Even as delivery services work to ship all of those last-minute Christmas presents that consumers bought this season from digital platforms and other e-commerce sites, the U.S. House and Senate are contemplating Grinch-like legislation that looks to stop or limit how Big Tech companies can “self-preference” or “discriminate” on their platforms.
A platform “self-preferences” when it blends various services into the delivery of a given product in ways that third parties couldn’t do themselves. For example, Google self-preferences when it puts a Google Shopping box at the top of a Search page for Adidas sneakers. Amazon self-preferences when it offers its own AmazonBasics USB cables alongside those offered by Apple or Anker. Costco’s placement of its own Kirkland brand of paper towels on store shelves can also be a form of self-preferencing.
Such purportedly “discriminatory” behavior constitutes much of what platforms are designed to do. Virtually every platform that offers a suite of products and services will combine them in ways that users find helpful, even if competitors find it infuriating. It surely doesn’t help Yelp if Google Search users can see a Maps results box next to a search for showtimes at a local cinema. It doesn’t help other manufacturers of charging cables if Amazon sells a cheaper version under a brand that consumers trust. But do consumers really care about Yelp or Apple’s revenues, when all they want are relevant search results and less expensive products?
Until now, competition authorities have judged this type of conduct under the consumer welfare standard: does it hurt consumers in the long run, or does it help them? This test does seek to evaluate whether the conduct deprives consumers of choice by foreclosing rivals, which could ultimately allow the platform to exploit its customers. But it doesn’t treat harm to competitors—in the form of reduced traffic and profits for Yelp, for example—as a problem in and of itself.
“Non-discrimination” bills introduced this year in both the House and Senate aim to change that, but they would do so in ways that differ in important respects.
The House bill would impose a blanket ban on virtually all “discrimination” by platforms. This means that even such benign behavior as Facebook linking to Facebook Marketplace on its homepage would become presumptively unlawful. The measure would, as I’ve written before, break a lot of the Internet as we know it, but it has the virtue of being explicit and clear about its effects.
The Senate bill is, in this sense, a lot more circumspect. Instead of a blanket ban, it would prohibit what the bill refers to as “unfair” discrimination that “materially harm[s] competition on the covered platform,” with a carve-out exception for discrimination that was “necessary” to maintain or enhance the “core functionality” of the platform. In theory, this would avoid a lot of the really crazy effects of the House bill. Apple likely still could, for example, pre-install a Camera app on the iPhone.
But this greater degree of reasonableness comes at the price of ambiguity. The bill does not define “unfair discrimination,” nor what it would mean for something to be “necessary” to improve the core functionality of a platform. Faced with this ambiguity, companies would be wise to be overly cautious, given the steep penalties they would face for conduct found to be “unfair”: 15% of total U.S. revenues earned during the period when the conduct was ongoing. That’s a lot of money to risk over a single feature!
Also unlike the House legislation, the Senate bill would not create a private right of action, thereby limiting litigation to enforce the bill’s terms to actions brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), or state attorneys general.
Put together, these features create the perfect recipe for extensive discretionary power held by a handful of agencies. With such vague criteria and such massive penalties for lawbreaking, the mere threat of a lawsuit could force a company to change its behavior. The rules are so murky that companies might even be threatened with a lawsuit over conduct in one area in order to make them change their behavior in another.
The FTC itself has a history of abusing its authority. As Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson remind us, the commission was nearly shut down in the 1970s after trying to use its powers to “protect” children from seeing ads for sugary foods, interpreting its consumer-protection mandate so broadly that it considered tooth decay as falling within its scope.
Khan in particular does not appear especially bound by the usual norms that might constrain this sort of regulatory overreach. In recent weeks, she has pushed through contentious decisions by relying on more than 20 “zombie votes” cast by former Commissioner Rohit Chopra on the final day before he left the agency. While it has been FTC policy since 1984 to count votes cast by departed commissioners unless they are superseded by their successors, Khan’s FTC has invoked this relatively obscure rule to swing more decisions than every single predecessor combined.
Thus, while the Senate bill may avoid immediately breaking large portions of the Internet in ways the House bill would, it would instead place massive discretionary powers into the hands of authorities who have expansive views about the goals those powers ought to be used to pursue.
This ought to be concerning to anyone who disapproves of public policy being made by unelected bureaucrats, rather than the people’s chosen representatives. If Republicans find an empowered Khan-led FTC worrying today, surely Democrats ought to feel the same about an FTC run by Trump-style appointees in a few years. Both sides may come to regret creating an agency with so much unchecked power.
Politico has released a cache of confidential Federal Trade Commission (FTC) documents in connection with a series of articles on the commission’s antitrust probe into Google Search a decade ago. The headline of the first piece in the series argues the FTC “fumbled the future” by failing to follow through on staff recommendations to pursue antitrust intervention against the company.
But while the leaked documents shed interesting light on the inner workings of the FTC, they do very little to substantiate the case that the FTC dropped the ball when the commissioners voted unanimously not to bring an action against Google.
Drawn primarily from memos by the FTC’s lawyers, the Politico report purports to uncover key revelations that undermine the FTC’s decision not to sue Google. None of the revelations, however, provide evidence that Google’s behavior actually harmed consumers.
The report’s overriding claim—and the one most consistently forwarded by antitrust activists on Twitter—is that FTC commissioners wrongly sided with the agency’s economists (who cautioned against intervention) rather than its lawyers (who tenuously recommended very limited intervention).
Indeed, the overarching narrative is that the lawyers knew what was coming and the economists took wildly inaccurate positions that turned out to be completely off the mark:
But the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed:
— They saw only “limited potential for growth” in ads that track users across the web — now the backbone of Google parent company Alphabet’s $182.5 billion in annual revenue.
— They expected consumers to continue relying mainly on computers to search for information. Today, about 62 percent of those queries take place on mobile phones and tablets, nearly all of which use Google’s search engine as the default.
— They thought rivals like Microsoft, Mozilla or Amazon would offer viable competition to Google in the market for the software that runs smartphones. Instead, nearly all U.S. smartphones run on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.
— They underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic.
The report thus asserts that:
The agency ultimately voted against taking action, saying changes Google made to its search algorithm gave consumers better results and therefore didn’t unfairly harm competitors.
That conclusion underplays what the FTC’s staff found during the probe. In 312 pages of documents, the vast majority never publicly released, staffers outlined evidence that Google had taken numerous steps to ensure it would continue to dominate the market — including emerging arenas such as mobile search and targeted advertising. [EMPHASIS ADDED]
What really emerges from the leaked memos, however, is analysis by both the FTC’s lawyers and economists infused with a healthy dose of humility. There were strong political incentives to bring a case. As one of us noted upon the FTC’s closing of the investigation: “It’s hard to imagine an agency under more pressure, from more quarters (including the Hill), to bring a case around search.” Yet FTC staff and commissioners resisted that pressure, because prediction is hard.
Ironically, the very prediction errors that the agency’s staff cautioned against are now being held against them. Yet the claims that these errors (especially the economists’) systematically cut in one direction (i.e., against enforcement) and that all of their predictions were wrong are both wide of the mark.
Decisions Under Uncertainty
In seeking to make an example out of the FTC economists’ inaccurate predictions, critics ignore that antitrust investigations in dynamic markets always involve a tremendous amount of uncertainty; false predictions are the norm. Accordingly, the key challenge for policymakers is not so much to predict correctly, but to minimize the impact of incorrect predictions.
Seen in this light, the FTC economists’ memo is far from the laissez-faire manifesto that critics make it out to be. Instead, it shows agency officials wrestling with uncertain market outcomes, and choosing a course of action under the assumption the predictions they make might indeed be wrong.
Consider the following passage from FTC economist Ken Heyer’s memo:
The great American philosopher Yogi Berra once famously remarked “Predicting is difficult, especially about the future.” How right he was. And yet predicting, and making decisions based on those predictions, is what we are charged with doing. Ignoring the potential problem is not an option. So I will be reasonably clear about my own tentative conclusions and recommendation, recognizing that reasonable people, perhaps applying a somewhat different standard, may disagree. My recommendation derives from my read of the available evidence, combined with the standard I personally find appropriate to apply to Commission intervention. [EMPHASIS ADDED]
In other words, contrary to what many critics have claimed, it simply is not the case that the FTC’s economists based their recommendations on bullish predictions about the future that ultimately failed to transpire. Instead, they merely recognized that, in a dynamic and unpredictable environment, antitrust intervention requires both a clear-cut theory of anticompetitive harm and a reasonable probability that remedies can improve consumer welfare. According to the economists, those conditions were absent with respect to Google Search.
Perhaps more importantly, it is worth asking why the economists’ erroneous predictions matter at all. Do critics believe that developments the economists missed warrant a different normative stance today?
In that respect, it is worth noting that the economists’ skepticism appeared to have rested first and foremost on the speculative nature of the harms alleged and the difficulty associated with designing appropriate remedies. And yet, if anything, these two concerns appear even more salient today.
Indeed, the remedies imposed against Google in the EU have not delivered the outcomes that enforcers expected (here and here). This could either be because the remedies were insufficient or because Google’s market position was not due to anticompetitive conduct. Similarly, there is still no convincing economic theory or empirical research to support the notion that exclusive pre-installation and self-preferencing by incumbents harm consumers, and a great deal of reason to think they benefit them (see, e.g., our discussions of the issue here and here).
Against this backdrop, criticism of the FTC economists appears to be driven more by a prior assumption that intervention is necessary—and that it was and is disingenuous to think otherwise—than evidence that erroneous predictions materially affected the outcome of the proceedings.
To take one example, the fact that ad tracking grew faster than the FTC economists believed it would is no less consistent with vigorous competition—and Google providing a superior product—than with anticompetitive conduct on Google’s part. The same applies to the growth of mobile operating systems. Ditto the fact that no rival has managed to dislodge Google in its most important markets.
In short, not only were the economist memos informed by the very prediction difficulties that critics are now pointing to, but critics have not shown that any of the staff’s (inevitably) faulty predictions warranted a different normative outcome.
Putting Erroneous Predictions in Context
So what were these faulty predictions, and how important were they? Politico asserts that “the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed,” tying this to the FTC’s failure to intervene against Google over “tactics that European regulators and the U.S. Justice Department would later label antitrust violations.” The clear message is that the current actions are presumptively valid, and that the FTC’s economists thwarted earlier intervention based on faulty analysis.
But it is far from clear that these faulty predictions would have justified taking a tougher stance against Google. One key question for antitrust authorities is whether they can be reasonably certain that more efficient competitors will be unable to dislodge an incumbent. This assessment is necessarily forward-looking. Framed this way, greater market uncertainty (for instance, because policymakers are dealing with dynamic markets) usually cuts against antitrust intervention.
This does not entirely absolve the FTC economists who made the faulty predictions. But it does suggest the right question is not whether the economists made mistakes, but whether virtually everyone did so. The latter would be evidence of uncertainty, and thus weigh against antitrust intervention.
In that respect, it is worth noting that the staff who recommended that the FTC intervene also misjudged the future of digital markets.For example, while Politico surmises that the FTC “underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic,” there is a case to be made that the FTC overestimated this power. If anything, Google’s continued growth has opened new niches in the online advertising space.
Politico asserts not only that the economists’ market share and market power calculations were wrong, but that the lawyers knew better:
The economists, relying on data from the market analytics firm Comscore, found that Google had only limited impact. They estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of traffic to those types of sites generally came from the search engine.
FTC attorneys, though, used numbers provided by Yelp and found that 92 percent of users visited local review sites from Google. For shopping sites like eBay and TheFind, the referral rate from Google was between 67 and 73 percent.
This compares apples and oranges, or maybe oranges and grapefruit. The economists’ data, from Comscore, applied to vertical search overall. They explicitly noted that shares for particular sites could be much higher or lower: for comparison shopping, for example, “ranging from 56% to less than 10%.” This, of course, highlights a problem with the data provided by Yelp, et al.: it concerns only the websites of companies complaining about Google, not the overall flow of traffic for vertical search.
But the more important point is that none of the data discussed in the memos represents the overall flow of traffic for vertical search. Take Yelp, for example. According to the lawyers’ memo, 92 percent of Yelp searches were referred from Google. Only, that’s not true. We know it’s not true because, as Yelp CEO Jerry Stoppelman pointed out around this time in Yelp’s 2012 Q2 earnings call:
When you consider that 40% of our searches come from mobile apps, there is quite a bit of un-monetized mobile traffic that we expect to unlock in the near future.
The numbers being analyzed by the FTC staff were apparently limited to referrals to Yelp’s website from browsers. But is there any reason to think that is the relevant market, or the relevant measure of customer access? Certainly there is nothing in the staff memos to suggest they considered the full scope of the market very carefully here. Indeed, the footnote in the lawyers’ memo presenting the traffic data is offered in support of this claim:
Vertical websites, such as comparison shopping and local websites, are heavily dependent on Google’s web search results to reach users. Thus, Google is in the unique position of being able to “make or break any web-based business.”
It’s plausible that vertical search traffic is “heavily dependent” on Google Search, but the numbers offered in support of that simply ignore the (then) 40 percent of traffic that Yelp acquired through its own mobile app, with no Google involvement at all. In any case, it is also notable that, while there are still somewhat fewer app users than web users (although the number has consistently increased), Yelp’s app users view significantly more pages than its website users do — 10 times as many in 2015, for example.
Also noteworthy is that, for whatever speculative harm Google might be able to visit on the company, at the time of the FTC’s analysis Yelp’s local ad revenue was consistently increasing — by 89% in Q3 2012. And that was without any ad revenue coming from its app (display ads arrived on Yelp’s mobile app in Q1 2013, a few months after the staff memos were written and just after the FTC closed its Google Search investigation).
In short, the search-engine industry is extremely dynamic and unpredictable. Contrary to what many have surmised from the FTC staff memo leaks, this cuts against antitrust intervention, not in favor of it.
The FTC Lawyers’ Weak Case for Prosecuting Google
At the same time, although not discussed by Politico, the lawyers’ memo also contains errors, suggesting that arguments for intervention were also (inevitably) subject to erroneous prediction.
Among other things, the FTC attorneys’ memo argued the large upfront investments were required to develop cutting-edge algorithms, and that these effectively shielded Google from competition. The memo cites the following as a barrier to entry:
A search engine requires algorithmic technology that enables it to search the Internet, retrieve and organize information, index billions of regularly changing web pages, and return relevant results instantaneously that satisfy the consumer’s inquiry. Developing such algorithms requires highly specialized personnel with high levels of training and knowledge in engineering, economics, mathematics, sciences, and statistical analysis.
If there are barriers to entry in the search-engine industry, algorithms do not seem to be the source. While their market shares may be smaller than Google’s, rival search engines like DuckDuckGo and Bing have been able to enter and gain traction; it is difficult to say that algorithmic technology has proven a barrier to entry. It may be hard to do well, but it certainly has not proved an impediment to new firms entering and developing workable and successful products. Indeed, some extremely successful companies have entered into similar advertising markets on the backs of complex algorithms, notably Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. All of these compete with Google for advertising dollars.
The FTC’s legal staff also failed to see that Google would face serious competition in the rapidly growing voice assistant market. In other words, even its search-engine “moat” is far less impregnable than it might at first appear.
Moreover, as Ben Thompson argues in his Stratechery newsletter:
The Staff memo is completely wrong too, at least in terms of the potential for their proposed remedies to lead to any real change in today’s market. This gets back to why the fundamental premise of the Politico article, along with much of the antitrust chatter in Washington, misses the point: Google is dominant because consumers like it.
This difficulty was deftly highlighted by Heyer’s memo:
If the perceived problems here can be solved only through a draconian remedy of this sort, or perhaps through a remedy that eliminates Google’s legitimately obtained market power (and thus its ability to “do evil”), I believe the remedy would be disproportionate to the violation and that its costs would likely exceed its benefits. Conversely, if a remedy well short of this seems likely to prove ineffective, a remedy would be undesirable for that reason. In brief, I do not see a feasible remedy for the vertical conduct that would be both appropriate and effective, and which would not also be very costly to implement and to police. [EMPHASIS ADDED]
Of course, we now know that this turned out to be a huge issue with the EU’s competition cases against Google. The remedies in both the EU’s Google Shopping and Android decisions were severely criticized by rival firms and consumer-defense organizations (here and here), but were ultimately upheld, in part because even the European Commission likely saw more forceful alternatives as disproportionate.
And in the few places where the legal staff concluded that Google’s conduct may have caused harm, there is good reason to think that their analysis was flawed.
Google’s ‘revenue-sharing’ agreements
It should be noted that neither the lawyers nor the economists at the FTC were particularly bullish on bringing suit against Google. In most areas of the investigation, neither recommended that the commission pursue a case. But one of the most interesting revelations from the recent leaks is that FTC lawyers did advise the commission’s leadership to sue Google over revenue-sharing agreements that called for it to pay Apple and other carriers and manufacturers to pre-install its search bar on mobile devices:
The lawyers’ stance is surprising, and, despite actions subsequently brought by the EU and DOJ on similar claims, a difficult one to countenance.
To a first approximation, this behavior is precisely what antitrust law seeks to promote: we want companies to compete aggressively to attract consumers. This conclusion is in no way altered when competition is “for the market” (in this case, firms bidding for exclusive placement of their search engines) rather than “in the market” (i.e., equally placed search engines competing for eyeballs).
Competition for exclusive placement has several important benefits. For a start, revenue-sharing agreements effectively subsidize consumers’ mobile device purchases. As Brian Albrecht aptly puts it:
This payment from Google means that Apple can lower its price to better compete for consumers. This is standard; some of the payment from Google to Apple will be passed through to consumers in the form of lower prices.
This finding is not new. For instance, Ronald Coase famously argued that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was wrong to ban the broadcasting industry’s equivalent of revenue-sharing agreements, so-called payola:
[I]f the playing of a record by a radio station increases the sales of that record, it is both natural and desirable that there should be a charge for this. If this is not done by the station and payola is not allowed, it is inevitable that more resources will be employed in the production and distribution of records, without any gain to consumers, with the result that the real income of the community will tend to decline. In addition, the prohibition of payola may result in worse record programs, will tend to lessen competition, and will involve additional expenditures for regulation. The gain which the ban is thought to bring is to make the purchasing decisions of record buyers more efficient by eliminating “deception.” It seems improbable to me that this problematical gain will offset the undoubted losses which flow from the ban on Payola.
Applying this logic to Google Search, it is clear that a ban on revenue-sharing agreements would merely lead both Google and its competitors to attract consumers via alternative means. For Google, this might involve “complete” vertical integration into the mobile phone market, rather than the open-licensing model that underpins the Android ecosystem. Valuable specialization may be lost in the process.
Moreover, from Apple’s standpoint, Google’s revenue-sharing agreements are profitable only to the extent that consumers actually like Google’s products. If it turns out they don’t, Google’s payments to Apple may be outweighed by lower iPhone sales. It is thus unlikely that these agreements significantly undermined users’ experience. To the contrary, Apple’s testimony before the European Commission suggests that “exclusive” placement of Google’s search engine was mostly driven by consumer preferences (as the FTC economists’ memo points out):
Apple would not offer simultaneous installation of competing search or mapping applications. Apple’s focus is offering its customers the best products out of the box while allowing them to make choices after purchase. In many countries, Google offers the best product or service … Apple believes that offering additional search boxes on its web browsing software would confuse users and detract from Safari’s aesthetic. Too many choices lead to consumer confusion and greatly affect the ‘out of the box’ experience of Apple products.
Similarly, Kevin Murphy and Benjamin Klein have shown that exclusive contracts intensify competition for distribution. In other words, absent theories of platform envelopment that are arguably inapplicable here, competition for exclusive placement would lead competing search engines to up their bids, ultimately lowering the price of mobile devices for consumers.
Indeed, this revenue-sharing model was likely essential to spur the development of Android in the first place. Without this prominent placement of Google Search on Android devices (notably thanks to revenue-sharing agreements with original equipment manufacturers), Google would likely have been unable to monetize the investment it made in the open source—and thus freely distributed—Android operating system.
In short, Politico and the FTC legal staff do little to show that Google’s revenue-sharing payments excluded rivals that were, in fact, as efficient. In other words, Bing and Yahoo’s failure to gain traction may simply be the result of inferior products and cost structures. Critics thus fail to show that Google’s behavior harmed consumers, which is the touchstone of antitrust enforcement.
Another finding critics claim as important is that FTC leadership declined to bring suit against Google for preferencing its own vertical search services (this information had already been partially leaked by the Wall Street Journal in 2015). Politico’s framing implies this was a mistake:
When Google adopted one algorithm change in 2011, rival sites saw significant drops in traffic. Amazon told the FTC that it saw a 35 percent drop in traffic from the comparison-shopping sites that used to send it customers
The focus on this claim is somewhat surprising. Even the leaked FTC legal staff memo found this theory of harm had little chance of standing up in court:
Staff has investigated whether Google has unlawfully preferenced its own content over that of rivals, while simultaneously demoting rival websites….
…Although it is a close call, we do not recommend that the Commission proceed on this cause of action because the case law is not favorable to our theory, which is premised on anticompetitive product design, and in any event, Google’s efficiency justifications are strong. Most importantly, Google can legitimately claim that at least part of the conduct at issue improves its product and benefits users. [EMPHASIS ADDED]
More importantly, as one of us has argued elsewhere, the underlying problem lies not with Google, but with a standard asset-specificity trap:
A content provider that makes itself dependent upon another company for distribution (or vice versa, of course) takes a significant risk. Although it may benefit from greater access to users, it places itself at the mercy of the other — or at least faces great difficulty (and great cost) adapting to unanticipated, crucial changes in distribution over which it has no control….
…It was entirely predictable, and should have been expected, that Google’s algorithm would evolve. It was also entirely predictable that it would evolve in ways that could diminish or even tank Foundem’s traffic. As one online marketing/SEO expert puts it: On average, Google makes about 500 algorithm changes per year. 500!….
…In the absence of an explicit agreement, should Google be required to make decisions that protect a dependent company’s “asset-specific” investments, thus encouraging others to take the same, excessive risk?
Even if consumers happily visited rival websites when they were higher-ranked and traffic subsequently plummeted when Google updated its algorithm, that drop in traffic does not amount to evidence of misconduct. To hold otherwise would be to grant these rivals a virtual entitlement to the state of affairs that exists at any given point in time.
Indeed, there is good reason to believe Google’s decision to favor its own content over that of other sites is procompetitive. Beyond determining and ensuring relevance, Google surely has the prerogative to compete vigorously and decide how to design its products to keep up with a changing market. In this case, that means designing, developing, and offering its own content in ways that partially displace the original “ten blue links” design of its search results page and instead offer its own answers to users’ queries.
Competitor Harm Is Not an Indicator of the Need for Intervention
Some of the other information revealed by the leak is even more tangential, such as that the FTC ignored complaints from Google’s rivals:
Amazon said it was so concerned about the prospect of Google monopolizing the search advertising business that it willingly sacrificed revenue by making ad deals aimed at keeping Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo’s search engine afloat.
But complaints from rivals are at least as likely to stem from vigorous competition as from anticompetitive exclusion. This goes to a core principle of antitrust enforcement: antitrust law seeks to protect competition and consumer welfare, not rivals. Competition will always lead to winners and losers. Antitrust law protects this process and (at least theoretically) ensures that rivals cannot manipulate enforcers to safeguard their economic rents.
This explains why Frank Easterbrook—in his seminal work on “The Limits of Antitrust”—argued that enforcers should be highly suspicious of complaints lodged by rivals:
Antitrust litigation is attractive as a method of raising rivals’ costs because of the asymmetrical structure of incentives….
…One line worth drawing is between suits by rivals and suits by consumers. Business rivals have an interest in higher prices, while consumers seek lower prices. Business rivals seek to raise the costs of production, while consumers have the opposite interest….
…They [antitrust enforcers] therefore should treat suits by horizontal competitors with the utmost suspicion. They should dismiss outright some categories of litigation between rivals and subject all such suits to additional scrutiny.
Google’s competitors spent millions pressuring the FTC to bring a case against the company. But why should it be a failing for the FTC to resist such pressure? Indeed, as then-commissioner Tom Rosch admonished in an interview following the closing of the case:
They [Google’s competitors] can darn well bring [a case] as a private antitrust action if they think their ox is being gored instead of free-riding on the government to achieve the same result.
Not that they would likely win such a case. Google’s introduction of specialized shopping results (via the Google Shopping box) likely enabled several retailers to bypass the Amazon platform, thus increasing competition in the retail industry. Although this may have temporarily reduced Amazon’s traffic and revenue (Amazon’s sales have grown dramatically since then), it is exactly the outcome that antitrust laws are designed to protect.
When all is said and done, Politico’s revelations provide a rarely glimpsed look into the complex dynamics within the FTC, which many wrongly imagine to be a monolithic agency. Put simply, the FTC’s commissioners, lawyers, and economists often disagree vehemently about the appropriate course of conduct. This is a good thing. As in many other walks of life, having a market for ideas is a sure way to foster sound decision making.
But in the final analysis, what the revelations do not show is that the FTC’s market for ideas failed consumers a decade ago when it declined to bring an antitrust suit against Google. They thus do little to cement the case for antitrust intervention—whether a decade ago, or today.
Critics of big tech companies like Google and Amazon are increasingly focused on the supposed evils of “self-preferencing.” This refers to when digital platforms like Amazon Marketplace or Google Search, which connect competing services with potential customers or users, also offer (and sometimes prioritize) their own in-house products and services.
The objection, raised by several members and witnesses during a Feb. 25 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, is that it is unfair to third parties that use those sites to allow the site’s owner special competitive advantages. Is it fair, for example, for Amazon to use the data it gathers from its service to design new products if third-party merchants can’t access the same data? This seemingly intuitive complaint was the basis for the European Commission’s landmark case against Google.
But we cannot assume that something is bad for competition just because it is bad for certain competitors. A lot of unambiguously procompetitive behavior, like cutting prices, also tends to make life difficult for competitors. The same is true when a digital platform provides a service that is better than alternatives provided by the site’s third-party sellers.
It’s probably true that Amazon’s access to customer search and purchase data can help it spot products it can undercut with its own versions, driving down prices. But that’s not unusual; most retailers do this, many to a much greater extent than Amazon. For example, you can buy AmazonBasics batteries for less than half the price of branded alternatives, and they’re pretty good.
There’s no doubt this is unpleasant for merchants that have to compete with these offerings. But it is also no different from having to compete with more efficient rivals who have lower costs or better insight into consumer demand. Copying products and seeking ways to offer them with better features or at a lower price, which critics of self-preferencing highlight as a particular concern, has always been a fundamental part of market competition—indeed, it is the primary way competition occurs in most markets.
Store-branded versions of iPhone cables and Nespresso pods are certainly inconvenient for those companies, but they offer consumers cheaper alternatives. Where such copying may be problematic (say, by deterring investments in product innovations), the law awards and enforces patents and copyrights to reward novel discoveries and creative works, and trademarks to protect brand identity. But in the absence of those cases where a company has intellectual property, this is simply how competition works.
The fundamental question is “what benefits consumers?” Services like Yelp object that they cannot compete with Google when Google embeds its Google Maps box in Google Search results, while Yelp cannot do the same. But for users, the Maps box adds valuable information to the results page, making it easier to get what they want. Google is not making Yelp worse by making its own product better. Should it have to refrain from offering services that benefit its users because doing so might make competing products comparatively less attractive?
Self-preferencing also enables platforms to promote their offerings in other markets, which is often how large tech companies compete with each other. Amazon has a photo-hosting app that competes with Google Photos and Apple’s iCloud. It recently emailed its customers to promote it. That is undoubtedly self-preferencing, since other services cannot market themselves to Amazon’s customers like this, but if it makes customers aware of an alternative they might not have otherwise considered, that is good for competition.
This kind of behavior also allows companies to invest in offering services inexpensively, or for free, that they intend to monetize by preferencing their other, more profitable products. For example, Google invests in Android’s operating system and gives much of it away for free precisely because it can encourage Android customers to use the profitable Google Search service. Despite claims to the contrary, it is difficult to see this sort of cross-subsidy as harmful to consumers.
All platforms are open or closed to varying degrees. Retail “platforms,” for example, exist on a spectrum on which Craigslist is more open and neutral than eBay, which is more so than Amazon, which is itself relatively more so than, say, Walmart.com. Each position on this spectrum offers its own benefits and trade-offs for consumers. Indeed, some customers’ biggest complaint against Amazon is that it is too open, filled with third parties who leave fake reviews, offer counterfeit products, or have shoddy returns policies. Part of the role of the site is to try to correct those problems by making better rules, excluding certain sellers, or just by offering similar options directly.
Regulators and legislators often act as if the more open and neutral, the better, but customers have repeatedly shown that they often prefer less open, less neutral options. And critics of self-preferencing frequently find themselves arguing against behavior that improves consumer outcomes, because it hurts competitors. But that is the nature of competition: what’s good for consumers is frequently bad for competitors. If we have to choose, it’s consumers who should always come first.
The populists are on the march, and as the 2018 campaign season gets rolling we’re witnessing more examples of political opportunism bolstered by economic illiteracy aimed at increasingly unpopular big tech firms.
The latest example comes in the form of a new investigation of Google opened by Missouri’s Attorney General, Josh Hawley. Mr. Hawley — a Republican who, not coincidentally, is running for Senate in 2018 — alleges various consumer protection violations and unfair competition practices.
But while Hawley’s investigation may jump start his campaign and help a few vocal Google rivals intent on mobilizing the machinery of the state against the company, it is unlikely to enhance consumer welfare — in Missouri or anywhere else.
According to the press release issued by the AG’s office:
[T]he investigation will seek to determine if Google has violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act—Missouri’s principal consumer-protection statute—and Missouri’s antitrust laws.
The business practices in question are Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities; Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors; and Google’s alleged manipulation of search results to preference websites owned by Google and to demote websites that compete with Google.
Mr. Hawley’s justification for his investigation is a flourish of populist rhetoric:
We should not just accept the word of these corporate giants that they have our best interests at heart. We need to make sure that they are actually following the law, we need to make sure that consumers are protected, and we need to hold them accountable.
But Hawley’s “strong” concern is based on tired retreads of the same faulty arguments that Google’s competitors (Yelp chief among them), have been plying for the better part of a decade. In fact, all of his apparent grievances against Google were exhaustively scrutinized by the FTC and ultimately rejected or settled in separate federal investigations in 2012 and 2013.
The antitrust issues
To begin with, AG Hawley references the EU antitrust investigation as evidence that
this is not the first-time Google’s business practices have come into question. In June, the European Union issued Google a record $2.7 billion antitrust fine.
True enough — and yet, misleadingly incomplete. Missing from Hawley’s recitation of Google’s antitrust rap sheet are the following investigations, which were closed without any finding of liability related to Google Search, Android, Google’s advertising practices, etc.:
United States FTC, 2013. The FTC found no basis to pursue a case after a two-year investigation: “Challenging Google’s product design decisions in this case would require the Commission — or a court — to second-guess a firm’s product design decisions where plausible procompetitive justifications have been offered, and where those justifications are supported by ample evidence.” The investigation did result in a consent order regarding patent licensing unrelated in any way to search and a voluntary commitment by Google not to engage in certain search-advertising-related conduct.
South Korea FTC, 2013. The KFTC cleared Google after a two-year investigation. It opened a new investigation in 2016, but, as I have discussed, “[i]f anything, the economic conditions supporting [the KFTC’s 2013] conclusion have only gotten stronger since.”
Canada Competition Bureau, 2016. The CCB closed a three-year long investigation into Google’s search practices without taking any action.
Similar investigations have been closed without findings of liability (or simply lie fallow) in a handful of other countries (e.g., Taiwan and Brazil) and even several states (e.g., Ohio and Texas). In fact, of all the jurisdictions that have investigated Google, only the EU and Russia have actually assessed liability.
As Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the FTC during the Google antitrust investigation, noted upon closing the case:
Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of U.S. law.
The Bureau sought evidence of the harm allegedly caused to market participants in Canada as a result of any alleged preferential treatment of Google’s services. The Bureau did not find adequate evidence to support the conclusion that this conduct has had an exclusionary effect on rivals, or that it has resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in a market.
Unfortunately, rather than follow the lead of these agencies, Missouri’s investigation appears to have more in common with Russia’s effort to prop up a favored competitor (Yandex) at the expense of consumer welfare.
The Yelp Claim
Take Mr. Hawley’s focus on “Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors,” for example, which cleaves closely to what should become known henceforth as “The Yelp Claim.”
While the sordid history of Yelp’s regulatory crusade against Google is too long to canvas in its entirety here, the primary elements are these:
Once upon a time (in 2005), Google licensed Yelp’s content for inclusion in its local search results. In 2007 Yelp ended the deal. By 2010, and without a license from Yelp (asserting fair use), Google displayed small snippets of Yelp’s reviews that, if clicked on, led to Yelp’s site. Even though Yelp received more user traffic from those links as a result, Yelp complained, and Google removed Yelp snippets from its local results.
In its 2013 agreement with the FTC, Google guaranteed that Yelp could opt-out of having even snippets displayed in local search results by committing Google to:
make available a web-based notice form that provides website owners with the option to opt out from display on Google’s Covered Webpages of content from their website that has been crawled by Google. When a website owner exercises this option, Google will cease displaying crawled content from the domain name designated by the website owner….
The commitments also ensured that websites (like Yelp) that opt out would nevertheless remain in Google’s general index.
Ironically, Yelp now claims in a recent study that Google should show not only snippets of Yelp reviews, but even more of Yelp’s content. (For those interested, my colleagues and I have a paper explaining why the study’s claims are spurious).
The key bit here, of course, is that Google stopped pulling content from Yelp’s pages to use in its local search results, and that it implemented a simple mechanism for any other site wishing to opt out of the practice to do so.
It’s difficult to imagine why Missouri’s citizens might require more than this to redress alleged anticompetitive harms arising from the practice.
Perhaps AG Hawley thinks consumers would be better served by an opt-in mechanism? Of course, this is absurd, particularly if any of Missouri’s citizens — and their businesses — have websites. Most websites want at least some of their content to appear on Google’s search results pages as prominently as possible — see this and this, for example — and making this information more accessible to users is why Google exists.
To be sure, some websites may take issue with how much of their content Google features and where it places that content. But the easy opt out enables them to prevent Google from showing their content in a manner they disapprove of. Yelp is an outlier in this regard because it views Google as a direct competitor, especially to the extent it enables users to read some of Yelp’s reviews without visiting Yelp’s pages.
For Yelp and a few similarly situated companies the opt out suffices. But for almost everyone else the opt out is presumably rarely exercised, and any more-burdensome requirement would just impose unnecessary costs, harming instead of helping their websites.
The privacy issues
The Missouri investigation also applies to “Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities.” More pointedly, Hawley claims that “Google may be collecting more information from users than the company was telling consumers….”
Presumably this would come as news to the FTC, which, with a much larger staff and far greater expertise, currently has Google under a 20 year consent order (with some 15 years left to go) governing its privacy disclosures and information-sharing practices, thus ensuring that the agency engages in continual — and well-informed — oversight of precisely these issues.
The FTC’s consent order with Google (the result of an investigation into conduct involving Google’s short-lived Buzz social network, allegedly in violation of Google’s privacy policies), requires the company to:
“[N]ot misrepresent in any manner, expressly or by implication… the extent to which respondent maintains and protects the privacy and confidentiality of any [user] information…”;
“Obtain express affirmative consent from” users “prior to any new or additional sharing… of the Google user’s identified information with any third party” if doing so would in any way deviate from previously disclosed practices;
“[E]stablish and implement, and thereafter maintain, a comprehensive privacy program that is reasonably designed to  address privacy risks related to the development and management of new and existing products and services for consumers, and (2) protect the privacy and confidentiality of [users’] information”; and
Along with a laundry list of other reporting requirements, “[submit] biennial assessments and reports  from a qualified, objective, independent third-party professional…, approved by the [FTC] Associate Director for Enforcement, Bureau of Consumer Protection… in his or her sole discretion.”
What, beyond the incredibly broad scope of the FTC’s consent order, could the Missouri AG’s office possibly hope to obtain from an investigation?
Google is already expressly required to provide privacy reports to the FTC every two years. It must provide several of the items Hawley demands in his CID to the FTC; others are required to be made available to the FTC upon demand. What materials could the Missouri AG collect beyond those the FTC already receives, or has the authority to demand, under its consent order?
And what manpower and expertise could Hawley apply to those materials that would even begin to equal, let alone exceed, those of the FTC?
That penalty is of undeniable import, not only for its amount (at the time it was the largest in FTC history) and for stemming from alleged problems completely unrelated to the issue underlying the initial action, but also because it was so easy to obtain. Having put Google under a 20-year consent order, the FTC need only prove (or threaten to prove) contempt of the consent order, rather than the specific elements of a new violation of the FTC Act, to bring the company to heel. The former is far easier to prove, and comes with the ability to impose (significant) damages.
So what’s really going on in Jefferson City?
While states are, of course, free to enforce their own consumer protection laws to protect their citizens, there is little to be gained — other than cold hard cash, perhaps — from pursuing cases that, at best, duplicate enforcement efforts already undertaken by the federal government (to say nothing of innumerable other jurisdictions).
To take just one relevant example, in 2013 — almost a year to the day following the court’s approval of the settlement in the FTC’s case alleging Google’s violation of the Buzz consent order — 37 states plus DC (not including Missouri) settled their own, follow-on litigation against Google on the same facts. Significantly, the terms of the settlement did not impose upon Google any obligation not already a part of the Buzz consent order or the subsequent FTC settlement — but it did require Google to fork over an additional $17 million.
Not only is there little to be gained from yet another ill-conceived antitrust campaign, there is much to be lost. Such massive investigations require substantial resources to conduct, and the opportunity cost of doing so may mean real consumer issues go unaddressed. The Consumer Protection Section of the Missouri AG’s office says it receives some 100,000 consumer complaints a year. How many of those will have to be put on the back burner to accommodate an investigation like this one?
Even when not politically motivated, state enforcement of CPAs is not an unalloyed good. In fact, empirical studies of state consumer protection actions like the one contemplated by Mr. Hawley have shown that such actions tend toward overreach — good for lawyers, perhaps, but expensive for taxpayers and often detrimental to consumers. According to a recent study by economists James Cooper and Joanna Shepherd:
[I]n recent decades, this thoughtful balance [between protecting consumers and preventing the proliferation of lawsuits that harm both consumers and businesses] has yielded to damaging legislative and judicial overcorrections at the state level with a common theoretical mistake: the assumption that more CPA litigation automatically yields more consumer protection…. [C]ourts and legislatures gradually have abolished many of the procedural and remedial protections designed to cabin state CPAs to their original purpose: providing consumers with redress for actual harm in instances where tort and contract law may provide insufficient remedies. The result has been an explosion in consumer protection litigation, which serves no social function and for which consumers pay indirectly through higher prices and reduced innovation.
AG Hawley’s investigation seems almost tailored to duplicate the FTC’s extensive efforts — and to score political points. Or perhaps Mr. Hawley is just perturbed that Missouri missed out its share of the $17 million multistate settlement in 2013.
Which raises the spectre of a further problem with the Missouri case: “rent extraction.”
It’s no coincidence that Mr. Hawley’s investigation follows closely on the heels of Yelp’s recent letter to the FTC and every state AG (as well as four members of Congress and the EU’s chief competition enforcer, for good measure) alleging that Google had re-started scraping Yelp’s content, thus violating the terms of its voluntary commitments to the FTC.
It’s also no coincidence that Yelp “notified” Google of the problem only by lodging a complaint with every regulator who might listen rather than by actuallynotifying Google. But an action like the one Missouri is undertaking — not resolution of the issue — is almost certainly exactly what Yelp intended, and AG Hawley is playing right into Yelp’s hands.
Google, for its part, strongly disputes Yelp’s allegation, and, indeed, has — even according to Yelp — complied fully with Yelp’s request to keep its content off Google Local and other “vertical” search pages since 18 months before Google entered into its commitments with the FTC. Google claims that the recent scraping was inadvertent, and that it would happily have rectified the problem if only Yelp had actually bothered to inform Google.
Indeed, Yelp’s allegations don’t really pass the smell test: That Google would suddenly change its practices now, in violation of its commitments to the FTC and at a time of extraordinarily heightened scrutiny by the media, politicians of all stripes, competitors like Yelp, the FTC, the EU, and a host of other antitrust or consumer protection authorities, strains belief.
But, again, identifying and resolving an actual commercial dispute was likely never the goal. As a recent, fawning New York Times article on “Yelp’s Six-Year Grudge Against Google” highlights (focusing in particular on Luther Lowe, now Yelp’s VP of Public Policy and the author of the letter):
Yelp elevated Mr. Lowe to the new position of director of government affairs, a job that more or less entails flying around the world trying to sic antitrust regulators on Google. Over the next few years, Yelp hired its first lobbyist and started a political action committee. Recently, it has started filing complaints in Brazil.
Missouri, in other words, may just be carrying Yelp’s water.
The one clear lesson of the decades-long Microsoft antitrust saga is that companies that struggle to compete in the market can profitably tax their rivals by instigating antitrust actions against them. As Milton Friedman admonished, decrying “the business community’s suicidal impulse” to invite regulation:
As a believer in the pursuit of self-interest in a competitive capitalist system, I can’t blame a businessman who goes to Washington [or is it Jefferson City?] and tries to get special privileges for his company.… Blame the rest of us for being so foolish as to let him get away with it.
Taking a tough line on Silicon Valley firms in the midst of today’s anti-tech-company populist resurgence may help with the electioneering in Mr. Hawley’s upcoming bid for a US Senate seat and serve Yelp, but it doesn’t offer any clear, actual benefits to Missourians. As I’ve wondered before: “Exactly when will regulators be a little more skeptical of competitors trying to game the antitrust laws for their own advantage?”
Last week the editorial board of the Washington Post penned an excellent editorial responding to the European Commission’s announcement of its decision in its Google Shopping investigation. Here’s the key language from the editorial:
Whether the demise of any of [the complaining comparison shopping sites] is specifically traceable to Google, however, is not so clear. Also unclear is the aggregate harm from Google’s practices to consumers, as opposed to the unlucky companies. Birkenstock-seekers may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first, instead of clicking around to other sites…. Those who aren’t happy anyway have other options. Indeed, the rise of comparison shopping on giants such as Amazon and eBay makes concerns that Google might exercise untrammeled power over e-commerce seem, well, a bit dated…. Who knows? In a few years we might be talking about how Facebook leveraged its 2 billion users to disrupt the whole space.
That’s actually a pretty thorough, if succinct, summary of the basic problems with the Commission’s case (based on its PR and Factsheet, at least; it hasn’t released the full decision yet).
I’ll have more to say on the decision in due course, but for now I want to elaborate on two of the points raised by the WaPo editorial board, both in service of its crucial rejoinder to the Commission that “Also unclear is the aggregate harm from Google’s practices to consumers, as opposed to the unlucky companies.”
First, the WaPo editorial board points out that:
Birkenstock-seekers may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first, instead of clicking around to other sites.
It is undoubtedly true that users “may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first.” It’s also crucial to understanding the changes in Google’s search results page that have given rise to the current raft of complaints.
It’s a mistake to consider “general search” and “comparison shopping” or “product search” to be distinct markets.
From the moment it was technologically feasible to do so, Google has been adapting its traditional search results—that familiar but long since vanished page of 10 blue links—to offer more specialized answers to users’ queries. Product search, which is what is at issue in the EU complaint, is the next iteration in this trend.
Internet users today seek information from myriad sources: Informational sites (Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database); review sites (Yelp and TripAdvisor); retail sites (Amazon and eBay); and social-media sites (Facebook and Twitter). What do these sites have in common? They prioritize certain types of data over others to improve the relevance of the information they provide.
“Prioritization” of Google’s own shopping results, however, is the core problem for the Commission:
Google has systematically given prominent placement to its own comparison shopping service: when a consumer enters a query into the Google search engine in relation to which Google’s comparison shopping service wants to show results, these are displayed at or near the top of the search results. (Emphasis in original).
But this sort of prioritization is the norm for all search, social media, e-commerce and similar platforms. And this shouldn’t be a surprise: The value of these platforms to the user is dependent upon their ability to sort the wheat from the chaff of the now immense amount of information coursing about the Web.
Google is a vertically integrated company that offers general search, but also a host of other products…. With its well-developed algorithm and wide range of products, it is hardly surprising that Google can provide not only direct answers to factual questions, but also a wide range of its own products and services that meet users’ needs. If consumers choose Google not randomly, but precisely because they seek to take advantage of the direct answers and other options that Google can provide, then removing the sort of “bias” alleged by [complainants] would affirmatively hurt, not help, these users. (Emphasis added).
[I]t is critical to recognize that bias alone is not evidence of competitive harm and it must be evaluated in the appropriate antitrust economic context of competition and consumers, rather individual competitors and websites. Edelman & Lockwood´s analysis provides a useful starting point for describing how search engines differ in their referrals to their own content. However, it is not useful from an antitrust policy perspective because it erroneously—and contrary to economic theory and evidence—presumes natural and procompetitive product differentiation in search rankings to be inherently harmful. (Emphasis added).
We’ll have to see what kind of analysis the Commission relies upon in its decision to reach its conclusion that prioritization is an antitrust problem, but there is reason to be skeptical that it will turn out to be compelling. The Commission states in its PR that:
The evidence shows that consumers click far more often on results that are more visible, i.e. the results appearing higher up in Google’s search results. Even on a desktop, the ten highest-ranking generic search results on page 1 together generally receive approximately 95% of all clicks on generic search results (with the top result receiving about 35% of all the clicks). The first result on page 2 of Google’s generic search results receives only about 1% of all clicks. This cannot just be explained by the fact that the first result is more relevant, because evidence also shows that moving the first result to the third rank leads to a reduction in the number of clicks by about 50%. The effects on mobile devices are even more pronounced given the much smaller screen size.
This means that by giving prominent placement only to its own comparison shopping service and by demoting competitors, Google has given its own comparison shopping service a significant advantage compared to rivals. (Emphasis added).
Whatever truth there is in the characterization that placement is more important than relevance in influencing user behavior, the evidence cited by the Commission to demonstrate that doesn’t seem applicable to what’s happening on Google’s search results page now.
Most crucially, the evidence offered by the Commission refers only to how placement affects clicks on “generic search results” and glosses over the fact that the “prominent placement” of Google’s “results” is not only a difference in position but also in the type of result offered.
Google Shopping results (like many of its other “vertical results” and direct answers) are very different than the 10 blue links of old. These “universal search” results are, for one thing, actual answers rather than merely links to other sites. They are also more visually rich and attractively and clearly displayed.
Ironically, Tim Wu and Yelp use the claim that users click less often on Google’s universal search results to support their contention that increased relevance doesn’t explain Google’s prioritization of its own content. Yet, as we note in our response to their study:
[I]f a consumer is using a search engine in order to find a direct answer to a query rather than a link to another site to answer it, click-through would actually represent a decrease in consumer welfare, not an increase.
In fact, the study fails to incorporate this dynamic even though it is precisely what the authors claim the study is measuring.
Further, as the WaPo editorial intimates, these universal search results (including Google Shopping results) are quite plausibly more valuable to users. As even Tim Wu and Yelp note:
No one truly disagrees that universal search, in concept, can be an important innovation that can serve consumers.
Google sees it exactly this way, of course. Here’s Tim Wu and Yelp again:
According to Google, a principal difference between the earlier cases and its current conduct is that universal search represents a pro-competitive, user-serving innovation. By deploying universal search, Google argues, it has made search better. As Eric Schmidt argues, “if we know the answer it is better for us to answer that question so [the user] doesn’t have to click anywhere, and in that sense we… use data sources that are our own because we can’t engineer it any other way.”
Of course, in this case, one would expect fewer clicks to correlate with higher value to users — precisely the opposite of the claim made by Tim Wu and Yelp, which is the surest sign that their study is faulty.
But the Commission, at least according to the evidence cited in its PR, doesn’t even seem to measure the relative value of the very different presentations of information at all, instead resting on assertions rooted in the irrelevant difference in user propensity to click on generic (10 blue links) search results depending on placement.
Add to this Pinar Akman’s important point that Google Shopping “results” aren’t necessarily searchresults at all, but paid advertising:
[O]nce one appreciates the fact that Google’s shopping results are simply ads for products and Google treats all ads with the same ad-relevant algorithm and all organic results with the same organic-relevant algorithm, the Commission’s order becomes impossible to comprehend. Is the Commission imposing on Google a duty to treat non-sponsored results in the same way that it treats sponsored results? If so, does this not provide an unfair advantage to comparison shopping sites over, for example, Google’s advertising partners as well as over Amazon, eBay, various retailers, etc…?
But those Google shopping boxes are ads, Picker told me. “I can’t imagine what they’re thinking,” he said. “Google is in the advertising business. That’s how it makes its money. It has no obligation to put other people’s ads on its website.”
The bottom line here is that the WaPo editorial board does a better job characterizing the actual, relevant market dynamics in a single sentence than the Commission seems to have done in its lengthy releases summarizing its decision following seven full years of investigation.
The second point made by the WaPo editorial board to which I want to draw attention is equally important:
Those who aren’t happy anyway have other options. Indeed, the rise of comparison shopping on giants such as Amazon and eBay makes concerns that Google might exercise untrammeled power over e-commerce seem, well, a bit dated…. Who knows? In a few years we might be talking about how Facebook leveraged its 2 billion users to disrupt the whole space.
The Commission dismisses this argument in its Factsheet:
The Commission Decision concerns the effect of Google’s practices on comparison shopping markets. These offer a different service to merchant platforms, such as Amazon and eBay. Comparison shopping services offer a tool for consumers to compare products and prices online and find deals from online retailers of all types. By contrast, they do not offer the possibility for products to be bought on their site, which is precisely the aim of merchant platforms. Google’s own commercial behaviour reflects these differences – merchant platforms are eligible to appear in Google Shopping whereas rival comparison shopping services are not.
But the reality is that “comparison shopping,” just like “general search,” is just one technology among many for serving information and ads to consumers online. Defining the relevant market or limiting the definition of competition in terms of the particular mechanism that Google (or Foundem, or Amazon, or Facebook…) happens to use doesn’t reflect the extent of substitutability between these different mechanisms.
Properly defined, the market in which Google competes online is not search, but something more like online “matchmaking” between advertisers, retailers and consumers. And this market is enormously competitive. The same goes for comparison shopping.
And the fact that Amazon and eBay “offer the possibility for products to be bought on their site” doesn’t take away from the fact that they also “offer a tool for consumers to compare products and prices online and find deals from online retailers of all types.” Not only do these sites contain enormous amounts of valuable (and well-presented) information about products, including product comparisons and consumer reviews, but they also actually offer comparisons among retailers. In fact, Fifty percent of the items sold through Amazon’s platform, for example, are sold by third-party retailers — the same sort of retailers that might also show up on a comparison shopping site.
More importantly, though, as the WaPo editorial rightly notes, “[t]hose who aren’t happy anyway have other options.” Google just isn’t the indispensable gateway to the Internet (and definitely not to shopping on the Internet) that the Commission seems to think.
Then there are “closed” platforms like the iTunes store and innumerable other apps that handle copious search traffic (including shopping-related traffic) but also don’t figure in the Commission’s analysis, apparently.
In fact, billions of users reach millions of companies every day through direct browser navigation, social media, apps, email links, review sites, blogs, and countless other means — all without once touching Google.com. So-called “dark social” interactions (email, text messages, and IMs) drive huge amounts of some of the most valuable traffic on the Internet, in fact.
All of this, in turn, has led to a competitive scramble to roll out completely new technologies to meet consumers’ informational (and merchants’ advertising) needs. The already-arriving swarm of VR, chatbots, digital assistants, smart-home devices, and more will offer even more interfaces besides Google through which consumers can reach their favorite online destinations.
The point is this: Google’s competitors complaining that the world is evolving around them don’t need to rely on Google. That they may choose to do so does not saddle Google with an obligation to ensure that they can always do so.
Antitrust laws — in Europe, no less than in the US — don’t require Google or any other firm to make life easier for competitors. That’s especially true when doing so would come at the cost of consumer-welfare-enhancing innovations. The Commission doesn’t seem to have grasped this fundamental point, however.
The WaPo editorial board gets it, though:
The immense size and power of all Internet giants are a legitimate focus for the antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Brussels vs. Google, however, seems to be a case of punishment without crime.
Today ICLE released a white paper entitled, A critical assessment of the latest charge of Google’s anticompetitive bias from Yelp and Tim Wu.
The paper is a comprehensive response to a study by Michael Luca, Timothy Wu, Sebastian Couvidat, Daniel Frank, & William Seltzer, entitled, Is Google degrading search? Consumer harm from Universal Search.
The Wu, et al. paper will be one of the main topics of discussion at today’s Capitol Forum and George Washington Institute of Public Policy event on Dominant Platforms Under the Microscope: Policy Approaches in the US and EU, at which I will be speaking — along with a host of luminaries including, inter alia, Josh Wright, Jonathan Kanter, Allen Grunes, Catherine Tucker, and Michael Luca — one of the authors of the Universal Search study.
Follow the link above to register — the event starts at noon today at the National Press Club.
Meanwhile, here’s a brief description of our paper:
Late last year, Tim Wu of Columbia Law School (and now the White House Office of Management and Budget), Michael Luca of Harvard Business School (and a consultant for Yelp), and a group of Yelp data scientists released a study claiming that Google has been purposefully degrading search results from its more-specialized competitors in the area of local search. The authors’ claim is that Google is leveraging its dominant position in general search to thwart competition from specialized search engines by favoring its own, less-popular, less-relevant results over those of its competitors:
To improve the popularity of its specialized search features, Google has used the power of its dominant general search engine. The primary means for doing so is what is called the “universal search” or the “OneBox.”
This is not a new claim, and researchers have been attempting (and failing) to prove Google’s “bias” for some time. Likewise, these critics have drawn consistent policy conclusions from their claims, asserting that antitrust violations lie at the heart of the perceived bias. But the studies are systematically marred by questionable methodology and bad economics.
This latest study by Tim Wu, along with a cadre of researchers employed by Yelp (one of Google’s competitors and one of its chief antitrust provocateurs), fares no better, employing slightly different but equally questionable methodology, bad economics, and a smattering of new, but weak, social science. (For a thorough criticism of the inherent weaknesses of Wu et al.’s basic social science methodology, see Miguel de la Mano, Stephen Lewis, and Andrew Leyden, Focus on the Evidence: A Brief Rebuttal of Wu, Luca, et al (2016), available here).
The basic thesis of the study is that Google purposefully degrades its local searches (e.g., for restaurants, hotels, services, etc.) to the detriment of its specialized search competitors, local businesses, consumers, and even Google’s bottom line — and that this is an actionable antitrust violation.
But in fact the study shows nothing of the kind. Instead, the study is marred by methodological problems that, in the first instance, make it impossible to draw any reliable conclusions. Nor does the study show that Google’s conduct creates any antitrust-relevant problems. Rather, the construction of the study and the analysis of its results reflect a superficial and inherently biased conception of consumer welfare that completely undermines the study’s purported legal and economic conclusions.