Konstantinos Stylianou ‘What can the first blockchain antitrust case teach us about the crypto-economy?’

This note, available here, describes the first ever blockchain antitrust case. In December 2018, UnitedCorp, a diversified technology company, sued Bitmain, the largest Bitcoin mining pool, in the first blockchain dispute with a focus on antitrust (United American Corp. v. Bitmain, Inc. Complaint). The case, pending before the District Court for the Southern District of Florida, is at its core a familiar collusion claim. The facts and allegations are as follows. UnitedCorp offers a number of blockchain solutions. These include BlockNum, which allows the execution of blockchain transactions using regular phone numbers; and BlockchainDome, a cryptocurrency mining system that uses the heat generated from the mining process to heat greenhouses for agricultural purposes. Both technologies rely on a cryptocurrency called Bitcoin Cash, one of the hundreds of publicly available (permissionless) cryptocurrencies. As with other cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin Cash’s whitepaper and protocols set out its rules and governance. In November 2018, protocol developers disagreed on how to update Bitcoin Cash’s protocols. This resulted…

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…

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…

Joshua Wright and John Yun ‘Burdens and Balancing in Multisided Markets: The First Principles Approach of Ohio v. American Express’ (2019) Review of Industrial Organization

This article, available here, argues, contrary to the arguments made in the piece above, that the Supreme Court decided the Ohio v American Express case correctly. Multisided platforms have distinct and critical features that set them apart from single-sided markets. Any prima facie antitrust assessment of competitive harm must incorporate the impact on consumers in all sides of a market regardless of market definition, and output effects should be the primary emphasis of any such competitive effects analysis. The paper is structured as follows: Section 2 identifies two broad schools of thought on market definition and competitive effects for multisided platforms. There is a divide among antitrust practitioners, courts, and economists regarding how multisided platforms should be assessed in antitrust investigations. A first school advocates for a separate effects and markets’ approach. Because users on different sides of a platform have different economic interests, it is inappropriate to view platform competition as being for a single-product offered at a single (i.e., net,…

Erik Hovenkamp ‘Platform Antitrust’ Journal of Corporation Law (forthcoming),

This paper argues that the recent Supreme Court decision in American Express v Ohio is misguided. It is available here. Platform competition creates challenges for antitrust, but does not warrant the upheaval of the antitrust laws that the Supreme Court’s majority opinion prescribed. Instead, the traditional rule-of-reason approach is much better suited to deal with such cases. The paper is structured as follows: The paper begins by providing an overview of the distinctive features of platforms and platform competition, as reflected in the platform economics’ literature. There is no universally accepted definition of a two-sided platform, since multi-sidedness is a matter of degree. The economic literature identifies various types of platforms, such as: (a) transaction platforms, i.e. platforms that provide instrumental value by facilitating transactions between the two sides of a market; and (b) media platforms, where the two-sides of a platform comprise consumers of content and advertisers. It is sufficient here to describe a two-sided platform as a firm that (a)…

Giovanna Massarotto ‘From Standard Oil to Google: How the Role of Antitrust Law Has Changed’ (2018) World Competition 41(3) 395

This paper, which can be found here, explores the evolution of antitrust over time, and how some of the challenges with network businesses are recurring issues for competition law. It is structured as follows: Section 1 examines the evolution of antitrust law over time. Before the introduction of antitrust law, markets were generally subject to self-regulation. Antitrust was introduced to regulate a number of business practices without engaging in full-fledged regulation. Nonetheless, antitrust has teeth and can be quite intrusive. A first example of this can be seen in the Standard Oil case. Standard Oil’s success was mainly due to a set of mergers and trusts it entered into with its competitors and railroads. The result of this success was that, by the 1890s, most businesses had to deal with Standard Oil or with one of the constituents of its extensive trust l. In order to address the  ‘evil of restriction of output’, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of the…

Michael Katz ‘Platform economics and antitrust enforcement: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ (2019) Journal of Economics and Management Strategy 28 138

This article, available here, argues that, while the economics of multisided platforms have led to important insights for antitrust policy, academic knowledge falls short of providing useful advice to enforcement agencies and courts on a number of critical topics. The author identifies several areas in which economics research could potentially make significant contributions to the practical antitrust treatment of platforms. The paper is structured as follows: Section 2 discusses various economic definitions of platforms. When should a firm be defined as a multisided platform? As has been widely noted among academics, there is a lack of consensus regarding the definition of a multisided platform. For purposes of antitrust economics, a fruitful way to rephrase the question is to ask: under what conditions is it important to account for cross‐platform interactions to ensure an accurate understanding of industry equilibrium, and when is it meaningful to examine just one side of a firm’s operations? The paper reviews a number of definitions that have been…

Patrick Todd ‘Intra-platform exclusion in software markets’ (2018) Journal of Antitrust Enforcement 6 409

This article, available here, analyses situations where platform operators design their platforms in a way that is liable to exclude intra-platform competitors. Exclusion in intra-platform markets require certain intricacies that existing theories of harm in antitrust law do not anticipate; thus, applying those theories unyieldingly is liable to cause confusion and result in judicial error. Authorities must formulate policies that detect anticompetitive exclusion without deterring innovation, and apply that policy consistently across comparable cases. Existing cases reveal that some authorities and courts have been taking a sensible approach to intra-platform exclusion, whereas others, especially in the EU, have shown a tendency to protect excluded intra-platform firms at the expense of consumer welfare. The paper is structured as follows: Section II defines software platforms and describes platform owners’ relationships with third-parties that distribute services through their platforms. Software platforms are code-based infrastructures that facilitate exchanges and transactions through the creation of one or multiple downstream ‘intra-platform’ markets. Through a platform, users can transact with…

Jonathan Baker and Fiona Scott Morton on ‘Antitrust Enforcement against Platform MFNs’ (2018) Yale Law Journal 127 2176

 . This paper, available here, argues for more vigorous antitrust enforcement against Most Favoured Nation (MFN) provisions in the platform context. A MFN clause requires providers to refrain from offering their products or services at lower prices on other platforms. During the past two decades, antitrust enforcement against MFN provisions has grown, particularly in Europe. In contrast, there have been almost no enforcement actions against platform MFNs in the United States. The authors make a number of proposals to reverse this trend. The article is structured as follows: Part I shows how platform MFNs can harm competition and consumers, despite their potential competitive benefits. The authors’ draw on the economics’ literature on the effects of MFNs generally, and platform MFNs in particular. Simple MFNs commit sellers not to discount selectively, which assures covered buyers that they will be charged the lowest price offered by the seller. At first blush, one might expect this provision to lead to lower prices for covered buyers….

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…