Archives For Advertising

Having just comfortably secured re-election to a third term, embattled Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is likely to want to change the subject from investigations of his own conduct to a topic where he feels on much firmer ground: the 16-state lawsuit he currently leads accusing Google of monopolizing a segment of the digital advertising business.

The segment in question concerns the systems used to buy and sell display ads shown on third-party websites, such as The New York Times or Runner’s World. Paxton’s suit, originally filed in December 2020, alleges that digital advertising is dominated by a few large firms and that this stifles competition and generates enormous profits for companies like Google at the expense of advertisers, publishers, and consumers.

On the surface, the digital advertising business appears straightforward: Publishers sell space on their sites and advertisers buy that space to display ads. In this simple view, advertisers seek to minimize how much they pay for ads and publishers seek to maximize their revenues from selling ads.

The reality is much more complex. Rather than paying for how many “eyeballs” see an ad, digital advertisers generally pay only for the ads that consumers click on. Moreover, many digital advertising transactions move through a “stack” of intermediary services to link buyers and sellers, including “exchanges” that run real-time auctions matching bids from advertisers and publishers. 

Because revenues are generated only when an ad is clicked on, advertisers, publishers, and exchange operators have an incentive to maximize the likelihood that a consumer will click. A cheap ad is worthless if the viewer doesn’t act on it and an expensive ad may be worthwhile if it elicits a click. The role of a company running the exchange, such as Google, is to balance the interests of advertisers buying the ads, publishers displaying the ads, and consumers viewing the ads. In some cases, pricing on one side of the trade will subsidize participation on another side, increasing the value to all sides combined. 

At the heart of Paxton’s lawsuit is the belief that the exchanges run by Google and other large digital advertising firms simultaneously overcharge advertisers, underpay publishers, and pocket the difference. Google’s critics allege the company leverages its ownership of Search, YouTube, and other services to coerce advertisers to use Google’s ad-buying tools and Google’s exchange, thus keeping competing firms away from these advertisers. It’s also claimed that, through its Search, YouTube, and Maps services, Google has superior information about consumers that it won’t share with publishers or competing digital advertising companies. 

These claims are based on the premise that “big is bad,” and that dominant firms have a duty to ensure that their business practices do not create obstacles for their competitors. Under this view, Google would be deemed anticompetitive if there is a hypothetical approach that would accomplish the same goals while fostering even more competition or propping up rivals.

But U.S. antitrust law is supposed to foster innovation that creates benefits for consumers. The law does not forbid conduct that benefits consumers on grounds that it might also inconvenience competitors, or that there is some other arrangement that could be “even more” competitive. Any such conduct would first have to be shown to be anticompetitive—that is, to harm consumers or competition, not merely certain competitors. 

That means Paxton has to show not just that some firms on one side of the market are harmed, but that the combined effect across all sides of the market is harmful. In this case, his suit really only discusses the potential harms to publishers (who would like to be paid more), while advertisers and consumers have clearly benefited from the huge markets and declining advertising prices Google has helped to create. 

While we can’t be sure how the Texas case will develop once its allegations are fleshed out into full arguments and rebutted in court, many of its claims and assumptions appear wrongheaded. If the court rules in favor of these claims, the result will be to condemn conduct that promotes competition and potentially to impose costly, inefficient remedies that function as a drag on innovation.

Paxton and his fellow attorneys general should not fall for the fallacy that their vision of a hypothetical ideal market can replace a well-functioning real market. This would pervert businesses’ incentives to innovate and compete, and would make an unobtainable perfect that exists only in the minds of some economists and lawyers the enemy of a “good” that exists in the real world.

[For in-depth analysis of the multi-state suit against Google, see our recent ICLE white paper “The Antitrust Assault on Ad Tech.]

Recently departed Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Noah Phillips has been rightly praised as “a powerful voice during his four-year tenure at the FTC, advocating for rational antitrust enforcement and against populist antitrust that derails the fair yet disruptive process of competition.” The FTC will miss his trenchant analysis and collegiality, now that he has departed for the greener pastures of private practice.

A particularly noteworthy example of Phillips’ mastery of his craft is presented by his November 2018 dissent from the FTC’s majority opinion in the 1-800 Contacts case, which presented tricky questions about the proper scope of antitrust intervention in contracts designed to protect intellectual property rights. (For more on the opinion, see Geoffrey A. Manne, Hal Singer, and Joshua D. Wright’s December 2018 piece.)

Phillips’ dissent—vindicated by a June 2021 decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacating the commission’s order—merits close attention. (The circuit court also denied the FTC’s petition for a rehearing en banc in August 2021.)

The 1-800 Business Model and the FTC’s Proceedings

Before describing the 1-800 proceedings, Phillips’ dissent, and the judicial vindication of his position, we begin with a brief assessment of the welfare-enhancing innovative business model employed by 1-800 Contacts. The firm pioneered the online contact-lens sales business. It is an American entrepreneurial success story, which has bestowed great benefits on consumers through trademark-backed competition focusing on price and quality considerations. Phillips’ dissenting opinion explained:

Jonathan Coon started the business that would become 1-800 Contacts in 1992 from his college dormitory room with just $50 to his name, seeking to reduce prices, improve service, and provide a better customer experience for contact lens consumers. … Over the next 26 years he would succeed, building a company (and a brand) from essentially nothing to one of the largest contact lens retailers in the country, while introducing American consumers to mail-order contact lenses (and later ordering contacts online), driving down prices, and attracting competition from small and large companies alike. That growth required a combination of a massive investment in advertising and a constant quest to improve the customer experience. That is the type of conduct that antitrust and trademark law should, and do, encourage. …

As [the FTC administrative law judge] … found in the Initial Decision, “1-800 Contacts’ business objective from the company’s inception was to make the process of buying contact lenses simple and it tries to distinguish itself from other contact lens retailers by making it faster, easier, and more convenient to get contact lenses.” … This contrasts with other online contact lens retailers, which generally do not seek to distinguish themselves on the basis of customer experience, customer service, or simplicity. … 1-800 Contacts did not limit itself to competing on price because it found that many customers valued speed and convenience just as much as price. …

1-800 Contacts’ relentless investment in its brand and in improving its customer service are recognized. Many third parties—including J.D. Power and Associates, StellaService Elite, and Foresee—have recognized or given awards to 1-800 Contacts for its customer service. … But that has not stopped 1-800 Contacts from continuing to invest in improving its service to enhance the customer experience. …

The service and brand investments made by 1-800 Contacts have resulted in millions of consumers purchasing contact lenses from 1-800 Contacts over the phone and online. They are precisely the types of investments that trademark law exists to protect and encourage.

The 2nd Circuit summarized the actions by 1-800 Contacts (“Petitioner”) that prompted an FTC administrative complaint, then presented a brief history of the internal FTC proceedings:

In 2002, Petitioner began filing complaints and sending cease-and-desist letters to its competitors alleging trademark infringement related to its competitors’ online advertisements. Between 2004 and 2013, Petitioner entered into thirteen settlement agreements to resolve most of these disputes. Each of these agreements includes language that prohibits the parties from using each other’s trademarks, URLs, and variations of trademarks as search advertising keywords. The agreements also require the parties to employ negative keywords so that a search including one party’s trademarks will not trigger a display of the other party’s ads. The agreements do not prohibit parties from bidding on generic keywords such as “contacts” or “contact lenses.” Petitioner enforced the agreements when it perceived them to be breached.   

Apart from the settlement agreements, in 2013 Petitioner entered into a “sourcing and services agreement” with Luxottica, a company that sells and distributes contacts through its affiliates. That agreement also contains reciprocal online search advertising restrictions prohibiting the use of trademark keywords and requiring both parties to employ negative keywords.  

The FTC issued an administrative complaint against Petitioner in August 2016 alleging that the thirteen settlement agreements and the Luxottica agreement, … along with subsequent actions to enforce them, unreasonably restrain truthful, non-misleading advertising as well as price competition in search advertising auctions, all of which constitute a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45. The complaint alleges that the Challenged  Agreements prevented Petitioner’s competitors from disseminating ads that would have informed consumers that the same contact lenses were available at a cheaper price from other online retailers, thereby reducing competition and making it more difficult for consumers to compare online retail prices. The case was tried before an ALJ, who concluded that a violation had occurred.   

As an initial matter, the ALJ rejected Petitioner’s assertion that trademark settlement agreements are not subject to antitrust scrutiny in light of FTC v. Actavis, 570 U.S. 136 (2013). Applying the “rule of reason” and principles of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, the ALJ determined that “[o]nline sales of contact lenses constitute a relevant product market.” … He found that the agreements constituted a “contract, combination, or  conspiracy” as required by the Sherman Act and held that the  advertising restrictions in the agreements harmed consumers by reducing the availability of information, in turn making it costlier for consumers to find and compare contact lens prices. …

Having found actual anticompetitive effects, as required under the rule of reason analysis, the ALJ rejected the procompetitive justifications for the agreements offered by Petitioner. He found that while trademark protection is procompetitive, it did not justify the advertising restrictions in the agreements and also that Petitioner failed to show that reduced litigation costs would benefit consumers. The ALJ issued an order that barred Petitioner from entering into an agreement with any marketer or seller of contact lenses to limit participation in search advertising auctions or to prohibit or limit search advertising.

1-800 appealed the ALJ’s order to the Commission. In a split decision, a majority of the Commission agreed with the ALJ that the agreements violated Section 5 of the FTC Act. The majority, however, analyzed the settlement agreements differently from the ALJ. The majority classified the agreements as “inherently suspect” and alternatively found “direct evidence” of anticompetitive effects on consumers and search engines. The majority then analyzed the procompetitive justifications Petitioner offered for the agreements and rejected arguments that the benefits of protecting trademarks and reducing litigation costs outweighed any potential harm to consumers. Finally, the majority identified what it believed to be less anticompetitive alternatives to the advertising restrictions in the agreements. One Commissioner dissented, reasoning both that the majority should not have applied the “inherently suspect” framework and that it failed to give appropriate consideration to Petitioner’s proffered procompetitive justifications. This timely appeal followed.

Commissioner Phillips’ Dissent

Phillips meticulously made the case that 1-800 Contacts’ behavior raised no antitrust concerns.

First, he began by stressing that the settlements in question resolved legitimate trademark-infringement claims. The settlements also were limited in scope. They did not prevent any of the parties from engaging in any form of non-infringing advertising (online or offline), they specifically permitted non-infringing uses like comparative advertising and parodies, and they placed no restrictions on the content that any of the settling parties could include in their ads. In short, the settlements “sought to balance 1-800 Contacts’ legitimate interests in protecting its trademarks with competitors’ (and consumers’) interests in truthful advertising.

Second, he explained in detail why the FTC majority opinion failed to show that the trademark settlements were “inherently suspect.” He noted that the “[s]ettlements do not approximate conduct that the Commission or courts have previously found to be inherently suspect, much less illegal.” FTC complaint counsel had not demonstrated any output effects—the settlements permitted price and quality advertising, and did not affect third-party sellers. The Actavis Supreme Court refused to apply the inherently suspect framework “even though the alleged conduct at issue [reverse payments] was far more harmful to competition than anything at issue here, as well-established economic evidence demonstrated.”

Moreover, the majority opinion’s reliance on the FTC’s Polygram decision was misplaced, because the defendants in that case fixed prices and banned advertising (“[t]here is no price fixing here [n]or is there an advertising ban”). Other cases cited by the majority involving advertising restrictions similarly were inapposite, because they involved far greater restrictions on advertising and did not implicate intellectual property. Furthermore, “[t]he economic studies cited by the majority d[id] not examine paid search advertising, … much less how restraints upon it interact with the trademark policies at issue here.”

Third, he discussed at length why the majority should not have pursued a truncated rule-of-reason analysis. In short:

Applicable precedent makes clear that the Trademark Settlements should be analyzed under the traditional rule of reason. And the cases on which the majority rely fail to provide support for truncating that analysis by applying the “inherently suspect” framework. As noted, those cases do not involve trademarks, or intellectual property of any kind. That is relevant—indeed, decisive—because trademarks often limit advertising in one way or another, and the logic of the majority’s analysis would support a rule that stigmatizes conduct protecting those rights, which is clearly procompetitive, as presumptively unlawful.

Fourth, in addition to the legal infirmities, Phillips skillfully exposed the serious policy shortcomings of the majority’s “inherently suspect” approach:

Treating the Trademark Settlements as “inherently suspect” yields an unclear rule that regardless of interpretation, will, I fear, create uncertainty, dilute trademark rights, and dampen inter-brand competition. The majority couch their holding as a limited one dealing with restraints on the opportunity to make price comparisons, but, by adopting an analytical framework without accounting for the intellectual property at issue, they produce one of the following rules: either all advertising restrictions are inherently suspect, regardless whether they protect intellectual property rights, or the level of scrutiny applied to a particular restraint will depend on the strength of the trademark holder’s underlying infringement claim.

In his policy assessment, Phillips added that the policy favoring litigation settlements (due to the fact that, as a general matter, they promote efficiency) supports application of the traditional rule of reason.

Fifth, turning to the traditional rule of reason, Phillips explicated FTC complaint counsel’s failure to meet its burden of proof (case citations omitted):

If the Trademark Settlements are not “inherently suspect”, which they are not, Complaint Counsel can meet their initial burden of proof under the rule of reason in one of two ways: “an indirect showing based on a demonstration of defendant’s market power” or “direct evidence of ‘actual, sustained adverse effects on competition’” … The majority take only the direct approach; they do not attempt an indirect showing of market power. … To meet the initial burden of direct evidence, a plaintiff must show adverse effects on competition that are actual, sustained, and significant or substantial. … Complaint Counsel have not met that burden with its showing on direct effects.

In dealing with burden-of-proof issues, Phillips demonstrated that, in the context of a trademark-settlement agreement, a restriction on advertising is, by itself, insufficient to show direct effects. Phillips conceded that, “[w]hile restrictions on advertising are not themselves enough, the majority are correct that a showing of actual, sustained, and substantial or significant price effects would suffice.” But Phillips emphasized that the majority failed to show that the trademark settlements were responsible for “the fact that 1-800 Contacts’ prices were higher than some of its competitors’ prices.” Indeed, the record was “clear that that price differential predated the Trademark Settlements.” Furthermore, FTC complaint counsel “put forward no evidence that the price gap increased as a result of the Trademark Settlements.” What’s more, the FTC majority “did not adduce legally sufficient proof” that “1-800 Contacts maintained supracompetitive prices. … [T]he majority d[id] not even attempt to show that 1-800 Contacts’ price cost-margin was abnormally high—either before or after the Trademark Settlements.”

Phillips next focused on the substantial procompetitive justifications for 1-800’s conduct. (This was legally unnecessary, because the initial burden under the inherently suspect framework had not been met, direct effects had not been shown, and there had been no effort to show indirect effects.) These included settlement-related litigation-cost savings and enhanced trademark protections. Phillips stressed “the tremendous amount of investment 1-800 Contacts ha[d] made in building its brand, lowering the price of contact lenses, and offering customers superior service.” 

After skillfully refuting the FTC majority’s novel separate theory that the settlements had anticompetitive effects on firms owning search engines (such as Google or Bing), Phillips skewered the FTC majority’s claim that the trademark settlements could have been narrower:

The searches that the Trademark Settlements prohibit[ed] [we[re] precisely those searches that implicate[d] 1-800 Contacts’ trademarks. They [we]re also the searches through which users [we]re most likely attempting to reach the 1-800 Contacts website (i.e., searches for 1-800 Contacts’ trademark). …

The settling parties included a negative keyword provision in response to Google’s explicit encouragement for 1-800 Contacts to resolve its trademark disputes with competitors by having them implement 1-800 Contacts’ trademarked terms as negative keywords. … They did so because, without negative keywords, a settling party’s advertisements could appear in response to searches for the counterparty’s trademarked terms.

Almost all of the Trademark Settlements balanced these restrictions with a provision explicitly permitting a settling party to use the counterparty’s trademarks in the non-internet context, including comparative advertising. …

As a result, …  the Trademark Settlements were appropriately tailored to achieve their goal of preventing trademark infringement while balancing the need to permit non-infringing advertising.

Turning to the Luxottica servicing agreement, Phillips explained that the majority opinion mistakenly characterized it as just another inherently suspect settlement. Instead, it was an efficient sourcing and servicing agreement. Under the agreement, 1-800 Contacts shipped contacts for sale to Luxottica brick-and-mortar chain stores, and Luxottica also provided other services. Luxottica benefited by outsourcing its entire contact-lens business—including negotiating with contact-lens suppliers—to 1-800 Contacts. The majority failed to analyze the various procompetitive benefits stemming from this arrangement, which fit squarely within the FTC-U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) Competitor Collaboration Guidelines. In particular, for example, “[a]s a direct result of its decision to outsource much of its contact business to 1-800 Contacts, Luxottica customers could receive lower prices and better services (e.g., faster delivery).”

Phillips closed his dissent by highlighting the ineffectiveness of the FTC majority’s order, which “state[d] that the only agreements that 1-800 Contacts c[ould] enter [we]re those that, in effect, that t[old] the counterparty that they c[ould] [not] violate the trademark laws.” This unhelpful language “w[ould] only lead to more litigation to determine what conduct actually violated the trademark laws in the context of paid search advertising based on trademarked keywords. Because the Order only allow[ed] agreements that d[id] not actually resolve the dispute in trademark infringement litigation, it w[ould] reduce the incentive to settle, which, in turn, w[ould] lead to either less trademark enforcement or more costly litigation”.

Phillips concluding paragraph offered sound general advice about the limits of antitrust and the need to avoid a harmful lack of clarity in enforcement:

The Commission’s mandate is to enforce the antitrust laws, but we cannot do so in a vacuum. We need to consider competing policies, including federal trademark policy, when analyzing allegedly anticompetitive conduct. And we should recognize that unclear rules may do more harm both to that policy and to competition than the alleged conduct here. In the case of the Trademark Settlements, precedent offers a better way: the Commission should analyze such agreements under the full rule of reason, giving appropriate weight to the trademarks at issue and the value they protect. Such a rule will decrease uncertainty in the market, encourage brand investment, and increase competition.

The 2nd Circuit Rejects the FTC Majority’s Position

The 2nd Circuit rejected the FTC majority opinion and vacated commission’s order. First, it rejected the FTC’s reliance on a “quick look” analysis, stating:

Courts do not have sufficient experience with this type of conduct to permit the abbreviated analysis of the Challenged [trademark settlement] Agreements undertaken by the Commission. … When, as here, not only are there cognizable procompetitive justifications but also the type of restraint has not been widely condemned in our “judicial experience,” … more is required. … The Challenged Agreements, therefore, are not so obviously anticompetitive to consumers that someone with only a basic understanding of economics would immediately recognize them to be so. … We are bound, then, to apply the rule of reason.

Turning to full rule-of-reason analysis, the court began by assessing anticompetitive effects. It rejected the FTC’s argument that it had established direct evidence of such effects in the form of increased prices. It emphasized that the government could not show an actual anticompetitive change in prices after the restraint was implemented, “because it did not conduct an empirical analysis of the Challenged Agreements effect on the price of contact lenses in the online market for contacts.” Specifically, because the FTC’s evidence was merely “theoretical and anecdotal,” the evidence was not “direct.” The court also concluded that it need not decide whether an FTC theory of anticompetitive harm due to “disrupted information flow” (due to a reduction in the quantity of advertisements) was viable, because 1-800 Contacts had shown a procompetitive justification.

The court rejected the FTC’s finding that 1-800 Contact’s citation of two procompetitive effects—reduced litigation costs and the protection of trademark rights—had no basis in fact. Citing the 2nd Circuit’s Clorox decision, the court emphasized that “[t]rademarks are by their nature non-exclusionary, and agreements to protect trademark interests are ‘common and favored, under the law.’” The FTC’s doubts about the merits of the trademark-infringement claims were irrelevant, because, consistent with Clorox, “trademark agreements that ‘only marginally advance[] trademark policies’ can be procompetitive.” And while trademark agreements that were “auxiliary to an underlying illegal agreement between competitors” would not pass legal muster, there was “a lack of evidence here that the Challenged Agreements [we]re the ‘product of anything other than hard-nosed trademark negotiations.’”

Because 1-800 Contacts had “carried its burden of identifying a procompetitive justification, the government [had to] … show that a less-restrictive alternative exist[ed] that achieve[d] the same legitimate competitive benefits.” In that regard, the FTC claimed “that the parties to the Challenged Agreements could have agreed to require clear disclosure in each search advertisement of the identity of the rival seller rather than prohibit all advertising on trademarked issues.”

But, citing Clorox, the court opined that “it is usually unwise for courts to second-guess” trademark agreements between competitors, because “the parties’ determination of the proper scope of needed trademark protection is entitled to substantial weight.” In this matter, the FTC “failed to consider the practical reasons for the parties entering into the Challenged Agreements. … The Commission did not consider, for example, how the parties might enforce such a requirement moving forward or give any weight to how onerous such enforcement efforts would be for private parties.” In short, “[w]hile trademark agreements limit competitors from competing as effectively as they otherwise might, … forcing companies to be less aggressive in enforcing their trademarks is antithetical to the procompetitive goals of trademark policy.”

In sum, the court concluded:

In this case, where the restrictions that arise are born of typical trademark settlement agreements, we cannot overlook the Procompetitive Agreements’ procompetitive goal of promoting trademark policy. In light of the strong procompetitive justification of protecting Petitioner’s trademarks, we conclude the Challenged Agreements “merely regulate[] and perhaps thereby promote[] competition.”

Conclusion

While strong intellectual-property protection is key to robust competition, the different types of IP advance competitive interests in different manners. Patents, for example, provide a right to exclude access to well-defined inventions, thereby creating incentives to invent and facilitating contracts that spread patent-based innovations throughout the economy. Trademarks protect brand names and logos, thereby serving as specific indicators of origin and creating incentives to invest in improving the quality of the product or service covered by a trademark. As such, strong trademarks spur competition over quality and reduce uncertainty about the particular attributes of competing goods and services. In short, trademarks tend to promote dynamic competition and benefit consumers.

Properly applied, antitrust law seeks to advance consumer welfare and strengthen the competitive process. In that regard, the policy goals of antitrust and intellectual property are in harmony, and antitrust should be enforced in a manner that complements, and does not undermine, IP policy. Thus, when faced with a competitive restraint covering IP rights, antitrust enforcers should evaluate it carefully. They should be mindful of the procompetitive goals it may serve and avoid focusing solely on theories of competitive harm that ignore IP interests.

The FTC majority in 1-800 Contacts missed this fundamental point. They gave relatively short shrift to the procompetitive aspects of trademark protection and, at the same time, mischaracterized minor restrictions on advertising as akin to significant restraints that chill the provision of price information and product comparisons.

There was no showing that the 1-800 restrictions had stifled price competition or undermined in any manner consumers’ ability to compare contact-lens brands and prices online. In reality, the settlement agreements under scrutiny were rather carefully crafted to protect 1-800 Contacts’ goodwill, reflected in its substantial investments in quality enhancement and the promotion of relatively low-cost online sales. In the absence of the settlements, its online rivals would have been able to free ride on 1-800’s brand investments, diminishing that innovative firm’s incentive to continue to invest in trademark-related product enhancements. The long-term effect would have been to diminish, not enhance, dynamic competition.

More generally, had it prevailed, the FTC majority’s blinkered analytical approach in 1-800 Contacts could have chilled vigorous, welfare-enhancing competition in many other markets where trademarks play an important role. Fortunately, the majority’s holding did not stand for long.

Phillips’ brilliant dissent, which carefully integrated trademark-policy concerns into the application of antitrust principles—in tandem with the subsequent 2nd Circuit decision that properly acknowledged the need to weigh such concerns in antitrust analysis—provide a template for trademark-antitrust assessments that may be looked to by future courts and enforcers. Let us hope that current Biden administration FTC and DOJ Antitrust Division enforcers also take heed. 

[The following is a guest post from Andrew Mercado, a research assistant at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an adjunct professor and research assistant at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School.]

The Competition and Transparency in Digital Advertising Act (CTDAA), introduced May 19 by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), is the latest manifestation of the congressional desire to “do something” legislatively about big digital platforms. Although different in substance from the other antitrust bills introduced this Congress, it shares one key characteristic: it is fatally flawed and should not be enacted.  

Restrictions

In brief, the CTDAA imposes revenue-based restrictions on the ownership structure of firms engaged in digital advertising. The CTDAA bars a firm with more than $20 billion in annual advertising revenue (adjusted annually for inflation) from:

  1. owning a digital-advertising exchange if it owns either a sell-side ad brokerage or a buy-side ad brokerage; and
  2. owning a sell-side brokerage if it owns a buy-side brokerage, or from owning a buy-side or sell-side brokerage if it is also a buyer or seller of advertising space.

The proposal’s ownership restrictions present the clearest harm to the future of the digital-advertising market. From an efficiency perspective, vertical integration of both sides of the market can lead to enormous gains. Since, for example, Google owns and operates an ad exchange, a sell-side broker, and a buy-side broker, there are very few frictions that exist between each side of the market. All of the systems are integrated and the supply of advertising space, demand for that space, and the marketplace conducting price-discovery auctions are automatically updated in real time.

While this instantaneous updating is not unique to Google’s system, and other buy- and sell-side firms can integrate into the system, the benefit to advertisers and publishers can be found in the cost savings that come from the integration. Since Google is able to create synergies on all sides of the market, the fees on any given transaction are lower. Further, incorporating Google’s vast trove of data allows for highly relevant and targeted ads. All of this means that advertisers spend less for the same quality of ad; publishers get more for each ad they place; and consumers see higher-quality, more relevant ads.

Without the ability to own and invest in the efficiency and transaction-cost reduction of an integrated platform, there will likely be less innovation and lower quality on all sides of the market. Further, advertisers and publishers will have to shoulder the burden of using non-integrated marketplaces and would likely pay higher fees for less-efficient brokers. Since Google is a one-stop shop for all of a company’s needs—whether that be on the advertising side or the publishing side—companies can move seamlessly from one side of the market to the other, all while paying lower costs per transaction, because of the integrated nature of the platform.

In the absence of such integration, a company would have to seek out one buy-side brokerage to place ads and another, separate sell-side brokerage to receive ads. These two brokers would then have to go to an ad exchange to facilitate the deal, bringing three different brokers into the mix. Each of these middlemen would take a proportionate cut of the deal. When comparing the situation between an integrated and non-integrated market, the fees associated with serving ads in a non-integrated market are almost certainly higher.

Additionally, under this proposal, the innovative potential of each individual firm is capped. If a firm grows big enough and gains sufficient revenue through integrating different sides of the market, they will be forced to break up their efficiency-inducing operations. Marginal improvements on each side of the market may be possible, but without integrating different sides of the market, the scale required to justify those improvements would be insurmountable.

Assumptions

The CTDAA assumes that:

  1. there is a serious competitive problem in digital advertising; and
  2. the structural separation and regulation of advertising brokerages run by huge digital-advertising platforms (as specified in the CTDAA) would enhance competition and benefit digital advertising customers and consumers.

The first assumption has not been proven and is subject to debate, while the second assumption is likely to be false.

Fundamental to the bill’s assumption that the digital-advertising market lacks competition is a misunderstanding of competitive forces and the idea that revenue and profit are inversely related to competition. While it is true that high profits can be a sign of consolidation and anticompetitive outcomes, the dynamic nature of the internet economy makes this theory unlikely.

As Christopher Kaiser and I have discussed, competition in the internet economy is incredibly dynamic. Vigorous competition can be achieved with just a handful of firms,  despite claims from some quarters that four competitors is necessarily too few. Even in highly concentrated markets, there is the omnipresent threat that new entrants will emerge to usurp an incumbent’s reign. Additionally, while some studies may show unusually large profits in those markets, when adjusted for the consumer welfare created by large tech platforms, profits should actually be significantly higher than they are.

Evidence of dynamic entry in digital markets can be found in a recently announced product offering from a small (but more than $6 billion in revenue) competitor in digital advertising. Following the outcry associated with Google’s alleged abuse with Project Bernanke, the Trade Desk developed OpenPath. This allowed the Trade Desk, a buy-side broker, to handle some of the functions of a sell-side broker and eliminate harms from Google’s alleged bid-rigging to better serve its clients.

In developing the platform, the Trade Desk said it would discontinue serving any Google-based customers, effectively severing ties with the largest advertising exchange on the market. While this runs afoul of the letter of the law spelled out in CTDAA, it is well within the spirit its sponsor’s stated goal: businesses engaging in robust free-market competition. If Google’s market power was as omnipresent and suffocating as the sponsors allege, then eliminating traffic from Google would have been a death sentence for the Trade Desk.

While various theories of vertical and horizontal competitive harm have been put forward, there has not been an empirical showing that consumers and advertising customers have failed to benefit from the admittedly efficient aspects of digital-brokerage auctions administered by Google, Facebook, and a few other platforms. The rapid and dramatic growth of digital advertising and associated commerce strongly suggests that this has been an innovative and welfare-enhancing development. Moreover, the introduction of a new integrated brokerage platform by a “small” player in the advertising market indicates there is ample opportunity to increase this welfare further.  

Interfering in brokerage operations under the unproven assumption that “monopoly rents” are being charged and that customers are being “exploited” is rhetoric unmoored from hard evidence. Furthermore, if specific platform practices are shown inefficiently to exclude potential entrants, existing antitrust law can be deployed on a case-specific basis. This approach is currently being pursued by a coalition of state attorneys general against Google (the merits of which are not relevant to this commentary).   

Even assuming for the sake of argument that there are serious competition problems in the digital-advertising market, there is no reason to believe that the arbitrary provisions and definitions found in the CTDAA would enhance welfare. Indeed, it is likely that the act would have unforeseen consequences:

  • It would lead to divestitures supervised by the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) that could destroy efficiencies derived from efficient targeting by brokerages integrated into platforms;
  • It would disincentivize improvements in advertising brokerages and likely would reduce future welfare on both the buy and sell sides of digital advertising;
  • It would require costly recordkeeping and disclosures by covered platforms that could have unforeseen consequences for privacy and potentially reduce the efficiency of bidding practices;
  • It would establish a fund for damage payments that would encourage wasteful litigation (see next two points);
  • It would spawn a great deal of wasteful private rent-seeking litigation that would discourage future platform and brokerage innovations; and
  • It would likely generate wasteful lawsuits by rent-seeking state attorneys general (and perhaps the DOJ as well).

The legislation would ultimately harm consumers who currently benefit from a highly efficient form of targeted advertising (for more on the welfare benefits of targeted advertising, see here). Since Google continually invests in creating a better search engine (to deliver ads directly to consumers) and collects more data to better target ads (to deliver ads to specific consumers), the value to advertisers of displaying ads on Google constantly increases.

Proposing a new regulatory structure that would directly affect the operations of highly efficient auction markets is the height of folly. It ignores the findings of Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan (among others) that, to justify regulation, there should first be a provable serious market failure and that, even if such a failure can be shown, the net welfare costs of government intervention should be smaller than the net welfare costs of non-intervention.

Given the likely substantial costs of government intervention and the lack of proven welfare costs from the present system (which clearly has been associated with a growth in output), the second prong of the Buchanan test clearly has not been met.

Conclusion

While there are allegations of abuses in the digital-advertising market, it is not at all clear that these abuses have had a long-term negative economic impact. As shown in a study by Erik Brynjolfsson and his student Avinash Collis—recently summarized in the Harvard Business Review (Alden Abbott offers commentary here)—the consumer surplus generated by digital platforms has far outstripped the advertising and services revenues received by the platforms. The CTDAA proposal would seek to unwind much of these gains.

If the goal is to create a multitude of small, largely inefficient advertising companies that charge high fees and provide low-quality service, this bill will deliver. The market for advertising will have a far greater number of players but it will be far less competitive, since no companies will be willing to exceed the $20 billion revenue threshold that would leave them subject to the proposal’s onerous ownership standards.

If, however, the goal is to increase consumer welfare, increase rigorous competition, and cement better outcomes for advertisers and publishers, then it is likely to fail. Ownership requirements laid out in the proposal will lead to a stagnant advertising market, higher fees for all involved, and lower-quality, less-relevant ads. Government regulatory interference in highly successful and efficient platform markets are a terrible idea.

Why do digital industries routinely lead to one company having a very large share of the market (at least if one defines markets narrowly)? To anyone familiar with competition policy discussions, the answer might seem obvious: network effects, scale-related economies, and other barriers to entry lead to winner-take-all dynamics in platform industries. Accordingly, it is that believed the first platform to successfully unlock a given online market enjoys a determining first-mover advantage.

This narrative has become ubiquitous in policymaking circles. Thinking of this sort notably underpins high-profile reports on competition in digital markets (here, here, and here), as well ensuing attempts to regulate digital platforms, such as the draft American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the EU’s Digital Markets Act.

But are network effects and the like the only ways to explain why these markets look like this? While there is no definitive answer, scholars routinely overlook an alternative explanation that tends to undercut the narrative that tech markets have become non-contestable.

The alternative model is simple: faced with zero prices and the almost complete absence of switching costs, users have every reason to join their preferred platform. If user preferences are relatively uniform and one platform has a meaningful quality advantage, then there is every reason to expect that most consumers will all join the same one—even though the market remains highly contestable. On the other side of the equation, because platforms face very few capacity constraints, there are few limits to a given platform’s growth. As will be explained throughout this piece, this intuition is as old as economics itself.

The Bertrand Paradox

In 1883, French mathematician Joseph Bertrand published a powerful critique of two of the most high-profile economic thinkers of his time: the late Antoine Augustin Cournot and Léon Walras (it would be another seven years before Alfred Marshall published his famous principles of economics).

Bertrand criticized several of Cournot and Walras’ widely accepted findings. This included Cournot’s conclusion that duopoly competition would lead to prices above marginal cost—or, in other words, that duopolies were imperfectly competitive.

By reformulating the problem slightly, Bertand arrived at the opposite conclusion. He argued that each firm’s incentive to undercut its rival would ultimately lead to marginal cost pricing, and one seller potentially capturing the entire market:

There is a decisive objection [to Cournot’s model]: According to his hypothesis, no [supracompetitive] equilibrium is possible. There is no limit to price decreases; whatever the joint price being charged by firms, a competitor could always undercut this price and, with few exceptions, attract all consumers. If the competitor is allowed to get away with this [i.e. the rival does not react], it will double its profits.

This result is mainly driven by the assumption that, unlike in Cournot’s model, firms can immediately respond to their rival’s chosen price/quantity. In other words, Bertrand implicitly framed the competitive process as price competition, rather than quantity competition (under price competition, firms do not face any capacity constraints and they cannot commit to producing given quantities of a good):

If Cournot’s calculations mask this result, it is because of a remarkable oversight. Referring to them as D and D’, Cournot deals with the quantities sold by each of the two competitors and treats them as independent variables. He assumes that if one were to change by the will of one of the two sellers, the other one could remain fixed. The opposite is evidently true.

This later came to be known as the “Bertrand paradox”—the notion that duopoly-market configurations can produce the same outcome as perfect competition (i.e., P=MC).

But while Bertrand’s critique was ostensibly directed at Cournot’s model of duopoly competition, his underlying point was much broader. Above all, Bertrand seemed preoccupied with the notion that expressing economic problems mathematically merely gives them a veneer of accuracy. In that sense, he was one of the first economists (at least to my knowledge) to argue that the choice of assumptions has a tremendous influence on the predictions of economic models, potentially rendering them unreliable:

On other occasions, Cournot introduces assumptions that shield his reasoning from criticism—scholars can always present problems in a way that suits their reasoning.

All of this is not to say that Bertrand’s predictions regarding duopoly competition necessarily hold in real-world settings; evidence from experimental settings is mixed. Instead, the point is epistemological. Bertrand’s reasoning was groundbreaking because he ventured that market structures are not the sole determinants of consumer outcomes. More broadly, he argued that assumptions regarding the competitive process hold significant sway over the results that a given model may produce (and, as a result, over normative judgements concerning the desirability of given market configurations).

The Theory of Contestable Markets

Bertrand is certainly not the only economist to have suggested market structures alone do not determine competitive outcomes. In the early 1980s, William Baumol (and various co-authors) went one step further. Baumol argued that, under certain conditions, even monopoly market structures could deliver perfectly competitive outcomes. This thesis thus rejected the Structure-Conduct-Performance (“SCP”) Paradigm that dominated policy discussions of the time.

Baumol’s main point was that industry structure is not the main driver of market “contestability,” which is the key determinant of consumer outcomes. In his words:

In the limit, when entry and exit are completely free, efficient incumbent monopolists and oligopolists may in fact be able to prevent entry. But they can do so only by behaving virtuously, that is, by offering to consumers the benefits which competition would otherwise bring. For every deviation from good behavior instantly makes them vulnerable to hit-and-run entry.

For instance, it is widely accepted that “perfect competition” leads to low prices because firms are price-takers; if one does not sell at marginal cost, it will be undercut by rivals. Observers often assume this is due to the number of independent firms on the market. Baumol suggests this is wrong. Instead, the result is driven by the sanction that firms face for deviating from competitive pricing.

In other words, numerous competitors are a sufficient, but not necessary condition for competitive pricing. Monopolies can produce the same outcome when there is a present threat of entry and an incumbent’s deviation from competitive pricing would be sanctioned. This is notably the case when there are extremely low barriers to entry.

Take this hypothetical example from the world of cryptocurrencies. It is largely irrelevant to a user whether there are few or many crypto exchanges on which to trade coins, nonfungible tokens (NFTs), etc. What does matter is that there is at least one exchange that meets one’s needs in terms of both price and quality of service. This could happen because there are many competing exchanges, or because a failure to meet my needs by the few (or even one) exchange that does exist would attract the entry of others to which I could readily switch—thus keeping the behavior of the existing exchanges in check.

This has far-reaching implications for antitrust policy, as Baumol was quick to point out:

This immediately offers what may be a new insight on antitrust policy. It tells us that a history of absence of entry in an industry and a high concentration index may be signs of virtue, not of vice. This will be true when entry costs in our sense are negligible.

Given what precedes, Baumol surmised that industry structure must be driven by endogenous factors—such as firms’ cost structures—rather than the intensity of competition that they face. For instance, scale economies might make monopoly (or another structure) the most efficient configuration in some industries. But so long as rivals can sanction incumbents for failing to compete, the market remains contestable. Accordingly, at least in some industries, both the most efficient and the most contestable market configuration may entail some level of concentration.

To put this last point in even more concrete terms, online platform markets may have features that make scale (and large market shares) efficient. If so, there is every reason to believe that competition could lead to more, not less, concentration. 

How Contestable Are Digital Markets?

The insights of Bertrand and Baumol have important ramifications for contemporary antitrust debates surrounding digital platforms. Indeed, it is critical to ascertain whether the (relatively) concentrated market structures we see in these industries are a sign of superior efficiency (and are consistent with potentially intense competition), or whether they are merely caused by barriers to entry.

The barrier-to-entry explanation has been repeated ad nauseam in recent scholarly reports, competition decisions, and pronouncements by legislators. There is thus little need to restate that thesis here. On the other hand, the contestability argument is almost systematically ignored.

Several factors suggest that online platform markets are far more contestable than critics routinely make them out to be.

First and foremost, consumer switching costs are extremely low for most online platforms. To cite but a few examples: Changing your default search engine requires at most a couple of clicks; joining a new social network can be done by downloading an app and importing your contacts to the app; and buying from an alternative online retailer is almost entirely frictionless, thanks to intermediaries such as PayPal.

These zero or near-zero switching costs are compounded by consumers’ ability to “multi-home.” In simple terms, joining TikTok does not require users to close their Facebook account. And the same applies to other online services. As a result, there is almost no opportunity cost to join a new platform. This further reduces the already tiny cost of switching.

Decades of app development have greatly improved the quality of applications’ graphical user interfaces (GUIs), to such an extent that costs to learn how to use a new app are mostly insignificant. Nowhere is this more apparent than for social media and sharing-economy apps (it may be less true for productivity suites that enable more complex operations). For instance, remembering a couple of intuitive swipe motions is almost all that is required to use TikTok. Likewise, ridesharing and food-delivery apps merely require users to be familiar with the general features of other map-based applications. It is almost unheard of for users to complain about usability—something that would have seemed impossible in the early 21st century, when complicated interfaces still plagued most software.

A second important argument in favor of contestability is that, by and large, online platforms face only limited capacity constraints. In other words, platforms can expand output rapidly (though not necessarily costlessly).

Perhaps the clearest example of this is the sudden rise of the Zoom service in early 2020. As a result of the COVID pandemic, Zoom went from around 10 million daily active users in early 2020 to more than 300 million by late April 2020. Despite being a relatively data-intensive service, Zoom did not struggle to meet this new demand from a more than 30-fold increase in its user base. The service never had to turn down users, reduce call quality, or significantly increase its price. In short, capacity largely followed demand for its service. Online industries thus seem closer to the Bertrand model of competition, where the best platform can almost immediately serve any consumers that demand its services.

Conclusion

Of course, none of this should be construed to declare that online markets are perfectly contestable. The central point is, instead, that critics are too quick to assume they are not. Take the following examples.

Scholars routinely cite the putatively strong concentration of digital markets to argue that big tech firms do not face strong competition, but this is a non sequitur. As Bertrand and Baumol (and others) show, what matters is not whether digital markets are concentrated, but whether they are contestable. If a superior rival could rapidly gain user traction, this alone will discipline the behavior of incumbents.

Markets where incumbents do not face significant entry from competitors are just as consistent with vigorous competition as they are with barriers to entry. Rivals could decline to enter either because incumbents have aggressively improved their product offerings or because they are shielded by barriers to entry (as critics suppose). The former is consistent with competition, the latter with monopoly slack.

Similarly, it would be wrong to presume, as many do, that concentration in online markets is necessarily driven by network effects and other scale-related economies. As ICLE scholars have argued elsewhere (here, here and here), these forces are not nearly as decisive as critics assume (and it is debatable that they constitute barriers to entry).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this piece has argued that many factors could explain the relatively concentrated market structures that we see in digital industries. The absence of switching costs and capacity constraints are but two such examples. These explanations, overlooked by many observers, suggest digital markets are more contestable than is commonly perceived.

In short, critics’ failure to meaningfully grapple with these issues serves to shape the prevailing zeitgeist in tech-policy debates. Cournot and Bertrand’s intuitions about oligopoly competition may be more than a century old, but they continue to be tested empirically. It is about time those same standards were applied to tech-policy debates.

A lawsuit filed by the State of Texas and nine other states in December 2020 alleges, among other things, that Google has engaged in anticompetitive conduct related to its online display-advertising business.

Broadly, the Texas complaint (previously discussed in this TOTM symposium) alleges that Google possesses market power in ad-buying tools and in search, illustrated in the figure below.

The complaint also alleges anticompetitive conduct by Google with respect to YouTube in a separate “inline video-advertising market.” According to the complaint, this market power is leveraged to force transactions through Google’s exchange, AdX, and its network, Google Display Network. The leverage is further exercised by forcing publishers to license Google’s ad server, Google Ad Manager.

Although the Texas complaint raises many specific allegations, the key ones constitute four broad claims: 

  1. Google forces publishers to license Google’s ad server and trade in Google’s ad exchange;
  2. Google uses its control over publishers’ inventory to block exchange competition;
  3. Google has disadvantaged technology known as “header bidding” in order to prevent publishers from accessing its competitors; and
  4. Google prevents rival ad-placement services from competing by not allowing them to buy YouTube ad space.

Alleged harms

The Texas complaint alleges Google’s conduct has caused harm to competing networks, exchanges, and ad servers. The complaint also claims that the plaintiff states’ economies have been harmed “by depriving the Plaintiff States and the persons within each Plaintiff State of the benefits of competition.”

In a nod to the widely accepted Consumer Welfare Standard, the Texas complaint alleges harm to three categories of consumers:

  1. Advertisers who pay for their ads to be displayed, but should be paying less;
  2. Publishers who are paid to provide space on their sites to display ads, but should be paid more; and
  3. Users who visit the sites, view the ads, and purchase or use the advertisers’ and publishers’ products and services.

The complaint claims users are harmed by above-competitive prices paid by advertisers, in that these higher costs are passed on in the form of higher prices and lower quality for the products and services they purchase from those advertisers. The complaint simultaneously claims that users are harmed by the below-market prices received by publishers in the form of “less content (lower output of content), lower-quality content, less innovation in content delivery, more paywalls, and higher subscription fees.”

Without saying so explicitly, the complaint insinuates that if intermediaries (e.g., Google and competing services) charged lower fees for their services, advertisers would pay less, publishers would be paid more, and consumers would be better off in the form of lower prices and better products from advertisers, as well as improved content and lower fees on publishers’ sites.

Effective competition is not an antitrust offense

A flawed premise underlies much of the Texas complaint. It asserts that conduct by a dominant incumbent firm that makes competition more difficult for competitors is inherently anticompetitive, even if that conduct confers benefits on users.

This amounts to a claim that Google is acting anti-competitively by innovating and developing products and services to benefit one or more display-advertising constituents (e.g., advertisers, publishers, or consumers) or by doing things that benefit the advertising ecosystem more generally. These include creating new and innovative products, lowering prices, reducing costs through vertical integration, or enhancing interoperability.

The argument, which is made explicitly elsewhere, is that Google must show that it has engineered and implemented its products to minimize obstacles its rivals face, and that any efficiencies created by its products must be shown to outweigh the costs imposed by those improvements on the company’s competitors.

Similarly, claims that Google has acted in an anticompetitive fashion rest on the unsupportable notion that the company acts unfairly when it designs products to benefit itself without considering how those designs would affect competitors. Google could, it is argued, choose alternate arrangements and practices that would possibly confer greater revenue on publishers or lower prices on advertisers without imposing burdens on competitors.

For example, a report published by the Omidyar Network sketching a “roadmap” for a case against Google claims that, if Google’s practices could possibly be reimagined to achieve the same benefits in ways that foster competition from rivals, then the practices should be condemned as anticompetitive:

It is clear even to us as lay people that there are less anticompetitive ways of delivering effective digital advertising—and thereby preserving the substantial benefits from this technology—than those employed by Google.

– Fiona M. Scott Morton & David C. Dinielli, “Roadmap for a Digital Advertising Monopolization Case Against Google”

But that’s not how the law—or the economics—works. This approach converts beneficial aspects of Google’s ad-tech business into anticompetitive defects, essentially arguing that successful competition and innovation create barriers to entry that merit correction through antitrust enforcement.

This approach turns U.S. antitrust law (and basic economics) on its head. As some of the most well-known words of U.S. antitrust jurisprudence have it:

A single producer may be the survivor out of a group of active competitors, merely by virtue of his superior skill, foresight and industry. In such cases a strong argument can be made that, although, the result may expose the public to the evils of monopoly, the Act does not mean to condemn the resultant of those very forces which it is its prime object to foster: finis opus coronat. The successful competitor, having been urged to compete, must not be turned upon when he wins.

– United States v. Aluminum Co. of America, 148 F.2d 416 (2d Cir. 1945)

U.S. antitrust law is intended to foster innovation that creates benefits for consumers, including innovation by incumbents. The law does not proscribe efficiency-enhancing unilateral conduct on the grounds that it might also inconvenience competitors, or that there is some other arrangement that could be “even more” competitive. Under U.S. antitrust law, firms are “under no duty to help [competitors] survive or expand.”  

To be sure, the allegations against Google are couched in terms of anticompetitive effect, rather than being described merely as commercial disagreements over the distribution of profits. But these effects are simply inferred, based on assumptions that Google’s vertically integrated business model entails an inherent ability and incentive to harm rivals.

The Texas complaint claims Google can surreptitiously derive benefits from display advertisers by leveraging its search-advertising capabilities, or by “withholding YouTube inventory,” rather than altruistically opening Google Search and YouTube up to rival ad networks. The complaint alleges Google uses its access to advertiser, publisher, and user data to improve its products without sharing this data with competitors.

All these charges may be true, but they do not describe inherently anticompetitive conduct. Under U.S. law, companies are not obliged to deal with rivals and certainly are not obliged to do so on those rivals’ preferred terms

As long ago as 1919, the U.S. Supreme Court held that:

In the absence of any purpose to create or maintain a monopoly, the [Sherman Act] does not restrict the long recognized right of [a] trader or manufacturer engaged in an entirely private business, freely to exercise his own independent discretion as to parties with whom he will deal.

– United States v. Colgate & Co.

U.S. antitrust law does not condemn conduct on the basis that an enforcer (or a court) is able to identify or hypothesize alternative conduct that might plausibly provide similar benefits at lower cost. In alleging that there are ostensibly “better” ways that Google could have pursued its product design, pricing, and terms of dealing, both the Texas complaint and Omidyar “roadmap” assert that, had the firm only selected a different path, an alternative could have produced even more benefits or an even more competitive structure.

The purported cure of tinkering with benefit-producing unilateral conduct by applying an “even more competition” benchmark is worse than the supposed disease. The adjudicator is likely to misapply such a benchmark, deterring the very conduct the law seeks to promote.

For example, Texas complaint alleges: “Google’s ad server passed inside information to Google’s exchange and permitted Google’s exchange to purchase valuable impressions at artificially depressed prices.” The Omidyar Network’s “roadmap” claims that “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. Low prices for this service can force rivals to depart, thereby directly reducing competition.”

In contrast, as current U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer once explained, in the context of above-cost low pricing, “the consequence of a mistake here is not simply to force a firm to forego legitimate business activity it wishes to pursue; rather, it is to penalize a procompetitive price cut, perhaps the most desirable activity (from an antitrust perspective) that can take place in a concentrated industry where prices typically exceed costs.”  That commentators or enforcers may be able to imagine alternative or theoretically more desirable conduct is beside the point.

It has been reported that the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) may join the Texas suit or bring its own similar action against Google in the coming months. If it does, it should learn from the many misconceptions and errors in the Texas complaint that leave it on dubious legal and economic grounds.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan’s Sept. 22 memorandum to FTC commissioners and staff—entitled “Vision and Priorities for the FTC” (VP Memo)—offers valuable insights into the chair’s strategy and policy agenda for the commission. Unfortunately, it lacks an appreciation for the limits of antitrust and consumer-protection law; it also would have benefited from greater regulatory humility. After summarizing the VP Memo’s key sections, I set forth four key takeaways from this rather unusual missive.

Introduction

The VP Memo begins appropriately enough, with praise for commission staff and a call to focus on key FTC strategic priorities and operational objectives. So far, so good. Regrettably, the introductory section is the memo’s strongest feature.

Strategic Approach

The VP Memo’s first substantive section, which lays out Khan’s strategic approach, raises questions that require further clarification.

This section is long on glittering generalities. First, it begins with the need to take a “holistic approach” that recognizes law violations harm workers and independent businesses, as well as consumers. Legal violations that reflect “power asymmetries” and harm to “marginalized communities” are emphasized, but not defined. Are new enforcement standards to supplement or displace consumer welfare enhancement being proposed?

Second, similar ambiguity surrounds the need to target enforcement efforts toward “root causes” of unlawful conduct, rather than “one-off effects.” Root causes are said to involve “structural incentives that enable unlawful conduct” (such as conflicts of interest, business models, or structural dominance), as well as “upstream” examination of firms that profit from such conduct. How these observations may be “operationalized” into case-selection criteria (and why these observations are superior to alternative means for spotting illegal behavior) is left unexplained.

Third, the section endorses a more “rigorous and empiricism-driven approach” to the FTC’s work, a “more interdisciplinary approach” that incorporates “a greater range of analytical tools and skillsets.” This recommendation is not problematic on its face, though it is a bit puzzling. The FTC already relies heavily on economics and empirical work, as well as input from technologists, advertising specialists, and other subject matter experts, as required. What other skillsets are being endorsed? (A more far-reaching application of economic thinking in certain consumer-protection cases would be helpful, but one suspects that is not the point of the paragraph.)

Fourth, the need to be especially attentive to next-generation technologies, innovations, and nascent industries is trumpeted. Fine, but the FTC already does that in its competition and consumer-protection investigations.

Finally, the need to “democratize” the agency is highlighted, to keep the FTC in tune with “the real problems that Americans are facing in their daily lives and using that understanding to inform our work.” This statement seems to imply that the FTC is not adequately dealing with “real problems.” The FTC, however, has not been designated by Congress to be a general-purpose problem solver. Rather, the agency has a specific statutory remit to combat anticompetitive activity and unfair acts or practices that harm consumers. Ironically, under Chair Khan, the FTC has abruptly implemented major changes in key areas (including rulemaking, the withdrawal of guidance, and merger-review practices) without prior public input or consultation among the commissioners (see, for example, here)—actions that could be deemed undemocratic.

Policy Priorities

The memo’s brief discussion of Khan’s policy priorities raises three significant concerns.

First, Khan stresses the “need to address rampant consolidation and the dominance that it has enabled across markets” in the areas of merger enforcement and dominant-firm scrutiny. The claim that competition has substantially diminished has been critiqued by leading economists, and is dubious at best (see, for example, here). This flat assertion is jarring, and in tension with the earlier call for more empirical analysis. Khan’s call for revision of the merger guidelines (presumably both horizontal and vertical), in tandem with the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), will be headed for trouble if it departs from the economic reasoning that has informed prior revisions of those guidelines. (The memo’s critical and cryptic reference to the “narrow and outdated framework” of recent guidelines provides no clue as to the new guidelines format that Chair Khan might deem acceptable.) 

Second, the chair supports prioritizing “dominant intermediaries” and “extractive business models,” while raising concerns about “private equity and other investment vehicles” that “strip productive capacity” and “target marginalized communities.” No explanation is given as to why such prioritization will best utilize the FTC’s scarce resources to root out harmful anticompetitive behavior and consumer-protection harms. By assuming from the outset that certain “unsavory actors” merit prioritization, this discussion also is in tension with an empirical approach that dispassionately examines the facts in determining how resources should best be allocated to maximize the benefits of enforcement.

Third, the chair wants to direct special attention to “one-sided contract provisions” that place “[c]onsumers, workers, franchisees, and other market participants … at a significant disadvantage.” Non-competes, repair restrictions, and exclusionary clauses are mentioned as examples. What is missing is a realistic acknowledgement of the legal complications that would be involved in challenging such provisions, and a recognition of possible welfare benefits that such restraints could generate under many circumstances. In that vein, mere perceived inequalities in bargaining power alluded to in the discussion do not, in and of themselves, constitute antitrust or consumer-protection violations.

Operational Objectives

The closing section, on “operational objectives,” is not particularly troublesome. It supports an “integrated approach” to enforcement and policy tools, and endorses “breaking down silos” between competition (BC) and consumer-protection (BCP) staff. (Of course, while greater coordination between BC and BCP occasionally may be desirable, competition and consumer-protection cases will continue to feature significant subject matter and legal differences.) It also calls for greater diversity in recruitment and a greater staffing emphasis on regional offices. Finally, it endorses bringing in more experts from “outside disciplines” and more rigorous analysis of conduct, remedies, and market studies. These points, although not controversial, do not directly come to grip with questions of optimal resource allocation within the agency, which the FTC will have to address.

Evaluating the VP Memo: 4 Key Takeaways

The VP Memo is a highly aggressive call-to-arms that embodies Chair Khan’s full-blown progressive vision for the FTC. There are four key takeaways:

  1. Promoting the consumer interest, which for decades has been the overarching principle in both FTC antitrust and consumer-protection cases (which address different sources of consumer harm), is passé. Protecting consumers is only referred to in passing. Rather, the concerns of workers, “honest businesses,” and “marginalized communities” are emphasized. Courts will, however, continue to focus on established consumer-welfare and consumer-harm principles in ruling on antitrust and consumer-protection cases. If the FTC hopes to have any success in winning future cases based on novel forms of harm, it will have to ensure that its new case-selection criteria also emphasize behavior that harms consumers.
  2. Despite multiple references to empiricism and analytical rigor, the VP Memo ignores the potential economic-welfare benefits of the categories of behavior it singles out for condemnation. The memo’s critiques of “middlemen,” “gatekeepers,” “extractive business models,” “private equity,” and various types of vertical contracts, reference conduct that frequently promotes efficiency, generating welfare benefits for producers and consumers. Even if FTC lawsuits or regulations directed at these practices fail, the business uncertainty generated by the critiques could well disincentivize efficient forms of conduct that spark innovation and economic growth.
  3. The VP Memo in effect calls for new enforcement initiatives that challenge conduct different in nature from FTC cases brought in recent decades. This implicit support for lawsuits that would go well beyond existing judicial interpretations of the FTC’s competition and consumer-protection authority reflects unwarranted hubris. This April, in the AMG case, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected the FTC’s argument that it had implicit authority to obtain monetary relief under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which authorizes permanent injunctions – despite the fact that several appellate courts had found such authority existed. The Court stated that the FTC could go to Congress if it wanted broader authority. This decision bodes ill for any future FTC efforts to expand its authority into new realms of “unfair” activity through “creative” lawyering.
  4. Chair Khan’s unilateral statement of her policy priorities embodied in the VP Memo bespeaks a lack of humility. It ignores a long history of consensus FTC statements on agency priorities, reflected in numerous commission submissions to congressional committees in connection with oversight hearings. Although commissioners have disagreed on specific policy statements or enforcement complaints, general “big picture” policy statements to congressional overseers typically have been by unanimous vote. By ignoring this tradition, the VP Memo departs from a longstanding bipartisan tradition that will tend to undermine the FTC’s image as a serious deliberative body that seeks to reconcile varying viewpoints (while recognizing that, at times, different positions will be expressed on particular matters). If the FTC acts more and more like a one-person executive agency, why does it need to be “independent,” and, indeed, what special purpose does it serve as a second voice on federal antitrust matters? Under seeming unilateral rule, the prestige of the FTC before federal courts may suffer, undermining its effectiveness in defending enforcement actions and promulgating rules. This will particularly be the case if more and more FTC decisions are taken by a 3-2 vote and appear to reflect little or no consultation with minority commissioners.

Conclusion

The VP Memo reflects a lack of humility and strategic insight. It sets forth priorities that are disconnected from the traditional core of the FTC’s consumer-welfare-centric mission. It emphasizes new sorts of initiatives that are likely to “crash and burn” in the courts, unless they are better anchored to established case law and FTC enforcement principles. As a unilateral missive announcing an unprecedented change in policy direction, the memo also undermines the tradition of collegiality and reasoned debate that generally has characterized the commission’s activities in recent decades.

As such, the memo will undercut, not advance, the effectiveness of FTC advocacy before the courts. It will also undermine the FTC’s reputation as a truly independent deliberative body. Accordingly, one may hope that Chair Khan will rethink her approach, withdraw the VP Memo, and work with all of her fellow commissioners to recraft a new consensus policy document.   

Policymakers’ recent focus on how Big Tech should be treated under antitrust law has been accompanied by claims that companies like Facebook and Google hold dominant positions in various “markets.” Notwithstanding the tendency to conflate whether a firm is large with whether it hold a dominant position, we must first answer the question most of these claims tend to ignore: “dominant over what?”

For example, as set out in this earlier Truth on the Market post, a recent lawsuit filed by various states and the U.S. Justice Department outlined five areas related to online display advertising over which Google is alleged by the plaintiffs to hold a dominant position. But crucially, none appear to have been arrived at via the application of economic reasoning.

As that post explained, other forms of advertising (such as online search and offline advertising) might form part of a “relevant market” (i.e., the market in which a product actually competes) over which Google’s alleged dominance should be assessed. The post makes a strong case for the actual relevant market being much broader than that claimed in the lawsuit. Of course, some might disagree with that assessment, so it is useful to step back and examine the principles that underlie and motivate how a relevant market is defined.

In any antitrust case, defining the relevant market should be regarded as a means to an end, not an end in itself. While such definitions provide the basis to calculate market shares, the process of thinking about relevant markets also should provide a framework to consider and highlight important aspects of the case. The process enables one to think about how a particular firm and market operates, the constraints that it and rival firms face, and whether entry by other firms is feasible or likely.

Many naïve attempts to define the relevant market will limit their analysis to a particular industry. But an industry could include too few competitors, or it might even include too many—for example, if some firms in the industry generate products that do not constitute strong competitive constraints. If one were to define all cars as the “relevant” market, that would imply that a Dacia Sandero (a supermini model produced Renault’s Romanian subsidiary Dacia) constrains the price of Maserati’s Quattroporte luxury sports sedan as much as the Ferrari Portofino grand touring sports car does. This is very unlikely to hold in reality.[1]

The relevant market should be the smallest possible group of products and services that contains all such products and services that could provide a reasonable competitive constraint. But that, of course, merely raises the question of what is meant by a “reasonable competitive constraint.” Thankfully, by applying economic reasoning, we can answer that question.

More specifically, we have the “hypothetical monopolist test.” This test operates by considering whether a hypothetical monopolist (i.e., a single firm that controlled all the products considered part of the relevant market) could profitably undertake “a small but significant, non-transitory, increase in price” (typically shortened as the SSNIP test).[2]

If the hypothetical monopolist could profitably implement this increase in price, then the group of products under consideration is said to constitute a relevant market. On the other hand, if the hypothetical monopolist could not profitably increase the price of that group of products (due to demand-side or supply-side constraints on their ability to increase prices), then that group of products is not a relevant market, and more products need to be included in the candidate relevant market. The process of widening the group of products continues until the hypothetical monopolist could profitably increase prices over that group.

So how does this test work in practice? Let’s use an example to make things concrete. In particular, let’s focus on Google’s display advertising, as that has been a significant focus of attention. Starting from the narrowest possible market, Google’s own display advertising, the HM test would ask whether a hypothetical monopolist controlling these services (and just these services) could profitably increase prices of these services permanently by 5% to 10%.

At this initial stage, it is important to avoid the “cellophane fallacy,” in which a monopolist firm could not profitably increase its prices by 5% to 10% because it is already charging the monopoly price. This fallacy usually arises in situations where the product under consideration has very few (if any) substitutes. But as has been shown here, there are already plenty of alternatives to Google’s display-advertising services, so we can be reasonably confident that the fallacy does not apply here.

We would then consider what is likely to happen if Google were to increase the prices of its online display advertising services by 5% to 10%. Given the plethora of other options (such as Microsoft, Facebook, and Simpli.fi) customers have for obtaining online display ads, a sufficiently high number of Google’s customers are likely to switch away, such that the price increase would not be profitable. It is therefore necessary to expand the candidate relevant market to include those closest alternatives to which Google’s customers would switch.

We repeat the exercise, but now with the hypothetical monopolist also increasing the prices of those newly included products. It might be the case that alternatives such as online search ads (as opposed to display ads), print advertising, TV advertising and/or other forms of advertising would sufficiently constrain the hypothetical monopolist in this case that those other alternatives form part of the relevant market.

In determining whether an alternative sufficiently constrains our hypothetical monopolist, it is important to consider actual consumer/firm behavior, rather than relying on products having “similar” characteristics. Although constraints can come from either the demand side (i.e., customers switching to another provider) or the supply side (entry/switching by other providers to start producing the products offered by the HM), for market-definition purposes, it is almost always demand-side switching that matters most. Switching by consumers tends to happen much more quickly than does switching by providers, such that it can be a more effective constraint. (Note that supply-side switching is still important when assessing overall competitive constraints, but because such switching can take one or more years, it is usually considered in the overall competitive assessment, rather than at the market-definition stage.)

Identifying which alternatives consumers do and would switch to therefore highlights the rival products and services that constrain the candidate hypothetical monopolist. It is only once the hypothetical monopolist test has been completed and the relevant market has been found that market shares can be calculated.[3]

It is at that point than an assessment of a firm’s alleged market power (or of a proposed merger) can proceed. This is why claims that “Facebook is a monopolist” or that “Google has market power” often fail at the first hurdle (indeed, in the case of Facebook, they recently have.)

Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that any antitrust claim that does not first undertake a market-definition exercise with sound economic reasoning akin to that described above should be discounted and ignored.


[1] Some might argue that there is a “chain of substitution” from the Maserati to, for example, an Audi A4, to a Ford Focus, to a Mini, to a Dacia Sandero, such that the latter does, indeed, provide some constraint on the former. However, the size of that constraint is likely to be de minimis, given how many “links” there are in that chain.

[2] The “small but significant” price increase is usually taken to be between 5% and 10%.

[3] Even if a product or group of products ends up excluded from the definition of the relevant market, these products can still form a competitive constraint in the overall assessment and are still considered at that point.

Digital advertising is the economic backbone of the Internet. It allows websites and apps to monetize their userbase without having to charge them fees, while the emergence of targeted ads allows this to be accomplished affordably and with less wasted time wasted.

This advertising is facilitated by intermediaries using the “adtech stack,” through which advertisers and publishers are matched via auctions and ads ultimately are served to relevant users. This intermediation process has advanced enormously over the past three decades. Some now allege, however, that this market is being monopolized by its largest participant: Google.

A lawsuit filed by the State of Texas and nine other states in December 2020 alleges, among other things, that Google has engaged in anticompetitive conduct related to its online display advertising business. Those 10 original state plaintiffs were joined by another four states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in March 2021, while South Carolina and Louisiana have also moved to be added as additional plaintiffs. Google also faces a pending antitrust lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and 14 states (originally 11) related to the company’s distribution agreements, as well as a separate action by the State of Utah, 35 other states, and the District of Columbia related to its search design.

In recent weeks, it has been reported that the DOJ may join the Texas suit or bring its own similar action against Google in the coming months. If it does, it should learn from the many misconceptions and errors in the Texas complaint that leave it on dubious legal and economic grounds.

​​Relevant market

The Texas complaint identifies at least five relevant markets within the adtech stack that it alleges Google either is currently monopolizing or is attempting to monopolize:

  1. Publisher ad servers;
  2. Display ad exchanges;
  3. Display ad networks;
  4. Ad-buying tools for large advertisers; and
  5. Ad-buying tools for small advertisers.

None of these constitute an economically relevant product market for antitrust purposes, since each “market” is defined according to how superficially similar the products are in function, not how substitutable they are. Nevertheless, the Texas complaint vaguely echoes how markets were conceived in the “Roadmap” for a case against Google’s advertising business, published last year by the Omidyar Network, which may ultimately influence any future DOJ complaint, as well.

The Omidyar Roadmap narrows the market from media advertising to digital advertising, then to the open supply of display ads, which comprises only 9% of the total advertising spending and less than 20% of digital advertising, as shown in the figure below. It then further narrows the defined market to the intermediation of the open supply of display ads. Once the market has been sufficiently narrowed, the Roadmap authors conclude that Google’s market share is “perhaps sufficient to confer market power.”

While whittling down the defined market may achieve the purposes of sketching a roadmap to prosecute Google, it also generates a mishmash of more than a dozen relevant markets for digital display and video advertising. In many of these, Google doesn’t have anything approaching market power, while, in some, Facebook is the most dominant player.

The Texas complaint adopts a non-economic approach to market definition.  It ignores potential substitutability between different kinds of advertising, both online and offline, which can serve as a competitive constraint on the display advertising market. The complaint considers neither alternative forms of display advertising, such as social media ads, nor alternative forms of advertising, such as search ads or non-digital ads—all of which can and do act as substitutes. It is possible, at the very least, that advertisers who choose to place ads on third-party websites may switch to other forms of advertising if the price of third-party website advertising was above competitive levels. To ignore this possibility, as the Texas complaint does, is to ignore the entire purpose of defining the relevant antitrust market altogether.

Offline advertising vs. online advertising

The fact that offline and online advertising employ distinct processes does not consign them to economically distinct markets. Indeed, online advertising has manifestly drawn advertisers from offline markets, just as previous technological innovations drew advertisers from other pre-existing channels.

Moreover, there is evidence that, in some cases, offline and online advertising are substitute products. For example, economists Avi Goldfarb and Catherine Tucker demonstrate that display advertising pricing is sensitive to the availability of offline alternatives. They conclude:

We believe our studies refute the hypothesis that online and offline advertising markets operate independently and suggest a default position of substitution. Online and offline advertising markets appear to be closely related. That said, it is important not to draw any firm conclusions based on historical behavior.

Display ads vs. search ads

There is perhaps even more reason to doubt that online display advertising constitutes a distinct, economically relevant market from online search advertising.

Although casual and ill-informed claims are often made to the contrary, various forms of targeted online advertising are significant competitors of each other. Bo Xing and Zhanxi Lin report firms spread their marketing budgets across these different sources of online marketing, and “search engine optimizers”—firms that help websites to maximize the likelihood of a valuable “top-of-list” organic search placement—attract significant revenue. That is, all of these different channels vie against each other for consumer attention and offer advertisers the ability to target their advertising based on data gleaned from consumers’ interactions with their platforms.

Facebook built a business on par with Google’s thanks in large part to advertising, by taking advantage of users’ more extended engagement with the platform to assess relevance and by enabling richer, more engaged advertising than previously appeared on Google Search. It’s an entirely different model from search, but one that has turned Facebook into a competitive ad platform.

And the market continues to shift. Somewhere between 37-56% of product searches start on Amazon, according to one survey, and advertisers have noticed. This is not surprising, given Amazon’s strong ability to match consumers with advertisements, and to do so when and where consumers are more likely to make a purchase.

‘Open’ display advertising vs. ‘owned-and-operated’ display advertising

The United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority (like the Omidyar Roadmap report) has identified two distinct channels of display advertising, which they term “owned and operated” and “open.” The CMA concludes:

Over half of display expenditure is generated by Facebook, which owns both the Facebook platform and Instagram. YouTube has the second highest share of display advertising and is owned by Google. The open display market, in which advertisers buy inventory from many publishers of smaller scale (for example, newspapers and app providers) comprises around 32% of display expenditure.

The Texas complaint does not directly address the distinction between open and owned and operated, but it does allege anticompetitive conduct by Google with respect to YouTube in a separate “inline video advertising market.” 

The CMA finds that the owned-and-operated channel mostly comprises large social media platforms, which sell their own advertising inventory directly to advertisers or media agencies through self-service interfaces, such as Facebook Ads Manager or Snapchat Ads Manager.  In contrast, in the open display channel, publishers such as online newspapers and blogs sell their inventory to advertisers through a “complex chain of intermediaries.”  Through these, intermediaries run auctions that match advertisers’ ads to publisher inventory of ad space. In both channels, nearly all transactions are run through programmatic technology.

The CMA concludes that advertisers “largely see” the open and the owned-and-operated channels as substitutes. According to the CMA, an advertiser’s choice of one channel over the other is driven by each channel’s ability to meet the key performance metrics the advertising campaign is intended to achieve.

The Omidyar Roadmap argues, instead, that the CMA too narrowly focuses on the perspective of advertisers. The Roadmap authors claim that “most publishers” do not control supply that is “owned and operated.” As a result, they conclude that publishers “such as gardenandgun.com or hotels.com” do not have any owned-and-operated supply and can generate revenues from their supply “only through the Google-dominated adtech stack.” 

But this is simply not true. For example, in addition to inventory in its print media, Garden & Gun’s “Digital Media Kit” indicates that the publisher has several sources of owned-and-operated banner and video supply, including the desktop, mobile, and tablet ads on its website; a “homepage takeover” of its website; branded/sponsored content; its email newsletters; and its social media accounts. Hotels.com, an operating company of Expedia Group, has its own owned-and-operated search inventory, which it sells through its “Travel Ads Sponsored Listing,” as well owned-and-operated supply of standard and custom display ads.

Given that both perform the same function and employ similar mechanisms for matching inventory with advertisers, it is unsurprising that both advertisers and publishers appear to consider the owned-and-operated channel and the open channel to be substitutes.

[The following post was adapted from the International Center for Law & Economics White Paper “Polluting Words: Is There a Coasean Case to Regulate Offensive Speech?]

Words can wound. They can humiliate, anger, insult.

University students—or, at least, a vociferous minority of them—are keen to prevent this injury by suppressing offensive speech. To ensure campuses are safe places, they militate for the cancellation of talks by speakers with opinions they find offensive, often successfully. And they campaign to get offensive professors fired from their jobs.

Off campus, some want this safety to be extended to the online world and, especially, to the users of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. In the United States, this would mean weakening the legal protections of offensive speech provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (as President Joe Biden has recommended) or by the First Amendment and. In the United Kingdom, the Online Safety Bill is now before Parliament. If passed, it will give a U.K. government agency the power to dictate the content-moderation policies of social media platforms.

You don’t need to be a woke university student or grandstanding politician to suspect that society suffers from an overproduction of offensive speech. Basic economics provides a reason to suspect it—the reason being that offense is an external cost of speech. The cost is borne not by the speaker but by his audience. And when people do not bear all the costs of an action, they do it too much.

Jack tweets “women don’t have penises.” This offends Jill, who is someone with a penis who considers herself (or himself, if Jack is right) to be a woman. And it offends many others, who agree with Jill that Jack is indulging in ugly transphobic biological essentialism. Lacking Bill Clinton’s facility for feeling the pain of others, Jack does not bear this cost. So, even if it exceeds whatever benefit Jack gets from saying that women don’t have penises, he will still say it. In other words, he will say it even when doing so makes society altogether worse off.

It shouldn’t be allowed!

That’s what we normally say when actions harm others more than they benefit the agent. The law normally conforms to John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle” by restricting activities—such as shooting people or treating your neighbours to death metal at 130 decibels at 2 a.m.—with material external costs. Those who seek legal reform to restrict offensive speech are surely doing no more than following an accepted general principle.

But it’s not so simple. As Ronald Coase pointed out in his famous 1960 article “The Problem of Social Cost,” externalities are a reciprocal problem. If Wayne had no neighbors, his playing death metal at 130 decibels at 2 a.m. would have no external costs. Their choice of address is equally a source of the problem. Similarly, if Jill weren’t a Twitter user, she wouldn’t have been offended by Jack’s tweet about who has a penis, since she wouldn’t have encountered it. Externalities are like tangos: they always have at least two perpetrators.

So, the legal question, “who should have a right to what they want?”—Wayne to his loud music or his neighbors to their sleep; Jack to expressing his opinion about women or Jill to not hearing such opinions—cannot be answered by identifying the party who is responsible for the external cost. Both parties are responsible.

How, then, should the question be answered? In the same paper, Coase the showed that, in certain circumstances, who the courts favor will make no difference to what ends up happening, and that what ends up happening will be efficient. Suppose the court says that Wayne cannot bother his neighbors with death metal at 2 a.m. If Wayne would be willing to pay $100,000 to keep doing it and his neighbors, combined, would put up with it for anything more than $95,000, then they should be able to arrive at a mutually beneficial deal whereby Wayne pays them something between $95,000 and $100,000 to forgo their right to stop him making his dreadful noise.

That’s not exactly right. If negotiating a deal would cost more than $5,000, then no mutually beneficial deal is possible and the rights-trading won’t happen. Transaction costs being less than the difference between the two parties’ valuations is the circumstance in which the allocation of legal rights makes no difference to how resources get used, and where efficiency will be achieved, in any event.

But it is an unusual circumstance, especially when the external cost is suffered by many people. When the transaction cost is too high, efficiency does depend on the allocation of rights by courts or legislatures. As Coase argued, when this is so, efficiency will be served if a right to the disputed resource is granted to the party with the higher cost of avoiding the externality.

Given the (implausible) valuations Wayne and his neighbors place on the amount of noise in their environment at 2 a.m., efficiency is served by giving Wayne the right to play his death metal, unless he could soundproof his house or play his music at a much lower volume or take some other avoidance measure that costs him less than the $90,000 cost to his neighbours.

And given that Jack’s tweet about penises offends a large open-ended group of people, with whom Jack therefore cannot negotiate, it looks like they should be given the right not to be offended by Jack’s comment and he should be denied the right to make it. Coasean logic supports the woke censors!          

But, again, it’s not that simple—for two reasons.

The first is that, although those are offended may be harmed by the offending speech, they needn’t necessarily be. Physical pain is usually harmful, but not when experienced by a sexual masochist (in the right circumstances, of course). Similarly, many people take masochistic pleasure in being offended. You can tell they do, because they actively seek out the sources of their suffering. They are genuinely offended, but the offense isn’t harming them, just as the sexual masochist really is in physical pain but isn’t harmed by it. Indeed, real pain and real offense are required, respectively, for the satisfaction of the sexual masochist and the offense masochist.

How many of the offended are offense masochists? Where the offensive speech can be avoided at minimal cost, the answer must be most. Why follow Jordan Peterson on Twitter when you find his opinions offensive unless you enjoy being offended by him? Maybe some are keeping tabs on the dreadful man so that they can better resist him, and they take the pain for that reason rather than for masochistic glee. But how could a legislator or judge know? For all they know, most of those offended by Jordan Peterson are offense masochists and the offense he causes is a positive externality.

The second reason Coasean logic doesn’t support the would-be censors is that social media platforms—the venues of offensive speech that they seek to regulate—are privately owned. To see why this is significant, consider not offensive speech, but an offensive action, such as openly masturbating on a bus.

This is prohibited by law. But it is not the mere act that is illegal. You are allowed to masturbate in the privacy of your bedroom. You may not masturbate on a bus because those who are offended by the sight of it cannot easily avoid it. That’s why it is illegal to express obscenities about Jesus on a billboard erected across the road from a church but not at a meeting of the Angry Atheists Society. The laws that prohibit offensive speech in such circumstances—laws against public nuisance, harassment, public indecency, etc.—are generally efficient. The cost they impose on the offenders is less than the benefits to the offended.

But they are unnecessary when the giving and taking of offense occur within a privately owned place. Suppose no law prohibited masturbating on a bus. It still wouldn’t be allowed on buses owned by a profit-seeker. Few people want to masturbate on buses and most people who ride on buses seek trips that are masturbation-free. A prohibition on masturbation will gain the owner more customers than it loses him. The prohibition is simply another feature of the product offered by the bus company. Nice leather seats, punctual departures, and no wankers (literally). There is no more reason to believe that the bus company’s passenger-conduct rules will be inefficient than that its other product features will be and, therefore, no more reason to legally stipulate them.

The same goes for the content-moderation policies of social media platforms. They are just another product feature offered by a profit-seeking firm. If they repel more customers than they attract (or, more accurately, if they repel more advertising revenue than they attract), they would be inefficient. But then, of course, the company would not adopt them.

Of course, the owner of a social media platform might not be a pure profit-maximiser. For example, he might forgo $10 million in advertising revenue for the sake of banning speakers he personally finds offensive. But the outcome is still efficient. Allowing the speech would have cost more by way of the owner’s unhappiness than the lost advertising would have been worth.  And such powerful feelings in the owner of a platform create an opportunity for competitors who do not share his feelings. They can offer a platform that does not ban the offensive speakers and, if enough people want to hear what they have to say, attract users and the advertising revenue that comes with them. 

If efficiency is your concern, there is no problem for the authorities to solve. Indeed, the idea that the authorities would do a better job of deciding content-moderation rules is not merely absurd, but alarming. Politicians and the bureaucrats who answer to them or are appointed by them would use the power not to promote efficiency, but to promote agendas congenial to them. Jurisprudence in liberal democracies—and, especially, in America—has been suspicious of governmental control of what may be said. Nothing about social media provides good reason to become any less suspicious.

In recent years, a diverse cross-section of advocates and politicians have leveled criticisms at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and its grant of legal immunity to interactive computer services. Proposed legislative changes to the law have been put forward by both Republicans and Democrats.

It remains unclear whether Congress (or the courts) will amend Section 230, but any changes are bound to expand the scope, uncertainty, and expense of content risks. That’s why it’s important that such changes be developed and implemented in ways that minimize their potential to significantly disrupt and harm online activity. This piece focuses on those insurable content risks that most frequently result in litigation and considers the effect of the direct and indirect costs caused by frivolous suits and lawfare, not just the ultimate potential for a court to find liability. The experience of the 1980s asbestos-litigation crisis offers a warning of what could go wrong.

Enacted in 1996, Section 230 was intended to promote the Internet as a diverse medium for discourse, cultural development, and intellectual activity by shielding interactive computer services from legal liability when blocking or filtering access to obscene, harassing, or otherwise objectionable content. Absent such immunity, a platform hosting content produced by third parties could be held equally responsible as the creator for claims alleging defamation or invasion of privacy.

In the current legislative debates, Section 230’s critics on the left argue that the law does not go far enough to combat hate speech and misinformation. Critics on the right claim the law protects censorship of dissenting opinions. Legal challenges to the current wording of Section 230 arise primarily from what constitutes an “interactive computer service,” “good faith” restriction of content, and the grant of legal immunity, regardless of whether the restricted material is constitutionally protected. 

While Congress and various stakeholders debate various alternate statutory frameworks, several test cases simultaneously have been working their way through the judicial system and some states have either passed or are considering legislation to address complaints with Section 230. Some have suggested passing new federal legislation classifying online platforms as common carriers as an alternate approach that does not involve amending or repealing Section 230. Regardless of the form it may take, change to the status quo is likely to increase the risk of litigation and liability for those hosting or publishing third-party content.

The Nature of Content Risk

The class of individuals and organizations exposed to content risk has never been broader. Any information, content, or communication that is created, gathered, compiled, or amended can be considered “material” which, when disseminated to third parties, may be deemed “publishing.” Liability can arise from any step in that process. Those who republish material are generally held to the same standard of liability as if they were the original publisher. (See, e.g., Rest. (2d) of Torts § 578 with respect to defamation.)

Digitization has simultaneously reduced the cost and expertise required to publish material and increased the potential reach of that material. Where it was once limited to books, newspapers, and periodicals, “publishing” now encompasses such activities as creating and updating a website; creating a podcast or blog post; or even posting to social media. Much of this activity is performed by individuals and businesses who have only limited experience with the legal risks associated with publishing.

This is especially true regarding the use of third-party material, which is used extensively by both sophisticated and unsophisticated platforms. Platforms that host third-party-generated content—e.g., social media or websites with comment sections—have historically engaged in only limited vetting of that content, although this is changing. When combined with the potential to reach consumers far beyond the original platform and target audience—lasting digital traces that are difficult to identify and remove—and the need to comply with privacy and other statutory requirements, the potential for all manner of “publishers” to incur legal liability has never been higher.

Even sophisticated legacy publishers struggle with managing the litigation that arises from these risks. There are a limited number of specialist counsel, which results in higher hourly rates. Oversight of legal bills is not always effective, as internal counsel often have limited resources to manage their daily responsibilities and litigation. As a result, legal fees often make up as much as two-thirds of the average claims cost. Accordingly, defense spending and litigation management are indirect, but important, risks associated with content claims.

Effective risk management is any publisher’s first line of defense. The type and complexity of content risk management varies significantly by organization, based on its size, resources, activities, risk appetite, and sophistication. Traditional publishers typically have a formal set of editorial guidelines specifying policies governing the creation of content, pre-publication review, editorial-approval authority, and referral to internal and external legal counsel. They often maintain a library of standardized contracts; have a process to periodically review and update those wordings; and a process to verify the validity of a potential licensor’s rights. Most have formal controls to respond to complaints and to retraction/takedown requests.

Insuring Content Risks

Insurance is integral to most publishers’ risk-management plans. Content coverage is present, to some degree, in most general liability policies (i.e., for “advertising liability”). Specialized coverage—commonly referred to as “media” or “media E&O”—is available on a standalone basis or may be packaged with cyber-liability coverage. Terms of specialized coverage can vary significantly, but generally provides at least basic coverage for the three primary content risks of defamation, copyright infringement, and invasion of privacy.

Insureds typically retain the first dollar loss up to a specific dollar threshold. They may also retain a coinsurance percentage of every dollar thereafter in partnership with their insurer. For example, an insured may be responsible for the first $25,000 of loss, and for 10% of loss above that threshold. Such coinsurance structures often are used by insurers as a non-monetary tool to help control legal spending and to incentivize an organization to employ effective oversight of counsel’s billing practices.

The type and amount of loss retained will depend on the insured’s size, resources, risk profile, risk appetite, and insurance budget. Generally, but not always, increases in an insured’s retention or an insurer’s attachment (e.g., raising the threshold to $50,000, or raising the insured’s coinsurance to 15%) will result in lower premiums. Most insureds will seek the smallest retention feasible within their budget. 

Contract limits (the maximum coverage payout available) will vary based on the same factors. Larger policyholders often build a “tower” of insurance made up of multiple layers of the same or similar coverage issued by different insurers. Two or more insurers may partner on the same “quota share” layer and split any loss incurred within that layer on a pre-agreed proportional basis.  

Navigating the strategic choices involved in developing an insurance program can be complex, depending on an organization’s risks. Policyholders often use commercial brokers to aide them in developing an appropriate risk-management and insurance strategy that maximizes coverage within their budget and to assist with claims recoveries. This is particularly important for small and mid-sized insureds who may lack the sophistication or budget of larger organizations. Policyholders and brokers try to minimize the gaps in coverage between layers and among quota-share participants, but such gaps can occur, leaving a policyholder partially self-insured.

An organization’s options to insure its content risk may also be influenced by the dynamics of the overall insurance market or within specific content lines. Underwriters are not all created equal; it is a challenging responsibility requiring a level of prediction, and some underwriters may fail to adequately identify and account for certain risks. It can also be challenging to accurately measure risk aggregation and set appropriate reserves. An insurer’s appetite for certain lines and the availability of supporting reinsurance can fluctuate based on trends in the general capital markets. Specialty media/content coverage is a small niche within the global commercial insurance market, which makes insurers in this line more sensitive to these general trends.

Litigation Risks from Changes to Section 230

A full repeal or judicial invalidation of Section 230 generally would make every platform responsible for all the content they disseminate, regardless of who created the material requiring at least some additional editorial review. This would significantly disadvantage those platforms that host a significant volume of third-party content. Internet service providers, cable companies, social media, and product/service review companies would be put under tremendous strain, given the daily volume of content produced. To reduce the risk that they serve as a “deep pocket” target for plaintiffs, they would likely adopt more robust pre-publication screening of content and authorized third-parties; limit public interfaces; require registration before a user may publish content; employ more reactive complaint response/takedown policies; and ban problem users more frequently. Small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs), as well as those not focused primarily on the business of publishing, would likely avoid many interactive functions altogether. 

A full repeal would be, in many ways, a blunderbuss approach to dealing with criticisms of Section 230, and would cause as many or more problems as it solves. In the current polarized environment, it also appears unlikely that Congress will reach bipartisan agreement on amended language for Section 230, or to classify interactive computer services as common carriers, given that the changes desired by the political left and right are so divergent. What may be more likely is that courts encounter a test case that prompts them to clarify the application of the existing statutory language—i.e., whether an entity was acting as a neutral platform or a content creator, whether its conduct was in “good faith,” and whether the material is “objectionable” within the meaning of the statute.

A relatively greater frequency of litigation is almost inevitable in the wake of any changes to the status quo, whether made by Congress or the courts. Major litigation would likely focus on those social-media platforms at the center of the Section 230 controversy, such as Facebook and Twitter, given their active role in these issues, deep pockets and, potentially, various admissions against interest helpful to plaintiffs regarding their level of editorial judgment. SMEs could also be affected in the immediate wake of a change to the statute or its interpretation. While SMEs are likely to be implicated on a smaller scale, the impact of litigation could be even more damaging to their viability if they are not adequately insured.

Over time, the boundaries of an amended Section 230’s application and any consequential effects should become clearer as courts develop application criteria and precedent is established for different fact patterns. Exposed platforms will likely make changes to their activities and risk-management strategies consistent with such developments. Operationally, some interactive features—such as comment sections or product and service reviews—may become less common.

In the short and medium term, however, a period of increased and unforeseen litigation to resolve these issues is likely to prove expensive and damaging. Insurers of content risks are likely to bear the brunt of any changes to Section 230, because these risks and their financial costs would be new, uncertain, and not incorporated into historical pricing of content risk. 

Remembering the Asbestos Crisis

The introduction of a new exposure or legal risk can have significant financial effects on commercial insurance carriers. New and revised risks must be accounted for in the assumptions, probabilities, and load factors used in insurance pricing and reserving models. Even small changes in those values can have large aggregate effects, which may undermine confidence in those models, complicate obtaining reinsurance, or harm an insurer’s overall financial health.

For example, in the 1980s, certain courts adopted the triple-trigger and continuous trigger methods[1] of determining when a policyholder could access coverage under an “occurrence” policy for asbestos claims. As a result, insurers paid claims under policies dating back to the early 1900s and, in some cases, under all policies from that date until the date of the claim. Such policies were written when mesothelioma related to asbestos was unknown and not incorporated into the policy pricing.

Insurers had long-since released reserves from the decades-old policy years, so those resources were not available to pay claims. Nor could underwriters retroactively increase premiums for the intervening years and smooth out the cost of these claims. This created extreme financial stress for impacted insurers and reinsurers, with some ultimately rendered insolvent. Surviving carriers responded by drastically reducing coverage and increasing prices, which resulted in a major capacity shortage that resolved only after the creation of the Bermuda insurance and reinsurance market. 

The asbestos-related liability crisis represented a perfect storm that is unlikely to be replicated. Given the ubiquitous nature of digital content, however, any drastic or misconceived changes to Section 230 protections could still cause significant disruption to the commercial insurance market. 

Content risk is covered, at least in part, by general liability and many cyber policies, but it is not currently a primary focus for underwriters. Specialty media underwriters are more likely to be monitoring Section 230 risk, but the highly competitive market will make it difficult for them to respond to any changes with significant price increases. In addition, the current market environment for U.S. property and casualty insurance generally is in the midst of correcting for years of inadequate pricing, expanding coverage, developing exposures, and claims inflation. It would be extremely difficult to charge an adequate premium increase if the potential severity of content risk were to increase suddenly.

In the face of such risk uncertainty and challenges to adequately increasing premiums, underwriters would likely seek to reduce their exposure to online content risks, i.e., by reducing the scope of coverage, reducing limits, and increasing retentions. How these changes would manifest, and the pain for all involved, would likely depend on how quickly such changes in policyholders’ risk profiles manifest. 

Small or specialty carriers caught unprepared could be forced to exit the market if they experienced a sharp spike in claims or unexpected increase in needed reserves. Larger, multiline carriers may respond by voluntarily reducing or withdrawing their participation in this space. Insurers exposed to ancillary content risk may simply exclude it from cover if adequate price increases are impractical. Such reactions could result in content coverage becoming harder to obtain or unavailable altogether. This, in turn, would incentivize organizations to limit or avoid certain digital activities.

Finding a More Thoughtful Approach

The tension between calls for reform of Section 230 and the potential for disrupting online activity does not mean that political leaders and courts should ignore these issues. Rather, it means that what’s required is a thoughtful, clear, and predictable approach to any changes, with the goal of maximizing the clarity of the changes and their application and minimizing any resulting litigation. Regardless of whether accomplished through legislation or the judicial process, addressing the following issues could minimize the duration and severity of any period of harmful disruption regarding content-risk:

  1. Presumptive immunity – Including an express statement in the definition of “interactive computer service,” or inferring one judicially, to clarify that platforms hosting third-party content enjoy a rebuttable presumption that statutory immunity applies would discourage frivolous litigation as courts establish precedent defining the applicability of any other revisions. 
  1. Specify the grounds for losing immunity – Clarify, at a minimum, what constitutes “good faith” with respect to content restrictions and further clarify what material is or is not “objectionable,” as it relates to newsworthy content or actions that trigger loss of immunity.
  1. Specify the scope and duration of any loss of immunity – Clarify whether the loss of immunity is total, categorical, or specific to the situation under review and the duration of that loss of immunity, if applicable.
  1. Reinstatement of immunity, subject to burden-shifting – Clarify what a platform must do to reinstate statutory immunity on a go-forward basis and clarify that it bears the burden of proving its go-forward conduct entitled it to statutory protection.
  1. Address associated issues – Any clarification or interpretation should address other issues likely to arise, such as the effect and weight to be given to a platform’s application of its community standards, adherence to neutral takedown/complain procedures, etc. Care should be taken to avoid overcorrecting and creating a “heckler’s veto.” 
  1. Deferred effect – If change is made legislatively, the effective date should be deferred for a reasonable time to allow platforms sufficient opportunity to adjust their current risk-management policies, contractual arrangements, content publishing and storage practices, and insurance arrangements in a thoughtful, orderly fashion that accounts for the new rules.

Ultimately, legislative and judicial stakeholders will chart their own course to address the widespread dissatisfaction with Section 230. More important than any of these specific policy suggestions is the principle underpins them: that any changes incorporate due consideration for the potential direct and downstream harm that can be caused if policy is not clear, comprehensive, and designed to minimize unnecessary litigation. 

It is no surprise that, in the years since Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was passed, the environment and risks associated with digital platforms have evolved or that those changes have created a certain amount of friction in the law’s application. Policymakers should employ a holistic approach when evaluating their legislative and judicial options to revise or clarify the application of Section 230. Doing so in a targeted, predictable fashion should help to mitigate or avoid the risk of increased litigation and other unintended consequences that might otherwise prove harmful to online platforms in the commercial insurance market.

Aaron Tilley is a senior insurance executive with more than 16 years of commercial insurance experience in executive management, underwriting, legal, and claims working in or with the U.S., Bermuda, and London markets. He has served as chief underwriting officer of a specialty media E&O and cyber-liability insurer and as coverage counsel representing international insurers with respect to a variety of E&O and advertising liability claims


[1] The triple-trigger method allowed a policy to be accessed based on the date of the injury-in-fact, manifestation of injury, or exposure to substances known to cause injury. The continuous trigger allowed all policies issued by an insurer, not just one, to be accessed if a triggering event could be established during the policy period.

The U.S. House this week passed H.R. 2668, the Consumer Protection and Recovery Act (CPRA), which authorizes the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to seek monetary relief in federal courts for injunctions brought under Section 13(b) of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Potential relief under the CPRA is comprehensive. It includes “restitution for losses, rescission or reformation of contracts, refund of money, return of property … and disgorgement of any unjust enrichment that a person, partnership, or corporation obtained as a result of the violation that gives rise to the suit.” What’s more, under the CPRA, monetary relief may be obtained for violations that occurred up to 10 years before the filing of the suit in which relief is requested by the FTC.

The Senate should reject the House version of the CPRA. Its monetary-recovery provisions require substantial narrowing if it is to pass cost-benefit muster.

The CPRA is a response to the Supreme Court’s April 22 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC, which held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act does not authorize the commission to obtain court-ordered equitable monetary relief. As I explained in an April 22 Truth on the Market post, Congress’ response to the court’s holding should not be to grant the FTC carte blanche authority to obtain broad monetary exactions for any and all FTC Act violations. I argued that “[i]f Congress adopts a cost-beneficial error-cost framework in shaping targeted legislation, it should limit FTC monetary relief authority (recoupment and disgorgement) to situations of consumer fraud or dishonesty arising under the FTC’s authority to pursue unfair or deceptive acts or practices.”

Error cost and difficulties of calculation counsel against pursuing monetary recovery in FTC unfair methods of competition cases. As I explained in my post:

Consumer redress actions are problematic for a large proportion of FTC antitrust enforcement (“unfair methods of competition”) initiatives. Many of these antitrust cases are “cutting edge” matters involving novel theories and complex fact patterns that pose a significant threat of type I [false positives] error. (In comparison, type I error is low in hardcore collusion cases brought by the U.S. Justice Department where the existence, nature, and effects of cartel activity are plain). What’s more, they generally raise extremely difficult if not impossible problems in estimating the degree of consumer harm. (Even DOJ price-fixing cases raise non-trivial measurement difficulties.)

These error-cost and calculation difficulties became even more pronounced as of July 1. On that date, the FTC unwisely voted 3-2 to withdraw a bipartisan 2015 policy statement providing that the commission would apply consumer welfare and rule-of-reason (weighing efficiencies against anticompetitive harm) considerations in exercising its unfair methods of competition authority (see my commentary here). This means that, going forward, the FTC will arrogate to itself unbounded discretion to decide what competitive practices are “unfair.” Business uncertainty, and the costly risk aversion it engenders, would be expected to grow enormously if the FTC could extract monies from firms due to competitive behavior deemed “unfair,” based on no discernible neutral principle.

Error costs and calculation problems also strongly suggest that monetary relief in FTC consumer-protection matters should be limited to cases of fraud or clear deception. As I noted:

[M]atters involving a higher likelihood of error and severe measurement problems should be the weakest candidates for consumer redress in the consumer protection sphere. For example, cases involve allegedly misleading advertising regarding the nature of goods, or allegedly insufficient advertising substantiation, may generate high false positives and intractable difficulties in estimating consumer harm. As a matter of judgment, given resource constraints, seeking financial recoveries solely in cases of fraud or clear deception where consumer losses are apparent and readily measurable makes the most sense from a cost-benefit perspective.

In short, the Senate should rewrite its Section 13(b) amendments to authorize FTC monetary recoveries only when consumer fraud and dishonesty is shown.

Finally, the Senate would be wise to sharply pare back the House language that allows the FTC to seek monetary exactions based on conduct that is a decade old. Serious problems of making accurate factual determinations of economic effects and specific-damage calculations would arise after such a long period of time. Allowing retroactive determinations based on a shorter “look-back” period prior to the filing of a complaint (three years, perhaps) would appear to strike a better balance in allowing reasonable redress while controlling error costs.

[TOTM: The following is part of a symposium by TOTM guests and authors marking the release of Nicolas Petit’s “Big Tech and the Digital Economy: The Moligopoly Scenario.” The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Nicolas Petit himself, the Joint Chair in Competition Law at the Department of Law at European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy, and at EUI’s Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. He is also invited professor at the College of Europe in Bruges
.]

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since my book was published last year. To close this symposium, I thought I would discuss the new phase of antirust statutorification taking place before our eyes. In the United States, Congress is working on five antitrust bills that propose to subject platforms to stringent obligations, including a ban on mergers and acquisitions, required data portability and interoperability, and line-of-business restrictions. In the European Union (EU), lawmakers are examining the proposed Digital Markets Act (“DMA”) that sets out a complicated regulatory system for digital “gatekeepers,” with per se behavioral limitations of their freedom over contractual terms, technological design, monetization, and ecosystem leadership.

Proponents of legislative reform on both sides of the Atlantic appear to share the common view that ongoing antitrust adjudication efforts are both instrumental and irrelevant. They are instrumental because government (or plaintiff) losses build the evidence needed to support the view that antitrust doctrine is exceedingly conservative, and that legal reform is needed. Two weeks ago, antitrust reform activists ran to Twitter to point out that the U.S. District Court dismissal of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) complaint against Facebook was one more piece of evidence supporting the view that the antitrust pendulum needed to swing. They are instrumental because, again, government (or plaintiffs) wins will support scaling antitrust enforcement in the marginal case by adoption of governmental regulation. In the EU, antitrust cases follow each other almost like night the day, lending credence to the view that regulation will bring much needed coordination and economies of scale.

But both instrumentalities are, at the end of the line, irrelevant, because they lead to the same conclusion: legislative reform is long overdue. With this in mind, the logic of lawmakers is that they need not await the courts, and they can advance with haste and confidence toward the promulgation of new antitrust statutes.

The antitrust reform process that is unfolding is a cause for questioning. The issue is not legal reform in itself. There is no suggestion here that statutory reform is necessarily inferior, and no correlative reification of the judge-made-law method. Legislative intervention can occur for good reason, like when it breaks judicial inertia caused by ideological logjam.

The issue is rather one of precipitation. There is a lot of learning in the cases. The point, simply put, is that a supplementary court-legislative dialogue would yield additional information—or what Guido Calabresi has called “starting points” for regulation—that premature legislative intervention is sweeping under the rug. This issue is important because specification errors (see Doug Melamed’s symposium piece on this) in statutory legislation are not uncommon. Feedback from court cases create a factual record that will often be missing when lawmakers act too precipitously.

Moreover, a court-legislative iteration is useful when the issues in discussion are cross-cutting. The digital economy brings an abundance of them. As tech analysist Ben Evans has observed, data-sharing obligations raise tradeoffs between contestability and privacy. Chapter VI of my book shows that breakups of social networks or search engines might promote rivalry and, at the same time, increase the leverage of advertisers to extract more user data and conduct more targeted advertising. In such cases, Calabresi said, judges who know the legal topography are well-placed to elicit the preferences of society. He added that they are better placed than government agencies’ officials or delegated experts, who often attend to the immediate problem without the big picture in mind (all the more when officials are denied opportunities to engage with civil society and the press, as per the policy announced by the new FTC leadership).

Of course, there are three objections to this. The first consists of arguing that statutes are needed now because courts are too slow to deal with problems. The argument is not dissimilar to Frank Easterbrook’s concerns about irreversible harms to the economy, though with a tweak. Where Easterbook’s concern was one of ossification of Type I errors due to stare decisis, the concern here is one of entrenchment of durable monopoly power in the digital sector due to Type II errors. The concern, however, fails the test of evidence. The available data in both the United States and Europe shows unprecedented vitality in the digital sector. Venture capital funding cruises at historical heights, fueling new firm entry, business creation, and economic dynamism in the U.S. and EU digital sectors, topping all other industries. Unless we require higher levels of entry from digital markets than from other industries—or discount the social value of entry in the digital sector—this should give us reason to push pause on lawmaking efforts.

The second objection is that following an incremental process of updating the law through the courts creates intolerable uncertainty. But this objection, too, is unconvincing, at best. One may ask which of an abrupt legislative change of the law after decades of legal stability or of an experimental process of judicial renovation brings more uncertainty.

Besides, ad hoc statutes, such as the ones in discussion, are likely to pose quickly and dramatically the problem of their own legal obsolescence. Detailed and technical statutes specify rights, requirements, and procedures that often do not stand the test of time. For example, the DMA likely captures Windows as a core platform service subject to gatekeeping. But is the market power of Microsoft over Windows still relevant today, and isn’t it constrained in effect by existing antitrust rules?  In antitrust, vagueness in critical statutory terms allows room for change.[1] The best way to give meaning to buzzwords like “smart” or “future-proof” regulation consists of building in first principles, not in creating discretionary opportunities for permanent adaptation of the law. In reality, it is hard to see how the methods of future-proof regulation currently discussed in the EU creates less uncertainty than a court process.

The third objection is that we do not need more information, because we now benefit from economic knowledge showing that existing antitrust laws are too permissive of anticompetitive business conduct. But is the economic literature actually supportive of stricter rules against defendants than the rule-of-reason framework that applies in many unilateral conduct cases and in merger law? The answer is surely no. The theoretical economic literature has travelled a lot in the past 50 years. Of particular interest are works on network externalities, switching costs, and multi-sided markets. But the progress achieved in the economic understanding of markets is more descriptive than normative.

Take the celebrated multi-sided market theory. The main contribution of the theory is its advice to decision-makers to take the periscope out, so as to consider all possible welfare tradeoffs, not to be more or less defendant friendly. Payment cards provide a good example. Economic research suggests that any antitrust or regulatory intervention on prices affect tradeoffs between, and payoffs to, cardholders and merchants, cardholders and cash users, cardholders and banks, and banks and card systems. Equally numerous tradeoffs arise in many sectors of the digital economy, like ridesharing, targeted advertisement, or social networks. Multi-sided market theory renders these tradeoffs visible. But it does not come with a clear recipe for how to solve them. For that, one needs to follow first principles. A system of measurement that is flexible and welfare-based helps, as Kelly Fayne observed in her critical symposium piece on the book.

Another example might be worth considering. The theory of increasing returns suggests that markets subject to network effects tend to converge around the selection of a single technology standard, and it is not a given that the selected technology is the best one. One policy implication is that social planners might be justified in keeping a second option on the table. As I discuss in Chapter V of my book, the theory may support an M&A ban against platforms in tipped markets, on the conjecture that the assets of fringe firms might be efficiently repositioned to offer product differentiation to consumers. But the theory of increasing returns does not say under what conditions we can know that the selected technology is suboptimal. Moreover, if the selected technology is the optimal one, or if the suboptimal technology quickly obsolesces, are policy efforts at all needed?

Last, as Bo Heiden’s thought provoking symposium piece argues, it is not a given that antitrust enforcement of rivalry in markets is the best way to maintain an alternative technology alive, let alone to supply the innovation needed to deliver economic prosperity. Government procurement, science and technology policy, and intellectual-property policy might be equally effective (note that the fathers of the theory, like Brian Arthur or Paul David, have been very silent on antitrust reform).

There are, of course, exceptions to the limited normative content of modern economic theory. In some areas, economic theory is more predictive of consumer harms, like in relation to algorithmic collusion, interlocking directorates, or “killer” acquisitions. But the applications are discrete and industry-specific. All are insufficient to declare that the antitrust apparatus is dated and that it requires a full overhaul. When modern economic research turns normative, it is often way more subtle in its implications than some wild policy claims derived from it. For example, the emerging studies that claim to identify broad patterns of rising market power in the economy in no way lead to an implication that there are no pro-competitive mergers.

Similarly, the empirical picture of digital markets is incomplete. The past few years have seen a proliferation of qualitative research reports on industry structure in the digital sectors. Most suggest that industry concentration has risen, particularly in the digital sector. As with any research exercise, these reports’ findings deserve to be subject to critical examination before they can be deemed supportive of a claim of “sufficient experience.” Moreover, there is no reason to subject these reports to a lower standard of accountability on grounds that they have often been drafted by experts upon demand from antitrust agencies. After all, we academics are ethically obliged to be at least equally exacting with policy-based research as we are with science-based research.

Now, with healthy skepticism at the back of one’s mind, one can see immediately that the findings of expert reports to date have tended to downplay behavioral observations that counterbalance findings of monopoly power—such as intense business anxiety, technological innovation, and demand-expansion investments in digital markets. This was, I believe, the main takeaway from Chapter IV of my book. And less than six months ago, The Economist ran its leading story on the new marketplace reality of “Tech’s Big Dust-Up.”

More importantly, the findings of the various expert reports never seriously contemplate the possibility of competition by differentiation in business models among the platforms. Take privacy, for example. As Peter Klein reasonably writes in his symposium article, we should not be quick to assume market failure. After all, we might have more choice than meets the eye, with Google free but ad-based, and Apple pricy but less-targeted. More generally, Richard Langlois makes a very convincing point that diversification is at the heart of competition between the large digital gatekeepers. We might just be too short-termist—here, digital communications technology might help create a false sense of urgency—to wait for the end state of the Big Tech moligopoly.

Similarly, the expert reports did not really question the real possibility of competition for the purchase of regulation. As in the classic George Stigler paper, where the railroad industry fought motor-trucking competition with state regulation, the businesses that stand to lose most from the digital transformation might be rationally jockeying to convince lawmakers that not all business models are equal, and to steer regulation toward specific business models. Again, though we do not know how to consider this issue, there are signs that a coalition of large news corporations and the publishing oligopoly are behind many antitrust initiatives against digital firms.

Now, as is now clear from these few lines, my cautionary note against antitrust statutorification might be more relevant to the U.S. market. In the EU, sunk investments have been made, expectations have been created, and regulation has now become inevitable. The United States, however, has a chance to get this right. Court cases are the way to go. And unlike what the popular coverage suggests, the recent District Court dismissal of the FTC case far from ruled out the applicability of U.S. antitrust laws to Facebook’s alleged killer acquisitions. On the contrary, the ruling actually contains an invitation to rework a rushed complaint. Perhaps, as Shane Greenstein observed in his retrospective analysis of the U.S. Microsoft case, we would all benefit if we studied more carefully the learning that lies in the cases, rather than haste to produce instant antitrust analysis on Twitter that fits within 280 characters.


[1] But some threshold conditions like agreement or dominance might also become dated.