Facebook’s Refusal to Deal in Excellence

The emails released last week by a British parliamentary committee, in which Mark Zuckerberg can be read snooping on WhatsApp and approving a policy designed to cripple competition from Twitter, tell much about the shortcomings of antitrust policy today.

The emails show that in 2013 Facebook cut off Twitter’s access to its users’ Facebook friend lists to cripple the growth of Twitter’s once-popular short-form video sharing service, Vine, which Twitter shuttered in 2016. The emails also show that Facebook used acquisition of the startup Onavo to spy on users, identifying WhatsApp as a serious threat in the process, and later acquiring that company, presumably to eliminate it as a competitor.

Both of these actions harmed competition, by eliminating what antitrust lawyers call “nascent competitors,” firms that could have matured into serious competitive threats to Facebook. Vine might have helped Twitter develop out of its microblogging niche into a full-fledged social media platform in direct competition with Facebook. And the same might have been true for WhatsApp, which could have leveraged its huge user base and privacy commitment to expand beyond chat into Facebook’s social media heartland.

But most antitrust policymakers today are unlikely to see either Facebook’s calculated crippling of Vine, or the company’s snooping on nascent competitor WhatsApp, as problematic. For antitrust policymakers today, refusing to share and espionage are examples of the kind of no-holds-barred striving to win that ensures that competition yields results for consumers. As the greatest living antitrust scholar today, Herbert Hovenkamp, put it in a recent treatise, making firms share with competitors — which is what Facebook refused to do when it cut Vine’s access to friend lists —

is manifestly hostile toward the general goal of the antitrust laws. It serves to undermine rather than encourage rivals to develop alternative[s] . . . of their own.

Fortunately, there is actually a strong case to be made that Facebook’s treatment of Vine, at least, violated existing antitrust laws. But before getting to that case, let’s look more closely at exactly what Facebook did to Vine and what’s wrong with antitrust’s prevailing approach to that kind of conduct.

Refusals to Deal

Facebook’s cutting off of friend list access to Vine is what antitrust lawyers call a “refusal to deal”: the denial of an essential input to a competitor.

It’s clear that access to Facebook friend lists was key to Vine’s growth, because that allowed users in effect to port part of their existing social network from Facebook over to Vine, and then to use it to do something — post short-form videos — that Facebook at the time did not yet allow users to do.

Without the ability to port social networks, users are unlikely to try new — and better — social media platforms, because they have to waste time rebuilding their networks on every new platform they try. That’s why the E.U. has moved aggressively in recent years to require data portability, and the U.S. should too.

By in effect preventing users from porting their network to Vine, Facebook denied Vine an essential input — the infrastructure to port the Facebook network into Vine — that was key to allowing Vine to break into the social media market.

Two Minds About Sharing

Refusals to deal have long vexed antitrust enforcers because they appear to be at once good and bad for competition.

They are bad for competition because if the input is truly essential, then the refusal to supply it to a competitor is fatal to the competitor. Indeed, if “input” is defined broadly enough, all anticompetitive behavior amounts to a denial of access to an essential input of one kind or another. You cannot harm competition any other way.

Even price fixing, which seems to have no connection to inputs, cannot be profitable unless the price fixers collectively are able to keep competitors who would undersell the fixed prices out of the market. But price fixers can do that only by denying competitors access to some input that the competitors would need in order to be there.

At the same time that refusals to deal appear bad for competition, however, they also appear to be good for competition, albeit competition of the bare-knuckle sort.

The toughest races are those in which you can expect no help from the other participants. The refusal of a firm to deal with competitors just creates an incentive for those competitors to go beyond the withheld input in question to find a new way to survive, to innovate, to create, to surpass.

That is Hovenkamp’s point when he argues that “sharing is inimical to general antitrust goals.” Starfleet Academy may have produced many great commanders, the argument goes, but none were as great as Captain Kirk, who was the only cadet ever to pass the final exam, because he cheated, earning a commendation for “original thinking.”

This view of the virtues of no-holds-barred competition serves as the basis for the current ascendancy of the “Colgate Doctrine,” the antitrust rule that a firm has no general duty to deal with competitors. The doctrine takes its name from a 1919 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court permitted Colgate, charmingly described by Justice McReynolds as “a corporation engaged in manufacturing soap and toilet articles and selling them throughout the Union,” to refuse to sell its products to discounters.

In reaching that conclusion, Justice McReynolds opined that

[i]n the absence of any purpose to create or maintain a monopoly, the [antitrust laws do] not restrict the long recognized right of trader or manufacturer engaged in an entirely private business, freely to exercise his own independent discretion as to parties with whom he will deal.

 For most of the century during which this language has been on the books, antitrust enforcers quite reasonably read the paean to business freedom in the second clause in conjunction with the first — “[i]n the absence of any purpose to create or maintain a monopoly” — to mean that the right to refuse to deal, whatever its extent, has no purchase whatsoever on the antitrust laws, which are dedicated to preventing the creation and maintenance of monopoly.

The courts accordingly busied themselves insisting that firms share whenever doing so would improve competition. The earliest and most famous example, which even predated Colgate, is the 1912 Terminal Railroad case, in which the court condemned a cartel that owned all of the rail bridges into St. Louis for denying use of the bridges to firms that wanted to offer competing train service into the city. Over the years, the courts also sanctioned an electric power company for refusing to let a competitor deliver power to customers over the power company’s transmission lines, and the old Chicago Stadium for refusing a lease to the Chicago Bulls, among many other cases.

But in recent decades, the courts have preferred to drop the qualification contained in the first clause altogether, and to recognize a general right to refuse to deal even when the creation and maintenance of monopoly are rather baldly at stake. As Justice Scalia put it in an infamous 2007 opinion,

Firms may acquire monopoly power by establishing an infrastructure that renders them uniquely suited to serve their customers. Compelling such firms to share the source of their advantage is in some tension with the underlying purpose of antitrust law, since it may lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in those economically beneficial facilities.

This notion that triumph of any kind in the free market is a necessary incentive for progress filters our understanding of competition through the fearsome metaphor of natural selection, survival of the fittest, the war of all against all, the Origin of Species.

According to this view, the lion did not need antitrust restrictions on refusals to deal to evolve out of the primordial soup, and if the lion goes extinct because humans fail to share habitat, that represents a triumph of competition, because the lion will then be replaced with a creature that obviously represents an evolutionary advance: us. Moreover, the argument goes, if the lion had been forced to share with the ape back when the lion was the king of beasts, the ape likely would never have needed to learn to walk upright, to heave javelins at passing herds, and eventually to invent the computer.

Unnatural Selection

The natural selection metaphor is a big mistake, because the apparent virtues of natural selection are subject to severe survivorship bias.  We’re here, and living and thinking, so our evolution must have been a success. But all those creatures who never came to exist — imagine whatever god or fairy you wish, so long as the creature is better than us according to whatever metric you prefer — aren’t here to observe the failure of their natural selection, because they never came to be.

The only thing we can say for sure about natural selection is that it selects; we cannot say that it selects well, for the criteria according to which it selects are unregulated. Natural selection is undirected, and therefore unreliable, selection. The rumpled paper airplane that is natural selection spirals off in whatever random direction the environment happens to impose upon it, with no guarantee that the direction is good, let alone the best, according to any metric we as human beings might hope to use as measure. Climate change, and the very real prospect of the imminent termination of life on earth, is a convenient reminder that the direction of evolution — evolution that has led to us — may be very bad indeed.

It follows that to consign our markets to the same law of the jungle that has produced us is a big mistake. Indeed, it is the sort of mistake that would scandalize our forebears, who, living closer to that state of nature themselves, understood our human advantage to be our capacity to choose the criteria according to which selection proceeds, rather than to submit to the random criteria of the jungle. Our talent for directing our own selection, not to mention the selection of other creatures (think of your dog) is our great advantage. (Indeed, our forebears understood this perhaps too well, leading to an excessive affection for absolute monarchy and planned economies. Ancient Egypt springs to mind, with its conscious glorying in divine kingship as antidote to the chaos of the natural world.)

The jungle, you see, could give a creature eyes and hands, and the ability to learn from parents how to crack open nuts with rocks. But only civilization could make a man’s ability to reproduce depend on whether he could read and write, and write well at that, or calculate the area of a circle, or drive an arrow clean through three inches of copper from the deck of a careening chariot. Only civilization selects in a focused way, and from focus comes division of labor, from division of labor bounty, and from bounty us today. The evolutionary advantage of human beings is their ability to impose an unnatural selection upon themselves. Which is to say that regulation of markets is not just a policy choice, but survival.

To continue to escape nature, we must continue to choose the criteria according to which we select ourselves, and that is as true when we structure our markets as when we design our education system. Markets are themselves just machines for the selection of the things we want the economy to produce, with profitability determining winners and bankruptcy determining losers. These machines are useful to us only to the extent that they select for the characteristics that are most helpful to us. A market that selects for sloth, or for behavior designed to take wealth from others without providing a quality product in exchange, is not a useful market. The way to make markets select for desirable characteristics is to ensure that the undesirable characteristics provide no advantage.

Thus we must build our markets in the same way that the artificial intelligence researcher builds a learning algorithm, calibrating it to ensure that once the algorithm is unleashed it will select for the desired traits.  Markets are machine learning, with the software antitrust, and the hardware human life. Genes evolve, but genetic algorithms solve. And markets exist to solve our economic problems.

The question that refusals to deal really pose is whether permitting firms to horde essential inputs selects for characteristics that are good for the economy. And here the answer must be no. If the input denied to competitors is truly essential, then there is no obvious way to invent around it, and so the characteristic that legalizing such refusals selects is talent for identifying and appropriating essential inputs that deliver the firm from having to compete hard on all the other characteristics that we really value, such as good management, incessant innovation, quality, distribution, and low costs. Allowing refusals to deal unlevels the field.

Selecting for skill at destroying competition may of course incidentally sweep in some characteristics that we care about — ambition, of course, and innovativeness aimed at finding or creating the essential inputs — but the presence of this anticompetitive selector pulls the market out of focus, sapping competitive energies away from the things we care about — low prices and high quality — and toward monopoly. 

Sometimes the question is muddied by the need to ensure that innovative firms are able to cover the costs of research and development before competitors appropriate their innovations, pile into the market, and erode profit margins. In these cases, it is the refusal to deal that keeps the playing field level, instead of skewing it, by ensuring that innovators get the proper rewards. But true refusal to deal cases are different. True refusal to deal cases involve a refusal to supply an essential input when doing so facilitates supracompetitive profit taking, a dominance of markets that is not necessary to help firms cover their costs. Antitrust policymakers today would treat every refusal to deal as if it were necessary for firms to cover research and development costs, a conceit that is necessary only because the reality of almost never condemning a refusal to deal is so unjustifiable.

The Surprisingly Apt Sports Metaphor

Ensuring that undesirable characteristics provide no advantage is just what we do when we level a playing field in sports. Take a soccer game played on a hillside, for example. The inclined field gives one side — the side with the higher goal — an advantage based on luck, or the ability to strong arm the other team when sides are chosen before play, instead of based on characteristics that we want to promote, such as training, endurance, and the ability to bend a football into a net from twenty yards out.

To avoid this sort of adulteration of play, we insist on level playing fields in sports. It’s the reason we recoiled from steroids in baseball, for example, because all those home runs created an advantage that made for boring, uni-dimensional, play. Indeed, we feel the same way about all doping, because it leads to selection based on chemistry, rather than on the endurance and coordination that we value in sports. Only the level playing field produces the fittest players, just as it produces the fittest firms.

Just as we expect opposing players to help each other up off the ground when they have fallen — because losing a player makes for less satisfying play — we should expect firms to help each other to enter markets, when that would make for tougher, and therefore more productive, competition.

Success and Excellence

The individual firm must therefore be governed by an ethic of excellence, rather than an ethic of success. For only the pursuit of excellence causes firms to affirmatively seek to bring competition upon themselves, whereas an ethic of success causes firms to seek only to win, rather than to win by being the best. We want the great athlete, who wants to run the hardest race against the toughest competitors, not the slouch or the crook, who celebrates when the going gets easiest.

This distinction, between the pursuit of success and the pursuit of excellence, may be loosely, and probably unfairly, associated with the divergent outlooks of the two great civilizations of European antiquity, the Romans and the Greeks. Ancient Greek culture focused on the struggle with the self, the desire to go beyond mortal limits through exposure to competition of the highest order, a desire reflected in the tradition of the Olympic Games.

Rome represents something quite different: the urge to dominate at all costs, summed up by the city’s founding sin, in which the band of male outcasts who were the city’s founders obtained wives, and therefore a future for their polity, by inviting their neighbors to a feast and then carrying off their women.

Arnold Paul, Florence Rape of the Sabine Women 3, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, on display in Florence. Michelangelo’s David, reflecting the pursuit of excellence, is conveniently pictured in the background. Photo credit: Arnold Paul, Florence Rape of the Sabine Women 3, CC BY-SA 3.0.

We must insist on Grecian firms.

The pursuit of success over excellence is a recipe for long-term failure of industry, and a threat to American national security in a world in which America is no longer clearly the most technologically advanced nation or the strongest economy, a world in which the failure to demand that our firms strive to be the best, even when they could succeed with less, could well mean the difference between victory and defeat in the next war. (True, Rome built a more enduring empire than did the Greeks, but that is only because internally, in their training and organization, the Romans were Greek.)

The irony of the decline in antitrust enforcement that started four decades ago is that it was in part justified on the ground that stiff competition from Japanese businesses demanded that government give American businesses a free hand to compete. But those same Japanese businesses had grown strong not from laissez faire, but from intense government oversight aimed at shuttering plants that failed to meet international standards of excellence, which is to say, from a directed selection. The effects of dismantling our own approach to directed selection — the antitrust laws — are evident forty years on to anyone who has recently done time in a General Motors automobile.

Which takes us back to what Facebook did to Vine. By killing Vine off via refusal to deal, Facebook prevented Vine, and Twitter, from morphing into genuine challenges to Facebook’s dominance as all-purpose social media platform.

That means that today Facebook doesn’t face the kind of competition it needs to continually improve, the competition on everything from likes to privacy that can come only from doing battle with other firms on an equal playing field, the competition that affects characteristics that matter. Instead, Facebook competed on one characteristic alone — the ability to build the largest network first — and used that high ground to defeat a more tech-savvy competitor.

That’s a recipe for the long-term decline of American social media, and of American tech savvy more generally.

The Antitrust Case against Facebook’s Treatment of Vine

Facebook’s killing of Vine should be the easiest of antitrust violations to prove, but instead the case can be made only through the luckiest of coincidences. Luck is needed because of the current ascendancy of the Colgate Doctrine: the right of any business to refuse to deal, even if that would create a monopoly.

Under the influence of economists and lawyers associated with the Chicago School, the courts have all but eliminated any liability for refusal to deal, allowing it only when the refusal represents the termination of a prior profitable course of dealing. The idea behind narrowing liability to this unusual set of facts is that only when the refusal to deal amounts to a choice to forego a current profitable relationship can enforcers be absolutely certain that the motivation for the refusal is to earn even greater profits from the destruction of competition. As Justice Scalia put it in that 2007 case

The unilateral termination of a voluntary (and thus presumably profitable) course of dealing suggest[s] a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve an anticompetitive end.

Motivation should have no place in the resolution of antitrust cases, because the antitrust laws are not about policing morality, but about guaranteeing the vigor of the economy. What matters in antitrust are outcomes, not whether businesspeople act with virtuous or heinous intent. But this perversion of the law is of no consequence in the case of Facebook’s treatment of Vine. Miraculously, the question of Facebook’s motivation is subject to no doubt here because the British have provided us with emails pregnant with anticompetitive intent:

Justin Osofsky — Twitter launched Vine today which lets you shoot multiple short video segments to make one single, 6-second video. As part of their NUX, you can find friends via FB. Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today. We’ve prepared reactive PR, and I will let Jana know our decision.

MZ – “Yup, go for it.”

But even if there were no such evidence of intent, Facebook’s actions meet the prior profitable course of dealing standard imposed today by the courts.

To see why, consider that profits are not always paid in U.S. dollars. They can be paid in Euros, Pesos, or Renminbi, or not paid in cash form at all, but in commodities, lean hogs, frozen concentrated orange juice, adzuki beans, or, as relevant here, in personal data. Lawyers and economists have understood for several years now that Facebook’s services are not in fact free. Consumers pay with their personal data, which, once resold to retailers in the refined form of targeted advertising, ultimately is used to extract cash from them in the form of purchases of advertised products.

Facebook’s sharing of friend lists with Vine allowed Facebook to collect valuable data about which Facebook users were using Vine. Facebook’s termination of that sharing therefore represented the termination of a prior profitable — in data-denominated terms — course of dealing, the unmistakable sign the court demands that the motivation was to earn even greater profits — here in the form of monopoly-level access to users’ social networking data — that come from squelching competition in the market.

So as luck would have it the case against Facebook fits squarely within the sliver of an exception to the Colgate Doctrine currently tolerated by the courts. But the fact that we need to fit the case into that sliver tells much about the extent to which antitrust has been failing in recent decades in its duty to ensure level competitive playing fields.

Integrating into Espionage

The situation is even worse when it comes to Facebook’s snooping on, and eventual gobbling up of, WhatsApp.

Facebook was able to snoop on its users’ WhatsApp usage by purchasing Onavo, an analytics startup that provided Facebook with a privacy app to market to Facebook users. That app disabled snooping on users by others, but enabled snooping by Facebook, which used it to gather data on its users’ usage of rival social media apps. The emails released by the British parliamentary committee show that Onavo data reported a surge in WhatsApp popularity among Facebook users shortly before Facebook acquired WhatsApp.

The story of global merger enforcers’ disastrous failure to block the WhatsApp acquisition due to a failure to appreciate that consumers pay for both Facebook and WhatsApp in data, making the two companies rivals, and the merger the brazen elimination of a nascent competitor, has already been told. But Onavo’s role in helping Facebook identify WhatsApp for acquisition points to another failure in contemporary antitrust: the death of vertical merger enforcement.

Onavo’s app is properly understood as a component of the social media product offered by Facebook , one that includes not just liking and photo sharing, but also privacy services. As such, Onavo and Facebook stood in what antitrust lawyers call a “vertical” or supply-chain relationship, producing components of a common end product — the social media experience — that is sold to consumers. And Facebook’s acquisition of Onavo was therefore a vertical merger.

Antitrust scholars long ago recognized that one of the anticompetitive consequences of vertical mergers is that they allow firms to spy on their competitors, and spying can either facilitate collusion, by making competitors less likely to grant covert discounts to consumers, or, the case here, by helping the merged firm identify and gobble up nascent competitors.

But in the 1980s antitrust enforcers abandoned vertical merger enforcement entirely, on the assumption that innovation and efficiency always result when businesses in a vertical relationship work together to serve consumers. The district court’s stinging and misguided rebuke of the Justice Department’s recent attempt to revive vertical merger enforcement by challenging AT&T’s acquisition of TimeWarner shows how alien the old learning regarding the threat of vertical mergers has become to the courts in recent decades.

There might well have been some synergies between Onavo’s analytics services and Facebook’s social media platform, but the role the acquisition played in enabling anticompetitive snooping makes clear that the dogma that vertical mergers are always good for the economy must go.