Digital advertising is the economic backbone of the Internet. It allows websites and apps to monetize their userbase without having to charge them fees, while the emergence of targeted ads allows this to be accomplished affordably and with less wasted time wasted.
This advertising is facilitated by intermediaries using the “adtech stack,” through which advertisers and publishers are matched via auctions and ads ultimately are served to relevant users. This intermediation process has advanced enormously over the past three decades. Some now allege, however, that this market is being monopolized by its largest participant: Google.
A lawsuit filed by the State of Texas and nine other states in December 2020 alleges, among other things, that Google has engaged in anticompetitive conduct related to its online display advertising business. Those 10 original state plaintiffs were joined by another four states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in March 2021, while South Carolina and Louisiana have also moved to be added as additional plaintiffs. Google also faces a pending antitrust lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and 14 states (originally 11) related to the company’s distribution agreements, as well as a separate action by the State of Utah, 35 other states, and the District of Columbia related to its search design.
In recent weeks, it has been reported that the DOJ may join the Texas suit or bring its own similar action against Google in the coming months. If it does, it should learn from the many misconceptions and errors in the Texas complaint that leave it on dubious legal and economic grounds.
The Texas complaint identifies at least five relevant markets within the adtech stack that it alleges Google either is currently monopolizing or is attempting to monopolize:
Publisher ad servers;
Display ad exchanges;
Display ad networks;
Ad-buying tools for large advertisers; and
Ad-buying tools for small advertisers.
None of these constitute an economically relevant product market for antitrust purposes, since each “market” is defined according to how superficially similar the products are in function, not how substitutable they are. Nevertheless, the Texas complaint vaguely echoes how markets were conceived in the “Roadmap” for a case against Google’s advertising business, published last year by the Omidyar Network, which may ultimately influence any future DOJ complaint, as well.
The Omidyar Roadmap narrows the market from media advertising to digital advertising, then to the open supply of display ads, which comprises only 9% of the total advertising spending and less than 20% of digital advertising, as shown in the figure below. It then further narrows the defined market to the intermediation of the open supply of display ads. Once the market has been sufficiently narrowed, the Roadmap authors conclude that Google’s market share is “perhaps sufficient to confer market power.”
While whittling down the defined market may achieve the purposes of sketching a roadmap to prosecute Google, it also generates a mishmash of more than a dozen relevant markets for digital display and video advertising. In many of these, Google doesn’t have anything approaching market power, while, in some, Facebook is the most dominant player.
The Texas complaint adopts a non-economic approach to market definition. It ignores potential substitutability between different kinds of advertising, both online and offline, which can serve as a competitive constraint on the display advertising market. The complaint considers neither alternative forms of display advertising, such as social media ads, nor alternative forms of advertising, such as search ads or non-digital ads—all of which can and do act as substitutes. It is possible, at the very least, that advertisers who choose to place ads on third-party websites may switch to other forms of advertising if the price of third-party website advertising was above competitive levels. To ignore this possibility, as the Texas complaint does, is to ignore the entire purpose of defining the relevant antitrust market altogether.
Offline advertising vs. online advertising
The fact that offline and online advertising employ distinct processes does not consign them to economically distinct markets. Indeed, online advertising has manifestly drawn advertisers from offline markets, just as previous technological innovations drew advertisers from other pre-existing channels.
Moreover, there is evidence that, in some cases, offline and online advertising are substitute products. For example, economists Avi Goldfarb and Catherine Tucker demonstrate that display advertising pricing is sensitive to the availability of offline alternatives. They conclude:
We believe our studies refute the hypothesis that online and offline advertising markets operate independently and suggest a default position of substitution. Online and offline advertising markets appear to be closely related. That said, it is important not to draw any firm conclusions based on historical behavior.
Display ads vs. search ads
There is perhaps even more reason to doubt that online display advertising constitutes a distinct, economically relevant market from online search advertising.
Although casual and ill-informed claims are often made to the contrary, various forms of targeted online advertising are significant competitors of each other. Bo Xing and Zhanxi Lin report firms spread their marketing budgets across these different sources of online marketing, and “search engine optimizers”—firms that help websites to maximize the likelihood of a valuable “top-of-list” organic search placement—attract significant revenue. That is, all of these different channels vie against each other for consumer attention and offer advertisers the ability to target their advertising based on data gleaned from consumers’ interactions with their platforms.
Facebook built a business on par with Google’s thanks in large part to advertising, by taking advantage of users’ more extended engagement with the platform to assess relevance and by enabling richer, more engaged advertising than previously appeared on Google Search. It’s an entirely different model from search, but one that has turned Facebook into a competitive ad platform.
‘Open’ display advertising vs. ‘owned-and-operated’ display advertising
The United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority (like the Omidyar Roadmap report) has identified two distinct channels of display advertising, which they term “owned and operated” and “open.” The CMA concludes:
Over half of display expenditure is generated by Facebook, which owns both the Facebook platform and Instagram. YouTube has the second highest share of display advertising and is owned by Google. The open display market, in which advertisers buy inventory from many publishers of smaller scale (for example, newspapers and app providers) comprises around 32% of display expenditure.
The Texas complaint does not directly address the distinction between open and owned and operated, but it does allege anticompetitive conduct by Google with respect to YouTube in a separate “inline video advertising market.”
The CMA finds that the owned-and-operated channel mostly comprises large social media platforms, which sell their own advertising inventory directly to advertisers or media agencies through self-service interfaces, such as Facebook Ads Manager or Snapchat Ads Manager. In contrast, in the open display channel, publishers such as online newspapers and blogs sell their inventory to advertisers through a “complex chain of intermediaries.” Through these, intermediaries run auctions that match advertisers’ ads to publisher inventory of ad space. In both channels, nearly all transactions are run through programmatic technology.
The CMA concludes that advertisers “largely see” the open and the owned-and-operated channels as substitutes. According to the CMA, an advertiser’s choice of one channel over the other is driven by each channel’s ability to meet the key performance metrics the advertising campaign is intended to achieve.
The Omidyar Roadmap argues, instead, that the CMA too narrowly focuses on the perspective of advertisers. The Roadmap authors claim that “most publishers” do not control supply that is “owned and operated.” As a result, they conclude that publishers “such as gardenandgun.com or hotels.com” do not have any owned-and-operated supply and can generate revenues from their supply “only through the Google-dominated adtech stack.”
But this is simply not true. For example, in addition to inventory in its print media, Garden & Gun’s “Digital Media Kit” indicates that the publisher has several sources of owned-and-operated banner and video supply, including the desktop, mobile, and tablet ads on its website; a “homepage takeover” of its website; branded/sponsored content; its email newsletters; and its social media accounts. Hotels.com, an operating company of Expedia Group, has its own owned-and-operated search inventory, which it sells through its “Travel Ads Sponsored Listing,” as well owned-and-operated supply of standard and custom display ads.
Given that both perform the same function and employ similar mechanisms for matching inventory with advertisers, it is unsurprising that both advertisers and publishers appear to consider the owned-and-operated channel and the open channel to be substitutes.
The American Choice and Innovation Online Act (previously called the Platform Anti-Monopoly Act), introduced earlier this summer by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), would significantly change the nature of digital platforms and, with them, the internet itself. Taken together, the bill’s provisions would turn platforms into passive intermediaries, undermining many of the features that make them valuable to consumers. This seems likely to remain the case even after potential revisions intended to minimize the bill’s unintended consequences.
In its current form, the bill is split into two parts that each is dangerous in its own right. The first, Section 2(a), would prohibit almost any kind of “discrimination” by platforms. Because it is so open-ended, lawmakers might end up removing it in favor of the nominally more focused provisions of Section 2(b), which prohibit certain named conduct. But despite being more specific, this section of the bill is incredibly far-reaching and would effectively ban swaths of essential services.
Section 2(a) essentially prohibits any behavior by a covered platform that would advantage that platform’s services over any others that also uses that platform; it characterizes this preferencing as “discrimination.”
The underlying assumption here is that platforms should be like telephone networks: providing a way for different sides of a market to communicate with each other, but doing little more than that. When platforms do do more—for example, manipulating search results to favor certain businesses or to give their own products prominence —it is seen as exploitative “leveraging.”
But consumers often want platforms to be more than just a telephone network or directory, because digital markets would be very difficult to navigate without some degree of “discrimination” between sellers. The Internet is so vast and sellers are often so anonymous that any assistance which helps you choose among options can serve to make it more navigable. As John Gruber put it:
From what I’ve seen over the last few decades, the quality of the user experience of every computing platform is directly correlated to the amount of control exerted by its platform owner. The current state of the ownerless world wide web speaks for itself.
Sometimes, this manifests itself as “self-preferencing” of another service, to reduce additional time spent searching for the information you want. When you search for a restaurant on Google, it can be very useful to get information like user reviews, the restaurant’s phone number, a button on mobile to phone them directly, estimates of how busy it is, and a link to a Maps page to see how to actually get there.
This is, undoubtedly, frustrating for competitors like Yelp, who would like this information not to be there and for users to have to click on either a link to Yelp or a link to Google Maps. But whether it is good or bad for Yelp isn’t relevant to whether it is good for users—and it is at least arguable that it is, which makes a blanket prohibition on this kind of behavior almost inevitably harmful.
If it isn’t obvious why removing this kind of feature would be harmful for users, ask yourself why some users search in Yelp’s app directly for this kind of result. The answer, I think, is that Yelp gives you all the information above that Google does (and sometimes is better, although I tend to trust Google Maps’ reviews over Yelp’s), and it’s really convenient to have all that on the same page. If Google could not provide this kind of “rich” result, many users would probably stop using Google Search to look for restaurant information in the first place, because a new friction would have been added that made the experience meaningfully worse. Removing that option would be good for Yelp, but mainly because it removes a competitor.
If all this feels like stating the obvious, then it should highlight a significant problem with Section 2(a) in the Cicilline bill: it prohibits conduct that is directly value-adding for consumers, and that creates competition for dedicated services like Yelp that object to having to compete with this kind of conduct.
Some or all of this behavior would be prohibited under Section 2(a) of the Cicilline bill. Combined with the bill’s presumption that conduct must be defended affirmatively—that is, the platform is presumed guilty unless it can prove that the challenged conduct is pro-competitive, which may be very difficult to do—and the bill could prospectively eliminate a huge range of socially valuable behavior.
Supporters of the bill have already been left arguing that the law simply wouldn’t be enforced in these cases of benign discrimination. But this would hardly be an improvement. It would mean the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) have tremendous control over how these platforms are built, since they could challenge conduct in virtually any case. The regulatory uncertainty alone would complicate the calculus for these firms as they refine, develop, and deploy new products and capabilities.
So one potential compromise might be to do away with this broad-based rule and proscribe specific kinds of “discriminatory” conduct instead. This approach would involve removing Section 2(a) from the bill but retaining Section 2(b), which enumerates 10 practices it deems to be “other discriminatory conduct.” This may seem appealing, as it would potentially avoid the worst abuses of the broad-based prohibition. In practice, however, it would carry many of the same problems. In fact, many of 2(b)’s provisions appear to go even further than 2(a), and would proscribe even more procompetitive conduct that consumers want.
Sections 2(b)(1) and 2(b)(9)
The wording of these provisions is extremely broad and, as drafted, would seem to challenge even the existence of vertically integrated products. As such, these prohibitions are potentially even more extensive and invasive than Section 2(a) would have been. Even a narrower reading here would seem to preclude safety and privacy features that are valuable to many users. iOS’s sandboxing of apps, for example, serves to limit the damage that a malware app can do on a user’s device precisely because of the limitations it imposes on what other features and hardware the app can access.
This provision would preclude a firm from conditioning preferred status on use of another service from that firm. This would likely undermine the purpose of platforms, which is to absorb and counter some of the risks involved in doing business online. An example of this is Amazon’s tying eligibility for its Prime program to sellers that use Amazon’s delivery service (FBA – Fulfilled By Amazon). The bill seems to presume in an example like this that Amazon is leveraging its power in the market—in the form of the value of the Prime label—to profit from delivery. But Amazon could, and already does, charge directly for listing positions; it’s unclear why it would benefit from charging via FBA when it could just charge for the Prime label.
An alternate, simpler explanation is that FBA improves the quality of the service, by granting customers greater assurance that a Prime product will arrive when Amazon says it will. Platforms add value by setting out rules and providing services that reduce the uncertainties between buyers and sellers they’d otherwise experience if they transacted directly with each other. This section’s prohibition—which, as written, would seem to prevent any kind of quality assurance—likely would bar labelling by a platform, even where customers explicitly want it.
As written, this would prohibit platforms from using aggregated data to improve their services at all. If Apple found that 99% of its users uninstalled an app immediately after it was installed, it would be reasonable to conclude that the app may be harmful or broken in some way, and that Apple should investigate. This provision would ban that.
Sections 2(b)(4) and 2(b)(6)
These two provisions effectively prohibit a platform from using information it does not also provide to sellers. Such prohibitions ignore the fact that it is often good for sellers to lack certain information, since withholding information can prevent abuse by malicious users. For example, a seller may sometimes try to bribe their customers to post positive reviews of their products, or even threaten customers who have posted negative ones. Part of the role of a platform is to combat that kind of behavior by acting as a middleman and forcing both consumer users and business users to comply with the platform’s own mechanisms to control that kind of behavior.
If this seems overly generous to platforms—since, obviously, it gives them a lot of leverage over business users—ask yourself why people use platforms at all. It is not a coincidence that people often prefer Amazon to dealing with third-party merchants and having to navigate those merchants’ sites themselves. The assurance that Amazon provides is extremely valuable for users. Much of it comes from the company’s ability to act as a middleman in this way, lowering the transaction costs between buyers and sellers.
This provision restricts the treatment of defaults. It is, however, relatively restrained when compared to, for example, the DOJ’s lawsuit against Google, which treats as anticompetitive even payment for defaults that can be changed. Still, many of the arguments that apply in that case also apply here: default status for apps can be a way to recoup income foregone elsewhere (e.g., a browser provided for free that makes its money by selling the right to be the default search engine).
This section gets to the heart of why “discrimination” can often be procompetitive: that it facilitates competition between platforms. The kind of self-preferencing that this provision would prohibit can allow firms that have a presence in one market to extend that position into another, increasing competition in the process. Both Apple and Amazon have used their customer bases in smartphones and e-commerce, respectively, to grow their customer bases for video streaming, in competition with Netflix, Google’s YouTube, cable television, and each other. If Apple designed a search engine to compete with Google, it would do exactly the same thing, and we would be better off because of it. Restricting this kind of behavior is, perversely, exactly what you would do if you wanted to shield these incumbents from competition.
As with other provisions, this one would preclude one of the mechanisms by which platforms add value: creating assurance for customers about the products they can expect if they visit the platform. Some of this relates to child protection; some of the most frustrating stories involve children being overcharged when they use an iPhone or Android app, and effectively being ripped off because of poor policing of the app (or insufficiently strict pricing rules by Apple or Google). This may also relate to rules that state that the seller cannot offer a cheaper product elsewhere (Amazon’s “General Pricing Rule” does this, for example). Prohibiting this would simply impose a tax on customers who cannot shop around and would prefer to use a platform that they trust has the lowest prices for the item they want.
Ostensibly a “whistleblower” provision, this section could leave platforms with no recourse, not even removing a user from its platform, in response to spurious complaints intended purely to extract value for the complaining business rather than to promote competition. On its own, this sort of provision may be fairly harmless, but combined with the provisions above, it allows the bill to add up to a rent-seekers’ charter.
In each case above, it’s vital to remember that a reversed burden of proof applies. So, there is a high chance that the law will side against the defendant business, and a large downside for conduct that ends up being found to violate these provisions. That means that platforms will likely err on the side of caution in many cases, avoiding conduct that is ambiguous, and society will probably lose a lot of beneficial behavior in the process.
Put together, the provisions undermine much of what has become an Internet platform’s role: to act as an intermediary, de-risk transactions between customers and merchants who don’t know each other, and tweak the rules of the market to maximize its attractiveness as a place to do business. The “discrimination” that the bill would outlaw is, in practice, behavior that makes it easier for consumers to navigate marketplaces of extreme complexity and uncertainty, in which they often know little or nothing about the firms with whom they are trying to transact business.
Customers do not want platforms to be neutral, open utilities. They can choose platforms that are like that already, such as eBay. They generally tend to prefer ones like Amazon, which are not neutral and which carefully cultivate their service to be as streamlined, managed, and “discriminatory” as possible. Indeed, many of people’s biggest complaints with digital platforms relate to their openness: the fake reviews, counterfeit products, malware, and spam that come with letting more unknown businesses use your service. While these may be unavoidable by-products of running a platform, platforms compete on their ability to ferret them out. Customers are unlikely to thank legislators for regulating Amazon into being another eBay.
The European Commission recently issued a formal Statement of Objections (SO) in which it charges Apple with antitrust breach. In a nutshell, the commission argues that Apple prevents app developers—in this case, Spotify—from using alternative in-app purchase systems (IAPs) other than Apple’s own, or steering them towards other, cheaper payment methods on another site. This, the commission says, results in higher prices for consumers in the audio streaming and ebook/audiobook markets.
More broadly, the commission claims that Apple’s App Store rules may distort competition in markets where Apple competes with rival developers (such as how Apple Music competes with Spotify). This explains why the anticompetitive concerns raised by Spotify regarding the Apple App Store rules have now expanded to Apple’s e-books, audiobooks and mobile payments platforms.
However, underlying market realities cast doubt on the commission’s assessment. Indeed, competition from Google Play and other distribution mediums makes it difficult to state unequivocally that the relevant market should be limited to Apple products. Likewise, the conduct under investigation arguably solves several problems relating to platform dynamics, and consumers’ privacy and security.
Should the relevant market be narrowed to iOS?
An important first question is whether there is a distinct, antitrust-relevant market for “music streaming apps distributed through the Apple App Store,” as the EC posits.
This market definition is surprising, given that it is considerably narrower than the one suggested by even the most enforcement-minded scholars. For instance, Damien Geradin and Dimitrias Katsifis—lawyers for app developers opposed to Apple—define the market as “that of app distribution on iOS devices, a two-sided transaction market on which Apple has a de facto monopoly.” Similarly, a report by the Dutch competition authority declared that the relevant market was limited to the iOS App Store, due to the lack of interoperability with other systems.
The commission’s decisional practice has been anything but constant in this space. In the Apple/Shazam and Apple/Beats cases, it did not place competing mobile operating systems and app stores in separate relevant markets. Conversely, in the Google Android decision, the commission found that the Android OS and Apple’s iOS, including Google Play and Apple’s App Store, did not compete in the same relevant market. The Spotify SO seems to advocate for this definition, narrowing it even further to music streaming services.
However, this narrow definition raises several questions. Market definition is ultimately about identifying the competitive constraints that the firm under investigation faces. As Gregory Werden puts it: “the relevant market in an antitrust case […] identifies the competitive process alleged to be harmed.”
In that regard, there is clearly somecompetition between Apple’s App Store, Google Play and other app stores (whether this is sufficient to place them in the same relevant market is an empirical question).
This view is supported by the vast number of online posts comparing Android and Apple and advising consumers on their purchasing options. Moreover, the growth of high-end Android devices that compete more directly with the iPhone has reinforced competition between the two firms. Likewise, Apple has moved down the value chain; the iPhone SE, priced at $399, competes with other medium-range Android devices.
App developers have also suggested they view Apple and Android as alternatives. They take into account technical differences to decide between the two, meaning that these two platforms compete with each other for developers.
All of this suggests that the App Store may be part of a wider market for the distribution of apps and services, where Google Play and other app stores are included—though this is ultimately an empirical question (i.e., it depends on the degree of competition between both platforms)
If the market were defined this way, Apple would not even be close to holding a dominant position—a prerequisite for European competition intervention. Indeed, Apple only sold 27.43% of smartphones in March 2021. Similarly, only 30.41% of smartphones in use run iOS, as of March 2021. This is well below the lowest market share in a European abuse of dominance—39.7% in the British Airways decision.
The sense that Apple and Android compete for users and developers is reinforced by recent price movements. Apple dropped its App Store commission fees from 30% to 15% in November 2020 and Google followed suit in March 2021. This conduct is consistent with at least some degree of competition between the platforms. It is worth noting that other firms, notably Microsoft, have so far declined to follow suit (except for gaming apps).
Barring further evidence, neither Apple’s market share nor its behavior appear consistent with the commission’s narrow market definition.
Are Apple’s IAP system rules and anti-steering provisions abusive?
The commission’s case rests on the idea that Apple leverages its IAP system to raise the costs of rival app developers:
“Apple’s rules distort competition in the market for music streaming services by raising the costs of competing music streaming app developers. This in turn leads to higher prices for consumers for their in-app music subscriptions on iOS devices. In addition, Apple becomes the intermediary for all IAP transactions and takes over the billing relationship, as well as related communications for competitors.”
However, expropriating rents from these developers is not nearly as attractive as it might seem. The report of the Dutch competition notes that “attracting and maintaining third-party developers that increase the value of the ecosystem” is essential for Apple. Indeed, users join a specific platform because it provides them with a wide number of applications they can use on their devices. And the opposite applies to developers. Hence, the loss of users on either or both sides reduces the value provided by the Apple App Store. Following this logic, it would make no sense for Apple to systematically expropriate developers. This might partly explain why Apple’s fees are only 30%-15%, since in principle they could be much higher.
It is also worth noting that Apple’s curated App Store and IAP have several redeeming virtues. Apple offers “a highly curated App Store where every app is reviewed by experts and an editorial team helps users discover new apps every day.”While this has arguably turned the App Store into a relatively closed platform, it provides users with the assurance that the apps they find there will meet a standard of security and trustworthiness.
As noted by the Dutch competition authority, “one of the reasons why the App Store is highly valued is because of the strict review process. Complaints about malware spread via an app downloaded in the App Store are rare.” Apple provides users with a special degree of privacy and security. Indeed, Apple stopped more than $1.5 billion in potentially fraudulent transactions in 2020, proving that the security protocols are not only necessary, but also effective. In this sense, the App Store Review Guidelines are considered the first line of defense against fraud and privacy breaches.
It is also worth noting that Apple only charges a nominal fee for iOS developer kits and no fees for in-app advertising. The IAP is thus essential for Apple to monetize the platform and to cover the costs associated with running the platform (note that Apple does make money on device sales, but that revenue is likely constrained by competition between itself and Android). When someone downloads Spotify from the App Store, Apple does not get paid, but Spotify does get a new client. Thus, while independent developers bear the costs of the app fees, Apple bears the costs and risks of running the platform itself.
For instance, Apple’s App Store Team is divided into smaller teams: the Editorial Design team, the Business Operations team, and the Engineering R&D team. These teams each have employees, budgets, and resources for which Apple needs to pay. If the revenues stopped, one can assume that Apple would have less incentive to sustain all these teams that preserve the App Store’s quality, security, and privacy parameters.
Indeed, the IAP system itself provides value to the Apple App Store. Instead of charging all of the apps it provides, it takes a share of the income from some of them. As a result, large developers that own in-app sales contribute to the maintenance of the platform, while smaller ones are still offered to consumers without having to contribute economically. This boosts Apple’s App Store diversity and supply of digital goods and services.
If Apple was forced to adopt another system, it could start charging higher prices for access to its interface and tools, leading to potential discrimination against the smaller developers. Or, Apple could increase the prices of handset devices, thus incurring higher costs for consumers who do not purchase digital goods. Therefore, there are no apparent alternatives to the current IAP that satisfy the App Store’s goals in the same way.
As the Apple Review Guidelines emphasize, “for everything else there is always the open Internet.” Netflix and Spotify have ditched the subscription options from their app, and they are still among the top downloaded apps in iOS. The IAP system is therefore not compulsory to be successful in Apple’s ecosystem, and developers are free to drop Apple Review Guidelines.
The commission’s case against Apple is based on shaky foundations. Not only is the market definition extremely narrow—ignoring competition from Android, among others—but the behavior challenged by the commission has a clear efficiency-enhancing rationale. Of course, both of these critiques ultimately boil down to empirical questions that the commission will have overcome before it reaches a final decision. In the meantime, the jury is out.
Politico has released a cache of confidential Federal Trade Commission (FTC) documents in connection with a series of articles on the commission’s antitrust probe into Google Search a decade ago. The headline of the first piece in the series argues the FTC “fumbled the future” by failing to follow through on staff recommendations to pursue antitrust intervention against the company.
But while the leaked documents shed interesting light on the inner workings of the FTC, they do very little to substantiate the case that the FTC dropped the ball when the commissioners voted unanimously not to bring an action against Google.
Drawn primarily from memos by the FTC’s lawyers, the Politico report purports to uncover key revelations that undermine the FTC’s decision not to sue Google. None of the revelations, however, provide evidence that Google’s behavior actually harmed consumers.
The report’s overriding claim—and the one most consistently forwarded by antitrust activists on Twitter—is that FTC commissioners wrongly sided with the agency’s economists (who cautioned against intervention) rather than its lawyers (who tenuously recommended very limited intervention).
Indeed, the overarching narrative is that the lawyers knew what was coming and the economists took wildly inaccurate positions that turned out to be completely off the mark:
But the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed:
— They saw only “limited potential for growth” in ads that track users across the web — now the backbone of Google parent company Alphabet’s $182.5 billion in annual revenue.
— They expected consumers to continue relying mainly on computers to search for information. Today, about 62 percent of those queries take place on mobile phones and tablets, nearly all of which use Google’s search engine as the default.
— They thought rivals like Microsoft, Mozilla or Amazon would offer viable competition to Google in the market for the software that runs smartphones. Instead, nearly all U.S. smartphones run on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.
— They underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic.
The report thus asserts that:
The agency ultimately voted against taking action, saying changes Google made to its search algorithm gave consumers better results and therefore didn’t unfairly harm competitors.
That conclusion underplays what the FTC’s staff found during the probe. In 312 pages of documents, the vast majority never publicly released, staffers outlined evidence that Google had taken numerous steps to ensure it would continue to dominate the market — including emerging arenas such as mobile search and targeted advertising. [EMPHASIS ADDED]
What really emerges from the leaked memos, however, is analysis by both the FTC’s lawyers and economists infused with a healthy dose of humility. There were strong political incentives to bring a case. As one of us noted upon the FTC’s closing of the investigation: “It’s hard to imagine an agency under more pressure, from more quarters (including the Hill), to bring a case around search.” Yet FTC staff and commissioners resisted that pressure, because prediction is hard.
Ironically, the very prediction errors that the agency’s staff cautioned against are now being held against them. Yet the claims that these errors (especially the economists’) systematically cut in one direction (i.e., against enforcement) and that all of their predictions were wrong are both wide of the mark.
Decisions Under Uncertainty
In seeking to make an example out of the FTC economists’ inaccurate predictions, critics ignore that antitrust investigations in dynamic markets always involve a tremendous amount of uncertainty; false predictions are the norm. Accordingly, the key challenge for policymakers is not so much to predict correctly, but to minimize the impact of incorrect predictions.
Seen in this light, the FTC economists’ memo is far from the laissez-faire manifesto that critics make it out to be. Instead, it shows agency officials wrestling with uncertain market outcomes, and choosing a course of action under the assumption the predictions they make might indeed be wrong.
Consider the following passage from FTC economist Ken Heyer’s memo:
The great American philosopher Yogi Berra once famously remarked “Predicting is difficult, especially about the future.” How right he was. And yet predicting, and making decisions based on those predictions, is what we are charged with doing. Ignoring the potential problem is not an option. So I will be reasonably clear about my own tentative conclusions and recommendation, recognizing that reasonable people, perhaps applying a somewhat different standard, may disagree. My recommendation derives from my read of the available evidence, combined with the standard I personally find appropriate to apply to Commission intervention. [EMPHASIS ADDED]
In other words, contrary to what many critics have claimed, it simply is not the case that the FTC’s economists based their recommendations on bullish predictions about the future that ultimately failed to transpire. Instead, they merely recognized that, in a dynamic and unpredictable environment, antitrust intervention requires both a clear-cut theory of anticompetitive harm and a reasonable probability that remedies can improve consumer welfare. According to the economists, those conditions were absent with respect to Google Search.
Perhaps more importantly, it is worth asking why the economists’ erroneous predictions matter at all. Do critics believe that developments the economists missed warrant a different normative stance today?
In that respect, it is worth noting that the economists’ skepticism appeared to have rested first and foremost on the speculative nature of the harms alleged and the difficulty associated with designing appropriate remedies. And yet, if anything, these two concerns appear even more salient today.
Indeed, the remedies imposed against Google in the EU have not delivered the outcomes that enforcers expected (here and here). This could either be because the remedies were insufficient or because Google’s market position was not due to anticompetitive conduct. Similarly, there is still no convincing economic theory or empirical research to support the notion that exclusive pre-installation and self-preferencing by incumbents harm consumers, and a great deal of reason to think they benefit them (see, e.g., our discussions of the issue here and here).
Against this backdrop, criticism of the FTC economists appears to be driven more by a prior assumption that intervention is necessary—and that it was and is disingenuous to think otherwise—than evidence that erroneous predictions materially affected the outcome of the proceedings.
To take one example, the fact that ad tracking grew faster than the FTC economists believed it would is no less consistent with vigorous competition—and Google providing a superior product—than with anticompetitive conduct on Google’s part. The same applies to the growth of mobile operating systems. Ditto the fact that no rival has managed to dislodge Google in its most important markets.
In short, not only were the economist memos informed by the very prediction difficulties that critics are now pointing to, but critics have not shown that any of the staff’s (inevitably) faulty predictions warranted a different normative outcome.
Putting Erroneous Predictions in Context
So what were these faulty predictions, and how important were they? Politico asserts that “the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed,” tying this to the FTC’s failure to intervene against Google over “tactics that European regulators and the U.S. Justice Department would later label antitrust violations.” The clear message is that the current actions are presumptively valid, and that the FTC’s economists thwarted earlier intervention based on faulty analysis.
But it is far from clear that these faulty predictions would have justified taking a tougher stance against Google. One key question for antitrust authorities is whether they can be reasonably certain that more efficient competitors will be unable to dislodge an incumbent. This assessment is necessarily forward-looking. Framed this way, greater market uncertainty (for instance, because policymakers are dealing with dynamic markets) usually cuts against antitrust intervention.
This does not entirely absolve the FTC economists who made the faulty predictions. But it does suggest the right question is not whether the economists made mistakes, but whether virtually everyone did so. The latter would be evidence of uncertainty, and thus weigh against antitrust intervention.
In that respect, it is worth noting that the staff who recommended that the FTC intervene also misjudged the future of digital markets.For example, while Politico surmises that the FTC “underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic,” there is a case to be made that the FTC overestimated this power. If anything, Google’s continued growth has opened new niches in the online advertising space.
Politico asserts not only that the economists’ market share and market power calculations were wrong, but that the lawyers knew better:
The economists, relying on data from the market analytics firm Comscore, found that Google had only limited impact. They estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of traffic to those types of sites generally came from the search engine.
FTC attorneys, though, used numbers provided by Yelp and found that 92 percent of users visited local review sites from Google. For shopping sites like eBay and TheFind, the referral rate from Google was between 67 and 73 percent.
This compares apples and oranges, or maybe oranges and grapefruit. The economists’ data, from Comscore, applied to vertical search overall. They explicitly noted that shares for particular sites could be much higher or lower: for comparison shopping, for example, “ranging from 56% to less than 10%.” This, of course, highlights a problem with the data provided by Yelp, et al.: it concerns only the websites of companies complaining about Google, not the overall flow of traffic for vertical search.
But the more important point is that none of the data discussed in the memos represents the overall flow of traffic for vertical search. Take Yelp, for example. According to the lawyers’ memo, 92 percent of Yelp searches were referred from Google. Only, that’s not true. We know it’s not true because, as Yelp CEO Jerry Stoppelman pointed out around this time in Yelp’s 2012 Q2 earnings call:
When you consider that 40% of our searches come from mobile apps, there is quite a bit of un-monetized mobile traffic that we expect to unlock in the near future.
The numbers being analyzed by the FTC staff were apparently limited to referrals to Yelp’s website from browsers. But is there any reason to think that is the relevant market, or the relevant measure of customer access? Certainly there is nothing in the staff memos to suggest they considered the full scope of the market very carefully here. Indeed, the footnote in the lawyers’ memo presenting the traffic data is offered in support of this claim:
Vertical websites, such as comparison shopping and local websites, are heavily dependent on Google’s web search results to reach users. Thus, Google is in the unique position of being able to “make or break any web-based business.”
It’s plausible that vertical search traffic is “heavily dependent” on Google Search, but the numbers offered in support of that simply ignore the (then) 40 percent of traffic that Yelp acquired through its own mobile app, with no Google involvement at all. In any case, it is also notable that, while there are still somewhat fewer app users than web users (although the number has consistently increased), Yelp’s app users view significantly more pages than its website users do — 10 times as many in 2015, for example.
Also noteworthy is that, for whatever speculative harm Google might be able to visit on the company, at the time of the FTC’s analysis Yelp’s local ad revenue was consistently increasing — by 89% in Q3 2012. And that was without any ad revenue coming from its app (display ads arrived on Yelp’s mobile app in Q1 2013, a few months after the staff memos were written and just after the FTC closed its Google Search investigation).
In short, the search-engine industry is extremely dynamic and unpredictable. Contrary to what many have surmised from the FTC staff memo leaks, this cuts against antitrust intervention, not in favor of it.
The FTC Lawyers’ Weak Case for Prosecuting Google
At the same time, although not discussed by Politico, the lawyers’ memo also contains errors, suggesting that arguments for intervention were also (inevitably) subject to erroneous prediction.
Among other things, the FTC attorneys’ memo argued the large upfront investments were required to develop cutting-edge algorithms, and that these effectively shielded Google from competition. The memo cites the following as a barrier to entry:
A search engine requires algorithmic technology that enables it to search the Internet, retrieve and organize information, index billions of regularly changing web pages, and return relevant results instantaneously that satisfy the consumer’s inquiry. Developing such algorithms requires highly specialized personnel with high levels of training and knowledge in engineering, economics, mathematics, sciences, and statistical analysis.
If there are barriers to entry in the search-engine industry, algorithms do not seem to be the source. While their market shares may be smaller than Google’s, rival search engines like DuckDuckGo and Bing have been able to enter and gain traction; it is difficult to say that algorithmic technology has proven a barrier to entry. It may be hard to do well, but it certainly has not proved an impediment to new firms entering and developing workable and successful products. Indeed, some extremely successful companies have entered into similar advertising markets on the backs of complex algorithms, notably Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. All of these compete with Google for advertising dollars.
The FTC’s legal staff also failed to see that Google would face serious competition in the rapidly growing voice assistant market. In other words, even its search-engine “moat” is far less impregnable than it might at first appear.
Moreover, as Ben Thompson argues in his Stratechery newsletter:
The Staff memo is completely wrong too, at least in terms of the potential for their proposed remedies to lead to any real change in today’s market. This gets back to why the fundamental premise of the Politico article, along with much of the antitrust chatter in Washington, misses the point: Google is dominant because consumers like it.
This difficulty was deftly highlighted by Heyer’s memo:
If the perceived problems here can be solved only through a draconian remedy of this sort, or perhaps through a remedy that eliminates Google’s legitimately obtained market power (and thus its ability to “do evil”), I believe the remedy would be disproportionate to the violation and that its costs would likely exceed its benefits. Conversely, if a remedy well short of this seems likely to prove ineffective, a remedy would be undesirable for that reason. In brief, I do not see a feasible remedy for the vertical conduct that would be both appropriate and effective, and which would not also be very costly to implement and to police. [EMPHASIS ADDED]
Of course, we now know that this turned out to be a huge issue with the EU’s competition cases against Google. The remedies in both the EU’s Google Shopping and Android decisions were severely criticized by rival firms and consumer-defense organizations (here and here), but were ultimately upheld, in part because even the European Commission likely saw more forceful alternatives as disproportionate.
And in the few places where the legal staff concluded that Google’s conduct may have caused harm, there is good reason to think that their analysis was flawed.
Google’s ‘revenue-sharing’ agreements
It should be noted that neither the lawyers nor the economists at the FTC were particularly bullish on bringing suit against Google. In most areas of the investigation, neither recommended that the commission pursue a case. But one of the most interesting revelations from the recent leaks is that FTC lawyers did advise the commission’s leadership to sue Google over revenue-sharing agreements that called for it to pay Apple and other carriers and manufacturers to pre-install its search bar on mobile devices:
The lawyers’ stance is surprising, and, despite actions subsequently brought by the EU and DOJ on similar claims, a difficult one to countenance.
To a first approximation, this behavior is precisely what antitrust law seeks to promote: we want companies to compete aggressively to attract consumers. This conclusion is in no way altered when competition is “for the market” (in this case, firms bidding for exclusive placement of their search engines) rather than “in the market” (i.e., equally placed search engines competing for eyeballs).
Competition for exclusive placement has several important benefits. For a start, revenue-sharing agreements effectively subsidize consumers’ mobile device purchases. As Brian Albrecht aptly puts it:
This payment from Google means that Apple can lower its price to better compete for consumers. This is standard; some of the payment from Google to Apple will be passed through to consumers in the form of lower prices.
This finding is not new. For instance, Ronald Coase famously argued that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was wrong to ban the broadcasting industry’s equivalent of revenue-sharing agreements, so-called payola:
[I]f the playing of a record by a radio station increases the sales of that record, it is both natural and desirable that there should be a charge for this. If this is not done by the station and payola is not allowed, it is inevitable that more resources will be employed in the production and distribution of records, without any gain to consumers, with the result that the real income of the community will tend to decline. In addition, the prohibition of payola may result in worse record programs, will tend to lessen competition, and will involve additional expenditures for regulation. The gain which the ban is thought to bring is to make the purchasing decisions of record buyers more efficient by eliminating “deception.” It seems improbable to me that this problematical gain will offset the undoubted losses which flow from the ban on Payola.
Applying this logic to Google Search, it is clear that a ban on revenue-sharing agreements would merely lead both Google and its competitors to attract consumers via alternative means. For Google, this might involve “complete” vertical integration into the mobile phone market, rather than the open-licensing model that underpins the Android ecosystem. Valuable specialization may be lost in the process.
Moreover, from Apple’s standpoint, Google’s revenue-sharing agreements are profitable only to the extent that consumers actually like Google’s products. If it turns out they don’t, Google’s payments to Apple may be outweighed by lower iPhone sales. It is thus unlikely that these agreements significantly undermined users’ experience. To the contrary, Apple’s testimony before the European Commission suggests that “exclusive” placement of Google’s search engine was mostly driven by consumer preferences (as the FTC economists’ memo points out):
Apple would not offer simultaneous installation of competing search or mapping applications. Apple’s focus is offering its customers the best products out of the box while allowing them to make choices after purchase. In many countries, Google offers the best product or service … Apple believes that offering additional search boxes on its web browsing software would confuse users and detract from Safari’s aesthetic. Too many choices lead to consumer confusion and greatly affect the ‘out of the box’ experience of Apple products.
Similarly, Kevin Murphy and Benjamin Klein have shown that exclusive contracts intensify competition for distribution. In other words, absent theories of platform envelopment that are arguably inapplicable here, competition for exclusive placement would lead competing search engines to up their bids, ultimately lowering the price of mobile devices for consumers.
Indeed, this revenue-sharing model was likely essential to spur the development of Android in the first place. Without this prominent placement of Google Search on Android devices (notably thanks to revenue-sharing agreements with original equipment manufacturers), Google would likely have been unable to monetize the investment it made in the open source—and thus freely distributed—Android operating system.
In short, Politico and the FTC legal staff do little to show that Google’s revenue-sharing payments excluded rivals that were, in fact, as efficient. In other words, Bing and Yahoo’s failure to gain traction may simply be the result of inferior products and cost structures. Critics thus fail to show that Google’s behavior harmed consumers, which is the touchstone of antitrust enforcement.
Another finding critics claim as important is that FTC leadership declined to bring suit against Google for preferencing its own vertical search services (this information had already been partially leaked by the Wall Street Journal in 2015). Politico’s framing implies this was a mistake:
When Google adopted one algorithm change in 2011, rival sites saw significant drops in traffic. Amazon told the FTC that it saw a 35 percent drop in traffic from the comparison-shopping sites that used to send it customers
The focus on this claim is somewhat surprising. Even the leaked FTC legal staff memo found this theory of harm had little chance of standing up in court:
Staff has investigated whether Google has unlawfully preferenced its own content over that of rivals, while simultaneously demoting rival websites….
…Although it is a close call, we do not recommend that the Commission proceed on this cause of action because the case law is not favorable to our theory, which is premised on anticompetitive product design, and in any event, Google’s efficiency justifications are strong. Most importantly, Google can legitimately claim that at least part of the conduct at issue improves its product and benefits users. [EMPHASIS ADDED]
More importantly, as one of us has argued elsewhere, the underlying problem lies not with Google, but with a standard asset-specificity trap:
A content provider that makes itself dependent upon another company for distribution (or vice versa, of course) takes a significant risk. Although it may benefit from greater access to users, it places itself at the mercy of the other — or at least faces great difficulty (and great cost) adapting to unanticipated, crucial changes in distribution over which it has no control….
…It was entirely predictable, and should have been expected, that Google’s algorithm would evolve. It was also entirely predictable that it would evolve in ways that could diminish or even tank Foundem’s traffic. As one online marketing/SEO expert puts it: On average, Google makes about 500 algorithm changes per year. 500!….
…In the absence of an explicit agreement, should Google be required to make decisions that protect a dependent company’s “asset-specific” investments, thus encouraging others to take the same, excessive risk?
Even if consumers happily visited rival websites when they were higher-ranked and traffic subsequently plummeted when Google updated its algorithm, that drop in traffic does not amount to evidence of misconduct. To hold otherwise would be to grant these rivals a virtual entitlement to the state of affairs that exists at any given point in time.
Indeed, there is good reason to believe Google’s decision to favor its own content over that of other sites is procompetitive. Beyond determining and ensuring relevance, Google surely has the prerogative to compete vigorously and decide how to design its products to keep up with a changing market. In this case, that means designing, developing, and offering its own content in ways that partially displace the original “ten blue links” design of its search results page and instead offer its own answers to users’ queries.
Competitor Harm Is Not an Indicator of the Need for Intervention
Some of the other information revealed by the leak is even more tangential, such as that the FTC ignored complaints from Google’s rivals:
Amazon said it was so concerned about the prospect of Google monopolizing the search advertising business that it willingly sacrificed revenue by making ad deals aimed at keeping Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo’s search engine afloat.
But complaints from rivals are at least as likely to stem from vigorous competition as from anticompetitive exclusion. This goes to a core principle of antitrust enforcement: antitrust law seeks to protect competition and consumer welfare, not rivals. Competition will always lead to winners and losers. Antitrust law protects this process and (at least theoretically) ensures that rivals cannot manipulate enforcers to safeguard their economic rents.
This explains why Frank Easterbrook—in his seminal work on “The Limits of Antitrust”—argued that enforcers should be highly suspicious of complaints lodged by rivals:
Antitrust litigation is attractive as a method of raising rivals’ costs because of the asymmetrical structure of incentives….
…One line worth drawing is between suits by rivals and suits by consumers. Business rivals have an interest in higher prices, while consumers seek lower prices. Business rivals seek to raise the costs of production, while consumers have the opposite interest….
…They [antitrust enforcers] therefore should treat suits by horizontal competitors with the utmost suspicion. They should dismiss outright some categories of litigation between rivals and subject all such suits to additional scrutiny.
Google’s competitors spent millions pressuring the FTC to bring a case against the company. But why should it be a failing for the FTC to resist such pressure? Indeed, as then-commissioner Tom Rosch admonished in an interview following the closing of the case:
They [Google’s competitors] can darn well bring [a case] as a private antitrust action if they think their ox is being gored instead of free-riding on the government to achieve the same result.
Not that they would likely win such a case. Google’s introduction of specialized shopping results (via the Google Shopping box) likely enabled several retailers to bypass the Amazon platform, thus increasing competition in the retail industry. Although this may have temporarily reduced Amazon’s traffic and revenue (Amazon’s sales have grown dramatically since then), it is exactly the outcome that antitrust laws are designed to protect.
When all is said and done, Politico’s revelations provide a rarely glimpsed look into the complex dynamics within the FTC, which many wrongly imagine to be a monolithic agency. Put simply, the FTC’s commissioners, lawyers, and economists often disagree vehemently about the appropriate course of conduct. This is a good thing. As in many other walks of life, having a market for ideas is a sure way to foster sound decision making.
But in the final analysis, what the revelations do not show is that the FTC’s market for ideas failed consumers a decade ago when it declined to bring an antitrust suit against Google. They thus do little to cement the case for antitrust intervention—whether a decade ago, or today.
Critics of big tech companies like Google and Amazon are increasingly focused on the supposed evils of “self-preferencing.” This refers to when digital platforms like Amazon Marketplace or Google Search, which connect competing services with potential customers or users, also offer (and sometimes prioritize) their own in-house products and services.
The objection, raised by several members and witnesses during a Feb. 25 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, is that it is unfair to third parties that use those sites to allow the site’s owner special competitive advantages. Is it fair, for example, for Amazon to use the data it gathers from its service to design new products if third-party merchants can’t access the same data? This seemingly intuitive complaint was the basis for the European Commission’s landmark case against Google.
But we cannot assume that something is bad for competition just because it is bad for certain competitors. A lot of unambiguously procompetitive behavior, like cutting prices, also tends to make life difficult for competitors. The same is true when a digital platform provides a service that is better than alternatives provided by the site’s third-party sellers.
It’s probably true that Amazon’s access to customer search and purchase data can help it spot products it can undercut with its own versions, driving down prices. But that’s not unusual; most retailers do this, many to a much greater extent than Amazon. For example, you can buy AmazonBasics batteries for less than half the price of branded alternatives, and they’re pretty good.
There’s no doubt this is unpleasant for merchants that have to compete with these offerings. But it is also no different from having to compete with more efficient rivals who have lower costs or better insight into consumer demand. Copying products and seeking ways to offer them with better features or at a lower price, which critics of self-preferencing highlight as a particular concern, has always been a fundamental part of market competition—indeed, it is the primary way competition occurs in most markets.
Store-branded versions of iPhone cables and Nespresso pods are certainly inconvenient for those companies, but they offer consumers cheaper alternatives. Where such copying may be problematic (say, by deterring investments in product innovations), the law awards and enforces patents and copyrights to reward novel discoveries and creative works, and trademarks to protect brand identity. But in the absence of those cases where a company has intellectual property, this is simply how competition works.
The fundamental question is “what benefits consumers?” Services like Yelp object that they cannot compete with Google when Google embeds its Google Maps box in Google Search results, while Yelp cannot do the same. But for users, the Maps box adds valuable information to the results page, making it easier to get what they want. Google is not making Yelp worse by making its own product better. Should it have to refrain from offering services that benefit its users because doing so might make competing products comparatively less attractive?
Self-preferencing also enables platforms to promote their offerings in other markets, which is often how large tech companies compete with each other. Amazon has a photo-hosting app that competes with Google Photos and Apple’s iCloud. It recently emailed its customers to promote it. That is undoubtedly self-preferencing, since other services cannot market themselves to Amazon’s customers like this, but if it makes customers aware of an alternative they might not have otherwise considered, that is good for competition.
This kind of behavior also allows companies to invest in offering services inexpensively, or for free, that they intend to monetize by preferencing their other, more profitable products. For example, Google invests in Android’s operating system and gives much of it away for free precisely because it can encourage Android customers to use the profitable Google Search service. Despite claims to the contrary, it is difficult to see this sort of cross-subsidy as harmful to consumers.
All platforms are open or closed to varying degrees. Retail “platforms,” for example, exist on a spectrum on which Craigslist is more open and neutral than eBay, which is more so than Amazon, which is itself relatively more so than, say, Walmart.com. Each position on this spectrum offers its own benefits and trade-offs for consumers. Indeed, some customers’ biggest complaint against Amazon is that it is too open, filled with third parties who leave fake reviews, offer counterfeit products, or have shoddy returns policies. Part of the role of the site is to try to correct those problems by making better rules, excluding certain sellers, or just by offering similar options directly.
Regulators and legislators often act as if the more open and neutral, the better, but customers have repeatedly shown that they often prefer less open, less neutral options. And critics of self-preferencing frequently find themselves arguing against behavior that improves consumer outcomes, because it hurts competitors. But that is the nature of competition: what’s good for consumers is frequently bad for competitors. If we have to choose, it’s consumers who should always come first.
[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the antitrust lawsuits against Google. The entire series of posts is available here.]
As one of the few economic theorists in this symposium, I believe my comparative advantage is in that: economic theory. In this post, I want to remind people of the basic economic theories that we have at our disposal, “off the shelf,” to make sense of the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Google. I do not mean this to be a proclamation of “what economics has to say about X,” but merely just to help us frame the issue.
In particular, I’m going to focus on the economic concerns of Google paying phone manufacturers (Apple, in particular) to be the default search engine installed on phones. While there is not a large literature on the economic effects of default contracts, there is a large literature on something that I will argue is similar: trade promotions, such as slotting contracts, where a manufacturer pays a retailer for shelf space. Despite all the bells and whistles of the Google case, I will argue that, from an economic point of view, the contracts that Google signed are just trade promotions. No more, no less. And trade promotions are well-established as part of a competitive process that ultimately helps consumers.
However, it is theoretically possible that such trade promotions hurt customers, so it is theoretically possible that Google’s contracts hurt consumers. Ultimately, the theoretical possibility of anticompetitive behavior that harms consumers does not seem plausible to me in this case.
There are two reasons that Google paying Apple to be its default search engine is similar to a trade promotion. First, the deal brings awareness to the product, which nudges certain consumers/users to choose the product when they would not otherwise do so. Second, the deal does not prevent consumers from choosing the other product.
In the case of retail trade promotions, a promotional space given to Coca-Cola makes it marginally easier for consumers to pick Coke, and therefore some consumers will switch from Pepsi to Coke. But it does not reduce any consumer’s choice. The store will still have both items.
This is the same for a default search engine. The marginal searchers, who do not have a strong preference for either search engine, will stick with the default. But anyone can still install a new search engine, install a new browser, etc. It takes a few clicks, just as it takes a few steps to walk down the aisle to get the Pepsi; it is still an available choice.
If we were to stop the analysis there, we could conclude that consumers are worse off (if just a tiny bit). Some customers will have to change the default app. We also need to remember that this contract is part of a more general competitive process. The retail stores are also competing with one another, as are smartphone manufacturers.
Despite popular claims to the contrary, Apple cannot charge anything it wants for its phone. It is competing with Samsung, etc. Therefore, Apple has to pass through some of Google’s payments to customers in order to compete with Samsung. Prices are lower because of this payment. As I phrased it elsewhere, Google is effectively subsidizing the iPhone. This cross-subsidization is a part of the competitive process that ultimately benefits consumers through lower prices.
These contracts lower consumer prices, even if we assume that Apple has market power. Those who recall your Econ 101 know that a monopolist chooses a quantity where the marginal revenue equals marginal cost. With a payment from Google, the marginal cost of producing a phone is lower, therefore Apple will increase the quantity and lower price. This is shown below:
One of the surprising things about markets is that buyers’ and sellers’ incentives can be aligned, even though it seems like they must be adversarial. Companies can indirectly bargain for their consumers. Commenting on Standard Fashion Co. v. Magrane-Houston Co., where a retail store contracted to only carry Standard’s products, Robert Bork (1978, pp. 306–7) summarized this idea as follows:
The store’s decision, made entirely in its own interest, necessarily reflects the balance of competing considerations that determine consumer welfare. Put the matter another way. If no manufacturer used exclusive dealing contracts, and if a local retail monopolist decided unilaterally to carry only Standard’s patterns because the loss in product variety was more than made up in the cost saving, we would recognize that decision was in the consumer interest. We do not want a variety that costs more than it is worth … If Standard finds it worthwhile to purchase exclusivity … the reason is not the barring of entry, but some more sensible goal, such as obtaining the special selling effort of the outlet.
How trade promotions could harm customers
Since Bork’s writing, many theoretical papers have shown exceptions to Bork’s logic. There are times that the retailers’ incentives are not aligned with the customers. And we need to take those possibilities seriously.
The most common way to show the harm of these deals (or more commonly exclusivity deals) is to assume:
There are large, fixed costs so that a firm must acquire a sufficient number of customers in order to enter the market; and
An incumbent can lock in enough customers to prevent the entrant from reaching an efficient size.
Consumers can be locked-in because there is some fixed cost of changing suppliers or because of some coordination problems. If that’s true, customers can be made worse off, on net, because the Google contracts reduce consumer choice.
To understand the logic, let’s simplify the model to just search engines and searchers. Suppose there are two search engines (Google and Bing) and 10 searchers. However, to operate profitably, each search engine needs at least three searchers. If Google can entice eight searchers to use its product, Bing cannot operate profitably, even if Bing provides a better product. This holds even if everyone knows Bing would be a better product. The consumers are stuck in a coordination failure.
We should be skeptical of coordination failure models of inefficient outcomes. The problem with any story of coordination failures is that it is highly sensitive to the exact timing of the model. If Bing can preempt Google and offer customers an even better deal (the new entrant is better by assumption), then the coordination failure does not occur.
To argue that Bing could not execute a similar contract, the most common appeal is that the new entrant does not have the capital to pay upfront for these contracts, since it will only make money from its higher-quality search engine down the road. That makes sense until you remember that we are talking about Microsoft. I’m skeptical that capital is the real constraint. It seems much more likely that Google just has a more popular search engine.
The other problem with coordination failure arguments is that they are almost non-falsifiable. There is no way to tell, in the model, whether Google is used because of a coordination failure or whether it is used because it is a better product. If Google is a better product, then the outcome is efficient. The two outcomes are “observationally equivalent.” Compare this to the standard theory of monopoly, where we can (in principle) establish an inefficiency if the price is greater than marginal cost. While it is difficult to measure marginal cost, it can be done.
There is a general economic idea in these models that we need to pay attention to. If Google takes an action that prevents Bing from reaching efficient size, that may be an externality, sometimes called a network effect, and so that action may hurt consumer welfare.
I’m not sure how seriously to take these network effects. If more searchers allow Bing to make a better product, then literally any action (competitive or not) by Google is an externality. Making a better product that takes away consumers from Bing lowers Bing’s quality. That is, strictly speaking, an externality. Surely, that is not worthy of antitrust scrutiny simply because we find an externality.
And Bing also “takes away” searchers from Google, thus lowering Google’s possible quality. With network effects, bigger is better and it may be efficient to have only one firm. Surely, that’s not an argument we want to put forward as a serious antitrust analysis.
Put more generally, it is not enough to scream “NETWORK EFFECT!” and then have the antitrust authority come in, lawsuits-a-blazing. Well, it shouldn’t be enough.
For me to take the network effect argument seriously from an economic point of view, compared to a legal perspective, I would need to see a real restriction on consumer choice, not just an externality. One needs to argue that:
No competitor can cover their fixed costs to make a reasonable search engine; and
These contracts are what prevent the competing search engines from reaching size.
That’s the challenge I would like to put forward to supporters of the lawsuit. I’m skeptical.
[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the antitrust lawsuits against Google. The entire series of posts is available here.]
It is my endeavor to scrutinize the questionable assessment articulated against default settings in the U.S. Justice Department’s lawsuit against Google. Default, I will argue, is no antitrust fault. Default in the Google case drastically differs from default referred to in the Microsoft case. In Part I, I argue the comparison is odious. Furthermore, in Part II, it will be argued that the implicit prohibition of default settings echoes, as per listings, the explicit prohibition of self-preferencing in search results. Both aspects – default’s implicit prohibition and self-preferencing’s explicit prohibition – are the two legs of a novel and integrated theory of sanctioning corporate favoritism. The coming to the fore of such theory goes against the very essence of the capitalist grain. In Part III, I note the attempt to instill some corporate selflessness is at odds with competition on the merits and the spirit of fundamental economic freedoms.
When Default is No-Fault
The recent complaint filed by the DOJ and 11 state attorneys general claims that Google has abused its dominant position on the search-engine market through several ways, notably making Google the default search engine both in Google Chrome web browser for Android OS and in Apple’s Safari web browser for iOS. Undoubtedly, default setting confers a noticeable advantage for users’ attraction – it is sought and enforced on purpose. Nevertheless, the default setting confers an unassailable position unless the product remains competitive. Furthermore, the default setting can hardly be proven to be anticompetitive in the Google case. Indeed, the DOJ puts considerable effort in the complaint to make the Google case resemble the 20-year-old Microsoft case. Former Federal Trade Commission Chairman William Kovacic commented: “I suppose the Justice Department is telling the court, ‘You do not have to be scared of this case. You’ve done it before […] This is Microsoft part 2.”
However, irrespective of the merits of the Microsoft case two decades ago, the Google default setting case bears minimal resemblance to the Microsoft default setting of Internet Explorer. First, as opposed to the Microsoft case, where default by Microsoft meant pre-installed software (i.e., Internet Explorer), the Google case does not relate to the pre-installment of the Google search engine (since it is just a webpage) but a simple setting. This technical difference is significant: although “sticky”, the default setting, can be outwitted with just one click. It is dissimilar to the default setting, which can only be circumvented by uninstalling software, searching and installing a new one. Moreover, with no certainty that consumers will effectively use Google search engine, default settings come with advertising revenue sharing agreements between Google and device manufacturers, mobile phone carriers, competing browsers and Apple. These mutually beneficial deals represent a significant cost with no technical exclusivity . In other words, the antitrust treatment of a tie-in between software and hardware in the Microsoft case cannot be convincingly extrapolated to the default setting of a “webware” as relevant in the Google case.
Second, the Google case cannot legitimately resort to extrapolating the Microsoft case for another technical (and commercial) aspect: the Microsoft case was a classic tie-in case where the tied product (Internet Explorer) was tied into the main product (Windows). As a traditional tie-in scenario, the tied product (Internet Explorer) was “consistently offered, promoted, and distributed […] as a stand-alone product separate from, and not as a component of, Windows […]”. In contrast, Google has never sold Google Chrome or Android OS. It offered both Google Chrome and Android OS for free, necessarily conditional to Google search engine as default setting. The very fact that Google Chrome or Android OS have never been “stand-alone” products, to use the Microsoft case’s language, together with the absence of software installation, dramatically differentiates the features pertaining to the Google case from those of the Microsoft case. The Google case is not a traditional tie-in case: it is a case against default setting when both products (the primary and related products) are given for free, are not saleable, are neither tangible nor intangible goods but only popular digital services due to significant innovativeness and ease of usage. The Microsoft “complaint challenge[d] only Microsoft’s concerted attempts to maintain its monopoly in operating systems and to achieve dominance in other markets, not by innovation and other competition on the merits, but by tie-ins.” Quite noticeably, the Google case does not mention tie-in ,as per Google Chrome or Android OS.
The complaint only refers to tie-ins concerning Google’s app being pre-installed on Android OS. Therefore, concerning Google’s dominance on the search engine market, it cannot be said that the default setting of Google search in Android OS entails tie-in. Google search engine has no distribution channel (since it is only a website) other than through downstream partnerships (i.e., vertical deals with Android device manufacturers). To sanction default setting on downstream trading partners is tantamount to refusing legitimate means to secure distribution channels of proprietary and zero-priced services. To further this detrimental logic, it would mean that Apple may no longer offer its own apps in its own iPhones or, in offline markets, that a retailer may no longer offer its own (default) bags at the till since it excludes rivals’ sale bags. Products and services naked of any adjacent products and markets (i.e., an iPhone or Android OS with no app or a shopkeeper with no bundled services) would dramatically increase consumers’ search costs while destroying innovators’ essential distribution channels for innovative business models and providing few departures from the status quo as long as consumers will continue to value default products.
Default should not be an antitrust fault: the Google case makes default settings a new line of antitrust injury absent tie-ins. In conclusion, as a free webware, Google search’s default setting cannot be compared to default installation in the Microsoft case since minimal consumer stickiness entails (almost) no switching costs. As free software, Google’s default apps cannot be compared to Microsoft case either since pre-installation is the sine qua non condition of the highly valued services (Android OS) voluntarily chosen by device manufacturers. Default settings on downstream products can only be reasonably considered as antitrust injury when the dominant company is erroneously treated as a de facto essential facility – something evidenced by the similar prohibition of self-preferencing.
When Self-Preference is No Defense
Self-preferencing is to listings what the default setting is to operating systems. They both are ways to market one’s own products (i.e., alternative to marketing toward end-consumers). While default setting may come with both free products and financial payments (Android OS and advertising revenue sharing), self-preferencing may come with foregone advertising revenues in order to promote one’s own products. Both sides can be apprehended as the two sides of the same coin: generating the ad-funded main product’s distribution channels – Google’s search engine. Both are complex advertising channels since both venues favor one’s own products regarding consumers’ attention. Absent both channels, the payments made for default agreements and the foregone advertising revenues in self-preferencing one’s own products would morph into marketing and advertising expenses of Google search engine toward end-consumers.
The DOJ complaint lambasts that “Google’s monopoly in general search services also has given the company extraordinary power as the gateway to the internet, which uses to promote its own web content and increase its profits.” This blame was at the core of the European Commission’s Google Shopping decision in 2017: it essentially holds Google accountable for having, because of its ad-funded business model, promoted its own advertising products and demoted organic links in search results. According to which Google’s search results are no longer relevant and listed on the sole motivation of advertising revenue
But this argument is circular: should these search results become irrelevant, Google’s core business would become less attractive, thereby generating less advertising revenue. This self-inflicted inefficiency would deprive Google of valuable advertising streams and incentivize end-consumers to switch to search engine rivals such as Bing, DuckDuckGo, Amazon (product search), etc. Therefore, an ad-funded company such as Google needs to reasonably arbitrage between advertising objectives and the efficiency of its core activities (here, zero-priced organic search services). To downplay (the ad-funded) self-referencing in order to foster (the zero-priced) organic search quality would disregard the two-sidedness of the Google platform: it would harm advertisers and the viability of the ad-funded business model without providing consumers and innovation protection it aims at providing. The problematic and undesirable concept of “search neutrality” would mean algorithmic micro-management for the sake of an “objective” listing considered acceptable only to the eyes of the regulator.
Furthermore, self-preferencing entails a sort of positive discrimination toward one’s own products. If discrimination has traditionally been antitrust lines of injuries, self-preferencing is an “epithet” outside antitrust remits for good reasons. Indeed, should self-interested (i.e., rationally minded) companies and individuals are legally complied to self-demote their own products and services? If only big (how big?) companies are legally complied to self-demote their products and services, to what extent will exempted companies involved in self-preferencing become liable to do so?
Indeed, many uncertainties, legal and economic ones, may spawn from the emerging prohibition of self-preferencing. More fundamentally, antitrust liability may clash with basic corporate governance principles where self-interestedness allows self-preferencing and command such self-promotion. The limits of antitrust have been reached when two sets of legal regimes, both applicable to companies, suggest contradictory commercial conducts. To what extent may Amazon no longer promote its own series on Amazon Video in a similar manner Netflix does? To what extent can Microsoft no longer promote Bing’s search engine to compete with Google’s search engine effectively? To what extent Uber may no longer promote UberEATS in order to compete with delivery services effectively? Not only the business of business is doing business, but also it is its duty for which shareholders may hold managers to account.
The self is moral; there is a corporate morality of business self-interest. In other words, corporate selflessness runs counter to business ethics since corporate self-interest yields the self’s rivalrous positioning within a competitive order. Absent a corporate self-interest, self-sacrifice may generate value destruction for the sake of some unjustified and ungrounded claims. The emerging prohibition of self-preferencing, similar to the established ban on the default setting on one’s own products into other proprietary products, materializes the corporate self’s losing. Both directions coalesce to instill the legally embedded duty of self-sacrifice for the competitor’s welfare instead of the traditional consumer welfare and the dynamics of innovation, which never unleash absent appropriabilities. In conclusion, to expect firms, however big or small, to act irrespective of their identities (i.e., corporate selflessness) would constitute an antitrust error and would be at odds with capitalism.
Toward an Integrated Theory of Disintegrating Favoritism
The Google lawsuit primarily blames Google for default settings enforced via several deals. The lawsuit also makes self-preferencing anticompetitive conduct under antitrust rules. These two charges are novel and dubious in their remits. They nevertheless represent a fundamental catalyst for the development of a new and problematic unified antitrust theory prohibiting favoritism: companies may no longer favor their products and services, both vertically and horizontally, irrespective of consumer benefits, irrespective of superior efficiency arguments, and irrespective of dynamic capabilities enhancement. Indeed, via an unreasonably expanded vision of leveraging, antitrust enforcement is furtively banning a company to favor its own products and services based on greater consumer choice as a substitute to consumer welfare, based on the protection of the opportunities of rivals to innovate and compete as a substitute to the essence of competition and innovation, and based on limiting the outreach and size of companies as a substitute to the capabilities and efficiencies of these companies. Leveraging becomes suspicious and corporate self-favoritism under accusation. The Google lawsuit materializes this impractical trend, which further enshrines the precautionary approach to antitrust enforcement.
 Jessica Guynn, Google Justice Department antitrust lawsuit explained: this is what it means for you. USA Today, October 20, 2020.
 The software (Internet Explorer) was tied in the hardware (Windows PC).
U.S. v Google LLC, Case A:20, October 20, 2020, 3 (referring to default settings as “especially sticky” with respect to consumers’ willingness to change).
 While the DOJ affirms that “being the preset default general search engine is particularly valuable because consumers rarely change the preset default”, it nevertheless provides no evidence of the breadth of such consumer stickiness. To be sure, search engine’s default status does not necessarily lead to usage as evidenced by the case of South Korea. In this country, despite Google’s preset default settings, the search engine Naver remains dominant in the national search market with over 70% of market shares. The rivalry exerted by Naver on Google demonstrates that limits of consumer stickiness to default settings. See Alesia Krush, Google vs. Naver: Why Can’t Google Dominate Search in Korea? Link-Assistant.Com, available at: https://www.link-assistant.com/blog/google-vs-naver-why-cant-google-dominate-search-in-korea/ . As dominant search engine in Korea, Naver is subject to antitrust investigations with similar leveraging practices as Google in other countries, see Shin Ji-hye, FTC sets up special to probe Naver, Google, The Korea Herald, November 19, 2019, available at : http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20191119000798 ; Kim Byung-wook, Complaint against Google to be filed with FTC, The Investor, December 14, 2020, available at : https://www.theinvestor.co.kr/view.php?ud=20201123000984 (reporting a complaint by Naver and other Korean IT companies against Google’s 30% commission policy on Google Play Store’s apps).
 For instance, the then complaint acknowledged that “Microsoft designed Windows 98 so that removal of Internet Explorer by OEMs or end users is operationally more difficult than it was in Windows 95”, in U.S. v Microsoft Corp., Civil Action No 98-1232, May 18, 1998, para.20.
 The DOJ complaint itself quotes “one search competitor” who is reported to have noted consumer stickiness “despite the simplicity of changing a default setting to enable customer choice […]” (para.47). Therefore, default setting for search engine is remarkably simple to bypass but consumers do not often do so, either due to satisfaction with Google search engine and/or due to search and opportunity costs.
 Such outcome would frustrate traditional ways of offering computers and mobile devices as acknowledged by the DOJ itself in the Google complaint: “new computers and new mobile devices generally come with a number of preinstalled apps and out-of-the-box setting. […] Each of these search access points can and almost always does have a preset default general search engine”, at para. 41. Also, it appears that present default general search engine is common commercial practices since, as the DOJ complaint itself notes when discussing Google’s rivals (Microsoft’s Bing and Amazon’s Fire OS), “Amazon preinstalled its own proprietary apps and agreed to make Microsoft’s Bing the preset default general search engine”, in para.130. The complaint fails to identify alternative search engines which are not preset defaults, thus implicitly recognizing this practice as a widespread practice.
 To use Vesterdof’s language, see Bo Vesterdorf, Theories of Self-Preferencing and Duty to Deal – Two Sides of the Same Coin, Competition Law & Policy Debate 1(1) 4, (2015). See also Nicolas Petit, Theories of Self-Preferencing under Article 102 TFEU: A Reply to Bo Vesterdorf, 5-7 (2015).
 Case 39740 Google Search (Shopping). Here the foreclosure effects of self-preferencing are only speculated: « the Commission is not required to prove that the Conduct has the actual effect of decreasing traffic to competing comparison shopping services and increasing traffic to Google’s comparison-shopping service. Rather, it is sufficient for the Commission to demonstrate that the Conduct is capable of having, or likely to have, such effects.” (para.601 of the Decision). See P. Ibáñez Colomo, Indispensability and Abuse of Dominance: From Commercial Solvents to Slovak Telekom and Google Shopping, 10 Journal of European Competition Law & Practice 532 (2019); Aurelien Portuese, When Demotion is Competition: Algorithmic Antitrust Illustrated, Concurrences, no 2, May 2018, 25-37; Aurelien Portuese, Fine is Only One Click Away, Symposium on the Google Shopping Decision, Case Note, 3 Competition and Regulatory Law Review, (2017).
 For a general discussion on law and economics of self-preferencing, see Michael A. Salinger, Self-Preferencing, Global Antitrust Institute Report, 329-368 (2020).
Pablo Ibanez Colomo, Self-Preferencing: Yet Another Epithet in Need of Limiting Principles, 43 World Competition (2020) (concluding that self-preferencing is « misleading as a legal category »).
 See, for instances, Pedro Caro de Sousa, What Shall We Do About Self-Preferencing? Competition Policy International, June 2020.
 Milton Friedman, The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits, New York Times, September 13, 1970. This echoes Adam Smith’s famous statement that « It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own self-interest » from the 1776 Wealth of Nations. In Ayn Rand’s philosophy, the only alternative to rational self-interest is to sacrifice one’s own interests either for fellowmen (altruism) or for supernatural forces (mysticism). See Ayn Rand, The Objectivist Ethics, in The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet, (1964).
 Aurelien Portuese, European Competition Enforcement and the Digital Economy : The Birthplace of Precautionary Antitrust, Global Antitrust Institute’s Report on the Digital Economy, 597-651.
[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the antitrust lawsuits against Google. The entire series of posts is available here.]
Judges sometimes claim that they do not pick winners when they decide antitrust cases. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Competitive conduct by its nature harms competitors, and so if antitrust were merely to prohibit harm to competitors, antitrust would then destroy what it is meant to promote.
What antitrust prohibits, therefore, is not harm to competitors but rather harm to competitors that fails to improve products. Only in this way is antitrust able to distinguish between the good firm that harms competitors by making superior products that consumers love and that competitors cannot match and the bad firm that harms competitors by degrading their products without offering consumers anything better than what came before.
That means, however, that antitrust must pick winners: antitrust must decide what is an improvement and what not. And a more popular search engine is a clear winner.
But one should not take its winningness for granted. For once upon a time there was another winner that the courts always picked, blocking antitrust case after antitrust case. Until one day the courts stopped picking it.
That was the economy of scale.
The Structure of the Google Case
Like all antitrust cases that challenge the exercise of power, the government’s case against Google alleges denial of an input to competitors in some market. Here the input is default search status in smartphones, the competitors are rival search providers, and the market is search advertising. The basic structure of the case is depicted in the figure below.
Although brought as a monopolization case under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, this is at heart an exclusive dealing case of the sort normally brought under Section 1 of the Sherman Act: the government’s core argument is that Google uses contracts with smartphone makers, pursuant to which the smartphone makers promise to make Google, and not competitors, the search default, to harm competing search advertising providers and by extension competition in the search advertising market.
The government must show anticompetitive conduct, monopoly power, and consumer harm in order to prevail.
Let us assume that there is monopoly power. The company has more than 70% of the search advertising market, which is in the zone normally required to prove that element of a monopolization claim.
The problem of anticompetitive conduct is only slightly more difficult.
Anticompetitive conduct is only ever one thing in antitrust: denial of an essential input to a competitor. There is no other way to harm rivals.
(To be sure, antitrust prohibits harm to competition, not competitors, but that means only that harm to competitors necessary but insufficient for liability. The consumer harm requirement decides whether the requisite harm to competitors is also harm to competition.)
It is not entirely clear just how important default search status really is to running a successful search engine, but let us assume that it is essential, as the government suggests.
Then the question whether Google’s contracts are anticompetitive turns on how much of the default search input Google’s contracts foreclose to rival search engines. If a lot, then the rivals are badly harmed. If a little, then there may be no harm at all.
The answer here is that there is a lot of foreclosure, at least if the government’s complaint is to be believed. Through its contracts with Apple and makers of Android phones, Google has foreclosed default search status to rivals on virtually every single smartphone.
That leaves consumer harm. And here is where things get iffy.
Usage as a Product Improvement: A Very Convenient Argument
The inquiry into consumer harm evokes measurements of the difference between demand curves and price lines, or extrapolations of compensating and equivalent variation using indifference curves painstakingly pieced together based on the assumptions of revealed preference.
But while the parties may pay experts plenty to spin such yarns, and judges may pretend to listen to them, in the end, for the judges, it always comes down to one question only: did exclusive dealing improve the product?
If it did, then the judge assumes that the contracts made consumers better off and the defendant wins. And if it did not, then off with their heads.
So, does foreclosing all this default search space to competitors make Google search advertising more valuable to advertisers?
Those who leap to Google’s defense say yes, for default search status increases the number of people who use Google’s search engine. And the more people use Google’s search engine, the more Google learns about how best to answer search queries and which advertisements will most interest which searchers. And that ensures that even more people will use Google’s search engine, and that Google will do an even better job of targeting ads on its search engine.
And that in turn makes Google’s search advertising even better: able to reach more people and to target ads more effectively to them.
None of that would happen if defaults were set to other engines and users spurned Google, and so foreclosing default search space to rivals undoubtedly improves Google’s product.
This is a nice argument. Indeed, it is almost too nice, for it seems to suggest that almost anything Google might do to steer users away from competitors and to itself deserves antitrust immunity. Suppose Google were to brandish arms to induce you to run your next search on Google. That would be a crime, but, on this account, not an antitrust crime. For getting you to use Google does make Google better.
The argument that locking up users improves the product is of potential use not just to Google but to any of the many tech companies that run on advertising—Facebook being a notable example—so it potentially immunizes an entire business model from antitrust scrutiny.
It turns out that has happened before.
Economies of Scale as a Product Improvement: Once a Convenient Argument
Once upon a time, antitrust exempted another kind of business for which products improve the more people used them. The business was industrial production, and it differs from online advertising only in the irrelevant characteristic that the improvement that comes with expanding use is not in the quality of the product but in the cost per unit of producing it.
The hallmark of the industrial enterprise is high fixed costs and low marginal costs. The textile mill differs from pre-industrial piecework weaving in that once a $10 million investment in machinery has been made, the mill can churn out yard after yard of cloth for pennies. The pieceworker, by contrast, makes a relatively small up-front investment—the cost of raising up the hovel in which she labors and making her few tools—but spends the same large amount of time to produce each new yard of cloth.
Large fixed costs and low marginal costs lie at the heart of the bounty of the modern age: the more you produce, the lower the unit cost, and so the lower the price at which you can sell your product. This is a recipe for plenty.
But it also means that, so long as consumer demand in a given market is lower than the capacity of any particular plant, driving buyers to a particular seller and away from competitors always improves the product, in the sense that it enables the firm to increase volume and reduce unit cost, and therefore to sell the product at a lower price.
If the promise of the modern age is goods at low prices, then the implication is that antitrust should never punish firms for driving rivals from the market and taking over their customers. Indeed, efficiency requires that only one firm should ever produce in any given market, at least in any market for which a single plant is capable of serving all customers.
For antitrust in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, beguiled by this advantage to size, exclusive dealing, refusals to deal, even the knife in a competitor’s back: whether these ran afoul of other areas of law or not, it was all for the better because it allowed industrial enterprises to achieve economies of scale.
It is no accident that, a few notable triumphs aside, antitrust did not come into its own until the mid-1930s, 40 years after its inception, on the heels of an intellectual revolution that explained, for the first time, why it might actually be better for consumers to have more than one seller in a market.
These theories suggested that consumers might care as much about product quality as they do about product cost, and indeed would be willing to abandon a low-cost product for a higher-quality, albeit more expensive, one.
From this perspective, the world of economies of scale and monopoly production was the drab world of Soviet state-owned enterprises churning out one type of shoe, one brand of cleaning detergent, and so on.
The world of capitalism and technological advance, by contrast, was one in which numerous firms produced batches of differentiated products in amounts sometimes too small fully to realize all scale economies, but for which consumers were nevertheless willing to pay because the products better fit their preferences.
What is more, the striving of monopolistically competitive firms to lure away each other’s customers with products that better fit their tastes led to disruptive innovation— “creative destruction” was Schumpeter’s famous term for it—that brought about not just different flavors of the same basic concept but entirely new concepts. The competition to create a better flip phone, for example, would lead inevitably to a whole new paradigm, the smartphone.
This reasoning combined with work in the 1940s and 1950s on economic growth that quantified for the first time the key role played by technological change in the vigor of capitalist economies—the famous Solow residual—to suggest that product improvements, and not the cost reductions that come from capital accumulation and their associated economies of scale, create the lion’s share of consumer welfare. Innovation, not scale, was king.
Antitrust responded by, for the first time in its history, deciding between kinds of product improvements, rather than just in favor of improvements, casting economies of scale out of the category of improvements subject to antitrust immunity, while keeping quality improvements immune.
Casting economies of scale out of the protected product improvement category gave antitrust something to do for the first time. It meant that big firms had to plead more than just the cost advantages of being big in order to obtain license to push their rivals around. And government could now start reliably to win cases, rather than just the odd cause célèbre.
It is this intellectual watershed, and not Thurman Arnold’s tenacity, that was responsible for antitrust’s emergence as a force after World War Two.
Usage-Based Improvements Are Not Like Economies of Scale
The improvements in advertising that come from user growth fall squarely on the quality side of the ledger—the value they create is not due to the ability to average production costs over more ad buyers—and so they count as the kind of product improvements that antitrust continues to immunize today.
But given the pervasiveness of this mode of product improvement in the tech economy—the fact that virtually any tech firm that sells advertising can claim to be improving a product by driving users to itself and away from competitors—it is worth asking whether we have not reached a new stage in economic development in which this form of product improvement ought, like economies of scale, to be denied protection.
Shouldn’t the courts demand more and better innovation of big tech firms than just the same old big-data-driven improvements they serve up year after year?
Galling as it may be to those who, like myself, would like to see more vigorous antitrust enforcement in general, the answer would seem to be “no.” For what induced the courts to abandon antitrust immunity for economies of scale in the mid-20th century was not the mere fact that immunizing economies of scale paralyzed antitrust. Smashing big firms is not, after all, an end in itself.
Instead, monopolistic competition, creative destruction and the Solow residual induced the change, because they suggested both that other kinds of product improvement are more important than economies of scale and, crucially, that protecting economies of scale impedes development of those other kinds of improvements.
A big firm that excludes competitors in order to reach scale economies not only excludes competitors who might have produced an identical or near-identical product, but also excludes competitors who might have produced a better-quality product, one that consumers would have preferred to purchase even at a higher price.
To cast usage-based improvements out of the product improvement fold, a case must be made that excluding competitors in order to pursue such improvements will block a different kind of product improvement that contributes even more to consumer welfare.
If we could say, for example, that suppressing search competitors suppresses more-innovative search engines that ad buyers would prefer, even if those innovative search engines were to lack the advantages that come from having a large user base, then a case might be made that user growth should no longer count as a product improvement immune from antitrust scrutiny.
And even then, the case against usage-based improvements would need to be general enough to justify an epochal change in policy, rather than be limited to a particular technology in a particular lawsuit. For the courts hate to balance in individual cases, statements to the contrary in their published opinions notwithstanding.
But there is nothing in the Google complaint, much less the literature, to suggest that usage-based improvements are problematic in this way. Indeed, much of the value created by the information revolution seems to inhere precisely in its ability to centralize usage.
Americans Keep Voting to Centralize the Internet
In the early days of the internet, theorists mistook its decentralized architecture for a feature, rather than a bug. But internet users have since shown, time and again, that they believe the opposite.
For example, the basic protocols governing email were engineered to allow every American to run his own personal email server.
But Americans hated the freedom that created—not least the spam—and opted instead to get their email from a single server: the one run by Google as Gmail.
The basic protocols governing web traffic were also designed to allow every American to run whatever other communications services he wished—chat, video chat, RSS, webpages—on his own private server in distributed fashion.
But Americans hated the freedom that created—not least having to build and rebuild friend networks across platforms–—and they voted instead overwhelmingly to get their social media from a single server: Facebook.
Indeed, the basic protocols governing internet traffic were designed to allow every business to store and share its own data from its own computers, in whatever form.
But American businesses hated that freedom—not least the cost of having to buy and service their own data storage machines—and instead 40% of the internet is now stored and served from Amazon Web Services.
Similarly, advertisers have the option of placing advertisements on the myriad independently-run websites that make up the internet—known in the business as the “open web”—by placing orders through competitive ad exchanges. But advertisers have instead voted mostly to place ads on the handful of highly centralized platforms known as “walled gardens,” including Facebook, Google’s YouTube and, of course, Google Search.
The communications revolution, they say, is all about “bringing people together.” It turns out that’s true.
And that Google should win on consumer harm.
Remember the Telephone
Indeed, the same mid-20th century antitrust that thought so little of economies of scale as a defense immunized usage-based improvements when it encountered them in that most important of internet precursors: the telephone.
The telephone, like most internet services, gets better as usage increases. The more people are on a particular telephone network, the more valuable the network becomes to subscribers.
Just as with today’s internet services, the advantage of a large user base drove centralization of telephone services a century ago into the hands of a single firm: AT&T. Aside from a few business executives who liked the look of a desk full of handsets, consumers wanted one phone line that they could use to call everyone.
Although the government came close to breaking AT&T up in the early 20th century, the government eventually backed off, because a phone system in which you must subscribe to the right carrier to reach a friend just doesn’t make sense.
Instead, Congress and state legislatures stepped in to take the edge off monopoly by regulating phone pricing. And when antitrust finally did break AT&T up in 1982, it did so in a distinctly regulatory fashion, requiring that AT&T’s parts connect each other’s phone calls, something that Congress reinforced in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The message was clear: the sort of usage-based improvements one finds in communications are real product improvements. And antitrust can only intervene if it has a way to preserve them.
The equivalent of interconnection in search, that the benefits of usage, in the form of data and attention, be shared among competing search providers, might be feasible. But it is hard to imagine the court in the Google case ordering interconnection without the benefit of decades of regulatory experience with the defendant’s operations that the district court in 1982 could draw upon in the AT&T case.
The solution for the tech giants today is the same as the solution for AT&T a century ago: to regulate rather than to antitrust.
Microsoft Not to the Contrary, Because Users Were in Common
Parallels to the government’s 1990s-era antitrust case against Microsoft are not to the contrary.
As Sam Weinstein has pointed out to me, Microsoft, like Google, was at heart an exclusive dealing case: Microsoft contracted with computer manufacturers to prevent Netscape Navigator, an early web browser, from serving as the default web browser on Windows PCs.
That prevented Netscape, the argument went, from growing to compete with Windows in the operating system market, much the way the Google’s Chrome browser has become a substitute for Windows on low-end notebook computers today.
The D.C. Circuit agreed that default status was an essential input for Netscape as it sought eventually to compete with Windows in the operating system market.
The court also accepted the argument that the exclusive dealing did not improve Microsoft’s operating system product.
This at first seems to contradict the notion that usage improves products, for, like search advertising, operating systems get better as their user bases increase. The more people use an operating system, the more application developers are willing to write for the system, and the better the system therefore becomes.
It seems to follow that keeping competitors off competing operating systems and on Windows made Windows better. If the court nevertheless held Microsoft liable, it must be because the court refused to extend antitrust immunity to usage-based improvements.
The trouble with this line of argument is that it ignores the peculiar thing about the Microsoft case: that while the government alleged that Netscape was a potential competitor of Windows, Netscape was also an application that ran on Windows.
That means that, unlike Google and rival search engines, Windows and Netscape shared users.
So, Microsoft’s exclusive dealing did not increase its user base and therefore could not have improved Windows, at least not by making Windows more appealing for applications developers. Driving Netscape from Windows did not enable developers to reach even one more user. Conversely, allowing Netscape to be the default browser on Windows would not have reduced the number of Windows users, because Netscape ran on Windows.
By contrast, a user who runs a search in Bing does not run the same search simultaneously in Google, and so Bing users are not Google users. Google’s exclusive dealing therefore increases its user base and improves Google’s product, whereas Microsoft’s exclusive dealing served only to reduce Netscape’s user base and degrade Netscape’s product.
Indeed, if letting Netscape be the default browser on Windows was a threat to Windows, it was not because it prevented Microsoft from improving its product, but because Netscape might eventually have become an operating system, and indeed a better operating system, than Windows, and consumers and developers, who could be on both at the same time if they wished, might have nevertheless chosen eventually to go with Netscape alone.
Though it does not help the government in the Google case, Microsoft still does offer a beacon of hope for those concerned about size, for Microsoft’s subsequent history reminds us that yesterday’s behemoth is often today’s also ran.
And the favorable settlement terms Microsoft ultimately used to escape real consequences for its conduct 20 years ago imply that, at least in high-tech markets, we don’t always need antitrust for that to be true.
[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the antitrust lawsuits against Google. The entire series of posts is available here.]
Google is facing a series of lawsuits in 2020 and 2021 that challenge some of the most fundamental parts of its business, and of the internet itself — Search, Android, Chrome, Google’s digital-advertising business, and potentially other services as well.
The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) has brought a case alleging that Google’s deals with Android smartphone manufacturers, Apple, and third-party browsers to make Google Search their default general search engine are anticompetitive (ICLE’s tl;dr on the case is here), and the State of Texas has brought a suit against Google’s display advertising business. These follow a market study by the United K’s Competition and Markets Authority that recommended an ex ante regulator and code of conduct for Google and Facebook. At least one more suit is expected to follow.
These lawsuits will test ideas that are at the heart of modern antitrust debates: the roles of defaults and exclusivity deals in competition; the costs of self-preferencing and its benefits to competition; the role of data in improving software and advertising, and its role as a potential barrier to entry; and potential remedies in these markets and their limitations.
This Truth on the Market symposium asks contributors with wide-ranging viewpoints to comment on some of these issues as they arise in the lawsuits being brought—starting with the U.S. Justice Department’s case against Google for alleged anticompetitive practices in search distribution and search-advertising markets—and continuing throughout the duration of the lawsuits.
[TOTM: The following is the fifth in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the politicization of antitrust. The entire series of posts is available here.]
This post is authored by Ramsi Woodcock, Assistant Professor, College of Law, and Assistant Professor, Department of Management at Gatton College of Business & Economics, University of Kentucky.
When in 2011 Paul Krugman attacked
the press for bending over backwards to give equal billing to conservative
experts on social security, even though the conservatives were plainly wrong, I
celebrated. Social security isn’t the biggest part of the government’s budget,
and calls to privatize it in order to save the country from bankruptcy were blatant
mongering. Why should the press report those calls with a neutrality that
could mislead readers into thinking the position reasonable?
Journalists’ ethic of balanced reporting looked, at the time,
like gross negligence at best, and deceit at worst. But lost
in the pathos of the moment was the rationale behind that ethic, which is
not so much to ensure that the truth gets into print as to prevent the press
from making policy. For if journalists do not practice balance, then they ultimately
decide the angle to take.
And journalists, like the rest of us, will choose their own.
The dark underbelly of the engaged journalism unleashed by progressives
like Krugman has nowhere been more starkly exposed than in the unfolding
assault of journalists, operating as a special interest, on Google, Facebook,
and Amazon, three companies that writers believe have decimated
their earnings over the past decade.
In story after story, journalists have manufactured an
antitrust movement aimed at breaking up these companies, even though virtually
no expert in antitrust law or economics, on either the right or the left, can
find an antitrust case against them, and virtually no expert would place any of
these three companies at the top of the genuinely
long list of monopolies in America that are due for an antitrust reckoning.
My favorite is: “It’s
Time to Break Up Facebook.” Unlike the others, it belongs to an Op-Ed, so a
bias is appropriate. Not appropriate, however, is the howler, contained in the
article’s body, that “a host of legal scholars like Lina Khan, Barry Lynn and
Ganesh Sitaraman are plotting a way forward” toward breakup. Lina Khan has
never held an academic appointment. Barry Lynn does not even have a law degree.
And Ganesh Sitaraman’s academic specialty is constitutional law, not antitrust.
But editors let it through anyway.
As this unguarded moment shows, the press has treated these
and other members of a small network of activists and legal scholars who
operate on antitrust’s fringes as representative of scholarly sentiment
regarding antitrust action. The only real antitrust scholar among them is Tim
Wu, who, when you look closely at his public statements, has actually gone no
further than to call for Facebook to unwind
its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp.
In more sober moments, the press has acknowledged that the
law does not support antitrust attacks on the tech giants. But instead of helping
readers to understand why, the press instead presents this as a failure of the
law. “To Take Down Big Tech,” read one headline in The New York Times, “They
First Need to Reinvent the Law.” I have documented further instances of
unbalanced reporting here.
This is not to say that we don’t need more antitrust in
America. Herbert Hovenkamp, who the New York Times once recognized
as “the dean of American antitrust law,”
but has since downgraded
to “an antitrust expert” after he came out
against the breakup movement, has advocated stronger monopsony enforcement
across labor markets. Einer Elhauge at Harvard is pushing
to prevent index funds from inadvertently generating oligopolies in markets
ranging from airlines to pharmacies. NYU economist Thomas Philippon has called
for deconcentration of banking. Yale’s Fiona Morton has pointed
to rising markups across the economy as a sign of lax antitrust enforcement. Jonathan
Baker has argued with greatsophistication
for more antitrust enforcement in general.
But no serious antitrust scholar has traced America’s
concentration problem to the tech giants.
Advertising monopolies old and new
So why does the press have an axe to grind with the tech
giants? The answer lies in the creative
destruction wrought by Amazon on the publishing industry, and Google and
Facebook upon the newspaper industry.
Newspapers were probably the most durable monopolies of the
20th century, so lucrative that Warren Buffett famously picked them
as his preferred example of businesses with “moats”
around them. But that wasn’t because readers were willing to pay top dollar for
newspapers’ reporting. Instead, that was because, incongruously for
organizations dedicated to exposing propaganda of all forms on their front
pages, newspapers have long
striven to fill every other available inch of newsprint with that particular
kind of corporate propaganda known as commercial advertising.
It was a lucrative arrangement. Newspapers exhibit powerful
network effects, meaning that the more people read a paper the more advertisers
want to advertise in it. As a result, many American cities came to have but one
major newspaper monopolizing
the local advertising market.
One such local paper, the Lorain Journal of Lorain, Ohio,
sparked a case
that has since become part of the standard antitrust curriculum in law schools.
The paper tried to leverage its monopoly to destroy a local radio station that
was competing for its advertising business. The Supreme Court affirmed
liability for monopolization.
In the event, neither radio nor television ultimately
undermined newspapers’ advertising monopolies. But the internet is different. Radio,
television, and newspaper advertising can coexist, because they can target only
groups, and often not the same ones, minimizing competition between them. The
internet, by contrast, reaches individuals, making it strictly superior to
group-based advertising. The internet also lets at least some firms target virtually
all individuals in the country, allowing those firms to compete with all comers.
You might think that newspapers, which quickly became an
important web destination, were perfectly positioned to exploit the new
functionality. But being a destination turned out to be a problem. Consumers
reveal far more valuable information about themselves to web gateways, like
search and social media, than to particular destinations, like newspaper
websites. But consumer data is the key to targeted advertising.
That gave Google and Facebook a competitive advantage, and
because these companies also enjoy network effects—search and social media get
better the more people use them—they inherited the newspapers’ old advertising
That was a catastrophe
for journalists, whose earnings and employment prospects plummeted.
It was also a catastrophe
for the public, because newspapers have a tradition of plowing their
monopoly profits into investigative journalism that protects democracy, whereas
Google and Facebook have instead invested their profits in new technologies
like self-driving cars and cryptocurrencies.
The catastrophe of countervailing power
Amazon has found itself in journalists’ crosshairs for
disrupting another industry that feeds writers: publishing. Book distribution
was Amazon’s first big market, and Amazon won it, driving most brick and mortar
booksellers to bankruptcy.
Publishing, long dominated
by a few big houses that used their power to extract high wholesale prices from
booksellers, some of the profit from which they passed on to authors as
royalties, now faced a distribution industry that was even more concentrated
and powerful than was publishing. The Department of Justice stamped
out a desperate attempt by publishers to cartelize in response, and profits,
and author royalties, have continued to fall.
Journalists, of course, are writers, and the disruption of
publishing, taken together with the disruption of news, have left journalists
with the impression that they have nowhere to turn to escape the new economy.
The abuse of antitrust
Unschooled in the fine points of antitrust policy, it seems
obvious to them that the Armageddon in newspapers and publishing is a problem
of monopoly and that antitrust enforcers should do something about it.
Only it isn’t and they shouldn’t. The courts have gonetogreatlengths
over the past 130 years to distinguish between doing harm to competition, which
is prohibited by the antitrust laws, and doing harm to competitors, which is
Disrupting markets by introducing new technologies that make
products better is no
antitrust violation, even if doing so does drive legacy firms into
bankruptcy, and throws their employees out of work and into the streets.
Because disruption is really the only thing capitalism has going for it. Disruption
is the mechanism by which market economies generate technological advances and
improve living standards in the long run. The antitrust laws are not there to
preserve old monopolies and oligopolies such as those long enjoyed by
newspapers and publishers.
In fact, by tearing down barriers to market entry, the
antitrust laws strive to do the opposite: to speed the destruction and
replacement of legacy monopolies with new and more innovative ones.
That’s why the entire antitrust establishment has stayed on
the sidelines regarding the tech fight. It’s hard to think of three companies
that have more obviously risen to prominence over the past generation by
disrupting markets using superior technologies than Amazon, Google, and
Facebook. It may be possible to find an anticompetitive practice here or there—I
certainly have—but no serious antitrust scholar thinks the heart of these
firms’ continued dominance lies other than in their technical savvy. The
nuclear option of breaking up these firms just makes no sense.
Indeed, the disruption inflicted by these firms on
newspapers and publishing is a measure of the extent to which these firms have
improved book distribution and advertising, just as the vast disruption created
by the industrial revolution was a symptom of the extraordinary technological
advances of that period. Few people, and not even Karl Marx, thought that the
solution to those disruptions lay with Ned Ludd. The solution to the disruption
wrought by Google, Amazon, and Facebook today similarly does not lie in using
the antitrust laws to smash the machines.
Governments eventually learned to address the disruption
created by the original industrial revolution not by breaking up the big firms
that brought that revolution about, but by using tax and transfer, and rate
regulation, to ensure that the winners share their gains with the losers.
However the press’s campaign turns out, rate regulation, not antitrust, is
ultimately the approach that government will take to Amazon, Google, and
Facebook if these companies continue to grow in power. Because we don’t have to
decide between social justice and technological advance. We can have both. And
voters will demand it.
The anti-progress wing of the progressive movement
Alas, smashing the machines is precisely what journalists and
their supporters are demanding in calling for the breakup of Amazon, Google,
and Facebook. Zephyr Teachout, for example, recently told an audience
at Columbia Law School that she would ban targeted advertising except for
newspapers. That would restore newspapers’ old advertising monopolies, but also
make targeted advertising less effective, for the same reason that Google and
Facebook are the preferred choice of advertisers today. (Of course, making
advertising more effective might not be a good thing. More on this below.)
This contempt for technological advance has been coupled
with a broader anti-intellectualism, best captured by an extraordinary remark made
by Barry Lynn, director of the pro-breakup Open Markets Institute, and sometime
for the Author’s Guild. The Times quotes
him saying that because the antitrust laws once contained a presumption against
mergers to market shares in excess of 25%, all policymakers have to do to get
antitrust right is “be able to count to four. We don’t need economists to help
us count to four.”
But size really is not a good measure of monopoly power. Ask
Nokia, which controlled
more than half the market for cell phones in 2007, on the eve of Apple’s
introduction of the iPhone, but saw its share fall almost to zero by 2012. Or Walmart,
the nation’s largest
retailer and a monopolist in many smaller retail markets, which nevertheless
saw its stock fall
after Amazon announced one-day shipping.
Journalists themselves acknowledge
that size does not always translate into power when they wring their hands
about the Amazon-driven financial troubles of large retailers like Macy’s. Determining
whether a market lacks competition really does require more than counting the
number of big firms in the market.
I keep waiting for a devastating critique of arguments that
Amazon operates in highly competitive markets to emerge from the big tech
breakup movement. But that’s impossible for a movement that rejects economics
corporate plot. Indeed, even an economist as pro-antitrust as Thomas
Philippon, who advocates a return to antitrust’s mid-20th century
golden age of massive breakups of firms like Alcoa and AT&T, affirms
in a new book that American retail is actually a bright spot in an otherwise
But you won’t find journalists highlighting that. The
headline of a Times column promoting Philippon’s book? “Big
Business Is Overcharging you $5000 a Year.” I tend to agree. But given all
the anti-tech fervor in the press, Philippon’s chapter on why the tech giants
are probably not an antitrust problem ought to get a mention somewhere in the
column. It doesn’t.
John Maynard Keynes famously observed
that “though no one will believe it—economics is a technical and difficult
subject.” So too antitrust. A failure to appreciate the field’s technical
difficulty is manifest also in Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s
antitrust proposals, which were heavily
influenced by breakup advocates.
Warren has argued that no large firm should be able to compete on its own platforms, not seeming to realize that doing business means competing on your own platforms. To show up to work in the morning in your own office space is to compete on a platform, your office, from which you exclude competitors. The rule that large firms (defined by Warren as those with more than $25 billion in revenues) cannot compete on their own platforms would just make doing large amounts of business illegal, a result that Warren no doubt does not desire.
The power of the press
The press’s campaign against Amazon, Google, and Facebook is
working. Because while they may not be as well financed as Amazon, Google, or
Facebook, writers can offer their friends something more valuable than money:
That appears to have induced a slew of politicians, including
both Senator Warren on the left and Senator
Josh Hawley on the right, to pander to breakup advocates. The House
antitrust investigation into the tech giants, led by a congressman who is
by the News Media Alliance, a newspaper trade group, to give newspapers an exemption
from the antitrust laws, may also have similar roots. So too the investigations
announced by dozens of elected state attorneys general.
recently opened by the FTC and Department of Justice may signal no more than a
desire not to look idle while so many others act. Which is why the press has
the power to turn fiction into reality. Moreover, under the current
Administration, the Department of Justice has already undertaken two suspiciouslypartisan
antitrust investigations, and President Trump has made clear his hatred
for the liberal bastions that are Amazon, Google and Facebook. The fact that
the press has made antitrust action against the tech giants a progressive cause
provides convenient cover for the President to take down some enemies.
The future of the news
Rate regulation of Amazon, Google, or Facebook is the likely
long-term resolution of concerns about these firms’ power. But that won’t bring
back newspapers, which henceforth will always play the loom to Google and
Facebook’s textile mills, at least in the advertising market.
Journalists and their defenders, like Teachout, have been
pushing to restore newspapers’ old monopolies by government fiat. No doubt that
would make existing newspapers, and their staffs, very happy. But what is good
for Big News is not necessarily good for journalism in the long run.
The silver lining to the disruption of newspapers’ old
advertising monopolies is that it has created an opportunity for newspapers to
wean themselves off a funding source that has always made little sense for
organizations dedicated to helping Americans make informed, independent
decisions, free of the manipulation of others.
For advertising has always had a manipulative function,
alongside its function of disseminating product information to consumers. And, as I have
argued elsewhere, now that the vast amounts
of product information available for free on the internet have made advertising
obsolete as a source of product information, manipulation is now advertising’s
only real remaining function.
Manipulation causes consumers to buy products they don’t
really want, giving firms that advertise a competitive advantage that they
don’t deserve. That makes for an antitrust problem, this time with real
consequences not just for competitors, but also for technological advance, as
manipulative advertising drives dollars away from superior products toward
advertised products, and away from investment in innovation and toward
investment in consumer seduction.
The solution is to ban all advertising, targeted or not,
rather than to give newspapers an advertising monopoly. And to give journalism
the state subsidies that, like all public goods, from defense to highways, are
journalism’s genuine due. The BBC provides a model
of how that can be done without fear of government influence.
Indeed, Teachout’s proposed newspaper advertising monopoly
is itself just a government subsidy, but a subsidy extracted through an
advertising medium that harms consumers. Direct government subsidization
achieves the same result, without the collateral consumer harm.
The press’s brazen advocacy of antitrust action against the
tech giants, without making clear how much the press itself has to gain from
that action, and the utter absence of any expert support for this approach,
represents an abdication by the press of its responsibility to create an
informed citizenry that is every bit as profound as the press’s lapses on
social security a decade ago.
I’m glad we still have social security. But I’m also starting to miss balanced journalism.
1/3/2020: Editor’s note – this post was edited for clarification and minor copy edits.
Antitrust populists have a long list of complaints about competition policy, including: laws aren’t broad enough or tough enough, enforcers are lax, and judges tend to favor defendants over plaintiffs or government agencies. The populist push got a bump with the New York Times coverage of Lina Khan’s “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” in which she advocated breaking up Amazon and applying public utility regulation to platforms. Khan’s ideas were picked up by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has a plan for similar public utility regulation and promised to unwind earlier acquisitions by Amazon (Whole Foods and Zappos), Facebook (WhatsApp and Instagram), and Google (Waze, Nest, and DoubleClick).
Khan, Warren, and the other Break Up Big Tech populists don’t clearly articulate how consumers, suppliers — or anyone for that matter — would be better off with their mandated spinoffs. The Khan/Warren plan, however, requires a unique alignment of many factors: Warren must win the White House, Democrats must control both houses of Congress, and judges must substantially shift their thinking. It’s like turning a supertanker on a dime in the middle of a storm. Instead of publishing manifestos and engaging in antitrust hashtag hipsterism, maybe — just maybe — the populists can do something.
The populists seem to have three main grievances:
Small firms cannot enter the market or cannot thrive once they enter;
Suppliers, including workers, are getting squeezed; and
Speculation that someday firms will wake up, realize they have a monopoly, and begin charging noncompetitive prices to consumers.
Each of these grievances can be, and has been, already addressed by antitrust and competition litigation. And, in many cases these grievances were addressed in private antitrust litigation. For example:
The European Commission’s Google Search investigation was prompted by complaints filed by a private party, Foundem.
In the US, private actions are available for a wide range of alleged anticompetitive conduct, including coordinated conduct (e.g., price-fixing), single-firm conduct (e.g., predatory pricing), and mergers that would substantially lessen competition.
If the antitrust populists are so confident that concentration is rising and firms are behaving anticompetitively and consumers/suppliers/workers are being harmed, then why don’t they organize an antitrust lawsuit against the worst of the worst violators? If anticompetitive activity is so obvious and so pervasive, finding compelling cases should be easy.
While predatory pricing technically remains illegal, it is extremely difficult to win predatory pricing claims because courts now require proof that the alleged predator would be able to raise prices and recoup its losses.
However, in her criticism of the court in the Apple e-books litigation, she lays out a clear rationale for courts to revise their thinking on predatory pricing [emphasis added]:
Judge Cote, who presided over the district court trial, refrained from affirming the government’s conclusion. Still, the government’s argument illustrates the dominant framework that courts and enforcers use to analyze predation—and how it falls short. Specifically, the government erred by analyzing the profitability of Amazon’s e-book business in the aggregate and by characterizing the conduct as “loss leading” rather than potentially predatory pricing. These missteps suggest a failure to appreciate two critical aspects of Amazon’s practices: (1) how steep discounting by a firm on a platform-based product creates a higher risk that the firm will generate monopoly power than discounting on non-platform goods and (2) the multiple ways Amazon could recoup losses in ways other than raising the price of the same e-books that it discounted.
Why not put Khan’s cross-subsidy theory to the test by building an antitrust case around it? Surely there’d be a document explaining how the firm expects to recoup its losses. Or, maybe not. Maybe by the firm’s accounting, it’s not losing money on the discounted products. Without evidence, it’s just speculation.
In fairness, one can argue that recent court decisions have made pursuing private antitrust litigation more difficult. For example, the Supreme Court’s decision in Twombly requires an antitrust plaintiff to show more than mere speculation based on circumstantial evidence in order to move forward to discovery. Decisions in matters such as Ashcroft v. Iqbal have made it more difficult for plaintiffs to maintain antitrust claims. Wal-Mart v. Dukes and Comcast Corp v Behrend subject antitrust class actions to more rigorous analysis. In Ohio v. Amex the court ruled antitrust plaintiffs can’t meet the burden of proof by showing only some effect on some part of a two-sided market.
At the same time Jeld-Wen indicates third party plaintiffs can be awarded damages and obtain divestitures, even after mergers clear. In Jeld-Wen, a competitor filed suit to challenge the consummated Jeld-Wen/Craftmaster merger four years after the DOJ approved the merger without conditions. The challenge was lengthy, but successful, and a district court ordered damages and the divestiture of one of the combined firm’s manufacturing facilities six years after the merger was closed.
Despite the possible challenges of pursuing a private antitrust suit, Daniel Crane’s review of US federal court workload statistics concludes the incidence of private antitrust enforcement in the United States has been relatively stable since the mid-1980s — in the range of 600 to 900 new private antitrust filings a year. He also finds resolution by trial has been relatively stable at an average of less than 1 percent a year. Thus, it’s not clear that recent decisions have erected insurmountable barriers to antitrust plaintiffs.
In the US, third parties may fund private antitrust litigation and plaintiffs’ attorneys are allowed to work under a contingency fee arrangement, subject to court approval. A compelling case could be funded by deep-pocketed supporters of the populists’ agenda, big tech haters, or even investors. Perhaps the most well-known example is Peter Thiel’s bankrolling of Hulk Hogan’s takedown of Gawker. Before that, the savings and loan crisis led to a number of forced mergers which were later challenged in court, with the costs partially funded by the issuance of litigation tracking warrants.
The antitrust populist ranks are chock-a-block with economists, policy wonks, and go-getter attorneys. If they are so confident in their claims of rising concentration, bad behavior, and harm to consumers, suppliers, and workers, then they should put those ideas to the test with some slam dunk litigation. The fact that they haven’t suggests they may not have a case.
In 2014, Benedict Evans, a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz, wrote “Why Amazon Has No Profits (And Why It Works),” a blog post in which he tried to explain Amazon’s business model. He began with a chart of Amazon’s revenue and net income that has now become (in)famous:
A question inevitably followed in antitrust circles: How can a company that makes so little profit on so much revenue be worth so much money? It must be predatory pricing!
Predatory pricing is a rather rare anticompetitive practice because the “predator” runs the risk of bankrupting itself in the process of trying to drive rivals out of business with below-cost pricing. Furthermore, even if a predator successfully clears the field of competition, in developed markets with deep capital markets, keeping out new entrants is extremely unlikely.
Nonetheless, in those rare cases where plaintiffs can demonstrate that a firm actually has a viable scheme to drive competitors from the market with prices that are “too low” and has the ability to recoup its losses once it has cleared the market of those competitors, plaintiffs (including the DOJ) can prevail in court.
In other words, whoa if true.
Khan’s Predatory Pricing Accusation
In 2017, Lina Khan, then a law student at Yale, published “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” in a note for the Yale Law Journal and used Evans’ chart as supporting evidence that Amazon was guilty of predatory pricing. In the abstract she says, “Although Amazon has clocked staggering growth, it generates meager profits, choosing to price below-cost and expand widely instead.”
But if Amazon is selling below-cost, where does the money come from to finance those losses?
In her article, Khan hinted at two potential explanations: (1) Amazon is using profits from the cloud computing division (AWS) to cross-subsidize losses in the retail division or (2) Amazon is using money from investors to subsidize short-term losses:
Recently, Amazon has started reporting consistent profits, largely due to the success of Amazon Web Services, its cloud computing business. Its North America retail business runs on much thinner margins, and its international retail business still runs at a loss. But for the vast majority of its twenty years in business, losses—not profits—were the norm. Through 2013, Amazon had generated a positive net income in just over half of its financial reporting quarters. Even in quarters in which it did enter the black, its margins were razor-thin, despite astounding growth.
Just as striking as Amazon’s lack of interest in generating profit has been investors’ willingness to back the company. With the exception of a few quarters in 2014, Amazon’s shareholders have poured money in despite the company’s penchant for losses.
Revising predatory pricing doctrine to reflect the economics of platform markets, where firms can sink money for years given unlimited investor backing, would require abandoning the recoupment requirement in cases of below-cost pricing by dominant platforms.
Below-Cost Pricing Not Subsidized by Investors
But neither explanation withstands scrutiny. First, the money is not from investors. Amazon has not raised equity financing since 2003. Nor is it debt financing: The company’s net debt position has been near-zero or negative for its entire history (excluding the Whole Foods acquisition):
As Priya Anand observed in a recent piece for The Information, since Amazon started breaking out AWS in its financials, operating income for the North America retail business has been significantly positive:
But [Khan] underplays its retail profits in the U.S., where the antitrust debate is focused. As the above chart shows, its North America operation has been profitable for years, and its operating income has been on the rise in recent quarters. While its North America retail operation has thinner margins than AWS, it still generated $2.84 billion in operating income last year, which isn’t exactly a rounding error compared to its $4.33 billion in AWS operating income.
Below-Cost Pricing in Retail Also Known as “Loss Leader” Pricing
Okay, so maybe Amazon isn’t using below-cost pricing in aggregate in its retail division. But it still could be using profits from some retail products to cross-subsidize below-cost pricing for other retail products (e.g., diapers), with the intention of driving competitors out of business to capture monopoly profits. This is essentially what Khan claims happened in the Diapers.com (Quidsi) case. But in the retail industry, diapers are explicitly cited as a loss leader that help retailers to develop a customer relationship with mothers in the hopes of selling them a higher volume of products over time. This is exactly what the founders of Diapers.com told Inc Magazine in a 2012 interview (emphasis added):
We saw brick-and-mortar stores, the Wal-Marts and Targets of the world, using these products to build relationships with mom and the end consumer, bringing them into the store and selling them everything else. So we thought that was an interesting model and maybe we could replicate that online. And so we started with selling the loss leader product to basically build a relationship with mom. And once they had the passion for the brand and they were shopping with us on a weekly or a monthly basis that they’d start to fall in love with that brand. We were losing money on every box of diapers that we sold. We weren’t able to buy direct from the manufacturers.
An anticompetitive scheme could be built into such bundling, but in many if not the overwhelming majority of these cases, consumers are the beneficiaries of lower prices and expanded output produced by these arrangements. It’s hard to definitively say whether any given firm that discounts its products is actually pricing below average variable cost (“AVC”) without far more granular accounting ledgers than are typically maintained. This is part of the reason why these cases can be so hard to prove.
A successful predatory pricing strategy also requires blocking market entry when the predator eventually raises prices. But the Diapers.com case is an explicit example of repeated entry that would defeat recoupment. In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Jeffrey Eisenach shares the rest of the story following Amazon’s acquisition of Diapers.com:
Amazon’s conduct did not result in a diaper-retailing monopoly. Far from it. According to Khan, Amazon had about 43 percent of online sales in 2016 — compared with Walmart at 23 percent and Target with 18 percent — and since many people still buy diapers at the grocery store, real shares are far lower.
In the end, Quidsi proved to be a bad investment for Amazon: After spending $545 million to buy the firm and operating it as a stand-alone business for more than six years, it announced in April 2017 it was shutting down all of Quidsi’s operations, Diapers.com included. In the meantime, Quidsi’s founders poured the proceeds of the Amazon sale into a new online retailer — Jet.com — which was purchased by Walmart in 2016 for $3.3 billion. Jet.com cofounder Marc Lore now runs Walmart’s e-commerce operations and has said publicly that his goal is to surpass Amazon as the top online retailer.
Sussman argues that the company has been inflating its free cash flow numbers by excluding “capital leases.” According to Sussman, “If all of those expenses as detailed in its statements are accounted for, Amazon experienced a negative cash outflow of $1.461 billion in 2017.” Even though it’s not dispositive of predatory pricing on its own, Sussman believes that a negative free cash flow implies the company has been selling below-cost to gain market share.
2. Amazon Recoups Losses By Lowering AVC, Not By Raising Prices
Instead of raising prices to recoup losses from pricing below-cost, Sussman argues that Amazon flies under the antitrust radar by keeping consumer prices low and progressively decreasing AVC, ostensibly through using its monopsony power to offload costs on suppliers and partners (although this point is not fully explored in his piece).
But Sussman’s argument contains errors in both legal reasoning as well as its underlying empirical assumptions.
While there are many different ways to calculate the “cost” of a product or service, generally speaking, “below-cost pricing” means the price is less than marginal cost or AVC. Typically, courts tend to rely on AVC when dealing with predatory pricing cases. And as Herbert Hovenkamp has noted, proving that a price falls below the AVC is exceedingly difficult, particularly when dealing with firms in dynamic markets that sell a number of differentiated but complementary goods or services. Amazon, the focus of Sussman’s article, is a useful example here.
When products are complements, or can otherwise be bundled, firms may also be able to offer discounts that are unprofitable when selling single items. In business this is known as the “razor and blades model” (i.e., sell the razor handle below-cost one time and recoup losses on future sales of blades — although it’s not clear if this ever actually happens). Printer manufacturers are also an oft-cited example here, where printers are often sold below AVC in the expectation that the profits will be realized on the ongoing sale of ink. Amazon’s Kindle functions similarly: Amazon sells the Kindle around its AVC, ostensibly on the belief that it will realize a profit on selling e-books in the Kindle store.
Yet, even ignoring this common and broadly inoffensive practice, Sussman’s argument is odd. In essence, he claims that Amazon is concealing some of its costs in the form of capital leases in an effort to conceal its below-AVC pricing while it works to simultaneously lower its real AVC below the prices it charges consumers. At the end of this process, once its real AVC is actually sufficiently below consumers prices, it will (so the argument goes) be in the position of a monopolist reaping monopoly profits.
The problem with this argument should be immediately apparent. For the moment, let’s ignore the classic recoupment problem where new entrants will be drawn into the market to win some of those monopoly prices based on the new AVC that is possible. The real problem with his logic is that Sussman basically suggests that if Amazon sharply lowers AVC — that is it makes production massively more efficient — and then does not drop prices, they are a “predator.” But by pricing below its AVC in the first place, consumers in essence were given a loan by Amazon — they were able to enjoy what Sussman believes are radically low prices while Amazon works to actually make those prices possible through creating production efficiencies. It seems rather strange to punish a firm for loaning consumers a large measure of wealth. Its doubly odd when you then re-factor the recoupment problem back in: as soon as other firms figure out that a lower AVC is possible, they will enter the market and bid away any monopoly profits from Amazon.
Sussman’s Technical Analysis Is Flawed
While there are issues with Sussman’s general theory of harm, there are also some specific problems with his technical analysis of Amazon’s financial statements.
Capital Leases Are a Fixed Cost
First, capital leases should be not be included in cost calculations for a predatory pricing case because they are fixed — not variable — costs. Again, “below-cost” claims in predatory pricing cases generally use AVC (and sometimes marginal cost) as relevant cost measures.
Capital Leases Are Mostly for Server Farms
Second, the usual story is that Amazon uses its wildly-profitable Amazon Web Services (AWS) division to subsidize predatory pricing in its retail division. But Amazon’s “capital leases” — Sussman’s hidden costs in the free cash flow calculations — are mostly for AWS capital expenditures (i.e., server farms).
According to the most recent annual report: “Property and equipment acquired under capital leases was $5.7 billion, $9.6 billion, and $10.6 billion in 2016, 2017, and 2018, with the increase reflecting investments in support of continued business growth primarily due to investments in technology infrastructure for AWS, which investments we expect to continue over time.”
In other words, any adjustments to the free cash flow numbers for capital leases would make Amazon Web Services appear less profitable, and would not have a large effect on the accounting for Amazon’s retail operation (the only division thus far accused of predatory pricing).
Look at Operating Cash Flow Instead of Free Cash Flow
Again, while cash flow measures cannot prove or disprove the existence of predatory pricing, a positive cash flow measure should make us more skeptical of such accusations. In the retail sector, operating cash flow is the appropriate metric to consider. As shown above, Amazon has had positive (and increasing) operating cash flow since 2002.
Your Theory of Harm Is Also Known as “Investment”
Third, in general, Sussman’s novel predatory pricing theory is indistinguishable from pro-competitive behavior in an industry with high fixed costs. From the abstract (emphasis added):
[N]egative cash flow firm[s] … can achieve greater market share through predatory pricing strategies that involve long-term below average variable cost prices … By charging prices in the present reflecting future lower costs based on prospective technological and scale efficiencies, these firms are able to rationalize their predatory pricing practices to investors and shareholders.
“’Charging prices in the present reflecting future lower costs based on prospective technological and scale efficiencies” is literally what it means to invest in capex and R&D.
Sussman’s paper presents a clever attempt to work around the doctrinal limitations on predatory pricing. But, if courts seriously adopt an approach like this, they will be putting in place a legal apparatus that quite explicitly focuses on discouraging investment. This is one of the last things we should want antitrust law to be doing.