Archives For error costs

As the organizer of this retrospective on Josh Wright’s tenure as FTC Commissioner, I have the (self-conferred) honor of closing out the symposium.

When Josh was confirmed I wrote that:

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…. The Commissioners and staff at the FTC will surely… profit from his time there.

Whether others at the Commission have really learned from Josh is an open question, but there’s no doubt that Josh offered an enormous amount from which they could learn. As Tim Muris said, Josh “did not disappoint, having one of the most important and memorable tenures of any non-Chair” at the agency.

Within a month of his arrival at the Commission, in fact, Josh “laid down the cost-benefit-analysis gauntlet” in a little-noticed concurring statement regarding a proposed amendment to the Hart-Scott-Rodino Rules. The technical details of the proposed rule don’t matter for these purposes, but, as Josh noted in his statement, the situation intended to be avoided by the rule had never arisen:

The proposed rulemaking appears to be a solution in search of a problem. The Federal Register notice states that the proposed rules are necessary to prevent the FTC and DOJ from “expend[ing] scarce resources on hypothetical transactions.” Yet, I have not to date been presented with evidence that any of the over 68,000 transactions notified under the HSR rules have required Commission resources to be allocated to a truly hypothetical transaction.

What Josh asked for in his statement was not that the rule be scrapped, but simply that, before adopting the rule, the FTC weigh its costs and benefits.

As I noted at the time:

[I]t is the Commission’s responsibility to ensure that the rules it enacts will actually be beneficial (it is a consumer protection agency, after all). The staff, presumably, did a perfectly fine job writing the rule they were asked to write. Josh’s point is simply that it isn’t clear the rule should be adopted because it isn’t clear that the benefits of doing so would outweigh the costs.

As essentially everyone who has contributed to this symposium has noted, Josh was singularly focused on the rigorous application of the deceptively simple concept that the FTC should ensure that the benefits of any rule or enforcement action it adopts outweigh the costs. The rest, as they say, is commentary.

For Josh, this basic principle should permeate every aspect of the agency, and permeate the way it thinks about everything it does. Only an entirely new mindset can ensure that outcomes, from the most significant enforcement actions to the most trivial rule amendments, actually serve consumers.

While the FTC has a strong tradition of incorporating economic analysis in its antitrust decision-making, its record in using economics in other areas is decidedly mixed, as Berin points out. But even in competition policy, the Commission frequently uses economics — but it’s not clear it entirely understands economics. The approach that others have lauded Josh for is powerful, but it’s also subtle.

Inherent limitations on anyone’s knowledge about the future of technology, business and social norms caution skepticism, as regulators attempt to predict whether any given business conduct will, on net, improve or harm consumer welfare. In fact, a host of factors suggests that even the best-intentioned regulators tend toward overconfidence and the erroneous condemnation of novel conduct that benefits consumers in ways that are difficult for regulators to understand. Coase’s famous admonition in a 1972 paper has been quoted here before (frequently), but bears quoting again:

If an economist finds something – a business practice of one sort or another – that he does not understand, he looks for a monopoly explanation. And as in this field we are very ignorant, the number of ununderstandable practices tends to be very large, and the reliance on a monopoly explanation, frequent.

Simply “knowing” economics, and knowing that it is important to antitrust enforcement, aren’t enough. Reliance on economic formulae and theoretical models alone — to say nothing of “evidence-based” analysis that doesn’t or can’t differentiate between probative and prejudicial facts — doesn’t resolve the key limitations on regulatory decisionmaking that threaten consumer welfare, particularly when it comes to the modern, innovative economy.

As Josh and I have written:

[O]ur theoretical knowledge cannot yet confidently predict the direction of the impact of additional product market competition on innovation, much less the magnitude. Additionally, the multi-dimensional nature of competition implies that the magnitude of these impacts will be important as innovation and other forms of competition will frequently be inversely correlated as they relate to consumer welfare. Thus, weighing the magnitudes of opposing effects will be essential to most policy decisions relating to innovation. Again, at this stage, economic theory does not provide a reliable basis for predicting the conditions under which welfare gains associated with greater product market competition resulting from some regulatory intervention will outweigh losses associated with reduced innovation.

* * *

In sum, the theoretical and empirical literature reveals an undeniably complex interaction between product market competition, patent rules, innovation, and consumer welfare. While these complexities are well understood, in our view, their implications for the debate about the appropriate scale and form of regulation of innovation are not.

Along the most important dimensions, while our knowledge has expanded since 1972, the problem has not disappeared — and it may only have magnified. As Tim Muris noted in 2005,

[A] visitor from Mars who reads only the mathematical IO literature could mistakenly conclude that the U.S. economy is rife with monopoly power…. [Meanwhile, Section 2’s] history has mostly been one of mistaken enforcement.

It may not sound like much, but what is needed, what Josh brought to the agency, and what turns out to be absolutely essential to getting it right, is unflagging awareness of and attention to the institutional, political and microeconomic relationships that shape regulatory institutions and regulatory outcomes.

Regulators must do their best to constantly grapple with uncertainty, problems of operationalizing useful theory, and, perhaps most important, the social losses associated with error costs. It is not (just) technicians that the FTC needs; it’s regulators imbued with the “Economic Way of Thinking.” In short, what is needed, and what Josh brought to the Commission, is humility — the belief that, as Coase also wrote, sometimes the best answer is to “do nothing at all.”

The technocratic model of regulation is inconsistent with the regulatory humility required in the face of fast-changing, unexpected — and immeasurably valuable — technological advance. As Virginia Postrel warns in The Future and Its Enemies:

Technocrats are “for the future,” but only if someone is in charge of making it turn out according to plan. They greet every new idea with a “yes, but,” followed by legislation, regulation, and litigation…. By design, technocrats pick winners, establish standards, and impose a single set of values on the future.

For Josh, the first JD/Econ PhD appointed to the FTC,

economics provides a framework to organize the way I think about issues beyond analyzing the competitive effects in a particular case, including, for example, rulemaking, the various policy issues facing the Commission, and how I weigh evidence relative to the burdens of proof and production. Almost all the decisions I make as a Commissioner are made through the lens of economics and marginal analysis because that is the way I have been taught to think.

A representative example will serve to illuminate the distinction between merely using economics and evidence and understanding them — and their limitations.

In his Nielson/Arbitron dissent Josh wrote:

The Commission thus challenges the proposed transaction based upon what must be acknowledged as a novel theory—that is, that the merger will substantially lessen competition in a market that does not today exist.

[W]e… do not know how the market will evolve, what other potential competitors might exist, and whether and to what extent these competitors might impose competitive constraints upon the parties.

Josh’s straightforward statement of the basis for restraint stands in marked contrast to the majority’s decision to impose antitrust-based limits on economic activity that hasn’t even yet been contemplated. Such conduct is directly at odds with a sensible, evidence-based approach to enforcement, and the economic problems with it are considerable, as Josh also notes:

[I]t is an exceedingly difficult task to predict the competitive effects of a transaction where there is insufficient evidence to reliably answer the[] basic questions upon which proper merger analysis is based.

When the Commission’s antitrust analysis comes unmoored from such fact-based inquiry, tethered tightly to robust economic theory, there is a more significant risk that non-economic considerations, intuition, and policy preferences influence the outcome of cases.

Compare in this regard Josh’s words about Nielsen with Deborah Feinstein’s defense of the majority from such charges:

The Commission based its decision not on crystal-ball gazing about what might happen, but on evidence from the merging firms about what they were doing and from customers about their expectations of those development plans. From this fact-based analysis, the Commission concluded that each company could be considered a likely future entrant, and that the elimination of the future offering of one would likely result in a lessening of competition.

Instead of requiring rigorous economic analysis of the facts, couched in an acute awareness of our necessary ignorance about the future, for Feinstein the FTC fulfilled its obligation in Nielsen by considering the “facts” alone (not economic evidence, mind you, but customer statements and expressions of intent by the parties) and then, at best, casually applying to them the simplistic, outdated structural presumption – the conclusion that increased concentration would lead inexorably to anticompetitive harm. Her implicit claim is that all the Commission needed to know about the future was what the parties thought about what they were doing and what (hardy disinterested) customers thought they were doing. This shouldn’t be nearly enough.

Worst of all, Nielsen was “decided” with a consent order. As Josh wrote, strongly reflecting the essential awareness of the broader institutional environment that he brought to the Commission:

[w]here the Commission has endorsed by way of consent a willingness to challenge transactions where it might not be able to meet its burden of proving harm to competition, and which therefore at best are competitively innocuous, the Commission’s actions may alter private parties’ behavior in a manner that does not enhance consumer welfare.

Obviously in this regard his successful effort to get the Commission to adopt a UMC enforcement policy statement is a most welcome development.

In short, Josh is to be applauded not because he brought economics to the Commission, but because he brought the economic way of thinking. Such a thing is entirely too rare in the modern administrative state. Josh’s tenure at the FTC was relatively short, but he used every moment of it to assiduously advance his singular, and essential, mission. And, to paraphrase the last line of the movie The Right Stuff (it helps to have the rousing film score playing in the background as you read this): “for a brief moment, [Josh Wright] became the greatest [regulator] anyone had ever seen.”

I would like to extend my thanks to everyone who participated in this symposium. The contributions here will stand as a fitting and lasting tribute to Josh and his legacy at the Commission. And, of course, I’d also like to thank Josh for a tenure at the FTC very much worth honoring.

by Timothy J. Muris, University Foundation Professor of Law, George Mason University and former Chairman of the FTC

As the premier Antitrust scholar of his generation, Josh Wright’s appointment to the Federal Trade Commission promised to be noteworthy. He did not disappoint, having one of the most important and memorable tenures of any non-Chair over the 40 years that I have followed the agency closely.

In numerous speeches, dissents, and a variety of other statements on matters before the Commission, Josh articulated important messages for Antitrust. In particular, his call for evidence-based decisions has been a welcome reminder of that crucial element of sound  policy. Moreover, he has continued to recognize that most arguments over the Chicago school are stale, reflecting 20th century battles long decided.

Finally, a few words about one area of disagreement, the section 5 statement that the Commission issued shortly before Commissioner Wright’s departure. Having witnessed firsthand the FTC’s overreaching in the 1970s, in both Antitrust and Consumer Protection, I have long thought that section 5 should be read coextensive with the Sherman and Clayton Acts. There is no need, especially with the maturity of the Antitrust Laws represented by the many 21st-century Supreme Court decisions, for separate, more expensive enforcement under section 5. Even here, however, Josh Wright’s numerous speeches and articles on the subject have demonstrated the continued relevance and importance of potential FTC overreaching.

I congratulate Commissioner Wright on his tenure, and look forward to decades to come of contributions on the issues facing the Antitrust and FTC communities.

Alden Abbott and I recently co-authored an article, forthcoming in the Journal of Competition Law and Economics, in which we examined the degree to which the Supreme Court and the federal enforcement agencies have recognized the inherent limits of antitrust law. We concluded that the Roberts Court has admirably acknowledged those limits and has for the most part crafted liability rules that will maximize antitrust’s social value. The enforcement agencies, by contrast, have largely ignored antitrust’s intrinsic limits. In a number of areas, they have sought to expand antitrust’s reach in ways likely to reduce consumer welfare.

The bright spot in federal antitrust enforcement in the last few years has been Josh Wright. Time and again, he has bucked the antitrust establishment, reminding the mandarins that their goal should not be to stop every instance of anticompetitive behavior but instead to optimize antitrust by minimizing the sum of error costs (from both false negatives and false positives) and decision costs. As Judge Easterbrook famously explained, and as Josh Wright has emphasized more than anyone I know, inevitable mistakes (error costs) and heavy information requirements (decision costs) constrain what antitrust can do. Every liability rule, every defense, every immunity doctrine should be crafted with those limits in mind.

Josh will no doubt be remembered, and justifiably so, for spearheading the effort to provide guidance on how the Federal Trade Commission will exercise its amorphous authority to police “unfair methods of competition.” Several others have lauded Josh’s fine contribution on that matter (as have I), so I won’t gild that lily here. Instead, let me briefly highlight two other areas in which Josh has properly pushed for a recognition of antitrust’s inherent limits.

Vertical Restraints

Vertical restraints—both intrabrand restraints like resale price maintenance (RPM) and interbrand restraints like exclusive dealing—are a competitive mixed bag. Under certain conditions, such restraints may reduce overall market output, causing anticompetitive harm. Under other, more commonly occurring conditions, vertical restraints may enhance market output. Empirical evidence suggests that most vertical restraints are output-enhancing rather than output-reducing. Enforcers taking an optimizing, limits of antitrust approach will therefore exercise caution in condemning or discouraging vertical restraints.

That’s exactly what Josh Wright has done. In an early post-Leegin RPM order predating Josh’s tenure, the FTC endorsed a liability rule that placed an inappropriately heavy burden on RPM defendants. Josh later laid the groundwork for correcting that mistake, advocating a much more evidence-based (and defendant-friendly) RPM rule. In the McWane case, the Commission condemned an exclusive dealing arrangement that had been in place for long enough to cause anticompetitive harm but hadn’t done so. Josh rightly called out the majority for elevating theoretical harm over actual market evidence. (Adopting a highly deferential stance, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the Commission majority, but Josh was right to criticize the majority’s implicit hostility toward exclusive dealing.) In settling the Graco case, the Commission again went beyond the evidence, requiring the defendant to cease exclusive dealing and to stop giving loyalty rebates even though there was no evidence that either sort of vertical restraint contributed to the anticompetitive harm giving rise to the action at issue. Josh rightly took the Commission to task for reflexively treating vertical restraints as suspect when they’re usually procompetitive and had an obvious procompetitive justification (avoidance of interbrand free-riding) in the case at hand.

Horizontal Mergers

Horizontal mergers, like vertical restraints, are competitive mixed bags. Any particular merger of competitors may impose some consumer harm by reducing the competition facing the merged firm. The same merger, though, may provide some consumer benefit by lowering the merged firm’s costs and thereby allowing it to compete more vigorously (most notably, by lowering its prices). A merger policy committed to minimizing the consumer welfare losses from unwarranted condemnations of net beneficial mergers and improper acquittals of net harmful ones would afford equal treatment to claims of anticompetitive harm and procompetitive benefit, requiring each to be established by the same quantum of proof.

The federal enforcement agencies’ new Horizontal Merger Guidelines, however, may put a thumb on the scale, tilting the balance toward a finding of anticompetitive harm. The Guidelines make it easier for the agencies to establish likely anticompetitive harm. Enforcers may now avoid defining a market if they point to adverse unilateral effects using the gross upward pricing pressure index (GUPPI). The merging parties, by contrast, bear a heavy burden when they seek to show that their contemplated merger will occasion efficiencies. They must: (1) prove that any claimed efficiencies are “merger-specific” (i.e., incapable of being achieved absent the merger); (2) “substantiate” asserted efficiencies; and (3) show that such efficiencies will result in the very markets in which the agencies have established likely anticompetitive effects.

In an important dissent (Ardagh), Josh observed that the agencies’ practice has evolved such that there are asymmetric burdens in establishing competitive effects, and he cautioned that this asymmetry will enhance error costs. (Geoff praised that dissent here.) In another dissent (Family Dollar/Dollar Tree), Josh acknowledged some potential problems with the promising but empirically unverified GUPPI, and he wisely advocated the creation of safe harbors for mergers generating very low GUPPI scores. (I praised that dissent here.)

I could go on and on, but these examples suffice to illustrate what has been, in my opinion, Josh’s most important contribution as an FTC commissioner: his constant effort to strengthen antitrust’s effectiveness by acknowledging its inevitable and inexorable limits. Coming on the heels of the FTC’s and DOJ’s rejection of the Section 2 Report—a document that was highly attuned to antitrust’s limits—Josh was just what antitrust needed.

by Terry Calvani, of counsel at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and formerly Acting-Chairman and Commissioner of the FTC, & Jan Rybnicek, associate at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, and former attorney advisor to Commissioner Joshua Wright.

When a presidential appointee leaves office, it is quite common to consider the person’s legacy to their department or agency. We are delighted to participate in this symposium and to reflect on the contributions of our friend, Commissioner Joshua Wright, to the Federal Trade Commission.

To be sure, Commissioner Wright’s time at the FTC has been marked by no shortage of important votes, statements, speeches, testimony, and policy proposals that individually have had a positive and meaningful impact on the Commission and on antitrust policy more generally. In our view, however, the hallmark of Commissioner Wright’s most recent stint at the Commission is found in two overarching principles that have guided his approach to pursuing the agency’s mission of promoting consumer welfare and that, as a result, will be important considerations for those entrusted with selecting his replacement as well as future commissioners. We see those overarching principles as: (1) the rigorous application and ceaseless promotion of economics within the Commission and (2) the indefatigable participation in the marketplace of ideas.

A key characteristic of Commissioner Wright’s tenure at the FTC has been his insistence on rigorously applying modern economic principles to US competition law enforcement. Given that competition law is in reality applied industrial organization economics, well-grounded economic analysis is essential to the Commission’s discharge of its competition law enforcement functions. One would be concerned if there was not a trained surgeon in the operating room. Similarly, we are better served by a FTC that includes a professional economist among the ranks of its Commissioners. Indeed, no one has trumpeted the importance of incorporating modern economics into antitrust policy more than Commissioner Wright. Over the last two and a half years, Commissioner Wright has used his platform at the agency both to identify instances where the Commission’s economic analysis failed to live up to its potential and to praise those many occasions on which the talented attorneys and economists worked together to promote economically sound policies and enforcement decisions that the Commission adopted. This increased scrutiny and engagement on the economic analysis that underlies the Commission’s work necessarily has focused the agency’s attention on these core issues and created an environment where economics is more regularly and rigorously incorporated into enforcement decisions. We think that this clearly has been to the benefit of the agency and consumers.

As an independent and expert bureau within the FTC, the Bureau of Economics (“BE”) plays a critical role in the agency’s enforcement decisions. However, the role of BE is not a substitute to the presence of a professional economist Commissioner who can ensure that the Commission considers, addresses, and hopefully more often than not, fully incorporates modern economic analysis into its decision-making at the highest level. The importance of including an economist among the Commissioners has become only more obvious in light of the recent report of the FTC Inspector General that evaluated the effectiveness of BE. There, the Inspector General discussed the organization and use of economists within the existing FTC structure and made several recommendations for areas for improvement to help optimize BE’s effectiveness. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of the report, Commissioner Wright issued a statement that included his own recommendations for institutional changes that might elevate the role of BE. As anyone who has had the privilege of working at the Commission or regularly practices before it knows, the agency is dominated by it attorneys, often at the expense of BE. In such an environment, it is even more critical to have at least one economist as a member of the Commission if we truly are, as we should be, committed to making economics a prominent part of the agency’s work.

Whether this important contribution by Commissioner Wright will be a lasting legacy will depend entirely on whether future presidents, together with the advice and consent of the Senate, will follow the lead of Presidents Reagan and Obama by continuing to appoint economists to the college of commissioners. Certainly, Commissioner Wright’s service demonstrates its value.

A second characteristic of Commissioner Wright’s tenure at the FTC is his willingness to engage frequently in the marketplace of ideas in order to advance antitrust policy. Commissioner Wright is a prolific writer and is well-known for not being shy in expressing his positions in any forum. Over the course of his tenure at the FTC, Commissioner Wright issued 16 dissents, delivered over 25 speeches, testified before Congress on three occasions, and participated in countless more symposia, roundtables, and interviews. Frequently writing in dissent or arguing for fundamental changes to antitrust policy, Commissioner Wright’s opinions and speeches merit a close read by any serious practitioner. Whether it was Ardagh/Saint-Gobain (asymmetrical nature of competitive harm and efficiencies analysis at the FTC), Nielsen/Arbitron (limits of antitrust in double potential competition cases lacking economic evidence), Holcim/LaFarge (structural presumption is unsupported by modern economics), his torrent of writings that culminated in a historic statement on Section 5, or any number of his other statements or speeches, Commissioner Wright’s willingness to express his views and have them debated in the public forum has contributed significantly to the development of antitrust law.

We hasten to note Justice Ginsburg’s observation that powerful dissents force the majority to be more rigorous in their own analyses and ultimately produce better decisions. Donning his professor’s mortar board, Commissioner Wright was not reticent about grading the decisions of the majority. The discipline this brings to the Commission’s decisions should be welcomed by all. Borrowing from former Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, such dissents can provide a valuable critique of the prevailing conventional wisdom and discern a better path going forward.

Lastly, we would be remiss not to mention that although Commissioner Wright took an evidenced-based approach to antitrust law and policy grounded in modern economics seriously, he discharged his duties with both humility and humor. He was not one to stand on ceremony and honorifics and was often simply “Josh” to both the staff and those who appeared before the agency. He employed an open-door policy, welcoming staff to discuss and debate matters without ceremony. He made it a priority to nurture the development and careers of his advisors and interns. The simple fact is that as an academic he enjoyed serious discussion and was more than willing to consider the merits of “the other side.” Indeed, Commissioner Wright found the crucible of testing the analysis fun and sought to make it fun for those on his staff.

Commissioner Wright’s service on the FTC is yet another example of how the “revolving door” continues to replenish the intellectual stock of US agencies. Given that the “dismal science” does not respect national boundaries, one might wonder why economic analysis was employed both earlier and more rigorously in the United States than elsewhere. Are not there quality economists around the globe? We suggest that the “revolving door” bringing, as it does, new recruits from the academy and elsewhere fosters agency openness to new ideas. It continuously fertilizes the advancement and development of sound economic competition policy and enforcement. Not surprisingly, agencies that take from the cradle and give to the grave are less likely to benefit.

Much ink will be spilled at this site lauding Commissioner Joshua (Josh) Wright’s many contributions to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and justly so. I will focus narrowly on Josh Wright as a law and economics “provocateur,” who used his writings and speeches to “stir the pot” and subject the FTC’s actions to a law and economics spotlight. In particular, Josh highlighted the importance of decision theory, which teaches that bureaucratic agencies (such as the FTC) are inherently subject to error and high administrative costs, and should adopt procedures and rules of decision accordingly. Thus, to maximize welfare, an agency should adopt “optimal” rules, directed at minimizing the sum of false positives, false negatives, and administrative costs. In that regard, the FTC should pay particular attention to empirical evidence of actual harm, and not bring cases based on mere theoretical models of possible harm – models that are inherently likely to generate substantial false positives (predictions of consumer harm) and thereby run counter to a well-run decision-theoretical regime.

Josh became a Commissioner almost three years ago, so there are many of his writings to comment upon. Nevertheless, he is so prolific that a very good understanding of his law and economics approach may be gleaned merely by a perusal of his 2015 contributions. I will selectively focus upon a few representative examples of wisdom drawn from Josh Wright’s (hereinafter JW) 2015 writings, going in reverse chronological order. (A fuller and more detailed exposition of his approach over the years would warrant a long law review article.)

Earlier this month, in commenting on the importance of granting FTC economists (housed in the FTC’s Bureau of Economics (BE)) a greater public role in the framing of FTC decisions, JW honed in on the misuse of consent decrees to impose constraints on private sector behavior without hard evidence of consumer harm:

One [unfortunate] phenomenon is the so‐called “compromise recommendation,” that is, a BE staff economist might recommend the FTC accept a consent decree rather than litigate or challenge a proposed merger when the underlying economic analysis reveals very little actual economic support for liability. In my experience, it is not uncommon for a BE staff analysis to convincingly demonstrate that competitive harm is possible but unlikely, but for BE staff to recommend against litigation on those grounds, but in favor of a consent order. The problem with this compromise approach is, of course, that a recommendation to enter into a consent order must also require economic evidence sufficient to give the Commission reason to believe that competitive harm is likely. . . . [What, then, is the solution?] Requiring BE to make public its economic rationale for supporting or rejecting a consent decree voted out by the Commission could offer a number of benefits at little cost. First, it offers BE a public avenue to communicate its findings to the public. Second, it reinforces the independent nature of the recommendation that BE offers. Third, it breaks the agency monopoly the FTC lawyers currently enjoy in terms of framing a particular matter to the public. The internal leverage BE gains by the ability to publish such a document may increase conflict between bureaus on the margin in close cases, but it will also provide BE a greater role in the consent process and a mechanism to discipline consents that are not supported by sound economics. I believe this would go a long ways towards minimizing the “compromise” recommendation that is most problematic in matters involving consent decrees.

In various writings, JW has cautioned that the FTC should apply an “evidence-based” approach to adjudication, and not lightly presume that particular conduct is anticompetitive – including in the area of patents. JW’s most recent pronouncement regarding an evidence-based approach is found in his July 2015 statement with fellow Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), recommending that the ITC apply an “evidence-based” approach in deciding (on public interest grounds) whether to exclude imports that infringe “standard essential patents” (SEPs):

There is no empirical evidence to support the theory that patent holdup is a common problem in real world markets. The theory that patent holdup is prevalent predicts that the threat of injunction leads to higher prices, reduced output, and lower rates of innovation. These are all testable implications. Contrary to these predictions, the empirical evidence is not consistent with the theory that patent holdup has resulted in a reduction of competition. . . .  An evidence-based approach to the public interest inquiry, i.e., one that requires proof that holdup actually occurred in a particular case, protects incentives to participate in standard setting by allowing SEP holders to seek and obtain exclusion orders when permitted by the SSO agreement at issue and in the absence of a showing of any improper use. In contrast, any proposal that would require the ITC to presume the existence of holdup and shift the burden of proof to SEP holders to show unwillingness threatens to deter participation in standard setting, particularly if an accused infringer can prove willingness simply by agreeing to be bound by terms determined by neutral adjudication.

In such matters as Cephalon (May 2015) and Cardinal Health (April 2015), JW teamed up with Commissioner Ohlhausen to caution that disgorgement of profits as an FTC remedy in competition cases should not be lightly pursued, and indeed should be subject to a policy statement that limits FTC discretion, in order to reduce costly business uncertainty and enforcement error.

JW also brought to bear decision-theoretic insights on consumer protection matters. For example, in his April 2015 dissent in Nomi Technologies, he castigated the FTC for entering into a consent decree when the evidence of consumer harm was exceedingly weak (suggesting a high probability of a false positive, in decision-theoretic terms):

The Commission’s decision to issue a complaint and accept a consent order for public comment in this matter is problematic for both legal and policy reasons. Section 5(b) of the FTC Act requires us, before issuing any complaint, to establish “reason to believe that [a violation has occurred]” and that an enforcement action would “be to the interest of the public.” While the Act does not set forth a separate standard for accepting a consent decree, I believe that threshold should be at least as high as for bringing the initial complaint. The Commission has not met the relatively low “reason to believe” bar because its complaint does not meet the basic requirements of the Commission’s 1983 Deception Policy Statement. Further, the complaint and proposed settlement risk significant harm to consumers by deterring industry participants from adopting business practices that benefit consumers.

Consistent with public choice insights, JW stated in an April 2015 speech that greater emphasis should be placed on public advocacy efforts aimed at opposing government-imposed restraints of trade, which have a greater potential for harm than purely private restraints. Thus, welfare would be enhanced by a reallocation of agency resources toward greater advocacy and less private enforcement:

[P]ublic restraints are especially pernicious for consumers and an especially worthy target for antitrust agencies. I am quite confident that a significant shift of agency resources away from enforcement efforts aimed at taming private restraints of trade and instead toward fighting public restraints would improve consumer welfare.

In March 2015 congressional testimony, JW explained his opposition to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) net neutrality regulation, honing in on the low likelihood of harm from private conduct (and thus implicitly the high risk of costly error and unwarranted regulatory costs) in this area:

Today I will discuss my belief that the FCC’s newest regulation does not make sense from an economic perspective. By this I mean that the FCC’s decision to regulate broadband providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 will make consumers of broadband internet service worse off, rather than better off. Central to my conclusion that the FCC’s attempts to regulate so-called “net neutrality” in the broadband industry will ultimately do more harm than good for consumers is that the FCC and commentators have failed to identify a problem worthy of regulation, much less cumbersome public-utility-style regulation under Title II.

At the same time, JW’s testimony also explained that in the face of hard evidence of actual consumer harm, the FTC could take – and indeed has taken on several instances – case-specific enforcement action.

Also in March 2015, in his dissent in Par Petroleum, JW further developed the theme that the FTC should not enter into a consent decree unless it has hard evidence of competitive harm – a mere theory does not suffice:

Prior to entering into a consent agreement with the merging parties, the Commission must first find reason to believe that a merger likely will substantially lessen competition under Section 7 of the Clayton Act. The fact that the Commission believes the proposed consent order is costless is not relevant to this determination. A plausible theory may be sufficient to establish the mere possibility of competitive harm, but that theory must be supported by record evidence to establish reason to believe its likelihood. Modern economic analysis supplies a variety of tools to assess rigorously the likelihood of competitive harm. These tools are particularly important where, as here, the conduct underlying the theory of harm – that is, vertical integration – is empirically established to be procompetitive more often than not. Here, to the extent those tools were used, they uncovered evidence that, consistent with the record as a whole, is insufficient to support a reason to believe the proposed transaction is likely to harm competition. Thus, I respectfully dissent and believe the Commission should close the investigation and allow the parties to complete the merger without imposing a remedy.

In a February 2015 speech on the need for greater clarity with respect to “unfair methods of competition” under Section 5 of the FTC Act, JW emphasized the problem of uncertainty generated by the FTC’s failure to adequately define unfair methods of competition:

The lack of institutional commitment to a stable definition of what constitutes an “unfair method of competition” leads to two sources of problematic variation in the agency’s interpretation of Section 5. One is that the agency’s interpretation of the statute in different cases need not be consistent even when the individual Commissioners remain constant. Another is that as the members of the Commission change over time, so does the agency’s Section 5 enforcement policy, leading to wide variations in how the Commission prosecutes “unfair methods of competition” over time. In short, the scope of the Commission’s Section 5 authority today is as broad or as narrow as a majority of commissioners believes it is.

Focusing on the empirical record, JW offered a sharp critique of FTC administrative adjudication (and the value of the FTC’s non-adjudicative research function) in another February 2015 speech:

The data show three things with significant implications for those  important questions. The first is that, despite modest but important achievements in administrative adjudication, it can offer in its defense only a mediocre substantive record and a dubious one when it comes to process. The second is that the FTC can and does influence antitrust law and competition policy through its unique research-and-reporting function. The third is, as measured by appeal and reversal rates, generalist courts get a fairly bad wrap relative to the performance of expert agencies like the FTC.

In the same speech, JW endorsed proposed congressional reforms to the FTC’s exercise of jurisdiction over mergers, embodied in the draft “Standard Merger and Acquisition Reviews Through Equal Rules (SMARTER) Act.” Those reforms include harmonizing the FTC and Justice Department’s preliminary injunction standards, and divesting the FTC of its authority to initiate and pursue administrative challenges to unconsummated mergers, thus requiring the agency to challenge those deals in federal court.

Finally, JW dissented from the FTC’s publication of an FTC staff report (based on an FTC workshop) on the “Internet of Things,” in light of the report’s failure to impose a cost-benefit framework on the recommendations it set forth:

[T]he Commission and our staff must actually engage in a rigorous cost-benefit analysis prior to disseminating best practices or legislative recommendations, given the real world consequences for the consumers we are obligated to protect. Acknowledging in passing, as the Workshop Report does, that various courses of actions related to the Internet of Things may well have some potential costs and benefits does not come close to passing muster as cost-benefit analysis. The Workshop Report does not perform any actual analysis whatsoever to ensure that, or even to give a rough sense of the likelihood that the benefits of the staff’s various proposals exceed their attendant costs.  Instead, the Workshop Report merely relies upon its own assertions and various surveys that are not necessarily representative and, in any event, do not shed much light on actual consumer preferences as revealed by conduct in the marketplace. This is simply not good enough; there is too much at stake for consumers as the Digital Revolution begins to transform their homes, vehicles, and other aspects of daily life. Paying lip service to the obvious fact that the various best practices and proposals discussed in the Workshop Report might have both costs and benefits, without in fact performing such an analysis, does nothing to inform the recommendations made in the Workshop Report.

To conclude, FTC Commissioner Josh Wright went beyond merely emphasizing the application of economic theory to individual FTC cases, by explaining the need to focus economic thinking on FTC policy formulation – in other words, viewing FTC administrative processes and decision-making from an economics-based, decision-theoretical perspective, with hard facts (not mere theory) a key consideration. If the FTC is to be true to its goal of advancing consumer welfare, it should fully adopt such a perspective on a going-forward basis. One may only hope that current and future FTC Commissioners will heed this teaching.

Today, for the first time in its 100-year history, the FTC issued enforcement guidelines for cases brought by the agency under the Unfair Methods of Competition (“UMC”) provisions of Section 5 of the FTC Act.

The Statement of Enforcement Principles represents a significant victory for Commissioner Joshua Wright, who has been a tireless advocate for defining and limiting the scope of the Commission’s UMC authority since before his appointment to the FTC in 2013.

As we’ve noted many times before here at TOTM (including in our UMC Guidelines Blog Symposium), FTC enforcement principles for UMC actions have been in desperate need of clarification. Without any UMC standards, the FTC has been free to leverage its costly adjudication process into settlements (or short-term victories) and businesses have been left in the dark as to what what sorts of conduct might trigger enforcement. Through a series of unadjudicated settlements, UMC unfairness doctrine (such as it is) has remained largely within the province of FTC discretion and without judicial oversight. As a result, and either by design or by accident, UMC never developed a body of law encompassing well-defined goals or principles like antitrust’s consumer welfare standard.

Commissioner Wright has long been at the forefront of the battle to rein in the FTC’s discretion in this area and to promote the rule of law. Soon after joining the Commission, he called for Section 5 guidelines that would constrain UMC enforcement to further consumer welfare, tied to the economically informed analysis of competitive effects developed in antitrust law.

Today’s UMC Statement embodies the essential elements of Commissioner Wright’s proposal. Under the new guidelines:

  1. The Commission will make UMC enforcement decisions based on traditional antitrust principles, including the consumer welfare standard;
  2. Only conduct that would violate the antitrust rule of reason will give rise to enforcement, and the Commission will not bring UMC cases without evidence demonstrating that harm to competition outweighs any efficiency or business justifications for the conduct at issue; and
  3. The Commission commits to the principle that it is more appropriate to bring cases under the antitrust laws than under Section 5 when the conduct at issue could give rise to a cause of action under the antitrust laws. Notably, this doesn’t mean that the agency gets to use UMC when it thinks it might lose under the Sherman or Clayton Acts; rather, it means UMC is meant only to be a gap-filler, to be used when the antitrust statutes don’t apply at all.

Yes, the Statement is a compromise. For instance, there is no safe harbor from UMC enforcement if any cognizable efficiencies are demonstrated, as Commissioner Wright initially proposed.

But by enshrining antitrust law’s consumer welfare standard in future UMC caselaw, by obligating the Commission to assess conduct within the framework of the well-established antitrust rule of reason, and by prioritizing antitrust over UMC when both might apply, the Statement brings UMC law into the world of modern antitrust analysis. This is a huge achievement.

It’s also a huge achievement that a Statement like this one would be introduced by Chairwoman Ramirez. As recently as last year, Ramirez had resisted efforts to impose constraints on the FTC’s UMC enforcement discretion. In a 2014 speech Ramirez said:

I have expressed concern about recent proposals to formulate guidance to try to codify our unfair methods principles for the first time in the Commission’s 100 year history. While I don’t object to guidance in theory, I am less interested in prescribing our future enforcement actions than in describing our broad enforcement principles revealed in our recent precedent.

The “recent precedent” that Ramirez referred to is precisely the set of cases applying UMC to reach antitrust-relevant conduct that led to Commissioner Wright’s efforts. The common law of consent decrees that make up the precedent Ramirez refers to, of course, are not legally binding and provide little more than regurgitated causes of action.

But today, under Congressional pressure and pressure from within the agency led by Commissioner Wright, Chairwoman Ramirez and the other two Democratic commissioners voted for the Statement.

Competitive Effects Analysis Under the Statement

As Commissioner Ohlhausen argues in her dissenting statement, the UMC Statement doesn’t remove all enforcement discretion from the Commission — after all, enforcement principles, like standards in law generally, have fuzzy boundaries.

But what Commissioner Ohlhausen seems to miss is that, by invoking antitrust principles, the rule of reason and competitive effects analysis, the Statement incorporates by reference 125 years of antitrust law and economics. The Statement itself need not go into excessive detail when, with only a few words, it brings modern antitrust jurisprudence embodied in cases like Trinko, Leegin, and Brooke Group into UMC law.

Under the new rule of reason approach for UMC, the FTC will condemn conduct only when it causes or is likely to cause “harm to competition or the competitive process, taking into account any associated cognizable efficiencies and business justifications.” In other words, the evidence must demonstrate net harm to consumers before the FTC can take action. That’s a significant constraint.

As noted above, Commissioner Wright originally proposed a safe harbor from FTC UMC enforcement whenever cognizable efficiencies are present. The Statement’s balancing test is thus a compromise. But it’s not really a big move from Commissioner Wright’s initial position.

Commissioner Wright’s original proposal tied the safe harbor to “cognizable” efficiencies, which is an exacting standard. As Commissioner Wright noted in his Blog Symposium post on the subject:

[T]he efficiencies screen I offer intentionally leverages the Commission’s considerable expertise in identifying the presence of cognizable efficiencies in the merger context and explicitly ties the analysis to the well-developed framework offered in the Horizontal Merger Guidelines. As any antitrust practitioner can attest, the Commission does not credit “cognizable efficiencies” lightly and requires a rigorous showing that the claimed efficiencies are merger-specific, verifiable, and not derived from an anticompetitive reduction in output or service. Fears that the efficiencies screen in the Section 5 context would immunize patently anticompetitive conduct because a firm nakedly asserts cost savings arising from the conduct without evidence supporting its claim are unwarranted. Under this strict standard, the FTC would almost certainly have no trouble demonstrating no cognizable efficiencies exist in Dan’s “blowing up of the competitor’s factory” example because the very act of sabotage amounts to an anticompetitive reduction in output.

The difference between the safe harbor approach and the balancing approach embodied in the Statement is largely a function of administrative economy. Before, the proposal would have caused the FTC to err on the side of false negatives, possibly forbearing from bringing some number of welfare-enhancing cases in exchange for a more certain reduction in false positives. Now, there is greater chance of false positives.

But the real effect is that more cases will be litigated because, in the end, both versions would require some degree of antitrust-like competitive effects analysis. Under the Statement, if procompetitive efficiencies outweigh anticompetitive harms, the defendant still wins (and the FTC is to avoid enforcement). Under the original proposal fewer actions might be brought, but those that are brought would surely settle. So one likely outcome of choosing a balancing test over the safe harbor is that more close cases will go to court to be sorted out. Whether this is a net improvement over the safe harbor depends on whether the social costs of increased litigation and error are offset by a reduction in false negatives — as well as the more robust development of the public good of legal case law.  

Reduced FTC Discretion Under the Statement

The other important benefit of the Statement is that it commits the FTC to a regime that reduces its discretion.

Chairwoman Ramirez and former Chairman Leibowitz — among others — have embraced a broader role for Section 5, particularly in order to avoid the judicial limits on antitrust actions arising out of recent Supreme Court cases like Trinko, Leegin, Brooke Group, Linkline, Weyerhaeuser and Credit Suisse.

For instance, as former Chairman Leibowitz said in 2008:

[T]he Commission should not be tied to the more technical definitions of consumer harm that limit applications of the Sherman Act when we are looking at pure Section 5 violations.

And this was no idle threat. Recent FTC cases, including Intel, N-Data, Google (Motorola), and Bosch, could all have been brought under the Sherman Act, but were brought — and settled — as Section 5 cases instead. Under the new Statement, all four would likely be Sherman Act cases.

There’s little doubt that, left unfettered, Section 5 UMC actions would only have grown in scope. Former Chairman Leibowitz, in his concurring opinion in Rambus, described UMC as

a flexible and powerful Congressional mandate to protect competition from unreasonable restraints, whether long-since recognized or newly discovered, that violate the antitrust laws, constitute incipient violations of those laws, or contravene those laws’ fundamental policies.

Both Leibowitz and former Commissioner Tom Rosch (again, among others) often repeated their views that Section 5 permitted much the same actions as were available under Section 2 — but without the annoyance of those pesky, economically sensible, judicial limitations. (Although, in fairness, Leibowitz also once commented that it would not “be wise to use the broader [Section 5] authority whenever we think we can’t win an antitrust case, as a sort of ‘fallback.’”)

In fact, there is a long and unfortunate trend of FTC commissioners and other officials asserting some sort of “public enforcement exception” to the judicial limits on Sherman Act cases. As then Deputy Director for Antitrust in the Bureau of Economics, Howard Shelanski, told Congress in 2010:

The Commission believes that its authority to prevent “unfair methods of competition” through Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act enables the agency to pursue conduct that it cannot reach under the Sherman Act, and thus avoid the potential strictures of Trinko.

In this instance, and from the context (followed as it is by a request for Congress to actually exempt the agency from Trinko and Credit Suisse!), it seems that “reach” means “win.”

Still others have gone even further. Tom Rosch, for example, has suggested that the FTC should challenge Patent Assertion Entities under Section 5 merely because “we have a gut feeling” that the conduct violates the Act and it may not be actionable under Section 2.

Even more egregious, Steve Salop and Jon Baker advocate using Section 5 to implement their preferred social policies — in this case to reduce income inequality. Such expansionist views, as Joe Sims recently reminded TOTM readers, hearken back to the troubled FTC of the 1970s:  

Remember [former FTC Chairman] Mike Pertschuck saying that Section 5 could possibly be used to enforce compliance with desirable energy policies or environmental requirements, or to attack actions that, in the opinion of the FTC majority, impeded desirable employment programs or were inconsistent with the nation’s “democratic, political and social ideals.” The two speeches he delivered on this subject in 1977 were the beginning of the end for increased Section 5 enforcement in that era, since virtually everyone who heard or read them said:  “Whoa! Is this really what we want the FTC to be doing?”

Apparently, for some, it is — even today. But don’t forget: This was the era in which Congress actually briefly shuttered the FTC for refusing to recognize limits on its discretion, as Howard Beales reminds us:

The breadth, overreaching, and lack of focus in the FTC’s ambitious rulemaking agenda outraged many in business, Congress, and the media. Even the Washington Post editorialized that the FTC had become the “National Nanny.” Most significantly, these concerns reverberated in Congress. At one point, Congress refused to provide the necessary funding, and simply shut down the FTC for several days…. So great were the concerns that Congress did not reauthorize the FTC for fourteen years. Thus chastened, the Commission abandoned most of its rulemaking initiatives, and began to re-examine unfairness to develop a focused, injury-based test to evaluate practices that were allegedly unfair.

A truly significant effect of the Policy Statement will be to neutralize the effort to use UMC to make an end-run around antitrust jurisprudence in order to pursue non-economic goals. It will now be a necessary condition of a UMC enforcement action to prove a contravention of fundamental antitrust policies (i.e., consumer welfare), rather than whatever three commissioners happen to agree is a desirable goal. And the Statement puts the brakes on efforts to pursue antitrust cases under Section 5 by expressing a clear policy preference at the FTC to bring such cases under the antitrust laws.

Commissioner Ohlhausen’s objects that

the fact that this policy statement requires some harm to competition does little to constrain the Commission, as every Section 5 theory pursued in the last 45 years, no matter how controversial or convoluted, can be and has been couched in terms of protecting competition and/or consumers.

That may be true, but the same could be said of every Section 2 case, as well. Commissioner Ohlhausen seems to be dismissing the fact that the Statement effectively incorporates by reference the last 45 years of antitrust law, too. Nothing will incentivize enforcement targets to challenge the FTC in court — or incentivize the FTC itself to forbear from enforcement — like the ability to argue Trinko, Leegin and their ilk. Antitrust law isn’t perfect, of course, but making UMC law coextensive with modern antitrust law is about as much as we could ever reasonably hope for. And the Statement basically just gave UMC defendants blanket license to add a string of “See Areeda & Hovenkamp” cites to every case the FTC brings. We should count that as a huge win.

Commissioner Ohlhausen also laments the brevity and purported vagueness of the Statement, claiming that

No interpretation of the policy statement by a single Commissioner, no matter how thoughtful, will bind this or any future Commission to greater limits on Section 5 UMC enforcement than what is in this exceedingly brief, highly general statement.

But, in the end, it isn’t necessarily the Commissioners’ self-restraint upon which the Statement relies; it’s the courts’ (and defendants’) ability to take the obvious implications of the Statement seriously and read current antitrust precedent into future UMC cases. If every future UMC case is adjudicated like a Sherman or Clayton Act case, the Statement will have been a resounding success.

Arguably no FTC commissioner has been as successful in influencing FTC policy as a minority commissioner — over sustained opposition, and in a way that constrains the agency so significantly — as has Commissioner Wright today.

Yesterday, the International Center for Law & Economics, together with Professor Gus Hurwitz, Nebraska College of Law, and nine other scholars of law and economics, filed an amicus brief in the DC Circuit explaining why the court should vacate the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order.

A few key points from ICLE’s brief follow, but you can read a longer summary of the brief here.

If the 2010 Order was a limited incursion into neighboring territory, the 2015 Order represents the outright colonization of a foreign land, extending FCC control over the Internet far beyond what the Telecommunications Act authorizes.

The Commission asserts vast powers — powers that Congress never gave it — not just over broadband but also over the very ‘edge’ providers it claims to be protecting. The court should be very skeptical of the FCC’s claims to pervasive powers over the Internet.

In the 2015 Order, the FCC Invoked Title II, admitted that it was unworkable for the Internet, and then tried to ‘tailor’ the statute to avoid its worst excesses.

That the FCC felt the need for such sweeping forbearance should have indicated to it that it had ‘taken an interpretive wrong turn’ in understanding the statute Congress gave it. Last year, the Supreme Court blocked a similar attempt by the EPA to ‘modernize’ old legislation in a way that gave it expansive new powers. In its landmark UARG decision, the Court made clear that it won’t allow regulatory agencies to rewrite legislation in an effort to retrofit their statutes to their preferred regulatory regimes.

Internet regulation is a question of ‘vast economic and political significance,’ yet the FCC  didn’t even bother to weigh the costs and benefits of its rule. 

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler never misses an opportunity to talk about the the Internet as ‘the most important network known to Man.’ So why did he and the previous FCC Chairman ignore requests from other commissioners for serious, independent economic analysis of the supposed problem and the best way to address it? Why did the FCC rush to adopt a plan that had the effect of blocking the Federal Trade Commission from applying its consumer protection laws to the Internet? For all the FCC’s talk about protecting consumers, it appears that its real agenda may be simply expanding its own power.

Joining ICLE on the brief are:

  • Richard Epstein (NYU Law)
  • James Huffman (Lewis & Clark Law)
  • Gus Hurwitz (Nebraska Law)
  • Thom Lambert (Missouri Law)
  • Daniel Lyons (Boston College Law)
  • Geoffrey Manne (ICLE)
  • Randy May (Free State Foundation)
  • Jeremy Rabkin (GMU Law)
  • Ronald Rotunda (Chapman Law)
  • Ilya Somin (GMU Law)

Read the brief here, and the summary here.

Read more of ICLE’s work on net neutrality and Title II, including:

  • Highlights from policy and legal comments filed by ICLE and TechFreedom on net neutrality
  • “Regulating the Most Powerful Network Ever,” a scholarly essay by Gus Hurwitz for the Free State Foundation
  • “How to Break the Internet,” an essay by Geoffrey Manne and Ben Sperry, in Reason Magazine
  • “The FCC’s Net Neutrality Victory is Anything But,” an op-ed by Geoffrey Manne, in Wired
  • “The Feds Lost on Net Neutrality, But Won Control of the Internet,” an op-ed by Geoffrey Manne and Berin Szoka in Wired
  • “Net Neutrality’s Hollow Promise to Startups,” an op-ed by Geoffrey Manne and Berin Szoka in Computerworld
  • Letter signed by 32 scholars urging the FTC to caution the FCC against adopting per se net neutrality rules by reclassifying ISPs under Title II
  • The FCC’s Open Internet Roundtables, Policy Approaches, Panel 3, Enhancing Transparency, with Geoffrey Manne​

The CPI Antitrust Chronicle published Geoffrey Manne’s and my recent paperThe Problems and Perils of Bootstrapping Privacy and Data into an Antitrust Framework as part of a symposium on Big Data in the May 2015 issue. All of the papers are worth reading and pondering, but of course ours is the best ;).

In it, we analyze two of the most prominent theories of antitrust harm arising from data collection: privacy as a factor of non-price competition, and price discrimination facilitated by data collection. We also analyze whether data is serving as a barrier to entry and effectively preventing competition. We argue that, in the current marketplace, there are no plausible harms to competition arising from either non-price effects or price discrimination due to data collection online and that there is no data barrier to entry preventing effective competition.

The issues of how to regulate privacy issues and what role competition authorities should in that, are only likely to increase in importance as the Internet marketplace continues to grow and evolve. The European Commission and the FTC have been called on by scholars and advocates to take greater consideration of privacy concerns during merger review and encouraged to even bring monopolization claims based upon data dominance. These calls should be rejected unless these theories can satisfy the rigorous economic review of antitrust law. In our humble opinion, they cannot do so at this time.

Excerpts:

PRIVACY AS AN ELEMENT OF NON-PRICE COMPETITION

The Horizontal Merger Guidelines have long recognized that anticompetitive effects may “be manifested in non-price terms and conditions that adversely affect customers.” But this notion, while largely unobjectionable in the abstract, still presents significant problems in actual application.

First, product quality effects can be extremely difficult to distinguish from price effects. Quality-adjusted price is usually the touchstone by which antitrust regulators assess prices for competitive effects analysis. Disentangling (allegedly) anticompetitive quality effects from simultaneous (neutral or pro-competitive) price effects is an imprecise exercise, at best. For this reason, proving a product-quality case alone is very difficult and requires connecting the degradation of a particular element of product quality to a net gain in advantage for the monopolist.

Second, invariably product quality can be measured on more than one dimension. For instance, product quality could include both function and aesthetics: A watch’s quality lies in both its ability to tell time as well as how nice it looks on your wrist. A non-price effects analysis involving product quality across multiple dimensions becomes exceedingly difficult if there is a tradeoff in consumer welfare between the dimensions. Thus, for example, a smaller watch battery may improve its aesthetics, but also reduce its reliability. Any such analysis would necessarily involve a complex and imprecise comparison of the relative magnitudes of harm/benefit to consumers who prefer one type of quality to another.

PRICE DISCRIMINATION AS A PRIVACY HARM

If non-price effects cannot be relied upon to establish competitive injury (as explained above), then what can be the basis for incorporating privacy concerns into antitrust? One argument is that major data collectors (e.g., Google and Facebook) facilitate price discrimination.

The argument can be summed up as follows: Price discrimination could be a harm to consumers that antitrust law takes into consideration. Because companies like Google and Facebook are able to collect a great deal of data about their users for analysis, businesses could segment groups based on certain characteristics and offer them different deals. The resulting price discrimination could lead to many consumers paying more than they would in the absence of the data collection. Therefore, the data collection by these major online companies facilitates price discrimination that harms consumer welfare.

This argument misses a large part of the story, however. The flip side is that price discrimination could have benefits to those who receive lower prices from the scheme than they would have in the absence of the data collection, a possibility explored by the recent White House Report on Big Data and Differential Pricing.

While privacy advocates have focused on the possible negative effects of price discrimination to one subset of consumers, they generally ignore the positive effects of businesses being able to expand output by serving previously underserved consumers. It is inconsistent with basic economic logic to suggest that a business relying on metrics would want to serve only those who can pay more by charging them a lower price, while charging those who cannot afford it a larger one. If anything, price discrimination would likely promote more egalitarian outcomes by allowing companies to offer lower prices to poorer segments of the population—segments that can be identified by data collection and analysis.

If this group favored by “personalized pricing” is as big as—or bigger than—the group that pays higher prices, then it is difficult to state that the practice leads to a reduction in consumer welfare, even if this can be divorced from total welfare. Again, the question becomes one of magnitudes that has yet to be considered in detail by privacy advocates.

DATA BARRIER TO ENTRY

Either of these theories of harm is predicated on the inability or difficulty of competitors to develop alternative products in the marketplace—the so-called “data barrier to entry.” The argument is that upstarts do not have sufficient data to compete with established players like Google and Facebook, which in turn employ their data to both attract online advertisers as well as foreclose their competitors from this crucial source of revenue. There are at least four reasons to be dubious of such arguments:

  1. Data is useful to all industries, not just online companies;
  2. It’s not the amount of data, but how you use it;
  3. Competition online is one click or swipe away; and
  4. Access to data is not exclusive

CONCLUSION

Privacy advocates have thus far failed to make their case. Even in their most plausible forms, the arguments for incorporating privacy and data concerns into antitrust analysis do not survive legal and economic scrutiny. In the absence of strong arguments suggesting likely anticompetitive effects, and in the face of enormous analytical problems (and thus a high risk of error cost), privacy should remain a matter of consumer protection, not of antitrust.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the FTC Bureau of Competition staff report to the commissioners in the Google antitrust investigation recommended that the Commission approve an antitrust suit against the company.

While this is excellent fodder for a few hours of Twitter hysteria, it takes more than 140 characters to delve into the nuances of a 20-month federal investigation. And the bottom line is, frankly, pretty ho-hum.

As I said recently,

One of life’s unfortunate certainties, as predictable as death and taxes, is this: regulators regulate.

The Bureau of Competition staff is made up of professional lawyers — many of them litigators, whose existence is predicated on there being actual, you know, litigation. If you believe in human fallibility at all, you have to expect that, when they err, FTC staff errs on the side of too much, rather than too little, enforcement.

So is it shocking that the FTC staff might recommend that the Commission undertake what would undoubtedly have been one of the agency’s most significant antitrust cases? Hardly.

Nor is it surprising that the commissioners might not always agree with staff. In fact, staff recommendations are ignored all the time, for better or worse. Here are just a few examples: R.J Reynolds/Brown & Williamson merger, POM Wonderful , Home Shopping Network/QVC merger, cigarette advertising. No doubt there are many, many more.

Regardless, it also bears pointing out that the staff did not recommend the FTC bring suit on the central issue of search bias “because of the strong procompetitive justifications Google has set forth”:

Complainants allege that Google’s conduct is anticompetitive because if forecloses alternative search platforms that might operate to constrain Google’s dominance in search and search advertising. Although it is a close call, we do not recommend that the Commission issue a complaint against Google for this conduct.

But this caveat is enormous. To report this as the FTC staff recommending a case is seriously misleading. Here they are forbearing from bringing 99% of the case against Google, and recommending suit on the marginal 1% issues. It would be more accurate to say, “FTC staff recommends no case against Google, except on a couple of minor issues which will be immediately settled.”

And in fact it was on just these minor issues that Google agreed to voluntary commitments to curtail some conduct when the FTC announced it was not bringing suit against the company.

The Wall Street Journal quotes some other language from the staff report bolstering the conclusion that this is a complex market, the conduct at issue was ambiguous (at worst), and supporting the central recommendation not to sue:

We are faced with a set of facts that can most plausibly be accounted for by a narrative of mixed motives: one in which Google’s course of conduct was premised on its desire to innovate and to produce a high quality search product in the face of competition, blended with the desire to direct users to its own vertical offerings (instead of those of rivals) so as to increase its own revenues. Indeed, the evidence paints a complex portrait of a company working toward an overall goal of maintaining its market share by providing the best user experience, while simultaneously engaging in tactics that resulted in harm to many vertical competitors, and likely helped to entrench Google’s monopoly power over search and search advertising.

On a global level, the record will permit Google to show substantial innovation, intense competition from Microsoft and others, and speculative long-run harm.

This is exactly when you want antitrust enforcers to forbear. Predicting anticompetitive effects is difficult, and conduct that could be problematic is simultaneously potentially vigorous competition.

That the staff concluded that some of what Google was doing “harmed competitors” isn’t surprising — there were lots of competitors parading through the FTC on a daily basis claiming Google harmed them. But antitrust is about protecting consumers, not competitors. Far more important is the staff finding of “substantial innovation, intense competition from Microsoft and others, and speculative long-run harm.”

Indeed, the combination of “substantial innovation,” “intense competition from Microsoft and others,” and “Google’s strong procompetitive justifications” suggests a well-functioning market. It similarly suggests an antitrust case that the FTC would likely have lost. The FTC’s litigators should probably be grateful that the commissioners had the good sense to vote to close the investigation.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal also reports that the FTC’s Bureau of Economics simultaneously recommended that the Commission not bring suit at all against Google. It is not uncommon for the lawyers and the economists at the Commission to disagree. And as a general (though not inviolable) rule, we should be happy when the Commissioners side with the economists.

While the press, professional Google critics, and the company’s competitors may want to make this sound like a big deal, the actual facts of the case and a pretty simple error-cost analysis suggests that not bringing a case was the correct course.

During the 2008 presidential campaign Barack Obama criticized the Bush Administration for “the weakest record of antitrust enforcement of any administration in the last half century” and promised “to reinvigorate antitrust enforcement.”  In particular, he singled out allegedly lax monopolization and merger enforcement as areas needing improvement, and also vowed “aggressive action to curb the growth of international cartels.”

The Obama Administration has now been in office for six years.  Has its antitrust enforcement record been an improvement over the Bush record, more of the same, or is its record worse?  Most importantly, have the Obama Administration’s enforcement initiatives been good or bad for the free market system, and the overall American economy?

On January 29 a Heritage Foundation Conference will address these questions.  You can register to attend this conference in person or watch it live at Heritage’s website.

The conference will feature an all start lineup of top antitrust enforcers and scholars, including four former Justice Department Assistant Attorneys General for Antitrust; a former Federal Trade Commission Chairman; two current Federal Trade Commissioners; five former senior antitrust enforcement officials; a distinguished federal appellate judge famous for his antitrust opinions; and a leading comparative antitrust law expert.  Separate panels will address FTC, Justice Department, and international developments.  Our leadoff speaker will be GWU Law School Professor and former FTC Chairman Bill Kovacic.

As an added bonus, around the time of the conference Heritage will be releasing a new paper by Professor Thom Lambert that analyzes recent Supreme Court jurisprudence and federal antitrust enforcement applying a “limits of antitrust” decision-theoretic framework.  Stay tuned.