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In mid-November, the 50 state attorneys general (AGs) investigating Google’s advertising practices expanded their antitrust probe to include the company’s search and Android businesses. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the lead on the case, was supportive of the development, but made clear that other states would manage the investigations of search and Android separately. While attorneys might see the benefit in splitting up search and advertising investigations, platforms like Google need to be understood as a coherent whole. If the state AGs case is truly concerned with the overall impact on the welfare of consumers, it will need to be firmly grounded in the unique economics of this platform.

Back in September, 50 state AGs, including those in Washington, DC and Puerto Rico, announced an investigation into Google. In opening the case, Paxton said that, “There is nothing wrong with a business becoming the biggest game in town if it does so through free market competition, but we have seen evidence that Google’s business practices may have undermined consumer choice, stifled innovation, violated users’ privacy, and put Google in control of the flow and dissemination of online information.” While the original document demands focused on Google’s “overarching control of online advertising markets and search traffic,” reports since then suggest that the primary investigation centers on online advertising.

Defining the market

Since the market definition is the first and arguably the most important step in an antitrust case, Paxton has tipped his hand and shown that the investigation is converging on the online ad market. Yet, he faltered when he wrote in The Wall Street Journal that, “Each year more than 90% of Google’s $117 billion in revenue comes from online advertising. For reference, the entire market for online advertising is around $130 billion annually.” As Patrick Hedger of the Competitive Enterprise Institute was quick to note, Paxton cited global revenue numbers and domestic advertising statistics. In reality, Google’s share of the online advertising market in the United States is 37 percent and is widely expected to fall.

When Google faced scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission in 2013, the leaked staff report explained that “the Commission and the Department of Justice have previously found online ‘search advertising’ to be a distinct product market.” This finding, which dates from 2007, simply wouldn’t stand today. Facebook’s ad platform was launched in 2007 and has grown to become a major competitor to Google. Even more recently, Amazon has jumped into the space and independent platforms like Telaria, Rubicon Project, and The Trade Desk have all made inroads. In contrast to the late 2000s, advertisers now use about four different online ad platforms.

Moreover, the relationship between ad prices and industry concentration is complicated. In traditional economic analysis, fewer suppliers of a product generally translates into higher prices. In the online ad market, however, fewer advertisers means that ad buyers can efficiently target people through keywords. Because advertisers have access to superior information, research finds that more concentration tends to lead to lower search engine revenues. 

The addition of new fronts in the state AGs’ investigation could spell disaster for consumers. While search and advertising are distinct markets, it is the act of tying the two together that makes platforms like Google valuable to users and advertisers alike. Demand is tightly integrated between the two sides of the platform. Changes in user and advertiser preferences have far outsized effects on the overall platform value because each side responds to the other. If users experience an increase in price or a reduction in quality, then they will use the platform less or just log off completely. Advertisers see this change in users and react by reducing their demand for ad placements as well. When advertisers drop out, the total amount of content also recedes and users react once again. Economists call these relationships demand interdependencies. The demand on one side of the market is interdependent with demand on the other. Research on magazines, newspapers, and social media sites all support the existence of demand interdependencies. 

Economists David Evans and Richard Schmalensee, who were cited extensively in the Supreme Court case Ohio v. American Express, explained the importance of their integration into competition analysis, “The key point is that it is wrong as a matter of economics to ignore significant demand interdependencies among the multiple platform sides” when defining markets. If they are ignored, then the typical analytical tools will yield incorrect assessments. Understanding these relationships makes the investigation all that more difficult.

The limits of remedies

Most likely, this current investigation will follow the trajectory of Microsoft in the 1990s when states did the legwork for a larger case brought by the Department of Justice (DoJ). The DoJ already has its own investigation into Google and will probably pull together all of the parties for one large suit. Google is also subject to a probe by the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee as well. What is certain is that Google will be saddled with years of regulatory scrutiny, but what remains unclear is what kind of changes the AGs are after.

The investigation might aim to secure behavioral changes, but these often come with a cost in platform industries. The European Commission, for example, got Google to change its practices with its Android operating system for mobile phones. Much like search and advertising, the Android ecosystem is a platform with cross subsidization and demand interdependencies between the various sides of the market. Because the company was ordered to stop tying the Android operating system to apps, manufacturers of phones and tablets now have to pay a licensing fee in Europe if they want Google’s apps and the Play Store. Remedies meant to change one side of the platform resulted in those relationships being unbundled. When regulators force cross subsidization to become explicit prices, consumers are the one who pay.

The absolute worst case scenario would be a break up of Google, which has been a centerpiece of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential platform. As I explained last year, that would be a death warrant for the company:

[T]he value of both Facebook and Google comes in creating the platform, which combines users with advertisers. Before the integration of ad networks, the search engine industry was struggling and it was simply not a major player in the Internet ecosystem. In short, the search engines, while convenient, had no economic value. As Michael Moritz, a major investor of Google, said of those early years, “We really couldn’t figure out the business model. There was a period where things were looking pretty bleak.” But Google didn’t pave the way. Rather, Bill Gross at GoTo.com succeeded in showing everyone how advertising could work to build a business. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin merely adopted the model in 2002 and by the end of the year, the company was profitable for the first time. Marrying the two sides of the platform created value. Tearing them apart will also destroy value.

The state AGs need to resist making this investigation into a political showcase. As Pew noted in documenting the rise of North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein to national prominence, “What used to be a relatively high-profile position within a state’s boundaries has become a springboard for publicity across the country.” While some might cheer the opening of this investigation, consumer welfare needs to be front and center. To properly understand how consumer welfare might be impacted by an investigation, the state AGs need to take seriously the path already laid out by platform economics. For the sake of consumers, let’s hope they are up to the task. 

In short, all of this hand-wringing over privacy is largely a tempest in a teapot — especially when one considers the extent to which the White House and other government bodies have studiously ignored the real threat: government misuse of data à la the NSA. It’s almost as if the White House is deliberately shifting the public’s gaze from the reality of extensive government spying by directing it toward a fantasy world of nefarious corporations abusing private information….

The White House’s proposed bill is emblematic of many government “fixes” to largely non-existent privacy issues, and it exhibits the same core defects that undermine both its claims and its proposed solutions. As a result, the proposed bill vastly overemphasizes regulation to the dangerous detriment of the innovative benefits of Big Data for consumers and society at large.

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