The Layered Playing Field

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Recently Politico reported on Deutsche Telekom CEO Timotheus Hottges calling for “free competition” while reporting the company’s strong financial results, reliable dividend and strong free cash flow. But “free competition” in what? Mobile telephony?

Deutsche Telekom (DT) spokesman Philipp Blank clarified that “What we want are open platforms and inter-operability” apparently a reference to messaging applications such as WhatsApp, Apple’s FaceTime, Skype and Viber. DT wants such apps to be made interoperable with SMS. These demands have also been made by Telefonica and coincide with the European Commission’s recent release of the Digital Single Market strategy. Both companies want the European Union to bring about a ‘level playing field’.

Is this a good idea?

Rather than think about a level playing field, something the firms above have called for, a better way to approach this debate would be to think about a layered playing field.

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Time to Stick a Fork in These Android Competition Complaints

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Here we go again.  Another Android antitrust drumbeat.  In April, the European Commission announced a formal investigation into Google’s Android operating system.  This is not the first time antitrust allegations have been leveled at Android.

Let’s take a short trip back in time.  In early 2014, a flurry of media reports emerged accusing Google of anticompetitive conduct surrounding its Android licensing arrangements.  The reports cited industry insiders and experts who had “examined” contractual arrangements that surfaced through an unrelated court proceeding between Google and Oracle on intellectual property claims.  Much of that early reporting was fueled by a detailed blog post and paper by longtime anti-Google “consultant” Ben Edelman which accused Google of leveraging its monopoly power through secret nefarious contractual arrangements with device manufacturers (most of which actually had nothing to do with the Android operating system itself).  Unfortunately, much of the reporting (and much of Edelman’s analysis) turned out to be misleading or just plain wrong. Industry followers, open source experts and academics followed on to poke skyscraper-sized holes in the initial reporting.  (I had my own take.)

FairSearch, an organization funded by Google’s competitors aimed at bringing regulatory scrutiny on the Mountain View company, used the Edelman claims as the basis for a complaint it filed in April 2013 with the European Commission — shortly after the original round of media coverage — claiming that Google’s below-cost distribution of Android (read: free, open source) was predatory pricing that made it difficult for Google’s competitors to compete.  It also claimed that Google’s practice of offering its suite of mobile applications in a package instead of a la carte (via so called MADA agreements) foreclosed competition in mobile platforms and applications.

In short, the claims were laughable.  The open source community cried foul, pointing out the dangerous implications such a precedent would set given that all open source software is available for free.  Furthermore, commenters noted the irony of a group funded by proprietary software companies attacking the free distribution of open source software as “predatory.”  Others pointed out that the MADA agreements are standard operating procedure for companies trying to build user friendly products and ensure that customers have an expected suite of services available to them “out of the box.”  At best, I thought, these claims were a sideshow.  A PR stunt orchestrated to keep Google’s PR and legal teams fighting on multiple fronts and that they would fade quickly.

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Bigger than Geo-blocking: How the European Commission’s Sector Inquiry Can Set E-Commerce Free

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Early this month the European Commission unveiled its Digital Single Market (DSM) strategy. The strategy has the very laudable goal of promoting the digital economy by furthering Europe’s integration in this sphere — something a borderless Internet is indeed ideally placed to do. It encourages European companies, citizens and institutions to think more digital and sheds some of the barriers that citizens and companies face when engaging in business transactions online.

While the DSM strategy’s vague discussion of online platforms and geo-blocking were among the issues that received most media attention, it is worthwhile to recall that a fully fledged competition sector inquiry into e-commerce is formally a part of the strategy. Expressed in competition policy terms, the sector inquiry will look at private barriers set up by companies that lead to territorial fragmentation and to restrictions of price competition.

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The Battle Over FDA’s E-Labeling: The Paper Industry’s Attempt to Prevent Sensible Safety Notice

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We know the familiar story.  New forms of competition arise and the incumbents rebel.  The free market usually permits consumer choice to govern and the marketplace decides which products will prevail.  But incumbents try to use regulation to prevent new products and competition.

The latest example is the almost decade long effort by some parts of the paper industry to prevent the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from bringing drug notices into the 21st century.  Most are familiar with drug safety disclaimers to consumers, written in incredibly small font (perhaps the font size is promoted by opticians?) that consumers simply discard.  Well, there are similar, much more important notices to healthcare providers which provide even greater detail about safety and drug administration.  This information includes potential warnings and drug interactions, each of which are critical pieces of information for the healthcare provider. Known as “prescribing information,” these notices are incredibly long – they look like old-fashioned road maps and also are printed in incredibly small font.

Since 2007, the FDA has valiantly attempted to take the radical, death-defying step of actually permitting these notices to be made available electronically.  In particular, the FDA has sought to permit “e-labeling” – allowing drug manufacturers to provide information electronically.  This week, the FDA closed public comments on a proposed rule focusing on moving nearly all prescribing information online.

The advantages of e-labeling are obvious to anyone who has entered the 21st century.  E-labeling will reduce costs and is far more likely to be accessible to busy professionals.  E-labeling will be more current than old-fashioned paper notices and can be updated easily.  As the FDA observed:

FDA is taking this action so that the most current prescribing information for distributed prescription drugs will be available and readily accessible to health care professionals at the time of clinical decisionmaking and dispensing.

So why has it taken the FDA nearly a decade to finish a sensible, consumer-driven rule?  The paper industry.  In the United States, there are a number of paper printing companies that specialize in manufacturing drug labeling paper forms.  With the FDA proposing a rule that may diminish pharmaceutical companies’ demand for paper and printing services, it is unsurprising that they are strongly fighting against e-labeling.

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Competition Authorities and Regulators Should not Worry too much about Data as a Barrier to Entry into Digital Markets

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Data is often presented as the lifeblood of our digital economy (please see here why it should not be referred to as the ‘oil’ of the 21st century). Data is everywhere and is collected by Internet companies as well as more traditional businesses like banks. Data has been used by industries for years – think about grocery store reward cards – but advances in the speed of data analysis and the quantity of data available today brought new attention to its use. Of course, data analytics and processing help companies to better understand their customers, providing them with services and products tailored to their needs and preferences.

At the same time, it has been suggested that the possession and accumulation of big data ought to result in more rigorous competition law enforcement. But this argument fails to take into account the low barriers to entry in this market and the disruptive nature of Internet businesses that quickly allow a startup to topple even the most entrenched incumbents. One also needs to remember that the existence of barriers to entry does not in itself mean that competition authorities need to intervene. Competition law is concerned with anticompetitive conduct causing consumer harm. Hence, a competition law analysis of barriers to entry only becomes relevant in merger cases and in determining whether a given company is dominant in a relevant market. Traditional barriers to entry include for example exceptionally large capital investments into a sophisticated distribution network, economies of scale and even the need for large marketing investments (for a discussion of these traditional barriers to entry see the CJEU’s judgment in United Brands v Commission).

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European Commission Releases Digital Single Market Strategy: The Good and The Bad

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The European Commission has today released its new Digital Single Market Strategy. The objectives of the strategy sit within the wider political context: helping to restore a limp European economy to growth, whilst maintaining an effective welfare state and public services. Will this strategy help to deliver the kind of dynamic social market economy Europeans demand?

Vice-President of the European Commission Andrus Ansip has rightly set out an ambitious vision of a Digital Single Market. For those who believe in an enabling set of rules that will take society forward now is the time to step forward to support this vision. The alternative — a set of rules that fragment regulation along member state lines and reverse digital progress — is not a viable option.MORE »

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French Farce: Search Neutrality rules Moliere Would Delight In

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While there has been much discussion of the European Commission’s recent announcement of a statement of objections being sent to Google, over in Paris the French Senate isn’t waiting. The Senate is debating ‘search neutrality’ amendments to the ‘Loi Macron’, an economic reform bill.

This is not a bout of contagion carried on the high speed ‘Thalys’ train from Brussels to Paris. Rather, the French political establishment has long been a critic of Google, and in fact Internet platforms more broadly. While Google may be a tempting opponent, opinion in Paris would like to see Internet platforms more broadly regulated in law, as illustrated by the recent joint Franco-German letter to the European Commission.

So while this initiative isn’t a huge surprise, its consequences could be. Search is a feature of almost every website and application. Putting aside the obvious search engines, think of sites such as Dailymotion, Deezer, eBay, Facebook and Amazon. Without a search function it would be hard to find the information and products you want.

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Paving the Way for Future Innovations: The Music Industry as a Case Study

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David Balto and Matthew Lane, antitrust attorneys, have authored a guest paper for DisCo on innovation in the music delivery sector.  David previously served as Policy Director at the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Policy and Evaluation, and attorney advisor to the FTC chairman.

There is no doubt that we live in exciting times.  New technologies are constantly emerging that promise to change our lives for the better.  These disruptive technologies give us an increase in choice, make technologies more accessible, make things more affordable, or give us a voice.  However, disruptive innovations do not hit all areas of our lives equally.  There are some industries that are controlled by companies that don’t want to be shaken up and have the power to prevent it.  These consolidated industries are an anathema to disruptive innovation.  So how do we enable disruptive competition in these industries?

One answer is found in our competition enforcement agencies and the oversight they can achieve through antitrust enforcement and consent decrees secured when cases are brought.  The important role of consent decrees is often overlooked.  A properly constructed consent decree between the government and a company accused of anticompetitive behavior can restore competition and foster new competitive entry.  Permitting entry is vital to disruptive innovation because much of this innovation comes from start-ups and new entrants.MORE »

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Big Stills, Small Jugs, and Stupid Laws: Florida Growler Fight is a Microcosm of U.S. Anti-Consumer Beer Regulation

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We have been a little boozy here at DisCo.  A couple of years ago myself and my colleague Matt Schruers had a mini blog symposium of sorts where we used alcoholic anecdotes to illustrate larger policy points about the nature of competition and innovation.  Last week, fellow DisCo writer Ryan Heath used a Belgian beer example to illustrate the success of crowd funding.  In this post, I turn to U.S. beer regulation and market structure as an illustrative example of a phenomenon that has plagued the tech world: out-dated regulation that artificially props up legacy middlemen and harms innovative competitors.

Against that backdrop, let’s turn our attention to a fight brewing in Florida between craft brewers and beer distributors (and the major beer brands) in the state legislature.  At the end of last week, a Florida Senate Committee approved a bill that would allow craft brewers to sell 64oz growlers to their consumers.  Presumably, the bill will soon be voted on by the full Senate.  Similar legislation is also winding its way through the Florida House.  According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the bills “could make it easier for grocery stores to sell hard liquor and brew pubs to sell more of their products.”

Currently, in Florida, it is unlawful for breweries to sell half-gallon size growlers — a staple product for craft brewers seen as the “industry standard” — to consumers.  This is because Florida, like all other states (except for Washington), utilizes a “three-tiered” alcohol distribution structure where (1) wholesalers are required to sell to (2) distributors who then sell to (3) retailers.

Florida has an exception to the three-tiered system, however: A law pre-dating the rise of craft breweries, which was designed to allow beer giant Anheuser-Busch to sell beer directly to consumers in the days when they owned the Busch Gardens theme parks, allowed craft brewers to pour pints and sell cans on their premises (thus avoiding beer distributors).  Under the complex and capricious Florida beer laws, craft breweries were able to sell quarts and gallon jugs of beer, just not the popular half-gallon size.  When legislation last year looked poised to fix this curious 96 ounce exception, it was derailed by language added at the behest of beer distributors.  The new language required, among other things, craft brewers to sell their wares to distributors who would then sell it back to them (at a healthy markup, of course) before they would be able to sell them to brewery visitors!  With their typically smaller profit margins, craft brewers — who often face a daunting journey just to turn a profit — saw this unnecessary layer of costs as a threat to their businesses.  In fact, “holding the growler hostage” was merely a strategy of “Big Beer” to attack the craft brewers’ right to sell directly to consumers.  (They said so themselves.)  The craft brewers — in good disruptive innovator fashion — turned to Indiegogo to fund their lobbying efforts against big beer.

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Is Big Data an Entry Barrier? What Tinder Can Tell Us

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Big data, and its effects on online markets, has been thrust into the center of the tech policy chattering class debate.  In the last few weeks, events have been held on both sides of the Atlantic focusing on the concept of big data as an entry barrier.  (The topic has also come up in speeches by FTC Commissioners [and a paper], in discussions surrounding the EU’s forthcoming Digital Single Market strategy, and is the frequent topic of recent academic writing.)  Specifically, the concept being debated is whether the accumulation of data by Internet companies hinders competition because the new entrants will not be able to compete effectively with the first mover in the marketplace.  In this post, I will address why startups and entrepreneurs should not be overly concerned.

In a stylized view of the Internet economy, as a platform (such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Pinterest or Twitter) achieves scale and gains users, it acquires more data.  This data leads to product improvement, which leads to more users and, subsequently, more data.  The process repeats.  According to proponents of the data as a barrier to entry theory, this leads to an unbreakable positive feedback loop that makes effective competition impossible.

However plausible this argument sounds, a review of the short history of the Internet economy, which has been characterized by intense competition and frequent disruption, seems to cast doubt on the soundness of the theory.  (See Andres Lerner’s discussion of the User Scale – Service Quality feedback loop.)  Besides the common examples of Facebook overtaking Myspace and Google overtaking prior search competitors (who, at the time, were predicted to be unassailable largely on account of the User Scale – Service Quality feedback loop discussed above), a casual look at online markets illustrates how competitive the market is.  Why are online markets so competitive even though some firms are believed to have an unassailable advantage in big data?

First, this view of Internet markets is extremely simplistic.  Data is just one input of many in the process of innovation and market success.  Second, unique economic characteristics of data — such as it being non-rivalrous and the diminishing marginal returns of data — mean that the accumulation of data, as opposed to other barriers to entry like intellectual property portfolios or high-fixed capital costs, in and of itself does not function as much of a barrier at all.  When you couple these characteristics with the fact that data, and the tools to use and analyze data, are readily available from numerous third party sources, the notion of an iron-clad data feedback loop falls apart.

I’ll break this down piece by piece.

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