Big Tech and Antitrust

Big Tech and Antitrust

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[This post is the third in an ongoing symposium on “Breaking up Big Tech” that will feature analysis and opinion from various perspectives.]

[This post is authored by John E. Lopatka, Robert Noll Distinguished Professor of Law, School of Law, The Pennsylvania State University]

Big Tech firms stand accused of many evils, and the clamor to break them up is loud.  Should we fetch our pitchforks? The antitrust laws are designed to address a range of wrongs and authorize a set of remedies, which include but do not emphasize divestiture.  When the harm caused by a Big Tech company is of a kind the antitrust laws are intended to prevent, an appropriate antitrust remedy can be devised. In such a case, it makes sense to use antitrust: If antitrust and its remedies are adequate to do the job fully, no legislative changes are required.  When the harm falls outside the ambit of antitrust and any other pertinent statute, a choice must be made. Antitrust can be expanded; other statutes can be amended or enacted; or any harms that are not perfectly addressed by existing statutory and common law can be left alone, for legal institutions are never perfect, and a disease can be less harmful than a cure.

A comprehensive list of the myriad and changing attacks on Big Tech firms would be difficult to compile.  Indeed, the identity of the offenders is not self-evident, though Google (Alphabet), Facebook, Amazon, and Apple have lately attracted the most attention.  The principal charges against Big Tech firms seem to be these: 1) compromising consumer privacy; 2) manipulating the news; 3) accumulating undue social and political influence; 4) stifling innovation by acquiring creative upstarts; 5) using market power in one market to injure competitors in adjacent markets; 6) exploiting input suppliers; 7) exploiting their own employees; and 8) damaging communities by location choices.

These charges are not uniform across the Big Tech targets.  Some charges have been directed more forcefully against some firms than others.  For instance, infringement of consumer privacy has been a focus of attacks on Facebook.  Both Facebook and Google have been accused of manipulating the news. And claims about the exploitation of input suppliers and employees and the destruction of communities have largely been directed at Amazon.

What is “Big Tech”?

Despite the variance among firms, the attacks against all of them proceed from the same syllogism: Some tech firms are big; big tech firms do social harm; therefore, big tech firms should be broken up.   From an antitrust perspective, something is missing. Start with the definition of a “tech” firm. In the modern economy, every firm relies on sophisticated technology – from an auto repair shop to an airplane manufacturer to a social media website operator.  Every firm is a tech firm. But critics have a more limited concept in mind. They are concerned about platforms, or intermediaries, in multi-sided markets. These markets exhibit indirect network effects. In a two-sided market, for instance, each side of the market benefits as the size of the other side grows.  Platforms provide value by coordinating the demand and supply of different groups of economic actors where the actors could not efficiently interact by themselves. In short, platforms reduce transaction costs. They have been around for centuries, but their importance has been magnified in recent years by rapid advances in technology.  Rational observers can sensibly ask whether platforms are peculiarly capable of causing harm. But critics tend to ignore or at least to discount the value that platforms provide, and doing so presents a distorted image that breeds bad policy.

Assuming we know what a tech firm is, what is “big”?  One could measure size by many standards. Most critics do not bother to define “big,” though at least Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed defining one category of bigness as firms with annual global revenue of $25 billion or more and a second category as those with annual global revenue of between $90 million and $25 billion.  The proper standard for determining whether tech firms are objectionably large is not self-evident. Indeed, a size threshold embodied in any legal policy will almost always be somewhat arbitrary. That by itself is not a failing of a policy prescription. But why use a size screen at all? A few answers are possible. Large firms may do more harm than small firms when harm is proportionate to size.  Size may matter because government intervention is costly and less sensitive to firm size than is harm, implying that only harm caused by large firms is large enough to outweigh the costs of enforcement. And most important, the size of a firm may be related to the kind of harm the firm is accused of doing. Perhaps only a firm of a certain size can inflict a particular kind of injury. A clear standard of size and its justification ought to precede any policy prescription.

What’s the (antitrust) beef?

The social harms that Big Tech firms are accused of doing are a hodgepodge.  Some are familiar to antitrust scholars as either current or past objects of antitrust concern; others are not.  Antitrust protects against a certain kind of economic harm: The loss of economic welfare caused by a restriction on competition.  Though the terms are sometimes used in different ways, the core concept is reasonably clear and well accepted. In most cases, economic welfare is synonymous with consumer welfare.  Economic welfare, though, is a broader concept. For example, economic welfare is reduced when buyers exercise market power to the detriment of sellers and by productive inefficiencies.  But despite the claim of some Big Tech critics, when consumer welfare is at stake, it is not measured exclusively by the price consumers pay. Economists often explicitly refer to quality-adjusted prices and implicitly have the qualification in mind in any analysis of price.  Holding quality constant makes quantitative models easier to construct, but a loss of quality is a matter of conventional antitrust concern. The federal antitrust agencies’ horizontal merger guidelines recognize that “reduced product quality, reduced product variety, reduced service, [and] diminished innovation” are all cognizable adverse effects.  The scope of antitrust is not as constricted as some critics assert. Still, it has limits.

Leveraging market power is standard antitrust fare, though it is not nearly as prevalent as once thought.  Horizontal mergers that reduce economic welfare are an antitrust staple. The acquisition and use of monopsony power to the detriment of input suppliers is familiar antitrust ground.  If Big Tech firms have committed antitrust violations of this ilk, the offenses can be remedied under the antitrust laws.

Other complaints against the Big Tech firms do not fit comfortably or at all within the ambit of antitrust.  Antitrust does not concern itself with political or social influence. Influence is a function of size, but not relative to any antitrust market.  Firms that have more resources than other firms may have more influence, but the deployment of those resources across the economy is irrelevant. The use of antitrust to attack conglomerate mergers was an inglorious period in antitrust history.  Injuries to communities or to employees are not a proper antitrust concern when they result from increased efficiency. Acquisitions might stifle innovation, which is a proper antitrust concern, but they might spur innovation by inducing firms to create value and thereby become attractive acquisition targets or by facilitating integration.  Whether the consumer interest in informational privacy has much to do with competition is difficult to say. Privacy in this context means the collection and use of data. In a multi-sided market, one group of participants may value not only the size but also the composition and information about another group. Competition among platforms might or might not occur on the dimension of privacy.  For any platform, however, a reduction in the amount of valuable data it can collect from one side and provide to another side will reduce the price it can charge the second side, which can flow back and injure the first side. In all, antitrust falters when it is asked to do what it cannot do well, and whether other laws should be brought to bear depends on a cost/benefit calculus.

Does Big Tech’s conduct merit antitrust action?

When antitrust is used, it unquestionably requires a causal connection between conduct and harm.  Conduct must restrain competition, and the restraint must cause cognizable harm. Most of the attacks against Big Tech firms if pursued under the antitrust laws would proceed as monopolization claims.  A firm must have monopoly power in a relevant market; the firm must engage in anticompetitive conduct, typically conduct that excludes rivals without increasing efficiency; and the firm must have or retain its monopoly power because of the anticompetitive conduct.

Put aside the flaccid assumption that all the targeted Big Tech platforms have monopoly power in relevant markets.  Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but an assumption is unwarranted. Focus instead on the conduct element of monopolization.  Most of the complaints about Big Tech firms concern their use of whatever power they have. Use isn’t enough. Each of the firms named above has achieved its prominence by extraordinary innovation, shrewd planning, and effective execution in an unforgiving business climate, one in which more platforms have failed than have succeeded.  This does not look like promising ground for antitrust.

Of course, even firms that generally compete lawfully can stray.  But to repeat, monopolists do not monopolize unless their unlawful conduct is causally connected to their market power.  The complaints against the Big Tech firms are notably weak on allegations of anticompetitive conduct that resulted in the acquisition or maintenance of their market positions.  Some critics have assailed Facebook’s acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram. Even assuming these firms competed with Facebook in well-defined antitrust markets, the claim that Facebook’s dominance in its core business was created or maintained by these acquisitions is a stretch.  

The difficulty fashioning remedies

The causal connection between conduct and monopoly power becomes particularly important when remedies are fashioned for monopolization.  Microsoft, the first major monopolization case against a high tech platform, is instructive.  DOJ in its complaint sought only conduct remedies for Microsoft’s alleged unlawful maintenance of a monopoly in personal computer operating systems.  The trial court found that Microsoft had illegally maintained its monopoly by squelching Netscape’s Navigator and Sun’s Java technologies, and by the end of trial DOJ sought and the court ordered structural relief in the form of “vertical” divestiture, separating Microsoft’s operating system business from its applications business.  Some commentators at the time argued for various kinds of “horizontal” divestiture, which would have created competing operating system platforms. The appellate court set aside the order, emphasizing that an antitrust remedy must bear a close causal connection to proven anticompetitive conduct. Structural remedies are drastic, and a plaintiff must meet a heightened standard of proof of causation to justify any kind of divestiture in a monopolization case.  On remand, DOJ abandoned its request for divestiture. The evidence that Microsoft maintained its market position by inhibiting the growth of middleware was sufficient to support liability, but not structural relief.

The court’s trepidation was well-founded.  Divestiture makes sense when monopoly power results from acquisitions, because the mergers expose joints at which the firm might be separated without rending fully integrated operations.  But imposing divestiture on a monopolist for engaging in single-firm exclusionary conduct threatens to destroy the integration that is the essence of any firm and is almost always disproportional to the offense.  Even if conduct remedies can be more costly to enforce than structural relief, the additional cost is usually less than the cost to the economy of forgone efficiency.   

The proposals to break up the Big Tech firms are ill-defined.  Based on what has been reported, no structural relief could be justified as antitrust relief.  Whatever conduct might have been unlawful was overwhelmingly unilateral. The few acquisitions that have occurred didn’t appreciably create or preserve monopoly power, and divestiture wouldn’t do much to correct the misbehavior critics see anyway.  Big Tech firms could be restructured through new legislation, but that would be a mistake. High tech platform markets typically yield dominant firms, though heterogeneous demand often creates space for competitors. Markets are better at achieving efficient structures than are government planners.  Legislative efforts at restructuring are likely to invite circumvention or lock in inefficiency.

Regulate “Big Tech” instead?

In truth, many critics are willing to put up with dominant tech platforms but want them regulated.  If we learned any lesson from the era of pervasive economic regulation of public utilities, it is that regulation is costly and often yields minimal benefits.  George Stigler and Claire Friedland demonstrated 57 years ago that electric utility regulation had little impact. The era of regulation was followed by an era of deregulation.  Yet the desire to regulate remains strong, and as Stigler and Friedland observed, “if wishes were horses, one would buy stock in a harness factory.” And just how would Big Tech platform regulators regulate?  Senator Warren offers a glimpse of the kind of regulation that critics might impose: “Platform utilities would be required to meet a standard of fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory dealing with users.” This kind of standard has some meaning in the context of a standard-setting organization dealing with patent holders.  What it would mean in the context of a social media platform, for example, is anyone’s guess. Would it prevent biasing of information for political purposes, and what government official should be entrusted with that determination? What is certain is that it would invite government intervention into markets that are working well, if not perfectly.  It would invite public officials to tradeoff economic welfare for a host of values embedded in the concept of fairness. Federal agencies charged with promoting the “public interest” have a difficult enough time reaching conclusions where competition is one of several specific values to be considered. Regulation designed to address all the evils high tech platforms are thought to perpetrate would make traditional economic or public-interest regulation look like child’s play.

Concluding remarks

Big Tech firms have generated immense value.  They may do real harm. From all that can now be gleaned, any harm has had little to do with antitrust, and it certainly doesn’t justify breaking them up.  Nor should they be broken up as an exercise in central economic planning. If abuses can be identified, such as undesirable invasions of privacy, focused legislation may be in order, but even then only if the government action is predictably less costly than the abuses.

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