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In the latest congressional hearing, purportedly analyzing Google’s “stacking the deck” in the online advertising marketplace, much of the opening statement and questioning by Senator Mike Lee and later questioning by Senator Josh Hawley focused on an episode of alleged anti-conservative bias by Google in threatening to demonetize The Federalist, a conservative publisher, unless they exercised a greater degree of control over its comments section. The senators connected this to Google’s “dominance,” arguing that it is only because Google’s ad services are essential that Google can dictate terms to a conservative website. A similar impulse motivates Section 230 reform efforts as well: allegedly anti-conservative online platforms wield their dominance to censor conservative speech, either through deplatforming or demonetization.

Before even getting into the analysis of how to incorporate political bias into antitrust analysis, though, it should be noted that there likely is no viable antitrust remedy. Even aside from the Section 230 debate, online platforms like Google are First Amendment speakers who have editorial discretion over their sites and apps, much like newspapers. An antitrust remedy compelling these companies to carry speech they disagree with would almost certainly violate the First Amendment.

But even aside from the First Amendment aspect of this debate, there is no easy way to incorporate concerns about political bias into antitrust. Perhaps the best way to understand this argument in the antitrust sense is as a non-price effects analysis. 

Political bias could be seen by end consumers as an important aspect of product quality. Conservatives have made the case that not only Google, but also Facebook and Twitter, have discriminated against conservative voices. The argument would then follow that consumer welfare is harmed when these dominant platforms leverage their control of the social media marketplace into the marketplace of ideas by censoring voices with whom they disagree. 

While this has theoretical plausibility, there are real practical difficulties. As Geoffrey Manne and I have written previously, in the context of incorporating privacy into antitrust analysis:

The Horizontal Merger Guidelines have long recognized that anticompetitive effects may “be manifested in non-price terms and conditions that adversely affect customers.” But this notion, while largely unobjectionable in the abstract, still presents significant problems in actual application. 

First, product quality effects can be extremely difficult to distinguish from price effects. Quality-adjusted price is usually the touchstone by which antitrust regulators assess prices for competitive effects analysis. Disentangling (allegedly) anticompetitive quality effects from simultaneous (neutral or pro-competitive) price effects is an imprecise exercise, at best. For this reason, proving a product-quality case alone is very difficult and requires connecting the degradation of a particular element of product quality to a net gain in advantage for the monopolist. 

Second, invariably product quality can be measured on more than one dimension. For instance, product quality could include both function and aesthetics: A watch’s quality lies in both its ability to tell time as well as how nice it looks on your wrist. A non-price effects analysis involving product quality across multiple dimensions becomes exceedingly difficult if there is a tradeoff in consumer welfare between the dimensions. Thus, for example, a smaller watch battery may improve its aesthetics, but also reduce its reliability. Any such analysis would necessarily involve a complex and imprecise comparison of the relative magnitudes of harm/benefit to consumers who prefer one type of quality to another.

Just as with privacy and other product qualities, the analysis becomes increasingly complex first when tradeoffs between price and quality are introduced, and then even more so when tradeoffs between what different consumer groups perceive as quality is added. In fact, it is more complex than privacy. All but the most exhibitionistic would prefer more to less privacy, all other things being equal. But with political media consumption, most would prefer to have more of what they want to read available, even if it comes at the expense of what others may want. There is no easy way to understand what consumer welfare means in a situation where one group’s preferences need to come at the expense of another’s in moderation decisions.

Consider the case of The Federalist again. The allegation is that Google is imposing their anticonservative bias by “forcing” the website to clean up its comments section. The argument is that since The Federalist needs Google’s advertising money, it must play by Google’s rules. And since it did so, there is now one less avenue for conservative speech.

What this argument misses is the balance Google and other online services must strike as multi-sided platforms. The goal is to connect advertisers on one side of the platform, to the users on the other. If a site wants to take advantage of the ad network, it seems inevitable that intermediaries like Google will need to create rules about what can and can’t be shown or they run the risk of losing advertisers who don’t want to be associated with certain speech or conduct. For instance, most companies don’t want to be associated with racist commentary. Thus, they will take great pains to make sure they don’t sponsor or place ads in venues associated with racism. Online platforms connecting advertisers to potential consumers must take that into consideration.

Users, like those who frequent The Federalist, have unpriced access to content across those sites and apps which are part of ad networks like Google’s. Other models, like paid subscriptions (which The Federalist also has available), are also possible. But it isn’t clear that conservative voices or conservative consumers have been harmed overall by the option of unpriced access on one side of the platform, with advertisers paying on the other side. If anything, it seems the opposite is the case since conservatives long complained about legacy media having a bias and lauded the Internet as an opportunity to gain a foothold in the marketplace of ideas.

Online platforms like Google must balance the interests of users from across the political spectrum. If their moderation practices are too politically biased in one direction or another, users could switch to another online platform with one click or swipe. Assuming online platforms wish to maximize revenue, they will have a strong incentive to limit political bias from its moderation practices. The ease of switching to another platform which markets itself as more free speech-friendly, like Parler, shows entrepreneurs can take advantage of market opportunities if Google and other online platforms go too far with political bias. 

While one could perhaps argue that the major online platforms are colluding to keep out conservative voices, this is difficult to square with the different moderation practices each employs, as well as the data that suggests conservative voices are consistently among the most shared on Facebook

Antitrust is not a cure-all law. Conservatives who normally understand this need to reconsider whether antitrust is really well-suited for litigating concerns about anti-conservative bias online. 

Recently-published emails from 2012 between Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s then-Chief Financial Officer David Ebersman, in which Zuckerberg lays out his rationale for buying Instagram, have prompted many to speculate that the deal may not have been cleared had antitrust agencies had had access to Facebook’s internal documents at the time.

The issue is Zuckerberg’s description of Instagram as a nascent competitor and potential threat to Facebook:

These businesses are nascent but the networks established, the brands are already meaningful, and if they grow to a large scale they could be very disruptive to us. Given that we think our own valuation is fairly aggressive and that we’re vulnerable in mobile, I’m curious if we should consider going after one or two of them. 

Ebersman objects that a new rival would just enter the market if Facebook bought Instagram. In response, Zuckerberg wrote:

There are network effects around social products and a finite number of different social mechanics to invent. Once someone wins at a specific mechanic, it’s difficult for others to supplant them without doing something different.

These email exchanges may not paint a particularly positive picture of Zuckerberg’s intent in doing the merger, and it is possible that at the time they may have caused antitrust agencies to scrutinise the merger more carefully. But they do not tell us that the acquisition was ultimately harmful to consumers, or about the counterfactual of the merger being blocked. While we know that Instagram became enormously popular in the years following the merger, it is not clear that it would have been just as successful without the deal, or that Facebook and its other products would be less popular today. 

Moreover, it fails to account for the fact that Facebook had the resources to quickly scale Instagram up to a level that provided immediate benefits to an enormous number of users, instead of waiting for the app to potentially grow to such scale organically. 

The rationale

Writing for Pro Market, Randy Picker argued that these emails hint that the acquisition was essentially about taking out a nascent competitor:

Buying Instagram really was about controlling the window in which the Instagram social mechanic invention posed a risk to Facebook … Facebook well understood the competitive risk posed by Instagram and how purchasing it would control that risk.

This is a plausible interpretation of the internal emails, although there are others. For instance, Zuckerberg also seems to say that the purpose is to use Instagram to improve Facebook to make it good enough to fend off other entrants:

If we incorporate the social mechanics they were using, those new products won’t get much traction since we’ll already have their mechanics deployed at scale. 

If this was the rationale, rather than simply trying to kill a nascent competitor, it would be pro-competitive. It is good for consumers if a product makes itself better to beat its rivals by acquiring undervalued assets to deploy them at greater scale and with superior managerial efficiency, even if the acquirer hopes that in doing so it will prevent rivals from ever gaining significant market share. 

Further, despite popular characterization, on its face the acquisition was not about trying to destroy a consumer option, but only to ensure that Facebook was competitively viable in providing that option. Another reasonable interpretation of the emails is that Facebook was wrestling with the age-old make-or-buy dilemma faced by every firm at some point or another. 

Was the merger anticompetitive?

But let us assume that eliminating competition from Instagram was indeed the merger’s sole rationale. Would that necessarily make it anticompetitive?  

Chief among the objections is that both Facebook and Instagram are networked goods. Their value to each user depends, to a significant extent, on the number (and quality) of other people using the same platform. Many scholars have argued that this can create self-reinforcing dynamics where the strong grow stronger – though such an outcome is certainly not a given, since other factors about the service matter too, and networks can suffer from diseconomies of scale as well, where new users reduce the quality of the network.

This network effects point is central to the reasoning of those who oppose the merger: Facebook purportedly acquired Instagram because Instagram’s network had grown large enough to be a threat. With Instagram out of the picture, Facebook could thus take on the remaining smaller rivals with the advantage of its own much larger installed base of users. 

However, this network tipping argument could cut both ways. It is plausible that the proper counterfactual was not duopoly competition between Facebook and Instagram, but either Facebook or Instagram offering both firms’ features (only later). In other words, a possible framing of the merger is that it merely  accelerated the cross-pollination of social mechanics between Facebook and Instagram. Something that would likely prove beneficial to consumers.

This finds some support in Mark Zuckerberg’s reply to David Ebersman:

Buying them would give us the people and time to integrate their innovations into our core products.

The exchange between Zuckerberg and Ebersman also suggests another pro-competitive justification: bringing Instagram’s “social mechanics” to Facebook’s much larger network of users. We can only speculate about what ‘social mechanics’ Zuckerberg actually had in mind, but at the time Facebook’s photo sharing functionality was largely based around albums of unedited photos, whereas Instagram’s core product was a stream of filtered, cropped single images. 

Zuckerberg’s plan to gradually bring these features to Facebook’s users – as opposed to them having to familiarize themselves with an entirely different platform – would likely cut in favor of the deal being cleared by enforcers.

Another possibility is that it was Instagram’s network of creators – the people who had begun to use Instagram as a new medium, distinct from the generic photo albums Facebook had, and who would eventually grow to be known as ‘influencers’ – who were the valuable thing. Bringing them onto the Facebook platform would undoubtedly increase its value to regular users. For example, Kim Kardashian, one of Instagram’s most popular users, joined the service in February 2012, two months before the deal went through, and she was not the first such person to adopt Instagram in this way. We can see the importance of a service’s most creative users today, as Facebook is actually trying to pay TikTok creators to move to its TikTok clone Reels.

But if this was indeed the rationale, not only is this a sign of a company in the midst of fierce competition – rather than one on the cusp of acquiring a monopoly position – but, more fundamentally, it suggests that Facebook was always going to come out on top. Or at least it thought so.

The benefit of hindsight

Today’s commentators have the benefit of hindsight. This inherently biases contemporary takes on the Facebook/Instagram merger. For instance, it seems almost self-evident with hindsight that Facebook would succeed and that entry in the social media space would only occur at the fringes of existing platforms (the combined Facebook/Instagram platform) – think of the emergence of TikTok. However, at the time of the merger, such an outcome was anything but a foregone conclusion.

For instance, critics argue that Instagram no longer competes with Facebook because of the merger. However, it is equally plausible that Instagram only became so successful because of its combination with Facebook (notably thanks to the addition of Facebook’s advertising platform, and the rapid rollout of a stories feature in response to Snapchat’s rise). Indeed, Instagram grew from roughly 24 million at the time of the acquisition to over 1 Billion users in 2018. Likewise, it earned zero revenue at the time of the merger. This might explain why the acquisition was widely derided at the time.

This is critical from an antitrust perspective. Antitrust enforcers adjudicate merger proceedings in the face of extreme uncertainty. All possible outcomes, including the counterfactual setting, have certain probabilities of being true that enforcers and courts have to make educated guesses about, assigning probabilities to potential anticompetitive harms, merger efficiencies, and so on.

Authorities at the time of the merger could not ignore these uncertainties. What was the likelihood that a company with a fraction of Facebook’s users (24 million to Facebook’s 1 billion), and worth $1 billion, could grow to threaten Facebook’s market position? At the time, the answer seemed to be “very unlikely”. Moreover, how could authorities know that Google+ (Facebook’s strongest competitor at the time) would fail? These outcomes were not just hard to ascertain, they were simply unknowable.

Of course, this is preceisly what neo-Brandesian antitrust scholars object to today: among the many seemingly innocuous big tech acquisitions that are permitted each year, there is bound to be at least one acquired firm that might have been a future disruptor. True as this may be, identifying that one successful company among all the others is the antitrust equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. Instagram simply did not fit that description at the time of the merger. Such a stance also ignores the very real benefits that may arise from such arrangements.

Closing remarks

While it is tempting to reassess the Facebook Instagram merger in light of new revelations, such an undertaking is not without pitfalls. Hindsight bias is perhaps the most obvious, but the difficulties run deeper.

If we think that the Facebook/Instagram merger has been and will continue to be good for consumers, it would be strange to think that we should nevertheless break them up because we discovered that Zuckerberg had intended to do things that would harm consumers. Conversely, if you think a breakup would be good for consumers today, would it change your mind if you discovered that Mark Zuckerberg had the intentions of an angel when he went ahead with the merger in 2012, or that he had angelic intent today?

Ultimately, merger review involves making predictions about the future. While it may be reasonable to take the intentions of the merging parties into consideration when making those predictions (although it’s not obvious that we should), these are not the only or best ways to determine what the future will hold. As Ebersman himself points out in the emails, history is filled with over-optimistic mergers that failed to deliver benefits to the merging parties. That this one succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of everyone involved – except maybe Mark Zuckerberg – does not tell us that competition agencies should have ruled on it differently.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Dirk Auer, (Senior Researcher, Liege Competition & Innovation Institute; Senior Fellow, ICLE).]

Across the globe, millions of people are rapidly coming to terms with the harsh realities of life under lockdown. As governments impose ever-greater social distancing measures, many of the daily comforts we took for granted are no longer available to us. 

And yet, we can all take solace in the knowledge that our current predicament would have been far less tolerable if the COVID-19 outbreak had hit us twenty years ago. Among others, we have Big Tech firms to thank for this silver lining. 

Contrary to the claims of critics, such as Senator Josh Hawley, Big Tech has produced game-changing innovations that dramatically improve our ability to fight COVID-19. 

The previous post in this series showed that innovations produced by Big Tech provide us with critical information, allow us to maintain some level of social interactions (despite living under lockdown), and have enabled companies, universities and schools to continue functioning (albeit at a severely reduced pace).

But apart from information, social interactions, and online working (and learning); what has Big Tech ever done for us?

One of the most underappreciated ways in which technology (mostly pioneered by Big Tech firms) is helping the world deal with COVID-19 has been a rapid shift towards contactless economic transactions. Not only are consumers turning towards digital goods to fill their spare time, but physical goods (most notably food) are increasingly being exchanged without any direct contact.

These ongoing changes would be impossible without the innovations and infrastructure that have emerged from tech and telecommunications companies over the last couple of decades. 

Of course, the overall picture is still bleak. The shift to contactless transactions has only slightly softened the tremendous blow suffered by the retail and restaurant industries – some predictions suggest their overall revenue could fall by at least 50% in the second quarter of 2020. Nevertheless, as explained below, this situation would likely be significantly worse without the many innovations produced by Big Tech companies. For that we would be thankful.

1. Food and other goods

For a start, the COVID-19 outbreak (and government measures to combat it) has caused many brick & mortar stores and restaurants to shut down. These closures would have been far harder to implement before the advent of online retail and food delivery platforms.

At the time of writing, e-commerce websites already appear to have witnessed a 20-30% increase in sales (other sources report 52% increase, compared to the same time last year). This increase will likely continue in the coming months.

The Amazon Retail platform has been at the forefront of this online shift.

  • Having witnessed a surge in online shopping, Amazon announced that it would be hiring 100.000 distribution workers to cope with the increased demand. Amazon’s staff have also been asked to work overtime in order to meet increased demand (in exchange, Amazon has doubled their pay for overtime hours).
  • To attract these new hires and ensure that existing ones continue working, Amazon simultaneously announced that it would be increasing wages in virus-hit countries (from $15 to $17, in the US) .
  • Amazon also stopped accepting “non-essential” goods in its warehouses, in order to prioritize the sale of household essentials and medical goods that are in high demand.
  • Finally, in Italy, Amazon decided not to stop its operations, despite some employees testing positive for COVID-19. Controversial as this move may be, Amazon’s private interests are aligned with those of society – maintaining the supply of essential goods is now more important than ever. 

And it is not just Amazon that is seeking to fill the breach left temporarily by brick & mortar retail. Other retailers are also stepping up efforts to distribute their goods online.

  • The apps of traditional retail chains have witnessed record daily downloads (thus relying on the smartphone platforms pioneered by Google and Apple).
  •  Walmart has become the go-to choice for online food purchases:

(Source: Bloomberg)

The shift to online shopping mimics what occurred in China, during its own COVID-19 lockdown. 

  • According to an article published in HBR, e-commerce penetration reached 36.6% of retail sales in China (compared to 29.7% in 2019). The same article explains how Alibaba’s technology is enabling traditional retailers to better manage their supply chains, ultimately helping them to sell their goods online.
  • A study by Nielsen ratings found that 67% of retailers would expand online channels. 
  • One large retailer shut many of its physical stores and redeployed many of its employees to serve as online influencers on WeChat, thus attempting to boost online sales.
  • Spurred by compassion and/or a desire to boost its brand abroad, Alibaba and its founder, Jack Ma, have made large efforts to provide critical medical supplies (notably tests kits and surgical masks) to COVID-hit countries such as the US and Belgium.

And it is not just retail that is adapting to the outbreak. Many restaurants are trying to stay afloat by shifting from in-house dining to deliveries. These attempts have been made possible by the emergence of food delivery platforms, such as UberEats and Deliveroo. 

These platforms have taken several steps to facilitate food deliveries during the outbreak.

  • UberEats announced that it would be waiving delivery fees for independent restaurants.
  • Both UberEats and Deliveroo have put in place systems for deliveries to take place without direct physical contact. While not entirely risk-free, meal delivery can provide welcome relief to people experiencing stressful lockdown conditions.

Similarly, the shares of Blue Apron – an online meal-kit delivery service – have surged more than 600% since the start of the outbreak.

In short, COVID-19 has caused a drastic shift towards contactless retail and food delivery services. It is an open question how much of this shift would have been possible without the pioneering business model innovations brought about by Amazon and its online retail platform, as well as modern food delivery platforms, such as UberEats and Deliveroo. At the very least, it seems unlikely that it would have happened as fast.

The entertainment industry is another area where increasing digitization has made lockdowns more bearable. The reason is obvious: locked-down consumers still require some form of amusement. With physical supply chains under tremendous strain, and social gatherings no longer an option, digital media has thus become the default choice for many.

Data published by Verizon shows a sharp increase (in the week running from March 9 to March 16) in the consumption of digital entertainment, especially gaming:

This echoes other sources, which also report that the use of traditional streaming platforms has surged in areas hit by COVID-19.

  • Netflix subscriptions are said to be spiking in locked-down communities. During the first week of March, Netflix installations increased by 77% in Italy and 33% in Spain, compared to the February average. Netflix app downloads increased by 33% in Hong kong and South Korea. The Amazon Prime app saw a similar increase.
  • YouTube has also witnessed a surge in usage. 
  • Live streaming (on platforms such as Periscope, Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc) has also increased in popularity. It is notably being used for everything from concerts and comedy clubs to religious services, and even zoo visits.
  • Disney Plus has also been highly popular. According to one source, half of US homes with children under the age of 10 purchased a Disney Plus subscription. This trend is expected to continue during the COVID-19 outbreak. Disney even released Frozen II three months ahead of schedule in order to boost new subscriptions.
  • Hollywood studios have started releasing some of their lower-profile titles directly on streaming services.

Traffic has also increased significantly on popular gaming platforms.

These are just a tiny sample of the many ways in which digital entertainment is filling the void left by social gatherings. It is thus central to the lives of people under lockdown.

2. Cashless payments

But all of the services that are listed above rely on cashless payments – be it to limit the risk or contagion or because these transactions take place remotely. Fintech innovations have thus turned out to be one of the foundations that make social distancing policies viable. 

This is particularly evident in the food industry. 

  • Food delivery platforms, like UberEats and Deliveroo, already relied on mobile payments.
  • Costa coffee (a UK equivalent to starbucks) went cashless in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19.
  • Domino’s Pizza, among other franchises, announced that it would move to contactless deliveries.
  • President Donald Trump is said to have discussed plans to keep drive-thru restaurants open during the outbreak. This would also certainly imply exclusively digital payments.
  • And although doubts remain concerning the extent to which the SARS-CoV-2 virus may, or may not, be transmitted via banknotes and coins, many other businesses have preemptively ceased to accept cash payments

As the Jodie Kelley – the CEO of the Electronic Transactions Association – put it, in a CNBC interview:

Contactless payments have come up as a new option for consumers who are much more conscious of what they touch. 

This increased demand for cashless payments has been a blessing for Fintech firms. 

  • Though it is too early to gage the magnitude of this shift, early signs – notably from China – suggest that mobile payments have become more common during the outbreak.
  • In China, Alipay announced that it expected to radically expand its services to new sectors – restaurants, cinema bookings, real estate purchases – in an attempt to compete with WeChat.
  • PayPal has also witnessed an uptick in transactions, though this growth might ultimately be weighed-down by declining economic activity.
  • In the past, Facebook had revealed plans to offer mobile payments across its platforms – Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram & Libra. Those plans may not have been politically viable at the time. The COVID-19 could conceivably change this.

In short, the COVID-19 outbreak has increased our reliance on digital payments, as these can both take place remotely and, potentially, limit contamination via banknotes. None of this would have been possible twenty years ago when industry pioneers, such as PayPal, were in their infancy. 

3. High speed internet access

Similarly, it goes without saying that none of the above would be possible without the tremendous investments that have been made in broadband infrastructure, most notably by internet service providers. Though these companies have often faced strong criticism from the public, they provide the backbone upon which outbreak-stricken economies can function.

By causing so many activities to move online, the COVID-19 outbreak has put broadband networks to the test. So for, broadband infrastructure around the world has been up to the task. This is partly because the spike in usage has occurred in daytime hours (where network’s capacity is less straine), but also because ISPs traditionally rely on a number of tools to limit peak-time usage.

The biggest increases in usage seem to have occurred in daytime hours. As data from OpenVault illustrates:

According to BT, one of the UK’s largest telecoms operators, daytime internet usage is up by 50%, but peaks are still well within record levels (and other UK operators have made similar claims):

Anecdotal data also suggests that, so far, fixed internet providers have not significantly struggled to handle this increased traffic (the same goes for Content Delivery Networks). Not only were these networks already designed to withstand high peaks in demand, but ISPs have, such as Verizon, increased their  capacity to avoid potential issues.

For instance, internet speed tests performed using Ookla suggest that average download speeds only marginally decreased, it at all, in locked-down regions, compared to previous levels:

However, the same data suggests that mobile networks have faced slightly larger decreases in performance, though these do not appear to be severe. For instance, contrary to contemporaneous reports, a mobile network outage that occurred in the UK is unlikely to have been caused by a COVID-related surge. 

The robustness exhibited by broadband networks is notably due to long-running efforts by ISPs (spurred by competition) to improve download speeds and latency. As one article put it:

For now, cable operators’ and telco providers’ networks are seemingly withstanding the increased demands, which is largely due to the upgrades that they’ve done over the past 10 or so years using technologies such as DOCSIS 3.1 or PON.

Pushed in part by Google Fiber’s launch back in 2012, the large cable operators and telcos, such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Charter Communications, have spent years upgrading their networks to 1-Gig speeds. Prior to those upgrades, cable operators in particular struggled with faster upload speeds, and the slowdown of broadband services during peak usage times, such as after school and in the evenings, as neighborhood nodes became overwhelmed.

This is not without policy ramifications.

For a start, these developments might vindicate antitrust enforcers that allowed mergers that led to higher investments, sometimes at the expense of slight reductions in price competition. This is notably the case for so-called 4 to 3 mergers in the wireless telecommunications industry. As an in-depth literature review by ICLE scholars concludes:

Studies of investment also found that markets with three facilities-based operators had significantly higher levels of investment by individual firms.

Similarly, the COVID-19 outbreak has also cast further doubts over the appropriateness of net neutrality regulations. Indeed, an important criticism of such regulations is that they prevent ISPs from using the price mechanism to manage congestion

It is these fears of congestion, likely unfounded (see above), that led the European Union to urge streaming companies to voluntarily reduce the quality of their products. To date, Netflix, Youtube, Amazon Prime, Apple, Facebook and Disney have complied with the EU’s request. 

This may seem like a trivial problem, but it was totally avoidable. As a result of net neutrality regulation, European authorities and content providers have been forced into an awkward position (likely unfounded) that unnecessarily penalizes those consumers and ISPs who do not face congestion issues (conversely, it lets failing ISPs off the hook and disincentivizes further investments on their part). This is all the more unfortunate that, as argued above, streaming services are essential to locked-down consumers. 

Critics may retort that small quality decreases hardly have any impact on consumers. But, if this is indeed the case, then content providers were using up unnecessary amounts of bandwidth before the COVID-19 outbreak (something that is less likely to occur without net neutrality obligations). And if not, then European consumers have indeed been deprived of something they valued. The shoe is thus on the other foot.

These normative considerations aside, the big point is that we can all be thankful to live in an era of high-speed internet.

 4. Concluding remarks 

Big Tech is rapidly emerging as one of the heroes of the COVID-19 crisis. Companies that were once on the receiving end of daily reproaches – by the press, enforcers, and scholars alike – are gaining renewed appreciation from the public. Times have changed since the early days of these companies – where consumers marvelled at the endless possibilities that their technologies offered. Today we are coming to realize how essential tech companies have become to our daily lives, and how they make society more resilient in the face of fat-tailed events, like pandemics.

The move to a contactless, digital, economy is a critical part of what makes contemporary societies better-equipped to deal with COVID-19. As this post has argued, online delivery, digital entertainment, contactless payments and high speed internet all play a critical role. 

To think that we receive some of these services for free…

Last year, Erik Brynjolfsson, Avinash Collins and Felix Eggers published a paper in PNAS, showing that consumers were willing to pay significant sums for online goods they currently receive free of charge. One can only imagine how much larger those sums would be if that same experiment were repeated today.

Even Big Tech’s critics are willing to recognize the huge debt we owe to these companies. As Stephen Levy wrote, in an article titled “Has the Coronavirus Killed the Techlash?”:

Who knew the techlash was susceptible to a virus?

The pandemic does not make any of the complaints about the tech giants less valid. They are still drivers of surveillance capitalism who duck their fair share of taxes and abuse their power in the marketplace. We in the press must still cover them aggressively and skeptically. And we still need a reckoning that protects the privacy of citizens, levels the competitive playing field, and holds these giants to account. But the momentum for that reckoning doesn’t seem sustainable at a moment when, to prop up our diminished lives, we are desperately dependent on what they’ve built. And glad that they built it.

While it is still early to draw policy lessons from the outbreak, one thing seems clear: the COVID-19 pandemic provides yet further evidence that tech policymakers should be extremely careful not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, by promoting regulations that may thwart innovation (or the opposite).

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Dirk Auer, (Senior Fellow of Law & Economics, International Center for Law & Economics).]

Republican Senator Josh Hawley infamously argued that Big Tech is overrated. In his words:

My biggest critique of big tech is: what big innovation have they really given us? What is it now that in the last 15, 20 years that people who say they are the brightest minds in the country have given this country? What are their great innovations?

To Senator Hawley these questions seemed rhetorical. Big Tech’s innovations were trivial gadgets: “autoplay” and “snap streaks”, to quote him once more.

But, as any Monty Python connoisseur will tell you, rhetorical questions have a way of being … not so rhetorical. In one of Python’s most famous jokes, members of the “People’s Front of Judea” ask “what have the Romans ever done for us”? To their own surprise, the answer turns out to be a great deal:

This post is the first in a series examining some of the many ways in which Big Tech is making Coronavirus-related lockdowns and social distancing more bearable, and how Big Tech is enabling our economies to continue functioning (albeit at a severely reduced pace) throughout the outbreak. 

Although Big Tech’s contributions are just a small part of a much wider battle, they suggest that the world is drastically better situated to deal with COVID-19 than it would have been twenty years ago – and this is in no small part thanks to Big Tech’s numerous innovations.

Of course, some will say that the world would be even better equipped to handle COVID-19, if Big Tech had only been subject to more (or less) regulation. Whether these critiques are correct, or not, they are not the point of this post. For many, like Senator Hawley, it is apparently undeniable that tech does more harm than good. But, as this post suggests, that is surely not the case. And before we do decide whether and how we want to regulate it in the future, we should be particularly mindful of what aspects of “Big Tech” seem particularly suited to dealing with the current crisis, and ensure that we don’t adopt regulations that thoughtlessly undermine these.

1. Priceless information 

One of the most important ways in which Big Tech firms have supported international attempts to COVID-19 has been their role as  information intermediaries. 

As the title of a New York Times article put it:

When Facebook Is More Trustworthy Than the President: Social media companies are delivering reliable information in the coronavirus crisis. Why can’t they do that all the time?

The author is at least correct on the first part. Big Tech has become a cornucopia of reliable information about the virus:

  • Big Tech firms are partnering with the White House and other agencies to analyze massive COVID-19 datasets in order to help discover novel answers to questions about transmission, medical care, and other interventions. This partnership is possible thanks to the massive investments in AI infrastructure that the leading tech firms have made. 
  • Google Scholar has partnered with renowned medical journals (as well as public authorities) to guide citizens towards cutting edge scholarship relating to COVID-19. This a transformative ressource in a world of lockdows and overburdened healthcare providers.
  • Google has added a number of features to its main search engine – such as a “Coronavirus Knowledge Panel” and SOS alerts – in order to help users deal with the spread of the virus.
  • On Twitter, information and insights about COVID-19 compete in the market for ideas. Numerous news outlets have published lists of recommended people to follow (Fortune, Forbes). 

    Furthermore – to curb some of the unwanted effects of an unrestrained market for ideas – Twitter (and most other digital platforms) links to the websites of public authorities when users search for COVID-related hashtags.
  • This flow of information is a two-way street: Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, among others, enable citizens and experts to weigh in on the right policy approach to COVID-19. 

    Though the results are sometimes far from perfect, these exchanges may prove invaluable in critical times where usual methods of policy-making (such as hearings and conferences) are mostly off the table.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the Internet is a precious source of knowledge about how to deal with an emerging virus, as well as life under lockdown. We often take for granted how much of our lives benefit from extreme specialization. These exchanges are severely restricted under lockdown conditions. Luckily, with the internet and modern search engines (pioneered by Google), most of the world’s information is but a click away.

    For example, Facebook Groups have been employed by users of the social media platform in order to better coordinate necessary activity among community members — like giving blood — while still engaging in social distancing.

In short, search engines and social networks have been beacons of information regarding COVID-19. Their mostly bottom-up approach to knowledge generation (i.e. popular topics emerge organically) is essential in a world of extreme uncertainty. This has ultimately enabled these players to stay ahead of the curve in bringing valuable information to citizens around the world.

2. Social interactions

This is probably the most obvious way in which Big Tech is making life under lockdown more bearable for everyone. 

  • In Italy, Whatsapp messages and calls jumped by 20% following the outbreak of COVID-19. And Microsoft claims that the use of Skype jumped by 100%.
  • Younger users are turning to social networks, like TikTok, to deal with the harsh realities of the pandemic.
  • Strangers are using Facebook groups to support each other through difficult times.
  • And institutions, like the WHO, are piggybacking on this popularity to further raise awareness about COVID-19 via social media. 
  • In South Africa, health authorities even created a whatsapp contact to answer users questions about the virus.
  • Most importantly, social media is a godsend for senior citizens and anyone else who may have to live in almost total isolation for the foreseeable future. For instance, nursing homes are putting communications apps, like Skype and WhatsApp, in the hands of their patients, to keep up their morale (here and here).

And with the economic effects of COVID-19 starting to gather speed, users will more than ever be grateful to receive these services free of charge. Sharing data – often very limited amounts – with a platform is an insignificant price to pay in times of economic hardship. 

3. Working & Learning

It will also be impossible to effectively fight COVID-19 if we cannot maintain the economy afloat. Stock markets have already plunged by record amounts. Surely, these losses would be unfathomably worse if many of us were not lucky enough to be able to work, and from the safety of our own homes. And for those individuals who are unable to work from home, their own exposure is dramatically reduced thanks to a significant proportion of the population that can stay out of public.

Once again, we largely have Big Tech to thank for this. 

  • Downloads of Microsoft Teams and Zoom are surging on both Google and Apple’s app stores. This is hardly surprising. With much of the workforce staying at home, these video-conference applications have become essential. The increased load generated by people working online might even have caused Microsoft Teams to crash in Europe.
  • According to Microsoft, the number of Microsoft Teams meetings increased by 500 percent in China.
  • Sensing that the current crisis may last for a while, some firms have also started to conduct job interviews online; populars apps for doing so include Skype, Zoom and Whatsapp. 
  • Slack has also seen a surge in usage, as firms set themselves up to work remotely. It has started offering free training, to help firms move online.
  • Along similar lines, Google recently announced that its G suite of office applications – which enables users to share and work on documents online – had recently passed 2 Billion users.
  • Some tech firms (including Google, Microsoft and Zoom) have gone a step further and started giving away some of their enterprise productivity software, in order to help businesses move their workflows online.

And Big Tech is also helping universities, schools and parents to continue providing coursework and lectures to their students/children.

  • Zoom and Microsoft Teams have been popular choices for online learning. To facilitate the transition to online learning, Zoom has notably lifted time limits relating to the free version of its app (for schools in the most affected areas).
  • Even in the US, where the virus outbreak is currently smaller than in Europe, thousands of students are already being taught online.
  • Much of the online learning being conducted for primary school children is being done with affordable Chromebooks. And some of these Chromebooks are distributed to underserved schools through grant programs administered by Google.
  • Moreover, at the time of writing, most of the best selling books on Amazon.com are pre-school learning books:

Finally, the advent of online storage services, such as Dropbox and Google Drive, has largely alleviated the need for physical copies of files. In turn, this enables employees to remotely access all the files they need to stay productive. While this may be convenient under normal circumstances, it becomes critical when retrieving a binder in the office is no longer an option.

4. So what has Big Tech ever done for us?

With millions of families around the world currently under forced lockdown, it is becoming increasingly evident that Big Tech’s innovations are anything but trivial. Innovations that seemed like convenient tools only a couple of days ago, are now becoming essential parts of our daily lives (or, at least, we are finally realizing how powerful they truly are). 

The fight against COVID-19 will be hard. We can at least be thankful that we have Big Tech by our side. Paraphrasing the Monty Python crew: 

Q: What has Big Tech ever done for us? 

A: Abundant, free, and easily accessible information. Precious social interactions. Online working and learning.

Q: But apart from information, social interactions, and online working (and learning); what has Big Tech ever done for us?

For the answer to this question, I invite you to stay tuned for the next post in this series.

Yesterday was President Trump’s big “Social Media Summit” where he got together with a number of right-wing firebrands to decry the power of Big Tech to censor conservatives online. According to the Wall Street Journal

Mr. Trump attacked social-media companies he says are trying to silence individuals and groups with right-leaning views, without presenting specific evidence. He said he was directing his administration to “explore all legislative and regulatory solutions to protect free speech and the free speech of all Americans.”

“Big Tech must not censor the voices of the American people,” Mr. Trump told a crowd of more than 100 allies who cheered him on. “This new technology is so important and it has to be used fairly.”

Despite the simplistic narrative tying President Trump’s vision of the world to conservatism, there is nothing conservative about his views on the First Amendment and how it applies to social media companies.

I have noted in several places before that there is a conflict of visions when it comes to whether the First Amendment protects a negative or positive conception of free speech. For those unfamiliar with the distinction: it comes from philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who identified negative liberty as freedom from external interference, and positive liberty as freedom to do something, including having the power and resources necessary to do that thing. Discussions of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech often elide over this distinction.

With respect to speech, the negative conception of liberty recognizes that individual property owners can control what is said on their property, for example. To force property owners to allow speakers/speech on their property that they don’t desire would actually be a violation of their liberty — what the Supreme Court calls “compelled speech.” The First Amendment, consistent with this view, generally protects speech from government interference (with very few, narrow exceptions), while allowing private regulation of speech (again, with very few, narrow exceptions).

Contrary to the original meaning of the First Amendment and the weight of Supreme Court precedent, President Trump’s view of the First Amendment is that it protects a positive conception of liberty — one under which the government, in order to facilitate its conception of “free speech,” has the right and even the duty to impose restrictions on how private actors regulate speech on their property (in this case, social media companies). 

But if Trump’s view were adopted, discretion as to what is necessary to facilitate free speech would be left to future presidents and congresses, undermining the bedrock conservative principle of the Constitution as a shield against government regulation, all falsely in the name of protecting speech. This is counter to the general approach of modern conservatism (but not, of course, necessarily Republicanism) in the United States, including that of many of President Trump’s own judicial and agency appointees. Indeed, it is actually more consistent with the views of modern progressives — especially within the FCC.

For instance, the current conservative bloc on the Supreme Court (over the dissent of the four liberal Justices) recently reaffirmed the view that the First Amendment applies only to state action in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck. The opinion, written by Trump-appointee, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, states plainly that:

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment provides in relevant part that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment makes the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause applicable against the States: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . .” §1. The text and original meaning of those Amendments, as well as this Court’s longstanding precedents, establish that the Free Speech Clause prohibits only governmental abridgment of speech. The Free Speech Clause does not prohibit private abridgment of speech… In accord with the text and structure of the Constitution, this Court’s state-action doctrine distinguishes the government from individuals and private entities. By enforcing that constitutional boundary between the governmental and the private, the state-action doctrine protects a robust sphere of individual liberty. (Emphasis added).

Former Stanford Law dean and First Amendment scholar, Kathleen Sullivan, has summed up the very different approaches to free speech pursued by conservatives and progressives (insofar as they are represented by the “conservative” and “liberal” blocs on the Supreme Court): 

In the first vision…, free speech rights serve an overarching interest in political equality. Free speech as equality embraces first an antidiscrimination principle: in upholding the speech rights of anarchists, syndicalists, communists, civil rights marchers, Maoist flag burners, and other marginal, dissident, or unorthodox speakers, the Court protects members of ideological minorities who are likely to be the target of the majority’s animus or selective indifference…. By invalidating conditions on speakers’ use of public land, facilities, and funds, a long line of speech cases in the free-speech-as-equality tradition ensures public subvention of speech expressing “the poorly financed causes of little people.” On the equality-based view of free speech, it follows that the well-financed causes of big people (or big corporations) do not merit special judicial protection from political regulation. And because, in this view, the value of equality is prior to the value of speech, politically disadvantaged speech prevails over regulation but regulation promoting political equality prevails over speech.

The second vision of free speech, by contrast, sees free speech as serving the interest of political liberty. On this view…, the First Amendment is a negative check on government tyranny, and treats with skepticism all government efforts at speech suppression that might skew the private ordering of ideas. And on this view, members of the public are trusted to make their own individual evaluations of speech, and government is forbidden to intervene for paternalistic or redistributive reasons. Government intervention might be warranted to correct certain allocative inefficiencies in the way that speech transactions take place, but otherwise, ideas are best left to a freely competitive ideological market.

The outcome of Citizens United is best explained as representing a triumph of the libertarian over the egalitarian vision of free speech. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, articulates a robust vision of free speech as serving political liberty; the dissenting opinion by Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, sets forth in depth the countervailing egalitarian view. (Emphasis added).

President Trump’s views on the regulation of private speech are alarmingly consistent with those embraced by the Court’s progressives to “protect[] members of ideological minorities who are likely to be the target of the majority’s animus or selective indifference” — exactly the sort of conservative “victimhood” that Trump and his online supporters have somehow concocted to describe themselves. 

Trump’s views are also consistent with those of progressives who, since the Reagan FCC abolished it in 1987, have consistently angled for a resurrection of some form of fairness doctrine, as well as other policies inconsistent with the “free-speech-as-liberty” view. Thus Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel takes a far more interventionist approach to private speech:

The First Amendment does more than protect the interests of corporations. As courts have long recognized, it is a force to support individual interest in self-expression and the right of the public to receive information and ideas. As Justice Black so eloquently put it, “the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.” Our leased access rules provide opportunity for civic participation. They enhance the marketplace of ideas by increasing the number of speakers and the variety of viewpoints. They help preserve the possibility of a diverse, pluralistic medium—just as Congress called for the Cable Communications Policy Act… The proper inquiry then, is not simply whether corporations providing channel capacity have First Amendment rights, but whether this law abridges expression that the First Amendment was meant to protect. Here, our leased access rules are not content-based and their purpose and effect is to promote free speech. Moreover, they accomplish this in a narrowly-tailored way that does not substantially burden more speech than is necessary to further important interests. In other words, they are not at odds with the First Amendment, but instead help effectuate its purpose for all of us. (Emphasis added).

Consistent with the progressive approach, this leaves discretion in the hands of “experts” (like Rosenworcel) to determine what needs to be done in order to protect the underlying value of free speech in the First Amendment through government regulation, even if it means compelling speech upon private actors. 

Trump’s view of what the First Amendment’s free speech protections entail when it comes to social media companies is inconsistent with the conception of the Constitution-as-guarantor-of-negative-liberty that conservatives have long embraced. 

Of course, this is not merely a “conservative” position; it is fundamental to the longstanding bipartisan approach to free speech generally and to the regulation of online platforms specifically. As a diverse group of 75 scholars and civil society groups (including ICLE) wrote yesterday in their “Principles for Lawmakers on Liability for User-Generated Content Online”:

Principle #2: Any new intermediary liability law must not target constitutionally protected speech.

The government shouldn’t require—or coerce—intermediaries to remove constitutionally protected speech that the government cannot prohibit directly. Such demands violate the First Amendment. Also, imposing broad liability for user speech incentivizes services to err on the side of taking down speech, resulting in overbroad censorship—or even avoid offering speech forums altogether.

As those principles suggest, the sort of platform regulation that Trump, et al. advocate — essentially a “fairness doctrine” for the Internet — is the opposite of free speech:

Principle #4: Section 230 does not, and should not, require “neutrality.”

Publishing third-party content online never can be “neutral.” Indeed, every publication decision will necessarily prioritize some content at the expense of other content. Even an “objective” approach, such as presenting content in reverse chronological order, isn’t neutral because it prioritizes recency over other values. By protecting the prioritization, de-prioritization, and removal of content, Section 230 provides Internet services with the legal certainty they need to do the socially beneficial work of minimizing harmful content.

The idea that social media should be subject to a nondiscrimination requirement — for which President Trump and others like Senator Josh Hawley have been arguing lately — is flatly contrary to Section 230 — as well as to the First Amendment.

Conservatives upset about “social media discrimination” need to think hard about whether they really want to adopt this sort of position out of convenience, when the tradition with which they align rejects it — rightly — in nearly all other venues. Even if you believe that Facebook, Google, and Twitter are trying to make it harder for conservative voices to be heard (despite all evidence to the contrary), it is imprudent to reject constitutional first principles for a temporary policy victory. In fact, there’s nothing at all “conservative” about an abdication of the traditional principle linking freedom to property for the sake of political expediency.