FTC v Amazon: With every victory in court the FTC loses a little more

Geoffrey Manne —  27 April 2016

Yesterday a federal district court in Washington state granted the FTC’s motion for summary judgment against Amazon in FTC v. Amazon — the case alleging unfair trade practices in Amazon’s design of the in-app purchases interface for apps available in its mobile app store. The headlines score the decision as a loss for Amazon, and the FTC, of course, claims victory. But the court also granted Amazon’s motion for partial summary judgment on a significant aspect of the case, and the Commission’s win may be decidedly pyrrhic.

While the district court (very wrongly, in my view) essentially followed the FTC in deciding that a well-designed user experience doesn’t count as a consumer benefit for assessing substantial harm under the FTC Act, it rejected the Commission’s request for a permanent injunction against Amazon. It also called into question the FTC’s calculation of monetary damages. These last two may be huge. 

The FTC may have “won” the case, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent why it doesn’t want to take these cases to trial. First in Wyndham, and now in Amazon, courts have begun to chip away at the FTC’s expansive Section 5 discretion, even while handing the agency nominal victories.

The Good News

The FTC largely escapes judicial oversight in cases like these because its targets almost always settle (Amazon is a rare exception). These settlements — consent orders — typically impose detailed 20-year injunctions and give the FTC ongoing oversight of the companies’ conduct for the same period. The agency has wielded the threat of these consent orders as a powerful tool to micromanage tech companies, and it currently has at least one consent order in place with Twitter, Google, Apple, Facebook and several others.

As I wrote in a WSJ op-ed on these troubling consent orders:

The FTC prefers consent orders because they extend the commission’s authority with little judicial oversight, but they are too blunt an instrument for regulating a technology company. For the next 20 years, if the FTC decides that Google’s product design or billing practices don’t provide “express, informed consent,” the FTC could declare Google in violation of the new consent decree. The FTC could then impose huge penalties—tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars—without establishing that any consumer had actually been harmed.

Yesterday’s decision makes that outcome less likely. Companies will be much less willing to succumb to the FTC’s 20-year oversight demands if they know that courts may refuse the FTC’s injunction request and accept companies’ own, independent and market-driven efforts to address consumer concerns — without any special regulatory micromanagement.

In the same vein, while the court did find that Amazon was liable for repayment of unauthorized charges made without “express, informed authorization,” it also found the FTC’s monetary damages calculation questionable and asked for further briefing on the appropriate amount. If, as seems likely, it ultimately refuses to simply accept the FTC’s damages claims, that, too, will take some of the wind out of the FTC’s sails. Other companies have settled with the FTC and agreed to 20-year consent decrees in part, presumably, because of the threat of excessive damages if they litigate. That, too, is now less likely to happen.

Collectively, these holdings should help to force the FTC to better target its complaints to cases of still-ongoing and truly-harmful practices — the things the FTC Act was really meant to address, like actual fraud. Tech companies trying to navigate ever-changing competitive waters by carefully constructing their user interfaces and payment mechanisms (among other things) shouldn’t be treated the same way as fraudulent phishing scams.

The Bad News

The court’s other key holding is problematic, however. In essence, the court, like the FTC, seems to believe that regulators are better than companies’ product managers, designers and engineers at designing app-store user interfaces:

[A] clear and conspicuous disclaimer regarding in-app purchases and request for authorization on the front-end of a customer’s process could actually prove to… be more seamless than the somewhat unpredictable password prompt formulas rolled out by Amazon.

Never mind that Amazon has undoubtedly spent tremendous resources researching and designing the user experience in its app store. And never mind that — as Amazon is certainly aware — a consumer’s experience of a product is make-or-break in the cut-throat world of online commerce, advertising and search (just ask Jet).

Instead, for the court (and the FTC), the imagined mechanism of “affirmatively seeking a customer’s authorized consent to a charge” is all benefit and no cost. Whatever design decisions may have informed the way Amazon decided to seek consent are either irrelevant, or else the user-experience benefits they confer are negligible.

As I’ve written previously:

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.

Amazon is not abdicating its obligation to act fairly under the FTC Act and to ensure that users are protected from unauthorized charges. It’s just doing so in ways that also take account of the costs such protections may impose — particularly, in this case, on the majority of Amazon customers who didn’t and wouldn’t suffer such unauthorized charges.

Amazon began offering Kindle Free Time in 2012 as an innovative solution to a problem — children’s access to apps and in-app purchases — that affects only a small subset of Amazon’s customers. To dismiss that effort without considering that Amazon might have made a perfectly reasonable judgment that balanced consumer protection and product design disregards the cost-benefit balancing required by Section 5 of the FTC Act.

Moreover, the FTC Act imposes liability for harm only when they are not “reasonably avoidable.” Kindle Free Time is an outstanding example of an innovative mechanism that allows consumers at risk of unauthorized purchases by children to “reasonably avoid” harm. The court’s and the FTC’s disregard for it is inconsistent with the statute.

Conclusion

The court’s willingness to reinforce the FTC’s blackboard design “expertise” (such as it is) to second guess user-interface and other design decisions made by firms competing in real markets is unfortunate. But there’s a significant silver lining. By reining in the FTC’s discretion to go after these companies as if they were common fraudsters, the court has given consumers an important victory. After all, it is consumers who otherwise bear the costs (both directly and as a result of reduced risk-taking and innovation) of the FTC’s largely unchecked ability to extract excessive concessions from its enforcement targets.

Geoffrey Manne

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