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.

Today, the International Center for Law & Economics released a white paper, co-authored by Executive Director Geoffrey Manne and Senior Fellow Julian Morris, entitled Dangerous Exception: The detrimental effects of including “fair use” copyright exceptions in free trade agreements.

Dangerous Exception explores the relationship between copyright, creativity and economic development in a networked global marketplace. In particular, it examines the evidence for and against mandating a U.S.-style fair use exception to copyright via free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and through “fast-track” trade promotion authority (TPA).

In the context of these ongoing trade negotiations, some organizations have been advocating for the inclusion of dramatically expanded copyright exceptions in place of more limited language requiring that such exceptions conform to the “three-step test” implemented by the 1994 TRIPs Agreement.

The paper argues that if broad fair use exceptions are infused into trade agreements they could increase piracy and discourage artistic creation and innovation — especially in nations without a strong legal tradition implementing such provisions.

The expansion of digital networks across borders, combined with historically weak copyright enforcement in many nations, poses a major challenge to a broadened fair use exception. The modern digital economy calls for appropriate, but limited, copyright exceptions — not their expansion.

The white paper is available here. For some of our previous work on related issues, see:

On Wednesday, March 18, our fellow law-and-economics-focused brethren at George Mason’s Law and Economics Center will host a very interesting morning briefing on the intersection of privacy, big data, consumer protection, and antitrust. FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen will keynote and she will be followed by what looks like will be a lively panel discussion. If you are in DC you can join in person, but you can also watch online. More details below.
Please join the LEC in person or online for a morning of lively discussion on this topic. FTC Commissioner Maureen K. Ohlhausen will set the stage by discussing her Antitrust Law Journal article, “Competition, Consumer Protection and The Right [Approach] To Privacy“. A panel discussion on big data and antitrust, which includes some of the leading thinkers on the subject, will follow.
Other featured speakers include:

Allen P. Grunes
Founder, The Konkurrenz Group and Data Competition Institute

Andres Lerner
Executive Vice President, Compass Lexecon

Darren S. Tucker
Partner, Morgan Lewis

Nathan Newman
Director, Economic and Technology Strategies LLC

Moderator: James C. Cooper
Director, Research and Policy, Law & Economics Center

A full agenda is available click 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.

On February 13 an administrative law judge (ALJ) at the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) issued a proposed decision regarding the Comcast/Time Warner Cable (TWC) merger. The proposed decision recommends that the CPUC approve the merger with conditions.

It’s laudable that the ALJ acknowledges at least some of the competitive merits of the proposed deal. But the set of conditions that the proposed decision would impose on the combined company in order to complete the merger represents a remarkable set of unauthorized regulations that are both inappropriate for the deal and at odds with California’s legislated approach to regulation of the Internet.

According to the proposed decision, every condition it imposes is aimed at mitigating a presumed harm arising from the merger:

The Applicants must meet the conditions adopted herein in order to provide reasonable assurance that the proposed transaction will be in the public interest in accordance with Pub. Util. Code § 854(a) and (c).… We only adopt conditions which mitigate an effect of the merger in order to satisfy the public interest requirements of § 854.

By any reasonable interpretation, this would mean that the CPUC can adopt only those conditions that address specific public interest concerns arising from the deal itself. But most of the conditions in the proposed decision fail this basic test and seem designed to address broader social policy issues that have nothing to do with the alleged competitive effects of the deal.

Instead, without undertaking an analysis of the merger’s competitive effects, the proposed decision effectively accepts that the merger serves the public interest, while also simply accepting the assertions of the merger’s opponents that it doesn’t. In the name of squaring that circle, the proposed decision seeks to permit the merger to proceed, but then seeks to force the post-merger company to conform to the merger’s critics’ rather arbitrary view of their preferred market structure for the provision of cable broadband services in California.

For something — say, a merger — to be in the public interest, it need not further every conceivable public interest goal. This is a perversion of the standard, and it turns “public interest” into an unconstrained license to impose a regulatory wish-list on particular actors, outside of the scope of usual regulatory processes.

While a few people may have no problem with the proposed decision’s expansive vision of Internet access regulation, California governor Jerry Brown and the overwhelming majority of the California state legislature cannot be counted among the supporters of this approach.

In 2012 the state legislature passed by an overwhelming margin — and Governor Brown signed — SB 1161 (codified as Section 710 of the California Public Utilities Code), which expressly prohibits the CPUC from regulating broadband:

The commission shall not exercise regulatory jurisdiction or control over Voice over Internet Protocol and Internet Protocol enabled services except as required or expressly delegated by federal law or expressly directed to do so by statute or as set forth in [certain enumerated exceptions].”

The message is clear: The CPUC should not try to bypass clear state law and all institutional safeguards by misusing the merger clearance process.

While bipartisan majorities in the state house, supported by a Democratic governor, have stopped the CPUC from imposing new regulations on Internet and VoIP services through SB 1161, the proposed decision seeks to impose regulations through merger conditions that go far beyond anything permitted by this state law.

For instance, the proposed decision seeks to impose arbitrary retail price controls on broadband access:

Comcast shall offer to all customers of the merged companies, for a period of five years following the effective date of the parent company merger, the opportunity to purchase stand-alone broadband Internet service at a price not to exceed the price charged by Time Warner for providing that service to its customers, and at speeds, prices, and terms, at least comparable to that offered by Time Warner prior to the merger’s closing.

And the proposed decision seeks to mandate market structure in other insidious ways, as well, mandating specific broadband speeds, requiring a break-neck geographic expansion of Comcast’s service area, and dictating installation and service times, among other things — all without regard to the actual plausibility (or cost) of implementing such requirements.

But the problem is even more acute. Not only does the proposed decision seek to regulate Internet access issues irrelevant to the merger, it also proposes to impose conditions that would actually undermine competition.

The proposed decision would impose the following conditions on Comcast’s business VoIP and business Internet services:

Comcast shall offer Time Warner’s Business Calling Plan with Stand Alone Internet Access to interested CLECs throughout the combined service territories of the merging companies for a period of five years from the effective date of the parent company merger at existing prices, terms and conditions.

Comcast shall offer Time Warner’s Carrier Ethernet Last Mile Access product to interested CLECs throughout the combined service territories of the merging companies for a period of five years from the effective date of the parent company at the same prices, terms and conditions as offered by Time Warner prior to the merger.

But the proposed decision fails to recognize that Comcast is an also-ran in the business service market. Last year it served a small fraction of the business customers served by AT&T and Verizon, who have long dominated the business services market:

According to a Sept. 2011 ComScore survey, AT&T and Verizon had the largest market shares of all business services ISPs. AT&T held 20% of market share and Verizon held 12%. Comcast ranked 6th, with 5% of market share.

The proposed conditions would hamstring the upstart challenger Comcast by removing both product and pricing flexibility for five years – an eternity in rapidly evolving technology markets. That’s a sure-fire way to minimize competition, not promote it.

The proposed decision reiterates several times its concern that the combined Comcast/Time Warner Cable will serve more than 80% of California households, and “reduce[] the possibilities for content providers to reach the California broadband market.” The alleged concern is that the combined company could exercise anticompetitive market power — imposing artificially high fees for carrying content or degrading service of unaffiliated content and services.

The problem is Comcast and TWC don’t compete anywhere in California today, and they face competition from other providers everywhere they operate. As the decision matter-of-factly states:

Comcast and Time Warner do not compete with one another… [and] Comcast and Time Warner compete with other providers of Internet access services in their respective service territories.

As a result, the merger will actually have no effect on the number of competitive choices in the state; the increase in the statewide market share as a result of the deal is irrelevant. And so these purported competition concerns can’t be the basis for any conditions, let alone the sweeping ones set out in the proposed decision.

The stated concern about content providers finding it difficult to reach Californians is a red herring: the post-merger Comcast geographic footprint will be exactly the same as the combined, pre-merger Comcast/TWC/Charter footprint. Content providers will be able to access just as many Californians (and with greater speeds) as before the merger.

True, content providers that just want to reach some number of random Californians may have to reach more of them through Comcast than they would have before the merger. But what content provider just wants to reach some number of Californians in the first place? Moreover, this fundamentally misstates the way the Internet works: it is users who reach the content they prefer; not the other way around. And, once again, for literally every consumer in the state, the number of available options for doing so won’t change one iota following the merger.

Nothing shows more clearly how the proposed decision has strayed from responding to merger concerns to addressing broader social policy issues than the conditions aimed at expanding low-price broadband offerings for underserved households. Among other things, the proposed conditions dramatically increase the size and scope of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, converting this laudable effort from a targeted program (that uses a host of tools to connect families where a child is eligible for the National School Lunch Program to the Internet) into one that must serve all low-income adults.

Putting aside the damage this would do to the core Internet Essentials’ mission of connecting school age children by diverting resources from the program’s central purpose, it is manifestly outside the scope of the CPUC’s review. Nothing in the deal affects the number of adults (or children, for that matter) in California without broadband.

It’s possible, of course, that Comcast might implement something like an expanded Internet Essentials program without any prodding; after all, companies implement (and expand) such programs all the time. But why on earth should regulators be able to define such an obligation arbitrarily, and to impose it on whatever ISP happens to be asking for a license transfer? That arbitrariness creates precisely the sort of business uncertainty that SB 1161 was meant to prevent.

The same thing applies to the proposed decision’s requirement regarding school and library broadband connectivity:

Comcast shall connect and/or upgrade Internet infrastructure for K-12 schools and public libraries in unserved and underserved areas in Comcast’s combined California service territory so that it is providing high speed Internet to at least the same proportion of K-12 schools and public libraries in such unserved and underserved areas as it provides to the households in its service territory.

No doubt improving school and library infrastructure is a noble goal — and there’s even a large federal subsidy program (E-Rate) devoted to it. But insisting that Comcast do so — and do so to an extent unsupported by the underlying federal subsidy program already connecting such institutions, and in contravention of existing provider contracts with schools — as a condition of the merger is simple extortion.

The CPUC is treating the proposed merger like a free-for-all, imposing in the name of the “public interest” a set of conditions that it would never be permitted to impose absent the gun-to-the-head of merger approval. Moreover, it seeks to remake California’s broadband access landscape in a fashion that would likely never materialize in the natural course of competition: If the merger doesn’t go through, none of the conditions in the proposed decision and alleged to be necessary to protect the public interest will exist.

Far from trying to ensure that Comcast’s merger with TWC doesn’t erode competitive forces to the detriment of the public, the proposed decision is trying to micromanage the market, simply asserting that the public interest demands imposition of it’s subjective and arbitrary laundry list of preferred items. This isn’t sensible regulation, it isn’t compliant with state law, and it doesn’t serve the people of California.

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.

The following post was authored by Dan Crane, the Frederick Paul Furth, Sr. Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School and an occasional TOTM contributor.

Last week, I released a public interest group open letter in support of Tesla’s right to distribute its cars directly.   The letter attracted quite a bit of media attention because of its “strange bedfellows” coalition.  Signatories included pro-consumer and pro-competition groups (American Antitrust Institute, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Action, and Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety), pro-business or free market groups (Americans for Prosperity, Institute for Justice, and Mackinac Center), environmental groups (Sierra Club and Environment America), and a pro-technology group (The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation).  The diversity of this coalition—joining scores of prominent economists and law professors and the staff of the Federal Trade Commission, among others—in supporting direct distribution, is a powerful testament to the fact that the appeal of the right to engage in direct distribution is not, and should not be, a partisan political issue.  It should have broad appeal whatever one’s political inclinations.

Yesterday, the Media and Public Relations Director for the National Automobile Dealers Association (“NADA”) forwarded me a link to a blog post by Glenn Kessler, a Washington Post blogger who runs a “Fact Checker” blog, entitled Key Report in battle over car dealer sales is bizarrely outdated.  The thrust of Mr. Kessler’s blog is that a 2009 paper on direct distribution published by Gerald Bodisch, then of the DOJ’s Economic Analysis Group, contains an inaccuracy.  Mr. Kessler finds it “astonishing” that the report has nonetheless featured “prominently” in much of the public advocacy in favor of direct distribution.  (One of the places that Mr. Kessler identifies it being featured is in a “Cato Institute Report,” which is actually not a Cato Institute Report, but an article I wrote in Regulation Magazine which is published by the Cato Institute. Kessler mentions the article being cited in a news story, although he omits to mention another news story in which the article was favorably cited . . . perhaps because it was in the Washington Post?).

Here’s the inaccuracy that Kessler reports, quoting from the Bodisch paper: “Since 2000, customers in Brazil can order the Celta over the Internet from a site that links them with GM’s assembly plant and 470 dealers nationwide.”  Kessler’s blog points out that the statement was no longer true in 2009 when the Bodisch paper was published, since GM discontinued online sales in Brazil in 2006, six years after launching the program.

Kessler is well within his rights to correct an inaccuracy in the Bodisch paper.  But the emphasis and tone of his blog post are bizarre.  He seems to suggest that any citation of the Bodisch paper on the possible cost savings from direct distribution is inherently flawed.  That’s way off base for two reasons.

First, the Bodisch paper did not make claims solely based on GM’s Brazilian experience.  It also made claims from general economic principles and from other empirical studies, such as a 2000 Goldman Sachs report on the potential cost savings from direct distribution.  The Kessler blog gives the impression that all of the recent citations to the Bodisch paper are repeating specific claims about GM in Brazil, whereas most of them are simply citing the Bodisch paper for the general proposition that direct distribution could result in cost savings to consumers.

Second, Kessler seems to assume that GM’s discontinuation of the Internet sales program in Brazil in 2006, after running it for six years, disproves all of the ostensible virtues of the program identified by GM at the time.  That Bodisch neglected to mention that GM had discontinued the program after six years would hardly be worth featuring in a “fact checking” blog unless the fact of the discontinuation undermined the reason the GM program was discussed in the first place.  So why did GM discontinue the program?  Kessler cites a GM spokesman who identifies two reasons, “federal and state tax changes in the country” and “the infrastructure costs to maintain distribution centers.”  The blog post then goes on to talk about how “wildly complicated” the Brazilian tax code is, including an obligation of paying a VAT based on the location of the merchant rather than the location of the customer.

I’m certainly no expert on GM’s Brazilian distribution strategy or the Brazilian tax code, but I can’t for the life of me understand Kessler’s point here.  If GM launched a direct distribution model that created the efficiencies cited in the article and was successful for six years (involving hundreds of thousands of Internet sales) until Brazil made changes to its tax code that resulted in unfavorable tax treatment for Internet sales, how does that remotely show that direct distribution doesn’t result in consumer benefits?  To the extent that the Brazilian tax changes killed the Internet distribution model, this would be just one more example of poor regulation killing an efficient model, not the model being inefficient.

Given that his own account of what happened seems to defeat his central point, I’m left perplexed by why Kessler decided to run this “fact-checking” story.  I’m not perplexed by NADA’s use of it—they no doubt see this as somehow undermining the recent momentum in favor of direct distribution.  As I’ve explained above, it does little to the basic thrust of the Bodisch paper.  But it’s also important to understand that argument in favor of the right to engage in direct distribution is by no means predicated on any particular claim in the Bodisch paper.

Here’s a quick recap of the debate.  In the many fora in which I’ve advocated in favor of the right to engage in direct distribution, I’ve never argued that direct distribution is in fact preferable to dealer distribution as a general matter.  Rather, the argument has always been that consumers benefit when manufacturers can choose the most efficient distribution method for them given their position in in the market.  The dealers have repeatedly made the absurd argument that laws mandating dealer distribution are necessary to break the manufacturer’s “monopoly” over distribution of their cars and hence lower prices to consumers.  As scores of outstanding economists have explained many times—without rebuttal from a single credible economist—that argument misunderstands that a manufacturer cannot increase its profits by charging a retail mark-up over and above whatever market power premium it embeds in the wholesale price.

Further, proponents of the right to engage in direct distribution have argued that, if anything, direct distribution would lower rather than increase consumer prices.  The core of this argument is that vertical integration eliminates double marginalization.  A second part of this argument is that there could be marginal cost savings to the manufacturer from direct distribution—as suggested in the Goldman Sachs report and elsewhere.  A third point is that the dealers themselves are fully aware—and have conceded—that the general effect of direct distribution is to lower rather than raise market prices.  When the dealers have sued to block Tesla in places like Massachusetts, they have alleged that direct distribution leads to “inequitable pricing.”  What they mean, of course, is that it leads to prices that are too low.  (If inequitable pricing meant prices that were too high, the dealers wouldn’t suffer injury and therefore wouldn’t have standing).

In sum, let me repeat that Mr. Kessler is well within his rights to “fact check” whatever he wants and to point out any inaccuracies that he observes.  The thrust of his blog post, however, is way off base.  It is his blog post, not citation to the Bodisch article, that is bizarre.

American standard setting organizations (SSOs), which are private sector-based associations through which businesses come together to set voluntary industrial standards, confer great benefits on the modern economy.  They enable virtually all products we rely upon in modern society (including mechanical, electrical, information, telecommunications, and other systems) to interoperate, thereby spurring innovation, efficiency, and consumer choice.

Many SSO participants hold “standard essential patents” (SEPs) that may be needed to implement individual SSO standards.  Thus, in order to promote widespread adoption and application of standards, SSOs often require participants to agree in advance to reveal their SEPs and to license them on “fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory” (FRAND) terms.  Historically, however, American SSOs have not sought to micromanage the details of licensing negotiations between holders of SEPs and other patents on the one side, and manufacturers that desire access to those patents on the other.   These have been left up to free market processes, which have led to an abundance of innovative products and services (smartphones, for example) that have benefited consumers and spurred the rapid development of high technology industries.

Unfortunately, this salutary history of non-intervention in licensing negotiations may be about to come to an end, if the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), one of the largest and most influential SSOs in the world (“the world’s largest technical professional society”), formally votes on February 9 to change its patent policy.  As detailed below, the new policy would, if adopted, reduce the value of SEPs, discourage involvement by innovative companies in IEEE standard setting, and undermine support for strong patents, which are critical to economic growth and innovation.

In a February 2, 2015 business review letter, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (DOJ) informed the IEEE that it had no plans to bring an antitrust enforcement action regarding that SSO’s proposed patent policy changes.  Although it may not constitute an antitrust violation, the new policy would greatly devalue SEPs and thereby undermine incentives to make patents available for use in IEEE standards.  Key features of the proposed policy change are as follows.  The new IEEE policy requires a patentee to provide the IEEE with a letters of assurance waiving its right to seek an injunction against an infringer, in order to have its patents included in an IEEE standard.  The new policy also specifies that an analysis of comparable licenses for purposes of determining a FRAND royalty can only consider licenses for which the SEP holder had relinquished the right to seek and enforce an injunction against an unlicensed implementer.  Moreover, under the change, an SEP holder may seek an injunction only after having fully litigated its claims against an unlicensed implementer through the appeals stage – a process which would essentially render injunctive relief highly impractical if not futile.  In addition, the new policy precludes an SEP holder from conditioning a license on reasonable reciprocal access to non-SEP patents held by the counterparty licensee.  Finally, the new policy straitjackets licensing negotiations by specifying that royalty negotiations must be based on the value of the “relevant functionality of the smallest saleable compliant implementation that practices the essential patent claim.”  This ignores the fact that the benefit that a claimed invention provides to an end product – which is often key to determining reasonable licensing terms – depends on the specific patent and product to be licensed, and not necessarily the “smallest saleable compliant implementation” (for example, a small microchip).  All told, the new IEEE policy creates an imbalance between the rights of innovators (whose patents lose value) and implementers of technologies, and interferes in market processes by inappropriately circumscribing the terms of licensing negotiations.

The press release accompanying the release of the February 2 business review letter included this statement by the letter’s author, Renata Hesse, DOJ’s Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division regarding this matter:  “IEEE’s decision to update its policy, if adopted by the IEEE Board, has the potential to help patent holders and standards implementers to reach mutually beneficial licensing agreements and to facilitate the adoption of pro-competitive standards.”  Regrettably, this may fairly be read as a DOJ endorsement of the new IEEE policy, and, thus, as implicit DOJ support for devaluing SEPs.  As such, it threatens to encourage other SSOs to adopt policies that sharply limit the ability of SEP holders to obtain reasonable returns on their patents.  Individual contract negotiations, that take into account the full set of matter-specific factors that bear on value, are more likely to enhance welfare when they are not artificially constrained by “ground rules” that tilt in favor of one of the two sets of interests represented at the negotiating table.

In its future pronouncements on the patent-antitrust interface, DOJ should bear in mind its 2013 joint policy statement with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, in which it stated that “DOJ and USPTO strongly support the protection of intellectual property rights and believe that a patent holder who makes . . . a F/RAND commitment should receive appropriate compensation that reflects the value of the technology contributed to the standard.  It is important for innovators to continue to have incentives to participate in standards-setting activities and for technological breakthroughs in standardized technologies to be fairly rewarded.”  Consistent with this pronouncement, DOJ would be well-advised to clarify its views and explain that it does not support policies that prevent SEP holders from obtaining a fair return on their patents.  Such a statement might be accompanied by a critique of SSO policy changes that place ex ante limitations on SEP holders and thus threaten to undermine welfare-enhancing participation in standard setting.  It would also be helpful, of course, if the IEEE would take note of these concerns and not adopt (or, if it is too late for that, reconsider and rescind) its proposed new patent policy.