Tech

Agree to Disagree: Competition Authorities Differ on Approach to Digital Platforms

Tech giants have captured the attention of competition agencies around the world. As we have previously shared, the FTC is in the midst of a series of hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century, including sessions on Big Data, Privacy, and Competition and the Antitrust Framework for Evaluating Acquisitions of Potential or Nascent Competitors in Digital Marketplaces. Multiple European regulators (the EU, Germany and now Austria) recently launched investigations into Amazon. Technology platforms are a priority for many other enforcers as well, from China to Australia to the UK.

With different competition authorities weighing in on how to assess tech competition, there is the potential for divergence in intensity of enforcement as well as whether existing competition doctrine suffices. Disparities are borne out by recent statements emanating from U.S., Australian, and UK competition agencies and officials.

Fresh remarks from the U.S. DOJ Antitrust Division indicate the agency does not support a regulatory approach to platforms and the digital economy. In a speech last week, agency head Makan Delrahim addressed Antitrust Enforcement in the Zero-Price Economy, noting that while zero-price strategies have “exploded” with the rise of digital platforms, “the strategy of selling a product or service at zero price is not new, nor is it unique to the digital economy.” Mr. Delrahim acknowledged the divergent views of how antitrust enforcement should treat such products and services, which range from exemption from antitrust scrutiny entirely to the creation of new, specially crafted rules and standards. Rejecting both of these “extreme views” as “misplaced,” he emphasized the ability of current antitrust doctrine – including the consumer welfare standard – to tackle the issue, stating: “[W]e do not need a wholesale revision of the antitrust laws to address competitive concerns in these contexts. . . . [O]ur antitrust laws and principles are flexible enough to adapt to the challenges of the digital economy.” Mr. Delrahim called for “careful case-by-case analysis” in enforcement. He touted the innovation and benefits that zero-price strategies have brought to consumers, crediting the country’s “pro-market economic and legal structures” and cautioning against “distortions of our antitrust standards” to address issues like privacy and data protection if they do not impede the functioning of the free market.

His speech echoes a view Mr. Delrahim and others at the Antitrust Division have expressed previously regarding the need (or lack thereof) for new rules to address the antitrust implications of “big data.” In an October 2018 speech regarding startups, innovation, and antitrust policy, Mr. Delrahim remarked that “accumulation of data drives innovation and benefits consumers” in many ways (including by enabling zero-price offerings), and that forced sharing risks undermining innovation by reducing incentives for both incumbents and new entrants. Invoking Trinko,[1] he stated that “free and competitive markets” – not antitrust agencies or courts – are best equipped to determine “how much data should be shared, with whom, and at what price.” Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bernard Nigro, Jr. has taken a similar position, stating that “forced sharing of critical assets reduces the incentive to invest in innovation” and that “where benefits to sharing exist, they can be best captured by the parties negotiating in a free and competitive market, not by government regulation.”

By contrast, other jurisdictions and industry observers considering the competitive implications of digital platforms have questioned the status quo. In their view, control of valuable data provides a competitive advantage and raises entry barriers that may entrench a platform’s dominant position and lead to competitive or consumer harm. At a higher level, France and Germany just announced an effort to overhaul competition rules to enable European companies to better develop technologies that compete on the global stage.

For example, last week the Australian Productivity Commission and the New Zealand Productivity Commission released a joint report that reviews how most effectively to address the challenges and harness the opportunities the digital economy creates (particularly for small- to medium-sized enterprises). In a section titled “Existing competition regulation may not be adequate for digital markets,” the report addressed the challenges of applying existing laws to the digital economy, including (among others) that zero-price goods and services complicate the analysis of market definition and market power, and that data “is an increasingly important business input and may be a source of market power” but is not adequately captured in traditional competition policy. Although the report acknowledged that in some cases technological developments might obviate the need for regulation (and in others the mere threat of regulation may be enough), it posited that new regulation might be necessary to maintain competitive markets: “[I]f ‘winner-take-most’ markets do end up prevailing, competition regulators may need to consider extending tools such as essential service access regimes to digital services.” An essential service (or “essential facilities”) regime would treat a digital platform’s data as an input essential to competition and require the platform to provide its competitors with reasonable access to it. In contrast to the Productivity Commissions’ suggestion, U.S. competition enforcers to date have been loath to treat digital platforms as essential facilities.

The Productivity Commissions’ report comes on the heels of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) Digital Platforms Inquiry preliminary findings released in December. The ACCC expressed similar concerns about the rise of digital platforms and the threat they pose to consumers and the competitive process. Addressing what it found to be Google’s and Facebook’s market power in a number of markets,[2] the report encouraged governments to be “responsive, and indeed proactive, in reacting to and anticipating challenges and problems” posed by digital platforms. It offered eleven preliminary recommendations to address these concerns, including: amending merger law to expressly consider potential competition and the data at issue in the transaction, requiring advance notice of any acquisition by a large digital platform of a business with activities in Australia, and tasking a regulatory authority with monitoring the conduct of vertically integrated digital platforms. The report also proposed areas for further analysis, such as: a digital platforms ombudsman, the monitoring of intermediary pricing and opt-in targeted advertising. As such, indications from Australia suggest calls for more competition intervention have some teeth.

The UK may have a similar appetite, as indicated by a new Parliament publication addressing “Disinformation and ‘fake news.’” The statement calls for increased oversight and greater transparency into “how the big tech companies work and what happens to our data,” highlighting Facebook’s treatment and monetization of user data as an example of why intervention is needed. In addition to recommending a compulsory Code of Ethics overseen by an independent regulator with “statutory powers to monitor relevant tech companies,” the publication advocated for greater competition law scrutiny of and enforcement against digital platforms, including an investigation of Facebook and a “comprehensive audit” of the social media advertising market. Invoking existing “legislative tools” such as privacy laws, data protection legislation, and antitrust and competition law, the report cautioned: “The big tech companies must not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint or proper regulatory oversight.”

Operating under an international patchwork of competition approaches can present a challenge to global enterprises. Technology-focused, data-intensive businesses should consider seeking antitrust counsel to monitor developing competition trends and implications across jurisdictions.

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[1] Verizon Communic’ns, Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis V. Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398, 407-08 (2004).

[2] The preliminary report finds that Google has market power in online search, online search advertising and news media referral services, and that Facebook has market power in social media services, display advertising and news media referral services.

A Boiling Frog? Merger Enforcement of Early-Stage Tech Companies

Fable has it that a frog placed in tepid water slowly brought to a boil will not perceive danger until it is too late to leap. According to some critics, U.S. high tech merger review has a similar problem insofar as it fails to adequately consider and challenge acquisitions of startups that, on their face, appear to constitute incremental changes to competitive dynamics but that over time may suppress competition. Indeed, a U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) official confirmed last week that the agency faces “withering criticism of antitrust” and its enforcement with respect to competitor acquisitions of startup companies.

The comments were made during a conference in San Francisco by Michael Moiseyev, Assistant Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition and a leading enforcer with responsibility for merger and acquisition review. Without identifying particular transactions, he acknowledged that players in the venture capital (VC) space have characterized the U.S. antitrust agencies as “snookered” in permitting certain early-stage companies to be acquired.

Making the case that an existing competitor’s acquisition of a nascent, potential rival poses “a substantial lessening of competition” (Clayton Act, § 7) is a high hurdle for the U.S. agencies to clear. Mr. Moiseyev assessed the state of current case law as both “terrible” and “unforgiving.” The agency’s most recent challenge invoking a potential competition theory resulted in a district court concluding that the FTC had failed to provide evidence the target would have launched a new, competing technology. FTC v. Steris Corp., No. 1:2015cv01080 (N.D. Ohio 2015). In that matter, the FTC had sued and invoked the theory that the target, if it were not acquired, was poised to create “actual potential competition” for the U.S. market leader by importing technology currently offered by just one European facility. The merging parties undermined that theory by demonstrating a dearth of customer commitment to using the would-be-imported technology.

Yet criticism of a perceived lack of U.S. agency challenges in the tech sector continues to mount.

Under this pressure, will the U.S. agencies take a fresh lens to acquisitions of new and innovative competitors? The key analytical question is how to evaluate whether those companies would evolve to constrain actual, current competition. This fall, the FTC’s ongoing policy hearings devoted a day to acquisitions of potential competitors in tech markets. Nearly all participants endorsed studies of the effects of past transactions via merger retrospectives. Several panelists advised that the agencies scrutinize more closely transactions involving dominant platforms and whether the underlying deal removes a nascent competitive threat. Other participants in the hearings emphasized that the competitive analysis should focus on harms to innovation but that an information imbalance at times constrains the agencies’ ability to assess emerging industry developments.

We do not know whether a boiling frog is in our midst. Nevertheless, if you are advising VCs or a company that is considering an acquisition involving an innovative, new or potential competitor, reach out to antitrust counsel to consult on these issues.

FTC Kicks Off Hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century

Antitrust policy, once relegated to wonk status, has taken center stage in recent years: it seems as if each day there is a new debate over the need – or lack thereof – for more robust competition enforcement in today’s economy. In the past few weeks alone, competition law and big tech have been in the spotlight in both a call to reopen a Federal Trade Commission (“FTC” or “Commission”) investigation into Google and a forthcoming meeting among Attorney General Jeff Sessions, state Attorneys General investigating social media companies and a representative from the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (“DOJ”).

The FTC jumped into the fray on September 13, 2018 when it kicked off its hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century, which had been announced earlier this year. The purpose of the hearings is to utilize the agency’s Section 6 authority “to consider whether broad-based changes in the economy, evolving business practices, new technologies, or international developments might require adjustments to competition and consumer protection law, enforcement priorities, and policy.” Among the announced topics are issues that have dominated the news lately, including: competition in technology markets, particularly those featuring two-sided “platform” businesses (ones that cannot make a sale to one side of the market without simultaneously making a sale to the other); the intersection of privacy, data and competition; evaluating the competitive effects of vertical mergers (those that join firms at different levels of the supply chain, e.g., the AT&T-Time Warner deal challenged unsuccessfully by DOJ); and the consumer welfare standard, which has served as the economic principle guiding antitrust enforcement since the 1980s. The FTC has accepted more than 500 public comments on 20 announced topics and continues to invite public comment in advance of specific hearing sessions.

Commission Chairman Joe Simons set the stage for the opening session by highlighting the combination of increased economic concentration and decreased antitrust enforcement that has generated calls to reassess the very nature of antitrust policy, noting that he is approaching the discussions “with a very open mind.”

The panel discussions that followed the opening session focused on the current landscape of competition and consumer protection law and policy, concentration and competitiveness in the U.S. economy, and the regulation of consumer data. Key takeaways so far include:

  • The Commission is eager to set competition enforcement priorities. Tech companies appear to be in the crosshairs.
  • Although there is growing concern about increased concentration in the economy, there is no consensus that big equates to bad. While some panelists cited data linking concentration to income inequality and reduced innovation, others cautioned that protecting less efficient businesses in the name of competition is misguided.
  • Effective privacy and data breach enforcement likely require new, modern tools both for detection and regulation. The FTC’s consumer protection mission likely will need to account for changes in federal legislation and/or voluntary rules established by the tech industry.

Videos of past hearing sessions are available online, along with public comments and additional information.

The FTC’s end goal is to produce one or more policy papers, patterned after the fruits of the 1995 hearings hosted by then-FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky. Those hearings, which focused on global competition and innovation, led to two staff reports on competition and consumer protection policy “in the new high-tech, global marketplace” and helped pave the way for U.S. agency actions blocking mergers primarily based on harms to innovation. The Commission once again is revisiting its approach.

In the interim, stay tuned for additional updates as the hearings continue.