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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.

In my just published Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum, I argue that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should substantially scale back its overly aggressive “advertising substantiation” program, which disincentivizes firms from providing the public with valuable information about the products they sell.  As I explain:

“The . . . [FTC] has a long history of vigorously combating false and deceptive advertising under its statutory authorities, but recent efforts by the FTC to impose excessive ‘advertising substantiation’ requirements on companies go far beyond what is needed to combat false advertising. Such actions threaten to discourage companies from providing useful information that consumers value and that improves the workings of the marketplace. They also are in tension with constitutional protection for commercial speech. The FTC should reform its advertising substantiation policy and allow businesses greater flexibility to tailor their advertising practices, which would further the interests of both consumers and businesses. It should also decline to seek ‘disgorgement’ of allegedly ‘ill-gotten gains’ in cases involving advertising substantiation.”

In particular, I recommend that the FTC issue a revised policy statement explaining that it will seek to restrict commercial speech to the minimum extent possible, consistent with fraud prevention, and will not require onerous clinical studies to substantiate non-fraudulent advertising claims.  I also urge that the FTC clarify that it will only seek equitable remedies (including injunctions and financial exactions) in court for cases of clear fraud.

I share Alden’s disappointment that the Supreme Court did not overrule Basic v. Levinson in Monday’s Halliburton decision.  I’m also surprised by the Court’s ruling.  As I explained in this lengthy post, I expected the Court to alter Basic to require Rule 10b-5 plaintiffs to prove that the complained of misrepresentation occasioned a price effect.  Instead, the Court maintained Basic’s rule that price impact is presumed if the plaintiff proves that the misinformation was public and material and that “the stock traded in an efficient market.”

An upshot of Monday’s decision is that courts adjudicating Rule 10b-5 class actions will continue to face at the outset not the fairly simple question of whether the misstatement at issue moved the relevant stock’s price but instead whether that stock was traded in an “efficient market.”  Focusing on market efficiency—rather than on price impact, ultimately the key question—raises practical difficulties and creates a bit of a paradox.

First, the practical difficulties.  How is a court to know whether the market in which a security is traded is “efficient” (or, given that market efficiency is not a binary matter, “efficient enough”)?  Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion suggested this is a simple inquiry, but it’s not.  Courts typically consider a number of factors to assess market efficiency.  According to one famous district court decision (Cammer), the relevant factors are: “(1) the stock’s average weekly trading volume; (2) the number of securities analysts that followed and reported on the stock; (3) the presence of market makers and arbitrageurs; (4) the company’s eligibility to file a Form S-3 Registration Statement; and (5) a cause-and-effect relationship, over time, between unexpected corporate events or financial releases and an immediate response in stock price.”  In re Securities Litig., 430 F.3d 503 (2005).  Other courts have supplemented these Cammer factors with a few others: market capitalization, the bid/ask spread, float, and analyses of autocorrelation.  No one can say, though, how each factor should be assessed (e.g., How many securities analysts must follow the stock? How much autocorrelation is permissible?  How large may the bid-ask spread be?).  Nor is there guidance on how to balance factors when some weigh in favor of efficiency and others don’t.  It’s a crapshoot.

In addition, focusing at the outset on whether the market at issue is efficient creates a market definition paradox in Rule 10b-5 actions.  When courts assess whether the market for a company’s stock is efficient, they assume that “the market” consists of trades in that company’s stock.  This is apparent from the Cammer (and supplementary) factors, all of which are company-specific.  It’s also implicit in portions of the Halliburton majority opinion, such as the observation that the plaintiff “submitted an event study of vari­ous episodes that might have been expected to affect the price of Halliburton’s stock, in order to demonstrate that the market for that stock takes account of material, public information about the company.”  (Emphasis added.)

But the semi-strong version of the Efficient Capital Markets Hypothesis (ECMH), the economic theorem upon which Basic rests, rejects the notion that there is a “market” for a single company’s stock.  Both the semi-strong ECMH and Basic reason that public misinformation is quickly incorporated into the price of securities traded on public exchanges.  Private misinformation, by contrast, usually is not – even when such misinformation results in large trades that significantly alter the quantity demanded or quantity supplied of the relevant stock.  The reason private misinformation is not taken to affect a security’s price, even when it results in substantial changes in quantities demanded or supplied, is because the relevant market is not the stock of that particular company but is instead the universe of stocks offering a similar package of risk and reward.  Because a private misinformation-induced increase in demand for a single company’s stock – even if large relative to the  number of shares outstanding – is likely to be tiny compared to the number of available shares of close substitutes for that company’s stock, private misinformation about a company is unlikely to be reflected in the price of the company’s stock.  Public misinformation, by contrast, affects a stock’s price because it not only changes quantities demanded and supplied but also causes investors to adjust their willingness-to-pay or willingness-to-accept.  Accordingly, both the semi-strong ECMH and Basic assume that only public misinformation can be assured to affect stock prices.  That’s why, as the Halliburton majority observes, there is a presumption of price effect only if the plaintiff proves public misinformation, materiality, and an efficient market.  (For a nice explanation of this idea in the context of a real case, see Judge Easterbrook’s opinion in West v. Prudential Securities.)

The paradox, then, is that Basic and the semi-strong ECMH, in requiring public misinformation, assume that the relevant market is not company specific.  But for purposes of determining whether the “market” is efficient, the market is assumed to consist of trades of a single company’s stock.

The Supreme Court could have avoided both the practical difficulties in assessing market efficiency and the theoretical paradox identified herein had it altered Basic to require plaintiffs to establish not an efficient market but an actual price impact. Alas.

On June 23 the Supreme Court regrettably declined the chance to stem the abuses of private fraud-based class action securities litigation.  In Halliburton v. EPJ Fund (June 23, 2014), a six-Justice Supreme Court majority (Chief Justice Roberts writing for the Court, joined by Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan) reversed the Fifth Circuit and held that a class action certification in a securities fraud case should be denied if the defendants produce evidence rebutting the presumption that defendants’ misrepresentations had a price impact. EPJ Fund filed a class action against Halliburton and one of its executives, alleging that they made misrepresentations designed to inflate Halliburton’s stock price, in violation of Section 10(b)(5) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Securities and Exchange Commission Rule 10b-5. In Basic v. Levinson (1988), the Supreme Court held that: (1) investors could satisfy the requirement that plaintiffs relied on defendants’ misrepresentations in buying stock by invoking a presumption that the price of stock traded reflects all public, material information, including material misrepresentations; but that (2) defendants could rebut this presumption by showing that the misrepresentations had no price impact.  Halliburton argued that class certification was inappropriate because the evidence it introduced to disprove loss causation also showed that its alleged misrepresentations had not affected its stock price, thereby rebutting the presumption. The district court rejected Halliburton’s argument and certified the class, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, concluding that Halliburton could use its evidence only at trial. Although the Court rejected Halliburton’s arguments for overturning Basic, it agreed with Halliburton that defendants must be afforded an opportunity to rebut the presumption of reliance before class certification, because the fact that a misrepresentation has a price impact is “Basic’s fundamental premise.”

Justice Thomas, joined by Scalia and Alito, concurred in the judgment, but argued that the “fraud on the market” (FOTM) theory embodied in Basic should be overruled, based on logic, economic realities (“market efficiency has . . . lost its luster”), and subsequent jurisprudence clarifying class certification requirements.  Significantly, the Thomas dissent points to a variety of well-recognized motives for the purchase of securities that have nothing to do with a presumption (key to the FOTM theory) that the market accurately reflects the value of a stock in light of all public information:  “Many investors in fact trade for the opposite reason—that is, because they think the market has under- or overvalued the stock, and they believe they can profit from that mispricing. . . .  Other investors trade for reasons entirely unrelated to price—for instance, to address changing liquidity needs, tax concerns, or portfolio balancing requirements. . . .  In short, Basic’s assumption that all investors rely in common on price integrity is simply wrong.”  [citation omitted]

Thomas, Scalia, and Alito are right – the Court’s majority missed a major opportunity to rein in class action opportunism by failing to consign Basic to the graveyard of economically flawed Supreme Court precedents, where it belongs.  Given the costs and difficulties inherent in rebutting the presumption of reliance at the class action stage, Halliburton at best appears likely to impose only a minor constraint on securities fraud class actions.

The FOTM presumption that has enabled a substantial rise in securities class action litigation over the last quarter century makes no economic sense, according to the scholarly consensus.  What’s more, it imposes a variety of social harms on the very groups that were supposed to benefit from this doctrine, as described in a recent study of the political economy of FOTM.  Specifically, longer-term shareholders end up bearing the cost of class action settlements that benefit plaintiffs’ trial lawyers, and to the extent paying and receiving shareholders are fully diversified, FOTM is a wash in terms of compensation that turns into a net loss when costs including attorneys’ fees are included.  Moreover, FOTM’s utility as a fraud deterrent is “much muted” because payments are made by the corporation and its insurer, not the individual culpable agents.  In short, “[w]hen the dust settles, FOTM not only fails to meet its stated goals, it does not even try.”

Not included in this litany of FOTM’s shortcomings is the serious issue of error costs, and in particular the harmful avoidance of novel but efficient behavior by corporate officials that fear it will incorrectly be deemed “fraudulent.”  This largely stems from the fact that “fraud” is not precisely defined in the securities law context, which has led to “at least three costs: public and private actions are not brought on behalf of clearly specified regulatory objectives; the line between civil and criminal liability has become unacceptably blurred; and the law has come to provide at best a weak means of resolving vital public questions about wrongdoing in financial markets.

In light of these problems, Congress should eliminate the eligibility of private securities fraud suits for class action certification.  Moreover, Congress should require a showing of specific reliance on fraudulent information as a prerequisite to any finding of liability in a private individual action.  What’s more, Congress ideally should require that the SEC define with greater specificity what categories of conduct it will deem actionable fraud, based on economic analysis, as a prerequisite for bringing enforcement actions in this area.

Public choice insights suggest this wish list will be difficult to obtain, of course (but not impossible, as passage of the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 demonstrates).  Public support for reform might be sparked by drawing greater attention to the fact that class action securities litigation has actually tended to harm, rather than help, small investors.

What about even more far-reaching securities law reforms?  Asking Congress to consider decriminalizing insider trading undoubtedly is unrealistic at this juncture, but it is interesting to note that even mainstream journalists are starting to question the social utility of the SEC’s current crackdown on insider trading.  This focus may lead to a serious case of misplaced priorities.  Notably, as leading Federal District Court Judge (SDNY) and former Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) Jed Rakoff has stressed, AUSAs avoid pursuing far more serious frauds arising out of the 2008 Financial Crisis in favor of bringing insider trading cases because the latter are easier to investigate and prosecute in a few years’ time, and, thus, best enhance the AUSAs’ marketability to law firms.  (Hat tip to my Heritage colleague Paul Larkin for the Rakoff reference.)