The Common Understanding of G7 Competition Authorities on “Competition and the Digital Economy”

While adopted on 5 June, this communique was embargoed until yesterday. It can now be found here. As it says on the tin, this document reflects the common position that the competition authorities in the G7 countries (namely, the Autoritá Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato (Italy), the Autorité de la Concurrence (France), the Bundeskartellamt (Germany), the Competition Bureau (Canada), the Competition and Markets Authority (United Kingdom), the Department of Justice (United States of America), the Directorate General for Competition (European Commission), the Federal Trade Commission (United States of America) and the Japan Fair Trade Commission (Japan)) have reached on the digital economy. It may come as no surprise that the level of agreement is relatively thin, and that the document does not go into the most controversial topics addressed in the reports reviewed last week and further below. The common understanding begins with the mandatory section on the benefits of the digital economy. Investment and innovation in the digital…

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…

Daniel Sokol ‘Reinvigorating Criminal Antitrust?’ (2019) William & Mary Law Review 60 1545

A number of non-cartel antitrust infringements remain crimes under US law, even if they are not prosecuted in practice. This article, available here, deals with the implications of recent claims for increased antitrust enforcement for the application of such provisions.  A natural extension of enforcement would be to advocate the use of criminal sanctions for various antitrust violations outside of collusion which are “on the books” but have not been used in over a generation. The article argues that a return to the criminalisation of non-collusion related antitrust abuses is problematic not only as a matter of optimal deterrence, but also unconstitutional as a matter of law. Section one describes how antitrust criminalisation is a form of achieving deterrence. Antitrust enforcement builds on models of optimal deterrence. Under an optimal deterrence antitrust framework, a firm or individual will be deterred where the expected costs of illegal activity, taking into account the probability of detection and magnitude of the penalties, exceed…

Andreas Stephan ‘An empirical evaluation of the normative justifications for cartel criminalisation’ (2017) Legal Studies 37(4) 621

A growing number of jurisdictions treat ‘hard-core’ cartel conduct as crime, in the belief that the threat of incarceration is necessary for deterrence. For many years, the US was the only active criminal cartel enforcement regime in the world. Cartels were first prohibited under the US Sherman Act 1890 as misdemeanours, and became a felony in 1974. The US Department of Justice regularly secures convictions of firms and individuals – many of whom agree to serve custodial sentences under negotiated plea agreements – from around the world. In the past 20 years, there has been an international movement towards the US model. Around 25 jurisdictions have criminalised ‘hard-core’ cartel conduct, including the UK, France, Ireland and Australia – with many more having adopted criminal offences that relate only to bid-rigging in public procurement. Most of these jurisdictions have chosen to retain their civil enforcement powers in parallel, so as to use criminal enforcement selectively. However, there is still disagreement over…

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…