Antitrust & Competition Policy

In a five-part series at the American Action Forum, I presented prior to the 2020 presidential election the candidates’ positions on a range of tech policy topics including: the race to 5GSection 230antitrust, and the sharing economy. Now that the election is over, it is time to examine what topics in tech policy will gain more attention and how the debate around various tech policy issues may change. In no particular order, here are five key tech policy issues to be aware of heading into a new administration and a new Congress. 

The Use of Soft Law for Tech Policy 

In 2021, it is likely America will still have a divided government with Democrats controlling the White House and House of Representatives and Republicans expected to narrowly control the Senate. The result of a divided government, particularly between the two houses of Congress, will likely be that many tech policy proposals face logjams. The result will likely be that many of the questions of tech policy lack the legislation or hard law framework that might be desired. As a result, we are likely to continue to see “soft law”—regulation by various sub-regulatory means such as guidance documents, workshops, and industry consultations—rather than formal action. While it appears we will see more formal regulatory action from the administrative state as well in a Biden Administration, these actions require quite a process through comments and formal or informal rulemaking. As technology continues to accelerate, many agencies turn to soft law to avoid “pacing problems” where policy cannot react as quickly as technology and rules may be outdated by the time they go into effect. 

A soft law approach can be preferable to a hard law approach as it is often able to better adapt to rapidly changing technologies. Policymakers in this new administration, however, should work to ensure that they are using this tool in a way that enables innovation and that appropriate safeguards ensure that these actions do not become a crushing regulatory burden. 

Return of the Net Neutrality Debate 

One key difference between President Trump and President-elect Biden’s stances on tech policy concerns whether the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) should categorize internet service providers (ISPs) as Title II “common carrier services,” thereby enabling regulations such as “net neutrality” that places additional requirements on how these service providers can prioritize data. President-elect Biden has been clear in the past that he favors reinstating net neutrality. 

The imposition of this classification and regulations occurred during the Obama Administration and the FCC removed both the classification under Title II and the additional regulations for “net neutrality” during the Trump Administration. Critics of these changes made many hyperbolic claims at the time such as that Netflix would be interrupted or that ISPs would use the freedom in a world without net neutrality to block abortion resources or pro-feminist groups. These concerns have proven to be misguided. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the benefits to building a robust internet infrastructure and expanded investment that a light-touch approach has yielded. 

It is likely that net neutrality will once again be debated. Beyond just the imposition of these restrictions, a repeated change in such a key classification could create additional regulatory uncertainty and deter or delay investment and innovation in this valuable infrastructure. To overcome such concerns, congressional action could help fashion certainty in a bipartisan and balanced way to avoid a back-and-forth of such a dramatic nature. 

Debates Regarding Sharing Economy Providers Classification as Independent Contractors 

California voters passed Proposition 22 undoing the misguided reclassification of app-based service drivers as employees rather than independent contractors under AB5; during the campaign, however, President-elect Biden stated that he supports AB5 and called for a similar approach nationwide. Such an approach would make it more difficult on new sharing economy platforms and a wide range of independent workers (such as freelance journalists) at a time when the country is trying to recover economically.  

Changing classifications to make it more difficult to consider service providers as independent contractors makes it less likely that platforms such as Fiverr or TaskRabbit could provide platforms for individuals to offer their skills. This reclassification as employees also misunderstands the ways in which many people choose to engage in gig economy work and the advantages that flexibility has. As my AAF colleague Isabel Soto notes, the national costs of a similar approach found in the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act “could see between $3.6 billion and $12.1 billion in additional costs to businesses” at a time when many are seeking to recover during the recession. Instead, both parties should look for solutions that continue to allow the benefits of the flexible arrangements that many seek in such work, while allowing for creative solutions and opportunities for businesses that wish to provide additional benefits to workers without risking reclassification. 

Shifting Conversations and Debates Around Section 230 

Section 230 has recently faced most of its criticism from Republicans regarding allegations of anti-conservative bias. President-elect Biden, however, has also called to revoke Section 230 and to set up a taskforce regarding “Online Harassment and Abuse.” While this may seem like a positive step to resolving concerns about online content, it could also open the door to government intervention in speech that is not widely agreed upon and chip away at the liability protection for content moderation. 

For example, even though the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act was targeting the heinous crime of sex trafficking (which was already not subject to Section 230 protection) was aimed at companies such as Backpage where it was known such illegal activity was being conducted, it has resulted in legitimate speech such as Craigslist personal ads being removed  and companies such as Salesforce being subjected to lawsuits for what third parties used their product for. A carveout for hate speech or misinformation would only pose more difficulties for many businesses. These terms to do not have clearly agreed-upon meanings and often require far more nuanced understanding for content moderation decisions. To enforce changes that limit online speech even on distasteful and hateful language in the United States would dramatically change the interpretation of the First Amendment that has ruled such speech is still protected and would result in significant intrusion by the government for it to be truly enforced. For example, in the UK, an average of nine people a day were questioned or arrested over offensive or harassing “trolling” in online posts, messages, or forums under a law targeting online harassment and abuse such as what the taskforce would be expected to consider. 

Online speech has provided new ways to connect, and Section 230 keeps the barriers to entry low. It is fair to be concerned about the impact of negative behavior, but policymakers should also recognize the impact that online spaces have had on allowing marginalized communities to connect and be concerned about the unintended consequences changes to Section 230 could have. 

Continued Antitrust Scrutiny of “Big Tech” 

One part of the “techlash” that shows no sign of diminishing in the new administration or new Congress is using antitrust to go after “Big Tech.” While it remains to be seen if the Biden Department of Justice will continue the current case against Google, there are indications that they and congressional Democrats will continue to go after these successful companies with creative theories of harm that do not reflect the current standards in antitrust. 

Instead of assuming a large and popular company automatically merits competition scrutiny  or attempting to utilize antitrust to achieve policy changes for which it is an ill-fitted tool, the next administration should return to the principled approach of the consumer welfare standard. Under such an approach, antitrust is focused on consumers and not competitors. In this regard, companies would need to be shown to be dominant in their market, abusing that dominance in some ways, and harming consumers. This approach also provides an objective standard that lets companies and consumers know how actions will be considered under competition law. With what is publicly known, the proposed cases against the large tech companies fail at least one element of this test. 

There will likely be a shift in some of the claimed harms, but unfortunately scrutiny of large tech companies and calls to change antitrust laws to go after these companies are likely to continue. 

Conclusion 

There are many other technology and innovation issues the next administration and Congress will see. These include not only the issues mentioned above, but emerging technologies like 5G, the Internet of Things, and autonomous vehicles. Other issues such as the digital divide provide an opportunity for policymakers on both sides of the aisle to come together and have a beneficial impact and think of creative and adaptable solutions. Hopefully, the Biden Administration and the new Congress will continue a light-touch approach that allows entrepreneurs to engage with innovative ideas and continues American leadership in the technology sector. 

Does anyone remember Blockbuster and Hollywood Video? I assume most of you do, but wow, doesn’t it seem like forever ago when we actually had to drive to stores to get movies to watch at home? What a drag that was!

Yet, just 15 years ago, that was the norm and those two firms were the titans of video distribution, so much so that federal regulators at the Federal Trade Commission looked to stop their hegemony through antitrust intervention. But then those firms and whatever “market power” they possessed quickly evaporated as a wave of Schumpeterian creative destruction swept through video distribution markets. Both those firms and antitrust regulators had completely failed to anticipate the tsunami of technological and marketplace changes about to hit in the form of alternative online video distribution platforms as well as the rise of smartphones and robust nationwide mobile networks.

Today, this serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when regulatory hubris triumphs over policy humility, as Trace Mitchell and I explain in this new essay for National Review Online entitled, “The Crystal Ball of Antitrust Regulators Is Cracked.” As we note:

There is no discernable end point to the process of entrepreneurial-driven change. In fact, it seems to be proliferating rapidly. To survive, even the most successful companies must be willing to quickly dispense with yesterday’s successful business plans, lest they be steamrolled by the relentless pace of technological change and ever-shifting consumer demands. It is easy to understand why some people find it hard to imagine a time when Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google won’t be quite as dominant as they are today. But it was equally challenging 20 years ago to imagine that those same companies could disrupt the giants of that era.

Hopefully today’s policymakers will have a little more patience and trust competition and continued technological innovation to bring us still more wonderful video choices.

[OC] Blockbuster Video US store locations between 1986 and 2019 from r/dataisbeautiful

When it comes to the threat of automation, I agree with Ryan Khurana: “From self-driving car crashes to failed workplace algorithms, many AI tools fail to perform simple tasks humans excel at, let alone far surpass us in every way.” Like myself, he is skeptical that automation will unravel the labor market, pointing out that “[The] conflation of what AI ‘may one day do’ with the much more mundane ‘what software can do today’ creates a powerful narrative around automation that accepts no refutation.”

Khurana marshals a number of examples to make this point:

Google needs to use human callers to impersonate its Duplex system on up to a quarter of calls, and Uber needs crowd-sourced labor to ensure its automated identification system remains fast, but admitting this makes them look less automated…

London-based investment firm MMC Ventures found that out of the 2,830 startups they identified as being “AI-focused” in Europe, 40% used no machine learning tools, whatsoever.

I’ve been collecting examples of the AI hype machine as well. Here are some of my favorites. Continue reading →

A decade ago, a heated debate raged over the benefits of “a la carte” (or “unbundling”) mandates for cable and satellite TV operators. Regulatory advocates said consumers wanted to buy all TV channels individually to lower costs. The FCC under former Republican Chairman Kevin Martin got close to mandating a la carte regulation.

But the math just didn’t add up. A la carte mandates, many economists noted, would actually cost consumers just as much (or even more) once they repurchased all the individual channels they desired. And it wasn’t clear people really wanted a completely atomized one-by-one content shopping experience anyway.

Throughout media history, bundles of all different sorts had been used across many different sectors (books, newspapers, music, etc.). This was because consumers often enjoyed the benefits of getting a package of diverse content delivered to them in an all-in-one package. Bundling also helped media operators create and sustain a diversity of content using creative cross-subsidization schemes. The traditional newspaper format and business is perhaps the greatest example of media bundling. The classifieds and sports sections helped cross-subsidize hard news (especially local reporting). See this 2008 essay by Jeff Eisenach and me for details for more details on the economics of a la carte.

Yet, with the rise of cable and satellite television, some critics protested the use of bundles for delivering content. Even though it was clear that the incredible diversity of 500+ channels on pay TV was directly attributable to strong channels cross-subsidizing weaker ones, many regulatory advocates said we would be better off without bundles. Moreover, they said, online video markets could show us the path forward in the form of radically atomized content options and cheaper prices.

Flash-forward to today. Continue reading →

Image result for joseph schumpeterIn my first essay for the American Institute for Economic Research, I discuss what lessons the great prophet of innovation Joseph Schumpeter might have for us in the midst of today’s “techlash” and rising tide of techopanics.  I argue that, “[i]f Schumpeter were alive today, he’d have two important lessons to teach us about the techlash and why we should be wary of misguided interventions into the Digital Economy.” Specifically:
We can summarize Schumpeter’s first lesson in two words: Change happens. But disruptive change only happens in the right policy environment. Which gets to the second great lesson that Schumpeter can still teach us today, and which can also be summarized in two words: Incentives matter. Entrepreneurs will continuously drive dynamic, disruptive change, but only if public policy allows it.
Schumpeter’s now-famous model of “creative destruction” explained why economies are never in a state static equilibrium and that entrepreneurial competition comes from many (usually completely unpredictable) sources. “This kind of competition is much more effective than the other,” he argued, because the “ever-present threat” of dynamic, disruptive change, “disciplines before it attacks.”
But if we want innovators to take big risks and challenge existing incumbents and their market power, then it is essential that we get policy incentives right or else this sort of creative destruction will never come about. The problem with too much of today’s “techlash” thinking is that it imagines the current players are here to stay and that their market power is unassailable. Again, that is static “snapshot” thinking that ignores the reality that new generations of entrepreneurs are in a sort of race for a prize and will make big bets on the future in the face of seemingly astronomical odds against their success. But we have to give them a chance to win that “prize” if we want to see that dynamic, disruptive change happen.
As always, we have much to learn from Schumpeter. Jump over to the AIER website to read the entire essay.

Recently, Noah Smith explored an emerging question in tech. Is there a kill zone where new and innovative upstarts are being throttled by the biggest players? He explains,

Facebook commissioned a study by consultant Oliver Wyman that concluded that venture investment in the technology sector wasn’t lower than in other sectors, which led Wyman to conclude that there was no kill zone.

But economist Ian Hathaway noted that looking at the overall technology industry was too broad. Examining three specific industry categories — internet retail, internet software and social/platform software, corresponding to the industries dominated by Amazon, Google and Facebook, respectively — Hathaway found that initial venture-capital financings have declined by much more in the past few years than in comparable industries. That suggests the kill zone is real.

A recent paper by economists Wen Wen and Feng Zhu reaches a similar conclusion. Observing that Google has tended to follow Apple in deciding which mobile-app markets to enter, they assessed whether the threat of potential entry by Google (as measured by Apple’s actions) deters innovation by startups making apps for Google’s Android platform. They conclude that when the threat of the platform owner’s entry is higher, fewer app makers will be interested in offering a product for that particular niche. A 2014 paper by the same authors found similar results for Amazon and third-party merchants using its platform.

So, are American tech companies making it difficult for startups? Perhaps, but there are some other reasons to be skeptical. Continue reading →

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.