Archives For Vertical Restraints

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

Things are heating up in the antitrust world. There is considerable pressure to pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) before the congressional recess in August—a short legislative window before members of Congress shift their focus almost entirely to campaigning for the mid-term elections. While it would not be impossible to advance the bill after the August recess, it would be a steep uphill climb.

But whether it passes or not, some of the damage from AICOA may already be done. The bill has moved the antitrust dialogue that will harm innovation and consumers. In this post, I will first explain AICOA’s fundamental flaws. Next, I discuss the negative impact that the legislation is likely to have if passed, even if courts and agencies do not aggressively enforce its provisions. Finally, I show how AICOA has already provided an intellectual victory for the approach articulated in the European Union (EU)’s Digital Markets Act (DMA). It has built momentum for a dystopian regulatory framework to break up and break into U.S. superstar firms designated as “gatekeepers” at the expense of innovation and consumers.

The Unseen of AICOA

AICOA’s drafters argue that, once passed, it will deliver numerous economic benefits. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)—the bill’s main sponsor—has stated that it will “ensure small businesses and entrepreneurs still have the opportunity to succeed in the digital marketplace. This bill will do just that while also providing consumers with the benefit of greater choice online.”

Section 3 of the bill would provide “business users” of the designated “covered platforms” with a wide range of entitlements. This includes preventing the covered platform from offering any services or products that a business user could provide (the so-called “self-preferencing” prohibition); allowing a business user access to the covered platform’s proprietary data; and an entitlement for business users to have “preferred placement” on a covered platform without having to use any of that platform’s services.

These entitlements would provide non-platform businesses what are effectively claims on the platform’s proprietary assets, notwithstanding the covered platform’s own investments to collect data, create services, and invent products—in short, the platform’s innovative efforts. As such, AICOA is redistributive legislation that creates the conditions for unfair competition in the name of “fair” and “open” competition. It treats the behavior of “covered platforms” differently than identical behavior by their competitors, without considering the deterrent effect such a framework will have on consumers and innovation. Thus, AICOA offers rent-seeking rivals a formidable avenue to reap considerable benefits at the expense of the innovators thanks to the weaponization of antitrust to subvert, not improve, competition.

In mandating that covered platforms make their data and proprietary assets freely available to “business users” and rivals, AICOA undermines the underpinning of free markets to pursue the misguided goal of “open markets.” The inevitable result will be the tragedy of the commons. Absent the covered platforms having the ability to benefit from their entrepreneurial endeavors, the law no longer encourages innovation. As Joseph Schumpeter seminally predicted: “perfect competition implies free entry into every industry … But perfectly free entry into a new field may make it impossible to enter it at all.”

To illustrate, if business users can freely access, say, a special status on the covered platforms’ ancillary services without having to use any of the covered platform’s services (as required under Section 3(a)(5)), then platforms are disincentivized from inventing zero-priced services, since they cannot cross-monetize these services with existing services. Similarly, if, under Section 3(a)(1) of the bill, business users can stop covered platforms from pre-installing or preferencing an app whenever they happen to offer a similar app, then covered platforms will be discouraged from investing in or creating new apps. Thus, the bill would generate a considerable deterrent effect for covered platforms to invest, invent, and innovate.

AICOA’s most detrimental consequences may not be immediately apparent; they could instead manifest in larger and broader downstream impacts that will be difficult to undo. As the 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat wrote: “a law gives birth not only to an effect but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause—it is seen. The others unfold in succession—they are not seen it is well for, if they are foreseen … it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come,—at the risk of a small present evil.”

To paraphrase Bastiat, AICOA offers ill-intentioned rivals a “small present good”–i.e., unconditional access to the platforms’ proprietary assets–while society suffers the loss of a greater good–i.e., incentives to innovate and welfare gains to consumers. The logic is akin to those who advocate the abolition of intellectual-property rights: The immediate (and seen) gain is obvious, concerning the dissemination of innovation and a reduction of the price of innovation, while the subsequent (and unseen) evil remains opaque, as the destruction of the institutional premises for innovation will generate considerable long-term innovation costs.

Fundamentally, AICOA weakens the benefits of scale by pursuing vertical disintegration of the covered platforms to the benefit of short-term static competition. In the long term, however, the bill would dampen dynamic competition, ultimately harming consumer welfare and the capacity for innovation. The measure’s opportunity costs will prevent covered platforms’ innovations from benefiting other business users or consumers. They personify the “unseen,” as Bastiat put it: “[they are] always in the shadow, and who, personifying what is not seen, [are] an essential element of the problem. [They make] us understand how absurd it is to see a profit in destruction.”

The costs could well amount to hundreds of billions of dollars for the U.S. economy, even before accounting for the costs of deterred innovation. The unseen is costly, the seen is cheap.

A New Robinson-Patman Act?

Most antitrust laws are terse, vague, and old: The Sherman Act of 1890, the Federal Trade Commission Act, and the Clayton Act of 1914 deal largely in generalities, with considerable deference for courts to elaborate in a common-law tradition on the specificities of what “restraints of trade,” “monopolization,” or “unfair methods of competition” mean.

In 1936, Congress passed the Robinson-Patman Act, designed to protect competitors from the then-disruptive competition of large firms who—thanks to scale and practices such as price differentiation—upended traditional incumbents to the benefit of consumers. Passed after “Congress made no factual investigation of its own, and ignored evidence that conflicted with accepted rhetoric,” the law prohibits price differentials that would benefit buyers, and ultimately consumers, in the name of less vigorous competition from more efficient, more productive firms. Indeed, under the Robinson-Patman Act, manufacturers cannot give a bigger discount to a distributor who would pass these savings onto consumers, even if the distributor performs extra services relative to others.

Former President Gerald Ford declared in 1975 that the Robinson-Patman Act “is a leading example of [a law] which restrain[s] competition and den[ies] buyers’ substantial savings…It discourages both large and small firms from cutting prices, making it harder for them to expand into new markets and pass on to customers the cost-savings on large orders.” Despite this, calls to amend or repeal the Robinson-Patman Act—supported by, among others, competition scholars like Herbert Hovenkamp and Robert Bork—have failed.

In the 1983 Abbott decision, Justice Lewis Powell wrote: “The Robinson-Patman Act has been widely criticized, both for its effects and for the policies that it seeks to promote. Although Congress is aware of these criticisms, the Act has remained in effect for almost half a century.”

Nonetheless, the act’s enforcement dwindled, thanks to wise reactions from antitrust agencies and the courts. While it is seldom enforced today, the act continues to create considerable legal uncertainty, as it raises regulatory risks for companies who engage in behavior that may conflict with its provisions. Indeed, many of the same so-called “neo-Brandeisians” who support passage of AICOA also advocate reinvigorating Robinson-Patman. More specifically, the new FTC majority has expressed that it is eager to revitalize Robinson-Patman, even as the law protects less efficient competitors. In other words, the Robinson-Patman Act is a zombie law: dead, but still moving.

Even if the antitrust agencies and courts ultimately follow the same path of regulatory and judicial restraint on AICOA that they have on Robinson-Patman, the legal uncertainty its existence will engender will act as a powerful deterrent on disruptive competition that dynamically benefits consumers and innovation. In short, like the Robinson-Patman Act, antitrust agencies and courts will either enforce AICOA–thus, generating the law’s adverse effects on consumers and innovation–or they will refrain from enforcing AICOA–but then, the legal uncertainty shall lead to unseen, harmful effects on innovation and consumers.

For instance, the bill’s prohibition on “self-preferencing” in Section 3(a)(1) will prevent covered platforms from offering consumers new products and services that happen to compete with incumbents’ products and services. Self-preferencing often is a pro-competitive, pro-efficiency practice that companies widely adopt—a reality that AICOA seems to ignore.

Would AICOA prevent, e.g., Apple from offering a bundled subscription to Apple One, which includes Apple Music, so that the company can effectively compete with incumbents like Spotify? As with Robinson-Patman, antitrust agencies and courts will have to choose whether to enforce a productivity-decreasing law, or to ignore congressional intent but, in the process, generate significant legal uncertainties.

Judge Bork once wrote that Robinson-Patman was “antitrust’s least glorious hour” because, rather than improving competition and innovation, it reduced competition from firms who happen to be more productive, innovative, and efficient than their rivals. The law infamously protected inefficient competitors rather than competition. But from the perspective of legislative history perspective, AICOA may be antitrust’s new “least glorious hour.” If adopted, it will adversely affect innovation and consumers, as opportunistic rivals will be able to prevent cost-saving practices by the covered platforms.

As with Robinson-Patman, calls to amend or repeal AICOA may follow its passage. But Robinson-Patman Act illustrates the path dependency of bad antitrust laws. However costly and damaging, AICOA would likely stay in place, with regular calls for either stronger or weaker enforcement, depending on whether the momentum shifts from populist antitrust or antitrust more consistent with dynamic competition.

Victory of the Brussels Effect

The future of AICOA does not bode well for markets, either from a historical perspective or from a comparative-law perspective. The EU’s DMA similarly targets a few large tech platforms but it is broader, harsher, and swifter. In the competition between these two examples of self-inflicted techlash, AICOA will pale in comparison with the DMA. Covered platforms will be forced to align with the DMA’s obligations and prohibitions.

Consequently, AICOA is a victory of the DMA and of the Brussels effect in general. AICOA effectively crowns the DMA as the all-encompassing regulatory assault on digital gatekeepers. While members of Congress have introduced numerous antitrust bills aimed at targeting gatekeepers, the DMA is the one-stop-shop regulation that encompasses multiple antitrust bills and imposes broader prohibitions and stronger obligations on gatekeepers. In other words, the DMA outcompetes AICOA.

Commentators seldom lament the extraterritorial impact of European regulations. Regarding regulating digital gatekeepers, U.S. officials should have pushed back against the innovation-stifling, welfare-decreasing effects of the DMA on U.S. tech companies, in particular, and on U.S. technological innovation, in general. To be fair, a few U.S. officials, such as Commerce Secretary Gina Raimundo, did voice opposition to the DMA. Indeed, well-aware of the DMA’s protectionist intent and its potential to break up and break into tech platforms, Raimundo expressed concerns that antitrust should not be about protecting competitors and deterring innovation but rather about protecting the process of competition, however disruptive may be.

The influential neo-Brandeisians and radical antitrust reformers, however, lashed out at Raimundo and effectively shamed the Biden administration into embracing the DMA (and its sister regulation, AICOA). Brussels did not have to exert its regulatory overreach; the U.S. administration happily imports and emulates European overregulation. There is no better way for European officials to see their dreams come true: a techlash against U.S. digital platforms that enjoys the support of local officials.

In that regard, AICOA has already played a significant role in shaping the intellectual mood in Washington and in altering the course of U.S. antitrust. Members of Congress designed AICOA along the lines pioneered by the DMA. Sen. Klobuchar has argued that America should emulate European competition policy regarding tech platforms. Lina Khan, now chair of the FTC, co-authored the U.S. House Antitrust Subcommittee report, which recommended adopting the European concept of “abuse of dominant position” in U.S. antitrust. In her current position, Khan now praises the DMA. Tim Wu, competition counsel for the White House, has praised European competition policy and officials. Indeed, the neo-Brandeisians’ have not only praised the European Commission’s fines against U.S. tech platforms (despite early criticisms from former President Barack Obama) but have more dramatically called for the United States to imitate the European regulatory framework.

In this regulatory race to inefficiency, the standard is set in Brussels with the blessings of U.S. officials. Not even the precedent set by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) fully captures the effects the DMA will have. Privacy laws passed by U.S. states’ privacy have mostly reacted to the reality of the GDPR. With AICOA, Congress is proactively anticipating, emulating, and welcoming the DMA before it has even been adopted. The intellectual and policy shift is historical, and so is the policy error.

AICOA and the Boulevard of Broken Dreams

AICOA is a failure similar to the Robinson-Patman Act and a victory for the Brussels effect and the DMA. Consumers will be the collateral damages, and the unseen effects on innovation will take years before they materialize. Calls for amendments and repeals of AICOA are likely to fail, so that the inevitable costs will forever bear upon consumers and innovation dynamics.

AICOA illustrates the neo-Brandeisian opposition to large innovative companies. Joseph Schumpeter warned against such hostility and its effect on disincentivizing entrepreneurs to innovate when he wrote:

Faced by the increasing hostility of the environment and by the legislative, administrative, and judicial practice born of that hostility, entrepreneurs and capitalists—in fact the whole stratum that accepts the bourgeois scheme of life—will eventually cease to function. Their standard aims are rapidly becoming unattainable, their efforts futile.

President William Howard Taft once said, “the world is not going to be saved by legislation.” AICOA will not save antitrust, nor will consumers. To paraphrase Schumpeter, the bill’s drafters “walked into our future as we walked into the war, blindfolded.” AICOA’s intentions to deliver greater competition, a fairer marketplace, greater consumer choice, and more consumer benefits will ultimately scatter across the boulevard of broken dreams.

The Baron de Montesquieu once wrote that legislators should only change laws with a “trembling hand”:

It is sometimes necessary to change certain laws. But the case is rare, and when it happens, they should be touched only with a trembling hand: such solemnities should be observed, and such precautions are taken that the people will naturally conclude that the laws are indeed sacred since it takes so many formalities to abrogate them.

AICOA’s drafters had a clumsy hand, coupled with what Friedrich Hayek would call “a pretense of knowledge.” They were certain to do social good and incapable of thinking of doing social harm. The future will remember AICOA as the new antitrust’s least glorious hour, where consumers and innovation were sacrificed on the altar of a revitalized populist view of antitrust.

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

Early Morning

I wake up grudgingly to the loud ring of my phone’s preset alarm sound (I swear I gave third-party alarms a fair shot). I slide my feet into the bedroom slippers and mechanically chaperone my body to the coffee machine in the living room.

“Great,” I think to myself, “Out of capsules, again.” Still in my bathrobe, I make a grumpy face and post an interoperable story on social media. “Don’t even talk to me before I’ve had my morning coffee! #HateMondays.”

I flick my thumb and get a warm, fuzzy feeling of satisfaction as I consent to a series of privacy-related pop-ups on the official incumbent’s online marketplace website (I place immense importance on my privacy) before getting ready to sit through the usual fairness presentations.

I reach for a chair, grab a notepad and crack my neck sideways as I try to focus my (still) groggy brain on the kaleidoscope of thumbnails before me. “Time to do my part,” I sigh. My eyes—trained by years of practice—dart from left to right and from right to left, carefully scrutinizing each coffee capsule on offer for an equal number of seconds (ever since the self-preferencing ban, all available products within a search category are displayed simultaneously on the screen to avoid any explicit or tacit bias that could be interpreted as giving the online marketplace incumbent’s own products an unfair advantage over competitors).

After 13 brands and at least as many flavors, I select the platforms own brand, “Basic” (it matches my coffee machine and I’ve found through trial and error that they’re the least prone to malfunctioning), and then answer a series of questions to make sure I have actually given competitors’ products fair consideration. Platforms—including the online marketplace incumbent—use sneaky and illegal ways to leverage the attention market and give a leg up to their own products, such as offering lower prices or better delivery conditions. But with enough practice you learn to see through it. Not on my watch!

Exhausted but pleased with myself, I put the notepad down and my feet up on the coffee table. Victory.

Noon

I curse as I stub my toe on the office chair. Still with a pen in my right hand, ink dripping, I whip out my phone and pick Whatsapp to answer (I’ve never felt the need to use any of the other, newer apps—since everything is interoperable now). “No, of course I didn’t forget to do the groceries,” I tell my girlfriend with a tinge of deliberate frustration. But, of course, she knows that I know that she knows that I did.

I grab my notepad and almost fall over as I try to slide into my jeans and produce a grocery itinerary (like a grocery list, but longer) at the same time. “Trader Pete’s for fruits and vegetables, Gracey’s for canned goods, HTS for HTS frozen pizza,” I scribble, nerves tense.

(Not every company has gone the way of the online marketplace incumbent and some have decided they would be better off if they just sold their own products. After all, you can’t be fined for self-preferencing if you’re only selling your own stuff. Of course, the strategy is only viable in those industries in which vertical integration hasn’t been banned).

I finish getting dressed and dash down the stairs. I instinctively glance at my phone before getting in the car and immediately regret it, as I dismiss a bunch of notifications about malware infections. “Another app store that I’m striking from the list,” I think to myself as I turn on the ignition.

Late Afternoon

My girlfriend has already ordered a soda as I sit down at the table. “Sorry I’m late,” I mumble. We talk about her day and I tell her about the capsules I ordered (she nods approvingly) before we finally decide to order. I wave to the waiter and ask about the specials. A lanky young man no older than 19 fumbles through his (empty) pad and lists a couple of dishes.

He blurts out “homemade” and immediately turns pale. I look at my girlfriend nervously, and she stares back blankly—dazed. “Do you mean to say that it was made here, in this restaurant?” I ask in disbelief, dizzy. He comes up with some sorry excuse but I’m having none of it. I make my way to the toilet—sickened—and pull out my phone with a shaky hand. I have the Federal Trade Commission on speed-dial. I call and select number one: self-preferencing. They immediately put me through with someone. Sweating, I explain that the Italian restaurant on the corner between the 5th and Madison avenues just recommended me a special dish made by them—and barely even mentioned any of the specialties offered by the kebab joint next door. I assure the voice at the other end of the line that I had nothing to do it, and that I have not ordered—let alone tasted—the dish.

I rush out of the bathroom with blinders on and pull my girlfriend by the elbow. Her coat is on and she’s clearly impatient to get the hell out of there. As I reach for my jacket by the exit, an older man with a moustache approaches us with a bowed head and literally begs us to take a bottle of wine (no doubt a bribe for my silence). He assures us that the wine is not “della casa” (made by the restaurant), and that it’s, in fact, a French wine made by a competitor. I’m not having any of it: I bid him good day and slam the door behind us.

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

If S.2992—the American Innovation and Choice Online Act or AICOA—were to become law, it would be, at the very least, an incomplete law. By design—and not for good reason, but for political expediency—AICOA is riddled with intentional uncertainty. In theory, the law’s glaring definitional deficiencies are meant to be rectified by “expert” agencies (i.e., the DOJ and FTC) after passage. But in actuality, no such certainty would ever emerge, and the law would stand as a testament to the crass political machinations and absence of rigor that undergird it. Among many other troubling outcomes, this is what the future under AICOA would hold.

Two months ago, the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Antitrust Section published a searing critique of AICOA in which it denounced the bill for being poorly written, vague, and departing from established antitrust-law principles. As Lazar Radic and I discussed in a previous post, what made the ABA’s letter to Congress so eye-opening was that it was penned by a typically staid group with a reputation for independence, professionalism, and ideational heterogeneity.

One of the main issues the ABA flagged in its letter is that the introduction of vague new concepts—like “materially harm competition,” which does not exist anywhere in current antitrust law—into the antitrust mainstream will risk substantial legal uncertainty and produce swathes of unintended consequences.

According to some, however, the bill’s inherent uncertainty is a feature, not a bug. It leaves enough space for specialist agencies to define the precise meaning of key terms without unduly narrowing the scope of the bill ex ante.

In particular, supporters of the bill have pointed to the prospect of agency guidelines under the law to rescue it from the starkest of the fundamental issues identified by the ABA. Section 4 of AICOA requires the DOJ and FTC to issue “agency enforcement guidelines” no later than 270 days after the date of enactment:

outlining policies and practices relating to conduct that may materially harm competition under section 3(a), agency interpretations of the affirmative defenses under section 3(b), and policies for determining the appropriate amount of a civil penalty to be sought under section 3(c).

In pointing to the prospect of guidelines, however, supporters are inadvertently admitting defeat—and proving the ABA’s point: AICOA is not ready for prime time.

This thinking is misguided for at least three reasons:

Guidelines are not rules

As section 4(d) of AICOA recognizes, guidelines are emphatically nonbinding:

The joint guidelines issued under this section do not … operate to bind the Commission, Department of Justice, or any person, State, or locality to the approach recommended in the guidelines.

As such, the value of guidelines in dispelling legal uncertainty is modest, at best.

This is even more so in today’s highly politicized atmosphere, where guidelines can be withdrawn at the tip of the ballot (we’ve just seen the FTC rescind the Vertical Merger Guidelines it put in place less than a year ago). Given how politicized the issuing agencies themselves have become, it’s a virtual certainty that the guidelines produced in response to AICOA would be steeped in partisan politics and immediately changed with a change in administration, thus providing no more lasting legal certainty than speculation by a member of Congress.

Guidelines are not the appropriate tool to define novel concepts

Regardless of this political reality, however, the mixture of vagueness and novelty inherent in the key concepts that underpin the infringements and affirmative defenses under AICOA—such as “fairness,” “preferencing,” “materiality”, or the “intrinsic” value of a product—undermine the usefulness (and legitimacy) of guidelines.

Indeed, while laws are sometimes purposefully vague—operating as standards rather than prescriptive rules—to allow for more flexibility, the concepts introduced by AICOA don’t even offer any cognizable standards suitable for fine-tuning.

The operative terms of AICOA don’t have definitive meanings under antitrust law, either because they are wholly foreign to accepted antitrust law (as in the case of “self-preferencing”) or because the courts have never agreed on an accepted definition (as in the case of “fairness”). Nor are they technical standards, which are better left to specialized agencies rather than to legislators to define, such as in the case of, e.g., pollution (by contrast: what is the technical standard for “fairness”?).

Indeed, as Elyse Dorsey has noted, the only certainty that would emerge from this state of affairs is the certainty of pervasive rent-seeking by non-altruistic players seeking to define the rules in their favor.

As we’ve pointed out elsewhere, the purpose of guidelines is to reflect the state of the art in a certain area of antitrust law and not to push the accepted scope of knowledge and practice in a new direction. This not only overreaches the FTC’s and DOJ’s powers, but also risks galvanizing opposition from the courts, thereby undermining the utility of adopting guidelines in the first place.

Guidelines can’t fix a fundamentally flawed law

Expecting guidelines to provide sensible, administrable content for the bill sets the bar overly high for guidelines, and unduly low for AICOA.

The alleged harms at the heart of AICOA are foreign to antitrust law, and even to the economic underpinnings of competition policy more broadly. Indeed, as Sean Sullivan has pointed out, the law doesn’t even purport to define “harms,” but only serves to make specific conduct illegal:

Even if the conduct has no effect, it’s made illegal, unless an affirmative defense is raised. And the affirmative defense requires that it doesn’t ‘harm competition.’ But ‘harm competition’ is undefined…. You have to prove that harm doesn’t result, but it’s not really ever made clear what the harm is in the first place.”

“Self-preferencing” is not a competitive defect, and simply declaring it to be so does not make it one. As I’ve noted elsewhere:

The notion that platform entry into competition with edge providers is harmful to innovation is entirely speculative. Moreover, it is flatly contrary to a range of studies showing that the opposite is likely true…. The theory of vertical discrimination harm is at odds not only with this platform-specific empirical evidence, it is also contrary to the long-standing evidence on the welfare effects of vertical restraints more broadly …

… [M]andating openness is not without costs, most importantly in terms of the effective operation of the platform and its own incentives for innovation.

Asking agencies with an expertise in competition policy to enact economically sensible guidelines to direct enforcement against such conduct is a fool’s errand. It is a recipe for purely political legislation adopted by competition agencies that does nothing to further their competition missions.

AICOA’s Catch-22 Is Its Own Doing, and Will Be Its Downfall

AICOA’s Catch-22 is that, by making the law so vague that it needs enforcement guidelines to flesh it out, AICOA renders both itself and those same guidelines irrelevant and misses the point of both legal instruments.

Ultimately, guidelines cannot resolve the fundamental rule-of-law issues raised by the bill and highlighted by the ABA in its letter. To the contrary, they confirm the ABA’s concerns that AICOA is a poorly written and indeterminate bill. Further, the contentious elements of the bill that need clarification are inherently legislative ones that—paradoxically—shouldn’t be left to competition-agency guidelines to elucidate.

The upshot is that any future under AICOA will be one marked by endless uncertainty and the extreme politicization of both competition policy and the agencies that enforce it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earlier this month, Professors Fiona Scott Morton, Steve Salop, and David Dinielli penned a letter expressing their “strong support” for the proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA). In the letter, the professors address criticisms of AICOA and urge its approval, despite possible imperfections.

“Perhaps this bill could be made better if we lived in a perfect world,” the professors write, “[b]ut we believe the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, especially when change is so urgently needed.”

The problem is that the professors and other supporters of AICOA have shown neither that “change is so urgently needed” nor that the proposed law is, in fact, “good.”

Is Change ‘Urgently Needed’?

With respect to the purported urgency that warrants passage of a concededly imperfect bill, the letter authors assert two points. First, they claim that AICOA’s targets—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft (collectively, GAFAM)—“serve as the essential gatekeepers of economic, social, and political activity on the internet.” It is thus appropriate, they say, to amend the antitrust laws to do something they have never before done: saddle a handful of identified firms with special regulatory duties.

But is this oft-repeated claim about “gatekeeper” status true? The label conjures up the old Terminal Railroad case, where a group of firms controlled the only bridges over the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Freighters had no choice but to utilize their services. Do the GAFAM firms really play a similar role with respect to “economic, social, and political activity on the internet”? Hardly.

With respect to economic activity, Amazon may be a huge player, but it still accounts for only 39.5% of U.S. ecommerce sales—and far less of retail sales overall. Consumers have gobs of other ecommerce options, and so do third-party merchants, which may sell their wares using Shopify, Ebay, Walmart, Etsy, numerous other ecommerce platforms, or their own websites.

For social activity on the internet, consumers need not rely on Facebook and Instagram. They can connect with others via Snapchat, Reddit, Pinterest, TikTok, Twitter, and scores of other sites. To be sure, all these services have different niches, but the letter authors’ claim that the GAFAM firms are “essential gatekeepers” of “social… activity on the internet” is spurious.

Nor are the firms singled out by AICOA essential gatekeepers of “political activity on the internet.” The proposed law touches neither Twitter, the primary hub of political activity on the internet, nor TikTok, which is increasingly used for political messaging.

The second argument the letter authors assert in support of their claim of urgency is that “[t]he decline of antitrust enforcement in the U.S. is well known, pervasive, and has left our jurisprudence unable to protect and maintain competitive markets.” In other words, contemporary antitrust standards are anemic and have led to a lack of market competition in the United States.

The evidence for this claim, which is increasingly parroted in the press and among the punditry, is weak. Proponents primarily point to studies showing:

  1. increasing industrial concentration;
  2. higher markups on goods and services since 1980;
  3. a declining share of surplus going to labor, which could indicate monopsony power in labor markets; and
  4. a reduction in startup activity, suggesting diminished innovation. 

Examined closely, however, those studies fail to establish a domestic market power crisis.

Industrial concentration has little to do with market power in actual markets. Indeed, research suggests that, while industries may be consolidating at the national level, competition at the market (local) level is increasing, as more efficient national firms open more competitive outlets in local markets. As Geoff Manne sums up this research:

Most recently, several working papers looking at the data on concentration in detail and attempting to identify the likely cause for the observed data, show precisely the opposite relationship. The reason for increased concentration appears to be technological, not anticompetitive. And, as might be expected from that cause, its effects are beneficial. Indeed, the story is both intuitive and positive.

What’s more, while national concentration does appear to be increasing in some sectors of the economy, it’s not actually so clear that the same is true for local concentration — which is often the relevant antitrust market.

With respect to the evidence on markups, the claim of a significant increase in the price-cost margin depends crucially on the measure of cost. The studies suggesting an increase in margins since 1980 use the “cost of goods sold” (COGS) metric, which excludes a firm’s management and marketing costs—both of which have become an increasingly significant portion of firms’ costs. Measuring costs using the “operating expenses” (OPEX) metric, which includes management and marketing costs, reveals that public-company markups increased only modestly since the 1980s and that the increase was within historical variation. (It is also likely that increased markups since 1980 reflect firms’ more extensive use of technology and their greater regulatory burdens, both of which raise fixed costs and require higher markups over marginal cost.)

As for the declining labor share, that dynamic is occurring globally. Indeed, the decline in the labor share in the United States has been less severe than in Japan, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, China, Mexico, and Poland, suggesting that anemic U.S. antitrust enforcement is not to blame. (A reduction in the relative productivity of labor is a more likely culprit.)

Finally, the claim of reduced startup activity is unfounded. In its report on competition in digital markets, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee asserted that, since the advent of the major digital platforms:

  1. “[t]he number of new technology firms in the digital economy has declined”;
  2. “the entrepreneurship rate—the share of startups and young firms in the [high technology] industry as a whole—has also fallen significantly”; and
  3. “[u]nsurprisingly, there has also been a sharp reduction in early-stage funding for technology startups.” (pp. 46-47.)

Those claims, however, are based on cherry-picked evidence.

In support of the first two, the Judiciary Committee report cited a study based on data ending in 2011. As Benedict Evans has observed, “standard industry data shows that startup investment rounds have actually risen at least 4x since then.”

In support of the third claim, the report cited statistics from an article noting that the number and aggregate size of the very smallest venture capital deals—those under $1 million—fell between 2014 and 2018 (after growing substantially from 2008 to 2014). The Judiciary Committee report failed to note, however, the cited article’s observation that small venture deals ($1 million to $5 million) had not dropped and that larger venture deals (greater than $5 million) had grown substantially during the same time period. Nor did the report acknowledge that venture-capital funding has continued to increase since 2018.

Finally, there is also reason to think that AICOA’s passage would harm, not help, the startup environment:

AICOA doesn’t directly restrict startup acquisitions, but the activities it would restrict most certainly do dramatically affect the incentives that drive many startup acquisitions. If a platform is prohibited from engaging in cross-platform integration of acquired technologies, or if it can’t monetize its purchase by prioritizing its own technology, it may lose the motivation to make a purchase in the first place.

Despite the letter authors’ claims, neither a paucity of avenues for “economic, social, and political activity on the internet” nor the general state of market competition in the United States establishes an “urgent need” to re-write the antitrust laws to saddle a small group of firms with unprecedented legal obligations.

Is the Vagueness of AICOA’s Primary Legal Standard a Feature?

AICOA bars covered platforms from engaging in three broad classes of conduct (self-preferencing, discrimination among business users, and limiting business users’ ability to compete) where the behavior at issue would “materially harm competition.” It then forbids several specific business practices, but allows the defendant to avoid liability by proving that their use of the practice would not cause a “material harm to competition.”

Critics have argued that “material harm to competition”—a standard that is not used elsewhere in the antitrust laws—is too indeterminate to provide business planners and adjudicators with adequate guidance. The authors of the pro-AICOA letter, however, maintain that this “different language is a feature, not a bug.”

That is so, the letter authors say, because the language effectively signals to courts and policymakers that antitrust should prohibit more conduct. They explain:

To clarify to courts and policymakers that Congress wants something different (and stronger), new terminology is required. The bill’s language would open up a new space and move beyond the standards imposed by the Sherman Act, which has not effectively policed digital platforms.

Putting aside the weakness of the letter authors’ premise (i.e., that Sherman Act standards have proven ineffective), the legislative strategy they advocate—obliquely signal that you want “change” without saying what it should consist of—is irresponsible and risky.

The letter authors assert two reasons Congress should not worry about enacting a liability standard that has no settled meaning. One is that:

[t]he same judges who are called upon to render decisions under the existing, insufficient, antitrust regime, will also be called upon to render decisions under the new law. They will be the same people with the same worldview.

It is thus unlikely that “outcomes under the new law would veer drastically away from past understandings of core concepts….”

But this claim undermines the argument that a new standard is needed to get the courts to do “something different” and “move beyond the standards imposed by the Sherman Act.” If we don’t need to worry about an adverse outcome from a novel, ill-defined standard because courts are just going to continue applying the standard they’re familiar with, then what’s the point of changing the standard?

A second reason not to worry about the lack of clarity on AICOA’s key liability standard, the letter authors say, is that federal enforcers will define it:

The new law would mandate that the [Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice], the two expert agencies in the area of competition, together create guidelines to help courts interpret the law. Any uncertainty about the meaning of words like ‘competition’ will be resolved in those guidelines and over time with the development of caselaw.

This is no doubt music to the ears of members of Congress, who love to get credit for “doing something” legislatively, while leaving the details to an agency so that they can avoid accountability if things turn out poorly. Indeed, the letter authors explicitly play upon legislators’ unwholesome desire for credit-sans-accountability. They emphasize that “[t]he agencies must [create and] update the guidelines periodically. Congress doesn’t have to do much of anything very specific other than approve budgets; it certainly has no obligation to enact any new laws, let alone amend them.”

AICOA does not, however, confer rulemaking authority on the agencies; it merely directs them to create and periodically update “agency enforcement guidelines” and “agency interpretations” of certain affirmative defenses. Those guidelines and interpretations would not bind courts, which would be free to interpret AICOA’s new standard differently. The letter authors presume that courts would defer to the agencies’ interpretation of the vague standard, and they probably would. But that raises other problems.

For one thing, it reduces certainty, which is likely to chill innovation. Giving the enforcement agencies de facto power to determine and redetermine what behaviors “would materially harm competition” means that the rules are never settled. Administrations differ markedly in their views about what the antitrust laws should forbid, so business planners could never be certain that a product feature or revenue model that is legal today will not be deemed to “materially harm competition” by a future administration with greater solicitude for small rivals and upstarts. Such uncertainty will hinder investment in novel products, services, and business models.

Consider, for example, Google’s investment in the Android mobile operating system. Google makes money from Android—which it licenses to device manufacturers for free—by ensuring that Google’s revenue-generating services (e.g., its search engine and browser) are strongly preferenced on Android products. One administration might believe that this is a procompetitive arrangement, as it creates a different revenue model for mobile operating systems (as opposed to Apple’s generation of revenue from hardware sales), resulting in both increased choice and lower prices for consumers. A subsequent administration might conclude that the arrangement materially harms competition by making it harder for rival search engines and web browsers to gain market share. It would make scant sense for a covered platform to make an investment like Google did with Android if its underlying business model could be upended by a new administration with de facto power to rewrite the law.

A second problem with having the enforcement agencies determine and redetermine what covered platforms may do is that it effectively transforms the agencies from law enforcers into sectoral regulators. Indeed, the letter authors agree that “the ability of expert agencies to incorporate additional protections in the guidelines” means that “the bill is not a pure antitrust law but also safeguards other benefits to consumers.” They tout that “the complementarity between consumer protection and competition can be addressed in the guidelines.”

Of course, to the extent that the enforcement guidelines address concerns besides competition, they will be less useful for interpreting AICOA’s “material harm to competition” standard; they might deem a practice suspect on non-competition grounds. Moreover, it is questionable whether creating a sectoral regulator for five widely diverse firms is a good idea. The history of sectoral regulation is littered with examples of agency capture, rent-seeking, and other public-choice concerns. At a minimum, Congress should carefully examine the potential downsides of sectoral regulation, install protections to mitigate those downsides, and explicitly establish the sectoral regulator.

Will AICOA Break Popular Products and Services?

Many popular offerings by the platforms covered by AICOA involve self-preferencing, discrimination among business users, or one of the other behaviors the bill presumptively bans. Pre-installation of iPhone apps and services like Siri, for example, involves self-preferencing or discrimination among business users of Apple’s iOS platform. But iPhone consumers value having a mobile device that offers extensive services right out of the box. Consumers love that Google’s search result for an establishment offers directions to the place, which involves the preferencing of Google Maps. And consumers positively adore Amazon Prime, which can provide free expedited delivery because Amazon conditions Prime designation on a third-party seller’s use of Amazon’s efficient, reliable “Fulfillment by Amazon” service—something Amazon could not do under AICOA.

The authors of the pro-AICOA letter insist that the law will not ban attractive product features like these. AICOA, they say:

provides a powerful defense that forecloses any thoughtful concern of this sort: conduct otherwise banned under the bill is permitted if it would ‘maintain or substantially enhance the core functionality of the covered platform.’

But the authors’ confidence that this affirmative defense will adequately protect popular offerings is misplaced. The defense is narrow and difficult to mount.

First, it immunizes only those behaviors that maintain or substantially enhance the “core” functionality of the covered platform. Courts would rightly interpret AICOA to give effect to that otherwise unnecessary word, which dictionaries define as “the central or most important part of something.” Accordingly, any self-preferencing, discrimination, or other presumptively illicit behavior that enhances a covered platform’s service but not its “central or most important” functions is not even a candidate for the defense.

Even if a covered platform could establish that a challenged practice would maintain or substantially enhance the platform’s core functionality, it would also have to prove that the conduct was “narrowly tailored” and “reasonably necessary” to achieve the desired end, and, for many behaviors, the “le[ast] discriminatory means” of doing so. That is a remarkably heavy burden, and it beggars belief to suppose that business planners considering novel offerings involving self-preferencing, discrimination, or some other presumptively illicit conduct would feel confident that they could make the required showing. It is likely, then, that AICOA would break existing products and services and discourage future innovation.

Of course, Congress could mitigate this concern by specifying that AICOA does not preclude certain things, such as pre-installed apps or consumer-friendly search results. But the legislation would then lose the support of the many interest groups who want the law to preclude various popular offerings that its text would now forbid. Unlike consumers, who are widely dispersed and difficult to organize, the groups and competitors that would benefit from things like stripped-down smartphones, map-free search results, and Prime-less Amazon are effective lobbyists.

Should the US Follow Europe?

Having responded to criticisms of AICOA, the authors of the pro-AICOA letter go on offense. They assert that enactment of the bill is needed to ensure that the United States doesn’t lose ground to Europe, both in regulatory leadership and in innovation. Observing that the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) has just become law, the authors write that:

[w]ithout [AICOA], the role of protecting competition and innovation in the digital sector outside China will be left primarily to the European Union, abrogating U.S. leadership in this sector.

Moreover, if Europe implements its DMA and the United States does not adopt AICOA, the authors claim:

the center of gravity for innovation and entrepreneurship [could] shift from the U.S. to Europe, where the DMA would offer greater protections to start ups and app developers, and even makers and artisans, against exclusionary conduct by the gatekeeper platforms.

Implicit in the argument that AICOA is needed to maintain America’s regulatory leadership is the assumption that to lead in regulatory policy is to have the most restrictive rules. The most restrictive regulator will necessarily be the “leader” in the sense that it will be the one with the most control over regulated firms. But leading in the sense of optimizing outcomes and thereby serving as a model for other jurisdictions entails crafting the best policies—those that minimize the aggregate social losses from wrongly permitting bad behavior, wrongly condemning good behavior, and determining whether conduct is allowed or forbidden (i.e., those that “minimize the sum of error and decision costs”). Rarely is the most restrictive regulatory regime the one that optimizes outcomes, and as I have elsewhere explained, the rules set forth in the DMA hardly seem calibrated to do so.

As for “innovation and entrepreneurship” in the technological arena, it would be a seismic shift indeed if the center of gravity were to migrate to Europe, which is currently home to zero of the top 20 global tech companies. (The United States hosts 12; China, eight.)

It seems implausible, though, that imposing a bunch of restrictions on large tech companies that have significant resources for innovation and are scrambling to enter each other’s markets will enhance, rather than retard, innovation. The self-preferencing bans in AICOA and DMA, for example, would prevent Apple from developing its own search engine to compete with Google, as it has apparently contemplated. Why would Apple develop its own search engine if it couldn’t preference it on iPhones and iPads? And why would Google have started its shopping service to compete with Amazon if it couldn’t preference Google Shopping in search results? And why would any platform continually improve to gain more users as it neared the thresholds for enhanced duties under DMA or AICOA? It seems more likely that the DMA/AICOA approach will hinder, rather than spur, innovation.

At the very least, wouldn’t it be prudent to wait and see whether DMA leads to a flourishing of innovation and entrepreneurship in Europe before jumping on the European bandwagon? After all, technological innovations that occur in Europe won’t be available only to Europeans. Just as Europeans benefit from innovation by U.S. firms, American consumers will be able to reap the benefits of any DMA-inspired innovation occurring in Europe. Moreover, if DMA indeed furthers innovation by making it easier for entrants to gain footing, even American technology firms could benefit from the law by launching their products in Europe. There’s no reason for the tech sector to move to Europe to take advantage of a small-business-protective European law.

In fact, the optimal outcome might be to have one jurisdiction in which major tech platforms are free to innovate, enter each other’s markets via self-preferencing, etc. (the United States, under current law) and another that is more protective of upstart businesses that use the platforms (Europe under DMA). The former jurisdiction would create favorable conditions for platform innovation and inter-platform competition; the latter might enhance innovation among businesses that rely on the platforms. Consumers in each jurisdiction, however, would benefit from innovation facilitated by the other.

It makes little sense, then, for the United States to rush to adopt European-style regulation. DMA is a radical experiment. Regulatory history suggests that the sort of restrictiveness it imposes retards, rather than furthers, innovation. But in the unlikely event that things turn out differently this time, little harm would result from waiting to see DMA’s benefits before implementing its restrictive approach. 

Does AICOA Threaten Platforms’ Ability to Moderate Content and Police Disinformation?

The authors of the pro-AICOA letter conclude by addressing the concern that AICOA “will inadvertently make content moderation difficult because some of the prohibitions could be read… to cover and therefore prohibit some varieties of content moderation” by covered platforms.

The letter authors say that a reading of AICOA to prohibit content moderation is “strained.” They maintain that the act’s requirement of “competitive harm” would prevent imposition of liability based on content moderation and that the act is “plainly not intended to cover” instances of “purported censorship.” They further contend that the risk of judicial misconstrual exists with all proposed laws and therefore should not be a sufficient reason to oppose AICOA.

Each of these points is weak. Section 3(a)(3) of AICOA makes it unlawful for a covered platform to “discriminate in the application or enforcement of the terms of service of the covered platform among similarly situated business users in a manner that would materially harm competition.” It is hardly “strained” to reason that this provision is violated when, say, Google’s YouTube selectively demonetizes a business user for content that Google deems harmful or misleading. Or when Apple removes Parler, but not every other violator of service terms, from its App Store. Such conduct could “materially harm competition” by impeding the de-platformed business’ ability to compete with its rivals.

And it is hard to say that AICOA is “plainly not intended” to forbid these acts when a key supporting senator touted the bill as a means of policing content moderation and observed during markup that it would “make some positive improvement on the problem of censorship” (i.e., content moderation) because “it would provide protections to content providers, to businesses that are discriminated against because of the content of what they produce.”

At a minimum, we should expect some state attorneys general to try to use the law to police content moderation they disfavor, and the mere prospect of such legal action could chill anti-disinformation efforts and other forms of content moderation.

Of course, there’s a simple way for Congress to eliminate the risk of what the letter authors deem judicial misconstrual: It could clarify that AICOA’s prohibitions do not cover good-faith efforts to moderate content or police disinformation. Such clarification, however, would kill the bill, as several Republican legislators are supporting the act because it restricts content moderation.

The risk of judicial misconstrual with AICOA, then, is not the sort that exists with “any law, new or old,” as the letter authors contend. “Normal” misconstrual risk exists when legislators try to be clear about their intentions but, because language has its limits, some vagueness or ambiguity persists. AICOA’s architects have deliberately obscured their intentions in order to cobble together enough supporters to get the bill across the finish line.

The one thing that all AICOA supporters can agree on is that they deserve credit for “doing something” about Big Tech. If the law is construed in a way they disfavor, they can always act shocked and blame rogue courts. That’s shoddy, cynical lawmaking.

Conclusion

So, I respectfully disagree with Professors Scott Morton, Salop, and Dinielli on AICOA. There is no urgent need to pass the bill right now, especially as we are on the cusp of seeing an AICOA-like regime put to the test. The bill’s central liability standard is overly vague, and its plain terms would break popular products and services and thwart future innovation. The United States should equate regulatory leadership with the best, not the most restrictive, policies. And Congress should thoroughly debate and clarify its intentions on content moderation before enacting legislation that could upend the status quo on that important matter.

For all these reasons, Congress should reject AICOA. And for the same reasons, a future in which AICOA is adopted is extremely unlikely to resemble the Utopian world that Professors Scott Morton, Salop, and Dinielli imagine.

We will learn more in the coming weeks about the fate of the proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), legislation sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that would, among other things, prohibit “self-preferencing” by large digital platforms like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. But while the bill has already been subject to significant scrutiny, a crucially important topic has been absent from that debate: the measure’s likely effect on startup acquisitions. 

Of course, AICOA doesn’t directly restrict startup acquisitions, but the activities it would restrict most certainly do dramatically affect the incentives that drive many startup acquisitions. If a platform is prohibited from engaging in cross-platform integration of acquired technologies, or if it can’t monetize its purchase by prioritizing its own technology, it may lose the motivation to make a purchase in the first place.

This would be a significant loss. As Dirk Auer, Sam Bowman, and I discuss in a recent article in the Missouri Law Review, acquisitions are arguably the most important component in providing vitality to the overall venture ecosystem:  

Startups generally have two methods for achieving liquidity for their shareholders: IPOs or acquisitions. According to the latest data from Orrick and Crunchbase, between 2010 and 2018 there were 21,844 acquisitions of tech startups for a total deal value of $1.193 trillion. By comparison, according to data compiled by Jay R. Ritter, a professor at the University of Florida, there were 331 tech IPOs for a total market capitalization of $649.6 billion over the same period. As venture capitalist Scott Kupor said in his testimony during the FTC’s hearings on “Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century,” “these large players play a significant role as acquirers of venture-backed startup companies, which is an important part of the overall health of the venture ecosystem.”

Moreover, acquisitions by large incumbents are known to provide a crucial channel for liquidity in the venture capital and startup communities: While at one time the source of the “liquidity events” required to yield sufficient returns to fuel venture capital was evenly divided between IPOs and mergers, “[t]oday that math is closer to about 80 percent M&A and about 20 percent IPOs—[with important implications for any] potential actions that [antitrust enforcers] might be considering with respect to the large platform players in this industry.” As investor and serial entrepreneur Leonard Speiser said recently, “if the DOJ starts going after tech companies for making acquisitions, venture investors will be much less likely to invest in new startups, thereby reducing competition in a far more harmful way.” (emphasis added)

Going after self-preferencing may have exactly the same harmful effect on venture investors and competition. 

It’s unclear exactly how the legislation would be applied in any given context (indeed, this uncertainty is one of the most significant problems with the bill, as the ABA Antitrust Section has argued at length). But AICOA is designed, at least in part, to keep large online platforms in their own lanes—to keep them from “leveraging their dominance” to compete against more politically favored competitors in ancillary markets. Indeed, while covered platforms potentially could defend against application of the law by demonstrating that self-preferencing is necessary to “maintain or substantially enhance the core functionality” of the service, no such defense exists for non-core (whatever that means…) functionality, the enhancement of which through self-preferencing is strictly off limits under AICOA.

As I have written (and so have many, many, many, many others), this is terrible policy on its face. But it is also likely to have significant, adverse, indirect consequences for startup acquisitions, given the enormous number of such acquisitions that are outside the covered platforms’ “core functionality.” 

Just take a quick look at a sample of the largest acquisitions made by Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Alphabet, for example. (These are screenshots of the first several acquisitions by size drawn from imperfect lists collected by Wikipedia, but for purposes of casual empiricism they are well-suited to give an idea of the diversity of acquisitions at issue):

Apple:

Microsoft:

Amazon:

Alphabet (Google):

Vanishingly few of these acquisitions go to the “core functionalities” of these platforms. Alphabet’s acquisitions, for example, involve (among many other things) cybersecurity; home automation; cloud computing; wearables, smart glasses, and AR hardware; GPS navigation software; communications security; satellite technology; and social gaming. Microsoft’s acquisitions include companies specializing in video games; social networking; software versioning; drawing software; cable television; cybersecurity; employee engagement; and e-commerce. The technologies and applications involved in acquisitions by Apple and Amazon are similarly varied.

Drilling down a bit, consider the companies Alphabet acquired and put to use in the service of Google Maps:

Which, if any, of these companies would Google have purchased if it knew it would be unable to prioritize Maps in its search results? Would Google have invested more than $1 billion in these companies—and likely significantly more in internal R&D to develop Maps—if it had to speculate whether it would be required (or even be able) to prove someday in the future that prioritizing Google Maps results would enhance its core functionality?

What about Xbox? As noted, AICOA’s terms aren’t perfectly clear, so I’m not certain it would apply to Xbox (is Xbox a “website, online or mobile application, operating system, digital assistant, or online service”?). Here are Microsoft’s video-gaming-related purchases:

The vast majority of these (and all of the acquisitions for which Wikipedia has purchase-price information, totaling some $80 billion of investment) involve video games, not the development of hardware or the functionality of the Xbox platform. Would Microsoft have made these investments if it knew it would be prohibited from prioritizing its own games or exclusively using data gleaned through these games to improve its platform? No one can say for certain, but, at the margin, it is absolutely certain that these self-preferencing bills would make such acquisitions less likely.

Perhaps the most obvious—and concerning—example of the problem arises in the context of Google’s Android platform. Google famously gives Android away for free, of course, and makes its operating system significantly open for bespoke use by all comers. In exchange, Google requires that implementers of the Android OS provide some modicum of favoritism to Google’s revenue-generating products, like Search. For all its uncertainty, there is no question that AICOA’s terms would prohibit this self-preferencing. Intentionally or not, it would thus prohibit the way in which Google monetizes Android and thus hopes to recoup some of the—literally—billions of dollars it has invested in the development and maintenance of Android. 

Here are Google’s Android-related acquisitions:

Would Google have bought Android in the first place (to say nothing of subsequent acquisitions and its massive ongoing investment in Android) if it had been foreclosed from adopting its preferred business model to monetize its investment? In the absence of Google bidding for these companies, would they have earned as much from other potential bidders? Would they even have come into existence at all?

Of course, AICOA wouldn’t preclude Google charging device makers for Android and thus raising the price of mobile devices. But that mechanism may not have been sufficient to support Google’s investment in Android, and it would certainly constrain its ability to compete. Even if rules like those proposed by AICOA didn’t undermine Google’s initial purchase of and investment in Android, it is manifestly unclear how forcing Google to adopt a business model that increases consumer prices and constrains its ability to compete head-to-head with Apple’s iOS ecosystem would benefit consumers. (This excellent series of posts—1, 2, 3, 4—by Dirk Auer on the European Commission’s misguided Android decision discusses in detail the significant costs of prohibiting self-preferencing on Android.)

There are innumerable further examples, as well. In all of these cases, it seems clear not only that an AICOA-like regime would diminish competition and reduce consumer welfare across important dimensions, but also that it would impoverish the startup ecosystem more broadly. 

And that may be an even bigger problem. Even if you think, in the abstract, that it would be better for “Big Tech” not to own these startups, there is a real danger that putting that presumption into force would drive down acquisition prices, kill at least some tech-startup exits, and ultimately imperil the initial financing of tech startups. It should go without saying that this would be a troubling outcome. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that AICOA’s proponents have even considered whether the presumed benefits of the bill would be worth this immense cost.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)—cosponsors of the American Innovation Online and Choice Act, which seeks to “rein in” tech companies like Apple, Google, Meta, and Amazon—contend that “everyone acknowledges the problems posed by dominant online platforms.”

In their framing, it is simply an acknowledged fact that U.S. antitrust law has not kept pace with developments in the digital sector, allowing a handful of Big Tech firms to exploit consumers and foreclose competitors from the market. To address the issue, the senators’ bill would bar “covered platforms” from engaging in a raft of conduct, including self-preferencing, tying, and limiting interoperability with competitors’ products.

That’s what makes the open letter to Congress published late last month by the usually staid American Bar Association’s (ABA) Antitrust Law Section so eye-opening. The letter is nothing short of a searing critique of the legislation, which the section finds to be poorly written, vague, and departing from established antitrust-law principles.

The ABA, of course, has a reputation as an independent, highly professional, and heterogenous group. The antitrust section’s membership includes not only in-house corporate counsel, but lawyers from nonprofits, consulting firms, federal and state agencies, judges, and legal academics. Given this context, the comments must be read as a high-level judgment that recent legislative and regulatory efforts to “discipline” tech fall outside the legal mainstream and would come at the cost of established antitrust principles, legal precedent, transparency, sound economic analysis, and ultimately consumer welfare.

The Antitrust Section’s Comments

As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes:

The Section has long supported the evolution of antitrust law to keep pace with evolving circumstances, economic theory, and empirical evidence. Here, however, the Section is concerned that the Bill, as written, departs in some respects from accepted principles of competition law and in so doing risks causing unpredicted and unintended consequences.

Broadly speaking, the section’s criticisms fall into two interrelated categories. The first relates to deviations from antitrust orthodoxy and the principles that guide enforcement. The second is a critique of the AICOA’s overly broad language and ambiguous terminology.

Departing from established antitrust-law principles

Substantively, the overarching concern expressed by the ABA Antitrust Law Section is that AICOA departs from the traditional role of antitrust law, which is to protect the competitive process, rather than choosing to favor some competitors at the expense of others. Indeed, the section’s open letter observes that, out of the 10 categories of prohibited conduct spelled out in the legislation, only three require a “material harm to competition.”

Take, for instance, the prohibition on “discriminatory” conduct. As it stands, the bill’s language does not require a showing of harm to the competitive process. It instead appears to enshrine a freestanding prohibition of discrimination. The bill targets tying practices that are already prohibited by U.S. antitrust law, but while similarly eschewing the traditional required showings of market power and harm to the competitive process. The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for “self-preferencing” and the “unfair” treatment of competitors.

The problem, the section’s letter to Congress argues, is not only that this increases the teleological chasm between AICOA and the overarching goals and principles of antitrust law, but that it can also easily lead to harmful unintended consequences. For instance, as the ABA Antitrust Law Section previously observed in comments to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, a prohibition of pricing discrimination can limit the extent of discounting generally. Similarly, self-preferencing conduct on a platform can be welfare-enhancing, while forced interoperability—which is also contemplated by AICOA—can increase prices for consumers and dampen incentives to innovate. Furthermore, some of these blanket prohibitions are arguably at loggerheads with established antitrust doctrine, such as in, e.g., Trinko, which established that even monopolists are generally free to decide with whom they will deal.

Arguably, the reason why the Klobuchar-Grassley bill can so seamlessly exclude or redraw such a central element of antitrust law as competitive harm is because it deliberately chooses to ignore another, preceding one. Namely, the bill omits market power as a requirement for a finding of infringement or for the legislation’s equally crucial designation as a “covered platform.” It instead prescribes size metrics—number of users, market capitalization—to define which platforms are subject to intervention. Such definitions cast an overly wide net that can potentially capture consumer-facing conduct that doesn’t have the potential to harm competition at all.

It is precisely for this reason that existing antitrust laws are tethered to market power—i.e., because it long has been recognized that only companies with market power can harm competition. As John B. Kirkwood of Seattle University School of Law has written:

Market power’s pivotal role is clear…This concept is central to antitrust because it distinguishes firms that can harm competition and consumers from those that cannot.

In response to the above, the ABA Antitrust Law Section (reasonably) urges Congress explicitly to require an effects-based showing of harm to the competitive process as a prerequisite for all 10 of the infringements contemplated in the AICOA. This also means disclaiming generalized prohibitions of “discrimination” and of “unfairness” and replacing blanket prohibitions (such as the one for self-preferencing) with measured case-by-case analysis.

Opaque language for opaque ideas

Another underlying issue is that the Klobuchar-Grassley bill is shot through with indeterminate language and fuzzy concepts that have no clear limiting principles. For instance, in order either to establish liability or to mount a successful defense to an alleged violation, the bill relies heavily on inherently amorphous terms such as “fairness,” “preferencing,” and “materiality,” or the “intrinsic” value of a product. But as the ABA Antitrust Law Section letter rightly observes, these concepts are not defined in the bill, nor by existing antitrust case law. As such, they inject variability and indeterminacy into how the legislation would be administered.

Moreover, it is also unclear how some incommensurable concepts will be weighed against each other. For example, how would concerns about safety and security be weighed against prohibitions on self-preferencing or requirements for interoperability? What is a “core function” and when would the law determine it has been sufficiently “enhanced” or “maintained”—requirements the law sets out to exempt certain otherwise prohibited behavior? The lack of linguistic and conceptual clarity not only explodes legal certainty, but also invites judicial second-guessing into the operation of business decisions, something against which the U.S. Supreme Court has long warned.

Finally, the bill’s choice of language and recent amendments to its terminology seem to confirm the dynamic discussed in the previous section. Most notably, the latest version of AICOA replaces earlier language invoking “harm to the competitive process” with “material harm to competition.” As the ABA Antitrust Law Section observes, this “suggests a shift away from protecting the competitive process towards protecting individual competitors.” Indeed, “material harm to competition” deviates from established categories such as “undue restraint of trade” or “substantial lessening of competition,” which have a clear focus on the competitive process. As a result, it is not unreasonable to expect that the new terminology might be interpreted as meaning that the actionable standard is material harm to competitors.

In its letter, the antitrust section urges Congress not only to define more clearly the novel terminology used in the bill, but also to do so in a manner consistent with existing antitrust law. Indeed:

The Section further recommends that these definitions direct attention to analysis consistent with antitrust principles: effects-based inquiries concerned with harm to the competitive process, not merely harm to particular competitors

Conclusion

The AICOA is a poorly written, misguided, and rushed piece of regulation that contravenes both basic antitrust-law principles and mainstream economic insights in the pursuit of a pre-established populist political goal: punishing the success of tech companies. If left uncorrected by Congress, these mistakes could have potentially far-reaching consequences for innovation in digital markets and for consumer welfare. They could also set antitrust law on a regressive course back toward a policy of picking winners and losers.

[Closing out Week Two of our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium is a contribution from a very special guest: Commissioner Noah J. Phillips of the Federal Trade Commission. 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.]

In his July Executive Order, President Joe Biden called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to consider making a series of rules under its purported authority to regulate “unfair methods of competition.”[1] Chair Lina Khan has previously voiced her support for doing so.[2] My view is that the Commission has no such rulemaking powers, and that the scope of the authority asserted would amount to an unconstitutional delegation of power by the Congress.[3] Others have written about those issues, and we can leave them for another day.[4] Professors Richard Pierce and Gus Hurwitz have each written that, if FTC rulemaking is to survive judicial scrutiny, it must apply to conduct that is covered by the antitrust laws.[5]

That idea raises an inherent tension between the concept of rulemaking and the underlying law. Proponents of rulemaking advocate “clear” rules to, in their view, reduce ambiguity, ensure predictability, promote administrability, and conserve resources otherwise spent on ex post, case-by-case adjudication.[6] To the extent they mean administrative adoption of per se illegality standards by rulemaking, it flies in the face of contemporary antitrust jurisprudence, which has been moving from per se standards back to the historical “rule of reason.”

Recognizing that the Sherman Act could be read to bar all contracts, federal courts for over a century have interpreted the 1890 antitrust law only to apply to “unreasonable” restraints of trade.[7] The Supreme Court first adopted this concept in its landmark 1911 decision in Standard Oil, upholding the lower court’s dissolution of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.[8] Just four years after the Federal Trade Commission Act was enacted, the Supreme Courtestablished the “the prevailing standard of analysis” for determining whether an agreement constitutes an unreasonable restraint of trade under Section 1 of the Sherman Act.[9] Justice Louis Brandeis, who as an adviser to President Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in creating the FTC, described the scope of this “rule of reason” inquiry in the Chicago Board of Trade case:

The true test of legality is whether the restraint imposed is such as merely regulates and perhaps thereby promotes competition or whether it is such as may suppress or even destroy competition. To determine that question the court must ordinarily consider the facts peculiar to the business to which the restraint is applied; its condition before and after the restraint was imposed; the nature of the restraint and its effect, actual or probable. The history of the restraint, the evil believed to exist, the reason for adopting the particular remedy, the purpose or end sought to be attained, are all relevant facts.[10]

The rule of reason was and remains today a fact-specific inquiry, but the Court also determined from early on that certain restraints invited a different analytical approach: per se prohibitions. The per se rule involves no weighing of the restraint’s procompetitive effects. Once proven, a restraint subject to the per se rule is presumed to be unreasonable and illegal.In the 1911 Dr. Miles case, the Court held that resale minimum price fixing was illegal per se under Section 1.[11] It found horizontal price-fixing agreements to be per se illegal in Socony Vacuum.[12] Since Socony Vacuum, the Court has limited the application of per se illegality to bid rigging (a form of horizontal price fixing),[13] horizontal market divisions,[14] tying,[15] and group boycotts[16].

Starting in the 1970s, especially following research demonstrating the benefits to consumers of a number of business arrangements and contracts previously condemned by courts as per se illegal, the Court began to limit the categories of conduct that received per se treatment. In 1977, in GTE Sylvania, the Courtheld that vertical customer and territorial restraints should be judged under the rule of reason.[17] In 1979, in BMI, it held that a blanket license issued by a clearinghouse of copyright owners that set a uniform price and prevented individual negotiation with licensees was a necessary precondition for the product and was thus subject to the rule of reason.[18] In 1984, in Jefferson Parish, the Court rejected automatic application of the per se rule to tying.[19] A year later, the Court held that the per se rule did not apply to all group boycotts.[20] In 1997, in State Oil Company v. Khan, it held that maximum resale price fixing is not per se illegal.[21] And, in 2007, the Court held that minimum resale price fixing should also be assessed under the rule of reason. In Leegin, the Court made clear that the per se rule is not the norm for analyzing the reasonableness of restraints; rather, the rule of reason is the “accepted standard for testing” whether a practice is unreasonable.[22]

More recent Court decisions reflect the Court’s refusal to expand the scope of “quick look” analysis, an application of the rule of reason that nonetheless truncates the necessary fact-finding for liability where “an observer with even a rudimentary understanding of economics could conclude that the arrangements in question would have an anticompetitive effect on customers and markets.”[23] In 2013, the Supreme Court rejected an FTC request to require courts to apply the “quick look” approach to reverse-payment settlement agreements.[24] The Court has also backed away from presumptive rules of legality. In American Needle, the Court stripped the National Football League of Section 1 immunity by holding that the NFL is not entitled to the single entity defense under Copperweld and instead, its conduct must be analyzed under the “flexible” rule of reason.[25] And last year, in NCAA v. Alston, the Court rejected the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s argument that it should have benefited from a “quick look”, restating that “most restraints challenged under the Sherman Act” are subject to the rule of reason.[26]

The message from the Court is clear: rules are the exception, not the norm. It “presumptively applies rule of reason analysis”[27] and applies the per se rule only to restraints that “lack any redeeming virtue.”[28] Per se rules are reserved for “conduct that is manifestly anticompetitive” and that “would always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.”[29] And that’s a short list.  What is more, the Leegin Court made clear that administrative convenience—part of the justification for administrative rules[30]—cannot in and of itself be sufficient to justify application of the per se rule.[31]

The Court’s warnings about per se rules ring just as true for rules that could be promulgated under the Commission’s purported UMC rulemaking authority, which would function just as a per se rule would. Proof of the conduct ends the inquiry. No need to demonstrate anticompetitive effects. No procompetitive justifications. No efficiencies. No balancing.

But if the Commission attempts administratively to adopt per se rules, it will run up against precedents making clear that the antitrust laws do not abide such rules. This is not simply a matter of the—already controversial[32]—historical attempts by the agency to define under Section 5 conduct that goes outside the Sherman Act. Rather, establishing per se rules about conduct covered under the rule of reason effectively overrules Supreme Court precedent. For example, the Executive Order contemplates the FTC promulgating a rule concerning pay-for-delay settlements.[33] But, to the extent it can fashion rules, the agency can only prohibit by rule that which is illegal. To adopt a per se ban on conduct covered by the rule of reason is to take out of the analysis the justifications for and benefits of the conduct in question. And while the FTC Act enables the agency some authority to prohibit conduct outside the scope of the Sherman Act,[34] it does not do away with consideration of justifications or benefits when determining whether a practice is an “unfair method of competition.” As a result, the FTC cannot condemn categorically via rulemaking conduct that the courts have refused to condemn as per se illegal, and instead have analyzed under the rule of reason.[35] Last year, the FTC docketed a petition filed by the Open Markets Institute and others to ban “exclusionary contracts” by monopolists and other “dominant firms” under the agency’s unfair methods of competition authority.[36] The precise scope is not entirely clear from the filing, but courts have held consistently that some conduct clearly covered (e.g., exclusive dealing) is properly evaluated under the rule of reason.[37]

The Supreme Court has been loath to bless per se rules by courts. Rules are blunt instruments and not appropriately applied to conduct that the effect of which is not so clearly negative. Except for the “obvious,” an analysis of whether a restraint is unreasonable is not a “simple matter” and “easy labels do not always supply ready answers.” [38] Over the decades, the Court has rebuked lower courts attempting to apply rules to conduct properly evaluated under the rule of reason.[39] Should the Commission attempt the same administratively, or if it attempts administratively to rewrite judicial precedents, it would be rewriting the antitrust law itself and tempting a similar fate.


[1] Promoting Competition in the American Economy, Exec. Order No. 14036, 86 Fed. Reg. 36987, 36993 (July 9, 2021), https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2021-07-14/pdf/2021-15069.pdf (hereinafter “Biden Executive Order”).

[2]  Rohit Chopra & Lina M. Khan, The Case for “Unfair Methods of Competition” Rulemaking, 87 U. Chi. L. Rev. 357 (2020) (hereinafter “Chopra & Khan”).

[3]  Prepared Remarks of Commissioner Noah Joshua Phillips at FTC Non-Compete Clauses in the Workplace Workshop (Jan. 9, 2020, https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/public_statements/1561697/phillips_-_remarks_at_ftc_nca_workshop_1-9-20.pdf).

[4] See e.g., Maureen K. Ohlhausen & James Rill, Pushing the Limits? A Primer on FTC Competition Rulemaking, U.S. Chamber of Commerce (Aug. 12, 2021), https://www.uschamber.com/assets/archived/images/ftc_rulemaking_white_paper_aug12.pdf.

[5]  Richard J. Pierce Jr., Can the FTC Use Rulemaking to Change Antitrust Law?, Truth on the Market FTC UMC Rulemaking Symposium (April 28, 2022), https://truthonthemarket.com/2022/04/28/can-the-ftc-use-rulemaking-to-change-antitrust-law; Gus Hurwitz, Chevron and Administrative Antitrust, Redux, Truth on the Market FTC UMC Rulemaking Symposium (April 29, 2022), https://truthonthemarket.com/2022/04/29/chevron-and-administrative-antitrust-redux.

[6] See Chopra & Khan, supra n. 2, at 368.

[7] See e.g., Bd. of Trade v. United States, 246 U.S. 231, 238 (1918) (explaining that “the legality of an agreement . . . cannot be determined by so simple a test, as whether it restrains competition. Every agreement concerning trade … restrains. To bind, to restrain, is of their very essence”); Nat’l Soc’y of Prof’l Eng’rs v. United States, 435 U.S. 679, 687-88 (1978) (“restraint is the very essence of every contract; read literally, § 1 would outlaw the entire body of private contract law”).

[8] Standard Oil Co., v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911).

[9] See Continental T.V. v. GTE Sylvania, 433 U.S. 36, 49 (1977) (“Since the early years of this century a judicial gloss on this statutory language has established the “rule of reason” as the prevailing standard of analysis…”). See also State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3, 10 (1997) (“most antitrust claims are analyzed under a ‘rule of reason’ ”); Arizona v. Maricopa Cty. Med. Soc’y, 457 U.S. 332, 343 (1982) (“we have analyzed most restraints under the so-called ‘rule of reason’ ”).

[10] Chicago Board of Trade v. United States, 246 U.S. 231, 238 (1918).

[11] Dr. Miles Med. Co. v. John D. Park & Sons Co., 220 U.S. 373 (1911).

[12]  United States v. Socony-Vacuum Oil Co., 310 U.S. 150 (1940).

[13]  See e.g., United States v. Joyce, 895 F.3d 673, 677 (9th Cir. 2018); United States v. Bensinger, 430 F.2d 584, 589 (8th Cir. 1970).

[14]  United States v. Sealy, Inc., 388 U.S. 350 (1967).

[15]  Northern P. R. Co. v. United States, 356 U.S. 1 (1958).

[16]  NYNEX Corp. v. Discon, Inc., 525 U.S. 128 (1998).

[17]  Continental T.V. v. GTE Sylvania, 433 U.S. 36 (1977).

[18]  Broadcast Music, Inc. v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. 441 U.S. 1 (1979).

[19] Jefferson Parish Hosp. Dist. No. 2 v. Hyde, 466 U.S. 2 (1984).

[20]  Northwest Wholesale Stationers, Inc. v. Pacific Stationery & Printing Co., 472 U.S. 284 (1985).

[21] State Oil Company v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3 (1997).

[22] Leegin Creative Leather Prods., Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. 551 U.S. 877, 885 (2007).

[23]  California Dental Association v. FTC, 526 U.S. 756, 770 (1999).

[24]  FTC v. Actavis, Inc., 570 U.S. 136 (2013).

[25] Am. Needle, Inc. v. Nat’l Football League, 560 U.S. 183, 187 (2010).

[26] Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n v. Alston, 141 S. Ct. 2141, 2155, 2021 WL 2519036 (2021).

[27] Texaco Inc. v. Dagher, 547 U.S. 1, 5 (2006).

[28]  Leegin Creative Leather Prods., Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. 551 U.S. 877, 885 (2007).

[29] Business Electronics Corp. v. Sharp Electronics Corp., 485 U.S. 717, 723 (1988).

[30]  Rohit Chopra & Lina M. Khan, The Case for “Unfair Methods of Competition” Rulemaking, 87 U. Chi. L. Rev. 357 (2020).

[31]  Leegin Creative Leather Prods., Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. 551 U.S. 877, 886-87 (2007).

[32] The FTC’s attempts to bring cases condemning conduct as a standalone Section 5 violation were not successful. See e.g., Boise Cascade Corp. v. FTC, 637 F.2d 573 (9th Cir. 1980); Airline Guides, Inc. v. FTC, 630 F.2d 920 (2d Cir. 1980); E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. FTC, 729 F.2d 128 (2d Cir. 1984).

[33] Biden Executive order, Section 5(h)(iii).

[34] Supreme Court precedent confirms that Section 5 of the FTC Act does not limit “unfair methods of competition” to practices that violate other antitrust laws (i.e., Sherman Act, Clayton Act). See e.g., FTC v. Ind. Fed’n of Dentists, 476 U.S. 447, 454 (1986); FTC v. Sperry & Hutchinson Co., 405 U.S. 233, 244 (1972); FTC v. Brown Shoe Co., 384 U.S. 316, 321 (1966); FTC v. Motion Picture Advert. Serv. Co., 344 U.S. 392, 394-95 (1953); FTC v. R.F. Keppel & Bros., Inc., 291 U.S. 304, 309-310 (1934).

[35] The agency also has recognized recently that such agreements are subject to the Rule of Reason under the FTC Act, which decisions was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Impax Labs., Inc. v. FTC, No. 19-60394 (5th Cir. 2021).

[36] Petition for Rulemaking to Prohibit Exclusionary Contracts by Open Market Institute et al., (July 21, 2021), https://www.regulations.gov/document/FTC-2021-0036-0002 (hereinafter “OMI Petition). 

[37] OMI Petition at 71 (“Given the real evidence of harm from certain exclusionary contracts and the specious justifications presented in their favor, the FTC should ban exclusivity with customers, distributors, or suppliers that results in substantial market foreclosure as per se illegal under the FTC Act. The present rule of reason governing exclusive dealing by all firms is infirm on multiple grounds.”) But see e.g., ZF Meritor, LLC v. Eaton Corp., 696 F.3d 254, 271 (3d Cir. 2012) (“Due to the potentially procompetitive benefits of exclusive dealing agreements, their legality is judged under the rule of reason.”).

[38]  Broadcast Music, Inc. v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. 441 U.S. 1, 8-9 (1979).

[39] See e.g., Continental T.V. v. GTE Sylvania, 433 U.S. 36 (1977) (holding that nonprice vertical restraints have redeeming value and potential procompetitive justification and therefore are unsuitable for per se review); United States Steel Corp. v. Fortner Enters., Inc., 429 U.S. 610 (1977) (rejecting the assumption that tying lacked any purpose other than suppressing competition and recognized tying could be procompetitive); FTC v. Indiana Federation of Dentists, 476 U.S. 447 (1986) (declining to apply the per se rule even though the conduct at issue resembled a group boycott).

Biden administration enforcers at the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have prioritized labor-market monopsony issues for antitrust scrutiny (see, for example, here and here). This heightened interest comes in light of claims that labor markets are highly concentrated and are rife with largely neglected competitive problems that depress workers’ income. Such concerns are reflected in a March 2022 U.S. Treasury Department report on “The State of Labor Market Competition.”

Monopsony is the “flip side” of monopoly and U.S. antitrust law clearly condemns agreements designed to undermine the “buyer side” competitive process (see, for example, this U.S. government submission to the OECD). But is a special new emphasis on labor markets warranted, given that antitrust enforcers ideally should seek to allocate their scarce resources to the most pressing (highest valued) areas of competitive concern?

A May 2022 Information Technology & Innovation (ITIF) study from ITIF Associate Director (and former FTC economist) Julie Carlson indicates that the degree of emphasis the administration’s antitrust enforcers are placing on labor issues may be misplaced. In particular, the ITIF study debunks the Treasury report’s findings of high levels of labor-market concentration and the claim that workers face a “decrease in wages [due to labor market power] at roughly 20 percent relative to the level in a fully competitive market.” Furthermore, while noting the importance of DOJ antitrust prosecutions of hard-core anticompetitive agreements among employers (wage-fixing and no-poach agreements), the ITIF report emphasizes policy reforms unrelated to antitrust as key to improving workers’ lot.

Key takeaways from the ITIF report include:

  • Labor markets are not highly concentrated. Local labor-market concentration has been declining for decades, with the most concentrated markets seeing the largest declines.
  • Labor-market power is largely due to labor-market frictions, such as worker preferences, search costs, bargaining, and occupational licensing, rather than concentration.
  • As a case study, changes in concentration in the labor market for nurses have little to no effect on wages, whereas nurses’ preferences over job location are estimated to lead to wage markdowns of 50%.
  • Firms are not profiting at the expense of workers. The decline in the labor share of national income is primarily due to rising home values, not increased labor-market concentration.
  • Policy reform should focus on reducing labor-market frictions and strengthening workers’ ability to collectively bargain. Policies targeting concentration are misguided and will be ineffective at improving outcomes for workers.

The ITIF report also throws cold water on the notion of emphasizing labor-market issues in merger reviews, which was teed up in the January 2022 joint DOJ/FTC request for information (RFI) on merger enforcement. The ITIF report explains:

Introducing the evaluation of labor market effects unnecessarily complicates merger review and needlessly ties up agency resources at a time when the agencies are facing severe resource constraints.48 As discussed previously, labor markets are not highly concentrated, nor is labor market concentration a key factor driving down wages.

A proposed merger that is reportable to the agencies under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act and likely to have an anticompetitive effect in a relevant labor market is also likely to have an anticompetitive effect in a relevant product market. … Evaluating mergers for labor market effects is unnecessary and costly for both firms and the agencies. The current merger guidelines adequately address competition concerns in input markets, so any contemplated revision to the guidelines should not incorporate a “framework to analyze mergers that may lessen competition in labor markets.” [Citation to Request for Information on Merger Enforcement omitted.]

In sum, the administration’s recent pronouncements about highly anticompetitive labor markets that have resulted in severely underpaid workers—used as the basis to justify heightened antitrust emphasis on labor issues—appear to be based on false premises. As such, they are a species of government misinformation, which, if acted upon, threatens to misallocate scarce enforcement resources and thereby undermine efficient government antitrust enforcement. What’s more, an unnecessary overemphasis on labor-market antitrust questions could impose unwarranted investigative costs on companies and chill potentially efficient business transactions. (Think of a proposed merger that would reduce production costs and benefit consumers but result in a workforce reduction by the merged firm.)

Perhaps the administration will take heed of the ITIF report and rethink its plans to ramp up labor-market antitrust-enforcement initiatives. Promoting pro-market regulatory reforms that benefit both labor and consumers (for instance, excessive occupational-licensing restrictions) would be a welfare-superior and cheaper alternative to misbegotten antitrust actions.

[Continuing our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium, today’s first guest post is from Richard J. Pierce Jr., the Lyle T. Alverson Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. We are also publishing a related post today from Andrew K. Magloughlin and Randolph J. May of the Free State Foundation. 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.]

FTC Rulemaking Power

In 2021, President Joe Biden appointed a prolific young scholar, Lina Khan, to chair the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Khan strongly dislikes almost every element of antitrust law. She has stated her intention to use notice and comment rulemaking to change antitrust law in many ways. She was unable to begin this process for almost a year because the FTC was evenly divided between Democratic and Republican appointees, and she has not been able to elicit any support for her agenda from the Republican members. She will finally get the majority she needs to act in the next few days, as the U.S. Senate appears set to confirm Alvaro Bedoya to the fifth spot on the commission.   

Chair Khan has argued that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define the term “unfair methods of competition” as that term is used in Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. Section 5 authorizes the FTC to define and to prohibit both “unfair acts” and “unfair methods of competition.” For more than 50 years after the 1914 enactment of the statute, the FTC, Congress, courts, and scholars interpreted it to empower the FTC to use adjudication to implement Section 5, but not to use rulemaking for that purpose.

In 1973, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to implement Section 5. Congress responded by amending the statute in 1975 and 1980 to add many time-consuming and burdensome procedures to the notice-and-comment process. Those added procedures had the effect of making the rulemaking process so long that the FTC gave up on its attempts to use rulemaking to implement Section 5.

Khan claims that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition,” even though it must use the extremely burdensome procedures that Congress added in 1975 and 1980 to define “unfair acts.” Her claim is based on a combination of her belief that the current U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the 1973 D.C. Circuit decision that held that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to implement Section 5 and her belief that a peculiarly worded provision of the 1975 amendment to the FTC Act allows the FTC to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition,” even though it requires the FTC to use the extremely burdensome procedure to issue rules that define “unfair acts.” The FTC has not attempted to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition” since Congress amended the statute in 1975. 

I am skeptical of Khan’s argument. I doubt that the Supreme Court would uphold the 1973 D.C. Circuit opinion, because the D.C. Circuit used a method of statutory interpretation that no modern court uses and that is inconsistent with the methods of statutory interpretation that the Supreme Court uses today. I also doubt that the Supreme Court would interpret the 1975 statutory amendment to distinguish between “unfair acts” and “unfair methods of competition” for purposes of the procedures that the FTC is required to use to issue rules to implement Section 5.

Even if the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition,” I am confident that the Supreme Court would not uphold an exercise of that power that has the effect of making a significant change in antitrust law. That would be a perfect candidate for application of the major questions doctrine. The court will not uphold an “unprecedented” action of “vast economic or political significance” unless it has “unmistakable legislative support.” I will now describe four hypothetical exercises of the rulemaking power that Khan believes that the FTC possesses to illustrate my point.

Hypothetical Exercises of FTC Rulemaking Power

Creation of a Right to Repair

President Biden has urged the FTC to create a right for an owner of any product to repair the product or to have it repaired by an independent service organization (ISO). The Supreme Court’s 1992 opinion in Eastman Kodak v. Image Technical Services tells us all we need to know about the likelihood that it would uphold a rule that confers a right to repair. When Kodak took actions that made it impossible for ISOs to repair Kodak photocopiers, the ISOs argued that Kodak’s action violated both Section 1 and Section 2 of the Sherman Act. The Court held that Kodak could prevail only if it could persuade a jury that its view of the facts was accurate. The Court remanded the case for a jury trial to address three contested issues of fact.

The Court’s reasoning in Kodak is inconsistent with any version of a right to repair that the FTC might attempt to create through rulemaking. The Court expressed its view that allowing an ISO to repair a product sometimes has good effects and sometimes has bad effects. It concluded that it could not decide whether Kodak’s new policy was good or bad without first resolving the three issues of fact on which the parties disagreed. In a 2021 report to Congress, the FTC agreed with the Supreme Court. It identified seven factual contingencies that can cause a prohibition on repair of a product by an ISO to have good effects or bad effects. It is naïve to expect the Supreme Court to change its approach to repair rights in response to a rule in which the FTC attempts to create a right to repair, particularly when the FTC told Congress that it agrees with the Court’s approach immediately prior to Khan’s arrival at the agency.

Prohibition of Reverse-Payment Settlements of Patent Disputes Involving Prescription Drugs

Some people believe that settlements of patent-infringement disputes in which the manufacturer of a generic drug agrees not to market the drug in return for a cash payment from the manufacturer of the brand-name drug are thinly disguised agreements to create a monopoly and to share the monopoly rents. Khan has argued that the FTC could issue a rule that prohibits such reverse-payment settlements. Her belief that a court would uphold such a rule is contradicted by the Supreme Court’s 2013 opinion in FTC v. Actavis. The Court unanimously rejected the FTC’s argument in support of a rebuttable presumption that reverse payments are illegal. Four justices argued that reverse-payment settlements can never be illegal if they are within the scope of the patent. The five-justice majority held that a court can determine that a reverse-payment settlement is illegal only after a hearing in which it applies the rule of reason to determine whether the payment was reasonable.

A Prohibition on Below-Cost Pricing When the Firm Cannot Recoup Its Losses

Khan believes that illegal predatory pricing by dominant firms is widespread and extremely harmful to competition. She particularly dislikes the Supreme Court’s test for identifying predatory pricing. That test requires proof that a firm that engages in below-cost pricing has a reasonable prospect of recouping its losses. She wants the FTC to issue a rule in which it defines predatory pricing as below-cost pricing without any prospect that the firm will be able to recoup its losses.

The history of the Court’s predatory-pricing test shows how unrealistic it is to expect the Court to uphold such a rule. The Court first announced the test in a Sherman Act case in 1986. Plaintiffs attempted to avoid the precedential effect of that decision by filing complaints based on predatory pricing under the Robinson-Patman Act. The Court rejected that attempt in a 1993 opinion. The Court made it clear that the test for determining whether a firm is engaged in illegal predatory pricing is the same no matter whether the case arises under the Sherman Act or the Robinson-Patman Act. The Court undoubtedly would reject the FTC’s effort to change the definition of predatory pricing by relying on the FTC Act instead of the Sherman Act or the Robinson-Patman Act.

A Prohibition of Noncompete Clauses in Contracts to Employ Low-Wage Employees

President Biden has expressed concern about the increasing prevalence of noncompete clauses in employment contracts applicable to low wage employees. He wants the FTC to issue a rule that prohibits inclusion of noncompete clauses in contracts to employ low-wage employees. The Supreme Court would be likely to uphold such a rule.

A rule that prohibits inclusion of noncompete clauses in employment contracts applicable to low-wage employees would differ from the other three rules I discussed in many respects. First, it has long been the law that noncompete clauses can be included in employment contracts only in narrow circumstances, none of which have any conceivable application to low-wage contracts. The only reason that competition authorities did not bring actions against firms that include noncompete clauses in low-wage employment contracts was their belief that state labor law would be effective in deterring firms from engaging in that practice. Thus, the rule would be entirely consistent with existing antitrust law.

Second, there are many studies that have found that state labor law has not been effective in deterring firms from including noncompete clauses in low-wage employment contracts and many studies that have found that the increasing use of noncompete clauses in low-wage contracts is causing a lot of damage to the performance of labor markets. Thus, the FTC would be able to support its rule with high-quality evidence.

Third, the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2021 opinion in NCAA v. Alstom indicates that the Court is receptive to claims that a practice that harms the performance of labor markets is illegal. Thus, I predict that the Court would uphold a rule that prohibits noncompete clauses in employment contracts applicable to low-wage employees if it holds that the FTC can use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition,” as that term is used in Section 5 of the FTC Act. That caveat is important, however. As I indicated at the beginning of this essay, I doubt that the FTC has that power.

I would urge the FTC not to use notice-and comment rulemaking to address the problems that are caused by the increasing use of noncompete clauses in low-wage contracts. There is no reason for the FTC to put a lot of time and effort into a notice-and-comment rulemaking in the hope that the Court will conclude that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to implement Section 5. The FTC can implement an effective prohibition on the inclusion of noncompete clauses in employment contracts applicable to low-wage employees by using a combination of legal tools that it has long used and that it clearly has the power to use—issuance of interpretive rules and policy statements coupled with a few well-chosen enforcement actions.

Alternative Ways to Improve Antitrust Law       

There are many other ways in which Khan can move antitrust law in the directions that she prefers. She can make common cause with the many mainstream antitrust scholars who have urged incremental changes in antitrust law and who have conducted the studies needed to support those proposed changes. Thus, for instance, she can move aggressively against other practices that harm the performance of labor markets, change the criteria that the FTC uses to decide whether to challenge proposed mergers and acquisitions, and initiate actions against large platform firms that favor their products over the products of third parties that they sell on their platforms.     

The following post was authored by counsel with White & Case LLP, who represented the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) in an amicus brief filed on behalf of itself and 12 distinguished law & economics scholars with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in support of affirming U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg’s dismissal of various States Attorneys General’s antitrust case brought against Facebook (now, Meta Platforms).

Introduction

The States brought an antitrust complaint against Facebook alleging that various conduct violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act. The ICLE brief addresses the States’ allegations that Facebook refused to provide access to an input, a set of application-programming interfaces that developers use in order to access Facebook’s network of social-media users (Facebook’s Platform), in order to prevent those third parties from using that access to export Facebook data to competitors or to compete directly with Facebook.

Judge Boasberg dismissed the States’ case without leave to amend, relying on recent Supreme Court precedent, including Trinko and Linkline, on refusals to deal. The Supreme Court strongly disfavors forced sharing, as shown by its decisions that recognize very few exceptions to the ability of firms to deal with whom they choose. Most notably, Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing is a 1985 decision recognizing an exception to the general rule that firms may deal with whom they want that was limited, though not expressly overturned, by Trinko in 2004. The States appealed to the D.C. Circuit on several grounds, including by relying on Aspen Skiing, and advocating for a broader view of refusals to deal than dictated by current jurisprudence. 

ICLE’s brief addresses whether the District Court was correct to dismiss the States’ allegations that Facebook’s Platform policies violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act in light of the voluminous body of precedent and scholarship concerning refusals to deal. ICLE’s brief argues that Judge Boasberg’s opinion is consistent with economic and legal principles, allowing firms to choose with whom they deal. Furthermore, the States’ allegations did not make out a claim under Aspen Skiing, which sets forth extremely narrow circumstances that may constitute an improper refusal to deal.  Finally, ICLE takes issue with the States’ attempt to create an amorphous legal standard for refusals to deal or otherwise shoehorn their allegations into a “conditional dealing” framework.

Economic Actors Should Be Able to Choose Their Business Partners

ICLE’s basic premise is that firms in a free-market system should be able to choose their business partners. Forcing firms to enter into certain business relationships can have the effect of stifling innovation, because the firm getting the benefit of the forced dealing then lacks incentive to create their own inputs. On the other side of the forced dealing, the owner would have reduced incentives to continue to innovate, invest, or create intellectual property. Forced dealing, therefore, has an adverse effect on the fundamental nature of competition. As the Supreme Court stated in Trinko, this compelled sharing creates “tension with the underlying purpose of antitrust law, since it may lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in those economically beneficial facilities.” 

Courts Are Ill-Equipped to Regulate the Kind of Forced Sharing Advocated by the States

ICLE also notes the inherent difficulties of a court’s assessing forced access and the substantial risk of error that could create harm to competition. This risk, ICLE notes, is not merely theoretical and would require the court to scrutinize intricate details of a dynamic industry and determine which decisions are lawful or not. Take the facts of New York v. Facebook: more than 10 million apps and websites had access to Platform during the relevant period and the States took issue with only seven instances where Facebook had allegedly improperly prevented access to Platform. Assessing whether conduct would create efficiency in one circumstance versus another is challenging at best and always risky. As Frank Easterbook wrote: “Anyone who thinks that judges would be good at detecting the few situations in which cooperation would do more good than harm has not studied the history of antitrust.”

Even assuming a court has rightly identified a potentially anticompetitive refusal to deal, it would then be put to the task of remedying it. But imposing a remedy, and in effect assuming the role of a regulator, is similarly complicated. This is particularly true in dynamic, quickly evolving industries, such as social media. This concern is highlighted by the broad injunction the States seek in this case: to “enjoin[] and restrain [Facebook] from continuing to engage in any anticompetitive conduct and from adopting in the future any practice, plan, program, or device having a similar purpose or effect to the anticompetitive actions set forth above.”  Such a remedy would impose conditions on Facebook’s dealings with competitors for years to come—regardless of how the industry evolves.

Courts Should Not Expand Refusal-to-Deal Analysis Beyond the Narrow Circumstances of Aspen Skiing

In light of the principles above, the Supreme Court, as stated in Trinko, “ha[s] been very cautious in recognizing [refusal-to-deal] exceptions, because of the uncertain virtue of forced sharing and the difficulty of identifying and remedying anticompetitive conduct by a single firm.” Various scholars (e.g., Carlton, Meese, Lopatka, Epstein) have analyzed Aspen Skiing consistently with Trinko as, at most, “at or near the boundary of § 2 liability.”

So is a refusal-to-deal claim ever viable?  ICLE argues that refusal-to-deal claims have been rare (rightly so) and, at most, should only go forward under the delineated circumstances in Aspen Skiing. ICLE sets forth the 10th U.S. Circuit’s framework in Novell, which makes clear that “the monopolist’s conduct must be irrational but for its anticompetitive effect.”

  • First, “there must be a preexisting voluntary and presumably profitable course of dealing between the monopolist and rival.”
  • Second, “the monopolist’s discontinuation of the preexisting course of dealing must suggest a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve an anti-competitive end.”
  • Finally, even if these two factors are present, the court recognized that “firms routinely sacrifice short-term profits for lots of legitimate reasons that enhance consumer welfare.”

The States seek to broaden Aspen Skiing in order to sinisterize Facebook’s Platform policies, but the facts do not fit. The States do not plead an about-face with respect to Facebook’s Platform policies; the States do not allege that Facebook’s changes to its policies were irrational (particularly in light of the dynamic industry in which Facebook operates); and the States do not allege that Facebook engaged in less efficient behavior with the goal of hurting rivals. Indeed, Facebook changed its policies to retain users—which is essential to its business model (and therefore, rational).

The States try to evade these requirements by arguing for a looser refusal-to-deal standard (and by trying to shoehorn the conduct as “conditional dealing”)—but as ICLE explains, allowing such a claim to go forward would fly in the face of the economic and policy goals upheld by the current jurisprudence. 

Conclusion

The District Court was correct to dismiss the States’ allegations concerning Facebook’s Platform policies. Allowing a claim against Facebook to progress under the circumstances alleged in the States’ complaint would violate the principle that a firm, even one that is a monopolist, should not be held liable for refusing to deal with a certain business partner. The District Court’s decision is in line with key economic principles concerning refusals to deal and consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision in Aspen Skiing. Aspen Skiing is properly read to severely limit the circumstances giving rise to a refusal-to-deal claim, or else risk adverse effects such as reduced incentive to innovate.  

Amici Scholars Signing on to the Brief

(The ICLE brief presents the views of the individual signers listed below. Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.)

Henry Butler
Henry G. Manne Chair in Law and Economics and Executive Director of the Law & Economics Center, Scalia Law School
Daniel Lyons
Professor of Law, Boston College Law School
Richard A. Epstein
Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at NY School of Law, the Peter and Kirsten Bedford Senior Lecturer at the Hoover Institution, and the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus
Geoffrey A. Manne
President and Founder, International Center for Law & Economics, Distinguished Fellow Northwestern University Center on Law, Business & Economics
Thomas Hazlett
H.H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics and Director of the Information Economy Project, Clemson University
Alan J. Meese
Ball Professor of Law, Co-Director, Center for the Study of Law and Markets, William & Mary Law School
Justin (Gus) Hurwitz
Professor of Law and Menard Director of the Nebraska Governance and Technology Center, University of Nebraska College of Law
Paul H. Rubin
Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics Emeritus, Emory University
Jonathan Klick
Charles A. Heimbold, Jr. Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law; Erasmus Chair of Empirical Legal Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam
Michael Sykuta
Associate Professor of Economics and Executive Director of Financial Research Institute, University of Missouri Division of Applied Social Sciences
Thomas A. Lambert
Wall Chair in Corporate Law and Governance, University of Missouri Law School
John Yun
Associate Professor of Law and Deputy Executive Director of the Global Antitrust Institute, Scalia Law School

The International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) filed an amicus brief on behalf of itself and 26 distinguished law & economics scholars with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the hotly anticipated and intensely important Epic Games v Apple case.

A fantastic group of attorneys from White & Case generously assisted us with the writing and filing of the brief, including George Paul, Jack Pace, Gina Chiapetta, and Nicholas McGuire. The scholars who signed the brief are listed at the end of this post. A summary of the brief’s arguments follows. For some of our previous writings on the case, see here, here, here, and here.

Introduction

In Epic Games v. Apple, Epic challenged Apple’s prohibition of third-party app stores and in-app payments (IAP) systems from operating on its proprietary iOS platform as a violation of antitrust law. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled against Epic, finding that Epic’s real concern is its own business interests in the face of Apple’s business model—in particular, the commission Apple charges for use of its IAP system—rather than harm to consumers and to competition more broadly.

Epic appealed to the 9th Circuit on several grounds. Our brief primarily addresses two of Epic’s arguments:

  • First, Epic takes issue with the district court’s proper finding that Apple’s procompetitive justifications outweigh the anticompetitive effects of Apple’s business model. But Epic’s case fails at step one of the rule-of-reason analysis, as it didn’t demonstrate that Apple’s app distribution and IAP practices caused the significant, market-wide, anticompetitive effects that the Supreme Court, in 2018’s Ohio v. American Express (“Amex”), deemed necessary to show anticompetitive harm in cases involving two-sided transaction markets (like Apple’s App Store).
  • Second, Epic argues that the theoretical existence of less restrictive alternatives (“LRA”) to Apple’s business model is sufficient to meet its burden under the rule of reason. But the reliance on LRA in this case is misplaced. Forcing Apple to adopt the “open” platform that Epic champions would reduce interbrand competition and improperly permit antitrust plaintiffs to commandeer the judiciary to modify routine business conduct any time a plaintiff’s attorney or district court can imagine a less restrictive version of a challenged practice—irrespective of whether the practice promotes consumer welfare. This is especially true in the context of two-sided platform businesses, where such an approach would sacrifice interbrand, systems-level competition for the sake of a superficial increase in competition among a small subset of platform users.

Competitive Effects in Two-Sided Markets

Two-sided markets connect distinct sets of users whose demands for the platform are interdependent—i.e., consumers’ demand for a platform increases as more products are available, and conversely, product developers’ demand for a platform increases as additional consumers use the platform, increasing the overall potential for transactions. As a result of these complex dynamics, conduct that may appear anticompetitive when considering the effects on only one set of customers may be entirely consistent with—and actually promote—healthy competition when examining the effects on both sides.

That’s why the Supreme Court recognized in Amex that it was improper to focus on only one side of a two-sided platform. And this holding doesn’t require adherence to the Court’s contentious finding of a two-sided relevant market in Amex. Indeed, even scholars highly critical of the Amex decision recognize the importance of considering effects on both sides of a two-sided platform.

While the district court did find that Epic demonstrated some anticompetitive effects, Epic’s evidence focused only on the effects that Apple’s conduct had on certain app developers; it failed to appropriately examine whether consumers were harmed overall. As Geoffrey Manne has observed, in two-sided markets, “some harm” is not the same thing as “competitively relevant harm.” Supracompetitive prices on one side do not tell us much about the existence or exercise of (harmful) market power in two-sided markets. As the Supreme Court held in Amex:

The fact that two-sided platforms charge one side a price that is below or above cost reflects differences in the two sides’ demand elasticity, not market power or anticompetitive pricing. Price increases on one side of the platform likewise do not suggest anticompetitive effects without some evidence that they have increased the overall cost of the platform’s services.

Without further evidence of the effect of Apple’s practices on consumers, no conclusions can be drawn about the competitive effects of Apple’s conduct. 

Nor can an appropriate examination of anticompetitive effects ignore output. The ability to restrict output, after all, is what allows a monopolist to increase prices. Whereas price effects alone might appear predatory on one side of the market and supra-competitive on the other, output reflects what is happening in the market as a whole. It is therefore the most appropriate measure for antitrust law generally, and it is especially useful in two-sided markets, where asymmetrical price changes are of little use in determining anticompetitive effects.

Ultimately, the question before the court must be whether Apple’s overall pricing structure and business model reduces output, either by deterring app developers from participating in the market or by deterring users from purchasing apps (or iOS devices) as a consequence of the app-developer commission. The district court here noted that it could not ascertain whether Apple’s alleged restrictions had a “positive or negative impact on game transaction volume.”

Thus, Epic’s case fails at step one of the rule of reason analysis because it simply hasn’t demonstrated the requisite harm to competition.

Less Restrictive Alternatives and the Rule of Reason

But even if that weren’t the case, Epic’s claims also don’t make it past step three of the rule of reason analysis.

Epic’s appeal relies on theoretical “less restrictive alternatives” (LRA) to Apple’s business model, which highlights longstanding questions about the role and limits of LRA analysis under the rule of reason. 

According to Epic, because the district court identified some anticompetitive effects on one side of the market, and because alternative business models could, in theory, be implemented to achieve the same procompetitive benefits as Apple’s current business model, the court should have ruled in Epic’s favor at step three. 

There are several problems with this.

First, the existence of an LRA is irrelevant if anticompetitive harm has not been established, of course (as is the case here).

Nor does the fact that some hypothetically less restrictive alternative exists automatically render the conduct under consideration anticompetitive. As the Court held in Trinko, antitrust laws do not “give judges carte blanche to insist that a monopolist alter its way of doing business whenever some other approach might yield greater competition.” 

While, following the Supreme Court’s recent Alston decision, LRA analysis may well be appropriate in some contexts to identify anticompetitive conduct in the face of procompetitive justifications, there is no holding (in either the 9th Circuit or the Supreme Court) requiring it in the context of two-sided markets. (Amex refers to LRA analysis as constituting step three, but because that case was resolved at step one, it must be viewed as mere dictum).And for good reason. In the context of two-sided platforms, an LRA approach would inevitably require courts to second guess the particular allocation of costs, prices, and product attributes across platform users. As Tom Nachbar writes:

Platform defendants, even if they are able to establish the general procompetitive justifications for charging above and below cost prices on the two sides of their platforms, will have to defend the precise combination of prices they have chosen [under an LRA approach] . . . . The relative difficulty of defending any particular allocation of costs will present considerable risk of destabilizing platform markets.

Moreover, LRAs—like the ones proposed by Epic—that are based on maximizing competitor effectiveness by “opening” an incumbent’s platform would convert the rule of reason into a regulatory tool that may not promote competition at all. As Alan Devlin deftly puts it:

This construction of antitrust law—that dominant companies must affirmatively support their fringe rivals’ ability to compete effectively—adopts a perspective of antitrust that is regulatory in nature. . . . [I]f one adopts the increasingly prevalent view that antitrust must facilitate unfettered access to markets, thus spurring free entry and expansion by incumbent rivals, the Sherman Act goes from being a prophylactic device aimed at protecting consumers against welfare-reducing acts to being a misplaced regulatory tool that potentially sacrifices both consumer welfare and efficiency in a misguided pursuit of more of both.

Open Platforms Are not Necessarily Less Restrictive Platforms

It is also important to note that Epic’s claimed LRAs are neither viable alternatives nor actually “less restrictive.” Epic’s proposal would essentially turn Apple’s iOS into an open platform more similar to Google’s Android, its largest market competitor.

“Open” and “closed” platforms both have distinct benefits and drawbacks; one is not inherently superior to the other. Closed proprietary platforms like Apple’s iOS create incentives for companies to internalize positive indirect network effects, which can lead to higher levels of product variety, user adoption, and total social welfare. As Andrei Hagiu has written:

A proprietary platform may in fact induce more developer entry (i.e., product variety), user adoption and higher total social welfare than an open platform.

For example, by filtering which apps can access the App Store and precluding some transactions from taking place on it, a closed or semi-closed platform like Apple’s may ultimately increase the number of apps and transactions on its platform, where doing so makes the iOS ecosystem more attractive to both consumers and developers. 

Any analysis of a supposedly less restrictive alternative to Apple’s “walled garden” model thus needs to account for the tradeoffs between open and closed platforms, and not merely assume that “open” equates to “good,” and “closed” to “bad.” 

Further, such analysis also must consider tradeoffs among consumers and among developers. More vigilant users might be better served by an “open” platform because they find it easier to avoid harmful content; less vigilant ones may want more active assistance in screening for malware, spyware, or software that simply isn’t optimized for the user’s device. There are similar tradeoffs on the developer side: Apple’s model lowers the cost to join the App store, which particularly benefits smaller developers and those whose apps fall outside the popular gaming sector. In a nutshell, the IAP fee cross-subsidizes the delivery of services to the approximately 80% of apps on the App Store that are free and pay no IAP fees.

In fact, the overwhelming irony of Epic’s proposed approach is that Apple could avoid condemnation if it made its overall platform more restrictive. If, for example, Apple had not adopted an App Store model and offered a completely closed and fully integrated device, there would be no question of relative costs and benefits imposed on independent app developers; there would be no independent developers on the iOS platform at all. 

Thus, Epic’s proposed LRA approach, which amounts to converting iOS to an open platform, proves too much. It would enable any contractual or employment relationship for a complementary product or service to be challenged because it could be offered through a “less restrictive” open market mechanism—in other words, that any integrated firm should be converted into an open platform. 

At least since the Supreme Court’s seminal 1977 Sylvania ruling, U.S. antitrust law has been unequivocal in its preference for interbrand over intrabrand competition. Paradoxically, turning a closed platform into an open one (as Epic intends) would, under the guise of protecting competition, actually destroy competition where it matters most: at the interbrand, systems level.

Conclusion

Forcing Apple to adopt the “open” platform that Epic champions would reduce interbrand competition among platform providers. It would also more broadly allow antitrust plaintiffs to insist the courts modify routine business conduct any time a plaintiff’s attorney or district court can imagine a less restrictive version of a challenged practice, regardless of whether that practice nevertheless promotes consumer welfare. In the context of two-sided platform businesses, this would mean sacrificing systems-level competition for the sake of a superficial increase in competition among a small subset of platform users.

The bottom line is that an order compelling Apple to allow competing app stores would require the company to change the way in which it monetizes the App Store. This might have far-reaching distributional consequences for both groups— consumers and distributors. Courts (and, obviously, competitors) are ill-suited to act as social planners and to balance out such complex tradeoffs, especially in the absence of clear anticompetitive harm and the presence of plausible procompetitive benefits.

Amici Scholars Signing on to the Brief


(The ICLE brief presents the views of the individual signers listed below. Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.)

Alden Abbott
Senior Research Fellow, Mercatus Center, George Mason University
Former General Counsel, U.S. Federal Trade Commission
Ben Klein
Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of California Los Angeles
Thomas C. Arthur
L. Q. C. Lamar Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law
Peter Klein
Professor of Entrepreneurship and Corporate Innovation, Baylor University, Hankamer School of Business
Dirk Auer
Director of Competition Policy, International Center for Law & Economics
Adjunct Professor, University of Liège (Belgium)
Jonathan Klick
Charles A. Heimbold, Jr. Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School
Jonathan M. Barnett
Torrey H. Webb Professor of Law, University of Southern California, Gould School of Law
Daniel Lyons
Professor of Law, Boston College Law School
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics, former Economics Department Chair, George Mason University
Geoffrey A. Manne
President and Founder, International Center for Law & Economics
Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business & Economics
Giuseppe Colangelo
Jean Monnet Chair in European Innovation Policy and Associate Professor of Competition Law and Economics, University of Basilicata and Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali
Francisco Marcos
Associate Professor of Law, IE University Law School (Spain)
Anthony Dukes
Chair and Professor of Marketing, University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business
Scott E. Masten
Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy, University of Michigan, Ross Business School
Richard A. Epstein
Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law, New York University, School of Law James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law Emeritus, University of Chicago Law School
Alan J. Meese
Ball Professor of Law, College of William & Mary Law School
Vivek Ghosal
Economics Department Chair and Virginia and Lloyd W. Rittenhouse Professor of Economics, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Igor Nikolic
Research Fellow, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute (Italy)
Janice Hauge
Professor of Economics, University of North Texas
Paul H. Rubin
Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics Emeritus, Emory University
Justin (Gus) Hurwitz
Professor of Law, University of Nebraska College of Law
Vernon L. Smith
George L. Argyros Endowed Chair in Finance and Economics and Professor of Economics and Law, Chapman University Nobel Laureate in Economics (2002)
Michael S. Jacobs
Distinguished Research Professor of Law Emeritus, DePaul University College of Law
Michael Sykuta
Associate Professor of Economics, University of Missouri
Mark A. Jamison
Gerald Gunter Professor of the Public Utility Research Center, University of Florida, Warrington College of Business
Alexander “Sasha” Volokh
Associate Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law