Antitrust in the digital economy: Views of leading economists on the market dominance of technology giants
In October 2020, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a federal antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing the technology giant of abusing its dominance in the market for internet search. Similar concerns have been expressed in Europe, where the European Commission is investigating the Google/Fitbit deal (Bourreau et al. 2020)
The IGM Forum at Chicago Booth, which, for nearly a decade, has been regularly polling some of the world’s top economic experts in the US and Europe for their views on topical issues of public policy, invited its US and European panels to express their views on the nature of the market dominance of Google and other technology giants in the digital economy and what the appropriate policy response might be.
Following the standard format of the IGM polls, the experts were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statements, and, if so, how strongly and with what degree of confidence:
(a) Google’s dominance of the market for internet search arose mainly from a combination of economies of scale and a quality algorithm.
(b) In light of Google’s dominance, its current operating practices could have a substantial negative effect on social welfare in the long run.
(c) The nature of the market dominance of technology giants in the digital economy warrants either the imposition of some kind of regulation or a fundamental change in antitrust policy.
Google’s dominance of internet search
On the first statement about what underpins Google’s dominance of the market for internet search, a strong majority agreed that it arose mainly from a combination of economies of scale and a quality algorithm.
Weighted by each expert’s confidence in their response, 30% of the US panel strongly agreed, 65% agreed, 5% were uncertain, and 0% disagreed. Among the European panel (again weighted by each expert’s confidence in their response), 31% strongly agreed, 61% agreed, 5% were uncertain, and 3% disagreed. Overall, across both panels, 31% strongly agreed, 63% agreed, 5% were uncertain, and 1% disagreed.
More nuances among the experts’ views come through in the short comments that they are able to include when they participate in the survey. Nicholas Bloom (Stanford) says: “Google’s search engine has been far better from the outset – this alone can explain why it dominated. It is simply a better search engine.”
Franklin Allen (Imperial) adds: “They do have a good algorithm and this is a big part of their success, but increasing returns to scale due to network effects are large.” And Daron Acemoglu (MIT) notes: “Quality of algorithm likely played a role early on, but now it’s mostly network effects – dominance breeds dominance.”
Robert Hall (Stanford) introduces an additional factor behind Google’s dominance: “Not to mention good timing.” David Autor at (MIT) comments: “If Google hadn’t invented page rank, someone else would have. Google benefited from getting there first with a good idea.”
Pete Klenow (Stanford) draws attention to background information on Google’s cluster architecture (Barroso et al. 2003). And John Van Reenen (LSE) points to “[g]eneral findings in literature including our work on superstar firms” (Autor et al. 2020).
Google’s operating practices
On the second statement about whether Google’s dominance and current operating practices could have a substantial negative effect on social welfare in the long run, a little over a half of the experts agreed, somewhat under a half were uncertain, and a small number disagreed.
Of the US panel (again weighted by each expert’s confidence in their response), 52% agreed, 40% were uncertain, and 7% disagreed. The results were fairly similar for the European panel: 16% strongly agreed, 42% agreed, 38% were uncertain, and 4% strongly disagreed. Overall, across both panels, 8% strongly agreed, 47% agreed, 39% were uncertain, 3% disagreed, and 2% strongly disagreed.
Among those who agreed with the statement, some refer to how potential negative effects might arise. Barry Eichengreen (Berkeley) says: “Overwhelming market dominance creating formidable barriers to entry are not good.” Bengt Holmstrom (MIT) explains: “Difficult to assess. De facto monopoly due to superior algorithm. Worried about limited contestability and biased ad rankings.” Franklin Allen adds: ‘As with many monopolies, they will have the wrong incentives with regard to pricing of advertising and to innovation.”
Others develop the theme of the possible impact of market dominance on a firm’s conduct. Christopher Pissarides (LSE) notes simply: “Power corrupts.” Larry Samuelson (Yale) says: “Innovation brought Google to a dominant position, but Google bars no holds in preserving that position, with adverse consequences.”
Daron Acemoglu goes further: “It walks, swims, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. It looks, behaves, and dominates like a monopoly, it’ll probably harm welfare.” And David Autor warns: “I fear Google is becoming the new *old* Microsoft, before the antitrust case. They may not be doing substantial harm now – but they could.” Pete Klenow links to a 2010 study asking exactly that question: Is Google the next Microsoft? (Pollock 2010))
A number of panellists pick up on the word “could.” Pinelopi Goldberg (Yale) states: “They COULD; this does not mean they WILL. Regulators should be vigilant and scrutinize practices going forward.” Robert Shimer (Chicago) adds: “The key word in the question is “could.” It could also have a substantial positive effect, as it has in the past.”
Anil Kashyap (Chicago) points to a mechanism by which negative effects could happen; a “kill zone” (Kamepalli et al 2020) in the space of start-ups, as described by venture capitalists, where the prospect of acquisition by an incumbent platform undermines early adoption and makes new entrants not worth funding. Kjetil Storesletten (Oslo) worries about the effects on other industries: “Indirect costs: dominant tech giants soak up the advertisement revenue the free press/media depends on. This risks crowding out the press.”
Karl Whelan at (University College Dublin) expresses: “Weak agreement, but we’ve seen large tech companies rise and fall. This could be the “peak Google” era and something else replaces it.” But Peter Neary (Oxford), who strongly agreed with the statement, responds: “A classic case of natural monopoly. Unfortunately, it is (almost) at the global level so countervailing action would have to be global too.”
Among the sizeable minority of panellists who said that they were uncertain, some find the question insufficiently specific. Jonathan Levin (Stanford) replies: “Struggling with question framing. Some practices deserve scrutiny. On net, however, its products and services create enormous value.”
Kenneth Judd (Stanford) says: “Fuzzy answer to a fuzzy question. “Could” have negative impact, yes. But current operations includes creation and sharing of powerful tools.” Pol Antras (Harvard) adds: “Ambiguous language here. Google will not have decreased steady-state welfare; but relative to a counterfactual with more competition, it may.”
Others were unsure that they knew enough for anything more than a response of “uncertain.” Christian Leuz (Chicago) notes: “Given Google’s dominance in the market for search, there clearly is potential for such harm. Don’t know enough about its practices to answer.” Darrell Duffie (Stanford) comments: “Depends on how Google exercises its market power, and on the quality of potentially superior entrants. Those are beyond my expertise.”
Patrick Honohan (Trinity College Dublin), who voted “no opinion”, responds: “Future dynamics of the sector too uncertain for me to assess.” And Richard Schmalensee (MIT) says: “I don’t know enough about its current operating practices to be very confident.”
Among those who disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, Robert Hall states: “I take it that would mean that regulators are currently passing up a constructive intervention, which is not the case.” And Nicholas Bloom concludes: “Search is a natural monopoly. If better searches exist they will win – Google beat out Alta Vista on product quality.”
On the third statement, which broadened out from the specific case of Google to ask whether the nature of the market dominance of technology giants warrants regulation or a fundamental change in antitrust policy, there were greater differences in the results across the two panels than with the two previous questions. A considerably larger proportion of experts on the European panel agreed or strongly agreed with the statement than the US panel (88% compared with 53%); and just over a fifth of US experts disagreed.
Of the US panel (as usual, weighted by each expert’s confidence in their response), 7% strongly agreed, 46% agreed, 26% were uncertain, and 21% disagreed. Among the European panel, 23% strongly agreed, 65% agreed, 6% were uncertain, 3% disagreed, and 4% strongly disagreed. Overall, across both panels, 16% strongly agreed, 57% agreed, 15% were uncertain, 11% disagreed, and 2% strongly disagreed.
Among the comments, Christopher Pissarides, who strongly agreed with the statement, says: “They are becoming monopolies in very sensitive areas. Human nature cannot be trusted in such circumstances.” Bengt Holmstrom, who agreed, responds: “Market values strongly suggest a need for review. Especially now that competition from China curtailed.” And Barry Eichengreen, who also agreed, concludes: “Absent public sector intervention, this problem won’t solve itself.”
Others who agreed with the statement go into a little more detail on what should be done. Larry Samuelson says: “The tech industry is rife with natural monopolies, which are routinely regulated in other sectors.” Franklin Allen comments: “We do need new antitrust policies and new regulation as well as new taxation to deal with the issues raised by the tech firms.” Daron Acemoglu adds: “This should probably involve more than light-touch regulation. We should also deal with the effects of Big Tech on direction of innovation.” And Jonathan Levin notes: “To take one example – thoughtful, informed regulation is needed in areas like privacy and data rights.”
Austan Goolsbee (Chicago) goes back to history for perspective: “Go look at what happened the last time there was a massive disruption to technology and increase in corporate power 1880-1930.” David Autor adds: “The Sherman Act was not set up for the networked world. Case in point: Facebook should never have been allowed to buy WhatsApp.”
Jose Scheinkman (Columbia) concurs: “Need to increase scrutiny of acquisitions of related businesses, for example, WhatsApp by Facebook.” Richard Thaler, who said he was uncertain, also reflects on policy on mergers and acquisitions: “It is hard to favor unspecified changes in the rules. I don’t think Google should be able to buy Waze, nor Facebook buy Instagram.”
Among others who said they were uncertain, Darrell Duffie asks: “Are existing antitrust laws enough? DOJ seems to think so, and they seemed to work for Bell and Microsoft. For Google: stay tuned.” Richard Schmalensee warns: “Those sorts of changes surely deserve serious consideration, but I’m not confident that we can find changes that are net beneficial.”
Among those who disagreed, several comment on the adequacy of existing antitrust laws. Judith Chevalier (Yale) says: “Enforcement of merger policy, for example, would ideally be stronger, but I don’t think that derives from a fundamental deficiency in the laws.” Similarly, Michael Greenstone (Chicago) remarks: “There are always legitimate questions about enforcement but I think the laws are up to the task.”
Kenneth Judd adds: “A key point in the current discussion is the Apple-Google arrangement. I guess that current law can handle this; no need for new rules.” And Robert Hall, who said he was uncertain, notes: “Merger regulation is in place and a good idea. Regulators should understand that there is not competition in the market, but for the market.”
Others who disagreed doubt that there are grounds as yet for changes in regulation or antitrust policy. Robert Shimer says: “We are yet to see evidence of significant damage caused by these firms, but do see substantial social benefits.” Pinelopi Goldberg adds: “It is not clear what problem the regulator is asked to solve. Being worried about future abuse of power is no justification for regulation.”
Nicholas Bloom, who strongly disagreed with the statement, is concerned about the dangers: “The history of government regulation is poor, and particularly with governments like Trump in the US, I do not want them to have more control.” And Anil Kashyap, who voted “no opinion”, asks: “How do we know what kind of changes would result – and probably they would not just be designed based on economic principles.”
Finally, Pete Klenow points to further reading on the economics of data property rights (Jones and Tonetti 2020). And Karl Whelan recalled a book co-authored more than 20 years ago by Google’s chief economist, offering “a strategic guide to the network economy”: “I learned lots from reading Varian-Shapiro’s “Information Rules.” Markets for information goods are innately imperfectly competitive.”
Autor, D, D Dorn, L Katz, C Patterson and J Van Reenen (2020), “The fall of the labor share and the rise of superstar firms”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 135(2): 645-709.
Barroso, L A, J Dean and U Holzle (2003), “Web search for a planet: The Google cluster architecture”, IEEE Micro 23(2): 22-28.
Bourreau, M, C Caffarra, Z Chen, C Choe, G Crawford, T Duso, C Genakos, P Heidhues, M Peitz, T Rønde, M Schnitzer, N Schutz, M Sovinsky, G Spagnolo, O Toivanen, T Valletti and T Vergé (2020), “Google/Fitbit will monetise health data and harm consumers”, VoxEU.org,
Jones, C, and C Tonetti (2020), “Nonrivalry and the economics of data”, American Economic Review 110(9): 2819-58.
Kamepalli, S K, R Rajan and L Zingales (2020), “Kill Zone”, NBER Working Paper No. 27146.
Pollock, R (2010), “Is Google the next Microsoft: Competition, welfare and regulation in online search”, Review of Network Economics 9(4).