Archive for category FTC
In light of recent stories hinting that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will not pursue antitrust claims that Google discriminates in its search results, advocates for rival websites are sounding the alarms. One attorney who represents several websites that have complained about Google’s alleged favoritism in search decried: “If a settlement were to be proposed that didn’t include search, the institutional integrity of the FTC would be at issue.” Ironically, the opposite is true: By reportedly dropping search discrimination from its case, the FTC has bolstered its integrity.
This is not to say that discrimination against rival websites is a good thing. Rather, discrimination of the kind allegedly practiced by Google is generally not recognized as an antitrust violation. With the exception of extreme cases, such as when a monopolist refuses to sell a product or service to a competitor that it makes available to others for discriminatory reasons, a firm does not expose itself to antitrust liability by merely refusing to deal with a competitor. (By contrast, a firm may expose itself to antitrust liability by refusing to deal with customers or suppliers so long as they deal with the firm’s rival.) Because Google is not refusing to sell a product or service to a rival website that it makes available to others, but instead places its specialized search results—such as maps, image, shopping or local results—at the top of the page when it believes they will be useful to consumers, Google arguably has no “duty to deal” under the antitrust laws.
To make a discrimination square peg fit into an antitrust round hole, the FTC would have needed to invoke an unorthodox section of the FTC Act (Section 5), thereby stretching the agency’s authority. By recognizing the incongruence between the conduct that the antitrust laws are meant to stop and the consumer-centric justifications for Google’s behavior, the FTC appears to have spared itself a tough slog. For example, one element of a duty-to-deal claim under the Sherman Act is proving that Google’s treatment of rival websites harms consumers; even the cleverest economist would be stumped with that assignment.
Google’s rivals are now seeking a do-over at the Justice Department (DOJ). They analogize the Google case to the FTC’s Microsoft investigation, where the DOJ picked up that case shortly after the FTC commissioners deadlocked in 1993. But the FTC does not appear to be deadlocked here; the agency is likely rejecting the Google case because the antitrust law does not support the complainants’ arguments.
Although regulatory relief at the FTC appears to be fleeting (and the DOJ is not the proper forum), website rivals could seek protection against search discrimination from Congress. The blueprint is already established: In 1992, Congress amended the Cable Act to protect independent cable networks against discrimination by vertically integrated cable operators. Section 616(a)(3) of the Act directs the Federal Communications Commission to establish rules governing program carriage agreements that “prevent [a cable operator] from engaging in conduct the effect of which is to unreasonably restrain the ability of an unaffiliated video programming vendor to compete fairly by discriminating in video programming distribution on the basis of affiliation or nonaffiliation of vendors in the selection, terms, or conditions for carriage of video programming provided by such vendors.”
This explains why, for example, the NFL Network brought a discrimination cases against Comcast—a vertically integrated cable operator that owns a national sports network—under the Cable Act and not under the Sherman Act. Had the NFL Network pursued its discrimination claims in an antitrust court, it likely would have failed. By styling its case as a program-carriage complaint, however, the NFL Network took advantage of cognizable harms under the Cable Act such as preserving independent voices that, for better or worse, are not appreciated by the antitrust laws.
If independent websites such as Nextag want relief, then they should lobby Congress to write the analogous non-discrimination provisions covering search engines. Once an agency is designated with the authority to police Google and other vertically integrated search engines (Bing included), website rivals could pursue individual discrimination claims just like the NFL. Importantly, website rivals would have to fund these battles, not with taxpayer money (of which millions were likely spent by the FTC in its antitrust investigation of Google), but with their own resources. Self-funding ensures that only the strongest discrimination cases would come forward; when someone else is footing the bill, all bets are off.
Admittedly, the relief contemplated here would not come quickly. It took years for independent cable networks to convince Congress of their plight. But the impatience of Google’s rivals is no reason for the FTC to bend the antitrust laws. Better to keep the powder dry—and the FTC’s integrity intact—and go after a monopolist that is more blatantly violating the antitrust laws on another day.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is in the final stages of conducting its Google investigation. As the agency contemplates whether Google is a monopolist in the ill-defined market for search, they may find the competitive ground has shifted beneath their feet in just the 15 months since they began investigating. While a year or two ago, Google’s main competition in search might have been Bing and Yahoo, today it’s Apple and Amazon, and tomorrow it may be Facebook. The market is almost certainly broader than general search engines as we normally think of them.
Just last week, the New York Times ran a story explaining that Google and Amazon are “at war to become the pre-eminent online mall.” The story cited survey data from two consultancies that should give the antitrust authority pause:
- Forrester Research found that a third of online users started their product searches on Amazon compared to 13 percent who started their search from a traditional search site; and
- comScore found that product searches on Amazon have grown 73 percent over the last year while shopping searches on Google have been flat.
These impressive statistics suggest that Google lacks market power in a critical segment of search—namely, product searches. Even though searches for items such as power tools or designer jeans account for only 10 to 20 percent of all searches, they are clearly some of the most important queries for search engines from a business perspective, as they are far easier to monetize than informational queries like “Kate Middleton.”
One senses that the FTC has not focused much on competition from Amazon in product search, or that they even think of Amazon as a search engine. Instead, antitrust agencies around the globe have fixated on helping middlemen comparison-shopping sites such as Nextag and PriceGrabber, most of whom charge retailers for listings. Google is taking heat from comparison sites for doing the same thing because Google is perceived to be the most important source for online shoppers. That regulators are willing to breathe life into these intermediaries implies they do not recognize the platform-based competition between Google and Amazon for product searches.
Amazon is not the only behemoth that competes with Google for search. Apple’s Siri can do search and whole lot more, from helping Samuel L. Jackson design the perfect dinner to making John Malkovich laugh to helping Martin Scorsese maneuver through New York. As search evolves from links into answers, services like Siri become highly valuable. And the ITunes App Store represents the launching pad for many searches that would otherwise start on Google. A couple in Virginia that enjoys winery tours might begin their search by installing “Virginia Wine in My Pocket” or “Virginia Wineries” on their iPhone rather than search the web. In March of this year, Apple announced that more than 25 billion apps had been downloaded from its App Store by the users of the more than 315 million iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch devices worldwide. One wonders whether any of these downloads are being counted by the FTC in their calculations of Google’s market share.
And now Facebook is getting into search. At a Disrupt conference last week, Mark Zuckerberg explained that search engines are evolving into places where users go for answers, and that Facebook is uniquely positioned to compete in that market: “And when you think about it from that perspective, Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer a lot of the questions that people have. So what sushi restaurants have my friends gone to in New York in the past six months and liked? . . . . These are queries that you could potentially do at Facebook if we build out this system that you just couldn’t do anywhere else.”
It may not be natural to associate Amazon (an online retailer), Apple (a device maker), and Facebook (a social media site) with search, but in the technology industry, your next competitive threat can come from anywhere. Monopoly and the kind of robust platform competition between Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook are mutually exclusive portraits of reality. Will the FTC turn a blind eye toward this advanced form of competition?
Last week, the FTC hired outside litigator Beth Wilkinson to lead an investigation into Google’s conduct, which some in the press have interpreted as a grave sign for the search company. The FTC is reportedly interested in pursuing Google under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits a firm from engaging in “unfair methods of competition.” Along with Bob Litan, who served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Antitrust Division during the Microsoft investigation, I have penned a short paper on the FTC’s seemingly unorthodox Section 5 case against Google. (Disclosure: This paper was commissioned by Google.)
Litan and I explore a few possible theories of harm under a hypothetical Section 5 case and find them wanting, including (1) claims that specialized search results (such as flight, shopping or map results) “unfairly” harm the independent specialized search websites like Kayak (travel) or MapQuest (mapping and directions), or (2) assertions that Google allegedly has “deceived” users or websites by seemingly reneging on pledges not to favor its own sites. For the sake of brevity, I focus on the FTC’s potential deception theory here, and leave it to interested reader to pursue the “unfairness” theory in the paper.
Deception of Users
The alleged bases of Google’s alleged deception are generic statements that Google made, either in its initial public offering (IPO) or on its website, about Google’s attitude toward users leaving the site. The provision of a lawful service, specialized search, launched several years after the IPO statement certainly cannot be deceptive. To conclude that it is, and more importantly, to prevent the company from offering innovations in search would establish a precedent that would surely punish innovation throughout the rest of the economy.
As for the mission statement that the company wants users to get off the site as quickly as possible, it is just that, a mission statement. Users do not go to the mission statement when they search; they go to the Google site itself. Users cannot possibly be harmed even if this particular statement in the company’s mission were untrue. Moreover, if the problem lies in that statement, then any remedy should be directed at amending that statement. There is no justification for the Commission to hamper Google’s specialized search services themselves or to dictate where Google must display them.
Deception of Rivals
An alternative theory suggests that Google deceived its rivals, reducing innovation among independent websites. In a February 2012 paper delivered to the OECD, Tim Wu explained that competition law can be used to “increase the costs of exclusion,” which if successful, would promote innovation among application providers. Wu argued that “oversight of platforms is conceptually similar” to oversight of standard-setting organizations (SSOs). He offers a hypothetical case in which a platform owner “broadly represents to the world that he maintains an open and transparent innovation platform,” gains a monopoly position based on those representations, and then begins to exclude applications “that might themselves serve as platforms.” Once the industry has committed to a private platform, Wu argues, the platform owner “earns oversight of its practices from that point onward.”
So has Google earned itself oversight due to its alleged deception? Google is not perceived by web designers as providing a platform for all companies to have equal footing. Websites’ rankings in Google’s search results vary tremendously over time; no publisher could reasonably rely on any particular ranking on Google. To the contrary, websites want their presence to be known to any and all search engines. That specialized search sites did not base their business plans on Google’s commitment to openness is what distinguishes Google’s platform from Microsoft’s platform in the 1990s. To Wu’s credit, he does not mention Google in this section of the paper; the only platforms mentioned are those of Apple, Android, and Microsoft.
It is even more of a stretch to analogize Google’s conduct to that in the FTC’s Rambus case. Unlike websites that do not depend on a Google “standard”–the website can be accessed by users from any search engine, or through direct navigation–computer memory chips must be compatible with a variety of computers, which requires that chip producers develop a common set of standards for performance and interoperability. According to the FTC, Rambus exploited this reliance by, among other things, not disclosing to chip makers that it had additional divisional patent applications in process. That specialized search sites did not make “irreversible technological” investments based on Google’s commitment to a common standard is what distinguishes Google’s platform from SSOs.
The Freedom to Innovate
A change in a business model cannot be a legitimate basis for a Section 5 case because a firm cannot be expected to know how the world is going to unfold at its inception. A lot can change in a decade. Consumers’ taste for the product can change. Technology can change. Business models are required to adapt to such change; else they die. There should be no requirement that once a firm writes a mission statement, it be held to that statement forever. What if Google failed to anticipate the role of specialized search in 2004? Presumably, Google failed to anticipate a lot of things, but that should not be the basis for denying its entry into ancillary services or expanding its core offerings. As John Maynard Keynes famously replied to a criticism during the Great Depression of having changed his position on monetary policy: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?” If Google exposes itself to increased oversight for merely changing its mind, then other technology firms might think twice before innovating. And that would be a horrible consequence to the FTC’s exploration of alternative antitrust theories.