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Google Previews the Coming Tussle Between GDPR and DMA Article 6(11)

TOTM Among the less-discussed requirements of the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) is the data-sharing obligation created by Article 6(11). This provision requires firms designated . . .

Among the less-discussed requirements of the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) is the data-sharing obligation created by Article 6(11). This provision requires firms designated under the law as “gatekeepers” to share “ranking, query, click and view data” with third-party online search engines, while ensuring that any personal data is anonymized.

Given how restrictively the notion of “anonymization” has been interpreted under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the DMA creates significant tension without pointing to a clear resolution. Sophie Stalla-Bourdillon and Bárbara da Rosa Lazarotto recently published a helpful analysis of the relevant legal questions on the European Law Blog. In this post, I will examine Google’s proposed solution.

Read the full piece here.

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Data Security & Privacy

Against the ‘Europeanization’ of California’s Antitrust Law

Regulatory Comments We are grateful for the opportunity to respond to the California Law Revision Commission’s Study of Antitrust Law with these comments on the Single-Firm Conduct . . .

We are grateful for the opportunity to respond to the California Law Revision Commission’s Study of Antitrust Law with these comments on the Single-Firm Conduct Working Group’s report (the “Expert Report”).[1]

The International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan global research and policy center based in Portland, Oregon. ICLE was founded with the goal of building the intellectual foundations for sensible, economically grounded policy. ICLE promotes the use of law & economics methodologies to inform public-policy debates, and has longstanding expertise in the evaluation of competition law and policy. ICLE’s interest is to ensure that competition law remains grounded in clear rules, established precedents, a record of evidence, and sound economic analysis.[2]

I. Introduction

The urge to treat antitrust as a legal Swiss Army knife—capable of correcting all manner of economic and social ills—is difficult to resist. Conflating size with market power, and market power with political power, recent calls for regulation of large businesses are often framed in antitrust terms, although they rarely are rooted in cognizable legal claims or sound economic analysis.

But precisely because antitrust is such a powerful regulatory tool, we should be cautious about its scope, process, and economics, as well as its politicization. For the last 50 or so years, U.S. law has maintained a position of relative restraint in the face of novel, ambiguous conduct, while many other jurisdictions (particularly the European Union) have tended to read uncertainty as the outward expression of a lurking threat. This has led to a sharp policy divergence in the area of competition policy, with the EU passing the Digital Markets Act,[3] while the United States has, to date, continued to rely on tried-and-tested principles crafted by courts over years on a case-by-case basis.

Despite—or perhaps because of—this divergence, many advocates of more aggressive antitrust intervention assert that the United States or individual states should emulate the EU’s approach. This disposition underpins much of the California Law Review Commission’s Report on Single Firm Conduct.[4] Despite some reassuring conclusions—such as the recognition that “protecting competing businesses, even at the expense of consumers and workers” would not “provide a good model for California”[5]—the policies that the report proposes would significantly broaden California antitrust law, bringing it much closer to the European model of competition enforcement than the U.S. one.

Unfortunately, this European-inspired approach to competition policy is unlikely to serve the interests of California consumers. As explained below, the European model of competition enforcement has at least three features that tend to chill efficient business conduct, with few competitive benefits in return (relative to the U.S. approach).

A. ‘Precautionary Principle’ vs Error-Cost Framework

Differentiating pro- from anticompetitive conduct has always been the central challenge of antitrust. When the very same conduct can either benefit or harm consumers, depending on complex and often unknowable circumstances, the potential cost of overenforcement is at least as substantial as the cost of underenforcement.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that the cost of “false positive” errors might be greater than those attributable to “false negatives” because, in the words of Judge Frank Easterbrook, “the economic system corrects monopoly more readily than it corrects judicial errors.”[6] The EU’s “precautionary principle” approach is the antithesis of this. It is rooted in a belief that markets are generally unlikely to function well, and certainly are not better at mitigating harm than technocratic regulatory intervention.

The key question is whether, given the limits of knowledge and the errors that such limits may engender, consumers are better off with a more discretionary regime or one in which enforcement is limited to causes of action that policymakers are fairly certain will serve consumer interests. This is a question about changes at the margin, but it is far from marginal in its significance. As we explain below, the U.S. approach to antitrust law performs better in this respect. Departing from it would not benefit California consumers.

B. Presumptions vs Effects-Based Analysis

EU antitrust rests heavily on presumptions of harm, while U.S. courts require plaintiffs to demonstrate that the conduct at-issue actually has anticompetitive effects.

Crucially, the U.S. approach is more consistent with learnings from modern economics, which almost universally counsel against presuming competitive harm on the basis of industry structure and, in particular, in favor of presuming benefit from vertical conduct. Indeed, the EU approach often disregards these findings and presumes the contrary. As evidenced by its recent Intel decision, even the EU’s highest court has finally recognized the paucity of the European Commission’s analysis in this area. But because judicial review of antitrust decisions in the EU is so attenuated, it is not clear if the high court’s admonition will actually affect the Commission’s approach in any substantial way.

California policymakers would be wrong to emulate the European model by introducing more presumptions to California antitrust law.

C. Extraction of Rents vs Extension of Monopoly

U.S. monopolization law prohibits only predatory or exclusionary conduct that results in harm to consumers. The EU, by contrast, also regularly punishes the mere possession of monopoly power, even where lawfully obtained. Indeed, the EU goes so far as to target companies that may lack monopoly power, but merely possess an innovative and successful business model. For example, in actions involving companies ranging from soda manufacturers to digital platforms, the EU repeatedly has required essential-facilities-style access to companies’ private property for less-successful rivals.

As we explain below, the Expert Report essentially calls on California lawmakers to replicate the European model by seeking to protect even those competitors that are less efficient, thus challenging the very existence of legitimately earned monopolies. Unfortunately, this approach would diminish the incentives to create successful businesses in the first place. Such an outcome would be particularly unfortunate for California, which is host to arguably the most vibrant startup ecosystem in the world.

D. The Danger of the European Approach

In endorsing the European approach to antitrust in order to justify high-profile cases against large firms, California would effectively be prioritizing political expediency over the rule of law and consumer well-being.

The risk of an EU-like approach in California is that it would thwart technological progress and enshrine mediocrity. This is particularly true in the digital economy, where innovative practices with positive welfare effects—such as building efficient networks or improving products and services as technologies and consumer preferences evolve—are often the subject of demagoguery, especially from inefficient firms looking for a regulatory leg up.

While advocates for a more European approach to antitrust assert that their proposals would improve economic conditions in California (and the United States, more generally), economic logic and the available evidence suggest otherwise, especially in technology markets.

Once antitrust is expanded beyond its economic constraints, it ceases to be a uniquely valuable tool to address real economic harms to consumers, and becomes instead a tool for evading legislative and judicial constraints. This is hardly the promotion of democratic ideals that proponents of a more EU-like regime claim to desire.

In the following sections, we expand upon these distinctions between EU and U.S. law and explain how elements of the Expert Report’s analysis and proposed statutory language would shift California’s antitrust law toward the EU model in problematic ways. We urge the California Law Revision Commission to consider not just whether emulating the EU approach would permit the state to reach a preconceived outcome—i.e., placing large firms under increased antitrust scrutiny—but whether doing so would ultimately benefit California and its consumers.

II. The EU ‘Precautionary Principle’ Approach vs the US Error-Cost Framework

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized the limitations that courts face in distinguishing between pro- and anticompetitive conduct in antitrust cases, and particularly the risk this creates of reaching costly false-positive (Type I) decisions in monopolization cases.[7] As the Court has noted with respect to the expansion of liability for single-firm conduct, in particular:

Against the slight benefits of antitrust intervention here, we must weigh a realistic assessment of its costs…. Mistaken inferences and the resulting false condemnations “are especially costly because they chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect.” The cost of false positives counsels against an undue expansion of § 2 liability.[8]

The Court has also expressed the view—originally laid out in Judge Frank Easterbrook’s seminal article “The Limits of Antitrust”—that the costs to consumers arising from Type I errors are likely greater than those attributable to Type II errors, because “the economic system corrects monopoly more readily than it corrects judicial errors.”[9]

The EU’s more “precautionary” approach to antitrust policy is the antithesis of this.[10] It is rooted in a belief that markets do not—or, more charitably, are unlikely to—function well in general, and certainly not sufficiently to self-correct in the face of monopolization.

While the precautionary principle may generally prevent certain fat-tailed negative events,[11] these potential benefits come, almost by definition, at the expense of short-term growth.[12] Adopting a precautionary approach is thus a costly policy stance in those circumstances where it is not clearly warranted by underlying risk and uncertainty. This is an essential issue for a state like California, whose economy is so reliant on the continued growth and innovation of its vibrant startup ecosystem.

While it is impossible to connect broad macroeconomic trends conclusively to specific policy decisions, it does seem clear that Europe’s overarching precautionary approach to economic regulation has not served it well.[13] In that environment, the EU’s economic performance has fallen significantly behind that of the United States.[14] “[I]n 2010 US GDP per capita was 47 percent larger than the EU while in 2021 this gap increased to 82 percent. If the current trend of GDP per capita carries forward, in 2035, the average GDP per capita in the US will be $96,000 while the average EU GDP per capita will be $60,000.”[15]

Of course, no one believes that markets are perfect, or that antitrust enforcement can never be appropriate. The question is the marginal, comparative one: Given the realities of politics, economics, the limits of knowledge, and the errors to which they can lead, which imperfect response is preferable at the margin? Or, phrased slightly differently, should we give California antitrust enforcers and private plaintiffs more room to operate, or should we continue to cabin their operation in careful, economically grounded ways, aimed squarely at optimizing—not minimizing—the extent of antitrust enforcement?

This may be a question about changes at the margin, but it is far from marginal. It goes to the heart of the market’s role in the modern economy.

While there are many views on this subject, arguments that markets have failed us in ways that more antitrust would correct are poorly supported.[16] We should certainly continue to look for conditions where market failures of one kind or another may justify intervention, but we should not make policy on the basis of mere speculation. And we should certainly not do so without considering the likelihood and costs of regulatory failure, as well. In order to reliably adopt a sound antitrust policy that might improve upon the status quo (which has evolved over a century of judicial decisions, generally alongside the field’s copious advances in economic understanding), we need much better information about the functioning of markets and the consequences of regulatory changes than is currently available.

To achieve this, antitrust law and enforcement policy should, above all, continue to adhere to the error-cost framework, which informs antitrust decision making by considering the relative costs of mistaken intervention compared with mistaken nonintervention.[17] Specific cases should be addressed as they come, with an implicit understanding that, especially in digital markets, precious few generalizable presumptions can be inferred from the previous case. The overall stance should be one of restraint, reflecting the state of our knowledge.[18] We may well be able to identify anticompetitive harms in certain cases, and when we do, we should enforce the current laws. But we should not overestimate our ability to finetune market outcomes without causing more harm than benefit.

Allegations that the modern antitrust regime is insufficient take as a given that there is something wrong with antitrust doctrine or its enforcement, and cast about for policy “corrections.” The common flaw with these arguments is that they are not grounded in robust empirical or theoretical support. Indeed, as one of the influential papers that (ironically) is sometimes cited to support claims for more antitrust puts it:

An alternative perspective on the rise of [large firms and increased concentration] is that they reflect a diminution of competition, due to weaker U.S. antitrust enforcement. Our findings on the similarity of trends in the United States and Europe, where antitrust authorities have acted more aggressively on large firms, combined with the fact that the concentrating sectors appear to be growing more productive and innovative, suggests that this is unlikely to be the primary explanation, although it may be important in some industries.[19]

Rather, such claims are little more than hunches that something must be wrong, conscripted to serve a presumptively interventionist agenda. Because they are merely hypotheses about things that could go wrong, they do not determine—and rarely even ask—if heightened antitrust scrutiny and increased antitrust enforcement are actually called for in the first place. The evidence strongly contradicts the basis for these hunches.

Critics of U.S. competition policy sometimes contend that markets have become more concentrated and thus less competitive.[20] But there are good reasons to be skeptical of the national-concentration and market-power data.[21] Even more importantly, the narrative that purports to find a causal relationship between these data and reduced competition is almost certainly incorrect.

Competition rarely takes place in national markets; it takes place in local markets. Recent empirical work demonstrates that national measures of concentration do not reflect market structures at the local level.[22] To the extent that national-level firm concentration may be growing, these trends are actually driving increased competition and decreased concentration at the local level, which is typically what matters for consumers:

Put another way, large firms have materially contributed to the observed decline in local concentration. Among industries with diverging trends, large firms have become bigger but the associated geographic expansion of these firms, through the opening of more plants in new local markets, has lowered local concentration thus suggesting increased local competition.[23]

The rise in national concentration is predominantly a function of more efficient firms competing in more—and more localized—markets. Thus, rising national concentration, where it is observed, is a result of increased productivity and competition that weed out less-efficient producers. Indeed, as one influential paper notes:

[C]oncentration increases do not correlate to price hikes and correspond to increased output. This implies that oligopolies are related to an offsetting and positive force—these oligopolies are likely due to technical innovation or scale economies. My data suggest that increases in market concentration are strongly correlated with innovations in productivity.[24]

Another important paper finds that this dynamic is driven by top firms bringing productivity increases to smaller markets, to the substantial (and previously unmeasured) benefit of consumers:

US firms in service industries increasingly operate in more local markets. Employment, sales, and spending on fixed costs have increased rapidly in these industries. These changes have favored top firms, leading to increasing national concentration. Top firms in service industries have grown by expanding into new local markets, predominantly small and mid-sized US cities. Market concentration at the local level has decreased in all US cities, particularly in cities that were initially small. These facts are consistent with the availability of new fixed-cost-intensive technologies that yield lower marginal costs in service sectors. The entry of top service firms into new local markets has led to substantial unmeasured productivity growth, particularly in small markets.[25]

Similar results hold for labor-market effects. According to one recent study, while the labor-market power of firms appears to have increased:

labor market power has not contributed to the declining labor share. Despite the backdrop of stable national concentration, we… find that [local labor-market concentration] has declined over the last 35 years. Most local labor markets are more competitive than they were in the 1970s.[26]

In short, it is inappropriate to draw conclusions about the strength of competition and the efficacy of antitrust laws from national-concentration measures. This is a view shared by many economists from across the political spectrum. Indeed, one of the Expert Report’s authors, Carl Shapiro, has raised these concerns regarding the national-concentration data:

[S]imply as a matter of measurement, the Economic Census data that are being used to measure trends in concentration do not allow one to measure concentration in relevant antitrust markets, i.e., for the products and locations over which competition actually occurs. As a result, it is far from clear that the reported changes in concentration over time are informative regarding changes in competition over time.[27]

It appears that overall competition is increasing, not decreasing, whether it is accompanied by an increase in national concentration or not.

A. The Expert Report’s Treatment of Error Costs

Implicitly shunning the evidence that demonstrates markets have become more, not less, competitive, the Expert Report proposes that California adopt a firm stance in favor of false positives over false negatives—in other words, that it tolerate erroneously condemning procompetitive behavior in exchange for avoiding the risk of erroneously accepting anticompetitive conduct:

Whereas the policy of California is that the public is best served by competition and the goal of the California antitrust laws is to promote and protect competition throughout the State, in interpreting this Section courts should bear in mind that the policy of California is that the risk of under-enforcement of the antitrust laws is greater than the risk of over-enforcement.[28]

Of course, it is possible that, in some markets, there are harms being missed and for which enforcers should be better equipped. But advocates of reform have yet to adequately explain much of what we need to know to make such a determination, let alone craft the right approach to it if we did. Antitrust law should be refined based on an empirical demonstration of harms, as well as a careful weighing of those harms against the losses to social welfare that would arise if procompetitive conduct were deterred alongside anticompetitive conduct.

Dramatic new statutes to undo decades of antitrust jurisprudence or reallocate burdens of proof with the stroke of a pen are unjustified. Suggesting, as the Expert Report does, that antitrust law should simply “err on the side of enforcement when the effect of the conduct at issue on competition is uncertain”[29] is an unsupported statement of a political preference, not one rooted in sound economics or evidence.

The primary evidence adduced to support the claim that underenforcement (and thus, the risk of Type II errors) is more significant than overenforcement (and thus, the risk of Type I errors) is that there are not enough cases brought and won. But even if superficially true, this is, on its own, just as consistent with a belief that the regime is functioning well as it is with a belief that it is functioning poorly. Indeed, as one of the Expert Report’s authors has pointed out:

Antitrust law [] has a widespread effect on business conduct throughout the economy. Its principal value is found, not in the big litigated cases, but in the multitude of anticompetitive actions that do not occur because they are deterred by the antitrust laws, and in the multitude of efficiency-enhancing actions that are not deterred by an overbroad or ambiguous antitrust.[30]

At the same time, some critics (including another of the Expert Report’s authors) contend that a heightened concern for Type I errors stems from a faulty concern that “type two errors… are not really problematic because the market itself will correct the situation,” instead asserting that “it is economically naïve to assume that markets will naturally tend toward competition.”[31]

Judge Easterbrook’s famous argument for enforcement restraint is not based on the assertion that markets are perfectly self-correcting. Rather, his claim is that the (undeniable) incentive of new entrants to compete for excess profits in monopolized markets operates to limit the social costs of Type II errors more effectively than the legal system’s ability to correct or ameliorate the costs of Type I errors. The logic is quite simple, and not dependent on the strawman notion that markets are perfect:

If the court errs by condemning a beneficial practice, the benefits may be lost for good. Any other firm that uses the condemned practice faces sanctions in the name of stare decisis, no matter the benefits. If the court errs by permitting a deleterious practice, though, the welfare loss decreases over time. Monopoly is self-destructive. Monopoly prices eventually attract entry. True, this long run may be a long time coming, with loss to society in the interim. The central purpose of antitrust is to speed up the arrival of the long run. But this should not obscure the point: judicial errors that tolerate baleful practices are self-correcting while erroneous condemnations are not.[32]

Moreover, anticompetitive conduct that is erroneously excused may be subsequently corrected, either by another enforcer, a private litigant, or another jurisdiction. Ongoing anticompetitive behavior will tend to arouse someone’s ire: competitors, potential competitors, customers, input suppliers. That means such behavior will be noticed and potentially brought to the attention of enforcers. And for the same reason—identifiable harm—it may also be actionable.

By contrast, procompetitive conduct that does not occur because it is prohibited or deterred by legal action has no constituency and no visible evidence on which to base a case for revision. Nor does a firm improperly deterred from procompetitive conduct have any standing to sue the government for erroneous antitrust enforcement, or the courts for adopting an improper standard. Of course, overenforcement can sometimes be corrected, but the institutional impediments to doing so are formidable.

The claim that concern for Type I errors is overblown further rests on the assertion that “more up-to-date economic analysis” has undermined that position.[33] But that learning is, for the most part, entirely theoretical—constrained to “possibility theorems” divorced from realistic complications and the real institutional settings of decision making. Indeed, the proliferation of these theories may actually increase, rather than decrease, uncertainty by further complicating the analysis and asking generalist judges to choose from among competing theories, without any realistic means to do so.[34]

Unsurprisingly, “[f]or over thirty years, the economics profession has produced numerous models of rational predation. Despite these models and some case evidence consistent with episodes of predation, little of this Post-Chicago School learning has been incorporated into antitrust law.”[35] Nor is it likely that the courts are making an erroneous calculation in the abstract. Evidence of Type I errors is hard to come by, but for a wide swath of conduct called into question by “Post-Chicago School” and other theories, the evidence of systematic problems is virtually nonexistent.[36]

Moreover, contrary to the Expert Report’s implications,[37] U.S. antitrust law has not ignored potentially anticompetitive harm, and courts are hardly blindly deferential to conduct undertaken by large firms. It is impossible to infer from the general “state of the world” or from perceived “wrong” judicial decisions that the current antitrust regime has failed or that California, in particular, would benefit from a wholesale shifting of its antitrust error-cost presumptions.[38]

III. The Reliance on Presumptions vs the Demonstration of Anticompetitive Effects

While U.S. antitrust law generally requires a full-blown, effects-based analysis of challenged behavior—particularly in the context of unilateral conduct (monopolization or abuse of dominance) and vertical restraints—the EU continues to rely heavily on presumptions of harm or extremely truncated analysis. Even the EU’s highest court has finally recognized the paucity of the European Commission’s analysis in this area in its recent Intel decision.[39]

The degree to which the United States and EU differ with respect to their reliance on presumptions in antitrust cases is emblematic of a broader tendency of the U.S. regime to adhere to economic principles, while the EU tends to hold such principles in relative disregard. The U.S. approach is consistent with learnings from modern economics, which almost universally counsel against presuming competitive harm on the basis of industry structure—particularly from the extent of concentration in a market. Indeed, as one of the Expert Report’s own authors has argued, “there is no well-defined ‘causal effect of concentration on price,’ but rather a set of hypotheses that can explain observed correlations of the joint outcomes of price, measured markups, market share, and concentration.”[40]

Concerns about excessive concentration are at the forefront of current efforts to expand antitrust enforcement, including through the use of presumptions. There is no reliable empirical support for claims either that concentration has been increasing, or that it necessarily leads to, or has led to, increased market power and the economic harms associated with it.[41] There is even less support for claims that concentration leads to the range of social ills ascribed to it by advocates of “populist” antitrust. Similarly, there is little evidence that the application of antitrust or related regulation to more vigorously prohibit, shrink, or break up large companies will correct these asserted problems.

Meanwhile, economic theory, empirical evidence, and experience all teach that vertical restraints—several of which would be treated more harshly under the Expert Report’s recommendations[42]—rarely harm competition. Indeed, they often benefit consumers by reducing costs, better distributing risk, better informing and optimizing R&D activities and innovation, better aligning manufacturer and distributor incentives, lowering price, increasing demand through the inducement of more promotional services, and/or creating more efficient distribution channels.

As the former Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Bureau of Economics Director Francine Lafontaine explained in summarizing the body of economic evidence analyzing vertical restraints: “it appears that when manufacturers choose to impose [vertical] restraints, not only do they make themselves better off but they also typically allow consumers to benefit from higher quality products and better service provision.”[43] A host of other studies corroborate this assessment.[44] As one of these notes, while “some studies find evidence consistent with both pro- and anticompetitive effects… virtually no studies can claim to have identified instances where vertical practices were likely to have harmed competition.”[45] Similarly, “in most of the empirical studies reviewed, vertical practices are found to have significant pro-competitive effects.”[46]

At the very least, we remain profoundly uncertain of the effects of vertical conduct (particularly in the context of modern high-tech and platform industries), with the proviso that most of what we know suggests that this conduct is good for consumers. But even that worst-case version of our state of knowledge is inconsistent with the presumptions-based approach taken by the EU.

Adopting a presumptions-based approach without a firm economic basis is far more hostile to novel business conduct, especially in the innovative markets that distinguish California’s economy. EU competition policy errs on the side of condemning novel conduct, deterring beneficial business activities where consumers would be better served if authorities instead tried to better understand them. This is not something California should emulate.

A. The Expert Report’s Quantification of Anticompetitive Harm and Causation

European competition law imposes a much less strenuous burden on authorities to quantify anticompetitive harm and establish causation than does U.S. law. This makes European competition law much more prone to false positives that condemn efficiency-generating or innovative firm behavior. The main cause of these false positives is the failure of the EU’s “competitive process” standard to separate competitive from anticompetitive exclusionary conduct.

While the Expert Report rightly recognizes that adopting an abuse-of-dominance standard (similar to that which exists in Europe) would be misguided, its proposed focus on “competitive constraints,” rather than consumer welfare, would effectively bring California antitrust enforcement much closer to the EU model.[47]

At the same time, the Expert Report counsels adopting a “material-risk-of-harm” standard, which is foreign to U.S. antitrust law:

(e) Anticompetitive exclusionary conduct includes conduct that has or had a material risk of harming trading partners due to increased market power, even if those harms have not yet arisen and may not materialize.[48]

While such a standard exists in U.S. standing jurisprudence,[49] antitrust plaintiffs (and private plaintiffs, in particular) must typically meet a higher bar to prove actual antitrust injury.[50] Moreover, the focus is generally on output restriction, rather than the risk of “harm” to a trading partner:

The government must show conduct that reasonably seems capable of causing reduced output and increased prices by excluding a rival. The private plaintiff must additionally show an actual effect producing an injury in order to support a damages action or individually threatened harm to support an injunction. The required private effect could be either a higher price which it paid, or lost profits from market exclusion.[51]

Again, this is a fairly concrete application of the error-cost framework: Lowering the standard of proof required to establish liability increases the risk of false positives and decreases the risk of false negatives. But particularly in California—where so much of the state’s economic success is built on industries characterized by large companies with substantial procompetitive economies of scale and network effects, novel business models, and immense technological innovation—the risk of erroneous condemnation is substantial, and the potential costs significant.

Further, defining antitrust harm in terms of “conduct [that] tends to… diminish or create a meaningful risk of diminishing the competitive constraints imposed by the defendant’s rivals”[52] opens the door substantially to the risk that procompetitive conduct could be enjoined. For example, such an approach would seem at odds with the concept of antitrust injury for private plaintiffs established by the Supreme Court’s Brunswick case.[53] “Competitive constraints” may “tend” to be reduced, as in Brunswick, by perfectly procompetitive conduct; enshrining such a standard would not serve California’s economic interests.

Similarly, the Expert Report’s proposed statutory language includes a provision that would infer not only causation but also the existence of harm from ambiguous conduct:

5) In cases where the trading partners are customers…, it is not necessary for the plaintiff to specify the precise nature of the harm that might be experienced in the future or to quantify with specificity any particular past harm. It is sufficient for the plaintiff to establish a significant weakening of the competitive constraints facing the defendant, from which such harms to direct or indirect customers can be presumed.[54]

The Microsoft case similarly held that plaintiffs need not quantify injury with specificity because “neither plaintiffs nor the court can confidently reconstruct a product’s hypothetical technological development in a world absent the defendant’s exclusionary conduct.”[55] But Microsoft permits the inference only of causation in such circumstances, not the existence of anticompetitive conduct. Most of the decision was directed toward identifying and assessing the anticompetitiveness of the alleged conduct. Inference is permitted only with respect to causation—to the determination that such conduct was reasonably likely to lead to harm by excluding specific (potential) competitors. Establishing merely a “weakening of the competitive constraints facing the defendant,” by contrast, does not permit an inference of anticompetitiveness.

Such an approach is much closer to the European standard of maintaining a system of “undistorted competition.” European authorities generally operate under the assumption that “competitive” market structures ultimately lead to better outcomes for consumers.[56] This contrasts with American antitrust enforcement which, by pursuing a strict consumer-welfare goal, systematically looks at the actual impact of a practice on economic parameters, such as prices and output.

In other words, European competition enforcement assumes that concentrated market structures likely lead to poor outcomes and thus sanctions them, whereas U.S. antitrust law looks systematically into the actual effects of a practice. The main consequence of this distinction is that, compared to the United states, European competition law has established a wider set of per se prohibitions (which are not discussed in the Expert Report) and sets a lower bar for plaintiffs to establish the existence of anticompetitive conduct (which the Expert Report recommends California policymakers emulate).[57] Because of this lower evidentiary threshold, EU competition decisions are also subject to less-stringent judicial review.

The EU’s competitive-process standard is similar to the structuralist analysis that was popular in the United States through the middle of the 20th century. This view of antitrust led U.S. enforcers frequently to condemn firms merely for growing larger than some arbitrary threshold, even when those firms engaged in conduct that, on net, benefited consumers. While EU enforcers often claim to be pursuing a consumer-welfare standard, and to adhere to rigorous economic analysis in their antitrust cases,[58] much of their actual practice tends to engage in little more than a window-dressed version of the outmoded structuralist analysis that U.S. scholars, courts, and enforcers roundly rejected in the latter half of the 20th century.

To take one important example, a fairly uncontroversial requirement for antitrust intervention is that a condemned practice should actually—or be substantially likely to—foster anticompetitive harm. Even in Europe, whatever other goals competition law is presumed to further, it is nominally aimed at protecting competition rather than competitors.[59] Accordingly, the mere exit of competitors from the market should be insufficient to support liability under European competition law in the absence of certain accompanying factors.[60] And yet, by pursuing a competitive-process goal, European competition authorities regularly conflate desirable and undesirable forms of exclusion precisely on the basis of their effect on competitors.

As a result, the Commission routinely sanctions exclusion that stems from an incumbent’s superior efficiency rather than from welfare-reducing strategic behavior,[61] and routinely protects inefficient competitors that would otherwise rightly be excluded from a market. As Pablo Ibanez Colomo puts it:

It is arguably more convincing to question whether the principle whereby dominant firms are under a general duty not to discriminate is in line with the logic and purpose of competition rules. The corollary to the idea that it is prima facie abusive to place rivals at a disadvantage is that competition must take place, as a rule, on a level playing field. It cannot be disputed that remedial action under EU competition law will in some instances lead to such an outcome.[62]

Unfortunately, the Expert Report’s repeated focus on diminished “competitive constraints” as the touchstone for harm may (perhaps unintentionally) even enable courts to impose liability for harm to competitors caused by procompetitive conduct. For example, the Expert Report would permit a determination that:

[C]onduct tends to… diminish or create a meaningful risk of diminishing the competitive constraints… [if it] tends to (i) increase barriers to entry or expansion by those rivals, (ii) cause rivals to lower their quality-adjusted output or raise their quality-adjusted price, or (iii) reduce rivals’ incentives to compete against the defendant.[63]

But market exit is surely an example of a reduced incentive to compete, even if it results from a rival’s intense (and consumer-welfare-enhancing) competition. Depending on how “barrier to entry” is defined, innovation, product improvement, and vertical integration by a defendant—even when they are procompetitive—all could constitute a barrier to entry by forcing rivals to incur greater costs or compete in multiple markets. Similarly, increased productivity resulting in less demand for labor or other inputs or lower wages could enable a “defendant [to] profitably make a less attractive offer to that supplier or worker… than the defendant could absent that conduct,”[64] even though the increase in market power in that case would be beneficial.[65]

It is true that the Expert Report elsewhere notes that “it is sometimes difficult for courts to distinguish between anticompetitive exclusionary conduct, which is illegal, from competition on the merits, which is legal even if it weakens rivals or drives them out of business altogether.”[66] Thus, it is perhaps unintentional that the report’s proposed language could nevertheless support liability in such circumstances. At the very least, California should not adopt the Expert Report’s proposed language without a clear disclaimer that liability will never be based on “diminished competitive constraints” resulting from consumer-welfare-enhancing conduct or vigorous competition by the defendant.

IV. Penalizing the Existence of Monopolies vs Prohibiting Only the Extension of Monopoly Power

While U.S. monopolization law prohibits only predatory or exclusionary conduct that results in both the unlawful acquisition or maintenance of monopoly power and the creation of net harm to consumers, the EU also punishes the mere exercise of monopoly power—that is, the charging of allegedly “excessive” prices by dominant firms (or the use of “exploitative” business terms). Thus, the EU is willing to punish the mere extraction of rents by a lawfully obtained dominant firm, while the United States punishes only the unlawful extension of market power.

There may be multiple reasons for this difference, including the EU’s particular history with state-sponsored monopolies and its unique efforts to integrate its internal market. Whatever the reason, the U.S. approach, unlike the EU’s, is grounded in a concern for minimizing error costs—not in order to protect monopolists or large companies, but to protect the consumers who benefit from more dynamic markets, more investment, and more innovation:

The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices—at least for a short period is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth. To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.[67]

At the same time, the U.S. approach mitigates the serious risk of simply getting it wrong. This is incredibly likely where, for example, “excessive” prices are in the eye of the beholder and are extremely difficult to ascertain econometrically.

This unfortunate feature of EU competition enforcement would likely be, at least in part, replicated under the reforms proposed by the Expert Report. Indeed, the report’s focus on the welfare of “trading partners”—and particularly its focus on trading-partner welfare, regardless of whether perceived harm is passed on to consumers—comes dangerously close to the EU’s preoccupation with reducing the rents captured by monopolists.[68] While the Expert Report does not recommend an “excessive pricing” theory of harm—like the one that exists in the EU—it does echo the EU’s fixation on the immediate fortunes of trading partners (other than consumers) in ways that may ultimately lead to qualitatively equivalent results.

V. The Emulation of European Competition Law in the Expert Report’s Treatment of Specific Practices and Theories of Harm

Beyond the high-level differences discussed above, European and U.S. antitrust authorities also diverge significantly on numerous specific issues. These dissimilarities often result from the different policy goals that animate these two bodies of law. As noted, where U.S. case law is guided by an overarching goal of maximizing consumer welfare (notably, a practice’s effect on output), European competition law tends to favor structural presumptions and places a much heavier emphasis on distributional considerations. In addition, where the U.S. approach to many of these specific issues is deeply influenced by its overwhelming concern with the potentially chilling effects of intervention, this apprehension is very much foreign to European competition law. The result is often widely divergent approaches to complex economic matters in which the United States hews far more closely than does the EU to the humility and restraint suggested by economic learning.

Unfortunately, the recommendations put forward in the Expert Report would largely bring California antitrust law in line with the European approach for many theories of harm. Indeed, the Expert Report rejects the traditional U.S. antitrust-law concern with chilling procompetitive behavior, even proposing statutory language that would hold that “courts should bear in mind that the policy of California is that the risk of under-enforcement of the antitrust laws is greater than the risk of over-enforcement.”[69] Not only is this position unsupported, but it also entails an explicit rejection of a century of U.S. antitrust jurisprudence:

[U]sing language that mimics the Sherman Act would come with a potentially severe disadvantage: California state courts might then believe that they should apply 130 years of federal jurisprudence to cases brought under California state law. In recent decades, that jurisprudence has substantially narrowed the scope of the Sherman Act, as described above, so relying on it could well rob California law of the power it needs to protect competition.[70]

The evidence suggesting that competition has been poorly protected under Sherman Act jurisprudence is generally weak and unconvincing,[71] however, and the same is true for the specific theories of harm that the Expert Report would expand.

A. Predatory Pricing

Predatory pricing is one area where the Expert Report urges policymakers to copy specific rules in force in the EU. In its model statutory language, the Expert Report proposes that California establish that:

liability [for anticompetitive exclusionary conduct] does not require finding… that any price of the defendant for a product or service was below any measure of the costs to the defendant for providing the product or service…, [or] that in a claim of predatory pricing, the defendant is likely to recoup the losses it sustains from below-cost pricing of the products or services at issue[.][72]

U.S. antitrust law subjects allegations of predatory pricing to two strict conditions: 1) monopolists must charge prices that are below some measure of their incremental costs; and 2) there must be a realistic prospect that they will be able to recoup these first-period losses.[73] In laying out its approach to predatory pricing, the Supreme Court identified the risk of false positives and the clear cost of such errors to consumers. It therefore particularly stressed the importance of the recoupment requirement because, without recoupment, “predatory pricing produces lower aggregate prices in the market, and consumer welfare is enhanced.”[74]

Accordingly, in the United States, authorities must prove that there are constraints that prevent rival firms from entering the market after the predation scheme or that the scheme itself would effectively foreclose rivals from entering in the first place.[75] Otherwise, competitors would undercut the predator as soon as it attempts to charge supracompetitive prices to recoup its losses. In such a situation—without, that is, the strong likelihood of recouping the lost revenue from underpricing—the overwhelming weight of economic learning (to say nothing of simple logic) makes clear that predatory pricing is not a rational business strategy.[76] Thus, apparent cases of predatory pricing in the absence of the likelihood of recoupment are most likely not, in fact, predatory, and deterring or punishing them would likely actually harm consumers.

In contrast, the legal standard applied to predatory pricing in the EU is much laxer and almost certain, as a result, to risk injuring consumers. Authorities must prove only that a company has charged a price below its average variable cost, in which case its behavior is presumed to be predatory.[77] Even when a firm imposes prices that are between average variable and average total cost, it can be found guilty of predatory pricing if authorities show that its behavior was part of “a plan to eliminate competition.”[78] Most significantly, in neither case is it necessary for authorities to show that the scheme would allow the monopolist to recoup its losses.[79]

[I]t does not follow from the case-law of the Court that proof of the possibility of recoupment of losses suffered by the application, by an undertaking in a dominant position, of prices lower than a certain level of costs constitutes a necessary precondition to establishing that such a pricing policy is abusive.[80]

By affirmatively dispensing with each of these limitations, the Expert Report effectively recommends that California legislators shift California predatory-pricing law toward the European model. Unfortunately, such a standard has no basis in economic theory or evidence—not even in the “strategic” economic theory that arguably challenges the dominant, “Chicago School” understanding of predatory pricing.[81] Indeed, strategic predatory pricing still requires some form of recoupment and the refutation of any convincing business justification offered in response.[82] As Bruce Kobayashi and Tim Muris emphasize, the introduction of new possibility theorems, particularly uncorroborated by rigorous empirical reinforcement, does not necessarily alter the implementation of the error-cost analysis:

While the Post-Chicago School literature on predatory pricing may suggest that rational predatory pricing is theoretically possible, such theories do not show that predatory pricing is a more compelling explanation than the alternative hypothesis of competition on the merits. Because of this literature’s focus on theoretical possibility theorems, little evidence exists regarding the empirical relevance of these theories. Absent specific evidence regarding the plausibility of these theories, the courts… properly ignore such theories.[83]

The case of predatory pricing illustrates a crucial distinction between European and American competition law. The recoupment requirement embodied in U.S. antitrust law essentially differentiates aggressive pricing behavior that improves consumer welfare by leading to overall price decreases from predatory pricing that reduces welfare due to ultimately higher prices. In other words, it is entirely focused on consumer welfare.

The European approach, by contrast, reflects structuralist considerations that are far removed from a concern for consumer welfare. Its underlying fear is that dominant companies could, through aggressive pricing—even to the benefit of consumers—by their very success, engender more concentrated market structures. It is simply presumed that these less-atomistic markets are invariably detrimental to consumers. Both the Tetra Pak and France Télécom cases offer clear illustrations of the European Court of Justice’s reasoning on this point:

[I]t would not be appropriate, in the circumstances of the present case, to require in addition proof that Tetra Pak had a realistic chance of recouping its losses. It must be possible to penalize predatory pricing whenever there is a risk that competitors will be eliminated… The aim pursued, which is to maintain undistorted competition, rules out waiting until such a strategy leads to the actual elimination of competitors.[84]

Similarly:

[T]he lack of any possibility of recoupment of losses is not sufficient to prevent the undertaking concerned reinforcing its dominant position, in particular, following the withdrawal from the market of one or a number of its competitors, so that the degree of competition existing on the market, already weakened precisely because of the presence of the undertaking concerned, is further reduced and customers suffer loss as a result of the limitation of the choices available to them.[85]

In short, the European approach leaves much less room for analysis of a pricing scheme’s concrete effects, making it much more prone to false positives than the Brooke Group standard in the United States. It ignores not only the benefits that consumers may derive from lower prices, but also the chilling effect that broad predatory-pricing standards may exert on firms that attempt to attract consumers with aggressive pricing schemes. There is no basis for enshrining such an approach in California law.

B. Refusals to Deal

Refusals to deal are another area where the Expert Report’s recommendations would bring California antitrust rules more in line with the EU model. The Expert Report proposes in its example statutory language that:

[L]iability… does not require finding (i) that the unilateral conduct of the defendant altered or terminated a prior course of dealing between the defendant and a person subject to the exclusionary conduct; [or] (ii) that the defendant treated persons subject to the exclusionary conduct differently than the defendant treated other persons[.][86]

The Expert Report further highlights “Discrimination Against Rivals, for example by refusing to provide rivals of the defendant access to a platform or product or service that the defendant provides to other third-parties” as a particular area of concern.[87]

U.S. and EU antitrust laws are hugely different when it comes to refusals to deal. While the United States has imposed strenuous limits on enforcement authorities or rivals seeking to bring such cases, EU competition law sets a far lower threshold for liability. The U.S. approach is firmly rooted in the error-cost framework and, in particular, the conclusion that avoiding Type I (false-positive) errors is more important than avoiding Type II (false-negative) errors. As the Supreme Court held in Trinko:

[Enforced sharing] may lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in those economically beneficial facilities. Enforced sharing also requires antitrust courts to act as central planners, identifying the proper price, quantity, and other terms of dealing—a role for which they are ill suited.[88]

In that case, the Court was unwilling to extend the reach of Section 2, cabining it to a very narrow set of circumstances:

Aspen Skiing is at or near the outer boundary of §2 liability. The Court there found significance in the defendant’s decision to cease participation in a cooperative venture. The unilateral termination of a voluntary (and thus presumably profitable) course of dealing suggested a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve an anticompetitive end.[89]

This highlights two key features of American antitrust law concerning refusals to deal. To start, U.S. antitrust law generally does not apply the “essential facilities” doctrine—indeed, as the Court held in Trinko, “we have never recognized such a doctrine.”[90] Accordingly, in the absence of exceptional facts, upstream monopolists are rarely required to supply their product to downstream rivals, even if that supply is “essential” for effective competition in the downstream market.

Moreover, as the Court observed in Trinko, the Aspen Skiing case appears to concern only those limited instances where a firm’s refusal to deal stems from the termination of a preexisting and profitable business relationship.[91] While even this is not likely to be the economically appropriate limitation on liability,[92] its impetus—ensuring that liability is found only in situations where procompetitive explanations for the challenged conduct are extremely unlikely—is appropriate for a regime concerned with minimizing the cost to consumers of erroneous enforcement decisions.

As in most areas of antitrust policy, EU competition law is much more interventionist. Refusals to deal are a central theme of EU enforcement efforts, and there is a relatively low threshold for liability.[93] In theory, for a refusal to deal to infringe EU competition law, it must meet a set of fairly stringent conditions: the input must be indispensable, the refusal must eliminate all competition in the downstream market, and there must not be objective reasons that justify the refusal.[94] Moreover, if the refusal to deal involves intellectual property, it must also prevent the appearance of a new good.[95] In practice, however, all of these conditions have been significantly relaxed by EU courts and the Commission’s decisional practice. This is best evidenced by the lower court’s Microsoft ruling. As John Vickers notes:

[T]he Court found easily in favor of the Commission on the IMS Health criteria, which it interpreted surprisingly elastically, and without relying on the special factors emphasized by the Commission. For example, to meet the “new product” condition it was unnecessary to identify a particular new product… thwarted by the refusal to supply but sufficient merely to show limitation of technical development in terms of less incentive for competitors to innovate.[96]

Thus, EU competition law is far less concerned about its potential chilling effect on firms’ investments than is U.S. antitrust law.

The Expert Report’s wording suggests that its authors would like to see California’s antitrust rules in this area move towards the European model. This seems particularly misguided for a state that so heavily relies on continued investments in innovation.

In discussing its concerns with the state of refusal-to-deal law in the United States, the Expert Report notes that:

[E]ven a monopolist can normally choose the parties with which it will deal and [] a monopolist’s selective refusal to deal with another firm, even a competitor, violates antitrust law only in unusual circumstances…. [The Court] explained that courts are ill-equipped to determine the terms on which one firm should be required to deal with another, so a bright line is necessary to preserve the incentives of both the monopolist and the competitor to compete aggressively in the marketplace. Such a rule may have been reasonable in a setting where “dealing” often meant incurring a large fixed cost to coordinate with the other firm. In an economy containing digital “ecosystems” that connect many businesses to one another, and digital markets with standardized terms of interconnection, such as established application program interfaces (APIs), that rule may immunize much conduct that could be anticompetitive.[97]

This approach is unduly focused on the welfare of specific competitors, rather than the effects on competition and consumers. Indeed, in the Aspen Skiing case (which did find a duty to deal on the defendant’s part), the Supreme Court is clear that the assessment of harm to competitors would be insufficient to establish that a refusal to deal was anticompetitive: “The question whether Ski Co.’s conduct may properly be characterized as exclusionary cannot be answered by simply considering its effect on Highlands. In addition, it is relevant to consider its impact on consumers and whether it has impaired competition in an unnecessarily restrictive way.”[98]

The Expert Report’s additional proposal that liability should not turn on whether the defendant treated particular parties differently in exercising exclusionary conduct (including refusal to deal)[99] is a further move away from effects-based analysis and toward the European model. As Einer Elhauge has noted, there is an important distinction between unconditional and discriminatory exclusionary conduct:

Efforts to simply improve a firm’s own efficiency and win sales by selling a better or cheaper product at above-cost prices should enjoy per se legality without any general requirement to share that greater efficiency with rivals. But exclusionary conditions that discriminate on the basis of rivalry by selectively denying property or products to rivals (or buyers who deal with rivals) are not necessary to further ex ante incentives to enhance the monopolist’s efficiency, and should be illegal when they create a marketwide foreclosure that impairs rival efficiency.[100]

By arguing to impose liability regardless of whether conduct is exercised in a discriminatory fashion, the Expert Report would remove the general protection under U.S. antitrust law for unconditional refusals to deal, and would instead apply the conditional standard to all exclusionary conduct.

It seems quite likely, in fact, that this provision is proposed as a rebuke to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ holding in FTC v. Qualcomm, which found no duty to deal, in part, because the challenged conduct was applied to all rivals equally.[101] At least three of the Expert Report’s authors are on record as vigorously opposing the holding in Qualcomm.[102] But far from supporting a challenge to Qualcomm’s conduct on the grounds that it harmed competition by targeting threatening rivals, the Expert Report authors’ apparent preferred approach to Qualcomm’s alleged refusal to deal was to attempt to force a wholesale change in Qualcomm’s vertically integrated business model.

In other words, the authors would find liability regardless of how Qualcomm enforces its license terms, and would prefer a legal standard that does not condition that finding on exclusionary conduct against only certain rivals. In essence, they see operating at all in the relevant market as a harm.[103] Whatever the merits of this argument in the Qualcomm case, it should not be generalized to undermine the sensible limits that U.S. antitrust has imposed on the refusal-to-deal theory of harm.

C. Vertical and Platform Restraints

Finally, the Expert Report would take a leaf out of the European book when it comes to vertical restraints, including rebates, exclusive dealing, “most favored nation” (MFN) clauses, and platform conduct. Here, again, the Expert Report singles these practices out for attention:

Loyalty Rebates, which penalize a customer that conducts more business with the defendant’s rivals, as opposed to volume discounts, which are generally procompetitive;

Exclusive Dealing Provisions, which disrupt the ability of counterparties to deal with the defendant’s rivals, especially if such provisions are widely used by the defendant;

Most-Favored Nation Clauses, which prohibit counterparties from dealing with the defendant’s rivals on more favorable terms and conditions than those on which they deal with the defendant, especially if such clauses are widely used by the defendant.[104]

There are vast differences between U.S. and EU competition law with respect to vertical restraints. On the one hand, since the Supreme Court’s Leegin ruling, even price-related vertical restraints (such as resale price maintenance, or “RPM”) are assessed under the rule of reason in the United States.[105] Some commentators have gone so far as to say that, in practice, U.S. case law almost amounts to per se legality.[106] Conversely, EU competition law treats RPM as severely as it treats cartels. Both RPM and cartels are considered restrictions of competition “by object”—the EU’s equivalent of a per se prohibition.[107] This severe treatment also applies to nonprice vertical restraints that tend to partition the European internal market.[108] Furthermore, in the Consten and Grundig ruling, the ECJ rejected the consequentialist (and economically grounded) principle that inter-brand competition is the appropriate touchstone to assess vertical restraints:

Although competition between producers is generally more noticeable than that between distributors of products of the same make, it does not thereby follow that an agreement tending to restrict the latter kind of competition should escape the prohibition of Article 85(1) merely because it might increase the former.[109]

This especially stringent stance toward vertical restrictions flies in the face of the longstanding mainstream-economics literature addressing the subject. As Patrick Rey and Jean Tirole (hardly the most free-market of economists) saw it as long ago as 1986: “Another major contribution of the earlier literature on vertical restraints is to have shown that per se illegality of such restraints has no economic foundations.”[110]

While there is theoretical literature (rooted in so-called “possibility theorems”) that suggests firms can engage in anticompetitive vertical conduct, the empirical evidence strongly suggests that, even though firms do impose vertical restraints, it is exceedingly rare that they have net anticompetitive effects. Nor is the relative absence of such evidence for a lack of looking: countless empirical papers have investigated the competitive effects of vertical integration and vertical contractual arrangements and found predominantly procompetitive benefits or, at worst, neutral effects.[111]

Unlike in the EU, the U.S. Supreme Court in Leegin took account of the weight of the economic literature and changed its approach to RPM to ensure that the law no longer simply precluded its arguable consumer benefits: “Though each side of the debate can find sources to support its position, it suffices to say here that economics literature is replete with procompetitive justifications for a manufacturer’s use of resale price maintenance.”[112] Further, “[the prior approach to resale price maintenance restraints] hinders competition and consumer welfare because manufacturers are forced to engage in second-best alternatives and because consumers are required to shoulder the increased expense of the inferior practices.”[113]

By contrast, the EU’s continued per se treatment of RPM strongly reflects its precautionary-principle approach to antitrust, under which European regulators and courts readily condemn conduct that could conceivably injure consumers, even where such injury is, according to the best economic understanding, unlikely (at best).[114] The U.S. approach to such vertical restraints, which rests on likelihood rather than mere possibility,[115] is far less likely to erroneously condemn beneficial conduct.

There are also significant differences between the U.S. and EU stances on the issue of rebates. This reflects the EU’s relative willingness to disregard complex economics in favor of noneconomic, formalist presumptions (at least, prior to the ECJ’s Intel ruling). Whereas U.S. antitrust has predominantly moved to an effects-based assessment of rebates,[116] this is only starting to happen in the EU. Prior to the ECJ’s Intel ruling, the EU implemented an overly simplistic approach to assessing rebates by dominant firms, where so-called “fidelity” rebates were almost per se illegal.[117] Likely recognizing the problems inherent in this formalistic assessment of rebates, the ECJ’s Intel ruling moved the European case law on rebates to a more evidence-based approach, holding that:

[T]he Commission is not only required to analyse, first, the extent of the undertaking’s dominant position on the relevant market and, secondly, the share of the market covered by the challenged practice, as well as the conditions and arrangements for granting the rebates in question, their duration and their amount; it is also required to assess the possible existence of a strategy aiming to exclude competitors that are at least as efficient as the dominant undertaking from the market.[118]

As Advocate General Nils Wahl noted in his opinion in the case, only such an evidence-based approach could ensure that the challenged conduct was actually harmful:

In this section, I shall explain why an abuse of dominance is never established in the abstract: even in the case of presumptively unlawful practices, the Court has consistently examined the legal and economic context of the impugned conduct. In that sense, the assessment of the context of the conduct scrutinised constitutes a necessary corollary to determining whether an abuse of dominance has taken place. That is not surprising. The conduct scrutinised must, at the very least, be able to foreclose competitors from the market in order to fall under the prohibition laid down in Article 102 TFEU.”[119]

The Expert Report, however, contains a direct refutation of Intel, thus “out-Europing” even Europe itself in its treatment of vertical restraints:

7) Plaintiffs need not show that the rivals whose ability to compete has been reduced are as efficient, or nearly as efficient, as the defendant. Harm to competition can arise when the competitive constraints on the defendant are weakened even when those competitive constraints come from less efficient rivals. Indeed, harm to competition can be especially great when a firm that faces limited competition further weakens its rivals.[120]

If adopted, this language would significantly limit the need for California courts to show actual anticompetitive harm arising from challenged vertical conduct. Similarly, the Expert Report’s rejection of the “no-economic-sense” test—“liability…does not require finding… that the conduct of the defendant makes no economic sense apart from its tendency to harm competition”[121]—removes another mechanism to ensure that vertical restraints lead to actual consumer harm, rather than simply injury to a competitor.

As Thom Lambert persuasively demonstrates, there are imperfections with both the “as efficient competitor” test and the “no economic sense” test. But these commonly applied tools do at least help to ensure that courts undertake to find actual anticompetitive harm.[122] The rejection of both simultaneously is decidedly problematic, suggesting a preference for no serious economic constraints on courts’ discretion to condemn practices solely on the ground of structural harm—i.e., harm to certain competitors.

By contrast, the alternative definition that Lambert proposes “would deem conduct to be unreasonably exclusionary if it would exclude from the defendant’s market a ‘competitive rival,’ defined as a rival that is both as determined as the defendant and capable, at minimum efficient scale, of matching the defendant’s efficiency.”[123] While this test may appear to have some traits in common with the Expert Report’s “diminishing competitive constraints” approach, it incorporates a much more robust set of principles and limitations, designed to more clearly distinguish conduct that merely excludes from exclusions that actually cause anticompetitive harm, while minimizing administrative costs.[124] The Expert Report, by contrast, explicitly removes such limitations.

A related problem concerns the Expert Report’s proposal that “when a defendant operates a multi-sided platform business, [liability does not turn on whether] the conduct of the defendant presents harm to competition on more than one side of the multi-sided platform[.]”[125] This provision is meant to reverse the Supreme Court’s holding on platform vertical restraints in Ohio v. American Express that:

Due to indirect network effects, two-sided platforms cannot raise prices on one side without risking a feedback loop of declining demand. And the fact that two-sided platforms charge one side a price that is below or above cost reflects differences in the two sides’ demand elasticity, not market power or anticompetitive pricing. Price increases on one side of the platform likewise do not suggest anticompetitive effects without some evidence that they have increased the overall cost of the platform’s services. Thus, courts must include both sides of the platform—merchants and cardholders—when defining the credit-card market….

…For all these reasons, “[i]n two-sided transaction markets, only one market should be defined.” Any other analysis would lead to “mistaken inferences” of the kind that could “chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect.”[126]

As Greg Werden notes, “[a]lleging the relevant market in an antitrust case does not merely identify the portion of the economy most directly affected by the challenged conduct; it identifies the competitive process alleged to be harmed.”[127] Particularly where novel conduct or novel markets are involved, and thus the relevant economic relationships are poorly understood, market definition is crucial to determine “what the nature of [the relevant] products is, how they are priced and on what terms they are sold, what levers [a firm] can use to increase its profits, and what competitive constraints affect its ability to do so.”[128] This is the approach the Supreme Court employed in Amex.

The Expert Report’s proposal to overrule Amex in California is deeply misguided. The economics of two-sided markets are such that “there is no meaningful economic relationship between benefits and costs on each side of the market considered alone…. [A]ny analysis of social welfare must account for the pricing level, the pricing structure, and the feasible alternatives for getting all sides on board.”[129] Assessing anticompetitive harm with respect to only one side of a two-sided market will arbitrarily include and exclude various sets of users and transactions, and incorrectly assess the extent and consequences of market power.[130]

Indeed, evidence of a price effect on only one side of a two-sided platform can be consistent with either neutral, anticompetitive, or procompetitive conduct.[131] Only when output is defined to incorporate the two-sidedness of the product, and where price and quality are assessed on both sides of a sufficiently interrelated two-sided platform, is it even possible to distinguish between procompetitive and anticompetitive effects. In fact, “[s]eparating the two markets allows legitimate competitive activities in the market for general purposes to be penalized no matter how output-enhancing such activities may be.”[132]

Notably, while some scholars have opposed the Amex holding that both sides of a two-sided market must be included in the relevant market in order to assess anticompetitive harm, some of these critics appear to note that the problem is not that both sides should not be taken into account at all, but only that they should not be included in the same relevant market (thus, permitting a plaintiff to make out a prima facie case by showing harm to just one side).[133] The language proposed in the Expert Report, however, would go even further, seemingly permitting a finding of liability based solely on harm to one side of a multi-sided market, regardless of countervailing effects on the other side. As in the Amex case itself, such an approach would confer benefits on certain platform business users (in Amex, retailers) at the direct expense of consumers (in Amex, literal consumers of retail goods purchased by credit card).

Adopting such an approach in California—whose economy is significantly dependent on multisided digital-platform firms, including both incumbents and startups[134]—would imperil the state’s economic prospects[135] and exacerbate the incentives for such firms to take jobs, investments, and tax dollars elsewhere.[136]

[1] Antitrust Law — Study B-750, California Law Revision Commission (last revised Apr. 26, 2024), available at http://www.clrc.ca.gov/B750.html.

[2] We welcome the opportunity to comment further or to respond to questions about our comments. Please contact us at [email protected].

[3] Regulation (EU) 2022/1925 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 September 2022 on Contestable and Fair Markets in the Digital Sector and amending Directives (EU) 2019/1937 and (EU) 2020/1828, 2022 O.J. (L 265) 1.

[4] See Aaron Edlin, Doug Melamed, Sam Miller, Fiona Scott Morton, & Carl Shapiro, Expert Report on Single Firm Conduct, 2024 Cal. L. Rev. Comm’n (hereinafter “Expert Report”), available at ExRpt-B750-Grp1.pdf.

[5] Id. at 14.

[6] Frank H. Easterbrook, The Limits of Antitrust, 63 Tex. L. Rev. 1, 15 (1984).

[7] See, especially, Pac. Bell Tel. Co. v. linkLine Commc’ns, Inc., 555 U.S. 438 (2009); Credit Suisse Sec. (U.S.A) LLC v. Billing, 551 U.S. 264, 265 (2007); Verizon Comm. v. Law Offices of Trinko, 540 U.S. 398 (2004).

[8] Trinko, 540 U.S. at 414 (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 594 (1986)).

[9] Easterbrook, supra note 6, at 7.

[10] See, e.g., Aurelien Portuese, The Rise of Precautionary Antitrust: An Illustration with the EU Google Android Decision, CPI EU News November 2019 (2019) at 4 (“The absence of demonstrated consumer harm in order to find antitrust injury is not fortuitous, but represents a fundamental alteration of antitrust enforcement, predominantly when it comes to big tech companies. Coupled with the lack of clear knowledge, a shift in the burden of proof, and the lack of a consumer harm requirement in order to find abuse of dominance all reveal the precautionary approach that the European Commission has now embraced.”).

[11] See Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Rupert Read, Raphael Douady, Joseph Norman, & Yaneer Bar-Yam, The Precautionary Principle (With Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms), arXiv preprint arXiv:1410.5787, 2 (2014). (“The purpose of the PP is to avoid a certain class of what, in probability and insurance, is called “ruin” problems. A ruin problem is one where outcomes of risks have a non-zero probability of resulting in unrecoverable losses.”).

[12] The precautionary principles implies that policymakers should bar certain mutually advantageous transactions due to the social costs that they might impose further down the line. Moreover, the precautionary principle has historically been associated with anti-growth positions. See, e.g., Jaap C Hanekamp, Guillaume Vera?Navas, & SW Verstegen, The Historical Roots of Precautionary Thinking: The Cultural Ecological Critique and ‘The Limits to Growth’, 8 J. Risk Res. 295, 299 (2005) (“The first inklings of today’s precautionary thinking as a means of creating a sustainable society can be traced historically to ‘The Limits to Growth’…”).

[13] See, e.g., Greg Ip, Europe Regulates Its Way to Last Place, Wall St. J. (Jan. 31, 2024), https://www.wsj.com/economy/europe-regulates-its-way-to-last-place-2a03c21d. (“Of course, Europe’s economy underperforms for lots of reasons, from demographics to energy costs, not just regulation. And U.S. regulators aren’t exactly hands-off. Still, they tend to act on evidence of harm, whereas Europe’s will act on the mere possibility. This precautionary principle can throttle innovation in its cradle.”) (emphasis added).

[14] See, e.g., id.; Eric Albert, Europe Trails Behind the United States in Economic Growth, Le Monde (Nov. 1, 2023), https://www.lemonde.fr/en/economy/article/2023/11/01/europe-trails-behind-the-united-states-in-economic-growth_6218259_19.html (“For the past fifteen years, Europe has been falling further and further behind…. Since 2007, per capita growth on the other side of the Atlantic has been 19.2%, compared with 7.6% in the eurozone. A gap of almost twelve points.”).

[15] Fredrik Erixon, Oscar Guinea, & Oscar du Roy, If the EU Was a State in the United States: Comparing Economic Growth Between EU and US States, ECIPE Policy Brief No. 07/2023 (2023), available at https://ecipe.org/publications/comparing-economic-growth-between-eu-and-us-states.

[16] Among other things, the Expert Report argues that antitrust should be used to address alleged policy concerns broader than protecting competition, and should accept reductions in competition to do so. See Expert Report, supra note 1, at 2 (“Nonetheless, these important values [‘broader social and political goals’] can influence the evidentiary standards that the Legislature instructs the courts to apply when handling individual antitrust cases. For example, the California Legislature could instruct the courts to err on the side of enforcement when the effect of the conduct at issue on competition is uncertain.”). But as one of the authors of the Expert Report has himself noted elsewhere: “while antitrust enforcement has a vital role to play in keeping markets competitive, antitrust law and antitrust institutions are ill suited to directly address concerns associated with the political power of large corporations or other public policy goals such as income inequality or job creation.” Carl Shapiro, Antitrust in a Time of Populism, 61 Int’l J. Indus. Org. 714, 714 (2018) (emphasis added).

[17] See generally Easterbrook, supra note 6, at 14-15. See also Geoffrey A. Manne & Joshua D. Wright, Innovation and the Limits of Antitrust, 6 J. Comp. L. & Econ. 153 (2010).

[18] See Robert W. Crandall & Clifford Winston, Does Antitrust Policy Improve Consumer Welfare? Assessing the Evidence, 17 J. Econ. Persp. 3, 4 (2003) (“[T]he economics profession should conclude that until it can provide some hard evidence that identi?es where the antitrust authorities are signi?cantly improving consumer welfare and can explain why some enforcement actions and remedies are helpful and others are not, those authorities would be well advised to prosecute only the most egregious anticompetitive violations.”).

[19] David Autor, David Dorn, Lawrence F. Katz, Christina Patterson & John Van Reenen, The Fall of the Labor Share and the Rise of Superstar Firms, 135 Q.J. Econ. 645, 651 (2020) (citations omitted) (emphasis added).

[20] See, e.g., Thomas Philippon, The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets (2019); Jan De Loecker, Jan Eeckhout, & Gabriel Unger, The Rise of Market Power and the Macroeconomic Implications, 135 Q. J. Econ. 561 (2020); David Wessel, Is Lack of Competition Strangling the U.S. Economy?, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Apr. 2018), https://hbr.org/2018/03/is-lack-of-competition-strangling-the-u-s-economy; Adil Abdela & Marshall Steinbaum, The United States Has a Market Concentration Problem, Roosevelt Institute Issue Brief (2018), available at https://rooseveltinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/RI-US-market-concentration-problem-brief-201809.pdf.

[21] A number of papers simply do not find that the accepted story—built in significant part around the famous De Loecker, Eeckhout, & Unger study, id.—regarding the vast size of markups and market power is accurate. The claimed markups due to increased concentration are likely not nearly as substantial as commonly assumed. See, e.g., James Traina, Is Aggregate Market Power Increasing? Production Trends Using Financial Statements, Stigler Center Working Paper (Feb. 2018), available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3120849; see also World Economic Outlook, April 2019 Growth Slowdown, Precarious Recovery, International Monetary Fund (Apr. 2019), available at https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2019/03/28/world-economic-outlook-april-2019. Another study finds that profits have increased, but are still within their historical range. See Loukas Karabarbounis & Brent Neiman, Accounting for Factorless Income, 33 NBER Macro. Annual 167 (2019). And still another shows decreased wages in concentrated markets, but also that local concentration has been decreasing over the relevant time period, suggesting that lack of enforcement is not a problem. See Kevin Rinz, Labor Market Concentration, Earnings, and Inequality, 57 J. Hum. Resources S251 (2022).

[22] See Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, Pierre-Daniel Sarte, & Nicholas Trachter, Diverging Trends in National and Local Concentration, 35 NBER Macro. Annual 115, 116 (2020) (“[T]he observed positive trend in market concentration at the national level has been accompanied by a corresponding negative trend in average local market concentration…. The narrower the geographic definition, the faster is the decline in local concentration. This is meaningful because the relevant definition of concentration from which to infer changes in competition is, in most sectors, local and not national.”).

[23] Id. at 117 (emphasis added).

[24] Sharat Ganapati, Growing Oligopolies, Prices, Output, and Productivity, 13 Am. Econ. J. Micro. 309, 323-24 (2021) (emphasis added).

[25] Chang-Tai Hsieh & Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, The Industrial Revolution in Services, 1 J. Pol. Econ. Macro. 3, 3 (2023) (emphasis added). See also id. at 39 (“Over the past 4 decades, the US economy has experienced a new industrial revolution that has enabled ?rms to scale up production over a large number of establishments dispersed across space. The adoption of these technologies has particularly favored productive ?rms in nontraded-service industries. The industrial revolution in services has had its largest effect in smaller and mid-sized local markets…. The gain to local consumers from access to more, better, and novel varieties of local services from the entry of top ?rms into local markets is not captured by the BLS. We estimate that such ‘missing growth’ is as large as 1.6% in the smallest markets and averages 0.5% per year from 1977 to 2013 across all US cities.”) (emphasis added).

[26] David Berger, Kyle Herkenhoff & Simon Mongey, Labor Market Power, 112 Am. Econ. Rev. 1147, 1148-49 (2022).

[27] Shapiro, Antitrust in a Time of Populism, supra note 16, at 727-28.

[28] Expert Report, supra note 1, at 15 (emphasis added).

[29] Id. at 2.

[30] A. Douglas Melamed, Antitrust Law and Its Critics, 83 Antitrust L.J. 269, 285 (2020).

[31] Herbert J. Hovenkamp & Fiona Scott Morton, Framing the Chicago School of Antitrust Analysis, 168 U. Penn. L. Rev. 1843, 1870-71 (2020).

[32] Easterbrook, supra note 6, at 2-3.

[33] Hovenkamp & Scott Morton, supra note 31, at 1849.

[34] See generally Geoffrey A. Manne, Error Costs in Digital Markets, in Global Antitrust Institute Report on the Digital Economy (Joshua D. Wright & Douglas H. Ginsburg eds., 2020), available at https://gaidigitalreport.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Manne-Error-Costs-in-Digital-Markets.pdf.

[35] Bruce H. Kobayashi & Timothy J. Muris, Chicago, Post-Chicago, and Beyond: Time to Let Go of the 20th Century, 78 Antitrust L.J. 147, 166 (2012).

[36] See id. at 166 (“[T]here is very little empirical evidence based on in-depth industry studies that RRC is a significant antitrust problem.”); id. at 148 (“Because of [the Post-Chicago School] literature’s focus on theoretical possibility theorems, little evidence exists regarding the empirical relevance of these theories.”).

[37] See Expert Report, supra note 1, at 7 (“The history of federal antitrust enforcement of single-firm conduct illustrates that when courts are uncertain about how to assess conduct, they often find in favor of defendants even if the conduct harms competition simply because the plaintiff bears the burden of proof.”).

[38] See supra notes 19-27, and accompanying text.

[39] See Case C-413/14 P Intel v Commission, ECLI:EU:C:2017:788.

[40] See Steven Berry, Martin Gaynor, & Fiona Scott Morton, Do Increasing Markups Matter? Lessons from Empirical Industrial Organization, 33 J. Econ. Persp. 48 (2019). See also Jonathan Baker & Timothy F. Bresnahan, Economic Evidence in Antitrust: Defining Markets and Measuring Market Power in Handbook of Antitrust Economics 1 (Paolo Buccirossi ed., 2008) (“The Chicago identification argument has carried the day, and structure-conduct-performance empirical methods have largely been discarded in economics.”).

[41] See, e.g., Gregory J. Werden & Luke Froeb, Don’t Panic: A Guide to Claims of Increasing Concentration 33 Antitrust 74 (2018), https://ssrn.com/abstract=3156912, and papers cited therein. As Werden & Froeb conclude: No evidence we have uncovered substantiates a broad upward trend in the market concentration in the United States, but market concentration undoubtedly has increased significantly in some sectors, such as wireless telephony. Such increases in concentration, however, do not warrant alarm or imply a failure of antitrust. Increases in market concentration are not a concern of competition policy when concentration remains low, yet low levels of concentration are being cited by those alarmed about increasing concentration…. Id. at 78. See also Joshua D. Wright, Elyse Dorsey, Jonathan Klick, & Jan M. Rybnicek, Requiem for a Paradox: The Dubious Rise and Inevitable Fall of Hipster Antitrust, 51 Ariz. St. L.J. 293 (2019).

[42] See, e.g., Expert Report, supra note 1, at 15.

[43] Francine Lafontaine & Margaret Slade, Exclusive Contracts and Vertical Restraints: Empirical Evidence and Public Policy, in Handbook of Antitrust Economics 391 (Paolo Buccirossi ed., 2008).

[44] See, e.g., Daniel P. O’Brien, The Antitrust Treatment of Vertical Restraints: Beyond the Possibility Theorems, in The Pros and Cons of Vertical Restraints 40, 72-76 (Swedish Competition Authority, 2008) (“[Vertical restraints] are unlikely to be anticompetitive in most cases.”); James C. Cooper, et al., Vertical Antitrust Policy as a Problem of Inference, 23 Int’l J. Indus. Org. 639 (2005) (surveying the empirical literature, concluding that although “some studies find evidence consistent with both pro- and anticompetitive effects… virtually no studies can claim to have identified instances where vertical practices were likely to have harmed competition”); Benjamin Klein, Competitive Resale Price Maintenance in the Absence of Free-Riding, 76 Antitrust L.J. 431 (2009); Bruce H. Kobayashi, Does Economics Provide a Reliable Guide to Regulating Commodity Bundling by Firms? A Survey of the Economic Literature, 1 J. Comp. L. & Econ. 707 (2005).

[45] James Cooper, Luke Froeb, Daniel O’Brien, & Michael Vita, Vertical Restrictions and Antitrust Policy: What About the Evidence?, Comp. Pol’y Int’l 45 (2005).

[46] Id.

[47] Expert Report, supra note 1, at 16: (b) Conduct, whether by one or multiple actors, is deemed to be anticompetitive exclusionary conduct, if the conduct tends to (1) diminish or create a meaningful risk of diminishing the competitive constraints imposed by the defendant’s rivals and thereby increase or create a meaningful risk of increasing the defendant’s market power, and (2) does not provide sufficient benefits to prevent the defendant’s trading partners from being harmed by that increased market power.

[48] Id.

[49] See TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez, 141 S. Ct. 2190, 2210-11 (2021) (“The plaintiffs rely on language from Spokeo where the Court said that ‘the risk of real harm’ (or as the Court otherwise stated, a ‘material risk of harm’) can sometimes ‘satisfy the requirement of concreteness…. [but] in a suit for damages, the mere risk of future harm, standing alone, cannot qualify as a concrete harm—at least unless the exposure to the risk of future harm itself causes a separate concrete harm.”) (citations omitted).

[50] In essence, for uncertain future effects, U.S. antitrust law applies something like a “reasonableness” standard. See U.S. v. Microsoft Corp., 253 F.3d 34, 79 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (enjoining “conduct that is reasonably capable of contributing significantly to a defendant’s continued monopoly power”) (emphasis added). Of course, “material risk” is undefined, so perhaps it is meant to accord with this standard. If so, it should use the same language.

[51] Herbert Hovenkamp, Antitrust Harm and Causation, 99 Wash. U. L. Rev. 787, 841 (2021). See also id. at 788 (“While a showing of actual harm can be important evidence, in most cases the public authorities need not show that harm has actually occurred, but only that the challenged conduct poses an unreasonable danger that it will occur.”) (emphasis added).

[52] Expert Report, supra note 1, at 16.

[53] See Brunswick Corp. v. Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat, Inc., 429 U.S. 477, 487-88 (1977) (“If the acquisitions here were unlawful, it is because they brought a ‘deep pocket’ parent into a market of ‘pygmies.’ Yet respondents’ injury—the loss of income that would have accrued had the acquired centers gone bankrupt—bears no relationship to the size of either the acquiring company or its competitors. Respondents would have suffered the identical ‘loss’—but no compensable injury—had the acquired centers instead obtained refinancing or been purchased by ‘shallow pocket’ parents, as the Court of Appeals itself acknowledged. Thus, respondents’ injury was not of ‘the type that the statute was intended to forestall[.]’”) (citations omitted).

[54] Expert Report, supra note 1, at 17.

[55] Microsoft, 253 F.3d at 79.

[56] Treaty on European Union, Protocol (No27) on the internal market and competition, Official Journal 115.

[57] See especially Expert Report supra note 1, at 17, §§ (f)(8) & (g) through (i).

[58] See, e.g., Joaquín Almunia, Competition and Consumers: The Future of EU Competition Policy, Speech at European Competition Day, Madrid (May 12, 2010), available at http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-10-233_en.pdf (“All of us here today know very well what our ultimate objective is: Competition policy is a tool at the service of consumers. Consumer welfare is at the heart of our policy and its achievement drives our priorities and guides our decisions.”). Even then, however, it must be noted that Almunia elaborated that “[o]ur objective is to ensure that consumers enjoy the benefits of competition, a wider choice of goods, of better quality and at lower prices.” Id. (emphasis added). In fact, expanded consumer choice is not necessarily the same thing as consumer welfare, and may at times be at odds with it. See Joshua D. Wright & Douglas H. Ginsburg, The Goals of Antitrust: Welfare Trumps Choice, 81 Fordham L. Rev. 2405 (2013).

[59] See Commission Guidance on the Commission’s Enforcement Priorities in Applying Article 82 of the EC Treaty to Abusive Exclusionary Conduct by Dominant Undertakings, 2009 O. J.(C 45)7 at n. 5, §6 (“[T]he Commission is mindful that what really matters is protecting an effective competitive process and not simply protecting competitors.”).

[60] See Case C-209/10, Post Danmark A/S v Konkurrencerådet, ECLI:EU:C:2012:172, §22 (“Competition on the merits may, by definition, lead to the departure from the market or the marginalisation of competitors that are less efficient and so less attractive to consumers….”).

[61] See Pablo Ibáñez Colomo, Exclusionary Discrimination Under Article 102 TFEU, 51 Common Market L. Rev. 153 (2014).

[62] Id.

[63] Expert Report, supra note 1, at 16.

[64] Id.

[65] See Brian Albrecht, Dirk Auer, & Geoffrey A. Manne, Labor Monopsony and Antitrust Enforcement: A Cautionary Tale, ICLE White Paper No. 2024-05-01 (2024) at 21, available at https://laweconcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/05/Labor-Monopsony-Antitrust-final-.pdf (“[Conduct] that creates monopsony power will necessarily reduce the prices and quantity purchased of inputs like labor and materials. But this same effect (reduced prices and quantities for inputs) would also be observed if the [conduct] is efficiency enhancing. If there are efficiency gains, the [] entity may purchase fewer of one or more inputs than [it would otherwise]. For example, if the efficiency gain arises from the elimination of redundancies in a hospital…, the hospital will buy fewer inputs, hire fewer technicians, or purchase fewer medical supplies.”). See also Ivan Kirov & James Traina, Labor Market Power and Technological Change in US Manufacturing, conference paper for Institute for Labor Economics (Oct. 2022), at 42, available at https://conference.iza.org/conference_files/Macro_2022/traina_j33031.pdf (“The labor [markdown] therefore increases because ‘productivity’ rises, and not because pay falls. This suggests that technological change plays a large role in the rise of the labor [markdown].”).

[66] Expert Report, supra note 1, at 15 (emphasis added).

[67] Trinko, 540 U.S. at 407.

[68] See Expert Report, supra note 1, at 16 (“‘Trading partners’ are parties with which the defendant deals, either as a customer or as a supplier. In [assessing anticompetitive exclusionary conduct], a trading partner is deemed to be harmed or benefited even if that trading partner passes some or all of that harm or benefit on to other parties.”).

[69] Id. at 15 (emphasis added).

[70] Id. at 13.

[71] See supra Section II.

[72] Expert Report, supra note 1, at 17. As the Expert Report acknowledges elsewhere, recoupment is a “requirement for a predatory pricing claim under federal antitrust law.” Id. at 15.

[73] See Brooke Group Ltd. v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 509 U.S. 209, 222-27 (1993).

[74] Id. at 224.

[75] On entry deterrence, see Steven C. Salop, Strategic Entry Deterrence, 69 Am. Econ. Rev. 335 (1979).

[76] See generally John S. McGee, Predatory Pricing Revisited, 23 J.L. Econ 289 (1980). Some economists have more recently posed a “strategic” theory of predatory pricing that purports to expand substantially (and redirect) the scope of circumstances in which predatory pricing could be rational. See, e.g., Patrick Bolton, Joseph F. Brodley, & Michael H. Riordan, Predatory Pricing: Strategic Theory and Legal Policy, 88 Geo. L. J. 2239 (2000). While this and related theories have, indeed, likely expanded the theoretical scope of circumstances conducive to predatory pricing, they have not established that these conditions are remotely likely to occur. See Bruce H. Kobayashi, The Law and Economics of Predatory Pricing, in 4 Encyclopedia of Law and Economics (De Geest, ed. 2017) (“The models showing rational predation can exist and the evidence consistent with episodes of predation do not demonstrate that predation is either ubiquitous or frequent. Moreover, many of these models do not consider the welfare effects of predation, and those that do generally find the welfare effects ambiguous.”). From a legal perspective, particularly given the risk of error in discerning the difference between predatory pricing and legitimate price cutting, it is far more important to limit cases to situations likely to cause consumer harm rather than those in which harm is a remote possibility. The cost of error, of course, is the legal imposition of artificially inflated prices for consumers.

[77] Case C-62/86, AKZO v Comm’n, EU:C:1991:286, ¶¶ 71-72.

[78] Id. at ¶ 72 (“[P]rices below average total costs, that is to say, fixed costs plus variable costs, but above average variable costs, must be regarded as abusive if they are determined as part of a plan for eliminating a competitor.”).

[79] Case C-333/94 P, Tetra Pak v Comm’n, EU:C:1996:436, ¶ 44. See also, Case C-202/07 P, France Télécom v Comm’n, EU:C:2009:214, ¶ 110.

[80] Id. at ¶ 107.

[81] See, e.g., Bolton, Brodley, & Riordan, supra note 76.

[82] See id. at 2267 (“[A]nticipated recoupment is intrinsic in [strategic] theories, because without such an expectation predatory pricing is not sensible economic behavior.”). See also Kenneth G. Elzinga & David E. Mills, Predatory Pricing and Strategic Theory, 89 Geo. L.J. 2475, 2483 (2001) (“Of course, no proposed scheme of predation is credible unless it embodies a plausible means of recoupment, but this does not justify taking shortcuts in analysis. In particular, it is unwise to presume that a plausible means of recoupment exists just because facts supporting other features of a strategic theory, such as asymmetric information, are evident. Facts conducive to probable recoupment ought to be established independently.”).

[83] Kobayashi & Muris, supra note 35, at 166.

[84] Tetra Pak, supra note 79, at ¶ 44.

[85] France Télécom, supra note 79, at ¶ 112.

[86] Expert Report, supra note 1, at 17.

[87] Expert Report, supra note 1, at 15.

[88] Trinko, 540 U.S. at 408.

[89] Trinko, 540 U.S. at 409.

[90] Trinko, 540 U.S. at 411. See also Phillip Areeda, Essential Facilities: An Epithet in Need of Limiting Principles, 58 Antitrust L.J. 841 (1989).

[91] Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp., 472 U.S. 585, 610-11 (1985).

[92] See Alan J. Meese, Property, Aspen, and Refusals to Deal, 73 Antitrust L. J. 81, 112-13 (2005).

[93] See Joined Cases 6/73 & 7/73, Instituto Chemioterapico Italiano S.p.A. and Commercial Solvents Corporation v. Comm’n, 1974 E.C.R. 223, [1974] 1 C.M.L.R. 309.

[94] See Case C-7/97, Oscar Bronner GmbH & Co. KG v Mediaprint Zeitungs, EU:C:1998:569, §41.

[95] See Case C-241/91 P, RTE and ITP v Comm’n, EU:C:1995:98, §54. See also, Case C-418/01, IMS Health, EU:C:2004:257, §37.

[96] John Vickers, Competition Policy and Property Rights, 120 Econ. J. 390 (2010).

[97] Expert Report, supra note 1, at 7.

[98] Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp., 472 U.S. 585, 605 (1985).

[99] Expert Report, supra note 1, at 17.

[100] Einer Elhauge, Defining Better Monopolization Standards, 56 Stan. L. Rev. 253, 343 (2003).

[101] See Fed. Trade Comm’n v. Qualcomm Inc., 969 F.3d 974, 995 (9th Cir. 2020) (“Finally, unlike in Aspen Skiing, the district court found no evidence that Qualcomm singles out any specific chip supplier for anticompetitive treatment in its SEP-licensing. In Aspen Skiing, the defendant refused to sell its lift tickets to a smaller, rival ski resort even as it sold the same lift tickets to any other willing buyer (including any other ski resort)…. Qualcomm applies its OEM-level licensing policy equally with respect to all competitors in the modem chip markets and declines to enforce its patents against these rivals…. Instead, Qualcomm provides these rivals indemnifications…—the Aspen Skiing equivalent of refusing to sell a skier a lift ticket but letting them ride the chairlift anyway. Thus, while Qualcomm’s policy toward OEMs is ‘no license, no chips,’ its policy toward rival chipmakers could be characterized as ‘no license, no problem.’ Because Qualcomm applies the latter policy neutrally with respect to all competing modem chip manufacturers, the third Aspen Skiing requirement does not apply.”)

[102] Carl Shapiro was an economic expert for the FTC in the case, and Fiona Scott Morton was an economic expert for Apple in related litigation against Qualcomm. Doug Melamed was co-author of an amicus brief supporting the FTC in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. (In the interests of full disclosure, we authored an amicus brief, joined by 12 scholars of law & economics, supporting Qualcomm in the 9th Circuit. See Brief of Amici Curiae International Center for Law & Economics and Scholars of Law and Economics in Support of Appellant and Reversal, FTC v. Qualcomm, No. 19-16122 (9th Cir., Aug. 30, 2019), available at https://laweconcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/ICLE-Amicus-Brief-in-FTC-v-Qualcomm-FINAL-9th-Cir-2019.pdf).

[103] For a discussion of the frailties of these arguments, see Geoffrey A. Manne & Dirk Auer, Exclusionary Pricing Without the Exclusion: Unpacking Qualcomm’s No License, No Chips Policy, Truth on the Market (Jan. 17, 2020), https://truthonthemarket.com/2020/01/17/exclusionary-pricing-without-the-exclusion-unpacking-qualcomms-no-license-no-chips-policy (“The amici are thus left with the argument that Qualcomm could structure its prices differently, so as to maximize the profits of its rivals. Why it would choose to do so, or should indeed be forced to, is a whole other matter.”). For a response by one of the Expert Report authors, see Mark A. Lemley, A. Douglas Melamed, & Steve Salop, Manne and Auer’s Defense of Qualcomm’s Licensing Policy Is Deeply Flawed, Truth on the Market (Jan. 21, 2020), https://truthonthemarket.com/2020/01/21/manne-and-auers-defense-of-qualcomms-licensing-policy-is-deeply-flawed.

[104] Expert Report, supra note 1, at 15.

[105] See Leegin Creative Leather Prods., Inc. v. PSKS, Inc., 551 U.S. 877 (2007).

[106] See, e.g., D. Daniel Sokol, The Transformation of Vertical Restraints: Per Se Illegality, The Rule of Reason, and Per Se Legality, 79 Antitrust L.J. 1003, 1004 (2014) (“[T]he shift in the antitrust rules applied to [vertical restraints] has not been from per se illegality to the rule of reason, but has been a more dramatic shift from per se illegality to presumptive legality under the rule of reason.”).

[107] See Commission Regulation (EU) No 330/2010 of 20 April 2010 on the Application of Article 101(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to Categories of Vertical Agreements and Concerted Practices, 2010 O.J. (L 102) art.4 (a).

[108] See, e.g., Case C-403/08, Football Association Premier League and Others, ECLI:EU:C:2011:631, §139. (“[A]greements which are aimed at partitioning national markets according to national borders or make the interpenetration of national markets more difficult must be regarded, in principle, as agreements whose object is to restrict competition within the meaning of Article 101(1) TFEU.”).

[109] Joined Cases-56/64 and 58/64, Consten SARL & Grundig-Verkaufs-GMBH v. Commission of the European Economic Community, ECLI:EU:C:1966:41, at 343.

[110] Patrick Rey & Jean Tirole, The Logic of Vertical Restraints, 76 Am. Econ. Rev. 921, 937 (1986) (emphasis added).

[111] These papers are collected and assessed in several literature reviews, including Lafontaine & Slade, supra note 43; O’Brien, supra note 44; Cooper et al., supra note 44; Global Antitrust Institute, Comment Letter on Federal Trade Commission’s Hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century, Vertical Mergers (George Mason Law & Econ. Research Paper No. 18-27, Sep. 6, 2018). Even the reviews of such conduct that purport to be critical are only tepidly so. See, e.g., Marissa Beck & Fiona Scott Morton, Evaluating the Evidence on Vertical Mergers 59 Rev. Indus. Org. 273 (2021) (“[M]any vertical mergers are harmless or procompetitive, but that is a far weaker statement than presuming every or even most vertical mergers benefit competition regardless of market structure.”).

[112] Leegin, 551 U.S. at 889.

[113] Id. at 902.

[114] See, e.g., Lafontaine & Slade, supra note 43.

[115] See Leegin, 551 U.S. at 886-87 (holding that the per se rule should be applied “only after courts have had considerable experience with the type of restraint at issue” and “only if courts can predict with confidence that [the restraint] would be invalidated in all or almost all instances under the rule of reason” because it “‘lack[s]… any redeeming virtue’”) (citations omitted).

[116] See Bruce Kobayashi, The Economics of Loyalty Rebates and Antitrust Law in the United States, 1 Comp. Pol’y Int’l 115, 147 (2005).

[117] See, e.g., Case C-85/76, Hoffmann-La Roche & Co. AG v Commission of the European Communities, EU:C:1979:36, at 7.

[118] See Intel, supra note 39, at ¶ 139 (emphasis added).

[119] Opinion of AG Wahl in Case C-413/14 P Intel v Commission, ECLI:EU:C:2016:788, para 73.

[120] Expert Report, supra note 1, at 17.

[121] Id.

[122] See, e.g., Thomas A. Lambert, Defining Unreasonably Exclusionary Conduct: The Exclusion of a Competitive Rival Approach, 92 N.C. L. Rev. 1175, 1175 (2014) (“This Article examines the proposed definitions or tests for identifying unreasonably exclusionary conduct (including the non-universalist approach) and, finding each lacking, suggests an alternative definition.”).

[123] Id.

[124] Id. at 1244 (“Drawing lessons from past, unsuccessful attempts to define unreasonably exclusionary conduct, this Article has set forth a definition that identifies a common thread tying together all instances of unreasonable exclusion, comports with widely accepted intuitions about what constitutes improper competitive conduct, and generates specific safe harbors and liability rules that would collectively minimize the sum of antitrust’s decision and error costs.”).

[125] Expert Report, supra note 1, at 17.

[126] Ohio v. Am. Express Co., 138 S. Ct. 2274, 2286-87 (2018).

[127] Gregory J. Werden, Why (Ever) Define Markets? An Answer to Professor Kaplow, 78 Antitrust L.J. 729, 741 (2013).

[128] Geoffrey A. Manne, In Defence of the Supreme Court’s ‘Single Market’ Definition in Ohio v. American Express, 7 J. Antitrust Enforcement 104, 106 (2019).

[129] David S. Evans, The Antitrust Economics of Multi-Sided Platform Markets, 20 Yale J. Reg. 325, 355-56 (2003). See also Jean-Charles Rochet & Jean Tirole, Platform Competition in Two-Sided Markets, 1 J. Eur. Econ. Ass’n 990, 1018 (2003).

[130] See, e.g., Michal S. Gal & Daniel L. Rubinfeld, The Hidden Cost of Free Goods, 80 Antitrust L.J. 521, 557 (2016) (discussing the problematic French Competition Tribunal decision in Bottin Cartographes v. Google Inc., where “[d]isregarding the product’s two-sided market, and its cross-network effects, the court possibly prevented a welfare-increasing business strategy”).

[131] See, e.g., Brief of Amici Curiae Prof. David S Evans and Prof. Richard Schmalensee in Support of Respondents in Ohio, et al. v. American Express Co., No. 16-1454 (Sup. Ct. Jan. 23, 2018) at 21, available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/16/16-1454/28957/20180123154205947_16-1454%20State%20of%20Ohio%20v%20American%20Express%20Brief%20for%20Amici%20Curiae%20Professors%20in%20Support%20of%20Respondents.pdf (“The first stage of the rule of reason analysis involves determining whether the conduct is anticompetitive. The economic literature on two-sided platforms shows that there is no basis for presuming one could, as a general matter, know the answer to that question without considering both sides of the platform.”).

[132] United States, et al. v. Am. Express Co., et al., 838 F.3d 179, 198 (2nd Cir. 2016).

[133] See, e.g., Michael Katz & Jonathan Sallet, Multisided Platforms and Antitrust Enforcement, 127 Yale L.J. 2142, 2161 (2018) (“[I]t is essential to account for any significant feedback effects and possible changes in prices on both sides of a platform when assessing whether a particular firm has substantial market power.”).

[134] California earned 10% of its statewide GDP from the tech industry in 2021, and just over 9% in 2022. See SAGDP2N Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by State, Bureau of Economic Analysis (last visited May 1, 2024), https://tinyurl.com/ysaf6rfc.

[135] See Joseph Politano, California Is Losing Tech Jobs, Apricitas Economics (Apr. 14, 2024), https://www.apricitas.io/p/california-is-losing-tech-jobs (“[California’s] GDP fell 2.1% through 2022, the second-biggest drop of any state over that period, driven by a massive deceleration across the information sector. That allowed states like Texas to overtake California in the post-pandemic GDP recovery, creating a gap that California still hasn’t been able to close despite its economic rebound in 2023.”).

[136] See id. (“[T]he Golden State has been bleeding tech jobs over the last year and a half—since August 2022, California has lost 21k jobs in computer systems design & related, 15k in streaming & social networks, 11k in software publishing, and 7k in web search & related—while gaining less than 1k in computing infrastructure & data processing. Since the beginning of COVID, California has added a sum total of only 6k jobs in the tech industry—compared to roughly 570k across the rest of the United States.”).

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Lazar Radic on the EU’s DMA

Presentations & Interviews ICLE Senior Scholar Lazar Radic was a guest on the Mobile Dev Memo podcast to discuss the EU’s Digital Markets Act and the broader competition-regulation . . .

ICLE Senior Scholar Lazar Radic was a guest on the Mobile Dev Memo podcast to discuss the EU’s Digital Markets Act and the broader competition-regulation landscape. Audio of the full episode is embedded below.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

A Competition Law & Economics Analysis of Sherlocking

ICLE White Paper Abstract Sherlocking refers to an online platform’s use of nonpublic third-party business data to improve its own business decisions—for instance, by mimicking the successful products . . .

Abstract

Sherlocking refers to an online platform’s use of nonpublic third-party business data to improve its own business decisions—for instance, by mimicking the successful products and services of edge providers. Such a strategy emerges as a form of self-preferencing and, as with other theories about preferential access to data, it has been targeted by some policymakers and competition authorities due to the perceived competitive risks originating from the dual role played by hybrid platforms (acting as both referees governing their platforms, and players competing with the business they host). This paper investigates the competitive implications of sherlocking, maintaining that an outright ban is unjustified. First, the paper shows that, by aiming to ensure platform neutrality, such a prohibition would cover scenarios (i.e., the use of nonpublic third-party business data to calibrate business decisions in general, rather than to adopt a pure copycat strategy) that should be analyzed separately. Indeed, in these scenarios, sherlocking may affect different forms of competition (inter-platform v. intra-platform competition). Second, the paper argues that, in either case, the practice’s anticompetitive effects are questionable and that the ban is fundamentally driven by a bias against hybrid and vertically integrated players.

I. Introduction

The dual role some large digital platforms play (as both intermediary and trader) has gained prominence among the economic arguments used to justify the recent wave of regulation hitting digital markets around the world. Many policymakers have expressed concern about potential conflicts of interest among companies that have adopted this hybrid model and that also control important gateways for business users. In other words, the argument goes, some online firms act not only as regulators who set their platforms’ rules and as referees who enforce those rules, but also as market players who compete with their business users. This raises the fear that large platforms could reserve preferential treatment for their own services and products, to the detriment of downstream rivals and consumers. That, in turn, has led to calls for platform-neutrality rules.

Toward this aim, essentially all of the legislative initiatives undertaken around the world in recent years to enhance competition in digital markets have included anti-discrimination provisions that target various forms of self-preferencing. Self-preferencing, it has been said, serves as the symbol of the current competition-policy zeitgeist in digital markets.[1] Indeed, this conduct is considered functional to leveraging strategies that would grant gatekeepers the chance to entrench their power in core markets and extend it into associated markets.[2]

Against this background, so-called “sherlocking” has emerged as one form of self-preferencing. The term was coined roughly 20 years ago, after Apple updated its own app Sherlock (a search tool on its desktop-operating system) to mimic a third-party application called Watson, which was created by Karelia Software to complement the Apple tool’s earlier version.[3] According to critics of self-preferencing generally and sherlocking in particular, biased intermediation and related conflicts of interest allow gatekeepers to exploit their preferential access to business users’ data to compete against them by replicating successful products and services. The implied assumption is that this strategy is relevant to competition policy, even where no potential intellectual-property rights (IPRs) are infringed and no slavish imitation sanctionable under unfair-competition laws is detected. Indeed, under such theories, sherlocking would already be prevented by the enforcement of these rules.

To tackle perceived misuse of gatekeepers’ market position, the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) introduced a ban on sherlocking.[4] Similar concerns have also motivated requests for intervention in the United States,[5] Australia,[6] and Japan.[7] In seeking to address at least two different theories of gatekeepers’ alleged conflicts of interest, these proposed bans on exploiting access to business users’ data are not necessarily limited to the risk of product imitation, but may include any business decision whatsoever that a platform may make while relying on that data.

In parallel with the regulatory initiatives, the conduct at-issue has also been investigated in some antitrust proceedings, which appear to seek the very same twofold goal. In particular, in November 2020, the European Commission sent a statement of objections to Amazon that argued the company had infringed antitrust rules through the systematic use of nonpublic business data from independent retailers who sell on the Amazon online marketplace in order to benefit Amazon’s own retail business, which directly competes with those retailers.[8] A similar investigation was opened by the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in July 2022.[9]

Further, as part of the investigation opened into Apple’s App Store rule requiring developers to use Apple’s in-app purchase mechanism to distribute paid apps and/or paid digital content, the European Commission also showed interest in evaluating whether Apple’s conduct might disintermediate competing developers from relevant customer data, while Apple obtained valuable data about those activities and its competitors’ offers.[10] The European Commission and UK CMA likewise launched an investigation into Facebook Marketplace, with accusations that Meta used data gathered from advertisers in order to compete with them in markets where the company is active, such as classified ads.[11]

There are two primary reasons these antitrust proceedings are relevant. First, many of the prohibitions envisaged in regulatory interventions (e.g., DMA) clearly took inspiration from the antitrust investigations, thus making it important to explore the insights that competition authorities may provide to support an outright ban. Second, given that regulatory intervention will be implemented alongside competition rules (especially in Europe) rather than displace them,[12] sherlocking can be assessed at both the EU and national level against dominant players that are not eligible for “gatekeeper” designation under the DMA. For those non-gatekeeper firms, the practice may still be investigated by antitrust authorities and assessed before courts, aside from the DMA’s per se prohibition. And, of course, investigations and assessments of sherlocking could also be made even in those jurisdictions where there isn’t an outright ban.

The former sis well-illustrated by the German legislature’s decision to empower its national competition authority with a new tool to tackle abusive practices that are similar and functionally equivalent to the DMA.[13] Indeed, as of January 2021, the Bundeskartellamt may identify positions of particular market relevance (undertakings of “paramount significance for competition across markets”) and assess their possible anticompetitive effects on competition in those areas of digital ecosystems in which individual companies may have a gatekeeper function. Both the initiative’s aims and its list of practices are similar to the DMA. They are distinguished primarily by the fact that the German list is exhaustive, and the practices at-issue are not prohibited per se, but are subject to a reversal of the burden of proof, allowing firms to provide objective justifications. For the sake of this analysis, within the German list, one provision prohibits designated undertakings from “demanding terms and conditions that permit … processing data relevant for competition received from other undertakings for purposes other than those necessary for the provision of its own services to these undertakings without giving these undertakings sufficient choice as to whether, how and for what purpose such data are processed.”[14]

Unfortunately, none of the above-mentioned EU antitrust proceedings have concluded with a final decision that addresses the merits of sherlocking. This precludes evaluating whether the practice would have survived before the courts. Regarding the Apple investigation, the European Commission dropped the case over App Store rules and issued a new statement of objections that no longer mentions sherlocking.[15] Further, the European Commission and the UK CMA accepted the commitments offered by Amazon to close those investigations.[16] The CMA likewise accepted the commitments offered by Meta.[17]

Those outcomes can be explained by the DMA’s recent entry into force. Indeed, because of the need to comply with the new regulation, players designated as gatekeepers likely have lost interest in challenging antitrust investigations that target the very same conduct prohibited by the DMA.[18] After all, given that the DMA does not allow any efficiency defense against the listed prohibitions, even a successful appeal against an antitrust decision would be a pyrrhic victory. From the opposite perspective, the same applies to the European Commission, which may decide to save time, costs, and risks by dropping an ongoing case against a company designated as a gatekeeper under the DMA, knowing that the conduct under investigation will be prohibited in any case.

Nonetheless, despite the lack of any final decision on sherlocking, these antitrust assessments remain relevant. As already mentioned, the DMA does not displace competition law and, in any case, dominant platforms not designated as gatekeepers under the DMA still may face antitrust investigations over sherlocking. This applies even more for jurisdictions, such as the United States, that are evaluating DMA-like legislative initiatives (e.g., the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, or “AICOA”).

Against this background, drawing on recent EU cases, this paper questions the alleged anticompetitive implications of sherlocking, as well as claims that the practice fails to comply with existing antitrust rules.

First, the paper illustrates that prohibitions on the use of nonpublic third-party business data would cover two different theories that should be analyzed separately. Whereas a broader case involves all the business decisions adopted by a dominant platform because of such preferential access (e.g., the launch of new products or services, the development or cessation of existing products or services, the calibration of pricing and management systems), a more specific case deals solely with the adoption of a copycat strategy. By conflating these theories in support of a blanket ban that condemns any use of nonpublic third-party business data, EU antitrust authorities are fundamentally motivated by the same policy goal pursued by the DMA—i.e., to impose a neutrality regime on large online platforms. The competitive implications differ significantly, however, as adopting copycat strategies may only affect intra-brand competition, while using said data to improve other business decisions could also affect inter-platform competition.

Second, the paper shows that, in both of these scenarios, the welfare effects of sherlocking are unclear. Notably, exploiting certain data to better understand the market could help a platform to develop new products and services, to improve existing products and services, or more generally to be more competitive with respect to both business users and other platforms. As such outcomes would benefit consumers in terms of price and quality, any competitive advantage achieved by the hybrid platform could be considered unlawful only if it is not achieved on the merits. In a similar vein, if sherlocking is used by a hybrid platform to deliver replicas of its business users’ products and services, that would likely provide short-term procompetitive effects benefitting consumers with more choice and lower prices. In this case, the only competitive harm that would justify an antitrust intervention resides in (uncertain) negative long-term effects on innovation.

As a result, in any case, an outright ban of sherlocking, such as is enshrined in the DMA, is economically unsound since it would clearly harm consumers.

The paper is structured as follows. Section II describes the recent antitrust investigations of sherlocking, illustrating the various scenarios that might include the use of third-party business data. Section III investigates whether sherlocking may be considered outside the scope of competition on the merits for bringing competitive advantages to platforms solely because of their hybrid business model. Section IV analyzes sherlocking as a copycat strategy by investigating the ambiguous welfare effects of copying in digital markets and providing an antitrust assessment of the practice at issue. Section V concludes.

II. Antitrust Proceedings on Sherlocking: Platform Neutrality and Copycat Competition

Policymakers’ interest in sherlocking is part of a larger debate over potentially unfair strategies that large online platforms may deploy because of their dual role as an unavoidable trading partner for business users and a rival in complementary markets.

In this scenario, as summarized in Table 1, the DMA outlaws sherlocking, establishing that to “prevent gatekeepers from unfairly benefitting from their dual role,”[19] they are restrained from using, in competition with business users, “any data that is not publicly available that is generated or provided by those business users in the context of their use of the relevant core platform services or of the services provided together with, or in support of, the relevant core platform services, including data generated or provided by the customers of those business users.”[20] Recital 46 further clarifies that the “obligation should apply to the gatekeeper as a whole, including but not limited to its business unit that competes with the business users of a core platform service.”

A similar provision was included in the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), which was considered, but not ultimately adopted, in the 117th U.S. Congress. AICOA, however, would limit the scope of the ban to the offer of products or services that would compete with those offered by business users.[21] Concerns about copycat strategies were also reported in the U.S. House of Representatives’ investigation of the state of competition in digital markets as supporting the request for structural-separation remedies and line-of-business restrictions to eliminate conflicts of interest where a dominant intermediary enters markets that place it in competition with dependent businesses.[22] Interestingly, however, in the recent complaint filed by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and 17 state attorneys general against Amazon that accuses the company of having deployed an interconnected strategy to block off every major avenue of competition (including price, product selection, quality, and innovation), there is no mention of sherlocking among the numerous unfair practices under investigation.[23]

Evaluating regulatory-reform proposals for digital markets, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) also highlighted the risk of sherlocking, arguing that it could have an adverse effect on competition, notably on rivals’ ability to compete, when digital platforms exercise their strong market position to utilize nonpublic data to free ride on the innovation efforts of their rivals.[24] Therefore, the ACCC suggested adopting service-specific codes to address self-preferencing by, for instance, imposing data-separation requirements to restrain dominant app-store providers from using commercially sensitive data collected from the app-review process to develop their own apps.[25]

Finally, on a comparative note, it is also useful to mention the proposals advanced by the Japanese Fair Trade Commission (JFTC) in its recent market-study report on mobile ecosystems.[26] In order to ensure equal footing among competitors, the JFTC specified that its suggestion to prevent Google and Apple from using nonpublic data generated by other developers’ apps aims at pursuing two purposes. Such a ban would, indeed, concern not only use of the data for the purpose of developing competing apps, products, and services, but also its use for developing their own apps, products, and services.

TABLE 1: Legislative Initiatives and Proposals to Ban Sherlocking

As previously anticipated, sherlocking recently emerged as an antitrust offense in three investigations launched by the European Commission and the UK CMA.

In the first case, Amazon’s alleged reliance on marketplace sellers’ nonpublic business data has been claimed to distort fair competition on its platform and prevent effective competition. In its preliminary findings, the Commission argued that Amazon takes advantage of its hybrid business model, leveraging its access to nonpublic third-party sellers’ data (e.g., the number of ordered and shipped units of products; sellers’ revenues on the marketplace; the number of visits to sellers’ offers; data relating to shipping, to sellers’ past performance, and to other consumer claims on products, including the activated guarantees) to adjust its retail offers and strategic business decisions to the detriment of third-party sellers, which are direct competitors on the marketplace.[27] In particular, the Commission was concerned that Amazon uses such data for its decision to start and end sales of a product, for its pricing system, for its inventory-planning and management system, and to identify third-party sellers that Amazon’s vendor-recruitment teams should approach to invite them to become direct suppliers to Amazon Retail. To address the data-use concern, Amazon committed not to use nonpublic data relating to, or derived from, independent sellers’ activities on its marketplace for its retail business and not to use such data for the purposes of selling branded goods, as well as its private-label products.[28]

A parallel investigation ended with similar commitments in the UK.[29] According to the UK CMA, Amazon’s access to and use of nonpublic seller data could result in a competitive advantage for Amazon Retail arising from its operation of the marketplace, rather than from competition on the merits, and may lead to relevant adverse effects on competition. Notably, it was alleged this could result in a reduction in the scale and competitiveness of third-party sellers on the Amazon Marketplace; a reduction in the number and range of product offers from third-party sellers on the Amazon Marketplace; and/or less choice for consumers, due to them being offered lower quality goods and/or paying higher prices than would otherwise be the case.

It is also worth mentioning that, by determining that Amazon is an undertaking of paramount significance for competition across markets, the Bundeskartellamt emphasized the competitive advantage deriving from Amazon’s access to nonpublic data, such as Glance Views, sales figures, sale quantities, cost components of products, and reorder status.[30] Among other things, with particular regard to Amazon’s hybrid role, the Bundeskartellamt noted that the preferential access to competitively sensitive data “opens up the possibility for Amazon to optimize its own-brand assortment.”[31]

A second investigation involved Apple and its App Store rule.[32] According to the European Commission, the mandatory use of Apple’s own proprietary in-app purchase system (IAP) would, among other things, grant Apple full control over the relationship its competitors have with customers, thus disintermediating those competitors from customer data and allowing Apple to obtain valuable data about the activities and offers of its competitors.

Finally, Meta faced antitrust proceedings in both the EU and the UK.[33] The focus was on Facebook Marketplace—i.e., an online classified-ads service that allows users to advertise goods for sale. According to the European Commission and the CMA, Meta unilaterally imposes unfair trading conditions on competing online-classified ads services that advertise on Facebook or Instagram. These terms and conditions, which authorize Meta to use ads-related data derived from competitors for the benefit of Facebook Marketplace, are considered unjustified, as they impose an unnecessary burden on competitors and only benefit Facebook Marketplace. The suspicion is that Meta has used advertising data from Facebook Marketplace competitors for the strategic planning, product development, and launch of Facebook Marketplace, as well as for Marketplace’s operation and improvement.

Overall, these investigations share many features. The concerns about third-party business-data use, as well as about other forms of self-preferencing, revolve around the competitive advantages that accrue to a dominant platform because of its dual role. Such advantages are considered unfair, as they are not the result of the merits of a player, but derived purely and simply from its role as an important gateway to reach end users. Moreover, this access to valuable business data is not reciprocal. The feared risk is the marginalization of business users competing with gatekeepers on the gatekeepers’ platforms and, hence, the alleged harm to competition is the foreclosure of rivals in complementary markets (horizontal foreclosure).

The focus of these investigations was well-illustrated by the European Commission’s decision on Amazon’s practice.[34] The Commission’s concern was about the “data delta” that Amazon may exploit, namely the additional data related to third-party sellers’ listings and transactions that are not available to, and cannot be replicated by, the third-party sellers themselves, but are available to and used by Amazon Retail for its own retail operations.[35] Contrary to Amazon Retail—which, according to Commission’s allegations, would have full access to and would use such individual, real-time data of all its third-party sellers to calibrate its own retail decisions—sellers would have access only to their own individual listings and sales data. As a result, the Commission came to the (preliminary) conclusion that real-time access to and use of such volume, variety, and granularity of non-publicly available data from its retail competitors generates a significant competitive advantage for Amazon Retail in each of the different decisional processes that drive its retail operations.[36]

On a closer look, however, while antitrust authorities seem to target the use of nonpublic third-party business data as a single theory of harm, their allegations cover two different scenarios along the lines of what has already been examined with reference to the international legislative initiatives and proposals. Indeed, the Facebook Marketplace case does not involve an allegation of copying, as Meta is accused of gathering data from its business users to launch and improve its ads service, instead of reselling goods and services.

FIGURE 1: Sherlocking in Digital Markets

As illustrated above in Figure 1, while the claim in the latter scenario is that the preferential data use would help dominant players calibrate business decisions in general, the former scenario instead involves the use of such data for a pure copycat strategy of an entire product or service, or some of its specific features.

In both scenarios the aim of the investigations is to ensure platform neutrality. Accordingly, as shown by the accepted commitments, the envisaged solution for antitrust authorities is to impose  data-separation requirements to restrain dominant platforms from using third-party commercially sensitive data. Putting aside that these investigations concluded with commitments from the firms, however, their chances of success before a court differ significantly depending on whether they challenge a product-imitation strategy, or any business decision adopted because of the “data delta.”

A. Sherlocking and Unconventional Theories of Harm for Digital Markets

Before analyzing how existing competition-law rules could be applied to the various scenarios involving the use of third-party business data, it is worth providing a brief overview of the framework in which the assessment of sherlocking is conducted. As competition in the digital economy is increasingly a competition among ecosystems,[37] a lively debate has emerged on the capacity of traditional antitrust analysis to adequately capture the peculiar features of digital markets. Indeed, the combination of strong economies of scale and scope; indirect network effects; data advantages and synergies across markets; and portfolio effects all facilitate ecosystem development all contribute to making digital markets highly concentrated, prone to tipping, and not easily contestable.[38] As a consequence, it’s been suggested that addressing these distinctive features of digital markets requires an overhaul of the antitrust regime.

Such discussions require the antitrust toolkit and theories of harm to illustrate whether and how a particular practice, agreement, or merger is anticompetitive. Notably, at issue is whether traditional antitrust theories of harm are fit for purpose or whether novel theories of harm should be developed in response to the emerging digital ecosystems. The latter requires looking at the competitive impact of expanding, protecting, or strengthening an ecosystem’s position, and particularly whether such expansion serves to exploit a network of capabilities and to control access to key inputs and components.[39]

A significant portion of recent discussions around developing novel theories of harm to better address the characteristics of digital-business models and markets has been devoted to the topic of merger control—in part a result of the impressive number of acquisitions observed in recent years.[40] In particular, the focus has been on analyzing conglomerate mergers that involve acquiring a complementary or unrelated asset, which have traditionally been assumed to raise less-significant competition concerns.

In this regard, an ecosystem-based theory seems to have guided the Bundeskartellamt in its assessment of Meta’s acquisition of Kustomer[41] and by the CMA in Microsoft/Activision.[42] A more recent example is the European Commission’s decision to prohibit the proposed Booking/eTraveli merger, where the Commission explicitly noted that the transaction would have allowed Booking to expand its travel-services ecosystem.[43] The Commission’s concerns were related primarily to the so-called “envelopment” strategy, in which a prominent platform within a specific market broadens its range of services into other markets where there is a significant overlap of customer groups already served by the platform.[44]

Against this background, putative self-preferencing harms represent one of the European Commission’s primary (albeit contentious)[45] attempts to develop new theories of harm built on conglomerate platforms’ ability to bundle services or use data from one market segment to inform product development in another.[46] Originally formulated in the Google Shopping decision,[47] the theory of harm of (leveraging through) self-preferencing has subsequently inspired the DMA, which targets different forms of preferential treatment, including sherlocking.

In particular, it is asserting that platform may use self-preferencing to adopt a leveraging strategy with a twofold anticompetitive effect—that is, excluding or impeding rivals from competing with the platform (defensive leveraging) and extending the platform’s market power into associated markets (offensive leveraging). These goals can be pursued because of the unique role that some large digital platforms play. That is, they not only enjoy strategic market status by controlling ecosystems of integrated complementary products and services, which are crucial gateways for business users to reach end users, but they also perform a dual role as both a critical intermediary and a player active in complementors’ markets. Therefore, conflicts of interests may provide incentives for large vertically integrated platforms to favor their own products and services over those of their competitors.[48]

The Google Shopping theory of harm, while not yet validated by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU),[49] has also found its way into merger analysis, as demonstrated by the European Commission’s recent assessment of iRobot/Amazon.[50] In its statement of objections, the Commission argued that the proposed acquisition of iRobot may give Amazon the ability and incentive to foreclose iRobot’s rivals by engaging in several foreclosing strategies to prevent them from selling robot vacuum cleaners (RVCs) on Amazon’s online marketplace and/or at degrading such rivals’ access to that marketplace. In particular, the Commission found that Amazon could deploy such self-preferencing strategies as delisting rival RVCs; reducing rival RVCs’ visibility in both organic and paid results displayed in Amazon’s marketplace; limiting access to certain widgets or commercially attractive labels; and/or raising the costs of iRobot’s rivals to advertise and sell their RVCs on Amazon’s marketplace.[51]

Sherlocking belongs to this framework of analysis and can be considered a form of self-preferencing, specifically because of the lack of reciprocity in accessing sensitive data.[52] Indeed, while gatekeeper platforms have access to relevant nonpublic third-party business data as a result of their role as unavoidable trading partners, they leverage this information exclusively, without sharing it with third-party sellers, thus further exacerbating an already uneven playing field.[53]

III. Sherlocking for Competitive Advantage: Hybrid Business Model, Neutrality Regimes, and Competition on the Merits

Insofar as prohibitions of sherlocking center on the competitive advantages that platforms enjoy because of their dual role—thereby allowing some players to better calibrate their business decisions due to their preferential access to business users’ data—it should be noted that competition law does not impose a general duty to ensure a level playing field.[54] Further, a competitive advantage does not, in itself, amount to anticompetitive foreclosure under antitrust rules. Rather, foreclosure must not only be proved (in terms of actual or potential effects) but also assessed against potential benefits for consumers in terms of price, quality, and choice of new goods and services.[55]

Indeed, not every exclusionary effect is necessarily detrimental to competition.[56] Competition on the merits may, by definition, lead to the departure from the market or the marginalization of competitors that are less efficient and therefore less attractive to consumers from the point of view of, among other things, price, choice, quality or innovation.[57] Automatically classifying any conduct with exclusionary effects were as anticompetitive could well become a means to protect less-capable, less-efficient undertakings and would in no way protect more meritorious undertakings—thereby potentially hindering a market’s competitiveness.[58]

As recently clarified by the CJEU regarding the meaning of “competition on the merits,” any practice that, in its implementation, holds no economic interest for a dominant undertaking except that of eliminating competitors must be regarded as outside the scope of competition on the merits.[59] Referring to the cases of margin squeezes and essential facilities, the CJEU added that the same applies to practices that a hypothetical equally efficient competitor is unable to adopt because that practice relies on using resources or means inherent to the holding of such a dominant position.[60]

Therefore, while antitrust cases on sherlocking set out to ensure a level playing field and platform neutrality, and therefore center on the competitive advantages that a platform enjoys because of its dual role, mere implementing a hybrid business model does not automatically put such practices outside the scope of competition on the merits. The only exception, according to the interpretation provided in Bronner, is the presence of an essential facility—i.e., an input whose access should be considered indispensable, as there are no technical, legal, or economic obstacles capable of making it impossible, or even unreasonably difficult, to duplicate it.[61]

As a result, unless it is proved that the hybrid platform is an essential facility, sherlocking and other forms of self-preferencing cannot be considered prima facie outside the scope of competition on the merits, or otherwise unlawful. Rather, any assessment of sherlocking demands the demonstration of anticompetitive effects, which in turn requires finding an impact on efficient firms’ ability and incentive to compete. In the scenario at-issue, for instance, the access to certain data may allow a platform to deliver new products or services; to improve existing products or services; or more generally to compete more efficiently not only with respect to the platform’s business users, but also against other platforms. Such an increase in both intra-platform and inter-platform competition would benefit consumers in terms of lower prices, better quality, and a wider choice of new or improved goods and services—i.e., competition on the merits.[62]

In Facebook Marketplace, the European Commission and UK CMA challenged the terms and conditions governing the provision of display-advertising and business-tool services to which Meta required its business customers to sign up.[63] In their view, Meta abused its dominant position by imposing unfair trading conditions on its advertising customers, which authorized Meta to use ads-related data derived from the latter in a way that could afford Meta a competitive advantage on Facebook Marketplace that would not have arisen from competition on the merits. Notably, antitrust authorities argued that Meta’s terms and conditions were unjustified, disproportionate, and unnecessary to provide online display-advertising services on Meta’s platforms.

Therefore, rather than directly questioning the platform’s dual role or hybrid business model, the European Commission and UK CMA decided to rely on traditional case law which considers unfair those clauses that are unjustifiably unrelated to the purpose of the contract, unnecessarily limit the parties’ freedom, are disproportionate, or are unilaterally imposed or seriously opaque.[64] This demonstrates that, outside the harm theory of the unfairness of terms and conditions, a hybrid platform’s use of nonpublic third-party business data to improve its own business decisions is generally consistent with antitrust provisions. Hence, an outright ban would be unjustified.

IV. Sherlocking to Mimic Business Users’ Products or Services

The second, and more intriguing, sherlocking scenario is illustrated by the Amazon Marketplace investigations and regards the original meaning of sherlocking—i.e., where a data advantage is used by a hybrid platform to mimic its business users’ products or services.

Where sherlocking charges assert that the practice allows some platforms to use business users’ data to compete against them by replicating their products or services, it should not be overlooked that the welfare effects of such a copying strategy are ambiguous. While the practice could benefit consumers in the short term by lowering prices and increasing choice, it may discourage innovation over the longer term if third parties anticipate being copied whenever they deliver successful products or services. Therefore, the success of an antitrust investigation essentially relies on demonstrating a harm to innovation that would induce business users to leave the market or stop developing their products and services. In other words, antitrust authorities should be able to demonstrate that, by allowing dominant platforms to free ride on their business guests’ innovation efforts, sherlocking would negatively affect rivals’ ability to compete.

A. The Welfare Effects of Copying

The tradeoff between the short- and long-term welfare effects of copying has traditionally been analyzed in the context of the benefits and costs generated by intellectual-property protection.[65] In particular, the economic literature investigating the optimal life of patents[66] and copyrights[67] focuses on the efficient balance between dynamic benefits associated with innovation and the static costs of monopoly power granted by IPRs.

More recently, product imitation has instead been investigated in the different scenario of digital markets, where dominant platforms adopting a hybrid business model may use third-party sellers’ market data to design and promote their own products over their rivals’ offerings. Indeed, some studies report that large online platforms may attempt to protect their market position by creating “kill zones” around themselves—i.e., by acquiring, copying, or eliminating their rivals.[68] In such a novel setting, the welfare effects of copying are assessed regardless of the presence and the potential enforcement of IPRs, but within a strategy aimed at excluding rivals by exploiting the dual role of both umpire and player to get preferential access to sensitive data and free ride on their innovative efforts.[69]

Even in this context, however, a challenging tradeoff should be considered. Indeed, while in the short term, consumers may benefit from the platform’s imitation strategy in terms of lower prices and higher quality, they may be harmed in the longer term if third parties are discouraged from delivering new products and services. As a result, while there is empirical evidence on hybrid platforms successfully entering into third parties’ adjacent market segments, [70] the extant academic literature finds the welfare implications of such moves to be ambiguous.

A first strand of literature attempts to estimate the welfare impact of the hybrid business model. Notably, Andre Hagiu, Tat-How Teh, and Julian Wright elaborated a model to address the potential implications of an outright ban on platforms’ dual mode, finding that such a structural remedy may harm consumer surplus and welfare even where the platform would otherwise engage in product imitation and self-preferencing.[71] According to the authors, banning the dual mode does not restore the third-party seller’s innovation incentives or the effective price competition between products, which are the putative harms caused by imitation and self-preferencing. Therefore, the authors’ evaluation was that interventions specifically targeting product imitation and self-preferencing were preferable.

Germa?n Gutie?rrez suggested that banning the dual model would generate hardly any benefits for consumers, showing that, in the Amazon case, interventions that eliminate either the Prime program or product variety are likely to decrease welfare.[72]

Further, analyzing Amazon’s business model, Federico Etro found that the platform and consumers’ incentives are correctly aligned, and that Amazon’s business model of hosting sellers and charging commissions prevents the company from gaining through systematic self?preferencing for its private-label and first-party products.[73] In the same vein, on looking at its business model and monetization strategy, Patrick Andreoli-Versbach and Joshua Gans argued that Amazon does not have an obvious incentive to self-preference.[74] Indeed, Amazon’s profitability data show that, on average, the company’s operating margin is higher on third-party sales than on first-party retail sales.

Looking at how modeling details may yield different results with regard to the benefits and harms of the hybrid business model, Simon Anderson and O?zlem Bedre-Defoile maintain that the platform’s choice to sell its own products benefits consumers by lowering prices when a monopoly platform hosts competitive fringe sellers, regardless of the platform’s position as a gatekeeper, whether sellers have an alternate channel to reach consumers, or whether alternate channels are perfect or imperfect substitutes for the platform channel.[75] On the other hand, the authors argued that platform product entry might harm consumers when a big seller with market power sells on its own channel and also on the platform. Indeed, in that case, the platform setting a seller fee before the big seller prices its differentiated products introduces double markups on the big seller’s platform-channel price and leaves some revenue to the big seller.

Studying whether Amazon engages in self-preferencing on its marketplace by favoring its own brands in search results, Chiara Farronato, Andrey Fradkin, and Alexander MacKay demonstrate empirically that Amazon brands remain about 30% cheaper and have 68% more reviews than other similar products.[76] The authors acknowledge, however, that their findings do not imply that consumers are hurt by Amazon brands’ position in search results.

Another strand of literature specifically tackles the welfare effects of sherlocking. In particular, Erik Madsen and Nikhil Vellodi developed a theoretical framework to demonstrate that a ban on insider imitation can either stifle or stimulate innovation, depending on the nature of innovation.[77] Specifically, the ban could stimulate innovation for experimental product categories, while reducing innovation in incremental product markets, since the former feature products with a large chance of superstar demand and the latter generate mostly products with middling demand.

Federico Etro maintains that the tradeoffs at-issue are too complex to be solved with simple interventions, such as bans on dual mode, self-preferencing, or copycatting.[78] Indeed, it is difficult to conclude that Amazon entry is biased to expropriate third-party sellers or that bans on dual mode, self-preferencing, or copycatting would benefit consumers, because they either degrade services and product variety or induce higher prices or commissions.

Similar results are provided by Jay Pil Choi, Kyungmin Kim, and Arijit Mukherjee, who developed a tractable model of a platform-run marketplace where the platform charges a referral fee to the sellers for access to the marketplace, and may also subsequently launch its own private-label product by copying a seller.[79] The authors found that a policy to either ban hybrid mode or only prohibit information use for the launch of private-label products may produce negative welfare implications.

Further, Radostina Shopova argues that, when introducing a private label, the marketplace operator does not have incentive to distort competition and foreclose the outside seller, but does have an incentive to lower fees charged to the outside seller and to vertically differentiate its own product in order to protect the seller’s channel.[80] Even when the intermediary is able to perfectly mimic the quality of the outside seller and monopolize its product space, the intermediary prefers to differentiate its offer and chooses a lower quality for the private-label product. Accordingly, as the purpose of private labels is to offer a lower-quality version of products aimed at consumers with a lower willingness to pay, a marketplace operator does not have an incentive to distort competition in favor of its own product and foreclose the seller of the original higher-quality product.

In addition, according to Jean-Pierre Dubé, curbing development of private-label programs would harm consumers and Amazon’s practices amount to textbook retailing, as they follow an off-the-shelf approach to managing private-label products that is standard for many retail chains in the West.[81] As a result, singling out Amazon’s practices would set a double standard.

Interestingly, such findings about predictors and effects of Amazon’s entry in competition with third-party merchants on its own marketplace are confirmed by the only empirical study developed so far. In particular, analyzing the Home & Kitchen department of Germany’s version of Amazon Marketplace between 2016 and 2021, Gregory S. Crawford, Matteo Courthoud, Regina Seibel, and Simon Zuzek’s results suggest that Amazon’s entry strategy was more consistent with making Marketplace more attractive to consumers than expropriating third-party merchants.[82] Notably, the study showed that, comparing Amazon’s entry decisions with those of the largest third-party merchants, Amazon tends to enter low-growth and low-quality products, which is consistent with a strategy that seeks to make Marketplace more attractive by expanding variety, lessening third-party market power, and/or enhancing product availability. The authors therefore found that Amazon’s entry on Amazon Marketplace demonstrated no systematic adverse effects and caused a mild market expansion.

Massimo Motta and Sandro Shelegia explored interactions between copying and acquisitions, finding that the former (or the threat of copying) can modify the outcome of an acquisition negotiation.[83] According to their model, there could be both static and dynamic incentives for an incumbent to introduce a copycat version of a complementary product. The static rationale consists of lowering the price of the complementary product in order to capture more rents from it, while the dynamic incentive consists of harming a potential rival’s prospects of developing a substitute. The latter may, in turn, affect the direction the entrant takes toward innovation. Anticipating the incumbent’s copying strategy, the entrant may shift resources from improvements to compete with the incumbent’s primary product to developing complementary products.

Jingcun Cao, Avery Haviv, and Nan Li analyzed the opposite scenario—i.e., copycats that seek to mimic the design and user experience of incumbents’ successful products.[84] The authors find empirically that, on average, copycat apps do not have a significant effect on the demand for incumbent apps and that, as with traditional counterfeit products, they may generate a positive demand spillover toward authentic apps.

Massimo Motta also investigated the potential foreclosure effects of platforms adopting a copycat strategy committed to non-discriminatory terms of access for third parties (e.g., Apple App Store, Google Play, and Amazon Marketplace).[85] Notably, according to Motta, when a third-party seller is particularly successful and the platform is unable to raise fees and commissions paid by that seller, the platform may prefer to copy its product or service to extract more profits from users, rather than rely solely on third-party sales. The author acknowledged, however, that even though this practice may create an incentive for self-preferencing, it does not necessarily have anticompetitive effects. Indeed, the welfare effects of the copying strategy are a priori ambiguous.[86] While, on the one hand, the platform’s copying of a third-party product benefits consumers by increasing variety and competition among products, on the other hand, copying might be wasteful for society, in that it entails a fixed cost and may discourage innovation if rivals anticipate that they will be systematically copied whenever they have a successful product.[87] Therefore, introducing a copycat version of a product offered by a firm in an adjacent market might be procompetitive.

B. Antitrust Assessment: Competition, Innovation, and Double Standards

The economic literature has demonstrated that the rationale and welfare effects of sherlocking by hybrid platforms are definitively ambiguous. Against concerns about rivals’ foreclosure, some studies provide a different narrative, illustrating that such a strategy is more consistent with making the platform more attractive to consumers (by differentiating the quality and pricing of the offer) than expropriating business users.[88] Furthermore, copies, imitations, and replicas undoubtedly benefit consumers with more choice and lower prices.

Therefore, the only way to consider sherlocking anticompetitive is by demonstrating long-term deterrent effects on innovation (i.e., reducing rivals’ incentives to invest in new products and services) outweigh consumers’ short-term advantages.[89] Moreover, deterrent effects must not be merely hypothetical, as a finding of abuse cannot be based on a mere possibility of harm.[90] In any case, such complex tradeoffs are at odds with a blanket ban.[91]

Moreover, assessments of the potential impact of sherlocking on innovation cannot disregard the role of IPRs—which are, by definition, the main primary to promote innovation. From this perspective, intellectual-property protection is best characterized as another form of tradeoff. Indeed, the economic rationale of IPRs (in particular, of patents and copyrights) involves, among other things, a tradeoff between access and incentives—i.e., between short-term competitive restrictions and long-term innovative benefits.[92]

According to the traditional incentive-based theory of intellectual property, free riding would represent a dangerous threat that justifies the exclusive rights granted by intellectual-property protection. As a consequence, so long as copycat expropriation does not infringe IPRs, it should be presumed legitimate and procompetitive. Indeed, such free riding is more of an intellectual-property issue than a competitive concern.

In addition, to strike a fair balance between restricting competition and providing incentives to innovation, the exclusive rights granted by IPRs are not unlimited in terms of duration, nor in terms of lawful (although not authorized) uses of the protected subject matter. Under the doctrine of fair use, for instance, reverse engineering represents a legitimate way to obtain information about a firm’s product, even if the intended result is to produce a directly competing product that may steer customers away from the initial product and the patented invention.

Outside of reverse engineering, copying is legitimately exercised once IPRs expire, when copycat competitors can reproduce previously protected elements. As a result of the competitive pressure exerted by new rivals, holders of expired IPRs may react by seeking solutions designed to block or at least limit the circulation of rival products. They could, for example, request other IPRs to cover aspects or functionalities different from those previously protected. They could also bring (sometimes specious) legal action for infringement of the new IPR or for unfair competition by slavish imitation. For these reasons, there have been occasions where copycat competitors have received protection from antitrust authorities against sham litigation brought by IPR holders concerned about losing margins due to pricing pressure from copycats.[93]

Finally, within the longstanding debate on the intersection of intellectual-property protection and competition, EU antitrust authorities have traditionally been unsympathetic toward restrictions imposed by IPRs. The success of the essential-facility doctrine (EFD) is the most telling example of this attitude, as its application in the EU has been extended to IPRs. As a matter of fact, the EFD represents the main antitrust tool for overseeing intellectual property in the EU.[94]

After Microsoft, EU courts have substantially dismantled one of the “exceptional circumstances” previously elaborated in Magill and specifically introduced for cases involving IPRs, with the aim of safeguarding a balance between restrictions to access and incentives to innovate. Whereas the CJEU established in Magill that refusal to grant an IP license should be considered anticompetitive if it prevents the emergence of a new product for which there is potential consumer demand, in Microsoft, the General Court considered such a requirement met even when access to an IPR is necessary for rivals to merely develop improved products with added value.

Given this background, recent competition-policy concerns about sherlocking are surprising. To briefly recap, the practice at-issue increases competition in the short term, but may affect incentives to innovate in the long-term. With regard to the latter, however, the practice neither involves products protected by IPRs nor constitutes a slavish imitation that may be caught under unfair-competition laws.

The case of Amazon, which has received considerable media coverage, is illustrative of the relevance of IP protection. Amazon has been accused of cloning batteries, power strips, wool runner shoes, everyday sling bags, camera tripods, and furniture.[95] One may wonder what kind of innovation should be safeguarded in these cases against potential copies. Admittedly, such examples appear consistent with the findings of the already-illustrated empirical study conducted by Crawford et al. indicating that Amazon tends to enter low-quality products in order to expand variety on the Marketplace and to make it more attractive to consumers.

Nonetheless, if an IPR is involved, right holders are provided with proper means to protect their products against infringement. Indeed, one of the alleged targeted companies (Williams-Sonoma) did file a complaint for design and trademark infringement, claiming that Amazon had copied a chair (Orb Dining Chair) sold by its West Elm brand. According to Williams-Sonoma, the Upholstered Orb Office Chair—which Amazon began selling under its Rivet brand in 2018—was so similar that the ordinary observer would be confused by the imitation.[96] If, instead, the copycat strategy does not infringe any IPR, the potential impact on innovation might not be considered particularly worrisome—at least at first glance.

Further, neither the degree to which third-party business data is unavailable nor the degree to which they are relevant in facilitating copying are clear cut. For instance, in the case of Amazon, public product reviews supply a great deal of information[97] and, regardless of the fact that a third party is selling a product on the Marketplace, anyone can obtain an item for the purposes of reverse engineering.[98]

In addition, antitrust authorities are used to intervening against opportunistic behavior by IPR holders. European competition authorities, in particular, have never before seemed particularly responsive to the motives of inventors and creators versus the need to encourage maximum market openness.

It should also be noted that cloning is a common strategy in traditional markets (e.g., food products)[99] and has been the subject of longstanding controversies between high-end fashion brands and fast-fashion brands (e.g., Zara, H&M).[100] Furthermore, brick-and-mortar retailers also introduce private labels and use other brands’ sales records in deciding what to produce.[101]

So, what makes sherlocking so different and dangerous when deployed in digital markets as to push competition authorities to contradict themselves?[102]

The double standard against sherlocking reflects the same concern and pursues the same goal of the various other attempts to forbid any form of self-preferencing in digital markets. Namely, antitrust investigations of sherlocking are fundamentally driven by the bias against hybrid and vertically integrated players. The investigations rely on the assumption that conflicts of interest have anticompetitive implications and that, therefore, platform neutrality should be promoted to ensure the neutrality of the competitive process.[103] Accordingly, hostility toward sherlocking may involve both of the illustrated scenarios—i.e., the use of nonpublic third-party business data either in adopting any business decision, or just copycat strategies, in particular.

As a result, however, competition authorities end up challenging a specific business model, rather than the specific practice at-issue, which brings undisputed competitive benefits in terms of lower prices and wider consumer choice, and which should therefore be balanced against potential exclusionary risks. As the CJEU has pointed out, the concept of competition on the merits:

…covers, in principle, a competitive situation in which consumers benefit from lower prices, better quality and a wider choice of new or improved goods and services. Thus, … conduct which has the effect of broadening consumer choice by putting new goods on the market or by increasing the quantity or quality of the goods already on offer must, inter alia, be considered to come within the scope of competition on the merits.[104]

Further, in light of the “as-efficient competitor” principle, competition on the merits may lead to “the departure from the market, or the marginalization of, competitors that are less efficient and so less attractive to consumers from the point of view of, among other things, price, choice, quality or innovation.”[105]

It has been correctly noted that the “as-efficient competitor” principle is a reminder of what competition law is about and how it differs from regulation.[106] Competition law aims to protect a process, rather than engineering market structures to fulfill a particular vision of how an industry is to operate.[107] In other words, competition law does not target firms on the basis of size or status and does not infer harm from (market or bargaining) power or business model. Therefore, neither the dual role played by some large online platforms nor their preferential access to sensitive business data or their vertical integration, by themselves, create a competition problem. Competitive advantages deriving from size, status, power, or business model cannot be considered per se outside the scope of competition on the merits.

Some policymakers have sought to resolve these tensions in how competition law regards sherlocking by introducing or envisaging an outright ban. These initiatives and proposals have clearly been inspired by antitrust investigations, but they did so for the wrong reasons. Instead of taking stock of the challenging tradeoffs between short-term benefits and long-term risks that an antitrust assessment of sherlocking requires, they blamed competition law for not providing effective tools to achieve the policy goal of platform neutrality.[108] Therefore, the regulatory solution is merely functional to bypass the traditional burden of proof of antitrust analysis and achieve what competition-law enforcement cannot provide.

V. Conclusion

The bias against self-preferencing strikes again. Concerns about hybrid platforms’ potential conflicts of interest have led policymakers to seek prohibitions to curb different forms of self-preferencing, making the latter the symbol of the competition-policy zeitgeist in digital markets. Sherlocking shares this fate. Indeed, the DMA outlaws any use of business users’ nonpublic data and similar proposals have been advanced in the United States, Australia, and Japan. Further, like other forms of self-preferencing, such regulatory initiatives against sherlocking have been inspired by previous antitrust proceedings.

Drawing on these antitrust investigations, the present research shows the extent to which an outright ban on sherlocking is unjustified. Notably, the practice at-issue includes two different scenarios: the broad case in which a gatekeeper exploits its preferential access to business users’ data to better calibrate all of its business decisions and the narrow case in which such data is used to adopt a copycat strategy. In either scenario, the welfare effects and competitive implications of sherlocking are unclear.

Indeed, the use of certain data by a hybrid platform to improve business decisions generally should be classified as competition on the merits, and may yield an increase in both intra-platform (with respect to business users) and inter-platform (with respect to other platforms) competition. This would benefit consumers in terms of lower prices, better quality, and a wider choice of new or improved goods and services. In a similar vein, if sherlocking is used to deliver replicas of business users’ products or services, the anti-competitiveness of such a strategy may only result from a cumbersome tradeoff between short-term benefits (i.e., lower prices and wider choice) and negative long-term effects on innovation.

An implicit confirmation of the difficulties encountered in demonstrating the anti-competitiveness of sherlocking comes from the recent complaint issued by the FTC against Amazon.[109] Current FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan devoted a significant portion of her previous academic career to questioning Amazon’s practices (including the decision to introduce its own private labels inspired by third-party products)[110] and to supporting the adoption of structural-separation remedies to tackle platforms’ conflicts of interest that induce them to exploit their “systemic informational advantage (gleaned from competitors)” to thwart rivals and strengthen their own position by introducing replica products.[111] Despite these premises and although the FTC’s complaint targets numerous practices belonging to what has been described as an interconnected strategy to block off every major avenue of competition, however, sherlocking is surprisingly off the radar.

Regulatory initiatives to ban sherlocking in order to ensure platform neutrality with respect to business users and a level playing field among rivals would sacrifice undisputed procompetitive benefits on the altar of policy goals that competition rules are not meant to pursue. Sherlocking therefore appears to be a perfect case study of the side effects of unwarranted interventions in digital markets.

[1] Giuseppe Colangelo, Antitrust Unchained: The EU’s Case Against Self-Preferencing, 72 GRUR International 538 (2023).

[2] Jacques Cre?mer, Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, & Heike Schweitzer, Competition Policy for the Digital Era (2019), 7, https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/21dc175c-7b76-11e9-9f05-01aa75ed71a1/language-en (all links last accessed 3 Jan. 2024); UK Digital Competition Expert Panel, Unlocking Digital Competition, (2019) 58, available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/785547/unlocking_digital_competition_furman_review_web.pdf.

[3] You’ve Been Sherlocked, The Economist (2012), https://www.economist.com/babbage/2012/07/13/youve-been-sherlocked.

[4] Regulation (EU) 2022/1925 on contestable and fair markets in the digital sector and amending Directives (EU) 2019/1937 and (EU) 2020/1828 (Digital Markets Act) (2022), OJ L 265/1, Article 6(2).

[5] U.S. S. 2992, American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) (2022), Section 3(a)(6), available at https://www.klobuchar.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/b/9/b90b9806-cecf-4796-89fb-561e5322531c/B1F51354E81BEFF3EB96956A7A5E1D6A.sil22713.pdf. See also U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law, Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets, Majority Staff Reports and Recommendations (2020), 164, 362-364, 378, available at https://democrats-judiciary.house.gov/uploadedfiles/competition_in_digital_markets.pdf.

[6] Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Digital Platform Services Inquiry Report on Regulatory Reform (2022), 125, https://www.accc.gov.au/about-us/publications/serial-publications/digital-platform-services-inquiry-2020-2025/digital-platform-services-inquiry-september-2022-interim-report-regulatory-reform.

[7] Japan Fair Trade Commission, Market Study Report on Mobile OS and Mobile App Distribution (2023), https://www.jftc.go.jp/en/pressreleases/yearly-2023/February/230209.html.

[8] European Commission, 10 Nov. 2020, Case AT.40462, Amazon Marketplace; see Press Release, Commission Sends Statement of Objections to Amazon for the Use of Non-Public Independent Seller Data and Opens Second Investigation into Its E-Commerce Business Practices, European Commission (2020), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_2077.

[9] Press Release, CMA Investigates Amazon Over Suspected Anti-Competitive Practices, UK Competition and Markets Authority (2022), https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cma-investigates-amazon-over-suspected-anti-competitive-practices.

[10] European Commission, 16 Jun. 2020, Case AT.40716, Apple – App Store Practices.

[11] Press Release, Commission Sends Statement of Objections to Meta over Abusive Practices Benefiting Facebook Marketplace, European Commission (2022), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_22_7728; Press Release, CMA Investigates Facebook’s Use of Ad Data, UK Competition and Markets Authority (2021), https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cma-investigates-facebook-s-use-of-ad-data.

[12] DMA, supra note 4, Recital 10 and Article 1(6).

[13] GWB Digitalization Act, 18 Jan. 2021, Section 19a. On risks of overlaps between the DMA and the competition law enforcement, see Giuseppe Colangelo, The European Digital Markets Act and Antitrust Enforcement: A Liaison Dangereuse, 47 European Law Review 597.

[14] GWB, supra note 13, Section 19a (2)(4)(b).

[15] Press Release, Commission Sends Statement of Objections to Apple Clarifying Concerns over App Store Rules for Music Streaming Providers, European Commission (2023), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_23_1217.

[16] European Commission, 20 Dec. 2022, Case AT.40462; Press Release, Commission Accepts Commitments by Amazon Barring It from Using Marketplace Seller Data, and Ensuring Equal Access to Buy Box and Prime, European Commission (2022), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_22_7777; UK Competition and Markets Authority, 3 Nov. 2023, Case No. 51184, https://www.gov.uk/cma-cases/investigation-into-amazons-marketplace.

[17] UK Competition and Markets Authority, 3 Nov. 2023, Case AT.51013, https://www.gov.uk/cma-cases/investigation-into-facebooks-use-of-data.

[18] See, e.g., Gil Tono & Lewis Crofts (2022), Amazon Data Commitments Match DMA Obligations, EU’s Vestager Say, mLex (2022), https://mlexmarketinsight.com/news/insight/amazon-data-commitments-match-dma-obligation-eu-s-vestager-says (reporting that Commissioner Vestager stated that Amazon’s data commitments definitively appear to match what would be asked within the DMA).

[19] DMA, supra note 4, Recital 46.

[20] Id., Article 6(2) (also stating that, for the purposes of the prohibition, non-publicly available data shall include any aggregated and non-aggregated data generated by business users that can be inferred from, or collected through, the commercial activities of business users or their customers, including click, search, view, and voice data, on the relevant core platform services or on services provided together with, or in support of, the relevant core platform services of the gatekeeper).

[21] AICOA, supra note 5.

[22] U.S. House of Representatives, supra note 5; see also Lina M. Khan, The Separation of Platforms and Commerce, 119 Columbia Law Review 973 (2019).

[23] U.S. Federal Trade Commission, et al. v. Amazon.com, Inc., Case No. 2:23-cv-01495 (W.D. Wash., 2023).

[24] Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, supra note 6, 125.

[25] Id., 124.

[26] Japan Fair Trade Commission, supra note 7, 144.

[27] European Commission, supra note 8. But see also Amazon, Supporting Sellers with Tools, Insights, and Data (2021), https://www.aboutamazon.eu/news/policy/supporting-sellers-with-tools-insights-and-data (claiming that the company is just using aggregate (rather than individual) data: “Just like our third-party sellers and other retailers across the world, Amazon also uses data to run our business. We use aggregated data about customers’ experience across the store to continuously improve it for everyone, such as by ensuring that the store has popular items in stock, customers are finding the products they want to purchase, or connecting customers to great new products through automated merchandising.”)

[28] European Commission, supra note 16.

[29] UK Competition and Markets Authority, supra notes 9 and 16.

[30] Bundeskartellamt, 5 Jul. 2022, Case B2-55/21, paras. 493, 504, and 518.

[31] Id., para. 536.

[32] European Commission, supra note 10.

[33] European Commission, supra note 11; UK Competition and Markets Authority, supra note 11.

[34] European Commission, supra note 16. In a similar vein, see also UK Competition and Markets Authority, supra note 16, paras. 4.2-4.7.

[35] European Commission, supra note 16, para. 111.

[36] Id., para. 123.

[37] Cre?mer, de Montjoye, & Schweitzer, supra note 2, 33-34.

[38] See, e.g., Marc Bourreau, Some Economics of Digital Ecosystems, OECD Hearing on Competition Economics of Digital Ecosystems (2020), https://www.oecd.org/daf/competition/competition-economics-of-digital-ecosystems.htm; Amelia Fletcher, Digital Competition Policy: Are Ecosystems Different?, OECD Hearing on Competition Economics of Digital Ecosystems (2020).

[39] See, e.g., Cristina Caffarra, Matthew Elliott, & Andrea Galeotti, ‘Ecosystem’ Theories of Harm in Digital Mergers: New Insights from Network Economics, VoxEU (2023), https://cepr.org/voxeu/columns/ecosystem-theories-harm-digital-mergers-new-insights-network-economics-part-1 (arguing that, in merger control, the implementation of an ecosystem theory of harm would require assessing how a conglomerate acquisition can change the network of capabilities (e.g., proprietary software, brand, customer-base, data) in order to evaluate how easily competitors can obtain alternative assets to those being acquired); for a different view, see Geoffrey A. Manne & Dirk Auer, Antitrust Dystopia and Antitrust Nostalgia: Alarmist Theories of Harm in Digital Markets and Their Origins, 28 George Mason Law Review 1281(2021).

[40] See, e.g., Viktoria H.S.E. Robertson, Digital merger control: adapting theories of harm, (forthcoming) European Competition Journal; Caffarra, Elliott, & Galeotti, supra note 39; OECD, Theories of Harm for Digital Mergers (2023), available at www.oecd.org/daf/competition/theories-of-harm-for-digital-mergers-2023.pdf; Bundeskartellamt, Merger Control in the Digital Age – Challenges and Development Perspectives (2022), available at https://www.bundeskartellamt.de/SharedDocs/Publikation/EN/Diskussions_Hintergrundpapiere/2022/Working_Group_on_Competition_Law_2022.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=2; Elena Argentesi, Paolo Buccirossi, Emilio Calvano, Tomaso Duso, Alessia Marrazzo, & Salvatore Nava, Merger Policy in Digital Markets: An Ex Post Assessment, 17 Journal of Competition Law & Economics 95 (2021); Marc Bourreau & Alexandre de Streel, Digital Conglomerates and EU Competition Policy (2019), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3350512.

[41] Bundeskartellamt, 11 Feb. 2022, Case B6-21/22, https://www.bundeskartellamt.de/SharedDocs/Entscheidung/EN/Fallberichte/Fusionskontrolle/2022/B6-21-22.html;jsessionid=C0837BD430A8C9C8E04D133B0441EB95.1_cid362?nn=4136442.

[42] UK Competition and Markets Authority, Microsoft / Activision Blizzard Merger Inquiry (2023), https://www.gov.uk/cma-cases/microsoft-slash-activision-blizzard-merger-inquiry.

[43] See European Commission, Commission Prohibits Proposed Acquisition of eTraveli by Booking (2023), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_23_4573 (finding that a flight product is a crucial growth avenue in Booking’s ecosystem, which revolves around its hotel online-travel-agency (OTA) business, as it would generate significant additional traffic to the platform, thus allowing Booking to benefit from existing customer inertia and making it more difficult for competitors to contest Booking’s position in the hotel OTA market).

[44] Thomas Eisenmann, Geoffrey Parker, & Marshall Van Alstyne, Platform Envelopment, 32 Strategic Management Journal 1270 (2011).

[45] See, e.g., Colangelo, supra note 1, and Pablo Iba?n?ez Colomo, Self-Preferencing: Yet Another Epithet in Need of Limiting Principles, 43 World Competition 417 (2020) (investigating whether and to what extent self-preferencing could be considered a new standalone offense in EU competition law); see also European Commission, Digital Markets Act – Impact Assessment Support Study (2020), 294, https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/0a9a636a-3e83-11eb-b27b-01aa75ed71a1/language-en (raising doubts about the novelty of this new theory of harm, which seems similar to the well-established leveraging theories of harm of tying and bundling, and margin squeeze).

[46] European Commission, supra note 45, 16.

[47] European Commission, 27 Jun. 2017, Case AT.39740, Google Search (Shopping).

[48] See General Court, 10 Nov. 2021, Case T-612/17, Google LLC and Alphabet Inc. v. European Commission, ECLI:EU:T:2021:763, para. 155 (stating that the general principle of equal treatment obligates vertically integrated platforms to refrain from favoring their own services as opposed to rival ones; nonetheless, the ruling framed self-preferencing as discriminatory abuse).

[49] In the meantime, however, see Opinion of the Advocate General Kokott, 11 Jan. 2024, Case C-48/22 P, Google v. European Commission, ECLI:EU:C:2024:14, paras. 90 and 95 (arguing that the self-preferencing of which Google is accused constitutes an independent form of abuse, albeit one that exhibits some proximity to cases involving margin squeezing).

[50] European Commission, Commission Sends Amazon Statement of Objections over Proposed Acquisition of iRobot (2023), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_23_5990.

[51] The same concerns and approach have been shared by the CMA, although it reached a different conclusion, finding that the new merged entity would not have incentive to self-preference its own branded RVCs: see UK Competition and Markets Authority, Amazon / iRobot Merger Inquiry – Clearance Decision (2023), paras. 160, 188, and 231, https://www.gov.uk/cma-cases/amazon-slash-irobot-merger-inquiry.

[52] See European Commission, supra note 45, 304.

[53] Id., 313-314 (envisaging, among potential remedies, the imposition of a duty to make all data used by the platform for strategic decisions available to third parties); see also Désirée Klinger, Jonathan Bokemeyer, Benjamin Della Rocca, & Rafael Bezerra Nunes, Amazon’s Theory of Harm, Yale University Thurman Arnold Project (2020), 19, available at https://som.yale.edu/sites/default/files/2022-01/DTH-Amazon.pdf.

[54] Colangelo, supra note 1; see also Oscar Borgogno & Giuseppe Colangelo, Platform and Device Neutrality Regime: The New Competition Rulebook for App Stores?, 67 Antitrust Bulletin 451 (2022).

[55] See Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), 12 May 2022, Case C-377/20, Servizio Elettrico Nazionale SpA v. Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato, ECLI:EU:C:2022:379; 19 Apr. 2018, Case C-525/16, MEO v. Autoridade da Concorrência, ECLI:EU:C:2018:270; 6 Sep. 2017, Case C-413/14 P, Intel v. Commission, ECLI:EU:C:2017:632; 6 Oct. 2015, Case C-23/14, Post Danmark A/S v. Konkurrencerådet (Post Danmark II), ECLI:EU:C:2015:651; 27 Mar. 2012, Case C-209/10, Post Danmark A/S v Konkurrencera?det (Post Danmark I), ECLI: EU:C:2012:172; for a recent overview of the EU case law, see also Pablo Iba?n?ez Colomo, The (Second) Modernisation of Article 102 TFEU: Reconciling Effective Enforcement, Legal Certainty and Meaningful Judicial Review, SSRN (2023), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4598161.

[56] CJEU, Intel, supra note 55, paras. 133-134.

[57] CJEU, Servizio Elettrico Nazionale, supra note 55, para. 73.

[58] Opinion of Advocate General Rantos, 9 Dec. 2021, Case C?377/20, Servizio Elettrico Nazionale SpA v. Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato, ECLI:EU:C:2021:998, para. 45.

[59] CJEU, Servizio Elettrico Nazionale, supra note 55, para. 77.

[60] Id., paras. 77, 80, and 83.

[61] CJEU, 26 Nov.1998, Case C-7/97, Oscar Bronner GmbH & Co. KG v. Mediaprint Zeitungs- und Zeitschriftenverlag GmbH & Co. KG, Mediaprint Zeitungsvertriebsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG and Mediaprint Anzeigengesellschaft mbH & Co. KG, ECLI:EU:C:1998:569.

[62] CJEU, Servizio Elettrico Nazionale, supra note 55, para. 85.

[63] European Commission, supra note 11; UK Competition and Markets Authority, supra note 17, paras. 2.6, 4.3, and 4.7.

[64] See, e.g., European Commission, Case COMP D3/34493, DSD, para. 112 (2001) OJ L166/1; affirmed in GC, 24 May 2007, Case T-151/01, DerGru?nePunkt – Duales System DeutschlandGmbH v. European Commission, ECLI:EU:T:2007:154 and CJEU, 16 Jul. 2009, Case C-385/07 P, ECLI:EU:C:2009:456; European Commission, Case IV/31.043, Tetra Pak II, paras. 105–08, (1992) OJ L72/1; European Commission, Case IV/29.971, GEMA III, (1982) OJ L94/12; CJUE, 27 Mar. 1974, Case 127/73, Belgische Radio en Televisie e socie?te? belge des auteurs, compositeurs et e?diteurs v. SV SABAM and NV Fonior, ECLI:EU:C:1974:25, para. 15; European Commission, Case IV/26.760, GEMA II, (1972) OJ L166/22; European Commission, Case IV/26.760, GEMA I, (1971) OJ L134/15.

[65] See, e.g., Richard A. Posner, Intellectual Property: The Law and Economics Approach, 19 The Journal of Economic Perspectives 57 (2005).

[66] See, e.g., Richard Gilbert & Carl Shapiro, Optimal Patent Length and Breadth, 21 The RAND Journal of Economics 106 (1990); Pankaj Tandon, Optimal Patents with Compulsory Licensing, 90 Journal of Political Economy 470 (1982); Frederic M. Scherer, Nordhaus’ Theory of Optimal Patent Life: A Geometric Reinterpretation, 62 American Economic Review 422 (1972); William D. Nordhaus, Invention, Growth, and Welfare: A Theoretical Treatment of Technological Change, Cambridge, MIT Press (1969).

[67] See, e.g., Hal R. Varian, Copying and Copyright, 19 The Journal of Economic Perspectives 121 (2005); William R. Johnson, The Economics of Copying, 93 Journal of Political Economy 158 (1985); Stephen Breyer, The Uneasy Case for Copyright: A Study of Copyright in Books, Photocopies, and Computer Programs, 84 Harvard Law Review 281 (1970).

[68] Sai Krishna Kamepalli, Raghuram Rajan, & Luigi Zingales, Kill Zone, NBER Working Paper No. 27146 (2022), http://www.nber.org/papers/w27146; Massimo Motta & Sandro Shelegia, The “Kill Zone”: Copying, Acquisition and Start-Ups’ Direction of Innovation, Barcelona GSE Working Paper Series Working Paper No. 1253 (2021), https://bse.eu/research/working-papers/kill-zone-copying-acquisition-and-start-ups-direction-innovation; U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law, supra note 8, 164; Stigler Committee for the Study of Digital Platforms, Market Structure and Antitrust Subcommittee (2019) 54, https://research.chicagobooth.edu/stigler/events/single-events/antitrust-competition-conference/digital-platforms-committee; contra, see Geoffrey A. Manne, Samuel Bowman, & Dirk Auer, Technology Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control, 86 Missouri Law Review 1047 (2022).

[69] See also Howard A. Shelanski, Information, Innovation, and Competition Policy for the Internet, 161 University of Pennsylvania Law Review 1663 (2013), 1999 (describing as “forced free riding” the situation occurring when a platform appropriates innovation by other firms that depend on the platform for access to consumers).

[70] See Feng Zhu & Qihong Liu, Competing with Complementors: An Empirical Look at Amazon.com, 39 Strategic Management Journal 2618 (2018).

[71] Andrei Hagiu, Tat-How Teh, and Julian Wright, Should Platforms Be Allowed to Sell on Their Own Marketplaces?, 53 RAND Journal of Economics 297 (2022), (the model assumes that there is a platform that can function as a seller and/or a marketplace, a fringe of small third-party sellers that all sell an identical product, and an innovative seller that has a better product in the same category as the fringe sellers and can invest more in making its product even better; further, the model allows the different channels (on-platform or direct) and the different sellers to offer different values to consumers; therefore, third-party sellers (including the innovative seller) can choose whether to participate on the platform’s marketplace, and whenever they do, can price discriminate between consumers that come to it through the marketplace and consumers that come to it through the direct channel).

[72] See Germa?n Gutie?rrez, The Welfare Consequences of Regulating Amazon (2022), available at http://germangutierrezg.com/Gutierrez2021_AMZ_welfare.pdf (building an equilibrium model where consumers choose products on the Amazon platform, while third-party sellers and Amazon endogenously set prices of products and platform fees).

[73] See Federico Etro, Product Selection in Online Marketplaces, 30 Journal of Economics & Management Strategy 614 (2021), (relying on a model where a marketplace such as Amazon provides a variety of products and can decide, for each product, whether to monetize sales by third-party sellers through a commission or become a seller on its platform, either by commercializing a private label version or by purchasing from a vendor and resell as a first party retailer; as acknowledged by the author, a limitation of the model is that it assumes that the marketplace can set the profit?maximizing commission on each product; if this is not the case, third-party sales would be imperfectly monetized, which would increase the relative profitability of entry).

[74] Patrick Andreoli-Versbach & Joshua Gans, Interplay Between Amazon Store and Logistics, SSRN (2023) https://ssrn.com/abstract=4568024.

[75] Simon Anderson & O?zlem Bedre-Defolie, Online Trade Platforms: Hosting, Selling, or Both?, 84 International Journal of Industrial Organization 102861 (2022).

[76] Chiara Farronato, Andrey Fradkin, & Alexander MacKay, Self-Preferencing at Amazon: Evidence From Search Rankings, NBER Working Paper No. 30894 (2023), http://www.nber.org/papers/w30894.

[77] See Erik Madsen & Nikhil Vellodi, Insider Imitation, SSRN (2023) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3832712 (introducing a two-stage model where the platform publicly commits to an imitation policy and the entrepreneur observes this policy and chooses whether to innovate: if she chooses not to, the game ends and both players earn profits normalized to zero; otherwise, the entrepreneur pays a fixed innovation cost to develop the product, which she then sells on a marketplace owned by the platform).

[78] Federico Etro, The Economics of Amazon, SSRN (2022), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4307213.

[79] Jay Pil Choi, Kyungmin Kim, & Arijit Mukherjee, “Sherlocking” and Information Design by Hybrid Platforms, SSRN (2023), https://ssrn.com/abstract=4332558 (the model assumes that the platform chooses its referral fee at the beginning of the game and that the cost of entry is the same for both the seller and the platform).

[80] Radostina Shopova, Private Labels in Marketplaces, 89 International Journal of Industrial Organization 102949 (2023), (the model assumes that the market structure is given exogenously and that the quality of the seller’s product is also exogenous; therefore, the paper does not investigate how entry by a platform affects the innovation incentives of third-party sellers).

[81] Jean-Pierre Dube?, Amazon Private Brands: Self-Preferencing vs Traditional Retailing, SSRN (2022) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4205988.

[82] Gregory S. Crawford, Matteo Courthoud, Regina Seibel, & Simon Zuzek, Amazon Entry on Amazon Marketplace, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 17531 (2022), https://cepr.org/publications/dp17531.

[83] Motta & Shelegia, supra note 68.

[84] Jingcun Cao, Avery Haviv, & Nan Li, The Spillover Effects of Copycat Apps and App Platform Governance, SSRN (2023), https://ssrn.com/abstract=4250292.

[85] Massimo Motta, Self-Preferencing and Foreclosure in Digital Markets: Theories of Harm for Abuse Cases, 90 International Journal of Industrial Organization 102974 (2023).

[86] Id.

[87] Id.

[88] See, e.g., Crawford, Courthoud, Seibel, & Zuzek, supra note 82; Etro, supra note 78; Shopova, supra note 80.

[89] Motta, supra note 85.

[90] Servizio Elettrico Nazionale, supra note 55, paras. 53-54; Post Danmark II, supra note 55, para. 65.

[91] Etro, supra note 78; see also Herbert Hovenkamp, The Looming Crisis in Antitrust Economics, 101 Boston University Law Review 489 (2021), 543, (arguing that: “Amazon’s practice of selling both its own products and those of rivals in close juxtaposition almost certainly benefits consumers by permitting close price comparisons. When Amazon introduces a product such as AmazonBasics AAA batteries in competition with Duracell, prices will go down. There is no evidence to suggest that the practice is so prone to abuse or so likely to harm consumers in other ways that it should be categorically condemned. Rather, it is an act of partial vertical integration similar to other practices that the antitrust laws have confronted and allowed in the past.”)

[92] On the more complex economic rationale of intellectual property, see, e.g., William M. Landes & Richard A. Posner, The Economic Structure of Intellectual Property Law, Cambridge, Harvard University Press (2003).

[93] See, e.g., Italian Competition Authority, 18 Jul. 2023 No. 30737, Case A538 – Sistemi di sigillatura multidiametro per cavi e tubi, (2023) Bulletin No. 31.

[94] See CJEU, 6 Apr. 1995, Joined Cases C-241/91 P and 242/91 P, RTE and ITP v. Commission, ECLI:EU:C:1995:98; 29 Apr. 2004, Case C-418/01, IMS Health GmbH & Co. OHG v. NDC Health GmbH & Co. GH, ECLI:EU:C:2004:257; General Court, 17 Sep. 2007, Case T-201/04, Microsoft v. Commission, ECLI:EU:T:2007:289; CJEU, 16 Jul. 2015, Case C-170/13, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd v. ZTE Corp., ECLI:EU:C:2015:477.

[95] See, e.g., Dana Mattioli, How Amazon Wins: By Steamrolling Rivals and Partners, Wall Street Journal (2022), https://www.wsj.com/articles/amazon-competition-shopify-wayfair-allbirds-antitrust-11608235127; Aditya Kalra & Steve Stecklow, Amazon Copied Products and Rigged Search Results to Promote Its Own Brands, Documents Show, Reuters (2021), https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/amazon-india-rigging.

[96] Williams-Sonoma, Inc. v. Amazon.Com, Inc., Case No. 18-cv-07548 (N.D. Cal., 2018). The suit was eventually dismissed, as the parties entered into a settlement agreement: Williams-Sonoma, Inc. v. Amazon.Com, Inc., Case No. 18-cv-07548-AGT (N.D. Cal., 2020).

[97] Amazon Best Sellers, https://www.amazon.com/Best-Sellers/zgbs.

[98] Hovenkamp, supra note 91, 2015-2016.

[99] Nicolas Petit, Big Tech and the Digital Economy, Oxford, Oxford University Press (2020), 224-225.

[100] For a recent analysis, see Zijun (June) Shi, Xiao Liu, Dokyun Lee, & Kannan Srinivasan, How Do Fast-Fashion Copycats Affect the Popularity of Premium Brands? Evidence from Social Media, 60 Journal of Marketing Research 1027 (2023).

[101] Lina M. Khan, Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox, 126 Yale Law Journal 710 (2017), 782.

[102] See Massimo Motta &Martin Peitz, Intervention Triggers and Underlying Theories of Harm, in Market Investigations. A New Competition Tool for Europe? (M. Motta, M. Peitz, & H. Schweitzer, eds.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (2022), 16, 59 (arguing that, while it is unclear to what extent products or ideas are worth protecting and/or can be protected from sherlocking and whether such cloning is really harmful to consumers, this is clearly an area where an antitrust investigation for abuse of dominant position would not help).

[103] Khan, supra note 101, 780 and 783 (arguing that Amazon’s conflicts of interest tarnish the neutrality of the competitive process and that the competitive implications are clear, as Amazon is exploiting the fact that some of its customers are also its rivals).

[104] Servizio Elettrico Nazionale, supra note 55, para. 85.

[105] Post Danmark I, supra note 55, para. 22.

[106] Iba?n?ez Colomo, supra note 55, 21-22.

[107] Id.

[108] See, e.g., DMA, supra note 4, Recital 5 (complaining that the scope of antitrust provisions is “limited to certain instances of market power, for example dominance on specific markets and of anti-competitive behaviour, and enforcement occurs ex post and requires an extensive investigation of often very complex facts on a case by case basis.”).

[109] U.S. Federal Trade Commission, et al. v. Amazon.com, Inc., supra note 23.

[110] Khan, supra note 101.

[111] Khan, supra note 22, 1003, referring to Amazon, Google, and Meta.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

European Union Law Conference

ICLE President Geoffrey A. Manne and Senior Scholar Lazar Radic took part in the European Law Students Association’s European Union Law Conference at IE University . . .

ICLE President Geoffrey A. Manne and Senior Scholar Lazar Radic took part in the European Law Students Association’s European Union Law Conference at IE University Law School. This year’s theme was “A Conversation About the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act and Their Consequences.” Lazar moderated the conference’s second panel, on “Economic Aspects of Digital Platforms and Whether the Digital Regulations Address Them Correctly.” Geoff was a featured speaker on the conference’s final panel, on “Challenges Facing Companies in Implementing the Digital Regulations.”

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Mikołaj Barczentewicz on the EDPB’s Pay or Okay Ruling

Presentations & Interviews ICLE Senior Scholar Miko?aj Barczentewicz was a guest on the Mobile Dev Memo podcast to discuss the European Data Protection Board’s recent ruling on the . . .

ICLE Senior Scholar Miko?aj Barczentewicz was a guest on the Mobile Dev Memo podcast to discuss the European Data Protection Board’s recent ruling on the so-called “pay or okay” business model, and whether it complies with the requirements of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Audio of the full interview is embedded below.

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Data Security & Privacy

Confronting the DMA’s Shaky Suppositions

TOTM It’s easy for politicians to make unrealistic promises. Indeed, without a healthy skepticism on the part of the public, they can grow like weeds. In . . .

It’s easy for politicians to make unrealistic promises. Indeed, without a healthy skepticism on the part of the public, they can grow like weeds. In the world of digital policy, the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) has proven fertile ground for just such promises. We’ve been told that large digital platforms are the source of many economic and social ills, and that handing more discretionary power to the government can solve these problems with no apparent side effects or costs.

Read the full piece here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Comments to UK Information Commissioner’s Office on ‘Pay or Consent’

Regulatory Comments I thank the ICO for the opportunity to submit comments on “pay or consent.” My focus will be on the question of how to deal with . . .

I thank the ICO for the opportunity to submit comments on “pay or consent.” My focus will be on the question of how to deal with consent to personal data processing needed to fund the provision of a service that does not fit the legal basis of contractual necessity.[1]

Personalised Advertising: Contractual Necessity or Consent?

Under the GDPR, personal data may only be processed if one of the lawful bases from Article 6 applies. They include, in particular, consent, contractual necessity, and legitimate interests. When processing is necessary for the performance of a contract (Article 6(1)(b)), then that is the basis on which the controller should rely. One may think that if data processing (e.g., for targeting ads) is necessary to fund a free-of-charge service, that should count as contractual necessity. I am unaware of data protection authorities disputing this in principle, but there is a tendency to interpret contractual necessity narrowly.[2] Notably, the EDPB decided in December 2022 that Facebook and Instagram shouldn’t have relied on that ground for personalisation of advertising.[3] Subsequently, the EDPB decided that Meta should also not rely on the legitimate interests basis.[4]

The adoption of a narrow interpretation of contractual necessity created an interpretative puzzle. If we set aside the legitimate interests basis under Article 6(1)(f)), in many commercial contexts, we are only left with consent as an option (Article 6(1)(a)). This is especially true where consent is required not due to the GDPR but under national laws implementing the ePrivacy Directive (Directive 2002/58/EC), including the UK Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR). That is, for solutions like cookies or browser storage. Importantly, though, these are not always needed for personalised advertising. Perhaps the biggest puzzle is how to deal with consent to processing needed to fund the provision of a service that does not fit the narrow interpretation of contractual necessity.

Consent, as we know from Articles 4(11) and 7(4) GDPR, must be “freely given.” In addition, Recital 42 states that: “Consent should not be regarded as freely given if the data subject has no genuine or free choice or is unable to refuse or withdraw consent without detriment.” The EDPB provided self-contradictory guidance by first saying that withdrawing consent should “not lead to any costs for the data subjects,” but soon after adding that the GDPR “does not preclude all incentives” for consenting.[5]

Despite some differences, at least the Austrian, Danish, French, German (DSK), and Spanish data protection authorities generally acknowledge that paid alternatives to consent may be lawful.[6] Notably, the Norwegian Privacy Board—in a Gridnr appeal—also explicitly allowed that possibility.[7] I discuss below the conditions those authorities focus on in their assessment of “pay or consent” implementations.

The CJEU and ‘Necessity’ to Charge ‘An Appropriate Fee’

In its Meta decision from July 2023, the EU Court of Justice weighed in, though in the context of third-party-collected data, by saying that if that kind of data processing by Meta does not fall under contractual necessity, then:

(…) those users must be free to refuse individually, in the context of the contractual process, to give their consent to particular data processing operations not necessary for the performance of the contract, without being obliged to refrain entirely from using the service offered by the online social network operator, which means that those users are to be offered, if necessary for an appropriate fee, an equivalent alternative not accompanied by such data processing operations.[8]

Intentionally or not, the Court highlighted the interpretative problem stemming from a narrow interpretation of contractual necessity. The Court said that even if processing does not fall under contractual necessity, it may still be “necessary” to charge data subjects “an appropriate fee” if they refuse to consent. Disappointing some activists, the Court did not endorse the EDPB’s first comment I cited (that refusal to consent should not come with “any costs”).

Even though the Court did not explain this further, we can speculate that the Court was not willing to accept the view that all business models simply have to be adjusted to a maximally prohibitive interpretation of the GDPR. The Court may have attempted to save the GDPR from a likely political backlash to an attempt to use the GDPR to deny Europeans a choice of free-of-charge services funded by personalised advertising. Perhaps, the Court also noted that other EU laws rely on the GDPR’s definition of consent (e.g., the Digital Markets Act) and that this gives an additional reason to be very cautious in interpreting this concept in ways that are not in line with current expectations.

Remaining Questions

Several questions will likely be particularly important for future assessments of “pay or consent” implementations under the GDPR and ePrivacy/PECRs. The following list may not be exhaustive but aims to identify the main issues.

How Specific Should the Choice Be?

The extent to which service providers batch consent to processing for different purposes, especially if users cannot (in a “second step”) adjust consent more granularly, is likely to be questioned. This is problematic because giving users complete freedom to adjust their consent could also defeat the purpose of having a paid alternative.

In a different kind of bundling, service providers may make the paid alternative to consent more attractive by adding incentives like access to additional content or the absence of ads (including non-personalised ads). On the one hand, this means that service providers incentivise users not to consent, making consent less attractive. This could be seen as reducing the pressure to consent and making the choice more likely to be freely given. On the other hand, a more attractive paid option could be more costly for the service provider and thus require a higher price.

What Is an ‘Appropriate’ Price?

The pricing question is a potential landmine for data protection authorities, who are decidedly ill-suited to deal with it. Just to show one aspect of the complexity: setting as a benchmark the service’s historical average revenue per user (ARPU) from (personalised) advertising may be misleading. Users are not identical. Wealthier, less price-sensitive users, who may be more likely to pay for a no-ads option, are also worth more to advertisers. Hence, the loss of income from advertising may be higher than just “old ARPU multiplied by the number of users on a no-ads tier,” suggesting a need to charge the paying users more than historical ARPU merely to retain the same level of revenue. Crucially, the situation will likely be dynamic due to subscription “churn” (users canceling their subscriptions) and other market factors. The economic results of the “pay or consent” scheme may continue to change, and setting the price level will always involve business judgment based on predictions and intuition.

Some authorities may be tempted to approach the issue from the perspective of users’ willingness to pay, but this also raises many issues. First, the idea of price regulation by privacy authorities, capping prices at a level defined by the authorities’ view of what is acceptable to a user, may face jurisdictional scrutiny. Second, taking users’ willingness to pay as a benchmark implicitly assumes a legally protected entitlement to access the service for a price they like. In other words, to assume that users are entitled to specific private services, like social media services.[9] This is not something that can be simply assumed; it would require a robust argument—and arguably constitute a legal change that is appropriate only for the political, legislative process.

Imbalance

Recital 43 of the GDPR explains that consent may not be free when there is “a clear imbalance between the data subject and the controller.” In the Meta decision, the EU Court of Justice admitted the possibility of such an imbalance between a business with a dominant position, as understood in competition law, and its customers.[10] This, too, may be a difficult issue for data protection authorities to deal with, both for expertise and competence reasons.

The Scale of Processing and Impact on Users

Distinct from market power (dominance), though sometimes conflated with it, are the issues of the scale of processing and its impact on users. An online service provider, e.g., a newspaper publisher, may have relatively little market power but may be using a personalised advertising framework (e.g., an RTB scheme facilitated by third parties[11]) that is very large in scale and with more potential for a negative impact on users than an advertising system internal to a large online platform. A large online platform can offer personalised advertising to its business customers (advertisers) while sharing little or no information about who the ads are being shown to. Large platforms have economic incentives to keep user data securely within the platform’s “walled garden,” not sharing it with outsiders. Smaller publishers participate in open advertising schemes (RTB), where user data is shared more widely with advertisers and other participants.

Given the integration of smaller publishers in such open advertising schemes, an attempt by data protection authorities to set a different standard for consent just for large platforms may fail as based on an arbitrary distinction. In other words, however attractive it may seem for the authorities to target Meta without targeting the more politically powerful legacy media, this may not be an option.

[1] The comments below build on my ‘“Pay or consent:” Personalized ads, the rules and what’s next’ (IAPP, 20 November 2023) < https://iapp.org/news/a/pay-or-consent-personalized-ads-the-rules-and-whats-next/ >.

[2] On this issue, I highly recommend the article by Professor Martin Nettesheim on ‘Data Protection in Contractual Relationships (Art. 6 (1) (b) GDPR)’ (May 2023) < https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4427134 >.

[3] https://www.edpb.europa.eu/news/news/2023/facebook-and-instagram-decisions-important-impact-use-personal-data-behavioural_en

[4] https://www.edpb.europa.eu/news/news/2023/edpb-urgent-binding-decision-processing-personal-data-behavioural-advertising-meta_en

[5] https://www.edpb.europa.eu/sites/default/files/files/file1/edpb_guidelines_202005_consent_en.pdf

[6] David Pfau, ‘PUR models: Status quo on the European market’ (BVDW, October 2023) < https://iabeurope.eu/knowledge_hub/bvdws-comprehensive-market-overview-pur-models-in-europe-legal-framework-and-future-prospects-in-english/ >; for the view of the Spanish authority, see ??https://www.aepd.es/prensa-y-comunicacion/notas-de-prensa/aepd-actualiza-guia-cookies-para-adaptarla-a-nuevas-directrices-cepd

[7] https://www.personvernnemnda.no/pvn-2022-22

[8] https://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?mode=lst&pageIndex=1&docid=276478&part=1&doclang=EN&text=&dir=&occ=first&cid=163129

[9] See also Peter Caddock, ‘Op-ed: “Pay or data” has its reasons – even if you disagree’, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/op-ed-pay-data-has-its-reasons-even-you-disagree-peter-craddock

[10] See para [149]. This is also referenced in the Joint EDPB-EDPS contribution to the public consultation on the draft template relating to the description of consumer profiling techniques (Art.15 DMA) (September 2023), page 14.

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real-time_bidding

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Data Security & Privacy

EU Authorities on ‘Pay or Consent’: Mid-April 2024 Update

Popular Media Due to Meta’s adoption of a “pay or consent” model for Facebook and Instagram, the model became a key issue not only under EU privacy . . .

Due to Meta’s adoption of a “pay or consent” model for Facebook and Instagram, the model became a key issue not only under EU privacy law but also under the new digital regulations: the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA). Given the barrage of pay or consent-related news in the past months, I thought it would be a good idea to take stock of where we are now.

Read the full piece here.

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Data Security & Privacy