The Hidden Costs of Free Goods: Implications for Antitrust Enforcement

59 Pages Posted: 23 Nov 2014 Last revised: 8 Oct 2017

See all articles by Michal Gal

Michal Gal

University of Haifa - Faculty of Law

Daniel L. Rubinfeld

University of California at Berkeley - School of Law; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); NYU Law School

Date Written: January 1, 2015


Today a growing number of goods and services are provided in the marketplace free of charge; indeed, free or the appearance of free, have become part of our ecosystem. More often than not, free goods and services provide real benefits to consumers and are clearly pro-competitive. Yet free goods may also create significant costs. We show that despite the fact that the consumer does not pay a direct price, there are indirect prices that reflect the opportunity cost associated with the consumption of free goods. These indirect costs can be overt or covert, in the same market in which the product is distributed or in related markets, monetary or non-monetary, and short-term or long-term. Most of the economic literature on free goods has focused on two-sided markets in which the free good is provided in exchange for attention or information. We analyze the welfare effects of additional cases that are becoming commonplace in our economy. Our analysis indicates that even goods that are offered for philanthropic motivations might sometimes harm competition and welfare. The article also stresses the need to evaluate the pricing strategies of firms that offer free goods in light of new research pointing to the "irrational" behavioral response of consumers when faced by a free option. This welfare analysis serves as a basis for the exploration of the antitrust implications of the provision of free goods, which has been relatively neglected. Indeed, as this paper shows, free goods raise significant issues for antitrust enforcement, which run the gamut from market definition to market power and to the evaluation of the competitive effects of mergers and more generally to strategic business behavior. We use examples from diverse jurisdictions and markets to exemplify our arguments and, in particular, focus on three case studies: free search services, free internet browsers and free newspapers.

Keywords: free, free goods, antitrust, regulation

JEL Classification: k21, l30, l44, l40

Suggested Citation

Gal, Michal and Rubinfeld, Daniel L., The Hidden Costs of Free Goods: Implications for Antitrust Enforcement (January 1, 2015). Antitrust Law Journal , Vol. 80, No. 401, 2016, UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 2529425, NYU Law and Economics Research Paper No. 14-44, Available at SSRN: or

Michal Gal (Contact Author)

University of Haifa - Faculty of Law ( email )

Mount Carmel
Haifa, 31905


Daniel L. Rubinfeld

University of California at Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

215 Boalt Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States
(510) 642-1959 (Phone)
(510) 642-3767 (Fax)


National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

NYU Law School ( email )

44 West Fourth Street, Suite 9-53
New York, NY 10012-1126
United States
(212) 992 8834 (Phone)

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