Archives For self-preferncing

The fate of the badly misnamed American Innovation and Choice Online Act, S. 2992 (AICOA), may be decided by the August congressional recess. AICOA’s serious flaws have been ably dissected by numerous commentators (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). Moreover, respected former senior Democratic antitrust enforcers who have advocated more aggressive antitrust enforcement have also come out against the bill. For example, Stanford professor and former Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Douglas Melamed (who oversaw the Microsoft case for the Clinton Administration) very recently authored an article stressing that AICOA “is likely to impair innovation by the platforms.” The case has ably been made that the perverse welfare-reducing effects of multiple AICOA provisions, which impose inordinate costs (stemming, for instance, from interoperability requirements and prohibitions on “self-preferencing,” “discrimination,” and data usage) and discourage efficient vertical integration (see here), among other defects.

One aspect of AICOA that perhaps has garnered less attention is its affront to the rule of law. That deficiency in and of itself is sufficient to justify the summary rejection of this legislation by the Congress. Let’s examine it more closely.

A core element of the rule of law is that the government should apply the law neutrally to similarly situated entities. This principle is mocked, however, by the AICOA. The AICOA’s convoluted definition of “covered platform,” found in section 2(a)(5)(B) of S. 2992, focuses on rather arbitrary “monthly user,” capitalization, and sales value thresholds. Although the definitional elements were clearly designed to capture only the largest current digital platforms (all American) that have been in the public spotlight – Amazon, Facebook (now Meta), Apple, Google (now Alphabet), and Microsoft (possibly) – companies could fall within or outside the bill’s scope based on unpredictable changes in financial and user data in the future. This would lead to uncertainty as to whether particular firms were covered by the bill. It would also encourage corporate gamesmanship by specific firms as they sought to avoid the AICOA’s reach. As such, business planning would be rendered more difficult and less efficient, and the rule of law would be frayed.

A related rule of law concern is that parties be informed of the conduct they must adopt in order to avoid violating a particular law. Contemporary antitrust law does a far better job than the AICOA in satisfying this concern.

Contemporary American antitrust law has identified a few types of actions that are inherently anticompetitive, and therefore are “per se illegal” under all circumstances (bid rigging and naked horizontal price fixing and market division). Most business behavior, however, is assessed on a case-by-case basis under the antitrust “rule of reason,” which only condemns behavior whose anticompetitive effects outweigh its procompetitive effects. Rule of reason analysis prohibits  behavior that inefficiently weakens the competitive process and excludes rivals for no legitimate business reason, and thereby tends to reduce consumer welfare. Mere harm to individual competitors (due say to more efficient or innovative production techniques) is not condemned. Specific enforcement agency guidance through speeches, enforcement actions, and enforcement guidelines have developed over time on a bipartisan basis to clarify what competition on the merits means in particular circumstances. As former Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Andrew Finch explained in a 2017 speech, enforcers’ emphasis has been giving notice about enforcement principles that allows private parties to reasonably predict the legal consequences of their actions:

[S]tability and continuity in enforcement are fundamental to the rule of law. The rule of law is about notice and reliance. When it is impossible to make reasonable predictions about how a law will be applied, or what the legal consequences of conduct will be, these important values are diminished.

In comparison with existing antitrust law, however, AICOA, does a very poor job of fostering predictability regarding what is prohibited. As Professor Melamed explains, it makes it unclear what it means when it uses the key term “material harm to competition”— whose absence a covered platform must demonstrate in order to avoid liability under the bill. Specifically, as Melamed stresses:

[T]he bill does not include the normal antitrust language (e.g., “competition in the market as a whole,” “market power”) that gives meaning to the idea of harm to competition, nor does it say that the imprecise language it does use is to be construed as that language is construed by the antitrust laws. . . . The bill could be very harmful if it is construed to require, not increased market power, but simply harm to rivals.

Rule of law predictability is further undermined by other ambiguous AICOA terms, which also threaten to harm competition and innovation, as Professor Dan Spulber points out (citations omitted):

The new [proposed platform-related] antitrust laws may have adverse effects on innovation and competition because of imprecise concepts and terminology. The American Bar Association Antitrust Law Section expressed concerns about “ambiguous terminology in the [AICOA] Bill regarding fairness, preferencing, materiality, and harm to competition on covered platforms.” The Section recommended that “these definitions direct attention to analysis consistent with antitrust principles: effects-based inquiries concerned with harm to the competitive process.”

Finally, AICOA also is in tension with the rule of law by placing the onus first on private parties to show that they have not violated the law (have not caused “material harm to competition”) when they have engaged in certain types of specified behavior deemed “problematic” under the bill. This is at odds with the approach under the antitrust rule of reason, in which the government first must show harm to competition before the defendant is required to justify its behavior as having procompetitive welfare-enhancing features. The AICOA’s placing of the initial burden on parties is troublesome, because the particular actions that trigger an initial presumption of illegality (self-preferencing, limitations on competitor access to the covered platform, certain “discriminatory” acts, certain restrictions on interoperability, certain use of nonpublic data, and so forth) are efficient and welfare-enhancing in many situations. Thus, AICOA undoubtedly would lead to the presumptive condemnation of much procompetitive conduct. Platforms that fell just outside AICOA’s coverage would not face this risk, because their similar conduct would be under the rule of reason. In short, the AICOA would lead to disparate treatment of identical conduct by similar firms, based on the bill’s arbitrary jurisdictional line-drawing. In conclusion, the AICOA sows confusion and undermines legal stability, continuity, and predictability. As such, it is an affront to the rule of law and should not be enacted, without regard to its substantive policy merits.   

We will learn more in the coming weeks about the fate of the proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), legislation sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that would, among other things, prohibit “self-preferencing” by large digital platforms like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. But while the bill has already been subject to significant scrutiny, a crucially important topic has been absent from that debate: the measure’s likely effect on startup acquisitions. 

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

This would be a significant loss. As Dirk Auer, Sam Bowman, and I discuss in a recent article in the Missouri Law Review, acquisitions are arguably the most important component in providing vitality to the overall venture ecosystem:  

Startups generally have two methods for achieving liquidity for their shareholders: IPOs or acquisitions. According to the latest data from Orrick and Crunchbase, between 2010 and 2018 there were 21,844 acquisitions of tech startups for a total deal value of $1.193 trillion. By comparison, according to data compiled by Jay R. Ritter, a professor at the University of Florida, there were 331 tech IPOs for a total market capitalization of $649.6 billion over the same period. As venture capitalist Scott Kupor said in his testimony during the FTC’s hearings on “Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century,” “these large players play a significant role as acquirers of venture-backed startup companies, which is an important part of the overall health of the venture ecosystem.”

Moreover, acquisitions by large incumbents are known to provide a crucial channel for liquidity in the venture capital and startup communities: While at one time the source of the “liquidity events” required to yield sufficient returns to fuel venture capital was evenly divided between IPOs and mergers, “[t]oday that math is closer to about 80 percent M&A and about 20 percent IPOs—[with important implications for any] potential actions that [antitrust enforcers] might be considering with respect to the large platform players in this industry.” As investor and serial entrepreneur Leonard Speiser said recently, “if the DOJ starts going after tech companies for making acquisitions, venture investors will be much less likely to invest in new startups, thereby reducing competition in a far more harmful way.” (emphasis added)

Going after self-preferencing may have exactly the same harmful effect on venture investors and competition. 

It’s unclear exactly how the legislation would be applied in any given context (indeed, this uncertainty is one of the most significant problems with the bill, as the ABA Antitrust Section has argued at length). But AICOA is designed, at least in part, to keep large online platforms in their own lanes—to keep them from “leveraging their dominance” to compete against more politically favored competitors in ancillary markets. Indeed, while covered platforms potentially could defend against application of the law by demonstrating that self-preferencing is necessary to “maintain or substantially enhance the core functionality” of the service, no such defense exists for non-core (whatever that means…) functionality, the enhancement of which through self-preferencing is strictly off limits under AICOA.

As I have written (and so have many, many, many, many others), this is terrible policy on its face. But it is also likely to have significant, adverse, indirect consequences for startup acquisitions, given the enormous number of such acquisitions that are outside the covered platforms’ “core functionality.” 

Just take a quick look at a sample of the largest acquisitions made by Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Alphabet, for example. (These are screenshots of the first several acquisitions by size drawn from imperfect lists collected by Wikipedia, but for purposes of casual empiricism they are well-suited to give an idea of the diversity of acquisitions at issue):

Apple:

Microsoft:

Amazon:

Alphabet (Google):

Vanishingly few of these acquisitions go to the “core functionalities” of these platforms. Alphabet’s acquisitions, for example, involve (among many other things) cybersecurity; home automation; cloud computing; wearables, smart glasses, and AR hardware; GPS navigation software; communications security; satellite technology; and social gaming. Microsoft’s acquisitions include companies specializing in video games; social networking; software versioning; drawing software; cable television; cybersecurity; employee engagement; and e-commerce. The technologies and applications involved in acquisitions by Apple and Amazon are similarly varied.

Drilling down a bit, consider the companies Alphabet acquired and put to use in the service of Google Maps:

Which, if any, of these companies would Google have purchased if it knew it would be unable to prioritize Maps in its search results? Would Google have invested more than $1 billion in these companies—and likely significantly more in internal R&D to develop Maps—if it had to speculate whether it would be required (or even be able) to prove someday in the future that prioritizing Google Maps results would enhance its core functionality?

What about Xbox? As noted, AICOA’s terms aren’t perfectly clear, so I’m not certain it would apply to Xbox (is Xbox a “website, online or mobile application, operating system, digital assistant, or online service”?). Here are Microsoft’s video-gaming-related purchases:

The vast majority of these (and all of the acquisitions for which Wikipedia has purchase-price information, totaling some $80 billion of investment) involve video games, not the development of hardware or the functionality of the Xbox platform. Would Microsoft have made these investments if it knew it would be prohibited from prioritizing its own games or exclusively using data gleaned through these games to improve its platform? No one can say for certain, but, at the margin, it is absolutely certain that these self-preferencing bills would make such acquisitions less likely.

Perhaps the most obvious—and concerning—example of the problem arises in the context of Google’s Android platform. Google famously gives Android away for free, of course, and makes its operating system significantly open for bespoke use by all comers. In exchange, Google requires that implementers of the Android OS provide some modicum of favoritism to Google’s revenue-generating products, like Search. For all its uncertainty, there is no question that AICOA’s terms would prohibit this self-preferencing. Intentionally or not, it would thus prohibit the way in which Google monetizes Android and thus hopes to recoup some of the—literally—billions of dollars it has invested in the development and maintenance of Android. 

Here are Google’s Android-related acquisitions:

Would Google have bought Android in the first place (to say nothing of subsequent acquisitions and its massive ongoing investment in Android) if it had been foreclosed from adopting its preferred business model to monetize its investment? In the absence of Google bidding for these companies, would they have earned as much from other potential bidders? Would they even have come into existence at all?

Of course, AICOA wouldn’t preclude Google charging device makers for Android and thus raising the price of mobile devices. But that mechanism may not have been sufficient to support Google’s investment in Android, and it would certainly constrain its ability to compete. Even if rules like those proposed by AICOA didn’t undermine Google’s initial purchase of and investment in Android, it is manifestly unclear how forcing Google to adopt a business model that increases consumer prices and constrains its ability to compete head-to-head with Apple’s iOS ecosystem would benefit consumers. (This excellent series of posts—1, 2, 3, 4—by Dirk Auer on the European Commission’s misguided Android decision discusses in detail the significant costs of prohibiting self-preferencing on Android.)

There are innumerable further examples, as well. In all of these cases, it seems clear not only that an AICOA-like regime would diminish competition and reduce consumer welfare across important dimensions, but also that it would impoverish the startup ecosystem more broadly. 

And that may be an even bigger problem. Even if you think, in the abstract, that it would be better for “Big Tech” not to own these startups, there is a real danger that putting that presumption into force would drive down acquisition prices, kill at least some tech-startup exits, and ultimately imperil the initial financing of tech startups. It should go without saying that this would be a troubling outcome. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that AICOA’s proponents have even considered whether the presumed benefits of the bill would be worth this immense cost.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)—cosponsors of the American Innovation Online and Choice Act, which seeks to “rein in” tech companies like Apple, Google, Meta, and Amazon—contend that “everyone acknowledges the problems posed by dominant online platforms.”

In their framing, it is simply an acknowledged fact that U.S. antitrust law has not kept pace with developments in the digital sector, allowing a handful of Big Tech firms to exploit consumers and foreclose competitors from the market. To address the issue, the senators’ bill would bar “covered platforms” from engaging in a raft of conduct, including self-preferencing, tying, and limiting interoperability with competitors’ products.

That’s what makes the open letter to Congress published late last month by the usually staid American Bar Association’s (ABA) Antitrust Law Section so eye-opening. The letter is nothing short of a searing critique of the legislation, which the section finds to be poorly written, vague, and departing from established antitrust-law principles.

The ABA, of course, has a reputation as an independent, highly professional, and heterogenous group. The antitrust section’s membership includes not only in-house corporate counsel, but lawyers from nonprofits, consulting firms, federal and state agencies, judges, and legal academics. Given this context, the comments must be read as a high-level judgment that recent legislative and regulatory efforts to “discipline” tech fall outside the legal mainstream and would come at the cost of established antitrust principles, legal precedent, transparency, sound economic analysis, and ultimately consumer welfare.

The Antitrust Section’s Comments

As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes:

The Section has long supported the evolution of antitrust law to keep pace with evolving circumstances, economic theory, and empirical evidence. Here, however, the Section is concerned that the Bill, as written, departs in some respects from accepted principles of competition law and in so doing risks causing unpredicted and unintended consequences.

Broadly speaking, the section’s criticisms fall into two interrelated categories. The first relates to deviations from antitrust orthodoxy and the principles that guide enforcement. The second is a critique of the AICOA’s overly broad language and ambiguous terminology.

Departing from established antitrust-law principles

Substantively, the overarching concern expressed by the ABA Antitrust Law Section is that AICOA departs from the traditional role of antitrust law, which is to protect the competitive process, rather than choosing to favor some competitors at the expense of others. Indeed, the section’s open letter observes that, out of the 10 categories of prohibited conduct spelled out in the legislation, only three require a “material harm to competition.”

Take, for instance, the prohibition on “discriminatory” conduct. As it stands, the bill’s language does not require a showing of harm to the competitive process. It instead appears to enshrine a freestanding prohibition of discrimination. The bill targets tying practices that are already prohibited by U.S. antitrust law, but while similarly eschewing the traditional required showings of market power and harm to the competitive process. The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for “self-preferencing” and the “unfair” treatment of competitors.

The problem, the section’s letter to Congress argues, is not only that this increases the teleological chasm between AICOA and the overarching goals and principles of antitrust law, but that it can also easily lead to harmful unintended consequences. For instance, as the ABA Antitrust Law Section previously observed in comments to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, a prohibition of pricing discrimination can limit the extent of discounting generally. Similarly, self-preferencing conduct on a platform can be welfare-enhancing, while forced interoperability—which is also contemplated by AICOA—can increase prices for consumers and dampen incentives to innovate. Furthermore, some of these blanket prohibitions are arguably at loggerheads with established antitrust doctrine, such as in, e.g., Trinko, which established that even monopolists are generally free to decide with whom they will deal.

In response to the above, the ABA Antitrust Law Section (reasonably) urges Congress explicitly to require an effects-based showing of harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for all 10 of the infringements contemplated in the AICOA. This also means disclaiming generalized prohibitions of “discrimination” and of “unfairness” and replacing blanket prohibitions (such as the one for self-preferencing) with measured case-by-case analysis.

Arguably, the reason why the Klobuchar-Grassley bill can so seamlessly exclude or redraw such a central element of antitrust law as competitive harm is because it deliberately chooses to ignore another, preceding one. Namely, the bill omits market power as a requirement for a finding of infringement or for the legislation’s equally crucial designation as a “covered platform.” It instead prescribes size metrics—number of users, market capitalization—to define which platforms are subject to intervention. Such definitions cast an overly wide net that can potentially capture consumer-facing conduct that doesn’t have the potential to harm competition at all.

It is precisely for this reason that existing antitrust laws are tethered to market power—i.e., because it long has been recognized that only companies with market power can harm competition. As John B. Kirkwood of Seattle University School of Law has written:

Market power’s pivotal role is clear…This concept is central to antitrust because it distinguishes firms that can harm competition and consumers from those that cannot.

In response to the above, the ABA Antitrust Law Section (reasonably) urges Congress explicitly to require an effects-based showing of harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for all 10 of the infringements contemplated in the AICOA. This also means disclaiming generalized prohibitions of “discrimination” and of “unfairness” and replacing blanket prohibitions (such as the one for self-preferencing) with measured case-by-case analysis.

Opaque language for opaque ideas

Another underlying issue is that the Klobuchar-Grassley bill is shot through with indeterminate language and fuzzy concepts that have no clear limiting principles. For instance, in order either to establish liability or to mount a successful defense to an alleged violation, the bill relies heavily on inherently amorphous terms such as “fairness,” “preferencing,” and “materiality,” or the “intrinsic” value of a product. But as the ABA Antitrust Law Section letter rightly observes, these concepts are not defined in the bill, nor by existing antitrust case law. As such, they inject variability and indeterminacy into how the legislation would be administered.

Moreover, it is also unclear how some incommensurable concepts will be weighed against each other. For example, how would concerns about safety and security be weighed against prohibitions on self-preferencing or requirements for interoperability? What is a “core function” and when would the law determine it has been sufficiently “enhanced” or “maintained”—requirements the law sets out to exempt certain otherwise prohibited behavior? The lack of linguistic and conceptual clarity not only explodes legal certainty, but also invites judicial second-guessing into the operation of business decisions, something against which the U.S. Supreme Court has long warned.

Finally, the bill’s choice of language and recent amendments to its terminology seem to confirm the dynamic discussed in the previous section. Most notably, the latest version of AICOA replaces earlier language invoking “harm to the competitive process” with “material harm to competition.” As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes, this “suggests a shift away from protecting the competitive process towards protecting individual competitors.” Indeed, “material harm to competition” deviates from established categories such as “undue restraint of trade” or “substantial lessening of competition,” which have a clear focus on the competitive process. As a result, it is not unreasonable to expect that the new terminology might be interpreted as meaning that the actionable standard is material harm to competitors.

In its letter, the antitrust section urges Congress not only to define more clearly the novel terminology used in the bill, but also to do so in a manner consistent with existing antitrust law. Indeed:

The Section further recommends that these definitions direct attention to analysis consistent with antitrust principles: effects-based inquiries concerned with harm to the competitive process, not merely harm to particular competitors

Conclusion

The AICOA is a poorly written, misguided, and rushed piece of regulation that contravenes both basic antitrust-law principles and mainstream economic insights in the pursuit of a pre-established populist political goal: punishing the success of tech companies. If left uncorrected by Congress, these mistakes could have potentially far-reaching consequences for innovation in digital markets and for consumer welfare. They could also set antitrust law on a regressive course back toward a policy of picking winners and losers.

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

Barry Schwartz’s seminal work “The Paradox of Choice” has received substantial attention since its publication nearly 20 years ago. In it, Schwartz argued that, faced with an ever-increasing plethora of products to choose from, consumers often feel overwhelmed and seek to limit the number of choices they must make.

In today’s online digital economy, a possible response to this problem is for digital platforms to use consumer data to present consumers with a “manageable” array of choices and thereby simplify their product selection. Appropriate “curation” of product-choice options may substantially benefit consumer welfare, provided that government regulators stay out of the way.   

New Research

In a new paper in the American Economic Review, Mark Armstrong and Jidong Zhou—of Oxford and Yale universities, respectively—develop a theoretical framework to understand how companies compete using consumer data. Their findings conclude that there is, in fact, an impact on consumer, producer, and total welfare when different privacy regimes are enacted to change the amount of information a company can use to personalize recommendations.

The authors note that, at least in theory, there is an optimal situation that maximizes total welfare (scenario one). This is when a platform can aggregate information on consumers to such a degree that buyers and sellers are perfectly matched, leading to consumers buying their first-best option. While this can result in marginally higher prices, understandably leading to higher welfare for producers, search and mismatch costs are minimized by the platform, leading to a high level of welfare for consumers.

The highest level of aggregate consumer welfare comes when product differentiation is minimized (scenario two), leading to a high number of substitutes and low prices. This, however, comes with some level of mismatch. Since consumers are not matched with any recommendations, search costs are high and introduce some error. Some consumers may have had a higher level of welfare with an alternative product, but do not feel the negative effects of such mismatch because of the low prices. Therefore, consumer welfare is maximized, but producer welfare is significantly lower.

Finally, the authors suggest a “nearly total welfare” optimal solution in suggesting a “top two-best” scheme (scenario three), whereby consumers are shown their top two best options without explicit ranking. This nearly maximizes total welfare, since consumers are shown the best options for them and, even if the best match isn’t chosen, the second-best match is close in terms of welfare.

Implications

In cases of platform data aggregation and personalization, scenarios one, two, and three can be represented as different privacy regimes.

Scenario one (a personalized-product regime) is akin to unlimited data gathering, whereby platforms can use as much information as is available to perfectly suggest products based on revealed data. From a competition perspective, interfirm competition will tend to decrease under this regime, since product differentiation will be accentuated, and substitutability will be masked. Since one single product will be shown as the “correct” product, the consumer will not want to shift to a different, welfare-inferior product and firms have incentive to produce ever more specialized products for a relatively higher price. Total welfare under this regime is maximized, with producers using their information to garner a relatively large share of economic surplus. Producers are effectively matched with consumers, and all gains from trade are realized.

Scenario two (a data-privacy regime) is one of near-perfect data privacy, whereby the platform is only able to recommend products based on general information, such as sales trends, new products, or product specifications. Under this regime, competition is maximized, since consumers consider a large pool of goods to be close substitutes. Differences in offered products are downplayed, which has the tendency to reduce prices and increase quality, but at the tradeoff of some consumer-product mismatch. For consumers who want a general product and a low price, this is likely the best option, since prices are low, and competition is high. However, for consumers who want the best product match for their personal use case, they will likely undertake search costs, increasing their opportunity cost of product acquisition and tending toward a total cost closer to the cost under a personalized-product regime.

Scenario three (a curated-list regime) represents defined guardrails surrounding the display of information gathered, along the same lines as the personalized-product regime. Platforms remain able to gather as much information as they desire in order to make a personalized recommendation, but they display an array of products that represent the first two (or three to four, with tighter anti-preference rules) best-choice options. These options are displayed without ranking the products, allowing the consumer to choose from a curated list, rather than a single product. The scenario-three regime has two effects on the market:

  1. It will tend to decrease prices through increased competition. Since firms can know only which consumers to target, not which will choose the product, they have to effectively compete with closely related products.
  2. It will likely spur innovation and increase competition from nascent competitors.

From an innovation perspective, firms will have to find better methods to differentiate themselves from the competition, increasing the probability of a consumer acquiring their product. Also, considering nascent competitors, a new product has an increased chance of being picked when ranked sufficiently high to be included on the consumer’s curated list. In contrast, the probability of acquisition under scenario one’s personalized-product regime is low, since the new product must be a better match than other, existing products. Similarly, under scenario two’s data-privacy regime, there is so much product substitutability in the market that the probability of choosing any one new product is low.

Below is a list of how the regimes stack up:

  • Personalized-Product: Total welfare is maximized, but prices are relatively higher and competition is relatively lower than under a data-privacy regime.
  • Data-Privacy: Consumer welfare and competition are maximized, and prices are theoretically minimized, but at the cost of product mismatch. Consumers will face search costs that are not reflected in the prices paid.
  • Curated-List: Consumer welfare is higher and prices are lower than under a personalized-product regime and competition is lower than under a data-privacy regime, but total welfare is nearly optimal when considering innovation and nascent-competitor effects.

Policy in Context

Applying these theoretical findings to fashion administrable policy prescriptions is understandably difficult. A far easier task is to evaluate the welfare effects of actual and proposed government privacy regulations in the economy. In that light, I briefly assess a recently enacted European data-platform privacy regime and U.S. legislative proposals that would restrict data usage under the guise of bans on “self-preferencing.” I then briefly note the beneficial implications of self-preferencing associated with the two theoretical data-usage scenarios (scenarios one and three) described above (scenario two, data privacy, effectively renders self-preferencing ineffective). 

GDPR

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)—among the most ambitious and all-encompassing data-privacy regimes to date—has significant negative ramifications for economic welfare. This regulation is most like the second scenario, whereby data collection and utilization are seriously restricted.

The GDPR diminishes competition through its restrictions on data collection and sharing, which reduce the competitive pressure platforms face. For platforms to gain a complete profile of a consumer for personalization, they cannot only rely on data collected on their platform. To ensure a level of personalization that effectively reduces search costs for consumers, these platforms must be able to acquire data from a range of sources and aggregate that data to create a complete profile. Restrictions on aggregation are what lead to diminished competition online.

The GDPR grants consumers the right to choose both how their data is collected and how it is distributed. Not only do platforms themselves have obligations to ensure consumers’ wishes are met regarding their privacy, but firms that sell data to the platform are obligated to ensure the platform does not infringe consumers’ privacy through aggregation.

This creates a high regulatory burden for both the platform and the data seller and reduces the incentive to transfer data between firms. Since the data seller can be held liable for actions taken by the platform, this significantly increases the price at which the data seller will transfer the data. By increasing the risk of regulatory malfeasance, the cost of data must now incorporate some risk premium, reducing the demand for outside data.

This has the effect of decreasing the quality of personalization and tilting the scales toward larger platforms, who have more robust data-collection practices and are able to leverage economies of scale to absorb high regulatory-enforcement costs. The quality of personalization is decreased, since the platform has incentive to create a consumption profile based on activity it directly observes without considering behavior occurring outside of the platform. Additionally, those platforms that are already entrenched and have large user bases are better able to manage the regulatory burden of the GDPR. One survey of U.S. companies with more than 500 workers found that 68% planned to spend between $1 and $10 million in upfront costs to prepare for GDPR compliance, a number that will likely pale in comparison to the long-term compliance costs. For nascent competitors, this outlay of capital represents a significant barrier to entry.

Additionally, as previously discussed, consumers derive some benefit from platforms that can accurately recommend products. If this is the case, then large platforms with vast amounts of accumulated, first-party data will be the consumers’ destination of choice. This will tend to reduce the ability for smaller firms to compete, simply because they do not have access to the same scale of data as the large platforms when data cannot be easily transferred between parties.

SelfPreferencing

Claims of anticompetitive behavior by platforms are abundant (e.g., see here and here), and they often focus on the concept of self-preferencing. Self-preferencing refers to when a company uses its economies of scale, scope, or a combination of the two to offer products at a lower price through an in-house brand. In decrying self-preferencing, many commentators and politicians point to an alleged “unfair advantage” in tech platforms’ ability to leverage data and personalization to drive traffic toward their own products.

It is far from clear, however, that this practice reduces consumer welfare. Indeed, numerous commentaries (e.g., see here and here) circulated since the introduction of anti-preferencing bills in the U.S. Congress (House; Senate) have rejected the notion that self-preferencing is anti-competitive or anti-consumer.

There are good reasons to believe that self-preferencing promotes both competition and consumer welfare. Assume that a company that manufactures or contracts for its own, in-house products can offer them at a marginally lower price for the same relative quality. This decrease in price raises consumer welfare. The in-house brand’s entrance into the market represents a potent competitive threat to firms already producing products, who in turn now have incentive to lower their own prices or raise the quality of their own goods (or both) to maintain their consumer base. This creates even more consumer welfare, since all consumers, not just the ones purchasing the in-house goods, are better off from the entrance of an in-house brand.

It therefore follows that the entrance of an in-house brand and self-preferencing in the data-utilizing regimes discussed above has the potential to enhance consumer welfare.

In general, the use of data analysis on the platform can allow for targeted product entrance into certain markets. If the platform believes it can make a product of similar quality for a lower price, then it will enter that market and consumers will be able to choose a comparable product for a lower price. (If the company does not believe it is able to produce such a product, it will not enter the market with an in-house brand, and consumer welfare will stay the same.) Consumer welfare will further rise as firms producing products that compete against the in-house brand will innovate to compete more effectively.

To be sure, under a personalized-product regime (scenario one), platforms may appear to have an incentive to self-preference to the detriment of consumers. If consumers trust the platform to show the greatest welfare-producing product before the emergence of an in-house brand, the platform may use this consumer trust to its advantage and suggest its own, potentially consumer-welfare-inferior product instead of a competitor’s welfare-superior product. In such a case, consumer welfare may decrease in the face of an in-house brand’s entrance.

The extent of any such welfare loss, however, may be ameliorated (or eliminated entirely) by the platform’s concern that an unexpectedly low level of house-brand product quality will diminish its reputation. Such a reputational loss could come about due to consumer disappointment, plus the efforts of platform rivals to highlight the in-house product’s inferiority. As such, the platform might decide to enhance the quality of its “inferior” in-house offering, or refrain from offering an in-house brand at all.

A curated-list regime (scenario three) is unequivocally consumer-welfare beneficial. Under such a regime, consumers will be shown several more options (a “manageable” number intended to minimize consumer-search costs) than under a personalized-product regime. Consumers can actively compare the offerings from different firms to determine the correct product for their individual use. In this case, there is no incentive to self-preference to the detriment of the consumer, as the consumer is able to make value judgements between the in-house brand and the alternatives.

If the in-house brand is significantly lower in price, but also lower in quality, consumers may not see the two as interchangeable and steer away from the in-house brand. The same follows when the in-house brand is higher in both price and quality. The only instance where the in-house brand has a strong chance of success is when the price is lower than and the quality is greater than competing products. This will tend to increase consumer welfare. Additionally, the entrance of consumer-welfare-superior products into a competitive market will encourage competing firms to innovate and lower prices or raise quality, again increasing consumer welfare for all consumers.

Conclusion

What effects do digital platform-data policies have on consumer welfare? As a matter of theory, if providing an increasing number of product choices does not tend to increase consumer welfare, then do reductions in prices or increases in quality? What about precise targeting of personal-product choices? How about curation—the idea that a consumer raises his or her level of certainty by outsourcing decision-making to a platform that chooses a small set of products for the consumer’s consideration at any given moment? Apart from these theoretical questions, is the current U.S. legal treatment of platform data usage doing a generally good job of promoting consumer welfare? Finally, considering this overview, are new government interventions in platform data policy likely to benefit or harm consumers?

Recently published economic research develops theoretical scenarios that demonstrate how digital platform curation of consumer data may facilitate welfare-enhancing consumer-purchase decisions. At least implicitly, this research should give pause to proponents of major new restrictions of platform data usage.

Furthermore, a review of actual and proposed regulatory restrictions underscores the serious welfare harm of government meddling in digital platform-data usage.   

After the first four years of GDPR, it is clear that there have been significant negative unintended consequences stemming from omnibus privacy regulation. Competition has decreased, regulatory barriers to entry have increased, and consumers are marginally worse off. Since companies are less able and willing to leverage data in their operations and service offerings—due in large part to the risk of hefty fines—they are less able to curate and personalize services to consumers.

Additionally, anti-preferencing bills in the United States threaten to suppress the proper functioning of platform markets and reduce consumer welfare by making the utilization of data in product-market decisions illegal. More research is needed to determine the aggregate welfare effects of such preferencing on platforms, but all early indications point to the fact that consumers are better off when an in-house brand enters the market and increases competition.

Furthermore, current U.S. government policy, which generally allows platforms to use consumer data freely, is good for consumer welfare. Indeed, the consumer-welfare benefits generated by digital platforms, which depend critically on large volumes of data, are enormous. This is documented in a well-reasoned Harvard Business Review article (by an MIT professor and his student) that utilizes online choice experiments based on digital-survey techniques.

The message is clear. Governments should avoid new regulatory meddling in digital platform consumer-data usage practices. Such meddling would harm consumers and undermine the economy.

After years of debate and negotiations, European Lawmakers have agreed upon what will most likely be the final iteration of the Digital Markets Act (“DMA”), following the March 24 final round of “trilogue” talks. 

For the uninitiated, the DMA is one in a string of legislative proposals around the globe intended to “rein in” tech companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple through mandated interoperability requirements and other regulatory tools, such as bans on self-preferencing. Other important bills from across the pond include the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, the ACCESS Act, and the Open App Markets Act

In many ways, the final version of the DMA represents the worst possible outcome, given the items that were still up for debate. The Commission caved to some of the Parliament’s more excessive demands—such as sweeping interoperability provisions that would extend not only to “ancillary” services, such as payments, but also to messaging services’ basic functionalities. Other important developments include the addition of voice assistants and web browsers to the list of Core Platform Services (“CPS”), and symbolically higher “designation” thresholds that further ensure the act will apply overwhelmingly to just U.S. companies. On a brighter note, lawmakers agreed that companies could rebut their designation as “gatekeepers,” though it remains to be seen how feasible that will be in practice. 

We offer here an overview of the key provisions included in the final version of the DMA and a reminder of the shaky foundations it rests on.

Interoperability

Among the most important of the DMA’s new rules concerns mandatory interoperability among online platforms. In a nutshell, digital platforms that are designated as “gatekeepers” will be forced to make their services “interoperable” (i.e., compatible) with those of rivals. It is argued that this will make online markets more contestable and thus boost consumer choice. But as ICLE scholars have been explaining for some time, this is unlikely to be the case (here, here, and here). Interoperability is not the panacea EU legislators claim it to be. As former ICLE Director of Competition Policy Sam Bowman has written, there are many things that could be interoperable, but aren’t. The reason is that interoperability comes with costs as well as benefits. For instance, it may be worth letting different earbuds have different designs because, while it means we sacrifice easy interoperability, we gain the ability for better designs to be brought to the market and for consumers to be able to choose among them. Economists Michael L. Katz and Carl Shapiro concur:

Although compatibility has obvious benefits, obtaining and maintaining compatibility often involves a sacrifice in terms of product variety or restraints on innovation.

There are other potential downsides to interoperability.  For instance, a given set of interoperable standards might be too costly to implement and/or maintain; it might preclude certain pricing models that increase output; or it might compromise some element of a product or service that offers benefits specifically because it is not interoperable (such as, e.g., security features). Consumers may also genuinely prefer closed (i.e., non-interoperable) platforms. Indeed: “open” and “closed” are not synonyms for “good” and “bad.” Instead, as Boston University’s Andrei Hagiu has shown, there are fundamental welfare tradeoffs at play that belie simplistic characterizations of one being inherently superior to the other. 

Further, as Sam Bowman observed, narrowing choice through a more curated experience can also be valuable for users, as it frees them from having to research every possible option every time they buy or use some product (if you’re unconvinced, try turning off your spam filter for a couple of days). Instead, the relevant choice consumers exercise might be in choosing among brands. In sum, where interoperability is a desirable feature, consumer preferences will tend to push for more of it. However, it is fundamentally misguided to treat mandatory interoperability as a cure-all elixir or a “super tool” of “digital platform governance.” In a free-market economy, it is not—or, it should not—be up to courts and legislators to substitute for businesses’ product-design decisions and consumers’ revealed preferences with their own, based on diffuse notions of “fairness.” After all, if we could entrust such decisions to regulators, we wouldn’t need markets or competition in the first place.

Of course, it was always clear that the DMA would contemplate some degree of mandatory interoperability – indeed, this was arguably the new law’s biggest selling point. What was up in the air until now was the scope of such obligations. The Commission had initially pushed for a comparatively restrained approach, requiring interoperability “only” in ancillary services, such as payment systems (“vertical interoperability”). By contrast, the European Parliament called for more expansive requirements that would also encompass social-media platforms and other messaging services (“horizontal interoperability”). 

The problem with such far-reaching interoperability requirements is that they are fundamentally out of pace with current privacy and security capabilities. As ICLE Senior Scholar Mikolaj Barczentewicz has repeatedly argued, the Parliament’s insistence on going significantly beyond the original DMA’s proposal and mandating interoperability of messaging services is overly broad and irresponsible. Indeed, as Mikolaj notes, the “likely result is less security and privacy, more expenses, and less innovation.”The DMA’s defensers would retort that the law allows gatekeepers to do what is “strictly necessary” (Council) or “indispensable” (Parliament) to protect safety and privacy (it is not yet clear which wording the final version has adopted). Either way, however, the standard may be too high and companies may very well offer lower security to avoid liability for adopting measures that would be judged by the Commission and the courts as going beyond what is “strictly necessary” or “indispensable.” These safeguards will inevitably be all the more indeterminate (and thus ineffectual) if weighed against other vague concepts at the heart of the DMA, such as “fairness.”

Gatekeeper Thresholds and the Designation Process

Another important issue in the DMA’s construction concerns the designation of what the law deems “gatekeepers.” Indeed, the DMA will only apply to such market gatekeepers—so-designated because they meet certain requirements and thresholds. Unfortunately, the factors that the European Commission will consider in conducting this designation process—revenues, market capitalization, and user base—are poor proxies for firms’ actual competitive position. This is not surprising, however, as the procedure is mainly designed to ensure certain high-profile (and overwhelmingly American) platforms are caught by the DMA.

From this perspective, the last-minute increase in revenue and market-capitalization thresholds—from 6.5 billion euros to 7.5 billion euros, and from 65 billion euros to 75 billion euros, respectively—won’t change the scope of the companies covered by the DMA very much. But it will serve to confirm what we already suspected: that the DMA’s thresholds are mostly tailored to catch certain U.S. companies, deliberately leaving out EU and possibly Chinese competitors (see here and here). Indeed, what would have made a difference here would have been lowering the thresholds, but this was never really on the table. Ultimately, tilting the European Union’s playing field against its top trading partner, in terms of exports and trade balance, is economically, politically, and strategically unwise.

As a consolation of sorts, it seems that the Commission managed to squeeze in a rebuttal mechanism for designated gatekeepers. Imposing far-reaching obligations on companies with no  (or very limited) recourse to escape the onerous requirements of the DMA would be contrary to the basic principles of procedural fairness. Still, it remains to be seen how this mechanism will be articulated and whether it will actually be viable in practice.

Double (and Triple?) Jeopardy

Two recent judgments from the European Court of Justice (ECJ)—Nordzucker and bpost—are likely to underscore the unintended effects of cumulative application of both the DMA and EU and/or national competition laws. The bpost decision is particularly relevant, because it lays down the conditions under which cases that evaluate the same persons and the same facts in two separate fields of law (sectoral regulation and competition law) do not violate the principle of ne bis in idem, also known as “double jeopardy.” As paragraph 51 of the judgment establishes:

  1. There must be precise rules to determine which acts or omissions are liable to be subject to duplicate proceedings;
  2. The two sets of proceedings must have been conducted in a sufficiently coordinated manner and within a similar timeframe; and
  3. The overall penalties must match the seriousness of the offense. 

It is doubtful whether the DMA fulfills these conditions. This is especially unfortunate considering the overlapping rules, features, and goals among the DMA and national-level competition laws, which are bound to lead to parallel procedures. In a word: expect double and triple jeopardy to be hotly litigated in the aftermath of the DMA.

Of course, other relevant questions have been settled which, for reasons of scope, we will have to leave for another time. These include the level of fines (up to 10% worldwide revenue, or 20% in the case of repeat offenses); the definition and consequences of systemic noncompliance (it seems that the Parliament’s draconian push for a general ban on acquisitions in case of systemic noncompliance has been dropped); and the addition of more core platform services (web browsers and voice assistants).

The DMA’s Dubious Underlying Assumptions

The fuss and exhilaration surrounding the impending adoption of the EU’s most ambitious competition-related proposal in decades should not obscure some of the more dubious assumptions which underpin it, such as that:

  1. It is still unclear that intervention in digital markets is necessary, let alone urgent.
  2. Even if it were clear, there is scant evidence to suggest that tried and tested ex post instruments, such as those envisioned in EU competition law, are not up to the task.
  3. Even if the prior two points had been established beyond any reasonable doubt (which they haven’t), it is still far from clear that DMA-style ex ante regulation is the right tool to address potential harms to competition and to consumers that arise in digital markets.

It is unclear that intervention is necessary

Despite a mounting moral panic around and zealous political crusading against Big Tech (an epithet meant to conjure antipathy and distrust), it is still unclear that intervention in digital markets is necessary. Much of the behavior the DMA assumes to be anti-competitive has plausible pro-competitive justifications. Self-preferencing, for instance, is a normal part of how platforms operate, both to improve the value of their core products and to earn returns to reinvest in their development. As ICLE’s Dirk Auer points out, since platforms’ incentives are to maximize the value of their entire product ecosystem, those that preference their own products frequently end up increasing the total market’s value by growing the share of users of a particular product (the example of Facebook’s integration of Instagram is a case in point). Thus, while self-preferencing may, in some cases, be harmful, a blanket presumption of harm is thoroughly unwarranted

Similarly, the argument that switching costs and data-related increasing returns to scale (in fact, data generally entails diminishing returns) have led to consumer lock-in and thereby raised entry barriers has also been exaggerated to epic proportions (pun intended). As we have discussed previously, there are plenty of counterexamples where firms have easily overcome seemingly “insurmountable” barriers to entry, switching costs, and network effects to disrupt incumbents. 

To pick a recent case: how many of us had heard of Zoom before the pandemic? Where was TikTok three years ago? (see here for a multitude of other classic examples, including Yahoo and Myspace).

Can you really say, with a straight face, that switching costs between messaging apps are prohibitive? I’m not even that active and I use at least six such apps on a daily basis: Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, Instagram, Twitter, Viber, Telegram, and Slack (it took me all of three minutes to download and start using Slack—my newest addition). In fact, chances are that, like me, you have always multihomed nonchalantly and had never even considered that switching costs were impossibly high (or that they were a thing) until the idea that you were “locked-in” by Big Tech was drilled into your head by politicians and other busybodies looking for trophies to adorn their walls.

What about the “unprecedented,” quasi-fascistic levels of economic concentration? First, measures of market concentration are sometimes anchored in flawed methodology and market definitions  (see, e.g., Epic’s insistence that Apple is a monopolist in the market for operating systems, conveniently ignoring that competition occurs at the smartphone level, where Apple has a worldwide market share of 15%—see pages 45-46 here). But even if such measurements were accurate, high levels of concentration don’t necessarily mean that firms do not face strong competition. In fact, as Nicolas Petit has shown, tech companies compete vigorously against each other across markets.

But perhaps the DMA’s raison d’etre rests less on market failure, but rather on a legal or enforcement failure? This, too, is misguided.

EU competition law is already up to the task

As Giuseppe Colangelo has argued persuasively (here and here), it is not at all clear that ex post competition regulation is insufficient to tackle anti-competitive behavior in the digital sector:

Ongoing antitrust investigations demonstrate that standard competition law still provides a flexible framework to scrutinize several practices described as new and peculiar to app stores. 

The recent Google Shopping decision, in which the Commission found that Google had abused its dominant position by preferencing its own online-shopping service in Google Search results, is a case in point (the decision was confirmed by the General Court and is now pending review before the European Court of Justice). The “self-preferencing” category has since been applied by other EU competition authorities. The Italian competition authority, for instance, fined Amazon 1 billion euros for preferencing its own distribution service, Fulfilled by Amazon, on the Amazon marketplace (i.e., Amazon.it). Thus, Article 102, which includes prohibitions on “applying dissimilar conditions to similar transactions,” appears sufficiently flexible to cover self-preferencing, as well as other potentially anti-competitive offenses relevant to digital markets (e.g., essential facilities).

For better or for worse, EU competition law has historically been sufficiently pliable to serve a range of goals and values. It has also allowed for experimentation and incorporated novel theories of harm and economic insights. Here, the advantage of competition law is that it allows for a more refined, individualized approach that can avoid some of the pitfalls of applying a one-size fits all model across all digital platforms. Those pitfalls include: harming consumers, jeopardizing the business models of some of the most successful and pro-consumer companies in existence, and ignoring the differences among platforms, such as between Google and Apple’s app stores. I turn to these issues next.

Ex ante regulation probably isn’t the right tool

Even if it were clear that intervention is necessary and that existing competition law was insufficient, it is not clear that the DMA is the right regulatory tool to address any potential harms to competition and consumers that may arise in the digital markets. Here, legislators need to be wary of unintended consequences, trade-offs, and regulatory fallibility. For one, It is possible that the DMA will essentially consolidate the power of tech platforms, turning them into de facto public utilities. This will not foster competition, but rather will make smaller competitors systematically dependent on so-called gatekeepers. Indeed, why become the next Google if you can just free ride off of the current Google? Why download an emerging messaging app if you can already interact with its users through your current one? In a way, then, the DMA may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Moreover, turning closed or semi-closed platforms such as the iOS into open platforms more akin to Android blurs the distinctions among products and dampens interbrand competition. It is a supreme paradox that interoperability and sideloading requirements purportedly give users more choice by taking away the option of choosing a “walled garden” model. As discussed above, overriding the revealed preferences of millions of users is neither pro-competitive nor pro-consumer (but it probably favors some competitors at the expense of those two things). 

Nor are many of the other obligations contemplated in the DMA necessarily beneficial to consumers. Do users really not want to have default apps come preloaded on their devices and instead have to download and install them manually? Ditto for operating systems. What is the point of an operating system if it doesn’t come with certain functionalities, such as a web browser? What else should we unbundle—keyboard on iOS? Flashlight? Do consumers really want to choose from dozens of app stores when turning on their new phone for the first time? Do they really want to have their devices cluttered with pointless split-screens? Do users really want to find all their contacts (and be found by all their contacts) across all messaging services? (I switched to Viber because I emphatically didn’t.) Do they really want to have their privacy and security compromised because of interoperability requirements?Then there is the question of regulatory fallibility. As Alden Abott has written on the DMA and other ex ante regulatory proposals aimed at “reining in” tech companies:

Sorely missing from these regulatory proposals is any sense of the fallibility of regulation. Indeed, proponents of new regulatory proposals seem to implicitly assume that government regulation of platforms will enhance welfare, ignoring real-life regulatory costs and regulatory failures (see here, for example). 

This brings us back to the second point: without evidence that antitrust law is “not up to the task,” far-reaching and untested regulatory initiatives with potentially high error costs are put forth as superior to long-established, consumer-based antitrust enforcement. Yes, antitrust may have downsides (e.g., relative indeterminacy and slowness), but these pale in comparison to the DMA’s (e.g., large error costs resulting from high information requirements, rent-seeking, agency capture).

Conclusion

The DMA is an ambitious piece of regulation purportedly aimed at ensuring “fair and open digital markets.” This implies that markets are not fair and open; or that they risk becoming unfair and closed absent far-reaching regulatory intervention at EU level. However, it is unclear to what extent such assumptions are borne out by the reality of markets. Are digital markets really closed? Are they really unfair? If so, is it really certain that regulation is necessary? Has antitrust truly proven insufficient? It also implies that DMA-style ex ante regulation is necessary to tackle it, and that the costs won’t outweigh the benefits. These are heroic assumptions that have never truly been seriously put to the test. 

Considering such brittle empirical foundations, the DMA was always going to be a contentious piece of legislation. However, there was always the hope that EU legislators would show restraint in the face of little empirical evidence and high error costs. Today, these hopes have been dashed. With the adoption of the DMA, the Commission, Council, and the Parliament have arguably taken a bad piece of legislation and made it worse. The interoperability requirements in messaging services, which are bound to be a bane for user privacy and security, are a case in point.

After years trying to anticipate the whims of EU legislators, we finally know where we’re going, but it’s still not entirely sure why we’re going there.

In a new paper, Giuseppe Colangelo and Oscar Borgogno investigate whether antitrust policy is sufficiently flexible to keep up with the dynamics of digital app stores, and whether regulatory interventions are required in order to address their unique features. The authors summarize their findings in this blog post.

App stores are at the forefront of policy debates surrounding digital markets. The gatekeeping position of Apple and Google in the App Store and Google Play Store, respectively, and related concerns about the companies’ rule-setting and dual role, have been the subject of market studies launched by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), the Netherlands Authority for Consumers & Markets (ACM), the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the Japan Federal Trade Commission (JFTC), and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Likewise, the terms and conditions for accessing app stores—such as in-app purchasing rules, restrictions on freedom of choice for smartphone payment apps, and near field communication (NFC) limitations—face scrutiny from courts and antitrust authorities around the world.

Finally, legislative initiatives envisage obligations explicitly addressed to app stores. Notably, the European Digital Markets Act (DMA) and some U.S. bills (e.g., the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the Open App Markets Act, both of which are scheduled to be marked up Jan. 20 by the Senate Judiciary Committee) prohibit designated platforms from, for example: discriminating among users by engaging in self-preferencing and applying unfair access conditions; preventing users from sideloading and uninstalling pre-installed apps; impeding data portability and interoperability; or imposing anti-steering provisions. Likewise, South Korea has recently prohibited app-store operators in dominant market positions from forcing payment systems upon content providers and inappropriately delaying the review of, or deleting, mobile content from app markets.

Despite their differences, these international legislative initiatives do share the same aims and concerns. By and large, they question the role of competition law in the digital economy. In the case of app stores, these regulatory interventions attempt to introduce a neutrality regime, with the aim of increasing contestability, facilitating the possibility of switching by users, tackling conflicts of interests, and addressing imbalances in the commercial relationship. Ultimately, these proposals would treat online platforms as akin to common carriers or public utilities.

All of these initiatives assume antitrust is currently falling, because competition rules apply ex post and require an extensive investigation on a case-by-case basis. But is that really the case?

Platform and Device Neutrality Regime

Focusing on the content of the European, German, and U.S. legislative initiatives, the neutrality regime envisaged for app stores would introduce obligations in terms of both device and platform neutrality. The former includes provisions on app uninstalling, sideloading, app switching, access to technical functionality, and the possibility of changing default settings.  The latter entail data portability and interoperability obligations, and the ban on self-preferencing, Sherlocking, and unfair access conditions.

App Store Obligations: Comparison of EU, German, and U.S. Initiatives

Antitrust v. Regulation

Despite the growing consensus regarding the need to rely on ex ante regulation to govern digital markets and tackle the practices of large online platforms, recent and ongoing antitrust investigations demonstrate that standard competition law still provides a flexible framework to scrutinize several practices sometimes described as new and peculiar to app stores.

This is particularly true in Europe, where the antitrust framework grants significant leeway to antitrust enforcers relative to the U.S. scenario, as illustrated by the recent Google Shopping decision.

Indeed, considering legislative proposals to modernize antitrust law and to strengthen its enforcement, the U.S. House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, along with some authoritative scholars, have suggested emulating the European model—imposing particular responsibility on dominant firms through the notion of abuse of dominant position and overriding several Supreme Court decisions in order to clarify the prohibitions on monopoly leveraging, predatory pricing, denial of essential facilities, refusals to deal, and tying.

By contrast, regulation appears better suited to support interventions intended to implement industrial-policy objectives. This applies, in particular, to provisions prohibiting app stores from impeding or restricting sideloading, app uninstalling, the possibility of choosing third-party apps and app stores as defaults, as well as provisions that would mandate data portability and interoperability.

However, such regulatory proposals may ultimately harm consumers. Indeed, by questioning the core of digital platform business models and affecting their governance design, these interventions entrust public authorities with mammoth tasks that could ultimately jeopardize the profitability of app-store ecosystems. They also overlook the differences that may exist between the business models of different platforms, such as Google and Apple’s app stores.

To make matters worse, the  difficulties encountered by regulators that have imposed product-design remedies on firms suggest that regulators may struggle to craft feasible and effective solutions. For instance, when the European General Court found that Google favored its own services in the Google Shopping case, it noted that this finding rested on the differential positioning and display of Shopping Units when compared to generic results. As a consequence, it could be argued that Google’s proposed auction remedy (whereby Google would compete with rivals for Shopping box placement) is compliant with the Court’s ruling because there is no dicrimination, regardless of the fact that Google might ultimately outbid its rivals (see here).

Finally, the neutrality principle cannot be transposed perfectly to all online platforms. Indeed, the workings of the app-discovery and distribution markets differ from broadband networks, as rankings and mobile services by definition involve some form of continuous selection and differentiated treatment to optimize the mobile-customer experience.

For all these reasons, our analysis suggests that antitrust law provides a less intrusive and more individualized approach, which would eventually benefit consumers by safeguarding quality and innovation.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to debate S. 2992, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (or AICOA) during a markup session Thursday. If passed into law, the bill would force online platforms to treat rivals’ services as they would their own, while ensuring their platforms interoperate seamlessly.

The bill marks the culmination of misguided efforts to bring Big Tech to heel, regardless of the negative costs imposed upon consumers in the process. ICLE scholars have written about these developments in detail since the bill was introduced in October.

Below are 10 significant misconceptions that underpin the legislation.

1. There Is No Evidence that Self-Preferencing Is Generally Harmful

Self-preferencing is a normal part of how platforms operate, both to improve the value of their core products and to earn returns so that they have reason to continue investing in their development.

Platforms’ incentives are to maximize the value of their entire product ecosystem, which includes both the core platform and the services attached to it. Platforms that preference their own products frequently end up increasing the total market’s value by growing the share of users of a particular product. Those that preference inferior products end up hurting their attractiveness to users of their “core” product, exposing themselves to competition from rivals.

As Geoff Manne concludes, the notion that it is harmful (notably to innovation) when platforms enter into competition with edge providers is entirely speculative. Indeed, a range of studies show that the opposite is likely true. Platform competition is more complicated than simple theories of vertical discrimination would have it, and there is certainly no basis for a presumption of harm.

Consider a few examples from the empirical literature:

  1. Li and Agarwal (2017) find that Facebook’s integration of Instagram led to a significant increase in user demand both for Instagram itself and for the entire category of photography apps. Instagram’s integration with Facebook increased consumer awareness of photography apps, which benefited independent developers, as well as Facebook.
  2. Foerderer, et al. (2018) find that Google’s 2015 entry into the market for photography apps on Android created additional user attention and demand for such apps generally.
  3. Cennamo, et al. (2018) find that video games offered by console firms often become blockbusters and expand the consoles’ installed base. As a result, these games increase the potential for all independent game developers to profit from their games, even in the face of competition from first-party games.
  4. Finally, while Zhu and Liu (2018) is often held up as demonstrating harm from Amazon’s competition with third-party sellers on its platform, its findings are actually far from clear-cut. As co-author Feng Zhu noted in the Journal of Economics & Management Strategy: “[I]f Amazon’s entries attract more consumers, the expanded customer base could incentivize more third‐ party sellers to join the platform. As a result, the long-term effects for consumers of Amazon’s entry are not clear.”

2. Interoperability Is Not Costless

There are many things that could be interoperable, but aren’t. The reason not everything is interoperable is because interoperability comes with costs, as well as benefits. It may be worth letting different earbuds have different designs because, while it means we sacrifice easy interoperability, we gain the ability for better designs to be brought to market and for consumers to have choice among different kinds.

As Sam Bowman has observed, there are often costs that prevent interoperability from being worth the tradeoff, such as that:

  1. It might be too costly to implement and/or maintain.
  2. It might prescribe a certain product design and prevent experimentation and innovation.
  3. It might add too much complexity and/or confusion for users, who may prefer not to have certain choices.
  4. It might increase the risk of something not working, or of security breaches.
  5. It might prevent certain pricing models that increase output.
  6. It might compromise some element of the product or service that benefits specifically from not being interoperable.

In a market that is functioning reasonably well, we should be able to assume that competition and consumer choice will discover the desirable degree of interoperability among different products. If there are benefits to making your product interoperable that outweigh the costs of doing so, that should give you an advantage over competitors and allow you to compete them away. If the costs outweigh the benefits, the opposite will happen: consumers will choose products that are not interoperable.

In short, we cannot infer from the mere absence of interoperability that something is wrong, since we frequently observe that the costs of interoperability outweigh the benefits.

3. Consumers Often Prefer Closed Ecosystems

Digital markets could have taken a vast number of shapes. So why have they gravitated toward the 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 that breach. But this does not seem to be happening in the digital economy.

The naïve answer is to say that the absence of “open” systems is precisely the problem. What’s harder is to try to actually understand why. As I have written, there are many reasons that 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 on 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. 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.

Too often, it is simply assumed that consumers benefit from more openness, and that shared/open platforms are the natural order of things. What some refer to as “market failures” may in fact be features that explain the rapid emergence of the digital economy. Ronald Coase said it best when he quipped that economists always find a monopoly explanation for things that they simply fail to understand.

4. Data Portability Can Undermine Security and Privacy

As explained above, platforms that are more tightly controlled can be regulated by the platform owner to avoid some of the risks present in more open platforms. Apple’s App Store, for example, is a relatively closed and curated platform, which gives users assurance that apps will meet a certain standard of security and trustworthiness.

Along similar lines, there are privacy issues that arise from data portability. Even a relatively simple requirement to make photos available for download can implicate third-party interests. Making a user’s photos more broadly available may tread upon the privacy interests of friends whose faces appear in those photos. Importing those photos to a new service potentially subjects those individuals to increased and un-bargained-for security risks.

As Sam Bowman and Geoff Manne observe, this is exactly what happened with Facebook and its Social Graph API v1.0, ultimately culminating in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Because v1.0 of Facebook’s Social Graph API permitted developers to access information about a user’s friends without consent, it enabled third-party access to data about exponentially more users. It appears that some 270,000 users granted data access to Cambridge Analytica, from which the company was able to obtain information on 50 million Facebook users.

In short, there is often no simple solution to implement interoperability and data portability. Any such program—whether legally mandated or voluntarily adopted—will need to grapple with these and other tradeoffs.

5. Network Effects Are Rarely Insurmountable

Several scholars in recent years have called for more muscular antitrust intervention in networked industries on grounds that network externalities, switching costs, and data-related increasing returns to scale lead to inefficient consumer lock-in and raise entry barriers for potential rivals (see here, here, and here). But there are 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 wrote in April 2019 (a year before the COVID-19 pandemic):

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.

Geoff Manne and Alec Stapp have put forward a multitude of other examples,  including: the demise of Yahoo; the disruption of early instant-messaging applications and websites; and MySpace’s rapid decline. In all of these cases, outcomes did 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 powerful algorithm are the most likely explanations for its success.

While these developments certainly do not disprove network-effects theory, they eviscerate the belief, common in antitrust circles, that superior rivals are unable to overthrow incumbents in digital markets. Of course, this will not always be the case. 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.

6. Profits Facilitate New and Exciting Platforms

As I wrote in August 2020, the relatively closed model employed by several successful platforms (notably Apple’s App Store, Google’s Play Store, and the Amazon Retail Platform) allows previously unknown developers/retailers to rapidly expand because (i) users do not have to fear their apps contain some form of malware and (ii) they greatly reduce payments frictions, most notably security-related ones.

While these are, indeed, tremendous benefits, another important upside seems to have gone relatively unnoticed. The “closed” business model also gives firms significant incentives to develop new distribution mediums (smart TVs spring to mind) and to improve existing ones. In turn, this greatly expands the audience that software developers can reach. In short, developers get a smaller share of a much larger pie.

The economics of two-sided markets are enlightening here. For example, Apple and Google’s app stores are what Armstrong and Wright (here and here) refer to as “competitive bottlenecks.” That is, they compete aggressively (among themselves, and with other gaming platforms) to attract exclusive users. They can then charge developers a premium to access those users.

This dynamic gives firms significant incentive to continue to attract and retain new users. For instance, if Steve Jobs is to be believed, giving consumers better access to media such as eBooks, video, and games was one of the driving forces behind the launch of the iPad.

This model of innovation would be seriously undermined if developers and consumers could easily bypass platforms, as would likely be the case under the American Innovation and Choice Online Act.

7. Large Market Share Does Not Mean Anticompetitive Outcomes

Scholars routinely cite the putatively strong concentration of digital markets to argue that Big Tech firms do not face strong competition. But this is a non sequitur. Indeed, as economists like Joseph Bertrand and William Baumol have shown, what matters is not whether markets are concentrated, but whether they are contestable. If a superior rival could rapidly gain user traction, that alone will discipline incumbents’ behavior.

Markets where incumbents do not face significant entry from competitors are just as consistent with vigorous competition as they are with barriers to entry. Rivals could decline to enter either because incumbents have aggressively improved their product offerings or because they are shielded by barriers to entry (as critics suppose). The former is consistent with competition, the latter with monopoly slack.

Similarly, it would be wrong to presume, as many do, that concentration in online markets is necessarily driven by network effects and other scale-related economies. As ICLE scholars have argued elsewhere (here, here and here), these forces are not nearly as decisive as critics assume (and it is debatable that they constitute barriers to entry).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many factors could explain the relatively concentrated market structures that we see in digital industries. The absence of switching costs and capacity constraints are two such examples. These explanations, overlooked by many observers, suggest digital markets are more contestable than is commonly perceived.

Unfortunately, critics’ failure to meaningfully grapple with these issues serves to shape the “conventional wisdom” in tech-policy debates.

8. Vertical Integration Generally Benefits Consumers

Vertical behavior of digital firms—whether through mergers or through contract and unilateral action—frequently arouses the ire of critics of the current antitrust regime. Many such critics point to a few recent studies that cast doubt on the ubiquity of benefits from vertical integration. But the findings of these few studies are regularly overstated and, even if taken at face value, represent a just minuscule fraction of the collected evidence, which overwhelmingly supports vertical integration.

There is strong and longstanding empirical evidence that vertical integration is competitively benign. This includes widely acclaimed work by economists Francine Lafontaine (former director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Economics under President Barack Obama) and Margaret Slade, whose meta-analysis led them to conclude:

[U]nder most circumstances, profit-maximizing vertical integration decisions are efficient, not just from the firms’ but also from the consumers’ points of view. Although there are isolated studies that contradict this claim, the vast majority support it. Moreover, even in industries that are highly concentrated so that horizontal considerations assume substantial importance, the net effect of vertical integration appears to be positive in many instances. We therefore conclude that, faced with a vertical arrangement, the burden of evidence should be placed on competition authorities to demonstrate that that arrangement is harmful before the practice is attacked.

In short, there is a substantial body of both empirical and theoretical research showing that vertical integration (and the potential vertical discrimination and exclusion to which it might give rise) is generally beneficial to consumers. While it is possible that vertical mergers or discrimination could sometimes cause harm, the onus is on the critics to demonstrate empirically where this occurs. No legitimate interpretation of the available literature would offer a basis for imposing a presumption against such behavior.

9. There Is No Such Thing as Data Network Effects

Although data does not have the self-reinforcing characteristics of network effects, there is a sense that acquiring a certain amount of data and expertise is necessary to compete in data-heavy industries. It is (or should be) equally apparent, however, that this “learning by doing” advantage rapidly reaches a point of diminishing returns.

This is supported by significant empirical evidence. As was shown by the survey pf the empirical literature that Geoff Manne and I performed (published in the George Mason Law Review), data generally entails diminishing marginal returns:

Critics who argue that firms such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook are successful because of their superior access to data might, in fact, have the causality in reverse. Arguably, it is because these firms have come up with successful industry-defining paradigms that they have amassed so much data, and not the other way around. Indeed, Facebook managed to build a highly successful platform despite a large data disadvantage when compared to rivals like MySpace.

Companies need to innovate to attract consumer data or else consumers will switch to competitors, including both new entrants and established incumbents. As a result, the desire to make use of more and better data drives competitive innovation, with manifestly impressive results. The continued explosion of new products, services, and apps is evidence that data is not a bottleneck to competition, but a spur to drive it.

10.  Antitrust Enforcement Has Not Been Lax

The popular narrative has it that lax antitrust enforcement has led to substantially increased concentration, strangling the economy, harming workers, and expanding dominant firms’ profit margins at the expense of consumers. Much of the contemporary dissatisfaction with antitrust arises from a suspicion that overly lax enforcement of existing laws has led to record levels of concentration and a concomitant decline in competition. But both beliefs—lax enforcement and increased anticompetitive concentration—wither under more than cursory scrutiny.

As Geoff Manne observed in his April 2020 testimony to the House Judiciary Committee:

The number of Sherman Act cases brought by the federal antitrust agencies, meanwhile, has been relatively stable in recent years, but several recent blockbuster cases have been brought by the agencies and private litigants, and there has been no shortage of federal and state investigations. The vast majority of Section 2 cases dismissed on the basis of the plaintiff’s failure to show anticompetitive effect were brought by private plaintiffs pursuing treble damages; given the incentives to bring weak cases, it cannot be inferred from such outcomes that antitrust law is ineffective. But, in any case, it is highly misleading to count the number of antitrust cases and, using that number alone, to make conclusions about how effective antitrust law is. Firms act in the shadow of the law, and deploy significant legal resources to make sure they avoid activity that would lead to enforcement actions. Thus, any given number of cases brought could be just as consistent with a well-functioning enforcement regime as with an ill-functioning one.

The upshot is that naïvely counting antitrust cases (or the purported lack thereof), with little regard for the behavior that is deterred or the merits of the cases that are dismissed does not tell us whether or not antitrust enforcement levels are optimal.

Further reading:

Law review articles

Issue briefs

Shorter pieces

Early last month, the Italian competition authority issued a record 1.128 billion euro fine against Amazon for abuse of dominance under Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). In its order, the Agenzia Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato (AGCM) essentially argues that Amazon has combined its Amazon.it marketplace and Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) services to exclude logistics rivals such as FedEx, DHL, UPS, and Poste Italiane. 

The sanctions came exactly one month after the European General Court seconded the European Commission’s “discovery” in the Google Shopping case of a new antitrust infringement known as “self-preferencing,” which also cited Article 102 TFEU. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, legislation was introduced in the United States earlier this year to prohibit the practice. Meanwhile, the EU’s legislative bodies have been busy taking steps to approve the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which would regulate so-called digital “gatekeepers.”

Italy thus joins a wave of policymakers that have either imposed heavy-handed decisions to “rein in” online platforms, or are seeking to implement ex ante regulations toward that end. Ultimately, the decision is reminiscent of the self-preferencing prohibition contained in Article 6a of the current draft of the DMA and reflects much of what is wrong with the current approach to regulating tech. It presages some of the potential problems with punishing efficient behavior for the sake of protecting competitors through “common carrier antitrust.” However, if this decision is anything to go by, these efforts will end up hurting the very consumers authorities purport to protect and lending color to more general fears over the DMA. 

In this post, we discuss how the AGCM’s reasoning departs from sound legal and economic thinking to reach a conclusion at odds with the traditional goal of competition law—i.e., the protection of consumer welfare. Neo-Brandeisians and other competition scholars who dispute the centrality of the consumer welfare standard and would use antitrust to curb “bigness” may find this result acceptable, in principle. But even they must admit that the AGCM decision ultimately serves to benefit large (if less successful) competitors, and not the “small dealers and worthy men” of progressive lore.

Relevant Market Definition

Market definition constitutes a preliminary step in any finding of abuse under Article 102 TFEU. An excessively narrow market definition can result in false positives by treating neutral or efficient conduct as anticompetitive, while an overly broad market definition might allow anticompetitive conduct to slip through the cracks, leading to false negatives. 

Amazon Italy may be an example of the former. Here, the AGCM identified two relevant markets: the leveraging market, which it identified as the Italian market for online marketplace intermediation, and the leveraged market, which it identified as the market for e-commerce logistics. The AGCM charges that Amazon is dominant in the former and that it gained an illegal advantage in the latter. It found, in this sense, that online marketplaces constitute a uniquely relevant market that is not substitutable for other offline or online sales channels, such as brick-and-mortar shops, price-comparison websites (e.g., Google Shopping), or dedicated sales websites (e.g., Nike.com/it). Similarly, it concluded that e-commerce logistics are sufficiently different from other forms of logistics as to comprise a separate market.

The AGCM’s findings combine qualitative and quantitative evidence, including retailer surveys and “small but significant and non-transitory increase in price” (SSNIP) tests. They also include a large dose of speculative reasoning.

For instance, the AGCM asserts that online marketplaces are fundamentally different from price-comparison sites because, in the latter case, purchase transactions do not take place on the platform. It asserts that e-commerce logistics are different from traditional logistics because the former require a higher degree of automation for transportation and storage. And in what can only be seen as a normative claim, rather than an objective assessment of substitutability, the Italian watchdog found that marketplaces are simply better than dedicated websites because, e.g., they offer greater visibility and allow retailers to save on marketing costs. While it is unclear what weights the AGCM assigned to each of these considerations when defining the relevant markets, it is reasonable to assume they played some part in defining the nature and scope of Amazon’s market presence in Italy.

In all of these instances, however, while the AGCM carefully delineated superficial distinctions between these markets, it did not actually establish that those differences are relevant to competition. Fetishizing granular but ultimately irrelevant differences between products and services—such as between marketplaces and shopping comparison sites—is a sure way to incur false positives, a misstep tantamount to punishing innocuous or efficient business conduct.

Dominance

The AGCM found that Amazon was “hyper-dominant” in the online marketplace intermediation market. Dominance was established by looking at revenue from marketplace sales, where Amazon’s share had risen from about 65% in 2016 to 75% in 2019. Taken in isolation, this figure might suggest that Amazon’s competitors cannot thrive in the market. A broader look at the data, however, paints a picture of more generalized growth, with some segments greatly benefiting newcomers and small, innovative marketplaces. 

For instance, virtually all companies active in the online marketplace intermediation market have experienced significant growth in terms of monthly visitors. It is true that Amazon’s visitors grew significantly, up 150%, but established competitors like Aliexpress and eBay also saw growth rates of 90% and 25%, respectively. Meanwhile, Wish grew a massive 10,000% from 2016 to 2019; while ManoMano and Zalando grew 450% and 100%, respectively.

In terms of active users (i.e., visits that result in a purchase), relative numbers seem to have stayed roughly the same, although the AGCM claims that eBay saw a 20-30% drop. The number of third-party products Amazon offered through Marketplace grew from between 100 and 500 million to between 500 million and 1 billion, while other marketplaces appear to have remained fairly constant, with some expanding and others contracting.

In sum, while Amazon has undeniably improved its position in practically all of the parameters considered by the AGCM, indicators show that the market as a whole has experienced and is experiencing growth. The improvement in Amazon’s position relative to some competitors—notably eBay, which AGCM asserts is Amazon’s biggest competitor—should therefore not obscure the fact that there is entry and expansion both at the fringes (ManoMano, Wish), and in the center of the market for online marketplace intermediation (Aliexpress).

Amazon’s Allegedly Abusive Conduct

According to the AGCM, Amazon has taken advantage of vertical integration to engage in self-preferencing. Specifically, the charge is that the company offers exclusive and purportedly crucial advantages on the Amazon.it marketplace to sellers who use Amazon’s own e-commerce logistics service, FBA. The purported advantages of this arrangement include, to name a few, the coveted Prime badge, the elimination of negative user feedback on sale or delivery, preferential algorithmic treatment, and exclusive participation in Amazon’s sales promotions (e.g., Black Friday, Cyber Monday). As a result, according to the AGCM, products sold through FBA enjoy more visibility and a better chance to win the “Buy Box.”

The AGCM claims this puts competing logistics operators like FedEx, Poste Italiane, and DHL at a disadvantage, because non-FBA products have less chance to be sold than FBA products, regardless of any efficiency or quality criteria. In the AGCM’s words, “Amazon has stolen demand for other e-commerce logistics operators.” 

Indirectly, Amazon’s “self-preferencing” purportedly also harms competing marketplaces like eBay by creating incentives for sellers to single-home—i.e., to sell only through Amazon Marketplace. The argument here is that retailers will not multi-home to avoid duplicative costs associated with FBA, e.g., storing goods in several warehouses. 

Although it is not necessary to demonstrate anticompetitive effects under Article 102 TFEU, the AGCM claims that Amazon’s behavior has caused drastic worsening in other marketplaces’ competitive position by constraining their ability to reach the minimum scale needed to enjoy direct and indirect network effects. The Italian authorities summarily assert that this results in consumer harm, although the gargantuan 250-page decision spends scarcely one paragraph on this point. 

Intuitively, however, Amazon’s behavior should, in principle, benefit consumers by offering something that most find tremendously valuable: a guarantee of quick delivery for a wide range of goods. Indeed, this is precisely why it is so misguided to condemn self-preferencing by online platforms.

As some have already argued, we cannot assume that something is bad for competition just because it is bad for certain competitors. For instance, a lot of unambiguously procompetitive behavior, like cutting prices, puts competitors at a disadvantage. The same might be true for a digital platform that preferences its own service because it is generally better than the alternatives provided by third-party sellers. In the case at hand, for example, Amazon’s granting marketplace privileges to FBA products may help users to select the products that Amazon can guarantee will best satisfy their needs. This is perfectly plausible, as customers have repeatedly shown that they often prefer less open, less neutral options.

The key question, therefore, should be whether the behavior in question excludes equally efficient rivals in such a way as to harm consumer welfare. Otherwise, we would essentially be asking companies to refrain from offering services that benefit their users in order to make competing products comparatively more attractive. This is antithetical to the nature of competition, which is based on the principle that what is good for consumers is frequently bad for competitors.

AGCM’s Theory of Harm Rests on Four Weak Pillars

Building on the logic that Amazon enjoys “hyper-dominance” in marketplace intermediation; that most online sales are marketplace sales; and that most marketplace sales are, in turn, Amazon.it sales, the AGCM decision finds that succeeding on Amazon.it is indispensable for any online retailer in Italy. This argument hinges largely on whether online and offline retailers are thought of as distinct relevant markets—i.e., whether, from the perspective of the retailer, online and offline sales channels are substitutable (see also the relevant market definition section above). 

Ultimately, the AGCM finds that they are not, as online sales enjoy such advantages as lower fixed costs, increased sale flexibility, and better geographical reach. To an outsider, the distinction between the two markets may seem artificial—and it largely is—but such theoretical market segmentation is the bread-and-butter of antitrust analysis. Still, even by EU competition law standards, the relevant market definitions on which the AGCM relies to conclude that selling on Amazon is indispensable appear excessively narrow. 

This market distinction also serves to set up the AGCM’s second, more controversial argument: that the benefits extended to products sold through the FBA channel are also indispensable for retailers’ success on the Amazon.it marketplace. Here, the AGCM seeks a middle ground between competitive advantage and indispensability, finally settling on the notion that a sufficiently large competitive advantage itself translates into indispensability.

But how big is too big? The facts that 40-45% of Amazon’s third-party retailers do not use FBA (p. 57 of the decision) and that roughly 40 of the top 100 products sold on Amazon.it are not fulfilled through Amazon’s logistics service (p. 58) would appear to suggest that FBA is more of a convenience than an obligation. At the least, it does not appear that the advantage conferred is so big as to amount to indispensability. This may be because sellers that choose not to use Amazon’s logistics service (including offline, of course) can and do cut prices to compete with FBA-sold products. If anything, this should be counted as a good thing from the perspective of consumer welfare.

Instead, and signaling the decision’s overarching preoccupation with protecting some businesses at the expense of others (and, ultimately, at the expense of consumers), the AGCM has expanded the already bloated notion of a self-preferencing offense to conclude that expecting sellers to compete on pricing parameters would unfairly slash profit margins for non-FBA sellers.

The third pillar of the AGCM’s theory of harm is the claim that the benefits conferred on products sold through FBA are not awarded based on any objective quality criteria, but purely on whether the seller has chosen FBA or third-party logistics. Thus, even if a logistics operator were, in principle, capable of offering a service as efficient as FBA’s, it would not qualify for the same benefits. 

But this is a disingenuous line of reasoning. One legitimate reason why Amazon could choose to confer exclusive advantages on products fulfilled by its own logistics operation is because no other service is, in fact, routinely as reliable. This does not necessarily mean that FBA is always superior to the alternatives, but rather that it makes sense for Amazon to adopt this presumption a general rule based on past experience, without spending the resources to constantly evaluate it. In other words, granting exclusive benefits is based on quality criteria, just on a prior measurement of quality rather than an ongoing assessment. This is presumably what a customer-obsessed business that does not want to take chances with consumer satisfaction would do. 

Fourth, the AGCM posits that Prime and FBA constitute two separate products that have been artificially tied by Amazon, thereby unfairly excluding third-party logistics operators. Co-opting Amazon’s own terminology, the AGCM claims that the company has created a flywheel of artificial interdependence, wherein Prime benefits increase the number of Prime users, which drives demand for Prime products, which creates demand for Prime-eligible FBA products, and so on. 

To support its case, the AGCM repeatedly adduces a 2015 letter in which Jeff Bezos told shareholders that Amazon Marketplace and Prime are “happily and deeply intertwined,” and that FBA is the “glue” that links them together. Instead of taking this for what it likely is—i.e., a case of legitimate, efficiency-enhancing vertical integration—the AGCM has preferred to read into it a case of illicit tying, an established offense under Article 102 TFEU whereby a dominant firm makes the purchase of one product conditional on the purchase of another, unrelated one. 

The problem with this narrative is that it is perfectly plausible that Prime and FBA are, in fact, meant to be one product that is more than the sum of its parts. For one, the inventory of sellers who use FBA is stowed in fulfillment centers, meaning that Amazon takes care of all logistics, customer service, and product returns. As Bezos put it in the same 2015 letter, this is a huge efficiency gain. It thus makes sense to nudge consumers towards products that use FBA.

In sum, the AGCM’s case rests on a series of questionable assumptions that build on each other: a narrow relevant market definition; a finding of “hyper-dominance” that downplays competitors’ growth and expansion, as well as competition from outside the narrowly defined market; a contrived notion of indispensability at two levels (Marketplace and FBA); and a refusal to contemplate the possibility that Amazon integrates its marketplace and logistics services in orders to enhance efficiency, rather than to exclude competitors.

Remedies

The AGCM sees “only one way to restore a level-playing field in e-commerce logistics”: Amazon must redesign its existing Self-Fulfilled Prime (SFP) program in such a way as to grant all logistics operators—FBA or non-FBA—equal treatment on Amazon.it, based on a set of objective, transparent, standard, uniform, and non-discriminatory criteria. Any logistics operator that demonstrates the ability to fulfill such criteria must be awarded SFP status and the accompanying Prime badge, along with all the perks associated with it. Further, SFP- and FBA-sold products must be subject to the same monitoring mechanism with regard to the observance of Prime standards, as well as to the same evaluation standards. 

In sum, Amazon Italy now has a duty to treat Marketplace sales fulfilled by third-party operators the same as those fulfilled by its own logistics service. This is a significant step toward “common carrier antitrust.” in which vertically integrated firms are expected to comply with perfect neutrality obligations with respect to customers, suppliers, and competitors

Beyond the philosophical question of whether successful private companies should be obliged by law to treat competitors analogously to its affiliates (they shouldn’t), the pitfalls of this approach are plain to see. Nearly all consumer-facing services use choice architectures as a means to highlight products that rank favorably in terms of price and quality, and ensuring consumers enjoy a seamless user experience: Supermarkets offer house brands that signal a product has certain desirable features; operating system developers pre-install certain applications to streamline users’ “out of the box “experience; app stores curate the apps that users will view; search engines use specialized boxes that anticipate the motives underlying users’ search queries, etc. Suppressing these practices through heavy-handed neutrality mandates is liable to harm consumers. 

Second, monitoring third-party logistics operators’ compliance with the requisite standards is going to come at a cost for Amazon (and, presumably, its customers)—a cost likely much higher than that of monitoring its own operations—while awarding the Prime badge liberally may deteriorate the consumer experience on Amazon Marketplace.

Thus, one way for Amazon to comply with AGCM’s remedies while also minimizing monitoring costs is simply to dilute or even remove the criteria for Prime, thereby allowing sellers using any logistics provider to be eligible for Prime. While this would presumably insulate Amazon from any future claims against exclusionary self-preferencing, it would almost certainly also harm consumer welfare. 

A final point worth noting is that vertical integration may well be subsidizing Amazon’s own first-party products. In other words, even if FBA is not fully better than other logistics operators, the revenue that it derives from FBA enables Amazon to offer low prices, as well as a range of other benefits from Prime, such as, e.g., free video. Take that source of revenue away, and those subsidized prices go up and the benefits disappear. This is another reason why it may be legitimate to consider FBA and Prime as a single product.

Of course, this argument is moot if all one cares about is how Amazon’s vertical integration affects competitors, not consumers. But consumers care about the whole package. The rationale at play in the AGCM decision ultimately ends up imposing a narrow, boring business model on all sellers, precluding them from offering interesting consumer benefits to bolster their overall product.

Conclusion

Some have openly applauded AGCM’s use of EU competition law to protect traditional logistics operators like FedEx, Poste Italiane, DHL, and UPS. Others lament the competition authority’s apparent abandonment of the consumer welfare standard in favor of a renewed interest in punishing efficiency to favor laggard competitors under the guise of safekeeping “competition.” Both sides ultimately agree on one thing, however: Amazon Italy is about favoring Amazon’s competitors. If competition authorities insist on continuing down this populist rabbit hole,  the best they can hope for is a series of Pyrrhic victories against the businesses that are most bent on customer satisfaction, i.e., the successful ones.

Some may intuitively think that this is fair; that Amazon is just too big and that it strangles small competitors. But Amazon’s “small” competitors are hardly the “worthy men” of Brandeisian mythology. They are FedEx, DHL, UPS, and the state-backed goliath Poste Italiane; they are undeniably successful companies like eBay, Alibaba – or Walmart in the United States. It is, conversely, the smallest retailers and consumers who benefit the most from Amazon’s integrated logistics and marketplace services, as the company’s meteoric rise in popularity in Italy since 2016 attests. But it seems that, in the brave new world of antitrust, such stakeholders are now too small to matter.

Even as delivery services work to ship all of those last-minute Christmas presents that consumers bought this season from digital platforms and other e-commerce sites, the U.S. House and Senate are contemplating Grinch-like legislation that looks to stop or limit how Big Tech companies can “self-preference” or “discriminate” on their platforms.

A platform “self-preferences” when it blends various services into the delivery of a given product in ways that third parties couldn’t do themselves. For example, Google self-preferences when it puts a Google Shopping box at the top of a Search page for Adidas sneakers. Amazon self-preferences when it offers its own AmazonBasics USB cables alongside those offered by Apple or Anker. Costco’s placement of its own Kirkland brand of paper towels on store shelves can also be a form of self-preferencing.

Such purportedly “discriminatory” behavior constitutes much of what platforms are designed to do. Virtually every platform that offers a suite of products and services will combine them in ways that users find helpful, even if competitors find it infuriating. It surely doesn’t help Yelp if Google Search users can see a Maps results box next to a search for showtimes at a local cinema. It doesn’t help other manufacturers of charging cables if Amazon sells a cheaper version under a brand that consumers trust. But do consumers really care about Yelp or Apple’s revenues, when all they want are relevant search results and less expensive products?

Until now, competition authorities have judged this type of conduct under the consumer welfare standard: does it hurt consumers in the long run, or does it help them? This test does seek to evaluate whether the conduct deprives consumers of choice by foreclosing rivals, which could ultimately allow the platform to exploit its customers. But it doesn’t treat harm to competitors—in the form of reduced traffic and profits for Yelp, for example—as a problem in and of itself.

“Non-discrimination” bills introduced this year in both the House and Senate aim to change that, but they would do so in ways that differ in important respects.

The House bill would impose a blanket ban on virtually all “discrimination” by platforms. This means that even such benign behavior as Facebook linking to Facebook Marketplace on its homepage would become presumptively unlawful. The measure would, as I’ve written before, break a lot of the Internet as we know it, but it has the virtue of being explicit and clear about its effects.

The Senate bill is, in this sense, a lot more circumspect. Instead of a blanket ban, it would prohibit what the bill refers to as “unfair” discrimination that “materially harm[s] competition on the covered platform,” with a carve-out exception for discrimination that was “necessary” to maintain or enhance the “core functionality” of the platform. In theory, this would avoid a lot of the really crazy effects of the House bill. Apple likely still could, for example, pre-install a Camera app on the iPhone.

But this greater degree of reasonableness comes at the price of ambiguity. The bill does not define “unfair discrimination,” nor what it would mean for something to be “necessary” to improve the core functionality of a platform. Faced with this ambiguity, companies would be wise to be overly cautious, given the steep penalties they would face for conduct found to be “unfair”: 15% of total U.S. revenues earned during the period when the conduct was ongoing. That’s a lot of money to risk over a single feature!

Also unlike the House legislation, the Senate bill would not create a private right of action, thereby limiting litigation to enforce the bill’s terms to actions brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), or state attorneys general.

Put together, these features create the perfect recipe for extensive discretionary power held by a handful of agencies. With such vague criteria and such massive penalties for lawbreaking, the mere threat of a lawsuit could force a company to change its behavior. The rules are so murky that companies might even be threatened with a lawsuit over conduct in one area in order to make them change their behavior in another.

It’s hardly unprecedented for powers like this to be misused. During the Obama administration, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was alleged to have targeted conservative groups for investigation, for which the agency eventually had to apologize (and settle a lawsuit brought by some of the targeted groups). More than a decade ago, the Bank Secrecy Act was used to uncover then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s involvement in an international prostitution ring. Back in 2008, the British government used anti-terrorism powers to seize the assets of some Icelandic banks that had become insolvent and couldn’t repay their British depositors. To this day, municipal governments in Britain use anti-terrorism powers to investigate things like illegal waste dumping and people who wrongly park in spots reserved for the disabled.

The FTC itself has a history of abusing its authority. As Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson remind us, the commission was nearly shut down in the 1970s after trying to use its powers to “protect” children from seeing ads for sugary foods, interpreting its consumer-protection mandate so broadly that it considered tooth decay as falling within its scope.

As I’ve written before, both Chair Lina Khan and Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter appear to believe that the FTC ought to take a broad vision of its goals. Slaughter has argued that antitrust ought to be “antiracist.” Khan believes that the “the dispersion of political and economic control” is the proper goal of antitrust, not consumer welfare or some other economic goal.

Khan in particular does not appear especially bound by the usual norms that might constrain this sort of regulatory overreach. In recent weeks, she has pushed through contentious decisions by relying on more than 20 “zombie votes” cast by former Commissioner Rohit Chopra on the final day before he left the agency. While it has been FTC policy since 1984 to count votes cast by departed commissioners unless they are superseded by their successors, Khan’s FTC has invoked this relatively obscure rule to swing more decisions than every single predecessor combined.

Thus, while the Senate bill may avoid immediately breaking large portions of the Internet in ways the House bill would, it would instead place massive discretionary powers into the hands of authorities who have expansive views about the goals those powers ought to be used to pursue.

This ought to be concerning to anyone who disapproves of public policy being made by unelected bureaucrats, rather than the people’s chosen representatives. If Republicans find an empowered Khan-led FTC worrying today, surely Democrats ought to feel the same about an FTC run by Trump-style appointees in a few years. Both sides may come to regret creating an agency with so much unchecked power.

The European Commission and its supporters were quick to claim victory following last week’s long-awaited General Court of the European Union ruling in the Google Shopping case. It’s hard to fault them. The judgment is ostensibly an unmitigated win for the Commission, with the court upholding nearly every aspect of its decision. 

However, the broader picture is much less rosy for both the Commission and the plaintiffs. The General Court’s ruling notably provides strong support for maintaining the current remedy package, in which rivals can bid for shopping box placement. This makes the Commission’s earlier rejection of essentially the same remedy  in 2014 look increasingly frivolous. It also pours cold water on rivals’ hopes that it might be replaced with something more far-reaching.

More fundamentally, the online world continues to move further from the idealistic conception of an “open internet” that regulators remain determined to foist on consumers. Indeed, users consistently choose convenience over openness, thus rejecting the vision of online markets upon which both the Commission’s decision and the General Court’s ruling are premised. 

The Google Shopping case will ultimately prove to be both a pyrrhic victory and a monument to the pitfalls of myopic intervention in digital markets.

Google’s big remedy win

The main point of law addressed in the Google Shopping ruling concerns the distinction between self-preferencing and refusals to deal. Contrary to Google’s defense, the court ruled that self-preferencing can constitute a standalone abuse of Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The Commission was thus free to dispense with the stringent conditions laid out in the 1998 Bronner ruling

This undoubtedly represents an important victory for the Commission, as it will enable it to launch new proceedings against both Google and other online platforms. However, the ruling will also constrain the Commission’s available remedies, and rightly so.

The origins of the Google Shopping decision are enlightening. Several rivals sought improved access to the top of the Google Search page. The Commission was receptive to those calls, but faced important legal constraints. The natural solution would have been to frame its case as a refusal to deal, which would call for a remedy in which a dominant firm grants rivals access to its infrastructure (be it physical or virtual). But going down this path would notably have required the Commission to show that effective access was “indispensable” for rivals to compete (one of the so-called Bronner conditions)—something that was most likely not the case here. 

Sensing these difficulties, the Commission framed its case in terms of self-preferencing, surmising that this would entail a much softer legal test. The General Court’s ruling vindicates this assessment (at least barring a successful appeal by Google):

240    It must therefore be concluded that the Commission was not required to establish that the conditions set out in the judgment of 26 November 1998, Bronner (C‑7/97, EU:C:1998:569), were satisfied […]. [T]he practices at issue are an independent form of leveraging abuse which involve […] ‘active’ behaviour in the form of positive acts of discrimination in the treatment of the results of Google’s comparison shopping service, which are promoted within its general results pages, and the results of competing comparison shopping services, which are prone to being demoted.

This more expedient approach, however, entails significant limits that will undercut both the Commission and rivals’ future attempts to extract more far-reaching remedies from Google.

Because the underlying harm is no longer the denial of access, but rivals being treated less favorably, the available remedies are much narrower. Google must merely ensure that it does not treat itself more preferably than rivals, regardless whether those rivals ultimately access its infrastructure and manage to compete. The General Court says this much when it explains the theory of harm in the case at hand:

287. Conversely, even if the results from competing comparison shopping services would be particularly relevant for the internet user, they can never receive the same treatment as results from Google’s comparison shopping service, whether in terms of their positioning, since, owing to their inherent characteristics, they are prone to being demoted by the adjustment algorithms and the boxes are reserved for results from Google’s comparison shopping service, or in terms of their display, since rich characters and images are also reserved to Google’s comparison shopping service. […] they can never be shown in as visible and as eye-catching a way as the results displayed in Product Universals.

Regulation 1/2003 (Art. 7.1) ensures the European Commission can only impose remedies that are “proportionate to the infringement committed and necessary to bring the infringement effectively to an end.” This has obvious ramifications for the Google Shopping remedy.

Under the remedy accepted by the Commission, Google agreed to auction off access to the Google Shopping box. Google and rivals would thus compete on equal footing to display comparison shopping results.

Illustrations taken from Graf & Mostyn, 2020

Rivals and their consultants decried this outcome; and Margrethe Vestager intimated the commission might review the remedy package. Both camps essentially argued the remedy did not meaningfully boost traffic to rival comparison shopping services (CSSs), because those services were not winning the best auction slots:

All comparison shopping services other than Google’s are hidden in plain sight, on a tab behind Google’s default comparison shopping page. Traffic cannot get to them, but instead goes to Google and on to merchants. As a result, traffic to comparison shopping services has fallen since the remedy—worsening the original abuse.

Or, as Margrethe Vestager put it:

We may see a show of rivals in the shopping box. We may see a pickup when it comes to clicks for merchants. But we still do not see much traffic for viable competitors when it comes to shopping comparison

But these arguments are entirely beside the point. If the infringement had been framed as a refusal to supply, it might be relevant that rivals cannot access the shopping box at what is, for them,  cost-effective price. Because the infringement was framed in terms of self-preferencing, all that matters is whether Google treats itself equally.

I am not aware of a credible claim that this is not the case. At best, critics have suggested the auction mechanism favors Google because it essentially pays itself:

The auction mechanism operated by Google to determine the price paid for PLA clicks also disproportionately benefits Google. CSSs are discriminated against per clickthrough, as they are forced to cede most of their profit margin in order to successfully bid […] Google, contrary to rival CSSs, does not, in reality, have to incur the auction costs and bid away a great part of its profit margins.

But this reasoning completely omits Google’s opportunity costs. Imagine a hypothetical (and oversimplified) setting where retailers are willing to pay Google or rival CSSs 13 euros per click-through. Imagine further that rival CSSs can serve these clicks at a cost of 2 euros, compared to 3 euros for Google (excluding the auction fee). Google is less efficient in this hypothetical. In this setting, rivals should be willing to bid up to 11 euros per click (the difference between what they expect to earn and their other costs). Critics claim Google will accept to bid higher because the money it pays itself during the auction is not really a cost (it ultimately flows to Google’s pockets). That is clearly false. 

To understand this, readers need only consider Google’s point of view. On the one hand, it could pay itself 11 euros (and some tiny increment) to win the auction. Its revenue per click-through would be 10 euros (13 euros per click-through, minus its cost of 3 euros). On the other hand, it could underbid rivals by a tiny increment, ensuring they bid 11 euros. When its critics argue that Google has an advantage because it pays itself, they are ultimately claiming that 10 is larger than 11.

Google’s remedy could hardly be more neutral. If it wins more auction slots than rivals CSSs, the appropriate inference should be that it is simply more efficient. Nothing in the Commission’s decision or the General Court’s ruling precludes that outcome. In short, while Google has (for the time being, at least) lost its battle to appeal the Commission’s decision, the remedy package—the same it put forward way back in 2014—has never looked stronger.

Good news for whom?

The above is mostly good news for both Google and consumers, who will be relieved that the General Court’s ruling preserves Google’s ability to show specialized boxes (of which the shopping unit is but one example). But that should not mask the tremendous downsides of both the Commission’s case and the court’s ruling. 

The Commission and rivals’ misapprehensions surrounding the Google Shopping remedy, as well as the General Court’s strong stance against self-preferencing, are revealing of a broader misunderstanding about online markets that also permeates through other digital regulation initiatives like the Digital Markets Act and the American Choice and Innovation Act. 

Policymakers wrongly imply that platform neutrality is a good in and of itself. They assume incumbent platforms generally have an incentive to favor their own services, and that preventing them from doing so is beneficial to both rivals and consumers. Yet neither of these statements is correct.

Economic research suggests self-preferencing is only harmful in exceptional circumstances. That is true of the traditional literature on platform threats (here and here), where harm is premised on the notion that rivals will use the downstream market, ultimately, to compete with an upstream incumbent. It’s also true in more recent scholarship that compares dual mode platforms to pure marketplaces and resellers, where harm hinges on a platform being able to immediately imitate rivals’ offerings. Even this ignores the significant efficiencies that might simultaneously arise from self-preferencing and closed platforms, more broadly. In short, rules that categorically prohibit self-preferening by dominant platforms overshoot the mark, and the General Court’s Google Shopping ruling is a troubling development in that regard.

It is also naïve to think that prohibiting self-preferencing will automatically benefit rivals and consumers (as opposed to harming the latter and leaving the former no better off). If self-preferencing is not anticompetitive, then propping up inefficient firms will at best be a futile exercise in preserving failing businesses. At worst, it would impose significant burdens on consumers by destroying valuable synergies between the platform and its own downstream service.

Finally, if the past years teach us anything about online markets, it is that consumers place a much heavier premium on frictionless user interfaces than on open platforms. TikTok is arguably a much more “closed” experience than other sources of online entertainment, like YouTube or Reddit (i.e. users have less direct control over their experience). Yet many observers have pinned its success, among other things, on its highly intuitive and simple interface. The emergence of Vinted, a European pre-owned goods platform, is another example of competition through a frictionless user experience.

There is a significant risk that, by seeking to boost “choice,” intervention by competition regulators against self-preferencing will ultimately remove one of the benefits users value most. By increasing the information users need to process, there is a risk that non-discrimination remedies will merely add pain points to the underlying purchasing process. In short, while Google Shopping is nominally a victory for the Commission and rivals, it is also a testament to the futility and harmfulness of myopic competition intervention in digital markets. Consumer preferences cannot be changed by government fiat, nor can the fact that certain firms are more efficient than others (at least, not without creating significant harm in the process). It is time this simple conclusion made its way into European competition thinking.

A bipartisan group of senators unveiled legislation today that would dramatically curtail the ability of online platforms to “self-preference” their own services—for example, when Apple pre-installs its own Weather or Podcasts apps on the iPhone, giving it an advantage that independent apps don’t have. The measure accompanies a House bill that included similar provisions, with some changes.

1. The Senate bill closely resembles the House version, and the small improvements will probably not amount to much in practice.

The major substantive changes we have seen between the House bill and the Senate version are:

  1. Violations in Section 2(a) have been modified to refer only to conduct that “unfairly” preferences, limits, or discriminates between the platform’s products and others, and that “materially harm[s] competition on the covered platform,” rather than banning all preferencing, limits, or discrimination.
  2. The evidentiary burden required throughout the bill has been changed from  “clear and convincing” to a “preponderance of evidence” (in other words, greater than 50%).
  3. An affirmative defense has been added to permit a platform to escape liability if it can establish that challenged conduct that “was narrowly tailored, was nonpretextual, and was necessary to… maintain or enhance the core functionality of the covered platform.”
  4. The minimum market capitalization for “covered platforms” has been lowered from $600 billion to $550 billion.
  5. The Senate bill would assess fines of 15% of revenues from the period during which the conduct occurred, in contrast with the House bill, which set fines equal to the greater of either 15% of prior-year revenues or 30% of revenues from the period during which the conduct occurred.
  6. Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill does not create a private right of action. Only the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and state attorneys-generals could bring enforcement actions on the basis of the bill.

Item one here certainly mitigates the most extreme risks of the House bill, which was drafted, bizarrely, to ban all “preferencing” or “discrimination” by platforms. If that were made law, it could literally have broken much of the Internet. The softened language reduces that risk somewhat.

However, Section 2(b), which lists types of conduct that would presumptively establish a violation under Section 2(a), is largely unchanged. As outlined here, this would amount to a broad ban on a wide swath of beneficial conduct. And “unfair” and “material” are notoriously slippery concepts. As a practical matter, their inclusion here may not significantly alter the course of enforcement under the Senate legislation from what would ensue under the House version.

Item three, which allows challenged conduct to be defended if it is “necessary to… maintain or enhance the core functionality of the covered platform,” may also protect some conduct. But because the bill requires companies to prove that challenged conduct is not only beneficial, but necessary to realize those benefits, it effectively implements a “guilty until proven innocent” standard that is likely to prove impossible to meet. The threat of permanent injunctions and enormous fines will mean that, in many cases, companies simply won’t be able to justify the expense of endeavoring to improve even the “core functionality” of their platforms in any way that could trigger the bill’s liability provisions. Thus, again, as a practical matter, the difference between the Senate and House bills may be only superficial.

The effect of this will likely be to diminish product innovation in these areas, because companies could not know in advance whether the benefits of doing so would be worth the legal risk. We have previously highlighted existing conduct that may be lost if a bill like this passes, such as pre-installation of apps or embedding maps and other “rich” results in boxes on search engine results pages. But the biggest loss may be things we don’t even know about yet, that just never happen because the reward from experimentation is not worth the risk of being found to be “discriminating” against a competitor.

We dove into the House bill in Breaking Down the American Choice and Innovation Online Act and Breaking Down House Democrats’ Forthcoming Competition Bills.

2. The prohibition on “unfair self-preferencing” is vague and expansive and will make Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple’s products worse. Consumers don’t want digital platforms to be dumb pipes, or to act like a telephone network or sewer system. The Internet is filled with a superabundance of information and options, as well as a host of malicious actors. Good digital platforms act as middlemen, sorting information in useful ways and taking on some of the risk that exists when, inevitably, we end up doing business with untrustworthy actors.

When users have the choice, they tend to prefer platforms that do quite a bit of “discrimination”—that is, favoring some sellers over others, or offering their own related products or services through the platform. Most people prefer Amazon to eBay because eBay is chaotic and riskier to use.

Competitors that decry self-preferencing by the largest platforms—integrating two different products with each other, like putting a maps box showing only the search engine’s own maps on a search engine results page—argue that the conduct is enabled only by a platform’s market dominance and does not benefit consumers.

Yet these companies often do exactly the same thing in their own products, regardless of whether they have market power. Yelp includes a map on its search results page, not just restaurant listings. DuckDuckGo does the same. If these companies offer these features, it is presumably because they think their users want such results. It seems perfectly plausible that Google does the same because it thinks its users—literally the same users, in most cases—also want them.

Fundamentally, and as we discuss in Against the Vertical Disrcimination Presumption, there is simply no sound basis to enact such a bill (even in a slightly improved version):

The notion that self-preferencing by platforms is harmful to innovation is entirely speculative. Moreover, it is flatly contrary to a range of studies showing that the opposite is likely true. In reality, platform competition is more complicated than simple theories of vertical discrimination would have it, and there is certainly no basis for a presumption of harm.

We discussed self-preferencing further in Platform Self-Preferencing Can Be Good for Consumers and Even Competitors, and showed that platform “discrimination” is often what consumers want from digital platforms in On the Origin of Platforms: An Evolutionary Perspective.

3. The bill massively empowers an FTC that seems intent to use antitrust to achieve political goals. The House bill would enable competitors to pepper covered platforms with frivolous lawsuits. The bill’s sponsors presumably hope that removing the private right of action will help to avoid that. But the bill still leaves intact a much more serious risk to the rule of law: the bill’s provisions are so broad that federal antitrust regulators will have enormous discretion over which cases they take.

This means that whoever is running the FTC and DOJ will be able to threaten covered platforms with a broad array of lawsuits, potentially to influence or control their conduct in other, unrelated areas. While some supporters of the bill regard this as a positive, most antitrust watchers would greet this power with much greater skepticism. Fundamentally, both bills grant antitrust enforcers wildly broad powers to pursue goals unrelated to competition. FTC Chair Lina Khan has, for example, argued that “the dispersion of political and economic control” ought to be antitrust’s goal. Commissioner Rebecca Kelly-Slaughter has argued that antitrust should be “antiracist”.

Whatever the desirability of these goals, the broad discretionary authority the bills confer on the antitrust agencies means that individual commissioners may have significantly greater scope to pursue the goals that they believe to be right, rather than Congress.

See discussions of this point at What Lina Khan’s Appointment Means for the House Antitrust Bills, Republicans Should Tread Carefully as They Consider ‘Solutions’ to Big Tech, The Illiberal Vision of Neo-Brandeisian Antitrust, and Alden Abbott’s discussion of FTC Antitrust Enforcement and the Rule of Law.

4. The bill adopts European principles of competition regulation. These are, to put it mildly, not obviously conducive to the sort of innovation and business growth that Americans may expect. Europe has no tech giants of its own, a condition that shows little sign of changing. Apple, alone, is worth as much as the top 30 companies in Germany’s DAX index, and the top 40 in France’s CAC index. Landmark European competition cases have seen Google fined for embedding Shopping results in the Search page—not because it hurt consumers, but because it hurt competing pricecomparison websites.

A fundamental difference between American and European competition regimes is that the U.S. system is far more friendly to businesses that obtain dominant market positions because they have offered better products more cheaply. Under the American system, successful businesses are normally given broad scope to charge high prices and refuse to deal with competitors. This helps to increase the rewards and incentive to innovate and invest in order to obtain that strong market position. The European model is far more burdensome.

The Senate bill adopts a European approach to refusals to deal—the same approach that led the European Commission to fine Microsoft for including Windows Media Player with Windows—and applies it across Big Tech broadly. Adopting this kind of approach may end up undermining elements of U.S. law that support innovation and growth.

For more, see How US and EU Competition Law Differ.

5. The proposals are based on a misunderstanding of the state of competition in the American economy, and of antitrust enforcement. It is widely believed that the U.S. economy has seen diminished competition. This is mistaken, particularly with respect to digital markets. Apparent rises in market concentration and profit margins disappear when we look more closely: local-level concentration is falling even as national-level concentration is rising, driven by more efficient chains setting up more stores in areas that were previously served by only one or two firms.

And markup rises largely disappear after accounting for fixed costs like R&D and marketing.

Where profits are rising, in areas like manufacturing, it appears to be mainly driven by increased productivity, not higher prices. Real prices have not risen in line with markups. Where profitability has increased, it has been mainly driven by falling costs.

Nor have the number of antitrust cases brought by federal antitrust agencies fallen. The likelihood of a merger being challenged more than doubled between 1979 and 2017. And there is little reason to believe that the deterrent effect of antitrust has weakened. Many critics of Big Tech have decided that there must be a problem and have worked backwards from that conclusion, selecting whatever evidence supports it and ignoring the evidence that does not. The consequence of such motivated reasoning is bills like this.

See Geoff’s April 2020 written testimony to the House Judiciary Investigation Into Competition in Digital Markets here.

The American Choice and Innovation Online Act (previously called the Platform Anti-Monopoly Act), introduced earlier this summer by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), would significantly change the nature of digital platforms and, with them, the internet itself. Taken together, the bill’s provisions would turn platforms into passive intermediaries, undermining many of the features that make them valuable to consumers. This seems likely to remain the case even after potential revisions intended to minimize the bill’s unintended consequences.

In its current form, the bill is split into two parts that each is dangerous in its own right. The first, Section 2(a), would prohibit almost any kind of “discrimination” by platforms. Because it is so open-ended, lawmakers might end up removing it in favor of the nominally more focused provisions of Section 2(b), which prohibit certain named conduct. But despite being more specific, this section of the bill is incredibly far-reaching and would effectively ban swaths of essential services.

I will address the potential effects of these sections point-by-point, but both elements of the bill suffer from the same problem: a misguided assumption that “discrimination” by platforms is necessarily bad from a competition and consumer welfare point of view. On the contrary, this conduct is often exactly what consumers want from platforms, since it helps to bring order and legibility to otherwise-unwieldy parts of the Internet. Prohibiting it, as both main parts of the bill do, would make the Internet harder to use and less competitive.

Section 2(a)

Section 2(a) essentially prohibits any behavior by a covered platform that would advantage that platform’s services over any others that also uses that platform; it characterizes this preferencing as “discrimination.”

As we wrote when the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust bills were first announced, this prohibition on “discrimination” is so broad that, if it made it into law, it would prevent platforms from excluding or disadvantaging any product of another business that uses the platform or advantaging their own products over those of their competitors.

The underlying assumption here is that platforms should be like telephone networks: providing a way for different sides of a market to communicate with each other, but doing little more than that. When platforms do do more—for example, manipulating search results to favor certain businesses or to give their own products prominence —it is seen as exploitative “leveraging.”

But consumers often want platforms to be more than just a telephone network or directory, because digital markets would be very difficult to navigate without some degree of “discrimination” between sellers. The Internet is so vast and sellers are often so anonymous that any assistance which helps you choose among options can serve to make it more navigable. As John Gruber put it:

From what I’ve seen over the last few decades, the quality of the user experience of every computing platform is directly correlated to the amount of control exerted by its platform owner. The current state of the ownerless world wide web speaks for itself.

Sometimes, this manifests itself as “self-preferencing” of another service, to reduce additional time spent searching for the information you want. When you search for a restaurant on Google, it can be very useful to get information like user reviews, the restaurant’s phone number, a button on mobile to phone them directly, estimates of how busy it is, and a link to a Maps page to see how to actually get there.

This is, undoubtedly, frustrating for competitors like Yelp, who would like this information not to be there and for users to have to click on either a link to Yelp or a link to Google Maps. But whether it is good or bad for Yelp isn’t relevant to whether it is good for users—and it is at least arguable that it is, which makes a blanket prohibition on this kind of behavior almost inevitably harmful.

If it isn’t obvious why removing this kind of feature would be harmful for users, ask yourself why some users search in Yelp’s app directly for this kind of result. The answer, I think, is that Yelp gives you all the information above that Google does (and sometimes is better, although I tend to trust Google Maps’ reviews over Yelp’s), and it’s really convenient to have all that on the same page. If Google could not provide this kind of “rich” result, many users would probably stop using Google Search to look for restaurant information in the first place, because a new friction would have been added that made the experience meaningfully worse. Removing that option would be good for Yelp, but mainly because it removes a competitor.

If all this feels like stating the obvious, then it should highlight a significant problem with Section 2(a) in the Cicilline bill: it prohibits conduct that is directly value-adding for consumers, and that creates competition for dedicated services like Yelp that object to having to compete with this kind of conduct.

This is true across all the platforms the legislation proposes to regulate. Amazon prioritizes some third-party products over others on the basis of user reviews, rates of returns and complaints, and so on; Amazon provides private label products to fill gaps in certain product lines where existing offerings are expensive or unreliable; Apple pre-installs a Camera app on the iPhone that, obviously, enjoys an advantage over rival apps like Halide.

Some or all of this behavior would be prohibited under Section 2(a) of the Cicilline bill. Combined with the bill’s presumption that conduct must be defended affirmatively—that is, the platform is presumed guilty unless it can prove that the challenged conduct is pro-competitive, which may be very difficult to do—and the bill could prospectively eliminate a huge range of socially valuable behavior.

Supporters of the bill have already been left arguing that the law simply wouldn’t be enforced in these cases of benign discrimination. But this would hardly be an improvement. It would mean the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) have tremendous control over how these platforms are built, since they could challenge conduct in virtually any case. The regulatory uncertainty alone would complicate the calculus for these firms as they refine, develop, and deploy new products and capabilities. 

So one potential compromise might be to do away with this broad-based rule and proscribe specific kinds of “discriminatory” conduct instead. This approach would involve removing Section 2(a) from the bill but retaining Section 2(b), which enumerates 10 practices it deems to be “other discriminatory conduct.” This may seem appealing, as it would potentially avoid the worst abuses of the broad-based prohibition. In practice, however, it would carry many of the same problems. In fact, many of 2(b)’s provisions appear to go even further than 2(a), and would proscribe even more procompetitive conduct that consumers want.

Sections 2(b)(1) and 2(b)(9)

The wording of these provisions is extremely broad and, as drafted, would seem to challenge even the existence of vertically integrated products. As such, these prohibitions are potentially even more extensive and invasive than Section 2(a) would have been. Even a narrower reading here would seem to preclude safety and privacy features that are valuable to many users. iOS’s sandboxing of apps, for example, serves to limit the damage that a malware app can do on a user’s device precisely because of the limitations it imposes on what other features and hardware the app can access.

Section 2(b)(2)

This provision would preclude a firm from conditioning preferred status on use of another service from that firm. This would likely undermine the purpose of platforms, which is to absorb and counter some of the risks involved in doing business online. An example of this is Amazon’s tying eligibility for its Prime program to sellers that use Amazon’s delivery service (FBA – Fulfilled By Amazon). The bill seems to presume in an example like this that Amazon is leveraging its power in the market—in the form of the value of the Prime label—to profit from delivery. But Amazon could, and already does, charge directly for listing positions; it’s unclear why it would benefit from charging via FBA when it could just charge for the Prime label.

An alternate, simpler explanation is that FBA improves the quality of the service, by granting customers greater assurance that a Prime product will arrive when Amazon says it will. Platforms add value by setting out rules and providing services that reduce the uncertainties between buyers and sellers they’d otherwise experience if they transacted directly with each other. This section’s prohibition—which, as written, would seem to prevent any kind of quality assurance—likely would bar labelling by a platform, even where customers explicitly want it.

Section 2(b)(3)

As written, this would prohibit platforms from using aggregated data to improve their services at all. If Apple found that 99% of its users uninstalled an app immediately after it was installed, it would be reasonable to conclude that the app may be harmful or broken in some way, and that Apple should investigate. This provision would ban that.

Sections 2(b)(4) and 2(b)(6)

These two provisions effectively prohibit a platform from using information it does not also provide to sellers. Such prohibitions ignore the fact that it is often good for sellers to lack certain information, since withholding information can prevent abuse by malicious users. For example, a seller may sometimes try to bribe their customers to post positive reviews of their products, or even threaten customers who have posted negative ones. Part of the role of a platform is to combat that kind of behavior by acting as a middleman and forcing both consumer users and business users to comply with the platform’s own mechanisms to control that kind of behavior.

If this seems overly generous to platforms—since, obviously, it gives them a lot of leverage over business users—ask yourself why people use platforms at all. It is not a coincidence that people often prefer Amazon to dealing with third-party merchants and having to navigate those merchants’ sites themselves. The assurance that Amazon provides is extremely valuable for users. Much of it comes from the company’s ability to act as a middleman in this way, lowering the transaction costs between buyers and sellers.

Section 2(b)(5)

This provision restricts the treatment of defaults. It is, however, relatively restrained when compared to, for example, the DOJ’s lawsuit against Google, which treats as anticompetitive even payment for defaults that can be changed. Still, many of the arguments that apply in that case also apply here: default status for apps can be a way to recoup income foregone elsewhere (e.g., a browser provided for free that makes its money by selling the right to be the default search engine).

Section 2(b)(7)

This section gets to the heart of why “discrimination” can often be procompetitive: that it facilitates competition between platforms. The kind of self-preferencing that this provision would prohibit can allow firms that have a presence in one market to extend that position into another, increasing competition in the process. Both Apple and Amazon have used their customer bases in smartphones and e-commerce, respectively, to grow their customer bases for video streaming, in competition with Netflix, Google’s YouTube, cable television, and each other. If Apple designed a search engine to compete with Google, it would do exactly the same thing, and we would be better off because of it. Restricting this kind of behavior is, perversely, exactly what you would do if you wanted to shield these incumbents from competition.

Section 2(b)(8)

As with other provisions, this one would preclude one of the mechanisms by which platforms add value: creating assurance for customers about the products they can expect if they visit the platform. Some of this relates to child protection; some of the most frustrating stories involve children being overcharged when they use an iPhone or Android app, and effectively being ripped off because of poor policing of the app (or insufficiently strict pricing rules by Apple or Google). This may also relate to rules that state that the seller cannot offer a cheaper product elsewhere (Amazon’s “General Pricing Rule” does this, for example). Prohibiting this would simply impose a tax on customers who cannot shop around and would prefer to use a platform that they trust has the lowest prices for the item they want.

Section 2(b)(10)

Ostensibly a “whistleblower” provision, this section could leave platforms with no recourse, not even removing a user from its platform, in response to spurious complaints intended purely to extract value for the complaining business rather than to promote competition. On its own, this sort of provision may be fairly harmless, but combined with the provisions above, it allows the bill to add up to a rent-seekers’ charter.

Conclusion

In each case above, it’s vital to remember that a reversed burden of proof applies. So, there is a high chance that the law will side against the defendant business, and a large downside for conduct that ends up being found to violate these provisions. That means that platforms will likely err on the side of caution in many cases, avoiding conduct that is ambiguous, and society will probably lose a lot of beneficial behavior in the process.

Put together, the provisions undermine much of what has become an Internet platform’s role: to act as an intermediary, de-risk transactions between customers and merchants who don’t know each other, and tweak the rules of the market to maximize its attractiveness as a place to do business. The “discrimination” that the bill would outlaw is, in practice, behavior that makes it easier for consumers to navigate marketplaces of extreme complexity and uncertainty, in which they often know little or nothing about the firms with whom they are trying to transact business.

Customers do not want platforms to be neutral, open utilities. They can choose platforms that are like that already, such as eBay. They generally tend to prefer ones like Amazon, which are not neutral and which carefully cultivate their service to be as streamlined, managed, and “discriminatory” as possible. Indeed, many of people’s biggest complaints with digital platforms relate to their openness: the fake reviews, counterfeit products, malware, and spam that come with letting more unknown businesses use your service. While these may be unavoidable by-products of running a platform, platforms compete on their ability to ferret them out. Customers are unlikely to thank legislators for regulating Amazon into being another eBay.