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At the Jan. 26 Policy in Transition forum—the Mercatus Center at George Mason University’s second annual antitrust forum—various former and current antitrust practitioners, scholars, judges, and agency officials held forth on the near-term prospects for the neo-Brandeisian experiment undertaken in recent years by both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ). In conjunction with the forum, Mercatus also released a policy brief on 2022’s significant antitrust developments.

Below, I summarize some of the forum’s noteworthy takeaways, followed by concluding comments on the current state of the antitrust enterprise, as reflected in forum panelists’ remarks.

Takeaways

    1. The consumer welfare standard is neither a recent nor an arbitrary antitrust-enforcement construct, and it should not be abandoned in order to promote a more “enlightened” interventionist antitrust.

George Mason University’s Donald Boudreaux emphasized in his introductory remarks that the standard goes back to Adam Smith, who noted in “The Wealth of Nations” nearly 250 years ago that the appropriate end of production is the consumer’s benefit. Moreover, American Antitrust Institute President Diana Moss, a leading proponent of more aggressive antitrust enforcement, argued in standalone remarks against abandoning the consumer welfare standard, as it is sufficiently flexible to justify a more interventionist agenda.

    1. The purported economic justifications for a far more aggressive antitrust-enforcement policy on mergers remain unconvincing.

Moss’ presentation expressed skepticism about vertical-merger efficiencies and called for more aggressive challenges to such consolidations. But Boudreaux skewered those arguments in a recent four-point rebuttal at Café Hayek. As he explains, Moss’ call for more vertical-merger enforcement ignores the fact that “no one has stronger incentives than do the owners and managers of firms to detect and achieve possible improvements in operating efficiencies – and to avoid inefficiencies.”

Moss’ complaint about chronic underenforcement mistakes by overly cautious agencies also ignores the fact that there will always be mistakes, and there is no reason to believe “that antitrust bureaucrats and courts are in a position to better predict the future [regarding which efficiencies claims will be realized] than are firm owners and managers.” Moreover, Moss provided “no substantive demonstration or evidence that vertical mergers often lead to monopolization of markets – that is, to industry structures and practices that harm consumers. And so even if vertical mergers never generate efficiencies, there is no good argument to use antitrust to police such mergers.”

And finally, Boudreaux considers Moss’ complaint that a court refused to condemn the AT&T-Time Warner merger, arguing that this does not demonstrate that antitrust enforcement is deficient:

[A]s soon as the  . . . merger proved to be inefficient, the parties themselves undid it. This merger was undone by competitive market forces and not by antitrust! (Emphasis in the original.)

    1. The agencies, however, remain adamant in arguing that merger law has been badly unenforced. As such, the new leadership plans to charge ahead and be willing to challenge more mergers based on mere market structure, paying little heed to efficiency arguments or actual showings of likely future competitive harm.

In her afternoon remarks at the forum, Principal Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Antitrust Doha Mekki highlighted five major planks of Biden administration merger enforcement going forward.

  • Clayton Act Section 7 is an incipiency statute. Thus, “[w]hen a [mere] change in market structure suggests that a firm will have an incentive to reduce competition, that should be enough [to justify a challenge].”
  • “Once we see that a merger may lead to, or increase, a firm’s market power, only in very rare circumstances should we think that a firm will not exercise that power.”
  • A structural presumption “also helps businesses conform their conduct to the law with more confidence about how the agencies will view a proposed merger or conduct.”
  • Efficiencies defenses will be given short shrift, and perhaps ignored altogether. This is because “[t]he Clayton Act does not ask whether a merger creates a more or less efficient firm—it asks about the effect of the merger on competition. The Supreme Court has never recognized efficiencies as a defense to an otherwise illegal merger.”
  • Merger settlements have often failed to preserve competition, and they will be highly disfavored. Therefore, expect a lot more court challenges to mergers than in recent decades. In short, “[w]e must be willing to litigate. . . . [W]e need to acknowledge the possibility that sometimes a court might not agree with us—and yet go to court anyway.”

Mekki’s comments suggest to me that the soon-to-be-released new draft merger guidelines may emphasize structural market-share tests, generally reject efficiencies justifications, and eschew the economic subtleties found in the current guidelines.

    1. The agencies—and the FTC, in particular—have serious institutional problems that undermine their effectiveness, and risk a loss of credibility before the courts in the near future.

In his address to the forum, former FTC Chairman Bill Kovacic lamented the inefficient limitations on reasoned FTC deliberations imposed by the Sunshine Act, which chills informal communications among commissioners. He also pointed to our peculiarly unique global status of having two enforcers with duplicative antitrust authority, and lamented the lack of policy coherence, which reflects imperfect coordination between the agencies.

Perhaps most importantly, Kovacic raised the specter of the FTC losing credibility in a possible world where Humphrey’s Executor is overturned (see here) and the commission is granted little judicial deference. He suggested taking lessons on policy planning and formulation from foreign enforcers—the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority, in particular. He also decried agency officials’ decisions to belittle prior administrations’ enforcement efforts, seeing it as detracting from the international credibility of U.S. enforcement.

    1. The FTC is embarking on a novel interventionist path at odds with decades of enforcement policy.

In luncheon remarks, Commissioner Christine S. Wilson lamented the lack of collegiality and consultation within the FTC. She warned that far-reaching rulemakings and other new interventionist initiatives may yield a backlash that undermines the institution.

Following her presentation, a panel of FTC experts discussed several aspects of the commission’s “new interventionism.” According to one panelist, the FTC’s new Section 5 Policy Statement on Unfair Methods of Competition (which ties “unfairness” to arbitrary and subjective terms) “will not survive in” (presumably, will be given no judicial deference by) the courts. Another panelist bemoaned rule-of-law problems arising from FTC actions, called for consistency in FTC and DOJ enforcement policies, and warned that the new merger guidelines will represent a “paradigm shift” that generates more business uncertainty.

The panel expressed doubts about the legal prospects for a proposed FTC rule on noncompete agreements, and noted that constitutional challenges to the agency’s authority may engender additional difficulties for the commission.

    1. The DOJ is greatly expanding its willingness to litigate, and is taking actions that may undermine its credibility in court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Antitrust Jonathan Kanter has signaled a disinclination to settle, as well as an eagerness to litigate large numbers of cases (toward that end, he has hired a huge number of litigators). One panelist noted that, given this posture from the DOJ, there is a risk that judges may come to believe that the department’s litigation decisions are not well-grounded in the law and the facts. The business community may also have a reduced willingness to “buy in” to DOJ guidance.

Panelists also expressed doubts about the wisdom of DOJ bringing more “criminal Sherman Act Section 2” cases. The Sherman Act is a criminal statute, but the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of criminal law and Due Process concerns may arise. Panelists also warned that, if new merger guidelines are ”unsound,” they may detract from the DOJ’s credibility in federal court.

    1. International antitrust developments have introduced costly new ex ante competition-regulation and enforcement-coordination problems.

As one panelist explained, the European Union’s implementation of the new Digital Markets Act (DMA) will harmfully undermine market forces. The DMA is a form of ex ante regulation—primarily applicable to large U.S. digital platforms—that will harmfully interject bureaucrats into network planning and design. The DMA will lead to inefficiencies, market fragmentation, and harm to consumers, and will inevitably have spillover effects outside Europe.

Even worse, the DMA will not displace the application of EU antitrust law, but merely add to its burdens. Regrettably, the DMA’s ex ante approach is being imitated by many other enforcement regimes, and the U.S. government tacitly supports it. The DMA has not been included in the U.S.-EU joint competition dialogue, which risks failure. Canada and the U.K. should also be added to the dialogue.

Other International Concerns

The international panelists also noted that there is an unfortunate lack of convergence on antitrust procedures. Furthermore, different jurisdictions manifest substantial inconsistencies in their approaches to multinational merger analysis, where better coordination is needed. There is a special problem in the areas of merger review and of criminal leniency for price fixers: when multiple jurisdictions need to “sign off” on an enforcement matter, the “most restrictive” jurisdiction has an effective veto.

Finally, former Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Antitrust James Rill—perhaps the most influential promoter of the adoption of sound antitrust laws worldwide—closed the international panel with a call for enhanced transnational cooperation. He highlighted the importance of global convergence on sound antitrust procedures, emphasizing due process. He also advocated bolstering International Competition Network (ICN) and OECD Competition Committee convergence initiatives, and explained that greater transparency in agency-enforcement actions is warranted. In that regard, Rill said, ICN nongovernmental advisers should be given a greater role.

Conclusion

Taken as a whole, the forum’s various presentations painted a rather gloomy picture of the short-term prospects for sound, empirically based, economics-centric antitrust enforcement.

In the United States, the enforcement agencies are committed to far more aggressive antitrust enforcement, particularly with respect to mergers. The agencies’ new approach downplays efficiencies and they will be quick to presume broad categories of business conduct are anticompetitive, relying far less closely on case-specific economic analysis.

The outlook is also bad overseas, as European Union enforcers are poised to implement new ex ante regulation of competition by large platforms as an addition to—not a substitute for—established burdensome antitrust enforcement. Most foreign jurisdictions appear to be following the European lead, and the U.S. agencies are doing nothing to discourage them. Indeed, they appear to fully support the European approach.

The consumer welfare standard, which until recently was the stated touchstone of American antitrust enforcement—and was given at least lip service in Europe—has more or less been set aside. The one saving grace in the United States is that the federal courts may put a halt to the agencies’ overweening ambitions, but that will take years. In the meantime, consumer welfare will suffer and welfare-enhancing business conduct will be disincentivized. The EU courts also may place a minor brake on European antitrust expansionism, but that is less certain.

Recall, however, that when evils flew out of Pandora’s box, hope remained. Let us hope, then, that the proverbial worm will turn, and that new leadership—inspired by hopeful and enlightened policy advocates—will restore principled antitrust grounded in the promotion of consumer welfare.

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Jan. 5 “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Non-Compete Clauses” (NPRMNCC) is the first substantive FTC Act Section 6(g) “unfair methods of competition” rulemaking initiative following the release of the FTC’s November 2022 Section 5 Unfair Methods of Competition Policy Statement. Any final rule based on the NPRMNCC stands virtually no chance of survival before the courts. What’s more, this FTC initiative also threatens to have a major negative economic-policy impact. It also poses an institutional threat to the Commission itself. Accordingly, the NPRMNCC should be withdrawn, or as a “second worst” option, substantially pared back and recast.

The NPRMNCC is succinctly described, and its legal risks ably summarized, in a recent commentary by Gibson Dunn attorneys: The proposal is sweeping in its scope. The NPRMNCC states that it “would, among other things, provide that it is an unfair method of competition for an employer to enter into or attempt to enter into a non-compete clause with a worker; to maintain with a worker a non-compete clause; or, under certain circumstances, to represent to a worker that the worker is subject to a non-compete clause.”

The Gibson Dunn commentary adds that it “would require employers to rescind all existing non-compete provisions within 180 days of publication of the final rule, and to provide current and former employees notice of the rescission.‎ If employers comply with these two requirements, the rule would provide a safe harbor from enforcement.”‎

As I have explained previously, any FTC Section 6(g) rulemaking is likely to fail as a matter of law. Specifically, the structure of the FTC Act indicates that Section 6(g) is best understood as authorizing procedural regulations, not substantive rules. What’s more, Section 6(g) rules raise serious questions under the U.S. Supreme Court’s nondelegation and major questions doctrines (given the breadth and ill-defined nature of “unfair methods of competition”) and under administrative law (very broad unfair methods of competition rules may be deemed “arbitrary and capricious” and raise due process concerns). The cumulative weight of these legal concerns “makes it highly improbable that substantive UMC rules will ultimately be upheld.

The legal concerns raised by Section 6(g) rulemaking are particularly acute in the case of the NPRMNCC, which is exceedingly broad and deals with a topic—employment-related noncompete clauses—with which the FTC has almost no experience. FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson highlights this legal vulnerability in her dissenting statement opposing issuance of the NPRMNCC.

As Andrew Mercado and I explained in our commentary on potential FTC noncompete rulemaking: “[a] review of studies conducted in the past two decades yields no uniform, replicable results as to whether such agreements benefit or harm workers.” In a comprehensive literature review made available online at the end of 2019, FTC economist John McAdams concluded that “[t]here is little evidence on the likely effects of broad prohibitions of non-compete agreements.” McAdams also commented on the lack of knowledge regarding the effects that noncompetes may have on ultimate consumers. Given these realities, the FTC would be particularly vulnerable to having a court hold that a final noncompete rule (even assuming that it somehow surmounted other legal obstacles) lacked an adequate factual basis, and thus was arbitrary and capricious.

The poor legal case for proceeding with the NPRMNCC is rendered even weaker by the existence of robust state-law provisions concerning noncompetes in almost every state (see here for a chart comparing state laws). Differences in state jurisprudence may enable “natural experimentation,” whereby changes made to state law that differ across jurisdictions facilitate comparisons of the effects of different approaches to noncompetes. Furthermore, changes to noncompete laws in particular states that are seen to cause harm, or generate benefits, may allow “best practices” to emerge and thereby drive welfare-enhancing reforms in multiple jurisdictions.

The Gibson Dunn commentary points out that, “[a]s a practical matter, the proposed [FTC noncompete] rule would override existing non-compete requirements and practices in the vast majority of states.” Unfortunately, then, the NPRMNCC would largely do away with the potential benefits of competitive federalism in the area of noncompetes. In light of that, federal courts might well ask whether Congress meant to give the FTC preemptive authority over a legal field traditionally left to the states, merely by making a passing reference to “mak[ing] rules and regulations” in Section 6(g) of the FTC Act. Federal judges would likely conclude that the answer to this question is “no.”

Economic Policy Harms

How much economic harm could an FTC rule on noncompetes cause, if the courts almost certainly would strike it down? Plenty.

The affront to competitive federalism, which would prevent optimal noncompete legal regimes from developing (see above), could reduce the efficiency of employment contracts and harm consumer welfare. It would be exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) to measure such harms, however, because there would be no alternative “but-for” worlds with differing rules that could be studied.

The broad ban on noncompetes predictably will prevent—or at least chill—the use of noncompete clauses to protect business-property interests (including trade secrets and other intellectual-property rights) and to protect value-enhancing investments in worker training. (See here for a 2016 U.S. Treasury Department Office of Economic Policy Report that lists some of the potential benefits of noncompetes.) The NPRMNCC fails to account for those and other efficiencies, which may be key to value-generating business-process improvements that help drive dynamic economic growth. Once again, however, it would be difficult to demonstrate the nature or extent of such foregone benefits, in the absence of “but-for” world comparisons.

Business-litigation costs would also inevitably arise, as uncertainties in the language of a final noncompete rule were worked out in court (prior to the rule’s legal demise). The opportunity cost of firm resources directed toward rule-related issues, rather than to business-improvement activities, could be substantial. The opportunity cost of directing FTC resources to wasteful noncompete-related rulemaking work, rather than potential welfare-enhancing endeavors (such as anti-fraud enforcement activity), also should not be neglected.

Finally, the substantial error costs that would attend designing and seeking to enforce a final FTC noncompete rule, and the affront to the rule of law that would result from creating a substantial new gap between FTC and U.S. Justice Department competition-enforcement regimes, merits note (see here for my discussion of these costs in the general context of UMC rulemaking).

Conclusion

What, then, should the FTC do? It should withdraw the NPRMNCC.

If the FTC is concerned about the effects of noncompete clauses, it should commission appropriate economic research, and perhaps conduct targeted FTC Act Section 6(b) studies directed at noncompetes (focused on industries where noncompetes are common or ubiquitous). In light of that research, it might be in position to address legal policy toward noncompetes in competition advocacy before the states, or in testimony before Congress.

If the FTC still wishes to engage in some rulemaking directed at noncompete clauses, it should consider a targeted FTC Act Section 18 consumer-protection rulemaking (see my discussion of this possibility, here). Unlike Section 6(g), the legality of Section 18 substantive rulemaking (which is directed at “unfair or deceptive acts or practices”) is well-established. Categorizing noncompete-clause-related practices as “deceptive” is plainly a nonstarter, so the Commission would have to bases its rulemaking on defining and condemning specified “unfair acts or practices.”

Section 5(n) of the FTC Act specifies that the Commission may not declare an act or practice to be unfair unless it “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.” This is a cost-benefit test that plainly does not justify a general ban on noncompetes, based on the previous discussion. It probably could, however, justify a properly crafted narrower rule, such as a requirement that an employer notify its employees of a noncompete agreement before they accept a job offer (see my analysis here).  

Should the FTC nonetheless charge forward and release a final competition rule based on the NPRMNCC, it will face serious negative institutional consequences. In the previous Congress, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have introduced legislation that would strip the FTC of its antitrust authority (leaving all federal antitrust enforcement in DOJ hands). Such legislation could gain traction if the FTC were perceived as engaging in massive institutional overreach. An unprecedented Commission effort to regulate one aspect of labor contracts (noncompete clauses) nationwide surely could be viewed by Congress as a prime example of such overreach. The FTC should keep that in mind if it values maintaining its longstanding role in American antitrust-policy development and enforcement.

Late last month, 25 former judges and government officials, legal academics and economists who are experts in antitrust and intellectual property law submitted a letter to Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter in support of the U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) July 2020 Avanci business-review letter (ABRL) dealing with patent pools. The pro-Avanci letter was offered in response to an October 2022 letter to Kanter from ABRL critics that called for reconsideration of the ABRL. A good summary account of the “battle of the scholarly letters” may be found here.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Herbert Hovenkamp defines a patent pool as “an arrangement under which patent holders in a common technology or market commit their patents to a single holder, who then licenses them out to the original patentees and perhaps to outsiders.” Although the U.S. antitrust treatment of patent pools might appear a rather arcane topic, it has major implications for U.S. innovation. As AAG Kanter ponders whether to dive into patent-pool policy, a brief review of this timely topic is in order. That review reveals that Kanter should reject the anti-Avanci letter and reaffirm the ABRL.

Background on Patent Pool Analysis

The 2017 DOJ-FTC IP Licensing Guidelines

Section 5.5 of joint DOJ-Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property (2017 Guidelines, which revised a prior 1995 version) provides an overview of the agencies’ competitive assessment of patent pools. The 2017 Guidelines explain that, depending on how pools are designed and operated, they may have procompetitive (and efficiency-enhancing) or anticompetitive features.

On the positive side of the ledger, Section 5.5 states:

Cross-licensing and pooling arrangements are agreements of two or more owners of different items of intellectual property to license one another or third parties. These arrangements may provide procompetitive benefits by integrating complementary technologies, reducing transaction costs, clearing blocking positions, and avoiding costly infringement litigation. By promoting the dissemination of technology, cross-licensing and pooling arrangements are often procompetitive.

On the negative side of the ledger, Section 5.5 states (citations omitted):

Cross-licensing and pooling arrangements can have anticompetitive effects in certain circumstances. For example, collective price or output restraints in pooling arrangements, such as the joint marketing of pooled intellectual property rights with collective price setting or coordinated output restrictions, may be deemed unlawful if they do not contribute to an efficiency-enhancing integration of economic activity among the participants. When cross-licensing or pooling arrangements are mechanisms to accomplish naked price-fixing or market division, they are subject to challenge under the per se rule.

Other aspects of pool behavior may be either procompetitive or anticompetitive, depending upon the circumstances, as Section 5.5 explains. The antitrust rule of reason would apply to pool restraints that may have both procompetitive and anticompetitive features.  

For example, requirements that pool members grant licenses to each other for current and future technology at minimal cost could disincentivize research and development. Such requirements, however, could also promote competition by exploiting economies of scale and integrating complementary capabilities of the pool members. According to the 2017 Guidelines, such requirements are likely to cause competitive problems only when they include a large fraction of the potential research and development in an R&D market.

Section 5.5 also applies rule-of-reason case-specific treatment to exclusion from pools. It notes that, although pooling arrangements generally need not be open to all who wish to join (indeed, exclusion of certain parties may be designed to prevent potential free riding), they may be anticompetitive under certain circumstances (citations omitted):

[E]xclusion from a pooling or cross-licensing arrangement among competing technologies is unlikely to have anticompetitive effects unless (1) excluded firms cannot effectively compete in the relevant market for the good incorporating the licensed technologies and (2) the pool participants collectively possess market power in the relevant market. If these circumstances exist, the [federal antitrust] [a]gencies will evaluate whether the arrangement’s limitations on participation are reasonably related to the efficient development and exploitation of the pooled technologies and will assess the net effect of those limitations in the relevant market.

The 2017 Guidelines are informed by the analysis of prior agency-enforcement actions and prior DOJ business-review letters. Through the business-review-letter procedure, an organization may submit a proposed action to the DOJ Antitrust Division and receive a statement as to whether the Division currently intends to challenge the action under the antitrust laws, based on the information provided. Historically, DOJ has used these letters as a vehicle to discuss current agency thinking about safeguards that may be included in particular forms of business arrangements to alleviate DOJ competitive concerns.

DOJ patent-pool letters, in particular, have prompted DOJ to highlight specific sorts of provisions in pool agreements that forestalled competitive problems. To this point, DOJ has never commented favorably on patent-pool safeguards in a letter and then subsequently reversed course to find the safeguards inadequate.

Subsequent to issuance of the 2017 Guidelines, DOJ issued two business-review letters on patent pools: the July 2020 ABRL letter and the January 2021 University Technology Licensing Program business-review letter (UTLP letter). Those two letters favorably discussed competitive safeguards proffered by the entities requesting favorable DOJ reviews.

ABRL Letter

The ABRL letter explains (citations omitted):

[Avanci] proposed [a] joint patent-licensing pool . . . to . . . license patent claims that have been declared “essential” to implementing 5G cellular wireless standards for use in automobile vehicles and distribute royalty income among the Platform’s licensors. Avanci currently operates a licensing platform related to 4G cellular standards and offers licenses to 2G, 3G, and 4G standards-essential patents used in vehicles and smart meters.

After consulting telecommunications and automobile-industry stakeholders, conducing an independent review, and considering prior guidance to other patent pools, “DOJ conclude[d] that, on balance, Avanci’s proposed 5G Platform is unlikely to harm competition.” As such, DOJ announced it had no present intention to challenge the platform.

The DOJ press release accompanying the ABRL letter provides additional valuable information on Avanci’s potential procompetitive efficiencies; its plan to charge fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) rates; and its proposed safeguards:

Avanci’s 5G Platform may make licensing standard essential patents related to vehicle connectivity more efficient by providing automakers with a “one stop shop” for licensing 5G technology. The Platform also has the potential to reduce patent infringement and ensure that patent owners who have made significant contributions to the development of 5G “Release 15” specifications are compensated for their innovation. Avanci represents that the Platform will charge FRAND rates for the patented technologies, with input from both licensors and licensees.

In addition, Avanci has incorporated a number of safeguards into its 5G Platform that can help protect competition, including licensing only technically essential patents; providing for independent evaluation of essential patents; permitting licensing outside the Platform, including in other fields of use, bilateral or multi-lateral licensing by pool members, and the formation of other pools at levels of the automotive supply chain; and by including mechanisms to prevent the sharing of competitively sensitive information.  The Department’s review found that the Platform’s essentiality review may help automakers license the patents they actually need to make connected vehicles.  In addition, the Platform license includes “Have Made” rights that creates new access to cellular standard essential patents for licensed automakers’ third-party component suppliers, permitting them to make non-infringing components for 5G connected vehicles.

UTLP Letter

The United Technology Licensing Program business-review letter (issued less than a year after the ABRL letter, at the end of the Trump administration) discussed a proposal by participating universities to offer licenses to their physical-science patents relating to specified emerging technologies. According to DOJ:

[Fifteen universities agreed to cooperate] in licensing certain complementary patents through UTLP, which will be organized into curated portfolios relating to specific technology applications for autonomous vehicles, the “Internet of Things,” and “Big Data.”  The overarching goal of UTLP is to centralize the administrative costs associated with commercializing university research and help participating universities to overcome the budget, institutional relationship, and other constraints that make licensing in these areas particularly challenging for them.

The UTLP letter concluded, based on representations made in UTLP’s letter request, that the pool was on balance unlikely to harm competition. Specifically:

UTLP has incorporated a number of safeguards into its program to help protect competition, including admitting only non-substitutable patents, with a “safety valve” if a patent to accomplish a particular task is inadvertently included in a portfolio with another, substitutable patent. The program also will allow potential sublicensees to choose an individual patent, a group of patents, or UTLP’s entire portfolio, thereby mitigating the risk that a licensee will be required to license more technology than it needs. The department’s letter notes that UTLP is a mechanism that is intended to address licensing inefficiencies and institutional challenges unique to universities in the physical science context, and makes no assessment about whether this mechanism if set up in another context would have similar procompetitive benefits.

Patent-Pool Guidance in Context

DOJ and FTC patent-pool guidance has been bipartisan. It has remained generally consistent in character from the mid-1990s (when the first 1995 IP licensing guidelines were issued) to early 2021 (the end of the Trump administration, when the UTLP letter was issued). The overarching concern expressed in agency guidance has been to prevent a pool from facilitating collusion among competitors, from discouraging innovation, and from inefficiently excluding competitors.

As technology has advanced over the last quarter century, U.S. antitrust enforcers—and, in particular, DOJ, through a series of business-review letters beginning in 1997 (see the pro-Avanci letter at pages 9-10)—consistently have emphasized the procompetitive efficiencies that pools can generate, while also noting the importance of avoiding anticompetitive harms.

Those letters have “given a pass” to pools whose rules contained safeguards against collusion among pool members (e.g., by limiting pool patents to complementary, not substitute, technologies) and against anticompetitive exclusion (e.g., by protecting pool members’ independence of action outside the pool). In assessing safeguards, DOJ has paid attention to the particular market context in which a pool arises.

Notably, economic research generally supports the conclusion that, in recent decades, patent pools have been an important factor in promoting procompetitive welfare-enhancing innovation and technology diffusion.

For example, a 2015 study by Justus Baron and Tim Pohlmann found that a significant number of pools were created following antitrust authorities’ “more permissive stance toward pooling of patents” beginning in the late 1990s. Studying these new pools, they found “a significant increase in patenting rates after pool announcement” that was “primarily attributable to future members of the pool”.

A 2009 analysis by Richard Gilbert of the University of California, Berkeley (who served as chief economist of the DOJ Antitrust Division during the Clinton administration) concluded that (consistent with the approach adopted in DOJ business-review letters) “antitrust authorities and the courts should encourage policies that promote the formation and durability of beneficial pools that combine complementary patents.”

In a 2014 assessment of the role of patent pools in combatting “patent thickets,” Jonathan Barnett of the USC Gould School of Law concluded:

Using network visualization software, I show that information and communication technology markets rely on patent pools and other cross-licensing structures to mitigate or avoid patent thickets and associated inefficiencies. Based on the composition, structure, terms and pricing of selected leading patent pools in the ICT market, I argue that those pools are best understood as mechanisms by which vertically integrated firms mitigate transactional frictions and reduce the cost of accessing technology inputs.

Admittedly, a few studies of some old patents pools (e.g., the 19th century sewing-machine pool and certain early 20th century New Deal pools) found them to be associated with a decline in patenting. Setting aside possible questions of those studies’ methodologies, the old pooling arrangements bear little resemblance to the carefully crafted pool structures today. In particular, unlike the old pools, the more recent pools embody competitive safeguards (the old pools may have combined substitute patents, for example).   

Business-review letters dealing with pools have provided a degree of legal certainty that has helped encourage their formation, to the benefit of innovation in key industries. The anti-Avanci letter ignores that salient fact, focusing instead on allegedly “abusive” SEP-licensing tactics by the Avanci 5G pool—such as refusal to automatically grant a license to all comers—without considering that the pool may have had legitimate reasons not to license particular parties (who may, for instance, have made bad faith unreasonable licensing demands). In sum, this blinkered approach is wrong as a matter of SEP law and policy (as explained in the pro-Avanci letter) and wrong in its implicit undermining of the socially beneficial patent-pool business-review process.   

The pro-Avanci letter ably describes the serious potential harm generated by the anti-Avanci letter:

In evaluating the carefully crafted Avanci pool structure, the 2020 business review letter appropriately concluded that the pool’s design conformed to the well-established, fact-intensive inquiry concerning actual market practices and efficiencies set forth in previous business review letters. Any reconsideration of the 2020 business review letter, as proposed in the October 17 letter, would give rise to significant uncertainty concerning the Antitrust Division’s commitment to the aforementioned sequence of business review letters that have been issued concerning other patent pools in the information technology industry, as well as the larger group of patent pools that did not specifically seek guidance through the business review letter process but relied on the legal template that had been set forth in those previously issued letters.

This is a point of great consequence. Pooling arrangements in the information technology industry have provided an efficient market-driven solution to the transaction costs that are inherent to patent-intensive industries and, when structured appropriately in light of agency guidance and applicable case law, do not raise undue antitrust concerns. Thanks to pooling and related collective licensing arrangements, the innovations embodied in tens of thousands of patents have been made available to hundreds of device producers and other intermediate users, while innovators have been able to earn a commensurate return on the costs and risks that they undertook to develop new technologies that have transformed entire fields and industries to the benefit of consumers.

Conclusion

President Joe Biden’s 2021 Executive Order on Competition commits the Biden administration to “the promotion of competition and innovation by firms small and large, at home and worldwide.” One factor in promoting competition and innovation has been the legal certainty flowing from well-reasoned DOJ business-review letters on patent pools, issued on a bipartisan basis for more than a quarter of a century.

A DOJ decision to reconsider (in other words, to withdraw) the sound guidance embodied in the ABRL would detract from this certainty and thereby threaten to undermine innovation promoted by patent pools. Accordingly, AAG Kanter should reject the advice proffered by the anti-Avanci letter and publicly reaffirm his support for the ABRL—and, more generally, for the DOJ business-review process.

[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Nov. 10 Policy Statement Regarding the Scope of Unfair Methods of Competition Under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act—adopted by a 3-1 vote, with Commissioner Christine Wilson issuing a dissenting statement—holds out the prospect of dramatic new enforcement initiatives going far beyond anything the FTC has done in the past. Of particular note, the statement abandons the antitrust “rule of reason,” rejects the “consumer welfare standard” that has long guided FTC competition cases, rejects economic analysis, rejects relevant precedent, misleadingly discusses legislative history, and cites inapposite and dated case law.

And what is the statement’s aim?  As Commissioner Wilson aptly puts it, the statement “announces that the Commission has the authority summarily to condemn essentially any business conduct it finds distasteful.” This sweeping claim, which extends far beyond the scope of prior Commission pronouncements, might be viewed as mere puffery with no real substantive effect: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Various scholarly commentators have already explored the legal and policy shortcomings of this misbegotten statement (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Suffice it to say there is general agreement that, as Gus Hurwitz explains, the statement “is non-precedential and lacks the force of law.”

The statement’s almost certain lack of legal effect, however, does not mean it is of no consequence. Businesses are harmed by legal risk, even if they are eventually likely to prevail in court. Markets react negatively to antitrust lawsuits, and thus firms may be expected to shy away from efficient profitable behavior that may draw the FTC’s ire. The resources firms redirect to less-efficient conduct impose costs on businesses and ultimately consumers. (And when meritless FTC lawsuits still come, wasteful litigation-related costs will be coupled with unwarranted reputational harm to businesses.)

Moreover, as Wilson points out, uncertainty about what the Commission may characterize as unfair “does not allow businesses to structure their conduct to avoid possible liability. . . . [T]he Policy Statement . . . significantly increases uncertainty for businesses[,] which . . . . are left with no navigational tools to map the boundaries of lawful and unlawful conduct.” This will further disincentivize new and innovative (and easily misunderstood) business initiatives. In the perhaps-vain hope that a Commission majority will take note of these harms and have second thoughts about retention of the statement, I will briefly summarize the legal case against the statement’s effectiveness. The FTC actually would be better able to “push the Section 5 envelope” a bit through some carefully tailored innovative enforcement actions if it could jettison the legal baggage that the statement represents. To understand why, a brief review of FTC competition rulemaking and competition enforcement authority is warranted

FTC Competition Rulemaking

As I and others have written at great length (see, for examples, this compilation of essays on FTC rulemaking published by Concurrences), the case for substantive FTC competition rulemaking under Section 6(g) of the FTC Act is exceedingly weak. In particular (see my July 2022 Truth on the Market commentary):

First, the “nondelegation doctrine” suggests that, under section 6(g), Congress did not confer on the FTC the specific statutory authority required to issue rules that address particular competitive practices.

Second, principles of statutory construction strongly indicate that the FTC’s general statutory provision dealing with rulemaking refers to procedural rules of organization, not substantive rules bearing on competition.

Third, even assuming that proposed competition rules survived these initial hurdles, principles of administrative law would raise the risk that competition rules would be struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.”

Fourth, there is a substantial possibility that courts would not defer to the FTC’s construction through rulemaking of its “unfair methods of competition” as authorizing the condemnation of specific competitive practices.

The 2022 statement raises these four problems in spades.

First, the Supreme Court has stated that the non-delegation doctrine requires that a statutory delegation must be supported by an “intelligible principle” guiding its application. There is no such principle that may be drawn from the statement, which emphasizes that unfair business conduct “may be coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve the use of economic power of a similar nature.” The conduct also must tend “to negatively affect competitive conditions – whether by affecting consumers, workers, or other market participants.” Those descriptions are so broad and all-encompassing that they are the antithesis of an “intelligible principle.”

Second, the passing nod to rulemaking referenced in Section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. The Supreme Court’s unanimous April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC (holding that the FTC could not obtain equitable monetary relief under its authority to seek injunctions) embodies a reluctance to read general non-specific language as conferring broad substantive powers on the FTC. This interpretive approach is in line with other Supreme Court case law that rejects finding “elephants in mouseholes.” While multiple federal courts had upheld the FTC’s authority to obtain injunctive monetary relief prior to its loss in the AMG case, only one nearly 50-year-old decision, National Petroleum Refiners, supports substantive competition-rulemaking authority, and its reasoning is badly dated. Nothing in the 2022 statement makes a convincing case for giving substantive import to Section 6(g).   

Third, given the extremely vague terms used to describe unfair method of competition in the 2022 statement (see first point, above), any effort to invoke them to find a source of authority to define new categories of competition-related violations would be sure to raise claims of agency arbitrariness and capriciousness under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Admittedly, the “arbitrary and capricious review” standard “has gone through numerous cycles since the enactment of the APA” and currently is subject to some uncertainty. Nevertheless, the statement’s untrammeled breadth and lack of clear definitions for unfair competitive conduct suggests that courts would likely employ a “hard look review,” which would make it relatively easy for novel Section 6(g) rules to be deemed arbitrary (especially in light of the skepticism of broad FTC claims of authority that is implicit in the Supreme Court’s unanimous AMG holding).

Fourth, given the economywide breadth of the phrase “unfair methods of competition,” it is quite possible (in fact, probably quite likely) that the Supreme Court would invoke the “major questions doctrine” and hold that unfair methods of competition rulemaking is “too important” to be left to the FTC. Under this increasingly invoked doctrine, “the Supreme Court has rejected agency claims of regulatory authority when (1) the underlying claim of authority concerns an issue of vast ‘economic and political significance,’ and (2) Congress has not clearly empowered the agency with authority over the issue.”

The fact that the 2022 statement plainly asserts vast authority to condemn a wide range of economically significant practices strengthens the already-strong case for condemning Section 5 competition rulemaking under this doctrine. Application of the doctrine would render moot the question of whether Section 6(g) rules would receive any Chevron deference. In any event, based on the 2022 Statement’s flouting of modern antitrust principles, including such core principles as consumer harm, efficiencies, and economic analysis, it appears unlikely that courts would accord such deference subsequent Section 6(g) rules. As Gus Hurwitz recently explained:

Administrative antitrust is a preferred vehicle for administering antitrust law, not for changing it. Should the FTC use its power aggressively, in ways that disrupt longstanding antitrust principles or seem more grounded in policy better created by Congress, it is likely to find itself on the losing side of the judicial opinion.

FTC Competition-Enforcement Authority

In addition to Section 6(g) competition-rulemaking initiatives, the 2022 statement, of course, aims to inform FTC Act Section 5(a) “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) enforcement actions. The FTC could bring a UMC suit before its own administrative tribunal or, in the alternative, seek to enjoin an alleged unfair method of competition in federal district court, pursuant to its authority under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The tenor of the 2022 statement undermines, rather than enhances, the likelihood that the FTC will succeed in “standalone Section 5(a)” lawsuits that challenge conduct falling beyond the boundaries of the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts.

In a June 2019 FTC report to Congress on using standalone Section 5 cases to combat high pharma prices, the FTC explained:

[C]ourts have confirmed that the unilateral exercise of lawfully acquired market power does not violate the antitrust laws. Therefore, the attempted use of standalone Section 5 to address high prices, untethered from accepted theories of antitrust liability under the Sherman Act, is unlikely to find success in the courts.

There have been no jurisprudential changes since 2019 to suggest that a UMC suit challenging the exploitation of lawfully obtained market power by raising prices is likely to find judicial favor. It follows, a fortiori (legalese that I seldom have the opportunity to trot out), that the more “far out” standalone suits implied by the statement’s analysis would likely generate embarrassing FTC judicial losses.

Applying three of the four principles assessed in the analysis of FTC competition rulemaking (the second principle, referring to statutory authority for rulemaking, is inapplicable), the negative influence of the statement on FTC litigation outcomes is laid bare.

First, as is the case with rules, the unconstrained laundry list of “unfair” business practices fails to produce an “intelligible principle” guiding the FTC’s exercise of enforcement discretion. As such, courts could well conclude that, if the statement is to be taken seriously, the non-delegation doctrine applies, and the FTC does not possess delegated UMC authority. Even if such authority were found to have been properly delegated, some courts might separately conclude, on due process grounds, that the UMC prohibition is “void for vagueness” and therefore cannot support an enforcement action. (While the “void for vagueness” doctrine is controversial, related attacks on statutes based on “impossibility of compliance” may have a more solid jurisprudential footing, particularly in the case of civil statutes (see here). The breadth and uncertainty of the statement’s references to disfavored conduct suggests “impossibility of compliance” as a possible alternative critique of novel Section 5 competition cases.) These concerns also apply equally to possible FTC Section 13(b) injunctive actions filed in federal district court.

Second, there is a not insubstantial risk that an appeals court would hold that a final Section 5 competition-enforcement decision by the Commission would be “arbitrary and capricious” if it dealt with behavior far outside the scope of the Sherman or Clayton Acts, based on vague policy pronouncements found in the 2022 statement.

Third, and of greatest risk to FTC litigation prospects, it is likely that appeals courts (and federal district courts in Section 13(b) injunction cases) would give no deference to new far-reaching non-antitrust-based theories alluded to in the statement. As discussed above, this could be based on invocation of the major questions doctrine or, separately, on the (likely) failure to accord Chevron deference to theories that are far removed from recognized antitrust causes of action under modern jurisprudence.

What Should the FTC Do About the Statement?

In sum, the startling breadth and absence of well-defined boundaries that plagues the statement’s discussion of potential Section 5 UMC violations means that the statement’s issuance materially worsens the FTC’s future litigation prospects—both in defending UMC rulemakings and in seeking to affirm case-specific Commission findings of UMC violations.

What, then, should the FTC do?

It should, put simply, withdraw the 2022 statement and craft a new UMC policy statement (NPS) that avoids the major pitfalls inherent in the statement. The NPS should carefully delineate the boundaries of standalone UMC rulemakings and cases, so as (1) to minimize uncertainty in application; and (2) to harmonize UMC actions with the pro-consumer welfare goal (as enunciated by the Supreme Court) of the antitrust laws. In drafting the NPS, the FTC would do well to be mindful of the part of Commissioner Wilson’s dissenting statement that highlights the deficiencies in the 2022 statement that detract from its persuasiveness to courts:

First, . . . the Policy Statement does not provide clear guidance to businesses seeking to comply with the law.

Second, the Policy Statement does not establish an approach for the term “unfair” in the competition context that matches the economic and analytical rigor that Commission policy offers for the same term, “unfair,” in the consumer protection context.

Third, the Policy Statement does not provide a framework that will result in credible enforcement. Instead, Commission actions will be subject to the vicissitudes of prevailing political winds.

Fourth, the Policy Statement does not address the legislative history that both demands economic content for the term “unfair” and cautions against an expansive approach to enforcing Section 5.

Consistent with avoiding these deficiencies, a new PS could carefully identify activities that are beyond the reach of the antitrust laws yet advance the procompetitive consumer-welfare-oriented goal that is the lodestar of antitrust policy. The NPS should also be issued for public comment (as recommended by Commissioner Wilson), an action that could give it additional “due process luster” in the eyes of federal judges.

More specifically, the NPS could state that standalone UMC actions should be directed at private conduct that undermines the competitive process, but is not subject to the reach of the antitrust laws (say, because of the absence of contracts). Such actions might include, for example: (1) invitations to collude; (2)  facilitating practices (“activities that tend to promote interdependence by reducing rivals’ uncertainty or diminishing incentives to deviate from a coordinated strategy”—see here); (3) exchanges of competitively sensitive information among competitors that do not qualify as Sherman Act “agreements” (see here); and (4) materially deceptive conduct (lacking efficiency justifications) that likely contributes to obtaining or increasing market power, as in the standard-setting context (see here); and (5) non-compete clauses in labor employment agreements that lack plausible efficiency justifications (say, clauses in contracts made with low-skill, low-salary workers) or otherwise plainly undermine labor-market competition (say, clauses presented to workers only after they have signed an initial contract, creating a “take-it-or-leave-it scenario” based on asymmetric information).

After promulgating a list of examples, the NPS could explain that additional possible standalone UMC actions would be subject to the same philosophical guardrails: They would involve conduct inconsistent with competition on the merits that is likely to harm consumers and that lacks strong efficiency justifications. 

A revised NPS along the lines suggested would raise the probability of successful UMC judicial outcomes for the Commission. It would do this by strengthening the FTC’s arguments that there is an intelligible principle underlying congressional delegation; that specificity of notice is sufficient to satisfy due process (arbitrariness and capriciousness) concerns; that the Section 5 delegation is insufficiently broad to trigger the major questions doctrine; and that Chevron deference may be accorded determinations stemming from precise NPS guidance.     

In the case of rules, of course, the FTC would still face the substantial risk that a court would deem that Section 6(g) does not apply to substantive rulemakings. And it is far from clear to what extent an NPS along the lines suggested would lead courts to render more FTC-favorable rulings on non-delegation, due process, the major questions doctrine, and Chevron deference. Moreover, even if they entertained UMC suits, the courts could, of course, determine in individual cases that, on the facts, the Commission had failed to show a legal violation. (The FTC has never litigated invitation-to-collude cases, and it lost a variety of facilitating practices cases during the 1980s and 1990s; see here).

Nonetheless, if I were advising the FTC as general counsel, I would tell the commissioners that the choice is between having close to a zero chance of litigation or rulemaking success under the 2022 statement, and some chance of success (greater in the case of litigation than in rulemaking) under the NPS.

Conclusion

The FTC faces a future of total UMC litigation futility if it plows ahead under the 2022 statement. Promulgating an NPS as described would give the FTC at least some chance of success in litigating cases beyond the legal limits of the antitrust laws, assuming suggested principles and guardrails were honored. The outlook for UMC rulemaking (which turns primarily on how the courts view the structure of the FTC Act) remains rather dim, even under a carefully crafted NPS.

If the FTC decides against withdrawing the 2022 statement, it could still show some wisdom by directing more resources to competition advocacy and challenging clearly anticompetitive conduct that falls within the accepted boundaries of the antitrust laws. (Indeed, to my mind, error-cost considerations suggest that the Commission should eschew UMC causes of action that do not also constitute clear antitrust offenses.) It need not undertake almost sure-to-fail UMC initiatives just because it has published the 2022 statement.

In short, treating the 2022 statement as a purely symbolic vehicle to showcase the FTC’s fondest desires—like a new, never-to-be-driven Lamborghini that merely sits in the driveway to win the admiring glances of neighbors—could well be the optimal Commission strategy, given the zeitgeist. That assumes, of course, that the FTC cares about protecting its institutional future and (we also hope) promoting economic well-being.

Recently departed Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Noah Phillips has been rightly praised as “a powerful voice during his four-year tenure at the FTC, advocating for rational antitrust enforcement and against populist antitrust that derails the fair yet disruptive process of competition.” The FTC will miss his trenchant analysis and collegiality, now that he has departed for the greener pastures of private practice.

A particularly noteworthy example of Phillips’ mastery of his craft is presented by his November 2018 dissent from the FTC’s majority opinion in the 1-800 Contacts case, which presented tricky questions about the proper scope of antitrust intervention in contracts designed to protect intellectual property rights. (For more on the opinion, see Geoffrey A. Manne, Hal Singer, and Joshua D. Wright’s December 2018 piece.)

Phillips’ dissent—vindicated by a June 2021 decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacating the commission’s order—merits close attention. (The circuit court also denied the FTC’s petition for a rehearing en banc in August 2021.)

The 1-800 Business Model and the FTC’s Proceedings

Before describing the 1-800 proceedings, Phillips’ dissent, and the judicial vindication of his position, we begin with a brief assessment of the welfare-enhancing innovative business model employed by 1-800 Contacts. The firm pioneered the online contact-lens sales business. It is an American entrepreneurial success story, which has bestowed great benefits on consumers through trademark-backed competition focusing on price and quality considerations. Phillips’ dissenting opinion explained:

Jonathan Coon started the business that would become 1-800 Contacts in 1992 from his college dormitory room with just $50 to his name, seeking to reduce prices, improve service, and provide a better customer experience for contact lens consumers. … Over the next 26 years he would succeed, building a company (and a brand) from essentially nothing to one of the largest contact lens retailers in the country, while introducing American consumers to mail-order contact lenses (and later ordering contacts online), driving down prices, and attracting competition from small and large companies alike. That growth required a combination of a massive investment in advertising and a constant quest to improve the customer experience. That is the type of conduct that antitrust and trademark law should, and do, encourage. …

As [the FTC administrative law judge] … found in the Initial Decision, “1-800 Contacts’ business objective from the company’s inception was to make the process of buying contact lenses simple and it tries to distinguish itself from other contact lens retailers by making it faster, easier, and more convenient to get contact lenses.” … This contrasts with other online contact lens retailers, which generally do not seek to distinguish themselves on the basis of customer experience, customer service, or simplicity. … 1-800 Contacts did not limit itself to competing on price because it found that many customers valued speed and convenience just as much as price. …

1-800 Contacts’ relentless investment in its brand and in improving its customer service are recognized. Many third parties—including J.D. Power and Associates, StellaService Elite, and Foresee—have recognized or given awards to 1-800 Contacts for its customer service. … But that has not stopped 1-800 Contacts from continuing to invest in improving its service to enhance the customer experience. …

The service and brand investments made by 1-800 Contacts have resulted in millions of consumers purchasing contact lenses from 1-800 Contacts over the phone and online. They are precisely the types of investments that trademark law exists to protect and encourage.

The 2nd Circuit summarized the actions by 1-800 Contacts (“Petitioner”) that prompted an FTC administrative complaint, then presented a brief history of the internal FTC proceedings:

In 2002, Petitioner began filing complaints and sending cease-and-desist letters to its competitors alleging trademark infringement related to its competitors’ online advertisements. Between 2004 and 2013, Petitioner entered into thirteen settlement agreements to resolve most of these disputes. Each of these agreements includes language that prohibits the parties from using each other’s trademarks, URLs, and variations of trademarks as search advertising keywords. The agreements also require the parties to employ negative keywords so that a search including one party’s trademarks will not trigger a display of the other party’s ads. The agreements do not prohibit parties from bidding on generic keywords such as “contacts” or “contact lenses.” Petitioner enforced the agreements when it perceived them to be breached.   

Apart from the settlement agreements, in 2013 Petitioner entered into a “sourcing and services agreement” with Luxottica, a company that sells and distributes contacts through its affiliates. That agreement also contains reciprocal online search advertising restrictions prohibiting the use of trademark keywords and requiring both parties to employ negative keywords.  

The FTC issued an administrative complaint against Petitioner in August 2016 alleging that the thirteen settlement agreements and the Luxottica agreement, … along with subsequent actions to enforce them, unreasonably restrain truthful, non-misleading advertising as well as price competition in search advertising auctions, all of which constitute a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45. The complaint alleges that the Challenged  Agreements prevented Petitioner’s competitors from disseminating ads that would have informed consumers that the same contact lenses were available at a cheaper price from other online retailers, thereby reducing competition and making it more difficult for consumers to compare online retail prices. The case was tried before an ALJ, who concluded that a violation had occurred.   

As an initial matter, the ALJ rejected Petitioner’s assertion that trademark settlement agreements are not subject to antitrust scrutiny in light of FTC v. Actavis, 570 U.S. 136 (2013). Applying the “rule of reason” and principles of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, the ALJ determined that “[o]nline sales of contact lenses constitute a relevant product market.” … He found that the agreements constituted a “contract, combination, or  conspiracy” as required by the Sherman Act and held that the  advertising restrictions in the agreements harmed consumers by reducing the availability of information, in turn making it costlier for consumers to find and compare contact lens prices. …

Having found actual anticompetitive effects, as required under the rule of reason analysis, the ALJ rejected the procompetitive justifications for the agreements offered by Petitioner. He found that while trademark protection is procompetitive, it did not justify the advertising restrictions in the agreements and also that Petitioner failed to show that reduced litigation costs would benefit consumers. The ALJ issued an order that barred Petitioner from entering into an agreement with any marketer or seller of contact lenses to limit participation in search advertising auctions or to prohibit or limit search advertising.

1-800 appealed the ALJ’s order to the Commission. In a split decision, a majority of the Commission agreed with the ALJ that the agreements violated Section 5 of the FTC Act. The majority, however, analyzed the settlement agreements differently from the ALJ. The majority classified the agreements as “inherently suspect” and alternatively found “direct evidence” of anticompetitive effects on consumers and search engines. The majority then analyzed the procompetitive justifications Petitioner offered for the agreements and rejected arguments that the benefits of protecting trademarks and reducing litigation costs outweighed any potential harm to consumers. Finally, the majority identified what it believed to be less anticompetitive alternatives to the advertising restrictions in the agreements. One Commissioner dissented, reasoning both that the majority should not have applied the “inherently suspect” framework and that it failed to give appropriate consideration to Petitioner’s proffered procompetitive justifications. This timely appeal followed.

Commissioner Phillips’ Dissent

Phillips meticulously made the case that 1-800 Contacts’ behavior raised no antitrust concerns.

First, he began by stressing that the settlements in question resolved legitimate trademark-infringement claims. The settlements also were limited in scope. They did not prevent any of the parties from engaging in any form of non-infringing advertising (online or offline), they specifically permitted non-infringing uses like comparative advertising and parodies, and they placed no restrictions on the content that any of the settling parties could include in their ads. In short, the settlements “sought to balance 1-800 Contacts’ legitimate interests in protecting its trademarks with competitors’ (and consumers’) interests in truthful advertising.

Second, he explained in detail why the FTC majority opinion failed to show that the trademark settlements were “inherently suspect.” He noted that the “[s]ettlements do not approximate conduct that the Commission or courts have previously found to be inherently suspect, much less illegal.” FTC complaint counsel had not demonstrated any output effects—the settlements permitted price and quality advertising, and did not affect third-party sellers. The Actavis Supreme Court refused to apply the inherently suspect framework “even though the alleged conduct at issue [reverse payments] was far more harmful to competition than anything at issue here, as well-established economic evidence demonstrated.”

Moreover, the majority opinion’s reliance on the FTC’s Polygram decision was misplaced, because the defendants in that case fixed prices and banned advertising (“[t]here is no price fixing here [n]or is there an advertising ban”). Other cases cited by the majority involving advertising restrictions similarly were inapposite, because they involved far greater restrictions on advertising and did not implicate intellectual property. Furthermore, “[t]he economic studies cited by the majority d[id] not examine paid search advertising, … much less how restraints upon it interact with the trademark policies at issue here.”

Third, he discussed at length why the majority should not have pursued a truncated rule-of-reason analysis. In short:

Applicable precedent makes clear that the Trademark Settlements should be analyzed under the traditional rule of reason. And the cases on which the majority rely fail to provide support for truncating that analysis by applying the “inherently suspect” framework. As noted, those cases do not involve trademarks, or intellectual property of any kind. That is relevant—indeed, decisive—because trademarks often limit advertising in one way or another, and the logic of the majority’s analysis would support a rule that stigmatizes conduct protecting those rights, which is clearly procompetitive, as presumptively unlawful.

Fourth, in addition to the legal infirmities, Phillips skillfully exposed the serious policy shortcomings of the majority’s “inherently suspect” approach:

Treating the Trademark Settlements as “inherently suspect” yields an unclear rule that regardless of interpretation, will, I fear, create uncertainty, dilute trademark rights, and dampen inter-brand competition. The majority couch their holding as a limited one dealing with restraints on the opportunity to make price comparisons, but, by adopting an analytical framework without accounting for the intellectual property at issue, they produce one of the following rules: either all advertising restrictions are inherently suspect, regardless whether they protect intellectual property rights, or the level of scrutiny applied to a particular restraint will depend on the strength of the trademark holder’s underlying infringement claim.

In his policy assessment, Phillips added that the policy favoring litigation settlements (due to the fact that, as a general matter, they promote efficiency) supports application of the traditional rule of reason.

Fifth, turning to the traditional rule of reason, Phillips explicated FTC complaint counsel’s failure to meet its burden of proof (case citations omitted):

If the Trademark Settlements are not “inherently suspect”, which they are not, Complaint Counsel can meet their initial burden of proof under the rule of reason in one of two ways: “an indirect showing based on a demonstration of defendant’s market power” or “direct evidence of ‘actual, sustained adverse effects on competition’” … The majority take only the direct approach; they do not attempt an indirect showing of market power. … To meet the initial burden of direct evidence, a plaintiff must show adverse effects on competition that are actual, sustained, and significant or substantial. … Complaint Counsel have not met that burden with its showing on direct effects.

In dealing with burden-of-proof issues, Phillips demonstrated that, in the context of a trademark-settlement agreement, a restriction on advertising is, by itself, insufficient to show direct effects. Phillips conceded that, “[w]hile restrictions on advertising are not themselves enough, the majority are correct that a showing of actual, sustained, and substantial or significant price effects would suffice.” But Phillips emphasized that the majority failed to show that the trademark settlements were responsible for “the fact that 1-800 Contacts’ prices were higher than some of its competitors’ prices.” Indeed, the record was “clear that that price differential predated the Trademark Settlements.” Furthermore, FTC complaint counsel “put forward no evidence that the price gap increased as a result of the Trademark Settlements.” What’s more, the FTC majority “did not adduce legally sufficient proof” that “1-800 Contacts maintained supracompetitive prices. … [T]he majority d[id] not even attempt to show that 1-800 Contacts’ price cost-margin was abnormally high—either before or after the Trademark Settlements.”

Phillips next focused on the substantial procompetitive justifications for 1-800’s conduct. (This was legally unnecessary, because the initial burden under the inherently suspect framework had not been met, direct effects had not been shown, and there had been no effort to show indirect effects.) These included settlement-related litigation-cost savings and enhanced trademark protections. Phillips stressed “the tremendous amount of investment 1-800 Contacts ha[d] made in building its brand, lowering the price of contact lenses, and offering customers superior service.” 

After skillfully refuting the FTC majority’s novel separate theory that the settlements had anticompetitive effects on firms owning search engines (such as Google or Bing), Phillips skewered the FTC majority’s claim that the trademark settlements could have been narrower:

The searches that the Trademark Settlements prohibit[ed] [we[re] precisely those searches that implicate[d] 1-800 Contacts’ trademarks. They [we]re also the searches through which users [we]re most likely attempting to reach the 1-800 Contacts website (i.e., searches for 1-800 Contacts’ trademark). …

The settling parties included a negative keyword provision in response to Google’s explicit encouragement for 1-800 Contacts to resolve its trademark disputes with competitors by having them implement 1-800 Contacts’ trademarked terms as negative keywords. … They did so because, without negative keywords, a settling party’s advertisements could appear in response to searches for the counterparty’s trademarked terms.

Almost all of the Trademark Settlements balanced these restrictions with a provision explicitly permitting a settling party to use the counterparty’s trademarks in the non-internet context, including comparative advertising. …

As a result, …  the Trademark Settlements were appropriately tailored to achieve their goal of preventing trademark infringement while balancing the need to permit non-infringing advertising.

Turning to the Luxottica servicing agreement, Phillips explained that the majority opinion mistakenly characterized it as just another inherently suspect settlement. Instead, it was an efficient sourcing and servicing agreement. Under the agreement, 1-800 Contacts shipped contacts for sale to Luxottica brick-and-mortar chain stores, and Luxottica also provided other services. Luxottica benefited by outsourcing its entire contact-lens business—including negotiating with contact-lens suppliers—to 1-800 Contacts. The majority failed to analyze the various procompetitive benefits stemming from this arrangement, which fit squarely within the FTC-U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) Competitor Collaboration Guidelines. In particular, for example, “[a]s a direct result of its decision to outsource much of its contact business to 1-800 Contacts, Luxottica customers could receive lower prices and better services (e.g., faster delivery).”

Phillips closed his dissent by highlighting the ineffectiveness of the FTC majority’s order, which “state[d] that the only agreements that 1-800 Contacts c[ould] enter [we]re those that, in effect, that t[old] the counterparty that they c[ould] [not] violate the trademark laws.” This unhelpful language “w[ould] only lead to more litigation to determine what conduct actually violated the trademark laws in the context of paid search advertising based on trademarked keywords. Because the Order only allow[ed] agreements that d[id] not actually resolve the dispute in trademark infringement litigation, it w[ould] reduce the incentive to settle, which, in turn, w[ould] lead to either less trademark enforcement or more costly litigation”.

Phillips concluding paragraph offered sound general advice about the limits of antitrust and the need to avoid a harmful lack of clarity in enforcement:

The Commission’s mandate is to enforce the antitrust laws, but we cannot do so in a vacuum. We need to consider competing policies, including federal trademark policy, when analyzing allegedly anticompetitive conduct. And we should recognize that unclear rules may do more harm both to that policy and to competition than the alleged conduct here. In the case of the Trademark Settlements, precedent offers a better way: the Commission should analyze such agreements under the full rule of reason, giving appropriate weight to the trademarks at issue and the value they protect. Such a rule will decrease uncertainty in the market, encourage brand investment, and increase competition.

The 2nd Circuit Rejects the FTC Majority’s Position

The 2nd Circuit rejected the FTC majority opinion and vacated commission’s order. First, it rejected the FTC’s reliance on a “quick look” analysis, stating:

Courts do not have sufficient experience with this type of conduct to permit the abbreviated analysis of the Challenged [trademark settlement] Agreements undertaken by the Commission. … When, as here, not only are there cognizable procompetitive justifications but also the type of restraint has not been widely condemned in our “judicial experience,” … more is required. … The Challenged Agreements, therefore, are not so obviously anticompetitive to consumers that someone with only a basic understanding of economics would immediately recognize them to be so. … We are bound, then, to apply the rule of reason.

Turning to full rule-of-reason analysis, the court began by assessing anticompetitive effects. It rejected the FTC’s argument that it had established direct evidence of such effects in the form of increased prices. It emphasized that the government could not show an actual anticompetitive change in prices after the restraint was implemented, “because it did not conduct an empirical analysis of the Challenged Agreements effect on the price of contact lenses in the online market for contacts.” Specifically, because the FTC’s evidence was merely “theoretical and anecdotal,” the evidence was not “direct.” The court also concluded that it need not decide whether an FTC theory of anticompetitive harm due to “disrupted information flow” (due to a reduction in the quantity of advertisements) was viable, because 1-800 Contacts had shown a procompetitive justification.

The court rejected the FTC’s finding that 1-800 Contact’s citation of two procompetitive effects—reduced litigation costs and the protection of trademark rights—had no basis in fact. Citing the 2nd Circuit’s Clorox decision, the court emphasized that “[t]rademarks are by their nature non-exclusionary, and agreements to protect trademark interests are ‘common and favored, under the law.’” The FTC’s doubts about the merits of the trademark-infringement claims were irrelevant, because, consistent with Clorox, “trademark agreements that ‘only marginally advance[] trademark policies’ can be procompetitive.” And while trademark agreements that were “auxiliary to an underlying illegal agreement between competitors” would not pass legal muster, there was “a lack of evidence here that the Challenged Agreements [we]re the ‘product of anything other than hard-nosed trademark negotiations.’”

Because 1-800 Contacts had “carried its burden of identifying a procompetitive justification, the government [had to] … show that a less-restrictive alternative exist[ed] that achieve[d] the same legitimate competitive benefits.” In that regard, the FTC claimed “that the parties to the Challenged Agreements could have agreed to require clear disclosure in each search advertisement of the identity of the rival seller rather than prohibit all advertising on trademarked issues.”

But, citing Clorox, the court opined that “it is usually unwise for courts to second-guess” trademark agreements between competitors, because “the parties’ determination of the proper scope of needed trademark protection is entitled to substantial weight.” In this matter, the FTC “failed to consider the practical reasons for the parties entering into the Challenged Agreements. … The Commission did not consider, for example, how the parties might enforce such a requirement moving forward or give any weight to how onerous such enforcement efforts would be for private parties.” In short, “[w]hile trademark agreements limit competitors from competing as effectively as they otherwise might, … forcing companies to be less aggressive in enforcing their trademarks is antithetical to the procompetitive goals of trademark policy.”

In sum, the court concluded:

In this case, where the restrictions that arise are born of typical trademark settlement agreements, we cannot overlook the Procompetitive Agreements’ procompetitive goal of promoting trademark policy. In light of the strong procompetitive justification of protecting Petitioner’s trademarks, we conclude the Challenged Agreements “merely regulate[] and perhaps thereby promote[] competition.”

Conclusion

While strong intellectual-property protection is key to robust competition, the different types of IP advance competitive interests in different manners. Patents, for example, provide a right to exclude access to well-defined inventions, thereby creating incentives to invent and facilitating contracts that spread patent-based innovations throughout the economy. Trademarks protect brand names and logos, thereby serving as specific indicators of origin and creating incentives to invest in improving the quality of the product or service covered by a trademark. As such, strong trademarks spur competition over quality and reduce uncertainty about the particular attributes of competing goods and services. In short, trademarks tend to promote dynamic competition and benefit consumers.

Properly applied, antitrust law seeks to advance consumer welfare and strengthen the competitive process. In that regard, the policy goals of antitrust and intellectual property are in harmony, and antitrust should be enforced in a manner that complements, and does not undermine, IP policy. Thus, when faced with a competitive restraint covering IP rights, antitrust enforcers should evaluate it carefully. They should be mindful of the procompetitive goals it may serve and avoid focusing solely on theories of competitive harm that ignore IP interests.

The FTC majority in 1-800 Contacts missed this fundamental point. They gave relatively short shrift to the procompetitive aspects of trademark protection and, at the same time, mischaracterized minor restrictions on advertising as akin to significant restraints that chill the provision of price information and product comparisons.

There was no showing that the 1-800 restrictions had stifled price competition or undermined in any manner consumers’ ability to compare contact-lens brands and prices online. In reality, the settlement agreements under scrutiny were rather carefully crafted to protect 1-800 Contacts’ goodwill, reflected in its substantial investments in quality enhancement and the promotion of relatively low-cost online sales. In the absence of the settlements, its online rivals would have been able to free ride on 1-800’s brand investments, diminishing that innovative firm’s incentive to continue to invest in trademark-related product enhancements. The long-term effect would have been to diminish, not enhance, dynamic competition.

More generally, had it prevailed, the FTC majority’s blinkered analytical approach in 1-800 Contacts could have chilled vigorous, welfare-enhancing competition in many other markets where trademarks play an important role. Fortunately, the majority’s holding did not stand for long.

Phillips’ brilliant dissent, which carefully integrated trademark-policy concerns into the application of antitrust principles—in tandem with the subsequent 2nd Circuit decision that properly acknowledged the need to weigh such concerns in antitrust analysis—provide a template for trademark-antitrust assessments that may be looked to by future courts and enforcers. Let us hope that current Biden administration FTC and DOJ Antitrust Division enforcers also take heed. 

The business press generally describes the gig economy that has sprung up around digital platforms like Uber and TaskRabbit as a beneficial phenomenon, “a glass that is almost full.” The gig economy “is an economy that operates flexibly, involving the exchange of labor and resources through digital platforms that actively facilitate buyer and seller matching.”

From the perspective of businesses, major positive attributes of the gig economy include cost-effectiveness (minimizing costs and expenses); labor-force efficiencies (“directly matching the company to the freelancer”); and flexible output production (individualized work schedules and enhanced employee motivation). Workers also benefit through greater independence, enhanced work flexibility (including hours worked), and the ability to earn extra income.

While there are some disadvantages, as well, (worker-commitment questions, business-ethics issues, lack of worker benefits, limited coverage of personal expenses, and worker isolation), there is no question that the gig economy has contributed substantially to the growth and flexibility of the American economy—a major social good. Indeed, “[i]t is undeniable that the gig economy has become an integral part of the American workforce, a trend that has only been accelerated during the” COVID-19 pandemic.

In marked contrast, however, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Sept. 15 Policy Statement on Enforcement Related to Gig Work (“gig statement” or “statement”) is the story of a glass that is almost empty. The accompanying press release declaring “FTC to Crack Down on Companies Taking Advantage of Gig Workers” (since when is “taking advantage of workers” an antitrust or consumer-protection offense?) puts an entirely negative spin on the gig economy. And while the gig statement begins by describing the nature and large size of the gig economy, it does so in a dispassionate and bland tone. No mention is made of the substantial benefits for consumers, workers, and the overall economy stemming from gig work. Rather, the gig statement quickly adopts a critical perspective in describing the market for gig workers and then addressing gig-related FTC-enforcement priorities. What’s more, the statement deals in very broad generalities and eschews specifics, rendering it of no real use to gig businesses seeking practical guidance.

Most significantly, the gig statement suggests that the FTC should play a significant enforcement role in gig-industry labor questions that fall outside its statutory authority. As such, the statement is fatally flawed as a policy document. It provides no true guidance and should be substantially rewritten or withdrawn.

Gig Statement Analysis

The gig statement’s substantive analysis begins with a negative assessment of gig-firm conduct. It expresses concern that gig workers are being misclassified as independent contractors and are thus deprived “of critical rights [right to organize, overtime pay, health and safety protections] to which they are entitled under law.” Relatedly, gig workers are said to be “saddled with inordinate risks.” Gig firms also “may use transparent algorithms to capture more revenue from customer payments for workers’ services than customers or workers understand.”

Heaven forfend!

The solution offered by the gig statement is “scrutiny of promises gig platforms make, or information they fail to disclose, about the financial proposition of gig work.” No mention is made of how these promises supposedly made to workers about the financial ramifications of gig employment are related to the FTC’s statutory mission (which centers on unfair or deceptive acts or practices affecting consumers or unfair methods of competition).

The gig statement next complains that a “power imbalance” between gig companies and gig workers “may leave gig workers exposed to harms from unfair, deceptive, and anticompetitive practices and is likely to amplify such harms when they occur. “Power imbalance” along a vertical chain has not been a source of serious antitrust concern for decades (and even in the case of the Robinson-Patman Act, the U.S. Supreme Court most recently stressed, in 2005’s Volvo v. Reeder, that harm to interbrand competition is the key concern). “Power imbalances” between workers and employers bear no necessary relation to consumer welfare promotion, which the Supreme Court teaches is the raison d’etre of antitrust. Moreover, the FTC does not explain why unfair or deceptive conduct likely follows from the mere existence of substantial bargaining power. Such an unsupported assertion is not worthy of being included in a serious agency-policy document.

The gig statement then engages in more idle speculation about a supposed relationship between market concentration and the proliferation of unfair and deceptive practices across the gig economy. The statement claims, without any substantiation, that gig companies in concentrated platform markets will be incentivized to exert anticompetitive market power over gig workers, and thereby “suppress wages below competitive rates, reduce job quality, or impose onerous terms on gig workers.” Relatedly, “unfair and deceptive practices by one platform can proliferate across the labor market, creating a race to the bottom that participants in the gig economy, and especially gig workers, have little ability to avoid.” No empirical or theoretical support is advanced for any of these bald assertions, which give the strong impression that the commission plans to target gig-economy companies for enforcement actions without regard to the actual facts on the ground. (By contrast, the commission has in the past developed detailed factual records of competitive and/or consumer-protection problems in health care and other important industry sectors as a prelude to possible future investigations.)

The statement then launches into a description of the FTC’s gig-economy policy priorities. It notes first that “workers may be deprived of the protections of an employment relationship” when gig firms classify them as independent contractors, leading to firms’ “disclosing [of] pay and costs in an unfair and deceptive manner.” What’s more, the FTC “also recognizes that misleading claims [made to workers] about the costs and benefits of gig work can impair fair competition among companies in the gig economy and elsewhere.”

These extraordinary statements seem to be saying that the FTC plans to closely scrutinize gig-economy-labor contract negotiations, based on its distaste for independent contracting (which it believes should be supplanted by employer-employee relationships, a question of labor law, not FTC law). Nowhere is it explained where such a novel FTC exercise of authority comes from, nor how such FTC actions have any bearing on harms to consumer welfare. The FTC’s apparent desire to force employment relationships upon gig firms is far removed from harm to competition or unfair or deceptive practices directed at consumers. Without more of an explanation, one is left to conclude that the FTC is proposing to take actions that are far beyond its statutory remit.

The gig statement next tries to tie the FTC’s new gig program to violations of the FTC Act (“unsubstantiated claims”); the FTC’s Franchise Rule; and the FTC’s Business Opportunity Rule, violations of which “can trigger civil penalties.” The statement, however, lacks any sort of logical, coherent explanation of how the new enforcement program necessarily follows from these other sources of authority. While a few examples of rules-based enforcement actions that have some connection to certain terms of employment may be pointed to, such special cases are a far cry from any sort of general justification for turning the FTC into a labor-contracts regulator.

The statement then moves on to the alleged misuse of algorithmic tools dealing with gig-worker contracts and supervision that may lead to unlawful gig-worker oversight and termination. Once again, the connection of any of this to consumer-welfare harm (from a competition or consumer-protection perspective) is not made.

The statement further asserts that FTC Act consumer-protection violations may arise from “nonnegotiable” and other unfair contracts. In support of such a novel exercise of authority, however, the FTC cites supposedly analogous “unfair” clauses found in consumer contracts with individuals or small-business consumers. It is highly doubtful that these precedents support any FTC enforcement actions involving labor contracts.

Noncompete clauses with individuals are next on the gig statement’s agenda. It is claimed that “[n]on-compete provisions may undermine free and fair labor markets by restricting workers’ ability to obtain competitive offers for their services from existing companies, resulting in lower wages and degraded working conditions. These provisions may also raise barriers to entry for new companies.” The assertion, however, that such clauses may violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act or Section 5 of the FTC Act’s bar on unfair methods of competition, seems dubious, to say the least. Unless there is coordination among companies, these are essentially unilateral contracting practices that may have robust efficiency explanations. Making out these practices to be federal antitrust violations is bad law and bad policy; they are, in any event, subject to a wide variety of state laws.

Even more problematic is the FTC’s claim that a variety of standard (typically efficiency-seeking) contract limitations, such as nondisclosure agreements and liquidated damages clauses, “may be excessive or overbroad” and subject to FTC scrutiny. This preposterous assertion would make the FTC into a second-guesser of common labor contracts (a federal labor-contract regulator, if you will), a role for which it lacks authority and is entirely unsuited. Turning the FTC into a federal labor-contract regulator would impose unjustifiable uncertainty costs on business and chill a host of efficient arrangements. It is hard to take such a claim of power seriously, given its lack of any credible statutory basis.

The final section of the gig statement dealing with FTC enforcement (“Policing Unfair Methods of Competition That Harm Gig Workers”) is unobjectionable, but not particularly informative. It essentially states that the FTC’s black letter legal authority over anticompetitive conduct also extends to gig companies: the FTC has the authority to investigate and prosecute anticompetitive mergers; agreements among competitors to fix terms of employment; no-poach agreements; and acts of monopolization and attempted monopolization. (Tell us something we did not know!)

The fact that gig-company workers may be harmed by such arrangements is noted. The mere page and a half devoted to this legal summary, however, provides little practical guidance for gig companies as to how to avoid running afoul of the law. Antitrust policy statements may be excused if they provided less detailed guidance than antitrust guidelines, but it would be helpful if they did something more than provide a capsule summary of general American antitrust principles. The gig statement does not pass this simple test.

The gig statement closes with a few glittering generalities. Cooperation with other agencies is highlighted (for example, an information-sharing agreement with the National Labor Relations Board is described). The FTC describes an “Equity Action Plan” calling for a focus on how gig-economy antitrust and consumer-protection abuses harm underserved communities and low-wage workers.

The FTC finishes with a request for input from the public and from gig workers about abusive and potentially illegal gig-sector conduct. No mention is made of the fact that the FTC must, of course, conform itself to the statutory limitations on its jurisdiction in the gig sector, as in all other areas of the economy.

Summing Up the Gig Statement

In sum, the critical flaw of the FTC’s gig statement is its focus on questions of labor law and policy (including the question of independent contractor as opposed to employee status) that are the proper purview of federal and state statutory schemes not administered by the Federal Trade Commission. (A secondary flaw is the statement’s unbalanced portrayal of the gig sector, which ignores its beneficial aspects.) If the FTC decides that gig-economy issues deserve particular enforcement emphasis, it should (and, indeed, must) direct its attention to anticompetitive actions and unfair or deceptive acts or practices that harm consumers.

On the antitrust side, that might include collusion among gig companies on the terms offered to workers or perhaps “mergers to monopoly” between gig companies offering a particular service. On the consumer-protection side, that might include making false or materially misleading statements to consumers about the terms under which they purchase gig-provided services. (It would be conceivable, of course, that some of those statements might be made, unwittingly or not, by gig independent contractors, at the behest of the gig companies.)

The FTC also might carry out gig-industry studies to identify particular prevalent competitive or consumer-protection harms. The FTC should not, however, seek to transform itself into a gig-labor-market enforcer and regulator, in defiance of its lack of statutory authority to play this role.

Conclusion

The FTC does, of course, have a legitimate role to play in challenging unfair methods of competition and unfair acts or practices that undermine consumer welfare wherever they arise, including in the gig economy. But it does a disservice by focusing merely on supposed negative aspects of the gig economy and conjuring up a gig-specific “parade of horribles” worthy of close commission scrutiny and enforcement action.

Many of the “horribles” cited may not even be “bads,” and many of them are, in any event, beyond the proper legal scope of FTC inquiry. There are other federal agencies (for example, the National Labor Relations Board) whose statutes may prove applicable to certain problems noted in the gig statement. In other cases, statutory changes may be required to address certain problems noted in the statement (assuming they actually are problems). The FTC, and its fellow enforcement agencies, should keep in mind, of course, that they are not Congress, and wishing for legal authority to deal with problems does not create it (something the federal judiciary fully understands).  

In short, the negative atmospherics that permeate the gig statement are unnecessary and counterproductive; if anything, they are likely to convince at least some judges that the FTC is not the dispassionate finder of fact and enforcer of law that it claims to be. In particular, the judiciary is unlikely to be impressed by the FTC’s apparent effort to insert itself into questions that lie far beyond its statutory mandate.

The FTC should withdraw the gig statement. If, however, it does not, it should revise the statement in a manner that is respectful of the limits on the commission’s legal authority, and that presents a more dispassionate analysis of gig-economy business conduct.

A White House administration typically announces major new antitrust initiatives in the fall and spring, and this year is no exception. Senior Biden administration officials kicked off the fall season at Fordham Law School (more on that below) by shedding additional light on their plans to expand the accepted scope of antitrust enforcement.

Their aggressive enforcement statements draw headlines, but will the administration’s neo-Brandeisians actually notch enforcement successes? The prospects are cloudy, to say the least.

The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) has lost some cartel cases in court this year (what was the last time that happened?) and, on Sept. 19, a federal judge rejected the DOJ’s attempt to enjoin United Health’s $13.8 billion bid for Change Healthcare. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently lost two merger challenges before its in-house administrative law judge. It now faces a challenge to its administrative-enforcement processes before the U.S. Supreme Court (the Axon case, to be argued in November).

(Incidentally, on the other side of the Atlantic, the European Commission has faced some obstacles itself. Despite its recent Google victory, the Commission has effectively lost two abuse of dominance cases this year—the Intel and Qualcomm matters—before the European General Court.)

So, are the U.S. antitrust agencies chastened? Will they now go back to basics? Far from it. They enthusiastically are announcing plans to charge ahead, asserting theories of antitrust violations that have not been taken seriously for decades, if ever. Whether this turns out to be wise enforcement policy remains to be seen, but color me highly skeptical. Let’s take a quick look at some of the big enforcement-policy ideas that are being floated.

Fordham Law’s Antitrust Conference

Admiral David Farragut’s order “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” was key to the Union Navy’s August 1864 victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay, a decisive Civil War clash. Perhaps inspired by this display of risk-taking, the heads of the two federal antitrust agencies—DOJ Assistant Attorney General (AAG) Jonathan Kanter and FTC Chair Lina Khan—took a “damn the economics, full speed ahead” attitude in remarks at the Sept. 16 session of Fordham Law School’s 49th Annual Conference on International Antitrust Law and Policy. Special Assistant to the President Tim Wu was also on hand and emphasized the “all of government” approach to competition policy adopted by the Biden administration.

In his remarks, AAG Kanter seemed to be endorsing a “monopoly broth” argument in decrying the current “Whac-a-Mole” approach to monopolization cases. The intent may be to lessen the burden of proof of anticompetitive effects, or to bring together a string of actions taken jointly as evidence of a Section 2 violation. In taking such an approach, however, there is a serious risk that efficiency-seeking actions may be mistaken for exclusionary tactics and incorrectly included in the broth. (Notably, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s 2001 Microsoft opinion avoided the monopoly-broth problem by separately discussing specific company actions and weighing them on their individual merits, not as part of a general course of conduct.)

Kanter also recommended going beyond “our horizontal and vertical framework” in merger assessments, despite the fact that vertical mergers (involving complements) are far less likely to be anticompetitive than horizontal mergers (involving substitutes).

Finally, and perhaps most problematically, Kanter endorsed the American Innovative and Choice Online Act (AICOA), citing the protection it would afford “would-be competitors” (but what about consumers?). In so doing, the AAG ignored the fact that AICOA would prohibit welfare-enhancing business conduct and could be harmfully construed to ban mere harm to rivals (see, for example, Stanford professor Doug Melamed’s trenchant critique).

Chair Khan’s presentation, which called for a far-reaching “course correction” in U.S. antitrust, was even more bold and alarming. She announced plans for a new FTC Act Section 5 “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) policy statement centered on bringing “standalone” cases not reachable under the antitrust laws. Such cases would not consider any potential efficiencies and would not be subject to the rule of reason. Endorsing that approach amounts to an admission that economic analysis will not play a serious role in future FTC UMC assessments (a posture that likely will cause FTC filings to be viewed skeptically by federal judges).

In noting the imminent release of new joint DOJ-FTC merger guidelines, Khan implied that they would be animated by an anti-merger philosophy. She cited “[l]awmakers’ skepticism of mergers” and congressional rejection “of economic debits and credits” in merger law. Khan thus asserted that prior agency merger guidance had departed from the law. I doubt, however, that many courts will be swayed by this “economics free” anti-merger revisionism.

Tim Wu’s remarks closing the Fordham conference had a “big picture” orientation. In an interview with GW Law’s Bill Kovacic, Wu briefly described the Biden administration’s “whole of government” approach, embodied in President Joe Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy. While the order’s notion of breaking down existing barriers to competition across the American economy is eminently sound, many of those barriers are caused by government restrictions (not business practices) that are not even alluded to in the order.

Moreover, in many respects, the order seeks to reregulate industries, misdiagnosing many phenomena as business abuses that actually represent efficient free-market practices (as explained by Howard Beales and Mark Jamison in a Sept. 12 Mercatus Center webinar that I moderated). In reality, the order may prove to be on net harmful, rather than beneficial, to competition.

Conclusion

What is one to make of the enforcement officials’ bold interventionist screeds? What seems to be missing in their presentations is a dose of humility and pragmatism, as well as appreciation for consumer welfare (scarcely mentioned in the agency heads’ presentations). It is beyond strange to see agencies that are having problems winning cases under conventional legal theories floating novel far-reaching initiatives that lack a sound economics foundation.

It is also amazing to observe the downplaying of consumer welfare by agency heads, given that, since 1979 (in Reiter v. Sonotone), the U.S. Supreme Court has described antitrust as a “consumer welfare prescription.” Unless there is fundamental change in the makeup of the federal judiciary (and, in particular, the Supreme Court) in the very near future, the new unconventional theories are likely to fail—and fail badly—when tested in court. 

Bringing new sorts of cases to test enforcement boundaries is, of course, an entirely defensible role for U.S. antitrust leadership. But can the same thing be said for bringing “non-boundary” cases based on theories that would have been deemed far beyond the pale by both Republican and Democratic officials just a few years ago? Buckle up: it looks as if we are going to find out. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants to review in advance all future acquisitions by Facebook parent Meta Platforms. According to a Sept. 2 Bloomberg report, in connection with its challenge to Meta’s acquisition of fitness-app maker Within Unlimited,  the commission “has asked its in-house court to force both Meta and [Meta CEO Mark] Zuckerberg to seek approval from the FTC before engaging in any future deals.”

This latest FTC decision is inherently hyper-regulatory, anti-free market, and contrary to the rule of law. It also is profoundly anti-consumer.

Like other large digital-platform companies, Meta has conferred enormous benefits on consumers (net of payments to platforms) that are not reflected in gross domestic product statistics. In a December 2019 Harvard Business Review article, Erik Brynjolfsson and Avinash Collis reported research finding that Facebook:

…generates a median consumer surplus of about $500 per person annually in the United States, and at least that much for users in Europe. … [I]ncluding the consumer surplus value of just one digital good—Facebook—in GDP would have added an average of 0.11 percentage points a year to U.S. GDP growth from 2004 through 2017.

The acquisition of complementary digital assets—like the popular fitness app produced by Within—enables Meta to continually enhance the quality of its offerings to consumers and thereby expand consumer surplus. It reflects the benefits of economic specialization, as specialized assets are made available to enhance the quality of Meta’s offerings. Requiring Meta to develop complementary assets in-house, when that is less efficient than a targeted acquisition, denies these benefits.

Furthermore, in a recent editorial lambasting the FTC’s challenge to a Meta-Within merger as lacking a principled basis, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that the challenge also removes incentive for venture-capital investments in promising startups, a result at odds with free markets and innovation:

Venture capitalists often fund startups on the hope that they will be bought by larger companies. [FTC Chair Lina] Khan is setting down the marker that the FTC can block acquisitions merely to prevent big companies from getting bigger, even if they don’t reduce competition or harm consumers. This will chill investment and innovation, and it deserves a burial in court.

This is bad enough. But the commission’s proposal to require blanket preapprovals of all future Meta mergers (including tiny acquisitions well under regulatory pre-merger reporting thresholds) greatly compounds the harm from its latest ill-advised merger challenge. Indeed, it poses a blatant challenge to free-market principles and the rule of law, in at least three ways.

  1. It substitutes heavy-handed ex ante regulatory approval for a reliance on competition, with antitrust stepping in only in those limited instances where the hard facts indicate a transaction will be anticompetitive. Indeed, in one key sense, it is worse than traditional economic regulation. Empowering FTC staff to carry out case-by-case reviews of all proposed acquisitions inevitably will generate arbitrary decision-making, perhaps based on a variety of factors unrelated to traditional consumer-welfare-based antitrust. FTC leadership has abandoned sole reliance on consumer welfare as the touchstone of antitrust analysis, paving the wave for potentially abusive and arbitrary enforcement decisions. By contrast, statutorily based economic regulation, whatever its flaws, at least imposes specific standards that staff must apply when rendering regulatory determinations.
  2. By abandoning sole reliance on consumer-welfare analysis, FTC reviews of proposed Meta acquisitions may be expected to undermine the major welfare benefits that Meta has previously bestowed upon consumers. Given the untrammeled nature of these reviews, Meta may be expected to be more cautious in proposing transactions that could enhance consumer offerings. What’s more, the general anti-merger bias by current FTC leadership would undoubtedly prompt them to reject some, if not many, procompetitive transactions that would confer new benefits on consumers.
  3. Instituting a system of case-by-case assessment and approval of transactions is antithetical to the normal American reliance on free markets, featuring limited government intervention in market transactions based on specific statutory guidance. The proposed review system for Meta lacks statutory warrant and (as noted above) could promote arbitrary decision-making. As such, it seriously flouts the rule of law and threatens substantial economic harm (sadly consistent with other ill-considered initiatives by FTC Chair Khan, see here and here).

In sum, internet-based industries, and the big digital platforms, have thrived under a system of American technological freedom characterized as “permissionless innovation.” Under this system, the American people—consumers and producers—have been the winners.

The FTC’s efforts to micromanage future business decision-making by Meta, prompted by the challenge to a routine merger, would seriously harm welfare. To the extent that the FTC views such novel interventionism as a bureaucratic template applicable to other disfavored large companies, the American public would be the big-time loser.

[This post is an entry in Truth on the Market’s continuing FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Aug. 22 Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Commercial Surveillance and Data Security (ANPRM) is breathtaking in its scope. For an overview summary, see this Aug. 11 FTC press release.

In their dissenting statements opposing ANPRM’s release, Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson expertly lay bare the notice’s serious deficiencies. Phillips’ dissent stresses that the ANPRM illegitimately arrogates to the FTC legislative power that properly belongs to Congress:

[The [A]NPRM] recast[s] the Commission as a legislature, with virtually limitless rulemaking authority where personal data are concerned. It contemplates banning or regulating conduct the Commission has never once identified as unfair or deceptive. At the same time, the ANPR virtually ignores the privacy and security concerns that have animated our [FTC] enforcement regime for decades. … [As such, the ANPRM] is the first step in a plan to go beyond the Commission’s remit and outside its experience to issue rules that fundamentally alter the internet economy without a clear congressional mandate. That’s not “democratizing” the FTC or using all “the tools in the FTC’s toolbox.” It’s a naked power grab.

Wilson’s complementary dissent critically notes that the 2021 changes to FTC rules of practice governing consumer-protection rulemaking decrease opportunities for public input and vest significant authority solely with the FTC chair. She also echoed Phillips’ overarching concern with FTC overreach (footnote citations omitted):

Many practices discussed in this ANPRM are presented as clearly deceptive or unfair despite the fact that they stretch far beyond practices with which we are familiar, given our extensive law enforcement experience. Indeed, the ANPRM wanders far afield of areas for which we have clear evidence of a widespread pattern of unfair or deceptive practices. … [R]egulatory and enforcement overreach increasingly has drawn sharp criticism from courts. Recent Supreme Court decisions indicate FTC rulemaking overreach likely will not fare well when subjected to judicial review.

Phillips and Wilson’s warnings are fully warranted. The ANPRM contemplates a possible Magnuson-Moss rulemaking pursuant to Section 18 of the FTC Act,[1] which authorizes the commission to promulgate rules dealing with “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” The questions that the ANPRM highlights center primarily on concerns of unfairness.[2] Any unfairness-related rulemaking provisions eventually adopted by the commission will have to satisfy a strict statutory cost-benefit test that defines “unfair” acts, found in Section 5(n) of the FTC Act. As explained below, the FTC will be hard-pressed to justify addressing most of the ANPRM’s concerns in Section 5(n) cost-benefit terms.

Discussion

The requirements imposed by Section 5(n) cost-benefit analysis

Section 5(n) codifies the meaning of unfair practices, and thereby constrains the FTC’s application of rulemakings covering such practices. Section 5(n) states:

The Commission shall have no authority … to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such an 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.

In other words, a practice may be condemned as unfair only if it causes or is likely to cause “(1) substantial injury to consumers (2) which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and (3) not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.”

This is a demanding standard. (For scholarly analyses of the standard’s legal and economic implications authored by former top FTC officials, see here, here, and here.)

First, the FTC must demonstrate that a practice imposes a great deal of harm on consumers, which they could not readily have avoided. This requires detailed analysis of the actual effects of a particular practice, not mere theoretical musings about possible harms that may (or may not) flow from such practice. Actual effects analysis, of course, must be based on empiricism: consideration of hard facts.

Second, assuming that this formidable hurdle is overcome, the FTC must then acknowledge and weigh countervailing welfare benefits that might flow from such a practice. In addition to direct consumer-welfare benefits, other benefits include “benefits to competition.” Those may include business efficiencies that reduce a firm’s costs, because such efficiencies are a driver of vigorous competition and, thus, of long-term consumer welfare. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has explained (see OECD Background Note on Efficiencies, 2012, at 14), dynamic and transactional business efficiencies are particularly important in driving welfare enhancement.

In sum, under Section 5(n), the FTC must show actual, fact-based, substantial harm to consumers that they could not have escaped, acting reasonably. The commission must also demonstrate that such harm is not outweighed by consumer and (procompetitive) business-efficiency benefits. What’s more, Section 5(n) makes clear that the FTC cannot “pull a rabbit out of a hat” and interject other “public policy” considerations as key factors in the rulemaking  calculus (“[s]uch [other] public policy considerations may not serve as a primary basis for … [a] determination [of unfairness]”).

It ineluctably follows as a matter of law that a Section 18 FTC rulemaking sounding in unfairness must be based on hard empirical cost-benefit assessments, which require data grubbing and detailed evidence-based economic analysis. Mere anecdotal stories of theoretical harm to some consumers that is alleged to have resulted from a practice in certain instances will not suffice.

As such, if an unfairness-based FTC rulemaking fails to adhere to the cost-benefit framework of Section 5(n), it inevitably will be struck down by the courts as beyond the FTC’s statutory authority. This conclusion is buttressed by the tenor of the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2021 opinion in AMG Capital v. FTC, which rejected the FTC’s claim that its statutory injunctive authority included the ability to obtain monetary relief for harmed consumers (see my discussion of this case here).

The ANPRM and Section 5(n)

Regrettably, the tone of the questions posed in the ANPRM indicates a lack of consideration for the constraints imposed by Section 5(n). Accordingly, any future rulemaking that sought to establish “remedies” for many of the theorized abuses found in the ANPRM would stand very little chance of being upheld in litigation.

The Aug. 11 FTC press release cited previously addresses several broad topical sources of harms: harms to consumers; harms to children; regulations; automated systems; discrimination; consumer consent; notice, transparency, and disclosure; remedies; and obsolescence. These categories are chock full of questions that imply the FTC may consider restrictions on business conduct that go far beyond the scope of the commission’s authority under Section 5(n). (The questions are notably silent about the potential consumer benefits and procompetitive efficiencies that may arise from the business practices called here into question.)

A few of the many questions set forth under just four of these topical listings (harms to consumers, harms to children, regulations, and discrimination) are highlighted below, to provide a flavor of the statutory overreach that categorizes all aspects of the ANPRM. Many other examples could be cited. (Phillips’ dissenting statement provides a cogent and critical evaluation of ANPRM questions that embody such overreach.) Furthermore, although there is a short discussion of “costs and benefits” in the ANPRM press release, it is wholly inadequate to the task.

Under the category “harms to consumers,” the ANPRM press release focuses on harm from “lax data security or surveillance practices.” It asks whether FTC enforcement has “adequately addressed indirect pecuniary harms, including potential physical harms, psychological harms, reputational injuries, and unwanted intrusions.” The press release suggests that a rule might consider addressing harms to “different kinds of consumers (e.g., young people, workers, franchisees, small businesses, women, victims of stalking or domestic violence, racial minorities, the elderly) in different sectors (e.g., health, finance, employment) or in different segments or ‘stacks’ of the internet economy.”

These laundry lists invite, at best, anecdotal public responses alleging examples of perceived “harm” falling into the specified categories. Little or no light is likely to be shed on the measurement of such harm, nor on the potential beneficial effects to some consumers from the practices complained of (for example, better targeted ads benefiting certain consumers). As such, a sound Section 5(n) assessment would be infeasible.

Under “harms to children,” the press release suggests possibly extending the limitations of the FTC-administered Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) to older teenagers, thereby in effect rewriting COPPA and usurping the role of Congress (a clear statutory overreach). The press release also asks “[s]hould new rules set out clear limits on personalized advertising to children and teenagers irrespective of parental consent?” It is hard (if not impossible) to understand how this form of overreach, which would displace the supervisory rights of parents (thereby imposing impossible-to-measure harms on them), could be shoe-horned into a defensible Section 5(n) cost-benefit assessment.

Under “regulations,” the press release asks whether “new rules [should] require businesses to implement administrative, technical, and physical data security measures, including encryption techniques, to protect against risks to the security, confidentiality, or integrity of covered data?” Such new regulatory strictures (whose benefits to some consumers appear speculative) would interfere significantly in internal business processes. Specifically, they could substantially diminish the efficiency of business-security measures, diminish business incentives to innovate (for example, in encryption), and reduce dynamic competition among businesses.

Consumers also would be harmed by a related slowdown in innovation. Those costs undoubtedly would be high but hard, if not impossible, to measure. The FTC also asks whether a rule should limit “companies’ collection, use, and retention of consumer data.” This requirement, which would seemingly bypass consumers’ decisions to make their data available, would interfere with companies’ ability to use such data to improve business offerings and thereby enhance consumers’ experiences. Justifying new requirements such as these under Section 5(n) would be well-nigh impossible.

The category “discrimination” is especially problematic. In addressing “algorithmic discrimination,” the ANPRM press release asks whether the FTC should “consider new trade regulation rules that bar or somehow limit the deployment of any system that produces discrimination, irrespective of the data or processes on which those outcomes are based.” In addition, the press release asks “if the Commission [should] consider harms to other underserved groups that current law does not recognize as protected from discrimination (e.g., unhoused people or residents of rural communities)?”

The FTC cites no statutory warrant for the authority to combat such forms of “discrimination.” It is not a civil-rights agency. It clearly is not authorized to issue anti-discrimination rules dealing with “groups that current law does not recognize as protected from discrimination.” Any such rules, if issued, would be summarily struck down in no uncertain terms by the judiciary, even without regard to Section 5(n).

In addition, given the fact that “economic discrimination” often is efficient (and procompetitive) and may be beneficial to consumer welfare (see, for example, here), more limited economic anti-discrimination rules almost certainly would not pass muster under the Section 5(n) cost-benefit framework.     

Finally, while the ANPRM press release does contain a very short section entitled “costs and benefits,” that section lacks any specific reference to the required Section 5(n) evaluation framework. Phillips’ dissent points out that the ANPRM:

…simply fail[s] to provide the detail necessary for commenters to prepare constructive responses” on cost-benefit analysis. He stresses that the broad nature of requests for commenters’ view on costs and benefits renders the inquiry “not conducive to stakeholders submitting data and analysis that can be compared and considered in the context of a specific rule. … Without specific questions about [the costs and benefits of] business practices and potential regulations, the Commission cannot hope for tailored responses providing a full picture of particular practices.

In other words, the ANPRM does not provide the guidance needed to prompt the sorts of responses that might assist the FTC in carrying out an adequate Section 5(n) cost-benefit analysis.

Conclusion

The FTC would face almost certain defeat in court if it promulgated a broad rule addressing many of the perceived unfairness-based “ills” alluded to in the ANPRM. Moreover, although its requirements would (I believe) not come into effect, such a rule nevertheless would impose major economic costs on society.

Prior to final judicial resolution of its status, the rule would disincentivize businesses from engaging in a variety of data-related practices that enhance business efficiency and benefit many consumers. Furthermore, the FTC resources devoted to developing and defending the rule would not be applied to alternative welfare-enhancing FTC activities—a substantial opportunity cost.

The FTC should take heed of these realities and opt not to carry out a rulemaking based on the ANPRM. It should instead devote its scarce consumer protection resources to prosecuting hard core consumer fraud and deception—and, perhaps, to launching empirical studies into the economic-welfare effects of data security and commercial surveillance practices. Such studies, if carried out, should focus on dispassionate economic analysis and avoid policy preconceptions. (For example, studies involving digital platforms should take note of the existing economic literature, such as a paper indicating that digital platforms have generated enormous consumer-welfare benefits not accounted for in gross domestic product.)

One can only hope that a majority of FTC commissioners will apply common sense and realize that far-flung rulemaking exercises lacking in statutory support are bad for the rule of law, bad for the commission’s reputation, bad for the economy, and bad for American consumers.


[1] The FTC states specifically that it “is issuing this ANPR[M] pursuant to Section 18 of the Federal Trade Commission Act”.

[2] Deceptive practices that might be addressed in a Section 18 trade regulation rule would be subject to the “FTC Policy Statement on Deception,” which states that “the Commission will find deception if there is a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances, to the consumer’s detriment.” A court reviewing an FTC Section 18 rule focused on “deceptive acts or practices” undoubtedly would consult this Statement, although it is not clear, in light of recent jurisprudential trends, that the court would defer to the Statement’s analysis in rendering an opinion. In any event, questions of deception, which focus on acts or practices that mislead consumers, would in all likelihood have little relevance to the evaluation of any rule that might be promulgated in light of the ANPRM.    

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

Much ink has been spilled regarding the potential harm to the economy and to the rule of law that could stem from enactment of the primary federal antitrust legislative proposal, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) (see here). AICOA proponents, of course, would beg to differ, emphasizing the purported procompetitive benefits of limiting the business freedom of “Big Tech monopolists.”

There is, however, one inescapable reality—as night follows day, passage of AICOA would usher in an extended period of costly litigation over the meaning of a host of AICOA terms. As we will see, this would generate business uncertainty and dampen innovative conduct that might be covered by new AICOA statutory terms. 

The history of antitrust illustrates the difficulties inherent in clarifying the meaning of novel federal statutory language. It was not until 21 years after passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act that the Supreme Court held that Section 1 of the act’s prohibition on contracts, combinations, and conspiracies “in restraint of trade” only covered unreasonable restraints of trade (see Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911)). Furthermore, courts took decades to clarify that certain types of restraints (for example, hardcore price fixing and horizontal market division) were inherently unreasonable and thus per se illegal, while others would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis under a “rule of reason.”

In addition, even far more specific terms related to exclusive dealing, tying, and price discrimination found within the Clayton Antitrust Act gave rise to uncertainty over the scope of their application. This uncertainty had to be sorted out through judicial case-law tests developed over many decades.

Even today, there is no simple, easily applicable test to determine whether conduct in the abstract constitutes illegal monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Act. Rather, whether Section 2 has been violated in any particular instance depends upon the application of economic analysis and certain case-law principles to matter-specific facts.

As is the case with current antitrust law, the precise meaning and scope of AICOA’s terms will have to be fleshed out over many years. Scholarly critiques of AICOA’s language underscore the seriousness of this problem.

In its April 2022 public comment on AICOA, the American Bar Association (ABA)  Antitrust Law Section explains in some detail the significant ambiguities inherent in specific AICOA language that the courts will have to address. These include “ambiguous terminology … regarding fairness, preferencing, materiality, and harm to competition on covered platforms”; and “specific language establishing affirmative defenses [that] creates significant uncertainty”. The ABA comment further stresses that AICOA’s failure to include harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for a statutory violation departs from a broad-based consensus understanding within the antitrust community and could have the unintended consequence of disincentivizing efficient conduct. This departure would, of course, create additional interpretive difficulties for federal judges, further complicating the task of developing coherent case-law principles for the new statute.

Lending support to the ABA’s concerns, Northwestern University professor of economics Dan Spulber notes that AICOA “may have adverse effects on innovation and competition because of imprecise concepts and terminology.”

In a somewhat similar vein, Stanford Law School Professor (and former acting assistant attorney general for antitrust during the Clinton administration) Douglas Melamed complains that:

[AICOA] does not include the normal antitrust language (e.g., “competition in the market as a whole,” “market power”) that gives meaning to the idea of harm to competition, nor does it say that the imprecise language it does use is to be construed as that language is construed by the antitrust laws. … The bill could be very harmful if it is construed to require, not increased market power, but simply harm to rivals.

In sum, ambiguities inherent in AICOA’s new terminology will generate substantial uncertainty among affected businesses. This uncertainty will play out in the courts over a period of years. Moreover, the likelihood that judicial statutory constructions of AICOA language will support “efficiency-promoting” interpretations of behavior is diminished by the fact that AICOA’s structural scheme (which focuses on harm to rivals) does not harmonize with traditional antitrust concerns about promoting a vibrant competitive process.

Knowing this, the large high-tech firms covered by AICOA will become risk averse and less likely to innovate. (For example, they will be reluctant to improve algorithms in a manner that would increase efficiency and benefit consumers, but that might be seen as disadvantaging rivals.) As such, American innovation will slow, and consumers will suffer. (See here for an estimate of the enormous consumer-welfare gains generated by high tech platforms—gains of a type that AICOA’s enactment may be expected to jeopardize.) It is to be hoped that Congress will take note and consign AICOA to the rubbish heap of disastrous legislative policy proposals.

A highly competitive economy is characterized by strong, legally respected property rights. A failure to afford legal protection to certain types of property will reduce individual incentives to participate in market transactions, thereby reducing the effectiveness of market competition. As the great economist Armen Alchian put it, “[w]ell-defined and well-protected property rights replace competition by violence with competition by peaceful means.”

In particular, strong and well-defined intellectual-property rights complement and enhance market competition, thereby promoting innovation. As the U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division put it in 2012: “[t]he successful promotion of innovation and creativity requires a [sic] both competitive markets and strong intellectual property rights.”

In the realm of intellectual property, patent rights are particularly effective in driving innovation by supporting a market for invention in several critical ways, as Northwestern University’s Daniel F. Spulber has explained:

Patents support the establishment of the market [for invention] in several key ways. First, patents provide a system of intellectual property (IP) rights that increases transaction efficiencies and stimulates competition by offering exclusion, transferability, disclosure, certification, standardization, and divisibility. Second, patents provide efficient incentives for invention, innovation, and investment in complementary assets so that the market for inventions is a market for innovative control. Third, patents as intangible real assets promote the financing of invention and innovation.

It thus follows that weak, ill-defined patent rights create confusion, thereby undermining effective competition and innovation.

The Supreme Court’s Undermining of Patentability

Regrettably, the U.S. Supreme Court has, of late, been oblivious to this reality. Over roughly the past decade, several Court decisions have weakened incentives to patent by engendering confusion regarding the core question of what subject matter is patentable. Those decisions represent an abrupt retreat from decades of textually based case law that recognized the broad scope of patentable subject matter.

As I explained in a 2019 Speech to the IP Watchdog Institute Patent Masters Symposium (footnotes omitted):

Confusion about what is patentable lies at the heart of recent discussions of reform to Section 101 of the Patent Act [35 U.S. Code § 101] – the statutory provision that describes patentable subject matter. Section 101 plainly states that “[w]hoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the [other] conditions and requirements of this title.” This language basically says that patentable subject matter covers everything new and useful that is invented or discovered. For many years, however, the Supreme Court has recognized three judicially created exceptions to patent eligibility, providing that you cannot patent: (1) laws of nature, (2) natural phenomena, or (3) abstract ideas. Even with these exceptions, the scope for patentability was quite broad from 1952 (when the modern version of the Patent Act was codified) until roughly 2010.

But over the past decade, the Supreme Court has cut back significantly on what it deems patent eligible, particularly in such areas as biotechnology, computer-implemented inventions, and software. As a result, today “there are many other parts of the world that have more expansive views of what can be patented, including Europe, Australia, and even China.” A key feature of the changes has been the engrafting of case law requirements that patentable eligible subject matter meet before a patent is granted, found in other sections of the Patent Act, onto the previously very broad language of Section 101.

As IPWatchdog President and CEO Gene Quinn explained in a 2019 article, “the real mischief” of recent Supreme Court case law (and, in particular, the 2012 Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus decision) is that it reads requirements of other Patent Act provisions (dealing with novelty, obviousness, and description) into Section 101. That approach defies the plain expansive language of Section 101 and is at odds with earlier Supreme Court case law, which had deemed such an approach totally inappropriate. As such, according to Quinn:

Today, thanks to Mayo, decision makers consider whether claims are new, nonobvious and even properly described all under a Section 101 patent eligibility analysis, which makes the remainder of the patentability sections of the statute superfluous. Indeed, with Mayo, the Supreme Court has usurped Congressional authority over patentability; an authority that is explicitly granted to Congress in the Constitution itself. This usurpation of power is not only wreaking havoc on American innovation, but it has wrought havoc on the delicate balance of power between the Supreme Court and Congress.

Another Supreme Court decision on Section 101 deserves mention. In Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank (2014), the Court construed Mayo as establishing a two-part Section 101 test for patentable subject matter, which involved:

  1. Determining whether the patent claims are directed to a patent-ineligible concept; and
  2. Determining whether the claim’s elements, considered both individually and as an ordered combination, transform the nature of the claims into a patent-eligible application.

This “test,” which was pulled out of thin air, went far beyond the text of Section 101, and involved considerations properly assigned to other provisions of the Patent Act.

Flash forward to last week. The  Supreme Court on June 30 denied certiorari in American Axle & Mfg. Inc. v. Neapco Holdings, a case raising the question whether  a patent that claims a process for manufacturing an automobile driveshaft that simultaneously reduces two types of driveshaft vibration is patent-eligible under Section 101. Underlying the uncertainty (one might say vacuity) of the Mayo-Alice “principle,” a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (with six judges unsuccessfully voting in favor of rehearing en banc) had found the patent claim ineligible, given the Supreme Court’s Mayo and Alice decisions. Amazingly, a classic type of mechanical invention, at the very heart of traditional notions of patenting, somehow had failed the patent-eligibility test, a result no patent-law observer would have dreamed of prior to the Mayo-Alice duet.

Commendably, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar in May 2022 filed a brief in support of the grant of certiorari in American Axle. In short:

The SG’s brief sa[id] that inventions like the one at issue in American Axle have “[h]istorically…long been viewed as paradigmatic examples of the ‘arts’ or ‘processes’ that may receive patent protection if other statutory criteria are satisfied” and that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit “erred in reading this Court’s precedents to dictate a contrary conclusion.”

The brief explain[ed] in no uncertain terms that claim 22 of the patent at issue in the case does not “simply describe or recite” a natural law and ultimately should have been held patent eligible.

In light of Solicitor General Prelogar’s filing, the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari in American Axle can only be read as a clear signal to the bar that it does not intend to back down from or clarify the application of Mayo and Alice. This has serious negative ramifications for the health of the U.S. patent system. As Michael Borella—a computer scientist and chair of the Software and Business Methods Practice Group at McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff LLP—explains:

In denying certiorari in American Axle & Mfg. Inc. v. Neapco Holdings LLC, the Supreme Court has in essence told the patent community to “deal with it.” That operative ‘it’ is the obtuse and uncertain state of patent-eligibility, where even tangible inventions like garage door openers, electric vehicle charging stations, and mobile phones are too abstract for patenting. The Court has created a system that favors large companies over startups and individual inventors by making the fundamental decision of whether even to seek patent protection akin to shaking a Magic 8 Ball for guidance.

The solution, according to former Federal Circuit Chief Judge Paul Michel, is prompt congressional action:

The Supreme Court’s decisions in the last decade have confused and distorted the law of eligibility. … From 1981 to 2012 … the law was stable and yielded good outcomes in specific cases. Then came Mayo and later, Alice. Now, it is a mess: illogical, unpredictable, chaotic. Bad policy for important innovation including for promoting human health. Congress needs to rescue the innovation economy from the courts which have left it a disaster. Let’s hope Congress rises to the need and acts before China and other nations surpass US technology.

Conclusion

It is most unfortunate that the Supreme Court continues to miss the mark on patent rights. Its failure to heed the clearly expressed statutory language on patent eligibility is badly out of synch with the respect for textualism that it has shown in handing down recent landmark decisions on the free exercise of religion, the right to bear arms, and limitations on the administrative state. Given the sad reality that the Court is unlikely to change its tune, Congress should act promptly to amend Section 101 and thereby reaffirm the clear and broad patent-eligibility standard that had stood our country in good stead from the mid-20th century to a decade ago. Such an outcome would strengthen the U.S. patent system, thereby promoting innovation and competition.  

[On Monday, June 27, Concurrences hosted a conference on the Rulemaking Authority of the Federal Trade Commission. This conference featured the work of contributors to a new book on the subject edited by Professor Dan Crane. Several of these authors have previously contributed to the Truth on the Market FTC UMC Symposium. We are pleased to be able to share with you excerpts or condensed versions of chapters from this book prepared by authors of of those chapters. Our thanks and compliments to Dan and Concurrences for bringing together an outstanding event and set of contributors and for supporting our sharing them with you here.]

[The post below was authored by Alden F. Abbott.]

I. Introduction

In over a century of existence, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been a policy leader in developing American thinking about and in enforcing antitrust and consumer protection laws pursuant to several specific statutory mandates. It has also promulgated a substantial number of consumer protection rules, dealing with a wide variety of practices. It has almost never, however, enacted substantive rules seeking to regulate specified forms of business conduct that affect competition in the marketplace.    

In 2021, however, the prospects for FTC competition rulemaking changed dramatically. A new Biden administration FTC chair, Lina Khan, publicly emphasized that the Commission should undertake “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) rulemakings. In December 2021, the FTC issued a “Statement of Regulatory Priorities” (SRP) stating that “the Commission in the coming year will consider developing both unfair-methods-of competition [UMC] rulemakings as well as rulemakings to define with specificity unfair or deceptive acts or practices [UDAPs].” The SRP also summarized the status of FTC rules and guides that are subject to periodic review.

With regard to UDAP rules, the SRP highlighted for consideration “rules that allow the agency to recover redress for consumers who have been defrauded and seek penalties for firms that engage in data abuses.” The SRP also explained that “the abuses stemming from surveillance-based business models are particularly alarming,” and thus the FTC would consider a possible rulemaking focused on “curbing lax security practices, limiting intrusive surveillance, and ensuring that algorithmic decision-making does not result in unlawful discrimination.”

With respect to UMC rules, the FTC painted with a broad brush, and referenced President Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Competition:

Over the coming year, the Commission will also explore whether rules defining certain “unfair methods of competition” prohibited by section 5 of the FTC Act would promote competition and provide greater clarity to the market. A recent Executive Order encouraged the Commission to consider competition rulemakings relating to non-compete clauses, surveillance, the right to repair, pay-for-delay pharmaceutical agreements, unfair competition in online marketplaces, occupational licensing, real-estate listing and brokerage, and industry-specific practices that substantially inhibit competition. The Commission will explore the benefits and costs of these and other competition rulemaking ideas.

Recently, the Commission published in the Federal Register a “Request for Public Comment Regarding Contract Terms that May Harm Fair Competition,” which included for reference two public petitions for competition rulemaking the Commission has received. One of those petitions was to curtail the use of non-compete clauses, and the other was to limit exclusionary contracting by dominant firms, but the Commission also solicited additional examples of unfair terms. Members of the public filed thousands of comments, which the Commission’s staff are carefully reviewing.

In short, significant FTC competition-related rulemaking initiatives are to be expected in 2022. The prospect that those initiatives will yield binding rules that survive legal scrutiny is, however, vanishingly small.

This commentary (which is an abridged chapter in a book on FTC rulemaking published by Concurrences) will explore legal doctrines that seriously constrain the FTC’s ability to enact competition rules. After summarizing the FTC’s authority to engage in rulemaking, it will turn to five major legal impediments to successful competition rulemaking that the FTC must confront. Each of these impediments creates substantial competition rulemaking legal risks for the Commission. Considered collectively, these impediments point to a very low likelihood of competition rulemaking success. Accordingly, the FTC should reconsider its bold competition rulemaking agenda and focus instead on devoting those rulemaking resources to other initiatives within its purview, including competition enforcement actions and policy studies. Such a reset of FTC priorities would likely yield a far better allocation of scarce governmental resources to initiatives that benefit consumers and avoid the imposition of unwarranted costs on private actors and the competitive process.

II. Discussion

1.      FTC Rulemaking: An Overview

The Federal Trade Commission is an independent federal agency created pursuant to the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914. The FTC’s mission is to protect consumers and promote competition (see generally here). It does this primarily through enforcement actions, directed at practices that violate section 5 of the FTC’s Act’s prohibitions on “unfair methods of competition” and “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” While the FTC has also promulgated binding rules and non-binding enforcement guides throughout the course of its history, its principal means for advancing its mission has been enforcement, not regulation. As the FTC explains:

The basic statute enforced by the FTC, Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, empowers the agency to investigate and prevent unfair methods of competition, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices affecting commerce. This creates the Agency’s two primary missions: protecting competition and protecting consumers. The statute gives the FTC authority to seek relief for consumers, including injunctions and restitution, and in some instances to seek civil penalties from wrongdoers. The FTC has the ability to implement trade regulation rules defining with specificity acts or practices that are unfair or deceptive and the Commission can publish reports and make legislative recommendations to Congress about issues affecting the economy. The Commission enforces various antitrust laws under Section 5(a) of the FTC Act as well as the Clayton Act. The FTC monitors all its orders to ensure compliance. 

FTC rules may be divided into three categories: section 6(g) rules, section 18 rules, and rules promulgated pursuant to statutes other than the FTC Act.

2.      Section 6(g) Rules

Section 6(g) of the original Federal Trade Commission Act (“section 6(g)”) is a very short provision that empowers the FTC to “classify corporations” and also authorizes the Commission “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter [embodying the statutory authorities bestowed on the FTC].” Section 6(g) is a very tiny part of section 6 of the FTC Act, which delineates FTC powers to conduct investigations, issue reports, make criminal referrals to the Justice Department, cooperate with foreign enforcers, and expend funds for meetings with foreign officials and law enforcement groups. Section 6(g) primarily has been used by the Commission to enact procedural rules governing investigations and internal processes, not substantive rules dealing with business conduct.

Section 6(g) substantive rules today are subject to the informal rulemaking requirements of section 553 of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which apply to the vast majority of federal agency rulemaking proceedings. Informal rulemaking involves publication of a proposed rule, followed by public comment (at least 30 days), followed by publication of a final rule.

In 1971, the FTC enacted a section 6(g) rule stating that it was both an “unfair method of competition” and an “unfair act or practice” for refiners or others who sell to gasoline retailers “to fail to disclose clearly and conspicuously in a permanent manner on the pumps the minimum octane number or numbers of the motor gasoline being dispensed.” In 1973, in the National Petroleum Refiners case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the FTC’s authority to promulgate this and other binding substantive rules. The court rejected the argument that section 6(g) authorized only nonsubstantive regulations regarding the FTC’s nonadjudicatory, investigative, and informative functions, spelled out elsewhere in section 6. Notably, however, the FTC has not enacted any 6(g) competition rules in the nearly fifty years since the National Petroleum Refiners case was decided.

3.      Section 18 Rules

In 1975, Congress granted the FTC specific consumer protection rulemaking authority (authorizing enactment of trade regulation rules dealing with unfair or deceptive acts or practices) through section 202 of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which added section 18 to the Federal Trade Commission Act (“section 18”). Section 18 imposes hearing-type requirements that are not found in APA informal rulemakings. As the FTC explains, once the Commission has promulgated a trade regulation rule, anyone who violates the rule “with actual knowledge or knowledge fairly implied on the basis of objective circumstances that such act is unfair or deceptive and is prohibited by such rule” is liable for civil penalties for each violation. 

Section 18 consumer protection rulemakings impose adjudicatory-type hearings and other specific requirements on the FTC, unlike more flexible section 6(g) APA informal rulemakings. However, as noted above, the FTC can obtain civil penalties for knowing violation of Magnuson-Moss rules, something it cannot do if 6(g) rules are violated. Since 1975, the FTC has promulgated only seven Magnuson-Moss rules, reflecting the “slow and cumbersome” nature of those rulemakings, according to some scholarly critics. The FTC has nevertheless issued a wide variety of substantive consumer protection rules in recent decades under various special statutes directed at specific consumer protection problems identified by Congress.

4.      Non-FTC Act Rules

Over the years, Congress has passed a variety of statutes empowering the FTC to address particularized problems, through FTC enforcement and rulemaking initiatives, as appropriate. There are 82 such statutes currently in force, and only 16 deal solely with competition matters. FTC rules adopted pursuant to the many specialized consumer protection statutes (most of which were adopted in recent decades) largely obviated the need for and displaced section 6(g) consumer protection rulemaking initiatives of the 1960s.

The specialized competition laws (“special competition statutes”) involve such targeted substantive and procedural topics as, for example, fisheries conservation and management, litigation settlements between patented and generic drug makers, research and production joint ventures, outer continental shelf oil and gas leases, export trade associations, and international antitrust cooperation. Any FTC rules enacted under those laws inevitably are closely tied to and limited by the specific grant of congressional authority. Only one of the competition-related statutory grants, the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act of 1976 (HSR), involves rulemaking that is highly significant to antitrust enforcement across the board. Those rules, which were first promulgated in the 1970s and have been tweaked over time, directly carry out the statutory mandate and yield finely honed guidance to the private sector (similar to the detailed guidance that non-antitrust primarily regulatory agencies typically provide). In marked contrast to HSR, the section 6(g) reference to rulemaking is an extremely short and general provision that provides no framework to guide the development of possible substantive competition rules.

5.      Legal Impediments to FTC Competition Rulemaking

In order to promulgate new FTC competition rules falling outside the ambit of specialized statutes, the FTC would have to rely primarily on section 6(g). Such rulemaking endeavors would face at least five legal doctrinal obstacles.

  • First, the “nondelegation doctrine” suggests that, under section 6(g), Congress did not confer on the FTC the specific statutory authority required to issue rules that address particular competitive practices.
  • Second, principles of statutory construction strongly indicate that the FTC’s general statutory provision dealing with rulemaking refers to procedural rules of organization, not substantive rules bearing on competition.
  • Third, even assuming that proposed competition rules survived these initial hurdles, principles of administrative law would raise the risk that competition rules would be struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.”
  • Fourth, there is a substantial possibility that courts would not defer to the FTC’s construction through rulemaking of its “unfair methods of competition” as authorizing the condemnation of specific competitive practices.
  • Fifth, any attempt by the FTC to rely on its more specific section 18 rulemaking powers to reach anticompetitive practices would be cabined by the limited statutory scope of those powers.

Considering these obstacles collectively, it is exceptionally unlikely that FTC competition rules will survive legal challenge.

A. Non-Delegation Doctrine

Although the non-delegation doctrine has been largely moribund over the last century, it may nevertheless be revived in an appropriate case, as five current Supreme Court Justices have spoken favorably of it in recent years. Moreover, although it seldom has been applied directly to strike down regulatory schemes, it has sometimes led the Supreme Court to narrowly construe the scope of a statutory delegation to strike down sweeping agency actions without invoking the doctrine. What’s more, the Supreme Court has held that a statutory delegation must be supported by an “intelligible principle” guiding its application. As such, The Court could well decide it appropriate to strike down far-reaching FTC rules that are based on broad and novel constructions of the vague yet expansive term “unfair methods of competition.”

B. Principles of Statutory Construction

The structure of the Federal Trade Commission Act indicates that the rulemaking referenced in section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. Although the National Petroleum Refiners decision rejected such a reading, that ruling came at a time of significant judicial deference to federal agency activism and appears dated. Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC embodies a reluctance to read general non-specific language as conferring broad substantive powers on the FTC. This interpretive approach is in line with other Supreme Court case law that rejects finding “elephants in mouseholes.”

C. Administrative Law Principles Precluding “Arbitrary and Capricious” Agency Action

The FTC would have to provide a sufficient basis to justify a determination that a particular practice barred by rule is inevitably anticompetitive. Doing so might prove difficult, because it would be in tension with the traditional “rule of reason” analysis of antitrust litigation, which evaluates particular practices on a fact-specific, case-by-case basis. If a reviewing court were to find that the FTC rulemaking record did not sufficiently take into account potential procompetitive manifestations of a condemned practice, for example, it might decide that the rule is arbitrary and strike it down. This risk would appear to be substantial, particularly given the lack of a preexisting competition rulemaking tradition that could help guide rulemaking review by the courts. Relatedly, a novel FTC construction of “unfair methods of competition” through rulemaking that was at odds with antitrust case law could raise due process of law objections.

D. Court Deference to FTC Interpretations of “Unfair Methods of Competition” Is Unlikely

The courts would be unlikely to accord “Chevron deference” to FTC Section 6(g) rules that construed the term “unfair methods of competition” to apply to specific competitive practices. The Supreme Court has avoided applying agency regulatory interpretations to various “major questions” of great “economic and political significance” (such as, for example, disputes involving the Affordable Care Act and the application of food and drug law to tobacco products)—either by determining from the start not to apply Chevron or by finding Chevron applies but electing nevertheless to reject agency statutory constructions.  Given this background, the Supreme Court could readily determine that whether a broad array of hitherto unregulated commercial practices should be newly regulated on grounds of “unfairness” poses a “major question” for Congress that is beyond the scope of the FTC’s authority, rendering Chevron inapplicable. In addition, because “unfair methods of competition” rules could implicate the substantive content of antitrust law, such rules could interfere with Justice Department antitrust prosecutorial principles. This would solidify the conclusion that FTC competition rules implicate “major questions” of antitrust policy and interagency jurisdiction that should be left to Congress, and are outside the purview of the FTC’s interpretive authority.

E. Section 18 Rulemakings and Anticompetitive Practices

Given the substantial legal risks that confront section 6(g) rulemaking, the FTC might turn to section 18 (“unfair or deceptive acts or practices”) as a possible vehicle for the promulgation of new competition rules. The scope of possible application of section 18 to competition questions is, however, quite limited at best (see here). A “deceptive act or practice,” which the FTC defines as a “misrepresentation, omission, or other practice” that misleads consumers, is naturally directed to concerns about harm directly imposed on consumers by a business practice. It does not, however, fit naturally into concerns about business behavior that harms the process of competition. As such, a “deception” theory would not appear to be a good vehicle for a competition rule. Section 5(n) of the FTC Act, required that an “unfair act or practice” must impose measurable harm on consumers who acted reasonably. Second, such harm must be greater than any countervailing benefits to competition or consumers—in short, the conduct must on net be harmful, that is, it must fail a cost-benefit test. The FTC would have a very hard time jumping through the Section 18 evidentiary hoops to show that particular business practices met this test. In addition, courts might well conclude that Congress Section 18 was not designed by Congress to apply to “unfair method of competition.” Finally, two of the five current FTC Commissioners have criticized recent FTC revisions of the Commission’s rules of practice (see here) as undermining the goals of participation and transparency that Congress sought to advance when it enacted and amended Section 18. This could make judges even more reluctant to hold that Section 18 authorized novel competition rulemaking powers.

III. Conclusion

The current FTC leadership may be expected (at least initially) to proceed with competition rulemaking efforts, given Chair Khan’s strong support for this initiative. Rulemaking, of course, requires the gathering of evidence and the taking of testimony. Moreover, new competition rules imposing limitations on specified business practices or industry sectors would likely be appealed to U.S. courts of appeal. Eventually, one would expect the Supreme Court to step in to review the legal status of a particular competition rule and, most likely, the legality of FTC competition rulemaking itself. All of this would entail a substantial commitment of scarce public and private resources and take a considerable amount of time—the current FTC leadership likely would be long gone before a final legal resolution by the Supreme Court. Yet the end result would be in all likelihood a ruling that the FTC lacked substantive competition rulemaking authority. In short, the FTC rulemaking saga would almost surely entail pure waste, to the detriment of consumer welfare, producer welfare, and sound government.