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FTC-DOJ Signal Privacy Is a New Antitrust Risk for Google Facebook

SUMMARY:

U.S. antitrust enforcement is evidently undergoing a sea change in how it treats consumer privacy in its antitrust investigations. 

Since the early 2000s through apparently late 2017, DOJ and FTC antitrust enforcers did not consider privacy to be a “non-price factor” in antitrust enforcement.

However, since 2018 the evidence catalogued below indicates that privacy now can, and will increasingly be, a factor in antitrust enforcement involving Internet multi-sided business models going forward, in determining whether a commercial practice anticompetitively harms innovation, choice, or quality.

That’s because of increasingly evident consumer “revealed preferences” for privacy; personal data’s effects on competition for markets; and the inherent “flexibility” of the antitrust consumer welfare standard to adapt to new technological, market, economic, and consumer developments. 

A big reason many investors and the marketplace have concluded that Google and Facebook face no serious antitrust risk going forward was the backward-looking, core conventional-wisdom presumption that harms to consumers’ privacy and data security were largely irrelevant because of the consumer welfare standard focus on price reduction in Internet markets where the “price” is already zero, i.e. free.  

How EU Amazon Antitrust Probe Spotlights Amazon as an Unlevel Playing Field

Consider the ways that the EU’s announced antitrust probe of Amazon is a game changer in spotlighting how Amazon Marketplace’s conflicted-expanse is a de facto unlevel playing field.

First, the ongoing probe will spotlight that Jeff Bezos, Amazon, investors, and U.S. antitrust authorities can no longer dismiss that Amazon faces antitrust risk.

The EU’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager has launched a preliminary, expert, bulls-eye antitrust probe at by far the most antitrust-vulnerable part of Amazon’s online market-monopsonization model – i.e. the anticompetitive Amazon Marketplace structure where Amazon first commands unchecked, most of its competitors’ most sensitive business confidential information/data and metadata; and second non-transparently and unchecked, determines their competitors’ rank and costs to commercially access Amazon’s monopsonized online consumer demand.

Simply the EU is investigating whether Google’s unchecked dual role as an economy-wide merchant and platform make it an inherently anticompetitive biased-broker?

Google Facebook & Amazon’s Anticompetitive Nontransparent Exchange of Ideas

There can’t be a “free exchange of ideas” without transparent competition for the exchange of ideas.

This is a timely point for three reasons.

First, the DOJ announced: “The Attorney General has convened a meeting with a number of state attorneys general this month to discuss a growing concern that these companies [Google Facebook Twitter] may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms." [Bold added.] This “competition” concern ultimately falls in the lap of the DOJ’s Antitrust Division and State Attorneys General.

What’s the FTC Hearing before their Hearings on the Unlevel Playing Field?

Evidently antitrust non-enforcement can have big consequences.

It can cause big un-ignorable problems that get the attention of the President, all of Congress, and both political parties. That rare feat of collective attention-grabbing can point them collectively in the same rough direction – back to antitrust authorities that could have, or should have, prevented many of the messy Internet platform unaccountability problems that they collectively are wrestling with resolving now.   

Before the FTC has its first retrospective review hearing on its own institutional performance this fall, it has been getting an implicit earful from its governmental superiors that it actions and inactions have apparently created broad and serious negative consequences for competition.

Case Study of Google Serial Over-collection of Private Data for FTC Hearings

A Case Study of Alphabet-Google’s 2004-2018 Privacy Track Record of Evident Unfair and Deceptive Over-collection of Consumers’ Personal Data Exposes an Evident Gap in the FTC’s Remedial Authority to Protect Consumers

Submitted as a public comment for the FTC’s fall 2018 “Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century Hearings.” Topic #5: “The Commission’s remedial authority to deter unfair and deceptive conduct in privacy and data security matters” FTC Project Number: P181201; (PDF FTC submission here)

July 30, 2018; By Scott Cleland; President, Precursor® LLC  info@precursor.com & Chairman, NetCompetition®

Conclusion

This case study of Alphabet-Google’s track record of unfair and deceptive privacy and data security practices provides a compelling body of evidence of 17 major business practice examples over a fifteen-year period that indicate the FTC evidently does not have enough remedial enforcement authority to deter Google, or other Internet platforms, from engaging in unfair and deceptive conduct in privacy and data security matters.

It is also evident from Google’s words and actions chronicled below that it legally does not believe its users have a “legitimate expectation of privacy” concerning the information they provide to Google.

Google-Android’s Deceptive Antitrust Defenses Presage a US v. Alphabet Suit

The likely probability of an eventual U.S. v. Alphabet Sherman monopolization case improved further now that we know how weak Alphabet-Google’s likely primary U.S. antitrust defense of Android is.

This means not only is a potential U.S. v. Alphabet antitrust case stronger than the seminal successful and upheld U.S. v. Microsoft precedent, but Google’s relative antitrust defense is much weaker too.

Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai’s public Android antitrust defense has fatal flaws.

First, Google-Android claims Apple iOS is a direct competitor when factually in an antitrust context it is not.

Why a US v. Google-Android Antitrust Case Is Stronger than US v. Microsoft

SUMMARY

The impending EU-Google-Android abuse of dominance conviction and expected record fine and substantial behavioral prohibitions, begs the question of how U.S. antitrust enforcers will eventually act on the outcome of their own Google-Android investigation?  

New U.S. Privacy & Data Protection Law Is Inevitable Like a Pendulum Swing

It is a matter of when, not if, Congress will pass national privacy and data protection law for the 21st century.

It’s inevitable, because the U.S. privacy policy to date is operating as predictably as a pendulum swinging. Consider the evident big picture, pendulum dynamic at work here.

The Sea Change Significance of Simons-FTC Privacy and Antitrust Hearings

Much bigger change is afoot at the FTC than many may appreciate. An awakened and reinvigorated Simons-FTC lies ahead as do eventual new FTC calls for 21st century privacy and data protection legislation. Don’t be fooled by the glacial pace of the 2017-18 FTC appointment/confirmation process for a near clean slate of FTC leadership.

We now have strong official directional evidence from FTC Chairman Simons that the next two-and-a-half years are going to be very different from the last five years, 2013-17.

Buying WhatsApp Tipped Facebook to Monopoly; Why Didn’t FTC Probe Purchase?

Anyone concerned with the anticompetitive state of digital advertising, and how to fix it, should focus like a laser on the circumstances surrounding the 2014 FTC’s pass on formally investigating if the Facebook-WhatsApp acquisition would “substantially lessen competition” under the Clayton Antitrust Act.

That obvious FTC mistake in hindsight, triggered a winner-take-all domino effect that not only tipped Facebook to a social advertising monopoly, but also tipped the overall digital advertising market to the anticompetitive digital advertising cartel that evidently predominates today.

Some brief context is helpful here. This big 2014 FTC mistake was the fourth of a pattern of big anticompetitive FTC mistakes concerning the digital advertising marketplace over the last decade.  

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