Archives For antitrust

Excess is unflattering, no less when claiming that every evolution in legal doctrine is a slippery slope leading to damnation. In Friday’s New York Times, Lina Khan trots down this alarmist path while considering the implications for the pending Supreme Court case of Ohio v. American Express. One of the core issues in the case is the proper mode of antitrust analysis for credit card networks as two-sided markets. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with arguments, such as those that we have made, that it is important to consider the costs and benefits to both sides of a two-sided market when conducting an antitrust analysis. The Second Circuit’s opinion is under review in the American Express case.

Khan regards the Second Circuit approach of conducting a complete analysis of these markets as a mistake.

On her reading, the idea that an antitrust analysis of credit card networks should reflect their two-sided-ness would create “de facto antitrust immunity” for all platforms:

If affirmed, the Second Circuit decision would create de facto antitrust immunity for the most powerful companies in the economy. Since internet technologies have enabled the growth of platform companies that serve multiple groups of users, firms like Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Uber are set to be prime beneficiaries of the Second Circuit’s warped analysis. Amazon, for example, could claim status as a two-sided platform because it connects buyers and sellers of goods; Google because it facilitates a market between advertisers and search users… Indeed, the reason that the tech giants are lining up behind the Second Circuit’s approach is that — if ratified — it would make it vastly more difficult to use antitrust laws against them.

This paragraph is breathtaking. First, its basic premise is wrong. Requiring a complete analysis of the complicated economic effects of conduct undertaken in two sided markets before imposing antitrust liability would not create “de facto antitrust immunity.” It would require that litigants present, and courts evaluate, credible evidence sufficient to establish a claim upon which an enforcement action can be taken — just like in any other judicial proceeding in any area of law. Novel market structures may require novel analytical models and novel evidence, but that is no different with two-sided markets than with any other complicated issue before a court.

Second, the paragraph’s prescribed response would be, in fact, de facto antitrust liability for any firm competing in a two-sided market — that is, as Kahn notes, almost every major tech firm.

A two-sided platform competes with other platforms by facilitating interactions between the two sides of the market. This often requires a careful balancing of the market: in most of these markets too many or too few participants on one side of the market reduces participation on the other side. So these markets play the role of matchmaker, charging one side of the market a premium in order to cross-subsidize a desirable level of participation on the other. This will be discussed more below, but the takeaway for now is that most of these platforms operate by charging one side of the market (or some participants on one side of the market) an above-cost price in order to charge the other side of the market a below-cost price. A platform’s strategy on either side of the market makes no sense without the other, and it does not adopt practices on one side without carefully calibrating them with the other. If one does not consider both sides of these markets, therefore, the simplistic approach that Kahn demands will systematically fail to capture both the intent and the effect of business practices in these markets. More importantly, such an approach could be used to find antitrust violations throughout these industries — no matter the state of competition, market share, or actual consumer effects.

What are two-sided markets?

Khan notes that there is some element of two-sidedness in many (if not most) markets:

Indeed, almost all markets can be understood as having two sides. Firms ranging from airlines to meatpackers could reasonably argue that they meet the definition of “two-sided,” thereby securing less stringent review.

This is true, as far as it goes, as any sale of goods likely involves the selling party acting as some form of intermediary between chains of production and consumption. But such a definition is unworkably broad from the point of view of economic or antitrust analysis. If two-sided markets exist as distinct from traditional markets there must be salient features that define those specialized markets.

Economists have been intensively studying two-sided markets (see, e.g., here, here, and here) for the past two decades (and had recognized many of their basic characteristics even before then). As Khan notes, multi-sided platforms have indeed existed for a long time in the economy. Newspapers, for example, provide a targeted outlet for advertisers and incentives for subscribers to view advertisements; shopping malls aggregate retailers in one physical location to lower search costs for customers, while also increasing the retailers’ sales volume. Relevant here, credit card networks are two-sided platforms, facilitating credit-based transactions between merchants and consumers.

One critical feature of multi-sided platforms is the interdependent demand of platform participants. Thus, these markets require a simultaneous critical mass of users on each side in order to ensure the viability of the platform. For instance, a credit card is unlikely to be attractive to consumers if few merchants accept it; and few merchants will accept a credit card that isn’t used by a sufficiently large group of consumers. To achieve critical mass, a multi-sided platform uses both pricing and design choices, and, without critical mass on all sides, the positive feedback effects that enable the platform’s unique matching abilities might not be achieved.

This highlights the key distinction between traditional markets and multi-sided markets. Most markets have two sides (e.g., buyers and sellers), but that alone doesn’t make them meaningfully multi-sided. In a multi-sided market a key function of the platform is to facilitate the relationship between the sides of the market in order to create and maintain an efficient relationship between them. The platform isn’t merely a reseller of a manufacturer’s goods, for instance, but is actively encouraging or discouraging participation by users on both sides of the platform in order to maximize the value of the platform itself — not the underlying transaction — for those users. Consumers, for instance, don’t really care how many pairs of jeans a clothier stocks; but a merchant does care how many cardholders an issuer has on its network. This is most often accomplished by using prices charged to each side (in the case of credit cards, so-called interchange fees) to keep each side an appropriate size.

Moreover, the pricing that occurs on a two-sided platform is secondary, to a varying extent, to the pricing of the subject of the transaction. In a two-sided market, the prices charged to either side of the market are an expression of the platform’s ability to control the terms on which the different sides meet to transact and is relatively indifferent to the thing about which the parties are transacting.

The nature of two-sided markets highlights the role of these markets as more like facilitators of transactions and less like traditional retailers of goods (though this distinction is a matter of degree, and different two-sided markets can be more-or-less two-sided). Because the platform uses prices charged to each side of the market in order to optimize overall use of the platform (that is, output or volume of transactions), pricing in these markets operates differently than pricing in traditional markets. In short, the pricing on one side of the platform is often used to subsidize participation on the other side of the market, because the overall value to both sides is increased as a result. Or, conversely, pricing to one side of the market may appear to be higher than the equilibrium level when viewed for that side alone, because this funds a subsidy to increase participation on another side of the market that, in turn, creates valuable network effects for the side of the market facing the higher fees.

The result of this dynamic is that it is more difficult to assess the price and output effects in multi-sided markets than in traditional markets. One cannot look at just one side of the platform — at the level of output and price charged to consumers of the underlying product, say — but must look at the combined pricing and output of both the underlying transaction as well as the platform’s service itself, across all sides of the platform.

Thus, as David Evans and Richard Schmalensee have observed, traditional antitrust reasoning is made more complicated in the presence of a multi-sided market:

[I]t is not possible to know whether standard economic models, often relied on for antitrust analysis, apply to multi-sided platforms without explicitly considering the existence of multiple customer groups with interdependent demand…. [A] number of results for single-sided firms, which are the focus of much of the applied antitrust economics literature, do not apply directly to multi-sided platforms.

The good news is that antitrust economists have been focusing significant attention on two- and multi-sided markets for a long while. Their work has included attention to modelling the dynamics and effects of competition in these markets, including how to think about traditional antitrust concepts such as market definition, market power and welfare analysis. What has been lacking, however, has been substantial incorporation of this analysis into judicial decisions. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that the Second Circuit’s opinion in this case was, and why the Supreme Court’s opinion will be, so important: this work has reached the point that courts are recognizing that these markets can and should be analyzed differently than traditional markets.

Getting the two-sided analysis wrong in American Express would harm consumers

Khan describes credit card networks as a “classic case of oligopoly,” and opines that American Express’s contractual anti-steering provision is, “[a]s one might expect, the credit card companies us[ing] their power to block competition.” The initial, inherent tension in this statement should be obvious: the assertion is simultaneously that this a non-competitive, oligopolistic market and that American Express is using the anti-steering provision to harm its competitors. Indeed, rather than demonstrating a classic case of oligopoly, this demonstrates the competitive purpose that the anti-steering provision serves: facilitating competition between American Express and other card issuers.

The reality of American Express’s anti-steering provision, which prohibits merchants who choose to accept AmEx cards from “steering” their customers to pay for purchases with other cards, is that it is necessary in order for American Express to compete with other card issuers. Just like analysis of multi-sided markets needs to consider all sides of the market, platforms competing in these markets need to compete on all sides of the market.

But the use of complex pricing schemes to determine prices on each side of the market to maintain an appropriate volume of transactions in the overall market creates a unique opportunity for competitors to behave opportunistically. For instance, if one platform charges a high fee to one side of the market in order to subsidize another side of the market (say, by offering generous rewards), this creates an opportunity for a savvy competitor to undermine that balancing by charging the first side of the market a lower fee, thus attracting consumers from its competitor and, perhaps, making its pricing strategy unprofitable. This may appear to be mere price competition. But the effects of price competition on one side of a multi-sided market are more complicated to evaluate than those of traditional price competition.

Generally, price competition has the effect of lowering prices for goods, increasing output, decreasing deadweight losses, and benefiting consumers. But in a multi-sided market, the high prices charged to one side of the market can be used to benefit consumers on the other side of the market; and that consumer benefit can increase output on that side of the market in ways that create benefits for the first side of the market. When a competitor poaches a platform’s business on a single side of a multi-sided market, the effects can be negative for users on every side of that platform’s market.

This is most often seen in cases, like with credit cards, where platforms offer differentiated products. American Express credit cards are qualitatively different than Visa and Mastercard credit cards; they charge more (to both sides of the market) but offer consumers a more expansive rewards program (funded by the higher transaction fees charged to merchants) and offer merchants access to what are often higher-value customers (ensured by the higher fees charged to card holders).

If American Express did not require merchants to abide by its anti-steering rule, it wouldn’t be able to offer this form of differentiated product; it would instead be required to compete solely on price. Cardholders exist who prefer higher-status cards with a higher-tier of benefits, and there are merchants that prefer to attract a higher-value pool of customers.

But without the anti-steering provisions, the only competition available is on the price to merchants. The anti-steering rule is needed in order to prevent merchants from free-riding on American Express’s investment in attracting a unique group of card holders to its platform. American Express maintains that differentiation from other cards by providing its card holders with unique and valuable benefits — benefits that are subsidized in part by the fees charged to merchants. But merchants that attract customers by advertising that they accept American Express cards but who then steer those customers to other cards erode the basis of American Express’s product differentiation. Because of the interdependence of both sides of the platform, this ends up undermining the value that consumers receive from the platform as American Express ultimately withdraws consumer-side benefits. In the end, the merchants who valued American Express in the first place are made worse off by virtue of being permitted to selectively free-ride on American Express’s network investment.

At this point it is important to note that many merchants continue to accept American Express cards in light of both the cards’ higher merchant fees and these anti-steering provisions. Meanwhile, Visa and Mastercard have much larger market shares, and many merchants do not accept Amex. The fact that merchants who may be irritated by the anti-steering provision continue to accept Amex despite it being more costly, and the fact that they could readily drop Amex and rely on other, larger, and cheaper networks, suggests that American Express creates real value for these merchants. In other words, American Express, in fact, must offer merchants access to a group of consumers who are qualitatively different from those who use Visa or Mastercard cards — and access to this group of consumers must be valuable to those merchants.

An important irony in this case is that those who criticize American Express’s practices, who are arguing these practices limit price competition and that merchants should be able to steer customers to lower-fee cards, generally also argue that modern antitrust law focuses too myopically on prices and fails to account for competition over product quality. But that is precisely what American Express is trying to do: in exchange for a higher price it offers a higher quality card for consumers, and access to a different quality of consumers for merchants.

Anticompetitive conduct here, there, everywhere! Or nowhere.

The good news is that many on the court — and, for that matter, even Ohio’s own attorney — recognize that the effects of the anti-steering rule on the cardholder side of the market need to be considered alongside their effects on merchants:

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Does output include premiums or rewards to customers?
MR. MURPHY: Yeah. Output would include quality considerations as well.

The bad news is that several justices don’t seem to get it. Justice Kagan, for instance, suggested that “the effect of these anti-steering provisions means a market where we will only have high-cost/high-service products.” Justice Kagan’s assertion reveals the hubris of the would-be regulator, bringing to her evaluation of the market a preconception of what that market is supposed to look like. To wit: following her logic, one can say just as much that without the anti-steering provisions we would have a market with only low-cost/low-service products. Without an evaluation of the relative effects — which is more complicated than simple intuition suggests, especially since one can always pay cash — there is no reason to say that either of these would be a better outcome.

The reality, however, is that it is possible for the market to support both high- and low-cost, and high- and low-service products. In fact, this is the market in which we live today. As Justice Gorsuch said, “American Express’s agreements don’t affect MasterCard or Visa’s opportunity to cut their fees … or to advertise that American Express’s are higher. There is room for all kinds of competition here.” Indeed, one doesn’t need to be particularly creative to come up with competitive strategies that other card issuers could adopt, from those that Justice Gorsuch suggests, to strategies where card issuers are, in fact, “forced” to accept higher fees, which they in turn use to attract more card holders to their networks, such as through sign-up bonuses or awards for American Express customers who use non-American Express cards at merchants who accept them.

A standard response to such proposals is “if that idea is so good, why isn’t the market already doing it?” An important part of the answer in this case is that MasterCard and Visa know that American Express relies on the anti-steering provision in order to maintain its product differentiation.

Visa and Mastercard were initially defendants in this case, as well, as they used similar rules to differentiate some of their products. It’s telling that these larger market participants settled because, to some extent, harming American Express is worth more to them than their own product differentiation. After all, consumers steered away from American Express will generally use Visa or Mastercard (and their own high-priced cards may be cannibalizing from their own low-priced cards anyway, so reducing their value may not hurt so much). It is therefore a better strategy for them to try to use the courts to undermine that provision so that they don’t actually need to compete with American Express.

Without the anti-steering provision, American Express loses its competitive advantage compared to MasterCard and Visa and would be forced to compete against those much larger platforms on their preferred terms. What’s more, this would give those platforms access to American Express’s vaunted high-value card holders without the need to invest resources in competing for them. In other words, outlawing anti-steering provisions could in fact have both anti-competitive intent and effect.

Of course, card networks aren’t necessarily innocent of anticompetitive conduct, one way or the other. Showing that they are on either side of the anti-steering rule requires a sufficiently comprehensive analysis of the industry and its participants’ behavior. But liability cannot be simply determined based on behavior on one side of a two-sided market. These companies can certainly commit anticompetitive mischief, and they need to be held accountable when that happens. But this case is not about letting American Express or tech companies off the hook for committing anticompetitive conduct. This case is about how we evaluate such allegations, weigh them against possible beneficial effects, and put in place the proper thorough analysis for this particular form of business.

Over the last two decades, scholars have studied the nature of multi-sided platforms, and have made a good deal of progress. We should rely on this learning, and make sure that antitrust analysis is sound, not expedient.

Over the last two decades, the United States government has taken the lead in convincing jurisdictions around the world to outlaw “hard core” cartel conduct.  Such cartel activity reduces economic welfare by artificially fixing prices and reducing the output of affected goods and services.  At the same, the United States has acted to promote international cooperation among government antitrust enforcers to detect, investigate, and punish cartels.

In 2017, however, the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit (citing concerns of “international comity”) held that a Chinese export cartel that artificially raised the price of vitamin imports into the United States should be shielded from U.S. antitrust penalties—based merely on one brief from a Chinese government agency that said it approved of the conduct. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to review that decision later this year, in a case styled Animal Science Products, Inc., v. Hebei Welcome Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd.  By overturning the Second Circuit’s ruling (and disavowing the overly broad “comity doctrine” cited by that court), the Supreme Court would reaffirm the general duty of federal courts to apply federal law as written, consistent with the constitutional separation of powers.  It would also reaffirm the importance of the global fight against cartels, which has reflected consistent U.S. executive branch policy for decades (and has enjoyed strong support from the International Competition Network, the OECD, and the World Bank).

Finally, as a matter of economic policy, the Animal Science Products case highlights the very real harm that occurs when national governments tolerate export cartels that reduce economic welfare outside their jurisdictions, merely because domestic economic interests are not directly affected.  In order to address this problem, the U.S. government should negotiate agreements with other nations under which the signatory states would agree:  (1) not to legally defend domestic exporting entities that impose cartel harm in other jurisdictions; and (2) to cooperate more fully in rooting out harmful export-cartel activity, wherever it is found.

For a more fulsome discussion of the separation of powers, international relations, and economic policy issues raised by the Animal Science Products case, see my recent Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum entitled The Supreme Court and Animal Science Products: Sovereignty and Export Cartels.

What happened

Today, following a six year investigation into Google’s business practices in India, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) issued its ruling.

Two things, in particular, are remarkable about the decision. First, while the CCI’s staff recommended a finding of liability on a litany of claims (the exact number is difficult to infer from the Commission’s decision, but it appears to be somewhere in the double digits), the Commission accepted its staff’s recommendation on only three — and two of those involve conduct no longer employed by Google.

Second, nothing in the Commission’s finding of liability or in the remedy it imposes suggests it approaches the issue as the EU does. To be sure, the CCI employs rhetoric suggesting that “search bias” can be anticompetitive. But its focus remains unwaveringly on the welfare of the consumer, not on the hyperbolic claims of Google’s competitors.

What didn’t happen

In finding liability on only a single claim involving ongoing practices — the claim arising from Google’s “unfair” placement of its specialized flight search (Google Flights) results — the Commission also roundly rejected a host of other claims (more than once with strong words directed at its staff for proposing such woefully unsupported arguments). Among these are several that have been raised (and unanimously rejected) by competition regulators elsewhere in the world. These claims related to a host of Google’s practices, including:

  • Search bias involving the treatment of specialized Google content (like Google Maps, YouTube, Google Reviews, etc.) other than Google Flights
  • Search bias involving the display of Universal Search results (including local search, news search, image search, etc.), except where these results are fixed to a specific position on every results page (as was the case in India before 2010), instead of being inserted wherever most appropriate in context
  • Search bias involving OneBox results (instant answers to certain queries that are placed at the top of search results pages), even where answers are drawn from Google’s own content and specific, licensed sources (rather than from crawling the web)
  • Search bias involving sponsored, vertical search results (e.g., Google Shopping results) other than Google Flights. These results are not determined by the same algorithm that returns organic results, but are instead more like typical paid search advertising results that sometimes appear at the top of search results pages. The Commission did find that Google’s treatment of its Google Flight results (another form of sponsored result) violated India’s competition laws
  • The operation of Google’s advertising platform (AdWords), including the use of a “Quality Score” in its determination of an ad’s relevance (something Josh Wright and I discuss at length here)
  • Google’s practice of allowing advertisers to bid on trademarked keywords
  • Restrictions placed by Google upon the portability of advertising campaign data to other advertising platforms through its AdWords API
  • Distribution agreements that set Google as the default (but not exclusive) search engine on certain browsers
  • Certain restrictions in syndication agreements with publishers (websites) through which Google provides search and/or advertising (Google’s AdSense offering). The Commission found that negotiated search agreements that require Google to be the exclusive search provider on certain sites did violate India’s competition laws. It should be noted, however, that Google has very few of these agreements, and no longer enters into them, so the finding is largely historical. All of the other assertions regarding these agreements (and there were numerous claims involving a number of clauses in a range of different agreements) were rejected by the Commission.

Just like competition authorities in the US, Canada, and Taiwan that have properly focused on consumer welfare in their Google investigations, the CCI found important consumer benefits from these practices that outweigh any inconveniences they may impose on competitors. And, just as in those jurisdictions, all of them were rejected by the Commission.

Still improperly assessing Google’s dominance

The biggest problem with the CCI’s decision is its acceptance — albeit moderated in important ways — of the notion that Google owes a special duty to competitors given its position as an alleged “gateway” to the Internet:

In the present case, since Google is the gateway to the internet for a vast majority of internet users, due to its dominance in the online web search market, it is under an obligation to discharge its special responsibility. As Google has the ability and the incentive to abuse its dominant position, its “special responsibility” is critical in ensuring not only the fairness of the online web search and search advertising markets, but also the fairness of all online markets given that these are primarily accessed through search engines. (para 202)

As I’ve discussed before, a proper analysis of the relevant markets in which Google operates would make clear that Google is beset by actual and potential competitors at every turn. Access to consumers by advertisers, competing search services, other competing services, mobile app developers, and the like is readily available. The lines between markets drawn by the CCI are based on superficial distinctions that are of little importance to the actual relevant market.

Consider, for example: Users seeking product information can get it via search, but also via Amazon and Facebook; advertisers can place ad copy and links in front of millions of people on search results pages, and they can also place them in front of millions of people on Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, many specialized search competitors like Yelp receive most of their traffic from direct navigation and from their mobile apps. In short, the assumption of market dominance made by the CCI (and so many others these days) is based on a stilted conception of the relevant market, as Google is far from the only channel through which competitors can reach consumers.

The importance of innovation in the CCI’s decision

Of course, it’s undeniable that Google is an important mechanism by which competitors reach consumers. And, crucially, nowhere did the CCI adopt Google’s critics’ and competitors’ frequently asserted position that Google is, in effect, an “essential facility” requiring extremely demanding limitations on its ability to control its product when doing so might impede its rivals.

So, while the CCI defines the relevant markets and adopts legal conclusions that confer special importance on Google’s operation of its general search results pages, it stops short of demanding that Google treat competitors on equal terms to its own offerings, as would typically be required of essential facilities (or their close cousin, public utilities).

Significantly, the Commission weighs the imposition of even these “special responsibilities” against the effects of such duties on innovation, particularly with respect to product design.

The CCI should be commended for recognizing that any obligation imposed by antitrust law on a dominant company to refrain from impeding its competitors’ access to markets must stop short of requiring the company to stop innovating, even when its product innovations might make life difficult for its competitors.

Of course, some product design choices can be, on net, anticompetitive. But innovation generally benefits consumers, and it should be impeded only where doing so clearly results in net consumer harm. Thus:

[T]he Commission is cognizant of the fact that any intervention in technology markets has to be carefully crafted lest it stifles innovation and denies consumers the benefits that such innovation can offer. This can have a detrimental effect on economic welfare and economic growth, particularly in countries relying on high growth such as India…. [P]roduct design is an important and integral dimension of competition and any undue intervention in designs of SERP [Search Engine Results Pages] may affect legitimate product improvements resulting in consumer harm. (paras 203-04).

As a consequence of this cautious approach, the CCI refused to accede to its staff’s findings of liability based on Google’s treatment of its vertical search results without considering how Google’s incorporation of these specialized results improved its product for consumers. Thus, for example:

The Commission is of opinion that requiring Google to show third-party maps may cause a delay in response time (“latency”) because these maps reside on third-party servers…. Further, requiring Google to show third-party maps may break the connection between Google’s local results and the map…. That being so, the Commission is of the view that no case of contravention of the provisions of the Act is made out in Google showing its own maps along with local search results. The Commission also holds that the same consideration would apply for not showing any other specialised result designs from third parties. (para 224 (emphasis added))

The CCI’s laudable and refreshing focus on consumer welfare

Even where the CCI determined that Google’s current practices violate India’s antitrust laws (essentially only with respect to Google Flights), it imposed a remedy that does not demand alteration of the overall structure of Google’s search results, nor its algorithmic placement of those results. In fact, the most telling indication that India’s treatment of product design innovation embodies a consumer-centric approach markedly different from that pushed by Google’s competitors (and adopted by the EU) is its remedy.

Following its finding that

[p]rominent display and placement of Commercial Flight Unit with link to Google’s specialised search options/ services (Flight) amounts to an unfair imposition upon users of search services as it deprives them of additional choices (para 420),

the CCI determined that the appropriate remedy for this defect was:

So far as the contravention noted by the Commission in respect of Flight Commercial Unit is concerned, the Commission directs Google to display a disclaimer in the commercial flight unit box indicating clearly that the “search flights” link placed at the bottom leads to Google’s Flights page, and not the results aggregated by any other third party service provider, so that users are not misled. (para 422 (emphasis added))

Indeed, what is most notable — and laudable — about the CCI’s decision is that both the alleged problem, as well as the proposed remedy, are laser-focused on the effect on consumers — not the welfare of competitors.

Where the EU’s recent Google Shopping decision considers that this sort of non-neutral presentation of Google search results harms competitors and demands equal treatment by Google of rivals seeking access to Google’s search results page, the CCI sees instead that non-neutral presentation of results could be confusing to consumers. It does not demand that Google open its doors to competitors, but rather that it more clearly identify when its product design prioritizes Google’s own content rather than determine priority based on its familiar organic search results algorithm.

This distinction is significant. For all the language in the decision asserting Google’s dominance and suggesting possible impediments to competition, the CCI does not, in fact, view Google’s design of its search results pages as a contrivance intended to exclude competitors from accessing markets.

The CCI’s remedy suggests that it has no problem with Google maintaining control over its search results pages and determining what results, and in what order, to serve to consumers. Its sole concern, rather, is that Google not get a leg up at the expense of consumers by misleading them into thinking that its product design is something that it is not.

Rather than dictate how Google should innovate or force it to perpetuate an outdated design in the name of preserving access by competitors bent on maintaining the status quo, the Commission embraces the consumer benefits of Google’s evolving products, and seeks to impose only a narrowly targeted tweak aimed directly at the quality of consumers’ interactions with Google’s products.


As some press accounts of the CCI’s decision trumpet, the Commission did impose liability on Google for abuse of a dominant position. But its similarity with the EU’s abuse of dominance finding ends there. The CCI rejected many more claims than it adopted, and it carefully tailored its remedy to the welfare of consumers, not the lamentations of competitors. Unlike the EU, the CCI’s finding of a violation is tempered by its concern for avoiding harmful constraints on innovation and product design, and its remedy makes this clear. Whatever the defects of India’s decision, it offers a welcome return to consumer-centric antitrust.

On January 23rd, the Heritage Foundation convened its Fourth Annual Antitrust Conference, “Trump Antitrust Policy after One Year.”  The entire Conference can be viewed online (here).  The Conference featured a keynote speech, followed by three separate panels that addressed  developments at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), at the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division (DOJ), and in the international arena, developments that can have a serious effect on the country’s economic growth and expansion of our business and industrial sector.

  1. Professor Bill Kovacic’s Keynote Speech

The conference started with a bang, featuring a stellar keynote speech (complemented by excellent power point slides) by GW Professor and former FTC Chairman Bill Kovacic, who also serves as a Member of the Board of the UK Government’s Competitive Markets Authority.  Kovacic began by noting the claim by senior foreign officials that “nothing is happening” in U.S. antitrust enforcement.  Although this perception may be inaccurate, Kovacic argued that it colors foreign officials’ dealings with the U.S., and continues a preexisting trend of diminishing U.S. influence on foreign governments’ antitrust enforcement systems.  (It is widely believed that the European antitrust model is dominant internationally.)

In order to enhance the perceived effectiveness (and prestige) of American antitrust on the global plane, American antitrust enforcers should, according to Kovacic, adopt a positive agenda citing specific priorities for action (as opposed to a “negative approach” focused on what actions will not be taken) – an orientation which former FTC Chairman Muris employed successfully in the last Bush Administration.  The positive engagement themes should be communicated powerfully to the public here and abroad through active public engagement by agency officials.  Agency strengths, such as FTC market studies and economic expertise, should be highlighted.

In addition, the FTC and Justice Department should act more like an “antitrust policy joint venture” at home and abroad, extending cooperation beyond guidelines to economic research, studies, and other aspects of their missions.  This would showcase the outstanding capabilities of the U.S. public antitrust enterprise.

  1. FTC Panel

A panel on FTC developments (moderated by Dr. Jeff Eisenach, Managing Director of NERA Economic Consulting and former Chief of Staff to FTC Chairman James Miller) followed Kovacic’s presentation.

Acting Bureau of Competition Chief Bruce Hoffman began by stressing that FTC antitrust enforcers are busier than ever, with a number of important cases in litigation and resources stretched to the limit.  Thus, FTC enforcement is neither weak nor timid – to the contrary, it is quite vigorous.  Hoffman was surprised by recent political attacks on the 40 year bipartisan consensus regarding the economics-centered consumer welfare standard that has set the direction of U.S. antitrust enforcement.  According to Hoffman, noted economist Carl Shapiro has debunked the notion that supposed increases in industry concentration even at the national level are meaningful.  In short, there is no empirical basis to dethrone the consumer welfare standard and replace it with something else.

Other former senior FTC officials engaged in a discussion following Hoffman’s remarks.  Orrick Partner Alex Okuliar, a former Attorney-Advisor to FTC Acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen, noted Ohlhausen’s emphasis on “regulatory humility” ( recognizing the inherent limitations of regulation and acting in accordance with those limits) and on the work of the FTC’s Economic Liberty Task Force, which centers on removing unnecessary regulatory restraints on competition (such as excessive occupational licensing requirements).

Wilson Sonsini Partner Susan Creighton, a former Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, discussed the importance of economics-based “technocratic antitrust” (applied by sophisticated judges) for a sound and manageable antitrust system – something still not well understood by many foreign antitrust agencies.  Creighton had three reform suggestions for the Trump Administration:

(1) the DOJ and the FTC should stress the central role of economics in the institutional arrangements of antitrust (DOJ’s “economics structure” is a bit different than the FTC’s);

(2) both agencies should send relatively more economists to represent us at antitrust meetings abroad, thereby enabling the agencies to place a greater stress on the importance of economic rigor in antitrust enforcement; and

(3) the FTC and the DOJ should establish a task force to jointly carry out economics research and hone a consistent economic policy message.

Sidley & Austin Partner Bill Blumenthal, a former FTC General Counsel, noted the problems of defining Trump FTC policy in the absence of new Trump FTC Commissioners.  Blumenthal noted that signs of a populist uprising against current antitrust norms extend beyond antitrust, and that the agencies may have to look to new unilateral conduct cases to show that they are “doing something.”  He added that the populist rejection of current economics-based antitrust analysis is intellectually incoherent.  There is a tension between protecting consumers and protecting labor; for example, anti-consumer cartels may be beneficial to labor union interests.

In a follow-up roundtable discussion, Hoffman noted that theoretical “existence theorems” of anticompetitive harm that lack empirical support in particular cases are not administrable.  Creighton opined that, as an independent agency, the FTC may be a bit more susceptible to congressional pressure than DOJ.  Blumenthal stated that congressional interest may be able to trigger particular investigations, but it does not dictate outcomes.

  1. DOJ Panel

Following lunch, a panel of antitrust experts (moderated by Morgan Lewis Partner and former Chief of Staff to the Assistant Attorney General Hill Wellford) addressed DOJ developments.

The current Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, Andrew Finch, began by stating that the three major Antitrust Division initiatives involve (1) intellectual property (IP), (2) remedies, and (3) criminal enforcement.  Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim’s November 2017 speech explained that antitrust should not undermine legitimate incentives of patent holders to maximize returns to their IP through licensing.  DOJ is looking into buyer and seller cartel behavior (including in standard setting) that could harm IP rights.  DOJ will work to streamline and improve consent decrees and other remedies, and make it easier to go after decree violations.  In criminal enforcement, DOJ will continue to go after “no employee poaching” employer agreements as criminal violations.

Former Assistant Attorney General Tom Barnett, a Covington & Burling Partner, noted that more national agencies are willing to intervene in international matters, leading to inconsistencies in results.  The International Competition Network is important, but major differences in rhetoric have created a sense that there is very little agreement among enforcers, although the reality may be otherwise.  Muted U.S. agency voices on the international plane and limited resources have proven unfortunate – the FTC needs to engage better in international discussions and needs new Commissioners.

Former Counsel to the Assistant Attorney Eric Grannon, a White & Case Partner, made three specific comments:

(1) DOJ should look outside the career criminal enforcement bureaucracy and consider selecting someone with significant private sector experience as Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Criminal Enforcement;

(2) DOJ needs to go beyond merely focusing on metrics that show increased aggregate fines and jail time year-by-year (something is wrong if cartel activities and penalties keep rising despite the growing emphasis on inculcating an “anti-cartel culture” within firms); and

(3) DOJ needs to reassess its “amnesty plus” program, in which an amnesty applicant benefits by highlighting the existence of a second cartel in which it participates (non-culpable firms allegedly in the second cartel may be fingered, leading to unjustified potential treble damages liability for them in private lawsuits).

Grannon urged that DOJ hold a public workshop on the amnesty plus program in the coming year.  Grannon also argued against the classification of antitrust offenses as crimes of “moral turpitude” (moral turpitude offenses allow perpetrators to be excluded from the U.S. for 20 years).  Finally, as a good government measure, Grannon recommended that the Antitrust Division should post all briefs on its website, including those of opposing parties and third parties.

Baker and Botts Partner Stephen Weissman, a former Deputy Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, found a great deal of continuity in DOJ civil enforcement.  Nevertheless, he expressed surprise at Assistant Attorney General Delrahim’s recent remarks that suggested that DOJ might consider asking the Supreme Court to overturn the Illinois Brick ban on indirect purchaser suits under federal antitrust law.  Weissman noted the increased DOJ focus on the rights of IP holders, not implementers, and the beneficial emphasis on the importance of DOJ’s amicus program.

The following discussion among the panelists elicited agreement (Weissman and Barnett) that the business community needs more clear-cut guidance on vertical mergers (and perhaps on other mergers as well) and affirmative statements on DOJ’s plans.  DOJ was characterized as too heavy-handed in setting timing agreements in mergers.  The panelists were in accord that enforcers should continue to emphasize the American consumer welfare model of antitrust.  The panelists believed the U.S. gets it right in stressing jail time for cartelists and in detrebling for amnesty applicants.  DOJ should, however, apply a proper dose of skepticism in assessing the factual content of proffers made by amnesty applicants.  Former enforcers saw no need to automatically grant markers to those applicants.  Andrew Finch returned to the topic of Illinois Brick, explaining that the Antitrust Modernization Commission had suggested reexamining that case’s bar on federal indirect purchaser suits.  In response to an audience question as to which agency should do internet oversight, Finch stressed that relevant agency experience and resources are assessed on a matter-specific basis.

  1. International Panel

The last panel of the afternoon, which focused on international developments, was moderated by Cadwalader Counsel (and former Attorney-Advisor to FTC Chairman Tim Muris) Bilal Sayyed.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General for International Matters, Roger Alford, began with an overview of trade and antitrust considerations.  Alford explained that DOJ adds a consumer welfare and economics perspective to Trump Administration trade policy discussions.  On the international plane, DOJ supports principles of non-discrimination, strong antitrust enforcement, and opposition to national champions, plus the addition of a new competition chapter in “NAFTA 2.0” negotiations.  The revised 2017 DOJ International Antitrust Guidelines dealt with economic efficiency and the consideration of comity.  DOJ and the Executive Branch will take into account the degree of conflict with other jurisdictions’ laws (fleshing out comity analysis) and will push case coordination as well as policy coordination.  DOJ is considering new ideas for dealing with due process internationally, in addition to working within the International Competition Network to develop best practices.  Better international coordination is also needed on the cartel leniency program.

Next, Koren Wong-Ervin, Qualcomm Director of IP and Competition Policy (and former Director of the Scalia Law School’s Global Antitrust Institute) stated that the Korea Fair Trade Commission had ignored comity and guidance from U.S. expert officials in imposing global licensing remedies and penalties on Qualcomm.  The U.S. Government is moving toward a sounder approach on the evaluation of standard essential patents, as is Europe, with a move away from required component-specific patent licensing royalty determinations.  More generally, a return to an economic effects-based approach to IP licensing is important.  Comprehensive revisions to China’s Anti-Monopoly Law, now under consideration, will have enormous public policy importance.  Balanced IP licensing rules, with courts as gatekeepers, are important.  Chinese law still has overly broad essential facilities and deception law; IP price regulation proposals are very troublesome.  New FTC Commissioners are needed, accompanied by robust budget support for international work.

Latham & Watkins’ Washington, D.C. Managing Partner Michael Egge focused on the substantial divergence in merger enforcement practice around the world.  The cost of compliance imposed by European Commission pre-notification filing requirements is overly high; this pre-notification practice is not written down and has escaped needed public attention.  Chinese merger filing practice (“China is struggling to cope”) features a costly 1-3 month pre-filing acceptance period, and merger filing requirements in India are particularly onerous.

Jim Rill, former Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust and former ABA Antitrust Section Chair, stressed that due process improvements can help promote substantive antitrust convergence around the globe.  Rill stated that U.S. Government officials, with the assistance of private sector stakeholders, need a mechanism (a “report card”) to measure foreign agencies’ implementation of OECD antitrust recommendations.  U.S. Government officials should consider participating in foreign proceedings where the denial of due process is blatant, and where foreign governments indirectly dictate a particular harmful policy result.  Multilateral review of international agreements is valuable as well.  The comity principles found in the 1991 EU-U.S. Antitrust Cooperation Agreement are quite useful.  Trade remedies in antitrust agreements are not a competition solution, and are not helpful.  More and better training programs for foreign officials are called for; International Chamber of Commerce, American Bar Association, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce principles are generally sound.  Some consideration should be given to old ICPAC recommendations, such as (perhaps) the development of a common merger notification form for use around the world.

Douglas Ginsburg, Senior Judge (and former Chief Judge) of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and former Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, spoke last, focusing on the European Court of Justice’s Intel decision, which laid bare the deficiencies in the European Commission’s finding of a competition law violation in that matter.

In a brief closing roundtable discussion, Roger Alford suggested possible greater involvement by business community stakeholders in training foreign antitrust officials.

  1. Conclusion

Heritage Foundation host Alden Abbott closed the proceedings with a brief capsule summary of panel highlights.  As in prior years, the Fourth Annual Heritage Antitrust Conference generated spirited discussion among the brightest lights in the American antitrust firmament on recent developments and likely trends in antitrust enforcement and policy development, here and abroad.

A panelist brought up an interesting tongue-in-cheek observation about the rising populist antitrust movement at a Heritage antitrust event this week. To the extent that the new populist antitrust movement is broadly concerned about effects on labor and wage depression, then, in principle, it should also be friendly to cartels. Although counterintuitive, employees have long supported and benefited from cartels, because cartels generally afford both job security and higher wages than competitive firms. And, of course, labor itself has long sought the protection of cartels – in the form of unions – to secure the same benefits.   

For instance, in the days before widespread foreign competition in domestic auto markets, native unionized workers of the big three producers enjoyed a relatively higher wage for relatively less output. Competition from abroad changed the economic landscape for both producers and workers with the end result being a reduction in union power and relatively lower overall wages for workers. The union model — a labor cartel — can guarantee higher wages to those workers.

The same story can be seen on other industries, as well, from telecommunications to service workers to public sector employees. Generally, market power on the labor demand side (employers) tends to facilitate market power on the labor supply side: firms with market power — with supracompetitive profits — can afford to pay more for labor and often are willing to do so in order to secure political support (and also to make it more expensive for potential competitors to hire skilled employees). Labor is a substantial cost for firms in competitive markets, however, so firms without market power are always looking to economize on labor (that is, have low wages, as few employees as needed, and to substitute capital for labor wherever efficient to do so).

Therefore, if broad labor effects should be a prime concern of antitrust, perhaps enforcers should use antitrust laws to encourage cartel formation when it might increase wages, regardless of the effects on productivity, prices, and other efficiencies that may arise (or perhaps, as a possible trump card to hold against traditional efficiencies justifications).

No one will make a serious case for promoting cartels (although Former FTC Chairman Pertshuk sounded similar notes in the late 70s), but the comment makes a deeper point about ongoing efforts to undermine the consumer welfare standard. Fundamental contradictions exist in antitrust rhetoric that is unmoored from economic analysis. Professor Hovenkamp highlighted this in a recent paper as well:

The coherence problem [in antitrust populism] shows up in goals that are unmeasurable and fundamentally inconsistent, although with their contradictions rarely exposed. Among the most problematic contradictions is the one between small business protection and consumer welfare. In a nutshell, consumers benefit from low prices, high output and high quality and variety of products and services. But when a firm or a technology is able to offer these things they invariably injure rivals, typically smaller or dedicated to older technologies, who are unable to match them. Although movement antitrust rhetoric is often opaque about specifics, its general effect is invariably to encourage higher prices or reduced output or innovation, mainly for the protection of small business. Indeed, that has been a predominant feature of movement antitrust ever since the Sherman Act was passed, and it is a prominent feature of movement antitrust today. Indeed, some spokespersons for movement antitrust write as if low prices are the evil that antitrust law should be combatting.

To be fair, even with careful economic analysis, it is not always perfectly clear how to resolve the tensions between antitrust and other policy preferences.  For instance, Jonathan Adler described the collision between antitrust and environmental protection in cases where collusion might lead to better environmental outcomes. But even in cases like that, he noted it was essentially a free-rider problem and, as with intrabrand price agreements where consumer goodwill was a “commons” that had to be suitably maintained against possible free-riding retailers, what might be an antitrust violation in one context was not necessarily a violation in a second context.  

Moreover, when the purpose of apparently “collusive” conduct is to actually ensure long term, sustainable production of a good or service (like fish), the behavior may not actually be anticompetitive. Thus, antitrust remains a plausible means of evaluating economic activity strictly on its own terms (and any alteration to the doctrine itself might actually be to prefer rule of reason analysis over per se analysis when examining these sorts of mitigating circumstances).

And before contorting antitrust into a policy cure-all, it is important to remember that the consumer welfare standard evolved out of sometimes good (price fixing bans) and sometimes questionable (prohibitions on output contracts) doctrines that were subject to legal trial and error. This was an evolution that was triggered by “increasing economic sophistication” and as “the enforcement agencies and courts [began] reaching for new ways in which to weigh competing and conflicting claims.”

The vector of that evolution was toward the use of  antitrust as a reliable, testable, and clear set of legal principles that are ultimately subject to economic analysis. When the populists ask us, for instance, to return to a time when judges could “prevent the conversion of concentrated economic power into concentrated political power” via antitrust law, they are asking for much more than just adding a new gloss to existing doctrine. They are asking for us to unlearn all of the lessons of the twentieth century that ultimately led toward the maturation of antitrust law.

It’s perfectly reasonable to care about political corruption, worker welfare, and income inequality. It’s not perfectly reasonable to try to shoehorn goals based on these political concerns into a body of legal doctrine that evolved a set of tools wholly inappropriate for achieving those ends.

Are current antitrust tools fully adequate to cope with the challenges posed by giant online “digital platforms” (such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook)?  Yes.  Should antitrust rules be expanded to address broader social concerns that transcend consumer welfare and economic efficiency, such as income inequality and allegedly excessive big business influence on the political process?  No.  For more details, see my January 23 Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum entitled Antitrust and the Winner-Take-All Economy.  That Memo concludes:

[T]he U.S. antitrust laws as currently applied, emphasizing sound economics, are fully capable of preventing truly anticompetitive behavior by major Internet platform companies and other large firms. But using antitrust to attack companies based on non-economic, ill-defined concerns about size, fairness, or political clout is unwarranted, and would be a recipe for reduced innovation and economic stagnation. Recent arguments trotted out to use antitrust in such an expansive manner are baseless, and should be rejected by enforcers and by Congress.

On December 1, 2017, in granting certiorari in Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District v. SolarCity Corp., the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider “whether orders denying antitrust state-action immunity to public entities are immediately appealable under the collateral-order doctrine.”  At first blush, this case might appear to involve little more than a narrow technical question regarding the availability of interlocutory appeals.  But more fundamentally, this matter may afford the Supreme Court yet another opportunity to weigh in on the essential nature of the antitrust state action doctrine (albeit indirectly), in deciding whether the existence of state action immunity should be decided prior to the litigation of substantive antitrust suits.


The Salt River Power District (SRP) is the only supplier of traditional electrical power in Phoenix, and is a subdivision of the State of Arizona.  SRP has lobbied successfully for special governmental status and has used its longstanding ties to government to advance the interests of its private shareholders.  (This sort of tale comes as no surprise to students of public choice.)  Counsel for respondent SolarCity discussed these ties in their brief opposing certiorari:

[SRP] was created in 1903 to take advantage of a federal law that provided interest-free loans for landowners to build reclamation projects to irrigate their lands.  During the Great Depression, SRP successfully lobbied the Arizona legislature for a law denominating it a political subdivision of Arizona so the landowners who ran SRP could avoid income taxes and sell tax-free bonds. . . .  Arizona denominates SRP a public entity, but as th[e] [U.S. Supreme] Court . . . explained [in a 1981 case involving [the right of local non-landowner residents to vote on SRP policy determinations], SRP and organizations like it are “essentially business enterprises, created by and chiefly benefitting a specific group of landowners.” . . . .  Among other things, SRP lacks “the crucial powers of sovereignty typical of a general purpose unit of government” and SRP’s electric business does not implicate any traditional sovereign power. . . . 

SRP’s retail electric business is unregulated. The business answers only to its own self-interested Board, not a public utility commission or any similar independent body. . . .   42 (ER55). SRP is thus free to serve private, not public interests. . . .  SRP takes profits from electricity sales and uses them to subsidize irrigation and canal water so that, for example, certain agricultural interests can farm cheaply by a city in the desert. . . . 

 In short, [as the Supreme Court explained in 1981,] SRP makes money from electric customers and pays out dividends in the form of irrigating “private lands for personal profit.”


SolarCity sells and leases rooftop solar-energy panels in Arizona.  It alleges that SRP used its special government subsidies to drive it out of the market for the supply of those panels to customers in the SRP district area.  Specifically, according to counsel for SolarCity:

As solar generation increased in popularity and efficiency, SRP started to view solar as a long-term competitive threat to its electricity sales and profits. . . .  Facing competition for the first time ever, SRP had a choice between competing in the market or using its monopoly power to exclude competition. . . .  SRP first attempted to compete on the merits by developing its own solar offerings. . . .  However, consumers continued to prefer SRP’s solar competitors. . . .  Then, rather than offer consumers a better product or value, SRP used its unregulated market power to impose terms that lock customers into remaining what SRP calls “requirements” customers—those who satisfy all their electric needs from, and deal exclusively with, SRP. . . .

SRP’s plan [which imposed a large penalty on any customer who obtained power from its own solar system] worked. . . .  The new requirements it mandated for its customers had a drastic anticompetitive effect. . . .  New rooftop solar applications—from customers of any firm, not just SolarCity—dropped by about 96 percent. . . .  SolarCity was forced to stop selling in SRP territory and to relocate employees.

SolarCity sued SRP for Sherman Antitrust Act violations in Arizona federal district court.  SRP moved to dismiss under the antitrust state action doctrine, which (as Professor Herbert Hovenkamp puts it) “exempts qualifying state and local government regulation from federal antitrust [law], even if the regulation at issue compels an otherwise clear violation of the law.”  The district court denied the motion to dismiss, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.  The Ninth Circuit panel opinion (Judge Michelle Friedland, joined by Judges Alex Kozinski and Ronald Lee Gilman) assessed the applicability of the “collateral order doctrine,” which allows an appeal of a non-final district court decision if it is:  (1) conclusive; (2) addresses a question separate from the merits of the underlying case; and (3) raises “some particular value of a high order” that will evade effective review if not considered immediately.  The Ninth Circuit emphasized the Supreme Court’s teaching that the collateral order doctrine is a “narrow exception” that must be “strictly applied.”  It concluded that, “because the state-action doctrine is a defense to liability and not an immunity from suit, the collateral-order doctrine does not give us jurisdiction here [footnotes omitted].”

In its brief supporting its writ of certiorari, SRP stressed that an interlocutory appeal was justified here because“[a] denial of state-action immunity, like a denial of state sovereign immunity, offends state sovereignty, dignity, and autonomy. . . .  [T]he decision below threatens the dignity and autonomy of the states, as well as the division of regulatory power between the state and federal governments, by allowing a political subdivision of a state to be subjected to prolonged litigation for engaging in conduct that was clearly authorized by the state.”

In short, the Supreme Court has been asked to take fundamental federalism principles into account in weighing the applicability of the collateral order doctrine.


Set aside for the moment the narrow question of the applicability of specific collateral order doctrine criteria in this case.   Assuming the validity of the facts summarized above, this matter highlights the always-present anticompetitive potential of enabling private parties to exercise monopoly power under the mantle of state authority.  Let us briefly examine, then, key state action principles that apply to essentially private conduct that seeks to shelter under a governmental cloak.

Commendably, in Midcal and 324 Liquor, the Supreme Court made it clear that the state action doctrine does not enable state governments to directly authorize purely private actors to violate the Sherman Act, free from state oversight.  But should an entity such as SRP that is in essence an unregulated for-profit private enterprise, acting in an anticompetitive fashion, be free to undermine the competitive process (benefiting from government subsidies to boot) merely because a century-old state law characterized it as a state political subdivision?

The “spirit” of recent Supreme Court jurisprudence suggests that the answer should be no, and that the Court may be willing to look beyond the formality of a legislative designation (in this case, “state political subdivision”) to questions of political accountability.  In 2015, In North Carolina Dental Board, the Court rejected the claim that state action immunity applied to the self-interested actions of a state dental regulatory board stacked with dentists (the board barred competition from non-dentists in tooth whitening).  In so doing, the Court held that entities designated as state agencies are not exempt from active supervision when they are controlled by market participants, because immunizing such entities from federal antitrust challenge would pose the risk of self-dealing that the Court had warned against in prior decisions, such as Midcal.

A legal formalist might respond that a mere state board is of a lesser dignity than a state political subdivision, such as SRP, which directly exercises state sovereign power, and, as such, is not subject to “active supervision” requirements.  Functionally, however, SRP acts in all respects like a private company, except that it benefits from certain special state subsidies that assist it in undermining competition.  Recognizing that reality, the Court might be willing to say that it will look beyond formal legislative designations to the actual role of a state entity in deciding whether it is, or is not, engaging in “sovereign action.”  (State instrumentalities engaging in classic sovereign functions, such as a state supreme court or state treasury department, would not raise this sort of problem.)

More specifically, the Court might wish to consider whether federal antitrust law should be applicable when a state instrumentality that does not have the attributes of a classic private business – such as a state owned-controlled- and operated electric company, for example – engages in business activity and uses its governmental ties to subvert competition.  Such a company might, for instance, predate against competing private companies by pricing below its own cost to drive out and keep out rivals, relying on taxpayer funding to support its activities.  Activity of this sort could be made subject to a “market participant exception” to the state action doctrine (at the very least requiring state active supervision), as recommended by the Federal Trade Commission’s 2004 State Action Task Force Report.  Such an exception, which has not yet been specifically addressed by the Supreme Court, would reduce the returns to anticompetitive business activity engaged in by privileged “state” agents, thereby promoting commercial freedom and vibrant markets.  And, as two learned commentators recently pointed out, it would not offend federalism principles that underlie the antitrust state action doctrine (footnote references deleted):

[T]he state does not act within its sovereign prerogative when engaged in economic conduct.  It cannot be that the government is truly exercising sovereign powers when acting in the same way as its private citizens.  Thus, restricting the prerogative of state and local governments to engage in economic conduct does not abrogate sovereign immunity.  Therefore, the federalism concerns underpinning the . . . [state action] immunity doctrine are not in play when the State acts as an ordinary market-participant on equal-footing with private citizens.

The policy and federalism justifications for denying state action immunity to an unsupervised state agency acting as a commercial operator would apply “in spades” to SRP, which, as has been seen, in all material respects looks like a purely private actor.

Let’s return now to the specific question before the Supreme Court.  While state action doctrinal issues (including, of course, a possible market operator exception) are not directly presented in the SRP v. SolarCity case, they may well flavor the approach the Court takes in determining the availability of interlocutory appeals of state action immunity denials.  The clear and ringing invocation of federalism principles in petitioners’ brief for certiorari suggests a possible doctrinal hook.  In particular, the Court might determine that respect for the dignity and role of states as coordinate sovereigns compels a finding that denials of antitrust state action immunity should be subject to immediate review.

A ruling that state action questions should be decided “up front” might, however, prove a pyrrhic victory for petitioners.  Counsel for respondents have ably pointed out the quintessentially private commercial nature of SRP’s activities, which could amply support a judicial finding of no state action immunity – whether based on the somewhat novel “market participant” exception or because of inadequate state supervision.


The Supreme Court’s decision in SPR v. SolarCity will determine the narrow issue of the availability of interlocutory appeals to an antitrust defendant that is denied a dismissal on antitrust state action grounds.  A holding that authorizes such appeals also would have the incidental salutary effect of furthering efficiency, by eliminating a significant source of costly uncertainty affecting the litigation of cases that fall under the shadow of the “state action” umbrella.

More broadly, the facts in SPR v. SolarCity highlight a potential future clarification of the antitrust state action doctrine – establishment of a clear “market participant” exception to state action immunity.  Such an exception commendably would promote effective market processes without offending federalism.  It would also tend to diminish returns to (and thereby weaken incentives to engage in) rent seeking by those firms that seek to obtain a business advantage through special government privilege, rather than through competition on the merits.

Introduction and Summary

On December 19, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit presented Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) with an early Christmas present.  Specifically, the Second Circuit commendably affirmed the District Court for the Southern District of New York’s September 2016 ruling rejecting the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) August 2016 reinterpretation of its longstanding antitrust consent decree with BMI.  Because the DOJ reinterpretation also covered a parallel DOJ consent decree with the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), the Second Circuit’s decision by necessary implication benefits ASCAP as well, although it was not a party to the suit.

The Second Circuit’s holding is sound as a matter of textual interpretation and wise as a matter of economic policy.  Indeed, DOJ’s current antitrust leadership, which recognizes the importance of vibrant intellectual property licensing in the context of patents (see here), should be pleased that the Second Circuit rescued it from a huge mistake by the Obama Administration DOJ in the context of copyright licensing.


BMI and ASCAP are the two leading U.S. “performing rights organizations” (PROs).  They contract with music copyright holders to act as intermediaries that provide “blanket” licenses to music users (e.g., television and radio stations, bars, and internet music distributors) for use of their full copyrighted musical repertoires, without the need for song-specific licensing negotiations.  This greatly reduces the transactions costs of arranging for the playing of musical works, benefiting music users, the listening public, and copyright owners (all of whom are assured of at least some compensation for their endeavors).  ASCAP and BMI are big businesses, with each PRO holding licenses to over ten million works and accounting for roughly 45 percent of the domestic music licensing market (ninety percent combined).

Because both ASCAP and BMI pool copyrighted songs that could otherwise compete with each other, and both grant users a single-price “blanket license” conveying the rights to play their full set of copyrighted works, the two organizations could be seen as restricting competition among copyrighted works and fixing the prices of copyrighted substitutes – raising serious questions under section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, which condemns contracts that unreasonably restrain trade.  This led the DOJ to bring antitrust suits against ASCAP and BMI over eighty years ago, which were settled by separate judicially-filed consent decrees in 1941.

The decrees imposed a variety of limitations on the two PROs’ licensing practices, aimed at preventing ASCAP and BMI from exercising anticompetitive market power (such as the setting of excessive licensing rates).  The decrees were amended twice over the years, most recently in 2001, to take account of changing market conditions.  The U.S. Supreme Court noted the constraining effect of the decrees in BMI v. CBS (1979), in ruling that the BMI and ASCAP blanket licenses did not constitute per se illegal price fixing.  The Court held, rather, that the licenses should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis under the antitrust “rule of reason,” since the licenses inherently generated great efficiency benefits (“the immediate use of covered compositions, without the delay of prior individual negotiations”) that had to be weighed against potential anticompetitive harms.

The August 4, 2016 DOJ Consent Decree Interpretation

Fast forward to 2014, when DOJ undertook a new review of the ASCAP and BMI decrees, and requested the submission of public comments to aid it in its deliberations.  This review came to an official conclusion two years later, on August 4, 2016, when DOJ decided not to amend the decrees – but announced a decree interpretation that limits ASCAP’s and BMI’s flexibility.  Specifically, DOJ stated that the decrees needed to be “more consistently applied.”  By this, the DOJ meant that BMI and ASCAP should only grant blanket licenses that cover all of the rights to 100 percent of the works in the PROs’ respective catalogs (“full-work licensing”), not licenses that cover only partial interests in those works.  DOJ stated:

Only full-work licensing can yield the substantial procompetitive benefits associated with blanket licenses that distinguish ASCAP’s and BMI’s activities from other agreements among competitors that present serious issues under the antitrust laws.

The New DOJ Interpretation Was Bad as a Matter of Policy

DOJ’s August 4 interpretation rejected industry practice.  Under it, ASCAP and BMI were only allowed to offer a license covering all of the copyright interests in a musical competition, even if the license covers a joint work.

For example, consider a band of five composer-musicians, each of whom has a fractional interest in the copyright covering the band’s new album which is a joint work.  Prior to the DOJ’s new interpretation, each musician was able to offer a partial interest in the joint work to a performance rights organization, reflecting the relative shares of the total copyright interest covering the work.  The organization could offer a partial license, and a user could aggregate different partial licenses in order to cover the whole joint work.  Following the new interpretation, however, BMI and ASCAP could not offer partial licenses to that work to users.  This denied the band’s individual members the opportunity to deal profitably with BMI and ASCAP, thereby undermining their ability to receive fair compensation.

As the two PROs warned, this approach, if upheld, would “cause unnecessary chaos in the marketplace and place unfair financial burdens and creative constraints on songwriters and composers.”  According to ASCAP President Paul Williams, “It is as if the DOJ saw songwriters struggling to stay afloat in a sea of outdated regulations and decided to hand us an anchor, in the form of 100 percent licensing, instead of a life preserver.”  Furthermore, the president and CEO of BMI, Mike O’Neill, stated:  “We believe the DOJ’s interpretation benefits no one – not BMI or ASCAP, not the music publishers, and not the music users – but we are most sensitive to the impact this could have on you, our songwriters and composers.”

The PROs’ views were bolstered by a January 2016 U.S. Copyright Office report, which concluded that “an interpretation of the consent decrees that would require 100-percent licensing or removal of a work from the ASCAP or BMI repertoire would appear to be fraught with legal and logistical problems, and might well result in a sharp decrease in repertoire available through these [performance rights organizations’] blanket licenses.”  Regrettably, during the decree review period, DOJ ignored the expert opinion of the Copyright Office, as well as the public record comments of numerous publishers and artists (see here, for example) indicating that a 100 percent licensing requirement would depress returns to copyright owners and undermine the creative music industry.

Most fundamentally, DOJ’s new interpretation of the BMI and ASCAP consent decrees involved an abridgment of economic freedom.  It further limited the flexibility of copyright music holders and music users to contract with intermediaries to promote the efficient distribution of music performance rights, in a manner that benefits the listening public while allowing creative artists sufficient compensation for their efforts.  DOJ made no compelling showing that a new consent decree constraint was needed to promote competition (100 percent licensing only).  Far from promoting competition, DOJ’s new interpretation undermined it.  DOJ micromanagement of copyright licensing by consent decree reinterpretation was a costly new regulatory initiative that reflected a lack of appreciation for intellectual property rights, which incentivize innovation.  In short, DOJ’s latest interpretation of the ASCAP and BMI decrees was terrible policy.

The New DOJ Interpretation Ran Counter to International Norms

The new DOJ interpretation had unfortunate international policy implications as well.  According to Gadi Oron, Director General of the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC), a Paris-based organization that regroups 239 rights societies from 123 countries, including ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, the new interpretation departed from international norms in the music licensing industry and have disruptive international effects:

It is clear that the DoJ’s decisions have been made without taking the interests of creators, neither American nor international, into account. It is also clear that they were made with total disregard for the international framework, where fractional licensing is practiced, even if it’s less of a factor because many countries only have one performance rights organization representing songwriters in their territory. International copyright laws grant songwriters exclusive rights, giving them the power to decide who will license their rights in each territory and it is these rights that underpin the landscape in which authors’ societies operate. The international system of collective management of rights, which is based on reciprocal representation agreements and founded on the freedom of choice of the rights holder, would be negatively affected by such level of government intervention, at a time when it needs support more than ever.

The New DOJ Interpretation Was Defective as a Matter of Law, and the District Court and the Second Circuit So Held

As I explained in a November 2016 Heritage Foundation commentary (citing arguments made by counsel for BMI), DOJ’s new interpretation not only was bad domestic and international policy, it was inconsistent with sound textual construction of the decrees themselves.  The BMI decree (and therefore the analogous ASCAP decree as well) did not expressly require 100 percent licensing and did not unambiguously prohibit fractional licensing.  Accordingly, since a consent decree is an injunction, and any activity not expressly required or prohibited thereunder is permitted, fractional shares licensing should be authorized.  DOJ’s new interpretation ignored this principle.  It also was at odds with a report of the U.S. Copyright Office that concluded the BMI consent decree “must be understood to include partial interests in musical works.”  Furthermore, the new interpretation was belied by the fact that the PRO licensing market has developed and functioned efficiently for decades by pricing, collecting, and distributing fees for royalties on a fractional basis.  Courts view such evidence of trade practice and custom as relevant in determining the meaning of a consent decree.

The district court for the Southern District of New York accepted these textual arguments in its September 2016 ruling, granting BMI’s request for a declaratory judgment that the BMI decree did not require Decree did not require 100% (“full-work”) licensing.  The court explained:

Nothing in the Consent Decree gives support to the Division’s views. If a fractionally-licensed composition is disqualified from inclusion in BMI’s repertory, it is not for violation of any provision of the Consent Decree. While the Consent Decree requires BMI to license performances of those compositions “the right of public performances of which [BMI] has or hereafter shall have the right to license or sublicense” (Art. II(C)), it contains no provision regarding the source, extent, or nature of that right. It does not address the possibilities that BMI might license performances of a composition without sufficient legal right to do so, or under a worthless or invalid copyright, or users might perform a music composition licensed by fewer than all of its creators. . . .

The Consent Decree does not regulate the elements of the right to perform compositions. Performance of a composition under an ineffective license may infringe an author’s rights under copyright, contract or other law, but it does not infringe the Consent Decree, which does not extend to matters such as the invalidity or value of copyrights of any of the compositions in BMI’s repertory. Questions of the validity, scope and limits of the right to perform compositions are left to the congruent and competing interests in the music copyright market, and to copyright, property and other laws, to continue to resolve and enforce. Infringements (and fractional infringements) and remedies are not part of the Consent Decree’s subject-matter.

The Second Circuit affirmed, agreeing with the district court’s reading of the decree:

The decree does not address the issue of fractional versus full work licensing, and the parties agree that the issue did not arise at the time of the . . . [subsequent] amendments [to the decree]. . . .

This appeal begins and ends with the language of the consent decree. It is a “well-established principle that the language of a consent decree must dictate what a party is required to do and what it must refrain from doing.” Perez v. Danbury Hosp., 347 F.3d 419, 424 (2d Cir. 2003); United States v. Armour & Co., 402 U.S. 673, 682 (1971) (“[T]he scope of a consent decree must be discerned within its four corners…”). “[C]ourts must abide by the express terms of a consent decree and may not impose additional requirements or supplementary obligations on the parties even to fulfill the purposes of the decree more effectively.” Perez, 347 F.3d at 424; see also Barcia v. Sitkin, 367 F.3d 87, 106 (2d Cir. 2004) (internal citations omitted) (The district court may not “impose obligations on a party that are not unambiguously mandated by the decree itself.”). Accordingly, since the decree is silent on fractional licensing, BMI may (and perhaps must) offer them unless a clear and unambiguous command of the decree would thereby be violated. See United States v. Int’l Bhd. Of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen & Helpers of Am., AFLCIO, 998 F.2d 1101, 1107 (2d Cir. 1993); see also Armour, 402 U.S. at 681-82.


The federal courts wisely have put to rest an ill-considered effort by the Obama Antitrust Division to displace longstanding industry practices that allowed efficient flexibility in the licensing of copyright interests by PROs.  Let us hope that the Trump Antitrust Division will not just accept the Second Circuit’s decision, but will positively embrace it as a manifestation of enlightened antitrust-IP policy – one in harmony with broader efforts by the Division to restore sound thinking to the antitrust treatment of patent licensing and intellectual property in general.

This week the FCC will vote on Chairman Ajit Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Once implemented, the Order will rescind the 2015 Open Internet Order and return antitrust and consumer protection enforcement to primacy in Internet access regulation in the U.S.

In anticipation of that, earlier this week the FCC and FTC entered into a Memorandum of Understanding delineating how the agencies will work together to police ISPs. Under the MOU, the FCC will review informal complaints regarding ISPs’ disclosures about their blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, and congestion management practices. Where an ISP fails to make the proper disclosures, the FCC will take enforcement action. The FTC, for its part, will investigate and, where warranted, take enforcement action against ISPs for unfair, deceptive, or otherwise unlawful acts.

Critics of Chairman Pai’s plan contend (among other things) that the reversion to antitrust-agency oversight of competition and consumer protection in telecom markets (and the Internet access market particularly) would be an aberration — that the US will become the only place in the world to move backward away from net neutrality rules and toward antitrust law.

But this characterization has it exactly wrong. In fact, much of the world has been moving toward an antitrust-based approach to telecom regulation. The aberration was the telecom-specific, common-carrier regulation of the 2015 Open Internet Order.

The longstanding, global transition from telecom regulation to antitrust enforcement

The decade-old discussion around net neutrality has morphed, perhaps inevitably, to join the larger conversation about competition in the telecom sector and the proper role of antitrust law in addressing telecom-related competition issues. Today, with the latest net neutrality rules in the US on the chopping block, the discussion has grown more fervent (and even sometimes inordinately violent).

On the one hand, opponents of the 2015 rules express strong dissatisfaction with traditional, utility-style telecom regulation of innovative services, and view the 2015 rules as a meritless usurpation of antitrust principles in guiding the regulation of the Internet access market. On the other hand, proponents of the 2015 rules voice skepticism that antitrust can actually provide a way to control competitive harms in the tech and telecom sectors, and see the heavy hand of Title II, common-carrier regulation as a necessary corrective.

While the evidence seems clear that an early-20th-century approach to telecom regulation is indeed inappropriate for the modern Internet (see our lengthy discussions on this point, e.g., here and here, as well as Thom Lambert’s recent post), it is perhaps less clear whether antitrust, with its constantly evolving, common-law foundation, is up to the task.

To answer that question, it is important to understand that for decades, the arc of telecom regulation globally has been sweeping in the direction of ex post competition enforcement, and away from ex ante, sector-specific regulation.

Howard Shelanski, who served as President Obama’s OIRA Administrator from 2013-17, Director of the Bureau of Economics at the FTC from 2012-2013, and Chief Economist at the FCC from 1999-2000, noted in 2002, for instance, that

[i]n many countries, the first transition has been from a government monopoly to a privatizing entity controlled by an independent regulator. The next transformation on the horizon is away from the independent regulator and towards regulation through general competition law.

Globally, nowhere perhaps has this transition been more clearly stated than in the EU’s telecom regulatory framework which asserts:

The aim is to progressively reduce ex ante sector-specific regulation progressively as competition in markets develops and, ultimately, for electronic communications [i.e., telecommunications] to be governed by competition law only. (Emphasis added.)

To facilitate the transition and quash regulatory inconsistencies among member states, the EC identified certain markets for national regulators to decide, consistent with EC guidelines on market analysis, whether ex ante obligations were necessary in their respective countries due to an operator holding “significant market power.” In 2003 the EC identified 18 such markets. After observing technological and market changes over the next four years, the EC reduced that number to seven in 2007 and, in 2014, the number was further reduced to four markets, all wholesale markets, that could potentially require ex ante regulation.

It is important to highlight that this framework is not uniquely achievable in Europe because of some special trait in its markets, regulatory structure, or antitrust framework. Determining the right balance of regulatory rules and competition law, whether enforced by a telecom regulator, antitrust regulator, or multi-purpose authority (i.e., with authority over both competition and telecom) means choosing from a menu of options that should be periodically assessed to move toward better performance and practice. There is nothing jurisdiction-specific about this; it is simply a matter of good governance.

And since the early 2000s, scholars have highlighted that the US is in an intriguing position to transition to a merged regulator because, for example, it has both a “highly liberalized telecommunications sector and a well-established body of antitrust law.” For Shelanski, among others, the US has been ready to make the transition since 2007.

Far from being an aberrant move away from sound telecom regulation, the FCC’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order is actually a step in the direction of sensible, antitrust-based telecom regulation — one that many parts of the world have long since undertaken.

How antitrust oversight of telecom markets has been implemented around the globe

In implementing the EU’s shift toward antitrust oversight of the telecom sector since 2003, agencies have adopted a number of different organizational reforms.

Some telecom regulators assumed new duties over competition — e.g., Ofcom in the UK. Other non-European countries, including, e.g., Mexico have also followed this model.

Other European Member States have eliminated their telecom regulator altogether. In a useful case study, Roslyn Layton and Joe Kane outline Denmark’s approach, which includes disbanding its telecom regulator and passing the regulation of the sector to various executive agencies.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands and Spain each elected to merge its telecom regulator into its competition authority. New Zealand has similarly adopted this framework.

A few brief case studies will illuminate these and other reforms:

The Netherlands

In 2013, the Netherlands merged its telecom, consumer protection, and competition regulators to form the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM). The ACM’s structure streamlines decision-making on pending industry mergers and acquisitions at the managerial level, eliminating the challenges arising from overlapping agency reviews and cross-agency coordination. The reform also unified key regulatory methodologies, such as creating a consistent calculation method for the weighted average cost of capital (WACC).

The Netherlands also claims that the ACM’s ex post approach is better able to adapt to “technological developments, dynamic markets, and market trends”:

The combination of strength and flexibility allows for a problem-based approach where the authority first engages in a dialogue with a particular market player in order to discuss market behaviour and ensure the well-functioning of the market.

The Netherlands also cited a significant reduction in the risk of regulatory capture as staff no longer remain in positions for long tenures but rather rotate on a project-by-project basis from a regulatory to a competition department or vice versa. Moving staff from team to team has also added value in terms of knowledge transfer among the staff. Finally, while combining the cultures of each regulator was less difficult than expected, the government reported that the largest cause of consternation in the process was agreeing on a single IT system for the ACM.


In 2013, Spain created the National Authority for Markets and Competition (CNMC), merging the National Competition Authority with several sectoral regulators, including the telecom regulator, to “guarantee cohesion between competition rulings and sectoral regulation.” In a report to the OECD, Spain stated that moving to the new model was necessary because of increasing competition and technological convergence in the sector (i.e., the ability for different technologies to offer the substitute services (like fixed and wireless Internet access)). It added that integrating its telecom regulator with its competition regulator ensures

a predictable business environment and legal certainty [i.e., removing “any threat of arbitrariness”] for the firms. These two conditions are indispensable for network industries — where huge investments are required — but also for the rest of the business community if investment and innovation are to be promoted.

Like in the Netherlands, additional benefits include significantly lowering the risk of regulatory capture by “preventing the alignment of the authority’s performance with sectoral interests.”


In 2011, the Danish government unexpectedly dismantled the National IT and Telecom Agency and split its duties between four regulators. While the move came as a surprise, it did not engender national debate — vitriolic or otherwise — nor did it receive much attention in the press.

Since the dismantlement scholars have observed less politicization of telecom regulation. And even though the competition authority didn’t take over telecom regulatory duties, the Ministry of Business and Growth implemented a light touch regime, which, as Layton and Kane note, has helped to turn Denmark into one of the “top digital nations” according to the International Telecommunication Union’s Measuring the Information Society Report.

New Zealand

The New Zealand Commerce Commission (NZCC) is responsible for antitrust enforcement, economic regulation, consumer protection, and certain sectoral regulations, including telecommunications. By combining functions into a single regulator New Zealand asserts that it can more cost-effectively administer government operations. Combining regulatory functions also created spillover benefits as, for example, competition analysis is a prerequisite for sectoral regulation, and merger analysis in regulated sectors (like telecom) can leverage staff with detailed and valuable knowledge. Similar to the other countries, New Zealand also noted that the possibility of regulatory capture “by the industries they regulate is reduced in an agency that regulates multiple sectors or also has competition and consumer law functions.”

Advantages identified by other organizations

The GSMA, a mobile industry association, notes in its 2016 report, Resetting Competition Policy Frameworks for the Digital Ecosystem, that merging the sector regulator into the competition regulator also mitigates regulatory creep by eliminating the prodding required to induce a sector regulator to roll back regulation as technological evolution requires it, as well as by curbing the sector regulator’s temptation to expand its authority. After all, regulators exist to regulate.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that eliminating the telecom regulator has not gone off without a hitch in every case (most notably, in Spain). It’s important to understand, however, that the difficulties that have arisen in specific contexts aren’t endemic to the nature of competition versus telecom regulation. Nothing about these cases suggests that economic-based telecom regulations are inherently essential, or that replacing sector-specific oversight with antitrust oversight can’t work.

Contrasting approaches to net neutrality in the EU and New Zealand

Unfortunately, adopting a proper framework and implementing sweeping organizational reform is no guarantee of consistent decisionmaking in its implementation. Thus, in 2015, the European Parliament and Council of the EU went against two decades of telecommunications best practices by implementing ex ante net neutrality regulations without hard evidence of widespread harm and absent any competition analysis to justify its decision. The EU placed net neutrality under the universal service and user’s rights prong of the regulatory framework, and the resulting rules lack coherence and economic rigor.

BEREC’s net neutrality guidelines, meant to clarify the EU regulations, offered an ambiguous, multi-factored standard to evaluate ISP practices like free data programs. And, as mentioned in a previous TOTM post, whether or not they allow the practice, regulators (e.g., Norway’s Nkom and the UK’s Ofcom) have lamented the lack of regulatory certainty surrounding free data programs.

Notably, while BEREC has not provided clear guidance, a 2017 report commissioned by the EU’s Directorate-General for Competition weighing competitive benefits and harms of zero rating concluded “there appears to be little reason to believe that zero-rating gives rise to competition concerns.”

The report also provides an ex post framework for analyzing such deals in the context of a two-sided market by assessing a deal’s impact on competition between ISPs and between content and application providers.

The EU example demonstrates that where a telecom regulator perceives a novel problem, competition law, grounded in economic principles, brings a clear framework to bear.

In New Zealand, if a net neutrality issue were to arise, the ISP’s behavior would be examined under the context of existing antitrust law, including a determination of whether the ISP is exercising market power, and by the Telecommunications Commissioner, who monitors competition and the development of telecom markets for the NZCC.

Currently, there is broad consensus among stakeholders, including a local content providers and networking equipment manufacturers, that there is no need for ex ante regulation of net neutrality. Wholesale ISP, Chorus, states, for example, that “in any event, the United States’ transparency and non-interference requirements [from the 2015 OIO] are arguably covered by the TCF Code disclosure rules and the provisions of the Commerce Act.”

The TCF Code is a mandatory code of practice establishing requirements concerning the information ISPs are required to disclose to consumers about their services. For example, ISPs must disclose any arrangements that prioritize certain traffic. Regarding traffic management, complaints of unfair contract terms — when not resolved by a process administered by an independent industry group — may be referred to the NZCC for an investigation in accordance with the Fair Trading Act. Under the Commerce Act, the NZCC can prohibit anticompetitive mergers, or practices that substantially lessen competition or that constitute price fixing or abuse of market power.

In addition, the NZCC has been active in patrolling vertical agreements between ISPs and content providers — precisely the types of agreements bemoaned by Title II net neutrality proponents.

In February 2017, the NZCC blocked Vodafone New Zealand’s proposed merger with Sky Network (combining Sky’s content and pay TV business with Vodafone’s broadband and mobile services) because the Commission concluded that the deal would substantially lessen competition in relevant broadband and mobile services markets. The NZCC was

unable to exclude the real chance that the merged entity would use its market power over premium live sports rights to effectively foreclose a substantial share of telecommunications customers from rival telecommunications services providers (TSPs), resulting in a substantial lessening of competition in broadband and mobile services markets.

Such foreclosure would result, the NZCC argued, from exclusive content and integrated bundles with features such as “zero rated Sky Sport viewing over mobile.” In addition, Vodafone would have the ability to prevent rivals from creating bundles using Sky Sport.

The substance of the Vodafone/Sky decision notwithstanding, the NZCC’s intervention is further evidence that antitrust isn’t a mere smokescreen for regulators to do nothing, and that regulators don’t need to design novel tools (such as the Internet conduct rule in the 2015 OIO) to regulate something neither they nor anyone else knows very much about: “not just the sprawling Internet of today, but also the unknowable Internet of tomorrow.” Instead, with ex post competition enforcement, regulators can allow dynamic innovation and competition to develop, and are perfectly capable of intervening — when and if identifiable harm emerges.


Unfortunately for Title II proponents — who have spent a decade at the FCC lobbying for net neutrality rules despite a lack of actionable evidence — the FCC is not acting without precedent by enabling the FTC’s antitrust and consumer protection enforcement to police conduct in Internet access markets. For two decades, the object of telecommunications regulation globally has been to transition away from sector-specific ex ante regulation to ex post competition review and enforcement. It’s high time the U.S. got on board.

The populists are on the march, and as the 2018 campaign season gets rolling we’re witnessing more examples of political opportunism bolstered by economic illiteracy aimed at increasingly unpopular big tech firms.

The latest example comes in the form of a new investigation of Google opened by Missouri’s Attorney General, Josh Hawley. Mr. Hawley — a Republican who, not coincidentally, is running for Senate in 2018alleges various consumer protection violations and unfair competition practices.

But while Hawley’s investigation may jump start his campaign and help a few vocal Google rivals intent on mobilizing the machinery of the state against the company, it is unlikely to enhance consumer welfare — in Missouri or anywhere else.  

According to the press release issued by the AG’s office:

[T]he investigation will seek to determine if Google has violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act—Missouri’s principal consumer-protection statute—and Missouri’s antitrust laws.  

The business practices in question are Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities; Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors; and Google’s alleged manipulation of search results to preference websites owned by Google and to demote websites that compete with Google.

Mr. Hawley’s justification for his investigation is a flourish of populist rhetoric:

We should not just accept the word of these corporate giants that they have our best interests at heart. We need to make sure that they are actually following the law, we need to make sure that consumers are protected, and we need to hold them accountable.

But Hawley’s “strong” concern is based on tired retreads of the same faulty arguments that Google’s competitors (Yelp chief among them), have been plying for the better part of a decade. In fact, all of his apparent grievances against Google were exhaustively scrutinized by the FTC and ultimately rejected or settled in separate federal investigations in 2012 and 2013.

The antitrust issues

To begin with, AG Hawley references the EU antitrust investigation as evidence that

this is not the first-time Google’s business practices have come into question. In June, the European Union issued Google a record $2.7 billion antitrust fine.

True enough — and yet, misleadingly incomplete. Missing from Hawley’s recitation of Google’s antitrust rap sheet are the following investigations, which were closed without any finding of liability related to Google Search, Android, Google’s advertising practices, etc.:

  • United States FTC, 2013. The FTC found no basis to pursue a case after a two-year investigation: “Challenging Google’s product design decisions in this case would require the Commission — or a court — to second-guess a firm’s product design decisions where plausible procompetitive justifications have been offered, and where those justifications are supported by ample evidence.” The investigation did result in a consent order regarding patent licensing unrelated in any way to search and a voluntary commitment by Google not to engage in certain search-advertising-related conduct.
  • South Korea FTC, 2013. The KFTC cleared Google after a two-year investigation. It opened a new investigation in 2016, but, as I have discussed, “[i]f anything, the economic conditions supporting [the KFTC’s 2013] conclusion have only gotten stronger since.”
  • Canada Competition Bureau, 2016. The CCB closed a three-year long investigation into Google’s search practices without taking any action.

Similar investigations have been closed without findings of liability (or simply lie fallow) in a handful of other countries (e.g., Taiwan and Brazil) and even several states (e.g., Ohio and Texas). In fact, of all the jurisdictions that have investigated Google, only the EU and Russia have actually assessed liability.

As Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the FTC during the Google antitrust investigation, noted upon closing the case:

Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of U.S. law.

The CCB was similarly unequivocal in its dismissal of the very same antitrust claims Missouri’s AG seems intent on pursuing against Google:

The Bureau sought evidence of the harm allegedly caused to market participants in Canada as a result of any alleged preferential treatment of Google’s services. The Bureau did not find adequate evidence to support the conclusion that this conduct has had an exclusionary effect on rivals, or that it has resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in a market.

Unfortunately, rather than follow the lead of these agencies, Missouri’s investigation appears to have more in common with Russia’s effort to prop up a favored competitor (Yandex) at the expense of consumer welfare.

The Yelp Claim

Take Mr. Hawley’s focus on “Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors,” for example, which cleaves closely to what should become known henceforth as “The Yelp Claim.”

While the sordid history of Yelp’s regulatory crusade against Google is too long to canvas in its entirety here, the primary elements are these:

Once upon a time (in 2005), Google licensed Yelp’s content for inclusion in its local search results. In 2007 Yelp ended the deal. By 2010, and without a license from Yelp (asserting fair use), Google displayed small snippets of Yelp’s reviews that, if clicked on, led to Yelp’s site. Even though Yelp received more user traffic from those links as a result, Yelp complained, and Google removed Yelp snippets from its local results.

In its 2013 agreement with the FTC, Google guaranteed that Yelp could opt-out of having even snippets displayed in local search results by committing Google to:

make available a web-based notice form that provides website owners with the option to opt out from display on Google’s Covered Webpages of content from their website that has been crawled by Google. When a website owner exercises this option, Google will cease displaying crawled content from the domain name designated by the website owner….

The commitments also ensured that websites (like Yelp) that opt out would nevertheless remain in Google’s general index.

Ironically, Yelp now claims in a recent study that Google should show not only snippets of Yelp reviews, but even more of Yelp’s content. (For those interested, my colleagues and I have a paper explaining why the study’s claims are spurious).

The key bit here, of course, is that Google stopped pulling content from Yelp’s pages to use in its local search results, and that it implemented a simple mechanism for any other site wishing to opt out of the practice to do so.

It’s difficult to imagine why Missouri’s citizens might require more than this to redress alleged anticompetitive harms arising from the practice.

Perhaps AG Hawley thinks consumers would be better served by an opt-in mechanism? Of course, this is absurd, particularly if any of Missouri’s citizens — and their businesses — have websites. Most websites want at least some of their content to appear on Google’s search results pages as prominently as possible — see this and this, for example — and making this information more accessible to users is why Google exists.

To be sure, some websites may take issue with how much of their content Google features and where it places that content. But the easy opt out enables them to prevent Google from showing their content in a manner they disapprove of. Yelp is an outlier in this regard because it views Google as a direct competitor, especially to the extent it enables users to read some of Yelp’s reviews without visiting Yelp’s pages.

For Yelp and a few similarly situated companies the opt out suffices. But for almost everyone else the opt out is presumably rarely exercised, and any more-burdensome requirement would just impose unnecessary costs, harming instead of helping their websites.

The privacy issues

The Missouri investigation also applies to “Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities.” More pointedly, Hawley claims that “Google may be collecting more information from users than the company was telling consumers….”

Presumably this would come as news to the FTC, which, with a much larger staff and far greater expertise, currently has Google under a 20 year consent order (with some 15 years left to go) governing its privacy disclosures and information-sharing practices, thus ensuring that the agency engages in continual — and well-informed — oversight of precisely these issues.

The FTC’s consent order with Google (the result of an investigation into conduct involving Google’s short-lived Buzz social network, allegedly in violation of Google’s privacy policies), requires the company to:

  • “[N]ot misrepresent in any manner, expressly or by implication… the extent to which respondent maintains and protects the privacy and confidentiality of any [user] information…”;
  • “Obtain express affirmative consent from” users “prior to any new or additional sharing… of the Google user’s identified information with any third party” if doing so would in any way deviate from previously disclosed practices;
  • “[E]stablish and implement, and thereafter maintain, a comprehensive privacy program that is reasonably designed to [] address privacy risks related to the development and management of new and existing products and services for consumers, and (2) protect the privacy and confidentiality of [users’] information”; and
  • Along with a laundry list of other reporting requirements, “[submit] biennial assessments and reports [] from a qualified, objective, independent third-party professional…, approved by the [FTC] Associate Director for Enforcement, Bureau of Consumer Protection… in his or her sole discretion.”

What, beyond the incredibly broad scope of the FTC’s consent order, could the Missouri AG’s office possibly hope to obtain from an investigation?

Google is already expressly required to provide privacy reports to the FTC every two years. It must provide several of the items Hawley demands in his CID to the FTC; others are required to be made available to the FTC upon demand. What materials could the Missouri AG collect beyond those the FTC already receives, or has the authority to demand, under its consent order?

And what manpower and expertise could Hawley apply to those materials that would even begin to equal, let alone exceed, those of the FTC?

Lest anyone think the FTC is falling down on the job, a year after it issued that original consent order the Commission fined Google $22.5 million for violating the order in a questionable decision that was signed on to by all of the FTC’s Commissioners (both Republican and Democrat) — except the one who thought it didn’t go far enough.

That penalty is of undeniable import, not only for its amount (at the time it was the largest in FTC history) and for stemming from alleged problems completely unrelated to the issue underlying the initial action, but also because it was so easy to obtain. Having put Google under a 20-year consent order, the FTC need only prove (or threaten to prove) contempt of the consent order, rather than the specific elements of a new violation of the FTC Act, to bring the company to heel. The former is far easier to prove, and comes with the ability to impose (significant) damages.

So what’s really going on in Jefferson City?

While states are, of course, free to enforce their own consumer protection laws to protect their citizens, there is little to be gained — other than cold hard cash, perhaps — from pursuing cases that, at best, duplicate enforcement efforts already undertaken by the federal government (to say nothing of innumerable other jurisdictions).

To take just one relevant example, in 2013 — almost a year to the day following the court’s approval of the settlement in the FTC’s case alleging Google’s violation of the Buzz consent order — 37 states plus DC (not including Missouri) settled their own, follow-on litigation against Google on the same facts. Significantly, the terms of the settlement did not impose upon Google any obligation not already a part of the Buzz consent order or the subsequent FTC settlement — but it did require Google to fork over an additional $17 million.  

Not only is there little to be gained from yet another ill-conceived antitrust campaign, there is much to be lost. Such massive investigations require substantial resources to conduct, and the opportunity cost of doing so may mean real consumer issues go unaddressed. The Consumer Protection Section of the Missouri AG’s office says it receives some 100,000 consumer complaints a year. How many of those will have to be put on the back burner to accommodate an investigation like this one?

Even when not politically motivated, state enforcement of CPAs is not an unalloyed good. In fact, empirical studies of state consumer protection actions like the one contemplated by Mr. Hawley have shown that such actions tend toward overreach — good for lawyers, perhaps, but expensive for taxpayers and often detrimental to consumers. According to a recent study by economists James Cooper and Joanna Shepherd:

[I]n recent decades, this thoughtful balance [between protecting consumers and preventing the proliferation of lawsuits that harm both consumers and businesses] has yielded to damaging legislative and judicial overcorrections at the state level with a common theoretical mistake: the assumption that more CPA litigation automatically yields more consumer protection…. [C]ourts and legislatures gradually have abolished many of the procedural and remedial protections designed to cabin state CPAs to their original purpose: providing consumers with redress for actual harm in instances where tort and contract law may provide insufficient remedies. The result has been an explosion in consumer protection litigation, which serves no social function and for which consumers pay indirectly through higher prices and reduced innovation.

AG Hawley’s investigation seems almost tailored to duplicate the FTC’s extensive efforts — and to score political points. Or perhaps Mr. Hawley is just perturbed that Missouri missed out its share of the $17 million multistate settlement in 2013.

Which raises the spectre of a further problem with the Missouri case: “rent extraction.”

It’s no coincidence that Mr. Hawley’s investigation follows closely on the heels of Yelp’s recent letter to the FTC and every state AG (as well as four members of Congress and the EU’s chief competition enforcer, for good measure) alleging that Google had re-started scraping Yelp’s content, thus violating the terms of its voluntary commitments to the FTC.

It’s also no coincidence that Yelp “notified” Google of the problem only by lodging a complaint with every regulator who might listen rather than by actually notifying Google. But an action like the one Missouri is undertaking — not resolution of the issue — is almost certainly exactly what Yelp intended, and AG Hawley is playing right into Yelp’s hands.  

Google, for its part, strongly disputes Yelp’s allegation, and, indeed, has — even according to Yelp — complied fully with Yelp’s request to keep its content off Google Local and other “vertical” search pages since 18 months before Google entered into its commitments with the FTC. Google claims that the recent scraping was inadvertent, and that it would happily have rectified the problem if only Yelp had actually bothered to inform Google.

Indeed, Yelp’s allegations don’t really pass the smell test: That Google would suddenly change its practices now, in violation of its commitments to the FTC and at a time of extraordinarily heightened scrutiny by the media, politicians of all stripes, competitors like Yelp, the FTC, the EU, and a host of other antitrust or consumer protection authorities, strains belief.

But, again, identifying and resolving an actual commercial dispute was likely never the goal. As a recent, fawning New York Times article on “Yelp’s Six-Year Grudge Against Google” highlights (focusing in particular on Luther Lowe, now Yelp’s VP of Public Policy and the author of the letter):

Yelp elevated Mr. Lowe to the new position of director of government affairs, a job that more or less entails flying around the world trying to sic antitrust regulators on Google. Over the next few years, Yelp hired its first lobbyist and started a political action committee. Recently, it has started filing complaints in Brazil.

Missouri, in other words, may just be carrying Yelp’s water.

The one clear lesson of the decades-long Microsoft antitrust saga is that companies that struggle to compete in the market can profitably tax their rivals by instigating antitrust actions against them. As Milton Friedman admonished, decrying “the business community’s suicidal impulse” to invite regulation:

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

Taking a tough line on Silicon Valley firms in the midst of today’s anti-tech-company populist resurgence may help with the electioneering in Mr. Hawley’s upcoming bid for a US Senate seat and serve Yelp, but it doesn’t offer any clear, actual benefits to Missourians. As I’ve wondered before: “Exactly when will regulators be a little more skeptical of competitors trying to game the antitrust laws for their own advantage?”