Why the Federal Government’s Antitrust Case Against Google Should—and Likely Will—Fail

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Why the Federal Government's Antitrust Case Against Google Should—and Likely Will—Fail 2

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the antitrust lawsuits against Google. The entire series of posts is available here.]

On October 20, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and eleven states with Republican attorneys general sued Google for monopolizing and attempting to monopolize the markets for general internet search services, search advertising, and “general search text” advertising (i.e., ads that resemble search results).  Last week, California joined the lawsuit, making it a bipartisan affair.

DOJ and the states (collectively, “the government”) allege that Google has used contractual arrangements to expand and cement its dominance in the relevant markets.  In particular, the government complains that Google has agreed to share search ad revenues in exchange for making Google Search the default search engine on various “search access points.” 

Google has entered such agreements with Apple (for search on iPhones and iPads), manufacturers of Android devices and the mobile service carriers that support them, and producers of web browsers.  Google is also pursuing default status on new internet-enabled consumer products, such as voice assistants and “smart” TVs, appliances, and wearables.  In the government’s telling, this all amounts to Google’s sharing of monopoly profits with firms that can ensure its continued monopoly by imposing search defaults that users are unlikely to alter.

There are several obvious weaknesses with the government’s case.  One is that preset internet defaults are super easy to change and, in other contexts, are regularly altered.  For example, while 88% of desktop and laptop computers use the Windows operating system, which defaults to a Microsoft browser (Internet Explorer or Edge), Google’s Chrome browser commands a 69% market share on desktops and laptops, compared to around 13% for Internet Explorer and Edge combined.  Changing a default search engine is as easy as changing a browser default—three simple steps on an iPhone!—and it seems consumers will change defaults they don’t actually prefer.

A second obvious weakness, related to the first, is that the government has alleged no facts suggesting that Google’s search rivals—primarily Bing, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo—would have enjoyed more success but for Google’s purportedly exclusionary agreements.  Even absent default status, people likely would have selected Google Search because it’s the better search engine.  It doesn’t seem the challenged arrangements caused Google’s search dominance.

Admittedly, the standard of causation in monopolization cases (at least those seeking only injunctive relief) is low.  The D.C. Circuit’s Microsoft decision described it as “edentulous” or, less pretentiously, toothless.  Nevertheless, the government is unlikely to prevail in its action against Google—and that’s a good thing.  Below, I highlight the central deficiency in the government’s Google case and point out problems with the government’s challenges to each of Google’s purportedly exclusionary arrangements.   

The Lawsuit’s Overarching Deficiency

We’ve all had the experience of typing a query only to have Google, within a few key strokes, accurately predict what we were going to ask and provide us with exactly the answer we were looking for.  It’s both eerie and awesome, and it keeps us returning to Google time and again.

But it’s not magic.  Nor has Google hacked our brains.  Google is so good at predicting our questions and providing responsive search results because its top-notch algorithms process gazillions of searches and can “learn” from users’ engagement.  Scale is thus essential to Google’s quality. 

The government’s complaint concedes as much.  It acknowledges that “[g]reater scale improves the quality of a general search engine’s algorithms” (¶35) and that “[t]he additional data from scale allows improved automated learning for algorithms to deliver more relevant results, particularly on ‘fresh’ queries (queries seeking recent information), location-based queries (queries asking about something in the searcher’s vicinity), and ‘long-tail’ queries (queries used infrequently)” (¶36). The complaint also asserts that “[t]he most effective way to achieve scale is for the general search engine to be the preset default on mobile devices, computers, and other devices…” (¶38).

Oddly, though, the government chides Google for pursuing “[t]he most effective way” of securing the scale that concededly “improves the quality of a general search engine’s algorithms.”  Google’s efforts to ensure and enhance its own product quality are improper, the government says, because “they deny rivals scale to compete effectively” (¶8).  In the government’s view, Google is legally obligated to forego opportunities to make its own product better so as to give its rivals a chance to improve their own offerings.

This is inconsistent with U.S. antitrust law.  Just as firms are not required to hold their prices high to create a price umbrella for their less efficient rivals, they need not refrain from efforts to improve the quality of their own offerings so as to give their rivals a foothold. 

Antitrust does forbid anticompetitive foreclosure of rivals—i.e., business-usurping arrangements that are not the result of efforts to compete on the merits by reducing cost or enhancing quality.  But firms are, and should be, free to make their products better, even if doing so makes things more difficult for their rivals.  Antitrust, after all, protects competition, not competitors.    

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The central deficiency in the government’s case is that it concedes that scale is crucial to search engine quality, but it does not assert that there is a “minimum efficient scale”—i.e., a point at which scale economies are exhausted.  If a firm takes actions to enhance its own scale beyond minimum efficient scale, and if its efforts may hold its rivals below such scale, then it may have engaged in anticompetitive foreclosure.  But a firm that pursues scale that makes its products better is simply competing on the merits.

The government likely did not allege that there is a minimum efficient scale in general internet search services because returns to scale go on indefinitely, or at least for a very long time.  But the absence of such an allegation damns the government’s case against Google, for it implies that Google’s efforts to secure the distribution, and thus the greater use, of its services make those services better.

In this regard, the Microsoft case, which the government points to as a model for its action against Google (¶10), is inapposite.  Inthat case, the government alleged that Microsoft had entered license agreements that foreclosed Netscape, a potential rival, from the best avenues of browser distribution: original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and internet access providers.  The government here similarly alleges that Google has foreclosed rival search engines from the best avenues of search distribution: default settings on mobile devices and web browsers.  But a key difference (in addition to the fact that search defaults are quite easy to change) is that Microsoft’s license restrictions foreclosed Netscape without enhancing the quality of Microsoft’s offerings.  Indeed, the court emphasized that the challenged Microsoft agreements were anticompetitive because they “reduced rival browsers’ usage share not by improving [Microsoft’s] own product but, rather, by preventing OEMs from taking actions that could increase rivals’ share of usage” (emphasis added).  Here, any foreclosure of Google’s search rivals is incidental to Google’s efforts to improve its product by enhancing its scale.

Now, the government might contend that the anticompetitive harms from raising rivals’ distribution costs exceed the procompetitive benefits of enhancing the quality of Google’s search services.  Courts, though, have generally been skeptical of claims that exclusion-causing product enhancements are anticompetitive because they do more harm than good.  There’s a sound reason for this: courts are ill-equipped to weigh the benefits of product enhancements against the costs of competition reductions resulting from product-enhancement efforts.  For that reason, they should—and likely will—stick with the rule that this sort of product-enhancing conduct is competition on the merits, even if it has the incidental effect of raising rivals’ costs.  And if they do so, the government will lose this case.     

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The government alleges that Google has foreclosed its search rivals from distribution opportunities on the Android platform.  It has done so, the government says, by entering into exclusion-causing agreements with OEMs that produce Android products (Samsung, Motorola, etc.) and with carriers that provide wireless service for Android devices (AT&T, Verizon, etc.).

Problems with the Government’s Specific Challenges

Agreements with Android OEMs and Wireless Carriers

Android is an open source operating system that is owned by Google and licensed, for free, to producers of mobile internet devices.  Under the terms of the challenged agreements, Google’s counterparties promise not to produce Android “forks”—operating systems that are Android-based but significantly alter or “fragment” the basic platform—in order to get access to proprietary Google apps that Android users typically desire and to certain application protocol interfaces (APIs) that enable various functionalities.  In addition to these “anti-forking agreements,” counterparties enter various “pre-installation agreements” obligating them to install a suite of Google apps that use Google Search as a default.  Installing that suite is a condition for obtaining the right to pre-install Google’s app store (Google Play) and other must-have apps.  Finally, OEMs and carriers enter “revenue sharing agreements” that require the use of Google Search as the sole preset default on a number of search access points in exchange for a percentage of search ad revenue derived from covered devices.  Taken together, the government says, these anti-forking, pre-installation, and revenue-sharing agreements preclude the emergence of Android rivals (from forks) and ensure the continued dominance of Google Search on Android devices.

Eliminating these agreements, though, would likely harm consumers by reducing competition in the market for mobile operating systems.  Within that market, there are two dominant players: Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.  Apple earns money off iOS by selling hardware—iPhones and iPads that are pre-installed with iOS.  Google licenses Android to OEMs for free but then earns advertising revenue off users’ searches (which provide an avenue for search ads) and other activities (which generate user data for better targeted display ads).  Apple and Google thus compete on revenue models.  As Randy Picker has explained, Microsoft tried a third revenue model—licensing a Windows mobile operating system to OEMs for a fee—but it failed.  The continued competition between Apple and Google, though, allows for satisfaction of heterogenous consumer preferences: Apple products are more expensive but more secure (due to Apple’s tight control over software and hardware); Android devices are cheaper (as the operating system is ad-supported) and offer more innovations (as OEMs have more flexibility), but tend to be less secure.  Such variety—a result of business model competition—is good for consumers. 

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If the government were to prevail and force Google to end the agreements described above, thereby reducing the advertising revenue Google derives from Android, Google would have to either copy Apple’s vertically integrated model so as to recoup its Android investments through hardware sales, charge OEMs for Android (a la Microsoft), or cut back on its investments in Android.  In each case, consumers would suffer.  The first option would take away an offering preferred by many consumers—indeed most globally, as Android dominates iOS on a worldwide basis.  The second option would replace Google’s business model with one that failed, suggesting that consumers value it less.  The third option would reduce product quality in the market for mobile operating systems. 

In the end, then, the government’s challenge to Google’s Android agreements is myopic and misguided.  Competition among business models, like competition along any dimension, inures to the benefit of consumers.  Precluding it as the government is demanding would be silly.       

Agreements with Browser Producers

Web browsers like Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox are a primary distribution channel for search engines.  The government claims that Google has illicitly foreclosed rival search engines from this avenue of distribution by entering revenue-sharing agreements with the major non-Microsoft browsers (i.e., all but Microsoft’s Edge and Internet Explorer).  Under those agreements, Google shares up to 40% of ad revenues generated from a browser in exchange for being the preset default on both computer and mobile versions of the browser.

Surely there is no problem, though, with search engines paying royalties to web browsers.  That’s how independent browsers like Opera and Firefox make money!  Indeed, 95% of Firefox’s revenue comes from search royalties.  If browsers were precluded from sharing in search engines’ ad revenues, they would have to find an alternative source of financing.  Producers of independent browsers would likely charge license fees, which consumers would probably avoid.  That means the only available browsers would be those affiliated with an operating system (Microsoft’s Edge, Apple’s Safari) or a search engine (Google’s Chrome).  It seems doubtful that reducing the number of viable browsers would benefit consumers.  The law should therefore allow payment of search royalties to browsers.  And if such payments are permitted, a browser will naturally set its default search engine so as to maximize its payout.  

Google’s search rivals can easily compete for default status on a browser by offering a better deal to the browser producer.  In 2014, for example, search engine Yahoo managed to wrest default status on Mozilla’s Firefox away from Google.  The arrangement was to last five years, but in 2017, Mozilla terminated the agreement and returned Google to default status because so many Firefox users were changing the browser’s default search engine from Yahoo to Google.  This historical example undermines the government’s challenges to Google’s browser agreements by showing (1) that other search engines can attain default status by competing, and (2) that defaults aren’t as “sticky” as the government claims—at least, not when the default is set to a search engine other than the one most people prefer.

In short, there’s nothing anticompetitive about Google’s browser agreements, and enjoining such deals would likely injure consumers by reducing competition among browsers.

Agreements with Apple

That brings us to the allegations that have gotten the most attention in the popular press: those concerning Google’s arrangements with Apple.  The complaint alleges that Google pays Apple $8-12 billion a year—a whopping 15-20% of Apple’s net income—for granting Google default search status on iOS devices.  In the government’s telling, Google is agreeing to share a significant portion of its monopoly profits with Apple in exchange for Apple’s assistance in maintaining Google’s search monopoly.

An alternative view, of course, is that Google is just responding to Apple’s power: Apple has assembled a giant installed base of loyal customers and can demand huge payments to favor one search engine over another on its popular mobile devices.  In that telling, Google may be paying Apple to prevent it from making Bing or another search engine the default on Apple’s search access points.

If that’s the case, what Google is doing is both procompetitive and a boon to consumers.  Microsoft could easily outbid Google to have Bing set as the default search engine on Apple’s devices. Microsoft’s market capitalization exceeds that of Google parent Alphabet by about $420 billion ($1.62 trillion versus $1.2 trillion), which is roughly the value of Walmart.  Despite its ability to outbid Google for default status, Microsoft hasn’t done so, perhaps because it realizes that defaults aren’t that sticky when the default service isn’t the one most people prefer.  Microsoft knows that from its experience with Internet Explorer and Edge (which collectively command only around 13% of the desktop browser market even though they’re the defaults on Windows, which has a 88% market share on desktops and laptops), and from its experience with Bing (where “Google” is the number one search term).  Nevertheless, the possibility remains that Microsoft could outbid Google for default status, improve its quality to prevent users from changing the default (or perhaps pay users for sticking with Bing), and thereby take valuable scale from Google, impairing the quality of Google Search.  To prevent that from happening, Google shares with Apple a generous portion of its search ad revenues, which, given the intense competition for mobile device sales, Apple likely passes along to consumers in the form of lower phone and tablet prices.

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If the government succeeds in enjoining Google’s payments to Apple for default status, other search engines will presumably be precluded from such arrangements as well.  After all, the “foreclosure” effect of paying for default search status on Apple products is the same regardless of which search engine does the paying, and U.S. antitrust law does not “punish” successful firms by forbidding them from engaging in competitive activities that are open to their rivals. 

Ironically, then, the government’s success in its challenge to Google’s Apple payments would benefit Google at the expense of consumers:  Google would almost certainly remain the default search engine on Apple products, as it is most preferred by consumers and no rival could pay to dislodge it; Google would not have to pay a penny to retain its default status; and Apple would lose revenues that it likely passes along to consumers in the form of lower prices.  The courts are unlikely to countenance this perverse result by ruling that Google’s arrangements with Apple violate the antitrust laws.

Arrangements with Producers of Internet-Enabled “Smart” Devices

The final part of the government’s case against Google starkly highlights a problem that is endemic to the entire lawsuit.  The government claims that Google, having locked up all the traditional avenues of search distribution with the arrangements described above, is now seeking to foreclose search distribution in the new avenues being created by internet-enabled consumer products like wearables (e.g., smart watches), voice assistants, smart TVs, etc.  The alleged monopolistic strategy is similar to those described above: Google will share some of its monopoly profits in exchange for search default status on these smart devices, thereby preventing rival search engines from attaining valuable scale.

It’s easy to see in this context, though, why Google’s arrangements are likely procompetitive.  Unlike web browsers, mobile phones, and tablets, internet-enabled smart devices are novel.  Innovators are just now discovering new ways to embed internet functionality into everyday devices. 

Putting oneself in the position of these innovators helps illuminate a key beneficial aspect of Google’s arrangements:  They create an incentive to develop new and attractive means of distributing search.  Innovators currently at work on internet-enabled devices are no doubt spurred on by the possibility of landing a lucrative distribution agreement with Google or another search engine.  Banning these sorts of arrangements—the consequence of governmental success in this lawsuit—would diminish the incentive to innovate.

But that can be said of every single one of the arrangements the government is challenging. Because of Google’s revenue-sharing with search distributors, each of them has an added incentive to make their distribution channels desirable to consumers.  Android OEMs and Apple will work harder to produce mobile devices that people will want to use for internet searches; browser producers will endeavor to improve their offerings.  By paying producers of search access points a portion of the search ad revenues generated on their platforms, Google motivates them to generate more searches, which they can best do by making their products as attractive as possible. 

At the end of the day, then, the government’s action against Google seeks to condemn conduct that benefits consumers.  Because of the challenged arrangements, Google makes its own search services better, is able to license Android for free, ensures the continued existence of independent web browsers like Firefox and Opera, helps lower the price of iPhones and iPads, and spurs innovators to develop new “Internet of Things” devices that can harness the power of the web. 

The Biden administration would do well to recognize this lawsuit for what it is: a poorly conceived effort to appear to be “doing something” about a Big Tech company that has drawn the ire (for different reasons) of both progressives and conservatives.  DOJ and its state co-plaintiffs should seek dismissal of this action.  

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