enforces policies.

Should courts be more skeptical when an agency changes a policy position, especially if the agency is reversing prior policy without a corresponding change to the governing statute? Daniel Berninger v. Federal Communications Commission, No. 17-498 (U.S.), raises these questions. And this week Stafford Rosenbaum was honored to serve as counsel of record for the International Center for Law & Economics (“ICLE”) in filing an amicus curiae brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case and to answer these questions.

ICLE’s amicus brief highlights new academic research suggesting that systematic problems undermine judicial review of agency changes in policy. The brief also points out that judicial review is complicated by conflicting signals from the Supreme Court about the degree of deference that courts should accord agencies in reviewing reversals of prior policy. And the brief argues that the specific policy change at issue in this case lacks a sufficient basis but was affirmed by the court below as the result of a review that was, but should not have been, “particularly deferential.”

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) issued the Open Internet Order (“OIO”), which required Internet Service Providers to abide by a series of regulations popularly referred to as net neutrality. To support these regulations, the FCC interpreted the Communications Act of 1934 to grant it authority to heavily regulate broadband internet service. This interpretation reversed a long-standing agency understanding of the statute as permitting only limited regulation of broadband service.

The FCC ostensibly based the OIO on factual and legal analysis. However, ICLE argues, the OIO is actually based on questionable factual reinterpretations and misunderstanding of statutory interpretation adopted more in order to support radical changes in FCC policy than for their descriptive accuracy. When a variety of interested parties challenged the OIO, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed the regulations. In doing so, the court afforded substantial deference to the FCC—so much that the D.C. Circuit never addressed the reasonableness of the FCC’s decisionmaking process in reversing prior policy.

ICLE’s amicus brief argues that the D.C. Circuit’s decision “is both in tension with [the Supreme] Court’s precedents and, more, raises exceptionally important and previously unaddressed questions about th[e] Court’s precedents on judicial review of agency changes of policy.” Without further guidance from the Supreme Court, the brief argues, “there is every reason to believe” the FCC will again reverse its position on broadband regulation, such that “the process will become an endless feedback loop—in the case of this regulation and others—at great cost not only to regulated entities and their consumers, but also to the integrity of the regulatory process.”

The ramifications of the Supreme Court accepting this case would be twofold. First, administrative agencies would gain guidance for their decisionmaking processes in considering changes to existing policies. Second, lower courts would gain clarity on agency deference issues, making judicial review more uniform and appropriate where agencies reverse prior policy positions.

Read the full brief here.

On July 24, as part of their newly-announced “Better Deal” campaign, congressional Democrats released an antitrust proposal (“Better Deal Antitrust Proposal” or BDAP) entitled “Cracking Down on Corporate Monopolies and the Abuse of Economic and Political Power.”  Unfortunately, this antitrust tract is really an “Old Deal” screed that rehashes long-discredited ideas about “bigness is badness” and “corporate abuses,” untethered from serious economic analysis.  (In spirit it echoes the proposal for a renewed emphasis on “fairness” in antitrust made by then Acting Assistant Attorney General Renata Hesse in 2016 – a recommendation that ran counter to sound economics, as I explained in a September 2016 Truth on the Market commentary.)  Implementation of the BDAP’s recommendations would be a “worse deal” for American consumers and for American economic vitality and growth.

The BDAP’s Portrayal of the State of Antitrust Enforcement is Factually Inaccurate, and it Ignores the Real Problems of Crony Capitalism and Regulatory Overreach

The Better Deal Antitrust Proposal begins with the assertion that antitrust has failed in recent decades:

Over the past thirty years, growing corporate influence and consolidation has led to reductions in competition, choice for consumers, and bargaining power for workers.  The extensive concentration of power in the hands of a few corporations hurts wages, undermines job growth, and threatens to squeeze out small businesses, suppliers, and new, innovative competitors.  It means higher prices and less choice for the things the American people buy every day. . .  [This is because] [o]ver the last thirty years, courts and permissive regulators have allowed large companies to get larger, resulting in higher prices and limited consumer choice in daily expenses such as travel, cable, and food and beverages.  And because concentrated market power leads to concentrated political power, these companies deploy armies of lobbyists to increase their stranglehold on Washington.  A Better Deal on competition means that we will revisit our antitrust laws to ensure that the economic freedom of all Americans—consumers, workers, and small businesses—come before big corporations that are getting even bigger.

This statement’s assertions are curious (not to mention problematic) in multiple respects.

First, since Democratic administrations have held the White House for sixteen of the past thirty years, the BDAP appears to acknowledge that Democratic presidents have overseen a failed antitrust policy.

Second, the broad claim that consumers have faced higher prices and limited consumer choice with regard to their daily expenses is baseless.  Indeed, internet commerce and new business models have sharply reduced travel and entertainment costs for the bulk of American consumers, and new “high technology” products such as smartphones and electronic games have been characterized by dramatic improvements in innovation, enhanced variety, and relatively lower costs.  Cable suppliers face vibrant competition from competitive satellite providers, fiberoptic cable suppliers (the major telcos such as Verizon), and new online methods for distributing content.  Consumer price inflation has been extremely low in recent decades, compared to the high inflationary, less innovative environment of the 1960s and 1970s – decades when federal antitrust law was applied much more vigorously.  Thus, the claim that weaker antitrust has denied consumers “economic freedom” is at war with the truth.

Third, the claim that recent decades have seen the creation of “concentrated market power,” safe from antitrust challenge, ignores the fact that, over the last three decades, apolitical government antitrust officials under both Democratic and Republican administrations have applied well-accepted economic tools (wielded by the scores of Ph.D. economists in the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission) in enforcing the antitrust laws.  Antitrust analysis has used economics to focus on inefficient business conduct that would maintain or increase market power, and large numbers of cartels have been prosecuted and questionable mergers (including a variety of major health care and communications industry mergers) have been successfully challenged.  The alleged growth of “concentrated market power,” untouched by incompetent antitrust enforcers, is a myth.  Furthermore, claims that mere corporate size and “aggregate concentration” are grounds for antitrust concern (“big is bad”) were decisively rejected by empirical economic research published in the 1970s, and are no more convincing today.  (As I pointed out in a January 2017 blog posting at this site, recent research by highly respected economists debunks a few claims that federal antitrust enforcers have been “excessively tolerant” of late in analyzing proposed mergers.)

More interesting is the BDAP’s claim that “armies of [corporate] lobbyists” manage to “increase their stranglehold on Washington.”  This is not an antitrust concern, however, but, rather, a complaint against crony capitalism and overregulation, which became an ever more serious problem under the Obama Administration.  As I explained in my October 2016 critique of the American Antitrust Institute’s September 2008 National Competition Policy Report (a Report which is very similar in tone to the BDAP), the rapid growth of excessive regulation during the Obama years has diminished competition by creating new regulatory schemes that benefit entrenched and powerful firms (such as Dodd-Frank Act banking rules that impose excessive burdens on smaller banks).  My critique emphasized that, “as Dodd-Frank and other regulatory programs illustrate, large government rulemaking schemes often are designed to favor large and wealthy well-connected rent-seekers at the expense of smaller and more dynamic competitors.”  And, more generally, excessive regulatory burdens undermine the competitive process, by distorting business decisions in a manner that detracts from competition on the merits.

It follows that, if the BDAP really wanted to challenge “unfair” corporate advantages, it would seek to roll back excessive regulation (see my November 2012 article on Trump Administration competition policy).  Indeed, the Trump Administration’s regulatory reform program (which features agency-specific regulatory reform task forces) seeks to do just that.  Perhaps then the BDAP could be rewritten to focus on endorsing President Trump’s regulatory reform initiative, rather than emphasizing a meritless “big is bad” populist antitrust policy that was consigned to the enforcement dustbin decades ago.

The BDAP’s Specific Proposals Would Harm the Economy and Reduce Consumer Welfare

Unfortunately, the BDAP does more than wax nostalgic about old-time “big is bad” antitrust policy.  It affirmatively recommends policy changes that would harm the economy.

First, the BDAP would require “a broader, longer-term view and strong presumptions that market concentration can result in anticompetitive conduct.”  Specifically, it would create “new standards to limit large mergers that unfairly consolidate corporate power,” including “mergers [that] reduce wages, cut jobs, lower product quality, limit access to services, stifle innovation, or hinder the ability of small businesses and entrepreneurs to compete.”  New standards would also “explicitly consider the ways in which control of consumer data can be used to stifle competition or jeopardize consumer privacy.”

Unlike current merger policy, which evaluates likely competitive effects, centered on price and quality, estimated in economically relevant markets, these new standards are open-ended.  They could justify challenges based on such a wide variety of factors that they would incentivize direct competitors not to merge, even in cases where the proposed merged entity would prove more efficient and able to enhance quality or innovation.  Certain less efficient competitors – say small businesses – could argue that they would be driven out of business, or that some jobs in the industry would disappear, in order to prompt government challenges.  But such challenges would tend to undermine innovation and business improvements, and the inevitable redistribution of assets to higher-valued uses that is a key benefit of corporate reorganizations and acquisitions.  (Mergers might focus instead, for example, on inefficient conglomerate acquisitions among companies in unrelated industries, which were incentivized by the overly strict 1960s rules that prohibited mergers among direct competitors.)  Such a change would represent a retreat from economic common sense, and be at odds with consensus economically-sound merger enforcement guidance that U.S. enforcers have long recommended other countries adopt.  Furthermore, questions of consumer data and privacy are more appropriately dealt with as consumer protection questions, which the Federal Trade Commission has handled successfully for years.

Second, the BDAP would require “frequent, independent [after-the-fact] reviews of mergers” and require regulators “to take corrective measures if they find abusive monopolistic conditions where previously approved [consent decree] measures fail to make good on their intended outcomes.”

While high profile mergers subject to significant divestiture or other remedial requirements have in appropriate circumstances included monitoring requirements, the tone of this recommendation is to require that far more mergers be subjected to detailed and ongoing post-acquisition reviews.  The cost of such monitoring is substantial, however, and routine reliance on it (backed by the threat of additional enforcement actions based merely on changing economic conditions) could create excessive caution in the post-merger management of newly-consolidated enterprises.  Indeed, potential merged parties might decide in close cases that this sort of oversight is not worth accepting, and therefore call off potentially efficient transactions that would have enhanced economic welfare.  (The reality of enforcement error cost, and the possibility of misdiagnosis of post-merger competitive conditions, is not acknowledged by the BDAP.)

Third, a newly created “competition advocate” independent of the existing federal antitrust enforcers would be empowered to publicly recommend investigations, with the enforcers required to justify publicly why they chose not to pursue a particular recommended investigation.  The advocate would ensure that antitrust enforcers are held “accountable,” assure that complaints about “market exploitation and anticompetitive conduct” are heard, and publish data on “concentration and abuses of economic power” with demographic breakdowns.

This third proposal is particularly egregious.  It is at odds with the long tradition of prosecutorial discretion that has been enjoyed by the federal antitrust enforcers (and law enforcers in general).  It would also empower a special interest intervenor to promote the complaints of interest groups that object to efficiency-seeking business conduct, thereby undermining the careful economic and legal analysis that is consistently employed by the expert antitrust agencies.  The references to “concentration” and “economic power” clarify that the “advocate” would have an untrammeled ability to highlight non-economic objections to transactions raised by inefficient competitors, jealous rivals, or self-styled populists who object to excessive “bigness.”  This would strike at the heart of our competitive process, which presumes that private parties will be allowed to fulfill their own goals, free from government micromanagement, absent indications of a clear and well-defined violation of law.  In sum, the “competition advocate” is better viewed as a “special interest” advocate empowered to ignore normal legal constraints and unjustifiably interfere in business transactions.  If empowered to operate freely, such an advocate (better viewed as an albatross) would undoubtedly chill a wide variety of business arrangements, to the detriment of consumers and economic innovation.

Finally, the BDAP refers to a variety of ills that are said to affect specific named industries, in particular airlines, cable/telecom, beer, food prices, and eyeglasses.  Airlines are subject to a variety of capacity limitations (limitations on landing slots and the size/number of airports) and regulatory constraints (prohibitions on foreign entry or investment) that may affect competitive conditions, but airlines mergers are closely reviewed by the Justice Department.  Cable and telecom companies face a variety of federal, state, and local regulations, and their mergers also are closely scrutinized.  The BDAP’s reference to the proposed AT&T/Time Warner merger ignores the potential efficiencies of this “vertical” arrangement involving complementary assets (see my coauthored commentary here), and resorts to unsupported claims about wrongful “discrimination” by “behemoths” – issues that in any event are examined in antitrust merger reviews.  Unsupported references to harm to competition and consumer choice are thrown out in the references to beer and agrochemical mergers, which also receive close economically-focused merger scrutiny under existing law.  Concerns raised about the price of eyeglasses ignore the role of potentially anticompetitive regulation – that is, bad government – in harming consumer welfare in this sector.  In short, the alleged competitive “problems” the BDAP raises with respect to particular industries are no more compelling than the rest of its analysis.  The Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission are hard at work applying sound economics to these sectors.  They should be left to do their jobs, and the BDAP’s industry-specific commentary (sadly, like the rest of its commentary) should be accorded no weight.

Conclusion

Congressional Democrats would be well-advised to ditch their efforts to resurrect the counterproductive antitrust policy from days of yore, and instead focus on real economic problems, such as excessive and inappropriate government regulation, as well as weak protection for U.S. intellectual property rights, here and abroad (see here, for example).  Such a change in emphasis would redound to the benefit of American consumers and producers.

 

 

Last week the editorial board of the Washington Post penned an excellent editorial responding to the European Commission’s announcement of its decision in its Google Shopping investigation. Here’s the key language from the editorial:

Whether the demise of any of [the complaining comparison shopping sites] is specifically traceable to Google, however, is not so clear. Also unclear is the aggregate harm from Google’s practices to consumers, as opposed to the unlucky companies. Birkenstock-seekers may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first, instead of clicking around to other sites…. Those who aren’t happy anyway have other options. Indeed, the rise of comparison shopping on giants such as Amazon and eBay makes concerns that Google might exercise untrammeled power over e-commerce seem, well, a bit dated…. Who knows? In a few years we might be talking about how Facebook leveraged its 2 billion users to disrupt the whole space.

That’s actually a pretty thorough, if succinct, summary of the basic problems with the Commission’s case (based on its PR and Factsheet, at least; it hasn’t released the full decision yet).

I’ll have more to say on the decision in due course, but for now I want to elaborate on two of the points raised by the WaPo editorial board, both in service of its crucial rejoinder to the Commission that “Also unclear is the aggregate harm from Google’s practices to consumers, as opposed to the unlucky companies.”

First, the WaPo editorial board points out that:

Birkenstock-seekers may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first, instead of clicking around to other sites.

It is undoubtedly true that users “may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first.” It’s also crucial to understanding the changes in Google’s search results page that have given rise to the current raft of complaints.

As I noted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed two years ago:

It’s a mistake to consider “general search” and “comparison shopping” or “product search” to be distinct markets.

From the moment it was technologically feasible to do so, Google has been adapting its traditional search results—that familiar but long since vanished page of 10 blue links—to offer more specialized answers to users’ queries. Product search, which is what is at issue in the EU complaint, is the next iteration in this trend.

Internet users today seek information from myriad sources: Informational sites (Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database); review sites (Yelp and TripAdvisor); retail sites (Amazon and eBay); and social-media sites (Facebook and Twitter). What do these sites have in common? They prioritize certain types of data over others to improve the relevance of the information they provide.

“Prioritization” of Google’s own shopping results, however, is the core problem for the Commission:

Google has systematically given prominent placement to its own comparison shopping service: when a consumer enters a query into the Google search engine in relation to which Google’s comparison shopping service wants to show results, these are displayed at or near the top of the search results. (Emphasis in original).

But this sort of prioritization is the norm for all search, social media, e-commerce and similar platforms. And this shouldn’t be a surprise: The value of these platforms to the user is dependent upon their ability to sort the wheat from the chaff of the now immense amount of information coursing about the Web.

As my colleagues and I noted in a paper responding to a methodologically questionable report by Tim Wu and Yelp leveling analogous “search bias” charges in the context of local search results:

Google is a vertically integrated company that offers general search, but also a host of other products…. With its well-developed algorithm and wide range of products, it is hardly surprising that Google can provide not only direct answers to factual questions, but also a wide range of its own products and services that meet users’ needs. If consumers choose Google not randomly, but precisely because they seek to take advantage of the direct answers and other options that Google can provide, then removing the sort of “bias” alleged by [complainants] would affirmatively hurt, not help, these users. (Emphasis added).

And as Josh Wright noted in an earlier paper responding to yet another set of such “search bias” charges (in that case leveled in a similarly methodologically questionable report by Benjamin Edelman and Benjamin Lockwood):

[I]t is critical to recognize that bias alone is not evidence of competitive harm and it must be evaluated in the appropriate antitrust economic context of competition and consumers, rather individual competitors and websites. Edelman & Lockwood´s analysis provides a useful starting point for describing how search engines differ in their referrals to their own content. However, it is not useful from an antitrust policy perspective because it erroneously—and contrary to economic theory and evidence—presumes natural and procompetitive product differentiation in search rankings to be inherently harmful. (Emphasis added).

We’ll have to see what kind of analysis the Commission relies upon in its decision to reach its conclusion that prioritization is an antitrust problem, but there is reason to be skeptical that it will turn out to be compelling. The Commission states in its PR that:

The evidence shows that consumers click far more often on results that are more visible, i.e. the results appearing higher up in Google’s search results. Even on a desktop, the ten highest-ranking generic search results on page 1 together generally receive approximately 95% of all clicks on generic search results (with the top result receiving about 35% of all the clicks). The first result on page 2 of Google’s generic search results receives only about 1% of all clicks. This cannot just be explained by the fact that the first result is more relevant, because evidence also shows that moving the first result to the third rank leads to a reduction in the number of clicks by about 50%. The effects on mobile devices are even more pronounced given the much smaller screen size.

This means that by giving prominent placement only to its own comparison shopping service and by demoting competitors, Google has given its own comparison shopping service a significant advantage compared to rivals. (Emphasis added).

Whatever truth there is in the characterization that placement is more important than relevance in influencing user behavior, the evidence cited by the Commission to demonstrate that doesn’t seem applicable to what’s happening on Google’s search results page now.

Most crucially, the evidence offered by the Commission refers only to how placement affects clicks on “generic search results” and glosses over the fact that the “prominent placement” of Google’s “results” is not only a difference in position but also in the type of result offered.

Google Shopping results (like many of its other “vertical results” and direct answers) are very different than the 10 blue links of old. These “universal search” results are, for one thing, actual answers rather than merely links to other sites. They are also more visually rich and attractively and clearly displayed.

Ironically, Tim Wu and Yelp use the claim that users click less often on Google’s universal search results to support their contention that increased relevance doesn’t explain Google’s prioritization of its own content. Yet, as we note in our response to their study:

[I]f a consumer is using a search engine in order to find a direct answer to a query rather than a link to another site to answer it, click-through would actually represent a decrease in consumer welfare, not an increase.

In fact, the study fails to incorporate this dynamic even though it is precisely what the authors claim the study is measuring.

Further, as the WaPo editorial intimates, these universal search results (including Google Shopping results) are quite plausibly more valuable to users. As even Tim Wu and Yelp note:

No one truly disagrees that universal search, in concept, can be an important innovation that can serve consumers.

Google sees it exactly this way, of course. Here’s Tim Wu and Yelp again:

According to Google, a principal difference between the earlier cases and its current conduct is that universal search represents a pro-competitive, user-serving innovation. By deploying universal search, Google argues, it has made search better. As Eric Schmidt argues, “if we know the answer it is better for us to answer that question so [the user] doesn’t have to click anywhere, and in that sense we… use data sources that are our own because we can’t engineer it any other way.”

Of course, in this case, one would expect fewer clicks to correlate with higher value to users — precisely the opposite of the claim made by Tim Wu and Yelp, which is the surest sign that their study is faulty.

But the Commission, at least according to the evidence cited in its PR, doesn’t even seem to measure the relative value of the very different presentations of information at all, instead resting on assertions rooted in the irrelevant difference in user propensity to click on generic (10 blue links) search results depending on placement.

Add to this Pinar Akman’s important point that Google Shopping “results” aren’t necessarily search results at all, but paid advertising:

[O]nce one appreciates the fact that Google’s shopping results are simply ads for products and Google treats all ads with the same ad-relevant algorithm and all organic results with the same organic-relevant algorithm, the Commission’s order becomes impossible to comprehend. Is the Commission imposing on Google a duty to treat non-sponsored results in the same way that it treats sponsored results? If so, does this not provide an unfair advantage to comparison shopping sites over, for example, Google’s advertising partners as well as over Amazon, eBay, various retailers, etc…?

Randy Picker also picks up on this point:

But those Google shopping boxes are ads, Picker told me. “I can’t imagine what they’re thinking,” he said. “Google is in the advertising business. That’s how it makes its money. It has no obligation to put other people’s ads on its website.”

The bottom line here is that the WaPo editorial board does a better job characterizing the actual, relevant market dynamics in a single sentence than the Commission seems to have done in its lengthy releases summarizing its decision following seven full years of investigation.

The second point made by the WaPo editorial board to which I want to draw attention is equally important:

Those who aren’t happy anyway have other options. Indeed, the rise of comparison shopping on giants such as Amazon and eBay makes concerns that Google might exercise untrammeled power over e-commerce seem, well, a bit dated…. Who knows? In a few years we might be talking about how Facebook leveraged its 2 billion users to disrupt the whole space.

The Commission dismisses this argument in its Factsheet:

The Commission Decision concerns the effect of Google’s practices on comparison shopping markets. These offer a different service to merchant platforms, such as Amazon and eBay. Comparison shopping services offer a tool for consumers to compare products and prices online and find deals from online retailers of all types. By contrast, they do not offer the possibility for products to be bought on their site, which is precisely the aim of merchant platforms. Google’s own commercial behaviour reflects these differences – merchant platforms are eligible to appear in Google Shopping whereas rival comparison shopping services are not.

But the reality is that “comparison shopping,” just like “general search,” is just one technology among many for serving information and ads to consumers online. Defining the relevant market or limiting the definition of competition in terms of the particular mechanism that Google (or Foundem, or Amazon, or Facebook…) happens to use doesn’t reflect the extent of substitutability between these different mechanisms.

Properly defined, the market in which Google competes online is not search, but something more like online “matchmaking” between advertisers, retailers and consumers. And this market is enormously competitive. The same goes for comparison shopping.

And the fact that Amazon and eBay “offer the possibility for products to be bought on their site” doesn’t take away from the fact that they also “offer a tool for consumers to compare products and prices online and find deals from online retailers of all types.” Not only do these sites contain enormous amounts of valuable (and well-presented) information about products, including product comparisons and consumer reviews, but they also actually offer comparisons among retailers. In fact, Fifty percent of the items sold through Amazon’s platform, for example, are sold by third-party retailers — the same sort of retailers that might also show up on a comparison shopping site.

More importantly, though, as the WaPo editorial rightly notes, “[t]hose who aren’t happy anyway have other options.” Google just isn’t the indispensable gateway to the Internet (and definitely not to shopping on the Internet) that the Commission seems to think.

Today over half of product searches in the US start on Amazon. The majority of web page referrals come from Facebook. Yelp’s most engaged users now access it via its app (which has seen more than 3x growth in the past five years). And a staggering 40 percent of mobile browsing on both Android and iOS now takes place inside the Facebook app.

Then there are “closed” platforms like the iTunes store and innumerable other apps that handle copious search traffic (including shopping-related traffic) but also don’t figure in the Commission’s analysis, apparently.

In fact, billions of users reach millions of companies every day through direct browser navigation, social media, apps, email links, review sites, blogs, and countless other means — all without once touching Google.com. So-called “dark social” interactions (email, text messages, and IMs) drive huge amounts of some of the most valuable traffic on the Internet, in fact.

All of this, in turn, has led to a competitive scramble to roll out completely new technologies to meet consumers’ informational (and merchants’ advertising) needs. The already-arriving swarm of VR, chatbots, digital assistants, smart-home devices, and more will offer even more interfaces besides Google through which consumers can reach their favorite online destinations.

The point is this: Google’s competitors complaining that the world is evolving around them don’t need to rely on Google. That they may choose to do so does not saddle Google with an obligation to ensure that they can always do so.

Antitrust laws — in Europe, no less than in the US — don’t require Google or any other firm to make life easier for competitors. That’s especially true when doing so would come at the cost of consumer-welfare-enhancing innovations. The Commission doesn’t seem to have grasped this fundamental point, however.

The WaPo editorial board gets it, though:

The immense size and power of all Internet giants are a legitimate focus for the antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Brussels vs. Google, however, seems to be a case of punishment without crime.

I recently published a piece in the Hill welcoming the Canadian Supreme Court’s decision in Google v. Equustek. In this post I expand (at length) upon my assessment of the case.

In its decision, the Court upheld injunctive relief against Google, directing the company to avoid indexing websites offering the infringing goods in question, regardless of the location of the sites (and even though Google itself was not a party in the case nor in any way held liable for the infringement). As a result, the Court’s ruling would affect Google’s conduct outside of Canada as well as within it.

The case raises some fascinating and thorny issues, but, in the end, the Court navigated them admirably.

Some others, however, were not so… welcoming of the decision (see, e.g., here and here).

The primary objection to the ruling seems to be, in essence, that it is the top of a slippery slope: “If Canada can do this, what’s to stop Iran or China from doing it? Free expression as we know it on the Internet will cease to exist.”

This is a valid concern, of course — in the abstract. But for reasons I explain below, we should see this case — and, more importantly, the approach adopted by the Canadian Supreme Court — as reassuring, not foreboding.

Some quick background on the exercise of extraterritorial jurisdiction in international law

The salient facts in, and the fundamental issue raised by, the case were neatly summarized by Hugh Stephens:

[The lower Court] issued an interim injunction requiring Google to de-index or delist (i.e. not return search results for) the website of a firm (Datalink Gateways) that was marketing goods online based on the theft of trade secrets from Equustek, a Vancouver, B.C., based hi-tech firm that makes sophisticated industrial equipment. Google wants to quash a decision by the lower courts on several grounds, primarily that the basis of the injunction is extra-territorial in nature and that if Google were to be subject to Canadian law in this case, this could open a Pandora’s box of rulings from other jurisdictions that would require global delisting of websites thus interfering with freedom of expression online, and in effect “break the Internet”.

The question of jurisdiction with regard to cross-border conduct is clearly complicated and evolving. But, in important ways, it isn’t anything new just because the Internet is involved. As Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu (yes, Tim Wu) wrote (way back in 2006) in Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World:

A government’s responsibility for redressing local harms caused by a foreign source does not change because the harms are caused by an Internet communication. Cross-border harms that occur via the Internet are not any different than those outside the Net. Both demand a response from governmental authorities charged with protecting public values.

As I have written elsewhere, “[g]lobal businesses have always had to comply with the rules of the territories in which they do business.”

Traditionally, courts have dealt with the extraterritoriality problem by applying a rule of comity. As my colleague, Geoffrey Manne (Founder and Executive Director of ICLE), reminds me, the principle of comity largely originated in the work of the 17th Century Dutch legal scholar, Ulrich Huber. Huber wrote that comitas gentium (“courtesy of nations”) required the application of foreign law in certain cases:

[Sovereigns will] so act by way of comity that rights acquired within the limits of a government retain their force everywhere so far as they do not cause prejudice to the powers or rights of such government or of their subjects.

And, notably, Huber wrote that:

Although the laws of one nation can have no force directly with another, yet nothing could be more inconvenient to commerce and to international usage than that transactions valid by the law of one place should be rendered of no effect elsewhere on account of a difference in the law.

The basic principle has been recognized and applied in international law for centuries. Of course, the flip side of the principle is that sovereign nations also get to decide for themselves whether to enforce foreign law within their jurisdictions. To summarize Huber (as well as Lord Mansfield, who brought the concept to England, and Justice Story, who brought it to the US):

All three jurists were concerned with deeply polarizing public issues — nationalism, religious factionalism, and slavery. For each, comity empowered courts to decide whether to defer to foreign law out of respect for a foreign sovereign or whether domestic public policy should triumph over mere courtesy. For each, the court was the agent of the sovereign’s own public law.

The Canadian Supreme Court’s well-reasoned and admirably restrained approach in Equustek

Reconciling the potential conflict between the laws of Canada and those of other jurisdictions was, of course, a central subject of consideration for the Canadian Court in Equustek. The Supreme Court, as described below, weighed a variety of factors in determining the appropriateness of the remedy. In analyzing the competing equities, the Supreme Court set out the following framework:

[I]s there a serious issue to be tried; would the person applying for the injunction suffer irreparable harm if the injunction were not granted; and is the balance of convenience in favour of granting the interlocutory injunction or denying it. The fundamental question is whether the granting of an injunction is just and equitable in all of the circumstances of the case. This will necessarily be context-specific. [Here, as throughout this post, bolded text represents my own, added emphasis.]

Applying that standard, the Court held that because ordering an interlocutory injunction against Google was the only practical way to prevent Datalink from flouting the court’s several orders, and because there were no sufficient, countervailing comity or freedom of expression concerns in this case that would counsel against such an order being granted, the interlocutory injunction was appropriate.

I draw particular attention to the following from the Court’s opinion:

Google’s argument that a global injunction violates international comity because it is possible that the order could not have been obtained in a foreign jurisdiction, or that to comply with it would result in Google violating the laws of that jurisdiction is, with respect, theoretical. As Fenlon J. noted, “Google acknowledges that most countries will likely recognize intellectual property rights and view the selling of pirated products as a legal wrong”.

And while it is always important to pay respectful attention to freedom of expression concerns, particularly when dealing with the core values of another country, I do not see freedom of expression issues being engaged in any way that tips the balance of convenience towards Google in this case. As Groberman J.A. concluded:

In the case before us, there is no realistic assertion that the judge’s order will offend the sensibilities of any other nation. It has not been suggested that the order prohibiting the defendants from advertising wares that violate the intellectual property rights of the plaintiffs offends the core values of any nation. The order made against Google is a very limited ancillary order designed to ensure that the plaintiffs’ core rights are respected.

In fact, as Andrew Keane Woods writes at Lawfare:

Under longstanding conflicts of laws principles, a court would need to weigh the conflicting and legitimate governments’ interests at stake. The Canadian court was eager to undertake that comity analysis, but it couldn’t do so because the necessary ingredient was missing: there was no conflict of laws.

In short, the Canadian Supreme Court, while acknowledging the importance of comity and appropriate restraint in matters with extraterritorial effect, carefully weighed the equities in this case and found that they favored the grant of extraterritorial injunctive relief. As the Court explained:

Datalink [the direct infringer] and its representatives have ignored all previous court orders made against them, have left British Columbia, and continue to operate their business from unknown locations outside Canada. Equustek has made efforts to locate Datalink with limited success. Datalink is only able to survive — at the expense of Equustek’s survival — on Google’s search engine which directs potential customers to Datalink’s websites. This makes Google the determinative player in allowing the harm to occur. On balance, since the world‑wide injunction is the only effective way to mitigate the harm to Equustek pending the trial, the only way, in fact, to preserve Equustek itself pending the resolution of the underlying litigation, and since any countervailing harm to Google is minimal to non‑existent, the interlocutory injunction should be upheld.

As I have stressed, key to the Court’s reasoning was its close consideration of possible countervailing concerns and its entirely fact-specific analysis. By the very terms of the decision, the Court made clear that its balancing would not necessarily lead to the same result where sensibilities or core values of other nations would be offended. In this particular case, they were not.

How critics of the decision (and there are many) completely miss the true import of the Court’s reasoning

In other words, the holding in this case was a function of how, given the facts of the case, the ruling would affect the particular core concerns at issue: protection and harmonization of global intellectual property rights on the one hand, and concern for the “sensibilities of other nations,” including their concern for free expression, on the other.

This should be deeply reassuring to those now criticizing the decision. And yet… it’s not.

Whether because they haven’t actually read or properly understood the decision, or because they are merely grandstanding, some commenters are proclaiming that the decision marks the End Of The Internet As We Know It — you know, it’s going to break the Internet. Or something.

Human Rights Watch, an organization I generally admire, issued a statement including the following:

The court presumed no one could object to delisting someone it considered an intellectual property violator. But other countries may soon follow this example, in ways that more obviously force Google to become the world’s censor. If every country tries to enforce its own idea of what is proper to put on the Internet globally, we will soon have a race to the bottom where human rights will be the loser.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association added:

Here it was technical details of a product, but you could easily imagine future cases where we might be talking about copyright infringement, or other things where people in private lawsuits are wanting things to be taken down off  the internet that are more closely connected to freedom of expression.

From the other side of the traditional (if insufficiently nuanced) “political spectrum,” AEI’s Ariel Rabkin asserted that

[O]nce we concede that Canadian courts can regulate search engine results in Turkey, it is hard to explain why a Turkish court shouldn’t have the reciprocal right. And this is no hypothetical — a Turkish court has indeed ordered Twitter to remove a user (AEI scholar Michael Rubin) within the United States for his criticism of Erdogan. Once the jurisdictional question is decided, it is no use raising free speech as an issue. Other countries do not have our free speech norms, nor Canada’s. Once Canada concedes that foreign courts have the right to regulate Canadian search results, they are on the internet censorship train, and there is no egress before the end of the line.

In this instance, in particular, it is worth noting not only the complete lack of acknowledgment of the Court’s articulated constraints on taking action with extraterritorial effect, but also the fact that Turkey (among others) has hardly been waiting for approval from Canada before taking action.   

And then there’s EFF (of course). EFF, fairly predictably, suggests first — with unrestrained hyperbole — that the Supreme Court held that:

A country has the right to prevent the world’s Internet users from accessing information.

Dramatic hyperbole aside, that’s also a stilted way to characterize the content at issue in the case. But it is important to EFF’s misleading narrative to begin with the assertion that offering infringing products for sale is “information” to which access by the public is crucial. But, of course, the distribution of infringing products is hardly “expression,” as most of us would understand that term. To claim otherwise is to denigrate the truly important forms of expression that EFF claims to want to protect.

And, it must be noted, even if there were expressive elements at issue, infringing “expression” is always subject to restriction under the copyright laws of virtually every country in the world (and free speech laws, where they exist).

Nevertheless, EFF writes that the decision:

[W]ould cut off access to information for U.S. users would set a dangerous precedent for online speech. In essence, it would expand the power of any court in the world to edit the entire Internet, whether or not the targeted material or site is lawful in another country. That, we warned, is likely to result in a race to the bottom, as well-resourced individuals engage in international forum-shopping to impose the one country’s restrictive laws regarding free expression on the rest of the world.

Beyond the flaws of the ruling itself, the court’s decision will likely embolden other countries to try to enforce their own speech-restricting laws on the Internet, to the detriment of all users. As others have pointed out, it’s not difficult to see repressive regimes such as China or Iran use the ruling to order Google to de-index sites they object to, creating a worldwide heckler’s veto.

As always with EFF missives, caveat lector applies: None of this is fair or accurate. EFF (like the other critics quoted above) is looking only at the result — the specific contours of the global order related to the Internet — and not to the reasoning of the decision itself.

Quite tellingly, EFF urges its readers to ignore the case in front of them in favor of a theoretical one. That is unfortunate. Were EFF, et al. to pay closer attention, they would be celebrating this decision as a thoughtful, restrained, respectful, and useful standard to be employed as a foundational decision in the development of global Internet governance.

The Canadian decision is (as I have noted, but perhaps still not with enough repetition…) predicated on achieving equity upon close examination of the facts, and giving due deference to the sensibilities and core values of other nations in making decisions with extraterritorial effect.

Properly understood, the ruling is a shield against intrusions that undermine freedom of expression, and not an attack on expression.

EFF subverts the reasoning of the decision and thus camouflages its true import, all for the sake of furthering its apparently limitless crusade against all forms of intellectual property. The ruling can be read as an attack on expression only if one ascribes to the distribution of infringing products the status of protected expression — so that’s what EFF does. But distribution of infringing products is not protected expression.

Extraterritoriality on the Internet is complicated — but that undermines, rather than justifies, critics’ opposition to the Court’s analysis

There will undoubtedly be other cases that present more difficult challenges than this one in defining the jurisdictional boundaries of courts’ abilities to address Internet-based conduct with multi-territorial effects. But the guideposts employed by the Supreme Court of Canada will be useful in informing such decisions.

Of course, some states don’t (or won’t, when it suits them), adhere to principles of comity. But that was true long before the Equustek decision. And, frankly, the notion that this decision gives nations like China or Iran political cover for global censorship is ridiculous. Nations that wish to censor the Internet will do so regardless. If anything, reference to this decision (which, let me spell it out again, highlights the importance of avoiding relief that would interfere with core values or sensibilities of other nations) would undermine their efforts.

Rather, the decision will be far more helpful in combating censorship and advancing global freedom of expression. Indeed, as noted by Hugh Stephens in a recent blog post:

While the EFF, echoed by its Canadian proxy OpenMedia, went into hyperventilation mode with the headline, “Top Canadian Court permits Worldwide Internet Censorship”, respected organizations like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) welcomed the decision as having achieved the dual objectives of recognizing the importance of freedom of expression and limiting any order that might violate that fundamental right. As the CCLA put it,

While today’s decision upholds the worldwide order against Google, it nevertheless reflects many of the freedom of expression concerns CCLA had voiced in our interventions in this case.

As I noted in my piece in the Hill, this decision doesn’t answer all of the difficult questions related to identifying proper jurisdiction and remedies with respect to conduct that has global reach; indeed, that process will surely be perpetually unfolding. But, as reflected in the comments of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, it is a deliberate and well-considered step toward a fair and balanced way of addressing Internet harms.

With apologies for quoting myself, I noted the following in an earlier piece:

I’m not unsympathetic to Google’s concerns. As a player with a global footprint, Google is legitimately concerned that it could be forced to comply with the sometimes-oppressive and often contradictory laws of countries around the world. But that doesn’t make it — or any other Internet company — unique. Global businesses have always had to comply with the rules of the territories in which they do business… There will be (and have been) cases in which taking action to comply with the laws of one country would place a company in violation of the laws of another. But principles of comity exist to address the problem of competing demands from sovereign governments.

And as Andrew Keane Woods noted:

Global takedown orders with no limiting principle are indeed scary. But Canada’s order has a limiting principle. As long as there is room for Google to say to Canada (or France), “Your order will put us in direct and significant violation of U.S. law,” the order is not a limitless assertion of extraterritorial jurisdiction. In the instance that a service provider identifies a conflict of laws, the state should listen.

That is precisely what the Canadian Supreme Court’s decision contemplates.

No one wants an Internet based on the lowest common denominator of acceptable speech. Yet some appear to want an Internet based on the lowest common denominator for the protection of original expression. These advocates thus endorse theories of jurisdiction that would deny societies the ability to enforce their own laws, just because sometimes those laws protect intellectual property.

And yet that reflects little more than an arbitrary prioritization of those critics’ personal preferences. In the real world (including the real online world), protection of property is an important value, deserving reciprocity and courtesy (comity) as much as does speech. Indeed, the G20 Digital Economy Ministerial Declaration adopted in April of this year recognizes the importance to the digital economy of promoting security and trust, including through the provision of adequate and effective intellectual property protection. Thus the Declaration expresses the recognition of the G20 that:

[A]pplicable frameworks for privacy and personal data protection, as well as intellectual property rights, have to be respected as they are essential to strengthening confidence and trust in the digital economy.

Moving forward in an interconnected digital universe will require societies to make a series of difficult choices balancing both competing values and competing claims from different jurisdictions. Just as it does in the offline world, navigating this path will require flexibility and skepticism (if not rejection) of absolutism — including with respect to the application of fundamental values. Even things like freedom of expression, which naturally require a balancing of competing interests, will need to be reexamined. We should endeavor to find that fine line between allowing individual countries to enforce their own national judgments and a tolerance for those countries that have made different choices. This will not be easy, as well manifested in something that Alice Marwick wrote earlier this year:

But a commitment to freedom of speech above all else presumes an idealistic version of the internet that no longer exists. And as long as we consider any content moderation to be censorship, minority voices will continue to be drowned out by their aggressive majority counterparts.

* * *

We need to move beyond this simplistic binary of free speech/censorship online. That is just as true for libertarian-leaning technologists as it is neo-Nazi provocateurs…. Aggressive online speech, whether practiced in the profanity and pornography-laced environment of 4Chan or the loftier venues of newspaper comments sections, positions sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism (and so forth) as issues of freedom of expression rather than structural oppression.

Perhaps we might want to look at countries like Canada and the United Kingdom, which take a different approach to free speech than does the United States. These countries recognize that unlimited free speech can lead to aggression and other tactics which end up silencing the speech of minorities — in other words, the tyranny of the majority. Creating online communities where all groups can speak may mean scaling back on some of the idealism of the early internet in favor of pragmatism. But recognizing this complexity is an absolutely necessary first step.

While I (and the Canadian Supreme Court, for that matter) share EFF’s unease over the scope of extraterritorial judgments, I fundamentally disagree with EFF that the Equustek decision “largely sidesteps the question of whether such a global order would violate foreign law or intrude on Internet users’ free speech rights.”

In fact, it is EFF’s position that comes much closer to a position indifferent to the laws and values of other countries; in essence, EFF’s position would essentially always prioritize the particular speech values adopted in the US, regardless of whether they had been adopted by the countries affected in a dispute. It is therefore inconsistent with the true nature of comity.

Absolutism and exceptionalism will not be a sound foundation for achieving global consensus and the effective operation of law. As stated by the Canadian Supreme Court in Equustek, courts should enforce the law — whatever the law is — to the extent that such enforcement does not substantially undermine the core sensitivities or values of nations where the order will have effect.

EFF ignores the process in which the Court engaged precisely because EFF — not another country, but EFF — doesn’t find the enforcement of intellectual property rights to be compelling. But that unprincipled approach would naturally lead in a different direction where the court sought to protect a value that EFF does care about. Such a position arbitrarily elevates EFF’s idiosyncratic preferences. That is simply not a viable basis for constructing good global Internet governance.

If the Internet is both everywhere and nowhere, our responses must reflect that reality, and be based on the technology-neutral application of laws, not the abdication of responsibility premised upon an outdated theory of tech exceptionalism under which cyberspace is free from the application of the laws of sovereign nations. That is not the path to either freedom or prosperity.

To realize the economic and social potential of the Internet, we must be guided by both a determination to meaningfully address harms, and a sober reservation about interfering in the affairs of other states. The Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Google v. Equustek has planted a flag in this space. It serves no one to pretend that the Court decided that a country has the unfettered right to censor the Internet. That’s not what it held — and we should be grateful for that. To suggest otherwise may indeed be self-fulfilling.

Regardless of the merits and soundness (or lack thereof) of this week’s European Commission Decision in the Google Shopping case — one cannot assess this until we have the text of the decision — two comments really struck me during the press conference.

First, it was said that Google’s conduct had essentially reduced innovation. If I heard correctly, this is a formidable statement. In 2016, another official EU service published stats that described Alphabet as increasing its R&D by 22% and ranked it as the world’s 4th top R&D investor. Sure it can always be better. And sure this does not excuse everything. But still. The press conference language on incentives to innovate was a bit of an oversell, to say the least.

Second, the Commission views this decision as a “precedent” or as a “framework” that will inform the way dominant Internet platforms should display, intermediate and market their services and those of their competitors. This may fuel additional complaints by other vertical search rivals against (i) Google in relation to other product lines, but also against (ii) other large platform players.

Beyond this, the Commission’s approach raises a gazillion questions of law and economics. Pending the disclosure of the economic evidence in the published decision, let me share some thoughts on a few (arbitrarily) selected legal issues.

First, the Commission has drawn the lesson of the Microsoft remedy quagmire. The Commission refrains from using a trustee to ensure compliance with the decision. This had been a bone of contention in the 2007 Microsoft appeal. Readers will recall that the Commission had imposed on Microsoft to appoint a monitoring trustee, who was supposed to advise on possible infringements in the implementation of the decision. On appeal, the Court eventually held that the Commission was solely responsible for this, and could not delegate those powers. Sure, the Commission could “retai[n] its own external expert to provide advice when it investigates the implementation of the remedies.” But no more than that.

Second, we learn that the Commission is no longer in the business of software design. Recall the failed untying of WMP and Windows — Windows Naked sold only 11,787 copies, likely bought by tech bootleggers willing to acquire the first piece of software ever designed by antitrust officials — or the browser “Choice Screen” compliance saga which eventually culminated with a €561 million fine. Nothing of this can be found here. The Commission leaves remedial design to the abstract concept of “equal treatment”.[1] This, certainly, is a (relatively) commendable approach, and one that could inspire remedies in other unilateral conduct cases, in particular, exploitative conduct ones where pricing remedies are both costly, impractical, and consequentially inefficient.

On the other hand, readers will also not fail to see the corollary implication of “equal treatment”: search neutrality could actually cut both ways, and lead to a lawful degradation in consumer welfare if Google were ever to decide to abandon rich format displays for both its own shopping services and those of rivals.

Third, neither big data nor algorithmic design is directly vilified in the case (“The Commission Decision does not object to the design of Google’s generic search algorithms or to demotions as such, nor to the way that Google displays or organises its search results pages”). In fact, the Commission objects to the selective application of Google’s generic search algorithms to its own products. This is an interesting, and subtle, clarification given all the coverage that this topic has attracted in recent antitrust literature. We are in fact very close to a run of the mill claim of disguised market manipulation, not causally related to data or algorithmic technology.

Fourth, Google said it contemplated a possible appeal of the decision. Now, here’s a challenging question: can an antitrust defendant effectively exercise its right to judicial review of an administrative agency (and more generally its rights of defense), when it operates under the threat of antitrust sanctions in ongoing parallel cases investigated by the same agency (i.e., the antitrust inquiries related to Android and Ads)? This question cuts further than the Google Shopping case. Say firm A contemplates a merger with firm B in market X, while it is at the same time subject to antitrust investigations in market Z. And assume that X and Z are neither substitutes nor complements so there is little competitive relationship between both products. Can the Commission leverage ongoing antitrust investigations in market Z to extract merger concessions in market X? Perhaps more to the point, can the firm interact with the Commission as if the investigations are completely distinct, or does it have to play a more nuanced game and consider the ramifications of its interactions with the Commission in both markets?

Fifth, as to the odds of a possible appeal, I don’t believe that arguments on the economic evidence or legal theory of liability will ever be successful before the General Court of the EU. The law and doctrine in unilateral conduct cases are disturbingly — and almost irrationally — severe. As I have noted elsewhere, the bottom line in the EU case-law on unilateral conduct is to consider the genuine requirement of “harm to competition” as a rhetorical question, not an empirical one. In EU unilateral conduct law, exclusion of every and any firm is a per se concern, regardless of evidence of efficiency, entry or rivalry.

In turn, I tend to opine that Google has a stronger game from a procedural standpoint, having been left with (i) the expectation of a settlement (it played ball three times by making proposals); (ii) a corollary expectation of the absence of a fine (settlement discussions are not appropriate for cases that could end with fines); and (iii) a full seven long years of an investigatory cloud. We know from the past that EU judges like procedural issues, but like comparably less to debate the substance of the law in unilateral conduct cases. This case could thus be a test case in terms of setting boundaries on how freely the Commission can U-turn a case (the Commissioner said “take the case forward in a different way”).

It’s fitting that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently compared his predecessor’s jettisoning of the FCC’s light touch framework for Internet access regulation without hard evidence to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s James Harden trade. That infamous deal broke up a young nucleus of three of the best players in the NBA in 2012 because keeping all three might someday create salary cap concerns. What few saw coming was a new TV deal in 2015 that sent the salary cap soaring.

If it’s hard to predict how the market will evolve in the closed world of professional basketball, predictions about the path of Internet innovation are an order of magnitude harder — especially for those making crucial decisions with a lot of money at stake.

The FCC’s answer for what it considered to be the dangerous unpredictability of Internet innovation was to write itself a blank check of authority to regulate ISPs in the 2015 Open Internet Order (OIO), embodied in what is referred to as the “Internet conduct standard.” This standard expanded the scope of Internet access regulation well beyond the core principle of preserving openness (i.e., ensuring that any legal content can be accessed by all users) by granting the FCC the unbounded, discretionary authority to define and address “new and novel threats to the Internet.”

When asked about what the standard meant (not long after writing it), former Chairman Tom Wheeler replied,

We don’t really know. We don’t know where things will go next. We have created a playing field where there are known rules, and the FCC will sit there as a referee and will throw the flag.

Somehow, former Chairman Wheeler would have us believe that an amorphous standard that means whatever the agency (or its Enforcement Bureau) says it means created a playing field with “known rules.” But claiming such broad authority is hardly the light-touch approach marketed to the public. Instead, this ill-conceived standard allows the FCC to wade as deeply as it chooses into how an ISP organizes its business and how it manages its network traffic.

Such an approach is destined to undermine, rather than further, the objectives of Internet openness, as embodied in Chairman Powell’s 2005 Internet Policy Statement:

To foster creation, adoption and use of Internet broadband content, applications, services and attachments, and to ensure consumers benefit from the innovation that comes from competition.

Instead, the Internet conduct standard is emblematic of how an off-the-rails quest to heavily regulate one specific component of the complex Internet ecosystem results in arbitrary regulatory imbalances — e.g., between ISPs and over-the-top (OTT) or edge providers that offer similar services such as video streaming or voice calling.

As Boston College Law Professor, Dan Lyons, puts it:

While many might assume that, in theory, what’s good for Netflix is good for consumers, the reality is more complex. To protect innovation at the edge of the Internet ecosystem, the Commission’s sweeping rules reduce the opportunity for consumer-friendly innovation elsewhere, namely by facilities-based broadband providers.

This is no recipe for innovation, nor does it coherently distinguish between practices that might impede competition and innovation on the Internet and those that are merely politically disfavored, for any reason or no reason at all.

Free data madness

The Internet conduct standard’s unholy combination of unfettered discretion and the impulse to micromanage can (and will) be deployed without credible justification to the detriment of consumers and innovation. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the confusion surrounding the regulation of “free data.”

Free data, like T-Mobile’s Binge On program, is data consumed by a user that has been subsidized by a mobile operator or a content provider. The vertical arrangements between operators and content providers creating the free data offerings provide many benefits to consumers, including enabling subscribers to consume more data (or, for low-income users, to consume data in the first place), facilitating product differentiation by mobile operators that offer a variety of free data plans (including allowing smaller operators the chance to get a leg up on competitors by assembling a market-share-winning plan), increasing the overall consumption of content, and reducing users’ cost of obtaining information. It’s also fundamentally about experimentation. As the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) recently explained:

Offering some services at subsidized or zero prices frees up resources (and, where applicable, data under a user’s data cap) enabling users to experiment with new, less-familiar alternatives. Where a user might not find it worthwhile to spend his marginal dollar on an unfamiliar or less-preferred service, differentiated pricing loosens the user’s budget constraint, and may make him more, not less, likely to use alternative services.

In December 2015 then-Chairman Tom Wheeler used his newfound discretion to launch a 13-month “inquiry” into free data practices before preliminarily finding some to be in violation of the standard. Without identifying any actual harm, Wheeler concluded that free data plans “may raise” economic and public policy issues that “may harm consumers and competition.”

After assuming the reins at the FCC, Chairman Pai swiftly put an end to that nonsense, saying that the Commission had better things to do (like removing barriers to broadband deployment) than denying free data plans that expand Internet access and are immensely popular, especially among low-income Americans.

The global morass of free data regulation

But as long as the Internet conduct standard remains on the books, it implicitly grants the US’s imprimatur to harmful policies and regulatory capriciousness in other countries that look to the US for persuasive authority. While Chairman Pai’s decisive intervention resolved the free data debate in the US (at least for now), other countries are still grappling with whether to prohibit the practice, allow it, or allow it with various restrictions.

In Europe, the 2016 EC guidelines left the decision of whether to allow the practice in the hands of national regulators. Consequently, some regulators — in Hungary, Sweden, and the Netherlands (although there the ban was recently overturned in court) — have banned free data practices  while others — in Denmark, Germany, Spain, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine — have not. And whether or not they allow the practice, regulators (e.g., Norway’s Nkom and the UK’s Ofcom) have lamented the lack of regulatory certainty surrounding free data programs, a state of affairs that is compounded by a lack of data on the consequences of various approaches to their regulation.

In Canada this year, the CRTC issued a decision adopting restrictive criteria under which to evaluate free data plans. The criteria include assessing the degree to which the treatment of data is agnostic, whether the free data offer is exclusive to certain customers or certain content providers, the impact on Internet openness and innovation, and whether there is financial compensation involved. The standard is open-ended, and free data plans as they are offered in the US would “likely raise concerns.”

Other regulators are contributing to the confusion through ambiguously framed rules, such as that of the Chilean regulator, Subtel. In a 2014 decision, it found that a free data offer of specific social network apps was in breach of Chile’s Internet rules. In contrast to what is commonly reported, however, Subtel did not ban free data. Instead, it required mobile operators to change how they promote such services, requiring them to state that access to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were offered “without discounting the user’s balance” instead of “at no cost.” It also required them to disclose the amount of time the offer would be available, but imposed no mandatory limit.

In addition to this confusing regulatory make-work governing how operators market free data plans, the Chilean measures also require that mobile operators offer free data to subscribers who pay for a data plan, in order to ensure free data isn’t the only option users have to access the Internet.

The result is that in Chile today free data plans are widely offered by Movistar, Claro, and Entel and include access to apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Pokemon Go, Waze, Snapchat, Apple Music, Spotify, Netflix or YouTube — even though Subtel has nominally declared such plans to be in violation of Chile’s net neutrality rules.

Other regulators are searching for palatable alternatives to both flex their regulatory muscle to govern Internet access, while simultaneously making free data work. The Indian regulator, TRAI, famously banned free data in February 2016. But the story doesn’t end there. After seeing the potential value of free data in unserved and underserved, low-income areas, TRAI proposed implementing government-sanctioned free data. The proposed scheme would provide rural subscribers with 100 MB of free data per month, funded through the country’s universal service fund. To ensure that there would be no vertical agreements between content providers and mobile operators, TRAI recommended introducing third parties, referred to as “aggregators,” that would facilitate mobile-operator-agnostic arrangements.

The result is a nonsensical, if vaguely well-intentioned, threading of the needle between the perceived need to (over-)regulate access providers and the determination to expand access. Notwithstanding the Indian government’s awareness that free data will help to close the digital divide and enhance Internet access, in other words, it nonetheless banned private markets from employing private capital to achieve that very result, preferring instead non-market processes which are unlikely to be nearly as nimble or as effective — and yet still ultimately offer “non-neutral” options for consumers.

Thinking globally, acting locally (by ditching the Internet conduct standard)

Where it is permitted, free data is undergoing explosive adoption among mobile operators. Currently in the US, for example, all major mobile operators offer some form of free data or unlimited plan to subscribers. And, as a result, free data is proving itself as a business model for users’ early stage experimentation and adoption of augmented reality, virtual reality and other cutting-edge technologies that represent the Internet’s next wave — but that also use vast amounts of data. Were the US to cut off free data at the legs under the OIO absent hard evidence of harm, it would substantially undermine this innovation.

The application of the nebulous Internet conduct standard to free data is a microcosm of the current incoherence: It is a rule rife with a parade of uncertainties and only theoretical problems, needlessly saddling companies with enforcement risk, all in the name of preserving and promoting innovation and openness. As even some of the staunchest proponents of net neutrality have recognized, only companies that can afford years of litigation can be expected to thrive in such an environment.

In the face of confusion and uncertainty globally, the US is now poised to provide leadership grounded in sound policy that promotes innovation. As ICLE noted last month, Chairman Pai took a crucial step toward re-imposing economic rigor and the rule of law at the FCC by questioning the unprecedented and ill-supported expansion of FCC authority that undergirds the OIO in general and the Internet conduct standard in particular. Today the agency will take the next step by voting on Chairman Pai’s proposed rulemaking. Wherever the new proceeding leads, it’s a welcome opportunity to analyze the issues with a degree of rigor that has thus far been appallingly absent.

And we should not forget that there’s a direct solution to these ambiguities that would avoid the undulations of subsequent FCC policy fights: Congress could (and should) pass legislation implementing a regulatory framework grounded in sound economics and empirical evidence that allows for consumers to benefit from the vast number of procompetitive vertical agreements (such as free data plans), while still facilitating a means for policing conduct that may actually harm consumers.

The Golden State Warriors are the heavy odds-on favorite to win another NBA Championship this summer, led by former OKC player Kevin Durant. And James Harden is a contender for league MVP. We can’t always turn back the clock on a terrible decision, hastily made before enough evidence has been gathered, but Chairman Pai’s efforts present a rare opportunity to do so.

Today the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) Antitrust and Consumer Protection Research Program released a new white paper by Geoffrey A. Manne and Allen Gibby entitled:

A Brief Assessment of the Procompetitive Effects of Organizational Restructuring in the Ag-Biotech Industry

Over the past two decades, rapid technological innovation has transformed the industrial organization of the ag-biotech industry. These developments have contributed to an impressive increase in crop yields, a dramatic reduction in chemical pesticide use, and a substantial increase in farm profitability.

One of the most striking characteristics of this organizational shift has been a steady increase in consolidation. The recent announcements of mergers between Dow and DuPont, ChemChina and Syngenta, and Bayer and Monsanto suggest that these trends are continuing in response to new market conditions and a marked uptick in scientific and technological advances.

Regulators and industry watchers are often concerned that increased consolidation will lead to reduced innovation, and a greater incentive and ability for the largest firms to foreclose competition and raise prices. But ICLE’s examination of the underlying competitive dynamics in the ag-biotech industry suggests that such concerns are likely unfounded.

In fact, R&D spending within the seeds and traits industry increased nearly 773% between 1995 and 2015 (from roughly $507 million to $4.4 billion), while the combined market share of the six largest companies in the segment increased by more than 550% (from about 10% to over 65%) during the same period.

Firms today are consolidating in order to innovate and remain competitive in an industry replete with new entrants and rapidly evolving technological and scientific developments.

According to ICLE’s analysis, critics have unduly focused on the potential harms from increased integration, without properly accounting for the potential procompetitive effects. Our brief white paper highlights these benefits and suggests that a more nuanced and restrained approach to enforcement is warranted.

Our analysis suggests that, as in past periods of consolidation, the industry is well positioned to see an increase in innovation as these new firms unite complementary expertise to pursue more efficient and effective research and development. They should also be better able to help finance, integrate, and coordinate development of the latest scientific and technological developments — particularly in rapidly growing, data-driven “digital farming” —  throughout the industry.

Download the paper here.

And for more on the topic, revisit TOTM’s recent blog symposium, “Agricultural and Biotech Mergers: Implications for Antitrust Law and Economics in Innovative Industries,” here.