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In her distinguished tenure as a Commissioner and as Acting Chairman of the FTC, Maureen Ohlhausen has done an outstanding job in explaining the tie between robust patent protection and economic growth and innovation (see, for example, her Harvard Journal of Law and Technology article, here).  Her latest public pronouncement on this topic, an October 13 speech entitled “Strong Patent Rights, Strong Economy,” also makes a highly valuable contribution to the patent policy debate.  Ohlhausen’s speech centers on two key points:  “First, strong patent rights are crucial to economic success.  And, second, economically grounded analysis will reveal the right path through thickets of IP [intellectual property] skepticism.”  Ohlhausen concludes with a reaffirmation of the importance of having the United States lead by example on the world stage in defending strong patent rights:

Patents have been at the heart of US innovation since the founding of our country, and respect for patent rights is fundamental to advance innovation.  The United States is more technologically innovative than any other country in the world.  This reality reflects, in part, the property rights that the United States government grants to inventors.  Still, foreign counterparts take or allow the taking of American proprietary technologies without due payment.  For example, emerging competition regimes view “unfairly high royalties” as illegal under antitrust law.  The FTC’s recent policy work offers an important counterweight to this approach, illustrating the important role that patents play in promoting innovation and benefiting consumers.     

In closing, while we may live in an age of patent skepticism, there is hope. Criticism of IP rights frequently does not hold up upon closer examination. Rather, empirical research favors the close tie between strong IP rights and R&D.  This is not to say that changes to the patent system are always unwarranted.  Rather, the key to addressing the U.S. patent system lies in incremental adjustment where necessary based on a firm empirical foundation.  The U.S. economy stands as a shining reminder of everything that American innovation policy has achieved – and intellectual property rights, and patents, are the important cornerstones of those achievements.

Ohlhausen’s remarks are, as always, thoughtful and well worth studying.

In a recent post at the (appallingly misnamed) ProMarket blog (the blog of the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business — George Stigler is rolling in his grave…), Marshall Steinbaum keeps alive the hipster-antitrust assertion that lax antitrust enforcement — this time in the labor market — is to blame for… well, most? all? of what’s wrong with “the labor market and the broader macroeconomic conditions” in the country.

In this entry, Steinbaum takes particular aim at the US enforcement agencies, which he claims do not consider monopsony power in merger review (and other antitrust enforcement actions) because their current consumer welfare framework somehow doesn’t recognize monopsony as a possible harm.

This will probably come as news to the agencies themselves, whose Horizontal Merger Guidelines devote an entire (albeit brief) section (section 12) to monopsony, noting that:

Mergers of competing buyers can enhance market power on the buying side of the market, just as mergers of competing sellers can enhance market power on the selling side of the market. Buyer market power is sometimes called “monopsony power.”

* * *

Market power on the buying side of the market is not a significant concern if suppliers have numerous attractive outlets for their goods or services. However, when that is not the case, the Agencies may conclude that the merger of competing buyers is likely to lessen competition in a manner harmful to sellers.

Steinbaum fails to mention the HMGs, but he does point to a US submission to the OECD to make his point. In that document, the agencies state that

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) [] do not consider employment or other non-competition factors in their antitrust analysis. The antitrust agencies have learned that, while such considerations “may be appropriate policy objectives and worthy goals overall… integrating their consideration into a competition analysis… can lead to poor outcomes to the detriment of both businesses and consumers.” Instead, the antitrust agencies focus on ensuring robust competition that benefits consumers and leave other policies such as employment to other parts of government that may be specifically charged with or better placed to consider such objectives.

Steinbaum, of course, cites only the first sentence. And he uses it as a launching-off point to attack the notion that antitrust is an improper tool for labor market regulation. But if he had just read a little bit further in the (very short) document he cites, Steinbaum might have discovered that the US antitrust agencies have, in fact, challenged the exercise of collusive monopsony power in labor markets. As footnote 19 of the OECD submission notes:

Although employment is not a relevant policy goal in antitrust analysis, anticompetitive conduct affecting terms of employment can violate the Sherman Act. See, e.g., DOJ settlement with eBay Inc. that prevents the company from entering into or maintaining agreements with other companies that restrain employee recruiting or hiring; FTC settlement with ski equipment manufacturers settling charges that companies illegally agreed not to compete for one another’s ski endorsers or employees. (Emphasis added).

And, ironically, while asserting that labor market collusion doesn’t matter to the agencies, Steinbaum himself points to “the Justice Department’s 2010 lawsuit against Silicon Valley employers for colluding not to hire one another’s programmers.”

Steinbaum instead opts for a willful misreading of the first sentence of the OECD submission. But what the OECD document refers to, of course, are situations where two firms merge, no market power is created (either in input or output markets), but people are laid off because the merged firm does not need all of, say, the IT and human resources employees previously employed in the pre-merger world.

Does Steinbaum really think this is grounds for challenging the merger on antitrust grounds?

Actually, his post suggests that he does indeed think so, although he doesn’t come right out and say it. What he does say — as he must in order to bring antitrust enforcement to bear on the low- and unskilled labor markets (e.g., burger flippers; retail cashiers; Uber drivers) he purports to care most about — is that:

Employers can have that control [over employees, as opposed to independent contractors] without first establishing themselves as a monopoly—in fact, reclassification [of workers as independent contractors] is increasingly standard operating procedure in many industries, which means that treating it as a violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act should not require that outright monopolization must first be shown. (Emphasis added).

Honestly, I don’t have any idea what he means. Somehow, because firms hire independent contractors where at one time long ago they might have hired employees… they engage in Sherman Act violations, even if they don’t have market power? Huh?

I get why he needs to try to make this move: As I intimated above, there is probably not a single firm in the world that hires low- or unskilled workers that has anything approaching monopsony power in those labor markets. Even Uber, the example he uses, has nothing like monopsony power, unless perhaps you define the market (completely improperly) as “drivers already working for Uber.” Even then Uber doesn’t have monopsony power: There can be no (or, at best, virtually no) markets in the world where an Uber driver has no other potential employment opportunities but working for Uber.

Moreover, how on earth is hiring independent contractors evidence of anticompetitive behavior? ”Reclassification” is not, in fact, “standard operating procedure.” It is the case that in many industries firms (unilaterally) often decide to contract out the hiring of low- and unskilled workers over whom they do not need to exercise direct oversight to specialized firms, thus not employing those workers directly. That isn’t “reclassification” of existing workers who have no choice but to accept their employer’s terms; it’s a long-term evolution of the economy toward specialization, enabled in part by technology.

And if we’re really concerned about what “employee” and “independent contractor” mean for workers and employment regulation, we should reconsider those outdated categories. Firms are faced with a binary choice: hire workers or independent contractors. Neither really fits many of today’s employment arrangements very well, but that’s the choice firms are given. That they sometimes choose “independent worker” over “employee” is hardly evidence of anticompetitive conduct meriting antitrust enforcement.

The point is: The notion that any of this is evidence of monopsony power, or that the antitrust enforcement agencies don’t care about monopsony power — because, Bork! — is absurd.

Even more absurd is the notion that the antitrust laws should be used to effect Steinbaum’s preferred market regulations — independent of proof of actual anticompetitive effect. I get that it’s hard to convince Congress to pass the precise laws you want all the time. But simply routing around Congress and using the antitrust statutes as a sort of meta-legislation to enact whatever happens to be Marshall Steinbaum’s preferred regulation du jour is ridiculous.

Which is a point the OECD submission made (again, if only Steinbaum had read beyond the first sentence…):

[T]wo difficulties with expanding the scope of antitrust analysis to include employment concerns warrant discussion. First, a full accounting of employment effects would require consideration of short-term effects, such as likely layoffs by the merged firm, but also long-term effects, which could include employment gains elsewhere in the industry or in the economy arising from efficiencies generated by the merger. Measuring these effects would [be extremely difficult.]. Second, unless a clear policy spelling out how the antitrust agency would assess the appropriate weight to give employment effects in relation to the proposed conduct or transaction’s procompetitive and anticompetitive effects could be developed, [such enforcement would be deeply problematic, and essentially arbitrary].

To be sure, the agencies don’t recognize enough that they already face the problem of reconciling multidimensional effects — e.g., short-, medium-, and long-term price effects, innovation effects, product quality effects, etc. But there is no reason to exacerbate the problem by asking them to also consider employment effects. Especially not in Steinbaum’s world in which certain employment effects are problematic even without evidence of market power or even actual anticompetitive harm, just because he says so.

Consider how this might play out:

Suppose that Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper… and every other soft drink company in the world attempted to merge, creating a monopoly soft drink manufacturer. In what possible employment market would even this merger create a monopsony in which anticompetitive harm could be tied to the merger? In the market for “people who know soft drink secret formulas?” Yet Steinbaum would have the Sherman Act enforced against such a merger not because it might create a product market monopoly, but because the existence of a product market monopoly means the firm must be able to bad things in other markets, as well. For Steinbaum and all the other scolds who see concentration as the source of all evil, the dearth of evidence to support such a claim is no barrier (on which, see, e.g., this recent, content-less NYT article (that, naturally, quotes Steinbaum) on how “big business may be to blame” for the slowing rate of startups).

The point is, monopoly power in a product market does not necessarily have any relationship to monopsony power in the labor market. Simply asserting that it does — and lambasting the enforcement agencies for not just accepting that assertion — is farcical.

The real question, however, is what has happened to the University of Chicago that it continues to provide a platform for such nonsense?

I’ll be participating in two excellent antitrust/consumer protection events next week in DC, both of which may be of interest to our readers:

5th Annual Public Policy Conference on the Law & Economics of Privacy and Data Security

hosted by the GMU Law & Economics Center’s Program on Economics & Privacy, in partnership with the Future of Privacy Forum, and the Journal of Law, Economics & Policy.

Conference Description:

Data flows are central to an increasingly large share of the economy. A wide array of products and business models—from the sharing economy and artificial intelligence to autonomous vehicles and embedded medical devices—rely on personal data. Consequently, privacy regulation leaves a large economic footprint. As with any regulatory enterprise, the key to sound data policy is striking a balance between competing interests and norms that leaves consumers better off; finding an approach that addresses privacy concerns, but also supports the benefits of technology is an increasingly complex challenge. Not only is technology continuously advancing, but individual attitudes, expectations, and participation vary greatly. New ideas and approaches to privacy must be identified and developed at the same pace and with the same focus as the technologies they address.

This year’s symposium will include panels on Unfairness under Section 5: Unpacking “Substantial Injury”, Conceptualizing the Benefits and Costs from Data Flows, and The Law and Economics of Data Security.

I will be presenting a draft paper, co-authored with Kristian Stout, on the FTC’s reasonableness standard in data security cases following the Commission decision in LabMD, entitled, When “Reasonable” Isn’t: The FTC’s Standard-less Data Security Standard.

Conference Details:

  • Thursday, June 8, 2017
  • 8:00 am to 3:40 pm
  • at George Mason University, Founders Hall (next door to the Law School)
    • 3351 Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA 22201

Register here

View the full agenda here

 

The State of Antitrust Enforcement

hosted by the Federalist Society.

Panel Description:

Antitrust policy during much of the Obama Administration was a continuation of the Bush Administration’s minimal involvement in the market. However, at the end of President Obama’s term, there was a significant pivot to investigations and blocks of high profile mergers such as Halliburton-Baker Hughes, Comcast-Time Warner Cable, Staples-Office Depot, Sysco-US Foods, and Aetna-Humana and Anthem-Cigna. How will or should the new Administration analyze proposed mergers, including certain high profile deals like Walgreens-Rite Aid, AT&T-Time Warner, Inc., and DraftKings-FanDuel?

Join us for a lively luncheon panel discussion that will cover these topics and the anticipated future of antitrust enforcement.

Speakers:

  • Albert A. Foer, Founder and Senior Fellow, American Antitrust Institute
  • Profesor Geoffrey A. Manne, Executive Director, International Center for Law & Economics
  • Honorable Joshua D. Wright, Professor of Law, George Mason University School of Law
  • Moderator: Honorable Ronald A. Cass, Dean Emeritus, Boston University School of Law and President, Cass & Associates, PC

Panel Details:

  • Friday, June 09, 2017
  • 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm
  • at the National Press Club, MWL Conference Rooms
    • 529 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20045

Register here

Hope to see everyone at both events!

On February 28, the Heritage Foundation released Prosperity Unleashed:  Smarter Financial Regulation, a Report that lays bare the heavy and unnecessary burdens imposed on our economy by defective financial regulations, and proposed market-oriented regulatory reforms that would benefit American producers, consumers, and the overall economy.  In a recent Truth on the Market blog commentary, I summarized the key findings and recommendations set forth in the Report’s 23 chapters.  In this commentary, I explore in greater detail chapter 19 of the Report, “How Congress Should Protect Consumers’ Finances,” co-authored by George Mason University Foundation Professor of Law Todd J. Zywicki and me.

Chapter 19 makes the case for legislative reform that would eliminate the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s oversight of consumer protection in financial markets and transfer such authority to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (key excerpts with footnote references omitted follow):

Free-market competition is key to the efficient provision of the goods and services that consumers desire. More generally, the free market promotes innovation and overall economic welfare. Imperfect information can, however, limit the ability of competition to be effective in benefiting consumers and the economy. In particular, inaccurate information about the quality and attributes of market offerings may lead consumers to make mistaken purchase decisions—in other words, consumers may not get what they think they bargained for. This will lead to the distrust of market processes, as sellers find it harder to differentiate themselves from their competition. The end result is less-effective competition, less consumer satisfaction, and lower economic welfare.

Fraudulent or deceptive statements regarding product or service attributes, and negative features of products or services that become evident only after sale, are prime examples of inaccurate information that undermines trust in competitive firms. Accordingly, the government has a legitimate role in seeking to curb fraud, deception, and related informational problems. Historically, the federal government’s primary consumer protection agency, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has taken the lead in bringing enforcement actions against businesses that distort markets by engaging in “deceptive” or “unfair” practices when marketing their offerings to consumers. In recent decades, the FTC has taken an economics-focused approach in these areas. Specifically, it has limited “deception prosecutions” to cases where consumers acting reasonably were misled and tangibly harmed, and “unfairness prosecutions” to situations involving consumer injury not outweighed by countervailing benefits (a cost-benefit approach). In other words, although the FTC may have erred from time to time in specific cases, its general approach has avoided government overreach and has been conducive to enhancing marketplace efficiency and consumer welfare.

However, Congress has not allowed the FTC to exercise economy-wide oversight over consumer protection, in general, and fraud and deception, in particular. For many years, a hodgepodge of different federal financial service regulators were empowered to regulate the practices of a wide variety of financial industry entities, with the FTC only empowered to oversee consumer financial protection with respect to the narrow category of “non-bank financial institutions.” As part of the 2010 Dodd–Frank financial reform legislation, Congress created a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), loosely tied to the Federal Reserve Board. While Dodd–Frank mandated shared CFPB–FTC consumer protection jurisdiction over non-bank financial institutions, it transferred all other authority over the many separate consumer financial protection laws to the CFPB alone. The CFPB is simultaneously one of the most powerful and least-accountable regulatory bodies in United States history. In marked contrast to the FTC’s economics-based approach, the CFPB intervenes in financial market consumer-related practices in a heavy-handed arbitrary fashion that ignores sound economics. The upshot is that far from improving market efficiency, the CFPB reduces market efficiency, to the detriment of consumers, producers, and the overall economy. In short, the CFPB’s actions are a prime example of government failure.

The substantive powers of the CFPB are vast and ill-defined. The CFPB has power to regulate the terms and marketing of every consumer credit product in the economy. And, because many small businesses use personal credit to start and grow their businesses (such as personal credit cards, home equity lines of credit, and even products like auto title loans), the CFPB possesses substantial control over much of the allocation of small-business credit as well. The CFPB has the power to take enforcement and regulatory action against “unfair, deceptive, and abusive” consumer credit terms, an authority that the CFPB has exercised with gusto. Moreover, the CFPB has deliberately eschewed regulatory rule-making that would clarify these terms, preferring to engage in case-by-case enforcement actions that undermine predictability and chill vigorous competition and innovation. Yet despite the broad authority granted to the CFPB, its appetite is broader still: The CFPB has taken action to regulate products such as cellphone billing, for-profit career colleges, and even loans made by auto dealers (despite express jurisdictional limits in Dodd–Frank regarding the latter).

The consequences of this unchecked authority have been disastrous for consumers and the economy. Complicated rules with high compliance costs have choked off access to mortgages, credit cards, and other financial products. Overwhelmed by the costs and uncertainty of regulatory compliance, small banks have exited traditional lines of business, such as home mortgages, and feared entering new lines, such as small-dollar loans. Consistent with the general effects of Dodd–Frank, the CFPB has contributed to the consolidation of the American financial sector, making big banks bigger, and forcing consolidation of small banks. By imposing one-size-fits-all bureaucratic underwriting standards on community banks and credit unions, the CFPB has deprived these actors of their traditional model of relationship lending and intimate knowledge of their customers—their lone competitive advantage over megabanks.

Perhaps the most tragic element of the CFPB train wreck is the missed opportunity for reform that it represents. At the time of Dodd–Frank, the system of consumer financial protection was badly in need of modernization: The existing system was cumbersome, incoherent, and ineffective. Fragmented among multiple federal agencies with authority over different providers of financial services, the federal system lacked the ability to lay down a coherent regulatory regime that would promote competition, consumer choice, and consumer protection consistent with the realities of a 21st-century economy and technology. While there is little evidence that the financial crisis resulted from a breakdown of consumer financial protection (as opposed to safety and soundness issues), reform was timely. But Dodd–Frank squandered a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring about real reform.

In this chapter, we briefly make the case that some degree of reform of the consumer financial protection system was appropriate, in particular, the consolidation of consumer financial protection in one federal agency. However, we challenge the apparatus constructed by Dodd–Frank that created a new unaccountable super-regulator with a tunnel vision focus on a narrow definition of “consumer protection.” Instead, we argue that existing substantive powers were largely sufficient to the task of consumer protection, and that Congress could have achieved better results by acting within the existing institutional framework by simply consolidating authority in the FTC. By working within the existing framework of long-standing substantive authorities and institutional arrangements, Congress could have provided the needed modernization of the federal consumer financial protection system without the unintended consequences that have resulted from the creation of the CFPB. . . .

Consolidating the powers granted to the CFPB in the FTC, which still retains certain regulatory responsibilities with respect to consumer finance, would have a number of advantages over the course chosen in Dodd–Frank.

First, the FTC is a multimember, bipartisan commission. This is an important improvement over the structure of the CFPB, which [is led by a single unaccountable director and] is neither an independent commission nor an executive agency. . . . 

[Second,] [t]he FTC [,unlike the CFPB,] is . . . subject to Congress’s appropriations process, an important check on the agency’s actions. . . .

Finally, the FTC has a large Bureau of Economics, staffed with academically trained economists who would be ideally suited to take into account the regulatory economic policy issues, discussed herein, to which the CFPB has paid no heed. This would make it far more likely that agency regulatory decisions affecting consumer credit markets would be taken in light of the effects of agency actions on consumer welfare and the broader economy. . . .

[In conclusion,] [e]liminating the CFPB’s authority over consumer protection in financial services, and transferring such authority to the FTC, would greatly improve the current sorry state of affairs. Admittedly, the FTC is a less-than-perfect agency, and even a multimember-commission structure does not prevent institutional mistakes from being made and repeated by the majority. All in all, however, as an accountable institution, the FTC is far superior to the CFPB. Consolidating this authority with the FTC—where it should have been in the first place—will better allow free markets to promote innovation and overall economic welfare. Strengthening this legal framework to provide a single, clearly defined, properly limited set of rules will facilitate competition among financial firms, thus protecting consumers and providing them with better choices.

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) regrettable January 17 filing of a federal court injunctive action against Qualcomm, in the waning days of the Obama Administration, is a blow to its institutional integrity and well-earned reputation as a top notch competition agency.

Stripping away the semantic gloss, the heart of the FTC’s complaint is that Qualcomm is charging smartphone makers “too much” for licenses needed to practice standardized cellular communications technologies – technologies that Qualcomm developed. This complaint flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s teaching in Verizon v. Trinko that a monopolist has every right to charge monopoly prices and thereby enjoy the full fruits of its legitimately obtained monopoly. But Qualcomm is more than one exceptionally ill-advised example of prosecutorial overreach, that (hopefully) will fail and end up on the scrapheap of unsound federal antitrust initiatives. The Qualcomm complaint undoubtedly will be cited by aggressive foreign competition authorities as showing that American antitrust enforcement now recognizes mere “excessive pricing” as a form of “monopoly abuse” – therefore justifying “excessive pricing” cases that are growing like topsy abroad, especially in East Asia.

Particularly unfortunate is the fact that the Commission chose to authorize the filing by a 2-1 vote, which ignored Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen’s pithy dissent – a rarity in cases involving the filing of federal lawsuits. Commissioner Ohlhausen’s analysis skewers the legal and economic basis for the FTC’s complaint, and her summary, which includes an outstanding statement of basic antitrust enforcement principles, is well worth noting (footnote omitted):

My practice is not to write dissenting statements when the Commission, against my vote, authorizes litigation. That policy reflects several principles. It preserves the integrity of the agency’s mission, recognizes that reasonable minds can differ, and supports the FTC’s staff, who litigate demanding cases for consumers’ benefit. On the rare occasion when I do write, it has been to avoid implying that I disagree with the complaint’s theory of liability.

I do not depart from that policy lightly. Yet, in the Commission’s 2-1 decision to sue Qualcomm, I face an extraordinary situation: an enforcement action based on a flawed legal theory (including a standalone Section 5 count) that lacks economic and evidentiary support, that was brought on the eve of a new presidential administration, and that, by its mere issuance, will undermine U.S. intellectual property rights in Asia and worldwide. These extreme circumstances compel me to voice my objections.

Let us hope that President Trump makes it an early and high priority to name Commissioner Ohlhausen Acting Chairman of the FTC. The FTC simply cannot afford any more embarrassing and ill-reasoned antitrust initiatives that undermine basic principles of American antitrust enforcement and may be used by foreign competition authorities to justify unwarranted actions against American firms. Maureen Ohlhausen can be counted upon to provide needed leadership in moving the Commission in a sounder direction.

P.S. I have previously published a commentary at this site regarding an unwarranted competition law Statement of Objections directed at Google by the European Commission, a matter which did not involve patent licensing. And for a more general critique of European competition policy along these lines, see here.

As Truth on the Market readers prepare to enjoy their Thanksgiving dinners, let me offer some (hopefully palatable) “food for thought” on a competition policy for the new Trump Administration.  In referring to competition policy, I refer not just to lawsuits directed against private anticompetitive conduct, but more broadly to efforts aimed at curbing government regulatory barriers that undermine the competitive process.

Public regulatory barriers are a huge problem.  Their costs have been highlighted by prestigious international research bodies such as the OECD and World Bank, and considered by the International Competition Network’s Advocacy Working Group.  Government-imposed restrictions on competition benefit powerful incumbents and stymie entry by innovative new competitors.  (One manifestation of this that is particularly harmful for American workers and denies job opportunities to millions of lower-income Americans is occupational licensing, whose increasing burdens are delineated in a substantial body of research – see, for example, a 2015 Obama Administration White House Report and a 2016 Heritage Foundation Commentary that explore the topic.)  Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Justice Department (DOJ) antitrust officials should consider emphasizing “state action” lawsuits aimed at displacing entry barriers and other unwarranted competitive burdens imposed by self-interested state regulatory boards.  When the legal prerequisites for such enforcement actions are not met, the FTC and the DOJ should ramp up their “competition advocacy” efforts, with the aim of convincing state regulators to avoid adopting new restraints on competition – and, where feasible, eliminating or curbing existing restraints.

The FTC and DOJ also should be authorized by the White House to pursue advocacy initiatives whose goal is to dismantle or lessen the burden of excessive federal regulations (such advocacy played a role in furthering federal regulatory reform during the Ford and Carter Administrations).  To bolster those initiatives, the Trump Administration should consider establishing a high-level federal task force on procompetitive regulatory reform, in the spirit of previous reform initiatives.  The task force would report to the president and include senior level representatives from all federal agencies with regulatory responsibilities.  The task force could examine all major regulatory and statutory schemes overseen by Executive Branch and independent agencies, and develop a list of specific reforms designed to reduce federal regulatory impediments to robust competition.  Those reforms could be implemented through specific regulatory changes or legislative proposals, as the case might require.  The task force would have ample material to work with – for example, anticompetitive cartel-like output restrictions, such as those allowed under federal agricultural orders, are especially pernicious.  In addition to specific cartel-like programs, scores of regulatory regimes administered by individual federal agencies impose huge costs and merit particular attention, as documented in the Heritage Foundation’s annual “Red Tape Rising” reports that document the growing burden of federal regulation (see, for example, the 2016 edition of Red Tape Rising).

With respect to traditional antitrust enforcement, the Trump Administration should emphasize sound, empirically-based economic analysis in merger and non-merger enforcement.  They should also adopt a “decision-theoretic” approach to enforcement, to the greatest extent feasible.  Specifically, in developing their enforcement priorities, in considering case selection criteria, and in assessing possible new (or amended) antitrust guidelines, DOJ and FTC antitrust enforcers should recall that antitrust is, like all administrative systems, inevitably subject to error costs.  Accordingly, Trump Administration enforcers should be mindful of the outstanding insights provide by Judge (and Professor) Frank Easterbrook on the harm from false positives in enforcement (which are more easily corrected by market forces than false negatives), and by Justice (and Professor) Stephen Breyer on the value of bright line rules and safe harbors, supported by sound economic analysis.  As to specifics, the DOJ and FTC should issue clear statements of policy on the great respect that should be accorded the exercise of intellectual property rights, to correct Obama antitrust enforcers’ poor record on intellectual property protection (see, for example, here).  The DOJ and the FTC should also accord greater respect to the efficiencies associated with unilateral conduct by firms possessing market power, and should consider reissuing an updated and revised version of the 2008 DOJ Report on Single Firm Conduct).

With regard to international competition policy, procedural issues should be accorded high priority.  Full and fair consideration by enforcers of all relevant evidence (especially economic evidence) and the views of all concerned parties ensures that sound analysis is brought to bear in enforcement proceedings and, thus, that errors in antitrust enforcement are minimized.  Regrettably, a lack of due process in foreign antitrust enforcement has become a matter of growing concern to the United States, as foreign competition agencies proliferate and increasingly bring actions against American companies.  Thus, the Trump Administration should make due process problems in antitrust a major enforcement priority.  White House-level support (ensuring the backing of other key Executive Branch departments engaged in foreign economic policy) for this priority may be essential, in order to strengthen the U.S. Government’s hand in negotiations and consultations with foreign governments on process-related concerns.

Finally, other international competition policy matters also merit close scrutiny by the new Administration.  These include such issues as the inappropriate imposition of extraterritorial remedies on American companies by foreign competition agencies; the harmful impact of anticompetitive foreign regulations on American businesses; and inappropriate attacks on the legitimate exercise of intellectual property by American firms (in particular, American patent holders).  As in the case of process-related concerns, White House attention and broad U.S. Government involvement in dealing with these problems may be essential.

That’s all for now, folks.  May you all enjoy your turkey and have a blessed Thanksgiving with friends and family.

On November 1st and 2nd, Cofece, the Mexican Competition Agency, hosted an International Competition Network (ICN) workshop on competition advocacy, featuring presentations from government agency officials, think tanks, and international organizations.  The workshop highlighted the excellent work that the ICN has done in supporting efforts to curb the most serious source of harm to the competitive process worldwide:  government enactment of anticompetitive regulatory schemes and guidance, often at the behest of well-connected, cronyist rent-seeking businesses that seek to protect their privileges by imposing costs on rivals.

The ICN describes the goal of its Advocacy Working Group in the following terms:

The mission of the Advocacy Working Group (AWG) is to undertake projects, to develop practical tools and guidance, and to facilitate experience-sharing among ICN member agencies, in order to improve the effectiveness of ICN members in advocating the dissemination of competition principles and to promote the development of a competition culture within society. Advocacy reinforces the value of competition by educating citizens, businesses and policy-makers. In addition to supporting the efforts of competition agencies in tackling private anti-competitive behaviour, advocacy is an important tool in addressing public restrictions to competition. Competition advocacy in this context refers to those activities conducted by the competition agency, that are related to the promotion of a competitive environment by means of non-enforcement mechanisms, mainly through its relationships with other governmental entities and by increasing public awareness in regard to the benefits of competition.  

At the Cofece workshop, I moderated a panel on “stakeholder engagement in the advocacy process,” featuring presentations by representatives of Cofece, the Japan Fair Trade Commission, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  As I emphasized in my panel presentation:

Developing an appropriate competition advocacy strategy is key to successful interventions.  Public officials should be mindful of the relative importance of particular advocacy targets, as well as matter-specific political constraints and competing stakeholder interests.  In particular, a competition authority may greatly benefit by identifying and motivating stakeholders who are directly affected by the competitive restraints that are targeted by advocacy interventions.  The active support of such stakeholders may be key to the success of an advocacy initiative.  More generally, by reaching out to business and consumer stakeholders, a competition authority may build alliances that will strengthen its long-term ability to be effective in promoting a pro-competition agenda. 

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, has developed a well-thought-out approach to building strong relationships with stakeholders.  The FTC holds public publicized workshops highlighting emerging policy issues, in which NGAs and civil society representatives with expertise are invited to participate.  Its personnel (and, in particular, its head) speak before a variety of audiences to inform them of what the FTC is doing and of the opportunities for advocacy filings.  It reaches out to civil society groups and the general public through the media, utilizing the Internet and other sources of public information dissemination.  It is willing to hold informal non-public meetings with NGAs and civil society representatives to hear their candid views and concerns off the record.  It carries out major studies (often following up on information gathered at workshops and from non-government sources) in addition to making advocacy filings.  It interacts closely with substantive FTC enforcers and economists to obtain “leads” that may inform future advocacy projects and to suggest possible lines for substantive investigations, based on the input it has received.  It communicates with other competition authorities on advocacy strategies.  Other competition authorities may wish to note the FTC’s approach in organizing their own advocacy programs.  

Competition authorities would also benefit from consulting the ICN Market Studies Good Practice Handbook, last released in updated form at the April 2016 ICN 15th Annual Conference.  This discussion of the role of stakeholders, though presented in the context of market studies, provides insights that are broadly applicable more generally to the competition advocacy process.  As the Handbook explains, stakeholders are any individuals, groups of individuals, or organizations that have an interest in a particular market or that can be affected by market conditions.  The Handbook explains the crucial inputs that stakeholders can provide a competition authority and how engaging with stakeholders can influence the authority’s reputation.  The Handbook emphasizes that a stakeholder engagement strategy can be used to determine whether particular stakeholders will be influential, supportive, or unsupportive to a particular endeavor; to consider the input expected from the various stakeholders and plan for soliciting and using this input; and to describing how and when the authority will seek to engage stakeholders.  The Handbook provides a long list of categories of stakeholders and suggests ways of reaching out to stakeholders, including through public consultations, open seminars, workshops, and roundtables.  Next, the Handbook presents tactics for engaging with stakeholders.  The Handbook closes by summarizing key good practices, including publicly soliciting broad voluntary stakeholder engagement, developing a stakeholder engagement strategy early in a particular process, and reviewing and updating the engagement strategy as necessary throughout a particular competition authority undertaking.

In sum, properly conducted advocacy initiatives, along with investigations of hard core cartels, are among the highest-valued uses of limited competition agency resources.  To the extent advocacy succeeds in unraveling government-imposed impediments to effective competition, it pays long-run dividends in terms of enhanced consumer welfare, greater economic efficiency, and more robust economic growth.  Let us hope that governments around the world (including, of course, the United States Government) keep this in mind in making resource commitments and setting priorities for their competition agencies.

Next week the FCC is slated to vote on the second iteration of Chairman Wheeler’s proposed broadband privacy rules. Of course, as has become all too common, none of us outside the Commission has actually seen the proposal. But earlier this month Chairman Wheeler released a Fact Sheet that suggests some of the ways it would update the rules he initially proposed.

According to the Fact Sheet, the new proposed rules are

designed to evolve with changing technologies and encourage innovation, and are in harmony with other key privacy frameworks and principles — including those outlined by the Federal Trade Commission and the Administration’s Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

Unfortunately, the Chairman’s proposal appears to fall short of the mark on both counts.

As I discuss in detail in a letter filed with the Commission yesterday, despite the Chairman’s rhetoric, the rules described in the Fact Sheet fail to align with the FTC’s approach to privacy regulation embodied in its 2012 Privacy Report in at least two key ways:

  • First, the Fact Sheet significantly expands the scope of information that would be considered “sensitive” beyond that contemplated by the FTC. That, in turn, would impose onerous and unnecessary consumer consent obligations on commonplace uses of data, undermining consumer welfare, depriving consumers of information and access to new products and services, and restricting competition.
  • Second, unlike the FTC’s framework, the proposal described by the Fact Sheet ignores the crucial role of “context” in determining the appropriate level of consumer choice before affected companies may use consumer data. Instead, the Fact Sheet takes a rigid, acontextual approach that would stifle innovation and harm consumers.

The Chairman’s proposal moves far beyond the FTC’s definition of “sensitive” information requiring “opt-in” consent

The FTC’s privacy guidance is, in its design at least, appropriately flexible, aimed at balancing the immense benefits of information flows with sensible consumer protections. Thus it eschews an “inflexible list of specific practices” that would automatically trigger onerous consent obligations and “risk[] undermining companies’ incentives to innovate and develop new products and services….”

Under the FTC’s regime, depending on the context in which it is used (on which see the next section, below), the sensitivity of data delineates the difference between data uses that require “express affirmative” (opt-in) consent and those that do not (requiring only “other protections” short of opt-in consent — e.g., opt-out).

Because the distinction is so important — because opt-in consent is much more likely to staunch data flows — the FTC endeavors to provide guidance as to what data should be considered sensitive, and to cabin the scope of activities requiring opt-in consent. Thus, the FTC explains that “information about children, financial and health information, Social Security numbers, and precise geolocation data [should be treated as] sensitive.” But beyond those instances, the FTC doesn’t consider any other type of data as inherently sensitive.

By contrast, and without explanation, Chairman Wheeler’s Fact Sheet significantly expands what constitutes “sensitive” information requiring “opt-in” consent by adding “web browsing history,” “app usage history,” and “the content of communications” to the list of categories of data deemed sensitive in all cases.

By treating some of the most common and important categories of data as always “sensitive,” and by making the sensitivity of data the sole determinant for opt-in consent, the Chairman’s proposal would make it almost impossible for ISPs to make routine (to say nothing of innovative), appropriate, and productive uses of data comparable to those undertaken by virtually every major Internet company.  This goes well beyond anything contemplated by the FTC — with no evidence of any corresponding benefit to consumers and with obvious harm to competition, innovation, and the overall economy online.

And because the Chairman’s proposal would impose these inappropriate and costly restrictions only on ISPs, it would create a barrier to competition by ISPs in other platform markets, without offering a defensible consumer protection rationale to justify either the disparate treatment or the restriction on competition.

As Fred Cate and Michael Staten have explained,

“Opt-in” offers no greater privacy protection than allowing consumers to “opt-out”…, yet it imposes significantly higher costs on consumers, businesses, and the economy.

Not surprisingly, these costs fall disproportionately on the relatively poor and the less technology-literate. In the former case, opt-in requirements may deter companies from offering services at all, even to people who would make a very different trade-off between privacy and monetary price. In the latter case, because an initial decision to opt-in must be taken in relative ignorance, users without much experience to guide their decisions will face effectively higher decision-making costs than more knowledgeable users.

The Chairman’s proposal ignores the central role of context in the FTC’s privacy framework

In part for these reasons, central to the FTC’s more flexible framework is the establishment of a sort of “safe harbor” for data uses where the benefits clearly exceed the costs and consumer consent may be inferred:

Companies do not need to provide choice before collecting and using consumer data for practices that are consistent with the context of the transaction or the company’s relationship with the consumer….

Thus for many straightforward uses of data, the “context of the transaction,” not the asserted “sensitivity” of the underlying data, is the threshold question in evaluating the need for consumer choice in the FTC’s framework.

Chairman Wheeler’s Fact Sheet, by contrast, ignores this central role of context in its analysis. Instead, it focuses solely on data sensitivity, claiming that doing so is “in line with customer expectations.”

But this is inconsistent with the FTC’s approach.

In fact, the FTC’s framework explicitly rejects a pure “consumer expectations” standard:

Rather than relying solely upon the inherently subjective test of consumer expectations, the… standard focuses on more objective factors related to the consumer’s relationship with a business.

And while everyone agrees that sensitivity is a key part of pegging privacy regulation to actual consumer and corporate relationships, the FTC also recognizes that the importance of the sensitivity of the underlying data varies with the context in which it is used. Or, in the words of the White House’s 2012 Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World Report (introducing its Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights), “[c]ontext should shape the balance and relative emphasis of particular principles” guiding the regulation of privacy.

By contrast, Chairman Wheeler’s “sensitivity-determines-consumer-expectations” framing is a transparent attempt to claim fealty to the FTC’s (and the Administration’s) privacy standards while actually implementing a privacy regime that is flatly inconsistent with them.

The FTC’s approach isn’t perfect, but that’s no excuse to double down on its failings

The FTC’s privacy guidance, and even more so its privacy enforcement practices under Section 5, are far from perfect. The FTC should be commended for its acknowledgement that consumers’ privacy preferences and companies’ uses of data will change over time, and that there are trade-offs inherent in imposing any constraints on the flow of information. But even the FTC fails to actually assess the magnitude of the costs and benefits of, and the deep complexities involved in, the trade-off, and puts an unjustified thumb on the scale in favor of limiting data use.  

But that’s no excuse for Chairman Wheeler to ignore what the FTC gets right, and to double down on its failings. Based on the Fact Sheet (and the initial NPRM), it’s a virtual certainty that the Chairman’s proposal doesn’t heed the FTC’s refreshing call for humility and flexibility regarding the application of privacy rules to ISPs (and other Internet platforms):

These are complex and rapidly evolving areas, and more work should be done to learn about the practices of all large platform providers, their technical capabilities with respect to consumer data, and their current and expected uses of such data.

The rhetoric of the Chairman’s Fact Sheet is correct: the FCC should in fact conform its approach to privacy to the framework established by the FTC. Unfortunately, the reality of the Fact Sheet simply doesn’t comport with its rhetoric.

As the FCC’s vote on the Chairman’s proposal rapidly nears, and in light of its significant defects, we can only hope that the rest of the Commission refrains from reflexively adopting the proposed regime, and works to ensure that these problematic deviations from the FTC’s framework are addressed before moving forward.

On October 6, 2016, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued Patent Assertion Entity Activity: An FTC Study (PAE Study), its much-anticipated report on patent assertion entity (PAE) activity.  The PAE Study defined PAEs as follows:

Patent assertion entities (PAEs) are businesses that acquire patents from third parties and seek to generate revenue by asserting them against alleged infringers.  PAEs monetize their patents primarily through licensing negotiations with alleged infringers, infringement litigation, or both. In other words, PAEs do not rely on producing, manufacturing, or selling goods.  When negotiating, a PAE’s objective is to enter into a royalty-bearing or lump-sum license.  When litigating, to generate any revenue, a PAE must either settle with the defendant or ultimately prevail in litigation and obtain relief from the court.

The FTC was mindful of the costs that would be imposed on PAEs, required by compulsory process to respond to the agency’s requests for information.  Accordingly, the FTC obtained information from only 22 PAEs, 18 of which it called “Litigation PAEs” (which “typically sued potential licensees and settled shortly afterward by entering into license agreements with defendants covering small portfolios,” usually yielding total royalties of under $300,000) and 4 of which it dubbed “Portfolio PAEs” (which typically negotiated multimillion dollars licenses covering large portfolios of patents and raised their capital through institutional investors or manufacturing firms).

Furthermore, the FTC’s research was narrowly targeted, not broad-based.  The agency explained that “[o]f all the patents held by PAEs in the FTC’s study, 88% fell under the Computers & Communications or Other Electrical & Electronic technology categories, and more than 75% of the Study PAEs’ overall holdings were software-related patents.”  Consistent with the nature of this sample, the FTC concentrated primarily on a case study of PAE activity in the wireless chipset sector.  The case study revealed that PAEs were more likely to assert their patents through litigation than were wireless manufacturers, and that “30% of Portfolio PAE wireless patent licenses and nearly 90% of Litigation PAE wireless patent licenses resulted from litigation, while only 1% of Wireless Manufacturer wireless patent licenses resulted from litigation.”  But perhaps more striking than what the FTC found was what it did not uncover.  Due to data limitations, “[t]he FTC . . . [did not] attempt[] to determine if the royalties received by Study PAEs were higher or lower than those that the original assignees of the licensed patents could have earned.”  In addition, the case study did “not report how much revenue PAEs shared with others, including independent inventors, or the costs of assertion activity.”

Curiously, the PAE Study also leaped to certain conclusions regarding PAE settlements based on questionable assumptions and without considering legitimate potential incentives for such settlements.  Thus, for example, the FTC found it particularly significant that 77% of litigation PAE settlements were for less than $300,000.  Why?  Because $300,000 was a “de facto benchmark” for nuisance litigation settlements, merely based on one American Intellectual Property Law Association study that claimed defending a non-practicing entity patent lawsuit through the end of discovery costs between $300,000 and $2.5 million, depending on the amount in controversy.  In light of that one study, the FTC surmised “that discovery costs, and not the technological value of the patent, may set the benchmark for settlement value in Litigation PAE cases.”  Thus, according to the FTC, “the behavior of Litigation PAEs is consistent with nuisance litigation.”  As noted patent lawyer Gene Quinn has pointed out, however, the FTC ignored the alternative eminently logical possibility that many settlements for less than $300,000 merely represented reasonable valuations of the patent rights at issue.  Quinn pithily stated:

[T]he reality is the FTC doesn’t know enough about the industry to understand that $300,000 is an arbitrary line in the sand that holds no relevance in the real world. For the very same reason that they said the term “patent troll” is unhelpful (i.e., because it inappropriately discriminates against rights owners without understanding the business model and practices), so too is $300,000 equally unhelpful. Without any understanding or appreciation of the value of the core innovation subject to the license there is no way to know whether a license is being offered for nuisance value or whether it is being offered at full, fair and appropriate value to compensate the patent owner for the infringement they had to chase down in litigation.

I thought the FTC was charged with ensuring fair business practices? It seems what they are doing is radically discriminating against incremental innovations valued at less than $300,000 and actually encouraging patent owners to charge more for their licenses than they are worth so they don’t get labeled a nuisance. Talk about perverse incentives! The FTC should stick to areas where they have subject matter competence and leave these patent issues to the experts.     

In sum, the FTC found that in one particular specialized industry sector featuring a certain  category of patents (software patents), PAEs tended to sue more than manufacturers before agreeing to licensing terms – hardly a surprising finding or a sign of a problem.  (To the contrary, the existence of “substantial” PAE litigation that led to licenses might be a sign that PAEs were acting as efficient intermediaries representing the interests and effectively vindicating the rights of small patentees.)  The FTC was not, however, able to comment on the relative levels of royalties, the extent to which PAE revenues were distributed to inventors, or the costs of PAE litigation (as opposed to any other sort of litigation).  Additionally, the FTC made certain assumptions about certain PAE litigation settlements that ignored reasonable alternative explanations for the behavior that was observed.  Accordingly, the reasonable observer would conclude from this that the agency was (to say the least) in no position to make any sort of policy recommendations, given the absence of any hard evidence of PAE abuses or excessive waste from litigation.

Unfortunately, the reasonable observer would be mistaken.  The FTC recommended reforms to: (1) address discovery burden and “cost asymmetries” (the notion that PAEs are less subject to costly counterclaims because they are not producers) in PAE litigation; (2) provide the courts and defendants with more information about the plaintiffs that have filed infringement lawsuits; (3) streamline multiple cases brought against defendants on the same theories of infringement; and (4) provide sufficient notice of these infringement theories as courts continue to develop heightened pleading requirements for patent cases.

Without getting into the merits of these individual suggestions (and without in any way denigrating the hard work and dedication of the highly talented FTC staffers who drafted the PAE Study), it is sufficient to note that they bear no logical relationship to the factual findings of the report.  The recommendations, which closely echo certain elements of various “patent reform” legislative proposals that have been floated in recent years, could have been advanced before any data had been gathered – with a saving to the companies that had to respond.  In short, the recommendations are classic pre-baked “solutions” to problems that have long been hypothesized.  Advancing such recommendations based on discrete information regarding a small skewed sample of PAEs – without obtaining crucial information on the direct costs and benefits of the PAE transactions being observed, or the incentive effects of PAE activity – is at odds with the FTC’s proud tradition of empirical research.  Unfortunately, Devin Hartline of the Antonin Scalia Law School proved prescient when commenting last April on the possible problems with the PAE Report, based on what was known about it prior to its release (and based on the preliminary thoughts of noted economists and law professors):

While the FTC study may generate interesting information about a handful of firms, it won’t tell us much about how PAEs affect competition and innovation in general.  The study is simply not designed to do this.  It instead is a fact-finding mission, the results of which could guide future missions.  Such empirical research can be valuable, but it’s very important to recognize the limited utility of the information being collected.  And it’s crucial not to draw policy conclusions from it.  Unfortunately, if the comments of some of the Commissioners and supporters of the study are any indication, many critics have already made up their minds about the net effects of PAEs, and they will likely use the study to perpetuate the biased anti-patent fervor that has captured so much attention in recent years.

To the extent patent reform is warranted, it should be considered carefully in a measured fashion, with full consideration given to the costs, benefits, and potential unintended consequences of suggested changes to the patent system and to litigation procedures.  As John Malcolm and I explained in a 2015 Heritage Foundation Legal Backgrounder which explored the relative merits of individual proposed reforms:

Before deciding to take action, Congress should weigh the particular merits of individual reform proposals carefully and meticulously, taking into account their possible harmful effects as well as their intended benefits. Precipitous, unreflective action on legislation is unwarranted, and caution should be the byword, especially since the effects of 2011 legislative changes and recent Supreme Court decisions have not yet been fully absorbed. Taking time is key to avoiding the serious and costly errors that too often are the fruit of omnibus legislative efforts.

Notably, this Legal Backgrounder also noted potential beneficial aspects of PAE activity that were not reflected in the PAE Study:

[E]ven entities whose business model relies on purchasing patents and licensing them or suing those who refuse to enter into licensing agreements and infringe those patents can serve a useful—even a vital—purpose. Some infringers may be large companies that infringe the patents of smaller companies or individual inventors, banking on the fact that such a small-time inventor will be less likely to file a lawsuit against a well-financed entity. Patent aggregators, often backed by well-heeled investors, help to level the playing field and can prevent such abuses.

More important, patent aggregators facilitate an efficient division of labor between inventors and those who wish to use those inventions for the betterment of their fellow man, allowing inventors to spend their time doing what they do best: inventing. Patent aggregators can expand access to patent pools that allow third parties to deal with one vendor instead of many, provide much-needed capital to inventors, and lead to a variety of licensing and sublicensing agreements that create and reflect a valuable and vibrant marketplace for patent holders and provide the kinds of incentives that spur innovation. They can also aggregate patents for litigation purposes, purchasing patents and licensing them in bundles.

This has at least two advantages: It can reduce the transaction costs for licensing multiple patents, and it can help to outsource and centralize patent litigation for multiple patent holders, thereby decreasing the costs associated with such litigation. In the copyright space, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) plays a similar role.

All of this is to say that there can be good patent assertion entities that seek licensing agreements and file claims to enforce legitimate patents and bad patent assertion entities that purchase broad and vague patents and make absurd demands to extort license payments or settlements. The proper way to address patent trolls, therefore, is by using the same means and methods that would likely work against ambulance chasers or other bad actors who exist in other areas of the law, such as medical malpractice, securities fraud, and product liability—individuals who gin up or grossly exaggerate alleged injuries and then make unreasonable demands to extort settlements up to and including filing frivolous lawsuits.

In conclusion, the FTC would be well advised to avoid putting forth patent reform recommendations based on the findings of the PAE Study.  At the very least, it should explicitly weigh the implications of other research, which explores PAE-related efficiencies and considers all the ramifications of procedural and patent law changes, before seeking to advance any “PAE reform” recommendations.

On October 6, the Heritage Foundation released a legal memorandum (authored by me) that recounts the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent sad history of ignoring the rule of law in its enforcement and regulatory actions.  The memorandum calls for a legislative reform agenda to rectify this problem by reining in the agency.  Key points culled from the memorandum are highlighted below (footnotes omitted).

1.  Background: The Rule of Law

The American concept of the rule of law is embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and in the constitutional principles of separation of powers, an independent judiciary, a government under law, and equality of all before the law.  As the late Friedrich Hayek explained:

[The rule of law] means the government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand—rules which make it possible to see with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge.

In other words, the rule of law involves a system of binding rules that have been adopted and applied by a valid government authority and that embody clarity, predictability, and equal applicability.   Practices employed by government agencies that undermine the rule of law ignore a fundamental duty that the government owes its citizens and thereby weaken America’s constitutional system.  It follows, therefore, that close scrutiny of federal administrative agencies’ activities is particularly important in helping to achieve public accountability for an agency’s failure to honor the rule of law standard.

2.  How the FCC Flouts the Rule of Law

Applying such scrutiny to the FCC reveals that it does a poor job in adhering to rule of law principles, both in its procedural practices and in various substantive actions that it has taken.

Opaque procedures that generate uncertainties regarding agency plans undermine the clarity and predictability of agency actions and thereby undermine the effectiveness of rule of law safeguards.  Process-based reforms designed to deal with these problems, to the extent that they succeed, strengthen the rule of law.  Procedural inadequacies at the FCC include inordinate delays and a lack of transparency, including the failure to promptly release the text of proposed and final rules.  The FCC itself has admitted that procedural improvements are needed, and legislative proposals have been advanced to make the Commission more transparent, efficient, and accountable.

Nevertheless, mere procedural reforms would not address the far more serious problem of FCC substantive actions that flout the rule of law.  Examples abound:

  • The FCC imposes a variety of “public interest” conditions on proposed mergers subject to its jurisdiction. Those conditions often are announced after inordinate delays, and typically have no bearing on the mergers’ actual effects.  The unpredictable nature and timing of such impositions generate a lack of certainty for businesses and thereby undermine the rule of law.
  • The FCC’s 2015 Municipal Broadband Order preempted state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that prevented municipally owned broadband providers from providing broadband service beyond their geographic boundaries. Apart from its substantive inadequacies, this Order went beyond the FCC’s statutory authority and raised grave federalism problems (by interfering with a state’s sovereign right to oversee its municipalities), thereby ignoring the constitutional limitations placed on the exercise of governmental powers that lie at the heart of the rule of law.  The Order was struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in August 2016.
  • The FCC’s 2015 “net neutrality” rule (the Open Internet Order) subjects internet service providers (ISPs) to sweeping “reasonableness-based” FCC regulatory oversight. This “reasonableness” standard gives the FCC virtually unbounded discretion to impose sanctions on ISPs.  It does not provide, in advance, a knowable, predictable rule consistent with due process and rule of law norms.  In the dynamic and fast-changing “Internet ecosystem,” this lack of predictable guidance is a major drag on innovation.  Regrettably, in June 2014, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, by a two-to-one vote, rejected a challenge to the order brought by ISPs and their trade association.
  • The FCC’s abrupt 2014 extension of its long-standing rules restricting common ownership of local television broadcast stations, to encompass Joint Sales Agreements (JSAs) likewise undermined the rule of law. JSAs, which allow one television station to sell advertising (but not programming) on another station, have long been used by stations that had no reason to believe that their actions in any way constituted illegal “ownership interests,” especially since many of them were originally approved by the FCC.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit wisely vacated the television JSA rule in May 2016, stressing that the FCC had violated a statutory command by failing to carry out in a timely fashion the quadrennial review of the television ownership rules on which the JSA rule was based.
  • The FCC’s February 2016 proposed rules that are designed to “open” the market for video set-top boxes, appear to fly in the face of federal laws and treaty language protecting intellectual property rights, by arbitrarily denying protection to intellectual property based solely on a particular mode of information transmission. Such a denial is repugnant to rule of law principles.
  • FCC enforcement practices also show a lack of respect for rule of law principles, by seeking to obtain sanctions against behavior that has never been deemed contrary to law or regulatory edicts. Two examples illustrate this point.
    • In 2014, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau proposed imposing a $10 million fine on TerraCom, Inc., and YourTelAmerica, Inc., two small telephone companies, for a data breach that exposed certain personally identifiable information to unauthorized access. In so doing, the FCC cited provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and accompanying regulations that had never been construed to authorize sanctions for failure to adopt “reasonable data security practices” to protect sensitive consumer information.
    • In November 2015, the FCC similarly imposed a $595,000 fine on Cox Communications for failure to prevent a data breach committed by a third-party hacker, although no statutory or regulatory language supported imposing any penalty on a firm that was itself victimized by a hack attack

3.  Legislative Reforms to Rein in the FCC

What is to be done?  One sure way to limit an agency’s ability to flout the rule of law is to restrict the scope of its legal authority.  As a matter of first principles, Congress should therefore examine the FCC’s activities with an eye to eliminating its jurisdiction over areas in which regulation is no longer needed:  For example, residual price regulation may be unnecessary in all markets where competition is effective. Regulation is called for only in the presence of serious market failure, coupled with strong evidence that government intervention will yield a better economic outcome than will a decision not to regulate.

Congress should craft legislation designed to sharply restrict the FCC’s ability to flout the rule of law.  At a minimum, no matter how it decides to pursue broad FCC reform, the following five proposals merit special congressional attention as a means of advancing rule of law principles:

  • Eliminate the FCC’s jurisdiction over all mergers. The federal antitrust agencies are best equipped to handle merger analysis, and this source of costly delay and uncertainty regarding ad hoc restrictive conditions should be eliminated.
  • Eliminate the FCC’s jurisdiction over broadband Internet service. Given the benefits associated with an open and unregulated Internet, Congress should provide clearly and unequivocally that the FCC has no jurisdiction, direct or indirect, in this area.
  • Shift FCC regulatory authority over broadband-related consumer protection (including, for example, deceptive advertising, privacy, and data protection) and competition to the Federal Trade Commission, which has longstanding experience and expertise in the area. This jurisdictional transfer would promote clarity and reduce uncertainty, thereby strengthening the rule of law.
  • Require that before taking regulatory action, the FCC carefully scrutinize regulatory language to seek to avoid the sorts of rule of law problems that have plagued prior commission rulemakings.
  • Require that the FCC not seek fines in an enforcement action unless the alleged infraction involves a violation of the precise language of a regulation or statutory provision.

4.  Conclusion

In recent years, the FCC too often has acted in a manner that undermines the rule of law. Internal agency reforms might be somewhat helpful in rectifying this situation, but they inevitably would be limited in scope and inherently malleable as FCC personnel changes. Accordingly, Congress should weigh major statutory reforms to rein in the FCC—reforms that will advance the rule of law and promote American economic well-being.