[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan has just sent her holiday wishlist to Santa Claus. It comes in the form of a policy statement on unfair methods of competition (UMC) that the FTC approved last week by a 3-1 vote. If there’s anything to be gleaned from the document, it’s that Khan and the agency’s majority bloc wish they could wield the same powers as Margrethe Vestager does in the European Union. Luckily for consumers, U.S. courts are unlikely to oblige.
Signed by the commission’s three Democratic commissioners, the UMC policy statement contains language that would be completely at home in a decision of the European Commission. It purports to reorient UMC enforcement (under Section 5 of the FTC Act) around typically European concepts, such as “competition on the merits.” This is an unambiguous repudiation of the rule of reason and, with it, the consumer welfare standard.
Unfortunately for its authors, these European-inspired aspirations are likely to fall flat. For a start, the FTC almost certainly does not have the power to enact such sweeping changes. More fundamentally, these concepts have been tried in the EU, where they have proven to be largely unworkable. On the one hand, critics (including the European judiciary) have excoriated the European Commission for its often economically unsound policymaking—enabled by the use of vague standards like “competition on the merits.” On the other hand, the Commission paradoxically believes that its competition powers are insufficient, creating the need for even stronger powers. The recently passed Digital Markets Act (DMA) is designed to fill this need.
As explained below, there is thus every reason to believe the FTC’s UMC statement will ultimately go down as a mistake, brought about by the current leadership’s hubris.
A Statement Is Just That
The first big obstacle to the FTC’s lofty ambitions is that its leadership does not have the power to rewrite either the FTC Act or courts’ interpretation of it. The agency’s leadership understands this much. And with that in mind, they ostensibly couch their statement in the case law of the U.S. Supreme Court:
Consistent with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the FTC Act in at least twelve decisions, this statement makes clear that Section 5 reaches beyond the Sherman and Clayton Acts to encompass various types of unfair conduct that tend to negatively affect competitive conditions.
It is telling, however, that the cases cited by the agency—in a naked attempt to do away with economic analysis and the consumer welfare standard—are all at least 40 years old. Antitrust and consumer-protection laws have obviously come a long way since then, but none of that is mentioned in the statement. Inconvenient case law is simply shrugged off. To make matters worse, even the cases the FTC cites provide, at best, exceedingly weak support for its proposed policy.
For instance, as Commissioner Christine Wilson aptly notes in her dissenting statement, “the policy statement ignores precedent regarding the need to demonstrate anticompetitive effects.” Chief among these is the Boise Cascade Corp. v. FTC case, where the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rebuked the FTC for failing to show actual anticompetitive effects:
In truth, the Commission has provided us with little more than a theory of the likely effect of the challenged pricing practices. While this general observation perhaps summarizes all that follows, we offer the following specific points in support of our conclusion.
There is a complete absence of meaningful evidence in the record that price levels in the southern plywood industry reflect an anticompetitive effect.
In short, the FTC’s statement is just that—a statement. Gus Hurwitz summarized this best in his post:
Today’s news that the FTC has adopted a new UMC Policy Statement is just that: mere news. It doesn’t change the law. It is non-precedential and lacks the force of law. It receives the benefit of no deference. It is, to use a term from the consumer-protection lexicon, mere puffery.
Lina’s European Dream
But let us imagine, for a moment, that the FTC has its way and courts go along with its policy statement. Would this be good for the American consumer? In order to answer this question, it is worth looking at competition enforcement in the European Union.
There are, indeed, striking similarities between the FTC’s policy statement and European competition law. Consider the resemblance between the following quotes, drawn from the FTC’s policy statement (“A” in each example) and from the European competition sphere (“B” in each example).
Example 1 – Competition on the merits and the protection of competitors:
A. The method of competition must be unfair, meaning that the conduct goes beyond competition on the merits.… This may include, for example, conduct that tends to foreclose or impair the opportunities of market participants, reduce competition between rivals, limit choice, or otherwise harm consumers. (here)
B. The emphasis of the Commission’s enforcement activity… is on safeguarding the competitive process… and ensuring that undertakings which hold a dominant position do not exclude their competitors by other means than competing on the merits… (here)
Example 2 – Proof of anticompetitive harm:
A. “Unfair methods of competition” need not require a showing of current anticompetitive harm or anticompetitive intent in every case. … [T]his inquiry does not turn to whether the conduct directly caused actual harm in the specific instance at issue. (here)
B. The Commission cannot be required… systematically to establish a counterfactual scenario…. That would, moreover, oblige it to demonstrate that the conduct at issue had actual effects, which… is not required in the case of an abuse of a dominant position, where it is sufficient to establish that there are potential effects. (here)
Example 3 – Multiple goals:
A. Given the distinctive goals of Section 5, the inquiry will not focus on the “rule of reason” inquiries more common in cases under the Sherman Act, but will instead focus on stopping unfair methods of competition in their incipiency based on their tendency to harm competitive conditions. (here)
B. In its assessment the Commission should pursue the objectives of preserving and fostering innovation and the quality of digital products and services, the degree to which prices are fair and competitive, and the degree to which quality or choice for business users and for end users is or remains high. (here)
Beyond their cosmetic resemblances, these examples reflect a deeper similarity. The FTC is attempting to introduce three core principles that also undergird European competition enforcement. The first is that enforcers should protect “the competitive process” by ensuring firms compete “on the merits,” rather than a more consequentialist goal like the consumer welfare standard (which essentially asks how a given practice affects economic output). The second is that enforcers should not be required to establish that conduct actually harms consumers. Instead, they need only show that such an outcome is (or will be) possible. The third principle is that competition policies pursue multiple, sometimes conflicting, goals.
In short, the FTC is trying to roll back U.S. enforcement to a bygone era predating the emergence of the consumer welfare standard (which is somewhat ironic for the agency’s progressive leaders). And this vision of enforcement is infused with elements that appear to be drawn directly from European competition law.
Europe Is Not the Land of Milk and Honey
All of this might not be so problematic if the European model of competition enforcement that the FTC now seeks to emulate was an unmitigated success, but that could not be further from the truth. As Geoffrey Manne, Sam Bowman, and I argued in a recently published paper, the European model has several shortcomings that militate against emulating it (the following quotes are drawn from that paper). These problems would almost certainly arise if the FTC’s statement was blessed by courts in the United States.
For a start, the more open-ended nature of European competition law makes it highly vulnerable to political interference. This is notably due to its multiple, vague, and often conflicting goals, such as the protection of the “competitive process”:
Because EU regulators can call upon a large list of justifications for their enforcement decisions, they are free to pursue cases that best fit within a political agenda, rather than focusing on the limited practices that are most injurious to consumers. In other words, there is largely no definable set of metrics to distinguish strong cases from weak ones under the EU model; what stands in its place is political discretion.
Politicized antitrust enforcement might seem like a great idea when your party is in power but, as Milton Friedman wisely observed, the mark of a strong system of government is that it operates well with the wrong person in charge. With this in mind, the FTC’s current leadership would do well to consider what their political opponents might do with these broad powers—such as using Section 5 to prevent online platforms from moderating speech.
A second important problem with the European model is that, because of its competitive-process goal, it does not adequately distinguish between exclusion resulting from superior efficiency and anticompetitive foreclosure:
By pursuing a competitive process goal, European competition authorities regularly conflate desirable and undesirable forms of exclusion precisely on the basis of their effect on competitors. As a result, the Commission routinely sanctions exclusion that stems from an incumbent’s superior efficiency rather than welfare-reducing strategic behavior, and routinely protects inefficient competitors that would otherwise rightly be excluded from a market.
This vastly enlarges the scope of potential antitrust liability, leading to risks of false positives that chill innovative behavior and create nearly unwinnable battles for targeted firms, while increasing compliance costs because of reduced legal certainty. Ultimately, this may hamper technological evolution and protect inefficient firms whose eviction from the market is merely a reflection of consumer preferences.
Finally, the European model results in enforcers having more discretion and enjoying greater deference from the courts:
[T]he EU process is driven by a number of laterally equivalent, and sometimes mutually exclusive, goals.… [A] large problem exists in the discretion that this fluid arrangement of goals yields.
The Microsoft case illustrates this problem well. In Microsoft, the Commission could have chosen to base its decision on a number of potential objectives. It notably chose to base its findings on the fact that Microsoft’s behavior reduced “consumer choice”. The Commission, in fact, discounted arguments that economic efficiency may lead to consumer welfare gains because “consumer choice” among a variety of media players was more important.
In short, the European model sorely lacks limiting principles. This likely explains why the European Court of Justice has started to pare back the commission’s powers in a series of recent cases, including Intel, Post Danmark, Cartes Bancaires, and Servizio Elettrico Nazionale. These rulings appear to be an explicit recognition that overly broad competition enforcement not only fails to benefit consumers but, more fundamentally, is incompatible with the rule of law.
It is unfortunate that the FTC is trying to emulate a model of competition enforcement that—even in the progressively minded European public sphere—is increasingly questioned and cast aside as a result of its multiple shortcomings.