Biden administration enforcers at the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have prioritized labor-market monopsony issues for antitrust scrutiny (see, for example, here and here). This heightened interest comes in light of claims that labor markets are highly concentrated and are rife with largely neglected competitive problems that depress workers’ income. Such concerns are reflected in a March 2022 U.S. Treasury Department report on “The State of Labor Market Competition.”
Monopsony is the “flip side” of monopoly and U.S. antitrust law clearly condemns agreements designed to undermine the “buyer side” competitive process (see, for example, this U.S. government submission to the OECD). But is a special new emphasis on labor markets warranted, given that antitrust enforcers ideally should seek to allocate their scarce resources to the most pressing (highest valued) areas of competitive concern?
A May 2022 Information Technology & Innovation (ITIF) study from ITIF Associate Director (and former FTC economist) Julie Carlson indicates that the degree of emphasis the administration’s antitrust enforcers are placing on labor issues may be misplaced. In particular, the ITIF study debunks the Treasury report’s findings of high levels of labor-market concentration and the claim that workers face a “decrease in wages [due to labor market power] at roughly 20 percent relative to the level in a fully competitive market.” Furthermore, while noting the importance of DOJ antitrust prosecutions of hard-core anticompetitive agreements among employers (wage-fixing and no-poach agreements), the ITIF report emphasizes policy reforms unrelated to antitrust as key to improving workers’ lot.
Key takeaways from the ITIF report include:
Labor markets are not highly concentrated. Local labor-market concentration has been declining for decades, with the most concentrated markets seeing the largest declines.
Labor-market power is largely due to labor-market frictions, such as worker preferences, search costs, bargaining, and occupational licensing, rather than concentration.
As a case study, changes in concentration in the labor market for nurses have little to no effect on wages, whereas nurses’ preferences over job location are estimated to lead to wage markdowns of 50%.
Firms are not profiting at the expense of workers. The decline in the labor share of national income is primarily due to rising home values, not increased labor-market concentration.
Policy reform should focus on reducing labor-market frictions and strengthening workers’ ability to collectively bargain. Policies targeting concentration are misguided and will be ineffective at improving outcomes for workers.
Introducing the evaluation of labor market effects unnecessarily complicates merger review and needlessly ties up agency resources at a time when the agencies are facing severe resource constraints.48 As discussed previously, labor markets are not highly concentrated, nor is labor market concentration a key factor driving down wages.
A proposed merger that is reportable to the agencies under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act and likely to have an anticompetitive effect in a relevant labor market is also likely to have an anticompetitive effect in a relevant product market. … Evaluating mergers for labor market effects is unnecessary and costly for both firms and the agencies. The current merger guidelines adequately address competition concerns in input markets, so any contemplated revision to the guidelines should not incorporate a “framework to analyze mergers that may lessen competition in labor markets.” [Citation to Request for Information on Merger Enforcement omitted.]
In sum, the administration’s recent pronouncements about highly anticompetitive labor markets that have resulted in severely underpaid workers—used as the basis to justify heightened antitrust emphasis on labor issues—appear to be based on false premises. As such, they are a species of government misinformation, which, if acted upon, threatens to misallocate scarce enforcement resources and thereby undermine efficient government antitrust enforcement. What’s more, an unnecessary overemphasis on labor-market antitrust questions could impose unwarranted investigative costs on companies and chill potentially efficient business transactions. (Think of a proposed merger that would reduce production costs and benefit consumers but result in a workforce reduction by the merged firm.)
Perhaps the administration will take heed of the ITIF report and rethink its plans to ramp up labor-market antitrust-enforcement initiatives. Promoting pro-market regulatory reforms that benefit both labor and consumers (for instance, excessive occupational-licensing restrictions) would be a welfare-superior and cheaper alternative to misbegotten antitrust actions.
[Wrapping up the first week of our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposiumis a post from Truth on the Market’s own Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, director of law & economics programs at the International Center for Law & Economics and an assistant professor of law and co-director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecom Law program at the University of Nebraska College of Law. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]
In 2014, I published a pair of articles—”Administrative Antitrust” and “Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust”—that argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent antitrust and administrative-law jurisprudence was pushing antitrust law out of the judicial domain and into the domain of regulatory agencies. The first article focused on the Court’s then-recent antitrust cases, arguing that the Court, which had long since moved away from federal common law, had shown a clear preference that common-law-like antitrust law be handled on a statutory or regulatory basis where possible. The second article evaluated and rejected the FTC’s long-held belief that the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) interpretations of the FTC Act do not receive Chevron deference.
Together, these articles made the case (as a descriptive, not normative, matter) that we were moving towards a period of what I called “administrative antitrust.” From today’s perspective, it surely seems that I was right, with the FTC set to embrace Section 5’s broad ambiguities to redefine modern understandings of antitrust law. Indeed, those articles have been cited by both former FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra and current FTC Chair Lina Khan in speeches and other materials that have led up to our current moment.
This essay revisits those articles, in light of the past decade of Supreme Court precedent. It comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with recent cases that the Court is increasingly viewing the broad deference characteristic of administrative law with what, charitably, can be called skepticism. While I stand by the analysis offered in my previous articles—and, indeed, believe that the Court maintains a preference for administratively defined antitrust law over judicially defined antitrust law—I find it less likely today that the Court would defer to any agency interpretation of antitrust law that represents more than an incremental move away from extant law.
I will approach this discussion in four parts. First, I will offer some reflections on the setting of my prior articles. The piece on Chevron and the FTC, in particular, argued that the FTC had misunderstood how Chevron would apply to its interpretations of the FTC Act because it was beholden to out-of-date understandings of administrative law. I will make the point below that the same thing can be said today. I will then briefly recap the essential elements of the arguments made in both of those prior articles, to the extent needed to evaluate how administrative approaches to antitrust will be viewed by the Court today. The third part of the discussion will then summarize some key elements of administrative law that have changed over roughly the past decade. And, finally, I will bring these elements together to look at the viability of administrative antitrust today, arguing that the FTC’s broad embrace of power anticipated by many is likely to meet an ill fate at the hands of the courts on both antitrust and administrative law grounds.
In reviewing these past articles in light of the past decade’s case law, this essay reaches an important conclusion: for the same reasons that the Court seemed likely in 2013 to embrace an administrative approach to antitrust, today it is likely to view such approaches with great skepticism unless they are undertaken on an incrementalist basis. Others are currently developing arguments that sound primarily in current administrative law: the major questions doctrine and the potential turn away from National Petroleum Refiners. My conclusion is based primarily in the Court’s view that administrative antitrust would prove less indeterminate than judicially defined antitrust law. If the FTC shows that not to be the case, the Court seems likely to close the door on administrative antitrust for reasons sounding in both administrative and antitrust law.
Setting the Stage, Circa 2013
It is useful to start by visiting the stage as it was set when I wrote “Administrative Antitrust” and “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” in 2013. I wrote these articles while doing a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, prior to which I had spent several years working at the U.S. Justice Department Antitrust Division’s Telecommunications Section. This was a great time to be involved on the telecom side of antitrust, especially for someone with an interest in administrative law, as well. Recent important antitrust cases included Pacific Bell v. linkLine and Verizon v. Trinko and recent important administrative-law cases included Brand-X, Fox v. FCC, and City of Arlington v. FCC. Telecommunications law was defining the center of both fields.
I started working on “Administrative Antitrust” first, prompted by what I admit today was an overreading of the Court’s 2011 American Electric Power Co. Inc. v. Connecticut opinion, in which the Court held broadly that a decision by Congress to regulate broadly displaces judicial common law. In Trinko and Credit Suisse, the Court had held something similar: roughly, that regulation displaces antitrust law. Indeed, in linkLine,the Court had stated that regulation is preferable to antitrust, known for its vicissitudes and adherence to the extra-judicial development of economic theory. “Administrative Antitrust” tied these strands together, arguing that antitrust law, long-discussed as one of the few remaining bastions of federal common law, would—and in the Court’s eyes, should—be displaced by regulation.
Antitrust and administrative law also came together, and remain together, in the debates over net neutrality. It was this nexus that gave rise to “Limits of Administrative Antitrust,” which I started in 2013 while working on “Administrative Antitrust”and waiting for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Verizon v. FCC.
Some background on the net-neutrality debate is useful. In 2007, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) attempted to put in place net-neutrality rules by adopting a policy statement on the subject. This approach was rejected by the D.C. Circuit in 2010, on grounds that a mere policy statement lacked the force of law. The FCC then adopted similar rules through a rulemaking process, finding authority to issue those rules in its interpretation of the ambiguous language of Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. In January 2014, the D.C. Circuit again rejected the specific rules adopted by the FCC, on grounds that those rules violated the Communications Act’s prohibition on treating internet service providers (ISPs) as common carriers. But critically, the court affirmed the FCC’s interpretation of Section 706 as allowing it, in principle, to adopt rules regulating ISPs.
Unsurprisingly, whether the language of Section 706 was either ambiguous or subject to the FCC’s interpretation was a central debate within the regulatory community during 2012 and 2013. The broadest consensus, at least among my peers, was strongly of the view that it was neither: the FCC and industry had long read Section 706 as not giving the FCC authority to regulate ISP conduct and, to the extent that it did confer legislative authority, that authority was expressly deregulatory. I was the lone voice arguing that the D.C. Circuit was likely to find that Chevron applied to Section 706 and that the FCC’s reading was permissible on its own (that is, not taking into account such restrictions as the prohibition on treating non-common carriers as common carriers).
I actually had thought this conclusion quite obvious. The past decade of the Court’s Chevron case law followed a trend of increasing deference. Starting with Mead, then Brand-X, Fox v. FCC, and City of Arlington, the safe money was consistently placed on deference to the agency.
This was the setting in which I started thinking about what became “Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust.” If my argument in “Administrative Antitrust”was right—that the courts would push development of antitrust law from the courts to regulatory agencies—this would most clearly happen through the FTC’s Section 5 authority over unfair methods of competition (UMC). But there was longstanding debate about the limits of the FTC’s UMC authority. These debates included whether it was necessarily coterminous with the Sherman Act (so limited by the judicially defined federal common law of antitrust).
And there was discussion about whether the FTC would receive Chevron deference to its interpretations of its UMC authority. As with the question of the FCC receiving deference to its interpretation of Section 706, there was widespread understanding that the FTC would not receive Chevron deference to its interpretations of its Section 5 UMC authority. “Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust” explored that issue, ultimately concluding that the FTC likely would indeed be given the benefit of Chevron deference, tracing the commission’s belief to the contrary back to longstanding institutional memory of pre-Chevron judicial losses.
The Administrative Antitrust Argument
The discussion above is more than mere historical navel-gazing. The context and setting in which those prior articles were written is important to understanding both their arguments and the continual currents that propel us across antitrust’s sea of doubt. But we should also look at the specific arguments from each paper in some detail, as well.
The opening lines of this paper capture the curious judicial statute of antitrust law:
Antitrust is a peculiar area of law, one that has long been treated as exceptional by the courts. Antitrust cases are uniquely long, complicated, and expensive; individual cases turn on case-specific facts, giving them limited precedential value; and what precedent there is changes on a sea of economic—rather than legal—theory. The principal antitrust statutes are minimalist and have left the courts to develop their meaning. As Professor Thomas Arthur has noted, “in ‘the anti-trust field the courts have been accorded, by common consent, an authority they have in no other branch of enacted law.’” …
This Article argues that the Supreme Court is moving away from this exceptionalist treatment of antitrust law and is working to bring antitrust within a normalized administrative law jurisprudence.
Much of this argument is based in the arguments framed above: Trinko and Credit Suisse prioritize regulation over the federal common law of antitrust, and American Electric Power emphasizes the general displacement of common law by regulation. The article adds, as well, the Court’s focus, at the time, against domain-specific “exceptionalism.” Its opinion in Mayo had rejected the longstanding view that tax law was “exceptional” in some way that excluded it from the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and other standard administrative law doctrine. And thus, so too must the Court’s longstanding treatment of antitrust as exceptional also fall.
Those arguments can all be characterized as pulling antitrust law toward an administrative approach. But there was a push as well. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts expressed substantial concern about the difficulties that antitrust law poses for courts and litigants alike. His opinion for the majority notes that “it is difficult enough for courts to identify and remedy an alleged anticompetitive practice” and laments “[h]ow is a judge or jury to determine a ‘fair price?’” And Justice Stephen Breyer writes in concurrence, that “[w]hen a regulatory structure exists [as it does in this case] to deter and remedy anticompetitive harm, the costs of antitrust enforcement are likely to be greater than the benefits.”
In other words, the argument in “Administrative Antitrust” goes, the Court is motivated both to bring antitrust law into a normalized administrative-law framework and also to remove responsibility for the messiness inherent in antitrust law from the courts’ dockets. This latter point will be of particular importance as we turn to how the Court is likely to think about the FTC’s potential use of its UMC authority to develop new antitrust rules.
Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust
The core argument in “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” is more doctrinal and institutionally focused. In its simplest statement, I merely applied Chevron as it was understood circa 2013 to the FTC’s UMC authority. There is little argument that “unfair methods of competition” is inherently ambiguous—indeed, the term was used, and the power granted to the FTC, expressly to give the agency flexibility and to avoid the limits the Court was placing on antitrust law in the early 20th century.
There are various arguments against application of Chevron to Section 5; the article goes through and rejects them all. Section 5 has long been recognized as including, but being broader than, the Sherman Act. National Petroleum Refiners has long held that the FTC has substantive-rulemaking authority—a conclusion made even more forceful by the Supreme Court’s more recent opinion in Iowa Utilities Board. Other arguments are (or were) unavailing.
The real puzzle the paper unpacks is why the FTC ever believed it wouldn’t receive the benefit of Chevron deference. The article traces it back to a series of cases the FTC lost in the 1980s, contemporaneous with the development of the Chevron doctrine. The commission had big losses in cases like E.I. Du Pont and Ethyl Corp. Perhaps most important, in its 1986 Indiana Federation of Dentists opinion (two years after Chevron was decided), the Court seemed to adopt a de novo standard for review of Section 5 cases. But, “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” argues, this is a misreading and overreading of Indiana Federation of Dentists (a close reading of which actually suggests that it is entirely in line with Chevron), and it misunderstands the case’s relationship with Chevron (the importance of which did not start to come into focus for another several years).
The curious conclusion of the argument is, in effect, that a generation of FTC lawyers, “shell-shocked by its treatment in the courts,” internalized the lesson that they would not receive the benefits of Chevron deference and that Section 5 was subject to de novo review, but also that this would start to change as a new generation of lawyers, trained in the modern Chevron era, came to practice within the halls of the FTC. Today, that prediction appears to have borne out.
The conclusion from “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” that FTC lawyers failed to recognize that the agency would receive Chevron deference because they were half a generation behind the development of administrative-law doctrine is an important one. As much as antitrust law may be adrift in a sea of change, administrative law is even more so. From today’s perspective, it feels as though I wrote those articles at Chevron’s zenith—and watching the FTC consider aggressive use of its UMC authority feels like watching a commission that, once again, is half a generation behind the development of administrative law.
The tide against Chevron’sexpansive deference was already beginning to grow at the time I was writing. City of Arlington, though affirming application of Chevron to agencies’ interpretations of their own jurisdictional statutes in a 6-3 opinion, generated substantial controversy at the time. And a short while later, the Court decided a case that many in the telecom space view as a sea change: Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG). In UARG, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a 9-0 majority, struck down an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation related to greenhouse gasses. In doing so, he invoked language evocative of what today is being debated as the major questions doctrine—that the Court “expect[s] Congress to speak clearly if it wishes to assign to an agency decisions of vast economic and political significance.” Two years after that, the Court decided Encino Motorcars, in which the Court acted upon a limit expressed in Fox v. FCC that agencies face heightened procedural requirements when changing regulations that “may have engendered serious reliance interests.”
And just like that, the dams holding back concern over the scope of Chevron have burst. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have openly expressed their views that Chevron needs to be curtailed or eliminated. Justice Brett Kavanaugh has written extensively in favor of the major questions doctrine. Chief Justice Roberts invoked the major questions doctrine in King v. Burwell. Each term, litigants are more aggressively bringing more aggressive cases to probe and tighten the limits of the Chevron doctrine. As I write this, we await the Court’s opinion in American Hospital Association v. Becerra—which, it is widely believed could dramatically curtail the scope of the Chevron doctrine.
Administrative Antitrust, Redux
The prospects for administrative antitrust look very different today than they did a decade ago. While the basic argument continues to hold—the Court will likely encourage and welcome a transition of antitrust law to a normalized administrative jurisprudence—the Court seems likely to afford administrative agencies (viz., the FTC) much less flexibility in how they administer antitrust law than they would have a decade ago. This includes through both the administrative-law vector, with the Court reconsidering how it views delegation of congressional authority to agencies such as through the major questions doctrine and agency rulemaking authority, as well as through the Court’s thinking about how agencies develop and enforce antitrust law.
Major Questions and Major Rules
Two hotly debated areas where we see this trend: the major questions doctrine and the ongoing vitality of National Petroleum Refiners. These are only briefly recapitulated here. The major questions doctrine is an evolving doctrine, seemingly of great interest to many current justices on the Court, that requires Congress to speak clearly when delegating authority to agencies to address major questions—that is, questions of vast economic and political significance. So, while the Court may allow an agency to develop rules governing mergers when tasked by Congress to prohibit acquisitions likely to substantially lessen competition, it is unlikely to allow that agency to categorically prohibit mergers based upon a general congressional command to prevent unfair methods of competition. The first of those is a narrow rule based upon a specific grant of authority; the other is a very broad rule based upon a very general grant of authority.
The major questions doctrine has been a major topic of discussion in administrative-law circles for the past several years. Interest in the National Petroleum Refiners question has been more muted, mostly confined to those focused on the FTC and FCC. National Petroleum Refiners is a 1973 D.C. Circuit case that found that the FTC Act’s grant of power to make rules to implement the act confers broad rulemaking power relating to the act’s substantive provisions. In 1999, the Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion in Iowa Utilities Board, finding that a provision in Section 202 of the Communications Act allowing the FCC to create rules seemingly for the implementation of that section conferred substantive rulemaking power running throughout the Communications Act.
Both National Petroleum Refiners and Iowa Utilities Board reflect previous generations’ understanding of administrative law—and, in particular, the relationship between the courts and Congress in empowering and policing agency conduct. That understanding is best captured in the evolution of the non-delegation doctrine, and the courts’ broad acceptance of broad delegations of congressional power to agencies in the latter half of the 20th century. National Petroleum Refiners and Iowa Utilities Board are not non-delegation cases-—but, similar to the major questions doctrine, they go to similar issues of how specific Congress must be when delegating broad authority to an agency.
In theory, there is little difference between an agency that can develop legal norms through case-by-case adjudications that are backstopped by substantive and procedural judicial review, on the one hand, and authority to develop substantive rules backstopped by procedural judicial review and by Congress as a check on substantive errors. In practice, there is a world of difference between these approaches. As with the Court’s concerns about the major questions doctrine, were the Court to review National Petroleum Refiners Association or Iowa Utilities Board today, it seems at least possible, if not simply unlikely, that most of the Justices would not so readily find agencies to have such broad rulemaking authority without clear congressional intent supporting such a finding.
Both of these ideas—the major question doctrine and limits on broad rules made using thin grants of rulemaking authority—present potential limits on the potential scope of rules the FTC might make using its UMC authority.
Limits on the Antitrust Side of Administrative Antitrust
The potential limits on FTC UMC rulemaking discussed above sound in administrative-law concerns. But administrative antitrust may also find a tepid judicial reception on antitrust concerns, as well.
Many of the arguments advanced in “Administrative Antitrust” and the Court’s opinions on the antitrust-regulation interface echo traditional administrative-law ideas. For instance, much of the Court’s preference that agencies granted authority to engage in antitrust or antitrust-adjacent regulation take precedence over the application of judicially defined antitrust law track the same separation of powers and expertise concerns that are central to the Chevron doctrine itself.
But the antitrust-focused cases—linkLine, Trinko, Credit Suisse—also express concerns specific to antitrust law. Chief Justice Roberts notes that the justices “have repeatedly emphasized the importance of clear rules in antitrust law,” and the need for antitrust rules to “be clear enough for lawyers to explain them to clients.” And the Court and antitrust scholars have long noted the curiosity that antitrust law has evolved over time following developments in economic theory. This extra-judicial development of the law runs contrary to basic principles of due process and the stability of the law.
The Court’s cases in this area express hope that an administrative approach to antitrust could give a clarity and stability to the law that is currently lacking. These are rules of vast economic significance: they are “the Magna Carta of free enterprise”; our economy organizes itself around them; substantial changes to these rules could have a destabilizing effect that runs far deeper than Congress is likely to have anticipated when tasking an agency with enforcing antitrust law. Empowering agencies to develop these rules could, the Court’s opinions suggest, allow for a more thoughtful, expert, and deliberative approach to incorporating incremental developments in economic knowledge into the law.
If an agency’s administrative implementation of antitrust law does not follow this path—and especially if the agency takes a disruptive approach to antitrust law that deviates substantially from established antitrust norms—this defining rationale for an administrative approach to antitrust would not hold.
The courts could respond to such overreach in several ways. They could invoke the major questions or similar doctrines, as above. They could raise due-process concerns, tracking Fox v. FCC and Encino Motorcars, to argue that any change to antitrust law must not be unduly disruptive to engendered reliance interests. They could argue that the FTC’s UMC authority, while broader than the Sherman Act, must be compatible with the Sherman Act. That is, while the FTC has authority for the larger circle in the antitrust Venn diagram, the courts continue to define the inner core of conduct regulated by the Sherman Act.
A final aspect to the Court’s likely approach to administrative antitrust falls from the Roberts Court’s decision-theoretic approach to antitrust law. First articulated in Judge Frank Easterbrook’s “The Limits of Antitrust,” the decision-theoretic approach to antitrust law focuses on the error costs of incorrect judicial decisions and the likelihood that those decisions will be corrected. The Roberts Court has strongly adhered to this framework in its antitrust decisions. This can be seen, for instance, in Justice Breyer’s statement that: “When a regulatory structure exists to deter and remedy anticompetitive harm, the costs of antitrust enforcement are likely to be greater than the benefits.”
The error-costs framework described by Judge Easterbrook focuses on the relative costs of errors, and correcting those errors, between judicial and market mechanisms. In the administrative-antitrust setting, the relevant comparison is between judicial and administrative error costs. The question on this front is whether an administrative agency, should it get things wrong, is likely to correct. Here there are two models, both of concern. The first is that in which law is policy or political preference. Here, the FCC’s approach to net neutrality and the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) approach to labor law loom large; there have been dramatic swing between binary policy preferences held by different political parties as control of agencies shifts between administrations. The second model is one in which Congress responds to agency rules by refining, rejecting, or replacing them through statute. Here, again, net neutrality and the FCC loom large, with nearly two decades of calls for Congress to clarify the FCC’s authority and statutory mandate, while the agency swings between policies with changing administrations.
Both of these models reflect poorly on the prospects for administrative antitrust and suggest a strong likelihood that the Court would reject any ambitious use of administrative authority to remake antitrust law. The stability of these rules is simply too important to leave to change with changing political wills. And, indeed, concern that Congress no longer does its job of providing agencies with clear direction—that Congress has abdicated its job of making important policy decisions and let them fall instead to agency heads—is one of the animating concerns behind the major questions doctrine.
Writing in 2013, it seemed clear that the Court was pushing antitrust law in an administrative direction, as well as that the FTC would likely receive broad Chevron deference in its interpretations of its UMC authority to shape and implement antitrust law. Roughly a decade later, the sands have shifted and continue to shift. Administrative law is in the midst of a retrenchment, with skepticism of broad deference and agency claims of authority.
Many of the underlying rationales behind the ideas of administrative antitrust remain sound. Indeed, I expect the FTC will play an increasingly large role in defining the contours of antitrust law and that the Court and courts will welcome this role. But that role will be limited. Administrative antitrust is a preferred vehicle for administering antitrust law, not for changing it. Should the FTC use its power aggressively, in ways that disrupt longstanding antitrust principles or seem more grounded in policy better created by Congress, it is likely to find itself on the losing side of the judicial opinion.
A raft of progressive scholars in recent years have argued that antitrust law remains blind to the emergence of so-called “attention markets,” in which firms compete by converting user attention into advertising revenue. This blindness, the scholars argue, has caused antitrust enforcers to clear harmful mergers in these industries.
It certainly appears the argument is gaining increased attention, for lack of a better word, with sympathetic policymakers. In a recent call for comments regarding their joint merger guidelines, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ask:
How should the guidelines analyze mergers involving competition for attention? How should relevant markets be defined? What types of harms should the guidelines consider?
Unfortunately, the recent scholarly inquiries into attention markets remain inadequate for policymaking purposes. For example, while many progressives focus specifically on antitrust authorities’ decisions to clear Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram and 2014 purchase of WhatsApp, they largely tend to ignore the competitive constraints Facebook now faces from TikTok (here and here).
When firms that compete for attention seek to merge, authorities need to infer whether the deal will lead to an “attention monopoly” (if the merging firms are the only, or primary, market competitors for some consumers’ attention) or whether other “attention goods” sufficiently constrain the merged entity. Put another way, the challenge is not just in determining which firms compete for attention, but in evaluating how strongly each constrains the others.
As this piece explains, recent attention-market scholarship fails to offer objective, let alone quantifiable, criteria that might enable authorities to identify firms that are unique competitors for user attention. These limitations should counsel policymakers to proceed with increased rigor when they analyze anticompetitive effects.
The Shaky Foundations of Attention Markets Theory
Advocates for more vigorous antitrust intervention have raised (at least) three normative arguments that pertain attention markets and merger enforcement.
First, because they compete for attention, firms may be more competitively related than they seem at first sight. It is sometimes said that these firms are nascent competitors.
Second, the scholars argue that all firms competing for attention should not automatically be included in the same relevant market.
Finally, scholars argue that enforcers should adopt policy tools to measure market power in these attention markets—e.g., by applying a SSNIC test (“small but significant non-transitory increase in cost”), rather than a SSNIP test (“small but significant non-transitory increase in price”).
There are some contradictions among these three claims. On the one hand, proponents advocate adopting a broad notion of competition for attention, which would ensure that firms are seen as competitively related and thus boost the prospects that antitrust interventions targeting them will be successful. When the shoe is on the other foot, however, proponents fail to follow the logic they have sketched out to its natural conclusion; that is to say, they underplay the competitive constraints that are necessarily imposed by wider-ranging targets for consumer attention. In other words, progressive scholars are keen to ensure the concept is not mobilized to draw broader market definitions than is currently the case:
This “massive market” narrative rests on an obvious fallacy. Proponents argue that the relevant market includes all substitutable sources of attention depletion,” so the market is “enormous.”
Faced with this apparent contradiction, scholars retort that the circle can be squared by deploying new analytical tools that measure attention for competition, such as the so-called SSNIC test. But do these tools actually resolve the contradiction? It would appear, instead, that they merely enable enforcers to selectively mobilize the attention-market concept in ways that fit their preferences. Consider the following description of the SSNIC test, by John Newman:
But if the focus is on the zero-price barter exchange, the SSNIP test requires modification. In such cases, the “SSNIC” (Small but Significant and Non-transitory Increase in Cost) test can replace the SSNIP. Instead of asking whether a hypothetical monopolist would increase prices, the analyst should ask whether the monopolist would likely increase attention costs. The relevant cost increases can take the form of more time or space being devoted to advertisements, or the imposition of more distracting advertisements. Alternatively, one might ask whether the hypothetical monopolist would likely impose an “SSNDQ” (Small but Significant and Non-Transitory Decrease in Quality). The latter framing should generally be avoided, however, for reasons discussed below in the context of anticompetitive effects. Regardless of framing, however, the core question is what would happen if the ratio between desired content to advertising load were to shift.
The A-SSNIP would posit a hypothetical monopolist who adds a 5-second advertisement before the mobile map, and leaves it there for a year. If consumers accepted the delay, instead of switching to streaming video or other attentional options, then the market is correctly defined and calculation of market shares would be in order.
The key problem is this: consumer switching among platforms is consistent both with competition and with monopoly power. In fact, consumers are more likely to switch to other goods when they are faced with a monopoly. Perhaps more importantly, consumers can and do switch to a whole range of idiosyncratic goods. Absent some quantifiable metric, it is simply impossible to tell which of these alternatives are significant competitors.
None of this is new, of course. Antitrust scholars have spent decades wrestling with similar issues in connection with the price-related SSNIP test. The upshot of those debates is that the SSNIP test does not measure whether price increases cause users to switch. Instead, it examines whether firms can profitably raise prices above the competitive baseline. Properly understood, this nuance renders proposed SSNIC and SSNDQ tests (“small but significant non-transitory decrease in quality”) unworkable.
First and foremost, proponents wrongly presume to know how firms would choose to exercise their market power, rendering the resulting tests unfit for policymaking purposes. This mistake largely stems from the conflation of price levels and price structures in two-sided markets. In a two-sided market, the price level refers to the cumulative price charged to both sides of a platform. Conversely, the price structure refers to the allocation of prices among users on both sides of a platform (i.e., how much users on each side contribute to the costs of the platform). This is important because, as Jean Charles Rochet and Jean Tirole show in their Nobel-winning work, changes to either the price level or the price structure both affect economic output in two-sided markets.
This has powerful ramifications for antitrust policy in attention markets. To be analytically useful, SSNIC and SSNDQ tests would have to alter the price level while holding the price structure equal. This is the opposite of what attention-market theory advocates are calling for. Indeed, increasing ad loads or decreasing the quality of services provided by a platform, while holding ad prices constant, evidently alters platforms’ chosen price structure.
This matters. Even if the proposed tests were properly implemented (which would be difficult: it is unclear what a 5% quality degradation would look like), the tests would likely lead to false negatives, as they force firms to depart from their chosen (and, thus, presumably profit-maximizing) price structure/price level combinations.
Consider the following illustration: to a first approximation, increasing the quantity of ads served on YouTube would presumably decrease Google’s revenues, as doing so would simultaneously increase output in the ad market (note that the test becomes even more absurd if ad revenues are held constant). In short, scholars fail to recognize that the consumer side of these markets is intrinsically related to the ad side. Each side affects the other in ways that prevent policymakers from using single-sided ad-load increases or quality decreases as an independent variable.
This leads to a second, more fundamental, flaw. To be analytically useful, these increased ad loads and quality deteriorations would have to be applied from the competitive baseline. Unfortunately, it is not obvious what this baseline looks like in two-sided markets.
Economic theory tells us that, in regular markets, goods are sold at marginal cost under perfect competition. However, there is no such shortcut in two-sided markets. As David Evans and Richard Schmalensee aptly summarize:
An increase in marginal cost on one side does not necessarily result in an increase in price on that side relative to price on the other. More generally, the relationship between price and cost is complex, and the simple formulas that have been derived by single-handed markets do not apply.
In other words, while economic theory suggests perfect competition among multi-sided platforms should result in zero economic profits, it does not say what the allocation of prices will look like in this scenario. There is thus no clearly defined competitive baseline upon which to apply increased ad loads or quality degradations. And this makes the SSNIC and SSNDQ tests unsuitable.
In short, the theoretical foundations necessary to apply the equivalent of a SSNIP test on the “free” side of two-sided platforms are largely absent (or exceedingly hard to apply in practice). Calls to implement SSNIC and SSNDQ tests thus greatly overestimate the current state of the art, as well as decision-makers’ ability to solve intractable economic conundrums. The upshot is that, while proposals to apply the SSNIP test to attention markets may have the trappings of economic rigor, the resemblance is superficial. As things stand, these tests fail to ascertain whether given firms are in competition, and in what market.
The Bait and Switch: Qualitative Indicia
These problems with the new quantitative metrics likely explain why proponents of tougher enforcement in attention markets often fall back upon qualitative indicia to resolve market-definition issues. As John Newman writes:
Courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have long employed practical indicia as a flexible, workable means of defining relevant markets. This approach considers real-world factors: products’ functional characteristics, the presence or absence of substantial price differences between products, whether companies strategically consider and respond to each other’s competitive conduct, and evidence that industry participants or analysts themselves identify a grouping of activity as a discrete sphere of competition. …The SSNIC test may sometimes be massaged enough to work in attention markets, but practical indicia will often—perhaps usually—be the preferable method.
Unfortunately, far from resolving the problems associated with measuring market power in digital markets (and of defining relevant markets in antitrust proceedings), this proposed solution would merely focus investigations on subjective and discretionary factors.
This can be easily understood by looking at the FTC’s Facebook complaint regarding its purchases of WhatsApp and Instagram. The complaint argues that Facebook—a “social networking service,” in the eyes of the FTC—was not interchangeable with either mobile-messaging services or online-video services. To support this conclusion, it cites a series of superficial differences. For instance, the FTC argues that online-video services “are not used primarily to communicate with friends, family, and other personal connections,” while mobile-messaging services “do not feature a shared social space in which users can interact, and do not rely upon a social graph that supports users in making connections and sharing experiences with friends and family.”
This is a poor way to delineate relevant markets. It wrongly portrays competitive constraints as a binary question, rather than a matter of degree. Pointing to the functional differences that exist among rival services mostly fails to resolve this question of degree. It also likely explains why advocates of tougher enforcement have often decried the use of qualitative indicia when the shoe is on the other foot—e.g., when authorities concluded that Facebook did not, in fact, compete with Instagram because their services were functionally different.
A second, and related, problem with the use of qualitative indicia is that they are, almost by definition, arbitrary. Take two services that may or may not be competitors, such as Instagram and TikTok. The two share some similarities, as well as many differences. For instance, while both services enable users to share and engage with video content, they differ significantly in the way this content is displayed. Unfortunately, absent quantitative evidence, it is simply impossible to tell whether, and to what extent, the similarities outweigh the differences.
There is significant risk that qualitative indicia may lead to arbitrary enforcement, where markets are artificially narrowed by pointing to superficial differences among firms, and where competitive constraints are overemphasized by pointing to consumer switching.
The Way Forward
The difficulties discussed above should serve as a good reminder that market definition is but a means to an end.
As William Landes, Richard Posner, and Louis Kaplow have all observed (here and here), market definition is merely a proxy for market power, which in turn enables policymakers to infer whether consumer harm (the underlying question to be answered) is likely in a given case.
Given the difficulties inherent in properly defining markets, policymakers should redouble their efforts to precisely measure both potential barriers to entry (the obstacles that may lead to market power) or anticompetitive effects (the potentially undesirable effect of market power), under a case-by-case analysis that looks at both sides of a platform.
Unfortunately, this is not how the FTC has proceeded in recent cases. The FTC’s Facebook complaint, to cite but one example, merely assumes the existence of network effects (a potential barrier to entry) with no effort to quantify their magnitude. Likewise, the agency’s assessment of consumer harm is just two pages long and includes superficial conclusions that appear plucked from thin air:
The benefits to users of additional competition include some or all of the following: additional innovation … ; quality improvements … ; and/or consumer choice … . In addition, by monopolizing the U.S. market for personal social networking, Facebook also harmed, and continues to harm, competition for the sale of advertising in the United States.
Not one of these assertions is based on anything that could remotely be construed as empirical or even anecdotal evidence. Instead, the FTC’s claims are presented as self-evident. Given the difficulties surrounding market definition in digital markets, this superficial analysis of anticompetitive harm is simply untenable.
In short, discussions around attention markets emphasize the important role of case-by-case analysis underpinned by the consumer welfare standard. Indeed, the fact that some of antitrust enforcement’s usual benchmarks are unreliable in digital markets reinforces the conclusion that an empirically grounded analysis of barriers to entry and actual anticompetitive effects must remain the cornerstones of sound antitrust policy. Or, put differently, uncertainty surrounding certain aspects of a case is no excuse for arbitrary speculation. Instead, authorities must meet such uncertainty with an even more vigilant commitment to thoroughness.
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) competition rulemakings, like spring, are in the air. But do they make policy or legal sense?
In two commentaries last summer (see here and here), I argued that FTC competition rulemaking initiatives would not pass cost-benefit muster, on both legal grounds and economic policy grounds.
As a legal matter, I stressed that they would be time-consuming and pose serious litigation risks, suggesting a significant probability that costs would be incurred in proposing rules that ultimately would fail to be upheld.
As an economic policy matter, I explained that the inherent inflexibility of rule-based norms is ill-suited to deal with dynamic evolving market conditions, compared with matter-specific antitrust litigation that flexibly applies the latest economic thinking to particular circumstances. Furthermore, new competition rules would also exacerbate costly policy inconsistencies that stem from the existence of dual federal antitrust enforcement agencies, the FTC and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ).
My pearls of wisdom, however, failed to move the agency. In December 2021, the FTC issued a Statement of Regulatory Priorities (SRP) that stressed that it would, in the coming year, “consider developing both unfair-methods-of competition [UMC] rulemakings as well as rulemakings to define with specificity unfair or deceptive acts or practices [UDAP].”
I have addressed in greater detail the legal case against proceeding with UMC rulemakings in an article that will be included as a chapter in a special Concurrences book dealing with FTC rulemaking, scheduled for release around the end of June. The chapter abstract follows:
Under the Biden Administration, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) appears poised to launch an unprecedented effort to transform American antitrust policy through the promulgation of rules, rather than reliance on case-by-case adjudication, as in the past. The FTC has a long history of rulemaking, centered primarily on consumer protection. The legal basis for FTC competition rulemaking, however, is enormously weak and fraught with uncertainty, in at least five respects.
First, a constitutional principle known as the “non-delegation doctrine” suggests that the FTC may not, as a constitutional matter, possess the specific statutory delegation required to issue rules that address particular competitive practices. Second, principles of statutory construction strongly suggest that the FTC’s general statutory provision dealing with rulemaking refers to procedural rules of organization, not to substantive rules bearing on competition. Third, even assuming that proposed competition rules survived these initial hurdles, principles of administrative law would pose a substantial risk that competition rules would be struck down as “arbitrary and capricious.” Fourth, there is a high probability that courts would not defer to an FTC statutory construction that authorized “unfair methods of competition” rules. Fifth, any attempt by the FTC to rely on its more specific consumer protection rulemaking powers to reach anticompetitive practices would be cabined by the limited statutory scope of those powers (and the possible perception that the FTC’s procedural protections are weak), and quite probably would fail. In sum, the cumulative weight of these legal risks indicates that the probability FTC competition rulemaking would succeed is extremely low. As such, the FTC may wish to undertake a sober assessment of the legal landscape before embarking on a competition rulemaking adventure that almost certainly would be destined for failure. The Commission could better promote consumer welfare by applying its limited resources to antitrust enforcement rather than competition rulemaking.
The Biden administration finally has taken a public position on parallel House (H.R. 3816) and Senate (S. 2992) bills that would impose new welfare-reducing regulatory constraints on the ability of large digital platforms to engage in innovative business practices that benefit consumers and the economy.
The administration’s articulation of its position—set forth in a March 28 U.S. Justice Department (DOJ letter to House and Senate Judiciary Committee leadership—is a fine example of draftsmanship. With just a few very minor redline edits, which I suggest below, the letter would advance sound and enlightened procompetitive policy.
I hope the DOJ will accept my modest redlines and incorporate them into a new letter to Congress, superseding the March 28 draft. My edited redline and clean revisions of the current draft follow (redline draft is in italics, clean draft in bold italics):
Dear Chairman Nadler, Chairman Cicilline, Representative Jordan, and Representative Buck:
The Department of Justice (Department) appreciates the considerable attention and resources devoted by the House and Senate Committees on the Judiciary over the past several years to ensuring the competitiveness of our digital economy, and writes today to express support for the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, Senate bill S. 2992, and the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, House bill H.R. 3816, which contain similar prohibitions on discriminatory conduct by dominant platforms (the “bills”).
The Department views the rise of dominant platforms as presenting a threat to open markets and competition, withrisks for consumers, businesses, innovation, resiliency, global competitiveness, and our democracy. By controlling key arteries of the nation’s commerce and communications, such platforms can exercise outsized market power in our modern economy. Vesting the power to pick winners and losers across markets in a small number of corporations contravenes the foundations of our capitalist system, and given the increasing importance of these markets, the power of such platformsis likely to continue to grow unless checked. This puts at risk the nation’s economic progress and prosperity, ultimately threatening the economic liberty that undergirds our democracy.
The legislation, if enacted, would emphasize causes of action prohibiting the largest digital platforms from discriminating in favor of their own products or services, or among third parties. In so doing, it would provide important clarification from Congress on types of discriminatory conductthat can materially harm competition. This would improve upon the system of ex ante enforcement through which the United States maintains competitive markets with legal prohibitions on harmful corporate conduct. By confirming the illegality of behaviors that reduce incentives for smaller or newer firms to innovate and compete, the legislation would supplement the existing antitrust laws in preventing the largest digital companies from abusing and exploiting their dominant positions to the detriment of competition and the competitive process. The Department is strongly supportive of these objectives and encourages both the Committee and Congress to work to finalize this legislation and pass it into law.
The Department views the legislation’s new prohibitions on discrimination as a helpful complement to, and clarification of, existing antitrust authority. In our view, the most significant benefits would arise where the legislation elucidates Congress’ views of anticompetitive conduct—particularly with respect to harmful types of discrimination and self-preferencing by dominant platforms. Enumerating discriminatory and self-preferencing conduct that Congress views as anticompetitive and therefore illegal would clarify the antitrust laws and supplement the available causes of action and legal frameworks to pursue that conduct. Doing so would enhance the ability of the DOJ and FTC to challenge that conduct efficiently and effectively and better enable them to promote competition in digital markets. The legislation also has the potential to effectively harmonize broad prohibitions with the particularized needs and business practices of individual platforms over time.
If enacted, we believe that this legislation has the potential to have a positive effect on dynamism in digital markets going forward. Our future global competitiveness depends on innovators and entrepreneurs having the ability to access markets free from dominant incumbents that impede innovation, competition, resiliency, and widespread prosperity. Discriminatory conduct by dominant platforms can sap the rewards from other innovators and entrepreneurs, reducing the incentives for entrepreneurship and innovation. Even more importantly, the legislation may support the growth of new tech businesses adjacent to the platforms,which may ultimately pose a critically needed competitive check to the covered platforms themselves. We view these benefitsas significant. For these reasons, the Department strongly supports the principles and goals animatingthe legislation and looks forward to working with Congress to ensure that the final legislation enacted meets these goals.
Thank you for the opportunity to present our views. We hope this information is helpful. Please do not hesitate to contact this office if we may be of additional assistance to you.
As members continue to revise the legislation, the Department will provide under separate cover additional assistance to ensure that the bills achieve their goals.
Clean Version (incorporating all redline edits)
Dear Chairman Nadler, Chairman Cicilline, Representative Jordan, and Representative Buck:
The Department of Justice (Department) appreciates the considerable attention and resources devoted by the House and Senate Committees on the Judiciary over the past several years to ensuring the competitiveness of our digital economy, and writes today to oppose the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, Senate bill S. 2992, and the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, House bill H.R. 3816, which contain similar prohibitions on discriminatory conduct by dominant platforms (the “bills”). Unfortunately, the legislative efforts expended on these bills have been a waste of time.
The Department views the rise of major digital platforms as presenting a great boon to open markets and competition, bestowing benefits on consumers, businesses, innovation, resiliency, global competitiveness, and our democracy. By enhancing value transmitted through key arteries of the nation’s commerce and communications, such platforms have promoted a more vibrant and innovative modern economy. Vesting in government the power to pick winners and losers across markets through legislative regulation as found in the bills contravenes the foundations of our capitalist system, and given the increasing importance of these markets, the economic benefits flowing from platform activity are likely to be curtailed if the bills are passed. Enactment of the bills would put at risk the nation’s economic progress and prosperity, ultimately threatening the economic liberty that undergirds our democracy.
The legislation, if enacted, would emphasize causes of action prohibiting the largest digital platforms from “discriminating” in favor of their own products or services, or among third parties. In so doing, it would eliminate and disincentivize many efficient business arrangements that can materially enhance competition. This would thereby undermine the system of ex ante enforcement through which the United States maintains competitive markets with legal prohibitions on competitively harmful corporate conduct. By mistakenly characterizing as anticompetitive platform behaviors that in reality enhance incentives for vigorous innovation and dynamic competition, the legislation would undermine the existing antitrust laws. Specifically, the legislation would prevent the largest digital companies from managing their business transactions in an efficient welfare-enhancing manner, to the detriment of competition and the competitive process. The Department is strongly concerned about these harmful effects. As such, it encourages both the Committees and Congress to abandon all efforts to finalize this legislation and pass it into law.
The Department views the legislation’s new prohibitions on discrimination as a harmful detriment to, and interference with, existing antitrust authority. In our view, the most significant harm would arise where the legislation seeks to elucidate Congress’ views of anticompetitive conduct—particularly with respect to harmful types of discrimination and self-preferencing by dominant platforms. Enumerating specific “discriminatory” and “self-preferencing” conduct that Congress views as anticompetitive and therefore illegal would undermine the economically informed, fact-specific evaluation of business conduct that lies at the heart of modern antitrust analysis, centered on consumer welfare. Modern economic analysis demonstrates that a great deal of superficially “discriminatory” and “self-preferencing” conduct often represents consumer welfare-enhancing behavior that adds to economic surplus. Deciding whether such conduct is procompetitive (welfare-enhancing) or anticompetitive in a particular instance is the role of existing case-by-case antitrust enforcement. This approach vindicates competition while avoiding the wrongful condemnation of economically beneficial behavior. In contrast, by creating a new class of antitrust “wrongs,” the bills would lead to the incorrect condemnation of many business practices that enhance market efficiency and strengthen the economy.
If enacted, we believe that this legislation has the potential to have a major negative effect on dynamism in digital markets going forward. Our future global competitiveness depends on innovators and entrepreneurs having the ability to access markets, free from counterproductive inflexible government market regulation that impede innovation, competition, resiliency, and widespread prosperity. “Discriminatory” conduct by major platforms, properly understood, often benefits innovators and entrepreneurs, increasing the incentives for entrepreneurship and innovation. Even more importantly, the legislation may undercut the creation and growth of new tech businesses adjacent to the platforms. Such an unfortunate result would reduce the welfare-enhancing initiatives of new businesses that are complementary to the economically beneficial activity (to consumers and producers) generated by the platforms. We view reduction of these new business initiatives as a significant harm that would stem from passage of the bills. For these reasons, the Department strongly opposes the legislation and looks forward to working with Congress to further explain why this undoubtedly well-meaning legislative initiative is detrimental to vigorous competition and a strong American economy.
Thank you for the opportunity to present our views. We hope this information is helpful. Please do not hesitate to contact this office if we may be of additional assistance to you.
 In other words, the Department respectfully recommends that members of Congress stop wasting time seeking to revise and enact this legislation.
U.S. antitrust policy seeks to promote vigorous marketplace competition in order to enhance consumer welfare. For more than four decades, mainstream antitrust enforcers have taken their cue from the U.S. Supreme Court’s statement in Reiter v. Sonotone (1979) that antitrust is “a consumer welfare prescription.” Recent suggestions (see here and here) by new Biden administration Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) leadership that antitrust should promote goals apart from consumer welfare have yet to be embodied in actual agency actions, and they have not been tested by the courts. (Given Supreme Court case law, judicial abandonment of the consumer welfare standard appears unlikely, unless new legislation that displaces it is enacted.)
Assuming that the consumer welfare paradigm retains its primacy in U.S. antitrust, how do the goals of antitrust match up with those of national security? Consistent with federal government pronouncements, the “basic objective of U.S. national security policy is to preserve and enhance the security of the United States and its fundamental values and institutions.” Properly applied, antitrust can retain its consumer welfare focus in a manner consistent with national security interests. Indeed, sound antitrust and national-security policies generally go hand-in-hand. The FTC and the DOJ should keep that in mind in formulating their antitrust policies (spoiler alert: they sometimes have failed to do so).
At first blush, it would seem odd that enlightened consumer-welfare-oriented antitrust enforcement and national-security policy would be in tension. After all, enlightened antitrust enforcement is concerned with targeting transactions that harmfully reduce output and undermine innovation, such as hard-core collusion and courses of conduct that inefficiently exclude competition and weaken marketplace competition. U.S. national security would seem to be promoted (or, at least, not harmed) by antitrust enforcement directed at supporting stronger, more vibrant American markets.
This initial instinct is correct, if antitrust-enforcement policy indeed reflects economically sound, consumer-welfare-centric principles. But are there examples where antitrust enforcement falls short and thereby is at odds with national security? An evaluation of three areas of interaction between the two American policy interests is instructive.
The degree of congruence between national security and appropriate consumer welfare-enhancing antitrust enforcement is illustrated by a brief discussion of:
the intellectual property-antitrust interface, with a focus on patent licensing; and
proposed federal antitrust legislation.
The first topic presents an example of clear consistency between consumer-welfare-centric antitrust and national defense. In contrast, the second topic demonstrates that antitrust prosecutions (and policies) that inappropriately weaken intellectual-property protections are inconsistent with national defense interests. The second topic does not manifest a tension between antitrust and national security; rather, it illustrates a tension between national security and unsound antitrust enforcement. In a related vein, the third topic demonstrates how a change in the antitrust statutes that would undermine the consumer welfare paradigm would also threaten U.S. national security.
The consistency between antitrust goals and national security is relatively strong and straightforward in the field of defense-industry-related mergers and joint ventures. The FTC and DOJ traditionally have worked closely with the U.S. Defense Department (DOD) to promote competition and consumer welfare in evaluating business transactions that affect national defense needs.
The DOD has long supported policies to prevent overreliance on a single supplier for critical industrial-defense needs. Such a posture is consistent with the antitrust goal of preventing mergers to monopoly that reduce competition, raise prices, and diminish quality by creating or entrenching a dominant firm. As then-FTC Commissioner William Kovacic commented about an FTC settlement that permitted the United Launch Alliance (an American spacecraft launch service provider established in 2006 as a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing), “[i]n reviewing defense industry mergers, competition authorities and the DOD generally should apply a presumption that favors the maintenance of at least two suppliers for every weapon system or subsystem.”
Antitrust enforcers have, however, worked with DOD to allow the only two remaining suppliers of a defense-related product or service to combine their operations, subject to appropriate safeguards, when presented with scale economy and quality rationales that advanced national-security interests (see here).
Antitrust enforcers have also consulted and found common cause with DOD in opposing anticompetitive mergers that have national-security overtones. For example, antitrust enforcement actions targeting vertical defense-sector mergers that threaten anticompetitive input foreclosure or facilitate anticompetitive information exchanges are in line with the national-security goal of preserving vibrant markets that offer the federal government competitive, high-quality, innovative, and reasonably priced purchase options for its defense needs.
The FTC’s recent success in convincing Lockheed Martin to drop its proposed acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne holdings fits into this category. (I express no view on the merits of this matter; I merely cite it as an example of FTC-DOD cooperation in considering a merger challenge.) In its February 2022 press release announcing the abandonment of this merger, the FTC stated that “[t]he acquisition would have eliminated the country’s last independent supplier of key missile propulsion inputs and given Lockheed the ability to cut off its competitors’ access to these critical components.” The FTC also emphasized the full consistency between its enforcement action and national-security interests:
Simply put, the deal would have resulted in higher prices and diminished quality and innovation for programs that are critical to national security. The FTC’s enforcement action in this matter dovetails with the DoD report released this week recommending stronger merger oversight of the highly concentrated defense industrial base.
Shifts in government IP-antitrust patent-licensing policy perspectives
Standard setting through standard setting organizations (SSOs) has been a particularly important means of spawning valuable benchmarks (standards) that have enabled new patent-backed technologies to drive innovation and enable mass distribution of new high-tech products, such as smartphones. The licensing of patents that cover and make possible valuable standards—“standard-essential patents” or SEPs—has played a crucial role in bringing to market these products and encouraging follow-on innovations that have driven fast-paced welfare-enhancing product and process quality improvements.
Licensing, cross-licensing, or otherwise transferring intellectual property (hereinafter “licensing”) can facilitate integration of the licensed property with complementary factors of production. This integration can lead to more efficient exploitation of the intellectual property, benefiting consumers through the reduction of costs and the introduction of new products. Such arrangements increase the value of intellectual property to consumers and owners. Licensing can allow an innovator to capture returns from its investment in making and developing an invention through royalty payments from those that practice its invention, thus providing an incentive to invest in innovative efforts. …
[L]imitations on intellectual property licenses may serve procompetitive ends by allowing the licensor to exploit its property as efficiently and effectively as possible. These various forms of exclusivity can be used to give a licensee an incentive to invest in the commercialization and distribution of products embodying the licensed intellectual property and to develop additional applications for the licensed property. The restrictions may do so, for example, by protecting the licensee against free riding on the licensee’s investments by other licensees or by the licensor. They may also increase the licensor’s incentive to license, for example, by protecting the licensor from competition in the licensor’s own technology in a market niche that it prefers to keep to itself.
Unfortunately, however, FTC and DOJ antitrust policies over the last 15 years have too often belied this generally favorable view of licensing practices with respect to SEPs. (See generally here, here, and here). Notably, the antitrust agencies have at various times taken policy postures and enforcement actions indicating that SEP holders may face antitrust challenges if:
they fail to license all comers, including competitors, on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms; and
seek to obtain injunctions against infringers.
In addition, antitrust policy officials (see 2011 FTC Report) have described FRAND price terms as cabined by the difference between the licensing rates for the first (included in the standard) and second (not included in the standard) best competing patented technologies available prior to the adoption of a standard. This pricing measure—based on the “incremental difference” between first and second-best technologies—has been described as necessary to prevent SEP holders from deriving artificial “monopoly rents” that reflect the market power conferred by a standard. (But see then FTC-Commissioner Joshua Wright’s 2013 essay to the contrary, based on the economics of incomplete contracts.)
This approach to SEPs undervalues them, harming the economy. Limitations on seeking injunctions (which are a classic property-right remedy) encourages opportunistic patent infringements and artificially disfavors SEP holders in bargaining over licensing terms with technology implementers, thereby reducing the value of SEPs. SEP holders are further disadvantaged by the presumption that they must license all comers. They also are harmed by the implication that they must be limited to a relatively low hypothetical “ex ante” licensing rate—a rate that totally fails to take into account the substantial economic welfare value that will accrue to the economy due to their contribution to the standard. Considered individually and as a whole, these negative factors discourage innovators from participating in standardization, to the detriment of standards quality. Lower-quality standards translate into inferior standardized produces and processes and reduced innovation.
Recognizing this problem, in 2018 DOJ, Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Makan Delrahim announced a “New Madison Approach” (NMA) to SEP licensing, which recognized:
antitrust remedies are inappropriate for patent-licensing disputes between SEP-holders and implementers of a standard;
SSOs should not allow collective actions by standard-implementers to disfavor patent holders;
SSOs and courts should be hesitant to restrict SEP holders’ right to exclude implementers from access to their patents by seeking injunctions; and
unilateral and unconditional decisions not to license a patent should be per se legal. (See, for example, here and here.)
Acceptance of the NMA would have counter-acted the economically harmful degradation of SEPs stemming from prior government policies.
Regrettably, antitrust-enforcement-agency statements during the last year effectively have rejected the NMA. Most recently, in December 2021, the DOJ issued for public comment a Draft Policy Statement on Licensing Negotiations and Remedies, SEPs, which displaces a 2019 statement that had been in line with the NMA. Unless the FTC and Biden DOJ rethink their new position and decide instead to support the NMA, the anti-innovation approach to SEPs will once again prevail, with unfortunate consequences for American innovation.
The “weaker patents” implications of the draft policy statement would also prove detrimental to national security, as explained in a comment on the statement by a group of leading law, economics, and business scholars (including Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith) convened by the International Center for Law & Economics:
China routinely undermines U.S. intellectual property protections through its industrial policy. The government’s stated goal is to promote “fair and reasonable” international rules, but it is clear that China stretches its power over intellectual property around the world by granting “anti-suit injunctions” on behalf of Chinese smartphone makers, designed to curtail enforcement of foreign companies’ patent rights. …
Insufficient protections for intellectual property will hasten China’s objective of dominating collaborative standard development in the medium to long term. Simultaneously, this will engender a switch to greater reliance on proprietary, closed standards rather than collaborative, open standards. These harmful consequences are magnified in the context of the global technology landscape, and in light of China’s strategic effort to shape international technology standards. Chinese companies, directed by their government authorities, will gain significant control of the technologies that will underpin tomorrow’s digital goods and services.
A Center for Security and International Studies submission on the draft policy statement (signed by a former deputy secretary of the DOD, as well as former directors of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Institute of Standards and Technology) also raised China-related national-security concerns:
[T]he largest short-term and long-term beneficiaries of the 2021 Draft Policy Statement are firms based in China. Currently, China is the world’s largest consumer of SEP-based technology, so weakening protection of American owned patents directly benefits Chinese manufacturers. The unintended effect of the 2021 Draft Policy Statement will be to support Chinese efforts to dominate critical technology standards and other advanced technologies, such as 5G. Put simply, devaluing U.S. patents is akin to a subsidized tech transfer to China.
Furthermore, in a more general vein, leading innovation economist David Teece also noted the negative national-security implications in his submission on the draft policy statement:
The US government, in reviewing competition policy issues that might impact standards, therefore needs to be aware that the issues at hand have tremendous geopolitical consequences and cannot be looked at in isolation. … Success in this regard will promote competition and is our best chance to maintain technological leadership—and, along with it, long-term economic growth and consumer welfare and national security.
That’s not all. In its public comment warning against precipitous finalization of the draft policy statement, the Innovation Alliance noted that, in recent years, major foreign jurisdictions have rejected the notion that SEP holders should be deprived the opportunity to seek injunctions. The Innovation Alliance opined in detail on the China national-security issues (footnotes omitted):
[T]he proposed shift in policy will undermine the confidence and clarity necessary to incentivize investments in important and risky research and development while simultaneously giving foreign competitors who do not rely on patents to drive investment in key technologies, like China, a distinct advantage. …
The draft policy statement … would devalue SEPs, and undermine the ability of U.S. firms to invest in the research and development needed to maintain global leadership in 5G and other critical technologies.
Without robust American investments, China—which has clear aspirations to control and lead in critical standards and technologies that are essential to our national security—will be left without any competition. Since 2015, President Xi has declared “whoever controls the standards controls the world.” China has rolled out the “China Standards 2035” plan and has outspent the United States by approximately $24 billion in wireless communications infrastructure, while China’s five-year economic plan calls for $400 billion in 5G-related investment.
Simply put, the draft policy statement will give an edge to China in the standards race because, without injunctions, American companies will lose the incentive to invest in the research and development needed to lead in standards setting. Chinese companies, on the other hand, will continue to race forward, funded primarily not by license fees, but by the focused investment of the Chinese government. …
Public hearings are necessary to take into full account the uncertainty of issuing yet another policy on this subject in such a short time period.
A key part of those hearings and further discussions must be the national security implications of a further shift in patent enforceability policy. Our future safety depends on continued U.S. leadership in areas like 5G and artificial intelligence. Policies that undermine the enforceability of patent rights disincentivize the substantial private sector investment necessary for research and development in these areas. Without that investment, development of these key technologies will begin elsewhere—likely China. Before any policy is accepted, key national-security stakeholders in the U.S. government should be asked for their official input.
These are not the only comments that raised the negative national-security ramifications of the draft policy statement (see here and here). For example, current Republican and Democratic senators, prior International Trade Commissioners, and former top DOJ and FTC officials also noted concerns. What’s more, the Patent Protection Society of China, which represents leading Chinese corporate implementers, filed a rather nonanalytic submission in favor of the draft statement. As one leading patent-licensing lawyer explains: “UC Berkley Law Professor Mark Cohen, whose distinguished government service includes serving as the USPTO representative in China, submitted a thoughtful comment explaining how the draft Policy Statement plays into China’s industrial and strategic interests.”
Finally, by weakening patent protection, the draft policy statement is at odds with the 2021 National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence Report, which called for the United States to “[d]evelop and implement national IP policies to incentivize, expand, and protect emerging technologies[,]” in response to Chinese “leveraging and exploiting intellectual property (IP) policies as a critical tool within its national strategies for emerging technologies.”
In sum, adoption of the draft policy statement would raise antitrust risks, weaken key property rights protections for SEPs, and undercut U.S. technological innovation efforts vis-à-vis China, thereby undermining U.S. national security.
FTC v. Qualcomm: Misguided enforcement and national security
U.S. national-security interests have been threatened by more than just the recent SEP policy pronouncements. In filing a January 2017 antitrust suit (at the very end of the Obama administration) against Qualcomm’s patent-licensing practices, the FTC (by a partisan 2-1 vote) ignored the economic efficiencies that underpinned this highly successful American technology company’s practices. Had the suit succeeded, U.S. innovation in a critically important technology area would have needlessly suffered, with China as a major beneficiary. A recent Federalist Society Regulatory Transparency Project report on the New Madison Approach underscored the broad policy implications of FTC V. Qualcomm (citations deleted):
The FTC’s Qualcomm complaint reflected the anti-SEP bias present during the Obama administration. If it had been successful, the FTC’s prosecution would have seriously undermined the freedom of the company to engage in efficient licensing of its SEPs.
Qualcomm is perhaps the world’s leading wireless technology innovator. It has developed, patented, and licensed key technologies that power smartphones and other wireless devices, and continues to do so. Many of Qualcomm’s key patents are SEPs subject to FRAND, directed to communications standards adopted by wireless devices makers. Qualcomm also makes computer processors and chips embodied in cutting edge wireless devices. Thanks in large part to Qualcomm technology, those devices have improved dramatically over the last decade, offering consumers a vast array of new services at a lower and lower price, when quality is factored in. Qualcomm thus is the epitome of a high tech American success story that has greatly benefited consumers.
Qualcomm: (1) sells its chips to “downstream” original equipment manufacturers (OEMs, such as Samsung and Apple), on the condition that the OEMs obtain licenses to Qualcomm SEPs; and (2) refuses to license its FRAND-encumbered SEPs to rival chip makers, while allowing those rivals to create and sell chips embodying Qualcomm SEP technologies to those OEMS that have entered a licensing agreement with Qualcomm.
The FTC’s 2017 antitrust complaint, filed in federal district court in San Francisco, charged that Qualcomm’s “no license, no chips” policy allegedly “forced” OEM cell phone manufacturers to pay elevated royalties on products that use a competitor’s baseband processors. The FTC deemed this an illegal “anticompetitive tax” on the use of rivals’ processors, since phone manufacturers “could not run the risk” of declining licenses and thus losing all access to Qualcomm’s processors (which would be needed to sell phones on important cellular networks). The FTC also argued that Qualcomm’s refusal to license its rivals despite its SEP FRAND commitment violated the antitrust laws. Finally, the FTC asserted that a 2011-2016 Qualcomm exclusive dealing contract with Apple (in exchange for reduced patent royalties) had excluded business opportunities for Qualcomm competitors.
The federal district court held for the FTC. It ordered that Qualcomm end these supposedly anticompetitive practices and renegotiate its many contracts. [Among the beneficiaries of new pro-implementer contract terms would have been a leading Chinese licensee of Qualcomm’s, Huawei, the huge Chinese telecommunications company that has been accused by the U.S. government of using technological “back doors” to spy on the United States.]
Qualcomm appealed, and in August 2020 a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court, holding for Qualcomm. Some of the key points underlying this holding were: (1) Qualcomm had no antitrust duty to deal with competitors, consistent with established Supreme Court precedent (a very narrow exception to this precedent did not apply); (2) Qualcomm’s rates were chip supplier neutral because all OEMs paid royalties, not just rivals’ customers; (3) the lower court failed to show how the “no license, no chips” policy harmed Qualcomm’s competitors; and (4) Qualcomm’s agreements with Apple did not have the effect of substantially foreclosing the market to competitors. The Ninth Circuit as a whole rejected the FTC’s “en banc” appeal for review of the panel decision.
The appellate decision in Qualcomm largely supports pillar four of the NMA, that unilateral and unconditional decisions not to license a patent should be deemed legal under the antitrust laws. More generally, the decision evinces a refusal to find anticompetitive harm in licensing markets without hard empirical support. The FTC and the lower court’s findings of “harm” had been essentially speculative and anecdotal at best. They had ignored the “big picture” that the markets in which Qualcomm operates had seen vigorous competition and the conferral of enormous and growing welfare benefits on consumers, year-by-year. The lower court and the FTC had also turned a deaf ear to a legitimate efficiency-related business rationale that explained Qualcomm’s “no license, no chips” policy – a fully justifiable desire to obtain a fair return on Qualcomm’s patented technology.
Qualcomm is well reasoned, and in line with sound modern antitrust precedent, but it is only one holding. The extent to which this case’s reasoning proves influential in other courts may in part depend on the policies advanced by DOJ and the FTC going forward. Thus, a preliminary examination of the Biden administration’s emerging patent-antitrust policy is warranted. [Subsequent discussion shows that the Biden administration apparently has rejected pro-consumer policies embodied in the 9th U.S. Circuit’s Qualcomm decision and in the NMA.]
Although the 9th Circuit did not comment on them, national-security-policy concerns weighed powerfully against the FTC v. Qualcomm suit. In a July 2019 Statement of Interest (SOI) filed with the circuit court, DOJ cogently set forth the antitrust flaws in the district court’s decision favoring the FTC. Furthermore, the SOI also explained that “the public interest” favored a stay of the district court holding, due to national-security concerns (described in some detail in statements by the departments of Defense and Energy, appended to the SOI):
[T]he public interest also takes account of national security concerns. Winter v. NRDC, 555 U.S. 7, 23-24 (2008). This case presents such concerns. In the view of the Executive Branch, diminishment of Qualcomm’s competitiveness in 5G innovation and standard-setting would significantly impact U.S. national security. A251-54 (CFIUS); LD ¶¶10-16 (Department of Defense); ED ¶¶9-10 (Department of Energy). Qualcomm is a trusted supplier of mission-critical products and services to the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. LD ¶¶5-8; ED ¶¶8-9. Accordingly, the Department of Defense “is seriously concerned that any detrimental impact on Qualcomm’s position as global leader would adversely affect its ability to support national security.” LD ¶16.
The [district] court’s remedy [requiring the renegotiation of Qualcomm’s licensing contracts] is intended to deprive, and risks depriving, Qualcomm of substantial licensing revenue that could otherwise fund time-sensitive R&D and that Qualcomm cannot recover later if it prevails. See, e.g., Op. 227-28. To be sure, if Qualcomm ultimately prevails, vacatur of the injunction will limit the severity of Qualcomm’s revenue loss and the consequent impairment of its ability to perform functions critical to national security. The Department of Defense “firmly believes,” however, “that any measure that inappropriately limits Qualcomm’s technological leadership, ability to invest in [R&D], and market competitiveness, even in the short term, could harm national security. The risks to national security include the disruption of [the Department’s] supply chain and unsure U.S. leadership in 5G.” LD ¶3. Consequently, the public interest necessitates a stay pending this Court’s resolution of the merits. In these rare circumstances, the interest in preventing even a risk to national security—“an urgent objective of the highest order”—presents reason enough not to enforce the remedy immediately. Int’l Refugee Assistance Project, 137 S. Ct. at 2088 (internal quotations omitted).
Not all national-security arguments against antitrust enforcement may be well-grounded, of course. The key point is that the interests of national security and consumer-welfare-centric antitrust are fully aligned when antitrust suits would inefficiently undermine the competitive vigor of a firm or firms that play a major role in supporting U.S. national-security interests. Such was the case in FTC v. Qualcomm. More generally, heightened antitrust scrutiny of efficient patent-licensing practices (as threatened by the Biden administration) would tend to diminish innovation by U.S. patentees, particularly in areas covered by standards that are key to leading global technologies. Such a diminution in innovation will tend to weaken American advantages in important industry sectors that are vital to U.S. national-security interests.
Proposed Federal Antitrust Legislation
Proposed federal antitrust legislation being considered by Congress (see here, here, and here for informed critiques) would prescriptively restrict certain large technology companies’ business transactions. If enacted, such legislation would thereby preclude case-specific analysis of potential transaction-specific efficiencies, thereby undermining the consumer welfare standard at the heart of current sound and principled antitrust enforcement. The legislation would also be at odds with our national-security interests, as a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce paper explains:
Congress is considering new antitrust legislation which, perversely, would weaken leading U.S. technology companies by crafting special purpose regulations under the guise of antitrust to prohibit those firms from engaging in business conduct that is widely acceptable when engaged in by rival competitors.
A series of legislative proposals – some of which already have been approved by relevant Congressional committees – would, among other things: dismantle these companies; prohibit them from engaging in significant new acquisitions or investments; require them to disclose sensitive user data and sensitive IP and trade secrets to competitors, including those that are foreign-owned and controlled; facilitate foreign influence in the United States; and compromise cybersecurity. These bills would fundamentally undermine American security interests while exempting from scrutiny Chinese and other foreign firms that do not meet arbitrary user and market capitalization thresholds specified in the legislation. …
The United States has never used legislation to punish success. In many industries, scale is important and has resulted in significant gains for the American economy, including small businesses. U.S. competition law promotes the interests of consumers, not competitors. It should not be used to pick winners and losers in the market or to manage competitive outcomes to benefit select competitors. Aggressive competition benefits consumers and society, for example by pushing down prices, disrupting existing business models, and introducing innovative products and services.
If enacted, the legislative proposals would drag the United States down in an unfolding global technological competition. Companies captured by the legislation would be required to compete against integrated foreign rivals with one hand tied behind their backs. Those firms that are the strongest drivers of U.S. innovation in AI, quantum computing, and other strategic technologies would be hamstrung or even broken apart, while foreign and state-backed producers of these same technologies would remain unscathed and seize the opportunity to increase market share, both in the U.S. and globally. …
Instead of warping antitrust law to punish a discrete group of American companies, the U.S. government should focus instead on vigorous enforcement of current law and on vocally opposing and effectively countering foreign regimes that deploy competition law and other legal and regulatory methods as industrial policy tools to unfairly target U.S. companies. The U.S. should avoid self-inflicted wounds to our competitiveness and national security that would result from turning antitrust into a weapon against dynamic and successful U.S. firms.
Consistent with this analysis, former Obama administration Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former Trump administration Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats argued in a letter to U.S. House leadership (see here) that “imposing severe restrictions solely on U.S. giants will pave the way for a tech landscape dominated by China — echoing a position voiced by the Big Tech companies themselves.”
The national-security arguments against current antitrust legislative proposals, like the critiques of the unfounded FTC v. Qualcomm case, represent an alignment between sound antitrust policy and national-security analysis. Unfounded antitrust attacks on efficient business practices by large firms that help maintain U.S. technological leadership in key areas undermine both principled antitrust and national security.
Enlightened antitrust enforcement, centered on consumer welfare, can and should be read in a manner that is harmonious with national-security interests.
The cooperation between U.S. federal antitrust enforcers and the DOD in assessing defense-industry mergers and joint ventures is, generally speaking, an example of successful harmonization. This success reflects the fact that antitrust enforcers carry out their reviews of those transactions with an eye toward accommodating efficiencies that advance defense goals without sacrificing consumer welfare. Close antitrust-agency consultation with DOD is key to that approach.
Unfortunately, federal enforcement directed toward efficient intellectual-property licensing, as manifested in the Qualcomm case, reflects a disharmony between antitrust and national security. This disharmony could be eliminated if DOJ and the FTC adopted a dynamic view of intellectual property and the substantial economic-welfare benefits that flow from restrictive patent-licensing transactions.
In sum, a dynamic analysis reveals that consumer welfare is enhanced, not harmed, by not subjecting such licensing arrangements to antitrust threat. A more permissive approach to licensing is thus consistent with principled antitrust and with the national security interest of protecting and promoting strong American intellectual property (and, in particular, patent) protection. The DOJ and the FTC should keep this in mind and make appropriate changes to their IP-antitrust policies forthwith.
Finally, proposed federal antitrust legislation would bring about statutory changes that would simultaneously displace consumer welfare considerations and undercut national security interests. As such, national security is supported by rejecting unsound legislation, in order to keep in place consumer-welfare-based antitrust enforcement.
The acceptance and implementation of due-process standards confer a variety of welfare benefits on society. As Christopher Yoo, Thomas Fetzer, Shan Jiang, and Yong Huang explain, strong procedural due-process protections promote: (1) compliance with basic norms of impartiality; (2) greater accuracy of decisions; (3) stronger economic growth; (4) increased respect for government; (5) better compliance with the law; (6) better control of the bureaucracy; (7) restraints on the influence of special-interest groups; and (8) reduced corruption.
Recognizing these benefits (and consistent with the long Anglo-American tradition of recognizing due-process rights that dates back to Magna Carta), the U.S. government (USG) has long been active in advancing the adoption of due-process principles by competition-law authorities around the world, working particularly through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Competition Network (ICN). More generally, due process may be seen as an aspect of the rule of law, which is as important in antitrust as in other legal areas.
The USG has supported OECD Competition Committee work on due-process safeguards which began in 2010, and which culminated in the OECD ministers’ October 2021 adoption of a “Recommendation on Transparency and Procedural Fairness in Competition Law Enforcement.” This recommendation calls for: (1) competition and predictability in competition-law enforcement; (2) independence, impartiality, and professionalism of competition authorities; (3) non-discrimination, proportionality, and consistency in the treatment of parties subject to scrutiny; (4) timeliness in handling cases; (5) meaningful engagement with parties (including parties’ right to respond and be heard); (6) protection of confidential and privileged information; (7) impartial judicial review of enforcement decisions; and (8) periodic review of policies, rules, procedures, and guidelines, to ensure that they are aligned with the preceding seven principles.
The USG has also worked through the International Competition Network (ICN) to generate support for the acceptance of due-process principles by ICN member competition agencies and their governments. In describing ICN due-process initiatives, James Rill and Jana Seidl have explained that “[t]he current challenge is to determine the extent to which the ICN, as a voluntary organization, can or should establish mechanisms to evaluate implementation of … [due process] norms by its members and even non-members.”
In 2019, the ICN announced creation of a Framework for Competition Agency Procedures (CAP), open to both ICN and non-ICN national and multinational (most prominently, the EU’s Directorate General for Competition) competition agencies. The CAP essentially embodied the principles of a June 2018 U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) framework proposal. A September 2021 CAP Report (footnotes omitted) issued at an ICN steering-group meeting noted that the CAP had 73 members, and summarized the history and goals of the CAP as follows:
The ICN CAP is a non-binding, opt-in framework. It makes use of the ICN infrastructure to maximize visibility and impact while minimizing the administrative burden for participants that operate in different legal regimes and enforcement systems with different resource constraints. The ICN CAP promotes agreement among competition agencies worldwide on fundamental procedural norms. The Multilateral Framework for Procedures project, launched by the US Department of Justice in 2018, was the starting point for what is now the ICN CAP.
The ICN CAP rests on two pillars: the first pillar is a catalogue of fundamental, consensus principles for fair and effective agency procedures that reflect the broad consensus within the global competition community. The principles address: non-discrimination, transparency, notice of investigations, timely resolution, confidentiality protections, conflicts of interest, opportunity to defend, representation, written decisions, and judicial review.
The second pillar of the ICN CAP consists of two processes: the “CAP Cooperation Process,” which facilitates a dialogue between participating agencies, and the “CAP Review Process,” which enhances transparency about the rules governing participants’ investigation and enforcement procedures.
The ICN CAP template is the practical implementation tool for the CAP. Participants each submit CAP templates, outlining how their agencies adhere to each of the CAP principles. The templates allow participants to share and explain important features of their systems, including links and other references to related materials such as legislation, rules, regulations, and guidelines. The CAP templates are a useful resource for agencies to consult when they would like to gain a quick overview of other agencies’ procedures, benchmark with peer agencies, and develop new processes and procedures.
Through the two pillars and the template, the CAP provides a framework for agencies to affirm the importance of the CAP principles, to confer with other jurisdictions, and to illustrate how their regulations and guidelines adhere to those principles.
In short, the overarching goal of the ICN CAP is to give agencies a “nudge” to implement due-process principles by encouraging consultation with peer CAP members and exposing to public view agencies’ actual due-process record. The extent to which agencies will prove willing to strengthen their commitment to due process because of the CAP, or even join the CAP, remains to be seen. (China’s competition agency, the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), has not joined the ICN CAP.)
Antitrust, Due Process, and the Rule of Law at the DOJ and the FTC
Now that the ICN CAP and OECD recommendation are in place, it is important that the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as long-time international promoters of due process, lead by example in adhering to all of those multinational instruments’ principles. A failure to do so would, in addition to having negative welfare consequences for affected parties (and U.S. economic welfare), undermine USG international due-process advocacy. Less effective advocacy efforts could, of course, impose additional costs on American businesses operating overseas, by subjecting them to more procedurally defective foreign antitrust prosecutions than otherwise.
With those considerations in mind, let us briefly examine the current status of due-process protections afforded by the FTC and DOJ. Although traditionally robust procedural safeguards remain strong overall, some worrisome developments during the first year of the Biden administration merit highlighting. Those developments implicate classic procedural issues and some broader rule of law concerns. (This commentary does not examine due-process and rule-of-law issues associated with U.S. antitrust enforcement at the state level, a topic that warrants scrutiny as well.)
New FTC leadership has taken several actions that have unfortunate due-process and rule-of-law implications (many of them through highly partisan 3-2 commission votes featuring strong dissents).
Consider the HSR Act, a Congressional compromise that gave enforcers advance notice of deals and parties the benefit of repose. HSR review [at the FTC] now faces death by a thousand cuts. We have hit month nine of a “temporary” and “brief” suspension of early termination. Letters are sent to parties when their waiting periods expire, warning them to close at their own risk. Is the investigation ongoing? Is there a set amount of time the parties should wait? No one knows! The new prior approval policy will flip the burden of proof and capture many deals below statutory thresholds. And sprawling investigations covering non-competition concerns exceed our Clayton Act authority.
These policy changes impose a gratuitous tax on merger activity – anticompetitive and procompetitive alike. There are costs to interfering with the market for corporate control, especially as we attempt to rebound from the pandemic. If new leadership wants the HSR Act rewritten, they should persuade Congress to amend it rather than taking matters into their own hands.
Uncertainty and delay surrounding merger proposals and new merger-review processes that appear to flaunt tension with statutory commands are FTC “innovations” that are in obvious tension with due-process guarantees.
FTC rulemaking initiatives have due-process and rule-of-law problems. As Commissioner Wilson noted (footnotes omitted), “[t]he [FTC] majority changed our rules of practice to limit stakeholder input and consolidate rulemaking power in the chair’s office. In Commissioner [Noah] Phillips’ words, these changes facilitate more rules, but not better ones.” Lack of stakeholder input offends due process. Even more serious, however, is the fact that far-reaching FTC competition rules are being planned (see the December 2021 FTC Statement of Regulatory Priorities). FTC competition rulemaking is likely beyond its statutory authority and would fail a cost-benefit analysis (see here). Moreover, even if competition rules survived, they would offend the rule of law (see here) by “lead[ing] to disparate legal treatment of a firm’s business practices, depending upon whether the FTC or the U.S. Justice Department was the investigating agency.”
The FTC’s July 2021 withdrawal of its 2015 “Statement of Enforcement Principles Regarding ‘Unfair Methods of Competition’ [UMC] Under Section 5 of the FTC Act” likewise undercuts the rule of law (see here). The 2015 Statement had tended to increase predictability in enforcement by tying the FTC’s exercise of its UMC authority to well-understood antitrust rule-of-reason principles and the generally accepted consumer welfare standard. By withdrawing the statement (over the dissents of Commissioners Wilson and Phillips) without promulgating a new policy, the FTC majority reduced enforcement guidance and generated greater legal uncertainty. The notion that the FTC may apply the UMC concept in an unbounded fashion lacks legal principle and threatens to chill innovative and welfare-enhancing business conduct.
Finally, the FTC’s abrupt September 2021 withdrawal of its approval of jointly issued 2020 DOJ-FTC Vertical Merger Guidelines (again over a dissent by Commissioners Wilson and Phillips), offends the rule of law in three ways. As Commissioner Wilson explains, it engenders confusion as to FTC policies regarding vertical-merger analysis going forward; it appears to reflect flawed economic thinking regarding vertical integration (which may in turn lead to enforcement error); and it creates a potential tension between DOJ and FTC approaches to vertical acquisitions (the third concern may disappear if and when DOJ and FTC agree to new merger guidelines).
As of now, the Biden administration DOJ has not taken as many actions that implicate rule-of-law and due-process concerns. Two recent initiatives with significant rule-of-law implications, however, deserve mention.
First, on Dec. 6, 2021, DOJ suddenly withdrew a 2019 policy statement on “Licensing Negotiations and Remedies for Standards-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments.” In so doing, DOJ simultaneously released a new draft policy statement on the same topic, and requested public comments. The timing of the withdrawal was peculiar, since the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)—who had joined with DOJ in the 2019 policy statement (which itself had replaced a 2013 policy statement)—did not yet have new Senate-confirmed leadership and were apparently not involved in the withdrawal. What’s more, DOJ originally requested that public comments be filed by the beginning of January, a ridiculously short amount of time for such a complex topic. (It later relented and established an early February deadline.) More serious than these procedural irregularities, however, are two new features of the Draft Policy Statement: (1) its delineation of a suggested private-negotiation framework for patent licensing; and (2) its assertion that standard essential patent (SEP) holders essentially forfeit the right to seek an injunction. These provisions, though not binding, may have a coercive effect on some private negotiators, and they problematically insert the government into matters that are appropriately the province of private businesses and the courts. Such an involvement by government enforcers in private negotiations, which treats one category of patents (SEPs) less favorably than others, raises rule-of-law questions.
Second, in January 2018, DOJ and the FTC jointly issued a “Request for Information on Merger Enforcement” [RIF] that contemplated the issuance of new merger guidelines (see my recent analysis, here). The RIF was chock full of numerous queries to prospective commentators that generally reflected a merger-skeptical tone. This suggests a predisposition to challenge mergers that, if embodied in guidelines language, could discourage some (or perhaps many) non-problematic consolidations from being proposed. New merger guidelines that impliedly were anti-merger would be a departure from previous guidelines, which stated in neutral fashion that they would consider both the anticompetitive risks and procompetitive benefits of mergers being reviewed. A second major concern is that the enforcement agencies might produce long and detailed guidelines containing all or most of the many theories of competitive harm found in the RIF. Overly complex guidelines would not produce any true guidance to private parties, inconsistent with the principle that individuals should be informed what the law is. Such guidelines also would give enforcers greater flexibility to selectively pick and choose theories best suited to block particular mergers. As such, the guidelines might be viewed by judges as justifications for arbitrary, rather than principled, enforcement, at odds with the rule of law.
It is to be hoped that the FTC and DOJ will take into account this international dimension in assessing the merits of antitrust “reforms” now under consideration. New enforcement policies that sow delay and uncertainty undermine the rule of law and are inconsistent with due-process principles. The consumer welfare harm that may flow from such deficient policies may be substantial. The agency missteps identified above should be rectified and new polices that would weaken due-process protections and undermine the rule of law should be avoided.
President Joe Biden’s July 2021 executive order set forth a commitment to reinvigorate U.S. innovation and competitiveness. The administration’s efforts to pass the America COMPETES Act would appear to further demonstrate a serious intent to pursue these objectives.
Yet several actions taken by federal agencies threaten to undermine the intellectual-property rights and transactional structures that have driven the exceptional performance of U.S. firms in key areas of the global innovation economy. These regulatory missteps together represent a policy “lose-lose” that lacks any sound basis in innovation economics and threatens U.S. leadership in mission-critical technology sectors.
Life Sciences: USTR Campaigns Against Intellectual-Property Rights
In the pharmaceutical sector, the administration’s signature action has been an unprecedented campaign by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to block enforcement of patents and other intellectual-property rights held by companies that have broken records in the speed with which they developed and manufactured COVID-19 vaccines on a mass scale.
Patents were not an impediment in this process. To the contrary: they were necessary predicates to induce venture-capital investment in a small firm like BioNTech, which undertook drug development and then partnered with the much larger Pfizer to execute testing, production, and distribution. If success in vaccine development is rewarded with expropriation, this vital public-health sector is unlikely to attract investors in the future.
Contrary to increasingly common assertions that the Bayh-Dole Act (which enables universities to seek patents arising from research funded by the federal government) “robs” taxpayers of intellectual property they funded, the development of Covid-19 vaccines by scientist-founded firms illustrates how the combination of patents and private capital is essential to convert academic research into life-saving medical solutions. The biotech ecosystem has long relied on patents to structure partnerships among universities, startups, and large firms. The costly path from lab to market relies on a secure property-rights infrastructure to ensure exclusivity, without which no investor would put capital at stake in what is already a high-risk, high-cost enterprise.
This is not mere speculation. During the decades prior to the Bayh-Dole Act, the federal government placed strict limitations on the ability to patent or exclusively license innovations arising from federally funded research projects. The result: the market showed little interest in making the investment needed to convert those innovations into commercially viable products that might benefit consumers. This history casts great doubt on the wisdom of the USTR’s campaign to limit the ability of biopharmaceutical firms to maintain legal exclusivity over certain life sciences innovations.
Genomics: FTC Attempts to Block the Illumina/GRAIL Acquisition
In the genomics industry, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has devoted extensive resources to oppose the acquisition by Illumina—the market leader in next-generation DNA-sequencing equipment—of a medical-diagnostics startup, GRAIL (an Illumina spinoff), that has developed an early-stage cancer screening test.
It is hard to see the competitive threat. GRAIL is a pre-revenue company that operates in a novel market segment and its diagnostic test has not yet received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To address concerns over barriers to potential competitors in this nascent market, Illumina has committed to 12-year supply contracts that would bar price increases or differential treatment for firms that develop oncology-detection tests requiring use of the Illumina platform.
The FTC’s case against Illumina’s re-acquisition of GRAIL relies on theoretical predictions of consumer harm in a market that is not yet operational. Hypothetical market failure scenarios may suit an academic seminar but fall well below the probative threshold for antitrust intervention.
Most critically, the Illumina enforcement action places at-risk a key element of well-functioning innovation ecosystems. Economies of scale and network effects lead technology markets to converge on a handful of leading platforms, which then often outsource research and development by funding and sometimes acquiring smaller firms that develop complementary technologies. This symbiotic relationship encourages entry and benefits consumers by bringing new products to market as efficiently as possible.
If antitrust interventions based on regulatory fiat, rather than empirical analysis, disrupt settled expectations in the M&A market that innovations can be monetized through acquisition transactions by larger firms, venture capital may be unwilling to fund such startups in the first place. Independent development or an initial public offering are often not feasible exit options. It is likely that innovation will then retreat to the confines of large incumbents that can fund research internally but often execute it less effectively.
Wireless Communications: DOJ Takes Aim at Standard-Essential Patents
Wireless communications stand at the heart of the global transition to a 5G-enabled “Internet of Things” that will transform business models and unlock efficiencies in myriad industries. It is therefore of paramount importance that policy actions in this sector rest on a rigorous economic basis. Unfortunately, a recent policy shift proposed by the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division does not meet this standard.
In December 2021, the Antitrust Division released a draft policy statement that would largely bar owners of standard-essential patents from seeking injunctions against infringers, which are usually large device manufacturers. These patents cover wireless functionalities that enable transformative solutions in myriad industries, ranging from communications to transportation to health care. A handful of U.S. and European firms lead in wireless chip design and rely on patent licensing to disseminate technology to device manufacturers and to fund billions of dollars in research and development. The result is a technology ecosystem that has enjoyed continuous innovation, widespread user adoption, and declining quality-adjusted prices.
Rather than promoting competition or innovation, the proposed policy would simply transfer wealth from firms that develop new technologies at great cost and risk to firms that prefer to use those technologies at no cost at all. This does not benefit anyone other than device manufacturers that already capture the largest portion of economic value in the smartphone supply chain.
From international trade to antitrust to patent policy, the administration’s actions imply little appreciation for the property rights and contractual infrastructure that support real-world innovation markets. In particular, the administration’s policies endanger the intellectual-property rights and monetization pathways that support market incentives to invest in the development and commercialization of transformative technologies.
This creates an inviting vacuum for strategic rivals that are vigorously pursuing leadership positions in global technology markets. In industries that stand at the heart of the knowledge economy—life sciences, genomics, and wireless communications—the administration is on a counterproductive trajectory that overlooks the business realities of technology markets and threatens to push capital away from the entrepreneurs that drive a robust innovation ecosystem. It is time to reverse course.
Responding to a new draft policy statement from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the U.S. Department of Justice, Antitrust Division (DOJ) regarding remedies for infringement of standard-essential patents (SEPs), a group of 19 distinguished law, economics, and business scholars convened by the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) submitted comments arguing that the guidance would improperly tilt the balance of power between implementers and inventors, and could undermine incentives for innovation.
As explained in the scholars’ comments, the draft policy statement misunderstands many aspects of patent and antitrust policy. The draft notably underestimates the value of injunctions and the circumstances in which they are a necessary remedy. It also overlooks important features of the standardization process that make opportunistic behavior much less likely than policymakers typically recognize. These points are discussed in even more detail in previous work by ICLE scholars, including here and here.
These first-order considerations are only the tip of the iceberg, however. Patent policy has a huge range of second-order effects that the draft policy statement and policymakers more generally tend to overlook. Indeed, reducing patent protection has more detrimental effects on economic welfare than the conventional wisdom typically assumes.
The comments highlight three important areas affected by SEP policy that would be undermined by the draft statement.
First, SEPs are established through an industry-wide, collaborative process that develops and protects innovations considered essential to an industry’s core functioning. This process enables firms to specialize in various functions throughout an industry, rather than vertically integrate to ensure compatibility.
Second, strong patent protection, especially of SEPs, boosts startup creation via a broader set of mechanisms than is typically recognized.
Finally, strong SEP protection is essential to safeguard U.S. technology leadership and sovereignty.
As explained in the scholars’ comments, the draft policy statement would be detrimental on all three of these dimensions.
To be clear, the comments do not argue that addressing these secondary effects should be a central focus of patent and antitrust policy. Instead, the point is that policymakers must deal with a far more complex set of issues than is commonly recognized; the effects of SEP policy aren’t limited to the allocation of rents among inventors and implementers (as they are sometimes framed in policy debates). Accordingly, policymakers should proceed with caution and resist the temptation to alter by fiat terms that have emerged through careful negotiation among inventors and implementers, and which have been governed for centuries by the common law of contract.
Collaborative Standard-Setting and Specialization as Substitutes for Proprietary Standards and Vertical Integration
Intellectual property in general—and patents, more specifically—is often described as a means to increase the monetary returns from the creation and distribution of innovations. While this is undeniably the case, this framing overlooks the essential role that IP also plays in promoting specialization throughout the economy.
As Ronald Coase famously showed in his Nobel-winning work, firms must constantly decide whether to perform functions in-house (by vertically integrating), or contract them out to third parties (via the market mechanism). Coase concluded that these decisions hinge on whether the transaction costs associated with the market mechanism outweigh the cost of organizing production internally. Decades later, Oliver Williamson added a key finding to this insight. He found that among the most important transaction costs that firms encounter are those that stem from incomplete contracts and the scope for opportunistic behavior they entail.
This leads to a simple rule of thumb: as the scope for opportunistic behavior increases, firms are less likely to use the market mechanism and will instead perform tasks in-house, leading to increased vertical integration.
IP plays a key role in this process. Patents drastically reduce the transaction costs associated with the transfer of knowledge. This gives firms the opportunity to develop innovations collaboratively and without fear that trading partners might opportunistically appropriate their inventions. In turn, this leads to increased specialization. As Robert Merges observes:
Patents facilitate arms-length trade of a technology-intensive input, leading to entry and specialization.
More specifically, it is worth noting that the development and commercialization of inventions can lead to two important sources of opportunistic behavior: patent holdup and patent holdout. As the assembled scholars explain in their comments, while patent holdup has drawn the lion’s share of policymaker attention, empirical and anecdotal evidence suggest that holdout is the more salient problem.
Policies that reduce these costs—especially patent holdout—in a cost-effective manner are worthwhile, with the immediate result that technologies are more widely distributed than would otherwise be the case. Inventors also see more intense and extensive incentives to produce those technologies in the first place.
The Importance of Intellectual Property Rights for Startup Activity
Strong patent rights are essential to monetize innovation, thus enabling new firms to gain a foothold in the marketplace. As the scholars’ comments explain, this is even more true for startup companies. There are three main reasons for this:
Patent rights protected by injunctions prevent established companies from simply copying innovative startups, with the expectation that they will be able to afford court-set royalties;
Patent rights can be the basis for securitization, facilitating access to startup funding; and
Patent rights drive venture capital (VC) investment.
While point (1) is widely acknowledged, many fail to recognize it is particularly important for startup companies. There is abundant literature on firms’ appropriability mechanisms (these are essentially the strategies firms employ to prevent rivals from copying their inventions). The literature tells us that patent protection is far from the only strategy firms use to protect their inventions (see. e.g., here, here and here).
The alternative appropriability mechanisms identified by these studies tend to be easier to implement for well-established firms. For instance, many firms earn returns on their inventions by incorporating them into physical products that cannot be reverse engineered. This is much easier for firms that already have a large industry presence and advanced manufacturing capabilities. In contrast, startup companies—almost by definition—must outsource production.
Second, property rights could drive startup activity through the collateralization of IP. By offering security interests in patents, trademarks, and copyrights, startups with little or no tangible assets can obtain funding without surrendering significant equity. As Gaétan de Rassenfosse puts it:
SMEs can leverage their IP to facilitate R&D financing…. [P]atents materialize the value of knowledge stock: they codify the knowledge and make it tradable, such that they can be used as collaterals. Recent theoretical evidence by Amable et al. (2010) suggests that a systematic use of patents as collateral would allow a high growth rate of innovations despite financial constraints.
Finally, there is reason to believe intellectual-property protection is an important driver of venture capital activity. Beyond simply enabling firms to earn returns on their investments, patents might signal to potential investors that a company is successful and/or valuable. Empirical research by Hsu and Ziedonis, for instance, supports this hypothesis:
[W]e find a statistically significant and economically large effect of patent filings on investor estimates of start-up value…. A doubling in the patent application stock of a new venture [in] this sector is associated with a 28 percent increase in valuation, representing an upward funding-round adjustment of approximately $16.8 million for the average start-up in our sample.
In short, intellectual property can stimulate startup activity through various mechanisms. There is thus a sense that, at the margin, weakening patent protection will make it harder for entrepreneurs to embark on new business ventures.
The Role of Strong SEP Rights in Guarding Against China’s ‘Cyber Great Power’ Ambitions
The United States, due in large measure to its strong intellectual-property protections, is a nation of innovators, and its production of IP is one of its most important comparative advantages.
IP and its legal protections become even more important, however, when dealing with international jurisdictions, like China, that don’t offer similar levels of legal protection. By making it harder for patent holders to obtain injunctions, licensees and implementers gain the advantage in the short term, because they are able to use patented technology without having to engage in negotiations to pay the full market price.
In the case of many SEPs—particularly those in the telecommunications sector—a great many patent holders are U.S.-based, while the lion’s share of implementers are Chinese. The anti-injunction policy espoused in the draft policy statement thus amounts to a subsidy to Chinese infringers of U.S. technology.
At the same time, China routinely undermines U.S. intellectual property protections through its industrial policy. The government’s stated goal is to promote “fair and reasonable” international rules, but it is clear that China stretches its power over intellectual property around the world by granting “anti-suit injunctions” on behalf of Chinese smartphone makers, designed to curtail enforcement of foreign companies’ patent rights.
This is part of the Chinese government’s larger approach to industrial policy, which seeks to expand Chinese power in international trade negotiations and in global standards bodies. As one Chinese Communist Party official put it:
Standards are the commanding heights, the right to speak, and the right to control. Therefore, the one who obtains the standards gains the world.
Insufficient protections for intellectual property will hasten China’s objective of dominating collaborative standard development in the medium to long term. Simultaneously, this will engender a switch to greater reliance on proprietary, closed standards rather than collaborative, open standards. These harmful consequences are magnified in the context of the global technology landscape, and in light of China’s strategic effort to shape international technology standards. Chinese companies, directed by their government authorities, will gain significant control of the technologies that will underpin tomorrow’s digital goods and services.
The scholars convened by ICLE were not alone in voicing these fears. David Teece (also a signatory to the ICLE-convened comments), for example, surmises in his comments that:
The US government, in reviewing competition policy issues that might impact standards, therefore needs to be aware that the issues at hand have tremendous geopolitical consequences and cannot be looked at in isolation…. Success in this regard will promote competition and is our best chance to maintain technological leadership—and, along with it, long-term economic growth and consumer welfare and national security.
What is more, the largest short-term and long-term beneficiaries of the 2021 Draft Policy Statement are firms based in China. Currently, China is the world’s largest consumer of SEP-based technology, so weakening protection of American owned patents directly benefits Chinese manufacturers. The unintended effect of the 2021 Draft Policy Statement will be to support Chinese efforts to dominate critical technology standards and other advanced technologies, such as 5G. Put simply, devaluing U.S. patents is akin to a subsidized tech transfer to China.
With Chinese authorities joining standardization bodies and increasingly claiming jurisdiction over F/RAND disputes, there should be careful reevaluation of the ways the draft policy statement would further weaken the United States’ comparative advantage in IP-dependent technological innovation.
In short, weakening patent protection could have detrimental ramifications that are routinely overlooked by policymakers. These include increasing inventors’ incentives to vertically integrate rather than develop innovations collaboratively; reducing startup activity (especially when combined with antitrust enforcers’ newfound proclivity to challenge startup acquisitions); and eroding America’s global technology leadership, particularly with respect to China.
For these reasons (and others), the text of the draft policy statement should be reconsidered and either revised substantially to better reflect these concerns or withdrawn entirely.
The signatories to the comments are:
Alden F. Abbott
Senior Research Fellow, Mercatus Center George Mason University Former General Counsel, U.S. Federal Trade Commission
Torrey H. Webb Professor of Law University of Southern California
Ronald A. Cass
Dean Emeritus, School of Law Boston University Former Commissioner and Vice-Chairman, U.S. International Trade Commission
Jean Monnet Chair in European Innovation Policy and Associate Professor of Competition Law & Economics University of Basilicata and LUISS (Italy)
Richard A. Epstein
Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law New York University
Executive Director, Tusher Initiative at the Haas School of Business University of California, Berkeley
Justin (Gus) Hurwitz
Professor of Law University of Nebraska
Thomas A. Lambert
Wall Chair in Corporate Law and Governance University of Missouri
Stan J. Liebowitz
Ashbel Smith Professor of Economics University of Texas at Dallas
John E. Lopatka
A. Robert Noll Distinguished Professor of Law Penn State University
Founder and Managing Partner WiseHarbor
Geoffrey A. Manne
President and Founder International Center for Law & Economics
Professor of Law George Mason University
Austin E. Owen Research Scholar and Professor of Law University of Richmond
Vernon L. Smith
George L. Argyros Endowed Chair in Finance and Economics Chapman University Nobel Laureate in Economics (2002)
Daniel F. Spulber
Elinor Hobbs Distinguished Professor of International Business Northwestern University
David J. Teece
Thomas W. Tusher Professor in Global Business University of California, Berkeley
Joshua D. Wright
University Professor of Law George Mason University Former Commissioner, U.S. Federal Trade Commission
John M. Yun
Associate Professor of Law George Mason University Former Acting Deputy Assistant Director, Bureau of Economics, U.S. Federal Trade Commission
The Jan. 18 Request for Information on Merger Enforcement (RFI)—issued jointly by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ)—sets forth 91 sets of questions (subsumed under 15 headings) that provide ample opportunity for public comment on a large range of topics.
Before chasing down individual analytic rabbit holes related to specific questions, it would be useful to reflect on the “big picture” policy concerns raised by this exercise (but not hinted at in the questions). Viewed from a broad policy perspective, the RFI initiative risks undermining the general respect that courts have accorded merger guidelines over the years, as well as disincentivizing economically beneficial business consolidations.
Policy concerns that flow from various features of the RFI, which could undermine effective merger enforcement, are highlighted below. These concerns counsel against producing overly detailed guidelines that adopt a merger-skeptical orientation.
The RFI Reflects the False Premise that Competition is Declining in the United States
The FTC press release that accompanied the RFI’s release made clear that a supposed weakening of competition under the current merger-guidelines regime is a key driver of the FTC and DOJ interest in new guidelines:
Today, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division launched a joint public inquiry aimed at strengthening enforcement against illegal mergers. Recent evidence indicates that many industries across the economy are becoming more concentrated and less competitive – imperiling choice and economic gains for consumers, workers, entrepreneurs, and small businesses.
This premise is not supported by the facts. Based on a detailed literature review, Chapter 6 of the 2020 Economic Report of the President concluded that “the argument that the U.S. economy is suffering from insufficient competition is built on a weak empirical foundation and questionable assumptions.” More specifically, the 2020 Economic Report explained:
Research purporting to document a pattern of increasing concentration and increasing markups uses data on segments of the economy that are far too broad to offer any insights about competition, either in specific markets or in the economy at large. Where data do accurately identify issues of concentration or supercompetitive profits, additional analysis is needed to distinguish between alternative explanations, rather than equating these market indicators with harmful market power.
Soon to-be-published quantitative research by Robert Kulick of NERA Economic Consulting and the American Enterprise Institute, presented at the Jan. 26 Mercatus Antitrust Forum, is consistent with the 2020 Economic Report’s findings. Kulick stressed that there was no general trend toward increasing industrial concentration in the U.S. economy from 2002 to 2017. In particular, industrial concentration has been declining since 2007; the Herfindahl–Hirschman index (HHI) for manufacturing has declined significantly since 2002; and the economywide four-firm concentration ratio (CR4) in 2017 was approximately the same as in 2002.
Even in industries where concentration may have risen, “the evidence does not support claims that concentration is persistent or harmful.” In that regard, Kulick’s research finds that higher-concentration industries tend to become less concentrated, while lower-concentration industries tend to become more concentrated over time; increases in industrial concentration are associated with economic growth and job creation, particularly for high-growth industries; and rising industrial concentration may be driven by increasing market competition.
In short, the strongest justification for issuing new merger guidelines is based on false premises: an alleged decline in competition within the Unites States. Given this reality, the adoption of revised guidelines designed to “ratchet up” merger enforcement would appear highly questionable.
The RFI Strikes a Merger-Skeptical Tone Out of Touch with Modern Mainstream Antitrust Scholarship
The overall tone of the RFI reflects a skeptical view of the potential benefits of mergers. It ignores overarching beneficial aspects of mergers, which include reallocating scarce resources to higher-valued uses (through the market for corporate control) and realizing standard efficiencies of various sorts (including cost-based efficiencies and incentive effects, such as the elimination of double marginalization through vertical integration). Mergers also generate benefits by bringing together complementary assets and by generating synergies of various sorts, including the promotion of innovation and scaling up the fruits of research and development. (See here, for example.)
What’s more, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has explained, “[e]vidence suggests that vertical mergers are generally pro-competitive, as they are driven by efficiency-enhancing motives such as improving vertical co-ordination and realizing economies of scope.”
Given the manifold benefits of mergers in general, the negative and merger-skeptical tone of the RFI is regrettable. It not only ignores sound economics, but it is at odds with recent pronouncements by the FTC and DOJ. Notably, the 2010 DOJ-FTC Horizontal Merger Guidelines (issued by Obama administration enforcers) struck a neutral tone. Those guidelines recognized the duty to challenge anticompetitive mergers while noting the public interest in avoiding unnecessary interference with non-anticompetitive mergers (“[t]he Agencies seek to identify and challenge competitively harmful mergers while avoiding unnecessary interference with mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral”). The same neutral approach is found in the 2020 DOJ-FTC Vertical Merger Guidelines (“the Agencies use a consistent set of facts and assumptions to evaluate both the potential competitive harm from a vertical merger and the potential benefits to competition”).
The RFI, however, expresses no concern about unnecessary government interference, and strongly emphasizes the potential shortcomings of the existing guidelines in questioning whether they “adequately equip enforcers to identify and proscribe unlawful, anticompetitive mergers.” Merger-skepticism is also reflected throughout the RFI’s 91 sets of questions. A close reading reveals that they are generally phrased in ways that implicitly assume competitive problems or reject potential merger justifications.
For example, the questions addressing efficiencies, under RFI heading 14, casts efficiencies in a generally negative light. Thus, the RFI asks whether “the [existing] guidelines’ approach to efficiencies [is] consistent with the prevailing legal framework as enacted by Congress and interpreted by the courts,” citing the statement in FTC v. Procter & Gamble (1967) that “[p]ossible economies cannot be used as a defense to illegality.”
The view that antitrust disfavors mergers that enhance efficiencies (the “efficiencies offense”) has been roundly rejected by mainstream antitrust scholarship (see, for example, here, here, and here). It may be assumed that today’s Supreme Court (which has deemed consumer welfare to be the lodestone of antitrust enforcement since Reiter v. Sonotone (1979)) would give short shrift to an “efficiencies offense” justification for a merger challenge.
Another efficiencies-related question, under RFI heading 14.d, may in application fly in the face of sound market-oriented economics: “Where a merger is expected to generate cost savings via the elimination of ‘excess’ or ‘redundant’ capacity or workers, should the guidelines treat these savings as cognizable ‘efficiencies’?”
Consider a merger that generates synergies and thereby expands and/or raises the quality of goods and services produced with reduced capacity and fewer workers. This merger would allow these resources to be allocated to higher-valued uses elsewhere in the economy, yielding greater economic surplus for consumers and producers. But there is the risk that such a merger could be viewed unfavorably under new merger guidelines that were revised in light of this question. (Although heading 14.d includes a separate question regarding capacity reductions that have the potential to reduce supply resilience or product or service quality, it is not stated that this provision should be viewed as a limitation on the first sentence.)
The RFI’s discussion of topics other than efficiencies similarly sends the message that existing guidelines are too “pro-merger.” Thus, for example, under RFI heading 5 (“presumptions”), one finds the rhetorical question: “[d]o the [existing] guidelines adequately identify mergers that are presumptively unlawful under controlling case law?”
This question answers itself, by citing to the Philadelphia National Bank (1963) statement that “[w]ithout attempting to specify the smallest market share which would still be considered to threaten undue concentration, we are clear that 30% presents that threat.” This statement predates all of the merger guidelines and is out of step with the modern economic analysis of mergers, which the existing guidelines embody. It would, if taken seriously, threaten a huge number of proposed mergers that, until now, have not been subject to second-request review by the DOJ and FTC. As Judge Douglas Ginsburg and former Commissioner Joshua Wright have explained:
The practical effect of the PNB presumption is to shift the burden of proof from the plaintiff, where it rightfully resides, to the defendant, without requiring evidence – other than market shares – that the proposed merger is likely to harm competition. . . . The presumption ought to go the way of the agencies’ policy decision to drop reliance upon the discredited antitrust theories approved by the courts in such cases as Brown Shoe, Von’s Grocery, and Utah Pie. Otherwise, the agencies will ultimately have to deal with the tension between taking advantage of a favorable presumption in litigation and exerting a reformative influence on the direction of merger law.
By inviting support for PNB-style thinking, RFI heading 5’s lead question effectively rejects the economic effects-based analysis that has been central to agency merger analysis for decades. Guideline revisions that downplay effects in favor of mere concentration would likely be viewed askance by reviewing courts (and almost certainly would be rejected by the Supreme Court, as currently constituted, if the occasion arose).
These particularly striking examples are illustrative of the questioning tone regarding existing merger analysis that permeates the RFI.
New Merger Guidelines, if Issued, Should Not Incorporate the Multiplicity of Issues Embodied in the RFI
The 91 sets of questions in the RFI read, in large part, like a compendium of theoretical harms to the working of markets that might be associated with mergers. While these questions may be of general academic interest, and may shed some light on particular merger investigations, most of them should not be incorporated into guidelines.
As Justice Stephen Breyer has pointed out, antitrust is a legal regime that must account for administrative practicalities. Then-Judge Breyer described the nature of the problem in his 1983 Barry Wright opinion (affirming the dismissal of a Sherman Act Section 2 complaint based on “unreasonably low” prices):
[W]hile technical economic discussion helps to inform the antitrust laws, those laws cannot precisely replicate the economists’ (sometimes conflicting) views. For, unlike economics, law is an administrative system the effects of which depend upon the content of rules and precedents only as they are applied by judges and juries in courts and by lawyers advising their clients. Rules that seek to embody every economic complexity and qualification may well, through the vagaries of administration, prove counter-productive, undercutting the very economic ends they seek to serve.
It follows that any effort to include every theoretical merger-related concern in new merger guidelines would undercut their (presumed) overarching purpose, which is providing useful guidance to the private sector. All-inclusive “guidelines” in reality provide no guidance at all. Faced with a laundry list of possible problems that might prompt the FTC or DOJ to oppose a merger, private parties would face enormous uncertainty, which could deter them from proposing a large number of procompetitive, welfare-enhancing or welfare-neutral consolidations. This would “undercut the very economic ends” of promoting competition that is served by Section 7 enforcement.
Furthermore, all-inclusive merger guidelines could be seen by judges as undermining the rule of law (see here, for example). If DOJ and FTC were able to “pick and choose” at will from an enormously wide array of considerations to justify opposing a proposed merger, they could be seen as engaged in arbitrary enforcement, rather than in a careful weighing of evidence aimed at condemning only anticompetitive transactions. This would be at odds with the promise of fair and dispassionate enforcement found in the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines, namely, to “seek to identify and challenge competitively harmful mergers while avoiding unnecessary interference with mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral.”
Up until now, federal courts have virtually always implicitly deferred to (and not questioned) the application of merger-guideline principles by the DOJ and FTC. The agencies have won or lost cases based on courts’ weighing of particular factual and economic evidence, not on whether guideline principles should have been applied by the enforcers.
One would expect courts to react very differently, however, to cases brought in light of ridiculously detailed “guidelines” that did not provide true guidance (particularly if they were heavy on competitive harm possibilities and discounted efficiencies). The agencies’ selective reliance on particular anticompetitive theories could be seen as exercises in arbitrary “pre-cooked” condemnations, not dispassionate enforcement. As such, the courts would tend to be far more inclined to reject (or accord far less deference to) the new guidelines in evaluating agency merger challenges. Even transactions that would have been particularly compelling candidates for condemnation under prior guidelines could be harder to challenge successfully, due to the taint of the new guidelines.
In short, the adoption of highly detailed guidelines that emphasize numerous theories of harm would likely undermine the effectiveness of DOJ and FTC merger enforcement, the precise opposite of what the agencies would have intended.
New Merger Guidelines, if Issued, Should Avoid Relying on Outdated Case Law and Novel Section 7 Theories, and Should Give Due Credit to Economic Efficiencies
The DOJ and FTC could, of course, acknowledge the problem of administrability and issue more straightforward guideline revisions, of comparable length and detail to prior guidelines. If they choose to do so, they would be well-advised to eschew relying on dated precedents and novel Section 7 theories. They should also give due credit to efficiencies. Seemingly biased guidelines would undermine merger enforcement, not strengthen it.
As discussed above, the RFI’s implicitly favorable references to Philadelphia National Bank and Procter & Gamble are at odds with contemporary economics-based antitrust thinking, which has been accepted by the federal courts. The favorable treatment of those antediluvian holdings, and Brown Shoe Co. v. United States (1962) (another horribly dated case cited multiple times in the RFI), would do much to discredit new guidelines.
In that regard, the suggestion in RFI heading 1 that existing merger guidelines may not “faithfully track the statutory text, legislative history, and established case law around merger enforcement” touts the Brown Shoe and PNB concerns with a “trend toward concentration” and “the danger of subverting congressional intent by permitting a too-broad economic investigation.”
New guidelines that focus on (or even give lip service to) a “trend” toward concentration and eschew overly detailed economic analyses (as opposed, perhaps, to purely concentration-based negative rules of thumb?) would predictably come in for judicial scorn as economically unfounded. Such references would do as much (if not more) to ensure judicial rejection of enforcement-agency guidelines as endless lists of theoretically possible sources of competitive harm, discussed previously.
Of particular concern are those references that implicitly reject the need to consider efficiencies, which is key to modern enlightened merger evaluations. It is ludicrous to believe that a majority of the current Supreme Court would have a merger-analysis epiphany and decide that the RFI’s preferred interventionist reading of Section 7 statutory language and legislative history trumps decades of economically centered consumer-welfare scholarship and agency guidelines.
Herbert Hovenkamp, author of the leading American antitrust treatise and a scholar who has been cited countless times by the Supreme Court, recently put it well (in an article coauthored with Carl Shapiro):
When the FTC investigates vertical and horizontal mergers will it now take the position that efficiencies are irrelevant, even if they are proven? If so, the FTC will face embarrassing losses in court.
Reviewing courts wound no doubt take heed of this statement in assessing any future merger guidelines that rely on dated and discredited cases or that minimize efficiencies.
New Guidelines, if Issued, Should Give Due Credit to Efficiencies
Heading 14 of the RFI—listing seven sets of questions that deal with efficiencies—is in line with the document’s implicitly negative portrayal of mergers. The heading begins inauspiciously, with a question that cites Procter & Gamble in suggesting that the current guidelines’ approach to efficiencies is “[in]consistent with the prevailing legal framework as enacted by Congress and interpreted by the courts.” As explained above, such an anti-efficiencies reference would be viewed askance by most, if not all, reviewing judges.
Other queries in heading 14 also view efficiencies as problematic. They suggest that efficiency claims should be treated negatively because efficiency claims are not always realized after the fact. But merger activity is a private-sector search process, and the ability to predict ex post effects with perfect accuracy is an inevitable part of market activity. Using such a natural aspect of markets as an excuse to ignore efficiencies would prevent many economically desirable consolidations from being achieved.
Furthermore, the suggestion under heading 14 that parties should have to show with certainty that cognizable efficiencies could not have been achieved through alternative means asks the impossible. Theoreticians may be able to dream up alternative means by which efficiencies might have been achieved (say, through convoluted contracts), but such constructs may not be practical in real-world settings. Requiring businesses to follow dubious theoretical approaches to achieve legitimate business ends, rather than allowing them to enter into arrangements they favor that appear efficient, would manifest inappropriate government interference in markets. (It would be just another example of the “pretense of knowledge” that Friedrich Hayek brilliantly described in his 1974 Nobel Prize lecture.)
Other questions under heading 14 raise concerns about the lack of discussion of possible “inefficiencies” in current guidelines, and speculate about possible losses of “product or service quality” due to otherwise efficient reductions in physical capacity and employment. Such theoretical musings offer little guidance to the private sector, and further cast in a negative light potential real resource savings.
Rather than incorporate the unhelpful theoretical efficiencies critiques under heading 14, the agencies should consider a more helpful approach to clarifying the evaluation of efficiencies in new guidelines. Such a clarification could be based on Commissioner Christine Wilson’s helpful discussion of merger efficiencies in recent writings (see, for example, here and here). Wilson has appropriately called for the symmetric treatment of both the potential harms and benefits arising from mergers, explaining that “the agencies readily credit harms but consistently approach potential benefits with extreme skepticism.”
She and Joshua Wright have also explained (see here, here, and here) that overly narrow product-market definitions may sometimes preclude consideration of substantial “out-of-market” efficiencies that arise from certain mergers. The consideration of offsetting “out-of-market” efficiencies that greatly outweigh competitive harms might warrant inclusion in new guidelines.
The FTC and DOJ could be heading for a merger-enforcement train wreck if they adopt new guidelines that incorporate the merger-skeptical tone and excruciating level of detail found in the RFI. This approach would yield a lengthy and uninformative laundry list of potential competitive problems that would allow the agencies to selectively pick competitive harm “stories” best adapted to oppose particular mergers, in tension with the rule of law.
Far from “strengthening” merger enforcement, such new guidelines would lead to economically harmful business uncertainty and would severely undermine judicial respect for the federal merger-enforcement process. The end result would be a “lose-lose” for businesses, for enforcers, and for the American economy.
If the agencies enact new guidelines, they should be relatively short and straightforward, designed to give private parties the clearest possible picture of general agency enforcement intentions. In particular, new guidelines should:
Eschew references to dated and discredited case law;
Adopt a neutral tone that acknowledges the beneficial aspects of mergers;
Recognize the duty to challenge anticompetitive mergers, while at the same time noting the public interest in avoiding unnecessary interference with non-anticompetitive mergers (consistent with the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines); and
Acknowledge the importance of efficiencies, treating them symmetrically with competitive harm and according appropriate weight to countervailing out-of-market efficiencies (a distinct improvement over existing enforcement policy).
Merger enforcement should continue to be based on fact-based case-specific evaluations, informed by sound economics. Populist nostrums that treat mergers with suspicion and that ignore their beneficial aspects should be rejected. Such ideas are at odds with current scholarly thinking and judicial analysis, and should be relegated to the scrap heap of outmoded and bad public policies.
As a new year dawns, the Biden administration remains fixated on illogical, counterproductive “big is bad” nostrums.
Noted economist and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers correctly stressed recently that using antitrust to fight inflation represents “science denial,” tweeting that:
In his extended Twitter thread, Summers notes that labor shortages are the primary cause of inflation over time and that lowering tariffs, paring back import restrictions (such as the Buy America Act), and reducing regulatory delays are vital to combat inflation.
Summers’ points, of course, are right on the mark. Indeed, labor shortages, supply-chain issues, and a dramatic increase in regulatory burdens have been key to the dramatic run-up of prices during the Biden administration’s first year. Reducing the weight of government on the private sector and thereby enhancing incentives for increased investment, labor participation, and supply are the appropriate weapons to slow price rises and incentivize economic growth.
More specifically, administration policies can be pinpointed as the cause, not the potential solution to, rapid price increases in specific sectors, particularly the oil and gas industry. As I recently commented, policies that disincentivize new energy production, and fail to lift excessive regulatory burdens, have been a key factor in sparking rises in gasoline prices. Administration claims that anticompetitive activity is behind these prices increases should be discounted. New Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigations of oil and gas companies would waste resources and increase already large governmental burdens on those firms.
The administration, nevertheless, appears committed to using antitrust as an anti-inflationary “tool” against “big business” (or perhaps, really, as a symbolic hammer to shift blame to the private sector for rising prices). Recent pronouncements about combatting “big meat” are a case in point.
The New ‘Big Meat’ Crusade
Part of the administration’s crusade against “big meat” involves providing direct government financial support for favored firms. A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plan to spend up to $1 billion to assist smaller meat processors is a subsidy that artificially favors one group of competitors. This misguided policy, which bears the scent of special-interest favoritism, wastes taxpayer dollars and distorts free-market outcomes. It will do nothing to cure supply and regulatory problems that affect rising meat prices. It will, however, misallocate resources.
The other key aspect of the big meat initiative smacks more of problematic, old-style, economics-free antitrust. It centers on: (1) threatening possible antitrust actions against four large meat processors based principally on their size and market share; and (2) initiating a planned rulemaking under the Packers and Stockyards Act. (That rulemaking was foreshadowed by language in the July 2021 Biden Administration Executive Order on Competition.)
The administration’s apparent focus on the “dominance” of four large meatpacking firms (which have the temerity to collectively hold greater than 50% market shares in the hog, cattle, and chicken sectors) and the 120% jump in their gross profits since the pandemic began is troubling. It echoes the structuralist “big is bad” philosophy of the 1950s and 1960s. In and of itself, large market share is not, of course, an antitrust problem, nor are large gross profits. Rather, those metrics typically signal a particular firm’s superior efficiency relative to the competition. (Gross profit “reflects the efficiency of a business in terms of making use of its labor, raw material and other supplies.”) Antitrust investigations of firms merely because they are large would inefficiently bloat those companies’ costs and discourage them from engaging in cost-reducing new capacity and production improvements. This would tend to raise, not lower, prices by major firms. It thus would lower consumer welfare, a result at odds with the guiding policy goal of antitrust, which is to promote consumer welfare.
The administration’s announcement that the USDA “will also propose rules this year to strengthen enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act” is troublesome. That act, dating back to 1921, uses broad terms that extend beyond antitrust law (such as a prohibition on “giv[ing] any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person”) and threatens to penalize efficient conduct by individual competitors. “Ratcheting up” enforcement under this act also could undermine business efficiency and paradoxically raise, not lower, prices.
Obviously, the specifics of the forthcoming proposed rules have not yet been revealed. Nevertheless, the administration’s “big is bad” approach to “big meat” strongly signals that one may expect rules to generate new costly and inefficient restrictions on meat-packer conduct. Such restrictions, of course, would be at odds with vibrant competition and consumer-welfare enhancement.
This is not to say, of course, that meat packing should be immune from antitrust attention. Such scrutiny, however, should not be transfixed by “big is bad” concerns. Rather, it should center on the core antitrust goal of combatting harmful business conduct that unreasonably restrains competition and reduces consumer welfare. A focus on ferreting out collusive agreements among meat processors, such as price-fixing schemes, should have pride of place. The U.S. Justice Department’s already successful ongoing investigation into price fixing in the broiler-chicken industry is precisely the sort of antitrust initiative on which the administration should expend its scarce enforcement resources.
In sum, the Biden administration could do a lot of good in antitrust land if it would only set aside its nostalgic “big is bad” philosophy. It should return to the bipartisan enlightened understanding that antitrust is a consumer-welfare prescription that is based on sound and empirically based economics and is concerned with economically inefficient conduct that softens or destroys competition.
If it wants to stray beyond mere enforcement, the administration could turn its focus toward dismantling welfare-reducing anticompetitive federal regulatory schemes, rather than adding to private-sector regulatory burdens. For more about how to do this, we recommend that the administration consult a just-released Mercatus Center policy brief that Andrew Mercado and I co-authored.
Even as delivery services work to ship all of those last-minute Christmas presents that consumers bought this season from digital platforms and other e-commerce sites, the U.S. House and Senate are contemplating Grinch-like legislation that looks to stop or limit how Big Tech companies can “self-preference” or “discriminate” on their platforms.
A platform “self-preferences” when it blends various services into the delivery of a given product in ways that third parties couldn’t do themselves. For example, Google self-preferences when it puts a Google Shopping box at the top of a Search page for Adidas sneakers. Amazon self-preferences when it offers its own AmazonBasics USB cables alongside those offered by Apple or Anker. Costco’s placement of its own Kirkland brand of paper towels on store shelves can also be a form of self-preferencing.
Such purportedly “discriminatory” behavior constitutes much of what platforms are designed to do. Virtually every platform that offers a suite of products and services will combine them in ways that users find helpful, even if competitors find it infuriating. It surely doesn’t help Yelp if Google Search users can see a Maps results box next to a search for showtimes at a local cinema. It doesn’t help other manufacturers of charging cables if Amazon sells a cheaper version under a brand that consumers trust. But do consumers really care about Yelp or Apple’s revenues, when all they want are relevant search results and less expensive products?
Until now, competition authorities have judged this type of conduct under the consumer welfare standard: does it hurt consumers in the long run, or does it help them? This test does seek to evaluate whether the conduct deprives consumers of choice by foreclosing rivals, which could ultimately allow the platform to exploit its customers. But it doesn’t treat harm to competitors—in the form of reduced traffic and profits for Yelp, for example—as a problem in and of itself.
“Non-discrimination” bills introduced this year in both the House and Senate aim to change that, but they would do so in ways that differ in important respects.
The House bill would impose a blanket ban on virtually all “discrimination” by platforms. This means that even such benign behavior as Facebook linking to Facebook Marketplace on its homepage would become presumptively unlawful. The measure would, as I’ve written before, break a lot of the Internet as we know it, but it has the virtue of being explicit and clear about its effects.
The Senate bill is, in this sense, a lot more circumspect. Instead of a blanket ban, it would prohibit what the bill refers to as “unfair” discrimination that “materially harm[s] competition on the covered platform,” with a carve-out exception for discrimination that was “necessary” to maintain or enhance the “core functionality” of the platform. In theory, this would avoid a lot of the really crazy effects of the House bill. Apple likely still could, for example, pre-install a Camera app on the iPhone.
But this greater degree of reasonableness comes at the price of ambiguity. The bill does not define “unfair discrimination,” nor what it would mean for something to be “necessary” to improve the core functionality of a platform. Faced with this ambiguity, companies would be wise to be overly cautious, given the steep penalties they would face for conduct found to be “unfair”: 15% of total U.S. revenues earned during the period when the conduct was ongoing. That’s a lot of money to risk over a single feature!
Also unlike the House legislation, the Senate bill would not create a private right of action, thereby limiting litigation to enforce the bill’s terms to actions brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), or state attorneys general.
Put together, these features create the perfect recipe for extensive discretionary power held by a handful of agencies. With such vague criteria and such massive penalties for lawbreaking, the mere threat of a lawsuit could force a company to change its behavior. The rules are so murky that companies might even be threatened with a lawsuit over conduct in one area in order to make them change their behavior in another.
The FTC itself has a history of abusing its authority. As Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson remind us, the commission was nearly shut down in the 1970s after trying to use its powers to “protect” children from seeing ads for sugary foods, interpreting its consumer-protection mandate so broadly that it considered tooth decay as falling within its scope.
Khan in particular does not appear especially bound by the usual norms that might constrain this sort of regulatory overreach. In recent weeks, she has pushed through contentious decisions by relying on more than 20 “zombie votes” cast by former Commissioner Rohit Chopra on the final day before he left the agency. While it has been FTC policy since 1984 to count votes cast by departed commissioners unless they are superseded by their successors, Khan’s FTC has invoked this relatively obscure rule to swing more decisions than every single predecessor combined.
Thus, while the Senate bill may avoid immediately breaking large portions of the Internet in ways the House bill would, it would instead place massive discretionary powers into the hands of authorities who have expansive views about the goals those powers ought to be used to pursue.
This ought to be concerning to anyone who disapproves of public policy being made by unelected bureaucrats, rather than the people’s chosen representatives. If Republicans find an empowered Khan-led FTC worrying today, surely Democrats ought to feel the same about an FTC run by Trump-style appointees in a few years. Both sides may come to regret creating an agency with so much unchecked power.