Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Antitrust Hammer

This week Europe announced yet another antitrust action against an American company. Regulators are investigating Apple's iTunes for violation of European antitrust laws. They are claiming that because Apple offers music downloading on a country-by-country basis, they are violating rules against territorial restrictions on sales. Apple, for its part, says that it originally wanted to sell its songs Europe-wide, but found that copyrights were handled nationally and continental distribution was not feasible. Apple is being squeezed between one set of laws (copyrights) and another (antitrust). Although it is a problem of conflicting laws, the regulators do not seek to eliminate the legal contradiction. Instead, they punish the American company caught in the middle.

Apple has done nothing wrong here. As an exercise of their commercial freedom, they can sell to whomever they want on whatever terms they seek. To restrict that in any way is to violate the property rights of Apple's owners.

Why are the Europeans so concerned about such a bizarre, picayune issue? The answer is that they seek to bring down Apple because it is a successful American corporation. Observe the European regulators' continuing crusade against Microsoft, America's leading computer software company. To this day, even after Microsoft painfully settled American antitrust actions and lawsuits, the Europeans continue to punish Microsoft with ever-changing and constantly-growing demands. Lilliputian style, Microsoft is tied down under threat of more fines (after paying a record $613 million fine several years ago), and is forced to change its software, turn over programming code to competitors, adhere to government-set marketing rules and product specifications, etc.

Not so long ago, the Europeans were quiescent in antitrust enforcement. In fact, in countries such as Germany private cartels were legal (as they should be). Governments often encouraged cartelization (which they should not do; it is a private matter). However, about 15 years ago, the Europeans got antitrust fervor. They appointed a Europe-wide antitrust enforcer and set to work. A partial list of companies attacked by the European antitrust enforcers since then reads like a who's who roster of American business success stories:

  • Apple
  • America Online
  • Boeing
  • General Electric
  • Honeywell
  • McDonnell-Douglas
  • MCI
  • Microsoft
  • TimeWarner
  • Sprint
  • WorldCom
Many of these companies who wanted to merge primarily to achieve efficiencies in the United States could not do so because the European regulators would not allow the companies to combine their European subsidiaries. Two examples were the intended General Electric/Honeywell and WorldCom/Sprint mergers. Both of these mergers of American companies were thwarted by the European antitrust regulators. In other cases, mergers between American companies were permitted only after costly concessions were extracted that favored local, European competitors. Two examples were the TimeWarner/AmericaOnline and Boeing/McDonnell-Douglas mergers.

Interestingly, Europe's antitrust fervor began around the same time as the American government's antitrust assault on Microsoft began in the early 1990s. Now, after nearly two decades of America barely uttering a word in protest, the Europeans believe it is open season on American corporations. With regard to Apple, France actually tried to pass a law a year ago that would have forced Apple to allow iPods to accept music downloads from services other than iTunes. Eventually, France backed down after Apple threatened to pull its popular iTunes service out of France.

The Europeans are not just being anti-American. They target plenty of European companies with antitrust enforcement. Their reach across the Atlantic into the boardrooms of American companies has more to do with punishing the successful to protect the mediocre and politically-connected local companies in Europe. Many of the world's most successful companies are American. Therefore, the Europeans hammer them with antitrust.

1 comment:

Galileo Blogs said...

Minor edit: Last sentence for style.