Archives For Competition law

There is little doubt that Federal Trade Commission (FTC) unfair methods of competition rulemaking proceedings are in the offing. Newly named FTC Chair Lina Khan and Commissioner Rohit Chopra both have extolled the benefits of competition rulemaking in a major law review article. What’s more, in May, Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter (during her stint as acting chair) established a rulemaking unit in the commission’s Office of General Counsel empowered to “explore new rulemakings to prohibit unfair or deceptive practices and unfair methods of competition” (emphasis added).

In short, a majority of sitting FTC commissioners apparently endorse competition rulemaking proceedings. As such, it is timely to ask whether FTC competition rules would promote consumer welfare, the paramount goal of competition policy.

In a recently published Mercatus Center research paper, I assess the case for competition rulemaking from a competition perspective and find it wanting. I conclude that, before proceeding, the FTC should carefully consider whether such rulemakings would be cost-beneficial. I explain that any cost-benefit appraisal should weigh both the legal risks and the potential economic policy concerns (error costs and “rule of law” harms). Based on these considerations, competition rulemaking is inappropriate. The FTC should stick with antitrust enforcement as its primary tool for strengthening the competitive process and thereby promoting consumer welfare.

A summary of my paper follows.

Section 6(g) of the original Federal Trade Commission Act authorizes the FTC “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter.” Section 6(g) rules are enacted pursuant to the “informal rulemaking” requirements of Section 553 of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), which apply to the vast majority of federal agency rulemaking proceedings.

Before launching Section 6(g) competition rulemakings, however, the FTC would be well-advised first to weigh the legal risks and policy concerns associated with such an endeavor. Rulemakings are resource-intensive proceedings and should not lightly be undertaken without an eye to their feasibility and implications for FTC enforcement policy.

Only one appeals court decision addresses the scope of Section 6(g) rulemaking. In 1971, the FTC enacted a Section 6(g) rule stating that it was both an “unfair method of competition” and an “unfair act or practice” for refiners or others who sell to gasoline retailers “to fail to disclose clearly and conspicuously in a permanent manner on the pumps the minimum octane number or numbers of the motor gasoline being dispensed.” In 1973, in the National Petroleum Refiners case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the FTC’s authority to promulgate this and other binding substantive rules. The court rejected the argument that Section 6(g) authorized only non-substantive regulations concerning regarding the FTC’s non-adjudicatory, investigative, and informative functions, spelled out elsewhere in Section 6.

In 1975, two years after National Petroleum Refiners was decided, Congress granted the FTC specific consumer-protection rulemaking authority (authorizing enactment of trade regulation rules dealing with unfair or deceptive acts or practices) through Section 202 of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which added Section 18 to the FTC Act. Magnuson-Moss rulemakings impose adjudicatory-type hearings and other specific requirements on the FTC, unlike more flexible section 6(g) APA informal rulemakings. However, the FTC can obtain civil penalties for violation of Magnuson-Moss rules, something it cannot do if 6(g) rules are violated.

In a recent set of public comments filed with the FTC, the Antitrust Section of the American Bar Association stated:

[T]he Commission’s [6(g)] rulemaking authority is buried in within an enumerated list of investigative powers, such as the power to require reports from corporations and partnerships, for example. Furthermore, the [FTC] Act fails to provide any sanctions for violating any rule adopted pursuant to Section 6(g). These two features strongly suggest that Congress did not intend to give the agency substantive rulemaking powers when it passed the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Rephrased, this argument suggests that the structure of the FTC Act indicates that the rulemaking referenced in Section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. Although the National Petroleum Refiners decision rejected such a reading, that ruling came at a time of significant judicial deference to federal agency activism, and may be dated.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC further bolsters the “statutory structure” argument that Section 6(g) does not authorize substantive rulemaking. In AMG, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which empowers the FTC to seek a “permanent injunction” to restrain an FTC Act violation, does not authorize the FTC to seek monetary relief from wrongdoers. The court’s opinion rejected the FTC’s argument that the term “permanent injunction” had historically been understood to include monetary relief. The court explained that the injunctive language was “buried” in a lengthy provision that focuses on injunctive, not monetary relief (note that the term “rules” is similarly “buried” within 6(g) language dealing with unrelated issues). The court also pointed to the structure of the FTC Act, with detailed and specific monetary-relief provisions found in Sections 5(l) and 19, as “confirm[ing] the conclusion” that Section 13(b) does not grant monetary relief.

By analogy, a court could point to Congress’ detailed enumeration of substantive rulemaking provisions in Section 18 (a mere two years after National Petroleum Refiners) as cutting against the claim that Section 6(g) can also be invoked to support substantive rulemaking. Finally, the Supreme Court in AMG flatly rejected several relatively recent appeals court decisions that upheld Section 13(b) monetary-relief authority. It follows that the FTC cannot confidently rely on judicial precedent (stemming from one arguably dated court decision, National Petroleum Refiners) to uphold its competition rulemaking authority.

In sum, the FTC will have to overcome serious fundamental legal challenges to its section 6(g) competition rulemaking authority if it seeks to promulgate competition rules.

Even if the FTC’s 6(g) authority is upheld, it faces three other types of litigation-related risks.

First, applying the nondelegation doctrine, courts might hold that the broad term “unfair methods of competition” does not provide the FTC “an intelligible principle” to guide the FTC’s exercise of discretion in rulemaking. Such a judicial holding would mean the FTC could not issue competition rules.

Second, a reviewing court might strike down individual proposed rules as “arbitrary and capricious” if, say, the court found that the FTC rulemaking record did not sufficiently take into account potentially procompetitive manifestations of a condemned practice.

Third, even if a final competition rule passes initial legal muster, applying its terms to individual businesses charged with rule violations may prove difficult. Individual businesses may seek to structure their conduct to evade the particular strictures of a rule, and changes in commercial practices may render less common the specific acts targeted by a rule’s language.

Economic Policy Concerns Raised by Competition Rulemaking

In addition to legal risks, any cost-benefit appraisal of FTC competition rulemaking should consider the economic policy concerns raised by competition rulemaking. These fall into two broad categories.

First, competition rules would generate higher error costs than adjudications. Adjudications cabin error costs by allowing for case-specific analysis of likely competitive harms and procompetitive benefits. In contrast, competition rules inherently would be overbroad and would suffer from a very high rate of false positives. By characterizing certain practices as inherently anticompetitive without allowing for consideration of case-specific facts bearing on actual competitive effects, findings of rule violations inevitably would condemn some (perhaps many) efficient arrangements.

Second, competition rules would undermine the rule of law and thereby reduce economic welfare. FTC-only competition rules could lead to disparate legal treatment of a firm’s business practices, depending upon whether the FTC or the U.S. Justice Department was the investigating agency. Also, economic efficiency gains could be lost due to the chilling of aggressive efficiency-seeking business arrangements in those sectors subject to rules.

Conclusion

A combination of legal risks and economic policy harms strongly counsels against the FTC’s promulgation of substantive competition rules.

First, litigation issues would consume FTC resources and add to the costly delays inherent in developing competition rules in the first place. The compounding of separate serious litigation risks suggests a significant probability that costs would be incurred in support of rules that ultimately would fail to be applied.

Second, even assuming competition rules were to be upheld, their application would raise serious economic policy questions. The inherent inflexibility of rule-based norms is ill-suited to deal with dynamic evolving market conditions, compared with matter-specific antitrust litigation that flexibly applies the latest economic thinking to particular circumstances. New competition rules would also exacerbate costly policy inconsistencies stemming from the existence of dual federal antitrust enforcement agencies, the FTC and the Justice Department.

In conclusion, an evaluation of rule-related legal risks and economic policy concerns demonstrates that a reallocation of some FTC enforcement resources to the development of competition rules would not be cost-effective. Continued sole reliance on case-by-case antitrust litigation would generate greater economic welfare than a mixture of litigation and competition rules.

The recent launch of the international Multilateral Pharmaceutical Merger Task Force (MPMTF) is just the latest example of burgeoning cooperative efforts by leading competition agencies to promote convergence in antitrust enforcement. (See my recent paper on the globalization of antitrust, which assesses multinational cooperation and convergence initiatives in greater detail.) In what is a first, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division, offices of state Attorneys General, the European Commission’s Competition Directorate, Canada’s Competition Bureau, and the U.K.’s Competition and Market Authority (CMA) jointly created the MPMTF in March 2021 “to update their approach to analyzing the effects of pharmaceutical mergers.”

To help inform its analysis, in May 2021 the MPMTF requested public comments concerning the effects of pharmaceutical mergers. The MPMTF sought submissions regarding (among other issues) seven sets of questions:   

  1. What theories of harm should enforcement agencies consider when evaluating pharmaceutical mergers, including theories of harm beyond those currently considered?
  2. What is the full range of a pharmaceutical merger’s effects on innovation? What challenges arise when mergers involve proprietary drug discovery and manufacturing platforms?
  3. In pharmaceutical merger review, how should we consider the risks or effects of conduct such as price-setting practices, reverse payments, and other ways in which pharmaceutical companies respond to or rely on regulatory processes?
  4. How should we approach market definition in pharmaceutical mergers, and how is that implicated by new or evolving theories of harm?
  5. What evidence may be relevant or necessary to assess and, if applicable, challenge a pharmaceutical merger based on any new or expanded theories of harm?
  6. What types of remedies would work in the cases to which those theories are applied?
  7. What factors, such as the scope of assets and characteristics of divestiture buyers, influence the likelihood and success of pharmaceutical divestitures to resolve competitive concerns?

My research assistant Andrew Mercado and I recently submitted comments for the record addressing the questions posed by the MPMTF. We concluded:

Federal merger enforcement in general and FTC pharmaceutical merger enforcement in particular have been effective in promoting competition and consumer welfare. Proposed statutory amendments to strengthen merger enforcement not only are unnecessary, but also would, if enacted, tend to undermine welfare and would thus be poor public policy. A brief analysis of seven questions propounded by the Multilateral Pharmaceutical Merger Task Force suggests that: (a) significant changes in enforcement policies are not warranted; and (b) investigators should employ sound law and economics analysis, taking full account of merger-related efficiencies, when evaluating pharmaceutical mergers. 

While we leave it to interested readers to review our specific comments, this commentary highlights one key issue which we stressed—the importance of giving due weight to efficiencies (and, in particular, dynamic efficiencies) in evaluating pharma mergers. We also note an important critique by FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson of the treatment accorded merger-related efficiencies by U.S. antitrust enforcers.   

Discussion

Innovation in pharmaceuticals and vaccines has immensely significant economic and social consequences, as demonstrated most recently in the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, it is particularly important that public policy not stand in the way of realizing efficiencies that promote innovation in these markets. This observation applies directly, of course, to pharmaceutical antitrust enforcement, in general, and to pharma merger enforcement, in particular.

Regrettably, however, though general merger-enforcement policy has been generally sound, it has somewhat undervalued merger-related efficiencies.

Although U.S. antitrust enforcers give lip service to their serious consideration of efficiencies in merger reviews, the reality appears to be quite different, as documented by Commissioner Wilson in a 2020 speech.

Wilson’s General Merger-Efficiencies Critique: According to Wilson, the combination of finding narrow markets and refusing to weigh out-of-market efficiencies has created major “legal and evidentiary hurdles a defendant must clear when seeking to prove offsetting procompetitive efficiencies.” What’s more, the “courts [have] largely continue[d] to follow the Agencies’ lead in minimizing the importance of efficiencies.” Wilson shows that “the Horizontal Merger Guidelines text and case law appear to set different standards for demonstrating harms and efficiencies,” and argues that this “asymmetric approach has the obvious potential consequence of preventing some procompetitive mergers that increase consumer welfare.” Wilson concludes on a more positive note that this problem can be addressed by having enforcers: (1) treat harms and efficiencies symmetrically; and (2) establish clear and reasonable expectations for what types of efficiency analysis will and will not pass muster.

While our filing with the MPMTF did not discuss Wilson’s general treatment of merger efficiencies, one would hope that the task force will appropriately weigh it in its deliberations. Our filing instead briefly addressed two “informational efficiencies” that may arise in the context of pharmaceutical mergers. These include:

More Efficient Resource Reallocation: The theory of the firm teaches that mergers may be motivated by the underutilization or misallocation of assets, or the opportunity to create welfare-enhancing synergies. In the pharmaceutical industry, these synergies may come from joining complementary research and development programs, combining diverse and specialized expertise that may be leveraged for better, faster drug development and more innovation.

Enhanced R&D: Currently, much of the R&D for large pharmaceutical companies is achieved through partnerships or investment in small biotechnology and research firms specializing in a single type of therapy. Whereas large pharmaceutical companies have expertise in marketing, navigating regulation, and undertaking trials of new drugs, small, research-focused firms can achieve greater advancements in medicine with smaller budgets. Furthermore, changes within firms brought about by a merger may increase innovation.

With increases in intellectual property and proprietary data that come from the merging of two companies, smaller research firms that work with the merged entity may have access to greater pools of information, enhancing the potential for innovation without increasing spending. This change not only raises the efficiency of the research being conducted in these small firms, but also increases the probability of a breakthrough without an increase in risk.

Conclusion

U.S. pharmaceutical merger enforcement has been fairly effective in forestalling anticompetitive combinations while allowing consumer welfare-enhancing transactions to go forward. Policy in this area should remain generally the same. Enforcers should continue to base enforcement decisions on sound economic theory fully supported by case-specific facts. Enforcement agencies could benefit, however, by placing a greater emphasis on efficiencies analysis. In particular, they should treat harms and efficiencies symmetrically (as recommend by Commissioner Wilson), and fully take into account likely resource reallocation and innovation-related efficiencies. 

Overview

Virtually all countries in the world have adopted competition laws over the last three decades. In a recent Mercatus Foundation Research Paper, I argue that the spread of these laws has benefits and risks. The abstract of my Paper states:

The United States stood virtually alone when it enacted its first antitrust statute in 1890. Today, almost all nations have adopted competition laws (the term used in most other nations), and US antitrust agencies interact with foreign enforcers on a daily basis. This globalization of antitrust is becoming increasingly important to the economic welfare of many nations, because major businesses (in particular, massive digital platforms like Google and Facebook) face growing antitrust scrutiny by multiple enforcement regimes worldwide. As such, the United States should take the lead in encouraging adoption of antitrust policies, here and abroad, that are conducive to economic growth and innovation. Antitrust policies centered on promoting consumer welfare would be best suited to advancing these desirable aims. Thus, the United States should oppose recent efforts (here and abroad) to turn antitrust into a regulatory system that seeks to advance many objectives beyond consumer welfare. American antitrust enforcers should also work with like-minded agencies—and within multilateral organizations such as the International Competition Network and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development—to promote procedural fairness and the rule of law in antitrust enforcement.

A brief summary of my Paper follows.

Discussion

Widespread calls for “reform” of the American antitrust laws are based on the false premises that (1) U.S. economic concentration has increased excessively and competition has diminished in recent decades; and (2) U.S. antitrust enforcers have failed to effectively enforce the antitrust laws (the consumer welfare standard is sometimes cited as the culprit to blame for “ineffective” antitrust enforcement). In fact, sound economic scholarship, some of it cited in chapter 6 of the 2020 Economic Report of the President, debunks these claims. In reality, modern U.S. antitrust enforcement under the economics-based consumer welfare standard (despite being imperfect and subject to error costs) has done a good job overall of promoting competitive and efficient markets.

The adoption of competition laws by foreign nations was promoted by the U.S. Government. The development of European competition law in the 1950s, and its incorporation into treaties that laid the foundation for the European Union (EU), was particularly significant. The EU administrative approach to antitrust, based on civil law (as compared to the U.S. common law approach), has greatly influenced the contours of most new competition laws. The EU, like the U.S., focuses on anticompetitive joint conduct, single firm conduct, and mergers. EU enforcement (carried out through the European Commission’s Directorate General for Competition) initially relied more on formal agency guidance than American antitrust law, but it began to incorporate an economic effects-based consumer welfare-centric approach over the last 20 years. Nevertheless, EU enforcers still pay greater attention to the welfare of competitors than their American counterparts.

In recent years, the EU prosecutions of digital platforms have begun to adopt a “precautionary antitrust” perspective, which seeks to prevent potential monopoly abuses in their incipiency by sanctioning business conduct without showing that it is causing any actual or likely consumer harm. What’s more, the EU’s recently adopted “Digital Markets Act” for the first time imposes ex ante competition regulation of platforms. These developments reflect a move away from a consumer welfare approach. On the plus side, the EU (unlike the U.S.) subjects state-owned or controlled monopolies to liability for anticompetitive conduct and forbids anticompetitive government subsidies that seriously distort competition (“state aids”).

Developing and former communist bloc countries rapidly enacted and implemented competition laws over the last three decades. Many newly minted competition agencies suffer from poor institutional capacity. The U.S. Government and the EU have worked to enhance the quality and consistency of competition enforcement in these jurisdictions by supporting technical support and training.

Various institutions support efforts to improve competition law enforcement and develop support for a “competition culture.” The International Competition Network (ICN), established in 2001, is a “virtual network” comprised of almost all competition agencies. The ICN focuses on discrete projects aimed at procedural and substantive competition law convergence through the development of consensual, nonbinding “best practices” recommendations and reports. It also provides a significant role for nongovernmental advisers from the business, legal, economic, consumer, and academic communities, as well as for experts from other international organizations. ICN member agency staff are encouraged to communicate with each other about the fundamentals of investigations and evaluations and to use ICN-generated documents and podcasts to support training. The application of economic analysis to case-specific facts has been highlighted in ICN work product. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank (both of which carry out economics-based competition policy research) have joined with the ICN in providing national competition agencies (both new and well established) with the means to advocate effectively for procompetitive, economically beneficial government policies. ICN and OECD “toolkits” provide strategies for identifying and working to dislodge (or not enact) anticompetitive laws and regulations that harm the economy.

While a fair degree of convergence has been realized, substantive uniformity among competition law regimes has not been achieved. This is not surprising, given differences among jurisdictions in economic development, political organization, economic philosophy, history, and cultural heritage—all of which may help generate a multiplicity of policy goals. In addition to consumer welfare, different jurisdictions’ competition laws seek to advance support for small and medium sized businesses, fairness and equality, public interest factors, and empowerment of historically disadvantaged persons, among other outcomes. These many goals may not take center stage in the evaluation of most proposed mergers or restrictive business arrangements, but they may affect the handling of particular matters that raise national sensitivities tied to the goals.

The spread of competition law worldwide has generated various tangible benefits. These include consensus support for combating hard core welfare-reducing cartels, fruitful international cooperation among officials dedicated to a pro-competition mission, and support for competition advocacy aimed at dismantling harmful government barriers to competition.

There are, however, six other factors that raise questions regarding whether competition law globalization has been cost-beneficial overall: (1) effective welfare-enhancing antitrust enforcement is stymied in jurisdictions where the rule of law is weak and private property is poorly protected; (2) high enforcement error costs (particularly in jurisdictions that consider factors other than consumer welfare) may undermine the procompetitive features of antitrust enforcement efforts; (3) enforcement demands by multiple competition authorities substantially increase the costs imposed on firms that are engaging in multinational transactions; (4) differences among national competition law rules create complications for national agencies as they seek to have their laws vindicated while maintaining good cooperative relationships with peer enforcers; (5) anticompetitive rent-seeking by less efficient rivals may generate counterproductive prosecutions of successful companies, thereby disincentivizing welfare-inducing business behavior; and (6) recent developments around the world suggest that antitrust policy directed at large digital platforms (and perhaps other dominant companies as well) may be morphing into welfare-inimical regulation. These factors are discussed at greater length in my paper.

One cannot readily quantify the positive and negative welfare effects of the consequences of competition law globalization. Accordingly, one cannot state with any degree of confidence whether globalization has been “good” or “bad” overall in terms of economic welfare.

Conclusion

The extent to which globalized competition law will be a boon to consumers and the global economy will depend entirely on the soundness of public policy decision-making.  The U.S. Government should take the lead in advancing a consumer welfare-centric competition policy at home and abroad. It should work with multilateral institutions and engage in bilateral and regional cooperation to support the rule of law, due process, and antitrust enforcement centered on the consumer welfare standard.

Antitrust by Fiat

Jonathan M. Barnett —  23 February 2021

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

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

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

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

Blank Check #1

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

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

Blank Check #2

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

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

Anti-Market Antitrust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mergers and uncertainty

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

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

This would be unproblematic if:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hindsight does not disentangle efficiency from market power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some appropriate responses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post is authored by Peter Klein (Professor of Entrepreneurship, Baylor University).
]

Nicolas Petit’s insightful and provocative book ends with a chapter on “Big Tech’s Novel Harms,” asking whether antitrust is the appropriate remedy for popular (and academic) concerns about privacy, fake news, and hate speech. In each case, he asks whether the alleged harms are caused by a lack of competition among platforms – which could support a case for breaking them up – or by the nature of the underlying technologies and business models. He concludes that these problems are not alleviated (and may even be exacerbated) by applying competition policy and suggests that regulation, not antitrust, is the more appropriate tool for protecting privacy and truth.

What kind of regulation? Treating digital platforms like public utilities won’t work, Petit argues, because the product is multidimensional and competition takes place on multiple margins (the larger theme of the book): “there is a plausible chance that increased competition in digital markets will lead to a race to the bottom, in which price competition (e.g., on ad markets) will be the winner, and non-price competition (e.g., on privacy) will be the loser.” Utilities regulation also provides incentives for rent-seeking by less efficient rivals. Retail regulation, aimed at protecting small firms, may end up helping incumbents instead by raising rivals’ costs.

Petit concludes that consumer protection regulation (such as Europe’s GDPR) is a better tool for guarding privacy and truth, though it poses challenges as well. More generally, he highlights the vast gulf between the economic analysis of privacy and speech and the increasingly loud calls for breaking up the big tech platforms, which would do little to alleviate these problems.

As in the rest of the book, Petit’s treatment of these complex issues is thoughtful, careful, and systematic. I have more fundamental problems with conventional antitrust remedies and think that consumer protection is problematic when applied to data services (even more so than in other cases). Inspired by this chapter, let me offer some additional thoughts on privacy and the nature of data which speak to regulation of digital platforms and services.

First, privacy, like information, is not an economic good. Just as we don’t buy and sell information per se but information goods (books, movies, communications infrastructure, consultants, training programs, etc.), we likewise don’t produce and consume privacy but what we might call privacy goods: sunglasses, disguises, locks, window shades, land, fences and, in the digital realm, encryption software, cookie blockers, data scramblers, and so on.

Privacy goods and services can be analyzed just like other economic goods. Entrepreneurs offer bundled services that come with varying degrees of privacy protection: encrypted or regular emails, chats, voice and video calls; browsers that block cookies or don’t; social media sites, search engines, etc. that store information or not; and so on. Most consumers seem unwilling to sacrifice other functionality for increased privacy, as suggested by the small market shares held by DuckDuckGo, Telegram, Tor, and the like suggest. Moreover, while privacy per se is appealing, there are huge efficiency gains from matching on buyer and seller characteristics on sharing platforms, digital marketplaces, and dating sites. There are also substantial cost savings from electronic storage and sharing of private information such as medical records and credit histories. And there is little evidence of sellers exploiting such information to engage in price discrimination. (Aquisti, Taylor, and Wagman, 2016 provide a detailed discussion of many of these issues.)

Regulating markets for privacy goods via bans on third-party access to customer data, mandatory data portability, and stiff penalties for data breaches is tricky. Such policies could make digital services more valuable, but it is not obvious why the market cannot figure this out. If consumers are willing to pay for additional privacy, entrepreneurs will be eager to supply it. Of course, bans on third-party access and other forms of sharing would require a fundamental change in the ad-based revenue model that makes free or low-cost access possible, so platforms would have to devise other means of monetizing their services. (Again, many platforms already offer ad-free subscriptions, so it’s unclear why those who prefer ad-based, free usage should be prevented from doing so.)

What about the idea that I own “my” data and that, therefore, I should have full control over how it is used? Some of the utilities-based regulatory models treat platforms as neutral storage places or conduits for information belonging to users. Proposals for data portability suggest that users of technology platforms should be able to move their data from platform to platform, downloading all their personal information from one platform then uploading it to another, then enjoying the same functionality on the new platform as longtime users.

Of course, there are substantial technical obstacles to such proposals. Data would have to be stored in a universal format – not just the text or media users upload to platforms, but also records of all interactions (likes, shares, comments), the search and usage patterns of users, and any other data generated as a result of the user’s actions and interactions with other users, advertisers, and the platform itself. It is unlikely that any universal format could capture this information in a form that could be transferred from one platform to another without a substantial loss of functionality, particularly for platforms that use algorithms to determine how information is presented to users based on past use. (The extreme case is a platform like TikTok which uses usage patterns as a substitute for follows, likes, and shares, portability to construct a “feed.”)

Moreover, as each platform sets its own rules for what information is allowed, the import functionality would have to screen the data for information allowed on the original platform but not the new (and the reverse would be impossible – a user switching from Twitter to Gab, for instance, would have no way to add the content that would have been permitted on Gab but was never created in the first place because it would have violated Twitter rules).

There is a deeper, philosophical issue at stake, however. Portability and neutrality proposals take for granted that users own “their” data. Users create data, either by themselves or with their friends and contacts, and the platform stores and displays the data, just as a safe deposit box holds documents or jewelry and a display case shows of an art collection. I should be able to remove my items from the safe deposit box and take them home or to another bank, and a “neutral” display case operator should not prevent me from showing off my preferred art (perhaps subject to some general rules about obscenity or harmful personal information).

These analogies do not hold for user-generated information on internet platforms, however. “My data” is a record of all my interactions with platforms, with other users on those platforms, with contractual partners of those platforms, and so on. It is co-created by these interactions. I don’t own these records any more than I “own” the fact that someone saw me in the grocery store yesterday buying apples. Of course, if I have a contract with the grocer that says he will keep my purchase records private, and he shares them with someone else, then I can sue him for breach of contract. But this isn’t theft. He hasn’t “stolen” anything; there is nothing for him to steal. If a grocer — or an owner of a tech platform — wants to attract my business by monetizing the records of our interactions and giving me a cut, he should go for it. I still might prefer another store. In any case, I don’t have the legal right to demand this revenue stream.

Likewise, “privacy” refers to what other people know about me – it is knowledge in their heads, not mine. Information isn’t property. If I know something about you, that knowledge is in my head; it’s not something I took from you. Of course, if I obtained or used that info in violation of a prior agreement, then I’m guilty of breach, and I use that information to threaten or harass you, I may be guilty of other crimes. But the popular idea that tech companies are stealing and profiting from something that’s “ours” isn’t right.

The concept of co-creation is important, because these digital records, like other co-created assets, can be more or less relationship specific. The late Oliver Williamson devoted his career to exploring the rich variety of contractual relationships devised by market participants to solve complex contracting problems, particularly in the face of asset specificity. Relationship-specific investments can be difficult for trading parties to manage, but they typically create more value. A legal regime in which only general-purpose, easily redeployable technologies were permitted would alleviate the holdup problem, but at the cost of a huge loss in efficiency. Likewise, a world in which all digital records must be fully portable reduces switching costs, but results in technologies for creating, storing, and sharing information that are less valuable. Why would platform operators invest in efficiency improvements if they cannot capture some of that value by means of proprietary formats, interfaces, sharing rules, and other arrangements?  

In short, we should not be quick to assume “market failure” in the market for privacy goods (or “true” news, whatever that is). Entrepreneurs operating in a competitive environment – not the static, partial-equilibrium notion of competition from intermediate micro texts but the rich, dynamic, complex, and multimarket kind of competition described in Petit’s book – can provide the levels of privacy and truthiness that consumers prefer.

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

This post is authored by Shane Greenstein (Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School).
]

In his book, Nicolas Petit approaches antitrust issues by analyzing their economic foundations, and he aspires to bridge gaps between those foundations and the common points of view. In light of the divisiveness of today’s debates, I appreciate Petit’s calm and deliberate view of antitrust, and I respect his clear and engaging prose.

I spent a lot of time with this topic when writing a book (How the Internet Became Commercial, 2015, Princeton Press). If I have something unique to add to a review of Petit’s book, it comes from the role Microsoft played in the events in my book.

Many commentators have speculated on what precise charges could be brought against Facebook, Google/Alphabet, Apple, and Amazon. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call these the “big four.” While I have no special insight to bring to such speculation, for this post I can do something different, and look forward by looking back. For the time being, Microsoft has been spared scrutiny by contemporary political actors. (It seems safe to presume Microsoft’s managers prefer to be left out.) While it is tempting to focus on why this has happened, let’s focus on a related issue: What shadow did Microsoft’s trials cast on the antitrust issues facing the big four?

Two types of lessons emerged from Microsoft’s trials, and both tend to be less appreciated by economists. One set of lessons emerged from the media flood of the flotsam and jetsam of sensationalistic factoids and sound bites, drawn from Congressional and courtroom testimony. That yielded lessons about managing sound and fury – i.e., mostly about reducing the cringe-worthy quotes from CEOs and trial witnesses.

Another set of lessons pertained to the role and limits of economic reasoning. Many decision makers reasoned by analogy and metaphor. That is especially so for lawyers and executives. These metaphors do not make economic reasoning wrong, but they do tend to shape how an antitrust question takes center stage with a judge, as well as in the court of public opinion. These metaphors also influence the stories a CEO tells to employees.

If you asked me to forecast how things will go for the big four, based on what I learned from studying Microsoft’s trials, I forecast that the outcome depends on which metaphor and analogy gets the upper hand.

In that sense, I want to argue that Microsoft’s experience depended on “the fox and shepherd problem.” When is a platform leader better thought of as a shepherd, helping partners achieve a healthy outcome, or as a fox in charge of a henhouse, ready to sacrifice a partner for self-serving purposes? I forecast the same metaphors will shape experience of the big four.

Gaps and analysis

The fox-shepherd problem never shows up when a platform leader is young and its platform is small. As the platform reaches bigger scale, however, the problem becomes more salient. Conflicts of interests emerge and focus attention on platform leadership.

Petit frames these issues within a Schumpeterian vision. In this view, firms compete for dominant positions over time, potentially with one dominant firm replacing another. Potential competition has a salutary effect if established firms perceive a threat from the future shadow of such competitors, motivating innovation. In this view, antitrust’s role might be characterized as “keeping markets open so there is pressure on the dominant firm from potential competition.”

In the Microsoft trial economists framed the Schumpeterian tradeoff in the vocabulary of economics. Firms who supply complements at one point could become suppliers of substitutes at a later point if they are allowed to. In other words, platform leaders today support complements that enhance the value of the platform, while also having the motive and ability to discourage those same business partners from developing services that substitute for the platform’s services, which could reduce the platform’s value. Seen through this lens, platform leaders inherently face a conflict of interest, and antitrust law should intervene if platform leaders could place excessive limitations on existing business partners.

This economic framing is not wrong. Rather, it is necessary, but not sufficient. If I take a sober view of events in the Microsoft trial, I am not convinced the economics alone persuaded the judge in Microsoft’s case, or, for that matter, the public.

As judges sort through the endless detail of contracting provisions, they need a broad perspective, one that sharpens their focus on a key question. One central question in particular inhabits a lot of a judge’s mindshare: how did the platform leader use its discretion, and for what purposes? In case it is not obvious, shepherds deserve a lot of discretion, while only a fool gives a fox much license.

Before the trial, when it initially faced this question from reporters and Congress, Microsoft tried to dismiss the discussion altogether. Their representatives argued that high technology differs from every other market in its speed and productivity, and, therefore, ought to be thought of as incomparable to other antitrust examples. This reflected the high tech elite’s view of their own exceptionalism.

Reporters dutifully restated this argument, and, long story short, it did not get far with the public once the sensationalism started making headlines, and it especially did not get far with the trial judge. To be fair, if you watched recent congressional testimony, it appears as if the lawyers for the big four instructed their CEOs not to try it this approach this time around.

Origins

Well before lawyers and advocates exaggerate claims, the perspective of both sides usually have some merit, and usually the twain do not meet. Most executives tend to remember every detail behind growth, and know the risks confronted and overcome, and usually are reluctant to give up something that works for their interests, and sometimes these interests can be narrowly defined. In contrast, many partners will know examples of a rule that hindered them, and point to complaints that executives ignored, and aspire to have rules changed, and, again, their interests tend to be narrow.

Consider the quality-control process today for iPhone apps as an example. The merits and absurdity of some of Apples conduct get a lot of attention in online forums, especially the 30% take for Apple. Apple can reasonably claim the present set of rules work well overall, and only emerged after considerable experimentation, and today they seek to protect all who benefit from the entire system, like a shepherd. It is no surprise however, that some partners accuse Apple of tweaking rules to their own benefit, and using the process to further Apple’s ambitions at the expense of the partner’s, like a fox in a henhouse. So it goes.

More generally, based on publically available information, all of the big four already face this debate. Self-serving behavior shows up in different guise in different parts of the big four’s business, but it is always there. As noted, Apple’s apps compete with the apps of others, so it has incentives to shape distribution of other apps. Amazon’s products compete with some products coming from its third—party sellers, and it too faces mixed incentives. Google’s services compete with online services who also advertise on their search engine, and they too face issues over their charges for listing on the Play store. Facebook faces an additional issues, because it has bought firms that were trying to grow their own platforms to compete with Facebook.

Look, those four each contain rather different businesses in their details, which merits some caution in making a sweeping characterization. My only point: the question about self-serving behavior arises in each instance. That frames a fox-shepherd problem for prosecutors in each case.

Lessons from prior experience

Circling back to lessons of the past for antitrust today, the Shepherd-Fox problem was one of the deeper sources of miscommunication leading up to the Microsoft trial. In the late 1990s Microsoft could reasonably claim to be a shepherd for all its platform’s partners, and it could reasonably claim to have improved the platform in ways that benefited partners. Moreover, for years some of the industry gossip about their behavior stressed misinformed nonsense. Accordingly, Microsoft’s executives had learned to trust their own judgment and to mistrust the complaints of outsiders. Right in line with that mistrust, many employees and executives took umbrage to being characterized as a fox in a henhouse, dismissing the accusations out of hand.

Those habits-of-mind poorly positioned the firm for a court case. As any observer of the trial knowns, When prosecutors came looking, they found lots of examples that looked like fox-like behavior. Onerous contract restrictions and cumbersome processes for business partners produced plenty of bad optics in court, and fueled the prosecution’s case that the platform had become too self-serving at the expense of competitive processes. Prosecutors had plenty to work with when it came time to prove motive, intent, and ability to misuse discretion. 

What is the lesson for the big four? Ask an executive in technology today, and sometimes you will hear the following: As long as a platform’s actions can be construed as friendly to customers, the platform leader will be off the hook. That is not wrong lessons, but it is an incomplete one. Looking with hindsight and foresight, that perspective seems too sanguine about the prospects for the big four. Microsoft had done plenty for its customers, but so what? There was plenty of evidence of acting like a fox in a hen-house. The bigger lesson is this: all it took were a few bad examples to paint a picture of a pattern, and every firm has such examples.

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying a fox and hen-house analogy is fair or unfair to platform leaders. Rather, I am saying that economists like to think the economic trade-off between the interests of platform leaders, platform partners, and platform customers emerge from some grand policy compromise. That is not how prosecutors think, nor how judges decide. In the Microsoft case there was no such grand consideration. The economic framing of the case only went so far. As it was, the decision was vulnerable to metaphor, shrewdly applied and convincingly argued. Done persuasively, with enough examples of selfish behavior, excuses about “helping customers” came across as empty.

Policy

Some advocates argue, somewhat philosophically, that platforms deserve discretion, and governments are bound to err once they intervene. I have sympathy with that point of view, but only up to a point. Below are two examples from outside antitrust where government routinely do not give the big four a blank check.

First, when it started selling ads, Google banned ads for cigarettes, porn and alcohol, and it downgraded in its quality score for websites that used deceptive means to attract users. That helped the service foster trust with new users, enabling it to grow. After it became bigger should Google have continued to have unqualified discretion to shepherd the entire ad system? Nobody thinks so. A while ago the Federal Trade Commission decided to investigate deceptive online advertising, just as it investigates deceptive advertising in other media. It is not a big philosophical step to next ask whether Google should have unfettered discretion to structure the ad business, search process, and related e-commerce to its own benefit.

Here is another example, this one about Facebook. Over the years Facebook cycled through a number of rules for sharing information with business partners, generally taking a “relaxed” attitude enforcing those policies. Few observers cared when Facebook was small, but many governments started to care after Facebook grew to billions of users. Facebook’s lax monitoring did not line up with the preferences of many governments. It should not come as a surprise now that many governments want to regulate Facebook’s handling of data. Like it or not, this question lies squarely within the domain of government privacy policy. Again, the next step is small. Why should other parts of its business remain solely in Facebook’s discretion, like its ability to buy other businesses?

This gets us to the other legacy of the Microsoft case: As we think about future policy dilemmas, are there a general set of criteria for the antitrust issues facing all four firms? Veterans of court cases will point out that every court case is its own circus. Just because Microsoft failed to be persuasive in its day does not imply any of the big four will be unpersuasive.

Looking back on the Microsoft trial, it did not articulate a general set of principles about acceptable or excusable self-serving behavior from a platform leader. It did not settle what criteria best determine when a court should consider a platform leader’s behavior closer to that of a shepherd or a fox. The appropriate general criteria remains unclear.

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

This post is authored by Richard N. Langlois
(Professor of Economics, University of Connecticut).]

Market share has long been the talisman of antitrust economics.  Once we properly define what “the product” is, all we have to do is look at shares in the relevant market.  In such an exercise, today’s high-tech firms come off badly.  Each of them has a large share of the market for some “product.” What I appreciate about Nicolas Petit’s notion of “moligopoly” is that it recognizes that genuine competition is a far more complex and interesting phenomenon, one that goes beyond the category of “the product.”

In his chapter 4, Petit lays out how this works with six of today’s large high-tech companies, adding Netflix to the usual Big Five of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.  If I understand properly, what he means by “moligopoly” is that these large firms have their hands in many different relevant markets.  Because they seem to be selling different “products,” they don’t seem to be competing with one another.  Yet, in a fundamental sense, they are very much competing with one another, and perhaps with firms that do not yet exist.  

In this view, diversification is at the heart of competition.  Indeed, Petit wonders at one point whether we are in a new era of “conglomeralism.”  I would argue that the diversified high-tech firms we see today are actually very unlike the conglomerates of the late twentieth century.  In my view, the earlier conglomerates were not equilibrium phenomena but rather short-lived vehicles for the radical restructuring of the American economy in the post- Bretton Woods era of globalization.  A defining characteristic of those firms was that their diversification was unrelated, not just in terms of the SIC codes of their products but also in terms of their underlying capabilities.  If we look only at the products on the demand side, today’s high-tech firms might also seem to reflect unrelated diversification.  In fact, however, unlike in the twentieth-century conglomerates, the activities of present-day high-tech firms are connected on the supply side by a common set of capabilities involving the deployment of digital technology. 

Thus the boundaries of markets can shift and morph unexpectedly.  Enterprises that may seem entirely different actually harbor the potential to invade one other’s territory (or invade new territory – “competing against non-consumption”).  What Amazon can do, Google can do; and so can Microsoft.  The arena is competitive not because firms have a small share of relevant markets but because all of them sit beneath four or five damocletian swords, suspended by the thinnest of horsehairs.  No wonder the executives of high-tech firms sound paranoid.

Petit speculates that today’s high-tech companies have diversified (among other reasons) because of complementarities.  That may be part of the story.  But as Carliss Baldwin argues (and as Petit mentions in passing), we can think about the investments high-tech firms seem to be making as options – experiments that may or may not pay off.  The more uncertain the environment, the more valuable it is to have many diverse options.  A decade or so after the breakup of AT&T, the “baby Bells” were buying into landline, cellular, cable, satellite, and many other things, not because, as many thought at the time, that these were complementary, but because no one had any idea what would be important in the future (including whether there would be any complementarities).  As uncertainty resolved, these lines of business became more specialized, and the babies unbundled.  (As I write, AT&T, the baby Bell that snagged the original company name, is probably about to sell off DirectTV at a loss.)  From this perspective, the high degree of diversification we observe today implies not control of markets but the opposite – existential uncertainty about the future.

I wonder whether this kind of competition is unique to the age of the Internet.  There is an entire genre of business-school case built around an epiphany of the form: “we thought we were in the X business, but we were really in the Y business all along!”  I have recently read (listened to, technically) Marc Levinson’s wonderful history of containerized shipping.  Here the real competition occurred across modes of transport, not within existing well-defined markets.  The innovators came to realize that they were in the logistics business, not in the trucking business or the railroad business or the ocean-shipping business.  (Some of the most interesting parts of the story were about how entrepreneurship happens in a heavily regulated environment.  At one point early in the story, Malcolm McLean, the most important of these entrepreneurs, had to buy up other trucking firms just to obtain the ICC permits necessary to redesign routes efficiently.)  Of course, containerized shipping is also a modular system that some economists have accused of being a general-purpose technology like the Internet.

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

This post is authored by Doug Melamed (Professor of the Practice of Law, Stanford law School).
]

The big digital platforms make people uneasy.  Part of the unease is no doubt attributable to widespread populist concerns about large and powerful business entities.  Platforms like Facebook and Google in particular cause unease because they affect sensitive issues of communications, community, and politics.  But the platforms also make people uneasy because they seem boundless – enduring monopolies protected by ever-increasing scale and network economies, and growing monopolies aided by scope economies that enable them to conquer complementary markets.  They provoke a discussion about whether antitrust law is sufficient for the challenge.

Nicolas Petit’s Big Tech and the Digital Economy: The Moligopoly Scenario provides an insightful and valuable antidote to this unease.  While neither Panglossian nor comprehensive, Petit’s analysis persuasively argues that some of the concerns about the platforms are misguided or at least overstated.  As Petit sees it, the platforms are not so much monopolies in discrete markets – search, social networking, online commerce, and so on – as “multibusiness firms with business units in partly overlapping markets” that are engaged in a “dynamic oligopoly game” that might be “the socially optimal industry structure.”  Petit suggests that we should “abandon or at least radically alter traditional antitrust principles,” which are aimed at preserving “rivalry,” and “adapt to the specific non-rival economics of digital markets.”  In other words, the law should not try to diminish the platforms’ unique dominance in their individual sectors, which have already tipped to a winner-take-all (or most) state and in which protecting rivalry is not “socially beneficial.”  Instead, the law should encourage reductions of output in tipped markets in which the dominant firm “extracts a monopoly rent” in order to encourage rivalry in untipped markets. 

Petit’s analysis rests on the distinction between “tipped markets,” in which “tech firms with observed monopoly positions can take full advantage of their market power,” and “untipped markets,” which are “characterized by entry, instability and uncertainty.”  Notably, however, he does not expect “dispositive findings” as to whether a market is tipped or untipped.  The idea is to define markets, not just by “structural” factors like rival goods and services, market shares and entry barriers, but also by considering “uncertainty” and “pressure for change.”

Not surprisingly, given Petit’s training and work as a European scholar, his discussion of “antitrust in moligopoly markets” includes prescriptions that seem to one schooled in U.S. antitrust law to be a form of regulation that goes beyond proscribing unlawful conduct.  Petit’s principal concern is with reducing monopoly rents available to digital platforms.  He rejects direct reduction of rents by price regulation as antithetical to antitrust’s DNA and proposes instead indirect reduction of rents by permitting users on the inelastic side of a platform (the side from which the platform gains most of its revenues) to collaborate in order to gain countervailing market power and by restricting the platforms’ use of vertical restraints to limit user bypass. 

He would create a presumption against all horizontal mergers by dominant platforms in order to “prevent marginal increases of the output share on which the firms take a monopoly rent” and would avoid the risk of defining markets narrowly and thus failing to recognize that platforms are conglomerates that provide actual or potential competition in multiple partially overlapping commercial segments. By contrast, Petit would restrict the platforms’ entry into untipped markets only in “exceptional circumstances.”  For this, Petit suggests four inquiries: whether leveraging of network effects is involved; whether platform entry deters or forecloses entry by others; whether entry by others pressures the monopoly rents; and whether entry into the untipped market is intended to deter entry by others or is a long-term commitment.

One might question the proposition, which is central to much of Petit’s argument, that reducing monopoly rents in tipped markets will increase the platforms’ incentives to enter untipped markets.  Entry into untipped markets is likely to depend more on expected returns in the untipped market, the cost of capital, and constraints on managerial bandwidth than on expected returns in the tipped market.  But the more important issue, at least from the perspective of competition law, is whether – even assuming the correctness of all aspects of Petit’s economic analysis — the kind of categorical regulatory intervention proposed by Petit is superior to a law enforcement regime that proscribes only anticompetitive conduct that increases or threatens to increase market power.  Under U.S. law, anticompetitive conduct is conduct that tends to diminish the competitive efficacy of rivals and does not sufficiently enhance economic welfare by reducing costs, increasing product quality, or reducing above-cost prices.

If there were no concerns about the ability of legal institutions to know and understand the facts, a law enforcement regime would seem clearly superior.  Consider, for example, Petit’s recommendation that entry by a platform monopoly into untipped markets should be restricted only when network effects are involved and after taking into account whether the entry tends to protect the tipped market monopoly and whether it reflects a long-term commitment.  Petit’s proposed inquiries might make good sense as a way of understanding as a general matter whether market extension by a dominant platform is likely to be problematic.  But it is hard to see how economic welfare is promoted by permitting a platform to enter an adjacent market (e.g., Amazon entering a complementary product market) by predatory pricing or by otherwise unprofitable self-preferencing, even if the entry is intended to be permanent and does not protect the platform monopoly. 

Similarly, consider the proposed presumption against horizontal mergers.  That might not be a good idea if there is a small (10%) chance that the acquired firm would otherwise endure and modestly reduce the platform’s monopoly rents and an equal or even smaller chance that the acquisition will enable the platform, by taking advantage of economies of scope and asset complementarities, to build from the acquired firm an improved business that is much more valuable to consumers.  In that case, the expected value of the merger in welfare terms might be very positive.  Similarly, Petit would permit acquisitions by a platform of firms outside the tipped market as long as the platform has the ability and incentive to grow the target.  But the growth path of the target is not set in stone.  The platform might use it as a constrained complement, while an unaffiliated owner might build it into something both more valuable to consumers and threatening to the platform.  Maybe one of these stories describes Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram.

The prototypical anticompetitive horizontal merger story is one in which actual or potential competitors agree to share the monopoly rents that would be dissipated by competition between them. That story is confounded by communications that seem like threats, which imply a story of exclusion rather than collusion.  Petit refers to one such story.  But the threat story can be misleading.  Suppose, for example, that Platform sees Startup introduce a new business concept and studies whether it could profitably emulate Startup.  Suppose further that Platform concludes that, because of scale and scope economies available to it, it could develop such a business and come to dominate the market for a cost of $100 million acting alone or $25 million if it can acquire Startup and take advantage of its existing expertise, intellectual property, and personnel.  In that case, Platform might explain to Startup the reality that Platform is going to take the new market either way and propose to buy Startup for $50 million (thus offering Startup two-thirds of the gains from trade).  Startup might refuse, perhaps out of vanity or greed, in which case Platform as promised might enter aggressively and, without engaging in predatory or other anticompetitive conduct, drive Startup from the market.  To an omniscient law enforcement regime, there should be no antitrust violation from either an acquisition or the aggressive competition.  Either way, the more efficient provider prevails so the optimum outcome is realized in the new market.  The merger would have been more efficient because it would have avoided wasteful duplication of startup costs, and the merger proposal (later characterized as a threat) was thus a benign, even procompetitive, invitation to collude.  It would be a different story of course if Platform could overcome Startup’s first mover advantage only by engaging in anticompetitive conduct.

The problem is that antitrust decision makers often cannot understand all the facts.  Take the threat story, for example.  If Startup acquiesces and accepts the $50 million offer, the decision maker will have to determine whether Platform could have driven Startup from the market without engaging in predatory or anticompetitive conduct and, if not, whether absent the merger the parties would have competed against one another.  In other situations, decision makers are asked to determine whether the conduct at issue would be more likely than the but-for world to promote innovation or other, similarly elusive matters.

U.S. antitrust law accommodates its unavoidable uncertainty by various default rules and practices.  Some, like per se rules and the controversial Philadelphia National Bank presumption, might on occasion prohibit conduct that would actually have been benign or even procompetitive.  Most, however, insulate from antitrust liability conduct that might actually be anticompetitive.  These include rules applicable to predatory pricing, refusals to deal, two-sided markets, and various matters involving patents.  Perhaps more important are proof requirements in general.  U.S. antitrust law is based on the largely unexamined notion that false positives are worse than false negatives and thus, for the most part, puts the burden of uncertainty on the plaintiff.

Petit is proposing, in effect, an alternative approach for the digital platforms.  This approach would not just proscribe anticompetitive conduct.  It would, instead, apply to specific firms special rules that are intended to promote a desired outcome, the reduction in monopoly rents in tipped digital markets.  So, one question suggested by Petit’s provocative study is whether the inevitable uncertainty surrounding issues of platform competition are best addressed by the kinds of categorical rules Petit proposes or by case-by-case application of abstract legal principles.  Put differently, assuming that economic welfare is the objective, what is the best way to minimize error costs?

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of error costs: specification errors and application errors.  Specification errors reflect legal rules that do not map perfectly to the normative objectives of the law (e.g., a rule that would prohibit all horizontal mergers by dominant platforms when some such mergers are procompetitive or welfare-enhancing).  Application errors reflect mistaken application of the legal rule to the facts of the case (e.g., an erroneous determination whether the conduct excludes rivals or provides efficiency benefits).   

Application errors are the most likely source of error costs in U.S. antitrust law.  The law relies largely on abstract principles that track the normative objectives of the law (e.g., conduct by a monopoly that excludes rivals and has no efficiency benefit is illegal). Several recent U.S. antitrust decisions (American Express, Qualcomm, and Farelogix among them) suggest that error costs in a law enforcement regime like that in the U.S. might be substantial and even that case-by-case application of principles that require applying economic understanding to diverse factual circumstances might be beyond the competence of generalist judges.  Default rules applicable in special circumstances reduce application errors but at the expense of specification errors.

Specification errors are more likely with categorical rules, like those suggested by Petit.  The total costs of those specification errors are likely to exceed the costs of mistaken decisions in individual cases because categorical rules guide firm conduct in general, not just in decided cases, and rules that embody specification errors are thus likely to encourage undesirable conduct and to discourage desirable conduct in matters that are not the subject of enforcement proceedings.  Application errors, unless systematic and predictable, are less likely to impose substantial costs beyond the costs of mistaken decisions in the decided cases themselves.  Whether any particular categorical rules are likely to have error costs greater than the error costs of the existing U.S. antitrust law will depend in large part on the specification errors of the rules and on whether their application is likely to be accompanied by substantial application costs.

As discussed above, the particular rules suggested by Petit appear to embody important specification errors.  They are likely also to lead to substantial application errors because they would require determination of difficult factual issues.  These include, for example, whether the market at issue has tipped, whether the merger is horizontal, and whether the platform’s entry into an untipped market is intended to be permanent.  It thus seems unlikely, at least from this casual review, that adoption of the rules suggested by Petit will reduce error costs.

 Petit’s impressive study might therefore be most valuable, not as a roadmap for action, but as a source of insight and understanding of the facts – what Petit calls a “mental model to help decision makers understand the idiosyncrasies of digital markets.”  If viewed, not as a prescription for action, but as a description of the digital world, the Moligopoly Scenario can help address the urgent matter of reducing the costs of application errors in U.S. antitrust law.

The writing is on the wall for Big Tech: regulation is coming. At least, that is what the House Judiciary Committee’s report into competition in digital markets would like us to believe. 

The Subcommittee’s Majority members, led by Rhode Island’s Rep. David Cicilline, are calling for a complete overhaul of America’s antitrust and regulatory apparatus. This would notably entail a break up of America’s largest tech firms, by prohibiting them from operating digital platforms and competing on them at the same time. Unfortunately, the report ignores the tremendous costs that such proposals would impose upon consumers and companies alike. 

For several years now, there has been growing pushback against the perceived “unfairness” of America’s tech industry: of large tech platforms favoring their own products at the expense of entrepreneurs who use their platforms; of incumbents acquiring startups to quash competition; of platforms overcharging  companies like Epic Games, Spotify, and the media, just because they can; and of tech companies that spy on their users and use that data to sell them things they don’t need. 

But this portrayal of America’s tech industry obscures an inconvenient possibility: supposing that these perceived ills even occur, there is every chance that the House’s reforms would merely exacerbate the status quo. The House report gives short shrift to this eventuality, but it should not.

Over the last decade, the tech sector has been the crown jewel of America’s economy. And while firms like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple, may have grown at a blistering pace, countless others have flourished in their wake.

Google and Apple’s app stores have given rise to a booming mobile software industry. Platforms like Youtube and Instagram have created new venues for advertisers and ushered in a new generation of entrepreneurs including influencers, podcasters, and marketing experts. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have disintermediated the production of news media, allowing ever more people to share their ideas with the rest of the world (mostly for better, and sometimes for worse). Amazon has opened up new markets for thousands of retailers, some of which are now going public. The recent $3.4 billion Snowflake IPO may have been the biggest public offering of a tech firm no one has heard of.

The trillion dollar question is whether it is possible to regulate this thriving industry without stifling its unparalleled dynamism. If Rep. Cicilline’s House report is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding no.

Acquisition by a Big Tech firm is one way for startups to rapidly scale and reach a wider audience, while allowing early investors to make a quick exit. Self-preferencing can enable platforms to tailor their services to the needs and desires of users (Apple and Google’s pre-installed app suites are arguably what drive users to opt for their devices). Excluding bad apples from a platform is essential to gain users’ trust and build a strong reputation. Finally, in the online retail space, copying rival products via house brands provides consumers with competitively priced goods and helps new distributors enter the market. 

All of these practices would either be heavily scrutinized or outright banned under the Subcommittee ’s proposed reforms. Beyond its direct impact on the quality of online goods and services, this huge shift would threaten the climate of permissionless innovation that has arguably been key to Silicon Valley’s success. 

More fundamentally, these reforms would mostly protect certain privileged rivals at the expense of the wider industry. Take Apple’s App Store: Epic Games and others have complained about the 30% Commission charged by Apple for in-app purchases (as is standard throughout the industry). Yet, as things stand, roughly 80% of apps pay no commission at all. Tackling this 30% commission — for instance by allowing developers to bypass Apple’s in-app payment processing — would almost certainly result in larger fees for small developers. In short, regulation could significantly impede smaller firms.

Fortunately, there is another way. For decades, antitrust law — guided by the judge-made consumer welfare standard — has been the cornerstone of economic policy in the US. During that time, America built a tech industry that is the envy of the world. This should give pause to would-be reformers. There is a real chance overbearing regulation will permanently hamper America’s tech industry. With competition from China more intense than ever, it is a risk that the US cannot afford to take.

Earlier this year the UK government announced it was adopting the main recommendations of the Furman Report into competition in digital markets and setting up a “Digital Markets Taskforce” to oversee those recommendations being put into practice. The Competition and Markets Authority’s digital advertising market study largely came to similar conclusions (indeed, in places it reads as if the CMA worked backwards from those conclusions).

The Furman Report recommended that the UK should overhaul its competition regime with some quite significant changes to regulate the conduct of large digital platforms and make it harder for them to acquire other companies. But, while the Report’s panel is accomplished and its tone is sober and even-handed, the evidence on which it is based does not justify the recommendations it makes.

Most of the citations in the Report are of news reports or simple reporting of data with no analysis, and there is very little discussion of the relevant academic literature in each area, even to give a summary of it. In some cases, evidence and logic are misused to justify intuitions that are just not supported by the facts.

Killer acquisitions

One particularly bad example is the report’s discussion of mergers in digital markets. The Report provides a single citation to support its proposals on the question of so-called “killer acquisitions” — acquisitions where incumbent firms acquire innovative startups to kill their rival product and avoid competing on the merits. The concern is that these mergers slip under the radar of current merger control either because the transaction is too small, or because the purchased firm is not yet in competition with the incumbent. But the paper the Report cites, by Colleen Cunningham, Florian Ederer and Song Ma, looks only at the pharmaceutical industry. 

The Furman Report says that “in the absence of any detailed analysis of the digital sector, these results can be roughly informative”. But there are several important differences between the drug markets the paper considers and the digital markets the Furman Report is focused on. 

The scenario described in the Cunningham, et al. paper is of a patent holder buying a direct competitor that has come up with a drug that emulates the patent holder’s drug without infringing on the patent. As the Cunningham, et al. paper demonstrates, decreases in development rates are a feature of acquisitions where the acquiring company holds a patent for a similar product that is far from expiry. The closer a patent is to expiry, the less likely an associated “killer” acquisition is. 

But tech typically doesn’t have the clear and predictable IP protections that would make such strategies reliable. The long and uncertain development and approval process involved in bringing a drug to market may also be a factor.

There are many more differences between tech acquisitions and the “killer acquisitions” in pharma that the Cunningham, et al. paper describes. SO-called “acqui-hires,” where a company is acquired in order to hire its workforce en masse, are common in tech and explicitly ruled out of being “killers” by this paper, for example: it is not harmful to overall innovation or output overall if a team is moved to a more productive project after an acquisition. And network effects, although sometimes troubling from a competition perspective, can also make mergers of platforms beneficial for users by growing the size of that platform (because, of course, one of the points of a network is its size).

The Cunningham, et al. paper estimates that 5.3% of pharma acquisitions are “killers”. While that may seem low, some might say it’s still 5.3% too much. However, it’s not obvious that a merger review authority could bring that number closer to zero without also rejecting more mergers that are good for consumers, making people worse off overall. Given the number of factors that are specific to pharma and that do not apply to tech, it is dubious whether the findings of this paper are useful to the Furman Report’s subject at all. Given how few acquisitions are found to be “killers” in pharma with all of these conditions present, it seems reasonable to assume that, even if this phenomenon does apply in some tech mergers, it is significantly rarer than the ~5.3% of mergers Cunningham, et al. find in pharma. As a result, the likelihood of erroneous condemnation of procompetitive mergers is significantly higher. 

In any case, there’s a fundamental disconnect between the “killer acquisitions” in the Cunningham, et al. paper and the tech acquisitions described as “killers” in the popular media. Neither Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram nor Google’s acquisition of Youtube, which FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra recently highlighted, would count, because in neither case was the acquired company “killed.” Nor were any of the other commonly derided tech acquisitions — e.g., Facebook/Whatsapp, Google/Waze, Microsoft.LinkedIn, or Amazon/Whole Foods — “killers,” either. 

In all these high-profile cases the acquiring companies expanded the service and invested more in them. One may object that these services would have competed with their acquirers had they remained independent, but this is a totally different argument to the scenarios described in the Cunningham, et al. paper, where development of a new drug is shut down by the acquirer ostensibly to protect their existing product. It is thus extremely difficult to see how the Cunningham, et al. paper is even relevant to the digital platform context, let alone how it could justify a wholesale revision of the merger regime as applied to digital platforms.

A recent paper (published after the Furman Report) does attempt to survey acquisitions by Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. Out of 175 acquisitions in the 2015-17 period the paper surveys, only one satisfies the Cunningham, et al. paper’s criteria for being a potentially “killer” acquisition — Facebook’s acquisition of a photo sharing app called Masquerade, which had raised just $1 million in funding before being acquired.

In lieu of any actual analysis of mergers in digital markets, the Report falls back on a puzzling logic:

To date, there have been no false positives in mergers involving the major digital platforms, for the simple reason that all of them have been permitted. Meanwhile, it is likely that some false negatives will have occurred during this time. This suggests that there has been underenforcement of digital mergers, both in the UK and globally. Remedying this underenforcement is not just a matter of greater focus by the enforcer, as it will also need to be assisted by legislative change.

This is very poor reasoning. It does not logically follow that the (presumed) existence of false negatives implies that there has been underenforcement, because overenforcement carries costs as well. Moreover, there are strong reasons to think that false positives in these markets are more costly than false negatives. A well-run court system might still fail to convict a few criminals because the cost of accidentally convicting an innocent person was so high.

The UK’s competition authority did commission an ex post review of six historical mergers in digital markets, including Facebook/Instagram and Google/Waze, two of the most controversial in the UK. Although it did suggest that the review process could have been done differently, it also highlighted efficiencies that arose from each, and did not conclude that any has led to consumer detriment.

Recommendations

The Report is vague about which mergers it considers to have been uncompetitive, and apart from the aforementioned text it does not really attempt to justify its recommendations around merger control. 

Despite this, the Report recommends a shift to a ‘balance of harms’ approach. Under the current regime, merger review focuses on the likelihood that a merger would reduce competition which, at least, gives clarity about the factors to be considered. A ‘balance of harms’ approach would require the potential scale (size) of the merged company to be considered as well. 

This could give basis for blocking any merger at all on ‘scale’ grounds. After all, if a photo editing app with a sharing timeline can grow into the world’s second largest social network, how could a competition authority say with any confidence that some other acquisition might not prevent the emergence of a new platform on a similar scale, however unlikely? This could provide a basis for blocking almost any acquisition by an incumbent firm, and make merger review an even more opaque and uncertain process than it currently is, potentially deterring efficiency-raising mergers or leading startups that would like to be acquired to set up and operate overseas instead (or not to be started up in the first place).

The treatment of mergers is just one example of the shallowness of the Report. In many other cases — the discussions of concentration and barriers to entry in digital markets, for example — big changes are recommended on the basis of a handful of papers or less. Intuition repeatedly trumps evidence and academic research.

The Report’s subject is incredibly broad, of course, and one might argue that such a limited, casual approach is inevitable. In this sense the Report may function perfectly well as an opening brief introducing the potential range of problems in the digital economy that a rational competition authority might consider addressing. But the complexity and uncertainty of the issues is no reason to eschew rigorous, detailed analysis before determining that a compelling case has been made. Adopting the Report’s assumptions — and in many cases that is the very most one can say of them — of harm and remedial recommendations on the limited bases it offers is sure to lead to erroneous enforcement of competition law in a way that would reduce, rather than enhance, consumer welfare.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon employees have been using data from individual sellers to identify products to compete with with its own ‘private label’ (or own-brand) products, such as AmazonBasics, Presto!, and Pinzon.

It’s implausible that this is an antitrust problem, as some have suggested. It’s extremely common for retailers to sell their own private label products and use data on how other products in their stores have sold to help development and marketing. They account for about 14–17% of overall US retail sales, and for an estimated 19% of Walmart’s and Kroger’s sales and 29% of Costco’s sales of consumer packaged goods. 

And Amazon accounts for 39% of US e-commerce spending, and about 6% of all US retail spending. Any antitrust-based argument against Amazon doing this should also apply to Walmart, Kroger and Costco as well. In other words, the case against Amazon proves too much. Alec Stapp has a good discussion of these and related facts here.

However, it is interesting to think about the underlying incentives facing Amazon here, and in particular why Amazon’s company policy is not to use individual seller data to develop products (rogue employees violating this policy, notwithstanding). One possibility is that it is a way for Amazon to balance its competition with some third parties with protections for others that it sees as valuable to its platform overall.

Amazon does use aggregated seller data to develop and market its products. If two or more merchants are selling a product, Amazon’s employees can see how popular it is. This might seem like a trivial distinction, but it might exist for good reason. It could be because sellers of unique products actually do have the bargaining power to demand that Amazon does not use their data to compete with them, or for public relations reasons, although it’s not clear how successful that has been. 

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

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

But to the extent that Amazon competes against innovative third-party sellers (typically manufacturers doing direct sales, as opposed to pure retailers simply re-selling others’ products), there is a possibility that the prospect of having to compete with Amazon may diminish their incentive to develop new products and sell them on Amazon’s platform. 

This is the strongest argument that is made against private label offerings in general. When they involve some level of copying an innovative product, where the innovator has been collecting above-normal profits and those profits are what spur the innovation in the first place, a private label product that comes along and copies the product effectively free rides on the innovation and captures some of its return. That may get us less innovation than society—or a platform trying to host as many innovative products as possible—would like.

While the Journal conflates these two kinds of products, Amazon’s own policies may be tailored specifically to take account of the distinction, and maximise the total value of its marketplace to consumers.

This is nominally the focus of the Journal story: a car trunk organiser company with an (apparently) innovative product says that Amazon moving in to compete with its own AmazonBasics version competed away many of its sales. In this sort of situation, the free-rider problem described above might apply where future innovation is discouraged. Why bother to invent things like this if you’re just going to have your invention ripped off?

Of course, many such innovations are protected by patents. But there may be valuable innovations that are not, and even patented innovations are not perfectly protected given the costs of enforcement. But a platform like Amazon can adopt rules that fine-tune the protections offered by the legal system in an effort to increase the value of the platform for both innovators and consumers alike.

And that may be why Amazon has its rule against using individual seller data to compete: to allow creators of new products to collect more rents from their inventions, with a promise that, unless and until their product is commodified by other means (as indicated by the product being available from multiple other sellers), Amazon won’t compete against such sellers using any special insights it might have from that seller using Amazon’s Marketplace. 

This doesn’t mean Amazon refuses to compete (or refuses to allow others to compete); it has other rules that sometimes determine that boundary, as when it enters into agreements with certain brands to permit sales of the brand on the platform only by sellers authorized by the brand owner. Rather, this rule is a more limited—but perhaps no less important—one that should entice innovators to use Amazon’s platform to sell their products without concern that doing so will create a special risk that Amazon can compete away their returns using information uniquely available to it. In effect, it’s a promise that innovators won’t lose more by choosing to sell on Amazon rather than through other retail channels.. 

Like other platforms, to maximise its profits Amazon needs to strike a balance between being an attractive place for third party merchants to sell their goods, and being attractive to consumers by offering as many inexpensive, innovative, and reliable products as possible. Striking that balance is challenging, but a rule that restrains the platform from using its unique position to expropriate value from innovative sellers helps to protect the income of genuinely innovative third parties, and induces them to sell products consumers want on Amazon, while still allowing Amazon (and third-party sellers) to compete with commodity products. 

The fact that Amazon has strong competition online and offline certainly acts as an important constraint here, too: if Amazon behaved too badly, third parties might not sell on it at all, and Amazon would have none of the seller data that is allegedly so valuable to it.

But even in a world where Amazon had a huge, sticky customer base that meant it was not an option to sell elsewhere—which the Journal article somewhat improbably implies—Amazon would still need third parties to innovate and sell things on its platform. 

What the Journal story really seems to demonstrate is the sort of genuine principal-agent problem that all large businesses face: the company as a whole needs to restrain its private label section in various respects but its agents in the private label section want to break those rules to maximise their personal performance (in this case, by launching a successful new AmazonBasics product). It’s like a rogue trader at a bank who breaks the rules to make herself look good by, she hopes, getting good results.This is just one of many rules that a platform like Amazon has to preserve the value of its platform. It’s probably not the most important one. But understanding why it exists may help us to understand why simple stories of platform predation don’t add up, and help to demonstrate the mechanisms that companies like Amazon use to maximise the total value of their platform, not just one part of it.