Words can wound. They can humiliate, anger, insult.
University students—or, at least, a vociferous minority of them—are keen to prevent this injury by suppressing offensive speech. To ensure campuses are safe places, they militate for the cancellation of talks by speakers with opinions they find offensive, often successfully. And they campaign to get offensive professors fired from their jobs.
Off campus, some want this safety to be extended to the online world and, especially, to the users of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. In the United States, this would mean weakening the legal protections of offensive speech provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (as President Joe Biden has recommended) or by the First Amendment and. In the United Kingdom, the Online Safety Bill is now before Parliament. If passed, it will give a U.K. government agency the power to dictate the content-moderation policies of social media platforms.
You don’t need to be a woke university student or grandstanding politician to suspect that society suffers from an overproduction of offensive speech. Basic economics provides a reason to suspect it—the reason being that offense is an external cost of speech. The cost is borne not by the speaker but by his audience. And when people do not bear all the costs of an action, they do it too much.
Jack tweets “women don’t have penises.” This offends Jill, who is someone with a penis who considers herself (or himself, if Jack is right) to be a woman. And it offends many others, who agree with Jill that Jack is indulging in ugly transphobic biological essentialism. Lacking Bill Clinton’s facility for feeling the pain of others, Jack does not bear this cost. So, even if it exceeds whatever benefit Jack gets from saying that women don’t have penises, he will still say it. In other words, he will say it even when doing so makes society altogether worse off.
It shouldn’t be allowed!
That’s what we normally say when actions harm others more than they benefit the agent. The law normally conforms to John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle” by restricting activities—such as shooting people or treating your neighbours to death metal at 130 decibels at 2 a.m.—with material external costs. Those who seek legal reform to restrict offensive speech are surely doing no more than following an accepted general principle.
But it’s not so simple. As Ronald Coase pointed out in his famous 1960 article “The Problem of Social Cost,” externalities are a reciprocal problem. If Wayne had no neighbors, his playing death metal at 130 decibels at 2 a.m. would have no external costs. Their choice of address is equally a source of the problem. Similarly, if Jill weren’t a Twitter user, she wouldn’t have been offended by Jack’s tweet about who has a penis, since she wouldn’t have encountered it. Externalities are like tangos: they always have at least two perpetrators.
So, the legal question, “who should have a right to what they want?”—Wayne to his loud music or his neighbors to their sleep; Jack to expressing his opinion about women or Jill to not hearing such opinions—cannot be answered by identifying the party who is responsible for the external cost. Both parties are responsible.
How, then, should the question be answered? In the same paper, Coase the showed that, in certain circumstances, who the courts favor will make no difference to what ends up happening, and that what ends up happening will be efficient. Suppose the court says that Wayne cannot bother his neighbors with death metal at 2 a.m. If Wayne would be willing to pay $100,000 to keep doing it and his neighbors, combined, would put up with it for anything more than $95,000, then they should be able to arrive at a mutually beneficial deal whereby Wayne pays them something between $95,000 and $100,000 to forgo their right to stop him making his dreadful noise.
That’s not exactly right. If negotiating a deal would cost more than $5,000, then no mutually beneficial deal is possible and the rights-trading won’t happen. Transaction costs being less than the difference between the two parties’ valuations is the circumstance in which the allocation of legal rights makes no difference to how resources get used, and where efficiency will be achieved, in any event.
But it is an unusual circumstance, especially when the external cost is suffered by many people. When the transaction cost is too high, efficiency does depend on the allocation of rights by courts or legislatures. As Coase argued, when this is so, efficiency will be served if a right to the disputed resource is granted to the party with the higher cost of avoiding the externality.
Given the (implausible) valuations Wayne and his neighbors place on the amount of noise in their environment at 2 a.m., efficiency is served by giving Wayne the right to play his death metal, unless he could soundproof his house or play his music at a much lower volume or take some other avoidance measure that costs him less than the $90,000 cost to his neighbours.
And given that Jack’s tweet about penises offends a large open-ended group of people, with whom Jack therefore cannot negotiate, it looks like they should be given the right not to be offended by Jack’s comment and he should be denied the right to make it. Coasean logic supports the woke censors!
But, again, it’s not that simple—for two reasons.
The first is that, although those are offended may be harmed by the offending speech, they needn’t necessarily be. Physical pain is usually harmful, but not when experienced by a sexual masochist (in the right circumstances, of course). Similarly, many people take masochistic pleasure in being offended. You can tell they do, because they actively seek out the sources of their suffering. They are genuinely offended, but the offense isn’t harming them, just as the sexual masochist really is in physical pain but isn’t harmed by it. Indeed, real pain and real offense are required, respectively, for the satisfaction of the sexual masochist and the offense masochist.
How many of the offended are offense masochists? Where the offensive speech can be avoided at minimal cost, the answer must be most. Why follow Jordan Peterson on Twitter when you find his opinions offensive unless you enjoy being offended by him? Maybe some are keeping tabs on the dreadful man so that they can better resist him, and they take the pain for that reason rather than for masochistic glee. But how could a legislator or judge know? For all they know, most of those offended by Jordan Peterson are offense masochists and the offense he causes is a positive externality.
The second reason Coasean logic doesn’t support the would-be censors is that social media platforms—the venues of offensive speech that they seek to regulate—are privately owned. To see why this is significant, consider not offensive speech, but an offensive action, such as openly masturbating on a bus.
This is prohibited by law. But it is not the mere act that is illegal. You are allowed to masturbate in the privacy of your bedroom. You may not masturbate on a bus because those who are offended by the sight of it cannot easily avoid it. That’s why it is illegal to express obscenities about Jesus on a billboard erected across the road from a church but not at a meeting of the Angry Atheists Society. The laws that prohibit offensive speech in such circumstances—laws against public nuisance, harassment, public indecency, etc.—are generally efficient. The cost they impose on the offenders is less than the benefits to the offended.
But they are unnecessary when the giving and taking of offense occur within a privately owned place. Suppose no law prohibited masturbating on a bus. It still wouldn’t be allowed on buses owned by a profit-seeker. Few people want to masturbate on buses and most people who ride on buses seek trips that are masturbation-free. A prohibition on masturbation will gain the owner more customers than it loses him. The prohibition is simply another feature of the product offered by the bus company. Nice leather seats, punctual departures, and no wankers (literally). There is no more reason to believe that the bus company’s passenger-conduct rules will be inefficient than that its other product features will be and, therefore, no more reason to legally stipulate them.
The same goes for the content-moderation policies of social media platforms. They are just another product feature offered by a profit-seeking firm. If they repel more customers than they attract (or, more accurately, if they repel more advertising revenue than they attract), they would be inefficient. But then, of course, the company would not adopt them.
Of course, the owner of a social media platform might not be a pure profit-maximiser. For example, he might forgo $10 million in advertising revenue for the sake of banning speakers he personally finds offensive. But the outcome is still efficient. Allowing the speech would have cost more by way of the owner’s unhappiness than the lost advertising would have been worth. And such powerful feelings in the owner of a platform create an opportunity for competitors who do not share his feelings. They can offer a platform that does not ban the offensive speakers and, if enough people want to hear what they have to say, attract users and the advertising revenue that comes with them.
If efficiency is your concern, there is no problem for the authorities to solve. Indeed, the idea that the authorities would do a better job of deciding content-moderation rules is not merely absurd, but alarming. Politicians and the bureaucrats who answer to them or are appointed by them would use the power not to promote efficiency, but to promote agendas congenial to them. Jurisprudence in liberal democracies—and, especially, in America—has been suspicious of governmental control of what may be said. Nothing about social media provides good reason to become any less suspicious.
In recent years, a growing chorus of voices has argued that existing merger rules fail to apprehend competitively significant mergers, either because they fall below existing merger-filing thresholds or because they affect innovation in ways that are purportedly ignored.
These fears are particularly acute in the pharmaceutical and tech industries, where several high-profile academic articles and reports claim to have identified important gaps in current merger-enforcement rules, particularly with respect to acquisitions involving nascent and potential competitors (here, here, and here, among many others).
Such fears have led activists, lawmakers, and enforcers to call for tougher rules, including the introduction of more stringent merger-filing thresholds and other substantive changes, such as the inversion of the burden of proof when authorities review mergers and acquisitions involving digital platforms.
However, as we discuss in a recent working paper—forthcoming in the Missouri Law Review and available on SSRN—these proposals tend to overlook the important tradeoffs that would ensue from attempts to decrease the number of false positives under existing merger rules and thresholds.
The paper draws from two key strands of economic literature that are routinely overlooked (or summarily dismissed) by critics of the status quo.
For a start, antitrust enforcement is not costless. In the case of merger enforcement, not only is it expensive for agencies to detect anticompetitive deals but, more importantly, overbearing rules may deter beneficial merger activity that creates value for consumers.
Second, critics tend to overlook the possibility that incumbents’ superior managerial or other capabilities (i.e., what made them successful in the first place) makes them the ideal acquisition partners for entrepreneurs and startup investors looking to sell.
The result is a body of economic literature that focuses almost entirely on hypothetical social costs, while ignoring the redeeming benefits of corporate acquisitions, as well as the social cost of enforcement.
One of the most significant allegations leveled against large tech firms is that their very presence in a market may hinder investments, entry, and innovation, creating what some have called a “kill zone.” The strongest expression in the economic literature of this idea of a kill zone stems from a working paper by Sai Krishna Kamepalli, Raghuram Rajan, and Luigi Zingales.
The paper makes two important claims, one theoretical and one empirical. From a theoretical standpoint, the authors argue that the prospect of an acquisition by a dominant platform deters consumers from joining rival platforms, and that this, in turn, hampers the growth of these rivals. The authors then test a similar hypothesis empirically. They find that acquisitions by a dominant platform—such as Google or Facebook—decrease investment levels and venture capital deals in markets that are “similar” to that of the target firm.
But both findings are problematic. For a start, Zingales and his co-authors’ theoretical model is premised on questionable assumptions about the way in which competition develops in the digital space. The first is that early adopters of new platforms—called “techies” in the authors’ parlance—face high switching costs because of their desire to learn these platforms in detail. As an initial matter, it would appear facially contradictory that “techies” both are the group with the highest switching costs and that they switch the most. The authors further assume that “techies” would incur lower adoption costs if they remained on the incumbent platform and waited for the rival platform to be acquired.
Unfortunately, while these key behavioral assumptions drive the results of the theoretical model, the paper presents no evidence to support their presence in real-world settings. In that sense, the authors commit the same error as previous theoretical work concerning externalities, which have tended to overestimate their frequency.
Second, the empirical analysis put forward in the paper is unreliable for policymaking purposes. The authors notably find that:
[N]ormalized VC investments in start-ups in the same space as the company acquired by Google and Facebook drop by over 40% and the number of deals falls by over 20% in the three years following an acquisition.
However, the results of this study are derived from the analysis of only nine transactions. The study also fails to clearly show that firms in the treatment and controls are qualitatively similar. In a nutshell, the study compares industry acquisitions exceeding $500 million to Facebook and Google’s acquisitions that exceed that amount. This does not tell us whether the mergers in both groups involved target companies with similar valuations or similar levels of maturity. This does not necessarily invalidate the results, but it does suggest that policymakers should be circumspect in interpreting those results.
Finally, the paper fails to demonstrate evidence that existing antitrust regimes fail to achieve an optimal error-cost balance. The central problem is that the paper has indeterminate welfare implications. For instance, as the authors note, the declines in investment in spaces adjacent to the incumbent platforms occurred during a time of rapidly rising venture capital investment, both in terms of the number of deals and dollars invested. It is entirely plausible that venture capital merely shifted to other sectors.
Put differently, on its own terms, the evidence merely suggests that acquisitions by Google and Facebook affected the direction of innovation, not its overall rate. And there is little to suggest that this shift was suboptimal, from a welfare standpoint.
In short, as the authors themselves conclude: “[i]t would be premature to draw any policy conclusion on antitrust enforcement based solely on our model and our limited evidence.”
Mergers and Potential Competition
Scholars have also posited more direct effects from acquisitions of startups or nascent companies by incumbent technology market firms.
Acquisitions of potential or nascent competitors by a dominant firm raise inherent anticompetitive concerns. By eliminating the procompetitive impact of the entry, an acquisition can allow the dominant firm to continue to exercise monopoly power and earn monopoly profits. The dominant firm also can neutralize the potential innovation competition that the entrant would provide.
However, these antitrust theories of harm suffer from several important flaws. They rest upon several restrictive assumptions that are not certain to occur in real-world settings. Most are premised on the notion that, in a given market, monopoly profits generally exceed joint duopoly profits. This allegedly makes it profitable, and mutually advantageous, for an incumbent to protect its monopoly position by preemptively acquiring potential rivals.
Accordingly, under these theories, anticompetitive mergers are only possible when the acquired rival could effectively challenge the incumbent. But these are, of course, only potential challengers; there is no guarantee that any one of them could or would mount a viable competitive threat.
Less obviously, it must be the case that the rival can hope to share only duopoly profits, as opposed to completely overthrowing the incumbent or surpassing them with a significantly larger share of the market. Where competition is “for the market” itself, monopoly maintenance would fail to explain a rival’s decision to sell. Because there would be no asymmetry between the expected profits of the incumbent and the rival, monopoly maintenance alone would not give rise to mutually advantageous deals.
Second, potential competition does not always increase consumer welfare. Indeed, while the presence of potential competitors might increase price competition, it can also have supply-side effects that cut in the opposite direction.
For example, as Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz observed, a monopolist threatened by potential competition may invest in socially wasteful R&D efforts or entry-deterrence mechanisms, and it may operate at below-optimal scale in anticipation of future competitive entry.
There are also pragmatic objections. Analyzing a merger’s effect on potential competition would compel antitrust authorities and courts to make increasingly speculative assessments concerning the counterfactual setting of proposed acquisitions.
In simple terms, it is far easier to determine whether a merger between McDonald’s and Burger King would lead to increased hamburger prices in the short run than it is to determine whether a gaming platform like Steam or the Epic Games Store might someday compete with video-streaming or music-subscription platforms like Netflix or Spotify. It is not that the above models are necessarily wrong, but rather that applying them to practical cases would require antitrust enforcers to estimate mostly unknowable factors.
Finally, the real test for regulators is not just whether they can identify possibly anticompetitive mergers, but whether they can do so in a cost-effective manner. Whether it is desirable to implement a given legal test is not simply a function of its accuracy, the cost to administer it, and the respective costs of false positives and false negatives. It also critically depends on how prevalent the conduct is that adjudicators would be seeking to foreclose.
Consider two hypothetical settings. Imagine there are 10,000 tech mergers in a given year, of which either 1,000 or 2,500 are anticompetitive (the remainder are procompetitive or competitively neutral). Suppose that authorities can either attempt to identify anticompetitive mergers with 75% accuracy, or perform no test at all—i.e., letting all mergers go through unchallenged.
If there are 1,000 anticompetitive mergers, applying the test would result in 7,500 correct decisions and 2,500 incorrect ones (2,250 false positives and 250 false negatives). Doing nothing would lead to 9,000 correct decisions and 1,000 false negatives. If the number of anticompetitive deals were 2,500, applying the test would lead to the same number of incorrect decisions as not applying it (1,875 false positives and 625 false negatives, versus 2,500 false negatives). The advantage would tilt toward applying the test if anticompetitive mergers were even more widespread.
This hypothetical example holds a simple lesson for policymakers: the rarer the conduct that they are attempting to identify, the more accurate their identification method must be, and the more costly false negatives must be relative to false positives.
As discussed below, current empirical evidence does not suggest that anticompetitive mergers of this sort are particularly widespread, nor does it offer accurate heuristics to detect the ones that are. Finally, there is little sense that the cost of false negatives significantly outweighs that of false positives. In short, there is currently little evidence to suggest that tougher enforcement would benefit consumers.
Killer acquisitions are, effectively, a subset of the “potential competitor” mergers discussed in the previous section. As defined by Colleen Cunningham, Florian Ederer, and Song Ma, they are those deals where “an incumbent firm may acquire an innovative target and terminate the development of the target’s innovations to preempt future competition.”
Cunningham, Ederer, and Ma’s highly influential paper on killer acquisitions has been responsible for much of the recent renewed interest in the effect that mergers exert on innovation. The authors studied thousands of pharmaceutical mergers and concluded that between 5.3% and 7.4% of them were killer acquisitions. As they write:
[W]e empirically compare development probabilities of overlapping acquisitions, which are, in our theory, motivated by a mix of killer and development intentions, and non-overlapping acquisitions, which are motivated only by development intentions. We find an increase in acquisition probability and a decrease in post-acquisition development for overlapping acquisitions and interpret that as evidence for killer acquisitions. […]
[W]e find that projects acquired by an incumbent with an overlapping drug are 23.4% less likely to have continued development activity compared to drugs acquired by non-overlapping incumbents.
From a policy standpoint, the question is what weight antitrust authorities, courts, and legislators should give to these findings. Stated differently, does the paper provide sufficient evidence to warrant reform of existing merger-filing thresholds and review standards? There are several factors counseling that policymakers should proceed with caution.
To start, the study’s industry-specific methodology means that it may not be a useful guide to understand acquisitions in other industries, like the tech sector, for example.
Second, even if one assumes that the findings of Cunningham, et al., are correct and apply with equal force in the tech sector (as some official reports have), it remains unclear whether the 5.3–7.4% of mergers they describe warrant a departure from the status quo.
Antitrust enforcers operate under uncertainty. The critical policy question is thus whether this subset of anticompetitive deals can be identified ex-ante. If not, is there a heuristic that would enable enforcers to identify more of these anticompetitive deals without producing excessive false positives?
The authors focus on the effect that overlapping R&D pipelines have on project discontinuations. In the case of non-overlapping mergers, acquired projects continue 17.5% of the time, while this number is 13.4% when there are overlapping pipelines. The authors argue that this gap is evidence of killer acquisitions. But it misses the bigger picture: under the authors’ own numbers and definition of a “killer acquisition,” a vast majority of overlapping acquisitions are perfectly benign; prohibiting them would thus have important social costs.
Third, there are several problems with describing this kind of behavior as harmful. Indeed, Cunningham, et al., acknowledge that this kind of behavior could increase innovation by boosting the returns to innovation.
And even if one ignores incentives to innovate, product discontinuations can improve consumer welfare. This question ultimately boils down to identifying the counterfactual to a merger. As John Yun writes:
For instance, an acquisition that results in a discontinued product is not per se evidence of either consumer harm or benefit. The answer involves comparing the counterfactual world without the acquisition with the world with the acquisition. The comparison includes potential efficiencies that were gained from the acquisition, including integration of intellectual property, the reduction of transaction costs, economies of scope, and better allocation of skilled labor.
One of the reasons R&D project discontinuation may be beneficial is simply cost savings. R&D is expensive. Pharmaceutical firms spend up to 27.8% of their annual revenue on R&D. Developing a new drug has an estimated median cost of $985.3 million. Cost-cutting—notably as it concerns R&D—is thus a critical part of pharmaceutical (as well as tech) companies’ businesses. As a report by McKinsey concludes:
The recent boom in M&A in the pharma industry is partly the result of attempts to address short-term productivity challenges. An acquiring or merging company typically designs organization-wide integration programs to capture synergies, especially in costs. Such programs usually take up to three years to complete and deliver results.
Maximizing the efficiency of production labor and equipment is one important way top-quartile drugmakers break out of the pack. Their rates of operational-equipment effectiveness are more than twice those of bottom-quartile companies (Exhibit 1), and when we looked closely we found that processes account for two-thirds of the difference.
In short, pharmaceutical companies do not just compete along innovation-related parameters, though these are obviously important, but also on more traditional grounds such as cost-rationalization. Accordingly, as the above reports suggest, pharmaceutical mergers are often about applying an incumbent’s superior managerial efficiency to the acquired firm’s assets through operation of the market for corporate control.
This cost-cutting (and superior project selection) ultimately enables companies to offer lower prices, thereby benefiting consumers and increasing their incentives to invest in R&D in the first place by making successfully developed drugs more profitable.
In that sense, Henry Manne’s seminal work relating to mergers and the market for corporate control sheds at least as much light on pharmaceutical (and tech) mergers as the killer acquisitions literature. And yet, it is hardly ever mentioned in modern economic literature on this topic.
While Colleen Cunningham and her co-authors do not entirely ignore these considerations, as we discuss in our paper, their arguments for dismissing them are far from watertight.
A natural extension of the killer acquisitions work is to question whether mergers of this sort also take place in the tech industry. Interest in this question is notably driven by the central role that digital markets currently occupy in competition-policy discussion, but also by the significant number of startup acquisitions that take place in the tech industry. However, existing studies provide scant evidence that killer acquisitions are a common occurrence in these markets.
This is not surprising. Unlike in the pharmaceutical industry—where drugs need to go through a lengthy and visible regulatory pipeline before they can be sold—incumbents in digital industries will likely struggle to identify their closest rivals and prevent firms from rapidly pivoting to seize new commercial opportunities. As a result, the basic conditions for killer acquisitions to take place (i.e., firms knowing they are in a position to share monopoly profits) are less likely to be present; it also would be harder to design research methods to detect these mergers.
The empirical literature on killer acquisitions in the tech sector is still in its infancy. But, as things stand, no study directly examines whether killer acquisitions actually take place in digital industries (i.e., whether post-merger project discontinuations are more common in overlapping than non-overlapping tech mergers). This is notably the case for studies by Axel Gautier & Joe Lamesch, and Elena Argentesi and her co-authors. Instead, these studies merely show that product discontinuations are common after an acquisition by a big tech company.
To summarize, while studies of this sort might suggest that the clearance of certain mergers might not have been optimal, it is hardly a sufficient basis on which to argue that enforcement should be tightened.
The reason for this is simple. The fact that some anticompetitive mergers may have escaped scrutiny and/or condemnation is never a sufficient basis to tighten rules. For that, it is also necessary to factor in the administrative costs of increased enforcement, as well as potential false convictions to which it might give rise. As things stand, economic research on killer acquisitions in the tech sector does not warrant tougher antitrust enforcement, though it does show the need for further empirical research on the topic.
Many proposed merger-enforcement reforms risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Mergers are largely beneficial to society (here, here and here); anticompetitive ones are rare; and there is little way, at the margin, to tell good from bad. To put it mildly, there is a precious baby that needs to be preserved and relatively little bathwater to throw out.
Take the fulcrum of policy debates that is the pharmaceutical industry. It is not hard to point to pharmaceutical mergers (or long-term agreements) that have revolutionized patient outcomes. Most recently, Pfizer and BioNTech’s efforts to successfully market an mRNA vaccine against COVID-19 offers a case in point.
The deal struck by both firms could naïvely be construed as bearing hallmarks of a killer acquisition or an anticompetitive agreement (long-term agreements can easily fall into either of these categories). Pfizer was a powerful incumbent in the vaccine industry; BioNTech threatened to disrupt the industry with new technology; and the deal likely caused Pfizer to forgo some independent R&D efforts. And yet, it also led to the first approved COVID-19 vaccine and groundbreaking advances in vaccine technology.
Of course, the counterfactual is unclear, and the market might be more competitive absent the deal, just as there might be only one approved mRNA vaccine today instead of two—we simply do not know. More importantly, this counterfactual was even less knowable at the time of the deal. And much the same could be said about countless other pharmaceutical mergers.
The key policy question is how authorities should handle this uncertainty. Critics of the status quo argue that current rules and thresholds leave certain anticompetitive deals unchallenged. But these calls for tougher enforcement fail to satisfy the requirements of the error-cost framework. Critics have so far failed to show that, on balance, mergers harm social welfare—even overlapping ones or mergers between potential competitors—just as they are yet to suggest alternative institutional arrangements that would improve social welfare.
In other words, they mistakenly analyze purported false negatives of merger-enforcement regimes in isolation. In doing so, they ignore how measures that aim to reduce such judicial errors may lead to other errors, as well as higher enforcement costs. In short, they paint a world where policy decisions involve facile tradeoffs, and this undermines their policy recommendations.
Given these significant limitations, this body of academic research should be met with an appropriate degree of caution. For all the criticism it has faced, the current merger-review system is mostly a resounding success. It is administrable, predictable, and timely. Yet it also eliminates a vast majority of judicial errors: even its critics concede that false negatives make up only a tiny fraction of decisions. Policymakers must decide whether the benefits from catching the very few arguably anticompetitive mergers that currently escape prosecution outweigh the significant costs that are required to achieve this goal. There is currently little evidence to suggest that this is, indeed, the case.
Lina Khan’s appointment as chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a remarkable accomplishment. At 32 years old, she is the youngest chair ever. Her longstanding criticisms of the Consumer Welfare Standard and alignment with the neo-Brandeisean school of thought make her appointment a significant achievement for proponents of those viewpoints.
Her appointment also comes as House Democrats are preparing to mark up five bills designed to regulate Big Tech and, in the process, vastly expand the FTC’s powers. This expansion may combine with Khan’s appointment in ways that lawmakers considering the bills have not yet considered.
As things stand, the FTC under Khan’s leadership is likely to push for more extensive regulatory powers, akin to those held by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But these expansions would be trivial compared to what is proposed by many of the bills currently being prepared for a June 23 mark-up in the House Judiciary Committee.
The flagship bill—Rep. David Cicilline’s (D-R.I.) American Innovation and Choice Online Act—is described as a platform “non-discrimination” bill. I have already discussed what the real-world effects of this bill would likely be. Briefly, it would restrict platforms’ ability to offer richer, more integrated services at all, since those integrations could be challenged as “discrimination” at the cost of would-be competitors’ offerings. Things like free shipping on Amazon Prime, pre-installed apps on iPhones, or even including links to Gmail and Google Calendar at the top of a Google Search page could be precluded under the bill’s terms; in each case, there is a potential competitor being undermined.
But this shifts the focus to the FTC itself, and implies that it would have potentially enormous discretionary power under these proposals to enforce the law selectively.
Companies found guilty of breaching the bill’s terms would be liable for civil penalties of up to 15 percent of annual U.S. revenue, a potentially significant sum. And though the Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously against the FTC’s powers to levy civil fines unilaterally—which the FTC opposed vociferously, and may get restored by other means—there are two scenarios through which it could end up getting extraordinarily extensive control over the platforms covered by the bill.
The first course is through selective enforcement. What Singer above describes as a positive—the fact that enforcers would just let “benign” violations of the law be—would mean that the FTC itself would have tremendous scope to choose which cases it brings, and might do so for idiosyncratic, politicized reasons.
The second path would be to use these powers as leverage to get broad consent decrees to govern the conduct of covered platforms. These occur when a lawsuit is settled, with the defendant company agreeing to change its business practices under supervision of the plaintiff agency (in this case, the FTC). The Cambridge Analytica lawsuit ended this way, with Facebook agreeing to change its data-sharing practices under the supervision of the FTC.
This path would mean the FTC creating bespoke, open-ended regulation for each covered platform. Like the first path, this could create significant scope for discretionary decision-making by the FTC and potentially allow FTC officials to impose their own, non-economic goals on these firms. And it would require costly monitoring of each firm subject to bespoke regulation to ensure that no breaches of that regulation occurred.
“economic power as inextricably political. Power in industry is the power to steer outcomes. It grants outsized control to a few, subjecting the public to unaccountable private power—and thereby threatening democratic order. The account also offers a positive vision of how economic power should be organized (decentralized and dispersed), a recognition that forms of economic power are not inevitable and instead can be restructured.” [italics added]
Though I have focused on Cicilline’s flagship bill, others grant significant new powers to the FTC, as well. The data portability and interoperability bill doesn’t actually define what “data” is; it leaves it to the FTC to “define the term ‘data’ for the purpose of implementing and enforcing this Act.” And, as I’ve written elsewhere, data interoperability needs significant ongoing regulatory oversight to work at all, a responsibility that this bill also hands to the FTC. Even a move as apparently narrow as data portability will involve a significant expansion of the FTC’s powers and give it a greater role as an ongoing economic regulator.
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 somecompetition 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.
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.
In current discussions of technology markets, few words are heard more often than “platform.” Initial public offering (IPO) prospectuses use “platform” to describe a service that is bound to dominate a digital market. Antitrust regulators use “platform” to describe a service that dominates a digital market or threatens to do so. In either case, “platform” denotes power over price. For investors, that implies exceptional profits; for regulators, that implies competitive harm.
Conventional wisdom holds that platforms enjoy high market shares, protected by high barriers to entry, which yield high returns. This simple logic drives the market’s attribution of dramatically high valuations to dramatically unprofitable businesses and regulators’ eagerness to intervene in digital platform markets characterized by declining prices, increased convenience, and expanded variety, often at zero out-of-pocket cost. In both cases, “burning cash” today is understood as the path to market dominance and the ability to extract a premium from consumers in the future.
This logic is usually wrong.
The Overlooked Basics of Platform Economics
To appreciate this perhaps surprising point, it is necessary to go back to the increasingly overlooked basics of platform economics. A platform can refer to any service that matches two complementary populations. A search engine matches advertisers with consumers, an online music service matches performers and labels with listeners, and a food-delivery service matches restaurants with home diners. A platform benefits everyone by facilitating transactions that otherwise might never have occurred.
A platform’s economic value derives from its ability to lower transaction costs by funneling a multitude of individual transactions into a single convenient hub. In pursuit of minimum costs and maximum gains, users on one side of the platform will tend to favor the most popular platforms that offer the largest number of users on the other side of the platform. (There are partial exceptions to this rule when users value being matched with certain typesof other users, rather than just with more users.) These “network effects” mean that any successful platform market will always converge toward a handful of winners. This positive feedback effect drives investors’ exuberance and regulators’ concerns.
There is a critical point, however, that often seems to be overlooked.
Market share only translates into market power to the extent the incumbent is protected against entry within some reasonable time horizon. If Warren Buffett’s moat requirement is not met, market share is immaterial. If XYZ.com owns 100% of the online pet food delivery market but entry costs are asymptotic, then market power is negligible. There is another important limiting principle. In platform markets, the depth of the moat depends not only on competitors’ costs to enter the market, but users’ costs in switching from one platform to another or alternating between multiple platforms. If users can easily hop across platforms, then market share cannot confer market power given the continuous threat of user defection. Put differently: churn limits power over price.
Contrary to natural intuitions, this is why a platform market consisting of only a few leaders can still be intensely competitive, keeping prices low (down to and including $0) even if the number of competitors is low. It is often asserted, however, that users are typically locked into the dominant platform and therefore face high switching costs, which therefore implicitly satisfies the moat requirement. If that is true, then the “high churn” scenario is a theoretical curiosity and a leading platform’s high market share would be a reliable signal of market power. In fact, this common assumption likely describes the atypical case.
AWS and the Cloud Data-Storage Market
This point can be illustrated by considering the cloud data-storage market. This would appear to be an easy case where high switching costs (due to the difficulty in shifting data among storage providers) insulate the market leader against entry threats. Yet the real world does not conform to these expectations.
While Amazon Web Services pioneered the $100 billion-plus market and is still the clear market leader, it now faces vigorous competition from Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and other data-storage or other cloud-related services. This may reflect the fact that the data storage market is far from saturated, so new users are up for grabs and existing customers can mitigate lock-in by diversifying across multiple storage providers. Or it may reflect the fact that the market’s structure is fluid as a function of technological changes, enabling entry at formerly bundled portions of the cloud data-services package. While it is not always technologically feasible, the cloud storage market suggests that users’ resistance to platform capture can represent a competitive opportunity for entrants to challenge dominant vendors on price, quality, and innovation parameters.
The Surprising Instability of Platform Dominance
The instability of leadership positions in the cloud storage market is not exceptional.
Consider a handful of once-powerful platforms that were rapidly dethroned once challenged by a more efficient or innovative rival: Yahoo and Alta Vista in the search-engine market (displaced by Google); Netscape in the browser market (displaced by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, then displaced by Google Chrome); Nokia and then BlackBerry in the mobile wireless-device market (displaced by Apple and Samsung); and Friendster in the social-networking market (displaced by Myspace, then displaced by Facebook). AOL was once thought to be indomitable; now it is mostly referenced as a vintage email address. The list could go on.
Overestimating platform dominance—or more precisely, assuming platform dominance without close factual inquiry—matters because it promotes overestimates of market power. That, in turn, cultivates both market and regulatory bubbles: investors inflate stock valuations while regulators inflate the risk of competitive harm.
DoorDash and the Food-Delivery Services Market
Consider the DoorDash IPO that launched in early December 2020. The market’s current approximately $50 billion valuation of a business that has been almost consistently unprofitable implicitly assumes that DoorDash will maintain and expand its position as the largest U.S. food-delivery platform, which will then yield power over price and exceptional returns for investors.
There are reasons to be skeptical. Even where DoorDash captures and holds a dominant market share in certain metropolitan areas, it still faces actual and potential competition from other food-delivery services, in-house delivery services (especially by well-resourced national chains), and grocery and other delivery services already offered by regional and national providers. There is already evidence of these expected responses to DoorDash’s perceived high delivery fees, a classic illustration of the disciplinary effect of competitive forces on the pricing choices of an apparently dominant market leader. These “supply-side” constraints imposed by competitors are compounded by “demand-side” constraints imposed by customers. Home diners incur no more than minimal costs when swiping across food-delivery icons on a smartphone interface, casting doubt that high market share is likely to translate in this context into market power.
Deliveroo and the Costs of Regulatory Autopilot
Just as the stock market can suffer from delusions of platform grandeur, so too some competition regulators appear to have fallen prey to the same malady.
A vivid illustration is provided by the 2019 decision by the Competition Markets Authority (CMA), the British competition regulator, to challenge Amazon’s purchase of a 16% stake in Deliveroo, one of three major competitors in the British food-delivery services market. This intervention provides perhaps the clearest illustration of policy action based on a reflexive assumption of market power, even in the face of little to no indication that the predicate conditions for that assumption could plausibly be satisfied.
Far from being a dominant platform, Deliveroo was (and is) a money-losing venture lagging behind money-losing Just Eat (now Just Eat Takeaway) and Uber Eats in the U.K. food-delivery services market. Even Amazon had previously closed its own food-delivery service in the U.K. due to lack of profitability. Despite Deliveroo’s distressed economic circumstances and the implausibility of any market power arising from Amazon’s investment, the CMA nonetheless elected to pursue the fullest level of investigation. While the transaction was ultimately approved in August 2020, this intervention imposed a 15-month delay and associated costs in connection with an investment that almost certainly bolstered competition in a concentrated market by funding a firm reportedly at risk of insolvency. This is the equivalent of a competition regulator driving in reverse.
There seems to be an increasingly common assumption in commentary by the press, policymakers, and even some scholars that apparently dominant platforms usually face little competition and can set, at will, the terms of exchange. For investors, this is a reason to buy; for regulators, this is a reason to intervene. This assumption is sometimes realized, and, in that case, antitrust intervention is appropriate whenever there is reasonable evidence that market power is being secured through something other than “competition on the merits.” However, several conditions must be met to support the market power assumption without which any such inquiry would be imprudent. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the economics and history of platform markets suggest that those conditions are infrequently satisfied.
Without closer scrutiny, reflexively equating market share with market power is prone to lead both investors and regulators astray.
Congressman Buck’s “Third Way” report offers a compromise between the House Judiciary Committee’s majority report, which proposes sweeping new regulation of tech companies, and the status quo, which Buck argues is unfair and insufficient. But though Buck rejects many of the majority’s reports proposals, what he proposes instead would lead to virtually the same outcome via a slightly longer process.
The most significant majority proposals that Buck rejects are the structural separation to prevent a company that runs a platform from operating on that platform “in competition with the firms dependent on its infrastructure”, and line-of-business restrictions that would confine tech companies to a small number of markets, to prevent them from preferencing their other products to the detriment of competitors.
Buck rules these out, saying that they are “regulatory in nature [and] invite unforeseen consequences and divert attention away from public interest antitrust enforcement by our antitrust agencies.” He goes on to say that “this proposal is a thinly veiled call to break up Big Tech firms.”
Instead, Buck endorses, either fully or provisionally, measures including revitalising the essential facilities doctrine, imposing data interoperability mandates on platforms, and changing antitrust law to prevent “monopoly leveraging and predatory pricing”.
Put together, though, these would amount to the same thing that the Democratic majority report proposes: a world where platforms are basically just conduits, regulated to be neutral and open, and where the companies that run them require a regulator’s go-ahead for important decisions — a process that would be just as influenced lobbying and political considerations, and insulated from market price signals, as any other regulator’s decisions are.
Revitalizing the essential facilities doctrine
Buck describes proposals to “revitalize the essential facilities doctrine” as “common ground” that warrant further consideration. This would mean that platforms deemed to be “essential facilities” would be required to offer access to their platform to third parties at a “reasonable” price, except in exceptional circumstances. The presumption would be that these platforms were anticompetitively foreclosing third party developers and merchants by either denying them access to their platforms or by charging them “too high” prices.
This would require the kind of regulatory oversight that Buck says he wants to avoid. He says that “conservatives should be wary of handing additional regulatory authority to agencies in an attempt to micromanage platforms’ access rules.” But there’s no way to avoid this when the “facility” — and hence its pricing and access rules — changes as frequently as any digital platform does. In practice, digital platforms would have to justify their pricing rules and decisions about exclusion of third parties to courts or a regulator as often as they make those decisions.
If Apple’s App Store were deemed an essential facility such that it is presumed to be foreclosing third party developers any time it rejected their submissions, it would have to submit to regulatory scrutiny of the “reasonableness” of its commercial decisions on, literally, a daily basis.
That would likely require price controls to prevent platforms from using pricing to de facto exclude third parties they did not want to deal with. Adjudication of “fair” pricing by courts is unlikely to be a sustainable solution. Justice Breyer, in Town of Concord v. Boston Edison Co., considered this to be outside the courts’ purview:
[H]ow is a judge or jury to determine a ‘fair price?’ Is it the price charged by other suppliers of the primary product? None exist. Is it the price that competition ‘would have set’ were the primary level not monopolized? How can the court determine this price without examining costs and demands, indeed without acting like a rate-setting regulatory agency, the rate-setting proceedings of which often last for several years? Further, how is the court to decide the proper size of the price ‘gap?’ Must it be large enough for all independent competing firms to make a ‘living profit,’ no matter how inefficient they may be? . . . And how should the court respond when costs or demands change over time, as they inevitably will?
In practice, infrastructure treated as an essential facility is usually subject to pricing control by a regulator. This has its own difficulties. The UK’s energy and water infrastructure is an example. In determining optimal access pricing, regulators must determine the price that weighs competing needs to maximise short-term output, incentivise investment by the infrastructure owner, incentivise innovation and entry by competitors (e.g., local energy grids) and, of course, avoid “excessive” pricing.
So you may end up with two different sets of price controls: on the consumer side, to determine how much monopoly rent can be extracted from consumers, and on the access side, to determine how the monopoly rents are divided.
The UK’s energy market has both, for example. In the case of something like an electricity network, where it may simply not be physically or economically feasible to construct a second, competing network, this might be the least-bad course of action. In such circumstances, consumer-side price regulation might make sense.
But if a service could, in fact, be competed with by others, treating it as an essential facility may be affirmatively harmful to competition and consumers if it diverts investment and time away from that potential competitor by allowing other companies to acquire some of the incumbent’s rents themselves.
The HJC report assumes that Apple is a monopolist, because, among people who own iPhones, the App Store is the only way to install third-party software. Treating the App Store as an essential facility may mean a ban on Apple charging “excessive prices” to companies like Spotify or Epic that would like to use it, or on Apple blocking them for offering users alternative in-app ways of buying their services.
If it were impossible for users to switch from iPhones, or for app developers to earn revenue through other mechanisms, this logic might be sound. But it would still not change the fact that the App Store platform was able to charge users monopoly prices; it would just mean that Epic and Spotify could capture some of those monopoly rents for themselves. Nice for them, but not for consumers. And since both companies have already grown to be pretty big and profitable with the constraints they object to in place, it seems difficult to argue that they cannot compete with these in place and sounds more like they’d just like a bigger share of the pie.
And, in fact, it is possible to switch away from the iPhone to Android. I have personally switched back and forth several times over the past few years, for example. And so have many others — despite what some claim, it’s really not that hard, especially now that most important data is stored on cloud-based services, and both companies offer an app to switch from the other. Apple also does not act like a monopolist — its Bionic chips are vastly better than any competitor’s and it continues to invest in and develop them.
So in practice, users switching from iPhone to Android if Epic’s games and Spotify’s music are not available constrains Apple, to some extent. If Apple did drive those services permanently off their platform, it would make Android relatively more attractive, and some users would move away — Apple would bear some of the costs of its ecosystem becoming worse.
Assuming away this kind of competition, as Buck and the majority report do, is implausible. Not only that, but Buck and the majority believe that competition in this market is impossible — no policy or antitrust action could change things, and all that’s left is to regulate the market like it’s an electricity grid.
And it means that platforms could often face situations where they could not expect to make themselves profitable after building their markets, since they could not control the supply side in order to earn revenues. That would make it harder to build platforms, and weaken competition, especially competition faced by incumbents.
Interoperability mandates, which Buck supports, require platforms to make their products open and interoperable with third party software. If Twitter were required to be interoperable, for example, it would have to provide a mechanism (probably a set of open APIs) by which third party software could tweet and read its feeds, upload photos, send and receive DMs, and so on.
Obviously, what interoperability actually involves differs from service to service, and involves decisions about design that are specific to each service. These variations are relevant because they mean interoperability requires discretionary regulation, including about product design, and can’t just be covered by a simple piece of legislation or a court order.
To give an example: interoperability means a heightened security risk, perhaps from people unwittingly authorising a bad actor to access their private messages. How much is it appropriate to warn users about this, and how tight should your security controls be? It is probably excessive to require that users provide a sworn affidavit with witnesses, and even some written warnings about the risks may be so over the top as to scare off virtually any interested user. But some level of warning and user authentication is appropriate. So how much?
Similarly, a company that has been required to offer its customers’ data through an API, but doesn’t really want to, can make life miserable for third party services that want to use it. Changing the API without warning, or letting its service drop or slow down, can break other services, and few users will be likely to want to use a third-party service that is unreliable. But some outages are inevitable, and some changes to the API and service are desirable. How do you decide how much?
These are not abstract examples. Open Banking in the UK, which requires interoperability of personal and small business current accounts, is the most developed example of interoperability in the world. It has been cited by former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Jason Furman, among others, as a model for interoperability in tech. It has faced all of these questions: one bank, for instance, required that customers pass through twelve warning screens to approve a third party app to access their banking details.
To address problems like this, Open Banking has needed an “implementation entity” to design many of its most important elements. This is a de facto regulator, and it has taken years of difficult design decisions to arrive at Open Banking’s current form.
Having helped write the UK’s industry review into Open Banking, I am cautiously optimistic about what it might be able to do for banking in Britain, not least because that market is already heavily regulated and lacking in competition. But it has been a huge undertaking, and has related to a relatively narrow set of data (its core is just two different things — the ability to read an account’s balance and transaction history, and the ability to initiate payments) in a sector that is not known for rapidly changing technology. Here, the costs of regulation may be outweighed by the benefits.
I am deeply sceptical that the same would be the case in most digital markets, where products do change rapidly, where new entrants frequently attempt to enter the market (and often succeed), where the security trade-offs are even more difficult to adjudicate, and where the economics are less straightforward, given that many services are provided at least in part because of the access to customer data they provide.
Even if I am wrong, it is unavoidable that interoperability in digital markets would require an equivalent body to make and implement decisions when trade-offs are involved. This, again, would require a regulator like the UK’s implementation entity, and one that was enormous, given the number and diversity of services that it would have to oversee. And it would likely have to make important and difficult design decisions to which there is no clear answer.
Buck’s Third Way would also ban digital platforms from self-preferencing. This typically involves an incumbent that can provide a good more cheaply than its third-party competitors — whether it’s through use of data that those third parties do not have access to, reputational advantages that mean customers will be more likely to use their products, or through scale efficiencies that allow it to provide goods to a larger customer base for a cheaper price.
Although many people criticise self-preferencing as being unfair on competitors, “self-preferencing” is an inherent part of almost every business. When a company employs its own in-house accountants, cleaners or lawyers, instead of contracting out for them, it is engaged in internal self-preferencing. Any firm that is vertically integrated to any extent, instead of contracting externally for every single ancillary service other than the one it sells in the market, is self-preferencing. Coase’s theory of the firm is all about why this kind of behaviour happens, instead of every worker contracting on the open market for everything they do. His answer is that transaction costs make it cheaper to bring certain business relationships in-house than to contract externally for them. Virtually everyone agrees that this is desirable to some extent.
Nor does it somehow become a problem when the self-preferencing takes place on the consumer product side. Any firm that offers any bundle of products — like a smartphone that can run only the manufacturer’s operating system — is engaged in self-preferencing, because users cannot construct their own bundle with that company’s hardware and another’s operating system. But the efficiency benefits often outweigh the lack of choice.
Self-preferencing in digital platforms occurs, for example, when Google includes relevant Shopping or Maps results at the top of its general Search results, or when Amazon gives its own store-brand products (like the AmazonBasics range) a prominent place in the results listing.
There are good reasons to think that both of these are good for competition and consumer welfare. Google making Shopping results easily visible makes it a stronger competitor to Amazon, and including Maps results when you search for a restaurant just makes it more convenient to get the information you’re looking for.
Amazon sells its own private label products partially because doing so is profitable (even when undercutting rivals), partially to fill holes in product lines (like clothing, where 11% of listings were Amazon private label as of November 2018), and partially because it increases users’ likelihood to use Amazon if they expect to find a reliable product from a brand they trust. According to Amazon, they account for less than 1% of its annual retail sales, in contrast to the 19% of revenues ($54 billion) Amazon makes from third party seller services, which includes Marketplace commissions. Any analysis that ignores that Amazon has to balance those sources of revenue, and so has to tread carefully, is deficient.
With “commodity” products (like, say, batteries and USB cables), where multiple sellers are offering very similar or identical versions of the same thing, private label competition works well for both Amazon and consumers. By Amazon’s own rules it can enter this market using aggregated data, but this doesn’t give it a significant advantage, because that data is easily obtainable from multiple sources, including Amazon itself, which makes detailed aggregated sales data freely available to third-party retailers.
Amazon does profit from sales of these products, of course. And other merchants suffer by having to cut their prices to compete. That’s precisely what competition involves — competition is incompatible with a quiet life for businesses. But consumers benefit, and the biggest benefit to Amazon is that it assures its potential customers that when they visit they will be able to find a product that is cheap and reliable, so they keep coming back.
It is even hard to argue that in aggregate this practice is damaging to third-party sellers: many, like Anker, have built successful businesses on Amazon despite private-label competition precisely because the value of the platform increases for all parties as user trust and confidence in it does.
To mistake this pro-competitive behaviour with an absence of competition is misguided. But that is a key conclusion of Buck’s Third Way: that the damage to competitors makes this behaviour harmful overall, and that it should be curtailed with “non-discrimination” rules.
Treating below-cost selling as “predatory pricing”
Buck’s report equates below-cost selling with predatory pricing (“predatory pricing, also known as below-cost selling”). This is mistaken. Predatory pricing refers to a particular scenario where your price cut is temporary and designed to drive a competitor out of business, so that you can raise prices later and recoup your losses.
It is easy to see that this does not describe the vast majority of below-cost selling. Buck’s formulation would describe all of the following as “predatory pricing”:
A restaurants that gives away ketchup for free;
An online retailer that offers free shipping and returns;
The rationale for offering below-cost prices differs in each of these cases. Sometimes it’s a marketing ploy — Tesco sells those beans to get some free media, and to entice people into their stores, hoping they’ll decide to do the rest of their weekly shop there at the same time. Sometimes it’s about reducing frictions — the marginal cost of ketchup is so low that it’s simpler to just give it away. Sometimes it’s about reducing the fixed costs of transactions so more take place — allowing customers who buy your products to return them easily may mean more are willing to buy them overall, because there’s less risk for them if they don’t like what they buy.
Obviously, none of these is “predatory”: none is done in the expectation that the below-cost selling will drive those businesses’ competitors out of business, allowing them to make monopoly profits later.
True predatory pricing is theoretically possible, but very difficult. As David Henderson describes, to successfully engage in predatory pricing means taking enormous and rising losses that grow for the “predatory” firm as customers switch to it from its competitor. And once the rival firm has exited the market, if the predatory firm raises prices above average cost (i.e., to recoup its losses), there is no guarantee that a new competitor will not enter the market selling at the previously competitive price. And the competing firm can either shut down temporarily or, in some cases, just buy up the “predatory” firm’s discounted goods to resell later. It is debatable whether the canonical predatory pricing case, Standard Oil, is itself even an example of that behaviour.
Offering a product below cost in a multi-sided market (like a digital platform) can be a way of building a customer base in order to incentivise entry on the other side of the market. When network effects exist, so additional users make the service more valuable to existing users, it can be worthwhile to subsidise the initial users until the service reaches a certain size.
Uber subsidising drivers and riders in a new city is an example of this — riders want enough drivers on the road that they know they’ll be picked up fairly quickly if they order one, and drivers want enough riders that they know they’ll be able to earn a decent night’s fares if they use the app. This requires a certain volume of users on both sides — to get there, it can be in everyone’s interest for the platform to subsidise one or both sides of the market to reach that critical mass.
The slightly longer road to regulation
That is another reason for below-cost pricing: someone other than the user may be part-paying for a product, to build a market they hope to profit from later. Platforms must adjust pricing and their offerings to each side of their market to manage supply and demand. Epic, for example, is trying to build a desktop computer game store to rival the largest incumbent, Steam. To win over customers, it has been giving away games for free to users, who can own them on that store forever.
That is clearly pro-competitive — Epic is hoping to get users over the habit of using Steam for all their games, in the hope that they will recoup the costs of doing so later in increased sales. And it is good for consumers to get free stuff. This kind of behaviour is very common. As well as Uber and Epic, smaller platforms do it too.
Buck’s proposals would make this kind of behaviour much more difficult, and permitted only if a regulator or court allows it, instead of if the market can bear it. On both sides of the coin, Buck’s proposals would prevent platforms from the behaviour that allows them to grow in the first place — enticing suppliers and consumers and subsidising either side until critical mass has been reached that allows the platform to exist by itself, and the platform owner to recoup its investments. Fundamentally, both Buck and the majority take the existence of platforms as a given, ignoring the incentives to create new ones and compete with incumbents.
In doing so, they give up on competition altogether. As described, Buck’s provisions would necessitate ongoing rule-making, including price controls, to work. It is unlikely that a court could do this, since the relevant costs would change too often for one-shot rule-making of the kind a court could do. To be effective at all, Buck’s proposals would require an extensive, active regulator, just as the majority report’s would.
Buck nominally argues against this sort of outcome — “Conservatives should be wary of handing additional regulatory authority to agencies in an attempt to micromanage platforms’ access rules” — but it is probably unavoidable, given the changes he proposes. And because the rule changes he proposes would apply to the whole economy, not just tech, his proposals may, perversely, end up being even more extensive and interventionist than the majority’s.
Other than this, the differences in practice between Buck’s proposals and the Democrats’ proposals would be trivial. At best, Buck’s Third Way is just a longer route to the same destination.
[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.
This post is authored by Kristian Stout, (Associate Director, International Center for Law & Economics]
The ongoing pandemic has been an opportunity to explore different aspects of the human condition. For myself, I have learned that, despite a deep commitment to philosophical (neo- or classical-) liberalism, at heart I am pragmatic. I would prefer a society that optimizes for more individual liberty, but I am emphatically not someone who would even entertain the idea of using crises to advance my agenda when it is not clearly in service to amelioration of immediate problems.
Sadly, I have also learned that there are those who are not similarly pragmatic, and are willing to advance their ideological agenda come hell or high water. In this regard, I was disappointed yesterday to see the Gurry IP/COVID Letter passing around Twitter calling for widespread, worldwide interference with the property rights of IPR holders.
The letter calls for a scattershot set of “remedies” to the crisis that would open access to copyright- and patent-protected inventions and content, including (among other things):
voluntary licensing and non-enforcement of IP;
abrogation of IPR by WIPO members using the “flexibility” in the international IP regime;
the removal of geographical restrictions on IP licenses;
forcing patents into COVID-19 patent pools; and
the implementation of compulsory licensing.
And, unlike many prior efforts to push the envelope on weakening IP protections, the Gurry Letter also calls for measures that would weaken trade secrets and expose confidential business information in order to “achieve universal and equitable access to COVID-19 medicines and medical technologies as soon as reasonably possible.”
Notably, nothing in the letter suggests that any of these measures should be regarded as temporary.
We all want treatments for infection, vaccines for prevention, and ample supply of personal protective equipment as soon as possible, but if all the demands in this letter were met, it would do little to increase the supply of any of these things in the short term, while undermining incentives to develop new treatments, vaccines and better preventative tools in the long run.
Fundamentally, the letter reflects a willingness to use the COVID-19 pandemic to pursue an agenda that lacks merit and would be dismissed in the normal course of affairs.
What is most certainly the case is that we need more innovation now, and we need it faster. There is no reason to believe that mandating open source status or forcing compulsory licensing on the firms doing that work will encourage that work to proceed with all due haste—and every indication that the opposite is the case.
Where there are short term shortages of certain products that might be produced in much larger quantities by relaxing IP, companies are responding by doing just that—voluntarily. But this is fundamentally different from the imposition of unlimited compulsory licenses.
Further, private actors have displayed an impressive willingness to provide free or low cost access to technologies and content—without government coercion. The following is a short list of some of the content and inventions that have been opened up:
Culture, Fitness & Entertainment
“HBO Will Stream 500 Hours of Free Programming, Including Full Seasons of ‘Veep,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Silicon Valley’”
Dozens (or more) of artists, both famous and lesser known, are releasing free back catalog performances or are taking part in free live streaming sessions on social media platforms. Notably, viewers are often welcome to donate or “pay what they” want to help support these artists (more on this below).
The NBA, NFL, and NHL are offering free access to their back catalogue of games.
A large array of music production software can now be used free on extended trials for 3 months (or completely free and unlimited in some cases).
Medtronic published “design specifications for the Puritan Bennett 560 (PB560) to allow innovators, inventors, start-ups, and academic institutions to leverage their own expertise and resources to evaluate options for rapid ventilator manufacturing.” It additionally provided software licenses for this technology.
AbbVie announced it won’t enforce its patent rights for Kaletra—a drug that may provide treatment for COVID-19 infections. Israel had earlier indicated it would impose compulsory licenses for the drug, but AbbVie is allowing use worldwide. The company, moreover, had donated supplies of the drug to China earlier in the year when the outbreak first became apparent.
“Cisco has extended free licenses and expanded usage counts at no extra charge for three of its security technologies to help strained IT teams and partners ready themselves and their clients for remote work.”
Zoom expanded its free access and other limitations for educational institutions around the world.
Incentivize innovation, now more than ever
In addition to undermining the short-term incentives to draw more research resources into the fight against COVID-19, using this crisis to weaken the IP regime will cause long-term damage to the economies of the world. We still will need creators making new cultural products and researchers developing new medicines and technologies; weakening the IP regime will undermine the delicate set of incentives that cultural and scientific production depends upon.
Any clear-eyed assessment of the broader course of the pandemic and the response to it gives lie to the notion that IP rights are oppressive or counterproductive. It is the pharmaceutical industry—hated as they may be in some quarters—that will be able to marshall the resources and expertise to develop treatments and vaccines. And it is artists and educators producing cultural content who (theoretically) depend on the licensing revenues of their creations for survival.
In fact, one of the things that the pandemic has exposed is the fragility of artists’ livelihoods and the callousness with which they are often treated. Shortly after the lockdowns began in the US, the well-established rock musician David Crosby said in an interview that, if he could not tour this year, he would face tremendous financial hardship.
As unfortunate as that may be for Crosby, a world-famous musician, imagine how much harder it is for struggling musicians who can hardly hope to achieve a fraction of Crosby’s success for their own tours, let alone for licensing. If David Crosby cannot manage well for a few months on the revenue from his popular catalog, what hope do small artists have?
Indeed, the flood of unable-to-tour artists who are currently offering “donate what you can” streaming performances are a symptom of the destructive assault on IPR exemplified in the letter. For decades, these artists have been told that they can only legitimately make money through touring. Although the potential to actually make a living while touring is possibly out of reach for many or most artists, those that had been scraping by have now been brought to the brink of ruin as the ability to tour is taken away.
There are certainly ways the various IP regimes can be improved (like, for instance, figuring out how to help creators make a living from their creations), but now is not the time to implement wishlist changes to an otherwise broadly successful rights regime.
And, critically, there is a massive difference between achieving wider distribution of intellectual property voluntarily as opposed to through government fiat. When done voluntarily the IP owner determines the contours and extent of “open sourcing” so she can tailor increased access to her own needs (including the need to eat and pay rent). In some cases this may mean providing unlimited, completely free access, but in other cases—where the particular inventor or creator has a different set of needs and priorities—it may be something less than completely open access. When a rightsholder opts to “open source” her property voluntarily, she still retains the right to govern future use (i.e. once the pandemic is over) and is able to plan for reductions in revenue and how to manage future return on investment.
Our lawmakers can consider if a particular situation arises where a particular piece of property is required for the public good, should the need arise. Otherwise, as responsible individuals, we should restrain ourselves from trying to capitalize on the current crisis to ram through our policy preferences.
This guest post is by Jonathan M. Barnett, Torrey H. Webb Professor Law, University of Southern California Gould School of Law.
It has become virtual received wisdom that antitrust law has been subdued by economic analysis into a state of chronic underenforcement. Following this line of thinking, many commentators applauded the Antitrust Division’s unsuccessful campaign to oppose the acquisition of Time-Warner by AT&T and some (unsuccessfully) urged the Division to take stronger action against the acquisition of most of Fox by Disney. The arguments in both cases followed a similar “big is bad” logic. Consolidating control of a large portfolio of creative properties (Fox plus Disney) or integrating content production and distribution capacities (Time-Warner plus AT&T) would exacerbate market concentration, leading to reduced competition and some combination of higher prices and reduced product for consumers.
Less than 18 months after the
closing of both transactions, those concerns seem to have been largely
Far from precipitating any decline
in product output or variety, both transactions have been followed by a vigorous
burst of competition in the digital streaming market. In place of the Amazon
plus Netflix bottleneck (with Hulu trailing behind), consumers now, or in 2020
will, have a choice of at least four new streaming services with original
content, Disney+, AT&T’s “HBO Max”, Apple’s “Apple TV+” and Comcast’s
NBCUniversal “Peacock” services. Critically,
each service relies on a formidable combination of creative, financing and technological
capacities that can only be delivered by a firm of sufficiently large size and
scale. As modern antitrust law has long
recognized, it turns out that “big” is sometimes not bad.
Where’s the Harm?
At present, it is hard to see any
net consumer harm arising from the concurrence of increased size and increased
On the supply side, this is just the
next episode in the ongoing “Golden Age of Television” in which content producers
have enjoyed access to exceptional funding to support high-value productions. It has been reported that Apple TV+’s new “Morning
Show” series will cost $15 million per episode while similar estimates are
reported for hit shows such as HBO’s “Game
of Thrones” and Netflix’s “The
Crown.” Each of those services is
locked in a fierce competition to gain and retain sufficient subscribers to
earn a return on those investments, which leads directly to the next happy
On the demand side, consumers enjoy
a proliferating array of streaming services, ranging from free ad-supported
services to subscription ad-free services. Consumers can now easily “cut the
cord” and assemble a customized bundle of preferred content from multiple
services, each of which is less costly than a traditional cable package and can
generally be cancelled at any time. Current
market performance does not plausibly conform to the declining output, limited
variety or increasing prices that are the telltale symptoms of a less than
Real-World v. Theoretical Markets
The market’s favorable trajectory
following these two controversial transactions should not be surprising. When
scrutinized against the actual characteristics of real-world digital content markets,
rather than stylized theoretical models or antiquated pre-digital content
markets, the arguments leveled against these transactions never made much
sense. There were two fundamental and related errors.
Error #1: Content is Scarce
Advocates for antitrust intervention
assumed that entry barriers into the content market were high, in which case it
followed that the owner of an especially valuable creative portfolio could
exert pricing power to consumers’ detriment. Yet, in reality, funding for
content production is plentiful and even a service that has an especially
popular show is unlikely to have sustained pricing power in the face of a continuous
flow of high-value productions being released by formidable competitors. The
amounts being spent on content in 2019 by leading streaming services are
unprecedented, ranging from a reported $15
billion for Netflix to an estimated $6 billion for Amazon
TV+ to an estimated $3.9
billion for AT&T’s HBO Max. It is also important to note that a hit
show is often a mobile asset that a streaming or other video distribution
service has licensed from independent production companies and other rights
holders. Once the existing deal expires, those rights are available for purchase
by the highest bidder. For example, in 2019, Netflix
purchased the streaming rights to “Seinfeld”, Viacom
purchased the cable rights to “Seinfeld”, and HBO
Max purchased the streaming rights to “South Park.” Similarly, the
producers behind a hit show are always free to take their talents to
competitors once any existing agreement terminates.
Error #2: Home Pay-TV is a
Advocates of antitrust action were
looking at the wrong market—or more precisely, the market as it existed about a
decade ago. The theory that AT&T’s acquisition of Time-Warner’s creative
portfolio would translate into pricing power in the home pay-TV market mighthave been plausible when consumers had
no reasonable alternative to the local cable provider. But this argument makes
little sense today when consumers are fleeing bulky home pay-TV bundles for
cheaper cord-cutting options that deliver more targeted content packages to a mobile
device. In 2019, a “home” pay-TV market
is fast becoming an anachronism and hence a home pay-TV “monopoly” largely
reduces to a formalism that, with the possible exception of certain live programming,
is unlikely to translate into meaningful pricing power.
Wait a Second! What About the HBO Blackout?
A skeptical reader might reasonably object
that this mostly rosy account of the post-merger home video market is unpersuasive
since it does not address the ongoing blackout
of HBO (now an AT&T property) on the Dish satellite TV service. Post-merger
commentary that remains skeptical of the AT&T/Time-Warner merger has
focused on this dispute, arguing that it “proves”
that the government was right since AT&T is purportedly leveraging its new
ownership of HBO to disadvantage one of its competitors in the pay-TV market. This
interpretation tends to miss the forest for the trees (or more precisely, a tree).
The AT&T/Dish dispute over HBO
is only one of over 200
“carriage” disputes resulting in blackouts that have occurred this year, which
continues an upward trend since approximately 2011. Some of those include
Dish’s dispute with Univision (settled in March 2019 after a nine-month
blackout) and AT&T’s dispute (as pay-TV provider) with Nexstar (settled in
August 2019 after a nearly two-month blackout). These disputes reflect the fact
that the flood of subscriber defections from traditional pay-TV to mobile
streaming has made it difficult for pay-TV providers to pass on the fees sought
by content owners. As a result, some pay-TV providers adopt the negotiating
tactic of choosing to drop certain content until the terms improve, just as
AT&T, in its capacity as a pay-TV provider, dropped
CBS for three weeks in July and August 2019 pending renegotiation of
licensing terms. It is the outward shift in the boundaries of the economically relevant
market (from home to home-plus-mobile video delivery), rather than market power
concerns, that best accounts for periodic breakdowns in licensing negotiations. This might even be viewed positively from an
antitrust perspective since it suggests that the “over the top” market is
putting pressure on the fees that content owners can extract from providers in
the traditional pay-TV market.
It is common to argue today that antitrust law has become excessively concerned about “false positives”– that is, the possibility of blocking a transaction or enjoining a practice that would have benefited consumers. Pending future developments, this early post-mortem on the regulatory and judicial treatment of these two landmark media transactions suggests that there are sometimes good reasons to stay the hand of the court or regulator. This is especially the case when a generational market shift is in progress and any regulator’s or judge’s foresight is likely to be guesswork. Antitrust law’s “failure” to stop these transactions may turn out to have been a ringing success.
This guest post is by Corbin K. Barthold, Senior Litigation Counsel at Washington Legal Foundation.
In the spring of 1669 a “flying coach” transported six passengers from Oxford to London in a single day. Within a few years similar carriage services connected many major towns to the capital.
“As usual,” Lord Macaulay wrote
in his history of England, “many persons” were “disposed to clamour against the
innovation, simply because it was an innovation.” They objected that the express
rides would corrupt traditional horsemanship, throw saddlers and boatmen out of
work, bankrupt the roadside taverns, and force travelers to sit with children
and the disabled. “It was gravely recommended,” reported Macaulay, by various
towns and companies, that “no public coach should be permitted to have more
than four horses, to start oftener that once a week, or to go more than thirty
miles a day.”
Macaulay used the episode to offer his
contemporaries a warning. Although “we smile at these things,” he said, “our
descendants, when they read the history of the opposition offered by cupidity
and prejudice to the improvements of the nineteenth century, may smile in their
turn.” Macaulay wanted the smart set to take a wider view of history.
They rarely do. It is not in their nature. As
Schumpeter understood, the “intellectual group” cannot help attacking “the
foundations of capitalist society.” “It lives on criticism and its whole
position depends on criticism that stings.”
An aspiring intellectual would do well to avoid restraint
or good cheer. Better to build on a foundation of panic and indignation. Want
to sell books and appear on television? Announce the “death” of this or a
“crisis” over that. Want to seem fashionable among other writers, artists, and
academics? Denounce greed and rail against “the system.”
New technology is always a good target. When a
lantern inventor obtained a patent to light London, observed Macaulay, “the
cause of darkness was not left undefended.” The learned technophobes have been especially
vexed lately. The largest tech companies, they protest, are manipulating us.
“remade the internet in its hideous image.” The
New Yorker wonders
whether the platform is going to “break democracy.”
Apple is no better. “Have smartphones destroyed a
generation?” asksThe Atlantic in a cover-story
headline. The article’s author, Jean Twenge, says smartphones have made the
young less independent, more reclusive, and more depressed. She claims that
today’s teens are “on the brink of the worst mental-health”—wait for it—“crisis
in decades.” “Much of this deterioration,” she contends, “can be traced to
And then there’s Amazon. It’s too efficient. Alex
in Fortune that “too many clicks, too
much time spent, and too much money spent on Amazon” is “bad for our collective
financial, psychological, and physical health.”
Here’s a rule of thumb for the refined cultural
critic to ponder. When the talking points you use to convey your depth and perspicacity
match those of a sermonizing Republican senator, start worrying that your pseudo-profound
TED-Talk-y concerns for social justice are actually just fusty get-off-my-lawn
fears of novelty and change.
Enter Josh Hawley, freshman GOP senator from
Missouri. Hawley claims
that Facebook is a “digital drug” that “dulls” attention spans and “frays”
relationships. He speculates about whether social media is causing teenage
girls to attempt suicide. “What passes for innovation by Big Tech today,” he insists,
is “ever more sophisticated exploitation of people.” He scolds the tech
companies for failing to produce products that—in his judgment—“enrich lives” and
As for the stuff the industry does make, Hawley wants
it changed. He has introduced
a bill to ban infinite scrolling, music and video autoplay, and the use of “badges
and other awards” (gamification) on social media. The bill also requires defaults
that limit a user’s time on a platform to 30 minutes a day. A user could opt
out of this restriction, but only for a month at a stretch.
The available evidence does not bear out the notion
that highbrow magazines, let alone Josh Hawley, should redesign tech products
and police how people use their time. You’d probably have to pay
someone around $500 to stay off Facebook for a year.
Getting her to forego using Amazon would cost even more. And Google is worth
more still—perhaps thousands of dollars per user per year. These figures are of
course quite rough, but that just proves the point: the consumer surplus created
by the internet is inestimable.
Is technology making teenagers sad? Probably not. A
recent study tracked the social-media use, along with the wellbeing, of around
ten-thousand British children for almost a decade. “In more than half of the
thousands of statistical models we tested,” the study’s authors write,
“we found nothing more than random statistical noise.” Although there were some
small links between teenage girls’ mood and their social-media use, the
connections were “miniscule” and too “trivial” to “inform personal parenting
decisions.” “It’s probably best,” the researchers conclude, “to retire the idea
that the amount of time teens spend on social media is a meaningful metric
influencing their wellbeing.”
One could head the other way, in fact, and argue
that technology is making children smarter. Surfing the web and playing video
broaden their attention spans and improve their abstract thinking.
Is Facebook a threat to democracy? Not yet. The
memes that Russian trolls distributed during the 2016 election were clumsy,
garish, illiterate piffle. Most of it was the kind of thing that only an Alex
Jones fan or a QAnon conspiracist would take seriously. And sure enough, one
study finds that only a
tiny fraction of voters, most of them older
conservatives, read and spread the material. It appears, in other words, that the
Russian fake news and propaganda just bounced
around among a few wingnuts whose support for Donald
Trump was never in doubt.
Over time, it is fair to say, the known costs and
benefits of the latest technological innovations could change. New data and
further study might reveal that the handwringers are on to something. But there’s
good news: if you have fears, doubts, or objections, nothing stops you from
acting on them. If you believe that Facebook’s behavior
is intolerable, or that its impact on society is malign, stop using it. If you
think Amazon is undermining small businesses, shop more at local stores. If you
fret about your kid’s screen time, don’t give her a smartphone. Indeed, if you
suspect that everything has gone pear-shaped since the Industrial Revolution
started, throw out your refrigerator and stop going to the dentist.
We now hit the crux of the intellectuals’ (and Josh
Hawley’s) complaint. It’s not a gripe about Big Tech so much as a gripe about you. You, the average person, are too dim,
weak, and base. You lack the wits to use an iPhone on your own terms. You lack
the self-control to post, “like”, and share in moderation (or the discipline to
make your children follow suit). You lack the virtue to abstain from the
pleasures of Prime-membership consumerism.
One AI researcher digs to the root. “It is only the
hyper-privileged who are now saying, ‘I’m not going to give my kids this,’ or
‘I’m not on social media,’” she tellsVox. No one wields the “privilege” epithet
quite like the modern privileged do. It is one of the remarkable features of
our time. Pundits and professors use the word to announce, albeit
unintentionally, that only they and their peers have any agency. Those other people, meanwhile, need protection
from too much information, too much choice, too much freedom.
There’s nothing crazy about wanting the new aristocrats
of the mind to shepherd everyone else. Noblesse
oblige is a venerable concept. The lords care for the peasants, the king
cares for the lords, God cares for the king. But that is not our arrangement.
Our forebears embraced the Enlightenment. They began with the assumption that citizens
are autonomous. They got suspicious whenever the holders of political power
started trying to tell those citizens what they can and cannot do.
Algorithms might one day expose, and play on, our
innate lack of free will so much that serious legal and societal adjustments
are needed. That, however, is a remote and hypothetical issue, one likely to fall
on a generation, yet unborn, who will smile in their turn at our qualms.
(Before you place much weight on more dramatic predictions, consider that the great
Herbert Simon asserted, in 1965, that we’d have general AI by 1985.)
The question today is more mundane: do voters crave
moral direction from their betters? Are they clamoring to be viewed as lowly
creatures who can hardly be relied on to tie their shoes? If so, they’re perfectly
capable of debasing themselves accordingly through their choice of political representatives.
Judging from Congress’s flat response to Hawley’s bill, the electorate is not
quite there yet.
In the meantime, the great and the good might reevaluate
their campaign to infantilize their less fortunate brothers and sisters.
Lecturing people about how helpless they are is not deep. It’s not cool. It’s
condescending and demeaning. It’s a form of trolling. Above all, it’s old-fashioned
In 1816 The
Times of London warned “every parent against exposing his daughter to so
fatal a contagion” as . . . the waltz. “The novelty is one deserving
of severe reprobation,” Britain’s paper of record intoned, “and we trust it
will never again be tolerated in any moral English society.”
There was a time, Lord Macaulay felt sure, when
some brahmin or other looked down his nose at the plough and the alphabet.
A spate of recent newspaperinvestigations and commentary have focused on Apple allegedly discriminating against rivals in the App Store. The underlying assumption is that Apple, as a vertically integrated entity that operates both a platform for third-party apps and also makes it own apps, is acting nefariously whenever it “discriminates” against rival apps through prioritization, enters into popular app markets, or charges a “tax” or “surcharge” on rival apps.
For most people, the word discrimination has a pejorative connotation of animus based upon prejudice: racism, sexism, homophobia. One of the definitions you will find in the dictionary reflects this. But another definition is a lot less charged: the act of making or perceiving a difference. (This is what people mean when they say that a person has a discriminating palate, or a discriminating taste in music, for example.)
In economics, discrimination can be a positive attribute. For instance, effective price discrimination can result in wealthier consumers paying a higher price than less well off consumers for the same product or service, and it can ensure that products and services are in fact available for less-wealthy consumers in the first place. That would seem to be a socially desirable outcome (although under some circumstances, perfect price discrimination can be socially undesirable).
Antitrust law rightly condemns conduct only when it harms competition and not simply when it harms a competitor. This is because it is competition that enhances consumer welfare, not the presence or absence of a competitor — or, indeed, the profitability of competitors. The difficult task for antitrust enforcers is to determine when a vertically integrated firm with “market power” in an upstream market is able to effectively discriminate against rivals in a downstream market in a way that harms consumers.
Even assuming the claims of critics are true, alleged discrimination by Apple against competitor apps in the App Store may harm those competitors, but it doesn’t necessarily harm either competition or consumer welfare.
The three potential antitrust issues facing Apple can be summarized as:
There is nothing new here economically. All three issues are analogous to claims against other tech companies. But, as I detail below, the evidence to establish any of these claims at best represents harm to competitors, and fails to establish any harm to the competitive process or to consumer welfare.
Antitrust enforcers have rejected similar prioritization claims against Google. For instance, rivals like Microsoft and Yelp have funded attacks against Google, arguing the search engine is harming competition by prioritizing its own services in its product search results over competitors. As ICLE and affiliated scholars have pointed out, though, there is nothing inherently harmful to consumers about such prioritization. There are also numerous benefits in platforms directly answering queries, even if it ends up directing users to platform-owned products or services.
there is good reason to believe that 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 vigorously compete and to 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 to partially displace the original “ten blue links” design of its search results page and offer its own answers to users’ queries in its stead.
Here, the antitrust case against Apple for prioritization is similarly flawed. For example, as noted in a recent article in the WSJ, users often use the App Store search in order to find apps they already have installed:
“Apple customers have a very strong connection to our products and many of them use search as a way to find and open their apps,” Apple said in a statement. “This customer usage is the reason Apple has strong rankings in search, and it’s the same reason Uber, Microsoft and so many others often have high rankings as well.”
If a substantial portion of searches within the App Store are for apps already on the iPhone, then showing the Apple app near the top of the search results could easily be consumer welfare-enhancing.
Apple is also theoretically leaving money on the table by prioritizing its (already pre-loaded) apps over third party apps. If its algorithm promotes its own apps over those that may earn it a 30% fee — additional revenue — the prioritization couldn’t plausibly be characterized as a “benefit” to Apple. Apple is ultimately in the business of selling hardware. Losing customers of the iPhone or iPad by prioritizing apps consumers want less would not be a winning business strategy.
Further, it stands to reason that those who use an iPhone may have a preference for Apple apps. Such consumers would be naturally better served by seeing Apple’s apps prioritized over third-party developer apps. And if consumers do not prefer Apple’s apps, rival apps are merely seconds of scrolling away.
Moreover, all of the above assumes that Apple is engaging in sufficiently pervasive discrimination through prioritzation to have a major impact on the app ecosystem. But substantial evidence exists that the universe of searches for which Apple’s algorithm prioritizes Apple apps is small. For instance, most searches are for branded apps already known by the searcher:
Keywords: how many are brands?
Top 500: 58.4%
Top 400: 60.75%
Top 300: 68.33%
Top 200: 80.5%
Top 100: 86%
Top 50: 90%
Top 25: 92%
Top 10: 100%
This is corroborated by data from the NYT’s own study, which suggests Apple prioritized its own apps first in only roughly 1% of the overall keywords queried:
Whatever the precise extent of increase in prioritization, it seems like any claims of harm are undermined by the reality that almost 99% of App Store results don’t list Apple apps first.
The fact is, very few keyword searches are even allegedly affected by prioritization. And the algorithm is often adjusting to searches for apps already pre-loaded on the device. Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to conclude consumers are being harmed by prioritization in search results of the App Store.
The issue of Apple building apps to compete with popular apps in its marketplace is similar to complaints about Amazon creating its own brands to compete with what is sold by third parties on its platform. For instance, as reported multiple times in the Washington Post:
Clue, a popular app that women use to track their periods, recently rocketed to the top of the App Store charts. But the app’s future is now in jeopardy as Apple incorporates period and fertility tracking features into its own free Health app, which comes preinstalled on every device. Clue makes money by selling subscriptions and services in its free app.
However, there is nothing inherently anticompetitive about retailers selling their own brands. If anything, entry into the market is normally procompetitive. As Randy Picker recently noted with respect to similar claims against Amazon:
The heart of this dynamic isn’t new. Sears started its catalogue business in 1888 and then started using the Craftsman and Kenmore brands as in-house brands in 1927. Sears was acquiring inventory from third parties and obviously knew exactly which ones were selling well and presumably made decisions about which markets to enter and which to stay out of based on that information. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, has a number of well-known private brands and firms negotiating with Walmart know full well that Walmart can enter their markets, subject of course to otherwise applicable restraints on entry such as intellectual property laws… I think that is possible to tease out advantages that a platform has regarding inventory experimentation. It can outsource some of those costs to third parties, though sophisticated third parties should understand where they can and cannot have a sustainable advantage given Amazon’s ability to move to build-or-bought first-party inventory. We have entire bodies of law— copyright, patent, trademark and more—that limit the ability of competitors to appropriate works, inventions and symbols. Those legal systems draw very carefully considered lines regarding permitted and forbidden uses. And antitrust law generally favors entry into markets and doesn’t look to create barriers that block firms, large or small, from entering new markets.
If anything, Apple is in an even better position than Amazon. Apple invests revenue in app development, not because the apps themselves generate revenue, but because it wants people to use the hardware, i.e. the iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches. The reason Apple created an App Store in the first place is because this allows Apple to make more money from selling devices. In order to promote security on those devices, Apple institutes rules for the App Store, but it ultimately decides whether to create its own apps and provide access to other apps based upon its desire to maximize the value of the device. If Apple chooses to create free apps in order to improve iOS for users and sell more hardware, it is not a harm to competition.
Apple’s ability to enter into popular app markets should not be constrained unless it can be shown that by giving consumers another choice, consumers are harmed. As noted above, most searches in the App Store are for branded apps to begin with. If consumers already know what they want in an app, it hardly seems harmful for Apple to offer — and promote — its own, additional version as well.
In the case of Clue, if Apple creates a free health app, it may hurt sales for Clue. But it doesn’t hurt consumers who want the functionality and would prefer to get it from Apple for free. This sort of product evolution is not harming competition, but enhancing it. And, it must be noted, Apple doesn’t exclude Clue from its devices. If, indeed, Clue offers a better product, or one that some users prefer, they remain able to find it and use it.
The so-called App Store “Tax”
The argument that Apple has an unfair competitive advantage over rival apps which have to pay commissions to Apple to be on the App Store (a “tax” or “surcharge”) has similarly produced no evidence of harm to consumers.
The WSJ and NYT stories give the impression that Apple uses its commissions on third party apps to reduce competition for its own apps. However, this is inconsistent with how Apple charges its commission.
For instance, Apple doesn’t charge commissions on free apps, which make up 84% of the App Store. Apple also doesn’t charge commissions for apps that are free to download but are supported by advertising — including hugely popular apps like Yelp, Buzzfeed, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook. Even apps which are “readers” where users purchase or subscribe to content outside the app but use the app to access that content are not subject to commissions, like Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Kindle, and Audible. Apps for “physical goods and services” — like Amazon, Airbnb, Lyft, Target, and Uber — are also free to download and are not subject to commissions. The class of apps which are subject to a 30% commission include:
paid apps (like many games),
free apps that then have in-app purchases (other games and services like Skype and TikTok),
and free apps with digital subscriptions (Pandora, Hulu, which have 30% commission first year and then 15% in subsequent years), and
cross-platform apps (Dropbox, Hulu, and Minecraft) which allow for digital goods and services to be purchased in-app and Apple collects commission on in-app sales, but not sales from other platforms.
Despite protestations to the contrary, these costs are hardly unreasonable: third party apps receive the benefit not only of being in Apple’s App Store (without which they wouldn’t have any opportunity to earn revenue from sales on Apple’s platform), but also of the features and other investments Apple continues to pour into its platform — investments that make the ecosystem better for consumers and app developers alike. There is enormous value to the platform Apple has invested in, and a great deal of it is willingly shared with developers and consumers. It does not make it anticompetitive to ask those who use the platform to pay for it.
In fact, these benefits are probably even more important for smaller developers rather than bigger ones who can invest in the necessary back end to reach consumers without the App Store, like Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Kindle. For apps without brand reputation (and giant marketing budgets), the ability for consumers to trust that downloading the app will not lead to the installation of malware (as often occurs when downloading from the web) is surely essential to small developers’ ability to compete. The App Store offers this.
Despite the claims made in Spotify’s complaint against Apple, Apple doesn’t have a duty to deal with app developers. Indeed, Apple could theoretically fill the App Store with only apps that it developed itself, like Apple Music. Instead, Apple has opted for a platform business model, which entails the creation of a new outlet for others’ innovation and offerings. This is pro-consumer in that it created an entire marketplace that consumers probably didn’t even know they wanted — and certainly had no means to obtain — until it existed. Spotify, which out-competed iTunes to the point that Apple had to go back to the drawing board and create Apple Music, cannot realistically complain that Apple’s entry into music streaming is harmful to competition. Rather, it is precisely what vigorous competition looks like: the creation of more product innovation, lower prices, and arguably (at least for some) higher quality.
Interestingly, Spotify is not even subject to the App Store commission. Instead, Spotify offers a work-around to iPhone users to obtain its premium version without ads on iOS. What Spotify actually desires is the ability to sell premium subscriptions to Apple device users without paying anything above the de minimis up-front cost to Apple for the creation and maintenance of the App Store. It is unclear how many potential Spotify users are affected by the inability to directly buy the ad-free version since Spotify discontinued offering it within the App Store. But, whatever the potential harm to Spotify itself, there’s little reason to think consumers or competition bear any of it.
There is no evidence that Apple’s alleged “discrimination” against rival apps harms consumers. Indeed, the opposite would seem to be the case. The regulatory discrimination against successful tech platforms like Apple and the App Store is far more harmful to consumers.
Underpinning many policy disputes is a frequently rehearsed conflict of visions: Should we experiment with policies that are likely to lead to superior, but unknown, solutions, or should we should stick to well-worn policies, regardless of how poorly they fit current circumstances?
This conflict is clearly visible in the debate over whether DOJ should continue to enforce its consent decrees with the major music performing rights organizations (“PROs”), ASCAP and BMI—or terminate them.
As we note in our recently filed comments with the DOJ, summarized below, the world has moved on since the decrees were put in place in the early twentieth century. Given the changed circumstances, the DOJ should terminate the consent decrees. This would allow entrepreneurs, armed with modern technology, to facilitate a true market for public performance rights.
The consent decrees
In the early days of radio, it was unclear how composers and publishers could effectively monitor and enforce their copyrights. Thousands of radio stations across the nation were playing the songs that tens of thousands of composers had written. Given the state of technology, there was no readily foreseeable way to enable bargaining between the stations and composers for license fees associated with these plays.
In 1914, a group of rights holders established the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) as a way to overcome these transactions costs by negotiating with radio stations on behalf of all of its members.
Even though ASCAP’s business was clearly aimed at ensuring that rightsholders’ were appropriately compensated for the use of their works, which logically would have incentivized greater output of licensable works, the nonstandard arrangement it embodied was unacceptable to the antitrust enforcers of the era. Not long after it was created, the Department of Justice began investigating ASCAP for potential antitrust violations.
While the agglomeration of rights under a single entity had obvious benefits for licensors and licensees of musical works, a power struggle nevertheless emerged between ASCAP and radio broadcasters over the terms of those licenses. Eventually this struggle led to the formation of a new PRO, the broadcaster-backed BMI, in 1939. The following year, the DOJ challenged the activities of both PROs in dual criminal antitrust proceedings. The eventual result was a set of consent decrees in 1941 that, with relatively minor modifications over the years, still regulate the music industry.
Enter the Internet
The emergence of new ways to distribute music has, perhaps unsurprisingly, resulted in renewed interest from artists in developing alternative ways to license their material. In 2014, BMI and ASCAP asked the DOJ to modify their consent decrees to permit music publishers partially to withdraw from the PROs, which would have enabled those partially-withdrawing publishers to license their works to digital services under separate agreements (and prohibited the PROs from licensing their works to those same services). However, the DOJ rejected this request and insisted that the consent decree requires “full-work” licenses — a result that would have not only entrenched the status quo, but also erased the competitive differences that currently exist between the PROs. (It might also have created other problems, such as limiting collaborations between artists who currently license through different PROs.)
This episode demonstrates a critical flaw in how the consent decrees currently operate. Imposing full-work license obligations on PROs would have short-circuited the limited market that currently exists, to the detriment of creators, competition among PROs, and, ultimately, consumers. Paradoxically these harms flow directly from a presumption that administrative officials, seeking to enforce antitrust law — the ultimate aim of which is to promote competition and consumer welfare — can dictate through top-down regulatory intervention market terms better than participants working together.
If a PRO wants to offer full-work licenses to its licensee-customers, it should be free to do so (including, e.g., by contracting with other PROs in cases where the PRO in question does not own the work outright). These could be a great boon to licensees and the market. But such an innovation would flow from a feedback mechanism in the market, and would be subject to that same feedback mechanism.
However, for the DOJ as a regulatory overseer to intervene in the market and assert a preference that it deemed superior (but that was clearly not the result of market demand, or subject to market discipline) is fraught with difficulty. And this is the emblematic problem with the consent decrees and the mandated licensing regimes. It allows regulators to imagine that they have both the knowledge and expertise to manage highly complicated markets. But, as Mark Lemley has observed, “[g]one are the days when there was any serious debate about the superiority of a market-based economy over any of its traditional alternatives, from feudalism to communism.”
It is no knock against the DOJ that it patently does not have either the knowledge or expertise to manage these markets: no one does. That’s the entire point of having markets, which facilitate the transmission and effective utilization of vast amounts of disaggregated information, including subjective preferences, that cannot be known to anyone other than the individual who holds them. When regulators can allow this process to work, they should.
Letting the market move forward
Some advocates of the status quo have recommended that the consent orders remain in place, because
Without robust competition in the music licensing market, consumers could face higher prices, less choice, and an increase in licensing costs that could render many vibrant public spaces silent. In the absence of a truly competitive market in which PROs compete to attract services and other licensees, the consent decrees must remain in place to prevent ASCAP and BMI from abusing their substantial market power.
This gets to the very heart of the problem with the conflict of visions that undergirds policy debates. Advocating for the status quo in this manner is based on a static view of “markets,” one that is, moreover, rooted in an early twentieth-century conception of the relevant industries. The DOJ froze the licensing market in time with the consent decrees — perhaps justifiably in 1941 given the state of technology and the very high transaction costs involved. But technology and business practices have evolved and are now much more capable of handling the complex, distributed set of transactions necessary to make the performance license market a reality.
Believing that the absence of the consent decrees will force the performance licensing market to collapse into an anticompetitive wasteland reflects a failure of imagination and suggests a fundamental distrust in the power of the market to uncover novel solutions—against the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Yet, those of a dull and pessimistic mindset need not fear unduly the revocation of the consent decrees. For if evidence emerges that the market participants (including the PROs and whatever other entities emerge) are engaging in anticompetitive practices to the detriment of consumer welfare, the DOJ can sue those entities. The threat of such actions should be sufficient in itself to deter such anticompetitive practices but if it is not, then the sword of antitrust, including potentially the imposition of consent decrees, can once again be wielded.
Meanwhile, those of us with an optimistic, imaginative mindset, look forward to a time in the near future when entrepreneurs devise innovative and cost-effective solutions to the problem of highly-distributed music licensing. In some respects their job is made easier by the fact that an increasing proportion of music is streamed via a small number of large companies (Spotify, Pandora, Apple, Amazon, Tencent, YouTube, Tidal, etc.). But it is quite feasible that in the absence of the consent decrees new licensing systems will emerge, using modern database technologies, blockchain and other distributed ledgers, that will enable much more effective usage-based licenses applicable not only to these streaming services but others too.
We hope the DOJ has the foresight to allow such true competition to enter this market and the strength to believe enough in our institutions that it can permit some uncertainty while entrepreneurs experiment with superior methods of facilitating music licensing.
[N]ew combinations are, as a rule, embodied, as it were, in new firms which generally do not arise out of the old ones but start producing beside them; … in general it is not the owner of stagecoaches who builds railways. – Joseph Schumpeter, January 1934
Elizabeth Warren wants to break up the tech giants — Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple — claiming they have too much power and represent a danger to our democracy. As part of our response to her proposal, we shared a couple of headlines from 2007 claiming that MySpace had an unassailable monopoly in the social media market.
Tommaso Valletti, the chief economist of the Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP) of the European Commission, said, in what we assume was a reference to our posts, “they go on and on with that single example to claim that [Facebook] and [Google] are not a problem 15 years later … That’s not what I would call an empirical regularity.”
We appreciate the invitation to show that prematurely dubbing companies “unassailable monopolies” is indeed an empirical regularity.
It’s Tough to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future of Competition in Tech
No one is immune to this phenomenon. Antitrust regulators often take a static view of competition, failing to anticipate dynamic technological forces that will upend market structure and competition.
Scientists and academics make a different kind of error. They are driven by the need to satisfy their curiosity rather than shareholders. Upon inventing a new technology or discovering a new scientific truth, academics often fail to see the commercial implications of their findings.
Maybe the titans of industry don’t make these kinds of mistakes because they have skin in the game? The profit and loss statement is certainly a merciless master. But it does not give CEOs the power of premonition. Corporate executives hailed as visionaries in one era often become blinded by their success, failing to see impending threats to their company’s core value propositions.
Furthermore, it’s often hard as outside observers to tell after the fact whether business leaders just didn’t see a tidal wave of disruption coming or, worse, they did see it coming and were unable to steer their bureaucratic, slow-moving ships to safety. Either way, the outcome is the same.
Here’s the pattern we observe over and over: extreme success in one context makes it difficult to predict how and when the next paradigm shift will occur in the market. Incumbents become less innovative as they get lulled into stagnation by high profit margins in established lines of business. (This is essentially the thesis of Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma).
Even if the anti-tech populists are powerless to make predictions, history does offer us some guidance about the future. We have seen time and again that apparently unassailable monopolists are quite effectively assailed by technological forces beyond their control.
Nov 2007: “Nokia: One Billion Customers—Can Anyone Catch the Cell Phone King?” (Forbes)
Sep 2013: “Microsoft CEO Ballmer Bids Emotional Farewell to Wall Street” (Reuters)
If there’s one thing I regret, there was a period in the early 2000s when we were so focused on what we had to do around Windows that we weren’t able to redeploy talent to the new device form factor called the phone.
Mar 1998: “How Yahoo! Won the Search Wars” (Fortune)
Once upon a time, Yahoo! was an Internet search site with mediocre technology. Now it has a market cap of $2.8 billion. Some people say it’s the next America Online.
AOL’s dominance of instant messaging technology, the kind of real-time e-mail that also lets users know when others are online, has emerged as a major concern of regulators scrutinizing the company’s planned merger with Time Warner Inc. (twx). Competitors to Instant Messenger, such as Microsoft Corp. (msft) and Yahoo! Inc. (yhoo), have been pressing the Federal Communications Commission to force AOL to make its services compatible with competitors’.
Dec 2000: “AOL’s Instant Messaging Monopoly?” (Wired)
There have been isolated examples, as in the case of obligations of the merged AOL / Time Warner to make AOL Instant Messenger interoperable with competing messaging services. These obligations on AOL are widely viewed as having been a dismal failure.
Seventy percent of Yahoo 360 users, for example, also use other social networking sites — MySpace in particular. Ditto for Facebook, Windows Live Spaces and Friendster … This presents an obvious, long-term business challenge to the competitors. If they cannot build up a large base of unique users, they will always be on MySpace’s periphery.
Feb 2007: “Will Myspace Ever Lose Its Monopoly?” (Guardian)
Jun 2011: “Myspace Sold for $35m in Spectacular Fall from $12bn Heyday” (Guardian)
Dec 2003: “The subscription model of buying music is bankrupt. I think you could make available the Second Coming in a subscription model, and it might not be successful.” – Steve Jobs (Rolling Stone)
Predicting the future of competition in the tech industry is such a fraught endeavor that even articles about how hard it is to make predictions include incorrect predictions. The authors just cannot help themselves. A March 2012 BBC article “The Future of Technology… Who Knows?” derided the naysayers who predicted doom for Apple’s retail store strategy. Its kicker?
And that is why when you read that the Blackberry is doomed, or that Microsoft will never make an impression on mobile phones, or that Apple will soon dominate the connected TV market, you need to take it all with a pinch of salt.
But Blackberry was doomed and Microsoft never made an impression on mobile phones. (Half credit for Apple TV, which currently has a 15% market share).
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote a piece for Red Herring magazine (seriously) in June 1998 with the title “Why most economists’ predictions are wrong.” Headline-be-damned, near the end of the article he made the following prediction:
The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in “Metcalfe’s law”—which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants—becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.
Robert Metcalfe himself predicted in a 1995 column that the Internet would “go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” After pledging to “eat his words” if the prediction did not come true, “in front of an audience, he put that particular column into a blender, poured in some water, and proceeded to eat the resulting frappe with a spoon.”
A Change Is Gonna Come
Benedict Evans, a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz, has the best summary of why competition in tech is especially difficult to predict:
IBM, Microsoft and Nokia were not beaten by companies doing what they did, but better. They were beaten by companies that moved the playing field and made their core competitive assets irrelevant. The same will apply to Facebook (and Google, Amazon and Apple).
Elsewhere, Evans tried to reassure his audience that we will not be stuck with the current crop of tech giants forever:
With each cycle in tech, companies find ways to build a moat and make a monopoly. Then people look at the moat and think it’s invulnerable. They’re generally right. IBM still dominates mainframes and Microsoft still dominates PC operating systems and productivity software. But… It’s not that someone works out how to cross the moat. It’s that the castle becomes irrelevant. IBM didn’t lose mainframes and Microsoft didn’t lose PC operating systems. Instead, those stopped being ways to dominate tech. PCs made IBM just another big tech company. Mobile and the web made Microsoft just another big tech company. This will happen to Google or Amazon as well. Unless you think tech progress is over and there’ll be no more cycles … It is deeply counter-intuitive to say ‘something we cannot predict is certain to happen’. But this is nonetheless what’s happened to overturn pretty much every tech monopoly so far.
If this time is different — or if there are more false negatives than false positives in the monopoly prediction game — then the advocates for breaking up Big Tech should try to make that argument instead of falling back on “big is bad” rhetoric. As for us, we’ll bet that we have not yet reached the end of history — tech progress is far from over.