The writing is on the wall for Big Tech: regulation is coming. At least, that is what the House Judiciary Committee’s report into competition in digital markets would like us to believe.
The Subcommittee’s Majority members, led by Rhode Island’s Rep. David Cicilline, are calling for a complete overhaul of America’s antitrust and regulatory apparatus. This would notably entail a break up of America’s largest tech firms, by prohibiting them from operating digital platforms and competing on them at the same time. Unfortunately, the report ignores the tremendous costs that such proposals would impose upon consumers and companies alike.
For several years now, there has been growing pushback against the perceived“unfairness” of America’s tech industry: of large tech platforms favoring their own products at the expense of entrepreneurs who use their platforms; of incumbents acquiring startups to quash competition; of platforms overcharging companies like Epic Games, Spotify, and the media, just because they can; and of tech companies that spy on their users and use that data to sell them things they don’t need.
But this portrayal of America’s tech industry obscures an inconvenient possibility: supposing that these perceived ills even occur, there is every chance that the House’s reforms would merely exacerbate the status quo. The House report gives short shrift to this eventuality, but it should not.
Over the last decade, the tech sector has been the crown jewel of America’s economy. And while firms like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple, may have grown at a blistering pace, countless others have flourished in their wake.
Google and Apple’s app stores have given rise to a booming mobile software industry. Platforms like Youtube and Instagram have created new venues for advertisers and ushered in a new generation of entrepreneurs including influencers, podcasters, and marketing experts. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have disintermediated the production of news media, allowing ever more people to share their ideas with the rest of the world (mostly for better, and sometimes for worse). Amazon has opened up new markets for thousands of retailers, some of which are now going public. The recent $3.4 billion Snowflake IPO may have been the biggest public offering of a tech firm no one has heard of.
The trillion dollar question is whether it is possible to regulate this thriving industry without stifling its unparalleled dynamism. If Rep. Cicilline’s House report is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding no.
Acquisition by a Big Tech firm is one way for startups to rapidly scale and reach a wider audience, while allowing early investors to make a quick exit. Self-preferencing can enable platforms to tailor their services to the needs and desires of users (Apple and Google’s pre-installed app suites are arguably what drive users to opt for their devices). Excluding bad apples from a platform is essential to gain users’ trust and build a strong reputation. Finally, in the online retail space, copying rival products via house brands provides consumers with competitively priced goods and helps new distributors enter the market.
All of these practices would either be heavily scrutinized or outright banned under the Subcommittee ’s proposed reforms. Beyond its direct impact on the quality of online goods and services, this huge shift would threaten the climate of permissionless innovation that has arguably been key to Silicon Valley’s success.
More fundamentally, these reforms would mostly protect certain privileged rivals at the expense of the wider industry. Take Apple’s App Store: Epic Games and others have complained about the 30% Commission charged by Apple for in-app purchases (as is standard throughout the industry). Yet, as things stand, roughly 80% of apps pay no commission at all. Tackling this 30% commission — for instance by allowing developers to bypass Apple’s in-app payment processing — would almost certainly result in larger fees for small developers. In short, regulation could significantly impede smaller firms.
Fortunately, there is another way. For decades, antitrust law — guided by the judge-made consumer welfare standard — has been the cornerstone of economic policy in the US. During that time, America built a tech industry that is the envy of the world. This should give pause to would-be reformers. There is a real chance overbearing regulation will permanently hamper America’s tech industry. With competition from China more intense than ever, it is a risk that the US cannot afford to take.
With the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, many have already noted her impact on the law as an advocate for gender equality and women’s rights, her importance as a role model for women, and her civility. Indeed, a key piece of her legacy is that she was a jurist in the classic sense of the word: she believed in using coherent legal reasoning to reach a result. And that meant Justice Ginsburg’s decisions sometimes cut against partisan political expectations.
This is clearly demonstrated in our little corner of the law: RBG frequently voted in the majority on antitrust cases in a manner that—to populist leftwing observers—would be surprising. Moreover, she authored an important case on price discrimination that likewise cuts against the expectation of populist antitrust critics and demonstrates her nuanced jurisprudence.
RBG’s record on the Court shows a respect for the evolving nature of antitrust law
In the absence of written opinions of her own, it is difficult to discern what was actually in Justice Ginsburg’s mind as she encountered antitrust issues. But, her voting record represents at least a willingness to approach antitrust in an apolitical manner.
Over the last several decades, Justice Ginsburg joined the Supreme Court majority in many cases dealing with a wide variety of antitrust issues, including the duty to deal doctrine, vertical restraints, joint ventures, and mergers. In many of these cases, RBG aligned herself with judgments of the type that the antitrust populists criticize.
The following are major consumer welfare standard cases that helped shape the current state of antitrust law in which she joined the majority or issued a concurrence:
Verizon Commc’ns Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398 (2004) (unanimous opinion heightening the standard for finding a duty to deal)
Pacific Bell Tel. Co v. linkLine Commc’ns, Inc., 555 U.S. 438 (2009) (Justice Ginsburg joined the concurrence finding there was no “price squeeze” but suggesting the predatory pricing claim should be remanded)
Weyerhaeuser Co. v. Ross-Simmons Hardwood Lumber Co., Inc., 549 U.S. 312 (2007) (unanimous opinion finding predatory buying claims are still subject to the dangerous probability of recoupment test from Brooke Group)
Apple, Inc. v. Robert Pepper, 139 S.Ct. 1514 (2019) (part of majority written by Justice Kavanaugh finding that iPhone owners were direct purchasers under Illinois Brick that may sue Apple for alleged monopolization)
State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3 (1997) (unanimous opinion overturning per se treatment of vertical maximum price fixing under Albrecht and applying rule of reason standard)
Texaco Inc. v. Dagher, 547 U.S. 1 (2006) (unanimous opinion finding it is not per se illegal under §1 of the Sherman Act for a lawful, economically integrated joint venture to set the prices at which it sells its products)
Illinois Tool Works Inc. v. Independent Ink, Inc., 547 U.S. 28 (2006) (unanimous opinion finding a patent does not necessarily confer market power upon the patentee, in all cases involving a tying arrangement, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant has market power in the tying product)
U.S. v. Baker Hughes, Inc., 908 F. 2d 981 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (unanimous opinion written by then-Judge Clarence Thomas while both were on the D.C. Circuit of Appeals finding against the government’s argument that the defendant in a Section 7 merger challenge can rebut a prima facie case only by a clear showing that entry into the market by competitors would be quick and effective)
Even where she joined the dissent in antitrust cases, she did so within the ambit of the consumer welfare standard. Thus, while she was part of the dissent in cases like Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc., 551 U.S. 877 (2007), Bell Atlantic Corp v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ohio v. American Express Co., 138 S.Ct. 2274 (2018), she still left a legacy of supporting modern antitrust jurisprudence. In those cases, RBG simply had a different vision for how best to optimize consumer welfare.
Justice Ginsburg’s Volvo Opinion
The 2006 decision Volvo Trucks North America, Inc. v. Reeder-Simco GMC, Inc. was one of the few antitrust decisions authored by RBG and shows her appreciation for the consumer welfare standard. In particular, Justice Ginsburg affirmed the notion that antitrust law is designed to protect competition not competitors—a lesson that, as of late, needs to be refreshed.
Volvo, a 7-2 decision, dealt with the Robinson-Patman Act’s prohibition on price discimination. Reeder-Simco, a retail car dealer that sold Volvos, alleged that Volvo Inc. was violating the Robinson-Patman Act by selling cars to them at different prices than to other Volvo dealers.
The Robinson-Patman Act is frequently cited by antitrust populists as a way to return antitrust law to its former glory. A main argument of Lina Khan’s Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox was that the Chicago School had distorted the law on vertical restraints generally, and price discrimination in particular. One source of this distortion in Khan’s opinion has been the Supreme Court’s mishandling of the Robinson-Patman Act.
Yet, in Volvo we see Justice Ginsburg wrestling with the Robinson-Patman Act in a way to give effect to the law as written, which may run counter to some of the contemporary populist impulse to revise the Court’s interpretation of antitrust laws. Justice Ginsburg, citing Brown & Williamson, first noted that:
Mindful of the purposes of the Act and of the antitrust laws generally, we have explained that Robinson-Patman does not “ban all price differences charged to different purchasers of commodities of like grade and quality.”
Instead, the Robinson-Patman Act was aimed at a particular class of harms that Congress believed existed when large chain-stores were able to exert something like monopsony buying power. Moreover, Justice Ginsburg noted, the Act “proscribes ‘price discrimination only to the extent that it threatens to injure competition’[.]”
Under the Act, plaintiffs needed to demonstrate evidence of Volvo Inc. systematically treating plaintiffs as “disfavored” purchasers as against another set of “favored” purchasers. Instead, all plaintiffs could produce was anecdotal and inconsistent evidence of Volvo Inc. disfavoring them. Thus, the plaintiffs— and theoretically other similarly situated Volvo dealers— were in fact harmed in a sense by Volvo Inc. Yet, Justice Ginsburg was unwilling to rewrite the Act on Congress’s behalf to incorporate new harms later discovered (a fact which would not earn her accolades in populist circles these days).
Instead, Justice Ginsburg wrote that:
Interbrand competition, our opinions affirm, is the “primary concern of antitrust law.”… The Robinson-Patman Act signals no large departure from that main concern. Even if the Act’s text could be construed in the manner urged by [plaintiffs], we would resist interpretation geared more to the protection of existing competitors than to the stimulation of competition. In the case before us, there is no evidence that any favored purchaser possesses market power, the allegedly favored purchasers are dealers with little resemblance to large independent department stores or chain operations, and the supplier’s selective price discounting fosters competition among suppliers of different brands… By declining to extend Robinson-Patman’s governance to such cases, we continue to construe the Act “consistently with broader policies of the antitrust laws.” Brooke Group, 509 U.S., at 220… (cautioning against Robinson-Patman constructions that “extend beyond the prohibitions of the Act and, in doing so, help give rise to a price uniformity and rigidity in open conflict with the purposes of other antitrust legislation”).
Thus, interested in the soundness of her jurisprudence in the face of a well-developed body of antitrust law, Justice Ginsburg chose to continue to develop that body of law rather than engage in judicial policymaking in favor of a sympathetic plaintiff.
It must surely be tempting for a justice on the Court to adopt less principled approaches to the law in any given case, and it is equally as impressive that Justice Ginsburg consistently stuck to her principles. We can only hope her successor takes note of Justice Ginsburg’s example.
Apple’s legal team will be relieved that “you reap what you sow” is just a proverb. After a long-running antitrust battle against Qualcomm unsurprisingly ended in failure, Apple now faces antitrust accusations of its own (most notably from Epic Games). Somewhat paradoxically, this turn of events might cause Apple to see its previous defeat in a new light. Indeed, the well-established antitrust principles that scuppered Apple’s challenge against Qualcomm will now be the rock upon which it builds its legal defense.
But while Apple’s reversal of fortunes might seem anecdotal, it neatly illustrates a fundamental – and often overlooked – principle of antitrust policy: Antitrust law is about maximizing consumer welfare. Accordingly, the allocation of surplus between two companies is only incidentally relevant to antitrust proceedings, and it certainly is not a goal in and of itself. In other words, antitrust law is not about protecting David from Goliath.
Jockeying over the distribution of surplus
Or at least that is the theory. In practice, however, most antitrust cases are but small parts of much wider battles where corporations use courts and regulators in order to jockey for market position and/or tilt the distribution of surplus in their favor. The Microsoft competition suits brought by the DOJ and the European commission (in the EU and US) partly originated from complaints, and lobbying, by Sun Microsystems, Novell, and Netscape. Likewise, the European Commission’s case against Google was prompted by accusations from Microsoft and Oracle, among others. The European Intel case was initiated following a complaint by AMD. The list goes on.
The last couple of years have witnessed a proliferation of antitrust suits that are emblematic of this type of power tussle. For instance, Apple has been notoriously industrious in using the court system to lower the royalties that it pays to Qualcomm for LTE chips. One of the focal points of Apple’s discontent was Qualcomm’s policy of basing royalties on the end-price of devices (Qualcomm charged iPhone manufacturers a 5% royalty rate on their handset sales – and Apple received further rebates):
“The whole idea of a percentage of the cost of the phone didn’t make sense to us,” [Apple COO Jeff Williams] said. “It struck at our very core of fairness. At the time we were making something really really different.”
This pricing dispute not only gave rise to high-profile court cases, it also led Apple to lobby Standard Developing Organizations (“SDOs”) in a partly successful attempt to make them amend their patent policies, so as to prevent this type of pricing.
However, in a highly ironic turn of events, Apple now finds itself on the receiving end of strikingly similar allegations. At issue is the 30% commission that Apple charges for in app purchases on the iPhone and iPad. These “high” commissions led several companies to lodge complaints with competition authorities (Spotify and Facebook, in the EU) and file antitrust suits against Apple (Epic Games, in the US).
Of course, these complaints are couched in more sophisticated, and antitrust-relevant, reasoning. But that doesn’t alter the fact that these disputes are ultimately driven by firms trying to tilt the allocation of surplus in their favor (for a more detailed explanation, see Apple and Qualcomm).
Pushback from courts: The Qualcomm case
Against this backdrop, a string of recent cases sends a clear message to would-be plaintiffs: antitrust courts will not be drawn into rent allocation disputes that have no bearing on consumer welfare.
The best example of this judicial trend is Qualcomm’s victory before the United States Court of Appeal for the 9th Circuit. The case centered on the royalties that Qualcomm charged to OEMs for its Standard Essential Patents (SEPs). Both the district court and the FTC found that Qualcomm had deployed a series of tactics (rebates, refusals to deal, etc) that enabled it to circumvent its FRAND pledges.
However, the Court of Appeal was not convinced. It failed to find any consumer harm, or recognizable antitrust infringement. Instead, it held that the dispute at hand was essentially a matter of contract law:
To the extent Qualcomm has breached any of its FRAND commitments, a conclusion we need not and do not reach, the remedy for such a breach lies in contract and patent law.
This is not surprising. From the outset, numerous critics pointed that the case lied well beyond the narrow confines of antitrust law. The scathing dissenting statement written by Commissioner Maureen Olhaussen is revealing:
[I]n the Commission’s 2-1 decision to sue Qualcomm, I face an extraordinary situation: an enforcement action based on a flawed legal theory (including a standalone Section 5 count) that lacks economic and evidentiary support, that was brought on the eve of a new presidential administration, and that, by its mere issuance, will undermine U.S. intellectual property rights in Asia and worldwide. These extreme circumstances compel me to voice my objections.
In reaching its conclusion, the Court notably rejected the notion that SEP royalties should be systematically based upon the “Smallest Saleable Patent Practicing Unit” (or SSPPU):
Even if we accept that the modem chip in a cellphone is the cellphone’s SSPPU, the district court’s analysis is still fundamentally flawed. No court has held that the SSPPU concept is a per se rule for “reasonable royalty” calculations; instead, the concept is used as a tool in jury cases to minimize potential jury confusion when the jury is weighing complex expert testimony about patent damages.
Similarly, it saw no objection to Qualcomm licensing its technology at the OEM level (rather than the component level):
Qualcomm’s rationale for “switching” to OEM-level licensing was not “to sacrifice short-term benefitsin order to obtain higher profits in the long run from the exclusion of competition,” the second element of the Aspen Skiing exception. Aerotec Int’l, 836 F.3d at 1184 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Instead, Qualcomm responded to the change in patent-exhaustion law by choosing the path that was “far more lucrative,” both in the short term and the long term, regardless of any impacts on competition.
Finally, the Court concluded that a firm breaching its FRAND pledges did not automatically amount to anticompetitive conduct:
We decline to adopt a theory of antitrust liability that would presume anticompetitive conduct any time a company could not prove that the “fair value” of its SEP portfolios corresponds to the prices the market appears willing to pay for those SEPs in the form of licensing royalty rates.
Taken together, these findings paint a very clear picture. The Qualcomm Court repeatedly rejected the radical idea that US antitrust law should concern itself with the prices charged by monopolists — as opposed to practices that allow firms to illegally acquire or maintain a monopoly position. The words of Learned Hand and those of Antonin Scalia (respectively, below) loom large:
The successful competitor, having been urged to compete, must not be turned upon when he wins.
To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.
Other courts (both in the US and abroad) have reached similar conclusions
For instance, a district court in Texas dismissed a suit brought by Continental Automotive Systems (which supplies electronic systems to the automotive industry) against a group of SEP holders.
Continental challenged the patent holders’ decision to license their technology at the vehicle rather than component level (the allegation is very similar to the FTC’s complaint that Qualcomm licensed its SEPs at the OEM, rather than chipset level). However, following a forceful intervention by the DOJ, the Court ultimately held that the facts alleged by Continental were not indicative of antitrust injury. It thus dismissed the case.
Likewise, within weeks of the Qualcomm and Continental decisions, the UK Supreme court also ruled in favor of SEP holders. In its Unwired Planet ruling, the Court concluded that discriminatory licenses did not automatically infringe competition law (even though they might breach a firm’s contractual obligations):
[I]t cannot be said that there is any general presumption that differential pricing for licensees is problematic in terms of the public or private interests at stake.
In reaching this conclusion, the UK Supreme Court emphasized that the determination of whether licenses were FRAND, or not, was first and foremost a matter of contract law. In the case at hand, the most important guide to making this determination were the internal rules of the relevant SDO (as opposed to competition case law):
Since price discrimination is the norm as a matter of licensing practice and may promote objectives which the ETSI regime is intended to promote (such as innovation and consumer welfare), it would have required far clearer language in the ETSI FRAND undertaking to indicate an intention to impose the more strict, “hard-edged” non-discrimination obligation for which Huawei contends. Further, in view of the prevalence of competition laws in the major economies around the world, it is to be expected that any anti-competitive effects from differential pricing would be most appropriately addressed by those laws.
All of this ultimately led the Court to rule in favor of Unwired Planet, thus dismissing Huawei’s claims that it had infringed competition law by breaching its FRAND pledges.
In short, courts and antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have repeatedly, and unambiguously, concluded that pricing disputes (albeit in the specific context of technological standards) are generally a matter of contract law. Antitrust/competition law intercedes only when unfair/excessive/discriminatory prices are both caused by anticompetitive behavior and result in anticompetitive injury.
Apple’s Loss is… Apple’s gain.
Readers might wonder how the above cases relate to Apple’s app store. But, on closer inspection the parallels are numerous. As explained above, courts have repeatedly stressed that antitrust enforcement should not concern itself with the allocation of surplus between commercial partners. Yet that is precisely what Epic Game’s suit against Apple is all about.
Indeed, Epic’s central claim is not that it is somehow foreclosed from Apple’s App Store (for example, because Apple might have agreed to exclusively distribute the games of one of Epic’s rivals). Instead, all of its objections are down to the fact that it would like to access Apple’s store under more favorable terms:
Apple’s conduct denies developers the choice of how best to distribute their apps. Developers are barred from reaching over one billion iOS users unless they go through Apple’s App Store, and on Apple’s terms. […]
Thus, developers are dependent on Apple’s noblesse oblige, as Apple may deny access to the App Store, change the terms of access, or alter the tax it imposes on developers, all in its sole discretion and on the commercially devastating threat of the developer losing access to the entire iOS userbase. […]
By imposing its 30% tax, Apple necessarily forces developers to suffer lower profits, reduce the quantity or quality of their apps, raise prices to consumers, or some combination of the three.
And the parallels with the Qualcomm litigation do not stop there. Epic is effectively asking courts to make Apple monetize its platform at a different level than the one that it chose to maximize its profits (no more monetization at the app store level). Similarly, Epic Games omits any suggestion of profit sacrifice on the part of Apple — even though it is a critical element of most unilateral conduct theories of harm. Finally, Epic is challenging conduct that is both the industry norm and emerged in a highly competitive setting.
In short, all of Epic’s allegations are about monopoly prices, not monopoly maintenance or monopolization. Accordingly, just as the SEP cases discussed above were plainly beyond the outer bounds of antitrust enforcement (something that the DOJ repeatedly stressed with regard to the Qualcomm case), so too is the current wave of antitrust litigation against Apple. When all is said and done, Apple might thus be relieved that Qualcomm was victorious in their antitrust confrontation. Indeed, the legal principles that caused its demise against Qualcomm are precisely the ones that will, likely, enable it to prevail against Epic Games.
The goal of US antitrust law is to ensure that competition continues to produce positive results for consumers and the economy in general. We published a letter co-signed by twenty three of the U.S.’s leading economists, legal scholars and practitioners, including one winner of the Nobel Prize in economics (full list of signatories here), to exactly that effect urging the House Judiciary Committee on the State of Antitrust Law to reject calls for radical upheaval of antitrust law that would, among other things, undermine the independence and neutrality of US antitrust law.
A critical part of maintaining independence and neutrality in the administration of antitrust is ensuring that it is insulated from politics. Unfortunately, this view is under attack from all sides. The President sees widespread misconduct among US tech firms that he believes are controlled by the “radical left” and is, apparently, happy to use whatever tools are at hand to chasten them.
Meanwhile, Senator Klobuchar has claimed, without any real evidence, that the mooted Uber/Grubhub merger is simply about monopolisation of the market, and not, for example, related to the huge changes that businesses like this are facing because of the Covid shutdown.
Both of these statements challenge the principle that the rule of law depends on being politically neutral, including in antitrust.
Our letter, contrary to the claims made by President Trump, Sen. Klobuchar and some of the claims made to the Committee, asserts that the evidence and economic theory is clear: existing antitrust law is doing a good job of promoting competition and consumer welfare in digital markets and the economy more broadly, and concludes that the Committee should focus on reforms that improve antitrust at the margin, not changes that throw out decades of practice and precedent.
The letter argues that:
The American economy—including the digital sector—is competitive, innovative, and serves consumers well, contrary to how it is sometimes portrayed in the public debate.
Structural changes in the economy have resulted from increased competition, and increases in national concentration have generally happened because competition at the local level has intensified and local concentration has fallen.
Lax antitrust enforcement has not allowed systematic increases in market power, and the evidence simply does not support out the idea that antitrust enforcement has weakened in recent decades.
Existing antitrust law is adequate for protecting competition in the modern economy, and built up through years of careful case-by-case scrutiny. Calls to throw out decades of precedent to achieve an antitrust “Year Zero” would throw away a huge body of learning and deliberation.
History teaches that discarding the modern approach to antitrust would harm consumers, and return to a situation where per se rules prohibited the use of economic analysis and fact-based defences of business practices.
Common sense reforms should be pursued to improve antitrust enforcement, and the reforms proposed in the letter could help to improve competition and consumer outcomes in the United States without overturning the whole system.
The reforms suggested include measures to increase transparency of the DoJ and FTC, greater scope for antitrust challenges against state-sponsored monopolies, stronger penalties for criminal cartel conduct, and more agency resources being made available to protect workers from anti-competitive wage-fixing agreements between businesses. These are suggestions for the House Committee to consider and are not supported by all the letter’s signatories.
Some of the arguments in the letter are set out in greater detail in the ICLE’s own submission to the Committee, which goes into detail about the nature of competition in modern digital markets and in traditional markets that have been changed because of the adoption of digital technologies.
A spate of recent newspaperinvestigations and commentary have focused on Apple allegedly discriminating against rivals in the App Store. The underlying assumption is that Apple, as a vertically integrated entity that operates both a platform for third-party apps and also makes it own apps, is acting nefariously whenever it “discriminates” against rival apps through prioritization, enters into popular app markets, or charges a “tax” or “surcharge” on rival apps.
For most people, the word discrimination has a pejorative connotation of animus based upon prejudice: racism, sexism, homophobia. One of the definitions you will find in the dictionary reflects this. But another definition is a lot less charged: the act of making or perceiving a difference. (This is what people mean when they say that a person has a discriminating palate, or a discriminating taste in music, for example.)
In economics, discrimination can be a positive attribute. For instance, effective price discrimination can result in wealthier consumers paying a higher price than less well off consumers for the same product or service, and it can ensure that products and services are in fact available for less-wealthy consumers in the first place. That would seem to be a socially desirable outcome (although under some circumstances, perfect price discrimination can be socially undesirable).
Antitrust law rightly condemns conduct only when it harms competition and not simply when it harms a competitor. This is because it is competition that enhances consumer welfare, not the presence or absence of a competitor — or, indeed, the profitability of competitors. The difficult task for antitrust enforcers is to determine when a vertically integrated firm with “market power” in an upstream market is able to effectively discriminate against rivals in a downstream market in a way that harms consumers.
Even assuming the claims of critics are true, alleged discrimination by Apple against competitor apps in the App Store may harm those competitors, but it doesn’t necessarily harm either competition or consumer welfare.
The three potential antitrust issues facing Apple can be summarized as:
There is nothing new here economically. All three issues are analogous to claims against other tech companies. But, as I detail below, the evidence to establish any of these claims at best represents harm to competitors, and fails to establish any harm to the competitive process or to consumer welfare.
Antitrust enforcers have rejected similar prioritization claims against Google. For instance, rivals like Microsoft and Yelp have funded attacks against Google, arguing the search engine is harming competition by prioritizing its own services in its product search results over competitors. As ICLE and affiliated scholars have pointed out, though, there is nothing inherently harmful to consumers about such prioritization. There are also numerous benefits in platforms directly answering queries, even if it ends up directing users to platform-owned products or services.
there is good reason to believe that Google’s decision to favor its own content over that of other sites is procompetitive. Beyond determining and ensuring relevance, Google surely has the prerogative to vigorously compete and to decide how to design its products to keep up with a changing market. In this case, that means designing, developing, and offering its own content to partially displace the original “ten blue links” design of its search results page and offer its own answers to users’ queries in its stead.
Here, the antitrust case against Apple for prioritization is similarly flawed. For example, as noted in a recent article in the WSJ, users often use the App Store search in order to find apps they already have installed:
“Apple customers have a very strong connection to our products and many of them use search as a way to find and open their apps,” Apple said in a statement. “This customer usage is the reason Apple has strong rankings in search, and it’s the same reason Uber, Microsoft and so many others often have high rankings as well.”
If a substantial portion of searches within the App Store are for apps already on the iPhone, then showing the Apple app near the top of the search results could easily be consumer welfare-enhancing.
Apple is also theoretically leaving money on the table by prioritizing its (already pre-loaded) apps over third party apps. If its algorithm promotes its own apps over those that may earn it a 30% fee — additional revenue — the prioritization couldn’t plausibly be characterized as a “benefit” to Apple. Apple is ultimately in the business of selling hardware. Losing customers of the iPhone or iPad by prioritizing apps consumers want less would not be a winning business strategy.
Further, it stands to reason that those who use an iPhone may have a preference for Apple apps. Such consumers would be naturally better served by seeing Apple’s apps prioritized over third-party developer apps. And if consumers do not prefer Apple’s apps, rival apps are merely seconds of scrolling away.
Moreover, all of the above assumes that Apple is engaging in sufficiently pervasive discrimination through prioritzation to have a major impact on the app ecosystem. But substantial evidence exists that the universe of searches for which Apple’s algorithm prioritizes Apple apps is small. For instance, most searches are for branded apps already known by the searcher:
Keywords: how many are brands?
Top 500: 58.4%
Top 400: 60.75%
Top 300: 68.33%
Top 200: 80.5%
Top 100: 86%
Top 50: 90%
Top 25: 92%
Top 10: 100%
This is corroborated by data from the NYT’s own study, which suggests Apple prioritized its own apps first in only roughly 1% of the overall keywords queried:
Whatever the precise extent of increase in prioritization, it seems like any claims of harm are undermined by the reality that almost 99% of App Store results don’t list Apple apps first.
The fact is, very few keyword searches are even allegedly affected by prioritization. And the algorithm is often adjusting to searches for apps already pre-loaded on the device. Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to conclude consumers are being harmed by prioritization in search results of the App Store.
The issue of Apple building apps to compete with popular apps in its marketplace is similar to complaints about Amazon creating its own brands to compete with what is sold by third parties on its platform. For instance, as reported multiple times in the Washington Post:
Clue, a popular app that women use to track their periods, recently rocketed to the top of the App Store charts. But the app’s future is now in jeopardy as Apple incorporates period and fertility tracking features into its own free Health app, which comes preinstalled on every device. Clue makes money by selling subscriptions and services in its free app.
However, there is nothing inherently anticompetitive about retailers selling their own brands. If anything, entry into the market is normally procompetitive. As Randy Picker recently noted with respect to similar claims against Amazon:
The heart of this dynamic isn’t new. Sears started its catalogue business in 1888 and then started using the Craftsman and Kenmore brands as in-house brands in 1927. Sears was acquiring inventory from third parties and obviously knew exactly which ones were selling well and presumably made decisions about which markets to enter and which to stay out of based on that information. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, has a number of well-known private brands and firms negotiating with Walmart know full well that Walmart can enter their markets, subject of course to otherwise applicable restraints on entry such as intellectual property laws… I think that is possible to tease out advantages that a platform has regarding inventory experimentation. It can outsource some of those costs to third parties, though sophisticated third parties should understand where they can and cannot have a sustainable advantage given Amazon’s ability to move to build-or-bought first-party inventory. We have entire bodies of law— copyright, patent, trademark and more—that limit the ability of competitors to appropriate works, inventions and symbols. Those legal systems draw very carefully considered lines regarding permitted and forbidden uses. And antitrust law generally favors entry into markets and doesn’t look to create barriers that block firms, large or small, from entering new markets.
If anything, Apple is in an even better position than Amazon. Apple invests revenue in app development, not because the apps themselves generate revenue, but because it wants people to use the hardware, i.e. the iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches. The reason Apple created an App Store in the first place is because this allows Apple to make more money from selling devices. In order to promote security on those devices, Apple institutes rules for the App Store, but it ultimately decides whether to create its own apps and provide access to other apps based upon its desire to maximize the value of the device. If Apple chooses to create free apps in order to improve iOS for users and sell more hardware, it is not a harm to competition.
Apple’s ability to enter into popular app markets should not be constrained unless it can be shown that by giving consumers another choice, consumers are harmed. As noted above, most searches in the App Store are for branded apps to begin with. If consumers already know what they want in an app, it hardly seems harmful for Apple to offer — and promote — its own, additional version as well.
In the case of Clue, if Apple creates a free health app, it may hurt sales for Clue. But it doesn’t hurt consumers who want the functionality and would prefer to get it from Apple for free. This sort of product evolution is not harming competition, but enhancing it. And, it must be noted, Apple doesn’t exclude Clue from its devices. If, indeed, Clue offers a better product, or one that some users prefer, they remain able to find it and use it.
The so-called App Store “Tax”
The argument that Apple has an unfair competitive advantage over rival apps which have to pay commissions to Apple to be on the App Store (a “tax” or “surcharge”) has similarly produced no evidence of harm to consumers.
The WSJ and NYT stories give the impression that Apple uses its commissions on third party apps to reduce competition for its own apps. However, this is inconsistent with how Apple charges its commission.
For instance, Apple doesn’t charge commissions on free apps, which make up 84% of the App Store. Apple also doesn’t charge commissions for apps that are free to download but are supported by advertising — including hugely popular apps like Yelp, Buzzfeed, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook. Even apps which are “readers” where users purchase or subscribe to content outside the app but use the app to access that content are not subject to commissions, like Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Kindle, and Audible. Apps for “physical goods and services” — like Amazon, Airbnb, Lyft, Target, and Uber — are also free to download and are not subject to commissions. The class of apps which are subject to a 30% commission include:
paid apps (like many games),
free apps that then have in-app purchases (other games and services like Skype and TikTok),
and free apps with digital subscriptions (Pandora, Hulu, which have 30% commission first year and then 15% in subsequent years), and
cross-platform apps (Dropbox, Hulu, and Minecraft) which allow for digital goods and services to be purchased in-app and Apple collects commission on in-app sales, but not sales from other platforms.
Despite protestations to the contrary, these costs are hardly unreasonable: third party apps receive the benefit not only of being in Apple’s App Store (without which they wouldn’t have any opportunity to earn revenue from sales on Apple’s platform), but also of the features and other investments Apple continues to pour into its platform — investments that make the ecosystem better for consumers and app developers alike. There is enormous value to the platform Apple has invested in, and a great deal of it is willingly shared with developers and consumers. It does not make it anticompetitive to ask those who use the platform to pay for it.
In fact, these benefits are probably even more important for smaller developers rather than bigger ones who can invest in the necessary back end to reach consumers without the App Store, like Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Kindle. For apps without brand reputation (and giant marketing budgets), the ability for consumers to trust that downloading the app will not lead to the installation of malware (as often occurs when downloading from the web) is surely essential to small developers’ ability to compete. The App Store offers this.
Despite the claims made in Spotify’s complaint against Apple, Apple doesn’t have a duty to deal with app developers. Indeed, Apple could theoretically fill the App Store with only apps that it developed itself, like Apple Music. Instead, Apple has opted for a platform business model, which entails the creation of a new outlet for others’ innovation and offerings. This is pro-consumer in that it created an entire marketplace that consumers probably didn’t even know they wanted — and certainly had no means to obtain — until it existed. Spotify, which out-competed iTunes to the point that Apple had to go back to the drawing board and create Apple Music, cannot realistically complain that Apple’s entry into music streaming is harmful to competition. Rather, it is precisely what vigorous competition looks like: the creation of more product innovation, lower prices, and arguably (at least for some) higher quality.
Interestingly, Spotify is not even subject to the App Store commission. Instead, Spotify offers a work-around to iPhone users to obtain its premium version without ads on iOS. What Spotify actually desires is the ability to sell premium subscriptions to Apple device users without paying anything above the de minimis up-front cost to Apple for the creation and maintenance of the App Store. It is unclear how many potential Spotify users are affected by the inability to directly buy the ad-free version since Spotify discontinued offering it within the App Store. But, whatever the potential harm to Spotify itself, there’s little reason to think consumers or competition bear any of it.
There is no evidence that Apple’s alleged “discrimination” against rival apps harms consumers. Indeed, the opposite would seem to be the case. The regulatory discrimination against successful tech platforms like Apple and the App Store is far more harmful to consumers.
Last week, the DOJ cleared the merger of CVS Health and Aetna (conditional on Aetna’s divesting its Medicare Part D business), a merger that, as I previously noted at a House Judiciary hearing, “presents a creative effort by two of the most well-informed and successful industry participants to try something new to reform a troubled system.” (My full testimony is available here).
Of course it’s always possible that the experiment will fail — that the merger won’t “revolutioniz[e] the consumer health care experience” in the way that CVS and Aetna are hoping. But it’s a low (antitrust) risk effort to address some of the challenges confronting the healthcare industry — and apparently the DOJ agrees.
I discuss the weakness of the antitrust arguments against the merger at length in my testimony. What I particularly want to draw attention to here is how this merger — like many vertical mergers — represents business model innovation by incumbents.
The CVS/Aetna merger is just one part of a growing private-sector movement in the healthcare industry to adopt new (mostly) vertical arrangements that seek to move beyond some of the structural inefficiencies that have plagued healthcare in the United States since World War II. Indeed, ambitious and interesting as it is, the merger arises amidst a veritable wave of innovative, vertical healthcare mergers and other efforts to integrate the healthcare services supply chain in novel ways.
These sorts of efforts (and the current DOJ’s apparent support for them) should be applauded and encouraged. I need not rehash the economic literature on vertical restraints here (see, e.g., Lafontaine & Slade, etc.). But especially where government interventions have already impaired the efficient workings of a market (as they surely have, in spades, in healthcare), it is important not to compound the error by trying to micromanage private efforts to restructure around those constraints.
Current trends in private-sector-driven healthcare reform
In the past, the most significant healthcare industry mergers have largely been horizontal (i.e., between two insurance providers, or two hospitals) or “traditional” business model mergers for the industry (i.e., vertical mergers aimed at building out managed care organizations). This pattern suggests a sort of fealty to the status quo, with insurers interested primarily in expanding their insurance business or providers interested in expanding their capacity to provide medical services.
Today’s health industry mergers and ventures seem more frequently to be different in character, and they portend an industry-wide experiment in the provision of vertically integrated healthcare that we should enthusiastically welcome.
But a number of other recent arrangements and business models center around relationships among drug manufacturers, pharmacies, and PBMs, and these tend to minimize the role of insurers. While not a “vertical” arrangement, per se, Walmart’s generic drug program, for example, offers $4 prescriptions to customers regardless of insurance (the typical generic drug copay for patients covered by employer-provided health insurance is $11), and Walmart does not seek or receive reimbursement from health plans for these drugs. It’s been offering this program since 2006, but in 2016 it entered into a joint buying arrangement with McKesson, a pharmaceutical wholesaler (itself vertically integrated with Rexall pharmacies), to negotiate lower prices. The idea, presumably, is that Walmart will entice consumers to its stores with the lure of low-priced generic prescriptions in the hope that they will buy other items while they’re there. That prospect presumably makes it worthwhile to route around insurers and PBMs, and their reimbursements.
Meanwhile, both Express Scripts and CVS Health (two of the country’s largest PBMs) have made moves toward direct-to-consumer sales themselves, establishing pricing for a small number of drugs independently of health plans and often in partnership with drug makers directly.
Also apparently focused on disrupting traditional drug distribution arrangements, Amazon has recently purchased online pharmacy PillPack (out from under Walmart, as it happens), and with it received pharmacy licenses in 49 states. The move introduces a significant new integrated distributor/retailer, and puts competitive pressure on other retailers and distributors and potentially insurers and PBMs, as well.
Whatever its role in driving the CVS/Aetna merger (and I believe it is smaller than many reports like to suggest), Amazon’s moves in this area demonstrate the fluid nature of the market, and the opportunities for a wide range of firms to create efficiencies in the market and to lower prices.
At the same time, the differences between Amazon and CVS/Aetna highlight the scope of product and service differentiation that should contribute to the ongoing competitiveness of these markets following mergers like this one.
While Amazon inarguably excels at logistics and the routinizing of “back office” functions, it seems unlikely for the foreseeable future to be able to offer (or to be interested in offering) a patient interface that can rival the service offerings of a brick-and-mortar CVS pharmacy combined with an outpatient clinic and its staff and bolstered by the capabilities of an insurer like Aetna. To be sure, online sales and fulfillment may put price pressure on important, largely mechanical functions, but, like much technology, it is first and foremost a complement to services offered by humans, rather than a substitute. (In this regard it is worth noting that McKesson has long been offering Amazon-like logistics support for both online and brick-and-mortar pharmacies. “‘To some extent, we were Amazon before it was cool to be Amazon,’ McKesson CEO John Hammergren said” on a recent earnings call).
Other efforts focus on integrating insurance and treatment functions or on bringing together other, disparate pieces of the healthcare industry in interesting ways — all seemingly aimed at finding innovative, private solutions to solve some of the costly complexities that plague the healthcare market.
Walmart, for example, announced a deal with Quest Diagnostics last year to experiment with offering diagnostic testing services and potentially other basic healthcare services inside of some Walmart stores. While such an arrangement may simply be a means of making doctor-prescribed diagnostic tests more convenient, it may also suggest an effort to expand the availability of direct-to-consumer (patient-initiated) testing (currently offered by Quest in Missouri and Colorado) in states that allow it. A partnership with Walmart to market and oversee such services has the potential to dramatically expand their use.
Capping off (for now) a buying frenzy in recent years that included the purchase of PBM, CatamaranRx, UnitedHealth is seeking approval from the FTC for the proposed merger of its Optum unit with the DaVita Medical Group — a move that would significantly expand UnitedHealth’s ability to offer medical services (including urgent care, outpatient surgeries, and health clinic services), give it a significant group of doctors’ clinics throughout the U.S., and turn UnitedHealth into the largest employer of doctors in the country. But of course this isn’t a traditional managed care merger — it represents a significant bet on the decentralized, ambulatory care model that has been slowly replacing significant parts of the traditional, hospital-centric care model for some time now.
And, perhaps most interestingly, some recent moves are bringing together drug manufacturers and diagnostic and care providers in innovative ways. Swiss pharmaceutical company, Roche, announced recently that “it would buy the rest of U.S. cancer data company Flatiron Health for $1.9 billion to speed development of cancer medicines and support its efforts to price them based on how well they work.” Not only is the deal intended to improve Roche’s drug development process by integrating patient data, it is also aimed at accommodating efforts to shift the pricing of drugs, like the pricing of medical services generally, toward an outcome-based model.
Similarly interesting, and in a related vein, early this year a group of hospital systems including Intermountain Health, Ascension, and Trinity Health announced plans to begin manufacturing generic prescription drugs. This development further reflects the perceived benefits of vertical integration in healthcare markets, and the move toward creative solutions to the unique complexity of coordinating the many interrelated layers of healthcare provision. In this case,
[t]he nascent venture proposes a private solution to ensure contestability in the generic drug market and consequently overcome the failures of contracting [in the supply and distribution of generics]…. The nascent venture, however it solves these challenges and resolves other choices, will have important implications for the prices and availability of generic drugs in the US.
More enforcement decisions like CVS/Aetna and Bayer/Monsanto; fewer like AT&T/Time Warner
In the face of all this disruption, it’s difficult to credit anticompetitive fears like those expressed by the AMA in opposing the CVS-Aetna merger and a recent CEA report on pharmaceutical pricing, both of which are premised on the assumption that drug distribution is unavoidably dominated by a few PBMs in a well-defined, highly concentrated market. Creative arrangements like the CVS-Aetna merger and the initiatives described above (among a host of others) indicate an ease of entry, the fluidity of traditional markets, and a degree of business model innovation that suggest a great deal more competitiveness than static PBM market numbers would suggest.
This kind of incumbent innovation through vertical restructuring is an increasingly important theme in antitrust, and efforts to tar such transactions with purported evidence of static market dominance is simply misguided.
While the current DOJ’s misguided (and, remarkably, continuing) attempt to stop the AT&T/Time Warner merger is an aberrant step in the wrong direction, the leadership at the Antitrust Division generally seems to get it. Indeed, in spite of strident calls for stepped-up enforcement in the always-controversial ag-biotech industry, the DOJ recently approved three vertical ag-biotech mergers in fairly rapid succession.
As I noted in a discussion of those ag-biotech mergers, but equally applicable here, regulatory humility should continue to carry the day when it comes to structural innovation by incumbent firms:
But it is also important to remember that innovation comes from within incumbent firms, as well, and, often, that the overall level of innovation in an industry may be increased by the presence of large firms with economies of scope and scale.
In sum, and to paraphrase Olympia Dukakis’ character in Moonstruck: “what [we] don’t know about [the relationship between innovation and market structure] is a lot.”
What we do know, however, is that superficial, concentration-based approaches to antitrust analysis will likely overweight presumed foreclosure effects and underweight innovation effects.
We shouldn’t fetishize entry, or access, or head-to-head competition over innovation, especially where consumer welfare may be significantly improved by a reduction in the former in order to get more of the latter.
Jon Jacobson in his initial posting claims that it would be “hard to find an easier case” than Apple e-Books, and David Balto and Chris Sagers seem to agree. I suppose that would be true if, as Richard Epstein claims, “the general view is that horizontal arrangements are per se unlawful.”
That, however, is not the law, and has not been since William Howard Taft’s 1898 opinion in Addyston Pipe. In his opinion, borrowing from an earlier dissenting opinion by Justice Edward Douglas White in Trans-Missouri Freight Ass’n, Taft surveyed the common law of restraints of trade. He showed that it was already well established in 1898 that even horizontal restraints of trade were not necessarily unlawful if they were ancillary to some legitimate business transaction or arrangement.
Building on that opinion, the Supreme Court, in what is now a long series of decisions beginning with BMIand continuing through Actavis, has made it perfectly clear that even a horizontal restraint cannot be condemned as per se unlawful unless it is a “naked” restraint that, on its face, could not serve any “plausible” procompetitive business purpose. That there are many horizontal arrangements that are not per se unlawful is shown by the DOJ’s own Competitor Collaboration Guidelines, which provide many examples, including joint sales agents.
As I suggested in my initial posting, Apple may have dug its own grave by devoting so much effort to denying the obvious—namely, that it had helped facilitate a horizontal agreement among the publishers, just as the lower courts found. Apple might have had more success had it instead spent more time explaining why it needed a horizontal agreement among the publishers as to the terms on which they would designate Apple as their common sales agent in order for it to successfully enter the e-book market, and why those terms did not amount to a naked horizontal price fixing agreement. Had it done so, Apple likely could have made a stronger case for why a rule of reason review was necessary than it did by trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by insisting that its agreements were purely vertical.
In Philip K. Dick’s famous short story that inspired the Total Recall movies, a company called REKAL could implant “extra-factual memories” into the minds of anyone. That technology may be fictional, but the Apple eBooks case suggests that the ability to insert extra-factual memories into the courts already exists.
The Department of Justice, the Second Circuit majority, and even the Solicitor General’s most recent filing opposing cert. all assert that the large publishing houses invented a new “agency” business model as a way to provide leverage to raise prices, and then pushed it on Apple.
The basis of the government’s claim is that Apple had “just two months to develop a business model” once Steve Jobs had approved the “iBookstore” ebook marketplace. The government implies that Apple was a company so obviously old, inept, and out-of-ideas that it had to rely on the big publishers for an innovative business model to help it enter the market. And the court bought it “wholesale,” as it were. (Describing Apple’s “a-ha” moment when it decided to try the agency model, the court notes, “[n]otably, the possibility of an agency arrangement was first mentioned by Hachette and HarperCollins as a way ‘to fix Amazon pricing.'”)
The claim has no basis in reality, of course. Apple had embraced the agency model long before, as it sought to disrupt the way software was distributed. In just the year prior, Apple had successfully launched the app store, a ground-breaking example of the agency model that started with only 500 apps but had grown to more than 100,000 in 12 months. This was an explosion of competition — remember, nearly all of those apps represented a new publisher: 100,000 new potential competitors.
So why would the government create such an absurd fiction?
Because without that fiction, Apple moves from “conspirator” to “competitor.” Instead of anticompetitive scourge, it becomes a disruptor, bringing new competition to an existing market with a single dominant player (Amazon Kindle), and shattering the control held by the existing publishing industry.
More than a decade before the App Store, software developers had observed that the wholesale model for distribution created tremendous barriers for entry, increased expense, and incredible delays in getting to market. Developers were beholden to a tiny number of physical stores that sold shelf space and required kickbacks (known as spiffs). Today, there are legions of developers producing App content, and developers have earned more than $10 billion in sales through Apple’s App Store. Anyone with an App idea or, moreover, an idea for a book, can take it straight to consumers rather than having to convince a publisher, wholesaler or retailer that it is worth purchasing and marketing.
This disintermediation is of critical benefit to consumers — and yet the Second Circuit missed it. The court chose instead to focus on the claim that if the horizontal competitors conspired, then Apple, which had approached the publishers to ensure initial content would exist at time of launch, was complicit. Somehow Apple could be a horizontal competitor even through it wasn’t part of the publishing industry!
There was another significant consumer and competitive benefit from Apple’s entry into the market and the shift to the agency model. Prior to the Apple iPad, truly interactive books were mostly science fiction, and the few pilot projects that existed had little consumer traction. Amazon, which held 90% of the electronic books market, chose to focus on creating technology that mirrored the characteristics of reading on paper: a black and white screen and the barest of annotation capabilities.
When the iPad was released, Apple sent up a signal flag that interactivity would be a focal point of the technology by rolling out tools that would allow developers to access the iPad’s accelerometer and touch sensitive screen to create an immersive experience. The result? Products that help children with learning disabilities, and competitors fighting back with improved products.
Finally, Apple’s impact on consumers and competition was profound. Amazon switched, as well, and the nascent world of self publishing exploded. Books like Hugh Howey’s Wool series (soon to be a major motion picture) were released as smaller chunks for only 99 cents. And “the Martian,” which is up for several Academy Awards found a home and an audience long before any major publisher came calling.
We all need to avoid the trip to REKAL and remember what life was like before the advent of the agency model. Because if the Second Circuit decision is allowed to stand, the implication for any outside competitor looking to disrupt a market is as grim and barren as the surface of Mars.
The Apple e-books case is throwback to Dr. Miles, the 1911 Supreme Court decision that managed to misinterpret the economics of competition and so thwart productive activity for over a century. The active debate here at TOTM reveals why.
The District Court and Second Circuit have employed a per se rule to find that the Apple e-books agreement with five major publishers constituted a violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Citing the active cooperation in contract negotiations involving multiple horizontal competitors (publishers) and the Apple offer, which appears to have raised prices paid for e-books, the conclusion that this is a case of horizontal collusion appears a slam dunk to some. “Try as one may,” writes Jonathan Jacobson, “it is hard to find an easier antitrust case than United States v. Apple.”
I’m guessing that that is what Charles Evans Hughes thought about the Dr. Miles case in 1911.
First, the Second Circuit verdict was not only a split decision on application of the per se rule, the dissent ably stated a case for why the Apple e-books deal should be regarded as pro-competitive and, thus, legal.
Second, the price increase cited as determinative occurred in a two-sided market; the fact asserted does not establish a monopolistic restriction of output. Further analysis, as called for under the rule of reason, is needed to flesh out the totality of the circumstances and the net impact of the Apple-publisher agreement on consumer welfare. That includes evidence regarding what happens to total revenues as market structure and prices change.
Third, a new entrant emerged as per the actions undertaken — the agreements pointedly did not “lack…. any redeeming virtue” (Northwest Wholesale Stationers, 1985), the justification for per se illegality. The fact that a new platform — Apple challenging Amazon’s e-book dominance — was both cause and effect of the alleged anti-competitive behavior is a textbook example of ancillarity. The “naked restraints” that publishers might have imposed had Apple not brought new products and alternative content distribution channels into the mix thus dressed up. It is argued by some that the clothes were skimpy. But that fashion statement is what a rule of reason analysis is needed to determine.
Fourth, the successful market foray that came about in the two-sided e-book market is a competitive victory not to be trifled. As the Supreme Court determined in Leegin: A “per se rule cannot be justified by the possibility of higher prices absent a further showing of anticompetitive conduct. The antitrust laws are designed to protect interbrand competition from which lower prices can later result.” The Supreme Court need here overturn U.S. v. Apple as decided by the Second Circuit in order that the “later result” be reasonably examined.
Fifth, lock-in is avoided with a rule of reason. As the Supreme Court said in Leegin:
As courts gain experience considering the effects of these restraints by applying the rule of reason… they can establish the litigation structure to ensure the rule operates to eliminate anticompetitive restraints….
The lock-in, conversely, comes with per se rules that nip the analysis in the bud, assuming simplicity where complexity obtains.
Sixth, Judge Denise Cote, who issued the District Court ruling against Apple, shows why the rule of reason is needed to counter her per se approach:
Here we have every necessary component: with Apple’s active encouragement and assistance, the Publisher Defendants agreed to work together to eliminate retail price competition and raise e-book prices, and again with Apple’s knowing and active participation, they brought their scheme to fruition.
But that cannot be “every necessary component.” It is not in Apple’s interest to raise prices, but to lower prices paid. Something more has to be going on. Indeed, in raising prices the judge unwittingly cites an unarguable pro-competitive aspect of Apple’s foray: It is competing with Amazon and bidding resources from a rival. Indeed, the rival is, arguably, an incumbent with market power. This cannot be the end of the analysis. That it is constitutes a throwback to the anti-competitive per se rule of Dr. Miles.
Seventh, in oral arguments at the Second Circuit, Judge Raymond J. Lohier, Jr. directed a question to Justice Department counsel, asking how Apple and the publishers “could have broken Amazon’s monopoly of the e-book market without violating antitrust laws.” The DOJ attorney responded, according to an article in The New Yorker, by advising that
Apple could have let the competition among companies play out naturally without pursuing explicit strategies to push prices higher—or it could have sued, or complained to the Justice Department and to federal regulatory authorities.
But the DOJ itself brought no complaint against Amazon — it, instead, sued Apple. And the admonition that an aggressive innovator should sit back and let things “play out naturally” is exactly what will kill efficiency enhancing “creative destruction.” Moreover, the government’s view that Apple “pursued an explicit strategy to push prices higher” fails to acknowledge that Apple was the buyer. Such as it was, Apple’s effort was to compete, luring content suppliers from a rival. The response of the government is to recommend, on the one hand, litigation it will not itself pursue and, on the other, passive acceptance that avoids market disruption. It displays the error, as Judge Jacobs’ Second Circuit dissent puts it, “That antitrust law is offended by gloves off competition.” Why might innovation not be well served by this policy?
Eighth, the choice of rule of reason does not let Apple escape scrutiny, but applies it to both sides of the argument. It adds important policy symmetry. Dr. Miles impeded efficient market activity for nearly a century. The creation of new platforms in Internet markets ought not to have such handicaps. It should be recalled that, in introducing its iTunes platform and its vertically linked iPod music players, circa 2002, the innovative Apple likewise faced attack from competition policy makers (more in Europe, indeed, than the U.S.). Happily, progress in the law had loosened barriers to business model innovation, and the revolutionary ecosystem was allowed to launch. Key to that progressive step was the bulk bargain struck with music labels. Richard Epstein thinks that such industry-wide dealing now endangers Apple’s more recent platform launch. Perhaps. But there is no reason to jump to that conclusion, and much to find out before we embrace it.
United States v. Apple has fascinated me continually ever since the instantly-sensational complaint was made public, more than three years ago. Just one small, recent manifestation of the larger theme that makes it so interesting is the improbable range of folks who apparently consider certiorari rather likely—not least some commenters here, and even SCOTUSblog, which listed the case on their “Petitions We’re Watching.” It seems improbable, I say, not because reasonable people couldn’t differ on the policy issues. In this day and age somebody pops up to doubt every antitrust case brought against anybody no matter what. Rather, on the traditional criteria, the case just seems really ill-suited for cert.[*]
But it is in keeping with the larger story that people might expect the Court to take this basically hum-drum fact case in which there’s no circuit split. People have been savaging this case since its beginnings, despite the fact that to almost all antitrust lawyers it was such a legal slam dunk that so long as the government could prove its facts, it couldn’t lose.
And so I’m left with questions I’ve been asking since the case came out. Why, given the straightforward facts, nicely fitting a per se standard generally thought to be well-settled, involving conduct that on the elaborate trial record had no plausible effect except a substantial price increase,[**] do so many people hate this case? Why, more specifically, do so many people think there is something special about it, such that it shouldn’t be subject to the same rules that would apply to anybody else who did what these defendants did?
To be clear, I think the case is interesting. Big time. But what is interesting is not its facts or the underlying conduct or anything about book publishing or technological change or any of that. In other words, I don’t think the case is special. Like Jonathan Jacobson, I think it is simple. What is remarkable is the reactions it has generated, across the political spectrum.
In the years of its pendency, on any number of panels and teleconferences and brown-bags and so on we’ve heard BigLaw corporate defense lawyers talking about the case like they’re Louis Brandeis. The problem, you see, is not a naked horizontal producer cartel coordinated by a retail entrant with a strong incentive to discipline its retail rival. No, no, no. The problem was actually Amazon, and the problem with Amazon was that it is big. Moreover, this case is about entry, they say, and entry is what antitrust is all about. Entry must be good, because numerosity in and of itself is competition. Consider too the number of BigLaw antitrust partners who’ve publicly argued that Amazon is in fact a monopolist, and that it engaged in predatory pricing, of all things.
When has anyone ever heard this group of people talk like that?
For another example, consider how nearly identical have been the views of left-wing critics like the New America Foundation’s Barry Lynn to those of the Second Circuit dissenter in Apple, the genteel, conservative Bush appointee, Judge Dennis Jacobs. They both claim, as essentially their only argument, that Amazon is a powerful firm, which can be tamed only if publishers can set their own retail prices (even if they do so collusively).
And there are so many other examples. The government’s case was condemned by no less than a Democrat and normally pro-enforcement member of the Senate antitrust committee, as it was by two papers as otherwise divergent as the Wall Street Journaland the New York Times. Meanwhile, the damnedest thing about the case, as I’ll show in a second, is that it frequently causes me to talk like Robert Bork.
So what the hell is going on?
I have a theory. We in America have almost as our defining character, almost uniquely among developed nations, a commitment to markets, competition, and individual enterprise. But we tend to forget until a case like Apple reminds us that markets, when they work as they are supposed to, are machines for producing pain. Firms fail, people lose jobs, valuable institutions—like, perhaps, the paper book—are sometimes lost. And it can be hard to believe that such a free, decentralized mess will somehow magically optimize organization, distribution, and innovation. I think the reason people find a case like Apple hard to support is that, because we find all that loss and anarchy so hard to swallow, we as a people do not actually believe in competition at all.
I think it helps in making this point to work through the individual arguments that the Apple defendants and their supporters have made, in court and out. For my money, what we find is not only that most of the arguments are not really that strong, but that they are the same arguments that all defendants make, all the time. As it turns out, there has never been an antitrust defendant that didn’t think its market was special.
Taking the arguments I’ve heard, roughly in increasing order of plausibility:
Should it matter that discipline of Amazon’s aggressive pricing might help keep the publisher defendants in business? Hardly. While the lamentations of the publishers seem overblown—they may be forced to adapt, and it may not be painless, but that is much more likely at the moment than their insolvency—if they are forced out because they cannot compete on a price basis, then that is exactly what is supposed to happen. Econ 101.
Was Apple’s entry automatically good just because it was entry? Emphatically no. There is no rule in antitrust that entry is inherently good, and a number of strong rules to the contrary (consider, for example, the very foundation of the Brook Group predation standard, which is that we should provide no legal protection to less efficient competitors, including entrants). That is for a simple reason: entry is good when causes quality-adjusted price to go down. The opposite occurred in Apple[***]
Is Amazon the real villain, so obviously that we should allow its suppliers to regulate its power through horizontal cartel? I rather think not. While I have no doubt that Amazon is a dangerous entity, that probably will merit scrutiny on any number of grounds now or in the future, it seems implausible that it priced e-books predatorily, surely not on the legal standard that currently prevails in the United States. In fact, an illuminating theme in The Everything Store, Brad Stone’s comprehensive study of the company, was the ubiquity of supplier allegations of Amazon’s predation in all kinds of products, complaints that have gone on throughout the company’s two-decade existence. I don’t believe Amazon is any hero or that it poses no threats, but what it’s done in these cases is just charge lower prices. It’s been able to do so in a sustained manner mainly through innovation in distribution. And in any case, whether Amazon is big and bad or whatever, the right tool to constrain it is not a price fixing cartel. No regulator cares less about the public interest.
Does it make the case special in some way that a technological change drove the defendants to their conspiracy? No. The technological change afoot was in effect just a change in costs. It is much cheaper to deliver content electronically than in hard copy, not least because as things have unfolded, consumers have actually paid for and own most of the infrastructure. To that extent there’s nothing different about Apple than any case in which an innovation in production or distribution has given one player a cost advantage. In fact, the publishers’ primary need to defend against pricing of e-books at some measure of their actual cost is that the publishers’ whole structure is devoted to an expensive intermediating function that becomes largely irrelevant with digital distribution.
Is there reason to believe that a horizontal cartel orchestrated by a powerful distributor will achieve better quality-adjusted prices, which I take to be Geoff Manne’s overall theme? I mean, come on. This is essentially a species of destructive competition argument, that otherwise healthy markets can be so little trusted efficiently to supply products that customers want that we’ll put the government to a full rule of reason challenge to attack a horizontal cartel? Do we believe in competition at all?
Should it matter that valuable cultural institutions may be at risk, including the viability of paper books, independent bookstores, and perhaps the livelihoods of writers or even literature itself? This seems more troubling than the other points, but hardly is unique to the case or a particularly good argument for self-help by cartel. Consider, if you will, another, much older case. The sailing ship industry was thousands of years old and of great cultural and human significance when it met its demise in the 1870s at the hands of the emerging steamship industry. Ships that must await the fickle winds cannot compete with those that can offer the reliable, regular departures that shipper customers desire. There followed a period of desperate price war following which the sail industry was destroyed. That was sad, because tall-masted sailing ships are very swashbuckling and fun, and were entwined in our literature and culture. But should we have allowed the two industries to fix their prices, to preserve sailing ships as a living technology?
There are other arguments, and we could keep working through them one by one, but the end result is the same. The arguments mostly are weak, and even those with a bit more heft do nothing more than pose the problem inherent in that very last point. Healthy markets sometimes produce pain, with genuinely regrettable consequences. But that just forces us to ask: do we believe in competition or don’t we?
[*] Except possibly for one narrow issue, Apple is at this point emphatically a fact case, and the facts were resolved on an extensive record by an esteemed trial judge, in a long and elaborate opinion, and left undisturbed on appeal (even in the strongly worded dissent). The one narrow issue that is actually a legal one, and that Apple mainly stresses in its petition—whether in the wake of Leeginthe hub in a hub-and-spoke arrangement can face per se liability—is one on which I guess people could plausibly disagree. But even when that is the case this Court virtually never grants cert. in the absence of a significant circuit split, and here there isn’t one.
Apple points only to one other Circuit decision, the Third Circuit’s Toledo Mack. It is true as Apple argues that a passage in Toledo Mack seemed to read language from Leegin fairly broadly, and to apply even when there is horizontal conspiracy at the retail level. But Toledo Mack was not a hub-and-spoke case. While plaintiff alleged a horizontal conspiracy among retailers of heavy trucks, and Mack Trucks later acquiescence in it, Mack played no role in coordinating the conspiracy. Separately, whether Toledo Mack really conflicts with Apple or not, the law supporting the old per se rule against hub-and-spoke conspiracies is pretty strong (take a look, for example, at pp. 17-18 of the Justice Department’s opposition brief.
So, I suppose one might think there is no distinction between a hub-and-spoke and a case like Toledo Mack, in which a manufacturer merely agreed after the fact to assist an existing retail conspiracy, and that there is therefore a circuit split, but that would be rather in contrast to a lot of Supreme Court authority. On the other hand, if there is some legal difference between a hub-and-spoke and the facts of Toledo Mack, then Toledo Mack is relevant only if it is understood to have read Leegin to apply to all “vertical” conduct, including true hub-and-spoke agreements. But that would be a broad reading indeed of both Leegin and Toledo Mack. It would require believing that Leegin reversed sub silentio a number of important decisions on an issue that was not before the Court in Leegin. It would also make a circuit split out of a point that would be only dicta in Toledo Mack. And yes, yes, yes, I know, Judge Jacobs in dissent below himself said that his panel’s decision created a circuit split with Toledo Mack. But I mean, come on. A circuit split means that two holdings are in conflict, not that one bit of dicta commented on some other bit of dicta.
A whole different reason cert. seems improbable is that the issue presented is whether per se treatment was appropriate. But the trial court specifically found the restraint to have been unreasonable under a rule of reason standard. Of course that wouldn’t preclude the Court from reversing the trial court’s holding that the per se rule applies, but it would render a reversal almost certainly academic in the case actually before the Court.
Don’t get me wrong. Nothing the courts do really surprises me anymore, and there are still four members of the Court, even in the wake of Justice Scalia’s passing, who harbor open animosity for antitrust and a strong fondness for Leegin. It is also plausible that those four will see the case Apple’s way, and favor reversing Interstate Circuit (though that seems unlikely to me; read a case like Ticoror North Carolina Dental Examiners if you want to know how Anthony Kennedy feels about naked cartel conduct). But the ideological affinities of the Justices, in and of themselves, just don’t usually turn an otherwise ordinary case into a cert-worthy one.
[**] Yes, yes, yes, Grasshopper, I know, Apple argued that in fact its entry increased quality and consumer choice, and also put on an argument that the output of e-books actually expanded during the period of the publishers’ conspiracy. But, a couple of things. First, as the government observed in some juicy briefing in the case, and Judge Cote found in specific findings, each of Apple’s purported quality enhancements turned out to involve either other firms’ innovations or technological enhancements that appeared in the iPad before Apple ever communicated with the publishers. As for the expanded output argument, it was fairly demolished by the government’s experts, a finding not disturbed even in Judge Jacobs’ dissent.
In any case, any benefit Apple did manage to supply came at the cost of a price increase of fifty freaking percent, across thousands of titles, that were sustained for the entire two years that the conspiracy survived.
[***] There have also been the usual squabbles over factual details that are said to be very important, but these points are especially uninteresting. E.g., the case involved “MFNs” and “agency contracts,” and there is supposed to be some magic in either their vertical nature or the great uncertainty of their consequences that count against per se treatment. There isn’t. Neither the government’s complaint, the district court, nor the Second Circuit attacked the bilateral agreements in and of themselves; on the contrary, both courts emphatically stressed that they only found illegal the horizontal price fixing conspiracy and Apple’s role in coordinating it.
Likewise, some stress that the publisher defendants in fact earned slightly less per price-fixed book under their agency agreements than they had with Apple. Why would they do that, if there weren’t some pro-competitive reason? Simple. The real money in trade publishing was not then or now in the puny e-book sector, but in hard-cover, new-release best sellers, which publishers have long sold at very significant mark-ups over cost. Those margins were threatened by Amazon’s very low e-book prices, and the loss on agency sales was worth it to preserve the real money makers.
The “magic” of Washington can only go so far. Whether it is political consultants trying to create controversy where there is basic consensus, such as in parts of the political campaign, or the earnest effort to create a controversy over the Apple decision, there may be lots of words exchanged and animated discussion by political and antitrust pundits, but at the end of the day it’s much ado about not much. For the Apple case, even though this blog has attracted some of the keenest creative antitrust thinkers, a simple truth remains – there was overwhelming evidence that there was a horizontal agreement among suppliers and that Apple participated or even led the agreement as a seller. This is, by definition, a hub-and-spoke conspiracy that resulted in horizontal price fixing among ebook suppliers – an activity worthy of per se treatment.
The simplicity of this case belies the controversy of the ruling and the calls for Supreme Court review. Those that support Apple’s petition for certiorari seem to think that the case is a good vehicle to address important questions of policy in the law. Indeed, ICLE submitted an excellent brief making just such a case. But, unfortunately, the facts of this case are not great for resolving these problems.
For example, some would like to look at this case not as a horizontal price fixing agreement among competitors facilitated by a vertical party, but instead as a series of vertical agreements. This is very tempting, because the antitrust revolution was built on the back of fixing harmful precedent of per se condemnation of vertical restraints. Starting with GTE Sylvania, the Supreme Court has repeatedly applied modern economic learning to vertical restraints and found that there are numerous potential procompetitive benefits that must be accounted for in any proper antitrust analysis of a vertical agreement.
This view of the Apple e-book case is especially tempting because the Supreme Court’s work in this area of the law is not done. For example, the Supreme Court needs to update the law on exclusive dealing and loyalty discounts to reflect post-GTE Sylvania thinking, something I have written extensively on (including here at TOTM: here, here and here) in the context of the McWane case. (Which is also up for cert review). However, the facts of this case simply make this a bad case to resolve any matter of vertical restraint law. Apple was not approaching publishers individually, but aggressively orchestrating a scheme that immediately raised e-book prices by 30% and ensured that Apple’s store could not be undercut by any competitor. Consumers were very obviously harmed and the horizontal price fixing conspiracy could not have taken place without Apple’s involvement.
Of course in the court of public opinion (which is not an antitrust court) Apple attempted to wear the garb of the Robin Hood for consumers suggesting it was just trying to respond to Amazon’s dominance over ebooks. But the Justice Department and the court quickly saw through that guise. The proper response to market dominance is to compete harder. And that’s what happened. Apple’s successful entry into the e-book market seems to provide a more effective response than any cartel. But this does not show that there were procompetitive benefits of Apple’s anticompetitive actions worthy of rule of reason treatment. To the contrary, prices rose and output fell during the conduct at issue – exactly what one would expect to see following anticompetitive activities.
This argument also presupposes that Amazon’s dominance was bad for consumers. This is refuted by Scalia in Trinko:
The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices–at least for a short period–is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth. To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.
The other problem with this line of thinking is that it suggests that it is OK to violate the antitrust laws to prevent a rival from charging too low of a price. This would obviously be bad policy. If Amazon was maintaining its dominant position through anticompetitive conduct, then there exists recourse in the law. As the old adage states, two wrongs do not make a right.
The main problem with the Apple e-book case is that it is a very simple case that lightly brushes against up against areas of law that and questions of policy that are attractive for Supreme Court review. There are important policy issues that still need to be addressed by the Supreme Court, but these facts don’t present them.
The Supreme Court does have an important job in helping antitrust law evolve in a sensible fashion. But this case is a soggy appetizer when there is a much more engaging main course about to be served. A cert petition has been filed in the FTC’s case against McWane, which provides a chance to update the law of exclusive dealing which the Court has not grappled with since the days of Sputnik (Only a slight exaggeration). And in McWane the most important business groups Including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have explained that the confusion and obscurity in this area and the mischief of the lower court’s decisions create real impediments to procompetitive conduct. Professors of law and economics (including several TOTM authors) also wrote in support of the petition.
The Court should skip the appetizer and get to the main course.