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Conflicting Missions: The Risks of the Digital Markets Unit to Competition and Innovation

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.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Lawmaking and Legislative Procedure in the European Union

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.

Background…

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.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

The Digital Markets Act

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.

Background…

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.

But…

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.

Read the full explainer here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Rolled by Rewheel, Redux

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.

Read the full piece here.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

Making Sense of the Google Android Decision

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.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

The Digital Policy of the Next EU Commission: All roads Lead to Margrethe Vestager

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.

Read the full piece here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Christopher Yoo at FTC Hearing #11: The FTC’s Role in a Changing World

Presentations & Interviews ICLE Academic Affiliate Christopher Yoo participated in the FTC’s Hearing #11: The FTC’s Role in a Changing World on the panel, Implications of Different Legal . . .

ICLE Academic Affiliate Christopher Yoo participated in the FTC’s Hearing #11: The FTC’s Role in a Changing World on the panel, Implications of Different Legal Traditions and Regimes for International Cooperation. Read the full transcript here. Video of the event is embedded below

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Price Discrimination in International Airline Markets

Scholarship Abstract We develop a model of inter-temporal and intra-temporal price discrimination by monopoly airlines to study the ability of different discriminatory pricing mechanisms to increase . . .

Abstract

We develop a model of inter-temporal and intra-temporal price discrimination by monopoly airlines to study the ability of different discriminatory pricing mechanisms to increase e?iciency and the associated distributional implications. To estimate the model, we use unique data from international airline markets with flight-level variation in prices across time, cabins, and markets and information on passengers’ reasons for travel and time of purchase. The current pricing practice yields approximately 77% of the first-best welfare. The source of this ine?iciency arises primarily from private information about passenger valuations, not dynamic uncertainty about demand. We also find that if airlines could discriminate between business and leisure passengers, total welfare would improve at the expense of business passenger surplus. Also, replacing the current pricing that involves screening passengers across cabin classes with offering a single cabin class has minimal effect on total welfare.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

The destiny of telecom regulation is antitrust

TOTM This week the FCC will vote on Chairman Ajit Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Once implemented, the Order will rescind the 2015 Open Internet Order and return . . .

This week the FCC will vote on Chairman Ajit Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Once implemented, the Order will rescind the 2015 Open Internet Order and return antitrust and consumer protection enforcement to primacy in Internet access regulation in the U.S.

Read the full piece here.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities