Category Archives: Law

Relevant Markets, A Dozen Keystrokes, and the Google Play Store Antitrust Lawsuit

Yesterday, after markets closed, 36 state attorneys general announced another antitrust lawsuit against Google. This complaint centers around Google’s Play Store, in which it often charges developers a 30 percent commission. The text of the complaint is now available, and it has some problems. One of them involves yet another poorly defined relevant market, which excludes Apple’s iOS. Another problem is that it is easy for developers and consumers to avoid the Play Store and its commissions.

Regulators often say that a company dominates an unrealistically narrow market segment, then say this is proof of monopoly. This is the relevant market fallacy. For example, Sirius-XM has a monopoly on the satellite radio market. But this doesn’t matter because that narrow market competes in a far larger marketplace against traditional radio, podcasts, audio books, streaming services like Spotify, and more. Regulators allowed Sirius and XM to merge back in 2008.

More recently, two antitrust lawsuits against Facebook were dismissed in part because prosecutors intentionally excluded direct Facebook competitors such as Twitter and TikTok from their relevant market definition.

The relevant market fallacy also appears in the new Google Play Store case. Starting on page 19, the complaint argues that Google Android has a monopoly in the market for “Licensable Mobile Operating System[s].” A rule of thumb is that if a case refers to its relevant market using a boutique term that is not in common use, there is often some trickery involved.

On page 20, this turns out to be exactly what is happening. The complaint’s definition of “Licensable Mobile Operating System” specifically excludes Google’s main competitor, Apple’s iOS.

This is like arguing that a company has a monopoly, if only you ignore the competition.

The complaint is also vulnerable to the dozen keystrokes argument—alternatives are often just a dozen or so keystrokes away. On page 22, the complaint notes that consumers use the Google Play Store for “well over 90%” of Android app downloads. For the sake of argument, assume this is correct. If developers and consumers want to avoid the Google Play Store, they can:

  • Download an app directly from a developer’s website;
  • Use Amazon’s app store;
  • Use Samsung’s app store (preinstalled on Samsung phones); or
  • Buy video games from a different distributor, such as Steam.

Developers who want to avoid the Google Play Store should steer consumers to those options. If they take Google’s 30 percent commission and instead spend it on advertising, press outreach, and awareness campaigns—or build their own app store with lower commissions—they might end up with some combination of cost savings, lower prices, and boosted sales.

Even as things stand now, consumers do not have to go to much trouble to find alternatives or build new habits. If they take a chance, they just might succeed.

This happened before with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which went from an 85 percent market share to a 1 percent market share despite it being the default Windows option the whole time. Just as Firefox, Google Chrome, and other browsers take just a few keystrokes to find and install, app store alternatives are readily available. Prosecutors arguing that this cannot happen again are on weak ground.

Google’s Play Store does have some conveniences, for both developers and consumers. There is a centralized payment system and near-automatic installation for consumers. A ratings system helps consumers quickly figure out their best options, while boosting sales for developers who make quality apps. Having thousands of apps in one, searchable place also makes it easier for consumers to find what they want, and for developers to be found.

Maybe this is worth the 30 percent commissions, and maybe it isn’t. The answer is different for each developer and each consumer. But the ease of alternatives and the breadth of the relevant market make it difficult to prove consumer harm.

My colleagues and I will have more to say about this case later. For now, the complaint does not appear to be well argued, falling for both the relevant market fallacy and the dozen keystrokes argument.

Facebook’s Content Moderation Decisions Preferable to One-Size-Fits-All Government Regulation

This news release was originally posted on cei.org.

Facebook announced today it suspended former President Donald Trump from the platform for two years retroactive to January 7, 2021. Responding to a ruling against the former president’s indefinite suspension from its own Oversight Board, the social network also laid out policies for how it would treat content moderation of posts by public officials.

Director of CEI’s Center for Technology and Innovation Jessica Melugin said:

“People who value freedom of speech should be encouraged a private entity like Facebook is attempting to deal with thorny issues about what is and is not permissible speech on their own, without heavy-handed and rigid government regulation. Facebook is under pressure from both sides of the ideological spectrum to enact very different policies toward content moderation and are faced with novel challenges presented by the billions of user-generated post shared on their platform daily. No decision will make everyone happy.

“While it is curious Facebook chose to respond to the Oversight Board’s decision five months early, dealing with these issues without government coercion will allow Facebook to institute policies in line with its own values while not imposing their own content moderation standards on other platforms, as would happen with a one-size-fits-all federal regulatory approach.

“The former president might be suspended from Facebook for two years, but that is not the same as being ‘censored’ or ‘silenced.’ He is still free to make public statements, appear on television and radio, hold rallies, or join other social networks. The government compelling Facebook to carry speech with which it disagrees would be the real threat to free speech.

“Facebook has every right to curate their product as they choose, just as consumers have every right to use a different social media platform with content moderation and community standards more in line with their own.”

CEI senior fellow Ryan Young said:

“What is the right way to deal with malicious, incendiary, or fake content? Nobody knows—and that’s the point. Facebook doesn’t know. President Trump doesn’t know. Nor do Republicans and Democrats in Congress. We are in the middle of a discovery process right now. Maybe Facebook made the right call to ban President Trump from its platforms for two years after his remarks about the January 6 Capitol riots. Maybe they didn’t. Not only does nobody have the correct answer, there likely isn’t a single correct answer.

“What we need is an ongoing process of trial and error, where individuals and companies discover which norms, institutions, and policies will help to slow the spread of misinformation on social media while giving people space to express themselves. Washington is not the place to look to for leadership here. People are already coming up with multiple competing approaches to content moderation. As people try them out, tinker with them, discard them, or improve them, the results will be far better than whatever uniform, politically motivated policy Congress would write down in stone.”

Next week, CEI is holding a book forum for Jonathan Rauch’s “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.” Join us on Wednesday, June 9 at 12:00pm ET. RSVP here.

In the News: DC’s Amazon Antitrust Case

Canada’s Les Affaires quotes me, in French, on the DC attorney general’s Amazon antitrust case that he filed yesterday Note that I am not sophisticated enough to speak French, and can barely read it well enough to get the gist of it. This is translated from an earlier statement:

Cela nuirait aussi aux PME, qui sont déjà suffisamment en difficulté en ce moment», a abondé Ryan Young, un analyste du centre de réflexion Competitive Enterprise Institute. 

Il estime en outre qu’Amazon fait déjà face à de la compétition de la part de Walmart, qui a sa propre plateforme de e-commerce ouverte aux tiers, ainsi que d’autres sites comme Ebay, Etsy ou Shopify.

Microsoft to Retire Internet Explorer: Lessons for Today’s Antitrust Cases

Microsoft just announced it will retire its Internet Explorer browser next year. This is the same program that was at the heart of an antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft in the late 1990s. There are two lessons here for today’s calls for expanding antitrust enforcement. One is that making something the default option does not guarantee that people will use it. The second is that the difference between a 90 percent market share and a laughing stock can be as small as a few years.

Internet Explorer was bundled into Microsoft’s Windows operating system, and Microsoft would not allow computer manufacturers to unbundle it. It was also set as Windows’ default browser in every new machine. It had a 90 percent market share in 2001, when the case was still active. The antitrust case argued that Microsoft’s inclusion of Internet Explorer with Windows was illegal tying—requiring consumers to buy two products together, even if they only want one of them.

The case more or less ended in a draw. The initial decision to break the company up was overturned on appeal. In the final settlement, Microsoft made some minor concessions to the government and paid about $3 billion to competitors who had sued it in separate private antitrust lawsuits.

Just a few years later, Internet Explorer’s 90 percent market share cratered. It turns out that making something the default option is not enough to make people actually use it. A succession of superior browsers, including Mozilla’s Firefox and Google Chrome, have taken turns as the leading browsers. Chrome is the current market leader with about a 65 percent market share.

As a response to the competition, Microsoft launched Edge, a new browser, and made it the default Windows browser. Its market share is currently about 3 percent. Internet Explorer is around 1 percent.

Microsoft’s real-world experience puts a damper on today’s antitrust claims that Google, Apple, and Amazon giving preferential treatment to their in-house offerings is an effective anti-competitive strategy. This is because of what I call the dozen keystrokes argument—that’s about how difficult it is to download a different browser, type in a different search engine’s URL, join a new social network, or find a different product in a search.

Internet Explorer’s journey to the pasture is not the only news story poking holes in populist antitrust arguments. AT&T is selling its WarnerMedia division for about half of what it paid for it just three years ago. The deal was nearly blocked, with critics arguing that combining network infrastructure and media content in the same company would devastate competition. Now AT&T is refocusing on networks, while WarnerMedia is attempting to compete with a raft of streaming services, many of which did not exist just a few years ago. Antitrust regulators’ cries of foul will never change, but markets always do. Just ask Microsof and AT&T.

One of Google’s Antitrust Cases Dismissed, for Now

A District judge on Thursday dismissed a private antitrust case against Google brought by a group of advertisers. It does not affect separate cases brought by state attorneys general and the federal Department of Justice.

The dismissal is rooted in the relevant market fallacy. Essentially, the advertisers’ lawyers defined Google’s relevant market too narrowly, which leaves out important details. As the judge writes, “The Court is particularly concerned that Plaintiffs’ market excludes social media display advertising and direct negotiations.”

Essentially, the attorneys argued that Google has a monopoly over Google ads. This is true, in the same way that Ford has a monopoly over Ford-branded cars. But just as car buyers can easily buy a Toyota or a Chevy despite this monopoly, advertisers can easily turn to other options, both online and in print.

The plaintiff’s lawyers until June 14 to revise and resubmit their lawsuit with a more realistic definition of Google’s relevant market.

The other antitrust complaints against Google commit their own versions of the relevant market fallacy, as I’ve noted before:

Google’s relevant market is larger than a traditional search engine page. Every Uber ride involves an Internet search to pair riders and drivers. These searches do not use a Google algorithm, and would not work if their customers’ information was “being concentrated in one company.” Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify searches do not use Google. Nor do dating sites, which compete with each other based on proprietary search algorithms, as do many other popular search-based Internet services.

The relevant market fallacy also applies to allegations of anti-conservative bias against Google. If Google acquires even the reputation of serving unreliable search results, consumers can turn to competing options by simply typing a web address into their browser. And the relevant competitive market, as noted above, is not limited to search engines. News aggregators, consumer review sites, and other relevant content sites are legion, and easy to find, even for relatively uninformed users.

I call this the dozen keystrokes argument, because that’s roughly how difficult it is to type in another website’s address.

It will be months before court dates are set in any of the Google antitrust suits. They are still in the process of deciding relevant market definitions for the purposes of the cases. As we’ve seen, plaintiffs often try to bias antitrust cases in their favor by suggesting unrealistically narrow market definitions. It is good that at least one judge is wise to this semantic trick.

In the News: Hawley’s Antitrust Bill

A Fox News writeup of Sen. Josh Hawley’s newest antitrust bill quotes my colleague Jessica Melugin and me:

“[H]is claims that the industry, ‘hasn’t been a success … for the American economy,’ don’t ring true for so many Americans that are employed by or invested in these economic powerhouses, not to mention the millions of consumers who enjoy tech products,” Jessica Melugin, the director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s (CEI) Center for Technology and Innovation, said of Hawley’s merger-banning legislation. 

CEI Senior Fellow Ryan Young called Hawley’s broader anti-tech efforts “feel-good populism” that is “just another culture war issue.”

Read the whole thing here.

Book Review: Marc Levinson – The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America

Marc Levinson – The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America

This is an excellent history that is playing out again in today’s antitrust revival. A&P was the first nationwide grocery store chain. Though it barely exists today, in its prime it was the nation’s largest retailer. A&P inspired fear among its competitors and outrage among populists.

People made many of the same arguments against A&P in the popular press and in antitrust cases that people make today against Walmart, Amazon, and other big companies. The word choices, hyperbole, and breathless tone are almost identical. And yet, A&P was no match for consumer preferences, which eventually shifted elsewhere. The company chose not to adapt, and today exists on roughly the same scale as Blockbuster Video, which is down to a single store in Oregon.

Some of the very same charges, such as A&P’s selling self-branded products at lower prices than outside brands, are being revived today against Amazon. A&P-era arguments are even being repurposed to argue against Apple and Google’s app stores and search results. Not only were their business practices never anti-competitive, they clearly weren’t enough to save A&P from the competitive process. Nor will it be enough to save today’s big tech companies. Consumers are harsh sovereigns, and as soon as someone does it better, they’ll move on.

History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Levinson digs up some of the lost stanzas of a poem being rebooted all over Washington today. There are lots of lessons here for people on both sides of the antitrust revival.

Texas Antitrust Case Against Google would Harm Consumers and Small Businesses

This is a press statement originally posted at cei.org.

The State of Texas announced today it is filing an antitrust lawsuit against Google, alleging the company’s online advertising platform harms competition and allows Google to fix prices for advertising.

CEI senior fellow Ryan Young said:

“A company has monopoly power if it can raise prices, restrict supply, and still keep its dominance. Despite Google’s growth, digital ad prices have fallen by half over the last decade. At the same time, print ad prices have been increasing. Some newspapers have doubled their rates. Google and Facebook, which hold similar market shares, have made the ad market more competitive. Their innovation and price-cutting has made advertising more affordable than ever for small businesses who are struggling to find customers at a difficult time. Attorney General Paxton’s lawsuit would harm consumers and small businesses—precisely the opposite of what antitrust regulation is intended to do.”

Director of CEI’s Center for Technology and Innovation Jessica Melugin said:

“It’s hard to take seriously Attorney General Paxton’s claim that Google has, ‘harmed every person in America.’ Consumers have benefited from Google’s products, services and innovations, often for free. This suit is costly solution in search of a problem.”

Read more:

A Big-Picture View of the Antitrust Debate

In this month’s issue of Reason magazine, I have a feature-length article on the bipartisan push to revive antitrust enforcement. If you don’t have the print edition, it is now online. Here is the introduction:

Mark Zuckerberg was having one of 2020’s worst Zoom meetings. It was July 29, and one of the most influential men in the world was sitting, pale and perspiring, in a sparse white room getting attacked by members of Congress from both parties. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican and close ally of President Donald Trump, was scolding the Facebook CEO about the “content moderators that you employ [who] are out there disadvantaging conservative content.”

But before Zuckerberg could offer much in the way of a response, he was attacked from the left, as Rhode Island Democrat Rep. David Cicilline castigated Zuckerberg for not taking down the same content. For Cicilline, “the problem is Facebook is profiting off and amplifying disinformation that harms others because it’s profitable.”

For good measure, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, asked Zuckerberg why Facebook temporarily took down Donald Trump Jr.’s account over a post promoting hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. Zuckerberg pointed out that the incident happened on Twitter.

After discussing how conservatives’ and progressives’ ideological priors are warping the antitrust debate, I point to a better way: abolish antitrust regulation outright. Or at the very least, require proof of consumer harm before unleashing it.

Read the whole thing here. See also CEI’s dedicated antitrust site, antitrust.cei.org.

Report on the Digital Economy

George Mason University’s Global Antitrust Institute has released a 1,361-page Report on the Digital Economy.