Archives For section 5

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

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

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

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

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

Background

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

Event Info

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

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

When:

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

Where:

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

Questions? – Email mail@techfreedom.orgRSVP here.

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

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

About The International Center for Law and Economics:

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

About TechFreedom:

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

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

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

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

Today’s complaint occasions a few more observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I wrote in my testimony:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today.

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

Harm to Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

Existing Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhetoric

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Thank you.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Marina Lao is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law

FTC Commissioner Josh Wright’s recent issuance of a proposed policy statement on Section 5 of the FTC Act has reignited the debate on the appropriate scope of the agency’s authority to prosecute “unfair methods of competition” as standalone Section 5 violations.  While the Supreme Court has held, consistent with clear congressional intent, that the FTC’s authority under Section 5 extends to conduct that is well beyond the reach of the Sherman and Clayton Acts, its last decision on the issue (S&H) is over four decades old.  Given that antitrust jurisprudence has changed dramatically since, and all three subsequent circuit court decisions (Boise Cascade, OAG, Ethyl) have gone against the FTC, it is questionable whether today’s Supreme Court would give as expansive a reading to the Commission’s enforcement discretion.  In any event, it is unlikely that the agency would attempt to exercise its full enforcement authority under the elusive terms in the old case law.  Under the circumstances, if the FTC intends to continue to invoke the section to bring standalone cases—and I believe it should–it would be helpful to the antitrust community for the agency to develop standards and to articulate an analytical framework for its application.  Commissioner Wright’s proposed policy statement, and Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen’s comments on it, are invaluable in re-starting the discussion, which I hope will result in guidelines from the Commission at some point.

Under Commissioner Wright’s proposal, an act or practice must satisfy a two-prong test before the Commission may challenge it as an unfair method of competition: it must harm or is likely to harm competition, and it must not generate cognizable efficiencies.  I find the second element somewhat troubling.

The Cognizable Efficiency Screen.  Under Commissioner Wright’s proposal, cognizable efficiencies operate as a safe harbor: the FTC would not be able to challenge conduct as an unfair method of competition if any cognizable efficiency exists, no matter how slight the efficiency and how substantial the anticompetitive effects.  There is no balancing of the efficiencies against the anticompetitive harm at all, as is called for in the rule of reason under the Sherman Act.  Under this interpretation, Section 5 will effectively set a higher, rather than a lower, bar than the Sherman Act, which seems contrary to the common understanding of the relative standards of the relevant laws.  Though Commissioner Wright does include some useful limiting principles on what efficiencies would be deemed cognizable (conduct-specific, verifiable, and not derived from anticompetitive reductions in output or service), one can still probably come up with a plausible efficiency for almost any business conduct.  If this prong of the test is adopted, the section may prove to be of limited use to the FTC in bringing pure unfair methods of competition cases.

I would prefer a consideration of efficiencies on a sliding scale, as is done in merger analysis.  The greater the harm (or likely harm) to competition, and the greater the deviation from “normally acceptable business behavior” (Ethyl), the more efficiencies must be generated to offset the harm and avoid an injunction under Section 5.  The lesser the competitive harm, the fewer the efficiencies required.

Commissioner Wright provides three rationales for his bright-line efficiencies screen: it would clearly distinguish between acceptable business behavior and unfair methods of competition thereby providing certainty to businesses; it would allocate the agency’s scarce resources toward targeting conduct that is most likely to harm consumers; and it would avoid deterrence of welfare-enhancing conduct.  In my view, none of the three rationales is entirely persuasive.

Of course, a bright-line safe harbor always provides more certainty to a firm than a standard that requires balancing, but there is nothing in the nature of Section 5 enforcement that calls for this degree of certainty.  Remedies for violations of Section 5 are typically limited to injunctions; the FTC does not recover treble damages.  Moreover, the FTC Act cannot be enforced by private parties.  Even if private plaintiffs attempt to build a class-action under the Sherman Act based on a Section 5 adjudication, a finding for the FTC in the ALJ proceeding is not given prima facie effect in the private lawsuit.  Moreover, when the FTC is relying on Section 5 to prohibit conduct outside of the Sherman Act, its findings on fully litigated issues have no preclusive effect whatsoever on the same issues in any follow-on Sherman Act litigation that private parties may attempt to bring.  Therefore, enforcement of pure Section 5 cases does not inflict the kinds of burdens on defendants that are associated with Department of Justice prosecutions under the Sherman Act, for which a higher degree of certainty for businesses may be justified given the collateral consequences.  In the context of Section 5 enforcement, which results only in an injunction, it is not clear why a firm is entitled to know with absolute certainty that, no matter how harmful its conduct may be to consumers, it would be acceptable if it has any efficiencies at all.

To the extent that an FTC adjudication carries no unusual consequences for the firm, relative to other litigation, requiring a balancing of the conduct’s efficiencies against its anticompetitive harms does not subject a firm to an intolerable amount of uncertainty.  Even in those commercial settings in which businesses are usually governed by very specific rules, generalized standards do exist. For example, though the Uniform Commercial Code (covering a wide variety of commercial transactions) consists primarily of very specific rules, it also includes a number of well-accepted overarching fairness-based provisions, such as the requirements of good faith and fair dealing, the doctrine of unconscionability, and standards based on commercial course of dealing and trade usage.  These benchmarks clearly provide a less predictable standard to distinguish between permissible and impermissible conduct than the “uncertain” standard of a rule-of-reason balancing of efficiencies and harms.

As to the second rationale–that an efficiencies screen would focus the FTC’s resources on conduct most likely to harm consumers–I question the premise that anticompetitive conduct with some efficiencies is necessarily less harmful than conduct with no efficiencies.  Consider the following two examples: First, assume, as in Commissioner Wright’s Example 6, that Firm A makes an ex ante commitment on licensing to an SSO as a condition for the adoption of its IP as part of the standard; Firm A later sells its patent to Firm B which announces that it will no longer license under those terms.  Assume further that Firm B is able to show some efficiency gain from its breach of its predecessor’s commitment, but the consumer harm from the breach may be substantial.  (Reneging on Firm A’s commitment undermines the integrity of the standard-setting process, which could reduce the incentives to participate in the process or to implement the standard because of concerns of patent hold-ups, and ultimately affect consumers who would lose some of the benefits of interoperability which comes from standard setting.)  Under the proposed efficiency screen, the FTC cannot challenge the conduct, regardless of the magnitude and nature of the consumer harm.

Second, assume, as in Commissioner Wright’s Example 2, that Firm A invites Firm B to fix prices, but Firm B declines.  Assume further that Firms A and B operate in an industry that has a competitive culture with no history of collusion.  Thus, while the invitation to collude meets the harm to competition element of the test, the risk of competitive harm may be relatively small.  Though the invitation to collude has no efficiencies, whereas Firm B’s breach in the preceding example is found to have some efficiencies, the conduct in the preceding example is likely to cause more consumer harm than the invitation to collude under my facts.

Rather than set a categorical rule which allows the FTC to only challenge competitively harmful conduct with zero efficiencies, why not allow the FTC to make a judgment based on the evidence of harms and efficiencies, if any, that is available?

As for the third rationale, while the need to avoid false positives in ambiguous situations is an important consideration, so too is the need to avoid false negatives.  As I’ve suggested earlier, the social cost of a false positive is much smaller in a pure Section 5 case than in a Sherman Act action.  There is no threat of treble damages, or of automatic follow-on class action suits (that usually follow a successful Department of Justice antitrust action) for which the liability finding in the DOJ action would have a prima facie effect.  Even if a practice is erroneously identified as an unfair method of competition under Section 5—e.g., a delivered pricing term that, though anticompetitive, had efficiencies that were insufficiently recognized and, thus, wrongly enjoined–the cost of the false positive would be that the market may be deprived of the enjoined practice, and firms may have to look to an alternative practice.  But that is probably not a major social cost as firms are generally adept at finding substitutes.

Conduct Must Harm Competition:

Anticompetitive Effect as Definition of Harm to Competition.   I agree with Commissioner Wright that conduct challenged under Section 5 must have an anticompetitive effect; that is, “it must harm the competitive process and thereby harm consumers,” (Microsoft); harm to competitors alone will not suffice.  One difficulty lies in defining harm to the “competitive process,” which is susceptible to different interpretations.  To me, injury to the competitive process is different than having an effect on price or output, or even diminished quality.  It is less measurable, and the ultimate effect on consumers less obvious.  What would be considered indicia of harm to the competitive process and what would not?  Today, there are many markets with minimal or no price competition, or where firms compete primarily through creativity or product development.  In these types of markets, a price and output measure would be inappropriate; perhaps any forthcoming Guidelines could provide more guidance in this regard.

Anticompetitive Effect/CausationCausation is often intertwined with the concept of anticompetitive effect.  In deciding section 2 cases, courts have sometimes held that there is no anticompetitive effect unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that, absent the defendant’s conduct, the “bad” market situation would not have occurred.  For example, assume that a firm deceptively fails to disclose its patents in technologies to an SSO and the technologies were subsequently included by the SSO in industry standards.  However, there was an insufficient showing that, but for the firm’s deception, the SSO would not have included the technologies or would have imposed limits on the patent owner’s licensing fees as a condition for inclusion.  In that situation, courts have held that anticompetitive effect was not shown under Section 2 of the Sherman Act (Rambus).  Even assuming that this restrictive analysis of effect/causation is required under Section 2, though I don’t believe it is, it would seem appropriate to relax this requirement in a pure Section 5 case for the reasons that I have discussed: the absence of collateral impact of a Section 5 violation and the limited remedies that the FTC may seek.  It should be sufficient in this situation to show that the deceptive failure to disclose to the SSO the patents underlying the technology under consideration undermined and harmed the standard-setting processes.  And it should be unnecessary for the FTC to demonstrate that the firm’s deception enabled it to either acquire a monopoly or to avoid the imposition of patent licensing fee limits by the SSO.

Examples of Conduct that is Likely to Harm Competition.  I like both broad categories of conduct that Commissioner Wright described as likely to harm competition under Section 5: invitations to collude; and incipient Section 2 violations—conduct “to acquire market power that does not yet arise to the level of monopoly power” required under Section 2.

With respect to the category of incipient Section 2 violations, I would prefer a slightly broader reach to cover situations where a firm with monopoly power in one market uses that power in a second (complementary or collateral) market and causes considerable harm in the collateral market; however, the firm is unlikely to attain a monopoly in the second market but merely seeks to raise its rivals’ costs.  This claim would clearly not constitute a Section 2 violation today.  I believe that it could fit under Commissioner Wright’s second broad category of conduct likely to harm competition, provided that there is good evidence that competitive harm in the collateral market is likely.

Parallel exclusion, described by Professors Scott Hemphill and Tim Wu in a recent article, could constitute an additional broad category of conduct that could be appropriately addressed under Section 5.  As Professors Hemphill and Wu have explained, the economic effects of parallel exclusion by oligopolists are quite similar to that of exclusion by a monopolist.  Yet, neither section 1 nor section 2 of the Sherman Act can reach that conduct: the agreement element is absent, precluding a section 1 violation; and each firm does not have the requisite market share to meet the monopoly power requirement of section 2 though they collectively share a monopoly, thus precluding a section 2 violation.

Thom Lambert is Wall Family Foundation Chair in Corporate Law & Governance and Professor of Law at University of Missouri School of Law

In the last few weeks, two members of the FTC—Commissioners Josh Wright and Maureen Ohlhausen—have staked largely consistent positions on guidelines for implementation of the Commission’s “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) authority.  Their statements make two points that are, in my opinion, no-brainers.  Where the statements conflict, they raise an issue worthy of significant contemplation.  I’ll be interested to hear others’ thoughts on that matter.

First, the no-brainers.

No-Brainer #1:  We Need Guidance on the Scope of the FTC’s UMC Authority.

Ours is a government of laws and not of men.  That means, in the words of F. A. Hayek, “that government in all its actions [must be] bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand—rules which make it possible to foresee with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge.”  According to the classic statement by A.V. Dicey, the “Rule of Law” means “the absolute supremacy or predominance of regular law as opposed to arbitrary power, and excludes the existence of arbitrariness, of prerogative, or even of wide discretionary authority on the part of government.”  As it stands, Section 5’s prohibition of “unfair methods of competition” is so indeterminate and discretionary that it can hardly constitute law.  The text itself is woefully deficient for, as the Second Circuit observed in analyzing the provision, “[t]he term ‘unfair’ is an elusive concept, often depending upon the eye of the beholder.”  Nor has the caselaw on Section 5 developed in way that lets business planners know what they must and must not do to avoid liability.  The sort of guidance Commissioners Wright and Ohlhausen are proposing, then, is badly needed.

No-Brainer #2:  The FTC Should Not Challenge a Practice Under Its UMC Authority Unless Doing So Is Necessary to Avert an Actual or Likely Harm to Competition.

Commissioners Wright and Ohlhausen agree that for the FTC to bring a “stand-alone” Section 5 action (i.e., one not simply alleging behavior that violates the Sherman Act), the challenged practice must result in, or likely result in, significant harm to competition.  Such harm consists of a reduction in overall market output, usually evinced by an increase in price.  It does not result from mere harm to competitors.  Thus, doing a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing to your competitor—while perhaps tortious—would not constitute an unfair method of competition if the action did not, and was not likely to, reduce overall market output.

The reason for this requirement, which may sound harsh and extreme to non-antitrusters, is simple:  Business conduct that hurts competitors without reducing overall market output does not usually leave market output unchanged; rather, it usually enhances market output and thereby benefits consumers.  If the FTC seeks to condemn competitor-harming conduct that doesn’t harm competition, it will likely end up hurting consumers.  In the Brown Shoe case, for example, the FTC condemned exclusive dealing by a shoe manufacturer where harm to competition was unrealistic but competitors were injured.  The effect was to shut down more efficient distribution practices and thereby hurt consumers.  If the FTC is to remain a consumer protection agency, it must limit its UMC challenges to acts causing or threatening significant competitive injury.

That brings us to a somewhat difficult policy question.

The Contestable Issue:  How Broad Should the Safe Harbor for Efficiency-Creating Conduct Be?

Commissioner Wright has taken the position that a second prerequisite to a stand-alone UMC challenge should be that the practice at issue lacks any cognizable efficiencies.  Commissioner Ohlhausen, by contrast, would permit a challenge (assuming her other pre-requisites, which are largely subsumed in Commissioner Wright’s first pre-requisite, are satisfied) when the practice at issue either creates no cognizable efficiencies or “results in harm to competition that is disproportionate to its benefits to consumers and to the economic benefits to the defendant, exclusive of the benefits that may accrue from reduced competition.”  Ohlhausen is careful to emphasize that she is not proposing “to balance precisely” procompetitive versus anticompetitive effects.  Instead, the latter prong of her disjunctive pre-requisite is satisfied only if the surplus lost from reduced output significantly outweighs the efficiencies created by the practice.

As a practical matter, the dispute here may reduce to, “What must a firm show to come within a safe harbor from stand-alone UMC liability?”  According to Commissioner Wright, establishing cognizable efficiencies from the practice at issue will keep you safe.  Commissioner Ohlhausen would require a firm to establish such efficiencies and show that they are not significantly outweighed by lost surplus from reduced output.

So whose approach is better?  I’ll confess that I’ve gone back and forth on that question over the last few days.  On the one hand, Commissioner Wright’s position seems awfully pro-defendant: a tiny increase in productive efficiency stemming from a practice could insulate the practice even if it occasioned huge allocative inefficiencies.  Do we really need so expansive a safe harbor here, given that UMC judgments occasion only injunctive relief (cease and desist orders) and cannot give rise to follow-on private treble damages actions?  On the other hand, Commissioner Ohlhausen’s safe harbor seems pretty unreliable—after-the-fact balancing of competitive effects is always tricky—and there are reasons to worry about follow-on private litigation and the chilling effect it may create.  (For example, as Commissioner Kovacic observed in his N-Data dissent, many states have “little FTC Acts,” a number of which are privately enforceable in treble damages actions.)

At this point, I’m inclined to side with Commissioner Wright on the scope of the safe harbor.  There are few practices that occasion genuine harm to competition but are not covered by the Sherman and Clayton Acts, and most of those—e.g., attempts to collude, market power-creating naked acts of exclusion by firms previously lacking market power—occasion no efficiencies and thus would not come within Commissioner Wright’s broader safe harbor.  See Wright’s Examples 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8.  I can think of only one obvious category of conduct that (1) harms competition, (2) is not covered by the Sherman or Clayton Act, and (3) would fall within Commissioner Wright’s, but not Commissioner Ohlhausen’s, safe harbor: oligopolistic coordination using facilitating devices that were adopted unilaterally.  Several prominent antitrust scholars have argued that such conduct should be illegal, see, e.g., Richard A. Posner, Oligopoly and the Antitrust Laws: A Suggested Approach, 21 Stan. L. Rev. 1562 (1969); Herbert Hovenkamp, The Antitrust Enterprise 32-35, 128-34 (2005), and Professor Hovenkamp has argued that it should be policed under the FTC’s UMC authority.  See Herbert Hovenkamp, The Federal Trade Commission and the Sherman Act, 62 Fla. L. Rev. 871, 879-82 (2010).  In light of the judicial hostility toward that approach as evidenced in cases such as Ethyl and Boise Cascade, however, I would not be inclined to exchange Commissioner Wright’s broader safe harbor for Commissioner Ohlhausen’s narrower one in the hopes of pursuing such facilitating devices.

Of course, I may be overlooking other categories of anticompetitive conduct that are not covered by the Sherman and Clayton Acts and would be condemned under Commissioner Ohlhausen’s, but not Commissioner Wright’s, approach.  If anyone can think of something obvious, please let me know.

Regardless of how we resolve the controversy over the scope of any “efficiencies safe harbor,” Commissioners Wright and Ohlhausen deserve our thanks and admiration for pressing a long overdue issue and working to improve the state of American competition law.  I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on the commissioners’ proposals.

Joe Sims is a Partner at Jones Day

I find that discussions on antitrust policy, if they are not to devolve into simple recitations of preferred industrial policy, are most focused when grounded in first principles and, frequently, a little history.  So a few words on both with respect to Section 5, starting with the history.

The FTC Act, in addition to being an early manifestation of the “can we help” school of antitrust, was a reaction to the perceptions of some that the Sherman Act, two decades old at the time, had not been enforced aggressively enough.  Indeed, there was considerable concern that the Supreme Court’s invention, just a couple of years earlier in the Standard Oil decision, of a Rule of Reason doctrine in interpreting the otherwise very broad words of the Sherman Act was going to effectively gut the statute.  Of course, that interpretation almost certainly saved the Sherman Act from an early demise, and opened the door for the extremely wide-ranging enforcement regime we have today.  So in large part, the premises underlying the FTC Act (including the now quaint notion that FTC Commissioners would be business experts) have proven completely wrong.  Does anyone really want to argue today that Standard Oil’s creation of a broad but limiting principle for the unworkable literal language of the Sherman Act was a bad idea?

The main point to take from this history is that the world has changed just a little bit in the last 100 years, so whatever Congress may have intended (of course, the notion of Congressional intent is itself almost a complete oxymoron) in 1914 tells us virtually nothing about what is sensible today.  So I hope we do not hear today the silly argument that the authority exists, so therefore we must use it, or the even sillier argument that if the FTC does not use this “unique” authority, it might as well go out of business.  Whether we need two antitrust agencies is a very valid question, but as we have seen for the last hundred years, Section 5 has very little to add to that debate.

So the real issue today is not what Congress intended a century ago, but what is sensible today – in a very different world.  And to intelligently answer that, we need to return to first principles of competition policy.  Here is how I would phrase the question:  Is even intelligent application (a heroic assumption, no doubt, but appropriate for a policy debate) of an unbounded statutory power by whoever happens to be the majority of FTC Commissioners at any given time likely to improve the competitive environment in the US?

It is very difficult for me to see how that is possible, and even harder to see how it is likely.  We know what the downside is.  Remember Mike Pertschuck saying that Section 5 could possibly be used to enforce compliance with desirable energy policies or environmental requirements, or to attack actions that, in the opinion of the FTC majority, impeded desirable employment programs or were inconsistent with the nation’s “democratic, political and social ideals.”  The two speeches he delivered on this subject in 1977 were the beginning of the end for increased Section 5 enforcement in that era, since virtually everyone who heard or read them said:  “Whoa!  Is this really what we want the FTC to be doing?”

Oh, but you say:  this is unfair, since that was then and this is now.  No FTC Chair or Commissioner would take this position today.  Well, I refer you to Jon Leibowitz’s concurring opinion in Rambus, where he says that Section 5 is “a flexible and powerful Congressional mandate to protect competition from unreasonable restraints, whether long-since recognized or newly discovered, that violate the antitrust laws, constitute incipient violations of those laws, or contravene those laws’ fundamental policies.”  Of course, unlike Mike Pertschuck, he does recognize that there must be some constraints, so his version of Section 5 would “only” reach actions that are “collusive, coercive, predatory, restrictive or deceitful, or otherwise oppressive, and without a justification grounded in legitimate, independent self-interest.”  Does that make you feel better?

Let’s be honest.  Enforcement of Section 5, if it actually becomes a regular part of the FTC toolbox, will depend solely on the common sense, good faith, and modesty of the FTC Commissioners as a group.  For purposes of this discussion, we can even assume the former two traits, although history tells us that they are not universal in this sample, because modesty will surely be the toughest test to meet.  By and large, people become FTC Commissioners to do things, not to be modest.  The Rambus dissent quotes, apparently approvingly, a statement from one Senator at the time of the FTC Act debate that “five good men [a reflection of the times] could hardly make mistakes about whether a particular practice is contrary to good morals or not.”  Really?  Don’t we have irrefutable evidence over the years that this assumption about government is clearly wrong?  But even if you don’t agree with that perception, aren’t we well past the time that we are willing to let five men or women enforce their personal moral or social or even business views with the force of law?  As Leibowitz’s outline of “reasonable” criteria shows – and as in fact the Commission’s history clearly demonstrates — if Section 5 is in the toolbox, it will be impossible to resist stretching the language to meet the perceived ill of the day, especially if and when it is too hard – meaning not enough factual or economic evidence – to carry the burden of a Sherman Act challenge.  And who knows what tomorrow’s reverse payment issue will be?

So there is a lot of downside to increased utilization of Section 5.  What is the argument on the other side of the scale?  Is there any need  — literally, any need at all — for Section 5 enforcement today?  If we did not have this anachronistic vestige of the past already on the books, would there be a groundswell of support to pass a new law giving the FTC this authority?  Is there anyone participating in this symposium that is willing to argue that there is any chance that a statue as unhinged as this to any statement of need or standard of application could become law today?  (Dodd-Frank and Obamacare are not good answers, even if they meet this prescription; the policy support in this area is not anywhere near the level of financial manipulation or health care.)

I have yet to hear anyone answer this question persuasively.  To me, it is instructive that the best illustration – certainly the most common example — anyone can give for an actual “need” for Section 5 is to attack invitations to collude – which, in case anyone has not noticed, involves conduct that by definition has no effect on anyone.  So the best argument is that we need to accept all the risks of Section 5 enforcement in order to be able to attack potential anticompetitive agreements that never actually happened?  Would we prefer that people not seek to collude?  Sure.  Does it really matter to anyone if they try and fail?  No.  And this is the best argument anyone can think of after 100 years of trying?  It does not pass the laugh test.

Section 5 is like your appendix – harmless enough if ignored and unused, but very dangerous if aroused or active.  We have already exceeded the optimal number of Section 5 cases this century, and we are only in the 14th year.  Time to stop for at least the next eight decades.  Let’s renew the debate in 2100.