The Fox and Shepherd Problem

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The Fox and Shepherd Problem 2

[TOTM: The following is part of a symposium by TOTM guests and authors marking the release of Nicolas Petit’s “Big Tech and the Digital Economy: The Moligopoly Scenario.” The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Shane Greenstein (Professor of Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School).]

In his book, Nicolas Petit approaches antitrust issues by analyzing their economic foundations, and he aspires to bridge gaps between those foundations and the common points of view.  In light of the divisiveness of today’s debates, I appreciate Petit’s calm and deliberate view of antitrust, and I respect his clear and engaging prose.

I spent a lot of time with this topic when writing a book (How the Internet Became Commercial, 2015, Princeton Press). If I have something unique to add to a review of Petit’s book, it comes from the role Microsoft played in the events in my book.

Many commentators have speculated on what precise charges could be brought against Facebook, Google/Alphabet, Apple, and Amazon. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call these the “big four.” While I have no special insight to bring to such speculation, for this post I can do something different, and look forward by looking back. For the time being, Microsoft has been spared scrutiny by contemporary political actors. (It seems safe to presume Microsoft’s managers prefer to be left out.) While it is tempting to focus on why this has happened, let’s focus on a related issue: What shadow did Microsoft’s trials cast on the antitrust issues facing the big four?

Two types of lessons emerged from Microsoft’s trials, and both tend to be less appreciated by economists. One set of lessons emerged from the media flood of the flotsam and jetsam of sensationalistic factoids and sound bites, drawn from Congressional and courtroom testimony. That yielded lessons about managing sound and fury – i.e., mostly about reducing the cringe-worthy quotes from CEOs and trial witnesses.

Another set of lessons pertained to the role and limits of economic reasoning. Many decision makers reasoned by analogy and metaphor. That is especially so for lawyers and executives. These metaphors do not make economic reasoning wrong, but they do tend to shape how an antitrust question takes center stage with a judge, as well as in the court of public opinion. These metaphors also influence the stories a CEO tells to employees.

If you asked me to forecast how things will go for the big four, based on what I learned from studying Microsoft’s trials, I forecast that the outcome depends on which metaphor and analogy gets the upper hand.

In that sense, I want to argue that Microsoft’s experience depended on “the fox and shepherd problem.” When is a platform leader better thought of as a shepherd, helping partners achieve a healthy outcome, or as a fox in charge of a henhouse, ready to sacrifice a partner for self-serving purposes? I forecast the same metaphors will shape experience of the big four.

Gaps and analysis

The fox-shepherd problem never shows up when a platform leader is young and its platform is small. As the platform reaches bigger scale, however, the problem becomes more salient. Conflicts of interests emerge and focus attention on platform leadership.

Petit frames these issues within a Schumpeterian vision. In this view, firms compete for dominant positions over time, potentially with one dominant firm replacing another. Potential competition has a salutary effect if established firms perceive a threat from the future shadow of such competitors, motivating innovation. In this view, antitrust’s role might be characterized as “keeping markets open so there is pressure on the dominant firm from potential competition.”

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In the Microsoft trial economists framed the Schumpeterian tradeoff in the vocabulary of economics.  Firms who supply complements at one point could become suppliers of substitutes at a later point if they are allowed to. In other words, platform leaders today support complements that enhance the value of the platform, while also having the motive and ability to discourage those same business partners from developing services that substitute for the platform’s services, which could reduce the platform’s value. Seen through this lens, platform leaders inherently face a conflict of interest, and antitrust law should intervene if platform leaders could place excessive limitations on existing business partners.    

This economic framing is not wrong. Rather, it is necessary, but not sufficient. If I take a sober view of events in the Microsoft trial, I am not convinced the economics alone persuaded the judge in Microsoft’s case, or, for that matter, the public.

As judges sort through the endless detail of contracting provisions, they need a broad perspective, one that sharpens their focus on a key question. One central question in particular inhabits a lot of a judge’s mindshare: how did the platform leader use its discretion, and for what purposes? In case it is not obvious, shepherds deserve a lot of discretion, while only a fool gives a fox much license.

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Before the trial, when it initially faced this question from reporters and Congress, Microsoft tried to dismiss the discussion altogether. Their representatives argued that high technology differs from every other market in its speed and productivity, and, therefore, ought to be thought of as incomparable to other antitrust examples. This reflected the high tech elite’s view of their own exceptionalism.

Reporters dutifully restated this argument, and, long story short, it did not get far with the public once the sensationalism started making headlines, and it especially did not get far with the trial judge. To be fair, if you watched recent congressional testimony, it appears as if the lawyers for the big four instructed their CEOs not to try it this approach this time around.

Origins

Well before lawyers and advocates exaggerate claims, the perspective of both sides usually have some merit, and usually the twain do not meet. Most executives tend to remember every detail behind growth, and know the risks confronted and overcome, and usually are reluctant to give up something that works for their interests, and sometimes these interests can be narrowly defined. In contrast, many partners will know examples of a rule that hindered them, and point to complaints that executives ignored, and aspire to have rules changed, and, again, their interests tend to be narrow.

Consider the quality-control process today for iPhone apps as an example. The merits and absurdity of some of Apples conduct get a lot of attention in online forums, especially the 30% take for Apple. Apple can reasonably claim the present set of rules work well overall, and only emerged after considerable experimentation, and today they seek to protect all who benefit from the entire system, like a shepherd.  It is no surprise however, that some partners accuse Apple of tweaking rules to their own benefit, and using the process to further Apple’s ambitions at the expense of the partner’s, like a fox in a henhouse. So it goes.

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More generally, based on publically available information, all of the big four already face this debate. Self-serving behavior shows up in different guise in different parts of the big four’s business, but it is always there. As noted, Apple’s apps compete with the apps of others, so it has incentives to shape distribution of other apps. Amazon’s products compete with some products coming from its third—party sellers, and it too faces mixed incentives. Google’s services compete with online services who also advertise on their search engine, and they too face issues over their charges for listing on the Play store. Facebook faces an additional issues, because it has bought firms that were trying to grow their own platforms to compete with Facebook.

Look, those four each contain rather different businesses in their details, which merits some caution in making a sweeping characterization. My only point: the question about self-serving behavior arises in each instance. That frames a fox-shepherd problem for prosecutors in each case.   

Lessons from prior experience

Circling back to lessons of the past for antitrust today, the Shepherd-Fox problem was one of the deeper sources of miscommunication leading up to the Microsoft trial. In the late 1990s Microsoft could reasonably claim to be a shepherd for all its platform’s partners, and it could reasonably claim to have improved the platform in ways that benefited partners. Moreover, for years some of the industry gossip about their behavior stressed misinformed nonsense. Accordingly, Microsoft’s executives had learned to trust their own judgment and to mistrust the complaints of outsiders. Right in line with that mistrust, many employees and executives took umbrage to being characterized as a fox in a henhouse, dismissing the accusations out of hand.

Those habits-of-mind poorly positioned the firm for a court case. As any observer of the trial knowns, When prosecutors came looking, they found lots of examples that looked like fox-like behavior. Onerous contract restrictions and cumbersome processes for business partners produced plenty of bad optics in court, and fueled the prosecution’s case that the platform had become too self-serving at the expense of competitive processes. Prosecutors had plenty to work with when it came time to prove motive, intent, and ability to misuse discretion. 

What is the lesson for the big four? Ask an executive in technology today, and sometimes you will hear the following: As long as a platform’s actions can be construed as friendly to customers, the platform leader will be off the hook. That is not wrong lessons, but it is an incomplete one. Looking with hindsight and foresight, that perspective seems too sanguine about the prospects for the big four. Microsoft had done plenty for its customers, but so what? There was plenty of evidence of acting like a fox in a hen-house. The bigger lesson is this: all it took were a few bad examples to paint a picture of a pattern, and every firm has such examples.  

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Do not get me wrong. I am not saying a fox and hen-house analogy is fair or unfair to platform leaders. Rather, I am saying that economists like to think the economic trade-off between the interests of platform leaders, platform partners, and platform customers emerge from some grand policy compromise. That is not how prosecutors think, nor how judges decide. In the Microsoft case there was no such grand consideration. The economic framing of the case only went so far. As it was, the decision was vulnerable to metaphor, shrewdly applied and convincingly argued. Done persuasively, with enough examples of selfish behavior, excuses about “helping customers” came across as empty.

Policy

Some advocates argue, somewhat philosophically, that platforms deserve discretion, and governments are bound to err once they intervene. I have sympathy with that point of view, but only up to a point. Below are two examples from outside antitrust where government routinely do not give the big four a blank check.

First, when it started selling ads, Google banned ads for cigarettes, porn and alcohol, and it downgraded in its quality score for websites that used deceptive means to attract users. That helped the service foster trust with new users, enabling it to grow. After it became bigger should Google have continued to have unqualified discretion to shepherd the entire ad system? Nobody thinks so. A while ago the Federal Trade Commission decided to investigate deceptive online advertising, just as it investigates deceptive advertising in other media. It is not a big philosophical step to next ask whether Google should have unfettered discretion to structure the ad business, search process, and related e-commerce to its own benefit.

Here is another example, this one about Facebook. Over the years Facebook cycled through a number of rules for sharing information with business partners, generally taking a “relaxed” attitude enforcing those policies. Few observers cared when Facebook was small, but many governments started to care after Facebook grew to billions of users. Facebook’s lax monitoring did not line up with the preferences of many governments. It should not come as a surprise now that many governments want to regulate Facebook’s handling of data. Like it or not, this question lies squarely within the domain of government privacy policy. Again, the next step is small. Why should other parts of its business remain solely in Facebook’s discretion, like its ability to buy other businesses?

This gets us to the other legacy of the Microsoft case: As we think about future policy dilemmas, are there a general set of criteria for the antitrust issues facing all four firms? Veterans of court cases will point out that every court case is its own circus. Just because Microsoft failed to be persuasive in its day does not imply any of the big four will be unpersuasive.

Looking back on the Microsoft trial, it did not articulate a general set of principles about acceptable or excusable self-serving behavior from a platform leader. It did not settle what criteria best determine when a court should consider a platform leader’s behavior closer to that of a shepherd or a fox. The appropriate general criteria remains unclear.

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