EU group of experts, ‘Competition Policy for the digital era’

This Report, which can be found here, explores how competition policy should evolve to continue to promote pro-consumer innovation in the digital age. It is structured as follows. Chapter 2 describes the digital world and markets. The report focuses on three key characteristics of the digital economy: extreme returns to scale, networks externalities and role of data. Regarding returns to scale, the cost of production of digital services is disproportionate to the number of customers served. While this aspect is not novel as such (bigger factories or retailers are often more efficient than smaller ones), the digital world pushes it to the extreme and this can result in a significant competitive advantage for incumbents. Concerning network externalities, the convenience of using a technology or a service increases with the number of users that adopt it. Consequently, it is not enough for a new entrant to offer better quality and/or a lower price than the incumbent does; it also has to…

Stigler Center (University of Chicago) Report on Digital Platforms

This Report, which can be found here, was written by a working group who came together to address specific problems arising from the digital platforms’ reach, scale, scope, and use of data. They examined concerns stemming from the market structure contemporary platforms have created, and to investigate their competitive behaviour, including the consequences of network effects that can create barriers to entry for new innovators and entrench incumbents. The theme that runs throughout the report is the difficulty of entry into digital platform businesses once an incumbent is established. Whether the entrant is vertical or horizontal, has succeeded to some degree, is nascent, is a potential entrant, or is a large platform in an adjacent space, market entry improves consumer welfare by either providing more choice, different features, and a chance of higher quality, or creating a threat that spurs the incumbent to provide lower prices, higher quality and innovation, and to do so more quickly. The Report is structured…

German Monopolies Commission ‘Algorithms and Collusion’, Chapter I of the XXII. Biennial Report

The Monopolies Commission is a permanent, independent expert committee which advises the German government and legislature as regards competition policy-making, competition law and regulation. The chapter is already one year old, and can be accessed here. In data-intensive sectors such of the digital economy, pricing algorithms can facilitate collusion by automating collusive behaviour. For example, algorithms can stabilise collusion by allowing the collection of information on competitors’ prices and sanctioning deviations from collusive market outcomes more quickly. The use of pricing algorithms can also render explicit anticompetitive agreements or concerted practices dispensable. As a result, difficulties with determining whether a concerted practice is actually taking place will increase with the use of pricing algorithms. The Monopolies Commission considers that the use of pricing algorithms makes it necessary to strengthen market monitoring through sector inquiries. Since consumer associations are most likely to have indications of collusive overpricing, the Monopolies Commission recommends that consumer associations obtain the right to initiate competition sector…

Emilio Calvano, Giacomo Calzolari, Vincenzo Denicol and Sergio Pastorello ‘Artificial Intelligence, Algorithmic Pricing and Collusion’ Centre for Economic Policy Research, London

Algorithmic pricing is not new, but newer software programs are much more “autonomous” than their precursors. Powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), pricing algorithms can develop their pricing strategies from scratch, engaging in active experimentation and adapting to the evolving environment. In this learning process, they require little or no external guidance. Taken together with the diffusion and evolution of pricing algorithms, these developments raise various issues for competition policy, particularly as regards tacit collusion. While so far no one has brought an antitrust case against autonomously colluding algorithms, antitrust agencies are discussing the problem seriously. In addition to the OECD, competition authorities in the US, Canada and UK have held roundtable or issued papers on the topic. This paper, available here, tries to understand whether tacit collusion arising from AI should be a real concern by looking, for the first time, at the emergence of collusive strategies among autonomous pricing algorithms. It takes an experimental approach, by constructing AI pricing agents and…

Francisco Beneke and Mark-Oliver Mackenrodt ‘Artificial Intelligence and Collusion’ (2019) International Review of Intellectual Property and Competition Law 50 109

Current technological developments in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) have added further complexity to the discussion of whether, in the absence of overt communications, mere tacit coordination between competitors should be outlawed. Whereas some commentators argue that the dangers posed by AI should tip the balance towards making tacit coordination illegal, there are others who are either not entirely persuaded of the plausibility of such dangers or who point out that a competition rule focusing on mere inter-firm interdependence is not administrable. This paper, available here, reviews this debate with a view to establishing whether successful price coordination achieved by self-learning algorithms should be punishable under EU competition law, and whether the current regulatory framework is suitable. Section 2 explains how AI relates to antitrust. AI is expected to arise from certain types of software algorithms. An algorithm is merely a specified sequence of steps for producing a solution to a problem. Software is a composition of individual algorithms…

Albert Sanchez-Graells ‘Competition and Public Procurement’ (2018) Journal of European Competition Law & Practice 9(8) 55

This piece, available here, surveys the interaction between competition and public procurement law in Europe. It is structured as follows: Section II looks at recent examples of competition enforcement against bid rigging. Competition law enforcement in public procurement settings remains a top enforcement priority for competition authorities in Europe. This is not only clear in the practice of the European Commission, but is also demonstrated by a continuous string of cases brought all over Europe. Recent examples of this can be found in Poland (car towing and parking services), Belgium (railway infrastructure), Latvia (security services, distribution of professional stage equipment), Ireland (retail distribution), Greece (construction), Italy (consulting services), Lithuania (construction), Denmark (construction, passenger transportation), Romania (electricity consumption equipment), or Spain (advertising services). A continued focus on competition enforcement against bid-rigging seems adequate, given the continued trend towards less competitive tenders for public contracts over the last decade or so—in part, as a result of procurement aggregation strategies, but also as a result…

Thibault Schrepel  ‘The Antitrust Blockchain Paradox’ 3 Geo. L. Tech. Rev. (Forthcoming)

This paper, which can be found here, seeks to portray the challenges that might arise regarding unilateral practices as a result of the deployment of blockchains.     It is structured in three parts: The first section details how unilateral practices can be implemented on blockchain and draws a risk map. It begins by describing how the blockchain works. This was already described in my reviews above, but it is worth pointing out that the author places some weight on the existence of two main forms of blockchain: public blockchains, also called permissionless or open blockchain, and private blockchains, also called permissioned blockchains. The main difference is that in the latter the permission to access the contents of the blockchain may be restricted to certain participants only. In practice, semi-private and private blockchains can have a multitude of access levels. The paper then turns onto conditions for the enforcement of competition law against unilateral practices. It begins by noting that there are…

European Parliament Report on ‘Competition issues in the Area of Financial Technology (FinTech)’

This Report, which can be found here,  provides an interesting overview of potential competition issues in this sphere, while acknowledging ‘the discussion about the competition problems is still hypothetical‘. Even as I am unable to summarise the (136 pages) Report, it is worthwhile emphasising that the authors believe that the application of competition law to potential anticompetitive behaviours in the FinTech sector faces several challenges, the most relevant being the difficulty in applying existing tools and methodologies to new market phenomena such as: (i) many providers operating in multi-sided markets, with concomitant difficulties in terms of market definition and identifying market power; (ii) the possibility of network effects operating as barriers to entry, together with restrictions on interoperability and the adoption of standards; (iii) the role that access to data can have in restricting competition. As far as it goes, these observations are in line with widespread concerns about digital platforms more generally – and with the recent report on the…

Reuben Binns and Elettra Bietti ‘Acquisitions in the Third-Party Tracking Industry’

This working paper, which can be found here , draws attention to one particularly complicated kind of digital data intensive industry: third party tracking, in which a firm does not (only or primarily) collect and process personal data of its own customers or users, but focuses instead on collecting data of users of other ‘first party’ services. The authors focus on mergers and acquisitions of third-party tracking firms because they raise some unique challenges which are often missed in regulatory decisions and academic discussions of data and market concentration. The paper is structured as follows: Section 1 contains a brief overview of the technical elements of third party tracking and of the business practices associated with it. This description is somewhat long because it provides a good overview of these business practices; you may want to skip it if you are familiar with them. ‘Tracking’ refers to a range of data collection and processing practices which aim to collate the behaviours…

Thomas F. Cotter, Erik Hovenkamp and Norman Siebrasse on ‘Switching Costs, Path Dependence and Patent Holdup’

Patent holdup occurs when a patent holder extracts higher royalties ex post than it could have negotiated ex ante, where the difference is not explained by an increase in the technology’s value. To date, the literature principally has focused on—indeed, sometimes conflated—two potential sources of holdup: the sunk costs the user has incurred ex ante to adopt the technology, and the “switching costs” of adopting an alternative ex post. This paper holds that the common source of holdup is neither sunk nor switching costs as such, but rather path dependence – and in particular the opportunistic exploitation of path dependence effects that magnify the value of the patented invention relative to the best available alternative. The paper, which can be found here, is structured as follows: Part II discusses the prior literature on patent holdup, along with the early literature on path dependence. Many commentaries on patent holdup confuse two important concepts – sunk and switching costs. A reader may reasonably…