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

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

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

Who Balances the Benefits and Costs of Speech?

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

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

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

As Thomas Sowell wrote in Knowledge and Decisions:

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

Knowledge and Decisions, p. 240

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

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

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

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

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

Knowledge and Decisions, p. 244

Markets Produce the Best Moderation Policies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The report thus asserts that:

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

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

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

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

Decisions Under Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Erroneous Predictions in Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The FTC Lawyers’ Weak Case for Prosecuting Google

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

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

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

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

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

Moreover, as Ben Thompson argues in his Stratechery newsletter: 

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

This difficulty was deftly highlighted by Heyer’s memo:

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

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

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

Google’s ‘revenue-sharing’ agreements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-preferencing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competitor Harm Is Not an Indicator of the Need for Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the antitrust lawsuits against Google. The entire series of posts is available here.]

The U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) antitrust case against Google, which was filed in October 2020, will be a tough slog.[1] It is an alleged monopolization (Sherman Act, Sec. 2) case; and monopolization cases are always a tough slog.

In this brief essay I will lay out some of the issues in the case and raise an intriguing possibility.

What is the case about?

The case is about exclusivity and exclusion in the distribution of search engine services; that Google paid substantial sums to Apple and to the manufacturers of Android-based mobile phones and tablets and also to wireless carriers and web-browser proprietors—in essence, to distributors—to install the Google search engine as the exclusive pre-set (installed), default search program. The suit alleges that Google thereby made it more difficult for other search-engine providers (e.g., Bing; DuckDuckGo) to obtain distribution for their search-engine services and thus to attract search-engine users and to sell the online advertising that is associated with search-engine use and that provides the revenue to support the search “platform” in this “two-sided market” context.[2]

Exclusion can be seen as a form of “raising rivals’ costs.”[3]  Equivalently, exclusion can be seen as a form of non-price predation. Under either interpretation, the exclusionary action impedes competition.

It’s important to note that these allegations are different from those that motivated an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (which the FTC dropped in 2013) and the cases by the European Union against Google.[4]  Those cases focused on alleged self-preferencing; that Google was unduly favoring its own products and services (e.g., travel services) in its delivery of search results to users of its search engine. In those cases, the impairment of competition (arguably) happens with respect to those competing products and services, not with respect to search itself.

What is the relevant market?

For a monopolization allegation to have any meaning, there needs to be the exercise of market power (which would have adverse consequences for the buyers of the product). And in turn, that exercise of market power needs to occur in a relevant market: one in which market power can be exercised.

Here is one of the important places where the DOJ’s case is likely to turn into a slog: the delineation of a relevant market for alleged monopolization cases remains as a largely unsolved problem for antitrust economics.[5]  This is in sharp contrast to the issue of delineating relevant markets for the antitrust analysis of proposed mergers.  For this latter category, the paradigm of the “hypothetical monopolist” and the possibility that this hypothetical monopolist could prospectively impose a “small but significant non-transitory increase in price” (SSNIP) has carried the day for the purposes of market delineation.

But no such paradigm exists for monopolization cases, in which the usual allegation is that the defendant already possesses market power and has used the exclusionary actions to buttress that market power. To see the difficulties, it is useful to recall the basic monopoly diagram from Microeconomics 101. A monopolist faces a negatively sloped demand curve for its product (at higher prices, less is bought; at lower prices, more is bought) and sets a profit-maximizing price at the level of output where its marginal revenue (MR) equals its marginal costs (MC). Its price is thereby higher than an otherwise similar competitive industry’s price for that product (to the detriment of buyers) and the monopolist earns higher profits than would the competitive industry.

But unless there are reliable benchmarks as to what the competitive price and profits would otherwise be, any information as to the defendant’s price and profits has little value with respect to whether the defendant already has market power. Also, a claim that a firm does not have market power because it faces rivals and thus isn’t able profitably to raise its price from its current level (because it would lose too many sales to those rivals) similarly has no value. Recall the monopolist from Micro 101. It doesn’t set a higher price than the one where MR=MC, because it would thereby lose too many sales to other sellers of other things.

Thus, any firm—regardless of whether it truly has market power (like the Micro 101 monopolist) or is just another competitor in a sea of competitors—should have already set its price at its profit-maximizing level and should find it unprofitable to raise its price from that level.[6]  And thus the claim, “Look at all of the firms that I compete with!  I don’t have market power!” similarly has no informational value.

Let us now bring this problem back to the Google monopolization allegation:  What is the relevant market?  In the first instance, it has to be “the provision of answers to user search queries.” After all, this is the “space” in which the exclusion occurred. But there are categories of search: e.g., search for products/services, versus more general information searches (“What is the current time in Delaware?” “Who was the 21st President of the United States?”). Do those separate categories themselves constitute relevant markets?

Further, what would the exercise of market power in a (delineated relevant) market look like?  Higher-than-competitive prices for advertising that targets search-results recipients is one obvious answer (but see below). In addition, because this is a two-sided market, the competitive “price” (or prices) might involve payments by the search engine to the search users (in return for their exposure to the lucrative attached advertising).[7]  And product quality might exhibit less variety than a competitive market would provide; and/or the monopolistic average level of quality would be lower than in a competitive market: e.g., more abuse of user data, and/or deterioration of the delivered information itself, via more self-preferencing by the search engine and more advertising-driven preferencing of results.[8]

In addition, a natural focus for a relevant market is the advertising that accompanies the search results. But now we are at the heart of the difficulty of delineating a relevant market in a monopolization context. If the relevant market is “advertising on search engine results pages,” it seems highly likely that Google has market power. If the relevant market instead is all online U.S. advertising (of which Google’s revenue share accounted for 32% in 2019[9]), then the case is weaker; and if the relevant market is all advertising in the United States (which is about twice the size of online advertising[10]), the case is weaker still. Unless there is some competitive benchmark, there is no easy way to delineate the relevant market.[11]

What exactly has Google been paying for, and why?

As many critics of the DOJ’s case have pointed out, it is extremely easy for users to switch their default search engine. If internet search were a normal good or service, this ease of switching would leave little room for the exercise of market power. But in that case, why is Google willing to pay $8-$12 billion annually for the exclusive default setting on Apple devices and large sums to the manufacturers of Android-based devices (and to wireless carriers and browser proprietors)? Why doesn’t Google instead run ads in prominent places that remind users how superior Google’s search results are and how easy it is for users (if they haven’t already done so) to switch to the Google search engine and make Google the user’s default choice?

Suppose that user inertia is important. Further suppose that users generally have difficulty in making comparisons with respect to the quality of delivered search results. If this is true, then being the default search engine on Apple and Android-based devices and on other distribution vehicles would be valuable. In this context, the inertia of their customers is a valuable “asset” of the distributors that the distributors may not be able to take advantage of, but that Google can (by providing search services and selling advertising). The question of whether Google’s taking advantage of this user inertia means that Google exercises market power takes us back to the issue of delineating the relevant market.

There is a further wrinkle to all of this. It is a well-understood concept in antitrust economics that an incumbent monopolist will be willing to pay more for the exclusive use of an essential input than a challenger would pay for access to the input.[12] The basic idea is straightforward. By maintaining exclusive use of the input, the incumbent monopolist preserves its (large) monopoly profits. If the challenger enters, the incumbent will then earn only its share of the (much lower, more competitive) duopoly profits. Similarly, the challenger can expect only the lower duopoly profits. Accordingly, the incumbent should be willing to outbid (and thereby exclude) the challenger and preserve the incumbent’s exclusive use of the input, so as to protect those monopoly profits.

To bring this to the Google monopolization context, if Google does possess market power in some aspect of search—say, because online search-linked advertising is a relevant market—then Google will be willing to outbid Microsoft (which owns Bing) for the “asset” of default access to Apple’s (inertial) device owners. That Microsoft is a large and profitable company and could afford to match (or exceed) Google’s payments to Apple is irrelevant. If the duopoly profits for online search-linked advertising would be substantially lower than Google’s current profits, then Microsoft would not find it worthwhile to try to outbid Google for that default access asset.

Alternatively, this scenario could be wholly consistent with an absence of market power. If search users (who can easily switch) consider Bing to be a lower-quality search service, then large payments by Microsoft to outbid Google for those exclusive default rights would be largely wasted, since the “acquired” default search users would quickly switch to Google (unless Microsoft provided additional incentives for the users not to switch).

But this alternative scenario returns us to the original puzzle:  Why is Google making such large payments to the distributors for those exclusive default rights?

An intriguing possibility

Consider the following possibility. Suppose that Google was paying that $8-$12 billion annually to Apple in return for the understanding that Apple would not develop its own search engine for Apple’s device users.[13] This possibility was not raised in the DOJ’s complaint, nor is it raised in the subsequent suits by the state attorneys general.

But let’s explore the implications by going to an extreme. Suppose that Google and Apple had a formal agreement that—in return for the $8-$12 billion per year—Apple would not develop its own search engine. In this event, this agreement not to compete would likely be seen as a violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act (which does not require a market delineation exercise) and Apple would join Google as a co-conspirator. The case would take on the flavor of the FTC’s prosecution of “pay-for-delay” agreements between the manufacturers of patented pharmaceuticals and the generic drug manufacturers that challenge those patents and then receive payments from the former in return for dropping the patent challenge and delaying the entry of the generic substitute.[14]

As of this writing, there is no evidence of such an agreement and it seems quite unlikely that there would have been a formal agreement. But the DOJ will be able to engage in discovery and take depositions. It will be interesting to find out what the relevant executives at Google—and at Apple—thought was being achieved by those payments.

What would be a suitable remedy/relief?

The DOJ’s complaint is vague with respect to the remedy that it seeks. This is unsurprising. The DOJ may well want to wait to see how the case develops and then amend its complaint.

However, even if Google’s actions have constituted monopolization, it is difficult to conceive of a suitable and effective remedy. One apparently straightforward remedy would be to require simply that Google not be able to purchase exclusivity with respect to the pre-set default settings. In essence, the device manufacturers and others would always be able to sell parallel default rights to other search engines: on the basis, say, that the default rights for some categories of customers—or even a percentage of general customers (randomly selected)—could be sold to other search-engine providers.

But now the Gilbert-Newbery insight comes back into play. Suppose that a device manufacturer knows (or believes) that Google will pay much more if—even in the absence of any exclusivity agreement—Google ends up being the pre-set search engine for all (or nearly all) of the manufacturer’s device sales, as compared with what the manufacturer would receive if those default rights were sold to multiple search-engine providers (including, but not solely, Google). Can that manufacturer (recall that the distributors are not defendants in the case) be prevented from making this sale to Google and thus (de facto) continuing Google’s exclusivity?[15]

Even a requirement that Google not be allowed to make any payment to the distributors for a default position may not improve the competitive environment. Google may be able to find other ways of making indirect payments to distributors in return for attaining default rights, e.g., by offering them lower rates on their online advertising.

Further, if the ultimate goal is an efficient outcome in search, it is unclear how far restrictions on Google’s bidding behavior should go. If Google were forbidden from purchasing any default installation rights for its search engine, would (inert) consumers be better off? Similarly, if a distributor were to decide independently that its customers were better served by installing the Google search engine as the default, would that not be allowed? But if it is allowed, how could one be sure that Google wasn’t indirectly paying for this “independent” decision (e.g., through favorable advertising rates)?

It’s important to remember that this (alleged) monopolization is different from the Standard Oil case of 1911 or even the (landline) AT&T case of 1984. In those cases, there were physical assets that could be separated and spun off to separate companies. For Google, physical assets aren’t important. Although it is conceivable that some of Google’s intellectual property—such as Gmail, YouTube, or Android—could be spun off to separate companies, doing so would do little to cure the (arguably) fundamental problem of the inert device users.

In addition, if there were an agreement between Google and Apple for the latter not to develop a search engine, then large fines for both parties would surely be warranted. But what next? Apple can’t be forced to develop a search engine.[16] This differentiates such an arrangement from the “pay-for-delay” arrangements for pharmaceuticals, where the generic manufacturers can readily produce a near-identical substitute for the patented drug and are otherwise eager to do so.

At the end of the day, forbidding Google from paying for exclusivity may well be worth trying as a remedy. But as the discussion above indicates, it is unlikely to be a panacea and is likely to require considerable monitoring for effective enforcement.

Conclusion

The DOJ’s case against Google will be a slog. There are unresolved issues—such as how to delineate a relevant market in a monopolization case—that will be central to the case. Even if the DOJ is successful in showing that Google violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act in monopolizing search and/or search-linked advertising, an effective remedy seems problematic. But there also remains the intriguing question of why Google was willing to pay such large sums for those exclusive default installation rights?

The developments in the case will surely be interesting.


[1] The DOJ’s suit was joined by 11 states.  More states subsequently filed two separate antitrust lawsuits against Google in December.

[2] There is also a related argument:  That Google thereby gained greater volume, which allowed it to learn more about its search users and their behavior, and which thereby allowed it to provide better answers to users (and thus a higher-quality offering to its users) and better-targeted (higher-value) advertising to its advertisers.  Conversely, Google’s search-engine rivals were deprived of that volume, with the mirror-image negative consequences for the rivals.  This is just another version of the standard “learning-by-doing” and the related “learning curve” (or “experience curve”) concepts that have been well understood in economics for decades.

[3] See, for example, Steven C. Salop and David T. Scheffman, “Raising Rivals’ Costs: Recent Advances in the Theory of Industrial Structure,” American Economic Review, Vol. 73, No. 2 (May 1983), pp.  267-271; and Thomas G. Krattenmaker and Steven C. Salop, “Anticompetitive Exclusion: Raising Rivals’ Costs To Achieve Power Over Price,” Yale Law Journal, Vol. 96, No. 2 (December 1986), pp. 209-293.

[4] For a discussion, see Richard J. Gilbert, “The U.S. Federal Trade Commission Investigation of Google Search,” in John E. Kwoka, Jr., and Lawrence J. White, eds. The Antitrust Revolution: Economics, Competition, and Policy, 7th edn.  Oxford University Press, 2019, pp. 489-513.

[5] For a more complete version of the argument that follows, see Lawrence J. White, “Market Power and Market Definition in Monopolization Cases: A Paradigm Is Missing,” in Wayne D. Collins, ed., Issues in Competition Law and Policy. American Bar Association, 2008, pp. 913-924.

[6] The forgetting of this important point is often termed “the cellophane fallacy”, since this is what the U.S. Supreme Court did in a 1956 antitrust case in which the DOJ alleged that du Pont had monopolized the cellophane market (and du Pont, in its defense claimed that the relevant market was much wider: all flexible wrapping materials); see U.S. v. du Pont, 351 U.S. 377 (1956).  For an argument that profit data and other indicia argued for cellophane as the relevant market, see George W. Stocking and Willard F. Mueller, “The Cellophane Case and the New Competition,” American Economic Review, Vol. 45, No. 1 (March 1955), pp. 29-63.

[7] In the context of differentiated services, one would expect prices (positive or negative) to vary according to the quality of the service that is offered.  It is worth noting that Bing offers “rewards” to frequent searchers; see https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/bing/defaults-rewards.  It is unclear whether this pricing structure of payment to Bing’s customers represents what a more competitive framework in search might yield, or whether the payment just indicates that search users consider Bing to be a lower-quality service.

[8] As an additional consequence of the impairment of competition in this type of search market, there might be less technological improvement in the search process itself – to the detriment of users.

[9] As estimated by eMarketer: https://www.emarketer.com/newsroom/index.php/google-ad-revenues-to-drop-for-the-first-time/.

[10] See https://www.visualcapitalist.com/us-advertisers-spend-20-years/.

[11] And, again, if we return to the du Pont cellophane case:  Was the relevant market cellophane?  Or all flexible wrapping materials?

[12] This insight is formalized in Richard J. Gilbert and David M.G. Newbery, “Preemptive Patenting and the Persistence of Monopoly,” American Economic Review, Vol. 72, No. 3 (June 1982), pp. 514-526.

[13] To my knowledge, Randal C. Picker was the first to suggest this possibility; see https://www.competitionpolicyinternational.com/a-first-look-at-u-s-v-google/.  Whether Apple would be interested in trying to develop its own search engine – given the fiasco a decade ago when Apple tried to develop its own maps app to replace the Google maps app – is an open question.  In addition, the Gilbert-Newbery insight applies here as well:  Apple would be less inclined to invest the substantial resources that would be needed to develop a search engine when it is thereby in a duopoly market.  But Google might be willing to pay “insurance” to reinforce any doubts that Apple might have.

[14] The U.S. Supreme Court, in FTC v. Actavis, 570 U.S. 136 (2013), decided that such agreements could be anti-competitive and should be judged under the “rule of reason”.  For a discussion of the case and its implications, see, for example, Joseph Farrell and Mark Chicu, “Pharmaceutical Patents and Pay-for-Delay: Actavis (2013),” in John E. Kwoka, Jr., and Lawrence J. White, eds. The Antitrust Revolution: Economics, Competition, and Policy, 7th edn.  Oxford University Press, 2019, pp. 331-353.

[15] This is an example of the insight that vertical arrangements – in this case combined with the Gilbert-Newbery effect – can be a way for dominant firms to raise rivals’ costs.  See, for example, John Asker and Heski Bar-Isaac. 2014. “Raising Retailers’ Profits: On Vertical Practices and the Exclusion of Rivals.” American Economic Review, Vol. 104, No. 2 (February 2014), pp. 672-686.

[16] And, again, for the reasons discussed above, Apple might not be eager to make the effort.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the antitrust lawsuits against Google. The entire series of posts is available here.]

It is my endeavor to scrutinize the questionable assessment articulated against default settings in the U.S. Justice Department’s lawsuit against Google. Default, I will argue, is no antitrust fault. Default in the Google case drastically differs from default referred to in the Microsoft case. In Part I, I argue the comparison is odious. Furthermore, in Part II, it will be argued that the implicit prohibition of default settings echoes, as per listings, the explicit prohibition of self-preferencing in search results. Both aspects – default’s implicit prohibition and self-preferencing’s explicit prohibition – are the two legs of a novel and integrated theory of sanctioning corporate favoritism. The coming to the fore of such theory goes against the very essence of the capitalist grain. In Part III, I note the attempt to instill some corporate selflessness is at odds with competition on the merits and the spirit of fundamental economic freedoms.

When Default is No-Fault

The recent complaint filed by the DOJ and 11 state attorneys general claims that Google has abused its dominant position on the search-engine market through several ways, notably making Google the default search engine both in Google Chrome web browser for Android OS and in Apple’s Safari web browser for iOS. Undoubtedly, default setting confers a noticeable advantage for users’ attraction – it is sought and enforced on purpose. Nevertheless, the default setting confers an unassailable position unless the product remains competitive. Furthermore, the default setting can hardly be proven to be anticompetitive in the Google case. Indeed, the DOJ puts considerable effort in the complaint to make the Google case resemble the 20-year-old Microsoft case. Former Federal Trade Commission Chairman William Kovacic commented: “I suppose the Justice Department is telling the court, ‘You do not have to be scared of this case. You’ve done it before […] This is Microsoft part 2.”[1]

However, irrespective of the merits of the Microsoft case two decades ago, the Google default setting case bears minimal resemblance to the Microsoft default setting of Internet Explorer. First, as opposed to the Microsoft case, where default by Microsoft meant pre-installed software (i.e., Internet Explorer)[2], the Google case does not relate to the pre-installment of the Google search engine (since it is just a webpage) but a simple setting. This technical difference is significant: although “sticky”[3], the default setting, can be outwitted with just one click[4]. It is dissimilar to the default setting, which can only be circumvented by uninstalling software[5], searching and installing a new one[6]. Moreover, with no certainty that consumers will effectively use Google search engine, default settings come with advertising revenue sharing agreements between Google and device manufacturers, mobile phone carriers, competing browsers and Apple[7]. These mutually beneficial deals represent a significant cost with no technical exclusivity [8]. In other words, the antitrust treatment of a tie-in between software and hardware in the Microsoft case cannot be convincingly extrapolated to the default setting of a “webware”[9] as relevant in the Google case.

Second, the Google case cannot legitimately resort to extrapolating the Microsoft case for another technical (and commercial) aspect: the Microsoft case was a classic tie-in case where the tied product (Internet Explorer) was tied into the main product (Windows). As a traditional tie-in scenario, the tied product (Internet Explorer) was “consistently offered, promoted, and distributed […] as a stand-alone product separate from, and not as a component of, Windows […]”[10]. In contrast, Google has never sold Google Chrome or Android OS. It offered both Google Chrome and Android OS for free, necessarily conditional to Google search engine as default setting. The very fact that Google Chrome or Android OS have never been “stand-alone” products, to use the Microsoft case’s language, together with the absence of software installation, dramatically differentiates the features pertaining to the Google case from those of the Microsoft case. The Google case is not a traditional tie-in case: it is a case against default setting when both products (the primary and related products) are given for free, are not saleable, are neither tangible nor intangible goods but only popular digital services due to significant innovativeness and ease of usage. The Microsoft “complaint challenge[d] only Microsoft’s concerted attempts to maintain its monopoly in operating systems and to achieve dominance in other markets, not by innovation and other competition on the merits, but by tie-ins.” Quite noticeably, the Google case does not mention tie-in ,as per Google Chrome or Android OS.

The complaint only refers to tie-ins concerning Google’s app being pre-installed on Android OS. Therefore, concerning Google’s dominance on the search engine market, it cannot be said that the default setting of Google search in Android OS entails tie-in. Google search engine has no distribution channel (since it is only a website) other than through downstream partnerships (i.e., vertical deals with Android device manufacturers). To sanction default setting on downstream trading partners is tantamount to refusing legitimate means to secure distribution channels of proprietary and zero-priced services. To further this detrimental logic, it would mean that Apple may no longer offer its own apps in its own iPhones or, in offline markets, that a retailer may no longer offer its own (default) bags at the till since it excludes rivals’ sale bags. Products and services naked of any adjacent products and markets (i.e., an iPhone or Android OS with no app or a shopkeeper with no bundled services) would dramatically increase consumers’ search costs while destroying innovators’ essential distribution channels for innovative business models and providing few departures from the status quo as long as consumers will continue to value default products[11].

Default should not be an antitrust fault: the Google case makes default settings a new line of antitrust injury absent tie-ins. In conclusion, as a free webware, Google search’s default setting cannot be compared to default installation in the Microsoft case since minimal consumer stickiness entails (almost) no switching costs. As free software, Google’s default apps cannot be compared to Microsoft case either since pre-installation is the sine qua non condition of the highly valued services (Android OS) voluntarily chosen by device manufacturers. Default settings on downstream products can only be reasonably considered as antitrust injury when the dominant company is erroneously treated as a de facto essential facility – something evidenced by the similar prohibition of self-preferencing.

When Self-Preference is No Defense

Self-preferencing is to listings what the default setting is to operating systems. They both are ways to market one’s own products (i.e., alternative to marketing toward end-consumers). While default setting may come with both free products and financial payments (Android OS and advertising revenue sharing), self-preferencing may come with foregone advertising revenues in order to promote one’s own products. Both sides can be apprehended as the two sides of the same coin:[12] generating the ad-funded main product’s distribution channels – Google’s search engine. Both are complex advertising channels since both venues favor one’s own products regarding consumers’ attention. Absent both channels, the payments made for default agreements and the foregone advertising revenues in self-preferencing one’s own products would morph into marketing and advertising expenses of Google search engine toward end-consumers.

The DOJ complaint lambasts that “Google’s monopoly in general search services also has given the company extraordinary power as the gateway to the internet, which uses to promote its own web content and increase its profits.” This blame was at the core of the European Commission’s Google Shopping decision in 2017[13]: it essentially holds Google accountable for having, because of its ad-funded business model, promoted its own advertising products and demoted organic links in search results. According to which Google’s search results are no longer relevant and listed on the sole motivation of advertising revenue

But this argument is circular: should these search results become irrelevant, Google’s core business would become less attractive, thereby generating less advertising revenue. This self-inflicted inefficiency would deprive Google of valuable advertising streams and incentivize end-consumers to switch to search engine rivals such as Bing, DuckDuckGo, Amazon (product search), etc. Therefore, an ad-funded company such as Google needs to reasonably arbitrage between advertising objectives and the efficiency of its core activities (here, zero-priced organic search services). To downplay (the ad-funded) self-referencing in order to foster (the zero-priced) organic search quality would disregard the two-sidedness of the Google platform: it would harm advertisers and the viability of the ad-funded business model without providing consumers and innovation protection it aims at providing. The problematic and undesirable concept of “search neutrality” would mean algorithmic micro-management for the sake of an “objective” listing considered acceptable only to the eyes of the regulator.

Furthermore, self-preferencing entails a sort of positive discrimination toward one’s own products[14]. If discrimination has traditionally been antitrust lines of injuries, self-preferencing is an “epithet”[15] outside antitrust remits for good reasons[16]. Indeed, should self-interested (i.e., rationally minded) companies and individuals are legally complied to self-demote their own products and services? If only big (how big?) companies are legally complied to self-demote their products and services, to what extent will exempted companies involved in self-preferencing become liable to do so?

Indeed, many uncertainties, legal and economic ones, may spawn from the emerging prohibition of self-preferencing. More fundamentally, antitrust liability may clash with basic corporate governance principles where self-interestedness allows self-preferencing and command such self-promotion. The limits of antitrust have been reached when two sets of legal regimes, both applicable to companies, suggest contradictory commercial conducts. To what extent may Amazon no longer promote its own series on Amazon Video in a similar manner Netflix does? To what extent can Microsoft no longer promote Bing’s search engine to compete with Google’s search engine effectively? To what extent Uber may no longer promote UberEATS in order to compete with delivery services effectively? Not only the business of business is doing business[17], but also it is its duty for which shareholders may hold managers to account.

The self is moral; there is a corporate morality of business self-interest. In other words, corporate selflessness runs counter to business ethics since corporate self-interest yields the self’s rivalrous positioning within a competitive order. Absent a corporate self-interest, self-sacrifice may generate value destruction for the sake of some unjustified and ungrounded claims. The emerging prohibition of self-preferencing, similar to the established ban on the default setting on one’s own products into other proprietary products, materializes the corporate self’s losing. Both directions coalesce to instill the legally embedded duty of self-sacrifice for the competitor’s welfare instead of the traditional consumer welfare and the dynamics of innovation, which never unleash absent appropriabilities. In conclusion, to expect firms, however big or small, to act irrespective of their identities (i.e., corporate selflessness) would constitute an antitrust error and would be at odds with capitalism.

Toward an Integrated Theory of Disintegrating Favoritism

The Google lawsuit primarily blames Google for default settings enforced via several deals. The lawsuit also makes self-preferencing anticompetitive conduct under antitrust rules. These two charges are novel and dubious in their remits. They nevertheless represent a fundamental catalyst for the development of a new and problematic unified antitrust theory prohibiting favoritism:  companies may no longer favor their products and services, both vertically and horizontally, irrespective of consumer benefits, irrespective of superior efficiency arguments, and irrespective of dynamic capabilities enhancement. Indeed, via an unreasonably expanded vision of leveraging, antitrust enforcement is furtively banning a company to favor its own products and services based on greater consumer choice as a substitute to consumer welfare, based on the protection of the opportunities of rivals to innovate and compete as a substitute to the essence of competition and innovation, and based on limiting the outreach and size of companies as a substitute to the capabilities and efficiencies of these companies. Leveraging becomes suspicious and corporate self-favoritism under accusation. The Google lawsuit materializes this impractical trend, which further enshrines the precautionary approach to antitrust enforcement[18].


[1] Jessica Guynn, Google Justice Department antitrust lawsuit explained: this is what it means for you. USA Today, October 20, 2020.

[2] The software (Internet Explorer) was tied in the hardware (Windows PC).

[3] U.S. v Google LLC, Case A:20, October 20, 2020, 3 (referring to default settings as “especially sticky” with respect to consumers’ willingness to change).

[4] While the DOJ affirms that “being the preset default general search engine is particularly valuable because consumers rarely change the preset default”, it nevertheless provides no evidence of the breadth of such consumer stickiness. To be sure, search engine’s default status does not necessarily lead to usage as evidenced by the case of South Korea. In this country, despite Google’s preset default settings, the search engine Naver remains dominant in the national search market with over 70% of market shares. The rivalry exerted by Naver on Google demonstrates that limits of consumer stickiness to default settings. See Alesia Krush, Google vs. Naver: Why Can’t Google Dominate Search in Korea? Link-Assistant.Com, available at: https://www.link-assistant.com/blog/google-vs-naver-why-cant-google-dominate-search-in-korea/ . As dominant search engine in Korea, Naver is subject to antitrust investigations with similar leveraging practices as Google in other countries, see Shin Ji-hye, FTC sets up special to probe Naver, Google, The Korea Herald, November 19, 2019, available at :  http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20191119000798 ; Kim Byung-wook, Complaint against Google to be filed with FTC, The Investor, December 14, 2020, available at : https://www.theinvestor.co.kr/view.php?ud=20201123000984  (reporting a complaint by Naver and other Korean IT companies against Google’s 30% commission policy on Google Play Store’s apps).

[5] For instance, the then complaint acknowledged that “Microsoft designed Windows 98 so that removal of Internet Explorer by OEMs or end users is operationally more difficult than it was in Windows 95”, in U.S. v Microsoft Corp., Civil Action No 98-1232, May 18, 1998, para.20.

[6] The DOJ complaint itself quotes “one search competitor who is reported to have noted consumer stickiness “despite the simplicity of changing a default setting to enable customer choice […]” (para.47). Therefore, default setting for search engine is remarkably simple to bypass but consumers do not often do so, either due to satisfaction with Google search engine and/or due to search and opportunity costs.

[7] See para.56 of the DOJ complaint.

[8] Competing browsers can always welcome rival search engines and competing search engine apps can always be downloaded despite revenue sharing agreements. See paras.78-87 of the DOJ complaint.

[9] Google search engine is nothing but a “webware” – a complex set of algorithms that work via online access of a webpage with no prior download. For a discussion on the definition of webware, see https://www.techopedia.com/definition/4933/webware .

[10] Id. para.21.

[11] Such outcome would frustrate traditional ways of offering computers and mobile devices as acknowledged by the DOJ itself in the Google complaint: “new computers and new mobile devices generally come with a number of preinstalled apps and out-of-the-box setting. […] Each of these search access points can and almost always does have a preset default general search engine”, at para. 41. Also, it appears that present default general search engine is common commercial practices since, as the DOJ complaint itself notes when discussing Google’s rivals (Microsoft’s Bing and Amazon’s Fire OS), “Amazon preinstalled its own proprietary apps and agreed to make Microsoft’s Bing the preset default general search engine”, in para.130. The complaint fails to identify alternative search engines which are not preset defaults, thus implicitly recognizing this practice as a widespread practice.

[12] To use Vesterdof’s language, see Bo Vesterdorf, Theories of Self-Preferencing and Duty to Deal – Two Sides of the Same Coin, Competition Law & Policy Debate 1(1) 4, (2015). See also Nicolas Petit, Theories of Self-Preferencing under Article 102 TFEU: A Reply to Bo Vesterdorf, 5-7 (2015).

[13] Case 39740 Google Search (Shopping). Here the foreclosure effects of self-preferencing are only speculated: « the Commission is not required to prove that the Conduct has the actual effect of decreasing traffic to competing comparison shopping services and increasing traffic to Google’s comparison-shopping service. Rather, it is sufficient for the Commission to demonstrate that the Conduct is capable of having, or likely to have, such effects.” (para.601 of the Decision). See P. Ibáñez Colomo, Indispensability and Abuse of Dominance: From Commercial Solvents to Slovak Telekom and Google Shopping, 10 Journal of European Competition Law & Practice 532 (2019); Aurelien Portuese, When Demotion is Competition: Algorithmic Antitrust Illustrated, Concurrences, no 2, May 2018, 25-37; Aurelien Portuese, Fine is Only One Click Away, Symposium on the Google Shopping Decision, Case Note, 3 Competition and Regulatory Law Review, (2017).

[14] For a general discussion on law and economics of self-preferencing, see Michael A. Salinger, Self-Preferencing, Global Antitrust Institute Report, 329-368 (2020).

[15]Pablo Ibanez Colomo, Self-Preferencing: Yet Another Epithet in Need of Limiting Principles, 43 World Competition (2020) (concluding that self-preferencing is « misleading as a legal category »).

[16] See, for instances, Pedro Caro de Sousa, What Shall We Do About Self-Preferencing? Competition Policy International, June 2020.

[17] Milton Friedman, The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits, New York Times, September 13, 1970. This echoes Adam Smith’s famous statement that « It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own self-interest » from the 1776 Wealth of Nations. In Ayn Rand’s philosophy, the only alternative to rational self-interest is to sacrifice one’s own interests either for fellowmen (altruism) or for supernatural forces (mysticism). See Ayn Rand, The Objectivist Ethics, in The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet, (1964).

[18] Aurelien Portuese, European Competition Enforcement and the Digital Economy : The Birthplace of Precautionary Antitrust, Global Antitrust Institute’s Report on the Digital Economy, 597-651.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the antitrust lawsuits against Google. The entire series of posts is available here.]

Judges sometimes claim that they do not pick winners when they decide antitrust cases. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Competitive conduct by its nature harms competitors, and so if antitrust were merely to prohibit harm to competitors, antitrust would then destroy what it is meant to promote.

What antitrust prohibits, therefore, is not harm to competitors but rather harm to competitors that fails to improve products. Only in this way is antitrust able to distinguish between the good firm that harms competitors by making superior products that consumers love and that competitors cannot match and the bad firm that harms competitors by degrading their products without offering consumers anything better than what came before.

That means, however, that antitrust must pick winners: antitrust must decide what is an improvement and what not. And a more popular search engine is a clear winner.

But one should not take its winningness for granted. For once upon a time there was another winner that the courts always picked, blocking antitrust case after antitrust case. Until one day the courts stopped picking it.

That was the economy of scale.

The Structure of the Google Case

Like all antitrust cases that challenge the exercise of power, the government’s case against Google alleges denial of an input to competitors in some market. Here the input is default search status in smartphones, the competitors are rival search providers, and the market is search advertising. The basic structure of the case is depicted in the figure below.

Although brought as a monopolization case under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, this is at heart an exclusive dealing case of the sort normally brought under Section 1 of the Sherman Act: the government’s core argument is that Google uses contracts with smartphone makers, pursuant to which the smartphone makers promise to make Google, and not competitors, the search default, to harm competing search advertising providers and by extension competition in the search advertising market.

The government must show anticompetitive conduct, monopoly power, and consumer harm in order to prevail.

Let us assume that there is monopoly power. The company has more than 70% of the search advertising market, which is in the zone normally required to prove that element of a monopolization claim.

The problem of anticompetitive conduct is only slightly more difficult.

Anticompetitive conduct is only ever one thing in antitrust: denial of an essential input to a competitor. There is no other way to harm rivals.

(To be sure, antitrust prohibits harm to competition, not competitors, but that means only that harm to competitors necessary but insufficient for liability. The consumer harm requirement decides whether the requisite harm to competitors is also harm to competition.)

It is not entirely clear just how important default search status really is to running a successful search engine, but let us assume that it is essential, as the government suggests.

Then the question whether Google’s contracts are anticompetitive turns on how much of the default search input Google’s contracts foreclose to rival search engines. If a lot, then the rivals are badly harmed. If a little, then there may be no harm at all.

The answer here is that there is a lot of foreclosure, at least if the government’s complaint is to be believed. Through its contracts with Apple and makers of Android phones, Google has foreclosed default search status to rivals on virtually every single smartphone.

That leaves consumer harm. And here is where things get iffy.

Usage as a Product Improvement: A Very Convenient Argument

The inquiry into consumer harm evokes measurements of the difference between demand curves and price lines, or extrapolations of compensating and equivalent variation using indifference curves painstakingly pieced together based on the assumptions of revealed preference.

But while the parties may pay experts plenty to spin such yarns, and judges may pretend to listen to them, in the end, for the judges, it always comes down to one question only: did exclusive dealing improve the product?

If it did, then the judge assumes that the contracts made consumers better off and the defendant wins. And if it did not, then off with their heads.

So, does foreclosing all this default search space to competitors make Google search advertising more valuable to advertisers?

Those who leap to Google’s defense say yes, for default search status increases the number of people who use Google’s search engine. And the more people use Google’s search engine, the more Google learns about how best to answer search queries and which advertisements will most interest which searchers. And that ensures that even more people will use Google’s search engine, and that Google will do an even better job of targeting ads on its search engine.

And that in turn makes Google’s search advertising even better: able to reach more people and to target ads more effectively to them.

None of that would happen if defaults were set to other engines and users spurned Google, and so foreclosing default search space to rivals undoubtedly improves Google’s product.

This is a nice argument. Indeed, it is almost too nice, for it seems to suggest that almost anything Google might do to steer users away from competitors and to itself deserves antitrust immunity. Suppose Google were to brandish arms to induce you to run your next search on Google. That would be a crime, but, on this account, not an antitrust crime. For getting you to use Google does make Google better.

The argument that locking up users improves the product is of potential use not just to Google but to any of the many tech companies that run on advertising—Facebook being a notable example—so it potentially immunizes an entire business model from antitrust scrutiny.

It turns out that has happened before.

Economies of Scale as a Product Improvement: Once a Convenient Argument

Once upon a time, antitrust exempted another kind of business for which products improve the more people used them. The business was industrial production, and it differs from online advertising only in the irrelevant characteristic that the improvement that comes with expanding use is not in the quality of the product but in the cost per unit of producing it.

The hallmark of the industrial enterprise is high fixed costs and low marginal costs. The textile mill differs from pre-industrial piecework weaving in that once a $10 million investment in machinery has been made, the mill can churn out yard after yard of cloth for pennies. The pieceworker, by contrast, makes a relatively small up-front investment—the cost of raising up the hovel in which she labors and making her few tools—but spends the same large amount of time to produce each new yard of cloth.

Large fixed costs and low marginal costs lie at the heart of the bounty of the modern age: the more you produce, the lower the unit cost, and so the lower the price at which you can sell your product. This is a recipe for plenty.

But it also means that, so long as consumer demand in a given market is lower than the capacity of any particular plant, driving buyers to a particular seller and away from competitors always improves the product, in the sense that it enables the firm to increase volume and reduce unit cost, and therefore to sell the product at a lower price.

If the promise of the modern age is goods at low prices, then the implication is that antitrust should never punish firms for driving rivals from the market and taking over their customers. Indeed, efficiency requires that only one firm should ever produce in any given market, at least in any market for which a single plant is capable of serving all customers.

For antitrust in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, beguiled by this advantage to size, exclusive dealing, refusals to deal, even the knife in a competitor’s back: whether these ran afoul of other areas of law or not, it was all for the better because it allowed industrial enterprises to achieve economies of scale.

It is no accident that, a few notable triumphs aside, antitrust did not come into its own until the mid-1930s, 40 years after its inception, on the heels of an intellectual revolution that explained, for the first time, why it might actually be better for consumers to have more than one seller in a market.

The Monopolistic Competition Revolution

The revolution came in the form of the theory of monopolistic competition and its cousin, the theory of creative destruction, developed between the 1920s and 1940s by Edward Chamberlin, Joan Robinson and Joseph Schumpeter.

These theories suggested that consumers might care as much about product quality as they do about product cost, and indeed would be willing to abandon a low-cost product for a higher-quality, albeit more expensive, one.

From this perspective, the world of economies of scale and monopoly production was the drab world of Soviet state-owned enterprises churning out one type of shoe, one brand of cleaning detergent, and so on.

The world of capitalism and technological advance, by contrast, was one in which numerous firms produced batches of differentiated products in amounts sometimes too small fully to realize all scale economies, but for which consumers were nevertheless willing to pay because the products better fit their preferences.

What is more, the striving of monopolistically competitive firms to lure away each other’s customers with products that better fit their tastes led to disruptive innovation— “creative destruction” was Schumpeter’s famous term for it—that brought about not just different flavors of the same basic concept but entirely new concepts. The competition to create a better flip phone, for example, would lead inevitably to a whole new paradigm, the smartphone.

This reasoning combined with work in the 1940s and 1950s on economic growth that quantified for the first time the key role played by technological change in the vigor of capitalist economies—the famous Solow residual—to suggest that product improvements, and not the cost reductions that come from capital accumulation and their associated economies of scale, create the lion’s share of consumer welfare. Innovation, not scale, was king.

Antitrust responded by, for the first time in its history, deciding between kinds of product improvements, rather than just in favor of improvements, casting economies of scale out of the category of improvements subject to antitrust immunity, while keeping quality improvements immune.

Casting economies of scale out of the protected product improvement category gave antitrust something to do for the first time. It meant that big firms had to plead more than just the cost advantages of being big in order to obtain license to push their rivals around. And government could now start reliably to win cases, rather than just the odd cause célèbre.

It is this intellectual watershed, and not Thurman Arnold’s tenacity, that was responsible for antitrust’s emergence as a force after World War Two.

Usage-Based Improvements Are Not Like Economies of Scale

The improvements in advertising that come from user growth fall squarely on the quality side of the ledger—the value they create is not due to the ability to average production costs over more ad buyers—and so they count as the kind of product improvements that antitrust continues to immunize today.

But given the pervasiveness of this mode of product improvement in the tech economy—the fact that virtually any tech firm that sells advertising can claim to be improving a product by driving users to itself and away from competitors—it is worth asking whether we have not reached a new stage in economic development in which this form of product improvement ought, like economies of scale, to be denied protection.

Shouldn’t the courts demand more and better innovation of big tech firms than just the same old big-data-driven improvements they serve up year after year?

Galling as it may be to those who, like myself, would like to see more vigorous antitrust enforcement in general, the answer would seem to be “no.” For what induced the courts to abandon antitrust immunity for economies of scale in the mid-20th century was not the mere fact that immunizing economies of scale paralyzed antitrust. Smashing big firms is not, after all, an end in itself.

Instead, monopolistic competition, creative destruction and the Solow residual induced the change, because they suggested both that other kinds of product improvement are more important than economies of scale and, crucially, that protecting economies of scale impedes development of those other kinds of improvements.

A big firm that excludes competitors in order to reach scale economies not only excludes competitors who might have produced an identical or near-identical product, but also excludes competitors who might have produced a better-quality product, one that consumers would have preferred to purchase even at a higher price.

To cast usage-based improvements out of the product improvement fold, a case must be made that excluding competitors in order to pursue such improvements will block a different kind of product improvement that contributes even more to consumer welfare.

If we could say, for example, that suppressing search competitors suppresses more-innovative search engines that ad buyers would prefer, even if those innovative search engines were to lack the advantages that come from having a large user base, then a case might be made that user growth should no longer count as a product improvement immune from antitrust scrutiny.

And even then, the case against usage-based improvements would need to be general enough to justify an epochal change in policy, rather than be limited to a particular technology in a particular lawsuit. For the courts hate to balance in individual cases, statements to the contrary in their published opinions notwithstanding.

But there is nothing in the Google complaint, much less the literature, to suggest that usage-based improvements are problematic in this way. Indeed, much of the value created by the information revolution seems to inhere precisely in its ability to centralize usage.

Americans Keep Voting to Centralize the Internet

In the early days of the internet, theorists mistook its decentralized architecture for a feature, rather than a bug. But internet users have since shown, time and again, that they believe the opposite.

For example, the basic protocols governing email were engineered to allow every American to run his own personal email server.

But Americans hated the freedom that created—not least the spam—and opted instead to get their email from a single server: the one run by Google as Gmail.

The basic protocols governing web traffic were also designed to allow every American to run whatever other communications services he wished—chat, video chat, RSS, webpages—on his own private server in distributed fashion.

But Americans hated the freedom that created—not least having to build and rebuild friend networks across platforms–—and they voted instead overwhelmingly to get their social media from a single server: Facebook.

Indeed, the basic protocols governing internet traffic were designed to allow every business to store and share its own data from its own computers, in whatever form.

But American businesses hated that freedom—not least the cost of having to buy and service their own data storage machines—and instead 40% of the internet is now stored and served from Amazon Web Services.

Similarly, advertisers have the option of placing advertisements on the myriad independently-run websites that make up the internet—known in the business as the “open web”—by placing orders through competitive ad exchanges. But advertisers have instead voted mostly to place ads on the handful of highly centralized platforms known as “walled gardens,” including Facebook, Google’s YouTube and, of course, Google Search.

The communications revolution, they say, is all about “bringing people together.” It turns out that’s true.

And that Google should win on consumer harm.

Remember the Telephone

Indeed, the same mid-20th century antitrust that thought so little of economies of scale as a defense immunized usage-based improvements when it encountered them in that most important of internet precursors: the telephone.

The telephone, like most internet services, gets better as usage increases. The more people are on a particular telephone network, the more valuable the network becomes to subscribers.

Just as with today’s internet services, the advantage of a large user base drove centralization of telephone services a century ago into the hands of a single firm: AT&T. Aside from a few business executives who liked the look of a desk full of handsets, consumers wanted one phone line that they could use to call everyone.

Although the government came close to breaking AT&T up in the early 20th century, the government eventually backed off, because a phone system in which you must subscribe to the right carrier to reach a friend just doesn’t make sense.

Instead, Congress and state legislatures stepped in to take the edge off monopoly by regulating phone pricing. And when antitrust finally did break AT&T up in 1982, it did so in a distinctly regulatory fashion, requiring that AT&T’s parts connect each other’s phone calls, something that Congress reinforced in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The message was clear: the sort of usage-based improvements one finds in communications are real product improvements. And antitrust can only intervene if it has a way to preserve them.

The equivalent of interconnection in search, that the benefits of usage, in the form of data and attention, be shared among competing search providers, might be feasible. But it is hard to imagine the court in the Google case ordering interconnection without the benefit of decades of regulatory experience with the defendant’s operations that the district court in 1982 could draw upon in the AT&T case.

The solution for the tech giants today is the same as the solution for AT&T a century ago: to regulate rather than to antitrust.

Microsoft Not to the Contrary, Because Users Were in Common

Parallels to the government’s 1990s-era antitrust case against Microsoft are not to the contrary.

As Sam Weinstein has pointed out to me, Microsoft, like Google, was at heart an exclusive dealing case: Microsoft contracted with computer manufacturers to prevent Netscape Navigator, an early web browser, from serving as the default web browser on Windows PCs.

That prevented Netscape, the argument went, from growing to compete with Windows in the operating system market, much the way the Google’s Chrome browser has become a substitute for Windows on low-end notebook computers today.

The D.C. Circuit agreed that default status was an essential input for Netscape as it sought eventually to compete with Windows in the operating system market.

The court also accepted the argument that the exclusive dealing did not improve Microsoft’s operating system product.

This at first seems to contradict the notion that usage improves products, for, like search advertising, operating systems get better as their user bases increase. The more people use an operating system, the more application developers are willing to write for the system, and the better the system therefore becomes.

It seems to follow that keeping competitors off competing operating systems and on Windows made Windows better. If the court nevertheless held Microsoft liable, it must be because the court refused to extend antitrust immunity to usage-based improvements.

The trouble with this line of argument is that it ignores the peculiar thing about the Microsoft case: that while the government alleged that Netscape was a potential competitor of Windows, Netscape was also an application that ran on Windows.

That means that, unlike Google and rival search engines, Windows and Netscape shared users.

So, Microsoft’s exclusive dealing did not increase its user base and therefore could not have improved Windows, at least not by making Windows more appealing for applications developers. Driving Netscape from Windows did not enable developers to reach even one more user. Conversely, allowing Netscape to be the default browser on Windows would not have reduced the number of Windows users, because Netscape ran on Windows.

By contrast, a user who runs a search in Bing does not run the same search simultaneously in Google, and so Bing users are not Google users. Google’s exclusive dealing therefore increases its user base and improves Google’s product, whereas Microsoft’s exclusive dealing served only to reduce Netscape’s user base and degrade Netscape’s product.

Indeed, if letting Netscape be the default browser on Windows was a threat to Windows, it was not because it prevented Microsoft from improving its product, but because Netscape might eventually have become an operating system, and indeed a better operating system, than Windows, and consumers and developers, who could be on both at the same time if they wished, might have nevertheless chosen eventually to go with Netscape alone.

Though it does not help the government in the Google case, Microsoft still does offer a beacon of hope for those concerned about size, for Microsoft’s subsequent history reminds us that yesterday’s behemoth is often today’s also ran.

And the favorable settlement terms Microsoft ultimately used to escape real consequences for its conduct 20 years ago imply that, at least in high-tech markets, we don’t always need antitrust for that to be true.

This week the Senate will hold a hearing into potential anticompetitive conduct by Google in its display advertising business—the “stack” of products that it offers to advertisers seeking to place display ads on third-party websites. It is also widely reported that the Department of Justice is preparing a lawsuit against Google that will likely include allegations of anticompetitive behavior in this market, and is likely to be joined by a number of state attorneys general in that lawsuit. Meanwhile, several papers have been published detailing these allegations

This aspect of digital advertising can be incredibly complex and difficult to understand. Here we explain how display advertising fits in the broader digital advertising market, describe how display advertising works, consider the main allegations against Google, and explain why Google’s critics are misguided to focus on antitrust as a solution to alleged problems in the market (even if those allegations turn out to be correct).

Display advertising in context

Over the past decade, the price of advertising has fallen steadily while output has risen. Spending on digital advertising in the US grew from $26 billion in 2010 to nearly $130 billion in 2019, an average increase of 20% a year. Over the same period the Producer Price Index for Internet advertising sales declined by nearly 40%. The rising spending in the face of falling prices indicates the number of ads bought and sold increased by approximately 27% a year. Since 2000, advertising spending has been falling as a share of GDP, with online advertising growing as a share of that. The combination of increasing quantity, decreasing cost, and increasing total revenues are consistent with a growing and increasingly competitive market.

Display advertising on third-party websites is only a small subsection of the digital advertising market, comprising approximately 15-20% of digital advertising spending in the US. The rest of the digital advertising market is made up of ads on search results pages on sites like Google, Amazon and Kayak, on people’s Instagram and Facebook feeds, listings on sites like Zillow (for houses) or Craigslist, referral fees paid to price comparison websites for things like health insurance, audio and visual ads on services like Spotify and Hulu, and sponsored content from influencers and bloggers who will promote products to their fans. 

And digital advertising itself is only one of many channels through which companies can market their products. About 53% of total advertising spending in the United States goes on digital channels, with 30% going on TV advertising and the rest on things like radio ads, billboards and other more traditional forms of advertising. A few people still even read physical newspapers and the ads they contain, although physical newspapers’ bigger money makers have traditionally been classified ads, which have been replaced by less costly and more effective internet classifieds, such as those offered by Craigslist, or targeted ads on Google Maps or Facebook.

Indeed, it should be noted that advertising itself is only part of the larger marketing market of which non-advertising marketing communication—e.g., events, sales promotion, direct marketing, telemarketing, product placement—is as big a part as is advertising (each is roughly $500bn globally); it just hasn’t been as thoroughly disrupted by the Internet yet. But it is a mistake to assume that digital advertising is not a part of this broader market. And of that $1tr global market, Internet advertising in total occupies only about 18%—and thus display advertising only about 3%.

Ad placement is only one part of the cost of digital advertising. An advertiser trying to persuade people to buy its product must also do market research and analytics to find out who its target market is and what they want. Moreover, there are the costs of designing and managing a marketing campaign and additional costs to analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the campaign. 

Nevertheless, one of the most straightforward ways to earn money from a website is to show ads to readers alongside the publisher’s content. To satisfy publishers’ demand for advertising revenues, many services have arisen to automate and simplify the placement of and payment for ad space on publishers’ websites. Google plays a large role in providing these services—what is referred to as “open display” advertising. And it is Google’s substantial role in this space that has sparked speculation and concern among antitrust watchdogs and enforcement authorities.

Before delving into the open display advertising market, a quick note about terms. In these discussions, “advertisers” are businesses that are trying to sell people stuff. Advertisers include large firms such as Best Buy and Disney and small businesses like the local plumber or financial adviser. “Publishers” are websites that carry those ads, and publish content that users want to read. Note that the term “publisher” refers to all websites regardless of the things they’re carrying: a blog about the best way to clean stains out of household appliances is a “publisher” just as much as the New York Times is. 

Under this broad definition, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are also considered publishers. In their role as publishers, they have a common goal: to provide content that attracts users to their pages who will act on the advertising displayed. “Users” are you and me—the people who want to read publishers’ content, and to whom advertisers want to show ads. Finally, “intermediaries” are the digital businesses, like Google, that sit in between the advertisers and the publishers, allowing them to do business with each other without ever meeting or speaking.

The display advertising market

If you’re an advertiser, display advertising works like this: your company—one that sells shoes, let’s say—wants to reach a certain kind of person and tell her about the company’s shoes. These shoes are comfortable, stylish, and inexpensive. You use a tool like Google Ads (or, if it’s a big company and you want a more expansive campaign over which you have more control, Google Marketing Platform) to design and upload an ad, and tell Google about the people you want to read—their age and location, say, and/or characterizations of their past browsing and searching habits (“interested in sports”). 

Using that information, Google finds ad space on websites whose audiences match the people you want to target. This ad space is auctioned off to the highest bidder among the range of companies vying, with your shoe company, to reach users matching the characteristics of the website’s users. Thanks to tracking data, it doesn’t just have to be sports-relevant websites: as a user browses sports-related sites on the web, her browser picks up files (cookies) that will tag her as someone potentially interested in sports apparel for targeting later.

So a user might look at a sports website and then later go to a recipe blog, and there receive the shoes ad on the basis of her earlier browsing. You, the shoe seller, hope that she will either click through and buy (or at least consider buying) the shoes when she sees those ads, but one of the benefits of display advertising over search advertising is that—as with TV ads or billboard ads—just seeing the ad will make her aware of the product and potentially more likely to buy it later. Advertisers thus sometimes pay on the basis of clicks, sometimes on the basis of views, and sometimes on the basis of conversion (when a consumer takes an action of some sort, such as making a purchase or filling out a form).

That’s the advertiser’s perspective. From the publisher’s perspective—the owner of that recipe blog, let’s say—you want to auction ad space off to advertisers like that shoe company. In that case, you go to an ad server—Google’s product is called AdSense—give them a little bit of information about your site, and add some html code to your website. These ad servers gather information about your content (e.g., by looking at keywords you use) and your readers (e.g., by looking at what websites they’ve used in the past to make guesses about what they’ll be interested in) and places relevant ads next to and among your content. If they click, lucky you—you’ll get paid a few cents or dollars. 

Apart from privacy concerns about the tracking of users, the really tricky and controversial part here concerns the way scarce advertising space is allocated. Most of the time, it’s done through auctions that happen in real time: each time a user loads a website, an auction is held in a fraction of a second to decide which advertiser gets to display an ad. The longer this process takes, the slower pages load and the more likely users are to get frustrated and go somewhere else.

As well as the service hosting the auction, there are lots of little functions that different companies perform that make the auction and placement process smoother. Some fear that by offering a very popular product integrated end to end, Google’s “stack” of advertising products can bias auctions in favour of its own products. There’s also speculation that Google’s product is so tightly integrated and so effective at using data to match users and advertisers that it is not viable for smaller rivals to compete.

We’ll discuss this speculation and fear in more detail below. But it’s worth bearing in mind that this kind of real-time bidding for ad placement was not always the norm, and is not the only way that websites display ads to their users even today. Big advertisers and websites often deal with each other directly. As with, say, TV advertising, large companies advertising often have a good idea about the people they want to reach. And big publishers (like popular news websites) often have a good idea about who their readers are. For example, big brands often want to push a message to a large number of people across different customer types as part of a broader ad campaign. 

Of these kinds of direct sales, sometimes the space is bought outright, in advance, and reserved for those advertisers. In most cases, direct sales are run through limited, intermediated auction services that are not open to the general market. Put together, these kinds of direct ad buys account for close to 70% of total US display advertising spending. The remainder—the stuff that’s left over after these kinds of sales have been done—is typically sold through the real-time, open display auctions described above.

Different adtech products compete on their ability to target customers effectively, to serve ads quickly (since any delay in the auction and ad placement process slows down page load times for users), and to do so inexpensively. All else equal (including the effectiveness of the ad placement), advertisers want to pay the lowest possible price to place an ad. Similarly, publishers want to receive the highest possible price to display an ad. As a result, both advertisers and publishers have a keen interest in reducing the intermediary’s “take” of the ad spending.

This is all a simplification of how the market works. There is not one single auction house for ad space—in practice, many advertisers and publishers end up having to use lots of different auctions to find the best price. As the market evolved to reach this state from the early days of direct ad buys, new functions that added efficiency to the market emerged. 

In the early years of ad display auctions, individual processes in the stack were performed by numerous competing companies. Through a process of “vertical integration” some companies, such as Google, brought these different processes under the same roof, with the expectation that integration would streamline the stack and make the selling and placement of ads more efficient and effective. The process of vertical integration in pursuit of efficiency has led to a more consolidated market in which Google is the largest player, offering simple, integrated ad buying products to advertisers and ad selling products to publishers. 

Google is by no means the only integrated adtech service provider, however: Facebook, Amazon, Verizon, AT&T/Xandr, theTradeDesk, LumenAd, Taboola and others also provide end-to-end adtech services. But, in the market for open auction placement on third-party websites, Google is the biggest.

The cases against Google

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) carried out a formal study into the digital advertising market between 2019 and 2020, issuing its final report in July of this year. Although also encompassing Google’s Search advertising business and Facebook’s display advertising business (both of which relate to ads on those companies “owned and operated” websites and apps), the CMA study involved the most detailed independent review of Google’s open display advertising business to date. 

That study did not lead to any competition enforcement proceedings, but it did conclude that Google’s vertically integrated products led to conflicts of interest that could lead it to behaving in ways that did not benefit the advertisers and publishers that use it. One example was Google’s withholding of certain data from publishers that would make it easier for them to use other ad selling products; another was the practice of setting price floors that allegedly led advertisers to pay more than they would otherwise.

Instead the CMA recommended the setting up of a “Digital Markets Unit” (DMU) that could regulate digital markets in general, and a code of conduct for Google and Facebook (and perhaps other large tech platforms) intended to govern their dealings with smaller customers.

The CMA’s analysis is flawed, however. For instance, it makes big assumptions about the dependency of advertisers on display advertising, largely assuming that they would not switch to other forms of advertising if prices rose, and it is light on economics. But factually it is the most comprehensively researched investigation into digital advertising yet published.

Piggybacking on the CMA’s research, and mounting perhaps the strongest attack on Google’s adtech offerings to date, was a paper released just prior to the CMA’s final report called “Roadmap for a Digital Advertising Monopolization Case Against Google”, by Yale economist Fiona Scott Morton and Omidyar Network lawyer David Dinielli. Dinielli will testify before the Senate committee.

While the Scott Morton and Dinielli paper is extremely broad, it also suffers from a number of problems. 

One, because it was released before the CMA’s final report, it is largely based on the interim report released months earlier by the CMA, halfway through the market study in December 2019. This means that several of its claims are out of date. For example, it makes much of the possibility raised by the CMA in its interim report that Google may take a larger cut of advertising spending than its competitors, and claims made in another report that Google introduces “hidden” fees that increases the overall cut it takes from ad auctions. 

But in the final report, after further investigation, the CMA concludes that this is not the case. In the final report, the CMA describes its analysis of all Google Ad Manager open auctions related to UK web traffic during the period between 8–14 March 2020 (involving billions of auctions). This, according to the CMA, allowed it to observe any possible “hidden” fees as well. The CMA concludes:

Our analysis found that, in transactions where both Google Ads and Ad Manager (AdX) are used, Google’s overall take rate is approximately 30% of advertisers’ spend. This is broadly in line with (or slightly lower than) our aggregate market-wide fee estimate outlined above. We also calculated the margin between the winning bid and the second highest bid in AdX for Google and non-Google DSPs, to test whether Google was systematically able to win with a lower margin over the second highest bid (which might have indicated that they were able to use their data advantage to extract additional hidden fees). We found that Google’s average winning margin was similar to that of non-Google DSPs. Overall, this evidence does not indicate that Google is currently extracting significant hidden fees. As noted below, however, it retains the ability and incentive to do so. (p. 275, emphasis added)

Scott Morton and Dinielli also misquote and/or misunderstand important sections of the CMA interim report as relating to display advertising when, in fact, they relate to search. For example, Scott Morton and Dinielli write that the “CMA concluded that Google has nearly insurmountable advantages in access to location data, due to the location information [uniquely available to it from other sources].” (p. 15). The CMA never makes any claim of “insurmountable advantage,” however. Rather, to support the claim, Scott Morton and Dinielli cite to a portion of the CMA interim report recounting a suggestion made by Microsoft regarding the “critical” value of location data in providing relevant advertising. 

But that portion of the report, as well as the suggestion made by Microsoft, is about search advertising. While location data may also be valuable for display advertising, it is not clear that the GPS-level data that is so valuable in providing mobile search ad listings (for a nearby cafe or restaurant, say) is particularly useful for display advertising, which may be just as well-targeted by less granular, city- or county-level location data, which is readily available from a number of sources. In any case, Scott Morton and Dinielli are simply wrong to use a suggestion offered by Microsoft relating to search advertising to demonstrate the veracity of an assertion about a conclusion drawn by the CMA regarding display advertising. 

Scott Morton and Dinielli also confusingly word their own judgements about Google’s conduct in ways that could be misinterpreted as conclusions by the CMA:

The CMA reports that Google has implemented an anticompetitive sales strategy on the publisher ad server end of the intermediation chain. Specifically, after purchasing DoubleClick, which became its publisher ad server, Google apparently lowered its prices to publishers by a factor of ten, at least according to one publisher’s account related to the CMA. (p. 20)

In fact, the CMA does not conclude that Google lowering its prices was an “anticompetitive sales strategy”—it does not use these words at all—and what Scott Morton and Dinielli are referring to is a claim by a rival ad server business, Smart, that Google cutting its prices after acquiring Doubleclick led to Google expanding its market share. Apart from the misleading wording, it is unclear why a competition authority should consider it to be “anticompetitive” when prices are falling and kept low, and—as Smart reported to the CMA—its competitor’s response is to enhance its own offering. 

The case that remains

Stripping away the elements of Scott Morton and Dinielli’s case that seem unsubstantiated by a more careful reading of the CMA reports, and with the benefit of the findings in the CMA’s final report, we are left with a case that argues that Google self-preferences to an unreasonable extent, giving itself a product that is as successful as it is in display advertising only because of Google’s unique ability to gain advantage from its other products that have little to do with display advertising. Because of this self-preferencing, they might argue, innovative new entrants cannot compete on an equal footing, so the market loses out on incremental competition because of the advantages Google gets from being the world’s biggest search company, owning YouTube, running Google Maps and Google Cloud, and so on. 

The most significant examples of this are Google’s use of data from other products—like location data from Maps or viewing history from YouTube—to target ads more effectively; its ability to enable advertisers placing search ads to easily place display ads through the same interface; its introduction of faster and more efficient auction processes that sidestep the existing tools developed by other third-party ad exchanges; and its design of its own tool (“open bidding”) for aggregating auction bids for advertising space to compete with (rather than incorporate) an alternative tool (“header bidding”) that is arguably faster, but costs more money to use.

These allegations require detailed consideration, and in a future paper we will attempt to assess them in detail. But in thinking about them now it may be useful to consider the remedies that could be imposed to address them, assuming they do diminish the ability of rivals to compete with Google: what possible interventions we could make in order to make the market work better for advertisers, publishers, and users. 

We can think of remedies as falling into two broad buckets: remedies that stop Google from doing things that improve the quality of its own offerings, thus making it harder for others to keep up; and remedies that require it to help rivals improve their products in ways otherwise accessible only to Google (e.g., by making Google’s products interoperable with third-party services) without inherently diminishing the quality of Google’s own products.

The first camp of these, what we might call “status quo minus,” includes rules banning Google from using data from its other products or offering single order forms for advertisers, or, in the extreme, a structural remedy that “breaks up” Google by either forcing it to sell off its display ad business altogether or to sell off elements of it. 

What is striking about these kinds of interventions is that all of them “work” by making Google worse for those that use it. Restrictions on Google’s ability to use data from other products, for example, will make its service more expensive and less effective for those who use it. Ads will be less well-targeted and therefore less effective. This will lead to lower bids from advertisers. Lower ad prices will be transmitted through the auction process to produce lower payments for publishers. Reduced publisher revenues will mean some content providers exit. Users will thus be confronted with less available content and ads that are less relevant to them and thus, presumably, more annoying. In other words: No one will be better off, and most likely everyone will be worse off.

The reason a “single order form” helps Google is that it is useful to advertisers, the same way it’s useful to be able to buy all your groceries at one store instead of lots of different ones. Similarly, vertical integration in the “ad stack” allows for a faster, cheaper, and simpler product for users on all sides of the market. A different kind of integration that has been criticized by others, where third-party intermediaries can bid more quickly if they host on Google Cloud, benefits publishers and users because it speeds up auction time, allowing websites to load faster. So does Google’s unified alternative to “header bidding,” giving a speed boost that is apparently valuable enough to publishers that they will pay for it.

So who would benefit from stopping Google from doing these things, or even forcing Google to sell its operations in this area? Not advertisers or publishers. Maybe Google’s rival ad intermediaries would; presumably, artificially hamstringing Google’s products would make it easier for them to compete with Google. But if so, it’s difficult to see how this would be an overall improvement. It is even harder to see how this would improve the competitive process—the very goal of antitrust. Rather, any increase in the competitiveness of rivals would result not from making their products better, but from making Google’s product worse. That is a weakening of competition, not its promotion. 

On the other hand, interventions that aim to make Google’s products more interoperable at least do not fall prey to this problem. Such “status quo plus” interventions would aim to take the benefits of Google’s products and innovations and allow more companies to use them to improve their own competing products. Not surprisingly, such interventions would be more in line with the conclusions the CMA came to than the divestitures and operating restrictions proposed by Scott Morton and Dinielli, as well as (reportedly) state attorneys general considering a case against Google.

But mandated interoperability raises a host of different concerns: extensive and uncertain rulemaking, ongoing regulatory oversight, and, likely, price controls, all of which would limit Google’s ability to experiment with and improve its products. The history of such mandated duties to deal or compulsory licenses is a troubled one, at best. But even if, for the sake of argument, we concluded that these kinds of remedies were desirable, they are difficult to impose via an antitrust lawsuit of the kind that the Department of Justice is expected to launch. Most importantly, if the conclusion of Google’s critics is that Google’s main offense is offering a product that is just too good to compete with without regulating it like a utility, with all the costs to innovation that that would entail, maybe we ought to think twice about whether an antitrust intervention is really worth it at all.

In mid-November, the 50 state attorneys general (AGs) investigating Google’s advertising practices expanded their antitrust probe to include the company’s search and Android businesses. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the lead on the case, was supportive of the development, but made clear that other states would manage the investigations of search and Android separately. While attorneys might see the benefit in splitting up search and advertising investigations, platforms like Google need to be understood as a coherent whole. If the state AGs case is truly concerned with the overall impact on the welfare of consumers, it will need to be firmly grounded in the unique economics of this platform.

Back in September, 50 state AGs, including those in Washington, DC and Puerto Rico, announced an investigation into Google. In opening the case, Paxton said that, “There is nothing wrong with a business becoming the biggest game in town if it does so through free market competition, but we have seen evidence that Google’s business practices may have undermined consumer choice, stifled innovation, violated users’ privacy, and put Google in control of the flow and dissemination of online information.” While the original document demands focused on Google’s “overarching control of online advertising markets and search traffic,” reports since then suggest that the primary investigation centers on online advertising.

Defining the market

Since the market definition is the first and arguably the most important step in an antitrust case, Paxton has tipped his hand and shown that the investigation is converging on the online ad market. Yet, he faltered when he wrote in The Wall Street Journal that, “Each year more than 90% of Google’s $117 billion in revenue comes from online advertising. For reference, the entire market for online advertising is around $130 billion annually.” As Patrick Hedger of the Competitive Enterprise Institute was quick to note, Paxton cited global revenue numbers and domestic advertising statistics. In reality, Google’s share of the online advertising market in the United States is 37 percent and is widely expected to fall.

When Google faced scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission in 2013, the leaked staff report explained that “the Commission and the Department of Justice have previously found online ‘search advertising’ to be a distinct product market.” This finding, which dates from 2007, simply wouldn’t stand today. Facebook’s ad platform was launched in 2007 and has grown to become a major competitor to Google. Even more recently, Amazon has jumped into the space and independent platforms like Telaria, Rubicon Project, and The Trade Desk have all made inroads. In contrast to the late 2000s, advertisers now use about four different online ad platforms.

Moreover, the relationship between ad prices and industry concentration is complicated. In traditional economic analysis, fewer suppliers of a product generally translates into higher prices. In the online ad market, however, fewer advertisers means that ad buyers can efficiently target people through keywords. Because advertisers have access to superior information, research finds that more concentration tends to lead to lower search engine revenues. 

The addition of new fronts in the state AGs’ investigation could spell disaster for consumers. While search and advertising are distinct markets, it is the act of tying the two together that makes platforms like Google valuable to users and advertisers alike. Demand is tightly integrated between the two sides of the platform. Changes in user and advertiser preferences have far outsized effects on the overall platform value because each side responds to the other. If users experience an increase in price or a reduction in quality, then they will use the platform less or just log off completely. Advertisers see this change in users and react by reducing their demand for ad placements as well. When advertisers drop out, the total amount of content also recedes and users react once again. Economists call these relationships demand interdependencies. The demand on one side of the market is interdependent with demand on the other. Research on magazines, newspapers, and social media sites all support the existence of demand interdependencies. 

Economists David Evans and Richard Schmalensee, who were cited extensively in the Supreme Court case Ohio v. American Express, explained the importance of their integration into competition analysis, “The key point is that it is wrong as a matter of economics to ignore significant demand interdependencies among the multiple platform sides” when defining markets. If they are ignored, then the typical analytical tools will yield incorrect assessments. Understanding these relationships makes the investigation all that more difficult.

The limits of remedies

Most likely, this current investigation will follow the trajectory of Microsoft in the 1990s when states did the legwork for a larger case brought by the Department of Justice (DoJ). The DoJ already has its own investigation into Google and will probably pull together all of the parties for one large suit. Google is also subject to a probe by the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee as well. What is certain is that Google will be saddled with years of regulatory scrutiny, but what remains unclear is what kind of changes the AGs are after.

The investigation might aim to secure behavioral changes, but these often come with a cost in platform industries. The European Commission, for example, got Google to change its practices with its Android operating system for mobile phones. Much like search and advertising, the Android ecosystem is a platform with cross subsidization and demand interdependencies between the various sides of the market. Because the company was ordered to stop tying the Android operating system to apps, manufacturers of phones and tablets now have to pay a licensing fee in Europe if they want Google’s apps and the Play Store. Remedies meant to change one side of the platform resulted in those relationships being unbundled. When regulators force cross subsidization to become explicit prices, consumers are the one who pay.

The absolute worst case scenario would be a break up of Google, which has been a centerpiece of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential platform. As I explained last year, that would be a death warrant for the company:

[T]he value of both Facebook and Google comes in creating the platform, which combines users with advertisers. Before the integration of ad networks, the search engine industry was struggling and it was simply not a major player in the Internet ecosystem. In short, the search engines, while convenient, had no economic value. As Michael Moritz, a major investor of Google, said of those early years, “We really couldn’t figure out the business model. There was a period where things were looking pretty bleak.” But Google didn’t pave the way. Rather, Bill Gross at GoTo.com succeeded in showing everyone how advertising could work to build a business. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin merely adopted the model in 2002 and by the end of the year, the company was profitable for the first time. Marrying the two sides of the platform created value. Tearing them apart will also destroy value.

The state AGs need to resist making this investigation into a political showcase. As Pew noted in documenting the rise of North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein to national prominence, “What used to be a relatively high-profile position within a state’s boundaries has become a springboard for publicity across the country.” While some might cheer the opening of this investigation, consumer welfare needs to be front and center. To properly understand how consumer welfare might be impacted by an investigation, the state AGs need to take seriously the path already laid out by platform economics. For the sake of consumers, let’s hope they are up to the task. 

More than a century of bad news

Bill Gates recently tweeted the image below, commenting that he is “always amazed by the disconnect between what we see in the news and the reality of the world around us.”

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/D8zWfENUYAAvK5I.png

Of course, this chart and Gates’s observation are nothing new – there has long been an accuracy gap between what the news covers (and therefore what Americans believe is important) and what is actually important. As discussed in one academic article on the subject:

The line between journalism and entertainment is dissolving even within traditional news formats. [One] NBC executive [] decreed that every news story should “display the attributes of fiction, of drama. It should have structure and conflict, problem and denouement, rising action and falling action, a beginning, a middle and an end.” … This has happened both in broadcast and print journalism. … Roger Ailes … explains this phenomenon with an Orchestra Pit Theory: “If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?”

Matters of policy get increasingly short shrift. In 1968, the network newscasts generally showed presidential candidates speaking, and on the average a candidate was shown speaking uninterrupted for forty-two seconds. Over the next twenty years, these sound bites had shrunk to an average of less than ten seconds. This phenomenon is by no means unique to broadcast journalism; there has been a parallel decline in substance in print journalism as well. …

The fusing of news and entertainment is not accidental. “I make no bones about it—we have to be entertaining because we compete with entertainment options as well as other news stories,” says the general manager of a Florida TV station that is famous, or infamous, for boosting the ratings of local newscasts through a relentless focus on stories involving crime and calamity, all of which are presented in a hyperdramatic tone (the so-called “If It Bleeds, It Leads” format). There was a time when news programs were content to compete with other news programs, and networks did not expect news divisions to be profit centers, but those days are over.

That excerpt feels like it could have been written today. It was not: it was published in 1996. The “if it bleeds, it leads” trope is often attributed to a 1989 New York magazine article – and once introduced into the popular vernacular it grew quickly in popularity:

Of course, the idea that the media sensationalizes its reporting is not a novel observation. “If it bleeds, it leads” is just the late-20th century term for what had been “sex sells” – and the idea of yellow journalism before then. And, of course, “if it bleeds” is the precursor to our more modern equivalent of “clickbait.”

The debate about how to save the press from Google and Facebook … is the wrong debate to have

We are in the midst of a debate about how to save the press in the digital age. The House Judiciary Committee recently held a hearing on the relationship between online platforms and the press; and the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission recently released a preliminary report on the same topic.

In general, these discussions focus on concerns that advertising dollars have shifted from analog-era media in the 20th century to digital platforms in the 21st century – leaving the traditional media underfunded and unable to do its job. More specifically, competition authorities are being urged (by the press) to look at this through the lens of antitrust, arguing that Google and Facebook are the dominant two digital advertising platforms and have used their market power to harm the traditional media.

I have previously explained that this is bunk; as has John Yun, critiquing current proposals. I won’t rehash those arguments here, beyond noting that traditional media’s revenues have been falling since the advent of the Internet – not since the advent of Google or Facebook. The problem that the traditional media face is not that monopoly platforms are engaging in conduct that is harmful to them – it is that the Internet is better both as an advertising and information-distribution platform such that both advertisers and information consumers have migrated to digital platforms (and away from traditional news media).

This is not to say that digital platforms are capable of, or well-suited to, the production and distribution of the high-quality news and information content that we have historically relied on the traditional media to produce. Yet, contemporary discussions about whether traditional news media can survive in an era where ad revenue accrues primarily to large digital platforms have been surprisingly quiet on the question of the quality of content produced by the traditional media.

Actually, that’s not quite true. First, as indicated by the chart tweeted by Gates, digital platforms may be providing consumers with information that is more relevant to them.

Second, and more important, media advocates argue that without the ad revenue that has been diverted (by advertisers, not by digital platforms) to firms like Google and Facebook they lack the resources to produce high quality content. But that assumes that they would produce high quality content if they had access to those resources. As Gates’s chart – and the last century of news production – demonstrates, that is an ill-supported claim. History suggests that, left to its own devices and not constrained for resources by competition from digital platforms, the traditional media produces significant amounts of clickbait.

It’s all about the Benjamins

Among critics of the digital platforms, there is a line of argument that the advertising-based business model is the original sin of the digital economy. The ad-based business model corrupts digital platforms and turns them against their users – the user, that is, becomes the product in the surveillance capitalism state. We would all be much better off, the argument goes, if the platforms operated under subscription- or micropayment-based business models.

It is noteworthy that press advocates eschew this line of argument. Their beef with the platforms is that they have “stolen” the ad revenue that rightfully belongs to the traditional media. The ad revenue, of course, that is the driver behind clickbait, “if it bleeds it leads,” “sex sells,” and yellow journalism. The original sin of advertising-based business models is not original to digital platforms – theirs is just an evolution of the model perfected by the traditional media.

I am a believer in the importance of the press – and, for that matter, for the efficacy of ad-based business models. But more than a hundred years of experience makes clear that mixing the two into the hybrid bastard that is infotainment should prompt concern and discussion about the business model of the traditional press (and, indeed, for most of the past 30 years or so it has done so).

When it comes to “saving the press” the discussion ought not be about how to restore traditional media to its pre-Facebook glory days of the early aughts, or even its pre-modern Internet gold age of the late 1980s. By that point, the media was well along the slippery slope to where it is today. We desperately need a strong, competitive market for news and information. We should use the crisis that that market currently is in to discuss solutions for the future, not how to preserve the past.

As the Google antitrust discussion heats up on its way toward some culmination at the FTC, I thought it would be helpful to address some of the major issues raised in the case by taking a look at what’s going on in the market(s) in which Google operates. To this end, I have penned a lengthy document — The Market Realities that Undermine the Antitrust Case Against Google — highlighting some of the most salient aspects of current market conditions and explaining how they fit into the putative antitrust case against Google.

While not dispositive, these “realities on the ground” do strongly challenge the logic and thus the relevance of many of the claims put forth by Google’s critics. The case against Google rests on certain assumptions about how the markets in which it operates function. But these are tech markets, constantly evolving and complex; most assumptions (and even “conclusions” based on data) are imperfect at best. In this case, the conventional wisdom with respect to Google’s alleged exclusionary conduct, the market in which it operates (and allegedly monopolizes), and the claimed market characteristics that operate to protect its position (among other things) should be questioned.

The reality is far more complex, and, properly understood, paints a picture that undermines the basic, essential elements of an antitrust case against the company.

The document first assesses the implications for Market Definition and Monopoly Power of these competitive realities. Of note:

  • Users use Google because they are looking for information — but there are lots of ways to do that, and “search” is not so distinct that a “search market” instead of, say, an “online information market” (or something similar) makes sense.
  • Google competes in the market for targeted eyeballs: a market aimed to offer up targeted ads to interested users. Search is important in this, but it is by no means alone, and there are myriad (and growing) other mechanisms to access consumers online.
  • To define the relevant market in terms of the particular mechanism that prevails to accomplish the matching of consumers and advertisers does not reflect the substitutability of other mechanisms that do the same thing but simply aren’t called “search.”
  • In a world where what prevails today won’t — not “might not,” but won’t — prevail tomorrow, it is the height of folly (and a serious threat to innovation and consumer welfare) to constrain the activities of firms competing in such an environment by pigeonholing the market.
  • In other words, in a proper market, Google looks significantly less dominant. More important, perhaps, as search itself evolves, and as Facebook, Amazon and others get into the search advertising game, Google’s strong position even in the overly narrow “search” market looks far from unassailable.

Next I address Anticompetitive Harm — how the legal standard for antitrust harm is undermined by a proper understanding of market conditions:

  • Antitrust law doesn’t require that Google or any other large firm make life easier for competitors or others seeking to access resources owned by these firms.
  • Advertisers are increasingly targeting not paid search but rather social media to reach their target audiences.
  • But even for those firms that get much or most of their traffic from “organic” search, this fact isn’t an inevitable relic of a natural condition over which only the alleged monopolist has control; it’s a business decision, and neither sensible policy nor antitrust law is set up to protect the failed or faulty competitor from himself.
  • Although it often goes unremarked, paid search’s biggest competitor is almost certainly organic search (and vice versa). Nextag may complain about spending money on paid ads when it prefers organic, but the real lesson here is that the two are substitutes — along with social sites and good old-fashioned email, too.
  • It is incumbent upon critics to accurately assess the “but for” world without the access point in question. Here, Nextag can and does use paid ads to reach its audience (and, it is important to note, did so even before it claims it was foreclosed from Google’s users). But there are innumerable other avenues of access, as well. Some may be “better” than others; some that may be “better” now won’t be next year (think how links by friends on Facebook to price comparisons on Nextag pages could come to dominate its readership).
  • This is progress — creative destruction — not regress, and such changes should not be penalized.

Next I take on the perennial issue of Error Costs and the Risks of Erroneous Enforcement arising from an incomplete and inaccurate understanding of Google’s market:

  • Microsoft’s market position was unassailable . . . until it wasn’t — and even at the time, many could have told you that its perceived dominance was fleeting (and many did).
  • Apple’s success (and the consumer value it has created), while built in no small part on its direct competition with Microsoft and the desktop PCs which run it, was primarily built on a business model that deviated from its once-dominant rival’s — and not on a business model that the DOJ’s antitrust case against the company either facilitated or anticipated.
  • Microsoft and Google’s other critic-competitors have more avenues to access users than ever before. Who cares if users get to these Google-alternatives through their devices instead of a URL? Access is access.
  • It isn’t just monopolists who prefer not to innovate: their competitors do, too. To the extent that Nextag’s difficulties arise from Google innovating, it is Nextag, not Google, that’s working to thwart innovation and fighting against dynamism.
  • Recall the furor around Google’s purchase of ITA, a powerful cautionary tale. As of September 2012, Google ranks 7th in visits among metasearch travel sites, with a paltry 1.4% of such visits. Residing at number one? FairSearch founding member, Kayak, with a whopping 61%. And how about FairSearch member Expedia? Currently, it’s the largest travel company in the world, and it has only grown in recent years.

The next section addresses the essential issue of Barriers to Entry and their absence:

  • One common refrain from Google’s critics is that Google’s access to immense amounts of data used to increase the quality of its targeting presents a barrier to competition that no one else can match, thus protecting Google’s unassailable monopoly. But scale comes in lots of ways.
  • It’s never been the case that a firm has to generate its own inputs into every product it produces — and there is no reason to suggest search/advertising is any different.
  • Meanwhile, Google’s chief competitor, Microsoft, is hardly hurting for data (even, quite creatively, culling data directly from Google itself), despite its claims to the contrary. And while regulators and critics may be looking narrowly and statically at search data, Microsoft is meanwhile sitting on top of copious data from unorthodox — and possibly even more valuable — sources.
  • To defend a claim of monopolization, it is generally required to show that the alleged monopolist enjoys protection from competition through barriers to entry. In Google’s case, the barriers alleged are illusory.

The next section takes on recent claims revolving around The Mobile Market and Google’s position (and conduct) there:

  • If obtaining or preserving dominance is simply a function of cash, Microsoft is sitting on some $58 billion of it that it can devote to that end. And JP Morgan Chase would be happy to help out if it could be guaranteed monopoly returns just by throwing its money at Bing. Like data, capital is widely available, and, also like data, it doesn’t matter if a company gets it from selling search advertising or from selling cars.
  • Advertisers don’t care whether the right (targeted) user sees their ads while playing Angry Birds or while surfing the web on their phone, and users can (and do) seek information online (and thus reveal their preferences) just as well (or perhaps better) through Wikipedia’s app as via a Google search in a mobile browser.
  • Moreover, mobile is already (and increasingly) a substitute for the desktop. Distinguishing mobile search from desktop search is meaningless when users use their tablets at home, perform activities that they would have performed at home away from home on mobile devices simply because they can, and where users sometimes search for places to go (for example) on mobile devices while out and sometimes on their computers before they leave.
  • Whatever gains Google may have made in search from its spread into the mobile world is likely to be undermined by the massive growth in social connectivity it has also wrought.
  • Mobile is part of the competitive landscape. All of the innovations in mobile present opportunities for Google and its competitors to best each other, and all present avenues of access for Google and its competitors to reach consumers.

The final section Concludes.

The lessons from all of this? There are two. First, these are dynamic markets, and it is a fool’s errand to identify the power or significance of any player in these markets based on data available today — data that is already out of date between the time it is collected and the time it is analyzed.

Second, each of these developments has presented different, novel and shifting opportunities and challenges for firms interested in attracting eyeballs, selling ad space and data, earning revenue and obtaining market share. To say that Google dominates “search” or “online advertising” misses the mark precisely because there is simply nothing especially antitrust-relevant about either search or online advertising. Because of their own unique products, innovations, data sources, business models, entrepreneurship and organizations, all of these companies have challenged and will continue to challenge the dominant company — and the dominant paradigm — in a shifting and evolving range of markets.

Perhaps most important is this:

Competition with Google may not and need not look exactly like Google itself, and some of this competition will usher in innovations that Google itself won’t be able to replicate. But this doesn’t make it any less competitive.  

Competition need not look identical to be competitive — that’s what innovation is all about. Just ask those famous buggy whip manufacturers.