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Twitter’s decision to begin fact-checking the President’s tweets caused a long-simmering distrust between conservatives and online platforms to boil over late last month. This has led some conservatives to ask whether Section 230, the ‘safe harbour’ law that protects online platforms from certain liability stemming from content posted on their websites by users, is allowing online platforms to unfairly target conservative speech. 

In response to Twitter’s decision, along with an Executive Order released by the President that attacked Section 230, Senator Josh Hawley (R – MO) offered a new bill targeting online platforms, the “Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act”. This would require online platforms to engage in “good faith” moderation according to clearly stated terms of service – in effect, restricting Section 230’s protections to online platforms deemed to have done enough to moderate content ‘fairly’.  

While seemingly a sensible standard, if enacted, this approach would violate the First Amendment as an unconstitutional condition to a government benefit, thereby  undermining long-standing conservative principles and the ability of conservatives to be treated fairly online. 

There is established legal precedent that Congress may not grant benefits on conditions that violate Constitutionally-protected rights. In Rumsfeld v. FAIR, the Supreme Court stated that a law that withheld funds from universities that did not allow military recruiters on campus would be unconstitutional if it constrained those universities’ First Amendment rights to free speech. Since the First Amendment protects the right to editorial discretion, including the right of online platforms to make their own decisions on moderation, Congress may not condition Section 230 immunity on platforms taking a certain editorial stance it has dictated. 

Aware of this precedent, the bill attempts to circumvent the obstacle by taking away Section 230 immunity for issues unrelated to anti-conservative bias in moderation. Specifically, Senator Hawley’s bill attempts to condition immunity for platforms on having terms of service for content moderation, and making them subject to lawsuits if they do not act in “good faith” in policing them. 

It’s not even clear that the bill would do what Senator Hawley wants it to. The “good faith” standard only appears to apply to the enforcement of an online platform’s terms of service. It can’t, under the First Amendment, actually dictate what those terms of service say. So an online platform could, in theory, explicitly state in their terms of service that they believe some forms of conservative speech are “hate speech” they will not allow.

Mandating terms of service on content moderation is arguably akin to disclosures like labelling requirements, because it makes clear to platforms’ customers what they’re getting. There are, however, some limitations under the commercial speech doctrine as to what government can require. Under National Institute of Family & Life Advocates v. Becerra, a requirement for terms of service outlining content moderation policies would be upheld unless “unjustified or unduly burdensome.” A disclosure mandate alone would not be unconstitutional. 

But it is clear from the statutory definition of “good faith” that Senator Hawley is trying to overwhelm online platforms with lawsuits on the grounds that they have enforced these rules selectively and therefore not in “good faith”.

These “selective enforcement” lawsuits would make it practically impossible for platforms to moderate content at all, because they would open them up to being sued for any moderation, including moderation  completely unrelated to any purported anti-conservative bias. Any time a YouTuber was aggrieved about a video being pulled down as too sexually explicit, for example, they could file suit and demand that Youtube release information on whether all other similarly situated users were treated the same way. Any time a post was flagged on Facebook, for example for engaging in online bullying or for spreading false information, it could similarly lead to the same situation. 

This would end up requiring courts to act as the arbiter of decency and truth in order to even determine whether online platforms are “selectively enforcing” their terms of service.

Threatening liability for all third-party content is designed to force online platforms to give up moderating content on a perceived political basis. The result will be far less content moderation on a whole range of other areas. It is precisely this scenario that Section 230 was designed to prevent, in order to encourage platforms to moderate things like pornography that would otherwise proliferate on their sites, without exposing themselves to endless legal challenge.

It is likely that this would be unconstitutional as well. Forcing online platforms to choose between exercising their First Amendment rights to editorial discretion and retaining the benefits of Section 230 is exactly what the “unconstitutional conditions” jurisprudence is about. 

This is why conservatives have long argued the government has no business compelling speech. They opposed the “fairness doctrine” which required that radio stations provide a “balanced discussion”, and in practice allowed courts or federal agencies to determine content  until President Reagan overturned it. Later, President Bush appointee and then-FTC Chairman Tim Muris rejected a complaint against Fox News for its “Fair and Balanced” slogan, stating:

I am not aware of any instance in which the Federal Trade Commission has investigated the slogan of a news organization. There is no way to evaluate this petition without evaluating the content of the news at issue. That is a task the First Amendment leaves to the American people, not a government agency.

And recently conservatives were arguing businesses like Masterpiece Cakeshop should not be compelled to exercise their First Amendment rights against their will. All of these cases demonstrate once the state starts to try to stipulate what views can and cannot be broadcast by private organisations, conservatives will be the ones who suffer.

Senator Hawley’s bill fails to acknowledge this. Worse, it fails to live up to the Constitution, and would trample over the rights to freedom of speech that it gives. Conservatives should reject it.

[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.

By Berin Szoka, Geoffrey Manne & Ryan Radia

As has become customary with just about every new product announcement by Google these days, the company’s introduction on Tuesday of its new “Search, plus Your World” (SPYW) program, which aims to incorporate a user’s Google+ content into her organic search results, has met with cries of antitrust foul play. All the usual blustering and speculation in the latest Google antitrust debate has obscured what should, however, be the two key prior questions: (1) Did Google violate the antitrust laws by not including data from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks in its new SPYW program alongside Google+ content; and (2) How might antitrust restrain Google in conditioning participation in this program in the future?

The answer to the first is a clear no. The second is more complicated—but also purely speculative at this point, especially because it’s not even clear Facebook and Twitter really want to be included or what their price and conditions for doing so would be. So in short, it’s hard to see what there is to argue about yet.

Let’s consider both questions in turn.

Should Google Have Included Other Services Prior to SPYW’s Launch?

Google says it’s happy to add non-Google content to SPYW but, as Google fellow Amit Singhal told Danny Sullivan, a leading search engine journalist:

Facebook and Twitter and other services, basically, their terms of service don’t allow us to crawl them deeply and store things. Google+ is the only [network] that provides such a persistent service,… Of course, going forward, if others were willing to change, we’d look at designing things to see how it would work.

In a follow-up story, Sullivan quotes his interview with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt about how this would work:

“To start with, we would have a conversation with them,” Schmidt said, about settling any differences.

I replied that with the Google+ suggestions now hitting Google, there was no need to have any discussions or formal deals. Google’s regular crawling, allowed by both Twitter and Facebook, was a form of “automated conversation” giving Google material it could use.

“Anything we do with companies like that, it’s always better to have a conversion,” Schmidt said.

MG Siegler calls this “doublespeak” and seems to think Google violated the antitrust laws by not making SPYW more inclusive right out of the gate. He insists Google didn’t need permission to include public data in SPYW:

Both Twitter and Facebook have data that is available to the public. It’s data that Google crawls. It’s data that Google even has some social context for thanks to older Google Profile features, as Sullivan points out.

It’s not all the data inside the walls of Twitter and Facebook — hence the need for firehose deals. But the data Google can get is more than enough for many of the high level features of Search+ — like the “People and Places” box, for example.

It’s certainly true that if you search Google for “site:twitter.com” or “site:facebook.com,” you’ll get billions of search results from publicly-available Facebook and Twitter pages, and that Google already has some friend connection data via social accounts you might have linked to your Google profile (check out this dashboard), as Sullivan notes. But the public data isn’t available in real-time, and the private, social connection data is limited and available only for users who link their accounts. For Google to access real-time results and full social connection data would require… you guessed it… permission from Twitter (or Facebook)! As it happens, Twitter and Google had a deal for a “data firehose” so that Google could display tweets in real-time under the “personalized search” program for public social information that SPYW builds on top of. But Twitter ended the deal last May for reasons neither company has explained.

At best, therefore, Google might have included public, relatively stale social information from Twitter and Facebook in SPYW—content that is, in any case, already included in basic search results and remains available there. The real question, however, isn’t could Google have included this data in SPYW, but rather need they have? If Google’s engineers and executives decided that the incorporation of this limited data would present an inconsistent user experience or otherwise diminish its uniquely new social search experience, it’s hard to fault the company for deciding to exclude it. Moreover, as an antitrust matter, both the economics and the law of anticompetitive product design are uncertain. In general, as with issues surrounding the vertical integration claims against Google, product design that hurts rivals can (it should be self-evident) be quite beneficial for consumers. Here, it’s difficult to see how the exclusion of non-Google+ social media from SPYW could raise the costs of Google’s rivals, result in anticompetitive foreclosure, retard rivals’ incentives for innovation, or otherwise result in anticompetitive effects (as required to establish an antitrust claim).

Further, it’s easy to see why Google’s lawyers would prefer express permission from competitors before using their content in this way. After all, Google was denounced last year for “scraping” a different type of social content, user reviews, most notably by Yelp’s CEO at the contentious Senate antitrust hearing in September. Perhaps one could distinguish that situation from this one, but it’s not obvious where to draw the line between content Google has a duty to include without “making excuses” about needing permission and content Google has a duty not to include without express permission. Indeed, this seems like a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” It seems only natural for Google to be gun-shy about “scraping” other services’ public content for use in its latest search innovation without at least first conducting, as Eric Schmidt puts it, a “conversation.”

And as we noted, integrating non-public content would require not just permission but active coordination about implementation. SPYW displays Google+ content only to users who are logged into their Google+ account. Similarly, to display content shared with a user’s friends (but not the world) on Facebook, or protected tweets, Google would need a feed of that private data and a way of logging the user into his or her account on those sites.

Now, if Twitter truly wants Google to feature tweets in Google’s personalized search results, why did Twitter end its agreement with Google last year? Google responded to Twitter’s criticism of its SPYW launch last night with a short Google+ statement:

We are a bit surprised by Twitter’s comments about Search plus Your World, because they chose not to renew their agreement with us last summer, and since then we have observed their rel=nofollow instructions [by removing Twitter content results from “personalized search” results].

Perhaps Twitter simply got a better deal: Microsoft may have paid Twitter $30 million last year for a similar deal allowing Bing users to receive Twitter results. If Twitter really is playing hardball, Google is not guilty of discriminating against Facebook and Twitter in favor of its own social platform. Rather, it’s simply unwilling to pony up the cash that Facebook and Twitter are demanding—and there’s nothing illegal about that.

Indeed, the issue may go beyond a simple pricing dispute. If you were CEO of Twitter or Facebook, would you really think it was a net-win if your users could use Google search as an interface for your site? After all, these social networking sites are in an intense war for eyeballs: the more time users spend on Google, the more ads Google can sell, to the detriment of Facebook or Twitter. Facebook probably sees itself increasingly in direct competition with Google as a tool for finding information. Its social network has vastly more users than Google+ (800 million v 62 million, but even larger lead in active users), and, in most respects, more social functionality. The one area where Facebook lags is search functionality. Would Facebook really want to let Google become the tool for searching social networks—one social search engine “to rule them all“? Or would Facebook prefer to continue developing “social search” in partnership with Bing? On Bing, it can control how its content appears—and Facebook sees Microsoft as a partner, not a rival (at least until it can build its own search functionality inside the web’s hottest property).

Adding to this dynamic, and perhaps ultimately fueling some of the fire against SPYW, is the fact that many Google+ users seem to be multi-homing, using both Facebook and Google+ (and other social networks) at the same time, and even using various aggregators and syncing tools (Start Google+, for example) to unify social media streams and share content among them. Before SPYW, this might have seemed like a boon to Facebook, staunching any potential defectors from its network onto Google+ by keeping them engaged with both, with a kind of “Facebook primacy” ensuring continued eyeball time on its site. But Facebook might see SPYW as a threat to this primacy—in effect, reversing users’ primary “home” as they effectively import their Facebook data into SPYW via their Google+ accounts (such as through Start Google+). If SPYW can effectively facilitate indirect Google searching of private Facebook content, the fears we suggest above may be realized, and more users may forego vistiing Facebook.com (and seeing its advertisers), accessing much of their Facebook content elsewhere—where Facebook cannot monetize their attention.

Amidst all the antitrust hand-wringing over SPYW and Google’s decision to “go it alone” for now, it’s worth noting that Facebook has remained silent. Even Twitter has said little more than a tweet’s worth about the issue. It’s simply not clear that Google’s rivals would even want to participate in SPYW. This could still be bad for consumers, but in that case, the source of the harm, if any, wouldn’t be Google. If this all sounds speculative, it is—and that’s precisely the point. No one really knows. So, again, what’s to argue about on Day 3 of the new social search paradigm?

The Debate to Come: Conditioning Access to SPYW

While Twitter and Facebook may well prefer that Google not index their content on SPYW—at least, not unless Google is willing to pay up—suppose the social networking firms took Google up on its offer to have a “conversation” about greater cooperation. Google hasn’t made clear on what terms it would include content from other social media platforms. So it’s at least conceivable that, when pressed to make good on its lofty-but-vague offer to include other platforms, Google might insist on unacceptable terms. In principle, there are essentially three possibilities here:

  1. Antitrust law requires nothing because there are pro-consumer benefits for Google to make SPYW exclusive and no clear harm to competition (as distinct from harm to competitors) for doing so, as our colleague Josh Wright argues.
  2. Antitrust law requires Google to grant competitors access to SPYW on commercially reasonable terms.
  3. Antitrust law requires Google to grant such access on terms dictated by its competitors, even if unreasonable to Google.

Door #3 is a legal non-starter. In Aspen Skiing v. Aspen Highlands (1985), the Supreme Court came the closest it has ever come to endorsing the “essential facilities” doctrine by which a competitor has a duty to offer its facilities to competitors. But in Verizon Communications v. Trinko (2004), the Court made clear that even Aspen Skiing is “at or near the outer boundary of § 2 liability.” Part of the basis for the decision in Aspen Skiing was the existence of a prior, profitable relationship between the “essential facility” in question and the competitor seeking access. Although the assumption is neither warranted nor sufficient (circumstances change, of course, and merely “profitable” is not the same thing as “best available use of a resource”), the Court in Aspen Skiing seems to have been swayed by the view that the access in question was otherwise profitable for the company that was denying it. Trinko limited the reach of the doctrine to the extraordinary circumstances of Aspen Skiing, and thus, as the Court affirmed in Pacific Bell v. LinkLine (2008), it seems there is no antitrust duty for a firm to offer access to a competitor on commercially unreasonable terms (as Geoff Manne discusses at greater length in his chapter on search bias in TechFreedom’s free ebook, The Next Digital Decade).

So Google either has no duty to deal at all, or a duty to deal only on reasonable terms. But what would a competitor have to show to establish such a duty? And how would “reasonableness” be defined?

First, this issue parallels claims made more generally about Google’s supposed “search bias.” As Josh Wright has said about those claims, “[p]roperly articulated vertical foreclosure theories proffer both that bias is (1) sufficient in magnitude to exclude Google’s rivals from achieving efficient scale, and (2) actually directed at Google’s rivals.” Supposing (for the moment) that the second point could be established, it’s hard to see how Facebook or Twitter could really show that being excluded from SPYW—while still having their available content show up as it always has in Google’s “organic” search results—would actually “render their efforts to compete for distribution uneconomical,” which, as Josh explains, antitrust law would require them to show. Google+ is a tiny service compared to Google or Facebook. And even Google itself, for all the awe and loathing it inspires, lags in the critical metric of user engagement, keeping the average user on site for only a quarter as much time as Facebook.

Moreover, by these same measures, it’s clear that Facebook and Twitter don’t need access to Google search results at all, much less its relatively trivial SPYW results, in order find, and be found by, users; it’s difficult to know from what even vaguely relevant market they could possibly be foreclosed by their absence from SPYW results. Does SPYW potentially help Google+, to Facebook’s detriment? Yes. Just as Facebook’s deal with Microsoft hurts Google. But this is called competition. The world would be a desolate place if antitrust laws effectively prohibited firms from making decisions that helped themselves at their competitors’ expense.

After all, no one seems to be suggesting that Microsoft should be forced to include Google+ results in Bing—and rightly so. Microsoft’s exclusive partnership with Facebook is an important example of how a market leader in one area (Facebook in social) can help a market laggard in another (Microsoft in search) compete more effectively with a common rival (Google). In other words, banning exclusive deals can actually make it more difficult to unseat an incumbent (like Google), especially where the technologies involved are constantly evolving, as here.

Antitrust meddling in such arrangements, particularly in high-risk, dynamic markets where large up-front investments are frequently required (and lost), risks deterring innovation and reducing the very dynamism from which consumers reap such incredible rewards. “Reasonable” is a dangerously slippery concept in such markets, and a recipe for costly errors by the courts asked to define the concept. We suspect that disputes arising out of these sorts of deals will largely boil down to skirmishes over pricing, financing and marketing—the essential dilemma of new media services whose business models are as much the object of innovation as their technologies. Turning these, by little more than innuendo, into nefarious anticompetitive schemes is extremely—and unnecessarily—risky. Continue Reading…