Should we break-up Big Tech?

In recent years, digital technologies have profoundly changed many aspects of our daily lives, from e-commerce to internet search, travel, communication or entertainment consumption. While for the most part these changes have benefited consumers, certain voices have started to speak up against the power and influence of the Big Tech companies – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple in particular, accusing them of stifling innovation, dealing unfairly with their suppliers, and violating our privacy among others. Elizabeth Warren, one of the most prominent candidates to the Democratic investiture in the U.S., recently called for a much tougher policy approach towards Big Tech, proposing in particular to dismantle some of these companies, a call that has received a certain echo in the press and among politicians.

To understand whether we should break-up – some of – the big tech companies, it is important to understand why they have become so big, whether such a situation is actually harmful to consumers, and whether a break-up is an appropriate solution.

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Many digital markets are characterised by the existence of economies of scale and of network effects (see Shapiro, Carl and Varian, 1998). The former corresponds to the idea that the average cost goes down with the number of units sold, which is typical of information goods: their production entails a large fixed cost, but they can be reproduced for a small marginal cost. For instance, once a search engine algorithm has been developed – at a considerable cost, answering an individual query is virtually costless.

Network effects are the demand-side equivalent of economies of scale: a product is more valuable the more users it has. If a social network like Facebook is a natural example of direct network effects, other platforms may exhibit indirect network effects: Android users exert a positive externality on each other, not because communication is easier between Android devices, but rather because more Android users attract more application developers to the platform (see Caillaud, Bernard and Jullien, 2003).

The use of data by technology companies is a particularly important source of returns to scale and network effects: as firms get more data, they can offer better products or services, or produce them more cheaply. Big Data also allow firms to realise economies of scope, that is to enter new markets thanks to the insights generated on their primary market – having access to your email data allows to offer a better calendar app.

By giving an advantage to larger firms, economies of scale and network effects can result in market tipping, that is in one firm becoming dominant as a natural result of the competitive process. The perspective of monopoly is worrying, but two forces push in the opposite direction. First, while possible, tipping is not guaranteed even in the presence of network effects. When these effects are intermediate, they can even intensify competition, as the fight for additional users becomes more intense. Second, even when they lead to monopoly, network effects and economies of scale can induce firms to compete harder to be the early leader: competition for the market, rather than in the market.

Breaking-up a monopolist in such a market, by creating several smaller networks, could result in increased competition. For instance, competing social networks could be induced to offer better privacy protection in order to attract more consumers. But breaking-up a network results in the fragmentation of the market, with some groups of consumers being unable to interact with others. This could make consumers switch network in order to enjoy more interactions, and eventually lead back to market tipping, thereby undoing the break-up.

The big technology firms have not passively enjoyed the rents of their position of natural monopolists, but have instead used a variety of strategies to protect or extend it, some of which have been deemed anticompetitive. Google, for instance, has been fined three times by the European Commission. One set of practices consisted of imposing restrictive clauses – exclusivity, tying –  to its trading partners, thereby preventing its rivals from competing on the merits. For instance, a rival search engine would have had to develop its own application store – or to pay a lot of money – in order to convince a device manufacturer to choose it over Google – and its very popular app store Google Play (see De Cornière and Taylor, 2018).

Another practice consisted in systematically favoring Google Shopping at the expense of other comparison shopping services on Google’s search engine. This issue of “own-content bias” has taken a new dimension with the emergence of internet gatekeepers such as Google or Amazon, the latter having also been accused – but not yet fined – of favoring its own brands on its platform. Own-content bias may also take other forms, such as when Spotify is required to pay Apple a fee when consumers subscribe through iOS, which puts it at a disadvantage compared to Apple Music. Platforms leveraging their dominant position on complementary markets is a key motivation for the proponents of breaking-up these firms.

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Despite these legitimate concerns over exclusionary practices by multiproduct incumbents, it is not clear that a break-up – say, separating the search and the shopping activities of Google – would be desirable. First, in the presence of complementary products, common ownership enables firms to better coordinate their production decisions and achieve superior outcomes, which is the reason why competition authorities view vertical mergers more favorably than horizontal ones. Second, being able to use the data acquired on their dominant market on another market gives these firms further incentives to improve their core product. Forcing, say, Amazon to divest its personal assistant business would probably marginally weaken its incentives to offer cheap products on its platform. Third, a break-up in itself would not be sufficient to ensure neutrality of the platform, since they could use other contracts with some of the participants ensuring preferential treatment in exchange for a commission, a common practice in many industries (see De Cornière and Taylor, forthcoming).

A more sensible course of action consists in monitoring more closely the behavior of dominant platforms, and to intervene more quickly. At the moment antitrust actions take too much time to be carried out, and by the time they are the markets have changed, usually to the detriment of smaller rivals. Several recent reports make related arguments,  advocating a more responsive competition policy or the creation of a sectoral regulator (see the UK report “Unlocking digital competition: report from the digital competition expert panel”, or Cremer, Montjoye and Schweitzer, 2019).

Tech giants have also been accused of using acquisitions to cement their market power, buying out the start-ups that could potentially represent a threat to their dominant position. The typical illustration of this phenomenon is Facebook, with its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp – and failed bid for SnapChat.  Google and Amazon have also been very active acquiring start-ups: over the past ten years, these three firms have bought around 300 companies, often relatively young. Most of these acquisitions have not been reviewed by competition authorities because they do not meet the various turnover thresholds.

One concern is that some of these acquisitions are “killer acquisitions,” i.e. made only for the purpose of shutting down potential competition, a phenomenon recently studied in the pharmaceutical sector (see Cunningham et. al 2018). Things look different in the tech sector, as many of the targets offer products that are complementary to the incumbents, and the perspective of being bought out by a big firm is a strong incentive to innovate. At the same time, economies of scope might turn a firm that offers a complementary product today into a rival tomorrow, but it is hard to predict when this is the case.

In markets such as these, with young firms and rapidly evolving technologies, competition authorities are bound to make errors, either of type I – blocking a pro-competitive one – or type II – approving an anticompetitive merger. The current situation is very asymmetric, as none of the reviewed acquisitions by the Big Tech firms have been blocked. This is certainly suboptimal, especially given that the cost of a type II error, namely elimination of competition, is probably much larger than that of a type I error. While recognising that predicting the effects of a merger is especially difficult in innovative markets, moving the needle towards a stricter approach to mergers in the digital sector seems warranted.

As I tried to show in this brief essay, ensuring effective competition in the technological markets will require a more elaborate answer than a break-up, the efficacy of which is highly doubtful. Several approaches have been proposed, and the debate is still raging. These are exciting times to be an industrial economist!

By Alexandre de Corniere

 

References

Caillaud, Bernard, and Bruno Jullien. “Chicken & egg: Competition among intermediation service providers.” RAND Journal of Economics (2003): 309-328.

Crémer, Jacques, Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye and Heike Schweitzer, “Digital policy for the digital era”, 2019

Cunningham, Colleen, Florian Ederer, and Song Ma. “Killer acquisitions.” Working Paper (2018).

De Cornière, Alexandre and Greg Taylor. “Upstream Bundling and Leverage of Market Power”, CEPR working Paper, 2018

De Cornière, Alexandre and Greg Taylor. “A Model of Biased Intermediation”, Rand Journal of Economics, forthcoming

Shapiro, Carl, and Hal R. Varian. Information rules: a strategic guide to the network economy. Harvard Business Press, 1998.

UK report, “Unlocking digital competition: report from the digital competition expert panel”, 2019.

Populism in the internet age

After decades of promise, the internet is finally starting to transform politics, just not in the way that we would have expected. In the ‘90s, digital prophets were riding a wave of optimism for our online future. The internet presented the chance to bring people together and to create e-citizens, who are more informed and open-minded. However, now, the internet is an overwhelming mess of contradictory facts and claims, misinformation, and propaganda. So, the main question becomes, who benefits from this, and in particular what role does populist politics have to play in the current chaos of the internet world.

In the internet world, Twitter is a news agency where populists can claim their hostile chants of “fake news”. In fact, there are no longer dominant information suppliers, with e-citizens not even paying attention to those that are propagating the message anymore. The consequence is that all sources now compete equally, regardless of their reputation or their factual basis. In her essay, “The weakness of truth”, the French philosopher Myriam Revault d’Allonnes touches on a structural change between truth and lies, saying that we are in a ‘post-truth era’. In this era, facts become a matter of opinion and the ground-truth narrative that allowed a discussion of the world common to all of us is threatened. Populist politicians who play with duelling narratives and public opinion are the primary beneficiaries of this new era where the truth becomes secondary.

TrumpIn the internet world, 40% of the population has a Facebook account, and this is a tool for populists’ opinions to appear as having a consensus. The societal impact of information is based on how many users are receptive to it. Research shows that by repeating ideas enough, listeners start to believe it. In 2016, Donald Trump’s digital campaigners understood this new structure of information was spreading. They bought domain names en masse, added pro-Trump articles on them, and used ‘bots’ – an automated account that is programmed to look like people – to leverage information. The goal of this operation was to make Trump and his ideas appear as having consensus on social media. Then, the internet became a strong instrument in a political campaign, as the one of Trump, to legitimise artificially populist opinions.

In the internet world, social media seem to be linked with populist’s aims, which are to destroy our collective institutions. In his book “The Revolt of the Public”, Martin Gurri proposes that the ultimate effect of social media is undermining collective credibility around public institutions, such as the government or the press. Populist politicians benefit and exacerbate this undermining. In France, for example, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right party, continues to stir up the idea that France’s leaders govern against citizens’ interests, and against the country itself. When Emmanuel Macron signed the Aix-la-Chapelle treaty, Le Pen claimed that the president was looking to cede Alsace to Germany. In reality, the treaty’s aim was to reinforce transnational cooperation. This situation shows that successful politicians may be now those who stir up various forms of hysteria and populist rhetoric, rather than the one who promote a collective project to improve our society.

However, in the internet world, political power grows out of the screen of a smartphone and populists could not be the only ones who can benefit from it. We can still hope that this world would give us a new generation of political talent, a new way of political commitment, or even new forms of exercising politics.

by Arthur Dinhof