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Amicus Brief INTRODUCTION The district court’s decision is disconnected from the underlying economics of the case. It improperly applied antitrust doctrine to the facts, and the result . . .
The district court’s decision is disconnected from the underlying economics of the case. It improperly applied antitrust doctrine to the facts, and the result subverts the economic rationale guiding monopolization jurisprudence. The decision—if it stands—will undercut the competitive values antitrust law was designed to protect.
Antitrust law should seek to minimize error and decision costs to maximize consumer welfare and reduce the likelihood of self-defeating antitrust interventions. See Frank H. Easterbrook, The Limits of Antitrust, 63 Tex. L. Rev. 1 (1984). The Supreme Court has thoroughly incorporated the economic logic of this “error cost” framework into its antitrust jurisprudence. See Ohio v. Am. Express Co., 138 S. Ct. 2274, 2287 (2018) (“Any other analysis would lead to ‘mistaken inferences’ of the kind that could ‘chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect.’ ”) (quoting Brooke Grp. Ltd. v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 509 U.S. 209, 226 (1993)); see also Thomas A. Lambert & Alden F. Abbott, Recognizing the Limits of Antitrust: The Roberts Court Versus the Enforcement Agencies, 11 J. Competition L. & Econ. 791 (2015).
In contrast, this case is a prime—and potentially disastrous— example of how the unwarranted reliance on inadequate inferences of anticompetitive effect lead to judicial outcomes utterly at odds with Supreme Court precedent.
The district court’s decision confuses several interrelated theories of harm resting on the central premise that Qualcomm’s business model is purposefully structured to preserve its ability to license its standard essential patents (SEPs) to device makers (OEMs) at “unreasonably high royalty rates,” thus “impos[ing] an artificial surcharge on all sales of its rivals’ modem chips,” which “reduces rivals’ margins, and results in exclusivity.” FTC v. Qualcomm Inc., No. 17-CV-00220-LHK, 2019 WL 2206013, slip op. at 183 (N.D. Cal. May 21, 2019) (hereinafter slip op.).
But, without more, high royalty rates, artificial surcharges, the reduction of rivals’ margins, and even exclusivity do not violate the Sherman Act. Indeed, high prices are as likely the consequence of the lawful exercise of monopoly power or the procompetitive offering of higher quality products, and harm to competitors is a hallmark of vigorous competition. See, e.g., Verizon Commc’ns Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis V. Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398, 407 (2004) (“The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system.”). Avoiding the wrongful condemnation of such conduct is precisely the point of the Court’s error cost holdings.
The district court commits several key errors inconsistent with both Supreme Court precedent and its underlying economic framework.
First, the court failed to require proof of the anticompetitive harm allegedly caused by Qualcomm’s conduct. Instead, the court infers both its existence and its cause, see slip op. at 42–43, justifying its approach with reference to a single case: United States v. Microsoft, 253 F.3d 34, 79 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (“We may infer causation when exclusionary conduct is aimed at producers of nascent competitive technologies as well as when it is aimed at producers of established substitutes.”).
But the court misreads Microsoft and disregards contrary Supreme Court precedent. Indeed, both the Court and Microsoft made clear that a finding of illegal monopolization may not rest on an inference of anticompetitive harm.
In Brooke Group, the Court took the unusual step of reviewing an appellate decision for the sufficiency of evidence, prodded by the need to protect against the costs of erroneously condemning procompetitive conduct. See 509 U.S. at 230. It held that only evidence defendant’s conduct injured “competition, not competitors” supports a monopolization claim. Id. at 224 (citation omitted). And because harm to competitors doesn’t necessarily mean harm to competition, inferring anticompetitive harm from such evidence would not suffice: “mistaken inferences are especially costly, because they chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect.” Id. at 226 (citation omitted).
In subsequent cases, the Court redoubled its commitment to minimizing error costs arising from erroneous inferences of anticompetitive effect. See Trinko, 540 U.S. at 414 (“The cost of false positives counsels against an undue expansion of § 2 liability.”) (citation omitted); Pac. Bell Tel. Co. v. linkLine Commc’ns, Inc., 555 U.S. 438, 451 (2009).
As law and economics scholars, we are concerned that, because the district court’s decision rests on tenuous, unsupported inferences, “[i]f the district court’s holding is not repudiated on appeal, then the obvious consequence will be for companies to be deterred from much innocent and potentially procompetitive business conduct.” Douglas H. Ginsburg, Joshua D. Wright & Lindsey M. Edwards, Section 2 Mangled: FTC v. Qualcomm on the Duty to Deal, Price Squeezes, and Exclusive Dealing 2 (George Mason Univ. Law & Econ. Research Paper Series 19-21, Aug. 19, 2019), http://bit.ly/2z7aZzA.
This concern is not just academic. See FTC v. Qualcomm, No. 19- 16122, Order at 6 (9th Cir. Aug. 23, 2019) (recognizing the DOJ and Departments of Energy and Defense all classified this decision as a costly false positive).
Second, the court erred in finding Qualcomm had an antitrust duty to deal with rivals. The evidence adduced could sustain the district court’s ruling through only one theory: an illegal unilateral refusal to deal.2 See Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highland Skiing Corp., 472 U.S. 585 (1985)). But this narrow exception—“at or near the outer boundary of § 2 liability,” Trinko, 540 U.S. at 409—is subject to strict limitations.
Finding a duty to deal requires that the company gave up a profitable course of dealing with rivals and adopted a less profitable alternative. The evidence before the district court uniformly shows that Qualcomm’s challenged practices were more profitable, and thus insufficient to support an antitrust duty to deal.
Finally, because the court didn’t perform a competitive effects analysis, it failed to demonstrate the “substantial” foreclosure of competition required to sustain a claim of anticompetitive exclusion. To avoid the costs of mistaken condemnation, the Court placed tight guardrails around finding exclusionary conduct anticompetitive, requiring foreclosure of “a substantial share of the relevant market.” See Tampa Elec. Co. v. Nashville Coal Co., 365 U.S. 320, 328 (1961). Without this finding, which also may not be inferred, a claim of anticompetitive foreclosure is unsupportable.
In sum, the district court’s approach extends antitrust law beyond the clear boundaries imposed by the Supreme Court and risks deterring significant pro-competitive conduct. If upheld, amici anticipate significant harm from the district court’s decision.
TOTM The following is adapted from a recent ICLE Issue Brief on the flawed essential facilities arguments undergirding the EU competition investigations into Amazon’s marketplace that Kristian Stout wrote with Geoffrey Manne.
Amazon has largely avoided the crosshairs of antitrust enforcers to date. The reasons seem obvious: in the US it handles a mere 5% of all retail sales (with lower shares worldwide), and it consistently provides access to a wide array of affordable goods. Yet, even with Amazon’s obvious lack of dominance in the general retail market, the EU and some of its member states are opening investigations.
Read the full piece here.
ICLE Issue Brief Amazon has largely avoided the crosshairs of antitrust enforcers to date (leaving aside the embarrassing dangerous threats of arbitrary enforcement by some US presidential candidates). The reasons seem obvious: in the US it handles a mere 5% of all retail sales (with lower shares in the EU), and it consistently provides access to a wide array of affordable goods.
Amazon has largely avoided the crosshairs of antitrust enforcers to date (leaving aside the embarrassing dangerous threats of arbitrary enforcement by some US presidential candidates). The reasons seem obvious: in the US it handles a mere 5% of all retail sales (with lower shares in the EU), and it consistently provides access to a wide array of affordable goods. Yet even with Amazon’s obvious lack of dominance in the general retail market, the EU and some of its member states are opening investigations.
This isn’t new: the EU and its member states have pursued many competition claims against the big tech platforms. In the last two years alone, the EU imposed over $9B USD in fines on Google for “harms” that were highly speculative and hard to square with concern for consumers.
The theories of harm in the pending investigations of Amazon demonstrate some of the same confused antitrust theories that cropped up in the EU Google Shopping case. Platforms like Amazon and Google are criticized for allegedly discriminating against certain platform users who are also competitors or potential competitors of one or more of the platform’s services (or, in some cases, the platform itself).
Commissioner Margarethe Vestager’s probe into Amazon came to light in September, and centers on whether Amazon is illegally using its dominant position vis-á-vis third party merchants on its platforms in order to obtain data that it then uses either to promote its own direct sales, or else to develop competing products under its private label brands. More recently, Austria and Germany have launched separate investigations of Amazon rooted in much the same concerns as those of the European Commission.
The Austrian investigation will examine “whether Amazon abused its dominant position against retailers, that are active on the Amazon market place.” According to Andreas Mundt, president of the German competition authority, “Amazon functions as a kind of ‘gatekeeper’ [for sellers’ access] to customers. Its double role as the largest retailer and largest marketplace has the potential to hinder other sellers on its platform.” The German investigation also focuses on whether the terms of the contractual relationships that third-party sellers enter into with Amazon are unfair because these sellers are “dependent” on it.
Claims of competitive harm arising from this so-called vertical discrimination or bias are light on both theory and empirics. One of the fundamental, erroneous assumptions upon which they are built is the alleged “essentiality” of the underlying platform or input. But these cases are more often based on stories of firms that, unfortunately, chose to build their businesses to rely on a specific platform. In other words, their own decisions — from which they substantially benefited — made their investments highly “asset specific” and thus vulnerable to otherwise avoidable risks. When a platform on which these businesses rely makes a disruptive move, the third parties cry foul, even though the platform was not — nor should have been — under any obligation to preserve the status quo on behalf of third parties.
This issue brief explores the flaws in designating Amazon as something like an “essential facility,” as well as the attendant errors of treating the distribution mechanism of Internet-based commerce as though it were a market definition, and the problems with failing to learn the innovation-damaging effects of the Microsoft case.
Click here to read the full issue brief.
Written Testimonies & Filings FTC Hearings on Competition & Consumer Protection in the 21 st Century. Comments of the International Center for Law & Economics: Understanding Competition in Markets Involving Data or Personal or Commercial Information. Hearing # 6 (Nov. 6-8, 2018). Submitted January 7, 2019.
Markets involving data and personal information have unique characteristics, but do not present such novel challenges that the well-developed tools of antitrust are incapable of incorporating them. Nonetheless, some critics continue to press for misguided antitrust intervention into data markets, often based on fundamental misunderstandings.
For a start, commonly repeated analogies between data and oil are highly misleading. Oil is physical commodity that is highly rivalrous (a user cannot use oil without impairing others’ ability to use the same oil) and readily excludable (it can easily be stored in ways that prevent use by non-authorized parties). By contrast, data is simply information that bears some of the traits of a public good: it is often non-rivalrous in consumption (the same information may be used by multiple parties without any degradation) and difficult to appropriate because it is difficult to prevent others’ use of the same data, it is difficult to ensure optimal investment in its creation). Moreover, in most instances, it is not data that is scarce, but the expertise required to generate and analyze it. In any case, most successful internet companies started life with little to no data. This suggests that data is more a byproduct of the ongoing operation of internet platforms than it is a critical input for their creation.
Further, data is unlikely to constitute a barrier to entry, and even less likely to amount to an essential facility. As George Stigler famously argued, a barrier to entry is “[a] cost of producing that must be borne by a firm which seeks to enter an industry but is not borne by firms already in the industry.” There is no reason that the cost of obtaining data for a new entrant should be any higher than it was for an incumbent. In fact, the opposite will often turn out to be true.
Other ills that allegedly plague data-rich markets (and the merits of proposed solutions) are equally dubious. This is notably the case for the relationship between mandated data portability and competition. Contrary to what some scholars have advanced, it is far from clear that mandated data portability will increase consumer welfare in data-reliant markets. Not only is this type of portability unlikely to significantly affect switching costs for consumers but, even if it did, this would have ambiguous consumer welfare consequences (as is generally the case for consumer lock-in and regulatory interventions to overcome it). To make matters worse, mandated data portability is not without its risks. Most notably, data portability poses data security and user privacy risks.
Likewise, fears of costly price discrimination and widespread algorithmic collusion are greatly overblown. While it is true that big data may have a transformative effect on firms’ ability to price discriminate, there is no strong reason to believe that this would have a detrimental effect on consumer welfare. Instead, as with all forms of price discrimination, it may potentially expand output and allow less well-off consumers to participate in markets they might otherwise be priced out of. Similarly, the idea that big data and algorithms will lead to collusion is deeply flawed. Fears of collusion rest on the faulty premise that online marketplaces and the use of big data will dramatically increase transparency, thus facilitating collusion. In fact, the opposite is just as likely (and, in any case, the manifest benefits of increased transparency, likely outweigh the speculative costs).
In short, the advent of data-enabled markets does not have implications that support the calls for a significant expansion of antitrust tools and antitrust enforcement being made. Data is not irrelevant, of course, but it is just one amongst a plethora of factors that enforcement authorities and courts should consider when they analyze firms’ behavior.
Click here to read the full comments.
Written Testimonies & Filings ICLE and a number of its European affiliates have recently responded to the European commission’s public consultation on “shaping competition policy in the era of . . .
ICLE and a number of its European affiliates have recently responded to the European commission’s public consultation on “shaping competition policy in the era of digitisation.” In our submission, we argue that competition policy in the digital economy should be based on sound, theoretical underpinnings and rigorous, evidence-based analysis, best encapsulated in the “law and economics” approach. Despite many expressed fears to the contrary, digital markets are not inherently prone to anticompetitive behavior, and the weight of economic theory and evidence offer little support for the asserted risk of harm. We thus argue that competition intervention should take into account the uncertainty of harm, the presence of countervailing benefits and the problems of devising an effective remedy.
Our submission notably challenges the idea that leveraging, consumer lock-in, network effects, and data collection necessarily lead to winner-take all situations where digital platforms exclude their rivals and exploit their users. Instead, we show that these phenomena are just as likely (if not more likely) to benefit consumers as they are to be anticompetitive. Leveraging may, for instance, increase market output by enabling firms to offer superior products. Far from monopoly being the constant problem plaguing markets characterized by network effects, fragmentation is often more of an issue, and mandating smaller networks can limit users’ ability to coordinate on a preferred platform.
Of crucial importance in evaluating the conduct of online platforms is the awareness that in such two-sided markets one side of the market may subsidize another or operate under contractual restraints aimed at improving the platform for other participants. These characteristics frequently enable the platform to function effectively—even though, viewed in isolation, they might appear to amount to supracompetitive pricing or anticompetitive restrictions. The interdependent nature of online platforms thus makes it difficult to assert that a price increase or other action that allegedly harms users on only one side of the market represents a harmful course of conduct overall. The only way to assess the propriety of such conduct is to look at its effect on output across the entire market, taking account of the full range of costs and benefits.
Our submission also demonstrates that the advent of the “data economy” does not presumptively alter the balance of competition enforcement. Indeed, the mere fact that an incumbent owns large amounts of data may be an indication of successful competition of precisely the sort competition laws are designed to encourage. It certainly does not inherently constitute a barrier to entry, much less an essential facility, that could trigger antitrust enforcement.
Because the digital economy is built upon tremendous investments in innovation, we also argue that competition enforcement should pay particularly close attention to firms’ incentives to innovate. It is well-established that expected profits are generally a precondition for innovation. Accordingly, competition enforcers must walk a very fine line between punishing anticompetitive conduct that might deter innovation by new entrants, and protecting incumbent innovators’ incentives by avoiding enforcement activity that punishes firms experimenting on the frontiers of their industries.
In the final analysis, we argue that European competition authorities should consider carefully how little certainty we have about digital markets and the effects of challenged conduct within them, and operate with the restraint and regulatory humility appropriate to our ignorance.
Scholarship In its investigation into Google’s search practices, Google Search, the Commission alleges that Google abuses its dominant position on the web search market by giving systematic favourable treatment to its “comparison shopping product” (namely, “Google Shopping”) in its general search results pages.
In its investigation into Google’s search practices, Google Search, the Commission alleges that Google abuses its dominant position on the web search market by giving systematic favourable treatment to its “comparison shopping product” (namely, “Google Shopping”) in its general search results pages. This Article analyses whether the conduct in question in Google Search can be an abuse under Article 102TFEU (prohibiting the abuse of a dominant position in the EU) and, if so, under what conditions. This Article proceeds by first providing a positive assessment of the application of Article 102TFEU and the relevant case law to the issues involved in Google Search on the assumption that the Commission may seek to place the facts under an existing category of abuse. Three categories of abuse are analysed to this end: refusal to deal (including the essential facilities doctrine), discrimination, and tying. The article then proceeds to a normative assessment of the circumstances under which Article 102TFEU should be applied in Google Search under a principled conceptualisation of “abuse,” one which requires exploitation, exclusion, and a lack of an increase in efficiency. The Article finds that the facts in Google Search do not meet the requirements of the existing law to be found abusive unless the established frameworks for the types of abuse examined are unjustifiably disrupted. It also finds that under the principled conceptualisation of abuse adopted in this Article, the facts in Google Search do not represent the type of conduct that should be found abusive either.
ICLE White Paper A pair of recent, long-form articles in the New York Times Magazine and Wired UK — the latest in a virtual journalistic cottage industry of such articles — chronicle the downfall of British price comparison site and stalwart Google provocateur, Foundem, and attribute its demise to anticompetitive behavior on the part of Google.
A pair of recent, long-form articles in the New York Times Magazine and Wired UK — the latest in a virtual journalistic cottage industry of such articles — chronicle the downfall of British price comparison site and stalwart Google provocateur, Foundem, and attribute its demise to anticompetitive behavior on the part of Google.
Unfortunately, the media’s hagiographies of Foundem and its founders, Shivaun and Adam Raff, approach the antitrust question as if it were imbued with the simple morality of a David vs. Goliath tale. The reality is far more complicated. In fact, these articles misunderstand and misstate the critical economic, business, and legal realities of Google Search, of Foundem’s claims of harm, and of the relationship between the two.
Was Foundem’s failure really the result of anticompetitive “gatekeeping” on Google’s part? Or could it simply be a pedestrian tale of yet another tech start-up that failed because its founders didn’t appreciate that a successful business is built on more than just a good idea?
While the import of the Foundem story has been misconstrued by journalists and EU regulators, it is useful in illuminating what may actually be the fundamental question regarding the antitrust fortunes of the platform economy:
What, if anything, does a successful platform “owe” to the companies that make themselves dependent upon it?
Continue reading the full paper.
TOTM 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 . . .
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…
Read the full piece here.
Regulatory Comments This week, the International Center for Law & Economics filed comments on the proposed revision to the joint U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust-IP Licensing Guidelines.
The proposed guidelines are founded on a commendable set of underlying assumptions: that intellectual property (“IP”) is, for antitrust purposes, amenable to the same sort of analysis that applies to other forms of property, and, that IP licensing presents presumptively procompetitive opportunities for market actors to manage their property rights.
As the proposed guidelines recognize, licensing, along with a variety of vertical arrangements, frequently allows separate firms to realize efficiencies in the production, marketing and commercialization process that are otherwise difficult, if not impossible, to achieve individually.1 As the proposed guidelines note, this translates not merely into single firms commercializing a particular discovery, but also into their undertaking a variety of licensing relationships that, for example, encourage licensees to further improve upon the original invention.
More broadly, in many cases, licensing arrangements allow inventive firms that lack sufficient capital to license inventions to firms that are better positioned to engage in the efficient production of complicated or expensive processes and products. Economic literature broadly recognizes the value of this form of specialization,2 and the proposed guidelines are to be commended for likewise recognizing this reality and generally encouraging the practice.
Although, in short, our assessment of the proposed guidelines is positive, we offer some constructive criticism in the remainder of this comment. In particular, we believe, first, that the proposed guidelines should more strongly recognize that a refusal to license does not deserve special scrutiny; and, second, that traditional antitrust analysis is largely inappropriate for the examination of innovation or R&D markets.
Filed under: antitrust, doj, essential facilities, federal trade commission, truth on the market Tagged: Intellectual property, Patent