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The Autorità Garante della Concorenza e del Mercato (AGCM), Italy’s competition and consumer-protection watchdog, on Nov. 25 handed down fines against Google and Apple of €10 million each—the maximum penalty contemplated by the law—for alleged unfair commercial practices. Ultimately, the two decisions stand as textbook examples of why regulators should, wherever possible, strongly defer to consumer preferences, rather than substitute their own.

The Alleged Infringements

The AGCM has made two practically identical cases built around two interrelated claims. The first claim is that the companies have not properly informed users that the data they consent to share will be used for commercial purposes. The second is that, by making users opt out if they don’t want to consent to data sharing, the companies unduly restrict users’ freedom of choice and constrain them to accept terms they would not have otherwise accepted.

According to the AGCM, Apple and Google’s behavior infringes Articles 20, 21, 22, 24 and 25 of the Italian Consumer Code. The first three provisions prohibit misleading business practices, and are typically applied to conduct such as lying, fraud, the sale of unsafe products, or the omission or otherwise deliberate misrepresentation of facts in ways that would deceive the average user. The conduct caught by the first claim would allegedly fall into this category.

The last two provisions, by contrast, refer to aggressive business practices such as coercion, blackmail, verbal threats, and even physical harassment capable of “limiting the freedom of choice of users.” The conduct described in the second claim would fall here.

The First Claim

The AGCM’s first claim does not dispute that the companies informed users about the commercial use of their data. Instead, the authority argues that the companies are not sufficiently transparent in how they inform users.

Let’s start with Google. Upon creating a Google ID, users can click to view the “Privacy and Terms” disclosure, which details the types of data that Google processes and the reasons that it does so. As Figure 1 below demonstrates, the company explains that it processes data: “to publish personalized ads, based on your account settings, on Google services as well as on other partner sites and apps” (translation of the Italian text highlighted in the first red rectangle). Below, under the “data combination” heading, the user is further informed that: “in accordance with the settings of your account, we show you personalized ads based on the information gathered from your combined activity on Google and YouTube” (the section in the second red rectangle).

Figure 1: ACGM Google decision, p. 7

After creating a Google ID, a pop-up once again reminds the user that “this Google account is configured to include the personalization function, which provides tips and personalized ads based on the information saved on your account. [And that] you can select ‘other options’ to change the personalization settings as well as the information saved in your account.”

The AGCM sees two problems with this. First, the user must click on “Privacy and Terms” to be told what Google does with their data and why. Viewing this information is not simply an unavoidable step in the registration process. Second, the AGCM finds it unacceptable that the commercial use of data is listed together with other, non-commercial uses, such as improved quality, security, etc. (the other items listed in Figure 1). The allegation is that this leads to confusion and makes it less likely that users will notice the commercial aspects of data usage.

A similar argument is made in the Apple decision, where the AGCM similarly contends that users are not properly informed that their data may be used for commercial purposes. As shown in Figure 2, upon creating an Apple ID, users are asked to consent to receive “communications” (notifications, tips, and updates on Apple products, services, and software) and “Apps, music, TV, and other” (latest releases, exclusive content, special offers, tips on apps, music, films, TV programs, books, podcasts, Apple Pay and others).

Figure 2: AGCM Apple decision, p. 8

If users click on “see how your data is managed”—located just above the “Continue” button, as shown in Figure 2—they are taken to another page, where they are given more detailed information about what data Apple collects and how it is used. Apple discloses that it may employ user data to send communications and marketing e-mails about new products and services. Categories are clearly delineated and users are reminded that, if they wish to change their marketing email preferences, they can do so by going to appleid.apple.com. The word “data” is used 40 times and the taxonomy of the kind of data gathered by Apple is truly comprehensive. See for yourself.

The App Store, Apple Book Store, and iTunes Store have similar clickable options (“see how your data is managed”) that lead to pages with detailed information about how Apple uses data. This includes unambiguous references to so-called “commercial use” (e.g., “Apple uses information on your purchases, downloads, and other activities to send you tailored ads and notifications relative to Apple marketing campaigns.”)

But these disclosures failed to convince the AGCM that users are sufficiently aware that their data may be used for commercial purposes. The two reasons cited in the opinion mirror those in the Google decision. First, the authority claims that the design of the “see how your data is managed” option does not “induce the user to click on it” (see the marked area in Figure 2). Further, it notes that accessing the “Apple ID Privacy” page requires a “voluntary and eventual [i.e., hypothetical]” action by the user. According to the AGCM, this leads to a situation in which “the average user” is not “directly and intuitively” aware of the magnitude of data used for commercial purposes, and is instead led to believe that data is shared to improve the functionality of the Apple product and the Apple ecosystem.

The Second Claim

The AGCM’s second claim contends that the opt-out mechanism used by both Apple and Google “limits and conditions” users’ freedom of choice by nudging them toward the companies’ preferred option—i.e., granting the widest possible consent to process data for commercial use.

In Google’s case, the AGCM first notes that, when creating a Google ID, a user must take an additional discretionary step before they can opt out of data sharing. This refers to mechanism in which a user must click the words “OTHER OPTIONS,” in bright blue capitalized font, as shown in Figure 3 below (first blue rectangle, upper right corner).

Figure 3: AGCM Google decision, p. 22

The AGCM’s complaint here is that it is insufficient to grant users merely the possibility of opting out, as Google does. Rather, the authority contends, users must be explicitly asked whether they wish to share their data. As in the first claim, the AGCM holds that questions relating to the commercial use of data must be woven in as unavoidable steps in the registration process.

The AGCM also posits that the opt-out mechanism itself (in the lower left corner of Figure 3) “restricts and conditions” users’ freedom of choice by preventing them from “expressly and preventively” manifesting their real preferences. The contention is that, if presented with an opt-in checkbox, users would choose differently—and thus, from the authority’s point of view, choose correctly. Indeed, the AGCM concludes from the fact that the vast majority of users have not opted out from data sharing (80-100%, according to the authority), that the only reasonable conclusion is that “a significant number of subscribers have been induced to make a commercial decision without being aware of it.”

A similar argument is made in the Apple decision. Here, the issue is the supposed difficulty of the opt-out mechanism, which the AGCM describes as “intricate and non-immediate.” If a user wishes to opt out of data sharing, he or she would not only have to “uncheck” the checkboxes displayed in Figure 2, but also do the same in the Apple Store with respect to their preferences for other individual Apple products. This “intricate” process generally involves two to three steps. For instance, to opt out of “personalized tips,” a user must first go to Settings, then select their name, then multimedia files, and then “deactivate personalized tips.”

According to the AGCM, the registration process is set up in such a way that the users’ consent is not informed, free, and specific. It concludes:

The consumer, entangled in this system, of which he is not aware, is conditioned in his choices, undergoing the transfer of his data, which the professional can dispose of for his own promotional purposes.

The AGCM’s decisions fail on three fronts. They are speculative, paternalistic, and subject to the Nirvana Fallacy. They are also underpinned by an extremely uncharitable conception of what the “average user” knows and understands.

Epistemic Modesty Under Uncertainty

The AGCM makes far-reaching and speculative assumptions about user behavior based on incomplete knowledge. For instance, both Google and Apple’s registration processes make clear that they gather users’ data for advertising purposes—which, especially in the relevant context, cannot be interpreted by a user as anything but “commercial” (even under the AGCM’s pessimistic assumptions about the “average user.”) It’s true that the disclosure requires the user to click “see how your data is managed” (Apple) or “Privacy and Terms” (Google). But it’s not at all clear that this is less transparent than, say, the obligatory scroll-text that most users will ignore before blindly clicking to accept.

For example, in registering for a Blizzard account (a gaming service), users are forced to read the company’s lengthy terms and conditions, with information on the “commercial use” of data buried somewhere in a seven-page document of legalese. Does it really follow from this that Blizzard users are better informed about the commercial use of their data? I don’t think so.

Rather than the obligatory scroll-text, the AGCM may have in mind some sort of pop-up screen. But would this mean that companies should also include separate, obligatory pop-ups for every other relevant aspect of their terms and conditions? This would presumably take us back to square one, as the AGCM’s complaint was that Google amalgamated commercial and non-commercial uses of data under the same title. Perhaps the pop-up for the commercial use of data would have to be made more conspicuous. This would presumably require a normative hierarchy of the companies’ terms and conditions, listed in order of relevance for users. That would raise other thorny questions. For instance, should information about the commercial use of data be more prominently displayed than information about safety and security?

A reasonable alternative—especially under conditions of uncertainty—would be to leave Google and Apple alone to determine the best way to inform consumers, because nobody reads the terms and conditions anyway, no matter how they are presented. Moreover, the AGCM offers no evidence to support its contention that companies’ opt-out mechanisms lead more users to share their data than would freely choose to do so.

Whose Preferences?

The AGCM also replaces revealed user preferences with its own view of what those preferences should be. For instance, the AGCM doesn’t explain why opting to share data for commercial purposes would be, in principle, a bad thing. There are a number of plausible and legitimate explanations for why a user would opt for more generous data-sharing arrangements: they may believe that data sharing will improve their experience; may wish to receive tailored ads rather than generic ones; or may simply value a company’s product and see data sharing as a fair exchange. None of these explanations—or, indeed, any others—are ever contemplated in the AGCM decision.

Assuming that opt-outs, facultative terms and conditions screens, and two-to-three-step procedures to change one’s preferences truncate users’ “freedom of choice” is paternalistic and divorced from the reality of the average person, and the average Italian.

Ideal or Illegal?

At the heart of the AGCM decisions is the notion that it is proper to punish market actors wherever the real doesn’t match a regulator’s vision of the ideal—commonly known as “the Nirvana fallacy.” When the AGCM claims that Apple and Google do not properly disclose the commercial use of user data, or that the offered opt-out mechanism is opaque or manipulative, the question is: compared to what? There will always be theoretically “better” ways of granting users the choice to opt out of sharing their data. The test should not be whether a company falls short of some ideal imagined practice, but whether the existing mechanism actually deceives users.

There is nothing in the AGCM’s decisions to suggest that it does. Depending on how precipitously one lowers the bar for what the “average user” would understand, just about any intervention might be justified, in principle. But to justify the AGCM’s intervention in this case requires stretching the plausible ignorance of the average user to its absolute theoretical limits.

Conclusion

Even if a court were to buy the AGCM’s impossibly low view of the “average user” and grant the first claim—which would be unfortunate, but plausible — not even the most liberal reading of Articles 24 and 25 can support the view that “overly complex, non-immediate” opt-outs, as interpreted by the AGCM, limit users’ freedom of choice in any way comparable to the type of conduct described in those provisions (coercion, blackmail, verbal threats, etc.)

The AGCM decisions are shot through with unsubstantiated assumptions about users’ habits and preferences, and risk imposing undue burdens not only on the companies, but on users themselves. With some luck, they will be stricken down by a sensible judge. In the meantime, however, the trend of regulatory paternalism and over-enforcement continues. Much like in the United States, where the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has occasionally engaged in product-design decisions that substitute the commission’s own preferences for those of consumers, regulators around the world continue to think they know better than consumers about what’s in their best interests.

On both sides of the Atlantic, 2021 has seen legislative and regulatory proposals to mandate that various digital services be made interoperable with others. Several bills to do so have been proposed in Congress; the EU’s proposed Digital Markets Act would mandate interoperability in certain contexts for “gatekeeper” platforms; and the UK’s competition regulator will be given powers to require interoperability as part of a suite of “pro-competitive interventions” that are hoped to increase competition in digital markets.

The European Commission plans to require Apple to use USB-C charging ports on iPhones to allow interoperability among different chargers (to save, the Commission estimates, two grams of waste per-European per-year). Interoperability demands for forms of interoperability have been at the center of at least two major lawsuits: Epic’s case against Apple and a separate lawsuit against Apple by the app called Coronavirus Reporter. In July, a group of pro-intervention academics published a white paper calling interoperability “the ‘Super Tool’ of Digital Platform Governance.”

What is meant by the term “interoperability” varies widely. It can refer to relatively narrow interventions in which user data from one service is made directly portable to other services, rather than the user having to download and later re-upload it. At the other end of the spectrum, it could mean regulations to require virtually any vertical integration be unwound. (Should a Tesla’s engine be “interoperable” with the chassis of a Land Rover?) And in between are various proposals for specific applications of interoperability—some product working with another made by another company.

Why Isn’t Everything Interoperable?

The world is filled with examples of interoperability that arose through the (often voluntary) adoption of standards. Credit card companies oversee massive interoperable payments networks; screwdrivers are interoperable with screws made by other manufacturers, although different standards exist; many U.S. colleges accept credits earned at other accredited institutions. The containerization revolution in shipping is an example of interoperability leading to enormous efficiency gains, with a government subsidy to encourage the adoption of a single standard.

And interoperability can emerge over time. Microsoft Word used to be maddeningly non-interoperable with other word processors. Once OpenOffice entered the market, Microsoft patched its product to support OpenOffice files; Word documents now work slightly better with products like Google Docs, as well.

But there are also lots of things that could be interoperable but aren’t, like the Tesla motors that can’t easily be removed and added to other vehicles. The charging cases for Apple’s AirPods and Sony’s wireless earbuds could, in principle, be shaped to be interoperable. Medical records could, in principle, be standardized and made interoperable among healthcare providers, and it’s easy to imagine some of the benefits that could come from being able to plug your medical history into apps like MyFitnessPal and Apple Health. Keurig pods could, in principle, be interoperable with Nespresso machines. Your front door keys could, in principle, be made interoperable with my front door lock.

The reason not everything is interoperable like this is because interoperability comes with costs as well as benefits. It may be worth letting different earbuds have different designs because, while it means we sacrifice easy interoperability, we gain the ability for better designs to be brought to market and for consumers to have choice among different kinds. We may find that, while digital health records are wonderful in theory, the compliance costs of a standardized format might outweigh those benefits.

Manufacturers may choose to sell an expensive device with a relatively cheap upfront price tag, relying on consumer “lock in” for a stream of supplies and updates to finance the “full” price over time, provided the consumer likes it enough to keep using it.

Interoperability can remove a layer of security. I don’t want my bank account to be interoperable with any payments app, because it increases the risk of getting scammed. What I like about my front door lock is precisely that it isn’t interoperable with anyone else’s key. Lots of people complain about popular Twitter accounts being obnoxious, rabble-rousing, and stupid; it’s not difficult to imagine the benefits of a new, similar service that wanted everyone to start from the same level and so did not allow users to carry their old Twitter following with them.

There thus may be particular costs that prevent interoperability from being worth the tradeoff, such as that:

  1. It might be too costly to implement and/or maintain.
  2. It might prescribe a certain product design and prevent experimentation and innovation.
  3. It might add too much complexity and/or confusion for users, who may prefer not to have certain choices.
  4. It might increase the risk of something not working, or of security breaches.
  5. It might prevent certain pricing models that increase output.
  6. It might compromise some element of the product or service that benefits specifically from not being interoperable.

In a market that is functioning reasonably well, we should be able to assume that competition and consumer choice will discover the desirable degree of interoperability among different products. If there are benefits to making your product interoperable with others that outweigh the costs of doing so, that should give you an advantage over competitors and allow you to compete them away. If the costs outweigh the benefits, the opposite will happen—consumers will choose products that are not interoperable with each other.

In short, we cannot infer from the absence of interoperability that something is wrong, since we frequently observe that the costs of interoperability outweigh the benefits.

Of course, markets do not always lead to optimal outcomes. In cases where a market is “failing”—e.g., because competition is obstructed, or because there are important externalities that are not accounted for by the market’s prices—certain goods may be under-provided. In the case of interoperability, this can happen if firms struggle to coordinate upon a single standard, or because firms’ incentives to establish a standard are not aligned with the social optimum (i.e., interoperability might be optimal and fail to emerge, or vice versa).

But the analysis cannot stop here: just because a market might not be functioning well and does not currently provide some form of interoperability, we cannot assume that if it was functioning well that it would provide interoperability.

Interoperability for Digital Platforms

Since we know that many clearly functional markets and products do not provide all forms of interoperability that we could imagine them providing, it is perfectly possible that many badly functioning markets and products would still not provide interoperability, even if they did not suffer from whatever has obstructed competition or effective coordination in that market. In these cases, imposing interoperability would destroy value.

It would therefore be a mistake to assume that more interoperability in digital markets would be better, even if you believe that those digital markets suffer from too little competition. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Facebook/Meta has market power that allows it to keep its subsidiary WhatsApp from being interoperable with other competing services. Even then, we still would not know if WhatsApp users would want that interoperability, given the trade-offs.

A look at smaller competitors like Telegram and Signal, which we have no reason to believe have market power, demonstrates that they also are not interoperable with other messaging services. Signal is run by a nonprofit, and thus has little incentive to obstruct users for the sake of market power. Why does it not provide interoperability? I don’t know, but I would speculate that the security risks and technical costs of doing so outweigh the expected benefit to Signal’s users. If that is true, it seems strange to assume away the potential costs of making WhatsApp interoperable, especially if those costs may relate to things like security or product design.

Interoperability and Contact-Tracing Apps

A full consideration of the trade-offs is also necessary to evaluate the lawsuit that Coronavirus Reporter filed against Apple. Coronavirus Reporter was a COVID-19 contact-tracing app that Apple rejected from the App Store in March 2020. Its makers are now suing Apple for, they say, stifling competition in the contact-tracing market. Apple’s defense is that it only allowed COVID-19 apps from “recognised entities such as government organisations, health-focused NGOs, companies deeply credentialed in health issues, and medical or educational institutions.” In effect, by barring it from the App Store, and offering no other way to install the app, Apple denied Coronavirus Reporter interoperability with the iPhone. Coronavirus Reporter argues it should be punished for doing so.

No doubt, Apple’s decision did reduce competition among COVID-19 contact tracing apps. But increasing competition among COVID-19 contact-tracing apps via mandatory interoperability might have costs in other parts of the market. It might, for instance, confuse users who would like a very straightforward way to download their country’s official contact-tracing app. Or it might require access to certain data that users might not want to share, preferring to let an intermediary like Apple decide for them. Narrowing choice like this can be valuable, since it means individual users don’t have to research every single possible option every time they buy or use some product. If you don’t believe me, turn off your spam filter for a few days and see how you feel.

In this case, the potential costs of the access that Coronavirus Reporter wants are obvious: while it may have had the best contact-tracing service in the world, sorting it from other less reliable and/or scrupulous apps may have been difficult and the risk to users may have outweighed the benefits. As Apple and Facebook/Meta constantly point out, the security risks involved in making their services more interoperable are not trivial.

It isn’t competition among COVID-19 apps that is important, per se. As ever, competition is a means to an end, and maximizing it in one context—via, say, mandatory interoperability—cannot be judged without knowing the trade-offs that maximization requires. Even if we thought of Apple as a monopolist over iPhone users—ignoring the fact that Apple’s iPhones obviously are substitutable with Android devices to a significant degree—it wouldn’t follow that the more interoperability, the better.

A ‘Super Tool’ for Digital Market Intervention?

The Coronavirus Reporter example may feel like an “easy” case for opponents of mandatory interoperability. Of course we don’t want anything calling itself a COVID-19 app to have totally open access to people’s iPhones! But what’s vexing about mandatory interoperability is that it’s very hard to sort the sensible applications from the silly ones, and most proposals don’t even try. The leading U.S. House proposal for mandatory interoperability, the ACCESS Act, would require that platforms “maintain a set of transparent, third-party-accessible interfaces (including application programming interfaces) to facilitate and maintain interoperability with a competing business or a potential competing business,” based on APIs designed by the Federal Trade Commission.

The only nod to the costs of this requirement are provisions that further require platforms to set “reasonably necessary” security standards, and a provision to allow the removal of third-party apps that don’t “reasonably secure” user data. No other costs of mandatory interoperability are acknowledged at all.

The same goes for the even more substantive proposals for mandatory interoperability. Released in July 2021, “Equitable Interoperability: The ‘Super Tool’ of Digital Platform Governance” is co-authored by some of the most esteemed competition economists in the business. While it details obscure points about matters like how chat groups might work across interoperable chat services, it is virtually silent on any of the costs or trade-offs of its proposals. Indeed, the first “risk” the report identifies is that regulators might be too slow to impose interoperability in certain cases! It reads like interoperability has been asked what its biggest weaknesses are in a job interview.

Where the report does acknowledge trade-offs—for example, interoperability making it harder for a service to monetize its user base, who can just bypass ads on the service by using a third-party app that blocks them—it just says that the overseeing “technical committee or regulator may wish to create conduct rules” to decide.

Ditto with the objection that mandatory interoperability might limit differentiation among competitors – like, for example, how imposing the old micro-USB standard on Apple might have stopped us from getting the Lightning port. Again, they punt: “We recommend that the regulator or the technical committee consult regularly with market participants and allow the regulated interface to evolve in response to market needs.”

But if we could entrust this degree of product design to regulators, weighing the costs of a feature against its benefits, we wouldn’t need markets or competition at all. And the report just assumes away many other obvious costs: “​​the working hypothesis we use in this paper is that the governance issues are more of a challenge than the technical issues.” Despite its illustrious panel of co-authors, the report fails to grapple with the most basic counterargument possible: its proposals have costs as well as benefits, and it’s not straightforward to decide which is bigger than which.

Strangely, the report includes a section that “looks ahead” to “Google’s Dominance Over the Internet of Things.” This, the report says, stems from the company’s “market power in device OS’s [that] allows Google to set licensing conditions that position Google to maintain its monopoly and extract rents from these industries in future.” The report claims this inevitability can only be avoided by imposing interoperability requirements.

The authors completely ignore that a smart home interoperability standard has already been developed, backed by a group of 170 companies that include Amazon, Apple, and Google, as well as SmartThings, IKEA, and Samsung. It is open source and, in principle, should allow a Google Home speaker to work with, say, an Amazon Ring doorbell. In markets where consumers really do want interoperability, it can emerge without a regulator requiring it, even if some companies have apparent incentive not to offer it.

If You Build It, They Still Might Not Come

Much of the case for interoperability interventions rests on the presumption that the benefits will be substantial. It’s hard to know how powerful network effects really are in preventing new competitors from entering digital markets, and none of the more substantial reports cited by the “Super Tool” report really try.

In reality, the cost of switching among services or products is never zero. Simply pointing out that particular costs—such as network effect-created switching costs—happen to exist doesn’t tell us much. In practice, many users are happy to multi-home across different services. I use at least eight different messaging apps every day (Signal, WhatsApp, Twitter DMs, Slack, Discord, Instagram DMs, Google Chat, and iMessage/SMS). I don’t find it particularly costly to switch among them, and have been happy to adopt new services that seemed to offer something new. Discord has built a thriving 150-million-user business, despite these switching costs. What if people don’t actually care if their Instagram DMs are interoperable with Slack?

None of this is to argue that interoperability cannot be useful. But it is often overhyped, and it is difficult to do in practice (because of those annoying trade-offs). After nearly five years, Open Banking in the UK—cited by the “Super Tool” report as an example of what it wants for other markets—still isn’t really finished yet in terms of functionality. It has required an enormous amount of time and investment by all parties involved and has yet to deliver obvious benefits in terms of consumer outcomes, let alone greater competition among the current accounts that have been made interoperable with other services. (My analysis of the lessons of Open Banking for other services is here.) Phone number portability, which is also cited by the “Super Tool” report, is another example of how hard even simple interventions can be to get right.

The world is filled with cases where we could imagine some benefits from interoperability but choose not to have them, because the costs are greater still. None of this is to say that interoperability mandates can never work, but their benefits can be oversold, especially when their costs are ignored. Many of mandatory interoperability’s more enthusiastic advocates should remember that such trade-offs exist—even for policies they really, really like.

A bipartisan group of senators unveiled legislation today that would dramatically curtail the ability of online platforms to “self-preference” their own services—for example, when Apple pre-installs its own Weather or Podcasts apps on the iPhone, giving it an advantage that independent apps don’t have. The measure accompanies a House bill that included similar provisions, with some changes.

1. The Senate bill closely resembles the House version, and the small improvements will probably not amount to much in practice.

The major substantive changes we have seen between the House bill and the Senate version are:

  1. Violations in Section 2(a) have been modified to refer only to conduct that “unfairly” preferences, limits, or discriminates between the platform’s products and others, and that “materially harm[s] competition on the covered platform,” rather than banning all preferencing, limits, or discrimination.
  2. The evidentiary burden required throughout the bill has been changed from  “clear and convincing” to a “preponderance of evidence” (in other words, greater than 50%).
  3. An affirmative defense has been added to permit a platform to escape liability if it can establish that challenged conduct that “was narrowly tailored, was nonpretextual, and was necessary to… maintain or enhance the core functionality of the covered platform.”
  4. The minimum market capitalization for “covered platforms” has been lowered from $600 billion to $550 billion.
  5. The Senate bill would assess fines of 15% of revenues from the period during which the conduct occurred, in contrast with the House bill, which set fines equal to the greater of either 15% of prior-year revenues or 30% of revenues from the period during which the conduct occurred.
  6. Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill does not create a private right of action. Only the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and state attorneys-generals could bring enforcement actions on the basis of the bill.

Item one here certainly mitigates the most extreme risks of the House bill, which was drafted, bizarrely, to ban all “preferencing” or “discrimination” by platforms. If that were made law, it could literally have broken much of the Internet. The softened language reduces that risk somewhat.

However, Section 2(b), which lists types of conduct that would presumptively establish a violation under Section 2(a), is largely unchanged. As outlined here, this would amount to a broad ban on a wide swath of beneficial conduct. And “unfair” and “material” are notoriously slippery concepts. As a practical matter, their inclusion here may not significantly alter the course of enforcement under the Senate legislation from what would ensue under the House version.

Item three, which allows challenged conduct to be defended if it is “necessary to… maintain or enhance the core functionality of the covered platform,” may also protect some conduct. But because the bill requires companies to prove that challenged conduct is not only beneficial, but necessary to realize those benefits, it effectively implements a “guilty until proven innocent” standard that is likely to prove impossible to meet. The threat of permanent injunctions and enormous fines will mean that, in many cases, companies simply won’t be able to justify the expense of endeavoring to improve even the “core functionality” of their platforms in any way that could trigger the bill’s liability provisions. Thus, again, as a practical matter, the difference between the Senate and House bills may be only superficial.

The effect of this will likely be to diminish product innovation in these areas, because companies could not know in advance whether the benefits of doing so would be worth the legal risk. We have previously highlighted existing conduct that may be lost if a bill like this passes, such as pre-installation of apps or embedding maps and other “rich” results in boxes on search engine results pages. But the biggest loss may be things we don’t even know about yet, that just never happen because the reward from experimentation is not worth the risk of being found to be “discriminating” against a competitor.

We dove into the House bill in Breaking Down the American Choice and Innovation Online Act and Breaking Down House Democrats’ Forthcoming Competition Bills.

2. The prohibition on “unfair self-preferencing” is vague and expansive and will make Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple’s products worse. Consumers don’t want digital platforms to be dumb pipes, or to act like a telephone network or sewer system. The Internet is filled with a superabundance of information and options, as well as a host of malicious actors. Good digital platforms act as middlemen, sorting information in useful ways and taking on some of the risk that exists when, inevitably, we end up doing business with untrustworthy actors.

When users have the choice, they tend to prefer platforms that do quite a bit of “discrimination”—that is, favoring some sellers over others, or offering their own related products or services through the platform. Most people prefer Amazon to eBay because eBay is chaotic and riskier to use.

Competitors that decry self-preferencing by the largest platforms—integrating two different products with each other, like putting a maps box showing only the search engine’s own maps on a search engine results page—argue that the conduct is enabled only by a platform’s market dominance and does not benefit consumers.

Yet these companies often do exactly the same thing in their own products, regardless of whether they have market power. Yelp includes a map on its search results page, not just restaurant listings. DuckDuckGo does the same. If these companies offer these features, it is presumably because they think their users want such results. It seems perfectly plausible that Google does the same because it thinks its users—literally the same users, in most cases—also want them.

Fundamentally, and as we discuss in Against the Vertical Disrcimination Presumption, there is simply no sound basis to enact such a bill (even in a slightly improved version):

The notion that self-preferencing by platforms is harmful to innovation is entirely speculative. Moreover, it is flatly contrary to a range of studies showing that the opposite is likely true. In reality, platform competition is more complicated than simple theories of vertical discrimination would have it, and there is certainly no basis for a presumption of harm.

We discussed self-preferencing further in Platform Self-Preferencing Can Be Good for Consumers and Even Competitors, and showed that platform “discrimination” is often what consumers want from digital platforms in On the Origin of Platforms: An Evolutionary Perspective.

3. The bill massively empowers an FTC that seems intent to use antitrust to achieve political goals. The House bill would enable competitors to pepper covered platforms with frivolous lawsuits. The bill’s sponsors presumably hope that removing the private right of action will help to avoid that. But the bill still leaves intact a much more serious risk to the rule of law: the bill’s provisions are so broad that federal antitrust regulators will have enormous discretion over which cases they take.

This means that whoever is running the FTC and DOJ will be able to threaten covered platforms with a broad array of lawsuits, potentially to influence or control their conduct in other, unrelated areas. While some supporters of the bill regard this as a positive, most antitrust watchers would greet this power with much greater skepticism. Fundamentally, both bills grant antitrust enforcers wildly broad powers to pursue goals unrelated to competition. FTC Chair Lina Khan has, for example, argued that “the dispersion of political and economic control” ought to be antitrust’s goal. Commissioner Rebecca Kelly-Slaughter has argued that antitrust should be “antiracist”.

Whatever the desirability of these goals, the broad discretionary authority the bills confer on the antitrust agencies means that individual commissioners may have significantly greater scope to pursue the goals that they believe to be right, rather than Congress.

See discussions of this point at What Lina Khan’s Appointment Means for the House Antitrust Bills, Republicans Should Tread Carefully as They Consider ‘Solutions’ to Big Tech, The Illiberal Vision of Neo-Brandeisian Antitrust, and Alden Abbott’s discussion of FTC Antitrust Enforcement and the Rule of Law.

4. The bill adopts European principles of competition regulation. These are, to put it mildly, not obviously conducive to the sort of innovation and business growth that Americans may expect. Europe has no tech giants of its own, a condition that shows little sign of changing. Apple, alone, is worth as much as the top 30 companies in Germany’s DAX index, and the top 40 in France’s CAC index. Landmark European competition cases have seen Google fined for embedding Shopping results in the Search page—not because it hurt consumers, but because it hurt competing pricecomparison websites.

A fundamental difference between American and European competition regimes is that the U.S. system is far more friendly to businesses that obtain dominant market positions because they have offered better products more cheaply. Under the American system, successful businesses are normally given broad scope to charge high prices and refuse to deal with competitors. This helps to increase the rewards and incentive to innovate and invest in order to obtain that strong market position. The European model is far more burdensome.

The Senate bill adopts a European approach to refusals to deal—the same approach that led the European Commission to fine Microsoft for including Windows Media Player with Windows—and applies it across Big Tech broadly. Adopting this kind of approach may end up undermining elements of U.S. law that support innovation and growth.

For more, see How US and EU Competition Law Differ.

5. The proposals are based on a misunderstanding of the state of competition in the American economy, and of antitrust enforcement. It is widely believed that the U.S. economy has seen diminished competition. This is mistaken, particularly with respect to digital markets. Apparent rises in market concentration and profit margins disappear when we look more closely: local-level concentration is falling even as national-level concentration is rising, driven by more efficient chains setting up more stores in areas that were previously served by only one or two firms.

And markup rises largely disappear after accounting for fixed costs like R&D and marketing.

Where profits are rising, in areas like manufacturing, it appears to be mainly driven by increased productivity, not higher prices. Real prices have not risen in line with markups. Where profitability has increased, it has been mainly driven by falling costs.

Nor have the number of antitrust cases brought by federal antitrust agencies fallen. The likelihood of a merger being challenged more than doubled between 1979 and 2017. And there is little reason to believe that the deterrent effect of antitrust has weakened. Many critics of Big Tech have decided that there must be a problem and have worked backwards from that conclusion, selecting whatever evidence supports it and ignoring the evidence that does not. The consequence of such motivated reasoning is bills like this.

See Geoff’s April 2020 written testimony to the House Judiciary Investigation Into Competition in Digital Markets here.

The American Choice and Innovation Online Act (previously called the Platform Anti-Monopoly Act), introduced earlier this summer by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), would significantly change the nature of digital platforms and, with them, the internet itself. Taken together, the bill’s provisions would turn platforms into passive intermediaries, undermining many of the features that make them valuable to consumers. This seems likely to remain the case even after potential revisions intended to minimize the bill’s unintended consequences.

In its current form, the bill is split into two parts that each is dangerous in its own right. The first, Section 2(a), would prohibit almost any kind of “discrimination” by platforms. Because it is so open-ended, lawmakers might end up removing it in favor of the nominally more focused provisions of Section 2(b), which prohibit certain named conduct. But despite being more specific, this section of the bill is incredibly far-reaching and would effectively ban swaths of essential services.

I will address the potential effects of these sections point-by-point, but both elements of the bill suffer from the same problem: a misguided assumption that “discrimination” by platforms is necessarily bad from a competition and consumer welfare point of view. On the contrary, this conduct is often exactly what consumers want from platforms, since it helps to bring order and legibility to otherwise-unwieldy parts of the Internet. Prohibiting it, as both main parts of the bill do, would make the Internet harder to use and less competitive.

Section 2(a)

Section 2(a) essentially prohibits any behavior by a covered platform that would advantage that platform’s services over any others that also uses that platform; it characterizes this preferencing as “discrimination.”

As we wrote when the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust bills were first announced, this prohibition on “discrimination” is so broad that, if it made it into law, it would prevent platforms from excluding or disadvantaging any product of another business that uses the platform or advantaging their own products over those of their competitors.

The underlying assumption here is that platforms should be like telephone networks: providing a way for different sides of a market to communicate with each other, but doing little more than that. When platforms do do more—for example, manipulating search results to favor certain businesses or to give their own products prominence —it is seen as exploitative “leveraging.”

But consumers often want platforms to be more than just a telephone network or directory, because digital markets would be very difficult to navigate without some degree of “discrimination” between sellers. The Internet is so vast and sellers are often so anonymous that any assistance which helps you choose among options can serve to make it more navigable. As John Gruber put it:

From what I’ve seen over the last few decades, the quality of the user experience of every computing platform is directly correlated to the amount of control exerted by its platform owner. The current state of the ownerless world wide web speaks for itself.

Sometimes, this manifests itself as “self-preferencing” of another service, to reduce additional time spent searching for the information you want. When you search for a restaurant on Google, it can be very useful to get information like user reviews, the restaurant’s phone number, a button on mobile to phone them directly, estimates of how busy it is, and a link to a Maps page to see how to actually get there.

This is, undoubtedly, frustrating for competitors like Yelp, who would like this information not to be there and for users to have to click on either a link to Yelp or a link to Google Maps. But whether it is good or bad for Yelp isn’t relevant to whether it is good for users—and it is at least arguable that it is, which makes a blanket prohibition on this kind of behavior almost inevitably harmful.

If it isn’t obvious why removing this kind of feature would be harmful for users, ask yourself why some users search in Yelp’s app directly for this kind of result. The answer, I think, is that Yelp gives you all the information above that Google does (and sometimes is better, although I tend to trust Google Maps’ reviews over Yelp’s), and it’s really convenient to have all that on the same page. If Google could not provide this kind of “rich” result, many users would probably stop using Google Search to look for restaurant information in the first place, because a new friction would have been added that made the experience meaningfully worse. Removing that option would be good for Yelp, but mainly because it removes a competitor.

If all this feels like stating the obvious, then it should highlight a significant problem with Section 2(a) in the Cicilline bill: it prohibits conduct that is directly value-adding for consumers, and that creates competition for dedicated services like Yelp that object to having to compete with this kind of conduct.

This is true across all the platforms the legislation proposes to regulate. Amazon prioritizes some third-party products over others on the basis of user reviews, rates of returns and complaints, and so on; Amazon provides private label products to fill gaps in certain product lines where existing offerings are expensive or unreliable; Apple pre-installs a Camera app on the iPhone that, obviously, enjoys an advantage over rival apps like Halide.

Some or all of this behavior would be prohibited under Section 2(a) of the Cicilline bill. Combined with the bill’s presumption that conduct must be defended affirmatively—that is, the platform is presumed guilty unless it can prove that the challenged conduct is pro-competitive, which may be very difficult to do—and the bill could prospectively eliminate a huge range of socially valuable behavior.

Supporters of the bill have already been left arguing that the law simply wouldn’t be enforced in these cases of benign discrimination. But this would hardly be an improvement. It would mean the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) have tremendous control over how these platforms are built, since they could challenge conduct in virtually any case. The regulatory uncertainty alone would complicate the calculus for these firms as they refine, develop, and deploy new products and capabilities. 

So one potential compromise might be to do away with this broad-based rule and proscribe specific kinds of “discriminatory” conduct instead. This approach would involve removing Section 2(a) from the bill but retaining Section 2(b), which enumerates 10 practices it deems to be “other discriminatory conduct.” This may seem appealing, as it would potentially avoid the worst abuses of the broad-based prohibition. In practice, however, it would carry many of the same problems. In fact, many of 2(b)’s provisions appear to go even further than 2(a), and would proscribe even more procompetitive conduct that consumers want.

Sections 2(b)(1) and 2(b)(9)

The wording of these provisions is extremely broad and, as drafted, would seem to challenge even the existence of vertically integrated products. As such, these prohibitions are potentially even more extensive and invasive than Section 2(a) would have been. Even a narrower reading here would seem to preclude safety and privacy features that are valuable to many users. iOS’s sandboxing of apps, for example, serves to limit the damage that a malware app can do on a user’s device precisely because of the limitations it imposes on what other features and hardware the app can access.

Section 2(b)(2)

This provision would preclude a firm from conditioning preferred status on use of another service from that firm. This would likely undermine the purpose of platforms, which is to absorb and counter some of the risks involved in doing business online. An example of this is Amazon’s tying eligibility for its Prime program to sellers that use Amazon’s delivery service (FBA – Fulfilled By Amazon). The bill seems to presume in an example like this that Amazon is leveraging its power in the market—in the form of the value of the Prime label—to profit from delivery. But Amazon could, and already does, charge directly for listing positions; it’s unclear why it would benefit from charging via FBA when it could just charge for the Prime label.

An alternate, simpler explanation is that FBA improves the quality of the service, by granting customers greater assurance that a Prime product will arrive when Amazon says it will. Platforms add value by setting out rules and providing services that reduce the uncertainties between buyers and sellers they’d otherwise experience if they transacted directly with each other. This section’s prohibition—which, as written, would seem to prevent any kind of quality assurance—likely would bar labelling by a platform, even where customers explicitly want it.

Section 2(b)(3)

As written, this would prohibit platforms from using aggregated data to improve their services at all. If Apple found that 99% of its users uninstalled an app immediately after it was installed, it would be reasonable to conclude that the app may be harmful or broken in some way, and that Apple should investigate. This provision would ban that.

Sections 2(b)(4) and 2(b)(6)

These two provisions effectively prohibit a platform from using information it does not also provide to sellers. Such prohibitions ignore the fact that it is often good for sellers to lack certain information, since withholding information can prevent abuse by malicious users. For example, a seller may sometimes try to bribe their customers to post positive reviews of their products, or even threaten customers who have posted negative ones. Part of the role of a platform is to combat that kind of behavior by acting as a middleman and forcing both consumer users and business users to comply with the platform’s own mechanisms to control that kind of behavior.

If this seems overly generous to platforms—since, obviously, it gives them a lot of leverage over business users—ask yourself why people use platforms at all. It is not a coincidence that people often prefer Amazon to dealing with third-party merchants and having to navigate those merchants’ sites themselves. The assurance that Amazon provides is extremely valuable for users. Much of it comes from the company’s ability to act as a middleman in this way, lowering the transaction costs between buyers and sellers.

Section 2(b)(5)

This provision restricts the treatment of defaults. It is, however, relatively restrained when compared to, for example, the DOJ’s lawsuit against Google, which treats as anticompetitive even payment for defaults that can be changed. Still, many of the arguments that apply in that case also apply here: default status for apps can be a way to recoup income foregone elsewhere (e.g., a browser provided for free that makes its money by selling the right to be the default search engine).

Section 2(b)(7)

This section gets to the heart of why “discrimination” can often be procompetitive: that it facilitates competition between platforms. The kind of self-preferencing that this provision would prohibit can allow firms that have a presence in one market to extend that position into another, increasing competition in the process. Both Apple and Amazon have used their customer bases in smartphones and e-commerce, respectively, to grow their customer bases for video streaming, in competition with Netflix, Google’s YouTube, cable television, and each other. If Apple designed a search engine to compete with Google, it would do exactly the same thing, and we would be better off because of it. Restricting this kind of behavior is, perversely, exactly what you would do if you wanted to shield these incumbents from competition.

Section 2(b)(8)

As with other provisions, this one would preclude one of the mechanisms by which platforms add value: creating assurance for customers about the products they can expect if they visit the platform. Some of this relates to child protection; some of the most frustrating stories involve children being overcharged when they use an iPhone or Android app, and effectively being ripped off because of poor policing of the app (or insufficiently strict pricing rules by Apple or Google). This may also relate to rules that state that the seller cannot offer a cheaper product elsewhere (Amazon’s “General Pricing Rule” does this, for example). Prohibiting this would simply impose a tax on customers who cannot shop around and would prefer to use a platform that they trust has the lowest prices for the item they want.

Section 2(b)(10)

Ostensibly a “whistleblower” provision, this section could leave platforms with no recourse, not even removing a user from its platform, in response to spurious complaints intended purely to extract value for the complaining business rather than to promote competition. On its own, this sort of provision may be fairly harmless, but combined with the provisions above, it allows the bill to add up to a rent-seekers’ charter.

Conclusion

In each case above, it’s vital to remember that a reversed burden of proof applies. So, there is a high chance that the law will side against the defendant business, and a large downside for conduct that ends up being found to violate these provisions. That means that platforms will likely err on the side of caution in many cases, avoiding conduct that is ambiguous, and society will probably lose a lot of beneficial behavior in the process.

Put together, the provisions undermine much of what has become an Internet platform’s role: to act as an intermediary, de-risk transactions between customers and merchants who don’t know each other, and tweak the rules of the market to maximize its attractiveness as a place to do business. The “discrimination” that the bill would outlaw is, in practice, behavior that makes it easier for consumers to navigate marketplaces of extreme complexity and uncertainty, in which they often know little or nothing about the firms with whom they are trying to transact business.

Customers do not want platforms to be neutral, open utilities. They can choose platforms that are like that already, such as eBay. They generally tend to prefer ones like Amazon, which are not neutral and which carefully cultivate their service to be as streamlined, managed, and “discriminatory” as possible. Indeed, many of people’s biggest complaints with digital platforms relate to their openness: the fake reviews, counterfeit products, malware, and spam that come with letting more unknown businesses use your service. While these may be unavoidable by-products of running a platform, platforms compete on their ability to ferret them out. Customers are unlikely to thank legislators for regulating Amazon into being another eBay.

In a recent op-ed, Robert Bork Jr. laments the Biden administration’s drive to jettison the Consumer Welfare Standard that has formed nearly half a century of antitrust jurisprudence. The move can be seen in the near-revolution at the Federal Trade Commission, in the president’s executive order on competition enforcement, and in several of the major antitrust bills currently before Congress.

Bork notes the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act, introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), would “outlaw any mergers or acquisitions for the more than 80 large U.S. companies valued over $100 billion.”

Bork is correct that it will be more than 80 companies, but it is likely to be way more. While the Klobuchar bill does not explicitly outlaw such mergers, under certain circumstances, it shifts the burden of proof to the merging parties, who must demonstrate that the benefits of the transaction outweigh the potential risks. Under current law, the burden is on the government to demonstrate the potential costs outweigh the potential benefits.

One of the measure’s specific triggers for this burden-shifting is if the acquiring party has a market capitalization, assets, or annual net revenue of more than $100 billion and seeks a merger or acquisition valued at $50 million or more. About 120 or more U.S. companies satisfy at least one of these conditions. The end of this post provides a list of publicly traded companies, according to Zacks’ stock screener, that would likely be subject to the shift in burden of proof.

If the goal is to go after Big Tech, the Klobuchar bill hits the mark. All of the FAANG companies—Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Alphabet (formerly known as Google)—satisfy one or more of the criteria. So do Microsoft and PayPal.

But even some smaller tech firms will be subject to the shift in burden of proof. Zoom and Square have market caps that would trigger under Klobuchar’s bill and Snap is hovering around $100 billion in market cap. Twitter and eBay, however, are well under any of the thresholds. Likewise, privately owned Advance Communications, owner of Reddit, would also likely fall short of any of the triggers.

Snapchat has a little more than 300 million monthly active users. Twitter and Reddit each have about 330 million monthly active users. Nevertheless, under the Klobuchar bill, Snapchat is presumed to have more market power than either Twitter or Reddit, simply because the market assigns a higher valuation to Snap.

But this bill is about more than Big Tech. Tesla, which sold its first car only 13 years ago, is now considered big enough that it will face the same antitrust scrutiny as the Big 3 automakers. Walmart, Costco, and Kroger would be subject to the shifted burden of proof, while Safeway and Publix would escape such scrutiny. An acquisition by U.S.-based Nike would be put under the microscope, but a similar acquisition by Germany’s Adidas would not fall under the Klobuchar bill’s thresholds.

Tesla accounts for less than 2% of the vehicles sold in the United States. I have no idea what Walmart, Costco, Kroger, or Nike’s market share is, or even what comprises “the” market these companies compete in. What we do know is that the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission excel at narrowly crafting market definitions so that just about any company can be defined as dominant.

So much of the recent interest in antitrust has focused on Big Tech. But even the biggest of Big Tech firms operate in dynamic and competitive markets. None of my four children use Facebook or Twitter. My wife and I don’t use Snapchat. We all use Netflix, but we also use Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, YouTube, and Amazon Prime Video. None of these services have a monopoly on our eyeballs, our attention, or our pocketbooks.

The antitrust bills currently working their way through Congress abandon the long-standing balancing of pro- versus anti-competitive effects of mergers in favor of a “big is bad” approach. While the Klobuchar bill appears to provide clear guidance on the thresholds triggering a shift in the burden of proof, the arbitrary nature of the thresholds will result in arbitrary application of the burden of proof. If passed, we will soon be faced with a case in which two firms who differ only in market cap, assets, or sales will be subject to very different antitrust scrutiny, resulting in regulatory chaos.

Publicly traded companies with more than $100 billion in market capitalization

3MDanaher Corp.PepsiCo
Abbott LaboratoriesDeere & Co.Pfizer
AbbVieEli Lilly and Co.Philip Morris International
Adobe Inc.ExxonMobilProcter & Gamble
Advanced Micro DevicesFacebook Inc.Qualcomm
Alphabet Inc.General Electric Co.Raytheon Technologies
AmazonGoldman SachsSalesforce
American ExpressHoneywellServiceNow
American TowerIBMSquare Inc.
AmgenIntelStarbucks
Apple Inc.IntuitTarget Corp.
Applied MaterialsIntuitive SurgicalTesla Inc.
AT&TJohnson & JohnsonTexas Instruments
Bank of AmericaJPMorgan ChaseThe Coca-Cola Co.
Berkshire HathawayLockheed MartinThe Estée Lauder Cos.
BlackRockLowe’sThe Home Depot
BoeingMastercardThe Walt Disney Co.
Bristol Myers SquibbMcDonald’sThermo Fisher Scientific
Broadcom Inc.MedtronicT-Mobile US
Caterpillar Inc.Merck & Co.Union Pacific Corp.
Charles Schwab Corp.MicrosoftUnited Parcel Service
Charter CommunicationsMorgan StanleyUnitedHealth Group
Chevron Corp.NetflixVerizon Communications
Cisco SystemsNextEra EnergyVisa Inc.
CitigroupNike Inc.Walmart
ComcastNvidiaWells Fargo
CostcoOracle Corp.Zoom Video Communications
CVS HealthPayPal

Publicly traded companies with more than $100 billion in current assets

Ally FinancialFreddie Mac
American International GroupKeyBank
BNY MellonM&T Bank
Capital OneNorthern Trust
Citizens Financial GroupPNC Financial Services
Fannie MaeRegions Financial Corp.
Fifth Third BankState Street Corp.
First Republic BankTruist Financial
Ford Motor Co.U.S. Bancorp

Publicly traded companies with more than $100 billion in sales

AmerisourceBergenDell Technologies
AnthemGeneral Motors
Cardinal HealthKroger
Centene Corp.McKesson Corp.
CignaWalgreens Boots Alliance

The European Commission recently issued a formal Statement of Objections (SO) in which it charges Apple with antitrust breach. In a nutshell, the commission argues that Apple prevents app developers—in this case, Spotify—from using alternative in-app purchase systems (IAPs) other than Apple’s own, or steering them towards other, cheaper payment methods on another site. This, the commission says, results in higher prices for consumers in the audio streaming and ebook/audiobook markets.

More broadly, the commission claims that Apple’s App Store rules may distort competition in markets where Apple competes with rival developers (such as how Apple Music competes with Spotify). This explains why the anticompetitive concerns raised by Spotify regarding the Apple App Store rules have now expanded to Apple’s e-books, audiobooks and mobile payments platforms.

However, underlying market realities cast doubt on the commission’s assessment. Indeed, competition from Google Play and other distribution mediums makes it difficult to state unequivocally that the relevant market should be limited to Apple products. Likewise, the conduct under investigation arguably solves several problems relating to platform dynamics, and consumers’ privacy and security.

Should the relevant market be narrowed to iOS?

An important first question is whether there is a distinct, antitrust-relevant market for “music streaming apps distributed through the Apple App Store,” as the EC posits.

This market definition is surprising, given that it is considerably narrower than the one suggested by even the most enforcement-minded scholars. For instance, Damien Geradin and Dimitrias Katsifis—lawyers for app developers opposed to Apple—define the market as “that of app distribution on iOS devices, a two-sided transaction market on which Apple has a de facto monopoly.” Similarly, a report by the Dutch competition authority declared that the relevant market was limited to the iOS App Store, due to the lack of interoperability with other systems.

The commission’s decisional practice has been anything but constant in this space. In the Apple/Shazam and Apple/Beats cases, it did not place competing mobile operating systems and app stores in separate relevant markets. Conversely, in the Google Android decision, the commission found that the Android OS and Apple’s iOS, including Google Play and Apple’s App Store, did not compete in the same relevant market. The Spotify SO seems to advocate for this definition, narrowing it even further to music streaming services.

However, this narrow definition raises several questions. Market definition is ultimately about identifying the competitive constraints that the firm under investigation faces. As Gregory Werden puts it: “the relevant market in an antitrust case […] identifies the competitive process alleged to be harmed.”

In that regard, there is clearly some competition between Apple’s App Store, Google Play and other app stores (whether this is sufficient to place them in the same relevant market is an empirical question).

This view is supported by the vast number of online posts comparing Android and Apple and advising consumers on their purchasing options. Moreover, the growth of high-end Android devices that compete more directly with the iPhone has reinforced competition between the two firms. Likewise, Apple has moved down the value chain; the iPhone SE, priced at $399, competes with other medium-range Android devices.

App developers have also suggested they view Apple and Android as alternatives. They take into account technical differences to decide between the two, meaning that these two platforms compete with each other for developers.

All of this suggests that the App Store may be part of a wider market for the distribution of apps and services, where Google Play and other app stores are included—though this is ultimately an empirical question (i.e., it depends on the degree of competition between both platforms)

If the market were defined this way, Apple would not even be close to holding a dominant position—a prerequisite for European competition intervention. Indeed, Apple only sold 27.43% of smartphones in March 2021. Similarly, only 30.41% of smartphones in use run iOS, as of March 2021. This is well below the lowest market share in a European abuse of dominance—39.7% in the British Airways decision.

The sense that Apple and Android compete for users and developers is reinforced by recent price movements. Apple dropped its App Store commission fees from 30% to 15% in November 2020 and Google followed suit in March 2021. This conduct is consistent with at least some degree of competition between the platforms. It is worth noting that other firms, notably Microsoft, have so far declined to follow suit (except for gaming apps).

Barring further evidence, neither Apple’s market share nor its behavior appear consistent with the commission’s narrow market definition.

Are Apple’s IAP system rules and anti-steering provisions abusive?

The commission’s case rests on the idea that Apple leverages its IAP system to raise the costs of rival app developers:

 “Apple’s rules distort competition in the market for music streaming services by raising the costs of competing music streaming app developers. This in turn leads to higher prices for consumers for their in-app music subscriptions on iOS devices. In addition, Apple becomes the intermediary for all IAP transactions and takes over the billing relationship, as well as related communications for competitors.”

However, expropriating rents from these developers is not nearly as attractive as it might seem. The report of the Dutch competition notes that “attracting and maintaining third-party developers that increase the value of the ecosystem” is essential for Apple. Indeed, users join a specific platform because it provides them with a wide number of applications they can use on their devices. And the opposite applies to developers. Hence, the loss of users on either or both sides reduces the value provided by the Apple App Store. Following this logic, it would make no sense for Apple to systematically expropriate developers. This might partly explain why Apple’s fees are only 30%-15%, since in principle they could be much higher.

It is also worth noting that Apple’s curated App Store and IAP have several redeeming virtues. Apple offers “a highly curated App Store where every app is reviewed by experts and an editorial team helps users discover new apps every day.”  While this has arguably turned the App Store into a relatively closed platform, it provides users with the assurance that the apps they find there will meet a standard of security and trustworthiness.

As noted by the Dutch competition authority, “one of the reasons why the App Store is highly valued is because of the strict review process. Complaints about malware spread via an app downloaded in the App Store are rare.” Apple provides users with a special degree of privacy and security. Indeed, Apple stopped more than $1.5 billion in potentially fraudulent transactions in 2020, proving that the security protocols are not only necessary, but also effective. In this sense, the App Store Review Guidelines are considered the first line of defense against fraud and privacy breaches.

It is also worth noting that Apple only charges a nominal fee for iOS developer kits and no fees for in-app advertising. The IAP is thus essential for Apple to monetize the platform and to cover the costs associated with running the platform (note that Apple does make money on device sales, but that revenue is likely constrained by competition between itself and Android). When someone downloads Spotify from the App Store, Apple does not get paid, but Spotify does get a new client. Thus, while independent developers bear the costs of the app fees, Apple bears the costs and risks of running the platform itself.

For instance, Apple’s App Store Team is divided into smaller teams: the Editorial Design team, the Business Operations team, and the Engineering R&D team. These teams each have employees, budgets, and resources for which Apple needs to pay. If the revenues stopped, one can assume that Apple would have less incentive to sustain all these teams that preserve the App Store’s quality, security, and privacy parameters.

Indeed, the IAP system itself provides value to the Apple App Store. Instead of charging all of the apps it provides, it takes a share of the income from some of them. As a result, large developers that own in-app sales contribute to the maintenance of the platform, while smaller ones are still offered to consumers without having to contribute economically. This boosts Apple’s App Store diversity and supply of digital goods and services.

If Apple was forced to adopt another system, it could start charging higher prices for access to its interface and tools, leading to potential discrimination against the smaller developers. Or, Apple could increase the prices of handset devices, thus incurring higher costs for consumers who do not purchase digital goods. Therefore, there are no apparent alternatives to the current IAP that satisfy the App Store’s goals in the same way.

As the Apple Review Guidelines emphasize, “for everything else there is always the open Internet.” Netflix and Spotify have ditched the subscription options from their app, and they are still among the top downloaded apps in iOS. The IAP system is therefore not compulsory to be successful in Apple’s ecosystem, and developers are free to drop Apple Review Guidelines.

Conclusion

The commission’s case against Apple is based on shaky foundations. Not only is the market definition extremely narrow—ignoring competition from Android, among others—but the behavior challenged by the commission has a clear efficiency-enhancing rationale. Of course, both of these critiques ultimately boil down to empirical questions that the commission will have overcome before it reaches a final decision. In the meantime, the jury is out.

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.

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

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

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

What is the case about?

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

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

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

What is the relevant market?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What exactly has Google been paying for, and why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

An intriguing possibility

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

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

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

What would be a suitable remedy/relief?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

The developments in the case will surely be interesting.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one of the few economic theorists in this symposium, I believe my comparative advantage is in that: economic theory. In this post, I want to remind people of the basic economic theories that we have at our disposal, “off the shelf,” to make sense of the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Google. I do not mean this to be a proclamation of “what economics has to say about X,” but merely just to help us frame the issue.

In particular, I’m going to focus on the economic concerns of Google paying phone manufacturers (Apple, in particular) to be the default search engine installed on phones. While there is not a large literature on the economic effects of default contracts, there is a large literature on something that I will argue is similar: trade promotions, such as slotting contracts, where a manufacturer pays a retailer for shelf space. Despite all the bells and whistles of the Google case, I will argue that, from an economic point of view, the contracts that Google signed are just trade promotions. No more, no less. And trade promotions are well-established as part of a competitive process that ultimately helps consumers. 

However, it is theoretically possible that such trade promotions hurt customers, so it is theoretically possible that Google’s contracts hurt consumers. Ultimately, the theoretical possibility of anticompetitive behavior that harms consumers does not seem plausible to me in this case.

Default Status

There are two reasons that Google paying Apple to be its default search engine is similar to a trade promotion. First, the deal brings awareness to the product, which nudges certain consumers/users to choose the product when they would not otherwise do so. Second, the deal does not prevent consumers from choosing the other product.

In the case of retail trade promotions, a promotional space given to Coca-Cola makes it marginally easier for consumers to pick Coke, and therefore some consumers will switch from Pepsi to Coke. But it does not reduce any consumer’s choice. The store will still have both items.

This is the same for a default search engine. The marginal searchers, who do not have a strong preference for either search engine, will stick with the default. But anyone can still install a new search engine, install a new browser, etc. It takes a few clicks, just as it takes a few steps to walk down the aisle to get the Pepsi; it is still an available choice.

If we were to stop the analysis there, we could conclude that consumers are worse off (if just a tiny bit). Some customers will have to change the default app. We also need to remember that this contract is part of a more general competitive process. The retail stores are also competing with one another, as are smartphone manufacturers.

Despite popular claims to the contrary, Apple cannot charge anything it wants for its phone. It is competing with Samsung, etc. Therefore, Apple has to pass through some of Google’s payments to customers in order to compete with Samsung. Prices are lower because of this payment. As I phrased it elsewhere, Google is effectively subsidizing the iPhone. This cross-subsidization is a part of the competitive process that ultimately benefits consumers through lower prices.

These contracts lower consumer prices, even if we assume that Apple has market power. Those who recall your Econ 101 know that a monopolist chooses a quantity where the marginal revenue equals marginal cost. With a payment from Google, the marginal cost of producing a phone is lower, therefore Apple will increase the quantity and lower price. This is shown below:

One of the surprising things about markets is that buyers’ and sellers’ incentives can be aligned, even though it seems like they must be adversarial. Companies can indirectly bargain for their consumers. Commenting on Standard Fashion Co. v. Magrane-Houston Co., where a retail store contracted to only carry Standard’s products, Robert Bork (1978, pp. 306–7) summarized this idea as follows:

The store’s decision, made entirely in its own interest, necessarily reflects the balance of competing considerations that determine consumer welfare. Put the matter another way. If no manufacturer used exclusive dealing contracts, and if a local retail monopolist decided unilaterally to carry only Standard’s patterns because the loss in product variety was more than made up in the cost saving, we would recognize that decision was in the consumer interest. We do not want a variety that costs more than it is worth … If Standard finds it worthwhile to purchase exclusivity … the reason is not the barring of entry, but some more sensible goal, such as obtaining the special selling effort of the outlet.

How trade promotions could harm customers

Since Bork’s writing, many theoretical papers have shown exceptions to Bork’s logic. There are times that the retailers’ incentives are not aligned with the customers. And we need to take those possibilities seriously.

The most common way to show the harm of these deals (or more commonly exclusivity deals) is to assume:

  1. There are large, fixed costs so that a firm must acquire a sufficient number of customers in order to enter the market; and
  2. An incumbent can lock in enough customers to prevent the entrant from reaching an efficient size.

Consumers can be locked-in because there is some fixed cost of changing suppliers or because of some coordination problems. If that’s true, customers can be made worse off, on net, because the Google contracts reduce consumer choice.

To understand the logic, let’s simplify the model to just search engines and searchers. Suppose there are two search engines (Google and Bing) and 10 searchers. However, to operate profitably, each search engine needs at least three searchers. If Google can entice eight searchers to use its product, Bing cannot operate profitably, even if Bing provides a better product. This holds even if everyone knows Bing would be a better product. The consumers are stuck in a coordination failure.

We should be skeptical of coordination failure models of inefficient outcomes. The problem with any story of coordination failures is that it is highly sensitive to the exact timing of the model. If Bing can preempt Google and offer customers an even better deal (the new entrant is better by assumption), then the coordination failure does not occur.

To argue that Bing could not execute a similar contract, the most common appeal is that the new entrant does not have the capital to pay upfront for these contracts, since it will only make money from its higher-quality search engine down the road. That makes sense until you remember that we are talking about Microsoft. I’m skeptical that capital is the real constraint. It seems much more likely that Google just has a more popular search engine.

The other problem with coordination failure arguments is that they are almost non-falsifiable. There is no way to tell, in the model, whether Google is used because of a coordination failure or whether it is used because it is a better product. If Google is a better product, then the outcome is efficient. The two outcomes are “observationally equivalent.” Compare this to the standard theory of monopoly, where we can (in principle) establish an inefficiency if the price is greater than marginal cost. While it is difficult to measure marginal cost, it can be done.

There is a general economic idea in these models that we need to pay attention to. If Google takes an action that prevents Bing from reaching efficient size, that may be an externality, sometimes called a network effect, and so that action may hurt consumer welfare.

I’m not sure how seriously to take these network effects. If more searchers allow Bing to make a better product, then literally any action (competitive or not) by Google is an externality. Making a better product that takes away consumers from Bing lowers Bing’s quality. That is, strictly speaking, an externality. Surely, that is not worthy of antitrust scrutiny simply because we find an externality.

And Bing also “takes away” searchers from Google, thus lowering Google’s possible quality. With network effects, bigger is better and it may be efficient to have only one firm. Surely, that’s not an argument we want to put forward as a serious antitrust analysis.

Put more generally, it is not enough to scream “NETWORK EFFECT!” and then have the antitrust authority come in, lawsuits-a-blazing. Well, it shouldn’t be enough.

For me to take the network effect argument seriously from an economic point of view, compared to a legal perspective, I would need to see a real restriction on consumer choice, not just an externality. One needs to argue that:

  1. No competitor can cover their fixed costs to make a reasonable search engine; and
  2. These contracts are what prevent the competing search engines from reaching size.

That’s the challenge I would like to put forward to supporters of the lawsuit. I’m skeptical.

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.

Apple’s legal team will be relieved that “you reap what you sow” is just a proverb. After a long-running antitrust battle against Qualcomm unsurprisingly ended in failure, Apple now faces antitrust accusations of its own (most notably from Epic Games). Somewhat paradoxically, this turn of events might cause Apple to see its previous defeat in a new light. Indeed, the well-established antitrust principles that scuppered Apple’s challenge against Qualcomm will now be the rock upon which it builds its legal defense.

But while Apple’s reversal of fortunes might seem anecdotal, it neatly illustrates a fundamental – and often overlooked – principle of antitrust policy: Antitrust law is about maximizing consumer welfare. Accordingly, the allocation of surplus between two companies is only incidentally relevant to antitrust proceedings, and it certainly is not a goal in and of itself. In other words, antitrust law is not about protecting David from Goliath.

Jockeying over the distribution of surplus

Or at least that is the theory. In practice, however, most antitrust cases are but small parts of much wider battles where corporations use courts and regulators in order to jockey for market position and/or tilt the distribution of surplus in their favor. The Microsoft competition suits brought by the DOJ and the European commission (in the EU and US) partly originated from complaints, and lobbying, by Sun Microsystems, Novell, and Netscape. Likewise, the European Commission’s case against Google was prompted by accusations from Microsoft and Oracle, among others. The European Intel case was initiated following a complaint by AMD. The list goes on.

The last couple of years have witnessed a proliferation of antitrust suits that are emblematic of this type of power tussle. For instance, Apple has been notoriously industrious in using the court system to lower the royalties that it pays to Qualcomm for LTE chips. One of the focal points of Apple’s discontent was Qualcomm’s policy of basing royalties on the end-price of devices (Qualcomm charged iPhone manufacturers a 5% royalty rate on their handset sales – and Apple received further rebates):

“The whole idea of a percentage of the cost of the phone didn’t make sense to us,” [Apple COO Jeff Williams] said. “It struck at our very core of fairness. At the time we were making something really really different.”

This pricing dispute not only gave rise to high-profile court cases, it also led Apple to lobby Standard Developing Organizations (“SDOs”) in a partly successful attempt to make them amend their patent policies, so as to prevent this type of pricing. 

However, in a highly ironic turn of events, Apple now finds itself on the receiving end of strikingly similar allegations. At issue is the 30% commission that Apple charges for in app purchases on the iPhone and iPad. These “high” commissions led several companies to lodge complaints with competition authorities (Spotify and Facebook, in the EU) and file antitrust suits against Apple (Epic Games, in the US).

Of course, these complaints are couched in more sophisticated, and antitrust-relevant, reasoning. But that doesn’t alter the fact that these disputes are ultimately driven by firms trying to tilt the allocation of surplus in their favor (for a more detailed explanation, see Apple and Qualcomm).

Pushback from courts: The Qualcomm case

Against this backdrop, a string of recent cases sends a clear message to would-be plaintiffs: antitrust courts will not be drawn into rent allocation disputes that have no bearing on consumer welfare. 

The best example of this judicial trend is Qualcomm’s victory before the United States Court of Appeal for the 9th Circuit. The case centered on the royalties that Qualcomm charged to OEMs for its Standard Essential Patents (SEPs). Both the district court and the FTC found that Qualcomm had deployed a series of tactics (rebates, refusals to deal, etc) that enabled it to circumvent its FRAND pledges. 

However, the Court of Appeal was not convinced. It failed to find any consumer harm, or recognizable antitrust infringement. Instead, it held that the dispute at hand was essentially a matter of contract law:

To the extent Qualcomm has breached any of its FRAND commitments, a conclusion we need not and do not reach, the remedy for such a breach lies in contract and patent law. 

This is not surprising. From the outset, numerous critics pointed that the case lied well beyond the narrow confines of antitrust law. The scathing dissenting statement written by Commissioner Maureen Olhaussen is revealing:

[I]n the Commission’s 2-1 decision to sue Qualcomm, I face an extraordinary situation: an enforcement action based on a flawed legal theory (including a standalone Section 5 count) that lacks economic and evidentiary support, that was brought on the eve of a new presidential administration, and that, by its mere issuance, will undermine U.S. intellectual property rights in Asia and worldwide. These extreme circumstances compel me to voice my objections. 

In reaching its conclusion, the Court notably rejected the notion that SEP royalties should be systematically based upon the “Smallest Saleable Patent Practicing Unit” (or SSPPU):

Even if we accept that the modem chip in a cellphone is the cellphone’s SSPPU, the district court’s analysis is still fundamentally flawed. No court has held that the SSPPU concept is a per se rule for “reasonable royalty” calculations; instead, the concept is used as a tool in jury cases to minimize potential jury confusion when the jury is weighing complex expert testimony about patent damages.

Similarly, it saw no objection to Qualcomm licensing its technology at the OEM level (rather than the component level):

Qualcomm’s rationale for “switching” to OEM-level licensing was not “to sacrifice short-term benefits in order to obtain higher profits in the long run from the exclusion of competition,” the second element of the Aspen Skiing exception. Aerotec Int’l, 836 F.3d at 1184 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Instead, Qualcomm responded to the change in patent-exhaustion law by choosing the path that was “far more lucrative,” both in the short term and the long term, regardless of any impacts on competition. 

Finally, the Court concluded that a firm breaching its FRAND pledges did not automatically amount to anticompetitive conduct: 

We decline to adopt a theory of antitrust liability that would presume anticompetitive conduct any time a company could not prove that the “fair value” of its SEP portfolios corresponds to the prices the market appears willing to pay for those SEPs in the form of licensing royalty rates.

Taken together, these findings paint a very clear picture. The Qualcomm Court repeatedly rejected the radical idea that US antitrust law should concern itself with the prices charged by monopolists — as opposed to practices that allow firms to illegally acquire or maintain a monopoly position. The words of Learned Hand and those of Antonin Scalia (respectively, below) loom large:

The successful competitor, having been urged to compete, must not be turned upon when he wins. 

And,

To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.

Other courts (both in the US and abroad) have reached similar conclusions

For instance, a district court in Texas dismissed a suit brought by Continental Automotive Systems (which supplies electronic systems to the automotive industry) against a group of SEP holders. 

Continental challenged the patent holders’ decision to license their technology at the vehicle rather than component level (the allegation is very similar to the FTC’s complaint that Qualcomm licensed its SEPs at the OEM, rather than chipset level). However, following a forceful intervention by the DOJ, the Court ultimately held that the facts alleged by Continental were not indicative of antitrust injury. It thus dismissed the case.

Likewise, within weeks of the Qualcomm and Continental decisions, the UK Supreme court also ruled in favor of SEP holders. In its Unwired Planet ruling, the Court concluded that discriminatory licenses did not automatically infringe competition law (even though they might breach a firm’s contractual obligations):

[I]t cannot be said that there is any general presumption that differential pricing for licensees is problematic in terms of the public or private interests at stake.

In reaching this conclusion, the UK Supreme Court emphasized that the determination of whether licenses were FRAND, or not, was first and foremost a matter of contract law. In the case at hand, the most important guide to making this determination were the internal rules of the relevant SDO (as opposed to competition case law):

Since price discrimination is the norm as a matter of licensing practice and may promote objectives which the ETSI regime is intended to promote (such as innovation and consumer welfare), it would have required far clearer language in the ETSI FRAND undertaking to indicate an intention to impose the more strict, “hard-edged” non-discrimination obligation for which Huawei contends. Further, in view of the prevalence of competition laws in the major economies around the world, it is to be expected that any anti-competitive effects from differential pricing would be most appropriately addressed by those laws

All of this ultimately led the Court to rule in favor of Unwired Planet, thus dismissing Huawei’s claims that it had infringed competition law by breaching its FRAND pledges. 

In short, courts and antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have repeatedly, and unambiguously, concluded that pricing disputes (albeit in the specific context of technological standards) are generally a matter of contract law. Antitrust/competition law intercedes only when unfair/excessive/discriminatory prices are both caused by anticompetitive behavior and result in anticompetitive injury.

Apple’s Loss is… Apple’s gain.

Readers might wonder how the above cases relate to Apple’s app store. But, on closer inspection the parallels are numerous. As explained above, courts have repeatedly stressed that antitrust enforcement should not concern itself with the allocation of surplus between commercial partners. Yet that is precisely what Epic Game’s suit against Apple is all about.

Indeed, Epic’s central claim is not that it is somehow foreclosed from Apple’s App Store (for example, because Apple might have agreed to exclusively distribute the games of one of Epic’s rivals). Instead, all of its objections are down to the fact that it would like to access Apple’s store under more favorable terms:

Apple’s conduct denies developers the choice of how best to distribute their apps. Developers are barred from reaching over one billion iOS users unless they go through Apple’s App Store, and on Apple’s terms. […]

Thus, developers are dependent on Apple’s noblesse oblige, as Apple may deny access to the App Store, change the terms of access, or alter the tax it imposes on developers, all in its sole discretion and on the commercially devastating threat of the developer losing access to the entire iOS userbase. […]

By imposing its 30% tax, Apple necessarily forces developers to suffer lower profits, reduce the quantity or quality of their apps, raise prices to consumers, or some combination of the three.

And the parallels with the Qualcomm litigation do not stop there. Epic is effectively asking courts to make Apple monetize its platform at a different level than the one that it chose to maximize its profits (no more monetization at the app store level). Similarly, Epic Games omits any suggestion of profit sacrifice on the part of Apple — even though it is a critical element of most unilateral conduct theories of harm. Finally, Epic is challenging conduct that is both the industry norm and emerged in a highly competitive setting.

In short, all of Epic’s allegations are about monopoly prices, not monopoly maintenance or monopolization. Accordingly, just as the SEP cases discussed above were plainly beyond the outer bounds of antitrust enforcement (something that the DOJ repeatedly stressed with regard to the Qualcomm case), so too is the current wave of antitrust litigation against Apple. When all is said and done, Apple might thus be relieved that Qualcomm was victorious in their antitrust confrontation. Indeed, the legal principles that caused its demise against Qualcomm are precisely the ones that will, likely, enable it to prevail against Epic Games.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Dirk Auer, (Senior Researcher, Liege Competition & Innovation Institute; Senior Fellow, ICLE).]

Privacy absolutism is the misguided belief that protecting citizens’ privacy supersedes all other policy goals, especially economic ones. This is a mistake. Privacy is one value among many, not an end in itself. Unfortunately, the absolutist worldview has filtered into policymaking and is beginning to have very real consequences. Readers need look no further than contact tracing applications and the fight against Covid-19.

Covid-19 has presented the world with a privacy conundrum worthy of the big screen. In fact, it’s a plotline we’ve seen before. Moviegoers will recall that, in the wildly popular film “The Dark Knight”, Batman has to decide between preserving the privacy of Gotham’s citizens or resorting to mass surveillance in order to defeat the Joker. Ultimately, the caped crusader begrudgingly chooses the latter. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, this might have seemed like an unrealistic plot twist. Fast forward a couple of months, and it neatly illustrates the difficult decision that most western societies urgently need to make as they consider the use of contract tracing apps to fight Covid-19.

Contact tracing is often cited as one of the most promising tools to safely reopen Covid-19-hit economies. Unfortunately, its adoption has been severely undermined by a barrage of overblown privacy fears.

Take the contact tracing API and App co-developed by Apple and Google. While these firms’ efforts to rapidly introduce contact tracing tools are laudable, it is hard to shake the feeling that they have been holding back slightly. 

In an overt attempt to protect users’ privacy, Apple and Google’s joint offering does not collect any location data (a move that has irked some states). Similarly, both firms have repeatedly stressed that users will have to opt-in to their contact tracing solution (as opposed to the API functioning by default). And, of course, all the data will be anonymous – even for healthcare authorities. 

This is a missed opportunity. Google and Apple’s networks include billions of devices. That puts them in a unique position to rapidly achieve the scale required to successfully enable the tracing of Covid-19 infections. Contact tracing applications need to reach a critical mass of users to be effective. For instance, some experts have argued that an adoption rate of at least 60% is necessary. Unfortunately, existing apps – notably in Singapore, Australia, Norway and Iceland – have struggled to get anywhere near this number. Forcing users to opt-out of Google and Apple’s services could go a long way towards inverting this trend. Businesses could also boost these numbers by making them mandatory for their employees and consumers.

However, it is hard to blame Google or Apple for not pushing the envelope a little bit further. For the best part of a decade, they and other firms have repeatedly faced specious accusations of “surveillance capitalism”. This has notably resulted in heavy-handed regulation (including the GDPR, in the EU, and the CCPA, in California), as well as significant fines and settlements

Those chickens have now come home to roost. The firms that are probably best-placed to implement an effective contact tracing solution simply cannot afford the privacy-related risks. This includes the risk associated with violating existing privacy law, but also potential reputational consequences. 

Matters have also been exacerbated by the overly cautious stance of many western governments, as well as their citizens: 

  • The European Data Protection Board cautioned governments and private sector actors to anonymize location data collected via contact tracing apps. The European Parliament made similar pronouncements.
  • A group of Democratic Senators pushed back against Apple and Google’s contact tracing solution, notably due to privacy considerations.
  • And public support for contact tracing is also critically low. Surveys in the US show that contact tracing is significantly less popular than more restrictive policies, such as business and school closures. Similarly, polls in the UK suggest that between 52% and 62% of Britons would consider using contact tracing applications.
  • Belgium’s initial plans for a contact tracing application were struck down by its data protection authority on account that they did not comply with the GDPR.
  • Finally, across the globe, there has been pushback against so-called “centralized” tracing apps, notably due to privacy fears.

In short, the West’s insistence on maximizing privacy protection is holding back its efforts to combat the joint threats posed by Covid-19 and the unfolding economic recession. 

But contrary to the mass surveillance portrayed in the Dark Knight, the privacy risks entailed by contact tracing are for the most part negligible. State surveillance is hardly a prospect in western democracies. And the risk of data breaches is no greater here than with many other apps and services that we all use daily. To wit, password, email, and identity theft are still, by far, the most common targets for cyber attackers. Put differently, cyber criminals appear to be more interested in stealing assets that can be readily monetized, rather than location data that is almost worthless. This suggests that contact tracing applications, whether centralized or not, are unlikely to be an important target for cyberattackers.

The meagre risks entailed by contact tracing – regardless of how it is ultimately implemented – are thus a tiny price to pay if they enable some return to normalcy. At the time of writing, at least 5,8 million human beings have been infected with Covid-19, causing an estimated 358,000 deaths worldwide. Both Covid-19 and the measures destined to combat it have resulted in a collapse of the global economy – what the IMF has called “the worst economic downturn since the great depression”. Freedoms that the west had taken for granted have suddenly evaporated: the freedom to work, to travel, to see loved ones, etc. Can anyone honestly claim that is not worth temporarily sacrificing some privacy to partially regain these liberties?

More generally, it is not just contact tracing applications and the fight against Covid-19 that have suffered because of excessive privacy fears. The European GDPR offers another salient example. Whatever one thinks about the merits of privacy regulation, it is becoming increasingly clear that the EU overstepped the mark. For instance, an early empirical study found that the entry into force of the GDPR markedly decreased venture capital investments in Europe. Michal Gal aptly summarizes the implications of this emerging body of literature:

The price of data protection through the GDPR is much higher than previously recognized. The GDPR creates two main harmful effects on competition and innovation: it limits competition in data markets, creating more concentrated market structures and entrenching the market power of those who are already strong; and it limits data sharing between different data collectors, thereby preventing the realization of some data synergies which may lead to better data-based knowledge. […] The effects on competition and innovation identified may justify a reevaluation of the balance reached to ensure that overall welfare is increased. 

In short, just like the Dark Knight, policymakers, firms and citizens around the world need to think carefully about the tradeoff that exists between protecting privacy and other objectives, such as saving lives, promoting competition, and increasing innovation. As things stand, however, it seems that many have veered too far on the privacy end of the scale.