No one in government or business has a crystal ball. Yet predictions of what is coming in markets characterized by rapid and disruptive innovation seem to be being made more often by competition enforcement agencies these days than in the past. It’s a trend that raises troublesome issues about the role of antitrust law and policy in shaping the future of competition.
Take two examples. The first is Nielsen’s $1.3 billion merger with Arbitron this fall. Nielsen specializes in television ratings, less well-known Arbitron principally in radio and “second screen” TV. Nonetheless, the Federal Trade Commission — by a divided 2-1 vote — concluded that if consummated, the acquisition might lessen competition in the market for “national syndicated cross-platform measurement services.” The consent decree settlement dictates that the post-merger firm sell and license, for at least eight years, certain Arbitron assets used to develop cross-platform audience measurement services to an FTC-approved buyer and take steps designed to ensure the success of the acquirer as a viable competitor.
In announcing the decree, FTC chair Edith Ramirez noted that “Effective merger enforcement requires that we look carefully at likely competitive effects that may be just around the corner.” That’s right, and the underlying antitrust law (Section 7 of the Clayton Act) has properly been described as an “incipiency” statute designed to nip monopolies and anticompetitive market structure in the bud before they can ripen into reality. Nonetheless, the difference is that making a predictive judgment about future competition in an existing market is different from predicting that in the future new markets will emerge. No one actually offers the advertising Nirvana of cross-platform audience measurement today. Nor is it clear that the future of measurement services will rely at all on legacy technologies (such as Nielsen’s viewer logs) in charting audiences for radically different content like streaming “over the top” television programming.
The problem is that divining the future of competition even in extant but emerging markets (“nascent” markets) is extraordinarily uncertain and difficult. That’s why successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists make the big bucks, for seeing the future in a way others do not. That sort of vision is not something in which policy makers and courts have any comparative expertise, however. Where the analysis is ex post, things are different. In the Microsoft monopolization cases, for instance, the question was not predicting whether Netscape and its then-revolutionary Web browser would offer a cross-platform programming functionality to threaten the Windows desktop monopoly — it already had — but rather whether Microsoft abused its power to eliminate such cross-platform competition because of the potential long-term threat it posed. By contrast, in the Nielsen-Arbitron deal, the government is operating in the ex ante world in which the market it is concerned about, as well as the firms in and future entrants into that market, have yet to be seen at all.
This qualitative difference between nascent markets and future markets (not futures markets, which hedge the future value of existing products based on supply, demand and time value of money) is important for the Schumpterian process of creative destruction. When businesses are looking to remain relevant as technology and usage changes, they are betting with their own money. The right projection will yield a higher return on investment than bad predictions. Creating new products and services to meet unsatisfied demand may represent an inflection point, “tipping” the new market to the first mover, but it may also represent the 21st century’s Edsel or New Coke, i.e., a market that either never materializes or that develops very differently from what was at first imagined.
Continue reading Future Markets, Nascent Markets and Competitive Predictions
Politics is too often about making promises elected officials may be unable to (or even know they cannot) deliver. Yet where law enforcement is concerned — especially antitrust, which directly affects the economic future of our country — politics typically yields subjective and biased results. So it is with much irony that competitors of Google recently began a very public political offensive aimed at pressuring the Federal Trade Commission to sue the Web search giant for unlawful monopolization.
This is not the first such initiative, just the most unprincipled and wrong-headed. Citing anonymous sources, the Washington Post reported recently that the nearly two-year antitrust investigation by the FTC of competitor complaints against Google would end soon with a settlement “without addressing the most serious charge” of alleged “search bias.” Those same competitors have, in response, dramatically accused the FTC of abandoning its “institutional integrity” and begun actively shopping for a more receptive audience at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, saying they “are losing faith that the FTC will act forcefully on their complaints.”
Every competition lawyer can repeat the maxim that the antitrust laws protect competition, not competitors. That means hitting competitors where it hurts is a good thing because it helps consumers. So media leaks, revealing that — despite a committed chairman and the hiring of a high-profile litigator to bring a case against Google to trial — the FTC uncovered no evidence that any “manipulation” of search results actually harmed consumers, are revealing. Revealing the absence of legitimate grounds to file a search monopolization case against Google, that is. A settlement that does not include restrictions on Google’s Web search activities is not one which fails to “address” that serious charge, however, but instead one that eschews politicized antitrust enforcement in favor of following the evidence. When there is no compelling proof of a legal violation, prosecutors should and, absent outside interference usually will, stand down.
This author has said before that the idea of “search neutrality” — positing some objective standard for search engine results — is an oxymoron and an invalid basis for antitrust liability. What the search complainants and their lawyers, like Silicon Valley’s outspoken Gary Reback, do not get is that governmental intervention in a dynamic, rapidly evolving industry, in which the dominant firm of today was hardly a speck merely a decade ago and has no power to force anyone to use its services, smacks of subjectivity. Are the antitrust lawyers and economists in the federal government supposed to function as a Federal Search Commission? Should the FTC ask federal judges and juries to determine when search result rankings are “fair” and, if so, how could anyone possibly make that determination?
Even apart from the reality that the settled legal elements of monopolization are totally absent when applied to Google (market share, monopoly power over prices, barriers to entry, network effects, etc.), that has always been the Achilles’ Heel of the complaining competitors like Yelp and their FairSearch.org coalition. Google’s search algorithms represent its secret sauce and crown jewels, the code that tumbled Yahoo and long-forgotten firms like Alta Vista from their perch as erstwhile Web search leaders. Looking under the search hood would effectively put the federal government in the position of confiscating, or at least deflating the value, of those trade secrets. To do so under the guise of “fairness” is doubly misguided; the Supreme Court has definitively ruled that firms have no duty of fairness nor to assist rivals, and that even the most malicious attacks against individual competitors do not, without adverse consequences to broader market competition, give rise to an antitrust offense.
The media reports indicating that its antitrust investigation found no evidence of consumer harm in search or search advertising simply show that the FTC has done the right thing. As FTC Commissioner Thomas Rosch remarked, it is “not embarrassing” for the agency to vote not to bring a case, because the commission is “just doing its job.” No amount of taunting from competitors will or can change that fact. Far from a cop out, this is what we pay these public officials to do, in a dispassionate and principled manner. Keeping an open mind until the facts are collected and sorted through is commendable for public law enforcement officials, the opposite of an abdication of responsibility.
In this context, turning to the Justice Department in the face of the FTC’s conclusions is unseemly. Justice reviewed and approved Google’s earlier acquisition of travel software provider ITA, imposing competition conditions but pointedly not accepting FairSearch’s claims that the antitrust laws compel search neutrality. The FTC and DOJ agreed that the former would conduct the broader federal investigation into Google’s search practices. Unlike the Microsoft antitrust case of 1998, where the FTC was frozen into inaction by a deadlock, here the FTC appears to have at least a majority, if not unanimity, against a monopolization prosecution. It is Mr. Reback and his clients who should be embarrassed by their brazen forum-shopping, not the FTC and its chairman, which have conducted a thorough and careful investigation. That competitors do not like the result is sour grapes, rather than a failure of will by the antitrust agencies. Governmental prudence toward search neutrality represents wisdom, not capitulation.
Glenn Manishin is an antitrust partner with Troutman Sanders in Washington, D.C. He represented MCI in the United States v. AT&T antitrust case and several competitive software trade associations in the United States v. Microsoft case. He does not represent Google.
Note: Reposted with permission from Law360.
Late Friday afternoon, several stories appeared quoting unnamed sources that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has received a staff memo recommending an antitrust prosecution of Google. Now, in a letter just days ago to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, Colorado Rep. Jared Polis — founder of bluemountain.com and ProFlowers.com — counseled that an FTC monopolization case against Google could lead to legislative blowback.
I believe that application of antitrust against Google would be a woefully misguided step that would threaten the very integrity of our antitrust system, and could ultimately lead to congressional action resulting in a reduction in the ability of the FTC to enforce critical antitrust protections in industries where markets are being distorted by monopolies or oligopolies.
Google Antitrust Action Could Cost FTC Power, Dem Warns | Law360. That’s consistent with what I suggested in my five-part series Why An FTC Case Against Google Is A Really Bad Idea, but of course goes even further as my legal analysis did not address potential political or legislative reaction to a formal FTC complaint.
Meanwhile, commentators are whacking each other silly. Sam Gustin observed in TimeBusiness that “Microsoft and its anti-Google allies have spent untold millions waging an overt and covert campaign designed to persuade regulators to hobble the search leader. Perhaps if these companies spent a little less time complaining and a little more time innovating, they’d have a better chance of competing in the marketplace.” In response, John Paczkowski at AllThingsDigital noted the Polis letter’s “fortuitous timing” and implied that it “seems a bit odd” for a junior legislator to threaten a sitting FTC chairman, concluding that “maybe we should all wait and see the FTC’s evidence and the merits of its case — if there is one — before threatening to limit the agency’s authority.”
It is clear to any objective observer that there is a case in the works and that the FTC, which on background leaked that four of five commissioners are already on board, sent a trial balloon out through the press last week. Paczkowski is naive if he believes the timing of the stories last Friday was also not “fortuitous” or that the “merits” of the FTC’s case may not properly be a matter of policy and political debate. Having witnessed this same pas de deux for years in connection with United States v. Microsoft Corp., it’s just business as usual in Washington, DC. That may not make it right or courteous, but it does make it completely unexceptional.
[This series of posts dissects the threatened FTC antitrust case against Google and concludes that a monopolization prosecution by the federal government would be a very bad idea. We divide the topic into five parts, one policy and four legal. Check out Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV.]
The FTC, a federal agency established in 1914, enjoys some unique powers. It can prosecute some claims before an Administrative Law Judge instead of the courts. Additionally, Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (15 U.S.C. § 45) allows the agency to challenge “unfair methods of competition.” Use of Section 5, expanded to include “unfair or deceptive practices” in 1938, has received a rather checkered reaction from the federal judiciary.
There have been hints by the FTC that it may rely on Section 5 as the basis for a potential case against Google. This strategy could have serious repercussions because the FTC’s use of unfair competition as a surrogate for what the antitrust laws do not or cannot reach would be unbounded from the rigorous Sherman Act standards of unlawful monopolization. The FTC has never won a pure Section 5 lawsuit before.
5. A “Pure” Section 5 Case Would Almost Certainly Lose, And Should
There is one point of law on which everyone agrees. As the Supreme Court held, Section 5 can reach business conduct that is not, of itself, violative of the antitrust laws. But exactly how far the statute extends beyond the Sherman Act is unclear; in the FTC’s 2008 public workshop on Section 5 As A Competition Statute there was much debate on that issue. Here’s how the FTC described the problem:
The precise reach of Section 5 and its relationship to other antitrust statutes has long been a matter of debate. The Supreme Court observed in Indiana Federation of Dentists that the “standard of ‘unfairness’ under the FTC Act is, by necessity, an elusive one, encompassing not only practices that violate the Sherman Act and the other antitrust laws but also practices that the Commission determines are against public policy for other reasons.” In the early 1980s, however, lower courts were critical of efforts by the FTC to enforce a reading of Section 5 that captured conduct falling outside the Sherman Act. In striking down the FTC’s orders, the Second Circuit in its “Ethyl” decision expressed concern that the Commission’s theory of liability failed “to discriminate between normally acceptable business behavior and conduct that is unreasonable or unacceptable.”
The vast majority of non-merger FTC cases enforce the Sherman Act. However, beginning in the early 1990s the Commission reached a number of consent agreements involving invitations to collude, practices that facilitate collusion or collusion-like results in the absence of an agreement, and misconduct relating to standard setting. Because the complaints in these cases did not allege all the elements of a Sherman Act violation, the Commission’s theory of liability rested on a broader reach of Section 5. As consent decrees, none of these cases was reviewed, let alone endorsed, by the courts.
And that’s the rub. Take “invitations to collude” for instance. Under Section 1 of the Sherman Act, an agreement among competitors, whether express or tacit, is the predicate to illegality. This has been interpreted to mean attempts at price-fixing are not unlawful unless the other company says “yes.” Famously, the Justice Department initially lost, but then won on appeal, a 1982 challenge to American Airlines’ overt attempt at fixing airfare rates using an antitrust theory of attempted joint monopolization, fashioned to end-run the requirement of a horizontal agreement. That case presented unique market circumstances (American and Braniff sharing dominance of Dallas “hub” flights) and unequivocally anticompetitive behavior that lacked any efficiency or competitive justification. Most antitrust scholars and practitioners thus generally agree that an invitation to fix prices is something the FTC should, as it has in the past, prosecute pursuant to Section 5, because the underlying conduct itself has no economic legitimacy other than to override marketplace competition.
Hence the problem where Google is concerned. First, there is a recognized basis under Section 2 for attacking unilateral attempts to monopolize a relevant market. Absent the necessary dangerous probability of success, something woefully lacking here, an unfair competition case premised on conduct by a dominant firm that falls short of attempted monopolization is very likely to receive the same hostile judicial reaction the Commission acknowledged in 2008. Second, as private unfair competition cases (which may only be brought under state law, not Section 5) have explained, the absence of legitimate business justification can support an inference of anticompetitive behavior. Yet, in organizing and structuring its organic search results, no one disputes that Google has a real business justification to deliver better results to users and thus more eyeballs to advertisers: in other words to make money. Without the predatory sacrifice of short-run profits — i.e., with normal, profit-maximizing behavior — there is real economic legitimacy to the conduct forming the basis for a case against Google.
Continue reading Why An FTC Case Against Google Is A Really Bad Idea (Part V)
[This series of posts dissects the threatened FTC antitrust case against Google and concludes that a monopolization prosecution by the federal government would be a very bad idea. We divide the topic into five parts, one policy and four legal. Check out Part I, Part II and Part III.]
To make out a monopolization case, any plaintiff, FTC or otherwise, must not only show monopoly power in a relevant market, but also that anticompetitive practices led to (obtained) or protected (maintained) that power. Antitrust lawyers dub this the “conduct” element of Section 2. It’s what differentiates lawful monopolies, earned by innovation and business skill, from unlawful acts of monopolization.
Exclusionary or anticompetitive conduct — the terms are the same — is something other than competition on the merits. A colloquial definition which basically matches the judicial one is that anticompetitive conduct is business behavior that defeats competing firms on a basis other than efficiency. Likewise, conduct that sacrifices short-run profits in order to “recoup” those relative losses with higher future prices is not rational business behavior and is thus regarded by the law as presumptively predatory, the most egregious form of anticompetitive behavior.
4. Google Has Not Engaged In Exclusionary Practices
Try as they might, the proponents of an FTC case against Google have not made a credible showing anything Google has done meets these accepted tests for exclusionary conduct. The fallacy of their critique is summed up with a Web ad running now asking whether we can “trust” Google. Neither trust nor fairness have anything to do with the antitrust laws. Monopolization is not unfair competition, it is illegal competition.
Unfairness represents a qualitative judgment that has nothing to do with current antitrust law. As the modern Supreme Court has written:
Even an act of pure malice by one business competitor against another does not, without more, state a claim under the federal antitrust laws; those laws do not create a federal law of unfair competition or “purport to afford remedies for all torts committed by or against persons engaged in interstate commerce”…. The success of any predatory scheme depends on maintaining monopoly power for long enough both to recoup the predator’s losses and to harvest some additional gain.
In sum, marketplace competition is not boxing and there are no Marquess of Queensberry Rules governing how firms must fight “fairly”. Anything goes in our market system so long as it pits product against product and is not illegal — in other words, so long as the challenged practices do not use the power of a monopoly position to drive out equally-efficient competitors.
Continue reading Why An FTC Case Against Google Is A Really Bad Idea (Part IV)
[This series of posts dissects the threatened FTC antitrust case against Google and concludes that a monopolization prosecution by the federal government would be a very bad idea. We divide the topic into five parts, one policy and four legal. Check out Part I and Part II.]
Antitrust law is characterized by rigorous, fact-intensive analysis, so much so that the prevailing jurisprudence holds that market definition (explored in Part II) generally should not be resolved on the “pleadings” alone, in other words without factual discovery. Nothing typifies the demanding analytical framework of antitrust more than monopoly power, part of the first element of a Section 2 monopolization case — possession of monopoly power in the relevant market. With respect to monopoly power, the potential case of FTC v. Google, Inc. will likely run into some especially significant barriers, no pun intended.
3. Google Has No Monopoly Power, Even In Internet Search/Advertising
There’s precious little room in a relatively brief blog series to expound on all the various elements that factor into a judicial finding of monopoly power. The basic principle is that a high market share (typically 70% or more), coupled with barriers to entry, allows an inference of monopoly power to be drawn. But like nearly all legal inferences that’s merely a rebuttable, prima facie construct, as direct proof of the “power to control price or exclude competition” is the best evidence of monopoly. (It’s just hard to find.)
This author has written elsewhere about The Fantasy Google Monopoly, in which I noted that “the reality is that Google neither acts like nor is sheltered from competition like the monopolists of the past, something the company’s critics never claim because they just can’t.”
Like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, Google succeeds only by running faster than its competitors — merely to stay in the same place. There’s nothing about Internet search that locks users into Google’s search engine or its many other products. Nor is new entry at all difficult. There are few, if any, scale economies in search and the acquisition of data in today’s digital environment is relatively cost free. Microsoft’s impressive growth of Bing in a mere two or so years shows that new competition in search can come at any time.
While that sums up, rather cogently I must say, the antitrust analysis, let’s go to the coaches’ tape and break it down.
No Bottleneck or “Gateway” Control. Ten years ago, when the FCC and FTC both believed America Online — which boasted a very high share of dial-up Internet access — had monopoly power, the (fleeting) conclusion rested on the fact that AOL controlled access by its customers to the Internet and thus competing Internet content. Much like the pre-divestiture AT&T Bell System, the concern was that AOL held a “bottleneck” through which consumers had to pass to reach rivals. Yet Google does not own the Internet’s tramsission lines or 4G spectrum, and is thus not a bottleneck. Regardless of search share or volume, the reality is that Google has no control over the content its search users can access on the Internet. Web search is one of many ways, together with links, URLs, browser bookmarks, directories, QR codes, email marketing and uncountable others, for Internet sites to drive traffic and hits. Google is not a gateway so much as it is a highly and quickly searchable index of the Web. When there’s a host of other ways to find a page, the index itself is just a convenience, as much for bound books as for Web sites.
No Power Over Price. Whether search ad rates are the price of search or alternatively the relevant antitrust market itself, they fail on the central monopoly power criterion of control over price. As micro-economics teaches, a monopolist can increase prices above marginal costs, resulting in a “deadweight” loss to consumer welfare. Yet Google’s search ads are priced via an auction system — the highest bidder for an advertising keyword buys the ads (as many or as few as it wants) at the winning bid price. Certainly, there are ways to game any auction to favor some bidders over others or to exert indirect influence on the wining auction price. But so far as we can tell, such a theory of pricing power is not involved in the FTC’s threatened monopolization claim against Google. And if it were, that case would be even harder to prove than this overview analysis concludes.
No Network Effects. Nothing symbolizes modern antitrust so much as an emphasis on so-called “network effects.” Network effects exist when the value of a product increases in proportion to the number of other users of the product, hence a name which originated in telephone antitrust cases, where subscriber demand for service rose in proportion to the number of interconnected telephone companies (and thus other telephone subscribers) the end user could call. Network effects are in part a barrier to entry, by increasing requirements for scale economies by new firms, and a source of power to exclude rivals, by allowing the dominant network effects firm to deny competitors critical mass. Yet there is no, or at least precious little, evidence that with respect to search users and search advertisers, there are any network effects at all involved with Google. That you may conduct Web searches using Google’s engine makes it no more likely that me or any other Web users will select Google for search. That Sears may buy some AdWords keywords for search advertising makes it only slightly if at all more likely (and a consequence of retail competition, not Google) that Macy’s will purchase search ads via a Google auction.
No Entry Barriers. A monopoly in a market in which entry by new competitors is unlimited cannot be sustained for long. Thus, as noted antitrust law couples market share with barriers to entry in assessing monopoly power. It is difficult if not impossible to make a serious case that there are substantial entry barriers in Internet search or advertising. Web page indexing — the key input to search — is a product of raw computing horsepower and storage capacity. Both are commodities with steadily falling prices, per Moore’s law, in today’s Internet economy. That Facebook is planing to launch its own search product says it all: entry into search only requires investment capital, which the antitrust laws rightfully do not regard as an entry barrier. As the UK’s Daily Mail wrote, “Facebook is looking to tackle Google by making search a much more prominent part of it social network.” The Red Queen strikes again.
“Data” Is Not a Search Entry Barrier. Proponents of a Google monopolization prosecution have recently refined their analysis, suggesting that the wealth of demographic data assembled by Google from users’ Web searches is a barrier to entry. That’s a smokescreen. Data about consumer preferences and behavior — aggregated and (much to the annoyance of privacy advocates) individualized — is also a commodity in our modern economy. Whether credit and commercial transaction data via the “big three” credit reporting agencies, product preference and consumer satisfaction data from J.C. Power and the like, or the emerging “big data” marketplace, data can easily be bought, in bulk, for cheap. (The U.S. legal presumption that a company owns, and thus can sell, data about its customers plays into this point, but is not relevant for antitrust purposes.) The corollary to this argument is that economies of scale pose a barrier to entry, an even more subtle concept which, unlike network effects, has not been recognized by mainstream antitrust courts as a dispositive Section 2 factor — every large-scale business enjoys scale economies, after all. Suffice it to say, the FTC would have to make new antitrust law if it relies on this novel theory, which seems to contradict the factual realities of the ubiquitous availability of inexpensive data and data storage on consumer preference and behavior today.
To sum up, claims that Google enjoys monopoly power in Internet search or search advertising fail in the face of the recognized criteria for that crucial Section 2 monopolization factor. Without monopoly power, unilateral (as opposed to concerted among competitors) action by a single firm is of no antitrust significance. Indeed, an implicit — and sometimes articulated — presumption in the arguments in favor of an FTC monopolization case is that Internet search is a “natural monopoly,” one dictated and preordained by the economic structure of the market. As an antitrust lawyer who while with the DOJ in the 1980s railed against the proposition that cable TV represented a natural monopoly — something satellite television and IPTV have at long last conclusively disproven — this author abhors that construct.
Even if they are correct, the parties pressing for government antitrust action against Google cannot claim the courts have ever recognized the concept of natural monopoly as a surrogate for the United States v. Grinnell Corp. requisite demonstration of actual monopoly power, willfully obtained or sheltered by exclusionary practices. We’ll turn to that question, whether Google has engaged in conduct antitrust law deems anticompetitive, next.
Note: Originally prepared for and reposted with permission of the Disruptive Competition Project.
Folks in the tech industry have for the most part been conspicuously silent, at least publicly, about the Federal Trade Commission’s lengthy investigation of and apparent intention — perhaps as soon as year end — to file an antitrust case against Google for monopolization. In part that’s because Silicon Valley companies typically do not understand or want to get bogged down in legal and political controversies. In part, it’s because many tech innovators realize that staying part of Google’s AdWords ecosystem can be very profitable.
This silence is not driven by fear of retaliation, as Google has never done that to its vertical channel partners or even erstwhile ex-corporate joint venturers like Apple and Yahoo!. But it is likely emboldening the FTC to think that the Washington, DC agency has the interests of competition in high-tech at heart in moving against Mountain View. That’s a disquieting conclusion which should be especially troubling to young Internet-centric companies from Facebook and Twitter to shoestring-funded app developers.
This series of posts dissects the threatened FTC case and concludes that a monopolization prosecution by the federal government of Google would be a very bad idea. We divide the topic into five parts, one policy and four legal. We’ll start with policy because that’s something which does not turn on the rather arcane elements of antitrust law.
Continue reading Why An FTC Case Against Google Is A Really Bad Idea (Part I)
In a post about Twitter several weeks back, I concluded that “[a] threat of government action can be just as debilitating to innovation as premature enforcement intervention into the marketplace.” Although the subject then was vertical integration, the same is true of broader antitrust issues, like mergers, and tech policy issues such as privacy. When the rules are ambiguous, and enforcement discretion allows for a wide range of subjective governmental decisions, uncertainty breeds business timidity because rivals can game the process.
A Wall Street Journal opinion piece by L. Gordon Crovitz on Monday made this same point. Commenting that Google’s proposed acquisition of travel guide publisher Frommer’s could disrupt the travel market even further (as Dan also covered on DisCo) — and reacting to all-too-typical calls by Google’s competitors for “close” Federal Trade Commission review of the deal — Crovitz wrote:
As a regulatory matter, there is real risk that the current antitrust review by the FTC will block innovation in the search industry. The agency could freeze Google into its historic way of doing business by stopping it from delivering answers directly (removing the consumer benefit) and by banning acquisitions such as Frommer’s…. For the technology companies that are supposed to be the drivers of our economy, this kind of regulatory uncertainty is a growing burden. The response to innovation by one company should be more innovation by others, not competitors calling in lawyers and lobbyists.
The FTC’s Threat to Web Consumers | WSJ.com.
Could not have said it better myself!
Note: Originally prepared for and reposted with permission of the Disruptive Competition Project.
When Google’s proposed acquisition of Motorola Mobility was announced in 2011, the business press focused mainly on the extension of Google’s core business from Internet search into hardware. But from a legal perspective, the treatment given the deal by competition authorities in the United States, the EU and China raises intriguing questions about the scope and objectives of merger policy in emerging technology markets.
The acquisition represents a classic case of downstream vertical integration into complementary markets. Since Google’s aborted launch of its own “Nexus One” smartphone in 2010, Google’s presence in the wireless handset and other hardware markets has been minimal. Merger reviews typically focus on horizontal concentration in a relevant product market; namely, to evaluate the risk that an increase of concentration post-transaction may produce a rise in prices or other so-called “coordinated effects.” There has been virtual unanimity among antitrust scholars and enforcement authorities for several decades that vertical integration typically presents little or no antitrust risk.
That is a principal result of the Chicago School antitrust revolution, ushered into American antitrust law and policy by GTE Sylvania in 1977. Under this approach, vertical restrictions and other relationships between manufacturers, distributors and retailers are presumptively procompetitive by increasing incentives for interbrand competition. Although technically classified as a “rule of reason” analysis, in reality the leniency of American antitrust law to vertical restraints has been such that there are almost no significant examples (with a few exceptions, like the Microsoft monopolization case of 1998-2000) of vertical restraints or mergers being judged to violate the Clayton Act or the Sherman Act.
So it should come as little surprise, therefore, that from an antitrust perspective Google’s proposal to acquire Motorola Mobility raised very few eyebrows. Yet just weeks ago it was announced that Google had received final approval to close the deal from the new China Competition Authority (the Ministry of Commerce, Anti-Monopoly Bureau ), contingent on one important concession. The Chinese required that Google pledge to maintain its Android operating system (OS) on a free basis for all wireless device manufacturers for the next five years.
The evident competition concern here is behavioral, not structural. That is, there is no risk that post-merger, Google’s share of either its own markets or Motorola’s markets will exacerbate coordinated affects or give it enhanced unilateral market power. To the contrary, the competitive risk potentially feared by antitrust regulators or competitors is that once it has a presence in wireless device manufacturing, Google might favor its own financial and competitive interests downstream by beginning to charge device manufacturing rivals for the Android OS.
This presents two provocative issues. First, should merger enforcement policy be grounded in a prediction of the post-transaction business incentives of the merging parties? While merger analysis must necessarily be based on a prediction of future effects, projecting the future business behavior of any one firm is far more problematic and unreliable than the kind of structural market analysis informed by HHI and oligopoly economics. And in most if not all antitrust regimes, even if the merger itself is accorded clearance by competition authorities, governments and competitors still have the opportunity to challenge actual post-merger conduct as a violation of the antitrust laws. Especially in rapidly changing technology markets — of which wireless handsets are undoubtedly a leading example — the risk of error in basing merger policy on predictions of future business behavior seems rather high.
The second issue raised by Chinese approval of the Google-Motorola deal is whether antitrust enforcers can or should dictate price. Typically, it is assumed that antitrust policy relies upon marketplace competition to produce the most efficient allocation of resources and “correct” pricing. Even in per se illegal price-fixing cases, the government never independently decides what the “right” price should be, but rather steps in to redress cartels or other restraints that limit the ability of market forces to set price based upon supply and demand.
“Open source” software, however, seems to be an emerging exception to that settled rule. In Oracle’s 2009 acquisition of Sun Microsystems, competitive concerns were raised about whether Oracle might begin charging for Sun’s open source mySQL database software. In Google’s 2010 acquisition of ITA, a travel software developer, the U.S. Justice Department required as part of a consent decree settlement that Google agree to maintain ITA pricing to travel service rivals and to continue R&D for the software itself. While ITA represents proprietary, paid software, the same vertical pricing concerns animated the government’s response to that deal as well.
But who is to decide whether an OS, or any other software, must or should be offered for free? The business model case for open source — dating back to that pioneered by Netscape in the late 1990s, where the Web upstart offered its browsing software for free in order to capture share and profits from the sale of server software — has been that companies offer free products in order to monetize their investment at another level (typically upstream) of the distribution chain. Economics would therefore teach that, if as seems correct, Google could make more money from handset profits than licenses for its Android OS, its rational business incentives would be to maintain Android as a free, open source product.
There’s still a big difference between legacy command-and-control economies like China, despite its recent liberalizations, and the market-oriented economy of the United States. Yet with increasing globalization these sorts of conflicting world views are likely to become more prominent. Whether the OS wants to be free could become less important than whether some government or enforcement agency – probably not in the U.S., one hopes – makes it their job to supplant the marketplace and dictate the answer.
Note: Originally written for my law firm’s Information Intersection blog.