Negative competition advocacy, or the importance of leading by inaction
Advocacy is one of the key missions of competition authorities. The benefits of competition are not always well understood, or are not necessarily given the same prominence as other interests in policy debates. What is not emphasised enough is that these same authorities have an equally important role to play when it comes to dismissing unsubstantiated concerns. There are some issues that – sometimes due to effective lobbying – give rise to a great deal of controversy but that turn out to be wholly unproblematic upon closer scrutiny. It would be desirable if, when dealing with these concerns, authorities were explicit about the reasons why they conclude that action is unwarranted and contributed to public discussions by explaining why what looks like a blatantly anticompetitive strategy is sometimes a subtler manifestation of competition on the merits. This is what I call negative competition advocacy.
Recent developments provide a couple of emblematic examples of the areas where negative advocacy is most needed. One is about net neutrality, arguably the catchiest slogan of the decade (which, moreover, was coined and popularised by a most charismatic academic). I have not yet come across a theory that provides a convincing case for net neutrality (which, in essence, means that all Internet services should be treated equally). Unfortunately, sector-specific regulation is not always adopted for the right reasons. What seems clear, on the other hand, is that the concerns underlying net neutrality (in particular, that telecommunications operators block or discriminate against competing services) are, by and large, a non-issue from a competition law perspective. Therefore, I am not surprised that the Commission closed, earlier this month, an investigation into ‘Internet connectivity services’ (which Commissioner Almunia linked to the net neutrality debate in his speeches). After the unannounced inspections carried out in July 2013, the authority has come to the conclusion that ‘the observed practices do not appear to breach EU antitrust law’. I only regret that the press release does not explain more about the reasons behind the decision.
Another issue that makes the headlines every now and then is the use of private labels by supermarket chains (as net neutrality, it is a discrimination-related concern). For some reason, the idea that grocery stores sell products under their own brand and give these brands more favourable treatment is perceived to be deeply problematic (this is at least the impression one gets when reading newspapers). Authorities should explain clearly that there is nothing wrong, per se, in such practices. The speech delivered by the Director General for Competition on 2 October is a very good example of the way forward. Alexander Italianer presented the findings of a year-long study on retail competition in the grocery sector. The study came with good news. Contrary to the widespread view, it would seem that competition is working fine on the whole in these markets. The Director General unambiguously stated that private labels ‘do not appear to hamper choice and innovation’, at least so in ‘moderately concentrated retail markets’. I hope these words (and, more importantly, the hard evidence backing them) will be taken into consideration at the national level, where regulatory instincts (and the lobbying that comes with them) are sometimes very strong.
More examples where negative advocacy could be useful? Think of Apple’s recent decision to stop selling Bose products from its stores. It looks like a refusal to deal. Even worse, it is a disruption that follows Apple’s acquisition of Beats, one of Bose’s competitors. Is this problematic from a competition law standpoint? Not really. I quote Alexander Italianer: ‘practices such as these are only a matter of competition law, if they have an impact on the overall functioning of the market. For instance, if a retailer twists the arm of a supplier in individual bilateral negotiations, then he may well be in the wrong, but it falls beyond the scope of competition enforcement’.