In our previous post on Gonzalez v. Google LLC, which will come before the U.S. Supreme Court for oral arguments Feb. 21, Kristian Stout and I argued that, while the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) got the general analysis right (looking to Roommates.com as the framework for exceptions to the general protections of Section 230), they got the application wrong (saying that algorithmic recommendations should be excepted from immunity).
Now, after reading Google’s brief, as well as the briefs of amici on their side, it is even more clear to me that:
algorithmic recommendations are protected by Section 230 immunity; and
creating an exception for such algorithms would severely damage the internet as we know it.
I address these points in reverse order below.
Google on the Death of the Internet Without Algorithms
The central point that Google makes throughout its brief is that a finding that Section 230’s immunity does not extend to the use of algorithmic recommendations would have potentially catastrophic implications for the internet economy. Google and amici for respondents emphasize the ubiquity of recommendation algorithms:
Recommendation algorithms are what make it possible to find the needles in humanity’s largest haystack. The result of these algorithms is unprecedented access to knowledge, from the lifesaving (“how to perform CPR”) to the mundane (“best pizza near me”). Google Search uses algorithms to recommend top search results. YouTube uses algorithms to share everything from cat videos to Heimlich-maneuver tutorials, algebra problem-solving guides, and opera performances. Services from Yelp to Etsy use algorithms to organize millions of user reviews and ratings, fueling global commerce. And individual users “like” and “share” content millions of times every day. – Brief for Respondent Google, LLC at 2.
The “recommendations” they challenge are implicit, based simply on the manner in which YouTube organizes and displays the multitude of third-party content on its site to help users identify content that is of likely interest to them. But it is impossible to operate an online service without “recommending” content in that sense, just as it is impossible to edit an anthology without “recommending” the story that comes first in the volume. Indeed, since the dawn of the internet, virtually every online service—from news, e-commerce, travel, weather, finance, politics, entertainment, cooking, and sports sites, to government, reference, and educational sites, along with search engines—has had to highlight certain content among the thousands or millions of articles, photographs, videos, reviews, or comments it hosts to help users identify what may be most relevant. Given the sheer volume of content on the internet, efforts to organize, rank, and display content in ways that are useful and attractive to users are indispensable. As a result, exposing online services to liability for the “recommendations” inherent in those organizational choices would expose them to liability for third-party content virtually all the time. – Amicus Brief for Meta Platforms at 3-4.
In other words, if Section 230 were limited in the way that the plaintiffs (and the DOJ) seek, internet platforms’ ability to offer users useful information would be strongly attenuated, if not completely impaired. The resulting legal exposure would lead inexorably to far less of the kinds of algorithmic recommendations upon which the modern internet is built.
This is, in part, why we weren’t able to fully endorse the DOJ’s brief in our previous post. The DOJ’s brief simply goes too far. It would be unreasonable to establish as a categorical rule that use of the ubiquitous auto-discovery algorithms that power so much of the internet would strip a platform of Section 230 protection. The general rule advanced by the DOJ’s brief would have detrimental and far-ranging implications.
Amici on Publishing and Section 230(f)(4)
Google and the amici also make a strong case that algorithmic recommendations are inseparable from publishing. They have a strong textual hook in Section 230(f)(4), which explicitly protects “enabling tools that… filter, screen, allow, or disallow content; pick, choose, analyze or disallow content; or transmit, receive, display, forward, cache, search, subset, organize, reorganize, or translate content.”
As the amicus brief from a group of internet-law scholars—including my International Center for Law & Economics colleagues Geoffrey Manne and Gus Hurwitz—put it:
Section 230’s text should decide this case. Section 230(c)(1) immunizes the user or provider of an “interactive computer service” from being “treated as the publisher or speaker” of information “provided by another information content provider.” And, as Section 230(f)’s definitions make clear, Congress understood the term “interactive computer service” to include services that “filter,” “screen,” “pick, choose, analyze,” “display, search, subset, organize,” or “reorganize” third-party content. Automated recommendations perform exactly those functions, and are therefore within the express scope of Section 230’s text. – Amicus Brief of Internet Law Scholars at 3-4.
In other words, Section 230 protects not just the conveyance of information, but how that information is displayed. Algorithmic recommendations are a subset of those display tools that allow users to find what they are looking for with ease. Section 230 can’t be reasonably read to exclude them.
Why This Isn’t Really (Just) a Roommates.com Case
This is where the DOJ’s amicus brief (and our previous analysis) misses the point. This is not strictly a Roomates.com case. The case actually turns on whether algorithmic recommendations are separable from publication of third-party content, rather than whether they are design choices akin to what was occurring in that case.
For instance, in our previous post, we argued that:
[T]he DOJ argument then moves onto thinner ice. The DOJ believes that the 230 liability shield in Gonzalez depends on whether an automated “recommendation” rises to the level of development or creation, as the design of filtering criteria in Roommates.com did.
While we thought the DOJ went too far in differentiating algorithmic recommendations from other uses of algorithms, we gave them too much credit in applying the Roomates.com analysis. Section 230 was meant to immunize filtering tools, so long as the information provided is from third parties. Algorithmic recommendations—like the type at issue with YouTube’s “Up Next” feature—are less like the conduct in Roommates.com and much more like a search engine.
The DOJ did, however, have a point regarding algorithmic tools in that they may—like any other tool a platform might use—be employed in a way that transforms the automated promotion into a direct endorsement or original publication. For instance, it’s possible to use algorithms to intentionally amplify certain kinds of content in such a way as to cultivate more of that content.
That’s, after all, what was at the heart of Roommates.com. The site was designed to elicit responses from users that violated the law. Algorithms can do that, but as we observed previously, and as the many amici in Gonzalez observe, there is nothing inherent to the operation of algorithms that match users with content that makes their use categorically incompatible with Section 230’s protections.
After looking at the textual and policy arguments forwarded by both sides in Gonzalez, it appears that Google and amici for respondents have the better of it. As several amici argued, to the extent there are good reasons to reform Section 230, Congress should take the lead. The Supreme Court shouldn’t take this case as an opportunity to significantly change the consensus of the appellate courts on the broad protections of Section 230 immunity.
Later next month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Gonzalez v. Google LLC, a case that has drawn significant attention and many bad takes regarding how Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should be interpreted. Enacted in the mid-1990s, when the Internet as we know it was still in its infancy, Section 230 has grown into a law that offers online platforms a fairly comprehensive shield against liability for the content that third parties post to their services. But the law has also come increasingly under fire, from both the political left and the right.
At issue in Gonzalez is whether Section 230(c)(1) immunizes Google from a set of claims brought under the Antiterrorism Act of 1990 (ATA). The petitioners are relatives of Nohemi Gonzalez, an American citizen murdered in a 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. They allege that Google, through YouTube, is liable under the ATA for providing assistance to ISIS for four main reasons. They allege that:
Google allowed ISIS to use YouTube to disseminate videos and messages, thereby recruiting and radicalizing terrorists responsible for the murder.
Google failed to take adequate steps to take down videos and accounts and keep them down.
Google recommends videos of others, both through subscriptions and algorithms.
Google monetizes this content through its AdSense service, with ISIS-affiliated users receiving revenue.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed all of the non-revenue-sharing claims as barred by Section 230(c)(1), but allowed the revenue-sharing claim to go forward.
Highlights of DOJ’s Brief
In an amicus brief, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) ultimately asks the Court to vacate the 9th Circuit’s judgment regarding those claims that are based on YouTube’s alleged targeted recommendations of ISIS content. But the DOJ also rejects much of the petitioner’s brief, arguing that Section 230 does rightfully apply to the rest of the claims.
As the DOJ notes, radical theories advanced by the plaintiffs and other amici would go too far in restricting Section 230 immunity based on a platform’s decisions on whether or not to block or remove user content (see, e.g., its discussion on pp. 17-21 of the merits and demerits of Justice Clarence Thomas’s Malwarebytes concurrence).
At the same time, the DOJ’s brief notes that there is room for a reasonable interpretation of Section 230 that allows for liability to attach when online platforms behave unreasonably in their promotion of users’ content. Applying essentially the 9th Circuit’s Roommates.com standard, the DOJ argues that YouTube’s choice to amplify certain terrorist content through its recommendations algorithm is a design choice, rather than simply the hosting of third-party content, thereby removing it from the scope of Section 230 immunity.
While there is much to be said in favor of this approach, it’s important to point out that, although directionally correct, it’s not at all clear that a Roommates.com analysis should ultimately come down as the DOJ recommends in Gonzalez. More broadly, the way the DOJ structures its analysis has important implications for how we should think about the scope of Section 230 reform that attempts to balance accountability for intermediaries with avoiding undue collateral censorship.
Charting a Middle Course on Immunity
The important point on which the DOJ relies from Roommates.com is that intermediaries can be held accountable when their own conduct creates violations of the law, even if it involves third–party content. As the DOJ brief puts it:
Section 230(c)(1) protects an online platform from claims premised on its dissemination of third-party speech, but the statute does not immunize a platform’s other conduct, even if that conduct involves the solicitation or presentation of third-party content. The Ninth Circuit’s Roommates.com decision illustrates the point in the context of a website offering a roommate-matching service… As a condition of using the service, Roommates.com “require[d] each subscriber to disclose his sex, sexual orientation and whether he would bring children to a household,” and to “describe his preferences in roommates with respect to the same three criteria.” Ibid. The plaintiffs alleged that asking those questions violated housing-discrimination laws, and the court of appeals agreed that Section 230(c)(1) did not shield Roommates.com from liability for its “own acts” of “posting the questionnaire and requiring answers to it.” Id. at 1165.
Imposing liability in such circumstances does not treat online platforms as the publishers or speakers of content provided by others. Nor does it obligate them to monitor their platforms to detect objectionable postings, or compel them to choose between “suppressing controversial speech or sustaining prohibitive liability.”… Illustrating that distinction, the Roommates.com court held that although Section 230(c)(1) did not apply to the website’s discriminatory questions, it did shield the website from liability for any discriminatory third-party content that users unilaterally chose to post on the site’s “generic” “Additional Comments” section…
The DOJ proceeds from this basis to analyze what it would take for Google (via YouTube) to no longer benefit from Section 230 immunity by virtue of its own editorial actions, as opposed to its actions as a publisher (which 230 would still protect). For instance, are the algorithmic suggestions of videos simply neutral tools that allow for users to get more of the content they desire, akin to search results? Or are the algorithmic suggestions of new videos a design choice that makes it akin to Roommates?
The DOJ argues that taking steps to better display pre-existing content is not content development or creation, in and of itself. Similarly, it would be a mistake to make intermediaries liable for creating tools that can then be deployed by users:
Interactive websites invariably provide tools that enable users to create, and other users to find and engage with, information. A chatroom might supply topic headings to organize posts; a photo-sharing site might offer a feature for users to signal that they like or dislike a post; a classifieds website might enable users to add photos or maps to their listings. If such features rendered the website a co-developer of all users’ content, Section 230(c)(1) would be a dead letter.
At a high level, this is correct. Unfortunately, the DOJ argument then moves onto thinner ice. The DOJ believes that the 230 liability shield in Gonzalez depends on whether an automated “recommendation” rises to the level of development or creation, as the design of filtering criteria in Roommates.com did. Toward this end, the brief notes that:
The distinction between a recommendation and the recommended content is particularly clear when the recommendation is explicit. If YouTube had placed a selected ISIS video on a user’s homepage alongside a message stating, “You should watch this,” that message would fall outside Section 230(c)(1). Encouraging a user to watch a selected video is conduct distinct from the video’s publication (i.e., hosting). And while YouTube would be the “publisher” of the recommendation message itself, that message would not be “information provided by another information content provider.” 47 U.S.C. 230(c)(1).
An Absence of Immunity Does Not Mean a Presence of Liability
Importantly, the DOJ brief emphasizes throughout that remanding the ATA claims is not the end of the analysis—i.e., it does not mean that the plaintiffs can prove the elements. Moreover, other background law—notably, the First Amendment—can limit the application of liability to intermediaries, as well. As we put it in our paper on Section 230 reform:
It is important to again note that our reasonableness proposal doesn’t change the fact that the underlying elements in any cause of action still need to be proven. It is those underlying laws, whether civil or criminal, that would possibly hold intermediaries liable without Section 230 immunity. Thus, for example, those who complain that FOSTA/SESTA harmed sex workers by foreclosing a safe way for them to transact (illegal) business should really be focused on the underlying laws that make sex work illegal, not the exception to Section 230 immunity that FOSTA/SESTA represents. By the same token, those who assert that Section 230 improperly immunizes “conservative bias” or “misinformation” fail to recognize that, because neither of those is actually illegal (nor could they be under First Amendment law), Section 230 offers no additional immunity from liability for such conduct: There is no underlying liability from which to provide immunity in the first place.
There’s a strong likelihood that, on remand, the court will find there is no violation of the ATA at all. Section 230 immunity need not be stretched beyond all reasonable limits to protect intermediaries from hypothetical harms when underlying laws often don’t apply.
To date, the contours of Section 230 reform largely have been determined by how courts interpret the statute. There is an emerging consensus that some courts have gone too far in extending Section 230 immunity to intermediaries. The DOJ’s brief is directionally correct, but the Court should not adopt it wholesale. More needs to be done to ensure that the particular facts of Gonzalez are not used to completely gut Section 230 more generally.
The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Jan. 5 “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Non-Compete Clauses” (NPRMNCC) is the first substantive FTC Act Section 6(g) “unfair methods of competition” rulemaking initiative following the release of the FTC’s November 2022 Section 5 Unfair Methods of Competition Policy Statement. Any final rule based on the NPRMNCC stands virtually no chance of survival before the courts. What’s more, this FTC initiative also threatens to have a major negative economic-policy impact. It also poses an institutional threat to the Commission itself. Accordingly, the NPRMNCC should be withdrawn, or as a “second worst” option, substantially pared back and recast.
The NPRMNCC is succinctly described, and its legal risks ably summarized, in a recent commentary by Gibson Dunn attorneys: The proposal is sweeping in its scope. The NPRMNCC states that it “would, among other things, provide that it is an unfair method of competition for an employer to enter into or attempt to enter into a non-compete clause with a worker; to maintain with a worker a non-compete clause; or, under certain circumstances, to represent to a worker that the worker is subject to a non-compete clause.”
The Gibson Dunn commentary adds that it “would require employers to rescind all existing non-compete provisions within 180 days of publication of the final rule, and to provide current and former employees notice of the rescission. If employers comply with these two requirements, the rule would provide a safe harbor from enforcement.”
As I have explained previously, any FTC Section 6(g) rulemaking is likely to fail as a matter of law. Specifically, the structure of the FTC Act indicates that Section 6(g) is best understood as authorizing procedural regulations, not substantive rules. What’s more, Section 6(g) rules raise serious questions under the U.S. Supreme Court’s nondelegation and major questions doctrines (given the breadth and ill-defined nature of “unfair methods of competition”) and under administrative law (very broad unfair methods of competition rules may be deemed “arbitrary and capricious” and raise due process concerns). The cumulative weight of these legal concerns “makes it highly improbable that substantive UMC rules will ultimately be upheld.
The legal concerns raised by Section 6(g) rulemaking are particularly acute in the case of the NPRMNCC, which is exceedingly broad and deals with a topic—employment-related noncompete clauses—with which the FTC has almost no experience. FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson highlights this legal vulnerability in her dissenting statement opposing issuance of the NPRMNCC.
As Andrew Mercado and I explained in our commentary on potential FTC noncompete rulemaking: “[a] review of studies conducted in the past two decades yields no uniform, replicable results as to whether such agreements benefit or harm workers.” In a comprehensive literature review made available online at the end of 2019, FTC economist John McAdams concluded that “[t]here is little evidence on the likely effects of broad prohibitions of non-compete agreements.” McAdams also commented on the lack of knowledge regarding the effects that noncompetes may have on ultimate consumers. Given these realities, the FTC would be particularly vulnerable to having a court hold that a final noncompete rule (even assuming that it somehow surmounted other legal obstacles) lacked an adequate factual basis, and thus was arbitrary and capricious.
The poor legal case for proceeding with the NPRMNCC is rendered even weaker by the existence of robust state-law provisions concerning noncompetes in almost every state (see here for a chart comparing state laws). Differences in state jurisprudence may enable “natural experimentation,” whereby changes made to state law that differ across jurisdictions facilitate comparisons of the effects of different approaches to noncompetes. Furthermore, changes to noncompete laws in particular states that are seen to cause harm, or generate benefits, may allow “best practices” to emerge and thereby drive welfare-enhancing reforms in multiple jurisdictions.
The Gibson Dunn commentary points out that, “[a]s a practical matter, the proposed [FTC noncompete] rule would override existing non-compete requirements and practices in the vast majority of states.” Unfortunately, then, the NPRMNCC would largely do away with the potential benefits of competitive federalism in the area of noncompetes. In light of that, federal courts might well ask whether Congress meant to give the FTC preemptive authority over a legal field traditionally left to the states, merely by making a passing reference to “mak[ing] rules and regulations” in Section 6(g) of the FTC Act. Federal judges would likely conclude that the answer to this question is “no.”
Economic Policy Harms
How much economic harm could an FTC rule on noncompetes cause, if the courts almost certainly would strike it down? Plenty.
The affront to competitive federalism, which would prevent optimal noncompete legal regimes from developing (see above), could reduce the efficiency of employment contracts and harm consumer welfare. It would be exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) to measure such harms, however, because there would be no alternative “but-for” worlds with differing rules that could be studied.
The broad ban on noncompetes predictably will prevent—or at least chill—the use of noncompete clauses to protect business-property interests (including trade secrets and other intellectual-property rights) and to protect value-enhancing investments in worker training. (See here for a 2016 U.S. Treasury Department Office of Economic Policy Report that lists some of the potential benefits of noncompetes.) The NPRMNCC fails to account for those and other efficiencies, which may be key to value-generating business-process improvements that help drive dynamic economic growth. Once again, however, it would be difficult to demonstrate the nature or extent of such foregone benefits, in the absence of “but-for” world comparisons.
Business-litigation costs would also inevitably arise, as uncertainties in the language of a final noncompete rule were worked out in court (prior to the rule’s legal demise). The opportunity cost of firm resources directed toward rule-related issues, rather than to business-improvement activities, could be substantial. The opportunity cost of directing FTC resources to wasteful noncompete-related rulemaking work, rather than potential welfare-enhancing endeavors (such as anti-fraud enforcement activity), also should not be neglected.
Finally, the substantial error costs that would attend designing and seeking to enforce a final FTC noncompete rule, and the affront to the rule of law that would result from creating a substantial new gap between FTC and U.S. Justice Department competition-enforcement regimes, merits note (see here for my discussion of these costs in the general context of UMC rulemaking).
What, then, should the FTC do? It should withdraw the NPRMNCC.
If the FTC is concerned about the effects of noncompete clauses, it should commission appropriate economic research, and perhaps conduct targeted FTC Act Section 6(b) studies directed at noncompetes (focused on industries where noncompetes are common or ubiquitous). In light of that research, it might be in position to address legal policy toward noncompetes in competition advocacy before the states, or in testimony before Congress.
If the FTC still wishes to engage in some rulemaking directed at noncompete clauses, it should consider a targeted FTC Act Section 18 consumer-protection rulemaking (see my discussion of this possibility, here). Unlike Section 6(g), the legality of Section 18 substantive rulemaking (which is directed at “unfair or deceptive acts or practices”) is well-established. Categorizing noncompete-clause-related practices as “deceptive” is plainly a nonstarter, so the Commission would have to bases its rulemaking on defining and condemning specified “unfair acts or practices.”
Section 5(n) of the FTC Act specifies that the Commission may not declare an act or practice to be unfair unless it “causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.” This is a cost-benefit test that plainly does not justify a general ban on noncompetes, based on the previous discussion. It probably could, however, justify a properly crafted narrower rule, such as a requirement that an employer notify its employees of a noncompete agreement before they accept a job offer (see my analysis here).
Should the FTC nonetheless charge forward and release a final competition rule based on the NPRMNCC, it will face serious negative institutional consequences. In the previous Congress, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have introduced legislation that would strip the FTC of its antitrust authority (leaving all federal antitrust enforcement in DOJ hands). Such legislation could gain traction if the FTC were perceived as engaging in massive institutional overreach. An unprecedented Commission effort to regulate one aspect of labor contracts (noncompete clauses) nationwide surely could be viewed by Congress as a prime example of such overreach. The FTC should keep that in mind if it values maintaining its longstanding role in American antitrust-policy development and enforcement.
[The final post in Truth on the Market‘s digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition” comes from Joshua Wright, the executive director of the Global Antitrust Institute at George Mason University and the architect, in his time as a member of the Federal Trade Commission, of the FTC’s prior 2015 UMC statement. You can find all of the posts in this series at thesymposium page here.]
The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recently released Policy Statement on unfair methods of competition (UMC) has a number of profound problems, which I will detail below. But first, some praise: if the FTC does indeed plan to bring many lawsuits challenging conduct as a standalone UMC (I am dubious it will), then the public ought to have notice about the change. Providing such notice is good government, and the new Statement surely provides that notice. And providing notice in this way was costly to the FTC: the contents of the statement make surviving judicial review harder, not easier (I will explain my reasons for this view below). Incurring that cost to provide notice deserves some praise.
Now onto the problems. I see four major ones.
First, the Statement seems to exist in a fantasy world; the FTC majority appears to wish away the past problems associated with UMC enforcement. Those problems have not, in fact, gone away and pretending they don’t exist—as this Statement does—is unlikely to help the Commission’s prospects for success in court.
Second, the Statement provides no guidance whatsoever about how a potential respondent might avoid UMC liability, which stands in sharp contrast to other statements and guidance documents issued by the Commission.
Third, the entire foundation of the statement is that, in 1914, Congress intended the FTC Act to have broader coverage than the Sherman Act. Fair enough. But the coverage of the Sherman Act isn’t fixed to what the Supreme Court thought it was in 1914: It’s a moving target that, in fact, has moved dramatically over the last 108 years. Congress in 1914 could not have intended UMC to be broader than how the courts would interpret the Sherman Act in the future (whether that future is 1918, much less 1970 or 2023).
And fourth, Congress has passed other statutes since it passed the FTC Act in 1914, one of which is the Administrative Procedure Act. The APA unambiguously and explicitly directs administrative agencies to engage in reasoned decision making. In a nutshell, this means that the actions of such agencies must be supported by substantial record evidence and can be set aside by a court on judicial review if they are arbitrary and capricious. “Congress intended to give the FTC broad authority in 1914” is not an argument to address the fact that, 32 years later, Congress also intended to limit the FTC’s authority (as well as other agencies’) by requiring reasoned decision making.
Each of these problems on its own would be enough to doom almost any case the Commission might bring to apply the statement. Together, they are a death knell.
A Record of Failure
As I have explained elsewhere, there are a number of reasons the FTC has pursued few standalone UMC cases in recent decades. The late-1970s effort to reinvigorate UMC enforcement via bringing cases was a total failure: the Commission did not lose the game on a last-second buzzer beater; it got blown out by 40 points. According to William Kovacic and Mark Winerman, in each of those UMC cases, “the tribunal recognized that Section 5 allows the FTC to challenge behavior beyond the reach of the other antitrust laws. In each instance, the court found that the Commission had failed to make a compelling case for condemning the conduct in question.”
Since these losses, the Commission hasn’t successfully litigated a UMC case in federal court. This, in my view, is because of a (very plausible) concern that, when presented with such a case, Article III courts would either define the Commission’s UMC authority on their own terms—i.e., restricting the Commission’s authority—or ultimately decide that the space beyond the Sherman Act that Congress in 1914 intended Section 5 to occupy exists only in theory and not in the real world, and declare the two statutes functionally equivalent. Those reasons—and not Chair Lina Khan’s preferred view that the Commission has been feckless, weak, or captured by special interests since 1981—explain why Section 5 has been used so sparingly over the last 40 years (and mostly just to extract settlements from parties under investigation). The majority’s effort to put all its eggs in the “1914 legislative history” basket simply ignores this reality.
Each of these documents is designed (at least in part) to help market participants understand what conduct might or might not violate one or more laws enforced by the FTC, and for that reason, each document provides specific examples of conduct that would violate the law, and conduct that would not.
The new UMC Policy Statement provides no such examples. Instead, we are left with the conclusory statement that, if the Commission can characterize the conduct as “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve[s] the use of economic power” or “otherwise restrictive or exclusionary,” then the conduct can be a UMC.
What does this salad of words mean? I have no idea, and the Commission doesn’t even bother to try and define them. If a lawyer is asked, “based upon the Commission’s new UMC Statement, what conduct might be a violation?” the only defensible advice to give is “anything three Commissioners think.”
The third problem is the majority’s fictitious belief that Sherman Act jurisprudence is frozen in 1914—the year Congress passed the FTC Act. The Statement states that “Congress passed the FTC Act to push back against the judiciary’s open-ended rule of reason for analyzing Sherman Act claims” and cites the Supreme Court’s opinion in Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States from 1911.
It’s easy to understand why Congress in 1914 was dissatisfied with the opinion in Standard Oil; reading Standard Oil in 2022 is also a dissatisfying experience. The opinion takes up 106 pages in the U.S. Reporter, and individualparagraphs are routinely three pages long; it meanders between analyzing Section 1 and Section 2 of the Sherman Act without telling the reader; and is generally inscrutable. I have taught antitrust for almost 20 years and, though we cover Standard Oil because of its historical importance, I don’t teach the opinion, because the opinion does not help modern students understand how to practice antitrust law.
This stands in sharp contrast to Justice Louis Brandeis’s opinion in Chicago Board of Trade (issued four years after Congress passed the FTC Act), which I do teach consistently, because it articulates the beginning of the modern rule of reason. Although the majority of the FTC is on solid ground when it points out that Congress in 1914 intended the FTC’s UMC authority to have broader coverage than the Sherman Act, the coverage of the Sherman Act has changed since 1914.
This point is well-known, of course: Kovacic and Winerman explain that “[p]robably the most important” reason “Section 5 has played so small a role in the development of U.S. competition policy principles” “is that the Sherman Act proved to be a far more flexible tool for setting antitrust rules than Congress expected in the early 20th century.” The 10 pages in the Statement devoted to century-old legislative history just pretend like Sherman Act jurisprudence hasn’t changed in that same amount of time. The federal courts are going to see right through that.
What About the APA?
The fourth problem with the majority’s trip back to 1914 is that, since then, Congress has passed other statutes limiting the Commission’s authority. The most prominent of these is the Administrative Procedure Act, which was passed in 1946 (for those counting, 1946 is more than 30 years after 1914).
There are hundreds of opinions interpreting the APA, and indeed, an entire body of law has developed pursuant to those cases. These cases produce many lessons, but one of them is that it is not enough for an agency to have the legal authority to act: “Congress gave me this power. I am exercising this power. Therefore, my exercise of this power is lawful,” is, by definition, insufficient justification under the APA. An agency has the obligation to engage in reasoned decision making and must base its actions on substantial evidence. Its enforcement efforts will be set aside on judicial review if they are arbitrary and capricious.
By failing to explain how a company can avoid UMC liability—other than by avoiding conduct that is “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve[s] the use of economic power” or “otherwise restrictive or exclusionary,” without defining those terms—the majority is basically shouting to the federal courts that its UMC enforcement program is going to be arbitrary and capricious. That’s going to fail for many reasons. A simple one is that 1946 is later in time than 1914, which is why the Commission putting all its eggs in the 1914 legislative history basket is not going to work once its actions are challenged in federal court.
These problems with the majority’s statement are so significant, so obvious, and so unlikely to be overcome, that I don’t anticipate that the Commission will pursue many UMC enforcement actions. Instead, I suspect UMC rulemaking is on the agenda, which has its own set of problems (not to mention the fact that the 1914 legislative history points away from Congress intending that the Commission has legislative rulemaking authority). Rather, I think the value of this statement is symbolic for Chair Khan and her supporters.
When one considers the record of the Khan Commission—many policy statements, few enforcement actions, and even fewer successful enforcement actions—it all makes more sense. The audience for this Statement is Chair Khan’s friends working on Capitol Hill and at think tanks, as well as her followers on Twitter. They might be impressed by it. The audience she should be concerned about is Article III judges, who surely won’t be.
[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at thesymposium 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.]
And what is the statement’s aim? As Commissioner Wilson aptly puts it, the statement “announces that the Commission has the authority summarily to condemn essentially any business conduct it finds distasteful.” This sweeping claim, which extends far beyond the scope of prior Commission pronouncements, might be viewed as mere puffery with no real substantive effect: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Various scholarly commentators have already explored the legal and policy shortcomings of this misbegotten statement (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Suffice it to say there is general agreement that, as Gus Hurwitz explains, the statement “is non-precedential and lacks the force of law.”
The statement’s almost certain lack of legal effect, however, does not mean it is of no consequence. Businesses are harmed by legal risk, even if they are eventually likely to prevail in court. Markets react negatively to antitrust lawsuits, and thus firms may be expected to shy away from efficient profitable behavior that may draw the FTC’s ire. The resources firms redirect to less-efficient conduct impose costs on businesses and ultimately consumers. (And when meritless FTC lawsuits still come, wasteful litigation-related costs will be coupled with unwarranted reputational harm to businesses.)
Moreover, as Wilson points out, uncertainty about what the Commission may characterize as unfair “does not allow businesses to structure their conduct to avoid possible liability. . . . [T]he Policy Statement . . . significantly increases uncertainty for businesses[,] which . . . . are left with no navigational tools to map the boundaries of lawful and unlawful conduct.” This will further disincentivize new and innovative (and easily misunderstood) business initiatives. In the perhaps-vain hope that a Commission majority will take note of these harms and have second thoughts about retention of the statement, I will briefly summarize the legal case against the statement’s effectiveness. The FTC actually would be better able to “push the Section 5 envelope” a bit through some carefully tailored innovative enforcement actions if it could jettison the legal baggage that the statement represents. To understand why, a brief review of FTC competition rulemaking and competition enforcement authority is warranted
FTC Competition Rulemaking
As I and others have written at great length (see, for examples, this compilation of essays on FTC rulemaking published by Concurrences), the case for substantive FTC competition rulemaking under Section 6(g) of the FTC Act is exceedingly weak. In particular (see my July 2022Truth on the Market commentary):
First, the “nondelegation doctrine” suggests that, under section 6(g), Congress did not confer on the FTC the specific statutory authority required to issue rules that address particular competitive practices.
Second, principles of statutory construction strongly indicate that the FTC’s general statutory provision dealing with rulemaking refers to procedural rules of organization, not substantive rules bearing on competition.
Third, even assuming that proposed competition rules survived these initial hurdles, principles of administrative law would raise the risk that competition rules would be struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.”
Fourth, there is a substantial possibility that courts would not defer to the FTC’s construction through rulemaking of its “unfair methods of competition” as authorizing the condemnation of specific competitive practices.
The 2022 statement raises these four problems in spades.
First, the Supreme Court has stated that the non-delegation doctrine requires that a statutory delegation must be supported by an “intelligible principle” guiding its application. There is no such principle that may be drawn from the statement, which emphasizes that unfair business conduct “may be coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve the use of economic power of a similar nature.” The conduct also must tend “to negatively affect competitive conditions – whether by affecting consumers, workers, or other market participants.” Those descriptions are so broad and all-encompassing that they are the antithesis of an “intelligible principle.”
Second, the passing nod to rulemaking referenced in Section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. The Supreme Court’s unanimous April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC (holding that the FTC could not obtain equitable monetary relief under its authority to seek injunctions) embodies a reluctance to read general non-specific language as conferring broad substantive powers on the FTC. This interpretive approach is in line with other Supreme Court case law that rejects finding “elephants in mouseholes.” While multiple federal courts had upheld the FTC’s authority to obtain injunctive monetary relief prior to its loss in the AMG case, only one nearly 50-year-old decision, National Petroleum Refiners, supports substantive competition-rulemaking authority, and its reasoning is badly dated. Nothing in the 2022 statement makes a convincing case for giving substantive import to Section 6(g).
Third, given the extremely vague terms used to describe unfair method of competition in the 2022 statement (see first point, above), any effort to invoke them to find a source of authority to define new categories of competition-related violations would be sure to raise claims of agency arbitrariness and capriciousness under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Admittedly, the “arbitrary and capricious review” standard “has gone through numerous cycles since the enactment of the APA” and currently is subject to some uncertainty. Nevertheless, the statement’s untrammeled breadth and lack of clear definitions for unfair competitive conduct suggests that courts would likely employ a “hard look review,” which would make it relatively easy for novel Section 6(g) rules to be deemed arbitrary (especially in light of the skepticism of broad FTC claims of authority that is implicit in the Supreme Court’s unanimous AMG holding).
Fourth, given the economywide breadth of the phrase “unfair methods of competition,” it is quite possible (in fact, probably quite likely) that the Supreme Court would invoke the “major questions doctrine” and hold that unfair methods of competition rulemaking is “too important” to be left to the FTC. Under this increasingly invoked doctrine, “the Supreme Court has rejected agency claims of regulatory authority when (1) the underlying claim of authority concerns an issue of vast ‘economic and political significance,’ and (2) Congress has not clearly empowered the agency with authority over the issue.”
The fact that the 2022 statement plainly asserts vast authority to condemn a wide range of economically significant practices strengthens the already-strong case for condemning Section 5 competition rulemaking under this doctrine. Application of the doctrine would render moot the question of whether Section 6(g) rules would receive any Chevron deference. In any event, based on the 2022 Statement’s flouting of modern antitrust principles, including such core principles as consumer harm, efficiencies, and economic analysis, it appears unlikely that courts would accord such deference subsequent Section 6(g) rules. As Gus Hurwitz recently explained:
Administrative antitrust is a preferred vehicle for administering antitrust law, not for changing it. Should the FTC use its power aggressively, in ways that disrupt longstanding antitrust principles or seem more grounded in policy better created by Congress, it is likely to find itself on the losing side of the judicial opinion.
FTC Competition-Enforcement Authority
In addition to Section 6(g) competition-rulemaking initiatives, the 2022 statement, of course, aims to inform FTC Act Section 5(a) “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) enforcement actions. The FTC could bring a UMC suit before its own administrative tribunal or, in the alternative, seek to enjoin an alleged unfair method of competition in federal district court, pursuant to its authority under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The tenor of the 2022 statement undermines, rather than enhances, the likelihood that the FTC will succeed in “standalone Section 5(a)” lawsuits that challenge conduct falling beyond the boundaries of the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts.
[C]ourts have confirmed that the unilateral exercise of lawfully acquired market power does not violate the antitrust laws. Therefore, the attempted use of standalone Section 5 to address high prices, untethered from accepted theories of antitrust liability under the Sherman Act, is unlikely to find success in the courts.
There have been no jurisprudential changes since 2019 to suggest that a UMC suit challenging the exploitation of lawfully obtained market power by raising prices is likely to find judicial favor. It follows, a fortiori (legalese that I seldom have the opportunity to trot out), that the more “far out” standalone suits implied by the statement’s analysis would likely generate embarrassing FTC judicial losses.
Applying three of the four principles assessed in the analysis of FTC competition rulemaking (the second principle, referring to statutory authority for rulemaking, is inapplicable), the negative influence of the statement on FTC litigation outcomes is laid bare.
First, as is the case with rules, the unconstrained laundry list of “unfair” business practices fails to produce an “intelligible principle” guiding the FTC’s exercise of enforcement discretion. As such, courts could well conclude that, if the statement is to be taken seriously, the non-delegation doctrine applies, and the FTC does not possess delegated UMC authority. Even if such authority were found to have been properly delegated, some courts might separately conclude, on due process grounds, that the UMC prohibition is “void for vagueness” and therefore cannot support an enforcement action. (While the “void for vagueness” doctrine is controversial, related attacks on statutes based on “impossibility of compliance” may have a more solid jurisprudential footing, particularly in the case of civil statutes (see here). The breadth and uncertainty of the statement’s references to disfavored conduct suggests “impossibility of compliance” as a possible alternative critique of novel Section 5 competition cases.) These concerns also apply equally to possible FTC Section 13(b) injunctive actions filed in federal district court.
Second, there is a not insubstantial risk that an appeals court would hold that a final Section 5 competition-enforcement decision by the Commission would be “arbitrary and capricious” if it dealt with behavior far outside the scope of the Sherman or Clayton Acts, based on vague policy pronouncements found in the 2022 statement.
Third, and of greatest risk to FTC litigation prospects, it is likely that appeals courts (and federal district courts in Section 13(b) injunction cases) would give no deference to new far-reaching non-antitrust-based theories alluded to in the statement. As discussed above, this could be based on invocation of the major questions doctrine or, separately, on the (likely) failure to accord Chevron deference to theories that are far removed from recognized antitrust causes of action under modern jurisprudence.
What Should the FTC Do About the Statement?
In sum, the startling breadth and absence of well-defined boundaries that plagues the statement’s discussion of potential Section 5 UMC violations means that the statement’s issuance materially worsens the FTC’s future litigation prospects—both in defending UMC rulemakings and in seeking to affirm case-specific Commission findings of UMC violations.
What, then, should the FTC do?
It should, put simply, withdraw the 2022 statement and craft a new UMC policy statement (NPS) that avoids the major pitfalls inherent in the statement. The NPS should carefully delineate the boundaries of standalone UMC rulemakings and cases, so as (1) to minimize uncertainty in application; and (2) to harmonize UMC actions with the pro-consumer welfare goal (as enunciated by the Supreme Court) of the antitrust laws. In drafting the NPS, the FTC would do well to be mindful of the part of Commissioner Wilson’s dissenting statement that highlights the deficiencies in the 2022 statement that detract from its persuasiveness to courts:
First, . . . the Policy Statement does not provide clear guidance to businesses seeking to comply with the law.
Second, the Policy Statement does not establish an approach for the term “unfair” in the competition context that matches the economic and analytical rigor that Commission policy offers for the same term, “unfair,” in the consumer protection context.
Third, the Policy Statement does not provide a framework that will result in credible enforcement. Instead, Commission actions will be subject to the vicissitudes of prevailing political winds.
Fourth, the Policy Statement does not address the legislative history that both demands economic content for the term “unfair” and cautions against an expansive approach to enforcing Section 5.
Consistent with avoiding these deficiencies, a new PS could carefully identify activities that are beyond the reach of the antitrust laws yet advance the procompetitive consumer-welfare-oriented goal that is the lodestar of antitrust policy. The NPS should also be issued for public comment (as recommended by Commissioner Wilson), an action that could give it additional “due process luster” in the eyes of federal judges.
More specifically, the NPS could state that standalone UMC actions should be directed at private conduct that undermines the competitive process, but is not subject to the reach of the antitrust laws (say, because of the absence of contracts). Such actions might include, for example: (1) invitations to collude; (2) facilitating practices (“activities that tend to promote interdependence by reducing rivals’ uncertainty or diminishing incentives to deviate from a coordinated strategy”—see here); (3) exchanges of competitively sensitive information among competitors that do not qualify as Sherman Act “agreements” (see here); and (4) materially deceptive conduct (lacking efficiency justifications) that likely contributes to obtaining or increasing market power, as in the standard-setting context (see here); and (5) non-compete clauses in labor employment agreements that lack plausible efficiency justifications (say, clauses in contracts made with low-skill, low-salary workers) or otherwise plainly undermine labor-market competition (say, clauses presented to workers only after they have signed an initial contract, creating a “take-it-or-leave-it scenario” based on asymmetric information).
After promulgating a list of examples, the NPS could explain that additional possible standalone UMC actions would be subject to the same philosophical guardrails: They would involve conduct inconsistent with competition on the merits that is likely to harm consumers and that lacks strong efficiency justifications.
A revised NPS along the lines suggested would raise the probability of successful UMC judicial outcomes for the Commission. It would do this by strengthening the FTC’s arguments that there is an intelligible principle underlying congressional delegation; that specificity of notice is sufficient to satisfy due process (arbitrariness and capriciousness) concerns; that the Section 5 delegation is insufficiently broad to trigger the major questions doctrine; and that Chevron deference may be accorded determinations stemming from precise NPS guidance.
In the case of rules, of course, the FTC would still face the substantial risk that a court would deem that Section 6(g) does not apply to substantive rulemakings. And it is far from clear to what extent an NPS along the lines suggested would lead courts to render more FTC-favorable rulings on non-delegation, due process, the major questions doctrine, and Chevron deference. Moreover, even if they entertained UMC suits, the courts could, of course, determine in individual cases that, on the facts, the Commission had failed to show a legal violation. (The FTC has never litigated invitation-to-collude cases, and it lost a variety of facilitating practices cases during the 1980s and 1990s; see here).
Nonetheless, if I were advising the FTC as general counsel, I would tell the commissioners that the choice is between having close to a zero chance of litigation or rulemaking success under the 2022 statement, and some chance of success (greater in the case of litigation than in rulemaking) under the NPS.
The FTC faces a future of total UMC litigation futility if it plows ahead under the 2022 statement. Promulgating an NPS as described would give the FTC at least some chance of success in litigating cases beyond the legal limits of the antitrust laws, assuming suggested principles and guardrails were honored. The outlook for UMC rulemaking (which turns primarily on how the courts view the structure of the FTC Act) remains rather dim, even under a carefully crafted NPS.
If the FTC decides against withdrawing the 2022 statement, it could still show some wisdom by directing more resources to competition advocacy and challenging clearly anticompetitive conduct that falls within the accepted boundaries of the antitrust laws. (Indeed, to my mind, error-cost considerations suggest that the Commission should eschew UMC causes of action that do not also constitute clear antitrust offenses.) It need not undertake almost sure-to-fail UMC initiatives just because it has published the 2022 statement.
In short, treating the 2022 statement as a purely symbolic vehicle to showcase the FTC’s fondest desires—like a new, never-to-be-driven Lamborghini that merely sits in the driveway to win the admiring glances of neighbors—could well be the optimal Commission strategy, given the zeitgeist. That assumes, of course, that the FTC cares about protecting its institutional future and (we also hope) promoting economic well-being.
[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at thesymposium 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.]
When Congress created the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1914, it charged the agency with condemning “unfair methods of competition.” That’s not the language Congress used in writing America’s primary antitrust statute, the Sherman Act, which prohibits “monopoliz[ation]” and “restraint[s] of trade.”
Ever since, the question has lingered whether the FTC has the authority to go beyond the Sherman Act to condemn conduct that is unfair, but not necessarily monopolizing or trade-restraining.
According to a new policy statement, the FTC’s current leadership seems to think that the answer is “yes.” But the peculiar strand of progressivism that is currently running the agency lacks the intellectual foundation needed to tell us what conduct that is unfair but not monopolizing might actually be—and misses an opportunity to bring about an expansion of its powers that courts might actually accept.
Better to Keep the Rule of Reason but Eliminate the Monopoly-Power Requirement
The FTC’s policy statement reads like a thesaurus. What is unfair competition? Answer: conduct that is “coercive, exploitative, collusive, abusive, deceptive, predatory, or involve[s] the use of economic power of a similar nature.”
In other words: the FTC has no idea. Presumably, the agency thinks, like Justice Potter Stewart did of obscenity, it will know it when it sees it. Given the courts’ long history of humiliating the FTC by rejecting its cases, even when the agency is able to provide a highly developed account of why challenged conduct is bad for America, one shudders to think of the reception such an approach to fairness will receive.
The one really determinate proposal in the policy statement is to attack bad conduct regardless whether the defendant has monopoly power. “Section 5 does not require a separate showing of market power or market definition when the evidence indicates that such conduct tends to negatively affect competitive conditions,” writes the FTC.
If only the agency had proposed this change alone, instead of cracking open the thesaurus to try to redefine bad conduct as well. Dropping the monopoly-power requirement would, by itself, greatly increase the amount of conduct subject to the FTC’s writ without forcing the agency to answer the metaphysical question: what is fair?
Under the present rule-of-reason approach, the courts let consumers answer the question of what constitutes bad conduct. Or to be precise, the courts assume that the only thing consumers care about is the product—its quality and price—and they try to guess whether consumers prefer the changes that the defendant’s conduct had on products in the market. If a court thinks consumers don’t prefer the changes, then the court condemns the conduct. But only if the defendant happens to have monopoly power in the market for those products.
Preserving this approach to identifying bad conduct would let the courts continue to maintain the pretense that they are doing the bidding of consumers—a role they will no doubt prefer to deciding what is fair as an absolute matter.
The FTC can safely discard the monopoly-power requirement without disturbing the current test for bad conduct because—as I argue in a working paper and as Timothy J. Brennen has long insisted—the monopoly-power requirement is directed at the wrong level of the supply chain: the market in which the defendant has harmed competition rather than the input market through which the defendant causes harm.
Power, not just in markets but in all social life, is rooted in one thing only: control over what others need. Harm to competition depends not on how much a defendant can produce relative to competitors but on whether a defendant controls an input that competitors need, but which the defendant can deny to them.
What others need, they do not buy from the market for which they produce. They buy what they need from other markets: input markets. It follows that the only power that should matter for antitrust—the only power that determines whether a firm can harm competition—is power over input markets, not power in the market in which competition is harmed.
And yet, apart from vertical-merger and contracting cases, where an inquiry into foreclosure of inputs still occasionally makes an appearance, antitrust today never requires systematic proof of power in input markets. The efforts of economists are wasted on the proof of power at the wrong level of the supply chain.
That represents an opportunity for the FTC, which can at one stroke greatly expand its authority to encompass conduct by firms having little power in the markets in which they harm competition.
To be sure, really getting the rule of reason right would require that proof of monopoly power continue to be required, only now at the input level instead of in the downstream market in which competition is harmed. But the courts have traditionally required only informal proof of power over inputs. The FTC could probably eliminate the economics-intensive process of formal proof of monopoly power entirely, instead of merely kicking it up one level in the supply chain.
That is surely an added plus for a current leadership so fearful of computation that it was at pains in the policy statement specifically to forswear “numerical” cost-benefit analysis.
Whatever Happened to No Fault?
The FTC’s interest in expanding enforcement by throwing off the monopoly-power requirement is a marked departure from progressive antimonopolisms of the past. Mid-20th century radicals did not attack the monopoly-power side of antitrust’s two-part test, but rather the anticompetitive-conduct side.
For more than two decades, progressives mooted establishing a “no-fault” monopolization regime in which the only requirement for liability was size. By contrast, the present movement has sought to focus on conduct, rather than size, its own anti-concentration rhetoric notwithstanding.
That might, in part, be a result of the movement’s hostility toward economics. Proof of monopoly power is a famously economics-heavy undertaking.
The origin of contemporary antimonopolism is in activism by journalists against the social-media companies that are outcompeting newspapers for ad revenue, not in academia. As a result, the best traditions of the left, which involve intellectually outflanking opponents by showing how economic theory supports progressive positions, are missing here.
Contemporary antimonopolism has no “Capital” (Karl Marx), no “Progress and Poverty” (Henry George), and no “Freedom through Law” (Robert Hale). The most recent installment in this tradition of left-wing intellectual accomplishment is “Capital in the 21st Century” (Thomas Piketty). Unfortunately for progressive antimonopolists, it states: “pure and perfect competition cannot alter . . . inequality[.]’”
The contrast with the last revolution to sweep antitrust—that of the Chicago School—could not be starker. That movement was born in academia and its triumph was a triumph of ideas, however flawed they may in fact have been.
If one wishes to understand how Chicago School thinking put an end to the push for “no-fault” monopolization, one reads the Airlie House conference volume. In the conversations reproduced therein, one finds the no-faulters slowly being won over by the weight of data and theory deployed against them in support of size.
No equivalent watershed moment exists for contemporary antimonopolism, which bypassed academia (including the many progressive scholars doing excellent work therein) and went straight to the press and the agencies.
There is an ongoing debate about whether recent increases in markups result from monopolization or scarcity. It has not been resolved.
Rather than occupy economics, contemporary antimonopolists—and, perhaps, current FTC leadership—recoil from it. As one prominent antimonopolist lamented to a New York Times reporter, merger cases should be a matter of counting to four, and “[w]e don’t need economists to help us count to four.”
As the policy statement puts it: “The unfair methods of competition framework explicitly contemplates a variety of non-quantifiable harms, and justifications and purported benefits may be unquantifiable as well.”
Contemporary antimonopolism’s focus on conduct might also be due to moralism—as reflected in the litany of synonyms for “bad” in the FTC’s policy statement.
For earlier progressives, antitrust was largely a means to an end—a way of ensuring that wages were high, consumer prices were low, and products were safe and of good quality. The fate of individual business entities within markets was of little concern, so long as these outcomes could be achieved.
What mattered were people. While contemporary antimonopolism cares about people, too, it differs from earlier antimonopolisms in that it personifies the firm.
If the firm dies, we are to be sad. If the firm is treated roughly by others, starved of resources or denied room to grow and reach its full potential, we are to be outraged, just as we would be if a child were starved. And, just as in the case of a child, we are to be outraged even if the firm would not have grown up to contribute anything of worth to society.
The irony, apparently lost on antimonopolists, is that the same personification of the firm as a rights-bearing agent, operating in other areas of law, undermines progressive policies.
The firm personified not only has a right to be treated gently by competing firms but also to be treated well by other people. But that means that people no longer come first relative to firms. When the Supreme Court holds that a business firm has a First Amendment right to influence politics, the Court takes personification of the firm to its logical extreme.
The alternative is not to make the market a morality play among firms, but to focus instead on market outcomes that matter to people—wages, prices, and product quality. We should not care whether a firm is “coerc[ed], exploitat[ed], collu[ded against], abus[ed], dece[ived], predate[ed], or [subjected to] economic power of a similar nature” except insofar as such treatment fails to serve people.
If one firm wishes to hire away the talent of another, for example, depriving the target of its lifeblood and killing it, so much the better if the result is better products, lower prices, or higher wages.
Antitrust can help maintain this focus on people only in part—by stopping unfair conduct that degrades products. I have argued elsewhere that the rest is for price regulation, taxation, and direct regulation to undertake.
Can We Be Fairer and Still Give Product-Improving Conduct a Pass?
The intellectual deficit in contemporary antimonopolism is also evident in the care that the FTC’s policy statement puts into exempting behavior that creates superior products.
For one cannot expand the FTC’s powers to reach bad conduct without condemning product-improving conduct when the major check on enforcement today under the rule of reason (apart from the monopoly-power requirement) is precisely that conduct that improves products is exempt.
Under the rule of reason, bad conduct is a denial of inputs to a competitor that does not help consumers, meaning that the denial degrades the competitor’s products without improving the defendant’s products. Bad conduct is, in other words, unfairness that does not improve products.
If the FTC’s goal is to increase fairness relative to a regime that already pursues it, except when unfairness improves products, the additional fairness must come at the cost of product improvement.
The reference to superior products in the policy statement may be an attempt to compromise with the rule of reason. Unlike the elimination of the monopoly-power requirement, it is not a coherent compromise.
The FTC doesn’t need an economist to grasp this either.
[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at thesymposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan has just sent her holiday wishlist to Santa Claus. It comes in the form of a policy statement on unfair methods of competition (UMC) that the FTC approved last week by a 3-1 vote. If there’s anything to be gleaned from the document, it’s that Khan and the agency’s majority bloc wish they could wield the same powers as Margrethe Vestager does in the European Union. Luckily for consumers, U.S. courts are unlikely to oblige.
Signed by the commission’s three Democratic commissioners, the UMC policy statement contains language that would be completely at home in a decision of the European Commission. It purports to reorient UMC enforcement (under Section 5 of the FTC Act) around typically European concepts, such as “competition on the merits.” This is an unambiguous repudiation of the rule of reason and, with it, the consumer welfare standard.
Unfortunately for its authors, these European-inspired aspirations are likely to fall flat. For a start, the FTC almost certainly does not have the power to enact such sweeping changes. More fundamentally, these concepts have been tried in the EU, where they have proven to be largely unworkable. On the one hand, critics (including the European judiciary) have excoriated the European Commission for its often economically unsound policymaking—enabled by the use of vague standards like “competition on the merits.” On the other hand, the Commission paradoxically believes that its competition powers are insufficient, creating the need for even stronger powers. The recently passed Digital Markets Act (DMA) is designed to fill this need.
As explained below, there is thus every reason to believe the FTC’s UMC statement will ultimately go down as a mistake, brought about by the current leadership’s hubris.
A Statement Is Just That
The first big obstacle to the FTC’s lofty ambitions is that its leadership does not have the power to rewrite either the FTC Act or courts’ interpretation of it. The agency’s leadership understands this much. And with that in mind, they ostensibly couch their statement in the case law of the U.S. Supreme Court:
Consistent with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the FTC Act in at least twelve decisions, this statement makes clear that Section 5 reaches beyond the Sherman and Clayton Acts to encompass various types of unfair conduct that tend to negatively affect competitive conditions.
It is telling, however, that the cases cited by the agency—in a naked attempt to do away with economic analysis and the consumer welfare standard—are all at least 40 years old. Antitrust and consumer-protection laws have obviously come a long way since then, but none of that is mentioned in the statement. Inconvenient case law is simply shrugged off. To make matters worse, even the cases the FTC cites provide, at best, exceedingly weak support for its proposed policy.
For instance, as Commissioner Christine Wilson aptly notes in her dissenting statement, “the policy statement ignores precedent regarding the need to demonstrate anticompetitive effects.” Chief among these is the Boise Cascade Corp. v. FTC case, where the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rebuked the FTC for failing to show actual anticompetitive effects:
In truth, the Commission has provided us with little more than a theory of the likely effect of the challenged pricing practices. While this general observation perhaps summarizes all that follows, we offer the following specific points in support of our conclusion.
There is a complete absence of meaningful evidence in the record that price levels in the southern plywood industry reflect an anticompetitive effect.
In short, the FTC’s statement is just that—a statement. Gus Hurwitz summarized this best in his post:
Today’s news that the FTC has adopted a new UMC Policy Statement is just that: mere news. It doesn’t change the law. It is non-precedential and lacks the force of law. It receives the benefit of no deference. It is, to use a term from the consumer-protection lexicon, mere puffery.
Lina’s European Dream
But let us imagine, for a moment, that the FTC has its way and courts go along with its policy statement. Would this be good for the American consumer? In order to answer this question, it is worth looking at competition enforcement in the European Union.
There are, indeed, striking similarities between the FTC’s policy statement and European competition law. Consider the resemblance between the following quotes, drawn from the FTC’s policy statement (“A” in each example) and from the European competition sphere (“B” in each example).
Example 1 – Competition on the merits and the protection of competitors:
A. The method of competition must be unfair, meaning that the conduct goes beyond competition on the merits.… This may include, for example, conduct that tends to foreclose or impair the opportunities of market participants, reduce competition between rivals, limit choice, or otherwise harm consumers. (here)
B. The emphasis of the Commission’s enforcement activity… is on safeguarding the competitive process… and ensuring that undertakings which hold a dominant position do not exclude their competitors by other means than competing on the merits… (here)
Example 2 – Proof of anticompetitive harm:
A. “Unfair methods of competition” need not require a showing of current anticompetitive harm or anticompetitive intent in every case. … [T]his inquiry does not turn to whether the conduct directly caused actual harm in the specific instance at issue. (here)
B. The Commission cannot be required… systematically to establish a counterfactual scenario…. That would, moreover, oblige it to demonstrate that the conduct at issue had actual effects, which… is not required in the case of an abuse of a dominant position, where it is sufficient to establish that there are potential effects. (here)
Example 3 – Multiple goals:
A. Given the distinctive goals of Section 5, the inquiry will not focus on the “rule of reason” inquiries more common in cases under the Sherman Act, but will instead focus on stopping unfair methods of competition in their incipiency based on their tendency to harm competitive conditions. (here)
B. In its assessment the Commission should pursue the objectives of preserving and fostering innovation and the quality of digital products and services, the degree to which prices are fair and competitive, and the degree to which quality or choice for business users and for end users is or remains high. (here)
Beyond their cosmetic resemblances, these examples reflect a deeper similarity. The FTC is attempting to introduce three core principles that also undergird European competition enforcement. The first is that enforcers should protect “the competitive process” by ensuring firms compete “on the merits,” rather than a more consequentialist goal like the consumer welfare standard (which essentially asks how a given practice affects economic output). The second is that enforcers should not be required to establish that conduct actually harms consumers. Instead, they need only show that such an outcome is (or will be) possible. The third principle is that competition policies pursue multiple, sometimes conflicting, goals.
In short, the FTC is trying to roll back U.S. enforcement to a bygone era predating the emergence of the consumer welfare standard (which is somewhat ironic for the agency’s progressive leaders). And this vision of enforcement is infused with elements that appear to be drawn directly from European competition law.
Europe Is Not the Land of Milk and Honey
All of this might not be so problematic if the European model of competition enforcement that the FTC now seeks to emulate was an unmitigated success, but that could not be further from the truth. As Geoffrey Manne, Sam Bowman, and I argued in a recently published paper, the European model has several shortcomings that militate against emulating it (the following quotes are drawn from that paper). These problems would almost certainly arise if the FTC’s statement was blessed by courts in the United States.
For a start, the more open-ended nature of European competition law makes it highly vulnerable to political interference. This is notably due to its multiple, vague, and often conflicting goals, such as the protection of the “competitive process”:
Because EU regulators can call upon a large list of justifications for their enforcement decisions, they are free to pursue cases that best fit within a political agenda, rather than focusing on the limited practices that are most injurious to consumers. In other words, there is largely no definable set of metrics to distinguish strong cases from weak ones under the EU model; what stands in its place is political discretion.
Politicized antitrust enforcement might seem like a great idea when your party is in power but, as Milton Friedman wisely observed, the mark of a strong system of government is that it operates well with the wrong person in charge. With this in mind, the FTC’s current leadership would do well to consider what their political opponents might do with these broad powers—such as using Section 5 to prevent online platforms from moderating speech.
A second important problem with the European model is that, because of its competitive-process goal, it does not adequately distinguish between exclusion resulting from superior efficiency and anticompetitive foreclosure:
By pursuing a competitive process goal, European competition authorities regularly conflate desirable and undesirable forms of exclusion precisely on the basis of their effect on competitors. As a result, the Commission routinely sanctions exclusion that stems from an incumbent’s superior efficiency rather than welfare-reducing strategic behavior, and routinely protects inefficient competitors that would otherwise rightly be excluded from a market.
This vastly enlarges the scope of potential antitrust liability, leading to risks of false positives that chill innovative behavior and create nearly unwinnable battles for targeted firms, while increasing compliance costs because of reduced legal certainty. Ultimately, this may hamper technological evolution and protect inefficient firms whose eviction from the market is merely a reflection of consumer preferences.
Finally, the European model results in enforcers having more discretion and enjoying greater deference from the courts:
[T]he EU process is driven by a number of laterally equivalent, and sometimes mutually exclusive, goals.… [A] large problem exists in the discretion that this fluid arrangement of goals yields.
The Microsoft case illustrates this problem well. In Microsoft, the Commission could have chosen to base its decision on a number of potential objectives. It notably chose to base its findings on the fact that Microsoft’s behavior reduced “consumer choice”. The Commission, in fact, discounted arguments that economic efficiency may lead to consumer welfare gains because “consumer choice” among a variety of media players was more important.
In short, the European model sorely lacks limiting principles. This likely explains why the European Court of Justice has started to pare back the commission’s powers in a series of recent cases, including Intel, Post Danmark, Cartes Bancaires, and Servizio Elettrico Nazionale. These rulings appear to be an explicit recognition that overly broad competition enforcement not only fails to benefit consumers but, more fundamentally, is incompatible with the rule of law.
It is unfortunate that the FTC is trying to emulate a model of competition enforcement that—even in the progressively minded European public sphere—is increasingly questioned and cast aside as a result of its multiple shortcomings.
[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.”You can find other posts at thesymposium 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 a 3-2 July 2021 vote, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rescinded the nuanced statement it had issued in 2015 concerning the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5 of the FTC Act. At the same time, the FTC rejected the applicability of the balancing test set forth in the rule of reason (and with it, several decades of case law, agency guidance, and legal and economic scholarship).
The July 2021 statement not only rejected these long-established guiding principles for Section 5 enforcement but left in its place nothing but regulatory fiat. In the statement the FTC issued Nov. 10, 2022 (again, by a divided 3-1 vote), the agency has now adopted this “just trust us” approach as a permanent operating principle.
The November 2022 statement purports to provide a standard under which the agency will identify unfair methods of competition under Section 5. As Commissioner Christine Wilson explains in her dissent, however, it clearly fails to do so. Rather, it delivers a collection of vaguely described principles and pejorative rhetoric that encompass loosely defined harms to competition, competitors, workers and a catch-all group of “other market participants.”
The methodology for identifying these harms is comparably vague. The agency not only again rejects the rule of reason but asserts the authority to take action against a variety of “non-quantifiable harms,” all of which can be addressed at the most “incipient” stages. Moreover, and perhaps most remarkably, the statement specifically rejects any form of “net efficiencies” or “numerical cost-benefit analysis” to guide its enforcement decisions or provide even a modicum of predictability to the business community.
The November 2022 statement amounts to regulatory fiat on overdrive, presented with a thin veneer of legality derived from a medley of dormant judicial decisions, incomplete characterizations of precedent, and truncated descriptions of legislative history. Under the agency’s dubious understanding of Section 5, Congress in 1914 elected to provide the FTC with the authority to declare any business practice “unfair” subject to no principle other than the agency’s subjective understanding of that term (and, apparently, never to be informed by “numerical cost-benefit analysis”).
Moreover, any enforcement action that targeted a purportedly “unfair” practice would then be adjudicated within the agency and appealable in the first instance to the very same commissioners who authorized the action. This institutional hall of mirrors would establish the FTC as the national “fairness” arbiter subject to virtually no constraining principles under which the exercise of such powers could ever be deemed to have exceeded its scope. The license for abuse is obvious and the departure from due process inherent.
The views reflected in the November 2022 statement would almost certainly lead to a legal dead-end. If the agency takes action under its idiosyncratic understanding of the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5, it would elicit a legal challenge that would likely lead to two possible outcomes, both being adverse to the agency.
First, it is likely that a judge would reject the agency’s understanding of Section 5, since it is irreconcilable with a well-developed body of case law requiring that the FTC (just like any other administrative agency) act under principles that provide businesses with, as described by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, at least “an inkling as to what they can lawfully do rather than be left in a state of complete unpredictability.”
Any legally defensible interpretation of the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5 must take into account not only legislative intent at the time the FTC Act was enacted but more than a century’s worth of case law that courts have developed to govern the actions of administrative powers. Contrary to suggestions made in the November 2022 statement, neither the statute nor the relevant body of case law mandates unqualified deference by courts to the presumed wisdom of expert regulators.
Second, even if a court accepted the agency’s interpretation of the statute (or did so provisionally), there is a strong likelihood that it would then be compelled to strike down Section 5 as an unconstitutional delegation of lawmaking powers from the legislative to the executive branch. Given the concern that a majority of the Supreme Court has increasingly expressed over actions by regulatory agencies—including the FTC, specifically, inAMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC(2021)and now again in the pending case, Axon Enterprise Inc. v. FTC—that do not clearly fall within the legislatively specified scope of an agency’s authority (as in the AMG decision and other recent Court decisions concerning the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office), this would seem to be a high-probability outcome.
In short: any enforcement action taken under the agency’s newly expanded understanding of Section 5 is unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny, either as a matter of statutory construction or as a matter of constitutional principle. Given this legal forecast, the November 2022 statement could be viewed as mere theatrics that is unlikely to have a long legal life or much practical impact (although, until judicial intervention, it could impose significant costs on firms that must defend against agency-enforcement actions brought under the unilaterally expanded scope of Section 5).
Even if that were the case, however, the November 2022 statement and, in particular, its expanded understanding of the harms that the agency is purportedly empowered to target, is nonetheless significant because it should leave little doubt concerning the lack of any meaningful commitment by agency leadership to the FTC’s historical mission to preserve market competition. Rather, it has become increasingly clear that agency leadership seeks to deploy the powerful remedies of the FTC Act (and the rest of the antitrust-enforcement apparatus) to displace a market-driven economy governed by the free play of competitive forces with an administered economy in which regulators continuously intervene to reengineer economic outcomes on grounds of fairness to favored constituencies, rather than to preserve the competitive process.
Reengineering Section 5 of the FTC Act as a “shadow” antitrust statute that operates outside the rule of reason (or any other constraining objective principle) provides a strategic detour around the inconvenient evidentiary and other legal obstacles that the agency would struggle to overcome when seeking to achieve these policy objectives under the Sherman and Clayton Acts. This intentionally unstructured and inherently politicized approach to antitrust enforcement threatens not only the institutional preconditions for a market economy but ultimately the rule of law itself.
[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.
In a somewhat similar vein, Stanford Law School Professor (and former acting assistant attorney general for antitrust during the Clinton administration) Douglas Melamed complains that:
[AICOA] does not include the normal antitrust language (e.g., “competition in the market as a whole,” “market power”) that gives meaning to the idea of harm to competition, nor does it say that the imprecise language it does use is to be construed as that language is construed by the antitrust laws. … The bill could be very harmful if it is construed to require, not increased market power, but simply harm to rivals.
In sum, ambiguities inherent in AICOA’s new terminology will generate substantial uncertainty among affected businesses. This uncertainty will play out in the courts over a period of years. Moreover, the likelihood that judicial statutory constructions of AICOA language will support “efficiency-promoting” interpretations of behavior is diminished by the fact that AICOA’s structural scheme (which focuses on harm to rivals) does not harmonize with traditional antitrust concerns about promoting a vibrant competitive process.
Knowing this, the large high-tech firms covered by AICOA will become risk averse and less likely to innovate. (For example, they will be reluctant to improve algorithms in a manner that would increase efficiency and benefit consumers, but that might be seen as disadvantaging rivals.) As such, American innovation will slow, and consumers will suffer. (See here for an estimate of the enormous consumer-welfare gains generated by high tech platforms—gains of a type that AICOA’s enactment may be expected to jeopardize.) It is to be hoped that Congress will take note and consign AICOA to the rubbish heap of disastrous legislative policy proposals.
A highly competitive economy is characterized by strong, legally respected property rights. A failure to afford legal protection to certain types of property will reduce individual incentives to participate in market transactions, thereby reducing the effectiveness of market competition. As the great economist Armen Alchian put it, “[w]ell-defined and well-protected property rights replace competition by violence with competition by peaceful means.”
In particular, strong and well-defined intellectual-property rights complement and enhance market competition, thereby promoting innovation. As the U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division put it in 2012: “[t]he successful promotion of innovation and creativity requires a [sic] both competitive markets and strong intellectual property rights.”
In the realm of intellectual property, patent rights are particularly effective in driving innovation by supporting a market for invention in several critical ways, as Northwestern University’s Daniel F. Spulber has explained:
Patents support the establishment of the market [for invention] in several key ways. First, patents provide a system of intellectual property (IP) rights that increases transaction efficiencies and stimulates competition by offering exclusion, transferability, disclosure, certification, standardization, and divisibility. Second, patents provide efficient incentives for invention, innovation, and investment in complementary assets so that the market for inventions is a market for innovative control. Third, patents as intangible real assets promote the financing of invention and innovation.
It thus follows that weak, ill-defined patent rights create confusion, thereby undermining effective competition and innovation.
The Supreme Court’s Undermining of Patentability
Regrettably, the U.S. Supreme Court has, of late, been oblivious to this reality. Over roughly the past decade, several Court decisions have weakened incentives to patent by engendering confusion regarding the core question of what subject matter is patentable. Those decisions represent an abrupt retreat from decades of textually based case law that recognized the broad scope of patentable subject matter.
Confusion about what is patentable lies at the heart of recent discussions of reform to Section 101 of the Patent Act [35 U.S. Code § 101] – the statutory provision that describes patentable subject matter. Section 101 plainly states that “[w]hoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the [other] conditions and requirements of this title.” This language basically says that patentable subject matter covers everything new and useful that is invented or discovered. For many years, however, the Supreme Court has recognized three judicially created exceptions to patent eligibility, providing that you cannot patent: (1) laws of nature, (2) natural phenomena, or (3) abstract ideas. Even with these exceptions, the scope for patentability was quite broad from 1952 (when the modern version of the Patent Act was codified) until roughly 2010.
But over the past decade, the Supreme Court has cut back significantly on what it deems patent eligible, particularly in such areas as biotechnology, computer-implemented inventions, and software. As a result, today “there are many other parts of the world that have more expansive views of what can be patented, including Europe, Australia, and even China.” A key feature of the changes has been the engrafting of case law requirements that patentable eligible subject matter meet before a patent is granted, found in other sections of the Patent Act, onto the previously very broad language of Section 101.
As IPWatchdog President and CEO Gene Quinn explained in a 2019 article, “the real mischief” of recent Supreme Court case law (and, in particular, the 2012 Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus decision) is that it reads requirements of other Patent Act provisions (dealing with novelty, obviousness, and description) into Section 101. That approach defies the plain expansive language of Section 101 and is at odds with earlier Supreme Court case law, which had deemed such an approach totally inappropriate. As such, according to Quinn:
Today, thanks to Mayo, decision makers consider whether claims are new, nonobvious and even properly described all under a Section 101 patent eligibility analysis, which makes the remainder of the patentability sections of the statute superfluous. Indeed, with Mayo, the Supreme Court has usurped Congressional authority over patentability; an authority that is explicitly granted to Congress in the Constitution itself. This usurpation of power is not only wreaking havoc on American innovation, but it has wrought havoc on the delicate balance of power between the Supreme Court and Congress.
Another Supreme Court decision on Section 101 deserves mention. In Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank (2014), the Court construed Mayo as establishing a two-part Section 101 test for patentable subject matter, which involved:
Determining whether the patent claims are directed to a patent-ineligible concept; and
Determining whether the claim’s elements, considered both individually and as an ordered combination, transform the nature of the claims into a patent-eligible application.
This “test,” which was pulled out of thin air, went far beyond the text of Section 101, and involved considerations properly assigned to other provisions of the Patent Act.
Flash forward to last week. The Supreme Court on June 30 denied certiorari in American Axle & Mfg. Inc. v. Neapco Holdings, a case raising the question whether a patent that claims a process for manufacturing an automobile driveshaft that simultaneously reduces two types of driveshaft vibration is patent-eligible under Section 101. Underlying the uncertainty (one might say vacuity) of the Mayo-Alice “principle,” a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (with six judges unsuccessfully voting in favor of rehearing en banc) had found the patent claim ineligible, given the Supreme Court’s Mayo and Alice decisions. Amazingly, a classic type of mechanical invention, at the very heart of traditional notions of patenting, somehow had failed the patent-eligibility test, a result no patent-law observer would have dreamed of prior to the Mayo-Alice duet.
The SG’s brief sa[id] that inventions like the one at issue in American Axle have “[h]istorically…long been viewed as paradigmatic examples of the ‘arts’ or ‘processes’ that may receive patent protection if other statutory criteria are satisfied” and that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit “erred in reading this Court’s precedents to dictate a contrary conclusion.”
The brief explain[ed] in no uncertain terms that claim 22 of the patent at issue in the case does not “simply describe or recite” a natural law and ultimately should have been held patent eligible.
In light of Solicitor General Prelogar’s filing, the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari in American Axle can only be read as a clear signal to the bar that it does not intend to back down from or clarify the application of Mayo and Alice. This has serious negative ramifications for the health of the U.S. patent system. As Michael Borella—a computer scientist and chair of the Software and Business Methods Practice Group at McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff LLP—explains:
In denying certiorari in American Axle & Mfg. Inc. v. Neapco Holdings LLC, the Supreme Court has in essence told the patent community to “deal with it.” That operative ‘it’ is the obtuse and uncertain state of patent-eligibility, where even tangible inventions like garage door openers, electric vehicle charging stations, and mobile phones are too abstract for patenting. The Court has created a system that favors large companies over startups and individual inventors by making the fundamental decision of whether even to seek patent protection akin to shaking a Magic 8 Ball for guidance.
The Supreme Court’s decisions in the last decade have confused and distorted the law of eligibility. … From 1981 to 2012 … the law was stable and yielded good outcomes in specific cases. Then came Mayo and later, Alice. Now, it is a mess: illogical, unpredictable, chaotic. Bad policy for important innovation including for promoting human health. Congress needs to rescue the innovation economy from the courts which have left it a disaster. Let’s hope Congress rises to the need and acts before China and other nations surpass US technology.
It is most unfortunate that the Supreme Court continues to miss the mark on patent rights. Its failure to heed the clearly expressed statutory language on patent eligibility is badly out of synch with the respect for textualism that it has shown in handing down recent landmark decisions on the free exercise of religion, the right to bear arms, and limitations on the administrative state. Given the sad reality that the Court is unlikely to change its tune, Congress should act promptly to amend Section 101 and thereby reaffirm the clear and broad patent-eligibility standard that had stood our country in good stead from the mid-20th century to a decade ago. Such an outcome would strengthen the U.S. patent system, thereby promoting innovation and competition.
In an expected decision (but with a somewhat unexpected coalition), the U.S. Supreme Court has moved 5 to 4 to vacate an order issued early last month by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which stayed an earlier December 2021 order from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas enjoining Texas’ attorney general from enforcing the state’s recently enacted social-media law, H.B. 20. The law would bar social-media platforms with more than 50 million active users from engaging in “censorship” based on political viewpoint.
The shadow-docket order serves to grant the preliminary injunction sought by NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association to block the law—which they argue is facially unconstitutional—from taking effect. The trade groups also are challenging a similar Florida law, which the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week ruled was “substantially likely” to violate the First Amendment. Both state laws will thus be stayed while challenges on the merits proceed.
But the element of the Supreme Court’s order drawing the most initial interest is the “strange bedfellows” breakdown that produced it. Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett and liberals Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor in moving to vacate the 5th Circuit’s stay. Meanwhile, Justice Samuel Alito wrote a dissent that was joined by fellow conservatives Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, and liberal Justice Elena Kagan also dissented without offering a written justification.
A glance at the recent history, however, reveals why it should not be all that surprising that the justices would not come down along predictable partisan lines. Indeed, when it comes to content moderation and the question of whether to designate platforms as “common carriers,” the one undeniably predictable outcome is that both liberals and conservatives have been remarkably inconsistent.
Both Sides Flip Flop on Common Carriage
Ever since Justice Thomas used his concurrence in 2021’s Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute to lay out a blueprint for how states could regulate social-media companies as common carriers, states led by conservatives have been working to pass bills to restrict the ability of social media companies to “censor.”
Forcing common carriage on the Internet was, not long ago, something conservatives opposed. It was progressives who called net neutrality the “21st Century First Amendment.” The actual First Amendment, however, protects the rights of both Internet service providers (ISPs) and social-media companies to decide the rules of the road on their own platforms.
Back in the heady days of 2014, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was still planning its next moves on net neutrality after losing at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit the first time around, Geoffrey Manne and I at the International Center for Law & Economics teamed with Berin Szoka and Tom Struble of TechFreedom to write a piece for the First Amendment Law Review arguing that there was no exception that would render broadband ISPs “state actors” subject to the First Amendment. Further,we argued that the right to editorial discretion meant that net-neutrality regulations would be subject to (and likely fail) First Amendment scrutiny under Tornillo or Turner.
After the FCC moved to reclassify broadband as a Title II common carrier in 2015, then-Judge Kavanaugh of the D.C. Circuit dissented from the denial of en banc review, in part on First Amendment grounds. He argued that “the First Amendment bars the Government from restricting the editorial discretion of Internet service providers, absent a showing that an Internet service provider possesses market power in a relevant geographic market.” In fact, Kavanaugh went so far as to link the interests of ISPs and Big Tech (and even traditional media), stating:
If market power need not be shown, the Government could regulate the editorial decisions of Facebook and Google, of MSNBC and Fox, of NYTimes.com and WSJ.com, of YouTube and Twitter. Can the Government really force Facebook and Google and all of those other entities to operate as common carriers? Can the Government really impose forced-carriage or equal-access obligations on YouTube and Twitter? If the Government’s theory in this case were accepted, then the answers would be yes. After all, if the Government could force Internet service providers to carry unwanted content even absent a showing of market power, then it could do the same to all those other entities as well. There is no principled distinction between this case and those hypothetical cases.
This was not a controversial view among free-market, right-of-center types at the time.
An interesting shift started to occur during the presidency of Donald Trump, however, as tensions between social-media companies and many on the right came to a head. Instead of seeing these companies as private actors with strong First Amendment rights, some conservatives began looking either for ways to apply the First Amendment to them directly as “state actors” or to craft regulations that would essentially make social-media companies into common carriers with regard to speech.
But Kavanaugh’s opinion in USTelecom remains the best way forward to understand how the First Amendment applies online today, whether regarding net neutrality or social-media regulation. Given Justice Alito’s view, expressed in his dissent, that it “is not at all obvious how our existing precedents, which predate the age of the internet, should apply to large social media companies,” it is a fair bet that laws like those passed by Texas and Florida will get a hearing before the Court in the not-distant future. If Justice Kavanaugh’s opinion has sway among the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court, or is able to peel off justices from the liberal bloc, the Texas law and others like it (as well as net-neutrality regulations) will be struck down as First Amendment violations.
Kavanaugh’s USTelecom Dissent
In then-Judge Kavanaugh’s dissent, he highlighted two reasons he believed the FCC’s reclassification of broadband as Title II was unlawful. The first was that the reclassification decision was a “major question” that required clear authority delegated by Congress. The second, more important point was that the FCC’s reclassification decision was subject to the Turner standard. Under that standard, since the FCC did not engage—at the very least—in a market-power analysis, the rules could not stand, as they amounted to mandated speech.
The interesting part of this opinion is that it tracks very closely to the analysis of common-carriage requirements for social-media companies. Kavanaugh’s opinion offered important insights into:
the applicability of the First Amendment right to editorial discretion to common carriers;
the “use it or lose it” nature of this right;
whether Turner’s protections depended on scarcity; and
what would be required to satisfy Turner scrutiny.
Common Carriage and First Amendment Protection
Kavanaugh found unequivocally that common carriers, such as ISPs classified under Title II, were subject to First Amendment protection under the Turner decisions:
The Court’s ultimate conclusion on that threshold First Amendment point was not obvious beforehand. One could have imagined the Court saying that cable operators merely operate the transmission pipes and are not traditional editors. One could have imagined the Court comparing cable operators to electricity providers, trucking companies, and railroads – all entities subject to traditional economic regulation. But that was not the analytical path charted by the Turner Broadcasting Court. Instead, the Court analogized the cable operators to the publishers, pamphleteers, and bookstore owners traditionally protected by the First Amendment. As Turner Broadcasting concluded, the First Amendment’s basic principles “do not vary when a new and different medium for communication appears” – although there of course can be some differences in how the ultimate First Amendment analysis plays out depending on the nature of (and competition in) a particular communications market. Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, 564 U.S. 786, 790 (2011) (internal quotation mark omitted).
Here, of course, we deal with Internet service providers, not cable television operators. But Internet service providers and cable operators perform the same kinds of functions in their respective networks. Just like cable operators, Internet service providers deliver content to consumers. Internet service providers may not necessarily generate much content of their own, but they may decide what content they will transmit, just as cable operators decide what content they will transmit. Deciding whether and how to transmit ESPN and deciding whether and how to transmit ESPN.com are not meaningfully different for First Amendment purposes.
Indeed, some of the same entities that provide cable television service – colloquially known as cable companies – provide Internet access over the very same wires. If those entities receive First Amendment protection when they transmit television stations and networks, they likewise receive First Amendment protection when they transmit Internet content. It would be entirely illogical to conclude otherwise. In short, Internet service providers enjoy First Amendment protection of their rights to speak and exercise editorial discretion, just as cable operators do.
‘Use It or Lose It’ Right to Editorial Discretion
Kavanaugh questioned whether the First Amendment right to editorial discretion depends, to some degree, on how much the entity used the right. Ultimately, he rejected the idea forwarded by the FCC that, since ISPs don’t restrict access to any sites, they were essentially holding themselves out to be common carriers:
I find that argument mystifying. The FCC’s “use it or lose it” theory of First Amendment rights finds no support in the Constitution or precedent. The FCC’s theory is circular, in essence saying: “They have no First Amendment rights because they have not been regularly exercising any First Amendment rights and therefore they have no First Amendment rights.” It may be true that some, many, or even most Internet service providers have chosen not to exercise much editorial discretion, and instead have decided to allow most or all Internet content to be transmitted on an equal basis. But that “carry all comers” decision itself is an exercise of editorial discretion. Moreover, the fact that the Internet service providers have not been aggressively exercising their editorial discretion does not mean that they have no right to exercise their editorial discretion. That would be akin to arguing that people lose the right to vote if they sit out a few elections. Or citizens lose the right to protest if they have not protested before. Or a bookstore loses the right to display its favored books if it has not done so recently. That is not how constitutional rights work. The FCC’s “use it or lose it” theory is wholly foreign to the First Amendment.
Employing a similar logic, Kavanaugh also rejected the notion that net-neutrality rules were essentially voluntary, given that ISPs held themselves out as carrying all content.
Relatedly, the FCC claims that, under the net neutrality rule, an Internet service provider supposedly may opt out of the rule by choosing to carry only some Internet content. But even under the FCC’s description of the rule, an Internet service provider that chooses to carry most or all content still is not allowed to favor some content over other content when it comes to price, speed, and availability. That half-baked regulatory approach is just as foreign to the First Amendment. If a bookstore (or Amazon) decides to carry all books, may the Government then force the bookstore (or Amazon) to feature and promote all books in the same manner? If a newsstand carries all newspapers, may the Government force the newsstand to display all newspapers in the same way? May the Government force the newsstand to price them all equally? Of course not. There is no such theory of the First Amendment. Here, either Internet service providers have a right to exercise editorial discretion, or they do not. If they have a right to exercise editorial discretion, the choice of whether and how to exercise that editorial discretion is up to them, not up to the Government.
Think about what the FCC is saying: Under the rule, you supposedly can exercise your editorial discretion to refuse to carry some Internet content. But if you choose to carry most or all Internet content, you cannot exercise your editorial discretion to favor some content over other content. What First Amendment case or principle supports that theory? Crickets.
In a footnote, Kavanugh continued to lambast the theory of “voluntary regulation” forwarded by the concurrence, stating:
The concurrence in the denial of rehearing en banc seems to suggest that the net neutrality rule is voluntary. According to the concurrence, Internet service providers may comply with the net neutrality rule if they want to comply, but can choose not to comply if they do not want to comply. To the concurring judges, net neutrality merely means “if you say it, do it.”…. If that description were really true, the net neutrality rule would be a simple prohibition against false advertising. But that does not appear to be an accurate description of the rule… It would be strange indeed if all of the controversy were over a “rule” that is in fact entirely voluntary and merely proscribes false advertising. In any event, I tend to doubt that Internet service providers can now simply say that they will choose not to comply with any aspects of the net neutrality rule and be done with it. But if that is what the concurrence means to say, that would of course avoid any First Amendment problem: To state the obvious, a supposed “rule” that actually imposes no mandates or prohibitions and need not be followed would not raise a First Amendment issue.
Scarcity and Capacity to Carry Content
The FCC had also argued that there was a difference between ISPs and the cable companies in Turner in that ISPs did not face decisions about scarcity in content carriage. But Kavanaugh rejected this theory as inconsistent with the First Amendment’s right not to be compelled to carry a message or speech.
That argument, too, makes little sense as a matter of basic First Amendment law. First Amendment protection does not go away simply because you have a large communications platform. A large bookstore has the same right to exercise editorial discretion as a small bookstore. Suppose Amazon has capacity to sell every book currently in publication and therefore does not face the scarcity of space that a bookstore does. Could the Government therefore force Amazon to sell, feature, and promote every book on an equal basis, and prohibit Amazon from promoting or recommending particular books or authors? Of course not. And there is no reason for a different result here. Put simply, the Internet’s technological architecture may mean that Internet service providers can provide unlimited content; it does not mean that they must.
Keep in mind, moreover, why that is so. The First Amendment affords editors and speakers the right not to speak and not to carry or favor unwanted speech of others, at least absent sufficient governmental justification for infringing on that right… That foundational principle packs at least as much punch when you have room on your platform to carry a lot of speakers as it does when you have room on your platform to carry only a few speakers.
Turner Scrutiny and Bottleneck Market Power
Finally, Kavanaugh applied Turner scrutiny and found that, at the very least, it requires a finding of “bottleneck market power” that would allow ISPs to harm consumers.
At the time of the Turner Broadcasting decisions, cable operators exercised monopoly power in the local cable television markets. That monopoly power afforded cable operators the ability to unfairly disadvantage certain broadcast stations and networks. In the absence of a competitive market, a broadcast station had few places to turn when a cable operator declined to carry it. Without Government intervention, cable operators could have disfavored certain broadcasters and indeed forced some broadcasters out of the market altogether. That would diminish the content available to consumers. The Supreme Court concluded that the cable operators’ market-distorting monopoly power justified Government intervention. Because of the cable operators’ monopoly power, the Court ultimately upheld the must-carry statute…
The problem for the FCC in this case is that here, unlike in Turner Broadcasting, the FCC has not shown that Internet service providers possess market power in a relevant geographic market…
Rather than addressing any problem of market power, the net neutrality rule instead compels private Internet service providers to supply an open platform for all would-be Internet speakers, and thereby diversify and increase the number of voices available on the Internet. The rule forcibly reduces the relative voices of some Internet service and content providers and enhances the relative voices of other Internet content providers.
But except in rare circumstances, the First Amendment does not allow the Government to regulate the content choices of private editors just so that the Government may enhance certain voices and alter the content available to the citizenry… Turner Broadcasting did not allow the Government to satisfy intermediate scrutiny merely by asserting an interest in diversifying or increasing the number of speakers available on cable systems. After all, if that interest sufficed to uphold must-carry regulation without a showing of market power, the Turner Broadcasting litigation would have unfolded much differently. The Supreme Court would have had little or no need to determine whether the cable operators had market power. But the Supreme Court emphasized and relied on the Government’s market power showing when the Court upheld the must-carry requirements… To be sure, the interests in diversifying and increasing content are important governmental interests in the abstract, according to the Supreme Court… But absent some market dysfunction, Government regulation of the content carriage decisions of communications service providers is not essential to furthering those interests, as is required to satisfy intermediate scrutiny.
In other words, without a finding of bottleneck market power, there would be no basis for satisfying the government interest prong of Turner.
Applying Kavanaugh’s Dissent to NetChoice v. Paxton
Interestingly, each of these main points arises in the debate over regulating social-media companies as common carriers. Texas’ H.B. 20 attempts to do exactly that, which is at the heart of the litigation in NetChoice v. Paxton.
Common Carriage and First Amendment Protection
To the first point, Texas attempts to claim in its briefs that social-media companies are common carriers subject to lesser First Amendment protection: “Assuming the platforms’ refusals to serve certain customers implicated First Amendment rights, Texas has properly denominated the platforms common carriers. Imposing common-carriage requirements on a business does not offend the First Amendment.”
But much like the cable operators before them in Turner, social-media companies are not simply carriers of persons or things like the classic examples of railroads, telegraphs, and telephones. As TechFreedom put it in its brief: “As its name suggests… ‘common carriage’ is about offering, to the public at large and on indiscriminate terms, to carry generic stuff from point A to point B. Social media websites fulfill none of these elements.”
In a sense, it’s even clearer that social-media companies are not common carriers than it was in the case of ISPs, because social-media platforms have always had terms of service that limit what can be said and that even allow the platforms to remove users for violations. All social-media platforms curate content for users in ways that ISPs normally do not.
‘Use It or Lose It’ Right to Editorial Discretion
Just as the FCC did in the Title II context, Texas also presses the idea that social-media companies gave up their right to editorial discretion by disclaiming the choice to exercise it, stating: “While the platforms compare their business policies to classic examples of First Amendment speech, such as a newspaper’s decision to include an article in its pages, the platforms have disclaimed any such status over many years and in countless cases. This Court should not accept the platforms’ good-for-this-case-only characterization of their businesses.” Pointing primarily to cases where social-media companies have invoked Section 230 immunity as a defense, Texas argues they have essentially lost the right to editorial discretion.
This, again, flies in the face of First Amendment jurisprudence, as Kavanaugh earlier explained. Moreover, the idea that social-media companies have disclaimed editorial discretion due to Section 230 is inconsistent with what that law actually does. Section 230 allows social-media companies to engage in as much or as little content moderation as they so choose by holding the third-party speakers accountable rather than the platform. Social-media companies do not relinquish their First Amendment rights to editorial discretion because they assert an applicable defense under the law. Moreover, social-media companies have long had rules delineating permissible speech, and they enforce those rules actively.
Interestingly, there has also been an analogue to the idea forwarded in USTelecom that the law’s First Amendment burdens are relatively limited. As noted above, then-Judge Kavanaugh rejected the idea forwarded by the concurrence that net-neutrality rules were essentially voluntary. In the case of H.B. 20, the bill’s original sponsor recently argued on Twitter that the Texas law essentially incorporates Section 230 by reference. If this is true, then the rules would be as pointless as the net-neutrality rules would have been, because social-media companies would be free under Section 230(c)(2) to remove “otherwise objectionable” material under the Texas law.
Scarcity and Capacity to Carry Content
In an earlier brief to the 5th Circuit, Texas attempted to differentiate social-media companies from the cable company in Turner by stating there was no necessary conflict between speakers, stating “[HB 20] does not, for example, pit one group of speakers against another.” But this is just a different way of saying that, since social-media companies don’t face scarcity in their technical capacity to carry speech, they can be required to carry all speech. This is inconsistent with the right Kavanaugh identified not to carry a message or speech, which is not subject to an exception that depends on the platform’s capacity to carry more speech.
Turner Scrutiny and Bottleneck Market Power
Finally, Judge Kavanaugh’s application of Turner to ISPs makes clear that a showing of bottleneck market power is necessary before common-carriage regulation may be applied to social-media companies. In fact, Kavanaugh used a comparison to social-media sites and broadcasters as a reductio ad absurdum for the idea that one could regulate ISPs without a showing of market power. As he put it there:
Consider the implications if the law were otherwise. If market power need not be shown, the Government could regulate the editorial decisions of Facebook and Google, of MSNBC and Fox, of NYTimes.com and WSJ.com, of YouTube and Twitter. Can the Government really force Facebook and Google and all of those other entities to operate as common carriers? Can the Government really impose forced-carriage or equal-access obligations on YouTube and Twitter? If the Government’s theory in this case were accepted, then the answers would be yes. After all, if the Government could force Internet service providers to carry unwanted content even absent a showing of market power, then it could do the same to all those other entities as well. There is no principled distinction between this case and those hypothetical cases.
Much like the FCC with its Open Internet Order, Texas did not make a finding of bottleneck market power in H.B. 20. Instead, Texas basically asked for the opportunity to get to discovery to develop the case that social-media platforms have market power, stating that “[b]ecause the District Court sharply limited discovery before issuing its preliminary injunction, the parties have not yet had the opportunity to develop many factual questions, including whether the platforms possess market power.” This simply won’t fly under Turner, which required a legislative finding of bottleneck market power that simply doesn’t exist in H.B. 20.
Moreover, bottleneck market power means more than simply “market power” in an antitrust sense. As Judge Kavanaugh put it: “Turner Broadcasting seems to require even more from the Government. The Government apparently must also show that the market power would actually be used to disadvantage certain content providers, thereby diminishing the diversity and amount of content available.” Here, that would mean not only that social-media companies have market power, but they want to use it to disadvantage users in a way that makes less diverse content and less total content available.
The economics of multi-sided markets is probably the best explanation for why platforms have moderation rules. They are used to maximize a platform’s value by keeping as many users engaged and on those platforms as possible. In other words, the effect of moderation rules is to increase the amount of user speech by limiting harassing content that could repel users. This is a much better explanation for these rules than “anti-conservative bias” or a desire to censor for censorship’s sake (though there may be room for debateon the margin when it comes to the moderation of misinformation and hate speech).
In fact, social-media companies, unlike the cable operators in Turner, do not have the type of “physical connection between the television set and the cable network” that would grant them “bottleneck, or gatekeeper, control over” speech in ways that would allow platforms to “silence the voice of competing speakers with a mere flick of the switch.” Cf. Turner, 512 U.S. at 656. Even if they tried, social-media companies simply couldn’t prevent Internet users from accessing content they wish to see online; they inevitably will find such content by going to a different site or app.
Conclusion: The Future of the First Amendment Online
While many on both sides of the partisan aisle appear to see a stark divide between the interests of—and First Amendment protections afforded to—ISPs and social-media companies, Kavanaugh’s opinion in USTelecom shows clearly they are in the same boat. The two rise or fall together. If the government can impose common-carriage requirements on social-media companies in the name of free speech, then they most assuredly can when it comes to ISPs. If the First Amendment protects the editorial discretion of one, then it does for both.
The question then moves to relative market power, and whether the dominant firms in either sector can truly be said to have “bottleneck” market power, which implies the physical control of infrastructure that social-media companies certainly lack.
While it will be interesting to see what the 5th Circuit (and likely, the Supreme Court) ultimately do when reviewing H.B. 20 and similar laws, if now-Justice Kavanaugh’s dissent is any hint, there will be a strong contingent on the Court for finding the First Amendment applies online by protecting the right of private actors (ISPs and social-media companies) to set the rules of the road on their property. As Kavanaugh put it in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck: “[t]he Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment constrains governmental actors and protects private actors.” Competition is the best way to protect consumers’ interests, not prophylactic government regulation.
With the 11th Circuit upholding the stay against Florida’s social-media law and the Supreme Court granting the emergency application to vacate the stay of the injunction in NetChoice v. Paxton, the future of the First Amendment appears to be on strong ground. There is no basis to conclude that simply calling private actors “common carriers” reduces their right to editorial discretion under the First Amendment.
[The 14th entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium is a guest post from Bill MacLeod, a former Federal Trade Commission bureau director and currently a partner with Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, where he chairs the firm’s antitrust practice and co-chairs its consumer protection practice. Bill gratefully acknowledges the research and analysis of Jacob Hopkins in preparing this article, which does not represent the views of any firm or client. You can find other posts at thesymposium 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 November 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published a draft strategic plan for fiscal years 2022-2026 that previewed its vision for enforcement without the rule of reason guiding the analysis and without consumer welfare defining the objective. The draft plan dropped a longstanding commitment from the FTC’s previous strategic plans to foster “vigorous competition” and replaced it with a pledge to police “fair competition.”
The commission also broadened its focus beyond consumers. Instead of dedicating competition enforcement to them, the FTC would see to it that competition would serve the general public. Clues as to the nature of the public interest appeared among the plan’s more specific objectives. For example, to advance “all forms of equity, and support underserved and marginalized communities through the FTC’s competition mission.” The draft plan emphasized an objective to protect employees from unfair competition. Gone from the draft entirely was a previous vow to avoid “unduly burdening legitimate business activity.”
Additional details of the agenda emerged in December 2021, when the commission announced a statement of regulatory priorities describing plans to develop unfair-methods-of-competition (UMC) rulemakings. The annual regulatory plan, also released in December 2021, reiterated the list of practices that could be targeted for competition rules, prompting a dissent from Commissioner Christine S. Wilson, who saw in the plan “the foundation for an avalanche of problematic rulemakings.” Referring to the now-defunct Interstate Commerce Commission and Civil Aeronautics Board, she noted “the disastrous regulatory frameworks in the transportation industry teach the attentive student that rules stifle innovation, increase costs, raise prices, limit choice, and decrease output, frequently harming the very parties they are intended to benefit, and the benefits that flowed to consumers when competition replaced regulation in transportation.”
The Courts on Competition Rulemaking Authority
Whether the FTC has the authority to promulgate the rules it now contemplates has been a 50-year-old debate among legal scholars. Section 6(g) of the FTC Act authorizes the commission: “From time to time to classify corporations and to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of sections 41 to 46 and 47 to 58 of this title.” Before 1964, this rulemaking power was directed to the FTC’s administrative functions. Since then, rulemaking has typically addressed consumer-protection concerns, the authority for which was codified in Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act in 1975, incorporated in Section 18 of the FTC Act.
Only once has the commission’s power to promulgate a competition rule under Section 6(g) been tested in the courts. That test played out in 1972 and 1973 in a case involving a rule the FTC issued requiring the posting of octane ratings on pumps at gas stations. Failure to post was declared a UMC and an unfair or deceptive practice (UDAP). Petroleum refiners and retailers challenged various aspects of the rules, including the commission’s authority to issue them, and the case came to Judge Aubrey Robinson in the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C. He held that the FTC lacked such authority.
The opinion began with a review of the legislative history, which was “clear” to the court. Section 6(g) was intended “only as an authorization for internal rules of organization, practice, and procedure [and] to insure that the FTC had the power to require reports from all corporations.” Buttressing the history were subsequent occasions in which Congress had explicitly granted FTC authority for regulations confined to specific practices, which would have been unnecessary if the power already resided in Section 6(g). That section had not changed since 1914, and the FTC for approximately 50 years had not asserted rulemaking authority under it.
The commission urged the court to apply the definitions of regulation in the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) to the FTC Act. The proposition that words written in 1946 had the same meaning as words written in 1914 was “inconceivable” without any indication that they were related. Further undermining the commission’s argument were amendments to other legislation after APA to authorize rulemaking at other agencies. The absence of a similar amendment to the FTC Act implied that the “rulemaking power in Section 6(g) of the FTCA remains unchanged by Congress to date, and conveys only the authority to make such rules and regulations in connection with its housekeeping chore and investigative responsibilities.” Indeed, Congress considered an amendment that would have authorized the commission to “make, alter, or repeal regulations further defining more particularly unfair trade practices or unfair or oppressive competition.” That legislation died.
Also rejected was the argument that the FTC’s authority under Section 5 to “prevent” UMC includes the power to regulate. The proposition ignored “the very next paragraph of the statute that requires the Commission to conduct adjudicative proceedings.” Until recently, the court noted, the commission itself had repeatedly admitted it possessed no power to promulgate substantive rules, and that the Supreme Court had impliedly rejected the existence of such power. In his conclusion, Judge Robinson quoted Justice Louis Brandeis:
What the Government asks is not a construction of the statute, but, in effect, an enlargement of it by the court, so that what was omitted, presumably by inadvertence, may be included within its scope. To supply omissions transcends the judicial function.
The FTC appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed. In an opinion by Judge J. Skelly Wright, the court cautioned:
Our duty here is not simply to make a policy judgment as to what mode of procedure…best accommodates the need for effective enforcement of the Commission’s mandate…. The extent of its powers can be decided only by considering the powers Congress specifically granted it in the light of the statutory language and background.
But the legislative history that was clear to the lower court became opaque on appeal. Judge Wright acknowledged that Rep. J. Harry Covington (D-Md)—the floor manager of the bill that became the FTC Act—assured his colleagues that Congress was not granting the FTC the power for legislative rulemaking. That would have been unconstitutional, in Covington’s view, although a delegation of administrative rulemaking was not. As he assured his colleagues:
The Federal trade commission will have no power to prescribe the methods of competition to be used in future. In issuing its orders it will not be exercising power of a legislative nature….
The function of the Federal trade commission will be to determine whether an existing method of competition is unfair, and, if it finds it to be unfair, to order the discontinuance of its use. In doing this it will exercise power of a judicial nature….
Supporting Covington was a colloquy between two other congressmen, also quoted by the court:
Mr. SHERLEY. If the gentleman will permit, the Federal trade commission differs from the Interstate Commerce Commission in that it has no affirmative power to say what shall be done in the future?
Mr. STEVENS of Minnesota. Certainly.
Mr. SHERLEY. In other words, it exercises in no sense a legislative function such as is exercised by the Interstate Commerce Commission?
Mr. STEVENS of Minnesota. Yes. The gentleman is entirely right. We desired clearly to exclude that authority from the power of the commission. We did not know as we could grant it anyway. But the time has not arrived to consider or discuss such a question.
But this legislative history, which concededly “carefully differentiated” the FTC’s power from the ICC’s power was “utterly unhelpful” to Judge Wright, who somehow could not square synonymous assurances that the FTC would have “no power to prescribe methods of competition” and would exercise “in no sense a legislative function.” The judge found an easier approach:
If one ignores the “legislative” — “administrative” technical distinction which influenced Covington and utilizes a more practical, broader conception of “legislative” type activity prevalent today, they can be read to support substantive rule-making of the kind asserted by the [FTC].
Freed from the background of the 1914 act, the judge adopted a judicial philosophy popular in the early 1970s. Notions of practicality and fairness allowed courts to realize unexpressed purposes, which in the case of FTC rulemaking meant “specifically the advisability of utilizing the Administrative Procedure Act’s rule-making procedures to provide an agency about to embark on legal innovation with all relevant arguments and information.” Similar decisions supporting rulemaking powers “indisputably flesh out the contemporary legal framework in which both the FTC and this court operate and which we must recognize.” For example, if the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could regulate, the FTC should be able to do so, as well. It did not bother the judge that the NLRB and other agencies had received explicit rulemaking authority, or that commission officials had often admitted that they lacked that power.
The Supreme Court declined to review the Petroleum Refiners holdings, but its interpretation of the FTC Act last year casts serious doubt on the validity of Judge Wright’s decision today. In AMG Capital Management LLC v. Federal Trade Commission, the FTC used many of the same arguments that had worked in 1972. This time, however, the agency was unable to persuade a single justice that the act conferred an unexpressed power.
The question in AMG concerned whether the agency could bypass administrative adjudication and bring a cause of action directly in federal court for monetary relief. Section 13(b) of the FTC Act authorizes the agency to seek injunctions without administrative proceedings, but a different section of the act creates a cause of action for redress. Section 19(b) prescribes the procedure whereby the commission can seek money. An action to do so may commence only after the agency has concluded an administrative proceeding that finds a violation of Section 5. For decades, the commission shunned the cumbersome two-step procedure and resorted almost exclusively to consolidated Section 13(b) actions to obtain monetary relief. And for decades, courts affirmed these cases, but the Supreme Court had never weighed in.
Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Stephen Breyer found it highly unlikely “that Congress, without mentioning the matter, would have granted the Commission authority so readily to circumvent its traditional §5 administrative proceedings.” Other statutes might merit broader construction, but not when the powers granted were as clearly expressed as in the FTC Act. The court rejected the commission’s arguments that Congress had intended to allow the commission to choose between alternative enforcement avenues. Congress had not acquiesced in the commission’s use of both approaches (even though Section 19 preserved “any authority of the Commission under any other provision of law”). Addressing the arguments that violators would keep billions of dollars in ill-gotten gains if the commission had to adjudicate first and litigate afterward, the court responded that the agency could ask Congress for the more efficient power. It appeared nowhere in the text of the FTC Act, and “Congress…does not…hide elephants in mouseholes.”
Rules of Fair Competition Fail in the Supreme Court
Long before AMG, the Supreme Court had addressed the limits of the FTC’s authority. Judge Robinson in Petroleum Refiners cited five decisions dating from 1920 to 1965 supporting his conclusion that the court had impliedly rejected rulemaking power. One of those decisions came on May 27, 1935, when the Supreme Court used the limitations of FTC authority to deal a fatal blow to the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). The centerpiece of the New Deal, NIRA authorized the federal government to adopt regulations intended to achieve “fair competition.” Those regulations normalized working conditions, wages, products, and prices in many trades. Their purpose was to stem the forces that were depressing wages and prices in the early years of the Great Depression. Vigorous competition was regarded as one of those forces.
Appeals of convictions for violating one of the codes gave the Supreme Court the opportunity to opine on the meaning of “fair competition” and the appropriate process by which competition should be assessed. The court sought to reconcile fair competition and unfair methods of competition, as the terms were respectively defined in NIRA and the FTC Act. A provision in NIRA deemed a violation of “fair competition” to constitute an “unfair method of competition” under the FTC Act, but the dichotomy made no sense to the Court. The difference between the concepts “lies not only in procedure, but in subject matter.”
On substance, the court held:
We cannot regard the “fair competition” of the codes as antithetical to the “unfair methods of competition” of the FTCA. The “fair competition” of the codes has a much broader range, and a “new significance….for the protection of consumers, competitors, employees, and others, and in furtherance of the public interest… 
Such power was the province of Congress, not a regulatory agency.
The court then examined the procedures prescribed for rulemaking under NIRA and adjudicating under FTC Act. Fair competition codes were proposed by industry associations, reviewed by agencies, and adopted by executive orders. By contrast, the FTC had to prove violations in adjudicatory proceedings:
What are “unfair methods of competition” are thus to be determined in particular instances, upon evidence, in the light of particular competitive conditions and of what is found to be a specific and substantial public interest.…To make this possible, Congress set up a special procedure. A Commission, a quasi-judicial body, was created. Provision was made [for] formal complaint, for notice and hearing, for appropriate findings of fact supported by adequate evidence, and for judicial review to give assurance that the action of the Commission is taken within its statutory authority.
In 1935, Congress could not constitutionally delegate the power to issue rules advancing undefined interests of consumers, competitors, employees, and the public to an agency of general jurisdiction. The Congress that passed the FTC Act was well aware of that constraint. That was why the bill’s floor manager assured his colleagues the FTC “will have no power to prescribe the methods of competition to be used in future [or] power of a legislative nature…it will exercise power of a judicial nature.”
A regulatory regime intended to replace vigorous competition with fair competition, to benefit interest groups other than customers, to be implemented while giving short shrift to costs and benefits is unprecedented (at least since NIRA). The mission that the FTC has previewed anticipates rules that can be expected to impose undue costs on legitimate businesses in markets far larger than the sectors once regulated by the ICC and CAB. If history is any guide, the commission’s agenda could cost U.S. consumers hundreds of billions of dollars.
But first, the agency will have to persuade the courts that Congress gave it the power to do so, and if precedent is any guide, the commission will fail. After AMG, courts will be reluctant to extract a phrase in Section 6(g) from the framework of the FTC Act. The power to prevent UMC is specified in the Act, and adjudication is the sole procedure described to exercise that power. If the commission argues that “rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of” the act include vast powers outside those provisions, the agency will end up asking the courts to find another elephant hiding in a mousehole.
 15 U.S.C. §46 (An amendment excepted section 57a(a)(2) from its scope. The amendment specifically authorized consumer protection rules but declined to “affect any authority” the FTC to promulgate other rules.)
 National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC, 340 F. Supp. 1343 (D.D.C. 1972) (rev’d National Petroleum Refiners v. FTC, 482 F.2d 672 (D.C. Cir., 1973); cert. denied, 415 U.S. 915 (1974).
 Id. at 708 (stating, “This view of Congressman Covington’s remarks is buttressed by a reading of one of the cases on which he relied to rebut arguments that the grant of power to the commission to enforce and elaborate the standard of illegality was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power. United States v. Grimaud, 220 U.S. 506, 55 L. Ed. 563, 31 S.C.t. 480 (1911).”)
 Id. (citing D. FitzGerald, The Genesis of Consumer Protection Remedies Under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act 1–2, Paper at FTC 90th Anniversary Symposium, Sept. 23, 2004, arguing that, in the mid-1970s, “no one imagined that Section 13(b) of the [FTC] Act would become an important part of the Commission’s consumer protection program”).
 Id. (citing Whitman v. American Trucking Assns., Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001)).
 Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (1935).
 Id at 534 (Citing Title I) (of no help was that the codes could “provide such exceptions to and exemptions from the provisions of such code as the President in his discretion deems necessary to effectuate the policy herein declared.” (quotation marks omitted).)
 Id. at 533-344 (citing Federal Trade Comm’n v. Beech-Nut Packing Co., 257 U. S. 441, 257 U. S. 453; Federal Trade Comm’n v. Klesner, 280 U. S. 19, 280 U. S. 27, 280 U. S. 28; Federal Trade Comm’n v. Raladam Co., supra; Federal Trade Comm’n v. Keppel & Bro., supra; Federal Trade Comm’n v. Algoma Lumber Co., 291 U. S. 67, 291 U. S. 73.) Federal Trade Comm’n v. Klesner, supra.)