Archives For self-preferncing

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.

Critics of big tech companies like Google and Amazon are increasingly focused on the supposed evils of “self-preferencing.” This refers to when digital platforms like Amazon Marketplace or Google Search, which connect competing services with potential customers or users, also offer (and sometimes prioritize) their own in-house products and services. 

The objection, raised by several members and witnesses during a Feb. 25 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, is that it is unfair to third parties that use those sites to allow the site’s owner special competitive advantages. Is it fair, for example, for Amazon to use the data it gathers from its service to design new products if third-party merchants can’t access the same data? This seemingly intuitive complaint was the basis for the European Commission’s landmark case against Google

But we cannot assume that something is bad for competition just because it is bad for certain competitors. A lot of unambiguously procompetitive behavior, like cutting prices, also tends to make life difficult for competitors. The same is true when a digital platform provides a service that is better than alternatives provided by the site’s third-party sellers. 

It’s probably true that Amazon’s access to customer search and purchase data can help it spot products it can undercut with its own versions, driving down prices. But that’s not unusual; most retailers do this, many to a much greater extent than Amazon. For example, you can buy AmazonBasics batteries for less than half the price of branded alternatives, and they’re pretty good.

There’s no doubt this is unpleasant for merchants that have to compete with these offerings. But it is also no different from having to compete with more efficient rivals who have lower costs or better insight into consumer demand. Copying products and seeking ways to offer them with better features or at a lower price, which critics of self-preferencing highlight as a particular concern, has always been a fundamental part of market competition—indeed, it is the primary way competition occurs in most markets. 

Store-branded versions of iPhone cables and Nespresso pods are certainly inconvenient for those companies, but they offer consumers cheaper alternatives. Where such copying may be problematic (say, by deterring investments in product innovations), the law awards and enforces patents and copyrights to reward novel discoveries and creative works, and trademarks to protect brand identity. But in the absence of those cases where a company has intellectual property, this is simply how competition works. 

The fundamental question is “what benefits consumers?” Services like Yelp object that they cannot compete with Google when Google embeds its Google Maps box in Google Search results, while Yelp cannot do the same. But for users, the Maps box adds valuable information to the results page, making it easier to get what they want. Google is not making Yelp worse by making its own product better. Should it have to refrain from offering services that benefit its users because doing so might make competing products comparatively less attractive?

Self-preferencing also enables platforms to promote their offerings in other markets, which is often how large tech companies compete with each other. Amazon has a photo-hosting app that competes with Google Photos and Apple’s iCloud. It recently emailed its customers to promote it. That is undoubtedly self-preferencing, since other services cannot market themselves to Amazon’s customers like this, but if it makes customers aware of an alternative they might not have otherwise considered, that is good for competition. 

This kind of behavior also allows companies to invest in offering services inexpensively, or for free, that they intend to monetize by preferencing their other, more profitable products. For example, Google invests in Android’s operating system and gives much of it away for free precisely because it can encourage Android customers to use the profitable Google Search service. Despite claims to the contrary, it is difficult to see this sort of cross-subsidy as harmful to consumers.

Self-preferencing can even be good for competing services, including third-party merchants. In many cases, it expands the size of their potential customer base. For example, blockbuster video games released by Sony and Microsoft increase demand for games by other publishers because they increase the total number of people who buy Playstations and Xboxes. This effect is clear on Amazon’s Marketplace, which has grown enormously for third-party merchants even as Amazon has increased the number of its own store-brand products on the site. By making the Amazon Marketplace more attractive, third-party sellers also benefit.

All platforms are open or closed to varying degrees. Retail “platforms,” for example, exist on a spectrum on which Craigslist is more open and neutral than eBay, which is more so than Amazon, which is itself relatively more so than, say, Walmart.com. Each position on this spectrum offers its own benefits and trade-offs for consumers. Indeed, some customers’ biggest complaint against Amazon is that it is too open, filled with third parties who leave fake reviews, offer counterfeit products, or have shoddy returns policies. Part of the role of the site is to try to correct those problems by making better rules, excluding certain sellers, or just by offering similar options directly. 

Regulators and legislators often act as if the more open and neutral, the better, but customers have repeatedly shown that they often prefer less open, less neutral options. And critics of self-preferencing frequently find themselves arguing against behavior that improves consumer outcomes, because it hurts competitors. But that is the nature of competition: what’s good for consumers is frequently bad for competitors. If we have to choose, it’s consumers who should always come first.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the antitrust lawsuits against Google. The entire series of posts is available here.]

The U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) antitrust case against Google, which was filed in October 2020, will be a tough slog.[1] It is an alleged monopolization (Sherman Act, Sec. 2) case; and monopolization cases are always a tough slog.

In this brief essay I will lay out some of the issues in the case and raise an intriguing possibility.

What is the case about?

The case is about exclusivity and exclusion in the distribution of search engine services; that Google paid substantial sums to Apple and to the manufacturers of Android-based mobile phones and tablets and also to wireless carriers and web-browser proprietors—in essence, to distributors—to install the Google search engine as the exclusive pre-set (installed), default search program. The suit alleges that Google thereby made it more difficult for other search-engine providers (e.g., Bing; DuckDuckGo) to obtain distribution for their search-engine services and thus to attract search-engine users and to sell the online advertising that is associated with search-engine use and that provides the revenue to support the search “platform” in this “two-sided market” context.[2]

Exclusion can be seen as a form of “raising rivals’ costs.”[3]  Equivalently, exclusion can be seen as a form of non-price predation. Under either interpretation, the exclusionary action impedes competition.

It’s important to note that these allegations are different from those that motivated an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (which the FTC dropped in 2013) and the cases by the European Union against Google.[4]  Those cases focused on alleged self-preferencing; that Google was unduly favoring its own products and services (e.g., travel services) in its delivery of search results to users of its search engine. In those cases, the impairment of competition (arguably) happens with respect to those competing products and services, not with respect to search itself.

What is the relevant market?

For a monopolization allegation to have any meaning, there needs to be the exercise of market power (which would have adverse consequences for the buyers of the product). And in turn, that exercise of market power needs to occur in a relevant market: one in which market power can be exercised.

Here is one of the important places where the DOJ’s case is likely to turn into a slog: the delineation of a relevant market for alleged monopolization cases remains as a largely unsolved problem for antitrust economics.[5]  This is in sharp contrast to the issue of delineating relevant markets for the antitrust analysis of proposed mergers.  For this latter category, the paradigm of the “hypothetical monopolist” and the possibility that this hypothetical monopolist could prospectively impose a “small but significant non-transitory increase in price” (SSNIP) has carried the day for the purposes of market delineation.

But no such paradigm exists for monopolization cases, in which the usual allegation is that the defendant already possesses market power and has used the exclusionary actions to buttress that market power. To see the difficulties, it is useful to recall the basic monopoly diagram from Microeconomics 101. A monopolist faces a negatively sloped demand curve for its product (at higher prices, less is bought; at lower prices, more is bought) and sets a profit-maximizing price at the level of output where its marginal revenue (MR) equals its marginal costs (MC). Its price is thereby higher than an otherwise similar competitive industry’s price for that product (to the detriment of buyers) and the monopolist earns higher profits than would the competitive industry.

But unless there are reliable benchmarks as to what the competitive price and profits would otherwise be, any information as to the defendant’s price and profits has little value with respect to whether the defendant already has market power. Also, a claim that a firm does not have market power because it faces rivals and thus isn’t able profitably to raise its price from its current level (because it would lose too many sales to those rivals) similarly has no value. Recall the monopolist from Micro 101. It doesn’t set a higher price than the one where MR=MC, because it would thereby lose too many sales to other sellers of other things.

Thus, any firm—regardless of whether it truly has market power (like the Micro 101 monopolist) or is just another competitor in a sea of competitors—should have already set its price at its profit-maximizing level and should find it unprofitable to raise its price from that level.[6]  And thus the claim, “Look at all of the firms that I compete with!  I don’t have market power!” similarly has no informational value.

Let us now bring this problem back to the Google monopolization allegation:  What is the relevant market?  In the first instance, it has to be “the provision of answers to user search queries.” After all, this is the “space” in which the exclusion occurred. But there are categories of search: e.g., search for products/services, versus more general information searches (“What is the current time in Delaware?” “Who was the 21st President of the United States?”). Do those separate categories themselves constitute relevant markets?

Further, what would the exercise of market power in a (delineated relevant) market look like?  Higher-than-competitive prices for advertising that targets search-results recipients is one obvious answer (but see below). In addition, because this is a two-sided market, the competitive “price” (or prices) might involve payments by the search engine to the search users (in return for their exposure to the lucrative attached advertising).[7]  And product quality might exhibit less variety than a competitive market would provide; and/or the monopolistic average level of quality would be lower than in a competitive market: e.g., more abuse of user data, and/or deterioration of the delivered information itself, via more self-preferencing by the search engine and more advertising-driven preferencing of results.[8]

In addition, a natural focus for a relevant market is the advertising that accompanies the search results. But now we are at the heart of the difficulty of delineating a relevant market in a monopolization context. If the relevant market is “advertising on search engine results pages,” it seems highly likely that Google has market power. If the relevant market instead is all online U.S. advertising (of which Google’s revenue share accounted for 32% in 2019[9]), then the case is weaker; and if the relevant market is all advertising in the United States (which is about twice the size of online advertising[10]), the case is weaker still. Unless there is some competitive benchmark, there is no easy way to delineate the relevant market.[11]

What exactly has Google been paying for, and why?

As many critics of the DOJ’s case have pointed out, it is extremely easy for users to switch their default search engine. If internet search were a normal good or service, this ease of switching would leave little room for the exercise of market power. But in that case, why is Google willing to pay $8-$12 billion annually for the exclusive default setting on Apple devices and large sums to the manufacturers of Android-based devices (and to wireless carriers and browser proprietors)? Why doesn’t Google instead run ads in prominent places that remind users how superior Google’s search results are and how easy it is for users (if they haven’t already done so) to switch to the Google search engine and make Google the user’s default choice?

Suppose that user inertia is important. Further suppose that users generally have difficulty in making comparisons with respect to the quality of delivered search results. If this is true, then being the default search engine on Apple and Android-based devices and on other distribution vehicles would be valuable. In this context, the inertia of their customers is a valuable “asset” of the distributors that the distributors may not be able to take advantage of, but that Google can (by providing search services and selling advertising). The question of whether Google’s taking advantage of this user inertia means that Google exercises market power takes us back to the issue of delineating the relevant market.

There is a further wrinkle to all of this. It is a well-understood concept in antitrust economics that an incumbent monopolist will be willing to pay more for the exclusive use of an essential input than a challenger would pay for access to the input.[12] The basic idea is straightforward. By maintaining exclusive use of the input, the incumbent monopolist preserves its (large) monopoly profits. If the challenger enters, the incumbent will then earn only its share of the (much lower, more competitive) duopoly profits. Similarly, the challenger can expect only the lower duopoly profits. Accordingly, the incumbent should be willing to outbid (and thereby exclude) the challenger and preserve the incumbent’s exclusive use of the input, so as to protect those monopoly profits.

To bring this to the Google monopolization context, if Google does possess market power in some aspect of search—say, because online search-linked advertising is a relevant market—then Google will be willing to outbid Microsoft (which owns Bing) for the “asset” of default access to Apple’s (inertial) device owners. That Microsoft is a large and profitable company and could afford to match (or exceed) Google’s payments to Apple is irrelevant. If the duopoly profits for online search-linked advertising would be substantially lower than Google’s current profits, then Microsoft would not find it worthwhile to try to outbid Google for that default access asset.

Alternatively, this scenario could be wholly consistent with an absence of market power. If search users (who can easily switch) consider Bing to be a lower-quality search service, then large payments by Microsoft to outbid Google for those exclusive default rights would be largely wasted, since the “acquired” default search users would quickly switch to Google (unless Microsoft provided additional incentives for the users not to switch).

But this alternative scenario returns us to the original puzzle:  Why is Google making such large payments to the distributors for those exclusive default rights?

An intriguing possibility

Consider the following possibility. Suppose that Google was paying that $8-$12 billion annually to Apple in return for the understanding that Apple would not develop its own search engine for Apple’s device users.[13] This possibility was not raised in the DOJ’s complaint, nor is it raised in the subsequent suits by the state attorneys general.

But let’s explore the implications by going to an extreme. Suppose that Google and Apple had a formal agreement that—in return for the $8-$12 billion per year—Apple would not develop its own search engine. In this event, this agreement not to compete would likely be seen as a violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act (which does not require a market delineation exercise) and Apple would join Google as a co-conspirator. The case would take on the flavor of the FTC’s prosecution of “pay-for-delay” agreements between the manufacturers of patented pharmaceuticals and the generic drug manufacturers that challenge those patents and then receive payments from the former in return for dropping the patent challenge and delaying the entry of the generic substitute.[14]

As of this writing, there is no evidence of such an agreement and it seems quite unlikely that there would have been a formal agreement. But the DOJ will be able to engage in discovery and take depositions. It will be interesting to find out what the relevant executives at Google—and at Apple—thought was being achieved by those payments.

What would be a suitable remedy/relief?

The DOJ’s complaint is vague with respect to the remedy that it seeks. This is unsurprising. The DOJ may well want to wait to see how the case develops and then amend its complaint.

However, even if Google’s actions have constituted monopolization, it is difficult to conceive of a suitable and effective remedy. One apparently straightforward remedy would be to require simply that Google not be able to purchase exclusivity with respect to the pre-set default settings. In essence, the device manufacturers and others would always be able to sell parallel default rights to other search engines: on the basis, say, that the default rights for some categories of customers—or even a percentage of general customers (randomly selected)—could be sold to other search-engine providers.

But now the Gilbert-Newbery insight comes back into play. Suppose that a device manufacturer knows (or believes) that Google will pay much more if—even in the absence of any exclusivity agreement—Google ends up being the pre-set search engine for all (or nearly all) of the manufacturer’s device sales, as compared with what the manufacturer would receive if those default rights were sold to multiple search-engine providers (including, but not solely, Google). Can that manufacturer (recall that the distributors are not defendants in the case) be prevented from making this sale to Google and thus (de facto) continuing Google’s exclusivity?[15]

Even a requirement that Google not be allowed to make any payment to the distributors for a default position may not improve the competitive environment. Google may be able to find other ways of making indirect payments to distributors in return for attaining default rights, e.g., by offering them lower rates on their online advertising.

Further, if the ultimate goal is an efficient outcome in search, it is unclear how far restrictions on Google’s bidding behavior should go. If Google were forbidden from purchasing any default installation rights for its search engine, would (inert) consumers be better off? Similarly, if a distributor were to decide independently that its customers were better served by installing the Google search engine as the default, would that not be allowed? But if it is allowed, how could one be sure that Google wasn’t indirectly paying for this “independent” decision (e.g., through favorable advertising rates)?

It’s important to remember that this (alleged) monopolization is different from the Standard Oil case of 1911 or even the (landline) AT&T case of 1984. In those cases, there were physical assets that could be separated and spun off to separate companies. For Google, physical assets aren’t important. Although it is conceivable that some of Google’s intellectual property—such as Gmail, YouTube, or Android—could be spun off to separate companies, doing so would do little to cure the (arguably) fundamental problem of the inert device users.

In addition, if there were an agreement between Google and Apple for the latter not to develop a search engine, then large fines for both parties would surely be warranted. But what next? Apple can’t be forced to develop a search engine.[16] This differentiates such an arrangement from the “pay-for-delay” arrangements for pharmaceuticals, where the generic manufacturers can readily produce a near-identical substitute for the patented drug and are otherwise eager to do so.

At the end of the day, forbidding Google from paying for exclusivity may well be worth trying as a remedy. But as the discussion above indicates, it is unlikely to be a panacea and is likely to require considerable monitoring for effective enforcement.

Conclusion

The DOJ’s case against Google will be a slog. There are unresolved issues—such as how to delineate a relevant market in a monopolization case—that will be central to the case. Even if the DOJ is successful in showing that Google violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act in monopolizing search and/or search-linked advertising, an effective remedy seems problematic. But there also remains the intriguing question of why Google was willing to pay such large sums for those exclusive default installation rights?

The developments in the case will surely be interesting.


[1] The DOJ’s suit was joined by 11 states.  More states subsequently filed two separate antitrust lawsuits against Google in December.

[2] There is also a related argument:  That Google thereby gained greater volume, which allowed it to learn more about its search users and their behavior, and which thereby allowed it to provide better answers to users (and thus a higher-quality offering to its users) and better-targeted (higher-value) advertising to its advertisers.  Conversely, Google’s search-engine rivals were deprived of that volume, with the mirror-image negative consequences for the rivals.  This is just another version of the standard “learning-by-doing” and the related “learning curve” (or “experience curve”) concepts that have been well understood in economics for decades.

[3] See, for example, Steven C. Salop and David T. Scheffman, “Raising Rivals’ Costs: Recent Advances in the Theory of Industrial Structure,” American Economic Review, Vol. 73, No. 2 (May 1983), pp.  267-271; and Thomas G. Krattenmaker and Steven C. Salop, “Anticompetitive Exclusion: Raising Rivals’ Costs To Achieve Power Over Price,” Yale Law Journal, Vol. 96, No. 2 (December 1986), pp. 209-293.

[4] For a discussion, see Richard J. Gilbert, “The U.S. Federal Trade Commission Investigation of Google Search,” in John E. Kwoka, Jr., and Lawrence J. White, eds. The Antitrust Revolution: Economics, Competition, and Policy, 7th edn.  Oxford University Press, 2019, pp. 489-513.

[5] For a more complete version of the argument that follows, see Lawrence J. White, “Market Power and Market Definition in Monopolization Cases: A Paradigm Is Missing,” in Wayne D. Collins, ed., Issues in Competition Law and Policy. American Bar Association, 2008, pp. 913-924.

[6] The forgetting of this important point is often termed “the cellophane fallacy”, since this is what the U.S. Supreme Court did in a 1956 antitrust case in which the DOJ alleged that du Pont had monopolized the cellophane market (and du Pont, in its defense claimed that the relevant market was much wider: all flexible wrapping materials); see U.S. v. du Pont, 351 U.S. 377 (1956).  For an argument that profit data and other indicia argued for cellophane as the relevant market, see George W. Stocking and Willard F. Mueller, “The Cellophane Case and the New Competition,” American Economic Review, Vol. 45, No. 1 (March 1955), pp. 29-63.

[7] In the context of differentiated services, one would expect prices (positive or negative) to vary according to the quality of the service that is offered.  It is worth noting that Bing offers “rewards” to frequent searchers; see https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/bing/defaults-rewards.  It is unclear whether this pricing structure of payment to Bing’s customers represents what a more competitive framework in search might yield, or whether the payment just indicates that search users consider Bing to be a lower-quality service.

[8] As an additional consequence of the impairment of competition in this type of search market, there might be less technological improvement in the search process itself – to the detriment of users.

[9] As estimated by eMarketer: https://www.emarketer.com/newsroom/index.php/google-ad-revenues-to-drop-for-the-first-time/.

[10] See https://www.visualcapitalist.com/us-advertisers-spend-20-years/.

[11] And, again, if we return to the du Pont cellophane case:  Was the relevant market cellophane?  Or all flexible wrapping materials?

[12] This insight is formalized in Richard J. Gilbert and David M.G. Newbery, “Preemptive Patenting and the Persistence of Monopoly,” American Economic Review, Vol. 72, No. 3 (June 1982), pp. 514-526.

[13] To my knowledge, Randal C. Picker was the first to suggest this possibility; see https://www.competitionpolicyinternational.com/a-first-look-at-u-s-v-google/.  Whether Apple would be interested in trying to develop its own search engine – given the fiasco a decade ago when Apple tried to develop its own maps app to replace the Google maps app – is an open question.  In addition, the Gilbert-Newbery insight applies here as well:  Apple would be less inclined to invest the substantial resources that would be needed to develop a search engine when it is thereby in a duopoly market.  But Google might be willing to pay “insurance” to reinforce any doubts that Apple might have.

[14] The U.S. Supreme Court, in FTC v. Actavis, 570 U.S. 136 (2013), decided that such agreements could be anti-competitive and should be judged under the “rule of reason”.  For a discussion of the case and its implications, see, for example, Joseph Farrell and Mark Chicu, “Pharmaceutical Patents and Pay-for-Delay: Actavis (2013),” in John E. Kwoka, Jr., and Lawrence J. White, eds. The Antitrust Revolution: Economics, Competition, and Policy, 7th edn.  Oxford University Press, 2019, pp. 331-353.

[15] This is an example of the insight that vertical arrangements – in this case combined with the Gilbert-Newbery effect – can be a way for dominant firms to raise rivals’ costs.  See, for example, John Asker and Heski Bar-Isaac. 2014. “Raising Retailers’ Profits: On Vertical Practices and the Exclusion of Rivals.” American Economic Review, Vol. 104, No. 2 (February 2014), pp. 672-686.

[16] And, again, for the reasons discussed above, Apple might not be eager to make the effort.

The writing is on the wall for Big Tech: regulation is coming. At least, that is what the House Judiciary Committee’s report into competition in digital markets would like us to believe. 

The Subcommittee’s Majority members, led by Rhode Island’s Rep. David Cicilline, are calling for a complete overhaul of America’s antitrust and regulatory apparatus. This would notably entail a break up of America’s largest tech firms, by prohibiting them from operating digital platforms and competing on them at the same time. Unfortunately, the report ignores the tremendous costs that such proposals would impose upon consumers and companies alike. 

For several years now, there has been growing pushback against the perceived “unfairness” of America’s tech industry: of large tech platforms favoring their own products at the expense of entrepreneurs who use their platforms; of incumbents acquiring startups to quash competition; of platforms overcharging  companies like Epic Games, Spotify, and the media, just because they can; and of tech companies that spy on their users and use that data to sell them things they don’t need. 

But this portrayal of America’s tech industry obscures an inconvenient possibility: supposing that these perceived ills even occur, there is every chance that the House’s reforms would merely exacerbate the status quo. The House report gives short shrift to this eventuality, but it should not.

Over the last decade, the tech sector has been the crown jewel of America’s economy. And while firms like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple, may have grown at a blistering pace, countless others have flourished in their wake.

Google and Apple’s app stores have given rise to a booming mobile software industry. Platforms like Youtube and Instagram have created new venues for advertisers and ushered in a new generation of entrepreneurs including influencers, podcasters, and marketing experts. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have disintermediated the production of news media, allowing ever more people to share their ideas with the rest of the world (mostly for better, and sometimes for worse). Amazon has opened up new markets for thousands of retailers, some of which are now going public. The recent $3.4 billion Snowflake IPO may have been the biggest public offering of a tech firm no one has heard of.

The trillion dollar question is whether it is possible to regulate this thriving industry without stifling its unparalleled dynamism. If Rep. Cicilline’s House report is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding no.

Acquisition by a Big Tech firm is one way for startups to rapidly scale and reach a wider audience, while allowing early investors to make a quick exit. Self-preferencing can enable platforms to tailor their services to the needs and desires of users (Apple and Google’s pre-installed app suites are arguably what drive users to opt for their devices). Excluding bad apples from a platform is essential to gain users’ trust and build a strong reputation. Finally, in the online retail space, copying rival products via house brands provides consumers with competitively priced goods and helps new distributors enter the market. 

All of these practices would either be heavily scrutinized or outright banned under the Subcommittee ’s proposed reforms. Beyond its direct impact on the quality of online goods and services, this huge shift would threaten the climate of permissionless innovation that has arguably been key to Silicon Valley’s success. 

More fundamentally, these reforms would mostly protect certain privileged rivals at the expense of the wider industry. Take Apple’s App Store: Epic Games and others have complained about the 30% Commission charged by Apple for in-app purchases (as is standard throughout the industry). Yet, as things stand, roughly 80% of apps pay no commission at all. Tackling this 30% commission — for instance by allowing developers to bypass Apple’s in-app payment processing — would almost certainly result in larger fees for small developers. In short, regulation could significantly impede smaller firms.

Fortunately, there is another way. For decades, antitrust law — guided by the judge-made consumer welfare standard — has been the cornerstone of economic policy in the US. During that time, America built a tech industry that is the envy of the world. This should give pause to would-be reformers. There is a real chance overbearing regulation will permanently hamper America’s tech industry. With competition from China more intense than ever, it is a risk that the US cannot afford to take.