Competition authorities across the globe have recently been paying close attention to the activity of large firms in high-tech markets, in particular Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. One estimate suggests that 30 cases have been opened by the authorities since 2010, and a third of these were launched in 2020.
One of the most prominent recent cases in the US courts concerns a complaint made by Epic Games, producer of the popular Fortnite game, against Apple. The background to the case is Apple’s standard practice on its App Store of taking a 30% cut of all paid app and in-app purchases. Therefore, a Fortnite player purchasing $10 worth of in-game currency would result in $7 for Epic and $3 for Apple.
However, in August 2020 Epic decided, contrary to Apple’s terms and conditions, to offer players an alternative way to purchase in-game currency. Gamers would see a choice screen giving them the option to buy currency through the Apple App Store or to buy it directly from Epic. Crucially, purchasing directly from Epic would be cheaper. For example, the same $10 worth of in-game currency on the App Store would cost only $8 if purchased directly from Epic.
It is clear to see why Epic was in favour of direct payments – it earns revenue of $8 instead of $7. However, note that the benefits for gamers are even larger – they save $2 by buying directly. In other words, Epic is passing on 2/3 of the cost saving to consumers.
Apple very quickly responded to Epic’s introduction of the direct purchase alternative by removing Fortnite from the App Store. Epic then filed a complaint with the US District Court.
The Epic v Apple court case
The case concerned Apple restricting game developers’ ability to promote purchasing mechanisms outside the App Store. However, more broadly, it also examined Apple’s complete control of the iOS app market since all apps must be distributed through the Apple App Store. Epic had previously disrupted PC games distribution by launching its own platform with lower fees. The setup of iOS and Apple’s actions against Epic make this an impossible way to reach users.
The Court’s analysis of the Epic v Apple case depended upon several key factors. First, the market definition. To be found to have breached competition law Apple must have a significant share of the market. If the market is defined as that for iOS apps, this is clearly the case. However, if, as Apple argues, it is broader, encompassing the options to play Epic games through web browsers, gaming consoles and PCs, then this is not the case.
Second, even if the market is narrowly defined, Apple argues that its control of the app distribution market is essential to provide user friendly and secure provision of apps. Furthermore, revenue extracted from app producers can enable more investment in the iOS. Without Apple controlling the market, app producers would be able to free-ride on the visibility the App Store provides for their apps.
The US Court announced its ruling on 10 September 2021. The judge decided that the market was broader than just iOS and thus Apple is not considered to be a monopolist. This has been touted as a major success for Apple, as it will allow the company to maintain its control of the app distribution market. However, the Court also ruled that Apple must allow game developers to link and direct users to alternative purchasing methods outside the App Store.
The Court’s decision in the Epic v Apple case closely follows concessions recently made by Apple for so called ‘reader apps’ such as Spotify and Netflix. Following an investigation by the Japanese authorities, these concessions allowed such apps to promote and receive purchases directly from consumers as long as they were made outside the app. These apps could be treated differently, as digital goods are consumed on multiple devices. However, the decision in the Epic case now extends such concessions to gaming apps.
It is unclear whether Apple will appeal the decision in the case Epic brought. If not, Apple stands to lose considerable revenue from its 30% share of in-app purchases. It will be very interesting to see how this ruling affects how Apple runs the App Store. Epic, on the other hand, has already made clear it will appeal the decision, aiming to prevent Apple gaining a share of any payment users make outside the app.
Matt Olczak and Jon Guest
- Why might a firm involved in a competition case, such as Apple, try to convince the authorities to define the relevant market as broadly as possible?
- Using the example of the Epic v Apple case, explain how Apple’s actions could be seen as both exclusionary and exploitative abuses of a dominant position.
In recent years, US tech companies have faced increased scrutiny in Washington over their size and power. Despite the big tech firms in America being economically robust, seemingly more so than any other sector, they are also more politically vulnerable. This potential vulnerability is present regardless of the recent election result.
Both the Democrat and Republican parties are thinking critically about monopoly power and antitrust issues, where ‘antitrust’ refers to the outlawing or control of oligopolistic collusion. Despite the varied reasons across different parts of the political spectrum, the increased scrutiny over big tech companies is bipartisan.
Rising monopoly power
Monopoly power occurs when a firm has a dominant position in the market. A pure monopoly is when one firm has a 100% share of the market. A firm might be considered to have monopoly power with more than a 25% market share.
If there is a rise in market concentration, it tends to hurt blue-collar workers, such as those employed in factories, more than everyone else. Research, from the University of Chicago, studied what happens to particular classes of workers when companies increasingly dominate a market and have more power to raise prices. The study found that those workers that make things tend to be left worse off, while the workers who sell, market or design things gain. When companies have more pricing power, they make fewer products and sell each one for a higher profit margin. In that case, it’s far more valuable to a company to be an employee working in so-called expansionary positions, such as marketing, than in production jobs, such as working on a factory line — because there’s less production to be done and more salesmanship.
Monopoly power under Trump Vs Biden
In February, President Trump and his economic team saw no need to rewrite the federal government’s antitrust rules, drawing a battle line with the Democrats on an issue that has increasingly drawn the attention of economists, legal scholars and other academics. In their annual Economic Report of the President, Mr. Trump and his advisers effectively dismissed research that found large American companies increasingly dominate industries like telecommunications and tech, stifling competition and hurting consumers. At the time the Trump administration contended that studies demonstrating a rise in market concentration were flawed and that the rise of large companies may not be a bad thing for consumers.
On page 201, the report reads:
Concentration may be driven by economies of scale and scope that can lower costs for consumers. Also, successful firms tend to grow, and it is important that antitrust enforcement and competition policy not be used to punish firms for their competitive success.
The Trump administration approved some high-profile corporate mergers, such as the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile, while also trying to block others, such as AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner. Mr. Trump’s advisers stated that agencies already had the tools they needed to evaluate mergers and antitrust cases. It lamented that some Americans have come to hold the mistaken, simplistic view that ‘Big Is Bad.’
However, it is likely that such big firms, including the tech giants, would take a hit under the new presidency. President-Elect Joe Biden has pledged to undo the tax cuts introduced by Trump and has vowed to increase corporation tax from 21% to 28%. As part of these tax changes, he has suggested the introduction of a minimum 15% tax for all companies with a revenue of over $100 million. This has now been given the nickname of the ‘Amazon Tax’ and it is clear how it would impact on the big the firms such as Amazon.
This is the opposite of what was probable if Trump were to have been re-elected. It was expected that the US would continue along the path of deregulation and lower taxes for corporates and high-income households, which would have been welcomed by the stock market. However, analysts suggest that the tax changes under Biden would negatively affect the US tech sector, with some analysts maintaining that the banking sector would also be hit.
Antitrust enforcement is often associated with the political left, but the current situation is not so clear-cut. In the past, Silicon Valley has largely avoided any clashes with Washington, even when European regulators have levied fines against the tech giants. European regulators have fined Google a total of $9bn for anticompetitive practices. In 2018 Donald Trump attacked the EU decisions. “I told you so! The European Union just slapped a Five Billion Dollar fine on one of our great companies, Google,” Trump tweeted. “They truly have taken advantage of the US, but not for long!”
However, since then the mood has changed, with Trump and other conservatives joining liberals, including senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, in attacking the dominance of tech firms, including Amazon, Google, Facebook and others. While Democrats have largely stuck to criticising the scale of big tech’s dominance, Republicans, including Trump, have accused the major tech companies of censoring conservative speech.
An antitrust subcommittee of the Democrat-controlled House Judiciary Committee released a 449-page report excoriating the Big Four tech companies, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google-owner, Alphabet, for what it calls systematic and continuing abuses of their monopoly power. Recommendations from the report include ways to limit their power, force them out of certain areas of business and even a break-up of some of them.
Democratic lawmakers working on the probe claim that these firms have too much power, and that power must be reined in. But not all Republicans involved agreed with the recommendations. One Republican congressman, Jim Jordan, dismissed the report as “partisan” and said it advanced “radical proposals that would refashion antitrust law in the vision of the far left.” However, others have said they support many of the report’s conclusions about the firms’ anti-competitive tactics, but that remedies proposed by Democrats go too far.
The US tech giants
Amazon is a leading example of the economic strength held by the tech giants. Amazon has produced 12-month revenues of $321bn to October 2020, which in an increase from 2019 and 2018 revenues of $280bn and $233bn respectively. However, Amazon, along with the other big players Apple, Facebook, Google parent Alphabet, and Microsoft, are facing increased government scrutiny.
The US Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against Google for entrenching itself as the dominant search engine through anti-competitive practices. Google’s complex algorithms, software, and custom-built servers helped make it into one of the world’s richest and most-powerful corporations. It currently dominates the online search market in the USA, accounting for around 80% of search queries. The lawsuit accuses the tech company of abusing its position to maintain an illegal monopoly over search and search advertising. Facebook also faces an antitrust lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission. It is arguable that the US tech giants are so powerful that they may accomplish the seemingly impossible and unite the two parties, at least on one policy – breaking them up.
If it is correct that the tech giants’ behaviour ultimately damages innovation and exacerbates inequality, it is arguable that such problems have only grown worse with the coronavirus pandemic. Many smaller businesses have succumbed to the economic damage: many have been closed during lockdowns or suffered a decline in sales; many have gone out of business.
The changing patterns in teleworking and retail have accelerated in ways that have made Americans more reliant on technologies produced by a few firms. Shares in the Big Four, along with Microsoft, Netflix, and Tesla, added $291 billion in market value in just one day last week. It could therefore be claimed that the dangers of Big Tech domination are more profound now than they were even a few months ago.
On 20 October, the Department of Justice — along with eleven state Attorneys General — filed a civil antitrust lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to stop Google from unlawfully maintaining monopolies through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices in the search and search advertising markets and to remedy the competitive harms.
This is the most significant legal challenge to a major tech company in decades and comes as US authorities are increasingly critical of the business practices of the major tech companies. The suit alleges that Google is no longer a start-up company with an innovative way to search the emerging internet. Instead Google is being described as a “monopoly gatekeeper for the internet” that has used “pernicious” anticompetitive tactics to maintain and extend its monopolies.
The allegation that Google is unfairly acting as a gatekeeper to the internet is based on the argument that through a series of business agreements, Google has effectively locked out any competition. One of the specific arrangements being challenged is the issue of Google being preloaded on mobile devices. On mobile phones running its Android operating system, Google is preinstalled and cannot be deleted. The company pays billions each year to “secure default status for its general search engine and, in many cases, to specifically prohibit Google’s counterparties from dealing with Google’s competitors,” the suit states. It is argued that this alone forecloses competition for internet search as it denies its rivals to compete effectively and prevent potential innovation.
However, Google has defended its position, calling the lawsuit “deeply flawed”. It has argued that consumers themselves choose to use Google; they do not use it because they are forced to or because they can’t find an alternative search platform. Google also argues that this lawsuit will not be beneficial for consumers. It claims that this will artificially prop up lower-quality search alternatives, increase phone prices, and make it harder for people to get the search services they want to use.
Despite wanting to stop Google from “unlawfully maintaining monopolies in the markets for” search services, advertising, and general search text, the lack of consensus and divergence among the Democrats and Republicans on the antitrust issues remains a major issue to move things forward.
The Democrats want to see the power held by these companies reined in, while the Republicans would rather see targeted antitrust enforcement over onerous and burdensome regulation that kills industry innovation. It is clear that the US government will have to balance its reforms and ideas while making sure not to put the largest companies in the USA at a competitive disadvantage versus their competitors globally.
- US tech giants accused of ‘monopoly power’
BBC News (6/10/20)
- Tech, healthcare & the ‘fear index’: An investor’s guide to US election night 2020
Investment Trust Insider, Alex Steger, Alex Rosenberg, John Coumarianos, Nicole Piper, Jake Martin and Ian Wenik (2/11/20)
- Justice Department Sues Monopolist Google For Violating Antitrust Laws
The United States Department of Justice (20/10/20)
- Trump Administration Sees No Threat to Economy From Monopolies
The New York Times, Jim Tankersley (20/2/20)
- Trump vs Biden: Winners and losers under America’s next leader
Shares, Yoosof Farah (29/10/20)
- America’s Monopoly Problem Goes Way Beyond the Tech Giants
The Atlantic, David Dayen (28/7/20)
- US justice department sues Google over accusation of illegal monopoly
The Guardian, Dominic Rushe and Kari Paul (20/10/20)
- With the aid of a diagram, explain how pricing decisions are made in a monopoly.
- What factors influence the degree of monopoly power a company has within an industry?
- What are the advantages of a monopoly?
- Why would a government want to prevent a monopoly? Discuss the policies a government could implement to do this.
Last week saw the launch of Apple’s new music streaming service. This will clearly provide serious competition for the existing music streaming providers such as Spotify and Tidal. One important difference is that whilst Spotify offers a free version to listeners funded by advertising revenue, all Apple Music users will be required to pay a monthly subscription charge. However, Apple will allow listeners a free three-month trial of its service.
Initially Apple intended not to pay artists royalties during this trial period. However, it soon reversed this plan when the pop-star Taylor Swift wrote a blog post criticising Apple for this and threatening to withhold her most recent album.
The negotiations between Apple and the record labels are also facing considerable scrutiny from the competition authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. They seem particularly concerned that Apple may have conspired with or pressured labels to withdraw their support for rival streaming services such as Spotify that offer free versions to consumers. Although not clear, it has been suggested that the European Commission’s initial probe into this may have been initiated by a complaint from a company offering such a free version of its service.
On the other hand, there has also been considerable criticism of free music services such as Spotify. One of the cofounders of the Beats music streaming service, which was subsequently acquired by Apple, has argued that the free business model does not properly value recorded music. Likewise, Taylor Swift removed her entire back catalogue from Spotify, and the leading record label, Universal, is applying pressure on Spotify to change its business model. It is currently unclear whether Apple has been directly responsible for Universal’s standpoint. What is clear is that Apple’s entry will shake-up this market and the identity and business model of the future market leader is at stake.
Streaming sets off a painful debate in the music industry Financial Times, Jonathan Ford (22/03/15)
Apple’s new music service will push paid subscriptions, with free samples re/code, Dawn Chmielewski and Peter Kafka (08/05/15)
Taylor Swift is fighting the wrong part of the music industry Financial Times, Jonathan Ford (05/07/15)
Here’s what happens to your $10 after you pay for a month of Apple music re/code, Peter Kafka (15/06/15)
- What are the key features of the music streaming service market?
- What are the pros and cons of Spotify’s business model?
- Why might the views on free streaming services differ between small and large artists and labels?
- How do you think the music streaming market might develop in the future?
Apple was last week found guilty in the US for its role in the fixing of e-book prices. A subsequent hearing will now be held to determine the damages that Apple will be forced to pay. However, Apple vehemently denies the allegations and looks set to appeal the decision.
To understand what the US Department of Justice (the European Commission has also brought a case) is objecting to, we need to look back to how pricing in this rapidly growing market has evolved over time.
Until the end of 2009 e-books were sold under a wholesale pricing model. Here, publishers charge retailers a wholesale price per book and retailers are then free to charge final consumers whatever price they choose. This all changed in the US (there were also similar developments in Europe) during an eventful period of a few days in January 2010 when Apple unveiled its iPad for April release.
The publisher Macmillian proposed that Amazon switch to an agency pricing model under which the publisher sets the retail price. This is typically referred to by economists as Resale Price Maintenance (RPM). Interestingly, RPM has a long history in the book industry. In the UK for example, throughout most of the last century publishers set prices under the Net Book Agreement, until this broke down in the mid 1990s. In addition, in some countries, for example Germany, books continue to be sold under RPM.
Macmillan also threatened Amazon that if it preferred to keep wholesale pricing it would delay the supply of e-book releases to them. Amazon initially responded by refusing to stock Macmillan titles. However, soon after Amazon ceded to Macmillan’s proposal. Despite this, Amazon made clear its dissatisfaction to its customers:
We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles. We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books.
It turned out that 5 of the 6 major publishers (including Macmillan) had already agreed the same agency terms to sell e-books for Apple devices. Like Macmillan, the other publishers all then also imposed agency pricing on Amazon. Furthermore, crucial to the contracts agreed with Apple was a so called ‘most-favoured customer’ clause which guaranteed that e-books would not be sold elsewhere at prices below those charged to Apple customers. Effectively, therefore, this clause made it necessary for the publishers to impose agency terms on Amazon. The Department of Justice objected to this and believed consumers would be harmed due to higher prices. All of the publishers involved eventually decided to settle the case, leaving Apple alone to fight the case in court.
In the decision Judge Cote concluded that:
the publisher defendants conspired with each other to eliminate retail price competition in order to raise e-book prices, and that Apple played a central role in facilitating and executing that conspiracy. Without Apple’s orchestration of this conspiracy, it would not have succeeded as it did in the Spring of 2010.
It is interesting to consider the reasons why the publishers would be keen to take control of the prices Amazon charges for e-books. Evidence suggests that Amazon was frequently retailing e-books at substantial discounts and even below wholesale costs. One explanation for this is that Amazon was keen to increase demand for Kindle devices. The publishers, on the other hand, might well be concerned about the implications of Amazon dominating the e-book market. Potentially, this would give Amazon significant bargaining power over them.
Of course, such dominance might also have knock-on effects on consumer prices in the long-run. Whether the publishers will be permitted to use agency pricing to mitigate such concerns in the future remains unclear and depends on whether the competition authorities object to agency pricing per se or just the coordinated way in which it was achieved.
As the articles below demonstrate, opinion is strongly divided for and against the judgement against Apple.
EU raids ebook publishers in price fixing investigation The Guardian, Benedicte Page and Leigh Phillips (4/3/11)
Apple Faces Damages Trial Over E-Book Antitrust Violation Bloomberg Businessweek, Bob Van Voris, Adam Satariano and David McLaughlin (10/7/13)
Apple played ‘central role’ in ebook price-fixing conspiracy, says federal judge The Guardian, Amanda Holpuch (11/7/13)
US: Apple found guilty, but what happens next? Competition Policy International (11/7/13)
Why It’s Insane That No One Cares About Apple’s Price-Fixing Conspiracy (AAPL) Seattle pi, Jim Edwards (13/7/13)
Apple Learns The Hazards Of Innovation With E-Book Antitrust Ruling Forbes, Daniel Fisher (10/7/13)
- What are the important features of the e-book market?
- What are the key differences between the traditional and e-book markets?
- To what extent do Amazon and Apple have different incentives in the e-book market?
- Do you think Resale Price Maintenance is more likely to harm competition in the market for traditional or e-books?
- What do you think might be the short and long-run implications of this decision?
If you ask most people whether they like paying tax, the answer would surely be a resounding ‘no’. If asked would you like to pay less tax, most would probably say ‘yes’. Evidence of this can be seen in the behaviour of individuals and of companies, as they aim to reduce their tax bill, through both legal and illegal methods.
Our tax revenues are used for many different things, ranging from the provision of merit goods to the redistribution of income, so for most people they don’t object to paying their way. However, maintaining profitability and increasing disposable income is a key objective for companies and individuals, especially in weak economic times. Some high profile names have received media coverage due to accusations of both tax avoidance and tax evasion. Starbucks, Amazon, Googe and Apple are just some of the big names that have been accused of paying millions of pounds/dollars less in taxation than they should, due to clever (and often legal) methods of avoiding tax.
The problem of tax avoidance has become a bigger issue in recent years with the growth of globalisation. Multinationals have developed to dominate the business world and business/corporation tax rates across the global remain very different. Thus, it is actually relatively easy for companies to reduce their tax burden by locating their headquarters in low tax countries or ensuring that business contracts etc. are signed in these countries. By doing this, any profits are subject to the lower tax rate and are thus such companies are accused of depriving the government of tax revenue. Apple is currently answering questions posed by a US Senate Committee, having been accused of structuring its business to create ‘the holy grail of tax avoidance’.
Many may consider the above and decide that these companies have done little wrong. After all, many schemes aimed at tax avoidance are legal and are often just a clever way of using the system. However, in a business environment dominated by the likes of Google, Apple and Amazon, the impact of tax avoidance may not just be on the government’s coffers. Indeed John McCain, one of the Committee members asked:
…Couldn’t one draw the conclusion that you and Apple have an unfair advantage over domestic based corporations and companies, in other words, smaller companies in this country that don’t have the same ability that you do to locate in Ireland or other countries overseas?
The concern is that with such ability to avoid huge amounts of taxation, large companies will inevitably compete smaller ones out of the market. Local businesses, without the ability to re-locate to other parts of the world, pay their full tax bills, but multinationals legally (in most cases) manage to avoid paying their own share. With a harsh economic climate continuing globally, these large companies that aim to further increase their profitability through such means as tax avoidance will naturally bear the wrath of smaller businesses and individuals that are struggling to get by. It’s likely that this topic will remain in the media for some time. The following articles consider some of the companies accused of participating in tax avoidance schemes and the consequences of doing so.
Is Apple’s tax avoidance rational? BBC News, Robert Peston (21/5/13)
Apple’s Tim Cook defends tax strategy in Senate BBC News (21/5/13)
Senator accuses Apple of ‘highly questionable’ billion-dollar tax avoidance scheme The Guardian, Dominic Rushe (21/5/13)
Apple’s Tim Cook faces tax avoidance questions Sky News (21/5/13)
EU leaders look to end Apple-style tax avoidance schemes Reuters, Luke Baker and Mark John (21/5/13)
Apple Chief Tim Cook defends tax practices and denies avoidance Financial Times, James Politi (21/5/13)
Apple CEO Tim Cook tells Senate: tiny tax bill isn’t our fault, it’s yours Independent, Nikhil Kumar (21/5/13)
Miliband promises action on Google tax avoidance The Telegraph (19/5/13)
Google is cheating British tax payers out of millions…what they are doing is just immoral’: Web giant accused of running ‘scandalous’ tax avoidance scheme by whistleblower Mail Online, Becky Evans (19/5/13)
Multinational CEOs tell David Cameron to rein in tax avoidance rhetoric The Guardian, Simon Bowers, Lawrie Holmes and Rajeev Syal (20/5/13)
Fury at corporate tax avoidance leads to call for a global response The Guardian, Tracy McVeigh (18/5/13)
- What is the difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance? Is it rational to engage in such schemes?
- What are tax revenues used for?
- Why are multinationals more able to engage in tax avoidance schemes?
- Is the problem of tax avoidance a negative consequence of globalisation?
- How might the actions of large multinationals who are avoiding paying large amounts of tax affect the competitiveness of the global market place?
- Is there justification for a global policy response to combat the issue of tax avoidance?
- What are the costs and benefits to a country of having a low rate of corporation tax?
- How would a more ‘reasonable’ tax on foreign earnings allow the ‘free movement of capital back to the US’?