Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

Google Books Settlement Rejected

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Some of you will recall that roughly a year ago I wrote a post on the Google Books settlement (“Google Books Settlement: It´s the search market stupid!”) in which I argued that the only competitive problem, if any, posed by the amended settlement related to the search market.  [In that post we also directed you to the transcript and a very good summary of the fairness hearing (Part I ; Part II) which may allow you to better understand all subsequent developments].

Yesterday, Judge Chin, of the Southern District of New York, issued an opinion concluding that the Amended Google Books Settlement (“ASA”)  is not fair, adequate or reasonable, precisely because it would further entrench Google´s maket power in the online search market. The Opinion is available here.

Judge Chin acknowledges that Google´s plan of creating a universal digital library would bring about great benefits for many, but concludes that the ASA “would simply go to far”. In his view, “it would permit the class action to implement a forward-looking business arrangement that would grant Google significant rights to exploit entire books, without permission of the copyright owners. Indeed, the ASA would give Google a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission, while releasing claims well beyond those presented in the case“.

From a reading of the opinion it is obvious that (i) Judge Chin has conferred significant relevance to the number and vociferousness of the objections presented to him, and has mainly based his Opinion upon them; and (ii) the decision is to a great extent motivated by concerns which are not directly antitrust-related, such as those over the adequacy of class representation  (e.g. foreign authors), involuntary expropriation of copyrights by virtue of the “opt-out” mechanism, or the alleged improper use of the settlement of a class action to regulate a aspects of a “forward  looking” business arrangement which had not been raised before the Court.

With regards to the antitrust concerns posed by the ASA, and after referring to the submissions made by several parties, Chin concludes that “Google´s ability to deny competitors the ability to search orphan books would further entrench Google´s market power in the online search market”.

Most, if not all, of the concerns outlined in the opinion would be addressed “simply” by switching from an opt-out to an opt-in model, although that would surely be detrimental to the scale and quality of the service provided and could perhaps even affect the viability of the project. Balancing all the interests at stake is certainly a daunting challenge.

There are no easy answers to the many fascinating issues that arise in connection with this case. In fact, its interest lies precisely on the fact that those issues can only be addresses by adopting a defined stance with regards to the core, almost ideological, debates underlying our discipline (amongst others, and to put a couple of them in their most basic terms: would we rather have a natural or de facto monopolist providing a service that no one else can provide, or would we rather prefer a counterfactual where we renounce to have that service for the sake of not having a monopolist controlling it? What room is there for fairness concerns in antitrust analysis?).

These are particularly complicated days at work, but you can expect a more detailed commentary of Judge Chin’s Opinion from us once things clear up a bit.


PS. And speaking of Google, as announced here some days ago, on Friday I will be presenting a discussion on antitrust issues in cloud computing featuring Tero Louko (Google) and Carel Maske (Microsoft).

Other panels will feature Jennifer Vasta (Qualcomm), Thomas Kramler (European Commission), Luis Ortiz Blanco (Garrigues), Álvaro Ramos (Cisco), Miguel Rato (Shearman&Sterling), Pablo Hernández (SGAE) and Daniel Escoda (Telefónica).

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

24 March 2011 at 2:25 am

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  1. Adding our Voice to Concerns about Search in Europe
    30 Mar 2011 9:00 PM

    * Comments 1

    Posted by Brad Smith
    Senior Vice President & General Counsel, Microsoft Corporation

    Microsoft is filing a formal complaint with the European Commission as part of the Commission’s ongoing investigation into whether Google has violated European competition law. We thought it important to be transparent and provide some information on what we’re doing and why.

    At the outset, we should be among the first to compliment Google for its genuine innovations, of which there have been many over the past decade. As the only viable search competitor to Google in the U.S. and much of Europe, we respect their engineering prowess and competitive drive. Google has done much to advance its laudable mission to “organize the world’s information,” but we’re concerned by a broadening pattern of conduct aimed at stopping anyone else from creating a competitive alternative.

    We’ve therefore decided to join a large and growing number of companies registering their concerns about the European search market. By the European Commission’s own reckoning, Google has about 95 percent of the search market in Europe. This contrasts with the United States, where Microsoft serves about a quarter of Americans’ search needs either directly through Bing or through our partnership with Yahoo!.

    At Microsoft we’ve shown that we’re prepared to work hard and invest literally billions of dollars annually to offer Bing, a search service that many now regard as the most innovative available. But, hard work and innovation need a fair and competitive marketplace in which to thrive, and twice the Department of Justice has intervened to thwart Google’s unlawful conduct from impeding fair competition. In 2008 the DOJ moved to file suit against Google for its unlawful attempt to tie up and set search advertising prices at Yahoo!, causing Google to back down. And last year the DOJ formally objected to Google’s efforts to monopolize book content, a position affirmed by a federal district court in New York just last week. Unfortunately, even this has not stopped the spread by Google of new and disconcerting practices in the United States.

    As troubling as the situation is in United States, it is worse in Europe. That is why our filing today focuses on a pattern of actions that Google has taken to entrench its dominance in the markets for online search and search advertising to the detriment of European consumers.

    How does it do this? Google has built its business on indexing and displaying snippets of other organizations’ Web content. It understands as well as anyone that search engines depend upon the openness of the Web in order to function properly, and it’s quick to complain when others undermine this. Unfortunately, Google has engaged in a broadening pattern of walling off access to content and data that competitors need to provide search results to consumers and to attract advertisers.

    On PCs it is usually not difficult for people to navigate to any search engine. Google in fact makes this point virtually every time someone raises antitrust concerns about their practices. Their defense ignores the hugely important fact that there are many other important ways that search services compete. Search engines compete to index the Web as fully as possible so they can generate good search results, they compete to gain advertisers (the source of revenue in this business), and they compete to gain distribution of their search boxes through Web sites. Consumers will not benefit from clicking to alternative sites unless all search engines have a fair opportunity to compete in each of these areas.

    Our filing details many instances where Google is impeding competition in these areas. A half-dozen examples below help illustrate some of our concerns.

    First, in 2006 Google acquired YouTube—and since then it has put in place a growing number of technical measures to restrict competing search engines from properly accessing it for their search results. Without proper access to YouTube, Bing and other search engines cannot stand with Google on an equal footing in returning search results with links to YouTube videos and that, of course, drives more users away from competitors and to Google.

    Second, in 2010 and again more recently, Google blocked Microsoft’s new Windows Phones from operating properly with YouTube. Google has enabled its own Android phones to access YouTube so that users can search for video categories, find favorites, see ratings, and so forth in the rich user interfaces offered by those phones. It’s done the same thing for the iPhones offered by Apple, which doesn’t offer a competing search service.

    Unfortunately, Google has refused to allow Microsoft’s new Windows Phones to access this YouTube metadata in the same way that Android phones and iPhones do. As a result, Microsoft’s YouTube “app” on Windows Phones is basically just a browser displaying YouTube’s mobile Web site, without the rich functionality offered on competing phones. Microsoft is ready to release a high quality YouTube app for Windows Phone. We just need permission to access YouTube in the way that other phones already do, permission Google has refused to provide.

    Third, Google is seeking to block access to content owned by book publishers. This was underscored in federal court in New York last week, in the decision involving Google’s effort to obtain exclusive and unfettered access to the large volume of so-called “orphan books”—books for which no copyright holder can readily be found. Under Google’s plan only its search engine would be able to return search results from these books. As the federal court said in rejecting this plan, “Google’s ability to deny competitors the ability to search orphan books would further entrench Google’s market power in the online search market.” This is an important initial step under U.S. law, but it needs to be reinforced by similar positions in Europe and the rest of the world.

    Fourth, Google is even restricting its customers’—namely, advertisers’—access to their own data. Advertisers input large amounts of data into Google’s ad servers in the course of managing their advertising campaigns. This data belongs to the advertisers: it reflects their decisions about their own business. But Google contractually prohibits advertisers from using their data in an interoperable way with other search advertising platforms, such as Microsoft’s adCenter.

    This makes it much more costly for Google’s advertisers to run portions of their campaigns with any competitor, and thus less likely that they will do so. That is a significant problem because most advertisers figure that they have to advertise first with Google. If it’s too expensive to port their advertising campaign data to competing advertising platforms, many won’t do it. Competing search engines are left with less relevant ads, and less revenue. And while this restraint isn’t visible to consumers, its effects are nonetheless felt across the Web. Advertising revenue is the economic propellant fueling the billions of dollars needed for ongoing search investments. By reducing competitors’ ability to attract advertising revenue, this restriction strikes at the heart of a competitive market.

    Fifth, this undermining of competition is reflected in concerns that go beyond Google’s control over content. One of the ways that search engines attract users is through distribution of search boxes through Web sites. Unfortunately, Google contractually blocks leading Web sites in Europe from distributing competing search boxes. It is obviously difficult for competing search engines to gain users when nearly every search box is powered by Google. Google’s exclusivity terms have even blocked Microsoft from distributing its Windows Live services, such as email and online document storage, through European telecommunications companies because these services are monetized through Bing search boxes.

    Finally, we share the concerns expressed by many others that Google discriminates against would-be competitors by making it more costly for them to attain prominent placement for their advertisements. Microsoft has provided the Commission with a considerable body of expert analysis concerning how search engine algorithms work and the competitive significance of promoting or demoting various advertisements.

    Over the past year, a growing number of advertisers, publishers, and consumers have expressed to us their concerns about the search market in Europe. They’ve urged us to share our knowledge of the search market with competition officials. As they’ve pointed out, the stakes are high for the European economy. On any given day, more than half of all Europeans use the Internet, and more than 90 percent of them look for information about goods and services on the Web. Indeed, the European Commission’s Digital Agenda made clear that commerce is moving online, where two-thirds of Europeans begin their shopping process. It’s therefore critical that search engines and online advertising move forward in an open, fair and competitive manner.

    There of course will be some who will point out the irony in today’s filing. Having spent more than a decade wearing the shoe on the other foot with the European Commission, the filing of a formal antitrust complaint is not something we take lightly. This is the first time Microsoft Corporation has ever taken this step. More so than most, we recognize the importance of ensuring that competition laws remain balanced and that technology innovation moves forward.

    We readily appreciate that Google should continue to have the freedom to innovate. But it shouldn’t be permitted to pursue practices that restrict others from innovating and offering competitive alternatives. That’s what it’s doing now. And that’s what we hope European officials will assess and ultimately decide to stop.

    Emilio De Giorgi

    31 March 2011 at 10:37 am

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