Addictive technology and its implications for antitrust enforcement

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The advent of mobile devices and digital media platforms in the past decade represents the biggest shock to cognition in human history. Robust medical evidence is emerging that digital media platforms are addictive and, when used in excess, harmful to users’ mental health. Other types of addictive products, like tobacco and prescription drugs, are heavily regulated to protect consumers. Currently, there is no regulatory structure protecting digital media users from these harms. Antitrust enforcement and regulation that lowers entry barriers could help consumers of social media by increasing competition. Economic theory tells us that increased choice in digital media will increase the likelihood that some firms will vie to offer higher quality and safer platforms. For this reason, evaluating harm to innovation (especially safety innovation) and product variety may be particularly important in social media merger and conduct cases. A critical element to enforcement of the antitrust laws in this space is a correct accounting of social media’s addictive qualities. Standard antitrust analysis seeks to prohibit conduct that harms consumer welfare. Economists have taught the antitrust bar that a reliable proxy for consumer welfare is the output of a product or service. However, output and welfare do not have this relationship when a product is addictive. In social media markets, increased output is often harmful, making this assumption incorrect. We argue that antitrust analysis must reject the output proxy and re-turn to a focus on consumer welfare itself in cases involving addictive social media plat-forms. In particular, courts should reject defenses that rely only on gross output measures without evidence that any alleged increases in output actually benefit consumers.