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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The report thus asserts that:

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

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

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

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

Decisions Under Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Erroneous Predictions in Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The FTC Lawyers’ Weak Case for Prosecuting Google

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

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

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

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

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

Moreover, as Ben Thompson argues in his Stratechery newsletter: 

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

This difficulty was deftly highlighted by Heyer’s memo:

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

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

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

Google’s ‘revenue-sharing’ agreements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-preferencing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competitor Harm Is Not an Indicator of the Need for Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In current discussions of technology markets, few words are heard more often than “platform.” Initial public offering (IPO) prospectuses use “platform” to describe a service that is bound to dominate a digital market. Antitrust regulators use “platform” to describe a service that dominates a digital market or threatens to do so. In either case, “platform” denotes power over price. For investors, that implies exceptional profits; for regulators, that implies competitive harm.

Conventional wisdom holds that platforms enjoy high market shares, protected by high barriers to entry, which yield high returns. This simple logic drives the market’s attribution of dramatically high valuations to dramatically unprofitable businesses and regulators’ eagerness to intervene in digital platform markets characterized by declining prices, increased convenience, and expanded variety, often at zero out-of-pocket cost. In both cases, “burning cash” today is understood as the path to market dominance and the ability to extract a premium from consumers in the future.

This logic is usually wrong. 

The Overlooked Basics of Platform Economics

To appreciate this perhaps surprising point, it is necessary to go back to the increasingly overlooked basics of platform economics. A platform can refer to any service that matches two complementary populations. A search engine matches advertisers with consumers, an online music service matches performers and labels with listeners, and a food-delivery service matches restaurants with home diners. A platform benefits everyone by facilitating transactions that otherwise might never have occurred.

A platform’s economic value derives from its ability to lower transaction costs by funneling a multitude of individual transactions into a single convenient hub.  In pursuit of minimum costs and maximum gains, users on one side of the platform will tend to favor the most popular platforms that offer the largest number of users on the other side of the platform. (There are partial exceptions to this rule when users value being matched with certain typesof other users, rather than just with more users.) These “network effects” mean that any successful platform market will always converge toward a handful of winners. This positive feedback effect drives investors’ exuberance and regulators’ concerns.

There is a critical point, however, that often seems to be overlooked.

Market share only translates into market power to the extent the incumbent is protected against entry within some reasonable time horizon.  If Warren Buffett’s moat requirement is not met, market share is immaterial. If XYZ.com owns 100% of the online pet food delivery market but entry costs are asymptotic, then market power is negligible. There is another important limiting principle. In platform markets, the depth of the moat depends not only on competitors’ costs to enter the market, but users’ costs in switching from one platform to another or alternating between multiple platforms. If users can easily hop across platforms, then market share cannot confer market power given the continuous threat of user defection. Put differently: churn limits power over price.

Contrary to natural intuitions, this is why a platform market consisting of only a few leaders can still be intensely competitive, keeping prices low (down to and including $0) even if the number of competitors is low. It is often asserted, however, that users are typically locked into the dominant platform and therefore face high switching costs, which therefore implicitly satisfies the moat requirement. If that is true, then the “high churn” scenario is a theoretical curiosity and a leading platform’s high market share would be a reliable signal of market power. In fact, this common assumption likely describes the atypical case. 

AWS and the Cloud Data-Storage Market

This point can be illustrated by considering the cloud data-storage market. This would appear to be an easy case where high switching costs (due to the difficulty in shifting data among storage providers) insulate the market leader against entry threats. Yet the real world does not conform to these expectations. 

While Amazon Web Services pioneered the $100 billion-plus market and is still the clear market leader, it now faces vigorous competition from Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and other data-storage or other cloud-related services. This may reflect the fact that the data storage market is far from saturated, so new users are up for grabs and existing customers can mitigate lock-in by diversifying across multiple storage providers. Or it may reflect the fact that the market’s structure is fluid as a function of technological changes, enabling entry at formerly bundled portions of the cloud data-services package. While it is not always technologically feasible, the cloud storage market suggests that users’ resistance to platform capture can represent a competitive opportunity for entrants to challenge dominant vendors on price, quality, and innovation parameters.

The Surprising Instability of Platform Dominance

The instability of leadership positions in the cloud storage market is not exceptional. 

Consider a handful of once-powerful platforms that were rapidly dethroned once challenged by a more efficient or innovative rival: Yahoo and Alta Vista in the search-engine market (displaced by Google); Netscape in the browser market (displaced by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, then displaced by Google Chrome); Nokia and then BlackBerry in the mobile wireless-device market (displaced by Apple and Samsung); and Friendster in the social-networking market (displaced by Myspace, then displaced by Facebook). AOL was once thought to be indomitable; now it is mostly referenced as a vintage email address. The list could go on.

Overestimating platform dominance—or more precisely, assuming platform dominance without close factual inquiry—matters because it promotes overestimates of market power. That, in turn, cultivates both market and regulatory bubbles: investors inflate stock valuations while regulators inflate the risk of competitive harm. 

DoorDash and the Food-Delivery Services Market

Consider the DoorDash IPO that launched in early December 2020. The market’s current approximately $50 billion valuation of a business that has been almost consistently unprofitable implicitly assumes that DoorDash will maintain and expand its position as the largest U.S. food-delivery platform, which will then yield power over price and exceptional returns for investors. 

There are reasons to be skeptical. Even where DoorDash captures and holds a dominant market share in certain metropolitan areas, it still faces actual and potential competition from other food-delivery services, in-house delivery services (especially by well-resourced national chains), and grocery and other delivery services already offered by regional and national providers. There is already evidence of these expected responses to DoorDash’s perceived high delivery fees, a classic illustration of the disciplinary effect of competitive forces on the pricing choices of an apparently dominant market leader. These “supply-side” constraints imposed by competitors are compounded by “demand-side” constraints imposed by customers. Home diners incur no more than minimal costs when swiping across food-delivery icons on a smartphone interface, casting doubt that high market share is likely to translate in this context into market power.

Deliveroo and the Costs of Regulatory Autopilot

Just as the stock market can suffer from delusions of platform grandeur, so too some competition regulators appear to have fallen prey to the same malady. 

A vivid illustration is provided by the 2019 decision by the Competition Markets Authority (CMA), the British competition regulator, to challenge Amazon’s purchase of a 16% stake in Deliveroo, one of three major competitors in the British food-delivery services market. This intervention provides perhaps the clearest illustration of policy action based on a reflexive assumption of market power, even in the face of little to no indication that the predicate conditions for that assumption could plausibly be satisfied.

Far from being a dominant platform, Deliveroo was (and is) a money-losing venture lagging behind money-losing Just Eat (now Just Eat Takeaway) and Uber Eats in the U.K. food-delivery services market. Even Amazon had previously closed its own food-delivery service in the U.K. due to lack of profitability. Despite Deliveroo’s distressed economic circumstances and the implausibility of any market power arising from Amazon’s investment, the CMA nonetheless elected to pursue the fullest level of investigation. While the transaction was ultimately approved in August 2020, this intervention imposed a 15-month delay and associated costs in connection with an investment that almost certainly bolstered competition in a concentrated market by funding a firm reportedly at risk of insolvency.  This is the equivalent of a competition regulator driving in reverse.

Concluding Thoughts

There seems to be an increasingly common assumption in commentary by the press, policymakers, and even some scholars that apparently dominant platforms usually face little competition and can set, at will, the terms of exchange. For investors, this is a reason to buy; for regulators, this is a reason to intervene. This assumption is sometimes realized, and, in that case, antitrust intervention is appropriate whenever there is reasonable evidence that market power is being secured through something other than “competition on the merits.” However, several conditions must be met to support the market power assumption without which any such inquiry would be imprudent. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the economics and history of platform markets suggest that those conditions are infrequently satisfied.

Without closer scrutiny, reflexively equating market share with market power is prone to lead both investors and regulators astray.  

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

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

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

What is the case about?

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

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

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

What is the relevant market?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What exactly has Google been paying for, and why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

An intriguing possibility

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

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

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

What would be a suitable remedy/relief?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

The developments in the case will surely be interesting.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rolled by Rewheel, Redux

Eric Fruits —  15 December 2020

The Finnish consultancy Rewheel periodically issues reports using mobile wireless pricing information to make claims about which countries’ markets are competitive and which are not. For example, Rewheel claims Canada and Greece have the “least competitive monthly prices” while the United Kingdom and Finland have the most competitive.

Rewheel often claims that the number of carriers operating in a country is the key determinant of wireless pricing. 

Their pricing studies attract a great deal of attention. For example, in February 2019 testimony before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, Phillip Berenbroick of Public Knowledge asserted: “Rewheel found that consumers in markets with three facilities-based providers paid twice as much per gigabyte as consumers in four firm markets.” So, what’s wrong with Rewheel? An earlier post highlights some of the flaws in Rewheel’s methodology. But there’s more.

Rewheel creates fictional market baskets of mobile plans for each provider in a county. Country-by-country comparisons are made by evaluating the lowest-priced basket for each country and the basket with the median price.

Rewheel’s market baskets are hypothetical packages that say nothing about which plans are actually chosen by consumers or what the actual prices paid by those consumers were. This is not a new criticism. In 2014, Pauline Affeldt and Rainer Nitsche called these measures “meaningless”:

Such approaches are taken by Rewheel (2013) and also the Austrian regulator rtr … Such studies face the following problems: They may pick tariffs that are relatively meaningless in the country. They will have to assume one or more consumption baskets (voice minutes, data volume etc.) in order to compare tariffs. This may drive results. Apart from these difficulties such comparisons require very careful tracking of tariffs and their changes. Even if one assumes studying a sample of tariffs is potentially meaningful, a comparison across countries (or over time) would still require taking into account key differences across countries (or over time) like differences in demand, costs, network quality etc.

For example, reporting that the average price of a certain T-Mobile USA smartphone, tablet and home Internet plan is $125 is about as useless as knowing that the average price of a Kroger shopping cart containing a six-pack of Budweiser, a dozen eggs, and a pound of oranges is $10. Is Safeway less “competitive” if the price of the same cart of goods is $12? What could you say about pricing at a store that doesn’t sell Budweiser (e.g., Trader Joe’s)?

Rewheel solves that last problem by doing something bonkers. If a carrier doesn’t offer a plan in one of Rewheel’s baskets, they “assign” the HIGHEST monthly price in the world. 

For example, Rewheel notes that Vodafone India does not offer a fixed wireless broadband plan with at least 1,000GB of data and download speeds of 100 Mbps or faster. So, Rewheel “assigns” Vodafone India the highest price in its dataset. That price belongs to a plan that’s sold in the United Kingdom. It simply makes no sense. 

To return to the supermarket analogy, it would be akin to saying that, if a Trader Joe’s in the United States doesn’t sell six-packs of Budweiser, we should assume the price of Budweiser at Trader Joe’s is equal to the world’s most expensive six-pack of the beer. In reality, Trader Joe’s is known for having relatively low prices. But using the Rewheel approach, the store would be assessed to have some of the highest prices.

Because of Rewheel’s “assignment” of highest monthly prices to many plans, it’s irrelevant whether their analysis is based on a country’s median price or lowest price. The median is skewed and the lowest actual may be missing from the dataset.

Rewheel publishes these reports to support its argument that mobile prices are lower in markets with four carriers than in those with three carriers. But even if we accept Rewheel’s price data as reliable, which it isn’t, their own data show no relationship between the number of carriers and average price.

Notice the huge overlap of observations among markets with three and four carriers. 

Rewheel’s latest report provides a redacted dataset, reporting only data usage and weighted average price for each provider. So, we have to work with what we have. 

A simple regression analysis shows there is no statistically significant difference in the intercept or the slopes for markets with three, four or five carriers (the default is three carriers in the regression). Based on the data Rewheel provides to the public, the number of carriers in a country has no relationship to wireless prices.

Rewheel seems to have a rich dataset of pricing information that could be useful to inform policy. It’s a shame that their topline summaries seem designed to support a predetermined conclusion.

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

This post is authored by Ramaz Samrout, (Principal, REIM Strategies; Lay Member, Competition Tribunal of Canada)]

At a time when nations are engaged in bidding wars in the worldwide market to alleviate the shortages of critical medical necessities for the Covid-19 crisis, it certainly bares the question, have free trade and competition policies resulting in efficient global integrated market networks gone too far? Did economists and policy makers advocating for efficient competitive markets not foresee a failure of the supply chain in meeting a surge in demand during an inevitable global crisis such as this one?

The failures in securing medical supplies have escalated a global health crisis to geopolitical spats fuelled by strong nationalistic public sentiments. In the process of competing to acquire highly treasured medical equipment, governments are confiscating, outbidding, and diverting shipments at the risk of not adhering to the terms of established free trade agreements and international trading rules, all at the cost of the humanitarian needs of other nations.

Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, all levels of government in Canada have been working on diversifying the supply chain for critical equipment both domestically and internationally. But, most importantly, these governments are bolstering domestic production and an integrated domestic supply network recognizing the increasing likelihood of tightening borders impacting the movement of critical products.

For the past 3 weeks in his daily briefings, Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has repeatedly confirmed the Government’s support of domestic enterprises that are switching their manufacturing lines to produce critical medical supplies and of other “made in Canada” products.

As conditions worsen in the US and the White House hardens its position towards collaboration and sharing for the greater global humanitarian good—even in the presence of a recent bilateral agreement to keep the movement of essential goods fluid—Canada’s response has become more retaliatory. Now shifting to a message emphasizing that the need for “made in Canada” products is one of extreme urgency.

On April 3rd, President Trump ordered Minnesota-based 3M to stop exporting medical-grade masks to Canada and Latin America; a decision that was enabled by the triggering of the 1950 Defence Production Act. In response, Ontario Premier, Doug Ford, stated in his public address:

Never again in the history of Canada should we ever be beholden to companies around the world for the safety and wellbeing of the people of Canada. There is nothing we can’t build right here in Ontario. As we get these companies round up and we get through this, we can’t be going over to other sources because we’re going to save a nickel.

Premier Ford’s words ring true for many Canadians as they watch this crisis unfold and wonder where would it stop if the crisis worsens? Will our neighbour to the south block shipments of a Covid-19 vaccine when it is developed? Will it extend to other essential goods such as food or medicine? 

There are reports that the decline in the number of foreign workers in farming caused by travel restrictions and quarantine rules in both Canada and the US will cause food production shortages, which makes the actions of the White House very unsettling for Canadians.  Canada’s exports to the US constitute 75% of total Canadian exports, while imports from the US constitute 46%. Canada’s imports of food and beverages from the US were valued at US $24 billion in 2018 including: prepared foods, fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, other snack foods, and non-alcoholic beverages.

The length and depth of the crisis will determine to what extent the US and Canadian markets will experience shortages in products. For Canada, the severity of the pandemic in the US could result in further restrictions on the border. And it is becoming progressively more likely that it will also result in a significant reduction in the volume of necessities crossing the border between the two nations.

Increasingly, the depth and pain experienced from shortages in necessities will shape public sentiment towards free trade and strengthen mainstream demands of more nationalistic and protectionist policies. This will result in more pressure on political and government establishments to take action.

The reliance on free trade and competition policies favouring highly integrated supply chain networks is showing cracks in meeting national interests in this time of crisis. This goes well beyond the usual economic factors of contention between countries of domestic employment, job loss and resource allocation. The need for correction, however, risks moving the pendulum too far to the side of protectionism.

Free trade setbacks and global integration disruptions would become the new economic reality to ensure that domestic self-sufficiency comes first. A new trade trend has been set in motion and there is no going back from some level of disintegrating globalised supply chain productions.

How would domestic self-sufficiency be achieved? 

Would international conglomerates build local plants and forgo their profit maximizing strategies of producing in growing economies that offer cheap wages and resources in order to avoid increased protectionism?

Will the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) known as the NEW NAFTA, which until today has not been put into effect, be renegotiated to allow for production measures for securing domestic necessities in the form of higher tariffs, trade quotas, and state subsidies?

Are advanced capitalist economies willing to create State-Owned Industries to produce domestic products for what it deems necessities?

Many other trade policy variations and options focused on protectionism are possible which could lead to the creation of domestic monopolies. Furthermore, any return to protected national production networks will reduce consumer welfare and eventually impede technological advancements that result from competition. 

Divergence between free trade agreements and competition policy in a new era of protectionism.

For the past 30 years, national competition laws and policies have increasingly become an integrated part of free trade agreements, albeit in the form of soft competition law language, making references to the parties’ respective competition laws, and the need for transparency, procedural fairness in enforcement, and cooperation.

Similarly, free trade objectives and frameworks have become part of the design and implementation of competition legislation and, subsequently, case law. Both of which are intended to encourage competitive market systems and efficiency, an implied by-product of open markets.

In that regard, the competition legal framework in Canada, the Competition Act, seeks to maintain and strengthen competitive market forces by encouraging maximum efficiency in the use of economic resources. Provisions to determine the level of competitiveness in the market consider barriers to entry, among them, tariff and non-tariff barriers to international trade. These provisions further direct adjudicators to examine free trade agreements currently in force and their role in facilitating the current or future possibility of an international incumbent entering the market to preserve or increase competition. And it goes further to also assess the extent of an increase in the real value of exports, or substitution of domestic products for imported products.

It is evident in the design of free trade agreements and competition legislation that efficiency, competition in price, and diversification of products is to be achieved by access to imported goods and by encouraging the creation of global competitive suppliers.

Therefore, the re-emergence of protectionist nationalistic measures in international trade will result in a divergence between competition laws and free trade agreements. Such setbacks would leave competition enforcers, administrators, and adjudicators grappling with the conflict between the economic principles set out in competition law and the policy objectives that could be stipulated in future trade agreements. 

The challenge ahead facing governments and industries is how to correct for the cracks in the current globalized competitive supply networks that have been revealed during this crisis without falling into a trap of nationalism and protectionism.

Conspiracies and collusion often (always?) get a bad rap. Adam Smith famously derided “people of the same trade” for their inclination to conspire against the public or contrive to raise prices. Today, such conspiracies and contrivances are per se illegal and felonies punishable under the Sherman Act.

It is well known and widely accepted that collusion to suppress competition is associated with an increase in price, a transfer of consumer surplus to producers, and a deadweight loss. It seems that nothing good comes from anticompetitive collusion.

But what if there was some good from a conspiracy in restraint of trade?

Using data from the formation and breakup of illegal cartels, Hyo Kang finds higher levels of innovation—measured by patents and R&D spending—during the cartel period than in the period before the formation of the cartel or the period after the breakup of the cartel. 

By Kang’s measures, during the cartel period, colluding firms increased the annual number of patent applications by about 50% or more and their R&D expenditures by more than 20% relative to the pre-cartel period. After the breakup of the cartel, patent applications and R&D spending return to approximately pre-cartel levels.

These findings are consistent with ICLE’s review of research on four-to-three mergers in the telecom industry. The review found that, of those studies that considered the effect on investment in four-to-three mergers, all of them demonstrated that capital expenditures, a proxy for investment, increased post-merger.

If Kang’s conclusions are correct they contradict John Hicks’ quip that “the best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life.” Instead of silently collecting the profits of price fixing and other forms of collusion, cartel conspirators seem to be aggressively innovating. So what gives?

Kang’s paper points to Joseph Schumpeter, who argued that some degree of market power can promote innovation by providing firms with the financial resources and predictability required for innovative activities:

Thus it is true that there is or may be an element of genuine monopoly gain in those entrepreneurial profits which are the prizes offered by capitalist society to the successful innovator. But the quantitative importance of that clement, its volatile nature and its function in the process in which it emerges put it in a class by itself. The main value to a concern of a single seller position that is secured by patent or monopolistic strategy does not consist so much in the opportunity to behave temporarily according to the monopolist schema, as in the protection it affords against temporary disorganization of the market and the space it secures for long-range planning.

Along this line, Kang argues that the reduced competition afforded by the cartel provides both an incentive to innovate and an ability to innovate. Incentives include the potential for higher returns from innovation and the reduction of duplicative R&D investment. Increased profits from collusion provide increased resources available for R&D, thereby improving a firm’s ability to innovate. In some ways, it can be argued that the cartel arrangement reduces price competition, while increasing competition along other dimensions.

A seemingly unrelated working paper by R. Andrew Butters and Thomas N. Hubbard come to a similar conclusion. They note that over time, hotels have increased competition along nonprice dimensions, trading improved room size and in-room amenities for reduced out-of-room amenities such full-service restaurants, swimming pools, and meeting spaces. 

Butters & Hubbard note that many out-of-room amenities are typified by fixed costs that do not vary (much) with hotel size, while room-size and in-room amenities are largely variable costs with respect to hotel size. With the shift from out-of-room amenities to in-room amenities, the market has shifted from one of larger hotels with many rooms, to smaller hotels with fewer rooms. Thus with the shift in the dimensions of competition, the structure of the industry has shifted along with it.

The research of Kang and Butters & Hubbard raise important issues about competition policy. A single-minded focus on price ignores the other many dimensions across which firms compete. While a cartel’s consumers may face higher prices, they may also benefit from increased innovation. Similarly, while hotel guests may experience reduced price competition among hotels, they are also experiencing a better in-room experience. Although increased concentration and outright collusion may harm consumers along the price dimension, they may also benefit along other dimensions that are not so easily quantified or quantifiable.

Monday July 22, ICLE filed a regulatory comment arguing the leased access requirements enforced by the FCC are unconstitutional compelled speech that violate the First Amendment. 

When the DC Circuit Court of Appeals last reviewed the constitutionality of leased access rules in Time Warner v. FCC, cable had so-called “bottleneck power” over the marketplace for video programming and, just a few years prior, the Supreme Court had subjected other programming regulations to intermediate scrutiny in Turner v. FCC

Intermediate scrutiny is a lower standard than the strict scrutiny usually required for First Amendment claims. Strict scrutiny requires a regulation of speech to be narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest. Intermediate scrutiny only requires a regulation to further an important or substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and the incidental restriction speech must be no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest.

But, since the decisions in Time Warner and Turner, there have been dramatic changes in the video marketplace (including the rise of the Internet!) and cable no longer has anything like “bottleneck power.” Independent programmers have many distribution options to get content to consumers. Since the justification for intermediate scrutiny is no longer an accurate depiction of the competitive marketplace, the leased rules should be subject to strict scrutiny.

And, if subject to strict scrutiny, the leased access rules would not survive judicial review. Even accepting that there is a compelling governmental interest, the rules are not narrowly tailored to that end. Not only are they essentially obsolete in the highly competitive video distribution marketplace, but antitrust law would be better suited to handle any anticompetitive abuses of market power by cable operators. There is no basis for compelling the cable operators to lease some of their channels to unaffiliated programmers.

Our full comments are here

The once-mighty Blockbuster video chain is now down to a single store, in Bend, Oregon. It appears to be the only video rental store in Bend, aside from those offering “adult” features. Does that make Blockbuster a monopoly?

It seems almost silly to ask if the last firm in a dying industry is a monopolist. But, it’s just as silly to ask if the first firm in an emerging industry is a monopolist. They’re silly questions because they focus on the monopoly itself, rather than the alternative—what if the firm, and therefore the industry—did not exist at all.

A recent post on CEPR’s Vox blog points out something very obvious, but often forgotten: “The deadweight loss from a monopolist’s not producing at all can be much greater than from charging too high a price.”

The figure below is from the post, by Michael Kremer, Christopher Snyder, and Albert Chen. With monopoly pricing (and no price discrimination), consumer surplus is given by CS, profit is given by ∏, and a deadweight loss given by H.

The authors point out if fixed costs (or entry costs) are so high that the firm does not enter the market, the deadweight loss is equal to CS + H.

Too often, competition authorities fall for the Nirvana Fallacy, a tendency to compare messy, real-world economic circumstances today to idealized potential alternatives and to justify policies on the basis of the discrepancy between the real world and some alternative perfect (or near-perfect) world.

In 2005, Blockbuster dropped its bid to acquire competing Hollywood Entertainment Corporation, the then-second-largest video rental chain. Blockbuster said it expected the Federal Trade Commission would reject the deal on antitrust grounds. The merged companies would have made up more than 50 percent of the home video rental market.

Five years later Blockbuster, Hollywood, and third-place Movie Gallery had all filed for bankruptcy.

Blockbuster’s then-CEO, John Antioco, has been ridiculed for passing up an opportunity to buy Netflix for $50 million in 2005. But, Blockbuster knew its retail world was changing and had thought a consolidation might help it survive that change.

But, just as Antioco can be chided for undervaluing Netflix, so should the FTC. The regulators were so focused on Blockbuster-Hollywood market share that they undervalued the competitive pressure Netflix and other services were bringing. With hindsight, it seems obvious that the Blockbuster’s post-merger market share would not have conveyed any significant power over price. What’s not known is whether the merger would have put off the bankruptcy of the three largest video rental retailers.

Also, what’s not known is the extent to which consumers are better or worse off with the exit of Blockbuster, Hollywood, and Movie Gallery.

Nevertheless, the video rental business highlights a key point in an earlier TOTM post: A great deal of competition comes from the flanks, rather than head-on. Head-on competition from rental kiosks, such as Redbox, nibbled at the sales and margins of Blockbuster, Hollywood, and Movie Gallery. But, the real killer of the bricks-and-mortar stores came from a wide range of streaming services.

The lesson for regulators is that competition is nearly always and everywhere present, even if it’s standing on the sidelines.

A recent NBER working paper by Gutiérrez & Philippon has attracted attention from observers who see oligopoly everywhere and activists who want governments to more actively “manage” competition. The analysis in the paper is fundamentally flawed and should not be relied upon by policymakers, regulators, or anyone else.

As noted in my earlier post, Gutiérrez & Philippon attempt to craft a causal linkage between differences in U.S. and EU antitrust enforcement and product market regulation to differences in market concentration and corporate profits. Their paper’s abstract leads with a bold assertion:

Until the 1990’s, US markets were more competitive than European markets. Today, European markets have lower concentration, lower excess profits, and lower regulatory barriers to entry.

This post focuses on Gutiérrez & Philippon’s claim that EU markets have lower “excess profits.” This is perhaps the most outrageous claim in the paper. If anyone bothers to read the full paper, they’ll see that claims that EU firms have lower excess profits is simply not supported by the paper itself. Aside from a passing mention of someone else’s work in a footnote, the only mention of “excess profits” is in the paper’s headline-grabbing abstract.

What’s even more outrageous is the authors don’t define (or even describe) what they mean by excess profits.

These two factors alone should be enough to toss aside the paper’s assertion about “excess” profits. But, there’s more.

Gutiérrez & Philippon define profit to be gross operating surplus and mixed income (known as “GOPS” in the OECD’s STAN Industrial Analysis dataset). GOPS is not the same thing as gross margin or gross profit as used in business and finance (for example GOPS subtracts wages, but gross margin does not). The EU defines GOPS as (emphasis added):

Operating surplus is the surplus (or deficit) on production activities before account has been taken of the interest, rents or charges paid or received for the use of assets. Mixed income is the remuneration for the work carried out by the owner (or by members of his family) of an unincorporated enterprise. This is referred to as ‘mixed income’ since it cannot be distinguished from the entrepreneurial profit of the owner.

Here’s Figure 1 from Gutiérrez & Philippon plotting GOPS as a share of gross output.

Fig1-GutierrezPhilippon

Look at the huge jump in gross operating surplus for U.S. firms!

Now, look at the scale of the y-axis. Not such a big jump after all.

Over 23 years, from 1992 to 2015, the gross operating surplus rate for U.S. firms grew by 2.5 percentage points. In the EU, the rate increased by about one percentage point.

Using the STAN dataset, I plotted the gross operating surplus rate for each EU country (blue dots) and the U.S. (red dots), along with a time trend. Three takeaways:

  1. There’s not much of a difference between the U.S. and the EU average—they both hover around a gross operating surplus rate of about 19.5 percent; and
  2. There’s a huge variation in gross operating surplus rate across EU countries.
  3. Yes, gross operating surplus is trending slightly upward in the U.S. and slightly downward for the EU average, but there doesn’t appear to be a huge difference in the slope of the trendlines. In fact the slopes of the trendlines are not statistically significantly different from zero and are not statistically significantly different from each other.

GOPSprod

The use of gross profits raises some serious questions. For example, the Stigler Center’s James Traina finds that, after accounting for selling, general, and administrative expenses (SG&A), mark-ups for publicly traded firms in the U.S. have not meaningfully increased since 1980.

The figure below plots net operating surplus (NOPS equals GOPS minus consumption of fixed capital)—which is not the same thing as net income for a business.

Same three takeaways:

  1. There’s not much of a difference between the U.S. and the EU average—they both hover around a net operating surplus rate of a little more than seven percent; and
  2. There’s a huge variation in net operating surplus rate across EU countries.
  3. The slope of the trendlines for net operating surplus in the U.S. and EU are not statistically significantly different from zero and are not statistically significantly different from each other.

NOPSprod

It’s very possible that U.S. firms are achieving higher and growing “excess” profits relative to EU firms. It’s also very possible they’re not. Despite the bold assertions of Gutiérrez & Philippon, the information presented in their paper provides no useful information one way or the other.

 

Last week, I objected to Senator Warner relying on the flawed AOL/Time Warner merger conditions as a template for tech regulatory policy, but there is a much deeper problem contained in his proposals.  Although he does not explicitly say “big is bad” when discussing competition issues, the thrust of much of what he recommends would serve to erode the power of larger firms in favor of smaller firms without offering a justification for why this would result in a superior state of affairs. And he makes these recommendations without respect to whether those firms actually engage in conduct that is harmful to consumers.

In the Data Portability section, Warner says that “As platforms grow in size and scope, network effects and lock-in effects increase; consumers face diminished incentives to contract with new providers, particularly if they have to once again provide a full set of data to access desired functions.“ Thus, he recommends a data portability mandate, which would theoretically serve to benefit startups by providing them with the data that large firms possess. The necessary implication here is that it is a per se good that small firms be benefited and large firms diminished, as the proposal is not grounded in any evaluation of the competitive behavior of the firms to which such a mandate would apply.

Warner also proposes an “interoperability” requirement on “dominant platforms” (which I criticized previously) in situations where, “data portability alone will not produce procompetitive outcomes.” Again, the necessary implication is that it is a per se good that established platforms share their services with start ups without respect to any competitive analysis of how those firms are behaving. The goal is preemptively to “blunt their ability to leverage their dominance over one market or feature into complementary or adjacent markets or products.”

Perhaps most perniciously, Warner recommends treating large platforms as essential facilities in some circumstances. To this end he states that:

Legislation could define thresholds – for instance, user base size, market share, or level of dependence of wider ecosystems – beyond which certain core functions/platforms/apps would constitute ‘essential facilities’, requiring a platform to provide third party access on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms and preventing platforms from engaging in self-dealing or preferential conduct.

But, as  i’ve previously noted with respect to imposing “essential facilities” requirements on tech platforms,

[T]he essential facilities doctrine is widely criticized, by pretty much everyone. In their respected treatise, Antitrust Law, Herbert Hovenkamp and Philip Areeda have said that “the essential facility doctrine is both harmful and unnecessary and should be abandoned”; Michael Boudin has noted that the doctrine is full of “embarrassing weaknesses”; and Gregory Werden has opined that “Courts should reject the doctrine.”

Indeed, as I also noted, “the Supreme Court declined to recognize the essential facilities doctrine as a distinct rule in Trinko, where it instead characterized the exclusionary conduct in Aspen Skiing as ‘at or near the outer boundary’ of Sherman Act § 2 liability.”

In short, it’s very difficult to know when access to a firm’s internal functions might be critical to the facilitation of a market. It simply cannot be true that a firm becomes bound under onerous essential facilities requirements (or classification as a public utility) simply because other firms find it more convenient to use its services than to develop their own.

The truth of what is actually happening in these cases, however, is that third-party firms are choosing to anchor their business to the processes of another firm which generates an “asset specificity” problem that they then seek the government to remedy:

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

This is naturally a calculated risk that a firm may choose to make, but it is a risk. To pry open Google or Facebook for the benefit of competitors that choose to play to Google and Facebook’s user base, rather than opening markets of their own, punishes the large players for being successful while also rewarding behavior that shies away from innovation. Further, such a policy would punish the large platforms whenever they innovate with their services in any way that might frustrate third-party “integrators” (see, e.g., Foundem’s claims that Google’s algorithm updates meant to improve search quality for users harmed Foundem’s search rankings).  

Rather than encouraging innovation, blessing this form of asset specificity would have the perverse result of entrenching the status quo.

In all of these recommendations from Senator Warner, there is no claim that any of the targeted firms will have behaved anticompetitively, but merely that they are above a certain size. This is to say that, in some cases, big is bad.

Senator Warner’s policies would harm competition and innovation

As Geoffrey Manne and Gus Hurwitz have recently noted these views run completely counter to the last half-century or more of economic and legal learning that has occurred in antitrust law. From its murky, politically-motivated origins through the early 60’s when the Structure-Conduct-Performance (“SCP”) interpretive framework was ascendant, antitrust law was more or less guided by the gut feeling of regulators that big business necessarily harmed the competitive process.

Thus, at its height with SCP, “big is bad” antitrust relied on presumptions that large firms over a certain arbitrary threshold were harmful and should be subjected to more searching judicial scrutiny when merging or conducting business.

A paradigmatic example of this approach can be found in Von’s Grocery where the Supreme Court prevented the merger of two relatively small grocery chains. Combined, the two chains would have constitutes a mere 9 percent of the market, yet the Supreme Court, relying on the SCP aversion to concentration in itself, prevented the merger despite any procompetitive justifications that would have allowed the combined entity to compete more effectively in a market that was coming to be dominated by large supermarkets.

As Manne and Hurwitz observe: “this decision meant breaking up a merger that did not harm consumers, on the one hand, while preventing firms from remaining competitive in an evolving market by achieving efficient scale, on the other.” And this gets to the central defect of Senator Warner’s proposals. He ties his decisions to interfere in the operations of large tech firms to their size without respect to any demonstrable harm to consumers.

To approach antitrust this way — that is, to roll the clock back to a period before there was a well-defined and administrable standard for antitrust — is to open the door for regulation by political whim. But the value of the contemporary consumer welfare test is that it provides knowable guidance that limits both the undemocratic conduct of politically motivated enforcers as well as the opportunities for private firms to engage in regulatory capture. As Manne and Hurwitz observe:

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the consumer welfare standard is not that it is the best antitrust standard (although it is) — it’s simply that it is a standard. The story of antitrust law for most of the 20th century was one of standard-less enforcement for political ends. It was a tool by which any entrenched industry could harness the force of the state to maintain power or stifle competition.

While it is unlikely that Senator Warner intends to entrench politically powerful incumbents, or enable regulation by whim, those are the likely effects of his proposals.

Antitrust law has a rich set of tools for dealing with competitive harm. Introducing legislation to define arbitrary thresholds for limiting the potential power of firms will ultimately undermine the power of those tools and erode the welfare of consumers.

 

Since the European Commission (EC) announced its first inquiry into Google’s business practices in 2010, the company has been the subject of lengthy investigations by courts and competition agencies around the globe. Regulatory authorities in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, and South Korea have all opened and rejected similar antitrust claims.

And yet the EC marches on, bolstered by Google’s myriad competitors, who continue to agitate for further investigations and enforcement actions, even as we — companies and consumers alike — enjoy the benefits of an increasingly dynamic online marketplace.

Indeed, while the EC has spent more than half a decade casting about for some plausible antitrust claim, the online economy has thundered ahead. Since 2010, Facebook has tripled its active users and multiplied its revenue ninefold; the number of apps available in the Amazon app store has grown from less than 4000 to over 400,000 today; and there are almost 1.5 billion more Internet users globally than there were in 2010. And consumers are increasingly using new and different ways to search for information: Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Facebook’s Messenger are a few of the many new innovations challenging traditional search engines.

Advertisers have adapted to this evolution, moving increasingly online, and from search to display ads as mobile adoption has skyrocketedSocial networks like Twitter and Snapchat have come into their own, competing for the same (and ever-increasing) advertising dollars. For marketers, advertising on social networks is now just as important as advertising in search. No wonder e-commerce sales have more than doubled, to almost $2 trillion worldwide; for the first time, consumers purchased more online than in stores this past year.

To paraphrase Louis C.K.: Everything is amazing — and no one at the European Commission is happy.

The EC’s market definition is fatally flawed

Like its previous claims, the Commission’s most recent charges are rooted in the assertion that Google abuses its alleged dominance in “general search” advertising to unfairly benefit itself and to monopolize other markets. But European regulators continue to miss the critical paradigm shift among online advertisers and consumers that has upended this stale view of competition on the Internet. The reality is that Google’s competition may not, and need not, look exactly like Google itself, but it is competition nonetheless. And it’s happening in spades.

The key to understanding why the European Commission’s case is fundamentally flawed lies in an examination of how it defines the relevant market. Through a series of economically and factually unjustified assumptions, the Commission defines search as a distinct market in which Google faces limited competition and enjoys an 80% market share. In other words, for the EC, “general search” apparently means only nominal search providers like Google and Bing; it doesn’t mean companies like Amazon, Facebook and Twitter — Google’s biggest competitors.  

But the reality is that “general search” is just one technology among many for serving information and ads to consumers online. Defining the relevant market or limiting the definition of competition in terms of the particular mechanism that Google happens to use to match consumers and advertisers doesn’t reflect the substitutability of other mechanisms that do the same thing — merely because these mechanisms aren’t called “search.”

Properly defined, the market in which Google competes online is not search, but something more like online “matchmaking” between advertisers, retailers and consumers. And this market is enormously competitive.

Consumers today are increasingly using platforms like Amazon and Facebook as substitutes for the searches they might have run on Google or Bing. “Closed” platforms like the iTunes store and innumerable apps handle copious search traffic but also don’t figure in the EC’s market calculations. And so-called “dark social” interactions like email, text messages, and IMs, drive huge amounts of some of the most valuable traffic on the Internet. This, in turn, has led to a competitive scramble to roll out completely new technologies like chatbots to meet consumers’ informational (and merchants’ advertising) needs.

Properly construed, Google’s market position is precarious

Like Facebook and Twitter (and practically every other Internet platform), advertising is Google’s primary source of revenue. Instead of charging for fancy hardware or offering services to users for a fee, Google offers search, the Android operating system, and a near-endless array of other valuable services for free to users. The company’s very existence relies on attracting Internet users and consumers to its properties in order to effectively connect them with advertisers.

But being an online matchmaker is a difficult and competitive enterprise. Among other things, the ability to generate revenue turns crucially on the quality of the match: All else equal, an advertiser interested in selling widgets will pay more for an ad viewed by a user who can be reliably identified as being interested in buying widgets.

Google’s primary mechanism for attracting users to match with advertisers — general search — is substantially about information, not commerce, and the distinction between product and informational searches is crucially important to understanding Google’s market and the surprisingly limited and tenuous market power it possesses.

General informational queries aren’t nearly as valuable to advertisers: Significantly, only about 30 percent of Google’s searches even trigger any advertising at all. Meanwhile, as of 2012, one-third of product searches started on Amazon while only 13% started on a general search engine.

As economist Hal Singer aptly noted in 2012,

[the data] suggest that Google lacks market power in a critical segment of search — namely, product searches. Even though searches for items such as power tools or designer jeans account for only 10 to 20 percent of all searches, they are clearly some of the most important queries for search engines from a business perspective, as they are far easier to monetize than informational queries like “Kate Middleton.”

While Google Search clearly offers substantial value to advertisers, its ability to continue to do so is precarious when confronted with the diverse array of competitors that, like Facebook, offer a level of granularity in audience targeting that general search can’t match, or that, like Amazon, systematically offer up the most valuable searchers.

In order to compete in this market — one properly defined to include actual competitors — Google has had to constantly innovate to maintain its position. Unlike a complacent monopolist, it has evolved to meet changing consumer demand, shifting technology and inventive competitors. Thus, Google’s search algorithm has changed substantially over the years to make more effective use of the information available to ensure relevance; search results have evolved to give consumers answers to queries rather than just links, and to provide more-direct access to products and services; and, as users have shifted more and more of their time and attention to mobile devices, search has incorporated more-localized results.

Competitors want a free lunch

Critics complain, nevertheless, that these developments have made it harder, in one way or another, for rivals to compete. And the EC has provided a willing ear. According to Commissioner Vestager last week:

Google has come up with many innovative products that have made a difference to our lives. But that doesn’t give Google the right to deny other companies the chance to compete and innovate. Today, we have further strengthened our case that Google has unduly favoured its own comparison shopping service in its general search result pages…. (Emphasis added).

Implicit in this statement is the remarkable assertion that by favoring its own comparison shopping services, Google “den[ies] other companies the chance to compete and innovate.” Even assuming Google does “favor” its own results, this is an astounding claim.

First, it is not a violation of competition law simply to treat competitors’ offerings differently than one’s own, even for a dominant firm. Instead, conduct must actually exclude competitors from the market, without offering countervailing advantages to consumers. But Google’s conduct is not exclusionary, and there are many benefits to consumers.

As it has from the start of its investigations of Google, the EC begins with a flawed assumption: that Google’s competitors both require, and may be entitled to, unfettered access to Google’s property in order to compete. But this is patently absurd. Google is not an essential facility: Billions of users reach millions of companies everyday through direct browser navigation, apps, email links, review sites and blogs, and countless other means — all without once touching Google.com.

Google Search results do not exclude competitors, whether comparison shopping sites or others. For example, 72% of TripAdvisor’s U.S. traffic comes from search, and almost all of that from organic results; other specialized search sites see similar traffic volumes.

More important, however, in addition to continuing to reach rival sites through Google Search, billions of consumers access rival services directly through their mobile apps. In fact, for Yelp,

Approximately 21 million unique devices accessed Yelp via the mobile app on a monthly average basis in the first quarter of 2016, an increase of 32% compared to the same period in 2015. App users viewed approximately 70% of page views in the first quarter and were more than 10 times as engaged as website users, as measured by number of pages viewed. (Emphasis added).

And a staggering 40 percent of mobile browsing is now happening inside the Facebook app, competing with the browsers and search engines pre-loaded on smartphones.

Millions of consumers also directly navigate to Google’s rivals via their browser by simply typing, for example, “Yelp.com” in their address bar. And as noted above, consumers are increasingly using Google rivals’ new disruptive information engines like Alexa and Siri for their search needs. Even the traditional search engine space is competitive — in fact, according to Wired, as of July 2016:

Microsoft has now captured more than one-third of Internet searches. Microsoft’s transformation from a company that sells boxed software to one that sells services in the cloud is well underway. (Emphasis added).

With such numbers, it’s difficult to see how rivals are being foreclosed from reaching consumers in any meaningful way.

Meanwhile, the benefits to consumers are obvious: Google is directly answering questions for consumers rather than giving them a set of possible links to click through and further search. In some cases its results present entirely new and valuable forms of information (e.g., search trends and structured data); in others they serve to hone searches by suggesting further queries, or to help users determine which organic results (including those of its competitors) may be most useful. And, of course, consumers aren’t forced to endure these innovations if they don’t find them useful, as they can quickly switch to other providers.  

Nostalgia makes for bad regulatory policy

Google is not the unstoppable monopolist of the EU competition regulators’ imagining. Rather, it is a continual innovator, forced to adapt to shifting consumer demand, changing technology, and competitive industry dynamics. And, instead of trying to hamstring Google, if they are to survive, Google’s competitors (and complainants) must innovate as well.

Dominance in technology markets — especially online — has always been ephemeral. Once upon a time, MySpace, AOL, and Yahoo were the dominant Internet platforms. Kodak, once practically synonymous with “instant camera” let the digital revolution pass it by. The invincible Sony Walkman was upended by mp3s and the iPod. Staid, keyboard-operated Blackberries and Nokias simply couldn’t compete with app-driven, graphical platforms from Apple and Samsung. Even today, startups like Snapchat, Slack, and Spotify gain massive scale and upend entire industries with innovative new technology that can leave less-nimble incumbents in the dustbin of tech history.

Put differently, companies that innovate are able to thrive, while those that remain dependent on yesterday’s technology and outdated business models usually fail — and deservedly so. It should never be up to regulators to pick winners and losers in a highly dynamic and competitive market, particularly if doing so constrains the market’s very dynamism. As Alfonso Lamadrid has pointed out:

It is companies and not competition enforcers which will strive or fail in the adoption of their business models, and it is therefore companies and not competition enforcers who are to decide on what business models to use. Some will prove successful and others will not; some companies will thrive and some will disappear, but with experimentation with business models, success and failure are and have always been part of the game.

In other words, we should not forget that competition law is, or should be, business-model agnostic, and that regulators are – like anyone else – far from omniscient.

Like every other technology company before them, Google and its competitors must be willing and able to adapt in order to keep up with evolving markets — just as for Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Google confronts a near-constantly evolving marketplace and fierce competition from unanticipated quarters; companies that build their businesses around Google face a near-constantly evolving Google. In the face of such relentless market dynamism, neither consumers nor firms are well served by regulatory policy rooted in nostalgia.