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Please join us at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC on December 16th for a conference launching the year-long project, “FTC: Technology and Reform.” With complex technological issues increasingly on the FTC’s docket, we will consider what it means that the FTC is fast becoming the Federal Technology Commission.

The FTC: Technology & 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.

For many, new technologies represent “challenges” to the agency, a continuous stream of complex threats to consumers that can be mitigated only by ongoing regulatory vigilance. We view technology differently, as an overwhelmingly positive force for consumers. To us, the FTC’s role is to promote the consumer benefits of new technology — not to “tame the beast” but to intervene only with caution, when the likely consumer benefits of regulation outweigh the risk of regulatory error. This conference is the start of a year-long project that will recommend concrete reforms to ensure that the FTC’s treatment of technology works to make consumers better off. Continue Reading…

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) continues to be a hot button issue for many online businesses and privacy advocates. On November 14, Senator Markey, along with Senator Kirk and Representatives Barton and Rush introduced the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2013 to amend the statute to include children from 13-15 and add new requirements, like an eraser button. The current COPPA Rule, since the FTC’s recent update went into effect this past summer, requires parental consent before businesses can collect information about children online, including relatively de-identified information like IP addresses and device numbers that allow for targeted advertising.

Often, the debate about COPPA is framed in a way that makes it very difficult to discuss as a policy matter. With the stated purpose of “enhanc[ing] parental involvement in children’s online activities in order to protect children’s privacy,” who can really object? While there is recognition that there are substantial costs to COPPA compliance (including foregone innovation and investment in children’s media), it’s generally taken for granted by all that the Rule is necessary to protect children online. But it has never been clear what COPPA is supposed to help us protect our children from.

Then-Representative Markey’s original speech suggested one possible answer in “protect[ing] children’s safety when they visit and post information on public chat rooms and message boards.” If COPPA is to be understood in this light, the newest COPPA revision from the FTC and the proposed Do Not Track Kids Act of 2013 largely miss the mark. It seems unlikely that proponents worry about children or teens posting their IP address or device numbers online, allowing online predators to look at this information and track them down. Rather, the clear goal animating the updates to COPPA is to “protect” children from online behavioral advertising. Here’s now-Senator Markey’s press statement:

“The speed with which Facebook is pushing teens to share their sensitive, personal information widely and publicly online must spur Congress to act commensurately to put strong privacy protections on the books for teens and parents,” said Senator Markey. “Now is the time to pass the bipartisan Do Not Track Kids Act so that children and teens don’t have their information collected and sold to the highest bidder. Corporations like Facebook should not be profiting from the personal and sensitive information of children and teens, and parents and teens should have the right to control their personal information online.”

The concern about online behavioral advertising could probably be understood in at least three ways, but each of them is flawed.

  1. Creepiness. Some people believe there is something just “creepy” about companies collecting data on consumers, especially when it comes to children and teens. While nearly everyone would agree that surreptitiously collecting data like email addresses or physical addresses without consent is wrong, many would probably prefer to trade data like IP addresses and device numbers for free content (as nearly everyone does every day on the Internet). It is also unclear that COPPA is the answer to this type of problem, even if it could be defined. As Adam Thierer has pointed out, parents are in a much better position than government regulators or even companies to protect their children from privacy practices they don’t like.
  2. Exploitation. Another way to understand the concern is that companies are exploiting consumers by making money off their data without consumers getting any value. But this fundamentally ignores the multi-sided market at play here. Users trade information for a free service, whether it be Facebook, Google, or Twitter. These services then monetize that information by creating profiles and selling that to advertisers. Advertisers then place ads based on that information with the hopes of increasing sales. In the end, though, companies make money only when consumers buy their products. Free content funded by such advertising is likely a win-win-win for everyone involved.
  3. False Consciousness. A third way to understand the concern over behavioral advertising is that corporations can convince consumers to buy things they don’t need or really want through advertising. Much of this is driven by what Jack Calfee called The Fear of Persuasion: many people don’t understand the beneficial effects of advertising in increasing the information available to consumers and, as a result, misdiagnose the role of advertising. Even accepting this false consciousness theory, the difficulty for COPPA is that no one has ever explained why advertising is a harm to children or teens. If anything, online behavioral advertising is less of a harm to teens and children than adults for one simple reason: Children and teens can’t (usually) buy anything! Kids and teens need their parents’ credit cards in order to buy stuff online. This means that parental involvement is already necessary, and has little need of further empowerment by government regulation.

COPPA may have benefits in preserving children’s safety — as Markey once put it — beyond what underlying laws, industry self-regulation and parental involvement can offer. But as we work to update the law, we shouldn’t allow the Rule to be a solution in search of a problem. It is incumbent upon Markey and other supporters of the latest amendment to demonstrate that the amendment will serve to actually protect kids from something they need protecting from. Absent that, the costs very likely outweigh the benefits.

Commissioner Wright makes a powerful and important case in dissenting from the FTC’s 2-1 (Commissioner Ohlhausen was recused from the matter) decision imposing conditions on Nielsen’s acquisition of Arbitron.

Essential to Josh’s dissent is the absence of any actual existing market supporting the Commission’s challenge:

Nielsen and Arbitron do not currently compete in the sale of national syndicated cross-platform audience measurement services. In fact, there is no commercially available national syndicated cross-platform audience measurement service today. The Commission thus challenges the proposed transaction based upon what must be acknowledged as a novel theory—that is, that the merger will substantially lessen competition in a market that does not today exist.

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[W]e…do not know how the market will evolve, what other potential competitors might exist, and whether and to what extent these competitors might impose competitive constraints upon the parties.

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To be clear, I do not base my disagreement with the Commission today on the possibility that the potential efficiencies arising from the transaction would offset any anticompetitive effect. As discussed above, I find no reason to believe the transaction is likely to substantially lessen competition because the evidence does not support the conclusion that it is likely to generate anticompetitive effects in the alleged relevant market.

This is the kind of theory that seriously threatens innovation. Regulators in Washington are singularly ill-positioned to predict the course of technological evolution — that’s why they’re regulators and not billionaire innovators. To impose antitrust-based constraints on economic activity that hasn’t even yet occurred is the height of folly. As Virginia Postrel discusses in The Future and Its Enemies, this is the technocratic mindset, in all its stasist glory:

Technocrats are “for the future,” but only if someone is in charge of making it turn out according to plan. They greet every new idea with a “yes, but,” followed by legislation, regulation, and litigation.

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By design, technocrats pick winners, establish standards, and impose a single set of values on the future.

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For technocrats, a kaleidoscope of trial-and-error innovation is not enough; decentralized experiments lack coherence. “Today, we have an opportunity to shape technology,” wrote [Newt] Gingrich in classic technocratic style. His message was that computer technology is too important to be left to hackers, hobbyists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and computer buyers. “We” must shape it into a “coherent picture.” That is the technocratic notion of progress: Decide on the one best way, make a plan, and stick to it.

It should go without saying that this is the antithesis of the environment most conducive to economic advance. Whatever antitrust’s role in regulating technology markets, it must be evidence-based, grounded in economics and aware of its own limitations.

As Josh notes:

A future market case, such as the one alleged by the Commission today, presents a number of unique challenges not confronted in a typical merger review or even in “actual potential competition” cases. For instance, it is inherently more difficult in future market cases to define properly the relevant product market, to identify likely buyers and sellers, to estimate cross-elasticities of demand or understand on a more qualitative level potential product substitutability, and to ascertain the set of potential entrants and their likely incentives. Although all merger review necessarily is forward looking, it is an exceedingly difficult task to predict the competitive effects of a transaction where there is insufficient evidence to reliably answer these basic questions upon which proper merger analysis is based.

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When the Commission’s antitrust analysis comes unmoored from such fact-based inquiry, tethered tightly to robust economic theory, there is a more significant risk that non-economic considerations, intuition, and policy preferences influence the outcome of cases.

Josh’s dissent also contains an important, related criticism of the FTC’s problematic reliance on consent agreements. It’s so good, in fact, I will quote it almost in its entirety:

Whether parties to a transaction are willing to enter into a consent agreement will often have little to do with whether the agreed upon remedy actually promotes consumer welfare. The Commission’s ability to obtain concessions instead reflects the weighing by the parties of the private costs and private benefits of delaying the transaction and potentially litigating the merger against the private costs and private benefits of acquiescing to the proposed terms. Indeed, one can imagine that where, as here, the alleged relevant product market is small relative to the overall deal size, the parties would be happy to agree to concessions that cost very little and finally permit the deal to close. Put simply, where there is no reason to believe a transaction violates the antitrust laws, a sincerely held view that a consent decree will improve upon the post-merger competitive outcome or have other beneficial effects does not justify imposing those conditions. Instead, entering into such agreements subtly, and in my view harmfully, shifts the Commission’s mission from that of antitrust enforcer to a much broader mandate of “fixing” a variety of perceived economic welfare-reducing arrangements.

Consents can and do play an important and productive role in the Commission’s competition enforcement mission. Consents can efficiently address competitive concerns arising from a merger by allowing the Commission to reach a resolution more quickly and at less expense than would be possible through litigation. However, consents potentially also can have a detrimental impact upon consumers. The Commission’s consents serve as important guidance and inform practitioners and the business community about how the agency is likely to view and remedy certain mergers. Where the Commission has endorsed by way of consent a willingness to challenge transactions where it might not be able to meet its burden of proving harm to competition, and which therefore at best are competitively innocuous, the Commission’s actions may alter private parties’ behavior in a manner that does not enhance consumer welfare. Because there is no judicial approval of Commission settlements, it is especially important that the Commission take care to ensure its consents are in the public interest.

This issue of the significance of the FTC’s tendency to, effectively, legislate by consent decree is of great importance, particularly in its Section 5 practice (as we discuss in our amicus brief in the Wyndham case).

As the FTC begins its 100th year next week, we need more voices like those of Commissioners Wright and Ohlhausen challenging the FTC’s harmful, technocratic mindset.

Joshua Wright is a Commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission

I’d like to thank Geoff and Thom for organizing this symposium and creating a forum for an open and frank exchange of ideas about the FTC’s unfair methods of competition authority under Section 5.  In offering my own views in a concrete proposed Policy Statement and speech earlier this summer, I hoped to encourage just such a discussion about how the Commission can define its authority to prosecute unfair methods of competition in a way that both strengthens the agency’s ability to target anticompetitive conduct and provides much needed guidance to the business community.  During the course of this symposium, I have enjoyed reading the many thoughtful posts providing feedback on my specific proposal, as well as offering other views on how guidance and limits can be imposed on the Commission’s unfair methods of competition authority.  Through this marketplace of ideas, I believe the Commission can develop a consensus position and finally accomplish the long overdue task of articulating its views on the application of the agency’s signature competition statute.  As this symposium comes to a close, I’d like to make a couple quick observations and respond to a few specific comments about my proposal.

There Exists a Vast Area of Agreement on Section 5

Although conventional wisdom may suggest it will be impossible to reach any meaningful consensus with respect to Section 5, this symposium demonstrates that there actually already exists a vast area of agreement on the subject.  In fact, it appears safe to draw at least two broad conclusions from the contributions that have been offered as part of this symposium.

First, an overwhelming majority of commentators believe that we need guidance on the scope of the FTC’s unfair methods of competition authority.  This is not surprising.  The absence of meaningful limiting principles distinguishing lawful conduct from unlawful conduct under Section 5 and the breadth of the Commission’s authority to prosecute unfair methods of competition creates significant uncertainty among the business community.  Moreover, without a coherent framework for applying Section 5, the Commission cannot possibly hope to fulfill Congress’s vision that Section 5 would play a key role in helping the FTC leverage its unique research and reporting functions to develop evidence-based competition policy.

Second, there is near unanimity that the FTC should challenge only conduct as an unfair method of competition if it results in “harm to competition” as the phrase is understood under the traditional federal antitrust laws.  Harm to competition is a concept that is readily understandable and has been deeply embedded into antitrust jurisprudence.  Incorporating this concept would require that any conduct challenged under Section 5 must both harm the competitive process and harm consumers.  Under this approach, the FTC should not consider non-economic factors, such as whether the practice harms small business or whether it violates public morals, in deciding whether to prosecute conduct as an unfair method of competition.  This is a simple commitment, but one that is not currently enshrined in the law.  By tethering the definition of unfair methods of competition to modern economics and to the understanding of competitive harm articulated in contemporary antitrust jurisprudence, we would ensure Section 5 enforcement focuses upon conduct that actually is anticompetitive.

While it is not surprising that commentators offering a diverse set of perspectives on the appropriate scope of the FTC’s unfair methods of competition authority would agree on these two points, I think it is important to note that this consensus covers much of the Section 5 debate while leaving some room for debate on the margins as to how the FTC can best use its unfair methods of competition authority to complement its mission of protecting competition.

Some Clarifications Regarding My Proposed Policy Statement

In the spirit of furthering the debate along those margins, I also briefly would like to correct the record, or at least provide some clarification, on a few aspects of my proposed Policy Statement.

First, contrary to David Balto’s suggestion, my proposed Policy Statement acknowledges the fact that Congress envisioned Section 5 to be an incipiency statute.  Indeed, the first element of my proposed definition of unfair methods of competition requires the FTC to show that the act or practice in question “harms or is likely to harm competition significantly.”  In fact, it is by prosecuting practices that have not yet resulted in harm to competition, but are likely to result in anticompetitive effects if allowed to continue, that my definition reaches “invitations to collude.”  Paul Denis raises an interesting question about how the FTC should assess the likelihood of harm to competition, and suggests doing so using an expected value test.  My proposed policy statement does just that by requiring the FTC to assess both the magnitude and probability of the competitive harm when determining whether a practice that has not yet harmed competition, but potentially is likely to, is an unfair method of competition under Section 5.  Where the probability of competitive harm is smaller, the Commission should not find an unfair method of competition without reason to believe the conduct poses a substantial harm.  Moreover, by requiring the FTC to show that the conduct in question results in “harm to competition” as that phrase is understood under the traditional federal antitrust laws, my proposal also incorporates all the temporal elements of harm discussed in the antitrust case law and therefore puts the Commission on the same footing as the courts.

Second, both Dan Crane and Marina Lao have suggested that the efficiencies screen I have proposed results in a null (or very small) set of cases because there is virtually no conduct for which some efficiencies cannot be claimed.  This suggestion stems from an apparent misunderstanding of the efficiencies screen.  What these comments fail to recognize is that the efficiencies screen I offer intentionally leverages the Commission’s considerable expertise in identifying the presence of cognizable efficiencies in the merger context and explicitly ties the analysis to the well-developed framework offered in the Horizontal Merger Guidelines.  As any antitrust practitioner can attest, the Commission does not credit “cognizable efficiencies” lightly and requires a rigorous showing that the claimed efficiencies are merger-specific, verifiable, and not derived from an anticompetitive reduction in output or service.  Fears that the efficiencies screen in the Section 5 context would immunize patently anticompetitive conduct because a firm nakedly asserts cost savings arising from the conduct without evidence supporting its claim are unwarranted.  Under this strict standard, the FTC would almost certainly have no trouble demonstrating no cognizable efficiencies exist in Dan’s “blowing up of the competitor’s factory” example because the very act of sabotage amounts to an anticompetitive reduction in output.

Third, Marina Lao further argues that permitting the FTC to challenge conduct as an unfair method of competition only when there are no cognizable efficiencies is too strict a standard and that it would be better to allow the agency to balance the harms against the efficiencies.  The current formulation of the Commission’s unfair methods of competition enforcement has proven unworkable in large part because it lacks clear boundaries and is both malleable and ambiguous.  In my view, in order to make Section 5 a meaningful statute, and one that can contribute productively to the Commission’s competition enforcement mission as envisioned by Congress, the Commission must first confine its unfair methods of competition authority to those areas where it can leverage its unique institutional capabilities to target the conduct most harmful to consumers.  This in no way requires the Commission to let anticompetitive conduct run rampant.  Where the FTC identifies and wants to challenge conduct with both harms and benefits, it is fully capable of doing so successfully in federal court under the traditional antitrust laws.

I cannot think of a contribution the Commission can make to the FTC’s competition mission that is more important than issuing a Policy Statement articulating the appropriate application of Section 5.  I look forward to continuing to exchange ideas with those both inside and outside the agency regarding how the Commission can provide guidance about its unfair methods of competition authority.  Thank you once again to Truth on the Market for organizing and hosting this symposium and to the many participants for their thoughtful contributions.

*The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of the Commission or any other Commissioner.

Tad Lipsky is a partner in the law firm of Latham & Watkins LLP.

The FTC’s struggle to provide guidance for its enforcement of Section 5’s Unfair Methods of Competition (UMC) clause (or not – some oppose the provision of forward guidance by the agency, much as one occasionally heard opposition to the concept of merger guidelines in 1968 and again in 1982) could evoke a much broader long-run issue: is a federal law regulating single-firm conduct worth the trouble?  Antitrust law has its hard spots and its soft spots: I imagine that most antitrust lawyers think they can define “naked” price-fixing and other hard-core cartel conduct, and they would defend having a law that prohibits it.  Similarly with a law that prohibits anticompetitive mergers.  Monopolization perhaps not so much: 123 years of Section 2 enforcement and the best our Supreme Court can do is the Grinnell standard, defining monopolization as the “willful acquisition or maintenance of [monopoly] power as distinguished from growth or development as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen, or historic accident.”  Is this Grinnell definition that much better than “unfair methods of competition”?

The Court has created a few specific conduct categories within the Grinnell rubric: sham petitioning (objectively and subjectively baseless appeals for government action), predatory pricing (pricing below cost with a reasonable prospect of recoupment through the exercise of power obtained by achieving monopoly or disciplining competitors), and unlawful tying (using market power over one product to force the purchase of a distinct product – you probably know the rest).  These categories are neither perfectly clear (what measure of cost indicates a predatory price?) nor guaranteed to last (the presumption that a patent bestows market power within the meaning of the tying rule was abandoned in 2005).  At least the more specific categories give some guidance to lower courts, prosecutors, litigants and – most important of all – compliance-inclined businesses.  They provide more useful guidance than Grinnell.

The scope for differences of opinion regarding the definition of monopolization is at an historical zenith.  Some of the least civilized disagreements between the FTC and the Antitrust Division – the Justice Department’s visible contempt for the FTC’s ReaLemon decision in the early 1980’s, or the three-Commissioner vilification of the Justice Department’s 2008 report on unilateral conduct – concern these differences.  The 2009 Justice Department theatrically withdrew the 2008 Justice Department’s report, claiming (against clear objective evidence to the contrary) that the issue was settled in its favor by Lorain Journal, Aspen Skiing, and the D.C. Circuit decision in the main case involving Microsoft.

Although less noted in the copious scholarly output concerning UMC, disputes about the meaning of Section 5 are encouraged by the lack of definitive guidance on monopolization.  For every clarification provided by the Supreme Court, the FTC’s room for maneuver under UMC is reduced.  The FTC could not define sham litigation inconsistently with Professional Real Estate Investors v. Columbia Pictures Industries; it could not read recoupment out of the Brooke Group v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. definition of predatory pricing.

The fact remains that there has been less-than-satisfactory clarification of single-firm conduct standards under either statute.  Grinnell remains the only “guideline” for the vast territory of Section 2 enforcement (aside from the specific mentioned categories), especially since the Supreme Court has shown no enthusiasm for either of the two main appellate-court approaches to a general test for unlawful unilateral conduct under Section 2, the “intent test” and the “essential facilities doctrine.”  (It has not rejected them, either.)  The current differences of opinion – even within the Commission itself, leave aside the appellate courts – are emblematic of a similar failure with regard to UMC.  Failure to clarify rules of such universal applicability has obvious costs and adverse impacts: creative and competitively benign business conduct is deterred (with corresponding losses in innovation, productivity and welfare), and the costs, delays, disruption and other burdens of litigation are amplified.  Are these costs worth bearing?

Years ago I heard it said that a certain old-line law firm had tightened its standards of partner performance: whereas formerly the firm would expel a partner who remained drunk for ten years, the new rule was that a partner could remain drunk only for five years.  The antitrust standards for unilateral conduct have vacillated for over a century.  For a time (as exemplified by United States v. United Shoe Machinery Corp.) any act of self-preservation by a monopolist – even if “honestly industrial” – was presumptively unlawful if not compelled by outside circumstances.  Even Grinnell looks good compared to that, but Grinnell still fails to provide much help in most Section 2 cases; and the debate over UMC says the same about Section 5.  I do not advocate the repeal of either statute, but shouldn’t we expect that someone might want to tighten our standards?  Maybe we can allow a statute a hundred years to be clarified through common-law application.  Section 2 passed that milepost twenty-three years ago, and Section 5 reaches that point next year.  We shouldn’t be surprised if someone wants to pull the plug beyond that point.

Paul Denis is a partner at Dechert LLP and Deputy Chair of the Firm’s Global Litigation Practice.  His views do not necessarily reflect those of his firm or its clients.

Deterrence ought to be an important objective of enforcement policy.  Some might argue it should be THE objective.  But it is difficult to know what is being deterred by a law if the agency enforcing the law cannot or will not explain its boundaries.  Commissioner Wright’s call for a policy statement on the scope of Section 5 enforcement is a welcome step toward Section 5 achieving meaningful deterrence of competitively harmful conduct.

The draft policy statement has considerable breadth.  I will limit myself to three concepts that I see as important to its application, the temporal dimension (applicable to both harm and efficiencies), the concept of harm to competition, and the concept of cognizable efficiencies.

Temporal Dimension

Commissioner Wright offers a compelling framework, but it is missing an important element — the temporal dimension.  Over what time period must likely harm to competition be felt in order to be actionable?  Similarly, over what time period must efficiencies be realized in order to be cognizable?  On page 8 of the draft policy statement he notes that the Commission may challenge “practices that have not yet resulted in harm to competition but are likely to result in anticompetitive effects if allowed to continue.”  When must those effects be felt?  How good is the Commission’s crystal ball for predicting harm to competition when the claim is that the challenged conduct precluded some future competition from coming to market?  Doesn’t that crystal ball get a bit murky when you are looking further into the future?  Doesn’t it get particularly murky when the future effect depends on one more other things happening between now and the time of feared anticompetitive effects?

We often hear from the Commission that arguments about future entry are too remote in time (although the bright line test of 2 years for entry to have an effect was pulled from the Horizontal Merger Guidelines).  Shouldn’t similar considerations be applied to claims of harm to competition?  The Commission has engaged in considerable innovation to try to get around the potential competition doctrine developed by the courts and the Commission under Section 7 of the Clayton Act.  The policy statement should consider whether there can be some temporal limit to Section 5 claims.  Perhaps the concept of likely harm to competition could be interpreted in an expected value sense, considering both probability of harm and timing of harm, but it is not obvious to me how that interpretation, whatever its theoretical appeal, could be made operational.  Bright line tests or presumptive time periods may be crude but may also be more easily applied.

Harm to Competition

On the “harm to competition” element, I was left unclear if this was a unified concept or whether there were two subparts to it.  Commissioner Wright paraphrases Chicago Board of Trade and concludes that “Conduct challenged under Section 5 must harm competition and cause an anticompetitive effect.” (emphasis supplied).  He then quotes Microsoft for the proposition that conduct “must harm the competitive process and thereby harm consumers.” (emphasis supplied).  The indicators referenced at the bottom of page 18 of his speech strike me as indicators of harm to consumers rather than indicators of harm to the competitive process.  Is there anything more to “harm to competition” than “harm to consumers?”  If so, what is it?  I think there probably should be something more than harm to consumers.  If I develop a new product that drives from the market all rivals, the effect may be to increase prices and reduce output.  But absent some bad act – some harm to the competitive process – my development of the new product should not expose me to a Section 5 claim or even the obligation to argue cognizable efficiencies.

On the subject of indicators, the draft policy statement notes that perhaps most relevant are price or output effects.  But Commissioner Wright’s speech goes on to note that increased prices, reduced output, diminished quality, or weakened incentives to innovate are also indicators (Speech at 19).  Shouldn’t this list be limited to output (or quality-adjusted output)?  If price goes up but output rises, isn’t that evidence that consumers have been benefitted?  Why should I have to defend myself by arguing that there are obvious efficiencies (as evidenced by the increased output)?  The reference to innovation is particularly confusing. I don’t believe there is a well developed theoretical or empirical basis for assessing innovation. The structural inferences that we make about price (often dubious themselves) don’t apply to innovation.  We don’t really know what leads to more or less innovation.  How is it that the Commission can see this indicator?  What is it that they are observing?

Cognizable Efficiencies

On cognizable efficiencies, there is a benefit in that the draft policy statement ties this element to the analogous concept used in merger enforcement.  But there is a disadvantage in that the FTC staff usually finds that efficiencies advanced by the parties in mergers are not cognizable for one reason or another.  Perhaps most of what the parties in mergers advance is not cognizable.  But it strikes me as implausible that after so many years of applying this concept that the Commission still rarely sees an efficiencies argument that is cognizable.  Are merging parties and their counsel really that dense?  Or is it that the goal posts keeping moving to ensure that no one ever scores?  Based on the history in mergers, I’m not sure this second element will amount to much.  The respondent will assert cognizable efficiencies, the staff will reject them, and we will be back in the litigation morass that the draft policy statement was trying to avoid, limited only by the Commission’s need to show harm to competition.

Regulating the Regulators: Guidance for the FTC’s Section 5 Unfair Methods of Competition Authority

August 1, 2013

Truthonthemarket.com

We’ve had a great day considering the possibility, and potential contours, of guidelines for implementing the FTC’s “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) authority.  Many thanks to our invited participants and to TOTM readers who took the time to follow today’s posts.  There’s lots of great stuff here, so be sure to read anything you missed.  And please continue to comment on posts.  A great thing about a blog symposium is that the discussion need not end immediately.  We hope to continue the conversation over the next few days.

I’m tempted to make some observations about general themes, points of (near) consensus, open questions, etc., but I won’t do that because we’re not quite finished.  We’re expecting to receive an additional post or two tomorrow, and to hear a response from Commissioner Josh Wright.  We hope you’ll join us tomorrow for final posts and Commissioner Wright’s response.

Here are links to the posts so far:

David Balto is a Public Interest Attorney at the Law Offices of David Balto

I appreciate the opportunity to provide comments on the current Section 5 discussion and add a few modest thoughts about the very thoughtful speeches of Commissioners Wright and Ohlhausen. I must admit, that as a former FTC Policy dude my mouth salivates at the thought of any new Guidelines. After all what could be more fun that coming out with thought pieces, speeches, commentaries, drafts, revised drafts, reply drafts, and more drafts. What could be more enjoyable than spending hundreds of hours parsing through every word to debate and detect every nuance. And then providing a document that is both sufficiently flexible and informative that it can live and adjust to changing circumstances – that sounds like fun. Why this sounds like an effort that would make any Talmudic debate sound like a simple task.

So I wonder at the outset:  what is the need for any policy statement or guidelines. Although both speeches perhaps may raise the specter of unwarranted enforcement I simply do not see it. No matter what recent FTC administration we refer to the actions seem extremely modest. There are less than a handful of cases in the past decades.

Indeed, the lack of enforcement  should raise concern about the ability to issue any type of policy statement. The question, quite legitimate is whether the agency has the experience from Section 5 enforcement to fully articulate the set of issues and criteria necessary to conclude a practice is an unfair method of competition.

Another concern might be that unclear Section 5 powers might stifle firms from engaging in potentially procompetitive or efficient conduct. So I decided to test that proposition (very informally) by reading through a handful of antitrust counseling treatises on issues such as distribution.  I could find nary a single mention of some additional liability firms faced or additional uncertainty because of the FTC’s Section 5 powers. Obviously the areas where the Commission has tread so far – invitations to collude, improper information sharing and deception involving standards are the types of conduct that have so little redeeming merit that there is no concern over stifling procompetitive conduct.

So as the old lady in the Wendy’s commercial of the 1980s says “Where’s the Beef?”

Now as to the speeches I have a few observations.

First, Section 5 is a law enforcement statute. Congress enacted it to enable the Commission to challenge conduct that was broader that the Sherman Act. It is not a regulatory statute. Like all antitrust laws (except that adopted cousin the Robinson Patman Act) it is a generalist statute, broad in nature to give the Commission and the courts the ability to adapt to changing conduct and changing market conditions. We do not issue policy statements for the other antitrust statutes (there is no statement defining an unreasonable restraint of trade).  Why should there be a statement defining an unfair method of competition?

Second, neither of the speeches recognize that Section 5 is an incipiency statute (like the Clayton Act). Congress intended the FTC to use the statute to attack practices in their incipiency before they become full blown violations.

Third, Commissioner Ohlhausen relies in detail on the Clinton-era executive order on Regulatory Planning and Review EO 12866. I find the idea intriguing but that EO is intended for regulatory agencies and their regulatory regimes – not law enforcement. There are strong reasons why it is necessary to rein in regulatory agencies especially because of the costs they can impose through their regulations. A single law enforcement action does not raise these concerns.

Commissioners Ohlhausen suggests that the agency should hold its fire if there may be other regulatory alternatives (“using the most direct route”). Let’s look at the Phoebe Putney merger or the situations involving regulatory abuse such as the FTC’s 2003 case against Bristol Myers. Would we really feel confident in lobbying the Georgia state legislature or the FDA as an alternative?

Finally, I am concerned about one possible unintended consequence. 29 states have little FTC Acts which condemn unfair methods of competition. Those Acts have led to dozens of important enforcement actions benefitting consumers. Any FTC policy statement on UMC can potentially weaken enforcement under those Acts.

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

Administrative law really is a strange beast. My last post explained this a bit, in the context of Chevron. In this post, I want to make this point in another context, explaining how utterly useless a policy statement can be. Our discussion today has focused on what should go into a policy statement – there seems to be general consensus that one is a good idea. But I’m not sure that we have a good understanding of how little certainty a policy statement offers.

Administrative Stare Decisis?

I alluded in my previous post to the absence of stare decisis in the administrative context. This is one of the greatest differences between judicial and administrative rulemaking: agencies are not bound by either prior judicial interpretations of their statutes, or even by their own prior interpretations. These conclusions follow from relatively recent opinions – Brand-X in 2005 and Fox I in 2007 – and have broad implications for the relationship between courts and agencies.

In Brand-X, the Court explained that a “court’s prior judicial construction of a statute trumps an agency construction otherwise entitled to Chevron deference only if the prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute and thus leaves no room for agency discretion.” This conclusion follows from a direct application of Chevron: courts are responsible for determining whether a statute is ambiguous; agencies are responsible for determining the (reasonable) meaning of a statute that is ambiguous.

Not only are agencies not bound by a court’s prior interpretations of an ambiguous statute – they’re not even bound by their own prior interpretations!

In Fox I, the Court held that an agency’s own interpretation of an ambiguous statute impose no special obligations should the agency subsequently change its interpretation.[1] It may be necessary to acknowledge the prior policy; and factual findings upon which the new policy is based that contradict findings upon which the prior policy was based may need to be explained.[2] But where a statute may be interpreted in multiple ways – that is, in any case where the statute is ambiguous – Congress, and by extension its agencies, is free to choose between those alternative interpretations. The fact that an agency previously adopted one interpretation does not necessarily render other possible interpretations any less reasonable; the mere fact that one was previously adopted therefore, on its own, cannot act as a bar to subsequent adoption of a competing interpretation.

What Does This Mean for Policy Statements?

In a contentious policy environment – that is, one where the prevailing understanding of an ambiguous law changes with the consensus of a three-Commissioner majority – policy statements are worth next to nothing. Generally, the value of a policy statement is explaining to a court the agency’s rationale for its preferred construction of an ambiguous statute. Absent such an explanation, a court is likely to find that the construction was not sufficiently reasoned to merit deference. That is: a policy statement makes it easier for an agency to assert a given construction of a statute in litigation.

But a policy statement isn’t necessary to make that assertion, or for an agency to receive deference. Absent a policy statement, the agency needs to demonstrate to the court that its interpretation of the statute is sufficiently reasoned (and not merely a strategic interpretation adopted for the purposes of the present litigation).

And, more important, a policy statement in no way prevents an agency from changing its interpretation. Fox I makes clear that an agency is free to change its interpretations of a given statute. Prior interpretations – including prior policy statements – are not a bar to such changes. Prior interpretations also, therefore, offer little assurance to parties subject to any given interpretation.

Are Policy Statements entirely Useless?

Policy statements may not be entirely useless. The likely front on which to challenge an unexpected change agency interpretation of its statute is on Due Process or Notice grounds. The existence of a policy statement may make it easier for a party to argue that a changed interpretation runs afoul of Due Process or Notice requirements. See, e.g., Fox II.

So there is some hope that a policy statement would be useful. But, in the context of Section 5 UMC claims, I’m not sure how much comfort this really affords. Regulatory takings jurisprudence gives agencies broad power to seemingly-contravene Due Process and Notice expectations. This is largely because of the nature of relief available to the FTC: injunctive relief, such as barring certain business practices, even if it results in real economic losses, is likely to survive a regulatory takings challenge, and therefore also a Due Process challenge.  Generally, the Due Process and Notice lines of argument are best suited against fines and similar retrospective remedies; they offer little comfort against prospective remedies like injunctions.

Conclusion

I’ll conclude the same way that I did my previous post, 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. 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.


[1] Fox v. FCC, 556 U.S. 502, 514–516 (2007) (“The statute makes no distinction [] between initial agency action and subsequent agency action undoing or revising that action. … And of course the agency must show that there are good reasons for the new policy. But it need not demonstrate to a court’s satisfaction that the reasons for the new policy are better than the reasons for the old one; it suffices that the new policy is permissible under the statute, that there are good reasons for it, and that the agency believes it to be better, which the conscious change of course adequately indicates.”).

[2] Id. (“To be sure, the requirement that an agency provide reasoned explanation for its action would ordinarily demand that it display awareness that it is changing position. … This means that the agency need not always provide a more detailed justification than what would suffice for a new policy created on a blank slate. Sometimes it must—when, for example, its new policy rests upon factual findings that contradict those which underlay its prior policy; or when its prior policy has engendered serious reliance interests that must be taken into account. It would be arbitrary or capricious to ignore such matters. In such cases it is not that further justification is demanded by the mere fact of policy change; but that a reasoned explanation is needed for disregarding facts and circumstances that underlay or were engendered by the prior policy.”).

Geoffrey Manne is Lecturer in Law at Lewis & Clark Law School and Executive Director of the International Center for Law & Economics

Josh and Maureen are to be commended for their important contributions to the discussion over the proper scope of the FTC’s Section 5 enforcement authority. I have commented extensively on UMC and Section 5, Josh’s statement, and particularly the problems if UMC enforcement against the use of injunctions to enforce FRAND-encumbered SEPs before (see, for example, here, here and here). I’d like to highlight here a couple of the most important issues from among these comments along with a couple of additional ones.

First, there is really no sensible disagreement over Josh’s harm to competition prong. And to the extent there is disagreement over the proper role for efficiencies, given the existence of compelling arguments that we don’t need Section 5 at all (see, e.g., Joe Sims and James Cooper), what might have seemed like a radical position in Josh’s statement that the FTC enforce UMC only where no efficiencies exist, Josh’s position is actually something of a middle ground. In any case, the first prong of Josh’s statement (the harm to competition requirement) really should attract unanimity, as it essentially has here today, and all of the FTC’s commissioners should come out and say so, even if debate persists over the second prong. This alone would provide an enormous amount of certainty and sense to the FTC’s UMC enforcement decisions.

Second, sensible, predictable guidance is essential. In her recent speech, echoing the fundamental issue laid out so well in Josh’s statement and elaborated on in his accompanying speech, Maureen notes that:

For many decades, the Commission’s exercise of its UMC authority has launched the agency into a sea of uncertainty, much like the agency weathered when using its unfairness authority in the consumer protection area in the 1970s. In issuing our 1980 statement on the concept of “unfair acts or practices” under our consumer protection authority, the Commission acknowledged the uncertainty that had surrounded the concept of unfairness, admitting that “this uncertainty has been honestly troublesome for some businesses and some members of the legal profession.” This characterization just as aptly describes the state of our UMC authority today.

It seems uncontroversial that some guidance is required, and a pseudo-common law of un-adjudicated settlements lacking any doctrinal analysis simply doesn’t provide sufficient grounds to separate the fair from the unfair. (What follows is drawn from our amicus brief in the Wyndham case).

The FTC’s current approach to UMC enforcement denies companies “a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited” and thus follow the law. The FTC has previously suggested that its settlements and Congressional testimony offers all the guidance a company would need—see, e.g., here and here, where Chairwoman Ramirez noted that

Section 5 of the FTC Act has been developed over time, case-by-case, in the manner of common law. These precedents provide the Commission and the business community with important guidance regarding the appropriate scope and use of the FTC’s Section 5 authority.

But settlements (and testimony summarizing them) do not in any way constrain the FTC’s subsequent enforcement decisions; they cannot alone be the basis by which the FTC provides guidance on its UMC authority because, unlike published guidelines, they do not purport to lay out general enforcement principles and are not recognized as doing so by courts and the business community. It is impossible to imagine a court faulting the FTC for failure to adhere to a previous settlement, particularly because settlements are not readily generalizable and bind only the parties who agree to them. As we put it in our Wyndham amicus brief:

Even setting aside this basic legal principle, the gradual accretion of these unadjudicated settlements does not solve the vagueness problem: Where guidelines provide cumulative analysis of previous enforcement decisions to establish general principles, these settlements are devoid of doctrinal analysis and offer little more than an infinite regress of unadjudicated assertions.

Rulemaking is generally preferable to case-by-case adjudication as a way to develop agency-enforced law because rulemaking both reduces vagueness and constrains the mischief that unconstrained agency actions may cause. As the Court noted in SEC v. Chenery Corp.,

The function of filling in the interstices of [a statute] should be performed, as much as possible, through this quasi-legislative promulgation of rules to be applied in the future.

Without Article III court decisions developing binding legal principles ,and with no other meaningful form of guidance from the FTC, the law will remain unconstitutionally vague. And the FTC’s approach to enforcement also allows the FTC to act both arbitrarily and discriminatorily—backed by the costly threat of the CID process and Part III adjudication. This means the company faces two practically certain defeats—before the administrative law judge and then the full Commission, each a public relations disaster. The FTC appears to be perfectly willing to use negative media to encourage settlements: The House Oversight Committee is currently investigating whether a series of leaks by FTC staff to media last year were intended to pressure Google to settle the FTC’s antitrust investigation into the company’s business practices.

Third, if the FTC doesn’t act to constrain itself, the courts or Congress will do so, and may do more damage to the FTC’s authority than any self-imposed constraints would.

The power to determine whether the practices of almost any American business are “unfair” methods of competition (particularly if UMC retains the broad reach Tim Wu outlines in his post) makes the FTC uniquely powerful. This power, if it is to be used sensibly, allows the FTC to protect consumers from truly harmful business practices not covered by the FTC’s general consumer protection authority. But without effective enforcement of clear limiting principles, this power may be stretched beyond what Congress intended.

In 1964, the Commission began using its unfairness power to ban business practices that it determined offended “public policy.” Emboldened by vague Supreme Court dicta from Sperry & Hutchinson comparing the agency to a “court of equity,” the Commission set upon a series of rulemakings and enforcement actions so sweeping that the Washington Post dubbed the agency the “National Nanny.” The FTC’s actions eventually prompted Congress to briefly shut down the agency to reinforce the point that it had not intended the agency to operate with such expansive authority. The FTC survived as an institution only because, in 1980, it (unanimously) issued a Policy Statement on Unfairness laying out basic limiting principles to constrain its power and assuring Congress that these principles would be further developed over time—principles that Congress then codified in Section 5(n) of the FTC Act.

And for a time, the Commission used its unfairness power sparingly and carefully, largely out of fear of reawakening Congressional furor. Back in 1980, the FTC itself declared that

The task of identifying unfair trade practices was therefore assigned to the Commission, subject to judicial review, in the expectation that the underlying criteria would evolve and develop over time.

Yet we know little more today than we did in 1980 about how the FTC analyzes each prong of Section 5.

Moreover, courts may not support enforcement given this ambiguity, and in our Wyndham brief we supported Wyndham’s motion to dismiss for exactly this reason (and that was brought under the Commission’s unfairness authority where it even has some guidelines). As we wrote:

Since the problem is a lack of judicial adjudication, it might seem counter-intuitive that the court should dismiss the FTC’s suit on the pleadings. But this is precisely the form of adjudication required: The FTC needs to be told that its complaints do not meet the minimum standards required to establish a violation of Section 5 because otherwise there is little reason to think that the FTC’s complaints will not continue to be the Commission’s primary means of building law (what amounts to “non-law law”). But even if the FTC re-files its unadjudicated complaint to explain its analysis of the prongs of the Unfairness Doctrine, it will not have solved yet another fundamental problem: its failure to provide Wyndham with sufficient guidance ex ante as to what “reasonable” data security practices would be.

The same could be said of the FTC’s UMC enforcement. Section 5(n) applies to UMC, and states that:

The Commission shall have no authority under this section or section 57a of this title to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such act or practice is unfair unless the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition. In determining whether an act or practice is unfair, the Commission may consider established public policies as evidence to be considered with all other evidence. Such public policy considerations may not serve as a primary basis for such determination.

Finally, applying this to FRAND-encumbered SEPs, as I have previously discussed, is problematic. As Kobayashi and Wright note in discussing the N-Data case,

[T]he truth is that there was little chance the FTC could have prevailed under the more rigorous Section 2 standard that anchors the liability rule to a demanding standard requiring proof of both exclusionary conduct and competitive harm. One must either accept the proposition that the FTC sought Section 5 liability precisely because there was no evidence of consumer harm or that the FTC believed there was evidence of consumer harm but elected to file the Complaint based only upon the Section 5 theory to encourage an expansive application of that Section, a position several Commissioners joining the Majority Statement have taken in recent years. Neither of these interpretations offers much evidence that N-Data is sound as a matter of prosecutorial discretion or antitrust policy.

None of the FTC’s SEP cases has offered anything approaching proof of consumer harm, and this is where any sensible limiting principles must begin—as just about everyone here today seems to agree. Moreover, even if they did adduce evidence of harm, the often-ignored problem of reverse holdup raises precisely the concern about over-enforcement that Josh’s “no efficiencies” prong is meant to address. Holdup may raise consumer prices (although the FTC has not presented evidence of this), but reverse holdup may do as much or more damage.

The use of injunctions to enforce SEPs increases innovation, the willingness to license generally and the willingness to enter into FRAND commitments in particular–all to the likely benefit of consumer welfare. If the FTC interprets its UMC authority in a way that constrains the ability of patent holders to effectively police their patent rights, then less innovation would be expected–to the detriment of consumers as well as businesses. An unfettered UMC authority will systematically curtail these benefits, quite possibly without countervailing positive effects.

And as I noted in a post yesterday, these costs are real. Innovative technology companies are responding to the current SEP enforcement environment exactly as we would expect them to: by avoiding the otherwise-consumer-welfare enhancing standardization process entirely—as statements made at a recent event demonstrate:

Because of the current atmosphere, Lukander said, Nokia has stepped back from the standardisation process, electing either not to join certain standard-setting organisations (SSOs) or not to contribute certain technologies to these organisations.

Section 5 is a particularly problematic piece of this, and sensible limits like those Josh proposes would go a long way toward mitigating the problem—without removing enforcement authority in the face of real competitive harm, which remains available under the Sherman Act.