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The FCC’s proposed “Open Internet Order,” which would impose heavy-handed “common carrier” regulation of Internet service providers (the Order is being appealed in federal court and there are good arguments for striking it down) in order to promote “net neutrality,” is fundamentally misconceived.  If upheld, it will slow innovation, impose substantial costs, and harm consumers (see Heritage Foundation commentaries on FCC Internet regulation here, here, here, and here).  What’s more, it is not needed to protect consumers and competition from potential future abuse by Internet firms.  As I explain in a Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum published yesterday, should the Open Internet Order be struck down, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has ample authority under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act) to challenge any harmful conduct by entities involved in Internet broadband services markets when such conduct undermines competition or harms consumers.

Section 5 of the FTC Act authorizes the FTC to prevent persons, partnerships, or corporations from engaging in “unfair methods of competition” or “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” in or affecting commerce.  This gives it ample authority to challenge Internet abuses raising antitrust (unfair methods) and consumer protection (unfair acts or practices) issues.

On the antitrust side, in evaluating individual business restraints under a “rule of reason,” the FTC relies on objective fact-specific analyses of the actual economic and consumer protection implications of a particular restraint.  Thus, FTC evaluations of broadband industry restrictions are likely to be more objective and predictable than highly subjective “public interest” assessments by the FCC, leading to reduced error and lower planning costs for purveyors of broadband and related services.  Appropriate antitrust evaluation should accord broad leeway to most broadband contracts.  As FTC Commissioner Josh Wright put it in testifying before Congress, “fundamental observation and market experience [demonstrate] that the business practices at the heart of the net neutrality debate are generally procompetitive.”  This suggests application of a rule of reason that will fully weigh efficiencies but not shy away from challenging broadband-related contractual arrangements that undermine the competitive process.

On the consumer protection side, the FTC can attack statements made by businesses that mislead and thereby impose harm on consumers (including business purchasers) who are acting reasonably.  It can also challenge practices that, though not literally false or deceptive, impose substantial harm on consumers (including business purchasers) that they cannot reasonably avoid, assuming the harm is greater than any countervailing benefits.  These are carefully designed and cabined sources of authority that require the FTC to determine the presence of actual consumer harm before acting.  Application of the FTC’s unfairness and deception powers therefore lacks the uncertainty associated with the FCC’s uncabined and vague “public interest” standard of evaluation.  As in the case of antitrust, the existence of greater clarity and a well-defined analytic methodology suggests that reliance on FTC rather than FCC enforcement in this area is preferable from a policy standpoint.

Finally, arguments for relying on FTC Internet policing are based on experience as well – the FTC is no Internet policy novice.  It closely monitors Internet activity and, over the years, it has developed substantial expertise in Internet topics through research, hearings, and enforcement actions.

Most recently, for example, the FTC sued AT&T in federal court for allegedly slowing wireless customers’ Internet speeds, although the customers had subscribed to “unlimited” data usage plans.  The FTC asserted that in offering renewals to unlimited-plan customers, AT&T did not adequately inform them of a new policy to “throttle” (drastically reduce the speed of) customer data service once a certain monthly data usage cap was met. The direct harm of throttling was in addition to the high early termination fees that dissatisfied customers would face for early termination of their services.  The FTC characterized this behavior as both “unfair” and “deceptive.”  Moreover, the commission claimed that throttling-related speed reductions and data restrictions were not determined by real-time network congestion and thus did not even qualify as reasonable network management activity.  This case illustrates that the FTC is perfectly capable of challenging potential “network neutrality” violations that harm consumer welfare (since “throttled” customers are provided service that is inferior to the service afforded customers on “tiered” service plans) and thus FCC involvement is unwarranted.

In sum, if a court strikes down the latest FCC effort to regulate the Internet, the FTC has ample authority to address competition and consumer protection problems in the area of broadband, including questions related to net neutrality.  The FTC’s highly structured, analytic, fact-based approach to these issues is superior to FCC net neutrality regulation based on vague and unfocused notions of the public interest.  If a court does not act, Congress might wish to consider legislation to prohibit FCC Internet regulation and leave oversight of potential competitive and consumer abuses to the FTC.

Last week, the FTC announced its complaint and consent decree with Nomi Technologies for failing to allow consumers to opt-out of cell phone tracking while shopping in retail stores. Whatever one thinks about Nomi itself, the FTC’s enforcement action represents another step in the dubious application of its enforcement authority against deceptive statements.

In response, Geoffrey Manne, Ben Sperry, and Berin Szoka have written a new ICLE White Paper, titled, In the Matter of Nomi, Technologies, Inc.: The Dark Side of the FTC’s Latest Feel-Good Case.

Nomi Technologies offers retailers an innovative way to observe how customers move through their stores, how often they return, what products they browse and for how long (among other things) by tracking the Wi-Fi addresses broadcast by customers’ mobile phones. This allows stores to do what websites do all the time: tweak their configuration, pricing, purchasing and the like in response to real-time analytics — instead of just eyeballing what works. Nomi anonymized the data it collected so that retailers couldn’t track specific individuals. Recognizing that some customers might still object, even to “anonymized” tracking, Nomi allowed anyone to opt-out of all Nomi tracking on its website.

The FTC, though, seized upon a promise made within Nomi’s privacy policy to provide an additional, in-store opt out and argued that Nomi’s failure to make good on this promise — and/or notify customers of which stores used the technology — made its privacy policy deceptive. Commissioner Wright dissented, noting that the majority failed to consider evidence that showed the promise was not material, arguing that the inaccurate statement was not important enough to actually affect consumers’ behavior because they could opt-out on the website anyway. Both Commissioners Wright’s and Commissioner Ohlhausen’s dissents argued that the FTC majority’s enforcement decision in Nomi amounted to prosecutorial overreach, imposing an overly stringent standard of review without any actual indication of consumer harm.

The FTC’s deception authority is supposed to provide the agency with the authority to remedy consumer harms not effectively handled by common law torts and contracts — but it’s not a blank check. The 1983 Deception Policy Statement requires the FTC to demonstrate:

  1. There is a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer;
  2. A consumer’s interpretation of the representation, omission, or practice is considered reasonable under the circumstances; and
  3. The misleading representation, omission, or practice is material (meaning the inaccurate statement was important enough to actually affect consumers’ behavior).

Under the DPS, certain types of claims are treated as presumptively material, although the FTC is always supposed to “consider relevant and competent evidence offered to rebut presumptions of materiality.” The Nomi majority failed to do exactly that in its analysis of the company’s claims, as Commissioner Wright noted in his dissent:

the Commission failed to discharge its commitment to duly consider relevant and competent evidence that squarely rebuts the presumption that Nomi’s failure to implement an additional, retail-level opt out was material to consumers. In other words, the Commission neglects to take into account evidence demonstrating consumers would not “have chosen differently” but for the allegedly deceptive representation.

As we discuss in detail in the white paper, we believe that the Commission committed several additional legal errors in its application of the Deception Policy Statement in Nomi, over and above its failure to adequately weigh exculpatory evidence. Exceeding the legal constraints of the DPS isn’t just a legal problem: in this case, it’s led the FTC to bring an enforcement action that will likely have the very opposite of its intended result, discouraging rather than encouraging further disclosure.

Moreover, as we write in the white paper:

Nomi is the latest in a long string of recent cases in which the FTC has pushed back against both legislative and self-imposed constraints on its discretion. By small increments (unadjudicated consent decrees), but consistently and with apparent purpose, the FTC seems to be reverting to the sweeping conception of its power to police deception and unfairness that led the FTC to a titanic clash with Congress back in 1980.

The Nomi case presents yet another example of the need for FTC process reforms. Those reforms could ensure the FTC focuses on cases that actually make consumers better off. But given the FTC majority’s unwavering dedication to maximizing its discretion, such reforms will likely have to come from Congress.

Find the full white paper here.

The precise details underlying the European Commission’s (EC) April 15 Statement of Objections (SO), the EC’s equivalent of an antitrust complaint, against Google, centered on the company’s promotion of its comparison shopping service (CSS), “Google Shopping,” have not yet been made public.  Nevertheless, the EC’s fact sheet describing the theory of the case is most discouraging to anyone who believes in economically sound, consumer welfare-oriented antitrust enforcement.   Put simply, the SO alleges that Google is “abusing its dominant position” in online search services throughout Europe by systematically positioning and prominently displaying its CSS in its general search result pages, “irrespective of its merits,” causing the Google CSS to achieve higher rates of growth than CSSs promoted by rivals.  According to the EC, this behavior “has a negative impact on consumers and innovation”.  Why so?  Because this “means that users do not necessarily see the most relevant shopping results in response to their queries, and that incentives to innovate from rivals are lowered as they know that however good their product, they will not benefit from the same prominence as Google’s product.”  (Emphasis added.)  The EC’s proposed solution?  “Google should treat its own comparison shopping services and those of rivals in the same way.”

The EC’s latest action may represent only “the tip of a Google EC antitrust iceberg,” since the EC has stated that it is continuing to investigate other aspects of Google’s behavior, including Google agreements with respect to the Android operating system, plus “the favourable treatment by Google in its general search results of other specialised search services, and concerns with regard to copying of rivals’ web content (known as ‘scraping’), advertising exclusivity and undue restrictions on advertisers.”  For today, I focus on the tip, leaving consideration of the bulk of the iceberg to future commentaries, as warranted.  (Truth on the Market has addressed Google-related antitrust issues previously — see, for example, here, here, and here.)

The EC’s April 15 Google SO is troublesome in multiple ways.

First, the claim that Google does not “necessarily” array the most relevant search results in a manner desired by consumers appears to be in tension with the findings of an exhaustive U.S. antitrust investigation of the company.  As U.S. Federal Trade Commissioner Josh Wright pointed out in a recent speech, the FTC’s 2013 “closing statement [in its Google investigation] indicates that Google’s so-called search bias did not, in fact, harm consumers; to the contrary, the evidence suggested that ‘Google likely benefited consumers by prominently displaying its vertical content on its search results page.’  The Commission reached this conclusion based upon, among other things, analyses of actual consumer behavior – so-called ‘click through’ data – which showed how consumers reacted to Google’s promotion of its vertical properties.”

Second, even assuming that Google’s search engine practices have weakened competing CSSs, that would not justify EC enforcement action against Google.  As Commissioner Wright also explained, the FTC “accepted arguments made by competing websites that Google’s practices injured them and strengthened Google’s market position, but correctly found that these were not relevant considerations in a proper antitrust analysis focused upon consumer welfare rather than harm to competitors.”  The EC should keep this in mind, given that, as former EC Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia emphasized, “[c]onsumer welfare is not just a catchy phrase.  It is the cornerstone, the guiding principle of EU competition policy.”

Third, and perhaps most fundamentally, although EC disclaims an interest in “interfere[ing] with” Google’s search engine algorithm, dictating an “equal treatment of competitors” result implicitly would require intrusive micromanagement of Google’s search engine – a search engine which is at the heart of the company’s success and has bestowed enormous welfare benefits on consumers and producers alike.  There is no reason to believe that EC policing of EC CSS listings to promote an “equal protection of competitors” mandate would result in a search experience that better serves consumers than the current Google policy.  Consistent with this point, in its 2013 Google closing statement, the FTC observed that it lacked the ability to “second-guess” product improvements that plausibly benefit consumers, and it stressed that “condemning legitimate product improvements risks harming consumers.”

Fourth, competing CSSs have every incentive to inform consumers if they believe that Google search results are somehow “inferior” to their offerings.  They are free to advertise and publicize the merits of their services, and third party intermediaries that rate browsers may be expected to report if Google Shopping consistently offers suboptimal consumer services.  In short, “the word will get out.”  Even in the absence of perfect information, consumers can readily at low cost browse alternative CSSs to determine whether they prefer their services to Google’s – “help is only a click away.”

Fifth, the most likely outcome of an EC “victory” in this case would be a reduced incentive for Google to invest in improving its search engine, knowing that its ability to monetize search engine improvements could be compromised by future EC decisions to prevent an improved search engine from harming rivals.  What’s worse, other developers of service platforms and other innovative business improvements would similarly “get the message” that it would not be worth their while to innovate to the point of dominance, because their returns to such innovation would be constrained.  In sum, companies in a wide variety of sectors would have less of an incentive to innovate, and this in turn would lead to reduced welfare gains and benefits to consumers.  This would yield (as the EC’s fact sheet put it) “a negative impact on consumers and innovation”, because companies across industries operating in Europe would know that if their product were too good, they would attract the EC’s attention and be put in their place.  In other words, a successful EC intervention here could spawn the very welfare losses (magnified across sectors) that the Commission cited as justification for reining in Google in the first place!

Finally, it should come as no surprise that a coalition of purveyors of competing search engines and online shopping sites lobbied hard for EC antitrust action against Google.  When government intervenes heavily and often in markets to “correct” perceived “abuses,” private actors have a strong incentive to expend resources on achieving government actions that disadvantage their rivals – resources that could otherwise have been used to compete more vigorously and effectively.  In short, the very existence of expansive regulatory schemes disincentivizes competition on the merits, and in that regard tends to undermine welfare.  Government officials should keep that firmly in mind when private actors urge them to act decisively to “cure” marketplace imperfections by limiting a rival’s freedom of action.

Let us hope that the EC takes these concerns to heart before taking further action against Google.

Earlier this week the International Center for Law & Economics, along with a group of prominent professors and scholars of law and economics, filed an amicus brief with the Ninth Circuit seeking rehearing en banc of the court’s FTC, et al. v. St Luke’s case.

ICLE, joined by the Medicaid Defense Fund, also filed an amicus brief with the Ninth Circuit panel that originally heard the case.

The case involves the purchase by St. Luke’s Hospital of the Saltzer Medical Group, a multi-specialty physician group in Nampa, Idaho. The FTC and the State of Idaho sought to permanently enjoin the transaction under the Clayton Act, arguing that

[T]he combination of St. Luke’s and Saltzer would give it the market power to demand higher rates for health care services provided by primary care physicians (PCPs) in Nampa, Idaho and surrounding areas, ultimately leading to higher costs for health care consumers.

The district court agreed and its decision was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit panel.

Unfortunately, in affirming the district court’s decision, the Ninth Circuit made several errors in its treatment of the efficiencies offered by St. Luke’s in defense of the merger. Most importantly:

  • The court refused to recognize St. Luke’s proffered quality efficiencies, stating that “[i]t is not enough to show that the merger would allow St. Luke’s to better serve patients.”
  • The panel also applied the “less restrictive alternative” analysis in such a way that any theoretically possible alternative to a merger would discount those claimed efficiencies.
  • Finally, the Ninth Circuit panel imposed a much higher burden of proof for St. Luke’s to prove efficiencies than it did for the FTC to make out its prima facie case.

As we note in our brief:

If permitted to stand, the Panel’s decision will signal to market participants that the efficiencies defense is essentially unavailable in the Ninth Circuit, especially if those efficiencies go towards improving quality. Companies contemplating a merger designed to make each party more efficient will be unable to rely on an efficiencies defense and will therefore abandon transactions that promote consumer welfare lest they fall victim to the sort of reasoning employed by the panel in this case.

The following excerpts from the brief elaborate on the errors committed by the court and highlight their significance, particularly in the health care context:

The Panel implied that only price effects can be cognizable efficiencies, noting that the District Court “did not find that the merger would increase competition or decrease prices.” But price divorced from product characteristics is an irrelevant concept. The relevant concept is quality-adjusted price, and a showing that a merger would result in higher product quality at the same price would certainly establish cognizable efficiencies.

* * *

By placing the ultimate burden of proving efficiencies on the defendants and by applying a narrow, impractical view of merger specificity, the Panel has wrongfully denied application of known procompetitive efficiencies. In fact, under the Panel’s ruling, it will be nearly impossible for merging parties to disprove all alternatives when the burden is on the merging party to address any and every untested, theoretical less-restrictive structural alternative.

* * *

Significantly, the Panel failed to consider the proffered significant advantages that health care acquisitions may have over contractual alternatives or how these advantages impact the feasibility of contracting as a less restrictive alternative. In a complex integration of assets, “the costs of contracting will generally increase more than the costs of vertical integration.” (Benjamin Klein, Robert G. Crawford, and Armen A. Alchian, Vertical Integration, Appropriable Rents, and the Competitive Contracting Process, 21 J. L. & ECON. 297, 298 (1978)). In health care in particular, complexity is a given. Health care is characterized by dramatically imperfect information, and myriad specialized and differentiated products whose attributes are often difficult to measure. Realigning incentives through contract is imperfect and often unsuccessful. Moreover, the health care market is one of the most fickle, plagued by constantly changing market conditions arising from technological evolution, ever-changing regulations, and heterogeneous (and shifting) consumer demand. Such uncertainty frequently creates too many contingencies for parties to address in either writing or enforcing contracts, making acquisition a more appropriate substitute.

* * *

Sound antitrust policy and law do not permit the theoretical to triumph over the practical. One can always envision ways that firms could function to achieve potential efficiencies…. But this approach would harm consumers and fail to further the aims of the antitrust laws.

* * *

The Panel’s approach to efficiencies in this case demonstrates a problematic asymmetry in merger analysis. As FTC Commissioner Wright has cautioned:

Merger analysis is by its nature a predictive enterprise. Thinking rigorously about probabilistic assessment of competitive harms is an appropriate approach from an economic perspective. However, there is some reason for concern that the approach applied to efficiencies is deterministic in practice. In other words, there is a potentially dangerous asymmetry from a consumer welfare perspective of an approach that embraces probabilistic prediction, estimation, presumption, and simulation of anticompetitive effects on the one hand but requires efficiencies to be proven on the other. (Dissenting Statement of Commissioner Joshua D. Wright at 5, In the Matter of Ardagh Group S.A., and Saint-Gobain Containers, Inc., and Compagnie de Saint-Gobain)

* * *

In this case, the Panel effectively presumed competitive harm and then imposed unduly high evidentiary burdens on the merging parties to demonstrate actual procompetitive effects. The differential treatment and evidentiary burdens placed on St. Luke’s to prove competitive benefits is “unjustified and counterproductive.” (Daniel A. Crane, Rethinking Merger Efficiencies, 110 MICH. L. REV. 347, 390 (2011)). Such asymmetry between the government’s and St. Luke’s burdens is “inconsistent with a merger policy designed to promote consumer welfare.” (Dissenting Statement of Commissioner Joshua D. Wright at 7, In the Matter of Ardagh Group S.A., and Saint-Gobain Containers, Inc., and Compagnie de Saint-Gobain).

* * *

In reaching its decision, the Panel dismissed these very sorts of procompetitive and quality-enhancing efficiencies associated with the merger that were recognized by the district court. Instead, the Panel simply decided that it would not consider the “laudable goal” of improving health care as a procompetitive efficiency in the St. Luke’s case – or in any other health care provider merger moving forward. The Panel stated that “[i]t is not enough to show that the merger would allow St. Luke’s to better serve patients.” Such a broad, blanket conclusion can serve only to harm consumers.

* * *

By creating a barrier to considering quality-enhancing efficiencies associated with better care, the approach taken by the Panel will deter future provider realignment and create a “chilling” effect on vital provider integration and collaboration. If the Panel’s decision is upheld, providers will be considerably less likely to engage in realignment aimed at improving care and lowering long-term costs. As a result, both patients and payors will suffer in the form of higher costs and lower quality of care. This can’t be – and isn’t – the outcome to which appropriate antitrust law and policy aspires.

The scholars joining ICLE on the brief are:

  • George Bittlingmayer, Wagnon Distinguished Professor of Finance and Otto Distinguished Professor of Austrian Economics, University of Kansas
  • Henry Butler, George Mason University Foundation Professor of Law and Executive Director of the Law & Economics Center, George Mason University
  • Daniel A. Crane, Associate Dean for Faculty and Research and Professor of Law, University of Michigan
  • Harold Demsetz, UCLA Emeritus Chair Professor of Business Economics, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Bernard Ganglmair, Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Dallas
  • Gus Hurwitz, Assistant Professor of Law, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Keith Hylton, William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor of Law, Boston University
  • Thom Lambert, Wall Chair in Corporate Law and Governance, University of Missouri
  • John Lopatka, A. Robert Noll Distinguished Professor of Law, Pennsylvania State University
  • Geoffrey Manne, Founder and Executive Director of the International Center for Law and Economics and Senior Fellow at TechFreedom
  • Stephen Margolis, Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor, North Carolina State University
  • Fred McChesney, de la Cruz-Mentschikoff Endowed Chair in Law and Economics, University of Miami
  • Tom Morgan, Oppenheim Professor Emeritus of Antitrust and Trade Regulation Law, George Washington University
  • David Olson, Associate Professor of Law, Boston College
  • Paul H. Rubin, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics, Emory University
  • D. Daniel Sokol, Professor of Law, University of Florida
  • Mike Sykuta, Associate Professor and Director of the Contracting and Organizations Research Institute, University of Missouri

The amicus brief is available here.

In its February 25 North Carolina Dental v. Federal Trade Commission decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a state regulatory board that is controlled by market participants in the industry being regulated cannot invoke “state action” antitrust immunity unless it is “actively supervised” by the state. Will this decision discourage harmful protectionist regulation, such as the prohibition on tooth whitening by non-dentists at issue in this case? Will it also interfere with the ability of states to shape their regulatory programs as they see fit? U.S. Federal Trade Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen will address this important set of questions in a March 31 luncheon presentation at the Heritage Foundation, with Clark Neily of the Institute for Justice and Misha Tseytlin of the West Virginia State Attorney General’s Office providing expert commentary. (You may view this event online or register to attend it in person here).

Just in time for this event, the Heritage Foundation has released a legal memorandum on “North Carolina Dental Board and the Reform of State-Sponsored Protectionism.”  The  memorandum explains that North Carolina Dental “has far-reaching ramifications for the reform of ill-conceived protectionist state regulations that limit entry into myriad professions and thereby harm consumers. In holding that a state regulatory board controlled by market participants in the industry being regulated cannot cloak its anticompetitive rules in ‘state action’ antitrust immunity unless it is ‘actively supervised’ by the state, the Court struck a significant blow against protectionist rent-seeking legislation and for economic liberty. The states may re-examine their licensing statutes in light of the Court’s decision, but if they decline to revise their regulatory schemes to eliminate their unjustifiable exclusionary effect, there may well be yet another round of challenges to those programs—this time based on the federal Constitution.”

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.

In short, all of this hand-wringing over privacy is largely a tempest in a teapot — especially when one considers the extent to which the White House and other government bodies have studiously ignored the real threat: government misuse of data à la the NSA. It’s almost as if the White House is deliberately shifting the public’s gaze from the reality of extensive government spying by directing it toward a fantasy world of nefarious corporations abusing private information….

The White House’s proposed bill is emblematic of many government “fixes” to largely non-existent privacy issues, and it exhibits the same core defects that undermine both its claims and its proposed solutions. As a result, the proposed bill vastly overemphasizes regulation to the dangerous detriment of the innovative benefits of Big Data for consumers and society at large.

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In a recent post, I explained how the U.S. Supreme Court’s February 25 opinion in North Carolina Dental Board v. FTC (holding that a state regulatory board controlled by market participants must be “actively supervised” by the state to receive antitrust immunity) struck a significant blow against protectionist rent-seeking and for economic liberty.  Maureen Ohlhausen, who has spoken out against special interest government regulation as an FTC Commissioner (and formerly as Director of the FTC’s Office of Policy Planning), will discuss the ramifications of the Court’s North Carolina Dental decision in a March 31 luncheon speech at the Heritage Foundation.  Senior Attorney Clark Neily of the Institute for Justice and Misha Tseytlin, General Counsel in the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office, will provide expert commentary on the Commissioner’s speech.  You can register for this event here.

Anybody who has spent much time with children knows how squishy a concept “unfairness” can be.  One can hear the exchange, “He’s not being fair!” “No, she’s not!,” only so many times before coming to understand that unfairness is largely in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps it’s unfortunate, then, that Congress chose a century ago to cast the Federal Trade Commission’s authority in terms of preventing “unfair methods of competition.”  But that’s what it did, and the question now is whether there is some way to mitigate this “eye of the beholder” problem.

There is.

We know that any business practice that violates the substantive antitrust laws (the Sherman and Clayton Acts) is an unfair method of competition, so we can look to Sherman and Clayton Act precedents to assess the “unfairness” of business practices that those laws reach.  But what about the Commission’s so-called “standalone” UMC authority—its power to prevent business practices that seem to impact competition unfairly but are not technically violations of the substantive antitrust laws?

Almost two years ago, Commissioner Josh Wright recognized that if the FTC’s standalone UMC authority is to play a meaningful role in assuring market competition, the Commission should issue guidelines on what constitutes an unfair method of competition. He was right.  The Commission, you see, really has only four options with respect to standalone Section 5 claims:

  1. It could bring standalone actions based on current commissioners’ considered judgments about what constitutes unfairness. Such an approach, though, is really inconsistent with the rule of law. Past commissioners, for example, have gone so far as to suggest that practices causing “resource depletion, energy waste, environmental contamination, worker alienation, [and] the psychological and social consequences of producer-stimulated demands” could be unfair methods of competition. Maybe our current commissioners wouldn’t cast so wide a net, but they’re not always going to be in power. A government of laws and not of men simply can’t mete out state power on the basis of whim.
  2. It could bring standalone actions based on unfairness principles appearing in Section 5’s “common law.” The problem here is that there is no such common law. As Commissioner Wright has observed and I have previously explained, a common law doesn’t just happen. Development of a common law requires vigorously litigated disputes and reasoned, published opinions that resolve those disputes and serve as precedent. Section 5 “litigation,” such as it is, doesn’t involve any of that.
    • First, standalone Section 5 disputes tend not to be vigorously litigated. Because the FTC acts as both prosecutor and judge in such actions, their outcome is nearly a foregone conclusion. When FTC staff win before the administrative law judge, the ALJ’s decision is always affirmed by the full commission; when staff loses with the ALJ, the full Commission always reverses. Couple this stacked deck with the fact that unfairness exists in the eye of the beholder and will therefore change with the composition of the Commission, and we end up with a situation in which accused parties routinely settle. As Commissioner Wright observes, “parties will typically prefer to settle a Section 5 claim rather than go through lengthy and costly litigation in which they are both shooting at a moving target and have the chips stacked against them.”
    • The consent decrees that memorialize settlements, then, offer little prospective guidance. They usually don’t include any detailed explanation of why the practice at issue was an unfair method of competition. Even if they did, it wouldn’t matter much; the Commission doesn’t treat its own enforcement decisions as precedent. In light of the realities of Section 5 litigation, there really is no Section 5 common law.
  3. It could refrain from bringing standalone Section 5 actions and pursue only business practices that violate the substantive antitrust laws. Substantive antitrust violations constitute unfair methods of competition, and the federal courts have established fairly workable principles for determining when business practices violate the Sherman and Clayton Acts. The FTC could therefore avoid the “eye of the beholder” problem by limiting its UMC authority to business conduct that violates the antitrust laws. Such an approach, though, would prevent the FTC from policing conduct that, while not technically an antitrust violation, is anticompetitive and injurious to consumers.
  4. It could bring standalone Section 5 actions based on articulated guidelines establishing what constitutes an unfair method of competition. This is really the only way to use Section 5 to pursue business practices that are not otherwise antitrust violations, without offending the rule of law.

Now, if the FTC is to take this fourth approach—the only one that both allows for standalone Section 5 actions and honors rule of law commitments—it obviously has to settle on a set of guidelines.  Fortunately, it has almost done so!

Since Commissioner Wright called for Section 5 guidelines almost two years ago, much ink has been spilled outlining and critiquing proposed guidelines.  Commissioner Wright got the ball rolling by issuing his own proposal along with his call for the adoption of guidelines.  Commissioner Ohlhausen soon followed suit, proposing a slightly broader set of principles.  Numerous commentators then joined the conversation (a number doing so in a TOTM symposium), and each of the other commissioners has now stated her own views.

A good deal of consensus has emerged.  Each commissioner agrees that Section 5 should be used to prosecute only conduct that is actually anticompetitive (as defined by the federal courts).  There is also apparent consensus on the view that standalone Section 5 authority should not be used to challenge conduct governed by well-forged liability principles under the Sherman and Clayton Acts.  (For example, a practice routinely evaluated under Section 2 of the Sherman Act should not be pursued using standalone Section 5 authority.)  The commissioners, and the vast majority of commentators, also agree that there should be some efficiencies screen in prosecution decisions.  The remaining disagreement centers on the scope of the efficiencies screen—i.e., how much of an efficiency benefit must a business practice confer in order to be insulated from standalone Section 5 liability?

On that narrow issue—the only legitimate point of dispute remaining among the commissioners—three views have emerged:  Commissioner Wright would refrain from prosecuting if the conduct at issue creates any cognizable efficiencies; Commissioner Ohlhausen would do so as long as the efficiencies are not disproportionately outweighed by anticompetitive harms; Chairwoman Ramirez would engage in straightforward balancing (not a “disproportionality” inquiry) and would refrain from prosecution only where efficiencies outweigh anticompetitive harms.

That leaves three potential sets of guidelines.  In each, it would be necessary that a behavior subject to any standalone Section 5 action (1) create actual or likely anticompetitive harm, and (2) not be subject to well-forged case law under the traditional antitrust laws (so that pursuing the action might cause the distinction between lawful and unlawful commercial behavior to become blurred).  Each of the three sets of guidelines would also include an efficiencies screen—either (3a) the conduct lacks cognizable efficiencies, (3b) the harms created by the conduct are disproportionate to the conduct’s cognizable efficiencies, or (3c) the harms created by the conduct are not outweighed by cognizable efficiencies.

As Commissioner Wright has observed any one of these sets of guidelines would be superior to the status quo.  Accordingly, if the commissioners could agree on the acceptability of any of them, they could improve the state of U.S. competition law.

Recognizing as much, Commissioner Wright is wisely calling on the commissioners to vote on the acceptability of each set of guidelines.  If any set is deemed acceptable by a majority of commissioners, it should be promulgated as official FTC Guidance.  (Presumably, if more than one set commands majority support, the set that most restrains FTC enforcement authority would be the one promulgated as FTC Guidance.)

Of course, individual commissioners might just choose not to vote.  That would represent a sad abdication of authority.  Given that there isn’t (and under current practice, there can’t be) a common law of Section 5, failure to vote on a set of guidelines would effectively cast a vote for either option 1 stated above (ignore rule of law values) or option 3 (limit Section 5’s potential to enhance consumer welfare).  Let’s hope our commissioners don’t relegate us to those options.

The debate has occurred.  It’s time to vote.

In its February 25 North Carolina Dental decision, the U.S. Supreme Court, per Justice Anthony Kennedy, held that a state regulatory board that is controlled by market participants in the industry being regulated cannot invoke “state action” antitrust immunity unless it is “actively supervised” by the state.  In so ruling, the Court struck a significant blow against protectionist rent-seeking and for economic liberty.  (As I stated in a recent Heritage Foundation legal memorandum, “[a] Supreme Court decision accepting this [active supervision] principle might help to curb special-interest favoritism conferred through state law.  At the very least, it could complicate the efforts of special interests to protect themselves from competition through regulation.”)

A North Carolina law subjects the licensing of dentistry to a North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners (Board), six of whose eight members must be licensed dentists.  After dentists complained to the Board that non-dentists were charging lower prices than dentists for teeth whitening, the Board sent cease-and-desist letter to non-dentist teeth whitening providers, warning that the unlicensed practice dentistry is a crime.  This led non-dentists to cease teeth whitening services in North Carolina.  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held that the Board’s actions violated Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair methods of competition, the Fourth Circuit agreed, and the Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit’s decision.

In its decision, the Court rejected the claim that state action immunity, which confers immunity on the anticompetitive conduct of states acting in their sovereign capacity, applied to the Board’s actions.  The Court stressed that where a state delegates control over a market to a non-sovereign actor, immunity applies only if the state accepts political accountability by actively supervising that actor’s decisions.  The Court applied its Midcal test, which requires (1) clear state articulation and (2) active state supervision of decisions by non-sovereign actors for immunity to attach.  The Court held that entities designated as state agencies are not exempt from active supervision when they are controlled by market participants, because allowing an exemption in such circumstances would pose the risk of self-dealing that the second prong of Midcal was created to address.

Here, the Board did not contend that the state exercised any (let alone active) supervision over its anticompetitive conduct.  The Court closed by summarizing “a few constant requirements of active supervision,” namely, (1) the supervisor must review the substance of the anticompetitive decision, (2) the supervisor must have the power to veto or modify particular decisions for consistency with state policy, (3) “the mere potential for state supervision is not an adequate substitute for a decision by the State,” and (4) “the state supervisor may not itself be an active market participant.”  The Court cautioned, however, that “the adequacy of supervision otherwise will depend on all the circumstances of a case.”

Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, dissented, arguing that the Court ignored precedent that state agencies created by the state legislature (“[t]he Board is not a private or ‘nonsovereign’ entity”) are shielded by the state action doctrine.  “By straying from this simple path” and assessing instead whether individual agencies are subject to regulatory capture, the Court spawned confusion, according to the dissenters.  Midcal was inapposite, because it involved a private trade association.  The dissenters feared that the majority’s decision may require states “to change the composition of medical, dental, and other boards, but it is not clear what sort of changes are needed to satisfy the test that the Court now adopts.”  The dissenters concluded “that determining when regulatory capture has occurred is no simple task.  That answer provides a reason for relieving courts from the obligation to make such determinations at all.  It does not explain why it is appropriate for the Court to adopt the rather crude test for capture that constitutes the holding of today’s decision.”

The Court’s holding in North Carolina Dental helpfully limits the scope of the Court’s infamous Parker v. Brown decision (which shielded from federal antitrust attack a California raisin producers’ cartel overseen by a state body), without excessively interfering in sovereign state prerogatives.  State legislatures may still choose to create self-interested professional regulatory bodies – their sovereignty is not compromised.  Now, however, they will have to (1) make it clearer up front that they intend to allow those bodies to displace competition, and (2) subject those bodies to disinterested third party review.  These changes should make it far easier for competition advocates (including competition agencies) to spot and publicize welfare-inimical regulatory schemes, and weaken the incentive and ability of rent-seekers to undermine competition through state regulatory processes.  All told, the burden these new judicially-imposed constraints will impose on the states appears relatively modest, and should be far outweighed by the substantial welfare benefits they are likely to generate.