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TOTM There has been a rapid proliferation of proposals in recent years to closely regulate competition among large digital platforms. The European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA, which . . .
There has been a rapid proliferation of proposals in recent years to closely regulate competition among large digital platforms. The European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA, which will become effective in 2023) imposes a variety of data-use, interoperability, and non-self-preferencing obligations on digital “gatekeeper” firms. A host of other regulatory schemes are being considered in Australia, France, Germany, and Japan, among other countries (for example, see here). The United Kingdom has established a Digital Markets Unit “to operationalise the future pro-competition regime for digital markets.” Recently introduced U.S. Senate and House Bills—although touted as “antitrust reform” legislation—effectively amount to “regulation in disguise” of disfavored business activities by very large companies, including the major digital platforms (see here and here).
Read the full piece here.
Scholarship A joint publication of ICLE and The Entrepreneurs Network makes the case that the U.K. government's plan to crack down on Big Tech mergers would harm the British start-up ecosystem.
The British government is consulting on whether to lower the burden of proof needed by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to block mergers and acquisitions involving large tech companies that have been deemed as having strategic market status (SMS) in some activity. This is likely to include companies like Google and Facebook, but the scope may grow over time.
Under the current regime, the CMA uses a two-step process. At Phase 1, the CMA assesses whether or not a deal has a ‘realistic prospect of a substantial lessening of competition’. If so, the merger is referred to Phase 2, where it is assessed in depth by an independent panel, and remedied or blocked if it is deemed to carry a greater than 50 per cent chance of substantially lessening competition.
The reforms proposed by the government would stop any deal involving a SMS firm that creates a ‘realistic prospect’ of reducing competition. This has been defined by courts as being a ‘greater than fanciful’ chance.
In practice, this could amount to a de facto ban on acquisitions by Big Tech firms in the UK, and any others designated as having strategic market status.
Mergers and acquisitions are normally good or neutral for competition, and there is little evidence that the bulk of SMS firms’ mergers have harmed competition.
Although the static benefits of mergers are widely acknowledged, the dynamic benefits are less well-understood. We highlight four key ways in which mergers and acquisitions can enhance competition by increasing dynamic efficiency:
Acquisition is a key route to exit for entrepreneurs
Acquisitions enable a ‘market for corporate control’
Acquisitions can reduce transaction costs between complementary products
Acquisitions can support inter-platform competition
The UK risks becoming a global outlier
The Government’s theories of harm caused by tech mergers are under-evidenced, hard to action, and do not require a change in the burden of proof to be effectively incorporated into the CMA’s merger review process.
The Government should instead consider a more moderate approach that retains the balance of probabilities approach, but that attempts to drive competition by supporting startups and entrepreneurs, and gives the CMA the tools it needs to do the best job it can within the existing burden of proof.
Read the full white paper here.
ICLE White Paper Introduction Economist Ronald Coase devoted an article in the 1974 edition of the American Economic Review to an idea he had observed to be common . . .
Economist Ronald Coase devoted an article in the 1974 edition of the American Economic Review to an idea he had observed to be common among his academic colleagues:
(I)n the market for goods, government regulation is desirable whereas, in the market for ideas, government regulation is undesirable and should be strictly limited.
He found the idea strange because, as he argued in the paper, the two markets are not relevantly different. The case for regulation is no weaker in the market for ideas than in the market for goods. After all, it is usually easier for a consumer to know when ordinary goods are faulty than when ideas are bogus. Anyone can tell when a television doesn’t work. It takes unusual dedication to figure out, for example, that Hegel was wrong when he said that “absolute form and absolute content [are] identical — substance is in itself identical with knowledge.”
Coase hoped that devotion to consistency would inspire his peers to adopt a more skeptical attitude toward regulation of the market for goods. He got half of what he hoped for. Academics arguably have become more consistent, but rather than favor laissez-faire in the market for goods, they favor regulation in the market for ideas. This goes to show that consistency is not always something you should seek in your opponents.
Many professors are now keen to restrict the ideas their students hear; or, at least, they are willing to go along quietly with the enthusiasts for such restrictions. They do not seek to protect their students from the incoherent abstractions of 19th century German philosophers or from any other kind of intellectual error. Rather, they seek to protect them from encountering ideas that will offend them or otherwise make them feel uncomfortable, especially when the topics concern race, sex, sexuality, or some other aspect of “identity.”
Universities are not national or state governments, of course. Their regulatory powers stop at the campus gates. But that doesn’t change the point, which is that many academics appear no longer to believe that the benefits of a free market in ideas are worth the harms that accompany it.
Some outside of universities take the same view, not always drawing the line at private organizations being able to constrain the speech of those with whom they have voluntarily entered contracts. Rather, they want governments to protect consumers of ideas by restricting what can be said. Just as government regulation ensures that only cars meeting certain safety standards are offered for sale, so too should government regulation ensure that only ideas meeting certain safety standards are expressed.
Of course, the market for ideas is already constrained by some safety regulations. For example, an American may not advocate violence or other illegal activity when directed at “producing imminent lawless action.” But beyond this and a few other constraints established by legislation and the courts—such as those entailed by defamation law—the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans the freedom to say all manner of harmful things. Some see this as a problem. For example, Richard Stengel, a former managing editor of Time magazine, argued in a 2019 Washington Post op-ed that the United States should follow the lead of other developed nations and develop a hate-speech law. Harvard University law professor Cass Sunstein proposed in his 2021 book Liars that speech deemed by the government to be false and harmful should lose its constitutional protection.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects “interactive computer services” from being treated as publishers or speakers of the content they host, is also becoming unpopular among those who worry about excessive freedom in the market for ideas. Some of its critics, usually from the political right, think it gives social media firms such as Facebook and Twitter too much freedom to indulge their political biases when moderating content. Other critics, usually from the political left, think it gives such firms too much freedom to host harmful content. Both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have been critical of Section 230, if for very different reasons.
The fashion for private-sector speech prohibitions and proposals for more restrictive legal regimes agitate those who prize freedom of speech. It’s a hot topic in newspaper columns and on talk radio shows. Organizations have even been established to defend free speech, such as the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University and the U.K.’s Free Speech Union.
But defenders of free speech are generally doing their job poorly. Too many merely assert that “you should not have a right not to be offended,” when this is precisely what is at issue. Others follow the 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill and claim that being offended, or suffering hurt feelings more generally, does not count as harm. Again, most seem to simply take this for granted, offering no reason why the offended are unharmed.
The right way to understand harm is economic. Something harms someone if he would pay to avoid it. Since offense and other hurt feelings can pass this test, they can be genuine harm (Section 1). And since speech can cause this harm—and most people believe that legal restrictions on causing harm are generally justified—we have a prima facie case for the regulation of speech.
Indeed, standard economics seems to provide more reason to regulate speech than ordinary goods. If a new car is defective and harms its drivers, people will be reluctant to buy it and its producer will suffer losses. Because the same goes for most goods, regulations that impose product standards are arguably unnecessary (at least, for this reason). Suppliers already have good reason to make their products safe. Speakers, by contrast, often do not bear the cost of the hurt feelings they cause. In other words, hurt feelings are an “external cost” of offensive speech. When someone doesn’t bear all the costs of an action, he tends to do it too much. That is to say, he does it even when the total social cost exceeds the total social benefit.
In his famous 1960 paper “The Problem of Social Cost,” Coase showed that one party holding a legal right not to suffer the external cost of some activity—such as being disturbed by noisy neighbors—needn’t stop it from happening. Nor would giving the neighbors the right to make noise guarantee that the noise continued. This is because, when certain conditions are met, the legally disfavored party will pay the favored party not to enforce his right (Section 2). When this happens, the outcome is efficient: in other words, it maximizes social welfare. Alas, the conditions for such rights trading are rarely met. When they are not, the initial allocation of rights determines the outcome. Which party’s interests should be protected by law therefore depends on who can avoid the harm at the lower cost. The efficient outcome will be produced by giving legal protection to the party facing the higher cost.
Coase’s conditions for trading rights aren’t met in the case of offensive speech (Section 2). We must therefore consider the costs faced by the offenders and by the offended when trying to avoid the offense. This appears to favor speech restrictions. After all, being offended is expensive, keeping your mouth shut is cheap, and each offensive speaker usually offends many hearers. For these reasons, Coasean analysis would seem on first impression to favor revisions to Section 230 that oblige social media platforms to be more assiduous in their moderation of offensive content. A post that would offend millions of the platform’s users can be removed at a low cost to the platform.
But that is merely a first impression. In this paper, I argue that the Coasean case for legal restrictions on offensive speech collapses when confronted with three facts: that being offended is often a masochistic pleasure; that most of the offensive speech that concerns would-be censors occurs on privately owned platforms; and that the proposed restrictions would impose large costs on society. Neither the First Amendment nor Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should be weakened to remove protection for offensive speech.
Before answering the prima facie Coasean case for restrictions on offensive speech, however, we need to appreciate its force, which begins with recognizing that offense can be a real harm.
Scholarship The UK's Digital Markets Unit will combine the powers and operating structure of a narrow sector regulator with a cross-sector purview that is much closer to the CMA’s economy-wide reach.
[This briefing paper was a joint publication of The Entrepreneurs Network and the International Center for Law & Economics.]
At the end of 2020, the UK government announced plans to create a Digital Markets Unit (DMU) charged with implementing an ex ante regulatory regime for certain digital platforms. Following the recommendations of the Digital Markets Taskforce, led by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), this DMU would serve as the de facto regulator of large tech companies that had been designated as having “strategic market status” (SMS). Accordingly, the DMU was formally established within the CMA in April 2021, although Parliament will need to legislate to give it the powers proposed by the Digital Markets Taskforce. That authorization is likely to come in 2022. Until then, the DMU will prepare draft codes of conduct, and potentially conduct further analysis to add more firms to its remit (so far, only Google and Facebook have been proposed as firms to be regulated, following the CMA’s Digital Advertising Market Study).
This announcement followed several official reviews claiming that some digital markets are not working properly because of the dominance of a few platforms. Based on these reports, the DMU would be given powers to designate dominant platforms as having “substantial, entrenched market power in at least one digital activity, providing the firm with a strategic position”, which would lead to their being given the SMS designation. This would make platforms subject to a bespoke code of conduct, potential procompetitive interventions (PCIs), and increased scrutiny of their merger and product expansion decisions.
At first glance, none of these powers may appear novel. Codes of conduct have been used in other sectors, such as groceries and energy markets, and PCIs were part of the package of remedies in the CMA’s 2015 retail banking market review.
But these interventions were limited to a small number of clearly delineated sectors, firms, activities, or products. By contrast, the DMU’s remit will cover all “digital markets”. This is an already large and growing proportion of the UK economy that comprises many different activities, from digital advertising and e-commerce to online search, social media, and news publishing (among others). And it increasingly encompasses markets like taxis, groceries, entertainment, and other sectors that are becoming significantly “digitalised”. What may seem to be a focused mandate now is, over the coming decades, likely to grow to encompass more and more of the economy.
The DMU will thus combine the powers and operating structure of a narrow sector regulator with a cross-sector purview that is much closer to the CMA’s economy-wide reach. And it will do so for one of the most vitally important parts of the economy, where entrepreneurialism is central and where misguided regulation of incumbents may have systemic effects. The implications of this—creating a de facto regulator with goals that are often conflicting, with powers that lack many of the checks and balances that the CMA usually faces, and with a remit that could be as broad as the economy itself have been given little scrutiny so far, with some assuming the DMU’s scope is much narrower and more focused than it really is.
Proponents might view this level of ambition as fit for the challenge presented by digital markets, where strong competition is vital and where markets may naturally gravitate toward a small number of large competitors. And given the broad variety of activities undertaken by digital platforms and the rapidity of technological change, they may argue that an effective regulator needs both a broad remit and extensive powers to act quickly. But there are also clear costs and risks in creating such a powerful new agency, and these have not yet been widely appreciated by many with an interest in economic policy in Britain.
To get the measure of those costs and risks, this paper evaluates the challenges that the DMU will face as a novel regulator tackling firms with complex and highly differentiated business models, whose actions have distinct effects in several markets and startup ecosystems. It focuses on the structure and goals of the DMU, the first pillar of its powers—the codes of conduct it is expected to write and enforce—and the checks and balances that the CMA’s proposals lack. The other two pillars of its powers—procompetitive interventions and changes to the mergers regime—are just as important substantively, but require further consideration in a future paper. We do discuss one element of the mergers proposals below, however, given its importance to startups.
Section 1 sets out the main findings of several official reviews that preceded the announcement of the DMU.
Section 2 summarises the duty and powers that the Digital Markets Taskforce proposes to give to this new regulator.
Section 3 considers the problems of operationalising the DMU’s primary duty, given its vague objectives and different constituencies. Without a clear vision for what success looks like and how to manage the trade-offs involved, the DMU could easily become a hindrance to competition and innovation, instead of a positive force. The number of firms subject to SMS designation, and the consequent interventions, could steadily increase without improving consumer outcomes, because there would be no straightforward way to decide whether regulation worked.
Further, because the determinants of innovation for any given firm or in any given market are so poorly understood, the heightened scrutiny of SMS firms contemplated by the Digital Markets Taskforce’s recommendations could inadvertently chill innovation, both by SMS firms themselves, as well as by small firms and startups, whose venture capital may depend in part on their prospects of being acquired by an incumbent.
Moreover, in its current proposed form, the DMU could influence the activities of companies beyond those found to have market power. This could create major barriers to inter-platform competition — a key part of competition in platform markets, as platforms vie with each other to keep users within their ecosystem and attract new ones. And, if it makes it harder for smaller firms to be acquired, it could reduce both the founding of, and investment in startups in the UK.
Because SMS firms will only be able to contest designations and the associated interventions via judicial review, there is also a bias in favour of intervention built in to the DMU’s design. Lacking meaningful checks and balances, the DMU’s mistakes could go uncorrected for years, further weakening innovation, competition, and startup formation in the UK to the detriment of consumers and the British economy itself.
All of these could combine to create significant unseen costs for British consumers, which go ignored and uncorrected even as they worsen consumer welfare and weaken competition and innovation in the markets the DMU is supposed to be working to improve.
Section 4 evaluates the Taskforce’s proposed participative approach. We consider existing models of conduct-based regulation in the UK, finding that these precedents have generally had much narrower goals and remits than those of the DMU, and that they therefore constitute a poor template for the new regulator. Where existing conduct-based regulation has had a broader remit, such as with the Financial Conduct Authority, it has been criticised by firms as unclear and unpredictable and by other stakeholders as ineffective. We also consider in this section whether co-regulation—mixing statutory objectives with private governance—might best achieve the government’s purpose for the DMU, given the need to optimise across many different margins and the difficulty of doing so from the top.
Section 5 concludes with high-level recommendations to help ensure that the DMU actually serves to promote competition and innovation in UK digital markets. Before moving forward, the government should focus the DMU on the CMA’s core objective, which is to promote competition for the benefit of British consumers. And it should be clear that the codes of conduct it is charged with drafting and enforcing should be done only to promote competition, not to regulate the conduct of incumbents for the purpose of promoting other social goals that may conflict with the goal of promoting competition.
The government should also narrow the scope and extent of the DMU’s powers so that it promotes competition in the specific markets in which it has determined a firm has “strategic market status”, and does not grow into a bloated regulator of these companies’ other activities in competitive markets, or of the wider economy wherever “digitalisation” is taking place. The DMU should be genuinely participative, allowing stakeholders to actively assist in decision-making instead of just offering advice. It should give special consideration to startups, and to the effects of its behaviour on entrepreneurs’ and venture capitalists’ incentives to start and fund a business. Finally, it should allow for appeals on the merits to allow the DMU to be held accountable by courts for its decisions.
Read the full briefing paper here.
TL;DR The process of writing and passing laws in the European Union primarily involves three institutions: the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of the EU. The Commission proposes legislation, and the Parliament and the Council approve, amend, or reject it.
The process of writing and passing laws in the European Union primarily involves three institutions: the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of the EU. The Commission proposes legislation, and the Parliament and the Council approve, amend, or reject it.
The Parliament is the EU’s legislature. It represents all EU citizens and is directly elected by them. The Council of the European Union represents the governments of the individual member states. The European Commission is the EU’s politically independent executive body responsible for drawing up proposals for new European legislation and ensuring, together with the Court of Justice, that these laws are properly applied by member states. It consists of one commissioner from each member state, for a total of 27.
Read the full explainer here.
TL;DR The European Union has unveiled draft legislation that seeks to tame so-called “gatekeeper” Big Tech firms. If passed into law, this Digital Markets Act (“DMA”) would create a list of “dos and don’ts” by which the platforms must abide, such as allowing interoperability with third parties and sharing data with rivals.
The European Union has unveiled draft legislation that seeks to tame so-called “gatekeeper” Big Tech firms. If passed into law, this Digital Markets Act (“DMA”) would create a list of “dos and don’ts” by which the platforms must abide, such as allowing interoperability with third parties and sharing data with rivals. In short, the DMA would give the European Commission significant powers to tell tech companies how to run their businesses.
The DMA essentially shifts competition enforcement against gatekeeper platforms away from an “effects” analysis that weighs costs and benefits to a “blacklist” approach that proscribes all listed practices as harmful. This will constrain platforms’ ability to experiment with new products and make changes to existing ones, limiting their ability to innovate and compete.
TOTM The Finnish consultancy Rewheel periodically issues reports using mobile wireless pricing information to make claims about which countries’ markets are competitive and which are not. . . .
The Finnish consultancy Rewheel periodically issues reports using mobile wireless pricing information to make claims about which countries’ markets are competitive and which are not. For example, Rewheel claims Canada and Greece have the “least competitive monthly prices” while the United Kingdom and Finland have the most competitive.
ICLE White Paper The European Commission’s recent Google Android decision will go down as one of the most important competition proceedings of the past decade. Yet, in-depth reading . . .
The European Commission’s recent Google Android decision will go down as one of the most important competition proceedings of the past decade. Yet, in-depth reading of the 328-page decision leaves attentive readers with a bitter taste. The problem is simple: while the facts adduced by the Commission are arguably true, the normative implications it draws—and thus the bases for its action—are largely conjecture.
This paper argues that the Commission’s decision is undermined by unsubstantiated claims and non sequiturs, the upshot of which is that the Commission did not establish that Google had a “dominant position” in an accurately defined market, or that it infringed competition and harmed consumers. The paper analyzes the Commission’s reasoning on questions of market definition, barriers to entry, dominance, theories of harm, and the economic evidence adduced to support the decision.
Section I discusses the Commission’s market definition It argues that the Commission produced insufficient evidence to support its conclusion that Google’s products were in a different market than Apple’s alternatives.
Section II looks at the competitive constraints that Google faced. It finds that the Commission wrongly ignored the strong competitive pressure that rivals, particularly Apple, exerted on Google. As a result, it failed to adequately establish that Google was dominant – a precondition for competition liability under article 102 TFEU.
Section III focuses on Google’s purported infringements. It argues that Commission failed to convincingly establish that Google’s behavior prevented its rivals from effectively reaching users of Android smartphones. This is all the more troubling when one acknowledges that Google’s contested behavior essentially sought to transpose features of its rivals’ closed platforms within the more open Android ecosystem.
Section IV reviews the main economic arguments that underpin the Commission’s decision. It finds that the economic models cited by the Commission poorly matched the underlying fact patterns. Moreover, the Commission’s arguments on innovation harms were out of touch with the empirical literature on the topic.
In short, the Commission failed to adequately prove that Google infringed European competition law. Its decision thus sets a bad precedent for future competition intervention in the digital sphere.
TOTM If the EU wants to turn itself into a digital economy powerhouse, it will have to switch towards light-touch regulation that allows firms to experiment with disruptive services, flexible employment options, and novel monetization strategies.
Ursula von der Leyen has just announced the composition of the next European Commission. For tech firms, the headline is that Margrethe Vestager will not only retain her job as the head of DG Competition, she will also oversee the EU’s entire digital markets policy in her new role as Vice-President in charge of digital policy. Her promotion within the Commission as well as her track record at DG Competition both suggest that the digital economy will continue to be the fulcrum of European competition and regulatory intervention for the next five years.