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Over the past decade and a half, virtually every branch of the federal government has taken steps to weaken the patent system. As reflected in President Joe Biden’s July 2021 executive order, these restraints on patent enforcement are now being coupled with antitrust policies that, in large part, adopt a “big is bad” approach in place of decades of economically grounded case law and agency guidelines.

This policy bundle is nothing new. It largely replicates the innovation policies pursued during the late New Deal and the postwar decades. That historical experience suggests that a “weak-patent/strong-antitrust” approach is likely to encourage neither innovation nor competition.

The Overlooked Shortfalls of New Deal Innovation Policy

Starting in the early 1930s, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a sequence of decisions that raised obstacles to patent enforcement. The Franklin Roosevelt administration sought to take this policy a step further, advocating compulsory licensing for all patents. While Congress did not adopt this proposal, it was partially implemented as a de facto matter through antitrust enforcement. Starting in the early 1940s and continuing throughout the postwar decades, the antitrust agencies secured judicial precedents that treated a broad range of licensing practices as per se illegal. Perhaps most dramatically, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) secured more than 100 compulsory licensing orders against some of the nation’s largest companies. 

The rationale behind these policies was straightforward. By compelling access to incumbents’ patented technologies, courts and regulators would lower barriers to entry and competition would intensify. The postwar economy declined to comply with policymakers’ expectations. Implementation of a weak-IP/strong-antitrust innovation policy over the course of four decades yielded the opposite of its intended outcome. 

Market concentration did not diminish, turnover in market leadership was slow, and private research and development (R&D) was confined mostly to the research labs of the largest corporations (who often relied on generous infusions of federal defense funding). These tendencies are illustrated by the dramatically unequal allocation of innovation capital in the postwar economy.  As of the late 1950s, small firms represented approximately 7% of all private U.S. R&D expenditures.  Two decades later, that figure had fallen even further. By the late 1970s, patenting rates had plunged, and entrepreneurship and innovation were in a state of widely lamented decline.

Why Weak IP Raises Entry Costs and Promotes Concentration

The decline in entrepreneurial innovation under a weak-IP regime was not accidental. Rather, this outcome can be derived logically from the economics of information markets.

Without secure IP rights to establish exclusivity, engage securely with business partners, and deter imitators, potential innovator-entrepreneurs had little hope to obtain funding from investors. In contrast, incumbents could fund R&D internally (or with federal funds that flowed mostly to the largest computing, communications, and aerospace firms) and, even under a weak-IP regime, were protected by difficult-to-match production and distribution efficiencies. As a result, R&D mostly took place inside the closed ecosystems maintained by incumbents such as AT&T, IBM, and GE.

Paradoxically, the antitrust campaign against patent “monopolies” most likely raised entry barriers and promoted industry concentration by removing a critical tool that smaller firms might have used to challenge incumbents that could outperform on every competitive parameter except innovation. While the large corporate labs of the postwar era are rightly credited with technological breakthroughs, incumbents such as AT&T were often slow in transforming breakthroughs in basic research into commercially viable products and services for consumers. Without an immediate competitive threat, there was no rush to do so. 

Back to the Future: Innovation Policy in the New New Deal

Policymakers are now at work reassembling almost the exact same policy bundle that ended in the innovation malaise of the 1970s, accompanied by a similar reliance on public R&D funding disbursed through administrative processes. However well-intentioned, these processes are inherently exposed to political distortions that are absent in an innovation environment that relies mostly on private R&D funding governed by price signals. 

This policy bundle has emerged incrementally since approximately the mid-2000s, through a sequence of complementary actions by every branch of the federal government.

  • In 2011, Congress enacted the America Invents Act, which enables any party to challenge the validity of an issued patent through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB). Since PTAB’s establishment, large information-technology companies that advocated for the act have been among the leading challengers.
  • In May 2021, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) declared its support for a worldwide suspension of IP protections over Covid-19-related innovations (rather than adopting the more nuanced approach of preserving patent protections and expanding funding to accelerate vaccine distribution).  
  • President Biden’s July 2021 executive order states that “the Attorney General and the Secretary of Commerce are encouraged to consider whether to revise their position on the intersection of the intellectual property and antitrust laws, including by considering whether to revise the Policy Statement on Remedies for Standard-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments.” This suggests that the administration has already determined to retract or significantly modify the 2019 joint policy statement in which the DOJ, USPTO, and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) had rejected the view that standard-essential patent owners posed a high risk of patent holdup, which would therefore justify special limitations on enforcement and licensing activities.

The history of U.S. technology markets and policies casts great doubt on the wisdom of this weak-IP policy trajectory. The repeated devaluation of IP rights is likely to be a “lose-lose” approach that does little to promote competition, while endangering the incentive and transactional structures that sustain robust innovation ecosystems. A weak-IP regime is particularly likely to disadvantage smaller firms in biotech, medical devices, and certain information-technology segments that rely on patents to secure funding from venture capital and to partner with larger firms that can accelerate progress toward market release. The BioNTech/Pfizer alliance in the production and distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine illustrates how patents can enable such partnerships to accelerate market release.  

The innovative contribution of BioNTech is hardly a one-off occurrence. The restoration of robust patent protection in the early 1980s was followed by a sharp increase in the percentage of private R&D expenditures attributable to small firms, which jumped from about 5% as of 1980 to 21% by 1992. This contrasts sharply with the unequal allocation of R&D activities during the postwar period.

Remarkably, the resurgence of small-firm innovation following the strong-IP policy shift, starting in the late 20th century, mimics tendencies observed during the late 19th and early-20th centuries, when U.S. courts provided a hospitable venue for patent enforcement; there were few antitrust constraints on licensing activities; and innovation was often led by small firms in partnership with outside investors. This historical pattern, encompassing more than a century of U.S. technology markets, strongly suggests that strengthening IP rights tends to yield a policy “win-win” that bolsters both innovative and competitive intensity. 

An Alternate Path: ‘Bottom-Up’ Innovation Policy

To be clear, the alternative to the policy bundle of weak-IP/strong antitrust does not consist of a simple reversion to blind enforcement of patents and lax administration of the antitrust laws. A nuanced innovation policy would couple modern antitrust’s commitment to evidence-based enforcement—which, in particular cases, supports vigorous intervention—with a renewed commitment to protecting IP rights for innovator-entrepreneurs. That would promote competition from the “bottom up” by bolstering maverick innovators who are well-positioned to challenge (or sometimes partner with) incumbents and maintaining the self-starting engine of creative disruption that has repeatedly driven entrepreneurial innovation environments. Tellingly, technology incumbents have often been among the leading advocates for limiting patent and copyright protections.  

Advocates of a weak-patent/strong-antitrust policy believe it will enhance competitive and innovative intensity in technology markets. History suggests that this combination is likely to produce the opposite outcome.  

Jonathan M. Barnett is the Torrey H. Webb Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law. This post is based on the author’s recent publications, Innovators, Firms, and Markets: The Organizational Logic of Intellectual Property (Oxford University Press 2021) and “The Great Patent Grab,” in Battles Over Patents: History and the Politics of Innovation (eds. Stephen H. Haber and Naomi R. Lamoreaux, Oxford University Press 2021).

In a recent op-ed, Robert Bork Jr. laments the Biden administration’s drive to jettison the Consumer Welfare Standard that has formed nearly half a century of antitrust jurisprudence. The move can be seen in the near-revolution at the Federal Trade Commission, in the president’s executive order on competition enforcement, and in several of the major antitrust bills currently before Congress.

Bork notes the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act, introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), would “outlaw any mergers or acquisitions for the more than 80 large U.S. companies valued over $100 billion.”

Bork is correct that it will be more than 80 companies, but it is likely to be way more. While the Klobuchar bill does not explicitly outlaw such mergers, under certain circumstances, it shifts the burden of proof to the merging parties, who must demonstrate that the benefits of the transaction outweigh the potential risks. Under current law, the burden is on the government to demonstrate the potential costs outweigh the potential benefits.

One of the measure’s specific triggers for this burden-shifting is if the acquiring party has a market capitalization, assets, or annual net revenue of more than $100 billion and seeks a merger or acquisition valued at $50 million or more. About 120 or more U.S. companies satisfy at least one of these conditions. The end of this post provides a list of publicly traded companies, according to Zacks’ stock screener, that would likely be subject to the shift in burden of proof.

If the goal is to go after Big Tech, the Klobuchar bill hits the mark. All of the FAANG companies—Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Alphabet (formerly known as Google)—satisfy one or more of the criteria. So do Microsoft and PayPal.

But even some smaller tech firms will be subject to the shift in burden of proof. Zoom and Square have market caps that would trigger under Klobuchar’s bill and Snap is hovering around $100 billion in market cap. Twitter and eBay, however, are well under any of the thresholds. Likewise, privately owned Advance Communications, owner of Reddit, would also likely fall short of any of the triggers.

Snapchat has a little more than 300 million monthly active users. Twitter and Reddit each have about 330 million monthly active users. Nevertheless, under the Klobuchar bill, Snapchat is presumed to have more market power than either Twitter or Reddit, simply because the market assigns a higher valuation to Snap.

But this bill is about more than Big Tech. Tesla, which sold its first car only 13 years ago, is now considered big enough that it will face the same antitrust scrutiny as the Big 3 automakers. Walmart, Costco, and Kroger would be subject to the shifted burden of proof, while Safeway and Publix would escape such scrutiny. An acquisition by U.S.-based Nike would be put under the microscope, but a similar acquisition by Germany’s Adidas would not fall under the Klobuchar bill’s thresholds.

Tesla accounts for less than 2% of the vehicles sold in the United States. I have no idea what Walmart, Costco, Kroger, or Nike’s market share is, or even what comprises “the” market these companies compete in. What we do know is that the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission excel at narrowly crafting market definitions so that just about any company can be defined as dominant.

So much of the recent interest in antitrust has focused on Big Tech. But even the biggest of Big Tech firms operate in dynamic and competitive markets. None of my four children use Facebook or Twitter. My wife and I don’t use Snapchat. We all use Netflix, but we also use Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, YouTube, and Amazon Prime Video. None of these services have a monopoly on our eyeballs, our attention, or our pocketbooks.

The antitrust bills currently working their way through Congress abandon the long-standing balancing of pro- versus anti-competitive effects of mergers in favor of a “big is bad” approach. While the Klobuchar bill appears to provide clear guidance on the thresholds triggering a shift in the burden of proof, the arbitrary nature of the thresholds will result in arbitrary application of the burden of proof. If passed, we will soon be faced with a case in which two firms who differ only in market cap, assets, or sales will be subject to very different antitrust scrutiny, resulting in regulatory chaos.

Publicly traded companies with more than $100 billion in market capitalization

3MDanaher Corp.PepsiCo
Abbott LaboratoriesDeere & Co.Pfizer
AbbVieEli Lilly and Co.Philip Morris International
Adobe Inc.ExxonMobilProcter & Gamble
Advanced Micro DevicesFacebook Inc.Qualcomm
Alphabet Inc.General Electric Co.Raytheon Technologies
AmazonGoldman SachsSalesforce
American ExpressHoneywellServiceNow
American TowerIBMSquare Inc.
AmgenIntelStarbucks
Apple Inc.IntuitTarget Corp.
Applied MaterialsIntuitive SurgicalTesla Inc.
AT&TJohnson & JohnsonTexas Instruments
Bank of AmericaJPMorgan ChaseThe Coca-Cola Co.
Berkshire HathawayLockheed MartinThe Estée Lauder Cos.
BlackRockLowe’sThe Home Depot
BoeingMastercardThe Walt Disney Co.
Bristol Myers SquibbMcDonald’sThermo Fisher Scientific
Broadcom Inc.MedtronicT-Mobile US
Caterpillar Inc.Merck & Co.Union Pacific Corp.
Charles Schwab Corp.MicrosoftUnited Parcel Service
Charter CommunicationsMorgan StanleyUnitedHealth Group
Chevron Corp.NetflixVerizon Communications
Cisco SystemsNextEra EnergyVisa Inc.
CitigroupNike Inc.Walmart
ComcastNvidiaWells Fargo
CostcoOracle Corp.Zoom Video Communications
CVS HealthPayPal

Publicly traded companies with more than $100 billion in current assets

Ally FinancialFreddie Mac
American International GroupKeyBank
BNY MellonM&T Bank
Capital OneNorthern Trust
Citizens Financial GroupPNC Financial Services
Fannie MaeRegions Financial Corp.
Fifth Third BankState Street Corp.
First Republic BankTruist Financial
Ford Motor Co.U.S. Bancorp

Publicly traded companies with more than $100 billion in sales

AmerisourceBergenDell Technologies
AnthemGeneral Motors
Cardinal HealthKroger
Centene Corp.McKesson Corp.
CignaWalgreens Boots Alliance

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 some competition 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.

Conclusion

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.

Pinterest provides a fitting example; despite relying heavily on Google for traffic, its ad-funded service has witnessed significant growth. The same is true of other vertical search engines like Airbnb, Booking.com, and Zillow. While we cannot know the counterfactual, the vertical search industry has certainly not been decimated by Google’s “monopoly”; quite the opposite. Unsurprisingly, this has coincided with a significant decrease in the cost of online advertising, and the growth of online advertising relative to other forms.

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:

FTC staff urged the agency’s five commissioners to sue Google for signing exclusive contracts with Apple and the major wireless carriers that made sure the company’s search engine came pre-installed on smartphones.

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.

Self-preferencing

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 and Facebook privately complained to the FTC about Google’s conduct, saying their business suffered because of the company’s search bias, scraping of content from rival sites and restrictions on advertisers’ use of competing search engines. 

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.

Conclusion

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.

In what has become regularly scheduled programming on Capitol Hill, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai will be subject to yet another round of congressional grilling—this time, about the platforms’ content-moderation policies—during a March 25 joint hearing of two subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The stated purpose of this latest bit of political theatre is to explore, as made explicit in the hearing’s title, “social media’s role in promoting extremism and misinformation.” Specific topics are expected to include proposed changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, heightened scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission, and misinformation about COVID-19—the subject of new legislation introduced by Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

But while many in the Democratic majority argue that social media companies have not done enough to moderate misinformation or hate speech, it is a problem with no realistic legal fix. Any attempt to mandate removal of speech on grounds that it is misinformation or hate speech, either directly or indirectly, would run afoul of the First Amendment.

Much of the recent focus has been on misinformation spread on social media about the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic. The memorandum for the March 25 hearing sums it up:

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have long come under fire for their role in the dissemination and amplification of misinformation and extremist content. For instance, since the beginning of the coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, all three platforms have spread substantial amounts of misinformation about COVID-19. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation regarding the severity of the virus and the effectiveness of alleged cures for COVID-19 was widespread. More recently, COVID-19 disinformation has misrepresented the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have also been distributors for years of election disinformation that appeared to be intended either to improperly influence or undermine the outcomes of free and fair elections. During the November 2016 election, social media platforms were used by foreign governments to disseminate information to manipulate public opinion. This trend continued during and after the November 2020 election, often fomented by domestic actors, with rampant disinformation about voter fraud, defective voting machines, and premature declarations of victory.

It is true that, despite social media companies’ efforts to label and remove false content and bar some of the biggest purveyors, there remains a considerable volume of false information on social media. But U.S. Supreme Court precedent consistently has limited government regulation of false speech to distinct categories like defamation, perjury, and fraud.

The Case of Stolen Valor

The court’s 2011 decision in United States v. Alvarez struck down as unconstitutional the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which made it a federal crime to falsely claim to have earned a military medal. A four-justice plurality opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, along with a two-justice concurrence, both agreed that a statement being false did not, by itself, exclude it from First Amendment protection. 

Kennedy’s opinion noted that while the government may impose penalties for false speech connected with the legal process (perjury or impersonating a government official); with receiving a benefit (fraud); or with harming someone’s reputation (defamation); the First Amendment does not sanction penalties for false speech, in and of itself. The plurality exhibited particular skepticism toward the notion that government actors could be entrusted as a “Ministry of Truth,” empowered to determine what categories of false speech should be made illegal:

Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable. That governmental power has no clear limiting principle. Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth… Were this law to be sustained, there could be an endless list of subjects the National Government or the States could single out… Were the Court to hold that the interest in truthful discourse alone is sufficient to sustain a ban on speech, absent any evidence that the speech was used to gain a material advantage, it would give government a broad censorial power unprecedented in this Court’s cases or in our constitutional tradition. The mere potential for the exercise of that power casts a chill, a chill the First Amendment cannot permit if free speech, thought, and discourse are to remain a foundation of our freedom. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

As noted in the opinion, declaring false speech illegal constitutes a content-based restriction subject to “exacting scrutiny.” Applying that standard, the court found “the link between the Government’s interest in protecting the integrity of the military honors system and the Act’s restriction on the false claims of liars like respondent has not been shown.” 

While finding that the government “has not shown, and cannot show, why counterspeech would not suffice to achieve its interest,” the plurality suggested a more narrowly tailored solution could be simply to publish Medal of Honor recipients in an online database. In other words, the government could overcome the problem of false speech by promoting true speech. 

In 2012, President Barack Obama signed an updated version of the Stolen Valor Act that limited its penalties to situations where a misrepresentation is shown to result in receipt of some kind of benefit. That places the false speech in the category of fraud, consistent with the Alvarez opinion.

A Social Media Ministry of Truth

Applying the Alvarez standard to social media, the government could (and already does) promote its interest in public health or election integrity by publishing true speech through official channels. But there is little reason to believe the government at any level could regulate access to misinformation. Anything approaching an outright ban on accessing speech deemed false by the government not only would not be the most narrowly tailored way to deal with such speech, but it is bound to have chilling effects even on true speech.

The analysis doesn’t change if the government instead places Big Tech itself in the position of Ministry of Truth. Some propose making changes to Section 230, which currently immunizes social media companies from liability for user speech (with limited exceptions), regardless what moderation policies the platform adopts. A hypothetical change might condition Section 230’s liability shield on platforms agreeing to moderate certain categories of misinformation. But that would still place the government in the position of coercing platforms to take down speech. 

Even the “fix” of making social media companies liable for user speech they amplify through promotions on the platform, as proposed by Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-Va.) SAFE TECH Act, runs into First Amendment concerns. The aim of the bill is to regard sponsored content as constituting speech made by the platform, thus opening the platform to liability for the underlying misinformation. But any such liability also would be limited to categories of speech that fall outside First Amendment protection, like fraud or defamation. This would not appear to include most of the types of misinformation on COVID-19 or election security that animate the current legislative push.

There is no way for the government to regulate misinformation, in and of itself, consistent with the First Amendment. Big Tech companies are free to develop their own policies against misinformation, but the government may not force them to do so. 

Extremely Limited Room to Regulate Extremism

The Big Tech CEOs are also almost certain to be grilled about the use of social media to spread “hate speech” or “extremist content.” The memorandum for the March 25 hearing sums it up like this:

Facebook executives were repeatedly warned that extremist content was thriving on their platform, and that Facebook’s own algorithms and recommendation tools were responsible for the appeal of extremist groups and divisive content. Similarly, since 2015, videos from extremists have proliferated on YouTube; and YouTube’s algorithm often guides users from more innocuous or alternative content to more fringe channels and videos. Twitter has been criticized for being slow to stop white nationalists from organizing, fundraising, recruiting and spreading propaganda on Twitter.

Social media has often played host to racist, sexist, and other types of vile speech. While social media companies have community standards and other policies that restrict “hate speech” in some circumstances, there is demand from some public officials that they do more. But under a First Amendment analysis, regulating hate speech on social media would fare no better than the regulation of misinformation.

The First Amendment doesn’t allow for the regulation of “hate speech” as its own distinct category. Hate speech is, in fact, as protected as any other type of speech. There are some limited exceptions, as the First Amendment does not protect incitement, true threats of violence, or “fighting words.” Some of these flatly do not apply in the online context. “Fighting words,” for instance, applies only in face-to-face situations to “those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction.”

One relevant precedent is the court’s 1992 decision in R.A.V. v. St. Paul, which considered a local ordinance in St. Paul, Minnesota, prohibiting public expressions that served to cause “outrage, alarm, or anger with respect to racial, gender or religious intolerance.” A juvenile was charged with violating the ordinance when he created a makeshift cross and lit it on fire in front of a black family’s home. The court unanimously struck down the ordinance as a violation of the First Amendment, finding it an impermissible content-based restraint that was not limited to incitement or true threats.

By contrast, in 2003’s Virginia v. Black, the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia law outlawing cross burnings done with the intent to intimidate. The court’s opinion distinguished R.A.V. on grounds that the Virginia statute didn’t single out speech regarding disfavored topics. Instead, it was aimed at speech that had the intent to intimidate regardless of the victim’s race, gender, religion, or other characteristic. But the court was careful to limit government regulation of hate speech to instances that involve true threats or incitement.

When it comes to incitement, the legal standard was set by the court’s landmark Brandenberg v. Ohio decision in 1969, which laid out that:

the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

In other words, while “hate speech” is protected by the First Amendment, specific types of speech that convey true threats or fit under the related doctrine of incitement are not. The government may regulate those types of speech. And they do. In fact, social media users can be, and often are, charged with crimes for threats made online. But the government can’t issue a per se ban on hate speech or “extremist content.”

Just as with misinformation, the government also can’t condition Section 230 immunity on platforms removing hate speech. Insofar as speech is protected under the First Amendment, the government can’t specifically condition a government benefit on its removal. Even the SAFE TECH Act’s model for holding platforms accountable for amplifying hate speech or extremist content would have to be limited to speech that amounts to true threats or incitement. This is a far narrower category of hateful speech than the examples that concern legislators. 

Social media companies do remain free under the law to moderate hateful content as they see fit under their terms of service. Section 230 immunity is not dependent on whether companies do or don’t moderate such content, or on how they define hate speech. But government efforts to step in and define hate speech would likely run into First Amendment problems unless they stay focused on unprotected threats and incitement.

What Can the Government Do?

One may fairly ask what it is that governments can do to combat misinformation and hate speech online. The answer may be a law that requires takedowns by court order of speech after it is declared illegal, as proposed by the PACT Act, sponsored in the last session by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and John Thune (R-S.D.). Such speech may, in some circumstances, include misinformation or hate speech.

But as outlined above, the misinformation that the government can regulate is limited to situations like fraud or defamation, while the hate speech it can regulate is limited to true threats and incitement. A narrowly tailored law that looked to address those specific categories may or may not be a good idea, but it would likely survive First Amendment scrutiny, and may even prove a productive line of discussion with the tech CEOs.

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.

Self-preferencing can even be good for competing services, including third-party merchants. In many cases, it expands the size of their potential customer base. For example, blockbuster video games released by Sony and Microsoft increase demand for games by other publishers because they increase the total number of people who buy Playstations and Xboxes. This effect is clear on Amazon’s Marketplace, which has grown enormously for third-party merchants even as Amazon has increased the number of its own store-brand products on the site. By making the Amazon Marketplace more attractive, third-party sellers also benefit.

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.]

The U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) antitrust case against Google, which was filed in October 2020, will be a tough slog.[1] It is an alleged monopolization (Sherman Act, Sec. 2) case; and monopolization cases are always a tough slog.

In this brief essay I will lay out some of the issues in the case and raise an intriguing possibility.

What is the case about?

The case is about exclusivity and exclusion in the distribution of search engine services; that Google paid substantial sums to Apple and to the manufacturers of Android-based mobile phones and tablets and also to wireless carriers and web-browser proprietors—in essence, to distributors—to install the Google search engine as the exclusive pre-set (installed), default search program. The suit alleges that Google thereby made it more difficult for other search-engine providers (e.g., Bing; DuckDuckGo) to obtain distribution for their search-engine services and thus to attract search-engine users and to sell the online advertising that is associated with search-engine use and that provides the revenue to support the search “platform” in this “two-sided market” context.[2]

Exclusion can be seen as a form of “raising rivals’ costs.”[3]  Equivalently, exclusion can be seen as a form of non-price predation. Under either interpretation, the exclusionary action impedes competition.

It’s important to note that these allegations are different from those that motivated an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (which the FTC dropped in 2013) and the cases by the European Union against Google.[4]  Those cases focused on alleged self-preferencing; that Google was unduly favoring its own products and services (e.g., travel services) in its delivery of search results to users of its search engine. In those cases, the impairment of competition (arguably) happens with respect to those competing products and services, not with respect to search itself.

What is the relevant market?

For a monopolization allegation to have any meaning, there needs to be the exercise of market power (which would have adverse consequences for the buyers of the product). And in turn, that exercise of market power needs to occur in a relevant market: one in which market power can be exercised.

Here is one of the important places where the DOJ’s case is likely to turn into a slog: the delineation of a relevant market for alleged monopolization cases remains as a largely unsolved problem for antitrust economics.[5]  This is in sharp contrast to the issue of delineating relevant markets for the antitrust analysis of proposed mergers.  For this latter category, the paradigm of the “hypothetical monopolist” and the possibility that this hypothetical monopolist could prospectively impose a “small but significant non-transitory increase in price” (SSNIP) has carried the day for the purposes of market delineation.

But no such paradigm exists for monopolization cases, in which the usual allegation is that the defendant already possesses market power and has used the exclusionary actions to buttress that market power. To see the difficulties, it is useful to recall the basic monopoly diagram from Microeconomics 101. A monopolist faces a negatively sloped demand curve for its product (at higher prices, less is bought; at lower prices, more is bought) and sets a profit-maximizing price at the level of output where its marginal revenue (MR) equals its marginal costs (MC). Its price is thereby higher than an otherwise similar competitive industry’s price for that product (to the detriment of buyers) and the monopolist earns higher profits than would the competitive industry.

But unless there are reliable benchmarks as to what the competitive price and profits would otherwise be, any information as to the defendant’s price and profits has little value with respect to whether the defendant already has market power. Also, a claim that a firm does not have market power because it faces rivals and thus isn’t able profitably to raise its price from its current level (because it would lose too many sales to those rivals) similarly has no value. Recall the monopolist from Micro 101. It doesn’t set a higher price than the one where MR=MC, because it would thereby lose too many sales to other sellers of other things.

Thus, any firm—regardless of whether it truly has market power (like the Micro 101 monopolist) or is just another competitor in a sea of competitors—should have already set its price at its profit-maximizing level and should find it unprofitable to raise its price from that level.[6]  And thus the claim, “Look at all of the firms that I compete with!  I don’t have market power!” similarly has no informational value.

Let us now bring this problem back to the Google monopolization allegation:  What is the relevant market?  In the first instance, it has to be “the provision of answers to user search queries.” After all, this is the “space” in which the exclusion occurred. But there are categories of search: e.g., search for products/services, versus more general information searches (“What is the current time in Delaware?” “Who was the 21st President of the United States?”). Do those separate categories themselves constitute relevant markets?

Further, what would the exercise of market power in a (delineated relevant) market look like?  Higher-than-competitive prices for advertising that targets search-results recipients is one obvious answer (but see below). In addition, because this is a two-sided market, the competitive “price” (or prices) might involve payments by the search engine to the search users (in return for their exposure to the lucrative attached advertising).[7]  And product quality might exhibit less variety than a competitive market would provide; and/or the monopolistic average level of quality would be lower than in a competitive market: e.g., more abuse of user data, and/or deterioration of the delivered information itself, via more self-preferencing by the search engine and more advertising-driven preferencing of results.[8]

In addition, a natural focus for a relevant market is the advertising that accompanies the search results. But now we are at the heart of the difficulty of delineating a relevant market in a monopolization context. If the relevant market is “advertising on search engine results pages,” it seems highly likely that Google has market power. If the relevant market instead is all online U.S. advertising (of which Google’s revenue share accounted for 32% in 2019[9]), then the case is weaker; and if the relevant market is all advertising in the United States (which is about twice the size of online advertising[10]), the case is weaker still. Unless there is some competitive benchmark, there is no easy way to delineate the relevant market.[11]

What exactly has Google been paying for, and why?

As many critics of the DOJ’s case have pointed out, it is extremely easy for users to switch their default search engine. If internet search were a normal good or service, this ease of switching would leave little room for the exercise of market power. But in that case, why is Google willing to pay $8-$12 billion annually for the exclusive default setting on Apple devices and large sums to the manufacturers of Android-based devices (and to wireless carriers and browser proprietors)? Why doesn’t Google instead run ads in prominent places that remind users how superior Google’s search results are and how easy it is for users (if they haven’t already done so) to switch to the Google search engine and make Google the user’s default choice?

Suppose that user inertia is important. Further suppose that users generally have difficulty in making comparisons with respect to the quality of delivered search results. If this is true, then being the default search engine on Apple and Android-based devices and on other distribution vehicles would be valuable. In this context, the inertia of their customers is a valuable “asset” of the distributors that the distributors may not be able to take advantage of, but that Google can (by providing search services and selling advertising). The question of whether Google’s taking advantage of this user inertia means that Google exercises market power takes us back to the issue of delineating the relevant market.

There is a further wrinkle to all of this. It is a well-understood concept in antitrust economics that an incumbent monopolist will be willing to pay more for the exclusive use of an essential input than a challenger would pay for access to the input.[12] The basic idea is straightforward. By maintaining exclusive use of the input, the incumbent monopolist preserves its (large) monopoly profits. If the challenger enters, the incumbent will then earn only its share of the (much lower, more competitive) duopoly profits. Similarly, the challenger can expect only the lower duopoly profits. Accordingly, the incumbent should be willing to outbid (and thereby exclude) the challenger and preserve the incumbent’s exclusive use of the input, so as to protect those monopoly profits.

To bring this to the Google monopolization context, if Google does possess market power in some aspect of search—say, because online search-linked advertising is a relevant market—then Google will be willing to outbid Microsoft (which owns Bing) for the “asset” of default access to Apple’s (inertial) device owners. That Microsoft is a large and profitable company and could afford to match (or exceed) Google’s payments to Apple is irrelevant. If the duopoly profits for online search-linked advertising would be substantially lower than Google’s current profits, then Microsoft would not find it worthwhile to try to outbid Google for that default access asset.

Alternatively, this scenario could be wholly consistent with an absence of market power. If search users (who can easily switch) consider Bing to be a lower-quality search service, then large payments by Microsoft to outbid Google for those exclusive default rights would be largely wasted, since the “acquired” default search users would quickly switch to Google (unless Microsoft provided additional incentives for the users not to switch).

But this alternative scenario returns us to the original puzzle:  Why is Google making such large payments to the distributors for those exclusive default rights?

An intriguing possibility

Consider the following possibility. Suppose that Google was paying that $8-$12 billion annually to Apple in return for the understanding that Apple would not develop its own search engine for Apple’s device users.[13] This possibility was not raised in the DOJ’s complaint, nor is it raised in the subsequent suits by the state attorneys general.

But let’s explore the implications by going to an extreme. Suppose that Google and Apple had a formal agreement that—in return for the $8-$12 billion per year—Apple would not develop its own search engine. In this event, this agreement not to compete would likely be seen as a violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act (which does not require a market delineation exercise) and Apple would join Google as a co-conspirator. The case would take on the flavor of the FTC’s prosecution of “pay-for-delay” agreements between the manufacturers of patented pharmaceuticals and the generic drug manufacturers that challenge those patents and then receive payments from the former in return for dropping the patent challenge and delaying the entry of the generic substitute.[14]

As of this writing, there is no evidence of such an agreement and it seems quite unlikely that there would have been a formal agreement. But the DOJ will be able to engage in discovery and take depositions. It will be interesting to find out what the relevant executives at Google—and at Apple—thought was being achieved by those payments.

What would be a suitable remedy/relief?

The DOJ’s complaint is vague with respect to the remedy that it seeks. This is unsurprising. The DOJ may well want to wait to see how the case develops and then amend its complaint.

However, even if Google’s actions have constituted monopolization, it is difficult to conceive of a suitable and effective remedy. One apparently straightforward remedy would be to require simply that Google not be able to purchase exclusivity with respect to the pre-set default settings. In essence, the device manufacturers and others would always be able to sell parallel default rights to other search engines: on the basis, say, that the default rights for some categories of customers—or even a percentage of general customers (randomly selected)—could be sold to other search-engine providers.

But now the Gilbert-Newbery insight comes back into play. Suppose that a device manufacturer knows (or believes) that Google will pay much more if—even in the absence of any exclusivity agreement—Google ends up being the pre-set search engine for all (or nearly all) of the manufacturer’s device sales, as compared with what the manufacturer would receive if those default rights were sold to multiple search-engine providers (including, but not solely, Google). Can that manufacturer (recall that the distributors are not defendants in the case) be prevented from making this sale to Google and thus (de facto) continuing Google’s exclusivity?[15]

Even a requirement that Google not be allowed to make any payment to the distributors for a default position may not improve the competitive environment. Google may be able to find other ways of making indirect payments to distributors in return for attaining default rights, e.g., by offering them lower rates on their online advertising.

Further, if the ultimate goal is an efficient outcome in search, it is unclear how far restrictions on Google’s bidding behavior should go. If Google were forbidden from purchasing any default installation rights for its search engine, would (inert) consumers be better off? Similarly, if a distributor were to decide independently that its customers were better served by installing the Google search engine as the default, would that not be allowed? But if it is allowed, how could one be sure that Google wasn’t indirectly paying for this “independent” decision (e.g., through favorable advertising rates)?

It’s important to remember that this (alleged) monopolization is different from the Standard Oil case of 1911 or even the (landline) AT&T case of 1984. In those cases, there were physical assets that could be separated and spun off to separate companies. For Google, physical assets aren’t important. Although it is conceivable that some of Google’s intellectual property—such as Gmail, YouTube, or Android—could be spun off to separate companies, doing so would do little to cure the (arguably) fundamental problem of the inert device users.

In addition, if there were an agreement between Google and Apple for the latter not to develop a search engine, then large fines for both parties would surely be warranted. But what next? Apple can’t be forced to develop a search engine.[16] This differentiates such an arrangement from the “pay-for-delay” arrangements for pharmaceuticals, where the generic manufacturers can readily produce a near-identical substitute for the patented drug and are otherwise eager to do so.

At the end of the day, forbidding Google from paying for exclusivity may well be worth trying as a remedy. But as the discussion above indicates, it is unlikely to be a panacea and is likely to require considerable monitoring for effective enforcement.

Conclusion

The DOJ’s case against Google will be a slog. There are unresolved issues—such as how to delineate a relevant market in a monopolization case—that will be central to the case. Even if the DOJ is successful in showing that Google violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act in monopolizing search and/or search-linked advertising, an effective remedy seems problematic. But there also remains the intriguing question of why Google was willing to pay such large sums for those exclusive default installation rights?

The developments in the case will surely be interesting.


[1] The DOJ’s suit was joined by 11 states.  More states subsequently filed two separate antitrust lawsuits against Google in December.

[2] There is also a related argument:  That Google thereby gained greater volume, which allowed it to learn more about its search users and their behavior, and which thereby allowed it to provide better answers to users (and thus a higher-quality offering to its users) and better-targeted (higher-value) advertising to its advertisers.  Conversely, Google’s search-engine rivals were deprived of that volume, with the mirror-image negative consequences for the rivals.  This is just another version of the standard “learning-by-doing” and the related “learning curve” (or “experience curve”) concepts that have been well understood in economics for decades.

[3] See, for example, Steven C. Salop and David T. Scheffman, “Raising Rivals’ Costs: Recent Advances in the Theory of Industrial Structure,” American Economic Review, Vol. 73, No. 2 (May 1983), pp.  267-271; and Thomas G. Krattenmaker and Steven C. Salop, “Anticompetitive Exclusion: Raising Rivals’ Costs To Achieve Power Over Price,” Yale Law Journal, Vol. 96, No. 2 (December 1986), pp. 209-293.

[4] For a discussion, see Richard J. Gilbert, “The U.S. Federal Trade Commission Investigation of Google Search,” in John E. Kwoka, Jr., and Lawrence J. White, eds. The Antitrust Revolution: Economics, Competition, and Policy, 7th edn.  Oxford University Press, 2019, pp. 489-513.

[5] For a more complete version of the argument that follows, see Lawrence J. White, “Market Power and Market Definition in Monopolization Cases: A Paradigm Is Missing,” in Wayne D. Collins, ed., Issues in Competition Law and Policy. American Bar Association, 2008, pp. 913-924.

[6] The forgetting of this important point is often termed “the cellophane fallacy”, since this is what the U.S. Supreme Court did in a 1956 antitrust case in which the DOJ alleged that du Pont had monopolized the cellophane market (and du Pont, in its defense claimed that the relevant market was much wider: all flexible wrapping materials); see U.S. v. du Pont, 351 U.S. 377 (1956).  For an argument that profit data and other indicia argued for cellophane as the relevant market, see George W. Stocking and Willard F. Mueller, “The Cellophane Case and the New Competition,” American Economic Review, Vol. 45, No. 1 (March 1955), pp. 29-63.

[7] In the context of differentiated services, one would expect prices (positive or negative) to vary according to the quality of the service that is offered.  It is worth noting that Bing offers “rewards” to frequent searchers; see https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/bing/defaults-rewards.  It is unclear whether this pricing structure of payment to Bing’s customers represents what a more competitive framework in search might yield, or whether the payment just indicates that search users consider Bing to be a lower-quality service.

[8] As an additional consequence of the impairment of competition in this type of search market, there might be less technological improvement in the search process itself – to the detriment of users.

[9] As estimated by eMarketer: https://www.emarketer.com/newsroom/index.php/google-ad-revenues-to-drop-for-the-first-time/.

[10] See https://www.visualcapitalist.com/us-advertisers-spend-20-years/.

[11] And, again, if we return to the du Pont cellophane case:  Was the relevant market cellophane?  Or all flexible wrapping materials?

[12] This insight is formalized in Richard J. Gilbert and David M.G. Newbery, “Preemptive Patenting and the Persistence of Monopoly,” American Economic Review, Vol. 72, No. 3 (June 1982), pp. 514-526.

[13] To my knowledge, Randal C. Picker was the first to suggest this possibility; see https://www.competitionpolicyinternational.com/a-first-look-at-u-s-v-google/.  Whether Apple would be interested in trying to develop its own search engine – given the fiasco a decade ago when Apple tried to develop its own maps app to replace the Google maps app – is an open question.  In addition, the Gilbert-Newbery insight applies here as well:  Apple would be less inclined to invest the substantial resources that would be needed to develop a search engine when it is thereby in a duopoly market.  But Google might be willing to pay “insurance” to reinforce any doubts that Apple might have.

[14] The U.S. Supreme Court, in FTC v. Actavis, 570 U.S. 136 (2013), decided that such agreements could be anti-competitive and should be judged under the “rule of reason”.  For a discussion of the case and its implications, see, for example, Joseph Farrell and Mark Chicu, “Pharmaceutical Patents and Pay-for-Delay: Actavis (2013),” in John E. Kwoka, Jr., and Lawrence J. White, eds. The Antitrust Revolution: Economics, Competition, and Policy, 7th edn.  Oxford University Press, 2019, pp. 331-353.

[15] This is an example of the insight that vertical arrangements – in this case combined with the Gilbert-Newbery effect – can be a way for dominant firms to raise rivals’ costs.  See, for example, John Asker and Heski Bar-Isaac. 2014. “Raising Retailers’ Profits: On Vertical Practices and the Exclusion of Rivals.” American Economic Review, Vol. 104, No. 2 (February 2014), pp. 672-686.

[16] And, again, for the reasons discussed above, Apple might not be eager to make the effort.

[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.

Default Status

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:

  1. There are large, fixed costs so that a firm must acquire a sufficient number of customers in order to enter the market; and
  2. 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:

  1. No competitor can cover their fixed costs to make a reasonable search engine; and
  2. 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.]

On October 20, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and eleven states with Republican attorneys general sued Google for monopolizing and attempting to monopolize the markets for general internet search services, search advertising, and “general search text” advertising (i.e., ads that resemble search results).  Last week, California joined the lawsuit, making it a bipartisan affair.

DOJ and the states (collectively, “the government”) allege that Google has used contractual arrangements to expand and cement its dominance in the relevant markets.  In particular, the government complains that Google has agreed to share search ad revenues in exchange for making Google Search the default search engine on various “search access points.” 

Google has entered such agreements with Apple (for search on iPhones and iPads), manufacturers of Android devices and the mobile service carriers that support them, and producers of web browsers.  Google is also pursuing default status on new internet-enabled consumer products, such as voice assistants and “smart” TVs, appliances, and wearables.  In the government’s telling, this all amounts to Google’s sharing of monopoly profits with firms that can ensure its continued monopoly by imposing search defaults that users are unlikely to alter.

There are several obvious weaknesses with the government’s case.  One is that preset internet defaults are super easy to change and, in other contexts, are regularly altered.  For example, while 88% of desktop and laptop computers use the Windows operating system, which defaults to a Microsoft browser (Internet Explorer or Edge), Google’s Chrome browser commands a 69% market share on desktops and laptops, compared to around 13% for Internet Explorer and Edge combined.  Changing a default search engine is as easy as changing a browser default—three simple steps on an iPhone!—and it seems consumers will change defaults they don’t actually prefer.

A second obvious weakness, related to the first, is that the government has alleged no facts suggesting that Google’s search rivals—primarily Bing, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo—would have enjoyed more success but for Google’s purportedly exclusionary agreements.  Even absent default status, people likely would have selected Google Search because it’s the better search engine.  It doesn’t seem the challenged arrangements caused Google’s search dominance.

Admittedly, the standard of causation in monopolization cases (at least those seeking only injunctive relief) is low.  The D.C. Circuit’s Microsoft decision described it as “edentulous” or, less pretentiously, toothless.  Nevertheless, the government is unlikely to prevail in its action against Google—and that’s a good thing.  Below, I highlight the central deficiency in the government’s Google case and point out problems with the government’s challenges to each of Google’s purportedly exclusionary arrangements.   

The Lawsuit’s Overarching Deficiency

We’ve all had the experience of typing a query only to have Google, within a few key strokes, accurately predict what we were going to ask and provide us with exactly the answer we were looking for.  It’s both eerie and awesome, and it keeps us returning to Google time and again.

But it’s not magic.  Nor has Google hacked our brains.  Google is so good at predicting our questions and providing responsive search results because its top-notch algorithms process gazillions of searches and can “learn” from users’ engagement.  Scale is thus essential to Google’s quality. 

The government’s complaint concedes as much.  It acknowledges that “[g]reater scale improves the quality of a general search engine’s algorithms” (¶35) and that “[t]he additional data from scale allows improved automated learning for algorithms to deliver more relevant results, particularly on ‘fresh’ queries (queries seeking recent information), location-based queries (queries asking about something in the searcher’s vicinity), and ‘long-tail’ queries (queries used infrequently)” (¶36). The complaint also asserts that “[t]he most effective way to achieve scale is for the general search engine to be the preset default on mobile devices, computers, and other devices…” (¶38).

Oddly, though, the government chides Google for pursuing “[t]he most effective way” of securing the scale that concededly “improves the quality of a general search engine’s algorithms.”  Google’s efforts to ensure and enhance its own product quality are improper, the government says, because “they deny rivals scale to compete effectively” (¶8).  In the government’s view, Google is legally obligated to forego opportunities to make its own product better so as to give its rivals a chance to improve their own offerings.

This is inconsistent with U.S. antitrust law.  Just as firms are not required to hold their prices high to create a price umbrella for their less efficient rivals, they need not refrain from efforts to improve the quality of their own offerings so as to give their rivals a foothold. 

Antitrust does forbid anticompetitive foreclosure of rivals—i.e., business-usurping arrangements that are not the result of efforts to compete on the merits by reducing cost or enhancing quality.  But firms are, and should be, free to make their products better, even if doing so makes things more difficult for their rivals.  Antitrust, after all, protects competition, not competitors.    

The central deficiency in the government’s case is that it concedes that scale is crucial to search engine quality, but it does not assert that there is a “minimum efficient scale”—i.e., a point at which scale economies are exhausted.  If a firm takes actions to enhance its own scale beyond minimum efficient scale, and if its efforts may hold its rivals below such scale, then it may have engaged in anticompetitive foreclosure.  But a firm that pursues scale that makes its products better is simply competing on the merits.

The government likely did not allege that there is a minimum efficient scale in general internet search services because returns to scale go on indefinitely, or at least for a very long time.  But the absence of such an allegation damns the government’s case against Google, for it implies that Google’s efforts to secure the distribution, and thus the greater use, of its services make those services better.

In this regard, the Microsoft case, which the government points to as a model for its action against Google (¶10), is inapposite.  Inthat case, the government alleged that Microsoft had entered license agreements that foreclosed Netscape, a potential rival, from the best avenues of browser distribution: original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and internet access providers.  The government here similarly alleges that Google has foreclosed rival search engines from the best avenues of search distribution: default settings on mobile devices and web browsers.  But a key difference (in addition to the fact that search defaults are quite easy to change) is that Microsoft’s license restrictions foreclosed Netscape without enhancing the quality of Microsoft’s offerings.  Indeed, the court emphasized that the challenged Microsoft agreements were anticompetitive because they “reduced rival browsers’ usage share not by improving [Microsoft’s] own product but, rather, by preventing OEMs from taking actions that could increase rivals’ share of usage” (emphasis added).  Here, any foreclosure of Google’s search rivals is incidental to Google’s efforts to improve its product by enhancing its scale.

Now, the government might contend that the anticompetitive harms from raising rivals’ distribution costs exceed the procompetitive benefits of enhancing the quality of Google’s search services.  Courts, though, have generally been skeptical of claims that exclusion-causing product enhancements are anticompetitive because they do more harm than good.  There’s a sound reason for this: courts are ill-equipped to weigh the benefits of product enhancements against the costs of competition reductions resulting from product-enhancement efforts.  For that reason, they should—and likely will—stick with the rule that this sort of product-enhancing conduct is competition on the merits, even if it has the incidental effect of raising rivals’ costs.  And if they do so, the government will lose this case.     

Problems with the Government’s Specific Challenges

Agreements with Android OEMs and Wireless Carriers

The government alleges that Google has foreclosed its search rivals from distribution opportunities on the Android platform.  It has done so, the government says, by entering into exclusion-causing agreements with OEMs that produce Android products (Samsung, Motorola, etc.) and with carriers that provide wireless service for Android devices (AT&T, Verizon, etc.).

Android is an open source operating system that is owned by Google and licensed, for free, to producers of mobile internet devices.  Under the terms of the challenged agreements, Google’s counterparties promise not to produce Android “forks”—operating systems that are Android-based but significantly alter or “fragment” the basic platform—in order to get access to proprietary Google apps that Android users typically desire and to certain application protocol interfaces (APIs) that enable various functionalities.  In addition to these “anti-forking agreements,” counterparties enter various “pre-installation agreements” obligating them to install a suite of Google apps that use Google Search as a default.  Installing that suite is a condition for obtaining the right to pre-install Google’s app store (Google Play) and other must-have apps.  Finally, OEMs and carriers enter “revenue sharing agreements” that require the use of Google Search as the sole preset default on a number of search access points in exchange for a percentage of search ad revenue derived from covered devices.  Taken together, the government says, these anti-forking, pre-installation, and revenue-sharing agreements preclude the emergence of Android rivals (from forks) and ensure the continued dominance of Google Search on Android devices.

Eliminating these agreements, though, would likely harm consumers by reducing competition in the market for mobile operating systems.  Within that market, there are two dominant players: Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.  Apple earns money off iOS by selling hardware—iPhones and iPads that are pre-installed with iOS.  Google licenses Android to OEMs for free but then earns advertising revenue off users’ searches (which provide an avenue for search ads) and other activities (which generate user data for better targeted display ads).  Apple and Google thus compete on revenue models.  As Randy Picker has explained, Microsoft tried a third revenue model—licensing a Windows mobile operating system to OEMs for a fee—but it failed.  The continued competition between Apple and Google, though, allows for satisfaction of heterogenous consumer preferences: Apple products are more expensive but more secure (due to Apple’s tight control over software and hardware); Android devices are cheaper (as the operating system is ad-supported) and offer more innovations (as OEMs have more flexibility), but tend to be less secure.  Such variety—a result of business model competition—is good for consumers. 

If the government were to prevail and force Google to end the agreements described above, thereby reducing the advertising revenue Google derives from Android, Google would have to either copy Apple’s vertically integrated model so as to recoup its Android investments through hardware sales, charge OEMs for Android (a la Microsoft), or cut back on its investments in Android.  In each case, consumers would suffer.  The first option would take away an offering preferred by many consumers—indeed most globally, as Android dominates iOS on a worldwide basis.  The second option would replace Google’s business model with one that failed, suggesting that consumers value it less.  The third option would reduce product quality in the market for mobile operating systems. 

In the end, then, the government’s challenge to Google’s Android agreements is myopic and misguided.  Competition among business models, like competition along any dimension, inures to the benefit of consumers.  Precluding it as the government is demanding would be silly.       

Agreements with Browser Producers

Web browsers like Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox are a primary distribution channel for search engines.  The government claims that Google has illicitly foreclosed rival search engines from this avenue of distribution by entering revenue-sharing agreements with the major non-Microsoft browsers (i.e., all but Microsoft’s Edge and Internet Explorer).  Under those agreements, Google shares up to 40% of ad revenues generated from a browser in exchange for being the preset default on both computer and mobile versions of the browser.

Surely there is no problem, though, with search engines paying royalties to web browsers.  That’s how independent browsers like Opera and Firefox make money!  Indeed, 95% of Firefox’s revenue comes from search royalties.  If browsers were precluded from sharing in search engines’ ad revenues, they would have to find an alternative source of financing.  Producers of independent browsers would likely charge license fees, which consumers would probably avoid.  That means the only available browsers would be those affiliated with an operating system (Microsoft’s Edge, Apple’s Safari) or a search engine (Google’s Chrome).  It seems doubtful that reducing the number of viable browsers would benefit consumers.  The law should therefore allow payment of search royalties to browsers.  And if such payments are permitted, a browser will naturally set its default search engine so as to maximize its payout.  

Google’s search rivals can easily compete for default status on a browser by offering a better deal to the browser producer.  In 2014, for example, search engine Yahoo managed to wrest default status on Mozilla’s Firefox away from Google.  The arrangement was to last five years, but in 2017, Mozilla terminated the agreement and returned Google to default status because so many Firefox users were changing the browser’s default search engine from Yahoo to Google.  This historical example undermines the government’s challenges to Google’s browser agreements by showing (1) that other search engines can attain default status by competing, and (2) that defaults aren’t as “sticky” as the government claims—at least, not when the default is set to a search engine other than the one most people prefer.

In short, there’s nothing anticompetitive about Google’s browser agreements, and enjoining such deals would likely injure consumers by reducing competition among browsers.

Agreements with Apple

That brings us to the allegations that have gotten the most attention in the popular press: those concerning Google’s arrangements with Apple.  The complaint alleges that Google pays Apple $8-12 billion a year—a whopping 15-20% of Apple’s net income—for granting Google default search status on iOS devices.  In the government’s telling, Google is agreeing to share a significant portion of its monopoly profits with Apple in exchange for Apple’s assistance in maintaining Google’s search monopoly.

An alternative view, of course, is that Google is just responding to Apple’s power: Apple has assembled a giant installed base of loyal customers and can demand huge payments to favor one search engine over another on its popular mobile devices.  In that telling, Google may be paying Apple to prevent it from making Bing or another search engine the default on Apple’s search access points.

If that’s the case, what Google is doing is both procompetitive and a boon to consumers.  Microsoft could easily outbid Google to have Bing set as the default search engine on Apple’s devices. Microsoft’s market capitalization exceeds that of Google parent Alphabet by about $420 billion ($1.62 trillion versus $1.2 trillion), which is roughly the value of Walmart.  Despite its ability to outbid Google for default status, Microsoft hasn’t done so, perhaps because it realizes that defaults aren’t that sticky when the default service isn’t the one most people prefer.  Microsoft knows that from its experience with Internet Explorer and Edge (which collectively command only around 13% of the desktop browser market even though they’re the defaults on Windows, which has a 88% market share on desktops and laptops), and from its experience with Bing (where “Google” is the number one search term).  Nevertheless, the possibility remains that Microsoft could outbid Google for default status, improve its quality to prevent users from changing the default (or perhaps pay users for sticking with Bing), and thereby take valuable scale from Google, impairing the quality of Google Search.  To prevent that from happening, Google shares with Apple a generous portion of its search ad revenues, which, given the intense competition for mobile device sales, Apple likely passes along to consumers in the form of lower phone and tablet prices.

If the government succeeds in enjoining Google’s payments to Apple for default status, other search engines will presumably be precluded from such arrangements as well.  After all, the “foreclosure” effect of paying for default search status on Apple products is the same regardless of which search engine does the paying, and U.S. antitrust law does not “punish” successful firms by forbidding them from engaging in competitive activities that are open to their rivals. 

Ironically, then, the government’s success in its challenge to Google’s Apple payments would benefit Google at the expense of consumers:  Google would almost certainly remain the default search engine on Apple products, as it is most preferred by consumers and no rival could pay to dislodge it; Google would not have to pay a penny to retain its default status; and Apple would lose revenues that it likely passes along to consumers in the form of lower prices.  The courts are unlikely to countenance this perverse result by ruling that Google’s arrangements with Apple violate the antitrust laws.

Arrangements with Producers of Internet-Enabled “Smart” Devices

The final part of the government’s case against Google starkly highlights a problem that is endemic to the entire lawsuit.  The government claims that Google, having locked up all the traditional avenues of search distribution with the arrangements described above, is now seeking to foreclose search distribution in the new avenues being created by internet-enabled consumer products like wearables (e.g., smart watches), voice assistants, smart TVs, etc.  The alleged monopolistic strategy is similar to those described above: Google will share some of its monopoly profits in exchange for search default status on these smart devices, thereby preventing rival search engines from attaining valuable scale.

It’s easy to see in this context, though, why Google’s arrangements are likely procompetitive.  Unlike web browsers, mobile phones, and tablets, internet-enabled smart devices are novel.  Innovators are just now discovering new ways to embed internet functionality into everyday devices. 

Putting oneself in the position of these innovators helps illuminate a key beneficial aspect of Google’s arrangements:  They create an incentive to develop new and attractive means of distributing search.  Innovators currently at work on internet-enabled devices are no doubt spurred on by the possibility of landing a lucrative distribution agreement with Google or another search engine.  Banning these sorts of arrangements—the consequence of governmental success in this lawsuit—would diminish the incentive to innovate.

But that can be said of every single one of the arrangements the government is challenging. Because of Google’s revenue-sharing with search distributors, each of them has an added incentive to make their distribution channels desirable to consumers.  Android OEMs and Apple will work harder to produce mobile devices that people will want to use for internet searches; browser producers will endeavor to improve their offerings.  By paying producers of search access points a portion of the search ad revenues generated on their platforms, Google motivates them to generate more searches, which they can best do by making their products as attractive as possible. 

At the end of the day, then, the government’s action against Google seeks to condemn conduct that benefits consumers.  Because of the challenged arrangements, Google makes its own search services better, is able to license Android for free, ensures the continued existence of independent web browsers like Firefox and Opera, helps lower the price of iPhones and iPads, and spurs innovators to develop new “Internet of Things” devices that can harness the power of the web. 

The Biden administration would do well to recognize this lawsuit for what it is: a poorly conceived effort to appear to be “doing something” about a Big Tech company that has drawn the ire (for different reasons) of both progressives and conservatives.  DOJ and its state co-plaintiffs should seek dismissal of this action.  

[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.]

U.S. antitrust regulators have a history of narrowly defining relevant markets—often to the point of absurdity—in order to create market power out of thin air. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) famously declared that Whole Foods and Wild Oats operated in the “premium natural and organic supermarkets market”—a narrowly defined market designed to exclude other supermarkets carrying premium natural and organic foods, such as Walmart and Kroger. Similarly, for the Staples-Office Depot merger, the FTC

narrowly defined the relevant market as “office superstore” chains, which excluded general merchandisers such as Walmart, K-Mart and Target, who at the time accounted for 80% of office supply sales.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s complaint against Google’s advertising business, joined by the attorneys general of nine other states, continues this tradition of narrowing market definition to shoehorn market dominance where it may not exist.

For example, one recent paper critical of Google’s advertising business narrows the relevant market first from media advertising to digital advertising, then to the “open” supply of display ads and, finally, even further to the intermediation of the open supply of display ads. Once the market has been sufficiently narrowed, the authors conclude Google’s market share is “perhaps sufficient to confer market power.”

While whittling down market definitions may achieve the authors’ purpose of providing a roadmap to prosecute Google, one byproduct is a mishmash of market definitions that generates as many as 16 relevant markets for digital display and video advertising, in many of which Google doesn’t have anything approaching market power (and in some of which, in fact, Facebook, and not Google, is the most dominant player).

The Texas complaint engages in similar relevant-market gerrymandering. It claims that, within digital advertising, there exist several relevant markets and that Google monopolizes four of them:

  1. Publisher ad servers, which manage the inventory of a publisher’s (e.g., a newspaper’s website or a blog) space for ads;
  2. Display ad exchanges, the “marketplace” in which auctions directly match publishers’ selling of ad space with advertisers’ buying of ad space;
  3. Display ad networks, which are similar to exchanges, except a network acts as an intermediary that collects ad inventory from publishers and sells it to advertisers; and
  4. Display ad-buying tools, which include demand-side platforms that collect bids for ad placement with publishers.

The complaint alleges, “For online publishers and advertisers alike, the different online advertising formats are not interchangeable.” But this glosses over a bigger challenge for the attorneys general: Is online advertising a separate relevant market from offline advertising?

Digital advertising, of which display advertising is a small part, is only one of many channels through which companies market their products. About half of today’s advertising spending in the United States goes to digital channels, up from about 10% a decade ago. Approximately 30% of ad spending goes to television, with the remainder going to radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards and other “offline” forms of media.

Physical newspapers now account for less than 10% of total advertising spending. Traditionally, newspapers obtained substantial advertising revenues from classified ads. As internet usage increased, newspaper classifieds have been replaced by less costly and more effective internet classifieds—such as those offered by Craigslist—or targeted ads on Google Maps or Facebook.

The price of advertising has fallen steadily over the past decade, while output has risen. Spending on digital advertising in the United States grew from $26 billion in 2010 to nearly $130 billion in 2019, an average increase of 20% a year. Over the same period, the producer price index (PPI) for internet advertising sales declined by nearly 40%. Rising spending in the face of falling prices indicates the number of ads bought and sold increased by approximately 27% a year.

Since 2000, advertising spending has been falling as a share of gross domestic product, with online advertising growing as a share of that. The combination of increasing quantity, decreasing cost and increasing total revenues are consistent with a growing and increasingly competitive market, rather than one of rising concentration and reduced competition.

There is little or no empirical data evaluating the extent to which online and offline advertising constitute distinct markets or the extent to which digital display is a distinct submarket of online advertising. As a result, analysis of adtech competition has relied on identifying several technical and technological factors—as well as the say-so of participants in the business—that the analysts assert distinguish online from offline and establish digital display (versus digital search) as a distinct submarket. This approach has been used and accepted, especially in cases in which pricing data has not been available.

But the pricing information that is available raises questions about the extent to which online advertising is a distinct market from offline advertising. For example, Avi Goldfarb and Catherine Tucker find that, when local regulations prohibit offline direct advertising, search advertising is more expensive, indicating that search and offline advertising are substitutes. In other research, they report that online display advertising circumvents, in part, local bans on offline billboard advertising for alcoholic beverages. In both studies, Goldfarb and Tucker conclude their results suggest online and offline advertising are substitutes. They also conclude this substitution suggests that online and offline markets should be considered together in the context of antitrust.

While this information is not sufficient to define a broader relevant market, it raises questions regarding solely relying on the technical or technological distinctions and the say-so of market participants.

In the United States, plaintiffs do not get to define the relevant market. That is up to the judge or the jury. Plaintiffs have the burden to convince the court that a proposed narrow market definition is the correct one. With strong evidence that online and offline ads are substitutes, the court should not blindly accept the gerrymandered market definitions posited by the attorneys general.

What is a search engine?

Dirk Auer —  21 October 2020

What is a search engine? This might seem like an innocuous question, but it lies at the heart of the US Department of Justice and state Attorneys’ General antitrust complaint against Google, as well as the European Commission’s Google Search and Android decisions. It is also central to a report published by the UK’s Competition & Markets Authority (“CMA”). To varying degrees, all of these proceedings are premised on the assumption that Google enjoys a monopoly/dominant position over online search. But things are not quite this simple. 

Despite years of competition decisions and policy discussions, there are still many unanswered questions concerning the operation of search markets. For example, it is still unclear exactly which services compete against Google Search, and how this might evolve in the near future. Likewise, there has only been limited scholarly discussion as to how a search engine monopoly would exert its market power. In other words, what does a restriction of output look like on a search platform — particularly on the user side

Answering these questions will be essential if authorities wish to successfully bring an antitrust suit against Google for conduct involving search. Indeed, as things stand, these uncertainties greatly complicate efforts (i) to rigorously define the relevant market(s) in which Google Search operates, (ii) to identify potential anticompetitive effects, and (iii) to apply the quantitative tools that usually underpin antitrust proceedings.

In short, as explained below, antitrust authorities and other plaintiffs have their work cut out if they are to prevail in court.

Consumers demand information 

For a start, identifying the competitive constraints faced by Google presents authorities and plaintiffs with an important challenge.

Even proponents of antitrust intervention recognize that the market for search is complex. For instance, the DOJ and state AGs argue that Google dominates a narrow market for “general search services” — as opposed to specialized search services, content sites, social networks, and online marketplaces, etc. The EU Commission reached the same conclusion in its Google Search decision. Finally, commenting on the CMA’s online advertising report, Fiona Scott Morton and David Dinielli argue that: 

General search is a relevant market […]

In this way, an individual specialized search engine competes with a small fraction of what the Google search engine does, because a user could employ either for one specific type of search. The CMA concludes that, from the consumer standpoint, a specialized search engine exerts only a limited competitive constraint on Google.

(Note that the CMA stressed that it did not perform a market definition exercise: “We have not carried out a formal market definition assessment, but have instead looked at competitive constraints across the sector…”).

In other words, the above critics recognize that search engines are merely tools that can serve multiple functions, and that competitive constraints may be different for some of these. But this has wider ramifications that policymakers have so far overlooked. 

When quizzed about his involvement with Neuralink (a company working on implantable brain–machine interfaces), Elon Musk famously argued that human beings already share a near-symbiotic relationship with machines (a point already made by others):

The purpose of Neuralink [is] to create a high-bandwidth interface to the brain such that we can be symbiotic with AI. […] Because we have a bandwidth problem. You just can’t communicate through your fingers. It’s just too slow.

Commentators were quick to spot this implications of this technology for the search industry:

Imagine a world when humans would no longer require a device to search for answers on the internet, you just have to think of something and you get the answer straight in your head from the internet.

As things stand, this example still belongs to the realm of sci-fi. But it neatly illustrates a critical feature of the search industry. 

Search engines are just the latest iteration (but certainly not the last) of technology that enables human beings to access specific pieces of information more rapidly. Before the advent of online search, consumers used phone directories, paper maps, encyclopedias, and other tools to find the information they were looking for. They would read newspapers and watch television to know the weather forecast. They went to public libraries to undertake research projects (some still do), etc.

And, in some respects, the search engine is already obsolete for many of these uses. For instance, virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Google’s own Google Assistant offering can perform many functions that were previously the preserve of search engines: checking the weather, finding addresses and asking for directions, looking up recipes, answering general knowledge questions, finding goods online, etc. Granted, these virtual assistants partly rely on existing search engines to complete tasks. However, Google is much less dominant in this space, and search engines are not the sole source on which virtual assistants rely to generate results. Amazon’s Alexa provides a fitting example (here and here).

Along similar lines, it has been widely reported that 60% of online shoppers start their search on Amazon, while only 26% opt for Google Search. In other words, Amazon’s ability to rapidly show users the product they are looking for somewhat alleviates the need for a general search engine. In turn, this certainly constrains Google’s behavior to some extent. And much of the same applies to other websites that provide a specific type of content (think of Twitter, LinkedIn, Tripadvisor, Booking.com, etc.)

Finally, it is also revealing that the most common searches on Google are, in all likelihood, made to reach other websites — a function for which competition is literally endless:

The upshot is that Google Search and other search engines perform a bundle of functions. Most of these can be done via alternative means, and this will increasingly be the case as technology continues to advance. 

This is all the more important given that the vast majority of search engine revenue derives from roughly 30 percent of search terms (notably those that are linked to product searches). The remaining search terms are effectively a loss leader. And these profitable searches also happen to be those where competition from alternative means is, in all likelihood, the strongest (this includes competition from online retail platforms, and online travel agents like Booking.com or Kayak, but also from referral sites, direct marketing, and offline sources). In turn, this undermines US plaintiffs’ claims that Google faces little competition from rivals like Amazon, because they don’t compete for the entirety of Google’s search results (in other words, Google might face strong competition for the most valuable ads):

108. […] This market share understates Google’s market power in search advertising because many search-advertising competitors offer only specialized search ads and thus compete with Google only in a limited portion of the market. 

Critics might mistakenly take the above for an argument that Google has no market power because competition is “just a click away”. But the point is more subtle, and has important implications as far as market definition is concerned.

Authorities should not define the search market by arguing that no other rival is quite like Google (or one if its rivals) — as the DOJ and state AGs did in their complaint:

90. Other search tools, platforms, and sources of information are not reasonable substitutes for general search services. Offline and online resources, such as books, publisher websites, social media platforms, and specialized search providers such as Amazon, Expedia, or Yelp, do not offer consumers the same breadth of information or convenience. These resources are not “one-stop shops” and cannot respond to all types of consumer queries, particularly navigational queries. Few consumers would find alternative sources a suitable substitute for general search services. Thus, there are no reasonable substitutes for general search services, and a general search service monopolist would be able to maintain quality below the level that would prevail in a competitive market. 

And as the EU Commission did in the Google Search decision:

(162) For the reasons set out below, there is, however, limited demand side substitutability between general search services and other online services. […]

(163) There is limited substitutability between general search services and content sites. […]

(166) There is also limited substitutability between general search services and specialised search services. […]

(178) There is also limited substitutability between general search services and social networking sites.

Ad absurdum, if consumers suddenly decided to access information via other means, Google could be the only firm to provide general search results and yet have absolutely no market power. 

Take the example of Yahoo: Despite arguably remaining the most successful “web directory”, it likely lost any market power that it had when Google launched a superior — and significantly more successful — type of search engine. Google Search may not have provided a complete, literal directory of the web (as did Yahoo), but it offered users faster access to the information they wanted. In short, the Yahoo example shows that being unique is not equivalent to having market power. Accordingly, any market definition exercise that merely focuses on the idiosyncrasies of firms is likely to overstate their actual market power. 

Given what precedes, the question that authorities should ask is thus whether Google Search (or another search engine) performs so many unique functions that it may be in a position to restrict output. So far, no one appears to have convincingly answered this question.

Similar uncertainties surround the question of how a search engine might restrict output, especially on the user side of the search market. Accordingly, authorities will struggle to produce evidence (i) the Google has market power, especially on the user side of the market, and (ii) that its behavior has anticompetitive effects.

Consider the following:

The SSNIP test (which is the standard method of defining markets in antitrust proceedings) is inapplicable to the consumer side of search platforms. Indeed, it is simply impossible to apply a hypothetical 10% price increase to goods that are given away for free.

This raises a deeper question: how would a search engine exercise its market power? 

For a start, it seems unlikely that it would start charging fees to its users. For instance, empirical research pertaining to the magazine industry (also an ad-based two-sided market) suggests that increased concentration does not lead to higher magazine prices. Minjae Song notably finds that:

Taking the advantage of having structural models for both sides, I calculate equilibrium outcomes for hypothetical ownership structures. Results show that when the market becomes more concentrated, copy prices do not necessarily increase as magazines try to attract more readers.

It is also far from certain that a dominant search engine would necessarily increase the amount of adverts it displays. To the contrary, market power on the advertising side of the platform might lead search engines to decrease the number of advertising slots that are available (i.e. reducing advertising output), thus showing less adverts to users. 

Finally, it is not obvious that market power would lead search engines to significantly degrade their product (as this could ultimately hurt ad revenue). For example, empirical research by Avi Goldfarb and Catherine Tucker suggests that there is some limit to the type of adverts that search engines could profitably impose upon consumers. They notably find that ads that are both obtrusive and targeted decrease subsequent purchases:

Ads that match both website content and are obtrusive do worse at increasing purchase intent than ads that do only one or the other. This failure appears to be related to privacy concerns: the negative effect of combining targeting with obtrusiveness is strongest for people who refuse to give their income and for categories where privacy matters most.

The preceding paragraphs find some support in the theoretical literature on two-sided markets literature, which suggests that competition on the user side of search engines is likely to be particularly intense and beneficial to consumers (because they are more likely to single-home than advertisers, and because each additional user creates a positive externality on the advertising side of the market). For instance, Jean Charles Rochet and Jean Tirole find that:

The single-homing side receives a large share of the joint surplus, while the multi-homing one receives a small share.

This is just a restatement of Mark Armstrong’s “competitive bottlenecks” theory:

Here, if it wishes to interact with an agent on the single-homing side, the multi-homing side has no choice but to deal with that agent’s chosen platform. Thus, platforms have monopoly power over providing access to their single-homing customers for the multi-homing side. This monopoly power naturally leads to high prices being charged to the multi-homing side, and there will be too few agents on this side being served from a social point of view (Proposition 4). By contrast, platforms do have to compete for the single-homing agents, and high profits generated from the multi-homing side are to a large extent passed on to the single-homing side in the form of low prices (or even zero prices).

All of this is not to suggest that Google Search has no market power, or that monopoly is necessarily less problematic in the search engine industry than in other markets. 

Instead, the argument is that analyzing competition on the user side of search platforms is unlikely to yield dispositive evidence of market power or anticompetitive effects. This is because market power is hard to measure on this side of the market, and because even a monopoly platform might not significantly restrict user output. 

That might explain why the DOJ and state AGs analysis of anticompetitive effects is so limited. Take the following paragraph (provided without further supporting evidence):

167. By restricting competition in general search services, Google’s conduct has harmed consumers by reducing the quality of general search services (including dimensions such as privacy, data protection, and use of consumer data), lessening choice in general search services, and impeding innovation. 

Given these inherent difficulties, antitrust investigators would do better to focus on the side of those platforms where mainstream IO tools are much easier to apply and where a dominant search engine would likely restrict output: the advertising market. Not only is it the market where search engines are most likely to exert their market power (thus creating a deadweight loss), but — because it involves monetary transactions — this side of the market lends itself to the application of traditional antitrust tools.  

Looking at the right side of the market

Finally, and unfortunately for Google’s critics, available evidence suggests that its position on the (online) advertising market might not meet the requirements necessary to bring a monopolization case (at least in the US).

For a start, online advertising appears to exhibit the prima facie signs of a competitive market. As Geoffrey Manne, Sam Bowman and Eric Fruits have argued:

Over the past decade, the price of advertising has fallen steadily while output has risen. Spending on digital advertising in the US grew from $26 billion in 2010 to nearly $130 billion in 2019, an average increase of 20% a year. Over the same period the Producer Price Index for Internet advertising sales declined by nearly 40%. The rising spending in the face of falling prices indicates the number of ads bought and sold increased by approximately 27% a year. Since 2000, advertising spending has been falling as a share of GDP, with online advertising growing as a share of that. The combination of increasing quantity, decreasing cost, and increasing total revenues are consistent with a growing and increasingly competitive market.

Second, empirical research suggests that the market might need to be widened to include offline advertising. For instance, Avi Goldfarb and Catherine Tucker show that there can be important substitution effects between online and offline advertising channels:

Using data on the advertising prices paid by lawyers for 139 Google search terms in 195 locations, we exploit a natural experiment in “ambulance-chaser” regulations across states. When lawyers cannot contact clients by mail, advertising prices per click for search engine advertisements are 5%–7% higher. Therefore, online advertising substitutes for offline advertising.

Of course, a careful examination of the advertising industry could also lead authorities to define a narrower relevant market. For example, the DOJ and state AG complaint argued that Google dominated the “search advertising” market:

97. Search advertising in the United States is a relevant antitrust market. The search advertising market consists of all types of ads generated in response to online search queries, including general search text ads (offered by general search engines such as Google and Bing) […] and other, specialized search ads (offered by general search engines and specialized search providers such as Amazon, Expedia, or Yelp). 

Likewise, the European Commission concluded that Google dominated the market for “online search advertising” in the AdSense case (though the full decision has not yet been made public). Finally, the CMA’s online platforms report found that display and search advertising belonged to separate markets. 

But these are empirical questions that could dispositively be answered by applying traditional antitrust tools, such as the SSNIP test. And yet, there is no indication that the authorities behind the US complaint undertook this type of empirical analysis (and until its AdSense decision is made public, it is not clear that the EU Commission did so either). Accordingly, there is no guarantee that US courts will go along with the DOJ and state AGs’ findings.

In short, it is far from certain that Google currently enjoys an advertising monopoly, especially if the market is defined more broadly than that for “search advertising” (or the even narrower market for “General Search Text Advertising”). 

Concluding remarks

The preceding paragraphs have argued that a successful antitrust case against Google is anything but a foregone conclusion. In order to successfully bring a suit, authorities would notably need to figure out just what market it is that Google is monopolizing. In turn, that would require a finer understanding of what competition, and monopoly, look like in the search and advertising industries.

In the latest congressional hearing, purportedly analyzing Google’s “stacking the deck” in the online advertising marketplace, much of the opening statement and questioning by Senator Mike Lee and later questioning by Senator Josh Hawley focused on an episode of alleged anti-conservative bias by Google in threatening to demonetize The Federalist, a conservative publisher, unless they exercised a greater degree of control over its comments section. The senators connected this to Google’s “dominance,” arguing that it is only because Google’s ad services are essential that Google can dictate terms to a conservative website. A similar impulse motivates Section 230 reform efforts as well: allegedly anti-conservative online platforms wield their dominance to censor conservative speech, either through deplatforming or demonetization.

Before even getting into the analysis of how to incorporate political bias into antitrust analysis, though, it should be noted that there likely is no viable antitrust remedy. Even aside from the Section 230 debate, online platforms like Google are First Amendment speakers who have editorial discretion over their sites and apps, much like newspapers. An antitrust remedy compelling these companies to carry speech they disagree with would almost certainly violate the First Amendment.

But even aside from the First Amendment aspect of this debate, there is no easy way to incorporate concerns about political bias into antitrust. Perhaps the best way to understand this argument in the antitrust sense is as a non-price effects analysis. 

Political bias could be seen by end consumers as an important aspect of product quality. Conservatives have made the case that not only Google, but also Facebook and Twitter, have discriminated against conservative voices. The argument would then follow that consumer welfare is harmed when these dominant platforms leverage their control of the social media marketplace into the marketplace of ideas by censoring voices with whom they disagree. 

While this has theoretical plausibility, there are real practical difficulties. As Geoffrey Manne and I have written previously, in the context of incorporating privacy into antitrust analysis:

The Horizontal Merger Guidelines have long recognized that anticompetitive effects may “be manifested in non-price terms and conditions that adversely affect customers.” But this notion, while largely unobjectionable in the abstract, still presents significant problems in actual application. 

First, product quality effects can be extremely difficult to distinguish from price effects. Quality-adjusted price is usually the touchstone by which antitrust regulators assess prices for competitive effects analysis. Disentangling (allegedly) anticompetitive quality effects from simultaneous (neutral or pro-competitive) price effects is an imprecise exercise, at best. For this reason, proving a product-quality case alone is very difficult and requires connecting the degradation of a particular element of product quality to a net gain in advantage for the monopolist. 

Second, invariably product quality can be measured on more than one dimension. For instance, product quality could include both function and aesthetics: A watch’s quality lies in both its ability to tell time as well as how nice it looks on your wrist. A non-price effects analysis involving product quality across multiple dimensions becomes exceedingly difficult if there is a tradeoff in consumer welfare between the dimensions. Thus, for example, a smaller watch battery may improve its aesthetics, but also reduce its reliability. Any such analysis would necessarily involve a complex and imprecise comparison of the relative magnitudes of harm/benefit to consumers who prefer one type of quality to another.

Just as with privacy and other product qualities, the analysis becomes increasingly complex first when tradeoffs between price and quality are introduced, and then even more so when tradeoffs between what different consumer groups perceive as quality is added. In fact, it is more complex than privacy. All but the most exhibitionistic would prefer more to less privacy, all other things being equal. But with political media consumption, most would prefer to have more of what they want to read available, even if it comes at the expense of what others may want. There is no easy way to understand what consumer welfare means in a situation where one group’s preferences need to come at the expense of another’s in moderation decisions.

Consider the case of The Federalist again. The allegation is that Google is imposing their anticonservative bias by “forcing” the website to clean up its comments section. The argument is that since The Federalist needs Google’s advertising money, it must play by Google’s rules. And since it did so, there is now one less avenue for conservative speech.

What this argument misses is the balance Google and other online services must strike as multi-sided platforms. The goal is to connect advertisers on one side of the platform, to the users on the other. If a site wants to take advantage of the ad network, it seems inevitable that intermediaries like Google will need to create rules about what can and can’t be shown or they run the risk of losing advertisers who don’t want to be associated with certain speech or conduct. For instance, most companies don’t want to be associated with racist commentary. Thus, they will take great pains to make sure they don’t sponsor or place ads in venues associated with racism. Online platforms connecting advertisers to potential consumers must take that into consideration.

Users, like those who frequent The Federalist, have unpriced access to content across those sites and apps which are part of ad networks like Google’s. Other models, like paid subscriptions (which The Federalist also has available), are also possible. But it isn’t clear that conservative voices or conservative consumers have been harmed overall by the option of unpriced access on one side of the platform, with advertisers paying on the other side. If anything, it seems the opposite is the case since conservatives long complained about legacy media having a bias and lauded the Internet as an opportunity to gain a foothold in the marketplace of ideas.

Online platforms like Google must balance the interests of users from across the political spectrum. If their moderation practices are too politically biased in one direction or another, users could switch to another online platform with one click or swipe. Assuming online platforms wish to maximize revenue, they will have a strong incentive to limit political bias from its moderation practices. The ease of switching to another platform which markets itself as more free speech-friendly, like Parler, shows entrepreneurs can take advantage of market opportunities if Google and other online platforms go too far with political bias. 

While one could perhaps argue that the major online platforms are colluding to keep out conservative voices, this is difficult to square with the different moderation practices each employs, as well as the data that suggests conservative voices are consistently among the most shared on Facebook

Antitrust is not a cure-all law. Conservatives who normally understand this need to reconsider whether antitrust is really well-suited for litigating concerns about anti-conservative bias online.