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Recent years have seen an increasing interest in incorporating privacy into antitrust analysis. The FTC and regulators in Europe have rejected these calls so far, but certain scholars and activists continue their attempts to breathe life into this novel concept. Elsewhere we have written at length on the scholarship addressing the issue and found the case for incorporation wanting. Among the errors proponents make is a persistent (and woefully unsubstantiated) assertion that online data can amount to a barrier to entry, insulating incumbent services from competition and ensuring that only the largest providers thrive. This data barrier to entry, it is alleged, can then allow firms with monopoly power to harm consumers, either directly through “bad acts” like price discrimination, or indirectly by raising the costs of advertising, which then get passed on to consumers.

A case in point was on display at last week’s George Mason Law & Economics Center Briefing on Big Data, Privacy, and Antitrust. Building on their growing body of advocacy work, Nathan Newman and Allen Grunes argued that this hypothesized data barrier to entry actually exists, and that it prevents effective competition from search engines and social networks that are interested in offering services with heightened privacy protections.

According to Newman and Grunes, network effects and economies of scale ensure that dominant companies in search and social networking (they specifically named Google and Facebook — implying that they are in separate markets) operate without effective competition. This results in antitrust harm, they assert, because it precludes competition on the non-price factor of privacy protection.

In other words, according to Newman and Grunes, even though Google and Facebook offer their services for a price of $0 and constantly innovate and upgrade their products, consumers are nevertheless harmed because the business models of less-privacy-invasive alternatives are foreclosed by insufficient access to data (an almost self-contradicting and silly narrative for many reasons, including the big question of whether consumers prefer greater privacy protection to free stuff). Without access to, and use of, copious amounts of data, Newman and Grunes argue, the algorithms underlying search and targeted advertising are necessarily less effective and thus the search product without such access is less useful to consumers. And even more importantly to Newman, the value to advertisers of the resulting consumer profiles is diminished.

Newman has put forth a number of other possible antitrust harms that purportedly result from this alleged data barrier to entry, as well. Among these is the increased cost of advertising to those who wish to reach consumers. Presumably this would harm end users who have to pay more for goods and services because the costs of advertising are passed on to them. On top of that, Newman argues that ad networks inherently facilitate price discrimination, an outcome that he asserts amounts to antitrust harm.

FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen (who also spoke at the George Mason event) recently made the case that antitrust law is not well-suited to handling privacy problems. She argues — convincingly — that competition policy and consumer protection should be kept separate to preserve doctrinal stability. Antitrust law deals with harms to competition through the lens of economic analysis. Consumer protection law is tailored to deal with broader societal harms and aims at protecting the “sanctity” of consumer transactions. Antitrust law can, in theory, deal with privacy as a non-price factor of competition, but this is an uneasy fit because of the difficulties of balancing quality over two dimensions: Privacy may be something some consumers want, but others would prefer a better algorithm for search and social networks, and targeted ads with free content, for instance.

In fact, there is general agreement with Commissioner Ohlhausen on her basic points, even among critics like Newman and Grunes. But, as mentioned above, views diverge over whether there are some privacy harms that should nevertheless factor into competition analysis, and on whether there is in fact  a data barrier to entry that makes these harms possible.

As we explain below, however, the notion of data as an antitrust-relevant barrier to entry is simply a myth. And, because all of the theories of “privacy as an antitrust harm” are essentially predicated on this, they are meritless.

First, data is useful to all industries — this is not some new phenomenon particular to online companies

It bears repeating (because critics seem to forget it in their rush to embrace “online exceptionalism”) that offline retailers also receive substantial benefit from, and greatly benefit consumers by, knowing more about what consumers want and when they want it. Through devices like coupons and loyalty cards (to say nothing of targeted mailing lists and the age-old practice of data mining check-out receipts), brick-and-mortar retailers can track purchase data and better serve consumers. Not only do consumers receive better deals for using them, but retailers know what products to stock and advertise and when and on what products to run sales. For instance:

  • Macy’s analyzes tens of millions of terabytes of data every day to gain insights from social media and store transactions. Over the past three years, the use of big data analytics alone has helped Macy’s boost its revenue growth by 4 percent annually.
  • Following its acquisition of Kosmix in 2011, Walmart established @WalmartLabs, which created its own product search engine for online shoppers. In the first year of its use alone, the number of customers buying a product on Walmart.com after researching a purchase increased by 20 percent. According to Ron Bensen, the vice president of engineering at @WalmartLabs, the combination of in-store and online data could give brick-and-mortar retailers like Walmart an advantage over strictly online stores.
  • Panera and a whole host of restaurants, grocery stores, drug stores and retailers use loyalty cards to advertise and learn about consumer preferences.

And of course there is a host of others uses for data, as well, including security, fraud prevention, product optimization, risk reduction to the insured, knowing what content is most interesting to readers, etc. The importance of data stretches far beyond the online world, and far beyond mere retail uses more generally. To describe even online giants like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google as having a monopoly on data is silly.

Second, it’s not the amount of data that leads to success but building a better mousetrap

The value of knowing someone’s birthday, for example, is not in that tidbit itself, but in the fact that you know this is a good day to give that person a present. Most of the data that supports the advertising networks underlying the Internet ecosphere is of this sort: Information is important to companies because of the value that can be drawn from it, not for the inherent value of the data itself. Companies don’t collect information about you to stalk you, but to better provide goods and services to you.

Moreover, data itself is not only less important than what can be drawn from it, but data is also less important than the underlying product it informs. For instance, Snapchat created a challenger to  Facebook so successfully (and in such short time) that Facebook attempted to buy it for $3 billion (Google offered $4 billion). But Facebook’s interest in Snapchat wasn’t about its data. Instead, Snapchat was valuable — and a competitive challenge to Facebook — because it cleverly incorporated the (apparently novel) insight that many people wanted to share information in a more private way.

Relatedly, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Yelp, Pinterest (and Facebook itself) all started with little (or no) data and they have had a lot of success. Meanwhile, despite its supposed data advantages, Google’s attempts at social networking — Google+ — have never caught up to Facebook in terms of popularity to users (and thus not to advertisers either). And scrappy social network Ello is starting to build a significant base without data collection for advertising at all.

At the same time it’s simply not the case that the alleged data giants — the ones supposedly insulating themselves behind data barriers to entry — actually have the type of data most relevant to startups anyway. As Andres Lerner has argued, if you wanted to start a travel business, the data from Kayak or Priceline would be far more relevant. Or if you wanted to start a ride-sharing business, data from cab companies would be more useful than the broad, market-cross-cutting profiles Google and Facebook have. Consider companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar that had no customer data when they began to challenge established cab companies that did possess such data. If data were really so significant, they could never have competed successfully. But Uber, Lyft and Sidecar have been able to effectively compete because they built products that users wanted to use — they came up with an idea for a better mousetrap.The data they have accrued came after they innovated, entered the market and mounted their successful challenges — not before.

In reality, those who complain about data facilitating unassailable competitive advantages have it exactly backwards. Companies need to innovate to attract consumer data, otherwise consumers will switch to competitors (including both new entrants and established incumbents). As a result, the desire to make use of more and better data drives competitive innovation, with manifestly impressive results: The continued explosion of new products, services and other apps is evidence that data is not a bottleneck to competition but a spur to drive it.

Third, competition online is one click or thumb swipe away; that is, barriers to entry and switching costs are low

Somehow, in the face of alleged data barriers to entry, competition online continues to soar, with newcomers constantly emerging and triumphing. This suggests that the barriers to entry are not so high as to prevent robust competition.

Again, despite the supposed data-based monopolies of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and others, there exist powerful competitors in the marketplaces they compete in:

  • If consumers want to make a purchase, they are more likely to do their research on Amazon than Google.
  • Google flight search has failed to seriously challenge — let alone displace —  its competitors, as critics feared. Kayak, Expedia and the like remain the most prominent travel search sites — despite Google having literally purchased ITA’s trove of flight data and data-processing acumen.
  • People looking for local reviews go to Yelp and TripAdvisor (and, increasingly, Facebook) as often as Google.
  • Pinterest, one of the most highly valued startups today, is now a serious challenger to traditional search engines when people want to discover new products.
  • With its recent acquisition of the shopping search engine, TheFind, and test-run of a “buy” button, Facebook is also gearing up to become a major competitor in the realm of e-commerce, challenging Amazon.
  • Likewise, Amazon recently launched its own ad network, “Amazon Sponsored Links,” to challenge other advertising players.

Even assuming for the sake of argument that data creates a barrier to entry, there is little evidence that consumers cannot easily switch to a competitor. While there are sometimes network effects online, like with social networking, history still shows that people will switch. MySpace was considered a dominant network until it made a series of bad business decisions and everyone ended up on Facebook instead. Similarly, Internet users can and do use Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yahoo, and a plethora of more specialized search engines on top of and instead of Google. And don’t forget that Google itself was once an upstart new entrant that replaced once-household names like Yahoo and AltaVista.

Fourth, access to data is not exclusive

Critics like Newman have compared Google to Standard Oil and argued that government authorities need to step in to limit Google’s control over data. But to say data is like oil is a complete misnomer. If Exxon drills and extracts oil from the ground, that oil is no longer available to BP. Data is not finite in the same way. To use an earlier example, Google knowing my birthday doesn’t limit the ability of Facebook to know my birthday, as well. While databases may be proprietary, the underlying data is not. And what matters more than the data itself is how well it is analyzed.

This is especially important when discussing data online, where multi-homing is ubiquitous, meaning many competitors end up voluntarily sharing access to data. For instance, I can use the friend-finder feature on WordPress to find Facebook friends, Google connections, and people I’m following on Twitter who also use the site for blogging. Using this feature allows WordPress to access your contact list on these major online players.

Friend-Finder

Further, it is not apparent that Google’s competitors have less data available to them. Microsoft, for instance, has admitted that it may actually have more data. And, importantly for this discussion, Microsoft may have actually garnered some of its data for Bing from Google.

If Google has a high cost per click, then perhaps it’s because it is worth it to advertisers: There are more eyes on Google because of its superior search product. Contra Newman and Grunes, Google may just be more popular for consumers and advertisers alike because the algorithm makes it more useful, not because it has more data than everyone else.

Fifth, the data barrier to entry argument does not have workable antitrust remedies

The misguided logic of data barrier to entry arguments leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Perhaps most important among these is the question of remedies. What remedy would apply to a company found guilty of leveraging its market power with data?

It’s actually quite difficult to conceive of a practical means for a competition authority to craft remedies that would address the stated concerns without imposing enormous social costs. In the unilateral conduct context, the most obvious remedy would involve the forced sharing of data.

On the one hand, as we’ve noted, it’s not clear this would actually accomplish much. If competitors can’t actually make good use of data, simply having more of it isn’t going to change things. At the same time, such a result would reduce the incentive to build data networks to begin with. In their startup stage, companies like Uber and Facebook required several months and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to design and develop just the first iteration of the products consumers love. Would any of them have done it if they had to share their insights? In fact, it may well be that access to these free insights is what competitors actually want; it’s not the data they’re lacking, but the vision or engineering acumen to use it.

Other remedies limiting collection and use of data are not only outside of the normal scope of antitrust remedies, they would also involve extremely costly court supervision and may entail problematic “collisions between new technologies and privacy rights,” as the last year’s White House Report on Big Data and Privacy put it.

It is equally unclear what an antitrust enforcer could do in the merger context. As Commissioner Ohlhausen has argued, blocking specific transactions does not necessarily stop data transfer or promote privacy interests. Parties could simply house data in a standalone entity and enter into licensing arrangements. And conditioning transactions with forced data sharing requirements would lead to the same problems described above.

If antitrust doesn’t provide a remedy, then it is not clear why it should apply at all. The absence of workable remedies is in fact a strong indication that data and privacy issues are not suitable for antitrust. Instead, such concerns would be better dealt with under consumer protection law or by targeted legislation.

Microsoft wants you to believe that Google’s business practices stifle competition and harm consumers. Again.

The latest volley in its tiresome and ironic campaign to bludgeon Google with the same regulatory club once used against Microsoft itself is the company’s effort to foment an Android-related antitrust case in Europe.

In a recent polemicMicrosoft consultant (and business school professor) Ben Edelman denounces Google for requiring that, if device manufacturers want to pre-install key Google apps on Android devices, they “must install all the apps Google specifies, with the prominence Google requires, including setting these apps as defaults where Google instructs.” Edelman trots out gasp-worthy “secret” licensing agreements that he claims support his allegation (more on this later).

Similarly, a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Android’s ‘Open’ System Has Limits,” cites Edelman’s claim that limits on the licensing of Google’s proprietary apps mean that the Android operating system isn’t truly open source and comes with “strings attached.”

In fact, along with the Microsoft-funded trade organization FairSearch, Edelman has gone so far as to charge that this “tying” constitutes an antitrust violation. It is this claim that Microsoft and a network of proxies brought to the Commission when their efforts to manufacture a search-neutrality-based competition case against Google failed.

But before getting too caught up in the latest round of anti-Google hysteria, it’s worth noting that the Federal Trade Commission has already reviewed these claims. After a thorough, two-year inquiry, the FTC found the antitrust arguments against Google to be without merit. The South Korea Fair Trade Commission conducted its own two year investigation into Google’s Android business practices and dismissed the claims before it as meritless, as well.

Taking on Edelman and FairSearch with an exhaustive scholarly analysis, German law professor Torsten Koerber recently assessed the nature of competition among mobile operating systems and concluded that:

(T)he (EU) Fairsearch complaint ultimately does not aim to protect competition or consumers, as it pretends to. It rather strives to shelter Microsoft from competition by abusing competition law to attack Google’s business model and subvert competition.

It’s time to take a step back and consider the real issues at play.

In order to argue that Google has an iron grip on Android, Edelman’s analysis relies heavily on ”secret” Google licensing agreements — “MADAs” (Mobile Application Distribution Agreements) — trotted out with such fanfare one might think it was the first time two companies ever had a written contract (or tried to keep it confidential).

For Edelman, these agreements “suppress competition” with “no plausible pro-consumer benefits.” He writes, “I see no way to reconcile the MADA restrictions with [Android openness].”

Conveniently, however, Edelman neglects to cite to Section 2.6 of the MADA:

The parties will create an open environment for the Devices by making all Android Products and Android Application Programming Interfaces available and open on the Devices and will take no action to limit or restrict the Android platform.

Professor Korber’s analysis provides a straight-forward explanation of the relationship between Android and its OEM licensees:

Google offers Android to OEMs on a royalty-free basis. The licensees are free to download, distribute and even modify the Android code as they like. OEMs can create mobile devices that run “pure” Android…or they can apply their own user interfaces (IO) and thereby hide most of the underlying Android system (e.g. Samsung’s “TouchWiz” or HTC’s “Sense”). OEMs make ample use of this option.

The truth is that the Android operating system remains, as ever, definitively open source — but Android’s openness isn’t really what the fuss is about. In this case, the confusion (or obfuscation) stems from the casual confounding of Google Apps with the Android Operating System. As we’ll see, they aren’t the same thing.

Consider Amazon, which pre-loads no Google applications at all on its Kindle Fire and Fire Phone. Amazon’s version of Android uses Microsoft’s Bing as the default search engineNokia provides mapping services, and the app store is Amazon’s own.

Still, Microsoft’s apologists continue to claim that Android licensees can’t choose to opt out of Google’s applications suite — even though, according to a new report from ABI Research, 20 percent of smartphones shipped between May and July 2014 were based on a “Google-less” version of the Android OS. And that number is consistently increasing: Analysts predict that by 2015, 30 percent of Android phones won’t access Google Services.

It’s true that equipment manufacturers who choose the Android operating system have the option to include the suite of integrated, proprietary Google apps and services licensed (royalty-free) under the name Google Mobile Services (GMS). GMS includes Google Search, Maps, Calendar, YouTube and other apps that together define the “Google Android experience” that users know and love.

But Google Android is far from the only Android experience.

Even if a manufacturer chooses to license Google’s apps suite, Google’s terms are not exclusive. Handset makers are free to install competing applications, including other search engines, map applications or app stores.

Although Google requires that Google Search be made easily accessible (hardly a bad thing for consumers, as it is Google Search that finances the development and maintenance of all of the other (free) apps from which Google otherwise earns little to no revenue), OEMs and users alike can (and do) easily install and access other search engines in numerous ways. As Professor Korber notes:

The standard MADA does not entail any exclusivity for Google Search nor does it mandate a search default for the web browser.

Regardless, integrating key Google apps (like Google Search and YouTube) with other apps the company offers (like Gmail and Google+) is an antitrust problem only if it significantly forecloses competitors from these apps’ markets compared to a world without integrated Google apps, and without pro-competitive justification. Neither is true, despite the unsubstantiated claims to the contrary from Edelman, FairSearch and others.

Consumers and developers expect and demand consistency across devices so they know what they’re getting and don’t have to re-learn basic functions or program multiple versions of the same application. Indeed, Apple’s devices are popular in part because Apple’s closed iOS provides a predictable, seamless experience for users and developers.

But making Android competitive with its tightly controlled competitors requires special efforts from Google to maintain a uniform and consistent experience for users. Google has tried to achieve this uniformity by increasingly disentangling its apps from the operating system (the opposite of tying) and giving OEMs the option (but not the requirement) of licensing GMS — a “suite” of technically integrated Google applications (integrated with each other, not the OS).  Devices with these proprietary apps thus ensure that both consumers and developers know what they’re getting.

Unlike Android, Apple prohibits modifications of its operating system by downstream partners and users, and completely controls the pre-installation of apps on iOS devices. It deeply integrates applications into iOS, including Apple Maps, iTunes, Siri, Safari, its App Store and others. Microsoft has copied Apple’s model to a large degree, hard-coding its own applications (including Bing, Windows Store, Skype, Internet Explorer, Bing Maps and Office) into the Windows Phone operating system.

In the service of creating and maintaining a competitive platform, each of these closed OS’s bakes into its operating system significant limitations on which third-party apps can be installed and what they can (and can’t) do. For example, neither platform permits installation of a third-party app store, and neither can be significantly customized. Apple’s iOS also prohibits users from changing default applications — although the soon-to-be released iOS 8 appears to be somewhat more flexible than previous versions.

In addition to pre-installing a raft of their own apps and limiting installation of other apps, both Apple and Microsoft enable greater functionality for their own apps than they do the third-party apps they allow.

For example, Apple doesn’t make available for other browsers (like Google’s Chrome) all the JavaScript functionality that it does for Safari, and it requires other browsers to use iOS Webkit instead of their own web engines. As a result there are things that Chrome can’t do on iOS that Safari and only Safari can do, and Chrome itself is hamstrung in implementing its own software on iOS. This approach has led Mozilla to refuse to offer its popular Firefox browser for iOS devices (while it has no such reluctance about offering it on Android).

On Windows Phone, meanwhile, Bing is integrated into the OS and can’t be removed. Only in markets where Bing is not supported (and with Microsoft’s prior approval) can OEMs change the default search app from Bing. While it was once possible to change the default search engine that opens in Internet Explorer (although never from the hardware search button), the Windows 8.1 Hardware Development Notes, updated July 22, 2014, state:

By default, the only search provider included on the phone is Bing. The search provider used in the browser is always the same as the one launched by the hardware search button.

Both Apple iOS and Windows Phone tightly control the ability to use non-default apps to open intents sent from other apps and, in Windows especially, often these linkages can’t be changed.

As a result of these sorts of policies, maintaining the integrity — and thus the brand — of the platform is (relatively) easy for closed systems. While plenty of browsers are perfectly capable of answering an intent to open a web page, Windows Phone can better ensure a consistent and reliable experience by forcing Internet Explorer to handle the operation.

By comparison, Android, with or without Google Mobile Services, is dramatically more open, more flexible and customizable, and more amenable to third-party competition. Even the APIs that it uses to integrate its apps are open to all developers, ensuring that there is nothing that Google apps are able to do that non-Google apps with the same functionality are prevented from doing.

In other words, not just Gmail, but any email app is permitted to handle requests from any other app to send emails; not just Google Calendar but any calendar app is permitted to handle requests from any other app to accept invitations.

In no small part because of this openness and flexibility, current reports indicate that Android OS runs 85 percent of mobile devices worldwide. But it is OEM giant Samsung, not Google, that dominates the market, with a 65 percent share of all Android devices. Competition is rife, however, especially in emerging markets. In fact, according to one report, “Chinese and Indian vendors accounted for the majority of smartphone shipments for the first time with a 51% share” in 2Q 2014.

As he has not been in the past, Edelman is at least nominally circumspect in his unsubstantiated legal conclusions about Android’s anticompetitive effect:

Applicable antitrust law can be complicated: Some ties yield useful efficiencies, and not all ties reduce welfare.

Given Edelman’s connections to Microsoft and the realities of the market he is discussing, it could hardly be otherwise. If every integration were an antitrust violation, every element of every operating system — including Apple’s iOS as well as every variant of Microsoft’s Windows — should arguably be the subject of a government investigation.

In truth, Google has done nothing more than ensure that its own suite of apps functions on top of Android to maintain what Google sees as seamless interconnectivity, a high-quality experience for users, and consistency for application developers — while still allowing handset manufacturers room to innovate in a way that is impossible on other platforms. This is the very definition of pro-competitive, and ultimately this is what allows the platform as a whole to compete against its far more vertically integrated alternatives.

Which brings us back to Microsoft. On the conclusion of the FTC investigation in January 2013, a GigaOm exposé on the case had this to say:

Critics who say Google is too powerful have nagged the government for years to regulate the company’s search listings. But today the critics came up dry….

The biggest loser is Microsoft, which funded a long-running cloak-and-dagger lobbying campaign to convince the public and government that its arch-enemy had to be regulated….

The FTC is also a loser because it ran a high profile two-year investigation but came up dry.

EU regulators, take note.

The Federal Trade Commission’s recent enforcement actions against Amazon and Apple raise important questions about the FTC’s consumer protection practices, especially its use of economics. How does the Commission weigh the costs and benefits of its enforcement decisions? How does the agency employ economic analysis in digital consumer protection cases generally?

Join the International Center for Law and Economics and TechFreedom on Thursday, July 31 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for a lunch and panel discussion on these important issues, featuring FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Economics Martin Gaynor, and several former FTC officials. RSVP here.

Commissioner Wright will present a keynote address discussing his dissent in Apple and his approach to applying economics in consumer protection cases generally.

Geoffrey Manne, Executive Director of ICLE, will briefly discuss his recent paper on the role of economics in the FTC’s consumer protection enforcement. Berin Szoka, TechFreedom President, will moderate a panel discussion featuring:

  • Martin Gaynor, Director, FTC Bureau of Economics
  • David Balto, Fmr. Deputy Assistant Director for Policy & Coordination, FTC Bureau of Competition
  • Howard Beales, Fmr. Director, FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection
  • James Cooper, Fmr. Acting Director & Fmr. Deputy Director, FTC Office of Policy Planning
  • Pauline Ippolito, Fmr. Acting Director & Fmr. Deputy Director, FTC Bureau of Economics

Background

The FTC recently issued a complaint and consent order against Apple, alleging its in-app purchasing design doesn’t meet the Commission’s standards of fairness. The action and resulting settlement drew a forceful dissent from Commissioner Wright, and sparked a discussion among the Commissioners about balancing economic harms and benefits in Section 5 unfairness jurisprudence. More recently, the FTC brought a similar action against Amazon, which is now pending in federal district court because Amazon refused to settle.

Event Info

The “FTC: Technology and Reform” project brings together a unique collection of experts on the law, economics, and technology of competition and consumer protection to consider challenges facing the FTC in general, and especially regarding its regulation of technology. The Project’s initial report, released in December 2013, identified critical questions facing the agency, Congress, and the courts about the FTC’s future, and proposed a framework for addressing them.

The event will be live streamed here beginning at 12:15pm. Join the conversation on Twitter with the #FTCReform hashtag.

When:

Thursday, July 31
11:45 am – 12:15 pm — Lunch and registration
12:15 pm – 2:00 pm — Keynote address, paper presentation & panel discussion

Where:

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – Rehearsal Hall
641 D St NW
Washington, DC 20004

Questions? – Email mail@techfreedom.orgRSVP here.

See ICLE’s and TechFreedom’s other work on FTC reform, including:

  • Geoffrey Manne’s Congressional testimony on the the FTC@100
  • Op-ed by Berin Szoka and Geoffrey Manne, “The Second Century of the Federal Trade Commission”
  • Two posts by Geoffrey Manne on the FTC’s Amazon Complaint, here and here.

About The International Center for Law and Economics:

The International Center for Law and Economics is a non-profit, non-partisan research center aimed at fostering rigorous policy analysis and evidence-based regulation.

About TechFreedom:

TechFreedom is a non-profit, non-partisan technology policy think tank. We work to chart a path forward for policymakers towards a bright future where technology enhances freedom, and freedom enhances technology.

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.

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.

Over at the blog for the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property, Richard Epstein has posted a lengthy essay that critiques the Obama Administration’s decision this past August 3 to veto the exclusion order issued by the International Trade Commission (ITC) in the Samsung v. Apple dispute filed there (ITC Investigation No. 794).  In his essay, The Dangerous Adventurism of the United States Trade Representative: Lifting the Ban against Apple Products Unnecessarily Opens a Can of Worms in Patent Law, Epstein rightly identifies how the 3-page letter issued to the ITC creates tremendous institutional and legal troubles in the name an unverified theory about “patent holdup” invoked in the name of an equally overgeneralized and vague belief in the “public interest.”

Here’s a taste:

The choice in question here thus boils down to whether the low rate of voluntary failure justifies the introduction of an expensive and error-filled judicial process that gives all parties the incentive to posture before a public agency that has more business than it can possibly handle. It is on this matter critical to remember that all standards issues are not the same as this particularly nasty, high-stake dispute between two behemoths whose vital interests make this a highly atypical standard-setting dispute. Yet at no point in the Trade Representative’s report is there any mention of how this mega-dispute might be an outlier. Indeed, without so much as a single reference to its own limited institutional role, the decision uses a short three-page document to set out a dogmatic position on issues on which there is, as I have argued elsewhere, good reason to be suspicious of the overwrought claims of the White House on a point that is, to say the least, fraught with political intrigue

Ironically, there was, moreover a way to write this opinion that could have narrowed the dispute and exposed for public deliberation a point that does require serious consideration. The thoughtful dissenting opinion of Commissioner Pinkert pointed the way. Commissioner Pinkert contended that the key factor weighing against granting Samsung an exclusion order is that Samsung in its FRAND negotiations demanded from Apple rights to use certain non standard-essential patents as part of the overall deal. In this view, the introduction of nonprice terms on nonstandard patterns represents an abuse of the FRAND standard. Assume for the moment that this contention is indeed correct, and the magnitude of the problem is cut a hundred or a thousand fold. This particular objection is easy to police and companies will know that they cannot introduce collateral matters into their negotiations over standards, at which point the massive and pointless overkill of the Trade Representative’s order is largely eliminated. No longer do we have to treat as gospel truth the highly dubious assertions about the behavior of key parties to standard-setting disputes.

But is Pinkert correct? On the one side, it is possible to invoke a monopoly leverage theory similar to that used in some tie-in cases to block this extension. But those theories are themselves tricky to apply, and the counter argument could well be that the addition of new terms expands the bargaining space and thus increases the likelihood of an agreement. To answer that question to my mind requires some close attention to the actual and customary dynamics of these negotiations, which could easily vary across different standards. I would want to reserve judgment on a question this complex, and I think that the Trade Representative would have done everyone a great service if he had addressed the hard question. But what we have instead is a grand political overgeneralization that reflects a simple-minded and erroneous view of current practices.

You can read the essay at CPIP’s blog here, or you can download a PDF of the white paper version here (please feel free to distribute digitally or in hardcopy).

 

Over at Law360 I have a piece on patent enforcement at the ITC (gated), focusing on the ITC’s two Apple-Samsung cases: one in which the the ITC issued a final determination in which it found Apple to have infringed one of Samsung’s 3G-related SEPs, and the other (awaiting a final determination from the Commission) in which an ALJ found Samsung infringed four of Apple’s patents, including a design patent. Here’s a taste:

In fact, there is a strong argument in favor of ITC adjudication of FRAND-encumbered patents. As the name suggests, FRAND-encumbered patents must be licensed by their owners on reasonable, nondiscriminatory terms. Despite Apple’s claims that Samsung refused to negotiate, this seems unlikely (and the ITC found otherwise, of course). What’s more, post-adjudication, the FRAND requirement associated with a FRAND-encumbered patent remains.

As a result, negotiation over license terms for FRAND-encumbered patents can only be more likely than for other patents on which there is no duty to negotiate. Agreement over terms is similarly more likely as FRAND narrows the bargaining range for patent holders. What that means is that (1) avoiding a possible ITC exclusion order ex ante is a simple matter of entering into negotiations and licensing, an outcome that is required by FRAND, and (2) ex post (that is, after an exclusion order is issued), reinstating the ability to import and sell otherwise-infringing devices is also more readily accomplished, likewise through obligatory negotiation and licensing.

* * *

The ITC’s threat of injunctive relief can impel negotiation and licensing in all contexts, of course. But the absence of monetary damages, coupled with the inherent uncertainties surrounding design patents, the broad scope of enforcement and the vagaries of CBP’s implementation of ITC orders, is significantly more troubling in the design patent context. Thus, contrary to many critics’ assertions, the White House’s recent proposal and pending bills in Congress, it is actually FRAND-encumbered SEPs that are most amenable to adjudication and enforcement by the ITC

As they say, read the whole thing.

Coincidentally, Verizon’s general counsel, Randal Milch, has an op-ed on the same topic in today’s Wall Street Journal. Notes Milch:

What we have warned is that patent litigation at the ITC—where the only remedy is to keep products from the American public—is too high-stakes a game for patent disputes. The fact that the ITC’s intellectual-property-dispute docket has nearly quadrupled over 15 years only raises the stakes further. Smartphone patent litigation accounts for a substantial share of that increase.

Here are three instances under which the president should veto an exclusion order:

  • When the patent holder isn’t practicing the technology itself. Courts have routinely found shutdown relief inappropriate for non-practicing entities. Patent trolls shouldn’t be permitted to exclude products from our shores.
  • When the patent holder has already agreed to license the patent on reasonable terms as part of standards setting. If the patent holder has previously agreed that a reasonable licensing fee is all it needs to be made whole, it shouldn’t get shutdown relief at the ITC.
  • When the infringing piece of the product isn’t that important to the overall product, and doesn’t drive consumer demand for the product at issue. There are more than 250,000 patents relevant to today’s smartphones. It makes no sense that exclusion could occur for infringement of the most minor patent.

Obviously, the second of these is implicated in the ITC’s SEP case. But, as I have noted before, this ignores (and exacerbates) the problem of reverse holdup—where potential licensees refuse to license on reasonable terms. As the ITC noted in the Apple-Samsung SEP case:

The ALJ found that the evidence did not support a conclusion that Samsung failed to offer Apple a license on FRAND terms.

***

Apple argues that Samsung was obligated to make an initial offer to Apple of a specific fair and reasonable royalty rate. The evidence on record does not support Apple’s position….Further, there is no legal authority for Apple’s argument. Indeed, the limited precedent on the issue appears to indicate that an initial offer need not be the terms of a final FRAND license because the SSO intends the final license to be accomplished through negotiation. See Microsoft Corp. v. Motorola, Inc. (because SSOs contemplated that RAND terms be determined through negotiation, “it logically does not follow that initial offers must be on RAND terms”) [citation omitted].

***

Apple’s position illustrates the potential problem of so-called reverse patent hold-up, a concern identified in many of the public comments received by the Commission.20 In reverse patent hold-up, an implementer utilizes declared-essential technology without compensation to the patent owner under the guise that the patent owner’s offers to license were not fair or reasonable. The patent owner is therefore forced to defend its rights through expensive litigation. In the meantime, the patent owner is deprived of the exclusionary remedy that should normally flow when a party refuses to pay for the use of a patented invention.

One other note, on the point about the increase in patent litigation: This needs to be understood in context. As this article notes:

Over the last 40 years the number of patent lawsuits filed in the US has stayed relatively constant as a percentage of patents issued.

And the accompanying charts paint the picture even more clearly. Perhaps the numbers at the ITC would look somewhat different, as it seems to have increased in importance as a locus of patent litigation activity. But the larger point about the purported excess of patent litigation remains. I hasten to add that this doesn’t mean that the system is perfect, in particular (as my Law360 piece notes) with respect to the issuance and enforcement of design patents. But that may be an argument for USPTO reform, design patent reform, and/or, as Scott Kieff (who, by the way, finally got a hearing last week on his nomination by President Obama to be a member of the ITC) has argued, targeted reforms of the presumption of validity and fee-shifting. But it’s not a strong argument against injunctive remedies (at the ITC or elsewhere) in SEP cases.

Patent Activity by Year (in Terms of Applications Filed, Patents Issued and Lawsuits Filed)

Patent Activity by Year (in Terms of Applications Filed, Patents Issued and Lawsuits Filed)

Patent Lawsuits Normalized Against Patents Issued and Applications Filed

Patent Lawsuits Normalized Against Patents Issued and Applications Filed

Patent Activity by Year (in Terms of Applications Filed, Patents Issued and Lawsuits Filed), 5-year Moving Averages

Patent Activity by Year (in Terms of Applications Filed, Patents Issued and Lawsuits Filed), 5-year Moving Averages

On July 10 a federal judge ruled that Apple violated antitrust law by conspiring to raise prices of e-books when it negotiated deals with five major publishers. I’ve written on the case and the issues involved in it several times, including here, here, here and here. The most recent of these was titled, “Why I think the government will have a tough time winning the Apple e-books antitrust case.” I’m hedging my bets with the title this time, but it’s fairly clear to me that the court got this case wrong.

The predominant sentiment among pundits following the decision seems to be approval (among authors, however, the response to the suit has been decidedly different). Supporters believe it will lower e-book prices and instigate a shift in the electronic publishing industry toward some more-preferred business model. This sort of reasoning is dangerous and inconsistent with principled, restrained antitrust. Neither the government nor its supporting commentators should use, or applaud the use, of antitrust to impose the government’s (or anyone else’s) preferred business model on industry. And lower prices in the short run, while often an indication of increased competition, are not, by themselves, sufficient to determine that a business model is efficient in the long run.

For example, in a recent article, Mark Lemley is quoted supporting the outcome, noting that it may spur a shift toward his preferred model of electronic publishing:

It also makes no sense that publishers, not authors, capture most of the revenue from e-books, when they do very little of the work. I understand why publishers are reluctant to give up their old business model, but if they want to survive in the digital world, it’s time to make some changes.

As noted, there is no basis for using antitrust enforcement to coerce an industry to shift to a particular distribution of profits simply because “it’s time to make some changes.” Lemley’s characterization of the market’s dynamics is also seriously lacking in economic grounding (and the Authors Guild response to the suit linked above suggests the same). The economics of entrepreneurship has an impressive intellectual pedigree that began with Frank Knight, was further developed by Joseph Schumpeter, Israel Kirzner and Harold Demsetz, among others, and continues to today with its inclusion as a factor of production. (On the development of this tradition and especially Harold Demsetz’s important contribution to it, see here). The implicit claim that publishers’ and authors’ interests (to say nothing of consumers’ interests) are simply at odds, and that the “right” distribution of profits would favor authors over publishers based on the amount of “work” they do is economically baseless. Although it is a common claim, reflecting either idiosyncratic preferences or ignorance about the role of content publishers and distributors in the e-book marketplace and the role of entrepreneurship more generally, it is nonetheless mistaken and has no place in a consumer-welfare-based assessment of the market or antitrust intervention in it.

It’s also utterly unclear how the antitrust suit would do anything to change the relative distribution of profits between publishers and authors. In fact, the availability of direct publishing (offered by both Amazon and Apple) is the most likely disruptor of that dynamic, and authors could only be helped by an increase in competition among platforms—in other words, by Apple’s successful entry into the market.

Apple entered the e-books market as a relatively small upstart battling a dominant incumbent. That it did so by offering publishers (suppliers) attractive terms to deal with its new iBookstore is no different than a new competitor in any industry offering novel products or loss-leader prices to attract customers and build market share. When new entry then induces an industry-wide shift toward the new entrants’ products, prices or business model it’s usually called “competition,” and lauded as the aim of properly functioning markets. The same should be true here.

Despite the court’s claim that

there is overwhelming evidence that the Publisher Defendants joined with each other in a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy,

that evidence is actually extremely weak. What is unclear is why the publishers would need a conspiracy when they rarely compete against each other directly.

The court states that

To protect their then-existing business model, the Publisher Defendants agreed to raise the prices of e-books by taking control of retail pricing.

But despite the use of the antitrust trigger-words, “agreed to raise prices,” this agreement is not remotely clear, and rests entirely on circumstantial evidence (more on this later). None of the evidence suggests actual agreement over price, and none of the evidence demonstrates conclusively any real incentive for the publishers to reach “agreement” at all. In actuality, publishers rarely compete against each other directly (least of all on price); instead, for each individual publisher (and really for each individual title), the most relevant competition for this case is between the e-book version of a particular title and its physical counterpart. In this situation it should matter little to any particular e-book’s sales whether every other e-book in the world is sold at the same price or even a lower price.

While the opinion asserts that each publisher

could also expect to lose substantial sales if they unilaterally raised the prices of their own e-books and none of their competitors followed suit,

it also states that

there is no evidence that the Publisher Defendants have ever competed with each other on price. To the contrary, several of the Publishers’ CEOs explained that they have not competed with each other on that basis.

These statements are difficult to reconcile, but the evidence supports the latter statement, not the former.

The only explanation offered by the court for the publishers’ alleged need for concerted action is an ambiguous claim that Amazon would capitulate in shifting to the agency model only if every publisher pressured it to do so simultaneously. The court claims that

if the Publisher Defendants were going to take control of e-book pricing and move the price point above $9.99, they needed to act collectively; any other course would leave an individual Publisher vulnerable to retaliation from Amazon.

But it’s not clear why this would be so.

On the one hand, if Apple really were the electronic publishing juggernaut implied by this antitrust action, this concern should be minimal: Publishers wouldn’t need Amazon and could simply sell their e-books through Apple’s iBookstore. In this case the threat of even any individual publisher’s “retaliation” against Amazon (decamping to Apple) would suffice to shift relative bargaining power between the publishers and Amazon, and concerted action wouldn’t be necessary. On this theory, the fact that it was only after Apple’s entry that Amazon agreed to shift to the agency model—a fact cited by the court many times to support its conclusions—is utterly unremarkable.

That prices may have shifted as well is equally unremarkable: The agency model puts pricing decisions in publishers’ hands (who, as I’ve previously discussed, have very different incentives than Amazon) where before Amazon had control over prices. Moreover, even when Apple presented evidence that average e-book prices actually fell after its entrance into the market, the court demanded that Apple prove a causal relationship between its entrance and lower overall prices. (Even the DOJ’s own evidence shows, at worst, little change in price, despite its heated claims to the contrary.) But the burden of proof in such cases rests with the government to prove that Apple caused prices to rise, not for Apple to explain why they fell.

On the other hand, if the loss of Amazon as a retail outlet were really so significant for publishers, Apple’s ability to function as the lynchpin of the alleged conspiracy is seriously questionable. While the agency model coupled with the persistence of $9.99 pricing by Amazon would seem to mean reduced revenue for publishers on each book sold through Apple’s store, the relatively trivial number of Apple sales compared with Amazon’s, particularly at the outset, would be of little concern to publishers, and thus to Amazon. In this case it is difficult to believe that publishers would threaten their relationships with Amazon for the sake of preserving the return on their newly negotiated contracts with Apple (and even more difficult to believe that Amazon would capitulate), and the claimed coordinating effects of the MFN provisions is difficult to sustain.

The story with respect to Amazon is questionable for another reason. While the court claims that the publishers’ concern with Amazon’s $9.99 pricing was its effect on physical book sales, it is extremely hard to believe that somehow $12.99 for the electronic version of a $30 (or, often, even more expensive) physical book would be significantly less damaging to physical book sales. Moreover, the evidence put forth by the DOJ and found persuasive by the court all pointed to e-book revenues alone, not physical book sales, as the issue of most concern to publishers (thus, for example, Steve Jobs wrote to HarperCollins’ CEO that it could “[k]eep going with Amazon at $9.99. You will make a bit more money in the short term, but in the medium term Amazon will tell you they will be paying you 70% of $9.99. They have shareholders too.”).

Moreover, as Joshua Gans points out, the agency model that Amazon may have entered into with the publishers would have been particularly unhelpful in ensuring monopoly returns for the publishers (we don’t know the exact terms of their contracts, however, and there are reports from trial that Amazon’s terms were “identical” to Apple’s):

While Apple gave publishers a 70 percent share of book sales and the ability to set their own price, Amazon offered a menu. If you price below $9.99 for a book, Amazon’s share will be 70 percent but if you price above $10, Amazon only returns 35 percent to the publisher. Amazon also charged publishers a delivery fee based on the book’s size (in kb).

Thus publishers could, of course, raise prices to $12.99 in both Apple’s and Amazon’s e-book stores, but, if this effective price cap applied, doing so would result in a significant loss of revenue from Amazon. In other words, the court’s claim—that, having entered into MFNs with Apple, the publishers then had to move Amazon to the agency model to ensure that they didn’t end up being forced by the MFNs to sell books via Apple (on the less-attractive agency terms) at Amazon’s $9.99—is far-fetched. To the extent that raising Amazon’s prices above $10 may have cut royalties almost in half, the MFNs with Apple would be extremely unlikely to have such a powerful effect. But, as noted above, because of the relative sales volumes involved the same dynamic would have applied even under identical terms.

It is true, of course, that Apple cares about price differences between books sold through its iBookstore and the same titles sold through other electronic retailers—and thus it imposed MFN clauses on the publishers. But this is not anticompetitive. In fact, by facilitating Apple’s entry, the MFN clauses plainly increased competition by introducing a new competitor to the industry. What’s more, the terms of Apple’s agreements with the publishers exactly mirrors the terms it uses for apps and music sold through the iTunes store, as well. And as Gordon Crovitz noted:

As this column reported when the case was brought last year, Apple executive Eddy Cue in 2011 turned down my effort to negotiate different terms for apps by news publishers by telling me: “I don’t think you understand. We can’t treat newspapers or magazines any differently than we treat FarmVille.” His point was clear: The 30% revenue-share model is how Apple does business with everyone. It is not, as the government alleges, a scheme Apple concocted to fix prices with book publishers.

Another important error in the case — and, unfortunately, it is one to which Apple’s lawyers acceded—is the treatment of “trade e-books” as the relevant market. For antitrust purposes, there is no generalized e-book (or physical book, for that matter) market. As noted above, the court itself acknowledged that the publishers “have [n]ever competed with each other on price.” The price of Stephen King’s latest novel likely has, at best, a trivial effect on sales of…nearly every other fiction book published, and probably zero effect on sales of non-fiction books.

This is important because the court’s opinion turns on mostly circumstantial evidence of an alleged conspiracy among publishers to raise prices and on the role of concerted action in protecting publishers from being “undercut” by their competitors. But in a world where publishers don’t compete on price (and where the alleged agreement would have reduced the publishers’ revenues in the short run and done little if anything to shore up physical book sales in the long run), it is far-fetched to interpret this evidence as the court does—to infer a conspiracy to raise prices.

Meanwhile, by restricting itself to consideration of competitive effects in the e-book market alone, the court also inappropriately and without commentary dispenses with Apple’s pro-competitive justifications for its conduct. Put simply, Apple contends that its entry into the e-book retail and reader markets was facilitated by its contract terms. But the court ignores these arguments.

On the one hand, it does so because it treats this as a per se case, in which procompetitive effects are irrelevant. But the court’s determination to treat this as a per se case—with its lengthy recitation of relevant legal precedent and only cursory application of precedent to the facts of the case—is suspect. As I have noted before:

What would [justify per se treatment] is if the publishers engaged in concerted action to negotiate these more-favorable terms with other publishers, and what would be problematic for Apple is if its agreement with each publisher facilitated that collusion.

But I don’t see any persuasive evidence that the terms of Apple’s deals with each publisher did any such thing. For MFNs to perform the function alleged by the DOJ it seems to me that the MFNs would have to contribute to the alleged agreement between the publishers, just as the actions of the vertical co-conspirators in Interstate Circuit and Toys-R-Us were alleged to facilitate coordination. But neither the agency agreement itself nor the MFN and price cap terms in the contracts in any way affected the publishers’ incentive to compete with each other. Nor, as noted above, did they require any individual publisher to cause its books to be sold at higher prices through other distributors.

Even if it is true that the publishers participated in a per se illegal horizontal price fixing scheme (and despite the court’s assertion that this is beyond dispute, the evidence is not nearly so clear as the court suggests), Apple’s unique role in that alleged scheme can’t be analyzed in the same fashion. As Leegin notes (and the court in this case quotes), for conduct to merit per se treatment it must “always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” But the conduct at issue here—whether somehow coupled with a horizontal price fixing scheme or not—doesn’t meet this standard. The agency model, the MFN terms in the publishers’ contracts with Apple, and the efforts by Apple to secure broad participation by the largest publishers before entering the market are all potentially—if not likely—procompetitive. And output seems to have increased substantially following Apple’s entry into the e-book retail market.

In short, I continue to believe that the facts of this case do not merit per se treatment, and there is a good chance the court’s opinion could be overturned on this ground. For this reason, its rejection of Apple’s procompetitive arguments was inappropriate.

But even in its brief “even under the rule of reason…” analysis, the court improperly rejects Apple’s procompetitive arguments. The court’s consideration of these arguments is basically summed up here:

The pro-competitive effects to which Apple has pointed, including its launch of the iBookstore, the technical novelties of the iPad, and the evolution of digital publishing more generally, are phenomena that are independent of the Agreements and therefore do not demonstrate any pro-competitive effects flowing from the Agreements.

But this is factually inaccurate. Apple has claimed that its entry—and thus at minimum its development and marketing of the iPad as an e-reader and its creation of the iBookstore—were indeed functions of the contract terms and the simultaneous acceptance by the largest publishers of these terms.

The court goes on to assert that, even if the claimed pro-competitive effect was the introduction of competition into the e-book market,

Apple demanded, as a precondition of its entry into the market, that it would not have to compete with Amazon on price. Thus, from the consumer’s perspective — a not unimportant perspective in the field of antitrust — the arrival of the iBookstore brought less price competition and higher prices.

In making this claim the court effectively—and improperly—condemns MFNs to per se illegal status. In doing so the court claims that its opinion’s reach is not so broad:

this Court has not found that any of these [agency agreements, MFN clauses, etc.]…components of Apple’s entry into the market were wrongful, either alone or in combination. What was wrongful was the use of those components to facilitate a conspiracy with the Publisher Defendants”

But the claimed absence of retail price competition that accompanied Apple’s entry is entirely a function of the MFN clauses: Whether at $9.99 or $12.99, the MFN clauses were what ensured that Apple’s and Amazon’s prices would be the same, and disclaimer or not they are swept in to the court’s holding.

This effective condemnation of MFN clauses, while plainly sought by the DOJ, is simply inappropriate as a matter of law. In order to condemn Apple’s conduct under the per se rule, the court relies on the operation of the MFNs in allegedly reducing competition and raising prices to make its case. But that these do not “always or almost always tend to restrict competition and reduce output” is clear. While the DOJ may view such terms otherwise (more on this here and here), courts have not done so, and Leegin’s holding that such vertical restraints are to be assessed under the rule of reason still holds. The court’s use of the per se standard and its refusal to consider Apple’s claimed pro-competitive effects are improper.

Thus I (somewhat more cautiously this time…) suggest that the court’s decision may be overturned on appeal, and I most certainly think it should be. It seems plainly troubling as a matter of economics, and inappropriate as a matter of law.

Trial begins today in the Southern District of New York in United States v. Apple (the Apple e-books case), which I discussed previously here. Along with co-author Will Rinehart, I also contributed an  essay to a discussion of the case in Concurrences (alongside contributions from Jon Jacobson and Mark Powell, among others).

Much of my writing on the case has essentially addressed it as a rule of reason case, assessing the economic merits of Apple’s contract terms. And as I mention in this Reuters article from yesterday on the case, one of the key issues in this analysis (and one of the government’s key targets in the case) is the use of MFN clauses.

But as Josh pointed out in a blog post last year,

my hunch is that if the case is litigated its legacy will be as an “agreement” case rather than what it contributes to rule of reason analysis.  In other words, if Apple gets to the rule of reason, the DOJ (like most plaintiffs in rule of reason cases) are likely to lose — especially in light of at least preliminary evidence of dramatic increases in output.  The critical question — I suspect — will be about proof of an actual naked price fixing agreement among publishers and Apple, and as a legal matter, what evidence is sufficient to establish that agreement for the purposes of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

He’s likely correct, of course, that a central question at trial will be whether or not this is a per se or rule of reason case, and that trial will focus in significant part on the sufficiency of the evidence of agreement. But because this determination will turn considerably on the purpose and function of the MFN and price cap terms in Apple’s agreements with the publishers, I don’t think there should (or will) be much difference. Nor do I think the government should (or will) win.

Before the court can apply the per se rule, it must satisfy itself that the conduct at issue “would always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” But it is not true as a matter of economics — and certainly not true as a matter of law — that MFNs meet this standard.

After State Oil v. Kahn there can be no question about the rule of reason (if not per se legal) status of price caps. And as the Court noted in Leegin:

Resort to per se rules is confined to restraints, like those mentioned, “that would always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” To justify a per se prohibition a restraint must have “manifestly anticompetitive” effects, and “lack any redeeming virtue.

As a consequence, the per se rule is appropriate only after courts have had considerable experience with the type of restraint at issue, and only if courts can predict with confidence that it would be invalidated in all or almost all instances under the rule of reason. It should come as no surprise, then, that “we have expressed reluctance to adopt per se rules with regard to restraints imposed in the context of business relationships where the economic impact of certain practices is not immediately obvious.” And, as we have stated, a “departure from the rule-of-reason standard must be based upon demonstrable economic effect rather than . . . upon formalistic line drawing.”

After Leegin, all vertical non-price restraints, including MFNs, are assessed under the rule of reason.  Courts neither have “considerable experience” with MFNs, nor can they remotely “predict with confidence that they would be invalidated in all or almost all instances under the rule of reason.” As a recent article in Antitrust points out,

The DOJ and FTC have brought approximately ten cases over the last two decades challenging MFNs. Most of these cases involved the health care industry and all were resolved by consent judgments.

Even if the court does take a harder look at whether a per se rule should govern, however, as a practical matter there is not likely to be much difference between a “does this merit per se treatment” analysis and analysis of the facts under the rule of reason. As the Court pointed out in California Dental Association,

The truth is that our categories of analysis of anticompetitive effect are less fixed than terms like “per se,” “quick look,” and “rule of reason” tend to make them appear. We have recognized, for example, that “there is often no bright line separating per se from Rule of Reason analysis,” since “considerable inquiry into market conditions” may be required before the application of any so-called “per se” condemnation is justified. “[W]hether the ultimate finding is the product of a presumption or actual market analysis, the essential inquiry remains the same–whether or not the challenged restraint enhances competition.”

And as my former classmate Tom Nachbar points out in a recent article,

it’s hard to identity much relative simplicity in the per se rule. Indeed, the moniker “per se” has become somewhat misleading, as cases determining whether to apply the per se or rule of reason become as long as ones actually applying the rule of reason itself.

Of course that doesn’t end the analysis, and the government’s filings do all they can to sidestep the direct antitrust treatment of MFNs and instead assert that they (and other evidence alleged) permit the court to infer Apple’s participation as the coordinator of a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy among the publishers.

But as Apple argues in its filings,

The[ relevant] cases mandate an inquiry into the possibility that the challenged contract terms and negotiation approach were in Apple’s independent economic interests. The evidence is overwhelming—not just possible—that Apple acted for its own valid business reasons and not to “raise consumer prices market-wide.”…Plaintiffs ask this Court to infer Apple’s participation in a conspiracy from (1) its MFN and price cap terms and (2) negotiations with publishers.

* * *

What is obvious, however, is that Apple has not fixed prices with its competitors. What is remarkable is that the government seeks to impose grave legal consequences on an inherently pro-competitive act—entry—accomplished via agency, an MFN, and price caps, none of which is per se unlawful.

The government’s strenuous objection to Apple’s interpretation of the controlling Supreme Court authority, Monsanto v. Spray-Rite, notwithstanding, it’s difficult to see the MFN clauses as evidence of Apple’s participation in the publishers’ alleged conspiracy.

An important point supporting Apple’s argument here is that, unlike the “hubs” in the other “hub and spoke” conspiracies on which the DOJ bases its case, Apple has no significant leverage over the alleged co-conspirators, and thus no power to coordinate — let alone enforce — a price-fixing scheme. As Apple argues in its Opposition brief,

The only “power” Apple could wield over the publishers was the attractiveness of a business opportunity—hardly the “make or break” scenarios found in Interstate Circuit and [Toys-R-Us]. Far from capitulating to Apple’s requested core business terms, the publishers fought Apple tooth and nail and negotiated intensely to the very end, and the largest, Random House, declined.

And as Will and I note in our Concurrences article,

MFNs are essentially an important way of…offering some protection against publishers striking a deal with a competitor that leaves Apple forced to price its ebooks out of the market.

There is nothing, that we know of, in the MFNs or elsewhere in the agreements that requires the publishers to impose higher resale prices elsewhere, or prevents the publishers from selling through Apple at a lower price, if necessary. Most important, for Apple’s negotiated prices to dominate in the market it would have to enjoy market power – a condition, currently at least, that is exceedingly unlikely given its 10% share of the ebook market.

The point is that, even if everything the government alleges about the publishers’ price fixing scheme were true, it’s extremely difficult to see Apple as a co-conspirator in such a scheme. The Supreme Court’s holding in Monsanto stands for nothing if not the principle that courts may not infer a vertical party’s participation in a horizontal price-fixing scheme from the existence of otherwise-legal and -defensible interactions between the vertically related parties. Because MFNs have valid purposes outside the realm of price-fixing, they may not be converted into illegal conduct on Apple’s part simply because they might also “sharpen [a publisher’s] incentives” to try to raise prices elsewhere.

Remember, we are in a world where the requisite anticompetitive conduct can’t be simply the vertical restraint itself. Rather, we’re evaluating whether the vertical restraint was part of a broader anticompetitive scheme among the publishers. For the MFN clauses to be part of that alleged scheme they must have an identifiable place in the scheme.

First of all, it is unremarkable that Apple might offer terms to any individual publisher (or to all publishers independently) that might be more favorable to the publisher than terms it is getting elsewhere; that’s how a new entrant in Apple’s position attracts suppliers. It is likewise unremarkable that Apple would seek to impose terms (like the MFN) that would preserve its ability to offer a publisher’s books for the same price they are offered elsewhere (which is necessary because the agency agreements negotiated by Apple otherwise remove pricing authority from Apple and confer it on the publishers themselves). And finally it is unremarkable that each publisher would try to negotiate similarly favorable terms with other distributors (or, more accurately, continue to try: bargaining over distribution terms with other distributors hardly started only after the agreements were signed with Apple). What would be notable is if the publishers engaged in concerted action to negotiate these more-favorable terms with other publishers, and what would be problematic for Apple is if its agreement with each publisher facilitated that collusion.

But I don’t see any persuasive evidence that the terms of Apple’s deals with each publisher did any such thing. For MFNs to perform the function alleged by the DOJ it seems to me that the MFNs would have to contribute to the alleged agreement between the publishers, just as the actions of the vertical co-conspirators in Interstate Circuit and Toys-R-Us were alleged to facilitate coordination. But neither the agency agreement itself nor the MFN and price cap terms in the contracts in any way affected the publishers’ incentive to compete with each other. Nor, as noted above, did they require any individual publisher to cause its books to be sold at higher prices through other distributors.

On this latter point, the DOJ alleges that the MFNs “sharpen[ed publishers’] incentives” to raise prices:

If a retailer were allowed to remain on wholesale terms, and that retailer continued to price new release e-books at $9.99, the Publisher Defendant would be forced to lower the iBookstore price to match the $9.99 price

Not only does this say nothing about the incentives of the publishers to compete with each other on price (except that it may have increased that incentive by undermining the prevailing $9.99-for-all-books standard), it seems far-fetched to suggest that fear of having to lower prices for books sold in Apple’s relatively trivial corner of the market would have an apreciable effect on a publisher’s incentives to raise prices elsewhere. For what it’s worth, it also seems far-fetched to suggest that Apple’s motivation was to raise prices given that e-book sales generate only about .0005% of Apple’s total revenues.

Beyond this, the DOJ essentially argues that Apple coordinated agreement among the publishers to accept the terms being offered by Apple, with the intent and effect that this would lead to imposition by the publishers of similar terms (and higher prices) on other distributors. Perhaps, but it’s a stretch. And if it is true, it isn’t because of the MFN clauses. Moreover, it isn’t clear to me (maybe I’m missing some obvious controlling case law?) that agreement over the type of contract used amounts to an illegal horizontal agreement; arguably in this case, at least, it is closer to an ancillary restraint or  justified agreement (as in BMI, e.g.) than, say, a group boycott or bid rigging. In any case, if the DOJ has a case at all turning on this scenario, I think it will have to be based entirely on the alleged evidence of direct coordination (i.e., communications between Apple and publishers during dinners and phone calls) rather than the operation of the contract terms themselves.

In any case, it will be interesting to see how the trial unfolds.

By Geoffrey Manne and Berin Szoka

Everyone loves to hate record labels. For years, copyright-bashers have ranted about the “Big Labels” trying to thwart new models for distributing music in terms that would make JFK assassination conspiracy theorists blush. Now they’ve turned their sites on the pending merger between Universal Music Group and EMI, insisting the deal would be bad for consumers. There’s even a Senate Antitrust Subcommittee hearing tomorrow, led by Senator Herb “Big is Bad” Kohl.

But this is a merger users of Spotify, Apple’s iTunes and the wide range of other digital services ought to love. UMG has done more than any other label to support the growth of such services, cutting licensing deals with hundreds of distribution outlets—often well before other labels. Piracy has been a significant concern for the industry, and UMG seems to recognize that only “easy” can compete with “free.” The company has embraced the reality that music distribution paradigms are changing rapidly to keep up with consumer demand. So why are groups like Public Knowledge opposing the merger?

Critics contend that the merger will elevate UMG’s already substantial market share and “give it the power to distort or even determine the fate of digital distribution models.” For these critics, the only record labels that matter are the four majors, and four is simply better than three. But this assessment hews to the outmoded, “big is bad” structural analysis that has been consistently demolished by economists since the 1970s. Instead, the relevant touchstone for all merger analysis is whether the merger would give the merged firm a new incentive and ability to engage in anticompetitive conduct. But there’s nothing UMG can do with EMI’s catalogue under its control that it can’t do now. If anything, UMG’s ownership of EMI should accelerate the availability of digitally distributed music.

To see why this is so, consider what digital distributors—whether of the pay-as-you-go, iTunes type, or the all-you-can-eat, Spotify type—most want: Access to as much music as possible on terms on par with those of other distribution channels. For the all-you-can-eat distributors this is a sine qua non: their business models depend on being able to distribute as close as possible to all the music every potential customer could want. But given UMG’s current catalogue, it already has the ability, if it wanted to exercise it, to extract monopoly profits from these distributors, as they simply can’t offer a viable product without UMG’s catalogue. Continue Reading…