Debates among modern antitrust experts focus primarily on the appropriate indicia of anticompetitive behavior, the particular methodologies that should be applied in assessing such conduct, and the best combination and calibration of antitrust sanctions (fines, jail terms, injunctive relief, cease and desist orders).  Given a broad consensus that antitrust rules should promote consumer welfare (albeit some disagreement about the meaning of the term), discussions tend (not surprisingly) to emphasize the welfare effects of particular practices (and, relatedly, appropriate analytic techniques and procedural rules).  Less attention tends to be paid, however, to whether the overall structure of enforcement policy enhances welfare.

Assuming that one views modern antitrust enforcement as an exercise in consumer welfare maximization, what does that tell us about optimal antitrust enforcement policy design?  In order to maximize welfare, enforcers must have an understanding of – and seek to maximize the difference between – the aggregate costs and benefits that are likely to flow from their policies.  It therefore follows that cost-benefit analysis should be applied to antitrust enforcement design.  Specifically, antitrust enforcers first should ensure that the rules they propagate create net welfare benefits.  Next, they should (to the extent possible) seek to calibrate those rules so as to maximize net welfare.  (Significantly, Federal Trade Commissioner Josh Wright also has highlighted the merits of utilizing cost-benefit analysis in the work of the FTC.)

Importantly, while antitrust analysis is different in nature from agency regulation, cost-benefit analysis also has been the centerpiece of Executive Branch regulatory review since the Reagan Administration, winning bipartisan acceptance.  (Cass Sunstein has termed it “part of the informal constitution of the U.S. regulatory state.”)  Indeed, an examination of general Executive Branch guidance on cost-benefit regulatory assessments, and, in particular, on the evaluation of old policies, is quite instructive.  As stated by the Obama Administration in the context of Office of Management regulatory review, pursuant to Executive Order 13563, retrospective analysis allows an agency to identify “rules that may be outmoded, ineffective, insufficient, or excessively burdensome, and to modify, streamline, expand, or repeal them in accordance with what has been learned.”  Although Justice Department and FTC antitrust policy formulation is not covered by this Executive Order, its principled focus on assessments of preexisting as well as proposed regulations should remind federal antitrust enforcers that scrutinizing the actual effects of past enforcement initiatives is key to improving antitrust enforcement policy.  (Commendably, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and former FTC Chairman William Kovacic have emphasized the value of retrospective reviews.)

What should underlie cost-benefit analysis of antitrust enforcement policy?  The best approach is an error cost (decision theoretic) framework, which tends toward welfare maximization by seeking to minimize the sum of the costs attributable to false positives, false negatives, antitrust administrative costs, and disincentive costs imposed on third parties (the latter may also be viewed as a subset of false positives).  Josh Wright has provided an excellent treatment of this topic in touting the merits of evidence-based antitrust enforcement.  As Wright points out, such an approach places a premium on hard evidence of actual anticompetitive harm and empirical analysis, rather than mere theorizing about anticompetitive harm (which too often may lead to a misidentification of novel yet efficient business practices).

How should antitrust enforcers implement an error cost framework in establishing enforcement policy protocols?  Below I suggest eight principles that, I submit, would align antitrust enforcement policy much more closely with an error cost-based, cost-benefit approach.  These suggestions are preliminary tentative thoughts, put forth solely to stimulate future debate.  I fully recognize that convincing public officials to implement a cost-benefit framework for antitrust enforcement (which inherently limits bureaucratic discretion) will be exceedingly difficult, to say the least.  Generating support for such an approach is a long term project.  It must proceed in light of the political economy of antitrust and more specifically the institutional structure of antitrust enforcement (which Dan Crane has addressed in impressive fashion), topics that merit separate exploration.

First, antitrust enforcers should seek to identify and expound simple rules they will follow in both case selection and evaluation of business conduct, in order to rein in administrative costs.

Second, borrowing from Frank Easterbrook, they should place a greater emphasize on avoiding false positives than false negatives, particularly in the area of unilateral conduct (since false positives may send cautionary signals to third party businesses that the market cannot easily correct).

Third, they should pursue cases based on hard empirically-based indications of likely anticompetitive harm, rather than theoretical constructs that are hard to verify.

Fourth, they should avoid behavioral remedies in merger cases (and, indeed, other cases) to the greatest extent possible, given inherent problems of monitoring and administration posed by such requirements.  (See the trenchant critique of merger behavioral remedies by John Kwoka and Diana Moss.)

Fifth, they should emphasize giving full consideration to efficiencies (including dynamic efficiencies), given their importance to innovation and economic welfare gains.

Sixth, they should announce their positions in public pronouncements and guidelines that are as simple and straightforward as possible.  Agency guidance should be “tweaked” in light of compelling new empirical evidence, but “pendulum swing” changes should be minimized to avoid costly uncertainty.

Seventh, in non per se matters, they should pledge that they will only bring cases when (1) they have substantial evidence for the facts on which they rely and (2) that reasoning from those facts makes their prediction of harm to future competition more plausible than the defendant’s alternative account of the future.  (Doug Ginsburg and Josh Wright recommend that such a standard be applied to judicial review of antitrust enforcement action.)

Eighth, in the area of cartel conduct, they should adjust leniency and other enforcement policies based on the latest empirical findings and economic theory, seeking to pursue optimal detection and deterrence in light of “real world” evidence (see, for example, Greg Werden, Scott Hammond, and Belinda Barnett).

Admittedly, these suggestions bear little resemblance to recent federal antitrust enforcement initiatives.  Indeed, Obama Administration antitrust enforcers appear to me to have been moving farther away from an approach rooted in cost-benefit analysis.  The 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines, although more sophisticated than prior versions, give relatively short shrift to efficiencies (as Josh Wright has pointed out).  The Obama Justice Department’s withdrawal in 2009 of its predecessor’s Sherman Act Section Two Report (which had emphasized error costs and proposed simple rules for assessing monopolization cases) highlighted a desire for “aggressive enforcement,” without providing specific guidance for the private sector.  More generally, an assessment by William Shughart and Diana Thomas of antitrust enforcement in the Obama Administration’s first term concluded that antitrust agency activity had moved away from structural remedies and toward intrusive behavioral remedies “in an unprecedented fashion,” yielding suboptimal regulation – a far cry from cost-beneficial norms.

One may only hope (which after all makes “all the difference in the world”) that Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department officials, inspired by their teams of highly qualified economists, may consider according greater weight to cost-benefit considerations and error cost approaches as they move forward.

Today the FTC filed its complaint in federal district court in Washington against Amazon, alleging that the company’s in-app purchasing system permits children to make in-app purchases without parental “informed consent” constituting an “unfair practice” under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

As I noted in my previous post on the case, in bringing this case the Commission is doubling down on the rule it introduced in Apple that effectively converts the balancing of harms and benefits required under Section 5 of the FTC Act to a per se rule that deems certain practices to be unfair regardless of countervailing benefits. Similarly, it is attempting to extend the informed consent standard it created in Apple that essentially maintains that only specific, identified practices (essentially, distinct notification at the time of purchase or opening of purchase window, requiring entry of a password to proceed) are permissible under the Act.

Such a standard is inconsistent with the statute, however. The FTC’s approach forecloses the ability of companies like Amazon to engage in meaningful design decisions and disregards their judgment about which user interface designs will, on balance, benefit consumers. The FTC Act does not empower the Commission to disregard the consumer benefits of practices that simply fail to mimic the FTC’s preconceived design preferences. While that sort of approach might be defensible in the face of manifestly harmful practices like cramming, it is wholly inappropriate in the context of app stores like Amazon’s that spend considerable resources to design every aspect of their interaction with consumers—and that seek to attract, not to defraud, consumers.

Today’s complaint occasions a few more observations:

  1. Amazon has a very strong case. Under Section 5 of the FTC Act, the Commission will have to prevail on all three elements required to prove unfairness under Section 5: that there is substantial injury, that consumers can’t reasonably avoid the injury and that any countervailing benefits don’t outweigh the injury. But, consistent with its complaint and consent order in Apple, the Amazon complaint focuses almost entirely on only the first of these. While that may have been enough to induce Apple to settle out of court, the FTC will actually have to make out a case on reasonable avoidance and countervailing benefits at trial. It’s not at all clear that the agency will be able to do so on the facts alleged here.
  2. On reasonable avoidance, over and above Amazon’s general procedures that limit unwanted in-app purchases, the FTC will have a tough time showing that Amazon’s Kindle Free Time doesn’t provide parents with more than enough ability to avoid injury. In fact, the complaint doesn’t mention Free Time at all.
  3. Among other things, the complaint asserts that Amazon knew about issues with in-app purchasing by December of 2011 and claims that “[n]ot until June 2014 did Amazon change its in-app charge framework to obtain account holders’ informed consent for in-app charges on its newer mobile devices.” But Kindle Free Time was introduced in September of 2012. While four FTC Commissioners may believe that Free Time isn’t a sufficient response to the alleged problem, it is clearly a readily available, free and effective (read: reasonable) mechanism for parents to avoid the alleged harms. It may not be what the design mavens at the FTC would have chosen to do, but it seems certain that avoiding unauthorized in-app purchases by children was part of what motivated Amazon’s decision to create and offer Free Time.
  4. On countervailing benefits, as Commissioner Wright discussed in detail in his dissent from the Apple consent order, the Commission seems to think that it can simply assert that there are no countervailing benefits to Amazon’s design choices around in-app purchases. Here the complaint doesn’t mention 1-Click at all, which is core to Amazon’s user interface design and essential to evaluating the balance of harms and benefits required by the statute.
  5. Even if it can show that Amazon’s in-app purchase practices caused harm, the Commission will still have to demonstrate that Amazon’s conscious efforts to minimize the steps required to make purchases doesn’t benefit consumers on balance. In Apple, the FTC majority essentially (and improperly) valued these sorts of user-interface benefits at zero. It implicitly does so again here, but a court will require more than such an assertion.
  6. Given these lapses, there is even a chance that the complaint will be thrown out on a motion to dismiss. It’s a high bar, but if the court agrees that there are insufficient facts in the complaint to make out a plausible case on all three elements, Amazon could well prevail on a motion to dismiss. The FTC’s approach in the Apple consent order effectively maintains that the agency can disregard reasonable avoidance and countervailing benefits in contravention of the statute. By following the same approach here in actual litigation, the FTC may well meet resistance from the courts, which have not yet so cavalierly dispensed with the statute’s requirements.

Whereas the antitrust rules on a number of once-condemned business practices (e.g., vertical non-price restraints, resale price maintenanceprice squeezes) have become more economically sensible in the last few decades, the law on tying remains an embarrassment.  The sad state of the doctrine is evident in a federal district court’s recent denial of Viacom’s motion to dismiss a tying action by Cablevision.

According to Cablevision’s complaint, Viacom threatened to impose a substantial financial “penalty” (probably by denying a discount) unless Cablevision licensed Viacom’s less popular television programming (the “Suite Networks”) along with its popular “Core Networks” of Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, BET, and MTV.  This arrangement, Cablevision insisted, amounted to a per se illegal tie-in of the Suite Networks to the Core Networks.

Similar tying actions based on cable bundling have failed, and I have previously explained why cable bundling like this is, in fact, efficient.  But putting aside whether  the tie-in at issue here was efficient, the district court’s order is troubling because it illustrates how very unconcerned with efficiency tying doctrine is.

First, the district court rejected–correctly, under ill-founded precedents–Viacom’s argument that Cablevision was required to plead an anticompetitive effect.  It concluded that Cablevision had to allege only four elements: separate tying and tied products, coercion by the seller to force purchase of the tied product along with the tying product, the seller’s possession of market power in the tying product market, and the involvement of a “not insubstantial” dollar volume of commerce in the tied product market.  Once these elements are alleged, the court said,

plaintiffs need not allege, let alone prove, facts addressed to the anticompetitive effects element.  If a plaintiff succeeds in establishing the existence of sufficient market power to create a per se violation, the plaintiff is also relieved of the burden of rebutting any justification the defendant may offer for the tie.

In other words, if a tying plaintiff establishes the four elements listed above, the efficiency of the challenged tie-in is completely irrelevant.  And if a plaintiff merely pleads those four elements, it is entitled to proceed to discovery, which can be crippling for antitrust defendants and often causes them to settle even non-meritorious cases. Given that a great many tie-ins involving the four elements listed above are, in fact, efficient, this is a terrible rule.  It is, however, the law as established in the Supreme Court’s Jefferson Parish decision.  The blame for this silliness therefore rests on that Court, not the district court here.

But the Cablevision order includes a second unfortunate feature for which the district court and the Supreme Court share responsibility.  Having concluded that Cablevision was not required to plead anticompetitive effect, the court went on to say that Cablevision “ha[d], in any event, pleaded facts sufficient to support plausibly an inference of anticompetitive effect.”  Those alleged facts were that Cablevision would have bought content from another seller but for the tie-in:

Cablevision alleges that if it were not forced to carry the Suite Networks, it “would carry other networks on the numerous channel slots that Viacom’s Suite Networks currently occupy.”  (Compl. par. 10.)  Cablevision also alleges that Cablevision would buy other “general programming networks” from Viacom’s competitors absent the tying arrangement.  (Id.)

In other words, the district court reasoned, Cablevision alleged anticompetitive harm merely by pleading that Viacom’s conduct reduced some sales opportunities for its rivals.

But harm to a competitor, standing alone, is not harm to competition.  To establish true anticompetitive harm, Cablevision would have to show that Viacom’s tie-in reduced its rivals’ sales by so much that they lost scale efficiencies so that their average per-unit costs rose.  To make that showing, Cablevision would have to show (or allege, at the motion to dismiss stage) that Viacom’s tying occasioned substantial foreclosure of sales opportunities in the tied product market. “Some” reduction in sales to rivals–while perhaps anticompetitor–is simply not sufficient to show anticompetitive harm.

Because the Supreme Court has emphasized time and again that mere harm to a competitor is not harm to competition, the gaffe here is primarily the district court’s fault.  But at least a little blame should fall on the Supreme Court.  That Court has never precisely specified the potential anticompetitive harm from tying: that a tie-in may enhance market power in the tied or tying product markets if, but only if, it results in substantial foreclosure of sales opportunities in the tied product market.

If the Court were to do so, and were to jettison the silly quasi-per se rule of Jefferson Parish, tying doctrine would be far more defensible.

[NOTE: For a more detailed explanation of why substantial tied market foreclosure is a prerequisite to anticompetitive harm from tie-ins, see my article, Appropriate Liability Rules for Tying and Bundled Discounting, 72 Ohio St. L. J. 909 (2011).]

Paul H. Rubin and Joseph S. Rubin advance the provocative position that some crony capitalism may be welfare enhancing. With all due respect, I am not convinced by their defense of government-business cronyism.  “Second best correction” arguments can be made with respect to ANY inefficient government rule.  In reality, it is almost impossible to calibrate the degree of the distortion created by the initial regulation, so there is no way of stating credibly that the “counter-distortion” is on net favorable to society.  More fundamentally, such counter-distortions are the products of rent-seeking activities by firms and other interest groups, which care nothing about the net social surplus effects of the first and counter-distortion.  The problem with allowing counter-distortions is that firms that are harmed thereby (think of less politically connected companies that are hurt when a big player takes advantage of Export-Import Bank subsidies) either will suffer, or will lobby (using scarce resources) for “third-line” or “tertiary” distortions to alleviate the harmful effects of the initial counter-distortions.  Those new distortions in turn will spawn a continuing series of responses, causing additional unanticipated consequences and attendant welfare losses.

It follows that the best policy is not to defend counter-distortions, which very seldom if ever (and then only through sheer chance) appropriately offset the initial distortions.  (Since the counter-distortions will be rife with new regulatory complexities, they are bound to be costly to implement and highly likely to be destructive of social surplus.)  Rather, the best, simplest, and cleanest policy is to work to get rid of the initial distortions.  If companies complain about other policies that hurt them (generated, for instance, by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or by Food and Drug Administration regulatory delays), the answer is to reform or repeal those bad policies, not to retain inherently welfare-distortive laws such as the Ex-Im Bank authorization.  The alternative approach would devolve into a justification for a web of ever more complex and intrusive federal regulations and interest group-generated “carve-outs.”

This logic applies generally.  For example, the best solution to the welfare-reducing effect of particular Obamacare mandates is not to create a patchwork of exceptions for certain politically-favored businesses and labor groups, but, rather, to repeal counterproductive government-induced health care market distortions.  Similarly, the answer to an economically damaging tax code is not to create a patchwork of credits for politically-favored industries, but, rather, to simplify the code and apply it neutrally, thereby promoting economic growth across industry sectors.

The argument that Ex-Im Bank activities are an example of a “welfare-enhancing” counter-distortion is particularly strained, given the fact that most U.S. exporters gain no benefits from Ex-Im Bank funding, while the American taxpayer foots the bill.  Indeed, capital is diverted away from “unlucky” exporters to the politically connected few who know how to play the Washington game (well-capitalized companies that are least in need of the taxpayer’s largesse).  As stated by Doug Bandow in Forbes, “[n]o doubt, Exim financing makes some deals work.  But others die because ExIm diverts credit from firms without agency backing.  Unfortunately, it is easier to see the benefits of the former than the costs of the latter.”  In short, the recitation of Ex-Im Bank’s alleged “benefits” to American exporters who are “seen” ignores the harm imposed on other “unseen” American companies and taxpayers.  (What’s more, responding to Ex-Im Bank, foreign governments are incentivized to impose their own subsidy programs to counteract the Ex-Im Bank subsidies.)  Thus, the case for retaining Ex-Im Bank is nothing more than another example of Bastiat’s “broken window” fallacy.     

In sum, the goal should be to simplify legal structures and repeal welfare-inimical laws and regulations, not try to correct them through new inherently flawed regulatory intrusions.  In my view, the only examples of rent-seeking that might yield net social benefits are those associated with regulatory reform (such as the expiration of the Ex-Im Bank authorization) or with the creation of new markets (as Gordon Brady and I have argued).

My son Joe and I have an op-ed in today’s WSJ that should stir up some controversy.

Opinion Wall Street Journal

The Case for Crony Capitalism

Many government regulations choke off entirely legal avenues of potential bank profits.

By

Paul H. Rubin And

Joseph S. Rubin

July 7, 2014 7:34 p.m. ET

Economics has a formal “theory of the second best” that in simplified terms may be expressed this way: If a government intervention leads to inefficiencies in markets but can’t be eliminated, an additional intervention may be the next-best alternative to eliminate the inefficiencies caused by the first.

It’s not the optimal solution to government-induced inefficiency, but it may be the best we can do. And it applies in many cases to what today is variously called “corporate welfare,” “loopholes,” or even “crony capitalism.”

The U.S. economy is rife with inefficient interventions—laws, regulations, taxes and subsidies that lead to inefficient markets. What some disparage as crony capitalism is in many cases an attempt to reduce the costs of these interventions.

Consider the Export-Import Bank, a federal agency that assists U.S. firms in financing international transactions. A first-best efficient policy would be to eliminate the agency, on grounds that if private banks will not finance a transaction, then the transaction is not worthwhile. The government shouldn’t become the financier of otherwise unprofitable transactions.

Yet that’s not the whole story. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, for example, makes it illegal for U.S. businesses to pay bribes to foreign officials. But it is not always so easy to determine what is illegal, and companies may be penalized for normal business practices. It is certainly not cheap to comply. The Ex-Im Bank website says that “to avoid such consequences [of the FCPA], many firms have implemented detailed compliance programs intended to prevent and to detect any improper payments by employees and by third-party agents.”

This adds to the costs of U.S. firms doing business abroad, lowering the amount of legitimate trade. Maybe the Ex-Im Bank is a reasonable, second-best response. One government subsidy may be necessary to help overcome other inefficiencies imposed by the government to begin with.

The banking bailout is another purported example of cronyism and corporate welfare. The poor lending practices of banks were undoubtedly part of the cause of the Great Recession. But banks, as well as government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae FNMA +0.50% and Freddie Mac, FMCC +0.51% were under tremendous pressure to make loans to unqualified borrowers.

Many other government regulations choke off entirely legal avenues of potential profit for banks by limiting with whom and under what circumstances they may do business. Examples include the financing of online and payday lenders, and firms that process payments for these lenders. If regulations cause banks to take excessive risks and limit profits, it may be efficient to provide some protection from these risks when things go bad, particularly if the damage is in large part caused by government policies.

Some claim that Medicare Part D, which pays for drugs, was a giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry. But 40 years of research has clearly shown that the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory process makes drug development and approval unnecessarily and inefficiently expensive. Perhaps, in this environment, supplementing the costs of drugs may move us toward a more efficient drug policy, and bring more life-saving drugs to market.

Corporate taxes are too high, retarding investment. But when cutting rates is impossible, maybe tax breaks that encourage investment of various sorts is the second-best response. Environmental Protection Agency regulations are costly and inefficient. In some cases waivers or exceptions are less a payoff to cronies than a way to counter inefficient restrictions.

A second-best world is messy, and there may be better ways to overcome government-induced inefficiency. Yet sometimes what appear to be special favors may actually be moves in the direction of efficiency.

Of course, some examples of crony capitalism are worthy of the term, and the scorn that goes with it. For example, the various farm price-support programs, including sugar quotas and the ethanol program, which raise food prices world-wide and increase poverty, would be very difficult to justify under any second-best theory.

Nonetheless, as long as there is a push for more regulation, and particularly inefficient regulation, with little opportunity to rein in the already severe drag that these regulations impose on the economy, second-best solutions may be useful to temper some of their costs.

Paul H. Rubin is an economics professor at Emory University. His son, Joseph S. Rubin, is an attorney at Arnall Golden Gregory LLP in Washington, D.C.

 

 

Today’s (July 5, 2014) New York Times has an interesting story about rationing of water in California.  There are apparently rules in place urging people to cut back on water use, but they are apparently not well enforced.  Unsurprisingly, these appeals and unenforced rules are having relatively small effects.  So many municipalities are urging neighbors to report each other for misuses of water.  Economists know that a price increase would be the most efficient method of  limiting use.  But we may not have known that other forms of rationing would lead to increasing conflict among neighbors and increasing ill will.  This is an example of the sort of hostility generated by non-market institutions, as opposed to the cooperation generated by markets, and further evidence of the fundamental morality of markets.   Of course, the Times being what it is, there is no mention of the possibility of price increases to reduce water consumption, although the article does mention “water flowing very cheaply” but there is no suggestion that this should be changed.

The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Amazon is getting — and fighting — the “Apple treatment” from the FTC for its design of its in-app purchases:

Amazon.com Inc. is bucking a request from the Federal Trade Commission that it tighten its policies for purchases made by children while using mobile applications.

In a letter to the FTC Tuesday, Amazon said it was prepared to “defend our approach in court,” rather than agree to fines and additional record keeping and disclosure requirements over the next 20 years, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

According to the documents, Amazon is facing a potential lawsuit by the FTC, which wants the Seattle retailer to accept terms similar to those that Apple Inc. agreed to earlier this year regarding so-called in-app purchases.

From what I can tell, the Commission has voted to issue a complaint, and Amazon has informed the Commission that it will not accept its proposed settlement.

I am thrilled that Amazon seems to have decided to fight the latest effort by a majority of the FTC to bring every large tech company under 20-year consent decree. I should say: I’m disappointed in the FTC, sorry for Amazon, but thrilled for consumers and the free marketplace that Amazon is choosing to fight rather than acquiesce.

As I wrote earlier this year about the FTC’s case against Apple in testimony before the House Commerce Committee:

What’s particularly notable about the Apple case – and presumably will be in future technology enforcement actions predicated on unfairness – is the unique relevance of the attributes of the conduct at issue to its product. Unlike past, allegedly similar, cases, Apple’s conduct was not aimed at deceiving consumers, nor was it incidental to its product offering. But by challenging the practice, particularly without the balancing of harms required by Section 5, the FTC majority failed to act with restraint and substituted its own judgment, not about some manifestly despicable conduct, but about the very design of Apple’s products. This is the sort of area where regulatory humility is more — not less — important.

In failing to observe common sense limits in Apple, the FTC set a dangerous precedent that, given the agency’s enormous regulatory scope and the nature of technologically advanced products, could cause significant harm to consumers.

Here that failure is even more egregious. Amazon has built its entire business around the “1-click” concept — which consumers love — and implemented a host of notification and security processes hewing as much as possible to that design choice, but nevertheless taking account of the sorts of issues raised by in-app purchases. Moreover — and perhaps most significantly — it has implemented an innovative and comprehensive parental control regime (including the ability to turn off all in-app purchases) — Kindle Free Time — that arguably goes well beyond anything the FTC required in its Apple consent order. I use Kindle Free Time with my kids and have repeatedly claimed to anyone who will listen that it is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Other consumers must feel similarly. Finally, regardless of all of that, Amazon has nevertheless voluntarily implemented additional notification procedures intended to comply with the Apple settlement, even though it didn’t apply to Amazon.

If the FTC asserts, in the face of all of that, that it’s own vision of what “appropriate” in-app purchase protections must look like is the only one that suffices to meet the standard required by Section 5’s Unfairness language, it is either being egregiously disingenuous, horrifically vain, just plain obtuse, or some combination of the three.

As I wrote in my testimony:

The application of Section 5’s “unfair acts and practices” prong (the statute at issue in Apple) is circumscribed by Section 45(n) of the FTC Act, which, among other things, proscribes enforcement where injury is “not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.”

And as Commissioner Wright noted in his dissent in the Apple case,

[T]he Commission effectively rejects an analysis of tradeoffs between the benefits of additional guidance and potential harm to some consumers or to competition from mandating guidance…. I respectfully disagree. These assumptions adopt too cramped a view of consumer benefits under the Unfairness Statement and, without more rigorous analysis to justify their application, are insufficient to establish the Commission’s burden.

We won’t know until we see the complaint whether the FTC has failed to undertake the balancing it neglected to perform in Apple and that it is required to perform under the statute. But it’s hard to believe that it could mount a case against Amazon in light of the facts if it did perform such a balancing. There’s no question that Amazon has implemented conscious and consumer-welfare-enhancing design choices here. The FTC’s effort to nevertheless mandate a different design (and put Amazon under a 20 year consent decree) based on a claim that Amazon’s choices impose greater harms than benefits on consumers seems manifestly unsupportable.

Such a claim almost certainly represents an abuse of the agency’s discretion, and I expect Amazon to trounce the FTC if this case goes to trial.

In recent years, antitrust enforcers in Europe and the United States have made public pronouncements and pursued enforcement initiatives that undermine the ability of patentees to earn maximum profits through the unilateral exercise of rights within the scope of their patents, as discussed in separate recent articles by me and by Professor Nicolas Petit of the University of Liege. (Similar sorts of concerns have been raised by Federal Trade Commissioner Joshua Wright.) This represents a change in emphasis away from restraints on competition among purveyors of rival patented technologies and toward the alleged “exploitation” of a patentee’s particular patented technology. It is manifested, for example, in enforcers’ rising enthusiasm for limiting patent royalties (based on hypothetical ex ante comparisons to “next best” technologies, or the existence of standards on which patents “read”), for imposing compulsory licensing remedies, and for constraining the terms of private patent litigation settlements involving a single patented technology. (Not surprisingly, given its broader legal mandate to attack abuses of dominant positions, the European Commission has been more aggressive than United States antitrust agencies.) This development has troubling implications for long-term economic welfare and innovation, and merits far greater attention than it has received thus far.

What explains this phenomenon? Public enforcers are motivated by research that purports to demonstrate fundamental flaws in the workings of the patent system (including patent litigation) and the poor quality of many patents, as described, for example, in 2003 and 2011 U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Reports. Central to this scholarship is the notion that patents are “highly uncertain” and merely “probabilistic” (read “second class”) property rights that should be deemed to convey only a right to try to exclude. This type of thinking justifies a greater role for prosecutors to “look inside” the patent “black box” and use antitrust to “correct” perceived patent “abuses,” including supposed litigation excesses.

This perspective is problematic, to say the least. Government patent agencies, not antitrust enforcers, are best positioned to (and have taken steps to) rein in litigation excesses and improve patent quality, and the Supreme Court continues to issue rulings clarifying patent coverage. More fundamentally, as Professor Petit and I explain, this new patent-specific interventionist trend ignores a robust and growing law and economics literature that highlights the benefits of the patent system in enabling technology commercialization, signaling value to capital markets and innovators, and reducing information and transaction costs. It also fails to confront empirical studies that by and large suggest stronger patent regimes are associated with faster economic growth and innovation. Furthermore, decision theory and error cost considerations indicate that antitrust agencies are ill-equipped to second guess unilateral exercises of property rights that fall within the scope of a patent. Finally, other antitrust jurisdictions, such as China, are all too likely to cite new United States and European constraints on unilateral patent right assertions as justifications for even more intrusive limitations on patent rights.

What, then, should the U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies do? Ideally, they should announce that they are redirecting their emphasis to prosecuting inefficient competitive restraints involving rival patented technologies, the central thrust of the 1995 FTC-U.S. Justice Department Patent-Antitrust Licensing Guidelines. In so doing, they should state publicly that an individual patentee should be entitled to the full legitimate returns flowing from the legal scope of its patent, free from antitrust threat. (The creation of patent-specific market power through deception or fraud is not a legitimate return on patent rights, of course, and should be subject to antitrust prosecution when found.) One would hope that eventually the European Commission (and, dare we suggest, other antitrust authorities as well) would be inspired to adopt a similar program. Additional empirical research documenting the economy-wide benefits of encouraging robust unilateral patent assertions could prove helpful in this regard.

UPDATE: I’ve been reliably informed that Vint Cerf coined the term “permissionless innovation,” and, thus, that he did so with the sorts of private impediments discussed below in mind rather than government regulation. So consider the title of this post changed to “Permissionless innovation SHOULD not mean ‘no contracts required,'” and I’ll happily accept that my version is the “bastardized” version of the term. Which just means that the original conception was wrong and thank god for disruptive innovation in policy memes!

Can we dispense with the bastardization of the “permissionless innovation” concept (best developed by Adam Thierer) to mean “no contracts required”? I’ve been seeing this more and more, but it’s been around for a while. Some examples from among the innumerable ones out there:

Vint Cerf on net neutrality in 2009:

We believe that the vast numbers of innovative Internet applications over the last decade are a direct consequence of an open and freely accessible Internet. Many now-successful companies have deployed their services on the Internet without the need to negotiate special arrangements with Internet Service Providers, and it’s crucial that future innovators have the same opportunity. We are advocates for “permissionless innovation” that does not impede entrepreneurial enterprise.

Net neutrality is replete with this sort of idea — that any impediment to edge providers (not networks, of course) doing whatever they want to do at a zero price is a threat to innovation.

Chet Kanojia (Aereo CEO) following the Aereo decision:

It is troubling that the Court states in its decision that, ‘to the extent commercial actors or other interested entities may be concerned with the relationship between the development and use of such technologies and the Copyright Act, they are of course free to seek action from Congress.’ (Majority, page 17)That begs the question: Are we moving towards a permission-based system for technology innovation?

At least he puts it in the context of the Court’s suggestion that Congress pass a law, but what he really wants is to not have to ask “permission” of content providers to use their content.

Mike Masnick on copyright in 2010:

But, of course, the problem with all of this is that it goes back to creating permission culture, rather than a culture where people freely create. You won’t be able to use these popular or useful tools to build on the works of others — which, contrary to the claims of today’s copyright defenders, is a key component in almost all creativity you see out there — without first getting permission.

Fair use is, by definition, supposed to be “permissionless.” But the concept is hardly limited to fair use, is used to justify unlimited expansion of fair use, and is extended by advocates to nearly all of copyright (see, e.g., Mike Masnick again), which otherwise requires those pernicious licenses (i.e., permission) from others.

The point is, when we talk about permissionless innovation for Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, commercial drones, online data and the like, we’re talking (or should be) about ex ante government restrictions on these things — the “permission” at issue is permission from the government, it’s the “permission” required to get around regulatory roadblocks imposed via rent-seeking and baseless paternalism. As Gordon Crovitz writes, quoting Thierer:

“The central fault line in technology policy debates today can be thought of as ‘the permission question,'” Mr. Thierer writes. “Must the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations?”

But it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about private contracts.

Just about all human (commercial) activity requires interaction with others, and that means contracts and licenses. You don’t see anyone complaining about the “permission” required to rent space from a landlord. But that some form of “permission” may be required to use someone else’s creative works or other property (including broadband networks) is no different. And, in fact, it is these sorts of contracts (and, yes, the revenue that may come with them) that facilitates people engaging with other commercial actors to produce things of value in the first place. The same can’t be said of government permission.

Don’t get me wrong – there may be some net welfare-enhancing regulatory limits that might require forms of government permission. But the real concern is the pervasive abuse of these limits, imposed without anything approaching a rigorous welfare determination. There might even be instances where private permission, imposed, say, by a true monopolist, might be problematic.

But this idea that any contractual obligation amounts to a problematic impediment to innovation is absurd, and, in fact, precisely backward. Which is why net neutrality is so misguided. Instead of identifying actual, problematic impediments to innovation, it simply assumes that networks threaten edge innovation, without any corresponding benefit and with such certainty (although no actual evidence) that ex ante common carrier regulations are required.

“Permissionless innovation” is a great phrase and, well developed (as Adam Thierer has done), a useful concept. But its bastardization to justify interference with private contracts is unsupported and pernicious.

In our blog post this morning on ABC v. Aereo, we explain why, regardless of which test applies (the majority’s “looks-like-cable-TV” test or the dissent’s volitional conduct test), Aereo infringes on television program owners’ exclusive right under the Copyright Act to publicly perform their works. We also explain why the majority’s test is far less ambiguous than its critics assert, and why it does not endanger cloud computing services like so many contend.

Because that post was so long, and because the cloud computing issue is key to understanding the implications of this case, this post pulls out the cloud computing argument from that post and presents it separately.

In our April essay on these pages, we identified several reasons why the Court could and should rule against Aereo without exposing innovative cloud computing firms to copyright liability:

  1. Both fair use and the DMCA’s safe harbor likely protect cloud hosting services such as Dropbox so long as they respond to takedown notices and are not otherwise aware of the nature of the content uploaded by their users;
  2. Cloud computing services typically lack the volitional conduct necessary to be considered direct infringers; and
  3. If consumers acquire licensed content from cloud services such as Amazon or Google, and stream themselves that content from the cloud, the services’ privity with rights holders should render them safe from copyright infringement liability.

The Court explicitly endorsed our privity argument and implicitly acknowledged our point about DMCA and fair use. As the Court wrote:

[A]n entity that transmits a performance to individuals in their capacities as owners or possessors does not perform to ‘the public,’ whereas an entity like Aereo that transmits to large numbers of paying subscribers who lack any prior relationship to the works does so perform.

The majority’s “looks-like-cable-TV” test (the dissent’s name for it, not ours) actually offers a clearer basis for distinguishing cloud services than the dissent’s (and our earlier blog post’s) volitional conduct test.

Many commenters lament that the Court’s decision leaves cloud computing in peril, offering no real limiting principle (as, they claim, applying the volitional conduct test would have). Vox’s Timothy B. Lee, for example, opines that:

The problem is that the court never provides clear criteria for this “looks-like-cable-TV” rule…. The Supreme Court says its ruling shouldn’t dramatically change the legal status of other technologies…. But it’s going to take years of litigation — and millions of dollars in legal fees — to figure out exactly how the decision will affect cloud storage services.

But the Court did articulate several important limits, in fact. Most significantly, the opinion plainly excepts transmission of underlying works “own[ed] or possess[ed]” by subscribers from its definition of public performance. It also circumscribes what constitutes a public performance to transmissions from a person to large groups of people “outside of [her] family and [her] social circle,” and reinforces that fair use limitations continue to protect those who perform copyrighted works.

At the same time, the Court characterizes Aereo—and the aspect of the service that give rise to its liability—as “not simply an equipment provider…. Aereo sells a service that allows subscribers to watch television programs, many of which are copyrighted, almost as they are being broadcast.”

Crucially, Aereo makes available to each of its subscribers copyrighted content that he or she does not necessarily otherwise own or possess—even if the company also offers its viewers “enhancements” much like a modern cable system. As we noted in our previous post, this distinguishes Aereo from the cloud computing services to which it is compared:

Cloud computing providers, on the other hand, offer services that enable distinct functionality independent of the mere retransmission of copyrighted content.

Even if the Court’s holding were applied in contexts beyond traditional television programming, how many cloud services actually deliver content—rather than just enhancing it, as a DVR does—that its users do not otherwise own or possess? Vanishingly few, if any. Most obviously, talk of the risks Aereo poses to cloud storage and digital lockers—services that, by definition, apply only to content provided by the user and thus previously “owned or possessed” by the user—is simply misplaced.

Insofar as the transmission of third-party content is the defining characteristic of a “looks-like-cable-TV” system, the Court’s test actually offers a fairly clear delineation, and one that offers no risk to the vast majority of cloud services. This may remind many of Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous “I know it when I see it” test for adjudging obscenity, but it firmly removes a large swath of cloud computing services from the risk of direct copyright liability under Aereo.

And to the extent that some cloud services might seem to fail this test—YouTube, for example—those services (like YouTube and unlike Aereo) routinely obtain performance licenses for the content they provide. Although some of YouTube’s content may not be legally provided to the service, that doesn’t affect its direct copyright infringement liability. Instead, it merely affects the indirect liability YouTube faced before Aereo and continues to face after Aereo. And any such providers that do not currently obtain public performance licenses can and will simply do so with small textual amendments to their existing content licenses.

In other words, the Court’s ruling boils down to this: Either get a license to provide content not already owned by your subscribers, or provide only that content which your subscribers already own. The crux of the Aereo ruling is remarkably clear.

Meanwhile, the volitional conduct test, like most legal tests, doesn’t offer a bright line, despite some commenters’ assertions that it would have been a better grounds for deciding the case. While the volitional conduct test is an imprecise, sliding scale—regardless of the type of service or the underlying relationship between end-users and content providers—the Court’s Aereo test offers relatively clear rules, imposing direct liability only on services that transmit without a public performance license content that its users do not already own or possess.

For the many cloud services we know and love—and for the cloud computing startups yet to exist—the Court’s decision in Aereo should be little cause for concern. Legitimate hand-wringing over potential threats to the cloud will have to wait until another day.