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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.

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

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

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

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

legalsearchcosts

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

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

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

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.

On July 24, the Federal Trade Commission issued a modified complaint and consent order in the Google/Motorola case. The FTC responded to the 25 comments on the proposed Order by making several amendments, but the Final Order retains the original order’s essential restrictions on injunctions, as the FTC explains in a letter accompanying the changes. With one important exception, the modifications were primarily minor changes to the required process by which Google/Motorola must negotiate and arbitrate with potential licensees. Although an improvement on the original order, the Complaint and Final Order’s continued focus on the use of injunctions to enforce SEPs presents a serious risk of consumer harm, as I discuss below.

The most significant modification in the new Complaint is the removal of the original UDAP claim. As suggested in my comments on the Order, there is no basis in law for such a claim against Google, and it’s a positive step that the FTC seems to have agreed. Instead, the FTC ended up resting its authority solely upon an Unfair Methods of Competition claim, even though the Commission failed to develop any evidence of harm to competition—as both Commissioner Wright and Commissioner Ohlhausen would (sensibly) require.

Unfortunately, the FTC’s letter offers no additional defense of its assertion of authority, stating only that

[t]he Commission disagrees with commenters who argue that the Commission’s actions in this case are outside of its authority to challenge unfair methods of competition under Section 5 and lack a limiting principle. As reflected in the Commission’s recent statements in Bosch and the Commission’s initial Statement in this matter, this action is well within our Section 5 authority, which both Congress and the Supreme Court have expressly deemed to extend beyond the Sherman Act.

Another problem, as noted by Commissioner Ohlhausen in her dissent from the original order, is that

the consent agreement creates doctrinal confusion. The Order contradicts the decisions of federal courts, standard-setting organizations (“SSOs”), and other stakeholders about the availability of injunctive relief on SEPs and the meaning of concepts like willing licensee and FRAND.

The FTC’s statements in Bosch and this case should not be thought of as law on par with actual court decisions unless we want to allow the FTC to determine the scope of its own authority unilaterally.

This is no small issue. On July 30, the FTC used the Google settlement, along with the settlement in Bosch, as examples of the FTC’s authority in the area of policing SEPs during a hearing on the issue. And as FTC Chairwoman Ramirez noted in response to questions for the record in a different hearing earlier in 2013,

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 because nearly all of these cases have resulted in consent orders with an administrative agency and have not been adjudicated in court, they aren’t, in fact, developed “in the manner of common law.” Moreover, settlements aren’t binding on anyone except the parties to the settlement. Nevertheless, the FTC has pointed to these sorts of settlements (and congressional testimony summarizing them) as sufficient guidance to industry on the scope of its Section 5 authority. But as we noted in our amicus brief in the Wyndham litigation (in which the FTC makes this claim in the context of its “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” authority):

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 unfairness 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.

Beyond this more general problem, the Google Final Order retains its own, substantive problem: considerable constraints upon injunctions. The problem with these restraints are twofold: (1) Injunctions are very important to an efficient negotiation process, as recognized by the FTC itself; and (2) if patent holders may no longer pursue injunctions consistently with antitrust law, one would expect a reduction in consumer welfare.

In its 2011 Report on the “IP Marketplace,” the FTC acknowledged the important role of injunctions in preserving the value of patents and in encouraging efficient private negotiation.

Second, the credible threat of an injunction deters infringement in the first place. This results from the serious consequences of an injunction for an infringer, including the loss of sunk investment. Third, a predictable injunction threat will promote licensing by the parties. Private contracting is generally preferable to a compulsory licensing regime because the parties will have better information about the appropriate terms of a license than would a court, and more flexibility in fashioning efficient agreements. But denying an injunction every time an infringer’s switching costs exceed the economic value of the invention would dramatically undermine the ability of a patent to deter infringement and encourage innovation. For this reason, courts should grant injunctions in the majority of cases.

Building on insights from Commissioner Wright and Professor Kobayashi, I argued in my comments that injunctions create conditions that

increase innovation, the willingness to license generally and the willingness to enter into FRAND commitments in particular–all to the likely benefit of consumer welfare.

Monopoly power granted by IP law encourages innovation because it incentivizes creativity through expected profits. 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.

And this is precisely what has happened. 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.

Thus, for example, at a recent event sponsored by Global Competition Review (gated), representatives from Nokia, Ericsson, Siemens and Qualcomm made no bones about the problems they see and where they’re headed if they persist:

[Jenni Lukander, global head of competition law at Nokia] said the problem of “free-riding”, whereby technology companies adopt standard essential patents (SEPs) without complying with fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) licensing terms was a “far bigger problem” than patent holders pursuing injunctive relief. She said this behaviour was “unsustainable”, as it discouraged innovation and jeopardised standardisation.

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.

The fact that every licence negotiation takes places “under the threat of injunction litigation” is not a sign of failure, said Lukander, but an indicator of the system working “as it was designed to work”.

This, said [Dan Hermele, director of IP rights and licensing for Qualcomm Europe], amounted to “reverse hold-up”. “The licensor is pressured to accept less than reasonable licensing terms due to the threat of unbalanced regulatory intervention,” he said, adding that the trend was moving to an “infringe and litigate model”, which threatened to harm innovators, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, “for whom IPR is their life blood”.

Beat Weibel, chief IP counsel at Siemens, said…innovation can only be beneficial if it occurs within a “safe and strong IP system,” he said, where a “willing licensee is favoured over a non-willing licensee” and the enforcer is not a “toothless tiger”.

It remains to be seen if the costs to consumers from firms curtailing their investments in R&D or withholding their patents from the standard-setting process will outweigh the costs (yes, some costs do exist; the patent system is not frictionless and it is far from perfect, of course) from the “over”-enforcement of SEPs lamented by critics. But what is clear is that these costs can’t be ignored. Reverse hold-up can’t be wished away, and there is a serious risk that the harm likely to be caused by further eroding the enforceability of SEPs by means of injunctions will significantly outweigh whatever benefits it may also confer.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for tomorrow’s TOTM blog symposium on “Regulating the Regulators–Guidance for the FTC’s Section 5 Unfair Methods of Competition Authority” for much more discussion on this issue.

The Federalist Society has started a new program, The Executive Branch Review, which focuses on the myriad fields in which the Executive Branch acts outside of the constitutional and legal limits imposed on it, either by Executive Orders or by the plethora of semi-independent administrative agencies’ regulatory actions.

I recently posted on the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) ongoing investigations into the patent licensing business model and the actions (“consent decrees”) taken by the FTC against Bosch and Google.  These “consent decrees” constrain Bosch’s and Google’s rights in enforce patents they have committed to standard setting organizations (these patents are called “standard essential patents”). Here’s a brief taste:

One of the most prominent participants at the FTC-DOJ workshop back in December, former DOJ antitrust official and UC-Berkeley economics professor Carl Shapiro, explained in his opening speech that there was still insufficient data on patent licensing companies and their effects on the market.  This is true; for instance, a prominent study cited by Google et al. in support of their request to the FTC to investigate patent licensing companies has been described as being fundamentally flawed on both substantive and methodological grounds. Even more important, Professor Shapiro expressed skepticism at the workshop that, even if there was properly acquired, valid data, the FTC lacked the legal authority to sanction patent licensing firms for being allegedly anti-competitive.

Commentators have long noted that courts and agencies have a lousy historical track record when it comes to assessing the merits of new innovation, whether in new products or new business models. They maintain that the FTC should not continue such mistakes by letting its decision-making today be driven by rhetoric or by the widespread animus against certain commercial firms. Restraint and fact-gathering, institutional virtues reflected in a government animated by the rule of law and respect for individual rights, are key to preventing regulatory overreach and harm to future innovation.

Go read the whole thing, and, while you’re at it, check out Commissioner Joshua Wright’s similar comments on the FTC’s investigations of patent licensing companies, which the FTC calls “patent assertion entities.”

The suit against Google was to be this century’s first major antitrust case and a model for high technology industries in the future. Now that we have passed the investigative hangover, the mood has turned reflective, and antitrust experts are now looking to place this case into its proper context. If it were brought, would the case have been on sure legal footing? Was this a prudent move for consumers? Was the FTC’s disposition of the case appropriate?

Join me this Friday, January 11, 2013 at 12:00 pm – 1:45 pm ET for an ABA Antitrust Section webinar to explore these questions, among others. I will be sharing the panel with an impressive group:

Hill B. Welford will moderate. Registration is open to everyone here and the outlay is zero. Remember — these events are not technically free because you have to give up some of your time, but I would be delighted if you did.

The Federal Trade Commission yesterday closed its investigation of Google’s search business (see my comment here) without taking action. The FTC did, however, enter into a settlement with Google over the licensing of Motorola Mobility’s standards-essential patents (SEPs). The FTC intends that agreement to impose some limits on an area of great complexity and vigorous debate among industry, patent experts and global standards bodies: The allowable process for enforcing FRAND (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) licensing of SEPs, particularly the use of injunctions by patent holders to do so. According to Chairman Leibowitz, “[t]oday’s landmark enforcement action will set a template for resolution of SEP licensing disputes across many industries.” That effort may or may not be successful. It also may be misguided.

In general, a FRAND commitment incentivizes innovation by allowing a SEP owner to recoup its investments and the value of its technology through licensing, while, at the same, promoting competition and avoiding patent holdup by ensuring that licensing agreements are reasonable. When the process works, and patent holders negotiate licensing rights in good faith, patents are licensed, industries advance and consumers benefit.

FRAND terms are inherently indeterminate and flexible—indeed, they often apply precisely in situations where licensors and licensees need flexibility because each licensing circumstance is nuanced and a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t workable. Superimposing process restraints from above isn’t necessarily the best thing in dealing with what amounts to a contract dispute. But few can doubt the benefits of greater clarity in this process; the question is whether the FTC’s particular approach to the problem sacrifices too much in exchange for such clarity.

The crux of the issue in the Google consent decree—and the most controversial aspect of SEP licensing negotiations—is the role of injunctions. The consent decree requires that, before Google sues to enjoin a manufacturer from using its SEPs without a license, the company must follow a prescribed path in licensing negotiations. In particular:

Under this Order, before seeking an injunction on FRAND-encumbered SEPs, Google must: (1) provide a potential licensee with a written offer containing all of the material license terms necessary to license its SEPs, and (2) provide a potential licensee with an offer of binding arbitration to determine the terms of a license that are not agreed upon. Furthermore, if a potential licensee seeks judicial relief for a FRAND determination, Google must not seek an injunction during the pendency of the proceeding, including appeals.

There are a few exceptions, summarized by Commissioner Ohlhausen:

These limitations include when the potential licensee (a) is outside the jurisdiction of the United States; (b) has stated in writing or sworn testimony that it will not license the SEP on any terms [in other words, is not a “willing licensee”]; (c) refuses to enter a license agreement on terms set in a final ruling of a court – which includes any appeals – or binding arbitration; or (d) fails to provide written confirmation to a SEP owner after receipt of a terms letter in the form specified by the Commission. They also include certain instances when a potential licensee has brought its own action seeking injunctive relief on its FRAND-encumbered SEPs.

To the extent that the settlement reinforces what Google (and other licensors) would do anyway, and even to the extent that it imposes nothing more than an obligation to inject a neutral third party into FRAND negotiations to assist the parties in resolving rate disputes, there is little to complain about. Indeed, this is the core of the agreement, and, importantly, it seems to preserve Google’s right to seek injunctions to enforce its patents, subject to the agreement’s process requirements.

Industry participants and standard-setting organizations have supported injunctions, and the seeking and obtaining of injunctions against infringers is not in conflict with SEP patentees’ obligations. Even the FTC, in its public comments, has stated that patent owners should be able to obtain injunctions on SEPs when an infringer has rejected a reasonable license offer. Thus, the long-anticipated announcement by the FTC in the Google case may help to provide some clarity to the future negotiation of SEP licenses, the possible use of binding arbitration, and the conditions under which seeking injunctive relief will be permissible (as an antitrust matter).

Nevertheless, U.S. regulators, including the FTC, have sometimes opined that seeking injunctions on products that infringe SEPs is not in the spirit of FRAND. Everyone seems to agree that more certainty is preferable; the real issue is whether and when injunctions further that aim or not (and whether and when they are anticompetitive).

In October, Renata Hesse, then Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, remarked during a patent roundtable that

[I]t would seem appropriate to limit a patent holder’s right to seek an injunction to situations where the standards implementer is unwilling to have a neutral third-party determine the appropriate F/RAND terms or is unwilling to accept the F/RAND terms approved by such a third-party.

In its own 2011 Report on the “IP Marketplace,” the FTC acknowledged the fluidity and ambiguity surrounding the meaning of “reasonable” licensing terms and the problems of patent enforcement. While noting that injunctions may confer a costly “hold-up” power on licensors that wield them, the FTC nevertheless acknowledged the important role of injunctions in preserving the value of patents and in encouraging efficient private negotiation:

Three characteristics of injunctions that affect innovation support generally granting an injunction. The first and most fundamental is an injunction’s ability to preserve the exclusivity that provides the foundation of the patent system’s incentives to innovate. Second, the credible threat of an injunction deters infringement in the first place. This results from the serious consequences of an injunction for an infringer, including the loss of sunk investment. Third, a predictable injunction threat will promote licensing by the parties. Private contracting is generally preferable to a compulsory licensing regime because the parties will have better information about the appropriate terms of a license than would a court, and more flexibility in fashioning efficient agreements.

* * *

But denying an injunction every time an infringer’s switching costs exceed the economic value of the invention would dramatically undermine the ability of a patent to deter infringement and encourage innovation. For this reason, courts should grant injunctions in the majority of cases.…

Consistent with this view, the European Commission’s Deputy Director-General for Antitrust, Cecilio Madero Villarejo, recently expressed concern that some technology companies that complain of being denied a license on FRAND terms never truly intend to acquire licenses, but rather “want[] to create conditions for a competition case to be brought.”

But with the Google case, the Commission appears to back away from its seeming support for injunctions, claiming that:

Seeking and threatening injunctions against willing licensees of FRAND-encumbered SEPs undermines the integrity and efficiency of the standard-setting process and decreases the incentives to participate in the process and implement published standards. Such conduct reduces the value of standard setting, as firms will be less likely to rely on the standard-setting process.

Reconciling the FTC’s seemingly disparate views turns on the question of what a “willing licensee” is. And while the Google settlement itself may not magnify the problems surrounding the definition of that term, it doesn’t provide any additional clarity, either.

The problem is that, even in its 2011 Report, in which FTC noted the importance of injunctions, it defines a willing licensee as one who would license at a hypothetical, ex ante rate absent the threat of an injunction and with a different risk profile than an after-the-fact infringer. In other words, the FTC’s definition of willing licensee assumes a willingness to license only at a rate determined when an injunction is not available, and under the unrealistic assumption that the true value of a SEP can be known ex ante. Not surprisingly, then, the Commission finds it easy to declare an injunction invalid when a patentee demands a (higher) royalty rate in an actual negotiation, with actual knowledge of a patent’s value and under threat of an injunction.

As Richard Epstein, Scott Kieff and Dan Spulber discuss in critiquing the FTC’s 2011 Report:

In short, there is no economic basis to equate a manufacturer that is willing to commit to license terms before the adoption and launch of a standard, with one that instead expropriates patent rights at a later time through infringement. The two bear different risks and the late infringer should not pay the same low royalty as a party that sat down at the bargaining table and may actually have contributed to the value of the patent through its early activities. There is no economically meaningful sense in which any royalty set higher than that which a “willing licensee would have paid” at the pre-standardization moment somehow “overcompensates patentees by awarding more than the economic value of the patent.”

* * *

Even with a RAND commitment, the patent owner retains the valuable right to exclude (not merely receive later compensation from) manufacturers who are unwilling to accept reasonable license terms. Indeed, the right to exclude influences how those terms should be calculated, because it is quite likely that prior licensees in at least some areas will pay less if larger numbers of parties are allowed to use the same technology. Those interactive effects are ignored in the FTC calculations.

With this circular logic, all efforts by patentees to negotiate royalty rates after infringement has occurred can be effectively rendered anticompetitive if the patentee uses an injunction or the threat of an injunction against the infringer to secure its reasonable royalty.

The idea behind FRAND is rather simple (reward inventors; protect competition), but the practice of SEP licensing is much more complicated. Circumstances differ from case to case, and, more importantly, so do the parties’ views on what may constitute an appropriate licensing rate under FRAND. As I have written elsewhere, a single company may have very different views on the meaning of FRAND depending on whether it is the licensor or licensee in a given negotiation—and depending on whether it has already implemented a standard or not. As one court looking at the very SEPs at issue in the Google case has pointed out:

[T]he court is mindful that at the time of an initial offer, it is difficult for the offeror to know what would in fact constitute RAND terms for the offeree. Thus, what may appear to be RAND terms from the offeror’s perspective may be rejected out-of-pocket as non-RAND terms by the offeree. Indeed, it would appear that at any point in the negotiation process, the parties may have a genuine disagreement as to what terms and conditions of a license constitute RAND under the parties’ unique circumstances.

The fact that many firms engaged in SEP negotiations are simultaneously and repeatedly both licensors and licensees of patents governed by multiple SSOs further complicates the process—but also helps to ensure that it will reach a conclusion that promotes innovation and ensures that consumers reap the rewards.

In fact, an important issue in assessing the propriety of injunctions is the recognition that, in most cases, firms would rather license their patents and receive royalties than exclude access to their IP and receive no compensation (and incur the costs of protracted litigation, to boot). Importantly, for firms that both license out their own patents and license in those held by other firms (the majority of IT firms and certainly the norm for firms participating in SSOs), continued interactions on both sides of such deals help to ensure that licensing—not withholding—is the norm.

Companies are waging the smartphone patent wars with very different track records on SSO participation. Apple, for example, is relatively new to the mobile communications space and has relatively few SEPs, while other firms, like Samsung, are long-time players in the space with histories of extensive licensing (in both directions). But, current posturing aside, both firms have an incentive to license their patents, as Mark Summerfield notes:

Apple’s best course of action will most likely be to enter into licensing agreements with its competitors, which will not only result in significant revenues, but also push up the prices (or reduce the margins) on competitive products.

While some commentators make it sound as if injunctions threaten to cripple smartphone makers by preventing them from licensing essential technology on viable terms, companies in this space have been perfectly capable of orchestrating large-scale patent licensing campaigns. That these may increase costs to competitors is a feature—not a bug—of the system, representing the return on innovation that patents are intended to secure. Microsoft has wielded its sizeable patent portfolio to drive up the licensing fees paid by Android device manufacturers, and some commentators have even speculated that Microsoft makes more revenue from Android than Google does. But while Microsoft might prefer to kill Android with its patents, given the unlikeliness of this, as MG Siegler notes,

[T]he next best option is to catch a free ride on the Android train. Patent licensing deals already in place with HTC, General Dynamics, and others could mean revenues of over $1 billion by next year, as Forbes reports. And if they’re able to convince Samsung to sign one as well (which could effectively force every Android partner to sign one), we could be talking multiple billions of dollars of revenue each year.

Hand-wringing about patents is the norm, but so is licensing, and your smartphone exists, despite the thousands of patents that read on it, because the firms that hold those patents—some SEPs and some not—have, in fact, agreed to license them.

The inability to seek an injunction against an infringer, however, would ensure instead that patentees operate with reduced incentives to invest in technology and to enter into standards because they are precluded from benefiting from any subsequent increase in the value of their patents once they do so. As Epstein, Kieff and Spulber write:

The simple reality is that before a standard is set, it just is not clear whether a patent might become more or less valuable. Some upward pressure on value may be created later to the extent that the patent is important to a standard that is important to the market. In addition, some downward pressure may be caused by a later RAND commitment or some other factor, such as repeat play. The FTC seems to want to give manufacturers all of the benefits of both of these dynamic effects by in effect giving the manufacturer the free option of picking different focal points for elements of the damages calculations. The patentee is forced to surrender all of the benefit of the upward pressure while the manufacturer is allowed to get all of the benefit of the downward pressure.

Thus the problem with even the limited constraints imposed by the Google settlement: To the extent that the FTC’s settlement amounts to a prohibition on Google seeking injunctions against infringers unless the company accepts the infringer’s definition of “reasonable,” the settlement will harm the industry. It will reinforce a precedent that will likely reduce the incentives for companies and individuals to innovate, to participate in SSOs, and to negotiate in good faith.

Contrary to most assumptions about the patent system, it needs stronger, not weaker, property rules. With a no-injunction rule (whether explicit or de facto (as the Google settlement’s definition of “willing licensee” unfolds)), a potential licensee has little incentive to negotiate with a patent holder and can instead refuse to license, infringe, try its hand in court, avoid royalties entirely until litigation is finished (and sometimes even longer), and, in the end, never be forced to pay a higher royalty than it would have if it had negotiated before the true value of the patents was known.

Flooding the courts and discouraging innovation and peaceful negotiations hardly seem like benefits to the patent system or the market. Unfortunately, the FTC’s approach to SEP licensing exemplified by the Google settlement may do just that. Continue Reading…

I have been a critic of the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation into Google since it was a gleam in its competitors’ eyes—skeptical that there was any basis for a case, and concerned about the effect on consumers, innovation and investment if a case were brought.

While it took the Commission more than a year and a half to finally come to the same conclusion, ultimately the FTC had no choice but to close the case that was a “square peg, round hole” problem from the start.

Now that the FTC’s investigation has concluded, an examination of the nature of the markets in which Google operates illustrates why this crusade was ill-conceived from the start. In short, the “realities on the ground” strongly challenged the logic and relevance of many of the claims put forth by Google’s critics. Nevertheless, the politics are such that their nonsensical claims continue, in different forums, with competitors continuing to hope that they can wrangle a regulatory solution to their competitive problem.

The case against Google rested on certain assumptions about the functioning of the markets in which Google operates. Because these are tech markets, constantly evolving and complex, most assumptions about the scope of these markets and competitive effects within them are imperfect at best. But there are some attributes of Google’s markets—conveniently left out of the critics’ complaints— that, properly understood, painted a picture for the FTC that undermined the basic, essential elements of an antitrust case against the company.

That case was seriously undermined by the nature and extent of competition in the markets the FTC was investigating. Most importantly, casual references to a “search market” and “search advertising market” aside, Google actually competes in the market for targeted eyeballs: a market aimed to offer up targeted ads to interested users. Search offers a valuable opportunity for targeting an advertiser’s message, but it is by no means alone: there are myriad (and growing) other mechanisms to access consumers online.

Consumers use Google because they are looking for information — but there are lots of ways to do that. There are plenty of apps that circumvent Google, and consumers are increasingly going to specialized sites to find what they are looking for. The search market, if a distinct one ever existed, has evolved into an online information market that includes far more players than those who just operate traditional search engines.

We live in a world where what prevails today won’t prevail tomorrow. The tech industry is constantly changing, and it is the height of folly (and a serious threat to innovation and consumer welfare) to constrain the activities of firms competing in such an environment by pigeonholing the market. In other words, in a proper market, Google looks significantly less dominant. More important, perhaps, as search itself evolves, and as Facebook, Amazon and others get into the search advertising game, Google’s strong position even in the overly narrow “search market” is far from unassailable.

This is progress — creative destruction — not regress, and such changes should not be penalized.

Another common refrain from Google’s critics was that Google’s access to immense amounts of data used to increase the quality of its targeting presented a barrier to competition that no one else could match, thus protecting Google’s unassailable monopoly. But scale comes in lots of ways.

Even if scale doesn’t come cheaply, the fact that challenging firms might have to spend the same (or, in this case, almost certainly less) Google did in order to replicate its success is not a “barrier to entry” that requires an antitrust remedy. Data about consumer interests is widely available (despite efforts to reduce the availability of such data in the name of protecting “privacy”—which might actually create barriers to entry). It’s never been the case that a firm has to generate its own inputs for every product it produces — and there’s no reason to suggest search or advertising is any different.

Additionally, to defend a claim of monopolization, it is generally required to show that the alleged monopolist enjoys protection from competition through barriers to entry. In Google’s case, the barriers alleged were illusory. Bing and other recent entrants in the general search business have enjoyed success precisely because they were able to obtain the inputs (in this case, data) necessary to develop competitive offerings.

Meanwhile unanticipated competitors like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and others continue to knock at Google’s metaphorical door, all of them entering into competition with Google using data sourced from creative sources, and all of them potentially besting Google in the process. Consider, for example, Amazon’s recent move into the targeted advertising market, competing with Google to place ads on websites across the Internet, but with the considerable advantage of being able to target ads based on searches, or purchases, a user has made on Amazon—the world’s largest product search engine.

Now that the investigation has concluded, we come away with two major findings. First, the online information market is dynamic, and it is a fool’s errand to identify the power or significance of any player in these markets based on data available today — data that is already out of date between the time it is collected and the time it is analyzed.

Second, each development in the market – whether offered by Google or its competitors and whether facilitated by technological change or shifting consumer preferences – has presented different, novel and shifting opportunities and challenges for companies interested in attracting eyeballs, selling ad space and data, earning revenue and obtaining market share. To say that Google dominates “search” or “online advertising” missed the mark precisely because there was simply nothing especially antitrust-relevant about either search or online advertising. Because of their own unique products, innovations, data sources, business models, entrepreneurship and organizations, all of these companies have challenged and will continue to challenge the dominant company — and the dominant paradigm — in a shifting and evolving range of markets.

It would be churlish not to give credit where credit is due—and credit is due the FTC. I continue to think the investigation should have ended before it began, of course, but the FTC is to be commended for reaching this result amidst an overwhelming barrage of pressure to “do something.”

But there are others in this sadly politicized mess for whom neither the facts nor the FTC’s extensive investigation process (nor the finer points of antitrust law) are enough. Like my four-year-old daughter, they just “want what they want,” and they will stamp their feet until they get it.

While competitors will be competitors—using the regulatory system to accomplish what they can’t in the market—they do a great disservice to the very customers they purport to be protecting in doing so. As Milton Friedman famously said, in decrying “The Business Community’s Suicidal Impulse“:

As a believer in the pursuit of self-interest in a competitive capitalist system, I can’t blame a businessman who goes to Washington and tries to get special privileges for his company.… Blame the rest of us for being so foolish as to let him get away with it.

I do blame businessmen when, in their political activities, individual businessmen and their organizations take positions that are not in their own self-interest and that have the effect of undermining support for free private enterprise. In that respect, businessmen tend to be schizophrenic. When it comes to their own businesses, they look a long time ahead, thinking of what the business is going to be like 5 to 10 years from now. But when they get into the public sphere and start going into the problems of politics, they tend to be very shortsighted.

Ironically, Friedman was writing about the antitrust persecution of Microsoft by its rivals back in 1999:

Is it really in the self-interest of Silicon Valley to set the government on Microsoft? Your industry, the computer industry, moves so much more rapidly than the legal process, that by the time this suit is over, who knows what the shape of the industry will be.… [Y]ou will rue the day when you called in the government.

Among Microsoft’s chief tormentors was Gary Reback. He’s spent the last few years beating the drum against Google—but singing from the same song book. Reback recently told the Washington Post, “if a settlement were to be proposed that didn’t include search, the institutional integrity of the FTC would be at issue.” Actually, no it wouldn’t. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true. It’s hard to imagine an agency under more pressure, from more quarters (including the Hill), to bring a case around search. Doing so would at least raise the possibility that it were doing so because of pressure and not the merits of the case. But not doing so in the face of such pressure? That can almost only be a function of institutional integrity.

As another of Google’s most-outspoken critics, Tom Barnett, noted:

[The FTC has] really put [itself] in the position where they are better positioned now than any other agency in the U.S. is likely to be in the immediate future to address these issues. I would encourage them to take the issues as seriously as they can. To the extent that they concur that Google has violated the law, there are very good reasons to try to address the concerns as quickly as possible.

As Barnett acknowledges, there is no question that the FTC investigated these issues more fully than anyone. The agency’s institutional culture and its committed personnel, together with political pressure, media publicity and endless competitor entreaties, virtually ensured that the FTC took the issues “as seriously as they [could]” – in fact, as seriously as anyone else in the world. There is simply no reasonable way to criticize the FTC for being insufficiently thorough in its investigation and conclusions.

Nor is there a basis for claiming that the FTC is “standing in the way” of the courts’ ability to review the issue, as Scott Cleland contends in an op-ed in the Hill. Frankly, this is absurd. Google’s competitors have spent millions pressuring the FTC to bring a case. But the FTC isn’t remotely the only path to the courts. As Commissioner Rosch admonished,

They can darn well bring [a case] as a private antitrust action if they think their ox is being gored instead of free-riding on the government to achieve the same result.

Competitors have already beaten a path to the DOJ’s door, and investigations are still pending in the EU, Argentina, several US states, and elsewhere. That the agency that has leveled the fullest and best-informed investigation has concluded that there is no “there” there should give these authorities pause, but, sadly for consumers who would benefit from an end to competitors’ rent seeking, nothing the FTC has done actually prevents courts or other regulators from having a crack at Google.

The case against Google has received more attention from the FTC than the merits of the case ever warranted. It is time for Google’s critics and competitors to move on.

[Crossposted at Forbes.com]

I will be participating in a wide-ranging discussion of Google and antitrust issues at the upcoming AALS meeting in New Orleans in January. The Antitrust and Economic Regulation Section of the AALS is hosting the roundtable, organized by Mike Carrier. Mike and I will be joined by Marina Lao, Frank Pasquale, Pam Samuelson, and Mark Patterson, and the discussion will cover Google Book Search as well as the FTC investigations/possible cases against Google based on search and SEPs.

The session will be on Saturday, January 5, from 10:30 to 12:15 in the Hilton New Orleans Riverside (Newberry, Third Floor).

 Google and Antitrust

(Papers to be published in Harvard Journal of Law & Technology Digest)

Moderator:

Michael A. Carrier, Rutgers School of Law – Camden

Speakers:

Marina L. Lao, Seton Hall University School of Law

Geoffrey A. Manne, Lewis & Clark Law School

Frank A. Pasquale, Seton Hall University School of Law

Mark R. Patterson, Fordham University School of Law

Pamela Samuelson, University of California, Berkeley, School of Law

How should the antitrust laws apply to Google? Though the question is simple, the answer implicates an array of far-reaching issues related to how we access information and how we interact with others. This program will feature a distinguished panel engaging in a fastpaced discussion (no PowerPoints!) about these topics.

The panel will explore the Federal Trade Commission’s potential case against Google. It will discuss Google’s position in the search market and potential effects of its conduct on rivals. The panel also will explore the nuances of the Google Book Search settlement. What would – and should – antitrust law do about the project? How should the procompetitive justifications of the increased availability of books be weighed against the effects of the project on rivals?

Antitrust’s role in a 21st-century economy is frequently debated. Google provides a fruitful setting in which to discuss these important issues.

Co-authored with Berin Szoka

In the past two weeks, Members of Congress from both parties have penned scathing letters to the FTC warning of the consequences (both to consumers and the agency itself) if the Commission sues Google not under traditional antitrust law, but instead by alleging unfair competition under Section 5 of the FTC Act. The FTC is rumored to be considering such a suit, and FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz and Republican Commissioner Tom Rosch have expressed a desire to litigate such a so-called “pure” Section 5 antitrust case — one not adjoining a cause of action under the Sherman Act. Unfortunately for the Commissioners, no appellate court has upheld such an action since the 1960s.

This brewing standoff is reminiscent of a similar contest between Congress and the FTC over the Commission’s aggressive use of Section 5 in consumer protection cases in the 1970s. As Howard Beales recounts, the FTC took an expansive view of its authority and failed to produce guidelines or limiting principles to guide its growing enforcement against “unfair” practices — just as today it offers no limiting principles or guidelines for antitrust enforcement under the Act. Only under heavy pressure from Congress, including a brief shutdown of the agency (and significant public criticism for becoming the “National Nanny“), did the agency finally produce a Policy Statement on Unfairness — which Congress eventually codified by statute.

Given the attention being paid to the FTC’s antitrust authority under Section 5, we thought it would be helpful to offer a brief primer on the topic, highlighting why we share the skepticism expressed by the letter-writing members of Congress (along with many other critics).

The topic has come up, of course, in the context of the FTC’s case against Google. The scuttlebut is that the Commission believes it may not be able to bring and win a traditional, Section 2 antitrust action, and so may resort to Section 5 to make its case — or simply force a settlement, as the FTC did against Intel in late 2010. While it may be Google’s head on the block today, it could be anyone’s tomorrow. This isn’t remotely just about Google; it’s about broader concerns over the Commission’s use of Section 5 to prosecute monopolization cases without being subject to the rigorous economic standards of traditional antitrust law.

Background on Section 5

Section 5 has two “prongs.” The first, reflected in its prohibition of “unfair acts or deceptive acts or practices” (UDAP) is meant (and has previously been used—until recently, as explained) as a consumer protection statute. The other, prohibiting “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) has, indeed, been interpreted to have relevance to competition cases.

Most commonly (and commonly-accepted), the UMC language has been viewed to authorize the agency to bring cases that fill the gaps between clearly anticompetitive conduct and the language of the Sherman Act. Principally, this has been invoked in “invitation to collude” cases, which raise the spectre of price-fixing but nevertheless do not meet the literal prohibition against “agreement in restraint of trade” under Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

Over strenuous objections from dissenting Commissioners (and only in consent decrees; not before courts), the FTC has more recently sought to expand the reach of the UDAP language beyond the consumer protection realm to address antitrust concerns that would likely be non-starters under the Sherman Act.

In N-Data, the Commission brought and settled a case invoking both the UDAP and UMC prongs of Section 5 to reach (alleged) conduct that amounted to breach of a licensing agreement without the requisite (Sherman Act) Section 2 claim of exclusionary conduct (which would have required that the FTC show that N-Data’s conducted had the effect of excluding its rivals without efficiency or welfare-enhancing properties). Although the FTC’s claims fall outside the ambit of Section 2, the Commission’s invocation of Section 5’s UDAP language was so broad that it could — quite improperly — be employed to encompass traditional Section 2 claims nonetheless, but without the rigor Section 2 requires (as the vigorous dissents by Commissioners Kovacic and Majoras discuss). As Commissioner Kovacic wrote in his dissent:

[T]he framework that the [FTC's] Analysis presents for analyzing the challenged conduct as an unfair act or practice would appear to encompass all behavior that could be called a UMC or a violation of the Sherman or Clayton Acts. The Commission’s discussion of the UAP [sic] liability standard accepts the view that all business enterprises – including large companies – fall within the class of consumers whose injury is a worthy subject of unfairness scrutiny. If UAP coverage extends to the full range of business-to-business transactions, it would seem that the three-factor test prescribed for UAP analysis would capture all actionable conduct within the UMC prohibition and the proscriptions of the Sherman and Clayton Acts. Well-conceived antitrust cases (or UMC cases) typically address instances of substantial actual or likely harm to consumers. The FTC ordinarily would not prosecute behavior whose adverse effects could readily be avoided by the potential victims – either business entities or natural persons. And the balancing of harm against legitimate business justifications would encompass the assessment of procompetitive rationales that is a core element of a rule of reason analysis in cases arising under competition law.

In Intel, the most notorious of the recent FTC Section 5 antitrust actions, the Commission brought (and settled) a straightforward (if unwinnable) Section 2 case as a Section 5 case (with Section 2 “tag along” claims), using the justification that it simply couldn’t win a Section 2 case under current jurisprudence. Intel presumably settled the case because the absence of judicial limits under Section 5 made its outcome far less certain — and presumably the FTC brought the case under Section 5 for the same reason.

In Intel, there was no effort to distinguish Section 5 grounds from those under Section 2. Rather, the FTC claimed that the limiting jurisprudence under Section 2 wasn’t meant to rein in agencies, but merely private plaintiffs. This claim falls flat, as one of us (Geoff) has noted:

[Chairman] Leibowitz’ continued claim that courts have reined in Sherman Act jurisprudence only out of concern with the incentives and procedures of private enforcement, and not out of a concern with a more substantive balancing of error costs—errors from which the FTC is not, unfortunately immune—seems ridiculous to me. To be sure (as I said before), the procedural background matters as do the incentives to bring cases that may prove to be inefficient.

But take, for example, Twombly, mentioned by Leibowitz as one of the cases that has recently reined in Sherman Act enforcement in order to constrain overzealous private enforcement (and thus not in a way that should apply to government enforcement). . . .

But the over-zealousness of private plaintiffs is not all [Twombly] was about, as the Court made clear:

The inadequacy of showing parallel conduct or interdependence, without more, mirrors the ambiguity of the behavior: consistent with conspiracy, but just as much in line with a wide swath of rational and competitive business strategy unilaterally prompted by common perceptions of the market. Accordingly, we have previously hedged against false inferences from identical behavior at a number of points in the trial sequence.

Hence, when allegations of parallel conduct are set out in order to make a §1 claim, they must be placed in a context that raises a suggestion of a preceding agreement, not merely parallel conduct that could just as well be independent action. [Citations omitted].

The Court was appropriately concerned with the ability of decision-makers to separate pro-competitive from anticompetitive conduct. Even when the FTC brings cases, it and the court deciding the case must make these determinations. And, while the FTC may bring fewer strike suits, it isn’t limited to challenging conduct that is simple to identify as anticompetitive. Quite the opposite, in fact—the government has incentives to develop and bring suits proposing novel theories of anticompetitive conduct and of enforcement (as it is doing in the Intel case, for example).

Problems with Unleashing Section 5

It would be a serious problem — as the Members of Congress who’ve written letters seem to realize — if Section 5 were used to sidestep the important jurisprudential limitations on Section 2 by focusing on such unsupported theories as “reduction in consumer choice” instead of Section 2’s well-established consumer welfare standard. As Geoff has noted:

Following Sherman Act jurisprudence, traditionally the FTC has understood (and courts have demanded) that antitrust enforcement . . . requires demonstrable consumer harm to apply. But this latest effort reveals an agency pursuing an interpretation of Section 5 that would give it unprecedented and largely-unchecked authority. In particular, the definition of “unfair” competition wouldn’t be confined to the traditional antitrust measures — reduction in output or an output-reducing increase in price — but could expand to, well, just about whatever the agency deems improper.

* * *

One of the most important shifts in antitrust over the past 30 years has been the move away from indirect and unreliable proxies of consumer harm toward a more direct, effects-based analysis. Like the now archaic focus on market concentration in the structure-conduct-performance framework at the core of “old” merger analysis, the consumer choice framework [proposed by Commissioner Rosch as a cause of action under Section 5] substitutes an indirect and deeply flawed proxy for consumer welfare for assessment of economically relevant economic effects. By focusing on the number of choices, the analysis shifts attention to the wrong question.

The fundamental question from an antitrust perspective is whether consumer choice is a better predictor of consumer outcomes than current tools allow. There doesn’t appear to be anything in economic theory to suggest that it would be. Instead, it reduces competitive analysis to a single attribute of market structure and appears susceptible to interpretations that would sacrifice a meaningful measure of consumer welfare (incorporating assessment of price, quality, variety, innovation and other amenities) on economically unsound grounds. It is also not the law.

Commissioner Kovacic echoed this in his dissent in N-Data:

More generally, it seems that the Commission’s view of unfairness would permit the FTC in the future to plead all of what would have been seen as competition-related infringements as constituting unfair acts or practices.

And the same concerns animate Kovacic’s belief (drawn from an article written with then-Attorney Advisor Mark Winerman) that courts will continue to look with disapproval on efforts by the FTC to expand its powers:

We believe that UMC should be a competition-based concept, in the modern sense of fostering improvements in economic performance rather than equating the health of the competitive process with the wellbeing of individual competitors, per se. It should not, moreover, rely on the assertion in [the Supreme Court’s 1972 Sperry & Hutchinson Trading Stamp case] that the Commission could use its UMC authority to reach practices outside both the letter and spirit of the antitrust laws. We think the early history is now problematic, and we view the relevant language in [Sperry & Hutchinson] with skepticism.

Representatives Eshoo and Lofgren were even more direct in their letter:

Expanding the FTC’s Section 5 powers to include antitrust matters could lead to overbroad authority that amplifies uncertainty and stifles growth. . . . If the FTC intends to litigate under this interpretation of Section 5, we strongly urge the FTC to reconsider.

But it isn’t only commentators and Congressmen who point to this limitation. The FTC Act itself contains such a limitation. Section 5(n) of the Act, the provision added by Congress in 1994 to codify the core principles of the FTC’s 1980 Unfairness Policy Statement, says 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. [Emphasis added].

In other words, Congress has already said, quite clearly, that Section 5 isn’t a blank check. Yet Chairman Leibowitz seems to be banking on the dearth of direct judicial precedent saying so to turn it into one — as do those who would cheer on a Section 5 antitrust case (against Google, Intel or anyone else). Given the unique breadth of the FTC’s jurisdiction over the entire economy, the agency would again threaten to become a second national legislature, capable of regulating nearly the entire economy.

The Commission has tried — and failed — to bring such cases before the courts in recent years. But the judiciary has not been receptive to an invigoration of Section 5 for several reasons. Chief among these is that the agency simply hasn’t defined the scope of its power over unfair competition under the Act, and the courts hesitate to let the Commission set the limits of its own authority. As Kovacic and Winerman have noted:

The first [reason for judicial reluctance in Section 5 cases] is judicial concern about the apparent absence of limiting principles. The tendency of the courts has been to endorse limiting principles that bear a strong resemblance to standards familiar to them from Sherman Act and Clayton Act cases. The cost-benefit concepts devised in rule of reason cases supply the courts with natural default rules in the absence of something better.

The Commission has done relatively little to inform judicial thinking, as the agency has not issued guidelines or policy statements that spell out its own view about the appropriate analytical framework. This inactivity contrasts with the FTC’s efforts to use policy statements to set boundaries for the application of its consumer protection powers under Section 5.

This concern was stressed in the letter sent by Senator DeMint and other Republican Senators to Chairman Leibowitz:

[W]e are concerned about the apparent eagerness of the Commission under your leadership to expand Section 5 actions without a clear indication of authority or a limiting principle. When a federal regulatory agency uses creative theories to expand its activities, entrepreneurs may be deterred from innovating and growing lest they be targeted by government action.

As we have explained many times (see, e.g., herehere and here), a Section 2 case against Google will be an uphill battle. As far as we have seen publicly, complainants have offered only harm to competitors — not harm to consumers — to justify such a case. It is little surprise, then, that the agency (or, more accurately, Chairman Leibowitz and Commissioner Rosch) may be seeking to use the less-limited power of Section 5 to mount such a case.

In a blog post in 2011, Geoff wrote:

Commissioner Rosch has claimed that Section Five could address conduct that has the effect of “reducing consumer choice” — an effect that a very few commentators support without requiring any evidence that the conduct actually reduces consumer welfare. Troublingly, “reducing consumer choice” seems to be a euphemism for “harm to competitors, not competition,” where the reduction in choice is the reduction of choice of competitors who may be put out of business by competitive behavior.

The U.S. has a long tradition of resisting enforcement based on harm to competitors without requiring a commensurate, strong showing of harm to consumers — an economically-sensible tradition aimed squarely at minimizing the likelihood of erroneous enforcement. The FTC’s invigorated interest in Section Five contemplates just such wrong-headed enforcement, however, to the inevitable detriment of the very consumers the agency is tasked with protecting.

In fact, the theoretical case against Google depends entirely on the ways it may have harmed certain competitors rather than on any evidence of actual harm to consumers (and in the face of ample evidence of significant consumer benefits).

* * *

In each of [the complaints against Google], the problem is that the claimed harm to competitors does not demonstrably translate into harm to consumers.

For example, Google’s integration of maps into its search results unquestionably offers users an extremely helpful presentation of these results, particularly for users of mobile phones. That this integration might be harmful to MapQuest’s bottom line is not surprising — but nor is it a cause for concern if the harm flows from a strong consumer preference for Google’s improved, innovative product. The same is true of the other claims. . . .

To the extent that the FTC brings an antitrust case against Google under Section 5, using the Act to skirt the jurisprudential limitations (and associated economic rigor) that make a Section 2 case unwinnable, it would be contravening congressional intent, judicial precedent, the plain language of the FTC Act, and the collected wisdom of the antitrust commentariat that sees such an action as inappropriate. This includes not just traditional antitrust-skeptics like us, but even antitrust-enthusiasts like Allen Grunes, who has written:

The FTC, of course, has Section 5 authority. But there is well-developed case law on monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Act. There are no doctrinal “gaps” that need to be filled. For that reason it would be inappropriate, in my view, to use Section 5 as a crutch if the evidence is insufficient to support a case under Section 2.

As Geoff has said:

Modern antitrust analysis, both in scholarship and in the courts, quite properly rejects the reductive and unsupported sort of theories that would undergird a Section 5 case against Google. That the FTC might have a better chance of winning a Section 5 case, unmoored from the economically sound limitations of Section 2 jurisprudence, is no reason for it to pursue such a case. Quite the opposite: When consumer welfare is disregarded for the sake of the agency’s power, it ceases to further its mandate. . . . But economic substance, not self-aggrandizement by rhetoric, should guide the agency. Competition and consumers are dramatically ill-served by the latter.

Conclusion: What To Do About Unfairness?

So, what should the FTC do with Section 5? The right answer may be “nothing” (and probably is, in our opinion). But even those who think something should be done to apply the Act more broadly to allegedly anticompetitive conduct should be able to agree that the FTC ought not bring a case under Section 5’s UDAP language without first defining with analytical rigor what its limiting principles are.

Rather than attempting to do this in the course of a single litigation, the agency ought to heed Kovacic and Winerman’s advice and do more to “inform judicial thinking” such as by “issu[ing] guidelines or policy statements that spell out its own view about the appropriate analytical framework.” The best way to start that process would be for whoever succeeds Leibowitz as chairman to convene a workshop on the topic. (As one of us (Berin) has previously suggested, the FTC is long overdue on issuing guidelines to explain how it has applied its Unfairness and Deception Policy Statements in UDAP consumer protection cases. Such a workshop would dovetail nicely with this.)

The question posed should not presume that Section 5’s UDAP language ought to be used to reach conduct actionable under the antitrust statutes at all. Rather, the fundamental question to be asked is whether the use of Section 5 in antitrust cases is a relic of a bygone era before antitrust law was given analytical rigor by economics. If the FTC cannot rigorously define an interpretation of Section 5 that will actually serve consumer welfare — which the Supreme Court has defined as the proper aim of antitrust law — Congress should explicitly circumscribe it once and for all, limiting Section 5 to protecting consumers against unfair and deceptive acts and practices and, narrowly, prohibiting unfair competition in the form of invitations to collude. The FTC (along with the DOJ and the states) would still regulate competition through the existing antitrust laws. This might be the best outcome of all.

Previous commentary by us on Section 5: