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…

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…

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…

Andres Caro ‘Leveraging market power online: the Google Shopping case’ (2018) Competition Law Journal 17(1) 49

The Google Shopping case raises many important questions, such as: how do we deal with the leveraging of market power in digital markets? How do we weigh the benefits to consumers against the potential harm to competition? And, lastly, what are the appropriate remedies for this type of behaviour? In addressing these questions, this paper is structured as follows: A first section describes the background to the Google Shopping decision by the European Commission. Google aggregates, sorts, displays and provides direct access to retailers’ webpages in exchange for a fee through Google Shopping. Other online platforms, including Nextag, Foundem and Shopzilla, offer similar services. However, until early 2018 ‘while competing comparison shopping services can appear only as generic search results and are prone to the ranking of their web pages in generic search results on Google’s general search results pages being reduced (‘demoted’) by certain algorithms, Google’s own comparison shopping service is prominently positioned, displayed in rich format and is…

Edward Iacobucci and Francesco Ducci ‘The Google Search Case In Europe: Tying and the Single Monopoly Profit Theorem in Two-Sided Markets’ (2018) European Journal of Law and Economics 47 15

According to the authors, the European Commission in its Google Shopping case did not outline which theory of foreclosure justified its finding of infringement. Likewise, there is no consensus in the literature about which theory of harm may best justify the decision. In the light of this, the authors seek to develop such an economic and legal theory of harm in this paper, which can be found here. They argue that, by tying its search and shopping platforms, Google became able to serve customers with whom it would have not dealt otherwise. However, this may divert trade from potentially more efficient vertical platforms. By tying its shopping search to its general search service through visual prominence, Google can attract additional advertisers on its search platform that would otherwise have possibly advertised on competing search platforms. Thus, the effect of tying is a restriction on competition in vertical search that deserves antitrust scrutiny. The paper is structured as follows: Section 2 reviews the…

Thomas Hoppner, Felicitas Schaper, and Philipp Westerhoff ‘Google Search (Shopping) as a Precedent for Disintermediation in Other Sectors – The Example of Google for Jobs’ (2018) Journal of European Competition Law & Practice 9(10) 627

The Google Shopping decision was said by the Commission to be “a precedent which establishes the framework for the assessment of the legality of this type of conduct”, i.e. the use of a dominant platform to favour one’s own ancillary service. Despite this, in 2018 Google launched a new service, Google for Jobs, for the matching of job seekers and employers in Europe. This article, available here, examines whether the manner with which Google is presenting its new Google for Jobs service on its general search results pages complies with the precedent set out by the Google Shopping decision. The paper is structured as follows: Sections II and III provide some insights into search and search bias, and reviews the European Commission’s Google Shopping decision. Upon a user’s query in Google Search, Google’s general search results pages generally produce three different categories of search results: (i) Generic Search Results, (ii) Specialised Search Results and (iii) AdWords Results. The likelihood that a user…

Nicholas Banasevic ‘The European Commission’s Android Decision and Broader Lessons for Article 102 Enforcement’ CPI Antitrust Chronicle December 2018

The aim of this article, which can be found here, is to analyse some of the main issues that arose in the European Commission’s Google Android decision, and to place these issues in the context of hotly debated broader themes relating to antitrust enforcement in hi-tech markets. The author is head of unit at the European Commission, so his analysis may be more authoritative than other ones, at least until the full decision is published.  The piece is structured as follows: Section II provides an overview of the Commission’s decision. Android is an open-source smart mobile operating system. Google started providing the core version of Android commercially to smartphone and tablet manufacturers (“OEMs”) for free, but included a range of contractual requirements relating to the terms for obtaining Google’s associated proprietary apps (e.g. Google’s search app) and services. The free and open-source provision of Android was a key part of getting all major OEMs signed up, which led (by 2011) to Google…

Randal Picker ‘Google Android Antitrust: Dominance Pivots and a Business Model Clash in Brussels’ CPI Antitrust Chronicle December 2018,

This paper, which can be found here,  argues that the Android decision is an exercise in platform engineering by European antitrust authorities. The decision makes a statement about acceptable entry paths for firms dominant in one market into another by demanding that a successful firm pivot away from the practices that consumers found valuable, and that indeed led to the emergence of dominance in the first place. In doing so, the Commission appears to undervalue the virtues of business model competition. The paper is structured as follows: Section II describes the European Commission’s interactions with Google. Google’s core business consists of organic horizontal search results matched with ads paid for by third parties. This, of course, is the classic business model of media markets offering consumers content – sometimes for a fee, sometimes for free – and charging advertisers that want to reach those consumers. So-called vertical search competitors, on the other hand, offered specialised search results. On November 30,…