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[This post adapts elements of “Should ASEAN Antitrust Laws Emulate European Competition Policy?”, published in the Singapore Economic Review (2021). Open access working paper here.]

U.S. and European competition laws diverge in numerous ways that have important real-world effects. Understanding these differences is vital, particularly as lawmakers in the United States, and the rest of the world, consider adopting a more “European” approach to competition.

In broad terms, the European approach is more centralized and political. The European Commission’s Directorate General for Competition (DG Comp) has significant de facto discretion over how the law is enforced. This contrasts with the common law approach of the United States, in which courts elaborate upon open-ended statutes through an iterative process of case law. In other words, the European system was built from the top down, while U.S. antitrust relies on a bottom-up approach, derived from arguments made by litigants (including the government antitrust agencies) and defendants (usually businesses).

This procedural divergence has significant ramifications for substantive law. European competition law includes more provisions akin to de facto regulation. This is notably the case for the “abuse of dominance” standard, in which a “dominant” business can be prosecuted for “abusing” its position by charging high prices or refusing to deal with competitors. By contrast, the U.S. system places more emphasis on actual consumer outcomes, rather than the nature or “fairness” of an underlying practice.

The American system thus affords firms more leeway to exclude their rivals, so long as this entails superior benefits for consumers. This may make the U.S. system more hospitable to innovation, since there is no built-in regulation of conduct for innovators who acquire a successful market position fairly and through normal competition.

In this post, we discuss some key differences between the two systems—including in areas like predatory pricing and refusals to deal—as well as the discretionary power the European Commission enjoys under the European model.

Exploitative Abuses

U.S. antitrust is, by and large, unconcerned with companies charging what some might consider “excessive” prices. The late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Supreme Court majority in the 2003 case Verizon v. Trinko, observed that:

The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices—at least for a short period—is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth.

This contrasts with European competition-law cases, where firms may be found to have infringed competition law because they charged excessive prices. As the European Court of Justice (ECJ) held in 1978’s United Brands case: “In this case charging a price which is excessive because it has no reasonable relation to the economic value of the product supplied would be such an abuse.”

While United Brands was the EU’s foundational case for excessive pricing, and the European Commission reiterated that these allegedly exploitative abuses were possible when it published its guidance paper on abuse of dominance cases in 2009, the commission had for some time demonstrated apparent disinterest in bringing such cases. In recent years, however, both the European Commission and some national authorities have shown renewed interest in excessive-pricing cases, most notably in the pharmaceutical sector.

European competition law also penalizes so-called “margin squeeze” abuses, in which a dominant upstream supplier charges a price to distributors that is too high for them to compete effectively with that same dominant firm downstream:

[I]t is for the referring court to examine, in essence, whether the pricing practice introduced by TeliaSonera is unfair in so far as it squeezes the margins of its competitors on the retail market for broadband connection services to end users. (Konkurrensverket v TeliaSonera Sverige, 2011)

As Scalia observed in Trinko, forcing firms to charge prices that are below a market’s natural equilibrium affects firms’ incentives to enter markets, notably with innovative products and more efficient means of production. But the problem is not just one of market entry and innovation.  Also relevant is the degree to which competition authorities are competent to determine the “right” prices or margins.

As Friedrich Hayek demonstrated in his influential 1945 essay The Use of Knowledge in Society, economic agents use information gleaned from prices to guide their business decisions. It is this distributed activity of thousands or millions of economic actors that enables markets to put resources to their most valuable uses, thereby leading to more efficient societies. By comparison, the efforts of central regulators to set prices and margins is necessarily inferior; there is simply no reasonable way for competition regulators to make such judgments in a consistent and reliable manner.

Given the substantial risk that investigations into purportedly excessive prices will deter market entry, such investigations should be circumscribed. But the court’s precedents, with their myopic focus on ex post prices, do not impose such constraints on the commission. The temptation to “correct” high prices—especially in the politically contentious pharmaceutical industry—may thus induce economically unjustified and ultimately deleterious intervention.

Predatory Pricing

A second important area of divergence concerns predatory-pricing cases. U.S. antitrust law subjects allegations of predatory pricing to two strict conditions:

  1. Monopolists must charge prices that are below some measure of their incremental costs; and
  2. There must be a realistic prospect that they will able to recoup these initial losses.

In laying out its approach to predatory pricing, the U.S. Supreme Court has identified the risk of false positives and the clear cost of such errors to consumers. It thus has particularly stressed the importance of the recoupment requirement. As the court found in 1993’s Brooke Group Ltd. v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., without recoupment, “predatory pricing produces lower aggregate prices in the market, and consumer welfare is enhanced.”

Accordingly, U.S. authorities must prove that there are constraints that prevent rival firms from entering the market after the predation scheme, or that the scheme itself would effectively foreclose rivals from entering the market in the first place. Otherwise, the predator would be undercut by competitors as soon as it attempts to recoup its losses by charging supra-competitive prices.

Without the strong likelihood that a monopolist will be able to recoup lost revenue from underpricing, the overwhelming weight of economic evidence (to say nothing of simple logic) is that predatory pricing is not a rational business strategy. Thus, apparent cases of predatory pricing are most likely not, in fact, predatory; deterring or punishing them would actually harm consumers.

By contrast, the EU employs a more expansive legal standard to define predatory pricing, and almost certainly risks injuring consumers as a result. Authorities must prove only that a company has charged a price below its average variable cost, in which case its behavior is presumed to be predatory. Even when a firm charges prices that are between its average variable and average total cost, it can be found guilty of predatory pricing if authorities show that its behavior was part of a plan to eliminate a competitor. Most significantly, in neither case is it necessary for authorities to show that the scheme would allow the monopolist to recoup its losses.

[I]t does not follow from the case‑law of the Court that proof of the possibility of recoupment of losses suffered by the application, by an undertaking in a dominant position, of prices lower than a certain level of costs constitutes a necessary precondition to establishing that such a pricing policy is abusive. (France Télécom v Commission, 2009).

This aspect of the legal standard has no basis in economic theory or evidence—not even in the “strategic” economic theory that arguably challenges the dominant Chicago School understanding of predatory pricing. Indeed, strategic predatory pricing still requires some form of recoupment, and the refutation of any convincing business justification offered in response. For example, ​​in a 2017 piece for the Antitrust Law Journal, Steven Salop lays out the “raising rivals’ costs” analysis of predation and notes that recoupment still occurs, just at the same time as predation:

[T]he anticompetitive conditional pricing practice does not involve discrete predatory and recoupment periods, as in the case of classical predatory pricing. Instead, the recoupment occurs simultaneously with the conduct. This is because the monopolist is able to maintain its current monopoly power through the exclusionary conduct.

The case of predatory pricing illustrates a crucial distinction between European and American competition law. The recoupment requirement embodied in American antitrust law serves to differentiate aggressive pricing behavior that improves consumer welfare—because it leads to overall price decreases—from predatory pricing that reduces welfare with higher prices. It is, in other words, entirely focused on the welfare of consumers.

The European approach, by contrast, reflects structuralist considerations far removed from a concern for consumer welfare. Its underlying fear is that dominant companies could use aggressive pricing to engender more concentrated markets. It is simply presumed that these more concentrated markets are invariably detrimental to consumers. Both the Tetra Pak and France Télécom cases offer clear illustrations of the ECJ’s reasoning on this point:

[I]t would not be appropriate, in the circumstances of the present case, to require in addition proof that Tetra Pak had a realistic chance of recouping its losses. It must be possible to penalize predatory pricing whenever there is a risk that competitors will be eliminated… The aim pursued, which is to maintain undistorted competition, rules out waiting until such a strategy leads to the actual elimination of competitors. (Tetra Pak v Commission, 1996).

Similarly:

[T]he lack of any possibility of recoupment of losses is not sufficient to prevent the undertaking concerned reinforcing its dominant position, in particular, following the withdrawal from the market of one or a number of its competitors, so that the degree of competition existing on the market, already weakened precisely because of the presence of the undertaking concerned, is further reduced and customers suffer loss as a result of the limitation of the choices available to them.  (France Télécom v Commission, 2009).

In short, the European approach leaves less room to analyze the concrete effects of a given pricing scheme, leaving it more prone to false positives than the U.S. standard explicated in the Brooke Group decision. Worse still, the European approach ignores not only the benefits that consumers may derive from lower prices, but also the chilling effect that broad predatory pricing standards may exert on firms that would otherwise seek to use aggressive pricing schemes to attract consumers.

Refusals to Deal

U.S. and EU antitrust law also differ greatly when it comes to refusals to deal. While the United States has limited the ability of either enforcement authorities or rivals to bring such cases, EU competition law sets a far lower threshold for liability.

As Justice Scalia wrote in Trinko:

Aspen Skiing is at or near the outer boundary of §2 liability. The Court there found significance in the defendant’s decision to cease participation in a cooperative venture. The unilateral termination of a voluntary (and thus presumably profitable) course of dealing suggested a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve an anticompetitive end. (Verizon v Trinko, 2003.)

This highlights two key features of American antitrust law with regard to refusals to deal. To start, U.S. antitrust law generally does not apply the “essential facilities” doctrine. Accordingly, in the absence of exceptional facts, upstream monopolists are rarely required to supply their product to downstream rivals, even if that supply is “essential” for effective competition in the downstream market. Moreover, as Justice Scalia observed in Trinko, the Aspen Skiing case appears to concern only those limited instances where a firm’s refusal to deal stems from the termination of a preexisting and profitable business relationship.

While even this is not likely the economically appropriate limitation on liability, its impetus—ensuring that liability is found only in situations where procompetitive explanations for the challenged conduct are unlikely—is completely appropriate for a regime concerned with minimizing the cost to consumers of erroneous enforcement decisions.

As in most areas of antitrust policy, EU competition law is much more interventionist. Refusals to deal are a central theme of EU enforcement efforts, and there is a relatively low threshold for liability.

In theory, for a refusal to deal to infringe EU competition law, it must meet a set of fairly stringent conditions: the input must be indispensable, the refusal must eliminate all competition in the downstream market, and there must not be objective reasons that justify the refusal. Moreover, if the refusal to deal involves intellectual property, it must also prevent the appearance of a new good.

In practice, however, all of these conditions have been relaxed significantly by EU courts and the commission’s decisional practice. This is best evidenced by the lower court’s Microsoft ruling where, as John Vickers notes:

[T]he Court found easily in favor of the Commission on the IMS Health criteria, which it interpreted surprisingly elastically, and without relying on the special factors emphasized by the Commission. For example, to meet the “new product” condition it was unnecessary to identify a particular new product… thwarted by the refusal to supply but sufficient merely to show limitation of technical development in terms of less incentive for competitors to innovate.

EU competition law thus shows far less concern for its potential chilling effect on firms’ investments than does U.S. antitrust law.

Vertical Restraints

There are vast differences between U.S. and EU competition law relating to vertical restraints—that is, contractual restraints between firms that operate at different levels of the production process.

On the one hand, since the Supreme Court’s Leegin ruling in 2006, even price-related vertical restraints (such as resale price maintenance (RPM), under which a manufacturer can stipulate the prices at which retailers must sell its products) are assessed under the rule of reason in the United States. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that, in practice, U.S. case law on RPM almost amounts to per se legality.

Conversely, EU competition law treats RPM as severely as it treats cartels. Both RPM and cartels are considered to be restrictions of competition “by object”—the EU’s equivalent of a per se prohibition. This severe treatment also applies to non-price vertical restraints that tend to partition the European internal market.

Furthermore, in the Consten and Grundig ruling, the ECJ rejected the consequentialist, and economically grounded, principle that inter-brand competition is the appropriate framework to assess vertical restraints:

Although competition between producers is generally more noticeable than that between distributors of products of the same make, it does not thereby follow that an agreement tending to restrict the latter kind of competition should escape the prohibition of Article 85(1) merely because it might increase the former. (Consten SARL & Grundig-Verkaufs-GMBH v. Commission of the European Economic Community, 1966).

This treatment of vertical restrictions flies in the face of longstanding mainstream economic analysis of the subject. As Patrick Rey and Jean Tirole conclude:

Another major contribution of the earlier literature on vertical restraints is to have shown that per se illegality of such restraints has no economic foundations.

Unlike the EU, the U.S. Supreme Court in Leegin took account of the weight of the economic literature, and changed its approach to RPM to ensure that the law no longer simply precluded its arguable consumer benefits, writing: “Though each side of the debate can find sources to support its position, it suffices to say here that economics literature is replete with procompetitive justifications for a manufacturer’s use of resale price maintenance.” Further, the court found that the prior approach to resale price maintenance restraints “hinders competition and consumer welfare because manufacturers are forced to engage in second-best alternatives and because consumers are required to shoulder the increased expense of the inferior practices.”

The EU’s continued per se treatment of RPM, by contrast, strongly reflects its “precautionary principle” approach to antitrust. European regulators and courts readily condemn conduct that could conceivably injure consumers, even where such injury is, according to the best economic understanding, exceedingly unlikely. The U.S. approach, which rests on likelihood rather than mere possibility, is far less likely to condemn beneficial conduct erroneously.

Political Discretion in European Competition Law

EU competition law lacks a coherent analytical framework like that found in U.S. law’s reliance on the consumer welfare standard. The EU process is driven by a number of laterally equivalent—and sometimes mutually exclusive—goals, including industrial policy and the perceived need to counteract foreign state ownership and subsidies. Such a wide array of conflicting aims produces lack of clarity for firms seeking to conduct business. Moreover, the discretion that attends this fluid arrangement of goals yields an even larger problem.

The Microsoft case illustrates this problem well. In Microsoft, the commission could have chosen to base its decision on various potential objectives. It notably chose to base its findings on the fact that Microsoft’s behavior reduced “consumer choice.”

The commission, in fact, discounted arguments that economic efficiency may lead to consumer welfare gains, because it determined “consumer choice” among media players was more important:

Another argument relating to reduced transaction costs consists in saying that the economies made by a tied sale of two products saves resources otherwise spent for maintaining a separate distribution system for the second product. These economies would then be passed on to customers who could save costs related to a second purchasing act, including selection and installation of the product. Irrespective of the accuracy of the assumption that distributive efficiency gains are necessarily passed on to consumers, such savings cannot possibly outweigh the distortion of competition in this case. This is because distribution costs in software licensing are insignificant; a copy of a software programme can be duplicated and distributed at no substantial effort. In contrast, the importance of consumer choice and innovation regarding applications such as media players is high. (Commission Decision No. COMP. 37792 (Microsoft)).

It may be true that tying the products in question was unnecessary. But merely dismissing this decision because distribution costs are near-zero is hardly an analytically satisfactory response. There are many more costs involved in creating and distributing complementary software than those associated with hosting and downloading. The commission also simply asserts that consumer choice among some arbitrary number of competing products is necessarily a benefit. This, too, is not necessarily true, and the decision’s implication that any marginal increase in choice is more valuable than any gains from product design or innovation is analytically incoherent.

The Court of First Instance was only too happy to give the commission a pass in its breezy analysis; it saw no objection to these findings. With little substantive reasoning to support its findings, the court fully endorsed the commission’s assessment:

As the Commission correctly observes (see paragraph 1130 above), by such an argument Microsoft is in fact claiming that the integration of Windows Media Player in Windows and the marketing of Windows in that form alone lead to the de facto standardisation of the Windows Media Player platform, which has beneficial effects on the market. Although, generally, standardisation may effectively present certain advantages, it cannot be allowed to be imposed unilaterally by an undertaking in a dominant position by means of tying.

The Court further notes that it cannot be ruled out that third parties will not want the de facto standardisation advocated by Microsoft but will prefer it if different platforms continue to compete, on the ground that that will stimulate innovation between the various platforms. (Microsoft Corp. v Commission, 2007)

Pointing to these conflicting effects of Microsoft’s bundling decision, without weighing either, is a weak basis to uphold the commission’s decision that consumer choice outweighs the benefits of standardization. Moreover, actions undertaken by other firms to enhance consumer choice at the expense of standardization are, on these terms, potentially just as problematic. The dividing line becomes solely which theory the commission prefers to pursue.

What such a practice does is vest the commission with immense discretionary power. Any given case sets up a “heads, I win; tails, you lose” situation in which defendants are easily outflanked by a commission that can change the rules of its analysis as it sees fit. Defendants can play only the cards that they are dealt. Accordingly, Microsoft could not successfully challenge a conclusion that its behavior harmed consumers’ choice by arguing that it improved consumer welfare, on net.

By selecting, in this instance, “consumer choice” as the standard to be judged, the commission was able to evade the constraints that might have been imposed by a more robust welfare standard. Thus, the commission can essentially pick and choose the objectives that best serve its interests in each case. This vastly enlarges the scope of potential antitrust liability, while also substantially decreasing the ability of firms to predict when their behavior may be viewed as problematic. It leads to what, in U.S. courts, would be regarded as an untenable risk of false positives that chill innovative behavior and create nearly unwinnable battles for targeted firms.

Municipal broadband has been heavily promoted by its advocates as a potential source of competition against Internet service providers (“ISPs”) with market power. Jonathan Sallet argued in Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, for instance, that municipal broadband has a huge role to play in boosting broadband competition, with attendant lower prices, faster speeds, and economic development. 

Municipal broadband, of course, can mean more than one thing: From “direct consumer” government-run systems, to “open access” where government builds the back-end, but leaves it up to private firms to bring the connections to consumers, to “middle mile” where the government network reaches only some parts of the community but allows private firms to connect to serve other consumers. The focus of this blog post is on the “direct consumer” model.

There have been many economic studies on municipal broadband, both theoretical and empirical. The literature largely finds that municipal broadband poses serious risks to taxpayers, often relies heavily on cross-subsidies from government-owned electric utilities, crowds out private ISP investment in areas it operates, and largely fails the cost-benefit analysis. While advocates have defended municipal broadband on the grounds of its speed, price, and resulting attractiveness to consumers and businesses, others have noted that many of those benefits come at the expense of other parts of the country from which businesses move. 

What this literature has not touched upon is a more fundamental problem: municipal broadband lacks the price signals necessary for economic calculation.. The insights of the Austrian school of economics helps explain why this model is incapable of providing efficient outcomes for society. Rather than creating a valuable source of competition, municipal broadband creates “islands of chaos” undisciplined by the market test of profit-and-loss. As a result, municipal broadband is a poor model for promoting competition and innovation in broadband markets. 

The importance of profit-and-loss to economic calculation

One of the things often assumed away in economic analysis is the very thing the market process depends upon: the discovery of knowledge. Knowledge, in this context, is not the technical knowledge of how to build or maintain a broadband network, but the more fundamental knowledge which is discovered by those exercising entrepreneurial judgment in the marketplace. 

This type of knowledge is dependent on prices throughout the market. In the market process, prices coordinate exchange between market participants without each knowing the full plan of anyone else. For consumers, prices allow for the incremental choices between different options. For producers, prices in capital markets similarly allow for choices between different ways of producing their goods for the next stage of production. Prices in interest rates help coordinate present consumption, investment, and saving. And, the price signal of profit-and-loss allows producers to know whether they have cost-effectively served consumer needs. 

The broadband marketplace can’t be considered in isolation from the greater marketplace in which it is situated. But it can be analyzed under the framework of prices and the knowledge they convey.

For broadband consumers, prices are important for determining the relative importance of Internet access compared to other felt needs. The quality of broadband connection demanded by consumers is dependent on the price. All other things being equal, consumers demand faster connections with less latency issues. But many consumers may prefer slower speeds and connections with more latency if it is cheaper. Even choices between the importance of upload speeds versus download speeds may be highly asymmetrical if determined by consumers.  

While “High Performance Broadband for All” may be a great goal from a social planner’s perspective, individuals acting in the marketplace may prioritize other needs with his or her scarce resources. Even if consumers do need Internet access of some kind, the benefits of 100 Mbps download speeds over 25 Mbps, or upload speeds of 100 Mbps versus 3 Mbps may not be worth the costs. 

For broadband ISPs, prices for capital goods are important for building out the network. The relative prices of fiber, copper, wireless, and all the other factors of production in building out a network help them choose in light of anticipated profit. 

All the decisions of broadband ISPs are made through the lens of pursuing profit. If they are successful, it is because the revenues generated are greater than the costs of production, including the cost of money represented in interest rates. Just as importantly, loss shows the ISPs were unsuccessful in cost-effectively serving consumers. While broadband companies may be able to have losses over some period of time, they ultimately must turn a profit at some point, or there will be exit from the marketplace. Profit-and-loss both serve important functions.

Sallet misses the point when he states the“full value of broadband lies not just in the number of jobs it directly creates or the profits it delivers to broadband providers but also in its importance as a mechanism that others use across the economy and society.” From an economic point of view, profits aren’t important because economists love it when broadband ISPs get rich. Profits are important as an incentive to build the networks we all benefit from, and a signal for greater competition and innovation.

Municipal broadband as islands of chaos

Sallet believes the lack of high-speed broadband (as he defines it) is due to the monopoly power of broadband ISPs. He sees the entry of municipal broadband as pro-competitive. But the entry of a government-run broadband company actually creates “islands of chaos” within the market economy, reducing the ability of prices to coordinate disparate plans of action among participants. This, ultimately, makes society poorer.

The case against municipal broadband doesn’t rely on greater knowledge of how to build or maintain a network being in the hands of private engineers. It relies instead on the different institutional frameworks within which the manager of the government-run broadband network works as compared to the private broadband ISP. The type of knowledge gained in the market process comes from prices, including profit-and-loss. The manager of the municipal broadband network simply doesn’t have access to this knowledge and can’t calculate the best course of action as a result.

This is because the government-run municipal broadband network is not reliant upon revenues generated by free choices of consumers alone. Rather than needing to ultimately demonstrate positive revenue in order to remain a going concern, government-run providers can instead base their ongoing operation on access to below-market loans backed by government power, cross-subsidies when it is run by a government electric utility, and/or public money in the form of public borrowing (i.e. bonds) or taxes. 

Municipal broadband, in fact, does rely heavily on subsidies from the government. As a result, municipal broadband is not subject to the discipline of the market’s profit-and-loss test. This frees the enterprise to focus on other goals, including higher speeds—especially upload speeds—and lower prices than private ISPs often offer in the same market. This is why municipal broadband networks build symmetrical high-speed fiber networks at higher rates than the private sector.

But far from representing a superior source of “competition,” municipal broadband is actually an example of “predatory entry.” In areas where there is already private provision of broadband, municipal broadband can “out-compete” those providers due to subsidies from the rest of society. Eventually, this could lead to exit by the private ISPs, starting with the least cost-efficient to the most. In areas where there is limited provision of Internet access, the entry of municipal broadband could reduce incentives for private entry altogether. In either case, there is little reason to believe municipal broadband actually increases consumer welfarein the long run.

Moreover, there are serious concerns in relying upon municipal broadband for the buildout of ISP networks. While Sallet describes fiber as “future-proof,” there is little reason to think that it is. The profit motive induces broadband ISPs to constantly innovate and improve their networks. Contrary to what you would expect from an alleged monopoly industry, broadband companies are consistently among the highest investors in the American economy. Similar incentives would not apply to municipal broadband, which lacks the profit motive to innovate. 

Conclusion

There is a definite need to improve public policy to promote more competition in broadband markets. But municipal broadband is not the answer. The lack of profit-and-loss prevents the public manager of municipal broadband from having the price signal necessary to know it is serving the public cost-effectively. No amount of bureaucratic management can replace the institutional incentives of the marketplace.

[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 Tim Brennan, (Professor, Economics & Public Policy, University of Maryland; former FCC; former FTC).]

Observers on TOTM and elsewhere have pointed out the importance of preserving patent rights as pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies pursue development of treatments for, and better vaccines against,  Covid-19. As the benefits of these treatments could reach into the trillions of dollars (see here for a casual estimate and here for a more serious one), it is hard to imagine a level of reward for successful innovations that is too high.

On the other hand, as these and other commentaries suggest if only implicitly, the high social value of a coronavirus treatment or vaccine may well lead to calls to limit the ability to profit from a patent. It is easy to imagine that a developer of a vaccine will not be able to charge the patent-protected price (note avoidance of the term “monopoly”). It almost certainly will not be able to do so if it cannot use price discrimination in order to allow those lacking the means to pay a uniform higher price to get the vaccine.

However, there is an alternative to patents that have not received much attention in the policy discussion—having the government (Treasury, NIH, CDC) offer a prize in exchange for open access to a successful vaccine or treatment. Prizes are not new; they go back at least to the early 18th century, when Britain offered a prize for improvements in clock accuracy to facilitate ocean-going navigation. Many prizes have been offered by the private sector, both for their own use—Netflix offering a prize for improvements to its movie recommendation algorithm—and to altruistically promote innovation. Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 first solo transatlantic flight, and previous attempts by others, were motivated at least in part by a $25,000 prize offered by a New York hotel owner. 

In light of the net benefits of an improved vaccine, indicated perhaps by the level of spending in enacted and proposed stimulus and rescue programs, a prize of, oh, $25 billion is practically chump change. But would a prize make sense here?

I and two former colleagues at Resources for the Future, Molly Macauley and Kate Whitefoot, analyzed the use of prizes in comparison to patents and other methods to solicit and procure innovation.  This work was inspired by Molly’s interest in NASA’s use of prizes to induce innovations in space exploration equipment. On the theory side, we were interested because models of patents typically treat patents as prizes—the successful innovator gets $X in expected profit—and thus were unable to explain why one might want to choose prizes rather than patents and vice versa

When is a prize a “prize”?

The answer to this question requires being clear on what I mean by a prize. A familiar type of prize is the “best” of something, from first prize in the middle school science fair to the Academy Award for Best Picture. This is not the kind of prize I’m talking about with regard to coming up with a treatment for or vaccine against Covid-19. (George Mason’s Mercatus Center is offering prizes of this sort for things like $50,000 for “best coronavirus policy writing” to $500,000 for “best effort to find a treatment rapidly”; h/t to Geoff Manne.) Rather, it is a prize for being first to achieve a specific outcome, for example, a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. 

A necessary component of such prizes is a winning condition, specified in advance. For example, the $10 million Ansari X Prize to promote commercial space travel was not awarded just for some general demonstration of feasibility that pleased a set of judges. Rather, it specifically went to the first team that could “carry three people 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface twice within two weeks.”  Contestants knew what they had to do, and there was no dispute when the winner met the criterion for getting the prize.

Prizes or patents?

The need for a winning condition highlights one of the two main criteria affecting the choice of patents or prizes: advance knowledge of the specific goal. Economy-wide, the advantage of patents over prizes is that entrepreneurial innovators are rewarded for coming up with sufficiently novel products or processes of value. Knowledge regarding what is worth innovative effort is decentralized and often tacit. On the other hand, if a funder, including the government, knows what it wants sufficiently well that it can specify a winning condition, a prize can be sensible as a way to focus innovative effort toward that desired objective.

The second criterion for choosing between patents and prizes is more subtle. Someone undertaking research effort to come up with a patent bears two risks. The first is the risk that the effort will not be successful, not just overall but in being the first to be able to file for a patent. That risk is essentially shared by those pursuing a prize, where being first involves not filing for a patent but meeting the winning condition. However, patent seekers bear another risk, which is how much the patent will be worth if they win it. Prize seekers do not bear that risk, as the prize is specified in advance. (Economic models of patent activity tend to ignore this variation.) Thus, a prize may induce more risk-averse innovators to compete for the prize.

Assuming a winning condition for a Covid-19 treatment or vaccine can be specified in advance—I leave that to the medical people—our present public health dilemma could be well suited for a prize. As observed earlier, with both net benefits and already made public spending responses in the trillions of dollars, such a prize could and should be quite large. That may be a difficult to sell politically but, as also observed earlier, the government may not be able to commit credibly to allow a patent winner to exploit the treatment or vaccine’s economic value.

Design issues, TBD

If prizes become an appealing way to encourage Covid-19 mitigation innovations, a few design issues remain on the table.

One is whether to have intermediate prizes, with their own winning conditions, to narrow down the field of contestants to those with more promising approaches. One would need some sort of winning condition for this, of course. A second is whether the innovation will be achieved more quickly by allowing contestants to combine efforts. The virtues of competition may be outweighed by being able to hedge bets rather than risk being stuck going down a blind alley.

A third is whether to go with winner-take-all or have second or third prizes. One advantage of multiple prizes is that it can mitigate some risk to innovators, at a potential cost of reducing the effort to win. However, one could imagine here that someone other than the winner might come up with a treatment or vaccine that does better than the winner but was found after the winner met the condition. This leads to a fourth policy choice—should contestants, the winner or others, retain patents, even if the winning treatment of vaccine is freely licensed, to be made available at marginal cost.

All of these choices, along with the choice of whether to offer a prize and what that prize should be, are matters of medical and pharmaceutical judgment. But economics does highlight the potential advantages of a prize and suggest that it may deserve some attention as other policy judgments are being made. 

[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). 
  • CBS All Access expanded its free trial period.
  • Neil Gaiman and Harper Collins granted permission to Levar Burton to livestream readings from their catalogs.
  • Disney is releasing movies early onto its (paid) Disney+ services.
  • Gold’s Gym is providing free access to its app-based workouts.
  • The Met is streaming free recordings of its Live in HD series.
  • The Seattle Symphony is offering free access to some of its recorded performances.
  • The UK National Theater is streaming some of its most popular plays for free.
  • Andrew Lloyd Weber is streaming his shows online for free.

Science, News & Education

  • Scholastica released free content intended to help educate students stuck at home while sheltering-in-place. 
  • Nearly 100 academic journals, societies, institutes, and companies signed a commitment to make research and data on COVID-19 freely available, at least for the duration of the outbreak.
  • The Atlantic lifted paywall restrictions on access to its COVID-19-related content.
  • The New England Journal of Medicine is allowing free access to COVID-19-related resources.
  • The Lancet allows free access to research it publishes on COVID-19.
  • All material published by theBMJ on the coronavirus outbreak is freely available.
  • The AAAS-published Science allows free access to its coronavirus research and commentary.
  • Elsevier gave full access to its content on its COVID-19 Information Center for PubMed Central and other public health databases.
  • The American Economic Association announced open access to all of its journals until the end of June.
  • JSTOR expanded free access to some of its scholarship.

Medicine & Technology

  • The Global Center for Medical Design is developing license-free PPE designs that can be quickly implemented by manufacturers.
  • 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.
  • Google is working with health researchers to provide anonymized and aggregated user location data. 
  • 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.”
  • Microsoft is offering free subscriptions to its Teams product for six months.
  • 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. 

[Cross posted at the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property blog.]

Today’s public policy debates frame copyright policy solely in terms of a “trade off” between the benefits of incentivizing new works and the social deadweight losses imposed by the access restrictions imposed by these (temporary) “monopolies.” I recently posted to SSRN a new research paper, called How Copyright Drives Innovation in Scholarly Publishing, explaining that this is a fundamental mistake that has distorted the policy debates about scholarly publishing.

This policy mistake is important because it has lead commentators and decision-makers to dismiss as irrelevant to copyright policy the investments by scholarly publishers of $100s of millions in creating innovative distribution mechanisms in our new digital world. These substantial sunk costs are in addition to the $100s of millions expended annually by publishers in creating, publishing and maintaining reliable, high-quality, standardized articles distributed each year in a wide-ranging variety of academic disciplines and fields of research. The articles now number in the millions themselves; in 2009, for instance, over 2,000 publishers issued almost 1.5 million articles just in the scientific, technical and medical fields, exclusive of the humanities and social sciences.

The mistaken incentive-to-invent conventional wisdom in copyright policy is further compounded by widespread misinformation today about the allegedly “zero cost” of digital publication. As a result, many people are simply unaware of the substantial investments in infrastructure, skilled labor and other resources required to create, publish and maintain scholarly articles on the Internet and in other digital platforms.

This is not merely a so-called “academic debate” about copyright policy and publishing.

The policy distortion caused by the narrow, reductionist incentive-to-create conventional wisdom, when combined with the misinformation about the economics of digital business models, has been spurring calls for “open access” mandates for scholarly research, such as at the National Institute of Health and in recently proposed legislation (FASTR Act) and in other proposed regulations. This policy distortion even influenced Justice Breyer’s opinion in the recent decision in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons (U.S. Supreme Court, March 19, 2013), as he blithely dismissed commercial incentivizes as being irrelevant to fundamental copyright policy. These legal initiatives and the Kirtsaeng decision are motivated in various ways by the incentive-to-create conventional wisdom, by the misunderstanding of the economics of scholarly publishing, and by anti-copyright rhetoric on both the left and right, all of which has become more pervasive in recent years.

But, as I explain in my paper, courts and commentators have long recognized that incentivizing authors to produce new works is not the sole justification for copyright—copyright also incentivizes intermediaries like scholarly publishers to invest in and create innovative legal and market mechanisms for publishing and distributing articles that report on scholarly research. These two policies—the incentive to create and the incentive to commercialize—are interrelated, as both are necessary in justifying how copyright law secures the dynamic innovation that makes possible the “progress of science.” In short, if the law does not secure the fruits of labors of publishers who create legal and market mechanisms for disseminating works, then authors’ labors will go unrewarded as well.

As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor famously observed in the 1984 decision in Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises: “In our haste to disseminate news, it should not be forgotten the Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression. By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas.” Thus, in Harper & Row, the Supreme Court reached the uncontroversial conclusion that copyright secures the fruits of productive labors “where an author and publisher have invested extensive resources in creating an original work.” (emphases added)

This concern with commercial incentives in copyright law is not just theory; in fact, it is most salient in scholarly publishing because researchers are not motivated by the pecuniary benefits offered to authors in conventional publishing contexts. As a result of the policy distortion caused by the incentive-to-create conventional wisdom, some academics and scholars now view scholarly publishing by commercial firms who own the copyrights in the articles as “a form of censorship.” Yet, as courts have observed: “It is not surprising that [scholarly] authors favor liberal photocopying . . . . But the authors have not risked their capital to achieve dissemination. The publishers have.” As economics professor Mark McCabe observed (somewhat sardonically) in a research paper released last year for the National Academy of Sciences: he and his fellow academic “economists knew the value of their journals, but not their prices.”

The widespread ignorance among the public, academics and commentators about the economics of scholarly publishing in the Internet age is quite profound relative to the actual numbers.  Based on interviews with six different scholarly publishers—Reed Elsevier, Wiley, SAGE, the New England Journal of Medicine, the American Chemical Society, and the American Institute of Physics—my research paper details for the first time ever in a publication and at great length the necessary transaction costs incurred by any successful publishing enterprise in the Internet age.  To take but one small example from my research paper: Reed Elsevier began developing its online publishing platform in 1995, a scant two years after the advent of the World Wide Web, and its sunk costs in creating this first publishing platform and then digitally archiving its previously published content was over $75 million. Other scholarly publishers report similarly high costs in both absolute and relative terms.

Given the widespread misunderstandings of the economics of Internet-based business models, it bears noting that such high costs are not unique to scholarly publishers.  Microsoft reportedly spent $10 billion developing Windows Vista before it sold a single copy, of which it ultimately did not sell many at all. Google regularly invests $100s of millions, such as $890 million in the first quarter of 2011, in upgrading its data centers.  It is somewhat surprising that such things still have to be pointed out a scant decade after the bursting of the dot.com bubble, a bubble precipitated by exactly the same mistaken view that businesses have somehow been “liberated” from the economic realities of cost by the Internet.

Just as with the extensive infrastructure and staffing costs, the actual costs incurred by publishers in operating the peer review system for their scholarly journals are also widely misunderstood.  Individual publishers now receive hundreds of thousands—the large scholarly publisher, Reed Elsevier, receives more than one million—manuscripts per year. Reed Elsevier’s annual budget for operating its peer review system is over $100 million, which reflects the full scope of staffing, infrastructure, and other transaction costs inherent in operating a quality-control system that rejects 65% of the submitted manuscripts. Reed Elsevier’s budget for its peer review system is consistent with industry-wide studies that have reported that the peer review system costs approximately $2.9 billion annually in operation costs (translating into dollars the British £1.9 billion pounds reported in the study). For those articles accepted for publication, there are additional, extensive production costs, and then there are extensive post-publication costs in updating hypertext links of citations, cyber security of the websites, and related digital issues.

In sum, many people mistakenly believe that scholarly publishers are no longer necessary because the Internet has made moot all such intermediaries of traditional brick-and-mortar economies—a viewpoint reinforced by the equally mistaken incentive-to-create conventional wisdom in the copyright policy debates today. But intermediaries like scholarly publishers face the exact same incentive problems that is universally recognized for authors by the incentive-to-create conventional wisdom: no will make the necessary investments to create a work or to distribute if the fruits of their labors are not secured to them. This basic economic fact—dynamic development of innovative distribution mechanisms require substantial investment in both people and resources—is what makes commercialization an essential feature of both copyright policy and law (and of all intellectual property doctrines).

It is for this reason that copyright law has long promoted and secured the value that academics and scholars have come to depend on in their journal articles—reliable, high-quality, standardized, networked, and accessible research that meets the differing expectations of readers in a variety of fields of scholarly research. This is the value created by the scholarly publishers. Scholarly publishers thus serve an essential function in copyright law by making the investments in and creating the innovative distribution mechanisms that fulfill the constitutional goal of copyright to advance the “progress of science.”

DISCLOSURE: The paper summarized in this blog posting was supported separately by a Leonardo Da Vinci Fellowship and by the Association of American Publishers (AAP). The author thanks Mark Schultz for very helpful comments on earlier drafts, and the AAP for providing invaluable introductions to the five scholarly publishers who shared their publishing data with him.

NOTE: Some small copy-edits were made to this blog posting.

 

Over at Forbes Berin Szoka and I have a lengthy piece discussing “10 Reasons To Be More Optimistic About Broadband Than Susan Crawford Is.” Crawford has become the unofficial spokesman for a budding campaign to reshape broadband. She sees cable companies monopolizing broadband, charging too much, withholding content and keeping speeds low, all in order to suppress disruptive innovation — and argues for imposing 19th century common carriage regulation on the Internet. Berin and I begin (we expect to contribute much more to this discussion in the future) to explain both why her premises are erroneous and also why her proscription is faulty. Here’s a taste:

Things in the US today are better than Crawford claims. While Crawford claims that broadband is faster and cheaper in other developed countries, her statistics are convincingly disputed. She neglects to mention the significant subsidies used to build out those networks. Crawford’s model is Europe, but as Europeans acknowledge, “beyond 100 Mbps supply will be very difficult and expensive. Western Europe may be forced into a second fibre build out earlier than expected, or will find themselves within the slow lane in 3-5 years time.” And while “blazing fast” broadband might be important for some users, broadband speeds in the US are plenty fast enough to satisfy most users. Consumers are willing to pay for speed, but, apparently, have little interest in paying for the sort of speed Crawford deems essential. This isn’t surprising. As the LSE study cited above notes, “most new activities made possible by broadband are already possible with basic or fast broadband: higher speeds mainly allow the same things to happen faster or with higher quality, while the extra costs of providing higher speeds to everyone are very significant.”

Even if she’s right, she wildly exaggerates the costs. Using a back-of-the-envelope calculation, Crawford claims that slow downloads (compared to other countries) could cost the U.S. $3 trillion/year in lost productivity from wasted time spent “waiting for a link to load or an app to function on your wireless device.” This intentionally sensationalist claim, however, rests on a purely hypothetical average wait time in the U.S. of 30 seconds (vs. 2 seconds in Japan). Whatever the actual numbers might be, her methodology would still be shaky, not least because time spent waiting for laggy content isn’t necessarily simply wasted. And for most of us, the opportunity cost of waiting for Angry Birds to load on our phones isn’t counted in wages — it’s counted in beers or time on the golf course or other leisure activities. These are important, to be sure, but does anyone seriously believe our GDP would grow 20% if only apps were snappier? Meanwhile, actual econometric studies looking at the productivity effects of faster broadband on businesses have found that higher broadband speeds are not associated with higher productivity.

* * *

So how do we guard against the possibility of consumer harm without making things worse? For us, it’s a mix of promoting both competition and a smarter, subtler role for government.

Despite Crawford’s assertion that the DOJ should have blocked the Comcast-NBCU merger, antitrust and consumer protection laws do operate to constrain corporate conduct, not only through government enforcement but also private rights of action. Antitrust works best in the background, discouraging harmful conduct without anyone ever suing. The same is true for using consumer protection law to punish deception and truly harmful practices (e.g., misleading billing or overstating speeds).

A range of regulatory reforms would also go a long way toward promoting competition. Most importantly, reform local franchising so competitors like Google Fiber can build their own networks. That means giving them “open access” not to existing networks but to the public rights of way under streets. Instead of requiring that franchisees build out to an entire franchise area—which often makes both new entry and service upgrades unprofitable—remove build-out requirements and craft smart subsidies to encourage competition to deliver high-quality universal service, and to deliver superfast broadband to the customers who want it. Rather than controlling prices, offer broadband vouchers to those that can’t afford it. Encourage telcos to build wireline competitors to cable by transitioning their existing telephone networks to all-IP networks, as we’ve urged the FCC to do (here and here). Let wireless reach its potential by opening up spectrum and discouraging municipalities from blocking tower construction. Clear the deadwood of rules that protect incumbents in the video marketplace—a reform with broad bipartisan appeal.

In short, there’s a lot of ground between “do nothing” and “regulate broadband like electricity—or railroads.” Crawford’s arguments simply don’t justify imposing 19th century common carriage regulation on the Internet. But that doesn’t leave us powerless to correct practices that truly harm consumers, should they actually arise.

Read the whole thing here.

By Berin Szoka, Geoffrey Manne & Ryan Radia

As has become customary with just about every new product announcement by Google these days, the company’s introduction on Tuesday of its new “Search, plus Your World” (SPYW) program, which aims to incorporate a user’s Google+ content into her organic search results, has met with cries of antitrust foul play. All the usual blustering and speculation in the latest Google antitrust debate has obscured what should, however, be the two key prior questions: (1) Did Google violate the antitrust laws by not including data from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks in its new SPYW program alongside Google+ content; and (2) How might antitrust restrain Google in conditioning participation in this program in the future?

The answer to the first is a clear no. The second is more complicated—but also purely speculative at this point, especially because it’s not even clear Facebook and Twitter really want to be included or what their price and conditions for doing so would be. So in short, it’s hard to see what there is to argue about yet.

Let’s consider both questions in turn.

Should Google Have Included Other Services Prior to SPYW’s Launch?

Google says it’s happy to add non-Google content to SPYW but, as Google fellow Amit Singhal told Danny Sullivan, a leading search engine journalist:

Facebook and Twitter and other services, basically, their terms of service don’t allow us to crawl them deeply and store things. Google+ is the only [network] that provides such a persistent service,… Of course, going forward, if others were willing to change, we’d look at designing things to see how it would work.

In a follow-up story, Sullivan quotes his interview with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt about how this would work:

“To start with, we would have a conversation with them,” Schmidt said, about settling any differences.

I replied that with the Google+ suggestions now hitting Google, there was no need to have any discussions or formal deals. Google’s regular crawling, allowed by both Twitter and Facebook, was a form of “automated conversation” giving Google material it could use.

“Anything we do with companies like that, it’s always better to have a conversion,” Schmidt said.

MG Siegler calls this “doublespeak” and seems to think Google violated the antitrust laws by not making SPYW more inclusive right out of the gate. He insists Google didn’t need permission to include public data in SPYW:

Both Twitter and Facebook have data that is available to the public. It’s data that Google crawls. It’s data that Google even has some social context for thanks to older Google Profile features, as Sullivan points out.

It’s not all the data inside the walls of Twitter and Facebook — hence the need for firehose deals. But the data Google can get is more than enough for many of the high level features of Search+ — like the “People and Places” box, for example.

It’s certainly true that if you search Google for “site:twitter.com” or “site:facebook.com,” you’ll get billions of search results from publicly-available Facebook and Twitter pages, and that Google already has some friend connection data via social accounts you might have linked to your Google profile (check out this dashboard), as Sullivan notes. But the public data isn’t available in real-time, and the private, social connection data is limited and available only for users who link their accounts. For Google to access real-time results and full social connection data would require… you guessed it… permission from Twitter (or Facebook)! As it happens, Twitter and Google had a deal for a “data firehose” so that Google could display tweets in real-time under the “personalized search” program for public social information that SPYW builds on top of. But Twitter ended the deal last May for reasons neither company has explained.

At best, therefore, Google might have included public, relatively stale social information from Twitter and Facebook in SPYW—content that is, in any case, already included in basic search results and remains available there. The real question, however, isn’t could Google have included this data in SPYW, but rather need they have? If Google’s engineers and executives decided that the incorporation of this limited data would present an inconsistent user experience or otherwise diminish its uniquely new social search experience, it’s hard to fault the company for deciding to exclude it. Moreover, as an antitrust matter, both the economics and the law of anticompetitive product design are uncertain. In general, as with issues surrounding the vertical integration claims against Google, product design that hurts rivals can (it should be self-evident) be quite beneficial for consumers. Here, it’s difficult to see how the exclusion of non-Google+ social media from SPYW could raise the costs of Google’s rivals, result in anticompetitive foreclosure, retard rivals’ incentives for innovation, or otherwise result in anticompetitive effects (as required to establish an antitrust claim).

Further, it’s easy to see why Google’s lawyers would prefer express permission from competitors before using their content in this way. After all, Google was denounced last year for “scraping” a different type of social content, user reviews, most notably by Yelp’s CEO at the contentious Senate antitrust hearing in September. Perhaps one could distinguish that situation from this one, but it’s not obvious where to draw the line between content Google has a duty to include without “making excuses” about needing permission and content Google has a duty not to include without express permission. Indeed, this seems like a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” It seems only natural for Google to be gun-shy about “scraping” other services’ public content for use in its latest search innovation without at least first conducting, as Eric Schmidt puts it, a “conversation.”

And as we noted, integrating non-public content would require not just permission but active coordination about implementation. SPYW displays Google+ content only to users who are logged into their Google+ account. Similarly, to display content shared with a user’s friends (but not the world) on Facebook, or protected tweets, Google would need a feed of that private data and a way of logging the user into his or her account on those sites.

Now, if Twitter truly wants Google to feature tweets in Google’s personalized search results, why did Twitter end its agreement with Google last year? Google responded to Twitter’s criticism of its SPYW launch last night with a short Google+ statement:

We are a bit surprised by Twitter’s comments about Search plus Your World, because they chose not to renew their agreement with us last summer, and since then we have observed their rel=nofollow instructions [by removing Twitter content results from “personalized search” results].

Perhaps Twitter simply got a better deal: Microsoft may have paid Twitter $30 million last year for a similar deal allowing Bing users to receive Twitter results. If Twitter really is playing hardball, Google is not guilty of discriminating against Facebook and Twitter in favor of its own social platform. Rather, it’s simply unwilling to pony up the cash that Facebook and Twitter are demanding—and there’s nothing illegal about that.

Indeed, the issue may go beyond a simple pricing dispute. If you were CEO of Twitter or Facebook, would you really think it was a net-win if your users could use Google search as an interface for your site? After all, these social networking sites are in an intense war for eyeballs: the more time users spend on Google, the more ads Google can sell, to the detriment of Facebook or Twitter. Facebook probably sees itself increasingly in direct competition with Google as a tool for finding information. Its social network has vastly more users than Google+ (800 million v 62 million, but even larger lead in active users), and, in most respects, more social functionality. The one area where Facebook lags is search functionality. Would Facebook really want to let Google become the tool for searching social networks—one social search engine “to rule them all“? Or would Facebook prefer to continue developing “social search” in partnership with Bing? On Bing, it can control how its content appears—and Facebook sees Microsoft as a partner, not a rival (at least until it can build its own search functionality inside the web’s hottest property).

Adding to this dynamic, and perhaps ultimately fueling some of the fire against SPYW, is the fact that many Google+ users seem to be multi-homing, using both Facebook and Google+ (and other social networks) at the same time, and even using various aggregators and syncing tools (Start Google+, for example) to unify social media streams and share content among them. Before SPYW, this might have seemed like a boon to Facebook, staunching any potential defectors from its network onto Google+ by keeping them engaged with both, with a kind of “Facebook primacy” ensuring continued eyeball time on its site. But Facebook might see SPYW as a threat to this primacy—in effect, reversing users’ primary “home” as they effectively import their Facebook data into SPYW via their Google+ accounts (such as through Start Google+). If SPYW can effectively facilitate indirect Google searching of private Facebook content, the fears we suggest above may be realized, and more users may forego vistiing Facebook.com (and seeing its advertisers), accessing much of their Facebook content elsewhere—where Facebook cannot monetize their attention.

Amidst all the antitrust hand-wringing over SPYW and Google’s decision to “go it alone” for now, it’s worth noting that Facebook has remained silent. Even Twitter has said little more than a tweet’s worth about the issue. It’s simply not clear that Google’s rivals would even want to participate in SPYW. This could still be bad for consumers, but in that case, the source of the harm, if any, wouldn’t be Google. If this all sounds speculative, it is—and that’s precisely the point. No one really knows. So, again, what’s to argue about on Day 3 of the new social search paradigm?

The Debate to Come: Conditioning Access to SPYW

While Twitter and Facebook may well prefer that Google not index their content on SPYW—at least, not unless Google is willing to pay up—suppose the social networking firms took Google up on its offer to have a “conversation” about greater cooperation. Google hasn’t made clear on what terms it would include content from other social media platforms. So it’s at least conceivable that, when pressed to make good on its lofty-but-vague offer to include other platforms, Google might insist on unacceptable terms. In principle, there are essentially three possibilities here:

  1. Antitrust law requires nothing because there are pro-consumer benefits for Google to make SPYW exclusive and no clear harm to competition (as distinct from harm to competitors) for doing so, as our colleague Josh Wright argues.
  2. Antitrust law requires Google to grant competitors access to SPYW on commercially reasonable terms.
  3. Antitrust law requires Google to grant such access on terms dictated by its competitors, even if unreasonable to Google.

Door #3 is a legal non-starter. In Aspen Skiing v. Aspen Highlands (1985), the Supreme Court came the closest it has ever come to endorsing the “essential facilities” doctrine by which a competitor has a duty to offer its facilities to competitors. But in Verizon Communications v. Trinko (2004), the Court made clear that even Aspen Skiing is “at or near the outer boundary of § 2 liability.” Part of the basis for the decision in Aspen Skiing was the existence of a prior, profitable relationship between the “essential facility” in question and the competitor seeking access. Although the assumption is neither warranted nor sufficient (circumstances change, of course, and merely “profitable” is not the same thing as “best available use of a resource”), the Court in Aspen Skiing seems to have been swayed by the view that the access in question was otherwise profitable for the company that was denying it. Trinko limited the reach of the doctrine to the extraordinary circumstances of Aspen Skiing, and thus, as the Court affirmed in Pacific Bell v. LinkLine (2008), it seems there is no antitrust duty for a firm to offer access to a competitor on commercially unreasonable terms (as Geoff Manne discusses at greater length in his chapter on search bias in TechFreedom’s free ebook, The Next Digital Decade).

So Google either has no duty to deal at all, or a duty to deal only on reasonable terms. But what would a competitor have to show to establish such a duty? And how would “reasonableness” be defined?

First, this issue parallels claims made more generally about Google’s supposed “search bias.” As Josh Wright has said about those claims, “[p]roperly articulated vertical foreclosure theories proffer both that bias is (1) sufficient in magnitude to exclude Google’s rivals from achieving efficient scale, and (2) actually directed at Google’s rivals.” Supposing (for the moment) that the second point could be established, it’s hard to see how Facebook or Twitter could really show that being excluded from SPYW—while still having their available content show up as it always has in Google’s “organic” search results—would actually “render their efforts to compete for distribution uneconomical,” which, as Josh explains, antitrust law would require them to show. Google+ is a tiny service compared to Google or Facebook. And even Google itself, for all the awe and loathing it inspires, lags in the critical metric of user engagement, keeping the average user on site for only a quarter as much time as Facebook.

Moreover, by these same measures, it’s clear that Facebook and Twitter don’t need access to Google search results at all, much less its relatively trivial SPYW results, in order find, and be found by, users; it’s difficult to know from what even vaguely relevant market they could possibly be foreclosed by their absence from SPYW results. Does SPYW potentially help Google+, to Facebook’s detriment? Yes. Just as Facebook’s deal with Microsoft hurts Google. But this is called competition. The world would be a desolate place if antitrust laws effectively prohibited firms from making decisions that helped themselves at their competitors’ expense.

After all, no one seems to be suggesting that Microsoft should be forced to include Google+ results in Bing—and rightly so. Microsoft’s exclusive partnership with Facebook is an important example of how a market leader in one area (Facebook in social) can help a market laggard in another (Microsoft in search) compete more effectively with a common rival (Google). In other words, banning exclusive deals can actually make it more difficult to unseat an incumbent (like Google), especially where the technologies involved are constantly evolving, as here.

Antitrust meddling in such arrangements, particularly in high-risk, dynamic markets where large up-front investments are frequently required (and lost), risks deterring innovation and reducing the very dynamism from which consumers reap such incredible rewards. “Reasonable” is a dangerously slippery concept in such markets, and a recipe for costly errors by the courts asked to define the concept. We suspect that disputes arising out of these sorts of deals will largely boil down to skirmishes over pricing, financing and marketing—the essential dilemma of new media services whose business models are as much the object of innovation as their technologies. Turning these, by little more than innuendo, into nefarious anticompetitive schemes is extremely—and unnecessarily—risky. Continue Reading…

Thomas Hazlett and I have posted The Law and Economics of Network Neutrality:

The Federal Communications Commission’s Network Neutrality Order regulates how broadband networks explain their services to customers, mandates that subscribers be permitted to deploy whatever computers, mobile devices, or applications they like for use with the network access service they purchase, imposes a prohibition upon unreasonable discrimination in network management such that Internet Service Provider efforts to maintain service quality (e.g. mitigation congestion) or to price and package their services do not burden rival applications.

This paper offers legal and economic critique of the new Network Neutrality policy and particularly the no blocking and no discrimination rules. While we argue the FCC‘s rules are likely to be declared beyond the scope of the agency‘s charter, we focus upon the economic impact of net neutrality regulations. It is beyond paradoxical that the FCC argues that it is imposing new regulations so as to preserve the Internet‘s current economic structure; that structure has developed in an unregulated environment where firms are free to experiment with business models – and vertical integration – at will. We demonstrate that Network Neutrality goes far further than existing law, categorically prohibiting various forms of economic integration in a manner equivalent to antitrust’s per se rule, properly reserved for conduct that is so likely to cause competitive harm that the marginal benefit of a fact-intensive analysis cannot be justified. Economic analysis demonstrates that Network Neutrality cannot be justified upon consumer welfare grounds. Further, the Commission‘s attempt to justify its new policy simply ignores compelling evidence that “open access” regulations have distorted broadband build-out in the United States, visibly reducing subscriber growth when imposed and visibly increasing subscriber growth when repealed. On the other, the FCC manages to cite just one study – not of the broadband market – to support its claims of widespread foreclosure threats. This empirical study, upon closer scrutiny than the Commission appears to have given it, actually shows no evidence of anti-competitive foreclosure. This fatal analytical flaw constitutes a smoking gun in the FCC‘s economic analysis of net neutrality.

Read the whole thing.  Under review at a law review near you …

This NY Times piece on informal parking property rights and enforcement mechanisms in Boston gives me opportunity to excerpt from Fred McChesney’s seminal analysis on the subject discussing the order of things in Chicago:

The city’s job ends once the snow is plowed from the driving lanes, leaving car owners to their best devices in extricating their vehicles. Digging out creates a natural parking space, a rectangular black patch squeezed fore and aft by white mountains tossed up by plowing. These clear spots are valuable, for the mountains between the cars reduce considerably the overall amount of parking space at the curb.  Before snowfalls, a parking space belongs to the one who occupies it: you leave it, you lose it. In wintertime Chicago, however, excavating one’s car changes the system of property rights. Once car owners dig themselves out of their snow cocoon (Chicagoans carry snow shovels in their trunks for this), they claim the place they cleared as their own. How? Diggers routinely place lawn furniture, buckets, two-by-fours, bar stools, orange highway construction cones and other markers in the space they have just dug out. That means the space now belongs to the excavator. When he leaves, the markers dictate that the space must sit empty until the owner returns. “People do look at these spaces as their own property,” a local law professor comments.

The space belongs to the original snow-mining engineer until the snow melts along the curb. Woe betide anyone who would take that space while its owner is away. Others in the neighborhood—who have undertaken similar excavations and staked out their own spaces—will protect the space for its absent owner. Broken windows, scratched paint, deflated tires and other punishments often follow parking in a space designated by whatever debris marks the excavator’s property.

Perhaps surprisingly, this vigilante justice is of no concern to the forces of law and order. Mayor Richard Daley said last winter, “If someone spends all their time digging their car out, do not drive into that spot. This is Chicago. Fair warning.” Chicago writers, though, decry the “dibs system” regularly in the papers: Studs Terkel calls the system “a commentary on the growing oafishness in our lives.” Local columnist Eric Zorn gets national coverage in the Wall Street Journal for his repeated excoriation of those claiming dibs on spaces they excavated. In the Chicago Tribune, Zorn calls for “a bold leader, backed by a frustrated silent majority,” who can “toss this tradition onto the parkway of history.”

Professor McChesney channels Demsetz in explaining the emergence of property rights when the snow hits:

The Chicago snow system is an interesting story in its own right, but better, it teems with economic lessons about property rights. First, there must always be some mechanism to allocate scarce goods. But sometimes, private property (either a formal legal claim or an informal right respected by others) is not necessarily required, nor necessarily desirable. Property is costly to define and enforce. In good weather, open access to street parking requires no definition or enforcement of property, and allocation on a first come, first served basis works well enough. However, open access as a property-rights system works less well when scarcity increases. No one claims parking spaces on the street except in winter, when conditions reduce the number of parking spaces.

Second, government is not necessary for the definition and enforcement of personal property rights. The Chicago system operates totally privately. Other than columnists, the main complainers are newcomers who don’t know the system until they get a broken mirror. Admittedly, this is a cost of operating the system (although, naturally, just a one-time cost).

In addition to car damage, the Chicago system is costly in keeping spaces from being used while their owner are away. But that is true of any private property, by definition. A Northwestern fraternity could, in principal, use my house while I am away for the weekend and don’t need my bedroom, but the costs of my allowing that are obvious. Private rights are not free lunches, except in nirvana.

The tough issue is whether the Chicago system is better than any real-world alternative. Writers who condemn the practice treat the situation as one of mere distribution of a given amount of parking space. But an economist would predict that permitting private property would incite others to expand the amount of space. And so it does. Not only do those who dug out their cars the first morning have a space thereafter, but neighbors whose cars were not on the street begin to hack away the snow masses created by city plows to make a space for themselves. As black patches increase, the snow melts fast along the cubs. In both respects, the result is not just distribution of a given quantity of space, but creation of more space.

Critics might respond that the government could come a second time and move the mountains it made. But again, at what cost? It is hard to disagree with Mayor Daley that individuals will do a better job of freeing up curb parking than the city could do. Would you prefer to dig out your own car, or have city workers do it? How many aerials would the city break? (Many Chicago stories report how you can hire somebody to dig out a spot for $20, meaning there are gains from specialization at work here, but that’s another topic altogether.)

The nirvana fallacy works much mischief here. While neighbors applaud neighbors’ work, outsiders treat rewarding that work as “oafish.” If ad hominem attacks must be made, why are those who do not dig more entitled to spots than those who dig? Zorn defends letting those who didn’t dig take spaces from those who did this way: “Sometimes we lives with a little unfairness in the name of building a stronger, more livable communities.”

In the end, then, the Chicago snow fracas is a re-run of so many other disputes involving property. Some find it unfair to exclude others from using a resource. But the ability to exclude provides the incentives to create more resources, reducing scarcity over time. Popular writers focus on perceived unfairness. But economists observing the controversy will see the wealth-increasing invisible hand at work again—this time hoisting a snow shovel.

I did not learn these things in San Diego.  I never took to surfing either;  but here is a West Coast variant of endogenous informal property rights.

wikipediaVia Wonkette (“I know those words, but that [] makes no sense”), I see that congressional staffers have been, ahem, updating their bosses’ Wikipedia entries. Here’s the dispute wiki at Wikipedia, and an informative article from, of all places, Lowell, Mass. Clearly the best part is that someone thought to try to add Scott McLellan’s name to the entry for “Douche.” (Hey, I’m just reporting here).

It appears that there is some effort being made to ban all congressional IP addresses from updating any entries on Wikipedia. Now there’s a business model that could profitably be extended.

It is, of course, a potential problem with wikis: free and open access means free and open access, even to the bad kids. I’m not really surprised the bad kids are working on the Hill.

For all you’ve ever wanted to know and more about wiki-related issues, see the wiki category archive over at Concurring Opinions.