competition

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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Today, the Wall Street Journal published an article after getting its hands on a confidential FTC memo from the now settled U.S. antitrust investigation of Google.  The document, an internal memo by the FTC’s Bureau of Competition recommending that that the Commission proceed with an antitrust case against Google for a variety of allegedly anticompetitive actions, was mistakenly released in response to a FOIA request.  The Journal also reports that the FTC’s Bureau of Economics disagreed with the Bureau of Competition, recommending that the agency not proceed with charges — a recommendation the agency ultimately followed.  Also, and perhaps most interestingly, the Bureau of Competition’s recommendation advised against proceeding with the most high-profile accusation, search bias, which is now the focus of the European Commission’s competition investigation.  As most DisCo readers probably remember, the FTC eventually voted to close its investigation of Google (and dismissed the search bias accusations outright) after the company addressed several of the practices outlined in the Bureau of Competition’s memo.

Although the WSJ article is certainly an interesting read, the fact remains that there are many checks and balances within the FTC and — with the benefit of hindsight — it is pretty clear that the Commission’s decision not to proceed on the charges of “search bias” was the right call.

Let’s look at what has happened in the marketplace since the FTC settlement.

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On two sides of the country yesterday two branches of the federal government engaged in legal processes likely to affect competition in the music industry.

As DisCo previewed, yesterday the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights considered the competitive challenges in the music publishing industry, and the effects on competition, innovation, and consumers.  Witnesses from across the music ecosystem discussed the continued need for the consent decrees.  Several urged that the consent decrees be strengthened with additional transparency safeguards, while others claimed they may no longer be necessary (at least in theory if you ignore all transaction costs and have a perfect marketplace).  Over the last year alone, four federal courts have found evidence that the same publisher behaviors that gave rise to the consent decrees in the first place still continue today, suggesting that the consent decrees remain necessary to curtail anticompetitive behaviors.

Just as the Senate hearing ended in D.C., jury deliberations in the Blurred Lines case (which we covered when Robin Thicke initiated the litigation by filing for a declaratory judgment) resumed in California, ultimately ending in a judgment against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, for millions in actual damages plus profits.  Several observers have said that is “horrific” and “really dangerous”, as well as “a bad result” that is “bad for pop music” and “could make songwriting and recording a minefield for every artist”.

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At a hearing on Capitol Hill tomorrow, a Senate subcommittee will hear different perspectives on the degree to which competing music publishers should be permitted to coordinate licensing activities through performing rights organizations (“PROs”), such as ASCAP.  Music publishers have expressed a desire for fewer antitrust constraints on their coordinated behavior, while users and distributors of music will call for greater transparency in the music marketplace.

The hearing occurs during an ongoing Justice Department review of the consent decrees that govern PROs.[FN1] Music publishers and PROs are presently subject to oversight to the extent that PROs coordinate behavior among publishers who ostensibly should compete with one another.  Competitor coordination usually violates antitrust law, but because collective licensing also helps reduce the high transaction costs in music licensing, exceptions have been made for PROs.  A PRO can offer a single performance rights license to a user or distributor for all the works controlled by multiple publishers – one-stop shopping for a huge number of works.  But because one entity is nevertheless coordinating business transactions for a large group of companies that should be competing, antitrust oversight remains necessary.

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Buying airfare online is a complicated and frequently fraught experience.  You can buy your ticket directly from the airline of your choice, from online travel booking sites, or even via travel metasearch engines—and your purchase price might be different depending on the time of day or day of the week you choose to shop.  All of that is to say that airline pricing structures are very complex, and a cottage industry has grown out of consumers’ demonstrated demand for better tools to navigate air travel booking.

At first glance, Skiplagged would seem to be just that—another tool for consumers to parse the secretive pricing strategies of airlines.  The website takes advantage of an obscure quirk of airline pricing: trips that include a stopover in a high-demand destination prior to a final leg to a less-frequented one are regularly cheaper than direct flights to the same high-demand destination.  So a prospective traveler (without checked baggage) looking to fly to San Francisco from DC might book a trip to Lake Tahoe with a stopover in SFO and then skip the final leg of the trip to take advantage of the lower total fare for the Tahoe itinerary.  Skiplagged shows consumers these “hidden city” deals and directs them to the travel booking sites from which they can be purchased. MORE »

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As noted in our two preceding posts about the introduction of the “ancillary right” in Spain (here and here), Google announced it would discontinue operation of the Google News product in Spain, starting tomorrow, December 16.  (Wired UK cites a potential fine of up to €600,000 (~$746,000) for non-compliance after the January 1 deadline.)  In a statement, the Spanish Government shrugged off the company’s response to the “so-called Google tax” as a “business decision.”

Google’s decision surprised no one save perhaps the Spanish news publishers’ association (AEDE).  Responding to the announcement, the AEDE released a statement last week arguing that Google had a dominant position in the news market, and demanded that it not be permitted to exit the market.  Note that the data doesn’t seem to bear this assertion out; relying on data from Similarweb.com, it appears Google.news.es ranks 226th in Spain, miles behind Elpais.com at 16th, and elmundo.es at 18th.  If one limits the data strictly to news media, Google News Spain is still bringing up the rear (at 26th) behind yahoo.com (1st), elpais.com (3rd), msn.com (4th) elmundo.es (5th), and abc.es (7th).

In any event, the association’s about-face epitomizes its love-hate relationship with news search and aggregation: its members love the free traffic that they drive to publishers’ ads, but hate that news search providers and aggregators don’t pay for that privilege.

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Today we learnt that Google will shut down its ‘Google News’ service this year in Spain. This is just one consequence of the introduction in Spain of an ancillary copyright levy (known as the ‘AEDE levy’) affecting online services (apps and websites).

In a nutshell, if an online service uses short snippets to link to content which is deemed ‘news’, or enables internet users to do so, payment to the Spanish news publishers’ collecting society is mandatory. And by “news”, the law targets not just articles from major newspapers, but pretty much any blog or website that provides “information”, “entertainment” or content relevant to “public opinion” (see Art. 32.2 of the final text here).

There is no escape — even if a publisher does not want to be compensated when online services redirect substantial volumes of traffic to his site, even if they want to be included in the service, and even if their content is made available under a Creative Commons license, the law still obliges the publisher to charge.

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A Few German Publishers Claim that Online Services Have No Choice But to Show a Short Extract… And Pay For It 

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Can you violate someone’s rights by not infringing their rights? According to some German press publishers, this is precisely the case after Google’s announcement that it will no longer display snippets and thumbnails from content owned by publishers who are represented by VG Media, a collecting society. This follows the introduction of the Leistungsschutzrecht, a new ancillary copyright, by the German Government in 2013 (which this blog covered here, here and here).  Under the new ancillary copyright law, the display of news snippets in search is restricted — a departure from international copyright law, which provides for a right to quote.  VG Media, who represents some of the press publishers that most vocally lobbied for the law, has gone as far as saying that the search provider is now ‘blackmailing’ them. MORE »

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If you haven’t had your daily fill of irony yet, let me tell you about the Euro-skeptic, free marketeer news organization appealing to European regulators to guarantee “fair returns” in the wake of Internet-driven disruption.

On Wednesday, News Corp released a letter from its CEO Robert Thomson to the EU competition commissioner Joaquín Almunia, criticizing Google and championing regulators to act against the search provider, following similar demands by the news publisher’s European peers.  Unfortunately, Thomson’s letter received about as much fact-checking as a News Corp tabloid.  (Jeff Jarvis has already annotated the letter’s “staggering” “willful blindness to irony” on the News Genius platform).

News Corp publications have championed tech disruption before, but apparently those principles go out the window when News Corp is the one being disrupted.  In fact, News Corp’s own Wall Street Journal previously complained that Google had become its competitors’ “piñata,” who were demanding “a regulatory veto” notwithstanding the fact that they “haven’t demonstrated any economic harm” stemming from the search provider.  Yet this week, News Corp itself jumps into the piñata party, waving the European banner. MORE »

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Two weeks ago in Facebook’s Q2 earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg reiterated Facebook’s desire to become a more effective online “search” competitor, although in his description of the initiative it became clear that he was talking about becoming a more effective competitor in the “market for answers,” as the Wall Street Journal pointed out:

Facebook is trying to give people answers to what they’re looking for in hopes they’ll spend more time on the site or in the app, and in turn stealing searches away from Google or Microsoft’s Bing.

In fact, responding to an analyst’s question, Zuckerberg cited Facebook’s unique advantages in the answers market:

There is huge potential. There are a lot of questions that only Facebook can answer, that other services aren’t going to be able to answer for you. We’re really committed to investing in that and building out this unique service over the long-term. And I think at some point there is going to be an inflection where it starts to be useful for a lot of use cases. But that may still be years away. But we’re just committed to doing this investment and making this right.

Given our frequent musing here on the nature of competition online and its antitrust implications, Zuckerberg’s description of where Facebook is going was telling.  Namely, that the narrow market definitions that rely on colloquialisms (“search engines” and “social media”) do not reflect the true nature of competition online.

A fundamental tenet of antitrust law is that in order to figure out if a company is monopolizing a product market, one has to define what that relevant product market is.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Well, maybe not, especially in the online world.

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