In May 2012, after a two-year investigation, the president of the European Competition Commission (ECC), Mr. Joaquim Almunia, told Google to modify the operation of its search engine, under penalty of law. According to the ECC, Google is abusing its position in the Internet search engine and online advertising markets. Elsewhere in the world, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the United States is also studying the possibility of suing Google for abusing its market position. Other countries like South Korea, Australia and India are investigating on the same grounds.
Media Release :: The case of Google illustrates the flaws in antitrust laws
|Googling a better definition of competition (Sun Media, October 1st, 2012)||Interview (in French) with Marie-Josée Loiselle (Argent, September 25, 2012)|
This Econommic Note was prepared by Marie-Josée Loiselle, who holds a master's degree in public administration from ÉNAP and is President of Nuno ID, an organization that helps businesses understand and exploit business cycle.
In May 2012, after a two-year investigation, the president of the European Competition Commission (ECC), Mr. Joaquim Almunia, told Google to modify the operation of its search engine, under penalty of law. According to the ECC, Google is abusing its position in the Internet search engine and online advertising markets.
Elsewhere in the world, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the United States is also studying the possibility of suing Google for abusing its market position. Other countries like South Korea, Australia and India are investigating on the same grounds.
Beyond the question of whether or not Google is violating competition laws, these potential legal proceedings raise a number of economic questions: Can we really apply the concept of abuse of market power rationally? How can we precisely define a market in a high tech sector where everything evolves so quickly? And in particular, do such proceedings really have the effect of protecting Internet users and consumers?
The contested foundations of competition laws
Before delving into Google’s specific case in more detail, a historical and theoretical overview of competition law itself is called for.
The central hypothesis that underlies the existence of competition laws is that above a certain level, market concentration has harmful effects for consumers. According to this logic, if the market share of a company in a particular sector is too large, that company has “market power,” namely the ability to impose higher prices than would prevail in situations with healthy competition and the ability to displace its competitors unfairly. These practices become illegal when a company abuses its market power. The same logic applies in the case of collusion when a few companies making up a large share of the market join forces to fix prices or limit production.
This static vision of competition is more and more contested by economists. Indeed, competition is not measured simply by market share or by the number of companies in a market. It is rather the number of potential competitors that counts, in a context in which there are no barriers to entry. Such barriers sometimes exist due to restrictions imposed by government or because of a specific technological context, but their presence must not be overestimated. In general, the threat of the arrival of new players on a market is very real and exerts competitive pressure.
These competitors can even come from outside the sector in question. The invention of a new substitute product (email that replaces the sending of letters by mail, for example) can create external pressure on a dominant company. It therefore becomes very difficult to define the precise limits of a market.
This is why many economists who have taken the trouble of digging through the numerous historical cases of “antitrust” proceedings have remarked that the companies targeted – even if they were alone in their markets – were not behaving like monopolies, as we shall see in the following section.
In practice, competition laws often have unintended consequences. First, they modify the behaviour of businesses, which divert energy into protecting themselves and minimizing the risks of lawsuits instead of concentrating on efficient economic decisions. As a result, many mergers or acquisitions that could be beneficial for all do not occur for fear of long disputes with the government.
Second, to prove a violation of competition law, it must be shown that there is “restriction of commerce” or “monopolization of a market.” These terms, however, are defined arbitrarily, and the definitions differ from one sector to another. It is therefore possible for a decision by the concerned authorities to have the effect of restraining innovation and discouraging practices that would benefit consumers. Unfortunately, the costs of these errors are not adequately recognized by decision makers.
This problem is even more acute in high tech sectors, which evolve much more rapidly than other traditional industrial sectors. A player can dominate a market for a few years and then be knocked off its pedestal in quite a short amount of time. This is what happened to companies like IBM, AltaVista, AOL, RIM, Palm, Nortel, Polaroid, Sony (Walkman), and many others. At the moment when a judgment is handed down, there is a good chance that the company’s position is no longer dominant.
Third, the fact that the terms are not well defined, that proof is difficult to establish and that many markets are very fluid increases the chance that competition law will be diverted to ends other than the protection of consumers. This process, known as “regulatory capture,” occurs when less competitive players try to beat the dominant firms by political and legal means instead of doing so by reducing their costs and improving their products. An indication of this reality is that over 90% of all proceedings under competition law in the United States are instituted by private parties, while the rest are instituted by the government.
Historical cases that contradict the theory
One of the historical examples of monopolistic companies most often mentioned is that of American oil company Standard Oil. According to its detractors, Standard Oil tried to exclude several producers from the American market by using unfair competitive practices to capture a market share of over 90% at the end of the 19th century.
It can be argued, however, that it is by virtue of over thirty years of systematic innovation that the company succeeded in capturing such an impressive market share. It created dozens of petroleum by-products as well as new, more efficient refining and extraction techniques.
It is thanks to this superior efficiency that the price of oil in the United States fell continually over the final decades of the 19th century. Despite this superior efficiency, the decline of Standard Oil’s dominance was underway well before the 1911 governmental decision to break up the company. In fact, following the intervention of the government, prices stopped falling and even rose appreciably.
There are numerous cases of antitrust proceedings similar to the Standard Oil case in which we see a reduction in prices and market shares of the presumably monopolistic company in the years leading up to the proceedings, which should logically call into question the whole point of such proceedings (see Table 1 on iedm.org).
The economics of the Internet
While it is difficult to determine the exact limits of a market in a traditional industry, it is even more perilous to try to do so and to prove that a company has a monopoly in that market in the world of the Internet, where technological changes abound. And even then, this is not sufficient, since the government must prove that the company under investigation is abusing its monopoly position and that consumers are being harmed. This extremely complex task requires more and more economic understanding on the part of the entities responsible for regulation as well as the judges who must decide the cases. It is in light of these flaws in competition laws that we must analyze the case of Google.
The allegations brought against Google, both in the United States and in Europe, are primarily concerned with search results on its search engine. Google apparently modified its search algorithm so that the results would emphasize its own products and provide less visibility to the sites of its competitors (like Microsoft). It is not even necessary to take a position on the truth of these allegations to see that it would not be in the interests of consumers to add Google to the long list of antitrust lawsuits.
First of all, no one can deny that it is by innovating and offering an efficient and user-friendly search engine that Google won its advantageous market position in under a decade. Considering the fact that search engine services are free and the ease of accessing alternate sites, consumers are very sensitive to changes in the quality of the service they receive. Users can change browsers with the click of a mouse if they are not satisfied. It is therefore on the basis of quality that companies compete in order to attract web users and increase their advertising sales.
Even though Google enjoys considerable market share in the United States and Europe if we look exclusively at search engines, as in other areas, competition can also come from a substitute product that better satisfies consumers. For example, according to a former commissioner of the FTC in the United States, social media like Twitter and Facebook are leading a growing proportion of web users to get their news from these platforms. Web users are therefore abandoning news platforms produced by Google, Bing and Yahoo!.
Web users spend an average of 27 minutes a month on search engines, which represents 3.4% of the total time spent on the Internet. This means they spend the vast majority of their time navigating other websites, several of which offer an alternative to search engines for a multitude of services, including advertising. Is it really possible, in this context, to speak of the abuse of position in a specific market?
Furthermore, we need to consider the fluid nature of markets on the Internet, where companies can dominate at a certain moment only to be displaced a few years later. For example, MySpace was the dominant player in the social media market between 2005 and 2008 before being displaced by Facebook. The same thing happened in the field of multimedia players. Between 2003 and 2005, the main player in this market was Windows Media Player, with some significant competition from RealPlayer. Since then, both Windows Media Player and RealPlayer have lost the loyalty of many consumers, to the benefit of Apple’s products.
Not so long ago, Apple was mass producing electronics, Google had its search engine, Amazon its online store and Facebook its social network. Today, Amazon’s Kindle Fire is challenging Apple’s iPad on its home turf; Apple’s iTunes store is competing with Amazon’s online store; and Google+ is hot on the heels of Facebook.
More than other traditional businesses, high tech companies have no problem playing in each other’s backyards, to the great benefit of consumers. But to succeed and maintain consumer loyalty, they constantly have to show ingenuity. They should not be punished for doing so.
The logic of market abuse that underlies the lawsuits brought by competition authorities against companies that are successful, like Google, is flawed. Moreover, these lawsuits too often have negative consequences for consumers and for the economy as a whole.
Indeed, they distract innovative companies and force them to spend considerable sums defending themselves for years on end before courts in several countries, not to mention the heavy fines that can be demanded without justification. These legal proceedings can also make it impossible for a company to make a return on its development costs, and lead it to scale down its innovative activities. The main losers of such a slowdown in innovation are the very consumers the laws were meant to serve.
 A few weeks later, Google presented some proposals in response to the ECC’s demands, preferring to make certain changes and collaborate than to enter into an even more expensive legal battle. Negotiations are still underway between the company and the ECC.
 Illegal commercial practices related to market power are not limited to price fixing and depending on the circumstances include price discrimination, exclusive contracts, exclusive sales territories, etc. See the OECD’s definition of anticompetitive practices: http://stats.oecd.org/glossary/detail.asp?ID=3145.
 Robert Crandall and Clifford Winston, “Does Antitrust Policy Improve Consumer Welfare? Assessing the Evidence,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 17 (2003), No. 4, pp. 3-26.
 Harold Demsetz, “Barriers to Entry,” American Economic Review, Vol. 72 (1982), No. 1, pp. 47-57.
 Robert Crandall and Clifford Winston, op. cit., note 3, p. 16.
 Geoffrey Manne and Joshua D. Wright, “Google and the limits of antitrust: The case against the case against Google,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 34 (2012), pp. 173-174.
 Richard Schmalensee, “Antitrust issues in Schumpeterian Industries,” American Economic Review, Vol. 90 (2000), No. 2, pp. 192-196.
 Thomas DiLorenzo, “The Origins of Antitrust: An Interest-Group Perspective,” International Review of Law and Economics, Vol. 5 (1985), No. 1, pp. 73-90; Gregory Sidak and David Teece, “Dynamic Competition in Antitrust Law,” Journal of Competition Law and Economics, Vol. 5 (2009), No. 4, pp. 581-631; Charles Delorme Jr., W. Scott Frame and David Kamerschen, “Empirical evidence on a special interest-group perspective to antitrust,” Public Choice, Vol. 92 (1997), No. 2, pp. 317-335.
 Andrew Abere, “Private Antitrust Cases Decrease in 2009 – Filings are at their lowest level in 5 years,” Princeton Economics Group Inc., 2010, http://www.econgroup.com/peg_news_view.asp?newid=40&pageno=1.
 Burton Fulsom, The Myth of the Robber Barons: A New Look at the Rise of Big Business in America, Young America’s Foundation, 2007, p. 85.
 John McGee, “Predatory Price Cutting: The Standard Oil (N.J.) Case,” Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 1 (1958), pp. 137-169.
 Robert Crandall, The Failure of Structural Remedies in Sherman Act Monopolization Cases, Working Paper, Brookings Institutions, 2001, pp. 13-27.
 Robert Crandall and Clifford Winston, op. cit., note 3, pp. 7-8.
 Michael R. Baye and Joshua D. Wright, 2011. “Is Antitrust Too Complicated for Generalist Judges? The Impact of Economic Complexity and Judicial Training on Appeals,” Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 54, No. 11, pp. 1-24.
 Mike Thelwall, “Quantitative comparisons of search engine results,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 59 (2008), No. 11, pp. 1702-1710.
 Google’s market share exceeds 90% in several large European countries and is 70% in the United States. Paul Geitner, “Google Moves Toward Settlement of European Antitrust Investigation,” The New York Times, July 24, 2012.
 Orson Swindle, “Technological innovation is its own antitrust policy,” The Washington Times, December 27, 2011.
 Geoffrey Manne and Joshua D. Wright, op. cit., note 6, pp. 194-195.
 Andrew Lipsman, “The Network Effect: Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter & Tumblr Reach New Heights in May,” comScore Voices, June 15, 2011.
 Apple iTunes Penetration Closing Gap with Microsoft - April 2011 Bandwidth Report, WebSiteOptimization.Com, http://www.websiteoptimization.com/bw/1104/.
 The fines can total up to 10% of overall income in Europe, which is 10% of US$38 billion in the case of Google.
 Richard B. McKenzie and William Shughart II, “Is Microsoft a Monopolist?” Independent Review, Vol. 3 (1998), No. 2, pp. 190-191; Richard B. McKenzie, “In Defense of Monopoly: Market power fosters creative production,” Regulation, (Winter 2009-2010), pp. 18-19.