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TOTM The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants to review in advance all future acquisitions by Facebook parent Meta Platforms. According to a Sept. 2 Bloomberg report, in connection with . . .
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants to review in advance all future acquisitions by Facebook parent Meta Platforms. According to a Sept. 2 Bloomberg report, in connection with its challenge to Meta’s acquisition of fitness-app maker Within Unlimited, the commission “has asked its in-house court to force both Meta and [Meta CEO Mark] Zuckerberg to seek approval from the FTC before engaging in any future deals.”
Read the full piece here.
Scholarship Abstract Use of the familiar metaphor of the exchange of ideas as a “marketplace” has historically presumed that free and uninhibited competition among ideas will . . .
Use of the familiar metaphor of the exchange of ideas as a “marketplace” has historically presumed that free and uninhibited competition among ideas will reliably arrive at truth. But even the most fervent economic free-market advocates recognize the possibility of market failure. Market failure is a market characteristic (e.g., monopoly power) that precludes the maximization of consumer welfare.
The last few years have witnessed increased calls for censorship of speech and research pertaining to a variety of subjects (e.g., climate change; COVID-19 sources and treatments; and viewpoints concerning race, gender, and sexual orientation) across a variety of fora. The consistent refrain in favor of this censorship is that the spread of false or misleading information is preventing access to or distorting the truth and thereby inhibiting social progress: undermining democracy, fomenting bigotry, costing lives, and even threating the existence of the planet.
Though on their face these calls for censorship appear anti-liberal and contrary to the marketplace model, they can be made consistent with both if they are understood as a response to a market failure in the marketplace of ideas. While recent calls for censorship have not been justified expressly as a response to market failure, reframing the debate in these terms may prevent parties on both sides of the issue from engaging at cross purposes by locating the debate within an otherwise familiar model.
The Article proceeds as follows: Part I offers examples of recent calls for (and efforts at) censorship in the market of ideas concerning a variety of subjects and forums. Part II articulates a model of the marketplace of ideas that jibes with contemporary economic concepts, defines its components (e.g., sellers, buyers, intermediaries, etc.), considers the possibility of associated market failures, and highlights some common fallacies in the application of the concept of market failure more broadly. Part III explores the principal philosophical justifications for the utility of freedom of expression, focusing on the arguments articulated in John Stuart Mill’s classic, On Liberty. Part IV argues that, in light of these arguments (and taking into account contemporary critiques), the threat of false and misleading expression does not reflect market failure in the marketplace of ideas as modeled here. To the contrary, Part V argues that the ease with which recent public and private efforts at censorship have succeeded may itself reflect a market failure warranting correction—if not through legislation or the courts, then by social sanction and the court of public opinion.
TL;DR California’s state Assembly earlier this year passed A.B. 2408, which would impose a duty of care on social-media platforms for “any design, feature, or affordance that causes a child user… to become addicted to the platform.”
California’s state Assembly earlier this year passed A.B. 2408, which would impose a duty of care on social-media platforms for “any design, feature, or affordance that causes a child user… to become addicted to the platform.” The bill, which has also cleared the state Senate Judiciary Committee, would empower parents to bring class-action suits against Big Tech platforms, with minimum statutory damages set at $1,000 per class member. California prosecutors also could seek damages of $25,000 per violation, or $250,000 for knowing and willful violations. Liability would attach when a platform becomes aware that an algorithm is potentially addictive.
Not only is the theory of social-media addiction strongly contested, but it would be difficult, if not unconstitutional, to enforce the bill’s terms. The line differentiating fomenting user addiction and making a platform more attractive to users is exceedingly blurry. Moreover, a strong case can be made that A.B. 2408 violates the First Amendment.
Read the full explainer here.
Scholarship Intermediaries emerge when it would otherwise be too difficult (or too costly) for groups of users to meet and interact. There is thus no guarantee that government-mandated disintermediation — such as that contemplated in the European DMA and the U.S. AICOA bill — will generate net benefits in a given case.
Intermediaries may not be the consumer welfare hero we want, but more often than not, they are one that we need. Policymakers often assume that intermediaries and centralization serve as a cost to society, and that consumers are better off when provided with “more choice.” Concrete expression of this view can be found in regulatory initiatives that aim to turn “closed” platforms into “open” ones (see, in Europe, the Digital Markets Act; and in the United States, the Open App Markets Act and the American Innovation and Choice Online Act). Against this backdrop, we explain that, as with all economic goods, intermediation involves tradeoffs. Intermediaries emerge when it would otherwise be too difficult (or too costly) for groups of users to meet and interact. There is thus no guarantee that government-mandated disintermediation — such as that contemplated in the European DMA and the U.S. AICOA bill — will generate net benefits in a given case. The ongoing Epic v Apple proceedings are a good example of why it is important to respect the role of intermediaries in digital markets, and the unique benefits intermediation can bring to consumers. The upshot is that intermediaries are far more valuable than they are usually given credit for.
Read the full issue brief here.
ICLE Issue Brief Digital advertising is the economic backbone of much of the Internet. But complaints have recently emerged from a number of quarters alleging the digital advertising market is monopolized by its largest participant: Google.
Digital advertising is the economic backbone of much of the Internet. But complaints have recently emerged from a number of quarters alleging the digital advertising market is monopolized by its largest participant: Google. Most significantly, a lawsuit first filed by the State of Texas and 17 other U.S. states in 2020 alleges anticompetitive conduct related to Google’s online display advertising business. The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) reportedly may bring a lawsuit similarly focused on Google’s online display advertising business sometime in 2022. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority undertook a lengthy investigation of digital advertising, ultimately recommending implementation of a code of conduct and “pro-competitive interventions” into the market, as well as a new regulatory body to oversee these measures. Most recently, a group of U.S. senators introduced a bill that would break up Google’s advertising business (as well as that of other large display advertising intermediaries such as Facebook and Amazon).
All of these actions rely on a crucial underlying assumption: that Google’s display advertising business enjoys market power in one or more competitively relevant markets. To understand what market power a company has within the market for a given type of digital advertising, it is crucial to evaluate what constitutes the relevant market in which it operates. If the market is defined broadly to include many kinds of online and/or offline advertising, then even complete dominance of a single segment may not be enough to confer market power. On the other hand, if the relevant market is defined narrowly, it may be easier to reach the legal conclusion that market power exists, even in the absence of economic power over price.
Determining the economically appropriate market turns importantly on whether advertisers and publishers can switch to other forms of advertising, either online or offline. This includes the specific ad-buying and placement tools that the Texas Complaint alleges exist within distinct antitrust markets—each of which, it claims, is monopolized by Google. The Texas Complaint identifies at least five relevant markets that it alleges Google is monopolizing or attempting to monopolize: publisher ad servers for web display; ad-buying tools for web display; ad exchanges for web display; mediation of in-app ads; and in-app ad networks.
As we discuss, however, these market definitions put forth by the Texas Complaint and other critics of Google’s adtech business appear to be overly narrow, and risk finding market dominance where it doesn’t exist.
Digital advertising takes numerous forms, such as ads presented along with search results, static and video display ads, in-game ads, and ads presented in music streams and podcasts. Within digital advertising of all kinds, Google accounted for a little less than one-third of spending in 2020; Facebook accounted for about one-quarter, Amazon for 10%, and other ad services like Microsoft and Verizon accounted for the remaining third. Open-display advertising on third-party websites—the type of advertising at issue in the Texas Complaint and the primary critiques of Google’s adtech business—is a smaller subset of total digital advertising, with one estimate finding that it accounts for about 18% of U.S. digital advertising spending.
U.S. digital advertising grew from $26 billion in 2010 to $152 billion in 2020, an average annual increase of 19%, even as the Producer Price Index for Internet advertising sales declined by an annual average of 5% over the same period. The rise in spending in the face of falling prices indicates that the number of ads bought and sold increased by approximately 26% a year. The combination of increasing quantity, decreasing cost, and increasing total revenues is consistent with a growing and increasingly competitive market, rather than one of rising concentration and reduced competition.
But digital advertising is just one kind of advertising, and advertising more generally is just one piece of a much larger group of marketing activities. According to the market research company eMarketer, about $130 billion was spent on digital advertising in the United States in 2019, comprising half of the total U.S. media advertising market. Advertising occurs across a wide range of media, including television, radio, newspapers, magazines, trade publications, billboards, and the Internet.
An organization considering running ads has numerous choices about where and how to run them, including whether to advertise online or via other “offline” media, such as on television or radio or in newspapers or magazines, among many other options. If it chooses online advertising, it faces another range of alternatives, including search ads, in which the ad is displayed as a search-engine result; display ads on a site owned and operated by the firm that sells the ad space; “open” display ads on a third-party’s site; or display ads served on mobile apps.
Although advertising technology and both supplier and consumer preferences continue to evolve, the weight of evidence suggests a far more unified and integrated economically relevant market be-tween offline and online advertising than their common semantic separation would suggest. What publishers sell to advertisers is access to consumers’ attention. While there is no dearth of advertising space, consumer attention is a finite and limited resource. If the same or similar consumers are variously to be found in each channel, all else being equal, there is every reason to expect advertisers to substitute between them, as well.
The fact that offline and online advertising employ distinct processes does not consign them to separate markets. The economic question is whether one set of products or services acts as a competitive constraint on another; not whether they appear to be descriptively similar. Indeed, online advertising has manifestly drawn advertisers from offline markets, as previous technological innovations drew advertisers from other channels before them. Moreover, while there is evidence that, in some cases, offline and online advertising may be complements (as well as substitutes), the dis-tinction between these is becoming less and less meaningful as the revolution in measurability has changed how marketers approach different levels of what is known as the “marketing funnel.”
The classic marketing funnel begins with brand-building-type advertising at the top, aimed at a wide audience and intended to promote awareness of a product or brand. This is followed by increasingly targeted advertising that aims to give would-be customers a more and more favorable view of the product. At the bottom of this funnel is an advertisement that leads the customer to purchase the item. In this conception, for example, display advertising (to promote brand aware-ness) and search advertising (to facilitate a purchase) are entirely distinct from one another.
But the longstanding notion of the “marketing funnel” is rapidly becoming outdated. As the ability to measure ad effectiveness has increased, distinctions among types of advertising that were once dictated by where the ad would fall in the marketing funnel have blurred. This raises the question whether online display advertising constitutes a distinct, economically relevant market from online search advertising, as the Federal Trade Commission, for example, claimed in its 2017 review of the Google/DoubleClick merger.
The Texas Complaint adopts a non-economic approach to market definition, defining the relevant market according to similarity between product functions, not by economic substitutability. It thus ignores the potential substitutability between different kinds of advertising, both online and offline, and hence the constraint these other forms of advertising impose on the display advertising market.
If advertisers faced with higher advertising costs for open-display ads would shift to owned-and-operated display ads or to search ads or to other media altogether—rendering small but significant advertising price increases unprofitable—then these alternatives must be included in the relevant antitrust market. Similarly, if publishers faced with declining open-display ad revenues would quickly shift to alternative such as direct placement of ads or sponsorships, then these alternatives must be included in the relevant market, as well.
If advertisers and publishers are faced with a wide range of viable alternatives and the market is broadly defined to include these alternatives, then it is not clear that any single firm can profitably exercise monopoly power—no matter what its market share is in one piece of the broader market. Similarly, it is not clear whether “consumers” (e.g., advertisers, publishers, or users) have suffered any economic harm.
With a narrow focus on “open display,” it is quite possible that Google’s dominance can be technically demonstrated. But if, as suggested here, “open display” is really just a small piece of larger relevant market, then any fines and remedies resulting from an erroneously narrow market definition are as likely to raise the cost of business for advertisers, publishers, and intermediaries as they would be to increase competition that benefits market participants.
Regulatory Comments The FTC and DOJ's RFI on whether and how to update the antitrust agencies’ merger-enforcement guidelines is based on several faulty premises and appears to presuppose a preferred outcome.
Our comments in response to the agencies’ merger guidelines RFI are broken into two parts. The first raises concerns regarding the agencies’ ultimate intentions as reflected in the RFI, the authority of the assumptions undergirding it, and the agencies’ (mis)understanding of the role of merger guidelines. The second part responds to several of the most pressing and problematic substantive questions raised in the RFI.
With respect to the (for lack of a better term) “process” elements of the agencies’ apparent intended course of action, we argue that the RFI is based on several faulty premises which, if left unchecked, will taint any subsequent soft law proposals based thereon:
First, the RFI seems to presuppose a particular, preferred outcome and does not generally read like an objective request for the best information necessary to reach optimal results. Although some of the language is superficially neutral, the overarching tone is (as Doug Melamed put it) “very tendentious”: the RFI seeks information to support a broad invigoration of merger enforcement. While some certainly contend that strengthening merger-enforcement standards is appropriate, merger guidelines that start from that position can hardly be relied upon by courts as a source of information to differentiate in difficult cases, if and when that may be warranted.
Indeed, the RFI misconstrues the role of merger guidelines, which is to reflect the state of the art in a certain area of antitrust and not to artificially push the accepted scope of knowledge and practice toward a politically preferred and tenuous frontier. The RFI telegraphs an attempt by the agencies to pronounce as settled what are hotly disputed, sometimes stubbornly unresolved issues among experts, all to fit a preconceived political agenda. This not only overreaches the FTC’s and DOJ’s powers, but it also risks galvanizing opposition from the courts, thereby undermining the utility of adopting guidelines in the first place.
Second, underlying the RFI and the agencies’ apparently intended course of action is the uncritical acceptance of a popular, but highly contentious, narrative positing that there is an inexorable trend toward increased concentration, caused by lax antitrust enforcement, that has caused significant harm to the economy. As we explain, however, every element of this narrative withers under closer scrutiny. Rather, the root causes of increased concentration (if it is happening in the first place) are decidedly uncertain; concentration is decreasing in the local markets in which consumers actually make consumption decisions; and there is evidence that, because much increased concentration has been caused by productivity advances rather than anticompetitive conduct, consumers likely benefit from it.
Lastly, the RFI assumes that the current merger-control laws and tools are no longer fit for purpose. Specifically, the agencies imply that current enforcement thresholds and longstanding presumptions, such as the HHI levels that trigger enforcement, allow too many anticompetitive mergers to slip through the cracks. We contend that this kind of myopic thinking fails to apply the relevant error-cost framework. In merger enforcement, as in antitrust law, it is not appropriate to focus narrowly on one set of errors in guiding legal and policy reform. Instead, general-purpose tools and presumptions should be assessed with an eye toward reducing the totality of errors, rather than those arising in one segment at the expense of another.
Substantively, our comments address the following issues:
First, the RFI is concerned with the state of merger enforcement in labor markets (and “monopsony” markets more broadly). While some discussion may be welcome regarding new guidelines for how agencies and courts might begin to approach mergers that affect labor markets, the paucity of past actions in this area (the vast bulk of which have been in a single industry: hospitals); the significant dearth of scholarly analysis of relevant market definition in labor markets; and, above all, the fundamental complexities it raises for the proper metrics of harm in mergers that affect multiple markets, all raise the specter that aiming for specific outcomes in labor markets may undermine the standards that support proper merger enforcement overall. If the agencies are to apply merger-control rules to monopsony markets, they must make clear that the relevant market to analyze is the output market, and not (only) the input market. Ultimately, this is the only way to separate mergers that generate efficiencies from those that create monopsony power, since both have the effect of depressing input prices. If antitrust law is to stay grounded in the consumer welfare standard, as it should, it must avoid blocking mergers that are consumer-facing simply because they decrease the price of an input. The issue of monopsony is further complicated by the fact that many inputs are highly substitutable across a wide range of industries, rendering the relevant market even more difficult to pin down than in traditional product markets.
Second, there is not enough evidence to create the presumption of a negative relationship between market concentration and innovation, or between market concentration and investment. In fact, as we show, it may often be the case that the opposite is true. The agencies should thus be wary of drawing any premature conclusions—let alone establishing any legal presumptions—on the connection between market structure and non-price effects, such as innovation and investment.
Third, the RFI blurs what has hitherto been a clear demarcation—and rightly so—between vertical and horizontal mergers by stretching the meaning of “potential competition” beyond any reasonable limits. In doing, it ascribes stringent theories of harm based on far-fetched hypotheticals to otherwise neutral or benign business conduct. This “horizontalization” of vertical mergers, if allowed to translate into policy, is likely to have chilling effects on procompetitive merger activity to the detriment of consumers and, ultimately, society as a whole. As we show, there is no legal or empirical justification to abandon the time-honed differentiation between horizontal and vertical mergers, or to impose a heightened burden of proof on the latter. The 2018 AT&T merger illustrates this.
Fourth, and despite some facially attractive rhetoric, data should not receive any special treatment under the merger rules. Instead, it should be treated as any other intangible asset, such as reputation, IP, know-how, etc.
Finally, the notion of “attention markets” is not ready to be applied in a merger-control context, as the attention-market scholarship fails to offer objective, let alone quantifiable, criteria that might enable authorities to identify firms that are unique competitors for user attention.
Read the full comments here.
TOTM The States brought an antitrust complaint against Facebook alleging that various conduct violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act. The ICLE brief addresses the States’ . . .
The States brought an antitrust complaint against Facebook alleging that various conduct violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act. The ICLE brief addresses the States’ allegations that Facebook refused to provide access to an input, a set of application-programming interfaces that developers use in order to access Facebook’s network of social-media users (Facebook’s Platform), in order to prevent those third parties from using that access to export Facebook data to competitors or to compete directly with Facebook.
TOTM A raft of progressive scholars in recent years have argued that antitrust law remains blind to the emergence of so-called “attention markets,” in which firms compete by . . .
A raft of progressive scholars in recent years have argued that antitrust law remains blind to the emergence of so-called “attention markets,” in which firms compete by converting user attention into advertising revenue. This blindness, the scholars argue, has caused antitrust enforcers to clear harmful mergers in these industries.
Amicus Brief In this brief for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ICLE and 26 distinguished scholars of law & economics argue that the district court in a suit brought by Epic Games rightly found that Apple’s procompetitive justifications outweigh any purported anticompetitive effects in the market for mobile-gaming transactions.
The International Center for Law & Economics (“ICLE”) is a nonprofit, non- partisan global research and policy center aimed at 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 antitrust law and policy.
Amici also include 26 scholars of antitrust, law, and economics at leading universities and research institutions around the world. Their names, titles, and academic affiliations are listed in Addendum A. All have longstanding expertise in, and copious research on, antitrust law and economics.
Amici have an interest in ensuring that antitrust promotes the public interest by remaining grounded in sensible legal rules informed by sound economic analysis. Amici believe that Epic’s arguments deviate from that standard and promote the private interests of slighted competitors at the expense of the public welfare.
Epic challenges Apple’s prohibition of third-party app stores and in-app payments (“IAP”) systems from operating on its proprietary, iOS platform as a violation of the antitrust laws. But, as the district court concluded, Epic’s real concern is its own business interests in the face of Apple’s business model—in particular, the commission charged for the use of Apple’s IAP system. See Order at 1-ER22, Epic Games, Inc. v. Apple Inc., No. 4:20-CV-05640 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 10, 2021), ECF No. 812 (1-ER3–183). In essence, Epic is trying to recast its objection to Apple’s 30% commission for use of Apple’s optional IAP system as a harm to consumers and competition more broadly.
Epic takes issue with the district court’s proper consideration of Apple’s procompetitive justifications and its finding that those justifications outweigh any anticompetitive effects of Apple’s business model. But Epic’s case fails at step one of the rule of reason analysis. Indeed, Epic did not demonstrate that Apple’s app distribution and IAP practices caused the significant market-wide effects that the Supreme Court in Ohio v. Am. Express Co. (“Amex”) deemed necessary to show anticompetitive harm in cases involving two-sided transaction markets. 138 S. Ct. 2274, 2285–86 (2018). While the district court found that Epic demonstrated some anticompetitive effects, Epic’s arguments below focused only on the effects that Apple’s conduct had on certain app developers and failed to appropriately examine whether consumers were harmed overall. This is fatal. Without further evidence of the effect of Apple’s app distribution and IAP practices on consumers, no conclusions can be reached about the competitive effects of Apple’s conduct.
Nor can an appropriate examination of anticompetitive effects ignore output. It is critical to consider whether the challenged app distribution and IAP practices reduce output of market-wide app transactions. Yet Epic did not seriously challenge that output increased by every measure, and Epic’s Amici ignore output altogether.
Moreover, the district court examined the one-sided anticompetitive harms presented by Epic, but rightly found that Apple’s procompetitive justifications outweigh any purported anticompetitive effects in the market for mobile gaming transactions. The court recognized that the development and maintenance of a closed iOS system and Apple’s control over IAP confers enormous benefits on users and app developers.
Finally, Epic’s reliance on the theoretical existence of less restrictive alternatives (“LRA”) to Apple’s business model is misplaced. Forcing Apple to adopt the “open” platform that Epic champions would reduce interbrand competition, and improperly permit antitrust plaintiffs to commandeer the judiciary to modify routine business conduct any time a plaintiff’s attorney or district court can imagine a less restrictive version of a challenged practice, irrespective of whether the practice promotes consumer welfare. See NCAA v. Alston, 141 S. Ct. 2141, 2161 (2021) (“[C]ourts should not second-guess ‘degrees of reasonable necessity’ so that ‘the lawfulness of conduct turn[s] upon judgments of degrees of e?ciency.’”). Particularly in the context of two-sided platform businesses, such an approach would sacrifice interbrand, systems-level competition for the sake of a superficial increase in competition among a small subset of platform users.
Read the full brief here.