A Merger Challenge Not Worth Rating: The DOJ's Misguided Suit Against A Paltry Software Merger

from the doj-strikes-again dept

The following is a guest post from David Balto, former Federal Trade Commission Policy Director. Mr. Balto represented SunGard Data Systems in the US v. SunGard case described in this post.

Antitrust merger enforcement is a unique area of the law. It requires an assessment of whether a merger carries the potential of significantly harming competition. Courts are not very good at predicting the future and justifiably are very reluctant to prevent or unwind an acquisition without strong evidence of likely anticompetitive effects. Appropriately the antitrust enforcers rarely turn to the courts to try to stop business conduct that is typically procompetitive.

This cautionary approach is particularly necessary in software and other high tech markets. Antitrust analysis works best in traditional products, such as industrial products, that have existed for years in which the characteristics of products and the dimensions of competition are well defined. But in software the products are rapidly evolving, demand is ever changing, and the nature of competition can change overnight. Today's so called dominant firm may find itself an afterthought as the market turns to a whole different set of solutions. Not surprisingly, in the past decade the two litigated challenges to high tech mergers, Oracle's acquisition of PeopleSoft and SunGard's acquisition of Comdisco, resulted in stunning defeats for the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division.

That is why many observers were puzzled when the Antitrust Division sued to unwind the merger between Bazaarvoice, a social software and data analytics company, and PowerReviews, a small provider of online reviews that had less than $12 million in total revenues at the time of the transaction. (No one can seem to recall anytime the Division has sued to block a merger of a firm with an amount as paltry as $12 million in revenue). The merger involves the exciting software for providing ratings for products on the Internet, a product that did not exist a few years ago. Although the Division seems to highlight some documents that seem to suggest potential anticompetitive effects, the wooden analysis of the complaint reflects a simple structural view that overlooks the many dimensions of competition and the dynamic nature of the market. Rather than fully probing the likely competitive effects and dynamism of the online retail industry, the Division describes markets, consumer choices, and entry conditions that do not reflect reality. As a result the complaint is plagued by internal inconsistencies and fails to recognize the true price constraints that mitigate the potential for any harm the DOJ predicts as a result of this transaction.

The DOJ Fails to Articulate a Proper Relevant Market

Antitrust analysis may sound daunting, but it is very straightforward. The lodestar in any antitrust case is to define the relevant market – that is to determine what are the products that effectively compete with one another. In a merger challenge, if the government does not properly define the relevant market then the case is over. Defining the market can be very challenging, especially in dynamic markets such as software. Not surprisingly, the government's defeats in challenges to software mergers have typically been because they did not define the relevant market properly.

The DOJ defines the relevant market as "product ratings and review platforms," or "PRR platforms," and explains that these platforms "collect and display consumer-generated product ratings and reviews online." It is axiomatic that defining a relevant market establishes the boundary between products that do compete and those that do not, and determines the firms or products that constrain the relevant firm’s exercise of market power. As the Ninth Circuit has opined, "A relevant market is identified by considering commodities reasonably interchangeable by consumers for the same purposes. Put another way, the relevant market includes all sellers or producers who have actual or potential ability to deprive each other of significant levels of business." As the literature makes clear, if a putative relevant market is too narrow, and does not account for competitive forces that serve as a real price constraint on the parties, then the analysis risks condemning perfectly legitimate and competitive behavior by imputing market power where it does not exist.

On this count in Bazaarvoice, the DOJ does not get to first base. The DOJ's alleged PRR platform market is too narrow and falls prey to the mischaracterization of market power risk embodied in the literature. PRR platforms are one of many social-technological tools that retailers and manufacturers use to communicate with end-user customers. Bazaarvoice and PowerReviews compete against numerous firms that strive to empower the consumer's voice through social media to "collect, organize, and display consumer-generated product ratings and reviews online." Manufacturers may use popular network-driven social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Yelp or more nuanced social media tools such as YouTube, Pinterest, and LinkedIn to give the consumer a voice in online product reviews. Alternatively, manufacturers and retailers can include social media tools that are similar, but not identical, to consumer reviews such as question-and-answer, and community forums.

These alternative platforms constrain Bazaarvoice, PowerReviews, and other companies that provide third-party review and aggregating services. When a retailer or manufacturer considers purchasing services from these companies, they do not look only at these two options, but also at the available outlets for consumer review generation provided by the ever-increasing array of social media platforms.

In defining markets, the courts rely on a wide variety of evidence including econometric price studies, other pricing evidence, win/loss data, and testimony of customers. None of this is present in the DOJ complaint. Instead the DOJ relies largely on the defendant's documents, but this is a thin reed indeed. Many of these documents are outdated and ignore the realities inherent in this fast-moving industry. It is debatable whether these documents reflected the true nature of competition at the time they were created. It is certain, however, that these documents no longer reflect the current state of competition. For instance, the DOJ twice references an April 2011 email in which a Bazaarvoice executive characterized the nature of the industry and opined that alternatives to Bazaarvoice are "scarce" and "low-quality." In the intensely rapid changing world of the Internet, documents from 2011 are about as relevant as a floppy disk. Instead of 1) demonstrating that this was in-fact true in 2011, and 2) reestablishing that this description remains accurate, the DOJ's complaint merely assumes that both are the case. However, this description does not align with today's online retail industry or its intersection with social media. These are industries highlighted by dynamism, and it would be incorrect to believe that the relationships between PRR platforms and other social media outlets for consumer reviews have remained stagnant.

Even If One Accepts the DOJ's Relevant Product Market, the DOJ Fails to Recognize the Dynamic Nature of Competition

As explained above, a product market of PRR platforms is not a proper relevant market for antitrust purposes. Even assuming arguendo that PRR platforms constitute a proper market, however, the DOJ's complaint fails to discuss adequately the nature of competition within these parameters.

Two fatal flaws plague the DOJ's analysis. First, the DOJ fails to offer any explanation for portraying the PRR platform market as consisting of just two meaningful competitors and numerous fringe competitors who offer no real constraint. The DOJ attempts to justify this portrayal by analyzing the nature of competition between Bazaarvoice and PowerReviews within the "Internet Retailer 500," but it is unclear why the government focuses so closely on this tiny market segment and it is even less clear whether an impact solely on that segment would violate the law. The DOJ even concedes that the PRR platform industry "can range from simple software solutions a company has developed with internal resources to sophisticated commercial platforms offering a combination of software, moderation services, and data analytics tools." However, despite this wide range of styles and services, the complaint analyzes only a small segment of the market and suggests that these large sophisticated companies have only two effective alternatives.

The Division has made this mistake in the past, and it did not end well. In Oracle the DOJ "failed to prove that there are a significant number of customers (the 'node') who regard Oracle and PeopleSoft as their first and second choices." Instead, the DOJ tried to make the unilateral effects argument with the unpersuasive facts that it had. Judge Walker admonished the DOJ, stating the "Plaintiffs' attempt to show localized competition based upon customer and expert testimony was flawed and unreliable. Moreover, plaintiffs' evidence was devoid of any thorough econometric analysis such as diversion ratios showing recapture effects." (A "diversion ratio" shows how much of one competitor's business will shift to another competitor if there is a price increase.)

The complaint against Bazaarvoice is equally flawed. The diversion ratios will simply not tell a story wherein a sizeable portion of all participants in the DOJ's (already flawed) market perceive only Bazaarvoice and PowerReviews as next-best options. If the evidence of diversion ratios were available, the DOJ would have presented it already. In fact, this is a consummated merger – the real-life data should show this effect if it is true. Instead, the data likely tells a story of widespread, dissimilar, and largely unpredictable cross-elasticity of demand. It is probably the case that no "node" in the PRR platform industry exists because the dynamic nature and subjective needs of clients dictate that there is no significant captive set of consumers choosing only between Bazaarvoice and PowerReviews.

Second, the DOJ completely ignores the concept of self-help in the social media consumer reviews industry. At its core, the products supplied by Bazaarvoice and PowerReviews are based on simple technology. These companies create software that appears on a retailer's website and enables consumers to provide first-hand product reviews. The companies also provide differing analytic and syndication services, both of which are a function of nothing more than intelligent use of data. There is nothing stopping retailers and/or manufacturers from creating the same service and extracting value from the data. Unsurprisingly, companies often perform some or all of these tasks themselves. Amazon stands out as a leader in providing consumer review platforms and uses the data to drive marketing and sale decisions. Zappos, the online shoe and apparel company from Henderson, Nevada provides its own consumer review platform on its website, and uses this information not only to improve sales and marketing, but to provide an added level of consumer care.

Like the question of the consumer "node," the DOJ has also failed to account for internal solutions as a price constraint. Once again the DOJ is forgetting an important lesson from a past defeat. In SunGard, the DOJ tried to block the merger of two firms that provided computer disaster recovery services, which sounded like tremendously sophisticated and complex services. But the court found that self-help ("internal hotsite solutions") was a perfectly adequate option for many customers. The DOJ had portrayed the notion of internal hot sites as expensive and difficult to create, and suggested that not enough customers would turn to internal solutions to prevent the merging parties from raising prices. Judge Huvelle disagreed, and pointed out that, not only did internal solutions exist in some capacity, but that the incentive to create internal solutions would increase alongside any increase in price. Furthermore, the evidence demonstrated that customers had varying needs, and "any generalizations regarding customer behavior cannot be arrived at with any certainty, since it depends on a host of factors, including the type of equipment a customer must duplicate, the particular circumstances and needs of the customer, and in some cases, the size of the customer's operations."

The same can be said for customers of social media consumer review -- any attempt to predict the future needs and behaviors of customers is nothing more than generalization and speculation based upon incomplete data, an uncertain technological future, and dynamic and varied customer needs.

The DOJ Fails to Account Adequately for Entry and Expansion, Both of Which are Likely

The DOJ asserts that anticompetitive harm resulting from this transaction will not be corrected by additional competitors entering the market or existing participants expanding. The rationale for this assertion lies primarily in the DOJ's contention that Bazaarvoice's syndication network creates an insurmountable entry barrier. This statement ignores the fact that PowerReviews entered the market and competed effectively without offering a syndication product on par with Bazaarvoice's. Furthermore, the DOJ makes no attempt to quantify the number of Bazaarvoice customers that take advantage of the syndication offering. In fact, many manufacturers and retailers choose not to utilize this service, instead preferring to outsource to another vendor or perform the analytics in-house.

Notwithstanding these factual oversights, the assertion that Bazaarvoice's syndication network is a barrier to entry fails. The aggregation of data through the creation of consumer reviews is a profitable endeavor, but it is also an easily repeated endeavor. Bazaarvoice's reviews and sophisticated analysis may make it a better competitor but it does nothing to cement Bazaarvoice as an enduring competitor in the face of an improved service. Allegations of network effects as barriers to entry are made far too lazily, and the DOJ would have the trier of fact believe that a piece of data can only be captured once, or is a zero-sum game. This is just not the case. There is competition for data just as there is competition for any other product. Finally, as the value of data continues to increase, retailers and manufacturers will have less incentive to continue outsourcing this portion of the business to Bazaarvoice.

Unsurprisingly, entry is already occurring in this alleged market. Reevoo and Yotpo are new entrants looking to disrupt competition, while Amazon and Google are established market participants looking to grow their profits at the expense of companies like Bazaarvoice. The DOJ's entire theory of harm is premised on a presumption of stagnancy that runs contrary to the nature of the high-tech and electronic commerce industries.

Conclusion

Antitrust enforcement in high tech markets poses special challenges -- to recognize the dynamic fast paced nature of competition, the fluidity of product markets, and the opportunities for new forms of rivalry. Unfortunately, the complaint in the Bazaarvoice case takes a static approach hinged to a few outdated documents. Without more it is unlikely a court will take the draconian step of unwinding this merger.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Tim, Feb 27th, 2013 @ 1:24pm

    Re article

    Too many words.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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    Nigel (profile), Feb 27th, 2013 @ 2:07pm

    Yeah cus reading is hard lol...

    I quite enjoyed it.

    Nigel

     

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  •  
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    BentFranklin (profile), Feb 27th, 2013 @ 2:35pm

    Nice amicus brief.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, Feb 27th, 2013 @ 2:41pm

    Many people are unable to be concise.

    You lost my interest at your first sentence. It should be: "Our little Company X is being undeservedly stifled by the big stupid gov't!" -- It's just plain BAD writing to not state basics in first sentence. You have maybe 15 seconds on the net to grab interest.

    As is, I had to substitute "Company X" above because can't keep interest long enough to determine who's being oppressed, let alone which side. -- Conclusion: case lost due to dull speaking, regardless of merits.

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2013 @ 5:57pm

      Re: Many people are unable to be concise.

      What are you, his fucking job coach? Lamer.

       

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    •  
      icon
      Some Other AC (profile), Feb 28th, 2013 @ 6:23am

      Re: Many people are unable to be concise.

      Tech Gods forgive me for feeding the troll...

      This is exactly why no one on here(or likely any forum you stain with your presence) takes anything you say with any level of seriousness. You are willfully blind to anything resembling logic, common sense, etc... You are the epitome of what is wrong with the US and the world in general. It does not matter who you support or don't support. Your uninformed and most time, unformed opinions are rarely ever backed by significant facts or statistics.
      Please for the love of all that is sane, intelligent and generally decent in this world, get over your crush on Mike, the Tims, and Leigh. The rest of us would like to continue reading/discussing(intelligently) the topics that are presented here.

       

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  •  
    identicon
    Aliasundercover, Feb 27th, 2013 @ 3:11pm

    Revolving Door

    David Balto, former Federal Trade Commission Policy Director. Mr. Balto represented SunGard Data Systems in the US v. SunGard case described in this post

    Out of the government, in to a private position influencing the government. Reminds me of Chris Dodd.

     

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    TheLastCzarnian (profile), Feb 27th, 2013 @ 3:30pm

    WTF?

    So the DOJ allows Autodesk to by both 3D Studio Max and Maya, the two biggest 3D rendering packages, but balks when two consumer review companies want to merge?
    This water smells. (Old Japanese saying)

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2013 @ 3:57pm

    It's amazing how Time Warner gets govt. established monopoly information distribution power, they get to buy exclusive 'rights' to the Dodgers and Lakers, and the DOJ/govt doesn't even flinch. Yet the moment Google does nothing wrong they go crazy. Instead of going after real monopolists they waste our taxpayer money grandstanding over nothing important.

     

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      shane (profile), Feb 27th, 2013 @ 6:09pm

      Re:

      In this particular instance, Google stands to benefit. Not sure why you are bringing them up as an innocent victim here.

       

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        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2013 @ 9:00pm

        Re: Re:

        The fact that Google stands to benefit from something doesn't automatically make what they are doing wrong or worth pursuing on anti-trust grounds.

        and I'm bringing them up to point out that the DOJ goes after those they shouldn't go after while leaving those they should go after, like Time Warner who not only engages in anti-competitive behavior but they also abuse the results of their anti-competitive behavior by gouging customers with high prices, untouched.

         

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 27th, 2013 @ 8:30pm

    Hmm. But on the other hand: why do the companies want to merge?

    The complaint says: "The acquisition of PowerReviews was a calculated move by Bazaarvoice that was intended to eliminate competition. Bazaarvoice's senior executives spent more than a year considering whether buying PowerReviews would reduce pricing pressure and diminish competition in the marketplace. As a result of their extensive deliberations, the company's business documents are saturated with evidence that Bazaarvoice believed the acquisition of PowerReviews would eliminate its most significant competitive threat and stem price competition."

    If this is true - if this merger is an attempt to reduce competition via buying them out - isn't there an antitrust problem, regardless of anything else? Why else would these particular companies merge? Can they articulate a reason why the merged company would be better?

     

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    special-interesting (profile), Feb 28th, 2013 @ 2:59am

    Giving a suggestion for condensing ones argument. Please consider an executive brief of your argument. (the first paragraph as a summary and labeled as such) Also: A note of condensation like Antitrust Division (Division) would be nice. (its hard to speak to an average reader (me) about complex messy topics) What I read was OK but hardly easy to read.

    I believe you are right about “market turns” making obsolete present market functions as they have no indication of future events (in an immature market). Maybe a better definition of the market referenced is needed. (example: hard to describe utilities as an emerging market as compared to unexplored social Internet collaboration of which is what... 8 years old?)

    I like your assessment of (consumer review) software as an emerging technology and as such it would be immune from anti-trust logic. This would suggest the removal of software patents as computer technologies that are immature at every level. I perceive no stagnancy in the whole of the software market let alone such a small market as aggregate price consumer review firms.

    Antitrust is daunting to me. However the comment (a product that provides) “ratings for products on the Internet” resonates the response: who would care? It seems that we are defining a product that defines products. (I love the recursiveness) “Bazaarvoice and PowerReviews” represent only a very small segment of the price aggregate market thus why would anti-trust accusations be true?

    There are many examples of successful price aggregation sites (with user review opportunities) why single out this one? Its a market in its infancy. (total agreement) This fact brings to mind... wth is really going on? Is there something about the price aggregation industry that pisses off someone? And. Since any ruling affects social media in the whole... (I have to admit my cynicism creeps into my analysis) Since (price aggregation combined with consumer review) this is an important new manifestation of social collaboration affecting many present commercial establishments its no wonder some lawsuit popped up.

    There seems to be a conflict of interest in 'Purchasing services' (from a consumer review site) and actual consumer reviews. Each site must delineate a sponsored event from a consumer generated response because of 'first person evidenced based' reviews. A review provided by a paid worker from a specific manufacture is worthless, but if properly labeled as such a consumer can classify it, as just an advertisement.

    Am in (mostly. Remember my ignorance of) agreement with this article (as the complexities) of anti-trust law and its relevance to immature developing technologies.

     

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    toyotabedzrock (profile), Feb 28th, 2013 @ 7:44am

    Missing Info

    A few examples of the discussed services are need so that we can evaluate the merits ourselves.

    The mentioned company names are unfamiliar and I'm guessing that they are the underpinnings of a more well known service.

    Honestly without this info this article seems selfserving.

     

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