Archives For antitrust

The American Bar Association’s (ABA) “Antitrust in Asia:  China” Conference, held in Beijing May 21-23 (with Chinese Government and academic support), cast a spotlight on the growing economic importance of China’s six-year old Anti-Monopoly Law (AML).  The Conference brought together 250 antitrust practitioners and government officials to discuss AML enforcement policy.  These included the leaders (Directors General) of the three Chinese competition agencies (those agencies are units within the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC), the Ministry of Foreign Commerce (MOFCOM), and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)), plus senior competition officials from Europe, Asia, and the United States.  This was noteworthy in itself, in that the three Chinese antitrust enforcers seldom appear jointly, let alone with potential foreign critics.  The Chinese agencies conceded that Chinese competition law enforcement is not problem free and that substantial improvements in the implementation of the AML are warranted.

With the proliferation of international business arrangements subject to AML jurisdiction, multinational companies have a growing stake in the development of economically sound Chinese antitrust enforcement practices.  Achieving such a result is no mean feat, in light of the AML’s (Article 27) explicit inclusion of industrial policy factors, significant institutional constraints on the independence of the Chinese judiciary, and remaining concerns about transparency of enforcement policy, despite some progress.  Nevertheless, Chinese competition officials and academics at the Conference repeatedly emphasized the growing importance of competition and the need to improve Chinese antitrust administration, given the general pro-market tilt of the 18th Communist Party Congress.  (The references to Party guidance illustrate, of course, the continuing dependence of Chinese antitrust enforcement patterns on political forces that are beyond the scope of standard legal and policy analysis.)

While the Conference covered the AML’s application to the standard antitrust enforcement topics (mergers, joint conduct, cartels, unilateral conduct, and private litigation), the treatment of price-related “abuses” and intellectual property (IP) merit particular note.

In a panel dealing with the investigation of price-related conduct by the NDRC (the agency responsible for AML non-merger pricing violations), NDRC Director General Xu Kunlin revealed that the agency is deemphasizing much-criticized large-scale price regulation and price supervision directed at numerous firms, and is focusing more on abuses of dominance, such as allegedly exploitative “excessive” pricing by such firms as InterDigital and Qualcomm.  (Resale price maintenance also remains a source of some interest.)  On May 22, 2014, the second day of the Conference, the NDRC announced that it had suspended its investigation of InterDigital, given that company’s commitment not to charge Chinese companies “discriminatory” high-priced patent licensing fees, not to bundle licenses for non-standard essential patents and “standard essential patents” (see below), and not to litigate to make Chinese companies accept “unreasonable” patent license conditions.  The NDRC also continues to investigate Qualcomm for allegedly charging discriminatorily high patent licensing rates to Chinese customers.  Having the world’s largest consumer market, and fast growing manufacturers who license overseas patents, China possesses enormous leverage over these and other foreign patent licensors, who may find it necessary to sacrifice substantial licensing revenues in order to continue operating in China.

The theme of ratcheting down on patent holders’ profits was reiterated in a presentation by SAIC Director General Ren Airong (responsible for AML non-merger enforcement not directly involving price) on a panel discussing abuse of dominance and the antitrust-IP interface.  She revealed that key patents (and, in particular, patents that “read on” and are necessary to practice a standard, or “standard essential patents”) may well be deemed “necessary” or “essential” facilities under the final version of the proposed SAIC IP-Antitrust Guidelines.  In effect, implementation of this requirement would mean that foreign patent holders would have to grant licenses to third parties under unfavorable government-set terms – a recipe for disincentivizing future R&D investments and technological improvements.  Emphasizing this negative effect, co-panelists FTC Commissioner Ohlhausen and I pointed out that the “essential facilities” doctrine has been largely discredited by leading American antitrust scholars.  (In a separate speech, FTC Chairwoman Ramirez also argued against treating patents as essential facilities.)  I added that IP does not possess the “natural monopoly” characteristics of certain physical capital facilities such as an electric grid (declining average variable cost and uneconomic to replicate), and that competitors’ incentives to develop alternative and better technology solutions would be blunted if they were given automatic cheap access to “important” patents.  In short, the benefits of dynamic competition would be undermined by treating patents as essential facilities.  I also noted that, consistent with decision theory, wise competition enforcers should be very cautious before condemning single firm behavior, so as not to chill efficiency-enhancing unilateral conduct.  Director General Ren did not respond to these comments.

If China is to achieve its goal of economic growth driven by innovation, it should seek to avoid legally handicapping technology market transactions by mandating access to, or otherwise restricting returns to, patents.  As recognized in the U.S. Justice Department-Federal Trade Commission 1995 IP-Antitrust Guidelines and 2007 IP-Antitrust Report, allowing the IP holder to seek maximum returns within the scope of its property right advances innovative welfare-enhancing economic growth.  As China’s rapidly growing stock of IP matures and gains in value, it hopefully will gain greater appreciation for that insight, and steer its competition policy away from the essential facilities doctrine and other retrograde limitations on IP rights holders that are inimical to long term innovation and welfare.

On May 9, 2014, in Horne v. Department of Agriculture, the Ninth Circuit struck a blow against economic liberty by denying two California raisin growers’ efforts to recover penalties imposed against them by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The growers’ heinous offense was their refusal to continue participating in a highly anticompetitive cartel.  In order to understand this bizarre miscarriage of justice, which turns orthodox anti-cartel policy on its head, a bit of background is in order.  

Perhaps the most serious affront to a sound consumer welfare-based American antitrust policy is the persistence of federal government-sponsored agricultural cartels.  In a form of bureaucratic schizophrenia, while the Justice Department works hard to send private cartelists to jail, and grants leniency to informers who undermine cartels, the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) seeks to punish individuals who undercut USDA-sponsored cartels created pursuant to Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act marketing orders.  Those orders establish antitrust-exempt government-approved frameworks under which private industry members restrict output and raise the price of specific crops, in the name of ensuring “orderly” markets.  (Various scholars, such as Mario Loyola, have explored the public choice explanations for the private-public collusion that leads to marketing orders and other government-supported cartels.)    

A particularly notorious USDA cartel is the California Raisin Marketing Order (“Raisin Order”), in operation since 1949, which establishes a Raisin Administrative Committee (“RAC”).  The RAC is comprised almost entirely of self-interested raisin growers and packers (it is comprised of 47 growers and packers, plus a public member).  The RAC sets annual raisin “reserve tonnage” requirements as a percentage of the overall crop, with the remainder comprising “free raisins.”  “Reserve raisins” are diverted from the market but may be released when supplies are low.  Under the Raisin Order, raisin producers convey their entire crop to raisin packer-distributors known as “handlers,” with producers receiving a pre-negotiated price for the free tonnage.  Handlers sell free tonnage raisins on the open market, and divert the RAC-required percentage of each producer’s crop to the account of the RAC.  The RAC tracks how many raisins each producer contributes to the reserve pool, and has a regulatory duty to sell them in a way that maximizes producer returns.  The RAC finances its activities from reserve raisin sales proceeds, and disburses whatever net income remains to producers.  Reserve raisins are diverted to “low value” markets, such as the export sector, while American consumers typically buy free raisins.  The Raisin Order imposes substantial harm on American consumers:  for example, in 2001 free raisins sold for $877.50 per ton compared to $250 per ton for reserve raisins, and the free raisins/reserve raisins price ration approached 10/1 in 1984 and 1991

California raisin producers Marvin and Laura Horne sought to evade these cartel strictures by handling their own raisin crop, rather than selling it to traditional handlers, against whom the reserve requirement of the Raisin Order clearly operated.  Similarly, by buying and handling other producers’ raisins for a per-pound fee, the Hornes believed that they could avoid the Raisin Order’s definition of “handler” with respect to those purchased raisins.  A USDA judicial officer disagreed, finding the Hornes liable for numerous Order violations and fining them over $695,000, including an assessment of nearly $484,000 for the dollar value of the raisins not held in reserve. 

The Hornes challenged this USDA order in federal district court, arguing that they were not “handlers” within the meaning of the Raisin Order and that the order violated the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against excessive fines.  The district court granted summary judgment for USDA on all counts.  On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the application of the Raisin Order and the denial of the Eighth Amendment claim, but held that the Court of Federal Claims rather than the district court had jurisdiction over the takings claim.  The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari on the jurisdictional issue only, holding that the Hornes could assert their takings claim in district court.  The Supreme Court remanded for a determination of the merits of the takings claim, and on May 9 the Ninth Circuit, applying de novo review, affirmed the district court’s rejection of that claim.

The Ninth Circuit acknowledged that USDA linked a monetary exaction (the penalty imposed for failure to comply with the Raisin Order) to specific property (the reserved raisins) and that the Hornes faced a choice – give the RAC the raisins or face a penalty.  Because the government did not literally seize raisins from the Holmes’ land or remove money from their bank account, the court held that the USDA’s action had to be analyzed as a potential regulatory taking.  The court then noted that the Takings Clause affords less protection to personal property than to real property, and that the Hornes did not lose all economically valuable use of their property.  The court asserted that the Hornes’ rights with respect to the reserved raisins were not extinguished because they retained a claim on certain future proceeds from reserved raisin sales (even though, as the Hornes pointed out, the “equitable distribution” of reserved sales might be zero).  The court reasoned that even though the Hornes might not receive cash distributions in some years, the reserved raisins were not “permanently occupied,” and that the RAC’s diversion of reserved raisins inured to the Hornes’ benefit by stabilizing raisin prices.  The court viewed the raisin diversion program as granting a conditional government benefit in exchange for an exaction.  In short, by smoothing price fluctuations in the raisin industry, the Raisin Order made “market conditions predictable” and thereby bore a “sufficient nexus” to a legitimate interest the government sought to protect.  (The court never asked why the reduction of consumer welfare and the imposition of deadweight losses through industry cartelization is a legitimate government interest.)  Moreover, the RAC’s imposition of a reserve requirement on all producers was roughly proportional to the USDA’s market stabilizing goal as reflected in the Raisin Order.  Thus, applying the nexus/proportionaliy test of Nollan v. California Coastal Commission and Dolan v. City of Tigard, the Ninth Circuit held that the application of the Marketing Order to the Hornes’ activities did not constitute a taking.

Stripped of its convoluted reasoning and highly selective application of Supreme Court precedents, the Ninth Circuit’s holding indicates that industrious and entrepreneurial individuals will not be allowed to avoid and thereby undermine agricultural cartels through creative commercial innovations.  It means that individuals engaging in a legitimate business activity who wish not to contribute their product to a cartel that is imposed on them may suffer loss of their property, merely because the government approves of the cartel and wishes to protect it by punishing “cheaters.”  But when the government is the ringmaster, odious cartels are miraculously transformed into praiseworthy citizens who promote the public interest by “stabilizing” markets. 

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Hornes’ legal saga, the Ninth Circuit’s crabbed analysis highlights the absurdity of imposing government financial exactions on private commercial conduct that unequivocally raises consumer welfare and enhances competition.  The egregiousness of this conduct is amplified when the government penalizes a business for refusing to transfer some of its property to a third party (here, the RAC), without assurance of being compensated.  Whether the business chooses to incur the penalty or instead accedes to the transfer, basic logic demonstrates that its property is being taken.  Hopefully, future courts will keep this in mind and be willing to apply the Takings Clause to analogous scenarios. 

If faced by a serious possibility of having to pay “just compensation” under the Takings Clause, the USDA may become less willing to sanction cartel avoiders through overly expansive interpretations of its agricultural marketing orders.  That in turn could encourage additional businesses to seek creative ways to opt out of these arrangements.  The end result could be the gradual weakening and ultimate dismantling of the marketing order framework.  Even better, the USDA could choose to act unilaterally tomorrow and move to rescind marketing order regulations.  (That might be asking too much, of course.)

I have a new article on the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger in the latest edition of the CPI Antitrust Chronicle, which includes several other articles on the merger, as well.

In a recent essay, Allen Grunes & Maurice Stucke (who also have an essay in the CPI issue) pose a thought experiment: If Comcast can acquire TWC, what’s to stop it acquiring all cable companies? The authors’ assertion is that the arguments being put forward to support the merger contain no “limiting principle,” and that the same arguments, if accepted here, would unjustifiably permit further consolidation. But there is a limiting principle: competitive harm. Size doesn’t matter, as courts and economists have repeatedly pointed out.

The article explains why the merger doesn’t give rise to any plausible theory of anticompetitive harm under modern antitrust analysis. Instead, arguments against the merger amount to little more than the usual “big-is-bad” naysaying.

In summary, I make the following points:

Horizontal Concerns

The absence of any reduction in competition should end the inquiry into any potentially anticompetitive effects in consumer markets resulting from the horizontal aspects of the transaction.

  • It’s well understood at this point that Comcast and TWC don’t compete directly for subscribers in any relevant market; in terms of concentration and horizontal effects, the transaction will neither reduce competition nor restrict consumer choice.
  • Even if Comcast were a true monopolist provider of broadband service in certain geographic markets, the DOJ would have to show that the merger would be substantially likely to lessen competition—a difficult showing to make where Comcast and TWC are neither actual nor potential competitors in any of these markets.
  • Whatever market power Comcast may currently possess, the proposed merger simply does nothing to increase it, nor to facilitate its exercise.

Comcast doesn’t currently have substantial bargaining power in its dealings with content providers, and the merger won’t change that. The claim that the combined entity will gain bargaining leverage against content providers from the merger, resulting in lower content prices to programmers, fails for similar reasons.

  • After the transaction, Comcast will serve fewer than 30 percent of total MVPD subscribers in the United States. This share is insufficient to give Comcast market power over sellers of video programming.
  • The FCC has tried to impose a 30 percent cable ownership cap, and twice it has been rejected by the courts. The D.C. Circuit concluded more than a decade ago—in far less competitive conditions than exist today—that the evidence didn’t justify a horizontal ownership limit lower than 60% on the basis of buyer power.
  • The recent exponential growth in OVDs like Google, Netflix, Amazon and Apple gives content providers even more ways to distribute their programming.
  • In fact, greater concentration among cable operators has coincided with an enormous increase in output and quality of video programming
  • Moreover, because the merger doesn’t alter the competitive make-up of any relevant consumer market, Comcast will have no greater ability to threaten to withhold carriage of content in order to extract better terms.
  • Finally, programmers with valuable content have significant bargaining power and have been able to extract the prices to prove it. None of that will change post-merger.

Vertical Concerns

The merger won’t give Comcast the ability (or the incentive) to foreclose competition from other content providers for its NBCUniversal content.

  • Because the merger would represent only 30 percent of the national market (for MVPD services), 70 percent of the market is still available for content distribution.
  • But even this significantly overstates the extent of possible foreclosure. OVD providers increasingly vie for the same content as cable (and satellite).
  • In the past when regulators have considered foreclosure effects for localized content (regional sports networks, primarily)—for example, in the 2005 Adelphia/Comcast/TWC deal, under far less competitive conditions—the FTC found no substantial threat of anticompetitive harm. And while the FCC did identify a potential risk of harm in its review of the Adelphia deal, its solution was to impose arbitration requirements for access to this programming—which are already part of the NBCUniversal deal conditions and which will be extended to the new territory and new programming from TWC.

The argument that the merger will increase Comcast’s incentive and ability to impair access to its users by online video competitors or other edge providers is similarly without merit.

  • Fundamentally, Comcast benefits from providing its users access to edge providers, and it would harm itself if it were to constrain access to these providers.
  • Foreclosure effects would be limited, even if they did arise. On a national level, the combined firm would have only about 40 percent of broadband customers, at most (and considerably less if wireless broadband is included in the market).
  • This leaves at least 60 percent—and quite possibly far more—of customers available to purchase content and support edge providers reaching minimum viable scale, even if Comcast were to attempt to foreclose access.

Some have also argued that because Comcast has a monopoly on access to its customers, transit providers are beholden to it, giving it the ability to degrade or simply block content from companies like Netflix. But these arguments misunderstand the market.

  • The transit market through which edge providers bring their content into the Comcast network is highly competitive. Edge providers can access Comcast’s network through multiple channels, undermining Comcast’s ability to deny access or degrade service to such providers.
  • The transit market is also almost entirely populated by big players engaged in repeat interactions and, despite a large number of transactions over the years, marked by a trivial number of disputes.
  • The recent Comcast/Netflix agreement demonstrates that the sophisticated commercial entities in this market are capable of resolving conflicts—conflicts that appear to affect only the distribution of profits among contracting parties but not raise anticompetitive concerns.
  • If Netflix does end up paying more to access Comcast’s network over time, it won’t be because of market power or this merger. Rather, it’s an indication of the evolving market and the increasing popularity of OTT providers.
  • The Comcast/Netflix deal has procompetitive justifications, as well. Charging Netflix allows Comcast to better distinguish between the high-usage Netflix customers (two percent of Netflix users account for 20 percent of all broadband traffic) and everyone else. This should lower cable bills on average, improve incentives for users, and lead to more efficient infrastructure investments by both Comcast and Netflix.

Critics have also alleged that the vertically integrated Comcast may withhold its own content from competing MVPDs or OVDs, or deny carriage to unaffiliated programming. In theory, by denying competitors or potential competitors access to popular programming, a vertically integrated MVPD might gain a competitive advantage over its rivals. Similarly, an MVPD that owns cable channels may refuse to carry at least some unaffiliated content to benefit its own channels. But these claims also fall flat.

  • Once again, these issue are not transaction specific.
  • But, regardless, Comcast will not be able to engage in successful foreclosure strategies following the transaction.
  • The merger has no effect on Comcast’s share of national programming. And while it will have a larger share of national distribution post-merger, a 30 percent market share is nonetheless insufficient to confer buyer power in today’s highly competitive MVPD market.
  • Moreover, the programming market is highly dynamic and competitive, and Comcast’s affiliated programming networks face significant competition.
  • Comcast already has no ownership interest in the overwhelming majority of content it distributes. This won’t measurably change post-transaction.

Procompetitive Justifications

While the proposed transaction doesn’t give rise to plausible anticompetitive harms, it should bring well-understood pro-competitive benefits. Most notably:

  • The deal will bring significant scale efficiencies in a marketplace that requires large, fixed-cost investments in network infrastructure and technology.
  • And bringing a more vertical structure to TWC will likely be beneficial, as well. Vertical integration can increase efficiency, and the elimination of double marginalization often leads to lower prices for consumers.

Let’s be clear about the baseline here. Remember all those years ago when Netflix was a mail-order DVD company? Before either Netflix or Comcast even considered using the internet to distribute Netflix’s video content, Comcast invested in the technology and infrastructure that ultimately enabled the Netflix of today. It did so at enormous cost (tens of billions of dollars over the last 20 years) and risk. Absent broadband we’d still be waiting for our Netflix DVDs to be delivered by snail mail, and Netflix would still be spending three-quarters of a billion dollars a year on shipping.

The ability to realize returns—including returns from scale—is essential to incentivizing continued network and other quality investments. The cable industry today operates with a small positive annual return on invested capital (“ROIC”) but it has had cumulative negative ROIC over the entirety of the last decade. In fact, on invested capital of $127 billion between 2000 and 2009, cable has seen economic profits of negative $62 billion and a weighted average ROIC of negative 5 percent. Meanwhile Comcast’s stock has significantly underperformed the S&P 500 over the same period and only outperformed the S&P over the last two years.

Comcast is far from being a rapacious and endlessly profitable monopolist. This merger should help it (and TWC) improve its cable and broadband services, not harm consumers.

No matter how many times Al Franken and Susan Crawford say it, neither the broadband market nor the MVPD market is imperiled by vertical or horizontal integration. The proposed merger won’t create cognizable antitrust harms. Comcast may get bigger, but that simply isn’t enough to thwart the merger.

Last month the Wall Street Journal raised the specter of an antitrust challenge to the proposed Jos. A. Bank/Men’s Warehouse merger.

Whether a challenge is forthcoming appears to turn, of course, on market definition:

An important question in the FTC’s review will be whether it believes the two companies compete in a market that is more specialized than the broad men’s apparel market. If the commission concludes the companies do compete in a different space than retailers like Macy’s, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney, then the merger partners could face a more-difficult government review.

You’ll be excused for recalling that the last time you bought a suit you shopped at Jos. A. Bank and Macy’s before making your purchase at Nordstrom Rack, and for thinking that the idea of a relevant market comprising Jos. A. Bank and Men’s Warehouse to the exclusion of the others is absurd.  Because, you see, as the article notes (quoting Darren Tucker),

“The FTC sometimes segments markets in ways that can appear counterintuitive to the public.”

“Ah,” you say to yourself. “In other words, if the FTC’s rigorous econometric analysis shows that prices at Macy’s don’t actually affect pricing decisions at Men’s Warehouse, then I’d be surprised, but so be it.”

But that’s not what he means by “counterintuitive.” Rather,

The commission’s analysis, he said, will largely turn on how the companies have viewed the market in their own ordinary-course business documents.

According to this logic, even if Macy’s does exert pricing pressure on Jos. A Bank, if Jos. A. Bank’s business documents talk about Men’s Warehouse as its only real competition, or suggest that the two companies “dominate” the “mid-range men’s apparel market,” then FTC may decide to challenge the deal.

I don’t mean to single out Darren here; he just happens to be who the article quotes, and this kind of thinking is de rigeur.

But it’s just wrong. Or, I should say, it may be descriptively accurate — it may be that the FTC will make its enforcement decision (and the court would make its ruling) on the basis of business documents — but it’s just wrong as a matter of economics, common sense, logic and the protection of consumer welfare.

One can’t help but think of the Whole Foods/Wild Oats merger and the FTC’s ridiculous “premium, natural and organic supermarkets” market. As I said of that market definition:

In other words, there is a serious risk of conflating a “market” for business purposes with an actual antitrust-relevant market. Whole Foods and Wild Oats may view themselves as operating in a different world than Wal-Mart. But their self-characterization is largely irrelevant. What matters is whether customers who shop at Whole Foods would shop elsewhere for substitute products if Whole Food’s prices rose too much. The implicit notion that the availability of organic foods at Wal-Mart (to say nothing of pretty much every other grocery store in the US today!) exerts little or no competitive pressure on prices at Whole Foods seems facially silly.

I don’t know for certain what an econometric analysis would show, but I would indeed be shocked if a legitimate economic analysis suggested that Jos. A. Banks and Men’s Warehouse occupied all or most of any relevant market. For the most part — and certainly for the marginal consumer — there is no meaningful difference between a basic, grey worsted wool suit bought at a big department store in the mall and a similar suit bought at a small retailer in the same mall or a “warehouse” store across the street. And the barriers to entry in such a market, if it existed, would be insignificant. Again, what I said of Whole Foods/Wild Oats is surely true here, too:

But because economically-relevant market definition turns on demand elasticity among consumers who are often free to purchase products from multiple distribution channels, a myopic focus on a single channel of distribution to the exclusion of others is dangerous.

Let’s hope the FTC gets it right this time.

As Geoff posted yesterday, a group of 72 distinguished economists and law professors from across the political spectrum released a letter to Chris Christie pointing out the absurdities of New Jersey’s direct distribution ban. I’m heartened that both Governor Christie and his potential rival for the 2016 Republican nomination, Texas Governor Rick Perry, have made statements, here and here, in recent days suggesting that they would support legislation to allow direct distribution. Another potential 2016 Republican contender, has also joined the anti-protectionist fray. This should not be a partisan political issue. Hopefully, thinking people from both parties will realize that these laws help no one but the car dealers.

In the midst of these encouraging developments, I came across a March 5, 2014 letter from General Motors to Ohio Governor John Kasich complaining about proposed legislation that would carve out a special direct-dealing exemption for Tesla in Ohio. I’ve gotta say that I’m sympathetic to GM’s plight. It isn’t fair that Tesla would get a special exemption from regulations applicable to other car dealers. I’m not blaming Tesla, since I assume and hope that Tesla’s legislative strategy is to ask that these laws be repealed or that Tesla be exempted, not that the laws should continue to apply to other manufacturers. But the point of our letter is that no manufacturer should be subject to these restrictions. Tesla may have special reasons to prefer direct distribution, but the laws should be general—and generally permissive of direct distribution. The last thing we need is for a continuation of the dealers’ crony capitalism through a system of selective exemptions from protectionist statutes.

What was most telling about GM’s letter was its straightforward admission that allowing Tesla to engage in direct distribution would give Tesla a “distinct competitive advantage” and would create a “significant disparate impact” on competition in the auto industry. That’s just another way of saying that direct distribution is more efficient. If Tesla will gain a competitive advantage by bypassing dealers, shouldn’t we want all car companies to have that same advantage?

To be clear, there are circumstances were exempting just select companies from a regulatory scheme would give them a competitive advantage not based on superior efficiency in a social-welfare enhancing sense. For example, if the general pollution control regulations are optimally set, then exempting some firms will allow them to externalize costs and thereby obtain a competitive advantage, reducing net social welfare. But that would only be the case if the regulated activity is socially harmful, which direct distribution is not, as our open letter explained. The take-away from GM’s letter should be even more impetus for repealing the direct distribution bans across the board so that consumers can enjoy the benefit of competition among rival manufacturers who all have the right to choose the most efficient means of distribution for them.

Below is the text of my oral testimony to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance Subcommittee, at its November 7, 2013 hearing on “Demand Letters and Consumer Protection: Examining Deceptive Practices by Patent Assertion Entities.” Information on the hearing is here, including an archived webcast of the hearing. My much longer and more indepth written testimony is here.

Please note that I am incorrectly identified on the hearing website as speaking on behalf of the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP). In fact, I was invited to testify soley in my personal capacity as a Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law, given my academic research into the history of the patent system and the role of licensing and commercialization in the distribution of patented innovation. I spoke for neither George Mason University nor CPIP, and thus I am solely responsible for the content of my research and remarks.

Chairman McCaskill, Ranking Member Heller, and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today.

There certainly are bad actors, deceptive demand letters, and frivolous litigation in the patent system. The important question, though, is whether there is a systemic problem requiring further systemic revisions to the patent system. There is no answer to this question, and this is the case for three reasons.

Harm to Innovation

First, the calls to rush to enact systemic revisions to the patent system are being made without established evidence there is in fact systemic harm to innovation, let alone any harm to the consumers that Section 5 authorizes the FTC to protect. As the Government Accountability Office found in its August 2013 report on patent litigation, the frequently-cited studies claiming harms are actually “nonrandom and nongeneralizable,” which means they are unscientific and unreliable.

These anecdotal reports and unreliable studies do not prove there is a systemic problem requiring a systemic revision to patent licensing practices.

Of even greater concern is that the many changes to the patent system Congress is considering, incl. extending the FTC’s authority over demand letters, would impose serious costs on real innovators and thus do actual harm to America’s innovation economy and job growth.

From Charles Goodyear and Thomas Edison in the nineteenth century to IBM and Microsoft today, patent licensing has been essential in bringing patented innovation to the marketplace, creating economic growth and a flourishing society.  But expanding FTC authority to regulate requests for licensing royalties under vague evidentiary and legal standards only weakens patents and create costly uncertainty.

This will hamper America’s innovation economy—causing reduced economic growth, lost jobs, and reduced standards of living for everyone, incl. the consumers the FTC is charged to protect.

Existing Tools

Second, the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) and courts have long had the legal tools to weed out bad patents and punish bad actors, and these tools were massively expanded just two years ago with the enactment of the America Invents Act.

This is important because the real concern with demand letters is that the underlying patents are invalid.

No one denies that owners of valid patents have the right to license their property or to sue infringers, or that patent owners can even make patent licensing their sole business model, as did Charles Goodyear and Elias Howe in the mid-nineteenth century.

There are too many of these tools to discuss in my brief remarks, but to name just a few: recipients of demand letters can sue patent owners in courts through declaratory judgment actions and invalidate bad patents. And the PTO now has four separate programs dedicated solely to weeding out bad patents.

For those who lack the knowledge or resources to access these legal tools, there are now numerous legal clinics, law firms and policy organizations that actively offer assistance.

Again, further systemic changes to the patent system are unwarranted because there are existing legal tools with established legal standards to address the bad actors and their bad patents.

If Congress enacts a law this year, then it should secure full funding for the PTO. Weakening patents and creating more uncertainties in the licensing process is not the solution.

Rhetoric

Lastly, Congress is being driven to revise the patent system on the basis of rhetoric and anecdote instead of objective evidence and reasoned explanations. While there are bad actors in the patent system, terms like PAE or patent troll constantly shift in meaning. These terms have been used to cover anyone who licenses patents, including universities, startups, companies that engage in R&D, and many others.

Classic American innovators in the nineteenth century like Thomas Edison, Charles Goodyear, and Elias Howe would be called PAEs or patent trolls today. In fact, they and other patent owners made royalty demands against thousands of end users.

Congress should exercise restraint when it is being asked to enact systemic legislative or regulatory changes on the basis of pejorative labels that would lead us to condemn or discriminate against classic innovators like Edison who have contributed immensely to America’s innovation economy.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the benefits or costs of patent licensing to the innovation economy is an important empirical and policy question, but systemic changes to the patent system should not be based on rhetoric, anecdotes, invalid studies, and incorrect claims about the historical and economic significance of patent licensing

As former PTO Director David Kappos stated last week in his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee: “we are reworking the greatest innovation engine the world has ever known, almost instantly after it has just been significantly overhauled. If there were ever a case where caution is called for, this is it.”

Thank you.

Critics of Google have argued that users overvalue Google’s services in relation to the data they give away.  One breath-taking headline asked Who Would Pay $5,000 to Use Google?, suggesting that Google and its advertisers can make as much as $5,000 off of individuals whose data they track. Scholars, such as Nathan Newman, have used this to argue that Google exploits its users through data extraction. But, the question remains: how good of a deal is Google? My contention is that Google’s value to most consumers far surpasses the value supposedly extracted from them in data.

First off, it is unlikely that Google and its advertisers make anywhere close to $5,000 off the average user. Only very high volume online purchasers who consistently click through online ads are likely anywhere close to that valuable. Nonetheless, it is true that Google and its advertisers must be making money, or else Google would be charging users for its services.

PrivacyFix, a popular extension for Google Chrome, calculates your worth to Google based upon the amount of searches you have done. Far from $5,000, my total only comes in at $58.66 (and only $10.74 for Facebook). Now, I might not be the highest volume searcher out there. My colleague, Geoffrey Manne states that he is worth $125.18 on Google (and $10.74 for Facebook). But, I use Google search everyday for work in tech policy, along with Google Docs, Google Calendar, and Gmail (both my private email and work emails)… for FREE!*

The value of all of these services to me, or even just Google search alone, easily surpasses the value of my data attributed to Google. This is likely true for the vast majority of other users, as well. While not a perfect analogue, there are paid specialized search options out there (familiar to lawyers) that do little tracking and are not ad-supported: Westlaw, Lexis, and Bloomberg. But, the price for using these services are considerably higher than zero:

legalsearchcosts

Can you imagine having to pay anywhere near $14 per search on Google? Or a subscription that costs $450 per user per month like some firms pay for Bloomberg? It may be the case that the costs are significantly lower per search for Google than for specialized legal searches (though Google is increasingly used by young lawyers as more cases become available). But, the “price” of viewing a targeted ad is a much lower psychic burden for most people than paying even just a few cents per month for an ad-free experience. For instance, consumers almost always choose free apps over the 99 cent alternative without ads.

Maybe the real question about Google is: Great Deal or Greatest Deal?

* Otherwise known as unpriced for those that know there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Gus Hurwitz is Assistant Professor of Law at University of Nebraska College of Law

Introduction

This post is based upon an in-progress article that explores the applicability of Chevron deference to FTC interpretations of Section 5’s proscription of unfair methods of competition. ( I am happy to circulate a draft of this article to anyone who would like to offer substantive feedback.) The article is prompted by the near-universal belief in the antitrust bar – held by both academics and practitioners – that the FTC is not entitled to Chevron deference.

In my limited space here, I hope to do three things. First, since many readers may not be familiar with Chevron deference, I explain very briefly what it is. Second, I explain why Chevron deference is relevant to Section 5 and to UMC in particular. And third, I debunk three of the most pervasive myths about why the FTC would not receive Chevron deference.

Regardless one’s priors, understanding the relationship between Section 5 and Chevron is essential to understanding the future of FTC-based competition policy. The past 30 years of competition policy debates have addressed the courts as its main audience. The new front – which neither the antitrust hawks or doves has significant experience with – is administrative. Administrative law is very different from the judicially-defined, stare decisis–restrained, common-law venue in which we are all used to playing.

Chevron

Chevron deference is used where a statute enforced by an administrative agency involves an ambiguous legal standard. In such cases, it is unclear whether such ambiguity should be resolved by the courts or by the agency. In its 1984 Chevron opinion, the Court made clear – for various reasons that are hotly debated to this day – that courts should defer to agency interpretations of such ambiguous statutes, provided that the interpretation is permissible within the language of the statute.

It is requisite that any discussion of Chevron cite to the opinion’s famous language:

First, always, is the question whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue. If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress. If, however, the court determines Congress has not directly addressed the precise question at issue, the court does not simply impose its own construction on the statute, as would be necessary in the absence of an administrative interpretation. Rather, if the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the question for the court is whether the agency’s answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute. Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837, 842-43 (1984)

This standard is important to the FTC because Section 5 was deliberately designed to be an ambiguous statute (this is made clear in the legislative history, and has been affirmed consistently by the Court). In the context of UMC, each of “unfair,” “method,” and “competition” bears some modicum of ambiguity – “unfair,” in particular drips with it.

Chevron’s relevance to Section 5

This ambiguity has not been an issue for the past 30 years or so, because the FTC has restrained itself to an interpretation of UMC that is concurrent with the judicially-defined antitrust laws (viz., the Sherman and Clayton Acts). But as the fact of this symposium reflects, recent years have seen increasing pressure for the FTC to embrace a more expansive understanding of its UMC authority under Section 5.

What happens when it does this? What happens, for example, when the FTC asserts that “unfair” embraces more than mere aggregate consumer welfare, but extends to distributional effects as well. There is a not-insane argument that some decreases in total welfare is an acceptable cost to secure greater distributional “fairness.” If the courts afford the Commission Chevron deference, the answer is simple: the Commission wins.

Debunking the myth that Chevron does not apply to Section 5

There is a pervasive belief that Chevron does not apply to Section 5. As a result, antitrust scholarship has largely addressed the courts as its audience, framing debates about Section 5 in the same language and theory as has been embraced by the courts in the context of the Sherman Act. That is, discussions have largely been framed in post-Antitrust Paradox consumer welfare understandings of antitrust law.

This view was clear in the FTC’s 2008 workshop on Section 5 of the FTC Act as a Competition Statute. It has also been captured extensively in Dan Crane’s wonderful work on the FTC as an institution. Anecdotally, as I have wondered about this issue over the past several years, I have encountered many antitrust scholars and practitioners who have assured me that Chevron does not apply to Section 5; and I have encountered none who have believed that it does.

A number of reasons have been offered to explain why Chevron does not apply to Section 5. In the remained of this post, I will debunk the three most pervasive explanations offered for this: that the FTC doesn’t have substantive rulemaking authority, that deference doesn’t apply to statutes that are enforced by multiple agencies (e.g., the FTC and DOJ both enforcing the antitrust laws), and that Indiana Federation of Dentists, 476 U.S. 447 (1986) (the Court’s most recent Section 5 UMC case), provides that Section 5 UMC cases are reviewed de novo by the courts.

Myth #1: FTC doesn’t have rulemaking authority

It is widely believed that the FTC doesn’t have substantive UMC rulemaking authority; and folks seem to think that such authority is required for an agency to get Chevron deference. Both of these are beliefs are wrong.

The confusion over the extent of the FTC’s rulemaking authority is somewhat understandable – it has been the subject of much controversy and judicial and Congressional debate for much of the Commission’s existence. This debate has been especially muddled by Congress’s disparate treatment of UMC and UDAP (unfair or deceptive act or practices – a separate offence proscribed by Section 5).

But there really is no question that the FTC has substantive UMC rulemaking authority under Section 6(g). The Supreme Court held so much in National Petroleum Refiners, 482 F.2d 672 (1973) – one of the seminal cases in the administrative law canon. While the FTC Act has been amended several times since National Petroleum Refiners (most notably in 1975, 1980, and 1994), and the Commissions UDAP rulemaking power has been an explicit focus of several of these amendments, none of them has affected the Commission’s UMC rulemaking authority. To the contrary, the amendments and related legislative history expressly preserve the Commission’s UMC rulemaking authority as it existed in 1973.

(The 1975 amendments notes that “The preceding sentence shall not affect any authority of the commission to prescribe rules (including interpretive rules), and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.” The 1980 Conference report notes that the 1975 amendments “specifically addressed the Commission’s rulemaking authority over ‘unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” and that they expressly declaimed any effect on the Commission’s authority with respect to unfair methods of competition. And the 1994 amendments focused exclusively on unfair acts or practices – omitting both deceptive acts or practices and unfair methods of competition.)

What’s more, substantive rulemaking authority is not the necessary condition for Chevron deference to apply. The necessary condition is that the agency be able to make rules or establish legal norms carrying the force of law. Such rules can be made either through rulemaking or adjudication (and possibly even through other Congressionally-intended mechanisms). See Mead, 533 U.S. 218, 234-35 (2001). There is little, if any, serious question that the FTC was created precisely for this purpose and, to this day, has such power.

Myth #2: Concurrent antitrust jurisdiction means no deference

A second common explanation for why the FTC does not receive the benefit of Chevron deference is that such deference does not extend to statutes enforced by multiple agencies, and that the antitrust laws are enforced by both the DOJ and FTC. Again, this is a misunderstanding of both FTC and administrative law.

On the administrative law front, the question of how concurrent jurisdiction affects deference is handled as a threshold question to be answered by Congressional intent. (For the admin-law geeks among us, this is a step-zero question.) It is possible that Congress intended either, neither, or both agencies with concurrent jurisdiction to be given deference. Whatever Congress intended, is what controls – not a mythical rule that concurrent jurisdiction negates deference.

But this explanation suffers a more basic flaw: the only reason that the FTC and DOJ have concurrent jurisdiction over the antitrust laws is because the FTC has interpreted Section 5 to be concurrent with the antitrust laws enforced by the DOJ. Section 5 (and the FTC itself) was created precisely to be broader than the antitrust laws – and nothing in Section 5 even references the “antitrust laws.” Section 5 may be coextensive with the DOJ-enforced antitrust laws – but only because it encompasses and is broader than them. The FTC does not share jurisdiction over that part of Section 5 that is broader than those laws that the DOJ enforces.

Myth #3: Indiana Federation of Dentists holds Section 5 UMC cases are reviewed de novo

The final myth that I will consider is that Indiana Federation of Dentists requires courts to conduct de novo review of FTC legal determinations under Section 5. This explanation really is quite fascinating as a demonstration of how myths can propagate through the bar – and the importance of interfacing with experts from other specialty areas of the law.

The typically-cited passage from Indiana Federation of Dentists explains that:

The legal issues presented — that is, the identification of governing legal standards and their application to the facts found — are, by contrast, for the courts to resolve, although even in considering such issues the courts are to give some deference to the Commission’s informed judgment that a particular commercial practice is to be condemned as “unfair.”

This language has been cited as requiring do novo review of all legal questions, including the legal meaning of Section 5. Dan Crane has called this an “odd standard,” noting that ordinarily “this is technically a question of Chevron deference, although the courts have not articulated it that way in the antitrust space.” Indeed, it seems remarkable that Indiana Federation of Dentists (decided in 1986) does not even mention Chevron (decided in 1984) – a fact that has led antitrust commentators to believe “One cannot explain judicial posture in the antitrust arena in Chevron terms.”

But this is a misreading of Indiana Federation of Dentists, which is in fact entirely in line with Chevron; and it is a misunderstanding of Chevron’s history. First, it is unsurprising that Indiana Federation of Dentists did not cite to Chevron. The Indiana Federation of Dentists petitioned for cert from a 7th Circuit that had been argued before Chevron was decided, and the Commission was arguing for an uncontroversial interpretation of Section 5 as applying Section 1 of the Sherman Act. The Commission had never structured its case to seek deference, and before the Supreme Court it had no need to argue for any deference.

Moreover, it took several years for the importance of Chevron to become understood, and to filter its way into judicial review of agency statutory interpretation. Over the next several years, the Circuit Courts regularly used Indiana Federation of Dentists to explain the standard of review for various agencies’ interpretations of their organic statutes (including, e.g., HHS, INS Labor, and OSHA). Importantly, these cases recognized that there was some confusion as to the changing standard of review; framed their analysis in terms of Skidmore (the precursor Chevron in this line of cases); and largely reached Chevron-like conclusions, despite Indiana Federation of Dentists’s suggestion of a lower level of deference. Today, Chevron, not Indiana Federation of Dentists, is the law of the land – at least, for every regulatory agency other than the FTC.

Indeed, a close reading of Indiana Federation of Dentists finds that it is in accord with Chevron. The continuation of the paragraph quoted above explains that:

The standard of “unfairness” under the FTC Act is, by necessity, an elusive one, encompassing not only practices that violate the Sherman Act and the other antitrust laws, but also practices that the Commission determines are against public policy for other reasons. Once the Commission has chosen a particular legal rationale for holding a practice to be unfair, however, familiar principles of administrative law dictate that its decision must stand or fall on that basis, and a reviewing court may not consider other reasons why the practice might be deemed unfair. In the case now before us, the sole basis of the FTC’s finding of an unfair method of competition was the Commission’s conclusion that the [alleged conduct] was an unreasonable and conspiratorial restraint of trade in violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act. Accordingly, the legal question before us is whether the Commission’s factual findings, if supported by evidence, make out a violation of Sherman Act § 1. (emphasis added)

This language critically alters the paragraph’s initial proposition that the legal issues are for determination by the courts. Rather, the Court recognizes that Section 5 is inherently ambiguous. It is therefore to the Commission to choose the legal standard under which that conduct will be reviewed – “a reviewing court may not consider other reasons why the practice might be deemed unfair.”

This is precisely the standard established by Chevron: first, the courts determine whether the statute is ambiguous and, if it is not, the court’s reading of the statute is binding; but if it is ambiguous, the court defers to the agency’s construction. Part of why Chevron is a difficult test is that both parts of this analysis do, in fact, present legal questions for the court. The first step is purely legal, with the court determining on its own whether the statute is ambiguous. Then, at step two, the legal question is whether the agency correctly applied the facts to its declared legal standard – as the Court recognizes in Indiana Federation of Dentists, “the legal question before us is whether the Commission’s factual findings make out a violation of Sherman Act § 1.” Thus, the opening, oft-quoted, first sentence of the paragraph is correct, and is in accord with Chevron: the legal issues presented are for the courts to resolve.

Conclusion

The long-standing belief that FTC interpretations of UMC under Section 5 are not entitled to Chevron deference are almost certainly wrong. I’ve addressed three of the most pervasive myths about this above – there are a couple more, but you’ll need to read the full paper to learn about them and why they are wrong.

Two important questions follow, which we will likely take up in this symposium, and I take up a bit in my article: normatively, should the FTC receive such deference, and, if not, what restraints exist on the scope of the Commission’s Section 5’s UMC power? I’ll conclude with what I believe is the most important takeaway from this post: however we proceed, we must do so with an understanding of both antitrust and administrative law. The relevant audiences for our discussions about these issues are the FTC and Congress – not the courts; and the relevant language is that of policy and statute, not judicial precedent and stare decisis. Administrative law is the unique, beautiful, and scary beast that governs the FTC – those who fail to respect its nuances do so at their own peril.

James Cooper is Director, Research and Policy at the Law & Economics Center at George Mason University School of Law

In this posting, I sketch out a sensible limitation to the FTC’s Section 5 authority.   This domain should be narrow, focusing only on harmful conduct that but for the application of Section 5 would remain un-remedied.

As a threshold matter, the FTC explicitly should renounce its reliance on early Section 5 case law like S&H and Brown Shoe and write from a clean slate.  No serious antitrust enforcer today would consider challenging the conduct at issue in these cases, yet, in each of its recent standard-setting cases, the Commission dutifully invokes the language in S&H and Brown Shoe like a sacred talisman that will conjure the authority to act beyond the “letter and spirit of the antitrust laws.”   This dicta, however, comes from seriously outmoded cases. For example, S&H upheld the Commission’s challenge to the practice of preventing unauthorized green-stamp exchanges, and cited approvingly a Section 5 decision from 1934 that condemned the practice of selling penny candy to children in “break and take” packs, because “it tempted children to gamble and compelled those who would successful compete with Keppel to abandon their scruples by similarly tempting children.”[1]  Brown Shoe and S&H were decided in the era of Schwinn and Utah Pie.  Sherman Act case law has moved light years in the direction of economic literacy since then, and the Commission should recognize that had the Supreme Court entertained Section 5 case in the past forty years, precedents like S&H and Brown Shoe likely would have met fates similar to these outmoded cases.

Second, the FTC should not use Section 5 when the conduct at issue is reachable under the Sherman or Clayton Acts.  Section 5 should never be used as a trump card to reduce the Commission’s burden to show a practice is harmful to consumers. If the Commission cannot carry its burden under the Sherman Act, then presumably the conduct is not likely to be a threat to competition.

Third, the Commission must explain how consumers would benefit from expansion of the antitrust laws beyond the current Sherman Act limits.  Again, merely because there is old Supreme Court language blessing an expansive Section 5 does not ipso facto convert Section 5 enforcement beyond the Sherman Act into a welfare-enhancing exercise.  Accordingly, demonstrable consumer harm must be a necessary condition for invoking Section 5 against a particular practice.

Further, to mitigate the possibility of errors, and hence the probability that FTC action is welfare enhancing, the practice in question should be one that is unlikely to generate cognizable efficiencies.  Thus the FTC should limit itself to the type of conduct that would be subject to per se or a “quick look” condemnation – the type of conduct that can be assessed without an elaborate inquiry into market characteristics.  It should avoid using Section 5 to challenge conduct that would require complex balancing.

How would such a standard treat the FTC’s portfolio of Section 5 cases?  First, ITCs involving small firms would remain.  This conduct is not reachable under Sherman Act and is likely to generate substantial consumer harm.  At the same time, the risk of deterring beneficial conduct is minimal, although as one moves from private solicitations to engage in price fixing or market allocation towards public communications and unilateral conduct, the calculus changes.  Relatedly, involving information sharing seems sensible to retain as well.  Like ITCs, this conduct is not reachable under the Sherman Act (assuming sufficiently low market shares), poses a significant threat to competition, and it is hard to justify on efficiency grounds. Of course, the Sherman Section 1 can reach agreements among competitors to exchange competitively sensitive information, so this genre of cases should be limited to instances where an agreement cannot be shown.  Further, as in the ITC case, the FTC needs to tread carefully as the conduct moves further from direct and private exchanges of future competitive actions toward unilateral public announcements of current and past price and output decisions.  Bolstering the case for the use of Section 5 in these cases is that both ITCs and information sharing cases fall under the broad rubric of incipient harms.  Legislative history and subsequent Supreme pronouncements suggest that Congress intended Section 5 to concern itself with incipiency – a concern lacking in the Sherman Act.

The FTC should abandon its use of Section 5 to reach breaches of FRAND commitments.  Although policies that encourage participation in standard setting are likely to be beneficial to consumers, it is not evident that Section 5 is the best – or even a good – vehicle to address these issues.  That hold-up may result in a higher end price for consumers is insufficient to justify use of Section 5.  There are a host of institutions arguably better suited than the FTC to handle these policy issues, including Article III courts, the ITC, the Patent & Trademark Office, Congress, and self-regulatory bodies. As Commissioner Ohlhausen remarked in her dissent in Bosch, the FTC appears to lack “regulatory humility when it usurps the resolution of FRAND disputes from these other fora.

Finally, deceptive conduct in business-to-business relationships – such as that alleged in Intel or Dell– should be left out of the portfolio entirely.  To the extent that deception gives rise to, or helps maintain, monopoly power, it is reachable under Sherman Section 2.  Otherwise, deception should be left to the domain of contract law or business torts.  Further, these practices should not be challenged under UDAP, which should be confined to deception that directly involves consumers.


[1] S&H, 405 U.S. at 242-43 (quoting FTC v. R.F. Keppel & Bro., Inc., 291 U.S. 304 (1934)).

James Cooper is Director, Research and Policy at the Law & Economics Center at George Mason University School of Law

The FTC has long been on a quest to find the elusive species of conduct that Section 5 alone can tackle.  A series of early Supreme Court cases interpreting the FTC Act – the most recent and widely cited of which is more than forty years old (FTC v. Sperry & Hutchinson Co., 405 U.S. 233 (1972)) –appeared to grant the FTC wide ranging powers to condemn methods of competition as “unfair.”[1]  A series of judicial setbacks in the 1980s and early 1990s, however, scaled back Section 5’s domain.[2]

Since 1992, the FTC has continued to define Section 5’s reach internally – through settlements primarily involving two classes of conduct: so-called “invitations to collude” (ITC);[3] and breaches of agreements to disclose or to license standard-essential patents (SEPs).[4] Similar in spirit to ITCs, the Commission has also alleged pure Section 5 violations in cases involving sharing of competitively sensitive information.[5]

In addition to these lines of cases, the FTC has used Section 5 in two additional matters: the “CD MAP” cases, involving the parallel adoption by major record companies of “minimum advertised price” restrictions; and the suit against Intel for engaging in exclusionary conduct, including deception and certain pricing practices.

Absent external appellate review, however, it remains unclear whether Congress intended for these classes of conduct to be illegal as “unfair methods of competition.”  Because settlement with the FTC will be preferable to litigation in a wide array of circumstances, what is considered illegal under Section 5 largely has become whatever at least three Commissioners can agree on.  Accordingly, there is still a relatively large zone in which the FTC can develop this quasi Section 5 common law with little fear of triggering litigation, and the concomitant specter of judicial scrutiny.

The recent Google investigation provides some evidence as to just how large this zone of discretion may be.  Although the Commission eventually decided to close its investigation into Google’s search practices – and was able to extract informal concessions from Google related to “scraping” and failures to facilitate “multihoming” – that the Commission would entertain a case premised on such conduct hints at a willingness to make arguments that clear Sherman Act precedent involving duties to aid rivals does not apply to the Section 5 actions, or that misappropriation can serve as the basis for a Section 5 theory.  The Commission’s settlement with Google concerning breaches of commitments to license SEPs on FRAND terms, moreover, continued its application of antitrust and consumer protection law to contractual disputes between sophisticated businesses.

Parsing the statements in Google suggest at least four directions in which at least one commissioner was willing to expand Section 5 beyond the Sherman Act:  duties to aid rivals, misappropriation, failure to disclose the relationship between data collection and market power, and breach of an agreement to license SEPs on FRAND terms.  Further, in two instances, at least one commissioner additionally was willing to declare the same conduct an unfair act or practice.  This is far from a coherent framework for Section 5.

The FTC’s discretion under Section 5 potentially comes at a steep price.  First, it creates uncertainty.  If businesses are unsure about where the line between legal an illegal behavior is drawn, they rationally will take too much care to avoid violating the law, which in antitrust can mean competing less aggressively.  Second, the more discretion the FTC enjoys to condemn a practice as an unfair method of competition, the more competition will be channeled from the marketplace to 600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Although this may be a good development for economists and attorneys, it is bad for consumers.

The FTC could go a long way toward solving this problem if it were to take a cue from the history of its consumer protection program.  The FTC’s overreach in the 1970s earned it the moniker “national nanny,” nearly shut the agency down.  As part of a program to instill public – and more importantly Congressional – trust, the FTC adopted a series of binding policy statements that made consumer harm the touchstone of its authority to challenge “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” (UDAP authority).

A similar effort at self-restraint that limits the FTC’s UMC authority could help reduce uncertainty and rent seeking.  Both Commissioners Ohlhausen and Wright should be commended on their impressive efforts to start this discussion.  In my first post, however, I’d like to discuss a more dramatic path that neither has addressed: confining Section 5 to the Sherman Act.

In many ways the search for Section 5’s domain beyond the Sherman Act is a solution in search of a problem.  There is certainly no consensus that the Sherman Act – even after some recent limitations imposed by cases like Twombly, Trinko, and Credit Suisse – is no longer fit for the task of policing anticompetitive conduct.  It may well be that the FTC is trying to sell a product that nobody needs.  Consequently, the costs of abandoning an expansive Section 5 may be small; with the exceptions of ITCs and information sharing involving small firms, the rest of the FTC’s Section 5 portfolio also can be reached under existing Sherman Act theories (albeit with more difficulty), or handled through other bodies of law or self-regulation.

For example, under the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Rambus, Section 2 is available for cases involving deception at the time of the standard adoption that materially affected the choice of standard.[6] Accordingly, a Section 2 case could be made out if the Commission could show that the defendant either concealed an SEP or if a FRAND commitment was made in bad faith and affected the choice of standard.  Even if deception cannot be show, breaches of FRAND commitments involving SEPs that result in hold-up necessarily involve legal review; the court (or ITC) must decide whether to grant the SEP holder’s request for an injunction (or an exclusion order), and the alleged infringer has opportunities to raise a variety of contract and patent law objections.  Likewise, bundling, predatory pricing, and deception claims like those in Intel are clearly cognizable under Sherman Section 2 (which is why Intel was pled both ways).

Confining Section 5 to the Sherman Act would also have the advantage reduce arbitrage opportunities between the FTC and the Antitrust Division.  As Commissioner Ohlhausen has noted, if the same conduct results in different legal treatment depending on which agency wins clearance – as it arguably would have in the Google investigation – these routine bureaucratic procedures could have substantial influence on ultimate liability.

Although this conduct is reachable under the Sherman Act, many of the cases would be difficult to win.  To the extent that these Sherman Act rules reasonably sort anticompetitive from procompetitive or benign conduct, however, forcing the Commission to satisfy Sherman Act standards would assure that its actions promote consumer welfare.

The only types of conduct that clearly slip out of the FTC’s reach when Section 5 is confined to the Sherman Act are ITCs and information sharing involving firms with low market shares.  The costs of letting this conduct go, however, are likely minimal.  Although most would agree that this conduct is  worth stopping, the FTC has pursued less than ten of these cases in the past 20 years.  Even including deterrence effects, removing ITCs and information sharing cases from the FTC portfolio is unlikely to cause a great deal of consumer harm.  Most managers are probably aware that price fixing is illegal, and it is doubtful that anybody proposes a cartel or shares information without hoping that the other party will get on board.  At the same time, these Section 5 cases are obscure – lurking in a series of consent orders on the FTC’s web site.  The sophisticated antitrust bar likely is familiar with this strain of Section 5 activity, but outside of the clients counseled by top tier law firms, it is not obvious that many businesses are aware of there existence.  Without awareness, there can be no deterrence.  Further, if either of these acts leads to a conspiracy or significant market power, it will be reachable under the Sherman Act.

Finally, removing the FTC’s Section 5 authority will not diminish its role as an antitrust norm creator.  Indeed, over its near 100-year history, however, the FTC has not used Section 5 to implement any important antitrust norms.[7]  That is not to say that the FTC has lacked influence over the development of antitrust jurisprudence – to the contrary, it clearly has, but within the confines of the Sherman Act.  For example, the FTC has made major positive contribution in the fields of joint conduct,[8] state action,[9] Noerr-Pennington,[10] the treatment of professional regulation,[11] and most recently in the context of pharmaceutical reverse settlements.[12]

Of course, if Section 5 is to offer nothing beyond the Sherman Act, that begs the question of whether the FTC is needed at all? In this manner, the quest for a species of harmful conduct that is reachable only through Section 5 is an existential one.  Does it make sense to have two agencies enforcing the same law?[13]  Probably not.  The FTC’s comparative advantage over DOJ lays in its research capability, and of course its consumer protection mission.  Accordingly, stripped of a unique antirust enforcement authority, one possible reorganization would be to house enforcement in DOJ, with the FTC providing competition and consumer protection policy R&D that would feed into case selection designed to improve these bodies of law.

However attractive it may be from a policy standpoint, jettisoning Section 5 beyond the Sherman Act is a political non-starter; Congress would never permit the FTC to abrogate its UMC power.  Indeed, recall the nasty fight that erupted when the FTC and DOJ attempted to reach a clearance agreement in 2002.  Accordingly, a more realistic path for the Commission to take would be to spell out the circumstances under which it would consider a stand alone Section 5 case.[14]  I will turn to this in my next posting.


[1] See, e.g., FTC v. Sperry & Hutchinson Co., 405 U.S. 233 (1972); William E. Kovacic & Marc Winerman, Competition Policy and the Application of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 76 Antitrust L.J. 929, 930-31 (2010).

[2] FTC v. Boise Cascade, 637 F.2d 573, 581 (9th Cir. 1980); Official Airline Guides, Inc. v. FTC, 630 F.2d 920 (2d. Cir. 1980); E.I DuPont de Nemours & Co. v. FTC, 729 F.2d 128 (2d Cir. 1984).  The FTC’s last judicially decided Section 5 action was in 1992. FTC v. Abbott Labs, 853 F. Supp. 526 (D.D.C. 1992).

[3] In re U-Haul Int’l, Inc. (June 9, 2010); In re Valassis Communications, Inc. (April 19, 2006); In re Stone Container Corp. (June 3, 1998); In re Precision Moulding Co. (Sept. 3, 1996); In re YKK(USA) (July 1, 1993); In re A.E. Clevite, Inc. (June 8, 1993); In re Quality Trailer Prods. Corp. (Nov. 5, 1992).

[4] In re Dell Computer (1996); In re Negotiated Data Systems, Inc. (2008); In re Robert Bosch GmbH (2012); In re Google, Inc. (2013).

[5] In re Bosely (2013); In re Nat’l Ass’n of Music Merchants (2009).

[6] Rambus Inc. v. FTC, 522 F.3d 456 (D.C. Cir. 2008); see also Broadcom Corp. v. Qualcomm Inc., 501 F.3d 297 (3rd Cir. 2007); Microsoft, 253 F.3d 3, 76 (D.C. Cir. 2001); Conwood Co. v. U.S. Tobacco Co., 290 F.3d 768 (6th Cir. 2002).

[7] See Kovaic & Winerman, supra note__, at 941 (“The FTC’s record of appellate litigation involving applications of Section 5 that go beyond prevailing antitrust norms is uninspiring.”).

[8] See Polygram Holding, Ltd. v. FTC, 416 F.3d 29 (D.C. Cir. 2005).

[9] See FTC v. Ticor Ins. Co, 504 U.S. 621 (1992); North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, No. 12-1172 (4th Cir. May 31, 2013).

[10] See FTC v. Phoebe Putney Healthcare System, Inc. (Feb. 13, 2013); FTC v. Superior Court Trial Lawyers Ass’n, 493 U.S. 411 (1990).

[11] See FTC v. Indiana Federation of Dentists, 476 U.S. 447 (1986); FTC v. California Dental Association, 526 U.S. 756 (1999).

[12] FTC v. Actavis, Inc., Slip Op. No. 12-416 (June 16, 2013).

[13] See Kovacic & Winerman

[14] Commissioners Ohlhausen and Wright have recently begun this discussion.  See __.