Middlemen forever: Competition and opportunism in the digital economy

Powerful intermediaries represent two old symbols of evil: middlemen and monopolies. Their power is arguably a product of unlawful monopolization and their practices are arguably unfair, unjust, and exploitative. Such beliefs have been guiding the present surge of populist demonization of digital intermediaries. This paper argues that contemporary antitrust populists excessively rely on symbols and erroneously treat alleged opportunistic intermediation as a form of monopolistic conduct.

1. The emergence of powerful market intermediaries is one of the core features of the digital economy. Certain attributes of digital intermediation—most prominently, increasing returns to scale, network effects, and reliance on dynamic data infrastructures—could lead to the formation of monopolies and oligopolies. The rise of powerful intermediaries, therefore, raises the question of whether and, if so, how society should regulate dominant digital middlemen. This paper addresses the differences between anticompetitive monopolistic practices and opportunistic intermediation. Beliefs that antitrust enforcement could and should be used to combat unfair practices, this paper argues, tend to overlook the differences between anticompetitive practices and opportunistic intermediation. 2. Both

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