“Free” once had a simple meaning – something without constraint whatsoever, as in “free as air.” At times, some have suggested that antitrust enforcement should not target “free” services – but “free” is Protean in meaning. After all, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” “No-monetary-payment” is not the same thing as “free.” Making someone else pay is not “free.” Finally, receiving something in exchange for the alteration of one’s mind is not “free.” Firms, products and markets have changed; so too, must competition law. Recent cases against firms that provide users applications without monetary payment, such as Google and Facebook, suggest that competition law enforcers increasingly understand that “free” cannot be a get-out-of-antitrust enforcement card. These cases bear watching to gauge whether and how competition law can evolve as firms, products, and markets have done.

By Salil K. Mehra1

 

“Free as air; that’s what they say – ‘free as air.’ Now they bring me my air in an iron barrel.”

− Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

The “rule of threes” recognizes that a person can survive three weeks without food, three days without water, but only three minutes without air.2 At the end of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, a nobleman who has lived a dissolute life fairly free from the constraints of money or social norms gets his comedown in the shape of respiratory reliance on costly mach

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