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Category: Antitrust

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Search Engine Objectivity

(This is a guest post from Professor Mark R. Patterson of Fordham Law School. As someone who has participated in panels on antitrust with Prof. Patterson, I thought our readers would be interested in his perspective. –Frank Pasquale.)

pattersonM“Search is inherently subjective: it always involves guessing the diverse and unknown intentions of users. Regulators, however, need an objective standard to judge search engines against.”

The two claims above, from an essay by James Grimmelmann, are at the center of the conflict over regulation of search engines. Some argue that Google is a powerful gatekeeper for competing firms’ access to customers, so that it must operate in an objective or neutral manner to preserve a level competitive playing field. Those who make this argument necessarily assume that we can assess objectivity or neutrality in this context. Others, like Grimmelmann, support the first statement above, arguing that there is no objective, neutral means of assessing search results, so that there is no way to regulate search engines.

The European Commission (EC), having investigated Google’s practices and concluded that there are “competition concerns,” is apparently on the pro-regulation side, because it is entertaining proposed commitments from Google to address those concerns. (The U.S. F.T.C. conducted its own investigation and closed it without action, concluding that there was insufficient evidence to support the claim that Google’s practices lacked a legitimate business justification.) Google proposed a first set of commitments to the EC in April, but the Commission received “very negative” feedback from a market test of those commitments, so it asked Google for an improved proposal. Last month, Google proposed a second set of commitments. This new proposal was not put to a market test. Instead, the EC sent private inquiries to the complainants in the case and other market participants. Nevertheless, the proposal was leaked, and it offers much food for thought.

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The Dualities of Freedom and Innovation

What a rollercoaster week of incredibly thoughtful reviews of Talent Wants to Be Free! I am deeply grateful to all the participants of the symposium.  In The Age of Mass Mobility: Freedom and Insecurity, Anupam Chander, continuing Frank Pasquale’s and Matt Bodie’s questions about worker freedom and market power, asks whether Talent Wants to Be Free overly celebrates individualism, perhaps at the expense of a shared commitment to collective production, innovation, and equality. Deven Desai in What Sort of Innovation? asks about the kinds of investments and knowledge that are likely to be encouraged through private markets versus. And in Free Labor, Free Organizations,Competition and a Sports Analogy Shubha Ghosh reminds us that to create true freedom in markets we need to look closely at competition policy and antitrust law. These question about freedom/controls; individualism/collectivity; private/public are coming from left and right. And rightly so. These are fundamental tensions in the greater project of human progress and Talent Wants to Be Free strives to shows how certain dualities are pervasive and unresolvable. As Brett suggested, that’s where we need to be in the real world. From an innovation perspective, I describe in the book how “each of us holds competing ideas about the essence of innovation and conflicting views about the drive behind artistic and inventive work. The classic (no doubt romantic) image of invention is that of exogenous shocks, radical breakthroughs, and sweeping discoveries that revolutionize all that was before. The lone inventor is understood to be driven by a thirst for knowledge and a unique capacity to find what no one has seen before. But the solitude in the romantic image of the lone inventor or artist also leads to an image of the insignificance of place, environment, and ties…”.  Chapter 6 ends with the following visual:

 

Dualities of Innovation:

Individual / Collaborative

Radical/Incremental

Accidental /Deliberate

Global /Local

Passion / Profit

Art/Science

Exclusive/Shared

Inscribed/Tacit

 

And yet, the book takes on the contrarian title Talent Wants to Be Free! We are at a moment in history in which the pendulum has shifted too far. We have too much, not too little, controls over information, mobility and knowledge. We uncover this imbalance through the combination of a broad range of methodologies: historical, empirical, experimental, comparitive, theoretical, and normative. These are exciting times for innovation research and as I hope to convince the readers of Talent, insights from all disciplines are contributing to these debates.

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A Time for Action: The Double Gain of Freer Regions and the Double Speak about Talent Droughts

As Catherine Fisk and Danielle Citron point out in their thoughtful reviews here and here, the wisdom of freeing talent must go beyond private firm level decisions; beyond the message to corporations about what the benefits of talent mobility, beyond what Frank Pasquale’s smartly spun as “reversing Machiavelli’s famous prescription, Lobel advises the Princes of modern business that it is better to be loved than feared.” To get to an optimal equilibrium of knowledge exchanges and mobility, smart policy is needed and policymakers must to pay attention to research. Both Fisk and Citron raise questions about the likelihood that we will see reforms anytime soon. As Fisk points out — and as her important historical work has skillfully shown, and more recently, as we witness developments in several states including Michigan, Texas and Georgia as well as (again as Fisk and Citron point out) in certain aspects of the pending Restatement of Employment — the movement of law and policy has actually been toward more human capital controls rather than less. This is perhaps unsurprising to many of us. Like with the copyright extension act which was the product of heavyweight lobbying, these shifts were supported by strong interest groups. What is perhaps different with the talent wars is the robust evidence that suggests that everyone, corporations large and small, new and old, can gain from loosening controls. Citron points to an irony that I too have been quite troubled by: the current buzz is about the intense need for talent, the talent drought, the shortage in STEM graduates. As Citron describes, the art and science of recruitment is all the rage. But while we debate reforms in schooling and reforms in immigration policies, we largely neglect to consider a reality of much deadweight loss of through talent controls.

The good news is that not only in Massachusetts, where the governor has just expressed his support in reforming state law to narrow the use of  non-competes, but also in other state legislatures , courts and agencies, we see a greater willingness to think seriously about positive reforms. At the state level, the jurisdictional variations points to the double gain of regions that void or at least strongly narrow the use of non-competes. California for example gains twice: first by encouraging more human capital flow intra-regionally and second, by its willingness to give refuge to employees who have signed non-competes elsewhere. In other words, the positive effects stem not only from having the right policies of setting talent free but also from its comparative advantage vis-à-vis more controlling states. This brain gain effect has been shown empirically: areas that enforce strong post-employment controls have higher rates of departure of inventors to other regions. States that weakly enforce non-competes are on the receiving side of the cream of the crop. One can only hope that legislature and business leaders will take these findings very seriously.

At the federal level, in a novel approach to antitrust the federal government recently took up the investigation of anti-competitive practices between high-tech giants that had agreed not to poach one another’s employee. This in fact relates to Shubha Gosh’s questions about defining competition and the meaning of free and open labor markets. And it is a good moment to pause about the extent to which we encourage secrecy in both private and public organizations. It is a moment in which the spiraling scandals of economic espionage by governments coupled with leaks and demand for more transparency require us to think hard. In this context, Citron is right to raise the question of government 2.0 – for individuals to be committed and motivated to contribute to innovation, they need some assurances that their contributions will not be entirely appropriated by concentrated interests.

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Credit Card Merchant Fee Settlement — Injunctive Relief

Credit Card CroppedPrior installments in this series addressed the background leading up to the credit card merchant fee class action and the damages provisions in the b(3) opt out class action.  This post addresses the injunctive relief provisions that the settlement in In re: Payment Card Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation styles as a mandatory b(2) non-opt out class action.  An upcoming final installment in this series will address the release provisions in the settlement.

B(2) classes are appropriate where the nature of the injunctive relief is such that it will necessarily affect every class member.  After setting out the relief proposed in the settlement, I’ll provide some thoughts on whether b(2) is really an appropriate device for this case.  Perhaps class action experts out there could weigh in on this issue in the comments.

The injunctive relief set out by the settlement is notable for what is not provided.  Nothing in the settlement addresses the core concerns in the complaint about (1) the collective setting of a default interchange fee; (2) the rule prohibiting merchants from rejecting the cards of, surcharging the card transactions of, or otherwise discriminating against some card-issuing banks, but not others; or (3) the rules making it impossible for merchants to route transactions over the least expensive network.

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Credit Card Merchant Fee Settlement – Damages Provisions

Credit Card CroppedThis post will evaluate the settlement’s damages provisions.  You can find my first post providing background on the litigation here.  The settlement provided that upon the court’s preliminary approval, the card networks would pay $6.05 billion, 2/3 from Visa and 1/3 from MasterCard into a settlement fund.  Depending on how many merchants chose to opt out, however, the defendants retained the right to reduce the fund through take down payments of up to 25% of the total and to kill the deal if opt outs exceeded that amount.  Opt outs exceeded that amount, but the defendants have not abandoned the settlement.  In addition to the flat fee award, Visa and MasterCard agreed to cut their applicable interchange fees by 10 basis points for eight months.  Rather than actually reducing the fees paid by merchants, however, Visa and MasterCard would withhold 10 basis points from collected fees that would otherwise have been paid to card issuers.  This amount would then be contributed into the settlement fund within 60 days from the expiration of the eight-month period.  This contribution would be non-refundable, regardless of opt outs.

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The Credit Card Merchant Fee Litigation Settlement

I’d like to thank Concurring Opinions for inviting me to blog about In re: Payment Card Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation.  This eight-year-old multi-district litigation has produced the largest proposed cash settlement in litigation history  ($7.25 billion) along with what is perhaps the most extraordinary release from liability ever concocted.  It may also be the most contentious.  Over half the name plaintiffs and over 25% of the class, including most large merchants (think Walmart, Target) and most merchant organizations, have objected.  On September 12, Eastern District of New York Judge John Gleesaon held a fairness hearing to consider the settlement, and the parties are awaiting his decision.  An appeal is a virtual certainty.

This post will provide background on the credit card industry pricing mechanisms that led to this litigation, the legal issues in the case, and the structure of the settlement.  (You can read more about the history of the credit card industry’s relationship to the antitrust laws here.)  In subsequent posts, I’ll separately analyze the damages and relief provisions in the settlement.  (If you can’t wait 8-) my working paper analyzing the settlement is here.)  If there are particular issues that you’d like to read more about, let me know in the comments and I will respond in subsequent posts.

The credit card industry is atypical, but not unique, in that it competes in a two-sided market, i.e., one that serves two distinct customer bases.  A card system like Visa provides both a purchasing device (credit cards) to consumers and a payment acceptance service to merchants.  (By way of comparison, the legal blogging market is also two-sided.  Concurring Opinions provides both an information forum to its readers and a platform to its advertisers.)

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Introducing Special Guest Blogger Steve Semeraro on the $7.25 Billion Visa Mastercard Settlement

Good readers,

Allow me to introduce my friend and colleague, Prof. Steve Semeraro. Steve’s research focuses on antitrust and criminal law. He authored the Law Professors’ Amicus Brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case Verizon v. Trinko. He currently serves as the Book Review Editor of the American Journal of Legal History and the antitrust & competition expert for the Ethics & Compliance Alliance. He is a graduate of Stanford Law School and has worked at the Department of Justice, Antitrust Division, where he led civil antitrust investigations of the optical disc and credit card industries. That brings us to why I asked him to guest blog for us.

Steve’s work on the $7.25 billion Visa and Mastercard settlement which addresses disputes between merchants and Visa and Mastercard was cited by Professor Alan Sykes, the court appointed expert for the settlement. I asked Steve to post a bit about the settlement. He has agreed. So welcome, Steve, and we look forward to your posts.

“Kicking the Tires” is not “Looking Under the Hood”

Celebrated in the tech press only a week ago, the FTC inaction (and non-explanation of its inaction) with respect to search bias concerns is already starting to curdle. The FT ran a front page headline titled “Europe Takes Tough Stance on Google.” Another story included this striking comment from the EU’s competition chief:

Almunia insists that the Federal Trade Commission decision will be “neither an obstacle [for the European Commission] nor an advantage [for Google]. You can also think, well, this European authority, the commission, has received a gift from the American authorities, given that now every result they will get will be much better than the conclusions of the FTC,” he said with playful confidence. “Google people know very well that they need to provide results and real remedies, not arguments or comparisons with what happened on the other side [of the Atlantic].”

In response to allegations of search bias, Google has essentially said, “Trust us.” And at the end of its investigation into the potential bias, the FTC has essentially said the same. One public interest group has already put in a FOIA request for communications between Google and the FTC. Consumer Watchdog has requested a staff report that was reported to have recommended more robust action. Will Google, an advocate of openness in government and the internet generally, hold firm to its professed principles and commend those requests?
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Google Antitrust: the FTC Folds

Both Eric Goldman and James Grimmelmann have the details on the FTC’s rather extraordinary capitulation today. It is a big win for Google. Still, a few questions remain. I have the following:

1) Commissioner Rosch included this intriguing footnote in his concurrence/dissent:

I . . . have concerns that insofar as Google has monopoly or near-monopoly power in the search advertising market and this power is due in whole or in part to its power over searches generally, nothing in this “settlement” prevents Google from telling “half-truths”–for example, that its gathering of information about the characteristics of a consumer is done solely for the consumer’s benefit, instead of also to maintain a monopoly or near-monopoly position. . . .That is a genuine cause for “strong concern.”

Did Google ever say that it was gathering data purely for consumers’ benefit? That would seem to be an odd representation for a for-profit company to make.
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My Brand Journey, Part II (and a conference)

After the genericism piece, brands were on my mind and luckily some friends knew it. My brand project was the focus of my work at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology. Brett Frischmann knew that Spencer Waller was thinking about brands as was I. Spencer and I connected, and Brands, Competition and the Law was born. We argued that brands do much more than trademark or antitrust law recognizes. Brands indicate more than source and quality, enable non-price factors to differentiate products, and drive consumption for non-functional reasons. Furthermore, as business and marketing folks know, brands allow for rent extraction. Brands allow prices to remain high even in markets where one might expect them to converge. Brands “ensconce[e] price dispersion, … instead of a competitive market that brings prices down, prices remain dispersed above marginal cost.” Michael Baye and John Morgan’s work shows this for an online market no less. We turned to antitrust and found that antitrust law simply does not account for brands well. Market definition is odd here. For a strong brand is in a way its own market. Glynn Lunney’s work on Trademark Monopolies (no ssrn that I saw) was most helpful there. Price discrimination might signal a change in how one defines the market. Brands allow such actions but are ignored. There’s more on how understanding brands would change the way anti-trust might run. But I leave those interested to read the paper OR there is this offer.

The work led to a conference at University College London hosted by Ioannis Lianos where our abstract framed the day’s discussion.

Now, if you like, the follow up conference is in the U.S.

It will be in Chicago on October 19, 2012. Registration is here.