Others already have noted that the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recently released 6(b) report on the privacy practices of Internet service providers (ISPs) fails to comprehend that widespread adoption of privacy-enabling technology—in particular, Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) and DNS over HTTPS (DoH), but also the use of virtual private networks (VPNs)—largely precludes ISPs from seeing what their customers do online.
But a more fundamental problem with the report lies in its underlying assumption that targeted advertising is inherently nefarious. Indeed, much of the report highlights not actual violations of the law by the ISPs, but “concerns” that they could use customer data for targeted advertising much like Google and Facebook already do. The final subheading before the report’s conclusion declares: “Many ISPs in Our Study Can Be At Least As Privacy-Intrusive as Large Advertising Platforms.”
The report does not elaborate on why it would be bad for ISPs to enter the targeted advertising market, which is particularly strange given the public focus regulators have shone in recent months on the supposed dominance of Google, Facebook, and Amazon in online advertising. As the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) has argued in pastfilings on the issue, there simply is no justification to apply sector-specific regulations to ISPs for the mere possibility that they will use customer data for targeted advertising.
ISPs Could be Competition for the Digital Advertising Market
It is ironic to witness FTC warnings about ISPs engaging in targeted advertising even as there are open antitrust cases against Google for its alleged dominance of the digital advertising market. In fact, newsreports suggest the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) is preparing to join the antitrust suits against Google brought by state attorneys general. An obvious upshot of ISPs engaging in a larger amount of targeted advertising if that they could serve as a potential source of competition for Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
Despite the fears raised in the 6(b) report of rampant data collection for targeted ads, ISPs are, in fact, just a very small part of the $152.7 billion U.S. digital advertising market. As the report itself notes: “in 2020, the three largest players, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, received almost two-third of all U.S. digital advertising,” while Verizon pulled in just 3.4% of U.S. digital advertising revenues in 2018.
If the 6(b) report is correct that ISPs have access to troves of consumer data, it raises the question of why they don’t enjoy a bigger share of the digital advertising market. It could be that ISPs have other reasons not to engage in extensive advertising. Internet service provision is a two-sided market. ISPs could (and, over the years in various markets, some have) rely on advertising to subsidize Internet access. That they instead rely primarily on charging users directly for subscriptions may tell us something about prevailing demand on either side of the market.
Regardless of the reasons, the fact that ISPs have little presence in digital advertising suggests that it would be a misplaced focus for regulators to pursue industry-specific privacy regulation to crack down on ISP data collection for targeted advertising.
What’s the Harm in Targeted Advertising, Anyway?
At the heart of the FTC report is the commission’s contention that “advertising-driven surveillance of consumers’ online activity presents serious risks to the privacy of consumer data.” In Part V.B of the report, five of the six risks the FTC lists as associated with ISP data collection are related to advertising. But the only argument the report puts forth for why targeted advertising would be inherently pernicious is the assertion that it is contrary to user expectations and preferences.
As noted earlier, in a two-sided market, targeted ads could allow one side of the market to subsidize the other side. In other words, ISPs could engage in targeted advertising in order to reduce the price of access to consumers on the other side of the market. This is, indeed, one of the dominant models throughout the Internet ecosystem, so it wouldn’t be terribly unusual.
Taking away ISPs’ ability to engage in targeted advertising—particularly if it is paired with rumored net neutrality regulations from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—would necessarily put upward pricing pressure on the sector’s remaining revenue stream: subscriber fees. With bridging the so-called “digital divide” (i.e., building out broadband to rural and other unserved and underserved markets) a major focus of the recently enacted infrastructure spending package, it would be counterproductive to simultaneously take steps that would make Internet access more expensive and less accessible.
Even if the FTC were right that data collection for targeted advertising poses the risk of consumer harm, the report fails to justify why a regulatory scheme should apply solely to ISPs when they are such a small part of the digital advertising marketplace. Sector-specific regulation only makes sense if the FTC believes that ISPs are uniquely opaque among data collectors with respect to their collection practices.
The sector-specific approach implicitly endorsed by the 6(b) report would limit competition in the digital advertising market, even as there are already legal and regulatory inquiries into whether that market is sufficiently competitive. The report also fails to make the case the data collection for target advertising is inherently bad, or uniquely bad when done by an ISP.
There may or may not be cause for comprehensive federal privacy legislation, depending on whether it would pass cost-benefit analysis, but there is no reason to focus on ISPs alone. The FTC needs to go back to the drawing board.
Capping months of inter-chamber legislative wrangling, President Joe Biden on Nov. 15 signed the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (also known as the bipartisan infrastructure framework, or BIF), which sets aside $65 billion of federal funding for broadband projects. While there is much to praise about the package’s focus on broadband deployment and adoption, whether that money will be well-spent depends substantially on how the law is implemented and whether the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) adopts adequate safeguards to avoid waste, fraud, and abuse.
The primary aim of the bill’s broadband provisions is to connect the truly unconnected—what the bill refers to as the “unserved” (those lacking a connection of at least 25/3 Mbps) and “underserved” (lacking a connection of at least 100/20 Mbps). In seeking to realize this goal, it’s important to bear in mind that dynamic analysis demonstrates that the broadband market is overwhelmingly healthy, even in locales with relatively few market participants. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) latest Broadband Progress Report, approximately 5% of U.S. consumers have no options for at least 25/3 Mbps broadband, and slightly more than 8% have no options for at least 100/10 Mbps).
Reaching the truly unserved portions of the country will require targeting subsidies toward areas that are currently uneconomic to reach. Without properly targeted subsidies, there is a risk of dampening incentives for private investment and slowing broadband buildout. These tradeoffs must be considered. As we wrote previously in our Broadband Principles issue brief:
To move forward successfully on broadband infrastructure spending, Congress must take seriously the roles of both the government and the private sector in reaching the unserved.
Current U.S. broadband infrastructure is robust, as demonstrated by the way it met the unprecedented surge in demand for bandwidth during the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
To the extent it is necessary at all, public investment in broadband infrastructure should focus on providing Internet access to those who don’t have it, rather than subsidizing competition in areas that already do.
Highly prescriptive mandates—like requiring a particular technology or requiring symmetrical speeds— will be costly and likely to skew infrastructure spending away from those in unserved areas.
There may be very limited cases where municipal broadband is an effective and efficient solution to a complete absence of broadband infrastructure, but policymakers must narrowly tailor any such proposals to avoid displacing private investment or undermining competition.
Consumer-directed subsidies should incentivize broadband buildout and, where necessary, guarantee the availability of minimum levels of service reasonably comparable to those in competitive markets.
Firms that take government funding should be subject to reasonable obligations. Competitive markets should be subject to lighter-touch obligations.
The BIF’s broadband provisions ended up in a largely positive place, at least as written. There are two primary ways it seeks to achieve its goals of promoting adoption and deploying broadband to unserved/underserved areas. First, it makes permanent the Emergency Broadband Benefit program that had been created to provide temporary aid to households who struggled to afford Internet service during the COVID-19 pandemic, though it does lower the monthly user subsidy from $50 to $30. The renamed Affordable Connectivity Program can be used to pay for broadband on its own, or as part of a bundle of other services (e.g., a package that includes telephone, texting, and the rental fee on equipment).
Relatedly, the bill also subsidizes the cost of equipment by extending a one-time reimbursement of up to $100 to broadband providers when a consumer takes advantage of the provider’s discounted sale of connected devices, such as laptops, desktops, or tablet computers capable of Wi-Fi and video conferencing.
The decision to make the emergency broadband benefit a permanent program broadly comports with recommendations we have made to employ user subsidies (such as connectivity vouchers) to encourage broadband adoption.
The second and arguably more important of the bill’s broadband provisions is its creation of the $42 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program. Under the direction of the NTIA, BEAD will direct grants to state governments to help the states expand access to and use of high-speed broadband.
On the bright side, BEAD does appear to be designed to connect the country’s truly unserved regions—which, as noted above, account for about 8% of the nation’s households. The law explicitly requires prioritizing unserved areas before underserved areas. Even where the text references underserved areas as an additional priority, it does so in a way that won’t necessarily distort private investment. The bill also creates preferences for projects in persistent and high-poverty areas. Thus, the targeted areas are very likely to fall on the “have-not” side of the digital divide.
On its face, the subsidy and grant approach taken in the bill is, all things considered, commendable. As we note in our broadband report, care must be taken to avoid interventions that distort private investment incentives, particularly in a successful industry like broadband. The goal, after all, is more broadband deployment. If policy interventions only replicate private options (usually at higher cost) or, worse, drive private providers from a market, broadband deployment will be slowed or reversed. The approach taken in this bill attempts to line up private incentives with regulatory goals.
As we discuss below, however, the devil is in the details. In particular, BEAD’s structure could theoretically allow enough discretion in execution that a large amount of waste, fraud, and abuse could end up frustrating the program’s goals.
While the bill largely keeps the right focus of building out broadband in unserved areas, there are reasons to question some of its preferences and solutions. For instance, the state subgrant process puts for-profit and government-run broadband solutions on an equal playing field for the purposes of receiving funds, even though the two types of entities exist in very different institutional environments with very different incentives.
There is also a requirement that projects provide broadband of at least 100/20 Mbps speed, even though the bill defines “unserved”as lacking at least 25/3 Mbps. While this is not terribly objectionable, the preference for 100/20 could have downstream effects on the hardest-to-connect areas. It may only be economically feasible to connect some very remote areas with a 25/3 Mbps connection. Requiring higher speeds in such areas may, despite the best intentions, slow deployment and push providers to prioritize areas that are relatively easier to connect.
For comparison, the FCC’s Connect America Fund and Rural Digital Opportunity Fund programs do place greater weight in bidding for providers that can deploy higher-speed connections. But in areas where a lower speed tier is cost-justified, a provider can still bid and win. This sort of approach would have been preferable in the infrastructure bill.
But the bill’s largest infirmity is not in its terms or aims, but in the potential for mischief in its implementation. In particular, the BEAD grant program lacks the safeguards that have traditionally been applied to this sort of funding at the FCC.
Typically, an aid program of this sort would be administered by the FCC under rulemaking bound by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). As cumbersome as that process may sometimes be, APA rulemaking provides a high degree of transparency that results in fairly reliable public accountability. BEAD, by contrast, eschews this process, and instead permits NTIA to work directly with governors and other relevant state officials to dole out the money. The funds will almost certainly be distributed more quickly, but with significantly less accountability and oversight.
A large amount of the implementation detail will be driven at the state level. By definition, this will make it more difficult to monitor how well the program’s aims are being met. It also creates a process with far more opportunities for highly interested parties to lobby state officials to direct funding to their individual pet projects. None of this is to say that BEAD funding will necessarily be misdirected, but NTIA will need to be very careful in how it proceeds.
Conclusion: The Opportunity
Although the BIF’s broadband funds are slated to be distributed next year, we may soon be able to see whether there are warning signs that the legitimate goal of broadband deployment is being derailed for political favoritism. BEAD initially grants a flat $100 million to each state; it is only additional monies over that initial amount that need to be sought through the grant program. Thus, it is highly likely that some states will begin to enact legislation and related regulations in the coming year based on that guaranteed money. This early regulatory and legislative activity could provide insight into the pitfalls the full BEAD grantmaking program will face.
The larger point, however, is that the program needs safeguards. Where Congress declined to adopt them, NTIA would do well to implement them. Obviously, this will be something short of full APA rulemaking, but the NTIA will need to make accountability and reliability a top priority to ensure that the digital divide is substantially closed.
In the U.S. system of dual federal and state sovereigns, a normative analysis reveals principles that could guide state antitrust-enforcement priorities, to promote complementarity in federal and state antitrust policy, and thereby advance consumer welfare.
Positive analysis reveals that state antitrust enforcement is a firmly entrenched feature of American antitrust policy. The U.S. Supreme Court (1) has consistently held that federal antitrust law does not displace state antitrust law (see, for example, California v. ARC America Corp. (U.S., 1989) (“Congress intended the federal antitrust laws to supplement, not displace, state antitrust remedies”)); and (2) has upheld state antitrust laws even when they have some impact on interstate commerce (see, for example, Exxon Corp. v. Governor of Maryland (U.S., 1978)).
The normative question remains, however, as to what the appropriate relationship between federal and state antitrust enforcement should be. Should federal and state antitrust regimes be complementary, with state law enforcement enhancing the effectiveness of federal enforcement? Or should state antitrust enforcement compete with federal enforcement, providing an alternative “vision” of appropriate antitrust standards?
The generally accepted (until very recently) modern American consumer-welfare-centric antitrust paradigm (see here) points to the complementary approach as most appropriate. In other words, if antitrust is indeed the “magna carta” of American free enterprise (see United States v. Topco Associates, Inc., U.S. (U.S. 1972), and if consumer welfare is the paramount goal of antitrust (a position consistently held by the Supreme Court since Reiter v. Sonotone Corp., (U.S., 1979)), it follows that federal and state antitrust enforcement coexist best as complements, directed jointly at maximizing consumer-welfare enhancement. In recent decades it also generally has made sense for state enforcers to defer to U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) matter-specific consumer-welfare assessments. This conclusion follows from the federal agencies’ specialized resource advantage, reflected in large staffs of economic experts and attorneys with substantial industry knowledge.
The reality, nevertheless, is that while state enforcers often have cooperated with their federal colleagues on joint enforcement, state enforcement approaches historically have been imperfectly aligned with federal policy. That imperfect alignment has been at odds with consumer welfare in key instances. Certain state antitrust schemes, for example, continue to treat resale price maintenance (RPM) as per se illegal (see, for example, here), a position inconsistent with the federal consumer welfare-centric rule of reason approach (see Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. (U.S., 2007)). The disparate treatment of RPM has a substantial national impact on business conduct, because commercially important states such as California and New York are among those that continue to flatly condemn RPM.
State enforcers also have from time to time sought to oppose major transactions that received federal antitrust clearance, such as several states’ unsuccessful opposition to the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile merger (see here). Although the states failed to block the merger, they did extract settlement concessions that imposed burdens on the merging parties, in addition to the divestiture requirements impose by the DOJ in settling the matter (see here). Inconsistencies between federal and state antitrust-enforcement decisions on cases of nationwide significance generate litigation waste and may detract from final resolutions that optimize consumer welfare.
If consumer-welfare optimization is their goal (which I believe it should be in an ideal world), state attorneys general should seek to direct their limited antitrust resources to their highest valued uses, rather than seeking to second guess federal antitrust policy and enforcement decisions.
An optimal approach might focus first and foremost on allocating state resources to combat primarily intrastate competitive harms that are clear and unequivocal (such as intrastate bid rigging, hard core price fixing, and horizontal market division). This could free up federal resources to focus on matters that are primarily interstate in nature, consistent with federalism. (In this regard, see a thoughtful proposal by D. Bruce Johnsen and Moin A. Yaha.)
Second, state enforcers could also devote some resources to assist federal enforcers in developing state-specific evidence in support of major national cases. (This would allow state attorneys general to publicize their “big case” involvement in a productive manner.)
Third, but not least, competition advocacy directed at the removal of anticompetitive state laws and regulations could prove an effective means of seeking to improve the competitive climate within individual states (see, for example, here). State antitrust enforcers could advance advocacy through amicus curiae briefs, and (where politically feasible) through interventions (perhaps informal) with peer officials who oversee regulation. Subject to this general guidance, the nature of state antitrust resource allocations would depend upon the specific competitive problems particular to each state.
Of course, in the real world, public choice considerations and rent seeking may at times influence antitrust enforcement decision-making by state (and federal) officials. Nonetheless, the capsule idealized normative summary of a suggested ideal state antitrust-enforcement protocol is useful in that it highlights how state enforcers could usefully complement (assumed) sound federal antitrust initiatives.
Great minds think alike. A well-crafted and much more detailed normative exploration of ideal state antitrust enforcement is found in a recently released Pelican Institute policy brief by Ted Bolema and Eric Peterson. Entitled The Proper Role for States in Antitrust Lawsuits, the brief concludes (in a manner consistent with my observations):
This review of cases and leading commentaries shows that states should focus their involvement in antitrust cases on instances where:
· they have unique interests, such as local price-fixing
· play a unique role, such as where they can develop evidence about how alleged anticompetitive behavior uniquely affects local markets
· they can bring additional resources to bear on existing federal litigation.
States can also provide a useful check on overly aggressive federal enforcement by providing courts with a traditional perspective on antitrust law — a role that could become even more important as federal agencies aggressively seek to expand their powers. All of these are important roles for states to play in antitrust enforcement, and translate into positive outcomes that directly benefit consumers.
Conversely, when states bring significant, novel antitrust lawsuits on their own, they don’t tend to benefit either consumers or constituents. These novel cases often move resources away from where they might be used more effectively, and states usually lose (as with the recent dismissal with prejudice of a state case against Facebook). Through more strategic antitrust engagement, with a focus on what states can do well and where they can make a positive difference antitrust enforcement, states would best serve the interests of their consumers, constituents, and taxpayers.
Under a consumer-welfare-centric regime, an appropriate role can be identified for state antitrust enforcement that would helpfully complement federal efforts in an optimal fashion. Unfortunately, in this tumultuous period of federal antitrust policy shifts, in which the central role of the consumer welfare standard has been called into question, it might appear fatuous to speculate on the ideal melding of federal and state approaches to antitrust administration. One should, however, prepare for the time when a more enlightened, economically informed approach will be reinstituted. In anticipation of that day, serious thinking about antitrust federalism should not be neglected.
Why do digital industries routinely lead to one company having a very large share of the market (at least if one defines markets narrowly)? To anyone familiar with competition policy discussions, the answer might seem obvious: network effects, scale-related economies, and other barriers to entry lead to winner-take-all dynamics in platform industries. Accordingly, it is that believed the first platform to successfully unlock a given online market enjoys a determining first-mover advantage.
But are network effects and the like the only ways to explain why these markets look like this? While there is no definitive answer, scholars routinely overlook an alternative explanation that tends to undercut the narrative that tech markets have become non-contestable.
The alternative model is simple: faced with zero prices and the almost complete absence of switching costs, users have every reason to join their preferred platform. If user preferences are relatively uniform and one platform has a meaningful quality advantage, then there is every reason to expect that most consumers will all join the same one—even though the market remains highly contestable. On the other side of the equation, because platforms face very few capacity constraints, there are few limits to a given platform’s growth. As will be explained throughout this piece, this intuition is as old as economics itself.
The Bertrand Paradox
In 1883, French mathematician Joseph Bertrand published a powerful critique of two of the most high-profile economic thinkers of his time: the late Antoine Augustin Cournot and Léon Walras (it would be another seven years before Alfred Marshall published his famous principles of economics).
Bertrand criticized several of Cournot and Walras’ widely accepted findings. This included Cournot’s conclusion that duopoly competition would lead to prices above marginal cost—or, in other words, that duopolies were imperfectly competitive.
By reformulating the problem slightly, Bertand arrived at the opposite conclusion. He argued that each firm’s incentive to undercut its rival would ultimately lead to marginal cost pricing, and one seller potentially capturing the entire market:
There is a decisive objection [to Cournot’s model]: According to his hypothesis, no [supracompetitive] equilibrium is possible. There is no limit to price decreases; whatever the joint price being charged by firms, a competitor could always undercut this price and, with few exceptions, attract all consumers. If the competitor is allowed to get away with this [i.e. the rival does not react], it will double its profits.
This result is mainly driven by the assumption that, unlike in Cournot’s model, firms can immediately respond to their rival’s chosen price/quantity. In other words, Bertrand implicitly framed the competitive process as price competition, rather than quantity competition (under price competition, firms do not face any capacity constraints and they cannot commit to producing given quantities of a good):
If Cournot’s calculations mask this result, it is because of a remarkable oversight. Referring to them as D and D’, Cournot deals with the quantities sold by each of the two competitors and treats them as independent variables. He assumes that if one were to change by the will of one of the two sellers, the other one could remain fixed. The opposite is evidently true.
This later came to be known as the “Bertrand paradox”—the notion that duopoly-market configurations can produce the same outcome as perfect competition (i.e., P=MC).
But while Bertrand’s critique was ostensibly directed at Cournot’s model of duopoly competition, his underlying point was much broader. Above all, Bertrand seemed preoccupied with the notion that expressing economic problems mathematically merely gives them a veneer of accuracy. In that sense, he was one of the first economists (at least to my knowledge) to argue that the choice of assumptions has a tremendous influence on the predictions of economic models, potentially rendering them unreliable:
On other occasions, Cournot introduces assumptions that shield his reasoning from criticism—scholars can always present problems in a way that suits their reasoning.
All of this is not to say that Bertrand’s predictions regarding duopoly competition necessarily hold in real-world settings; evidence from experimental settings is mixed. Instead, the point is epistemological. Bertrand’s reasoning was groundbreaking because he ventured that market structures are not the sole determinants of consumer outcomes. More broadly, he argued that assumptions regarding the competitive process hold significant sway over the results that a given model may produce (and, as a result, over normative judgements concerning the desirability of given market configurations).
The Theory of Contestable Markets
Bertrand is certainly not the only economist to have suggested market structures alone do not determine competitive outcomes. In the early 1980s, William Baumol (and various co-authors) went one step further. Baumol argued that, under certain conditions, even monopoly market structures could deliver perfectly competitive outcomes. This thesis thus rejected the Structure-Conduct-Performance (“SCP”) Paradigm that dominated policy discussions of the time.
Baumol’s main point was that industry structure is not the main driver of market “contestability,” which is the key determinant of consumer outcomes. In his words:
In the limit, when entry and exit are completely free, efficient incumbent monopolists and oligopolists may in fact be able to prevent entry. But they can do so only by behaving virtuously, that is, by offering to consumers the benefits which competition would otherwise bring. For every deviation from good behavior instantly makes them vulnerable to hit-and-run entry.
For instance, it is widely accepted that “perfect competition” leads to low prices because firms are price-takers; if one does not sell at marginal cost, it will be undercut by rivals. Observers often assume this is due to the number of independent firms on the market. Baumol suggests this is wrong. Instead, the result is driven by the sanction that firms face for deviating from competitive pricing.
In other words, numerous competitors are a sufficient, but not necessary condition for competitive pricing. Monopolies can produce the same outcome when there is a present threat of entry and an incumbent’s deviation from competitive pricing would be sanctioned. This is notably the case when there are extremely low barriers to entry.
Take this hypothetical example from the world of cryptocurrencies. It is largely irrelevant to a user whether there are few or many crypto exchanges on which to trade coins, nonfungible tokens (NFTs), etc. What does matter is that there is at least one exchange that meets one’s needs in terms of both price and quality of service. This could happen because there are many competing exchanges, or because a failure to meet my needs by the few (or even one) exchange that does exist would attract the entry of others to which I could readily switch—thus keeping the behavior of the existing exchanges in check.
This has far-reaching implications for antitrust policy, as Baumol was quick to point out:
This immediately offers what may be a new insight on antitrust policy. It tells us that a history of absence of entry in an industry and a high concentration index may be signs of virtue, not of vice. This will be true when entry costs in our sense are negligible.
Given what precedes, Baumol surmised that industry structure must be driven by endogenous factors—such as firms’ cost structures—rather than the intensity of competition that they face. For instance, scale economies might make monopoly (or another structure) the most efficient configuration in some industries. But so long as rivals can sanction incumbents for failing to compete, the market remains contestable. Accordingly, at least in some industries, both the most efficient and the most contestable market configuration may entail some level of concentration.
To put this last point in even more concrete terms, online platform markets may have features that make scale (and large market shares) efficient. If so, there is every reason to believe that competition could lead to more, not less, concentration.
How Contestable Are Digital Markets?
The insights of Bertrand and Baumol have important ramifications for contemporary antitrust debates surrounding digital platforms. Indeed, it is critical to ascertain whether the (relatively) concentrated market structures we see in these industries are a sign of superior efficiency (and are consistent with potentially intense competition), or whether they are merely caused by barriers to entry.
The barrier-to-entry explanation has been repeated ad nauseam in recent scholarly reports, competition decisions, and pronouncements by legislators. There is thus little need to restate that thesis here. On the other hand, the contestability argument is almost systematically ignored.
Several factors suggest that online platform markets are far more contestable than critics routinely make them out to be.
First and foremost, consumer switching costs are extremely low for most online platforms. To cite but a few examples: Changing your default search engine requires at most a couple of clicks; joining a new social network can be done by downloading an app and importing your contacts to the app; and buying from an alternative online retailer is almost entirely frictionless, thanks to intermediaries such as PayPal.
These zero or near-zero switching costs are compounded by consumers’ ability to “multi-home.” In simple terms, joining TikTok does not require users to close their Facebook account. And the same applies to other online services. As a result, there is almost no opportunity cost to join a new platform. This further reduces the already tiny cost of switching.
Decades of app development have greatly improved the quality of applications’ graphical user interfaces (GUIs), to such an extent that costs to learn how to use a new app are mostly insignificant. Nowhere is this more apparent than for social media and sharing-economy apps (it may be less true for productivity suites that enable more complex operations). For instance, remembering a couple of intuitive swipe motions is almost all that is required to use TikTok. Likewise, ridesharing and food-delivery apps merely require users to be familiar with the general features of other map-based applications. It is almost unheard of for users to complain about usability—something that would have seemed impossible in the early 21st century, when complicated interfaces still plagued most software.
A second important argument in favor of contestability is that, by and large, online platforms face only limited capacity constraints. In other words, platforms can expand output rapidly (though not necessarily costlessly).
Perhaps the clearest example of this is the sudden rise of the Zoom service in early 2020. As a result of the COVID pandemic, Zoom went from around 10 million daily active users in early 2020 to more than 300 million by late April 2020. Despite being a relatively data-intensive service, Zoom did not struggle to meet this new demand from a more than 30-fold increase in its user base. The service never had to turn down users, reduce call quality, or significantly increase its price. In short, capacity largely followed demand for its service. Online industries thus seem closer to the Bertrand model of competition, where the best platform can almost immediately serve any consumers that demand its services.
Of course, none of this should be construed to declare that online markets are perfectly contestable. The central point is, instead, that critics are too quick to assume they are not. Take the following examples.
Scholars routinely cite the putatively strong concentration of digital markets to argue that big tech firms do not face strong competition, but this is a non sequitur. As Bertrand and Baumol (and others) show, what matters is not whether digital markets are concentrated, but whether they are contestable. If a superior rival could rapidly gain user traction, this alone will discipline the behavior of incumbents.
Markets where incumbents do not face significant entry from competitors are just as consistent with vigorous competition as they are with barriers to entry. Rivals could decline to enter either because incumbents have aggressively improved their product offerings or because they are shielded by barriers to entry (as critics suppose). The former is consistent with competition, the latter with monopoly slack.
Similarly, it would be wrong to presume, as many do, that concentration in online markets is necessarily driven by network effects and other scale-related economies. As ICLE scholars have argued elsewhere (here, here and here), these forces are not nearly as decisive as critics assume (and it is debatable that they constitute barriers to entry).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this piece has argued that many factors could explain the relatively concentrated market structures that we see in digital industries. The absence of switching costs and capacity constraints are but two such examples. These explanations, overlooked by many observers, suggest digital markets are more contestable than is commonly perceived.
In short, critics’ failure to meaningfully grapple with these issues serves to shape the prevailing zeitgeist in tech-policy debates. Cournot and Bertrand’s intuitions about oligopoly competition may be more than a century old, but they continue to be tested empirically. It is about time those same standards were applied to tech-policy debates.
Recent commentary on the proposed merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery, as well as Amazon’s acquisition of MGM, often has included the suggestion that the online content-creation and video-streaming markets are excessively consolidated, or that they will become so absent regulatory intervention. For example, in a recent letter to the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), the American Antitrust Institute and Public Knowledge opine that:
Slow and inadequate oversight risks the streaming market going the same route as cable—where consumers have little power, few options, and where consolidation and concentration reign supreme. A number of threats to competition are clear, as discussed in this section, including: (1) market power issues surrounding content and (2) the role of platforms in “gatekeeping” to limit competition.
But the AAI/PK assessment overlooks key facts about the video-streaming industry, some of which suggest that, if anything, these markets currently suffer from too much fragmentation.
The problem is well-known: any individual video-streaming service will offer only a fraction of the content that viewers want, but budget constraints limit the number of services that a household can afford to subscribe to. It may be counterintuitive, but consolidation in the market for video-streaming can solve both problems at once.
One subscription is not enough
Surveys find that U.S. households currently maintain, on average, four video-streaming subscriptions. This explains why even critics concede that a plethora of streaming services compete for consumer eyeballs. For instance, the AAI and PK point out that:
Today, every major media company realizes the value of streaming and a bevy of services have sprung up to offer different catalogues of content.
These companies have challenged the market leader, Netflix and include: Prime Video (2006), Hulu (2007), Paramount+ (2014), ESPN+ (2018), Disney+ (2019), Apple TV+ (2019), HBO Max (2020), Peacock (2020), and Discovery+ (2021).
With content scattered across several platforms, multiple subscriptions are the only way for households to access all (or most) of the programs they desire. Indeed, other than price, library sizes and the availability of exclusive content are reportedly the main drivers of consumer purchase decisions.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with the current equilibrium in which consumers multi-home across multiple platforms. One potential explanation is demand for high-quality exclusive content, which requires tremendous investment to develop and promote. Production costs for TV series routinely run in the tens of millions of dollars per episode (see here and here). Economic theory predicts these relationship-specific investments made by both producers and distributors will cause producers to opt for exclusive distribution or vertical integration. The most sought-after content is thus exclusive to each platform. In other words, exclusivity is likely the price that users must pay to ensure that high-quality entertainment continues to be produced.
But while this paradigm has many strengths, the ensuing fragmentation can be detrimental to consumers, as this may lead to double marginalization or mundane issues like subscription fatigue. Consolidation can be a solution to both.
Substitutes, complements, or unrelated?
As Hal Varian explains in his seminal book, the relationship between two goods can range among three extremes: perfect substitutes (i.e., two goods are perfectly interchangeable); perfect complements (i.e., there is no value to owning one good without the other); or goods that exist in independent markets (i.e., the price of one good does not affect demand for the other).
These distinctions are critical when it comes to market concentration. All else equal—which is obviously not the case in reality—increased concentration leads to lower prices for complements, and higher prices for substitutes. Finally, if demand for two goods is unrelated, then bringing them under common ownership should not affect their price.
To at least some extent, streaming services should be seen as complements rather than substitutes—or, at least, as services with unrelated demand. If they were perfect substitutes, consumers would be indifferent between two Netflix subscriptions or one Netflix plan and one Amazon Prime plan. That is obviously not the case. Nor are they perfect complements, which would mean that Netflix is worthless without Amazon Prime, Disney+, and other services.
However, there is reason to believe there exists some complementarity between streaming services, or at least that demand for them is independent. Most consumers subscribe to multiple services, and almost no one subscribes to the same service twice:
This assertion is also supported by the ubiquitous bundling of subscriptions in the cable distribution industry, which also has recently been seen in video-streaming markets. For example, in the United States, Disney+ can be purchased in a bundle with Hulu and ESPN+.
The key question is: is each service more valuable, less valuable, or as valuable in isolation than they are when bundled? If households place some additional value on having a complete video offering (one that includes child entertainment, sports, more mature content, etc.), and if they value the convenience of accessing more of their content via a single app, then we can infer these services are to some extent complementary.
Finally, it is worth noting that any complementarity between these services would be largely endogenous. If the industry suddenly switched to a paradigm of non-exclusive content—as is broadly the case for audio streaming—the above analysis would be altered (though, as explained above, such a move would likely be detrimental to users). Streaming services would become substitutes if they offered identical catalogues.
In short, the extent to which streaming services are complements ultimately boils down to an empirical question that may fluctuate with industry practices. As things stand, there is reason to believe that these services feature some complementarities, or at least that demand for them is independent. In turn, this suggests that further consolidation within the industry would not lead to price increases and may even reduce them.
Consolidation can enable price discrimination
It is well-established that bundling entertainment goods can enable firms to better engage in price discrimination, often increasing output and reducing deadweight loss in the process.
Take George Stigler’s famous explanation for the practice of “block booking,” in which movie studios sold multiple films to independent movie theatres as a unit. Stigler assumes the underlying goods are neither substitutes nor complements:
The upshot is that, when consumer tastes for content are idiosyncratic—as is almost certainly the case for movies and television series, movies—it can counterintuitively make sense to sell differing content as a bundle. In doing so, the distributor avoids pricing consumers out of the content upon which they place a lower value. Moreover, this solution is more efficient than price discriminating on an unbundled basis, as doing so would require far more information on the seller’s part and would be vulnerable to arbitrage.
In short, bundling enables each consumer to access a much wider variety of content. This, in turn, provides a powerful rationale for mergers in the video-streaming space—particularly where they can bring together varied content libraries. Put differently, it cuts in favor of more, not less, concentration in video-streaming markets (at least, up to a certain point).
Finally, a wide array of scale-related economies further support the case for concentration in video-streaming markets. These include potential economies of scale, network effects, and reduced transaction costs.
The simplest of these ideas is that the cost of video streaming may decrease at the margin (i.e., serving each marginal viewer might be cheaper than the previous one). In other words, mergers of video-streaming services mayenable platforms to operate at a more efficient scale. There has notably been some discussion of whether Netflix benefits from scale economies of this sort. But this is, of course, ultimately an empirical question. As I have written with Geoffrey Manne, we should not assume that this is the case for all digital platforms, or that these increasing returns are present at all ranges of output.
Likewise, the fact that content can earn greater revenues by reaching a wider audience (or a greater number of small niches) may increase a producer’s incentive to create high-quality content. For example, Netflix’s recent hit series Squid Game reportedly cost $16.8 million to produce a total of nine episodes. This is significant for a Korean-language thriller. These expenditures were likely only possible because of Netflix’s vast network of viewers. Video-streaming mergers can jump-start these effects by bringing previously fragmented audiences onto a single platform.
Finally, operating at a larger scale may enable firms and consumers to economize on various transaction and search costs. For instance, consumers don’t need to manage several subscriptions, and searching for content is easier within a single ecosystem.
In short, critics could hardly be more wrong in assuming that consolidation in the video-streaming industry will necessarily harm consumers. To the contrary, these mergers should be presumptively welcomed because, to a first approximation, they are likely to engender lower prices and reduce deadweight loss.
Critics routinely draw parallels between video streaming and the consolidation that previously moved through the cable industry. They suggest these events as evidence that consolidation was (and still is) inefficient and exploitative of consumers. As AAI and PK frame it:
Moreover, given the broader competition challenges that reside in those markets, and the lessons learned from a failure to ensure competition in the traditional MVPD markets, enforcers should be particularly vigilant.
But while it might not have been ideal for all consumers, the comparatively laissez-faire approach to competition in the cable industry arguably facilitated the United States’ emergence as a global leader for TV programming. We are now witnessing what appears to be a similar trend in the online video-streaming market.
This is mostly a good thing. While a single streaming service might not be the optimal industry configuration from a welfare standpoint, it would be equally misguided to assume that fragmentation necessarily benefits consumers. In fact, as argued throughout this piece, there are important reasons to believe that the status quo—with at least 10 significant players—is too fragmented and that consumers would benefit from additional consolidation.
U.S. and European competition laws diverge in numerous ways that have important real-world effects. Understanding these differences is vital, particularly as lawmakers in the United States, and the rest of the world, consider adopting a more “European” approach to competition.
In broad terms, the European approach is more centralized and political. The European Commission’s Directorate General for Competition (DG Comp) has significant de facto discretion over how the law is enforced. This contrasts with the common law approach of the United States, in which courts elaborate upon open-ended statutes through an iterative process of case law. In other words, the European system was built from the top down, while U.S. antitrust relies on a bottom-up approach, derived from arguments made by litigants (including the government antitrust agencies) and defendants (usually businesses).
This procedural divergence has significant ramifications for substantive law. European competition law includes more provisions akin to de facto regulation. This is notably the case for the “abuse of dominance” standard, in which a “dominant” business can be prosecuted for “abusing” its position by charging high prices or refusing to deal with competitors. By contrast, the U.S. system places more emphasis on actual consumer outcomes, rather than the nature or “fairness” of an underlying practice.
The American system thus affords firms more leeway to exclude their rivals, so long as this entails superior benefits for consumers. This may make the U.S. system more hospitable to innovation, since there is no built-in regulation of conduct for innovators who acquire a successful market position fairly and through normal competition.
In this post, we discuss some key differences between the two systems—including in areas like predatory pricing and refusals to deal—as well as the discretionary power the European Commission enjoys under the European model.
U.S. antitrust is, by and large, unconcerned with companies charging what some might consider “excessive” prices. The late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Supreme Court majority in the 2003 case Verizon v. Trinko, observed that:
The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices—at least for a short period—is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth.
This contrasts with European competition-law cases, where firms may be found to have infringed competition law because they charged excessive prices. As the European Court of Justice (ECJ) held in 1978’s United Brands case: “In this case charging a price which is excessive because it has no reasonable relation to the economic value of the product supplied would be such an abuse.”
While United Brands was the EU’s foundational case for excessive pricing, and the European Commission reiterated that these allegedly exploitative abuses were possible when it published its guidance paper on abuse of dominance cases in 2009, the commission had for some time demonstrated apparent disinterest in bringing such cases. In recent years, however, both the European Commission and some national authorities have shown renewed interest in excessive-pricing cases, most notably in the pharmaceutical sector.
European competition law also penalizes so-called “margin squeeze” abuses, in which a dominant upstream supplier charges a price to distributors that is too high for them to compete effectively with that same dominant firm downstream:
[I]t is for the referring court to examine, in essence, whether the pricing practice introduced by TeliaSonera is unfair in so far as it squeezes the margins of its competitors on the retail market for broadband connection services to end users. (Konkurrensverket v TeliaSonera Sverige, 2011)
As Scalia observed in Trinko, forcing firms to charge prices that are below a market’s natural equilibrium affects firms’ incentives to enter markets, notably with innovative products and more efficient means of production. But the problem is not just one of market entry and innovation. Also relevant is the degree to which competition authorities are competent to determine the “right” prices or margins.
As Friedrich Hayek demonstrated in his influential 1945 essay The Use of Knowledge in Society, economic agents use information gleaned from prices to guide their business decisions. It is this distributed activity of thousands or millions of economic actors that enables markets to put resources to their most valuable uses, thereby leading to more efficient societies. By comparison, the efforts of central regulators to set prices and margins is necessarily inferior; there is simply no reasonable way for competition regulators to make such judgments in a consistent and reliable manner.
Given the substantial risk that investigations into purportedly excessive prices will deter market entry, such investigations should be circumscribed. But the court’s precedents, with their myopic focus on ex post prices, do not impose such constraints on the commission. The temptation to “correct” high prices—especially in the politically contentious pharmaceutical industry—may thus induce economically unjustified and ultimately deleterious intervention.
Monopolists must charge prices that are below some measure of their incremental costs; and
There must be a realistic prospect that they will able to recoup these initial losses.
In laying out its approach to predatory pricing, the U.S. Supreme Court has identified the risk of false positives and the clear cost of such errors to consumers. It thus has particularly stressed the importance of the recoupment requirement. As the court found in 1993’s Brooke Group Ltd. v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., without recoupment, “predatory pricing produces lower aggregate prices in the market, and consumer welfare is enhanced.”
Accordingly, U.S. authorities must prove that there are constraints that prevent rival firms from entering the market after the predation scheme, or that the scheme itself would effectively foreclose rivals from entering the market in the first place. Otherwise, the predator would be undercut by competitors as soon as it attempts to recoup its losses by charging supra-competitive prices.
Without the strong likelihood that a monopolist will be able to recoup lost revenue from underpricing, the overwhelming weight of economic evidence (to say nothing of simple logic) is that predatory pricing is not a rational business strategy. Thus, apparent cases of predatory pricing are most likely not, in fact, predatory; deterring or punishing them would actually harm consumers.
[I]t does not follow from the case‑law of the Court that proof of the possibility of recoupment of losses suffered by the application, by an undertaking in a dominant position, of prices lower than a certain level of costs constitutes a necessary precondition to establishing that such a pricing policy is abusive. (France Télécom v Commission, 2009).
This aspect of the legal standard has no basis in economic theory or evidence—not even in the “strategic” economic theory that arguably challenges the dominant Chicago School understanding of predatory pricing. Indeed, strategic predatory pricing still requires some form of recoupment, and the refutation of any convincing business justification offered in response. For example, in a 2017 piece for the Antitrust Law Journal, Steven Salop lays out the “raising rivals’ costs” analysis of predation and notes that recoupment still occurs, just at the same time as predation:
[T]he anticompetitive conditional pricing practice does not involve discrete predatory and recoupment periods, as in the case of classical predatory pricing. Instead, the recoupment occurs simultaneously with the conduct. This is because the monopolist is able to maintain its current monopoly power through the exclusionary conduct.
The case of predatory pricing illustrates a crucial distinction between European and American competition law. The recoupment requirement embodied in American antitrust law serves to differentiate aggressive pricing behavior that improves consumer welfare—because it leads to overall price decreases—from predatory pricing that reduces welfare with higher prices. It is, in other words, entirely focused on the welfare of consumers.
The European approach, by contrast, reflects structuralist considerations far removed from a concern for consumer welfare. Its underlying fear is that dominant companies could use aggressive pricing to engender more concentrated markets. It is simply presumed that these more concentrated markets are invariably detrimental to consumers. Both the Tetra Pak and France Télécom cases offer clear illustrations of the ECJ’s reasoning on this point:
[I]t would not be appropriate, in the circumstances of the present case, to require in addition proof that Tetra Pak had a realistic chance of recouping its losses. It must be possible to penalize predatory pricing whenever there is a risk that competitors will be eliminated… The aim pursued, which is to maintain undistorted competition, rules out waiting until such a strategy leads to the actual elimination of competitors. (Tetra Pak v Commission, 1996).
[T]he lack of any possibility of recoupment of losses is not sufficient to prevent the undertaking concerned reinforcing its dominant position, in particular, following the withdrawal from the market of one or a number of its competitors, so that the degree of competition existing on the market, already weakened precisely because of the presence of the undertaking concerned, is further reduced and customers suffer loss as a result of the limitation of the choices available to them. (France Télécom v Commission, 2009).
In short, the European approach leaves less room to analyze the concrete effects of a given pricing scheme, leaving it more prone to false positives than the U.S. standard explicated in the Brooke Group decision. Worse still, the European approach ignores not only the benefits that consumers may derive from lower prices, but also the chilling effect that broad predatory pricing standards may exert on firms that would otherwise seek to use aggressive pricing schemes to attract consumers.
Refusals to Deal
U.S. and EU antitrust law also differ greatly when it comes to refusals to deal. While the United States has limited the ability of either enforcement authorities or rivals to bring such cases, EU competition law sets a far lower threshold for liability.
As Justice Scalia wrote in Trinko:
Aspen Skiing is at or near the outer boundary of §2 liability. The Court there found significance in the defendant’s decision to cease participation in a cooperative venture. The unilateral termination of a voluntary (and thus presumably profitable) course of dealing suggested a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve an anticompetitive end. (Verizon v Trinko, 2003.)
This highlights two key features of American antitrust law with regard to refusals to deal. To start, U.S. antitrust law generally does not apply the “essential facilities” doctrine.Accordingly, in the absence of exceptional facts, upstream monopolists are rarely required to supply their product to downstream rivals, even if that supply is “essential” for effective competition in the downstream market. Moreover, as Justice Scalia observed in Trinko, the Aspen Skiing case appears to concern only those limited instances where a firm’s refusal to deal stems from the termination of a preexisting and profitable business relationship.
While even this is not likely the economically appropriate limitation on liability, its impetus—ensuring that liability is found only in situations where procompetitive explanations for the challenged conduct are unlikely—is completely appropriate for a regime concerned with minimizing the cost to consumers of erroneous enforcement decisions.
In practice, however, all of these conditions have been relaxed significantly by EU courts and the commission’s decisional practice. This is best evidenced by the lower court’s Microsoft ruling where, as John Vickers notes:
[T]he Court found easily in favor of the Commission on the IMS Health criteria, which it interpreted surprisingly elastically, and without relying on the special factors emphasized by the Commission. For example, to meet the “new product” condition it was unnecessary to identify a particular new product… thwarted by the refusal to supply but sufficient merely to show limitation of technical development in terms of less incentive for competitors to innovate.
EU competition law thus shows far less concern for its potential chilling effect on firms’ investments than does U.S. antitrust law.
There are vast differences between U.S. and EU competition law relating to vertical restraints—that is, contractual restraints between firms that operate at different levels of the production process.
On the one hand, since the Supreme Court’s Leegin ruling in 2006, even price-related vertical restraints (such as resale price maintenance (RPM), under which a manufacturer can stipulate the prices at which retailers must sell its products) are assessed under the rule of reason in the United States. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that, in practice, U.S. case law on RPM almost amounts to per se legality.
Furthermore, in the Consten and Grundig ruling, the ECJ rejected the consequentialist, and economically grounded, principle that inter-brand competition is the appropriate framework to assess vertical restraints:
This treatment of vertical restrictions flies in the face of longstanding mainstream economic analysis of the subject. As Patrick Rey and Jean Tirole conclude:
Another major contribution of the earlier literature on vertical restraints is to have shown that per se illegality of such restraints has no economic foundations.
Unlike the EU, the U.S. Supreme Court in Leegintook account of the weight of the economic literature, and changed its approach to RPM to ensure that the law no longer simply precluded its arguable consumer benefits, writing: “Though each side of the debate can find sources to support its position, it suffices to say here that economics literature is replete with procompetitive justifications for a manufacturer’s use of resale price maintenance.” Further, the court found that the prior approach to resale price maintenance restraints “hinders competition and consumer welfare because manufacturers are forced to engage in second-best alternatives and because consumers are required to shoulder the increased expense of the inferior practices.”
The EU’s continued per se treatment of RPM, by contrast, strongly reflects its “precautionary principle” approach to antitrust. European regulators and courts readily condemn conduct that could conceivably injure consumers, even where such injury is, according to the best economic understanding, exceedingly unlikely. The U.S. approach, which rests on likelihood rather than mere possibility, is far less likely to condemn beneficial conduct erroneously.
Political Discretion in European Competition Law
EU competition law lacks a coherent analytical framework like that found in U.S. law’s reliance on the consumer welfare standard. The EU process is driven by a number of laterally equivalent—and sometimes mutually exclusive—goals, including industrial policy and the perceived need to counteract foreign state ownership and subsidies. Such a wide array of conflicting aims produces lack of clarity for firms seeking to conduct business. Moreover, the discretion that attends this fluid arrangement of goals yields an even larger problem.
The Microsoft case illustrates this problem well. In Microsoft, the commission could have chosen to base its decision on various potential objectives. It notably chose to base its findings on the fact that Microsoft’s behavior reduced “consumer choice.”
The commission, in fact, discounted arguments that economic efficiency may lead to consumer welfare gains, because it determined “consumer choice” among media players was more important:
Another argument relating to reduced transaction costs consists in saying that the economies made by a tied sale of two products saves resources otherwise spent for maintaining a separate distribution system for the second product. These economies would then be passed on to customers who could save costs related to a second purchasing act, including selection and installation of the product. Irrespective of the accuracy of the assumption that distributive efficiency gains are necessarily passed on to consumers, such savings cannot possibly outweigh the distortion of competition in this case. This is because distribution costs in software licensing are insignificant; a copy of a software programme can be duplicated and distributed at no substantial effort. In contrast, the importance of consumer choice and innovation regarding applications such as media players is high. (Commission Decision No. COMP. 37792 (Microsoft)).
It may be true that tying the products in question was unnecessary. But merely dismissing this decision because distribution costs are near-zero is hardly an analytically satisfactory response. There are many more costs involved in creating and distributing complementary software than those associated with hosting and downloading. The commission also simply asserts that consumer choice among some arbitrary number of competing products is necessarily a benefit. This, too, is not necessarily true, and the decision’s implication that any marginal increase in choice is more valuable than any gains from product design or innovation is analytically incoherent.
The Court of First Instance was only too happy to give the commission a pass in its breezy analysis; it saw no objection to these findings. With little substantive reasoning to support its findings, the court fully endorsed the commission’s assessment:
As the Commission correctly observes (see paragraph 1130 above), by such an argument Microsoft is in fact claiming that the integration of Windows Media Player in Windows and the marketing of Windows in that form alone lead to the de facto standardisation of the Windows Media Player platform, which has beneficial effects on the market. Although, generally, standardisation may effectively present certain advantages, it cannot be allowed to be imposed unilaterally by an undertaking in a dominant position by means of tying.
The Court further notes that it cannot be ruled out that third parties will not want the de facto standardisation advocated by Microsoft but will prefer it if different platforms continue to compete, on the ground that that will stimulate innovation between the various platforms. (Microsoft Corp. v Commission, 2007)
Pointing to these conflicting effects of Microsoft’s bundling decision, without weighing either, is a weak basis to uphold the commission’s decision that consumer choice outweighs the benefits of standardization. Moreover, actions undertaken by other firms to enhance consumer choice at the expense of standardization are, on these terms, potentially just as problematic. The dividing line becomes solely which theory the commission prefers to pursue.
What such a practice does is vest the commission with immense discretionary power. Any given case sets up a “heads, I win; tails, you lose” situation in which defendants are easily outflanked by a commission that can change the rules of its analysis as it sees fit. Defendants can play only the cards that they are dealt. Accordingly, Microsoft could not successfully challenge a conclusion that its behavior harmed consumers’ choice by arguing that it improved consumer welfare, on net.
By selecting, in this instance, “consumer choice” as the standard to be judged, the commission was able to evade the constraints that might have been imposed by a more robust welfare standard. Thus, the commission can essentially pick and choose the objectives that best serve its interests in each case. This vastly enlarges the scope of potential antitrust liability, while also substantially decreasing the ability of firms to predict when their behavior may be viewed as problematic. It leads to what, in U.S. courts, would be regarded as an untenable risk of false positives that chill innovative behavior and create nearly unwinnable battles for targeted firms.
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:
Deals effectively with serious competitive problems; while at the same time
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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’s a telecom tale as old as time: industry gets a prime slice of radio spectrum and falls in love with it, only to take it for granted. Then, faced with the reapportionment of that spectrum, it proceeds to fight tooth and nail (and law firm) to maintain the status quo.
In that way, the decision by the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) to seek judicial review of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) order reassigning the 5.9GHz band was right out of central casting. But rather than simply asserting that the FCC’s order was arbitrary, ITSA foreshadowed many of the arguments that it intends to make against the order.
There are three arguments of note, and should ITSA win on the merits of any of those arguments, it would mark a significant departure from the way spectrum is managed in the United States.
First, ITSA asserts that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), by virtue of its role as the nation’s transportation regulator, retains authority to regulate radio spectrum as it pertains to DOT programs, not the FCC. Of course, this notion is absurd on its face. Congress mandated that the FCC act as the exclusive regulator of non-federal uses of wireless. This leaves the FCC free to—in the words of the Communications Act—“encourage the provision of new technologies and services to the public” and to “provide to all Americans” the best communications networks possible.
In contrast, other federal agencies with some amount of allocated spectrum each focus exclusively on a particular mission, without regard to the broader concerns of the country (including uses by sister agencies or the states). That’s why, rather than allocate the spectrum directly to DOT, the statute directs the FCC to consider allocating spectrum for Intelligent Transportation Systems and to establish the rules for their spectrum use. The statute directs the FCC to consult with the DOT, but leaves final decisions to the FCC.
Today’s crowded airwaves make it impossible to allocate spectrum for 5G, Wi-Fi 6, and other innovative uses without somehow impacting spectrum used by a federal agency. Accepting the ITSA position would fundamentally alter the FCC’s role relative to other agencies with an interest in the disposition of spectrum, rendering the FCC a vestigial regulatory backwater subject to non-expert veto. As a matter of policy, this would effectively prevent the United States from meeting the growing challenges of our exponentially increasing demand for wireless access.
It would also put us at a tremendous disadvantage relative to other countries. International coordination of wireless policy has become critical in the global economy, with our global supply chains and wireless equipment manufacturers dependent on global standards to drive economies of scale and interoperability around the globe. At the last World Radio Conference in 2019, interagency spectrum squabbling significantly undermined the U.S. negotiation efforts. If agencies actually had veto power over the FCC’s spectrum decisions, the United States would have no way to create a coherent negotiating position, let alone to advocate effectively for our national interests.
Second, though relatedly, ITSA asserts that the FCC’s engineers failed to appropriately evaluate safety impacts and interference concerns. It’s hard to see how this could be the case, given both the massive engineering record and the FCC’s globally recognized expertise in spectrum. As a general rule, the FCC leads the world in spectrum engineering (there is a reason things like mobile service and Wi-Fi started in the United States). No other federal agency (including DOT) has such extensive, varied, and lengthy experience with interference analysis. This allows the FCC to develop broadly applicable standards to protect all emergency communications. Every emergency first responder relies on this expertise every day that they use wireless communications to save lives. Here again, we see the wisdom in Congress delegating to a single expert agency the task of finding the right balance to meet all our wireless public-safety needs.
Third, the petition ambitiously asks the court to set aside all parts of the order, with the exception of the one portion that ITSA likes: freeing the top 30MHz of the band for use by C-V2X on a permanent basis. Given their other arguments, this assertion strains credulity. Either the FCC makes the decisions, or the DOT does. Giving federal agencies veto power over FCC decisions would be bad enough. Allowing litigants to play federal agencies against each other so they can mix and match results would produce chaos and/or paralysis in spectrum policy.
In short, ITSA is asking the court to fundamentally redefine the scope of FCC authority to administer spectrum when other federal agencies are involved; to undermine deference owed to FCC experts; and to do all of this while also holding that the FCC was correct on the one part of the order with which the complainants agree. This would make future progress in wireless technology effectively impossible.
We don’t let individual states decide which side of the road to drive on, or whether red or some other color traffic light means stop, because traffic rules only work when everybody follows the same rules. Wireless policy can only work if one agency makes the rules. Congress says that agency is the FCC. The courts (and other agencies) need to remember that.
AT&T’s $102 billion acquisition of Time Warner in 2019 will go down in M&A history as an exceptionally ill-advised transaction, resulting in the loss of tens of billions of dollars of shareholder value. It should also go down in history as an exceptional ill-chosen target of antitrust intervention. The U.S. Department of Justice, with support from many academic and policy commentators, asserted with confidence that the vertical combination of these content and distribution powerhouses would result in an entity that could exercise market power to the detriment of competitors and consumers.
The chorus of condemnation continued with vigor even after the DOJ’s loss in court and AT&T’s consummation of the transaction. With AT&T’s May 17 announcement that it will unwind the two-year-old acquisition and therefore abandon its strategy to integrate content and distribution, it is clear these predictions of impending market dominance were unfounded.
This widely shared overstatement of antitrust risk derives from a simple but fundamental error: regulators and commentators were looking at the wrong market.
The DOJ’s Antitrust Case against the Transaction
The business case for the AT&T/Time Warner transaction was straightforward: it promised to generate synergies by combining a leading provider of wireless, broadband, and satellite television services with a leading supplier of video content. The DOJ’s antitrust case against the transaction was similarly straightforward: the combined entity would have the ability to foreclose “must have” content from other “pay TV” (cable and satellite television) distributors, resulting in adverse competitive effects.
This foreclosure strategy was expected to take two principal forms. First, AT&T could temporarily withhold (or threaten to withhold) content from rival distributors absent payment of a higher carriage fee, which would then translate into higher fees for subscribers. Second, AT&T could permanently withhold content from rival distributors, who would then lose subscribers to AT&T’s DirectTV satellite television service, further enhancing AT&T’s market power.
Many commentators, both in the trade press and significant portions of the scholarly community, characterized the transaction as posing a high-risk threat to competitive conditions in the pay TV market. These assertions reflected the view that the new entity would exercise a bottleneck position over video-content distribution in the pay TV market and would exercise that power to impose one-sided terms to the detriment of content distributors and consumers.
Notwithstanding this bevy of endorsements, the DOJ’s case was rejected by the district court and the decision was upheld by the D.C. appellate court. The district judge concluded that the DOJ had failed to show that the combined entity would exercise any credible threat to withhold “must have” content from distributors. A key reason: the lost carriage fees AT&T would incur if it did withhold content were so high, and the migration of subscribers from rival pay TV services so speculative, that it would represent an obviously irrational business strategy. In short: no sophisticated business party would ever take AT&T’s foreclosure threat seriously, in which case the DOJ’s predictions of market power were insufficiently compelling to justify the use of government power to block the transaction.
The Fundamental Flaws in the DOJ’s Antitrust Case
The logical and factual infirmities of the DOJ’s foreclosure hypothesis have been extensively and ably covered elsewhere and I will not repeat that analysis. Following up on my previous TOTM commentary on the transaction, I would like to emphasize the point that the DOJ’s case against the transaction was flawed from the outset for two more fundamental reasons.
False Assumption #1
The assumption that the combined entity could withhold so-called “must have” content to cause significant and lasting competitive injury to rival distributors flies in the face of market realities. Content is an abundant, renewable, and mobile resource. There are few entry barriers to the content industry: a commercially promising idea will likely attract capital, which will in turn secure the necessary equipment and personnel for production purposes. Any rival distributor can access a rich menu of valuable content from a plethora of sources, both domestically and worldwide, each of which can provide new content, as required. Even if the combined entity held a license to distribute purportedly “must have” content, that content would be up for sale (more precisely, re-licensing) to the highest bidder as soon as the applicable contract term expired. This is not mere theorizing: it is a widely recognized feature of the entertainment industry.
False Assumption #2
Even assuming the combined entity could wield a portfolio of “must have” content to secure a dominant position in the pay TV market and raise content acquisition costs for rival pay TV services, it still would lack any meaningful pricing power in the relevant consumer market. The reason: significant portions of the viewing population do not want any pay TV or only want dramatically “slimmed-down” packages. Instead, viewers increasingly consume content primarily through video-streaming services—a market in which platforms such as Amazon and Netflix already enjoyed leading positions at the time of the transaction. Hence, even accepting the DOJ’s theory that the combined entity could somehow monopolize the pay TV market consisting of cable and satellite television services, the theory still fails to show any reasonable expectation of anticompetitive effects in the broader and economically relevant market comprising pay TV and streaming services. Any attempt to exercise pricing power in the pay TV market would be economically self-defeating, since it would likely prompt a significant portion of consumers to switch to (or start to only use) streaming services.
The Antitrust Case for the Transaction
When properly situated within the market that was actually being targeted in the AT&T/Time Warner acquisition, the combined entity posed little credible threat of exercising pricing power. To the contrary, the combined entity was best understood as an entrant that sought to challenge the two pioneer entities—Amazon and Netflix—in the “over the top” content market.
Each of these incumbent platforms individually had (and have) multi-billion-dollar content production budgets that rival or exceed the budgets of major Hollywood studios and enjoy worldwide subscriber bases numbering in the hundreds of millions. If that’s not enough, AT&T was not the only entity that observed the displacement of pay TV by streaming services, as illustrated by the roughly concurrent entry of Disney’s Disney+ service, Apple’s Apple TV+ service, Comcast NBCUniversal’s Peacock service, and others. Both the existing and new competitors are formidable entities operating in a market with formidable capital requirements. In 2019, Netflix, Amazon, and Apple TV expended approximately $15 billion, $6 billion, and again, $6 billion, respectively, on content; by contrast, HBO Max, AT&T’s streaming service, expended approximately $3.5 billion.
In short, the combined entity faced stiff competition from existing and reasonably anticipated competitors, requiring several billions of dollars on “content spend” to even stay in the running. Far from being able to exercise pricing power in an imaginary market defined by DOJ litigators for strategic purposes, the AT&T/Time Warner entity faced the challenge of merely surviving in a real-world market populated by several exceptionally well-financed competitors. At best, the combined entity “threatened” to deliver incremental competitive benefits by adding a robust new platform to the video-streaming market; at worst, it would fail in this objective and cause no incremental competitive harm. As it turns out, the latter appears to be the case.
The Enduring Virtues of Antitrust Prudence
AT&T’s M&A fiasco has important lessons for broader antitrust debates about the evidentiary standards that should be applied by courts and agencies when assessing alleged antitrust violations, in general, and vertical restraints, in particular.
Among some scholars, regulators, and legislators, it has become increasingly received wisdom that prevailing evidentiary standards, as reflected in federal case law and agency guidelines, are excessively demanding, and have purportedly induced chronic underenforcement. It has been widely asserted that the courts’ and regulators’ focus on avoiding “false positives” and the associated costs of disrupting innocuous or beneficial business practices has resulted in an overly cautious enforcement posture, especially with respect to mergers and vertical restraints.
In fact, these views were expressed by some commentators in endorsing the antitrust case against the AT&T/Time-Warner transaction. Some legislators have gone further and argued for substantial amendments to the antitrust law to provide enforcers and courts with greater latitude to block or re-engineer combinations that would not pose sufficiently demonstrated competitive risks under current statutory or case law.
The swift downfall of the AT&T/Time-Warner transaction casts great doubt on this critique and accompanying policy proposals. It was precisely the district court’s rigorous application of those “overly” demanding evidentiary standards that avoided what would have been a clear false-positive error. The failure of the “blockbuster” combination to achieve not only market dominance, but even reasonably successful entry, validates the wisdom of retaining those standards.
The fundamental mismatch between the widely supported antitrust case against the transaction and the widely overlooked business realities of the economically relevant consumer market illustrates the ease with which largely theoretical and decontextualized economic models of competitive harm can lead to enforcement actions that lack any reasonable basis in fact.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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.