Archives For American Innovation and Choice Online Act

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Philip K Dick’s novella “The Minority Report” describes a futuristic world without crime. This state of the world is achieved thanks to the visions of three mutants—so-called “precogs”—who predict crimes before they occur, thereby enabling law enforcement to incarcerate people for crimes they were going to commit.

This utopia unravels when the protagonist—the head of the police Precrime division, who is himself predicted to commit a murder—learns that the precogs often produce “minority reports”: i.e., visions of the future that differ from one another. The existence of these alternate potential futures undermine the very foundations of Precrime. For every crime that is averted, an innocent person may be convicted of a crime they were not going to commit.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with antitrust and last week’s Truth on the Market symposium on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future. Given the recent adoption of the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the prospect that Congress could soon vote on the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), we asked contributors to write short pieces describing what the future might look like—for better or worse—under these digital-market regulations, or in their absence.

The resulting blog posts offer a “minority report” of sorts. Together, they dispel the myth that these regulations would necessarily give rise to a brighter future of intensified competition, innovation, and improved online services. To the contrary, our contributors cautioned—albeit with varying degrees of severity—that these regulations create risks that policymakers should not ignore.

The Majority Report

If policymakers like European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager, Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) are to be believed, a combination of tougher regulations and heightened antitrust enforcement is the only way to revitalize competition in digital markets. As Klobuchar argues on her website:

To ensure our future economic prosperity, America must confront its monopoly power problem and restore competitive markets. … [W]e must update our antitrust laws for the twenty-first century to protect the competitive markets that are the lifeblood of our economy.

Speaking of the recently passed DMA, Vestager suggested the regulation could spark an economic boom, drawing parallels with the Renaissance:

The work we put into preserving and strengthening our Single Market will equip us with the means to show the world that our path based on open trade and fair competition is truly better. After all, Bruges did not become great by conquest and ruthless occupation. It became great through commerce and industry.

Several antitrust scholars have been similarly bullish about the likely benefits of such regulations. For instance, Fiona Scott Morton, Steven Salop, and David Dinielli write that:

It is an appropriate expression of democracy for Congress to enact pro-competitive statutes to maintain the vibrancy of the online economy and allow for continued innovation that benefits non-platform businesses as well as end users.

In short, there is a widespread belief that such regulations would make the online world more competitive and innovative, to the benefit of consumers.

The Minority Reports

To varying degrees, the responses to our symposium suggest proponents of such regulations may be falling prey to what Harold Demsetz called “the nirvana fallacy.” In other words, it is wrong to assume that the resulting enforcement would be costless and painless for consumers.

Even the symposium’s pieces belonging to the literary realms of sci-fi and poetry shed a powerful light on the deep-seated problems that underlie contemporary efforts to make online industries “more contestable and fair.” As several scholars highlighted, such regulations may prevent firms from designing new and improved products, or from maintaining existing ones. Among my favorite passages was this excerpt from Daniel Crane’s fictional piece about a software engineer in Helsinki trying to integrate restaurant and hotel ratings into a vertical search engine:

“We’ve been watching how you’re coding the new walking tour search vertical. It seems that you are designing it to give preference to restaurants, cafès, and hotels that have been highly rated by the Tourism Board.”

 “Yes, that’s right. Restaurants, cafès, and hotels that have been rated by the Tourism Board are cleaner, safer, and more convenient. That’s why they have been rated.”

 “But you are forgetting that the Tourism Board is one of our investors. This will be considered self-preferencing.”

Along similar lines, Thom Lambert observed that:

Even if a covered platform could establish that a challenged practice would maintain or substantially enhance the platform’s core functionality, it would also have to prove that the conduct was “narrowly tailored” and “reasonably necessary” to achieve the desired end, and, for many behaviors, the “le[ast] discriminatory means” of doing so. That is a remarkably heavy burden…. It is likely, then, that AICOA would break existing products and services and discourage future innovation.

Several of our contributors voiced fears that bans on self-preferencing would prevent platforms from acquiring startups that complement their core businesses, thus making it harder to launch new services and deterring startup investment. For instance, in my alternate history post, I argued that such bans might have prevented Google’s purchase of Android, thus reducing competition in the mobile phone industry.

A second important objection was that self-preferencing bans are hard to apply consistently. Policymakers would notably have to draw lines between the different components that make up an economic good. As Ramsi Woodcock wrote in a poem:

You: The meaning of component,
We can always redefine.
From batteries to molecules,
We can draw most any line.

This lack of legal certainty will prove hard to resolve. Geoffrey Manne noted that regulatory guidelines were unlikely to be helpful in this regard:

Indeed, while laws are sometimes purposefully vague—operating as standards rather than prescriptive rules—to allow for more flexibility, the concepts introduced by AICOA don’t even offer any cognizable standards suitable for fine-tuning.

Alden Abbott was similarly concerned about the vague language that underpins AICOA:

There is, however, one inescapable reality—as night follows day, passage of AICOA would usher in an extended period of costly litigation over the meaning of a host of AICOA terms. … The history of antitrust illustrates the difficulties inherent in clarifying the meaning of novel federal statutory language. It was not until 21 years after passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act that the Supreme Court held that Section 1 of the act’s prohibition on contracts, combinations, and conspiracies “in restraint of trade” only covered unreasonable restraints of trade.

Our contributors also argued that bans on self-preferencing and interoperability mandates might be detrimental to users’ online experience. Lazar Radic and Friso Bostoen both wrote pieces taking readers through a typical day in worlds where self-preferencing is prohibited. Neither was particularly utopian. In his satirical piece, Lazar Radic imagined an online shopping experience where all products are given equal display:

“Time to do my part,” I sigh. My eyes—trained by years of practice—dart from left to right and from right to left, carefully scrutinizing each coffee capsule on offer for an equal number of seconds. … After 13 brands and at least as many flavors, I select the platforms own brand, “Basic”… and then answer a series of questions to make sure I have actually given competitors’ products fair consideration.

Closer to the world we live in, Friso Bostoen described how going through a succession of choice screens—a likely outcome of regulations such as AICOA and the DMA—would be tiresome for consumers:

A new fee structure… God, save me from having to tap ‘learn more’ to find out what that means. I’ve had to learn more about the app ecosystem than is good for me already.

Finally, our symposium highlighted several other ways in which poorly designed online regulations may harm consumers. Stephen Dnes concluded that mandatory data-sharing regimes will deter companies from producing valuable data in the first place. Julie Carlson argued that prohibiting platforms from preferencing their own goods would disproportionately harm low-income consumers. And Aurelien Portuese surmised that, if passed into law, AICOA would dampen firms’ incentives to invest in new services. Last, but not least, in a co-authored piece, Filip Lubinski and Lazar Radic joked that self-preferencing bans could be extended to the offline world:

The success of AICOA has opened our eyes to an even more ancient and perverse evil: self-preferencing in offline markets. It revealed to us that—for centuries, if not millennia—companies in various industries—from togas to wine, from cosmetics to insurance—had, in fact, always preferred their own initiatives over those of their rivals!

The Problems of Online Precrime

Online regulations like AICOA and the DMA mark a radical shift from existing antitrust laws. They move competition policy from a paradigm of ex post enforcement, based upon a detailed case-by-case analysis of effects, to one of ex ante prohibitions.

Despite obvious and superficial differences, there are clear parallels between this new paradigm and the world of “The Minority Report: firms would be punished for behavior that has not yet transpired or is not proven to harm consumers.

This might be fine if we knew for certain that the prohibited conduct would harm consumers (i.e., if there were no “minority reports,” to use our previous analogy). But every entry in our symposium suggests things are not that simple. There are a wide range of outcomes and potential harms associated with the regulation of digital markets. This calls for a more calibrated approach to digital-competition policy, as opposed to the precrime of AICOA and the DMA.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Things are heating up in the antitrust world. There is considerable pressure to pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) before the congressional recess in August—a short legislative window before members of Congress shift their focus almost entirely to campaigning for the mid-term elections. While it would not be impossible to advance the bill after the August recess, it would be a steep uphill climb.

But whether it passes or not, some of the damage from AICOA may already be done. The bill has moved the antitrust dialogue that will harm innovation and consumers. In this post, I will first explain AICOA’s fundamental flaws. Next, I discuss the negative impact that the legislation is likely to have if passed, even if courts and agencies do not aggressively enforce its provisions. Finally, I show how AICOA has already provided an intellectual victory for the approach articulated in the European Union (EU)’s Digital Markets Act (DMA). It has built momentum for a dystopian regulatory framework to break up and break into U.S. superstar firms designated as “gatekeepers” at the expense of innovation and consumers.

The Unseen of AICOA

AICOA’s drafters argue that, once passed, it will deliver numerous economic benefits. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)—the bill’s main sponsor—has stated that it will “ensure small businesses and entrepreneurs still have the opportunity to succeed in the digital marketplace. This bill will do just that while also providing consumers with the benefit of greater choice online.”

Section 3 of the bill would provide “business users” of the designated “covered platforms” with a wide range of entitlements. This includes preventing the covered platform from offering any services or products that a business user could provide (the so-called “self-preferencing” prohibition); allowing a business user access to the covered platform’s proprietary data; and an entitlement for business users to have “preferred placement” on a covered platform without having to use any of that platform’s services.

These entitlements would provide non-platform businesses what are effectively claims on the platform’s proprietary assets, notwithstanding the covered platform’s own investments to collect data, create services, and invent products—in short, the platform’s innovative efforts. As such, AICOA is redistributive legislation that creates the conditions for unfair competition in the name of “fair” and “open” competition. It treats the behavior of “covered platforms” differently than identical behavior by their competitors, without considering the deterrent effect such a framework will have on consumers and innovation. Thus, AICOA offers rent-seeking rivals a formidable avenue to reap considerable benefits at the expense of the innovators thanks to the weaponization of antitrust to subvert, not improve, competition.

In mandating that covered platforms make their data and proprietary assets freely available to “business users” and rivals, AICOA undermines the underpinning of free markets to pursue the misguided goal of “open markets.” The inevitable result will be the tragedy of the commons. Absent the covered platforms having the ability to benefit from their entrepreneurial endeavors, the law no longer encourages innovation. As Joseph Schumpeter seminally predicted: “perfect competition implies free entry into every industry … But perfectly free entry into a new field may make it impossible to enter it at all.”

To illustrate, if business users can freely access, say, a special status on the covered platforms’ ancillary services without having to use any of the covered platform’s services (as required under Section 3(a)(5)), then platforms are disincentivized from inventing zero-priced services, since they cannot cross-monetize these services with existing services. Similarly, if, under Section 3(a)(1) of the bill, business users can stop covered platforms from pre-installing or preferencing an app whenever they happen to offer a similar app, then covered platforms will be discouraged from investing in or creating new apps. Thus, the bill would generate a considerable deterrent effect for covered platforms to invest, invent, and innovate.

AICOA’s most detrimental consequences may not be immediately apparent; they could instead manifest in larger and broader downstream impacts that will be difficult to undo. As the 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat wrote: “a law gives birth not only to an effect but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause—it is seen. The others unfold in succession—they are not seen it is well for, if they are foreseen … it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come,—at the risk of a small present evil.”

To paraphrase Bastiat, AICOA offers ill-intentioned rivals a “small present good”–i.e., unconditional access to the platforms’ proprietary assets–while society suffers the loss of a greater good–i.e., incentives to innovate and welfare gains to consumers. The logic is akin to those who advocate the abolition of intellectual-property rights: The immediate (and seen) gain is obvious, concerning the dissemination of innovation and a reduction of the price of innovation, while the subsequent (and unseen) evil remains opaque, as the destruction of the institutional premises for innovation will generate considerable long-term innovation costs.

Fundamentally, AICOA weakens the benefits of scale by pursuing vertical disintegration of the covered platforms to the benefit of short-term static competition. In the long term, however, the bill would dampen dynamic competition, ultimately harming consumer welfare and the capacity for innovation. The measure’s opportunity costs will prevent covered platforms’ innovations from benefiting other business users or consumers. They personify the “unseen,” as Bastiat put it: “[they are] always in the shadow, and who, personifying what is not seen, [are] an essential element of the problem. [They make] us understand how absurd it is to see a profit in destruction.”

The costs could well amount to hundreds of billions of dollars for the U.S. economy, even before accounting for the costs of deterred innovation. The unseen is costly, the seen is cheap.

A New Robinson-Patman Act?

Most antitrust laws are terse, vague, and old: The Sherman Act of 1890, the Federal Trade Commission Act, and the Clayton Act of 1914 deal largely in generalities, with considerable deference for courts to elaborate in a common-law tradition on the specificities of what “restraints of trade,” “monopolization,” or “unfair methods of competition” mean.

In 1936, Congress passed the Robinson-Patman Act, designed to protect competitors from the then-disruptive competition of large firms who—thanks to scale and practices such as price differentiation—upended traditional incumbents to the benefit of consumers. Passed after “Congress made no factual investigation of its own, and ignored evidence that conflicted with accepted rhetoric,” the law prohibits price differentials that would benefit buyers, and ultimately consumers, in the name of less vigorous competition from more efficient, more productive firms. Indeed, under the Robinson-Patman Act, manufacturers cannot give a bigger discount to a distributor who would pass these savings onto consumers, even if the distributor performs extra services relative to others.

Former President Gerald Ford declared in 1975 that the Robinson-Patman Act “is a leading example of [a law] which restrain[s] competition and den[ies] buyers’ substantial savings…It discourages both large and small firms from cutting prices, making it harder for them to expand into new markets and pass on to customers the cost-savings on large orders.” Despite this, calls to amend or repeal the Robinson-Patman Act—supported by, among others, competition scholars like Herbert Hovenkamp and Robert Bork—have failed.

In the 1983 Abbott decision, Justice Lewis Powell wrote: “The Robinson-Patman Act has been widely criticized, both for its effects and for the policies that it seeks to promote. Although Congress is aware of these criticisms, the Act has remained in effect for almost half a century.”

Nonetheless, the act’s enforcement dwindled, thanks to wise reactions from antitrust agencies and the courts. While it is seldom enforced today, the act continues to create considerable legal uncertainty, as it raises regulatory risks for companies who engage in behavior that may conflict with its provisions. Indeed, many of the same so-called “neo-Brandeisians” who support passage of AICOA also advocate reinvigorating Robinson-Patman. More specifically, the new FTC majority has expressed that it is eager to revitalize Robinson-Patman, even as the law protects less efficient competitors. In other words, the Robinson-Patman Act is a zombie law: dead, but still moving.

Even if the antitrust agencies and courts ultimately follow the same path of regulatory and judicial restraint on AICOA that they have on Robinson-Patman, the legal uncertainty its existence will engender will act as a powerful deterrent on disruptive competition that dynamically benefits consumers and innovation. In short, like the Robinson-Patman Act, antitrust agencies and courts will either enforce AICOA–thus, generating the law’s adverse effects on consumers and innovation–or they will refrain from enforcing AICOA–but then, the legal uncertainty shall lead to unseen, harmful effects on innovation and consumers.

For instance, the bill’s prohibition on “self-preferencing” in Section 3(a)(1) will prevent covered platforms from offering consumers new products and services that happen to compete with incumbents’ products and services. Self-preferencing often is a pro-competitive, pro-efficiency practice that companies widely adopt—a reality that AICOA seems to ignore.

Would AICOA prevent, e.g., Apple from offering a bundled subscription to Apple One, which includes Apple Music, so that the company can effectively compete with incumbents like Spotify? As with Robinson-Patman, antitrust agencies and courts will have to choose whether to enforce a productivity-decreasing law, or to ignore congressional intent but, in the process, generate significant legal uncertainties.

Judge Bork once wrote that Robinson-Patman was “antitrust’s least glorious hour” because, rather than improving competition and innovation, it reduced competition from firms who happen to be more productive, innovative, and efficient than their rivals. The law infamously protected inefficient competitors rather than competition. But from the perspective of legislative history perspective, AICOA may be antitrust’s new “least glorious hour.” If adopted, it will adversely affect innovation and consumers, as opportunistic rivals will be able to prevent cost-saving practices by the covered platforms.

As with Robinson-Patman, calls to amend or repeal AICOA may follow its passage. But Robinson-Patman Act illustrates the path dependency of bad antitrust laws. However costly and damaging, AICOA would likely stay in place, with regular calls for either stronger or weaker enforcement, depending on whether the momentum shifts from populist antitrust or antitrust more consistent with dynamic competition.

Victory of the Brussels Effect

The future of AICOA does not bode well for markets, either from a historical perspective or from a comparative-law perspective. The EU’s DMA similarly targets a few large tech platforms but it is broader, harsher, and swifter. In the competition between these two examples of self-inflicted techlash, AICOA will pale in comparison with the DMA. Covered platforms will be forced to align with the DMA’s obligations and prohibitions.

Consequently, AICOA is a victory of the DMA and of the Brussels effect in general. AICOA effectively crowns the DMA as the all-encompassing regulatory assault on digital gatekeepers. While members of Congress have introduced numerous antitrust bills aimed at targeting gatekeepers, the DMA is the one-stop-shop regulation that encompasses multiple antitrust bills and imposes broader prohibitions and stronger obligations on gatekeepers. In other words, the DMA outcompetes AICOA.

Commentators seldom lament the extraterritorial impact of European regulations. Regarding regulating digital gatekeepers, U.S. officials should have pushed back against the innovation-stifling, welfare-decreasing effects of the DMA on U.S. tech companies, in particular, and on U.S. technological innovation, in general. To be fair, a few U.S. officials, such as Commerce Secretary Gina Raimundo, did voice opposition to the DMA. Indeed, well-aware of the DMA’s protectionist intent and its potential to break up and break into tech platforms, Raimundo expressed concerns that antitrust should not be about protecting competitors and deterring innovation but rather about protecting the process of competition, however disruptive may be.

The influential neo-Brandeisians and radical antitrust reformers, however, lashed out at Raimundo and effectively shamed the Biden administration into embracing the DMA (and its sister regulation, AICOA). Brussels did not have to exert its regulatory overreach; the U.S. administration happily imports and emulates European overregulation. There is no better way for European officials to see their dreams come true: a techlash against U.S. digital platforms that enjoys the support of local officials.

In that regard, AICOA has already played a significant role in shaping the intellectual mood in Washington and in altering the course of U.S. antitrust. Members of Congress designed AICOA along the lines pioneered by the DMA. Sen. Klobuchar has argued that America should emulate European competition policy regarding tech platforms. Lina Khan, now chair of the FTC, co-authored the U.S. House Antitrust Subcommittee report, which recommended adopting the European concept of “abuse of dominant position” in U.S. antitrust. In her current position, Khan now praises the DMA. Tim Wu, competition counsel for the White House, has praised European competition policy and officials. Indeed, the neo-Brandeisians’ have not only praised the European Commission’s fines against U.S. tech platforms (despite early criticisms from former President Barack Obama) but have more dramatically called for the United States to imitate the European regulatory framework.

In this regulatory race to inefficiency, the standard is set in Brussels with the blessings of U.S. officials. Not even the precedent set by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) fully captures the effects the DMA will have. Privacy laws passed by U.S. states’ privacy have mostly reacted to the reality of the GDPR. With AICOA, Congress is proactively anticipating, emulating, and welcoming the DMA before it has even been adopted. The intellectual and policy shift is historical, and so is the policy error.

AICOA and the Boulevard of Broken Dreams

AICOA is a failure similar to the Robinson-Patman Act and a victory for the Brussels effect and the DMA. Consumers will be the collateral damages, and the unseen effects on innovation will take years before they materialize. Calls for amendments and repeals of AICOA are likely to fail, so that the inevitable costs will forever bear upon consumers and innovation dynamics.

AICOA illustrates the neo-Brandeisian opposition to large innovative companies. Joseph Schumpeter warned against such hostility and its effect on disincentivizing entrepreneurs to innovate when he wrote:

Faced by the increasing hostility of the environment and by the legislative, administrative, and judicial practice born of that hostility, entrepreneurs and capitalists—in fact the whole stratum that accepts the bourgeois scheme of life—will eventually cease to function. Their standard aims are rapidly becoming unattainable, their efforts futile.

President William Howard Taft once said, “the world is not going to be saved by legislation.” AICOA will not save antitrust, nor will consumers. To paraphrase Schumpeter, the bill’s drafters “walked into our future as we walked into the war, blindfolded.” AICOA’s intentions to deliver greater competition, a fairer marketplace, greater consumer choice, and more consumer benefits will ultimately scatter across the boulevard of broken dreams.

The Baron de Montesquieu once wrote that legislators should only change laws with a “trembling hand”:

It is sometimes necessary to change certain laws. But the case is rare, and when it happens, they should be touched only with a trembling hand: such solemnities should be observed, and such precautions are taken that the people will naturally conclude that the laws are indeed sacred since it takes so many formalities to abrogate them.

AICOA’s drafters had a clumsy hand, coupled with what Friedrich Hayek would call “a pretense of knowledge.” They were certain to do social good and incapable of thinking of doing social harm. The future will remember AICOA as the new antitrust’s least glorious hour, where consumers and innovation were sacrificed on the altar of a revitalized populist view of antitrust.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

About earth’s creatures great and small,
Devices clever as can be,
I see foremost a ruthless power;
You, their ingenuity.

You see the beak upon the finch;
I, the beaked skeleton.
You see the wonders that they are;
I, the things that might have been.

You see th’included batteries
I, the poor excluded ones.
You, the phone that simply works;
I, restrain’d competition.

’Twould be a better world, I say,
Were all the options to abide—
All beaks and brands of battery—
From which the public to decide.

You say that man the greatest is
Because he dominates today,
But meteor, not caveman, drove
The ancient dinosaurs away.

If they were here when we were new,
We might the age not have survived;
They say some species could outwit
The sharpest chimps today alive.

Just so, I say, ’twould better be
Replacement batteries t’allow
For sales alone can prove what brands
Deserve el’vation to the Dow.

Designing batt’ries switchable
Makes their selection fully public;
It substitutes democracy
For an engineering logic.

For only buyers should decide
Which components to inter;
Their taste alone determines worth,
Though engineers be cleverer.

You: The meaning of component,
We can always redefine.
From batteries to molecules,
We can draw most any line.

Of cogs, thus, an infinitude;
Of time a finitude to lose.
You cannot interchange all parts,
Or each one carefully to choose.

Product choices corporate
We cannot all democratize,
At least so long as consumers
Wish to get on with their lives.

Exclusion therefore cannot we
Universally condemn;
Oft must we let the firm decide
Which components to put in.

Power, then, is everywhere—
What is is built on what is not—
And th’elimination of it
Is no cornerstone of thought.

Of components infinite
We must choose which few to free;
Th’criterion for doing that,
Abuse-of-power cannot be.

Power and oppression are,
In life and goods ubiquitous.
But value differentiates—
Build we antitrust on this.

Alone when letting buyers say
Which part into a product goes
Would make those buyers happier,
Must we interchange impose.

Batt’ry brand must matter much,
Else, we seriously delude,
To think consumers want to hear:
“We the batt’ries not include.”

The same is true for Amazon.
If it knows which seller’s best,
Let it cast the others out for us—
Give our scrolling bars a rest.

If Apple knows which app’s a dud,
Let Apple cast it out as well.
Which app’s a fraud and which a scam,
Smartphone users cannot tell.

If Google wants to show me how
To get from A to B to C,
I’d rather that she use her maps
Than search for others separately.

A rule against self-preferencing
No legal principle provides;
For what opposes power’s role
Can’t be neutrally applied.

What goes for all third-party sales
Goes for Amazon’s front-end.
Self-preferencing alone prevents
My designing a new skin.

We cannot hire its warehouse staff;
We cannot choose its motor fleet;
We cannot source its cargo planes;
Or its trucks route through our streets.

But this is all self-preferencing;
And it cannot all be banned;
Unless we choice’s value weigh,
We strike with arbitrary hand.

So say you and differ I:
’Twixt dinosaur and man must choose.
If one alone fits on this earth—
Wilt for man our power use?

These verses are based in part on arguments summarized in this blog post and this paper.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

26 July, 10 A.F. (after fairness)

Dear Fellow Inquisitors,

It has been more than a decade now since the Federal Neutrality Commission, born of the ashes of the old world, ushered in the Age of Fairness. 

As you all know, the FNC was created during the Online Era, when the emergence of the largest companies in human history opened our eyes to the original sin of the competitive process: unfairness.

In the course of their evolution, digital platforms—the vanity fairs of the XXI century—had created entire ecosystems that offered integrated services that were so comfortable to use together that they led to a double-sin: sloth on the part of the consumers, and the unfair exclusion of competitors, who were barred from exercising their God-given right to participate in every market and every platform—and to prosper.

Digital stores selling their own branded goods, social-media apps with their own messaging services, search engines using search statistics to generate optimally efficient tools that surpassed the (legitimate) confines of their core functions and spilled over into the dominion of job search, flight booking, or housing apps … App stores were even using their own recognizable software to guarantee that the apps they distributed met the highest standards of security and trustworthiness!

While these things might not seem entirely unreasonable (especially to the heathens: selfish and individualistic consumers who care about nothing other than satisfying their base hedonistic desires), they in fact led to unspeakable evils that flouted the common good.

For example, they made it very, very uncomfortable for someone who wanted to start their own real-estate business to compete with such strong rival companies, who could leverage their superior efficiency in their core markets to become nigh-unbeatable in offering the cheapest, most relevant housing ads. To make matters worse, the gargantuan spending of the digital platforms on research and development built additional moats of quality and innovation around their products—both core and adjacent—that made them utterly unimpregnable to rivals specializing in just one area.

By constantly leveraging their core services to offer better and improved products on adjacent markets, digital platforms had made it unfairly difficult for other companies to join the race and deliver us to “perfect competition”—the euphoric state of blissful equilibrium foretold by the high priests of the only true belief system, Economics.

But not all was lost, and we hadn’t been forsaken. In those dark and faithless days, it was revealed to us by Sen. Amy Klobuchar—praise be her name—that the loathsome practice whereby online companies favored their own products and services over their rivals had a name, “self-preferencing,” and that it was a sin. And, most importantly, that it could be eradicated.

Fortunately, and thanks to the vigilance of the FNC, legal steps were swiftly taken to make the praxis of the Digital Economy more closely resemble its theory, as passed on to us by our forefathers.

And it worked, brothers and sisters! The prohibition of self-preferencing in digital markets made online products much more homogenous, thus validating one of the main assumptions of Economics. In addition, new competition-law Acts, with mechanisms such as forced data sharing, have eliminated all the messy experimentation that had hitherto led to varied (and risky) business models and diversified approaches. By turning competition into forced collaboration, we had finally made it stable, equal, and predictable; in one word: fair.

And what of the sinner in every one of us? Before the great revelation, blasphemous “consumers”—an anachronistic and reductive term for “socially responsible citizens”—were committing the sin of laziness: sloth. Now, choice is finally mandated, and nothing can be pre-selected or even integrated. No more arbitrary safe-browsing mechanisms, integrated malware detectors and spam filters. Where digital platforms experimented and imposed results on us, we are now coercively free to experiment by ourselves—and on ourselves! Online searches today lead to thousands of indistinguishable links hiding an infinity of surprises, requiring us to be more circumspect and informed than ever before. In one word: the prohibition of self-preferencing has improved the moral character of the human stock.

It is universally known that we owe the dawn of the Age of Fairness to the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, adopted by Congress in the year 2022; and the unwavering vigilance of the FNC. What is lesser known—and what I am here to instill in you today—is that that was just the beginning. The success of AICOA has opened our eyes to an even more ancient and perverse evil: self-preferencing in offline markets. It revealed to us that—for centuries, if not millennia—companies in various industries—from togas to wine, from cosmetics to insurance—had, in fact, always preferred their own initiatives over those of their rivals!

Just as the ancient chariot constructors designed chariots to suit the build of their own thoroughbred horses (thereby foreclosing horses raised by other breeders), the XX century car producers were using spare parts delivered by a supplier organizationally related to their company.

This realization has accelerated the birth pangs of the American Innovation and Choice Offline Act, which we are here to announce today. With it, the FNC will eliminate all remnants of unfair rivalry—online and offline—so that we, as one community of faith, can finally enjoy the true benefits of competition. But we must never forget that this tenuous equilibrium hangs by a thread, and that we owe it all to the indefatigable efforts of the FNC agents patrolling the streets, supermarkets, restaurants, gyms, factories, and just about everything else every single day.

Of course, there is still a lot to be done. But every long journey must begin somewhere.

Today, I want to warn you against sin and urge you to adopt the religion of fairness[1] before the day of judgment comes.

Amen.


[1] Or any other religion that condemns self-preferencing. I want to recommend them all equally.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

If S.2992—the American Innovation and Choice Online Act or AICOA—were to become law, it would be, at the very least, an incomplete law. By design—and not for good reason, but for political expediency—AICOA is riddled with intentional uncertainty. In theory, the law’s glaring definitional deficiencies are meant to be rectified by “expert” agencies (i.e., the DOJ and FTC) after passage. But in actuality, no such certainty would ever emerge, and the law would stand as a testament to the crass political machinations and absence of rigor that undergird it. Among many other troubling outcomes, this is what the future under AICOA would hold.

Two months ago, the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Antitrust Section published a searing critique of AICOA in which it denounced the bill for being poorly written, vague, and departing from established antitrust-law principles. As Lazar Radic and I discussed in a previous post, what made the ABA’s letter to Congress so eye-opening was that it was penned by a typically staid group with a reputation for independence, professionalism, and ideational heterogeneity.

One of the main issues the ABA flagged in its letter is that the introduction of vague new concepts—like “materially harm competition,” which does not exist anywhere in current antitrust law—into the antitrust mainstream will risk substantial legal uncertainty and produce swathes of unintended consequences.

According to some, however, the bill’s inherent uncertainty is a feature, not a bug. It leaves enough space for specialist agencies to define the precise meaning of key terms without unduly narrowing the scope of the bill ex ante.

In particular, supporters of the bill have pointed to the prospect of agency guidelines under the law to rescue it from the starkest of the fundamental issues identified by the ABA. Section 4 of AICOA requires the DOJ and FTC to issue “agency enforcement guidelines” no later than 270 days after the date of enactment:

outlining policies and practices relating to conduct that may materially harm competition under section 3(a), agency interpretations of the affirmative defenses under section 3(b), and policies for determining the appropriate amount of a civil penalty to be sought under section 3(c).

In pointing to the prospect of guidelines, however, supporters are inadvertently admitting defeat—and proving the ABA’s point: AICOA is not ready for prime time.

This thinking is misguided for at least three reasons:

Guidelines are not rules

As section 4(d) of AICOA recognizes, guidelines are emphatically nonbinding:

The joint guidelines issued under this section do not … operate to bind the Commission, Department of Justice, or any person, State, or locality to the approach recommended in the guidelines.

As such, the value of guidelines in dispelling legal uncertainty is modest, at best.

This is even more so in today’s highly politicized atmosphere, where guidelines can be withdrawn at the tip of the ballot (we’ve just seen the FTC rescind the Vertical Merger Guidelines it put in place less than a year ago). Given how politicized the issuing agencies themselves have become, it’s a virtual certainty that the guidelines produced in response to AICOA would be steeped in partisan politics and immediately changed with a change in administration, thus providing no more lasting legal certainty than speculation by a member of Congress.

Guidelines are not the appropriate tool to define novel concepts

Regardless of this political reality, however, the mixture of vagueness and novelty inherent in the key concepts that underpin the infringements and affirmative defenses under AICOA—such as “fairness,” “preferencing,” “materiality”, or the “intrinsic” value of a product—undermine the usefulness (and legitimacy) of guidelines.

Indeed, while laws are sometimes purposefully vague—operating as standards rather than prescriptive rules—to allow for more flexibility, the concepts introduced by AICOA don’t even offer any cognizable standards suitable for fine-tuning.

The operative terms of AICOA don’t have definitive meanings under antitrust law, either because they are wholly foreign to accepted antitrust law (as in the case of “self-preferencing”) or because the courts have never agreed on an accepted definition (as in the case of “fairness”). Nor are they technical standards, which are better left to specialized agencies rather than to legislators to define, such as in the case of, e.g., pollution (by contrast: what is the technical standard for “fairness”?).

Indeed, as Elyse Dorsey has noted, the only certainty that would emerge from this state of affairs is the certainty of pervasive rent-seeking by non-altruistic players seeking to define the rules in their favor.

As we’ve pointed out elsewhere, the purpose of guidelines is to reflect the state of the art in a certain area of antitrust law and not to push the accepted scope of knowledge and practice in a new direction. This not only overreaches the FTC’s and DOJ’s powers, but also risks galvanizing opposition from the courts, thereby undermining the utility of adopting guidelines in the first place.

Guidelines can’t fix a fundamentally flawed law

Expecting guidelines to provide sensible, administrable content for the bill sets the bar overly high for guidelines, and unduly low for AICOA.

The alleged harms at the heart of AICOA are foreign to antitrust law, and even to the economic underpinnings of competition policy more broadly. Indeed, as Sean Sullivan has pointed out, the law doesn’t even purport to define “harms,” but only serves to make specific conduct illegal:

Even if the conduct has no effect, it’s made illegal, unless an affirmative defense is raised. And the affirmative defense requires that it doesn’t ‘harm competition.’ But ‘harm competition’ is undefined…. You have to prove that harm doesn’t result, but it’s not really ever made clear what the harm is in the first place.”

“Self-preferencing” is not a competitive defect, and simply declaring it to be so does not make it one. As I’ve noted elsewhere:

The notion that platform entry into competition with edge providers is harmful to innovation is entirely speculative. Moreover, it is flatly contrary to a range of studies showing that the opposite is likely true…. The theory of vertical discrimination harm is at odds not only with this platform-specific empirical evidence, it is also contrary to the long-standing evidence on the welfare effects of vertical restraints more broadly …

… [M]andating openness is not without costs, most importantly in terms of the effective operation of the platform and its own incentives for innovation.

Asking agencies with an expertise in competition policy to enact economically sensible guidelines to direct enforcement against such conduct is a fool’s errand. It is a recipe for purely political legislation adopted by competition agencies that does nothing to further their competition missions.

AICOA’s Catch-22 Is Its Own Doing, and Will Be Its Downfall

AICOA’s Catch-22 is that, by making the law so vague that it needs enforcement guidelines to flesh it out, AICOA renders both itself and those same guidelines irrelevant and misses the point of both legal instruments.

Ultimately, guidelines cannot resolve the fundamental rule-of-law issues raised by the bill and highlighted by the ABA in its letter. To the contrary, they confirm the ABA’s concerns that AICOA is a poorly written and indeterminate bill. Further, the contentious elements of the bill that need clarification are inherently legislative ones that—paradoxically—shouldn’t be left to competition-agency guidelines to elucidate.

The upshot is that any future under AICOA will be one marked by endless uncertainty and the extreme politicization of both competition policy and the agencies that enforce it.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Much ink has been spilled regarding the potential harm to the economy and to the rule of law that could stem from enactment of the primary federal antitrust legislative proposal, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) (see here). AICOA proponents, of course, would beg to differ, emphasizing the purported procompetitive benefits of limiting the business freedom of “Big Tech monopolists.”

There is, however, one inescapable reality—as night follows day, passage of AICOA would usher in an extended period of costly litigation over the meaning of a host of AICOA terms. As we will see, this would generate business uncertainty and dampen innovative conduct that might be covered by new AICOA statutory terms. 

The history of antitrust illustrates the difficulties inherent in clarifying the meaning of novel federal statutory language. It was not until 21 years after passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act that the Supreme Court held that Section 1 of the act’s prohibition on contracts, combinations, and conspiracies “in restraint of trade” only covered unreasonable restraints of trade (see Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911)). Furthermore, courts took decades to clarify that certain types of restraints (for example, hardcore price fixing and horizontal market division) were inherently unreasonable and thus per se illegal, while others would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis under a “rule of reason.”

In addition, even far more specific terms related to exclusive dealing, tying, and price discrimination found within the Clayton Antitrust Act gave rise to uncertainty over the scope of their application. This uncertainty had to be sorted out through judicial case-law tests developed over many decades.

Even today, there is no simple, easily applicable test to determine whether conduct in the abstract constitutes illegal monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Act. Rather, whether Section 2 has been violated in any particular instance depends upon the application of economic analysis and certain case-law principles to matter-specific facts.

As is the case with current antitrust law, the precise meaning and scope of AICOA’s terms will have to be fleshed out over many years. Scholarly critiques of AICOA’s language underscore the seriousness of this problem.

In its April 2022 public comment on AICOA, the American Bar Association (ABA)  Antitrust Law Section explains in some detail the significant ambiguities inherent in specific AICOA language that the courts will have to address. These include “ambiguous terminology … regarding fairness, preferencing, materiality, and harm to competition on covered platforms”; and “specific language establishing affirmative defenses [that] creates significant uncertainty”. The ABA comment further stresses that AICOA’s failure to include harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for a statutory violation departs from a broad-based consensus understanding within the antitrust community and could have the unintended consequence of disincentivizing efficient conduct. This departure would, of course, create additional interpretive difficulties for federal judges, further complicating the task of developing coherent case-law principles for the new statute.

Lending support to the ABA’s concerns, Northwestern University professor of economics Dan Spulber notes that AICOA “may have adverse effects on innovation and competition because of imprecise concepts and terminology.”

In a somewhat similar vein, Stanford Law School Professor (and former acting assistant attorney general for antitrust during the Clinton administration) Douglas Melamed complains that:

[AICOA] does not include the normal antitrust language (e.g., “competition in the market as a whole,” “market power”) that gives meaning to the idea of harm to competition, nor does it say that the imprecise language it does use is to be construed as that language is construed by the antitrust laws. … The bill could be very harmful if it is construed to require, not increased market power, but simply harm to rivals.

In sum, ambiguities inherent in AICOA’s new terminology will generate substantial uncertainty among affected businesses. This uncertainty will play out in the courts over a period of years. Moreover, the likelihood that judicial statutory constructions of AICOA language will support “efficiency-promoting” interpretations of behavior is diminished by the fact that AICOA’s structural scheme (which focuses on harm to rivals) does not harmonize with traditional antitrust concerns about promoting a vibrant competitive process.

Knowing this, the large high-tech firms covered by AICOA will become risk averse and less likely to innovate. (For example, they will be reluctant to improve algorithms in a manner that would increase efficiency and benefit consumers, but that might be seen as disadvantaging rivals.) As such, American innovation will slow, and consumers will suffer. (See here for an estimate of the enormous consumer-welfare gains generated by high tech platforms—gains of a type that AICOA’s enactment may be expected to jeopardize.) It is to be hoped that Congress will take note and consign AICOA to the rubbish heap of disastrous legislative policy proposals.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Earlier this month, Professors Fiona Scott Morton, Steve Salop, and David Dinielli penned a letter expressing their “strong support” for the proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA). In the letter, the professors address criticisms of AICOA and urge its approval, despite possible imperfections.

“Perhaps this bill could be made better if we lived in a perfect world,” the professors write, “[b]ut we believe the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, especially when change is so urgently needed.”

The problem is that the professors and other supporters of AICOA have shown neither that “change is so urgently needed” nor that the proposed law is, in fact, “good.”

Is Change ‘Urgently Needed’?

With respect to the purported urgency that warrants passage of a concededly imperfect bill, the letter authors assert two points. First, they claim that AICOA’s targets—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft (collectively, GAFAM)—“serve as the essential gatekeepers of economic, social, and political activity on the internet.” It is thus appropriate, they say, to amend the antitrust laws to do something they have never before done: saddle a handful of identified firms with special regulatory duties.

But is this oft-repeated claim about “gatekeeper” status true? The label conjures up the old Terminal Railroad case, where a group of firms controlled the only bridges over the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Freighters had no choice but to utilize their services. Do the GAFAM firms really play a similar role with respect to “economic, social, and political activity on the internet”? Hardly.

With respect to economic activity, Amazon may be a huge player, but it still accounts for only 39.5% of U.S. ecommerce sales—and far less of retail sales overall. Consumers have gobs of other ecommerce options, and so do third-party merchants, which may sell their wares using Shopify, Ebay, Walmart, Etsy, numerous other ecommerce platforms, or their own websites.

For social activity on the internet, consumers need not rely on Facebook and Instagram. They can connect with others via Snapchat, Reddit, Pinterest, TikTok, Twitter, and scores of other sites. To be sure, all these services have different niches, but the letter authors’ claim that the GAFAM firms are “essential gatekeepers” of “social… activity on the internet” is spurious.

Nor are the firms singled out by AICOA essential gatekeepers of “political activity on the internet.” The proposed law touches neither Twitter, the primary hub of political activity on the internet, nor TikTok, which is increasingly used for political messaging.

The second argument the letter authors assert in support of their claim of urgency is that “[t]he decline of antitrust enforcement in the U.S. is well known, pervasive, and has left our jurisprudence unable to protect and maintain competitive markets.” In other words, contemporary antitrust standards are anemic and have led to a lack of market competition in the United States.

The evidence for this claim, which is increasingly parroted in the press and among the punditry, is weak. Proponents primarily point to studies showing:

  1. increasing industrial concentration;
  2. higher markups on goods and services since 1980;
  3. a declining share of surplus going to labor, which could indicate monopsony power in labor markets; and
  4. a reduction in startup activity, suggesting diminished innovation. 

Examined closely, however, those studies fail to establish a domestic market power crisis.

Industrial concentration has little to do with market power in actual markets. Indeed, research suggests that, while industries may be consolidating at the national level, competition at the market (local) level is increasing, as more efficient national firms open more competitive outlets in local markets. As Geoff Manne sums up this research:

Most recently, several working papers looking at the data on concentration in detail and attempting to identify the likely cause for the observed data, show precisely the opposite relationship. The reason for increased concentration appears to be technological, not anticompetitive. And, as might be expected from that cause, its effects are beneficial. Indeed, the story is both intuitive and positive.

What’s more, while national concentration does appear to be increasing in some sectors of the economy, it’s not actually so clear that the same is true for local concentration — which is often the relevant antitrust market.

With respect to the evidence on markups, the claim of a significant increase in the price-cost margin depends crucially on the measure of cost. The studies suggesting an increase in margins since 1980 use the “cost of goods sold” (COGS) metric, which excludes a firm’s management and marketing costs—both of which have become an increasingly significant portion of firms’ costs. Measuring costs using the “operating expenses” (OPEX) metric, which includes management and marketing costs, reveals that public-company markups increased only modestly since the 1980s and that the increase was within historical variation. (It is also likely that increased markups since 1980 reflect firms’ more extensive use of technology and their greater regulatory burdens, both of which raise fixed costs and require higher markups over marginal cost.)

As for the declining labor share, that dynamic is occurring globally. Indeed, the decline in the labor share in the United States has been less severe than in Japan, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, China, Mexico, and Poland, suggesting that anemic U.S. antitrust enforcement is not to blame. (A reduction in the relative productivity of labor is a more likely culprit.)

Finally, the claim of reduced startup activity is unfounded. In its report on competition in digital markets, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee asserted that, since the advent of the major digital platforms:

  1. “[t]he number of new technology firms in the digital economy has declined”;
  2. “the entrepreneurship rate—the share of startups and young firms in the [high technology] industry as a whole—has also fallen significantly”; and
  3. “[u]nsurprisingly, there has also been a sharp reduction in early-stage funding for technology startups.” (pp. 46-47.)

Those claims, however, are based on cherry-picked evidence.

In support of the first two, the Judiciary Committee report cited a study based on data ending in 2011. As Benedict Evans has observed, “standard industry data shows that startup investment rounds have actually risen at least 4x since then.”

In support of the third claim, the report cited statistics from an article noting that the number and aggregate size of the very smallest venture capital deals—those under $1 million—fell between 2014 and 2018 (after growing substantially from 2008 to 2014). The Judiciary Committee report failed to note, however, the cited article’s observation that small venture deals ($1 million to $5 million) had not dropped and that larger venture deals (greater than $5 million) had grown substantially during the same time period. Nor did the report acknowledge that venture-capital funding has continued to increase since 2018.

Finally, there is also reason to think that AICOA’s passage would harm, not help, the startup environment:

AICOA doesn’t directly restrict startup acquisitions, but the activities it would restrict most certainly do dramatically affect the incentives that drive many startup acquisitions. If a platform is prohibited from engaging in cross-platform integration of acquired technologies, or if it can’t monetize its purchase by prioritizing its own technology, it may lose the motivation to make a purchase in the first place.

Despite the letter authors’ claims, neither a paucity of avenues for “economic, social, and political activity on the internet” nor the general state of market competition in the United States establishes an “urgent need” to re-write the antitrust laws to saddle a small group of firms with unprecedented legal obligations.

Is the Vagueness of AICOA’s Primary Legal Standard a Feature?

AICOA bars covered platforms from engaging in three broad classes of conduct (self-preferencing, discrimination among business users, and limiting business users’ ability to compete) where the behavior at issue would “materially harm competition.” It then forbids several specific business practices, but allows the defendant to avoid liability by proving that their use of the practice would not cause a “material harm to competition.”

Critics have argued that “material harm to competition”—a standard that is not used elsewhere in the antitrust laws—is too indeterminate to provide business planners and adjudicators with adequate guidance. The authors of the pro-AICOA letter, however, maintain that this “different language is a feature, not a bug.”

That is so, the letter authors say, because the language effectively signals to courts and policymakers that antitrust should prohibit more conduct. They explain:

To clarify to courts and policymakers that Congress wants something different (and stronger), new terminology is required. The bill’s language would open up a new space and move beyond the standards imposed by the Sherman Act, which has not effectively policed digital platforms.

Putting aside the weakness of the letter authors’ premise (i.e., that Sherman Act standards have proven ineffective), the legislative strategy they advocate—obliquely signal that you want “change” without saying what it should consist of—is irresponsible and risky.

The letter authors assert two reasons Congress should not worry about enacting a liability standard that has no settled meaning. One is that:

[t]he same judges who are called upon to render decisions under the existing, insufficient, antitrust regime, will also be called upon to render decisions under the new law. They will be the same people with the same worldview.

It is thus unlikely that “outcomes under the new law would veer drastically away from past understandings of core concepts….”

But this claim undermines the argument that a new standard is needed to get the courts to do “something different” and “move beyond the standards imposed by the Sherman Act.” If we don’t need to worry about an adverse outcome from a novel, ill-defined standard because courts are just going to continue applying the standard they’re familiar with, then what’s the point of changing the standard?

A second reason not to worry about the lack of clarity on AICOA’s key liability standard, the letter authors say, is that federal enforcers will define it:

The new law would mandate that the [Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice], the two expert agencies in the area of competition, together create guidelines to help courts interpret the law. Any uncertainty about the meaning of words like ‘competition’ will be resolved in those guidelines and over time with the development of caselaw.

This is no doubt music to the ears of members of Congress, who love to get credit for “doing something” legislatively, while leaving the details to an agency so that they can avoid accountability if things turn out poorly. Indeed, the letter authors explicitly play upon legislators’ unwholesome desire for credit-sans-accountability. They emphasize that “[t]he agencies must [create and] update the guidelines periodically. Congress doesn’t have to do much of anything very specific other than approve budgets; it certainly has no obligation to enact any new laws, let alone amend them.”

AICOA does not, however, confer rulemaking authority on the agencies; it merely directs them to create and periodically update “agency enforcement guidelines” and “agency interpretations” of certain affirmative defenses. Those guidelines and interpretations would not bind courts, which would be free to interpret AICOA’s new standard differently. The letter authors presume that courts would defer to the agencies’ interpretation of the vague standard, and they probably would. But that raises other problems.

For one thing, it reduces certainty, which is likely to chill innovation. Giving the enforcement agencies de facto power to determine and redetermine what behaviors “would materially harm competition” means that the rules are never settled. Administrations differ markedly in their views about what the antitrust laws should forbid, so business planners could never be certain that a product feature or revenue model that is legal today will not be deemed to “materially harm competition” by a future administration with greater solicitude for small rivals and upstarts. Such uncertainty will hinder investment in novel products, services, and business models.

Consider, for example, Google’s investment in the Android mobile operating system. Google makes money from Android—which it licenses to device manufacturers for free—by ensuring that Google’s revenue-generating services (e.g., its search engine and browser) are strongly preferenced on Android products. One administration might believe that this is a procompetitive arrangement, as it creates a different revenue model for mobile operating systems (as opposed to Apple’s generation of revenue from hardware sales), resulting in both increased choice and lower prices for consumers. A subsequent administration might conclude that the arrangement materially harms competition by making it harder for rival search engines and web browsers to gain market share. It would make scant sense for a covered platform to make an investment like Google did with Android if its underlying business model could be upended by a new administration with de facto power to rewrite the law.

A second problem with having the enforcement agencies determine and redetermine what covered platforms may do is that it effectively transforms the agencies from law enforcers into sectoral regulators. Indeed, the letter authors agree that “the ability of expert agencies to incorporate additional protections in the guidelines” means that “the bill is not a pure antitrust law but also safeguards other benefits to consumers.” They tout that “the complementarity between consumer protection and competition can be addressed in the guidelines.”

Of course, to the extent that the enforcement guidelines address concerns besides competition, they will be less useful for interpreting AICOA’s “material harm to competition” standard; they might deem a practice suspect on non-competition grounds. Moreover, it is questionable whether creating a sectoral regulator for five widely diverse firms is a good idea. The history of sectoral regulation is littered with examples of agency capture, rent-seeking, and other public-choice concerns. At a minimum, Congress should carefully examine the potential downsides of sectoral regulation, install protections to mitigate those downsides, and explicitly establish the sectoral regulator.

Will AICOA Break Popular Products and Services?

Many popular offerings by the platforms covered by AICOA involve self-preferencing, discrimination among business users, or one of the other behaviors the bill presumptively bans. Pre-installation of iPhone apps and services like Siri, for example, involves self-preferencing or discrimination among business users of Apple’s iOS platform. But iPhone consumers value having a mobile device that offers extensive services right out of the box. Consumers love that Google’s search result for an establishment offers directions to the place, which involves the preferencing of Google Maps. And consumers positively adore Amazon Prime, which can provide free expedited delivery because Amazon conditions Prime designation on a third-party seller’s use of Amazon’s efficient, reliable “Fulfillment by Amazon” service—something Amazon could not do under AICOA.

The authors of the pro-AICOA letter insist that the law will not ban attractive product features like these. AICOA, they say:

provides a powerful defense that forecloses any thoughtful concern of this sort: conduct otherwise banned under the bill is permitted if it would ‘maintain or substantially enhance the core functionality of the covered platform.’

But the authors’ confidence that this affirmative defense will adequately protect popular offerings is misplaced. The defense is narrow and difficult to mount.

First, it immunizes only those behaviors that maintain or substantially enhance the “core” functionality of the covered platform. Courts would rightly interpret AICOA to give effect to that otherwise unnecessary word, which dictionaries define as “the central or most important part of something.” Accordingly, any self-preferencing, discrimination, or other presumptively illicit behavior that enhances a covered platform’s service but not its “central or most important” functions is not even a candidate for the defense.

Even if a covered platform could establish that a challenged practice would maintain or substantially enhance the platform’s core functionality, it would also have to prove that the conduct was “narrowly tailored” and “reasonably necessary” to achieve the desired end, and, for many behaviors, the “le[ast] discriminatory means” of doing so. That is a remarkably heavy burden, and it beggars belief to suppose that business planners considering novel offerings involving self-preferencing, discrimination, or some other presumptively illicit conduct would feel confident that they could make the required showing. It is likely, then, that AICOA would break existing products and services and discourage future innovation.

Of course, Congress could mitigate this concern by specifying that AICOA does not preclude certain things, such as pre-installed apps or consumer-friendly search results. But the legislation would then lose the support of the many interest groups who want the law to preclude various popular offerings that its text would now forbid. Unlike consumers, who are widely dispersed and difficult to organize, the groups and competitors that would benefit from things like stripped-down smartphones, map-free search results, and Prime-less Amazon are effective lobbyists.

Should the US Follow Europe?

Having responded to criticisms of AICOA, the authors of the pro-AICOA letter go on offense. They assert that enactment of the bill is needed to ensure that the United States doesn’t lose ground to Europe, both in regulatory leadership and in innovation. Observing that the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) has just become law, the authors write that:

[w]ithout [AICOA], the role of protecting competition and innovation in the digital sector outside China will be left primarily to the European Union, abrogating U.S. leadership in this sector.

Moreover, if Europe implements its DMA and the United States does not adopt AICOA, the authors claim:

the center of gravity for innovation and entrepreneurship [could] shift from the U.S. to Europe, where the DMA would offer greater protections to start ups and app developers, and even makers and artisans, against exclusionary conduct by the gatekeeper platforms.

Implicit in the argument that AICOA is needed to maintain America’s regulatory leadership is the assumption that to lead in regulatory policy is to have the most restrictive rules. The most restrictive regulator will necessarily be the “leader” in the sense that it will be the one with the most control over regulated firms. But leading in the sense of optimizing outcomes and thereby serving as a model for other jurisdictions entails crafting the best policies—those that minimize the aggregate social losses from wrongly permitting bad behavior, wrongly condemning good behavior, and determining whether conduct is allowed or forbidden (i.e., those that “minimize the sum of error and decision costs”). Rarely is the most restrictive regulatory regime the one that optimizes outcomes, and as I have elsewhere explained, the rules set forth in the DMA hardly seem calibrated to do so.

As for “innovation and entrepreneurship” in the technological arena, it would be a seismic shift indeed if the center of gravity were to migrate to Europe, which is currently home to zero of the top 20 global tech companies. (The United States hosts 12; China, eight.)

It seems implausible, though, that imposing a bunch of restrictions on large tech companies that have significant resources for innovation and are scrambling to enter each other’s markets will enhance, rather than retard, innovation. The self-preferencing bans in AICOA and DMA, for example, would prevent Apple from developing its own search engine to compete with Google, as it has apparently contemplated. Why would Apple develop its own search engine if it couldn’t preference it on iPhones and iPads? And why would Google have started its shopping service to compete with Amazon if it couldn’t preference Google Shopping in search results? And why would any platform continually improve to gain more users as it neared the thresholds for enhanced duties under DMA or AICOA? It seems more likely that the DMA/AICOA approach will hinder, rather than spur, innovation.

At the very least, wouldn’t it be prudent to wait and see whether DMA leads to a flourishing of innovation and entrepreneurship in Europe before jumping on the European bandwagon? After all, technological innovations that occur in Europe won’t be available only to Europeans. Just as Europeans benefit from innovation by U.S. firms, American consumers will be able to reap the benefits of any DMA-inspired innovation occurring in Europe. Moreover, if DMA indeed furthers innovation by making it easier for entrants to gain footing, even American technology firms could benefit from the law by launching their products in Europe. There’s no reason for the tech sector to move to Europe to take advantage of a small-business-protective European law.

In fact, the optimal outcome might be to have one jurisdiction in which major tech platforms are free to innovate, enter each other’s markets via self-preferencing, etc. (the United States, under current law) and another that is more protective of upstart businesses that use the platforms (Europe under DMA). The former jurisdiction would create favorable conditions for platform innovation and inter-platform competition; the latter might enhance innovation among businesses that rely on the platforms. Consumers in each jurisdiction, however, would benefit from innovation facilitated by the other.

It makes little sense, then, for the United States to rush to adopt European-style regulation. DMA is a radical experiment. Regulatory history suggests that the sort of restrictiveness it imposes retards, rather than furthers, innovation. But in the unlikely event that things turn out differently this time, little harm would result from waiting to see DMA’s benefits before implementing its restrictive approach. 

Does AICOA Threaten Platforms’ Ability to Moderate Content and Police Disinformation?

The authors of the pro-AICOA letter conclude by addressing the concern that AICOA “will inadvertently make content moderation difficult because some of the prohibitions could be read… to cover and therefore prohibit some varieties of content moderation” by covered platforms.

The letter authors say that a reading of AICOA to prohibit content moderation is “strained.” They maintain that the act’s requirement of “competitive harm” would prevent imposition of liability based on content moderation and that the act is “plainly not intended to cover” instances of “purported censorship.” They further contend that the risk of judicial misconstrual exists with all proposed laws and therefore should not be a sufficient reason to oppose AICOA.

Each of these points is weak. Section 3(a)(3) of AICOA makes it unlawful for a covered platform to “discriminate in the application or enforcement of the terms of service of the covered platform among similarly situated business users in a manner that would materially harm competition.” It is hardly “strained” to reason that this provision is violated when, say, Google’s YouTube selectively demonetizes a business user for content that Google deems harmful or misleading. Or when Apple removes Parler, but not every other violator of service terms, from its App Store. Such conduct could “materially harm competition” by impeding the de-platformed business’ ability to compete with its rivals.

And it is hard to say that AICOA is “plainly not intended” to forbid these acts when a key supporting senator touted the bill as a means of policing content moderation and observed during markup that it would “make some positive improvement on the problem of censorship” (i.e., content moderation) because “it would provide protections to content providers, to businesses that are discriminated against because of the content of what they produce.”

At a minimum, we should expect some state attorneys general to try to use the law to police content moderation they disfavor, and the mere prospect of such legal action could chill anti-disinformation efforts and other forms of content moderation.

Of course, there’s a simple way for Congress to eliminate the risk of what the letter authors deem judicial misconstrual: It could clarify that AICOA’s prohibitions do not cover good-faith efforts to moderate content or police disinformation. Such clarification, however, would kill the bill, as several Republican legislators are supporting the act because it restricts content moderation.

The risk of judicial misconstrual with AICOA, then, is not the sort that exists with “any law, new or old,” as the letter authors contend. “Normal” misconstrual risk exists when legislators try to be clear about their intentions but, because language has its limits, some vagueness or ambiguity persists. AICOA’s architects have deliberately obscured their intentions in order to cobble together enough supporters to get the bill across the finish line.

The one thing that all AICOA supporters can agree on is that they deserve credit for “doing something” about Big Tech. If the law is construed in a way they disfavor, they can always act shocked and blame rogue courts. That’s shoddy, cynical lawmaking.

Conclusion

So, I respectfully disagree with Professors Scott Morton, Salop, and Dinielli on AICOA. There is no urgent need to pass the bill right now, especially as we are on the cusp of seeing an AICOA-like regime put to the test. The bill’s central liability standard is overly vague, and its plain terms would break popular products and services and thwart future innovation. The United States should equate regulatory leadership with the best, not the most restrictive, policies. And Congress should thoroughly debate and clarify its intentions on content moderation before enacting legislation that could upend the status quo on that important matter.

For all these reasons, Congress should reject AICOA. And for the same reasons, a future in which AICOA is adopted is extremely unlikely to resemble the Utopian world that Professors Scott Morton, Salop, and Dinielli imagine.

Welcome to the FTC UMC Roundup for June 10, 2022. This is a week of headlines! One would be forgiven for assuming that our focus, once again, would on the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA). I heard on the radio yesterday that it’s champion, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), has the 60 votes it needs to pass, and we are told the vote will be “quite soon.” Yet that is not our headline this week. So it goes in a busy week of news. 

This week’s headline is FTC Chair Lina Khan’s press tour–a clear sign of big things on the horizon. This past week she spoke with the AP, Axios, CNN, The Hill, Politico, Protocol, New York Times, Vox, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, and probably more. Almost a year to the day into her term as Chair, it seems she may have something to say? Yes: “There are [sic] a whole set of major policy initiatives that we have underway that we’re expecting will come to fruition over this next year.” 

The Chair’s press tour consistently struck several chords. She emphasized three priorities: merger guidelines and enforcement, regulating non-compete compete agreements, and privacy and security. In several interviews she discussed the use of both enforcement and rulemaking. It seems clear that a proposal for rules targeting non-compete agreements using the FTC’s unfair methods of competition (UMC) authority is imminent. It also seems likely that these rules will be modest. In several of the interviews Khan emphasized proceeding cautiously with respect to process. This speaks to one of the questions everyone has been asking: will Khan approach UMC rulemaking slowly, using modest initial rules to lay the groundwork to support more ambitious future rules but risking the clock on her term as Chair running out before much can be accomplished–or will she instead take a more aggressive approach, for instance by pushing ahead with a slate of proposed rules right out of the gate. We seem to have at least an initial answer: she hopes slow and steady will in the race.

Slow and steady doesn’t mean not aggressive. Khan’s interviews clearly suggest more aggressive merger enforcement moving forward–including potential challenges to mergers that have cleared the HSR review period. While not new news, Khan also made clear her preference to block transactions outright instead of allowing firms to cure potentially problematic parts of proposed deals. And she also discussed potential rulemaking relating to mergers. Perhaps most noteworthy was her discussion of “user privacy and commercial surveillance” in several interviews–including some in which it was unclear whether these concerns sounded in consumer protection or competition. The inclusion of “commercial surveillance” suggests a broader focus than traditional privacy concerns–perhaps including business models or competition in the advertising space.

Another theme was Khan’s blurred distinction between merely enforcing existing law and transforming the FTC. Her view is probably best described as neither and both: technology has transformed the economy and the FTC’s existing law is flexible enough to adapt to those changes. That, surely, will frame the central questions–likely to ultimately be answered by the courts–as the FTC charts a course across this sea of change: whether Congress empowered the FTC to regulate wherever the market took it and, if so, whether such power is too broad for Congress to have given to an agency.

That brings us to Congress. AICOA’s uncertain future remains uncertain. We can say with certainty that the bill has entered the proxy war phase. Supporters of the bill, having already played the “exclude favored industries from the bill” hand, are now targeting leadership directly. And industry still covered by the bill–if you can call a small number of individual firms an industry–is pulling out the lobbying stops, including getting the message out directly to consumers

If AICOA is to pass, it will do so upon a fragile coalition–at least 10 Republicans will need to cross party lines to support the legislation. Several Republicans seem poised to support the bill today, but will that be true tomorrow? Conservative voices including the Wall Street Journal are urging them not to. Not-so-conservative voices like Mike Masnick also raise concerns about the strange bedfellows needed to make the AICOA dream real. Both sides make the same point: Republican support for the bill comes from a belief that the bill addresses Republican concerns about censorship by BigTech. The Wall Street Journal argues that states are already addressing censorship concerns through narrower legislation that doesn’t risk the harm to innovation that AICOA could bring; Masnick warns Democrats that the Republican belief that AICOA could worsen the content moderation landscape is non-frivolous. 

With Republican support for the bill built on so soft a foundation–clearly not based on antitrust concerns–it is quite possible for it to shift quickly. Indeed, one wonders whether this fragile bipartisan coalition will survive the January 6th Committee hearings started this week.

Some quick hits before we leave. This was a busy week for the FTC in healthcare. Continuing its focus on PBMs in recent weeks, the FTC has now opened a probe of PBMs. And the Commission has sued to block multiple hospital mergers in New Jersey and Utah. There were several reminders that Elon Musk’s proposed acquisition of Twitter has passed the HSR’s review period without challenge–perhaps someone should remind reporters on the Elon beat that that won’t prevent the FTC from challenging the merger? And in case anyone is wondering whether a settlement is on the table for Facebook, Khan has made clear that the FTC will gladly settle with Facebook–Facebook just needs to accept all the FTC’s terms.  

A closing note: If you’re reading this on a lazy Friday afternoon in June and could use a good listen during lunch or on the commute home, you could do worse than listening to Richard Pierce, professor and Administrative Law guru, discuss whether administrative law allows the FTC to use rulemaking to change antitrust law.  

The FTC UMC Roundup, part of the Truth on the Market FTC UMC Symposium, is a weekly roundup of news relating to the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust and Unfair Methods of Competition authority. If you would like to receive this and other posts relating to these topics, subscribe to the RSS feed here. If you have news items you would like to suggest for inclusion, please mail them to us at ghurwitz@laweconcenter.org and/or kfierro@laweconcenter.org.

 

Welcome to the FTC UMC Roundup for June 3, 2023–Memorial Day week. The holiday meant we had a short week, but we still have plenty of news to share. It also means we’re now in meteorological summer, a reminder that the sands of legislative time run quickly through the hourglass. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that things continue to heat up on the legislative front, from antitrust to privacy and even some saber-rattling on remedies. Plus a fair bit of traditional-feeling action coming out of the FTC. Let’s jump in

At the Top

This week’s headline isn’t quite UMC- or even antitrust-related, but it’s headline-worthy nonetheless: after 14 years as COO of Facebook/Meta, Sheryl Sandberg has decided it’s time to lean her way out of the role. There aren’t obvious lines to read between with this departure–but it nonetheless marks a significant change to the organization and comes at a challenging time for the organization.

On the Hill

Turning to Congress, our first topic is Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) continued efforts to wrangle up enough support for the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA). The hold-up appears to be on the Democrat’s side of the aisle. Republican co-sponsor of the bill, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), says of Democratic efforts to rally support that “they don’t think they have the votes.” Also on the topic of AICOA, the International Center for Law and Economics hosted a discussion about the legislation this past week. Lazar Radic offered a recap here, complete with a link to the recording. 

Reuters reports that Big Tech is ramping up efforts against AICOA. A spokesperson for Senator Klobuchar responded to a statement released by Amazon by asking “Who do you trust?” Well, Big Tech over Congress by a 2.5-to-1 margin, with a majority of Americans disfavoring increased regulation of Big Tech. The “who do you trust” question was actually focusing on concerns that some small businesses have shared about Amazon. How would AICOA affect small business? Geoff Manne weighs in, discussing the harm that AICOA could bring to the startup and venture capital markets.

AICOA isn’t the only bill making the rounds this week. A bipartisan privacy bill came out of left field, which is also where it seems likely to stay, with Sen. Brain Schatz (D-Hawaii) sending a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee “begging them to pump the brakes” on the bill. What’s the concern? Well, the bill is a compromise–one side agreed to preempt state privacy legislation in exchange for getting a private right of action. Sen. Schatz, likely along with many others, isn’t willing to lose existing state legislation. The bill is likely DOA in this Congress; probably even more DOA post-2022. 

Other legislative news includes another bipartisan bill that would streamline permitting for certain tech industries. Ultimately proposed in the interest of supply-chain resilience and on-shoring critical industries, this seems to set the stage for future “left hand vs. right hand” industrial policy. (D-Georgia) has 

At the Agencies

While most of this week’s news has been focused on Congress, the FTC and DOJ have been busy as well. Bloomberg reports on the increased attention the FTC is giving to Amazon, including some details about how resources allocated to the investigation have changed and that John Newman is leading the charge within the agency. And there are rumblings that the FTC could still challenge the Amazon-MGM deal, even post-closing. 

DOJ and the FTC have announced a June 14/15 workshop “to explore new approaches to enforcing the antitrust laws in the pharmaceutical industry.” Despite the curious phrasing (there aren’t that many ways to enforce a law!) this event could provide insight into the FTC’s thinking about potential UMC rulemaking. 

Binyamin Applebaum has an interesting NY Times opinion piece arguing that President Biden needs to appoint more judges with antitrust expertise to the bench. The lack of antitrust and regulatory expertise among Biden’s appointees to date is notable. Of course, Applebaum likely has a different sort of “antitrust expertise” in mind than most antitrust experts do. As Brian Albrecht writes in his own National Review op-ed, “Antitrust is Easy (When you Think You Know All the Answers).”

The “we need more judges” argument juxtaposes with AAG Kanter’s recent comments that he wants to bring cases, lots and lots of cases. “If we don’t go to court, then we’re regulators, not enforcers,” he recently commented at a University of Chicago conference. That is his approach to “the need to update and adapt our antitrust enforcement to address new market realities.” It remains to be seen how the courts will respond. Regardless, it is refreshing to see a preference for the antitrust laws to be enforced through the Article III courts.

Closing Notes

If you’re looking for some distraction on your commute home, we have two recommendations this week. The top choice is the Tech Policy Podcast discussion with FTC Commissioner Noah Phillips. And when you’re done with that, Mark Jamison will point you to an AEI discussion with Howard Beales, former FTC Chair Tim Muris, and former FTC Commissioner and Acting Chair Maureen K. Ohlhausen.

The FTC UMC Roundup, part of the Truth on the Market FTC UMC Symposium, is a weekly roundup of news relating to the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust and Unfair Methods of Competition authority. If you would like to receive this and other posts relating to these topics, subscribe to the RSS feed here. If you have news items you would like to suggest for inclusion, please mail them to us at ghurwitz@laweconcenter.org and/or kfierro@laweconcenter.org.

We will learn more in the coming weeks about the fate of the proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), legislation sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that would, among other things, prohibit “self-preferencing” by large digital platforms like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. But while the bill has already been subject to significant scrutiny, a crucially important topic has been absent from that debate: the measure’s likely effect on startup acquisitions. 

Of course, AICOA doesn’t directly restrict startup acquisitions, but the activities it would restrict most certainly do dramatically affect the incentives that drive many startup acquisitions. If a platform is prohibited from engaging in cross-platform integration of acquired technologies, or if it can’t monetize its purchase by prioritizing its own technology, it may lose the motivation to make a purchase in the first place.

This would be a significant loss. As Dirk Auer, Sam Bowman, and I discuss in a recent article in the Missouri Law Review, acquisitions are arguably the most important component in providing vitality to the overall venture ecosystem:  

Startups generally have two methods for achieving liquidity for their shareholders: IPOs or acquisitions. According to the latest data from Orrick and Crunchbase, between 2010 and 2018 there were 21,844 acquisitions of tech startups for a total deal value of $1.193 trillion. By comparison, according to data compiled by Jay R. Ritter, a professor at the University of Florida, there were 331 tech IPOs for a total market capitalization of $649.6 billion over the same period. As venture capitalist Scott Kupor said in his testimony during the FTC’s hearings on “Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century,” “these large players play a significant role as acquirers of venture-backed startup companies, which is an important part of the overall health of the venture ecosystem.”

Moreover, acquisitions by large incumbents are known to provide a crucial channel for liquidity in the venture capital and startup communities: While at one time the source of the “liquidity events” required to yield sufficient returns to fuel venture capital was evenly divided between IPOs and mergers, “[t]oday that math is closer to about 80 percent M&A and about 20 percent IPOs—[with important implications for any] potential actions that [antitrust enforcers] might be considering with respect to the large platform players in this industry.” As investor and serial entrepreneur Leonard Speiser said recently, “if the DOJ starts going after tech companies for making acquisitions, venture investors will be much less likely to invest in new startups, thereby reducing competition in a far more harmful way.” (emphasis added)

Going after self-preferencing may have exactly the same harmful effect on venture investors and competition. 

It’s unclear exactly how the legislation would be applied in any given context (indeed, this uncertainty is one of the most significant problems with the bill, as the ABA Antitrust Section has argued at length). But AICOA is designed, at least in part, to keep large online platforms in their own lanes—to keep them from “leveraging their dominance” to compete against more politically favored competitors in ancillary markets. Indeed, while covered platforms potentially could defend against application of the law by demonstrating that self-preferencing is necessary to “maintain or substantially enhance the core functionality” of the service, no such defense exists for non-core (whatever that means…) functionality, the enhancement of which through self-preferencing is strictly off limits under AICOA.

As I have written (and so have many, many, many, many others), this is terrible policy on its face. But it is also likely to have significant, adverse, indirect consequences for startup acquisitions, given the enormous number of such acquisitions that are outside the covered platforms’ “core functionality.” 

Just take a quick look at a sample of the largest acquisitions made by Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Alphabet, for example. (These are screenshots of the first several acquisitions by size drawn from imperfect lists collected by Wikipedia, but for purposes of casual empiricism they are well-suited to give an idea of the diversity of acquisitions at issue):

Apple:

Microsoft:

Amazon:

Alphabet (Google):

Vanishingly few of these acquisitions go to the “core functionalities” of these platforms. Alphabet’s acquisitions, for example, involve (among many other things) cybersecurity; home automation; cloud computing; wearables, smart glasses, and AR hardware; GPS navigation software; communications security; satellite technology; and social gaming. Microsoft’s acquisitions include companies specializing in video games; social networking; software versioning; drawing software; cable television; cybersecurity; employee engagement; and e-commerce. The technologies and applications involved in acquisitions by Apple and Amazon are similarly varied.

Drilling down a bit, consider the companies Alphabet acquired and put to use in the service of Google Maps:

Which, if any, of these companies would Google have purchased if it knew it would be unable to prioritize Maps in its search results? Would Google have invested more than $1 billion in these companies—and likely significantly more in internal R&D to develop Maps—if it had to speculate whether it would be required (or even be able) to prove someday in the future that prioritizing Google Maps results would enhance its core functionality?

What about Xbox? As noted, AICOA’s terms aren’t perfectly clear, so I’m not certain it would apply to Xbox (is Xbox a “website, online or mobile application, operating system, digital assistant, or online service”?). Here are Microsoft’s video-gaming-related purchases:

The vast majority of these (and all of the acquisitions for which Wikipedia has purchase-price information, totaling some $80 billion of investment) involve video games, not the development of hardware or the functionality of the Xbox platform. Would Microsoft have made these investments if it knew it would be prohibited from prioritizing its own games or exclusively using data gleaned through these games to improve its platform? No one can say for certain, but, at the margin, it is absolutely certain that these self-preferencing bills would make such acquisitions less likely.

Perhaps the most obvious—and concerning—example of the problem arises in the context of Google’s Android platform. Google famously gives Android away for free, of course, and makes its operating system significantly open for bespoke use by all comers. In exchange, Google requires that implementers of the Android OS provide some modicum of favoritism to Google’s revenue-generating products, like Search. For all its uncertainty, there is no question that AICOA’s terms would prohibit this self-preferencing. Intentionally or not, it would thus prohibit the way in which Google monetizes Android and thus hopes to recoup some of the—literally—billions of dollars it has invested in the development and maintenance of Android. 

Here are Google’s Android-related acquisitions:

Would Google have bought Android in the first place (to say nothing of subsequent acquisitions and its massive ongoing investment in Android) if it had been foreclosed from adopting its preferred business model to monetize its investment? In the absence of Google bidding for these companies, would they have earned as much from other potential bidders? Would they even have come into existence at all?

Of course, AICOA wouldn’t preclude Google charging device makers for Android and thus raising the price of mobile devices. But that mechanism may not have been sufficient to support Google’s investment in Android, and it would certainly constrain its ability to compete. Even if rules like those proposed by AICOA didn’t undermine Google’s initial purchase of and investment in Android, it is manifestly unclear how forcing Google to adopt a business model that increases consumer prices and constrains its ability to compete head-to-head with Apple’s iOS ecosystem would benefit consumers. (This excellent series of posts—1, 2, 3, 4—by Dirk Auer on the European Commission’s misguided Android decision discusses in detail the significant costs of prohibiting self-preferencing on Android.)

There are innumerable further examples, as well. In all of these cases, it seems clear not only that an AICOA-like regime would diminish competition and reduce consumer welfare across important dimensions, but also that it would impoverish the startup ecosystem more broadly. 

And that may be an even bigger problem. Even if you think, in the abstract, that it would be better for “Big Tech” not to own these startups, there is a real danger that putting that presumption into force would drive down acquisition prices, kill at least some tech-startup exits, and ultimately imperil the initial financing of tech startups. It should go without saying that this would be a troubling outcome. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that AICOA’s proponents have even considered whether the presumed benefits of the bill would be worth this immense cost.

Welcome to the Truth on the Market FTC UMC Roundup for May 27, 2022. This week we have (Hail Mary?) revisions to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) American Innovation and Choice Online Act, initiatives that can’t decide whether they belong in Congress or the Federal Trade Commission, and yet more commentary on inflation and antitrust, along with a twist ending.

This Week’s Headline

Sen. Klobuchar has shared a revised version of her proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act. What’s different? Not much. The main change is that several industries—banks and telecom, notably—are excluded from coverage. That was probably an effort to win some Republican votes for the bill. But headed into the midterms. it appears some congressional Democrats view this more as a poison pill than a good bill—one they don’t think their constituents are willing to swallow.

Back at the FTC, the commission has announced that it will investigate the recent shortage of infant formula. This could focus on both consumer protection and competition issues. The market for infant formula in the United States is both fairly concentrated and also highly regulated. There are lots of interesting issues here (reminder to any academics reading this, we have an open call for papers for research relating to market-structuring regulation). 

The blurry line between FTC and Congress remains blurry. The FTC’s call for comments relating to pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) closed this week, with more than 500 comments, at the same time that bipartisan legislation relating to PBMs has been introduced. And Sens. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) want the FTC to investigate price fixing in the beef industry.

Concentrating a bit on big-picture policy issues, the number of friends Larry Summers has in the White House is shrinking faster than the dollar, as he worries about the embrace of “hipster antitrust,” including that the administration’s antitrust policy is driving inflation. On the other side of the inflation-antitrust ledger, economists at the Boston Federal Reserve Bank released a paper arguing that high concentration increases inflation. Among others, ICLE Chief Economist Brian Albrecht calls foul. Still on the inflation beat, it’s no secret that the biggest tech companies hold a lot of cash. Some may wonder, with the cost of holding cash so high, is a buying spree on the horizon? (Answer: not if the FTC keeps holding up mergers!)

A Few Quick Hits

Former FTC Commissioner Josh Wright and former commission staffer Derek Moore reflect on FTC morale. And Howard Beales and former FTC Chair Tim Muris wonder whether the “national nanny” is back on the beat.

It’s consumer protection, not antitrust, news but Twitter has been hit with a $150 million fine for doing bad stuff with user data between 2013 and 2019. Perhaps DuckDuckGo will be up next for the FTC. It turns out that the browser built on promises that it doesn’t track you has a deal with Microsoft to let Microsoft track you. That gives us an excuse to mention the FTC’s call for presentations for PrivacyCon 2022.

In international news, the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority has opened a second investigation into Google’s AdTech practices. And Shane Tewes of the American Enterprise Institute has a nice discussion with Peter Brown from the European Paliament’s liaison office about American versus European approaches to technology policy.

We close with a twist ending: One of the concerns that critics of the FTC’s newfound embrace of its UMC authority have is that expansive vague authority given to regulators enables a flabby useless government that is paradoxically too powerful. Which is why it’s interesting to see Matt Stoller of the American Economic Liberties Project, of all people, express that concern. Strange bedfellows indeed!

The FTC UMC Roundup, part of the Truth on the Market FTC UMC Symposium, is a weekly roundup of news relating to the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust and Unfair Methods of Competition authority. If you would like to receive this and other posts relating to these topics, subscribe to the RSS feed here. If you have news items you would like to suggest for inclusion, please mail them to us at ghurwitz@laweconcenter.org and/or kfierro@laweconcenter.org.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)—cosponsors of the American Innovation Online and Choice Act, which seeks to “rein in” tech companies like Apple, Google, Meta, and Amazon—contend that “everyone acknowledges the problems posed by dominant online platforms.”

In their framing, it is simply an acknowledged fact that U.S. antitrust law has not kept pace with developments in the digital sector, allowing a handful of Big Tech firms to exploit consumers and foreclose competitors from the market. To address the issue, the senators’ bill would bar “covered platforms” from engaging in a raft of conduct, including self-preferencing, tying, and limiting interoperability with competitors’ products.

That’s what makes the open letter to Congress published late last month by the usually staid American Bar Association’s (ABA) Antitrust Law Section so eye-opening. The letter is nothing short of a searing critique of the legislation, which the section finds to be poorly written, vague, and departing from established antitrust-law principles.

The ABA, of course, has a reputation as an independent, highly professional, and heterogenous group. The antitrust section’s membership includes not only in-house corporate counsel, but lawyers from nonprofits, consulting firms, federal and state agencies, judges, and legal academics. Given this context, the comments must be read as a high-level judgment that recent legislative and regulatory efforts to “discipline” tech fall outside the legal mainstream and would come at the cost of established antitrust principles, legal precedent, transparency, sound economic analysis, and ultimately consumer welfare.

The Antitrust Section’s Comments

As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes:

The Section has long supported the evolution of antitrust law to keep pace with evolving circumstances, economic theory, and empirical evidence. Here, however, the Section is concerned that the Bill, as written, departs in some respects from accepted principles of competition law and in so doing risks causing unpredicted and unintended consequences.

Broadly speaking, the section’s criticisms fall into two interrelated categories. The first relates to deviations from antitrust orthodoxy and the principles that guide enforcement. The second is a critique of the AICOA’s overly broad language and ambiguous terminology.

Departing from established antitrust-law principles

Substantively, the overarching concern expressed by the ABA Antitrust Law Section is that AICOA departs from the traditional role of antitrust law, which is to protect the competitive process, rather than choosing to favor some competitors at the expense of others. Indeed, the section’s open letter observes that, out of the 10 categories of prohibited conduct spelled out in the legislation, only three require a “material harm to competition.”

Take, for instance, the prohibition on “discriminatory” conduct. As it stands, the bill’s language does not require a showing of harm to the competitive process. It instead appears to enshrine a freestanding prohibition of discrimination. The bill targets tying practices that are already prohibited by U.S. antitrust law, but while similarly eschewing the traditional required showings of market power and harm to the competitive process. The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for “self-preferencing” and the “unfair” treatment of competitors.

The problem, the section’s letter to Congress argues, is not only that this increases the teleological chasm between AICOA and the overarching goals and principles of antitrust law, but that it can also easily lead to harmful unintended consequences. For instance, as the ABA Antitrust Law Section previously observed in comments to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, a prohibition of pricing discrimination can limit the extent of discounting generally. Similarly, self-preferencing conduct on a platform can be welfare-enhancing, while forced interoperability—which is also contemplated by AICOA—can increase prices for consumers and dampen incentives to innovate. Furthermore, some of these blanket prohibitions are arguably at loggerheads with established antitrust doctrine, such as in, e.g., Trinko, which established that even monopolists are generally free to decide with whom they will deal.

Arguably, the reason why the Klobuchar-Grassley bill can so seamlessly exclude or redraw such a central element of antitrust law as competitive harm is because it deliberately chooses to ignore another, preceding one. Namely, the bill omits market power as a requirement for a finding of infringement or for the legislation’s equally crucial designation as a “covered platform.” It instead prescribes size metrics—number of users, market capitalization—to define which platforms are subject to intervention. Such definitions cast an overly wide net that can potentially capture consumer-facing conduct that doesn’t have the potential to harm competition at all.

It is precisely for this reason that existing antitrust laws are tethered to market power—i.e., because it long has been recognized that only companies with market power can harm competition. As John B. Kirkwood of Seattle University School of Law has written:

Market power’s pivotal role is clear…This concept is central to antitrust because it distinguishes firms that can harm competition and consumers from those that cannot.

In response to the above, the ABA Antitrust Law Section (reasonably) urges Congress explicitly to require an effects-based showing of harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for all 10 of the infringements contemplated in the AICOA. This also means disclaiming generalized prohibitions of “discrimination” and of “unfairness” and replacing blanket prohibitions (such as the one for self-preferencing) with measured case-by-case analysis.

Opaque language for opaque ideas

Another underlying issue is that the Klobuchar-Grassley bill is shot through with indeterminate language and fuzzy concepts that have no clear limiting principles. For instance, in order either to establish liability or to mount a successful defense to an alleged violation, the bill relies heavily on inherently amorphous terms such as “fairness,” “preferencing,” and “materiality,” or the “intrinsic” value of a product. But as the ABA Antitrust Law Section letter rightly observes, these concepts are not defined in the bill, nor by existing antitrust case law. As such, they inject variability and indeterminacy into how the legislation would be administered.

Moreover, it is also unclear how some incommensurable concepts will be weighed against each other. For example, how would concerns about safety and security be weighed against prohibitions on self-preferencing or requirements for interoperability? What is a “core function” and when would the law determine it has been sufficiently “enhanced” or “maintained”—requirements the law sets out to exempt certain otherwise prohibited behavior? The lack of linguistic and conceptual clarity not only explodes legal certainty, but also invites judicial second-guessing into the operation of business decisions, something against which the U.S. Supreme Court has long warned.

Finally, the bill’s choice of language and recent amendments to its terminology seem to confirm the dynamic discussed in the previous section. Most notably, the latest version of AICOA replaces earlier language invoking “harm to the competitive process” with “material harm to competition.” As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes, this “suggests a shift away from protecting the competitive process towards protecting individual competitors.” Indeed, “material harm to competition” deviates from established categories such as “undue restraint of trade” or “substantial lessening of competition,” which have a clear focus on the competitive process. As a result, it is not unreasonable to expect that the new terminology might be interpreted as meaning that the actionable standard is material harm to competitors.

In its letter, the antitrust section urges Congress not only to define more clearly the novel terminology used in the bill, but also to do so in a manner consistent with existing antitrust law. Indeed:

The Section further recommends that these definitions direct attention to analysis consistent with antitrust principles: effects-based inquiries concerned with harm to the competitive process, not merely harm to particular competitors

Conclusion

The AICOA is a poorly written, misguided, and rushed piece of regulation that contravenes both basic antitrust-law principles and mainstream economic insights in the pursuit of a pre-established populist political goal: punishing the success of tech companies. If left uncorrected by Congress, these mistakes could have potentially far-reaching consequences for innovation in digital markets and for consumer welfare. They could also set antitrust law on a regressive course back toward a policy of picking winners and losers.