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The practice of so-called “self-preferencing” has come to embody the zeitgeist of competition policy for digital markets, as legislative initiatives are undertaken in jurisdictions around the world that to seek, in various ways, to constrain large digital platforms from granting favorable treatment to their own goods and services. The core concern cited by policymakers is that gatekeepers may abuse their dual role—as both an intermediary and a trader operating on the platform—to pursue a strategy of biased intermediation that entrenches their power in core markets (defensive leveraging) and extends it to associated markets (offensive leveraging).

In addition to active interventions by lawmakers, self-preferencing has also emerged as a new theory of harm before European courts and antitrust authorities. Should antitrust enforcers be allowed to pursue such a theory, they would gain significant leeway to bypass the legal standards and evidentiary burdens traditionally required to prove that a given business practice is anticompetitive. This should be of particular concern, given the broad range of practices and types of exclusionary behavior that could be characterized as self-preferencing—only some of which may, in some specific contexts, include exploitative or anticompetitive elements.

In a new working paper for the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE), I provide an overview of the relevant traditional antitrust theories of harm, as well as the emerging case law, to analyze whether and to what extent self-preferencing should be considered a new standalone offense under EU competition law. The experience to date in European case law suggests that courts have been able to address platforms’ self-preferencing practices under existing theories of harm, and that it may not be sufficiently novel to constitute a standalone theory of harm.

European Case Law on Self-Preferencing

Practices by digital platforms that might be deemed self-preferencing first garnered significant attention from European competition enforcers with the European Commission’s Google Shopping investigation, which examined whether the search engine’s results pages positioned and displayed its own comparison-shopping service more favorably than the websites of rival comparison-shopping services. According to the Commission’s findings, Google’s conduct fell outside the scope of competition on the merits and could have the effect of extending Google’s dominant position in the national markets for general Internet search into adjacent national markets for comparison-shopping services, in addition to protecting Google’s dominance in its core search market.

Rather than explicitly posit that self-preferencing (a term the Commission did not use) constituted a new theory of harm, the Google Shopping ruling described the conduct as belonging to the well-known category of “leveraging.” The Commission therefore did not need to propagate a new legal test, as it held that the conduct fell under a well-established form of abuse. The case did, however, spur debate over whether the legal tests the Commission did apply effectively imposed on Google a principle of equal treatment of rival comparison-shopping services.

But it should be noted that conduct similar to that alleged in the Google Shopping investigation actually came before the High Court of England and Wales several months earlier, this time in a dispute between Google and Streetmap. At issue in that case was favorable search results Google granted to its own maps, rather than to competing online maps. The UK Court held, however, that the complaint should have been appropriately characterized as an allegation of discrimination; it further found that Google’s conduct did not constitute anticompetitive foreclosure. A similar result was reached in May 2020 by the Amsterdam Court of Appeal in the Funda case.  

Conversely, in June 2021, the French Competition Authority (AdlC) followed the European Commission into investigating Google’s practices in the digital-advertising sector. Like the Commission, the AdlC did not explicitly refer to self-preferencing, instead describing the conduct as “favoring.”

Given this background and the proliferation of approaches taken by courts and enforcers to address similar conduct, there was significant anticipation for the judgment that the European General Court would ultimately render in the appeal of the Google Shopping ruling. While the General Court upheld the Commission’s decision, it framed self-preferencing as a discriminatory abuse. Further, the Court outlined four criteria that differentiated Google’s self-preferencing from competition on the merits.

Specifically, the Court highlighted the “universal vocation” of Google’s search engine—that it is open to all users and designed to index results containing any possible content; the “superdominant” position that Google holds in the market for general Internet search; the high barriers to entry in the market for general search services; and what the Court deemed Google’s “abnormal” conduct—behaving in a way that defied expectations, given a search engine’s business model, and that changed after the company launched its comparison-shopping service.

While the precise contours of what the Court might consider discriminatory abuse aren’t yet clear, the decision’s listed criteria appear to be narrow in scope. This stands at odds with the much broader application of self-preferencing as a standalone abuse, both by the European Commission itself and by some national competition authorities (NCAs).

Indeed, just a few weeks after the General Court’s ruling, the Italian Competition Authority (AGCM) handed down a mammoth fine against Amazon over preferential treatment granted to third-party sellers who use the company’s own logistics and delivery services. Rather than reflecting the qualified set of criteria laid out by the General Court, the Italian decision was clearly inspired by the Commission’s approach in Google Shopping. Where the Commission described self-preferencing as a new form of leveraging abuse, AGCM characterized Amazon’s practices as tying.

Self-preferencing has also been raised as a potential abuse in the context of data and information practices. In November 2020, the European Commission sent Amazon a statement of objections detailing its preliminary view that the company had infringed antitrust rules by making systematic use of non-public business data, gathered from independent retailers who sell on Amazon’s marketplace, to advantage the company’s own retail business. (Amazon responded with a set of commitments currently under review by the Commission.)

Both the Commission and the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority have lodged similar allegations against Facebook over data gathered from advertisers and then used to compete with those advertisers in markets in which Facebook is active, such as classified ads. The Commission’s antitrust proceeding against Apple over its App Store rules likewise highlights concerns that the company may use its platform position to obtain valuable data about the activities and offers of its competitors, while competing developers may be denied access to important customer data.

These enforcement actions brought by NCAs and the Commission appear at odds with the more bounded criteria set out by the General Court in Google Shopping, and raise tremendous uncertainty regarding the scope and definition of the alleged new theory of harm.

Self-Preferencing, Platform Neutrality, and the Limits of Antitrust Law

The growing tendency to invoke self-preferencing as a standalone theory of antitrust harm could serve two significant goals for European competition enforcers. As mentioned earlier, it offers a convenient shortcut that could allow enforcers to skip the legal standards and evidentiary burdens traditionally required to prove anticompetitive behavior. Moreover, it can function, in practice, as a means to impose a neutrality regime on digital gatekeepers, with the aims of both ensuring a level playing field among competitors and neutralizing the potential conflicts of interests implicated by dual-mode intermediation.

The dual roles performed by some platforms continue to fuel the never-ending debate over vertical integration, as well as related concerns that, by giving preferential treatment to its own products and services, an integrated provider may leverage its dominance in one market to related markets. From this perspective, self-preferencing is an inevitable byproduct of the emergence of ecosystems.

However, as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has recognized, self-preferencing conduct is “often benign.” Furthermore, the total value generated by an ecosystem depends on the activities of independent complementors. Those activities are not completely under the platform’s control, although the platform is required to establish and maintain the governance structures regulating access to and interactions around that ecosystem.

Given this reality, a complete ban on self-preferencing may call the very existence of ecosystems into question, challenging their design and monetization strategies. Preferential treatment can take many different forms with many different potential effects, all stemming from platforms’ many different business models. This counsels for a differentiated, case-by-case, and effects-based approach to assessing the alleged competitive harms of self-preferencing.

Antitrust law does not impose on platforms a general duty to ensure neutrality by sharing their competitive advantages with rivals. Moreover, possessing a competitive advantage does not automatically equal an anticompetitive effect. As the European Court of Justice recently stated in Servizio Elettrico Nazionale, competition law is not intended to protect the competitive structure of the market, but rather to protect consumer welfare. Accordingly, not every exclusionary effect is detrimental to competition. Distinctions must be drawn between foreclosure and anticompetitive foreclosure, as only the latter may be penalized under antitrust.

Last month the EU General Court annulled the EU Commission’s decision to block the proposed merger of Telefónica UK by Hutchison 3G UK. 

It what could be seen as a rebuke of the Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP), the court clarified the proof required to block a merger, which could have a significant effect on future merger enforcement:

In the context of an analysis of a significant impediment to effective competition the existence of which is inferred from a body of evidence and indicia, and which is based on several theories of harm, the Commission is required to produce sufficient evidence to demonstrate with a strong probability the existence of significant impediments following the concentration. Thus, the standard of proof applicable in the present case is therefore stricter than that under which a significant impediment to effective competition is “more likely than not,” on the basis of a “balance of probabilities,” as the Commission maintains. By contrast, it is less strict than a standard of proof based on “being beyond all reasonable doubt.”

Over the relevant time period, there were four retail mobile network operators in the United Kingdom: (1) EE Ltd, (2) O2, (3) Hutchison 3G UK Ltd (“Three”), and (4) Vodafone. The merger would have combined O2 and Three, which would account for 30-40% of the retail market. 

The Commission argued that Three’s growth in market share over time and its classification as a “maverick” demonstrated that Three was an “important competitive force” that would be eliminated with the merger. The court was not convinced: 

The mere growth in gross add shares over several consecutive years of the smallest mobile network operator in an oligopolistic market, namely Three, which has in the past been classified as a “maverick” by the Commission (Case COMP/M.5650 — T-Mobile/Orange) and in the Statement of Objections in the present case, does not in itself constitute sufficient evidence of that operator’s power on the market or of the elimination of the important competitive constraints that the parties to the concentration exert upon each other.

While the Commission classified Three as a maverick, it also claimed that maverick status was not necessary to be an important competitive force. Nevertheless, the Commission pointed to Three’s history of maverick-y behavior by launching its “One Plan” as well as free international roaming and offering 4G at no additional cost. The court, however, noted that those initiatives were “historical in nature,” and provided no evidence of future conduct: 

The Commission’s reasoning in that regard seems to imply that an undertaking which has historically played a disruptive role will necessarily play the same role in the future and cannot reposition itself on the market by adopting a different pricing policy.

The EU General Court appears to express the same frustration with mavericks as the court in in H&R Block/TaxACT: “The arguments over whether TaxACT is or is not a ‘maverick’ — or whether perhaps it once was a maverick but has not been a maverick recently — have not been particularly helpful to the Court’s analysis.”

With the General Court’s recent decision raising the bar of proof required to block a merger, it also provided a “strong probability” that the days of maverick madness may soon be over.