Biweekly FTC Roundup: Grail-Shaped Beacon Edition

Daniel Gilman —  9 December 2022

The lame duck is not yet dead, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is supposed to be an independent agency. Work continues. The Commission has announced a partly open oral argument in the Illumina-Grail matter.  That is, parts of the argument will be open to the public, via webcast, and parts won’t. This is what’s known as translucency in government.

Enquiring minds: I have several questions about Illumina-Grail. First, for anyone reading this column, am I the only one who cannot think of the case without thinking of Monty Python’s grail-shaped beacon? Asking for a friend who worries about me.

Second, why seek to unwind this merger? My ICLE colleagues Geoff Manne and Gus Hurwitz are members of a distinguished group of law & economics scholars who filed a motion for leave to file an amicus brief in the matter. They question the merits of the case on a number of grounds.

Pertinent, not dispositive: this is a vertical merger. Certainly, it’s possible for vertical mergers to harm competition but theory suggests that they entail at least some efficiencies, and the empirical evidence from Francine Lafontaine and others tends to suggest that most have been beneficial for firms and consumers alike. One might wonder about the extent to which this case is built on analysis of the facts and circumstances rather than on Chair Lina Khan’s well-publicized antipathy to vertical mergers.

Recall that the FTC and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) jointly issued updated vertical-merger guidelines in June 2020. (The Global Antitrust Institute’s 2018 comments are worth review). The FTC—but not DOJ—promptly withdrew them in 2021, with a new majority, a partisan vote, and a questionable rationale for going it alone. Carl Shapiro and Herbert Hovenkamp minced no words, saying that the Commission’s justification rested on “specious economic arguments.”

There’s also a question of whether FTC’s likely foreclosure argument is all that likely. Illumina, which created Grail and had retained a substantial interest in it all along, would have strong commercial incentives against barring Grail’s future competitors from its platform. Moreover, Illumina made an open offer—contractually binding—to continue providing access for 12 years to its NGS platform and other products, on terms substantially similar to those available pre-merger. That would seem to undercut the possibility of foreclosure. Complaint counsel discounts this as a remedy (with behavioral remedies disfavored), but it is relatively straightforward and not really a remedy at all, with terms both private parties and the FTC might enforce. Thom Lambert and Jonathan Barnett both have interesting posts on the matter.

This is about a future market and potential (presumed) competitors. And it’s an area of biologics commerce where the deep pockets and regulatory sophistication necessary for development and approval frequently militate in favor of acquisition of a small innovator by a larger, established firm. As I noted in a prior column, “[p]otential competition cases are viable given the right facts, and in areas where good grounds to predict significant entry are well-established.” It can be hard to second-guess rule-of-reason cases from the outside, but there are reasons to think this is one of those matters where the preconditions to a strong potential competition argument are absent, but merger-related efficiencies real.  

What else is going on at the FTC? Law360 reports on a staff brief urging the Commission not to pitch a new standard of review in Altria-Juul on what look to be sensible grounds, independent of the merits of their Section I case. The Commission had asked to be briefed on the possibility of switching to a claim of a per se violation or, in the alternative, quick look, and the staff brief recommends maintaining the rule-of-reason approach that the Commission’s ALJ found unpersuasive in dismissing the Commission’s case, which will now be heard by the Commission itself. I have no non-public information on the matter. There’s a question of whether this signals any real tension between the staff’s analysis and the Commission’s preferred approach or simply the Commission’s interest in asking questions about pushing boundaries and the staff providing good counsel. I don’t know, but it could be business as usual.

And just this week, FTC announced that it is bringing a case to block Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision. More on that to follow.

What’s pressing is not so clear. The Commission announced the agenda for a Dec. 14 open meeting. On it is a vote on regulatory review of the “green guides,” which provide guidance on environmental-marketing claims. But there’s nothing further on the various ANPRs announced in September, or about rulemaking that the Chair has hinted at for noncompete clauses in employment contracts. And, of course, we’re still waiting for merger guidelines to replace the ones that have been withdrawn—likely joint FTC/DOJ guidelines that will likely range over both horizontal and vertical mergers.

There’s the Altria matter, Meta, Meta-Within, the forthcoming Supreme Court opinion in Axon, etc. The FTC’s request for an injunction in Meta-Within will be heard in federal district court in California over the next couple of weeks. It’s a novel (read, speculative) complaint. I had a few paragraphs on Meta-Within in my first roundup column; Gus Hurwitz covered it, as well. We shall see. 

Wandering up Pennsylvania Avenue onto the Hill, various bills seem not so much lame ducks as dead ones. But perhaps one or more is not dead yet. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) might be one such bill, its conspicuous defects notwithstanding. “Might be.” First, a bit of FTC history. Way back in 2010, the FTC held a series of workshops on the Future of Journalism. There were many interesting issues there, if no obvious room for antitrust. I reveal no secrets in saying THOSE WORKSHOPS WERE NOT THE STAFF’S IDEA. We failed to recommend any intervention, although the staff did publish a clarification of its discussion draft:

The FTC has not endorsed the idea of making any policy recommendation or recommended any of the proposals in the discussion draft

My own take at the time: many newspapers were struggling, and that was unfortunate, but much of the struggle had to do with the papers’ loss of local print-advertising monopolies, which tended to offer high advertising prices but not high quality. Remember the price of classified ads? For decades, many of the holders of market power happened to turn large portions of their rents over to their news divisions. Then came the internet, then Craigslist, etc., etc., and down went the rents. Antitrust intervention seemed no answer at all.

Back to the bill. In brief, as currently drafted, the JCPA would permit certain “digital journalism providers” to form cartels to negotiate prices with large online platforms, and to engage in group boycotts, without being liable to the federal antitrust laws, at least for four years. Dirk Auer and Ben Sperry have an overview here.

This would be an exemption for some sources of journalism, but not all, and its benefits would not be equally distributed. I am a paying consumer of digital (and even print) journalism. On the one hand, I enjoy it when others subsidize my preferences. On the other, I’m not sure why they should. As I said in a prior column, “antitrust exemptions help the special interests receiving them but not a living soul besides those special interests. That’s it, full stop.”  

Moreover, as Brian Albrecht points out, the bill’s mandatory final arbitration provision is likely to lead to a form of price regulation.

England v. France on Saturday. Allez les bleus or we few, we happy few? Cheers.  

Daniel Gilman

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Daniel Gilman Daniel Gilman is a Senior Scholar of Competition Policy with the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE). Before joining ICLE, Dan was an Attorney Advisor in the FTC’s Office of Policy Planning, where he worked on competition issues in health care and technology markets and, more broadly, on the competitive impact of regulation, with a focus on privacy regulations, among others.