Thibault Schrepel ‘Collusion by Blockchain and Smart Contracts’ 33 Harvard Journal of Law Technology (forthcoming, 2019)

This article, available here, introduces the first taxonomy of collusion on the blockchain. It explores the functioning, robustness and limits of such collusive practices, and highlights how companies may use smart contracts and sophisticated algorithms to collude in the blockchain environment.   An introductory section describes blockchain technology and its potential uses. A blockchain is an open and distributed ledger recording all sorts of transactions between users. Consensus mechanisms are used to make sure that information and transactions are recorded on the blockchain. This, in turn, means that data and records on the blockchain cannot be easily modified, which in turn breeds trust. Blockchains assign three different roles to their users. Blockchain users may read the information on the blockchain, propose new transactions and validate the blocks. On public (“permissionless”) blockchain, all users can read and propose new entries into the blockchain. Block validation is restricted to some users only, following a consensus mechanism. On private (“permissioned”) blockchains, all three actions can…

The Blockchain (R)evolution and the Role of Antitrust

This piece, available here, explores a number of (EU) antitrust issues that may arise in the context of blockchains. It is structured as follows: The paper starts by explaining what the blockchain is and what it can do. The blockchain is a technology that uses a software protocol based on cryptography to keep exchanges secure. It allows anybody in the chain to see all transactions on it, removes the need for trusted intermediaries keeping a transaction ledger, and ensures that the transaction ledger is immutable and very hard to tamper with. Blockchains can be divided into open and permissioned networks. Open (i.e. public) networks are accessible to anyone, so that the database is truly public information. This is the case of the blockchains underlying Bitcoin and Ethereum. Permissioned (i.e. private) networks make access conditional upon authorisation by the owner or owners of the network. An example of a permissioned network is Corda, a distributed ledger platform designed specifically for financial institutions to…

Sebastian Louven and David Saive ‘Antitrust by Design – The Prohibition of Anti-Competitive Coordination and the Consensus Mechanism of the Blockchain’ ZRI Working Paper

This paper, available here , argues that important competition concerns arise from the use of consensus mechanisms in blockchains. Under such mechanisms, new information is only added to the database if the majority of network participants, the ‘nodes’, agree to do so. This requires coordination between the various network participants, which raises questions regarding whether and to what extent this voting behaviour is anticompetitive. The paper also discusses what type of measures may be adopted to ensure that a blockchain complains with competition law by design. It is structured as follows: Its second section provides the legal background for concerns about the functioning of consensus mechanisms. Information may be exchanged between competitors in a blockchain that would otherwise have remained undisclosed to the participating companies or the public. In some cases, public disclosure or selective disclosure of certain information may have procompetitive effects, e.g. when information is aggregated and contributes to greater price transparency so that customers can make more informed decisions, thus…

Christian Catalini and Catherine Tucker ‘Antitrust and Costless Verification: An Optimistic and a Pessimistic View of the Implications of Blockchain Technology’

This paper’s basic argument is that the blockchain holds both promises and threats for antitrust. There is reason to think that the decentralised nature of some blockchain implementations may reduce the need for antitrust enforcement, as it prevents the accumulation of market power by digital platforms. But there is also reason to believe that the technology may pose practical challenges for antitrust enforcement. Antitrust law is set up on the premise that there is a clearly demarcated firm (or set of firms) that may try to seek market power. The decentralised nature of the technology means that identifying an entity to prosecute or hold responsible for any degree of market power (or its abuse) is impossible, and that collusion and price setting between competitors may be harder to detect. The paper begins by describing the blockchain, and why it should matter for antitrust. From an economics perspective, an implementation of blockchain technology has two key characteristics: (i) a set of…

Falk Schöning and Myrto Tagara ‘Blockchain: Lessons learnt from the net neutrality debate and competition law related aspects’ (2018) Concurrences N° 3-2018

The paper, which can be found here, identifies a number of areas where competition law may intervene in the blockchain sphere, and discusses what the best approach to problems in this area are. One of the authors spoke at the OECD on the blockchain – you can see the video here.   The paper is structured as follows: It begins with a short introduction to the blockchain technology. The paper reviewed above provides a much more detailed intro into the topic than this paper, so I am not going to repeat it here. Section III then looks at the interplay between blockchain and competition law. It starts by recalling that competition law provisions apply to undertakings. From a competition law perspective, the blockchain landscape of today is analogous to that of search engines, e-commerce platforms and algorithms in the 1990s. Ten years ago, no one thought that competition law authorities would focus their enforcement priorities on these applications, triggering investigations…

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…

Cyril Ritter ‘Antitrust in two-sided markets: looking at the U.S. Supreme Court’s Amex case from an EU perspective’ Journal of European Competition Law & Practice (2019, forthcoming)

As reviewed in last week’s email/posts, the U.S. Supreme Court recently found that American Express’s ‘anti-steering’ rules did not violate U.S. antitrust law (in a decision reviewed here). In its judgment, the Supreme Court addressed a variety of topics essential to antitrust analysis – market definition, two-sided markets, harm through price effects and output effects, cross-market efficiencies and ancillary restraints – in ways which are at odds with the European approach. This paper, available here, seeks to compare the EU and US approaches in this respect.   It is structured as follows: Section three contains a comparison of the AmEx majority and dissenting opinions. In the interest of clarity, I will review it here, instead of following the paper’s structure. In Ohio v American Express, the majority held that only one market should be defined in two-sided transaction markets. Because there is a single relevant market, cognisable harm must refer to net harm across merchants and cardholders. Even demonstrating that the benefits…

Sainsbury v MasterCard, Asda et al. v MasterCard and Sainsbury v Visa [2018] EWCA 1536 (Civ)

This is a UK judgment by the Court of Appeal concerning the correct approach to payment cards’ interchange fees. The decision was issued on appeal from three different lower court judgments that focused on whether the setting of default multilateral interchange fees (“MIFs”) within the MasterCard and Visa payment card systems amounted to an anticompetitive collusive practice. It is important to begin by describing the factual background of all these cases. Unlike American Express, or the card system at stake in the US Supreme Court judgment discussed above, MasterCard and Visa are four-party card schemes. Such schemes work as follows: a merchant accepts certain credit and debit cards pursuant to an agreement with an “Acquirer”, i.e. a bank or financial institution belonging to the MasterCard or VISA scheme. The card will have been issued by another bank belonging to the scheme (the ‘Issuer’). The Acquirer will charge a fee to the Merchant for the services it provided in respect of a…

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…

Dennis Carlton ‘The Anticompetitive Effects of Vertical Most-Favored-Nation Restraints and the Error of Amex’ (2019) Columbia Business Law Review 88

Ohio v American Express involved the use of what are called “no steering” restraints, in which a retailer is not allowed to use a variety of tactics to steer a consumer away from using an American Express (“Amex”) card and towards using another payment mechanism, such as money or competing payment cards. The reason why a merchant might want to do this is because the cost that the merchant incurs when a customer uses an Amex card can be higher than when the customer uses another credit card, debit card or cash. Although not challenged in the case, the Amex contractual rules also prevent a retailer from imposing a surcharge on customers who use an Amex card to reflect the higher merchant cost. The contractual clause at stake in this case was a type of vertical most-favoured-nation (‘MFN’) restraint, i.e. a restraint in which one supplier tells a retailer that the retailer cannot set the retail price of its product…