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The Federal Trade Commission’s recent enforcement actions against Amazon and Apple raise important questions about the FTC’s consumer protection practices, especially its use of economics. How does the Commission weigh the costs and benefits of its enforcement decisions? How does the agency employ economic analysis in digital consumer protection cases generally?

Join the International Center for Law and Economics and TechFreedom on Thursday, July 31 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for a lunch and panel discussion on these important issues, featuring FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Economics Martin Gaynor, and several former FTC officials. RSVP here.

Commissioner Wright will present a keynote address discussing his dissent in Apple and his approach to applying economics in consumer protection cases generally.

Geoffrey Manne, Executive Director of ICLE, will briefly discuss his recent paper on the role of economics in the FTC’s consumer protection enforcement. Berin Szoka, TechFreedom President, will moderate a panel discussion featuring:

  • Martin Gaynor, Director, FTC Bureau of Economics
  • David Balto, Fmr. Deputy Assistant Director for Policy & Coordination, FTC Bureau of Competition
  • Howard Beales, Fmr. Director, FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection
  • James Cooper, Fmr. Acting Director & Fmr. Deputy Director, FTC Office of Policy Planning
  • Pauline Ippolito, Fmr. Acting Director & Fmr. Deputy Director, FTC Bureau of Economics

Background

The FTC recently issued a complaint and consent order against Apple, alleging its in-app purchasing design doesn’t meet the Commission’s standards of fairness. The action and resulting settlement drew a forceful dissent from Commissioner Wright, and sparked a discussion among the Commissioners about balancing economic harms and benefits in Section 5 unfairness jurisprudence. More recently, the FTC brought a similar action against Amazon, which is now pending in federal district court because Amazon refused to settle.

Event Info

The “FTC: Technology and Reform” project brings together a unique collection of experts on the law, economics, and technology of competition and consumer protection to consider challenges facing the FTC in general, and especially regarding its regulation of technology. The Project’s initial report, released in December 2013, identified critical questions facing the agency, Congress, and the courts about the FTC’s future, and proposed a framework for addressing them.

The event will be live streamed here beginning at 12:15pm. Join the conversation on Twitter with the #FTCReform hashtag.

When:

Thursday, July 31
11:45 am – 12:15 pm — Lunch and registration
12:15 pm – 2:00 pm — Keynote address, paper presentation & panel discussion

Where:

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – Rehearsal Hall
641 D St NW
Washington, DC 20004

Questions? – Email mail@techfreedom.orgRSVP here.

See ICLE’s and TechFreedom’s other work on FTC reform, including:

  • Geoffrey Manne’s Congressional testimony on the the FTC@100
  • Op-ed by Berin Szoka and Geoffrey Manne, “The Second Century of the Federal Trade Commission”
  • Two posts by Geoffrey Manne on the FTC’s Amazon Complaint, here and here.

About The International Center for Law and Economics:

The International Center for Law and Economics is a non-profit, non-partisan research center aimed at fostering rigorous policy analysis and evidence-based regulation.

About TechFreedom:

TechFreedom is a non-profit, non-partisan technology policy think tank. We work to chart a path forward for policymakers towards a bright future where technology enhances freedom, and freedom enhances technology.

Government impediments to the efficient provision of health care services in the United States are legion.  While much recent attention has focused on the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which by design reduces consumer choice and competition, harmful state law restrictions have long been spotlighted by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).  For example, research demonstrates that state “certificate of need” (CON) laws, which require prior state regulatory approval of new hospitals and hospital expansions, “create barriers to entry and expansion to the detriment of health care competition and consumers.

Less attention, however, has been focused on relatively new yet insidious state anticompetitive restrictions that have been adopted by three states (North Carolina, South Carolina, and New York), and are being considered by other jurisdictions as well – “certificates of public advantage” (COPAs).  COPAs are state laws that grant federal and state antitrust law immunity to health care providers that enter into approved “cooperative arrangements” that it is claimed will benefit state health care quality.  Like CONs, however, COPAs are likely to undermine, rather than promote, efficient and high quality health care delivery, according to the FTC.

As the FTC has pointed out, federal antitrust law already permits joint activity by health care providers that benefits consumers and is reasonably necessary to create efficiencies.  A framework for assessing such activity is found in joint FTC and DOJ Statements of Antitrust Enforcement in Health Care, supplemented by subsequent agency guidance documents.  Moreover, no antitrust exemption is needed to promote efficient cooperative arrangements, because the antitrust laws already allow procompetitive collaborations among competitors.

While COPA laws are not needed to achieve socially desirable ends, they create strong incentives for unnecessary competitive restrictions among rival health care providers, which spawn serious consumer harm.  As the bipartisan Antitrust Modernization Commission observed, “[t]ypically, antitrust exemptions create economic benefits that flow to small, concentrated interest groups, while the costs of the exemption are widely dispersed, usually passed on to a large population of consumers through higher prices, reduced output, lower quality and reduced innovation.”  In short, one may expect that well-organized rent-seekers generally will be behind industry-specific antitrust exemptions.  This is no less true in health care than in other sectors of the economy.

Legislators should not assume that competitive problems created by COPAs can be cured by active supervision carried out by state officials.  Such supervision is difficult, costly, and prone to error, particularly because the supervised entities will have every incentive to mischaracterize their self-serving actions as welfare-enhancing rather than welfare-reducing.  In effect, state supervision absent antitrust sanction may devolve into a form of ad hoc economic regulation, subject to all the imperfections of regulation, including regulatory capture by special interests.

A real world example of the difficulties in regulating COPA arrangements is outlined in a 2011 state-commissioned economic analysis (2011 Study) of the 1995 COPA agreement (NC-COPA) between the State of North Carolina and Mission Health Systems (MHS).  In 1993 the State of North Carolina enacted a COPA statute, which grants federal and state antitrust immunity to parties that submit their cooperative agreements to active supervision by the State of North Carolina.  In 1995, to forestall a DOJ antitrust investigation into the merger of the only two acute-care hospitals in Asheville, North Carolina, MHS, the parent of the acquiring hospital, sought and was granted a COPA by the State.  (This COPA agreement was the first in North Carolina and the first in the nation.)  MHS subsequently expanded into additional health care ventures in western North Carolina, subject to state regulatory supervision specified in NC-COPA and thus free from antitrust scrutiny.  The 2011 Study identified a number of potentially harmful consequences flowing from this regulatory scheme:  (1) by regulating MHS’s average margin across all services and geographic areas, NC-COPA creates an incentive for MHS to expand into lower-margin markets to raise price in core markets without violating margin cap limitations; (2) NC-COPA’s cost cap offers only limited regulatory protection for consumers and creates undesirable incentives for MHS to increase outpatient prices and volumes; and (3) NC-COPA creates an incentive and opportunity for MHS to evade price or margin regulation in one market by instead imposing price increases in a related, but unregulated, market.  Moreover, the 2011 Study concluded that the NC-COPA was unnecessary to address competitive concerns attributable to the 1995 merger.  The State of North Carolina has not yet responded to recommendations in the Study for amending the NC-COPA to address these ills.  What the Study illustrates is that even assuming the best of intentions by regulators, COPAs raise serious problems of implementation and are likely to have deleterious unanticipated effects.  State governments would be well advised to heed the advice of federal (and state) antitrust enforcers and avoid the temptation to substitute regulation for competitive market forces subject to general antitrust law.

In sum, state legislatures should resist the premise that health care competitors will somehow advance the “public interest” if they are freed from antitrust scrutiny and subjected to COPA regulation.  Efficient joint activity can proceed without such special favor, whose natural effect is to incentivize welfare-reducing anticompetitive conduct – conduct which undermines, rather than promotes, health care quality and the general welfare.

On Monday the DC Circuit hears oral argument in Verizon v. FCC – the case challenging the FCC’s Open Internet Order.

Following the oral argument I’ll be participating in two events discussing the case.

The first is a joint production of the International Center for Law & Economics and TechFreedom, a lunchtime debrief on the case featuring:

  • Matt Brill, Latham & Watkins LLP
  • Fred Campbell, Communications Liberty and Innovation Project
  • Markham Erickson, Steptoe & Johnson LLP
  • Robert McDowell, Hudson Institute
  • Sherwin Siy, Public Knowledge
  • Berin Szoka, TechFreedom

I’ll be introducing the event. You can register here.

Then at two o’clock I’ll be leading a Federalist Society “Courthouse Steps Teleforum” on the case entitled, “FCC Regulation of the Internet: Verizon v. FCC.”

Register for the event at the link above.

I suspect we’ll have much more to say about the case here at Truth on the Market, as well. For now, you can find our collected wisdom on the topic of net neutrality at this link.

I hope you’ll join either or both of Monday’s events!

We’re delighted to welcome two new bloggers to Truth on the Market: Gus Hurwitz and Ben Sperry.

Hurwitz-Israel-cropGus is an assistant professor of law at the University of Nebraska. His work looks at the interface between law and technology and the role of regulation in high-tech industries. He has a particular expertise in telecommunications law and technology. His current work focuses on administrative law and the FTC (as you might have noticed from his two contributions to our recent Section 5 UMC Symposium. His SSRN page is here.

Gus was the inaugural Research Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition (CTIC), prior to which he was a Visiting Assistant Professor at George Mason University Law School. From 2007–2010 he was a Trial Attorney with the United States Department of Justice Antitrust Division in the Telecommunications and Media Enforcement Section (but I try not to hold that against him).

Gus also has a background in technology, with stints at Los Alamos National Lab and the Naval Research Lab prior to law school. Unique (as far as I know) among the bloggers here, he is also the former holder of a world record (for Internet2 land speed) with the Guinness Book of World Records.

Like others among us at TOTM, Gus earned his JD at the University of Chicago Law School, where he was an articles editor on the Chicago Journal of International Law and received Olin and MVP2 law and economics scholarships. He also holds an MA in Economics from George Mason University. He received his BA from St. John’s College.

sperry square edited

Ben Sperry is the Associate Director of the International Center for Law & Economics. Previously he engaged in technology policy at free market organizations like TechFreedom and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. While in law school, he clerked at the Institute for Justice and served as a summer legal fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation. Sperry graduated from George Mason University School of Law cum laude in 2012, where he was a member of the George Mason Law Review and a research assistant for Todd Zywicki. His areas of expertise include competition policy, telecommunications law, economic freedom and the law and economics of privacy, civil liberties and the First Amendment. He has written most recently on the law and economics of transaction reviews at the FCC and on Section 5 UMC.

We’re delighted to have these excellent new additions to our roster. Look for inaugural posts from each of them this weekend or early next week.

Over at the blog for the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property, Richard Epstein has posted a lengthy essay that critiques the Obama Administration’s decision this past August 3 to veto the exclusion order issued by the International Trade Commission (ITC) in the Samsung v. Apple dispute filed there (ITC Investigation No. 794).  In his essay, The Dangerous Adventurism of the United States Trade Representative: Lifting the Ban against Apple Products Unnecessarily Opens a Can of Worms in Patent Law, Epstein rightly identifies how the 3-page letter issued to the ITC creates tremendous institutional and legal troubles in the name an unverified theory about “patent holdup” invoked in the name of an equally overgeneralized and vague belief in the “public interest.”

Here’s a taste:

The choice in question here thus boils down to whether the low rate of voluntary failure justifies the introduction of an expensive and error-filled judicial process that gives all parties the incentive to posture before a public agency that has more business than it can possibly handle. It is on this matter critical to remember that all standards issues are not the same as this particularly nasty, high-stake dispute between two behemoths whose vital interests make this a highly atypical standard-setting dispute. Yet at no point in the Trade Representative’s report is there any mention of how this mega-dispute might be an outlier. Indeed, without so much as a single reference to its own limited institutional role, the decision uses a short three-page document to set out a dogmatic position on issues on which there is, as I have argued elsewhere, good reason to be suspicious of the overwrought claims of the White House on a point that is, to say the least, fraught with political intrigue

Ironically, there was, moreover a way to write this opinion that could have narrowed the dispute and exposed for public deliberation a point that does require serious consideration. The thoughtful dissenting opinion of Commissioner Pinkert pointed the way. Commissioner Pinkert contended that the key factor weighing against granting Samsung an exclusion order is that Samsung in its FRAND negotiations demanded from Apple rights to use certain non standard-essential patents as part of the overall deal. In this view, the introduction of nonprice terms on nonstandard patterns represents an abuse of the FRAND standard. Assume for the moment that this contention is indeed correct, and the magnitude of the problem is cut a hundred or a thousand fold. This particular objection is easy to police and companies will know that they cannot introduce collateral matters into their negotiations over standards, at which point the massive and pointless overkill of the Trade Representative’s order is largely eliminated. No longer do we have to treat as gospel truth the highly dubious assertions about the behavior of key parties to standard-setting disputes.

But is Pinkert correct? On the one side, it is possible to invoke a monopoly leverage theory similar to that used in some tie-in cases to block this extension. But those theories are themselves tricky to apply, and the counter argument could well be that the addition of new terms expands the bargaining space and thus increases the likelihood of an agreement. To answer that question to my mind requires some close attention to the actual and customary dynamics of these negotiations, which could easily vary across different standards. I would want to reserve judgment on a question this complex, and I think that the Trade Representative would have done everyone a great service if he had addressed the hard question. But what we have instead is a grand political overgeneralization that reflects a simple-minded and erroneous view of current practices.

You can read the essay at CPIP’s blog here, or you can download a PDF of the white paper version here (please feel free to distribute digitally or in hardcopy).

 

Regulating the Regulators: Guidance for the FTC’s Section 5 Unfair Methods of Competition Authority

August 1, 2013

Truthonthemarket.com

Welcome!

We’re delighted to kick off our one-day blog symposium on the FTC’s unfair methods of competition (UMC) authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

Last month, FTC Commissioner Josh Wright began a much-needed conversation on the FTC’s UMC authority by issuing a proposed policy statement attempting to provide some meaningful guidance and limits to the FTC’s authority. Meanwhile, last week Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen offered her own take on the issue, echoing many of Josh’s points and further extending the conversation. Considerable commentary—and even congressional attention—has been directed to the absence of UMC authority limits, the proper scope of that authority, and its significance for the businesses regulated by the Commission.

Section 5 of the FTC Act permits the agency to take enforcement actions against companies that use “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” or that employ “unfair methods of competition.” The Act doesn’t specify what these terms mean, instead leaving that determination to the FTC itself.  In the 1980s, under intense pressure from Congress, the Commission established limiting principles for its unfairness and deception authorities. But today, coming up on 100 years since the creation of the FTC, the agency still hasn’t defined the scope of its UMC authority, instead pursuing enforcement actions without any significant judicial, congressional or even self-imposed limits. And in recent years the Commission has seemingly expanded its interpretation of its UMC authority, bringing a string of standalone Section 5 cases (including against Intel, Rambus, N-Data, Google and others), alleging traditional antitrust injury but avoiding the difficulties of pursuing such actions under the Sherman Act (or, in a few cases, bringing separate claims under both Section 5 and Section 2).

We hope this symposium will provide important insights and stand as a useful resource for the ongoing discussion.

We’ve lined up an outstanding and diverse group of scholars and practitioners to participate in the symposium.  They include:

  • David Balto, Law Offices of David Balto [1] [2]
  • Terry Calvani, Freshfields [1]
  • James Cooper, GMU Law & Economics Center [1] [2]
  • Dan Crane, Michigan Law [1]
  • Paul Denis, Dechert [1]
  • Angela Diveley, Freshfields [1]
  • Gus Hurwitz, Nebraska Law [1] [2]
  • Thom Lambert, Missouri Law [1]
  • Marina Lao, Seton Hall Law [1]
  • Tad Lipsky, Latham & Watkins [1]
  • Geoffrey Manne, Lewis & Clark Law/ICLE [1]
  • Joe Sims, Jones Day [1]
  • Josh Wright, FTC [1]
  • Tim Wu, Columbia Law [1]

The first of the participants’ initial posts will appear momentarily, with additional posts appearing throughout the day. We hope to generate a lively discussion, and expect some of the participants to offer follow up posts as well as comments on their fellow participants’ posts—please be sure to check back throughout the day and be sure to check the comments. We hope our readers will join us in the comments, as well.

Once again, welcome!

I’ll be headed to New Orleans tomorrow to participate in the Federalist Society Faculty Conference and the AALS Annual Meeting.

For those attending and interested, I’ll be speaking at the Fed Soc on privacy and antitrust, and at AALS on Google and antitrust.  Details below.  I hope to see you there!

Federalist Society:

Seven-Minute Presentations of Works in Progress – Part I
Friday, January 4, 5:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Location: Bacchus Room, Wyndham Riverfront Hotel

  • Prof. Geoffrey Manne, Lewis & Clark School of Law, “Is There a Place for Privacy in Antitrust?”
  • Prof. Zvi Rosen, New York University School of Law, “Discharging Fiduciary Debts in Bankruptcy”
  • Prof. Erin Sheley, George Washington University School of Law, “The Body, the Self, and the Legal Account of Harm”
  • Prof. Scott Shepard, John Marshall Law School, “A Negative Externality by Any Other Name: Using Emissions Caps as Models for Constraining Dead-Weight Costs of Regulation”
  • ModeratorProf. David Olson, Boston College Law School

AALS:

Google and Antitrust
Saturday, January 5, 10:30 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
Location: Newberry, Third Floor, Hilton New Orleans Riverside

  • Moderator: Michael A. Carrier, Rutgers School of Law – Camden
  • Marina L. Lao, Seton Hall University School of Law
  • Geoffrey A. Manne, Lewis & Clark Law School
  • Frank A. Pasquale, Seton Hall University School of Law
  • Mark R. Patterson, Fordham University School of Law
  • Pamela Samuelson, University of California, Berkeley, School of Law

All of us here at TOTM are thrilled to announce that the Senate yesterday confirmed Josh Wright to be the next Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission.

As I wrote upon Josh’s nomination:

Josh is widely regarded as the top antitrust scholar of his generation. He is the author of more than 50 scholarly articles and book chapters, including several that were released as ICLE White Papers. He is a co-author of the most widely-used antitrust casebook, and co-editor of three books on topics ranging from Competition Policy and Intellectual Property Law to the Intellectual History of Law and Economics. And he is the most prolific blogger on the preeminent antitrust and corporate law and economics blog, Truth on the Market.

The FTC will benefit enormously from Josh’s expertise and his error cost approach to antitrust and consumer protection law will be a tremendous asset to the Commission — particularly as it delves further into the regulation of data and privacy . His work is rigorous, empirically grounded, and ever-mindful of the complexities of both business and regulation.

I am honored to have co-authored several articles with Josh, and I have learned an incredible amount about antitrust law and economics from him. The Commissioners and staff at the FTC will surely similarly profit from his time there.

We’ll miss him around these parts, but presumably he’ll provide us with plenty of good fodder for the blog.

The New York Times today has an article on approval of medical devices.  The take is that venture capitalists want a more efficient process.  The tradeoff mentioned is between faster approval for investor returns versus safety of devices if they are approved faster.  There is no mention in the article of the benefits to patients and consumers of more rapid availability of medical devices.  The entire literature following the Peltzman analysis delays in drug approval is totally ignored.

We’re delighted to be joined for the next couple of weeks by guest blogger, Hal Singer.

Hal is Managing Director and Principal at Navigant Economics. He has written, thought and advised extensively on antitrust, finance and general regulatory issues.  His SSRN page is here, and it includes co-authors like David Teece, Dan Rubinfeld, Jerry Hausman, Greg Sidak, Bob Crandall, and Bob Litan, among many others. He is the co-author of the book Broadband in Europe: How Brussels Can Wire the Information Society (Kluwer/Springer Press 2005). and his article have appeared in, among there, American Economics Association Papers and Proceedings, Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, Journal of Industrial Economics, Journal of Network Industries, Journal of Regulatory Economics, Review of Network Economics, Topics in Economic Analysis and Policy, and Yale Journal on Regulation. He has also served as Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

On the policy front, his essays have appeared in several leading newspapers and magazines, including Antitrust, Forbes, The Economist’s Voice, Harvard Business Review, Health Affairs, The Milken Institute Review, Regulation, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. His M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in economics are from the Johns Hopkins University and his B.S. magna cum laude in economics is from Tulane University.

Perhaps of particular interest to our readers, one of Hal’s most recent articles (with Gerald Faulhaber) is on wireless broadband competition and the FCC’s most recent wireless competition report, a not-uncommon subject around here (see, e.g., here).  It’s an excellent paper, and you can find a link to the article and a podcast of Hal discussing the paper with Jerry Brito here.

We look forward to a stimulating set of posts from Hal — and he isn’t shy, so don’t hesitate to weigh in in the comments!