Antitrust & Competition Policy

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton’s campaign released a tech and innovation agenda. The document covers many tech subjects, including cybersecurity, copyright, and and tech workforce investments, but I’ll narrow my comments to the areas I have the most expertise in: broadband infrastructure and Internet regulation. These roughly match up, respectively, to the second and fourth sections of the five-section document.

On the whole, the broadband infrastructure and Internet regulation sections list good, useful priorities. The biggest exception is Hillary’s strong endorsement of the Title II rules for the Internet, which, as I explained in the National Review last week, is a heavy-handed regulatory regime that is ripe for abuse and will be enforced by a politicized agency.

Her tech agenda doesn’t mention a Communications Act rewrite but I’d argue it’s implied in her proposed reforms. Further, her statements last year at an event suggest she supports significant telecom reforms. In early 2015, Clinton spoke to tech journalist Kara Swisher (HT Doug Brake) and it was pretty clear Clinton viewed Title II as an imperfect and likely temporary effort to enforce neutrality norms. In fact, Clinton said she prefers “a modern, 21st-century telecom technology act” to replace Title II and the rest of the 1934 Communications Act. Continue reading →

The FCC’s transaction reviews have received substantial scholarly criticism lately. The FCC has increasingly used its license transaction reviews as an opportunity to engage in ad hoc merger reviews that substitute for formal rulemaking. FCC transaction conditions since 2000 have ranged from requiring AOL-Time Warner to make future instant messaging services interoperable, to price controls for broadband for low-income families, to mandating merging parties to donate $1 million to public safety initiatives.

In the last few months alone,

  • Randy May and Seth Cooper of the Free State Foundation wrote a piece that the transaction reviews contravene rule of law norms.
  • T. Randolph Beard et al. at the Phoenix Center published a research paper about how the FCC’s informal bargaining during mergers has become much more active and politically motivated in recent years.
  • Derek Bambauer, law professor at the University of Arizona, published a law review article that criticized the use of informal agency actions to pressure companies to act in certain ways. These secretive pressures “cloak what is in reality state action in the guise of private choice.”

This week, in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, my colleague Christopher Koopman and I added to this recent scholarship on the FCC’s controversial transaction reviews. Continue reading →

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

Today, the Supreme Court declined to review a Second Circuit decision that held Apple violated the antitrust laws by fixing ebook prices when, in preparing to launch its own iBookstore, it negotiated a deal with publishers that would allow them to set prices above Amazon’s one-size-fits-all $9.99 price. The appeals court reached its decision by applying the strict per se rule, which ignores any procompetitive justifications of a challenged business practice. The dissent had argued that Apple “was unwilling to [enter the ebook market] on terms that would incur a loss on e-book sales (as would happen if it met Amazon’s below-cost price),” and thus that Apple’s agreement with major publishers actually benefitted consumers by facilitating competition in the ebooks market, even if it meant higher prices for some ebooks.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case means the 2013 verdict against Apple, resulting in a $450 million dollar class-action settlement, will stand. The case began in 2010 when Apple negotiated with five major publishers, adopting an agency pricing model in which the publishers set a book’s price and gave a sales commission to Apple. This pricing model is distinct from Amazon’s previously dominant model, where t was allowed to unilaterally set e-book prices — often for below cost as a loss leader strategy to encourage sales of its own Kindle reader and promote the overall Amazon platform. The Justice Department claimed that Apple’s agency model amounted to antitrust conspiracy — and the Second Circuit agreed. Meanwhile, Apple’s entry reduced Amazon’s share of the ebooks market from 90% to 60%.

The question here wasn’t actually whether Apple should win, but whether Apple should even be allowed to argue that its arrangement could benefit consumers,” said TechFreedom President Berin Szoka. “Apple made a strong case that its deal with publishers was critical to allowing it compete with Amazon. The Supreme Court might or might not have found those arguments convincing, but it should have at least weighed them under antitrust’s flexible rule of reason. By letting the rigid per se deal stand as the controlling legal standard, the Court has ensured that antitrust law in general will put obsolete legal precedents from the pre-digital era above consumer welfare.”

Business model innovation is no less essential for progress than technological innovation,” concluded Szoka. “Indeed, the two usually go hand in hand. And new business models are usually essential to unseating the first mover in new markets like ebook publishing, especially when the first mover sets artificially low prices. Categorically banning deals that attempt to rebalance pricing power between distributors and publishers in multi-sided markets likely means strangling competition in its crib. Unfortunately, the real costs of today’s decision will go unseen: without an opportunity to defend new business models, innovative companies like Apple will be less likely to attempt to disrupt the dominance of entrenched incumbents. Consumers will simply never know how much today’s decision cost them.”

Read more about the argument for reversing the Second Circuit and applying a rule of reason to novel business arrangements in the amicus brief filed by the International Center for Law & Economics and eleven leading antitrust scholars. Truth on the Market, a blog dedicated to law and economics, held ablog symposium on the case last month.

I wanted to draw your attention to this important address on online platform regulation by Alex Chisholm, the head of UK’s Competition and Markets Authority. That’s the non-ministerial department in the UK responsible for competition policy issues. Chisholm delivered the address on October 27th at the Bundesnetzagentur conference in Bonn. It’s a terrific speech that other policymakers would be wise to read and mimic to ensure that antitrust and competition policy decisions don’t derail the many benefits of the Information Revolution.

“Today, as regulators, we have the responsibility but also the great historical privilege of playing an influential role in the deployment throughout the economy of the latest of these defining technological eras,” Chisholm began. “As regulators, we must try to minimise the inevitable mismatch between how we’ve done things before and the opportunities and risks of the new,” he argued.

He continued on to specify three recommendations for those crafting policy on this front: Continue reading →

Last Friday I attended a fascinating conference hosted by the Duke Law School’s Center for Innovation Policy about television regulation and competition. It’s remarkable how quickly television competition has changed and how online video providers are putting pressure on old business models.

I’ve been working on a project about competition in technology, communications, and media and one chart that stands out is one that shows increasing competition in pay television, below. Namely, that cable providers have lost nearly 15 million subscribers since 2002. Cable was essentially the only game in town in 1990 for pay television (about 100% market share). Yet today, cable’s market share approaches 50%. This competitive pressure accounts for some cable companies trying to merge in recent years.

Much of this churn by subscribers was to satellite providers but it’s the “telephone” companies providing TV that’s really had a competitive impact in recent years. Telcos went from about 0% market share in 2005 to 13% in 2014. This new competition can be tied to Congress finally allowing telephone companies to provide TV in 1996. However, these new services didn’t really get started until a decade ago when 1) digital and IP technology improved, and 2) the FCC made it clear by deregulating DSL ISPs that telephone companies could expect a market return for investing in fiber broadband nationwide.

Pay TV Market Share TLF

UPDATE:

And below is market share data going back ten more years to 1994 using FCC data, which uses a slightly different measurement methodology (hence the kink around 2003-2004). I’ve also omitted market share of Home Satellite Dish (those large dishes you sometimes see in rural areas). Though HSD has negligible market share today, it had a few million subscribers in the mid-1990s. I may add HSD later.

Pay TV Market Share TLF 1994-2014

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is taking a more active interest in state and local barriers to entry and innovation that could threaten the continued growth of the digital economy in general and the sharing economy in particular. The agency recently announced it would be hosting a June 9th workshop “to examine competition, consumer protection, and economic issues raised by the proliferation of online and mobile peer-to peer business platforms in certain sectors of the [sharing] economy.” Filings are due to the agency in this matter by May 26th. (Along with my Mercatus Center colleagues, I will be submitting comments and also releasing a big paper on reputational feedback mechanisms that same week. We have already released this paper on the general topic.)

Relatedly, just yesterday, the FTC sent a letter to Michigan policymakers about restricting entry by Tesla and other direct-to-consumer sellers of vehicles. Michigan passed a law in October 2014 prohibiting such direct sales. The FTC’s strongly-worded letter decries the state’s law as “protectionism for independent franchised dealers” noting that “current provisions operate as a special protection for dealers—a protection that is likely harming both competition and consumers.” The agency argues that:

consumers are the ones best situated to choose for themselves both the vehicles they want to buy and how they want to buy them. Automobile manufacturers have an economic incentive to respond to consumer preferences by choosing the most effective distribution method for their vehicle brands. Absent supportable public policy considerations, the law should permit automobile manufacturers to choose their distribution method to be responsive to the desires of motor vehicle buyers.

The agency cites the “well-developed body of research on these issues strongly suggests that government restrictions on distribution are rarely desirable for consumers” and the staff letter continues on to utterly demolish the bogus arguments set forth by defenders of the blatantly self-serving, cronyist law. (For more discussion of just how anti-competitive and anti-consumer these laws are in practice, see this January 2015 Mercatus Center study, “State Franchise Law Carjacks Auto Buyers,” by Jerry Ellig and Jesse Martinez.) Continue reading →

A bill before Congress would for the first time require radio broadcasters to pay royalty fees to recording artists and record labels pursuant to the Copyright Act. The proposed Fair Play Fair Pay Act (H.R. 1733) would “[make] sure that all radio services play by the same rules, and all artists are fairly compensated,” according to Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY).

… AM/FM radio has used whatever music it wants without paying a cent to the musicians, vocalists, and labels that created it. Satellite radio has paid below market royalties for the music it uses …

The bill would still allow for different fees for AM/FM radio, satellite radio and Internet radio, but it would mandate a “minimum fee” for each type of service for the first time.

A February report from the U.S. Copyright Office cites the promotional value of airtime as the longstanding justification for exempting terrestrial radio broadcasters from paying royalties under the Copyright Act.

In the traditional view of the market, broadcasters and labels representing copyright owners enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship whereby terrestrial radio stations exploit sound recordings to attract the listener pools that generate advertising dollars, and, in return, sound recording owners receive exposure that promotes record and other sales.

The Copyright Office now feels there are “significant questions” whether the traditional view remains credible today. But significant questions are not the same thing as clear evidence. Continue reading →

Many readers will recall the telecom soap opera featuring the GPS industry and LightSquared and the subsequent bankruptcy of LightSquared. Economist Thomas W. Hazlett (who is now at Clemson, after a long tenure at the GMU School of Law) and I wrote an article published in the Duke Law & Technology Review titled Tragedy of the Regulatory Commons: Lightsquared and the Missing Spectrum Rights. The piece documents LightSquared’s ambitions and dramatic collapse. Contrary to popular reporting on this story, this was not a failure of technology. We make the case that, instead, the FCC’s method of rights assignment led to the demise of LightSquared and deprived American consumers of a new nationwide wireless network. Our analysis has important implications as the FCC and Congress seek to make wide swaths of spectrum available for unlicensed devices. Namely, our paper suggests that the top-down administrative planning model is increasingly harming consumers and delaying new technologies.

Read commentary from the GPS community about LightSquared and you’ll get the impression LightSquared is run by rapacious financiers (namely CEO Phil Falcone) who were willing to flaunt FCC rules and endanger thousands of American lives with their proposed LTE network. LightSquared filings, on the other hand, paint the GPS community as defense-backed dinosaurs who abused the political process to protect their deficient devices from an innovative entrant. As is often the case, it’s more complicated than these morality plays. We don’t find villains in this tale–simply destructive rent-seeking triggered by poor FCC spectrum policy.

We avoid assigning fault to either LightSquared or GPS, but we stipulate that there were serious interference problems between LightSquared’s network and GPS devices. Interference is not an intractable problem, however. Interference is resolved everyday in other circumstances. The problem here was intractable because GPS users are dispersed and unlicensed (including government users), and could not coordinate and bargain with LightSquared when problems arose. There is no feasible way for GPS companies to track down and compel users to use more efficient devices, for instance, if LightSquared compensated them for the hassle. Knowing that GPS mitigation was unfeasible, LightSquared’s only recourse after GPS users objected to the new LTE network was through the political and regulatory process, a fight LightSquared lost badly. The biggest losers, however, were consumers, who were deprived of another wireless broadband network because FCC spectrum assignment prevented win-win bargaining between licensees. Continue reading →

As 2014 draws to a close, we take a look back at the most-read posts from the past year at The Technology Liberation Front. Thank you for reading, and enjoy. Continue reading →

The FCC is currently considering ways to make municipal broadband projects easier to deploy, an exercise that has drawn substantial criticism from Republicans, who passed a bill to prevent FCC preemption of state laws. Today the Mercatus Center released a policy analysis of municipal broadband projects, titled Community Broadband, Community Benefits? An Economic Analysis of Local Government Broadband Initiatives. The researcher is Brian Deignan, an alumnus of the Mercatus Center MA Fellowship. Brian wrote an excellent, empirical paper about the economic effects of publicly-funded broadband.

It’s remarkable how little empirical research there is on municipal broadband investment, despite years of federal data and billions of dollars in federal investment (notably, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). This dearth of research is in part because muni broadband proponents, as Brian points out, expressly downplay the relevance of economic evidence and suggest that the primary social benefits of muni broadband cannot be measured using traditional metrics. The current “research” about muni broadband, pro- and anti-, tends to be unfalsifiable generalizations based on extrapolations of cherry-picked examples. (There are several successes and failures, depending on your point of view.)

Brian’s paper provides researchers a great starting point when they attempt to answer an increasingly important policy question: What is the economic impact of publicly-funded broadband? Brian uses 23 years of BLS data from 80 cities that have deployed broadband and analyzes muni broadband’s effect on 1) quantity of businesses; 2) employee wages; and 3) employment. Continue reading →