[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]
Jouko Hiltunen gazed out the window into the midday twilight. Eight stories down, across the plaza and promenade, the Helsinki harbor was already blanketed under a dusting of snow. By Christmas, the ice would be thick enough for walking out to the castle at Suomenlinna.
Jouko turned back to his computer screen. His fingers found the keys. At once, lines of code began spilling from the keyboard.
The desk phone rang. Sanna, who occupied the adjacent cubicle, arched her eyebrows. “Legal again?”
Jouko nodded. Without answering the phone, he got up and walked down three flights of stairs. The usual group was assembled in Partanen’s office: the woman in the dour gray suit who looked like an osprey, the fat man from Brussels who made them speak in English, and Partanen, the general counsel.
By habit, Jouko entered and stood behind a chair. Partanen nodded curtly. “We have an issue, Hiltunen. Again.”
“We’ve been watching how you’re coding the new walking tour search vertical. It seems that you are designing it to give preference to restaurants, cafès, and hotels that have been highly rated by the Tourism Board.”
“Yes, that’s right. Restaurants, cafès, and hotels that have been rated by the Tourism Board are cleaner, safer, and more convenient. That’s why they have been rated.”
“But you are forgetting that the Tourism Board is one of our investors. This will be considered self-preferencing.”
“But . . .”
“Listen, Hiltunen. We aren’t here to argue about this. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t be considered self-preferencing, but our company won’t take that risk. Do you understand?”
“Then let me explain it . . .”
But Jouko had already left. When he returned to his desk, Sanna was watching him. “Everything OK?” she asked.
Jouko shrugged. He started typing again, but more slowly than before. An hour later, the phone rang again. This time, Sanna only raised an eyebrow. Jouko gave half a nod and ambled downstairs.
“You are making it worse,” said Partanen. The osprey woman scowled and raked her fingernails across the desk.
“How am I making it worse? I did what you said and eliminated search results defaulting to rated establishments.”
“Yes, but you added a toggle for users to be shown only rated establishments.”
“Only if they decide to be shown only rated establishments. I’m giving them a choice.”
“Choice? What does choice have to do with it? Everyone who uses our search engine is choosing—” Partanen made rabbit ears in the air – “but we have a responsibility not to impede competition. If you give them a suggestive choice” – again, rabbit ears – “that will be considered self-preferencing?”
“Well, maybe it will and maybe it won’t, but the company won’t take the risk.”
When Jouko returned to his desk, Sanna averted her eyes. As he sat motionless behind his keyboard, hands folded in his lap, she occasionally shot him concerned glances.
The darkness outside was nearly complete when the phone rang again. Jouko let it go to voicemail and waited a long time before rising and walking wearily downstairs.
“What now? I haven’t done anything.”
“We’ve been talking and have a new idea. It would be better if you blocked from the search results any restaurants or hotels that have been rated by the Board of Tourism. That way, there is no chance that we will be accused of self-preferencing.”
“Or that people will end up in a safe, clean, or convenient restaurant.”
“That’s not your problem, is it?”
Jouko returned to his cubicle. He did not sit down at his desk, but started putting on his coat.
“Where are you going?” asked Sanna.
“I’m going to walk out towards Suomenlinna.”
Sanna’s voice rose in alarm: “But the ice has barely formed. It won’t hold you.”
Jouko shrugged. “Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. I’ll take the risk.”