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In late August, Roberto Campos Neto, the head of Brazil’s central bank, is reported to have said about Pix, the bank’s two-year-old real-time-payments (RTP) system, that it “eliminates the need to have a credit card. I think that credit cards will cease to exist at some point soon.” Wow! Sounds amazing. A new system that does everything a credit card can do, but better.

As the old saying goes, however, something that sounds too good to be true probably isn’t. While Pix has some advantages, it also has many disadvantages. In particular, it lacks many of the features currently offered by credit cards, such as liability caps, fraud prevention, and—perhaps crucially—access to credit. So, it seems unlikely to replace credit cards any time soon.

Pix and the Unbanked

When Brazil’s central bank launched Pix in November 2020, evangelists at the bank hoped it would offer a low-cost alternative to existing payments and would entice some of the country’s tens of millions of unbanked and underbanked adults into the banking system. While Pix has, indeed, attracted many users, it has done little, if anything, to solve the problem of the unbanked.

Proponents of Pix asserted that the RTP system would dramatically reduce the number of unbanked individuals in Brazil. While it is true that many Brazilians who were previously unbanked do now have Pix accounts, it would be incorrect to conclude that Pix was the reason they ceased to be unbanked.

A study by Americas Market Intelligence (commissioned by Mastercard) found that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, “Brazil reduced its unbanked population by an astounding 73%.” But the study was based on research conducted between June and August 2020 and was published in October 2020, the month before Pix launched. It described the implementation of state and federal programs launched in Brazil in response to the pandemic:

  • The “Coronavoucher” program distributed emergency funds to low-income informal workers exclusively via state-owned bank Caixa Econômica Federal (CEF). Applications for funds could only be made via CEF’s Caixa Tem smartphone app, and funds were distributed via the same app. As of Aug. 5, 2020, 66 million people had received Coronavouchers via the Caix Tem app. Of those, 36 million were previously unbanked.
  • Merenda em Casa (“snack at home”), a program run by state governments, distributed funds to low-income families with children at public schools to help them pay for food while schools were closed due to COVID-19. The program distributed funds via PicPay and PagBank’s PagSeguro, both private-sector payment apps.

Following the launch of Pix, the central bank-run RTP program was made available to clients of Caixa Tem, PicPay, and PagBank. As a result, previously unbanked individuals who had become banked because of the Coronavoucher and Merenda em Casa programs were able to obtain and use Pix keys to send and receive payments.

It remains unclear, however, what proportion of those previously unbanked individuals actually use Pix. As Figure 1 below shows, the number of Pix keys registered vastly outstrips the number of users. As such, not only is it false to claim that Pix helped reduce the number of unbanked Brazilians, but it isn’t possible to say with certainty how many of those previously unbanked individuals are now active users of Pix.

FIGURE 1: Pix Keys Registered to Natural Persons and Pix Users Who Are Natural Persons

Pix-Created Problems

Pix suffered a series of data breaches this past year, with the end result that details of Pix accounts were stolen from more than 500,000 account holders. Meanwhile, hackers have set up fake apps designed to steal money from users’ bank accounts by masquerading as legitimate Pix-compliant wallets. And Pix has been associated with a rise in lightning kidnappings, whereby kidnappers force their victims to make a transfer on Pix in order to be released.

Faced with the problem that they cannot avoid having Pix because their banks have automatically enabled the system, some Brazilians have responded to the threat of kidnappings by purchasing second “Pix phones.” Users load these mid-range Android phones with banking and Pix apps and leave them at home. Meanwhile, they delete all banking apps from their primary phone. While such an approach ostensibly prevents criminals from stealing potentially large amounts of money from individuals who can afford to have a second phone, it is quite a costly and inconvenient solution.

Pix vs Credit Cards

Roberto Campos Neto reportedly conceded that Pix data breaches will occur “with some frequency.” This acknowledgment of Pix’s unresolved security issues is difficult to square with the central bank president’s claim that the service will soon replace credit cards. After all, the major credit-card networks (Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover) have more than half a century of experience managing fraud, and have built massive artificial-intelligence-based systems to identify and prevent potentially fraudulent transactions. Pix has no such system. Credit-card networks have also developed a highly effective system for challenging fraudulent transactions called “chargebacks.”

Card networks’ investment in fraud management has enabled them to offer “zero liability” terms to cardholders, which has made credit cards attractive as a means of paying for goods and services, both at brick-and-mortar locations and online. While Pix now has a system to reverse fraudulent transactions, its reliability has yet to be tested, and Pix as yet does not offer zero liability. Thus, given the choice between a credit card and Pix, users are unlikely to use Pix to pay for goods where there is a risk that the business will fail to deliver goods or services as promised.  

Finally, credit cards offer users the ability to defer payment for no fee until their next bill becomes due (usually at least a month). And they offer the ability to defer payment for longer, if necessary, with interest payable on the amount outstanding.

Conclusion: There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

The investments that credit-card networks have made in the identification, prevention, and rectification of fraud have been possible because they are able to charge a (very small) fee to process transactions. Pix also charges merchants a small fee for transactions but, as noted, it is not able to offer the same protections.

Most Pix transactions to date have been person-to-person (P2P), effectively replacing transactions that would have otherwise been made with cash, checks, or online bank-to-bank funds transfers. That makes sense when one thinks about the risks involved. P2P transactions are likely to involve parties that know one another and/or are engaged in repeat business. By contrast, many consumer-to-business and business-to-business transactions involve parties that are relatively less well-known to one another and thus have more incentive to renege on commitments. Consumers are therefore more inclined to use the payment system with protections built in, while merchants—who are happy for the additional business—are willing to pay the price for that business.

The science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein popularized a pithy phrase to describe the idea that it is not possible to get something for nothing: “There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.” If Pix is to challenge credit cards as a real consumer-payments system, it will have to offer similar levels of fraud protection to consumers. That will not be cheap. While the central bank might continue to subsidize Pix transactions, doing so to the degree that would be necessary to offer such fraud protections would be an abuse of its position. Thinking otherwise is science fiction.

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

When I was a kid, I trailed behind my mother in the grocery store with a notepad and a pencil adding up the cost of each item she added to our cart. This was partly my mother’s attempt to keep my math skills sharp, but it was also a necessity. As a low-income family, there was no slack in the budget for superfluous spending. The Hostess cupcakes I longed for were a luxury item that only appeared in our cart if there was an unexpected windfall. If the antitrust populists who castigate all forms of market power succeed in their crusade to radically deconcentrate the economy, life will be much harder for low-income families like the one I grew up in.

Antitrust populists like Biden White House official Tim Wu and author Matt Stoller decry the political influence of large firms. But instead of advocating for policies that tackle this political influence directly, they seek reforms to antitrust enforcement that aim to limit the economic advantages of these firms, believing that will translate into political enfeeblement. The economic advantages arising from scale benefit consumers, particularly low-income consumers, often at the expense of smaller economic rivals. But because the protection of small businesses is so paramount to their worldview, antitrust populists blithely ignore the harm that advancing their objectives would cause to low-income families.

This desire to protect small businesses, without acknowledging the economic consequences for low-income families, is plainly obvious in calls for reinvigorated Robinson-Patman Act enforcement (a law from the 1930s for which independent businesses advocated to limit the rise of chain stores) and in plans to revise the antitrust enforcement agencies’ merger guidelines. The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently held a series of listening sessions to demonstrate the need for new guidelines. During the listening session on food and agriculture, independent grocer Anthony Pena described the difficulty he has competing with larger competitors like Walmart. He stated that:

Just months ago, I was buying a 59-ounce orange juice just north of $4 a unit, where we couldn’t get the supplier to sell it to us … Meanwhile, I go to the bigger box like a Walmart or a club store. Not only do they have it fully stocked, but they have it about half the price that I would buy it for at cost.

Half the price. Anthony Pena is complaining that competitors such as Walmart are selling the same product at half the price. To protect independent grocers like Anthony Pena, antitrust populists would have consumers, including low-income families, pay twice as much for groceries.

Walmart is an important food retailer for low-income families. Nearly a fifth of all spending through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program formerly known as food stamps, takes place at Walmart. After housing and transportation, food is the largest expense for low-income families. The share of expenditures going toward food for low-income families (i.e., families in the lowest 20% of the income distribution) is 34% higher than for high-income families (i.e., families in the highest 20% of the income distribution). This means that higher grocery prices disproportionately burden low-income families.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot, which allows SNAP recipients to use their benefits at online food retailers. The pandemic led to an explosion in the number of SNAP recipients using their benefits online—increasing from just 35,000 households in March 2020 to nearly 770,000 households just three months later. While the pilot originally only included Walmart and Amazon, the number of eligible retailers has expanded rapidly. In order to make grocery delivery more accessible to low-income families, an important service during the pandemic, Amazon reduced its Prime membership fee (which helps pay for free delivery) by 50% for SNAP recipients.

The antitrust populists are not only targeting the advantages of large brick-and-mortar retailers, such as Walmart, but also of large online retailers like Amazon. Again, these advantages largely flow to consumers—particularly low-income ones.

The proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), which was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in February and may make an appearance on the Senate floor this summer, threatens those consumer benefits. AICOA would prohibit so-called “self-preferencing” by Amazon and other large technology platforms.

Should a ban on self-preferencing come to fruition, Amazon would not be able to prominently show its own products in any capacity—even when its products are a good match for a consumer’s search. In search results, Amazon will not be able to promote its private-label products, including Amazon Basics and 365 by Whole Foods, or products for which it is a first-party seller (i.e., a reseller of another company’s product). Amazon may also have to downgrade the ranking of popular products it sells, making them harder for consumers to find. Forcing Amazon to present offers that do not correspond to products consumers want to buy or are not a good value inflicts harm on all consumers but is particularly problematic for low-income consumers. All else equal, most consumers, especially low-income ones, obviously prefer cheaper products. It is important not to take that choice away from them.

Consider the case of orange juice, the product causing so much consternation for Mr. Pena. In a recent search on Amazon for a 59-ounce orange juice, as seen in the image below, the first four “organic” search results are SNAP-eligible, first-party, or private-label products sold by Amazon and ranging in price from $3.55 to $3.79. The next two results are from third-party sellers offering two 59-ounce bottles of orange juice at $38.99 and $84.54—more than five times the unit price offered by Amazon. By prohibiting self-preferencing, Amazon would be forced to promote products to consumers that are significantly more expensive and that are not SNAP-eligible. This increases costs directly for consumers who purchase more expensive products when cheaper alternatives are available but not presented. But it also increases costs indirectly by forcing consumers to search longer for better prices and SNAP-eligible products or by discouraging them from considering timesaving, online shopping altogether. Low-income families are least able to afford these increased costs.

The upshot is that antitrust populists are choosing to support (often well-off) small-business owners at the expense of vulnerable working people. Congress should not allow them to put the squeeze on low-income families. These families are already suffering due to record-high inflation—particularly for items that constitute the largest share of their expenditures, such as transportation and food. Proposed antitrust reforms such as AICOA and reinvigorated Robinson-Patman Act enforcement will only make it harder for low-income families to make ends meet.

President Joe Biden’s July 2021 executive order set forth a commitment to reinvigorate U.S. innovation and competitiveness. The administration’s efforts to pass the America COMPETES Act would appear to further demonstrate a serious intent to pursue these objectives.

Yet several actions taken by federal agencies threaten to undermine the intellectual-property rights and transactional structures that have driven the exceptional performance of U.S. firms in key areas of the global innovation economy. These regulatory missteps together represent a policy “lose-lose” that lacks any sound basis in innovation economics and threatens U.S. leadership in mission-critical technology sectors.

Life Sciences: USTR Campaigns Against Intellectual-Property Rights

In the pharmaceutical sector, the administration’s signature action has been an unprecedented campaign by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to block enforcement of patents and other intellectual-property rights held by companies that have broken records in the speed with which they developed and manufactured COVID-19 vaccines on a mass scale.

Patents were not an impediment in this process. To the contrary: they were necessary predicates to induce venture-capital investment in a small firm like BioNTech, which undertook drug development and then partnered with the much larger Pfizer to execute testing, production, and distribution. If success in vaccine development is rewarded with expropriation, this vital public-health sector is unlikely to attract investors in the future. 

Contrary to increasingly common assertions that the Bayh-Dole Act (which enables universities to seek patents arising from research funded by the federal government) “robs” taxpayers of intellectual property they funded, the development of Covid-19 vaccines by scientist-founded firms illustrates how the combination of patents and private capital is essential to convert academic research into life-saving medical solutions. The biotech ecosystem has long relied on patents to structure partnerships among universities, startups, and large firms. The costly path from lab to market relies on a secure property-rights infrastructure to ensure exclusivity, without which no investor would put capital at stake in what is already a high-risk, high-cost enterprise.  

This is not mere speculation. During the decades prior to the Bayh-Dole Act, the federal government placed strict limitations on the ability to patent or exclusively license innovations arising from federally funded research projects. The result: the market showed little interest in making the investment needed to convert those innovations into commercially viable products that might benefit consumers. This history casts great doubt on the wisdom of the USTR’s campaign to limit the ability of biopharmaceutical firms to maintain legal exclusivity over certain life sciences innovations.

Genomics: FTC Attempts to Block the Illumina/GRAIL Acquisition

In the genomics industry, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has devoted extensive resources to oppose the acquisition by Illumina—the market leader in next-generation DNA-sequencing equipment—of a medical-diagnostics startup, GRAIL (an Illumina spinoff), that has developed an early-stage cancer screening test.

It is hard to see the competitive threat. GRAIL is a pre-revenue company that operates in a novel market segment and its diagnostic test has not yet received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To address concerns over barriers to potential competitors in this nascent market, Illumina has committed to 12-year supply contracts that would bar price increases or differential treatment for firms that develop oncology-detection tests requiring use of the Illumina platform.

One of Illumina’s few competitors in the global market is the BGI Group, a China-based company that, in 2013, acquired Complete Genomics, a U.S. target that Illumina pursued but relinquished due to anticipated resistance from the FTC in the merger-review process.  The transaction was then cleared by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).

The FTC’s case against Illumina’s re-acquisition of GRAIL relies on theoretical predictions of consumer harm in a market that is not yet operational. Hypothetical market failure scenarios may suit an academic seminar but fall well below the probative threshold for antitrust intervention. 

Most critically, the Illumina enforcement action places at-risk a key element of well-functioning innovation ecosystems. Economies of scale and network effects lead technology markets to converge on a handful of leading platforms, which then often outsource research and development by funding and sometimes acquiring smaller firms that develop complementary technologies. This symbiotic relationship encourages entry and benefits consumers by bringing new products to market as efficiently as possible. 

If antitrust interventions based on regulatory fiat, rather than empirical analysis, disrupt settled expectations in the M&A market that innovations can be monetized through acquisition transactions by larger firms, venture capital may be unwilling to fund such startups in the first place. Independent development or an initial public offering are often not feasible exit options. It is likely that innovation will then retreat to the confines of large incumbents that can fund research internally but often execute it less effectively. 

Wireless Communications: DOJ Takes Aim at Standard-Essential Patents

Wireless communications stand at the heart of the global transition to a 5G-enabled “Internet of Things” that will transform business models and unlock efficiencies in myriad industries.  It is therefore of paramount importance that policy actions in this sector rest on a rigorous economic basis. Unfortunately, a recent policy shift proposed by the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division does not meet this standard.

In December 2021, the Antitrust Division released a draft policy statement that would largely bar owners of standard-essential patents from seeking injunctions against infringers, which are usually large device manufacturers. These patents cover wireless functionalities that enable transformative solutions in myriad industries, ranging from communications to transportation to health care. A handful of U.S. and European firms lead in wireless chip design and rely on patent licensing to disseminate technology to device manufacturers and to fund billions of dollars in research and development. The result is a technology ecosystem that has enjoyed continuous innovation, widespread user adoption, and declining quality-adjusted prices.

The inability to block infringers disrupts this equilibrium by signaling to potential licensees that wireless technologies developed by others can be used at-will, with the terms of use to be negotiated through costly and protracted litigation. A no-injunction rule would discourage innovation while encouraging delaying tactics favored by well-resourced device manufacturers (including some of the world’s largest companies by market capitalization) that occupy bottleneck pathways to lucrative retail markets in the United States, China, and elsewhere.

Rather than promoting competition or innovation, the proposed policy would simply transfer wealth from firms that develop new technologies at great cost and risk to firms that prefer to use those technologies at no cost at all. This does not benefit anyone other than device manufacturers that already capture the largest portion of economic value in the smartphone supply chain.

Conclusion

From international trade to antitrust to patent policy, the administration’s actions imply little appreciation for the property rights and contractual infrastructure that support real-world innovation markets. In particular, the administration’s policies endanger the intellectual-property rights and monetization pathways that support market incentives to invest in the development and commercialization of transformative technologies.

This creates an inviting vacuum for strategic rivals that are vigorously pursuing leadership positions in global technology markets. In industries that stand at the heart of the knowledge economy—life sciences, genomics, and wireless communications—the administration is on a counterproductive trajectory that overlooks the business realities of technology markets and threatens to push capital away from the entrepreneurs that drive a robust innovation ecosystem. It is time to reverse course.

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

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

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

Why Isn’t Everything Interoperable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interoperability for Digital Platforms

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

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

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

Interoperability and Contact-Tracing Apps

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

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

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

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

A ‘Super Tool’ for Digital Market Intervention?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If You Build It, They Still Might Not Come

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

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

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

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

The patent system is too often caricatured as involving the grant of “monopolies” that may be used to delay entry and retard competition in key sectors of the economy. The accumulation of allegedly “poor-quality” patents into thickets and portfolios held by “patent trolls” is said by critics to spawn excessive royalty-licensing demands and threatened “holdups” of firms that produce innovative products and services. These alleged patent abuses have been characterized as a wasteful “tax” on high-tech implementers of patented technologies, which inefficiently raises price and harms consumer welfare.

Fortunately, solid scholarship has debunked these stories and instead pointed to the key role patents play in enhancing competition and driving innovation. See, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Nevertheless, early indications are that the Biden administration may be adopting a patent-skeptical attitude. Such an attitude was revealed, for example, in the president’s July 9 Executive Order on Competition (which suggested an openness to undermining the Bayh-Dole Act by using march-in rights to set prices; to weakening pharmaceutical patent rights; and to weakening standard essential patents) and in the administration’s inexplicable decision to waive patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines (see here and here).

Before it takes further steps that would undermine patent protections, the administration should consider new research that underscores how patents help to spawn dynamic market growth through “design around” competition and through licensing that promotes new technologies and product markets.

Patents Spawn Welfare-Enhancing ‘Design Around’ Competition

Critics sometimes bemoan the fact that patents covering a new product or technology allegedly retard competition by preventing new firms from entering a market. (Never mind the fact that the market might not have existed but for the patent.) This thinking, which confuses a patent with a product-market monopoly, is badly mistaken. It is belied by the fact that the publicly available patented technology itself (1) provides valuable information to third parties; and (2) thereby incentivizes them to innovate and compete by refining technologies that fall outside the scope of the patent. In short, patents on important new technologies stimulate, rather than retard, competition. They do this by leading third parties to “design around” the patented technology and thus generate competition that features a richer set of technological options realized in new products.

The importance of design around is revealed, for example, in the development of the incandescent light bulb market in the late 19th century, in reaction to Edison’s patent on a long-lived light bulb. In a 2021 article in the Journal of Competition Law and Economics, Ron D. Katznelson and John Howells did an empirical study of this important example of product innovation. The article’s synopsis explains:

Designing around patents is prevalent but not often appreciated as a means by which patents promote economic development through competition. We provide a novel empirical study of the extent and timing of designing around patent claims. We study the filing rate of incandescent lamp-related patents during 1878–1898 and find that the enforcement of Edison’s incandescent lamp patent in 1891–1894 stimulated a surge of patenting. We studied the specific design features of the lamps described in these lamp patents and compared them with Edison’s claimed invention to create a count of noninfringing designs by filing date. Most of these noninfringing designs circumvented Edison’s patent claims by creating substitute technologies to enable participation in the market. Our forward citation analysis of these patents shows that some had introduced pioneering prior art for new fields. This indicates that invention around patents is not duplicative research and contributes to dynamic economic efficiency. We show that the Edison lamp patent did not suppress advance in electric lighting and the market power of the Edison patent owner weakened during this patent’s enforcement. We propose that investigation of the effects of design around patents is essential for establishing the degree of market power conferred by patents.

In a recent commentary, Katznelson highlights the procompetitive consumer welfare benefits of the Edison light bulb design around:

GE’s enforcement of the Edison patent by injunctions did not stifle competition nor did it endow GE with undue market power, let alone a “monopoly.” Instead, it resulted in clear and tangible consumer welfare benefits. Investments in design-arounds resulted in tangible and measurable dynamic economic efficiencies by (a) increased competition, (b) lamp price reductions, (c) larger choice of suppliers, (d) acceleration of downstream development of new electric illumination technologies, and (e) collateral creation of new technologies that would not have been developed for some time but for the need to design around Edison’s patent claims. These are all imparted benefits attributable to patent enforcement.

Katznelson further explains that “the mythical harm to innovation inflicted by enforcers of pioneer patents is not unique to the Edison case.” He cites additional research debunking claims that the Wright brothers’ pioneer airplane patent seriously retarded progress in aviation (“[a]ircraft manufacturing and investments grew at an even faster pace after the assertion of the Wright Brothers’ patent than before”) and debunking similar claims made about the early radio industry and the early automobile industry. He also notes strong research refuting the patent holdup conjecture regarding standard essential patents. He concludes by bemoaning “infringers’ rhetoric” that “suppresses information on the positive aspects of patent enforcement, such as the design-around effects that we study in this article.”

The Bayh-Dole Act: Licensing that Promotes New Technologies and Product Markets

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 has played an enormously important role in accelerating American technological innovation by creating a property rights-based incentive to use government labs. As this good summary from the Biotechnology Innovation Organization puts it, it “[e]mpowers universities, small businesses and non-profit institutions to take ownership [through patent rights] of inventions made during federally-funded research, so they can license these basic inventions for further applied research and development and broader public use.”

The act has continued to generate many new welfare-enhancing technologies and related high-tech business opportunities even during the “COVID slowdown year” of 2020, according to a newly released survey by a nonprofit organization representing the technology management community (see here):  

° The number of startup companies launched around academic inventions rose from 1,040 in 2019 to 1,117 in 2020. Almost 70% of these companies locate in the same state as the research institution that licensed them—making Bayh-Dole a critical driver of state and regional economic development;
° Invention disclosures went from 25,392 to 27,112 in 2020;
° New patent applications increased from 15,972 to 17,738;
° Licenses and options went from 9,751 in ’19 to 10,050 in ’20, with 60% of licenses going to small companies; and
° Most impressive of all—new products introduced to the market based on academic inventions jumped from 711 in 2019 to 933 in 2020.

Despite this continued record of success, the Biden Administration has taken actions that create uncertainty about the government’s support for Bayh-Dole.  

As explained by the Congressional Research Service, “march-in rights allow the government, in specified circumstances, to require the contractor or successors in title to the patent to grant a ‘nonexclusive, partially exclusive, or exclusive license’ to a ‘responsible applicant or applicants.’ If the patent owner refuses to do so, the government may grant the license itself.” Government march-in rights thus far have not been invoked, but a serious threat of their routine invocation would greatly disincentivize future use of Bayh-Dole, thereby undermining patent-backed innovation.

Despite this, the president’s July 9 Executive Order on Competition (noted above) instructed the U.S. Commerce Department to defer finalizing a regulation (see here) “that would have ensured that march-in rights under Bayh Dole would not be misused to allow the government to set prices, but utilized for its statutory intent of providing oversight so good faith efforts are being made to turn government-funded innovations into products. But that’s all up in the air now.”

What’s more, a new U.S. Energy Department policy that would more closely scrutinize Bayh-Dole patentees’ licensing transactions and acquisitions (apparently to encourage more domestic manufacturing) has raised questions in the Bayh-Dole community and may discourage licensing transactions (see here and here). Added to this is the fact that “prominent Members of Congress are pressing the Biden Administration to misconstrue the march-in rights clause to control prices of products arising from National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense funding.” All told, therefore, the outlook for continued patent-inspired innovation through Bayh-Dole processes appears to be worse than it has been in many years.

Conclusion

The patent system does far more than provide potential rewards to enhance incentives for particular individuals to invent. The system also creates a means to enhance welfare by facilitating the diffusion of technology through market processes (see here).

But it does even more than that. It actually drives new forms of dynamic competition by inducing third parties to design around new patents, to the benefit of consumers and the overall economy. As revealed by the Bayh-Dole Act, it also has facilitated the more efficient use of federal labs to generate innovation and new products and processes that would not otherwise have seen the light of day. Let us hope that the Biden administration pays heed to these benefits to the American economy and thinks again before taking steps that would further weaken our patent system.     

The U.S. economy survived the COVID-19 pandemic and associated government-imposed business shutdowns with a variety of innovations that facilitated online shopping, contactless payments, and reduced use and handling of cash, a known vector of disease transmission.

While many of these innovations were new, they would have been impossible but for their reliance on an established and ubiquitous technological infrastructure: the global credit and debit-card payments system. Not only did consumers prefer to use plastic instead of cash, the number of merchants going completely “cashless” quadrupled in the first two months of the pandemic alone. From food delivery to online shopping, many small businesses were able to survive largely because of payment cards.

But there are costs to maintain the global payment-card network that processes billions of transactions daily, and those costs are higher for online payments, which present elevated fraud and security risks. As a result, while the boom in online shopping over this past year kept many retailers and service providers afloat, that hasn’t prevented them from grousing about their increased card-processing costs.

So it is that retailers are now lobbying Washington to impose new regulations on payment-card markets designed to force down the fees they pay for accepting debit and credit cards. Called interchange fees, these fees are charged by banks that issue debit cards on each transaction, and they are part of a complex process that connects banks, card networks, merchants, and consumers.

Fig. 1: A basic illustration of the 3- and 4-party payment-processing networks that underlie the use of credit cards.

Regulation II—a provision of 2010’s Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act commonly known as the “Durbin amendment,” after its primary sponsor, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.)—placed price controls on interchange fees for debit cards issued by larger banks and credit unions (those with more than $10 billion in assets). It required all debit-card issuers to offer multiple networks for “routing” and processing card transactions. Merchants now want to expand these routing provisions to credit cards, as well. The consequences for consumers, especially low-income consumers, would be disastrous.

The price controls imposed by the Durbin amendment have led to a 52% decrease in the average per-transaction interchange fee, resulting in billions of dollars in revenue losses for covered depositories. But banks and credit unions have passed on these losses to consumers in the form of fewer free checking accounts, higher fees, and higher monthly minimums required to avoid those fees.

One empirical study found that the share of covered banks offering free checking accounts fell from 60% to 20%, the average monthly checking accounts fees increased from $4.34 to $7.44, and the minimum account balance required to avoid those fees increased by roughly 25%. Another study found that fees charged by covered institutions were 15% higher than they would have been absent the price regulation; those increases offset about 90% of the depositories’ lost revenue. Banks and credit unions also largely eliminated cash-back and other rewards on debit cards.

In fact, those who have been most harmed by the Durbin amendment’s consequences have been low-income consumers. Middle-class families hardly noticed the higher minimum balance requirements, or used their credit cards more often to offset the disappearance of debit-card rewards. Those with the smallest checking account balances, however, suffered the most from reduced availability of free banking and higher monthly maintenance and other fees. Priced out of the banking system, as many as 1 million people might have lost bank accounts in the wake of the Durbin amendment, forcing them to turn to such alternatives as prepaid cards, payday lenders, and pawn shops to make ends meet. Lacking bank accounts, these needy families weren’t even able to easily access their much-needed government stimulus funds at the onset of the pandemic without paying fees to alternative financial services providers.

In exchange for higher bank fees and reduced benefits, merchants promised lower prices at the pump and register. This has not been the case. Scholarship since  implementation of the Federal Reserve’s rule shows that whatever benefits have been gained have gone to merchants, with little pass-through to consumers. For instance, one study found that covered banks had their interchange revenue drop by 25%, but little evidence of a corresponding drop in prices from merchants.

Another study found that the benefits and costs to merchants have been unevenly distributed, with retailers who sell large-ticket items receiving a windfall, while those specializing in small-ticket items have often faced higher effective rates. Discounts previously offered to smaller merchants have been eliminated to offset reduced revenues from big-box stores. According to a 2014 Federal Reserve study, when acceptance fees increased, merchants hiked retail prices; but when fees were reduced, merchants pocketed the windfall.

Moreover, while the Durbin amendment’s proponents claimed it would only apply to big banks, the provisions that determine how transactions are routed on the payment networks apply to cards issued by credit unions and community banks, as well. As a result, smaller players have also seen average interchange fees beaten down, reducing this revenue stream even as they have been forced to cope with higher regulatory costs imposed by Dodd-Frank. Extending the Durbin amendment’s routing provisions to credit cards would further drive down interchange-fee revenue, creating the same negative spiral of higher consumer fees and reduced benefits that the original Durbin amendment spawned for debit cards.

More fundamentally, merchants believe it is their decision—not yours—as to which network will route your transaction. You may prefer Visa or Mastercard because of your confidence in their investments in security and anti-fraud detection, but later discover that the merchant has routed your transaction through a processor you’ve never heard of, simply because that network is cheaper for the merchant.

The resilience of the U.S. economy during this horrible viral contagion is due, in part, to the ubiquitous access of American families to credit and debit cards. That system has proved its mettle this past year, seamlessly adapting to the sudden shift to electronic payments. Yet, in the wake of this American success story, politicians and regulators, egged on by powerful special interests, instead want to meddle with this system just so big-box retailers can transfer their costs onto American families and small banks. As the economy and public health recovers, Congress and regulators should resist the impulse to impose new financial harm on working-class families.

In what has become regularly scheduled programming on Capitol Hill, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai will be subject to yet another round of congressional grilling—this time, about the platforms’ content-moderation policies—during a March 25 joint hearing of two subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The stated purpose of this latest bit of political theatre is to explore, as made explicit in the hearing’s title, “social media’s role in promoting extremism and misinformation.” Specific topics are expected to include proposed changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, heightened scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission, and misinformation about COVID-19—the subject of new legislation introduced by Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

But while many in the Democratic majority argue that social media companies have not done enough to moderate misinformation or hate speech, it is a problem with no realistic legal fix. Any attempt to mandate removal of speech on grounds that it is misinformation or hate speech, either directly or indirectly, would run afoul of the First Amendment.

Much of the recent focus has been on misinformation spread on social media about the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic. The memorandum for the March 25 hearing sums it up:

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have long come under fire for their role in the dissemination and amplification of misinformation and extremist content. For instance, since the beginning of the coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, all three platforms have spread substantial amounts of misinformation about COVID-19. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation regarding the severity of the virus and the effectiveness of alleged cures for COVID-19 was widespread. More recently, COVID-19 disinformation has misrepresented the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have also been distributors for years of election disinformation that appeared to be intended either to improperly influence or undermine the outcomes of free and fair elections. During the November 2016 election, social media platforms were used by foreign governments to disseminate information to manipulate public opinion. This trend continued during and after the November 2020 election, often fomented by domestic actors, with rampant disinformation about voter fraud, defective voting machines, and premature declarations of victory.

It is true that, despite social media companies’ efforts to label and remove false content and bar some of the biggest purveyors, there remains a considerable volume of false information on social media. But U.S. Supreme Court precedent consistently has limited government regulation of false speech to distinct categories like defamation, perjury, and fraud.

The Case of Stolen Valor

The court’s 2011 decision in United States v. Alvarez struck down as unconstitutional the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which made it a federal crime to falsely claim to have earned a military medal. A four-justice plurality opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, along with a two-justice concurrence, both agreed that a statement being false did not, by itself, exclude it from First Amendment protection. 

Kennedy’s opinion noted that while the government may impose penalties for false speech connected with the legal process (perjury or impersonating a government official); with receiving a benefit (fraud); or with harming someone’s reputation (defamation); the First Amendment does not sanction penalties for false speech, in and of itself. The plurality exhibited particular skepticism toward the notion that government actors could be entrusted as a “Ministry of Truth,” empowered to determine what categories of false speech should be made illegal:

Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable. That governmental power has no clear limiting principle. Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth… Were this law to be sustained, there could be an endless list of subjects the National Government or the States could single out… Were the Court to hold that the interest in truthful discourse alone is sufficient to sustain a ban on speech, absent any evidence that the speech was used to gain a material advantage, it would give government a broad censorial power unprecedented in this Court’s cases or in our constitutional tradition. The mere potential for the exercise of that power casts a chill, a chill the First Amendment cannot permit if free speech, thought, and discourse are to remain a foundation of our freedom. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

As noted in the opinion, declaring false speech illegal constitutes a content-based restriction subject to “exacting scrutiny.” Applying that standard, the court found “the link between the Government’s interest in protecting the integrity of the military honors system and the Act’s restriction on the false claims of liars like respondent has not been shown.” 

While finding that the government “has not shown, and cannot show, why counterspeech would not suffice to achieve its interest,” the plurality suggested a more narrowly tailored solution could be simply to publish Medal of Honor recipients in an online database. In other words, the government could overcome the problem of false speech by promoting true speech. 

In 2012, President Barack Obama signed an updated version of the Stolen Valor Act that limited its penalties to situations where a misrepresentation is shown to result in receipt of some kind of benefit. That places the false speech in the category of fraud, consistent with the Alvarez opinion.

A Social Media Ministry of Truth

Applying the Alvarez standard to social media, the government could (and already does) promote its interest in public health or election integrity by publishing true speech through official channels. But there is little reason to believe the government at any level could regulate access to misinformation. Anything approaching an outright ban on accessing speech deemed false by the government not only would not be the most narrowly tailored way to deal with such speech, but it is bound to have chilling effects even on true speech.

The analysis doesn’t change if the government instead places Big Tech itself in the position of Ministry of Truth. Some propose making changes to Section 230, which currently immunizes social media companies from liability for user speech (with limited exceptions), regardless what moderation policies the platform adopts. A hypothetical change might condition Section 230’s liability shield on platforms agreeing to moderate certain categories of misinformation. But that would still place the government in the position of coercing platforms to take down speech. 

Even the “fix” of making social media companies liable for user speech they amplify through promotions on the platform, as proposed by Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-Va.) SAFE TECH Act, runs into First Amendment concerns. The aim of the bill is to regard sponsored content as constituting speech made by the platform, thus opening the platform to liability for the underlying misinformation. But any such liability also would be limited to categories of speech that fall outside First Amendment protection, like fraud or defamation. This would not appear to include most of the types of misinformation on COVID-19 or election security that animate the current legislative push.

There is no way for the government to regulate misinformation, in and of itself, consistent with the First Amendment. Big Tech companies are free to develop their own policies against misinformation, but the government may not force them to do so. 

Extremely Limited Room to Regulate Extremism

The Big Tech CEOs are also almost certain to be grilled about the use of social media to spread “hate speech” or “extremist content.” The memorandum for the March 25 hearing sums it up like this:

Facebook executives were repeatedly warned that extremist content was thriving on their platform, and that Facebook’s own algorithms and recommendation tools were responsible for the appeal of extremist groups and divisive content. Similarly, since 2015, videos from extremists have proliferated on YouTube; and YouTube’s algorithm often guides users from more innocuous or alternative content to more fringe channels and videos. Twitter has been criticized for being slow to stop white nationalists from organizing, fundraising, recruiting and spreading propaganda on Twitter.

Social media has often played host to racist, sexist, and other types of vile speech. While social media companies have community standards and other policies that restrict “hate speech” in some circumstances, there is demand from some public officials that they do more. But under a First Amendment analysis, regulating hate speech on social media would fare no better than the regulation of misinformation.

The First Amendment doesn’t allow for the regulation of “hate speech” as its own distinct category. Hate speech is, in fact, as protected as any other type of speech. There are some limited exceptions, as the First Amendment does not protect incitement, true threats of violence, or “fighting words.” Some of these flatly do not apply in the online context. “Fighting words,” for instance, applies only in face-to-face situations to “those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction.”

One relevant precedent is the court’s 1992 decision in R.A.V. v. St. Paul, which considered a local ordinance in St. Paul, Minnesota, prohibiting public expressions that served to cause “outrage, alarm, or anger with respect to racial, gender or religious intolerance.” A juvenile was charged with violating the ordinance when he created a makeshift cross and lit it on fire in front of a black family’s home. The court unanimously struck down the ordinance as a violation of the First Amendment, finding it an impermissible content-based restraint that was not limited to incitement or true threats.

By contrast, in 2003’s Virginia v. Black, the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia law outlawing cross burnings done with the intent to intimidate. The court’s opinion distinguished R.A.V. on grounds that the Virginia statute didn’t single out speech regarding disfavored topics. Instead, it was aimed at speech that had the intent to intimidate regardless of the victim’s race, gender, religion, or other characteristic. But the court was careful to limit government regulation of hate speech to instances that involve true threats or incitement.

When it comes to incitement, the legal standard was set by the court’s landmark Brandenberg v. Ohio decision in 1969, which laid out that:

the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

In other words, while “hate speech” is protected by the First Amendment, specific types of speech that convey true threats or fit under the related doctrine of incitement are not. The government may regulate those types of speech. And they do. In fact, social media users can be, and often are, charged with crimes for threats made online. But the government can’t issue a per se ban on hate speech or “extremist content.”

Just as with misinformation, the government also can’t condition Section 230 immunity on platforms removing hate speech. Insofar as speech is protected under the First Amendment, the government can’t specifically condition a government benefit on its removal. Even the SAFE TECH Act’s model for holding platforms accountable for amplifying hate speech or extremist content would have to be limited to speech that amounts to true threats or incitement. This is a far narrower category of hateful speech than the examples that concern legislators. 

Social media companies do remain free under the law to moderate hateful content as they see fit under their terms of service. Section 230 immunity is not dependent on whether companies do or don’t moderate such content, or on how they define hate speech. But government efforts to step in and define hate speech would likely run into First Amendment problems unless they stay focused on unprotected threats and incitement.

What Can the Government Do?

One may fairly ask what it is that governments can do to combat misinformation and hate speech online. The answer may be a law that requires takedowns by court order of speech after it is declared illegal, as proposed by the PACT Act, sponsored in the last session by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and John Thune (R-S.D.). Such speech may, in some circumstances, include misinformation or hate speech.

But as outlined above, the misinformation that the government can regulate is limited to situations like fraud or defamation, while the hate speech it can regulate is limited to true threats and incitement. A narrowly tailored law that looked to address those specific categories may or may not be a good idea, but it would likely survive First Amendment scrutiny, and may even prove a productive line of discussion with the tech CEOs.

In order to understand the lack of apparent basis for the European Commission’s claims that AstraZeneca is in breach of its contractual obligations to supply it with vaccine doses, it is necessary to understand the difference between stock and flow.

If I have 1,000 widgets in my warehouse, and agree to sell 700 of them to Ursula, and 600 of them to Boris, I will be unable to perform both contracts. They’re inconsistent with one another, and if I choose to perform my contract with Boris, Ursula will be understandably aggrieved. Is this what AstraZeneca have done? No.

At the time of the contracts AstraZenca entered into with the Commission and the United Kingdom no vaccine doses existed. What AstraZeneca promised was to use best reasonable efforts to acquire approval for and production of vaccines, and to deliver what it succeeded in making.

The United Kingdom was involved from an early stage (January/February) in the roll out of what was to become the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. It was a third party beneficiary of the original licensing agreement of 17 May between Oxford and AstraZeneca, and provided the initial funding of £65 million (quickly greatly increased). Approval for use was given on 30 December, with the first dose given outside a trial on 4 January.

The Commission was slower to act. It entered into a contract with AstraZeneca on 17 August and granted authorisation for use on 29 January.

What each counterparty is entitled to is the doses that AstraZeneca succeeds, using best reasonable efforts, in producing under its contract. A metaphor is that each is buying a place in a production queue [Flow]. Neither was buying doses current in existence [Stock].

The metaphor of the queue is however somewhat misleading. It implies that the Commission is having to wait behind the United Kingdom. This is wrong. In fact, the Commission (and other parties) are benefitting from the earlier development and ramp up of production that occurred because of the United Kingdom’s contractual arrangements. Far from being prejudiced by the United Kingdom’s actions, the Commission and others have benefitted from it.

The Commission’s argument is not, and never has been, as some have supposed, that AstraZeneca has failed in its best reasonable efforts obligation to manufacture doses. Such an argument does the Commission no good. It would leave it with a claim for damages before a Belgian court in several years’ time. It is also seems unlikely that a claim that AstraZeneca have been dilatory in rolling out a vaccine in a fraction of the time anyone had achieved before this year, and which other suppliers failed altogether to do, has much prospect for success.

What it (and the Member States) want are doses today.

So, the argument instead is that AstraZeneca has succeeded and that there are doses in existence that the Commission is entitled to. This is based in part upon the frustration in seeing deliveries of vaccine doses to the United Kingdom from factories that the Commission’s contract says that AstraZeneca can deliver doses to it from.

Their position appears untenable. The Commission is entitled to those doses that its supplier succeeds, using best reasonable efforts, in producing under its contract with it. It is not entitled to doses that are only in existence because of earlier contractual arrangements with an entirely different counterparty.

In practice, which doses are being produced under which contract will be obvious from the fact that most production is being done by subcontractors (AstraZeneca is a relatively small producer). The shortfall in production under the Commission’s contract appears to have been caused by a failure of a sub-contractor in Belgium.

It is because the Commission’s arguments under its contract are so obviously weak that we are now seeing calls for export bans. If there really were any contractual entitlement to what has been produced, and AstraZeneca were in breach of contract in failing to deliver, then the usual civil recourse would be the obvious and easy path for the Commission. The nuclear option is being relied upon because of the lack of any such contractual right.

Conversely there is no equivalence between the United Kingdom requiring that doses that it is contractually entitled to are delivered to it, and the Commission’s proposed export ban.

Red Herrings

Two common objections to the above have been put forward that it is helpful to rule out. First the Commission’s contract is governed by Belgian law. However, there is no rule specific to any jurisdiction in play here. All that needs to be known is pacta sunt servanda, a principle applicable across Europe.

Second is that the UK’s supply contract was only actually formalised in August. The earlier agreement was however months before, as was the funding that has resulted in the doses that there are for anybody.

The author is an expert in English and European contract law.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is covid-image-1024x683.jpg

[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 Thomas W. Hazlett, (Hugh H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics, John E. Walker Department of Economics Clemson University)

(Ed. Note: the following is an excerpt from a piece published by the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 16, 2020. Click here to read the full piece)

No matter your Twitter feed, “vaccines have been one of the greatest public health tools to prevent disease,” as The New York Times explained in January…

Many are terrified that the Food and Drug Administration may hastily authorize injections into hundreds of millions. The FDA and drugmakers are trying to assuage such concerns with enhanced commitments to safety. Nonetheless, fears have been stoked by President Donald Trump’s infomercial-style endorsement of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 remedy, his foolhardy disdain for face masks and campaign rally boasts of a preelection cure.

Yes, politics. But the opposing political push — the demand that new vaccines must be safe at all costs — is itself a dangerous meme, and the strange bedfellow of anti-vaxxer protesters.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garrett inadvertently quantifies the problem. In a Sept. 3 article in Foreign Policy, she cited the H1N1 (swine flu) episode in 2009 as “the last mad rush to vaccinate.” Warning that those shots “caused Guillain-Barr (GBS) paralysis in … 6.2 per 10 million patients who received the vaccine,” she argues that phase 3 trials for COVID-19 vaccines, typically involving just 30,000 people, provide little protection. “There’s no way … we can spot a safety hazard that’s in 1 out of a million, much less 1 out of 10 million, vaccine recipients.” The “safety side,” she told a TV interviewer, “looks insane.”

But, in fact, the “insanity” here is not found in the push for speed or in Garrett’s skepticism about Operation Warp Speed. It lies in a lack of balance between the two. An insufficiently vetted vaccine may cost innocent lives, but so will delaying a vaccine that, on net, saves them…

When promising therapies appear, reducing time to market is often worth the risk — as reflected in a raft of pre-COVID-19 policies, including the FDA’s “emergency use authorizations,” “fast track” drug approvals and “compassionate use” permissions for experimental drugs. In phase 3 trials, independent monitors observe results, and trials may be terminated when pre-specified benefits appear. Patients in the control group become eligible for the treatment instead of the placebo. Larger samples would enhance scientific knowledge, but as probabilities shift regulators act on the reality that the ideal can become the enemy of the good.

Read the full piece at the Chicago Tribune.

[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 Oscar Súmar, Dean of the Law School of the Scientific University of the South (Peru)).]

Peru’s response to the pandemic has been one of the most radical in Latin America: Restrictions were imposed sooner, lasted longer and were among the strictest in the region. Peru went into lockdown on March 15 after only 71 cases had been reported.  Along with the usual restrictions (temporary restaurant and school closures), the Peruvian government took other measures such as bans on the use of private vehicles and the mandatory nightly curfews. For a time, there even were gender-based movement restrictions: men and women were allowed out on different days.

A few weeks into the lockdown, it became obvious that these measures were not flattening the curve of infections. But instead of reconsidering its strategy, the government insisted on the same path, with depressing results. Peru is one of the world’s worst hit countries by Covid-19, with 300k total cases by July 4th, 2020 and one of the countries with the highest “excess of deaths,” reaching 140%. Peru’s government has tried a rich country’s response, despite the fact that Peru lacks the institutions and wealth to make that possible.

The Peruvian response to coronavirus can be attributed to three factors. One, paternalism is popular in Peru and arguments for liberty are ignored. This is confirmed by the fact that President Vizcarra enjoys to this day a great deal of popularity thanks to this draconian lockdown even when the government has repeatedly blamed people’s negligence as the main cause of contagion. Two, government officials have socialistic tendencies. For instance, the Prime Minister – Mr. Zeballos – used to speak freely about price regulations and nationalization, even before the pandemic. And three, Peru’s health system is one of the worst in the region. It was foreseeable that our health system would be overwhelmed in the first few weeks, so our government decided to go into early lockdown.

Peru has also launched one of the most aggressive economic relief programs in the world, equivalent to 12% of its GDP. This program included a “universal bond” for poor families, as well as a loan program for small, medium and large businesses. The program was praised by the media around the world. Despite this programme, Peru has been one of the worst-hit countries in the world in economic terms. The World Bank predicts that Peru will be the country with the biggest GDP contraction in the region.

If anything, Peru played the crisis by the book. But Peru´s lack of strong, legitimate and honest institutions have made its policies ineffectual. Just few months prior to the beginning of the pandemic, President Vizcarra dissolved the Congress. And Peru has been engulfed in a far-reaching corruption scandal for years. Only two years ago, former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned the presidency being directly implicated in the scandal, and his vice president at the time, Martin Vizcarra, took over. Much of Peru’s political and business elite have also been implicated in this scandal, with members of the elite summoned daily to the criminal prosecutor’s office for questioning.

However, if we want to understand the lack of strong institutions in Peru – and how this affected our response to the pandemic – we need to go back even further. In the 1980s, after having lived through a socialist military dictatorship, a young candidate named Alan Garcia was democratically elected as president. But during Garcia´s presidency, Peru achieved a trillion-dollar foreign debt, record levels of inflation, and imposed price controls and nationalizations. Peru fought a losing war against an armed Marxist terrorist group. By 1990, Peru was on the edge of the abyss. In the 1990 presidential campaign, Peruvians had to decide between a celebrated libertarian intellectual with little political experience, the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, and Alberto Fujimori, a political “outsider” with rather unknown ideas but an aura of pragmatism over his head. We chose the latter.

Fujimori’s two main goals were to end domestic terrorism and to stabilize Peru’s ruined economy. This second task was achieved by following the Washington Consensus receipt: changing the Constitution after a self-inflicted coup d’état. The Consensus has been deemed as a “neoliberal” group of policies, but was really the product of a decades-long consensus among World Bank experts about policies that almost all mainstream economists favor. The policies included were privatization, deregulation, free trade, monetary stability, control over borrowing, and a focusing of public spending on health, education and infrastructure. A secondary part of the recommendations was aimed at institutional reform, poverty alleviation and the reform of tax and labor laws.

The implementation of the Consensus by Fujimori and subsequent governments was a mix of the actual “structural adjustments” recommended by the Bank and systemic over-regulation, mercantilism, and corruption. Every Peruvian president since 1990 is either currently being investigated or has been charged with corruption.

Although Peru’s GDP increased by more than 5% per year for several years since 1990, and poverty numbers have shrunk more than 50% in the last decade, other problems have remained. People have no access to decent healthcare; basic education in Peru is one of the worst in the world; and, more than half of the population does not have access to clean drinking water. Also, informality remains one of our biggest problems since the tax and labor reforms didn’t take place. Our tax base is very small, and our labor legislation is among the costliest in Latin America.

In Peruvian eyes, this is what “neoliberalism” looks like. Peru was good at implementing many of the high-level reforms, but not the detailed and complex institutional ones. The Consensus assumed the coexistence of free market institutions and measures of social assistance. Peru had some of these, but not enough. Even the reforms that did take place weren´t legitimate or part of our actual social consensus.

Taking advantage of people´s discontent, now, some leftist politicians, journalists, academics and activists want nothing more than to return to our previous interventionist Constitution and to socialism. Peruvian people are crying out for change. If the current situation is partially explained by our implementation of the Washington Consensus and that Consensus is deemed “neoliberal”, it´s no surprise that “change” is understood as going back to a more interventionist regime. Our current situation could be seen as the result of people demanding more government intervention, with the government and Congress simply meeting that demand, with no institutional framework to resist this.

The health crisis we are currently experiencing highlights the cost of Peru’s lack of strong institutions. Peru had one of the most ill-prepared public healthcare systems in the World at the beginning of the pandemic, with just 100 intensive care units. But there is virtually no private alternative, because that is so heavily regulated, and what exists is mostly the preserve of the elite. So, instead of working to improve the public system or promote more competition in the private sector, the government threatened clinics with a takeover.

The Peruvian government was unable to deliver policies that matched the real conditions of its population. We have, in effect, the lockdown of a rich country with few of the conditions that have allowed them to work. Inner-city poverty and a large informal economy (at an estimated 70% of Peru’s economy) made the lockdown a health and economic trap for the majority of the population (this study of Norma Loayza is very illustrative).

Incapable of facing the truth about Peru’s ability to withstand a lockdown, government officials relied on regulation to try to reshape reality to their wishes. The result is 20-40 pages of “protocols” to be fulfilled by small companies, completely ignored by the informal 70% of the economy. In some cases, these regulations were obvious examples of rent-seeking as well. For example, only firms with 1 million soles (approximately 300,000 USD) in sales in the past year and with at least three physical branches were allowed to do business online during the lockdown.

Even after the lockdown has been officially terminated since July 1st, the government must approve every industry in order to operate again. At the same time, our Congress has passed legislation prohibiting toll collection (even when is a contractual agreement); it has criminalized “hoarding” and restated “speculation” as a felony crime; and a proposal to freeze all financial debts. Some economic commentators argue that in Peru the “populist virus” is even worse than Covid-19. Peru’s failure in dealing with the virus must be understood in light of its long history of interventionist governments that have let economic sclerosis set in through overregulation and done little to build up the kinds of institutions that would allow a pandemic response that suits Peru to work. Our lack of strong institutions, confidence in the market economy, and human capital in the public sector has put us in an extremely fragile position to fight the virus.

[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 Eric Fruits, (Chief Economist, International Center for Law & Economics).]

While much of the world of competition policy has focused on mergers in the COVID-19 era. Some observers see mergers as one way of saving distressed but valuable firms. Others have called for a merger moratorium out of fear that more mergers will lead to increased concentration and market power. In the meantime, there has been a growing push for increased nationalization of a wide range of businesses and industries.

In most cases, the call for a government takeover is not a reaction to the public health and economic crises associated with coronavirus. Instead, COVID-19 is a convenient excuse to pursue long sought after policies.

Last year, well before the pandemic, New York mayor Bill de Blasio called for a government takeover of electrical grid operator ConEd because he was upset over blackouts during a heatwave. Earlier that year, he threatened to confiscate housing units from private landlords, “we will seize their buildings, and we will put them in the hands of a community nonprofit that will treat tenants with the respect they deserve.”

With that sort of track record, it should come as no surprise the mayor proposed a government takeover of key industries to address COVID-19: “This is a case for a nationalization, literally a nationalization, of crucial factories and industries that could produce the medical supplies to prepare this country for what we need.” Dana Brown, director of The Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative, agrees, “We should nationalize what remains of the American vaccine industry now, thereby assuring that any coronavirus vaccines produced can be made as widely available and as inexpensive soon as possible.” 

Dan Sullivan in the American Prospect suggests the U.S. should nationalize all the airlines. Some have gone so far as calling for nationalization of the U.S. oil industry.

On the one hand, it’s clear that de Blasio and Brown have no confidence in the price system to efficiently allocate resources. Alternatively, they may have overconfidence in the political/bureaucratic system to efficiently, and “equitably,” distribute resources. On the other hand, as Daniel Takash points out in an earlier post, both pharmaceuticals and oil are relatively unpopular industries with many Americans, in which case the threat of a government takeover has a big dose of populist score settling:

Yet last year a Gallup poll found that of 25 major industries, the pharmaceutical industry was the most unpopular–trailing behind fossil fuels, lawyers, and even the federal government. 

In the early days of the pandemic, France’s finance minister Bruno Le Maire promised to protect “big French companies.” The minister identified a range of actions under consideration: “That can be done by recapitalization, that can be done by taking a stake, I can even use the term nationalization if necessary.” While he did not mention any specific companies, it’s been speculated Air France KLM may be a target.

The Italian government is expected to nationalize Alitalia soon. The airline has been in state administration since May 2017, and the Italian government will have 100% control of the airline by June. Last week, the German government took a 20% stake in Lufthansa, in what has been characterized as a “temporary partial nationalization.” In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been coy about speculation that the government might nationalize Air Canada. 

Obviously, these takeovers have “bailout” written all over them, and bailouts have their own anticompetitive consequences that can be worse than those associated with mergers. For example, RyanAir announced it will contest the aid package for Lufthansa. RyanAir chief executive Michael O’Leary claims the aid will allow Lufthansa to “engage in below-cost selling” and make it harder for RyanAir and its rival low-cost carrier EasyJet to compete. 

There is also a bit of a “national champion” aspect to the takeovers. Each of the potential targets are (or were) considered their nation’s flagship airline. World Bank economists Tanja Goodwin and Georgiana Pop highlight the risk of nationalization harming competition: 

These [sic] should avoid rescuing firms that were already failing. …  But governments should also refrain from engaging in production or service delivery in industries that can be served by the private sector. The role of SOEs [state owned enterprises] should be assessed in order to ensure that bailout packages are not exclusively and unnecessarily favoring a dominant SOE.

To be sure, COVID-19 related mergers could raise the specter of increased market power post-pandemic. But, this risk must be balanced against the risks posed by a merger moratorium. These include the risk of widespread bankruptcies (that’s another post) and/or the possibility of nationalization of firms and industries. Either option can reduce competition which can bring harm to consumers, employees, and suppliers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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