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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.

In a previous Truth on the Market blog posting, I noted that the FTC recently revised its “advertising substantiation” policy in a highly problematic manner.  In particular, in a number of recent enforcement actions, an FTC majority has taken the position that it will deem advertising claims “deceptive” unless they are supported by two randomized controlled tests (RCTs), and (in the case of food and drug supplements) will require companies to obtain prior U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for future advertising claims.  As I explained in a Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum, these and other new burdens “may deter firms from investing in new health-related product improvements, in which event consumers who are denied new and beneficial products (as well as useful information about the attributes of current products) will be the losers.  Competition will also suffer as businesses shy away from informational advertising that rewards the highest quality current products and encourages firms to compete on the basis of quality.  Furthermore, the broad scope of these requirements is in tension with the constitutional prohibition on restricting commercial speech no more than is necessary to satisfy legitimate statutory purposes.” (NOTABLY, Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen has argued against categorically imposing a two RCTs requirement in all cases , explaining that “[i]f we demand too high a level of substantiation in pursuit of certainty, we risk losing the benefits to consumers of having access to information about emerging areas of science and the corresponding pressure on firms to compete on the health features of their products.”  Commissioner Joshua Wright has also opined “that a reflexive approach in requiring two RCTs as fencing-in relief might not always be in the best interest of consumers.”)

In a January 30, 2015 decision, POM Wonderful, LLC v. FTC, the D.C. Circuit took an initial step that may help rein in FTC enthusiasm for imposing a “two RCTs” requirement on future advertising by a firm.  The FTC ruled in 2013 that POM Wonderful, a producer and seller of pomegranate products, violated the FTC Act by making advertisements that suggested POM products could treat, prevent, or reduce heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction.  According to the FTC, the ads were false and misleading because POM lacked valid and adequate scientific evidence to substantiate its claims.  (The FTC determined that scientific findings cited by POM, based on over $35 million of pomegranate-related research, had not been supported by subsequent studies.)   The FTC entered a cease and desist order that barred POM from making future disease claims (claims that its products treat, prevent, or reduce a disease) about its products without “competent and reliable” scientific evidence.  Specifically, the FTC’s order required that such future claims be supported by at least two RCTs.  (NOTABLY, Commissioner Ohlhausen disagreed with the majority’s view that two RCTs were warranted and would have required only one RCT, regarding that study in light of other available scientific evidence.)

POM appealed to the D.C. Circuit, which unanimously held that there was no basis for setting aside the FTC’s finding that many of POM’s ads made false or misleading claims; that there was no First Amendment protection for deceptive advertising; and that requiring an RCT was not too onerous and did not violate the First Amendment.  The court concluded that “the [FTC] injunctive order’s requirement of some RCT substantiation for disease claims directly advances, and is not more extensive than necessary to serve, the interest in preventing misleading commercial speech”, consistent with the test for evaluating commercial speech enunciated by the Supreme Court in Central Hudson.  The court, however, also held that “a categorical floor of two RCTs for any and all disease claims . . . fails Central Hudson scrutiny”.  The court stressed that the FTC “fails to demonstrate how such a rigid remedial rule bears the requisite ‘reasonable fit’ with the interest in preventing deceptive speech.”  Significantly, the court also enunciated a strong policy justification, rooted in First Amendment commercial speech concerns, for precluding a categorical “two RCTs” rule:

“Requiring additional RCTs without adequate justification exacts considerable costs, and not just in terms of the substantial resources often necessary to design and conduct a properly randomized and controlled human clinical trial.  If there is a categorical bar against claims about the disease-related benefits of a food product or dietary supplement in the absence of two RCTs, consumers may be denied useful, truthful information about products with a demonstrated capacity to treat or prevent serious disease.  That would subvert rather than promote the objectives of the commercial speech doctrine.”

Accordingly, the court modified the FTC’s order to require that POM possess at least one RCT in support of future health-related advertising claims.  Assuming that the D.C. Circuit’s POM decision is not appealed and remains in force, future advertisers investigated by the FTC will have stronger grounds to resist FTC efforts to impose “two or more RCT” requirements as part of a decree.

This is just a small step in badly-needed reforms, however.  Even a single RCT is unnecessarily onerous in many market settings (and, in my view, ignores the teachings of Central Hudson).  More broadly, as I have previously argued, the FTC should rethink its entire approach and issue new advertising substantiation guidelines that state the FTC:  (1) will seek to restrict commercial speech to the smallest extent possible, consistent with fraud prevention; (2) will apply strict cost-benefit analysis in investigating advertising claims and framing remedies in advertising substantiation cases; (3) will apply a reasonableness standard in such cases, consistent with general guidance found in a 1983 FTC policy statement; (4) will not require clinical studies be conducted in order to substantiate advertising claims; (5) will not require that the FDA or any other agency be involved in approving or reviewing advertising claims; and (6) will avoid excessive “fencing in” relief that extends well beyond the ambit of the alleged harm associated with statements that the FTC deems misleading.  Enactment of such guidelines may be a long-term project, requiring a change in Commission thinking, but it is well worth pursuing, in order to advance both free commercial speech and consumer welfare.

Today the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) missed the mark in authorizing release of a staff report calling for legislation and regulation of the “Internet of Things.”

The Internet of Things is already affecting the daily lives of millions of Americans through the adoption of health and fitness monitors, home security devices, connected cars and household appliances, among other applications.  Such devices offer the potential for improved health-monitoring, safer highways, and more efficient home energy use, and a myriad of other potential benefits.  The rapidly increasing use of such devices, which transfer data electronically, also raises privacy and security concerns.  In November 2014 the FTC convened a one-day workshop to study the rapidly changing Internet of Things.

On January 27, 2015, the FTC staff released a report based on the record established by the workshop and follow-on comments from the public.  Unfortunately, the report went far beyond describing the state of play and setting forth the views of interested parties.  In particular, the FTC staff recommended detailed approaches businesses should follow to promote security and privacy in the Internet of Things, and repeated its prior call for strong data security and breach notification legislation.  The FTC voted 4-1 to issue the staff report, with Commissioner Joshua Wright dissenting and Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen concurring but expressing opposition to two of the report’s recommendations (calling for privacy legislation and for companies to delete “excessive” but valuable data).

Commissioner Wright’s thoughtful dissent centers on the report’s failure to apply cost-benefit analysis to its recommendations, without which it is not possible to determine whether the recommendations are socially beneficial or harmful.  As Wright points out (footnotes omitted):

“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.”

More specifically, Wright critiques the FTC’s proposal that companies limit the scope of data retention (“data minimization”) to protect consumers’ “reasonable expectations” and deter data thieves – as he explains, this proposal fails to discuss the magnitude of such costs to consumers and supplies no evidence demonstrating that the benefits of data minimization will outweigh its costs to consumers.  In a similar vein, Wright opposes the report’s proposal that companies adopt specific “security by design” measures, noting that:

“Relying upon the application of these concepts and the Fair Information Practice Principles to the Internet of Things can instead substitute for the sort of rigorous economic analysis required to understand the tradeoffs facing firms and consumers. An economic and evidence-based approach sensitive to those tradeoffs is much more likely to result in consumer-welfare enhancing consumer protection regulation. To the extent concepts such as security by design or data minimization are endorsed at any cost – or without regard to whether the marginal cost of a particular decision exceeds its marginal benefits – then application of these principles will result in greater compliance costs without countervailing benefit. Such costs will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices or less useful products, as well as potentially deter competition and innovation among firms participating in the Internet of Things.”

In sum, Wright concludes:

“Before setting forth industry best practices and recommendations for broad-based privacy legislation relating to the Internet of Things – proposals that could have a profound impact upon consumers – the Commission and its staff should, at a minimum, undertake the necessary work not only to identify the potential costs and benefits of implementing such best practices and recommendations, but also to perform analysis sufficient to establish with reasonable confidence that such benefits are not outweighed by their costs at the margin of policy intervention.”

The FTC does best when it rigorously evaluates the costs and benefits of its regulatory recommendations and proposed enforcement actions.  Unfortunately, in recent years it has lost sight of this common sense principle (particularly in the consumer protection area) in imposing highly burdensome advertising substantiation and data security enforcement requirements through litigation and consent decrees.  The detailed recommendations in the Internet of Things report suggest that the FTC may be eyeing public reports as a new source of “friendly persuasion.”  Because many firms may choose to adopt costly FTC business practice “suggestions” so as to avoid costly investigations and litigation, the actual harm in foregone business innovation and consumer welfare losses may not be readily apparent.  The competitive process and American consumers, however, are the losers – as are smaller companies that can less afford to absorb the costs of FTC micromanagement than their larger rivals.

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.

There is always a temptation for antitrust agencies and plaintiffs to center a case around so-called “hot” documents — typically company documents with a snippet or sound-bites extracted, some times out of context. Some practitioners argue that “[h]ot document can be crucial to the outcome of any antitrust matter.” Although “hot” documents can help catch the interest of the public, a busy judge or an unsophisticated jury, they often can lead to misleading results. But more times than not, antitrust cases are resolved on economics and what John Adams called “hard facts,” not snippets from emails or other corporate documents. Antitrust case books are littered with cases that initially looked promising based on some supposed hot documents, but ultimately failed because the foundations of a sound antitrust case were missing.

As discussed below this is especially true for a recent case brought by the FTC, FTC v. St. Luke’s, currently pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in which the FTC at each pleading stage has consistently relied on “hot” documents to make its case.

The crafting and prosecution of civil antitrust cases by federal regulators is a delicate balancing act. Regulators must adhere to well-defined principles of antitrust enforcement, and on the other hand appeal to the interests of a busy judge. The simple way of doing this is using snippets of documents to attempt to show the defendants knew they were violating the law.

After all, if federal regulators merely had to properly define geographic and relevant product markets, show a coherent model of anticompetitive harm, and demonstrate that any anticipated harm would outweigh any procompetitive benefits, where is the fun in that? The reality is that antitrust cases typically rely on economic analysis, not snippets of hot documents. Antitrust regulators routinely include internal company documents in their cases to supplement the dry mechanical nature of antitrust analysis. However, in isolation, these documents can create competitive concerns when they simply do not exist.

With this in mind, it is vital that antitrust regulators do not build an entire case around what seem to be inflammatory documents. Quotes from executives, internal memoranda about competitors, and customer presentations are the icing on the cake after a proper antitrust analysis. As the International Center for Law and Economics’ Geoff Manne once explained,

[t]he problem is that these documents are easily misunderstood, and thus, while the economic significance of such documents is often quite limited, their persuasive value is quite substantial.

Herein lies the problem illustrated by the Federal Trade Commission’s use of provocative documents in its suit against the vertical acquisition of Saltzer Medical Group, an independent physician group comprised of 41 doctors, by St. Luke’s Health System. The FTC seeks to stop the acquisition involving these two Idaho based health care providers, a $16 million transaction, and a number comparatively small to other health care mergers investigated by the antitrust agencies. The transaction would give St. Luke’s a total of 24 primary care physicians operating in and around Nampa, Idaho.

In St. Luke’s the FTC used “hot” documents in each stage of its pleadings, from its complaint through its merits brief on appeal. Some of the statements pulled from executives’ emails, notes and memoranda seem inflammatory suggesting St. Luke’s intended to increase prices and to control market share all in order to further its strength relative to payer contracting. These statements however have little grounding in the reality of health care competition.

The reliance by the FTC on these so-called hot documents is problematic for several reasons. First, the selective quoting of internal documents paints the intention of the merger solely to increase profit for St. Luke’s at the expense of payers, when the reality is that the merger is premised on the integration of health care services and the move from the traditional fee-for-service model to a patient-centric model. St Luke’s intention of incorporating primary care into its system is in-line with the goals of the Affordable Care Act to promote over all well-being through integration. The District Court in this case recognized that the purpose of the merger was “primarily to improve patient outcomes.” And, in fact, underserved and uninsured patients are already benefitting from the transaction.

Second, the selective quoting suggested a narrow geographic market, and therefore an artificially high level of concentration in Nampa, Idaho. The suggestion contradicts reality, that nearly one-third of Nampa residents seek primary care physician services outside of Nampa. The geographic market advanced by the FTC is not a proper market, regardless of whether selected documents appear to support it. Without a properly defined geographic market, it is impossible to determine market share and therefore prove a violation of the Clayton Antitrust Act.

The DOJ Antitrust Division and the FTC have acknowledged that markets can not properly be defined solely on spicy documents. Writing in their 2006 commentary on the Horizontal Merger Guidelines, the agencies noted that

[t]he Agencies are careful, however, not to assume that a ‘market’ identified for business purposes is the same as a relevant market defined in the context of a merger analysis. … It is unremarkable that ‘markets’ in common business usage do not always coincide with ‘markets’ in an antitrust context, inasmuch as the terms are used for different purposes.

Third, even if St. Luke’s had the intention of increasing prices, just because one wants to do something such as raise prices above a competitive level or scale back research and development expenses — even if it genuinely believes it is able — does not mean that it can. Merger analysis is not a question of mens rea (or subjective intent). Rather, the analysis must show that such behavior will be likely as a result of diminished competition. Regulators must not look at evidence of this subjective intent and then conclude that the behavior must be possible and that a merger is therefore likely to substantially lessen competition. This would be the tail wagging the dog. Instead, regulators must first determine whether, as a matter of economic principle, a merger is likely to have a particular effect. Then, once the analytical tests have been run, documents can support these theories. But without sound support for the underlying theories, documents (however condemning) cannot bring the case across the goal line.

Certainly, documents suggesting intent to raise prices should bring an antitrust plaintiff across the goal line? Not so, as Seventh Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook has explained:

Almost all evidence bearing on “intent” tends to show both greed and desire to succeed and glee at a rival’s predicament. … [B]ut drive to succeed lies at the core of a rivalrous economy. Firms need not like their competitors; they need not cheer them on to success; a desire to extinguish one’s rivals is entirely consistent with, often is the motive behind competition.

As Harvard Law Professor Phil Areeda observed, relying on documents describing intent is inherently risky because

(1) the businessperson often uses a colorful and combative vocabulary far removed from the lawyer’s linguistic niceties, and (2) juries and judges may fail to distinguish a lawful competitive intent from a predatory state of mind. (7 Phillip E. Areeda & Herbert Hovenkamp, Antitrust Law § 1506 (2d ed. 2003).)

So-called “hot” documents may help guide merger analysis, but served up as a main course make a paltry meal. Merger cases rise or fall on hard facts and economics, and next week we will see if the Ninth Circuit recognizes this as both St. Luke’s and the FTC argue their cases.

In my just published Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum, I argue that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should substantially scale back its overly aggressive “advertising substantiation” program, which disincentivizes firms from providing the public with valuable information about the products they sell.  As I explain:

“The . . . [FTC] has a long history of vigorously combating false and deceptive advertising under its statutory authorities, but recent efforts by the FTC to impose excessive ‘advertising substantiation’ requirements on companies go far beyond what is needed to combat false advertising. Such actions threaten to discourage companies from providing useful information that consumers value and that improves the workings of the marketplace. They also are in tension with constitutional protection for commercial speech. The FTC should reform its advertising substantiation policy and allow businesses greater flexibility to tailor their advertising practices, which would further the interests of both consumers and businesses. It should also decline to seek ‘disgorgement’ of allegedly ‘ill-gotten gains’ in cases involving advertising substantiation.”

In particular, I recommend that the FTC issue a revised policy statement explaining that it will seek to restrict commercial speech to the minimum extent possible, consistent with fraud prevention, and will not require onerous clinical studies to substantiate non-fraudulent advertising claims.  I also urge that the FTC clarify that it will only seek equitable remedies (including injunctions and financial exactions) in court for cases of clear fraud.