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The dust has barely settled on the European Commission’s record-breaking €4.3 Billion Google Android fine, but already the European Commission is gearing up for its next high-profile case. Last month, Margrethe Vestager dropped a competition bombshell: the European watchdog is looking into the behavior of Amazon. Should the Commission decide to move further with the investigation, Amazon will likely join other US tech firms such as Microsoft, Intel, Qualcomm and, of course, Google, who have all been on the receiving end of European competition enforcement.

The Commission’s move – though informal at this stage – is not surprising. Over the last couples of years, Amazon has become one of the world’s largest and most controversial companies. The animosity against it is exemplified in a paper by Lina Khan, which uses the example of Amazon to highlight the numerous ills that allegedly plague modern antitrust law. The paper is widely regarded as the starting point of the so-called “hipster antitrust” movement.

But is there anything particularly noxious about Amazon’s behavior, or is it just the latest victim of a European crusade against American tech companies?

Where things stand so far

As is often the case in such matters, publicly available information regarding the Commission’s “probe” (the European watchdog is yet to open a formal investigation) is particularly thin. What we know so far comes from a number of declarations made by Margrethe Vestager (here and here) and a leaked questionnaire that was sent to Amazon’s rivals. Going on this limited information, it appears that the Commission is preoccupied about the manner in which Amazon uses the data that it gathers from its online merchants. In Vestager’s own words:

The question here is about the data, because if you as Amazon get the data from the smaller merchants that you host […] do you then also use this data to do your own calculations? What is the new big thing, what is it that people want, what kind of offers do they like to receive, what makes them buy things.

These concerns relate to the fact that Amazon acts as both a retailer in its own right and a platform for other retailers, which allegedly constitutes a “conflict of interest”. As a retailer, Amazon sells a wide range of goods directly to consumers. Meanwhile, its marketplace platform enables third party merchants to offer their goods in exchange for referral fees when items are sold (these fees typically range from 8% to 15%, depending on the type of good). Merchants can either execute theses orders themselves or opt for fulfilment by Amazon, in which case it handles storage and shipping. In addition to its role as a platform operator,  As of 2017, more than 50% of units sold on the Amazon marketplace where fulfilled by third-party sellers, although Amazon derived three times more revenue from its own sales than from those of third parties (note that Amazon Web Services is still by far its largest source of profits).

Mirroring concerns raised by Khan, the Commission worries that Amazon uses the data it gathers from third party retailers on its platform to outcompete them. More specifically, the concern is that Amazon might use this data to identify and enter the most profitable segments of its online platform, excluding other retailers in the process (or deterring them from joining the platform in the first place). Although there is some empirical evidence to support such claims, it is far from clear that this is in any way harmful to competition or consumers. Indeed, the authors of the paper that found evidence in support of the claims note:

Amazon is less likely to enter product spaces that require greater seller efforts to grow, suggesting that complementors’ platform‐specific investments influence platform owners’ entry decisions. While Amazon’s entry discourages affected third‐party sellers from subsequently pursuing growth on the platform, it increases product demand and reduces shipping costs for consumers.

Thou shalt not punish efficient behavior

The question is whether Amazon using data on rivals’ sales to outcompete them should raise competition concerns? After all, this is a standard practice in the brick-and-mortar industry, where most large retailers use house brands to go after successful, high-margin third-party brands. Some, such as Costco, even eliminate some third-party products from their shelves once they have a successful own-brand product. Granted, as Khan observes, Amazon may be doing this more effectively because it has access to vastly superior data. But does that somehow make Amazon’s practice harmful to social social welfare? Absent further evidence, I believe not.

The basic problem is the following. Assume that Amazon does indeed have a monopoly in the market for online retail platforms (or, in other words, that the Amazon marketplace is a bottleneck for online retailers). Why would it move into direct retail competition against its third party sellers if it is less efficient than them? Amazon would either have to sell at a loss or hope that consumers saw something in its products that warrants a higher price. A more profitable alternative would be to stay put and increase its fees. It could thereby capture all the profits of its independent retailers. Not that Amazon would necessarily want to do so, as this could potentially deter other retailers from joining its platform. The upshot is that Amazon has little incentive to exclude more efficient retailers.

Astute readers, will have observed that this is simply a restatement of the Chicago school’s Single Monopoly Theory, which broadly holds that, absent efficiencies, a monopolist in one line of commerce cannot increase its profits by entering the competitive market for a complementary good. Although the theory has drawn some criticism, it remains a crucial starting point with which enforcers must contend before they conclude that a monopolist’s behavior is anticompetitive.

So why does Amazon move into retail segments that are already occupied by its rivals? The most likely explanation is simply that it can source and sell these goods more efficiently than them, and that these efficiencies cannot be achieved through contracts with the said rivals. Once we accept the possibility that Amazon is simply more efficient, the picture changes dramatically. The sooner it overthrows less efficient rivals the better. Doing so creates valuable surplus that can flow to either itself or its consumers. This is true regardless of whether Amazon has a marketplace monopoly or not. Even if it does have a monopoly (which is doubtful given competition from the likes of Zalando, AliExpress, Google Search and eBay), at least some of these efficiencies will likely be passed on to consumers. Such a scenario is also perfectly compatible with increased profits for Amazon. The real test is whether output increases when Amazon enters segments that were previously occupied by rivals.

Of course, the usual critiques voiced against the “Single Monopoly Profit” theory apply here. It is plausible that, by excluding its retail rivals, Amazon is simply seeking to protect its alleged platform monopoly. However, the anecdotal evidence that has been raised thus far does not support this conclusion.

But what about innovation?

Possibly sensing the weakness of the “inefficiency” line of arguments against Amazon, critics will likely put put forward a second theory of harm. The claim is that by capturing the rents of potentially innovative retailers, Amazon may hamper their incentives to innovate and will therefore harm consumer choice. Margrethe Vestager intimated this much in a Bloomberg interview. Though this framing might seem tempting at first, it falters under close inspection.

The effects of Amazon’s behavior could first be framed in terms of appropriability — that is: the extent to which an innovator captures the social benefits of its innovation. The higher its share of those benefits, the larger its incentives to innovate. By forcing out its retail rivals, it is plausible that Amazon is reducing the returns which they earn on their potential innovations.

Another potential framing is that of holdup theory. Applied to this case, one could argue that rival retailers made sunk investments (potentially innovation-related) to join the Amazon platform, and that Amazon is behaving opportunistically by capturing their surplus. With hindsight, merchants might thus have opted to stay out of the Amazon marketplace.

Unfortunately for Amazon’s critics, there are numerous objections to these two framings. For a start, the business implication of both the appropriability and holdup theories is that firms can and should take sensible steps to protect their investments. The recent empirical paper mentioned above stresses that these actions are critical for the sake of Amazon’s retailers.

Potential solutions abound. Retailers could in principle enter into long-term exclusivity agreements with their suppliers (which would keep Amazon out of the market if there are no alternative suppliers). Alternatively, they could sign non-compete clauses with Amazon, exchange assets, or even outright merge. In fact, there is at least some evidence of this last possibility occurring, as Amazon has acquired some of its online retailers. The fact that some retailers have not opted for these safety measures (or other methods of appropriability) suggests that they either don’t perceive a threat or are unwilling to make the necessary investments. It might also be due to bad business judgement on their part).

Which brings us to the big question. Should competition law step into the breach in those cases where firms have refused to take even basic steps to protect their investments? The answer is probably no.

For a start, condoning this poor judgement encourages firms to rely on competition enforcement rather than private solutions  to solve appropriability and holdup issues. This is best understood with reference to moral hazard. By insuring firms against the capture of their profits, competition authorities disincentivize all forms of risk-mitigation on the part of those firms. This will ultimately raise enforcement costs (as firms become increasingly reliant on the antitrust system for protection).

It is also informationally much more burdensome, as authorities will systematically have to rule on the appropriate share of profits between parties to a case.

Finally, overprotecting these investments would go against the philosophy of the European Court of Justice’s Huawei ruling.  Albeit in the specific context of injunctions relating to SEPs, the Court conditioned competition liability on firms showing that they have taken a series of reasonable steps to sort out their disputes privately.

Concluding remarks

This is not to say that competition intervention should categorically be proscribed. But rather that the capture of a retailer’s investments by Amazon is an insufficient condition for enforcement actions. Instead, the Commission should question whether Amazon’s actions are truly detrimental to consumer welfare and output. Absent strong evidence that an excluded retailer offered superior products, or that Amazon’s move was merely a strategic play to prevent entry, competition authorities should let the chips fall where they may.

As things stand, there is simply no evidence to indicate that anything out of the ordinary is occurring on the Amazon marketplace. By shining the spotlight on Amazon, the Commission is putting itself under tremendous political pressure to move forward with a formal investigation (all the more so, given the looming European Parliament elections). This is regrettable, as there are surely more pressing matters for the European regulator to deal with. The Commission would thus do well to recall the words of Shakespeare in the Merchant of Venice: “All that glisters is not gold”. Applied in competition circles this translates to “all that is big is not inefficient”.

Nearly all economists from across the political spectrum agree: free trade is good. Yet free trade agreements are not always the same thing as free trade. Whether we’re talking about the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the European Union’s Digital Single Market (DSM) initiative, the question is always whether the agreement in question is reducing barriers to trade, or actually enacting barriers to trade into law.

It’s becoming more and more clear that there should be real concerns about the direction the EU is heading with its DSM. As the EU moves forward with the 16 different action proposals that make up this ambitious strategy, we should all pay special attention to the actual rules that come out of it, such as the recent Data Protection Regulation. Are EU regulators simply trying to hogtie innovators in the the wild, wild, west, as some have suggested? Let’s break it down. Here are The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good

The Data Protection Regulation, as proposed by the Ministers of Justice Council and to be taken up in trilogue negotiations with the Parliament and Council this month, will set up a single set of rules for companies to follow throughout the EU. Rather than having to deal with the disparate rules of 28 different countries, companies will have to follow only the EU-wide Data Protection Regulation. It’s hard to determine whether the EU is right about its lofty estimate of this benefit (€2.3 billion a year), but no doubt it’s positive. This is what free trade is about: making commerce “regular” by reducing barriers to trade between states and nations.

Additionally, the Data Protection Regulation would create a “one-stop shop” for consumers and businesses alike. Regardless of where companies are located or process personal information, consumers would be able to go to their own national authority, in their own language, to help them. Similarly, companies would need to deal with only one supervisory authority.

Further, there will be benefits to smaller businesses. For instance, the Data Protection Regulation will exempt businesses smaller than a certain threshold from the obligation to appoint a data protection officer if data processing is not a part of their core business activity. On top of that, businesses will not have to notify every supervisory authority about each instance of collection and processing, and will have the ability to charge consumers fees for certain requests to access data. These changes will allow businesses, especially smaller ones, to save considerable money and human capital. Finally, smaller entities won’t have to carry out an impact assessment before engaging in processing unless there is a specific risk. These rules are designed to increase flexibility on the margin.

If this were all the rules were about, then they would be a boon to the major American tech companies that have expressed concern about the DSM. These companies would be able to deal with EU citizens under one set of rules and consumers would be able to take advantage of the many benefits of free flowing information in the digital economy.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the substance of the Data Protection Regulation isn’t limited simply to preempting 28 bad privacy rules with an economically sensible standard for Internet companies that rely on data collection and targeted advertising for their business model. Instead, the Data Protection Regulation would set up new rules that will impose significant costs on the Internet ecosphere.

For instance, giving citizens a “right to be forgotten” sounds good, but it will considerably impact companies built on providing information to the world. There are real costs to administering such a rule, and these costs will not ultimately be borne by search engines, social networks, and advertisers, but by consumers who ultimately will have to find either a different way to pay for the popular online services they want or go without them. For instance, Google has had to hire a large “team of lawyers, engineers and paralegals who have so far evaluated over half a million URLs that were requested to be delisted from search results by European citizens.”

Privacy rights need to be balanced with not only economic efficiency, but also with the right to free expression that most European countries hold (though not necessarily with a robust First Amendment like that in the United States). Stories about the right to be forgotten conflicting with the ability of journalists to report on issues of public concern make clear that there is a potential problem there. The Data Protection Regulation does attempt to balance the right to be forgotten with the right to report, but it’s not likely that a similar rule would survive First Amendment scrutiny in the United States. American companies accustomed to such protections will need to be wary operating under the EU’s standard.

Similarly, mandating rules on data minimization and data portability may sound like good design ideas in light of data security and privacy concerns, but there are real costs to consumers and innovation in forcing companies to adopt particular business models.

Mandated data minimization limits the ability of companies to innovate and lessens the opportunity for consumers to benefit from unexpected uses of information. Overly strict requirements on data minimization could slow down the incredible growth of the economy from the Big Data revolution, which has provided a plethora of benefits to consumers from new uses of information, often in ways unfathomable even a short time ago. As an article in Harvard Magazine recently noted,

The story [of data analytics] follows a similar pattern in every field… The leaders are qualitative experts in their field. Then a statistical researcher who doesn’t know the details of the field comes in and, using modern data analysis, adds tremendous insight and value.

And mandated data portability is an overbroad per se remedy for possible exclusionary conduct that could also benefit consumers greatly. The rule will apply to businesses regardless of market power, meaning that it will also impair small companies with no ability to actually hurt consumers by restricting their ability to take data elsewhere. Aside from this, multi-homing is ubiquitous in the Internet economy, anyway. This appears to be another remedy in search of a problem.

The bad news is that these rules will likely deter innovation and reduce consumer welfare for EU citizens.

The Ugly

Finally, the Data Protection Regulation suffers from an ugly defect: it may actually be ratifying a form of protectionism into the rules. Both the intent and likely effect of the rules appears to be to “level the playing field” by knocking down American Internet companies.

For instance, the EU has long allowed flexibility for US companies operating in Europe under the US-EU Safe Harbor. But EU officials are aiming at reducing this flexibility. As the Wall Street Journal has reported:

For months, European government officials and regulators have clashed with the likes of Google, Amazon.com and Facebook over everything from taxes to privacy…. “American companies come from outside and act as if it was a lawless environment to which they are coming,” [Commissioner Reding] told the Journal. “There are conflicts not only about competition rules but also simply about obeying the rules.” In many past tussles with European officialdom, American executives have countered that they bring innovation, and follow all local laws and regulations… A recent EU report found that European citizens’ personal data, sent to the U.S. under Safe Harbor, may be processed by U.S. authorities in a way incompatible with the grounds on which they were originally collected in the EU. Europeans allege this harms European tech companies, which must play by stricter rules about what they can do with citizens’ data for advertising, targeting products and searches. Ms. Reding said Safe Harbor offered a “unilateral advantage” to American companies.

Thus, while “when in Rome…” is generally good advice, the Data Protection Regulation appears to be aimed primarily at removing the “advantages” of American Internet companies—at which rent-seekers and regulators throughout the continent have taken aim. As mentioned above, supporters often name American companies outright in the reasons for why the DSM’s Data Protection Regulation are needed. But opponents have noted that new regulation aimed at American companies is not needed in order to police abuses:

Speaking at an event in London, [EU Antitrust Chief] Ms. Vestager said it would be “tricky” to design EU regulation targeting the various large Internet firms like Facebook, Amazon.com Inc. and eBay Inc. because it was hard to establish what they had in common besides “facilitating something”… New EU regulation aimed at reining in large Internet companies would take years to create and would then address historic rather than future problems, Ms. Vestager said. “We need to think about what it is we want to achieve that can’t be achieved by enforcing competition law,” Ms. Vestager said.

Moreover, of the 15 largest Internet companies, 11 are American and 4 are Chinese. None is European. So any rules applying to the Internet ecosphere are inevitably going to disproportionately affect these important, US companies most of all. But if Europe wants to compete more effectively, it should foster a regulatory regime friendly to Internet business, rather than extend inefficient privacy rules to American companies under the guise of free trade.

Conclusion

Near the end of the The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Blondie and Tuco have this exchange that seems apropos to the situation we’re in:

Bloeastwoodndie: [watching the soldiers fighting on the bridge] I have a feeling it’s really gonna be a good, long battle.
Tuco: Blondie, the money’s on the other side of the river.
Blondie: Oh? Where?
Tuco: Amigo, I said on the other side, and that’s enough. But while the Confederates are there we can’t get across.
Blondie: What would happen if somebody were to blow up that bridge?

The EU’s DSM proposals are going to be a good, long battle. But key players in the EU recognize that the tech money — along with the services and ongoing innovation that benefit EU citizens — is really on the other side of the river. If they blow up the bridge of trade between the EU and the US, though, we will all be worse off — but Europeans most of all.