Archives For Ronald Coase

Responding to a new draft policy statement from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the U.S. Department of Justice, Antitrust Division (DOJ) regarding remedies for infringement of standard-essential patents (SEPs), a group of 19 distinguished law, economics, and business scholars convened by the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) submitted comments arguing that the guidance would improperly tilt the balance of power between implementers and inventors, and could undermine incentives for innovation.

As explained in the scholars’ comments, the draft policy statement misunderstands many aspects of patent and antitrust policy. The draft notably underestimates the value of injunctions and the circumstances in which they are a necessary remedy. It also overlooks important features of the standardization process that make opportunistic behavior much less likely than policymakers typically recognize. These points are discussed in even more detail in previous work by ICLE scholars, including here and here.

These first-order considerations are only the tip of the iceberg, however. Patent policy has a huge range of second-order effects that the draft policy statement and policymakers more generally tend to overlook. Indeed, reducing patent protection has more detrimental effects on economic welfare than the conventional wisdom typically assumes. 

The comments highlight three important areas affected by SEP policy that would be undermined by the draft statement. 

  1. First, SEPs are established through an industry-wide, collaborative process that develops and protects innovations considered essential to an industry’s core functioning. This process enables firms to specialize in various functions throughout an industry, rather than vertically integrate to ensure compatibility. 
  2. Second, strong patent protection, especially of SEPs, boosts startup creation via a broader set of mechanisms than is typically recognized. 
  3. Finally, strong SEP protection is essential to safeguard U.S. technology leadership and sovereignty. 

As explained in the scholars’ comments, the draft policy statement would be detrimental on all three of these dimensions. 

To be clear, the comments do not argue that addressing these secondary effects should be a central focus of patent and antitrust policy. Instead, the point is that policymakers must deal with a far more complex set of issues than is commonly recognized; the effects of SEP policy aren’t limited to the allocation of rents among inventors and implementers (as they are sometimes framed in policy debates). Accordingly, policymakers should proceed with caution and resist the temptation to alter by fiat terms that have emerged through careful negotiation among inventors and implementers, and which have been governed for centuries by the common law of contract. 

Collaborative Standard-Setting and Specialization as Substitutes for Proprietary Standards and Vertical Integration

Intellectual property in general—and patents, more specifically—is often described as a means to increase the monetary returns from the creation and distribution of innovations. While this is undeniably the case, this framing overlooks the essential role that IP also plays in promoting specialization throughout the economy.

As Ronald Coase famously showed in his Nobel-winning work, firms must constantly decide whether to perform functions in-house (by vertically integrating), or contract them out to third parties (via the market mechanism). Coase concluded that these decisions hinge on whether the transaction costs associated with the market mechanism outweigh the cost of organizing production internally. Decades later, Oliver Williamson added a key finding to this insight. He found that among the most important transaction costs that firms encounter are those that stem from incomplete contracts and the scope for opportunistic behavior they entail.

This leads to a simple rule of thumb: as the scope for opportunistic behavior increases, firms are less likely to use the market mechanism and will instead perform tasks in-house, leading to increased vertical integration.

IP plays a key role in this process. Patents drastically reduce the transaction costs associated with the transfer of knowledge. This gives firms the opportunity to develop innovations collaboratively and without fear that trading partners might opportunistically appropriate their inventions. In turn, this leads to increased specialization. As Robert Merges observes

Patents facilitate arms-length trade of a technology-intensive input, leading to entry and specialization.

More specifically, it is worth noting that the development and commercialization of inventions can lead to two important sources of opportunistic behavior: patent holdup and patent holdout. As the assembled scholars explain in their comments, while patent holdup has drawn the lion’s share of policymaker attention, empirical and anecdotal evidence suggest that holdout is the more salient problem.

Policies that reduce these costs—especially patent holdout—in a cost-effective manner are worthwhile, with the immediate result that technologies are more widely distributed than would otherwise be the case. Inventors also see more intense and extensive incentives to produce those technologies in the first place.

The Importance of Intellectual Property Rights for Startup Activity

Strong patent rights are essential to monetize innovation, thus enabling new firms to gain a foothold in the marketplace. As the scholars’ comments explain, this is even more true for startup companies. There are three main reasons for this: 

  1. Patent rights protected by injunctions prevent established companies from simply copying innovative startups, with the expectation that they will be able to afford court-set royalties; 
  2. Patent rights can be the basis for securitization, facilitating access to startup funding; and
  3. Patent rights drive venture capital (VC) investment.

While point (1) is widely acknowledged, many fail to recognize it is particularly important for startup companies. There is abundant literature on firms’ appropriability mechanisms (these are essentially the strategies firms employ to prevent rivals from copying their inventions). The literature tells us that patent protection is far from the only strategy firms use to protect their inventions (see. e.g., here, here and here). 

The alternative appropriability mechanisms identified by these studies tend to be easier to implement for well-established firms. For instance, many firms earn returns on their inventions by incorporating them into physical products that cannot be reverse engineered. This is much easier for firms that already have a large industry presence and advanced manufacturing capabilities.  In contrast, startup companies—almost by definition—must outsource production.

Second, property rights could drive startup activity through the collateralization of IP. By offering security interests in patents, trademarks, and copyrights, startups with little or no tangible assets can obtain funding without surrendering significant equity. As Gaétan de Rassenfosse puts it

SMEs can leverage their IP to facilitate R&D financing…. [P]atents materialize the value of knowledge stock: they codify the knowledge and make it tradable, such that they can be used as collaterals. Recent theoretical evidence by Amable et al. (2010) suggests that a systematic use of patents as collateral would allow a high growth rate of innovations despite financial constraints.

Finally, there is reason to believe intellectual-property protection is an important driver of venture capital activity. Beyond simply enabling firms to earn returns on their investments, patents might signal to potential investors that a company is successful and/or valuable. Empirical research by Hsu and Ziedonis, for instance, supports this hypothesis

[W]e find a statistically significant and economically large effect of patent filings on investor estimates of start-up value…. A doubling in the patent application stock of a new venture [in] this sector is associated with a 28 percent increase in valuation, representing an upward funding-round adjustment of approximately $16.8 million for the average start-up in our sample.

In short, intellectual property can stimulate startup activity through various mechanisms. There is thus a sense that, at the margin, weakening patent protection will make it harder for entrepreneurs to embark on new business ventures.

The Role of Strong SEP Rights in Guarding Against China’s ‘Cyber Great Power’ Ambitions 

The United States, due in large measure to its strong intellectual-property protections, is a nation of innovators, and its production of IP is one of its most important comparative advantages. 

IP and its legal protections become even more important, however, when dealing with international jurisdictions, like China, that don’t offer similar levels of legal protection. By making it harder for patent holders to obtain injunctions, licensees and implementers gain the advantage in the short term, because they are able to use patented technology without having to engage in negotiations to pay the full market price. 

In the case of many SEPs—particularly those in the telecommunications sector—a great many patent holders are U.S.-based, while the lion’s share of implementers are Chinese. The anti-injunction policy espoused in the draft policy statement thus amounts to a subsidy to Chinese infringers of U.S. technology.

At the same time, China routinely undermines U.S. intellectual property protections through its industrial policy. The government’s stated goal is to promote “fair and reasonable” international rules, but it is clear that China stretches its power over intellectual property around the world by granting “anti-suit injunctions” on behalf of Chinese smartphone makers, designed to curtail enforcement of foreign companies’ patent rights.

This is part of the Chinese government’s larger approach to industrial policy, which seeks to expand Chinese power in international trade negotiations and in global standards bodies. As one Chinese Communist Party official put it

Standards are the commanding heights, the right to speak, and the right to control. Therefore, the one who obtains the standards gains the world.

Insufficient protections for intellectual property will hasten China’s objective of dominating collaborative standard development in the medium to long term. Simultaneously, this will engender a switch to greater reliance on proprietary, closed standards rather than collaborative, open standards. These harmful consequences are magnified in the context of the global technology landscape, and in light of China’s strategic effort to shape international technology standards. Chinese companies, directed by their government authorities, will gain significant control of the technologies that will underpin tomorrow’s digital goods and services.

The scholars convened by ICLE were not alone in voicing these fears. David Teece (also a signatory to the ICLE-convened comments), for example, surmises in his comments that: 

The US government, in reviewing competition policy issues that might impact standards, therefore needs to be aware that the issues at hand have tremendous geopolitical consequences and cannot be looked at in isolation…. Success in this regard will promote competition and is our best chance to maintain technological leadership—and, along with it, long-term economic growth and consumer welfare and national security.

Similarly, comments from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (signed by, among others, former USPTO Director Anrei Iancu, former NIST Director Walter Copan, and former Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre) argue that the draft policy statement would benefit Chinese firms at U.S. firms’ expense:

What is more, the largest short-term and long-term beneficiaries of the 2021 Draft Policy Statement are firms based in China. Currently, China is the world’s largest consumer of SEP-based technology, so weakening protection of American owned patents directly benefits Chinese manufacturers. The unintended effect of the 2021 Draft Policy Statement will be to support Chinese efforts to dominate critical technology standards and other advanced technologies, such as 5G. Put simply, devaluing U.S. patents is akin to a subsidized tech transfer to China.

With Chinese authorities joining standardization bodies and increasingly claiming jurisdiction over F/RAND disputes, there should be careful reevaluation of the ways the draft policy statement would further weaken the United States’ comparative advantage in IP-dependent technological innovation. 

Conclusion

In short, weakening patent protection could have detrimental ramifications that are routinely overlooked by policymakers. These include increasing inventors’ incentives to vertically integrate rather than develop innovations collaboratively; reducing startup activity (especially when combined with antitrust enforcers’ newfound proclivity to challenge startup acquisitions); and eroding America’s global technology leadership, particularly with respect to China.

For these reasons (and others), the text of the draft policy statement should be reconsidered and either revised substantially to better reflect these concerns or withdrawn entirely. 

The signatories to the comments are:

Alden F. AbbottSenior Research Fellow, Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Former General Counsel, U.S. Federal Trade Commission
Jonathan BarnettTorrey H. Webb Professor of Law
University of Southern California
Ronald A. CassDean Emeritus, School of Law
Boston University
Former Commissioner and Vice-Chairman, U.S. International Trade Commission
Giuseppe ColangeloJean Monnet Chair in European Innovation Policy and Associate Professor of Competition Law & Economics
University of Basilicata and LUISS (Italy)
Richard A. EpsteinLaurence A. Tisch Professor of Law
New York University
Bowman HeidenExecutive Director, Tusher Initiative at the Haas School of Business
University of California, Berkeley
Justin (Gus) HurwitzProfessor of Law
University of Nebraska
Thomas A. LambertWall Chair in Corporate Law and Governance
University of Missouri
Stan J. LiebowitzAshbel Smith Professor of Economics
University of Texas at Dallas
John E. LopatkaA. Robert Noll Distinguished Professor of Law
Penn State University
Keith MallinsonFounder and Managing Partner
WiseHarbor
Geoffrey A. MannePresident and Founder
International Center for Law & Economics
Adam MossoffProfessor of Law
George Mason University
Kristen Osenga Austin E. Owen Research Scholar and Professor of Law
University of Richmond
Vernon L. SmithGeorge L. Argyros Endowed Chair in Finance and Economics
Chapman University
Nobel Laureate in Economics (2002)
Daniel F. SpulberElinor Hobbs Distinguished Professor of International Business
Northwestern University
David J. TeeceThomas W. Tusher Professor in Global Business
University of California, Berkeley
Joshua D. WrightUniversity Professor of Law
George Mason University
Former Commissioner, U.S. Federal Trade Commission
John M. YunAssociate Professor of Law
George Mason University
Former Acting Deputy Assistant Director, Bureau of Economics, U.S. Federal Trade Commission 
Intermediaries may not be the consumer welfare hero we want, but more often than not, they are one that we need.

In policy discussions about the digital economy, a background assumption that frequently underlies the discourse is that intermediaries and centralization always and only serve as a cost to consumers, and to society more generally. Thus, one commonly sees arguments that consumers would be better off if they could freely combine products from different trading partners. According to this logic, bundled goods, walled gardens, and other intermediaries are always to be regarded with suspicion, while interoperability, open source, and decentralization are laudable features of any market.

However, as with all economic goods, intermediation offers both costs and benefits. The challenge for market players is to assess these tradeoffs and, ultimately, to produce the optimal level of intermediation.

As one example, some observers assume that purchasing food directly from a producer benefits consumers because intermediaries no longer take a cut of the final purchase price. But this overlooks the tremendous efficiencies supermarkets can achieve in terms of cost savings, reduced carbon emissions (because consumers make fewer store trips), and other benefits that often outweigh the costs of intermediation.

The same anti-intermediary fallacy is plain to see in countless other markets. For instance, critics readily assume that insurance, mortgage, and travel brokers are just costly middlemen.

This unduly negative perception is perhaps even more salient in the digital world. Policymakers are quick to conclude that consumers are always better off when provided with “more choice.” Draft regulations of digital platforms have been introduced on both sides of the Atlantic that repeat this faulty argument ad nauseam, as do some antitrust decisions.

Even the venerable Tyler Cowen recently appeared to sing the praises of decentralization, when discussing the future of Web 3.0:

One person may think “I like the DeFi options at Uniswap,” while another may say, “I am going to use the prediction markets over at Hedgehog.” In this scenario there is relatively little intermediation and heavy competition for consumer attention. Thus most of the gains from competition accrue to the users. …

… I don’t know if people are up to all this work (or is it fun?). But in my view this is the best-case scenario — and the most technologically ambitious. Interestingly, crypto’s radical ability to disintermediate, if extended to its logical conclusion, could bring about a radical equalization of power that would lower the prices and values of the currently well-established crypto assets, companies and platforms.

While disintermediation certainly has its benefits, critics often gloss over its costs. For example, scams are practically nonexistent on Apple’s “centralized” App Store but are far more prevalent with Web3 services. Apple’s “power” to weed out nefarious actors certainly contributes to this difference. Similarly, there is a reason that “middlemen” like supermarkets and travel agents exist in the first place. They notably perform several complex tasks (e.g., searching for products, negotiating prices, and controlling quality) that leave consumers with a manageable selection of goods.

Returning to the crypto example, besides being a renowned scholar, Tyler Cowen is also an extremely savvy investor. What he sees as fun investment choices may be nightmarish (and potentially dangerous) decisions for less sophisticated consumers. The upshot is that intermediaries are far more valuable than they are usually given credit for.

Bringing People Together

The reason intermediaries (including online platforms) exist is to reduce transaction costs that suppliers and customers would face if they tried to do business directly. As Daniel F. Spulber argues convincingly:

Markets have two main modes of organization: decentralized and centralized. In a decentralized market, buyers and sellers match with each other and determine transaction prices. In a centralized market, firms act as intermediaries between buyers and sellers.

[W]hen there are many buyers and sellers, there can be substantial transaction costs associated with communication, search, bargaining, and contracting. Such transaction costs can make it more difficult to achieve cross-market coordination through direct communication. Intermediary firms have various means of reducing transaction costs of decentralized coordination when there are many buyers and sellers.

This echoes the findings of Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, who observed that firms emerge when they offer a cheaper alternative to multiple bilateral transactions:

The main reason why it is profitable to establish a firm would seem to be that there is a cost of using the price mechanism. The most obvious cost of “organising ” production through the price mechanism is that of discovering what the relevant prices are. […] The costs of negotiating and concluding a separate contract for each exchange transaction which takes place on a market must also be taken into account.

Economists generally agree that online platforms also serve this cost-reduction function. For instance, David Evans and Richard Schmalensee observe that:

Multi-sided platforms create value by bringing two or more different types of economic agents together and facilitating interactions between them that make all agents better off.

It’s easy to see the implications for today’s competition-policy debates, and for the online intermediaries that many critics would like to see decentralized. Particularly salient examples include app store platforms (such as the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store); online retail platforms (such as Amazon Marketplace); and online travel agents (like Booking.com and Expedia). Competition policymakers have embarked on countless ventures to “open up” these platforms to competition, essentially moving them further toward disintermediation. In most of these cases, however, policymakers appear to be fighting these businesses’ very raison d’être.

For example, the purpose of an app store is to curate the software that users can install and to offer payment solutions; in exchange, the store receives a cut of the proceeds. If performing these tasks created no value, then to a first approximation, these services would not exist. Users would simply download apps via their web browsers, and the most successful smartphones would be those that allowed users to directly install apps (“sideloading,” to use the more technical terms). Forcing these platforms to “open up” and become neutral is antithetical to the value proposition they offer.

Calls for retail and travel platforms to stop offering house brands or displaying certain products more favorably are equally paradoxical. Consumers turn to these platforms because they want a selection of goods. If that was not the case, users could simply bypass the platforms and purchase directly from independent retailers or hotels.Critics sometimes retort that some commercial arrangements, such as “most favored nation” clauses, discourage consumers from doing exactly this. But that claim only reinforces the point that online platforms must create significant value, or they would not be able to obtain such arrangements in the first place.

All of this explains why characterizing these firms as imposing a “tax” on their respective ecosystems is so deeply misleading. The implication is that platforms are merely passive rent extractors that create no value. Yet, barring the existence of market failures, both their existence and success is proof to the contrary. To argue otherwise places no faith in the ability of firms and consumers to act in their own self-interest.

A Little Evolution

This last point is even more salient when seen from an evolutionary standpoint. Today’s most successful intermediaries—be they online platforms or more traditional brick-and-mortar firms like supermarkets—mostly had to outcompete the alternative represented by disintermediated bilateral contracts.

Critics of intermediaries rarely contemplate why the app-store model outpaced the more heavily disintermediated software distribution of the desktop era. Or why hotel-booking sites exist, despite consumers’ ability to use search engines, hotel websites, and other product-search methods that offer unadulterated product selections. Or why mortgage brokers are so common when borrowers can call local banks directly. The list is endless.

Indeed, as I have argued previously:

Digital markets could have taken a vast number of shapes, so why have they systematically gravitated towards those very characteristics that authorities condemn? For instance, if market tipping and consumer lock-in are so problematic, why is it that new corners of the digital economy continue to emerge via closed platforms, as opposed to collaborative ones? Indeed, if recent commentary is to be believed, it is the latter that should succeed because they purportedly produce greater gains from trade. And if consumers and platforms cannot realize these gains by themselves, then we should see [other] intermediaries step into the breach – i.e. arbitrage. This does not seem to be happening in the digital economy. The naïve answer is to say that this is precisely the problem, the harder one is to actually understand why.

Fiat Versus Emergent Disintermediation

All of this is not to say that intermediaries are perfect, or that centralization always beats decentralization. Instead, the critical point is about the competitive process. There are vast differences between centralization that stems from government fiat and that which emerges organically.

(Dis)intermediation is an economic good. Markets thus play a critical role in deciding how much or little of it is provided. Intermediaries must charge fees that cover their costs, while bilateral contracts entail transaction costs. In typically Hayekian fashion, suppliers and buyers will weigh the costs and benefits of these options.

Intermediaries are most likely to emerge in markets prone to excessive transaction costs and competitive processes ensure that only valuable intermediaries survive. Accordingly, there is no guarantee that government-mandated disintermediation would generate net benefits in any given case.

Of course, the market does not always work perfectly. Sometimes, market failures give rise to excessive (or insufficient) centralization. And policymakers should certainly be attentive to these potential problems and address them on a case-by-case basis. But there is little reason to believe that today’s most successful intermediaries are the result of market failures, and it is thus critical that policymakers do not undermine the valuable role they perform.

For example, few believe that supermarkets exist merely because government failures (such as excessive regulation) or market failures (such as monopolization) prevent the emergence of smaller rivals. Likewise, the app-store model is widely perceived as an improvement over previous software platforms; few consumers appear favorably disposed toward its replacement with sideloading of apps (for example, few Android users choose to sideload apps rather than purchase them via the Google Play Store). In fact, markets appear to be moving in the opposite direction: even traditional software platforms such as Windows OS increasingly rely on closed stores to distribute software on their platforms.

More broadly, this same reasoning can (and has) been applied to other social institutions, such as the modern family. For example, the late Steven Horwitz observed that family structures have evolved in order to adapt to changing economic circumstances. Crucially, this process is driven by the same cost-benefit tradeoff that we see in markets. In both cases, agents effectively decide which functions are better performed within a given social structure, and which ones are more efficiently completed outside of it.

Returning to Tyler Cowen’s point about the future of Web3, the case can be made that whatever level of centralization ultimately emerges is most likely the best case scenario. Sure, there may be some market failures and suboptimal outcomes along the way, but they ultimately pale in comparison to the most pervasive force: namely, economic agents’ ability to act in what they perceive to be their best interest. To put it differently, if Web3 spontaneously becomes as centralized as Web 2.0 has been, that would be testament to the tremendous role that intermediaries play throughout the economy.

“Edinburgh, Great Britain – July 7, 2010: Statue of Adam Smith in Edinburgh in front of St. Giles Cathedral at Parliament Square.”

The interplay among political philosophy, competition, and competition law remains, with some notable exceptions, understudied in the literature. Indeed, while examinations of the intersection between economics and competition law have taught us much, relatively little has been said about the value frameworks within which different visions of competition and competition law operate.

As Ronald Coase reminds us, questions of economics and political philosophy are interrelated, so that “problems of welfare economics must ultimately dissolve into a study of aesthetics and morals.” When we talk about economics, we talk about political philosophy, and vice versa. Every political philosophy reproduces economic prescriptions that reflect its core tenets. And every economic arrangement, in turn, evokes the normative values that undergird it. This is as true for socialism and fascism as it is for liberalism and neoliberalism.

Many economists have understood this. Milton Friedman, for instance, who spent most of his career studying social welfare, not ethics, admitted in Free to Choose that he was ultimately concerned with the preservation of a value: the liberty of the individual. Similarly, the avowed purpose of Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty was to maximize the state of human freedom, with coercion—i.e., the opposite of freedom—described as evil. James Buchanan fought to preserve political philosophy within the economic discipline, particularly worrying that:

Political economy was becoming unmoored from the types of philosophic and institutional analysis which were previously central to the field. In its flight from reality, Buchanan feared economics was in danger of abandoning social-philosophic issues for exclusively technical questions.

— John Kroencke, “Three Essays in the History of Economics”

Against this background, I propose to look at competition and competition law from a perspective that explicitly recognizes this connection. The goal is not to substitute, but rather to complement, our comparatively broad understanding of competition economics with a better grasp of the deeper normative implications of regulating competition in a certain way. If we agree with Robert Bork that antitrust is a subcategory of ideology that reflects and reacts upon deeper tensions in our society, the exercise might also be relevant beyond the relatively narrow confines of antitrust scholarship (which, on the other hand, seem to be getting wider and wider).

The Classical Liberal Revolution and the Unshackling of Competition

Mercantilism

When Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, heavy economic regulation of the market through laws, by-laws, tariffs, and special privileges was the norm. Restrictions on imports were seen as protecting national wealth by preventing money from flowing out of the country—a policy premised on the conflation of money with wealth. A morass of legally backed and enforceable monopoly rights, granted either by royal decree or government-sanctioned by-laws, marred competition. Guilds reigned over tradesmen by restricting entry into the professions and segregating markets along narrow geographic lines. At every turn, economic activity was shot through with rules, restrictions, and regulations.

The Revolution in Political Economy

Classical liberals like Smith departed from the then-dominant mercantilist paradigm by arguing that nations prospered through trade and competition, and not protectionism and monopoly privileges. He demonstrated that both the seller and the buyer benefited from trade; and theorized the market as an automatic mechanism that allocated resources efficiently through the spontaneous, self-interested interaction of individuals.

Undergirding this position was the notion of the natural order, which Smith carried over from his own Theory of Moral Sentiments and which elaborated on arguments previously espoused by the French physiocrats (a neologism meaning “the rule of nature”), such as Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, François Quesnay, and Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay. The basic premise was that there existed a harmonious order of things established and maintained by means of subconscious balancing of the egoism of the individual and the greatest welfare for all.

The implications of this modest insight, which clashed directly with established mercantilist orthodoxy, were tremendous. If human freedom maximized social welfare, the justification for detailed government intervention in the economy was untenable. The principles of laissez-faire (a term probably coined by Gournay, who had been Turgot’s mentor) instead prescribed that the government should adopt a “night watchman” role, tending to modest tasks such as internal and external defense, the mediation of disputes, and certain public works that were not deemed profitable for the individual.

Freeing Competition from the Mercantilist Yoke

Smith’s general attitude also carried over to competition. Following the principles described above, classical liberals believed that price and product adjustments following market interactions among tradesmen (i.e., competition) would automatically maximize social utility. As Smith argued:

In general, if any branch of trade, or any division of labor, be advantageous to the public, the freer and more general the competition, it will always be the more so.

This did not mean that competition occurred in a legal void. Rather, Smith’s point was that there was no need to construct a comprehensive system of competition regulation, as markets would oversee themselves so long as a basic legal and institutional framework was in place and government refrained from actively abetting monopolies. Under this view, the only necessary “competition law” would be those individual laws that made competition possible, such as private property rights, contracts, unfair competition laws, and the laws against government and guild restrictions.

Liberal Political Philosophy: Utilitarian and Deontological Perspectives on Liberty and Individuality

Of course, this sort of volte face in political economy needed to be buttressed by a robust philosophical conception of the individual and the social order. Such ontological and moral theories were articulated in, among others, the Theory of Moral Sentiments and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. At the heart of the liberal position was the idea that undue restrictions on human freedom and individuality were not only intrinsically despotic, but also socially wasteful, as they precluded men from enjoying the fruits of the exercise of such freedoms. For instance, infringing the freedom to trade and to compete would rob the public of cheaper goods, while restrictions on freedom of expression would arrest the development of thoughts and ideas through open debate.

It is not clear whether the material or the ethical argument for freedom came first. In other words, whether classical liberalism constituted an ex-post rationalization of a moral preference for individual liberty, or precisely the reverse. The question may be immaterial, as classical liberals generally believed that the deontological and the consequentialist cases for liberty—save in the most peripheral of cases (e.g., violence against others)—largely overlapped.

Conclusion

In sum, classical liberalism offered a holistic, integrated view of societies, markets, morals, and individuals that was revolutionary for the time. The notion of competition as a force to be unshackled—rather than actively constructed and chaperoned—flowed organically from that account and its underlying values and assumptions. These included such values as personal freedom and individualism, along with foundational metaphysical presuppositions, such as the existence of a harmonious natural order that seamlessly guided individual actions for the benefit of the whole.

Where such base values and presumptions are eroded, however, the notion of a largely spontaneous, self-sustaining competitive process loses much of its rational, ethical, and moral legitimacy. Competition thus ceases to be tenable on its “own two feet” and must either be actively engineered and protected, or abandoned altogether as a viable organizing principle. In this sense, the crisis of liberalism the West experienced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—which attacked the very foundations of classical liberal doctrine—can also be read as a crisis of competition.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the collectivist backlash against liberalism.

[The following post was adapted from the International Center for Law & Economics White Paper “Polluting Words: Is There a Coasean Case to Regulate Offensive Speech?]

Words can wound. They can humiliate, anger, insult.

University students—or, at least, a vociferous minority of them—are keen to prevent this injury by suppressing offensive speech. To ensure campuses are safe places, they militate for the cancellation of talks by speakers with opinions they find offensive, often successfully. And they campaign to get offensive professors fired from their jobs.

Off campus, some want this safety to be extended to the online world and, especially, to the users of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. In the United States, this would mean weakening the legal protections of offensive speech provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (as President Joe Biden has recommended) or by the First Amendment and. In the United Kingdom, the Online Safety Bill is now before Parliament. If passed, it will give a U.K. government agency the power to dictate the content-moderation policies of social media platforms.

You don’t need to be a woke university student or grandstanding politician to suspect that society suffers from an overproduction of offensive speech. Basic economics provides a reason to suspect it—the reason being that offense is an external cost of speech. The cost is borne not by the speaker but by his audience. And when people do not bear all the costs of an action, they do it too much.

Jack tweets “women don’t have penises.” This offends Jill, who is someone with a penis who considers herself (or himself, if Jack is right) to be a woman. And it offends many others, who agree with Jill that Jack is indulging in ugly transphobic biological essentialism. Lacking Bill Clinton’s facility for feeling the pain of others, Jack does not bear this cost. So, even if it exceeds whatever benefit Jack gets from saying that women don’t have penises, he will still say it. In other words, he will say it even when doing so makes society altogether worse off.

It shouldn’t be allowed!

That’s what we normally say when actions harm others more than they benefit the agent. The law normally conforms to John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle” by restricting activities—such as shooting people or treating your neighbours to death metal at 130 decibels at 2 a.m.—with material external costs. Those who seek legal reform to restrict offensive speech are surely doing no more than following an accepted general principle.

But it’s not so simple. As Ronald Coase pointed out in his famous 1960 article “The Problem of Social Cost,” externalities are a reciprocal problem. If Wayne had no neighbors, his playing death metal at 130 decibels at 2 a.m. would have no external costs. Their choice of address is equally a source of the problem. Similarly, if Jill weren’t a Twitter user, she wouldn’t have been offended by Jack’s tweet about who has a penis, since she wouldn’t have encountered it. Externalities are like tangos: they always have at least two perpetrators.

So, the legal question, “who should have a right to what they want?”—Wayne to his loud music or his neighbors to their sleep; Jack to expressing his opinion about women or Jill to not hearing such opinions—cannot be answered by identifying the party who is responsible for the external cost. Both parties are responsible.

How, then, should the question be answered? In the same paper, Coase the showed that, in certain circumstances, who the courts favor will make no difference to what ends up happening, and that what ends up happening will be efficient. Suppose the court says that Wayne cannot bother his neighbors with death metal at 2 a.m. If Wayne would be willing to pay $100,000 to keep doing it and his neighbors, combined, would put up with it for anything more than $95,000, then they should be able to arrive at a mutually beneficial deal whereby Wayne pays them something between $95,000 and $100,000 to forgo their right to stop him making his dreadful noise.

That’s not exactly right. If negotiating a deal would cost more than $5,000, then no mutually beneficial deal is possible and the rights-trading won’t happen. Transaction costs being less than the difference between the two parties’ valuations is the circumstance in which the allocation of legal rights makes no difference to how resources get used, and where efficiency will be achieved, in any event.

But it is an unusual circumstance, especially when the external cost is suffered by many people. When the transaction cost is too high, efficiency does depend on the allocation of rights by courts or legislatures. As Coase argued, when this is so, efficiency will be served if a right to the disputed resource is granted to the party with the higher cost of avoiding the externality.

Given the (implausible) valuations Wayne and his neighbors place on the amount of noise in their environment at 2 a.m., efficiency is served by giving Wayne the right to play his death metal, unless he could soundproof his house or play his music at a much lower volume or take some other avoidance measure that costs him less than the $90,000 cost to his neighbours.

And given that Jack’s tweet about penises offends a large open-ended group of people, with whom Jack therefore cannot negotiate, it looks like they should be given the right not to be offended by Jack’s comment and he should be denied the right to make it. Coasean logic supports the woke censors!          

But, again, it’s not that simple—for two reasons.

The first is that, although those are offended may be harmed by the offending speech, they needn’t necessarily be. Physical pain is usually harmful, but not when experienced by a sexual masochist (in the right circumstances, of course). Similarly, many people take masochistic pleasure in being offended. You can tell they do, because they actively seek out the sources of their suffering. They are genuinely offended, but the offense isn’t harming them, just as the sexual masochist really is in physical pain but isn’t harmed by it. Indeed, real pain and real offense are required, respectively, for the satisfaction of the sexual masochist and the offense masochist.

How many of the offended are offense masochists? Where the offensive speech can be avoided at minimal cost, the answer must be most. Why follow Jordan Peterson on Twitter when you find his opinions offensive unless you enjoy being offended by him? Maybe some are keeping tabs on the dreadful man so that they can better resist him, and they take the pain for that reason rather than for masochistic glee. But how could a legislator or judge know? For all they know, most of those offended by Jordan Peterson are offense masochists and the offense he causes is a positive externality.

The second reason Coasean logic doesn’t support the would-be censors is that social media platforms—the venues of offensive speech that they seek to regulate—are privately owned. To see why this is significant, consider not offensive speech, but an offensive action, such as openly masturbating on a bus.

This is prohibited by law. But it is not the mere act that is illegal. You are allowed to masturbate in the privacy of your bedroom. You may not masturbate on a bus because those who are offended by the sight of it cannot easily avoid it. That’s why it is illegal to express obscenities about Jesus on a billboard erected across the road from a church but not at a meeting of the Angry Atheists Society. The laws that prohibit offensive speech in such circumstances—laws against public nuisance, harassment, public indecency, etc.—are generally efficient. The cost they impose on the offenders is less than the benefits to the offended.

But they are unnecessary when the giving and taking of offense occur within a privately owned place. Suppose no law prohibited masturbating on a bus. It still wouldn’t be allowed on buses owned by a profit-seeker. Few people want to masturbate on buses and most people who ride on buses seek trips that are masturbation-free. A prohibition on masturbation will gain the owner more customers than it loses him. The prohibition is simply another feature of the product offered by the bus company. Nice leather seats, punctual departures, and no wankers (literally). There is no more reason to believe that the bus company’s passenger-conduct rules will be inefficient than that its other product features will be and, therefore, no more reason to legally stipulate them.

The same goes for the content-moderation policies of social media platforms. They are just another product feature offered by a profit-seeking firm. If they repel more customers than they attract (or, more accurately, if they repel more advertising revenue than they attract), they would be inefficient. But then, of course, the company would not adopt them.

Of course, the owner of a social media platform might not be a pure profit-maximiser. For example, he might forgo $10 million in advertising revenue for the sake of banning speakers he personally finds offensive. But the outcome is still efficient. Allowing the speech would have cost more by way of the owner’s unhappiness than the lost advertising would have been worth.  And such powerful feelings in the owner of a platform create an opportunity for competitors who do not share his feelings. They can offer a platform that does not ban the offensive speakers and, if enough people want to hear what they have to say, attract users and the advertising revenue that comes with them. 

If efficiency is your concern, there is no problem for the authorities to solve. Indeed, the idea that the authorities would do a better job of deciding content-moderation rules is not merely absurd, but alarming. Politicians and the bureaucrats who answer to them or are appointed by them would use the power not to promote efficiency, but to promote agendas congenial to them. Jurisprudence in liberal democracies—and, especially, in America—has been suspicious of governmental control of what may be said. Nothing about social media provides good reason to become any less suspicious.

Interrogations concerning the role that economic theory should play in policy decisions are nothing new. Milton Friedman famously drew a distinction between “positive” and “normative” economics, notably arguing that theoretical models were valuable, despite their unrealistic assumptions. Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu’s highly theoretical work on General Equilibrium Theory is widely acknowledged as one of the most important achievements of modern economics.

But for all their intellectual value and academic merit, the use of models to inform policy decisions is not uncontroversial. There is indeed a long and unfortunate history of influential economic models turning out to be poor depictions (and predictors) of real-world outcomes.

This raises a key question: should policymakers use economic models to inform their decisions and, if so, how? This post uses the economics of externalities to illustrate both the virtues and pitfalls of economic modeling. Throughout economic history, externalities have routinely been cited to support claims of market failure and calls for government intervention. However, as explained below, these fears have frequently failed to withstand empirical scrutiny.

Today, similar models are touted to support government intervention in digital industries. Externalities are notably said to prevent consumers from switching between platforms, allegedly leading to unassailable barriers to entry and deficient venture-capital investment. Unfortunately, as explained below, the models that underpin these fears are highly abstracted and far removed from underlying market realities.

Ultimately, this post argues that, while models provide a powerful way of thinking about the world, naïvely transposing them to real-world settings is misguided. This is not to say that models are useless—quite the contrary. Indeed, “falsified” models can shed powerful light on economic behavior that would otherwise prove hard to understand.

Bees

Fears surrounding economic externalities are as old as modern economics. For example, in the 1950s, economists routinely cited bee pollination as a source of externalities and, ultimately, market failure.

The basic argument was straightforward: Bees and orchards provide each other with positive externalities. Bees cross-pollinate flowers and orchards contain vast amounts of nectar upon which bees feed, thus improving honey yields. Accordingly, several famous economists argued that there was a market failure; bees fly where they please and farmers cannot prevent bees from feeding on their blossoming flowers—allegedly causing underinvestment in both. This led James Meade to conclude:

[T]he apple-farmer provides to the beekeeper some of his factors free of charge. The apple-farmer is paid less than the value of his marginal social net product, and the beekeeper receives more than the value of his marginal social net product.

A finding echoed by Francis Bator:

If, then, apple producers are unable to protect their equity in apple-nectar and markets do not impute to apple blossoms their correct shadow value, profit-maximizing decisions will fail correctly to allocate resources at the margin. There will be failure “by enforcement.” This is what I would call an ownership externality. It is essentially Meade’s “unpaid factor” case.

It took more than 20 years and painstaking research by Steven Cheung to conclusively debunk these assertions. So how did economic agents overcome this “insurmountable” market failure?

The answer, it turns out, was extremely simple. While bees do fly where they please, the relative placement of beehives and orchards has a tremendous impact on both fruit and honey yields. This is partly because bees have a very limited mean foraging range (roughly 2-3km). This left economic agents with ample scope to prevent free-riding.

Using these natural sources of excludability, they built a web of complex agreements that internalize the symbiotic virtues of beehives and fruit orchards. To cite Steven Cheung’s research

Pollination contracts usually include stipulations regarding the number and strength of the colonies, the rental fee per hive, the time of delivery and removal of hives, the protection of bees from pesticide sprays, and the strategic placing of hives. Apiary lease contracts differ from pollination contracts in two essential aspects. One is, predictably, that the amount of apiary rent seldom depends on the number of colonies, since the farmer is interested only in obtaining the rent per apiary offered by the highest bidder. Second, the amount of apiary rent is not necessarily fixed. Paid mostly in honey, it may vary according to either the current honey yield or the honey yield of the preceding year.

But what of neighboring orchards? Wouldn’t these entail a more complex externality (i.e., could one orchard free-ride on agreements concluded between other orchards and neighboring apiaries)? Apparently not:

Acknowledging the complication, beekeepers and farmers are quick to point out that a social rule, or custom of the orchards, takes the place of explicit contracting: during the pollination period the owner of an orchard either keeps bees himself or hires as many hives per area as are employed in neighboring orchards of the same type. One failing to comply would be rated as a “bad neighbor,” it is said, and could expect a number of inconveniences imposed on him by other orchard owners. This customary matching of hive densities involves the exchange of gifts of the same kind, which apparently entails lower transaction costs than would be incurred under explicit contracting, where farmers would have to negotiate and make money payments to one another for the bee spillover.

In short, not only did the bee/orchard externality model fail, but it failed to account for extremely obvious counter-evidence. Even a rapid flip through the Yellow Pages (or, today, a search on Google) would have revealed a vibrant market for bee pollination. In short, the bee externalities, at least as presented in economic textbooks, were merely an economic “fable.” Unfortunately, they would not be the last.

The Lighthouse

Lighthouses provide another cautionary tale. Indeed, Henry Sidgwick, A.C. Pigou, John Stuart Mill, and Paul Samuelson all cited the externalities involved in the provision of lighthouse services as a source of market failure.

Here, too, the problem was allegedly straightforward. A lighthouse cannot prevent ships from free-riding on its services when they sail by it (i.e., it is mostly impossible to determine whether a ship has paid fees and to turn off the lighthouse if that is not the case). Hence there can be no efficient market for light dues (lighthouses were seen as a “public good”). As Paul Samuelson famously put it:

Take our earlier case of a lighthouse to warn against rocks. Its beam helps everyone in sight. A businessman could not build it for a profit, since he cannot claim a price from each user. This certainly is the kind of activity that governments would naturally undertake.

He added that:

[E]ven if the operators were able—say, by radar reconnaissance—to claim a toll from every nearby user, that fact would not necessarily make it socially optimal for this service to be provided like a private good at a market-determined individual price. Why not? Because it costs society zero extra cost to let one extra ship use the service; hence any ships discouraged from those waters by the requirement to pay a positive price will represent a social economic loss—even if the price charged to all is no more than enough to pay the long-run expenses of the lighthouse.

More than a century after it was first mentioned in economics textbooks, Ronald Coase finally laid the lighthouse myth to rest—rebutting Samuelson’s second claim in the process.

What piece of evidence had eluded economists for all those years? As Coase observed, contemporary economists had somehow overlooked the fact that large parts of the British lighthouse system were privately operated, and had been for centuries:

[T]he right to operate a lighthouse and to levy tolls was granted to individuals by Acts of Parliament. The tolls were collected at the ports by agents (who might act for several lighthouses), who might be private individuals but were commonly customs officials. The toll varied with the lighthouse and ships paid a toll, varying with the size of the vessel, for each lighthouse passed. It was normally a rate per ton (say 1/4d or 1/2d) for each voyage. Later, books were published setting out the lighthouses passed on different voyages and the charges that would be made.

In other words, lighthouses used a simple physical feature to create “excludability” and prevent free-riding. The main reason ships require lighthouses is to avoid hitting rocks when they make their way to a port. By tying port fees and light dues, lighthouse owners—aided by mild government-enforced property rights—could easily earn a return on their investments, thus disproving the lighthouse free-riding myth.

Ultimately, this meant that a large share of the British lighthouse system was privately operated throughout the 19th century, and this share would presumably have been more pronounced if government-run “Trinity House” lighthouses had not crowded out private investment:

The position in 1820 was that there were 24 lighthouses operated by Trinity House and 22 by private individuals or organizations. But many of the Trinity House lighthouses had not been built originally by them but had been acquired by purchase or as the result of the expiration of a lease.

Of course, this system was not perfect. Some ships (notably foreign ones that did not dock in the United Kingdom) might free-ride on this arrangement. It also entailed some level of market power. The ability to charge light dues meant that prices were higher than the “socially optimal” baseline of zero (the marginal cost of providing light is close to zero). Though it is worth noting that tying port fees and light dues might also have decreased double marginalization, to the benefit of sailors.

Samuelson was particularly weary of this market power that went hand in hand with the private provision of public goods, including lighthouses:

Being able to limit a public good’s consumption does not make it a true-blue private good. For what, after all, are the true marginal costs of having one extra family tune in on the program? They are literally zero. Why then prevent any family which would receive positive pleasure from tuning in on the program from doing so?

However, as Coase explained, light fees represented only a tiny fraction of a ship’s costs. In practice, they were thus unlikely to affect market output meaningfully:

[W]hat is the gain which Samuelson sees as coming from this change in the way in which the lighthouse service is financed? It is that some ships which are now discouraged from making a voyage to Britain because of the light dues would in future do so. As it happens, the form of the toll and the exemptions mean that for most ships the number of voyages will not be affected by the fact that light dues are paid. There may be some ships somewhere which are laid up or broken up because of the light dues, but the number cannot be great, if indeed there are any ships in this category.

Samuelson’s critique also falls prey to the Nirvana Fallacy pointed out by Harold Demsetz: markets might not be perfect, but neither is government intervention. Market power and imperfect appropriability are the two (paradoxical) pitfalls of the first; “white elephants,” underinvestment, and lack of competition (and the information it generates) tend to stem from the latter.

Which of these solutions is superior, in each case, is an empirical question that early economists had simply failed to consider—assuming instead that market failure was systematic in markets that present prima facie externalities. In other words, models were taken as gospel without any circumspection about their relevance to real-world settings.

The Tragedy of the Commons

Externalities were also said to undermine the efficient use of “common pool resources,” such grazing lands, common irrigation systems, and fisheries—resources where one agent’s use diminishes that of others, and where exclusion is either difficult or impossible.

The most famous formulation of this problem is Garret Hardin’s highly influential (over 47,000 cites) “tragedy of the commons.” Hardin cited the example of multiple herdsmen occupying the same grazing ground:

The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another … But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.

In more technical terms, each economic agent purportedly exerts an unpriced negative externality on the others, thus leading to the premature depletion of common pool resources. Hardin extended this reasoning to other problems, such as pollution and allegations of global overpopulation.

Although Hardin hardly documented any real-world occurrences of this so-called tragedy, his policy prescriptions were unequivocal:

The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.

As with many other theoretical externalities, empirical scrutiny revealed that these fears were greatly overblown. In her Nobel-winning work, Elinor Ostrom showed that economic agents often found ways to mitigate these potential externalities markedly. For example, mountain villages often implement rules and norms that limit the use of grazing grounds and wooded areas. Likewise, landowners across the world often set up “irrigation communities” that prevent agents from overusing water.

Along similar lines, Julian Morris and I conjecture that informal arrangements and reputational effects might mitigate opportunistic behavior in the standard essential patent industry.

These bottom-up solutions are certainly not perfect. Many common institutions fail—for example, Elinor Ostrom documents several problematic fisheries, groundwater basins and forests, although it is worth noting that government intervention was sometimes behind these failures. To cite but one example:

Several scholars have documented what occurred when the Government of Nepal passed the “Private Forest Nationalization Act” […]. Whereas the law was officially proclaimed to “protect, manage and conserve the forest for the benefit of the entire country”, it actually disrupted previously established communal control over the local forests. Messerschmidt (1986, p.458) reports what happened immediately after the law came into effect:

Nepalese villagers began freeriding — systematically overexploiting their forest resources on a large scale.

In any case, the question is not so much whether private institutions fail, but whether they do so more often than government intervention. be it regulation or property rights. In short, the “tragedy of the commons” is ultimately an empirical question: what works better in each case, government intervention, propertization, or emergent rules and norms?

More broadly, the key lesson is that it is wrong to blindly apply models while ignoring real-world outcomes. As Elinor Ostrom herself put it:

The intellectual trap in relying entirely on models to provide the foundation for policy analysis is that scholars then presume that they are omniscient observers able to comprehend the essentials of how complex, dynamic systems work by creating stylized descriptions of some aspects of those systems.

Dvorak Keyboards

In 1985, Paul David published an influential paper arguing that market failures undermined competition between the QWERTY and Dvorak keyboard layouts. This version of history then became a dominant narrative in the field of network economics, including works by Joseph Farrell & Garth Saloner, and Jean Tirole.

The basic claim was that QWERTY users’ reluctance to switch toward the putatively superior Dvorak layout exerted a negative externality on the rest of the ecosystem (and a positive externality on other QWERTY users), thus preventing the adoption of a more efficient standard. As Paul David put it:

Although the initial lead acquired by QWERTY through its association with the Remington was quantitatively very slender, when magnified by expectations it may well have been quite sufficient to guarantee that the industry eventually would lock in to a de facto QWERTY standard. […]

Competition in the absence of perfect futures markets drove the industry prematurely into standardization on the wrong system — where decentralized decision making subsequently has sufficed to hold it.

Unfortunately, many of the above papers paid little to no attention to actual market conditions in the typewriter and keyboard layout industries. Years later, Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis undertook a detailed analysis of the keyboard layout market. They almost entirely rejected any notion that QWERTY prevailed despite it being the inferior standard:

Yet there are many aspects of the QWERTY-versus-Dvorak fable that do not survive scrutiny. First, the claim that Dvorak is a better keyboard is supported only by evidence that is both scant and suspect. Second, studies in the ergonomics literature find no significant advantage for Dvorak that can be deemed scientifically reliable. Third, the competition among producers of typewriters, out of which the standard emerged, was far more vigorous than is commonly reported. Fourth, there were far more typing contests than just the single Cincinnati contest. These contests provided ample opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of alternative keyboard arrangements. That QWERTY survived significant challenges early in the history of typewriting demonstrates that it is at least among the reasonably fit, even if not the fittest that can be imagined.

In short, there was little to no evidence supporting the view that QWERTY inefficiently prevailed because of network effects. The falsification of this narrative also weakens broader claims that network effects systematically lead to either excess momentum or excess inertia in standardization. Indeed, it is tempting to characterize all network industries with heavily skewed market shares as resulting from market failure. Yet the QWERTY/Dvorak story suggests that such a conclusion would be premature.

Killzones, Zoom, and TikTok

If you are still reading at this point, you might think that contemporary scholars would know better than to base calls for policy intervention on theoretical externalities. Alas, nothing could be further from the truth.

For instance, a recent paper by Sai Kamepalli, Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales conjectures that the interplay between mergers and network externalities discourages the adoption of superior independent platforms:

If techies expect two platforms to merge, they will be reluctant to pay the switching costs and adopt the new platform early on, unless the new platform significantly outperforms the incumbent one. After all, they know that if the entering platform’s technology is a net improvement over the existing technology, it will be adopted by the incumbent after merger, with new features melded with old features so that the techies’ adjustment costs are minimized. Thus, the prospect of a merger will dissuade many techies from trying the new technology.

Although this key behavioral assumption drives the results of the theoretical model, the paper presents no evidence to support the contention that it occurs in real-world settings. Admittedly, the paper does present evidence of reduced venture capital investments after mergers involving large tech firms. But even on their own terms, this data simply does not support the authors’ behavioral assumption.

And this is no isolated example. Over the past couple of years, several scholars have called for more muscular antitrust intervention in networked industries. A common theme is that network externalities, switching costs, and data-related increasing returns to scale lead to inefficient consumer lock-in, thus raising barriers to entry for potential rivals (here, here, here).

But there are also countless counterexamples, where firms have easily overcome potential barriers to entry and network externalities, ultimately disrupting incumbents.

Zoom is one of the most salient instances. As I have written previously:

To get to where it is today, Zoom had to compete against long-established firms with vast client bases and far deeper pockets. These include the likes of Microsoft, Cisco, and Google. Further complicating matters, the video communications market exhibits some prima facie traits that are typically associated with the existence of network effects.

Along similar lines, Geoffrey Manne and Alec Stapp have put forward a multitude of other examples. These include: The demise of Yahoo; the disruption of early instant-messaging applications and websites; MySpace’s rapid decline; etc. In all these cases, outcomes do not match the predictions of theoretical models.

More recently, TikTok’s rapid rise offers perhaps the greatest example of a potentially superior social-networking platform taking significant market share away from incumbents. According to the Financial Times, TikTok’s video-sharing capabilities and its powerful algorithm are the most likely explanations for its success.

While these developments certainly do not disprove network effects theory, they eviscerate the common belief in antitrust circles that superior rivals are unable to overthrow incumbents in digital markets. Of course, this will not always be the case. As in the previous examples, the question is ultimately one of comparing institutions—i.e., do markets lead to more or fewer error costs than government intervention? Yet this question is systematically omitted from most policy discussions.

In Conclusion

My argument is not that models are without value. To the contrary, framing problems in economic terms—and simplifying them in ways that make them cognizable—enables scholars and policymakers to better understand where market failures might arise, and how these problems can be anticipated and solved by private actors. In other words, models alone cannot tell us that markets will fail, but they can direct inquiries and help us to understand why firms behave the way they do, and why markets (including digital ones) are organized in a given way.

In that respect, both the theoretical and empirical research cited throughout this post offer valuable insights for today’s policymakers.

For a start, as Ronald Coase famously argued in what is perhaps his most famous work, externalities (and market failure more generally) are a function of transaction costs. When these are low (relative to the value of a good), market failures are unlikely. This is perhaps clearest in the “Fable of the Bees” example. Given bees’ short foraging range, there were ultimately few real-world obstacles to writing contracts that internalized the mutual benefits of bees and orchards.

Perhaps more importantly, economic research sheds light on behavior that might otherwise be seen as anticompetitive. The rules and norms that bind farming/beekeeping communities, as well as users of common pool resources, could easily be analyzed as a cartel by naïve antitrust authorities. Yet externality theory suggests they play a key role in preventing market failure.

Along similar lines, mergers and acquisitions (as well as vertical integration, more generally) can reduce opportunism and other externalities that might otherwise undermine collaboration between firms (here, here and here). And much of the same is true for certain types of unilateral behavior. Tying video games to consoles (and pricing the console below cost) can help entrants overcome network externalities that might otherwise shield incumbents. Likewise, Google tying its proprietary apps to the open source Android operating system arguably enabled it to earn a return on its investments, thus overcoming the externality problem that plagues open source software.

All of this raises a tantalizing prospect that deserves far more attention than it is currently given in policy circles: authorities around the world are seeking to regulate the tech space. Draft legislation has notably been tabled in the United States, European Union and the United Kingdom. These draft bills would all make it harder for large tech firms to implement various economic hierarchies, including mergers and certain contractual arrangements.

This is highly paradoxical. If digital markets are indeed plagued by network externalities and high transaction costs, as critics allege, then preventing firms from adopting complex hierarchies—which have traditionally been seen as a way to solve externalities—is just as likely to exacerbate problems. In other words, like the economists of old cited above, today’s policymakers appear to be focusing too heavily on simple models that predict market failure, and far too little on the mechanisms that firms have put in place to thrive within this complex environment.

The bigger picture is that far more circumspection is required when using theoretical models in real-world policy settings. Indeed, as Harold Demsetz famously put it, the purpose of normative economics is not so much to identify market failures, but to help policymakers determine which of several alternative institutions will deliver the best outcomes for consumers:

This nirvana approach differs considerably from a comparative institution approach in which the relevant choice is between alternative real institutional arrangements. In practice, those who adopt the nirvana viewpoint seek to discover discrepancies between the ideal and the real and if discrepancies are found, they deduce that the real is inefficient. Users of the comparative institution approach attempt to assess which alternative real institutional arrangement seems best able to cope with the economic problem […].

Economist Josh Hendrickson asserts that the Jones Act is properly understood as a Coasean bargain. In this view, the law serves as a subsidy to the U.S. maritime industry through its restriction of waterborne domestic commerce to vessels that are constructed in U.S. shipyards, U.S.-flagged, and U.S.-crewed. Such protectionism, it is argued, provides the government with ready access to these assets, rather than taking precious time to build them up during times of conflict.

We are skeptical of this characterization.

Although there is an implicit bargain behind the Jones Act, its relationship to the work of Ronald Coase is unclear. Coase is best known for his theorem on the use of bargains and exchanges to reduce negative externalities. But the negative externality is that the Jones Act attempts to address is not apparent. While it may be more efficient or effective than the government building up its own shipbuilding, vessels, and crew in times of war, that’s rather different than addressing an externality. The Jones Act may reflect an implied exchange between the domestic maritime industry and government, but there does not appear to be anything particularly Coasean about it.

Rather, close scrutiny reveals this arrangement between government and industry to be a textbook example of policy failure and rent-seeking run amok. The Jones Act is not a bargain, but a rip-off, with costs and benefits completely out of balance.

The Jones Act and National Defense

For all of the talk of the Jones Act’s critical role in national security, its contributions underwhelm. Ships offer a case in point. In times of conflict, the U.S. military’s primary sources of transport are not Jones Act vessels but government-owned ships in the Military Sealift Command and Ready Reserve Force fleets. These are further supplemented by the 60 non-Jones Act U.S.-flag commercial ships enrolled in the Maritime Security Program, a subsidy arrangement by which ships are provided $5 million per year in exchange for the government’s right to use them in time of need.

In contrast, Jones Act ships are used only sparingly. That’s understandable, as removing these vessels from domestic trade would leave a void in the country’s transportation needs not easily filled.

The law’s contributions to domestic shipbuilding are similarly meager. if not outright counterproductive. A mere two to three large, oceangoing commercial ships are delivered by U.S. shipyards per year. That’s not per shipyard, but all U.S. shipyards combined.

Given the vastly uncompetitive state of domestic shipbuilding—a predictable consequence of handing the industry a captive domestic market via the Jones Act’s U.S.-built requirement—there is a little appetite for what these shipyards produce. As Hendrickson himself points out, the domestic build provision serves to “discourage shipbuilders from innovating and otherwise pursuing cost-saving production methods since American shipbuilders do not face international competition.” We could not agree more.

What keeps U.S. shipyards active and available to meet the military’s needs is not work for the Jones Act commercial fleet but rather government orders. A 2015 Maritime Administration report found that such business accounts for 70 percent of revenue for the shipbuilding and repair industry. A 2019 American Enterprise Institute study concluded that, among U.S. shipbuilders that construct both commercial and military ships, Jones Act vessels accounted for less than 5 percent of all shipbuilding orders.

If the Jones Act makes any contributions of note at all, it is mariners. Of those needed to crew surge sealift ships during times of war, the Jones Act fleet is estimated to account for 29 percent. But here the Jones Act also acts as a double-edged sword. By increasing the cost of ships to four to five times the world price, the law’s U.S.-built requirement results in a smaller fleet with fewer mariners employed than would otherwise be the case. That’s particularly noteworthy given government calculations that there is a deficit of roughly 1,800 mariners to crew its fleet in the event of a sustained sealift operation.

Beyond its ruinous impact on the competitiveness of domestic shipbuilding, the Jones Act has had other deleterious consequences for national security. The increased cost of waterborne transport, or its outright impossibility in the case of liquefied natural gas and propane, results in reduced self-reliance for critical energy supplies. This is a sufficiently significant issue that members of the National Security Council unsuccessfully sought a long-term Jones Act waiver in 2019. The law also means fewer redundancies and less flexibility in the country’s transportation system when responding to crises, both natural and manmade. Waivers of the Jones Act can be issued, but this highly politicized process eats up precious days when time is of the essence. All of these factors merit consideration in the overall national security calculus.

To review, the Jones Act’s opaque and implicit subsidy—doled out via protectionism—results in anemic and uncompetitive shipbuilding, few ships available in time of war, and fewer mariners than would otherwise be the case without its U.S.-built requirement. And it has other consequences for national security that are not only underwhelming but plainly negative. Little wonder that Hendrickson concedes it is unclear whether U.S. maritime policy—of which the Jones Act plays a foundational role—achieves its national security goals.

The toll exacted in exchange for the Jones Act’s limited benefits, meanwhile, is considerable. According to a 2019 OECD study, the law’s repeal would increase domestic value added by $19-$64 billion. Incredibly, that estimate may actually understate matters. Not included in this estimate are related costs such as environmental degradation, increased congestion and highway maintenance, and retaliation from U.S. trade partners during free-trade agreement negotiations due to U.S. unwillingness to liberalize the Jones Act.

Against such critiques, Hendrickson posits that substantial cost savings are illusory due to immigration and other U.S. laws. But how big a barrier such laws would pose is unclear. It’s worth considering, for example, that cruise ships with foreign crews are able to visit multiple U.S. ports so long as a foreign port is also included on the voyage. The granting of Jones Act waivers, meanwhile, has enabled foreign ships to transport cargo between U.S. ports in the past despite U.S. immigration laws.

Would Chinese-flagged and crewed barges be able to engage in purely domestic trade on the Mississippi River absent the Jones Act? Almost certainly not. But it seems perfectly plausible that foreign ships already sailing between U.S. ports as part of international voyages—a frequent occurrence—could engage in cabotage movements without hiring U.S. crews. Take, for example, APL’s Eagle Express X route that stops in Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Dutch Harbor as well as Asian ports. Without the Jones Act, it’s reasonable to believe that ships operating on this route could transport goods from Los Angeles to Honolulu before continuing on to foreign destinations.

But if the Jones Act fails to meet U.S. national security benefits while imposing substantial costs, how to explain its continued survival? Hendrickson avers that the law’s longevity reflects its utility. We believe, however, that the answer lies in the application of public choice theory. Simply put, the law’s costs are both opaque and dispersed across the vast expanse of the U.S. economy while its benefits are highly concentrated. The law’s de facto subsidy is also vastly oversupplied, given that the vast majority of vessels under its protection are smaller craft such as tugboats and barges with trivial value to the country’s sealift capability. This has spawned a lobby aggressively dedicated to the Jones Act’s preservation. Washington, D.C. is home to numerous industry groups and labor organizations that regard the law’s maintenance as critical, but not a single one that views its repeal as a top priority.

It’s instructive in this regard that all four senators from Alaska and Hawaii are strong Jones Act supporters despite their states being disproportionately burdened by the law. This seeming oddity is explained by these states also being disproportionately home to maritime interest groups that support the law. In contrast, Jones Act critics Sen. Mike Lee and the late Sen. John McCain both hailed from land-locked states home to few maritime interest groups.

Disagreements, but also Common Ground

For all of our differences with Hendrickson, however, there is substantial common ground. We are in shared agreement that the Jones Act is suboptimal policy, that its ability to achieve its goals is unclear, and that its U.S.-built requirement is particularly ripe for removal. Where our differences lie is mostly in the scale of gains to be realized from the law’s reform or repeal. As such, there is no reason to maintain the failed status quo. The Jones Act should be repealed and replaced with targeted, transparent, and explicit subsidies to meet the country’s sealift needs. Both the country’s economy and national security would be rewarded—richly so, in our opinion—from such policy change.

Chances are, if you have heard of the Jones Act, you probably think it needs to be repealed. That is, at least, the consensus in the economics profession. However, this consensus seems to be driven by an application of the sort of rules of thumb that one picks up from economics courses, rather than an application of economic theory.

For those who are unaware, the Jones Act requires that any shipping between two U.S. ports is carried by a U.S.-built ship with a crew of U.S. citizens that is U.S.-owned and flies the U.S. flag. When those who have memorized some of the rules of thumb in the field of economics hear that description, they immediately think “this is protectionism and protectionism is bad.” It therefore seems obvious that the Jones Act must be bad. After all, based on this description, it seems like it is designed to protect U.S. shipbuilders, U.S. crews, and U.S.-flagged ships from foreign competition.

Critics seize on this narrative. They point to the higher cost of Jones Act ships in comparison to those ships that fly foreign flags and argue that the current law has costs that are astronomical. Based on that type of criticism, the Jones Act seems so obviously costly that one might wonder how it is possible to defend the law in any way.

I reject this criticism. I do not reject this over some minor quibble with the numbers. In true Hendricksonian fashion, I reject this criticism because it gets the underlying economic theory wrong.

Let’s start by thinking about some critical issues in Coasean terms. During peacetime, the U.S. Navy does not need maintain the sort of capacity that it would have during a time of war. It would not be cost-effective to do so. However, the Navy would like to expand its capacity rapidly in the event of a war or other national emergency. To do so, the country needs shipbuilding capacity. Building ships and training crews to operate those ships, however, takes time. This might be time that the Navy does not have. At the very least, this could leave the United States at a significant disadvantage.

Of course, there are ships and crews available in the form of the U.S. Merchant Marine. Thus, there are gains from trade to be had. The government could pay the Merchant Marine to provide sealift during times of war and other national emergencies. However, this compensation scheme is complicated. For example, if the government waits until a war or a national emergency, this could create a holdup problem. Knowing that the government needs the Merchant Marine immediately, the holdup problem could result in the government paying well-above-market prices to obtain these services. On the other hand, the government could simply requisition the ships and draft the crews into service whenever there is a war or national emergency. Knowing that this is a possibility, the Merchant Marine would tend to underinvest in both physical and human capital.

Given these problems, the solution is to agree to terms ahead of time. The Merchant Marine agrees to provide their services to the government during times of war and other national emergencies in exchange for compensation. The way to structure that compensation in order to avoid holdup problems and underinvestment is to provide this compensation in the form of peacetime subsidies.

Thus, the government provides peacetime subsidies in exchange for the services of the Merchant Marine during wartime. This is a straightforward Coasean bargain.

Now, let’s think about the Jones Act. The Jones Act ships are implicitly subsidized because ships that do not meet the law’s criteria are not allowed to engage in port-to-port shipping in the United States. The requirement that these ships need to be U.S.-owned and fly the U.S. flag gives the government the legal authority to call these ships into service. The requirement that the ships are built in the United States is designed to ensure that the ships meet the needs of the U.S. military and to subsidize shipbuilding in the United States. The requirement to use U.S. crews is designed to provide an incentive for the accumulation of the necessary human capital. Since the law restricts ships with these characteristics for port-to-port shipping within the United States, it provides the firms rents to compensate them for their service during wartime and national emergencies.

Critics, of course, are likely to argue that I have a “just so” theory of the Jones Act. In other words, they might argue that I have simply structured an economic narrative around a set of existing facts. Those critics would be wrong for the following reasons.

First, the Jones Act is not some standalone law when it comes to maritime policy. There is a long history in the United States of trying to determine the optimal way to subsidize the maritime industry. Second, if this type of policy is just a protectionist giveaway, then it should be confined to the maritime industry. However, this isn’t true. The United States has a long history of subsidizing transportation that is crucial for use in the military. This includes subsidies for horse-breeding and the airline industry. Finally, critics would have to explain why wasteful maritime policies have been quickly overturned, while the Jones Act continues to survive.

The critics also dramatically overstate the costs of the Jones Act. This is partly because they do not understand the particularities of the law. For example, to estimate the costs, critics often compare the cost of the Jones Act ships to ships that fly a foreign flag and use foreign crews. The argument here is that the repeal of the Jones Act would result in these foreign-flagged ships with foreign crews taking over U.S. port-to-port shipping.

There are two problems with this argument. One, cabotage restrictions do not originate with the Jones Act. Rather, the law clarifies and closes loopholes in previous laws. Second, the use of foreign crews would be a violation of U.S. immigration law. Furthermore, this type of shipping would still be subject to other U.S. laws to which these foreign-flagged ships are not subject today. Given that the overwhelming majority of the cost differential is explained by differences in labor costs, it therefore seems hard to understand from where, exactly, the cost savings of repeal would actually come.

None of this is to say that the Jones Act is the first-best policy or that the law is sufficient to accomplish the military’s goals. In fact, the one thing that critics and advocates of the law seem to agree on is that the law is not sufficient to accomplish the intended goals. My own work implies a need for direct subsidies (or lower tax rates) on the capital used by the maritime industry. However, the critics need to be honest and admit that, even if the law were repealed, the cost savings are nowhere near what they claim. In addition, this wouldn’t be the end of maritime subsidies (in fact, other subsidies already exist). Instead, the Jones Act would likely be replaced by some other form of subsidy to the maritime industry.

Many defense-based arguments of subsidies are dubious. However, in the case of maritime policy, the Coasean bargain is clear.

Politico has released a cache of confidential Federal Trade Commission (FTC) documents in connection with a series of articles on the commission’s antitrust probe into Google Search a decade ago. The headline of the first piece in the series argues the FTC “fumbled the future” by failing to follow through on staff recommendations to pursue antitrust intervention against the company. 

But while the leaked documents shed interesting light on the inner workings of the FTC, they do very little to substantiate the case that the FTC dropped the ball when the commissioners voted unanimously not to bring an action against Google.

Drawn primarily from memos by the FTC’s lawyers, the Politico report purports to uncover key revelations that undermine the FTC’s decision not to sue Google. None of the revelations, however, provide evidence that Google’s behavior actually harmed consumers.

The report’s overriding claim—and the one most consistently forwarded by antitrust activists on Twitter—is that FTC commissioners wrongly sided with the agency’s economists (who cautioned against intervention) rather than its lawyers (who tenuously recommended very limited intervention). 

Indeed, the overarching narrative is that the lawyers knew what was coming and the economists took wildly inaccurate positions that turned out to be completely off the mark:

But the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed:

— They saw only “limited potential for growth” in ads that track users across the web — now the backbone of Google parent company Alphabet’s $182.5 billion in annual revenue.

— They expected consumers to continue relying mainly on computers to search for information. Today, about 62 percent of those queries take place on mobile phones and tablets, nearly all of which use Google’s search engine as the default.

— They thought rivals like Microsoft, Mozilla or Amazon would offer viable competition to Google in the market for the software that runs smartphones. Instead, nearly all U.S. smartphones run on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.

— They underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic.

The report thus asserts that:

The agency ultimately voted against taking action, saying changes Google made to its search algorithm gave consumers better results and therefore didn’t unfairly harm competitors.

That conclusion underplays what the FTC’s staff found during the probe. In 312 pages of documents, the vast majority never publicly released, staffers outlined evidence that Google had taken numerous steps to ensure it would continue to dominate the market — including emerging arenas such as mobile search and targeted advertising. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

What really emerges from the leaked memos, however, is analysis by both the FTC’s lawyers and economists infused with a healthy dose of humility. There were strong political incentives to bring a case. As one of us noted upon the FTC’s closing of the investigation: “It’s hard to imagine an agency under more pressure, from more quarters (including the Hill), to bring a case around search.” Yet FTC staff and commissioners resisted that pressure, because prediction is hard. 

Ironically, the very prediction errors that the agency’s staff cautioned against are now being held against them. Yet the claims that these errors (especially the economists’) systematically cut in one direction (i.e., against enforcement) and that all of their predictions were wrong are both wide of the mark. 

Decisions Under Uncertainty

In seeking to make an example out of the FTC economists’ inaccurate predictions, critics ignore that antitrust investigations in dynamic markets always involve a tremendous amount of uncertainty; false predictions are the norm. Accordingly, the key challenge for policymakers is not so much to predict correctly, but to minimize the impact of incorrect predictions.

Seen in this light, the FTC economists’ memo is far from the laissez-faire manifesto that critics make it out to be. Instead, it shows agency officials wrestling with uncertain market outcomes, and choosing a course of action under the assumption the predictions they make might indeed be wrong. 

Consider the following passage from FTC economist Ken Heyer’s memo:

The great American philosopher Yogi Berra once famously remarked “Predicting is difficult, especially about the future.” How right he was. And yet predicting, and making decisions based on those predictions, is what we are charged with doing. Ignoring the potential problem is not an option. So I will be reasonably clear about my own tentative conclusions and recommendation, recognizing that reasonable people, perhaps applying a somewhat different standard, may disagree. My recommendation derives from my read of the available evidence, combined with the standard I personally find appropriate to apply to Commission intervention. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

In other words, contrary to what many critics have claimed, it simply is not the case that the FTC’s economists based their recommendations on bullish predictions about the future that ultimately failed to transpire. Instead, they merely recognized that, in a dynamic and unpredictable environment, antitrust intervention requires both a clear-cut theory of anticompetitive harm and a reasonable probability that remedies can improve consumer welfare. According to the economists, those conditions were absent with respect to Google Search.

Perhaps more importantly, it is worth asking why the economists’ erroneous predictions matter at all. Do critics believe that developments the economists missed warrant a different normative stance today?

In that respect, it is worth noting that the economists’ skepticism appeared to have rested first and foremost on the speculative nature of the harms alleged and the difficulty associated with designing appropriate remedies. And yet, if anything, these two concerns appear even more salient today. 

Indeed, the remedies imposed against Google in the EU have not delivered the outcomes that enforcers expected (here and here). This could either be because the remedies were insufficient or because Google’s market position was not due to anticompetitive conduct. Similarly, there is still no convincing economic theory or empirical research to support the notion that exclusive pre-installation and self-preferencing by incumbents harm consumers, and a great deal of reason to think they benefit them (see, e.g., our discussions of the issue here and here). 

Against this backdrop, criticism of the FTC economists appears to be driven more by a prior assumption that intervention is necessary—and that it was and is disingenuous to think otherwise—than evidence that erroneous predictions materially affected the outcome of the proceedings.

To take one example, the fact that ad tracking grew faster than the FTC economists believed it would is no less consistent with vigorous competition—and Google providing a superior product—than with anticompetitive conduct on Google’s part. The same applies to the growth of mobile operating systems. Ditto the fact that no rival has managed to dislodge Google in its most important markets. 

In short, not only were the economist memos informed by the very prediction difficulties that critics are now pointing to, but critics have not shown that any of the staff’s (inevitably) faulty predictions warranted a different normative outcome.

Putting Erroneous Predictions in Context

So what were these faulty predictions, and how important were they? Politico asserts that “the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed,” tying this to the FTC’s failure to intervene against Google over “tactics that European regulators and the U.S. Justice Department would later label antitrust violations.” The clear message is that the current actions are presumptively valid, and that the FTC’s economists thwarted earlier intervention based on faulty analysis.

But it is far from clear that these faulty predictions would have justified taking a tougher stance against Google. One key question for antitrust authorities is whether they can be reasonably certain that more efficient competitors will be unable to dislodge an incumbent. This assessment is necessarily forward-looking. Framed this way, greater market uncertainty (for instance, because policymakers are dealing with dynamic markets) usually cuts against antitrust intervention.

This does not entirely absolve the FTC economists who made the faulty predictions. But it does suggest the right question is not whether the economists made mistakes, but whether virtually everyone did so. The latter would be evidence of uncertainty, and thus weigh against antitrust intervention.

In that respect, it is worth noting that the staff who recommended that the FTC intervene also misjudged the future of digital markets.For example, while Politico surmises that the FTC “underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic,” there is a case to be made that the FTC overestimated this power. If anything, Google’s continued growth has opened new niches in the online advertising space.

Pinterest provides a fitting example; despite relying heavily on Google for traffic, its ad-funded service has witnessed significant growth. The same is true of other vertical search engines like Airbnb, Booking.com, and Zillow. While we cannot know the counterfactual, the vertical search industry has certainly not been decimated by Google’s “monopoly”; quite the opposite. Unsurprisingly, this has coincided with a significant decrease in the cost of online advertising, and the growth of online advertising relative to other forms.

Politico asserts not only that the economists’ market share and market power calculations were wrong, but that the lawyers knew better:

The economists, relying on data from the market analytics firm Comscore, found that Google had only limited impact. They estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of traffic to those types of sites generally came from the search engine.

FTC attorneys, though, used numbers provided by Yelp and found that 92 percent of users visited local review sites from Google. For shopping sites like eBay and TheFind, the referral rate from Google was between 67 and 73 percent.

This compares apples and oranges, or maybe oranges and grapefruit. The economists’ data, from Comscore, applied to vertical search overall. They explicitly noted that shares for particular sites could be much higher or lower: for comparison shopping, for example, “ranging from 56% to less than 10%.” This, of course, highlights a problem with the data provided by Yelp, et al.: it concerns only the websites of companies complaining about Google, not the overall flow of traffic for vertical search.

But the more important point is that none of the data discussed in the memos represents the overall flow of traffic for vertical search. Take Yelp, for example. According to the lawyers’ memo, 92 percent of Yelp searches were referred from Google. Only, that’s not true. We know it’s not true because, as Yelp CEO Jerry Stoppelman pointed out around this time in Yelp’s 2012 Q2 earnings call: 

When you consider that 40% of our searches come from mobile apps, there is quite a bit of un-monetized mobile traffic that we expect to unlock in the near future.

The numbers being analyzed by the FTC staff were apparently limited to referrals to Yelp’s website from browsers. But is there any reason to think that is the relevant market, or the relevant measure of customer access? Certainly there is nothing in the staff memos to suggest they considered the full scope of the market very carefully here. Indeed, the footnote in the lawyers’ memo presenting the traffic data is offered in support of this claim:

Vertical websites, such as comparison shopping and local websites, are heavily dependent on Google’s web search results to reach users. Thus, Google is in the unique position of being able to “make or break any web-based business.”

It’s plausible that vertical search traffic is “heavily dependent” on Google Search, but the numbers offered in support of that simply ignore the (then) 40 percent of traffic that Yelp acquired through its own mobile app, with no Google involvement at all. In any case, it is also notable that, while there are still somewhat fewer app users than web users (although the number has consistently increased), Yelp’s app users view significantly more pages than its website users do — 10 times as many in 2015, for example.

Also noteworthy is that, for whatever speculative harm Google might be able to visit on the company, at the time of the FTC’s analysis Yelp’s local ad revenue was consistently increasing — by 89% in Q3 2012. And that was without any ad revenue coming from its app (display ads arrived on Yelp’s mobile app in Q1 2013, a few months after the staff memos were written and just after the FTC closed its Google Search investigation). 

In short, the search-engine industry is extremely dynamic and unpredictable. Contrary to what many have surmised from the FTC staff memo leaks, this cuts against antitrust intervention, not in favor of it.

The FTC Lawyers’ Weak Case for Prosecuting Google

At the same time, although not discussed by Politico, the lawyers’ memo also contains errors, suggesting that arguments for intervention were also (inevitably) subject to erroneous prediction.

Among other things, the FTC attorneys’ memo argued the large upfront investments were required to develop cutting-edge algorithms, and that these effectively shielded Google from competition. The memo cites the following as a barrier to entry:

A search engine requires algorithmic technology that enables it to search the Internet, retrieve and organize information, index billions of regularly changing web pages, and return relevant results instantaneously that satisfy the consumer’s inquiry. Developing such algorithms requires highly specialized personnel with high levels of training and knowledge in engineering, economics, mathematics, sciences, and statistical analysis.

If there are barriers to entry in the search-engine industry, algorithms do not seem to be the source. While their market shares may be smaller than Google’s, rival search engines like DuckDuckGo and Bing have been able to enter and gain traction; it is difficult to say that algorithmic technology has proven a barrier to entry. It may be hard to do well, but it certainly has not proved an impediment to new firms entering and developing workable and successful products. Indeed, some extremely successful companies have entered into similar advertising markets on the backs of complex algorithms, notably Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. All of these compete with Google for advertising dollars.

The FTC’s legal staff also failed to see that Google would face serious competition in the rapidly growing voice assistant market. In other words, even its search-engine “moat” is far less impregnable than it might at first appear.

Moreover, as Ben Thompson argues in his Stratechery newsletter: 

The Staff memo is completely wrong too, at least in terms of the potential for their proposed remedies to lead to any real change in today’s market. This gets back to why the fundamental premise of the Politico article, along with much of the antitrust chatter in Washington, misses the point: Google is dominant because consumers like it.

This difficulty was deftly highlighted by Heyer’s memo:

If the perceived problems here can be solved only through a draconian remedy of this sort, or perhaps through a remedy that eliminates Google’s legitimately obtained market power (and thus its ability to “do evil”), I believe the remedy would be disproportionate to the violation and that its costs would likely exceed its benefits. Conversely, if a remedy well short of this seems likely to prove ineffective, a remedy would be undesirable for that reason. In brief, I do not see a feasible remedy for the vertical conduct that would be both appropriate and effective, and which would not also be very costly to implement and to police. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

Of course, we now know that this turned out to be a huge issue with the EU’s competition cases against Google. The remedies in both the EU’s Google Shopping and Android decisions were severely criticized by rival firms and consumer-defense organizations (here and here), but were ultimately upheld, in part because even the European Commission likely saw more forceful alternatives as disproportionate.

And in the few places where the legal staff concluded that Google’s conduct may have caused harm, there is good reason to think that their analysis was flawed.

Google’s ‘revenue-sharing’ agreements

It should be noted that neither the lawyers nor the economists at the FTC were particularly bullish on bringing suit against Google. In most areas of the investigation, neither recommended that the commission pursue a case. But one of the most interesting revelations from the recent leaks is that FTC lawyers did advise the commission’s leadership to sue Google over revenue-sharing agreements that called for it to pay Apple and other carriers and manufacturers to pre-install its search bar on mobile devices:

FTC staff urged the agency’s five commissioners to sue Google for signing exclusive contracts with Apple and the major wireless carriers that made sure the company’s search engine came pre-installed on smartphones.

The lawyers’ stance is surprising, and, despite actions subsequently brought by the EU and DOJ on similar claims, a difficult one to countenance. 

To a first approximation, this behavior is precisely what antitrust law seeks to promote: we want companies to compete aggressively to attract consumers. This conclusion is in no way altered when competition is “for the market” (in this case, firms bidding for exclusive placement of their search engines) rather than “in the market” (i.e., equally placed search engines competing for eyeballs).

Competition for exclusive placement has several important benefits. For a start, revenue-sharing agreements effectively subsidize consumers’ mobile device purchases. As Brian Albrecht aptly puts it:

This payment from Google means that Apple can lower its price to better compete for consumers. This is standard; some of the payment from Google to Apple will be passed through to consumers in the form of lower prices.

This finding is not new. For instance, Ronald Coase famously argued that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was wrong to ban the broadcasting industry’s equivalent of revenue-sharing agreements, so-called payola:

[I]f the playing of a record by a radio station increases the sales of that record, it is both natural and desirable that there should be a charge for this. If this is not done by the station and payola is not allowed, it is inevitable that more resources will be employed in the production and distribution of records, without any gain to consumers, with the result that the real income of the community will tend to decline. In addition, the prohibition of payola may result in worse record programs, will tend to lessen competition, and will involve additional expenditures for regulation. The gain which the ban is thought to bring is to make the purchasing decisions of record buyers more efficient by eliminating “deception.” It seems improbable to me that this problematical gain will offset the undoubted losses which flow from the ban on Payola.

Applying this logic to Google Search, it is clear that a ban on revenue-sharing agreements would merely lead both Google and its competitors to attract consumers via alternative means. For Google, this might involve “complete” vertical integration into the mobile phone market, rather than the open-licensing model that underpins the Android ecosystem. Valuable specialization may be lost in the process.

Moreover, from Apple’s standpoint, Google’s revenue-sharing agreements are profitable only to the extent that consumers actually like Google’s products. If it turns out they don’t, Google’s payments to Apple may be outweighed by lower iPhone sales. It is thus unlikely that these agreements significantly undermined users’ experience. To the contrary, Apple’s testimony before the European Commission suggests that “exclusive” placement of Google’s search engine was mostly driven by consumer preferences (as the FTC economists’ memo points out):

Apple would not offer simultaneous installation of competing search or mapping applications. Apple’s focus is offering its customers the best products out of the box while allowing them to make choices after purchase. In many countries, Google offers the best product or service … Apple believes that offering additional search boxes on its web browsing software would confuse users and detract from Safari’s aesthetic. Too many choices lead to consumer confusion and greatly affect the ‘out of the box’ experience of Apple products.

Similarly, Kevin Murphy and Benjamin Klein have shown that exclusive contracts intensify competition for distribution. In other words, absent theories of platform envelopment that are arguably inapplicable here, competition for exclusive placement would lead competing search engines to up their bids, ultimately lowering the price of mobile devices for consumers.

Indeed, this revenue-sharing model was likely essential to spur the development of Android in the first place. Without this prominent placement of Google Search on Android devices (notably thanks to revenue-sharing agreements with original equipment manufacturers), Google would likely have been unable to monetize the investment it made in the open source—and thus freely distributed—Android operating system. 

In short, Politico and the FTC legal staff do little to show that Google’s revenue-sharing payments excluded rivals that were, in fact, as efficient. In other words, Bing and Yahoo’s failure to gain traction may simply be the result of inferior products and cost structures. Critics thus fail to show that Google’s behavior harmed consumers, which is the touchstone of antitrust enforcement.

Self-preferencing

Another finding critics claim as important is that FTC leadership declined to bring suit against Google for preferencing its own vertical search services (this information had already been partially leaked by the Wall Street Journal in 2015). Politico’s framing implies this was a mistake:

When Google adopted one algorithm change in 2011, rival sites saw significant drops in traffic. Amazon told the FTC that it saw a 35 percent drop in traffic from the comparison-shopping sites that used to send it customers

The focus on this claim is somewhat surprising. Even the leaked FTC legal staff memo found this theory of harm had little chance of standing up in court:

Staff has investigated whether Google has unlawfully preferenced its own content over that of rivals, while simultaneously demoting rival websites…. 

…Although it is a close call, we do not recommend that the Commission proceed on this cause of action because the case law is not favorable to our theory, which is premised on anticompetitive product design, and in any event, Google’s efficiency justifications are strong. Most importantly, Google can legitimately claim that at least part of the conduct at issue improves its product and benefits users. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

More importantly, as one of us has argued elsewhere, the underlying problem lies not with Google, but with a standard asset-specificity trap:

A content provider that makes itself dependent upon another company for distribution (or vice versa, of course) takes a significant risk. Although it may benefit from greater access to users, it places itself at the mercy of the other — or at least faces great difficulty (and great cost) adapting to unanticipated, crucial changes in distribution over which it has no control…. 

…It was entirely predictable, and should have been expected, that Google’s algorithm would evolve. It was also entirely predictable that it would evolve in ways that could diminish or even tank Foundem’s traffic. As one online marketing/SEO expert puts it: On average, Google makes about 500 algorithm changes per year. 500!….

…In the absence of an explicit agreement, should Google be required to make decisions that protect a dependent company’s “asset-specific” investments, thus encouraging others to take the same, excessive risk? 

Even if consumers happily visited rival websites when they were higher-ranked and traffic subsequently plummeted when Google updated its algorithm, that drop in traffic does not amount to evidence of misconduct. To hold otherwise would be to grant these rivals a virtual entitlement to the state of affairs that exists at any given point in time. 

Indeed, there is good reason to believe Google’s decision to favor its own content over that of other sites is procompetitive. Beyond determining and ensuring relevance, Google surely has the prerogative to compete vigorously and decide how to design its products to keep up with a changing market. In this case, that means designing, developing, and offering its own content in ways that partially displace the original “ten blue links” design of its search results page and instead offer its own answers to users’ queries.

Competitor Harm Is Not an Indicator of the Need for Intervention

Some of the other information revealed by the leak is even more tangential, such as that the FTC ignored complaints from Google’s rivals:

Amazon and Facebook privately complained to the FTC about Google’s conduct, saying their business suffered because of the company’s search bias, scraping of content from rival sites and restrictions on advertisers’ use of competing search engines. 

Amazon said it was so concerned about the prospect of Google monopolizing the search advertising business that it willingly sacrificed revenue by making ad deals aimed at keeping Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo’s search engine afloat.

But complaints from rivals are at least as likely to stem from vigorous competition as from anticompetitive exclusion. This goes to a core principle of antitrust enforcement: antitrust law seeks to protect competition and consumer welfare, not rivals. Competition will always lead to winners and losers. Antitrust law protects this process and (at least theoretically) ensures that rivals cannot manipulate enforcers to safeguard their economic rents. 

This explains why Frank Easterbrook—in his seminal work on “The Limits of Antitrust”—argued that enforcers should be highly suspicious of complaints lodged by rivals:

Antitrust litigation is attractive as a method of raising rivals’ costs because of the asymmetrical structure of incentives…. 

…One line worth drawing is between suits by rivals and suits by consumers. Business rivals have an interest in higher prices, while consumers seek lower prices. Business rivals seek to raise the costs of production, while consumers have the opposite interest…. 

…They [antitrust enforcers] therefore should treat suits by horizontal competitors with the utmost suspicion. They should dismiss outright some categories of litigation between rivals and subject all such suits to additional scrutiny.

Google’s competitors spent millions pressuring the FTC to bring a case against the company. But why should it be a failing for the FTC to resist such pressure? Indeed, as then-commissioner Tom Rosch admonished in an interview following the closing of the case:

They [Google’s competitors] can darn well bring [a case] as a private antitrust action if they think their ox is being gored instead of free-riding on the government to achieve the same result.

Not that they would likely win such a case. Google’s introduction of specialized shopping results (via the Google Shopping box) likely enabled several retailers to bypass the Amazon platform, thus increasing competition in the retail industry. Although this may have temporarily reduced Amazon’s traffic and revenue (Amazon’s sales have grown dramatically since then), it is exactly the outcome that antitrust laws are designed to protect.

Conclusion

When all is said and done, Politico’s revelations provide a rarely glimpsed look into the complex dynamics within the FTC, which many wrongly imagine to be a monolithic agency. Put simply, the FTC’s commissioners, lawyers, and economists often disagree vehemently about the appropriate course of conduct. This is a good thing. As in many other walks of life, having a market for ideas is a sure way to foster sound decision making.

But in the final analysis, what the revelations do not show is that the FTC’s market for ideas failed consumers a decade ago when it declined to bring an antitrust suit against Google. They thus do little to cement the case for antitrust intervention—whether a decade ago, or today.

Policy discussions about the use of personal data often have “less is more” as a background assumption; that data is overconsumed relative to some hypothetical optimal baseline. This overriding skepticism has been the backdrop for sweeping new privacy regulations, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

More recently, as part of the broad pushback against data collection by online firms, some have begun to call for creating property rights in consumers’ personal data or for data to be treated as labor. Prominent backers of the idea include New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang and computer scientist Jaron Lanier.

The discussion has escaped the halls of academia and made its way into popular media. During a recent discussion with Tesla founder Elon Musk, comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan argued that Facebook is “one gigantic information-gathering business that’s decided to take all of the data that people didn’t know was valuable and sell it and make f***ing billions of dollars.” Musk appeared to agree.

The animosity exhibited toward data collection might come as a surprise to anyone who has taken Econ 101. Goods ideally end up with those who value them most. A firm finding profitable ways to repurpose unwanted scraps is just the efficient reallocation of resources. This applies as much to personal data as to literal trash.

Unfortunately, in the policy sphere, few are willing to recognize the inherent trade-off between the value of privacy, on the one hand, and the value of various goods and services that rely on consumer data, on the other. Ideally, policymakers would look to markets to find the right balance, which they often can. When the transfer of data is hardwired into an underlying transaction, parties have ample room to bargain.

But this is not always possible. In some cases, transaction costs will prevent parties from bargaining over the use of data. The question is whether such situations are so widespread as to justify the creation of data property rights, with all of the allocative inefficiencies they entail. Critics wrongly assume the solution is both to create data property rights and to allocate them to consumers. But there is no evidence to suggest that, at the margin, heightened user privacy necessarily outweighs the social benefits that new data-reliant goods and services would generate. Recent experience in the worlds of personalized medicine and the fight against COVID-19 help to illustrate this point.

Data Property Rights and Personalized Medicine

The world is on the cusp of a revolution in personalized medicine. Advances such as the improved identification of biomarkers, CRISPR genome editing, and machine learning, could usher a new wave of treatments to markedly improve health outcomes.

Personalized medicine uses information about a person’s own genes or proteins to prevent, diagnose, or treat disease. Genetic-testing companies like 23andMe or Family Tree DNA, with the large troves of genetic information they collect, could play a significant role in helping the scientific community to further medical progress in this area.

However, despite the obvious potential of personalized medicine, many of its real-world applications are still very much hypothetical. While governments could act in any number of ways to accelerate the movement’s progress, recent policy debates have instead focused more on whether to create a system of property rights covering personal genetic data.

Some raise concerns that it is pharmaceutical companies, not consumers, who will reap the monetary benefits of the personalized medicine revolution, and that advances are achieved at the expense of consumers’ and patients’ privacy. They contend that data property rights would ensure that patients earn their “fair” share of personalized medicine’s future profits.

But it’s worth examining the other side of the coin. There are few things people value more than their health. U.S. governmental agencies place the value of a single life at somewhere between $1 million and $10 million. The commonly used quality-adjusted life year metric offers valuations that range from $50,000 to upward of $300,000 per incremental year of life.

It therefore follows that the trivial sums users of genetic-testing kits might derive from a system of data property rights would likely be dwarfed by the value they would enjoy from improved medical treatments. A strong case can be made that policymakers should prioritize advancing the emergence of new treatments, rather than attempting to ensure that consumers share in the profits generated by those potential advances.

These debates drew increased attention last year, when 23andMe signed a strategic agreement with the pharmaceutical company Almirall to license the rights related to an antibody Almirall had developed. Critics pointed out that 23andMe’s customers, whose data had presumably been used to discover the potential treatment, received no monetary benefits from the deal. Journalist Laura Spinney wrote in The Guardian newspaper:

23andMe, for example, asks its customers to waive all claims to a share of the profits arising from such research. But given those profits could be substantial—as evidenced by the interest of big pharma—shouldn’t the company be paying us for our data, rather than charging us to be tested?

In the deal’s wake, some argued that personal health data should be covered by property rights. A cardiologist quoted in Fortune magazine opined: “I strongly believe that everyone should own their medical data—and they have a right to that.” But this strong belief, however widely shared, ignores important lessons that law and economics has to teach about property rights and the role of contractual freedom.

Why Do We Have Property Rights?

Among the many important features of property rights is that they create “excludability,” the ability of economic agents to prevent third parties from using a given item. In the words of law professor Richard Epstein:

[P]roperty is not an individual conception, but is at root a social conception. The social conception is fairly and accurately portrayed, not by what it is I can do with the thing in question, but by who it is that I am entitled to exclude by virtue of my right. Possession becomes exclusive possession against the rest of the world…

Excludability helps to facilitate the trade of goods, offers incentives to create those goods in the first place, and promotes specialization throughout the economy. In short, property rights create a system of exclusion that supports creating and maintaining valuable goods, services, and ideas.

But property rights are not without drawbacks. Physical or intellectual property can lead to a suboptimal allocation of resources, namely market power (though this effect is often outweighed by increased ex ante incentives to create and innovate). Similarly, property rights can give rise to thickets that significantly increase the cost of amassing complementary pieces of property. Often cited are the historic (but contested) examples of tolling on the Rhine River or the airplane patent thicket of the early 20th century. Finally, strong property rights might also lead to holdout behavior, which can be addressed through top-down tools, like eminent domain, or private mechanisms, like contingent contracts.

In short, though property rights—whether they cover physical or information goods—can offer vast benefits, there are cases where they might be counterproductive. This is probably why, throughout history, property laws have evolved to achieve a reasonable balance between incentives to create goods and to ensure their efficient allocation and use.

Personal Health Data: What Are We Trying to Incentivize?

There are at least three critical questions we should ask about proposals to create property rights over personal health data.

  1. What goods or behaviors would these rights incentivize or disincentivize that are currently over- or undersupplied by the market?
  2. Are goods over- or undersupplied because of insufficient excludability?
  3. Could these rights undermine the efficient use of personal health data?

Much of the current debate centers on data obtained from direct-to-consumer genetic-testing kits. In this context, almost by definition, firms only obtain consumers’ genetic data with their consent. In western democracies, the rights to bodily integrity and to privacy generally make it illegal to administer genetic tests against a consumer or patient’s will. This makes genetic information naturally excludable, so consumers already benefit from what is effectively a property right.

When consumers decide to use a genetic-testing kit, the terms set by the testing firm generally stipulate how their personal data will be used. 23andMe has a detailed policy to this effect, as does Family Tree DNA. In the case of 23andMe, consumers can decide whether their personal information can be used for the purpose of scientific research:

You have the choice to participate in 23andMe Research by providing your consent. … 23andMe Research may study a specific group or population, identify potential areas or targets for therapeutics development, conduct or support the development of drugs, diagnostics or devices to diagnose, predict or treat medical or other health conditions, work with public, private and/or nonprofit entities on genetic research initiatives, or otherwise create, commercialize, and apply this new knowledge to improve health care.

Because this transfer of personal information is hardwired into the provision of genetic-testing services, there is space for contractual bargaining over the allocation of this information. The right to use personal health data will go toward the party that values it most, especially if information asymmetries are weeded out by existing regulations or business practices.

Regardless of data property rights, consumers have a choice: they can purchase genetic-testing services and agree to the provider’s data policy, or they can forgo the services. The service provider cannot obtain the data without entering into an agreement with the consumer. While competition between providers will affect parties’ bargaining positions, and thus the price and terms on which these services are provided, data property rights likely will not.

So, why do consumers transfer control over their genetic data? The main reason is that genetic information is inaccessible and worthless without the addition of genetic-testing services. Consumers must pass through the bottleneck of genetic testing for their genetic data to be revealed and transformed into usable information. It therefore makes sense to transfer the information to the service provider, who is in a much stronger position to draw insights from it. From the consumer’s perspective, the data is not even truly “transferred,” as the consumer had no access to it before the genetic-testing service revealed it. The value of this genetic information is then netted out in the price consumers pay for testing kits.

If personal health data were undersupplied by consumers and patients, testing firms could sweeten the deal and offer them more in return for their data. U.S. copyright law covers original compilations of data, while EU law gives 15 years of exclusive protection to the creators of original databases. Legal protections for trade secrets could also play some role. Thus, firms have some incentives to amass valuable health datasets.

But some critics argue that health data is, in fact, oversupplied. Generally, such arguments assert that agents do not account for the negative privacy externalities suffered by third-parties, such as adverse-selection problems in insurance markets. For example, Jay Pil Choi, Doh Shin Jeon, and Byung Cheol Kim argue:

Genetic tests are another example of privacy concerns due to informational externalities. Researchers have found that some subjects’ genetic information can be used to make predictions of others’ genetic disposition among the same racial or ethnic category.  … Because of practical concerns about privacy and/or invidious discrimination based on genetic information, the U.S. federal government has prohibited insurance companies and employers from any misuse of information from genetic tests under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).

But if these externalities exist (most of the examples cited by scholars are hypothetical), they are likely dwarfed by the tremendous benefits that could flow from the use of personal health data. Put differently, the assertion that “excessive” data collection may create privacy harms should be weighed against the possibility that the same collection may also lead to socially valuable goods and services that produce positive externalities.

In any case, data property rights would do little to limit these potential negative externalities. Consumers and patients are already free to agree to terms that allow or prevent their data from being resold to insurers. It is not clear how data property rights would alter the picture.

Proponents of data property rights often claim they should be associated with some form of collective bargaining. The idea is that consumers might otherwise fail to receive their “fair share” of genetic-testing firms’ revenue. But what critics portray as asymmetric bargaining power might simply be the market signaling that genetic-testing services are in high demand, with room for competitors to enter the market. Shifting rents from genetic-testing services to consumers would undermine this valuable price signal and, ultimately, diminish the quality of the services.

Perhaps more importantly, to the extent that they limit the supply of genetic information—for example, because firms are forced to pay higher prices for data and thus acquire less of it—data property rights might hinder the emergence of new treatments. If genetic data is a key input to develop personalized medicines, adopting policies that, in effect, ration the supply of that data is likely misguided.

Even if policymakers do not directly put their thumb on the scale, data property rights could still harm pharmaceutical innovation. If existing privacy regulations are any guide—notably, the previously mentioned GDPR and CCPA, as well as the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)—such rights might increase red tape for pharmaceutical innovators. Privacy regulations routinely limit firms’ ability to put collected data to new and previously unforeseen uses. They also limit parties’ contractual freedom when it comes to gathering consumers’ consent.

At the margin, data property rights would make it more costly for firms to amass socially valuable datasets. This would effectively move the personalized medicine space further away from a world of permissionless innovation, thus slowing down medical progress.

In short, there is little reason to believe health-care data is misallocated. Proposals to reallocate rights to such data based on idiosyncratic distributional preferences threaten to stifle innovation in the name of privacy harms that remain mostly hypothetical.

Data Property Rights and COVID-19

The trade-off between users’ privacy and the efficient use of data also has important implications for the fight against COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, several promising initiatives have been thwarted by privacy regulations and concerns about the use of personal data. This has potentially prevented policymakers, firms, and consumers from putting information to its optimal social use. High-profile issues have included:

Each of these cases may involve genuine privacy risks. But to the extent that they do, those risks must be balanced against the potential benefits to society. If privacy concerns prevent us from deploying contact tracing or green passes at scale, we should question whether the privacy benefits are worth the cost. The same is true for rules that prohibit amassing more data than is strictly necessary, as is required by data-minimization obligations included in regulations such as the GDPR.

If our initial question was instead whether the benefits of a given data-collection scheme outweighed its potential costs to privacy, incentives could be set such that competition between firms would reduce the amount of data collected—at least, where minimized data collection is, indeed, valuable to users. Yet these considerations are almost completely absent in the COVID-19-related privacy debates, as they are in the broader privacy debate. Against this backdrop, the case for personal data property rights is dubious.

Conclusion

The key question is whether policymakers should make it easier or harder for firms and public bodies to amass large sets of personal data. This requires asking whether personal data is currently under- or over-provided, and whether the additional excludability that would be created by data property rights would offset their detrimental effect on innovation.

Swaths of personal data currently lie untapped. With the proper incentive mechanisms in place, this idle data could be mobilized to develop personalized medicines and to fight the COVID-19 outbreak, among many other valuable uses. By making such data more onerous to acquire, property rights in personal data might stifle the assembly of novel datasets that could be used to build innovative products and services.

On the other hand, when dealing with diffuse and complementary data sources, transaction costs become a real issue and the initial allocation of rights can matter a great deal. In such cases, unlike the genetic-testing kits example, it is not certain that users will be able to bargain with firms, especially where their personal information is exchanged by third parties.

If optimal reallocation is unlikely, should property rights go to the person covered by the data or to the collectors (potentially subject to user opt-outs)? Proponents of data property rights assume the first option is superior. But if the goal is to produce groundbreaking new goods and services, granting rights to data collectors might be a superior solution. Ultimately, this is an empirical question.

As Richard Epstein puts it, the goal is to “minimize the sum of errors that arise from expropriation and undercompensation, where the two are inversely related.” Rather than approach the problem with the preconceived notion that initial rights should go to users, policymakers should ensure that data flows to those economic agents who can best extract information and knowledge from it.

As things stand, there is little to suggest that the trade-offs favor creating data property rights. This is not an argument for requisitioning personal information or preventing parties from transferring data as they see fit, but simply for letting markets function, unfettered by misguided public policies.

Congressman Buck’s “Third Way” report offers a compromise between the House Judiciary Committee’s majority report, which proposes sweeping new regulation of tech companies, and the status quo, which Buck argues is unfair and insufficient. But though Buck rejects many of the majority’s reports proposals, what he proposes instead would lead to virtually the same outcome via a slightly longer process. 

The most significant majority proposals that Buck rejects are the structural separation to prevent a company that runs a platform from operating on that platform “in competition with the firms dependent on its infrastructure”, and line-of-business restrictions that would confine tech companies to a small number of markets, to prevent them from preferencing their other products to the detriment of competitors.

Buck rules these out, saying that they are “regulatory in nature [and] invite unforeseen consequences and divert attention away from public interest antitrust enforcement by our antitrust agencies.” He goes on to say that “this proposal is a thinly veiled call to break up Big Tech firms.”

Instead, Buck endorses, either fully or provisionally, measures including revitalising the essential facilities doctrine, imposing data interoperability mandates on platforms, and changing antitrust law to prevent “monopoly leveraging and predatory pricing”. 

Put together, though, these would amount to the same thing that the Democratic majority report proposes: a world where platforms are basically just conduits, regulated to be neutral and open, and where the companies that run them require a regulator’s go-ahead for important decisions — a process that would be just as influenced lobbying and political considerations, and insulated from market price signals, as any other regulator’s decisions are.

Revitalizing the essential facilities doctrine

Buck describes proposals to “revitalize the essential facilities doctrine” as “common ground” that warrant further consideration. This would mean that platforms deemed to be “essential facilities” would be required to offer access to their platform to third parties at a “reasonable” price, except in exceptional circumstances. The presumption would be that these platforms were anticompetitively foreclosing third party developers and merchants by either denying them access to their platforms or by charging them “too high” prices. 

This would require the kind of regulatory oversight that Buck says he wants to avoid. He says that “conservatives should be wary of handing additional regulatory authority to agencies in an attempt to micromanage platforms’ access rules.” But there’s no way to avoid this when the “facility” — and hence its pricing and access rules — changes as frequently as any digital platform does. In practice, digital platforms would have to justify their pricing rules and decisions about exclusion of third parties to courts or a regulator as often as they make those decisions.

If Apple’s App Store were deemed an essential facility such that it is presumed to be foreclosing third party developers any time it rejected their submissions, it would have to submit to regulatory scrutiny of the “reasonableness” of its commercial decisions on, literally, a daily basis.

That would likely require price controls to prevent platforms from using pricing to de facto exclude third parties they did not want to deal with. Adjudication of “fair” pricing by courts is unlikely to be a sustainable solution. Justice Breyer, in Town of Concord v. Boston Edison Co., considered this to be outside the courts’ purview:

[H]ow is a judge or jury to determine a ‘fair price?’ Is it the price charged by other suppliers of the primary product? None exist. Is it the price that competition ‘would have set’ were the primary level not monopolized? How can the court determine this price without examining costs and demands, indeed without acting like a rate-setting regulatory agency, the rate-setting proceedings of which often last for several years? Further, how is the court to decide the proper size of the price ‘gap?’ Must it be large enough for all independent competing firms to make a ‘living profit,’ no matter how inefficient they may be? . . . And how should the court respond when costs or demands change over time, as they inevitably will?

In practice, infrastructure treated as an essential facility is usually subject to pricing control by a regulator. This has its own difficulties. The UK’s energy and water infrastructure is an example. In determining optimal access pricing, regulators must determine the price that weighs competing needs to maximise short-term output, incentivise investment by the infrastructure owner, incentivise innovation and entry by competitors (e.g., local energy grids) and, of course, avoid “excessive” pricing. 

This is a near-impossible task, and the process is often drawn out and subject to challenges even in markets where the infrastructure is relatively simple. It is even less likely that these considerations would be objectively tractable in digital markets.

Treating a service as an essential facility is based on the premise that, absent mandated access, it is impossible to compete with it. But mandating access does not, on its own, prevent it from extracting monopoly rents from consumers; it just means that other companies selling inputs can have their share of the rents. 

So you may end up with two different sets of price controls: on the consumer side, to determine how much monopoly rent can be extracted from consumers, and on the access side, to determine how the monopoly rents are divided.

The UK’s energy market has both, for example. In the case of something like an electricity network, where it may simply not be physically or economically feasible to construct a second, competing network, this might be the least-bad course of action. In such circumstances, consumer-side price regulation might make sense. 

But if a service could, in fact, be competed with by others, treating it as an essential facility may be affirmatively harmful to competition and consumers if it diverts investment and time away from that potential competitor by allowing other companies to acquire some of the incumbent’s rents themselves.

The HJC report assumes that Apple is a monopolist, because, among people who own iPhones, the App Store is the only way to install third-party software. Treating the App Store as an essential facility may mean a ban on Apple charging “excessive prices” to companies like Spotify or Epic that would like to use it, or on Apple blocking them for offering users alternative in-app ways of buying their services.

If it were impossible for users to switch from iPhones, or for app developers to earn revenue through other mechanisms, this logic might be sound. But it would still not change the fact that the App Store platform was able to charge users monopoly prices; it would just mean that Epic and Spotify could capture some of those monopoly rents for themselves. Nice for them, but not for consumers. And since both companies have already grown to be pretty big and profitable with the constraints they object to in place, it seems difficult to argue that they cannot compete with these in place and sounds more like they’d just like a bigger share of the pie.

And, in fact, it is possible to switch away from the iPhone to Android. I have personally switched back and forth several times over the past few years, for example. And so have many others — despite what some claim, it’s really not that hard, especially now that most important data is stored on cloud-based services, and both companies offer an app to switch from the other. Apple also does not act like a monopolist — its Bionic chips are vastly better than any competitor’s and it continues to invest in and develop them.

So in practice, users switching from iPhone to Android if Epic’s games and Spotify’s music are not available constrains Apple, to some extent. If Apple did drive those services permanently off their platform, it would make Android relatively more attractive, and some users would move away — Apple would bear some of the costs of its ecosystem becoming worse. 

Assuming away this kind of competition, as Buck and the majority report do, is implausible. Not only that, but Buck and the majority believe that competition in this market is impossible — no policy or antitrust action could change things, and all that’s left is to regulate the market like it’s an electricity grid. 

And it means that platforms could often face situations where they could not expect to make themselves profitable after building their markets, since they could not control the supply side in order to earn revenues. That would make it harder to build platforms, and weaken competition, especially competition faced by incumbents.

Mandating interoperability

Interoperability mandates, which Buck supports, require platforms to make their products open and interoperable with third party software. If Twitter were required to be interoperable, for example, it would have to provide a mechanism (probably a set of open APIs) by which third party software could tweet and read its feeds, upload photos, send and receive DMs, and so on. 

Obviously, what interoperability actually involves differs from service to service, and involves decisions about design that are specific to each service. These variations are relevant because they mean interoperability requires discretionary regulation, including about product design, and can’t just be covered by a simple piece of legislation or a court order. 

To give an example: interoperability means a heightened security risk, perhaps from people unwittingly authorising a bad actor to access their private messages. How much is it appropriate to warn users about this, and how tight should your security controls be? It is probably excessive to require that users provide a sworn affidavit with witnesses, and even some written warnings about the risks may be so over the top as to scare off virtually any interested user. But some level of warning and user authentication is appropriate. So how much? 

Similarly, a company that has been required to offer its customers’ data through an API, but doesn’t really want to, can make life miserable for third party services that want to use it. Changing the API without warning, or letting its service drop or slow down, can break other services, and few users will be likely to want to use a third-party service that is unreliable. But some outages are inevitable, and some changes to the API and service are desirable. How do you decide how much?

These are not abstract examples. Open Banking in the UK, which requires interoperability of personal and small business current accounts, is the most developed example of interoperability in the world. It has been cited by former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Jason Furman, among others, as a model for interoperability in tech. It has faced all of these questions: one bank, for instance, required that customers pass through twelve warning screens to approve a third party app to access their banking details.

To address problems like this, Open Banking has needed an “implementation entity” to design many of its most important elements. This is a de facto regulator, and it has taken years of difficult design decisions to arrive at Open Banking’s current form. 

Having helped write the UK’s industry review into Open Banking, I am cautiously optimistic about what it might be able to do for banking in Britain, not least because that market is already heavily regulated and lacking in competition. But it has been a huge undertaking, and has related to a relatively narrow set of data (its core is just two different things — the ability to read an account’s balance and transaction history, and the ability to initiate payments) in a sector that is not known for rapidly changing technology. Here, the costs of regulation may be outweighed by the benefits.

I am deeply sceptical that the same would be the case in most digital markets, where products do change rapidly, where new entrants frequently attempt to enter the market (and often succeed), where the security trade-offs are even more difficult to adjudicate, and where the economics are less straightforward, given that many services are provided at least in part because of the access to customer data they provide. 

Even if I am wrong, it is unavoidable that interoperability in digital markets would require an equivalent body to make and implement decisions when trade-offs are involved. This, again, would require a regulator like the UK’s implementation entity, and one that was enormous, given the number and diversity of services that it would have to oversee. And it would likely have to make important and difficult design decisions to which there is no clear answer. 

Banning self-preferencing

Buck’s Third Way would also ban digital platforms from self-preferencing. This typically involves an incumbent that can provide a good more cheaply than its third-party competitors — whether it’s through use of data that those third parties do not have access to, reputational advantages that mean customers will be more likely to use their products, or through scale efficiencies that allow it to provide goods to a larger customer base for a cheaper price. 

Although many people criticise self-preferencing as being unfair on competitors, “self-preferencing” is an inherent part of almost every business. When a company employs its own in-house accountants, cleaners or lawyers, instead of contracting out for them, it is engaged in internal self-preferencing. Any firm that is vertically integrated to any extent, instead of contracting externally for every single ancillary service other than the one it sells in the market, is self-preferencing. Coase’s theory of the firm is all about why this kind of behaviour happens, instead of every worker contracting on the open market for everything they do. His answer is that transaction costs make it cheaper to bring certain business relationships in-house than to contract externally for them. Virtually everyone agrees that this is desirable to some extent.

Nor does it somehow become a problem when the self-preferencing takes place on the consumer product side. Any firm that offers any bundle of products — like a smartphone that can run only the manufacturer’s operating system — is engaged in self-preferencing, because users cannot construct their own bundle with that company’s hardware and another’s operating system. But the efficiency benefits often outweigh the lack of choice.

Self-preferencing in digital platforms occurs, for example, when Google includes relevant Shopping or Maps results at the top of its general Search results, or when Amazon gives its own store-brand products (like the AmazonBasics range) a prominent place in the results listing.

There are good reasons to think that both of these are good for competition and consumer welfare. Google making Shopping results easily visible makes it a stronger competitor to Amazon, and including Maps results when you search for a restaurant just makes it more convenient to get the information you’re looking for.

Amazon sells its own private label products partially because doing so is profitable (even when undercutting rivals), partially to fill holes in product lines (like clothing, where 11% of listings were Amazon private label as of November 2018), and partially because it increases users’ likelihood to use Amazon if they expect to find a reliable product from a brand they trust. According to Amazon, they account for less than 1% of its annual retail sales, in contrast to the 19% of revenues ($54 billion) Amazon makes from third party seller services, which includes Marketplace commissions. Any analysis that ignores that Amazon has to balance those sources of revenue, and so has to tread carefully, is deficient. 

With “commodity” products (like, say, batteries and USB cables), where multiple sellers are offering very similar or identical versions of the same thing, private label competition works well for both Amazon and consumers. By Amazon’s own rules it can enter this market using aggregated data, but this doesn’t give it a significant advantage, because that data is easily obtainable from multiple sources, including Amazon itself, which makes detailed aggregated sales data freely available to third-party retailers

Amazon does profit from sales of these products, of course. And other merchants suffer by having to cut their prices to compete. That’s precisely what competition involves — competition is incompatible with a quiet life for businesses. But consumers benefit, and the biggest benefit to Amazon is that it assures its potential customers that when they visit they will be able to find a product that is cheap and reliable, so they keep coming back.

It is even hard to argue that in aggregate this practice is damaging to third-party sellers: many, like Anker, have built successful businesses on Amazon despite private-label competition precisely because the value of the platform increases for all parties as user trust and confidence in it does.

In these cases and in others, platforms act to solve market failures on the markets they host, as Andrei Hagiu has argued. To maximize profits, digital platforms need to strike a balance between being an attractive place for third-party merchants to sell their goods and being attractive to consumers by offering low prices. The latter will frequently clash with the former — and that’s the difficulty of managing a platform. 

To mistake this pro-competitive behaviour with an absence of competition is misguided. But that is a key conclusion of Buck’s Third Way: that the damage to competitors makes this behaviour harmful overall, and that it should be curtailed with “non-discrimination” rules. 

Treating below-cost selling as “predatory pricing”

Buck’s report equates below-cost selling with predatory pricing (“predatory pricing, also known as below-cost selling”). This is mistaken. Predatory pricing refers to a particular scenario where your price cut is temporary and designed to drive a competitor out of business, so that you can raise prices later and recoup your losses. 

It is easy to see that this does not describe the vast majority of below-cost selling. Buck’s formulation would describe all of the following as “predatory pricing”:

  • A restaurants that gives away ketchup for free;
  • An online retailer that offers free shipping and returns;
  • A grocery store that sells tins of beans for 3p a can. (This really happened when I was a child.)

The rationale for offering below-cost prices differs in each of these cases. Sometimes it’s a marketing ploy — Tesco sells those beans to get some free media, and to entice people into their stores, hoping they’ll decide to do the rest of their weekly shop there at the same time. Sometimes it’s about reducing frictions — the marginal cost of ketchup is so low that it’s simpler to just give it away. Sometimes it’s about reducing the fixed costs of transactions so more take place — allowing customers who buy your products to return them easily may mean more are willing to buy them overall, because there’s less risk for them if they don’t like what they buy. 

Obviously, none of these is “predatory”: none is done in the expectation that the below-cost selling will drive those businesses’ competitors out of business, allowing them to make monopoly profits later.

True predatory pricing is theoretically possible, but very difficult. As David Henderson describes, to successfully engage in predatory pricing means taking enormous and rising losses that grow for the “predatory” firm as customers switch to it from its competitor. And once the rival firm has exited the market, if the predatory firm raises prices above average cost (i.e., to recoup its losses), there is no guarantee that a new competitor will not enter the market selling at the previously competitive price. And the competing firm can either shut down temporarily or, in some cases, just buy up the “predatory” firm’s discounted goods to resell later. It is debatable whether the canonical predatory pricing case, Standard Oil, is itself even an example of that behaviour.

Offering a product below cost in a multi-sided market (like a digital platform) can be a way of building a customer base in order to incentivise entry on the other side of the market. When network effects exist, so additional users make the service more valuable to existing users, it can be worthwhile to subsidise the initial users until the service reaches a certain size. 

Uber subsidising drivers and riders in a new city is an example of this — riders want enough drivers on the road that they know they’ll be picked up fairly quickly if they order one, and drivers want enough riders that they know they’ll be able to earn a decent night’s fares if they use the app. This requires a certain volume of users on both sides — to get there, it can be in everyone’s interest for the platform to subsidise one or both sides of the market to reach that critical mass.

The slightly longer road to regulation

That is another reason for below-cost pricing: someone other than the user may be part-paying for a product, to build a market they hope to profit from later. Platforms must adjust pricing and their offerings to each side of their market to manage supply and demand. Epic, for example, is trying to build a desktop computer game store to rival the largest incumbent, Steam. To win over customers, it has been giving away games for free to users, who can own them on that store forever. 

That is clearly pro-competitive — Epic is hoping to get users over the habit of using Steam for all their games, in the hope that they will recoup the costs of doing so later in increased sales. And it is good for consumers to get free stuff. This kind of behaviour is very common. As well as Uber and Epic, smaller platforms do it too. 

Buck’s proposals would make this kind of behaviour much more difficult, and permitted only if a regulator or court allows it, instead of if the market can bear it. On both sides of the coin, Buck’s proposals would prevent platforms from the behaviour that allows them to grow in the first place — enticing suppliers and consumers and subsidising either side until critical mass has been reached that allows the platform to exist by itself, and the platform owner to recoup its investments. Fundamentally, both Buck and the majority take the existence of platforms as a given, ignoring the incentives to create new ones and compete with incumbents. 

In doing so, they give up on competition altogether. As described, Buck’s provisions would necessitate ongoing rule-making, including price controls, to work. It is unlikely that a court could do this, since the relevant costs would change too often for one-shot rule-making of the kind a court could do. To be effective at all, Buck’s proposals would require an extensive, active regulator, just as the majority report’s would. 

Buck nominally argues against this sort of outcome — “Conservatives should be wary of handing additional regulatory authority to agencies in an attempt to micromanage platforms’ access rules” — but it is probably unavoidable, given the changes he proposes. And because the rule changes he proposes would apply to the whole economy, not just tech, his proposals may, perversely, end up being even more extensive and interventionist than the majority’s.

Other than this, the differences in practice between Buck’s proposals and the Democrats’ proposals would be trivial. At best, Buck’s Third Way is just a longer route to the same destination.

In the face of an unprecedented surge of demand for bandwidth as Americans responded to COVID-19, the nation’s Internet infrastructure delivered for urban and rural users alike. In fact, since the crisis began in March, there has been no appreciable degradation in either the quality or availability of service. That success story is as much about the network’s robust technical capabilities as it is about the competitive environment that made the enormous private infrastructure investments to build the network possible.

Yet, in spite of that success, calls to blind ISP pricing models to the bandwidth demands of users by preventing firms from employing “usage-based billing” (UBB) have again resurfaced. Today those demands are arriving in two waves: first, in the context of a petition by Charter Communications to employ the practice as the conditions of its merger with Time Warner Cable become ripe for review; and second in the form of complaints about ISPs re-imposing UBB following an end to the voluntary temporary halting of the practice during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic — a move that was an expansion by ISPs of the Keep Americans Connected Pledge championed by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

In particular, critics believe they have found clear evidence to support their repeated claims that UBB isn’t necessary for network management purposes as (they assert) ISPs have long claimed.  Devin Coldewey of TechCrunch, for example, recently asserted that:

caps are completely unnecessary, existing only as a way to squeeze more money from subscribers. Data caps just don’t matter any more…. Think about it: If the internet provider can even temporarily lift the data caps, then there is definitively enough capacity for the network to be used without those caps. If there’s enough capacity, then why did the caps exist in the first place? Answer: Because they make money.

The thing is, though, ISPs did not claim that UBB was about the day-to-day “manage[ment of] network loads.” Indeed, the network management strawman has taken on a life of its own. It turns out that if you follow the thread of articles in an attempt to substantiate the claim (for instance: here, to here, to here, to here), it is just a long line of critics citing to each other’s criticisms of this purported claim by ISPs. But never do they cite to the ISPs themselves making this assertion — only to instances where ISPs offer completely different explanations, coupled with the critics’ claims that such examples show only that ISPs are now changing their tune. In reality, the imposition of usage-based billing is, and has always been, a basic business decision — as it is for every other company that uses it (which is to say: virtually all companies).

What’s UBB really about?

For critics, however, UBB is never just a “basic business decision.” Rather, the only conceivable explanations for UBB are network management and extraction of money. There is no room in this conception of the practice for perfectly straightforward pricing decisions that offer pricing that differs by customers’ usage of the services. Nor does this viewpoint recognize the importance of these pricing practices for long-term network cultivation in the form of investment in increasing capacity to meet the increased demands generated by users.

But to disregard these actual reasons for the use of UBB is to ignore what is economically self-evident.

In simple terms, UBB allows networks to charge heavy users more, thereby enabling them to recover more costs from these users and to keep prices lower for everyone else. In effect, UBB ensures that the few heaviest users subsidize the vast majority of other users, rather than the other way around.

A flat-rate pricing mandate wouldn’t allow pricing structures based on cost recovery. In such a world an ISP couldn’t simply offer a lower price to lighter users for a basic tier and rely on higher revenues from the heaviest users to cover the costs of network investment. Instead, it would have to finance its ability to improve its network to meet the needs of the most demanding users out of higher prices charged to all users, including the least demanding users that make up the vast majority of users on networks today (for example, according to Comcast, 95 percent of its  subscribers use less than 1.2 TB of data monthly).

On this basis, UBB is a sensible (and equitable, as some ISPs note) way to share the cost of building, maintaining, and upgrading the nation’s networks that simultaneously allows ISPs to react to demand changes in the market while enabling consumers to purchase a tier of service commensurate with their level of use. Indeed, charging customers based on the quality and/or amount of a product they use is a benign, even progressive, practice that insulates the majority of consumers from the obligation to cross-subsidize the most demanding customers.

Objections to the use of UBB fall generally into two categories. One stems from the sort of baseline policy misapprehension that it is needed to manage the network, but that fallacy is dispelled above. The other is borne of a simple lack of familiarity with the practice.

Consider that, in the context of Internet services, broadband customers are accustomed to the notion that access to greater data speed is more costly than the alternative, but are underexposed to the related notion of charging based upon broadband data consumption. Below, we’ll discuss the prevalence of UBB across sectors, how it works in the context of broadband Internet service, and the ultimate benefit associated with allowing for a diversity of pricing models among ISPs.

Usage-based pricing in other sectors

To nobody’s surprise, usage-based pricing is common across all sectors of the economy. Anything you buy by the unit, or by weight, is subject to “usage-based pricing.” Thus, this is how we buy apples from the grocery store and gasoline for our cars.

Usage-based pricing need not always be so linear, either. In the tech sector, for instance, when you hop in a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft, you’re charged a base fare, plus a rate that varies according to the distance of your trip. By the same token, cloud storage services like Dropbox and Box operate under a “freemium” model in which a basic amount of storage and services is offered for free, while access to higher storage tiers and enhanced services costs increasingly more. In each case the customer is effectively responsible (at least in part) for supporting the service to the extent of her use of its infrastructure.

Even in sectors in which virtually all consumers are obligated to purchase products and where regulatory scrutiny is profound — as is the case with utilities and insurance — non-linear and usage-based pricing are still common. That’s because customers who use more electricity or who drive their vehicles more use a larger fraction of shared infrastructure, whether physical conduits or a risk-sharing platform. The regulators of these sectors recognize that tremendous public good is associated with the persistence of utility and insurance products, and that fairly apportioning the costs of their operations requires differentiating between customers on the basis of their use. In point of fact (as we’ve known at least since Ronald Coase pointed it out in 1946), the most efficient and most equitable pricing structure for such products is a two-part tariff incorporating both a fixed, base rate, as well as a variable charge based on usage.  

Pricing models that don’t account for the extent of customer use are vanishingly rare. “All-inclusive” experiences like Club Med or the Golden Corral all-you-can-eat buffet are the exception and not the rule when it comes to consumer goods. And it is well-understood that such examples adopt effectively regressive pricing — charging everyone a high enough price to ensure that they earn sufficient return from the vast majority of light eaters to offset the occasional losses from the gorgers. For most eaters, in other words, a buffet lunch tends to cost more and deliver less than a menu-based lunch. 

All of which is to say that the typical ISP pricing model — in which charges are based on a generous, and historically growing, basic tier coupled with an additional charge that increases with data use that exceeds the basic allotment — is utterly unremarkable. Rather, the mandatory imposition of uniform or flat-fee pricing would be an aberration.

Aligning network costs with usage

Throughout its history, Internet usage has increased constantly and often dramatically. This ever-growing need has necessitated investment in US broadband infrastructure running into the tens of billions annually. Faced with the need for this investment, UBB is a tool that helps to equitably align network costs with different customers’ usage levels in a way that promotes both access and resilience.

As President Obama’s first FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, put it:

Our work has also demonstrated the importance of business innovation to promote network investment and efficient use of networks, including measures to match price to cost such as usage-based pricing.

Importantly, it is the marginal impact of the highest-usage customers that drives a great deal of those network investment costs. In the case of one ISP, a mere 5 percent of residential users make up over 20 percent of its network usage. Necessarily then, in the absence of UBB and given the constant need for capacity expansion, uniform pricing would typically act to disadvantage low-volume customers and benefit high-volume customers.

Even Tom Wheeler — President Obama’s second FCC Chairman and the architect of utility-style regulation of ISPs — recognized this fact and chose to reject proposals to ban UBB in the 2015 Open Internet Order, explaining that:

[P]rohibiting tiered or usage-based pricing and requiring all subscribers to pay the same amount for broadband service, regardless of the performance or usage of the service, would force lighter end users of the network to subsidize heavier end users. It would also foreclose practices that may appropriately align incentives to encourage efficient use of networks. (emphasis added)

When it comes to expanding Internet connectivity, the policy ramifications of uniform pricing are regressive. As such, they run counter to the stated goals of policymakers across the political spectrum insofar as they deter low-volume users — presumably, precisely the marginal users who may be disinclined to subscribe in the first place —  from subscribing by saddling them with higher prices than they would face with capacity pricing. Closing the digital divide means supporting the development of a network that is at once sustainable and equitable on the basis of its scope and use. Mandated uniform pricing accomplishes neither.

Of similarly profound importance is the need to ensure that Internet infrastructure is ready for demand shocks, as we saw with the COVID-19 crisis. Linking pricing to usage gives ISPs the incentive and wherewithal to build and maintain high-capacity networks to cater to the ever-growing expectations of high-volume users, while also encouraging the adoption of network efficiencies geared towards conserving capacity (e.g., caching, downloading at off-peak hours rather than streaming during peak periods).

Contrary to the claims of some that the success of ISPs’ networks during the COVID-19 crisis shows that UBB is unnecessary and extractive, the recent increases in network usage (which may well persist beyond the eventual end of the crisis) demonstrate the benefits of nonlinear pricing models like UBB. Indeed, the consistent efforts to build out the network to serve high-usage customers, funded in part by UBB, redounds not only to the advantage of abnormal users in regular times, but also to the advantage of regular users in abnormal times.

The need for greater capacity along with capacity-conserving efficiencies has been underscored by the scale of the demand shock among high-load users resulting from COVID-19. According to OpenVault, a data use tracking service, the number of “power users” and “extreme power users” utilizing 1TB/month or more and 2TB/month or more jumped 138 percent and 215 percent respectively. Meaning that now, in total, power users represent 10 percent of subscribers across the network, while extreme power users comprise 1.2 percent of subscribers.

Pricing plans predicated on load volume necessarily evolve along with network capacity, but at this moment the application of UBB for monthly loads above 1TB ensures that ISPs maintain an incentive to cater to power users and extreme power users alike. In doing so, ISPs are also ensuring that all users are protected when the Internet’s next abnormal — but, sadly, predictable — event arrives.

At the same time, UBB also helps to facilitate the sort of customer-side network efficiencies that may emerge as especially important during times of abnormally elevated demand. Customers’ usage need not be indifferent to the value of the data they use, and usage-based pricing helps to ensure that data usage aligns not only with costs but also with the data’s value to consumers. In this way the behavior of both ISPs and customers will better reflect the objective realities of the nations’ networks and their limits.

The case for pricing freedom

Finally, it must be noted that ISPs are not all alike, and that the market sustains a range of pricing models across ISPs according to what suits their particular business models, network characteristics, load capacity, and user types (among other things). Consider that even ISPs that utilize UBB almost always offer unlimited data products, while some ISPs choose to adopt uniform pricing to differentiate their offerings. In fact, at least one ISP has moved to uniform billing in light of COVID-19 to provide their customers with “certainty” about their bills.

The mistake isn’t in any given ISP electing a uniform billing structure or a usage-based billing structure; rather it is in proscribing the use of a single pricing structure for all ISPs. Claims that such price controls are necessary because consumers are harmed by UBB ignore its prevalence across the economy, its salutary effect on network access and resilience, and the manner in which it promotes affordability and a sensible allocation of cost recovery across consumers.

Moreover, network costs and traffic demand patterns are dynamic, and the availability of UBB — among other pricing schemes — also allows ISPs to tailor their offerings to those changing conditions in a manner that differentiates them from their competitors. In doing so, those offerings are optimized to be attractive in the moment, while still facilitating network maintenance and expansion in the future.

Where economically viable, more choice is always preferable. The notion that consumers will somehow be harmed if they get to choose Internet services based not only on speed, but also load, is a specious product of the confused and the unfamiliar. The sooner the stigma around UBB is overcome, the better-off the majority of US broadband customers will be.

Hardly a day goes by without news of further competition-related intervention in the digital economy. The past couple of weeks alone have seen the European Commission announce various investigations into Apple’s App Store (here and here), as well as reaffirming its desire to regulate so-called “gatekeeper” platforms. Not to mention the CMA issuing its final report regarding online platforms and digital advertising.

While the limits of these initiatives have already been thoroughly dissected (e.g. here, here, here), a fundamental question seems to have eluded discussions: What are authorities trying to achieve here?

At first sight, the answer might appear to be extremely simple. Authorities want to “bring more competition” to digital markets. Furthermore, they believe that this competition will not arise spontaneously because of the underlying characteristics of digital markets (network effects, economies of scale, tipping, etc). But while it may have some intuitive appeal, this answer misses the forest for the trees.

Let us take a step back. Digital markets could have taken a vast number of shapes, so why have they systematically gravitated towards those very characteristics that authorities condemn? For instance, if market tipping and consumer lock-in are so problematic, why is it that new corners of the digital economy continue to emerge via closed platforms, as opposed to collaborative ones? Indeed, if recent commentary is to be believed, it is the latter that should succeed because they purportedly produce greater gains from trade. And if consumers and platforms cannot realize these gains by themselves, then we should see intermediaries step into the breach – i.e. arbitrage. This does not seem to be happening in the digital economy. The naïve answer is to say that this is precisely the problem, the harder one is to actually understand why.

To draw a parallel with evolution, in the late 18th century, botanists discovered an orchid with an unusually long spur (above). This made its nectar incredibly hard to reach for insects. Rational observers at the time could be forgiven for thinking that this plant made no sense, that its design was suboptimal. And yet, decades later, Darwin conjectured that the plant could be explained by a (yet to be discovered) species of moth with a proboscis that was long enough to reach the orchid’s nectar. Decades after his death, the discovery of the xanthopan moth proved him right.

Returning to the digital economy, we thus need to ask why the platform business models that authorities desire are not the ones that emerge organically. Unfortunately, this complex question is mostly overlooked by policymakers and commentators alike.

Competition law on a spectrum

To understand the above point, let me start with an assumption: the digital platforms that have been subject to recent competition cases and investigations can all be classified along two (overlapping) dimensions: the extent to which they are open (or closed) to “rivals” and the extent to which their assets are propertized (as opposed to them being shared). This distinction borrows heavily from Jonathan Barnett’s work on the topic. I believe that by applying such a classification, we would obtain a graph that looks something like this:

While these classifications are certainly not airtight, this would be my reasoning:

In the top-left quadrant, Apple and Microsoft, both operate closed platforms that are highly propertized (Apple’s platform is likely even more closed than Microsoft’s Windows ever was). Both firms notably control who is allowed on their platform and how they can interact with users. Apple notably vets the apps that are available on its App Store and influences how payments can take place. Microsoft famously restricted OEMs freedom to distribute Windows PCs as they saw fit (notably by “imposing” certain default apps and, arguably, limiting the compatibility of Microsoft systems with servers running other OSs). 

In the top right quadrant, the business models of Amazon and Qualcomm are much more “open”, yet they remain highly propertized. Almost anyone is free to implement Qualcomm’s IP – so long as they conclude a license agreement to do so. Likewise, there are very few limits on the goods that can be sold on Amazon’s platform, but Amazon does, almost by definition, exert a significant control on the way in which the platform is monetized. Retailers can notably pay Amazon for product placement, fulfilment services, etc. 

Finally, Google Search and Android sit in the bottom left corner. Both of these services are weakly propertized. The Android source code is shared freely via an open source license, and Google’s apps can be preloaded by OEMs free of charge. The only limit is that Google partially closes its platform, notably by requiring that its own apps (if they are pre-installed) receive favorable placement. Likewise, Google’s search engine is only partially “open”. While any website can be listed on the search engine, Google selects a number of specialized results that are presented more prominently than organic search results (weather information, maps, etc). There is also some amount of propertization, namely that Google sells the best “real estate” via ad placement. 

Enforcement

Readers might ask what is the point of this classification? The answer is that in each of the above cases, competition intervention attempted (or is attempting) to move firms/platforms towards more openness and less propertization – the opposite of their original design.

The Microsoft cases and the Apple investigation, both sought/seek to bring more openness and less propetization to these respective platforms. Microsoft was made to share proprietary data with third parties (less propertization) and open up its platform to rival media players and web browsers (more openness). The same applies to Apple. Available information suggests that the Commission is seeking to limit the fees that Apple can extract from downstream rivals (less propertization), as well as ensuring that it cannot exclude rival mobile payment solutions from its platform (more openness).

The various cases that were brought by EU and US authorities against Qualcomm broadly sought to limit the extent to which it was monetizing its intellectual property. The European Amazon investigation centers on the way in which the company uses data from third-party sellers (and ultimately the distribution of revenue between them and Amazon). In both of these cases, authorities are ultimately trying to limit the extent to which these firms propertize their assets.

Finally, both of the Google cases, in the EU, sought to bring more openness to the company’s main platform. The Google Shopping decision sanctioned Google for purportedly placing its services more favorably than those of its rivals. And the Android decision notably sought to facilitate rival search engines’ and browsers’ access to the Android ecosystem. The same appears to be true of ongoing investigations in the US.

What is striking about these decisions/investigations is that authorities are pushing back against the distinguishing features of the platforms they are investigating. Closed -or relatively closed- platforms are being opened-up, and firms with highly propertized assets are made to share them (or, at the very least, monetize them less aggressively).

The empty quadrant

All of this would not be very interesting if it weren’t for a final piece of the puzzle: the model of open and shared platforms that authorities apparently favor has traditionally struggled to gain traction with consumers. Indeed, there seem to be very few successful consumer-oriented products and services in this space.

There have been numerous attempts to introduce truly open consumer-oriented operating systems – both in the mobile and desktop segments. For the most part, these have ended in failure. Ubuntu and other Linux distributions remain fringe products. There have been attempts to create open-source search engines, again they have not been met with success. The picture is similar in the online retail space. Amazon appears to have beaten eBay despite the latter being more open and less propertized – Amazon has historically charged higher fees than eBay and offers sellers much less freedom in the way they sell their goods. This theme is repeated in the standardization space. There have been innumerable attempts to impose open royalty-free standards. At least in the mobile internet industry, few if any of these have taken off (5G and WiFi are the best examples of this trend). That pattern is repeated in other highly-standardized industries, like digital video formats. Most recently, the proprietary Dolby Vision format seems to be winning the war against the open HDR10+ format. 

This is not to say there haven’t been any successful ventures in this space – the internet, blockchain and Wikipedia all spring to mind – or that we will not see more decentralized goods in the future. But by and large firms and consumers have not yet taken to the idea of open and shared platforms. And while some “open” projects have achieved tremendous scale, the consumer-facing side of these platforms is often dominated by intermediaries that opt for much more traditional business models (think of Coinbase and Blockchain, or Android and Linux).

An evolutionary explanation?

The preceding paragraphs have posited a recurring reality: the digital platforms that competition authorities are trying to to bring about are fundamentally different from those that emerge organically. This begs the question: why have authorities’ ideal platforms, so far, failed to achieve truly meaningful success at consumers’ end of the market? 

I can see at least three potential explanations:

  1. Closed/propertized platforms have systematically -and perhaps anticompetitively- thwarted their open/shared rivals;
  2. Shared platforms have failed to emerge because they are much harder to monetize (and there is thus less incentive to invest in them);
  3. Consumers have opted for closed systems precisely because they are closed.

I will not go into details over the merits of the first conjecture. Current antitrust debates have endlessly rehashed this proposition. However, it is worth mentioning that many of today’s dominant platforms overcame open/shared rivals well before they achieved their current size (Unix is older than Windows, Linux is older than iOs, eBay and Amazon are basically the same age, etc). It is thus difficult to make the case that the early success of their business models was down to anticompetitive behavior.

Much more interesting is the fact that options (2) and (3) are almost systematically overlooked – especially by antitrust authorities. And yet, if true, both of them would strongly cut against current efforts to regulate digital platforms and ramp-up antitrust enforcement against them. 

For a start, it is not unreasonable to suggest that highly propertized platforms are generally easier to monetize than shared ones (2). For example, open-source platforms often rely on complementarities for monetization, but this tends to be vulnerable to outside competition and free-riding. If this is true, then there is a natural incentive for firms to invest and innovate in more propertized environments. In turn, competition enforcement that limits a platforms’ ability to propertize their assets may harm innovation.

Similarly, authorities should at the very least reflect on whether consumers really want the more “competitive” ecosystems that they are trying to design (3)

For instance, it is striking that the European Commission has a long track record of seeking to open-up digital platforms (the Microsoft decisions are perhaps the most salient example). And yet, even after these interventions, new firms have kept on using the very business model that the Commission reprimanded. Apple tied the Safari browser to its iPhones, Google went to some length to ensure that Chrome was preloaded on devices, Samsung phones come with Samsung Internet as default. But this has not deterred consumers. A sizable share of them notably opted for Apple’s iPhone, which is even more centrally curated than Microsoft Windows ever was (and the same is true of Apple’s MacOS). 

Finally, it is worth noting that the remedies imposed by competition authorities are anything but unmitigated successes. Windows XP N (the version of Windows that came without Windows Media Player) was an unprecedented flop – it sold a paltry 1,787 copies. Likewise, the internet browser ballot box imposed by the Commission was so irrelevant to consumers that it took months for authorities to notice that Microsoft had removed it, in violation of the Commission’s decision. 

There are many reasons why consumers might prefer “closed” systems – even when they have to pay a premium for them. Take the example of app stores. Maintaining some control over the apps that can access the store notably enables platforms to easily weed out bad players. Similarly, controlling the hardware resources that each app can use may greatly improve device performance. In other words, centralized platforms can eliminate negative externalities that “bad” apps impose on rival apps and consumers. This is especially true when consumers struggle to attribute dips in performance to an individual app, rather than the overall platform. 

It is also conceivable that consumers prefer to make many of their decisions at the inter-platform level, rather than within each platform. In simple terms, users arguably make their most important decision when they choose between an Apple or Android smartphone (or a Mac and a PC, etc.). In doing so, they can select their preferred app suite with one simple decision. They might thus purchase an iPhone because they like the secure App Store, or an Android smartphone because they like the Chrome Browser and Google Search. Furthermore, forcing too many “within-platform” choices upon users may undermine a product’s attractiveness. Indeed, it is difficult to create a high-quality reputation if each user’s experience is fundamentally different. In short, contrary to what antitrust authorities seem to believe, closed platforms might be giving most users exactly what they desire. 

To conclude, consumers and firms appear to gravitate towards both closed and highly propertized platforms, the opposite of what the Commission and many other competition authorities favor. The reasons for this trend are still misunderstood, and mostly ignored. Too often, it is simply assumed that consumers benefit from more openness, and that shared/open platforms are the natural order of things. This post certainly does not purport to answer the complex question of “the origin of platforms”, but it does suggest that what some refer to as “market failures” may in fact be features that explain the rapid emergence of the digital economy. Ronald Coase said this best when he quipped that economists always find a monopoly explanation for things that they fail to understand. The digital economy might just be the latest in this unfortunate trend.