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Photo: Lynne Cameron - PA Images/Getty Images

An antitrust lawsuit against Apple and growing calls to break up Facebook tee up what's likely to be a lengthy, contentious debate over the boundaries of technology markets.

Why it matters: As calls mount to break up big tech companies or limit their power, their legal fate will hang on how judges and regulators define their markets.

Driving the news: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that a class action suit by users charging Apple's App Store with monopolistic behavior could move forward.

The big picture: Here's why "market definitions" are so central to antitrust fights.

  • Say you run the only restaurant in town — do you have a monopoly?
  • If the market is defined as "restaurants" or "dining out," then you do.
  • If the market is defined as "meals" or "food," well, people can buy groceries and cook, right?
  • One way, you're a monopolist — the other, you aren't.

In the App Store suit, users charge that Apple, by forcing developers to sell iPhone apps only through Apple's storefront and taking a cut of those sales, drives up prices.

  • Apple has argued that, among other things, users can access software and services via the web browsers on their phones, and that the majority of apps accessed from the App Store are free downloads that don't earn it a penny.

If you define the market as "iPhone apps," Apple looks a whole lot like a monopolist — it maintains complete control over the space.

  • You can't put a non-App Store app on an iPhone without "jail-breaking" it, tampering with the operating system in a way that violates Apple's terms and voids the warranty.

If instead you define the market as, say, "smartphone apps," you get a different outcome.

  • That's because users are free to buy Android phones and access a very different universe of apps. Users have choice — presto, no monopoly.

The same principles apply in the debate over breaking up Facebook.

  • In his recent essay arguing that Facebook has become too powerful, co-founder Chris Hughes argued that the company "is a powerful monopoly, eclipsing all of its rivals and erasing competition from the social networking category."
  • "The social networking category" is a way to define this market that most readily casts Facebook as a monopoly.
  • But if you call it "messaging," then Apple, Snapchat, and the cellphone providers all look like hearty competitors.

Similarly, in many countries, Google looks to have a monopoly in the search market. But if you define the market instead as "online information," the case is a lot murkier.

  • Google's Android practices have also come under antitrust scrutiny. Last year an EU ruling that penalized Google for practices involving the Android Play Store declared that Google had a monopoly in that market.

Our thought bubble: In tech, market definitions are unusually fluid because hardware evolves quickly and software is infinitely malleable.

  • Lawsuits and antitrust cases move slowly, and in the time they can be tried, the markets tend to have mutated.
  • But the tech giants' power has grown so vast that many critics see antitrust remedies as the only way to rebalance the industry's game.

Go deeper

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Rahm Emanuel floated for Transportation secretary

Rahm Emanuel. Photo: Joshua Lott for The Washington Post via Getty Images

President-elect Biden is strongly considering Rahm Emanuel to run the Department of Transportation, weighing the former Chicago mayor’s experience on infrastructure spending against concerns from progressives over his policing record.

Why it matters: The DOT could effectively become the new Commerce Department, as infrastructure spending, smart cities construction and the rollout of drone-delivery programs take on increasing economic weight.

3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Biden turns to experienced hands for White House economic team

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Joe Biden plans to announce Cecilia Rouse and Brian Deese as part of his economic team and Neera Tanden to head the Office of Management and Budget, sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: These are experienced hands. Unveiling a diverse group of advisers also may draw attention away from a selection of Deese to run the National Economic Council. Some progressives have criticized his work at BlackRock, the world's largest asset management firm.

Biden taps former Obama communications director for press secretary

Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

Jen Psaki, who previously served as Obama's communications director, will serve as President-elect Joe Biden's press secretary, the transition team announced Sunday.

The big picture: All of the top aides in Biden's communication staff will be women, per the Washington Post, which first reported Psaki's appointment.