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Is European Competition Law Protectionist? Unpacking the Commission’s Unflattering Track Record

TOTM In a new ICLE Issue Brief, we question whether there is any merit to these claims of protectionism. We show that, since the entry into force of Regulation 1/2003, US firms have borne the lion’s share of monetary penalties imposed by the Commission for breaches of competition law.

Last month, the European Commission slapped another fine upon Google for infringing European competition rules (€1.49 billion this time). This brings Google’s contribution to the EU budget to a dizzying total of €8.25 billion (to put this into perspective, the total EU budget for 2019 is €165.8 billion). Given this massive number, and the geographic location of Google’s headquarters, it is perhaps not surprising that some high-profile commentators, including former President Obama and President Trump, have raised concerns about potential protectionism on the Commission’s part.

Read the full piece here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Is European Competition Law Protectionist? Unpacking the Commission’s Unflattering Track record

ICLE Issue Brief Last month, the European Commission slapped another fine upon Google for infringing European competition rules (€1.49 billion this time). This brings Google’s contribution to the EU budget to a dizzying total of €8.25 billion (to put this into perspective, the total EU budget for 2019 is €165.8 billion).

Introduction

 

I told you so! The European Union just slapped a Five Billion Dollar fine on one of our great companies, Google. They truly have taken advantage of the U.S., but not for long!

Donald Trump

When I look into merger control, antitrust control, state aid control, I find no U.S. bias.”

Margrethe Vestager

 

Last month, the European Commission slapped another fine upon Google for infringing European competition rules (€1.49 billion this time). This brings Google’s contribution to the EU budget to a dizzying total of €8.25 billion (to put this into perspective, the total EU budget for 2019 is €165.8 billion). Given this massive number, and the geographic location of Google’s headquarters, it is perhaps not surprising that some commentators have raised concerns about potential protectionism on the Commission’s part.

This is nothing new. Critics have long argued that European competition law has been used to shield European industries from their large American rivals. From the notorious decision to block the GE/Honeywell merger in 2001, to more recent enforcement activities in the tech sector, every European intervention against a US company tends to usher in a fresh wave of accusations.

This criticism has come from both sides of the US political aisle, and both Donald Trump (quoted above) and Barack Obama have led the charge during their respective Administrations. Referring to European investigations against US tech companies such as Facebook and Google, then President Obama famously decried that:

Sometimes their vendors—their service providers—who can’t compete with ours, are essentially trying to set up some roadblocks for our companies to operate effectively there. We have owned the Internet. Our companies have created it, expanded it, perfected it, in ways they can’t compete. And oftentimes what is portrayed as high-minded positions on issues sometimes is designed to carve out their commercial interests.

But is there any merit to these claims of protectionism? A quick look at the monetary penalties assessed by recent decisions of the European Commission reveals that its enforcement activities (under article 101 and 102 TFEU, excluding cartels) have disproportionately affected US companies. Since the entry into force of Regulation 1/2003 (the main piece of legislation that implements the competition provisions of the EU treaties), US companies have been fined a total of €10.91 billion by the European Commission, compared to €1.17 billion for their European counterparts. On its face, this seems to stand in stark contrast to the findings of a recent study by Anu Bradford, Robert Jackson, and Jonathon Zytnick, which rejects claims that EU merger control is biased against US firms (findings that are certainly bolstered by the Commission’s condemnation of the contemplated merger between Siemens and Alstom).

As we explain, the harsh fines inflicted upon US firms are not necessarily evidence of protectionism.

Instead, they are likely a result of the Commission’s decision to focus significant attention on the tech sector. Because the vast majority of large tech firms are US-based, all else equal, it is to be expected that the majority of investigations and enforcement actions would involve US firms. At the same time, for reasons also discussed below, the Commission’s tech-industry focus may tend to lead to larger fines when infringements are found.

Nevertheless, some caution is warranted with this conclusion. It bears noting that the Commission is a political body, and, as we discuss below, it is hardly structured to be immune to domestic political influences that may tend toward protectionism. The decision to prioritize enforcement in the tech sector is not taken in a vacuum. Whether this policy preference is down to legitimate concerns about high-tech markets or to (potentially unconscious) protectionism is almost impossible to tell. Similarly, neither a finding of infringement nor the magnitude of the fine imposed is mechanical: Even if its outcomes generally correspond with the expected outcomes from a country-neutral, tech-sector focus, the specific decisions the Commission makes, as well as the magnitude of the fines it imposes, may show a protectionist bias. Without a more robust statistical analysis it is impossible to rule out entirely the possibility that these decisions are influenced by a protectionist impulse, as well.

Click here to read the full issue brief. 

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

STRUCTURALIST INNOVATION: A SHAKY LEGAL PRESUMPTION IN NEED OF AN OVERHAUL

ICLE Issue Brief How does a market’s structure affect innovation? This crucial question has occupied the world’s brightest economists for almost a century, from Schumpeter who found that monopoly was optimal, through Arrow who concluded that competitive market structures were key, to the endogenous growth scholars who empirically derived an inverted-U relationship between market concentration and innovation.

Introduction

How does a market’s structure affect innovation? This crucial question has occupied the world’s brightest economists for almost a century, from Schumpeter who found that monopoly was optimal, through Arrow who concluded that competitive market structures were key, to the endogenous growth scholars who empirically derived an inverted-U relationship between market concentration and innovation. Despite these pioneering contributions to our understanding of competition and innovation, if the past century of innovation economics has taught us anything it is that no market structure is strictly superior at generating innovation. Just as the SCP paradigm ultimately faltered because structural presumptions were a weak predictor of market outcomes, so too have dreams of divining the optimal market structure for innovation. Instead, in any given case, the right market structure likely depends on a plethora of sector- and firm-specific characteristics that range from the size and riskiness of innovation-related investments to the appropriability mechanisms used by firms, regulatory compliance costs, and the rate of technological change, among many others.

Against this backdrop, it may come as a surprise that the European Commission believes it has cracked the innovation market structure conundrum. Throughout its recent competition decisions, the Commission has almost systematically concluded that more firms in any given market will produce greater choice and more innovation for consumers. I call this the “Structuralist Innovation Presumption.” Notably, this presumption seems to have played a pivotal role in the recent Google Android decision (although the text of the Commission’s decision is not yet publicly available).

In what follows I argue that the Structuralist Innovation Presumption is a misguided heuristic that antitrust authorities around the globe would do well to avoid. Although it has been almost unequivocally endorsed by the European Commission, the presumption is at odds with the mainstream economics of innovation. To make matters worse, structuralist innovation also ignores the complex second-order effects that may arise when antitrust intervention tampers with rapidly evolving markets.

Click here to read the full paper. 

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

The Amazon investigation and Europe’s “Big Tech” Crusade

TOTM The dust has barely settled on the European Commission’s record-breaking €4.3 Billion Google Android fine, but already the European Commission is gearing up for its next high-profile case.

The dust has barely settled on the European Commission’s record-breaking €4.3 Billion Google Android fine, but already the European Commission is gearing up for its next high-profile case. Last month, Margrethe Vestager dropped a competition bombshell: the European watchdog is looking into the behavior of Amazon. Should the Commission decide to move further with the investigation, Amazon will likely join other US tech firms such as Microsoft, Intel, Qualcomm and, of course, Google, who have all been on the receiving end of European competition enforcement.

Read the full piece here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Antitrust Principles and Evidence-Based Antitrust Under the Consumer Welfare Standard (FTC Hearings, ICLE Comment 5)

Written Testimonies & Filings FTC Hearings on Competition & Consumer Protection in the 21 st Century. Comments of the International Center for Law & Economics: Antitrust Principles and Evidence-Based Antitrust Under the Consumer Welfare Standard. Hearing #1 (Sep. 13, 2018). Submitted October 14, 2018.

Comments of the International Center for Law & Economics:

Since the original Pitofsky hearings at the dawn of the Internet era, much has fundamentally changed in the way the firms do businesses. Yet, despite these rapid and fundamental shifts in technology and behavior, we still face many of the same policy challenges as existed twenty-plus years ago. Innovation always yields both costs and benefits, meaning that some firms will face adverse effects as the environment in which they developed their business changes. Unfortunately, some antitrust observers use this reality as an opportunity to advocate for problematic changes in the underlying law.

Yet, in the face of these changes, time-tested antitrust principles become even more important, and the focus of enforcers and lawmakers should be in favor or maintaining and strengthening the existing consumer welfare standard. It is a standard rooted in testable, empirical realities, and is designed to lead to reproducible outcomes that redound to the benefit of consumers. These comments explore a number of important areas, including: 

  1. Competition and consumer protection issues in communication, information, and media technology networks;
  2. The identification and measurement of market power and entry barriers, and the evaluation of collusive, exclusionary, or predatory conduct or conduct that violates the consumer protection statutes enforced by the FTC, in markets featuring “platform” businesses;
  3. The intersection between privacy, big data, and competition;
  4. The Commission’s remedial authority to deter unfair and deceptive conduct in privacy and data security matters; and
  5. Evaluating the competitive effects of corporate acquisitions and mergers.

By combining lessons from the history of antitrust policy and contemporary economics, this analysis elucidates the key issues faced by the antitrust enforcers as they consider the future of antitrust policy. To date, no better alternative has been proposed, and enforcement agencies should tread lightly when considering alterations that would undermine the solid foundations of antitrust law. The unfortunate outcome of many calls to reform would be to return antitrust law to an era of politicized enforcement, lower consumer welfare, and greater uncertainty for firms operating in the economy.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Privacy, Antitrust, and the Economic Approach to the Regulation of Consumer Data (FTC Hearings, ICLE Comment 4)

Written Testimonies & Filings FTC Hearings on Competition & Consumer Protection in the 21 st Century. Comments of the International Center for Law & Economics: Privacy, Antitrust, and the Economic Approach to the Regulation of Consumer Data. Hearing #1 (Sep. 13, 2018). Submitted October 14, 2018.

Comments of the International Center for Law & Economics:

Increasingly, people use the Internet to connect with one another, access information, and purchase products and services. The growth in the online marketplace has brought with it numerous concerns, particularly regarding the privacy of personal information and competition issues surrounding this and other data.

While concerns about privacy are not unique to the Internet ecosystem, they are in some ways heightened due to the ubiquitous nature of information sharing online. Though much of the sharing is voluntary, a group of scholars and activists have argued that several powerful online companies have overstepped their bounds in gathering and using data from Internet users. These advocates have pushed the FTC and regulators in Europe to incorporate privacy and more general data collection concerns into antitrust analysis.

Although there are a number of unique dimensions to online data sharing that bear consideration, the necessary analysis is much more nuanced than reform advocates typically admit.

First, despite their best efforts, privacy advocates have yet to make a compelling case that quality-adjusted price may be affected by monopolization of data or a merger of entities with large quantities of data. Making such a case requires considerably more analysis than that offered by privacy advocates to date. Rather, the collection and use of relatively large amounts of information by a large firm actually serves as a tool to help such a firm improve the quality of its products. In the modern tech economy, large pools of data and their effective use frequently permit firms to offer services to consumers for zero price. Improving product quality (by offering more tailored products with collected data) while maintaining a constant zero price — i.e., decreasing quality-adjusted price — is not normally an antitrust injury.

Second, the potential, if any, for price discrimination practices to cause privacy harms to consumers is not subject to a simple analysis. One argument offered by critics of data collection is that price discrimination could become a harm when large tech platforms are able to collect a great deal of data about their users, and could thereby segment their users along certain private characteristics in order to offer tailored services. The resulting price discrimination could lead to many consumers paying more than they would in the absence of the data collection. Therefore, the data collection by these major online companies can be alleged to facilitate price discrimination that harms consumer welfare. This argument misses a large part of the story, however. The flip side is that price discrimination could have benefits to those who receive lower prices from the scheme than they would have in the absence of the data collection. While privacy advocates have focused on the possible negative effects of price discrimination to one subset of consumers, they generally ignore the positive effects of businesses being able to expand output by serving previously underserved consumers.

Finally, little evidence has been presented to bolster the claim that tech platforms can employ large pools of data as barriers to entry against competitors. The various theories of how this can arise all stem from an underlying assumption about the inability or difficulty of competitors to develop alternative products in the marketplace. The argument is that upstarts do not have sufficient data to compete with established players which in turn employ their data to attract online advertisers and to foreclose their competitors from this crucial source of revenue. This argument suffers from a number of deficiencies.

Superior competition, notably through data, is not a barrier to entry. It is a mistake to regard data as essential in many, if not all, cases, particularly in the complex ecosystem of online platforms, where that same data can be used by platforms to facilitate new entry. Further, data is useful to all industries — this is not a new phenomenon particular to online companies. Companies have historically employed a variety of measures to gather data on their customers. It is also a mistake to assume that simply having a large amount of data is worth anything at all. It is not in the possession of data that a firm finds success, but in how intelligently the firm uses that data to optimize its services or otherwise generate a revenue stream. Start-ups are not necessarily less capable of generating value from relatively smaller pools of data simply by virtue of having a small set of data. 

And the possession of data provides no absolute advantage to a firm in a world in which competition is just a click or a swipe away. Users can and do defect from products easily. Moreover, access to data is not exclusive to any firm. If one platform collects certain useful data about a user it does not possess that data to the exclusion of all others. Other firms are free to make the same observations about the same sets of users.

Click here to read the full comments.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Has the U.S. Economy Become More Concentrated and Less Competitive? (FTC Hearings, ICLE Comment 3)

Written Testimonies & Filings FTC Hearings on Competition & Consumer Protection in the 21st Century. Comments of the International Center for Law & Economics: Has the U.S. Economy Become More Concentrated and Less Competitive? Hearing #1 (Sep. 13, 2018). Submitted October 14, 2018.

[feature_embed image=”/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/ftc-bldg-400×200.png” meta_icon=”/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/ICLE-icon_News-Type_ICLE-in-the-News.svg” meta_text=”FTC 21st Century Hearings” ]An ICLE Commentary Series.[/feature_embed]

Comments of the International Center for Law & Economics:

When examining the currently in vogue  (and incorrect) claims that the economy is more concentrated and, therefore, less competitive, three important principles must be understood.

First, there is no rigorous economic support for claims that high concentration levels are a strong indicator of harm to competition, let alone that they trigger a presumption of such harm in antitrust analysis. Instead, such assertions are based on a simple inference of competitive effects from market structures, and the unsupported assumption that an increase in concentration can mean only a reduction in competition. The problem is that no such inference can be made.

Second, parties seeking to challenge mergers often rely substantially on structural presumptions, and notably on claims regarding a deal’s assessment under the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI). In particular, they often urge consideration of the market’s HHI and the transaction’s purported effect on it, asserting that even the HHI alone counsels against a merger. But, as we note at length in the attached comments, HHIs simply can’t bear the weight put on them.

Finally, it is important to understand the shortcomings of recent empirical research which claims to show that increased concentration does, in fact, lead to higher prices or other competitive harm. One such example that is sometimes relied upon is the recent merger retrospective study by Professor John Kwoka. Unfortunately, Professor Kwoka’s study—and the econometric literature of which it is a part—cannot bear the weight placed upon it.

Click here to read the full comments.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

The Current Landscape of Competition and Consumer Protection Law and Policy (FTC Hearings, ICLE Comment 2)

Written Testimonies & Filings FTC Hearings on Competition & Consumer Protection in the 21st Century. Comments of the International Center for Law & Economics: The current landscape of competition and consumer protection law and policy. Hearing #1 (Sep. 13, 2018). Submitted October 14, 2018.

Comments of the International Center for Law & Economics:

Despite the vast social benefits generated by companies operating in the digital economy, this economic transformation has stoked fears amongst members of the general public, the press, and policymakers. It has led to calls for interventionist policies such as heightened antitrust enforcement, sector-specific regulation, and direct intervention against industry concentration.

Unfortunately, there is insufficient evidence and, at best, ambivalent theory to support any of these proposed policies—and in the absence of a strong basis for adopting them, the proposed policies would do more harm than good. Among other things, economies of scale, economies of scope, network effects, and the like may bring about larger firms and more concentrated markets along with considerable consumer benefits. And new markets necessarily imply the consolidation of some firms and the exit of others, as competitors vie to come up with the winning paradigm.

Against the backdrop of this evolutionary process, it is critical that authorities avoid knee-jerk reactions that may impair the long-term welfare of consumers and firms alike.

To steer clear of these acute false positives, we urge policymakers to base their enforcement efforts on the tried and tested “law and economics” approach. This approach seeks to maximize consumer welfare and places a heavy emphasis on evidence-based scholarship. In doing so, it promotes innovation and minimizes the costs of policy errors.

Following this analytical framework will enable competition authorities to better address issues of exclusion and exploitation — as well as those of innovation and efficiency — in the digital economy.

Read the full comments here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

ICLE response to the European commission’s public consultation on “shaping competition policy in the era of digitisation”

Written Testimonies & Filings ICLE and a number of its European affiliates have recently responded to the European commission’s public consultation on “shaping competition policy in the era of . . .

ICLE and a number of its European affiliates have recently responded to the European commission’s public consultation on “shaping competition policy in the era of digitisation.” In our submission, we argue that competition policy in the digital economy should be based on sound, theoretical underpinnings and rigorous, evidence-based analysis, best encapsulated in the “law and economics” approach. Despite many expressed fears to the contrary, digital markets are not inherently prone to anticompetitive behavior, and the weight of economic theory and evidence offer little support for the asserted risk of harm. We thus argue that competition intervention should take into account the uncertainty of harm, the presence of countervailing benefits and the problems of devising an effective remedy.

Our submission notably challenges the idea that leveraging, consumer lock-in, network effects, and data collection necessarily lead to winner-take all situations where digital platforms exclude their rivals and exploit their users. Instead, we show that these phenomena are just as likely (if not more likely) to benefit consumers as they are to be anticompetitive. Leveraging may, for instance, increase market output by enabling firms to offer superior products. Far from monopoly being the constant problem plaguing markets characterized by network effects, fragmentation is often more of an issue, and mandating smaller networks can limit users’ ability to coordinate on a preferred platform.

Of crucial importance in evaluating the conduct of online platforms is the awareness that in such two-sided markets one side of the market may subsidize another or operate under contractual restraints aimed at improving the platform for other participants. These characteristics frequently enable the platform to function effectively—even though, viewed in isolation, they might appear to amount to supracompetitive pricing or anticompetitive restrictions. The interdependent nature of online platforms thus makes it difficult to assert that a price increase or other action that allegedly harms users on only one side of the market represents a harmful course of conduct overall. The only way to assess the propriety of such conduct is to look at its effect on output across the entire market, taking account of the full range of costs and benefits.

Our submission also demonstrates that the advent of the “data economy” does not presumptively alter the balance of competition enforcement. Indeed, the mere fact that an incumbent owns large amounts of data may be an indication of successful competition of precisely the sort competition laws are designed to encourage. It certainly does not inherently constitute a barrier to entry, much less an essential facility, that could trigger antitrust enforcement.

Because the digital economy is built upon tremendous investments in innovation, we also argue that competition enforcement should pay particularly close attention to firms’ incentives to innovate. It is well-established that expected profits are generally a precondition for innovation. Accordingly, competition enforcers must walk a very fine line between punishing anticompetitive conduct that might deter innovation by new entrants, and protecting incumbent innovators’ incentives by avoiding enforcement activity that punishes firms experimenting on the frontiers of their industries.

In the final analysis, we argue that European competition authorities should consider carefully how little certainty we have about digital markets and the effects of challenged conduct within them, and operate with the restraint and regulatory humility appropriate to our ignorance.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection