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Early last month, the Italian competition authority issued a record 1.128 billion euro fine against Amazon for abuse of dominance under Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). In its order, the Agenzia Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato (AGCM) essentially argues that Amazon has combined its Amazon.it marketplace and Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) services to exclude logistics rivals such as FedEx, DHL, UPS, and Poste Italiane. 

The sanctions came exactly one month after the European General Court seconded the European Commission’s “discovery” in the Google Shopping case of a new antitrust infringement known as “self-preferencing,” which also cited Article 102 TFEU. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, legislation was introduced in the United States earlier this year to prohibit the practice. Meanwhile, the EU’s legislative bodies have been busy taking steps to approve the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which would regulate so-called digital “gatekeepers.”

Italy thus joins a wave of policymakers that have either imposed heavy-handed decisions to “rein in” online platforms, or are seeking to implement ex ante regulations toward that end. Ultimately, the decision is reminiscent of the self-preferencing prohibition contained in Article 6a of the current draft of the DMA and reflects much of what is wrong with the current approach to regulating tech. It presages some of the potential problems with punishing efficient behavior for the sake of protecting competitors through “common carrier antitrust.” However, if this decision is anything to go by, these efforts will end up hurting the very consumers authorities purport to protect and lending color to more general fears over the DMA. 

In this post, we discuss how the AGCM’s reasoning departs from sound legal and economic thinking to reach a conclusion at odds with the traditional goal of competition law—i.e., the protection of consumer welfare. Neo-Brandeisians and other competition scholars who dispute the centrality of the consumer welfare standard and would use antitrust to curb “bigness” may find this result acceptable, in principle. But even they must admit that the AGCM decision ultimately serves to benefit large (if less successful) competitors, and not the “small dealers and worthy men” of progressive lore.

Relevant Market Definition

Market definition constitutes a preliminary step in any finding of abuse under Article 102 TFEU. An excessively narrow market definition can result in false positives by treating neutral or efficient conduct as anticompetitive, while an overly broad market definition might allow anticompetitive conduct to slip through the cracks, leading to false negatives. 

Amazon Italy may be an example of the former. Here, the AGCM identified two relevant markets: the leveraging market, which it identified as the Italian market for online marketplace intermediation, and the leveraged market, which it identified as the market for e-commerce logistics. The AGCM charges that Amazon is dominant in the former and that it gained an illegal advantage in the latter. It found, in this sense, that online marketplaces constitute a uniquely relevant market that is not substitutable for other offline or online sales channels, such as brick-and-mortar shops, price-comparison websites (e.g., Google Shopping), or dedicated sales websites (e.g., Nike.com/it). Similarly, it concluded that e-commerce logistics are sufficiently different from other forms of logistics as to comprise a separate market.

The AGCM’s findings combine qualitative and quantitative evidence, including retailer surveys and “small but significant and non-transitory increase in price” (SSNIP) tests. They also include a large dose of speculative reasoning.

For instance, the AGCM asserts that online marketplaces are fundamentally different from price-comparison sites because, in the latter case, purchase transactions do not take place on the platform. It asserts that e-commerce logistics are different from traditional logistics because the former require a higher degree of automation for transportation and storage. And in what can only be seen as a normative claim, rather than an objective assessment of substitutability, the Italian watchdog found that marketplaces are simply better than dedicated websites because, e.g., they offer greater visibility and allow retailers to save on marketing costs. While it is unclear what weights the AGCM assigned to each of these considerations when defining the relevant markets, it is reasonable to assume they played some part in defining the nature and scope of Amazon’s market presence in Italy.

In all of these instances, however, while the AGCM carefully delineated superficial distinctions between these markets, it did not actually establish that those differences are relevant to competition. Fetishizing granular but ultimately irrelevant differences between products and services—such as between marketplaces and shopping comparison sites—is a sure way to incur false positives, a misstep tantamount to punishing innocuous or efficient business conduct.

Dominance

The AGCM found that Amazon was “hyper-dominant” in the online marketplace intermediation market. Dominance was established by looking at revenue from marketplace sales, where Amazon’s share had risen from about 65% in 2016 to 75% in 2019. Taken in isolation, this figure might suggest that Amazon’s competitors cannot thrive in the market. A broader look at the data, however, paints a picture of more generalized growth, with some segments greatly benefiting newcomers and small, innovative marketplaces. 

For instance, virtually all companies active in the online marketplace intermediation market have experienced significant growth in terms of monthly visitors. It is true that Amazon’s visitors grew significantly, up 150%, but established competitors like Aliexpress and eBay also saw growth rates of 90% and 25%, respectively. Meanwhile, Wish grew a massive 10,000% from 2016 to 2019; while ManoMano and Zalando grew 450% and 100%, respectively.

In terms of active users (i.e., visits that result in a purchase), relative numbers seem to have stayed roughly the same, although the AGCM claims that eBay saw a 20-30% drop. The number of third-party products Amazon offered through Marketplace grew from between 100 and 500 million to between 500 million and 1 billion, while other marketplaces appear to have remained fairly constant, with some expanding and others contracting.

In sum, while Amazon has undeniably improved its position in practically all of the parameters considered by the AGCM, indicators show that the market as a whole has experienced and is experiencing growth. The improvement in Amazon’s position relative to some competitors—notably eBay, which AGCM asserts is Amazon’s biggest competitor—should therefore not obscure the fact that there is entry and expansion both at the fringes (ManoMano, Wish), and in the center of the market for online marketplace intermediation (Aliexpress).

Amazon’s Allegedly Abusive Conduct

According to the AGCM, Amazon has taken advantage of vertical integration to engage in self-preferencing. Specifically, the charge is that the company offers exclusive and purportedly crucial advantages on the Amazon.it marketplace to sellers who use Amazon’s own e-commerce logistics service, FBA. The purported advantages of this arrangement include, to name a few, the coveted Prime badge, the elimination of negative user feedback on sale or delivery, preferential algorithmic treatment, and exclusive participation in Amazon’s sales promotions (e.g., Black Friday, Cyber Monday). As a result, according to the AGCM, products sold through FBA enjoy more visibility and a better chance to win the “Buy Box.”

The AGCM claims this puts competing logistics operators like FedEx, Poste Italiane, and DHL at a disadvantage, because non-FBA products have less chance to be sold than FBA products, regardless of any efficiency or quality criteria. In the AGCM’s words, “Amazon has stolen demand for other e-commerce logistics operators.” 

Indirectly, Amazon’s “self-preferencing” purportedly also harms competing marketplaces like eBay by creating incentives for sellers to single-home—i.e., to sell only through Amazon Marketplace. The argument here is that retailers will not multi-home to avoid duplicative costs associated with FBA, e.g., storing goods in several warehouses. 

Although it is not necessary to demonstrate anticompetitive effects under Article 102 TFEU, the AGCM claims that Amazon’s behavior has caused drastic worsening in other marketplaces’ competitive position by constraining their ability to reach the minimum scale needed to enjoy direct and indirect network effects. The Italian authorities summarily assert that this results in consumer harm, although the gargantuan 250-page decision spends scarcely one paragraph on this point. 

Intuitively, however, Amazon’s behavior should, in principle, benefit consumers by offering something that most find tremendously valuable: a guarantee of quick delivery for a wide range of goods. Indeed, this is precisely why it is so misguided to condemn self-preferencing by online platforms.

As some have already argued, we cannot assume that something is bad for competition just because it is bad for certain competitors. For instance, a lot of unambiguously procompetitive behavior, like cutting prices, puts competitors at a disadvantage. The same might be true for a digital platform that preferences its own service because it is generally better than the alternatives provided by third-party sellers. In the case at hand, for example, Amazon’s granting marketplace privileges to FBA products may help users to select the products that Amazon can guarantee will best satisfy their needs. This is perfectly plausible, as customers have repeatedly shown that they often prefer less open, less neutral options.

The key question, therefore, should be whether the behavior in question excludes equally efficient rivals in such a way as to harm consumer welfare. Otherwise, we would essentially be asking companies to refrain from offering services that benefit their users in order to make competing products comparatively more attractive. This is antithetical to the nature of competition, which is based on the principle that what is good for consumers is frequently bad for competitors.

AGCM’s Theory of Harm Rests on Four Weak Pillars

Building on the logic that Amazon enjoys “hyper-dominance” in marketplace intermediation; that most online sales are marketplace sales; and that most marketplace sales are, in turn, Amazon.it sales, the AGCM decision finds that succeeding on Amazon.it is indispensable for any online retailer in Italy. This argument hinges largely on whether online and offline retailers are thought of as distinct relevant markets—i.e., whether, from the perspective of the retailer, online and offline sales channels are substitutable (see also the relevant market definition section above). 

Ultimately, the AGCM finds that they are not, as online sales enjoy such advantages as lower fixed costs, increased sale flexibility, and better geographical reach. To an outsider, the distinction between the two markets may seem artificial—and it largely is—but such theoretical market segmentation is the bread-and-butter of antitrust analysis. Still, even by EU competition law standards, the relevant market definitions on which the AGCM relies to conclude that selling on Amazon is indispensable appear excessively narrow. 

This market distinction also serves to set up the AGCM’s second, more controversial argument: that the benefits extended to products sold through the FBA channel are also indispensable for retailers’ success on the Amazon.it marketplace. Here, the AGCM seeks a middle ground between competitive advantage and indispensability, finally settling on the notion that a sufficiently large competitive advantage itself translates into indispensability.

But how big is too big? The facts that 40-45% of Amazon’s third-party retailers do not use FBA (p. 57 of the decision) and that roughly 40 of the top 100 products sold on Amazon.it are not fulfilled through Amazon’s logistics service (p. 58) would appear to suggest that FBA is more of a convenience than an obligation. At the least, it does not appear that the advantage conferred is so big as to amount to indispensability. This may be because sellers that choose not to use Amazon’s logistics service (including offline, of course) can and do cut prices to compete with FBA-sold products. If anything, this should be counted as a good thing from the perspective of consumer welfare.

Instead, and signaling the decision’s overarching preoccupation with protecting some businesses at the expense of others (and, ultimately, at the expense of consumers), the AGCM has expanded the already bloated notion of a self-preferencing offense to conclude that expecting sellers to compete on pricing parameters would unfairly slash profit margins for non-FBA sellers.

The third pillar of the AGCM’s theory of harm is the claim that the benefits conferred on products sold through FBA are not awarded based on any objective quality criteria, but purely on whether the seller has chosen FBA or third-party logistics. Thus, even if a logistics operator were, in principle, capable of offering a service as efficient as FBA’s, it would not qualify for the same benefits. 

But this is a disingenuous line of reasoning. One legitimate reason why Amazon could choose to confer exclusive advantages on products fulfilled by its own logistics operation is because no other service is, in fact, routinely as reliable. This does not necessarily mean that FBA is always superior to the alternatives, but rather that it makes sense for Amazon to adopt this presumption a general rule based on past experience, without spending the resources to constantly evaluate it. In other words, granting exclusive benefits is based on quality criteria, just on a prior measurement of quality rather than an ongoing assessment. This is presumably what a customer-obsessed business that does not want to take chances with consumer satisfaction would do. 

Fourth, the AGCM posits that Prime and FBA constitute two separate products that have been artificially tied by Amazon, thereby unfairly excluding third-party logistics operators. Co-opting Amazon’s own terminology, the AGCM claims that the company has created a flywheel of artificial interdependence, wherein Prime benefits increase the number of Prime users, which drives demand for Prime products, which creates demand for Prime-eligible FBA products, and so on. 

To support its case, the AGCM repeatedly adduces a 2015 letter in which Jeff Bezos told shareholders that Amazon Marketplace and Prime are “happily and deeply intertwined,” and that FBA is the “glue” that links them together. Instead of taking this for what it likely is—i.e., a case of legitimate, efficiency-enhancing vertical integration—the AGCM has preferred to read into it a case of illicit tying, an established offense under Article 102 TFEU whereby a dominant firm makes the purchase of one product conditional on the purchase of another, unrelated one. 

The problem with this narrative is that it is perfectly plausible that Prime and FBA are, in fact, meant to be one product that is more than the sum of its parts. For one, the inventory of sellers who use FBA is stowed in fulfillment centers, meaning that Amazon takes care of all logistics, customer service, and product returns. As Bezos put it in the same 2015 letter, this is a huge efficiency gain. It thus makes sense to nudge consumers towards products that use FBA.

In sum, the AGCM’s case rests on a series of questionable assumptions that build on each other: a narrow relevant market definition; a finding of “hyper-dominance” that downplays competitors’ growth and expansion, as well as competition from outside the narrowly defined market; a contrived notion of indispensability at two levels (Marketplace and FBA); and a refusal to contemplate the possibility that Amazon integrates its marketplace and logistics services in orders to enhance efficiency, rather than to exclude competitors.

Remedies

The AGCM sees “only one way to restore a level-playing field in e-commerce logistics”: Amazon must redesign its existing Self-Fulfilled Prime (SFP) program in such a way as to grant all logistics operators—FBA or non-FBA—equal treatment on Amazon.it, based on a set of objective, transparent, standard, uniform, and non-discriminatory criteria. Any logistics operator that demonstrates the ability to fulfill such criteria must be awarded SFP status and the accompanying Prime badge, along with all the perks associated with it. Further, SFP- and FBA-sold products must be subject to the same monitoring mechanism with regard to the observance of Prime standards, as well as to the same evaluation standards. 

In sum, Amazon Italy now has a duty to treat Marketplace sales fulfilled by third-party operators the same as those fulfilled by its own logistics service. This is a significant step toward “common carrier antitrust.” in which vertically integrated firms are expected to comply with perfect neutrality obligations with respect to customers, suppliers, and competitors

Beyond the philosophical question of whether successful private companies should be obliged by law to treat competitors analogously to its affiliates (they shouldn’t), the pitfalls of this approach are plain to see. Nearly all consumer-facing services use choice architectures as a means to highlight products that rank favorably in terms of price and quality, and ensuring consumers enjoy a seamless user experience: Supermarkets offer house brands that signal a product has certain desirable features; operating system developers pre-install certain applications to streamline users’ “out of the box “experience; app stores curate the apps that users will view; search engines use specialized boxes that anticipate the motives underlying users’ search queries, etc. Suppressing these practices through heavy-handed neutrality mandates is liable to harm consumers. 

Second, monitoring third-party logistics operators’ compliance with the requisite standards is going to come at a cost for Amazon (and, presumably, its customers)—a cost likely much higher than that of monitoring its own operations—while awarding the Prime badge liberally may deteriorate the consumer experience on Amazon Marketplace.

Thus, one way for Amazon to comply with AGCM’s remedies while also minimizing monitoring costs is simply to dilute or even remove the criteria for Prime, thereby allowing sellers using any logistics provider to be eligible for Prime. While this would presumably insulate Amazon from any future claims against exclusionary self-preferencing, it would almost certainly also harm consumer welfare. 

A final point worth noting is that vertical integration may well be subsidizing Amazon’s own first-party products. In other words, even if FBA is not fully better than other logistics operators, the revenue that it derives from FBA enables Amazon to offer low prices, as well as a range of other benefits from Prime, such as, e.g., free video. Take that source of revenue away, and those subsidized prices go up and the benefits disappear. This is another reason why it may be legitimate to consider FBA and Prime as a single product.

Of course, this argument is moot if all one cares about is how Amazon’s vertical integration affects competitors, not consumers. But consumers care about the whole package. The rationale at play in the AGCM decision ultimately ends up imposing a narrow, boring business model on all sellers, precluding them from offering interesting consumer benefits to bolster their overall product.

Conclusion

Some have openly applauded AGCM’s use of EU competition law to protect traditional logistics operators like FedEx, Poste Italiane, DHL, and UPS. Others lament the competition authority’s apparent abandonment of the consumer welfare standard in favor of a renewed interest in punishing efficiency to favor laggard competitors under the guise of safekeeping “competition.” Both sides ultimately agree on one thing, however: Amazon Italy is about favoring Amazon’s competitors. If competition authorities insist on continuing down this populist rabbit hole,  the best they can hope for is a series of Pyrrhic victories against the businesses that are most bent on customer satisfaction, i.e., the successful ones.

Some may intuitively think that this is fair; that Amazon is just too big and that it strangles small competitors. But Amazon’s “small” competitors are hardly the “worthy men” of Brandeisian mythology. They are FedEx, DHL, UPS, and the state-backed goliath Poste Italiane; they are undeniably successful companies like eBay, Alibaba – or Walmart in the United States. It is, conversely, the smallest retailers and consumers who benefit the most from Amazon’s integrated logistics and marketplace services, as the company’s meteoric rise in popularity in Italy since 2016 attests. But it seems that, in the brave new world of antitrust, such stakeholders are now too small to matter.

Policymakers’ recent focus on how Big Tech should be treated under antitrust law has been accompanied by claims that companies like Facebook and Google hold dominant positions in various “markets.” Notwithstanding the tendency to conflate whether a firm is large with whether it hold a dominant position, we must first answer the question most of these claims tend to ignore: “dominant over what?”

For example, as set out in this earlier Truth on the Market post, a recent lawsuit filed by various states and the U.S. Justice Department outlined five areas related to online display advertising over which Google is alleged by the plaintiffs to hold a dominant position. But crucially, none appear to have been arrived at via the application of economic reasoning.

As that post explained, other forms of advertising (such as online search and offline advertising) might form part of a “relevant market” (i.e., the market in which a product actually competes) over which Google’s alleged dominance should be assessed. The post makes a strong case for the actual relevant market being much broader than that claimed in the lawsuit. Of course, some might disagree with that assessment, so it is useful to step back and examine the principles that underlie and motivate how a relevant market is defined.

In any antitrust case, defining the relevant market should be regarded as a means to an end, not an end in itself. While such definitions provide the basis to calculate market shares, the process of thinking about relevant markets also should provide a framework to consider and highlight important aspects of the case. The process enables one to think about how a particular firm and market operates, the constraints that it and rival firms face, and whether entry by other firms is feasible or likely.

Many naïve attempts to define the relevant market will limit their analysis to a particular industry. But an industry could include too few competitors, or it might even include too many—for example, if some firms in the industry generate products that do not constitute strong competitive constraints. If one were to define all cars as the “relevant” market, that would imply that a Dacia Sandero (a supermini model produced Renault’s Romanian subsidiary Dacia) constrains the price of Maserati’s Quattroporte luxury sports sedan as much as the Ferrari Portofino grand touring sports car does. This is very unlikely to hold in reality.[1]

The relevant market should be the smallest possible group of products and services that contains all such products and services that could provide a reasonable competitive constraint. But that, of course, merely raises the question of what is meant by a “reasonable competitive constraint.” Thankfully, by applying economic reasoning, we can answer that question.

More specifically, we have the “hypothetical monopolist test.” This test operates by considering whether a hypothetical monopolist (i.e., a single firm that controlled all the products considered part of the relevant market) could profitably undertake “a small but significant, non-transitory, increase in price” (typically shortened as the SSNIP test).[2]

If the hypothetical monopolist could profitably implement this increase in price, then the group of products under consideration is said to constitute a relevant market. On the other hand, if the hypothetical monopolist could not profitably increase the price of that group of products (due to demand-side or supply-side constraints on their ability to increase prices), then that group of products is not a relevant market, and more products need to be included in the candidate relevant market. The process of widening the group of products continues until the hypothetical monopolist could profitably increase prices over that group.

So how does this test work in practice? Let’s use an example to make things concrete. In particular, let’s focus on Google’s display advertising, as that has been a significant focus of attention. Starting from the narrowest possible market, Google’s own display advertising, the HM test would ask whether a hypothetical monopolist controlling these services (and just these services) could profitably increase prices of these services permanently by 5% to 10%.

At this initial stage, it is important to avoid the “cellophane fallacy,” in which a monopolist firm could not profitably increase its prices by 5% to 10% because it is already charging the monopoly price. This fallacy usually arises in situations where the product under consideration has very few (if any) substitutes. But as has been shown here, there are already plenty of alternatives to Google’s display-advertising services, so we can be reasonably confident that the fallacy does not apply here.

We would then consider what is likely to happen if Google were to increase the prices of its online display advertising services by 5% to 10%. Given the plethora of other options (such as Microsoft, Facebook, and Simpli.fi) customers have for obtaining online display ads, a sufficiently high number of Google’s customers are likely to switch away, such that the price increase would not be profitable. It is therefore necessary to expand the candidate relevant market to include those closest alternatives to which Google’s customers would switch.

We repeat the exercise, but now with the hypothetical monopolist also increasing the prices of those newly included products. It might be the case that alternatives such as online search ads (as opposed to display ads), print advertising, TV advertising and/or other forms of advertising would sufficiently constrain the hypothetical monopolist in this case that those other alternatives form part of the relevant market.

In determining whether an alternative sufficiently constrains our hypothetical monopolist, it is important to consider actual consumer/firm behavior, rather than relying on products having “similar” characteristics. Although constraints can come from either the demand side (i.e., customers switching to another provider) or the supply side (entry/switching by other providers to start producing the products offered by the HM), for market-definition purposes, it is almost always demand-side switching that matters most. Switching by consumers tends to happen much more quickly than does switching by providers, such that it can be a more effective constraint. (Note that supply-side switching is still important when assessing overall competitive constraints, but because such switching can take one or more years, it is usually considered in the overall competitive assessment, rather than at the market-definition stage.)

Identifying which alternatives consumers do and would switch to therefore highlights the rival products and services that constrain the candidate hypothetical monopolist. It is only once the hypothetical monopolist test has been completed and the relevant market has been found that market shares can be calculated.[3]

It is at that point than an assessment of a firm’s alleged market power (or of a proposed merger) can proceed. This is why claims that “Facebook is a monopolist” or that “Google has market power” often fail at the first hurdle (indeed, in the case of Facebook, they recently have.)

Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that any antitrust claim that does not first undertake a market-definition exercise with sound economic reasoning akin to that described above should be discounted and ignored.


[1] Some might argue that there is a “chain of substitution” from the Maserati to, for example, an Audi A4, to a Ford Focus, to a Mini, to a Dacia Sandero, such that the latter does, indeed, provide some constraint on the former. However, the size of that constraint is likely to be de minimis, given how many “links” there are in that chain.

[2] The “small but significant” price increase is usually taken to be between 5% and 10%.

[3] Even if a product or group of products ends up excluded from the definition of the relevant market, these products can still form a competitive constraint in the overall assessment and are still considered at that point.

Advocates of legislative action to “reform” antitrust law have already pointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s dismissal of the state attorneys general’s case and the “conditional” dismissal of the Federal Trade Commission’s case against Facebook as evidence that federal antitrust case law is lax and demands correction. In fact, the court’s decisions support the opposite implication. 

The Risks of Antitrust by Anecdote

The failure of a well-resourced federal regulator, and more than 45 state attorney-general offices, to avoid dismissal at an early stage of the litigation testifies to the dangers posed by a conclusory approach toward antitrust enforcement that seeks to unravel acquisitions consummated almost a decade ago without even demonstrating the factual predicates to support consideration of such far-reaching interventions. The dangers to the rule of law are self-evident. Irrespective of one’s views on the appropriate direction of antitrust law, this shortcut approach would substitute prosecutorial fiat, ideological predilection, and popular sentiment for decades of case law and agency guidelines grounded in the rigorous consideration of potential evidence of competitive harm. 

The paucity of empirical support for the exceptional remedial action sought by the FTC is notable. As the district court observed, there was little systematic effort made to define the economically relevant market or provide objective evidence of market power, beyond the assertion that Facebook has a market share of “in excess of 60%.” Remarkably, the denominator behind that 60%-plus assertion is not precisely defined, since the FTC’s brief does not supply any clear metric by which to measure market share. As the court pointed out, this is a nontrivial task in multi-sided environments in which one side of the potentially relevant market delivers services to users at no charge.  

While the point may seem uncontroversial, it is important to re-appreciate why insisting on a rigorous demonstration of market power is critical to preserving a coherent body of law that provides the market with a basis for reasonably anticipating the likelihood of antitrust intervention. At least since the late 1970s, courts have recognized that “big is not always bad” and can often yield cost savings that ultimately redound to consumers’ benefit. That is: firm size and consumer welfare do not stand in inherent opposition. If courts were to abandon safeguards against suits that cannot sufficiently define the relevant market and plausibly show market power, antitrust litigation could easily be used as a tool to punish successful firms that prevail over competitors simply by being more efficient. In other words: antitrust law could become a tool to preserve competitor welfare at the expense of consumer welfare.

The Specter of No-Fault Antitrust Liability

The absence of any specific demonstration of market power suggests deficient lawyering or the inability to gather supporting evidence. Giving the FTC litigation team the benefit of the doubt, the latter becomes the stronger possibility. If that is the case, this implies an effort to persuade courts to adopt a de facto rule of per se illegality for any firm that achieves a certain market share. (The same concept lies behind legislative proposals to bar acquisitions for firms that cross a certain revenue or market capitalization threshold.) Effectively, any firm that reached a certain size would operate under the presumption that it has market power and has secured or maintained such power due to anticompetitive practices, rather than business prowess. This would effectively convert leading digital platforms into quasi-public utilities subject to continuous regulatory intervention. Such an approach runs counter to antitrust law’s mission to preserve, rather than displace, private ordering by market forces.  

Even at the high-water point of post-World War II antitrust zealotry (a period that ultimately ended in economic malaise), proposals to adopt a rule of no-fault liability for alleged monopolization were rejected. This was for good reason. Any such rule would likely injure consumers by precluding them from enjoying the cost savings that result from the “sweet spot” scenario in which the scale and scope economies of large firms are combined with sufficiently competitive conditions to yield reduced prices and increased convenience for consumers. Additionally, any such rule would eliminate incumbents’ incentives to work harder to offer consumers reduced prices and increased convenience, since any market share preserved or acquired as a result would simply invite antitrust scrutiny as a reward.

Remembering Why Market Power Matters

To be clear, this is not to say that “Big Tech” does not deserve close antitrust scrutiny, does not wield market power in certain segments, or has not potentially engaged in anticompetitive practices.  The fundamental point is that assertions of market power and anticompetitive conduct must be demonstrated, rather than being assumed or “proved” based largely on suggestive anecdotes.  

Perhaps market power will be shown sufficiently in Facebook’s case if the FTC elects to respond to the court’s invitation to resubmit its brief with a plausible definition of the relevant market and indication of market power at this stage of the litigation. If that threshold is satisfied, then thorough consideration of the allegedly anticompetitive effect of Facebook’s WhatsApp and Instagram acquisitions may be merited. However, given the policy interest in preserving the market’s confidence in relying on the merger-review process under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act, the burden of proof on the government should be appropriately enhanced to reflect the significant time that has elapsed since regulatory decisions not to intervene in those transactions.  

It would once have seemed mundane to reiterate that market power must be reasonably demonstrated to support a monopolization claim that could lead to a major divestiture remedy. Given the populist thinking that now leads much of the legislative and regulatory discussion on antitrust policy, it is imperative to reiterate the rationale behind this elementary principle. 

This principle reflects the fact that, outside collusion scenarios, antitrust law is typically engaged in a complex exercise to balance the advantages of scale against the risks of anticompetitive conduct. At its best, antitrust law weighs competing facts in a good faith effort to assess the net competitive harm posed by a particular practice. While this exercise can be challenging in digital markets that naturally converge upon a handful of leading platforms or multi-dimensional markets that can have offsetting pro- and anti-competitive effects, these are not reasons to treat such an exercise as an anachronistic nuisance. Antitrust cases are inherently challenging and proposed reforms to make them easier to win are likely to endanger, rather than preserve, competitive markets.

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.

Antitrust by Fiat

Jonathan M. Barnett —  23 February 2021

The Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act (CALERA), recently introduced in the U.S. Senate, exhibits a remarkable willingness to cast aside decades of evidentiary standards that courts have developed to uphold the rule of law by precluding factually and economically ungrounded applications of antitrust law. Without those safeguards, antitrust enforcement is prone to be driven by a combination of prosecutorial and judicial fiat. That would place at risk the free play of competitive forces that the antitrust laws are designed to protect.

Antitrust law inherently lends itself to the risk of erroneous interpretations of ambiguous evidence. Outside clear cases of interfirm collusion, virtually all conduct that might appear anti-competitive might just as easily be proven, after significant factual inquiry, to be pro-competitive. This fundamental risk of a false diagnosis has guided antitrust case law and regulatory policy since at least the Supreme Court’s landmark Continental Television v. GTE Sylvania decision in 1977 and arguably earlier. Judicial and regulatory efforts to mitigate this ambiguity, while preserving the deterrent power of the antitrust laws, have resulted in the evidentiary requirements that are targeted by the proposed bill.

Proponents of the legislative “reforms” might argue that modern antitrust case law’s careful avoidance of enforcement error yields excessive caution. To relieve regulators and courts from having to do their homework before disrupting a targeted business and its employees, shareholders, customers and suppliers, the proposed bill empowers plaintiffs to allege and courts to “find” anti-competitive conduct without having to be bound to the reasonably objective metrics upon which courts and regulators have relied for decades. That runs the risk of substituting rhetoric and intuition for fact and analysis as the guiding principles of antitrust enforcement and adjudication.

This dismissal of even a rudimentary commitment to rule-of-law principles is illustrated by two dramatic departures from existing case law in the proposed bill. Each constitutes a largely unrestrained “blank check” for regulatory and judicial overreach.

Blank Check #1

The bill includes a broad prohibition on “exclusionary” conduct, which is defined to include any conduct that “materially disadvantages 1 or more actual or potential competitors” and “presents an appreciable risk of harming competition.” That amorphous language arguably enables litigants to target a firm that offers consumers lower prices but “disadvantages” less efficient competitors that cannot match that price.

In fact, the proposed legislation specifically facilitates this litigation strategy by relieving predatory pricing claims from having to show that pricing is below cost or likely to result ultimately in profits for the defendant. While the bill permits a defendant to escape liability by showing sufficiently countervailing “procompetitive benefits,” the onus rests on the defendant to show otherwise. This burden-shifting strategy encourages lagging firms to shift competition from the marketplace to the courthouse.

Blank Check #2

The bill then removes another evidentiary safeguard by relieving plaintiffs from always having to define a relevant market. Rather, it may be sufficient to show that the contested practice gives rise to an “appreciable risk of harming competition … based on the totality of the circumstances.” It is hard to miss the high degree of subjectivity in this standard.

This ambiguous threshold runs counter to antitrust principles that require a credible showing of market power in virtually all cases except horizontal collusion. Those principles make perfect sense. Market power is the gateway concept that enables courts to distinguish between claims that plausibly target alleged harms to competition and those that do not. Without a well-defined market, it is difficult to know whether a particular practice reflects market power or market competition. Removing the market power requirement can remove any meaningful grounds on which a defendant could avoid a nuisance lawsuit or contest or appeal a conclusory allegation or finding of anticompetitive conduct.

Anti-Market Antitrust

The bill’s transparently outcome-driven approach is likely to give rise to a cloud of liability that penalizes businesses that benefit consumers through price and quality combinations that competitors cannot replicate. This obviously runs directly counter to the purpose of the antitrust laws. Certainly, winners can and sometimes do entrench themselves through potentially anticompetitive practices that should be closely scrutinized. However, the proposed legislation seems to reflect a presumption that successful businesses usually win by employing illegitimate tactics, rather than simply being the most efficient firm in the market. Under that assumption, competition law becomes a tool for redoing, rather than enabling, competitive outcomes.

While this populist approach may be popular, it is neither economically sound nor consistent with a market-driven economy in which resources are mostly allocated through pricing mechanisms and government intervention is the exception, not the rule. It would appear that some legislators would like to reverse that presumption. Far from being a victory for consumers, that outcome would constitute a resounding loss.

Since the European Commission (EC) announced its first inquiry into Google’s business practices in 2010, the company has been the subject of lengthy investigations by courts and competition agencies around the globe. Regulatory authorities in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, and South Korea have all opened and rejected similar antitrust claims.

And yet the EC marches on, bolstered by Google’s myriad competitors, who continue to agitate for further investigations and enforcement actions, even as we — companies and consumers alike — enjoy the benefits of an increasingly dynamic online marketplace.

Indeed, while the EC has spent more than half a decade casting about for some plausible antitrust claim, the online economy has thundered ahead. Since 2010, Facebook has tripled its active users and multiplied its revenue ninefold; the number of apps available in the Amazon app store has grown from less than 4000 to over 400,000 today; and there are almost 1.5 billion more Internet users globally than there were in 2010. And consumers are increasingly using new and different ways to search for information: Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Facebook’s Messenger are a few of the many new innovations challenging traditional search engines.

Advertisers have adapted to this evolution, moving increasingly online, and from search to display ads as mobile adoption has skyrocketedSocial networks like Twitter and Snapchat have come into their own, competing for the same (and ever-increasing) advertising dollars. For marketers, advertising on social networks is now just as important as advertising in search. No wonder e-commerce sales have more than doubled, to almost $2 trillion worldwide; for the first time, consumers purchased more online than in stores this past year.

To paraphrase Louis C.K.: Everything is amazing — and no one at the European Commission is happy.

The EC’s market definition is fatally flawed

Like its previous claims, the Commission’s most recent charges are rooted in the assertion that Google abuses its alleged dominance in “general search” advertising to unfairly benefit itself and to monopolize other markets. But European regulators continue to miss the critical paradigm shift among online advertisers and consumers that has upended this stale view of competition on the Internet. The reality is that Google’s competition may not, and need not, look exactly like Google itself, but it is competition nonetheless. And it’s happening in spades.

The key to understanding why the European Commission’s case is fundamentally flawed lies in an examination of how it defines the relevant market. Through a series of economically and factually unjustified assumptions, the Commission defines search as a distinct market in which Google faces limited competition and enjoys an 80% market share. In other words, for the EC, “general search” apparently means only nominal search providers like Google and Bing; it doesn’t mean companies like Amazon, Facebook and Twitter — Google’s biggest competitors.  

But the reality is that “general search” is just one technology among many for serving information and ads to consumers online. Defining the relevant market or limiting the definition of competition in terms of the particular mechanism that Google happens to use to match consumers and advertisers doesn’t reflect the substitutability of other mechanisms that do the same thing — merely because these mechanisms aren’t called “search.”

Properly defined, the market in which Google competes online is not search, but something more like online “matchmaking” between advertisers, retailers and consumers. And this market is enormously competitive.

Consumers today are increasingly using platforms like Amazon and Facebook as substitutes for the searches they might have run on Google or Bing. “Closed” platforms like the iTunes store and innumerable apps handle copious search traffic but also don’t figure in the EC’s market calculations. And so-called “dark social” interactions like email, text messages, and IMs, drive huge amounts of some of the most valuable traffic on the Internet. This, in turn, has led to a competitive scramble to roll out completely new technologies like chatbots to meet consumers’ informational (and merchants’ advertising) needs.

Properly construed, Google’s market position is precarious

Like Facebook and Twitter (and practically every other Internet platform), advertising is Google’s primary source of revenue. Instead of charging for fancy hardware or offering services to users for a fee, Google offers search, the Android operating system, and a near-endless array of other valuable services for free to users. The company’s very existence relies on attracting Internet users and consumers to its properties in order to effectively connect them with advertisers.

But being an online matchmaker is a difficult and competitive enterprise. Among other things, the ability to generate revenue turns crucially on the quality of the match: All else equal, an advertiser interested in selling widgets will pay more for an ad viewed by a user who can be reliably identified as being interested in buying widgets.

Google’s primary mechanism for attracting users to match with advertisers — general search — is substantially about information, not commerce, and the distinction between product and informational searches is crucially important to understanding Google’s market and the surprisingly limited and tenuous market power it possesses.

General informational queries aren’t nearly as valuable to advertisers: Significantly, only about 30 percent of Google’s searches even trigger any advertising at all. Meanwhile, as of 2012, one-third of product searches started on Amazon while only 13% started on a general search engine.

As economist Hal Singer aptly noted in 2012,

[the data] suggest that Google lacks market power in a critical segment of search — namely, product searches. Even though searches for items such as power tools or designer jeans account for only 10 to 20 percent of all searches, they are clearly some of the most important queries for search engines from a business perspective, as they are far easier to monetize than informational queries like “Kate Middleton.”

While Google Search clearly offers substantial value to advertisers, its ability to continue to do so is precarious when confronted with the diverse array of competitors that, like Facebook, offer a level of granularity in audience targeting that general search can’t match, or that, like Amazon, systematically offer up the most valuable searchers.

In order to compete in this market — one properly defined to include actual competitors — Google has had to constantly innovate to maintain its position. Unlike a complacent monopolist, it has evolved to meet changing consumer demand, shifting technology and inventive competitors. Thus, Google’s search algorithm has changed substantially over the years to make more effective use of the information available to ensure relevance; search results have evolved to give consumers answers to queries rather than just links, and to provide more-direct access to products and services; and, as users have shifted more and more of their time and attention to mobile devices, search has incorporated more-localized results.

Competitors want a free lunch

Critics complain, nevertheless, that these developments have made it harder, in one way or another, for rivals to compete. And the EC has provided a willing ear. According to Commissioner Vestager last week:

Google has come up with many innovative products that have made a difference to our lives. But that doesn’t give Google the right to deny other companies the chance to compete and innovate. Today, we have further strengthened our case that Google has unduly favoured its own comparison shopping service in its general search result pages…. (Emphasis added).

Implicit in this statement is the remarkable assertion that by favoring its own comparison shopping services, Google “den[ies] other companies the chance to compete and innovate.” Even assuming Google does “favor” its own results, this is an astounding claim.

First, it is not a violation of competition law simply to treat competitors’ offerings differently than one’s own, even for a dominant firm. Instead, conduct must actually exclude competitors from the market, without offering countervailing advantages to consumers. But Google’s conduct is not exclusionary, and there are many benefits to consumers.

As it has from the start of its investigations of Google, the EC begins with a flawed assumption: that Google’s competitors both require, and may be entitled to, unfettered access to Google’s property in order to compete. But this is patently absurd. Google is not an essential facility: Billions of users reach millions of companies everyday through direct browser navigation, apps, email links, review sites and blogs, and countless other means — all without once touching Google.com.

Google Search results do not exclude competitors, whether comparison shopping sites or others. For example, 72% of TripAdvisor’s U.S. traffic comes from search, and almost all of that from organic results; other specialized search sites see similar traffic volumes.

More important, however, in addition to continuing to reach rival sites through Google Search, billions of consumers access rival services directly through their mobile apps. In fact, for Yelp,

Approximately 21 million unique devices accessed Yelp via the mobile app on a monthly average basis in the first quarter of 2016, an increase of 32% compared to the same period in 2015. App users viewed approximately 70% of page views in the first quarter and were more than 10 times as engaged as website users, as measured by number of pages viewed. (Emphasis added).

And a staggering 40 percent of mobile browsing is now happening inside the Facebook app, competing with the browsers and search engines pre-loaded on smartphones.

Millions of consumers also directly navigate to Google’s rivals via their browser by simply typing, for example, “Yelp.com” in their address bar. And as noted above, consumers are increasingly using Google rivals’ new disruptive information engines like Alexa and Siri for their search needs. Even the traditional search engine space is competitive — in fact, according to Wired, as of July 2016:

Microsoft has now captured more than one-third of Internet searches. Microsoft’s transformation from a company that sells boxed software to one that sells services in the cloud is well underway. (Emphasis added).

With such numbers, it’s difficult to see how rivals are being foreclosed from reaching consumers in any meaningful way.

Meanwhile, the benefits to consumers are obvious: Google is directly answering questions for consumers rather than giving them a set of possible links to click through and further search. In some cases its results present entirely new and valuable forms of information (e.g., search trends and structured data); in others they serve to hone searches by suggesting further queries, or to help users determine which organic results (including those of its competitors) may be most useful. And, of course, consumers aren’t forced to endure these innovations if they don’t find them useful, as they can quickly switch to other providers.  

Nostalgia makes for bad regulatory policy

Google is not the unstoppable monopolist of the EU competition regulators’ imagining. Rather, it is a continual innovator, forced to adapt to shifting consumer demand, changing technology, and competitive industry dynamics. And, instead of trying to hamstring Google, if they are to survive, Google’s competitors (and complainants) must innovate as well.

Dominance in technology markets — especially online — has always been ephemeral. Once upon a time, MySpace, AOL, and Yahoo were the dominant Internet platforms. Kodak, once practically synonymous with “instant camera” let the digital revolution pass it by. The invincible Sony Walkman was upended by mp3s and the iPod. Staid, keyboard-operated Blackberries and Nokias simply couldn’t compete with app-driven, graphical platforms from Apple and Samsung. Even today, startups like Snapchat, Slack, and Spotify gain massive scale and upend entire industries with innovative new technology that can leave less-nimble incumbents in the dustbin of tech history.

Put differently, companies that innovate are able to thrive, while those that remain dependent on yesterday’s technology and outdated business models usually fail — and deservedly so. It should never be up to regulators to pick winners and losers in a highly dynamic and competitive market, particularly if doing so constrains the market’s very dynamism. As Alfonso Lamadrid has pointed out:

It is companies and not competition enforcers which will strive or fail in the adoption of their business models, and it is therefore companies and not competition enforcers who are to decide on what business models to use. Some will prove successful and others will not; some companies will thrive and some will disappear, but with experimentation with business models, success and failure are and have always been part of the game.

In other words, we should not forget that competition law is, or should be, business-model agnostic, and that regulators are – like anyone else – far from omniscient.

Like every other technology company before them, Google and its competitors must be willing and able to adapt in order to keep up with evolving markets — just as for Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Google confronts a near-constantly evolving marketplace and fierce competition from unanticipated quarters; companies that build their businesses around Google face a near-constantly evolving Google. In the face of such relentless market dynamism, neither consumers nor firms are well served by regulatory policy rooted in nostalgia.  

Last month the Wall Street Journal raised the specter of an antitrust challenge to the proposed Jos. A. Bank/Men’s Warehouse merger.

Whether a challenge is forthcoming appears to turn, of course, on market definition:

An important question in the FTC’s review will be whether it believes the two companies compete in a market that is more specialized than the broad men’s apparel market. If the commission concludes the companies do compete in a different space than retailers like Macy’s, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney, then the merger partners could face a more-difficult government review.

You’ll be excused for recalling that the last time you bought a suit you shopped at Jos. A. Bank and Macy’s before making your purchase at Nordstrom Rack, and for thinking that the idea of a relevant market comprising Jos. A. Bank and Men’s Warehouse to the exclusion of the others is absurd.  Because, you see, as the article notes (quoting Darren Tucker),

“The FTC sometimes segments markets in ways that can appear counterintuitive to the public.”

“Ah,” you say to yourself. “In other words, if the FTC’s rigorous econometric analysis shows that prices at Macy’s don’t actually affect pricing decisions at Men’s Warehouse, then I’d be surprised, but so be it.”

But that’s not what he means by “counterintuitive.” Rather,

The commission’s analysis, he said, will largely turn on how the companies have viewed the market in their own ordinary-course business documents.

According to this logic, even if Macy’s does exert pricing pressure on Jos. A Bank, if Jos. A. Bank’s business documents talk about Men’s Warehouse as its only real competition, or suggest that the two companies “dominate” the “mid-range men’s apparel market,” then FTC may decide to challenge the deal.

I don’t mean to single out Darren here; he just happens to be who the article quotes, and this kind of thinking is de rigeur.

But it’s just wrong. Or, I should say, it may be descriptively accurate — it may be that the FTC will make its enforcement decision (and the court would make its ruling) on the basis of business documents — but it’s just wrong as a matter of economics, common sense, logic and the protection of consumer welfare.

One can’t help but think of the Whole Foods/Wild Oats merger and the FTC’s ridiculous “premium, natural and organic supermarkets” market. As I said of that market definition:

In other words, there is a serious risk of conflating a “market” for business purposes with an actual antitrust-relevant market. Whole Foods and Wild Oats may view themselves as operating in a different world than Wal-Mart. But their self-characterization is largely irrelevant. What matters is whether customers who shop at Whole Foods would shop elsewhere for substitute products if Whole Food’s prices rose too much. The implicit notion that the availability of organic foods at Wal-Mart (to say nothing of pretty much every other grocery store in the US today!) exerts little or no competitive pressure on prices at Whole Foods seems facially silly.

I don’t know for certain what an econometric analysis would show, but I would indeed be shocked if a legitimate economic analysis suggested that Jos. A. Banks and Men’s Warehouse occupied all or most of any relevant market. For the most part — and certainly for the marginal consumer — there is no meaningful difference between a basic, grey worsted wool suit bought at a big department store in the mall and a similar suit bought at a small retailer in the same mall or a “warehouse” store across the street. And the barriers to entry in such a market, if it existed, would be insignificant. Again, what I said of Whole Foods/Wild Oats is surely true here, too:

But because economically-relevant market definition turns on demand elasticity among consumers who are often free to purchase products from multiple distribution channels, a myopic focus on a single channel of distribution to the exclusion of others is dangerous.

Let’s hope the FTC gets it right this time.

As the Google antitrust discussion heats up on its way toward some culmination at the FTC, I thought it would be helpful to address some of the major issues raised in the case by taking a look at what’s going on in the market(s) in which Google operates. To this end, I have penned a lengthy document — The Market Realities that Undermine the Antitrust Case Against Google — highlighting some of the most salient aspects of current market conditions and explaining how they fit into the putative antitrust case against Google.

While not dispositive, these “realities on the ground” do strongly challenge the logic and thus the relevance of many of the claims put forth by Google’s critics. The case against Google rests on certain assumptions about how the markets in which it operates function. But these are tech markets, constantly evolving and complex; most assumptions (and even “conclusions” based on data) are imperfect at best. In this case, the conventional wisdom with respect to Google’s alleged exclusionary conduct, the market in which it operates (and allegedly monopolizes), and the claimed market characteristics that operate to protect its position (among other things) should be questioned.

The reality is far more complex, and, properly understood, paints a picture that undermines the basic, essential elements of an antitrust case against the company.

The document first assesses the implications for Market Definition and Monopoly Power of these competitive realities. Of note:

  • Users use Google because they are looking for information — but there are lots of ways to do that, and “search” is not so distinct that a “search market” instead of, say, an “online information market” (or something similar) makes sense.
  • Google competes in the market for targeted eyeballs: a market aimed to offer up targeted ads to interested users. Search is important in this, but it is by no means alone, and there are myriad (and growing) other mechanisms to access consumers online.
  • To define the relevant market in terms of the particular mechanism that prevails to accomplish the matching of consumers and advertisers does not reflect the substitutability of other mechanisms that do the same thing but simply aren’t called “search.”
  • In a world where what prevails today won’t — not “might not,” but won’t — prevail tomorrow, it is the height of folly (and a serious threat to innovation and consumer welfare) to constrain the activities of firms competing in such an environment by pigeonholing the market.
  • In other words, in a proper market, Google looks significantly less dominant. More important, perhaps, as search itself evolves, and as Facebook, Amazon and others get into the search advertising game, Google’s strong position even in the overly narrow “search” market looks far from unassailable.

Next I address Anticompetitive Harm — how the legal standard for antitrust harm is undermined by a proper understanding of market conditions:

  • Antitrust law doesn’t require that Google or any other large firm make life easier for competitors or others seeking to access resources owned by these firms.
  • Advertisers are increasingly targeting not paid search but rather social media to reach their target audiences.
  • But even for those firms that get much or most of their traffic from “organic” search, this fact isn’t an inevitable relic of a natural condition over which only the alleged monopolist has control; it’s a business decision, and neither sensible policy nor antitrust law is set up to protect the failed or faulty competitor from himself.
  • Although it often goes unremarked, paid search’s biggest competitor is almost certainly organic search (and vice versa). Nextag may complain about spending money on paid ads when it prefers organic, but the real lesson here is that the two are substitutes — along with social sites and good old-fashioned email, too.
  • It is incumbent upon critics to accurately assess the “but for” world without the access point in question. Here, Nextag can and does use paid ads to reach its audience (and, it is important to note, did so even before it claims it was foreclosed from Google’s users). But there are innumerable other avenues of access, as well. Some may be “better” than others; some that may be “better” now won’t be next year (think how links by friends on Facebook to price comparisons on Nextag pages could come to dominate its readership).
  • This is progress — creative destruction — not regress, and such changes should not be penalized.

Next I take on the perennial issue of Error Costs and the Risks of Erroneous Enforcement arising from an incomplete and inaccurate understanding of Google’s market:

  • Microsoft’s market position was unassailable . . . until it wasn’t — and even at the time, many could have told you that its perceived dominance was fleeting (and many did).
  • Apple’s success (and the consumer value it has created), while built in no small part on its direct competition with Microsoft and the desktop PCs which run it, was primarily built on a business model that deviated from its once-dominant rival’s — and not on a business model that the DOJ’s antitrust case against the company either facilitated or anticipated.
  • Microsoft and Google’s other critic-competitors have more avenues to access users than ever before. Who cares if users get to these Google-alternatives through their devices instead of a URL? Access is access.
  • It isn’t just monopolists who prefer not to innovate: their competitors do, too. To the extent that Nextag’s difficulties arise from Google innovating, it is Nextag, not Google, that’s working to thwart innovation and fighting against dynamism.
  • Recall the furor around Google’s purchase of ITA, a powerful cautionary tale. As of September 2012, Google ranks 7th in visits among metasearch travel sites, with a paltry 1.4% of such visits. Residing at number one? FairSearch founding member, Kayak, with a whopping 61%. And how about FairSearch member Expedia? Currently, it’s the largest travel company in the world, and it has only grown in recent years.

The next section addresses the essential issue of Barriers to Entry and their absence:

  • One common refrain from Google’s critics is that Google’s access to immense amounts of data used to increase the quality of its targeting presents a barrier to competition that no one else can match, thus protecting Google’s unassailable monopoly. But scale comes in lots of ways.
  • It’s never been the case that a firm has to generate its own inputs into every product it produces — and there is no reason to suggest search/advertising is any different.
  • Meanwhile, Google’s chief competitor, Microsoft, is hardly hurting for data (even, quite creatively, culling data directly from Google itself), despite its claims to the contrary. And while regulators and critics may be looking narrowly and statically at search data, Microsoft is meanwhile sitting on top of copious data from unorthodox — and possibly even more valuable — sources.
  • To defend a claim of monopolization, it is generally required to show that the alleged monopolist enjoys protection from competition through barriers to entry. In Google’s case, the barriers alleged are illusory.

The next section takes on recent claims revolving around The Mobile Market and Google’s position (and conduct) there:

  • If obtaining or preserving dominance is simply a function of cash, Microsoft is sitting on some $58 billion of it that it can devote to that end. And JP Morgan Chase would be happy to help out if it could be guaranteed monopoly returns just by throwing its money at Bing. Like data, capital is widely available, and, also like data, it doesn’t matter if a company gets it from selling search advertising or from selling cars.
  • Advertisers don’t care whether the right (targeted) user sees their ads while playing Angry Birds or while surfing the web on their phone, and users can (and do) seek information online (and thus reveal their preferences) just as well (or perhaps better) through Wikipedia’s app as via a Google search in a mobile browser.
  • Moreover, mobile is already (and increasingly) a substitute for the desktop. Distinguishing mobile search from desktop search is meaningless when users use their tablets at home, perform activities that they would have performed at home away from home on mobile devices simply because they can, and where users sometimes search for places to go (for example) on mobile devices while out and sometimes on their computers before they leave.
  • Whatever gains Google may have made in search from its spread into the mobile world is likely to be undermined by the massive growth in social connectivity it has also wrought.
  • Mobile is part of the competitive landscape. All of the innovations in mobile present opportunities for Google and its competitors to best each other, and all present avenues of access for Google and its competitors to reach consumers.

The final section Concludes.

The lessons from all of this? There are two. First, these are dynamic markets, and it is a fool’s errand to identify the power or significance of any player in these markets based on data available today — data that is already out of date between the time it is collected and the time it is analyzed.

Second, each of these developments has presented different, novel and shifting opportunities and challenges for firms interested in attracting eyeballs, selling ad space and data, earning revenue and obtaining market share. To say that Google dominates “search” or “online advertising” misses the mark precisely because there is simply nothing especially antitrust-relevant about either search or online advertising. Because of their own unique products, innovations, data sources, business models, entrepreneurship and organizations, all of these companies have challenged and will continue to challenge the dominant company — and the dominant paradigm — in a shifting and evolving range of markets.

Perhaps most important is this:

Competition with Google may not and need not look exactly like Google itself, and some of this competition will usher in innovations that Google itself won’t be able to replicate. But this doesn’t make it any less competitive.  

Competition need not look identical to be competitive — that’s what innovation is all about. Just ask those famous buggy whip manufacturers.

Do the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines require market definition?  Will the agencies define markets in cases they bring?  Are they required to do so by the Guidelines?  By the Clayton Act?

Here is Commissioner Rosch in the FTC Annual Report (p.18):

“A significant development in 2010 was the issuance of updated Horizontal Merger Guidelines by the federal antitrust agencies. The 2010 Guidelines advance merger analysis by eliminating the need to define a relevant market and determine industry concentration at the outset.”

Compare with Commissioner Rosch’s reported remarks at the Spring Meeting:

“I want to emphasise: I don’t care what the 2010 guidelines say, you can never do away with market definition,” Rosch said.

Does the latter statement assert that the HMGs do not require market definition at all?  If so, the statement in the former that the agencies don’t need to do it first certainly follows.  And why is it an “advance” to eliminate the need to define a market first but seems to be a bad thing to eliminate it altogether in certain cases?   Of course, as DOJ (and, importantly, UCLA Bruin) economist Ken Heyer points on in his remarks at the same Spring Meeting event, and I’ve written about here and here, most expect the agencies to continue defining markets because federal courts expect it, may require it, and failure to do so will harm the agencies’ ability to successfully bring enforcement actions.  Nonetheless, the statements do not provide much clarity on the Commissioner’s (or, for that matter, Commission’s) views with respect to the new HMGs and the role of market definition.

Over at the DOJ, on the other hand, former Chief Economist Carl Shapiro — congratulations to the newly appointed Fiona Scott Morton —  made clear that agencies’ stance on the role of market definition:

“The Division recognizes the necessity of defining a relevant market as part of any merger challenge we bring.”

No such announcement from the FTC.   And Commissioner Rosch’s remarks do not clarify matters.  On the one hand they seem to indicate the FTC will always define markets; on the other, they imply that they do so despite the fact that the Guidelines say they don’t have to.  With Shapiro gone, the DOJ view is unclear at the moment.  Perhaps all of this is much ado about nothing as a practical matter — though I’m not sure of that.  But if the Agencies both consider market definition a “necessity,” why not just say so?  Why not write: “market definition is required by Section 7 of the Clayton Act and the agencies will, at some point in the analysis, define a relevant market”?

Market definition requirement aside, my views on the positive developments in the new Merger Guidelines and the larger problem they present — asymmetrically updating theories of competitive harm without doing so on the efficiencies side — articulated in this forthcoming paper.