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As has been rumored in the press for a few weeks, today Comcast announced it is considering making a renewed bid for a large chunk of Twenty-First Century Fox’s (Fox) assets. Fox is in the process of a significant reorganization, entailing primarily the sale of its international and non-television assets. Fox itself will continue, but with a focus on its US television business.

In December of last year, Fox agreed to sell these assets to Disney, in the process rejecting a bid from Comcast. Comcast’s initial bid was some 16% higher than Disney’s, although there were other differences in the proposed deals, as well.

In April of this year, Disney and Fox filed a proxy statement with the SEC explaining the basis for the board’s decision, including predominantly the assertion that the Comcast bid (NB: Comcast is identified as “Party B” in that document) presented greater regulatory (antitrust) risk.

As noted, today Comcast announced it is in “advanced stages” of preparing another unsolicited bid. This time,

Any offer for Fox would be all-cash and at a premium to the value of the current all-share offer from Disney. The structure and terms of any offer by Comcast, including with respect to both the spin-off of “New Fox” and the regulatory risk provisions and the related termination fee, would be at least as favorable to Fox shareholders as the Disney offer.

Because, as we now know (since the April proxy filing), Fox’s board rejected Comcast’s earlier offer largely on the basis of the board’s assessment of the antitrust risk it presented, and because that risk assessment (and the difference between an all-cash and all-share offer) would now be the primary distinguishing feature between Comcast’s and Disney’s bids, it is worth evaluating that conclusion as Fox and its shareholders consider Comcast’s new bid.

In short: There is no basis for ascribing a greater antitrust risk to Comcast’s purchase of Fox’s assets than to Disney’s.

Summary of the Proposed Deal

Post-merger, Fox will continue to own Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox Sports, Fox Television Stations Group, and sports cable networks FS1, FS2, Fox Deportes, and Big Ten Network.

The deal would transfer to Comcast (or Disney) the following:

  • Primarily, international assets, including Fox International (cable channels in Latin America, the EU, and Asia), Star India (the largest cable and broadcast network in India), and Fox’s 39% interest in Sky (Europe’s largest pay TV service).
  • Fox’s film properties, including 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, and Fox Animation. These would bring along with them studios in Sydney and Los Angeles, but would not include the Fox Los Angeles backlot. Like the rest of the US film industry, the majority of Fox’s film revenue is earned overseas.
  • FX cable channels, National Geographic cable channels (of which Fox currently owns 75%), and twenty-two regional sports networks (RSNs). In terms of relative demand for the two cable networks, FX is a popular basic cable channel, but fairly far down the list of most-watched channels, while National Geographic doesn’t even crack the top 50. Among the RSNs, only one geographic overlap exists with Comcast’s current RSNs, and most of the Fox RSNs (at least 14 of the 22) are not in areas where Comcast has a substantial service presence.
  • The deal would also entail a shift in the companies’ ownership interests in Hulu. Hulu is currently owned in equal 30% shares by Disney, Comcast, and Fox, with the remaining, non-voting 10% owned by Time Warner. Either Comcast or Disney would hold a controlling 60% share of Hulu following the deal with Fox.

Analysis of the Antitrust Risk of a Comcast/Fox Merger

According to the joint proxy statement, Fox’s board discounted Comcast’s original $34.36/share offer — but not the $28.00/share offer from Disney — because of “the level of regulatory issues posed and the proposed risk allocation arrangements.” Significantly on this basis, the Fox board determined Disney’s offer to be superior.

The claim that a merger with Comcast poses sufficiently greater antitrust risk than a purchase by Disney to warrant its rejection out of hand is unsupportable, however. From an antitrust perspective, it is even plausible that a Comcast acquisition of the Fox assets would be on more-solid ground than would be a Disney acquisition.

Vertical Mergers Generally Present Less Antitrust Risk

A merger between Comcast and Fox would be predominantly vertical, while a merger between Disney and Fox, in contrast, would be primarily horizontal. Generally speaking, it is easier to get antitrust approval for vertical mergers than it is for horizontal mergers. As Bruce Hoffman, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, noted earlier this year:

[V]ertical merger enforcement is still a small part of our merger workload….

There is a strong theoretical basis for horizontal enforcement because economic models predict at least nominal potential for anticompetitive effects due to elimination of horizontal competition between substitutes.

Where horizontal mergers reduce competition on their face — though that reduction could be minimal or more than offset by benefits — vertical mergers do not…. [T]here are plenty of theories of anticompetitive harm from vertical mergers. But the problem is that those theories don’t generally predict harm from vertical mergers; they simply show that harm is possible under certain conditions.

On its face, and consistent with the last quarter century of merger enforcement by the DOJ and FTC, the Comcast acquisition would be less likely to trigger antitrust scrutiny, and the Disney acquisition raises more straightforward antitrust issues.

This is true even in light of the fact that the DOJ decided to challenge the AT&T-Time Warner (AT&T/TWX) merger.

The AT&T/TWX merger is a single data point in a long history of successful vertical mergers that attracted little scrutiny, and no litigation, by antitrust enforcers (although several have been approved subject to consent orders).

Just because the DOJ challenged that one merger does not mean that antitrust enforcers generally, nor even the DOJ in particular, have suddenly become more hostile to vertical mergers.

Of particular importance to the conclusion that the AT&T/TWX merger challenge is of minimal relevance to predicting the DOJ’s reception in this case, the theory of harm argued by the DOJ in that case is far from well-accepted, while the potential theory that could underpin a challenge to a Disney/Fox merger is. As Bruce Hoffman further remarks:

I am skeptical of arguments that vertical mergers cause harm due to an increased bargaining skill; this is likely not an anticompetitive effect because it does not flow from a reduction in competition. I would contrast that to the elimination of competition in a horizontal merger that leads to an increase in bargaining leverage that could raise price or reduce output.

The Relatively Lower Risk of a Vertical Merger Challenge Hasn’t Changed Following the DOJ’s AT&T/Time Warner Challenge

Judge Leon is expected to rule on the AT&T/TWX merger in a matter of weeks. The theory underpinning the DOJ’s challenge is problematic (to say the least), and the case it presented was decidedly weak. But no litigated legal outcome is ever certain, and the court could, of course, rule against the merger nevertheless.

Yet even if the court does rule against the AT&T/TWX merger, this hardly suggests that a Comcast/Fox deal would create a greater antitrust risk than would a Disney/Fox merger.

A single successful challenge to a vertical merger — what would be, in fact, the first successful vertical merger challenge in four decades — doesn’t mean that the courts are becoming hostile to vertical mergers any more than the DOJ’s challenge means that vertical mergers suddenly entail heightened enforcement risk. Rather, it would simply mean that that, given the specific facts of the case, the DOJ was able to make out its prima facie case, and that the defendants were unable to rebut it.  

A ruling for the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX merger challenge would be rooted in a highly fact-specific analysis that could have no direct bearing on future cases.

In the AT&T/TWX case, the court’s decision will turn on its assessment of the DOJ’s argument that the merged firm could raise subscriber prices by a few pennies per subscriber. But as AT&T’s attorney aptly pointed out at trial (echoing the testimony of AT&T’s economist, Dennis Carlton):

The government’s modeled price increase is so negligible that, given the inherent uncertainty in that predictive exercise, it is not meaningfully distinguishable from zero.

Even minor deviations from the facts or the assumptions used in the AT&T/TWX case could completely upend the analysis — and there are important differences between the AT&T/TWX merger and a Comcast/Fox merger. True, both would be largely vertical mergers that would bring together programming and distribution assets in the home video market. But the foreclosure effects touted by the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX merger are seemingly either substantially smaller or entirely non-existent in the proposed Comcast/Fox merger.

Most importantly, the content at issue in AT&T/TWX is at least arguably (and, in fact, argued by the DOJ) “must have” programming — Time Warner’s premium HBO channels and its CNN news programming, in particular, were central to the DOJ’s foreclosure argument. By contrast, the programming that Comcast would pick up as a result of the proposed merger with Fox — FX (a popular, but non-essential, basic cable channel) and National Geographic channels (which attract a tiny fraction of cable viewing) — would be extremely unlikely to merit that designation.

Moreover, the DOJ made much of the fact that AT&T, through DirectTV, has a national distribution footprint. As a result, its analysis was dependent upon the company’s potential ability to attract new subscribers decamping from competing providers from whom it withholds access to Time Warner content in every market in the country. Comcast, on the other hand, provides cable service in only about 35% of the country. This significantly limits its ability to credibly threaten competitors because its ability to recoup lost licensing fees by picking up new subscribers is so much more limited.

And while some RSNs may offer some highly prized live sports programming, the mismatch between Comcast’s footprint and the FOX RSNs (only about 8 of the 22 Fox RSNs are in Comcast service areas) severely limits any ability or incentive the company would have to leverage that content for higher fees. Again, to the extent that RSN programming is not “must-have,” and to the extent there is not overlap between the RSN’s geographic area and Comcast’s service area, the situation is manifestly not the same as the one at issue in the AT&T/TWX merger.

In sum, a ruling in favor of the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX case would be far from decisive in predicting how the agency and the courts would assess any potential concerns arising from Comcast’s ownership of Fox’s assets.

A Comcast/Fox Deal May Entail Lower Antitrust Risk than a Disney/Fox Merger

As discussed below, concerns about antitrust enforcement risk from a Comcast/Fox merger are likely overstated. Perhaps more importantly, however, to the extent these concerns are legitimate, they apply at least as much to a Disney/Fox merger. There is, at minimum, no basis for assuming a Comcast deal would present any greater regulatory risk.

The Antitrust Risk of a Comcast/Fox Merger Is Likely Overstated

The primary theory upon which antitrust enforcers could conceivably base a Comcast/Fox merger challenge would be a vertical foreclosure theory. Importantly, such a challenge would have to be based on the incremental effect of adding the Fox assets to Comcast, and not on the basis of its existing assets. Thus, for example, antitrust enforcers would not be able to base a merger challenge on the possibility that Comcast could leverage NBC content it currently owns to extract higher fees from competitors. Rather, only if the combination of NBC programming with additional content from Fox could create a new antitrust risk would a case be tenable.

Enforcers would be unlikely to view the addition of FX and National Geographic to the portfolio of programming content Comcast currently owns as sufficient to raise concerns that the merger would give Comcast anticompetitive bargaining power or the ability to foreclose access to its content.

Although even less likely, enforcers could be concerned with the (horizontal) addition of 20th Century Fox filmed entertainment to Universal’s existing film production and distribution. But the theatrical film market is undeniably competitive, with the largest studio by revenue (Disney) last year holding only 22% of the market. The combination of 20th Century Fox with Universal would still result in a market share only around 25% based on 2017 revenues (and, depending on the year, not even result in the industry’s largest share).

There is also little reason to think that a Comcast controlling interest in Hulu would attract problematic antitrust attention. Comcast has already demonstrated an interest in diversifying its revenue across cable subscriptions and licensing, broadband subscriptions, and licensing to OVDs, as evidenced by its recent deal to offer Netflix as part of its Xfinity packages. Hulu likely presents just one more avenue for pursuing this same diversification strategy. And Universal has a history (see, e.g., this, this, and this) of very broad licensing across cable providers, cable networks, OVDs, and the like.

In the case of Hulu, moreover, the fact that Comcast is vertically integrated in broadband as well as cable service likely reduces the anticompetitive risk because more-attractive OVD content has the potential to increase demand for Comcast’s broadband service. Broadband offers larger margins (and is growing more rapidly) than cable, and it’s quite possible that any loss in Comcast’s cable subscriber revenue from Hulu’s success would be more than offset by gains in its content licensing and broadband subscription revenue. The same, of course, goes for Comcast’s incentives to license content to OVD competitors like Netflix: Comcast plausibly gains broadband subscription revenue from heightened consumer demand for Netflix, and this at least partially offsets any possible harm to Hulu from Netflix’s success.

At the same time, especially relative to Netflix’s vast library of original programming (an expected $8 billion worth in 2018 alone) and content licensed from other sources, the additional content Comcast would gain from a merger with Fox is not likely to appreciably increase its bargaining leverage or its ability to foreclose Netflix’s access to its content.     

Finally, Comcast’s ownership of Fox’s RSNs could, as noted, raise antitrust enforcers’ eyebrows. Enforcers could be concerned that Comcast would condition competitors’ access to RSN programming on higher licensing fees or prioritization of its NBC Sports channels.

While this is indeed a potential risk, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that it would draw an enforcement action. Among other things, NBC is far from the market leader, and improving its competitive position relative to ESPN could be viewed as a benefit of the deal. In any case, potential problems arising from ownership of the RSNs could easily be dealt with through divestiture or behavioral conditions; they are extremely unlikely to lead to an outright merger challenge.

The Antitrust Risk of a Disney Deal May Be Greater than Expected

While a Comcast/Fox deal doesn’t entail no antitrust enforcement risk, it certainly doesn’t entail sufficient risk to deem the deal dead on arrival. Moreover, it may entail less antitrust enforcement risk than would a Disney/Fox tie-up.

Yet, curiously, the joint proxy statement doesn’t mention any antitrust risk from the Disney deal at all and seems to suggest that the Fox board applied no risk discount in evaluating Disney’s bid.

Disney — already the market leader in the filmed entertainment industry — would acquire an even larger share of box office proceeds (and associated licensing revenues) through acquisition of Fox’s film properties. Perhaps even more important, the deal would bring the movie rights to almost all of the Marvel Universe within Disney’s ambit.

While, as suggested above, even that combination probably wouldn’t trigger any sort of market power presumption, it would certainly create an entity with a larger share of the market and stronger control of the industry’s most valuable franchises than would a Comcast/Fox deal.

Another relatively larger complication for a Disney/Fox merger arises from the prospect of combining Fox’s RSNs with ESPN. Whatever ability or incentive either company would have to engage in anticompetitive conduct surrounding sports programming, that risk would seem to be more significant for undisputed market leader, Disney. At the same time, although still powerful, demand for ESPN on cable has been flagging. Disney could well see the ability to bundle ESPN with regional sports content as a way to prop up subscription revenues for ESPN — a practice, in fact, that it has employed successfully in the past.   

Finally, it must be noted that licensing of consumer products is an even bigger driver of revenue from filmed entertainment than is theatrical release. No other company comes close to Disney in this space.

Disney is the world’s largest licensor, earning almost $57 billion in 2016 from licensing properties like Star Wars and Marvel Comics. Universal is in a distant 7th place, with 2016 licensing revenue of about $6 billion. Adding Fox’s (admittedly relatively small) licensing business would enhance Disney’s substantial lead (even the number two global licensor, Meredith, earned less than half of Disney’s licensing revenue in 2016). Again, this is unlikely to be a significant concern for antitrust enforcers, but it is notable that, to the extent it might be an issue, it is one that applies to Disney and not Comcast.

Conclusion

Although I hope to address these issues in greater detail in the future, for now the preliminary assessment is clear: There is no legitimate basis for ascribing a greater antitrust risk to a Comcast/Fox deal than to a Disney/Fox deal.

As Thom previously posted, he and I have a new paper explaining The Case for Doing Nothing About Common Ownership of Small Stakes in Competing Firms. Our paper is a response to cries from the likes of Einer Elhauge and of Eric Posner, Fiona Scott Morton, and Glen Weyl, who have called for various types of antitrust action to reign in what they claim is an “economic blockbuster” and “the major new antitrust challenge of our time,” respectively. This is the first in a series of posts that will unpack some of the issues and arguments we raise in our paper.

At issue is the growth in the incidence of common-ownership across firms within various industries. In particular, institutional investors with broad portfolios frequently report owning small stakes in a number of firms within a given industry. Although small, these stakes may still represent large block holdings relative to other investors. This intra-industry diversification, critics claim, changes the managerial objectives of corporate executives from aggressively competing to increase their own firm’s profits to tacitly colluding to increase industry-level profits instead. The reason for this change is that competition by one firm comes at a cost of profits from other firms in the industry. If investors own shares across firms, then any competitive gains in one firm’s stock are offset by competitive losses in the stocks of other firms in the investor’s portfolio. If one assumes corporate executives aim to maximize total value for their largest shareholders, then managers would have incentive to soften competition against firms with which they share common ownership. Or so the story goes (more on that in a later post.)

Elhague and Posner, et al., draw their motivation for new antitrust offenses from a handful of papers that purport to establish an empirical link between the degree of common ownership among competing firms and various measures of softened competitive behavior, including airline prices, banking fees, executive compensation, and even corporate disclosure patterns. The paper of most note, by José Azar, Martin Schmalz, and Isabel Tecu and forthcoming in the Journal of Finance, claims to identify a causal link between the degree of common ownership among airlines competing on a given route and the fares charged for flights on that route.

Measuring common ownership with MHHI

Azar, et al.’s airline paper uses a metric of industry concentration called a Modified Herfindahl–Hirschman Index, or MHHI, to measure the degree of industry concentration taking into account the cross-ownership of investors’ stakes in competing firms. The original Herfindahl–Hirschman Index (HHI) has long been used as a measure of industry concentration, debuting in the Department of Justice’s Horizontal Merger Guidelines in 1982. The HHI is calculated by squaring the market share of each firm in the industry and summing the resulting numbers.

The MHHI is rather more complicated. MHHI is composed of two parts: the HHI measuring product market concentration and the MHHI_Delta measuring the additional concentration due to common ownership. We offer a step-by-step description of the calculations and their economic rationale in an appendix to our paper. For this post, I’ll try to distill that down. The MHHI_Delta essentially has three components, each of which is measured relative to every possible competitive pairing in the market as follows:

  1. A measure of the degree of common ownership between Company A and Company -A (Not A). This is calculated by multiplying the percentage of Company A shares owned by each Investor I with the percentage of shares Investor I owns in Company -A, then summing those values across all investors in Company A. As this value increases, MHHI_Delta goes up.
  2. A measure of the degree of ownership concentration in Company A, calculated by squaring the percentage of shares owned by each Investor I and summing those numbers across investors. As this value increases, MHHI_Delta goes down.
  3. A measure of the degree of product market power exerted by Company A and Company -A, calculated by multiplying the market shares of the two firms. As this value increases, MHHI_Delta goes up.

This process is repeated and aggregated first for every pairing of Company A and each competing Company -A, then repeated again for every other company in the market relative to its competitors (e.g., Companies B and -B, Companies C and -C, etc.). Mathematically, MHHI_Delta takes the form:

where the Ss represent the firm market shares of, and Betas represent ownership shares of Investor I in, the respective companies A and -A.

As the relative concentration of cross-owning investors to all investors in Company A increases (i.e., the ratio on the right increases), managers are assumed to be more likely to soften competition with that competitor. As those two firms control more of the market, managers’ ability to tacitly collude and increase joint profits is assumed to be higher. Consequently, the empirical research assumes that as MHHI_Delta increases, we should observe less competitive behavior.

And indeed that is the “blockbuster” evidence giving rise to Elhauge’s and Posner, et al.,’s arguments  For example, Azar, et. al., calculate HHI and MHHI_Delta for every US airline market–defined either as city-pairs or departure-destination pairs–for each quarter of the 14-year time period in their study. They then regress ticket prices for each route against the HHI and the MHHI_Delta for that route, controlling for a number of other potential factors. They find that airfare prices are 3% to 7% higher due to common ownership. Other papers using the same or similar measures of common ownership concentration have likewise identified positive correlations between MHHI_Delta and their respective measures of anti-competitive behavior.

Problems with the problem and with the measure

We argue that both the theoretical argument underlying the empirical research and the empirical research itself suffer from some serious flaws. On the theoretical side, we have two concerns. First, we argue that there is a tremendous leap of faith (if not logic) in the idea that corporate executives would forgo their own self-interest and the interests of the vast majority of shareholders and soften competition simply because a small number of small stakeholders are intra-industry diversified. Second, we argue that even if managers were so inclined, it clearly is not the case that softening competition would necessarily be desirable for institutional investors that are both intra- and inter-industry diversified, since supra-competitive pricing to increase profits in one industry would decrease profits in related industries that may also be in the investors’ portfolios.

On the empirical side, we have concerns both with the data used to calculate the MHHI_Deltas and with the nature of the MHHI_Delta itself. First, the data on institutional investors’ holdings are taken from Schedule 13 filings, which report aggregate holdings across all the institutional investor’s funds. Using these data masks the actual incentives of the institutional investors with respect to investments in any individual company or industry. Second, the construction of the MHHI_Delta suffers from serious endogeneity concerns, both in investors’ shareholdings and in market shares. Finally, the MHHI_Delta, while seemingly intuitive, is an empirical unknown. While HHI is theoretically bounded in a way that lends to interpretation of its calculated value, the same is not true for MHHI_Delta. This makes any inference or policy based on nominal values of MHHI_Delta completely arbitrary at best.

We’ll expand on each of these concerns in upcoming posts. We will then take on the problems with the policy proposals being offered in response to the common ownership ‘problem.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the hottest antitrust topics of late has been institutional investors’ “common ownership” of minority stakes in competing firms.  Writing in the Harvard Law Review, Einer Elhauge proclaimed that “[a]n economic blockbuster has recently been exposed”—namely, “[a] small group of institutions has acquired large shareholdings in horizontal competitors throughout our economy, causing them to compete less vigorously with each other.”  In the Antitrust Law Journal, Eric Posner, Fiona Scott Morton, and Glen Weyl contended that “the concentration of markets through large institutional investors is the major new antitrust challenge of our time.”  Those same authors took to the pages of the New York Times to argue that “[t]he great, but mostly unknown, antitrust story of our time is the astonishing rise of the institutional investor … and the challenge that it poses to market competition.”

Not surprisingly, these scholars have gone beyond just identifying a potential problem; they have also advocated policy solutions.  Elhauge has called for allowing government enforcers and private parties to use Section 7 of the Clayton Act, the provision primarily used to prevent anticompetitive mergers, to police institutional investors’ ownership of minority positions in competing firms.  Posner et al., concerned “that private litigation or unguided public litigation could cause problems because of the interactive nature of institutional holdings on competition,” have proposed that federal antitrust enforcers adopt an enforcement policy that would encourage institutional investors either to avoid common ownership of firms in concentrated industries or to limit their influence over such firms by refraining from voting their shares.

The position of these scholars is thus (1) that common ownership by institutional investors significantly diminishes competition in concentrated industries, and (2) that additional antitrust intervention—beyond generally applicable rules on, say, hub-and-spoke conspiracies and anticompetitive information exchanges—is appropriate to prevent competitive harm.

Mike Sykuta and I have recently posted a paper taking issue with this two-pronged view.  With respect to the first prong, we contend that there are serious problems with both the theory of competitive harm stemming from institutional investors’ common ownership and the empirical evidence that has been marshalled in support of that theory.  With respect to the second, we argue that even if competition were softened by institutional investors’ common ownership of small minority interests in competing firms, the unintended negative consequences of an antitrust fix would outweigh any benefits from such intervention.

Over the next few days, we plan to unpack some of the key arguments in our paper, The Case for Doing Nothing About Institutional Investors’ Common Ownership of Small Stakes in Competing Firms.  In the meantime, we encourage readers to download the paper and send us any comments.

The paper’s abstract is below the fold. Continue Reading…

In a recent long-form article in the New York Times, reporter Noam Scheiber set out to detail some of the ways Uber (and similar companies, but mainly Uber) are engaged in “an extraordinary experiment in behavioral science to subtly entice an independent work force to maximize its growth.”

That characterization seems innocuous enough, but it is apparent early on that Scheiber’s aim is not only to inform but also, if not primarily, to deride these efforts. The title of the piece, in fact, sets the tone:

How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons

Uber and its relationship with its drivers are variously described by Scheiber in the piece as secretive, coercive, manipulative, dominating, and exploitative, among other things. As Schreiber describes his article, it sets out to reveal how

even as Uber talks up its determination to treat drivers more humanely, it is engaged in an extraordinary behind-the-scenes experiment in behavioral science to manipulate them in the service of its corporate growth — an effort whose dimensions became evident in interviews with several dozen current and former Uber officials, drivers and social scientists, as well as a review of behavioral research.

What’s so galling about the piece is that, if you strip away the biased and frequently misguided framing, it presents a truly engaging picture of some of the ways that Uber sets about solving a massively complex optimization problem, abetted by significant agency costs.

So I did. Strip away the detritus, add essential (but omitted) context, and edit the article to fix the anti-Uber bias, the one-sided presentation, the mischaracterizations, and the fundamentally non-economic presentation of what is, at its core, a fascinating illustration of some basic problems (and solutions) from industrial organization economics. (For what it’s worth, Scheiber should know better. After all, “He holds a master’s degree in economics from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and undergraduate degrees in math and economics from Tulane University.”)

In my retelling, the title becomes:

How Uber Uses Innovative Management Tactics to Incentivize Its Drivers

My transformed version of the piece, with critical commentary in the form of tracked changes to the original, is here (pdf).

It’s a long (and, as I said, fundamentally interesting) piece, with cool interactive graphics, well worth the read (well, at least in my retelling, IMHO). Below is just a taste of the edits and commentary I added.

For example, where Scheiber writes:

Uber exists in a kind of legal and ethical purgatory, however. Because its drivers are independent contractors, they lack most of the protections associated with employment. By mastering their workers’ mental circuitry, Uber and the like may be taking the economy back toward a pre-New Deal era when businesses had enormous power over workers and few checks on their ability to exploit it.

With my commentary (here integrated into final form rather than tracked), that paragraph becomes:

Uber operates under a different set of legal constraints, however, also duly enacted and under which millions of workers have profitably worked for decades. Because its drivers are independent contractors, they receive their compensation largely in dollars rather than government-mandated “benefits” that remove some of the voluntariness from employer/worker relationships. And, in the case of overtime pay, for example, the Uber business model that is built in part on offering flexible incentives to match supply and demand using prices and compensation, would be next to impossible. It is precisely through appealing to drivers’ self-interest that Uber and the like may be moving the economy forward to a new era when businesses and workers have more flexibility, much to the benefit of all.

Elsewhere, Scheiber’s bias is a bit more subtle, but no less real. Thus, he writes:

As he tried to log off at 7:13 a.m. on New Year’s Day last year, Josh Streeter, then an Uber driver in the Tampa, Fla., area, received a message on the company’s driver app with the headline “Make it to $330.” The text then explained: “You’re $10 away from making $330 in net earnings. Are you sure you want to go offline?” Below were two prompts: “Go offline” and “Keep driving.” The latter was already highlighted.

With my edits and commentary, that paragraph becomes:

As he started the process of logging off at 7:13 a.m. on New Year’s Day last year, Josh Streeter, then an Uber driver in the Tampa, Fla., area, received a message on the company’s driver app with the headline “Make it to $330.” The text then explained: “You’re $10 away from making $330 in net earnings. Are you sure you want to go offline?” Below were two prompts: “Go offline” and “Keep driving.” The latter was already highlighted, but the former was listed first. It’s anyone’s guess whether either characteristic — placement or coloring — had any effect on drivers’ likelihood of clicking one button or the other.

And one last example. Scheiber writes:

Consider an algorithm called forward dispatch — Lyft has a similar one — that dispatches a new ride to a driver before the current one ends. Forward dispatch shortens waiting times for passengers, who may no longer have to wait for a driver 10 minutes away when a second driver is dropping off a passenger two minutes away.

Perhaps no less important, forward dispatch causes drivers to stay on the road substantially longer during busy periods — a key goal for both companies.

Uber and Lyft explain this in essentially the same way. “Drivers keep telling us the worst thing is when they’re idle for a long time,” said Kevin Fan, the director of product at Lyft. “If it’s slow, they’re going to go sign off. We want to make sure they’re constantly busy.”

While this is unquestionably true, there is another way to think of the logic of forward dispatch: It overrides self-control.

* * *

Uber officials say the feature initially produced so many rides at times that drivers began to experience a chronic Netflix ailment — the inability to stop for a bathroom break. Amid the uproar, Uber introduced a pause button.

“Drivers were saying: ‘I can never go offline. I’m on just continuous trips. This is a problem.’ So we redesigned it,” said Maya Choksi, a senior Uber official in charge of building products that help drivers. “In the middle of the trip, you can say, ‘Stop giving me requests.’ So you can have more control over when you want to stop driving.”

It is true that drivers can pause the services’ automatic queuing feature if they need to refill their tanks, or empty them, as the case may be. Yet once they log back in and accept their next ride, the feature kicks in again. To disable it, they would have to pause it every time they picked up a new passenger. By contrast, even Netflix allows users to permanently turn off its automatic queuing feature, known as Post-Play.

This pre-emptive hard-wiring can have a huge influence on behavior, said David Laibson, the chairman of the economics department at Harvard and a leading behavioral economist. Perhaps most notably, as Ms. Rosenblat and Luke Stark observed in an influential paper on these practices, Uber’s app does not let drivers see where a passenger is going before accepting the ride, making it hard to judge how profitable a trip will be.

Here’s how I would recast that, and add some much-needed economics:

Consider an algorithm called forward dispatch — Lyft has a similar one — that dispatches a new ride to a driver before the current one ends. Forward dispatch shortens waiting times for passengers, who may no longer have to wait for a driver 10 minutes away when a second driver is dropping off a passenger two minutes away.

Perhaps no less important, forward dispatch causes drivers to stay on the road substantially longer during busy periods — a key goal for both companies — by giving them more income-earning opportunities.

Uber and Lyft explain this in essentially the same way. “Drivers keep telling us the worst thing is when they’re idle for a long time,” said Kevin Fan, the director of product at Lyft. “If it’s slow, they’re going to go sign off. We want to make sure they’re constantly busy.”

While this is unquestionably true, and seems like another win-win, some critics have tried to paint even this means of satisfying both driver and consumer preferences in a negative light by claiming that the forward dispatch algorithm overrides self-control.

* * *

Uber officials say the feature initially produced so many rides at times that drivers began to experience a chronic Netflix ailment — the inability to stop for a bathroom break. Amid the uproar, Uber introduced a pause button.

“Drivers were saying: ‘I can never go offline. I’m on just continuous trips. This is a problem.’ So we redesigned it,” said Maya Choksi, a senior Uber official in charge of building products that help drivers. “In the middle of the trip, you can say, ‘Stop giving me requests.’ So you can have more control over when you want to stop driving.”

Tweaks like these put paid to the arguments that Uber is simply trying to abuse its drivers. And yet, critics continue to make such claims:

It is true that drivers can pause the services’ automatic queuing feature if they need to refill their tanks, or empty them, as the case may be. Yet once they log back in and accept their next ride, the feature kicks in again. To disable it, they would have to pause it every time they picked up a new passenger. By contrast, even Netflix allows users to permanently turn off its automatic queuing feature, known as Post-Play.

It’s difficult to take seriously claims that Uber “abuses” drivers by setting a default that drivers almost certainly prefer; surely drivers seek out another fare following the last fare more often than they seek out another bathroom break. In any case, the difference between one default and the other is a small change in the number of times drivers might have to push a single button; hardly a huge impediment.

But such claims persist, nevertheless. Setting a trivially different default can have a huge influence on behavior, claims David Laibson, the chairman of the economics department at Harvard and a leading behavioral economist. Perhaps most notably — and to change the subject — as Ms. Rosenblat and Luke Stark observed in an influential paper on these practices, Uber’s app does not let drivers see where a passenger is going before accepting the ride, making it hard to judge how profitable a trip will be. But there are any number of defenses of this practice, from both a driver- and consumer-welfare standpoint. Not least, such disclosure could well create isolated scarcity for a huge range of individual ride requests (as opposed to the general scarcity during a “surge”), leading to longer wait times, the need to adjust prices for consumers on the basis of individual rides, and more intense competition among drivers for the most profitable rides. Given these and other explanations, it is extremely unlikely that the practice is actually aimed at “abusing” drivers.

As they say, read the whole thing!

The antitrust industry never sleeps – it is always hard at work seeking new business practices to scrutinize, eagerly latching on to any novel theory of anticompetitive harm that holds out the prospect of future investigations.  In so doing, antitrust entrepreneurs choose, of course, to ignore Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase’s warning that “[i]f an economist finds something . . . that he does not understand, he looks for a monopoly explanation.  And as in this field we are rather ignorant, the number of ununderstandable practices tends to be rather large, and the reliance on monopoly explanations frequent.”  Ambitious antitrusters also generally appear oblivious to the fact that since antitrust is an administrative system subject to substantial error and transaction costs in application (see here), decision theory counsels that enforcers should proceed with great caution before adopting novel untested theories of competitive harm.

The latest example of this regrettable phenomenon is the popular new theory that institutional investors’ common ownership of minority shares in competing firms may pose serious threats to vigorous market competition (see here, for example).  If such investors’ shareholdings are insufficient to control or substantially influence the strategies employed by the competing firms, what is the precise mechanism by which this occurs?  At the very least, this question should give enforcers pause (and cause them to carefully examine both the theoretical and empirical underpinnings of the common ownership story) before they charge ahead as knights errant seeking to vanquish new financial foes.  Yet it appears that at least some antitrust enforcers have been wasting no time in seeking to factor common ownership concerns into their modes of analysis.  (For example, The European Commission in at least one case presented a modified Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (MHHI) analysis to account for the effects of common shareholding by institutional investors, as part of a statement of objections to a proposed merger, see here.)

A recent draft paper by Bates White economists Daniel P. O’Brien and Keith Waehrer raises major questions about recent much heralded research (reported in three studies dealing with executive compensation, airlines, and banking) that has been cited to raise concerns about common minority shareholdings’ effects on competition.  The draft paper’s abstract argues that the theory underlying these concerns is insufficiently developed, and that there are serious statistical flaws in the empirical work that purports to show a relationship between price and common ownership:

“Recent empirical research purports to show that common ownership by institutional investors harms competition even when all financial holdings are minority interests. This research has received a great deal of attention, leading to both calls for and actual changes in antitrust policy. This paper examines the research on this subject to date and finds that its conclusions regarding the effects of minority shareholdings on competition are not well established. Without prejudging what more rigorous empirical work might show, we conclude that researchers and policy authorities are getting well ahead of themselves in drawing policy conclusions from the research to date. The theory of partial ownership does not yield a specific relationship between price and the MHHI. In addition, the key explanatory variable in the emerging research – the MHHI – is an endogenous measure of concentration that depends on both common ownership and market shares. Factors other than common ownership affect both price and the MHHI, so the relationship between price and the MHHI need not reflect the relationship between price and common ownership. Thus, regressions of price on the MHHI are likely to show a relationship even if common ownership has no actual causal effect on price. The instrumental variable approaches employed in this literature are not sufficient to remedy this issue. We explain these points with reference to the economic theory of partial ownership and suggest avenues for further research.”

In addition to pinpointing deficiencies in existing research, O’Brien and Waehrer also summarize serious negative implications for the financial sector that could stem from the aggressive antitrust pursuit of partial ownership for the financial sector – a new approach that would be at odds with longstanding antitrust practice (footnote citations deleted):

“While it is widely accepted that common ownership can have anticompetitive effects when the owners have control over at least one of the firms they own (a complete merger is a special case), antitrust authorities historically have taken limited interest in common ownership by minority shareholders whose control seems to be limited to voting rights. Thus, if the empirical findings and conclusions in the emerging research are correct and robust, they could have dramatic implications for the antitrust analysis of mergers and acquisitions. The findings could be interpreted to suggest that antitrust authorities should scrutinize not only situations in which a common owner of competing firms control at least one of the entities it owns, but also situations in which all of the common owner’s shareholdings are small minority positions. As [previously] noted, . . . such a policy shift is already occurring.

Institutional investors (e.g., mutual funds) frequently take positions in multiple firms in an industry in order to offer diversified portfolios to retail investors at low transaction costs. A change in antitrust or regulatory policy toward these investments could have significant negative implications for the types of investments currently available to retail investors. In particular, a recent proposal to step up antitrust enforcement in this area would seem to require significant changes to the size or composition of many investment funds that are currently offered.

Given the potential policy implications of this research and the less than obvious connections between small minority ownership interests and anticompetitive price effects, it is important to be particularly confident in the analysis and empirical findings before drawing strong policy conclusions. In our view, this requires a valid empirical test that permits causal inferences about the effects of common ownership on price. In addition, the empirical findings and their interpretation should be consistent with the observed behavior of firms and investors in the economic and legal environments in which they operate.

We find that the airline, banking, and compensation papers [that deal with minority shareholding] fall short of these criteria.”

In sum, at the very least, a substantial amount of further work is called for before significant enforcement resources are directed to common minority shareholder investigations, lest competitively non-problematic investment holdings be chilled.  More generally, the trendy antitrust pursuit of common minority shareholdings threatens to interfere inappropriately in investment decisions of institutional investors and thereby undermine efficiency.  Given the great significance of institutional investment for vibrant capital markets and a growing, dynamic economy, the negative economic welfare consequences of such unwarranted meddling would likely swamp any benefits that might accrue from an occasional meritorious prosecution.  One may hope that the Trump Administration will seriously weigh those potential consequences as it examines the minority shareholding issue, in deciding upon its antitrust policy priorities.

Last week, the Internet Association (“IA”) — a trade group representing some of America’s most dynamic and fastest growing tech companies, including the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and eBay — presented the incoming Trump Administration with a ten page policy paper entitled “Policy Roadmap for New Administration, Congress.”

The document’s content is not surprising, given its source: It is, in essence, a summary of the trade association’s members’ preferred policy positions, none of which is new or newly relevant. Which is fine, in principle; lobbying on behalf of members is what trade associations do — although we should be somewhat skeptical of a policy document that purports to represent the broader social welfare while it advocates for members’ preferred policies.

Indeed, despite being labeled a “roadmap,” the paper is backward-looking in certain key respects — a fact that leads to some strange syntax: “[the document is a] roadmap of key policy areas that have allowed the internet to grow, thrive, and ensure its continued success and ability to create jobs throughout our economy” (emphasis added). Since when is a “roadmap” needed to identify past policies? Indeed, as Bloomberg News reporter, Joshua Brustein, wrote:

The document released Monday is notable in that the same list of priorities could have been sent to a President-elect Hillary Clinton, or written two years ago.

As a wishlist of industry preferences, this would also be fine, in principle. But as an ostensibly forward-looking document, aimed at guiding policy transition, the IA paper is disappointingly un-self-aware. Rather than delineating an agenda aimed at improving policies to promote productivity, economic development and social cohesion throughout the economy, the document is overly focused on preserving certain regulations adopted at the dawn of the Internet age (when the internet was capitalized). Even more disappointing given the IA member companies’ central role in our contemporary lives, the document evinces no consideration of how Internet platforms themselves should strive to balance rights and responsibilities in new ways that promote meaningful internet freedom.

In short, the IA’s Roadmap constitutes a policy framework dutifully constructed to enable its members to maintain the status quo. While that might also serve to further some broader social aims, it’s difficult to see in the approach anything other than a defense of what got us here — not where we go from here.

To take one important example, the document reiterates the IA’s longstanding advocacy for the preservation of the online-intermediary safe harbors of the 20 year-old Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) — which were adopted during the era of dial-up, and before any of the principal members of the Internet Association even existed. At the same time, however, it proposes to reform one piece of legislation — the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”) — precisely because, at 30 years old, it has long since become hopelessly out of date. But surely if outdatedness is a justification for asserting the inappropriateness of existing privacy/surveillance legislation — as seems proper, given the massive technological and social changes surrounding privacy — the same concern should apply to copyright legislation with equal force, given the arguably even-more-substantial upheavals in the economic and social role of creative content in society today.

Of course there “is more certainty in reselling the past, than inventing the future,” but a truly valuable roadmap for the future from some of the most powerful and visionary companies in America should begin to tackle some of the most complicated and nuanced questions facing our country. It would be nice to see a Roadmap premised upon a well-articulated theory of accountability across all of the Internet ecosystem in ways that protect property, integrity, choice and other essential aspects of modern civil society.

Each of IA’s companies was principally founded on a vision of improving some aspect of the human condition; in many respects they have succeeded. But as society changes, even past successes may later become inconsistent with evolving social mores and economic conditions, necessitating thoughtful introspection and, often, policy revision. The IA can do better than pick and choose from among existing policies based on unilateral advantage and a convenient repudiation of responsibility.

It appears that White House’s zeal for progressive-era legal theory has … progressed (or regressed?) further. Late last week President Obama signed an Executive Order that nominally claims to direct executive agencies (and “strongly encourages” independent agencies) to adopt “pro-competitive” policies. It’s called Steps to Increase Competition and Better Inform Consumers and Workers to Support Continued Growth of the American Economy, and was produced alongside an issue brief from the Council of Economic Advisors titled Benefits of Competition and Indicators of Market Power.

TL;DR version: the Order and its brief do not appear so much aimed at protecting consumers or competition, as they are at providing justification for favored regulatory adventures.

In truth, it’s not exactly clear what problem the President is trying to solve. And there is language in both the Order and the brief that could be interpreted in a positive light, and, likewise, language that could be more of a shot across the bow of “unruly” corporate citizens who have not gotten in line with the President’s agenda. Most of the Order and the corresponding CEA brief read as a rote recital of basic antitrust principles: price fixing bad, collusion bad, competition good. That said, there were two items in the Order that particularly stood out.

The (Maybe) Good

Section 2 of the Order states that

Executive departments … with authorities that could be used to enhance competition (agencies) shall … use those authorities to promote competition, arm consumers and workers with the information they need to make informed choices, and eliminate regulations that restrict competition without corresponding benefits to the American public. (emphasis added)

Obviously this is music to the ears of anyone who has thought that agencies should be required to do a basic economic analysis before undertaking brave voyages of regulatory adventure. And this is what the Supreme Court was getting at in Michigan v. EPA when it examined the meaning of the phrase “appropriate” in connection with environmental regulations:

One would not say that it is even rational, never mind “appropriate,” to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.

Thus, if this Order follows the direction of Michigan v. EPA, and it becomes the standard for agencies to conduct cost-benefit analyses before issuing regulation (and to review old regulations through such an analysis), then wonderful! Moreover, this mandate to agencies to reduce regulations that restrict competition could lead to an unexpected reformation of a variety of regulations – even outside of the agencies themselves. For instance, the FTC is laudable in its ongoing efforts both to correct anticompetitive state licensing laws as well as to resist state-protected incumbents, such as taxi-cab companies.

Still, I have trouble believing that the President — and this goes for any president, really, regardless of party — would truly intend for agencies under his control to actually cede regulatory ground when a little thing like economic reality points in a different direction than official policy. After all, there was ample information available that the Title II requirements on broadband providers would be both costly and result in reduced capital expenditures, and the White House nonetheless encouraged the FCC to go ahead with reclassification.

And this isn’t the first time that the President has directed agencies to perform retrospective review of regulation (see the Identifying and Reducing Regulatory Burdens Order of 2012). To date, however, there appears to be little evidence that the burdens of the regulatory state have lessened. Last year set a record for the page count of the Federal Register (80k+ pages), and the data suggest that the cost of the regulatory state is only increasing. Thus, despite the pleasant noises the Order makes with regard to imposing economic discipline on agencies – and despite the good example Canada has set for us in this regard – I am not optimistic of the actual result.

And the (maybe) good builds an important bridge to the (probably) bad of the Order. It is well and good to direct agencies to engage in economic calculation when they write and administer regulations, but such calculation must be in earnest, and must be directed by the learning that was hard earned over the course of the development of antitrust jurisprudence in the US. As Geoffrey Manne and Josh Wright have noted:

Without a serious methodological commitment to economic science, the incorporation of economics into antitrust is merely a façade, allowing regulators and judges to select whichever economic model fits their earlier beliefs or policy preferences rather than the model that best fits the real‐world data. Still, economic theory remains essential to antitrust law. Economic analysis constrains and harnesses antitrust law so that it protects consumers rather than competitors.

Unfortunately, the brief does not indicate that it is interested in more than a façade of economic rigor. For instance, it relies on the outmoded 50 firm revenue concentration numbers gathered by the Census Bureau to support the proposition that the industries themselves are highly concentrated and, therefore, are anticompetitive. But, it’s been fairly well understood since the 1970s that concentration says nothing directly about monopoly power and its exercise. In fact, concentration can often be seen as an indicator of superior efficiency that results in better outcomes for consumers (depending on the industry).

The (Probably) Bad

Apart from general concerns (such as having a host of federal agencies with no antitrust expertise now engaging in competition turf wars) there is one specific area that could have a dramatically bad result for long term policy, and that moreover reflects either ignorance or willful blindness of antitrust jurisprudence. Specifically, the Order directs agencies to

identify specific actions that they can take in their areas of responsibility to build upon efforts to detect abuses such as price fixing, anticompetitive behavior in labor and other input markets, exclusionary conduct, and blocking access to critical resources that are needed for competitive entry. (emphasis added).

It then goes on to say that

agencies shall submit … an initial list of … any specific practices, such as blocking access to critical resources, that potentially restrict meaningful consumer or worker choice or unduly stifle new market entrants (emphasis added)

The generally uncontroversial language regarding price fixing and exclusionary conduct are bromides – after all, as the Order notes, we already have the FTC and DOJ very actively policing this sort of conduct. What’s novel here, however, is that the highlighted language above seems to amount to a mandate to executive agencies (and a strong suggestion to independent agencies) that they begin to seek out “essential facilities” within their regulated industries.

But “critical resources … needed for competitive entry” could mean nearly anything, depending on how you define competition and relevant markets. And asking non-antitrust agencies to integrate one of the more esoteric (and controversial) parts of antitrust law into their mission is going to be a recipe for disaster.

In fact, this may be one of the reasons why the Supreme Court declined to recognize the essential facilities doctrine as a distinct rule in Trinko, where it instead characterized the exclusionary conduct in Aspen Skiing as ‘at or near the outer boundary’ of Sherman Act § 2 liability.

In short, the essential facilities doctrine is widely criticized, by pretty much everyone. In their respected treatise, Antitrust Law, Herbert Hovenkamp and Philip Areeda have said that “the essential facility doctrine is both harmful and unnecessary and should be abandoned”; Michael Boudin has noted that the doctrine is full of “embarrassing weaknesses”; and Gregory Werden has opined that “Courts should reject the doctrine.” One important reason for the broad criticism is because

At bottom, a plaintiff … is saying that the defendant has a valuable facility that it would be difficult to reproduce … But … the fact that the defendant has a highly valued facility is a reason to reject sharing, not to require it, since forced sharing “may lessen the incentive for the monopolist, the rival, or both to invest in those economically beneficial facilities.” (quoting Trinko)

Further, it’s really hard to say when one business is so critical to a particular market that its own internal functions need to be exposed for competitors’ advantage. For instance, is Big Data – which the CEA brief specifically notes as a potential “critical resource” — an essential facility when one company serves so many consumers that it has effectively developed an entire market that it dominates? ( In case you are wondering, it’s actually not). When exactly does a firm so outcompete its rivals that access to its business infrastructure can be seen by regulators as “essential” to competition? And is this just a set-up for punishing success — which hardly promotes competition, innovation or consumer welfare?

And, let’s be honest here, when the CEA is considering Big Data as an essential facility they are at least partially focused on Google and its various search properties. Google is frequently the target for “essentialist” critics who argue, among other things, that Google’s prioritization of its own properties in its own search results violates antitrust rules. The story goes that Google search is so valuable that when Google publishes its own shopping results ahead of its various competitors, it is engaging in anticompetitive conduct. But this is a terribly myopic view of what the choices are for search services because, as Geoffrey Manne has so ably noted before, “competitors denied access to the top few search results at Google’s site are still able to advertise their existence and attract users through a wide range of other advertising outlets[.]”

Moreover, as more and more users migrate to specialized apps on their mobile devices for a variety of content, Google’s desktop search becomes just one choice among many for finding information. All of this leaves to one side, of course, the fact that for some categories, Google has incredibly stiff competition.

Thus it is that

to the extent that inclusion in Google search results is about “Stiglerian” search-cost reduction for websites (and it can hardly be anything else), the range of alternate facilities for this function is nearly limitless.

The troubling thing here is that, given the breezy analysis of the Order and the CEA brief, I don’t think the White House is really considering the long-term legal and economic implications of its command; the Order appears to be much more about political support for favored agency actions already under way.

Indeed, despite the length of the CEA brief and the variety of antitrust principles recited in the Order itself, an accompanying release points to what is really going on (at least in part). The White House, along with the FCC, seems to think that the embedded streams in a cable or satellite broadcast should be considered a form of essential facility that is an indispensable component of video consumers’ choice (which is laughable given the magnitude of choice in video consumption options that consumers enjoy today).

And, to the extent that courts might apply the (controversial) essential facilities doctrine, an “indispensable requirement … is the unavailability of access to the ‘essential facilities’[.]” This is clearly not the case with much of what the CEA brief points to as examples of ostensibly laudable pro-competitive regulation.

The doctrine wouldn’t apply, for instance, to the FCC’s Open Internet Order since edge providers have access to customers over networks, even where network providers want to zero-rate, employ usage-based billing or otherwise negotiate connection fees and prioritization. And it also doesn’t apply to the set-top box kerfuffle; while third-parties aren’t able to access the video streams that make-up a cable broadcast, the market for consuming those streams is a single part of the entire video ecosystem. What really matters there is access to viewers, and the ability to provide services to consumers and compete for their business.

Yet, according to the White House, “the set-top box is the mascot” for the administration’s competition Order, because, apparently, cable boxes represent “what happens when you don’t have the choice to go elsewhere.” ( “Elsewhere” to the White House, I assume, cannot include Roku, Apple TV, Hulu, Netflix, and a myriad of other video options  that consumers can currently choose among.)

The set-top box is, according to the White House, a prime example of the problem that

[a]cross our economy, too many consumers are dealing with inferior or overpriced products, too many workers aren’t getting the wage increases they deserve, too many entrepreneurs and small businesses are getting squeezed out unfairly by their bigger competitors, and overall we are not seeing the level of innovative growth we would like to see.

This is, of course, nonsense. Consumers enjoy an incredible amount of low-cost, high quality goods (including video options) – far more than at any point in history.  After all:

From cable to Netflix to Roku boxes to Apple TV to Amazon FireStick, we have more ways to find and watch TV than ever — and we can do so in our living rooms, on our phones and tablets, and on seat-back screens at 30,000 feet. Oddly enough, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler … agrees: “American consumers enjoy unprecedented choice in how they view entertainment, news and sports programming. You can pretty much watch what you want, where you want, when you want.”

Thus, I suspect that the White House has its eye on a broader regulatory agenda.

For instance, the Department of Labor recently announced that it would be extending its reach in the financial services industry by changing the standard for when financial advice might give rise to a fiduciary relationship under ERISA. It seems obvious that the SEC or FINRA could have taken up the slack for any financial services regulatory issues – it’s certainly within their respective wheelhouses. But that’s not the direction the administration took, possibly because SEC and FINRA are independent agencies. Thus, the DOL – an agency with substantially less financial and consumer protection experience than either the SEC or FINRA — has expansive new authority.

And that’s where more of the language in the Order comes into focus. It directs agencies to “ensur[e] that consumers and workers have access to the information needed to make informed choices[.]” The text of the DOL rule develops for itself a basis in competition law as well:

The current proposal’s defined boundaries between fiduciary advice, education, and sales activity directed at large plans, may bring greater clarity to the IRA and plan services markets. Innovation in new advice business models, including technology-driven models, may be accelerated, and nudged away from conflicts and toward transparency, thereby promoting healthy competition in the fiduciary advice market.

Thus, it’s hard to see what the White House is doing in the Order, other than laying the groundwork for expansive authority of non-independent executive agencies under the thin guise of promoting competition. Perhaps the President believes that couching this expansion in free market terms ( i.e. that its “pro-competition”) will somehow help the initiatives go through with minimal friction. But there is nothing in the Order or the CEA brief to provide any confidence that competition will, in fact, be promoted. And in the end I have trouble seeing how this sort of regulatory adventurism does not run afoul of separation of powers issues, as well as assorted other legal challenges.

Finally, conjuring up a regulatory version of the essential facilities doctrine as a support for this expansion is simply a terrible idea — one that smacks much more of industrial policy than of sound regulatory reform or consumer protection.

It is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment that the government may not penalize private speech merely because it disapproves of the message it conveys.

The Federal Circuit handed down a victory for free expression today — in the commercial context no less. At issue was the Lanham Act’s § 2(a) prohibition of trademark registrations that

[c]onsist[] of or comprise[] immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.

The court, sitting en banc, held that the “disparaging” provision is an unconstitutional violation of free expression, and that trademarks will indeed be protected by the First Amendment. Although it declined to decide whether the other prohibitions actually violated the First Amendment, the opinion contained a very strong suggestion to future panels that this opinion likely applies in that context as well.

In many respects the opinion was not all that surprising (particularly if you’ve read my thoughts on the subject here and here ). However given that it was a predecessor Court of Customs and Patent Appeals decision, In Re McGinley, that once held that First Amendment concerns were not implicated at all by § 2(a) because “it is clear that the … refusal to register appellant’s mark does not affect his right to use it” — totally ignoring of course the chilling effects on speech — it was by no means certain that this decision would come out correctly decided.

Today’s holding vacated a decision from a three-judge panel that, earlier this year, upheld the ill-fated “disparaging” prohibition. From just a cursory reading of § 2(a), it should be a no-brainer that it clearly implicates the content of speech — if not a particular view point — and should get at least some First Amendment scrutiny. However, the earlier three-judge opinion  gave all of three paragraphs to this consideration — one of which was just a quotation from McGinley. There, the three-judge panel rather tersely concluded that the First Amendment argument was “foreclosed by our precedent.”

Thus it was with pleasure that I read the Federal Circuit as it today acknowledged that “[m]ore than thirty years have passed since the decision in McGinley, and in that time both the McGinley decision and our reliance on it have been widely criticized[.]” The core of the First Amendment analysis is fairly straightforward: barring “disparaging” marks from registration is neither content neutral nor viewpoint neutral, and is therefore subject to strict scrutiny (which it fails). The court notes that McGinley’s First Amendment analysis was “cursory” (to put it mildly), and was decided before a fully developed body of commercial speech doctrine had emerged. Overall, the opinion is a good example of subtle, probing First Amendment analysis, wherein the court really grasps that merely labeling speech as “commercial” does not somehow magically strip away any protected expressive content.

In fact, perhaps the most important and interesting material has to do with this commercial speech analysis. The court acknowledges that the government’s policy against “disparaging” marks is targeting the expressive aspects of trademarks and not the more easily regulable “transactional” aspects (such as product information, pricing, etc.)— to look at § 2(a) otherwise would not make sense as the government is rather explicitly trying to stop certain messages because of their noncommercial aspects. And the court importantly acknowledges the Supreme Court’s admonition that “[a] consumer’s concern for the free flow of commercial speech often may be far keener than his concern for urgent political dialogue” ( although I might go so far as to hazard a guess that commercial speech is more important that political speech, most of the time, to most people, but perhaps I am just cynical).

The upshot of the Federal Circuit’s new view of trademarks and “commercial speech” reinforces the notion that regulations and laws that are directed toward “commercial speech” need to be very narrowly focused on the actual “commercial” message — pricing, source, etc. — and cannot veer into controlling the “expressive” aspects without justification under strict scrutiny. Although there is nothing terrible new or shocking here, the opinion ties together a variety of the commercial speech doctrines, gives much needed clarity to trademark registration, and reaffirms a sensible view of commercial speech law.

And, although I may be reading too deeply based on my preferences, I think the opinion is quietly staking out a useful position for commercial speech cases going forward—at least to a speech maximalist like myself. In particular, it explicitly relies upon the “unconstitutional conditions” doctrine for the proposition that the benefits of government programs cannot be granted upon a condition that a party only engage in “good” or “approved” commercial speech.  As the world becomes increasingly interested in hate speech regulation,  and our college campuses more interested in preparing a generation of”safe spacers” than of critically thinking adults, this will undoubtedly become an important arrow in a speech defender’s quiver.

In short, all of this hand-wringing over privacy is largely a tempest in a teapot — especially when one considers the extent to which the White House and other government bodies have studiously ignored the real threat: government misuse of data à la the NSA. It’s almost as if the White House is deliberately shifting the public’s gaze from the reality of extensive government spying by directing it toward a fantasy world of nefarious corporations abusing private information….

The White House’s proposed bill is emblematic of many government “fixes” to largely non-existent privacy issues, and it exhibits the same core defects that undermine both its claims and its proposed solutions. As a result, the proposed bill vastly overemphasizes regulation to the dangerous detriment of the innovative benefits of Big Data for consumers and society at large.

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In March 2014, the U.S. Government’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA, the Executive Branch’s telecommunications policy agency) abruptly announced that it did not plan to renew its contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to maintain core functions of the Internet. ICANN oversees the Internet domain name system through its subordinate agency, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). In its March statement, NTIA proposed that ICANN consult with “global stakeholders” to agree on an alternative to the “current role played by NTIA in the coordination of the Internet’s [domain name system].”

In recent months Heritage Foundation scholars have discussed concerns stemming from this vaguely-defined NTIA initiative (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here). These concerns include fears that eliminating the U.S. Government’s role in Internet governance could embolden other nations and international organizations (especially the International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the United Nations) to seek to regulate the Internet and limit speech, and create leeway for ICANN to expand beyond its core activities and trench upon Internet freedoms.

Although NTIA has testified that its transition plan would preclude such undesirable outcomes, the reaction to these assurances should be “trust but verify” (especially given the recent Administration endorsement of burdensome Internet common carrier regulation, which appears to be at odds with the spirit if not the letter of NTIA’s assurances).

Reflecting the “trust but verify” spirit, the just-introduced “Defending Internet Freedom Act of 2014” requires that NTIA maintain its existing Internet oversight functions, unless the NTIA Administrator certifies in writing that certain specified assurances have been met regarding Internet governance. Those assurances include findings that the management of the Internet domain name system will not be exercised by foreign governmental or intergovernmental bodies; that ICANN’s bylaws will be amended to uphold First Amendment-type freedoms of speech, assembly, and association; that a four-fifths supermajority will be required for changes in ICANN’s bylaws or fees for services; that an independent process for resolving disputes between ICANN and third parties be established; and that a host of other requirements aimed at protecting Internet freedoms and ensuring ICANN and IANA accountability be instituted.

Legislative initiatives of this sort, while no panacea, play a valuable role in signaling Congress’s intent to hold the Administration accountable for seeing to it that key Internet freedoms (including the avoidance of onerous regulation and deleterious restrictions on speech and content) are maintained. They merit thoughtful consideration.