FTC Deservedly Closes Google Antitrust Investigation Without Taking Action
I have been a critic of the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation into Google since it was a gleam in its competitors’ eyes—skeptical that there was any basis for a case, and concerned about the effect on consumers, innovation and investment if a case were brought.
While it took the Commission more than a year and a half to finally come to the same conclusion, ultimately the FTC had no choice but to close the case that was a “square peg, round hole” problem from the start.
Now that the FTC’s investigation has concluded, an examination of the nature of the markets in which Google operates illustrates why this crusade was ill-conceived from the start. In short, the “realities on the ground” strongly challenged the logic and relevance of many of the claims put forth by Google’s critics. Nevertheless, the politics are such that their nonsensical claims continue, in different forums, with competitors continuing to hope that they can wrangle a regulatory solution to their competitive problem.
The case against Google rested on certain assumptions about the functioning of the markets in which Google operates. Because these are tech markets, constantly evolving and complex, most assumptions about the scope of these markets and competitive effects within them are imperfect at best. But there are some attributes of Google’s markets—conveniently left out of the critics’ complaints— that, properly understood, painted a picture for the FTC that undermined the basic, essential elements of an antitrust case against the company.
That case was seriously undermined by the nature and extent of competition in the markets the FTC was investigating. Most importantly, casual references to a “search market” and “search advertising market” aside, Google actually competes in the market for targeted eyeballs: a market aimed to offer up targeted ads to interested users. Search offers a valuable opportunity for targeting an advertiser’s message, but it is by no means alone: there are myriad (and growing) other mechanisms to access consumers online.
Consumers use Google because they are looking for information — but there are lots of ways to do that. There are plenty of apps that circumvent Google, and consumers are increasingly going to specialized sites to find what they are looking for. The search market, if a distinct one ever existed, has evolved into an online information market that includes far more players than those who just operate traditional search engines.
We live in a world where what prevails today won’t prevail tomorrow. The tech industry is constantly changing, and it is the height of folly (and a serious threat to innovation and consumer welfare) to constrain the activities of firms competing in such an environment by pigeonholing the market. In other words, in a proper market, Google looks significantly less dominant. More important, perhaps, as search itself evolves, and as Facebook, Amazon and others get into the search advertising game, Google’s strong position even in the overly narrow “search market” is far from unassailable.
This is progress — creative destruction — not regress, and such changes should not be penalized.
Another common refrain from Google’s critics was that Google’s access to immense amounts of data used to increase the quality of its targeting presented a barrier to competition that no one else could match, thus protecting Google’s unassailable monopoly. But scale comes in lots of ways.
Even if scale doesn’t come cheaply, the fact that challenging firms might have to spend the same (or, in this case, almost certainly less) Google did in order to replicate its success is not a “barrier to entry” that requires an antitrust remedy. Data about consumer interests is widely available (despite efforts to reduce the availability of such data in the name of protecting “privacy”—which might actually create barriers to entry). It’s never been the case that a firm has to generate its own inputs for every product it produces — and there’s no reason to suggest search or advertising is any different.
Additionally, to defend a claim of monopolization, it is generally required to show that the alleged monopolist enjoys protection from competition through barriers to entry. In Google’s case, the barriers alleged were illusory. Bing and other recent entrants in the general search business have enjoyed success precisely because they were able to obtain the inputs (in this case, data) necessary to develop competitive offerings.
Meanwhile unanticipated competitors like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and others continue to knock at Google’s metaphorical door, all of them entering into competition with Google using data sourced from creative sources, and all of them potentially besting Google in the process. Consider, for example, Amazon’s recent move into the targeted advertising market, competing with Google to place ads on websites across the Internet, but with the considerable advantage of being able to target ads based on searches, or purchases, a user has made on Amazon—the world’s largest product search engine.
Now that the investigation has concluded, we come away with two major findings. First, the online information market is dynamic, and it is a fool’s errand to identify the power or significance of any player in these markets based on data available today — data that is already out of date between the time it is collected and the time it is analyzed.
Second, each development in the market – whether offered by Google or its competitors and whether facilitated by technological change or shifting consumer preferences – has presented different, novel and shifting opportunities and challenges for companies interested in attracting eyeballs, selling ad space and data, earning revenue and obtaining market share. To say that Google dominates “search” or “online advertising” missed the mark precisely because there was simply nothing especially antitrust-relevant about either search or online advertising. Because of their own unique products, innovations, data sources, business models, entrepreneurship and organizations, all of these companies have challenged and will continue to challenge the dominant company — and the dominant paradigm — in a shifting and evolving range of markets.
It would be churlish not to give credit where credit is due—and credit is due the FTC. I continue to think the investigation should have ended before it began, of course, but the FTC is to be commended for reaching this result amidst an overwhelming barrage of pressure to “do something.”
But there are others in this sadly politicized mess for whom neither the facts nor the FTC’s extensive investigation process (nor the finer points of antitrust law) are enough. Like my four-year-old daughter, they just “want what they want,” and they will stamp their feet until they get it.
While competitors will be competitors—using the regulatory system to accomplish what they can’t in the market—they do a great disservice to the very customers they purport to be protecting in doing so. As Milton Friedman famously said, in decrying “The Business Community’s Suicidal Impulse“:
As a believer in the pursuit of self-interest in a competitive capitalist system, I can’t blame a businessman who goes to Washington and tries to get special privileges for his company.… Blame the rest of us for being so foolish as to let him get away with it.
I do blame businessmen when, in their political activities, individual businessmen and their organizations take positions that are not in their own self-interest and that have the effect of undermining support for free private enterprise. In that respect, businessmen tend to be schizophrenic. When it comes to their own businesses, they look a long time ahead, thinking of what the business is going to be like 5 to 10 years from now. But when they get into the public sphere and start going into the problems of politics, they tend to be very shortsighted.
Ironically, Friedman was writing about the antitrust persecution of Microsoft by its rivals back in 1999:
Is it really in the self-interest of Silicon Valley to set the government on Microsoft? Your industry, the computer industry, moves so much more rapidly than the legal process, that by the time this suit is over, who knows what the shape of the industry will be.… [Y]ou will rue the day when you called in the government.
Among Microsoft’s chief tormentors was Gary Reback. He’s spent the last few years beating the drum against Google—but singing from the same song book. Reback recently told the Washington Post, “if a settlement were to be proposed that didn’t include search, the institutional integrity of the FTC would be at issue.” Actually, no it wouldn’t. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true. It’s hard to imagine an agency under more pressure, from more quarters (including the Hill), to bring a case around search. Doing so would at least raise the possibility that it were doing so because of pressure and not the merits of the case. But not doing so in the face of such pressure? That can almost only be a function of institutional integrity.
As another of Google’s most-outspoken critics, Tom Barnett, noted:
[The FTC has] really put [itself] in the position where they are better positioned now than any other agency in the U.S. is likely to be in the immediate future to address these issues. I would encourage them to take the issues as seriously as they can. To the extent that they concur that Google has violated the law, there are very good reasons to try to address the concerns as quickly as possible.
As Barnett acknowledges, there is no question that the FTC investigated these issues more fully than anyone. The agency’s institutional culture and its committed personnel, together with political pressure, media publicity and endless competitor entreaties, virtually ensured that the FTC took the issues “as seriously as they [could]” – in fact, as seriously as anyone else in the world. There is simply no reasonable way to criticize the FTC for being insufficiently thorough in its investigation and conclusions.
Nor is there a basis for claiming that the FTC is “standing in the way” of the courts’ ability to review the issue, as Scott Cleland contends in an op-ed in the Hill. Frankly, this is absurd. Google’s competitors have spent millions pressuring the FTC to bring a case. But the FTC isn’t remotely the only path to the courts. As Commissioner Rosch admonished,
They can darn well bring [a case] as a private antitrust action if they think their ox is being gored instead of free-riding on the government to achieve the same result.
Competitors have already beaten a path to the DOJ’s door, and investigations are still pending in the EU, Argentina, several US states, and elsewhere. That the agency that has leveled the fullest and best-informed investigation has concluded that there is no “there” there should give these authorities pause, but, sadly for consumers who would benefit from an end to competitors’ rent seeking, nothing the FTC has done actually prevents courts or other regulators from having a crack at Google.
The case against Google has received more attention from the FTC than the merits of the case ever warranted. It is time for Google’s critics and competitors to move on.