Populist Antitrust: The Case of FTC v. Facebook

Published date01 June 2023
Date01 June 2023
The Antitrust Bulletin
2023, Vol. 68(2) 250 –262
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0003603X231163218
Populist Antitrust: The Case of
FTC v. Facebook
Thomas W. Hazlett*
A novel theory of antitrust law may be tested in the case of Federal Trade Commission (FTC) v. Facebook.
It focuses on how pricing might be monopolistic even when the goods delivered to end users are
zero-priced. While there is considerable political momentum behind a regulatory push to toughen
antitrust sanctions on digital platforms in general and Facebook in particular, the economic theory
behind the Government’s antitrust case is shown to be uncompelling. That does not mean it will
necessarily be rejected by a given court, but the chances of the case succeeding and then surviving the
full gamut of appeals is low. However, that predicted outcome may well calibrate the considerable
space between the existing legal equilibrium and an emerging electoral policy equilibrium. If so, the
expected outcome may well fuel the populist movement pushing legislation to fundamentally alter the
antitrust statutes.
antitrust, digital platform, market power, quality-adjusted price, personal data, privacy, mergers
I. Introduction
Public choice research has shown that antitrust prosecutions tend to be heavily influenced by intersec-
tional political factions and rent-seeking rivalries across industry segments.1 In the present climate, in
which antitrust enforcement issues have risen to national prominence,2 a popular cause may elicit
critical, perhaps marginally determinative, political support. While antitrust issues are typically
*Hugh H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics, Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business, Clemson University,
Clemson, SC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Thomas W. Hazlett, Hugh H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics, Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business,
Clemson University, 225 Walter T. Cox Blvd., Clemson, SC 29634, USA.
Email: hazlett@clemson.edu
1163218ABXXXX10.1177/0003603X231163218The Antitrust BulletinHazlett
1. Roger Faith, Roger, David Leavens, & Robert Tollison, Antitrust Port Barrel, 25 J. L. & Econ. 329 (Oct. 1982).
2. Antitrust policy generally is not a frontpage topic in political reporting. Yet it has become so. President Joe Biden devoted
“valuable real estate” in his Mar. 1, 2022, State of the Union Speech to pledge action on antitrust enforcement, and both
major parties have made antitrust reforms high-profile causes, focusing on new legislation governing large digital plat-
forms. Leah Nylen, Dems Are Going after Big Tech. It’ll Affect Almost Everything You Do Online, PoLitico (June 15, 2021)
(Article subhead: “The Democratic-led bills take aim at the tech industry’s largest players and some of their most popular
offerings, like Amazon Prime and the Apple App Store.”) Evan Halper, How Conservative Anger at Big Tech Pushed the
GOP into Bernie Sanders’ Corner, L.A. timEs (May 6, 2021).

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