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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:

  1. the applicability of the First Amendment right to editorial discretion to common carriers;
  2. the “use it or lose it” nature of this right;
  3. whether Turner’s protections depended on scarcity; and 
  4. 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 debate on 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 the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

Introduction

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.”[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5] 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.”[6] 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.”[7] Until recently, the court noted, the commission itself had repeatedly admitted it possessed no power to promulgate substantive rules,[8] and that the Supreme Court had impliedly rejected the existence of such power.[9] 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.[10]

The FTC appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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….[14]

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.[15]

But this legislative history, which concededly “carefully differentiated” the FTC’s power from the ICC’s power[16] 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.”[17] 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.”[18] 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.”[19]

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.[20] 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… [21]

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.[22]

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.”

Conclusion

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.


[1] 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.)

[2] 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).

[3] 340 F. Supp. at 1345.

[4] Id. (citation omitted).

[5] Id. at 1348-49.

[6] Id. at 1346 (citation omitted).

[7] Id. at 1349.

[8] Id at 1350 (citing Congressional hearings from the 1960s and 1970s).

[9] Id. at 1350 (Federal Trade Commission v. Colgate Palmolive Co., 380 U.S. 374, 385, 85 S.Ct. 1035, 13 L.Ed.2d 904 (1965); Addison v. Holly Hill Fruit Products, Inc., 322 U.S. 607, 617-618, 64 S.Ct. 1215, 88 L.Ed. 1488 (1944); Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495, 532-533, 55 S.Ct. 837, 79 L.Ed. 1570 (1935); Federal Trade Commission v. Raladam Co., 283 U.S. 643, 648, 51 S.Ct. 587, 75 L.Ed. 1324 (1931); Federal Trade Commission v. Gratz, 253 U.S. 421, 427, 40 S.Ct. 572, 64 L.Ed. 993 (1920)).

[10] Id. at 1350 (citing Iselin v. United States, 270 U.S. 245, 251 (1926).

[11] National Petroleum Refiners Ass’n v. F.T.C., 482 F.2d 672 (D.C. Cir., 1973) (Since the passage of Section 18, Section 6 no longer authorizes consumer protection rules.).

[12] 482 F.2d at 674.

[13] 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).”)

[14] Id. (citations omitted).

[15] Id. at 708, n 19 (citations omitted).

[16] Id. at 702 (citations omitted).

[17] Id. at 683.

[18] 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”).

[19]  Id. (citing Whitman v. American Trucking Assns., Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001)).

[20] Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (1935).

[21] 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).)

[22] 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.)

The tentatively pending sale of Twitter to Elon Musk has been greeted with celebration by many on the right, along with lamentation by some on the left, regarding what it portends for the platform’s moderation policies. Musk, for his part, has announced that he believes Twitter should be a free-speech haven and that it needs to dial back the (allegedly politically biased) moderation in which it has engaged.

The good news for everyone is that a differentiated product at Twitter could be exactly what the market―and the debate over Big Tech―needs.

The Market for Speech Governance

As I’ve written previously, the First Amendment (bolstered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act) protects not only speech itself, but also the private ordering of speech. “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech” means that state actors can’t infringe speech, but it also (in most cases) protects private actors’ ability to make such rules free from government regulation. As the Supreme Court has repeatedly held, private actors can make their own rules about speech on their own property.

As Justice Brett Kavanaugh put it on behalf of the Court in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck:

[W]hen a private entity provides a forum for speech, the private entity is not ordinarily constrained by the First Amendment because the private entity is not a state actor. The private entity may thus exercise editorial discretion over the speech and speakers in the forum…

In short, merely hosting speech by others is not a traditional, exclusive public function and does not alone transform private entities into state actors subject to First Amendment constraints.

If the rule were otherwise, all private property owners and private lessees who open their property for speech would be subject to First Amendment constraints and would lose the ability to exercise what they deem to be appropriate editorial discretion within that open forum. Private property owners and private lessees would face the unappetizing choice of allowing all comers or closing the platform altogether.

In other words, as much as it protects “the marketplace of ideas,” the First Amendment also protects “the market for speech governance.” Musk’s idea that Twitter should be subject to the First Amendment is simply incoherent, but his vision for Twitter to have less politically biased content moderation could work.

Musk’s Plan for Twitter

There has been much commentary on what Musk intends to do, and whether it is a realistic way to maximize the platform’s value. As a multi-sided platform, Twitter’s revenue is driven by advertisers, who want to reach a mass audience. This means Twitter, much like other social-media platforms, must consider the costs and benefits of speech to its users, and strike a balance that maximizes the value of the platform. The history of social-media content moderation suggests that these platforms have found that rules against harassment, abuse, spam, bots, pornography, and certain hate speech and misinformation are necessary.

For rules pertaining to harassment and abuse, in particular, it is easy to understand how they are necessary to prevent losing users. There seems to be a wide societal consensus that such speech is intolerable. Similarly, spam, bots, and pornographic content, even if legal speech, are largely not what social media users want to see.

But for hate speech and misinformation, however much one agrees in the abstract about their undesirableness, there is significant debate on the margins about what is acceptable or unacceptable discourse, just as there is over what is true or false when it comes to touchpoint social and political issues. It is one thing to ban Nazis due to hate speech; it is arguably quite another to remove a prominent feminist author due to “misgendering” people. It is also one thing to say crazy conspiracy theories like QAnon should be moderated, but quite another to fact-check good-faith questioning of the efficacy of masks or vaccines. It is likely in these areas that Musk will offer an alternative to what is largely seen as biased content moderation from Big Tech companies.

Musk appears to be making a bet that the market for speech governance is currently not well-served by the major competitors in the social-media space. If Twitter could thread the needle by offering a more politically neutral moderation policy that still manages to keep off the site enough of the types of content that repel users, then it could conceivably succeed and even influence the moderation policies of other social-media companies.

Let the Market Decide

The crux of the issue is this: Conservatives who have backed antitrust and regulatory action against Big Tech because of political bias concerns should be willing to back off and allow the market to work. And liberals who have defended the right of private companies to make rules for their platforms should continue to defend that principle. Let the market decide.

[Wrapping up the first week of our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium is a post from Truth on the Market’s own Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, director of law & economics programs at the International Center for Law & Economics and an assistant professor of law and co-director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecom Law program at the University of Nebraska College of Law. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

Introduction

In 2014, I published a pair of articles—”Administrative Antitrust” and “Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust”—that argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent antitrust and administrative-law jurisprudence was pushing antitrust law out of the judicial domain and into the domain of regulatory agencies. The first article focused on the Court’s then-recent antitrust cases, arguing that the Court, which had long since moved away from federal common law, had shown a clear preference that common-law-like antitrust law be handled on a statutory or regulatory basis where possible. The second article evaluated and rejected the FTC’s long-held belief that the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) interpretations of the FTC Act do not receive Chevron deference.

Together, these articles made the case (as a descriptive, not normative, matter) that we were moving towards a period of what I called “administrative antitrust.” From today’s perspective, it surely seems that I was right, with the FTC set to embrace Section 5’s broad ambiguities to redefine modern understandings of antitrust law. Indeed, those articles have been cited by both former FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra and current FTC Chair Lina Khan in speeches and other materials that have led up to our current moment.

This essay revisits those articles, in light of the past decade of Supreme Court precedent. It comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with recent cases that the Court is increasingly viewing the broad deference characteristic of administrative law with what, charitably, can be called skepticism. While I stand by the analysis offered in my previous articles—and, indeed, believe that the Court maintains a preference for administratively defined antitrust law over judicially defined antitrust law—I find it less likely today that the Court would defer to any agency interpretation of antitrust law that represents more than an incremental move away from extant law.

I will approach this discussion in four parts. First, I will offer some reflections on the setting of my prior articles. The piece on Chevron and the FTC, in particular, argued that the FTC had misunderstood how Chevron would apply to its interpretations of the FTC Act because it was beholden to out-of-date understandings of administrative law. I will make the point below that the same thing can be said today. I will then briefly recap the essential elements of the arguments made in both of those prior articles, to the extent needed to evaluate how administrative approaches to antitrust will be viewed by the Court today. The third part of the discussion will then summarize some key elements of administrative law that have changed over roughly the past decade. And, finally, I will bring these elements together to look at the viability of administrative antitrust today, arguing that the FTC’s broad embrace of power anticipated by many is likely to meet an ill fate at the hands of the courts on both antitrust and administrative law grounds.

In reviewing these past articles in light of the past decade’s case law, this essay reaches an important conclusion: for the same reasons that the Court seemed likely in 2013 to embrace an administrative approach to antitrust, today it is likely to view such approaches with great skepticism unless they are undertaken on an incrementalist basis. Others are currently developing arguments that sound primarily in current administrative law: the major questions doctrine and the potential turn away from National Petroleum Refiners. My conclusion is based primarily in the Court’s view that administrative antitrust would prove less indeterminate than judicially defined antitrust law. If the FTC shows that not to be the case, the Court seems likely to close the door on administrative antitrust for reasons sounding in both administrative and antitrust law.

Setting the Stage, Circa 2013

It is useful to start by visiting the stage as it was set when I wrote “Administrative Antitrust” and “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” in 2013. I wrote these articles while doing a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, prior to which I had spent several years working at the U.S. Justice Department Antitrust Division’s Telecommunications Section. This was a great time to be involved on the telecom side of antitrust, especially for someone with an interest in administrative law, as well. Recent important antitrust cases included Pacific Bell v. linkLine and Verizon v. Trinko and recent important administrative-law cases included Brand-X, Fox v. FCC, and City of Arlington v. FCC. Telecommunications law was defining the center of both fields.

I started working on “Administrative Antitrust” first, prompted by what I admit today was an overreading of the Court’s 2011 American Electric Power Co. Inc. v. Connecticut opinion, in which the Court held broadly that a decision by Congress to regulate broadly displaces judicial common law. In Trinko and Credit Suisse, the Court had held something similar: roughly, that regulation displaces antitrust law. Indeed, in linkLine,the Court had stated that regulation is preferable to antitrust, known for its vicissitudes and adherence to the extra-judicial development of economic theory. “Administrative Antitrust” tied these strands together, arguing that antitrust law, long-discussed as one of the few remaining bastions of federal common law, would—and in the Court’s eyes, should—be displaced by regulation.

Antitrust and administrative law also came together, and remain together, in the debates over net neutrality. It was this nexus that gave rise to “Limits of Administrative Antitrust,” which I started in 2013 while working on “Administrative Antitrust”and waiting for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Verizon v. FCC.

Some background on the net-neutrality debate is useful. In 2007, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) attempted to put in place net-neutrality rules by adopting a policy statement on the subject. This approach was rejected by the D.C. Circuit in 2010, on grounds that a mere policy statement lacked the force of law. The FCC then adopted similar rules through a rulemaking process, finding authority to issue those rules in its interpretation of the ambiguous language of Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. In January 2014, the D.C. Circuit again rejected the specific rules adopted by the FCC, on grounds that those rules violated the Communications Act’s prohibition on treating internet service providers (ISPs) as common carriers. But critically, the court affirmed the FCC’s interpretation of Section 706 as allowing it, in principle, to adopt rules regulating ISPs.

Unsurprisingly, whether the language of Section 706 was either ambiguous or subject to the FCC’s interpretation was a central debate within the regulatory community during 2012 and 2013. The broadest consensus, at least among my peers, was strongly of the view that it was neither: the FCC and industry had long read Section 706 as not giving the FCC authority to regulate ISP conduct and, to the extent that it did confer legislative authority, that authority was expressly deregulatory. I was the lone voice arguing that the D.C. Circuit was likely to find that Chevron applied to Section 706 and that the FCC’s reading was permissible on its own (that is, not taking into account such restrictions as the prohibition on treating non-common carriers as common carriers).

I actually had thought this conclusion quite obvious. The past decade of the Court’s Chevron case law followed a trend of increasing deference. Starting with Mead, then Brand-X, Fox v. FCC, and City of Arlington, the safe money was consistently placed on deference to the agency.

This was the setting in which I started thinking about what became “Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust.” If my argument in “Administrative Antitrust”was right—that the courts would push development of antitrust law from the courts to regulatory agencies—this would most clearly happen through the FTC’s Section 5 authority over unfair methods of competition (UMC). But there was longstanding debate about the limits of the FTC’s UMC authority. These debates included whether it was necessarily coterminous with the Sherman Act (so limited by the judicially defined federal common law of antitrust).

And there was discussion about whether the FTC would receive Chevron deference to its interpretations of its UMC authority. As with the question of the FCC receiving deference to its interpretation of Section 706, there was widespread understanding that the FTC would not receive Chevron deference to its interpretations of its Section 5 UMC authority. “Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust” explored that issue, ultimately concluding that the FTC likely would indeed be given the benefit of Chevron deference, tracing the commission’s belief to the contrary back to longstanding institutional memory of pre-Chevron judicial losses.

The Administrative Antitrust Argument

The discussion above is more than mere historical navel-gazing. The context and setting in which those prior articles were written is important to understanding both their arguments and the continual currents that propel us across antitrust’s sea of doubt. But we should also look at the specific arguments from each paper in some detail, as well.

Administrative Antitrust

The opening lines of this paper capture the curious judicial statute of antitrust law:

Antitrust is a peculiar area of law, one that has long been treated as exceptional by the courts. Antitrust cases are uniquely long, complicated, and expensive; individual cases turn on case-specific facts, giving them limited precedential value; and what precedent there is changes on a sea of economic—rather than legal—theory. The principal antitrust statutes are minimalist and have left the courts to develop their meaning. As Professor Thomas Arthur has noted, “in ‘the anti-trust field the courts have been accorded, by common consent, an authority they have in no other branch of enacted law.’” …


This Article argues that the Supreme Court is moving away from this exceptionalist treatment of antitrust law and is working to bring antitrust within a normalized administrative law jurisprudence.

Much of this argument is based in the arguments framed above: Trinko and Credit Suisse prioritize regulation over the federal common law of antitrust, and American Electric Power emphasizes the general displacement of common law by regulation. The article adds, as well, the Court’s focus, at the time, against domain-specific “exceptionalism.” Its opinion in Mayo had rejected the longstanding view that tax law was “exceptional” in some way that excluded it from the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and other standard administrative law doctrine. And thus, so too must the Court’s longstanding treatment of antitrust as exceptional also fall.

Those arguments can all be characterized as pulling antitrust law toward an administrative approach. But there was a push as well. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts expressed substantial concern about the difficulties that antitrust law poses for courts and litigants alike. His opinion for the majority notes that “it is difficult enough for courts to identify and remedy an alleged anticompetitive practice” and laments “[h]ow is a judge or jury to determine a ‘fair price?’” And Justice Stephen Breyer writes in concurrence, that “[w]hen a regulatory structure exists [as it does in this case] to deter and remedy anticompetitive harm, the costs of antitrust enforcement are likely to be greater than the benefits.”

In other words, the argument in “Administrative Antitrust” goes, the Court is motivated both to bring antitrust law into a normalized administrative-law framework and also to remove responsibility for the messiness inherent in antitrust law from the courts’ dockets. This latter point will be of particular importance as we turn to how the Court is likely to think about the FTC’s potential use of its UMC authority to develop new antitrust rules.

Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust

The core argument in “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” is more doctrinal and institutionally focused. In its simplest statement, I merely applied Chevron as it was understood circa 2013 to the FTC’s UMC authority. There is little argument that “unfair methods of competition” is inherently ambiguous—indeed, the term was used, and the power granted to the FTC, expressly to give the agency flexibility and to avoid the limits the Court was placing on antitrust law in the early 20th century.

There are various arguments against application of Chevron to Section 5; the article goes through and rejects them all. Section 5 has long been recognized as including, but being broader than, the Sherman Act. National Petroleum Refiners has long held that the FTC has substantive-rulemaking authority—a conclusion made even more forceful by the Supreme Court’s more recent opinion in Iowa Utilities Board. Other arguments are (or were) unavailing.

The real puzzle the paper unpacks is why the FTC ever believed it wouldn’t receive the benefit of Chevron deference. The article traces it back to a series of cases the FTC lost in the 1980s, contemporaneous with the development of the Chevron doctrine. The commission had big losses in cases like E.I. Du Pont and Ethyl Corp. Perhaps most important, in its 1986 Indiana Federation of Dentists opinion (two years after Chevron was decided), the Court seemed to adopt a de novo standard for review of Section 5 cases. But, “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” argues, this is a misreading and overreading of Indiana Federation of Dentists (a close reading of which actually suggests that it is entirely in line with Chevron), and it misunderstands the case’s relationship with Chevron (the importance of which did not start to come into focus for another several years).

The curious conclusion of the argument is, in effect, that a generation of FTC lawyers, “shell-shocked by its treatment in the courts,” internalized the lesson that they would not receive the benefits of Chevron deference and that Section 5 was subject to de novo review, but also that this would start to change as a new generation of lawyers, trained in the modern Chevron era, came to practice within the halls of the FTC. Today, that prediction appears to have borne out.

Things Change

The conclusion from “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” that FTC lawyers failed to recognize that the agency would receive Chevron deference because they were half a generation behind the development of administrative-law doctrine is an important one. As much as antitrust law may be adrift in a sea of change, administrative law is even more so. From today’s perspective, it feels as though I wrote those articles at Chevron’s zenith—and watching the FTC consider aggressive use of its UMC authority feels like watching a commission that, once again, is half a generation behind the development of administrative law.

The tide against Chevron’sexpansive deference was already beginning to grow at the time I was writing. City of Arlington, though affirming application of Chevron to agencies’ interpretations of their own jurisdictional statutes in a 6-3 opinion, generated substantial controversy at the time. And a short while later, the Court decided a case that many in the telecom space view as a sea change: Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG). In UARG, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a 9-0 majority, struck down an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation related to greenhouse gasses. In doing so, he invoked language evocative of what today is being debated as the major questions doctrine—that the Court “expect[s] Congress to speak clearly if it wishes to assign to an agency decisions of vast economic and political significance.” Two years after that, the Court decided Encino Motorcars, in which the Court acted upon a limit expressed in Fox v. FCC that agencies face heightened procedural requirements when changing regulations that “may have engendered serious reliance interests.”

And just like that, the dams holding back concern over the scope of Chevron have burst. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have openly expressed their views that Chevron needs to be curtailed or eliminated. Justice Brett Kavanaugh has written extensively in favor of the major questions doctrine. Chief Justice Roberts invoked the major questions doctrine in King v. Burwell. Each term, litigants are more aggressively bringing more aggressive cases to probe and tighten the limits of the Chevron doctrine. As I write this, we await the Court’s opinion in American Hospital Association v. Becerra—which, it is widely believed could dramatically curtail the scope of the Chevron doctrine.

Administrative Antitrust, Redux

The prospects for administrative antitrust look very different today than they did a decade ago. While the basic argument continues to hold—the Court will likely encourage and welcome a transition of antitrust law to a normalized administrative jurisprudence—the Court seems likely to afford administrative agencies (viz., the FTC) much less flexibility in how they administer antitrust law than they would have a decade ago. This includes through both the administrative-law vector, with the Court reconsidering how it views delegation of congressional authority to agencies such as through the major questions doctrine and agency rulemaking authority, as well as through the Court’s thinking about how agencies develop and enforce antitrust law.

Major Questions and Major Rules

Two hotly debated areas where we see this trend: the major questions doctrine and the ongoing vitality of National Petroleum Refiners. These are only briefly recapitulated here. The major questions doctrine is an evolving doctrine, seemingly of great interest to many current justices on the Court, that requires Congress to speak clearly when delegating authority to agencies to address major questions—that is, questions of vast economic and political significance. So, while the Court may allow an agency to develop rules governing mergers when tasked by Congress to prohibit acquisitions likely to substantially lessen competition, it is unlikely to allow that agency to categorically prohibit mergers based upon a general congressional command to prevent unfair methods of competition. The first of those is a narrow rule based upon a specific grant of authority; the other is a very broad rule based upon a very general grant of authority.

The major questions doctrine has been a major topic of discussion in administrative-law circles for the past several years. Interest in the National Petroleum Refiners question has been more muted, mostly confined to those focused on the FTC and FCC. National Petroleum Refiners is a 1973 D.C. Circuit case that found that the FTC Act’s grant of power to make rules to implement the act confers broad rulemaking power relating to the act’s substantive provisions. In 1999, the Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion in Iowa Utilities Board, finding that a provision in Section 202 of the Communications Act allowing the FCC to create rules seemingly for the implementation of that section conferred substantive rulemaking power running throughout the Communications Act.

Both National Petroleum Refiners and Iowa Utilities Board reflect previous generations’ understanding of administrative law—and, in particular, the relationship between the courts and Congress in empowering and policing agency conduct. That understanding is best captured in the evolution of the non-delegation doctrine, and the courts’ broad acceptance of broad delegations of congressional power to agencies in the latter half of the 20th century. National Petroleum Refiners and Iowa Utilities Board are not non-delegation cases-—but, similar to the major questions doctrine, they go to similar issues of how specific Congress must be when delegating broad authority to an agency.

In theory, there is little difference between an agency that can develop legal norms through case-by-case adjudications that are backstopped by substantive and procedural judicial review, on the one hand, and authority to develop substantive rules backstopped by procedural judicial review and by Congress as a check on substantive errors. In practice, there is a world of difference between these approaches. As with the Court’s concerns about the major questions doctrine, were the Court to review National Petroleum Refiners Association or Iowa Utilities Board today, it seems at least possible, if not simply unlikely, that most of the Justices would not so readily find agencies to have such broad rulemaking authority without clear congressional intent supporting such a finding.

Both of these ideas—the major question doctrine and limits on broad rules made using thin grants of rulemaking authority—present potential limits on the potential scope of rules the FTC might make using its UMC authority.

Limits on the Antitrust Side of Administrative Antitrust

The potential limits on FTC UMC rulemaking discussed above sound in administrative-law concerns. But administrative antitrust may also find a tepid judicial reception on antitrust concerns, as well.

Many of the arguments advanced in “Administrative Antitrust” and the Court’s opinions on the antitrust-regulation interface echo traditional administrative-law ideas. For instance, much of the Court’s preference that agencies granted authority to engage in antitrust or antitrust-adjacent regulation take precedence over the application of judicially defined antitrust law track the same separation of powers and expertise concerns that are central to the Chevron doctrine itself.

But the antitrust-focused cases—linkLine, Trinko, Credit Suisse—also express concerns specific to antitrust law. Chief Justice Roberts notes that the justices “have repeatedly emphasized the importance of clear rules in antitrust law,” and the need for antitrust rules to “be clear enough for lawyers to explain them to clients.” And the Court and antitrust scholars have long noted the curiosity that antitrust law has evolved over time following developments in economic theory. This extra-judicial development of the law runs contrary to basic principles of due process and the stability of the law.

The Court’s cases in this area express hope that an administrative approach to antitrust could give a clarity and stability to the law that is currently lacking. These are rules of vast economic significance: they are “the Magna Carta of free enterprise”; our economy organizes itself around them; substantial changes to these rules could have a destabilizing effect that runs far deeper than Congress is likely to have anticipated when tasking an agency with enforcing antitrust law. Empowering agencies to develop these rules could, the Court’s opinions suggest, allow for a more thoughtful, expert, and deliberative approach to incorporating incremental developments in economic knowledge into the law.

If an agency’s administrative implementation of antitrust law does not follow this path—and especially if the agency takes a disruptive approach to antitrust law that deviates substantially from established antitrust norms—this defining rationale for an administrative approach to antitrust would not hold.

The courts could respond to such overreach in several ways. They could invoke the major questions or similar doctrines, as above. They could raise due-process concerns, tracking Fox v. FCC and Encino Motorcars, to argue that any change to antitrust law must not be unduly disruptive to engendered reliance interests. They could argue that the FTC’s UMC authority, while broader than the Sherman Act, must be compatible with the Sherman Act. That is, while the FTC has authority for the larger circle in the antitrust Venn diagram, the courts continue to define the inner core of conduct regulated by the Sherman Act.

A final aspect to the Court’s likely approach to administrative antitrust falls from the Roberts Court’s decision-theoretic approach to antitrust law. First articulated in Judge Frank Easterbrook’s “The Limits of Antitrust,” the decision-theoretic approach to antitrust law focuses on the error costs of incorrect judicial decisions and the likelihood that those decisions will be corrected. The Roberts Court has strongly adhered to this framework in its antitrust decisions. This can be seen, for instance, in Justice Breyer’s statement that: “When a regulatory structure exists to deter and remedy anticompetitive harm, the costs of antitrust enforcement are likely to be greater than the benefits.”

The error-costs framework described by Judge Easterbrook focuses on the relative costs of errors, and correcting those errors, between judicial and market mechanisms. In the administrative-antitrust setting, the relevant comparison is between judicial and administrative error costs. The question on this front is whether an administrative agency, should it get things wrong, is likely to correct. Here there are two models, both of concern. The first is that in which law is policy or political preference. Here, the FCC’s approach to net neutrality and the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) approach to labor law loom large; there have been dramatic swing between binary policy preferences held by different political parties as control of agencies shifts between administrations. The second model is one in which Congress responds to agency rules by refining, rejecting, or replacing them through statute. Here, again, net neutrality and the FCC loom large, with nearly two decades of calls for Congress to clarify the FCC’s authority and statutory mandate, while the agency swings between policies with changing administrations.

Both of these models reflect poorly on the prospects for administrative antitrust and suggest a strong likelihood that the Court would reject any ambitious use of administrative authority to remake antitrust law. The stability of these rules is simply too important to leave to change with changing political wills. And, indeed, concern that Congress no longer does its job of providing agencies with clear direction—that Congress has abdicated its job of making important policy decisions and let them fall instead to agency heads—is one of the animating concerns behind the major questions doctrine.

Conclusion

Writing in 2013, it seemed clear that the Court was pushing antitrust law in an administrative direction, as well as that the FTC would likely receive broad Chevron deference in its interpretations of its UMC authority to shape and implement antitrust law. Roughly a decade later, the sands have shifted and continue to shift. Administrative law is in the midst of a retrenchment, with skepticism of broad deference and agency claims of authority.

Many of the underlying rationales behind the ideas of administrative antitrust remain sound. Indeed, I expect the FTC will play an increasingly large role in defining the contours of antitrust law and that the Court and courts will welcome this role. But that role will be limited. 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.

[Continuing our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium, today’s first guest post is from Richard J. Pierce Jr., the Lyle T. Alverson Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. We are also publishing a related post today from Andrew K. Magloughlin and Randolph J. May of the Free State Foundation. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

FTC Rulemaking Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hypothetical Exercises of FTC Rulemaking Power

Creation of a Right to Repair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative Ways to Improve Antitrust Law       

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

[This guest post from Yale Law School student Leah Samuel—the third post in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposiumis a condensed version of a full-length paper. Please reach out to Leah at leah.samuel@yale.edu if you would like a copy of the full draft. It is the first of two contributions to the symposium posted today, along with this related post from Corbin K. Barthold of TechFreedom. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

Introduction

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) ability to conduct substantive rulemaking under both its “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) and “unfair and deceptive practices” (UDAP) mandates was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1973’s National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC. Nonetheless, the FTC has seldom exercised this authority with respect to UMC—its antitrust authority. And various scholars and commentators have suggested that such an attempt would quickly be rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I argue that the plain text and procedural history of the 1975 Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act demonstrate that Congress implicitly ratified the National Petroleum decision as it applied to UMC rulemaking. The scholarly focus on the intentions of the framers of the 1914 Federal Trade Commission Act with respect to substantive rulemaking is therefore misplaced—whether the FTC has exercised its UMC rulemaking powers in recent decades, its ability to do so was affirmed by Congress in 1974.

When the FTC first began to promulgate substantive rules under Section 5, neither the agency nor reviewing courts readily distinguished between UMC and UDAP authority. In 1973, the D.C. Circuit determined that the FTC was empowered to promulgate a legally binding trade regulation rule that required the posting of octane numbers at gas stations as a valid legislative rule under both UMC and UDAP. The given trade regulation rule was not clearly categorized as consumer protection or antitrust by the court. In 1975, Congress passed the Magnuson-Moss Act, which added procedural requirements to UDAP rulemaking without changing the processes applicable to UMC rulemaking as it stood after National Petroleum. In 1980, Congress added additional cumbersome procedural hurdles, as well as certain outright prohibitions to so-called Magnuson-Moss rulemaking with the Federal Trade Commission Improvements Act (FTCIA), still leaving UMC untouched.

Interpretative Method

A textualist reading of the Magnuson-Moss Act should lead to the conclusion that the FTC has the power to conduct substantive UMC rulemaking. Because Congress was actively aware of and responding to the National Petroleum decision and the FTC’s Octane Rule, the Magnuson-Moss Act should be read to leave UMC rulemaking intact under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

Interpreting Magnuson-Moss to acknowledge the existence of, and therefore validate, UMC rulemaking does the least violence to the text, in keeping with the supremacy-of-text principle, as described by Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner in “Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts.” Absent any express statement eliminating or bracketing that authority, the contextual meaning of Magnuson-Moss § 202(a)(2)—“[t]he preceding sentence shall not affect any authority of the Commission to prescribe rules…with respect to unfair methods of competition”—is most clearly understood as protecting the existence of UMC rulemaking as it existed in law at the moment of the bill’s passage. In his famous concurrence in Green v. Bock Laundry Machine Co., Justice Scalia explained that:

The meaning of terms on the statute books ought to be determined, not on the basis of which meaning can be shown to have been understood by a larger handful of the Members of Congress; but rather on the basis of which meaning is . . . most compatible with the surrounding body of law into which the provision must be integrated—a compatibility which, by a benign fiction, we assume Congress always has in mind.

In Branch v. Smith, Scalia applied this method to the Voting Rights Act, reasoning that Congress has a constructive awareness of lower-court decisions when it amends a statute. While that constructive awareness, and the statutory meaning that it implies, cannot trump the plain text of the amended statute, it is an important aid to interpretation. Here, the benign fiction of constructive awareness is actually a demonstrable fact: Congress was aware of National Petroleum and took it to be the legal default. Where the lower court decision-making process and the legislative process were closely intertwined, the presumption that Congress knew and adopted the D.C. Circuit’s reasoning is more defensible from a textualist perspective than any other reading of Section 202.

This is not an argument derived from legislative silence or inaction, canons disfavored by today’s textualists. Here, Congress definitively acted, amending the FTC Act multiple times over the decade. To read into the text of the Magnuson-Moss Act a provision stripping the FTC of its UMC rulemaking authority and overturning National Petroleum would be to violate the omitted case canon, as Scalia and Garner put it: “The absent provision cannot be supplied by the courts. What the legislature ‘would have wanted’ it did not provide, and that is the end of the matter.” In sum, the Congresses of 1974 and 1980 affirmed the existence of UMC rulemaking under APA procedures.

FTC Rulemaking Before the Octane Rule

During its first 50 years, the FTC carried out its mandate exclusively through nonbinding recommendations called “trade practice rules” (TPRs), alongside case-by-case adjudications. TPRs emerged from FTC-facilitated “trade practice conferences,” where industry participants formulated rules around what constituted unfair practices within their industry. In the early 1960s, Kennedy-appointed FTC Chair Phil Elman began to push the agency to shift away from a reactive “mailbag approach” based on individual complaints and toward a systematic approach based on binding agency rules. The result was the promulgation of “trade regulation rules” (TRRs) through notice-and-comment rulemaking, which the FTC initiated by amending its procedural rules to permit binding rulemaking in 1962. The FTC’s first TRR, promulgated in 1964, explicitly relied upon the agency’s UDAP authority. However, its statement of basis and purpose contained a full-throated defense of FTC rulemaking in general, including UMC rulemaking. The history of these early rulemaking efforts has been documented comprehensively by Luke Herrine.

Of the TRRs that the FTC promulgated before the Octane Rule, only one appears to have been explicitly identified as an exercise of antitrust rulemaking under Section 6(g) of the FTC Act. That rule, promulgated in 1968, identified its authority as sections 2(d) and 2(e) of the Clayton Act, rather than UMC under Section 5 of the FTC Act. The agency itself, upon repealing the rule, found that no enforcement actions were ever brought under it. Given the existence, however underutilized, of the 1968 rule—alongside the 1971 Octane Rule described below—it is clear that FTC personnel during the 1960s and 1970s did not understand TRRs to mean only consumer protection rules under UDAP. Furthermore, the Congress that enacted the Magnuson-Moss Act was aware of and legislating against the background fact that the FTC had already promulgated two final rules drawing on antitrust authority.

The National Petroleum Decision

In December 1971, the FTC promulgated a TRR through APA notice-and-comment rulemaking declaring that the failure to post octane ratings on gas pumps constituted a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, citing both UMC and UDAP as its authorizing provisions. Quoting from the statement of base and purpose of the 1964 Cigarette Rule, the FTC declared that it was empowered to promulgate the TRR under the “general grant of rulemaking authority in section 6(g) (of the Federal Trade Commission Act), and authority to promulgate it is in any event, implicit in section 5(a) (6) (of the Act) and in the purpose and design of the Trade Commission Act as a whole.”

Like the Octane Rule itself, Judge J. Skelly Wright’s 1973 National Petroleum decision affirming the FTC’s authority to promulgate the rule did not distinguish between UMC and UDAP rulemaking and did not limit its holding to one or the other.

Wright’s opinion rested first on a plain language reading of 15 U.S.C. § 46(g), which provides that the FTC may “[f]rom time to time … classify corporations and … make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of sections 41 to 46 and 47 to 58 of this title.” He rejected appellees’ claim that the placement of § 6(g) in the section of the FTC Act that empowers the commission to systematically investigate and collect industry reports (colloquially referred to as 6(b) orders) manifests Congress’s intent to limit 6(g) rulemaking to the FTC’s “nonadjudicatory, investigative and informative functions.” As he pointed out, the text of 6(g) as adopted applied to section 45, which corresponds to § 5 of the FTC Act.

Wright acknowledged, however, that in theory 6(g) could be limited to rules of procedure and practice—such was the holding of the district court. Wright declined to follow the district court, holding instead that, “while the legislative history of Section 5 and Section 6(g) is ambiguous, it certainly does not compel the conclusion that the Commission was not meant to exercise the power to make substantive rules with binding effect in Section 5(a) adjudications. We also believe that the plain language of Section 6(g)…confirms the framers’ intent to allow exercise of the power claimed here.”Finding the legislative history “cryptic” and inconclusive, Wright argued that “the need to rely on the section’s language is obvious.”

He resolved the matter in the FTC’s favor by focusing on the agency’s need for effective tools to carry out its mandate; to force the agency to proceed solely by adjudication “would render the Commission ineffective to do the job assigned it by Congress. Such a result is not required by the legislative history of the Act.”

While contemporary skeptics of the administrative state might take issue with Wright’s statutory interpretation, it is difficult to argue with his textualist premise: nothing in the text of 6(g) limits the provision to procedural rulemaking.

More importantly, the Magnuson-Moss Act was passed Dec. 19, 1974, only a year and a half after the National Petroleum decision. The text and history of the Magnuson-Moss Act evinces an awareness of and attentiveness to the National Petroleum decision—the proposed legislation and the National Petroleum case were both pending during the early 1970s. The text of Magnuson-Moss canonizes Wright’s authorization of FTC rulemaking powers under both UMC and UDAP, while specifying a more rigorous set of procedural hurdles for UDAP rulemaking.

Legislative History of the Magnuson-Moss Act

Some commentators have suggested that the general purpose of Magnuson-Moss with respect to FTC rulemaking must have been to bog down the rule-promulgation process, because the act added procedural requirements like cross-examination to UDAP rulemaking. From that premise, it may be argued that a Congress hostile to FTC rulemaking would not have simultaneously sandbagged UDAP rulemaking while validating UMC rulemaking under the APA. That logical jump oversimplifies the process of negotiation and compromise that typifies any legislative process, and here it leads to the wrong conclusion. Magnuson-Moss was the result of consumer-protection advocates’ painstaking efforts to strengthen the FTC across many dimensions. The addition of trial-type procedures was a concession that they ultimately offered to business interests to move the bill out of the hostile U.S. House Commerce and Finance Subcommittee. However, the bill moved out of conference committee and to the President Gerald Ford’s desk only after its champions were assured that, in the immediate aftermath of National Petroleum, UMC rulemaking would be unimpaired.

Sen. Warren Magnuson’s (D-Wash.) strategy from the beginning was to marry together the popular and relatively easy-to-understand warranty provisions with a revitalization of the FTC. As early as 1971, President Richard Nixon publicized his support for a watered-down version of a warranty-FTC bill. Notwithstanding the political cover from Nixon, House Republicans were reluctant to move any bill forward. Michael Lemov, counsel to Rep. John E. Moss (D-Calif.) during this period, wrote that the House Commerce Committee in the early 70s was increasingly attentive to business interests and hostile to consumer-protection legislation. It ultimately took Moss’ deal-brokering to make Magnuson’s consumer-protection legacy a reality by unsticking multiple consumer-protection bills from the House “graveyard of consumer bills.” While Magnuson succeeded in passing the Magnuson-Moss draft to a full Senate vote three times in between 1970 and 1974, Moss spent years (and 12 full days of hearings) trying to get the bill out of his Commerce and Finance Subcommittee.

What finally unstuck the bill on the House side, according to Lemov, was the participation of the Nixon-appointed but surprisingly vigorous FTC Chair Lewis Engman. Engman testified before the subcommittee on March 19, 1973, that if the cross-examination provisions couldn’t be cut out of the bill, then all of the rulemaking provisions of the bill should be stripped out. By this time, the National Petroleum Refiners decision was pending, and Engman evidently felt that the FTC could do better with the rulemaking authority that might be left to it by Wright’s decision, rather than the burdensome procedure set out in the House draft. The National Petroleum decision came down June 28, 1973, and by Feb. 25, 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court had denied certiorari, such that Congress could and did consider Wright’s decision to be the state of the law. According to Lemov, Moss was upset that Engman blindsided him with his demand to leave the entirety of Section 5 rulemaking under the National Petroleum standard. In response, he doubled down and brokered a deal with key Republican committee member Rep. Jim Broyhill (R-N.C.), which would keep cross-examination but limit it to material issues of fact, not policy or minutia. After being further weakened in the full House Commerce Committee, the bill made it to a floor vote and along to the conference committee on Sept. 19, 1974, to be reconciled with the stronger Senate version.

In conference, the bill was somewhat resuscitated. It made it out of the House and Senate in December 1974 and was signed by Ford in January 1975. The House’s industry-influenced version of cross-examination made it into law, since the Senate version would have left the entirety of FTC rulemaking power under the National Petroleum holding. In short, the burdensome procedures included in the Magnuson-Moss Act, particularly cross-examination, were either devised by or advocated for by industry-friendly interests intending to tie the FTC’s hands. However, at the urging of Engman, both the Senate and House were attentive to the progress of the National Petroleum decision, and ultimately conferred on a bill that deliberately left UMC rulemaking under the simpler APA process permitted by that decision’s precedent.

The Plain Meaning of Magnuson-Moss

The text of the critical passage of the Magnuson-Moss Act, as codified at 15 U.S.C. § 57a, has not been substantially changed since 1975, though two modifications appear in italics:

(a) Authority of Commission to prescribe rules and general statements of policy

(1) Except as provided in subsection (h), the Commission may prescribe–

(A) interpretive rules and general statements of policy with respect to unfair or deceptive acts or practices […] and

(B) rules which define with specificity acts or practices which are unfair or deceptive acts or practices […], except that the Commission shall not develop or promulgate any trade rule or regulation with regard to the regulation of the development and utilization of the standards and certification activities pursuant to this section.Rules under this subparagraph may include requirements prescribed for the purpose of preventing such acts or practices.

(2) The Commission shall have no authority under this subchapter, other than its authority under this section, to prescribe any rule with respect to unfair or deceptive acts or practices […]. The preceding sentence shall not affect any authority of the Commission to prescribe rules (including interpretive rules), and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition

Both of the two changes in italics were the result of the 1980 FTCIA, which is discussed in more depth below. An uncodified section of the bill, labeled “15 USC 57a Note,” reads as follows:

(C)(1) The amendment made by subsections (a) and (b) of this section shall not affect the validity of any rule which was promulgated under section 6(g) of the Federal Trade Commission act prior to the date of enactment of this section. Any proposed rule under section 6(g) of such act with respect to which presentation of data, views, and arguments was substantially completed before such date may be promulgated in the same manner and with the same validity as such rule could have been promulgated had this section not been enacted.

Taken together, the language of Section 202 and 202(c) display a consciousness of the FTC’s prior norms of rulemaking authorized by Section 6(g), and an intent to bifurcate the treatment of UDAP and UMC rulemaking. Section 202 (a)(2) limits UDAP rulemaking, whether interpretive or legislative, to the new boundaries established in the bill, while explicitly leaving UMC rulemaking, including, but not limited to, interpretative rules and statements of policy, outside the new constraints and tethered to Section 6(g).

Clearly UMC is subject to the residual of FTC rulemaking authority—but the interpreter is left to determine whether that residual:

  1. eliminates UMC rulemaking altogether;
  2. leaves UMC rulemaking viable under 6(g) and the APA procedures as established in National Petroleum; or
  3. is agnostic to UMC rulemaking but repudiates National Petroleum, thereby leaving UMC rulemaking open to interpretation based on the meaning of the 1914 FTCA.

Without reference to legislative history, a textualist approach to determining which of the three possibilities is most plausible is to ask what an enacting Congress with a clear preference would have done (see, e.g., Scalia’s majority opinion in Edmond v. United States). Congress could, with even greater parsimony and clarity in drafting, have limited all rulemaking to the Magnuson-Moss procedures by simply referencing Section 5 in the first sentence of (a)(2), or in the first sentences of (a)(1)(A) and (B). Alternately, if the objective was to prohibit UMC rulemaking while allowing a more procedurally limited form of UDAP rulemaking, Congress could have written the second sentence of (a)(2) as: “The preceding sentence shall not authorize the Commission to prescribe rules (including interpretive rules), and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce” or “The preceding sentence shall not authorize the Commission to prescribe rules, except interpretive rules and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.”

We presume that Congress enacted the Magnuson-Moss Act with, as Scalia put it in Bock Laundry, a meaning “most compatible with the surrounding body of law into which the provision must be integrated—a compatibility which, by a benign fiction, we assume Congress always has in mind.” Therefore, while a textualist would not admit the legislative history and administrative history of the FTC to this interpretation, the history is relevant inasmuch as we presume that Congress legislates against the existing state of the law as it understands it. The foregoing history demonstrates conclusively that Congress was aware of and accounting for the National Petroleum decision at multiple stages of the legislative process. The FTC’s UMC rulemaking history further lends support to the fact that Congress and the agency understood UMC rulemaking power to exist before and after the enactment of Magnuson-Moss.

Rulemaking After the Magnuson-Moss Act and the 1980 FTCIA

Returning to the current statutory text, both of the changes in italics were the result of the 1980 FTCIA, which was designed to rein in perceived FTC overreach in the consumer-protection space. The reference to Subsection (h) incorporates an explicit halt to the FTC’s then-pending consumer-protection rulemaking relating to advertising directed at children. The exception codified at (a)(1)(B) targeted the FTC’s ongoing rulemaking in standards and certification.

The Standards and Certifications Rule was the most significant attempt at competition rulemaking after the Octane Rule, although it was never finalized. Two staff reports indicate that FTC staff in both 1978 and 1983 believed that the agency’s authority to make rules under UMC authority was not abrogated by Magnuson-Moss, nor by the FTCIA. The proposed rule would have authorized the FTC to define situations in which the process of developing standards and certifications for a wide variety of industries may give rise to competitive injuries in violation of Section 5. The 1978 proposed rule and staff teport drew on both UMC and UDAP authority, noting that, in the years since National Petroleum, Magnuson-Moss had codified the FTC’s rulemaking authority and added procedural requirements, but that the act, by its own terms, applied only to UDAP rulemaking. Accordingly, the FTC’s “authority to promulgate rules relating to unfair methods of competition was expressly left unchanged by the Act.” Because of the bifurcation in UMC and UDAP rulemaking procedures, Bureau of Consumer Protection (BCP) staff opted to proceed with the standards and certification rulemaking under the new Magnuson-Moss procedures, on the understanding that meeting the higher procedural bar of Magnuson-Moss would also satisfy the requirements of § 553 of the APA.

By 1983, however, BCP staff had shifted gears. The standards and certification final staff report of April 1983, which would have been delivered to the FTC commissioners for a vote on whether to promulgate the rule or not, recommended UMC rulemaking under 6(g). In drawing on its 6(g) authority, BCP staff acknowledged that the 1980 FTCIA had explicitly removed commission authority to promulgate a standards and certification rule under Section 18 of the FTC Act, referring to the new UDAP section.

Clearly, the 1980 FTCIA was intended as a rebuke to the FTC’s efforts at consumer-protection rulemaking. However, the fact that earlier House and Senate drafts contemplated removing all FTC rulemaking authority, or removing standards and certification rulemaking authority for both UMC and UDAP, strongly suggests that Congress understood that the two rulemaking powers existed, had been affirmed by Magnuson-Moss, and continued to be legally viable, even as their exercise became politically infeasible.

BCP staff was bolstered in this interpretation by the D.C. District Court, which granted summary judgment in February 1982 against the American National Standards Institute, which brought suit against the commission claiming that the proposed Standards and Certification Rule proceeding under 6(g) violated the FTCIA of 1980.In an unpublished opinion, the court held that “the text and legislative history of the FTCIA belie Plaintiffs’ claims,” while also defending the continuing dispositivity of National Petroleum on the question of § 6(g) rulemaking. ANSI did not appeal the district court’s decision.

BCP staff forged ahead with the final report in April 1983, acknowledging that, to the extent that certain substantive requirements around disclosures from the 1978 proposed rule were directed at preventing “deception,” the FTC was no longer able to proceed with such rules. To the extent that such disclosures “would have alleviated unfair methods of competition,” the final rule could “provide similar relief.” The Standards and Certifications Rule was never adopted, however, because by 1983, FTC leadership was actively hostile to regulation. The only mentions of “unfair methods of competition” in the rulemaking context in the Federal Register after the Standards and Certification Rule appears to be in the context of repeals.

Conclusion

The Magnuson-Moss Act explicitly left UMC rulemaking unchanged when establishing an additional set of procedural hurdles for UDAP rulemaking. Congress in 1974 both constructively and demonstrably knew that the legal default against which these changes were made was Judge Wright’s National Petroleum decision, as well as the final agency action embodied in the Octane Rule. A textualist reading of the Magnuson-Moss Act must begin with this background legal context to avoid doing violence to the text of the statute. This interpretation is further reinforced by the FTCIA, which also left UMC rulemaking intact, while banning specific instances of UDAP rulemaking. In short, the FTC has substantive UMC rulemaking authority under FTC Act Section 5.

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Competitive Effects in Two-Sided Markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Less Restrictive Alternatives and the Rule of Reason

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

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

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

There are several problems with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Platforms Are not Necessarily Less Restrictive Platforms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Amici Scholars Signing on to the Brief


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

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

On March 31, I and several other law and economics scholars filed an amicus brief in Epic Games v. Apple, which is on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Ninth Circuit.  In this post, I summarize the central arguments of the brief, which was joined by Alden Abbott, Henry Butler, Alan Meese, Aurelien Portuese, and John Yun and prepared with the assistance of Don Falk of Schaerr Jaffe LLP.

First, some background for readers who haven’t followed the case.

Epic, maker of the popular Fortnite video game, brought antitrust challenges against two policies Apple enforces against developers of third-party apps that run on iOS, the mobile operating system for Apple’s popular iPhones and iPads.  One policy requires that all iOS apps be distributed through Apple’s own App Store.  The other requires that any purchases of digital goods made while using an iOS app utilize Apple’s In App Purchase system (IAP).  Apple collects a share of the revenue from sales made through its App Store and using IAP, so these two policies provide a way for it to monetize its innovative app platform.   

Epic maintains that Apple’s app policies violate the federal antitrust laws.  Following a trial, the district court disagreed, though it condemned another of Apple’s policies under California state law.  Epic has appealed the antitrust rulings against it. 

My fellow amici and I submitted our brief in support of Apple to draw the Ninth Circuit’s attention to a distinction that is crucial to ensuring that antitrust promotes long-term consumer welfare: the distinction between the mere extraction of surplus through the exercise of market power and the enhancement of market power via the weakening of competitive constraints.

The central claim of our brief is that Epic’s antitrust challenges to Apple’s app store policies should fail because Epic has not shown that the policies enhance Apple’s market power in any market.  Moreover, condemnation of the practices would likely induce Apple to use its legitimately obtained market power to extract surplus in a different way that would leave consumers worse off than they are under the status quo.   

Mere Surplus Extraction vs. Market Power Extension

As the Supreme Court has observed, “Congress designed the Sherman Act as a ‘consumer welfare prescription.’”  The Act endeavors to protect consumers from harm resulting from “market power,” which is the ability of a firm lacking competitive constraints to enhance its profits by reducing its output—either quantitively or qualitatively—from the level that would persist if the firm faced vigorous competition.  A monopolist, for example, might cut back on the quantity it produces (to drive up market price) or it might skimp on quality (to enhance its per-unit profit margin).  A firm facing vigorous competition, by contrast, couldn’t raise market price simply by reducing its own production, and it would lose significant sales to rivals if it raised its own price or unilaterally cut back on product quality.  Market power thus stems from deficient competition.

As Dennis Carlton and Ken Heyer have observed, two different types of market power-related business behavior may injure consumers and are thus candidates for antitrust prohibition.  One is an exercise of market power: an action whereby a firm lacking competitive constraints increases its returns by constricting its output so as to raise price or otherwise earn higher profit margins.  When a firm engages in this sort of conduct, it extracts a greater proportion of the wealth, or “surplus,” generated by its transactions with its customers.

Every voluntary transaction between a buyer and seller creates surplus, which is the difference between the subjective value the consumer attaches to an item produced and the cost of producing and distributing it.  Price and other contract terms determine how that surplus is allocated between the buyer and the seller.  When a firm lacking competitive constraints exercises its market power by, say, raising price, it extracts for itself a greater proportion of the surplus generated by its sale.

The other sort of market power-related business behavior involves an effort by a firm to enhance its market power by weakening competitive constraints.  For example, when a firm engages in unreasonably exclusionary conduct that drives its rivals from the market or increases their costs so as to render them less formidable competitors, its market power grows.

U.S. antitrust law treats these two types of market power-related conduct differently.  It forbids behavior that enhances market power and injures consumers, but it permits actions that merely exercise legitimately obtained market power without somehow enhancing it.  For example, while charging a monopoly price creates immediate consumer harm by extracting for the monopolist a greater share of the surplus created by the transaction, the Supreme Court observed in Trinko that “[t]he mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not . . . unlawful.”  (See also linkLine: “Simply possessing monopoly power and charging monopoly prices does not violate [Sherman Act] § 2….”)

Courts have similarly refused to condemn mere exercises of market power in cases involving surplus-extractive arrangements more complicated than simple monopoly pricing.  For example, in its Independent Ink decision, the U.S. Supreme Court expressly declined to adopt a rule that would have effectively banned “metering” tie-ins.

In a metering tie-in, a seller with market power on some unique product that is used with a competitively supplied complement that is consumed in varying amounts—say, a highly unique printer that uses standard ink—reduces the price of its unique product (the printer), requires buyers to also purchase from it their requirements of the complement (the ink), and then charges a supracompetitive price for the latter product.  This allows the seller to charge higher effective prices to high-volume users of its unique tying product (buyers who use lots of ink) and lower prices to lower-volume users. 

Assuming buyers’ use of the unique product correlates with the value they ascribe to it, a metering tie-in allows the seller to price discriminate, charging higher prices to buyers who value its unique product more.  This allows the seller to extract more of the surplus generated by sales of its product, but it in no way extends the seller’s market power.

In refusing to adopt a rule that would have condemned most metering tie-ins, the Independent Ink Court observed that “it is generally recognized that [price discrimination] . . . occurs in fully competitive markets” and that tying arrangements involving requirements ties may be “fully consistent with a free, competitive market.” The Court thus reasoned that mere price discrimination and surplus extraction, even when accomplished through some sort of contractual arrangement like a tie-in, are not by themselves anticompetitive harms warranting antitrust’s condemnation.    

The Ninth Circuit has similarly recognized that conduct that exercises market power to extract surplus but does not somehow enhance that power does not create antitrust liability.  In Qualcomm, the court refused to condemn the chipmaker’s “no license, no chips” policy, which enabled it to enhance its profits by earning royalties on original equipment manufacturers’ sales of their high-priced products.

In reversing the district court’s judgment in favor of the FTC, the Ninth Circuit conceded that Qualcomm’s policies were novel and that they allowed it to enhance its profits by extracting greater surplus.  The court refused to condemn the policies, however, because they did not injure competition by weakening competitive constraints:

This is not to say that Qualcomm’s “no license, no chips” policy is not “unique in the industry” (it is), or that the policy is not designed to maximize Qualcomm’s profits (Qualcomm has admitted as much). But profit-seeking behavior alone is insufficient to establish antitrust liability. As the Supreme Court stated in Trinko, the opportunity to charge monopoly prices “is an important element of the free-market system” and “is what attracts ‘business acumen’ in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth.”

The Qualcomm court’s reference to Trinko highlights one reason courts should not condemn exercises of market power that merely extract surplus without enhancing market power: allowing such surplus extraction furthers dynamic efficiency—welfare gain that accrues over time from the development of new and improved products and services.

Dynamic efficiency results from innovation, which entails costs and risks.  Firms are more willing to incur those costs and risks if their potential payoff is higher, and an innovative firm’s ability to earn supracompetitive profits off its “better mousetrap” enhances its payoff. 

Allowing innovators to extract such profits also helps address the fact most of the benefits of product innovation inure to people other than the innovator.  Private actors often engage in suboptimal levels of behaviors that produce such benefit spillovers, or “positive externalities,”  because they bear all the costs of those behaviors but capture just a fraction of the benefit produced.  By enhancing the benefits innovators capture from their innovative efforts, allowing non-power-enhancing surplus extraction helps generate a closer-to-optimal level of innovative activity.

Not only do supracompetitive profits extracted through the exercise of legitimately obtained market power motivate innovation, they also enable it by helping to fund innovative efforts.  Whereas businesses that are forced by competition to charge prices near their incremental cost must secure external funding for significant research and development (R&D) efforts, firms collecting supracompetitive returns can finance R&D internally.  Indeed, of the top fifteen global spenders on R&D in 2018, eleven were either technology firms accused of possessing monopoly power (#1 Apple, #2 Alphabet/Google, #5 Intel, #6 Microsoft, #7 Apple, and #14 Facebook) or pharmaceutical companies whose patent protections insulate their products from competition and enable supracompetitive pricing (#8 Roche, #9 Johnson & Johnson, #10 Merck, #12 Novartis, and #15 Pfizer).

In addition to fostering dynamic efficiency by motivating and enabling innovative efforts, a policy acquitting non-power-enhancing exercises of market power allows courts to avoid an intractable question: which instances of mere surplus extraction should be precluded?

Precluding all instances of surplus extraction by firms with market power would conflict with precedents like Trinko and linkLine (which say that legitimate monopolists may legally charge monopoly prices) and would be impracticable given the ubiquity of above-cost pricing in niche and brand-differentiated markets.

A rule precluding surplus extraction when accomplished by a practice more complicated that simple monopoly pricing—say, some practice that allows price discrimination against buyers who highly value a product—would be both arbitrary and backward.  The rule would be arbitrary because allowing supracompetitive profits from legitimately obtained market power motivates and enables innovation regardless of the means used to extract surplus. The rule would be backward because, while simple monopoly pricing always reduces overall market output (as output-reduction is the very means by which the producer causes price to rise), more complicated methods of extracting surplus, such as metering tie-ins, often enhance market output and overall social welfare.

A third possibility would be to preclude exercising market power to extract more surplus than is necessary to motivate and enable innovation.  That position, however, would require courts to determine how much surplus extraction is required to induce innovative efforts.  Courts are poorly positioned to perform such a task, and their inevitable mistakes could significantly chill entrepreneurial activity.

Consider, for example, a firm contemplating a $5 million investment that might return up to $50 million.  Suppose the managers of the firm weighed expected costs and benefits and decided the risky gamble was just worth taking.  If the gamble paid off but a court stepped in and capped the firm’s returns at $20 million—a seemingly generous quadrupling of the firm’s investment—future firms in the same position would not make similar investments.  After all, the firm here thought this gamble was just barely worth taking, given the high risk of failure, when available returns were $50 million.

In the end, then, the best policy is to draw the line as both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit have done: Whereas enhancements of market power are forbidden, merely exercising legitimately obtained market power to extract surplus is permitted.

Apple’s Policies Do Not Enhance Its Market Power

Under the legal approach described above, the two Apple policies Epic has challenged do not give rise to antitrust liability.  While the policies may boost Apple’s profits by facilitating its extraction of surplus from app transactions on its mobile devices, they do not enhance Apple’s market power in any conceivable market.

As the creator and custodian of the iOS operating system, Apple has the ability to control which applications will run on its iPhones and iPads.  Developers cannot produce operable iOS apps unless Apple grants them access to the Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) required to enable the functionality of the operating system and hardware. In addition, Apple can require developers to obtain digital certificates that will enable their iOS apps to operate.  As the district court observed, “no certificate means the code will not run.”

Because Apple controls which apps will work on the operating system it created and maintains, Apple could collect the same proportion of surplus it currently extracts from iOS app sales and in-app purchases on iOS apps even without the policies Epic is challenging.  It could simply withhold access to the APIs or digital certificates needed to run iOS apps unless developers promised to pay it 30% of their revenues from app sales and in-app purchases of digital goods.

This means that the challenged policies do not give Apple any power it doesn’t already possess in the putative markets Epic identified: the markets for “iOS app distribution” and “iOS in-app payment processing.” 

The district court rejected those market definitions on the ground that Epic had not established cognizable aftermarkets for iOS-specific services.  It defined the relevant market instead as “mobile gaming transactions.”  But no matter.  The challenged policies would not enhance Apple’s market power in that broader market either.

In “mobile gaming transactions” involving non-iOS (e.g., Android) mobile apps, Apple’s policies give it no power at all.  Apple doesn’t distribute non-iOS apps or process in-app payments on such apps.  Moreover, even if Apple were to being doing so—say, by distributing Android apps in its App Store or allowing producers of Android apps to include IAP as their in-app payment system—it is implausible that Apple’s policies would allow it to gain new market power.  There are giant, formidable competitors in non-iOS app distribution (e.g., Google’s Play Store) and in payment processing for non-iOS in-app purchases (e.g., Google Play Billing).  It is inconceivable that Apple’s policies would allow it to usurp so much scale from those rivals that Apple could gain market power over non-iOS mobile gaming transactions.

That leaves only the iOS segment of the mobile gaming transactions market.  And, as we have just seen, Apple’s policies give it no new power to extract surplus from those transactions; because it controls access to iOS, it could do so using other means.

Nor do the challenged policies enable Apple to maintain its market power in any conceivable market.  This is not a situation like Microsoft where a firm in a market adjacent to a monopolist’s could somehow pose a challenge to that monopolist, and the monopolist nips the potential competition in the bud by reducing the potential rival’s scale.  There is no evidence in the record to support the (implausible) notion that rival iOS app stores or in-app payment processing systems could ever evolve in a manner that would pose a challenge to Apple’s position in mobile devices, mobile operating systems, or any other market in which it conceivably has market power. 

Epic might retort that but for the challenged policies, rivals could challenge Apple’s market share in iOS app distribution and in-app purchase processing.  Rivals could not, however, challenge Apple’s market power in such markets, as that power stems from its control of iOS.  The challenged policies therefore do not enable Apple to shore up any existing market power.

Alternative Means of Extracting Surplus Would Likely Reduce Consumer Welfare

Because the policies Epic has challenged are not the source of Apple’s ability to extract surplus from iOS app transactions, judicial condemnation of the policies would likely induce Apple to extract surplus using different means.  Changing how it earns profits off iOS app usage, however, would likely leave consumers worse off than they are under the status quo.

Apple could simply charge third-party app developers a flat fee for access to the APIs needed to produce operable iOS apps but then allow them to distribute their apps and process in-app payments however they choose.  Such an approach would allow Apple to monetize its innovative app platform while permitting competition among providers of iOS app distribution and in-app payment processing services.  Relative to the status quo, though, such a model would likely reduce consumer welfare by:

  • Reducing the number of free and niche apps,as app developers could no longer avoid a fee to Apple by adopting a free (likely ad-supported) business model, and producers of niche apps may not generate enough revenue to justify Apple’s flat fee;
  • Raising business risks for app developers, who, if Apple cannot earn incremental revenue off sales and use of their apps, may face a greater likelihood that the functionality of those apps will be incorporated into future versions of iOS;
  • Reducing Apple’s incentive to improve iOS and its mobile devices, as eliminating Apple’s incremental revenue from app usage reduces its motivation to make costly enhancements that keep users on their iPhones and iPads;
  • Raising the price of iPhones and iPads and generating deadweight loss, as Apple could no longer charge higher effective prices to people who use apps more heavily and would thus likely hike up its device prices, driving marginal consumers from the market; and
  • Reducing user privacy and security, as jettisoning a closed app distribution model (App Store only) would impair Apple’s ability to screen iOS apps for features and bugs that create security and privacy risks.

An alternative approach—one that would avoid many of the downsides just stated by allowing Apple to continue earning incremental revenue off iOS app usage—would be for Apple to charge app developers a revenue-based fee for access to the APIs and other amenities needed to produce operable iOS apps.  That approach, however, would create other costs that would likely leave consumers worse off than they are under the status quo.

The policies Epic has challenged allow Apple to collect a share of revenues from iOS app transactions immediately at the point of sale.  Replacing those policies with a revenue-based  API license system would require Apple to incur additional costs of collecting revenues and ensuring that app developers are accurately reporting them.  In order to extract the same surplus it currently collects—and to which it is entitled given its legitimately obtained market power—Apple would have to raise its revenue-sharing percentage above its current commission rate to cover its added collection and auditing costs.

The fact that Apple has elected not to adopt this alternative means of collecting the revenues to which it is entitled suggests that the added costs of moving to the alternative approach (extra collection and auditing costs) would exceed any additional consumer benefit such a move would produce.  Because Apple can collect the same revenue percentage from app transactions two different ways, it has an incentive to select the approach that maximizes iOS app transaction revenues.  That is the approach that creates the greatest value for consumers and also for Apple. 

If Apple believed that the benefits to app users of competition in app distribution and in-app payment processing would exceed the extra costs of collection and auditing, it would have every incentive to switch to a revenue-based licensing regime and increase its revenue share enough to cover its added collection and auditing costs.  As such an approach would enhance the net value consumers receive when buying apps and making in-app purchases, it would raise overall app revenues, boosting Apple’s bottom line.  The fact that Apple has not gone in this direction, then, suggests that it does not believe consumers would receive greater benefit under the alternative system.  Apple might be wrong, of course.  But it has a strong motivation to make the consumer welfare-enhancing decision here, as doing so maximizes its own profits.

The policies Epic has challenged do not enhance or shore up Apple’s market power, a salutary pre-requisite to antitrust liability.  Furthermore, condemning the policies would likely lead Apple to monetize its innovative app platform in a manner that would reduce consumer welfare relative to the status quo.  The Ninth Circuit should therefore affirm the district court’s rejection of Epic’s antitrust claims.  

[This post adapts elements of “Should ASEAN Antitrust Laws Emulate European Competition Policy?”, published in the Singapore Economic Review (2021). Open access working paper here.]

U.S. and European competition laws diverge in numerous ways that have important real-world effects. Understanding these differences is vital, particularly as lawmakers in the United States, and the rest of the world, consider adopting a more “European” approach to competition.

In broad terms, the European approach is more centralized and political. The European Commission’s Directorate General for Competition (DG Comp) has significant de facto discretion over how the law is enforced. This contrasts with the common law approach of the United States, in which courts elaborate upon open-ended statutes through an iterative process of case law. In other words, the European system was built from the top down, while U.S. antitrust relies on a bottom-up approach, derived from arguments made by litigants (including the government antitrust agencies) and defendants (usually businesses).

This procedural divergence has significant ramifications for substantive law. European competition law includes more provisions akin to de facto regulation. This is notably the case for the “abuse of dominance” standard, in which a “dominant” business can be prosecuted for “abusing” its position by charging high prices or refusing to deal with competitors. By contrast, the U.S. system places more emphasis on actual consumer outcomes, rather than the nature or “fairness” of an underlying practice.

The American system thus affords firms more leeway to exclude their rivals, so long as this entails superior benefits for consumers. This may make the U.S. system more hospitable to innovation, since there is no built-in regulation of conduct for innovators who acquire a successful market position fairly and through normal competition.

In this post, we discuss some key differences between the two systems—including in areas like predatory pricing and refusals to deal—as well as the discretionary power the European Commission enjoys under the European model.

Exploitative Abuses

U.S. antitrust is, by and large, unconcerned with companies charging what some might consider “excessive” prices. The late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Supreme Court majority in the 2003 case Verizon v. Trinko, observed that:

The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices—at least for a short period—is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth.

This contrasts with European competition-law cases, where firms may be found to have infringed competition law because they charged excessive prices. As the European Court of Justice (ECJ) held in 1978’s United Brands case: “In this case charging a price which is excessive because it has no reasonable relation to the economic value of the product supplied would be such an abuse.”

While United Brands was the EU’s foundational case for excessive pricing, and the European Commission reiterated that these allegedly exploitative abuses were possible when it published its guidance paper on abuse of dominance cases in 2009, the commission had for some time demonstrated apparent disinterest in bringing such cases. In recent years, however, both the European Commission and some national authorities have shown renewed interest in excessive-pricing cases, most notably in the pharmaceutical sector.

European competition law also penalizes so-called “margin squeeze” abuses, in which a dominant upstream supplier charges a price to distributors that is too high for them to compete effectively with that same dominant firm downstream:

[I]t is for the referring court to examine, in essence, whether the pricing practice introduced by TeliaSonera is unfair in so far as it squeezes the margins of its competitors on the retail market for broadband connection services to end users. (Konkurrensverket v TeliaSonera Sverige, 2011)

As Scalia observed in Trinko, forcing firms to charge prices that are below a market’s natural equilibrium affects firms’ incentives to enter markets, notably with innovative products and more efficient means of production. But the problem is not just one of market entry and innovation.  Also relevant is the degree to which competition authorities are competent to determine the “right” prices or margins.

As Friedrich Hayek demonstrated in his influential 1945 essay The Use of Knowledge in Society, economic agents use information gleaned from prices to guide their business decisions. It is this distributed activity of thousands or millions of economic actors that enables markets to put resources to their most valuable uses, thereby leading to more efficient societies. By comparison, the efforts of central regulators to set prices and margins is necessarily inferior; there is simply no reasonable way for competition regulators to make such judgments in a consistent and reliable manner.

Given the substantial risk that investigations into purportedly excessive prices will deter market entry, such investigations should be circumscribed. But the court’s precedents, with their myopic focus on ex post prices, do not impose such constraints on the commission. The temptation to “correct” high prices—especially in the politically contentious pharmaceutical industry—may thus induce economically unjustified and ultimately deleterious intervention.

Predatory Pricing

A second important area of divergence concerns predatory-pricing cases. U.S. antitrust law subjects allegations of predatory pricing to two strict conditions:

  1. Monopolists must charge prices that are below some measure of their incremental costs; and
  2. There must be a realistic prospect that they will able to recoup these initial losses.

In laying out its approach to predatory pricing, the U.S. Supreme Court has identified the risk of false positives and the clear cost of such errors to consumers. It thus has particularly stressed the importance of the recoupment requirement. As the court found in 1993’s Brooke Group Ltd. v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., without recoupment, “predatory pricing produces lower aggregate prices in the market, and consumer welfare is enhanced.”

Accordingly, U.S. authorities must prove that there are constraints that prevent rival firms from entering the market after the predation scheme, or that the scheme itself would effectively foreclose rivals from entering the market in the first place. Otherwise, the predator would be undercut by competitors as soon as it attempts to recoup its losses by charging supra-competitive prices.

Without the strong likelihood that a monopolist will be able to recoup lost revenue from underpricing, the overwhelming weight of economic evidence (to say nothing of simple logic) is that predatory pricing is not a rational business strategy. Thus, apparent cases of predatory pricing are most likely not, in fact, predatory; deterring or punishing them would actually harm consumers.

By contrast, the EU employs a more expansive legal standard to define predatory pricing, and almost certainly risks injuring consumers as a result. Authorities must prove only that a company has charged a price below its average variable cost, in which case its behavior is presumed to be predatory. Even when a firm charges prices that are between its average variable and average total cost, it can be found guilty of predatory pricing if authorities show that its behavior was part of a plan to eliminate a competitor. Most significantly, in neither case is it necessary for authorities to show that the scheme would allow the monopolist to recoup its losses.

[I]t does not follow from the case‑law of the Court that proof of the possibility of recoupment of losses suffered by the application, by an undertaking in a dominant position, of prices lower than a certain level of costs constitutes a necessary precondition to establishing that such a pricing policy is abusive. (France Télécom v Commission, 2009).

This aspect of the legal standard has no basis in economic theory or evidence—not even in the “strategic” economic theory that arguably challenges the dominant Chicago School understanding of predatory pricing. Indeed, strategic predatory pricing still requires some form of recoupment, and the refutation of any convincing business justification offered in response. For example, ​​in a 2017 piece for the Antitrust Law Journal, Steven Salop lays out the “raising rivals’ costs” analysis of predation and notes that recoupment still occurs, just at the same time as predation:

[T]he anticompetitive conditional pricing practice does not involve discrete predatory and recoupment periods, as in the case of classical predatory pricing. Instead, the recoupment occurs simultaneously with the conduct. This is because the monopolist is able to maintain its current monopoly power through the exclusionary conduct.

The case of predatory pricing illustrates a crucial distinction between European and American competition law. The recoupment requirement embodied in American antitrust law serves to differentiate aggressive pricing behavior that improves consumer welfare—because it leads to overall price decreases—from predatory pricing that reduces welfare with higher prices. It is, in other words, entirely focused on the welfare of consumers.

The European approach, by contrast, reflects structuralist considerations far removed from a concern for consumer welfare. Its underlying fear is that dominant companies could use aggressive pricing to engender more concentrated markets. It is simply presumed that these more concentrated markets are invariably detrimental to consumers. Both the Tetra Pak and France Télécom cases offer clear illustrations of the ECJ’s reasoning on this point:

[I]t would not be appropriate, in the circumstances of the present case, to require in addition proof that Tetra Pak had a realistic chance of recouping its losses. It must be possible to penalize predatory pricing whenever there is a risk that competitors will be eliminated… The aim pursued, which is to maintain undistorted competition, rules out waiting until such a strategy leads to the actual elimination of competitors. (Tetra Pak v Commission, 1996).

Similarly:

[T]he lack of any possibility of recoupment of losses is not sufficient to prevent the undertaking concerned reinforcing its dominant position, in particular, following the withdrawal from the market of one or a number of its competitors, so that the degree of competition existing on the market, already weakened precisely because of the presence of the undertaking concerned, is further reduced and customers suffer loss as a result of the limitation of the choices available to them.  (France Télécom v Commission, 2009).

In short, the European approach leaves less room to analyze the concrete effects of a given pricing scheme, leaving it more prone to false positives than the U.S. standard explicated in the Brooke Group decision. Worse still, the European approach ignores not only the benefits that consumers may derive from lower prices, but also the chilling effect that broad predatory pricing standards may exert on firms that would otherwise seek to use aggressive pricing schemes to attract consumers.

Refusals to Deal

U.S. and EU antitrust law also differ greatly when it comes to refusals to deal. While the United States has limited the ability of either enforcement authorities or rivals to bring such cases, EU competition law sets a far lower threshold for liability.

As Justice Scalia wrote in Trinko:

Aspen Skiing is at or near the outer boundary of §2 liability. The Court there found significance in the defendant’s decision to cease participation in a cooperative venture. The unilateral termination of a voluntary (and thus presumably profitable) course of dealing suggested a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve an anticompetitive end. (Verizon v Trinko, 2003.)

This highlights two key features of American antitrust law with regard to refusals to deal. To start, U.S. antitrust law generally does not apply the “essential facilities” doctrine. Accordingly, in the absence of exceptional facts, upstream monopolists are rarely required to supply their product to downstream rivals, even if that supply is “essential” for effective competition in the downstream market. Moreover, as Justice Scalia observed in Trinko, the Aspen Skiing case appears to concern only those limited instances where a firm’s refusal to deal stems from the termination of a preexisting and profitable business relationship.

While even this is not likely the economically appropriate limitation on liability, its impetus—ensuring that liability is found only in situations where procompetitive explanations for the challenged conduct are unlikely—is completely appropriate for a regime concerned with minimizing the cost to consumers of erroneous enforcement decisions.

As in most areas of antitrust policy, EU competition law is much more interventionist. Refusals to deal are a central theme of EU enforcement efforts, and there is a relatively low threshold for liability.

In theory, for a refusal to deal to infringe EU competition law, it must meet a set of fairly stringent conditions: the input must be indispensable, the refusal must eliminate all competition in the downstream market, and there must not be objective reasons that justify the refusal. Moreover, if the refusal to deal involves intellectual property, it must also prevent the appearance of a new good.

In practice, however, all of these conditions have been relaxed significantly by EU courts and the commission’s decisional practice. This is best evidenced by the lower court’s Microsoft ruling where, as John Vickers notes:

[T]he Court found easily in favor of the Commission on the IMS Health criteria, which it interpreted surprisingly elastically, and without relying on the special factors emphasized by the Commission. For example, to meet the “new product” condition it was unnecessary to identify a particular new product… thwarted by the refusal to supply but sufficient merely to show limitation of technical development in terms of less incentive for competitors to innovate.

EU competition law thus shows far less concern for its potential chilling effect on firms’ investments than does U.S. antitrust law.

Vertical Restraints

There are vast differences between U.S. and EU competition law relating to vertical restraints—that is, contractual restraints between firms that operate at different levels of the production process.

On the one hand, since the Supreme Court’s Leegin ruling in 2006, even price-related vertical restraints (such as resale price maintenance (RPM), under which a manufacturer can stipulate the prices at which retailers must sell its products) are assessed under the rule of reason in the United States. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that, in practice, U.S. case law on RPM almost amounts to per se legality.

Conversely, EU competition law treats RPM as severely as it treats cartels. Both RPM and cartels are considered to be restrictions of competition “by object”—the EU’s equivalent of a per se prohibition. This severe treatment also applies to non-price vertical restraints that tend to partition the European internal market.

Furthermore, in the Consten and Grundig ruling, the ECJ rejected the consequentialist, and economically grounded, principle that inter-brand competition is the appropriate framework to assess vertical restraints:

Although competition between producers is generally more noticeable than that between distributors of products of the same make, it does not thereby follow that an agreement tending to restrict the latter kind of competition should escape the prohibition of Article 85(1) merely because it might increase the former. (Consten SARL & Grundig-Verkaufs-GMBH v. Commission of the European Economic Community, 1966).

This treatment of vertical restrictions flies in the face of longstanding mainstream economic analysis of the subject. As Patrick Rey and Jean Tirole conclude:

Another major contribution of the earlier literature on vertical restraints is to have shown that per se illegality of such restraints has no economic foundations.

Unlike the EU, the U.S. Supreme Court in Leegin took account of the weight of the economic literature, and changed its approach to RPM to ensure that the law no longer simply precluded its arguable consumer benefits, writing: “Though each side of the debate can find sources to support its position, it suffices to say here that economics literature is replete with procompetitive justifications for a manufacturer’s use of resale price maintenance.” Further, the court found that the prior approach to resale price maintenance restraints “hinders competition and consumer welfare because manufacturers are forced to engage in second-best alternatives and because consumers are required to shoulder the increased expense of the inferior practices.”

The EU’s continued per se treatment of RPM, by contrast, strongly reflects its “precautionary principle” approach to antitrust. European regulators and courts readily condemn conduct that could conceivably injure consumers, even where such injury is, according to the best economic understanding, exceedingly unlikely. The U.S. approach, which rests on likelihood rather than mere possibility, is far less likely to condemn beneficial conduct erroneously.

Political Discretion in European Competition Law

EU competition law lacks a coherent analytical framework like that found in U.S. law’s reliance on the consumer welfare standard. The EU process is driven by a number of laterally equivalent—and sometimes mutually exclusive—goals, including industrial policy and the perceived need to counteract foreign state ownership and subsidies. Such a wide array of conflicting aims produces lack of clarity for firms seeking to conduct business. Moreover, the discretion that attends this fluid arrangement of goals yields an even larger problem.

The Microsoft case illustrates this problem well. In Microsoft, the commission could have chosen to base its decision on various 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 it determined “consumer choice” among media players was more important:

Another argument relating to reduced transaction costs consists in saying that the economies made by a tied sale of two products saves resources otherwise spent for maintaining a separate distribution system for the second product. These economies would then be passed on to customers who could save costs related to a second purchasing act, including selection and installation of the product. Irrespective of the accuracy of the assumption that distributive efficiency gains are necessarily passed on to consumers, such savings cannot possibly outweigh the distortion of competition in this case. This is because distribution costs in software licensing are insignificant; a copy of a software programme can be duplicated and distributed at no substantial effort. In contrast, the importance of consumer choice and innovation regarding applications such as media players is high. (Commission Decision No. COMP. 37792 (Microsoft)).

It may be true that tying the products in question was unnecessary. But merely dismissing this decision because distribution costs are near-zero is hardly an analytically satisfactory response. There are many more costs involved in creating and distributing complementary software than those associated with hosting and downloading. The commission also simply asserts that consumer choice among some arbitrary number of competing products is necessarily a benefit. This, too, is not necessarily true, and the decision’s implication that any marginal increase in choice is more valuable than any gains from product design or innovation is analytically incoherent.

The Court of First Instance was only too happy to give the commission a pass in its breezy analysis; it saw no objection to these findings. With little substantive reasoning to support its findings, the court fully endorsed the commission’s assessment:

As the Commission correctly observes (see paragraph 1130 above), by such an argument Microsoft is in fact claiming that the integration of Windows Media Player in Windows and the marketing of Windows in that form alone lead to the de facto standardisation of the Windows Media Player platform, which has beneficial effects on the market. Although, generally, standardisation may effectively present certain advantages, it cannot be allowed to be imposed unilaterally by an undertaking in a dominant position by means of tying.

The Court further notes that it cannot be ruled out that third parties will not want the de facto standardisation advocated by Microsoft but will prefer it if different platforms continue to compete, on the ground that that will stimulate innovation between the various platforms. (Microsoft Corp. v Commission, 2007)

Pointing to these conflicting effects of Microsoft’s bundling decision, without weighing either, is a weak basis to uphold the commission’s decision that consumer choice outweighs the benefits of standardization. Moreover, actions undertaken by other firms to enhance consumer choice at the expense of standardization are, on these terms, potentially just as problematic. The dividing line becomes solely which theory the commission prefers to pursue.

What such a practice does is vest the commission with immense discretionary power. Any given case sets up a “heads, I win; tails, you lose” situation in which defendants are easily outflanked by a commission that can change the rules of its analysis as it sees fit. Defendants can play only the cards that they are dealt. Accordingly, Microsoft could not successfully challenge a conclusion that its behavior harmed consumers’ choice by arguing that it improved consumer welfare, on net.

By selecting, in this instance, “consumer choice” as the standard to be judged, the commission was able to evade the constraints that might have been imposed by a more robust welfare standard. Thus, the commission can essentially pick and choose the objectives that best serve its interests in each case. This vastly enlarges the scope of potential antitrust liability, while also substantially decreasing the ability of firms to predict when their behavior may be viewed as problematic. It leads to what, in U.S. courts, would be regarded as an untenable risk of false positives that chill innovative behavior and create nearly unwinnable battles for targeted firms.

From Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), populist calls to “fix” our antitrust laws and the underlying Consumer Welfare Standard have found a foothold on Capitol Hill. At the same time, there are calls to “fix” the Supreme Court by packing it with new justices. The court’s unanimous decision in NCAA v. Alston demonstrates that neither needs repair. To the contrary, clearly anti-competitive conduct—like the NCAA’s compensation rules—is proscribed under the Consumer Welfare Standard, and every justice from Samuel Alito to Sonia Sotomayor can agree on that.

In 1984, the court in NCAA v. Board of Regents suggested that “courts should take care when assessing the NCAA’s restraints on student-athlete compensation.” After all, joint ventures like sports leagues are entitled to rule-of-reason treatment. But while times change, the Consumer Welfare Standard is sufficiently flexible to meet those changes.

Where a competitive restraint exists primarily to ensure that “enormous sums of money flow to seemingly everyone except the student athletes,” the court rightly calls it out for what it is. As Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in his concurrence:

Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate.  And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different.  The NCAA is not above the law.

Disturbing these “ordinary principles”—whether through legislation, administrative rulemaking, or the common law—is simply unnecessary. For example, the Open Markets Institute filed an amicus brief arguing that the rule of reason should be “bounded” and willfully blind to the pro-competitive benefits some joint ventures can create (an argument that has been used, unsuccessfully, to attack ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft). Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has proposed shifting the burden of proof so that merging parties are guilty until proven innocent. Sen. Warren would go further, deeming Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods anti-competitive simply because the company is “big,” and ignoring the merger’s myriad pro-competitive benefits. Sen. Hawley has gone further still: calling on Amazon to be investigated criminally for the crime of being innovative and successful.

Several of the current proposals, including those from Sens. Klobuchar and Hawley (and those recently introduced in the House that essentially single out firms for disfavored treatment), would replace the Consumer Welfare Standard that has underpinned antitrust law for decades with a policy that effectively punishes firms for being politically unpopular.

These examples demonstrate we should be wary when those in power assert that things are so irreparably broken that they need a complete overhaul. The “solutions” peddled usually increase politicians’ power by enabling them to pick winners and losers through top-down approaches that stifle the bottom-up innovations that make consumers’ lives better.

Are antitrust law and the Supreme Court perfect? Hardly. But in a 9-0 decision, the court proved this week that there’s nothing broken about either.

In its June 21 opinion in NCAA v. Alston, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and thereby upheld a district court injunction finding unlawful certain National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules limiting the education-related benefits schools may make available to student athletes. The decision will come as no surprise to antitrust lawyers who heard the oral argument; the NCAA was portrayed as a monopsony cartel whose rules undermined competition by restricting compensation paid to athletes.

Alas, however, Alston demonstrates that seemingly “good facts” (including an apparently Scrooge-like defendant) can make very bad law. While superficially appearing to be a relatively straightforward application of Sherman Act rule of reason principles, the decision fails to come to grips with the relationship of the restraints before it to the successful provision of the NCAA’s joint venture product – amateur intercollegiate sports. What’s worse, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion further muddies the court’s murky jurisprudential waters by signaling his view that the NCAA’s remaining compensation rules are anticompetitive and could be struck down in an appropriate case (“it is not clear how the NCAA can defend its remaining compensation rules”). Prospective plaintiffs may be expected to take the hint.

The Court’s Flawed Analysis

I previously commented on this then-pending case a few months ago:

In sum, the claim that antitrust may properly be applied to combat the alleged “exploitation” of college athletes by NCAA compensation regulations does not stand up to scrutiny. The NCAA’s rules that define the scope of amateurism may be imperfect, but there is no reason to think that empowering federal judges to second guess and reformulate NCAA athletic compensation rules would yield a more socially beneficial (let alone optimal) outcome. (Believing that the federal judiciary can optimally reengineer core NCAA amateurism rules is a prime example of the Nirvana fallacy at work.)  Furthermore, a Supreme Court decision affirming the 9th Circuit could do broad mischief by undermining case law that has accorded joint venturers substantial latitude to design the core features of their collective enterprise without judicial second-guessing.

Unfortunately, my concerns about a Supreme Court affirmance of the 9th Circuit were realized. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for the court in Alston manifests a blinkered approach to the NCAA “monopsony” joint venture. To be sure, it cites and briefly discusses key Supreme Court joint venture holdings, including 2006’s Texaco v. Dagher. Nonetheless, it gives short shrift to the efficiency-based considerations that counsel presumptive deference to joint venture design rules that are key to the nature of a joint venture’s product.  

As a legal matter, the court felt obliged to defer to key district court findings not contested by the NCAA—including that the NCAA enjoys “monopsony power” in the student athlete labor market, and that the NCAA’s restrictions in fact decrease student athlete compensation “below the competitive level.”

However, even conceding these points, the court could have, but did not, take note of and assess the role of the restrictions under review in helping engender the enormous consumer benefits the NCAA confers upon consumers of its collegiate sports product. There is good reason to view those restrictions as an effort by the NCAA to address a negative externality that could diminish the attractiveness of the NCAA’s product for ultimate consumers, a result that would in turn reduce inter-brand competition.

As the amicus brief by antitrust economists (“Antitrust Economists Brief”) pointed out:

[T]he NCAA’s consistent and growing popularity reflects a product—”amateur sports” played by students and identified with the academic tradition—that continues to generate enormous consumer interest. Moreover, it appears without dispute that the NCAA, while in control of the design of its own athletic products, has preserved their integrity as amateur sports, notwithstanding the commercial success of some of them, particularly Division I basketball and Football Subdivision football. . . . Over many years, the NCAA has continually adjusted its eligibility and participation rules to prevent colleges from pursuing their own interests—which certainly can involve “pay to play”—in ways that would conflict with the procompetitive aims of the collaboration. In this sense, the NCAA’s amateurism rules are a classic example of addressing negative externalities and free riding that often are inherent or arise in the collaboration context.

The use of contractual restrictions (vertical restraints) to counteract free riding and other negative externalities generated in manufacturer-distributor interactions are well-recognized by antitrust courts. Although the restraints at issue in NCAA (and many other joint venture situations) are horizontal in nature, not vertical, they may be just as important as other nonstandard contracts in aligning the incentives of member institutions to best satisfy ultimate consumers. Satisfying consumers, in turn, enhances inter-brand competition between the NCAA’s product and other rival forms of entertainment, including professional sports offerings.

Alan Meese made a similar point in a recent paper (discussing a possible analytical framework for the court’s then-imminent Alston analysis):

[U]nchecked bidding for the services of student athletes could result in a market failure and suboptimal product quality, proof that the restraint reduces student athlete compensation below what an unbridled market would produce should not itself establish a prima facie case. Such evidence would instead be equally consistent with a conclusion that the restraint eliminates this market failure and restores compensation to optimal levels.

The court’s failure to address the externality justification was compounded by its handling of the rule of reason. First, in rejecting a truncated rule of reason with an initial presumption that the NCAA’s restraints involving student compensation are procompetitive, the court accepted that the NCAA’s monopsony power showed that its restraints “can (and in fact do) harm competition.” This assertion ignored the efficiency justification discussed above. As the Antitrust Economists’ Brief emphasized: 

[A]cting more like regulators, the lower courts treated the NCAA’s basic product design as inherently anticompetitive [so did the Supreme Court], pushing forward with a full rule of reason that sent the parties into a morass of inquiries that were not (and were never intended to be) structured to scrutinize basic product design decisions and their hypothetical alternatives. Because that inquiry was unrestrained and untethered to any input or output restraint, the application of the rule of reason in this case necessarily devolved into a quasi-regulatory inquiry, which antitrust law eschews.

Having decided that a “full” rule of reason analysis is appropriate, the Supreme Court, in effect, imposed a “least restrictive means” test on the restrictions under review, while purporting not to do so. (“We agree with the NCAA’s premise that antitrust law does not require businesses to use anything like the least restrictive means of achieving legitimate business purposes.”) The court concluded that “it was only after finding the NCAA’s restraints ‘patently and inexplicably stricter than is necessary’ to achieve the procompetitive benefits the league had demonstrated that the district court proceeded to declare a violation of the Sherman Act.” Effectively, however, this statement deferred to the lower court’s second-guessing of the means employed by the NCAA to preserve consumer demand, which the lower court did without any empirical basis.

The Supreme Court also approved the district court’s rejection of the NCAA’s view of what amateurism requires. It stressed the district court’s findings that “the NCAA’s rules and restrictions on compensation have shifted markedly over time” (seemingly a reasonable reaction to changes in market conditions) and that the NCAA developed the restrictions at issue without any reference to “considerations of consumer demand” (a de facto regulatory mandate directed at the NCAA). The Supreme Court inexplicably dubbed these lower court actions “a straightforward application of the rule of reason.” These actions seem more like blind deference to rather arbitrary judicial second-guessing of the expert party with the greatest interest in satisfying consumer demand.

The Supreme Court ended its misbegotten commentary on “less restrictive alternatives” by first claiming that it agreed that “antitrust courts must give wide berth to business judgments before finding liability.” The court asserted that the district court honored this and other principles of judicial humility because it enjoined restraints on education-related benefits “only after finding that relaxing these restrictions would not blur the distinction between college and professional sports and thus impair demand – and only finding that this course represented a significantly (not marginally) less restrictive means of achieving the same procompetitive benefits as the NCAA’s current rules.” This lower court finding once again was not based on an empirical analysis of procompetitive benefits under different sets of rules. It was little more than the personal opinion of a judge, who lacked the NCAA’s knowledge of relevant markets and expertise. That the Supreme Court accepted it as an exercise in restrained judicial analysis is well nigh inexplicable.

The Antitrust Economists’ Brief, unlike the Supreme Court, enunciated the correct approach to judicial rewriting of core NCAA joint venture rules:

The institutions that are members of the NCAA want to offer a particular type of athletic product—an amateur athletic product that they believe is consonant with their primary academic missions. By doing so, as th[e] [Supreme] Court has [previously] recognized [in its 1984 NCAA v. Board of Regents decision], they create a differentiated offering that widens consumer choice and enhances opportunities for student-athletes. NCAA, 468 U.S. at 102. These same institutions have drawn lines that they believe balance their desire to foster intercollegiate athletic competition with their overarching academic missions. Both the district court and the Ninth Circuit have now said that they may not do so, unless they draw those lines differently. Yet neither the district court nor the Ninth Circuit determined that the lines drawn reduce the output of intercollegiate athletics or ascertained whether their judicially-created lines would expand that output. That is not the function of antitrust courts, but of legislatures.                                                                                                   

Other Harms the Court Failed to Consider                    

Finally, the court failed to consider other harms that stem from a presumptive suspicion of NCAA restrictions on athletic compensation in general. The elimination of compensation rules should favor large well-funded athletic programs over others, potentially undermining “competitive balance” among schools. (Think of an NCAA March Madness tournament where “Cinderella stories” are eliminated, as virtually all the talented players have been snapped up by big name schools.) It could also, through the reallocation of income to “big name big sports” athletes who command a bidding premium, potentially reduce funding support for “minor college sports” that provide opportunities to a wide variety of student-athletes. This would disadvantage those athletes, undermine the future of “minor” sports, and quite possibly contribute to consumer disillusionment and unhappiness (think of the millions of parents of “minor sports” athletes).

What’s more, the existing rules allow many promising but non-superstar athletes to develop their skills over time, enhancing their ability to eventually compete at the professional level. (This may even be the case for some superstars, who may obtain greater long-term financial rewards by refining their talents and showcasing their skills for a year or two in college.) In addition, the current rules climate allows many student athletes who do not turn professional to develop personal connections that serve them well in their professional and personal lives, including connections derived from the “brand” of their university. (Think of wealthy and well-connected alumni who are ardent fans of their colleges’ athletic programs.) In a world without NCAA amateurism rules, the value of these experiences and connections could wither, to the detriment of athletes and consumers alike. (Consistent with my conclusion, economists Richard McKenzie and Dwight Lee have argued against the proposition that “college athletes are materially ‘underpaid’ and are ‘exploited’”.)   

This “parade of horribles” might appear unlikely in the short term. Nevertheless, in the course of time, the inability of the NCAA to control the attributes of its product, due to a changed legal climate, make it all too real. This is especially the case in light of Justice Kavanaugh’s strong warning that other NCAA compensation restrictions are likely indefensible. (As he bluntly put it, venerable college sports “traditions alone cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated. . . . The NCAA is not above the law.”)

Conclusion

The Supreme Court’s misguided Alston decision fails to weigh the powerful efficiency justifications for the NCAA’s amateurism rules. This holding virtually invites other lower courts to ignore efficiencies and to second guess decisions that go to the heart of the NCAA’s joint venture product offering. The end result is likely to reduce consumer welfare and, quite possibly, the welfare of many student athletes as well. One would hope that Congress, if it chooses to address NCAA rules, will keep these dangers well in mind. A statutory change not directed solely at the NCAA, creating a rebuttable presumption of legality for restraints that go to the heart of a lawful joint venture, may merit serious consideration.   

In his recent concurrence in Biden v. Knight, Justice Clarence Thomas sketched a roadmap for how to regulate social-media platforms. The animating factor for Thomas, much like for other conservatives, appears to be a sense that Big Tech has exhibited anti-conservative bias in its moderation decisions, most prominently by excluding former President Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook. The opinion has predictably been greeted warmly by conservative champions of social-media regulation, who believe it shows how states and the federal government can proceed on this front.

While much of the commentary to date has been on whether Thomas got the legal analysis right, or on the uncomfortable fit of common-carriage law to social media, the deeper question of the First Amendment’s protection of private ordering has received relatively short shrift.

Conservatives’ main argument has been that Big Tech needs to be reined in because it is restricting the speech of private individuals. While conservatives traditionally have defended the state-action doctrine and the right to editorial discretion, they now readily find exceptions to both in order to justify regulating social-media companies. But those two First Amendment doctrines have long enshrined an important general principle: private actors can set the rules for speech on their own property. I intend to analyze this principle from a law & economics perspective and show how it benefits society.

Who Balances the Benefits and Costs of Speech?

Like virtually any other human activity, there are benefits and costs to speech and it is ultimately subjective individual preference that determines the value that speech has. The First Amendment protects speech from governmental regulation, with only limited exceptions, but that does not mean all speech is acceptable or must be tolerated. Under the state-action doctrine, the First Amendment only prevents the government from restricting speech.

Some purported defenders of the principle of free speech no longer appear to see a distinction between restraints on speech imposed by the government and those imposed by private actors. But this is surely mistaken, as no one truly believes all speech protected by the First Amendment should be without consequence. In truth, most regulation of speech has always come by informal means—social mores enforced by dirty looks or responsive speech from others.

Moreover, property rights have long played a crucial role in determining speech rules within any given space. If a man were to come into my house and start calling my wife racial epithets, I would not only ask that person to leave but would exercise my right as a property owner to eject the trespasser—if necessary, calling the police to assist me. I similarly could not expect to go to a restaurant and yell at the top of my lungs about political issues and expect them—even as “common carriers” or places of public accommodation—to allow me to continue.

As Thomas Sowell wrote in Knowledge and Decisions:

The fact that different costs and benefits must be balanced does not in itself imply who must balance them―or even that there must be a single balance for all, or a unitary viewpoint (one “we”) from which the issue is categorically resolved.

Knowledge and Decisions, p. 240

When it comes to speech, the balance that must be struck is between one individual’s desire for an audience and that prospective audience’s willingness to play the role. Asking government to use regulation to make categorical decisions for all of society is substituting centralized evaluation of the costs and benefits of access to communications for the individual decisions of many actors. Rather than incremental decisions regarding how and under what terms individuals may relate to one another—which can evolve over time in response to changes in what individuals find acceptable—government by its nature can only hand down categorical guidelines: “you must allow x, y, and z speech.”

This is particularly relevant in the sphere of social media. Social-media companies are multi-sided platforms. They are profit-seeking, to be sure, but the way they generate profits is by acting as intermediaries between users and advertisers. If they fail to serve their users well, those users could abandon the platform. Without users, advertisers would have no interest in buying ads. And without advertisers, there is no profit to be made. Social-media companies thus need to maximize the value of their platform by setting rules that keep users engaged.

In the cases of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, the platforms have set content-moderation standards that restrict many kinds of speech that are generally viewed negatively by users, even if the First Amendment would foreclose the government from regulating those same types of content. This is a good thing. Social-media companies balance the speech interests of different kinds of users to maximize the value of the platform and, in turn, to maximize benefits to all.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between private action and state action: one is voluntary, and the other based on coercion. If Facebook or Twitter suspends a user for violating community rules, it represents termination of a previously voluntary association. If the government kicks someone out of a public forum for expressing legal speech, that is coercion. The state-action doctrine recognizes this fundamental difference and creates a bright-line rule that courts may police when it comes to speech claims. As Sowell put it:

The courts’ role as watchdogs patrolling the boundaries of governmental power is essential in order that others may be secure and free on the other side of those boundaries. But what makes watchdogs valuable is precisely their ability to distinguish those people who are to be kept at bay and those who are to be left alone. A watchdog who could not make that distinction would not be a watchdog at all, but simply a general menace.

Knowledge and Decisions, p. 244

Markets Produce the Best Moderation Policies

The First Amendment also protects the right of editorial discretion, which means publishers, platforms, and other speakers are free from carrying or transmitting government-compelled speech. Even a newspaper with near-monopoly power cannot be compelled by a right-of-reply statute to carry responses by political candidates to editorials it has published. In other words, not only is private regulation of speech not state action, but in many cases, private regulation is protected by the First Amendment.

There is no reason to think that social-media companies today are in a different position than was the newspaper in Miami Herald v. Tornillo. These companies must determine what, how, and where content is presented within their platform. While this right of editorial discretion protects the moderation decisions of social-media companies, its benefits accrue to society at-large.

Social-media companies’ abilities to differentiate themselves based on functionality and moderation policies are important aspects of competition among them. How each platform is used may differ depending on those factors. In fact, many consumers use multiple social-media platforms throughout the day for different purposes. Market competition, not government power, has enabled internet users (including conservatives!) to have more avenues than ever to get their message out.

Many conservatives remain unpersuaded by the power of markets in this case. They see multiple platforms all engaging in very similar content-moderation policies when it comes to certain touchpoint issues, and thus allege widespread anti-conservative bias and collusion. Neither of those claims have much factual support, but more importantly, the similarity of content-moderation standards may simply be common responses to similar demand structures—not some nefarious and conspiratorial plot.

In other words, if social-media users demand less of the kinds of content commonly considered to be hate speech, or less misinformation on certain important issues, platforms will do their best to weed those things out. Platforms won’t always get these determinations right, but it is by no means clear that forcing them to carry all “legal” speech—which would include not just misinformation and hate speech, but pornographic material, as well—would better serve social-media users. There are always alternative means to debate contestable issues of the day, even if it may be more costly to access them.

Indeed, that content-moderation policies make it more difficult to communicate some messages is precisely the point of having them. There is a subset of protected speech to which many users do not wish to be subject. Moreover, there is no inherent right to have an audience on a social-media platform.

Conclusion

Much of the First Amendment’s economic value lies in how it defines roles in the market for speech. As a general matter, it is not the government’s place to determine what speech should be allowed in private spaces. Instead, the private ordering of speech emerges through the application of social mores and property rights. This benefits society, as it allows individuals to create voluntary relationships built on marginal decisions about what speech is acceptable when and where, rather than centralized decisions made by a governing few and that are difficult to change over time.