Antitrust & Competition Policy

The Supreme Court is winding down for the year and last week put out a much awaited decision in Ohio v. American Express. Some have rung the alarm with this case, but I think caution is worthwhile. In short, the Court’s analysis wasn’t expansive like some have claimed, but incomplete. There are a lot of important details to this case and the guideposts it has provided will likely be fought over in future litigation over platform regulation. To narrow the scope of this post, I am going to focus on the market definition question and the issue of two-sided platforms in light of the developments in the industrial organization (IO) literature in the past two decades. Continue reading →

Voices from all over the political and professional spectrum have been clamoring for tech companies to be broken up. Tech investor Roger McNamee, machine learning pioneer Yoshua BengioNYU professor Scott Galloway, and even Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential digital director have all suggested that tech companies should be forcibly separated. So, I took a look at some of the past efforts in a new survey of corporate breakups and found that they really weren’t all that effective at creating competitive markets.

Although many consider Standard Oil and AT&T as classic cases, I think United States v. American Tobacco Company is far more instructive.  Continue reading →

Two years ago, ProPublica initiated a conversation over the use of risk assessment algorithms when they concluded that a widely used “score proved remarkably unreliable in forecasting violent crime” in Florida. Their examination of the racial disparities in scoring has been cited countless times, often as a proxy for the power of automation and algorithms in daily life. Indeed, as the authors concluded, these scores are “part of a part of a larger examination of the powerful, largely hidden effect of algorithms in American life.”

As this examination continues, two precepts are worth keeping in mind. First, the social significance of algorithms needs to be considered, not just their internal model significance. While the accuracy of algorithms are important, more emphasis should be placed on how they are used within institutional settings. And second, fairness is not a single idea. Mandates for certain kinds of fairness could come at the expense of others forms of fairness. As always, policymakers need to be cognizant of the trade offs.   Continue reading →

Mobile broadband is a tough business in the US. There are four national carriers–Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint–but since about 2011, mergers have been contemplated (and attempted, but blocked). Recently, the competition has gotten fiercer. The higher data buckets and unlimited data plans have been great for consumers.

The FCC’s latest mobile competition report, citing UBS data, says that industry ARPU (basically, monthly revenue per subscriber), which had been pretty stable since 1998, declined significantly from 2013 to 2016 from about $46 to about $36. These revenue pressures seemed to fall hardest on Sprint, who in February, issued $1.5 billion of “junk bonds” to help fund its network investments. Analysts pointed out in 2016 that “Sprint has not reported full-year net profits since 2006.” Further, mobile TV watching is becoming a bigger business. AT&T and Verizon both plan to offer a TV bundle to their wireless customers this year, and T-Mobile’s purchase of Layer3 indicates an interest in offering a mobile TV service.

It’s these trends that probably pushed T-Mobile and Sprint to announce yesterday their intention to merge. All eyes will be on the DOJ and the FCC as their competition divisions consider whether to approve the merger.

The Core Arguments

Merger opponents’ primary argument is what’s been raised several times since the 2011 AT&T-T-Mobile aborted merger: this “4 to 3” merger significantly raises the prospect of “tacit collusion.” After the merger, the story goes, the 3 remaining mobile carriers won’t work as hard to lower prices or improve services. While outright collusion on prices is illegal, they have a point that tacit collusion is more difficult for regulators to prove, to prevent, and to prosecute.

The counterargument, that T-Mobile and Sprint are already making, is that “mobile” is not a distinct market anymore–technologies and services are converging. Therefore, tacit collusion won’t be feasible because mobile broadband is increasingly competing with landline broadband providers (like Comcast and Charter), and possibly even media companies (like Netflix and Disney). Further, they claim, T-Mobile and Sprint going it alone will each struggle to deploy a capex-intensive 5G network that can compete with AT&T, Verizon, Comcast-NBCU, and the rest, but the merged company will be a formidable competitor in TV and in consumer and enterprise broadband.

Competitive Review

Any prediction about whether the deal will be approved or denied is premature. This is a horizontal merger in a highly-visible industry and it will receive an intense antitrust review. (Rachel Barkow and Peter Huber have an informative 2001 law journal article about telecom mergers at the DOJ and FCC.) The DOJ and FCC will seek years of emails and financial records from Sprint and T-Mobile executives and attempt to ascertain the “real” motivation for the merger and its likely consumer effects.

T-Mobile and Sprint will likely lean on evidence that consumers view (or soon will view) mobile broadband and TV as a substitute for landline broadband and TV. Much like phone and TV went from “local markets with one or two competitors” years ago to a “national market with several competitors,” their story seems to be, broadband is following a similar trajectory and viewing this as a 4 to 3 merger misreads industry trends.

There’s preliminary evidence that mobile broadband will put competitive pressure on conventional, landline broadband. Census surveys indicate that in 2013, 10% of Internet-using households were mobile Internet only (no landline Internet). By 2015, about 20% of households were mobile-only, and the proportion of Internet users who had landline broadband actually fell from 82% to 75%. But this is still preliminary and I haven’t seen economic evidence yet that mobile is putting pricing pressure on landline TV and broadband.

FCC Review

Antitrust review is only one step, however. The FCC transaction review process is typically longer and harder to predict. The FCC has concurrent authority with the DOJ under the Clayton Act to review telecommunications mergers under Sections 7 and 11 of the Clayton Act but it has never used that authority. Instead, the FCC uses its spectrum transfer review authority as a hook to evaluate mergers using the Communication Act’s (vague) “public interest standard.” Unlike antitrust standards, which generally put the burden on regulators to show consumer and competitive harm, the public interest standard as currently interpreted puts the burden on merging companies to show social and competitive benefits.

Hopefully the FCC will hew to a more rigorous antitrust inquiry and reform the open-ended public interest inquiry. As Chris Koopman and I wrote for the law journal a few years ago, these FCC  “public interest” reviews are sometimes excessively long and advocates use the vague standards to force the FCC into ancillary concerns, like TV programming decisions and “net neutrality” compliance.

Part of the public interest inquiry is a complex “spectrum screen” analysis. Basically, transacting companies can’t have too much “good” spectrum in a single regional market. I doubt the spectrum screen analysis would be dispositive (much of the analysis in the past seemed pretty ad hoc), but I do wonder if it will be an issue since this was a major issue raised in the AT&T-T-Mobile attempted merger.

In any case, that’s where I see the core issues, though we’ll learn much more as the merger reviews commence.

On March 19th, I had the chance to debate Franklin Foer at a Patrick Henry College event focused on the question, “Is Big Tech Big Brother?” It was billed as a debate over the role of technology in American society and whether government should be regulating media and technology platforms more generally.  [The full event video is here.] Foer is the author of the new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, in which he advocates a fairly expansive regulatory regime for modern information technology platforms. He is open to building on regulatory ideas from the past, including broadcast-esque licensing regimes, “Fairness Doctrine”-like mandates for digital intermediaries, “fiduciary” responsibilities, beefed-up antitrust intervention, and other types of controls. In a review of the book for Reason, and then again during the debate at Patrick Henry University, I offered some reflections on what we can learn from history about how well ideas like those worked out in practice.

My closing statement of the debate, which lasted just a little over three minutes, offers a concise summation of what that history teaches us and why it would be so dangerous to repeat the mistakes of the past by wandering down that disastrous path again. That 3-minute clip is posted below. (The audience was polled before and after the event and asked the same question each time: “Do large tech companies wield too much power in our economy, media and personal lives and if so, should government(s) intervene?” Apparently at the beginning, the poll was roughly Yes – 70% and No – 30%, but after the debated ended it has reversed, with only 30% in favor of intervention and 70% against. Glad to turn around some minds on this one!)

via ytCropper

Image result for Zuckerberg Schmidt laughing

Two weeks ago, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was getting grilled by Congress during a two-day media circus set of hearings, I wrote a counterintuitive essay about how it could end up being Facebook’s greatest moment. How could that be? As I argued in the piece, with an avalanche of new rules looming, “Facebook is potentially poised to score its greatest victory ever as it begins the transition to regulated monopoly status, solidifying its market power, and limiting threats from new rivals.”

With the exception of probably only Google, no firm other than Facebook likely has enough lawyers, lobbyists, and money to deal with layers of red tape and corresponding regulatory compliance headaches that lie ahead. That’s true both here and especially abroad in Europe, which continues to pile on new privacy and “data protection” regulations. While such rules come wrapped in the very best of intentions, there’s just no getting around the fact that regulation has costs. In this case, the unintended consequence of well-intentioned data privacy rules is that the emerging regulatory regime will likely discourage (or potentially even destroy) the chances of getting the new types of innovation and competition that we so desperately need right now.

Others now appear to be coming around to this view. On April 23, both the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal ran feature articles with remarkably similar titles and themes. The New York Times article by Daisuke Wakabayashi and Adam Satariano was titled, “How Looming Privacy Regulations May Strengthen Facebook and Google,” and The Wall Street Journal’s piece, “Google and Facebook Likely to Benefit From Europe’s Privacy Crackdown,” was penned by Sam Schechner and Nick Kostov.

“In Europe and the United States, the conventional wisdom is that regulation is needed to force Silicon Valley’s digital giants to respect people’s online privacy. But new rules may instead serve to strengthen Facebook’s and Google’s hegemony and extend their lead on the internet,” note Wakabayashi and Satariano in the NYT essay. They continue on to note how “past attempts at privacy regulation have done little to mitigate the power of tech firms.” This includes regulations like Europe’s “right to be forgotten” requirement, which has essentially put Google in a privileged position as the “chief arbiter of what information is kept online in Europe.”
Continue reading →

On Monday, April 16th, the Technology Policy Institute hosted an event on “Facebook & Cambridge Analytica: Regulatory & Policy Implications.” I was invited to deliver some remarks on a panel that included Howard Beales of George Washington University, Stuart Ingis of Venable LLP, Josephine Wolff of the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Thomas Lenard of TPI, who moderated. I offered some thoughts about the potential trade-offs associated with treating Facebook like a regulated public utility. I wrote an essay here last week on that topic. My remarks at the event begin at the 13:45 mark of the video.

 

With Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in town this week for a political flogging, you might think that this is darkest hour for the social networking giant. Facebook stands at a regulatory crossroads, to be sure. But allow me to offer a cynical take, and one based on history: Facebook is potentially poised to score its greatest victory ever as it begins the transition to regulated monopoly status, solidifying its market power, and limiting threats from new rivals.

By slowly capitulating to critics (both here and abroad) who are thirsty for massive regulation of the data-driven economy, Facebook is setting itself up as a servant of the state. In the name of satisfying some amorphous political “public interest” standard and fulfilling a variety of corporate responsibility objectives, Facebook will gradually allow itself to be converted into a sort of digital public utility or electronic essential facility.

That sounds like trouble for the firm until you realize that Facebook is one of the few companies who will be able to sacrifice a pound of flesh like that and remain alive. As layers of new regulatory obligations are applied, barriers to new innovations will become formidable obstacles to the very competitors that the public so desperately needs right now to offer us better alternatives. Gradually, Facebook will recognize this and go along with the regulatory schemes. And then eventually they will become the biggest defender of all of it.

Welcome to Facebook’s broadcast industry moment. The firm is essentially in the same position the broadcast sector was about a century ago when it started cozying up to federal lawmakers. Over time, broadcasters would warmly embrace an expansive licensing regime that would allow all parties—regulatory advocates, academics, lawmakers, bureaucrats, and even the broadcasters themselves—to play out the fairy tale that broadcasters would be good “public stewards” of the “public airwaves” to serve the “public interest.”

Alas, the actual listening and viewing public got royally shafted in this deal. Continue reading →

The FCC released a proposed Order today that would create an Office of Economics and Analytics. Last April, Chairman Pai proposed this data-centric office. There are about a dozen bureaus and offices within the FCC and this proposed change in the FCC’s organizational structure would consolidate a few offices and many FCC economists and experts into a single office.

This is welcome news. Several years ago when I was in law school, I was a legal clerk for the FCC Wireless Bureau and for the FCC Office of General Counsel. During that ten-month stint, I was surprised at the number of economists, who were all excellent, at the FCC. I assisted several of them closely (and helped organize what one FCC official dubbed, unofficially, “The Economists’ Cage Match” for outside experts sparring over the competitive effects of the proposed AT&T-T-Mobile merger). However, my impression even during my limited time at the FCC was well-stated by Chairman Pai in April:

[E]conomists are not systematically incorporated into policy work at the FCC. Instead, their expertise is typically applied in an ad hoc fashion, often late in the process. There is no consistent approach to their use.

And since the economists are sprinkled about the agency, their work is often “siloed” within their respective bureau. Economics as an afterthought in telecom is not good for the development of US tech industries, nor for consumers.

As Geoffrey Manne and Allen Gibby said recently, “the future of telecom regulation is antitrust,” and the creation of the OEA is a good step in line with global trends. Many nations–like the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand–are restructuring legacy telecom regulators. The days of public and private telecom monopolies and discrete, separate communications, computer, and media industries (thus bureaus) is past. Convergence, driven by IP networks and deregulation, has created these trends and resulted in sometimes dramatic restructuring of agencies.

In Denmark, for instance, as Roslyn Layton and Joe Kane have written, national parties and regulators took inspiration from the deregulatory plans of the Clinton FCC. The Social Democrats, the Radical Left, the Left, the Conservative People’s Party, the Socialist People’s Party, and the Center Democrats agreed in 1999:

The 1990s were focused on breaking down old monopoly; now it is important to make the frameworks for telecom, IT, radio, TV meld together—convergence. We believe that new technologies will create competition.

It is important to ensure that regulation does not create a barrier for the possibility of new converged products; for example, telecom operators should be able to offer content if they so choose. It is also important to ensure digital signature capability, digital payment, consumer protection, and digital rights. Regulation must be technologically neutral, and technology choices are to be handled by the market. The goal is to move away from sector-specific regulation toward competition-oriented regulation. We would prefer to handle telecom with competition laws, but some special regulation may be needed in certain cases—for example, regulation for access to copper and universal service.

This agreement was followed up by the quiet shuttering of NITA, the Danish telecom agency, in 2011.

Bringing economic rigor to the FCC’s notoriously vague “public interest” standard seemed to be occurring (slowly) during the Clinton and Bush administrations. However, during the Obama years, this progress was de-railed, largely by the net neutrality silliness, which not only distracted US regulators from actual problems like rural broadband expansion but also reinvigorated the media-access movement, whose followers believe the FCC should have a major role in shaping US culture, media, and technologies.

Fortunately, those days are in the rearview mirror. The proposed creation of the OEA represents another pivot toward the likely future of US telecom regulation: a focus on consumer welfare, competition, and data-driven policy.

US telecommunications laws are in need of updates. US law states that “the Internet and other interactive computer services” should be “unfettered by Federal or State regulation,” but regulators are increasingly imposing old laws and regulations onto new media and Internet services. Further, Federal Communications Commission actions often duplicate or displace general competition laws. Absent congressional action, old telecom laws will continue to delay and obstruct new services. A new Mercatus paper by Roslyn Layton and Joe Kane shows how governments can modernize telecom agencies and laws.

Legacy Laws

US telecom laws are codified in Title 47 of the US Code and enforced mostly by the FCC. That the first eight sections of US telecommunications law are devoted to the telegraph, the killer app of 1850, illustrates congressional inaction towards obsolete regulations.

In the last decade, therefore, several media, Internet, and telecom companies inadvertently stumbled into Communications Act quagmires. An Internet streaming company, for instance, was bankrupted for upending the TV status quo established by the FCC in the 1960s; FCC precedents mean broadcasters can be credibly threatened with license revocation for airing a documentary critical of a presidential candidate; and the thousands of Internet service providers across the US are subjected to laws designed to constrain the 1930s AT&T long-distance phone monopoly.

US telecom and tech laws, in other words, are a shining example of American “kludgeocracy”–a regime of prescriptive and dated laws whose complexity benefits special interests and harms innovators. These anti-consumer results led progressive Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig to conclude in 2008 that “it’s time to demolish the FCC.” While Lessig’s proposal goes too far, Congress should listen to the voices on the right and left urging them to sweep away the regulations of the past and rationalize telecom law for the 21st century.

Modern Telecom Policy in Denmark

An interesting new Mercatus working paper explains how Denmark took up that challenge. The paper, “Alternative Approaches to Broadband Policy: Lessons on Deregulation from Denmark,” is by Denmark-based scholar Roslyn Layton, who served on President Trump’s transition team for telecom policy, and Joe Kane, a masters student in the GMU econ department. 

The “Nordic model” is often caricatured by American conservatives (and progressives like Bernie Sanders) as socialist control of industry. But as AEI’s James Pethokoukis and others point out, it’s time both sides updated their 1970s talking points. “[W]hen it comes to regulatory efficiency and business freedom,” Tyler Cowen recently noted, “Denmark has a considerably higher [Heritage Foundation] score than does the U.S.”

Layton and Kane explore Denmark’s relatively free-market telecom policies. They explain how Denmark modernized its telecom laws over time as technology and competition evolved. Critically, the center-left government eliminated Denmark’s telecom regulator in 2011 in light of the “convergence” of services to the Internet. Scholars noted,

Nobody seemed to care much—except for the staff who needed to move to other authorities and a few people especially interested in IT and telecom regulation.

Even-handed, light telecom regulation performs pretty well. Denmark, along with South Korea, leads the world in terms of broadband access. The country also has a modest universal service program that depends primarily on the market. Further, similar to other Nordic countries, Denmark permitted a voluntary forum, including consumer groups, ISPs, and Google, to determine best practices and resolve “net neutrality” controversies.

Contrast Denmark’s tech-neutral, consumer-focused approach with recent proceedings in the United States. One of the Obama FCC’s major projects was attempting to regulate how TV streaming apps functioned–despite the fact that TV has never been more abundant and competitive. Countless hours of staff time and industry time were wasted (Trump’s election killed the effort) because advocates saw the opportunity to regulate the streaming market with a law intended to help Circuit City (RIP) sell a few more devices in 1996. The biggest waste of government resources has been the “net neutrality” fight, which stems from prior FCC attempts to apply 1930s telecom laws to 1960s computer systems. Old rules haphazardly imposed on new technologies creates a compliance mindset in our tech and telecom industries. Worse, these unwinnable fights over legal minutiae prevent FCC staff from working on issues where they can help consumers. 

Americans deserve better telecom laws but the inscrutability of FCC actions means consumers don’t know what to ask for. Layton and Kane illuminate that alternative frameworks are available. They highlight Denmark’s political and cultural differences from the US. Nevertheless, Denmark’s telecom reforms and pro-consumer policies deserve study and emulation. The Danes have shown how tech-neutral, consumer-focused policies not only can expand broadband access, they reduce government duplication and overreach.