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The Biden Administration’s July 9 Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy is very much a mixed bag—some positive aspects, but many negative ones.

It will have some positive effects on economic welfare, to the extent it succeeds in lifting artificial barriers to competition that harm consumers and workers—such as allowing direct sales of hearing aids in drug stores—and helping to eliminate unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions, to name just two of several examples.

But it will likely have substantial negative effects on economic welfare as well. Many aspects of the order appear to emphasize new regulation—such as Net Neutrality requirements that may reduce investment in broadband by internet service providers—and imposing new regulatory requirements on airlines, pharmaceutical companies, digital platforms, banks, railways, shipping, and meat packers, among others. Arbitrarily imposing new rules in these areas, without a cost-beneficial appraisal and a showing of a market failure, threatens to reduce innovation and slow economic growth, hurting producers and consumer. (A careful review of specific regulatory proposals may shed greater light on the justifications for particular regulations.)

Antitrust-related proposals to challenge previously cleared mergers, and to impose new antitrust rulemaking, are likely to raise costly business uncertainty, to the detriment of businesses and consumers. They are a recipe for slower economic growth, not for vibrant competition.

An underlying problem with the order is that it is based on the false premise that competition has diminished significantly in recent decades and that “big is bad.” Economic analysis found in the February 2020 Economic Report of the President, and in other economic studies, debunks this flawed assumption.

In short, the order commits the fundamental mistake of proposing intrusive regulatory solutions for a largely nonexistent problem. Competitive issues are best handled through traditional well-accepted antitrust analysis, which centers on promoting consumer welfare and on weighing procompetitive efficiencies against anticompetitive harm on a case-by-case basis. This approach:

  1. Deals effectively with serious competitive problems; while at the same time
  2. Cabining error costs by taking into account all economically relevant considerations on a case-specific basis.

Rather than using an executive order to direct very specific regulatory approaches without a strong economic and factual basis, the Biden administration would have been better served by raising a host of competitive issues that merit possible study and investigation by expert agencies. Such an approach would have avoided imposing the costs of unwarranted regulation that unfortunately are likely to stem from the new order.

Finally, the order’s call for new regulations and the elimination of various existing legal policies will spawn matter-specific legal challenges, and may, in many cases, not succeed in court. This will impose unnecessary business uncertainty in addition to public and private resources wasted on litigation.

President Joe Biden named his post-COVID-19 agenda “Build Back Better,” but his proposals to prioritize support for government-run broadband service “with less pressure to turn profits” and to “reduce Internet prices for all Americans” will slow broadband deployment and leave taxpayers with an enormous bill.

Policymakers should pay particular heed to this danger, amid news that the Senate is moving forward with considering a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, and that the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service will coordinate on spending broadband subsidy dollars.

In order to ensure that broadband subsidies lead to greater buildout and adoption, policymakers must correctly understand the state of competition in broadband and not assume that increasing the number of firms in a market will necessarily lead to better outcomes for consumers or the public.

A recent white paper published by us here at the International Center for Law & Economics makes the case that concentration is a poor predictor of competitiveness, while offering alternative policies for reaching Americans who don’t have access to high-speed Internet service.

The data show that the state of competition in broadband is generally healthy. ISPs routinely invest billions of dollars per year in building, maintaining, and upgrading their networks to be faster, more reliable, and more available to consumers. FCC data show that average speeds available to consumers, as well as the number of competitors providing higher-speed tiers, have increased each year. And prices for broadband, as measured by price-per-Mbps, have fallen precipitously, dropping 98% over the last 20 years. None of this makes sense if the facile narrative about the absence of competition were true.

In our paper, we argue that the real public policy issue for broadband isn’t curbing the pursuit of profits or adopting price controls, but making sure Americans have broadband access and encouraging adoption. In areas where it is very costly to build out broadband networks, like rural areas, there tend to be fewer firms in the market. But having only one or two ISPs available is far less of a problem than having none at all. Understanding the underlying market conditions and how subsidies can both help and hurt the availability and adoption of broadband is an important prerequisite to good policy.

The basic problem is that those who have decried the lack of competition in broadband often look at the number of ISPs in a given market to determine whether a market is competitive. But this is not how economists think of competition. Instead, economists look at competition as a dynamic process where changes in supply and demand factors are constantly pushing the market toward new equilibria.

In general, where a market is “contestable”—that is, where existing firms face potential competition from the threat of new entry—even just a single existing firm may have to act as if it faces vigorous competition. Such markets often have characteristics (e.g., price, quality, and level of innovation) similar or even identical to those with multiple existing competitors. This dynamic competition, driven by changes in technology or consumer preferences, ensures that such markets are regularly disrupted by innovative products and services—a process that does not always favor incumbents.

Proposals focused on increasing the number of firms providing broadband can actually reduce consumer welfare. Whether through overbuilding—by allowing new private entrants to free-ride on the initial investment by incumbent companies—or by going into the Internet business itself through municipal broadband, government subsidies can increase the number of firms providing broadband. But it can’t do so without costs―which include not just the cost of the subsidies themselves, which ultimately come from taxpayers, but also the reduced incentives for unsubsidized private firms to build out broadband in the first place.

If underlying supply and demand conditions in rural areas lead to a situation where only one provider can profitably exist, artificially adding another completely reliant on subsidies will likely just lead to the exit of the unsubsidized provider. Or, where a community already has municipal broadband, it is unlikely that a private ISP will want to enter and compete with a firm that doesn’t have to turn a profit.

A much better alternative for policymakers is to increase the demand for buildout through targeted user subsidies, while reducing regulatory barriers to entry that limit supply.

For instance, policymakers should consider offering connectivity vouchers to unserved households in order to stimulate broadband deployment and consumption. Current subsidy programs rely largely on subsidizing the supply side, but this requires the government to determine the who and where of entry. Connectivity vouchers would put the choice in the hands of consumers, while encouraging more buildout to areas that may currently be uneconomic to reach due to low population density or insufficient demand due to low adoption rates.

Local governments could also facilitate broadband buildout by reducing unnecessary regulatory barriers. Local building codes could adopt more connection-friendly standards. Local governments could also reduce the cost of access to existing poles and other infrastructure. Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) requirements could also be eliminated, because they deter potential providers from seeking funds for buildout (and don’t offer countervailing benefits).

Albert Einstein once said: “if I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem, and one minute resolving it.” When it comes to encouraging broadband buildout, policymakers should make sure they are solving the right problem. The problem is that the cost of building out broadband to unserved areas is too high or the demand too low—not that there are too few competitors.

PHOTO: C-Span

Lina Khan’s appointment as chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a remarkable accomplishment. At 32 years old, she is the youngest chair ever. Her longstanding criticisms of the Consumer Welfare Standard and alignment with the neo-Brandeisean school of thought make her appointment a significant achievement for proponents of those viewpoints. 

Her appointment also comes as House Democrats are preparing to mark up five bills designed to regulate Big Tech and, in the process, vastly expand the FTC’s powers. This expansion may combine with Khan’s appointment in ways that lawmakers considering the bills have not yet considered.

This is a critical time for the FTC. It has lost a number of high-profile lawsuits and is preparing to expand its rulemaking powers to regulate things like employment contracts and businesses’ use of data. Khan has also argued in favor of additional rulemaking powers around “unfair methods of competition.”

As things stand, the FTC under Khan’s leadership is likely to push for more extensive regulatory powers, akin to those held by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But these expansions would be trivial compared to what is proposed by many of the bills currently being prepared for a June 23 mark-up in the House Judiciary Committee. 

The flagship bill—Rep. David Cicilline’s (D-R.I.) American Innovation and Choice Online Act—is described as a platform “non-discrimination” bill. I have already discussed what the real-world effects of this bill would likely be. Briefly, it would restrict platforms’ ability to offer richer, more integrated services at all, since those integrations could be challenged as “discrimination” at the cost of would-be competitors’ offerings. Things like free shipping on Amazon Prime, pre-installed apps on iPhones, or even including links to Gmail and Google Calendar at the top of a Google Search page could be precluded under the bill’s terms; in each case, there is a potential competitor being undermined. 

In fact, the bill’s scope is so broad that some have argued that the FTC simply would not challenge “innocuous self-preferencing” like, say, Apple pre-installing Apple Music on iPhones. Economist Hal Singer has defended the proposals on the grounds that, “Due to limited resources, not all platform integration will be challenged.” 

But this shifts the focus to the FTC itself, and implies that it would have potentially enormous discretionary power under these proposals to enforce the law selectively. 

Companies found guilty of breaching the bill’s terms would be liable for civil penalties of up to 15 percent of annual U.S. revenue, a potentially significant sum. And though the Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously against the FTC’s powers to levy civil fines unilaterally—which the FTC opposed vociferously, and may get restored by other means—there are two scenarios through which it could end up getting extraordinarily extensive control over the platforms covered by the bill.

The first course is through selective enforcement. What Singer above describes as a positive—the fact that enforcers would just let “benign” violations of the law be—would mean that the FTC itself would have tremendous scope to choose which cases it brings, and might do so for idiosyncratic, politicized reasons.

This approach is common in countries with weak rule of law. Anti-corruption laws are frequently used to punish opponents of the regime in China, who probably are also corrupt, but are prosecuted because they have challenged the regime in some way. Hong Kong’s National Security law has also been used to target peaceful protestors and critical media thanks to its vague and overly broad drafting. 

Obviously, that’s far more sinister than what we’re talking about here. But these examples highlight how excessively broad laws applied at the enforcer’s discretion give broad powers to the enforcer to penalize defendants for other, unrelated things. Or, to quote Jay-Z: “Am I under arrest or should I guess some more? / ‘Well, you was doing 55 in a 54.’

The second path would be to use these powers as leverage to get broad consent decrees to govern the conduct of covered platforms. These occur when a lawsuit is settled, with the defendant company agreeing to change its business practices under supervision of the plaintiff agency (in this case, the FTC). The Cambridge Analytica lawsuit ended this way, with Facebook agreeing to change its data-sharing practices under the supervision of the FTC. 

This path would mean the FTC creating bespoke, open-ended regulation for each covered platform. Like the first path, this could create significant scope for discretionary decision-making by the FTC and potentially allow FTC officials to impose their own, non-economic goals on these firms. And it would require costly monitoring of each firm subject to bespoke regulation to ensure that no breaches of that regulation occurred.

Khan, as a critic of the Consumer Welfare Standard, believes that antitrust ought to be used to pursue non-economic objectives, including “the dispersion of political and economic control.” She, and the FTC under her, may wish to use this discretionary power to prosecute firms that she feels are hurting society for unrelated reasons, such as because of political stances they have (or have not) taken.

Khan’s fellow commissioner, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, has argued that antitrust should be “antiracist”; that “as long as Black-owned businesses and Black consumers are systematically underrepresented and disadvantaged, we know our markets are not fair”; and that the FTC should consider using its existing rulemaking powers to address racist practices. These may be desirable goals, but their application would require contentious value judgements that lawmakers may not want the FTC to make.

Khan herself has been less explicit about the goals she has in mind, but has given some hints. In her essay “The Ideological Roots of America’s Market Power Problem”, Khan highlights approvingly former Associate Justice William O. Douglas’s account of:

“economic power as inextricably political. Power in industry is the power to steer outcomes. It grants outsized control to a few, subjecting the public to unaccountable private power—and thereby threatening democratic order. The account also offers a positive vision of how economic power should be organized (decentralized and dispersed), a recognition that forms of economic power are not inevitable and instead can be restructured.” [italics added]

Though I have focused on Cicilline’s flagship bill, others grant significant new powers to the FTC, as well. The data portability and interoperability bill doesn’t actually define what “data” is; it leaves it to the FTC to “define the term ‘data’ for the purpose of implementing and enforcing this Act.” And, as I’ve written elsewhere, data interoperability needs significant ongoing regulatory oversight to work at all, a responsibility that this bill also hands to the FTC. Even a move as apparently narrow as data portability will involve a significant expansion of the FTC’s powers and give it a greater role as an ongoing economic regulator.

It is concerning enough that this legislative package would prohibit conduct that is good for consumers, and that actually increases the competition faced by Big Tech firms. Congress should understand that it also gives extensive discretionary powers to an agency intent on using them to pursue broad, political goals. If Khan’s appointment as chair was a surprise, what her FTC does with the new powers given to her by Congress should not be.

Democratic leadership of the House Judiciary Committee have leaked the approach they plan to take to revise U.S. antitrust law and enforcement, with a particular focus on digital platforms. 

Broadly speaking, the bills would: raise fees for larger mergers and increase appropriations to the FTC and DOJ; require data portability and interoperability; declare that large platforms can’t own businesses that compete with other businesses that use the platform; effectively ban large platforms from making any acquisitions; and generally declare that large platforms cannot preference their own products or services. 

All of these are ideas that have been discussed before. They are very much in line with the EU’s approach to competition, which places more regulation-like burdens on big businesses, and which is introducing a Digital Markets Act that mirrors the Democrats’ proposals. Some Republicans are reportedly supportive of the proposals, which is surprising since they mean giving broad, discretionary powers to antitrust authorities that are controlled by Democrats who take an expansive view of antitrust enforcement as a way to achieve their other social and political goals. The proposals may also be unpopular with consumers if, for example, they would mean that popular features like integrating Maps into relevant Google Search results becomes prohibited.

The multi-bill approach here suggests that the committee is trying to throw as much at the wall as possible to see what sticks. It may reflect a lack of confidence among the proposers in their ability to get their proposals through wholesale, especially given that Amy Klobuchar’s CALERA bill in the Senate creates an alternative that, while still highly interventionist, does not create ex ante regulation of the Internet the same way these proposals do.

In general, the bills are misguided for three main reasons. 

One, they seek to make digital platforms into narrow conduits for other firms to operate on, ignoring the value created by platforms curating their own services by, for example, creating quality controls on entry (as Apple does on its App Store) or by integrating their services with related products (like, say, Google adding events from Gmail to users’ Google Calendars). 

Two, they ignore the procompetitive effects of digital platforms extending into each other’s markets and competing with each other there, in ways that often lead to far more intense competition—and better outcomes for consumers—than if the only firms that could compete with the incumbent platform were small startups.

Three, they ignore the importance of incentives for innovation. Platforms invest in new and better products when they can make money from doing so, and limiting their ability to do that means weakened incentives to innovate. Startups and their founders and investors are driven, in part, by the prospect of being acquired, often by the platforms themselves. Making those acquisitions more difficult, or even impossible, means removing one of the key ways startup founders can exit their firms, and hence one of the key rewards and incentives for starting an innovative new business. 

For more, our “Joint Submission of Antitrust Economists, Legal Scholars, and Practitioners” set out why many of the House Democrats’ assumptions about the state of the economy and antitrust enforcement were mistaken. And my post, “Buck’s “Third Way”: A Different Road to the Same Destination”, argued that House Republicans like Ken Buck were misguided in believing they could support some of the proposals and avoid the massive regulatory oversight that they said they rejected.

Platform Anti-Monopoly Act 

The flagship bill, introduced by Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), establishes a definition of “covered platform” used by several of the other bills. The measures would apply to platforms with at least 500,000 U.S.-based users, a market capitalization of more than $600 billion, and that is deemed a “critical trading partner” with the ability to restrict or impede the access that a “dependent business” has to its users or customers.

Cicilline’s bill would bar these covered platforms from being able to promote their own products and services over the products and services of competitors who use the platform. It also defines a number of other practices that would be regarded as discriminatory, including: 

  • Restricting or impeding “dependent businesses” from being able to access the platform or its software on the same terms as the platform’s own lines of business;
  • Conditioning access or status on purchasing other products or services from the platform; 
  • Using user data to support the platform’s own products in ways not extended to competitors; 
  • Restricting the platform’s commercial users from using or accessing data generated on the platform from their own customers;
  • Restricting platform users from uninstalling software pre-installed on the platform;
  • Restricting platform users from providing links to facilitate business off of the platform;
  • Preferencing the platform’s own products or services in search results or rankings;
  • Interfering with how a dependent business prices its products; 
  • Impeding a dependent business’ users from connecting to services or products that compete with those offered by the platform; and
  • Retaliating against users who raise concerns with law enforcement about potential violations of the act.

On a basic level, these would prohibit lots of behavior that is benign and that can improve the quality of digital services for users. Apple pre-installing a Weather app on the iPhone would, for example, run afoul of these rules, and the rules as proposed could prohibit iPhones from coming with pre-installed apps at all. Instead, users would have to manually download each app themselves, if indeed Apple was allowed to include the App Store itself pre-installed on the iPhone, given that this competes with other would-be app stores.

Apart from the obvious reduction in the quality of services and convenience for users that this would involve, this kind of conduct (known as “self-preferencing”) is usually procompetitive. For example, self-preferencing allows platforms to compete with one another by using their strength in one market to enter a different one; Google’s Shopping results in the Search page increase the competition that Amazon faces, because it presents consumers with a convenient alternative when they’re shopping online for products. Similarly, Amazon’s purchase of the video-game streaming service Twitch, and the self-preferencing it does to encourage Amazon customers to use Twitch and support content creators on that platform, strengthens the competition that rivals like YouTube face. 

It also helps innovation, because it gives firms a reason to invest in services that would otherwise be unprofitable for them. Google invests in Android, and gives much of it away for free, because it can bundle Google Search into the OS, and make money from that. If Google could not self-preference Google Search on Android, the open source business model simply wouldn’t work—it wouldn’t be able to make money from Android, and would have to charge for it in other ways that may be less profitable and hence give it less reason to invest in the operating system. 

This behavior can also increase innovation by the competitors of these companies, both by prompting them to improve their products (as, for example, Google Android did with Microsoft’s mobile operating system offerings) and by growing the size of the customer base for products of this kind. For example, video games published by console manufacturers (like Nintendo’s Zelda and Mario games) are often blockbusters that grow the overall size of the user base for the consoles, increasing demand for third-party titles as well.

For more, check out “Against the Vertical Discrimination Presumption” by Geoffrey Manne and Dirk Auer’s piece “On the Origin of Platforms: An Evolutionary Perspective”.

Ending Platform Monopolies Act 

Sponsored by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), this bill would make it illegal for covered platforms to control lines of business that pose “irreconcilable conflicts of interest,” enforced through civil litigation powers granted to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ).

Specifically, the bill targets lines of business that create “a substantial incentive” for the platform to advantage its own products or services over those of competitors that use the platform, or to exclude or disadvantage competing businesses from using the platform. The FTC and DOJ could potentially order that platforms divest lines of business that violate the act.

This targets similar conduct as the previous bill, but involves the forced separation of different lines of business. It also appears to go even further, seemingly implying that companies like Google could not even develop services like Google Maps or Chrome because their existence would create such “substantial incentives” to self-preference them over the products of their competitors. 

Apart from the straightforward loss of innovation and product developments this would involve, requiring every tech company to be narrowly focused on a single line of business would substantially entrench Big Tech incumbents, because it would make it impossible for them to extend into adjacent markets to compete with one another. For example, Apple could not develop a search engine to compete with Google under these rules, and Amazon would be forced to sell its video-streaming services that compete with Netflix and Youtube.

For more, check out Geoffrey Manne’s written testimony to the House Antitrust Subcommittee and “Platform Self-Preferencing Can Be Good for Consumers and Even Competitors” by Geoffrey and me. 

Platform Competition and Opportunity Act

Introduced by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), this bill would bar covered platforms from making essentially any acquisitions at all. To be excluded from the ban on acquisitions, the platform would have to present “clear and convincing evidence” that the acquired business does not compete with the platform for any product or service, does not pose a potential competitive threat to the platform, and would not in any way enhance or help maintain the acquiring platform’s market position. 

The two main ways that founders and investors can make a return on a successful startup are to float the company at IPO or to be acquired by another business. The latter of these, acquisitions, is extremely important. Between 2008 and 2019, 90 percent of U.S. start-up exits happened through acquisition. In a recent survey, half of current startup executives said they aimed to be acquired. One study found that countries that made it easier for firms to be taken over saw a 40-50 percent increase in VC activity, and that U.S. states that made acquisitions harder saw a 27 percent decrease in VC investment deals

So this proposal would probably reduce investment in U.S. startups, since it makes it more difficult for them to be acquired. It would therefore reduce innovation as a result. It would also reduce inter-platform competition by banning deals that allow firms to move into new markets, like the acquisition of Beats that helped Apple to build a Spotify competitor, or the deals that helped Google, Microsoft, and Amazon build cloud-computing services that all compete with each other. It could also reduce competition faced by old industries, by preventing tech companies from buying firms that enable it to move into new markets—like Amazon’s acquisitions of health-care companies that it has used to build a health-care offering. Even Walmart’s acquisition of Jet.com, which it has used to build an Amazon competitor, could have been banned under this law if Walmart had had a higher market cap at the time.

For more, check out Dirk Auer’s piece “Facebook and the Pros and Cons of Ex Post Merger Reviews” and my piece “Cracking down on mergers would leave us all worse off”. 

ACCESS Act

The Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Act, sponsored by Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), would establish data portability and interoperability requirements for platforms. 

Under terms of the legislation, covered platforms would be required to allow third parties to transfer data to their users or, with the user’s consent, to a competing business. It also would require platforms to facilitate compatible and interoperable communications with competing businesses. The law directs the FTC to establish technical committees to promulgate the standards for portability and interoperability. 

Data portability and interoperability involve trade-offs in terms of security and usability, and overseeing them can be extremely costly and difficult. In security terms, interoperability requirements prevent companies from using closed systems to protect users from hostile third parties. Mandatory openness means increasing—sometimes, substantially so—the risk of data breaches and leaks. In practice, that could mean users’ private messages or photos being leaked more frequently, or activity on a social media page that a user considers to be “their” private data, but that “belongs” to another user under the terms of use, can be exported and publicized as such. 

It can also make digital services more buggy and unreliable, by requiring that they are built in a more “open” way that may be more prone to unanticipated software mismatches. A good example is that of Windows vs iOS; Windows is far more interoperable with third-party software than iOS is, but tends to be less stable as a result, and users often prefer the closed, stable system. 

Interoperability requirements also entail ongoing regulatory oversight, to make sure data is being provided to third parties reliably. It’s difficult to build an app around another company’s data without assurance that the data will be available when users want it. For a requirement as broad as this bill’s, that could mean setting up quite a large new de facto regulator. 

In the UK, Open Banking (an interoperability requirement imposed on British retail banks) has suffered from significant service outages, and targets a level of uptime that many developers complain is too low for them to build products around. Nor has Open Banking yet led to any obvious competition benefits.

For more, check out Gus Hurwitz’s piece “Portable Social Media Aren’t Like Portable Phone Numbers” and my piece “Why Data Interoperability Is Harder Than It Looks: The Open Banking Experience”.

Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act

A bill that mirrors language in the Endless Frontier Act recently passed by the U.S. Senate, would significantly raise filing fees for the largest mergers. Rather than the current cap of $280,000 for mergers valued at more than $500 million, the bill—sponsored by Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.)–the new schedule would assess fees of $2.25 million for mergers valued at more than $5 billion; $800,000 for those valued at between $2 billion and $5 billion; and $400,000 for those between $1 billion and $2 billion.

Smaller mergers would actually see their filing fees cut: from $280,000 to $250,000 for those between $500 million and $1 billion; from $125,000 to $100,000 for those between $161.5 million and $500 million; and from $45,000 to $30,000 for those less than $161.5 million. 

In addition, the bill would appropriate $418 million to the FTC and $252 million to the DOJ’s Antitrust Division for Fiscal Year 2022. Most people in the antitrust world are generally supportive of more funding for the FTC and DOJ, although whether this is actually good or not depends both on how it’s spent at those places. 

It’s hard to object if it goes towards deepening the agencies’ capacities and knowledge, by hiring and retaining higher quality staff with salaries that are more competitive with those offered by the private sector, and on greater efforts to study the effects of the antitrust laws and past cases on the economy. If it goes toward broadening the activities of the agencies, by doing more and enabling them to pursue a more aggressive enforcement agenda, and supporting whatever of the above proposals make it into law, then it could be very harmful. 

For more, check out my post “Buck’s “Third Way”: A Different Road to the Same Destination” and Thom Lambert’s post “Bad Blood at the FTC”.

Despite calls from some NGOs to mandate radical interoperability, the EU’s draft Digital Markets Act (DMA) adopted a more measured approach, requiring full interoperability only in “ancillary” services like identification or payment systems. There remains the possibility, however, that the DMA proposal will be amended to include stronger interoperability mandates, or that such amendments will be introduced in the Digital Services Act. Without the right checks and balances, this could pose grave threats to Europeans’ privacy and security.

At the most basic level, interoperability means a capacity to exchange information between computer systems. Email is an example of an interoperable standard that most of us use today. Expanded interoperability could offer promising solutions to some of today’s difficult problems. For example, it might allow third-party developers to offer different “flavors” of social media news feed, with varying approaches to content ranking and moderation (see Daphne Keller, Mike Masnick, and Stephen Wolfram for more on that idea). After all, in a pluralistic society, someone will always be unhappy with what some others consider appropriate content. Why not let smaller groups decide what they want to see? 

But to achieve that goal using currently available technology, third-party developers would have to be able to access all of a platform’s content that is potentially available to a user. This would include not just content produced by users who explicitly agrees for their data to be shared with third parties, but also content—e.g., posts, comments, likes—created by others who may have strong objections to such sharing. It doesn’t require much imagination to see how, without adequate safeguards, mandating this kind of information exchange would inevitably result in something akin to the 2018 Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

It is telling that supporters of this kind of interoperability use services like email as their model examples. Email (more precisely, the SMTP protocol) originally was designed in a notoriously insecure way. It is a perfect example of the opposite of privacy by design. A good analogy for the levels of privacy and security provided by email, as originally conceived, is that of a postcard message sent without an envelope that passes through many hands before reaching the addressee. Even today, email continues to be a source of security concerns due to its prioritization of interoperability.

It also is telling that supporters of interoperability tend to point to what are small-scale platforms (e.g., Mastodon) or protocols with unacceptably poor usability for most of today’s Internet users (e.g., Usenet). When proposing solutions to potential privacy problems—e.g., that users will adequately monitor how various platforms use their data—they often assume unrealistic levels of user interest or technical acumen.

Interoperability in the DMA

The current draft of the DMA contains several provisions that broadly construe interoperability as applying only to “gatekeepers”—i.e., the largest online platforms:

  1. Mandated interoperability of “ancillary services” (Art 6(1)(f)); 
  2. Real-time data portability (Art 6(1)(h)); and
  3. Business-user access to their own and end-user data (Art 6(1)(i)). 

The first provision, (Art 6(1)(f)), is meant to force gatekeepers to allow e.g., third-party payment or identification services—for example, to allow people to create social media accounts without providing an email address, which is possible using services like “Sign in with Apple.” This kind of interoperability doesn’t pose as big of a privacy risk as mandated interoperability of “core” services (e.g., messaging on a platform like WhatsApp or Signal), partially due to a more limited scope of data that needs to be exchanged.

However, even here, there may be some risks. For example, users may choose poorly secured identification services and thus become victims of attacks. Therefore, it is important that gatekeepers not be prevented from protecting their users adequately. Of course,there are likely trade-offs between those protections and the interoperability that some want. Proponents of stronger interoperability want this provision amended to cover all “core” services, not just “ancillary” ones, which would constitute precisely the kind of radical interoperability that cannot be safely mandated today.

The other two provisions do not mandate full two-way interoperability, where a third party could both read data from a service like Facebook and modify content on that service. Instead, they provide for one-way “continuous and real-time” access to data—read-only.

The second provision (Art 6(1)(h)) mandates that gatekeepers give users effective “continuous and real-time” access to data “generated through” their activity. It’s not entirely clear whether this provision would be satisfied by, e.g., Facebook’s Graph API, but it likely would not be satisfied simply by being able to download one’s Facebook data, as that is not “continuous and real-time.”

Importantly, the proposed provision explicitly references the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which suggests that—at least as regards personal data—the scope of this portability mandate is not meant to be broader than that from Article 20 GDPR. Given the GDPR reference and the qualification that it applies to data “generated through” the user’s activity, this mandate would not include data generated by other users—which is welcome, but likely will not satisfy the proponents of stronger interoperability.

The third provision from Art 6(1)(i) mandates only “continuous and real-time” data access and only as regards data “provided for or generated in the context of the use of the relevant core platform services” by business users and by “the end users engaging with the products or services provided by those business users.” This provision is also explicitly qualified with respect to personal data, which are to be shared after GDPR-like user consent and “only where directly connected with the use effectuated by the end user in respect of” the business user’s service. The provision should thus not be a tool for a new Cambridge Analytica to siphon data on users who interact with some Facebook page or app and their unwitting contacts. However, for the same reasons, it will also not be sufficient for the kinds of uses that proponents of stronger interoperability envisage.

Why can’t stronger interoperability be safely mandated today?

Let’s imagine that Art 6(1)(f) is amended to cover all “core” services, so gatekeepers like Facebook end up with a legal duty to allow third parties to read data from and write data to Facebook via APIs. This would go beyond what is currently possible using Facebook’s Graph API, and would lack the current safety valve of Facebook cutting off access because of the legal duty to deal created by the interoperability mandate. As Cory Doctorow and Bennett Cyphers note, there are at least three categories of privacy and security risks in this situation:

1. Data sharing and mining via new APIs;

2. New opportunities for phishing and sock puppetry in a federated ecosystem; and

3. More friction for platforms trying to maintain a secure system.

Unlike some other proponents of strong interoperability, Doctorow and Cyphers are open about the scale of the risk: “[w]ithout new legal safeguards to protect the privacy of user data, this kind of interoperable ecosystem could make Cambridge Analytica-style attacks more common.”

There are bound to be attempts to misuse interoperability through clearly criminal activity. But there also are likely to be more legally ambiguous attempts that are harder to proscribe ex ante. Proposals for strong interoperability mandates need to address this kind of problem.

So, what could be done to make strong interoperability reasonably safe? Doctorow and Cyphers argue that there is a “need for better privacy law,” but don’t say whether they think the GDPR’s rules fit the bill. This may be a matter of reasonable disagreement.

What isn’t up for serious debate is that the current framework and practice of privacy enforcement offers little confidence that misuses of strong interoperability would be detected and prosecuted, much less that they would be prevented (see here and here on GDPR enforcement). This is especially true for smaller and “judgment-proof” rule-breakers, including those from outside the European Union. Addressing the problems of privacy law enforcement is a herculean task, in and of itself.

The day may come when radical interoperability will, thanks to advances in technology and/or privacy enforcement, become acceptably safe. But it would be utterly irresponsible to mandate radical interoperability in the DMA and/or DSA, and simply hope the obvious privacy and security problems will somehow be solved before the law takes force. Instituting such a mandate would likely discredit the very idea of interoperability.

In his recent concurrence in Biden v. Knight, Justice Clarence Thomas sketched a roadmap for how to regulate social-media platforms. The animating factor for Thomas, much like for other conservatives, appears to be a sense that Big Tech has exhibited anti-conservative bias in its moderation decisions, most prominently by excluding former President Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook. The opinion has predictably been greeted warmly by conservative champions of social-media regulation, who believe it shows how states and the federal government can proceed on this front.

While much of the commentary to date has been on whether Thomas got the legal analysis right, or on the uncomfortable fit of common-carriage law to social media, the deeper question of the First Amendment’s protection of private ordering has received relatively short shrift.

Conservatives’ main argument has been that Big Tech needs to be reined in because it is restricting the speech of private individuals. While conservatives traditionally have defended the state-action doctrine and the right to editorial discretion, they now readily find exceptions to both in order to justify regulating social-media companies. But those two First Amendment doctrines have long enshrined an important general principle: private actors can set the rules for speech on their own property. I intend to analyze this principle from a law & economics perspective and show how it benefits society.

Who Balances the Benefits and Costs of Speech?

Like virtually any other human activity, there are benefits and costs to speech and it is ultimately subjective individual preference that determines the value that speech has. The First Amendment protects speech from governmental regulation, with only limited exceptions, but that does not mean all speech is acceptable or must be tolerated. Under the state-action doctrine, the First Amendment only prevents the government from restricting speech.

Some purported defenders of the principle of free speech no longer appear to see a distinction between restraints on speech imposed by the government and those imposed by private actors. But this is surely mistaken, as no one truly believes all speech protected by the First Amendment should be without consequence. In truth, most regulation of speech has always come by informal means—social mores enforced by dirty looks or responsive speech from others.

Moreover, property rights have long played a crucial role in determining speech rules within any given space. If a man were to come into my house and start calling my wife racial epithets, I would not only ask that person to leave but would exercise my right as a property owner to eject the trespasser—if necessary, calling the police to assist me. I similarly could not expect to go to a restaurant and yell at the top of my lungs about political issues and expect them—even as “common carriers” or places of public accommodation—to allow me to continue.

As Thomas Sowell wrote in Knowledge and Decisions:

The fact that different costs and benefits must be balanced does not in itself imply who must balance them―or even that there must be a single balance for all, or a unitary viewpoint (one “we”) from which the issue is categorically resolved.

Knowledge and Decisions, p. 240

When it comes to speech, the balance that must be struck is between one individual’s desire for an audience and that prospective audience’s willingness to play the role. Asking government to use regulation to make categorical decisions for all of society is substituting centralized evaluation of the costs and benefits of access to communications for the individual decisions of many actors. Rather than incremental decisions regarding how and under what terms individuals may relate to one another—which can evolve over time in response to changes in what individuals find acceptable—government by its nature can only hand down categorical guidelines: “you must allow x, y, and z speech.”

This is particularly relevant in the sphere of social media. Social-media companies are multi-sided platforms. They are profit-seeking, to be sure, but the way they generate profits is by acting as intermediaries between users and advertisers. If they fail to serve their users well, those users could abandon the platform. Without users, advertisers would have no interest in buying ads. And without advertisers, there is no profit to be made. Social-media companies thus need to maximize the value of their platform by setting rules that keep users engaged.

In the cases of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, the platforms have set content-moderation standards that restrict many kinds of speech that are generally viewed negatively by users, even if the First Amendment would foreclose the government from regulating those same types of content. This is a good thing. Social-media companies balance the speech interests of different kinds of users to maximize the value of the platform and, in turn, to maximize benefits to all.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between private action and state action: one is voluntary, and the other based on coercion. If Facebook or Twitter suspends a user for violating community rules, it represents termination of a previously voluntary association. If the government kicks someone out of a public forum for expressing legal speech, that is coercion. The state-action doctrine recognizes this fundamental difference and creates a bright-line rule that courts may police when it comes to speech claims. As Sowell put it:

The courts’ role as watchdogs patrolling the boundaries of governmental power is essential in order that others may be secure and free on the other side of those boundaries. But what makes watchdogs valuable is precisely their ability to distinguish those people who are to be kept at bay and those who are to be left alone. A watchdog who could not make that distinction would not be a watchdog at all, but simply a general menace.

Knowledge and Decisions, p. 244

Markets Produce the Best Moderation Policies

The First Amendment also protects the right of editorial discretion, which means publishers, platforms, and other speakers are free from carrying or transmitting government-compelled speech. Even a newspaper with near-monopoly power cannot be compelled by a right-of-reply statute to carry responses by political candidates to editorials it has published. In other words, not only is private regulation of speech not state action, but in many cases, private regulation is protected by the First Amendment.

There is no reason to think that social-media companies today are in a different position than was the newspaper in Miami Herald v. Tornillo. These companies must determine what, how, and where content is presented within their platform. While this right of editorial discretion protects the moderation decisions of social-media companies, its benefits accrue to society at-large.

Social-media companies’ abilities to differentiate themselves based on functionality and moderation policies are important aspects of competition among them. How each platform is used may differ depending on those factors. In fact, many consumers use multiple social-media platforms throughout the day for different purposes. Market competition, not government power, has enabled internet users (including conservatives!) to have more avenues than ever to get their message out.

Many conservatives remain unpersuaded by the power of markets in this case. They see multiple platforms all engaging in very similar content-moderation policies when it comes to certain touchpoint issues, and thus allege widespread anti-conservative bias and collusion. Neither of those claims have much factual support, but more importantly, the similarity of content-moderation standards may simply be common responses to similar demand structures—not some nefarious and conspiratorial plot.

In other words, if social-media users demand less of the kinds of content commonly considered to be hate speech, or less misinformation on certain important issues, platforms will do their best to weed those things out. Platforms won’t always get these determinations right, but it is by no means clear that forcing them to carry all “legal” speech—which would include not just misinformation and hate speech, but pornographic material, as well—would better serve social-media users. There are always alternative means to debate contestable issues of the day, even if it may be more costly to access them.

Indeed, that content-moderation policies make it more difficult to communicate some messages is precisely the point of having them. There is a subset of protected speech to which many users do not wish to be subject. Moreover, there is no inherent right to have an audience on a social-media platform.

Conclusion

Much of the First Amendment’s economic value lies in how it defines roles in the market for speech. As a general matter, it is not the government’s place to determine what speech should be allowed in private spaces. Instead, the private ordering of speech emerges through the application of social mores and property rights. This benefits society, as it allows individuals to create voluntary relationships built on marginal decisions about what speech is acceptable when and where, rather than centralized decisions made by a governing few and that are difficult to change over time.

Politico has released a cache of confidential Federal Trade Commission (FTC) documents in connection with a series of articles on the commission’s antitrust probe into Google Search a decade ago. The headline of the first piece in the series argues the FTC “fumbled the future” by failing to follow through on staff recommendations to pursue antitrust intervention against the company. 

But while the leaked documents shed interesting light on the inner workings of the FTC, they do very little to substantiate the case that the FTC dropped the ball when the commissioners voted unanimously not to bring an action against Google.

Drawn primarily from memos by the FTC’s lawyers, the Politico report purports to uncover key revelations that undermine the FTC’s decision not to sue Google. None of the revelations, however, provide evidence that Google’s behavior actually harmed consumers.

The report’s overriding claim—and the one most consistently forwarded by antitrust activists on Twitter—is that FTC commissioners wrongly sided with the agency’s economists (who cautioned against intervention) rather than its lawyers (who tenuously recommended very limited intervention). 

Indeed, the overarching narrative is that the lawyers knew what was coming and the economists took wildly inaccurate positions that turned out to be completely off the mark:

But the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed:

— They saw only “limited potential for growth” in ads that track users across the web — now the backbone of Google parent company Alphabet’s $182.5 billion in annual revenue.

— They expected consumers to continue relying mainly on computers to search for information. Today, about 62 percent of those queries take place on mobile phones and tablets, nearly all of which use Google’s search engine as the default.

— They thought rivals like Microsoft, Mozilla or Amazon would offer viable competition to Google in the market for the software that runs smartphones. Instead, nearly all U.S. smartphones run on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.

— They underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic.

The report thus asserts that:

The agency ultimately voted against taking action, saying changes Google made to its search algorithm gave consumers better results and therefore didn’t unfairly harm competitors.

That conclusion underplays what the FTC’s staff found during the probe. In 312 pages of documents, the vast majority never publicly released, staffers outlined evidence that Google had taken numerous steps to ensure it would continue to dominate the market — including emerging arenas such as mobile search and targeted advertising. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

What really emerges from the leaked memos, however, is analysis by both the FTC’s lawyers and economists infused with a healthy dose of humility. There were strong political incentives to bring a case. As one of us noted upon the FTC’s closing of the investigation: “It’s hard to imagine an agency under more pressure, from more quarters (including the Hill), to bring a case around search.” Yet FTC staff and commissioners resisted that pressure, because prediction is hard. 

Ironically, the very prediction errors that the agency’s staff cautioned against are now being held against them. Yet the claims that these errors (especially the economists’) systematically cut in one direction (i.e., against enforcement) and that all of their predictions were wrong are both wide of the mark. 

Decisions Under Uncertainty

In seeking to make an example out of the FTC economists’ inaccurate predictions, critics ignore that antitrust investigations in dynamic markets always involve a tremendous amount of uncertainty; false predictions are the norm. Accordingly, the key challenge for policymakers is not so much to predict correctly, but to minimize the impact of incorrect predictions.

Seen in this light, the FTC economists’ memo is far from the laissez-faire manifesto that critics make it out to be. Instead, it shows agency officials wrestling with uncertain market outcomes, and choosing a course of action under the assumption the predictions they make might indeed be wrong. 

Consider the following passage from FTC economist Ken Heyer’s memo:

The great American philosopher Yogi Berra once famously remarked “Predicting is difficult, especially about the future.” How right he was. And yet predicting, and making decisions based on those predictions, is what we are charged with doing. Ignoring the potential problem is not an option. So I will be reasonably clear about my own tentative conclusions and recommendation, recognizing that reasonable people, perhaps applying a somewhat different standard, may disagree. My recommendation derives from my read of the available evidence, combined with the standard I personally find appropriate to apply to Commission intervention. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

In other words, contrary to what many critics have claimed, it simply is not the case that the FTC’s economists based their recommendations on bullish predictions about the future that ultimately failed to transpire. Instead, they merely recognized that, in a dynamic and unpredictable environment, antitrust intervention requires both a clear-cut theory of anticompetitive harm and a reasonable probability that remedies can improve consumer welfare. According to the economists, those conditions were absent with respect to Google Search.

Perhaps more importantly, it is worth asking why the economists’ erroneous predictions matter at all. Do critics believe that developments the economists missed warrant a different normative stance today?

In that respect, it is worth noting that the economists’ skepticism appeared to have rested first and foremost on the speculative nature of the harms alleged and the difficulty associated with designing appropriate remedies. And yet, if anything, these two concerns appear even more salient today. 

Indeed, the remedies imposed against Google in the EU have not delivered the outcomes that enforcers expected (here and here). This could either be because the remedies were insufficient or because Google’s market position was not due to anticompetitive conduct. Similarly, there is still no convincing economic theory or empirical research to support the notion that exclusive pre-installation and self-preferencing by incumbents harm consumers, and a great deal of reason to think they benefit them (see, e.g., our discussions of the issue here and here). 

Against this backdrop, criticism of the FTC economists appears to be driven more by a prior assumption that intervention is necessary—and that it was and is disingenuous to think otherwise—than evidence that erroneous predictions materially affected the outcome of the proceedings.

To take one example, the fact that ad tracking grew faster than the FTC economists believed it would is no less consistent with vigorous competition—and Google providing a superior product—than with anticompetitive conduct on Google’s part. The same applies to the growth of mobile operating systems. Ditto the fact that no rival has managed to dislodge Google in its most important markets. 

In short, not only were the economist memos informed by the very prediction difficulties that critics are now pointing to, but critics have not shown that any of the staff’s (inevitably) faulty predictions warranted a different normative outcome.

Putting Erroneous Predictions in Context

So what were these faulty predictions, and how important were they? Politico asserts that “the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed,” tying this to the FTC’s failure to intervene against Google over “tactics that European regulators and the U.S. Justice Department would later label antitrust violations.” The clear message is that the current actions are presumptively valid, and that the FTC’s economists thwarted earlier intervention based on faulty analysis.

But it is far from clear that these faulty predictions would have justified taking a tougher stance against Google. One key question for antitrust authorities is whether they can be reasonably certain that more efficient competitors will be unable to dislodge an incumbent. This assessment is necessarily forward-looking. Framed this way, greater market uncertainty (for instance, because policymakers are dealing with dynamic markets) usually cuts against antitrust intervention.

This does not entirely absolve the FTC economists who made the faulty predictions. But it does suggest the right question is not whether the economists made mistakes, but whether virtually everyone did so. The latter would be evidence of uncertainty, and thus weigh against antitrust intervention.

In that respect, it is worth noting that the staff who recommended that the FTC intervene also misjudged the future of digital markets.For example, while Politico surmises that the FTC “underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic,” there is a case to be made that the FTC overestimated this power. If anything, Google’s continued growth has opened new niches in the online advertising space.

Pinterest provides a fitting example; despite relying heavily on Google for traffic, its ad-funded service has witnessed significant growth. The same is true of other vertical search engines like Airbnb, Booking.com, and Zillow. While we cannot know the counterfactual, the vertical search industry has certainly not been decimated by Google’s “monopoly”; quite the opposite. Unsurprisingly, this has coincided with a significant decrease in the cost of online advertising, and the growth of online advertising relative to other forms.

Politico asserts not only that the economists’ market share and market power calculations were wrong, but that the lawyers knew better:

The economists, relying on data from the market analytics firm Comscore, found that Google had only limited impact. They estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of traffic to those types of sites generally came from the search engine.

FTC attorneys, though, used numbers provided by Yelp and found that 92 percent of users visited local review sites from Google. For shopping sites like eBay and TheFind, the referral rate from Google was between 67 and 73 percent.

This compares apples and oranges, or maybe oranges and grapefruit. The economists’ data, from Comscore, applied to vertical search overall. They explicitly noted that shares for particular sites could be much higher or lower: for comparison shopping, for example, “ranging from 56% to less than 10%.” This, of course, highlights a problem with the data provided by Yelp, et al.: it concerns only the websites of companies complaining about Google, not the overall flow of traffic for vertical search.

But the more important point is that none of the data discussed in the memos represents the overall flow of traffic for vertical search. Take Yelp, for example. According to the lawyers’ memo, 92 percent of Yelp searches were referred from Google. Only, that’s not true. We know it’s not true because, as Yelp CEO Jerry Stoppelman pointed out around this time in Yelp’s 2012 Q2 earnings call: 

When you consider that 40% of our searches come from mobile apps, there is quite a bit of un-monetized mobile traffic that we expect to unlock in the near future.

The numbers being analyzed by the FTC staff were apparently limited to referrals to Yelp’s website from browsers. But is there any reason to think that is the relevant market, or the relevant measure of customer access? Certainly there is nothing in the staff memos to suggest they considered the full scope of the market very carefully here. Indeed, the footnote in the lawyers’ memo presenting the traffic data is offered in support of this claim:

Vertical websites, such as comparison shopping and local websites, are heavily dependent on Google’s web search results to reach users. Thus, Google is in the unique position of being able to “make or break any web-based business.”

It’s plausible that vertical search traffic is “heavily dependent” on Google Search, but the numbers offered in support of that simply ignore the (then) 40 percent of traffic that Yelp acquired through its own mobile app, with no Google involvement at all. In any case, it is also notable that, while there are still somewhat fewer app users than web users (although the number has consistently increased), Yelp’s app users view significantly more pages than its website users do — 10 times as many in 2015, for example.

Also noteworthy is that, for whatever speculative harm Google might be able to visit on the company, at the time of the FTC’s analysis Yelp’s local ad revenue was consistently increasing — by 89% in Q3 2012. And that was without any ad revenue coming from its app (display ads arrived on Yelp’s mobile app in Q1 2013, a few months after the staff memos were written and just after the FTC closed its Google Search investigation). 

In short, the search-engine industry is extremely dynamic and unpredictable. Contrary to what many have surmised from the FTC staff memo leaks, this cuts against antitrust intervention, not in favor of it.

The FTC Lawyers’ Weak Case for Prosecuting Google

At the same time, although not discussed by Politico, the lawyers’ memo also contains errors, suggesting that arguments for intervention were also (inevitably) subject to erroneous prediction.

Among other things, the FTC attorneys’ memo argued the large upfront investments were required to develop cutting-edge algorithms, and that these effectively shielded Google from competition. The memo cites the following as a barrier to entry:

A search engine requires algorithmic technology that enables it to search the Internet, retrieve and organize information, index billions of regularly changing web pages, and return relevant results instantaneously that satisfy the consumer’s inquiry. Developing such algorithms requires highly specialized personnel with high levels of training and knowledge in engineering, economics, mathematics, sciences, and statistical analysis.

If there are barriers to entry in the search-engine industry, algorithms do not seem to be the source. While their market shares may be smaller than Google’s, rival search engines like DuckDuckGo and Bing have been able to enter and gain traction; it is difficult to say that algorithmic technology has proven a barrier to entry. It may be hard to do well, but it certainly has not proved an impediment to new firms entering and developing workable and successful products. Indeed, some extremely successful companies have entered into similar advertising markets on the backs of complex algorithms, notably Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. All of these compete with Google for advertising dollars.

The FTC’s legal staff also failed to see that Google would face serious competition in the rapidly growing voice assistant market. In other words, even its search-engine “moat” is far less impregnable than it might at first appear.

Moreover, as Ben Thompson argues in his Stratechery newsletter: 

The Staff memo is completely wrong too, at least in terms of the potential for their proposed remedies to lead to any real change in today’s market. This gets back to why the fundamental premise of the Politico article, along with much of the antitrust chatter in Washington, misses the point: Google is dominant because consumers like it.

This difficulty was deftly highlighted by Heyer’s memo:

If the perceived problems here can be solved only through a draconian remedy of this sort, or perhaps through a remedy that eliminates Google’s legitimately obtained market power (and thus its ability to “do evil”), I believe the remedy would be disproportionate to the violation and that its costs would likely exceed its benefits. Conversely, if a remedy well short of this seems likely to prove ineffective, a remedy would be undesirable for that reason. In brief, I do not see a feasible remedy for the vertical conduct that would be both appropriate and effective, and which would not also be very costly to implement and to police. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

Of course, we now know that this turned out to be a huge issue with the EU’s competition cases against Google. The remedies in both the EU’s Google Shopping and Android decisions were severely criticized by rival firms and consumer-defense organizations (here and here), but were ultimately upheld, in part because even the European Commission likely saw more forceful alternatives as disproportionate.

And in the few places where the legal staff concluded that Google’s conduct may have caused harm, there is good reason to think that their analysis was flawed.

Google’s ‘revenue-sharing’ agreements

It should be noted that neither the lawyers nor the economists at the FTC were particularly bullish on bringing suit against Google. In most areas of the investigation, neither recommended that the commission pursue a case. But one of the most interesting revelations from the recent leaks is that FTC lawyers did advise the commission’s leadership to sue Google over revenue-sharing agreements that called for it to pay Apple and other carriers and manufacturers to pre-install its search bar on mobile devices:

FTC staff urged the agency’s five commissioners to sue Google for signing exclusive contracts with Apple and the major wireless carriers that made sure the company’s search engine came pre-installed on smartphones.

The lawyers’ stance is surprising, and, despite actions subsequently brought by the EU and DOJ on similar claims, a difficult one to countenance. 

To a first approximation, this behavior is precisely what antitrust law seeks to promote: we want companies to compete aggressively to attract consumers. This conclusion is in no way altered when competition is “for the market” (in this case, firms bidding for exclusive placement of their search engines) rather than “in the market” (i.e., equally placed search engines competing for eyeballs).

Competition for exclusive placement has several important benefits. For a start, revenue-sharing agreements effectively subsidize consumers’ mobile device purchases. As Brian Albrecht aptly puts it:

This payment from Google means that Apple can lower its price to better compete for consumers. This is standard; some of the payment from Google to Apple will be passed through to consumers in the form of lower prices.

This finding is not new. For instance, Ronald Coase famously argued that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was wrong to ban the broadcasting industry’s equivalent of revenue-sharing agreements, so-called payola:

[I]f the playing of a record by a radio station increases the sales of that record, it is both natural and desirable that there should be a charge for this. If this is not done by the station and payola is not allowed, it is inevitable that more resources will be employed in the production and distribution of records, without any gain to consumers, with the result that the real income of the community will tend to decline. In addition, the prohibition of payola may result in worse record programs, will tend to lessen competition, and will involve additional expenditures for regulation. The gain which the ban is thought to bring is to make the purchasing decisions of record buyers more efficient by eliminating “deception.” It seems improbable to me that this problematical gain will offset the undoubted losses which flow from the ban on Payola.

Applying this logic to Google Search, it is clear that a ban on revenue-sharing agreements would merely lead both Google and its competitors to attract consumers via alternative means. For Google, this might involve “complete” vertical integration into the mobile phone market, rather than the open-licensing model that underpins the Android ecosystem. Valuable specialization may be lost in the process.

Moreover, from Apple’s standpoint, Google’s revenue-sharing agreements are profitable only to the extent that consumers actually like Google’s products. If it turns out they don’t, Google’s payments to Apple may be outweighed by lower iPhone sales. It is thus unlikely that these agreements significantly undermined users’ experience. To the contrary, Apple’s testimony before the European Commission suggests that “exclusive” placement of Google’s search engine was mostly driven by consumer preferences (as the FTC economists’ memo points out):

Apple would not offer simultaneous installation of competing search or mapping applications. Apple’s focus is offering its customers the best products out of the box while allowing them to make choices after purchase. In many countries, Google offers the best product or service … Apple believes that offering additional search boxes on its web browsing software would confuse users and detract from Safari’s aesthetic. Too many choices lead to consumer confusion and greatly affect the ‘out of the box’ experience of Apple products.

Similarly, Kevin Murphy and Benjamin Klein have shown that exclusive contracts intensify competition for distribution. In other words, absent theories of platform envelopment that are arguably inapplicable here, competition for exclusive placement would lead competing search engines to up their bids, ultimately lowering the price of mobile devices for consumers.

Indeed, this revenue-sharing model was likely essential to spur the development of Android in the first place. Without this prominent placement of Google Search on Android devices (notably thanks to revenue-sharing agreements with original equipment manufacturers), Google would likely have been unable to monetize the investment it made in the open source—and thus freely distributed—Android operating system. 

In short, Politico and the FTC legal staff do little to show that Google’s revenue-sharing payments excluded rivals that were, in fact, as efficient. In other words, Bing and Yahoo’s failure to gain traction may simply be the result of inferior products and cost structures. Critics thus fail to show that Google’s behavior harmed consumers, which is the touchstone of antitrust enforcement.

Self-preferencing

Another finding critics claim as important is that FTC leadership declined to bring suit against Google for preferencing its own vertical search services (this information had already been partially leaked by the Wall Street Journal in 2015). Politico’s framing implies this was a mistake:

When Google adopted one algorithm change in 2011, rival sites saw significant drops in traffic. Amazon told the FTC that it saw a 35 percent drop in traffic from the comparison-shopping sites that used to send it customers

The focus on this claim is somewhat surprising. Even the leaked FTC legal staff memo found this theory of harm had little chance of standing up in court:

Staff has investigated whether Google has unlawfully preferenced its own content over that of rivals, while simultaneously demoting rival websites…. 

…Although it is a close call, we do not recommend that the Commission proceed on this cause of action because the case law is not favorable to our theory, which is premised on anticompetitive product design, and in any event, Google’s efficiency justifications are strong. Most importantly, Google can legitimately claim that at least part of the conduct at issue improves its product and benefits users. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

More importantly, as one of us has argued elsewhere, the underlying problem lies not with Google, but with a standard asset-specificity trap:

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

…It was entirely predictable, and should have been expected, that Google’s algorithm would evolve. It was also entirely predictable that it would evolve in ways that could diminish or even tank Foundem’s traffic. As one online marketing/SEO expert puts it: On average, Google makes about 500 algorithm changes per year. 500!….

…In the absence of an explicit agreement, should Google be required to make decisions that protect a dependent company’s “asset-specific” investments, thus encouraging others to take the same, excessive risk? 

Even if consumers happily visited rival websites when they were higher-ranked and traffic subsequently plummeted when Google updated its algorithm, that drop in traffic does not amount to evidence of misconduct. To hold otherwise would be to grant these rivals a virtual entitlement to the state of affairs that exists at any given point in time. 

Indeed, there is good reason to believe Google’s decision to favor its own content over that of other sites is procompetitive. Beyond determining and ensuring relevance, Google surely has the prerogative to compete vigorously and decide how to design its products to keep up with a changing market. In this case, that means designing, developing, and offering its own content in ways that partially displace the original “ten blue links” design of its search results page and instead offer its own answers to users’ queries.

Competitor Harm Is Not an Indicator of the Need for Intervention

Some of the other information revealed by the leak is even more tangential, such as that the FTC ignored complaints from Google’s rivals:

Amazon and Facebook privately complained to the FTC about Google’s conduct, saying their business suffered because of the company’s search bias, scraping of content from rival sites and restrictions on advertisers’ use of competing search engines. 

Amazon said it was so concerned about the prospect of Google monopolizing the search advertising business that it willingly sacrificed revenue by making ad deals aimed at keeping Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo’s search engine afloat.

But complaints from rivals are at least as likely to stem from vigorous competition as from anticompetitive exclusion. This goes to a core principle of antitrust enforcement: antitrust law seeks to protect competition and consumer welfare, not rivals. Competition will always lead to winners and losers. Antitrust law protects this process and (at least theoretically) ensures that rivals cannot manipulate enforcers to safeguard their economic rents. 

This explains why Frank Easterbrook—in his seminal work on “The Limits of Antitrust”—argued that enforcers should be highly suspicious of complaints lodged by rivals:

Antitrust litigation is attractive as a method of raising rivals’ costs because of the asymmetrical structure of incentives…. 

…One line worth drawing is between suits by rivals and suits by consumers. Business rivals have an interest in higher prices, while consumers seek lower prices. Business rivals seek to raise the costs of production, while consumers have the opposite interest…. 

…They [antitrust enforcers] therefore should treat suits by horizontal competitors with the utmost suspicion. They should dismiss outright some categories of litigation between rivals and subject all such suits to additional scrutiny.

Google’s competitors spent millions pressuring the FTC to bring a case against the company. But why should it be a failing for the FTC to resist such pressure? Indeed, as then-commissioner Tom Rosch admonished in an interview following the closing of the case:

They [Google’s competitors] can darn well bring [a case] as a private antitrust action if they think their ox is being gored instead of free-riding on the government to achieve the same result.

Not that they would likely win such a case. Google’s introduction of specialized shopping results (via the Google Shopping box) likely enabled several retailers to bypass the Amazon platform, thus increasing competition in the retail industry. Although this may have temporarily reduced Amazon’s traffic and revenue (Amazon’s sales have grown dramatically since then), it is exactly the outcome that antitrust laws are designed to protect.

Conclusion

When all is said and done, Politico’s revelations provide a rarely glimpsed look into the complex dynamics within the FTC, which many wrongly imagine to be a monolithic agency. Put simply, the FTC’s commissioners, lawyers, and economists often disagree vehemently about the appropriate course of conduct. This is a good thing. As in many other walks of life, having a market for ideas is a sure way to foster sound decision making.

But in the final analysis, what the revelations do not show is that the FTC’s market for ideas failed consumers a decade ago when it declined to bring an antitrust suit against Google. They thus do little to cement the case for antitrust intervention—whether a decade ago, or today.

In what has become regularly scheduled programming on Capitol Hill, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai will be subject to yet another round of congressional grilling—this time, about the platforms’ content-moderation policies—during a March 25 joint hearing of two subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The stated purpose of this latest bit of political theatre is to explore, as made explicit in the hearing’s title, “social media’s role in promoting extremism and misinformation.” Specific topics are expected to include proposed changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, heightened scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission, and misinformation about COVID-19—the subject of new legislation introduced by Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

But while many in the Democratic majority argue that social media companies have not done enough to moderate misinformation or hate speech, it is a problem with no realistic legal fix. Any attempt to mandate removal of speech on grounds that it is misinformation or hate speech, either directly or indirectly, would run afoul of the First Amendment.

Much of the recent focus has been on misinformation spread on social media about the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic. The memorandum for the March 25 hearing sums it up:

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have long come under fire for their role in the dissemination and amplification of misinformation and extremist content. For instance, since the beginning of the coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, all three platforms have spread substantial amounts of misinformation about COVID-19. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation regarding the severity of the virus and the effectiveness of alleged cures for COVID-19 was widespread. More recently, COVID-19 disinformation has misrepresented the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have also been distributors for years of election disinformation that appeared to be intended either to improperly influence or undermine the outcomes of free and fair elections. During the November 2016 election, social media platforms were used by foreign governments to disseminate information to manipulate public opinion. This trend continued during and after the November 2020 election, often fomented by domestic actors, with rampant disinformation about voter fraud, defective voting machines, and premature declarations of victory.

It is true that, despite social media companies’ efforts to label and remove false content and bar some of the biggest purveyors, there remains a considerable volume of false information on social media. But U.S. Supreme Court precedent consistently has limited government regulation of false speech to distinct categories like defamation, perjury, and fraud.

The Case of Stolen Valor

The court’s 2011 decision in United States v. Alvarez struck down as unconstitutional the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which made it a federal crime to falsely claim to have earned a military medal. A four-justice plurality opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, along with a two-justice concurrence, both agreed that a statement being false did not, by itself, exclude it from First Amendment protection. 

Kennedy’s opinion noted that while the government may impose penalties for false speech connected with the legal process (perjury or impersonating a government official); with receiving a benefit (fraud); or with harming someone’s reputation (defamation); the First Amendment does not sanction penalties for false speech, in and of itself. The plurality exhibited particular skepticism toward the notion that government actors could be entrusted as a “Ministry of Truth,” empowered to determine what categories of false speech should be made illegal:

Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable. That governmental power has no clear limiting principle. Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth… Were this law to be sustained, there could be an endless list of subjects the National Government or the States could single out… Were the Court to hold that the interest in truthful discourse alone is sufficient to sustain a ban on speech, absent any evidence that the speech was used to gain a material advantage, it would give government a broad censorial power unprecedented in this Court’s cases or in our constitutional tradition. The mere potential for the exercise of that power casts a chill, a chill the First Amendment cannot permit if free speech, thought, and discourse are to remain a foundation of our freedom. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

As noted in the opinion, declaring false speech illegal constitutes a content-based restriction subject to “exacting scrutiny.” Applying that standard, the court found “the link between the Government’s interest in protecting the integrity of the military honors system and the Act’s restriction on the false claims of liars like respondent has not been shown.” 

While finding that the government “has not shown, and cannot show, why counterspeech would not suffice to achieve its interest,” the plurality suggested a more narrowly tailored solution could be simply to publish Medal of Honor recipients in an online database. In other words, the government could overcome the problem of false speech by promoting true speech. 

In 2012, President Barack Obama signed an updated version of the Stolen Valor Act that limited its penalties to situations where a misrepresentation is shown to result in receipt of some kind of benefit. That places the false speech in the category of fraud, consistent with the Alvarez opinion.

A Social Media Ministry of Truth

Applying the Alvarez standard to social media, the government could (and already does) promote its interest in public health or election integrity by publishing true speech through official channels. But there is little reason to believe the government at any level could regulate access to misinformation. Anything approaching an outright ban on accessing speech deemed false by the government not only would not be the most narrowly tailored way to deal with such speech, but it is bound to have chilling effects even on true speech.

The analysis doesn’t change if the government instead places Big Tech itself in the position of Ministry of Truth. Some propose making changes to Section 230, which currently immunizes social media companies from liability for user speech (with limited exceptions), regardless what moderation policies the platform adopts. A hypothetical change might condition Section 230’s liability shield on platforms agreeing to moderate certain categories of misinformation. But that would still place the government in the position of coercing platforms to take down speech. 

Even the “fix” of making social media companies liable for user speech they amplify through promotions on the platform, as proposed by Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-Va.) SAFE TECH Act, runs into First Amendment concerns. The aim of the bill is to regard sponsored content as constituting speech made by the platform, thus opening the platform to liability for the underlying misinformation. But any such liability also would be limited to categories of speech that fall outside First Amendment protection, like fraud or defamation. This would not appear to include most of the types of misinformation on COVID-19 or election security that animate the current legislative push.

There is no way for the government to regulate misinformation, in and of itself, consistent with the First Amendment. Big Tech companies are free to develop their own policies against misinformation, but the government may not force them to do so. 

Extremely Limited Room to Regulate Extremism

The Big Tech CEOs are also almost certain to be grilled about the use of social media to spread “hate speech” or “extremist content.” The memorandum for the March 25 hearing sums it up like this:

Facebook executives were repeatedly warned that extremist content was thriving on their platform, and that Facebook’s own algorithms and recommendation tools were responsible for the appeal of extremist groups and divisive content. Similarly, since 2015, videos from extremists have proliferated on YouTube; and YouTube’s algorithm often guides users from more innocuous or alternative content to more fringe channels and videos. Twitter has been criticized for being slow to stop white nationalists from organizing, fundraising, recruiting and spreading propaganda on Twitter.

Social media has often played host to racist, sexist, and other types of vile speech. While social media companies have community standards and other policies that restrict “hate speech” in some circumstances, there is demand from some public officials that they do more. But under a First Amendment analysis, regulating hate speech on social media would fare no better than the regulation of misinformation.

The First Amendment doesn’t allow for the regulation of “hate speech” as its own distinct category. Hate speech is, in fact, as protected as any other type of speech. There are some limited exceptions, as the First Amendment does not protect incitement, true threats of violence, or “fighting words.” Some of these flatly do not apply in the online context. “Fighting words,” for instance, applies only in face-to-face situations to “those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction.”

One relevant precedent is the court’s 1992 decision in R.A.V. v. St. Paul, which considered a local ordinance in St. Paul, Minnesota, prohibiting public expressions that served to cause “outrage, alarm, or anger with respect to racial, gender or religious intolerance.” A juvenile was charged with violating the ordinance when he created a makeshift cross and lit it on fire in front of a black family’s home. The court unanimously struck down the ordinance as a violation of the First Amendment, finding it an impermissible content-based restraint that was not limited to incitement or true threats.

By contrast, in 2003’s Virginia v. Black, the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia law outlawing cross burnings done with the intent to intimidate. The court’s opinion distinguished R.A.V. on grounds that the Virginia statute didn’t single out speech regarding disfavored topics. Instead, it was aimed at speech that had the intent to intimidate regardless of the victim’s race, gender, religion, or other characteristic. But the court was careful to limit government regulation of hate speech to instances that involve true threats or incitement.

When it comes to incitement, the legal standard was set by the court’s landmark Brandenberg v. Ohio decision in 1969, which laid out that:

the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

In other words, while “hate speech” is protected by the First Amendment, specific types of speech that convey true threats or fit under the related doctrine of incitement are not. The government may regulate those types of speech. And they do. In fact, social media users can be, and often are, charged with crimes for threats made online. But the government can’t issue a per se ban on hate speech or “extremist content.”

Just as with misinformation, the government also can’t condition Section 230 immunity on platforms removing hate speech. Insofar as speech is protected under the First Amendment, the government can’t specifically condition a government benefit on its removal. Even the SAFE TECH Act’s model for holding platforms accountable for amplifying hate speech or extremist content would have to be limited to speech that amounts to true threats or incitement. This is a far narrower category of hateful speech than the examples that concern legislators. 

Social media companies do remain free under the law to moderate hateful content as they see fit under their terms of service. Section 230 immunity is not dependent on whether companies do or don’t moderate such content, or on how they define hate speech. But government efforts to step in and define hate speech would likely run into First Amendment problems unless they stay focused on unprotected threats and incitement.

What Can the Government Do?

One may fairly ask what it is that governments can do to combat misinformation and hate speech online. The answer may be a law that requires takedowns by court order of speech after it is declared illegal, as proposed by the PACT Act, sponsored in the last session by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and John Thune (R-S.D.). Such speech may, in some circumstances, include misinformation or hate speech.

But as outlined above, the misinformation that the government can regulate is limited to situations like fraud or defamation, while the hate speech it can regulate is limited to true threats and incitement. A narrowly tailored law that looked to address those specific categories may or may not be a good idea, but it would likely survive First Amendment scrutiny, and may even prove a productive line of discussion with the tech CEOs.

Amazingly enough, at a time when legislative proposals for new antitrust restrictions are rapidly multiplying—see the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act (CALERA), for example—Congress simultaneously is seriously considering granting antitrust immunity to a price-fixing cartel among members of the newsmedia. This would thereby authorize what the late Justice Antonin Scalia termed “the supreme evil of antitrust: collusion.” What accounts for this bizarre development?

Discussion

The antitrust exemption in question, embodied in the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2021, was introduced March 10 simultaneously in the U.S. House and Senate. The press release announcing the bill’s introduction portrayed it as a “good government” effort to help struggling newspapers in their negotiations with large digital platforms, and thereby strengthen American democracy:

We must enable news organizations to negotiate on a level playing field with the big tech companies if we want to preserve a strong and independent press[.] …

A strong, diverse, free press is critical for any successful democracy. …

Nearly 90 percent of Americans now get news while on a smartphone, computer, or tablet, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last year, dwarfing the number of Americans who get news via television, radio, or print media. Facebook and Google now account for the vast majority of online referrals to news sources, with the two companies also enjoying control of a majority of the online advertising market. This digital ad duopoly has directly contributed to layoffs and consolidation in the news industry, particularly for local news.

This legislation would address this imbalance by providing a safe harbor from antitrust laws so publishers can band together to negotiate with large platforms. It provides a 48-month window for companies to negotiate fair terms that would flow subscription and advertising dollars back to publishers, while protecting and preserving Americans’ right to access quality news. These negotiations would strictly benefit Americans and news publishers at-large; not just one or a few publishers.

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act only allows coordination by news publishers if it (1) directly relates to the quality, accuracy, attribution or branding, and interoperability of news; (2) benefits the entire industry, rather than just a few publishers, and are non-discriminatory to other news publishers; and (3) is directly related to and reasonably necessary for these negotiations.

Lurking behind this public-spirited rhetoric, however, is the specter of special interest rent seeking by powerful media groups, as discussed in an insightful article by Thom Lambert. The newspaper industry is indeed struggling, but that is true overseas as well as in the United States. Competition from internet websites has greatly reduced revenues from classified and non-classified advertising. As Lambert notes, in “light of the challenges the internet has created for their advertising-focused funding model, newspapers have sought to employ the government’s coercive power to increase their revenues.”

In particular, media groups have successfully lobbied various foreign governments to impose rules requiring that Google and Facebook pay newspapers licensing fees to display content. The Australian government went even further by mandating that digital platforms share their advertising revenue with news publishers and give the publishers advance notice of any algorithm changes that could affect page rankings and displays. Media rent-seeking efforts took a different form in the United States, as Lambert explains (citations omitted):

In the United States, news publishers have sought to extract rents from digital platforms by lobbying for an exemption from the antitrust laws. Their efforts culminated in the introduction of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2018. According to a press release announcing the bill, it would allow “small publishers to band together to negotiate with dominant online platforms to improve the access to and the quality of news online.” In reality, the bill would create a four-year safe harbor for “any print or digital news organization” to jointly negotiate terms of trade with Google and Facebook. It would not apply merely to “small publishers” but would instead immunize collusive conduct by such major conglomerates as Murdoch’s News Corporation, the Walt Disney Corporation, the New York Times, Gannet Company, Bloomberg, Viacom, AT&T, and the Fox Corporation. The bill would permit news organizations to fix prices charged to digital platforms as long as negotiations with the platforms were not limited to price, were not discriminatory toward similarly situated news organizations, and somehow related to “the quality, accuracy, attribution or branding, and interoperability of news.” Given the ease of meeting that test—since news organizations could always claim that higher payments were necessary to ensure journalistic quality—the bill would enable news publishers in the United States to extract rents via collusion rather than via direct government coercion, as in Australia.

The 2021 version of the JCPA is nearly identical to the 2018 version discussed by Thom. The only substantive change is that the 2021 version strengthens the pro-cartel coalition by adding broadcasters (it applies to “any print, broadcast, or news organization”). While the JCPA plainly targets Facebook and Google (“online content distributors” with “not fewer than 1,000,000,000 monthly active users, in the aggregate, on its website”), Microsoft President Brad Smith noted in a March 12 House Antitrust Subcommittee Hearing on the bill that his company would also come under its collective-bargaining terms. Other online distributors could eventually become subject to the proposed law as well.

Purported justifications for the proposal were skillfully skewered by John Yun in a 2019 article on the substantively identical 2018 JCPA. Yun makes several salient points. First, the bill clearly shields price fixing. Second, the claim that all news organizations (in particular, small newspapers) would receive the same benefit from the bill rings hollow. The bill’s requirement that negotiations be “nondiscriminatory as to similarly situated news content creators” (emphasis added) would allow the cartel to negotiate different terms of trade for different “tiers” of organizations. Thus The New York Times and The Washington Post, say, might be part of a top tier getting the most favorable terms of trade. Third, the evidence does not support the assertion that Facebook and Google are monopolistic gateways for news outlets.

Yun concludes by summarizing the case against this legislation (citations omitted):

Put simply, the impact of the bill is to legalize a media cartel. The bill expressly allows the cartel to fix the price and set the terms of trade for all market participants. The clear goal is to transfer surplus from online platforms to news organizations, which will likely result in higher content costs for these platforms, as well as provisions that will stifle the ability to innovate. In turn, this could negatively impact quality for the users of these platforms.

Furthermore, a stated goal of the bill is to promote “quality” news and to “highlight trusted brands.” These are usually antitrust code words for favoring one group, e.g., those that are part of the News Media Alliance, while foreclosing others who are not “similarly situated.” What about the non-discrimination clause? Will it protect non-members from foreclosure? Again, a careful reading of the bill raises serious questions as to whether it will actually offer protection. The bill only ensures that the terms of the negotiations are available to all “similarly situated” news organizations. It is very easy to carve out provisions that would favor top tier members of the media cartel.

Additionally, an unintended consequence of antitrust exemptions can be that it makes the beneficiaries lax by insulating them from market competition and, ultimately, can harm the industry by delaying inevitable and difficult, but necessary, choices. There is evidence that this is what occurred with the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, which provided antitrust exemption to geographically proximate newspapers for joint operations.

There are very good reasons why antitrust jurisprudence reserves per se condemnation to the most egregious anticompetitive acts including the formation of cartels. Legislative attempts to circumvent the federal antitrust laws should be reserved solely for the most compelling justifications. There is little evidence that this level of justification has been met in this present circumstance.

Conclusion

Statutory exemptions to the antitrust laws have long been disfavored, and with good reason. As I explained in my 2005 testimony before the Antitrust Modernization Commission, such exemptions tend to foster welfare-reducing output restrictions. Also, empirical research suggests that industries sheltered from competition perform less well than those subject to competitive forces. In short, both economic theory and real-world data support a standard that requires proponents of an exemption to bear the burden of demonstrating that the exemption will benefit consumers.

This conclusion applies most strongly when an exemption would specifically authorize hard-core price fixing, as in the case with the JCPA. What’s more, the bill’s proponents have not borne the burden of justifying their pro-cartel proposal in economic welfare terms—quite the opposite. Lambert’s analysis exposes this legislation as the product of special interest rent seeking that has nothing to do with consumer welfare. And Yun’s evaluation of the bill clarifies that, not only would the JCPA foster harmful collusive pricing, but it would also harm its beneficiaries by allowing them to avoid taking steps to modernize and render themselves more efficient competitors.

In sum, though the JCPA claims to fly a “public interest” flag, it is just another private interest bill promoted by well-organized rent seekers would harm consumer welfare and undermine innovation.

Critics of big tech companies like Google and Amazon are increasingly focused on the supposed evils of “self-preferencing.” This refers to when digital platforms like Amazon Marketplace or Google Search, which connect competing services with potential customers or users, also offer (and sometimes prioritize) their own in-house products and services. 

The objection, raised by several members and witnesses during a Feb. 25 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, is that it is unfair to third parties that use those sites to allow the site’s owner special competitive advantages. Is it fair, for example, for Amazon to use the data it gathers from its service to design new products if third-party merchants can’t access the same data? This seemingly intuitive complaint was the basis for the European Commission’s landmark case against Google

But we cannot assume that something is bad for competition just because it is bad for certain competitors. A lot of unambiguously procompetitive behavior, like cutting prices, also tends to make life difficult for competitors. The same is true when a digital platform provides a service that is better than alternatives provided by the site’s third-party sellers. 

It’s probably true that Amazon’s access to customer search and purchase data can help it spot products it can undercut with its own versions, driving down prices. But that’s not unusual; most retailers do this, many to a much greater extent than Amazon. For example, you can buy AmazonBasics batteries for less than half the price of branded alternatives, and they’re pretty good.

There’s no doubt this is unpleasant for merchants that have to compete with these offerings. But it is also no different from having to compete with more efficient rivals who have lower costs or better insight into consumer demand. Copying products and seeking ways to offer them with better features or at a lower price, which critics of self-preferencing highlight as a particular concern, has always been a fundamental part of market competition—indeed, it is the primary way competition occurs in most markets. 

Store-branded versions of iPhone cables and Nespresso pods are certainly inconvenient for those companies, but they offer consumers cheaper alternatives. Where such copying may be problematic (say, by deterring investments in product innovations), the law awards and enforces patents and copyrights to reward novel discoveries and creative works, and trademarks to protect brand identity. But in the absence of those cases where a company has intellectual property, this is simply how competition works. 

The fundamental question is “what benefits consumers?” Services like Yelp object that they cannot compete with Google when Google embeds its Google Maps box in Google Search results, while Yelp cannot do the same. But for users, the Maps box adds valuable information to the results page, making it easier to get what they want. Google is not making Yelp worse by making its own product better. Should it have to refrain from offering services that benefit its users because doing so might make competing products comparatively less attractive?

Self-preferencing also enables platforms to promote their offerings in other markets, which is often how large tech companies compete with each other. Amazon has a photo-hosting app that competes with Google Photos and Apple’s iCloud. It recently emailed its customers to promote it. That is undoubtedly self-preferencing, since other services cannot market themselves to Amazon’s customers like this, but if it makes customers aware of an alternative they might not have otherwise considered, that is good for competition. 

This kind of behavior also allows companies to invest in offering services inexpensively, or for free, that they intend to monetize by preferencing their other, more profitable products. For example, Google invests in Android’s operating system and gives much of it away for free precisely because it can encourage Android customers to use the profitable Google Search service. Despite claims to the contrary, it is difficult to see this sort of cross-subsidy as harmful to consumers.

Self-preferencing can even be good for competing services, including third-party merchants. In many cases, it expands the size of their potential customer base. For example, blockbuster video games released by Sony and Microsoft increase demand for games by other publishers because they increase the total number of people who buy Playstations and Xboxes. This effect is clear on Amazon’s Marketplace, which has grown enormously for third-party merchants even as Amazon has increased the number of its own store-brand products on the site. By making the Amazon Marketplace more attractive, third-party sellers also benefit.

All platforms are open or closed to varying degrees. Retail “platforms,” for example, exist on a spectrum on which Craigslist is more open and neutral than eBay, which is more so than Amazon, which is itself relatively more so than, say, Walmart.com. Each position on this spectrum offers its own benefits and trade-offs for consumers. Indeed, some customers’ biggest complaint against Amazon is that it is too open, filled with third parties who leave fake reviews, offer counterfeit products, or have shoddy returns policies. Part of the role of the site is to try to correct those problems by making better rules, excluding certain sellers, or just by offering similar options directly. 

Regulators and legislators often act as if the more open and neutral, the better, but customers have repeatedly shown that they often prefer less open, less neutral options. And critics of self-preferencing frequently find themselves arguing against behavior that improves consumer outcomes, because it hurts competitors. But that is the nature of competition: what’s good for consumers is frequently bad for competitors. If we have to choose, it’s consumers who should always come first.

In current discussions of technology markets, few words are heard more often than “platform.” Initial public offering (IPO) prospectuses use “platform” to describe a service that is bound to dominate a digital market. Antitrust regulators use “platform” to describe a service that dominates a digital market or threatens to do so. In either case, “platform” denotes power over price. For investors, that implies exceptional profits; for regulators, that implies competitive harm.

Conventional wisdom holds that platforms enjoy high market shares, protected by high barriers to entry, which yield high returns. This simple logic drives the market’s attribution of dramatically high valuations to dramatically unprofitable businesses and regulators’ eagerness to intervene in digital platform markets characterized by declining prices, increased convenience, and expanded variety, often at zero out-of-pocket cost. In both cases, “burning cash” today is understood as the path to market dominance and the ability to extract a premium from consumers in the future.

This logic is usually wrong. 

The Overlooked Basics of Platform Economics

To appreciate this perhaps surprising point, it is necessary to go back to the increasingly overlooked basics of platform economics. A platform can refer to any service that matches two complementary populations. A search engine matches advertisers with consumers, an online music service matches performers and labels with listeners, and a food-delivery service matches restaurants with home diners. A platform benefits everyone by facilitating transactions that otherwise might never have occurred.

A platform’s economic value derives from its ability to lower transaction costs by funneling a multitude of individual transactions into a single convenient hub.  In pursuit of minimum costs and maximum gains, users on one side of the platform will tend to favor the most popular platforms that offer the largest number of users on the other side of the platform. (There are partial exceptions to this rule when users value being matched with certain typesof other users, rather than just with more users.) These “network effects” mean that any successful platform market will always converge toward a handful of winners. This positive feedback effect drives investors’ exuberance and regulators’ concerns.

There is a critical point, however, that often seems to be overlooked.

Market share only translates into market power to the extent the incumbent is protected against entry within some reasonable time horizon.  If Warren Buffett’s moat requirement is not met, market share is immaterial. If XYZ.com owns 100% of the online pet food delivery market but entry costs are asymptotic, then market power is negligible. There is another important limiting principle. In platform markets, the depth of the moat depends not only on competitors’ costs to enter the market, but users’ costs in switching from one platform to another or alternating between multiple platforms. If users can easily hop across platforms, then market share cannot confer market power given the continuous threat of user defection. Put differently: churn limits power over price.

Contrary to natural intuitions, this is why a platform market consisting of only a few leaders can still be intensely competitive, keeping prices low (down to and including $0) even if the number of competitors is low. It is often asserted, however, that users are typically locked into the dominant platform and therefore face high switching costs, which therefore implicitly satisfies the moat requirement. If that is true, then the “high churn” scenario is a theoretical curiosity and a leading platform’s high market share would be a reliable signal of market power. In fact, this common assumption likely describes the atypical case. 

AWS and the Cloud Data-Storage Market

This point can be illustrated by considering the cloud data-storage market. This would appear to be an easy case where high switching costs (due to the difficulty in shifting data among storage providers) insulate the market leader against entry threats. Yet the real world does not conform to these expectations. 

While Amazon Web Services pioneered the $100 billion-plus market and is still the clear market leader, it now faces vigorous competition from Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and other data-storage or other cloud-related services. This may reflect the fact that the data storage market is far from saturated, so new users are up for grabs and existing customers can mitigate lock-in by diversifying across multiple storage providers. Or it may reflect the fact that the market’s structure is fluid as a function of technological changes, enabling entry at formerly bundled portions of the cloud data-services package. While it is not always technologically feasible, the cloud storage market suggests that users’ resistance to platform capture can represent a competitive opportunity for entrants to challenge dominant vendors on price, quality, and innovation parameters.

The Surprising Instability of Platform Dominance

The instability of leadership positions in the cloud storage market is not exceptional. 

Consider a handful of once-powerful platforms that were rapidly dethroned once challenged by a more efficient or innovative rival: Yahoo and Alta Vista in the search-engine market (displaced by Google); Netscape in the browser market (displaced by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, then displaced by Google Chrome); Nokia and then BlackBerry in the mobile wireless-device market (displaced by Apple and Samsung); and Friendster in the social-networking market (displaced by Myspace, then displaced by Facebook). AOL was once thought to be indomitable; now it is mostly referenced as a vintage email address. The list could go on.

Overestimating platform dominance—or more precisely, assuming platform dominance without close factual inquiry—matters because it promotes overestimates of market power. That, in turn, cultivates both market and regulatory bubbles: investors inflate stock valuations while regulators inflate the risk of competitive harm. 

DoorDash and the Food-Delivery Services Market

Consider the DoorDash IPO that launched in early December 2020. The market’s current approximately $50 billion valuation of a business that has been almost consistently unprofitable implicitly assumes that DoorDash will maintain and expand its position as the largest U.S. food-delivery platform, which will then yield power over price and exceptional returns for investors. 

There are reasons to be skeptical. Even where DoorDash captures and holds a dominant market share in certain metropolitan areas, it still faces actual and potential competition from other food-delivery services, in-house delivery services (especially by well-resourced national chains), and grocery and other delivery services already offered by regional and national providers. There is already evidence of these expected responses to DoorDash’s perceived high delivery fees, a classic illustration of the disciplinary effect of competitive forces on the pricing choices of an apparently dominant market leader. These “supply-side” constraints imposed by competitors are compounded by “demand-side” constraints imposed by customers. Home diners incur no more than minimal costs when swiping across food-delivery icons on a smartphone interface, casting doubt that high market share is likely to translate in this context into market power.

Deliveroo and the Costs of Regulatory Autopilot

Just as the stock market can suffer from delusions of platform grandeur, so too some competition regulators appear to have fallen prey to the same malady. 

A vivid illustration is provided by the 2019 decision by the Competition Markets Authority (CMA), the British competition regulator, to challenge Amazon’s purchase of a 16% stake in Deliveroo, one of three major competitors in the British food-delivery services market. This intervention provides perhaps the clearest illustration of policy action based on a reflexive assumption of market power, even in the face of little to no indication that the predicate conditions for that assumption could plausibly be satisfied.

Far from being a dominant platform, Deliveroo was (and is) a money-losing venture lagging behind money-losing Just Eat (now Just Eat Takeaway) and Uber Eats in the U.K. food-delivery services market. Even Amazon had previously closed its own food-delivery service in the U.K. due to lack of profitability. Despite Deliveroo’s distressed economic circumstances and the implausibility of any market power arising from Amazon’s investment, the CMA nonetheless elected to pursue the fullest level of investigation. While the transaction was ultimately approved in August 2020, this intervention imposed a 15-month delay and associated costs in connection with an investment that almost certainly bolstered competition in a concentrated market by funding a firm reportedly at risk of insolvency.  This is the equivalent of a competition regulator driving in reverse.

Concluding Thoughts

There seems to be an increasingly common assumption in commentary by the press, policymakers, and even some scholars that apparently dominant platforms usually face little competition and can set, at will, the terms of exchange. For investors, this is a reason to buy; for regulators, this is a reason to intervene. This assumption is sometimes realized, and, in that case, antitrust intervention is appropriate whenever there is reasonable evidence that market power is being secured through something other than “competition on the merits.” However, several conditions must be met to support the market power assumption without which any such inquiry would be imprudent. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the economics and history of platform markets suggest that those conditions are infrequently satisfied.

Without closer scrutiny, reflexively equating market share with market power is prone to lead both investors and regulators astray.  

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.

Kristian Stout is director of innovation policy for the International Center for Law & Economics.]

One of the themes that has run throughout this symposium has been that, throughout his tenure as both a commissioner and as chairman, Ajit Pai has brought consistency and careful analysis to the Federal Communications Commission (McDowell, Wright). The reflections offered by the various authors in this symposium make one thing clear: the next administration would do well to learn from the considered, bipartisan, and transparent approach to policy that characterized Chairman Pai’s tenure at the FCC.

The following are some of the more specific lessons that can be learned from Chairman Pai. In an important sense, he laid the groundwork for his successful chairmanship when he was still a minority commissioner. His thoughtful dissents were rooted in consistent, clear policy arguments—a practice that both charted how he would look at future issues as chairman and would help the public to understand exactly how he would approach new challenges before the FCC (McDowell, Wright).

One of the most public instances of Chairman Pai’s consistency (and, as it turns out, his bravery) was with respect to net neutrality. From his dissent in the Title II Order, through his commission’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order, Chairman Pai focused on the actual welfare of consumers and the factors that drive network growth and adoption. As Brent Skorup noted, “Chairman Pai and the Republican commissioners recognized the threat that Title II posed, not only to free speech, but to the FCC’s goals of expanding telecommunications services and competition.” The result of giving in to the Title II advocates would have been to draw the FCC into a quagmire of mass-media regulation that would ultimately harm free expression and broadband deployment in the United States.

Chairman Pai’s vision worked out (Skorup, May, Manne, Hazlett). Despite prognostications of the “death of the internet” because of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, available evidence suggests that industry investment grew over Chairman Pai’s term. More Americans are connected to broadband than ever before.

Relatedly, Chairman Pai was a strong supporter of liberalizing media-ownership rules that long had been rooted in 20th century notions of competition (Manne). Such rules systematically make it harder for smaller media outlets to compete with large news aggregators and social-media platforms. As Geoffrey Manne notes: 

Consistent with his unwavering commitment to promote media competition… Chairman Pai put forward a proposal substantially updating the media-ownership rules to reflect the dramatically changed market realities facing traditional broadcasters and newspapers.

This was a bold move for Chairman Pai—in essence, he permitted more local concentration by, e.g., allowing the purchase of a newspaper by a local television station that previously would have been forbidden. By allowing such combinations, the FCC enabled failing local news outlets to shore up their losses and continue to compete against larger, better-resourced organizations. The rule changes are in a case pending before the Supreme Court; should the court find for the FCC, the competitive outlook for local media looks much better thanks to Chairman Pai’s vision.

Chairman Pai’s record on spectrum is likewise impressive (Cooper, Hazlett). The FCC’s auctions under Chairman Pai raised more money and freed more spectrum for higher value uses than any previous commission (Feld, Hazlett). But there is also a lesson in how subsequent administrations can continue what Chairman Pai started. Unlicensed use, for instance, is not free or costless in its maintenance, and Tom Hazlett believes that there is more work to be done in further liberalizing access to the related spectrum—liberalizing in the sense of allowing property rights and market processes to guide spectrum to its highest use:

The basic theme is that regulators do better when they seek to create new rights that enable social coordination and entrepreneurial innovation, rather than enacting rules that specify what they find to be the “best” technologies or business models.

And to a large extent this is the model that Chairman Pai set down, from the issuance of the 12 GHZ NPRM to consider whether those spectrum bands could be opened up for wireless use, to the L-Band Order, where the commission worked hard to reallocate spectrum rights in ways that would facilitate more productive uses.

The controversial L-Band Order was another example of where Chairman Pai displayed both political acumen as well as an apolitical focus on improving spectrum policy (Cooper). Political opposition was sharp and focused after the commission finalized its order in April 2020. Nonetheless, Chairman Pai was deftly able to shepherd the L-Band Order and guarantee that important spectrum was made available for commercial wireless use.

As a native of Kansas, rural broadband rollout ranked highly in the list of priorities at the Pai FCC, and his work over the last four years is demonstrative of this pride of place (Hurwitz, Wright). As Gus Hurwitz notes, “the commission completed the Connect America Fund Phase II Auction. More importantly, it initiated the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and the 5G Fund for Rural America, both expressly targeting rural connectivity.”

Further, other work, like the recently completed Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction and the 5G fund provide the necessary policy framework with which to extend greater connectivity to rural America. As Josh Wright notes, “Ajit has also made sure to keep an eye out for the little guy, and communities that have been historically left behind.” This focus on closing the digital divide yielded gains in connectivity in places outside of traditional rural American settings, such as tribal lands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico (Wright).

But perhaps one of Chairman Pai’s best and (hopefully) most lasting contributions will be de-politicizing the FCC and increasing the transparency with which it operated. In contrast to previous administrations, the Pai FCC had an overwhelmingly bipartisan nature, with many bipartisan votes being regularly taken at monthly meetings (Jamison). In important respects, it was this bipartisan (or nonpartisan) nature that was directly implicated by Chairman Pai championing the Office of Economics and Analytics at the commission. As many of the commentators have noted (Jamison, Hazlett, Wright, Ellig) the OEA was a step forward in nonpolitical, careful cost-benefit analysis at the commission. As Wright notes, Chairman Pai was careful to not just hire a bunch of economists, but rather to learn from other agencies that have better integrated economics, and to establish a structure that would enable the commission’s economists to materially contribute to better policy.

We were honored to receive a post from Jerry Ellig just a day before he tragically passed away. As chief economist at the FCC from 2017-2018, he was in a unique position to evaluate past practice and participate in the creation of the OEA. According to Ellig, past practice tended to treat the work of the commission’s economists as a post-hoc gloss on the work of the agency’s attorneys. Once conclusions were reached, economics would often be backfilled in to support those conclusions. With the establishment of the OEA, economics took a front-seat role, with staff of that office becoming a primary source for information and policy analysis before conclusions were reached. As Wright noted, the Federal Trade Commission had adopted this approach. With the FCC moving to do this as well, communications policy in the United States is on much sounder footing thanks to Chairman Pai.

Not only did Chairman Pai push the commission in the direction of nonpolitical, sound economic analysis but, as many commentators note, he significantly improved the process at the commission (Cooper, Jamison, Lyons). Chief among his contributions was making it a practice to publish proposed orders weeks in advance, breaking with past traditions of secrecy around draft orders, and thereby giving the public an opportunity to see what the commission intended to do.

Critics of Chairman Pai’s approach to transparency feared that allowing more public view into the process would chill negotiations between the commissioners behind the scenes. But as Daniel Lyons notes, the chairman’s approach was a smashing success:

The Pai era proved to be the most productive in recent memory, averaging just over six items per month, which is double the average number under Pai’s immediate predecessors. Moreover, deliberations were more bipartisan than in years past: Nathan Leamer notes that 61.4% of the items adopted by the Pai FCC were unanimous and 92.1% were bipartisan compared to 33% and 69.9%, respectively, under Chairman Wheeler.

Other reforms from Chairman Pai helped open the FCC to greater scrutiny and a more transparent process, including limiting editorial privileges on staff on an order’s text, and by introducing the use of a simple “fact sheet” to explain orders (Lyons).

I found one of the most interesting insights into the character of Chairman Pai, was his willingness to reverse course and take risks to ensure that the FCC promoted innovation instead of obstructing it by relying on received wisdom (Nachbar). For instance, although he was initially skeptical of the prospects of Space X to introduce broadband through its low-Earth-orbit satellite systems, under Chairman Pai, the Starlink beta program was included in the RDOF auction. It is not clear whether this was a good bet, Thomas Nachbar notes, but it was a statement both of the chairman’s willingness to change his mind, as well as to not allow policy to remain in a comfortable zone that excludes potential innovation.

The next chair has an awfully big pair of shoes (or one oversized coffee mug) to fill. Chairman Pai established an important legacy of transparency and process improvement, as well as commitment to careful, economic analysis in the business of the agency. We will all be well-served if future commissions follow in his footsteps.