Twitter, the Monopolist? Is this Tim Wu’s “Threat Regime” In Action?

by on July 1, 2011 · 9 comments

According to a report today from SAI Business Insider, “The Federal Trade Commission is actively investigating Twitter and the way it deals with the companies building applications and services for its platform.”  Apparently the agency has reached out to some competing application / platform providers to ask questions about Twitter’s recent efforts to exert more control over the uses of its API by third parties. [The Wall Street Journal confirms the FTC’s interest in Twitter.]

It remains to be seen whether this leads to any serious regulatory action against Twitter by the FTC, but such a move wouldn’t necessarily be surprising considering the more activist tilt of the agency recently. It’s even less surprising considering that Columbia University law professor and prolific cyberlaw scholar Tim Wu was appointed as a senior advisor to the FTC earlier this year. When the announcement of Wu’s appointment was made, the Wall Street Journal kicked off an article with the warning, “Silicon Valley has a new fear factor.”  It seems the Journal may have been on to something!

It’s impossible to know how much of an influence Tim Wu is having on the agency, but as I have noted here before, Prof. Wu is man with a healthy appetite for regulatory activism. [See all my essays about Wu’s work here.] Moreover, he’s a man who has already determined that Twitter is a “monopolist” in his November 13, 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “In the Grip of the New Monopolists.”

That essay prompted a fiery response from me [“Tim Wu Redefines Monopoly“] as well as a far more reasoned essay by antitrust gurus Geoff Manne and Josh Wright [“What’s An Internet Monopolist? A Reply to Professor Wu.”] Prof. Wu was kind enough to swing by the TLF and respond to my criticisms in an essay “On the Definition of Monopoly,” which he said served as a “corrective” to my earlier essay [even though I continue to believe that what I said fairly reflected the last four decades of economic wisdom on competition policy and that it is Wu who is well off the reservation with his expansionist views of antitrust enforcement].

Regardless of what one thinks about that exchange, if the FTC is moving forward with a case against Twitter, three practical questions need to be considered: (1) What’s the relevant market? (2) Where’s the harm? and (3) What’s the remedy?

I’ll briefly discuss each question below but should also mention that I already explored many of these issues in my essay,  “A Vision of (Regulatory) Things to Come for Twitter,” so I apologize in advance for the repetition.  I will then discuss all this in the context of Tim Wu’s latest law review article on “Agency Threats” and what he approvingly refers to as regulatory “threat regimes.”

On Market Definition

As I noted in my previous essays, it’s very much unclear how to define the contours of the market Twitter serves. After all, Twitter is only a few years old and it competes with many other forms of communication and information dissemination. For me, Twitter is a partial substitute for blogging, IMs, email, phone calls, RSS feeds, and even radio and television news. Yet, like most others, I continue to use all those other technologies and those technologies continue to pressure Twitter to innovate.

Whatever market it serves, however, Tim Wu is apparently willing to write off that market as already “in the grip” of Twitter. But does Wu really believe that nothing better will come along to compete against Twitter or even replace it entirely?  It reminds me of all the hand-wringing we heard about AOL a decade ago when people predicted its “walled gardens” would someday rule the Internet and IM.  And we all know how that turned out.

If you ask me, this episode again reflects the short-term, static snapshot thinking we all too often see at work in debates over media and technology policy. That is, many cyber-worrywarts are prone to taking snapshots of market activity and suggesting that temporary patterns are permanent disasters requiring immediate correction. Of course, a more dynamic view of progress and competition holds that “market failures” and “code failures” are ultimately better addressed by voluntary, spontaneous, bottom-up responses than by coercive, top-down approaches. [More on that conflict of visions in my book chapter on “The Case for Internet Optimism, Part 2 – Saving the Net From Its Supporters.”]

Regardless, I just don’t see how Wu or the FTC can claim Twitter has monopolized a market that is still so young that we can’t even define it.

On Harm

Even if one accepted Wu’s premise that Twitter was a monopolist, where is the harm? At least in theory, antitrust law is supposed to be about protecting consumer welfare, not competitors. If this whole thing is about UberMedia losing out in some bidding wars for alternative Twitter platforms, well, that’s just pathetic. UberMedia is free to develop or bid on alternative Twitter applications or work with others to develop entirely new services. It’s not like there’s a shortage of them out there.

If the theory is that consumers are being harmed by Twitter exerting more control over its API, I would just remind everyone that (a) we don’t pay a cent for the service that Twitter provides and (b) Twitter is still scrambling to find a way to monetize its service for the long-haul. There are also some legitimate security issues in play here that cut against the claim that what Twitter is doing is anti-consumer.

In sum, it is hard to understand where the harm lies in Twitter taking greater control of its API, and there’s certainly nothing stopping rival innovators from tying to offer a competing service.  140-character text messages aren’t exactly the stuff of traditional “information empires,” as Wu would call them.

On Remedies

Finally, we come to the thorny issue of remedies. I suppose the easiest remedy would be a prohibition on Twitter acquiring any third-party applications provider that currently relies on Twitter’s API. In other words, downstream vertical integration would be forbidden. But there’s about 40 years of antitrust literature explaining why such integration is generally pro-innovation and pro-consumer and shouldn’t be made illegal by antitrust law. Tim Wu may not buy that–and if you’ve read his recent book The Master Switch, you know he absolutely rejects it–but it is standard thinking in the field of industrial organization and antitrust economics today. Most of the economists at the FTC and DOJ could tell him as much.

Another alternative remedy might be Jonathan Zittrain’s “API neutrality” idea, proposed in his 2008 book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. Zittrain suggested that API neutrality–essentially a variant of Net neutrality but for application protocols–might be needed to ensure fair access to certain services or platforms to guarantee that digital “generativity” was not imperiled. On pg. 181 of the book, Zittrain argued that:

“If there is a present worldwide threat to neutrality in the movement of bits, it comes not from restrictions on traditional Internet access that can be evaded using generative PCs, but from enhancements to traditional and emerging appliancized services that are not open to third-party tinkering.”

After engaging in some hand-wringing about “walled gardens” and “mediated experiences,” Zittrain went on to ask: “So when should we consider network neutrality-style mandates for appliancized systems?” He responds to his own question as follows:

“The answer lies in that subset of appliancized systems that seeks to gain the benefits of third-party contributions while reserving the right to exclude it later. … Those who offer open APIs on the Net in an attempt to harness the generative cycle ought to remain application-neutral after their efforts have succeeded, so all those who built on top of their interface can continue to do so on equal terms.” (p. 184)

This might be a fine generic principle, but Zittrain implies that this should be a legal standard to which online providers are held. At one point, he even alludes to the possibility of applying the common law principle of adverse possession more broadly in these contexts. He notes that adverse possession “dictates that people who openly occupy another’s private property without the owner’s explicit objection (or, for that matter, permission) can, after a lengthy period of time, come to legitimately acquire it.” But he doesn’t make it clear when it would be triggered as it pertains to digital platforms or APIs.

Nonetheless, one could imagine it would be one remedy antitrust officials might look to when considering what to do about Twitter exerting greater control over its API. Essentially, Twitter would become the equivalent of a public utility that all would have access to on regulated terms.

As I noted in the first of my many reviews of Zittrain’s book, there are many problems with the logic of API neutrality or the application of adverse possession in these contexts. Here’s my critique of the “API neutrality” notion (again, this is from 2008 so it now sounds a bit dated):

First, most developers who offer open APIs aren’t likely to close them later precisely because they don’t want to incur the wrath of “those who built on top of their interface.” But, second, for the sake of argument, let’s say they did want to abandoned previously open APIs and move to some sort of walled garden. So what? Isn’t that called marketplace experimentation? Are we really going to make that illegal? Finally, if they were so foolish as to engage in such games, it might be the best thing that ever happened to the market and consumers since it could encourage more entry and innovation as people seek out more open, pro-generative alternatives. Consider this example: Now that Apple has opened to door to third-party iPhone development a bit with the SDK, does that mean that under Jonathan’s proposed paradigm we should treat the iPhone as the equivalent of commoditized common carriage device? That seems incredibly misguided to me. If Steve Jobs opens the development door just a little bit only to slam it shut a short time later, he will pay dearly for that mistake in the marketplace. For God’s sake, just spend a few minutes over on the Howard Forums or the PPC Geeks forum if you want to get a taste for the insane amount of tinkering going on out there in the mobile world right now on other systems. If Apple tries to roll back the clock, Microsoft and others will be all too happy to take their business by offering a wealth of devices that allow you to tinker to your heart’s content. We should let such experiments continue and let the future of the Internet be determined by market choices, not regulatory choices such as forced API neutrality.

I think the same critique would apply to efforts to impose API neutrality on Twitter.  Regardless, would such a remedy be imposed through targeted regulatory action, an antitrust consent decree, or perhaps through what Tim Wu calls “agency threats”?

Wu’s “Threat Regime” Model of Internet Governance

Prof. Wu recently published a law review article on “Agency Threats” and what he approvingly refers to as “threat regimes.” The paper is a “defense of regulatory threats in particular contexts.”  Here’s a portion of the abstract:

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.

I’m extremely troubled by this reasoning and can think of a couple of alternative labels for such behavior by government agencies: unaccountable, above-the-law, unconstitutional, anti-democratic, thuggery, regulatory blackmail, and so on.

But what’s even more troubling about Wu’s thinking about “threat regimes” is that he assumes this arbitrary mode of governing-by-intimidation makes even more sense in fast-moving high-tech industries. That seems counter-intuitive. If a given sector finds itself in a state of “high uncertainty” as Wu calls it, doesn’t that mean, by definition, it is dynamic and subject to forces that might bring about beneficial change? And shouldn’t we assume that those are the last sectors we would want regulators monkeying with since bureaucrats lack the requisite knowledge of how to best guide the evolution of complex information technologies?

Wu seems to believe that regulators possess a crystal ball and a set of magical dials that can guide the evolution of technology markets to a better equilibrium through the use of constant Sunstein-ian “nudges” (or perhaps shoves).  I think that’s poppycock.

Regardless, once we realize that this is the way Tim Wu thinks, an FTC investigation into Twitter’s current business practices starts to make a lot more sense. It’s about creating a “threat regime” that intimidates Twitter into to playing by the arbitrary rules of Washington bureaucrats instead of responding to marketplace demands and developments in a natural, evolutionary way. In fact, in his “threats” essay, Wu explicitly rejects that model:

The second option—“wait and see”—may sound attractive because it allows the industry to develop in what might be called a natural way. This approach, however, makes a great sacrifice: the public’s interest may be entirely unrepresented during the industry’s formative period. The risk is that the industry’s norms and business models will, effectively, be set without any public input. Waiting for the industry to settle down may result in undesirable practices that prove extremely hard to reverse or influence with rules issued later. To state the matter more colloquially, the industry may be “baked” by the time there is any real oversight or public input.

In essence, Wu desires a “mixed economy” model for high-tech sectors in which decision are guided at every juncture by the supposed wisdom of techno-cratic philosopher kings like himself. We must trust that he and his fellow regulators will guide us and our economy down an more enlightened path. And we must accept that some “threats” may be necessary to get the job done.

I find this mode of thinking disturbing in the extreme because of the rank hubris at the center of it. Regardless, Twitter appears to be well on its way to becoming a test case for Wu’s “threat” model of Internet governance.

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