Archives For antitrust

The U.S. Supreme Court’s just-published unanimous decision in AMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC—holding that Section 13(b) of the Federal Trade Commission Act does not authorize the commission to obtain court-ordered equitable monetary relief (such as restitution or disgorgement)—is not surprising. Moreover, by dissipating the cloud of litigation uncertainty that has surrounded the FTC’s recent efforts to seek such relief, the court cleared the way for consideration of targeted congressional legislation to address the issue.

But what should such legislation provide? After briefly summarizing the court’s holding, I will turn to the appropriate standards for optimal FTC consumer redress actions, which inform a welfare-enhancing legislative fix.

The Court’s Opinion

Justice Stephen Breyer’s opinion for the court is straightforward, centering on the structure and history of the FTC Act. Section 13(b) makes no direct reference to monetary relief. Its plain language merely authorizes the FTC to seek a “permanent injunction” in federal court against “any person, partnership, or corporation” that it believes “is violating, or is about to violate, any provision of law” that the commission enforces. In addition, by its terms, Section 13(b) is forward-looking, focusing on relief that is prospective, not retrospective (this cuts against the argument that payments for prior harm may be recouped from wrongdoers).

Furthermore, the FTC Act provisions that specifically authorize conditioned and limited forms of monetary relief (Section 5(l) and Section 19) are in the context of commission cease and desist orders, involving FTC administrative proceedings, unlike Section 13(b) actions that avoid the administrative route. In sum, the court concludes that:

[T]o read §13(b) to mean what it says, as authorizing injunctive but not monetary relief, produces a coherent enforcement scheme: The Commission may obtain monetary relief by first invoking its administrative procedures and then §19’s redress provisions (which include limitations). And the Commission may use §13(b) to obtain injunctive relief while administrative proceedings are foreseen or in progress, or when it seeks only injunctive relief. By contrast, the Commission’s broad reading would allow it to use §13(b) as a substitute for §5 and §19. For the reasons we have just stated, that could not have been Congress’ intent.

The court’s opinion concludes by succinctly rejecting the FTC’s arguments to the contrary.

What Comes Next

The Supreme Court’s decision has been anticipated by informed observers. All four sitting FTC Commissioners have already called for a Section 13(b) “legislative fix,” and in an April 20 hearing of Senate Commerce Committee, Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) emphasized that, “[w]e have to do everything we can to protect this authority and, if necessary, pass new legislation to do so.”

What, however, should be the contours of such legislation? In considering alternative statutory rules, legislators should keep in mind not only the possible consumer benefits of monetary relief, but the costs of error, as well. Error costs are a ubiquitous element of public law enforcement, and this is particularly true in the case of FTC actions. Ideally, enforcers should seek to minimize the sum of the costs attributable to false positives (type I error), false negatives (type II error), administrative costs, and disincentive costs imposed on third parties, which may also be viewed as a subset of false positives. (See my 2014 piece “A Cost-Benefit Framework for Antitrust Enforcement Policy.”

Monetary relief is most appropriate in cases where error costs are minimal, and the quantum of harm is relatively easy to measure. This suggests a spectrum of FTC enforcement actions that may be candidates for monetary relief. Ideally, selection of targets for FTC consumer redress actions should be calibrated to yield the highest return to scarce enforcement resources, with an eye to optimal enforcement criteria.

Consider consumer protection enforcement. The strongest cases involve hardcore consumer fraud (where fraudulent purpose is clear and error is almost nil); they best satisfy accuracy in measurement and error-cost criteria. Next along the spectrum are cases of non-fraudulent but unfair or deceptive acts or practices that potentially involve some degree of error. In this category, situations involving easily measurable consumer losses (e.g., systematic failure to deliver particular goods requested or poor quality control yielding shipments of ruined goods) would appear to be the best candidates for monetary relief.

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

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

For example, consider assigning a consumer welfare loss number to a patent antitrust settlement that may or may not have delayed entry of a generic drug by some length of time (depending upon the strength of the patent) or to a decision by a drug company to modify a drug slightly just before patent expiration in order to obtain a new patent period (raising questions of valuing potential product improvements). These and other examples suggest that only rarely should the FTC pursue requests for disgorgement or restitution in antitrust cases, if error-cost-centric enforcement criteria are to be honored.

Unfortunately, the FTC currently has nothing to say about when it will seek monetary relief in antitrust matters. Commendably, in 2003, the commission issued a Policy Statement on Monetary Equitable Remedies in Competition Cases specifying that it would only seek monetary relief in “exceptional cases” involving a “[c]lear [v]iolation” of the antitrust laws. Regrettably, in 2012, a majority of the FTC (with Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen dissenting) withdrew that policy statement and the limitations it imposed. As I concluded in a 2012 article:

This action, which was taken without the benefit of advance notice and public comment, raises troubling questions. By increasing business uncertainty, the withdrawal may substantially chill efficient business practices that are not well understood by enforcers. In addition, it raises the specter of substantial error costs in the FTC’s pursuit of monetary sanctions. In short, it appears to represent a move away from, rather than towards, an economically enlightened antitrust enforcement policy.

In a 2013 speech, then-FTC Commissioner Josh Wright also lamented the withdrawal of the 2003 Statement, and stated that he would limit:

… the FTC’s ability to pursue disgorgement only against naked price fixing agreements among competitors or, in the case of single firm conduct, only if the monopolist’s conduct has no plausible efficiency justification. This latter category would include fraudulent or deceptive conduct, or tortious activity such as burning down a competitor’s plant.

As a practical matter, the FTC does not bring cases of this sort. The DOJ brings naked price-fixing cases and the unilateral conduct cases noted are as scarce as unicorns. Given that fact, Wright’s recommendation may rightly be seen as a rejection of monetary relief in FTC antitrust cases. Based on the previously discussed serious error-cost and measurement problems associated with monetary remedies in FTC antitrust cases, one may also conclude that the Wright approach is right on the money.

Finally, a recent article by former FTC Chairman Tim Muris, Howard Beales, and Benjamin Mundel opined that Section 13(b) should be construed to “limit[] the FTC’s ability to obtain monetary relief to conduct that a reasonable person would know was dishonest or fraudulent.” Although such a statutory reading is now precluded by the Supreme Court’s decision, its incorporation in a new statutory “fix” would appear ideal. It would allow for consumer redress in appropriate cases, while avoiding the likely net welfare losses arising from a more expansive approach to monetary remedies.

 Conclusion

The AMG Capital decision is sure to generate legislative proposals to restore the FTC’s ability to secure monetary relief in federal court. If Congress adopts a cost-beneficial error-cost framework in shaping targeted legislation, it should limit FTC monetary relief authority (recoupment and disgorgement) to situations of consumer fraud or dishonesty arising under the FTC’s authority to pursue unfair or deceptive acts or practices. Giving the FTC carte blanche to obtain financial recoveries in the full spectrum of antitrust and consumer protection cases would spawn uncertainty and could chill a great deal of innovative business behavior, to the ultimate detriment of consumer welfare.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The report thus asserts that:

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

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

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

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

Decisions Under Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Erroneous Predictions in Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The FTC Lawyers’ Weak Case for Prosecuting Google

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

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

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

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

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

Moreover, as Ben Thompson argues in his Stratechery newsletter: 

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

This difficulty was deftly highlighted by Heyer’s memo:

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

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

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

Google’s ‘revenue-sharing’ agreements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-preferencing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competitor Harm Is Not an Indicator of the Need for Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antitrust by Fiat

Jonathan M. Barnett —  23 February 2021

The Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act (CALERA), recently introduced in the U.S. Senate, exhibits a remarkable willingness to cast aside decades of evidentiary standards that courts have developed to uphold the rule of law by precluding factually and economically ungrounded applications of antitrust law. Without those safeguards, antitrust enforcement is prone to be driven by a combination of prosecutorial and judicial fiat. That would place at risk the free play of competitive forces that the antitrust laws are designed to protect.

Antitrust law inherently lends itself to the risk of erroneous interpretations of ambiguous evidence. Outside clear cases of interfirm collusion, virtually all conduct that might appear anti-competitive might just as easily be proven, after significant factual inquiry, to be pro-competitive. This fundamental risk of a false diagnosis has guided antitrust case law and regulatory policy since at least the Supreme Court’s landmark Continental Television v. GTE Sylvania decision in 1977 and arguably earlier. Judicial and regulatory efforts to mitigate this ambiguity, while preserving the deterrent power of the antitrust laws, have resulted in the evidentiary requirements that are targeted by the proposed bill.

Proponents of the legislative “reforms” might argue that modern antitrust case law’s careful avoidance of enforcement error yields excessive caution. To relieve regulators and courts from having to do their homework before disrupting a targeted business and its employees, shareholders, customers and suppliers, the proposed bill empowers plaintiffs to allege and courts to “find” anti-competitive conduct without having to be bound to the reasonably objective metrics upon which courts and regulators have relied for decades. That runs the risk of substituting rhetoric and intuition for fact and analysis as the guiding principles of antitrust enforcement and adjudication.

This dismissal of even a rudimentary commitment to rule-of-law principles is illustrated by two dramatic departures from existing case law in the proposed bill. Each constitutes a largely unrestrained “blank check” for regulatory and judicial overreach.

Blank Check #1

The bill includes a broad prohibition on “exclusionary” conduct, which is defined to include any conduct that “materially disadvantages 1 or more actual or potential competitors” and “presents an appreciable risk of harming competition.” That amorphous language arguably enables litigants to target a firm that offers consumers lower prices but “disadvantages” less efficient competitors that cannot match that price.

In fact, the proposed legislation specifically facilitates this litigation strategy by relieving predatory pricing claims from having to show that pricing is below cost or likely to result ultimately in profits for the defendant. While the bill permits a defendant to escape liability by showing sufficiently countervailing “procompetitive benefits,” the onus rests on the defendant to show otherwise. This burden-shifting strategy encourages lagging firms to shift competition from the marketplace to the courthouse.

Blank Check #2

The bill then removes another evidentiary safeguard by relieving plaintiffs from always having to define a relevant market. Rather, it may be sufficient to show that the contested practice gives rise to an “appreciable risk of harming competition … based on the totality of the circumstances.” It is hard to miss the high degree of subjectivity in this standard.

This ambiguous threshold runs counter to antitrust principles that require a credible showing of market power in virtually all cases except horizontal collusion. Those principles make perfect sense. Market power is the gateway concept that enables courts to distinguish between claims that plausibly target alleged harms to competition and those that do not. Without a well-defined market, it is difficult to know whether a particular practice reflects market power or market competition. Removing the market power requirement can remove any meaningful grounds on which a defendant could avoid a nuisance lawsuit or contest or appeal a conclusory allegation or finding of anticompetitive conduct.

Anti-Market Antitrust

The bill’s transparently outcome-driven approach is likely to give rise to a cloud of liability that penalizes businesses that benefit consumers through price and quality combinations that competitors cannot replicate. This obviously runs directly counter to the purpose of the antitrust laws. Certainly, winners can and sometimes do entrench themselves through potentially anticompetitive practices that should be closely scrutinized. However, the proposed legislation seems to reflect a presumption that successful businesses usually win by employing illegitimate tactics, rather than simply being the most efficient firm in the market. Under that assumption, competition law becomes a tool for redoing, rather than enabling, competitive outcomes.

While this populist approach may be popular, it is neither economically sound nor consistent with a market-driven economy in which resources are mostly allocated through pricing mechanisms and government intervention is the exception, not the rule. It would appear that some legislators would like to reverse that presumption. Far from being a victory for consumers, that outcome would constitute a resounding loss.

The slew of recent antitrust cases in the digital, tech, and pharmaceutical industries has brought significant attention to the investments many firms in these industries make in “intangibles,” such as software and research and development (R&D).

Intangibles are recognized to have an important effect on a company’s (and the economy’s) performance. For example, Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake (2017) highlight the increasingly large investments companies have been making in things like programming in-house software, organizational structures, and, yes, a firm’s stock of knowledge obtained through R&D. They also note the considerable difficulties associated with valuing both those investments and the outcomes (such as new operational procedures, a new piece of software, or a new patent) of those investments.

This difficulty in valuing intangibles has gone somewhat under the radar until relatively recently. There has been progress in valuing them at the aggregate level (see Ellen R. McGrattan and Edward C. Prescott (2008)) and in examining their effects at the level of individual sectors (see McGrattan (2020)). It remains difficult, however, to ascertain the value of the entire stock of intangibles held by an individual firm.

There is a method to estimate the value of one component of a firm’s stock of intangibles. Specifically, the “stock of knowledge obtained through research and development” is likely to form a large proportion of most firms’ intangibles. Treating R&D as a “stock” might not be the most common way to frame the subject, but it does have an intuitive appeal.

What a firm knows (i.e., its intellectual property) is an input to its production process, just like physical capital. The most direct way for firms to acquire knowledge is to conduct R&D, which adds to its “stock of knowledge,” as represented by its accumulated stock of R&D. In this way, a firm’s accumulated investment in R&D then becomes a stock of R&D that it can use in production of whatever goods and services it wants. Thankfully, there is a relatively straightforward (albeit imperfect) method to measure a firm’s stock of R&D that relies on information obtained from a company’s accounts, along with a few relatively benign assumptions.

This method (set out by Bronwyn Hall (1990, 1993)) uses a firm’s annual expenditures on R&D (a separate line item in most company accounts) in the “perpetual inventory” method to calculate a firm’s stock of R&D in any particular year. This perpetual inventory method is commonly used to estimate a firm’s stock of physical capital, so applying it to obtain an estimate of a firm’s stock of knowledge—i.e., their stock of R&D—should not be controversial.

All this method requires to obtain a firm’s stock of R&D for this year is knowledge of a firm’s R&D stock and its investment in R&D (i.e., its R&D expenditures) last year. This year’s R&D stock is then the sum of those R&D expenditures and its undepreciated R&D stock that is carried forward into this year.

As some R&D expenditure datasets include, for example, wages paid to scientists and research workers, this is not exactly the same as calculating a firm’s physical capital stock, which would only use a firm’s expenditures on physical capital. But given that paying people to perform R&D also adds to a firm’s stock of R&D through the increased knowledge and expertise of their employees, it seems reasonable to include this in a firm’s stock of R&D.

As mentioned previously, this method requires making certain assumptions. In particular, it is necessary to assume a rate of depreciation of the stock of R&D each period. Hall suggests a depreciation of 15% per year (compared to the roughly 7% per year for physical capital), and estimates presented by Hall, along with Wendy Li (2018), suggest that, in some industries, the figure can be as high as 50%, albeit with a wide range across industries.

The other assumption required for this method is an estimate of the firm’s initial level of stock. To see why such an assumption is necessary, suppose that you have data on a firm’s R&D expenditure running from 1990-2016. This means that you can calculate a firm’s stock of R&D for each year once you have their R&D stock in the previous year via the formula above.

When calculating the firm’s R&D stock for 2016, you need to know what their R&D stock was in 2015, while to calculate their R&D stock for 2015 you need to know their R&D stock in 2014, and so on backward until you reach the first year for which you have data: in this, case 1990.

However, working out the firm’s R&D stock in 1990 requires data on the firm’s R&D stock in 1989. The dataset does not contain any information about 1989, nor the firm’s actual stock of R&D in 1990. Hence, it is necessary to make an assumption regarding the firm’s stock of R&D in 1990.

There are several different assumptions one can make regarding this “starting value.” You could assume it is just a very small number. Or you can assume, as per Hall, that it is the firm’s R&D expenditure in 1990 divided by the sum of the R&D depreciation and average growth rates (the latter being taken as 8% per year by Hall). Note that, given the high depreciation rates for the stock of R&D, it turns out that the exact starting value does not matter significantly (particularly in years toward the end of the dataset) if you have a sufficiently long data series. At a 15% depreciation rate, more than 50% of the initial value disappears after five years.

Although there are other methods to measure a firm’s stock of R&D, these tend to provide less information or rely on stronger assumptions than the approach described above does. For example, sometimes a firm’s stock of R&D is measured using a simple count of the number of patents they hold. However, this approach does not take into account the “value” of a patent. Since, by definition, each patent is unique (with differing number of years to run, levels of quality, ability to be challenged or worked around, and so on), it is unlikely to be appropriate to use an “average value of patents sold recently” to value it. At least with the perpetual inventory method described above, a monetary value for a firm’s stock of R&D can be obtained.

The perpetual inventory method also provides a way to calculate market shares of R&D in R&D-intensive industries, which can be used alongside current measures. This would be akin to looking at capacity shares in some manufacturing industries. Of course, using market shares in R&D industries can be fraught with issues, such as whether it is appropriate to use a backward-looking measure to assess competitive constraints in a forward-looking industry. This is why any investigation into such industries should also look, for example, at a firm’s research pipeline.

Naturally, this only provides for the valuation of the R&D stock and says nothing about valuing other intangibles that are likely to play an important role in a much wider range of industries. Nonetheless, this method could provide another means for competition authorities to assess the current and historical state of R&D stocks in industries in which R&D plays an important part. It would be interesting to see what firms’ shares of R&D stocks look like, for example, in the pharmaceutical and tech industries.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge next month to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2020 decision in NCAA v. Alston. Alston affirmed a district court decision that enjoined the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) from enforcing rules that restrict the education-related benefits its member institutions may offer students who play Football Bowl Subdivision football and Division I basketball.

This will be the first Supreme Court review of NCAA practices since NCAA v. Board of Regents in 1984, which applied the antitrust rule of reason in striking down the NCAA’s “artificial limit” on the quantity of televised college football games, but also recognized that “this case involves an industry in which horizontal restraints on competition are essential if the product [intercollegiate athletic contests] is to be available at all.” Significantly, in commenting on the nature of appropriate, competition-enhancing NCAA restrictions, the court in Board of Regents stated that:

[I]n order to preserve the character and quality of the [NCAA] ‘product,’ athletes must not be paid, must be required to attend class, and the like. And the integrity of the ‘product’ cannot be preserved except by mutual agreement; if an institution adopted such restrictions unilaterally, its effectiveness as a competitor on the playing field might soon be destroyed. Thus, the NCAA plays a vital role in enabling college football to preserve its character, and as a result enables a product to be marketed which might otherwise be unavailable. In performing this role, its actions widen consumer choice – not only the choices available to sports fans but also those available to athletes – and hence can be viewed as procompetitive. [footnote citation omitted]

One’s view of the Alston case may be shaped by one’s priors regarding the true nature of the NCAA. Is the NCAA a benevolent Dr. Jekyll, which seeks to promote amateurism and fairness in college sports to the benefit of student athletes and the general public?  Or is its benevolent façade a charade?  Although perhaps a force for good in its early years, has the NCAA transformed itself into an evil Mr. Hyde, using restrictive rules to maintain welfare-inimical monopoly power as a seller cartel of athletic events and a monopsony employer cartel that suppresses athletes’ wages? I will return to this question—and its bearing on the appropriate resolution of this legal dispute—after addressing key contentions by both sides in Alston.

Summarizing the Arguments in NCAA v Alston

The Alston class-action case followed in the wake of the 9th Circuit’s decision in O’Bannon v. NCAA (2015). O’Bannon affirmed in large part a district court’s ruling that the NCAA illegally restrained trade, in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, by preventing football and men’s basketball players from receiving compensation for the use of their names, images, and likenesses. It also affirmed the district court’s injunction insofar as it required the NCAA to implement the less restrictive alternative of permitting athletic scholarships for the full cost of attendance. (I commented approvingly on the 9th Circuit’s decision in a previous TOTM post.) 

Subsequent antitrust actions by student-athletes were consolidated in the district court. After a bench trial, the district court entered judgment for the student-athletes, concluding in part that NCAA limits on education-related benefits were unreasonable restraints of trade. It enjoined those limits but declined to hold that other NCAA limits on compensation unrelated to education likewise violated Section 1.

In May 2020, a 9th Circuit panel held that the district court properly applied the three-step Sherman Act Section 1 rule of reason analysis in determining that the enjoined rules were unlawful restraints of trade.

First, the panel concluded that the student-athletes carried their burden at step one by showing that the restraints produced significant anticompetitive effects within the relevant market for student-athletes’ labor.

At step two, the NCAA was required to come forward with evidence of the restraints’ procompetitive effects. The panel endorsed the district court’s conclusion that only some of the challenged NCAA rules served the procompetitive purpose of preserving amateurism and thus improving consumer choice by maintaining a distinction between college and professional sports. Those rules were limits on above-cost-of-attendance payments unrelated to education, the cost-of-attendance cap on athletic scholarships, and certain restrictions on cash academic or graduation awards and incentives. The panel affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the remaining rules—restricting non-cash education-related benefits—did nothing to foster or preserve consumer demand. The panel held that the record amply supported the findings of the district court, which relied on demand analysis, survey evidence, and NCAA testimony.

The panel also affirmed the district court’s conclusion that, at step three, the student-athletes showed that any legitimate objectives could be achieved in a substantially less restrictive manner. The district court identified a less restrictive alternative of prohibiting the NCAA from capping certain education-related benefits and limiting academic or graduation awards or incentives below the maximum amount that an individual athlete may receive in athletic participation awards, while permitting individual conferences to set limits on education-related benefits. The panel held that the district court did not clearly err in determining that this alternative would be virtually as effective in serving the procompetitive purposes of the NCAA’s current rules and could be implemented without significantly increased cost.

Finally, the panel held that the district court’s injunction was not impermissibly vague and did not usurp the NCAA’s role as the superintendent of college sports. The panel also declined to broaden the injunction to include all NCAA compensation limits, including those on payments untethered to education. The panel concluded that the district court struck the right balance in crafting a remedy that both prevented anticompetitive harm to student-athletes while serving the procompetitive purpose of preserving the popularity of college sports.

The NCAA appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted the NCAA’s petition for certiorari Dec. 16, 2020. The NCAA contends that under Board of Regents, the NCAA rules regarding student-athlete compensation are reasonably related to preserving amateurism in college sports, are procompetitive, and should have been upheld after a short deferential review, rather than the full three-step rule of reason. According to the NCAA’s petition for certiorari, even under the detailed rule of reason, the 9th Circuit’s decision was defective. Specifically:

The Ninth Circuit … relieved plaintiffs of their burden to prove that the challenged rules unreasonably restrain trade, instead placing a “heavy burden” on the NCAA … to prove that each category of its rules is procompetitive and that an alternative compensation regime created by the district court could not preserve the procompetitive distinction between college and professional sports. That alternative regime—under which the NCAA must permit student-athletes to receive unlimited “education-related benefits,” including post-eligibility internships that pay unlimited amounts in cash and can be used for recruiting or retention—will vitiate the distinction between college and professional sports. And via the permanent injunction the Ninth Circuit upheld, the alternative regime will also effectively make a single judge in California the superintendent of a significant component of college sports. The Ninth Circuit’s approval of this judicial micromanagement of the NCAA denies the NCAA the latitude this Court has said it needs, and endorses unduly stringent scrutiny of agreements that define the central features of sports leagues’ and other joint ventures’ products. The decision thus twists the rule of reason into a tool to punish (and thereby deter) procompetitive activity.

Two amicus briefs support the NCAA’s position. One, filed on behalf of “antitrust law and business school professors,” stresses that the 9th Circuit’s decision misapplied the third step of the rule of reason by requiring defendants to show that their conduct was the least restrictive means available (instead of requiring plaintiff to prove the existence of an equally effective but less restrictive rule). More broadly:

[This approach] permits antitrust plaintiffs to commandeer the judiciary and use it to regulate and modify routine business conduct, so long as that conduct is not the least restrictive conduct imaginable by a plaintiff’s attorney or district judge. In turn, the risk that procompetitive ventures may be deemed unlawful and subject to treble damages liability simply because they could have operated in a marginally less restrictive manner is likely to chill beneficial business conduct.

A second brief, filed on behalf of “antitrust economists,” emphasizes that the NCAA has adapted the rules governing design of its product (college amateur sports) over time to meet consumer demand and to prevent colleges from pursuing their own interests (such as “pay to  play”) in ways that would conflict with the overall procompetitive aims of the collaboration. While acknowledging that antitrust courts are free to scrutinize collaborations’ rules that go beyond the design of the product itself (such as the NCAA’s broadcast restrictions), the brief cites key Supreme Court decisions (NCAA v. Board of Regents and Texaco Inc. v. Dagher), for the proposition that courts should stay out of restrictions on the core activity of the joint venture itself. It then summarizes the policy justification for such judicial non-interference:

Permitting judges and juries to apply the Sherman Act to such decisions [regarding core joint venture activity] will inevitably create uncertainty that undermines innovation and investment incentives across any number of industries and collaborative ventures. In these circumstances, antitrust courts would be making public policy regarding the desirability of a product with particular features, as opposed to ferreting out agreements or unilateral conduct that restricts output, raises prices, or reduces innovation to the detriment of consumers.

In their brief opposing certiorari, counsel for Alston take the position that, in reality, the NCAA is seeking a special antitrust exemption for its competitively restrictive conduct—an issue that should be determined by Congress, not courts. Their brief notes that the concept of “amateurism” has changed over the years and that some increases in athletes’ compensation have been allowed over time. Thus, in the context of big-time college football and basketball:

[A]mateurism is little more than a pretext. It is certainly not a Sherman Act concept, much less a get-out-of-jail-free card that insulates any particular set of NCAA restraints from scrutiny.

Who Has the Better Case?

The NCAA’s position is a strong one. Association rules touching on compensation for college athletes are part of the core nature of the NCAA’s “amateur sports” product, as the Supreme Court stated (albeit in dictum) in Board of Regents. Furthermore, subsequent Supreme Court jurisprudence (see 2010’s American Needle Inc. v. NFL) has eschewed second-guessing of joint-venture product design decisions—which, in the case of the NCAA, involve formulating the restrictions (such as whether and how to compensate athletes) that are deemed key to defining amateurism.

The Alston amicus curiae briefs ably set forth the strong policy considerations that support this approach, centered on preserving incentives for the development of efficient welfare-generating joint ventures. Requiring joint venturers to provide “least restrictive means” justifications for design decisions discourages innovative activity and generates costly uncertainty for joint-venture planners, to the detriment of producers and consumers (who benefit from joint-venture innovations) alike. Claims by defendant Alston that the NCAA is in effect seeking to obtain a judicial antitrust exemption miss the mark; rather, the NCAA merely appears to be arguing that antitrust should be limited to evaluating restrictions that fall outside the scope of the association’s core mission. Significantly, as discussed in the NCAA’s brief petitioning for certiorari, other federal courts of appeals decisions in the 3rd, 5th, and 7th Circuits have treated NCAA bylaws going to the definition of amateurism in college sports as presumptively procompetitive and not subject to close scrutiny. Thus, based on the arguments set forth by litigants, a Supreme Court victory for the NCAA in Alston would appear sound as a matter of law and economics.

There may, however, be a catch. Some popular commentary has portrayed the NCAA as a malign organization that benefits affluent universities (and their well-compensated coaches) while allowing member colleges to exploit athletes by denying them fair pay—in effect, an institutional Mr. Hyde.

What’s more, consistent with the Mr. Hyde story, a number of major free-market economists (including, among others, Nobel laureate Gary Becker) have portrayed the NCAA as an anticompetitive monopsony employer cartel that has suppressed the labor market demand for student athletes, thereby limiting their wages, fringe benefits, and employment opportunities. (In a similar vein, the NCAA is seen as a monopolist seller cartel in the market for athletic events.) Consistent with this perspective, promoting the public good of amateurism (the Dr. Jekyll story) is merely a pretextual façade (a cover story, if you will) for welfare-inimical naked cartel conduct. If one buys this alternative story, all core product restrictions adopted by the NCAA should be fair game for close antitrust scrutiny—and thus, the 9th Circuit’s decision in Alston merits affirmation as a matter of antitrust policy.

There is, however, a persuasive response to the cartel story, set forth in Richard McKenzie and Dwight Lee’s essay “The NCAA:  A Case Study of the Misuse of the Monopsony and Monopoly Models” (Chapter 8 of their 2008 book “In Defense of Monopoly:  How Market Power Fosters Creative Production”). McKenzie and Lee examine the evidence bearing on economists’ monopsony cartel assertions (and, in particular, the evidence presented in a 1992 study by Arthur Fleischer, Brian Goff, and Richard Tollison) and find it wanting:

Our analysis leads inexorably to the conclusion that the conventional economic wisdom regarding the intent and consequences of NCAA restrictions is hardly as solid, on conceptual grounds, as the NCAA critics assert, often without citing relevant court cases. We have argued that the conventional wisdom is wrong in suggesting that, as a general proposition,

• college athletes are materially “underpaid” and are “exploited”;

• cheating on NCAA rules is prima facie evidence of a cartel intending to restrict employment and suppress athletes’ wages;

• NCAA rules violate conventional antitrust doctrine;          

• barriers to entry ensure the continuance of the NCAA’s monopsony powers over athletes.

No such entry barriers (other than normal organizational costs, which need to be covered to meet any known efficiency test for new entrants) exist. In addition, the Supreme Court’s decision in NCAA indicates that the NCAA would be unable to prevent through the courts the emergence of competing athletic associations. The actual existence of other athletic associations indicates that entry would be not only possible but also practical if athletes’ wages were materially suppressed.

Conventional economic analysis of NCAA rules that we have challenged also is misleading in suggesting that collegiate sports would necessarily be improved if the NCAA were denied the authority to regulate the payment of athletes. Given the absence of legal barriers to entry into the athletic association market, it appears that if athletes’ wages were materially suppressed (or as grossly suppressed as the critics claim), alternative sports associations would form or expand, and the NCAA would be unable to maintain its presumed monopsony market position. The incentive for colleges and universities to break with the NCAA would be overwhelming.

From our interpretation of NCAA rules, it does not follow necessarily that athletes should not receive any more compensation than they do currently. Clearly, market conditions change, and NCAA rules often must be adjusted to accommodate those changes. In the absence of entry barriers, we can expect the NCAA to adjust, as it has adjusted, in a competitive manner its rules of play, recruitment, and retention of athletes. Our central point is that contrary to the proponents of the monopsony thesis, the collegiate athletic market is subject to the self-correcting mechanism of market pressures. We have reason to believe that the proposed extension of the antitrust enforcement to the NCAA rules or proposed changes in sports law explicitly or implicitly recommended by the proponents of the cartel thesis would be not only unnecessary but also counterproductive.

Although a closer examination of the McKenzie and Lee’s critique of the economists’ cartel story is beyond the scope of this comment, I find it compelling.

Conclusion

In sum, the claim that antitrust may properly be applied to combat the alleged “exploitation” of college athletes by NCAA compensation regulations does not stand up to scrutiny. The NCAA’s rules that define the scope of amateurism may be imperfect, but there is no reason to think that empowering federal judges to second guess and reformulate NCAA athletic compensation rules would yield a more socially beneficial (let alone optimal) outcome. (Believing that the federal judiciary can optimally reengineer core NCAA amateurism rules is a prime example of the Nirvana fallacy at work.)  Furthermore, a Supreme Court decision affirming the 9th Circuit could do broad mischief by undermining case law that has accorded joint venturers substantial latitude to design the core features of their collective enterprise without judicial second-guessing. It is to be hoped that the Supreme Court will do the right thing and strongly reaffirm the NCAA’s authority to design and reformulate its core athletic amateurism product as it sees fit.

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

On October 20, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and eleven states with Republican attorneys general sued Google for monopolizing and attempting to monopolize the markets for general internet search services, search advertising, and “general search text” advertising (i.e., ads that resemble search results).  Last week, California joined the lawsuit, making it a bipartisan affair.

DOJ and the states (collectively, “the government”) allege that Google has used contractual arrangements to expand and cement its dominance in the relevant markets.  In particular, the government complains that Google has agreed to share search ad revenues in exchange for making Google Search the default search engine on various “search access points.” 

Google has entered such agreements with Apple (for search on iPhones and iPads), manufacturers of Android devices and the mobile service carriers that support them, and producers of web browsers.  Google is also pursuing default status on new internet-enabled consumer products, such as voice assistants and “smart” TVs, appliances, and wearables.  In the government’s telling, this all amounts to Google’s sharing of monopoly profits with firms that can ensure its continued monopoly by imposing search defaults that users are unlikely to alter.

There are several obvious weaknesses with the government’s case.  One is that preset internet defaults are super easy to change and, in other contexts, are regularly altered.  For example, while 88% of desktop and laptop computers use the Windows operating system, which defaults to a Microsoft browser (Internet Explorer or Edge), Google’s Chrome browser commands a 69% market share on desktops and laptops, compared to around 13% for Internet Explorer and Edge combined.  Changing a default search engine is as easy as changing a browser default—three simple steps on an iPhone!—and it seems consumers will change defaults they don’t actually prefer.

A second obvious weakness, related to the first, is that the government has alleged no facts suggesting that Google’s search rivals—primarily Bing, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo—would have enjoyed more success but for Google’s purportedly exclusionary agreements.  Even absent default status, people likely would have selected Google Search because it’s the better search engine.  It doesn’t seem the challenged arrangements caused Google’s search dominance.

Admittedly, the standard of causation in monopolization cases (at least those seeking only injunctive relief) is low.  The D.C. Circuit’s Microsoft decision described it as “edentulous” or, less pretentiously, toothless.  Nevertheless, the government is unlikely to prevail in its action against Google—and that’s a good thing.  Below, I highlight the central deficiency in the government’s Google case and point out problems with the government’s challenges to each of Google’s purportedly exclusionary arrangements.   

The Lawsuit’s Overarching Deficiency

We’ve all had the experience of typing a query only to have Google, within a few key strokes, accurately predict what we were going to ask and provide us with exactly the answer we were looking for.  It’s both eerie and awesome, and it keeps us returning to Google time and again.

But it’s not magic.  Nor has Google hacked our brains.  Google is so good at predicting our questions and providing responsive search results because its top-notch algorithms process gazillions of searches and can “learn” from users’ engagement.  Scale is thus essential to Google’s quality. 

The government’s complaint concedes as much.  It acknowledges that “[g]reater scale improves the quality of a general search engine’s algorithms” (¶35) and that “[t]he additional data from scale allows improved automated learning for algorithms to deliver more relevant results, particularly on ‘fresh’ queries (queries seeking recent information), location-based queries (queries asking about something in the searcher’s vicinity), and ‘long-tail’ queries (queries used infrequently)” (¶36). The complaint also asserts that “[t]he most effective way to achieve scale is for the general search engine to be the preset default on mobile devices, computers, and other devices…” (¶38).

Oddly, though, the government chides Google for pursuing “[t]he most effective way” of securing the scale that concededly “improves the quality of a general search engine’s algorithms.”  Google’s efforts to ensure and enhance its own product quality are improper, the government says, because “they deny rivals scale to compete effectively” (¶8).  In the government’s view, Google is legally obligated to forego opportunities to make its own product better so as to give its rivals a chance to improve their own offerings.

This is inconsistent with U.S. antitrust law.  Just as firms are not required to hold their prices high to create a price umbrella for their less efficient rivals, they need not refrain from efforts to improve the quality of their own offerings so as to give their rivals a foothold. 

Antitrust does forbid anticompetitive foreclosure of rivals—i.e., business-usurping arrangements that are not the result of efforts to compete on the merits by reducing cost or enhancing quality.  But firms are, and should be, free to make their products better, even if doing so makes things more difficult for their rivals.  Antitrust, after all, protects competition, not competitors.    

The central deficiency in the government’s case is that it concedes that scale is crucial to search engine quality, but it does not assert that there is a “minimum efficient scale”—i.e., a point at which scale economies are exhausted.  If a firm takes actions to enhance its own scale beyond minimum efficient scale, and if its efforts may hold its rivals below such scale, then it may have engaged in anticompetitive foreclosure.  But a firm that pursues scale that makes its products better is simply competing on the merits.

The government likely did not allege that there is a minimum efficient scale in general internet search services because returns to scale go on indefinitely, or at least for a very long time.  But the absence of such an allegation damns the government’s case against Google, for it implies that Google’s efforts to secure the distribution, and thus the greater use, of its services make those services better.

In this regard, the Microsoft case, which the government points to as a model for its action against Google (¶10), is inapposite.  Inthat case, the government alleged that Microsoft had entered license agreements that foreclosed Netscape, a potential rival, from the best avenues of browser distribution: original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and internet access providers.  The government here similarly alleges that Google has foreclosed rival search engines from the best avenues of search distribution: default settings on mobile devices and web browsers.  But a key difference (in addition to the fact that search defaults are quite easy to change) is that Microsoft’s license restrictions foreclosed Netscape without enhancing the quality of Microsoft’s offerings.  Indeed, the court emphasized that the challenged Microsoft agreements were anticompetitive because they “reduced rival browsers’ usage share not by improving [Microsoft’s] own product but, rather, by preventing OEMs from taking actions that could increase rivals’ share of usage” (emphasis added).  Here, any foreclosure of Google’s search rivals is incidental to Google’s efforts to improve its product by enhancing its scale.

Now, the government might contend that the anticompetitive harms from raising rivals’ distribution costs exceed the procompetitive benefits of enhancing the quality of Google’s search services.  Courts, though, have generally been skeptical of claims that exclusion-causing product enhancements are anticompetitive because they do more harm than good.  There’s a sound reason for this: courts are ill-equipped to weigh the benefits of product enhancements against the costs of competition reductions resulting from product-enhancement efforts.  For that reason, they should—and likely will—stick with the rule that this sort of product-enhancing conduct is competition on the merits, even if it has the incidental effect of raising rivals’ costs.  And if they do so, the government will lose this case.     

Problems with the Government’s Specific Challenges

Agreements with Android OEMs and Wireless Carriers

The government alleges that Google has foreclosed its search rivals from distribution opportunities on the Android platform.  It has done so, the government says, by entering into exclusion-causing agreements with OEMs that produce Android products (Samsung, Motorola, etc.) and with carriers that provide wireless service for Android devices (AT&T, Verizon, etc.).

Android is an open source operating system that is owned by Google and licensed, for free, to producers of mobile internet devices.  Under the terms of the challenged agreements, Google’s counterparties promise not to produce Android “forks”—operating systems that are Android-based but significantly alter or “fragment” the basic platform—in order to get access to proprietary Google apps that Android users typically desire and to certain application protocol interfaces (APIs) that enable various functionalities.  In addition to these “anti-forking agreements,” counterparties enter various “pre-installation agreements” obligating them to install a suite of Google apps that use Google Search as a default.  Installing that suite is a condition for obtaining the right to pre-install Google’s app store (Google Play) and other must-have apps.  Finally, OEMs and carriers enter “revenue sharing agreements” that require the use of Google Search as the sole preset default on a number of search access points in exchange for a percentage of search ad revenue derived from covered devices.  Taken together, the government says, these anti-forking, pre-installation, and revenue-sharing agreements preclude the emergence of Android rivals (from forks) and ensure the continued dominance of Google Search on Android devices.

Eliminating these agreements, though, would likely harm consumers by reducing competition in the market for mobile operating systems.  Within that market, there are two dominant players: Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.  Apple earns money off iOS by selling hardware—iPhones and iPads that are pre-installed with iOS.  Google licenses Android to OEMs for free but then earns advertising revenue off users’ searches (which provide an avenue for search ads) and other activities (which generate user data for better targeted display ads).  Apple and Google thus compete on revenue models.  As Randy Picker has explained, Microsoft tried a third revenue model—licensing a Windows mobile operating system to OEMs for a fee—but it failed.  The continued competition between Apple and Google, though, allows for satisfaction of heterogenous consumer preferences: Apple products are more expensive but more secure (due to Apple’s tight control over software and hardware); Android devices are cheaper (as the operating system is ad-supported) and offer more innovations (as OEMs have more flexibility), but tend to be less secure.  Such variety—a result of business model competition—is good for consumers. 

If the government were to prevail and force Google to end the agreements described above, thereby reducing the advertising revenue Google derives from Android, Google would have to either copy Apple’s vertically integrated model so as to recoup its Android investments through hardware sales, charge OEMs for Android (a la Microsoft), or cut back on its investments in Android.  In each case, consumers would suffer.  The first option would take away an offering preferred by many consumers—indeed most globally, as Android dominates iOS on a worldwide basis.  The second option would replace Google’s business model with one that failed, suggesting that consumers value it less.  The third option would reduce product quality in the market for mobile operating systems. 

In the end, then, the government’s challenge to Google’s Android agreements is myopic and misguided.  Competition among business models, like competition along any dimension, inures to the benefit of consumers.  Precluding it as the government is demanding would be silly.       

Agreements with Browser Producers

Web browsers like Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox are a primary distribution channel for search engines.  The government claims that Google has illicitly foreclosed rival search engines from this avenue of distribution by entering revenue-sharing agreements with the major non-Microsoft browsers (i.e., all but Microsoft’s Edge and Internet Explorer).  Under those agreements, Google shares up to 40% of ad revenues generated from a browser in exchange for being the preset default on both computer and mobile versions of the browser.

Surely there is no problem, though, with search engines paying royalties to web browsers.  That’s how independent browsers like Opera and Firefox make money!  Indeed, 95% of Firefox’s revenue comes from search royalties.  If browsers were precluded from sharing in search engines’ ad revenues, they would have to find an alternative source of financing.  Producers of independent browsers would likely charge license fees, which consumers would probably avoid.  That means the only available browsers would be those affiliated with an operating system (Microsoft’s Edge, Apple’s Safari) or a search engine (Google’s Chrome).  It seems doubtful that reducing the number of viable browsers would benefit consumers.  The law should therefore allow payment of search royalties to browsers.  And if such payments are permitted, a browser will naturally set its default search engine so as to maximize its payout.  

Google’s search rivals can easily compete for default status on a browser by offering a better deal to the browser producer.  In 2014, for example, search engine Yahoo managed to wrest default status on Mozilla’s Firefox away from Google.  The arrangement was to last five years, but in 2017, Mozilla terminated the agreement and returned Google to default status because so many Firefox users were changing the browser’s default search engine from Yahoo to Google.  This historical example undermines the government’s challenges to Google’s browser agreements by showing (1) that other search engines can attain default status by competing, and (2) that defaults aren’t as “sticky” as the government claims—at least, not when the default is set to a search engine other than the one most people prefer.

In short, there’s nothing anticompetitive about Google’s browser agreements, and enjoining such deals would likely injure consumers by reducing competition among browsers.

Agreements with Apple

That brings us to the allegations that have gotten the most attention in the popular press: those concerning Google’s arrangements with Apple.  The complaint alleges that Google pays Apple $8-12 billion a year—a whopping 15-20% of Apple’s net income—for granting Google default search status on iOS devices.  In the government’s telling, Google is agreeing to share a significant portion of its monopoly profits with Apple in exchange for Apple’s assistance in maintaining Google’s search monopoly.

An alternative view, of course, is that Google is just responding to Apple’s power: Apple has assembled a giant installed base of loyal customers and can demand huge payments to favor one search engine over another on its popular mobile devices.  In that telling, Google may be paying Apple to prevent it from making Bing or another search engine the default on Apple’s search access points.

If that’s the case, what Google is doing is both procompetitive and a boon to consumers.  Microsoft could easily outbid Google to have Bing set as the default search engine on Apple’s devices. Microsoft’s market capitalization exceeds that of Google parent Alphabet by about $420 billion ($1.62 trillion versus $1.2 trillion), which is roughly the value of Walmart.  Despite its ability to outbid Google for default status, Microsoft hasn’t done so, perhaps because it realizes that defaults aren’t that sticky when the default service isn’t the one most people prefer.  Microsoft knows that from its experience with Internet Explorer and Edge (which collectively command only around 13% of the desktop browser market even though they’re the defaults on Windows, which has a 88% market share on desktops and laptops), and from its experience with Bing (where “Google” is the number one search term).  Nevertheless, the possibility remains that Microsoft could outbid Google for default status, improve its quality to prevent users from changing the default (or perhaps pay users for sticking with Bing), and thereby take valuable scale from Google, impairing the quality of Google Search.  To prevent that from happening, Google shares with Apple a generous portion of its search ad revenues, which, given the intense competition for mobile device sales, Apple likely passes along to consumers in the form of lower phone and tablet prices.

If the government succeeds in enjoining Google’s payments to Apple for default status, other search engines will presumably be precluded from such arrangements as well.  After all, the “foreclosure” effect of paying for default search status on Apple products is the same regardless of which search engine does the paying, and U.S. antitrust law does not “punish” successful firms by forbidding them from engaging in competitive activities that are open to their rivals. 

Ironically, then, the government’s success in its challenge to Google’s Apple payments would benefit Google at the expense of consumers:  Google would almost certainly remain the default search engine on Apple products, as it is most preferred by consumers and no rival could pay to dislodge it; Google would not have to pay a penny to retain its default status; and Apple would lose revenues that it likely passes along to consumers in the form of lower prices.  The courts are unlikely to countenance this perverse result by ruling that Google’s arrangements with Apple violate the antitrust laws.

Arrangements with Producers of Internet-Enabled “Smart” Devices

The final part of the government’s case against Google starkly highlights a problem that is endemic to the entire lawsuit.  The government claims that Google, having locked up all the traditional avenues of search distribution with the arrangements described above, is now seeking to foreclose search distribution in the new avenues being created by internet-enabled consumer products like wearables (e.g., smart watches), voice assistants, smart TVs, etc.  The alleged monopolistic strategy is similar to those described above: Google will share some of its monopoly profits in exchange for search default status on these smart devices, thereby preventing rival search engines from attaining valuable scale.

It’s easy to see in this context, though, why Google’s arrangements are likely procompetitive.  Unlike web browsers, mobile phones, and tablets, internet-enabled smart devices are novel.  Innovators are just now discovering new ways to embed internet functionality into everyday devices. 

Putting oneself in the position of these innovators helps illuminate a key beneficial aspect of Google’s arrangements:  They create an incentive to develop new and attractive means of distributing search.  Innovators currently at work on internet-enabled devices are no doubt spurred on by the possibility of landing a lucrative distribution agreement with Google or another search engine.  Banning these sorts of arrangements—the consequence of governmental success in this lawsuit—would diminish the incentive to innovate.

But that can be said of every single one of the arrangements the government is challenging. Because of Google’s revenue-sharing with search distributors, each of them has an added incentive to make their distribution channels desirable to consumers.  Android OEMs and Apple will work harder to produce mobile devices that people will want to use for internet searches; browser producers will endeavor to improve their offerings.  By paying producers of search access points a portion of the search ad revenues generated on their platforms, Google motivates them to generate more searches, which they can best do by making their products as attractive as possible. 

At the end of the day, then, the government’s action against Google seeks to condemn conduct that benefits consumers.  Because of the challenged arrangements, Google makes its own search services better, is able to license Android for free, ensures the continued existence of independent web browsers like Firefox and Opera, helps lower the price of iPhones and iPads, and spurs innovators to develop new “Internet of Things” devices that can harness the power of the web. 

The Biden administration would do well to recognize this lawsuit for what it is: a poorly conceived effort to appear to be “doing something” about a Big Tech company that has drawn the ire (for different reasons) of both progressives and conservatives.  DOJ and its state co-plaintiffs should seek dismissal of this action.  

The Federal Trade Commission and 46 state attorneys general (along with the District of Columbia and the Territory of Guam) filed their long-awaited complaints against Facebook Dec. 9. The crux of the arguments in both lawsuits is that Facebook pursued a series of acquisitions over the past decade that aimed to cement its prominent position in the “personal social media networking” market. 

Make no mistake, if successfully prosecuted, these cases would represent one of the most fundamental shifts in antitrust law since passage of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act in 1976. That law required antitrust authorities to be notified of proposed mergers and acquisitions that exceed certain value thresholds, essentially shifting the paradigm for merger enforcement from ex-post to ex-ante review.

While the prevailing paradigm does not explicitly preclude antitrust enforcers from taking a second bite of the apple via ex-post enforcement, it has created an assumption among that regulatory clearance of a merger makes subsequent antitrust proceedings extremely unlikely. 

Indeed, the very point of ex-ante merger regulations is that ex-post enforcement, notably in the form of breakups, has tremendous social costs. It can scupper economies of scale and network effects on which both consumers and firms have come to rely. Moreover, the threat of costly subsequent legal proceedings will hang over firms’ pre- and post-merger investment decisions, and may thus reduce incentives to invest.

With their complaints, the FTC and state AGs threaten to undo this status quo. Even if current antitrust law allows it, pursuing this course of action threatens to quash the implicit assumption that regulatory clearance generally shields a merger from future antitrust scrutiny. Ex-post review of mergers and acquisitions does also entail some positive features, but the Facebook complaints fail to consider these complicated trade-offs. This oversight could hamper tech and other U.S. industries.

Mergers and uncertainty

Merger decisions are probabilistic. Of the thousands of corporate acquisitions each year, only a handful end up deemed “successful.” These relatively few success stories have to pay for the duds in order to preserve the incentive to invest.

Switching from ex-ante to ex-post review enables authorities to focus their attention on the most lucrative deals. It stands to reason that they will not want to launch ex-post antitrust proceedings against bankrupt firms whose assets have already been stripped. Instead, as with the Facebook complaint, authorities are far more likely to pursue high-profile cases that boost their political capital.

This would be unproblematic if:

  1. Authorities would commit to ex-post prosecution only of anticompetitive mergers; and
  2. If parties could reasonably anticipate whether their deals would be deemed anticompetitive in the future. 

If those were the conditions, ex-post enforcement would merely reduce the incentive to partake in problematic mergers. It would leave welfare-enhancing deals unscathed. But where firms could not have ex-ante knowledge that a given deal would be deemed anticompetitive, the associated error-costs should weigh against prosecuting such mergers ex post, even if such enforcement might appear desirable. The deterrent effect that would arise from such prosecutions would be applied by the market to all mergers, including efficient ones. Put differently, authorities might get the ex-post assessment right in one case, such as the Facebook proceedings, but the bigger picture remains that they could be wrong in many other cases. Firms will perceive this threat and it may hinder their investments.

There is also reason to doubt that either of the ideal conditions for ex-post enforcement could realistically be met in practice.Ex-ante merger proceedings involve significant uncertainty. Indeed, antitrust-merger clearance decisions routinely have an impact on the merging parties’ stock prices. If management and investors knew whether their transactions would be cleared, those effects would be priced-in when a deal is announced, not when it is cleared or blocked. Indeed, if firms knew a given merger would be blocked, they would not waste their resources pursuing it. This demonstrates that ex-ante merger proceedings involve uncertainty for the merging parties.

Unless the answer is markedly different for ex-post merger reviews, authorities should proceed with caution. If parties cannot properly self-assess their deals, the threat of ex-post proceedings will weigh on pre- and post-merger investments (a breakup effectively amounts to expropriating investments that are dependent upon the divested assets). 

Furthermore, because authorities will likely focus ex-post reviews on the most lucrative deals, their incentive effects can be particularly pronounced. Parties may fear that the most successful mergers will be broken up. This could have wide-reaching effects for all merging firms that do not know whether they might become “the next Facebook.” 

Accordingly, for ex-post merger reviews to be justified, it is essential that:

  1. Their outcomes be predictable for the parties; and that 
  2. Analyzing the deals after the fact leads to better decision-making (fewer false acquittals and convictions) than ex-ante reviews would yield.

If these conditions are not in place, ex-post assessments will needlessly weigh down innovation, investment and procompetitive merger activity in the economy.

Hindsight does not disentangle efficiency from market power

So, could ex-post merger reviews be so predictable and effective as to alleviate the uncertainties described above, along with the costs they entail? 

Based on the recently filed Facebook complaints, the answer appears to be no. We simply do not know what the counterfactual to Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp would look like. Hindsight does not tell us whether Facebook’s acquisitions led to efficiencies that allowed it to thrive (a pro-competitive scenario), or whether Facebook merely used these deals to kill off competitors and maintain its monopoly (an anticompetitive scenario).

As Sam Bowman and I have argued elsewhere, when discussing the leaked emails that spurred the current proceedings and on which the complaints rely heavily:

These email exchanges may not paint a particularly positive picture of Zuckerberg’s intent in doing the merger, and it is possible that at the time they may have caused antitrust agencies to scrutinise the merger more carefully. But they do not tell us that the acquisition was ultimately harmful to consumers, or about the counterfactual of the merger being blocked. While we know that Instagram became enormously popular in the years following the merger, it is not clear that it would have been just as successful without the deal, or that Facebook and its other products would be less popular today. 

Moreover, it fails to account for the fact that Facebook had the resources to quickly scale Instagram up to a level that provided immediate benefits to an enormous number of users, instead of waiting for the app to potentially grow to such scale organically.

In fact, contrary to what some have argued, hindsight might even complicate matters (again from Sam and me):

Today’s commentators have the benefit of hindsight. This inherently biases contemporary takes on the Facebook/Instagram merger. For instance, it seems almost self-evident with hindsight that Facebook would succeed and that entry in the social media space would only occur at the fringes of existing platforms (the combined Facebook/Instagram platform) – think of the emergence of TikTok. However, at the time of the merger, such an outcome was anything but a foregone conclusion.

In other words, ex-post reviews will, by definition, focus on mergers where today’s outcomes seem preordained — when, in fact, they were probabilistic. This will skew decisions toward finding anticompetitive conduct. If authorities think that Instagram was destined to become great, they are more likely to find that Facebook’s acquisition was anticompetitive because they implicitly dismiss the idea that it was the merger itself that made Instagram great.

Authorities might also confuse correlation for causality. For instance, the state AGs’ complaint ties Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp to the degradation of these services, notably in terms of privacy and advertising loads. As the complaint lays out:

127. Following the acquisition, Facebook also degraded Instagram users’ privacy by matching Instagram and Facebook Blue accounts so that Facebook could use information that users had shared with Facebook Blue to serve ads to those users on Instagram. 

180. Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp thus substantially lessened competition […]. Moreover, Facebook’s subsequent degradation of the acquired firm’s privacy features reduced consumer choice by eliminating a viable, competitive, privacy-focused option

But these changes may have nothing to do with Facebook’s acquisition of these services. At the time, nearly all tech startups focused on growth over profits in their formative years. It should be no surprise that the platforms imposed higher “prices” to users after their acquisition by Facebook; they were maturing. Further monetizing their platform would have been the logical next step, even absent the mergers.

It is just as hard to determine whether post-merger developments actually harmed consumers. For example, the FTC complaint argues that Facebook stopped developing its own photo-sharing capabilities after the Instagram acquisition,which the commission cites as evidence that the deal neutralized a competitor:

98. Less than two weeks after the acquisition was announced, Mr. Zuckerberg suggested canceling or scaling back investment in Facebook’s own mobile photo app as a direct result of the Instagram deal.

But it is not obvious that Facebook or consumers would have gained anything from the duplication of R&D efforts if Facebook continued to develop its own photo-sharing app. More importantly, this discontinuation is not evidence that Instagram could have overthrown Facebook. In other words, the fact that Instagram provided better photo-sharing capabilities does necessarily imply that it could also provide a versatile platform that posed a threat to Facebook.

Finally, if Instagram’s stellar growth and photo-sharing capabilities were certain to overthrow Facebook’s monopoly, why do the plaintiffs ignore the competitive threat posed by the likes of TikTok today? Neither of the complaints makes any mention of TikTok,even though it currently has well over 1 billion monthly active users. The FTC and state AGs would have us believe that Instagram posed an existential threat to Facebook in 2012 but that Facebook faces no such threat from TikTok today. It is exceedingly unlikely that both these statements could be true, yet both are essential to the plaintiffs’ case.

Some appropriate responses

None of this is to say that ex-post review of mergers and acquisitions should be categorically out of the question. Rather, such proceedings should be initiated only with appropriate caution and consideration for their broader consequences.

When undertaking reviews of past mergers, authorities do  not necessarily need to impose remedies every time they find a merger was wrongly cleared. The findings of these ex-post reviews could simply be used to adjust existing merger thresholds and presumptions. This would effectively create a feedback loop where false acquittals lead to meaningful policy reforms in the future. 

At the very least, it may be appropriate for policymakers to set a higher bar for findings of anticompetitive harm and imposition of remedies in such cases. This would reduce the undesirable deterrent effects that such reviews may otherwise entail, while reserving ex-post remedies for the most problematic cases.

Finally, a tougher system of ex-post review could be used to allow authorities to take more risks during ex-ante proceedings. Indeed, when in doubt, they could effectively  experiment by allowing  marginal mergers to proceed, with the understanding that bad decisions could be clawed back afterwards. In that regard, it might also be useful to set precise deadlines for such reviews and to outline the types of concerns that might prompt scrutiny  or warrant divestitures.

In short, some form of ex-post review may well be desirable. It could help antitrust authorities to learn what works and subsequently to make useful changes to ex-ante merger-review systems. But this would necessitate deep reflection on the many ramifications of ex-post reassessments. Legislative reform or, at the least, publication of guidance documents by authorities, seem like essential first steps. 

Unfortunately, this is the exact opposite of what the Facebook proceedings would achieve. Plaintiffs have chosen to ignore these complex trade-offs in pursuit of a case with extremely dubious underlying merits. Success for the plaintiffs would thus prove a pyrrhic victory, destroying far more than it intends to achieve.

The Limits of Rivalry

Kelly Fayne —  2 November 2020
[TOTM: The following is part of a symposium by TOTM guests and authors marking the release of Nicolas Petit’s “Big Tech and the Digital Economy: The Moligopoly Scenario.” The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Kelly Fayne (Antitrust Associate, Latham & Watkins).
]

Nicholas Petit, with Big Tech and the Digital Economy: The Moligopoly Scenario, enters the fray at this moment of peak consternation about big tech platforms to reexamine antitrust’s role as referee.  Amongst calls on the one hand like those in the Majority Staff Report and Recommendation from the Subcommittee on Antitrust (“these firms have too much power, and that power must be reined in and subject to appropriate oversight and enforcement”) and, on the other hand, understandably strong disagreement from the firms targeted, Petit offers a diagnosis.  A focus on the protection of rivalry for rivalry’s sake is insufficiently adaptive to the “distinctive features of digital industries, firms, and markets.”

I am left wondering, however, if he’s misdiagnosed the problem – or at least whether the cure he offers would be seen as sufficient by those most vocally asserting that antitrust is failing.  And, of course, I recognize that his objective in writing this book is not to bring harmony to a deeply divided debate, but to offer an improved antitrust framework for navigating big tech.

Petit, in Chapter 5 (“Antitrust in Moligopoly Markets”), says: “So the real question is this: should we abandon, or at least radically alter traditional antitrust principals modeled on rivalry in digital markets? The answer is yes.”  He argues that “protecting rivalry is not perforce socially beneficial in industries with increasing returns to adoption.”  But it is his tethering to the notion of what is “socially beneficial” that creates a challenge.

Petit argues that the function of the current antitrust legal regimes – most significantly the US and EU – is to protect rivalry.   He observes several issues with rivalry when applied as both a test and a remedy for market power.  One of the most valuable insights Petit offers in his impressive work in this book, is that tipped markets may not be all that bad.  In fact, when markets exhibit increasing returns to adoption, allowing the winner to take it all (or most) may be more welfare enhancing than trying to do the antitrust equivalent of forcing two magnets to remain apart.  And, assuming all the Schumpeterian dynamics align, he’s right.  Or rather, he’s right if you agree that welfare is the standard by which what is socially beneficial should be measured.  

Spoiler alert: My own view is that antitrust requires an underlying system of measurement, and the best available system is welfare-based. More on this below. 

When it comes to evaluating horizontal mergers, Petit suggests an alternative regime calibrated to handle the unique circumstances that arise in tech deals.  But his new framework remains largely tethered to (or at least based in the intuitions of) a variation of the welfare standard that, for the most part, still underlies modern applications of antitrust laws. So the question becomes, if you alter the means, but leave the ends unchanged, do you get different results?  At least in the  merger context, I’m not so sure.  And if the results are for the most part the same, do we really need an alternative path to achieving them?  Probably not. 

The Petit horizontal merger test (1) applies a non-rebuttable (OMG!) presumption of prohibition on mergers to monopoly by the dominant platform in “tipped markets,” and (2) permits some acquisitions in untipped markets without undue regard to whether the acquiring firm is dominant in another market.  A non-rebuttable presumption, admittedly, elicited heavy-pressure red pen in the margins upon my first read.  Upon further reflection … I still don’t like it. I am, however, somewhat comforted because I suspect that its practical application would land us largely in the same place as current applications of antitrust for at least the vast majority of tech transactions.  And that is because Petit’s presumptive prohibition on mergers in tipped markets doesn’t cancel the fight, it changes the venue.  

The exercise of determining whether or not the market is tipped in effect replicates the exercise of assessing whether the dominant firm has a significant degree of market power, and concludes in the affirmative.  Enforcers around the world already look skeptically at firms with perceived market power when they make horizontal acquisitions (among an already rare group of cases in which such deals are attempted).  I recognize that there is theoretical daylight between Petit’s proposed test and one in which the merging parties are permitted an efficiencies defense, but in practice, the number of deals cleared solely on the basis of countervailing procompetitive efficiencies has historically been small. Thus, the universe of deals swept up in the per se prohibition could easily end up a null set.  (Or at least, I think it should be a null set given how quickly the tech industry evolves and transforms). 

As for the untipped markets, Petit argues that it is “unwarranted to treat firms with monopoly positions in tipped markets more strictly than others when they make indirect entry in untipped markets.”  He further argues that there is “no economic basis to prefer indirect entry by an incumbent firm from a tipped market over entry from (i) a new firm or (ii) an established firm from an untipped market.  Firm type is not determinative of the weight of social welfare brought by a unit of innovation.”  His position is closely aligned with the existing guidance on vertical and conglomerate mergers, including in the recently issued FTC and DOJ Vertical Merger Guidelines, although his discussion contains a far more nuanced perspective on how network effects and the leveraging of market power from one market to another overlay into the vertical merger math.  In the end, however, whether one applies the existing vertical merger approach or the Petit proposal, I hypothesize little divergence in outcomes.  

All of the above notwithstanding, Petit’s endeavor to devise a framework more closely calibrated to the unique features of tech platforms is admirable, as is the care and thoughtfulness he’s taken to the task.  If the audience for this book takes the view that the core principals of economic welfare should underlie antitrust laws and their application, Petit is likely to find it receptive.  While many (me included) may not think a new regime is necessary, the way that he articulates the challenges presented by platforms and evolving technologies is enlightening even for those who think an old approach can learn new tricks.  And, of course, the existing approach, but has the added benefit of being adaptable to applications outside of tech platforms. 

Still, the purpose of antitrust law is where the far more difficult debate is taking place.  And this is where, as I mentioned above, I think Petit may have misdiagnosed the shortcomings of neo-structuralism (or the neo-Brandeisian school, or Antitrust 2.0, or Hipster Antitrust, and so on). In short, these are frameworks that focus first on the number and size of players in an industry and guard against concentration, even in the absence of a causal link between these structural elements and adverse impact on consumer, and/or total welfare. Petit describes neo-structuralism as focusing on rivalry without having an “an evaluative premise” (i.e., an explanation for why big = bad).  I’m less sure that it lacks an evaluative premise, rather, I think it might have several (potentially competing) evaluative premises.  

Rivalry indeed has no inherent value, it is good – or perceived as good – as a means to an end.  If that end is consumer welfare, then the limiting principle on when rivalry is achieving its end is whether welfare is enhanced or not.  But many have argued that rivalry could have other potential benefits.  For instance, the Antitrust Subcommittee House Report, identifies several potential objectives for competition law: driving innovation and entrepreneurship, privacy, the protection of political and economic liberties, and controlling influence of private firms over the policymaking process.  Even if we grant that competition could be a means to achieving these ends, the measure of success for competition laws would have to be the degree to which the ends are achieved.  For example, if one argues that competition law should be used to promote privacy, we would measure the success of those laws by whether they do in fact promote privacy, not whether they maintain a certain number of players in an industry.  Although, we should also consider whether competition law really is the most efficient and effective means to those ends. 

Returning again to merger control, in the existing US regime, and under the Petit proposal, a dominant tech platform might be permitted to acquire a large player in an unrelated market assuming there is no augmentation of market power as a result of the interplay between the two and if the deal is, on net, efficiency enhancing.  In simpler terms, if consumers are made better off through lower prices, better services, increased innovation etc. the deal is permitted to proceed.  Yet, if antitrust were calibrated, e.g., for a primary purpose of disaggregating corporate control over capital to minimize political influence by large firms, you could see the same transition failing to achieve approval.  If privacy were the primary goal, perhaps certain deals would be blocked if the merging parties are both in possession of detailed consumer data without regard to their size or existence of other players in the same space.  

The failure of neo-structuralism (etc.) is, in my view, also likely the basis for its growing popularity.  Petit argues that the flaw is that it promotes rivalry as an end in itself.  I posit instead that neo-structuralism is flawed because it promotes rivalry as a means and is agnostic to the ends.  As a result, people with strongly differing views on the optimal ends of competition law can appear to agree with one another by agreeing on the means and in doing so, promote a competition law framework that risks being untethered and undisciplined.  In the absence of a clearly articulated policy goal – whether it is privacy, or economic equality, or diluting political influence, or even consumer welfare – there is no basis on which to evaluate whether any given competition law is structured or applied optimally.  If rivalry is to be the means by which we implement our policy goals, how do we know when we have enough rivalry, or too little?  We can’t.  

It is on this point that I think there is more work to undertake in a complete critique of the failings of neo-structuralism (and any other neo-isms to come).  In addition to other merits, welfare maximization gives us a framework to hold the construct and application of competition law accountable.  It is irresponsible to replace a system that has, as Petit puts it, an “evaluative premise” with one possesses no ends-based framework for evaluation, leaving the law rudderless and susceptible to arbitrary or even selective enforcement.

Congressman Buck’s “Third Way” report offers a compromise between the House Judiciary Committee’s majority report, which proposes sweeping new regulation of tech companies, and the status quo, which Buck argues is unfair and insufficient. But though Buck rejects many of the majority’s reports proposals, what he proposes instead would lead to virtually the same outcome via a slightly longer process. 

The most significant majority proposals that Buck rejects are the structural separation to prevent a company that runs a platform from operating on that platform “in competition with the firms dependent on its infrastructure”, and line-of-business restrictions that would confine tech companies to a small number of markets, to prevent them from preferencing their other products to the detriment of competitors.

Buck rules these out, saying that they are “regulatory in nature [and] invite unforeseen consequences and divert attention away from public interest antitrust enforcement by our antitrust agencies.” He goes on to say that “this proposal is a thinly veiled call to break up Big Tech firms.”

Instead, Buck endorses, either fully or provisionally, measures including revitalising the essential facilities doctrine, imposing data interoperability mandates on platforms, and changing antitrust law to prevent “monopoly leveraging and predatory pricing”. 

Put together, though, these would amount to the same thing that the Democratic majority report proposes: a world where platforms are basically just conduits, regulated to be neutral and open, and where the companies that run them require a regulator’s go-ahead for important decisions — a process that would be just as influenced lobbying and political considerations, and insulated from market price signals, as any other regulator’s decisions are.

Revitalizing the essential facilities doctrine

Buck describes proposals to “revitalize the essential facilities doctrine” as “common ground” that warrant further consideration. This would mean that platforms deemed to be “essential facilities” would be required to offer access to their platform to third parties at a “reasonable” price, except in exceptional circumstances. The presumption would be that these platforms were anticompetitively foreclosing third party developers and merchants by either denying them access to their platforms or by charging them “too high” prices. 

This would require the kind of regulatory oversight that Buck says he wants to avoid. He says that “conservatives should be wary of handing additional regulatory authority to agencies in an attempt to micromanage platforms’ access rules.” But there’s no way to avoid this when the “facility” — and hence its pricing and access rules — changes as frequently as any digital platform does. In practice, digital platforms would have to justify their pricing rules and decisions about exclusion of third parties to courts or a regulator as often as they make those decisions.

If Apple’s App Store were deemed an essential facility such that it is presumed to be foreclosing third party developers any time it rejected their submissions, it would have to submit to regulatory scrutiny of the “reasonableness” of its commercial decisions on, literally, a daily basis.

That would likely require price controls to prevent platforms from using pricing to de facto exclude third parties they did not want to deal with. Adjudication of “fair” pricing by courts is unlikely to be a sustainable solution. Justice Breyer, in Town of Concord v. Boston Edison Co., considered this to be outside the courts’ purview:

[H]ow is a judge or jury to determine a ‘fair price?’ Is it the price charged by other suppliers of the primary product? None exist. Is it the price that competition ‘would have set’ were the primary level not monopolized? How can the court determine this price without examining costs and demands, indeed without acting like a rate-setting regulatory agency, the rate-setting proceedings of which often last for several years? Further, how is the court to decide the proper size of the price ‘gap?’ Must it be large enough for all independent competing firms to make a ‘living profit,’ no matter how inefficient they may be? . . . And how should the court respond when costs or demands change over time, as they inevitably will?

In practice, infrastructure treated as an essential facility is usually subject to pricing control by a regulator. This has its own difficulties. The UK’s energy and water infrastructure is an example. In determining optimal access pricing, regulators must determine the price that weighs competing needs to maximise short-term output, incentivise investment by the infrastructure owner, incentivise innovation and entry by competitors (e.g., local energy grids) and, of course, avoid “excessive” pricing. 

This is a near-impossible task, and the process is often drawn out and subject to challenges even in markets where the infrastructure is relatively simple. It is even less likely that these considerations would be objectively tractable in digital markets.

Treating a service as an essential facility is based on the premise that, absent mandated access, it is impossible to compete with it. But mandating access does not, on its own, prevent it from extracting monopoly rents from consumers; it just means that other companies selling inputs can have their share of the rents. 

So you may end up with two different sets of price controls: on the consumer side, to determine how much monopoly rent can be extracted from consumers, and on the access side, to determine how the monopoly rents are divided.

The UK’s energy market has both, for example. In the case of something like an electricity network, where it may simply not be physically or economically feasible to construct a second, competing network, this might be the least-bad course of action. In such circumstances, consumer-side price regulation might make sense. 

But if a service could, in fact, be competed with by others, treating it as an essential facility may be affirmatively harmful to competition and consumers if it diverts investment and time away from that potential competitor by allowing other companies to acquire some of the incumbent’s rents themselves.

The HJC report assumes that Apple is a monopolist, because, among people who own iPhones, the App Store is the only way to install third-party software. Treating the App Store as an essential facility may mean a ban on Apple charging “excessive prices” to companies like Spotify or Epic that would like to use it, or on Apple blocking them for offering users alternative in-app ways of buying their services.

If it were impossible for users to switch from iPhones, or for app developers to earn revenue through other mechanisms, this logic might be sound. But it would still not change the fact that the App Store platform was able to charge users monopoly prices; it would just mean that Epic and Spotify could capture some of those monopoly rents for themselves. Nice for them, but not for consumers. And since both companies have already grown to be pretty big and profitable with the constraints they object to in place, it seems difficult to argue that they cannot compete with these in place and sounds more like they’d just like a bigger share of the pie.

And, in fact, it is possible to switch away from the iPhone to Android. I have personally switched back and forth several times over the past few years, for example. And so have many others — despite what some claim, it’s really not that hard, especially now that most important data is stored on cloud-based services, and both companies offer an app to switch from the other. Apple also does not act like a monopolist — its Bionic chips are vastly better than any competitor’s and it continues to invest in and develop them.

So in practice, users switching from iPhone to Android if Epic’s games and Spotify’s music are not available constrains Apple, to some extent. If Apple did drive those services permanently off their platform, it would make Android relatively more attractive, and some users would move away — Apple would bear some of the costs of its ecosystem becoming worse. 

Assuming away this kind of competition, as Buck and the majority report do, is implausible. Not only that, but Buck and the majority believe that competition in this market is impossible — no policy or antitrust action could change things, and all that’s left is to regulate the market like it’s an electricity grid. 

And it means that platforms could often face situations where they could not expect to make themselves profitable after building their markets, since they could not control the supply side in order to earn revenues. That would make it harder to build platforms, and weaken competition, especially competition faced by incumbents.

Mandating interoperability

Interoperability mandates, which Buck supports, require platforms to make their products open and interoperable with third party software. If Twitter were required to be interoperable, for example, it would have to provide a mechanism (probably a set of open APIs) by which third party software could tweet and read its feeds, upload photos, send and receive DMs, and so on. 

Obviously, what interoperability actually involves differs from service to service, and involves decisions about design that are specific to each service. These variations are relevant because they mean interoperability requires discretionary regulation, including about product design, and can’t just be covered by a simple piece of legislation or a court order. 

To give an example: interoperability means a heightened security risk, perhaps from people unwittingly authorising a bad actor to access their private messages. How much is it appropriate to warn users about this, and how tight should your security controls be? It is probably excessive to require that users provide a sworn affidavit with witnesses, and even some written warnings about the risks may be so over the top as to scare off virtually any interested user. But some level of warning and user authentication is appropriate. So how much? 

Similarly, a company that has been required to offer its customers’ data through an API, but doesn’t really want to, can make life miserable for third party services that want to use it. Changing the API without warning, or letting its service drop or slow down, can break other services, and few users will be likely to want to use a third-party service that is unreliable. But some outages are inevitable, and some changes to the API and service are desirable. How do you decide how much?

These are not abstract examples. Open Banking in the UK, which requires interoperability of personal and small business current accounts, is the most developed example of interoperability in the world. It has been cited by former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Jason Furman, among others, as a model for interoperability in tech. It has faced all of these questions: one bank, for instance, required that customers pass through twelve warning screens to approve a third party app to access their banking details.

To address problems like this, Open Banking has needed an “implementation entity” to design many of its most important elements. This is a de facto regulator, and it has taken years of difficult design decisions to arrive at Open Banking’s current form. 

Having helped write the UK’s industry review into Open Banking, I am cautiously optimistic about what it might be able to do for banking in Britain, not least because that market is already heavily regulated and lacking in competition. But it has been a huge undertaking, and has related to a relatively narrow set of data (its core is just two different things — the ability to read an account’s balance and transaction history, and the ability to initiate payments) in a sector that is not known for rapidly changing technology. Here, the costs of regulation may be outweighed by the benefits.

I am deeply sceptical that the same would be the case in most digital markets, where products do change rapidly, where new entrants frequently attempt to enter the market (and often succeed), where the security trade-offs are even more difficult to adjudicate, and where the economics are less straightforward, given that many services are provided at least in part because of the access to customer data they provide. 

Even if I am wrong, it is unavoidable that interoperability in digital markets would require an equivalent body to make and implement decisions when trade-offs are involved. This, again, would require a regulator like the UK’s implementation entity, and one that was enormous, given the number and diversity of services that it would have to oversee. And it would likely have to make important and difficult design decisions to which there is no clear answer. 

Banning self-preferencing

Buck’s Third Way would also ban digital platforms from self-preferencing. This typically involves an incumbent that can provide a good more cheaply than its third-party competitors — whether it’s through use of data that those third parties do not have access to, reputational advantages that mean customers will be more likely to use their products, or through scale efficiencies that allow it to provide goods to a larger customer base for a cheaper price. 

Although many people criticise self-preferencing as being unfair on competitors, “self-preferencing” is an inherent part of almost every business. When a company employs its own in-house accountants, cleaners or lawyers, instead of contracting out for them, it is engaged in internal self-preferencing. Any firm that is vertically integrated to any extent, instead of contracting externally for every single ancillary service other than the one it sells in the market, is self-preferencing. Coase’s theory of the firm is all about why this kind of behaviour happens, instead of every worker contracting on the open market for everything they do. His answer is that transaction costs make it cheaper to bring certain business relationships in-house than to contract externally for them. Virtually everyone agrees that this is desirable to some extent.

Nor does it somehow become a problem when the self-preferencing takes place on the consumer product side. Any firm that offers any bundle of products — like a smartphone that can run only the manufacturer’s operating system — is engaged in self-preferencing, because users cannot construct their own bundle with that company’s hardware and another’s operating system. But the efficiency benefits often outweigh the lack of choice.

Self-preferencing in digital platforms occurs, for example, when Google includes relevant Shopping or Maps results at the top of its general Search results, or when Amazon gives its own store-brand products (like the AmazonBasics range) a prominent place in the results listing.

There are good reasons to think that both of these are good for competition and consumer welfare. Google making Shopping results easily visible makes it a stronger competitor to Amazon, and including Maps results when you search for a restaurant just makes it more convenient to get the information you’re looking for.

Amazon sells its own private label products partially because doing so is profitable (even when undercutting rivals), partially to fill holes in product lines (like clothing, where 11% of listings were Amazon private label as of November 2018), and partially because it increases users’ likelihood to use Amazon if they expect to find a reliable product from a brand they trust. According to Amazon, they account for less than 1% of its annual retail sales, in contrast to the 19% of revenues ($54 billion) Amazon makes from third party seller services, which includes Marketplace commissions. Any analysis that ignores that Amazon has to balance those sources of revenue, and so has to tread carefully, is deficient. 

With “commodity” products (like, say, batteries and USB cables), where multiple sellers are offering very similar or identical versions of the same thing, private label competition works well for both Amazon and consumers. By Amazon’s own rules it can enter this market using aggregated data, but this doesn’t give it a significant advantage, because that data is easily obtainable from multiple sources, including Amazon itself, which makes detailed aggregated sales data freely available to third-party retailers

Amazon does profit from sales of these products, of course. And other merchants suffer by having to cut their prices to compete. That’s precisely what competition involves — competition is incompatible with a quiet life for businesses. But consumers benefit, and the biggest benefit to Amazon is that it assures its potential customers that when they visit they will be able to find a product that is cheap and reliable, so they keep coming back.

It is even hard to argue that in aggregate this practice is damaging to third-party sellers: many, like Anker, have built successful businesses on Amazon despite private-label competition precisely because the value of the platform increases for all parties as user trust and confidence in it does.

In these cases and in others, platforms act to solve market failures on the markets they host, as Andrei Hagiu has argued. To maximize profits, digital platforms need to strike a balance between being an attractive place for third-party merchants to sell their goods and being attractive to consumers by offering low prices. The latter will frequently clash with the former — and that’s the difficulty of managing a platform. 

To mistake this pro-competitive behaviour with an absence of competition is misguided. But that is a key conclusion of Buck’s Third Way: that the damage to competitors makes this behaviour harmful overall, and that it should be curtailed with “non-discrimination” rules. 

Treating below-cost selling as “predatory pricing”

Buck’s report equates below-cost selling with predatory pricing (“predatory pricing, also known as below-cost selling”). This is mistaken. Predatory pricing refers to a particular scenario where your price cut is temporary and designed to drive a competitor out of business, so that you can raise prices later and recoup your losses. 

It is easy to see that this does not describe the vast majority of below-cost selling. Buck’s formulation would describe all of the following as “predatory pricing”:

  • A restaurants that gives away ketchup for free;
  • An online retailer that offers free shipping and returns;
  • A grocery store that sells tins of beans for 3p a can. (This really happened when I was a child.)

The rationale for offering below-cost prices differs in each of these cases. Sometimes it’s a marketing ploy — Tesco sells those beans to get some free media, and to entice people into their stores, hoping they’ll decide to do the rest of their weekly shop there at the same time. Sometimes it’s about reducing frictions — the marginal cost of ketchup is so low that it’s simpler to just give it away. Sometimes it’s about reducing the fixed costs of transactions so more take place — allowing customers who buy your products to return them easily may mean more are willing to buy them overall, because there’s less risk for them if they don’t like what they buy. 

Obviously, none of these is “predatory”: none is done in the expectation that the below-cost selling will drive those businesses’ competitors out of business, allowing them to make monopoly profits later.

True predatory pricing is theoretically possible, but very difficult. As David Henderson describes, to successfully engage in predatory pricing means taking enormous and rising losses that grow for the “predatory” firm as customers switch to it from its competitor. And once the rival firm has exited the market, if the predatory firm raises prices above average cost (i.e., to recoup its losses), there is no guarantee that a new competitor will not enter the market selling at the previously competitive price. And the competing firm can either shut down temporarily or, in some cases, just buy up the “predatory” firm’s discounted goods to resell later. It is debatable whether the canonical predatory pricing case, Standard Oil, is itself even an example of that behaviour.

Offering a product below cost in a multi-sided market (like a digital platform) can be a way of building a customer base in order to incentivise entry on the other side of the market. When network effects exist, so additional users make the service more valuable to existing users, it can be worthwhile to subsidise the initial users until the service reaches a certain size. 

Uber subsidising drivers and riders in a new city is an example of this — riders want enough drivers on the road that they know they’ll be picked up fairly quickly if they order one, and drivers want enough riders that they know they’ll be able to earn a decent night’s fares if they use the app. This requires a certain volume of users on both sides — to get there, it can be in everyone’s interest for the platform to subsidise one or both sides of the market to reach that critical mass.

The slightly longer road to regulation

That is another reason for below-cost pricing: someone other than the user may be part-paying for a product, to build a market they hope to profit from later. Platforms must adjust pricing and their offerings to each side of their market to manage supply and demand. Epic, for example, is trying to build a desktop computer game store to rival the largest incumbent, Steam. To win over customers, it has been giving away games for free to users, who can own them on that store forever. 

That is clearly pro-competitive — Epic is hoping to get users over the habit of using Steam for all their games, in the hope that they will recoup the costs of doing so later in increased sales. And it is good for consumers to get free stuff. This kind of behaviour is very common. As well as Uber and Epic, smaller platforms do it too. 

Buck’s proposals would make this kind of behaviour much more difficult, and permitted only if a regulator or court allows it, instead of if the market can bear it. On both sides of the coin, Buck’s proposals would prevent platforms from the behaviour that allows them to grow in the first place — enticing suppliers and consumers and subsidising either side until critical mass has been reached that allows the platform to exist by itself, and the platform owner to recoup its investments. Fundamentally, both Buck and the majority take the existence of platforms as a given, ignoring the incentives to create new ones and compete with incumbents. 

In doing so, they give up on competition altogether. As described, Buck’s provisions would necessitate ongoing rule-making, including price controls, to work. It is unlikely that a court could do this, since the relevant costs would change too often for one-shot rule-making of the kind a court could do. To be effective at all, Buck’s proposals would require an extensive, active regulator, just as the majority report’s would. 

Buck nominally argues against this sort of outcome — “Conservatives should be wary of handing additional regulatory authority to agencies in an attempt to micromanage platforms’ access rules” — but it is probably unavoidable, given the changes he proposes. And because the rule changes he proposes would apply to the whole economy, not just tech, his proposals may, perversely, end up being even more extensive and interventionist than the majority’s.

Other than this, the differences in practice between Buck’s proposals and the Democrats’ proposals would be trivial. At best, Buck’s Third Way is just a longer route to the same destination.

In the hands of a wise philosopher-king, the Sherman Act’s hard-to-define prohibitions of “restraints of trade” and “monopolization” are tools that will operate inevitably to advance the public interest in competitive markets. In the hands of real-world litigators, regulators and judges, those same words can operate to advance competitors’ private interests in securing commercial advantages through litigation that could not be secured through competition in the marketplace. If successful, this strategy may yield outcomes that run counter to antitrust law’s very purpose.

The antitrust lawsuit filed by Epic Games against Apple in August 2020, and Apple’s antitrust lawsuit against Qualcomm (settled in April 2019), suggest that antitrust law is heading in this unfortunate direction.

From rent-minimization to rent-maximization

The first step in converting antitrust law from an instrument to minimize rents to an instrument to maximize rents lies in expanding the statute’s field of application on the apparently uncontroversial grounds of advancing the public interest in “vigorous” enforcement. In surprisingly short order, this largely unbounded vision of antitrust’s proper scope has become the dominant fashion in policy discussions, at least as expressed by some legislators, regulators, and commentators.

Following the new conventional wisdom, antitrust law has pursued over the past decades an overly narrow path, consequently overlooking and exacerbating a panoply of social ills that extend well beyond the mission to “merely” protect the operation of the market pricing mechanism. This line of argument is typically coupled with the assertion that courts, regulators and scholars have been led down this path by incumbents that welcome the relaxed scrutiny of a purportedly deferential antitrust policy.

This argument, and related theory of regulatory capture, has things roughly backwards.

Placing antitrust law at the service of a largely undefined range of social purposes set by judicial and regulatory fiat threatens to render antitrust a tool that can be easily deployed to favor the private interests of competitors rather than the public interest in competition. Without the intellectual discipline imposed by the consumer welfare standard (and, outside of per se illegal restraints, operationalized through the evidentiary requirement of competitive harm), the rhetoric of antitrust provides excellent cover for efforts to re-engineer the rules of the game in lieu of seeking to win the game as it has been played.

Epic Games v. Apple

A nascent symptom of this expansive form of antitrust is provided by the much-publicized lawsuit brought by Epic Games, the maker of the wildly popular video game, Fortnite, against Apple, the operator of the even more wildly popular App Store. On August 13, 2020, Epic added a “direct” payment processing services option to its Fortnite game, which violated the developer terms of use that govern the App Store. In response, Apple exercised its contractual right to remove Fortnite from the App Store, triggering Fortnite’s antitrust suit. The same sequence has ensued between Epic Games and Google in connection with the Google Play Store. Both litigations are best understood as a breach of contract dispute cloaked in the guise of an antitrust cause of action.

In suggesting that a jury trial would be appropriate in Epic Games’ suit against Apple, the district court judge reportedly stated that the case is “on the frontier of antitrust law” and [i]t is important enough to understand what real people think.” That statement seems to suggest that this is a close case under antitrust law. I respectfully disagree. Based on currently available information and applicable law, Epic’s argument suffers from two serious vulnerabilities that would seem to be difficult for the plaintiff to overcome.

A contestably narrow market definition

Epic states three related claims: (1) Apple has a monopoly in the relevant market, defined as the App Store, (2) Apple maintains its monopoly by contractually precluding developers from distributing iOS-compatible versions of their apps outside the App Store, and (3) Apple maintains a related monopoly in the payment processing services market for the App Store by contractually requiring developers to use Apple’s processing service.

This market definition, and the associated chain of reasoning, is subject to significant doubt, both as a legal and factual matter.

Epic’s narrow definition of the relevant market as the App Store (rather than app distribution platforms generally) conveniently results in a 100% market share for Apple. Inconveniently, federal case law is generally reluctant to adopt single-brand market definitions. While the Supreme Court recognized in 1992 a single-brand market in Eastman Kodak Co. v. Image Technical Services, the case is widely considered to be an outlier in light of subsequent case law. As a federal district court observed in Spahr v. Leegin Creative Leather Products (E.D. Tenn. 2008): “Courts have consistently refused to consider one brand to be a relevant market of its own when the brand competes with other potential substitutes.”

The App Store would seem to fall into this typical category. The customer base of existing and new Fortnite users can still accessthe gamethrough multiple platforms and on multiple devices other than the iPhone, including a PC, laptop, game console, and non-Apple mobile devices. (While Google has also removed Fortnite from the Google Play store due to the added direct payment feature, users can, at some inconvenience, access the game manually on Android phones.)

Given these alternative distribution channels, it is at a minimum unclear whether Epic is foreclosed from reaching a substantial portion of its consumer base, which may already access the game on alternative platforms or could potentially do so at moderate incremental transaction costs. In the language of platform economics, it appears to be technologically and economically feasible for the target consumer base to “multi-home.” If multi-homing and related switching costs are low, even a 100% share of the App Store submarket would not translate into market power in the broader and potentially more economically relevant market for app distribution generally.

An implausible theory of platform lock-in

Even if it were conceded that the App Store is the relevant market, Epic’s claim is not especially persuasive, both as an economic and a legal matter. That is because there is no evidence that Apple is exploiting any such hypothetically attributed market power to increase the rents extracted from developers and indirectly impose deadweight losses on consumers.

In the classic scenario of platform lock-in, a three-step sequence is observed: (1) a new firm acquires a high market share in a race for platform dominance, (2) the platform winner is protected by network effects and switching costs, and (3) the entrenched platform “exploits” consumers by inflating prices (or imposing other adverse terms) to capture monopoly rents. This economic model is reflected in the case law on lock-in claims, which typically requires that the plaintiff identify an adverse change by the defendant in pricing or other terms after users were allegedly locked-in.

The history of the App Store does not conform to this model. Apple has always assessed a 30% fee and the same is true of every other leading distributor of games for the mobile and PC market, including Google Play Store, App Store’s rival in the mobile market, and Steam, the dominant distributor of video games in the PC market. This long-standing market practice suggests that the 30% fee is most likely motivated by an efficiency-driven business motivation, rather than seeking to entrench a monopoly position that Apple did not enjoy when the practice was first adopted. That is: even if Apple is deemed to be a “monopolist” for Section 2 purposes, it is not taking any “illegitimate” actions that could constitute monopolization or attempted monopolization.

The logic of the 70/30 split

Uncovering the business logic behind the 70/30 split in the app distribution market is not too difficult.

The 30% fee appears to be a low transaction-cost practice that enables the distributor to fund a variety of services, including app development tools, marketing support, and security and privacy protections, all of which are supplied at no separately priced fee and therefore do not require service-by-service negotiation and renegotiation. The same rationale credibly applies to the integrated payment processing services that Apple supplies for purposes of in-app purchases.

These services deliver significant value and would otherwise be difficult to replicate cost-effectively, protect the App Store’s valuable stock of brand capital (which yields positive spillovers for app developers on the site), and lower the costs of joining and participating in the App Store. Additionally, the 30% fee cross-subsidizes the delivery of these services to the approximately 80% of apps on the App Store that are ad-based and for which no fee is assessed, which in turn lowers entry costs and expands the number and variety of product options for platform users. These would all seem to be attractive outcomes from a competition policy perspective.

Epic’s objection

Epic would object to this line of argument by observing that it only charges a 12% fee to distribute other developers’ games on its own Epic Games Store.

Yet Epic’s lower fee is reportedly conditioned, at least in some cases, on the developer offering the game exclusively on the Epic Games Store for a certain period of time. Moreover, the services provided on the Epic Games Store may not be comparable to the extensive suite of services provided on the App Store and other leading distributors that follow the 30% standard. Additionally, the user base a developer can expect to access through the Epic Games Store is in all likelihood substantially smaller than the audience that can be reached through the App Store and other leading app and game distributors, which is then reflected in the higher fees charged by those platforms.

Hence, even the large fee differential may simply reflect the higher services and larger audiences available on the App Store, Google Play Store and other leading platforms, as compared to the Epic Games Store, rather than the unilateral extraction of market rents at developers’ and consumers’ expense.

Antitrust is about efficiency, not distribution

Epic says the standard 70/30 split between game publishers and app distributors is “excessive” while others argue that it is historically outdated.

Neither of these are credible antitrust arguments. Renegotiating the division of economic surplus between game suppliers and distributors is not the concern of antitrust law, which (as properly defined) should only take an interest if either (i) Apple is colluding on the 30% fee with other app distributors, or (ii) Apple is taking steps that preclude entry into the apps distribution market and lack any legitimate business justification. No one claims evidence for the former possibility and, without further evidence, the latter possibility is not especially compelling given the uniform use of the 70/30 split across the industry (which, as noted, can be derived from a related set of credible efficiency justifications). It is even less compelling in the face of evidence that output is rapidly accelerating, not declining, in the gaming app market: in the first half of 2020, approximately 24,500 new games were added to the App Store.

If this conclusion is right, then Epic’s lawsuit against Apple does not seem to have much to do with the public interest in preserving market competition.

But it clearly has much to do with the business interest of an input supplier in minimizing its distribution costs and maximizing its profit margin. That category includes not only Epic Games but Tencent, the world’s largest video game publisher and the holder of a 40% equity stake in Epic. Tencent also owns Riot Games (the publisher of “League of Legends”), an 84% stake in Supercell (the publisher of “Clash of Clans”), and a 5% stake in Activision Blizzard (the publisher of “Call of Duty”). It is unclear how an antitrust claim that, if successful, would simply redistribute economic value from leading game distributors to leading game developers has any necessary relevance to antitrust’s objective to promote consumer welfare.

The prequel: Apple v. Qualcomm

Ironically (and, as Dirk Auer has similarly observed), there is a symmetry between Epic’s claims against Apple and the claims previously pursued by Apple (and, concurrently, the Federal Trade Commission) against Qualcomm.

In that litigation, Apple contested the terms of the licensing arrangements under which Qualcomm made available its wireless communications patents to Apple (more precisely, Foxconn, Apple’s contract manufacturer), arguing that the terms were incompatible with Qualcomm’s commitment to “fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory” (“FRAND”) licensing of its “standard-essential” patents (“SEPs”). Like Epic v. Apple, Apple v. Qualcomm was fundamentally a contract dispute, with the difference that Apple was in the position of a third-party beneficiary of the commitment that Qualcomm had made to the governing standard-setting organization. Like Epic, Apple sought to recharacterize this contractual dispute as an antitrust question, arguing that Qualcomm’s licensing practices constituted anticompetitive actions to “monopolize” the market for smartphone modem chipsets.

Theory meets evidence

The rhetoric used by Epic in its complaint echoes the rhetoric used by Apple in its briefs and other filings in the Qualcomm litigation. Apple (like the FTC) had argued that Qualcomm imposed a “tax” on competitors by requiring that any purchaser of Qualcomm’s chipsets concurrently enter into a license for Qualcomm’s SEP portfolio relating to 3G and 4G/LTE-enabled mobile communications devices.

Yet the history and performance of the mobile communications market simply did not track Apple’s (and the FTC’s continuing) characterization of Qualcomm’s licensing fee as a socially costly drag on market growth and, by implication, consumer welfare.

If this assertion had merit, then the decades-old wireless market should have exhibited a dismal history of increasing prices, slow user adoption and lagging innovation. In actuality, the wireless market since its inception has grown relentlessly, characterized by declining quality-adjusted prices, expanding output, relentless innovation, and rapid adoption across a broad range of income segments.

Given this compelling real-world evidence, the only remaining line of argument (still being pursued by the FTC) that could justify antitrust intervention is a theoretical conjecture that the wireless market might have grown even faster under some alternative IP licensing arrangement. This assertion rests precariously on the speculative assumption that any such arrangement would have induced the same or higher level of aggregate investment in innovation and commercialization activities. That fragile chain of “what if” arguments hardly seems a sound basis on which to rewrite the legal infrastructure behind the billions of dollars of licensing transactions that support the economically thriving smartphone market and the even larger ecosystem that has grown around it.

Antitrust litigation as business strategy

Given the absence of compelling evidence of competitive harm from Qualcomm’s allegedly anticompetitive licensing practices, Apple’s litigation would seem to be best interpreted as an economically rational attempt by a downstream producer to renegotiate a downward adjustment in the fees paid to an upstream supplier of critical technology inputs. (In fact, those are precisely the terms on which Qualcomm in 2015 settled the antitrust action brought against it by China’s competition regulator, to the obvious benefit of local device producers.) The Epic Games litigation is a mirror image fact pattern in which an upstream supplier of content inputs seeks to deploy antitrust law strategically for the purposes of minimizing the fees it pays to a leading downstream distributor.

Both litigations suffer from the same flaw. Private interests concerning the division of an existing economic value stream—a business question that is matter of indifference from an efficiency perspective—are erroneously (or, at least, reflexively) conflated with the public interest in preserving the free play of competitive forces that maximizes the size of the economic value stream.

Conclusion: Remaking the case for “narrow” antitrust

The Epic v. Apple and Apple v. Qualcomm disputes illustrate the unproductive rent-seeking outcomes to which antitrust law will inevitably be led if, as is being widely advocated, it is decoupled from its well-established foundation in promoting consumer welfare—and not competitor welfare.

Some proponents of a more expansive approach to antitrust enforcement are convinced that expanding the law’s scope of application will improve market efficiency by providing greater latitude for expert regulators and courts to reengineer market structures to the public benefit. Yet any substitution of top-down expert wisdom for the bottom-up trial-and-error process of market competition can easily yield “false positives” in which courts and regulators take actions that counterproductively intervene in markets that are already operating under reasonably competitive conditions. Additionally, an overly expansive approach toward the scope of antitrust law will induce private firms to shift resources toward securing advantages over competitors through lobbying and litigation, rather than seeking to win the race to deliver lower-cost and higher-quality products and services. Neither outcome promotes the public’s interest in a competitive marketplace.