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ICLE Statement on the FCC Reinstatement of Net Neutrality

PORTLAND, Ore. (Sept. 26, 2023) – The International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) offers the following statement from ICLE Director of Innovation Policy Kristian . . .

PORTLAND, Ore. (Sept. 26, 2023) – The International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) offers the following statement from ICLE Director of Innovation Policy Kristian Stout in response to today’s announcement by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Jessica Rosenworcel that the FCC plans to open the process for reimposing net neutrality:

Despite dire predictions, the internet has thrived in the absence of utility-style net-neutrality regulations. When the FCC repealed net neutrality in 2018, advocates claimed that without these rules, innovation would cease and access would suffer. But the opposite has occurred: more services are available at faster speeds than ever before. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our broadband networks proved remarkably robust, supporting a massive shift to remote work and school. U.S. networks also outperformed those in many countries with net-neutrality rules. These facts demonstrate that heavy-handed regulation is not needed to preserve a free and open internet.

Moreover, the FCC does not have clear authority from Congress to reclassify broadband as a common-carrier service or to impose utility-style regulations. As the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear through its “major questions” doctrine, federal agencies cannot make major regulatory moves without explicit authorization from Congress. Regulating net neutrality involves complex economic and political considerations that Congress has actively debated, without granting the FCC power to resolve them. Any attempt by the FCC to adopt net-neutrality rules through reclassification would likely be struck down by the Supreme Court as exceeding the agency’s authority. Rather than wasting time and resources pursuing legally dubious regulations, the FCC should allow Congress to legislate on this major policy issue.

To schedule an interview with Kristian about the FCC’s planned regulations, contact ICLE Media and Communications Manager Elizabeth Lincicome at [email protected] or (919) 744-8087.

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Gomez Confirmed to FCC: Here Comes Net Neutrality, But First…

TOTM The U.S. Senate moved yesterday in a 55-43 vote to confirm Anna Gomez to the Federal Communications Commission. Her confirmation breaks a partisan deadlock at . . .

The U.S. Senate moved yesterday in a 55-43 vote to confirm Anna Gomez to the Federal Communications Commission. Her confirmation breaks a partisan deadlock at the agency that has been in place since the beginning of the Biden administration, when Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel vacated her seat to become FCC chair.

The commission now has a 3-2 Democratic majority. With the new majority, many speculate that the FCC will push to bring back net neutrality, which President Joe Biden supports. The president’s July 9, 2021 executive order specifically “encouraged” the FCC to “[r]estore Net Neutrality rules undone by the prior administration.” Deadline reminds us that Gomez served as counselor to Obama-era FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, when the commission voted to reclassify broadband service under the banner of net neutrality.

Read the full piece here.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

Network Slicing and Net Neutrality

Scholarship Abstract Whether network slicing complies with the net neutrality rules currently in force in Europe and previously applicable in the U.S. presents a key issue . . .


Whether network slicing complies with the net neutrality rules currently in force in Europe and previously applicable in the U.S. presents a key issue in the deployment of 5G. In many ways, both regimes frame the issues in a similar manner, with the exceptions for reasonable traffic management and specialized services likely to play the most important roles. Both regimes also focus on similar considerations, including the requirement that measures be based on technical rather than business considerations and the distinction between measures aimed at improving the performance of the entire network or specific applications, although both distinctions are problematic in some respects. Both regimes also emphasize application agnosticism and end-user choice, with European law finding the former implicit in the latter. At the same time, European and U.S. law reflect some key differences: the regimes cover different types of entities, frame the issues in terms of nondiscrimination versus throttling and paid prioritization, take different positions on whether measures must be limited to temporary or exceptional circumstances, and place different weight on the impact of the rules on investment and on the relevance industry standards. The relatively undeveloped state of both legal regimes means that the ultimate answer must await enforcement decisions and actions by NRAs, and any subsequent judicial challenges to these decisions.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

Two FCC Commissioners Walk Into a Bar 

TOTM Grab a partner, find a group, and square up for Truth on the Market’s second Telecom Hootenanny. We’ve got spectrum auctions, broadband subsidies, and a . . .

Grab a partner, find a group, and square up for Truth on the Market’s second Telecom Hootenanny. We’ve got spectrum auctions, broadband subsidies, and a European 5G tango.

Read the full piece here.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

There’s Nothing ‘Fair’ About EU Telecoms’ Proposed ‘Fair Share’ Plan

TOTM The European Commission’s recently concluded consultation on “the future of the electronic communications sector and its infrastructure” was a curious phenomenon in which the commission . . .

The European Commission’s recently concluded consultation on “the future of the electronic communications sector and its infrastructure” was a curious phenomenon in which the commission revived the seemingly dead-and-buried idea of a legally mandated “sender pays” network-traffic scheme, despite the fact that it remains as unpopular and discredited as it was when last discussed roughly a decade ago.

Read the full piece here.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

Senate Should Press Biden FCC Nominee on Rate Regulation

Popular Media President Joe Biden’s big plans for the Federal Communications Commission, including the reimposition of so-called “net neutrality” rules that were rolled back during the Trump . . .

President Joe Biden’s big plans for the Federal Communications Commission, including the reimposition of so-called “net neutrality” rules that were rolled back during the Trump years, may finally move forward if the U.S. Senate agrees to confirm Biden’s recent nominee Anna Gomez to be the commission’s fifth member and decisive vote.

A history of support for net neutrality was one of the things that ultimately doomed the confirmation prospects for prior nominee Gigi Sohn, who withdrew her name in February, 16 months after Biden originally nominated her. Senators are sure to press Gomez for her thoughts on the same issue, as they should, but it’s not the only matter deserving of scrutiny. As policymakers continue to explore ways to expand affordable internet access, they should also determine where Gomez stands on the key issue of rate regulation.

Read the full piece here.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

Regulatory Myopia and the Fair Share of Network Costs: Learning from Net Neutrality’s Mistakes

Written Testimonies & Filings Abstract Seeking to boost funding for the next generation of telecommunications infrastructure, European Union (EU) policymakers have proposed mandating that some large online platforms pay . . .


Seeking to boost funding for the next generation of telecommunications infrastructure, European Union (EU) policymakers have proposed mandating that some large online platforms pay a special usage fee to network operators. Framed as a way to ensure that the largest users of internet infrastructure contribute their “fair share” to telecommunications networks, the proposal would be another unnecessary and harmful regulatory intervention. These comments paper seek to demonstrate that the fair-share debate itself is, in fact, the byproduct of an earlier intrusive government initiative: net-neutrality regulation. Like net neutrality’s anti-discrimination rules, a “fair share” tax would represent a solution that doesn’t work to a problem that doesn’t exist. Moreover, the debate reflects the EU’s fundamentally misguided inclination toward an industrial-policy approach to the digital transformation, built on the unsound belief that innovation can be delivered via regulation and by subsidizing legacy domestic firms with rents transferred from successful global players. Rather than continuing to interfere in market dynamics and private negotiations without any solid evidence of market failure, the EU should instead learn from its past mistakes and acknowledge the limited scope for regulation in these dynamic markets.

I. Introduction

“[W]e have a vision, and we have a goal,”[1] European Commissioner Thierry Breton said in a February 2023 speech in Helsinki announcing the launch of a public consultation on the future of connectivity and infrastructure in the European Union (EU).[2] The consultation’s stated goal is to keep pace with transformative technological developments and to make Europe a digital leader by boosting deployment of forward-looking telecommunications infrastructure. Toward this end, the European Commission argues, it is essential that the regulatory framework is fit for purpose, with adequate funding to support the required investments.[3]

Given that ambitious goal, these comments investigate the likelihood that this vision can become a reality.

As part of the 2030 Digital Decade policy program,[4] European policymakers are seeking a means to equip Europe with the next generation of connectivity infrastructure. The primary solution offered—one that has the backing of incumbent European telecom operators (telcos)—is to make some large online platforms (so-called “Big Tech”) contribute to the cost of telecom networks. The proposal has been justified on grounds that Big Tech firms use a large share of bandwidth, while the telcos have seen a decline in their returns on investment.[5]

Essentially, the proposal would constitute a direct welfare transfer from online content and application providers (CAPs) or over-the-top service providers (OTTs) to benefit telcos and other internet service providers (ISPs). This would be accomplished by setting a data-transmission threshold and charging CAPs a fee when they transmit data exceeding that threshold. Indeed, the questionnaire the Commission released as part of the public consultation does not ask whether such a levy is needed, but merely seeks input on how it should be structured.[6]

Unsurprisingly, telcos have described the fair-share tax as “a once in a lifetime opportunity to recover digital leadership in Europe.”[7] Telco operators argue that a few Big Tech firms generate a significant portion of all internet traffic, but do not adequately contribute to the development of such networks.[8] These concerns find support in the recent European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade, which calls for a framework through which “all market actors benefiting from the digital transformation assume their social responsibilities and make a fair and proportionate contribution to the costs of public goods, services and infrastructures, for the benefit of all Europeans.”[9]

EU policymakers have also explored the need to encourage consolidation in the telecom industry in order to sustain investments that will stanch “Europe’s progressive technological decline.”[10] Under this vision, the path to promote investment and spur innovation in Europe’s digital future would be forged not only through rent transfers from CAPs to telcos, but also by defeating “excessive competition” in the telecom section.[11]

We argue here that the current debate stems, instead, from earlier invasive and unnecessary regulatory initiatives. Notably, the “fair share” proposal is the poison fruit of net-neutrality regulation, which has prevented telcos from monetizing their networks. In an alternative framework, the telecom sector could have instead been permitted to manage the transmission of content and services according to their value for end users, anticipated bandwidth use, or a host of other quality requirements upon which various CAPs depend.

Rather than acknowledging the limits of regulation, the fair-share proposal reflects the Commission’s persistent distrust of market forces and private-ordering mechanisms. Further, the debate represents just the latest instance of a more generalized EU industrial-policy approach to the digital transformation. This approach rests on the unsound belief that innovation can be delivered through regulation and by subsidizing legacy domestic EU firms through the transfer of rents from successful global players.

Having in this section provided an overview of the conflict between telecom operators and CAPs, Section II frames the “fair share” debate within the broader EU industrial-policy approach to the digital transformation, noting similarities with earlier efforts to support the EU’s audiovisual and publishing industries. Section III investigates the controversial relationship between “fair share” duties and net-neutrality rules. Section IV points out the limited role for regulation and the principles that should guide government intervention in fast-moving industries. Section V concludes.

II. A Solution in Search of a Problem

The 2030 Digital Decade policy program highlights the need to foster investment in high-speed telecommunications networks if the EU is to meet the connectivity targets established in the path to the digital transformation.[12]

Data traffic represents the critical determinant of telecom networks’ size and capacity. EU telcos claim, however, that exponential growth of internet traffic has left them unable to earn viable returns on network investments.[13] According to the telcos, traffic growth is disproportionately driven by a small number of OTTs, who provide relatively little direct economic contribution to network rollout.

According to a report for the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association (ETNO), just six firms generated roughly 56% of all network traffic, with Google accounting for 21%; Meta accounting for 15.4%; Netflix accounting for 9.4%; Apple accounting for 4.2%; Amazon accounting for 3.7%; and Microsoft accounting for 3.3%.[14] Further, a study conducted by Frontier Economics on behalf of Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefo?nica, and Vodafone estimated that traffic driven by OTTs could generate annual costs for EU telcos of €36 to 40 billion.[15] Such findings are often cited by telcos to make the case that OTTs are free riding on their network investments and need to be made to more equitably share the burden:

Digital platforms are profiting from hyper scaling business models at little cost while network operators shoulder the required investments in connectivity. At the same time our retail markets are in perpetual decline in terms of profitability.[16]

To address the concern of free riding, telcos have proposed a sending-party-network-pays system, which would mandate that the largest online platforms pay usage fees to compensate network operators.[17] In singling out the largest platforms for exceptional treatment, the proposal resembles how EU institutions already approach the regulation of “gatekeepers” under the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and “very large online platforms” under the Digital Services Act (DSA).[18] The proposal would establish a direct compensation mechanism, rather than private negotiations among the relevant parties, because it assumes that network operators are not positioned to negotiate fair terms with leading OTTs due to the latter’s alleged strong market positions, asymmetric bargaining power, and a lack of a level regulatory playing field.

The telcos point to the revenue and market capitalization enjoyed by the largest OTTs as demonstrating that the services Big Tech provides are essential for consumers.[19] But while the growth in traffic volume for the OTTs’ services creates additional costs for network operators, the telcos contend that they cannot respond to that growth in demand with higher retail prices, both because of strong competition in the retail telecommunications market and due to regulatory interventions at the wholesale level.[20] These factors, they contend, have created an uneven regulatory playing field between OTTs and telcos. Moreover, they argue that this uneven playing field has contributed to declining profit margins for telcos’ traditional retail revenue streams and that, consequently, telcos’ costs of capital are now higher than their returns on capital.

For their part, OTTs argue that they contribute to the internet ecosystem with investments in content-delivery networks and infrastructure—such as data centers, undersea cables, and satellites—and by creating content that is attractive to consumers, who in turn buy access from the ISPs to consume that content.[21] Therefore, they argue, it is the end users who generate traffic by consuming content, and they already pay ISPs through their subscriptions.

This debate over how network costs should be allocated is not new, and nor is the idea of a sending-party-network-pays system. The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) rejected a similar proposal 10 years ago, arguing that requests for dataflows stem not from content providers, but from retail ISPs’ own customers. BEREC further contended that increased demand for broadband access can be attributed to the success of content providers.[22]

Indeed, broadband networks are two-sided markets that bring together CAPs and end users. ISPs derive revenue from end users, who in turn pay for internet service to gain access to OTTs’ content. Since both sides of the market (content providers and end users) contribute to the cost of internet connectivity, BEREC found that “[t]here is no evidence that operators’ network costs are already not fully covered and paid for in the Internet value chain.”[23]

Further, BEREC acknowledged that the current “model has enabled a high level of innovation, growth in Internet connectivity, and the development of a vast array of content and applications, to the ultimate benefit of the end user.”[24] Therefore, “the nature of services to be delivered across the network, and the charging mechanisms applied to them, should continue to be left to commercial negotiations among stakeholders.”[25]

While prevailing internet traffic volumes are notably higher today than those observed a decade ago, it does not appear that BEREC regards the recent changes in traffic patterns as sufficient to modify its underlying assumptions regarding the sending-party-network-pays regime.[26] Indeed, in a recent preliminary assessment of a proposed direct compensation mechanism to benefit telcos, BEREC confirmed that it feels “the 2012 conclusions are still valid” and that the sending-party-network-pays model would provide ISPs “the ability to exploit the termination monopoly” and could be of “significant harm to the internet ecosystem.”[27]

BEREC also questioned the assumption that an increase in traffic directly translates into higher costs, noting that the costs of network upgrades necessary to handle increased traffic volumes are small relative to total network costs, and that upgrades come with significant increases in capacity.[28] In other words, BEREC found that rising traffic volumes do not directly lead to significant incremental costs relative to total network costs.[29]

Finally, BEREC once again found no evidence of free riding along the value chain,[30] finding that the IP-interconnection ecosystem remains largely competitive and that costs for internet connectivity are typically covered by ISPs’ customers.

It would be reasonable to assume that if there had been such a significant free-riding, this would have been reflected in ISPs financial statements and also in loss warnings.[31]

BEREC’s preliminary findings and continued skepticism of replacing freely negotiated internet interconnections with mandated network-usage fees are supported by studies that similarly find a lack of evidence of free riding;[32] report significant investments by CAPs to support network infrastructure;[33] and raise concerns about the potential side effects of a sending-party-network-pays model on the proper functioning of internet connectivity.[34]

A study conducted by WIK-Consult for the Federal Network Agency Germany (Bundesnetzagentur) confirmed that the IP-interconnection ecosystem is largely competitive and warned against the kinds of potential unintended consequences already seen in South Korea, the only country thus far that has mandated sending-party-network-pays billing.[35] South Korea provides a cautionary tale about the adverse effects that stem from interference in voluntary negotiations. Indeed, there is evidence that the competitive distortions between CAPs and ISPs generated by the Korean initiative had negative effects for consumers in terms of costs and the degradation of quality.[36]

Some EU member states have also been skeptical of telcos’ pleas and of the idea more generally that charging a toll on the internet is an appropriate strategy to promote network investments.[37] According to these members, the proposed “fair share” toll would pose considerable risks to the internet ecosystem and is likely to cause considerable harm to businesses and consumers. Indeed, as the envisaged data-transmission tax will affect the most popular services and content, a huge percentage of consumers are expected to bear the relative cost, as targeted OTTs eventually pass the new fees paid to ISPs downstream.[38] These concerns were expressed in a letter from Austria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands that urged the Commission to publish the Broadband Cost Reduction Directive (BCRD) review without discussion of the “fair share” debate.[39] In their view, while the revised BCRD should aim to accelerate the deployment of very high-capacity networks, the fair-share proposal is a distinct topic that requires a proper evidence-based assessment of its own merits.

A. Blaming and Taxing Digital Platforms

From a broader perspective, the “fair share” debate reflects the EU’s recent industrial-policy approach to the digital transformation.

The internet has deeply transformed traditional industries by favoring the emergence of new business models and creating opportunities for new players to enter those markets. Because of these challenges, some legacy incumbents struggle to keep pace with innovation and new forms of competition, disrupting entire industries. It is no secret that Europe has lagged behind in the digital economy and that established European companies have suffered most from the emergence of digital markets, as they have thus far been unable to develop competitive platform-based ecosystems.

Against this backdrop, European institutions have looked to subsidies as the solution to rescue some legacy players. Such interventions have been justified by policymakers on grounds of alleged market failures or the importance of public interests at stake. Such claims are not new, and public deliberation would ordinarily turn to evaluating whether the claimed market failures are real and whether the measures identified to promote future competition and innovation are effective. But EU policymakers have managed to evade such questions by insisting that the rescues they obviously seek not rely directly on subsidies from the European public.[40] Instead, the proposed subsidies would come from private, largely U.S.-based firms.

In sum, the manifesto for the new protectionist EU industrial policy is to “blame and tax Big Tech.” This narrative holds that the success of a few large online platforms is the cause of the purported market failures, and that it is therefore fair to tax their success and force them to share their profits.[41] The approach is shortsighted but, from the perspective of EU policymakers, certainly convenient.

The internet’s impact on business models is seen as particularly threatening to the media industry. In light of new technologies to transmit audiovisual-media services, European institutions argued for a regulatory framework that would ensure “optimal conditions of competitiveness” for European media and safeguard certain “public interests, such as cultural diversity.”[42]

The policy solutions identified by the revised Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) Directive are twofold.[43] First, European works are required to represent at least 30% of on-demand audiovisual-media services’ catalogs, and the services are require to ensure the prominence of those works.[44] Second, to ensure adequate levels of investment in European works, EU member states are permitted to impose financial obligations (including requiring direct investments in content and mandated contributions to the national fund) on media-service providers established within their territory, or on the basis of revenues the providers generate from services that are provided in and targeted toward the member state’s territory.[45]

In other words, to counter U.S. platforms’ dominance in the European video-on-demand (VOD) market,[46] the new AVMS Directive targets large foreign companies by imposing content quotas and financial obligations under a regime that has been termed the “Netflix tax.”[47] While this protectionist intervention to rescue the European audiovisual market is ostensibly made in the name of the public interest, both of the envisaged measures more accurately reflect resentment of the global players’ success than they do concern for Europe’s noble cultural diversity.[48]

Shortly after the AVMS Directive’s enactment, taxing Big Tech also became the preferred solution to rescue the European publishing industry.[49] Seeking to address a purported gap in value between digital platforms and news publishers, the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market granted the latter a right to control and receive compensation for the reproduction and availability of online summaries of their news articles.[50] Indeed, publishers claim that the sustainability of their entire industry has been jeopardized by the emergence of digital gatekeepers, which capture most of the advertising revenue without bearing the cost of the investments needed to produce news content. It is alleged that this unfair split of revenues is the result of asymmetric bargaining power, which makes it difficult for press publishers to negotiate with Big Tech on an equal footing.[51]

In sum, the news publishers’ case that free riding and asymmetry of bargaining power justify their request for revenue sharing are the same arguments used by telcos to support their own “fair share” proposal. The publishing industry’s struggles, however, started swell before the emergence of digital platforms. Newspapers’ business models were first hit by the advent of the internet, which changed consumption habits and enabled the growth of new forms of journalism.[52] Moreover, digital platforms arguably play a complementary role to news sites, as legacy publishers benefit from inbound links that drive audience traffic. Indeed, empirical evidence does not support the free-riding narrative.[53] It may be sound policy to support publishers in their digital transformation but, as argued some years ago, “[t]axing new digital players will not save press publishing industry and legacy business models.”[54]

Such findings also apply to the telcos. Indeed, as is evident from this brief analysis, there are strong similarities between the audiovisual market and the publishing industry when it comes to the fair share of network costs. All of these policy initiatives stem from European industries’ inability to keep the pace with the digital transformation that has been enhanced by the spread of high-speed internet. While the internet revolution has enabled the emergence of new global players, legacy European companies are struggling to adapt their business models and strategies in order to compete.

In this context, policymakers frequently invoke the need to protect public interests as justification for regulatory interventions they claim would correct purported market failures, but that instead merely alter the prevailing market dynamics. Indeed, protectionist interventions that impose financial obligations on successful players will not address the problems in question, and will therefore be ineffective at achieving the goal of closing the competition gap between European firms and the global players. Moreover, as discussed in the next section, taxing online providers in the telecommunications sector, specifically, would appear to be clearly at odds with the rationale that underlies European efforts to enforce the net-neutrality regulation.[55]

III. The Net-Neutrality Problem

The European Commission’s “fair share” proposal is of dubious compatibility with net neutrality, which was the flagship initiative delivered by the Commission in the previous political term. Indeed, the Commission has appeared anxious to reassure the public that there is no going back on net neutrality and that it remains “strongly committed” to protecting a neutral and open internet.[56] But there are manifest concerns that direct compensation from large OTTs to ISPs would endanger the principle of net neutrality.[57] Indeed, the fair-share proposal appears at odds with both the legal obligations of net neutrality and its underlying economic rationale.

Net neutrality has always been a particularly contentious topic, as confirmed by the transatlantic divergence on the topic. While the EU regulation remains in force, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2015 Open Internet Order was repealed in 2018 by the superseding Restoring Internet Freedom Order.[58] The FCC reverted to its pre-2015 position, concluding that the benefits of a market-based, light-touch regime for internet governance outweigh those of utility-style, common-carrier regulation. Quoting then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, “there was no problem to solve. The Internet was not broken in 2015. We were not living in a digital dystopia.”[59]

Given the assumption that broadband providers enjoy endemic market power, a common feature of net-neutrality regulations is the imposition of non-discrimination rules that ensure all internet traffic is treated equally. As terminating-access monopolists, ISPs are deemed gatekeepers for edge providers that seek to reach their end-user subscribers—hence, they may discriminate against the former and impose restrictions on the latter. Toward this end, the 2015 Open Internet Order imposed three ex ante bright-line rules preventing U.S. ISPs from blocking content, throttling traffic, or discriminating against specific content for a fee (so-called “paid prioritization”).[60] These rules were predicated on the belief that there was a need to protect and promote openness, since “the Internet’s openness promotes innovation, investment, competition, free expression, and other national broadband goals.”[61]

In a similar vein, by establishing common rules to safeguard equal and non-discriminatory treatment of internet traffic, the EU Regulation pointed to the need to protect end-users and guarantee the continued functioning of the internet ecosystem as an engine of innovation:[62]

The internet has developed over the past decades as an open platform for innovation with low access barriers for end-users, providers of content, applications and services and providers of internet access services. … However, a significant number of end-users are affected by traffic management practices which block or slow down specific applications or services.[63]

Indeed, proponents of net neutrality typically claim that allowing ISPs to treat different CAPs differently through, e.g., paid prioritization would stifle innovation by hindering the entrance of new content providers. This, in turn, would negatively affect the welfare of end-users through rising subscription fees, less variety of content, and reduced quality of connections.[64] Opponents, on the other hand, question the very economic logic of net-neutrality regulation, maintaining that it would increase regulatory costs, dampen ISPs’ incentives to invest in broadband capacity, and harm both consumers and content providers.[65]

Moreover, these types of regulations explicitly prevent ISPs from bargaining with CAPs in ways that would allow ISPs to seek payment for excessive network usage. Thus, some substantial portion of the “problem” that “fair share” seeks to correct directly arises from telcos being constrained from arm’s-length negotiations with CAPs.

Net-neutrality opponents also contest the claim that ISPs have and use market power in ways that lead to market foreclosure, arguing that this is not supported by empirical evidence.[66] A related concern is that vertically integrated ISPs with market power could potentially self-preference their own content.[67] But even if a vertically integrated ISP had market power, it is not obvious that compromising the quality of content requested by end users would be profit maximizing.[68] That is, even in this extreme hypothetical, the threat of user defection because of degraded quality mutes or answers the concern.

More generally, the economic literature has stressed that the consequences of net-neutrality regulation depend on precise policy choices, how they are implemented, and how long-run economic trade-offs play out.[69] Strict net neutrality may lead to socially inefficient allocations of traffic, as well as traffic inflation. It would thereby harm efficiency by distorting both ISPs and content providers’ investments and service-quality choices.[70]

Given the ambiguous effects of net neutrality’s anti-discrimination rules, the most controversial issue concerns whether any value is added value by enforcing a net-neutrality regime through an ex ante regulatory ban, rather than traditional ex post case-by-case antitrust enforcement.[71] Indeed, net neutrality introduces a blanket ban of practices that would not be per se antitrust violations.[72] Notably, net neutrality de facto prevents broadband providers from introducing vertical contractual restraints, which have typically proven to be welfare enhancing more often than anticompetitive.[73] Therefore, there is a risk that, in the name of leveling the playing field, net neutrality focuses on competitor welfare rather than consumer welfare.[74] In sum, given the ambiguous welfare effects of discrimination, it is impossible to establish in advance whether the purported exclusionary effects outweigh their potential procompetitive benefits. Hence, there is no economic support for an ex ante absolute prohibition.

The “fair share” solution of taxing Big Tech to fund broadband-network improvements also appears to violate both the economic rationale for and legal obligation of equal treatment under net neutrality. By only imposing fees on OTTs that transmit data exceeding a certain threshold, the “fair share” proposal clearly discriminates against some online services and content—that is, the largest ones. With regard to the economic rationale, net neutrality has been justified on the grounds that broadband providers enjoy endemic market power as terminating-access monopolies. It would therefore be strange to impose an intervention to restore “fairness” in the relationship between network operators and content providers on the premise that the former suffers from an asymmetry of bargaining power. Indeed, under EU net-neutrality rules, ISPs are assumed to have insurmountable bargaining power, even though the “fair share” proposal presumes them to be powerless before Big Tech.

Indeed, as noted above, net neutrality is a primary driver of the current “fair share” debate. Allowing paid prioritization between ISPs and CAPs likely would have prevented the emergence of these claims. Indeed, it could be argued that, on the one hand, net neutrality has tilted the balance in favor of large OTTs[75] and, on the other hand, paid prioritization would be the efficient market answer to different content offerings.

Notably, conventional economic principles justify vertical restraints and discriminatory practice, as online content varies in terms of value for consumers, bandwidth use, and quality requirements.[76] Indeed, as was raised years ago during the U.S. net-neutrality debate, a ban on paid prioritization is inconsistent with a well-developed body of literature showing that it is impossible to determine ex ante whether any specific instance of paid prioritization will have positive or negative effects for consumers.[77] Moreover, restraints on prioritization are likely to thwart a range of welfare-increasing business models on the internet and to chill further pricing innovations.[78]

Therefore, the fair-share proposal struggles to address the same fundamental question already raised in the case of net neutrality: whether a regulatory intervention is justified in the first place.

IV. Regulatory Humility and Lessons Unlearned

According to the economic literature, regulatory intervention is only justified under limited circumstances. The case for regulation is best substantiated where it can correct market failures, such as when free and unrestricted competition is unable to allocate resources efficiently.[79] Even under the romantic assumption that regulation serves consumers’ interests and policymakers have sufficient information and enforcement powers to both promote the public interest and maximize social welfare, the primary focus of regulation will still be to tackle market failures.[80]

Outside those examples of market failure, effective competition is commonly accepted to be the best regulator, as it has been empirically demonstrated to lead to lower prices, better quality, and greater innovation.[81] Without a proper justification, regulation negatively interferes in market dynamics by generating inefficiencies, introducing artificial barriers to entry, and deterring technological innovation.

Calibrating regulation is extremely difficult. Although regulation is expected to be forward-looking, it may lack flexibility, and the imposition of rigid sets of rules can risk enshrining a static view of the market at the expense of its dynamic evolution. Moreover, consistent with both private-interest and public-choice theory, government intervention is often prone to capture by special interests, rather than promoting general social welfare.

Although these are limits of regulation generally, they are particularly critical in fast-moving industries, where it is challenging to design a future-proof framework.[82] Therefore, especially when dealing with digital transformations, it is appropriate to embrace regulatory humility, acknowledge the inherent limits of regulation, and refrain either from picking winners and losers in the marketplace or from preemptively intervening in the absence of solid evidence of market failure and consumer harm.[83] Notably, the market-failure approach assumes that government activity should be limited to the minimal amount of intervention sufficient to correct for specific failures.[84]

Further, interventions to correct market failures should neither require nor assume a particular technology. This would ensure much-needed flexibility to adapt the rules to rapidly changing realities, thus avoiding early obsolescence. It would also avoid the weaponization of regulation to protect incumbents’ market position by freezing investments and hindering the development of new technologies. In sum, the principles of minimal and technologically neutral intervention reflect a light-touch approach of regulatory self-restraint, with awareness that the market is generally better suited to promote innovation and that regulation scores poorly on dealing with the unexpected.

The EU’s net-neutrality rules departed from the principles of self-restraint and technological neutrality.[85] Despite the fact that there was no discernible evidence of a market failure, EU policymakers chose to interfere with the management of internet traffic. Moreover, they did so by imposing an outright ban on common marketplace practices whose effects are at least ambiguous, and hence deserving of case-by-case assessment. As a result, net neutrality picked winners (OTTs) and losers (ISPs). At the time, academics and other experts warned against the adoption of rigid regulation, which by definition cannot aspire to be future-proof and is apt to capture the dynamics of industries characterized by rapid innovation.[86]

Indeed, net neutrality did not anticipate the rise of OTT services. A fascinating slogan has apparently proven to be more influential than economic principles and reality. And now, “fair share” advocates want the EU to step into the breach created by net-neutrality regulation and impose further (likely inefficient) levies on Big Tech. The more rational course would be to reconsider the nature of net neutrality’s non-discrimination principles in the first place. Alas, the “fair share” proposal in fact shares several features with net-neutrality regulation, demonstrating that, rather than learn from previous mistakes, European institutions are ready to repeat them. In particular, the proposal at issue does not square with economics.

Indeed, the economic justification for the regulatory intervention is missing, as there is no evidence of a market failure to address. Quite the opposite, according to BEREC.[87] The current model has fostered innovation, growth in internet connectivity, and the development of a vast array of content and applications. In other words, it has generated significant benefits for end users. The increase in traffic volume has not altered this fundamental reality and the IP-interconnection ecosystem largely remains highly competitive. At the same time, there is no evidence of free riding by CAPs along the value chain. As a result, the adoption of a sending-party-network-pays model would represent an unwarranted threat to the internet ecosystem that would generate costs with little or no countervailing benefits.

It is even questionable whether increases in internet traffic have resulted in higher costs for the telcos, who also benefit from the demand for broadband access that has been driven by the success of OTTs’ content and services.[88] More generally, it is not clear how punishing the success of some OTTs would promote investment and innovation in the broadband market.

Further, rather than abiding by the principle of minimal intervention, the proposal would interfere with market dynamics by substituting a direct-compensation mechanism for private negotiations. The justification advanced for such an invasive intervention is the alleged asymmetry of the telcos’ bargaining position vis-à-vis large OTTs. The assertion is that OTTs enjoy this disproportionate bargaining position because of their market power and an uneven regulatory playing field. Leaving aside the inherent knowledge problem in a central regulator deciding how dynamic data flows should be valued, this explanation is at odds with the primary assumption of net neutrality—that the telcos play a gatekeeper role because of their control of access to the internet. In reality, both Big Tech and the ISPs are sufficiently competent parties that they should be able to negotiate mutually beneficial business terms among themselves.

If telcos face an uneven regulatory playing field, it is precisely because of net neutrality, which limits their ability to monetize their networks by discriminating among content and applications. Rather than acknowledge that interfering with market forces was the original mistake and that it is therefore time to restore private parties’ ability to freely negotiate the terms for content delivery, EU policymakers once again choose to blame the market.

If we acknowledge that internet traffic is generated by consumers (rather than by OTTs), payments into a fund managed by the European Commission would have the same welfare implications as direct payments.[89] Given that everyone benefits from the internet, if there is a policy issue regarding financing the next generation of telecommunications infrastructure, it makes more sense for that to be financed out of a fund born through general taxation.

The proposed tax on Big Tech has been framed as ensuring that they pay their “fair share” of network costs. But fairness is in the eye of the beholder. The term is so vague that it inherently grants policymakers greater discretion and room for intervention, all in the name of a purportedly noble cause.[90] Unfortunately, regulations that aren’t supported by market-failure framework are doomed to be captured by private interests. From this perspective, the “fair share” proposal is, indeed, consistent with public-choice theories of regulation that regard it as a rent-seeking device to benefit a small group of incumbents at the expense of rivals and consumers.

V. Conclusion

According to an old saying, history tends to repeat itself. This result is avoidable only if we learn from our mistakes.[91] Looking at the “fair share” debate, European institutions appear condemned to repeat the past.

When it comes to technology and innovation, Europe systematically lags behind the United States and China. In the best-case scenario, it is catching up, but there is a significant gap to close. This picture is captured by various proxies of technological progress, such as the number of patents, the amount of R&D expenditure, the amount of private investment in artificial intelligence, the location of so-called “unicorn” firms, and the number of leading research institutions in high-tech fields.[92]

There is another digital-economy scoreboard, however, on which Europe is the clear frontrunner. Namely, Europe celebrates its position as the leading regulator of digital markets.[93] Indeed, in less than a decade, Europe has delivered the GDPR, the DMA, the DSA, and countless data-sharing initiatives. Indeed, it would appear that regulation is at least a partial cause of the EU’s poor results in the digital economy. After all, EU policymakers’ primary concern should be to ensure that the regulatory framework is fit for purpose. But over the past decade, when the expected results didn’t arise or when there were unintended consequences, rather than question the treatment, EU policymakers routinely have suggested increasing the dosage.

Against this background, the idea of introducing a tax on CAPs to boost investments in the next generation of telecommunications infrastructure could be just considered another piece of the jigsaw.

However, it is worth remembering that the diminished bargaining position that telcos have vis-à-vis online platforms is the result of another EU regulation. Indeed, without the net-neutrality ban on paid prioritization, telcos would have been free to negotiate differentiated terms for the delivery of OTTs’ content and services. OTTs could have been charged according to bandwidth usage, through side payments for setting up optimized network nodes, or through any number of other mutually beneficial business arrangements.

Further, the proposal contradicts the central premise of net neutrality, which was that broadband providers’ position as internet gatekeepers threatens OTTs and end users. But rather than acknowledge the mistakes of that earlier unnecessary and myopic intervention, the EU is supporting another shortsighted initiative that would be at odds with the economic rationale and the legal provisions of current internet regulation.

Again, as BEREC stated in 2012, the internet “has developed well without regulatory intervention, through stakeholders’ coordination in the free market. Its ability to evolve over time and self-adapt has been key to its growth and success.”[94] More recently, this message has been reiterated, emphasizing that “[t]he internet’s ability to self-adapt has been and still is essential for its success and its innovative capability.”[95]

There was no evidence of market failure to justify net neutrality, and there isn’t a market failure to justify imposing a “fair share” tax for network costs. Therefore, like net-neutrality anti-discrimination rules, mandating some large online platforms to compensate network operators with a usage fee would be a solution that wouldn’t work to a problem that doesn’t exist.[96]

The “fair share” proposal also reflects another pattern of recent EU industrial policy already seen in the audiovisual and publishing industries. As the digital revolution challenges existing business models, thus requiring a radical transformation of entire economic sectors, some incumbents suffer in adapting to the new environment, which requires facing new rivals but also taking advantages of new opportunities. This is part of the natural evolution of the market, where the disruptive force of innovation is generally welcome.

The EU is, instead, apparently concerned about the welfare of some legacy incumbents, especially if they are EU-born companies. As a result, market dynamics are once again threatened by regulatory interventions that impose financial obligations on successful online (and largely foreign) players. Such protectionist initiatives are at odds with the fundamental principle of competitive neutrality, according to which governments actions should ensure that all enterprises face a level playing field, irrespective of factors such as their ownership, location, or legal form.[97] Moreover, they have already proven to be an ineffective means to help companies in reinventing themselves and filling their competitive gap.

In sum, the EU not only assumes that it could lead and deliver innovation through regulation, but also that an industry’s digital transformation could be achieved by subsidizing legacy homegrown companies with welfare transfers from successful foreign players.

Such a vision does not live up to the ambitious goals of the 2030 Digital Decade. Insofar as Europe will be a place where innovation is regulated, rather than invented, there will be no chance to reverse its technological decline and recover digital leadership. Taxing Big Tech will not make Europe great again.

[1] Thierry Breton, Getting Europe Ready for the Next Generation of Connectivity Infrastructure, European Commission (Feb. 6, 2023), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/SPEECH_23_623.

[2] See Press release, Commission Presents New Initiatives, Laying the Ground for the Transformation of the Connectivity Sector in the EU, European Commission (Feb. 23, 2023), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_23_985.

[3] Exploratory Consultation – The Future of the Electronic Communications Sector and Its Infrastructure, European Commission (Feb. 23, 2023), https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/consultations/future-electronic-communications-sector-and-its-infrastructure (paras. 2.1 and 2.3, quantifying investment needs until 2030 of about 174 billion euros).

[4] Decision (EU) 2022/2481 of the European Parliament and of the Council Establishing the Digital Decade Policy Programme 2030 (Dec. 14, 2022), OJ L 323/4; see also, 2030 Digital Compass: The European Way for the Digital Decade, European Commission (Jan. 26, 2023), COM/2021/118 final.

[5] Breton, supra note 1; see European Commission, supra note 3, para 2.3, reporting that “some European providers of electronic communication networks and services, especially incumbents, claim that they suffer from a decreasing market valuation and lower return on investment, especially when compared to companies in the US.” The European Commission also mentioned that telcos’ claims regarding declining margins and rising costs are stem from current uncertainties (including high inflation, rising interest rates, and geopolitical tensions) that have led capital markets to focus on assets with better short-term returns and profitability and to prefer solutions that protect them from demand risk.

[6] This was also the opinion expressed by the German secretary at the Ministry for Digital Affairs and Transport (BMDV); see Christian Zentner, Kritik an Geplanter „Zwangsabgabe“ für Netflix und Co, Bundestag (March 2, 2023), https://www.bundestag.de/presse/hib/kurzmeldungen-936322 (finding the questionnaire to be “slightly tendentious”).

[7] Carlos Rodri?guez Cocina, You Have Not Seen This Movie Before: Fair Share Is Not a Remake, Telefónica (March 10, 2023), https://www.telefonica.com/en/communication-room/blog/you-have-not-seen-this-movie-before-fair-share-is-not-a-remake.

[8] Europe’s Internet Ecosystem: Socio-Economic Benefits of a Fairer Balance Between Tech Giants and Telecom Operators, Axon Partners Group Consulting (May 11, 2022), https://axonpartnersgroup.com/europes-internet-ecosystem-socio-economic-benefits-of-a-fairer-balance-between-tech-giants-and-telecom-operators (report prepared for the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association); Estimating OTT Traffic-Related Costs on European Telecommunications Networks, Frontier Economics (April 7, 2022), available at https://www.telekom.com/resource/blob/1003588/384180d6e69de08dd368cb0a9febf646/dl-frontier- g4-ott-report-stc-data.pdf (report for Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica, and Vodafone); see also, European Commission, supra note 3, Section 4 (describing the phenomenon as a “paradox” between increasing volumes of data on the infrastructures and alleged decreasing returns and appetite to invest in network infrastructure).

[9] European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade, European Commission (2022), 28 final, 3.

[10] Alan Burkitt-Gray, Vestager Calls for EU to Centralise and Consolidate Telecoms, Capacity (Jan. 31, 2023) https://www.capacitymedia.com/article/2b7xs7payiktkefkh1hj4/news/vestager-calls-for-eu-to-centralise-and-consolidate-telecoms; see also, Breton, supra note 1.

[11] Id.

[12] Supra note 4.

[13] See, CEO Statement on the Role of Connectivity in Addressing Current EU Challenges (Sep. 26, 2022), available at https://etno.eu//downloads/news/ceo%20statement_sept.2022_26.9.pdf; see also, United Appeal of the Four Major European Telecommunications Companies (Feb. 14, 2022),  https://www.telekom.com/en/company/details/united-appeal-of-the-four-major-european-telecommunications-companies-646166.

[14] Axon, supra note 8; see also, 2023 Global Internet Phenomena Report, Sandvine (Jan. 2023) https://www.sandvine.com/global-internet-phenomena-report-2023-download?submissionGuid=7b66978f-d664-4f10-b50b-28a48700788f.

[15] Frontier Economics, supra note 8.

[16] United Appeal, supra note 13.

[17] Axon, supra note 8.

[18] Regulation (EU) 2022/1925 on Contestable and Fair Markets in the Digital Sector and Amending Directives (EU) 2019/1937 and (EU) 2020/1828 (Digital Markets Act), (2022) OJ L 265/1; Regulation (EU) 2022/2065 on a Single Market for Digital Services and Amending Directive 2000/31/EC (Digital Services Act), (2022) OJ L 277/1.

[19] Axon, supra note 8, 18.

[20] Id.

[21] See, e.g., Doing Our Part: How Google’s Network Helps Internet Content Reach Users, Google (Apr. 20, 2022) https://cloud.google.com/blog/products/infrastructure/google-network-infrastructure-investments; Network Fee Proposals Are Based on a False Premise, Meta (Mar. 23, 2023), https://about.fb.com/news/2023/03/network-fee-proposals-are-based-on-a-false-premise.

[22] BEREC’s Comments on the ETNO Proposal For ITU/WCIT Or Similar Initiatives Along These Lines, BoR(12) 120, Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (2012), 3; Report on IP-Interconnection Practices in the Context of Net Neutrality, BoR (17) 184, Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (2017), (finding the internet-protocol-interconnection market to be competitive); Neelie Kroes, Adapt or Die: What I Would Do If I Ran a Telecom Company (Oct. 1, 2014), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/de/SPEECH_14_647 (arguing that OTTs are driving digital demand: “[EU homes] are demanding greater and greater bandwidth, faster and faster speeds, and are prepared to pay for it. But how many of them would do that if there were no over the top services? If there were no Facebook, no YouTube, no Netflix, no Spotify?”); see also, Proposals for a Levy on Online Content Application Providers to Fund Network Operators. An Economic Assessment Prepared for the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate, Oxera (Feb. 27, 2023), 19, available at https://open.overheid.nl/documenten/ronl-8a56ac18a98a337315377fe38ac0041eb0dbe906/pdf, (noting that the cause of the traffic is the consumer’s initial request rather than the CAP’s fulfilment of that request).

[23] BEREC 2012, supra note 22, 4; see also, Oxera, supra note 22, 14 (arguing that there is no clear evidence that the absence of charging CAPs means that telcos are unable to raise revenues and cover their costs).

[24] BEREC 2012, supra note 22, 4.

[25] Id., 1.

[26] BEREC Preliminary Assessment of the Underlying Assumptions of Payments from Large CAPs to ISPs, BoR (22) 137, Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (2022), 4.

[27] Id., 4-5.

[28] Id., 7-8 (“BEREC considers in this regard the incremental costs necessary for the upgrade in capacity on a given network to handle more incoming traffic. These costs can incorporate to some extent technological upgrades as far as they are relevant for solving capacity issues. These costs have to be differentiated from the total network costs, which are mostly coverage costs.”).

[29] Id., 9

[30] Id., 11-14.

[31] Id., 13; see also, Plans for Charging Internet Toll by Large Telecom Companies Feared to Have Major Impact on European Consumers and Businesses, Government of the Netherlands (Feb. 27, 2023), https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/publicaties/2023/02/27/plans-for-charging-internet-toll-by-large-telecom-companies-feared-to-have-major-impact-on-european-consumers-and-businesses (arguing that “the large telecom operators seem to forget that consumers already pay for their Internet traffic, through their Internet subscription. The plea for an Internet toll actually implies that large telecom operators want to get paid twice.”).

[32] David Abecassis, Michael Kende, & Guniz Kama, IP Interconnection on the Internet: A European Perspective for 2022, Analysys Mason (Sep. 26, 2022), https://www.analysysmason.com/consulting-redirect/reports/ip-interconnection-european-perspective-2022; Volker Stocker & William Lehr, Regulatory Policy for Broadband: A Response to the “ETNO Report’s” Proposal for Intervention in Europe’s Internet Ecosystem, SSRN (Oct. 16, 2022), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4263096; Brian Williamson, An Internet Traffic Tax Would Harm Europe’s Digital Transformation, Communications Chambers (Jul. 2022), available at https://lisboncouncil.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/COMMUNICATIONS-CHAMBERS-Internet-Traffic-Tax-2.pdf.

[33] David Abecassis, Michael Kende, & Shahan Osman, The Impact of Tech Companies’ Network Investment on the Economics of Broadband ISPs, Analysys Mason (Oct. 12, 2022), https://www.analysysmason.com/consulting-redirect/reports/internet-content-application-providers-infrastructure-investment-2022.

[34] See, e.g., Connectivity Infrastructure and the Open Internet, BEUC: The European Consumer Organisation (Sep. 16, 2022), available at https://www.beuc.eu/sites/default/files/2022-09/BEUC-X-2022-096_Connectivity_Infrastructure-and-the_open_internet.pdf; Bijal Sanghani, Fair Share Debate and Potential Impact of SPNP on European IXPs and Internet Ecosystem, European Internet Exchange Association (Jan. 3, 2023), available at https://www.euro-ix.net/media/filer_public/1a/e4/1ae40d86-95ea-460a-920d-3b335c2439d4/spnp_impact_on_ixps_-_final.pdf.

[35] Karl-Heinz Neumann, et al., Competitive Conditions on Transit and Peering Markets, WIK-Consult (Feb. 28, 2022), available at https://www.bundesnetzagentur.de/EN/Areas/Telecommunications/Companies/Digitisation/Peering/download.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=1.

[36] Id., 36-38; see also Oxera, supra note 22, 28—33 (arguing that implementation of such a scheme would entail significant transaction and regulatory costs, as the regulator would be required to fulfil such recurring tasks as traffic analysis and verification, dispute settlement, and coordination with companies and other authorities).

[37] Government of the Netherlands, supra note 31; see also, Zentner, supra note 6 (stating that the telecommunications companies’ argument that such a levy would provide them with more money for network expansion does not hold water).

[38] Government of the Netherlands, supra note 31; Oxera, supra note 22 (predicting that only a limited portion of the additional revenue stream to telecom operators would be passed on to the internet subscribers in the form of slightly lower subscription fees, and that this would be offset by price increases from online services for subscriptions to, e.g., Spotify or Netflix more expensive).

[39] Call for Release of BCRD Revision – Refusal of Merge with Fair Share Debate, Austria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands (May 12, 2022), available at https://www.permanentrepresentations.nl/binaries/nlatio/documenten/publications/2022/12/05/call-for-release-of-bcrd-revision—refusal-of-merge-with-fair-share-debate/Call+for+release+of+BCRD+revision+-+Refusal+of+merge+with+fair+share+debate_def.pdf.

[40] See Breton, supra note 1 (arguing that the burden of financing connectivity infrastructure should not rest solely on the shoulders of member states or the EU budget).

[41] See Tobias Kretschmer, In Pursuit of Fairness? Infrastructure Investment in Digital Markets, SSRN (Sep. 20, 2022), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4230863 (arguing that a transfer from large OTTs to telcos would be equivalent to a tax on success and that this would appear to arbitrarily target a group of largely U.S.-based firms while letting at least partly European newcomers and/or smaller firms enjoy the same externalities at no cost).

[42] Directive 2010/13/EU on the coordination of certain provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the provision of audiovisual media services (Audiovisual Media Services Directive), [2010] OJ L 95/1, Recitals 4 and 12.

[43] Directive (EU) 2018/1808 amending Directive 2010/13/EU on the coordination of certain provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the provision of audiovisual media services (Audiovisual Media Services Directive) in view of changing market realities, [2018] OJ L 303/69.

[44] Id., Recital 35 and Article 13(1).

[45] Id., Recital 36 and Article 13 (2).

[46] For analysis of the EU market, see David Graham, et al., Study on the Promotion of European Works in Audiovisual Media Services, Attentional, KEA European Affairs, and Valdani Vicari & Associati (Aug. 28, 2020), https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/library/study-promotion-european-works.

[47] See Sally Broughton Micova, The Audiovisual Media Services Directive: Balancing Liberalisation and Protection, E. Brogi & P.L. Parcu (eds.), Research Handbook on EU Media Law and Policy, Edward Elgar Publishing (2020), 264 (arguing that the AVMS Directive is a unique blend of the liberal-market approach typical of the EU’s single market and classic protectionism, stemming from a history of concern that American content and media services would dominate European screens, threatening its cultures and industries).

[48] Id.; see also Joe?lle Farchy, Gre?goire Bideau, & Steven Tallec, Content Quotas and Prominence on VOD Services: New Challenges for European Audiovisual Regulators, 28 Int. J. Cult. Policy 419 (2022), (noting that the objective of cultural diversity contains a great ambiguity and that “[b]eyond the incantatory discourse on the expected benefits of cultural diversity, the notion is in fact complex, and refers to multiple, sometimes contradictory aspects.”).

[49] On the dispute between news publishers and digital platforms, see Giuseppe Colangelo, Enforcing Copyright Through Antitrust? The Strange Case of News Publishers Against Digital Platforms, 10 J. Antitrust Enforc. 133 (May 10, 2021); Giuseppe Colangelo & Valerio Torti, Copyright, Online News Publishing and Aggregators: A Law and Economics Analysis of the EU Reform, 27 Int. J. Law Inf. Technol. 75 (Jan. 11, 2019).

[50] Directive (EU) 2019/790 of 17 April 2019 on copyright and related rights in the Digital Single Market and amending Directives 96/9/EC and 2001/29/EC, [2019] OJ L 130/92, Article 15.

[51] Id., Recitals 54 and 55.

[52] See, e.g., The Evolution of News and the Internet, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Jun. 11, 2010), available at https://www.oecd.org/sti/ieconomy/45559596.pdf; Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism, U.S. Federal Trade Commission (Jun. 2010), available at https://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/public_events/how-will-journalism-survive-internet-age/new-staff-discussion.pdf; Bertin Martens, et al., The Digital Transformation of News Media and the Rise of Disinformation and Fake News – An Economic Perspective, Joint Research Center (Apr. 25, 2018), available at https://joint-research-centre.ec.europa.eu/system/files/2018-04/jrc111529.pdf; Martin Senftleben, et al., New Rights or New Business Models? An Inquiry into the Future of Publishing in the Digital Era, 48 IIC 538 (2017).

[53] Colangelo-Torti, supra note 49.

[54] Id., 90.

[55] Regulation (EU) 2015/2120 laying down measures concerning open internet access and amending Directive 2002/22/EC on universal service and users’ rights relating to electronic communications networks and services and Regulation (EU) No 531/2012 on roaming on public mobile communications networks within the Union, (2015) OJ L 310/1.

[56] European Commission, supra note 2.

[57] Government of the Netherlands, supra note 31; BEREC, supra note 26, 5.

[58] Restoring Internet Freedom Order, Federal Communications Commission (2018) 33 FCC Rcd 311.

[59] Ajit Pai, FCC Releases Restoring Internet Freedom Order, Federal Communications Commission (Jan. 4, 2018) 1, https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-releases-restoring-internet-freedom-order/pai-statement.

[60] Open Internet Order, Federal Communications Commission (2015), 30 FCC Rcd 5601.

[61] Id., 5625-26.

[62] Regulation (EU) 2015/2120, supra note 55, Recital 1.

[63] Id., Recital 3.

[64] See, e.g., Barbara van Schewick, Towards an Economic Framework for Network Neutrality Regulation, 5 JTHTL 329, (2006)

[65] See, e.g., Michael L. Katz, Wither U.S. Net Neutrality Regulation?, 50 Rev. Ind. Organ. 441 (2017), (finding substantial tension between the regulation and the objective of promoting consumer choice and sovereignty, and noting that the internet has never been, and is not designed to be, neutral); Christopher S. Yoo, Beyond Network Neutrality, 19 JOLT 1 (2005), (considering network neutrality a misnomer that may reinforce sources of market failure in the last mile and dampen incentives to invest in alternative network capacity) Wolfgang Briglauer, et al., Net neutrality and High?Speed Broadband Networks: Evidence from OECD Countries, Eur. J. Law Econ. (forthcoming), (finding empirical evidence that net-neutrality regulations exert a significant and strong negative impact on fiber investments); Marc Bourreau, Frago Kourandi, & Tommaso Valletti, Net Neutrality with Competing Internet Platforms, 63 J Ind Econ 30 (2015), (noting that, in a model with competing ISPs—rather than a monopolistic market structure—a switch from the net-neutrality regime to the alternative discriminatory regime would be bene?cial in terms of investments, innovation, and total welfare).

[66] See, e.g., Katz, supra note 65, 450;

Thomas W. Hazlett & Joshua D. Wright, The Effect of Regulation on Broadband Markets: Evaluating the Empirical Evidence in the FCC’s 2015 “Open Internet” Order, 50 Rev. Ind. Organ. 487 (2017); Maureen K. Ohlhausen, Antitrust Over Net Neutrality: Why We Should Take Competition in Broadband Seriously, 15 Colorado Technology Law Journal 119 (2016); Timothy J. Tardiff, Net Neutrality: Economic Evaluation of Market Developments, 11 J. Competition Law Econ. 701 (2015); Gerald R. Faulhaber, The Economics of Network Neutrality, Regulation 18 (2011-12).

[67] Pietro Crocioni, Net Neutrality in Europe: Desperately Seeking a Market Failure, 35 Telecomm Policy 1, (2011) 6-7; see also, Zero-Rating Practices in Broadband Markets, DotEcon, Aetha Consulting, and Oswell and Vahida, (Feb. 2017), available at https://ec.europa.eu/competition/publications/reports/kd0217687enn.pdf.

[68] See Crocioni, supra note 67 (arguing that even a monopolist ISP may benefit from valuable complements and be better off charging a higher price for internet access, instead of trying to force customers onto its own services); see also Ohlhausen, supra note 66; Faulhaber, supra note 66.

[69] Shane Greenstein, Martin Peitz, & Tommaso Valletti, Net Neutrality: A Fast Lane to Understanding the Trade-offs, 30 JEP 127 (2016); see also Sébastien Broos & Axel Gautier, The Exclusion of Competing One-Way Essential Complements: Implications for Net Neutrality, 52 Int. J. Ind. Organ. 358 (2017), (showing that, even in monopoly and duopoly, imposing net neutrality does not always improve welfare).

[70] Joshua Gans & Michael L. Katz, Weak Versus Strong Net Neutrality: Corrections and Extensions, 50 J. Regul. Econ. 99 (2016); Martin Peitz & F. Schuett, Net Neutrality and Inflation of Traffic, 46 Int. J. Ind. Organ. 16 (2016).

[71] See, e.g., A. Douglas Melamed & Andrew W. Chang, What Thinking About Antitrust Law Can Tell Us About Net Neutrality, 15 Colorado Technology Law Journal 93 (2016); Ohlhausen, supra note 66.

[72] A good example is provided by the treatment of zero-rating offers. For an analysis, see Giuseppe Colangelo & Valerio Torti, Offering Zero-Rated Content in the Shadow of Net Neutrality, 5 Market and Competition Law Review 141 (2021); see also Pablo Iba?n?ez Colomo, Future-Proof Regulation Against the Test of Time: The Evolution of European Telecommunications Regulation, 42 Oxf. J. Leg. Stud. 1170 (2022), 1187-188 (noting that the very practices that are problematic from a net-neutrality perspective are healthy expressions of competitive markets; hence, absent a finding of significant market power, there is no support for a preemptive ban of vertical integration, exclusivity agreements, and other practices that have an equivalent object and/or effect: these practices are routinely examined by competition authorities and careful case-by-case evaluation has long been deemed appropriate for them).

[73] See, e.g., Katz, supra note 65; Ohlhausen, supra note 66; Joshua D. Wright, Net Neutrality: Is Antitrust Law More Effective than Regulation in Protecting Consumers and Innovation?, U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law (Jun. 20, 2014), https://www.ftc.gov/legal-library/browse/prepared-statement-commissioner-joshua-d-wright-net-neutrality-antitrust-law-more-effective; Christopher S. Yoo, What Can Antitrust Contribute to the Network Neutrality Debate?, 1 Int. J. Commun. 493 (2007).

[74] Katz, supra note 65, 454.

[75] Irene Comeig, Klaudijo Klaser, & Luci?a D. Pinar, The Paradox of (Inter)net Neutrality: An Experiment on Ex-Ante Antitrust Regulation, 175 Technol Forecast Soc Change 121405. (2022).

[76] Ohlhausen, supra note 66, 137.

[77] See Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, et al., Amicus Curiae Brief in U.S. Telecom Association et al. v. FTC, International Center for Law & Economics (Aug. 6, 2015), available at  http://laweconcenter.org/images/articles/icle_oio_amicus_filed.pdf.

[78] Geoffrey Manne, et al., Policy Comments in the Matter of Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet, International Center for Law & Economics and TechFreedom (Jul. 17, 2014), available at https://laweconcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/icle-tf_nn_policy_comments.pdf.

[79] Richard Baldwin, Martin Cave, & Martin Lodge, Understanding Regulation, Oxford University Press (2012).

[80] William J. Baumol, Welfare Economics and the Theory of the State, Harvard University Press (1952).

[81] Regulation and Competition. A Review of the Evidence, UK Competition and Markets Authority (2020), https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/regulation-and-competition-a-review-of-the-evidence, paras. 1.3 and 2.4,.

[82] Colomo, supra note 72.

[83] See Ajit Pai, Remarks at the 18th Global Symposium for Regulators, Federal Communications Commission (Jul. 10, 2018), https://www.fcc.gov/document/chairman-pai-remarks-global-symposium-regulators-geneva; Maureen K. Ohlhausen, Regulatory Humility in Practice, Federal Trade Commission (Apr. 1, 2015), available at https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/public_statements/635811/150401aeihumilitypractice.pdf.

[84] Baldwin, Cave, & Lodge, supra note 79.

[85] See also Colomo, supra note 72.

[86] See, e.g., Melamed & Chang, supra note 71; Ohlhausen, supra note 66; Bruce M. Owen, Net Neutrality: Is Antitrust Law More Effective than Regulation in Protecting Consumers and Innovation?, U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law (Jul. 8, 2014), https://ssrn.com/abstract=2463823.

[87] BEREC, supra note 26.

[88] Id.

[89] See also Oxera, supra note 22, 34 (arguing that the fund would still lead to a transfer of money from one group to another and would not lead to substantially lower transaction costs).

[90] Giuseppe Colangelo, In Fairness We (Should Not) Trust. The Duplicity of the EU Competition Policy Mantra in Digital Markets, The Antitrust Bulletin (forthcoming).

[91] Paul Crampton, Striking the Right Balance Between Competition and Regulation: The Key Is Learning from Our Mistakes, APEC-OECD Co-operative Initiative on Regulatory Reform (Oct. 2002), available at https://www.oecd.org/regreform/2503205.pdf.

[92] For useful information about several key innovation indicators, such as the value of venture-capital deals, the number of science and technology clusters, and government budget allocations for research and development, see, Global Innovation Index 2022, World Intellectual Property Organization, https://www.wipo.int/global_innovation_index/en/2022; see also Riccardo Righi, et al., AI Watch Index 2021, Joint Research Centre (Mar. 20, 2022), https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC128744.

[93] See Margrethe Vestager, Tearing Down Big Tech’s Walls, Project Syndicate (Mar. 9, 2023), https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/eu-big-tech-legislation-digital-services-markets-by-margrethe-vestager-2023-03 (“We are proud that Europe has become the cradle of tech regulation globally.”).

[94] BEREC, supra note 22, 1.

[95] BEREC, supra note 26, 3.

[96] Ajit Pai, The FCC and Internet Regulation: A First-year Report Card, Federal Communications Commission (Feb. 26, 2016) https://www.fcc.gov/document/commissioner-pai-remarks-internet-regulation-first-year-report-card.

[97] See, Recommendation of the Council on Competitive Neutrality, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (May 30, 2021), https://legalinstruments.oecd.org/en/instruments/OECD-LEGAL-0462.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

Regulating the Metaverse: Putting the Meta-Cart Before the Meta-Horse

Written Testimonies & Filings Introduction We welcome the opportunity to comment on the European Commission’s call for evidence on “Virtual worlds (metaverses) – a vision for openness, safety and . . .


We welcome the opportunity to comment on the European Commission’s call for evidence on “Virtual worlds (metaverses) – a vision for openness, safety and respect.”[1]

The metaverse is an exciting and rapidly evolving set of virtual worlds. As with any new technology, concerns about the potential risks and negative consequences that the metaverse may bring have moved policymakers to explore how best to regulate this new space.

In its call for evidence, the commission suggests that preemptive regulatory steps may be needed to avoid the metaverse becoming “a more closed ecosystem with the prevalence of proprietary systems and gatekeepers.”[2] But this diagnosis rests on dubious premises.

From the outset, it is important to recognize that simply because the metaverse is new does not mean that it is unregulated. Existing regulations may not explicitly or exclusively target metaverse ecosystems, but a vast regulatory apparatus already covers most aspects of business in virtual worlds. As we explain in greater detail (Section I), this includes European competition law, the Digital Markets Act (“DMA”), the General Data Protection Act (“GDPR), the Digital Services Act (“DSA”), and many more. Before it enacts any new rules, the commission should carefully consider whether there are any metaverse-specific problems not already addressed by these legal provisions.

This sense that the metaverse is already adequately regulated is reinforced by two important factors.

The first is that competition appears particularly intense in this space (Section II). There are currently multiple firms vying to offer compelling virtual worlds. At the time of writing, however, none appears close to dominating the market. In turn, this intense competition will encourage platforms to design services that meet consumers’ demands, notably in terms of safety and privacy. Nor does the market appear likely to fall into the hands of one of the big tech firms that command a sizeable share of more traditional internet services. Meta notoriously has poured more than $3.99 billion into its metaverse offerings during the first quarter of 2023, in addition to $13.72 billion the previous calendar year.[3] Despite these vast investments and a strategic focus on metaverse services, the company has, thus far, struggled to achieve meaningful traction in the space.[4]

Second, the commission’s primary concern appears to be that metaverses will become insufficiently “open and interoperable”.[5] But to the extent that these ecosystems do, indeed, become closed and proprietary, there is no reason to believe this to be a problem. Closed and proprietary ecosystems have several features that may be attractive to consumers and developers (Section III). These include improved product safety, performance, and ease of development. This is certainly not to say that closed ecosystems are always better than more open ones, but rather that the commission is wrong to assume that one model or the other is optimal. Instead, the proper balance depends on tradeoffs that markets are better placed to decide.

Finally, timing is of the essence (Section IV). The commission’s call for evidence appears to assume that, by acting preemptively, it can shape the metaverse industry according to its idiosyncratic preferences:

It is crucial for the EU to be present in the development of virtual worlds and their governance, and lead the way through important challenges such as setting standards, building infrastructure, and addressing legal, economic, societal and ethical aspects.[6]

The commission has further expressed hopes that this will enable European firms to thrive:

The initiative is expected to create more opportunities for EU industrial players along the value chain, such as for EU providers of hardware and software components, system integrators and content creators.[7]

But intervening so early in a fledgling industry’s life cycle is like shooting a moving target from a mile away. New rules might end up being irrelevant. Worse, by signaling that metaverses will be subject to heightened regulatory scrutiny for the foreseeable future, the commission may chill investment from the very firms is purports to support. In short, the commission should resist the urge to intervene so long as the industry is not fully mature.

I.        Old Rules for a New Frontier

The commission’s call for evidence appears to be premised on the idea there is something new and unique about metaverse ecosystems that warrants industry-specific rules and regulations.

Against this backdrop, Frank Easterbrook’s seminal piece “Cyberspace and the Law of the Horse” seems more relevant than ever.[8] In his article, Easterbrook analogized the then-emerging field of cyberspace law to the “law of the horse.” He argued, in essence, that legal incidents involving horses are best understood by studying general legal disciplines like torts and property law, rather than studying all the legal incidents involving horses:

Lots of cases deal with sales of horses; others deal with people kicked by horses; still more deal with the licensing and racing of horses, or with the care veterinarians give to horses, or with prizes at horse shows. Any effort to collect these strands into a course on “The Law of the Horse” is doomed to be shallow and to miss unifying principles.

From a policy standpoint, Easterbrook’s intuition is clear. Policymakers should be less worried about developing new bodies of law to regulate legal disputes in cyberspace and, instead, concentrate their efforts on understanding how traditional rules apply to the disputes that arise in this space:

When asked to talk about “Property in Cyberspace,” my immediate reaction was, “Isn’t this just the law of the horse?”… This leads directly to my principal conclusion: Develop a sound law of intellectual property, then apply it to computer networks.[9]

Easterbrook’s intuition would appear even more appropriate to law in the metaverse. Policymakers often assume that, because the metaverse is new and not covered by specific regulations, it must surely be a lawless area where few rules apply and companies are free to exclude their competitors and exploit consumers. As the commission puts it, drawing an analogy to the emergence of the first big tech companies:

The first wave of the Internet developed mostly in an uncoordinated and unregulated manner leading to a more closed ecosystem with the prevalence of proprietary systems and gatekeepers.

Although virtual worlds and the transition to Web 4.0 are still in the early stages, we are witnessing the dawn of a similar situation, where global corporations are massively investing in core technologies, filing trademarks, and setting de facto standards as early movers…[10]

A.                  The Internet Was Never an Unregulated World

Unfortunately, this assertion both rewrites the history of the internet and ignores the plethora of regulations that currently apply to metaverse services, particularly when they operate in the European Union.

For a start, it is important to recognize that digital platforms fall under several pieces of European legislation. Chief among these is European competition law, which has long applied to tech firms. After all, the Microsoft competition cases date back to the early 2000s and the commission opened its competition cases against Google way back in 2011.[11] These early cases were followed by investigations into online platforms like Apple’s iPhone and App Store, as well as Amazon’s online marketplace.[12] It is simply not true that the internet emerged in an unregulated environment (at least in terms of competition policy). EU oversight of digital platforms has also grown steadily more capacious, including through the recent passage of the DMA, which will arguably apply to metaverse worlds when they reach a certain size.[13]

And it is not just competition law that has directly shaped the European internet as we know it today. The e-Commerce Directive has governed how online platforms conduct business since it entered into force in 2000.[14] Oversimplifying, the directive shields online intermediaries from liability when illegal content is hosted on their platforms, conditional on them fulfilling certain limited obligations.[15] In turn, this has enabled online platforms to grow without fear of being held liable for their users’ behavior, while guaranteeing some level of safety and compliance with existing laws. More recent legislation, such as the DSA, will only reinforce the extent to which online markets (including virtual worlds) must maintain high standards of safety and content curation. [16]

B.                  Metaverse’s Regulatory Framework Is Already in Place

Existing laws and regulations that govern such areas as intellectual property, contracts, consumer protection, and online safety are equally applicable to the metaverse. The metaverse is not a separate and unique realm, but rather an extension of the physical world we already inhabit. Or, to put it differently, the metaverse is populated by real consumers and firms who are bound by the laws that are applicable in their jurisdictions.

The commission’s call for evidence appears to recognize this much, although it doesn’t appears to consider the possibility that—given this large body of existing laws—more regulation might not be the answer:

Furthermore, the EU already has a strong regulatory framework to address potential impacts that virtual worlds may have on aspects such as competition, cybersecurity, artistic creation and privacy. EU legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation, Digital Services Act, Digital Markets Act, Net Neutrality Regulation and the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive will ensure that users are protected in relation to several aspects and that EU small and medium-sized enterprises are not driven out of the market. The revised Directive on Security of Network and Information Systems will strengthen supply chain cybersecurity while the upcoming EU Digital ID will give full control to users over their identity and data.[17]

To put this in more concrete terms, a virtual item or avatar created within the metaverse is subject to the same copyright and trademark laws as a physical product. Property over those creations may be transferred, subject to the metaverse platform’s terms of service, which are governed by existing contract and consumer-protection laws. For example, the terms of use governing Decentraland (a blockchain-based virtual world) include a detailed section on how ownership of copyright-protected works may or may not be transferred from users to the platform.[18] In turn, these terms are subject to the same consumer-protection laws that apply to the physical world.

Of course, the application of existing laws to the metaverse is not always straightforward. There are some unique challenges and complexities that arise in this new space. The enforceability of some existing laws may, for example, be complicated in virtual worlds (like Decentraland) that rely on blockchain technology. Indeed, blockchains often have characteristics—such as immutability, decentralized ownership, and a reliance on pseudonymity or anonymity—that complicate legal enforcement.[19] These potential obstacles are specific to blockchain technology, however, not to metaverses.

Indeed, there is no reason to believe that all, or even most, successful metaverse services will be blockchain-based. In fact, two of the most successful virtual worlds do not rely on the blockchain.[20] The upshot is that enacting metaverse-specific rules to deal with blockchain-specific issues is almost certainly the wrong way to proceed.

C.                  New Rules Are Not Always the Best Path Forward

More fundamentally, even if metaverses do give rise to legal blind spots, this does not necessarily mean that new regulation is warranted.

In his seminal rebuttal to Easterbrook’s “Law of the Horse”, Lawrence Lessig cited two examples of cyberspace law that, in his opinion, fell under the radar of existing legal provisions and necessitated the creation of internet-specific laws: the widespread accessibility of pornographic content and firms’ ability to track users’ behavior online.[21] No champion of free markets, Lessig nonetheless argued that blinds spots of this sort do not necessarily warrant the adoption of new regulations (though, in those two cases, that is largely what the European Union decided to do[22]). Instead, he argued four main factors constrain firms’ behavior in cyberspace. Legal provisions are only one of those four constraints—the others being norms, markets, and code.[23] If other constraints are operating, then what may appear to be a legal blind spot may not, in fact, give rise to problematic behavior or outcomes. And because regulation may sometimes be over-inclusive, it will sometimes be better for regulators to adopt a laissez-faire approach.[24]

This intuition is perhaps best understood with reference to Ronald Coase. In his Nobel-winning work on “The Problem of Social Cost”, Coase essentially argued that governments need not worry about the initial allocation of rights (and, by extension, externalities) when they are well-delimited and transaction costs are low:

It is always possible to modify by transactions on the market the initial legal delimitation of rights. And, of course, if such market transactions are costless such a rearrangement of rights will always take place if it would lead to an increase in the value of production.[25]

This has important ramifications for the regulation of business in the metaverse. Even if it were true that existing laws were inapplicable in the metaverse, this is not sufficient justification for passing new regulations. Instead, the real question is whether various frictions prevent consumers and businesses from reaching agreements that grow the value of these online ecosystems. If these agreements can take place, then the scope for beneficial government intervention is more limited. As things stand, there is little reason to believe that frictions of this sort prevent consumers, platforms, and content creators from concluding such deals in the metaverse context—for example, determining how the rights over metaverse creations are allocated.

Finally, even if the commission surmised that there are currently market failures in the metaverse, this does not necessarily mean that entirely new regulations are appropriate. Indeed, it may be preferrable to adapt existing legal principles, rather than enact new rules. As explained in Section IV, creating new regulations that are specific to the metaverse could be counterproductive. They could create uncertainty and additional compliance costs for businesses, without necessarily achieving any meaningful improvements in consumer protection or other regulatory goals. Furthermore, new rules could stifle innovation and limit the potential of this exciting new technology.

In short, there is little to suggest that new rules are required to govern the metaverse. The existing legal framework appears largely sufficient to address most concerns that may arise in this space. Policymakers should instead focus on adapting and refining this existing framework, as necessary.

II.      Competing for Consumer Trust

As suggested above, the extent to which metaverse services compete with each other (and continue to do so in the future) will largely determine whether they fulfil consumers’ expectations and meet the safety and trustworthiness requirements to which the commission aspires. As even the left-leaning Lessig put it:

Markets regulate behavior in cyberspace too. Prices structures often constrain access, and if they do not, then busy signals do. (America Online (AOL) learned this lesson when it shifted from an hourly to a flat-rate pricing plan.) Some sites on the web charge for access, as on-line services like AOL have for some time. Advertisers reward popular sites; online services drop unpopular forums. These behaviors are all a function of market constraints and market opportunity, and they all reflect the regulatory role of the market.[26]

The commission’s call for evidence implicitly recognizes the important role that competition plays, although it frames the subject primarily in terms of the problems that would arise if competition ceased to operate:

There is a risk of having a small number of big players becoming future gatekeepers of virtual worlds, creating market entry barriers and shutting out EU start-ups and SMEs from this emerging market. Such a closed ecosystem with the prevalence of proprietary systems can negatively affect the protection of personal information and data, the cybersecurity and the freedom and openness of virtual worlds at the same time.[27]

It is thus necessary to ask whether there is robust competition in the market for metaverse services. The short answer is a resounding yes.

A.                  Competition Without Tipping

While there is no precise definition of what constitutes a metaverse—much less a precise definition of the relevant market—available data suggests the space is highly competitive. This is evident in the fact that even a major global firm like Meta—having invested billions of dollars in its metaverse branch (and having rebranded the company accordingly)—has struggled to gain traction.[28]

Other major players in the space include the likes of Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft, which all have somewhere between 70 and 200 million active users.[29] This likely explains why Meta’s much-anticipated virtual world struggled to gain meaningful traction with consumers, stalling at around 300,000 active users.[30] Alongside these traditional players, there are also several decentralized platforms that are underpinned by blockchain technology. While these platforms have attracted massive investments, they are largely peripheral in terms of active users, with numbers often only in the low thousands.[31]

There are several inferences that can be drawn from these limited datasets. For one, it is clear that the metaverse industry is not yet fully mature. There are still multiple paradigms competing for consumer attention: game-based platforms versus social-network platforms; traditional platforms versus blockchain platforms, etc. In the terminology developed by David Teece, the metaverse industry has not yet reached a “paradigmatic” stage. It is fair to assume there is still significant scope for the entry of differentiated firms.[32]

It is also worth noting that metaverse competition does not appear to exhibit the same sort of network effects and tipping that is sometimes associated with more traditional social networks.[33] Despite competing for nearly a decade, no single metaverse project appears to be running away with the market.[34] This lack of tipping might be because these projects are highly differentiated.[35] It may also be due to the ease of multi-homing among them.[36]

More broadly, it is far from clear that competition will lead to a single metaverse for all uses. Different types of metaverse services may benefit from different user interfaces, graphics, and physics engines. This cuts in favor of multiple metaverses coexisting, rather than all services coordinating within a single ecosystem. Competition therefore appears likely lead to the emergence of multiple differentiated metaverses, rather than a single winner.

Ultimately, competition in the metaverse industry is strong and there is little sense these markets are about to tip towards a single firm in the year future.

B.                  Competing for Consumer Trust

As alluded to in the previous subsection, the world’s largest and most successful metaverse entrants to date are traditional videogaming platforms that have various marketplaces and currencies attached.[37] In other words, decentralized virtual worlds built upon blockchain technology remain marginal.

This has important policy implications. The primary legal issues raised by metaverses are the same as those encountered on other digital marketplaces. This includes issues like minor fraud, scams, and children buying content without their parents’ authorization.[38] To the extent these harms are not adequately deterred by existing laws, metaverse platforms themselves have important incentives to police them. In turn, these incentives may be compounded by strong competition among platforms.

Metaverses are generally multi-sided platforms that bring together distinct groups of users, including consumers and content creators. In order to maximize the value of their ecosystems, platforms have an incentive to balance the interests of these distinct groups.[39] In practice, this will often mean offering consumers various forms of protection against fraud and scams and actively policing platforms’ marketplaces. As David Evans puts it:

But as with any community, there are numerous opportunities for people and businesses to create negative externalities, or engage in other bad behavior, that can reduce economic efficiency and, in the extreme, lead to the tragedy of the commons. Multi-sided platforms, acting selfishly to maximize their own profits, often develop governance mechanisms to reduce harmful behavior. They also develop rules to manage many of the same kinds of problems that beset communities subject to public laws and regulations. They enforce these rules through the exercise of property rights and, most importantly, through the “Bouncer’s Right” to exclude agents from some quantum of the platform, including prohibiting some agents from the platform entirely…[40]

While there is little economic research to suggest that competition directly increases hosts’ incentive to policy their platforms, it stands to reason that doing so effectively can help platforms to expand the appeal of their ecosystems. This is particularly important for metaverse services whose userbases remain just a fraction of the size they could ultimately reach. While 100 or 200 million users already comprises a vast ecosystem, it pales in comparison to the sometimes billions of users that “traditional” online platforms attract.

The bottom line is that the market for metaverses is growing. This likely compounds platforms’ incentives to weed out undesirable behavior, thereby complementing government efforts to achieve the same goal.

III.    Opening Platforms or Opening Pandora’s Box?

In its call for evidence, the commission implicitly assumes that open ecosystems are better for consumers than closed ones. Indeed, the commission laments that a lack of regulation made the Internet less open than it would otherwise have been. In its own words:

The first wave of the Internet developed mostly in an uncoordinated and unregulated manner leading to a more closed ecosystem with the prevalence of proprietary systems and gatekeepers.[41]

According to the commission, it would be detrimental to consumers if metaverse competition led to closed and proprietary ecosystems:

Such a closed ecosystem with the prevalence of proprietary systems can negatively affect the protection of personal information and data, the cybersecurity and the freedom and openness of virtual worlds at the same time.[42]

But this assumption is simply wrong. There are many benefits to closed ecosystems. Choosing the optimal degree of openness entails tradeoffs. At the very least, this suggests that policymakers should be careful not to assume that opening platforms up will systematically provide net benefits to consumers.

A.      Antitrust Enforcement and Regulatory Initiatives

To understand why open (and highly propertized) platforms are not always better for consumers, it is worth looking at past competition enforcement in the online space. Recent interventions by competition authorities have generally attempted (or are attempting) to move platforms toward more openness and less propertization. For their part, these platforms are already tremendously open (as the “platform” terminology implies) and attempt to achieve a delicate balance between centralization and decentralization.

The Microsoft cases and the Apple investigation both sought or seek to bring more openness and less propertization to those respective platforms. Microsoft was made to share proprietary data with third parties (less propertization) and to open its platform to rival media players and web browsers (more openness).[43] The same applies to Apple. Plaintiffs in private antitrust litigation brought in the United States[44] and government enforcement actions in Europe[45] are seeking to limit the fees that Apple can extract from downstream rivals (less propertization), as well as to ensure that it cannot exclude rival mobile-payments solutions from its platform (more openness).

The various cases that were brought by EU and U.S. authorities against Qualcomm broadly sought to limit the extent to which it was monetizing its intellectual property.[46] The European Union’s Amazon investigation centers on the ways in which the company uses data from third-party sellers (and, ultimately, the distribution of revenue between those sellers and Amazon).[47] In both cases, authorities are ultimately trying to limit the extent to which firms can propertize their assets.

Finally, both of the EU’s Google cases sought to bring more openness to the company’s main platform. The Google Shopping decision sanctioned Google for purportedly placing its services more favorably than those of its rivals.[48] The separate Android decision sought to facilitate rival search engines’ and browsers’ access to the Android ecosystem. The same appears to be true of ongoing litigation brought by state attorneys general in the United States.[49]

Much of the same can be said of the numerous regulatory initiatives pertaining to digital markets. Indeed, draft regulations being contemplated around the globe mimic the features of the antitrust/competition interventions discussed above. For instance, it is widely accepted that Europe’s DMA effectively transposes and streamlines the enforcement of the theories harm described above.[50] Similarly, several scholars have argued that the proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act (“AICOA”) in the United States largely mimics European competition policy.[51] The legislation would ultimately require firms to open up their platforms, most notably by forcing them to treat rival services as they would their own and to make their services more interoperable with those rivals.[52]

What is striking about these decisions and investigations is the extent to which authorities are pushing back against the very features that distinguish the platforms they are investigating. Closed (or relatively closed) platforms are forced to open up, and firms with highly propertized assets are made to share them (or, at the very least, monetize them less aggressively).

B.      The Empty Quadrant

All of this would not be very interesting if it weren’t for a final piece of the puzzle: the model of open and shared platforms that authorities apparently favor has traditionally struggled to gain traction with consumers. Indeed, there seem to be vanishingly few successful consumer-oriented products and services in this space.

There have been numerous attempts to introduce truly open consumer-oriented operating systems in both the mobile and desktop segments. Most have ended in failure. Ubuntu and other flavors of the Linux operating system remain fringe products. There have been attempts to create open-source search engines, but they have not met with success.[53] The picture is similar in the online retail space. Amazon appears to have beaten eBay, despite the latter being more open and less propertized. Indeed, Amazon has historically charged higher fees than eBay and offers sellers much less freedom in the ways in which they may sell their goods.[54]

This theme is repeated in the standardization space. There have been innumerable attempts to impose open, royalty-free standards. At least in the mobile-internet industry, few (if any) of these have taken off. Instead, proprietary standards such as 5G and WiFi have been far more successful. That pattern is repeated in other highly standardized industries, like digital-video formats. Most recently, the proprietary Dolby Vision format seems to be winning the war against the open HDR10+ format.[55]

This is not to say that there haven’t been any successful examples of open, royalty-free standards. Internet protocols, blockchain, and Wikipedia all come to mind. Nor does it mean that we will not see more decentralized goods in the future. But by and large, firms and consumers have not yet taken to the idea of fully open and shared platforms. Or, at least, those platforms have not yet achieved widespread success in the marketplace (potentially due to supply-side considerations, such as the difficulty of managing open platforms or the potentially lower returns to innovation in weakly propertized ones).[56] And while some “open” projects have achieved tremendous scale, the consumer-facing side of these platforms is often dominated by intermediaries that opt for much more traditional business models (think of Coinbase in the blockchain space, or Android’s use of Linux).

C.      Potential Explanations

The preceding section posited a recurring reality: the digital platforms that competition authorities wish to bring into existence are fundamentally different from those that emerge organically. But why have authorities’ ideal platforms, so far, failed to achieve truly meaningful success?

Three potential explanations come to mind. First, “closed” and “propertized” platforms might systematically—and perhaps anticompetitively—thwart their “open” and “shared” rivals. Second, shared platforms might fail to persist (or grow pervasive) because they are much harder to monetize, and there is thus less incentive to invest in them. This is essentially a supply-side explanation. Finally, consumers might opt for relatively closed systems precisely because they prefer these platforms to marginally more open ones—i.e., a demand-side explanation.

In evaluating the first conjecture, the key question is whether successful “closed” and “propertized” platforms overcame their rivals before or after they achieved some measure of market dominance. If success preceded dominance, then anticompetitive foreclosure alone cannot explain the proliferation of the “closed” and “propertized” model.[57]

Many of today’s dominant platforms, however, often overcame open/shared rivals, well before they achieved their current size. It is thus difficult to make the case that the early success of their business models was due to anticompetitive behavior. This is not to say these business models cannot raise antitrust issues, but rather that anticompetitive behavior is not a good explanation for their emergence.

Both the second and the third conjectures essentially ask whether “closed” and “propertized” might be better adapted to their environment than “open” and “shared” rivals.

In that respect, it is not unreasonable to surmise that highly propertized platforms would generally be easier to monetize than shared ones. For example, to monetize open-source platforms often requires relying on complementarities, which tend to be vulnerable to outside competition and free-riding.[58] There is thus a natural incentive for firms to invest and innovate in more propertized environments. In turn, competition enforcement that limits a platform’s ability to propertize their assets may harm innovation.

Similarly, authorities should reflect on whether consumers really want the more “competitive” ecosystems that they are trying to design. The European Commission, for example, has a long track record of seeking to open digital platforms, notably by requiring that platform owners do not preinstall their own web browsers (the Microsoft decisions are perhaps the most salient example). And yet, even after these interventions, new firms have kept using the very business model that the commission reprimanded, rather than the “pro-consumer” model it sought to impose on the industry. For example, Apple tied the Safari browser to its iPhones; Google went to some length to ensure that Chrome was preloaded on devices; and Samsung phones come with Samsung Internet as default.[59] Yet this has not ostensibly steered consumers away from those platforms.

Along similar lines, a sizable share of consumers opt for Apple’s iPhone, which is even more centrally curated than Microsoft Windows ever was (and the same is true of Apple’s MacOS). In other words, it is hard to claim that opening platforms is inherently good for consumers when those same consumers routinely opt for platforms with the very features that policymakers are trying to eliminate.

Finally, it is worth noting that the remedies imposed by competition authorities have been anything but successes. Windows XP N (the version of Windows that came without Windows Media Player) was an unmitigated flop, selling a paltry 1,787 copies.[60] Likewise, the internet-browser “ballot box” imposed by the commission was so irrelevant to consumers that it took months for authorities to notice that Microsoft had removed it, in violation of the commission’s decision.[61]

One potential inference is that consumers do not value competition interventions that make dominant ecosystems marginally more open and less propertized. There are also many reasons why consumers might prefer “closed” systems (at least, relative to the model favored by many policymakers), even when they must pay a premium for them.

Take the example of app stores. Maintaining some control over the apps that can access the store enables platforms to easily weed out bad actors. Similarly, controlling the hardware resources that each app can use may greatly improve device performance. Indeed, it may be that a measure of control facilitates the very innovations that consumers demand. Therefore, “authorities and courts should not underestimate the indispensable role control plays in achieving coordination and coherence in the context of systemic ef?ciencies. Without it, the attempted novelties and strategies might collapse under their own complexity.”[62]

Relatively centralized platforms can eliminate negative externalities that “bad” apps impose on rival apps and consumers.[63] This is especially true when consumers will tend to attribute dips in performance to the overall platform, rather than to a particular app.[64] At the same time, they can take advantage of positive externalities to improve the quality of the overall platform.

And it is surely the case that consumers prefer to make many of their decisions at the inter-platform level, rather than within each platform. In simple terms, users arguably make their most important decision when they choose between an Apple or Android smartphone (or a Mac and a PC, etc.). In doing so, they can select their preferred app suite with one simple decision. They might thus purchase an iPhone because they like the secure App Store, or an Android smartphone because they like the Chrome Browser and Google Search. Absent false information at the time of the initial platform decision, this decision will effectively incorporate expectations about subsequent constraints.[65]

Furthermore, forcing users to make too many “within-platform” choices may undermine a product’s attractiveness. Indeed, it is difficult to create a high-quality reputation if each user’s experience is fundamentally different.[66] In short, contrary to what antitrust authorities appear to believe, closed platforms might give most users exactly what they desire.

All of this suggests that consumers and firms often gravitate spontaneously toward both closed and highly propertized platforms, the opposite of what the commission and other competition authorities tend to favor. The reasons for this trend are still misunderstood, and mostly ignored. Too often it is simply assumed that consumers benefit from more openness, and that shared/open platforms are the natural order of things. Instead, what some regard as “market failures” may in fact be features that explain the rapid emergence of the digital economy.

When considering potential policy reforms targeting the metaverse, policymakers would be wrong to assume openness (notably, in the form of interoperability) and weak propertization are always objectively superior. Instead, these platform designs entail important tradeoffs. Closed metaverse ecosystems may lead to higher consumer safety and better performance, while interoperable systems may reduce the frictions consumers face when moving from one service to another. There is little reason to believe policymakers are in a better position to weigh these tradeoffs than consumers, who vote with their virtual feet.

IV.    Conclusion

A final important argument against intervening today is that the metaverse industry is nowhere near mature. Tomorrow’s challenges and market failures might not be the same as today’s. This makes it exceedingly difficult for policymakers to design appropriate regulation and increases the risk that regulation might harm innovation.

At the time of writing, the entire metaverse industry (both hardware and software) is estimated to be worth somewhere in the vicinity of $80 billion, and projections suggest this could grow by a factor of 10 by 2030.[67] Growth projections of this sort are notoriously unreliable. But in this case, they do suggest there is some consensus that the industry is not fully fledged.

Along similar lines, it remains unclear what types of metaverse services will gain the most traction with consumers, what sorts of hardware consumers will use to access these services, and what technologies will underpin the most successful metaverse platforms. In fact, it is still an open question whether the metaverse industry will foster any services that achieve widespread consumer adoption in the foreseeable future.[68] In other words, it is not exactly clear what products and services metaverse-specific rules would end up covering.

Given these uncertainties—and the other arguments against regulation discussed in the previous sections—it would be premature to enact metaverse-specific rules. And yet, that is precisely what the commission appears to be contemplating.

In its call for evidence, the commission suggests that acting now will enable it to shape the metaverse industry to fit its own preferences, while guaranteeing that European firms are central to metaverse ecosystems:

The EU is well positioned to shape this next evolution, reflecting the EU‘s vision for the Digital Decade 20302 and in line with the European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles , from the outset: open, interoperable, trusted, secure, privacy preserving, virtual worlds, respecting our legislation.[69]

But this outcome is anything but certain. Intervening so early in the industry’s life cycle is like aiming at a moving target. New rules or guidelines might end up being irrelevant before they have any influence on the products that firms develop. More worryingly, acting now signals that the metaverse industry will be subject to heightened regulatory scrutiny for the foreseeable future. In turn, this may deter large platforms from investing in the European market. It also may funnel venture-capital investments away from the European continent.

The core problem is that, without a clear sense of the market failures that need to be fixed, there is little apparent upside to offset the costs of regulation. The best evidence concerning these potential costs comes from the GDPR. While privacy regulation is obviously not the same as other types of economic regulation, the evidence concerning the GDPR suggests that regulation may, at least in some instances, slow down innovation and reduce competition.

The most-cited empirical evidence concerning the effects of the GDPR comes from a paper by Garrett Johnson and co-authors, who link the GDPR to widespread increases to market concentration, particularly in the short-term:

We show that websites’ vendor use falls after the European Union’s (EU’s) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but that market concentration also increases among technology vendors that provide support services to websites…. The week after the GDPR’s enforcement, website use of web technology vendors falls by 15% for EU residents. Websites are relatively more likely to retain top vendors, which increases the concentration of the vendor market by 17%. Increased concentration predominantly arises among vendors that use personal data, such as cookies, and from the increased relative shares of Facebook and Google-owned vendors, but not from website consent requests. Although the aggregate changes in vendor use and vendor concentration dissipate by the end of 2018, we find that the GDPR impact persists in the advertising vendor category most scrutinized by regulators.[70]

Along similar lines, an NBER working paper by Jian Jia and co-authors finds that enactment of the GDPR markedly reduced venture-capital investments in Europe:

Our findings indicate a negative differential effect on EU ventures after the rollout of GDPR relative to their US counterparts. These negative effects manifest in the overall number of financing rounds, the overall dollar amount raised across rounds, and in the dollar amount raised per individual round. Specifically, our findings suggest a $3.38 million decrease in the aggregate dollars raised by EU ventures per state per crude industry category per week, a 17.6% reduction in the number of weekly venture deals, and a 39.6% decrease in the amount raised in an average deal following the rollout of GDPR.[71]

In another paper, Samuel Goldberg and co-authors find that the GDPR led to a roughly 12% reduction in website pageviews and e-commerce revenue in Europe.[72] Finally, Rebecca Janssen and her co-authors show that the GDPR decreased the number of apps offered on Google’s Play Store between 2016 and 2019:

Using data on 4.1 million apps at the Google Play Store from 2016 to 2019, we document that GDPR induced the exit of about a third of available apps; and in the quarters following implementation, entry of new apps fell by half.[73]

Of course, the body of evidence concerning the GDPR’s effects is not entirely unambiguous. For example, Rajkumar Vekatesean and co-authors find that the GDPR had mixed effects on the returns of different types of firms.[74] Other papers also show similarly mixed effects.[75]

Ultimately, the empirical literature concerning the effects of the GDPR shows that regulation—in this case, privacy protection—is no free lunch. Of course, this does not mean that regulating the metaverse would necessarily have these same effects. But in the absence of a clear market failure to solve, it is unclear why policymakers should run such a risk in the first place.

In the end, regulating the metaverse is unlikely to be costless. The metaverse is still in its infancy, regulation could deter essential innovation, and the commission has thus far failed to identify any serious market failures that warrant public intervention. The result is that the commission’s call for evidence appears premature or, in other words, that the commission is putting the meta-cart before the meta-horse.

[1] Virtual Worlds (Metaverses) – A Vision for Openness, Safety and Respect, European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/have-your-say/initiatives/13757-Virtual-worlds-metaverses-a-vision-for-openness-safety-and-respect/feedback_en?p_id=31962299H (hereafter, “Call for Evidence”).

[2] Id.

[3] Jonathan Vaian, Meta’s Reality Labs Records $3.99 Billion Quarterly Loss as Zuckerberg Pumps More Cash into Metaverse, CNBC (Apr. 26, 2023), https://www.cnbc.com/2023/04/26/metas-reality-labs-unit-records-3point99-billion-first-quarter-loss-.html.

[4] Alan Truly, Horizon Worlds Leak: Only 1 in 10 Users Return & Web Launch Is Coming, Mixed News (Mar. 3, 2023), https://mixed-news.com/en/horizon-worlds-leak-only-1-in-10-users-return-web-launch-coming; Kevin Hurler, Hey Fellow Kids: Meta Is Revamping Horizon Worlds to Attract More Teen Users, Gizmodo (Feb. 7, 2023), https://gizmodo.com/meta-metaverse-facebook-horizon-worlds-vr-1850082068; Emma Roth, Meta’s Horizon Worlds VR Platform Is Reportedly Struggling to Keep Users, The Verge (Oct. 15, 2022),
https://www.theverge.com/2022/10/15/23405811/meta-horizon-worlds-losing-users-report; Paul Tassi, Meta’s ‘Horizon Worlds’ Has Somehow Lost 100,000 Players in Eight Months, Forbes, (Oct. 17, 2022), https://www.forbes.com/sites/paultassi/2022/10/17/metas-horizon-worlds-has-somehow-lost-100000-players-in-eight-months/?sh=57242b862a1b.

[5] Call for Evidence, supra note 1.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Frank H. Easterbrook, Cyberspace and the Law of the Horse, 1996 U. Chi. Legal F. 207 (1996).

[9] Id. at 208.

[10] Call for Evidence, supra note 1.

[11] See Case COMP/C-3/37.792, Microsoft, OJ L 32 (May 24, 2004); see also, Case COMP/39.530, Microsoft (Tying), OJ C 120 (Apr. 26, 2013); Case AT.39740, Google Search (Shopping), 2017 E.R.C. I-379; Case AT.40099 Google Android, 2018 E.R.C.

[12] See European Commission Press Release IP/20/1073, Antitrust: Commission Opens Investigations into Apple’s App Store Rules (Jun. 16, 2020); European Commission Press Release IP/20/1075, Antitrust: Commission Opens Investigation into Apple Practices Regarding Apple Pay (Jun. 16, 2020); European Commission Press Release IP/19/4291, Antitrust: Commission Opens Investigation into Possible Anti-Competitive Conduct of Amazon (Jul. 17, 2019).

[13] Regulation (EU) No 2022/1925 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 September 2022 on contestable and fair markets in the digital sector and amending Directives (EU) 2019/1937 and (EU) 2020/1828 (Digital Markets Act), https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:32022R1925.

[14] Directive 2000/31/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 8 June 2000 on Certain Legal Aspects of Information Society Services, in Particular Electronic Commerce, in the Internal Market (hereafter, “eCommerce Directive”), https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=celex%3A32000L0031.

[15] Id. art. 12 to 15.

[16] Regulation EU 2022/2065 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 October 2022 on a Single Market For Digital Services and Amending Directive 2000/31/EC (Digital Services Act), https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:32022R2065 (hereafter, “DSA”).

[17] Call for Evidence, supra note 1.

[18] Terms of Use, Decentraland, https://decentraland.org/terms (last visited May 2, 2023).

[19] Andrew N. Choi & Cynthia A. Gierhart, Intellectual Property Enforcement in the Metaverse, Part 2, Holland & Knight (Oct. 13, 2022), https://www.hklaw.com/en/insights/publications/2022/10/intellectual-property-enforcement-in-the-metaverse-part-2; see, more generally, Thibault Schrepel, Blockchain + Antitrust (Elgar, 2021).

[20] Aron Garst, Fortnite and Roblox Are Dueling for the Future of User-Built Games, The Verge (Apr. 7, 2023), https://www.theverge.com/23674121/fortnite-roblox-user-generated-games.

[21] Lawrence Lessig, The Law of the Horse: What Cyberlaw Might Teach, 113 Harv. L. Rev. 510 (1999).

[22] Regulation (EU) 2016/679 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 April 2016 on the Protection of Natural Persons with Regard to the Processing of Personal Data and on the Free Movement of Such Data, and Repealing Directive 95/46/EC (General Data Protection Regulation); DSA, supra note 16; eCommerce Directive, supra note 14

[23] Lessig, supra note 22, at 507 (“Behavior, we might say, is regulated by four kinds of constraints. Law is just one of those constraints. Law (in at least one of its aspects) orders people to behave in certain ways; it threatens punishment if they do not obey. The law tells me not to buy certain drugs, not to sell cigarettes without a license, and not to trade across international borders without first filing a customs form. It promises strict punishments if these orders are not followed. In this way, we say that law regulates. But not only law regulates in this sense. Social norms do as well. Norms control where I can smoke; they affect how I behave with members of the opposite sex; they limit what I may wear; they influence whether I will pay my taxes. Like law, norms regulate by threatening punishment ex post. But unlike law, the punishments of norms are not centralized. Norms are enforced (if at all) by a community, not by a government. In this way, norms constrain, and therefore regulate. Markets, too, regulate. They regulate by price. The price of gasoline limits the amount one drives – more so in Europe than in the United States. The price of subway tickets affects the use of public transportation – more so in Europe than in the United States. Of course the market is able to constrain in this manner only because of other constraints of law and social norms: property and contract law govern markets; markets operate within the domain permitted by social norms. But given these norms, and given this law, the market presents another set of constraints on individual and collective behavior. And finally, there is a fourth feature of real space that regulates behavior – “architecture.””).

[24] Id. at 538-541; see also, Frank H. Easterbrook, Limits of Antitrust, 63 Tex. L. Rev. 1 (1984); Geoffrey A. Manne & Joshua D. Wright, Innovation and the Limits of Antitrust, 6 J. Comp. L. & Econ. 153 (2010); Geoffrey A. Manne, Error Costs in Digital Markets, 3 GAI Report on Competition in Digital Markets 33 (2020).

[25] R. H. Coase, The Problem of Social Cost, 9 J.L. & Econ. 15 (1960).

[26] Lessig, supra note 22, at 508.

[27] Call for Evidence, supra note 1.

[28] Catherine Thorbecke, What Metaverse? Meta Says Its Single Largest Investment Is Now in ‘Advancing AI’, CNN Business (Mar. 15, 2023), https://www.cnn.com/2023/03/15/tech/meta-ai-investment-priority/index.html; Ben Marlow, Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse Is Shattering into a Million Pieces, The Telegraph (Apr. 23, 2023), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2023/04/21/mark-zuckerbergs-metaverse-shattering-million-pieces; Will Gendron, Meta Has Reportedly Stopped Pitching Advertisers on the Metaverse, BusinessInsider (Apr. 18, 2023), https://www.businessinsider.com/meta-zuckerberg-stopped-pitching-advertisers-metaverse-focus-reels-ai-report-2023-4.

[29] Mansoor Iqbal, Fortnite Usage and Revenue Statistics, Business of Apps (Jan. 9, 2023), https://www.businessofapps.com/data/fortnite-statistics; Matija Ferjan, 76 Little-Known Metaverse Statistics & Facts (2023 Data), Headphones Addict (Feb. 13, 2023), https://headphonesaddict.com/metaverse-statistics.

[30] James Batchelor, Meta’s Flagship Metaverse Horizon Worlds Struggling to Attract and Retain Users, Games Industry (Oct. 17, 2022), https://www.gamesindustry.biz/metas-flagship-metaverse-horizon-worlds-struggling-to-attract-and-retain-users; Ferjan, id.

[31] Richard Lawler, Decentraland’s Billion-Dollar ‘Metaverse’ Reportedly Had 38 Active Users in One Day, The Verge (Oct. 13, 2022), https://www.theverge.com/2022/10/13/23402418/decentraland-metaverse-empty-38-users-dappradar-wallet-data; The Sandbox, DappRadar, https://dappradar.com/multichain/games/the-sandbox (last visited May 3, 2023); Decentraland, DappRadar, https://dappradar.com/multichain/social/decentraland (last visited May 3, 2023).

[32] David J. Teece, Profiting from Technological Innovation: Implications for Integration, Collaboration, Licensing and Public Policy, 15 Research Policy 285-305 (1986), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0048733386900272.

[33] Geoffrey Manne & Dirk Auer, Antitrust Dystopia and Antitrust Nostalgia: Alarmist Theories of Harm in Digital Markets and Their Origins, 28 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 1279 (2021).

[34] Roblox, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roblox (last visited May 3, 2023); Minecraft, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minecraft (last visited May 3, 2023); Fortnite, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fortnite (last visited May 3, 2023); see Fiza Chowdhury, Minecraft vs Roblox vs Fortnite: Which Is Better?, Metagreats (Feb. 20, 2023), https://www.metagreats.com/minecraft-vs-roblox-vs-fortnite.

[35]  Marc Rysman, The Economics of Two-Sided Markets, 13 J. Econ. Perspectives 134 (2009) (“First, if standards can differentiate from each other, they may be able to successfully coexist (Chou and Shy, 1990; Church and Gandal, 1992). Arguably, Apple and Microsoft operating systems have both survived by specializing in different markets: Microsoft in business and Apple in graphics and education. Magazines are an obvious example of platforms that differentiate in many dimensions and hence coexist.”).

[36] Id. at 134 (“Second, tipping is less likely if agents can easily use multiple standards. Corts and Lederman (forthcoming) show that the fixed cost of producing a video game for one more standard have reduced over time relative to the overall fixed costs of producing a game, which has led to increased distribution of games across multiple game systems (for example, PlayStation, Nintendo, and Xbox) and a less-concentrated game system market.”).

[37] What Are Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft and Among Us? A Parent’s Guide to the Most Popular Online Games Kids Are Playing, FTC Business (Oct. 5, 2021), https://www.ftc.net/blog/what-are-fortnite-roblox-minecraft-and-among-us-a-parents-guide-to-the-most-popular-online-games-kids-are-playing; Jay Peters, Epic Is Merging Its Digital Asset Stores into One Huge Marketplace, The Verge (Mar. 22, 2023), https://www.theverge.com/2023/3/22/23645601/epic-games-fab-asset-marketplace-state-of-unreal-2023-gdc.

[38] Luke Winkie, Inside Roblox’s Criminal Underworld, Where Kids Are Scamming Kids, IGN (Jan. 2, 2023), https://www.ign.com/articles/inside-robloxs-criminal-underworld-where-kids-are-scamming-kids; Fake Minecraft Updates Pose Threat to Users, Tribune (Sept. 11, 2022), https://tribune.com.pk/story/2376087/fake-minecraft-updates-pose-threat-to-users; Ana Diaz, Roblox and the Wild West of Teenage Scammers, Polygon (Aug. 24, 2019) https://www.polygon.com/2019/8/24/20812218/roblox-teenage-developers-controversy-scammers-prison-roleplay; Rebecca Alter, Fortnite Tries Not to Scam Children and Face $520 Million in FTC Fines Challenge, Vulture (Dec. 19, 2022), https://www.vulture.com/2022/12/fortnite-epic-games-ftc-fines-privacy.html; Leonid Grustniy, Swindle Royale: Fortnite Scammers Get Busy, Kaspersky Daily (Dec. 3, 2020), https://www.kaspersky.com/blog/top-four-fortnite-scams/37896.

[39] See, generally, David Evans & Richard Schmalensee, Matchmakers: The New Economics of Multisided Platforms (Harvard Business Review Press, 2016).

[40] David S. Evans, Governing Bad Behaviour By Users of Multi-Sided Platforms, Berkley Technology Law Journal 27:2 (2012), 1201.

[41] Call for Evidence, supra note 1.

[42] Id.

[43] See Case COMP/C-3/37.792, Microsoft, OJ L 32 (May 24, 2004). See also, Case COMP/39.530, Microsoft (Tying), OJ C 120 (Apr. 26, 2013).

[44] See Complaint, Epic Games, Inc. v. Apple Inc., 493 F. Supp. 3d 817 (N.D. Cal. 2020) (4:20-cv-05640-YGR).

[45] See European Commission Press Release IP/20/1073, Antitrust: Commission Opens Investigations into Apple’s App Store Rules (Jun. 16, 2020); European Commission Press Release IP/20/1075, Antitrust: Commission Opens Investigation into Apple Practices Regarding Apple Pay (Jun. 16, 2020).

[46] See European Commission Press Release IP/18/421, Antitrust: Commission Fines Qualcomm €997 Million for Abuse of Dominant Market Position (Jan. 24, 2018); Federal Trade Commission v. Qualcomm Inc., 969 F.3d 974 (9th Cir. 2020).

[47] See European Commission Press Release IP/19/4291, Antitrust: Commission Opens Investigation into Possible Anti-Competitive Conduct of Amazon (Jul. 17, 2019).

[48] See Case AT.39740, Google Search (Shopping), 2017 E.R.C. I-379. See also, Case AT.40099 (Google Android), 2018 E.R.C.

[49] See Complaint, United States v. Google, LLC, (2020), https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-sues-monopolist-google-violating-antitrust-laws; see also, Complaint, Colorado et al. v. Google, LLC, (2020), available at https://coag.gov/app/uploads/2020/12/Colorado-et-al.-v.-Google-PUBLIC-REDACTED-Complaint.pdf.

[50] See, e.g., Giorgio Monti, The Digital Markets Act: Institutional Design and Suggestions for Improvement, Tillburg L. & Econ. Ctr., Discussion Paper No. 2021-04 (2021), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3797730 (“In sum, the DMA is more than an enhanced and simplified application of Article 102 TFEU: while the obligations may be criticised as being based on existing competition concerns, they are forward-looking in trying to create a regulatory environment where gatekeeper power is contained and perhaps even reduced.”) (Emphasis added).

[51] See, e.g., Aurelien Portuese, “Please, Help Yourself”: Toward a Taxonomy of Self-Preferencing, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (Oct. 25, 2021), available at https://itif.org/sites/default/files/2021-self-preferencing-taxonomy.pdf. (“The latest example of such weaponization of self-preferencing by antitrust populists is provided by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA). They introduced legislation in October 2021 aimed at prohibiting the practice.2 However, the legislation would ban self-preferencing only for a handful of designated companies—the so-called “covered platforms,” not the thousands of brick-and-mortar sellers that daily self-preference for the benefit of consumers. Mimicking the European Commission’s Digital Markets Act prohibiting self-preferencing, Senate and the House bills would degrade consumers’ experience and undermine competition, since self-preferencing often benefits consumers and constitutes an integral part, rather than an abnormality, of the process of competition.”).

[52] Efforts to saddle platforms with “non-discrimination” constraints are tantamount to mandating openness. See Geoffrey A. Manne, Against the Vertical Discrimination Presumption, Foreword, Concurrences No. 2-2020 (2020) at 2 (“The notion that platforms should be forced to allow complementors to compete on their own terms, free of constraints or competition from platforms is a species of the idea that platforms are most socially valuable when they are most ‘open.’ But mandating openness is not without costs, most importantly in terms of the effective operation of the platform and its own incentives for innovation.”).

[53] See, e.g., Klint Finley, Your Own Private Google: The Quest for an Open Source Search Engine, Wired (Jul. 12, 2021), https://www.wired.com/2012/12/solar-elasticsearch-google.

[54] See Brian Connolly, Selling on Amazon vs. eBay in 2021: Which Is Better?, JungleScout (Jan. 12, 2021), https://www.junglescout.com/blog/amazon-vs-ebay; Crucial Differences Between Amazon and eBay, SaleHOO, https://www.salehoo.com/educate/selling-on-amazon/crucial-differences-between-amazon-and-ebay (last visited Feb. 8, 2021).

[55] See, e.g., Dolby Vision Is Winning the War Against HDR10 +, It Requires a Single Standard, Tech Smart, https://voonze.com/dolby-vision-is-winning-the-war-against-hdr10-it-requires-a-single-standard (last visited June 6, 2022).

[56] On the importance of managers, see, e.g., Nicolai J Foss & Peter G Klein, Why Managers Still Matter, 56 MIT Sloan Mgmt. Rev., 73 (2014) (“In today’s knowledge-based economy, managerial authority is supposedly in decline. But there is still a strong need for someone to define and implement the organizational rules of the game.”).

[57] It is generally agreed upon that anticompetitive foreclosure is possible only when a firm enjoys some degree of market power. Frank H. Easterbrook, Limits of Antitrust, 63 Tex. L. Rev. 1, 20 (1984) (“Firms that lack power cannot injure competition no matter how hard they try. They may injure a few consumers, or a few rivals, or themselves (see (2) below) by selecting ‘anticompetitive’ tactics. When the firms lack market power, though, they cannot persist in deleterious practices. Rival firms will offer the consumers better deals. Rivals’ better offers will stamp out bad practices faster than the judicial process can. For these and other reasons many lower courts have held that proof of market power is an indispensable first step in any case under the Rule of Reason. The Supreme Court has established a market power hurdle in tying cases, despite the nominally per se character of the tying offense, on the same ground offered here: if the defendant lacks market power, other firms can offer the customer a better deal, and there is no need for judicial intervention.”).

[58] See, e.g., Josh Lerner & Jean Tirole, Some Simple Economics of Open Source, 50 J. Indus. Econ. 197 (2002).

[59] See Matthew Miller, Thanks, Samsung: Android’s Best Mobile Browser Now Available to All, ZDNet (Aug. 11, 2017), https://www.zdnet.com/article/thanks-samsung-androids-best-mobile-browser-now-available-to-all.

[60] FACT SHEET: Windows XP N Sales, RegMedia (Jun. 12, 2009), available at https://regmedia.co.uk/2009/06/12/microsoft_windows_xp_n_fact_sheet.pdf.

[61] See Case COMP/39.530, Microsoft (Tying), OJ C 120 (Apr. 26, 2013).

[62] Konstantinos Stylianou, Systemic Efficiencies in Competition Law: Evidence from the ICT Industry, 12 J. Competition L. & Econ. 557 (2016).

[63] See, e.g., Steven Sinofsky, The App Store Debate: A Story of Ecosystems, Medium (Jun. 21, 2020), https://medium.learningbyshipping.com/the-app-store-debate-a-story-of-ecosystems-938424eeef74.

[64] Id.

[65] See, e.g., Benjamin Klein, Market Power in Aftermarkets, 17 Managerial & Decision Econ. 143 (1996).

[66] See, e.g., Simon Hill, What Is Android Fragmentation, and Can Google Ever Fix It?, DigitalTrends (Oct. 31, 2018), https://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/what-is-android-fragmentation-and-can-google-ever-fix-it.

[67] Metaverse Market Revenue Worldwide from 2022 to 2030, Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1295784/metaverse-market-size (last visited May 3, 2023); Metaverse Market by Component (Hardware, Software (Extended Reality Software, Gaming Engine, 3D Mapping, Modeling & Reconstruction, Metaverse Platform, Financial Platform), and Professional Services), Vertical and Region – Global Forecast to 2027, Markets and Markets (Apr. 27, 2023), https://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/metaverse-market-166893905.html; see also, Press Release, Metaverse Market Size Worth $ 824.53 Billion, Globally, by 2030 at 39.1% CAGR, Verified Market Research (Jul. 13, 2022), https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/metaverse-market-size-worth–824-53-billion-globally-by-2030-at-39-1-cagr-verified-market-research-301585725.html.

[68] See, e.g., Megan Farokhmanesh, Will the Metaverse Live Up to the Hype? Game Developers Aren’t Impressed, Wired (Jan. 19, 2023), https://www.wired.com/story/metaverse-video-games-fortnite-zuckerberg; see also Mitch Wagner, The Metaverse Hype Bubble Has Popped. What Now?, Fierce Electronics (Feb. 24, 2023), https://www.fierceelectronics.com/embedded/metaverse-hype-bubble-has-popped-what-now.

[69] Call for Evidence, supra note 1.

[70] Garret A. Johnson, et al., Privacy and Market Concentration: Intended and Unintended Consequences of the GDPR, Forthcoming Management Science 1 (2023).

[71] Jian Jia, et al., The Short-Run Effects of GDPR on Technology Venture Investment, NBER Working Paper 25248, 4 (2018), available at https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w25248/w25248.pdf.

[72] Samuel G. Goldberg, Garrett A. Johnson, & Scott K. Shriver, Regulating Privacy Online: An Economic Evaluation of GDPR (2021), available at https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/public_events/1588356/johnsongoldbergshriver.pdf.

[73] Rebecca Janßen, Reinhold Kesler, Michael Kummer, & Joel Waldfogel, GDPR and the Lost Generation of Innovative Apps, Nber Working Paper 30028, 2 (2022), available at https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w30028/w30028.pdf.

[74] Rajkumar Venkatesan, S. Arunachalam & Kiran Pedada, Short Run Effects of Generalized Data Protection Act on Returns from AI Acquisitions, University of Virginia Working Paper 6 (2022), available at: https://conference.nber.org/conf_papers/f161612.pdf. (“On average, GDPR exposure reduces the ROA of firms. We also find that GDPR exposure increases the ROA of firms that make AI acquisitions for improving customer experience, and cybersecurity. Returns on AI investments in innovation and operational efficiencies are unaffected by GDPR.”)

[75] For a detailed discussion of the empirical literature concerning the GDPR, see Garrett Johnson, Economic Research on Privacy Regulation: Lessons From the GDPR And Beyond, NBER Working Paper 30705 (2022), available at https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w30705/w30705.pdf.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Quack Attack: De Facto Rate Regulation in Telecommunications

ICLE Issue Brief If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it just may be a duck. —Walter Reuther Executive . . .

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it just may be a duck.
—Walter Reuther

Executive Summary

Rate regulation can take many forms. Rates may be regulated through overt price controls, such as price ceilings or price floors; through less-overt rules governing the pace of price changes; or through quality mandates or restrictions. Some rate regulations can provide short-run benefits to certain groups of consumers or producers, but often result in shortages or surpluses that diminish overall welfare. In the long run, rate regulation often distorts investment incentives, leading to a misallocation of investment (e.g., to under- or over-investment).

For these reasons, since the late 1970s, direct rate regulation generally has fallen out of favor across most sectors of the economy, although there are some—such as insurance and utilities—where it remains commonplace. Nevertheless, elected officials and other policymakers frequently come under pressure from constituents and stakeholders to “do something” about the price of goods and services in the ostensibly “deregulated” sectors of the economy, such as when consumers characterize short-term price disruptions as “price gouging.” In some cases, firms may seek regulations to “stabilize” prices, while in others, rate regulation may be seen as a means to “increase access” to crucial goods and services.

Because the costs of overt rate regulations are so well-known, price controls are often buried under layers of bureaucracy or wrapped in with other policies and programs, such that policymakers can plausibly claim that their proposals do not directly regulate rates. While not explicit price controls, these programs amount to de facto rate regulation. It’s a regulatory version of the Duck Test.

Rate regulation—in any form and whatever the imagined benefits—is not a costless endeavor. Costs and risk do not disappear under rate regulation. Instead, they are shifted in one direction or another—typically with costs borne by consumers through some mix of suppressed or misdirected investment, sluggish improvements in quality, and reduced innovation.

This issue brief gives an overview, with a particular focus on the telecommunications sector, of the consequences of different types of overt rate regulation—price ceilings and prices floors—as well as how quality regulations can amount to rate regulation. Price controls, such as price ceilings and price floors, are government interventions in the market that aim to regulate the prices of goods and services. While they may have some short-term benefits, they can also lead to long-term consequences that are not always positive. We examine, in particular, four telecommunications programs in which de facto rate regulation is a key component.

  • The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) notice of funding opportunity under the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD), which requires each program participant to include a “middle-class affordability plan to ensure that all consumers have access to affordable high-speed internet”;
  • The U.S. Agriculture Department’s (USDA) ReConnect Loan and Grant Program, which gives preference to applicants who agree to abide by “net neutrality” and who provide a “low-cost” option to consumers;
  • New York State’s Affordable Broadband Act, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to offer all qualifying low-income households at least two internet-access plans: a $15-a-month plan with download speeds of at least 25 megabits-per-second, or a $20-a-month plan with download speeds of at least 200 megabits-per-second; and
  • The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2015 Open Internet Order’s “net neutrality” and “zero rating” provisions.

In each of these examples, policymakers have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid characterizing the programs’ pricing provisions as direct rate regulation. No matter how the policies are characterized, however, the consequences remain. When regulation is used to set prices on one side of the multi-sided broadband market at below-market rates, there will be upward pricing pressure on another side of the market. Ultimately, consumers who are not subject to the regulated rates will face higher prices, in turn putting pressure on policymakers to impose yet another layer of imprecise and complex regulation and even deeper constraints on investment.

Government policy may well be able to help accelerate broadband deployment to the unserved portions of the country where it is most needed. This issue brief concludes that the way to achieve that goal is not by imposing price controls on broadband providers. Instead, broadband access can best be expanded by removing costly, government-erected barriers to buildout and/or by subsidizing and educating consumers, where needed.

I.        Introduction

Since the deregulation of railroads, airlines, and trucking in the late 1970s, direct rate regulation has generally, except in a few outlier examples like insurance and utilities, fallen out of favor with elected officials and policymakers. To be sure, there are times when experts and activists have called for price controls in response to short-term price disruptions they characterize as “price gouging.” Because of a widespread skepticism of explicit price controls, rate-regulation efforts are instead often described as efforts to “stabilize” prices or “increase access” to goods and services. In many cases, the price controls are buried under layers of bureaucracy or bundled with other policies and programs, such that policymakers can plausibly claim that their proposals do not amount to regulating rates.

For example, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that 50 members of Congress sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging his administration “to pursue all possible strategies to end corporate price gouging in the real estate sector and ensure that renters and people experiencing homelessness across this country are stably housed this winter.”[1] Proposals include directing the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to establish “anti-price gouging protections” and “just cause eviction standards” in rental properties with government-backed mortgages. Another proposal would have the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issue new regulations defining “excessive” rent increases as an unfair trade practice. A third proposal would condition grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on localities mitigating housing cost burdens and “adopting anti-rent-gouging measures.” None of these proposals amount to direct rent controls, but they would, in tandem, establish de facto rent regulation.

Efforts by policymakers to control prices, while distancing themselves from explicit rate regulation, have targeted myriad industries, including telecommunications services. For example, under former Chair Tom Wheeler, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to enact the 2015 Open Internet Order (OIO), which categorized internet service providers (ISPs) as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, thereby subjecting them to, among other things, net-neutrality principles. While rate regulation is among the defining features of most Title II services,[2] Wheeler nonetheless promised at the time to forebear from applying such regulations, stating flatly that “we are not trying to regulate rates.”[3]

But this assurance proved a small consolation. While the agency decided to waive “the vast majority of rules adopted under Title II,” it also made clear that the commission would “retain adequate authority to” rescind such forbearance in the future.[4] In his dissent from the OIO, Commissioner Ajit Pai noted the forbearance merely meant that “the FCC will not impose rules ‘for now.’”[5] Thus, while stopping short of imposing explicit rate regulation immediately, the OIO dangled the threat of rate regulation in the future.

Such threats amount to de facto rate regulation, in which agencies hold out the potential use of onerous rules in the future to shape providers’ pricing policies today. Tim Wu—credited with coining the term “net neutrality” and a recently departed senior advisor to President Joe Biden—has explicitly endorsed the use of threats by regulatory agencies as a means to obtain favored policy outcomes:

The use of threats instead of law can be a useful choice—not simply a procedural end run. My argument is that the merits of any regulative modality cannot be determined without reference to the state of the industry being regulated. Threat regimes, I suggest, are important and are best justified when the industry is undergoing rapid change—under conditions of “high uncertainty.” Highly informal regimes are most useful, that is, when the agency faces a problem in an environment in which facts are highly unclear and evolving. Examples include periods surrounding a newly invented technology or business model, or a practice about which little is known. Conversely, in mature, settled industries, use of informal procedures is much harder to justify.[6]

In 2017, under then-Chairman Pai, the FCC reclassified broadband under Title I of the Communications Act. In a 2018 article referencing the repeal of the 2015 rules, Gigi Sohn lamented that removing ISPs from Title II’s purview meant losing the “power to constrain ‘unjust and unreasonable’ prices, terms, and practices by [broadband] providers.”[7] More recently, standing as a nominee to the FCC, Sohn was asked during a 2021 confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee if she would support the agency’s regulation of broadband rates.[8] She responded: “No. That was an easy one.” Around the same time, FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in written comments that she did not plan to regulate broadband rates directly or indirectly.[9] Her comments indicated that the agency’s 2015 net-neutrality rules “expressly eschew future use of prescriptive, industry-wide rate regulation” and that she “supported this approach in the past and would do so again in the future.”

Nonetheless, policymakers’ interest in imposing controls on broadband rates continues unabated. In 2021, for example, President Biden’s American Jobs Plan called on Congress to reduce broadband prices:

President Biden believes that building out broadband infrastructure isn’t enough. We also must ensure that every American who wants to can afford high-quality and reliable broadband internet. While the President recognizes that individual subsidies to cover internet costs may be needed in the short term, he believes continually providing subsidies to cover the cost of overpriced internet service is not the right long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers. Americans pay too much for the internet—much more than people in many other countries—and the President is committed to working with Congress to find a solution to reduce internet prices for all Americans.[10]

But even in those cases in which rate regulation is imposed, proponents are careful to avoid calling it rate regulation. In defending the State of New York’s 2021 Affordable Broadband Act, for example, the state claimed that the law’s pricing provisions did not amount to rate regulation because they specified a price ceiling, rather than a specific price.[11]

This brief first provides an overview of the problems inherent in rate regulation, de facto or otherwise. It then identifies several instances of rate regulation being covertly introduced into broadband policy, and the dangers this poses to deployment.

II.      A Primer on Rate Regulation

In a competitive market, prices allow for the successful coordination of supply and demand, and the market price reflects both consumer demand and the costs of production. Of course, for those on the demand side of the equation, the price of a good or service is a cost to them, and they would prefer falling prices to rising prices. For suppliers, the price represents the revenue from selling the good or service and they would prefer rising prices to falling prices.

Because of this inherent tension, there is a natural inclination on the part of both consumers and producers to seek the government’s intervention in the competitive process to halt or slow price changes. The most obvious way the government can intervene is through rate regulation, such as price controls. Price controls can be divided into two categories: price ceilings that set a maximum price that sellers can charge and price floors that set the minimum price that consumers can pay. It is well-known and widely accepted that price controls can make both consumers and sellers worse off.[12] Consequently, policymakers may pitch policies that control prices under another name (e.g., “second generation rent relief”) or introduce policies that are not explicit price controls, but have substantially the same effects as price controls (e.g., quality-of-service mandates).

A.      Price Ceilings

The most well-known example of a price ceiling is rent control—so well-known, in fact, that just about every introductory microeconomics textbook discusses the topic. Consider the market for apartment rentals shown in Figure I, which is based on an example from Gregory Mankiw’s widely used economics textbook.[13] In a competitive market, the price of apartments would be $1,500 and 2,500 apartments would be rented out.

Figure I: Rent Control in the Short Run and in the Long Run


SOURCE: Mankiw

At the market price, however, tenant advocates would complain of a housing “affordability crisis”—that apartment rents are too high. They argue that if prices were lower, more people could afford apartments. As a result, the government imposes a price ceiling, mandating that apartment rents cannot be any higher than $1,200. But at this price, in the short run, Panel (a) shows the number of apartments demanded (2,500) exceeds the quantity supplied (2,000). Because of this excess demand of 500 apartments, some people who want to rent an apartment would be unable to do so. In other words, there is a shortage of apartments.

In this example, the price ceiling makes the housing “crisis” worse, because fewer people are able to rent apartments than before the rent control was imposed. Some renters are better off because they are paying lower rents, but others are worse off because they cannot rent an apartment—even if they are willing to pay the market price.

Rent-control advocates might argue that there would be no shortage of apartments because apartments don’t just disappear. But they do, just not in the most obvious ways. In the short run, property owners may be more selective regarding to whom they will rent apartments. In the medium term, property owners might convert their apartments to short-term rentals (e.g., listing them on a service like Airbnb). In the somewhat longer term, property owner will reduce their maintenance investments or might convert their apartment buildings to condominiums or sell their rental house to an owner-occupier. Ultimately, developers may decide to invest in an area that is not subject to rent control, thereby reducing the construction of new rental housing. Thus, as shown in Panel (b), in the long run, rent control shifts the supply curve, further reducing the supply of housing and increasing the shortage to 1,000 apartments.

This is not just a theory. There are plenty of real-world examples of this phenomenon playing out. Some nonetheless advocate for a modified version of rent control, sometimes called “second generation” rent control.[14] Rather than regulating the price of apartments, the newer iterations of rent control cap the rate at which prices can rise (e.g., rents can rise no higher than the rate of inflation, plus 3%). Second-generation rent control still results in shortages and all the other consequences, but draws out these effects over a longer time period.

B.      Price Floors

The most well-known form of price-floor regulation is the minimum wage, but there are many industries that are also subject to regulated price floors in the United States. Some states impose floors on the price of milk and alcoholic beverages. For decades, many U.S. agricultural products have been subject to price floors. Until the late 1970s and early 1980s, airline fares and stock-broker charges were subject to price-floor regulation.

Consider the market for wheat shown in Figure II, also adapted from Mankiw’s textbook.[15] In a competitive market, the price of wheat would be $3 and 100 bushels of wheat would be sold. At the market price, however, farmers would complain that the price is “too low.” They argue that, without assistance, their family farms would go under.

Figure II: Rent Market with a Price Floor

SOURCE: Mankiw

As a result, the government imposes a price floor, mandating that wheat cannot be bought for less than $4 per bushel. But at this price, the amount of wheat grown (120) exceeds the quantity demanded (80). Because of this excess supply of 40 bushels, there is a surplus of wheat and some farmers who want to sell wheat at the regulated price would be unable to do so. This introduces another problem for policymakers: price floors do not help suppliers who cannot sell their products at the regulated price.

To solve this problem, policymakers often turn to another set of policies. In some cases, the government promises to purchase any surplus. In one notable example, there is a cave in Missouri that contains 1.4 billion pounds of cheese purchased under such a program.[16] In other cases, the government replaces the price-floor regulation with a subsidy that promises to pay the difference between the market price and a “target price.”[17]

While a price ceiling can lead to “under” investment, a price floor can encourage “over” investment. For example, if a wheat farmer knows the minimum price that a bushel of wheat will fetch and that all the wheat grown will be purchased by someone, then the farmer has incentive to invest in wheat production rather than some other alternative.

Firms often respond to price floors in nonobvious ways. Baby boomers and their parents can tell stories of the luxurious accommodations enjoyed by those who flew coach in the 1960s and 1970s. Planes had spacious seating and some larger planes had a piano lounge onboard—features that were due, in a large part, to rate regulation that set a price floor on airline tickets. Because airlines faced no price competition, they competed for customers by offering superior service. In other words, they responded to price-floor regulations by “over” investing in service and amenities.[18]

In jurisdictions with high minimum wages, firms respond by using less labor. For example, restaurants may switch from table service to counter service, or they may replace some counter service with self-service electronic kiosks. Restaurants that maintain table service may assign more tables to each server. As the perceived level of service declines, consumers may substitute dining at-home for dining out.

C.      Not-Quite Rate Regulations

Because the effects of explicit rate regulation are so well-known and so obvious, policymakers who seek to regulate prices often attempt to do so in less-obvious ways. One already-discussed way is the regulation of price changes, rather than the prices themselves. For example, many rent-control price ceiling programs limit the rate at which rents can increase from year-to-year, a policy described as “rent stabilization.”[19] Many jurisdictions with minimum wage price-floor programs mandate an increase in the minimum wage in-line with the inflation rate.[20]

Another way in which officials can effectively—but not explicitly—regulate rates is through quality mandates. For example, some agricultural products are subject to “marketing orders,” which are legal cartels than can dictate the price and quality of produce.[21] Consider an apple market subject to a marketing order that specifies fresh apples must be of a certain shape and size, such that only large, round apples can be sold as fresh produce.

Presumably, consumers prefer large apples to small apples and prefer round apples to misshapen apples. Thus, as shown in Figure III, the order that only large, round apples can be sold as fresh has the effect of increasing/shifting the demand curve. Consumers would be willing to pay more for the seemingly better fruit, and they’d be willing to buy more. But the order also increases the cost to apple growers. They have to find a way to dispose of their smaller or misshapen apples, perhaps by making apple sauce or juicing the fruit. They also incur higher costs of managing their crop to produce more of the higher-quality fruit. This has the effect of decreasing/shifting the supply curve for fresh fruit. Growers will supply less fruit at a higher cost.

Figure III: Market with a Quality Mandate

Combining the effects from both the shift in supply and the shift in demand shows that the marketing order unambiguously results in a higher price for apples. What is not known, however, is whether more or fewer apples are sold. That will depend on the elasticities of demand and supply. Because the order results in a higher price, however, it has created a de facto price floor without explicitly setting one. Consumers are not aware that they are paying a higher price because they do not know what type of fruit would be available, and at what price, absent the quality restrictions.

III.    Recent Attempts at De Facto Rate Regulation in Broadband

The FCC obviously has a long history of explicit rate regulation since its inception in 1934.[22] Among its founding mandates, the commission was charged with ensuring that rates were fair, that service was reliable and efficient, and that access to telecommunications services was available to all Americans.[23] During this time, the FCC governed telephone-service rates through a system of rate-of-return regulation, in which rates were set based on the cost of providing service and the company’s desired return on investment.[24] In the latter half of the 20th century, and especially since Congress passed a major overhaul of the Communications Act in 1996, a more deregulatory approach to telecommunications has prevailed.

This made sense in the 1990s, and has only made more sense over time, as different communications modalities have been developed, and competition has flourished throughout the market. The reality of the competitive market is acknowledged by regulators across the political spectrum, as we noted above. Both potential and current FCC commissioners note that rate regulation of the broadband industry is undesirable.[25]

At the same time, however, current and potential FCC commissioners—along with other regulators at adjacent agencies—have shaped federal policy in ways that effectively amount to de facto rate regulation. Rate regulation by design and rate regulation in effect arrive at the same damaging economic consequences for consumers and the economy as a whole, however. As such, it is worth reviewing some of the recent efforts to enact de facto rate regulation.

A.      BEAD: Middle-Class Affordability Mandate

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) notice of funding opportunity under the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program requires each participating U.S. state or territory to include a “middle-class affordability plan to ensure that all consumers have access to affordable high-speed internet” (emphasis in original).[26] The notice provides several examples of how this could be achieved, including:

  1. Require providers to offer low-cost, high-speed plans to all middle-class households using the BEAD-funded network; and
  2. Provide consumer subsidies to defray subscription costs for households not eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Benefit or other federal subsidies.

Despite the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s (IIJA) explicit prohibition of price regulation, the NTIA’s approval process appears to envision exactly this. The first example provided above is clear rate regulation. It specifies a price (“low-cost”); a quantity (“all middle-class households”); and imposes a quality mandate (“high-speed”). Toward these ends, the notice provides an example of a “low-cost” plan that would be acceptable to NTIA:

  • Costs $30 per month or less, inclusive of all taxes, fees, and charges, with no additional non-recurring costs or fees to the consumer;
  • Allows the end user to apply the Affordable Connectivity Benefit subsidy to the service price;
  • Provides download speeds of at least 100 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 20 Mbps, or the fastest speeds the infrastructure is capable of if less than 100 Mbps/20 Mbps;
  • Provides typical latency measurements of no more than 100 milliseconds; and
  • Is not subject to data caps, surcharges, or usage-based throttling.[27]

The notice states that the focus of this portion of the program is to foster broadband access, rather than broadband adoption. But broadband access alone may not be sufficient to drive greater rates of broadband adoption. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that “even where broadband service is available … an adoption gap may persist due to the affordability of broadband and lack of digital skills.”[28] The GAO report notes that nearly one-third of those with access to broadband do not subscribe to it.[29] Brian Whitacre and his co-authors found that, while the reduced levels of broadband access in rural areas explained 38% of the rural-urban broadband-adoption gap in 2011, differences in other general characteristics—such as income and education—explain “roughly half of the gap.”[30]

A policy bulletin published by the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies notes that the NTIA did not conclude that broadband was unaffordable for middle-class households.[31] George Ford, the bulletin’s author, collected data on broadband adoption by income level. The data indicate that, in general, internet-adoption rates increase with higher income levels. Higher-income households have higher adoptions rates (97.3%) than middle-income households (92.9%) which in turn have higher adoption rates than lower-income households (78.1%). For each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, the Phoenix bulletin finds that middle-income internet-adoption rates are, to a statistically significant degree, higher than lower-income adoption rates.

The Phoenix bulletin concludes that broadband currently is “affordable” to middle-class households and that “no direct intervention is required” to ensure affordability to the middle class. These observations, however, invite questions regarding how NTIA intends to administer the BEAD program.

  • How will the agency distinguish broadband access from broadband adoption? A nearly 93% adoption rate among middle-income households suggests that somewhere close to 100% of these households have broadband access.
  • Does “all middle-class households” literally mean all? Even among the highest-income households, broadband adoption is less than 100%. Is NTIA’s objective to reach 100% of middle-income households, or the same level as higher-income households?
  • With such high adoption rates among middle-income households, what would be the cost of providing access and/or encouraging adoption by the remaining 4% to 7% of households?
  • It seems obvious that some households will not adopt broadband at any price. Should some households pay a negative price for broadband under the BEAD program?
  • Does NTIA really intend to encourage states to provide money to households that do not qualify for ACP but already adopt broadband? If so, in what sense does this actually further the goal of spending scarce resources to get the unconnected online?

As John Mayo, Greg Rosston, & Scott Wallsten note:

A substantial portion of the unserved and underserved areas of the country that are the likely targets of the BEAD program, however, are rural, low-population density areas where deployment costs will be high. These high deployment costs may seem to indicate that even “cost-based” rates—normally seen as an attractive competitive benchmark—may be high, violating the IIJA’s “affordability” standard.[32]

The only effective way to reduce broadband price, increase access, and improve quality simultaneously is to increase supply. That would call for prioritizing subsidies to broadband providers before consumers. Although consumer subsidies would increase the demand for broadband, which would have a knock-on effect of potentially attracting long-term investment from providers, it could also increase the price for households who do not receive the subsidy. Direct provider subsidies targeted at hard-to-connect areas could avoid many of the problems that price controls and direct user subsidies can create.[33] Ultimately, however, price controls—even de facto or “backdoor” price controls—would likely slow broadband deployment.

B.      ReConnect Loan and Grant Program

In 2018, Congress provided the secretary of U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to establish a pilot project intended to expand broadband deployment in rural areas, known as the ReConnect Loan and Grant Program. According to the Congressional Research Service, as of December 2022, USDA had awarded more than $3 billion of ReConnect funds through three funding rounds.[34]

With its third round of funding in 2021, USDA announced that, for the first time, applicants would receive a preference, in the form of “points,” for agreeing to abide by so-called “net neutrality” rules similar to those that the FCC had eliminated in 2018’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order. The department simultaneously added affordability—providing a “low-cost option”—as a point criteria. In addition, the third round required that projects must provide broadband access at speeds of at least 100/100 Mbps (i.e., 100 Mbps symmetrical speed). Round 4, announced in August 2022, includes the same criteria.

USDA’s third- and fourth-round requirements under the ReConnect program could be characterized as “back-door” rate regulation. They specify pricing as a point criteria (“low-cost option”) and impose a quality mandate (100/100 Mbps). While it does not mandate a low-cost option, the point weighting indicates that pricing is a priority in awarding funds under the program.

This sort of second-generation price control, while it does not create a centrally directed rate schedule, amounts to the same dynamic. These preferences, while potentially more diffuse in the short term, ultimately create the same medium- and long-term dynamics that drive up prices, and reduce quality and availability.

C.      New York State’s Affordable Broadband Act

In 2021, the State of New York passed the Affordable Broadband Act (ABA).[35] The act requires ISPs to offer all qualifying low-income households at least two internet-access plans: (1) download speeds of at least 25 megabits-per-second for no more than $15-a-month, or (2) download speeds of at least 200 megabits-per-second for no more than $20-a-month. Providers with fewer than 20,000 subscribers may be eligible for exemption from the law. More than one-third of households in the state would be eligible to participate in the program.

Before it went into effect, a group of ISPs obtained an injunction in federal court to block the law.[36] The plaintiffs claimed that the ABA amounted to common-carrier rate regulation, which is preempted by federal law. ISPs are regulated as an “information service” under Title I of the Federal Communications Act of 1934, rather than as Title II common-carrier “telecommunications services.” As such, the plaintiffs claim neither the FCC nor the states can regulate ISPs as common carriers.

New York attempted to dance around this complication by asserting that the ABA merely set a price ceiling.[37] Because ISPs were permitted to charge any price below the ceiling, “the ABA does not ‘rate regulate’ broadband services,” the state argued.[38] The court shut down that line of reasoning, citing several earlier decisions that conclude “‘[p]rice ceilings’ regulate rates.”[39] The matter is currently on appeal before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where oral arguments were heard in January 2023.[40]

D.     Net Neutrality and Zero Rating

The FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order (“OIO”),[41] although explicitly forbearing from rate regulation,[42] was a regulatory scheme that imposed many of the same effects. Further, with prohibitions on practices like “zero rating,” the regulation walks right up to the line of explicit rate regulation, if not over it.

At an abstract level, the OIO was predicated on the idea that it was possible to impose some common-carriage obligations on broadband providers but to leave out rate regulation. Fundamentally, the OIO failed to take account of the economics that drive ISP investment and pricing, for both edge providers and consumers. In short, in a condition of scarcity—such as limited bandwidth and limited infrastructure to increase bandwidth—there will always be some form of rationing; it will be accomplished either through prices or through regulatory intervention. Even if a regulator disavows explicit rate regulation, intervention into providers’ business models and technical decisions will inevitably shape pricing in much the same way as explicit price regulation does, through the “hydraulic effect” of regulation.[43]

Generally speaking, the OIO imposed a form of “negative” rate regulation that short circuited the normal course of rationing among broadband providers and their customers. It prohibited providers from applying anything other than a zero price to edge providers.[44] It outright prohibited “paid prioritization”—that is, seeking payments for network utilization from edge providers like Google, Facebook, and Netflix—while casting suspicion on other pricing schemes under the Internet Conduct Standard.[45] Thus, on one hand, the OIO did explicitly regulate rates by imposing a zero price, and, on the other, implemented a de facto rate-regulation scheme by subjecting providers to regulatory scrutiny if they sought novel business relationships with partners.

The best example of this latter situation was the commission’s attack on “zero rating.” Zero rating is the practice of a broadband provider not counting data from certain sources against a customer’s data allowance within a given period.[46] In truth, this is a business model very familiar to any casual internet user: edge providers like gaming companies, email hosts, and social-media platforms frequently offer free or low-cost versions of their service in order to attract a critical mass of users.[47]

Zero-rated broadband service works identically. A content provider like Netflix or YouTube will partner with an ISP like T-Mobile or Comcast in order to provide broadband customers with access to the provider’s content without that use counting against their data plan. Zero rating does not mean that other services are blocked; just that those other services will count against a periodic data allowance.[48] Generally speaking, this sort of business arrangement is a boon to consumers, particularly low-income consumers who can only afford the most restrictive data plans.[49]

With the OIO, however, the FCC introduced the vague Internet Conduct Standard, which gave it broad latitude to ban practices like zero rating.[50] The standard prohibited providers from “unreasonably interfer[ing] with or unreasonably disadvantage[ing]” consumers’ access to lawful content, applications, or services, as well as edge providers’ ability to distribute lawful content, applications, or services.[51] In 2016, the FCC sent letters to AT&T and Verizon, suggesting that the two companies’ use of zero rating were likely violations of the OIO.[52]

Even this implicit threat of regulatory proceedings to examine the propriety of zero rating likely had a chilling effect. Indeed, in an analogous context, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down earlier net-neutrality regulations from the FCC on the grounds that they amounted to the application of de facto common-carriage obligations, even though that commission had refrained from applying Title II.[53]

Regulatory presumptions against zero rating and other forms of paid prioritization similarly amount to de facto rate regulation.[54] As multi-sided platforms, broadband providers seek to balance service and pricing across users and edge providers. As regulation restricts broadband providers’ ability to seek agreements with other large service providers, investment and consumers prices will be forced to shift in order to accommodate. In the long run, this will result in price increases, shortages, declines in quality or, most likely, some mix of the three.

IV.    Conclusion

Both economics and history demonstrate that rate regulations that cap the price of a product below the market price lead to shortages by increasing the quantity demanded without increasing the quantity supplied. Over time, such price caps can reduce the overall supply, as providers curtail or slow output-improving investments.

Broadband rate regulation—whether in the forms of direct and explicit price controls or back-door de facto policies—will result in slowed broadband investment and deployment. Broadband providers have a wide range of investment opportunities, with expected returns as a key consideration in evaluating these opportunities. Policies like price ceilings, which reduce the returns on deployment investments, will in turn reduce the likelihood that such investments will be made, thereby slowing broadband deployment.

As we noted in an earlier issue brief, broadband providers—like all firms—have limited resources with which to make their investments.[55] While profitability is a necessary precondition for investment, not all profitable investments can be undertaken. Among the universe of potentially profitable projects, firms are likely to give priority to those that promise greater returns on investment relative to those with lower ROI. Thus, any evaluation of broadband deployment and access must examine not only whether a given deployment is likely to be profitable, but also how its expected returns compare to other investment opportunities.

In broadband, returns on investment depend on several factors. Population density, terrain, regulations, and taxes are all important cost factors. The consumer population’s willingness to adopt and pay for broadband are key demand-related factors. In addition to these cost and demand factors, timing factors concerning both investment and adoption affect the ROI of any deployment investment. Generally speaking, the longer it takes for a given deployment to recoup its investment and generate a return, the lower the ROI and, in turn, the lower the likelihood that the investment will be made. Similarly, binding rate regulation—whether explicit or de facto—will reduce the ROI of deployments subject to that regulation.

Not only would existing broadband providers make fewer and less-intensive investments to maintain their networks, but they would also invest less in improving quality:

When it faces a binding price ceiling, a regulated monopolist is unable to capture the full incremental surplus generated by an increase in service quality. Consequently, when the firm bears the full cost of the increased quality, it will deliver less than the surplus-maximizing level of quality. As Spence (1975, p. 420, note 5) observes, “where price is fixed … the firm always sets quality too low.”[56]

Quality suffers under price regulation not just because firms can’t capture the full value of their investments, but also because it is often difficult to account for quality improvements in regulatory-pricing schemes:

The design and enforcement of service quality regulations is challenging for at least three reasons. First, it can be difficult to assess the benefits and the costs of improving service quality. Absent accurate knowledge of the value that consumers place on elevated levels of service quality and the associated costs, it is difficult to identify appropriate service quality standards. It can be particularly challenging to assess the benefits and costs of improved service quality in settings where new products and services are introduced frequently.

Second, the level of service quality that is actually delivered sometimes can be difficult to measure. For example, consumers may value courteous service representatives, and yet the courtesy provided by any particular representative may be difficult to measure precisely. When relevant performance dimensions are difficult to monitor, enforcing desired levels of service quality can be problematic.

Third, it can be difficult to identify the party or parties that bear primary responsibility for realized service quality problems. To illustrate, a customer may lose telephone service because an underground cable is accidentally sliced. This loss of service could be the fault of the telephone company if the company fails to bury the cable at an appropriate depth in the ground or fails to notify appropriate entities of the location of the cable. Alternatively, the loss of service might reflect a lack of due diligence by field workers from other companies who slice a telephone cable that is buried at an appropriate depth and whose location has been clearly identified.[57]

None of these concerns dissipate where regulators use indirect, de facto means to cap prices. Broadband is a classic multi-sided market.[58] If the price on one side of the market is set at below-market rates through rate regulation, then there will be upward pricing pressure on the other side of the market. Ultimately, consumers who are not subject to the regulated rates will face higher prices, which puts pressure on policymakers to impose yet another layer of imprecise and complex regulation and even deeper constraints on investment.

It’s important to understand that rate regulation—in any form and whatever the imagined benefits—is not a costless endeavor. Costs and risk do not disappear under rate regulation. Instead, they are shifted in one direction or another—typically with costs borne by consumers through some mix of suppressed investment, sluggish improvements in quality, and reduced innovation.

Government policy may well be able to help accelerate broadband deployment to the unserved portions of the country where it is most needed. But the way to get there is not by imposing price controls on broadband providers. Instead, broadband access can best be expanded by removing costly, government-erected barriers to buildout and/or by subsidizing and educating consumers where necessary.

[1] The Editorial Board, Nationwide Rent Control?, Wall St. J. (Jan. 22, 2023), https://www.wsj.com/articles/nationwide-rent-control-congress-democrats-progressives-housing-president-biden-11674233540.

[2] Lawrence J. Spiwak, USTelecom and Its Aftermath, 71 Fed. Comm. L. J. 39 (2018), available at http://www.fclj.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/71.1-%E2%80%93-Lawrence-J.-Spiwak.pdf.

[3] FCC Reauthorization: Oversight of the Commission, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, 114 Cong. 27 (Mar. 19, 2015) (Statement of Tom Wheeler).

[4] Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet, 80 FR 19737 (Apr. 13, 2015) (codified at 47 CFR 1, 47 CFR 8, and 47 CFR 20), https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2015/04/13/2015-07841/protecting-and-promoting-the-open-internet, (“2015 OIO”) at ¶¶ 51 & 538

[5] Id., Dissenting Statement of Ajit Pai, https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/FCC-15-24A5.pdf.

[6] Tim Wu, Agency Threats, 60 Duke L.J. 1841, 1842 (2011).

[7] Gigi B. Sohn, A Policy Framework for an Open Internet Ecosystem, 2 Geo. L. Tech. Rev. 335 (2018) at 345.

[8] David Shepardson, FCC Nominee Does Not Support U.S. Internet Rate Regulation, Reuters (Dec. 1, 2021), https://www.reuters.com/world/us/fcc-nominee-does-not-support-us-internet-rate-regulation-2021-12-01.

[9] Id.

[10] The White House, Fact Sheet: The American Jobs Plan (Mar. 31, 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/31/fact-sheet-the-american-jobs-plan (emphasis added).

[11] NY State Telecom. Assoc. v. James, 2:21-cv-2389 (DRH) (AKT), Memorandum and Order, Document 25 (E.D. N.Y. June 11, 2021), https://ecf.nyed.uscourts.gov/doc1/123117827301 (“Memorandum and Order”).

[12] See, for example, N. Gregory Mankiw, PRINCIPLES OF MICROECONOMICS, 4th ed., Thomson South-Western (2007); Paul Krugman & Robin Wells, Economics, 6th ed., MacMillan (2021); Steven A. Greenlaw & David Shapiro, Principles of Microeconomics 2nd ed., OpenStax (2017).

[13] Id., Mankiw.

[14] See, e.g., David L. Mengle, The Effect of Second Generation Rent Control on the Quality of Rental Housing, Fed. Res. Bank of Rich., Working Paper 85-5 (Nov. 1985), https://www.richmondfed.org/-/media/RichmondFedOrg/publications/research/working_papers/1985/pdf/wp85-5.pdf.

[15] Mankiw, supra note 12.

[16] Gitanjali Poonia, Why Does the U.S. Government Have 1.4 Billion Pounds of Cheese Stored in a Cave Underneath Springfield, Missouri?, Deseret News (Feb. 14, 2022), https://www.deseret.com/2022/2/14/22933326/1-4-billion-pounds-of-cheese-stored-in-a-cave-underneath-springfield-missouri-jimmy-carter-reagan.

[17] For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Price-Loss Coverage program issues payments when the effective price of a covered commodity is less than the respective reference price for that commodity. See, Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) & Price Loss Coverage (PLC), USDA (Oct. 2022), https://www.fsa.usda.gov/Assets/USDA-FSA-Public/usdafiles/FactSheets/2022/fsa_arc_plc_factsheet_101922.pdf.

[18] See, Richard H. K. Vietor, Contrived Competition: Regulation and Deregulation in America (1996) at 45 (“Since capacity could no longer serve as a means of differentiation, the trunk carriers had to devise new means of service competition. ‘Capacity wars’ gave way to ‘lounge wars.’”).

[19] See, e.g., Rent Stabilization, Oregon Dept. of Admin. Serv. (n.d.), https://www.oregon.gov/das/OEA/pages/rent-stabilization.aspx.

[20] Dave Kamper & Sebastian Martinez Hickey, Tying Minimum-Wage Increases to Inflation, as 13 States Do, Will Lift Up Low-Wage Workers and Their Families across the Country, Econ. Pol’y Inst. (Sep. 6, 2022), https://www.epi.org/blog/tying-minimum-wage-increases-to-inflation-as-12-states-do-will-lift-up-low-wage-workers-and-their-families-across-the-country.

[21] See, Darren Filson, Edward Keen, Eric Fruits & Thomas Borcherding, Market Power and Cartel Formation: Theory and an Empirical Test, 44 J. L. & Econ. 465 (2001).

[22] Vietor, supra note 17 at ch. 4.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Supra notes 13-15

[26] Notice of Funding Opportunity, Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, NTIA-BEAD-2022, NTIA (May 2022), available at https://broadbandusa.ntia.doc.gov/sites/default/files/2022-05/BEAD%20NOFO.pdf (note that the IIJA itself did not include this requirement, and this is an addition by NTIA as part of the NOFO process; thus, it is unclear the extent to which this represents a valid requirement by NTIA under the BEAD program).

[27] Id.

[28] Broadband: National Strategy Needed to Guide Federal Efforts to Reduce Digital Divide, GAO-22-104611, U.S. Gov’t Accountability Off. (May 31, 2022), https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-22-104611.pdf, [hereinafter “GAO-22-104611”].

[29] Id. (“According to FCC data, about 31 percent of people nationwide who have access to broadband at speeds of 25/3 Mbps have not subscribed to it ….); see also, How Do Speed, Infrastructure, Access, and Adoption Inform Broadband Policy?, Pew Research Center (Jul. 7, 2022), https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/fact-sheets/2022/07/how-do-speed-infrastructure-access-and-adoptioninform-broadband-policy (“nearly 1 in 4 Americans do not subscribe to a home broadband connection, even where one is available”).

[30] Brian Whitacre, Sharon Strover, & Roberto Gallardo, How Much Does Broadband Infrastructure Matter? Decomposing the Metro–Non-Metro Adoption Gap with the Help of the National Broadband Map, 32 Gov’t Info. Q. 261 (2015).

[31] George S. Ford, Middle-Class Affordability of Broadband: An Empirical Look at the Threshold Question, Phoenix Ctr. for Adv. Leg. & Econ. Pub. Pol’y Stud., Pol’y Bull. No. 61 (Oct. 2022), https://phoenix-center.org/PolicyBulletin/PCPB61Final.pdf.

[32] John W. Mayo, Gregory L. Rosston & Scott J. Wallsten, From a Silk Purse to a Sow’s Ear? Implementing the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment Act, Geo. U. McDonough Sch. of Bus. Ctr. for Bus. & Pub. Pol’y (Aug. 2022), https://georgetown.app.box.com/s/yonks8t7eclccb0fybxdpy3eqmw1l2da?mc_cid=95d011c7c1&mc_eid=dc30181b39.

[33] Even as a second-best option, user subsidies remain far preferable to price controls, as they at least directionally work within a market framework and encourage providers to deploy where there is genuine need and demand.

[34] Lisa S. Benson, USDA’s ReConnect Program: Expanding Rural Broadband, Cong. Res. Serv., R47017 (Dec. 14, 2022), https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R47017.

[35] Memorandum and Order, supra note 11.

[36] Id.

[37] Id. (“In Defendant’s words, the ABA concerns ‘Plaintiffs’ pricing practices’ by creating a ‘price regime’ that ‘set[s] a price ceiling,’ which flatly contradicts her simultaneous assertion that ‘the ABA does not “rate regulate” broadband services.’”)

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Randolph J. May & Seth L. Cooper, Second Circuit Hears Preemption Challenge to New York’s Broadband Rate Regulation Law, FedSoc Blog (Feb. 7, 2023), https://fedsoc.org/commentary/fedsoc-blog/second-circuit-hears-preemption-challenge-to-new-york-s-broadband-rate-regulation-law.

[41] 2015 OIO, supra note 4.

[42] As noted above, however, the FCC still retained the power to impose rate regulation at a future date. This obviously muddies the discussion, as a looming threat of potential rate regulation would likely exert some influence over broadband providers’ decisions.

[43] See Geoffrey A. Manne, The Hydraulic Theory of Disclosure Regulation and Other Costs of Disclosure, 58 Ala. L. Rev. 473 (2007).

[44] The OIO banned paid prioritization outright, but regulated nonlinear pricing mechanisms like sponsored data under the Internet Conduct Standard. See 2015 OIO, supra note 4 at ¶ 151-53. But the order also rejected the “commercially reasonable” standard of the 2010 OIO and replaced it with a more amorphous, and more restrictive, “unreasonable interference or unreasonable disadvantages” standard. Following the commission’s letters expressing its hostility to AT&T’s and Verizon’s zero-rating programs (supra note 52, and accompanying text), it is safe to assume that such pricing schemes stood on extremely thin ice under the 2015 OIO.

[45] See 2015 OIO, supra note 4 at ¶ 151-53.

[46] See 2015 OIO, supra note 4 at ¶ 151; Jeffrey A. Eisenach, The Economics of Zero Rating, NERA (Mar. 2015), available at https://www.nera.com/content/dam/nera/publications/2015/EconomicsofZeroRating.pdf.

[47] See, e.g., Geoffrey A. Manne & Kristian Stout, In the Matter Of: Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s 9/12/15 Consultation Paper On Differential Pricing For Data Services at 4 and accompanying citations, Int’l Ctr. for L & Econ. (Jan. 4, 2015), available at https://laweconcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/icle-india_diff_pricing_comments_2016.pdf.

[48] Id. at 9.

[49] See, Understanding and Appreciating Zero-Rating: The Use and Impact of Free Data in the Mobile Broadband Sector, Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (May 9, 2016), available at http://mmtconline.org/WhitePapers/MMTC_Zero_Rating_Impact_on_Consumers_May2016.pdf.

[50] 2015 OIO, supra note 4 at ¶ 136.

[51] Id.

[52] See Jeff Dunn, The FCC Thinks AT&T’s Policies ‘Harm Consumers’ – And It’s Warning Verizon, Too, Business Insider (Dec. 2, 2016), http://www.businessinsider.com/fcc-verizon-att-zero-rating-net-neutrality-letter-directv-now-2016-12.

[53] Verizon, 740 F.3d at 657 (“The Commission has provided no basis for concluding that in permitting ‘reasonable’ network management, and in prohibiting merely ‘unreasonable’ discrimination, the Order’s standard of ‘reasonableness’ might be more permissive than the quintessential common carrier standard.”).

[54] See, e.g., Kristian Stout, Geoffrey A. Manne, & Allen Gibby, Policy Comments of the International Center for Law & Economics, Restoring Internet Freedom NPRM, WC Docket No. 17-108 at 36 and associated citations, Int’l Ctr. for L. & Econ. (Jul. 17, 2017), available at https://laweconcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/icle-comments_policy_rif_nprm-final.pdf; see also Daniel A. Lyons, Usage-Based Pricing, Zero-Rating, and the Future of Broadband Innovation, 11 Free State Foundation Perspectives 1 (2016), http://works.bepress.com/daniel_lyons/80.

[55] Eric Fruits & Kristian Stout, The Income Conundrum: Intent and Effects Analysis of Digital Discrimination, Int’l Ctr. for L & Econ., Issue Brief 2022-11-14 (Nov. 2022), https://laweconcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/The-Income-Conundrum-Intent-and-Effects-Analysis-of-Digital-Discrimination.pdf.

[56] David E. M. Sappington & Dennis L. Weisman, Price Cap Regulation: What Have We Learned from Twenty-Five Years of Experience in the Telecommunications Industry?, 38 J. Regul. Econ. 227 (Sep. 2010), http://bear.warrington.ufl.edu/centers/purc/docs/papers/1012_Sappington_Price_Cap_Regulation.pdf, at 9.

[57] Id. at 10.

[58] Issue Spotlight: Two-Sided Markets, Int’l Ctr. for L & Econ. (Nov. 8, 2022), https://laweconcenter.org/resources/policy-comments-international-center-law-economics-restoring-internet-freedom-nprm.

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