Archives For platforms

In our previous post on Gonzalez v. Google LLC, which will come before the U.S. Supreme Court for oral arguments Feb. 21, Kristian Stout and I argued that, while the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) got the general analysis right (looking to Roommates.com as the framework for exceptions to the general protections of Section 230), they got the application wrong (saying that algorithmic recommendations should be excepted from immunity).

Now, after reading Google’s brief, as well as the briefs of amici on their side, it is even more clear to me that:

  1. algorithmic recommendations are protected by Section 230 immunity; and
  2. creating an exception for such algorithms would severely damage the internet as we know it.

I address these points in reverse order below.

Google on the Death of the Internet Without Algorithms

The central point that Google makes throughout its brief is that a finding that Section 230’s immunity does not extend to the use of algorithmic recommendations would have potentially catastrophic implications for the internet economy. Google and amici for respondents emphasize the ubiquity of recommendation algorithms:

Recommendation algorithms are what make it possible to find the needles in humanity’s largest haystack. The result of these algorithms is unprecedented access to knowledge, from the lifesaving (“how to perform CPR”) to the mundane (“best pizza near me”). Google Search uses algorithms to recommend top search results. YouTube uses algorithms to share everything from cat videos to Heimlich-maneuver tutorials, algebra problem-solving guides, and opera performances. Services from Yelp to Etsy use algorithms to organize millions of user reviews and ratings, fueling global commerce. And individual users “like” and “share” content millions of times every day. – Brief for Respondent Google, LLC at 2.

The “recommendations” they challenge are implicit, based simply on the manner in which YouTube organizes and displays the multitude of third-party content on its site to help users identify content that is of likely interest to them. But it is impossible to operate an online service without “recommending” content in that sense, just as it is impossible to edit an anthology without “recommending” the story that comes first in the volume. Indeed, since the dawn of the internet, virtually every online service—from news, e-commerce, travel, weather, finance, politics, entertainment, cooking, and sports sites, to government, reference, and educational sites, along with search engines—has had to highlight certain content among the thousands or millions of articles, photographs, videos, reviews, or comments it hosts to help users identify what may be most relevant. Given the sheer volume of content on the internet, efforts to organize, rank, and display content in ways that are useful and attractive to users are indispensable. As a result, exposing online services to liability for the “recommendations” inherent in those organizational choices would expose them to liability for third-party content virtually all the time. – Amicus Brief for Meta Platforms at 3-4.

In other words, if Section 230 were limited in the way that the plaintiffs (and the DOJ) seek, internet platforms’ ability to offer users useful information would be strongly attenuated, if not completely impaired. The resulting legal exposure would lead inexorably to far less of the kinds of algorithmic recommendations upon which the modern internet is built.

This is, in part, why we weren’t able to fully endorse the DOJ’s brief in our previous post. The DOJ’s brief simply goes too far. It would be unreasonable to establish as a categorical rule that use of the ubiquitous auto-discovery algorithms that power so much of the internet would strip a platform of Section 230 protection. The general rule advanced by the DOJ’s brief would have detrimental and far-ranging implications.

Amici on Publishing and Section 230(f)(4)

Google and the amici also make a strong case that algorithmic recommendations are inseparable from publishing. They have a strong textual hook in Section 230(f)(4), which explicitly protects “enabling tools that… filter, screen, allow, or disallow content; pick, choose, analyze or disallow content; or transmit, receive, display, forward, cache, search, subset, organize, reorganize, or translate content.”

As the amicus brief from a group of internet-law scholars—including my International Center for Law & Economics colleagues Geoffrey Manne and Gus Hurwitz—put it:

Section 230’s text should decide this case. Section 230(c)(1) immunizes the user or provider of an “interactive computer service” from being “treated as the publisher or speaker” of information “provided by another information content provider.” And, as Section 230(f)’s definitions make clear, Congress understood the term “interactive computer service” to include services that “filter,” “screen,” “pick, choose, analyze,” “display, search, subset, organize,” or “reorganize” third-party content. Automated recommendations perform exactly those functions, and are therefore within the express scope of Section 230’s text. – Amicus Brief of Internet Law Scholars at 3-4.

In other words, Section 230 protects not just the conveyance of information, but how that information is displayed. Algorithmic recommendations are a subset of those display tools that allow users to find what they are looking for with ease. Section 230 can’t be reasonably read to exclude them.

Why This Isn’t Really (Just) a Roommates.com Case

This is where the DOJ’s amicus brief (and our previous analysis) misses the point. This is not strictly a Roomates.com case. The case actually turns on whether algorithmic recommendations are separable from publication of third-party content, rather than whether they are design choices akin to what was occurring in that case.

For instance, in our previous post, we argued that:

[T]he DOJ argument then moves onto thinner ice. The DOJ believes that the 230 liability shield in Gonzalez depends on whether an automated “recommendation” rises to the level of development or creation, as the design of filtering criteria in Roommates.com did.

While we thought the DOJ went too far in differentiating algorithmic recommendations from other uses of algorithms, we gave them too much credit in applying the Roomates.com analysis. Section 230 was meant to immunize filtering tools, so long as the information provided is from third parties. Algorithmic recommendations—like the type at issue with YouTube’s “Up Next” feature—are less like the conduct in Roommates.com and much more like a search engine.

The DOJ did, however, have a point regarding algorithmic tools in that they may—like any other tool a platform might use—be employed in a way that transforms the automated promotion into a direct endorsement or original publication. For instance, it’s possible to use algorithms to intentionally amplify certain kinds of content in such a way as to cultivate more of that content.

That’s, after all, what was at the heart of Roommates.com. The site was designed to elicit responses from users that violated the law. Algorithms can do that, but as we observed previously, and as the many amici in Gonzalez observe, there is nothing inherent to the operation of algorithms that match users with content that makes their use categorically incompatible with Section 230’s protections.

Conclusion

After looking at the textual and policy arguments forwarded by both sides in Gonzalez, it appears that Google and amici for respondents have the better of it. As several amici argued, to the extent there are good reasons to reform Section 230, Congress should take the lead. The Supreme Court shouldn’t take this case as an opportunity to significantly change the consensus of the appellate courts on the broad protections of Section 230 immunity.

Later next month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Gonzalez v. Google LLC, a case that has drawn significant attention and many bad takes regarding how Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should be interpreted. Enacted in the mid-1990s, when the Internet as we know it was still in its infancy, Section 230 has grown into a law that offers online platforms a fairly comprehensive shield against liability for the content that third parties post to their services. But the law has also come increasingly under fire, from both the political left and the right. 

At issue in Gonzalez is whether Section 230(c)(1) immunizes Google from a set of claims brought under the Antiterrorism Act of 1990 (ATA). The petitioners are relatives of Nohemi Gonzalez, an American citizen murdered in a 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. They allege that Google, through YouTube, is liable under the ATA for providing assistance to ISIS for four main reasons. They allege that: 

  1. Google allowed ISIS to use YouTube to disseminate videos and messages, thereby recruiting and radicalizing terrorists responsible for the murder.
  2. Google failed to take adequate steps to take down videos and accounts and keep them down.
  3. Google recommends videos of others, both through subscriptions and algorithms.
  4. Google monetizes this content through its AdSense service, with ISIS-affiliated users receiving revenue. 

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed all of the non-revenue-sharing claims as barred by Section 230(c)(1), but allowed the revenue-sharing claim to go forward. 

Highlights of DOJ’s Brief

In an amicus brief, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) ultimately asks the Court to vacate the 9th Circuit’s judgment regarding those claims that are based on YouTube’s alleged targeted recommendations of ISIS content. But the DOJ also rejects much of the petitioner’s brief, arguing that Section 230 does rightfully apply to the rest of the claims. 

The crux of the DOJ’s brief concerns when and how design choices can be outside of Section 230 immunity. The lodestar 9th Circuit case that the DOJ brief applies is 2008’s Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.com.

As the DOJ notes, radical theories advanced by the plaintiffs and other amici would go too far in restricting Section 230 immunity based on a platform’s decisions on whether or not to block or remove user content (see, e.g., its discussion on pp. 17-21 of the merits and demerits of Justice Clarence Thomas’s Malwarebytes concurrence).  

At the same time, the DOJ’s brief notes that there is room for a reasonable interpretation of Section 230 that allows for liability to attach when online platforms behave unreasonably in their promotion of users’ content. Applying essentially the 9th Circuit’s Roommates.com standard, the DOJ argues that YouTube’s choice to amplify certain terrorist content through its recommendations algorithm is a design choice, rather than simply the hosting of third-party content, thereby removing it from the scope of  Section 230 immunity.  

While there is much to be said in favor of this approach, it’s important to point out that, although directionally correct, it’s not at all clear that a Roommates.com analysis should ultimately come down as the DOJ recommends in Gonzalez. More broadly, the way the DOJ structures its analysis has important implications for how we should think about the scope of Section 230 reform that attempts to balance accountability for intermediaries with avoiding undue collateral censorship.

Charting a Middle Course on Immunity

The important point on which the DOJ relies from Roommates.com is that intermediaries can be held accountable when their own conduct creates violations of the law, even if it involves third–party content. As the DOJ brief puts it:

Section 230(c)(1) protects an online platform from claims premised on its dissemination of third-party speech, but the statute does not immunize a platform’s other conduct, even if that conduct involves the solicitation or presentation of third-party content. The Ninth Circuit’s Roommates.com decision illustrates the point in the context of a website offering a roommate-matching service… As a condition of using the service, Roommates.com “require[d] each subscriber to disclose his sex, sexual orientation and whether he would bring children to a household,” and to “describe his preferences in roommates with respect to the same three criteria.” Ibid. The plaintiffs alleged that asking those questions violated housing-discrimination laws, and the court of appeals agreed that Section 230(c)(1) did not shield Roommates.com from liability for its “own acts” of “posting the questionnaire and requiring answers to it.” Id. at 1165.

Imposing liability in such circumstances does not treat online platforms as the publishers or speakers of content provided by others. Nor does it obligate them to monitor their platforms to detect objectionable postings, or compel them to choose between “suppressing controversial speech or sustaining prohibitive liability.”… Illustrating that distinction, the Roommates.com court held that although Section 230(c)(1) did not apply to the website’s discriminatory questions, it did shield the website from liability for any discriminatory third-party content that users unilaterally chose to post on the site’s “generic” “Additional Comments” section…

The DOJ proceeds from this basis to analyze what it would take for Google (via YouTube) to no longer benefit from Section 230 immunity by virtue of its own editorial actions, as opposed to its actions as a publisher (which 230 would still protect). For instance, are the algorithmic suggestions of videos simply neutral tools that allow for users to get more of the content they desire, akin to search results? Or are the algorithmic suggestions of new videos a design choice that makes it akin to Roommates?

The DOJ argues that taking steps to better display pre-existing content is not content development or creation, in and of itself. Similarly, it would be a mistake to make intermediaries liable for creating tools that can then be deployed by users:

Interactive websites invariably provide tools that enable users to create, and other users to find and engage with, information. A chatroom might supply topic headings to organize posts; a photo-sharing site might offer a feature for users to signal that they like or dislike a post; a classifieds website might enable users to add photos or maps to their listings. If such features rendered the website a co-developer of all users’ content, Section 230(c)(1) would be a dead letter.

At a high level, this is correct. Unfortunately, the DOJ argument then moves onto thinner ice. The DOJ believes that the 230 liability shield in Gonzalez depends on whether an automated “recommendation” rises to the level of development or creation, as the design of filtering criteria in Roommates.com did. Toward this end, the brief notes that:

The distinction between a recommendation and the recommended content is particularly clear when the recommendation is explicit. If YouTube had placed a selected ISIS video on a user’s homepage alongside a message stating, “You should watch this,” that message would fall outside Section 230(c)(1). Encouraging a user to watch a selected video is conduct distinct from the video’s publication (i.e., hosting). And while YouTube would be the “publisher” of the recommendation message itself, that message would not be “information provided by another information content provider.” 47 U.S.C. 230(c)(1).

An Absence of Immunity Does Not Mean a Presence of Liability

Importantly, the DOJ brief emphasizes throughout that remanding the ATA claims is not the end of the analysis—i.e., it does not mean that the plaintiffs can prove the elements. Moreover, other background law—notably, the First Amendment—can limit the application of liability to intermediaries, as well. As we put it in our paper on Section 230 reform:

It is important to again note that our reasonableness proposal doesn’t change the fact that the underlying elements in any cause of action still need to be proven. It is those underlying laws, whether civil or criminal, that would possibly hold intermediaries liable without Section 230 immunity. Thus, for example, those who complain that FOSTA/SESTA harmed sex workers by foreclosing a safe way for them to transact (illegal) business should really be focused on the underlying laws that make sex work illegal, not the exception to Section 230 immunity that FOSTA/SESTA represents. By the same token, those who assert that Section 230 improperly immunizes “conservative bias” or “misinformation” fail to recognize that, because neither of those is actually illegal (nor could they be under First Amendment law), Section 230 offers no additional immunity from liability for such conduct: There is no underlying liability from which to provide immunity in the first place.

There’s a strong likelihood that, on remand, the court will find there is no violation of the ATA at all. Section 230 immunity need not be stretched beyond all reasonable limits to protect intermediaries from hypothetical harms when underlying laws often don’t apply. 

Conclusion

To date, the contours of Section 230 reform largely have been determined by how courts interpret the statute. There is an emerging consensus that some courts have gone too far in extending Section 230 immunity to intermediaries. The DOJ’s brief is directionally correct, but the Court should not adopt it wholesale. More needs to be done to ensure that the particular facts of Gonzalez are not used to completely gut Section 230 more generally.  

The €390 million fine that the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) levied last week against Meta marks both the latest skirmish in the ongoing regulatory war on the use of data by private firms, as well as a major blow to the ad-driven business model that underlies most online services. 

More specifically, the DPC was forced by the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) to find that Meta violated the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) when it relied on its contractual relationship with Facebook and Instagram users as the basis to employ user data in personalized advertising. 

Meta still has other bases on which it can argue it relies in order to make use of user data, but a larger issue is at-play: the decision’s findings both that making use of user data for personalized advertising is not “necessary” between a service and its users and that privacy regulators are in a position to make such an assessment. 

More broadly, the case also underscores that there is no consensus within the European Union on the broad interpretation of the GDPR preferred by some national regulators and the EDPB.

The DPC Decision

The core disagreement between the DPC and Meta, on the one hand, and some other EU privacy regulators, on the other, is whether it is lawful for Meta to treat the use of user data for personalized advertising as “necessary for the performance of” the contract between Meta and its users. The Irish DPC accepted Meta’s arguments that the nature of Facebook and Instagram is such that it is necessary to process personal data this way. The EDPB took the opposite approach and used its powers under the GDPR to direct the DPC to issue a decision contrary to DPC’s own determination. Notably, the DPC announced that it is considering challenging the EDPB’s involvement before the EU Court of Justice as an unlawful overreach of the board’s powers.

In the EDPB’s view, it is possible for Meta to offer Facebook and Instagram without personalized advertising. And to the extent that this is possible, Meta cannot rely on the “necessity for the performance of a contract” basis for data processing under Article 6 of the GDPR. Instead, Meta in most cases should rely on the “consent” basis, involving an explicit “yes/no” choice. In other words, Facebook and Instagram users should be explicitly asked if they consent to their data being used for personalized advertising. If they decline, then under this rationale, they would be free to continue using the service without personalized advertising (but with, e.g., contextual advertising). 

Notably, the decision does not mandate a particular contractual basis for processing, but only invalidates “contractual necessity” for personalized advertising. Indeed, Meta believes it has other avenues for continuing to process user data for personalized advertising while not depending on a “consent” basis. Of course, only time will tell if this reasoning is accepted. Nonetheless, the EDBP’s underlying animus toward the “necessity” of personalized advertising remains concerning.

What Is ‘Necessary’ for a Service?

The EDPB’s position is of a piece with a growing campaign against firms’ use of data more generally. But as in similar complaints against data use, the demonstrated harms here are overstated, while the possibility that benefits might flow from the use of data is assumed to be zero. 

How does the EDPB know that it is not necessary for Meta to rely on personalized advertising? And what does “necessity” mean in this context? According to the EDPB’s own guidelines, a business “should be able to demonstrate how the main subject-matter of the specific contract with the data subject cannot, as a matter of fact, be performed if the specific processing of the personal data in question does not occur.” Therefore, if it is possible to distinguish various “elements of a service that can in fact reasonably be performed independently of one another,” then even if some processing of personal data is necessary for some elements, this cannot be used to bundle those with other elements and create a “take it or leave it” situation for users. The EDPB stressed that:

This assessment may reveal that certain processing activities are not necessary for the individual services requested by the data subject, but rather necessary for the controller’s wider business model.

This stilted view of what counts as a “service” completely fails to acknowledge that “necessary” must mean more than merely technologically possible. Any service offering faces both technical limitations as well as economic limitations. What is technically possible to offer can also be so uneconomic in some forms as to be practically impossible. Surely, there are alternatives to personalized advertising as a means to monetize social media, but determining what those are requires a great deal of careful analysis and experimentation. Moreover, the EDPB’s suggested “contextual advertising” alternative is not obviously superior to the status quo, nor has it been demonstrated to be economically viable at scale.  

Thus, even though it does not strictly follow from the guidelines, the decision in the Meta case suggests that, in practice, the EDPB pays little attention to the economic reality of a contractual relationship between service providers and their users, instead trying to carve out an artificial, formalistic approach. It is doubtful whether the EDPB engaged in the kind of robust economic analysis of Facebook and Instagram that would allow it to reach a conclusion as to whether those services are economically viable without the use of personalized advertising. 

However, there is a key institutional point to be made here. Privacy regulators are likely to be eminently unprepared to conduct this kind of analysis, which arguably should lead to significant deference to the observed choices of businesses and their customers.

Conclusion

A service’s use of its users’ personal data—whether for personalized advertising or other purposes—can be a problem, but it can also generate benefits. There is no shortcut to determine, in any given situation, whether the costs of a particular business model outweigh its benefits. Critically, the balance of costs and benefits from a business model’s technological and economic components is what truly determines whether any specific component is “necessary.” In the Meta decision, the EDPB got it wrong by refusing to incorporate the full economic and technological components of the company’s business model. 

[The following is a guest post from Andrew Mercado, a research assistant at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an adjunct professor and research assistant at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School.]

Price-parity clauses have, until recently, been little discussed in the academic vertical-price-restraints literature. Their growing importance, however, cannot be ignored, and common misconceptions around their use and implementation need to be addressed. While similar in nature to both resale price maintenance and most-favored-nations clauses, the special vertical relationship between sellers and the platform inherent in price-parity clauses leads to distinct economic outcomes. Additionally, with a growing number of lawsuits targeting their use in online platform economies, it is critical to fully understand the economic incentives and outcomes stemming from price-parity clauses. 

Vertical price restraints—of which resale price maintenance (RPM) and most favored nation clauses (MFN) are among many—are both common in business and widely discussed in the academic literature. While there remains a healthy debate among academics as to the true competitive effects of these contractual arrangements, the state of U.S. jurisprudence is clear. Since the Supreme Court’s Leegin and State Oil decisions, the use of RPM is not presumed anticompetitive. Their procompetitive and anticompetitive effects must instead be assessed under a “rule of reason” framework in order to determine their legality under antitrust law. The competitive effects of MFN are also generally analyzed under the rule of reason.

Distinct from these two types of clauses, however, are price-parity clauses (PPCs). A PPC is an agreement between a platform and an independent seller under which the seller agrees to offer their goods on the platform for their lowest advertised price. While sometimes termed “platform MFNs,” the economic effects of PPCs on modern online-commerce platforms are distinct.

This commentary seeks to fill a hole in the PPC literature left by its current focus on producers that sell exclusively nonfungible products on various platforms. That literature generally finds that a PPC reduces price competition between platforms. This finding, however, is not universal. Notably absent from the discussion is any concept of multiple sellers of the same good on the same platform. Correctly accounting for this oversight leads to the conclusion that PPCs generally are both efficient and procompetitive.

Introduction

In a pair of lawsuits filed in California and the District of Columbia, Amazon has come under fire for its restrictions around pricing. These suits allege that Amazon’s restrictive PPCs harm consumers, arguing that sellers are penalized when the price for their good on Amazon is higher than on alternative platforms. They go on to claim that these provisions harm sellers, prevent platform competition, and ultimately force consumers to pay higher prices. The true competitive result of these provisions, however, is unclear.

That literature that does exist on the effects these provisions have on the competitive outcomes of platforms in online marketplaces falls fundamentally short. Jonathan Baker and Fiona Scott Morton (among others) fail to differentiate between PPCs and MFN clauses. This distinction is important because, while the impacts on consumers may be similar, the mechanisms by which the interaction occurs is not. An MFN provision stipulates that a supplier—when working with several distributors—must offer its goods to one particular distributor at terms that are better or equal to those offered to all other distributors.

PPCs, on the other hand, are agreements between sellers and platforms to ensure that the platform’s buyers have access to goods at better or equal terms as those offered the same buyers on other platforms. Sellers that are bound by a PPC and that intend to sell on multiple platforms will have to price uniformly across all platforms to satisfy the PPC. PPCs are contracts between sellers and platforms to define conduct between sellers and buyers. They do not determine conduct between sellers and the platform.

A common characteristic of MFN and PPC arrangements is that consumers are often unaware of the existence of either clause. What is not common, however, is the outcomes that stem from their use. An MFN clause only dictates the terms under which a good is sold to a distributor and does not constrain the interaction between distributors and consumers. While the lower prices realized by a distributor may be passed on as lower prices for the consumer, this is not universally true. A PPC clause, on the other hand, constrains the interactions between sellers and consumers, necessitating that the seller’s price on any given platform, by definition, must be as low as the price on all other platforms. This leads to the lowest prices for a given good in a market.

Intra-Platform Competition

The fundamental oversight in the literature is any discussion of intra-platform competition in the market for fungible goods, within which multiple sellers sell the same good on multiple platforms. Up to this point, all the discussion surrounding PPCs has centered on the Booking.com case in the European Union.

In Booking.com, the primary platform, Booking.com, instituted price-parity clauses with sellers of hotel rooms on its platform, mandating that they sell rooms on Booking.com for equal to or less than the price on all other platforms. This pricing restriction extended to the hotel’s first-party website as well.

In this case, it was alleged that consumers were worse off because the PPC unambiguously increased prices for hotel rooms. This is because, even if the hotel was willing to offer a lower price on its own website, it was unable to do so due to the PPC. This potential lower price would come about due to the low (possibly zero cost) commission a hotel must pay to sell on its own website. On the hotel’s own website, the room could be discounted by as much as the size of the commission that Booking.com took as a percentage of each sale. Further, if a competing platform chose to charge a lower commission than Booking.com, the discount could be the difference in commission rates.

While one other case, E-book MFN, is tangentially relevant, Booking.com is the only case where independent third-party sellers list a good or service for sale on a platform that imposes a PPC. While there is some evidence of harm in the market for the online booking of hotel rooms, however, hotel-room bookings are not analogous to platform-based sales of fungible goods. Sellers of hotel rooms are unable to compete to sell the same room; they can sell similarly situated, easily substitutable rooms, but the rooms are still non-fungible.

In online commerce, however, sellers regularly sell fungible goods. From lip balm and batteries to jeans and air filters, a seller of goods on an e-commerce site is among many similarly situated sellers selling nearly (or perfectly) identical products. These sellers not only have to compete with goods that are close substitutes to the good they are selling, but also with other sellers that offer an identical product.

Therefore, the conclusions found by critics of Booking.com’s PPC do not hold when removing the non-fungibility assumption. While there is some evidence that PPCs may reduce competition among platforms on the margin, there is no evidence that competition among sellers on a given platform is reduced. In fact, the PPC may increase competition by forcing all sellers on a platform to play by the same pricing rules.

We will delve into the competitive environment under a strict PPC—whereby sellers are banned from the platform when found to be in violation of the clause—and introduce the novel (and more realistic) implicit PPC, whereby sellers have incentive to comply with the PPC, but are not punished for deviation. First, however, we must understand the incentives of a seller not bound by a PPC.

Competition by sellers not bound by price-parity clauses

An individual seller in this market chooses to sell identical products at different prices across different platforms, given that the platforms may choose various levels of commission per sale. To sell the highest number of units possible, there is an incentive for sellers to steer customers to platforms that charge the lowest commission, and thereby offer the seller the most revenue possible.

Since the platforms understand the incentive to steer consumers toward low-commission platforms to increase the seller’s revenue, they may not allocate resources toward additional perks, such as free shipping. Platforms may instead compete vigorously to reduce costs in order offer the lowest commissions possible. In the long run, this race to the bottom might leave the market with one dominant and ultra-efficient naturally monopolistic platform that offers the lowest possible commission.

While this sounds excellent for consumers, since they get the lowest possible prices on all goods, this simple scenario does not incorporate non-price factors into the equation. Free shipping, handling, and physical processing; payment processing; and the time spent waiting for the good to arrive are all additional considerations that consumers factor into the equation. For a higher commission, often on the seller side, platforms may offer a number of these perks that increase consumer welfare by a greater amount than the price increase often associated with higher commissions.

In this scenario, because of the under-allocation of resources to platform efficiency, a unified logistics market may not emerge, where buyers are able to search and purchase a good; sellers are able to sell the good; and the platform is able to facilitate the shipping, processing, and handling. By fragmenting these markets—due to the inefficient allocation of capital—consumer welfare is not maximized. And while the raw price of a good is minimized, the total price of the transaction is not.

Competition by sellers bound by strict price-parity clauses

In this scenario, each platform will have some version of a PPC. When the strict PPC is enforced, a seller is restricted from selling on that platform when they are found to have broken parity. Sellers choose the platforms on which they want to sell based on which platform may generate the greatest return; they then set a single price for all platforms. The seller might then make higher returns on platforms with lower commissions and lower returns on platforms with higher commissions. Fundamentally, to sell on a platform, the seller must at least cover its marginal cost.

Due to the potential of being banned for breaking parity, sellers may have an incentive to price so low that, on some platforms, they do not turn a profit (due to high commissions) while compensating for those losses with profits earned on other platforms with lower commissions. Alternatively, sellers may choose to forgo sales on a given platform altogether if the marginal cost associated with selling on the platform under parity is too great.

For a seller to continue to sell on a platform, or to decide to sell on an additional platform, the marginal revenue associated with selling on that platform must outweigh the marginal cost. In effect, even if the commission is so high that the seller merely breaks even, it is still in the seller’s best interest to continue on the platform; only if the seller is losing money by selling on the platform is it economically rational to exit.

Within the boundaries of the platform, sellers bound by a PPC have a strong incentive to vigorously compete. Additionally, they have an incentive to compete vigorously across platforms to generate the highest possible revenue and offset any losses from high-commission platforms.

Platforms have an incentive to vigorously compete to attract buyers and sellers by offering various incentives and additional services to increase the quality of a sale. Examples of such “add-ons” include fulfilment and processing undertaken by the platform, expedited shipping and insured shipping, and authentication services and warranties.

Platforms also have an incentive to find the correct level of commission based on the add-on services that they provide. A platform that wants to offer the lowest possible prices might provide no or few add-ons and charge a low commission. Alternatively, the platform that wants to provide the highest possible quality may charge a high commission in exchange for many add-ons.

As the value that platforms can offer buyers and sellers increases, and as sellers lower their prices to maintain or increase sales, the quality bestowed upon consumers is likely to rise. Competition within the platform, however, may decline. Highly efficient sellers (those with the lowest marginal cost) may use strict PPCs—under which sellers are removed from the platform for breaking parity—to price less-efficient sellers out of the market. Additionally, efficient platforms may be able to price less-efficient platforms out of the market by offering better add-ons, starving the platforms of buyers and sellers in the long run.

Even with the existence of marginally higher prices and lower competition in the marketplace compared to a world without price parity, the marginal benefit for the consumer is likely higher. This is because the add-on services used by platforms to entice buyers and sellers to transact on a given platform, over time, cost less to provide than the benefit they bestow. Regardless of whether every single consumer realizes the full value of such added benefits, the likely result is a level of consumer welfare that is greater under price parity than in its absence.

Implicit price parity: The case of Amazon

Amazon’s price-parity-policy conditions access to some seller perks on the adherence to parity, guiding sellers toward a unified pricing scheme.  The term best suited for this type of policy is an “implicit price parity clause” (IPPC). Under this system, the incentive structure rewards sellers for pricing competitively on Amazon, without punishing alternative pricing measures. For example, if a seller sets prices higher on Amazon because it charges higher commissions than other platforms, that seller will not eligible for Amazon’s Buy Box. But they are still able to sell, market, and promote their own product on the platform. They still show up in the “other sellers” dropdown section of the product page, and consumers can choose that seller with little more than a scroll and an additional click.

While the remainder of this analysis focuses on the specific policies found on Amazon’s platform, IPPCs are found on other platforms, as well. Walmart’s marketplace contains a similar parity policy along with a similarly functioning “buy” box. eBay, too, offers a “best price guarantee,” through which the site offers match the price plus 10% of a qualified competitor within 48 hours. While this policy is not identical in nature, it is in result: prices that are identical for identical goods across multiple platforms.

Amazon’s policy may sound as if it is picking winners and losers on its platform, a system that might appear ripe for corruption and unjustified self-preferencing. But there are several reasons to believe this is not the case. Amazon has built a reputation of low prices, quick delivery, and a high level of customer service. This reputation provides the company an incentive to ensure a consistently high level of quality over time. As Amazon increases the number of products and services offered on its platform, it also needs to devise ways to ensure that its promise of low prices and outstanding service is maintained.

This is where the Buy Box comes in to play. All sellers on the platform can sell without utilizing the Buy Box. These transactions occur either on the seller’s own storefront, or by utilizing the “other sellers” portion of the purchase page for a given good. Amazon’s PPC does not affect the way that these sales occur. Additionally, the seller is free in this type of transaction to sell at whatever price it desires. This includes severely under- or overpricing the competition, as well as breaking price parity. Amazon’s policies do not directly determine prices.

The benefit of the Buy Box—and the reason that an IPPC can be so effective for buyers, sellers, and the platform—is that it both increases competition and decreases search costs. For sellers, there is a strong incentive to compete vigorously on price, since that should give them the best opportunity to sell through the Buy Box. Because the Buy Box is algorithmically driven—factoring in price parity, as well as a few other quality-centered metrics (reviews, shipping cost and speed, etc.)—the featured Buy Box seller can change multiple times per day.

Relative prices between sellers are not the only important factor in winning the Buy Box; absolute prices also play a role. For some products—where there are a limited number of sellers and none are observing parity or they are pricing far above sellers on other platforms—the Buy Box is not displayed at all. This forces consumers to make a deliberate choice to buy from a specific seller as opposed to from a preselected seller. In effect, the Buy Box’s omission removes Amazon’s endorsement of the seller’s practices, while still allowing the seller to offer goods on the platform.

For consumers, this vigorous price competition leads to significantly lower prices with a high level of service. When a consumer uses the Buy Box (as opposed to buying directly from a given seller), Amazon is offering an assurance that the price, shipping, cost, speed, and service associated with that seller and that good is the best of all possible options. Amazon is so confident with its  algorithm that the assurance is backed up with a price guarantee; Amazon will match the price of relevant competitors and, until 2021, would foot the bill for any price drops that happened within seven days of purchase.

For Amazon, this commitment to low prices, high volume, and quality service leads to a sustained strong reputation. Since Amazon has an incentive to attract as many buyers and sellers as possible, to maximize its revenue through commissions on sales and advertising, the platform needs to carefully curate an environment that is conducive to repeated interactions. Buyers and sellers come together on the platform knowing that they are going to face the lowest prices, highest revenues, and highest level of service, because Amazon’s implicit price-parity clause (among other policies) aligns incentives in just the right way to optimize competition.

Conclusion

In some ways, an implicit price-parity clause is the Goldilocks of vertical price restraints.

Without a price-parity clause, there is little incentive to invest in the platform. Yes, there are low prices, but a race to the bottom may tend to lead to a single monopolistic platform. Additionally, consumer welfare is not maximized, since there are no services provided at an efficient level to bring additional value to buyers and sellers, leading to higher quality-adjusted prices. 

Under a strict price-parity clause, there is a strong incentive to invest in the platform, but the nature of removing selling rights due to a violation can lead to reduced price competition. While the quality of service under this system may be higher, the quality-adjusted price may remain high, since there are lower levels of competition putting downward pressure on prices.

An implicit price-parity clause takes the best aspects of both no PPC and strict PPC policies but removes the worst. Sellers are free to set prices as they wish but have incentive to comply with the policy due to the additional benefits they may receive from the Buy Box. The platform has sufficient protection from free riding due to the revocation of certain services, leading to high levels of investment in efficient services that increase quality and decrease quality-adjusted prices. Finally, consumers benefit from the vigorous price competition for the Buy Box, leading to both lower prices and higher quality-adjusted prices when accounting for the efficient shipping and fulfilment undertaken by the platform.

Current attempts to find an antitrust violation associated with PPCs—both implicit and otherwise—are likely misplaced. Any evidence gathered on the market will probably show an increase in consumer welfare. The reduced search costs on the platforms alone could outweigh any alleged increase in price, not to mention the time costs associated with rapid processing and shipping.

Further, while there are many claims that PPC policies—and high commissions on sales—harm sellers, the alternative is even worse. The only credible counterfactual, given the widespread permeation of PPC policies, is that all sellers on the Internet only sell through their own website. Not only would this increase the cost for small businesses by a significant margin, but it would also likely drive many out of business. For sellers, the benefit of a platform is access to a multitude (in some cases, hundreds of millions) of potential consumers. To reach that number of consumers on its own, every single independent seller would have to employ a team of marketers that rivals a Fortune 500 company. Unfortunately, the value proposition is not on its side, and until it is, platforms are the only viable option.

Before labeling a specific contractual obligation as harmful and anticompetitive, we need to understand how it works in the real world. To this point, there has been insufficient discussion about the intra-platform competition that occurs because of price-parity clauses, and the potential consumer-welfare benefits associated with implicit price-parity clauses. Ideally, courts, regulators, and policymakers will take the time going forward to think deeply about the costs and benefits associated with the clauses and choose the least harmful approach to enforcement.

Ultimately, consumers are the ones who stand to lose the most as a result of overenforcement. As always, enforcers should keep in mind that it is the welfare of consumers, not competitors or platforms, that is the overarching concern of antitrust.

The business press generally describes the gig economy that has sprung up around digital platforms like Uber and TaskRabbit as a beneficial phenomenon, “a glass that is almost full.” The gig economy “is an economy that operates flexibly, involving the exchange of labor and resources through digital platforms that actively facilitate buyer and seller matching.”

From the perspective of businesses, major positive attributes of the gig economy include cost-effectiveness (minimizing costs and expenses); labor-force efficiencies (“directly matching the company to the freelancer”); and flexible output production (individualized work schedules and enhanced employee motivation). Workers also benefit through greater independence, enhanced work flexibility (including hours worked), and the ability to earn extra income.

While there are some disadvantages, as well, (worker-commitment questions, business-ethics issues, lack of worker benefits, limited coverage of personal expenses, and worker isolation), there is no question that the gig economy has contributed substantially to the growth and flexibility of the American economy—a major social good. Indeed, “[i]t is undeniable that the gig economy has become an integral part of the American workforce, a trend that has only been accelerated during the” COVID-19 pandemic.

In marked contrast, however, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Sept. 15 Policy Statement on Enforcement Related to Gig Work (“gig statement” or “statement”) is the story of a glass that is almost empty. The accompanying press release declaring “FTC to Crack Down on Companies Taking Advantage of Gig Workers” (since when is “taking advantage of workers” an antitrust or consumer-protection offense?) puts an entirely negative spin on the gig economy. And while the gig statement begins by describing the nature and large size of the gig economy, it does so in a dispassionate and bland tone. No mention is made of the substantial benefits for consumers, workers, and the overall economy stemming from gig work. Rather, the gig statement quickly adopts a critical perspective in describing the market for gig workers and then addressing gig-related FTC-enforcement priorities. What’s more, the statement deals in very broad generalities and eschews specifics, rendering it of no real use to gig businesses seeking practical guidance.

Most significantly, the gig statement suggests that the FTC should play a significant enforcement role in gig-industry labor questions that fall outside its statutory authority. As such, the statement is fatally flawed as a policy document. It provides no true guidance and should be substantially rewritten or withdrawn.

Gig Statement Analysis

The gig statement’s substantive analysis begins with a negative assessment of gig-firm conduct. It expresses concern that gig workers are being misclassified as independent contractors and are thus deprived “of critical rights [right to organize, overtime pay, health and safety protections] to which they are entitled under law.” Relatedly, gig workers are said to be “saddled with inordinate risks.” Gig firms also “may use transparent algorithms to capture more revenue from customer payments for workers’ services than customers or workers understand.”

Heaven forfend!

The solution offered by the gig statement is “scrutiny of promises gig platforms make, or information they fail to disclose, about the financial proposition of gig work.” No mention is made of how these promises supposedly made to workers about the financial ramifications of gig employment are related to the FTC’s statutory mission (which centers on unfair or deceptive acts or practices affecting consumers or unfair methods of competition).

The gig statement next complains that a “power imbalance” between gig companies and gig workers “may leave gig workers exposed to harms from unfair, deceptive, and anticompetitive practices and is likely to amplify such harms when they occur. “Power imbalance” along a vertical chain has not been a source of serious antitrust concern for decades (and even in the case of the Robinson-Patman Act, the U.S. Supreme Court most recently stressed, in 2005’s Volvo v. Reeder, that harm to interbrand competition is the key concern). “Power imbalances” between workers and employers bear no necessary relation to consumer welfare promotion, which the Supreme Court teaches is the raison d’etre of antitrust. Moreover, the FTC does not explain why unfair or deceptive conduct likely follows from the mere existence of substantial bargaining power. Such an unsupported assertion is not worthy of being included in a serious agency-policy document.

The gig statement then engages in more idle speculation about a supposed relationship between market concentration and the proliferation of unfair and deceptive practices across the gig economy. The statement claims, without any substantiation, that gig companies in concentrated platform markets will be incentivized to exert anticompetitive market power over gig workers, and thereby “suppress wages below competitive rates, reduce job quality, or impose onerous terms on gig workers.” Relatedly, “unfair and deceptive practices by one platform can proliferate across the labor market, creating a race to the bottom that participants in the gig economy, and especially gig workers, have little ability to avoid.” No empirical or theoretical support is advanced for any of these bald assertions, which give the strong impression that the commission plans to target gig-economy companies for enforcement actions without regard to the actual facts on the ground. (By contrast, the commission has in the past developed detailed factual records of competitive and/or consumer-protection problems in health care and other important industry sectors as a prelude to possible future investigations.)

The statement then launches into a description of the FTC’s gig-economy policy priorities. It notes first that “workers may be deprived of the protections of an employment relationship” when gig firms classify them as independent contractors, leading to firms’ “disclosing [of] pay and costs in an unfair and deceptive manner.” What’s more, the FTC “also recognizes that misleading claims [made to workers] about the costs and benefits of gig work can impair fair competition among companies in the gig economy and elsewhere.”

These extraordinary statements seem to be saying that the FTC plans to closely scrutinize gig-economy-labor contract negotiations, based on its distaste for independent contracting (which it believes should be supplanted by employer-employee relationships, a question of labor law, not FTC law). Nowhere is it explained where such a novel FTC exercise of authority comes from, nor how such FTC actions have any bearing on harms to consumer welfare. The FTC’s apparent desire to force employment relationships upon gig firms is far removed from harm to competition or unfair or deceptive practices directed at consumers. Without more of an explanation, one is left to conclude that the FTC is proposing to take actions that are far beyond its statutory remit.

The gig statement next tries to tie the FTC’s new gig program to violations of the FTC Act (“unsubstantiated claims”); the FTC’s Franchise Rule; and the FTC’s Business Opportunity Rule, violations of which “can trigger civil penalties.” The statement, however, lacks any sort of logical, coherent explanation of how the new enforcement program necessarily follows from these other sources of authority. While a few examples of rules-based enforcement actions that have some connection to certain terms of employment may be pointed to, such special cases are a far cry from any sort of general justification for turning the FTC into a labor-contracts regulator.

The statement then moves on to the alleged misuse of algorithmic tools dealing with gig-worker contracts and supervision that may lead to unlawful gig-worker oversight and termination. Once again, the connection of any of this to consumer-welfare harm (from a competition or consumer-protection perspective) is not made.

The statement further asserts that FTC Act consumer-protection violations may arise from “nonnegotiable” and other unfair contracts. In support of such a novel exercise of authority, however, the FTC cites supposedly analogous “unfair” clauses found in consumer contracts with individuals or small-business consumers. It is highly doubtful that these precedents support any FTC enforcement actions involving labor contracts.

Noncompete clauses with individuals are next on the gig statement’s agenda. It is claimed that “[n]on-compete provisions may undermine free and fair labor markets by restricting workers’ ability to obtain competitive offers for their services from existing companies, resulting in lower wages and degraded working conditions. These provisions may also raise barriers to entry for new companies.” The assertion, however, that such clauses may violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act or Section 5 of the FTC Act’s bar on unfair methods of competition, seems dubious, to say the least. Unless there is coordination among companies, these are essentially unilateral contracting practices that may have robust efficiency explanations. Making out these practices to be federal antitrust violations is bad law and bad policy; they are, in any event, subject to a wide variety of state laws.

Even more problematic is the FTC’s claim that a variety of standard (typically efficiency-seeking) contract limitations, such as nondisclosure agreements and liquidated damages clauses, “may be excessive or overbroad” and subject to FTC scrutiny. This preposterous assertion would make the FTC into a second-guesser of common labor contracts (a federal labor-contract regulator, if you will), a role for which it lacks authority and is entirely unsuited. Turning the FTC into a federal labor-contract regulator would impose unjustifiable uncertainty costs on business and chill a host of efficient arrangements. It is hard to take such a claim of power seriously, given its lack of any credible statutory basis.

The final section of the gig statement dealing with FTC enforcement (“Policing Unfair Methods of Competition That Harm Gig Workers”) is unobjectionable, but not particularly informative. It essentially states that the FTC’s black letter legal authority over anticompetitive conduct also extends to gig companies: the FTC has the authority to investigate and prosecute anticompetitive mergers; agreements among competitors to fix terms of employment; no-poach agreements; and acts of monopolization and attempted monopolization. (Tell us something we did not know!)

The fact that gig-company workers may be harmed by such arrangements is noted. The mere page and a half devoted to this legal summary, however, provides little practical guidance for gig companies as to how to avoid running afoul of the law. Antitrust policy statements may be excused if they provided less detailed guidance than antitrust guidelines, but it would be helpful if they did something more than provide a capsule summary of general American antitrust principles. The gig statement does not pass this simple test.

The gig statement closes with a few glittering generalities. Cooperation with other agencies is highlighted (for example, an information-sharing agreement with the National Labor Relations Board is described). The FTC describes an “Equity Action Plan” calling for a focus on how gig-economy antitrust and consumer-protection abuses harm underserved communities and low-wage workers.

The FTC finishes with a request for input from the public and from gig workers about abusive and potentially illegal gig-sector conduct. No mention is made of the fact that the FTC must, of course, conform itself to the statutory limitations on its jurisdiction in the gig sector, as in all other areas of the economy.

Summing Up the Gig Statement

In sum, the critical flaw of the FTC’s gig statement is its focus on questions of labor law and policy (including the question of independent contractor as opposed to employee status) that are the proper purview of federal and state statutory schemes not administered by the Federal Trade Commission. (A secondary flaw is the statement’s unbalanced portrayal of the gig sector, which ignores its beneficial aspects.) If the FTC decides that gig-economy issues deserve particular enforcement emphasis, it should (and, indeed, must) direct its attention to anticompetitive actions and unfair or deceptive acts or practices that harm consumers.

On the antitrust side, that might include collusion among gig companies on the terms offered to workers or perhaps “mergers to monopoly” between gig companies offering a particular service. On the consumer-protection side, that might include making false or materially misleading statements to consumers about the terms under which they purchase gig-provided services. (It would be conceivable, of course, that some of those statements might be made, unwittingly or not, by gig independent contractors, at the behest of the gig companies.)

The FTC also might carry out gig-industry studies to identify particular prevalent competitive or consumer-protection harms. The FTC should not, however, seek to transform itself into a gig-labor-market enforcer and regulator, in defiance of its lack of statutory authority to play this role.

Conclusion

The FTC does, of course, have a legitimate role to play in challenging unfair methods of competition and unfair acts or practices that undermine consumer welfare wherever they arise, including in the gig economy. But it does a disservice by focusing merely on supposed negative aspects of the gig economy and conjuring up a gig-specific “parade of horribles” worthy of close commission scrutiny and enforcement action.

Many of the “horribles” cited may not even be “bads,” and many of them are, in any event, beyond the proper legal scope of FTC inquiry. There are other federal agencies (for example, the National Labor Relations Board) whose statutes may prove applicable to certain problems noted in the gig statement. In other cases, statutory changes may be required to address certain problems noted in the statement (assuming they actually are problems). The FTC, and its fellow enforcement agencies, should keep in mind, of course, that they are not Congress, and wishing for legal authority to deal with problems does not create it (something the federal judiciary fully understands).  

In short, the negative atmospherics that permeate the gig statement are unnecessary and counterproductive; if anything, they are likely to convince at least some judges that the FTC is not the dispassionate finder of fact and enforcer of law that it claims to be. In particular, the judiciary is unlikely to be impressed by the FTC’s apparent effort to insert itself into questions that lie far beyond its statutory mandate.

The FTC should withdraw the gig statement. If, however, it does not, it should revise the statement in a manner that is respectful of the limits on the commission’s legal authority, and that presents a more dispassionate analysis of gig-economy business conduct.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Things are heating up in the antitrust world. There is considerable pressure to pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) before the congressional recess in August—a short legislative window before members of Congress shift their focus almost entirely to campaigning for the mid-term elections. While it would not be impossible to advance the bill after the August recess, it would be a steep uphill climb.

But whether it passes or not, some of the damage from AICOA may already be done. The bill has moved the antitrust dialogue that will harm innovation and consumers. In this post, I will first explain AICOA’s fundamental flaws. Next, I discuss the negative impact that the legislation is likely to have if passed, even if courts and agencies do not aggressively enforce its provisions. Finally, I show how AICOA has already provided an intellectual victory for the approach articulated in the European Union (EU)’s Digital Markets Act (DMA). It has built momentum for a dystopian regulatory framework to break up and break into U.S. superstar firms designated as “gatekeepers” at the expense of innovation and consumers.

The Unseen of AICOA

AICOA’s drafters argue that, once passed, it will deliver numerous economic benefits. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)—the bill’s main sponsor—has stated that it will “ensure small businesses and entrepreneurs still have the opportunity to succeed in the digital marketplace. This bill will do just that while also providing consumers with the benefit of greater choice online.”

Section 3 of the bill would provide “business users” of the designated “covered platforms” with a wide range of entitlements. This includes preventing the covered platform from offering any services or products that a business user could provide (the so-called “self-preferencing” prohibition); allowing a business user access to the covered platform’s proprietary data; and an entitlement for business users to have “preferred placement” on a covered platform without having to use any of that platform’s services.

These entitlements would provide non-platform businesses what are effectively claims on the platform’s proprietary assets, notwithstanding the covered platform’s own investments to collect data, create services, and invent products—in short, the platform’s innovative efforts. As such, AICOA is redistributive legislation that creates the conditions for unfair competition in the name of “fair” and “open” competition. It treats the behavior of “covered platforms” differently than identical behavior by their competitors, without considering the deterrent effect such a framework will have on consumers and innovation. Thus, AICOA offers rent-seeking rivals a formidable avenue to reap considerable benefits at the expense of the innovators thanks to the weaponization of antitrust to subvert, not improve, competition.

In mandating that covered platforms make their data and proprietary assets freely available to “business users” and rivals, AICOA undermines the underpinning of free markets to pursue the misguided goal of “open markets.” The inevitable result will be the tragedy of the commons. Absent the covered platforms having the ability to benefit from their entrepreneurial endeavors, the law no longer encourages innovation. As Joseph Schumpeter seminally predicted: “perfect competition implies free entry into every industry … But perfectly free entry into a new field may make it impossible to enter it at all.”

To illustrate, if business users can freely access, say, a special status on the covered platforms’ ancillary services without having to use any of the covered platform’s services (as required under Section 3(a)(5)), then platforms are disincentivized from inventing zero-priced services, since they cannot cross-monetize these services with existing services. Similarly, if, under Section 3(a)(1) of the bill, business users can stop covered platforms from pre-installing or preferencing an app whenever they happen to offer a similar app, then covered platforms will be discouraged from investing in or creating new apps. Thus, the bill would generate a considerable deterrent effect for covered platforms to invest, invent, and innovate.

AICOA’s most detrimental consequences may not be immediately apparent; they could instead manifest in larger and broader downstream impacts that will be difficult to undo. As the 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat wrote: “a law gives birth not only to an effect but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause—it is seen. The others unfold in succession—they are not seen it is well for, if they are foreseen … it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come,—at the risk of a small present evil.”

To paraphrase Bastiat, AICOA offers ill-intentioned rivals a “small present good”–i.e., unconditional access to the platforms’ proprietary assets–while society suffers the loss of a greater good–i.e., incentives to innovate and welfare gains to consumers. The logic is akin to those who advocate the abolition of intellectual-property rights: The immediate (and seen) gain is obvious, concerning the dissemination of innovation and a reduction of the price of innovation, while the subsequent (and unseen) evil remains opaque, as the destruction of the institutional premises for innovation will generate considerable long-term innovation costs.

Fundamentally, AICOA weakens the benefits of scale by pursuing vertical disintegration of the covered platforms to the benefit of short-term static competition. In the long term, however, the bill would dampen dynamic competition, ultimately harming consumer welfare and the capacity for innovation. The measure’s opportunity costs will prevent covered platforms’ innovations from benefiting other business users or consumers. They personify the “unseen,” as Bastiat put it: “[they are] always in the shadow, and who, personifying what is not seen, [are] an essential element of the problem. [They make] us understand how absurd it is to see a profit in destruction.”

The costs could well amount to hundreds of billions of dollars for the U.S. economy, even before accounting for the costs of deterred innovation. The unseen is costly, the seen is cheap.

A New Robinson-Patman Act?

Most antitrust laws are terse, vague, and old: The Sherman Act of 1890, the Federal Trade Commission Act, and the Clayton Act of 1914 deal largely in generalities, with considerable deference for courts to elaborate in a common-law tradition on the specificities of what “restraints of trade,” “monopolization,” or “unfair methods of competition” mean.

In 1936, Congress passed the Robinson-Patman Act, designed to protect competitors from the then-disruptive competition of large firms who—thanks to scale and practices such as price differentiation—upended traditional incumbents to the benefit of consumers. Passed after “Congress made no factual investigation of its own, and ignored evidence that conflicted with accepted rhetoric,” the law prohibits price differentials that would benefit buyers, and ultimately consumers, in the name of less vigorous competition from more efficient, more productive firms. Indeed, under the Robinson-Patman Act, manufacturers cannot give a bigger discount to a distributor who would pass these savings onto consumers, even if the distributor performs extra services relative to others.

Former President Gerald Ford declared in 1975 that the Robinson-Patman Act “is a leading example of [a law] which restrain[s] competition and den[ies] buyers’ substantial savings…It discourages both large and small firms from cutting prices, making it harder for them to expand into new markets and pass on to customers the cost-savings on large orders.” Despite this, calls to amend or repeal the Robinson-Patman Act—supported by, among others, competition scholars like Herbert Hovenkamp and Robert Bork—have failed.

In the 1983 Abbott decision, Justice Lewis Powell wrote: “The Robinson-Patman Act has been widely criticized, both for its effects and for the policies that it seeks to promote. Although Congress is aware of these criticisms, the Act has remained in effect for almost half a century.”

Nonetheless, the act’s enforcement dwindled, thanks to wise reactions from antitrust agencies and the courts. While it is seldom enforced today, the act continues to create considerable legal uncertainty, as it raises regulatory risks for companies who engage in behavior that may conflict with its provisions. Indeed, many of the same so-called “neo-Brandeisians” who support passage of AICOA also advocate reinvigorating Robinson-Patman. More specifically, the new FTC majority has expressed that it is eager to revitalize Robinson-Patman, even as the law protects less efficient competitors. In other words, the Robinson-Patman Act is a zombie law: dead, but still moving.

Even if the antitrust agencies and courts ultimately follow the same path of regulatory and judicial restraint on AICOA that they have on Robinson-Patman, the legal uncertainty its existence will engender will act as a powerful deterrent on disruptive competition that dynamically benefits consumers and innovation. In short, like the Robinson-Patman Act, antitrust agencies and courts will either enforce AICOA–thus, generating the law’s adverse effects on consumers and innovation–or they will refrain from enforcing AICOA–but then, the legal uncertainty shall lead to unseen, harmful effects on innovation and consumers.

For instance, the bill’s prohibition on “self-preferencing” in Section 3(a)(1) will prevent covered platforms from offering consumers new products and services that happen to compete with incumbents’ products and services. Self-preferencing often is a pro-competitive, pro-efficiency practice that companies widely adopt—a reality that AICOA seems to ignore.

Would AICOA prevent, e.g., Apple from offering a bundled subscription to Apple One, which includes Apple Music, so that the company can effectively compete with incumbents like Spotify? As with Robinson-Patman, antitrust agencies and courts will have to choose whether to enforce a productivity-decreasing law, or to ignore congressional intent but, in the process, generate significant legal uncertainties.

Judge Bork once wrote that Robinson-Patman was “antitrust’s least glorious hour” because, rather than improving competition and innovation, it reduced competition from firms who happen to be more productive, innovative, and efficient than their rivals. The law infamously protected inefficient competitors rather than competition. But from the perspective of legislative history perspective, AICOA may be antitrust’s new “least glorious hour.” If adopted, it will adversely affect innovation and consumers, as opportunistic rivals will be able to prevent cost-saving practices by the covered platforms.

As with Robinson-Patman, calls to amend or repeal AICOA may follow its passage. But Robinson-Patman Act illustrates the path dependency of bad antitrust laws. However costly and damaging, AICOA would likely stay in place, with regular calls for either stronger or weaker enforcement, depending on whether the momentum shifts from populist antitrust or antitrust more consistent with dynamic competition.

Victory of the Brussels Effect

The future of AICOA does not bode well for markets, either from a historical perspective or from a comparative-law perspective. The EU’s DMA similarly targets a few large tech platforms but it is broader, harsher, and swifter. In the competition between these two examples of self-inflicted techlash, AICOA will pale in comparison with the DMA. Covered platforms will be forced to align with the DMA’s obligations and prohibitions.

Consequently, AICOA is a victory of the DMA and of the Brussels effect in general. AICOA effectively crowns the DMA as the all-encompassing regulatory assault on digital gatekeepers. While members of Congress have introduced numerous antitrust bills aimed at targeting gatekeepers, the DMA is the one-stop-shop regulation that encompasses multiple antitrust bills and imposes broader prohibitions and stronger obligations on gatekeepers. In other words, the DMA outcompetes AICOA.

Commentators seldom lament the extraterritorial impact of European regulations. Regarding regulating digital gatekeepers, U.S. officials should have pushed back against the innovation-stifling, welfare-decreasing effects of the DMA on U.S. tech companies, in particular, and on U.S. technological innovation, in general. To be fair, a few U.S. officials, such as Commerce Secretary Gina Raimundo, did voice opposition to the DMA. Indeed, well-aware of the DMA’s protectionist intent and its potential to break up and break into tech platforms, Raimundo expressed concerns that antitrust should not be about protecting competitors and deterring innovation but rather about protecting the process of competition, however disruptive may be.

The influential neo-Brandeisians and radical antitrust reformers, however, lashed out at Raimundo and effectively shamed the Biden administration into embracing the DMA (and its sister regulation, AICOA). Brussels did not have to exert its regulatory overreach; the U.S. administration happily imports and emulates European overregulation. There is no better way for European officials to see their dreams come true: a techlash against U.S. digital platforms that enjoys the support of local officials.

In that regard, AICOA has already played a significant role in shaping the intellectual mood in Washington and in altering the course of U.S. antitrust. Members of Congress designed AICOA along the lines pioneered by the DMA. Sen. Klobuchar has argued that America should emulate European competition policy regarding tech platforms. Lina Khan, now chair of the FTC, co-authored the U.S. House Antitrust Subcommittee report, which recommended adopting the European concept of “abuse of dominant position” in U.S. antitrust. In her current position, Khan now praises the DMA. Tim Wu, competition counsel for the White House, has praised European competition policy and officials. Indeed, the neo-Brandeisians’ have not only praised the European Commission’s fines against U.S. tech platforms (despite early criticisms from former President Barack Obama) but have more dramatically called for the United States to imitate the European regulatory framework.

In this regulatory race to inefficiency, the standard is set in Brussels with the blessings of U.S. officials. Not even the precedent set by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) fully captures the effects the DMA will have. Privacy laws passed by U.S. states’ privacy have mostly reacted to the reality of the GDPR. With AICOA, Congress is proactively anticipating, emulating, and welcoming the DMA before it has even been adopted. The intellectual and policy shift is historical, and so is the policy error.

AICOA and the Boulevard of Broken Dreams

AICOA is a failure similar to the Robinson-Patman Act and a victory for the Brussels effect and the DMA. Consumers will be the collateral damages, and the unseen effects on innovation will take years before they materialize. Calls for amendments and repeals of AICOA are likely to fail, so that the inevitable costs will forever bear upon consumers and innovation dynamics.

AICOA illustrates the neo-Brandeisian opposition to large innovative companies. Joseph Schumpeter warned against such hostility and its effect on disincentivizing entrepreneurs to innovate when he wrote:

Faced by the increasing hostility of the environment and by the legislative, administrative, and judicial practice born of that hostility, entrepreneurs and capitalists—in fact the whole stratum that accepts the bourgeois scheme of life—will eventually cease to function. Their standard aims are rapidly becoming unattainable, their efforts futile.

President William Howard Taft once said, “the world is not going to be saved by legislation.” AICOA will not save antitrust, nor will consumers. To paraphrase Schumpeter, the bill’s drafters “walked into our future as we walked into the war, blindfolded.” AICOA’s intentions to deliver greater competition, a fairer marketplace, greater consumer choice, and more consumer benefits will ultimately scatter across the boulevard of broken dreams.

The Baron de Montesquieu once wrote that legislators should only change laws with a “trembling hand”:

It is sometimes necessary to change certain laws. But the case is rare, and when it happens, they should be touched only with a trembling hand: such solemnities should be observed, and such precautions are taken that the people will naturally conclude that the laws are indeed sacred since it takes so many formalities to abrogate them.

AICOA’s drafters had a clumsy hand, coupled with what Friedrich Hayek would call “a pretense of knowledge.” They were certain to do social good and incapable of thinking of doing social harm. The future will remember AICOA as the new antitrust’s least glorious hour, where consumers and innovation were sacrificed on the altar of a revitalized populist view of antitrust.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Early Morning

I wake up grudgingly to the loud ring of my phone’s preset alarm sound (I swear I gave third-party alarms a fair shot). I slide my feet into the bedroom slippers and mechanically chaperone my body to the coffee machine in the living room.

“Great,” I think to myself, “Out of capsules, again.” Still in my bathrobe, I make a grumpy face and post an interoperable story on social media. “Don’t even talk to me before I’ve had my morning coffee! #HateMondays.”

I flick my thumb and get a warm, fuzzy feeling of satisfaction as I consent to a series of privacy-related pop-ups on the official incumbent’s online marketplace website (I place immense importance on my privacy) before getting ready to sit through the usual fairness presentations.

I reach for a chair, grab a notepad and crack my neck sideways as I try to focus my (still) groggy brain on the kaleidoscope of thumbnails before me. “Time to do my part,” I sigh. My eyes—trained by years of practice—dart from left to right and from right to left, carefully scrutinizing each coffee capsule on offer for an equal number of seconds (ever since the self-preferencing ban, all available products within a search category are displayed simultaneously on the screen to avoid any explicit or tacit bias that could be interpreted as giving the online marketplace incumbent’s own products an unfair advantage over competitors).

After 13 brands and at least as many flavors, I select the platforms own brand, “Basic” (it matches my coffee machine and I’ve found through trial and error that they’re the least prone to malfunctioning), and then answer a series of questions to make sure I have actually given competitors’ products fair consideration. Platforms—including the online marketplace incumbent—use sneaky and illegal ways to leverage the attention market and give a leg up to their own products, such as offering lower prices or better delivery conditions. But with enough practice you learn to see through it. Not on my watch!

Exhausted but pleased with myself, I put the notepad down and my feet up on the coffee table. Victory.

Noon

I curse as I stub my toe on the office chair. Still with a pen in my right hand, ink dripping, I whip out my phone and pick Whatsapp to answer (I’ve never felt the need to use any of the other, newer apps—since everything is interoperable now). “No, of course I didn’t forget to do the groceries,” I tell my girlfriend with a tinge of deliberate frustration. But, of course, she knows that I know that she knows that I did.

I grab my notepad and almost fall over as I try to slide into my jeans and produce a grocery itinerary (like a grocery list, but longer) at the same time. “Trader Pete’s for fruits and vegetables, Gracey’s for canned goods, HTS for HTS frozen pizza,” I scribble, nerves tense.

(Not every company has gone the way of the online marketplace incumbent and some have decided they would be better off if they just sold their own products. After all, you can’t be fined for self-preferencing if you’re only selling your own stuff. Of course, the strategy is only viable in those industries in which vertical integration hasn’t been banned).

I finish getting dressed and dash down the stairs. I instinctively glance at my phone before getting in the car and immediately regret it, as I dismiss a bunch of notifications about malware infections. “Another app store that I’m striking from the list,” I think to myself as I turn on the ignition.

Late Afternoon

My girlfriend has already ordered a soda as I sit down at the table. “Sorry I’m late,” I mumble. We talk about her day and I tell her about the capsules I ordered (she nods approvingly) before we finally decide to order. I wave to the waiter and ask about the specials. A lanky young man no older than 19 fumbles through his (empty) pad and lists a couple of dishes.

He blurts out “homemade” and immediately turns pale. I look at my girlfriend nervously, and she stares back blankly—dazed. “Do you mean to say that it was made here, in this restaurant?” I ask in disbelief, dizzy. He comes up with some sorry excuse but I’m having none of it. I make my way to the toilet—sickened—and pull out my phone with a shaky hand. I have the Federal Trade Commission on speed-dial. I call and select number one: self-preferencing. They immediately put me through with someone. Sweating, I explain that the Italian restaurant on the corner between the 5th and Madison avenues just recommended me a special dish made by them—and barely even mentioned any of the specialties offered by the kebab joint next door. I assure the voice at the other end of the line that I had nothing to do it, and that I have not ordered—let alone tasted—the dish.

I rush out of the bathroom with blinders on and pull my girlfriend by the elbow. Her coat is on and she’s clearly impatient to get the hell out of there. As I reach for my jacket by the exit, an older man with a moustache approaches us with a bowed head and literally begs us to take a bottle of wine (no doubt a bribe for my silence). He assures us that the wine is not “della casa” (made by the restaurant), and that it’s, in fact, a French wine made by a competitor. I’m not having any of it: I bid him good day and slam the door behind us.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

May 2007, Palo Alto

The California sun shone warmly on Eric Schmidt’s face as he stepped out of his car and made his way to have dinner at Madera, a chic Palo Alto restaurant.

Dining out was a welcome distraction from the endless succession of strategy meetings with the nitpickers of the law department, which had been Schmidt’s bread and butter for the last few months. The lawyers seemed to take issue with any new project that Google’s engineers came up with. “How would rivals compete with our maps?”; “Our placement should be no less favorable than rivals’’; etc. The objections were endless. 

This is not how things were supposed to be. When Schmidt became Google’s chief executive officer in 2001, his mission was to take the company public and grow the firm into markets other than search. But then something unexpected happened. After campaigning on an anti-monopoly platform, a freshman senator from Minnesota managed to get her anti-discrimination bill through Congress in just her first few months in office. All companies with a market cap of more than $150 billion were now prohibited from favoring their own products. Google had recently crossed that Rubicon, putting a stop to years of carefree expansion into new markets.

But today was different. The waiter led Schmidt to his table overlooking Silicon Valley. His acquaintance was already seated. 

With his tall and slender figure, Andy Rubin had garnered quite a reputation among Silicon Valley’s elite. After engineering stints at Apple and Motorola, developing various handheld devices, Rubin had set up his own shop. The idea was bold: develop the first open mobile platform—based on Linux, nonetheless. Rubin had pitched the project to Google in 2005 but given the regulatory uncertainty over the future of antitrust—the same wave of populist sentiment that would carry Klobuchar to office one year later—Schmidt and his team had passed.

“There’s no money in open source,” the company’s CFO ruled. Schmidt had initially objected, but with more pressing matters to deal with, he ultimately followed his CFO’s advice.

Schmidt and Rubin were exchanging pleasantries about Microsoft and Java when the meals arrived–sublime Wagyu short ribs and charred spring onions paired with a 1986 Chateau Margaux.

Rubin finally cut to the chase. “Our mobile operating system will rely on state-of-the-art touchscreen technology. Just like the device being developed by Apple. Buying Android today might be your only way to avoid paying monopoly prices to access Apple’s mobile users tomorrow.”

Schmidt knew this all too well: The future was mobile, and few companies were taking Apple’s upcoming iPhone seriously enough. Even better, as a firm, Android was treading water. Like many other startups, it had excellent software but no business model. And with the Klobuchar bill putting the brakes on startup investment—monetizing an ecosystem had become a delicate legal proposition, deterring established firms from acquiring startups–Schmidt was in the middle of a buyer’s market. “Android we could make us a force to reckon with” Schmidt thought to himself.

But he quickly shook that thought, remembering the words of his CFO: “There is no money in open source.” In an ideal world, Google would have used Android to promote its search engine—placing a search bar on Android users to draw users to its search engine—or maybe it could have tied a proprietary app store to the operating system, thus earning money from in-app purchases. But with the Klobuchar bill, these were no longer options. Not without endless haggling with Google’s planning committee of lawyers.

And they would have a point, of course. Google risked heavy fines and court-issued injunctions that would stop the project in its tracks. Such risks were not to be taken lightly. Schmidt needed a plan to make the Android platform profitable while accommodating Google’s rivals, but he had none.

The desserts were served, Schmidt steered the conversation to other topics, and the sun slowly set over Sand Hill Road.

Present Day, Cupertino

Apple continues to dominate the smartphone industry with little signs of significant competition on the horizon. While there are continuing rumors that Google, Facebook, or even TikTok might enter the market, these have so far failed to transpire.

Google’s failed partnership with Samsung, back in 2012, still looms large over the industry. After lengthy talks to create an open mobile platform failed to materialize, Google ultimately entered into an agreement with the longstanding mobile manufacturer. Unfortunately, the deal was mired by antitrust issues and clashing visions—Samsung was believed to favor a closed ecosystem, rather than the open platform envisioned by Google.

The sense that Apple is running away with the market is only reinforced by recent developments. Last week, Tim Cook unveiled the company’s new iPhone 11—the first ever mobile device to come with three cameras. With an eye-watering price tag of $1,199 for the top-of-the-line Pro model, it certainly is not cheap. In his presentation, Cook assured consumers Apple had solved the security issues that have been an important bugbear for the iPhone and its ecosystem of competing app stores.

Analysts expect the new range of devices will help Apple cement the iPhone’s 50% market share. This is especially likely given the important challenges that Apple’s main rivals continue to face.

The Windows Phone’s reputation for buggy software continues to undermine its competitive position, despite its comparatively low price point. Andy Rubin, the head of the Windows Phone, was reassuring in a press interview, but there is little tangible evidence he will manage to successfully rescue the flailing ship. Meanwhile, Huawei has come under increased scrutiny for the threats it may pose to U.S. national security. The Chinese manufacturer may face a U.S. sales ban, unless the company’s smartphone branch is sold to a U.S. buyer. Oracle is said to be a likely candidate.

The sorry state of mobile competition has become an increasingly prominent policy issue. President Klobuchar took to Twitter and called on mobile-device companies to refrain from acting as monopolists, intimating elsewhere that failure to do so might warrant tougher regulation than her anti-discrimination bill:

Having earlier passed through subcommittee, the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA) has now been cleared for floor consideration by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. Before the markup, we noted that the ADPPA mimics some of the worst flaws found in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), while creating new problems that the GDPR had avoided. Alas, the amended version of the legislation approved by the committee not only failed to correct those flaws, but in some cases it actually undid some of the welcome corrections that had been made to made to the original discussion draft.

Is Targeted Advertising ‘Strictly Necessary’?

The ADPPA’s original discussion draft classified “information identifying an individual’s online activities over time or across third party websites” in the broader category of “sensitive covered data,” for which a consumer’s expression of affirmative consent (“cookie consent”) would be required to collect or process. Perhaps noticing the questionable utility of such a rule, the bill’s sponsors removed “individual’s online activities” from the definition of “sensitive covered data” in the version of ADPPA that was ultimately introduced.

The manager’s amendment from Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) reverted that change and “individual’s online activities” are once again deemed to be “sensitive covered data.” However, the marked-up version of the ADPPA doesn’t require express consent to collect sensitive covered data. In fact, it seems not to consider the possibility of user consent; firms will instead be asked to prove that their collection of sensitive data was a “strict necessity.”

The new rule for sensitive data—in Section 102(2)—is that collecting or processing such data is allowed “where such collection or processing is strictly necessary to provide or maintain a specific product or service requested by the individual to whom the covered data pertains, or is strictly necessary to effect a purpose enumerated” in Section 101(b) (though with exceptions—notably for first-party advertising and targeted advertising).

This raises the question of whether, e.g., the use of targeted advertising based on a user’s online activities is “strictly necessary” to provide or maintain Facebook’s social network? Even if the courts eventually decide, in some cases, that it is necessary, we can expect a good deal of litigation on this point. This litigation risk will impose significant burdens on providers of ad-supported online services. Moreover, it would effectively invite judges to make business decisions, a role for which they are profoundly ill-suited.

Given that the ADPPA includes the “right to opt-out of targeted advertising”—in Section 204(c)) and a special targeted advertising “permissible purpose” in Section 101(b)(17)—this implies that it must be possible for businesses to engage in targeted advertising. And if it is possible, then collecting and processing the information needed for targeted advertising—including information on an “individual’s online activities,” e.g., unique identifiers – Section 2(39)—must be capable of being “strictly necessary to provide or maintain a specific product or service requested by the individual.” (Alternatively, it could have been strictly necessary for one of the other permissible purposes from Section 101(b), but none of them appear to apply to collecting data for the purpose of targeted advertising).

The ADPPA itself thus provides for the possibility of targeted advertising. Therefore, there should be no reason for legal ambiguity about when collecting “individual’s online activities” is “strictly necessary to provide or maintain a specific product or service requested by the individual.” Do we want judges or other government officials to decide which ad-supported services “strictly” require targeted advertising? Choosing business models for private enterprises is hardly an appropriate role for the government. The easiest way out of this conundrum would be simply to revert back to the ill-considered extension of “sensitive covered data” in the ADPPA version that was initially introduced.

Developing New Products and Services

As noted previously, the original ADPPA discussion draft allowed first-party use of personal data to “provide or maintain a specific product or service requested by an individual” (Section 101(a)(1)). What about using the data to develop new products and services? Can a business even request user consent for that? Under the GDPR, that is possible. Under the ADPPA, it may not be.

The general limitation on data use (“provide or maintain a specific product or service requested by an individual”) was retained from the ADPPA original discussion in the version approved by the committee. As originally introduced, the bill included an exception that could have partially addressed the concern in Section 101(b)(2) (emphasis added):

With respect to covered data previously collected in accordance with this Act, notwithstanding this exception, to process such data as necessary to perform system maintenance or diagnostics, to maintain a product or service for which such data was collected, to conduct internal research or analytics, to improve a product or service for which such data was collected …

Arguably, developing new products and services largely involves “internal research or analytics,” which would be covered under this exception. If the business later wanted to invite users of an old service to use a new service, the business could contact them based on a separate exception for first-party marketing and advertising (Section 101(b)(11) of the introduced bill).

This welcome development was reversed in the manager’s amendment. The new text of the exception (now Section 101(b)(2)(C)) is narrower in a key way (emphasis added): “to conduct internal research or analytics to improve a product or service for which such data was collected.” Hence, it still looks like businesses will find it difficult to use first-party data to develop new products or services.

‘De-Identified Data’ Remains Unclear

Our earlier analysis noted significant confusion in the ADPPA’s concept of “de-identified data.” Neither the introduced version nor the markup amendments addressed those concerns, so it seems worthwhile to repeat and update the criticism here. The drafters seemed to be aiming for a partial exemption from the default data-protection regime for datasets that no longer contain personally identifying information, but that are derived from datasets that once did. Instead of providing such an exemption, however, the rules for de-identified data essentially extend the ADPPA’s scope to nonpersonal data, while also creating a whole new set of problems.

The basic problem is that the definition of “de-identified data” in the ADPPA is not limited to data derived from identifiable data. In the marked-up version, the definition covers: “information that does not identify and is not linked or reasonably linkable to a distinct individual or a device, regardless of whether the information is aggregated.” In other words, it is the converse of “covered data” (personal data): whatever is not “covered data” is “de-identified data.” Even if some data are not personally identifiable and are not a result of a transformation of data that was personally identifiable, they still count as “de-identified data.” If this reading is correct, it creates an absurd result that sweeps all information into the scope of the ADPPA.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that this confusion can be fixed and that the definition of “de-identified data” is limited to data that is:

  1. derived from identifiable data but
  2. that hold a possibility of re-identification (weaker than “reasonably linkable”) and
  3. are processed by the entity that previously processed the original identifiable data.

Remember that we are talking about data that are not “reasonably linkable to an individual.” Hence, the intent appears to be that the rules on de-identified data would apply to nonpersonal data that would otherwise not be covered by the ADPPA.

The rationale for this may be that it is difficult, legally and practically, to differentiate between personally identifiable data and data that are not personally identifiable. A good deal of seemingly “anonymous” data may be linked to an individual—e.g., by connecting the dataset at hand with some other dataset.

The case for regulation in an example where a firm clearly dealt with personal data, and then derived some apparently de-identified data from them, may actually be stronger than in the case of a dataset that was never directly derived from personal data. But is that case sufficient to justify the ADPPA’s proposed rules?

The ADPPA imposes several duties on entities dealing with “de-identified data” in Section 2(12) of the marked-up version:

  1. To take “reasonable technical measures to ensure that the information cannot, at any point, be used to re-identify any individual or device that identifies or is linked or reasonably linkable to an individual”;
  2. To publicly commit “in a clear and conspicuous manner—
    1. to process and transfer the information solely in a de-identified form without any reasonable means for re-identification; and
    1. to not attempt to re-identify the information with any individual or device that identifies or is linked or reasonably linkable to an individual;”
  3. To “contractually obligate[] any person or entity that receives the information from the covered entity or service provider” to comply with all of the same rules and to include such an obligation “in all subsequent instances for which the data may be received.”

The first duty is superfluous and adds interpretative confusion, given that de-identified data, by definition, are not “reasonably linkable” with individuals.

The second duty — public commitment — unreasonably restricts what can be done with nonpersonal data. Firms may have many legitimate reasons to de-identify data and then to re-identify them later. This provision would effectively prohibit firms from attempts at data minimization (resulting in de-identification) if those firms may at any point in the future need to link the data with individuals. It seems that the drafters had some very specific (and likely rare) mischief in mind here, but ended up prohibiting a vast sphere of innocuous activity.

Note that, for data to become “de-identified data,” they must first be collected and processed as “covered data” in conformity with the ADPPA and then transformed (de-identified) in such a way as to no longer meet the definition of “covered data.” If someone then re-identifies the data, this will again constitute “collection” of “covered data” under the ADPPA. At every point of the process, personally identifiable data is covered by the ADPPA rules on “covered data.”

Finally, the third duty—“share alike” (to “contractually obligate[] any person or entity that receives the information from the covered entity to comply”)—faces a very similar problem as the second duty. Under this provision, the only way to preserve the option for a third party to identify the individuals linked to the data will be for the third party to receive the data in a personally identifiable form. In other words, this provision makes it impossible to share data in a de-identified form while preserving the possibility of re-identification.

Logically speaking, we would have expected a possibility to share the data in a de-identified form; this would align with the principle of data minimization. What the ADPPA does instead is to effectively impose a duty to share de-identified personal data together with identifying information. This is a truly bizarre result, directly contrary to the principle of data minimization.

Fundamental Issues with Enforcement

One of the most important problems with the ADPPA is its enforcement provisions. Most notably, the private right of action creates pernicious incentives for excessive litigation by providing for both compensatory damages and open-ended injunctive relief. Small businesses have a right to cure before damages can be sought, but many larger firms are not given a similar entitlement. Given such open-ended provisions as whether using web-browsing behavior is “strictly necessary” to improve a product or service, the litigation incentives become obvious. At the very least, there should be a general opportunity to cure, particularly given the broad restrictions placed on essentially all data use.

The bill also creates multiple overlapping power centers for enforcement (as we have previously noted):

The bill carves out numerous categories of state law that would be excluded from pre-emption… as well as several specific state laws that would be explicitly excluded, including Illinois’ Genetic Information Privacy Act and elements of the California Consumer Privacy Act. These broad carve-outs practically ensure that ADPPA will not create a uniform and workable system, and could potentially render the entire pre-emption section a dead letter. As written, it offers the worst of both worlds: a very strict federal baseline that also permits states to experiment with additional data-privacy laws.

Unfortunately, the marked-up version appears to double down on these problems. For example, the bill pre-empts the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) from enforcing sections 222, 338(i), and 631 of the Communications Act, which pertain to privacy and data security. An amendment was offered that would have pre-empted the FCC from enforcing any provisions of the Communications Act (e.g., sections 201 and 202) for data-security and privacy purposes, but it was withdrawn. Keeping two federal regulators on the beat for a single subject area creates an inefficient regime. The FCC should be completely pre-empted from regulating privacy issues for covered entities.

The amended bill also includes an ambiguous provision that appears to serve as a partial carveout for enforcement by the California Privacy Protection Agency (CCPA). Some members of the California delegation—notably, committee members Anna Eshoo and Doris Matsui (both D-Calif.)—have expressed concern that the bill would pre-empt California’s own California Privacy Rights Act. A proposed amendment by Eshoo to clarify that the bill was merely a federal “floor” and that state laws may go beyond ADPPA’s requirements failed in a 48-8 roll call vote. However, the marked-up version of the legislation does explicitly specify that the CPPA “may enforce this Act, in the same manner, it would otherwise enforce the California Consumer Privacy Act.” How courts might interpret this language should the CPPA seek to enforce provisions of the CCPA that otherwise conflict with the ADPPA is unclear, thus magnifying the problem of compliance with multiple regulators.

Conclusion

As originally conceived, the basic conceptual structure of the ADPPA was, to a very significant extent, both confused and confusing. Not much, if anything, has since improved—especially in the marked-up version that regressed the ADPPA to some of the notably bad features of the original discussion draft. The rules on de-identified data are also very puzzling: their effect contradicts the basic principle of data minimization that the ADPPA purports to uphold. Those examples strongly suggest that the ADPPA is still far from being a properly considered candidate for a comprehensive federal privacy legislation.

Winter in Helsinki

Dan Crane —  25 July 2022

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Jouko Hiltunen gazed out the window into the midday twilight. Eight stories down, across the plaza and promenade, the Helsinki harbor was already blanketed under a dusting of snow. By Christmas, the ice would be thick enough for walking out to the castle at Suomenlinna.

Jouko turned back to his computer screen. His fingers found the keys. At once, lines of code began spilling from the keyboard.

The desk phone rang. Sanna, who occupied the adjacent cubicle, arched her eyebrows. “Legal again?”

Jouko nodded. Without answering the phone, he got up and walked down three flights of stairs. The usual group was assembled in Partanen’s office: the woman in the dour gray suit who looked like an osprey, the fat man from Brussels who made them speak in English, and Partanen, the general counsel.

By habit, Jouko entered and stood behind a chair. Partanen nodded curtly. “We have an issue, Hiltunen. Again.”

“What now?”

“We’ve been watching how you’re coding the new walking tour search vertical. It seems that you are designing it to give preference to restaurants, cafès, and hotels that have been highly rated by the Tourism Board.”

“Yes, that’s right. Restaurants, cafès, and hotels that have been rated by the Tourism Board are cleaner, safer, and more convenient. That’s why they have been rated.”

“But you are forgetting that the Tourism Board is one of our investors. This will be considered self-preferencing.”

“But . . .”

“Listen, Hiltunen. We aren’t here to argue about this. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t be considered self-preferencing, but our company won’t take that risk. Do you understand?”

 “No.”

 “Then let me explain it . . .”

 But Jouko had already left. When he returned to his desk, Sanna was watching him. “Everything OK?” she asked.

Jouko shrugged. He started typing again, but more slowly than before. An hour later, the phone rang again. This time, Sanna only raised an eyebrow. Jouko gave half a nod and ambled downstairs.

“You are making it worse,” said Partanen. The osprey woman scowled and raked her fingernails across the desk.

“How am I making it worse? I did what you said and eliminated search results defaulting to rated establishments.”

“Yes, but you added a toggle for users to be shown only rated establishments.”

“Only if they decide to be shown only rated establishments. I’m giving them a choice.”

“Choice? What does choice have to do with it? Everyone who uses our search engine is choosing—” Partanen made rabbit ears in the air – “but we have a responsibility not to impede competition. If you give them a suggestive choice” – again, rabbit ears – “that will be considered self-preferencing?”

“Really?”

“Well, maybe it will and maybe it won’t, but the company won’t take the risk.”

When Jouko returned to his desk, Sanna averted her eyes. As he sat motionless behind his keyboard, hands folded in his lap, she occasionally shot him concerned glances.

The darkness outside was nearly complete when the phone rang again. Jouko let it go to voicemail and waited a long time before rising and walking wearily downstairs.

“What now? I haven’t done anything.”

“We’ve been talking and have a new idea. It would be better if you blocked from the search results any restaurants or hotels that have been rated by the Board of Tourism. That way, there is no chance that we will be accused of self-preferencing.”

“Or that people will end up in a safe, clean, or convenient restaurant.”

“That’s not your problem, is it?”

Jouko returned to his cubicle. He did not sit down at his desk, but started putting on his coat.

“Where are you going?” asked Sanna.

“I’m going to walk out towards Suomenlinna.”

Sanna’s voice rose in alarm: “But the ice has barely formed. It won’t hold you.”

Jouko shrugged. “Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. I’ll take the risk.”

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Earlier this month, Professors Fiona Scott Morton, Steve Salop, and David Dinielli penned a letter expressing their “strong support” for the proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA). In the letter, the professors address criticisms of AICOA and urge its approval, despite possible imperfections.

“Perhaps this bill could be made better if we lived in a perfect world,” the professors write, “[b]ut we believe the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, especially when change is so urgently needed.”

The problem is that the professors and other supporters of AICOA have shown neither that “change is so urgently needed” nor that the proposed law is, in fact, “good.”

Is Change ‘Urgently Needed’?

With respect to the purported urgency that warrants passage of a concededly imperfect bill, the letter authors assert two points. First, they claim that AICOA’s targets—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft (collectively, GAFAM)—“serve as the essential gatekeepers of economic, social, and political activity on the internet.” It is thus appropriate, they say, to amend the antitrust laws to do something they have never before done: saddle a handful of identified firms with special regulatory duties.

But is this oft-repeated claim about “gatekeeper” status true? The label conjures up the old Terminal Railroad case, where a group of firms controlled the only bridges over the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Freighters had no choice but to utilize their services. Do the GAFAM firms really play a similar role with respect to “economic, social, and political activity on the internet”? Hardly.

With respect to economic activity, Amazon may be a huge player, but it still accounts for only 39.5% of U.S. ecommerce sales—and far less of retail sales overall. Consumers have gobs of other ecommerce options, and so do third-party merchants, which may sell their wares using Shopify, Ebay, Walmart, Etsy, numerous other ecommerce platforms, or their own websites.

For social activity on the internet, consumers need not rely on Facebook and Instagram. They can connect with others via Snapchat, Reddit, Pinterest, TikTok, Twitter, and scores of other sites. To be sure, all these services have different niches, but the letter authors’ claim that the GAFAM firms are “essential gatekeepers” of “social… activity on the internet” is spurious.

Nor are the firms singled out by AICOA essential gatekeepers of “political activity on the internet.” The proposed law touches neither Twitter, the primary hub of political activity on the internet, nor TikTok, which is increasingly used for political messaging.

The second argument the letter authors assert in support of their claim of urgency is that “[t]he decline of antitrust enforcement in the U.S. is well known, pervasive, and has left our jurisprudence unable to protect and maintain competitive markets.” In other words, contemporary antitrust standards are anemic and have led to a lack of market competition in the United States.

The evidence for this claim, which is increasingly parroted in the press and among the punditry, is weak. Proponents primarily point to studies showing:

  1. increasing industrial concentration;
  2. higher markups on goods and services since 1980;
  3. a declining share of surplus going to labor, which could indicate monopsony power in labor markets; and
  4. a reduction in startup activity, suggesting diminished innovation. 

Examined closely, however, those studies fail to establish a domestic market power crisis.

Industrial concentration has little to do with market power in actual markets. Indeed, research suggests that, while industries may be consolidating at the national level, competition at the market (local) level is increasing, as more efficient national firms open more competitive outlets in local markets. As Geoff Manne sums up this research:

Most recently, several working papers looking at the data on concentration in detail and attempting to identify the likely cause for the observed data, show precisely the opposite relationship. The reason for increased concentration appears to be technological, not anticompetitive. And, as might be expected from that cause, its effects are beneficial. Indeed, the story is both intuitive and positive.

What’s more, while national concentration does appear to be increasing in some sectors of the economy, it’s not actually so clear that the same is true for local concentration — which is often the relevant antitrust market.

With respect to the evidence on markups, the claim of a significant increase in the price-cost margin depends crucially on the measure of cost. The studies suggesting an increase in margins since 1980 use the “cost of goods sold” (COGS) metric, which excludes a firm’s management and marketing costs—both of which have become an increasingly significant portion of firms’ costs. Measuring costs using the “operating expenses” (OPEX) metric, which includes management and marketing costs, reveals that public-company markups increased only modestly since the 1980s and that the increase was within historical variation. (It is also likely that increased markups since 1980 reflect firms’ more extensive use of technology and their greater regulatory burdens, both of which raise fixed costs and require higher markups over marginal cost.)

As for the declining labor share, that dynamic is occurring globally. Indeed, the decline in the labor share in the United States has been less severe than in Japan, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, China, Mexico, and Poland, suggesting that anemic U.S. antitrust enforcement is not to blame. (A reduction in the relative productivity of labor is a more likely culprit.)

Finally, the claim of reduced startup activity is unfounded. In its report on competition in digital markets, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee asserted that, since the advent of the major digital platforms:

  1. “[t]he number of new technology firms in the digital economy has declined”;
  2. “the entrepreneurship rate—the share of startups and young firms in the [high technology] industry as a whole—has also fallen significantly”; and
  3. “[u]nsurprisingly, there has also been a sharp reduction in early-stage funding for technology startups.” (pp. 46-47.)

Those claims, however, are based on cherry-picked evidence.

In support of the first two, the Judiciary Committee report cited a study based on data ending in 2011. As Benedict Evans has observed, “standard industry data shows that startup investment rounds have actually risen at least 4x since then.”

In support of the third claim, the report cited statistics from an article noting that the number and aggregate size of the very smallest venture capital deals—those under $1 million—fell between 2014 and 2018 (after growing substantially from 2008 to 2014). The Judiciary Committee report failed to note, however, the cited article’s observation that small venture deals ($1 million to $5 million) had not dropped and that larger venture deals (greater than $5 million) had grown substantially during the same time period. Nor did the report acknowledge that venture-capital funding has continued to increase since 2018.

Finally, there is also reason to think that AICOA’s passage would harm, not help, the startup environment:

AICOA doesn’t directly restrict startup acquisitions, but the activities it would restrict most certainly do dramatically affect the incentives that drive many startup acquisitions. If a platform is prohibited from engaging in cross-platform integration of acquired technologies, or if it can’t monetize its purchase by prioritizing its own technology, it may lose the motivation to make a purchase in the first place.

Despite the letter authors’ claims, neither a paucity of avenues for “economic, social, and political activity on the internet” nor the general state of market competition in the United States establishes an “urgent need” to re-write the antitrust laws to saddle a small group of firms with unprecedented legal obligations.

Is the Vagueness of AICOA’s Primary Legal Standard a Feature?

AICOA bars covered platforms from engaging in three broad classes of conduct (self-preferencing, discrimination among business users, and limiting business users’ ability to compete) where the behavior at issue would “materially harm competition.” It then forbids several specific business practices, but allows the defendant to avoid liability by proving that their use of the practice would not cause a “material harm to competition.”

Critics have argued that “material harm to competition”—a standard that is not used elsewhere in the antitrust laws—is too indeterminate to provide business planners and adjudicators with adequate guidance. The authors of the pro-AICOA letter, however, maintain that this “different language is a feature, not a bug.”

That is so, the letter authors say, because the language effectively signals to courts and policymakers that antitrust should prohibit more conduct. They explain:

To clarify to courts and policymakers that Congress wants something different (and stronger), new terminology is required. The bill’s language would open up a new space and move beyond the standards imposed by the Sherman Act, which has not effectively policed digital platforms.

Putting aside the weakness of the letter authors’ premise (i.e., that Sherman Act standards have proven ineffective), the legislative strategy they advocate—obliquely signal that you want “change” without saying what it should consist of—is irresponsible and risky.

The letter authors assert two reasons Congress should not worry about enacting a liability standard that has no settled meaning. One is that:

[t]he same judges who are called upon to render decisions under the existing, insufficient, antitrust regime, will also be called upon to render decisions under the new law. They will be the same people with the same worldview.

It is thus unlikely that “outcomes under the new law would veer drastically away from past understandings of core concepts….”

But this claim undermines the argument that a new standard is needed to get the courts to do “something different” and “move beyond the standards imposed by the Sherman Act.” If we don’t need to worry about an adverse outcome from a novel, ill-defined standard because courts are just going to continue applying the standard they’re familiar with, then what’s the point of changing the standard?

A second reason not to worry about the lack of clarity on AICOA’s key liability standard, the letter authors say, is that federal enforcers will define it:

The new law would mandate that the [Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice], the two expert agencies in the area of competition, together create guidelines to help courts interpret the law. Any uncertainty about the meaning of words like ‘competition’ will be resolved in those guidelines and over time with the development of caselaw.

This is no doubt music to the ears of members of Congress, who love to get credit for “doing something” legislatively, while leaving the details to an agency so that they can avoid accountability if things turn out poorly. Indeed, the letter authors explicitly play upon legislators’ unwholesome desire for credit-sans-accountability. They emphasize that “[t]he agencies must [create and] update the guidelines periodically. Congress doesn’t have to do much of anything very specific other than approve budgets; it certainly has no obligation to enact any new laws, let alone amend them.”

AICOA does not, however, confer rulemaking authority on the agencies; it merely directs them to create and periodically update “agency enforcement guidelines” and “agency interpretations” of certain affirmative defenses. Those guidelines and interpretations would not bind courts, which would be free to interpret AICOA’s new standard differently. The letter authors presume that courts would defer to the agencies’ interpretation of the vague standard, and they probably would. But that raises other problems.

For one thing, it reduces certainty, which is likely to chill innovation. Giving the enforcement agencies de facto power to determine and redetermine what behaviors “would materially harm competition” means that the rules are never settled. Administrations differ markedly in their views about what the antitrust laws should forbid, so business planners could never be certain that a product feature or revenue model that is legal today will not be deemed to “materially harm competition” by a future administration with greater solicitude for small rivals and upstarts. Such uncertainty will hinder investment in novel products, services, and business models.

Consider, for example, Google’s investment in the Android mobile operating system. Google makes money from Android—which it licenses to device manufacturers for free—by ensuring that Google’s revenue-generating services (e.g., its search engine and browser) are strongly preferenced on Android products. One administration might believe that this is a procompetitive arrangement, as it creates a different revenue model for mobile operating systems (as opposed to Apple’s generation of revenue from hardware sales), resulting in both increased choice and lower prices for consumers. A subsequent administration might conclude that the arrangement materially harms competition by making it harder for rival search engines and web browsers to gain market share. It would make scant sense for a covered platform to make an investment like Google did with Android if its underlying business model could be upended by a new administration with de facto power to rewrite the law.

A second problem with having the enforcement agencies determine and redetermine what covered platforms may do is that it effectively transforms the agencies from law enforcers into sectoral regulators. Indeed, the letter authors agree that “the ability of expert agencies to incorporate additional protections in the guidelines” means that “the bill is not a pure antitrust law but also safeguards other benefits to consumers.” They tout that “the complementarity between consumer protection and competition can be addressed in the guidelines.”

Of course, to the extent that the enforcement guidelines address concerns besides competition, they will be less useful for interpreting AICOA’s “material harm to competition” standard; they might deem a practice suspect on non-competition grounds. Moreover, it is questionable whether creating a sectoral regulator for five widely diverse firms is a good idea. The history of sectoral regulation is littered with examples of agency capture, rent-seeking, and other public-choice concerns. At a minimum, Congress should carefully examine the potential downsides of sectoral regulation, install protections to mitigate those downsides, and explicitly establish the sectoral regulator.

Will AICOA Break Popular Products and Services?

Many popular offerings by the platforms covered by AICOA involve self-preferencing, discrimination among business users, or one of the other behaviors the bill presumptively bans. Pre-installation of iPhone apps and services like Siri, for example, involves self-preferencing or discrimination among business users of Apple’s iOS platform. But iPhone consumers value having a mobile device that offers extensive services right out of the box. Consumers love that Google’s search result for an establishment offers directions to the place, which involves the preferencing of Google Maps. And consumers positively adore Amazon Prime, which can provide free expedited delivery because Amazon conditions Prime designation on a third-party seller’s use of Amazon’s efficient, reliable “Fulfillment by Amazon” service—something Amazon could not do under AICOA.

The authors of the pro-AICOA letter insist that the law will not ban attractive product features like these. AICOA, they say:

provides a powerful defense that forecloses any thoughtful concern of this sort: conduct otherwise banned under the bill is permitted if it would ‘maintain or substantially enhance the core functionality of the covered platform.’

But the authors’ confidence that this affirmative defense will adequately protect popular offerings is misplaced. The defense is narrow and difficult to mount.

First, it immunizes only those behaviors that maintain or substantially enhance the “core” functionality of the covered platform. Courts would rightly interpret AICOA to give effect to that otherwise unnecessary word, which dictionaries define as “the central or most important part of something.” Accordingly, any self-preferencing, discrimination, or other presumptively illicit behavior that enhances a covered platform’s service but not its “central or most important” functions is not even a candidate for the defense.

Even if a covered platform could establish that a challenged practice would maintain or substantially enhance the platform’s core functionality, it would also have to prove that the conduct was “narrowly tailored” and “reasonably necessary” to achieve the desired end, and, for many behaviors, the “le[ast] discriminatory means” of doing so. That is a remarkably heavy burden, and it beggars belief to suppose that business planners considering novel offerings involving self-preferencing, discrimination, or some other presumptively illicit conduct would feel confident that they could make the required showing. It is likely, then, that AICOA would break existing products and services and discourage future innovation.

Of course, Congress could mitigate this concern by specifying that AICOA does not preclude certain things, such as pre-installed apps or consumer-friendly search results. But the legislation would then lose the support of the many interest groups who want the law to preclude various popular offerings that its text would now forbid. Unlike consumers, who are widely dispersed and difficult to organize, the groups and competitors that would benefit from things like stripped-down smartphones, map-free search results, and Prime-less Amazon are effective lobbyists.

Should the US Follow Europe?

Having responded to criticisms of AICOA, the authors of the pro-AICOA letter go on offense. They assert that enactment of the bill is needed to ensure that the United States doesn’t lose ground to Europe, both in regulatory leadership and in innovation. Observing that the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) has just become law, the authors write that:

[w]ithout [AICOA], the role of protecting competition and innovation in the digital sector outside China will be left primarily to the European Union, abrogating U.S. leadership in this sector.

Moreover, if Europe implements its DMA and the United States does not adopt AICOA, the authors claim:

the center of gravity for innovation and entrepreneurship [could] shift from the U.S. to Europe, where the DMA would offer greater protections to start ups and app developers, and even makers and artisans, against exclusionary conduct by the gatekeeper platforms.

Implicit in the argument that AICOA is needed to maintain America’s regulatory leadership is the assumption that to lead in regulatory policy is to have the most restrictive rules. The most restrictive regulator will necessarily be the “leader” in the sense that it will be the one with the most control over regulated firms. But leading in the sense of optimizing outcomes and thereby serving as a model for other jurisdictions entails crafting the best policies—those that minimize the aggregate social losses from wrongly permitting bad behavior, wrongly condemning good behavior, and determining whether conduct is allowed or forbidden (i.e., those that “minimize the sum of error and decision costs”). Rarely is the most restrictive regulatory regime the one that optimizes outcomes, and as I have elsewhere explained, the rules set forth in the DMA hardly seem calibrated to do so.

As for “innovation and entrepreneurship” in the technological arena, it would be a seismic shift indeed if the center of gravity were to migrate to Europe, which is currently home to zero of the top 20 global tech companies. (The United States hosts 12; China, eight.)

It seems implausible, though, that imposing a bunch of restrictions on large tech companies that have significant resources for innovation and are scrambling to enter each other’s markets will enhance, rather than retard, innovation. The self-preferencing bans in AICOA and DMA, for example, would prevent Apple from developing its own search engine to compete with Google, as it has apparently contemplated. Why would Apple develop its own search engine if it couldn’t preference it on iPhones and iPads? And why would Google have started its shopping service to compete with Amazon if it couldn’t preference Google Shopping in search results? And why would any platform continually improve to gain more users as it neared the thresholds for enhanced duties under DMA or AICOA? It seems more likely that the DMA/AICOA approach will hinder, rather than spur, innovation.

At the very least, wouldn’t it be prudent to wait and see whether DMA leads to a flourishing of innovation and entrepreneurship in Europe before jumping on the European bandwagon? After all, technological innovations that occur in Europe won’t be available only to Europeans. Just as Europeans benefit from innovation by U.S. firms, American consumers will be able to reap the benefits of any DMA-inspired innovation occurring in Europe. Moreover, if DMA indeed furthers innovation by making it easier for entrants to gain footing, even American technology firms could benefit from the law by launching their products in Europe. There’s no reason for the tech sector to move to Europe to take advantage of a small-business-protective European law.

In fact, the optimal outcome might be to have one jurisdiction in which major tech platforms are free to innovate, enter each other’s markets via self-preferencing, etc. (the United States, under current law) and another that is more protective of upstart businesses that use the platforms (Europe under DMA). The former jurisdiction would create favorable conditions for platform innovation and inter-platform competition; the latter might enhance innovation among businesses that rely on the platforms. Consumers in each jurisdiction, however, would benefit from innovation facilitated by the other.

It makes little sense, then, for the United States to rush to adopt European-style regulation. DMA is a radical experiment. Regulatory history suggests that the sort of restrictiveness it imposes retards, rather than furthers, innovation. But in the unlikely event that things turn out differently this time, little harm would result from waiting to see DMA’s benefits before implementing its restrictive approach. 

Does AICOA Threaten Platforms’ Ability to Moderate Content and Police Disinformation?

The authors of the pro-AICOA letter conclude by addressing the concern that AICOA “will inadvertently make content moderation difficult because some of the prohibitions could be read… to cover and therefore prohibit some varieties of content moderation” by covered platforms.

The letter authors say that a reading of AICOA to prohibit content moderation is “strained.” They maintain that the act’s requirement of “competitive harm” would prevent imposition of liability based on content moderation and that the act is “plainly not intended to cover” instances of “purported censorship.” They further contend that the risk of judicial misconstrual exists with all proposed laws and therefore should not be a sufficient reason to oppose AICOA.

Each of these points is weak. Section 3(a)(3) of AICOA makes it unlawful for a covered platform to “discriminate in the application or enforcement of the terms of service of the covered platform among similarly situated business users in a manner that would materially harm competition.” It is hardly “strained” to reason that this provision is violated when, say, Google’s YouTube selectively demonetizes a business user for content that Google deems harmful or misleading. Or when Apple removes Parler, but not every other violator of service terms, from its App Store. Such conduct could “materially harm competition” by impeding the de-platformed business’ ability to compete with its rivals.

And it is hard to say that AICOA is “plainly not intended” to forbid these acts when a key supporting senator touted the bill as a means of policing content moderation and observed during markup that it would “make some positive improvement on the problem of censorship” (i.e., content moderation) because “it would provide protections to content providers, to businesses that are discriminated against because of the content of what they produce.”

At a minimum, we should expect some state attorneys general to try to use the law to police content moderation they disfavor, and the mere prospect of such legal action could chill anti-disinformation efforts and other forms of content moderation.

Of course, there’s a simple way for Congress to eliminate the risk of what the letter authors deem judicial misconstrual: It could clarify that AICOA’s prohibitions do not cover good-faith efforts to moderate content or police disinformation. Such clarification, however, would kill the bill, as several Republican legislators are supporting the act because it restricts content moderation.

The risk of judicial misconstrual with AICOA, then, is not the sort that exists with “any law, new or old,” as the letter authors contend. “Normal” misconstrual risk exists when legislators try to be clear about their intentions but, because language has its limits, some vagueness or ambiguity persists. AICOA’s architects have deliberately obscured their intentions in order to cobble together enough supporters to get the bill across the finish line.

The one thing that all AICOA supporters can agree on is that they deserve credit for “doing something” about Big Tech. If the law is construed in a way they disfavor, they can always act shocked and blame rogue courts. That’s shoddy, cynical lawmaking.

Conclusion

So, I respectfully disagree with Professors Scott Morton, Salop, and Dinielli on AICOA. There is no urgent need to pass the bill right now, especially as we are on the cusp of seeing an AICOA-like regime put to the test. The bill’s central liability standard is overly vague, and its plain terms would break popular products and services and thwart future innovation. The United States should equate regulatory leadership with the best, not the most restrictive, policies. And Congress should thoroughly debate and clarify its intentions on content moderation before enacting legislation that could upend the status quo on that important matter.

For all these reasons, Congress should reject AICOA. And for the same reasons, a future in which AICOA is adopted is extremely unlikely to resemble the Utopian world that Professors Scott Morton, Salop, and Dinielli imagine.

[The following is a guest post from Andrew Mercado, a research assistant at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an adjunct professor and research assistant at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School.]

The Competition and Transparency in Digital Advertising Act (CTDAA), introduced May 19 by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), is the latest manifestation of the congressional desire to “do something” legislatively about big digital platforms. Although different in substance from the other antitrust bills introduced this Congress, it shares one key characteristic: it is fatally flawed and should not be enacted.  

Restrictions

In brief, the CTDAA imposes revenue-based restrictions on the ownership structure of firms engaged in digital advertising. The CTDAA bars a firm with more than $20 billion in annual advertising revenue (adjusted annually for inflation) from:

  1. owning a digital-advertising exchange if it owns either a sell-side ad brokerage or a buy-side ad brokerage; and
  2. owning a sell-side brokerage if it owns a buy-side brokerage, or from owning a buy-side or sell-side brokerage if it is also a buyer or seller of advertising space.

The proposal’s ownership restrictions present the clearest harm to the future of the digital-advertising market. From an efficiency perspective, vertical integration of both sides of the market can lead to enormous gains. Since, for example, Google owns and operates an ad exchange, a sell-side broker, and a buy-side broker, there are very few frictions that exist between each side of the market. All of the systems are integrated and the supply of advertising space, demand for that space, and the marketplace conducting price-discovery auctions are automatically updated in real time.

While this instantaneous updating is not unique to Google’s system, and other buy- and sell-side firms can integrate into the system, the benefit to advertisers and publishers can be found in the cost savings that come from the integration. Since Google is able to create synergies on all sides of the market, the fees on any given transaction are lower. Further, incorporating Google’s vast trove of data allows for highly relevant and targeted ads. All of this means that advertisers spend less for the same quality of ad; publishers get more for each ad they place; and consumers see higher-quality, more relevant ads.

Without the ability to own and invest in the efficiency and transaction-cost reduction of an integrated platform, there will likely be less innovation and lower quality on all sides of the market. Further, advertisers and publishers will have to shoulder the burden of using non-integrated marketplaces and would likely pay higher fees for less-efficient brokers. Since Google is a one-stop shop for all of a company’s needs—whether that be on the advertising side or the publishing side—companies can move seamlessly from one side of the market to the other, all while paying lower costs per transaction, because of the integrated nature of the platform.

In the absence of such integration, a company would have to seek out one buy-side brokerage to place ads and another, separate sell-side brokerage to receive ads. These two brokers would then have to go to an ad exchange to facilitate the deal, bringing three different brokers into the mix. Each of these middlemen would take a proportionate cut of the deal. When comparing the situation between an integrated and non-integrated market, the fees associated with serving ads in a non-integrated market are almost certainly higher.

Additionally, under this proposal, the innovative potential of each individual firm is capped. If a firm grows big enough and gains sufficient revenue through integrating different sides of the market, they will be forced to break up their efficiency-inducing operations. Marginal improvements on each side of the market may be possible, but without integrating different sides of the market, the scale required to justify those improvements would be insurmountable.

Assumptions

The CTDAA assumes that:

  1. there is a serious competitive problem in digital advertising; and
  2. the structural separation and regulation of advertising brokerages run by huge digital-advertising platforms (as specified in the CTDAA) would enhance competition and benefit digital advertising customers and consumers.

The first assumption has not been proven and is subject to debate, while the second assumption is likely to be false.

Fundamental to the bill’s assumption that the digital-advertising market lacks competition is a misunderstanding of competitive forces and the idea that revenue and profit are inversely related to competition. While it is true that high profits can be a sign of consolidation and anticompetitive outcomes, the dynamic nature of the internet economy makes this theory unlikely.

As Christopher Kaiser and I have discussed, competition in the internet economy is incredibly dynamic. Vigorous competition can be achieved with just a handful of firms,  despite claims from some quarters that four competitors is necessarily too few. Even in highly concentrated markets, there is the omnipresent threat that new entrants will emerge to usurp an incumbent’s reign. Additionally, while some studies may show unusually large profits in those markets, when adjusted for the consumer welfare created by large tech platforms, profits should actually be significantly higher than they are.

Evidence of dynamic entry in digital markets can be found in a recently announced product offering from a small (but more than $6 billion in revenue) competitor in digital advertising. Following the outcry associated with Google’s alleged abuse with Project Bernanke, the Trade Desk developed OpenPath. This allowed the Trade Desk, a buy-side broker, to handle some of the functions of a sell-side broker and eliminate harms from Google’s alleged bid-rigging to better serve its clients.

In developing the platform, the Trade Desk said it would discontinue serving any Google-based customers, effectively severing ties with the largest advertising exchange on the market. While this runs afoul of the letter of the law spelled out in CTDAA, it is well within the spirit its sponsor’s stated goal: businesses engaging in robust free-market competition. If Google’s market power was as omnipresent and suffocating as the sponsors allege, then eliminating traffic from Google would have been a death sentence for the Trade Desk.

While various theories of vertical and horizontal competitive harm have been put forward, there has not been an empirical showing that consumers and advertising customers have failed to benefit from the admittedly efficient aspects of digital-brokerage auctions administered by Google, Facebook, and a few other platforms. The rapid and dramatic growth of digital advertising and associated commerce strongly suggests that this has been an innovative and welfare-enhancing development. Moreover, the introduction of a new integrated brokerage platform by a “small” player in the advertising market indicates there is ample opportunity to increase this welfare further.  

Interfering in brokerage operations under the unproven assumption that “monopoly rents” are being charged and that customers are being “exploited” is rhetoric unmoored from hard evidence. Furthermore, if specific platform practices are shown inefficiently to exclude potential entrants, existing antitrust law can be deployed on a case-specific basis. This approach is currently being pursued by a coalition of state attorneys general against Google (the merits of which are not relevant to this commentary).   

Even assuming for the sake of argument that there are serious competition problems in the digital-advertising market, there is no reason to believe that the arbitrary provisions and definitions found in the CTDAA would enhance welfare. Indeed, it is likely that the act would have unforeseen consequences:

  • It would lead to divestitures supervised by the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) that could destroy efficiencies derived from efficient targeting by brokerages integrated into platforms;
  • It would disincentivize improvements in advertising brokerages and likely would reduce future welfare on both the buy and sell sides of digital advertising;
  • It would require costly recordkeeping and disclosures by covered platforms that could have unforeseen consequences for privacy and potentially reduce the efficiency of bidding practices;
  • It would establish a fund for damage payments that would encourage wasteful litigation (see next two points);
  • It would spawn a great deal of wasteful private rent-seeking litigation that would discourage future platform and brokerage innovations; and
  • It would likely generate wasteful lawsuits by rent-seeking state attorneys general (and perhaps the DOJ as well).

The legislation would ultimately harm consumers who currently benefit from a highly efficient form of targeted advertising (for more on the welfare benefits of targeted advertising, see here). Since Google continually invests in creating a better search engine (to deliver ads directly to consumers) and collects more data to better target ads (to deliver ads to specific consumers), the value to advertisers of displaying ads on Google constantly increases.

Proposing a new regulatory structure that would directly affect the operations of highly efficient auction markets is the height of folly. It ignores the findings of Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan (among others) that, to justify regulation, there should first be a provable serious market failure and that, even if such a failure can be shown, the net welfare costs of government intervention should be smaller than the net welfare costs of non-intervention.

Given the likely substantial costs of government intervention and the lack of proven welfare costs from the present system (which clearly has been associated with a growth in output), the second prong of the Buchanan test clearly has not been met.

Conclusion

While there are allegations of abuses in the digital-advertising market, it is not at all clear that these abuses have had a long-term negative economic impact. As shown in a study by Erik Brynjolfsson and his student Avinash Collis—recently summarized in the Harvard Business Review (Alden Abbott offers commentary here)—the consumer surplus generated by digital platforms has far outstripped the advertising and services revenues received by the platforms. The CTDAA proposal would seek to unwind much of these gains.

If the goal is to create a multitude of small, largely inefficient advertising companies that charge high fees and provide low-quality service, this bill will deliver. The market for advertising will have a far greater number of players but it will be far less competitive, since no companies will be willing to exceed the $20 billion revenue threshold that would leave them subject to the proposal’s onerous ownership standards.

If, however, the goal is to increase consumer welfare, increase rigorous competition, and cement better outcomes for advertisers and publishers, then it is likely to fail. Ownership requirements laid out in the proposal will lead to a stagnant advertising market, higher fees for all involved, and lower-quality, less-relevant ads. Government regulatory interference in highly successful and efficient platform markets are a terrible idea.