The United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) late last month moved to block Microsoft’s proposed vertical acquisition of Activision Blizzard, a video-game developer that creates and publishes games such as Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Diablo, and Overwatch. Microsoft summarized this transaction’s substantial benefits to video game players in its January 2022 press release announcing the proposed merger.
The CMA based its decision on speculative future harm in UK cloud-based gaming, neglecting the dramatic and far more likely dynamic competitive benefits the transaction would produce in gaming markets. The FTC announced its own challenge to the merger in December and has scheduled administrative hearings into the matter later in 2023.
If not overturned on appeal, the CMA’s decision is likely to reduce future consumer welfare and innovation in the gaming sector, to the detriment of producers and consumers.
Microsoft has a strong position in cloud gaming services and the evidence available to the CMA showed that Microsoft would find it commercially beneficial to make Activision’s games exclusive to its own cloud gaming service.
Microsoft already accounts for an estimated 60-70% of global cloud gaming services and has other important strengths in cloud gaming from owning Xbox, the leading PC operating system (Windows) and a global cloud computing infrastructure (Azure and Xbox Cloud Gaming).
The deal would reinforce Microsoft’s advantage in the market by giving it control over important gaming content such as Call of Duty, Overwatch, and World of Warcraft. The evidence available to the CMA indicates that, absent the merger, Activision would start providing games via cloud platforms in the foreseeable future.
The CMA’s discussion ignores a number of salient facts regarding cloud gaming. Cloud gaming has not yet arrived as a major competitor to device-based gaming, as Dirk Auer points out (see also here regarding problems that have constrained the rapid emergence of cloud gaming). Google, for example, discontinued its Stadia cloud-gaming service just over three months ago, “after having failed to gain the traction that the company was expecting” (see here). Although cloud gaming does not require the purchase of specific gaming devices, it does require substantial bandwidth, stable internet connections, and subscriptions to particular services.
What’s more, Microsoft offered the CMA significant concessions to ensure that leading Activision games would remain available on other platforms for at least 10 years (see here, for example). The CMA itself acknowledged this in announcing its opposition to the merger, but rejected Microsoft’s proposals, stating:
Accepting Microsoft’s remedy would inevitably require some degree of regulatory oversight by the CMA. By contrast, preventing the merger would effectively allow market forces to continue to operate and shape the development of cloud gaming without this regulatory intervention.
Ironically, the real “regulatory intervention” that threatens to hinder market forces is the CMA’s blocking of this transaction, which (as a vertical merger) does not eliminate any direct competition and, to the contrary, promises to reinvigorate direct competition with Sony’s PlayStation. As Aurelien Portuese explains:
Sony is cheering on . . . attempt[s] to block Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision. Why? The proposed merger is a bid to offer a robust platform with high-quality games and provide resources for creators to produce more gaming innovation. That’s great for gamers, but threatening to Japanese industry titans Sony and Nintendo, because it would also create a company capable of competing with them more effectively.
If antitrust officials block the merger, they would be giving Sony and its 70 percent share of the global gaming console market the upper hand while preventing Microsoft and its 30 percent market share from effectively challenging the incumbent. That would be a complete reversal of competition policy.
The Japanese gaming industry dominates the world—and yet, U.S. antitrust officials may very well further cement this already decades-long dominance by blocking the Activision-Microsoft merger. Wielding antitrust to impose a twisted conception of domestic competition at the expense of global competitiveness must end, and the proposed Activision-Microsoft combination exemplifies why.
Furthermore, Portuese debunks the notion that Microsoft would have a future incentive to deny access to Activision’s high-selling Call of Duty franchise, reemphasizing the vigorous nature of gaming competition post-merger:
[T]he very idea that Microsoft would want to foreclose access to “Call of Duty” for PlayStation users is controversial. Microsoft would rationally have little incentive to reduce sales across platforms of a popular game. Moreover, Microsoft’s competitive position is weaker than the FTC seems to think: It faces competition from gaming industry incumbents such as Sony, Nintendo, and Epic Games, and from other large tech companies such as Apple, Amazon, Google, Tencent, and Meta.
In short, there are strong reasons to believe that gaming competition would be enhanced by the Microsoft-Activision merger. What’s more, the merger would likely generate efficiencies of integration, such as the promotion of cross-team collaboration (see here, for example). Notably, in announcing its decision to block the merger, even the CMA acknowledged “the benefit of having Activision’s content available on [Microsoft’s subscription service] Game Pass.” In contrast, theoretical concerns about merger-related potential threats to future cloud-gaming competition are uncertain and not well-grounded.
The CMA should not have blocked the merger. The agency’s opposition to this transaction reflects a blinkered focus on questionable possible future harm in a not-yet developed market, and a failure to properly weigh likely substantial near-term competitive benefits in a thriving existing market.
This is the sort of decision that tends to discourage future procompetitive efficiencies-generating high-tech acquisitions, to the detriment of producers and consumers.
The threat to future vertical mergers that bring together complementary assets to generate attractive new offerings for consumers in dynamically evolving market sectors is particularly unfortunate. Competition agencies should reflect on this reality and rethink their approaches. (FTC, are you paying attention?)
With just a week to go until the U.S. midterm elections, which potentially herald a change in control of one or both houses of Congress, speculation is mounting that congressional Democrats may seek to use the lame-duck session following the election to move one or more pieces of legislation targeting the so-called “Big Tech” companies.
Gaining particular notice—on grounds that it is the least controversial of the measures—is S. 2710, the Open App Markets Act (OAMA). Introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the Senate bill has garnered 14 cosponsors: exactly seven Republicans and seven Democrats. It would, among other things, force certain mobile app stores and operating systems to allow “sideloading” and open their platforms to rival in-app payment systems.
Unfortunately, even this relatively restrained legislation—at least, when compared to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) American Innovation and Choice Online Act or the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA)—is highly problematic in its own right. Here, I will offer seven major questions the legislation leaves unresolved.
1. Are Quantitative Thresholds a Good Indicator of ‘Gatekeeper Power’?
It is no secret that OAMA has been tailor-made to regulate two specific app stores: Android’s Google Play Store and Apple’s Apple App Store (see here, here, and, yes, even Wikipedia knows it).The text makes this clear by limiting the bill’s scope to app stores with more than 50 million users, a threshold that only Google Play and the Apple App Store currently satisfy.
However, purely quantitative thresholds are a poor indicator of a company’s potential “gatekeeper power.” An app store might have much fewer than 50 million users but cater to a relevant niche market. By the bill’s own logic, why shouldn’t that app store likewise be compelled to be open to competing app distributors? Conversely, it may be easy for users of very large app stores to multi-home or switch seamlessly to competing stores. In either case, raw user data paints a distorted picture of the market’s realities.
As it stands, the bill’s thresholds appear arbitrary and pre-committed to “disciplining” just two companies: Google and Apple. In principle, good laws should be abstract and general and not intentionally crafted to apply only to a few select actors. In OAMA’s case, the law’s specific thresholds are also factually misguided, as purely quantitative criteria are not a good proxy for the sort of market power the bill purportedly seeks to curtail.
2. Why Does the Bill not Apply to all App Stores?
Rather than applying to app stores across the board, OAMA targets only those associated with mobile devices and “general purpose computing devices.” It’s not clear why.
For example, why doesn’t it cover app stores on gaming platforms, such as Microsoft’s Xbox or Sony’s PlayStation?
Currently, a PlayStation user can only buy digital games through the PlayStation Store, where Sony reportedly takes a 30% cut of all sales—although its pricing schedule is less transparent than that of mobile rivals such as Apple or Google.
Clearly, this bothers some developers. Much like Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney’s ongoing crusade against the Apple App Store, indie-game publisher Iain Garner of Neon Doctrine recently took to Twitter to complain about Sony’s restrictive practices. According to Garner, “Platform X” (clearly PlayStation) charges developers up to $25,000 and 30% of subsequent earnings to give games a modicum of visibility on the platform, in addition to requiring them to jump through such hoops as making a PlayStation-specific trailer and writing a blog post. Garner further alleges that Sony severely circumscribes developers’ ability to offer discounts, “meaning that Platform X owners will always get the worst deal!” (see also here).
Microsoft’s Xbox Game Store similarly takes a 30% cut of sales. Presumably, Microsoft and Sony both have the same type of gatekeeper power in the gaming-console market that Apple and Google are said to have on their respective platforms, leading to precisely those issues that OAMA ostensibly purports to combat. Namely, that consumers are not allowed to choose alternative app stores through which to buy games on their respective consoles, and developers must acquiesce to Sony’s and Microsoft’s terms if they want their games to reach those players.
More broadly, dozens of online platforms also charge commissions on the sales made by their creators. To cite but a few: OnlyFans takes a 20% cut of sales; Facebook gets 30% of the revenue that creators earn from their followers; YouTube takes 45% of ad revenue generated by users; and Twitch reportedly rakes in 50% of subscription fees.
This is not to say that all these services are monopolies that should be regulated. To the contrary, it seems like fees in the 20-30% range are common even in highly competitive environments. Rather, it is merely to observe that there are dozens of online platforms that demand a percentage of the revenue that creators generate and that prevent those creators from bypassing the platform. As well they should, after all, because creating and improving a platform is not free.
It is nonetheless difficult to see why legislation regulating online marketplaces should focus solely on two mobile app stores. Ultimately, the inability of OAMA’s sponsors to properly account for this carveout diminishes the law’s credibility.
3. Should Picking Among Legitimate Business Models Be up to Lawmakers or Consumers?
“Open” and “closed” platforms posit two different business models, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Some consumers may prefer more open platforms because they grant them more flexibility to customize their mobile devices and operating systems. But there are also compelling reasons to prefer closed systems. As Sam Bowman observed, narrowing choice through a more curated system frees users from having to research every possible option every time they buy or use some product. Instead, they can defer to the platform’s expertise in determining whether an app or app store is trustworthy or whether it contains, say, objectionable content.
Currently, users can choose to opt for Apple’s semi-closed “walled garden” iOS or Google’s relatively more open Android OS (which OAMA wants to pry open even further). Ironically, under the pretext of giving users more “choice,” OAMA would take away the possibility of choice where it matters the most—i.e., at the platform level. As Mikolaj Barczentewicz has written:
A sideloading mandate aims to give users more choice. It can only achieve this, however, by taking away the option of choosing a device with a “walled garden” approach to privacy and security (such as is taken by Apple with iOS).
This obviates the nuances between the two and pushes Android and iOS to converge around a single model. But if consumers unequivocally preferred open platforms, Apple would have no customers, because everyone would already be on Android.
Contrary to regulators’ simplistic assumptions, “open” and “closed” are not synonyms for “good” and “bad.” Instead, as Boston University’s Andrei Hagiu has shown, there are fundamental welfare tradeoffs at play between these two perfectly valid business models that belie simplistic characterizations of one being inherently superior to the other.
It is debatable whether courts, regulators, or legislators are well-situated to resolve these complex tradeoffs by substituting businesses’ product-design decisions and consumers’ revealed preferences with their own. After all, if regulators had such perfect information, we wouldn’t need markets or competition in the first place.
4. Does OAMA Account for the Security Risks of Sideloading?
Both Apple and Google do this, albeit to varying degrees. For instance, Android already allows sideloading and third-party in-app payment systems to some extent, while Apple runs a tighter ship. However, studies have shown that it is precisely the iOS “walled garden” model which gives it an edge over Android in terms of privacy and security. Even vocal Apple critic Tim Sweeney recently acknowledged that increased safety and privacy were competitive advantages for Apple.
The problem is that far-reaching sideloading mandates—such as the ones contemplated under OAMA—are fundamentally at odds with current privacy and security capabilities (see here and here).
OAMA’s defenders might argue that the law does allow covered platforms to raise safety and security defenses, thus making the tradeoffs between openness and security unnecessary. But the bill places such stringent conditions on those defenses that platform operators will almost certainly be deterred from risking running afoul of the law’s terms. To invoke the safety and security defenses, covered companies must demonstrate that provisions are applied on a “demonstrably consistent basis”; are “narrowly tailored and could not be achieved through less discriminatory means”; and are not used as a “pretext to exclude or impose unnecessary or discriminatory terms.”
Implementing these stringent requirements will drag enforcers into a micromanagement quagmire. There are thousands of potential spyware, malware, rootkit, backdoor, and phishing (to name just a few) software-security issues—all of which pose distinct threats to an operating system. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the federal courts will almost certainly struggle to control the “consistency” requirement across such varied types.
Likewise, OAMA’s reference to “least discriminatory means” suggests there is only one valid answer to any given security-access tradeoff. Further, depending on one’s preferred balance between security and “openness,” a claimed security risk may or may not be “pretextual,” and thus may or may not be legal.
Finally, the bill text appears to preclude the possibility of denying access to a third-party app or app store for reasons other than safety and privacy. This would undermine Apple’s and Google’s two-tiered quality-control systems, which also control for “objectionable” content such as (child) pornography and social engineering.
5. How Will OAMA Safeguard the Rights of Covered Platforms?
OAMA is also deeply flawed from a procedural standpoint. Most importantly, there is no meaningful way to contest the law’s designation as “covered company,” or the harms associated with it.
Once a company is “covered,” it is presumed to hold gatekeeper power, with all the associated risks for competition, innovation, and consumer choice. Remarkably, this presumption does not admit any qualitative or quantitative evidence to the contrary. The only thing a covered company can do to rebut the designation is to demonstrate that it, in fact, has fewer than 50 million users.
By preventing companies from showing that they do not hold the kind of gatekeeper power that harms competition, decreases innovation, raises prices, and reduces choice (the bill’s stated objectives), OAMA severely tilts the playing field in the FTC’s favor. Even the EU’s enforcer-friendly DMA incorporated a last-minute amendment allowing firms to dispute their status as “gatekeepers.” While this defense is not perfect (companies cannot rely on the same qualitative evidence that the European Commission can use against them), at least gatekeeper status can be contested under the DMA.
6. Should Legislation Protect Competitors at the Expense of Consumers?
Like most of the new wave of regulatory initiatives against Big Tech (but unlike antitrust law), OAMA is explicitly designed to help competitors, with consumers footing the bill.
For example, OAMA prohibits covered companies from using or combining nonpublic data obtained from third-party apps or app stores operating on their platforms in competition with those third parties. While this may have the short-term effect of redistributing rents away from these platforms and toward competitors, it risks harming consumers and third-party developers in the long run.
Platforms’ ability to integrate such data is part of what allows them to bring better and improved products and services to consumers in the first place. OAMA tacitly admits this by recognizing that the use of nonpublic data grants covered companies a competitive advantage. In other words, it allows them to deliver a product that is better than competitors’.
Prohibiting self-preferencing raises similar concerns. Why wouldn’t a company that has invested billions in developing a successful platform and ecosystem not give preference to its own products to recoup some of that investment? After all, the possibility of exercising some control over downstream and adjacent products is what might have driven the platform’s development in the first place. In other words, self-preferencing may be a symptom of competition, and not the absence thereof. Third-party companies also would have weaker incentives to develop their own platforms if they can free-ride on the investments of others. And platforms that favor their own downstream products might simply be better positioned to guarantee their quality and reliability (see here and here).
In all of these cases, OAMA’s myopic focus on improving the lot of competitors for easy political points will upend the mobile ecosystems from which both users and developers derive significant benefit.
7. Shouldn’t the EU Bear the Risks of Bad Tech Regulation?
Finally, U.S. lawmakers should ask themselves whether the European Union, which has no tech leaders of its own, is really a model to emulate. Today, after all, marks the day the long-awaited Digital Markets Act— the EU’s response to perceived contestability and fairness problems in the digital economy—officially takes effect. In anticipation of the law entering into force, I summarized some of the outstanding issues that will define implementation moving forward in this recent tweet thread.
We have been critical of the DMA here at Truth on the Market on several factual, legal, economic, and procedural grounds. The law’s problems range from it essentially being a tool to redistribute rents away from platforms and to third-parties, despite it being unclear why the latter group is inherently more deserving (Pablo Ibañez Colomo has raised a similar point); to its opacity and lack of clarity, a process that appears tilted in the Commission’s favor; to the awkward way it interacts with EU competition law, ignoring the welfare tradeoffs between the models it seeks to impose and perfectly valid alternatives (see here and here); to its flawed assumptions (see, e.g., here on contestability under the DMA); to the dubious legal and economic value of the theory of harm known as “self-preferencing”; to the very real possibility of unintended consequences (e.g., in relation to security and interoperability mandates).
In other words, that the United States lags the EU in seeking to regulate this area might not be a bad thing, after all. Despite the EU’s insistence on being a trailblazing agenda-setter at all costs, the wiser thing in tech regulation might be to remain at a safe distance. This is particularly true when one considers the potentially large costs of legislative missteps and the difficulty of recalibrating once a course has been set.
U.S. lawmakers should take advantage of this dynamic and learn from some of the Old Continent’s mistakes. If they play their cards right and take the time to read the writing on the wall, they might just succeed in averting antitrust’s uncertain future.