Archives For rent seeking

The populists are on the march, and as the 2018 campaign season gets rolling we’re witnessing more examples of political opportunism bolstered by economic illiteracy aimed at increasingly unpopular big tech firms.

The latest example comes in the form of a new investigation of Google opened by Missouri’s Attorney General, Josh Hawley. Mr. Hawley — a Republican who, not coincidentally, is running for Senate in 2018alleges various consumer protection violations and unfair competition practices.

But while Hawley’s investigation may jump start his campaign and help a few vocal Google rivals intent on mobilizing the machinery of the state against the company, it is unlikely to enhance consumer welfare — in Missouri or anywhere else.  

According to the press release issued by the AG’s office:

[T]he investigation will seek to determine if Google has violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act—Missouri’s principal consumer-protection statute—and Missouri’s antitrust laws.  

The business practices in question are Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities; Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors; and Google’s alleged manipulation of search results to preference websites owned by Google and to demote websites that compete with Google.

Mr. Hawley’s justification for his investigation is a flourish of populist rhetoric:

We should not just accept the word of these corporate giants that they have our best interests at heart. We need to make sure that they are actually following the law, we need to make sure that consumers are protected, and we need to hold them accountable.

But Hawley’s “strong” concern is based on tired retreads of the same faulty arguments that Google’s competitors (Yelp chief among them), have been plying for the better part of a decade. In fact, all of his apparent grievances against Google were exhaustively scrutinized by the FTC and ultimately rejected or settled in separate federal investigations in 2012 and 2013.

The antitrust issues

To begin with, AG Hawley references the EU antitrust investigation as evidence that

this is not the first-time Google’s business practices have come into question. In June, the European Union issued Google a record $2.7 billion antitrust fine.

True enough — and yet, misleadingly incomplete. Missing from Hawley’s recitation of Google’s antitrust rap sheet are the following investigations, which were closed without any finding of liability related to Google Search, Android, Google’s advertising practices, etc.:

  • United States FTC, 2013. The FTC found no basis to pursue a case after a two-year investigation: “Challenging Google’s product design decisions in this case would require the Commission — or a court — to second-guess a firm’s product design decisions where plausible procompetitive justifications have been offered, and where those justifications are supported by ample evidence.” The investigation did result in a consent order regarding patent licensing unrelated in any way to search and a voluntary commitment by Google not to engage in certain search-advertising-related conduct.
  • South Korea FTC, 2013. The KFTC cleared Google after a two-year investigation. It opened a new investigation in 2016, but, as I have discussed, “[i]f anything, the economic conditions supporting [the KFTC’s 2013] conclusion have only gotten stronger since.”
  • Canada Competition Bureau, 2016. The CCB closed a three-year long investigation into Google’s search practices without taking any action.

Similar investigations have been closed without findings of liability (or simply lie fallow) in a handful of other countries (e.g., Taiwan and Brazil) and even several states (e.g., Ohio and Texas). In fact, of all the jurisdictions that have investigated Google, only the EU and Russia have actually assessed liability.

As Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the FTC during the Google antitrust investigation, noted upon closing the case:

Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of U.S. law.

The CCB was similarly unequivocal in its dismissal of the very same antitrust claims Missouri’s AG seems intent on pursuing against Google:

The Bureau sought evidence of the harm allegedly caused to market participants in Canada as a result of any alleged preferential treatment of Google’s services. The Bureau did not find adequate evidence to support the conclusion that this conduct has had an exclusionary effect on rivals, or that it has resulted in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in a market.

Unfortunately, rather than follow the lead of these agencies, Missouri’s investigation appears to have more in common with Russia’s effort to prop up a favored competitor (Yandex) at the expense of consumer welfare.

The Yelp Claim

Take Mr. Hawley’s focus on “Google’s alleged misappropriation of online content from the websites of its competitors,” for example, which cleaves closely to what should become known henceforth as “The Yelp Claim.”

While the sordid history of Yelp’s regulatory crusade against Google is too long to canvas in its entirety here, the primary elements are these:

Once upon a time (in 2005), Google licensed Yelp’s content for inclusion in its local search results. In 2007 Yelp ended the deal. By 2010, and without a license from Yelp (asserting fair use), Google displayed small snippets of Yelp’s reviews that, if clicked on, led to Yelp’s site. Even though Yelp received more user traffic from those links as a result, Yelp complained, and Google removed Yelp snippets from its local results.

In its 2013 agreement with the FTC, Google guaranteed that Yelp could opt-out of having even snippets displayed in local search results by committing Google to:

make available a web-based notice form that provides website owners with the option to opt out from display on Google’s Covered Webpages of content from their website that has been crawled by Google. When a website owner exercises this option, Google will cease displaying crawled content from the domain name designated by the website owner….

The commitments also ensured that websites (like Yelp) that opt out would nevertheless remain in Google’s general index.

Ironically, Yelp now claims in a recent study that Google should show not only snippets of Yelp reviews, but even more of Yelp’s content. (For those interested, my colleagues and I have a paper explaining why the study’s claims are spurious).

The key bit here, of course, is that Google stopped pulling content from Yelp’s pages to use in its local search results, and that it implemented a simple mechanism for any other site wishing to opt out of the practice to do so.

It’s difficult to imagine why Missouri’s citizens might require more than this to redress alleged anticompetitive harms arising from the practice.

Perhaps AG Hawley thinks consumers would be better served by an opt-in mechanism? Of course, this is absurd, particularly if any of Missouri’s citizens — and their businesses — have websites. Most websites want at least some of their content to appear on Google’s search results pages as prominently as possible — see this and this, for example — and making this information more accessible to users is why Google exists.

To be sure, some websites may take issue with how much of their content Google features and where it places that content. But the easy opt out enables them to prevent Google from showing their content in a manner they disapprove of. Yelp is an outlier in this regard because it views Google as a direct competitor, especially to the extent it enables users to read some of Yelp’s reviews without visiting Yelp’s pages.

For Yelp and a few similarly situated companies the opt out suffices. But for almost everyone else the opt out is presumably rarely exercised, and any more-burdensome requirement would just impose unnecessary costs, harming instead of helping their websites.

The privacy issues

The Missouri investigation also applies to “Google’s collection, use, and disclosure of information about Google users and their online activities.” More pointedly, Hawley claims that “Google may be collecting more information from users than the company was telling consumers….”

Presumably this would come as news to the FTC, which, with a much larger staff and far greater expertise, currently has Google under a 20 year consent order (with some 15 years left to go) governing its privacy disclosures and information-sharing practices, thus ensuring that the agency engages in continual — and well-informed — oversight of precisely these issues.

The FTC’s consent order with Google (the result of an investigation into conduct involving Google’s short-lived Buzz social network, allegedly in violation of Google’s privacy policies), requires the company to:

  • “[N]ot misrepresent in any manner, expressly or by implication… the extent to which respondent maintains and protects the privacy and confidentiality of any [user] information…”;
  • “Obtain express affirmative consent from” users “prior to any new or additional sharing… of the Google user’s identified information with any third party” if doing so would in any way deviate from previously disclosed practices;
  • “[E]stablish and implement, and thereafter maintain, a comprehensive privacy program that is reasonably designed to [] address privacy risks related to the development and management of new and existing products and services for consumers, and (2) protect the privacy and confidentiality of [users’] information”; and
  • Along with a laundry list of other reporting requirements, “[submit] biennial assessments and reports [] from a qualified, objective, independent third-party professional…, approved by the [FTC] Associate Director for Enforcement, Bureau of Consumer Protection… in his or her sole discretion.”

What, beyond the incredibly broad scope of the FTC’s consent order, could the Missouri AG’s office possibly hope to obtain from an investigation?

Google is already expressly required to provide privacy reports to the FTC every two years. It must provide several of the items Hawley demands in his CID to the FTC; others are required to be made available to the FTC upon demand. What materials could the Missouri AG collect beyond those the FTC already receives, or has the authority to demand, under its consent order?

And what manpower and expertise could Hawley apply to those materials that would even begin to equal, let alone exceed, those of the FTC?

Lest anyone think the FTC is falling down on the job, a year after it issued that original consent order the Commission fined Google $22.5 million for violating the order in a questionable decision that was signed on to by all of the FTC’s Commissioners (both Republican and Democrat) — except the one who thought it didn’t go far enough.

That penalty is of undeniable import, not only for its amount (at the time it was the largest in FTC history) and for stemming from alleged problems completely unrelated to the issue underlying the initial action, but also because it was so easy to obtain. Having put Google under a 20-year consent order, the FTC need only prove (or threaten to prove) contempt of the consent order, rather than the specific elements of a new violation of the FTC Act, to bring the company to heel. The former is far easier to prove, and comes with the ability to impose (significant) damages.

So what’s really going on in Jefferson City?

While states are, of course, free to enforce their own consumer protection laws to protect their citizens, there is little to be gained — other than cold hard cash, perhaps — from pursuing cases that, at best, duplicate enforcement efforts already undertaken by the federal government (to say nothing of innumerable other jurisdictions).

To take just one relevant example, in 2013 — almost a year to the day following the court’s approval of the settlement in the FTC’s case alleging Google’s violation of the Buzz consent order — 37 states plus DC (not including Missouri) settled their own, follow-on litigation against Google on the same facts. Significantly, the terms of the settlement did not impose upon Google any obligation not already a part of the Buzz consent order or the subsequent FTC settlement — but it did require Google to fork over an additional $17 million.  

Not only is there little to be gained from yet another ill-conceived antitrust campaign, there is much to be lost. Such massive investigations require substantial resources to conduct, and the opportunity cost of doing so may mean real consumer issues go unaddressed. The Consumer Protection Section of the Missouri AG’s office says it receives some 100,000 consumer complaints a year. How many of those will have to be put on the back burner to accommodate an investigation like this one?

Even when not politically motivated, state enforcement of CPAs is not an unalloyed good. In fact, empirical studies of state consumer protection actions like the one contemplated by Mr. Hawley have shown that such actions tend toward overreach — good for lawyers, perhaps, but expensive for taxpayers and often detrimental to consumers. According to a recent study by economists James Cooper and Joanna Shepherd:

[I]n recent decades, this thoughtful balance [between protecting consumers and preventing the proliferation of lawsuits that harm both consumers and businesses] has yielded to damaging legislative and judicial overcorrections at the state level with a common theoretical mistake: the assumption that more CPA litigation automatically yields more consumer protection…. [C]ourts and legislatures gradually have abolished many of the procedural and remedial protections designed to cabin state CPAs to their original purpose: providing consumers with redress for actual harm in instances where tort and contract law may provide insufficient remedies. The result has been an explosion in consumer protection litigation, which serves no social function and for which consumers pay indirectly through higher prices and reduced innovation.

AG Hawley’s investigation seems almost tailored to duplicate the FTC’s extensive efforts — and to score political points. Or perhaps Mr. Hawley is just perturbed that Missouri missed out its share of the $17 million multistate settlement in 2013.

Which raises the spectre of a further problem with the Missouri case: “rent extraction.”

It’s no coincidence that Mr. Hawley’s investigation follows closely on the heels of Yelp’s recent letter to the FTC and every state AG (as well as four members of Congress and the EU’s chief competition enforcer, for good measure) alleging that Google had re-started scraping Yelp’s content, thus violating the terms of its voluntary commitments to the FTC.

It’s also no coincidence that Yelp “notified” Google of the problem only by lodging a complaint with every regulator who might listen rather than by actually notifying Google. But an action like the one Missouri is undertaking — not resolution of the issue — is almost certainly exactly what Yelp intended, and AG Hawley is playing right into Yelp’s hands.  

Google, for its part, strongly disputes Yelp’s allegation, and, indeed, has — even according to Yelp — complied fully with Yelp’s request to keep its content off Google Local and other “vertical” search pages since 18 months before Google entered into its commitments with the FTC. Google claims that the recent scraping was inadvertent, and that it would happily have rectified the problem if only Yelp had actually bothered to inform Google.

Indeed, Yelp’s allegations don’t really pass the smell test: That Google would suddenly change its practices now, in violation of its commitments to the FTC and at a time of extraordinarily heightened scrutiny by the media, politicians of all stripes, competitors like Yelp, the FTC, the EU, and a host of other antitrust or consumer protection authorities, strains belief.

But, again, identifying and resolving an actual commercial dispute was likely never the goal. As a recent, fawning New York Times article on “Yelp’s Six-Year Grudge Against Google” highlights (focusing in particular on Luther Lowe, now Yelp’s VP of Public Policy and the author of the letter):

Yelp elevated Mr. Lowe to the new position of director of government affairs, a job that more or less entails flying around the world trying to sic antitrust regulators on Google. Over the next few years, Yelp hired its first lobbyist and started a political action committee. Recently, it has started filing complaints in Brazil.

Missouri, in other words, may just be carrying Yelp’s water.

The one clear lesson of the decades-long Microsoft antitrust saga is that companies that struggle to compete in the market can profitably tax their rivals by instigating antitrust actions against them. As Milton Friedman admonished, decrying “the business community’s suicidal impulse” to invite regulation:

As a believer in the pursuit of self-interest in a competitive capitalist system, I can’t blame a businessman who goes to Washington [or is it Jefferson City?] and tries to get special privileges for his company.… Blame the rest of us for being so foolish as to let him get away with it.

Taking a tough line on Silicon Valley firms in the midst of today’s anti-tech-company populist resurgence may help with the electioneering in Mr. Hawley’s upcoming bid for a US Senate seat and serve Yelp, but it doesn’t offer any clear, actual benefits to Missourians. As I’ve wondered before: “Exactly when will regulators be a little more skeptical of competitors trying to game the antitrust laws for their own advantage?”

So I’ve just finished writing a book (hence my long hiatus from Truth on the Market).  Now that the draft is out of my hands and with the publisher (Cambridge University Press), I figured it’s a good time to rejoin my colleagues here at TOTM.  To get back into the swing of things, I’m planning to produce a series of posts describing my new book, which may be of interest to a number of TOTM readers.  I’ll get things started today with a brief overview of the project.

The book is titled How to Regulate: A Guide for Policy Makers.  A topic of that enormity could obviously fill many volumes.  I sought to address the matter in a single, non-technical book because I think law schools often do a poor job teaching their students, many of whom are future regulators, the substance of sound regulation.  Law schools regularly teach administrative law, the procedures that must be followed to ensure that rules have the force of law.  Rarely, however, do law schools teach students how to craft the substance of a policy to address a new perceived problem (e.g., What tools are available? What are the pros and cons of each?).

Economists study that matter, of course.  But economists are often naïve about the difficulty of transforming their textbook models into concrete rules that can be easily administered by business planners and adjudicators.  Many economists also pay little attention to the high information requirements of the policies they propose (i.e., the Hayekian knowledge problem) and the susceptibility of those policies to political manipulation by well-organized interest groups (i.e., public choice concerns).

How to Regulate endeavors to provide both economic training to lawyers and law students and a sense of the “limits of law” to the economists and other policy wonks who tend to be involved in crafting regulations.  Below the fold, I’ll give a brief overview of the book.  In later posts, I’ll describe some of the book’s specific chapters. Continue Reading…

Yesterday the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee issued the first set of policy proposals following their long-running copyright review process. These proposals were principally aimed at ensuring that the IT demands of the Copyright Office were properly met so that it could perform its assigned functions, and to provide adequate authority for it to adapt its policies and practices to the evolving needs of the digital age.

In response to these modest proposals, Public Knowledge issued a telling statement, calling for enhanced scrutiny of these proposals related to an agency “with a documented history of regulatory capture.”

The entirety of this “documented history,” however, is a paper published by Public Knowledge itself alleging regulatory capture—as evidenced by the fact that 13 people had either gone from the Copyright Office to copyright industries or vice versa over the past 20+ years. The original document was brilliantly skewered by David Newhoff in a post on the indispensable blog, Illusion of More:

To support its premise, Public Knowledge, with McCarthy-like righteousness, presents a list—a table of thirteen former or current employees of the Copyright Office who either have worked for private-sector, rights-holding organizations prior to working at the Office or who are  now working for these private entities after their terms at the Office. That thirteen copyright attorneys over a 22-year period might be employed in some capacity for copyright owners is a rather unremarkable observation, but PK seems to think it’s a smoking gun…. Or, as one of the named thirteen, Steven Tepp, observes in his response, PK also didn’t bother to list the many other Copyright Office employees who, “went to Internet and tech companies, the Smithsonian, the FCC, and other places that no one would mistake for copyright industries.” One might almost get the idea that experienced copyright attorneys pursue various career paths or something.

Not content to rest on the laurels of its groundbreaking report of Original Sin, Public Knowledge has now doubled down on its audacity, using its own previous advocacy as the sole basis to essentially impugn an entire agency, without more. But, as advocacy goes, that’s pretty specious. Some will argue that there is an element of disingenuousness in all advocacy, even if it is as benign as failing to identify the weaknesses of one’s arguments—and perhaps that’s true. (We all cite our own work at one time or another, don’t we?) But that’s not the situation we have before us. Instead, Public Knowledge creates its own echo chamber, effectively citing only its own idiosyncratic policy preferences as the “documented” basis for new constraints on the Copyright Office. Even in a world of moral relativism, bubbles of information, and competing narratives about the truth, this should be recognizable as thin gruel.

So why would Public Knowledge expose itself in this manner? What is to be gained by seeking to impugn the integrity of the Copyright Office? There the answer is relatively transparent: PK hopes to capitalize on the opportunity to itself capture Copyright Office policy-making by limiting the discretion of the Copyright Office, and by turning it into an “objective referee” rather than the nation’s steward for ensuring the proper functioning of the copyright system.

PK claims that the Copyright Office should not be involved in making copyright policy, other than perhaps technically transcribing the agreements reached by other parties. Thus, in its “indictment” of the Copyright Office (which it now risibly refers to as the Copyright Office’s “documented history of capture”), PK wrote that:

These statements reflect the many specific examples, detailed in Section II, in which the Copyright Office has acted more as an advocate for rightsholder interests than an objective referee of copyright debates.

Essentially, PK seems to believe that copyright policy should be the province of self-proclaimed “consumer advocates” like PK itself—and under no circumstances the employees of the Copyright Office who might actually deign to promote the interests of the creative community. After all, it is staffed by a veritable cornucopia of copyright industry shills: According to PK’s report, fully 1 of its 400 employees has either left the office to work in the copyright industry or joined the office from industry in each of the last 1.5 years! For reference (not that PK thinks to mention it) some 325 Google employees have worked in government offices in just the past 15 years. And Google is hardly alone in this. Good people get good jobs, whether in government, industry, or both. It’s hardly revelatory.

And never mind that the stated mission of the Copyright Office “is to promote creativity by administering and sustaining an effective national copyright system,” and that “the purpose of the copyright system has always been to promote creativity in society.” And never mind that Congress imbued the Office with the authority to make regulations (subject to approval by the Librarian of Congress) and directed the Copyright Office to engage in a number of policy-related functions, including:

  1. Advising Congress on national and international issues relating to copyright;
  2. Providing information and assistance to Federal departments and agencies and the Judiciary on national and international issues relating to copyright;
  3. Participating in meetings of international intergovernmental organizations and meetings with foreign government officials relating to copyright; and
  4. Conducting studies and programs regarding copyright.

No, according to Public Knowledge the Copyright Office is to do none of these things, unless it does so as an “objective referee of copyright debates.” But nowhere in the legislation creating the Office or amending its functions—nor anywhere else—is that limitation to be found; it’s just created out of whole cloth by PK.

The Copyright Office’s mission is not that of a content neutral referee. Rather, the Copyright Office is charged with promoting effective copyright protection. PK is welcome to solicit Congress to change the Copyright Act and the Office’s mandate. But impugning the agency for doing what it’s supposed to do is a deceptive way of going about it. PK effectively indicts and then convicts the Copyright Office for following its mission appropriately, suggesting that doing so could only have been the result of undue influence from copyright owners. But that’s manifestly false, given its purpose.

And make no mistake why: For its narrative to work, PK needs to define the Copyright Office as a neutral party, and show that its neutrality has been unduly compromised. Only then can Public Knowledge justify overhauling the office in its own image, under the guise of magnanimously returning it to its “proper,” neutral role.

Public Knowledge’s implication that it is a better defender of the “public” interest than those who actually serve in the public sector is a subterfuge, masking its real objective of transforming the nature of copyright law in its own, benighted image. A questionable means to a noble end, PK might argue. Not in our book. This story always turns out badly.

I have previously written at this site (see here, here, and here) and elsewhere (see here, here, and here) about the problem of anticompetitive market distortions (ACMDs), government-supported (typically crony capitalist) rules that weaken the competitive process, undermine free trade, slow economic growth, and harm consumers.  On May 17, the Heritage Foundation hosted a presentation by Shanker Singham of the Legatum Institute (a London think tank) and me on recent research and projects aimed at combatting ACMDs.

Singham began his remarks by noting that from the late 1940s to the early 1990s, trade negotiations under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) (succeeded by the World Trade Organization (WTO)), were highly successful in reducing tariffs and certain non-tariff barriers, and in promoting agreements to deal with trade-related aspects of such areas as government procurement, services, investment, and intellectual property, among others.  Regrettably, however, liberalization of trade restraints at the border was not matched by procompetitive regulatory reform inside borders.  Indeed, to the contrary, ACMDs have continued to proliferate, harming competition, consumers, and economic welfare.  As Singham further explained, the problem is particularly acute in developing countries:  “Because of the failure of early [regulatory] reform in the 1990s which empowered oligarchs and created vested interests in the whole of the developing world, national level reform is extremely difficult.”

To highlight the seriousness of the ACMD problem, Singham and several colleagues have developed a proprietary “Productivity Simulator,” that focuses on potential national economic output based on measures of the effectiveness of domestic competition, international competition, and property rights protections within individual nations.  (The stronger the protections, the greater the potential of the free market to create wealth.)   The Productivity Simulator is able to show, with a regressed accuracy of 90%, the potential gains of reducing distortions in a given country.  Every country has its own curve in the Productivity Simulator – it is a curve because the gains are exponential as one moves to the most difficult reforms.  If all distortions in the world were eliminated (aka, the ceiling of human potential), the Simulator predicts global GDP would rise by 1100% (a conservative estimate, because the Simulator could not be applied to certain very regulatorily-distorted economies for which data were unavailable).   By illustrating the huge “dollars and cents” magnitude of economic losses due to anticompetitive distortions, the Simulator could make the ACMD problem more concrete and thereby help invigorate reform efforts.

Singham also has adapted his Simulator technique to demonstrate the potential for economic growth in proposed “Enterprise Cities” (“e-Cities”), free-market oriented zones within a country that avoid ACMDs and provide strong property rights and rule of law protections.  (Existing city states such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai already possess e-City characteristics.)  Individual e-City laws, regulations, and dispute-resolution mechanisms are negotiated between individual governments and entrepreneurial project teams headed by Singham.  (Already, potential e-cities are under consideration in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Somalia.)  Private investors would be attracted to e-Cities due to their free market regulatory climate and legal protections.  To the extent that e-Cities are launched and thrive, they may serve as “demonstration projects” for the welfare benefits of dismantling ACMDs.

Following Singham’s presentation, I discussed analyses of the ACMD problem carried out in recent years by major international organizations, including the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, an economic think tank funded by developed countries), and the International Competition Network (a network of national competition agencies and experts legal and economic advisers that produces non-binding “best practices” recommendations dealing with competition law and policy).  The OECD’s  “Competition Assessment Toolkit” is a how-to manual for ferreting out ACMDs – it “helps governments to eliminate barriers to competition by providing a method for identifying unnecessary restraints on market activities and developing alternative, less restrictive measures that still achieve government policy objectives.”  The OECD has used the Toolkit to demonstrate the huge economic cost to the Greek economy (5.2 billion euros) of just a very small subset of anticompetitive regulations.  The ICN has drawn on Toolkit principles in developing “Recommended Practices on Competition Assessment” that national competition agencies can apply in opposing ACMDs.  In a related vein, the ICN has also produced a “Competition Culture Project Report” that provides useful survey-based analysis competition agencies could draw upon to generate public support for dismantling ACMDs.  The World Bank has cooperated with ICN advocacy efforts.  It has sponsored annual World Bank forums featuring industry-specific studies of the costs of regulatory restrictions, held in conjunction with ICN annual conferences, and (beginning in 2015).  It also has joined with the ICN in supporting annual “competition advocacy contests” in which national competition agencies are able to highlight economic improvements due to specific regulatory reform successes.  Developed countries also suffer from ACMDs.  For example, occupational licensing restrictions in the United States affect over a quarter of the work force, and, according to a 2015 White House Report, “licensing requirements raise the price of goods and services, restrict employment opportunities, and make it more difficult for workers to take their skills across State lines.”  Moreover, the multibillion dollar cost burden of federal regulations continues to grow rapidly, as documented by the Heritage Foundation’s annual “Red Tape Rising” reports.

I closed my presentation by noting that statutory international trade law reforms operating at the border could complement efforts to reduce regulatory burdens operating inside the border.  In particular, I cited my 2015 Heritage study recommending that United States antidumping law be revised to adopt a procompetitive antitrust-based standard (in contrast to the current approach that serves as an unjustified tax on certain imports).  I also noted the importance of ensuring that trade laws protect against imports that violate intellectual property rights, because such imports undermine competition on the merits.

In sum, the effort to reduce the burdens of ACMDs continue to be pursued and to be highlighted in research, proposed demonstration projects, and efforts to spur regulatory reform.  This is a long-term initiative very much worth pursuing, even though its near-term successes may prove minor at best.

Netflix’s latest net neutrality hypocrisy (yes, there have been others. See here and here, for example) involves its long-term, undisclosed throttling of its video traffic on AT&T’s and Verizon’s wireless networks, while it lobbied heavily for net neutrality rules from the FCC that would prevent just such throttling by ISPs.

It was Netflix that coined the term “strong net neutrality,” in an effort to import interconnection (the connections between ISPs and edge provider networks) into the net neutrality fold. That alone was a bastardization of what net neutrality purportedly stood for, as I previously noted:

There is a reason every iteration of the FCC’s net neutrality rules, including the latest, have explicitly not applied to backbone interconnection agreements: Interconnection over the backbone has always been open and competitive, and it simply doesn’t give rise to the kind of discrimination concerns net neutrality is meant to address.

That Netflix would prefer not to pay for delivery of its content isn’t surprising. But net neutrality regulations don’t — and shouldn’t — have anything to do with it.

But Netflix did something else with “strong net neutrality.” It tied it to consumer choice:

This weak net neutrality isn’t enough to protect an open, competitive Internet; a stronger form of net neutrality is required. Strong net neutrality additionally prevents ISPs from charging a toll for interconnection to services like Netflix, YouTube, or Skype, or intermediaries such as Cogent, Akamai or Level 3, to deliver the services and data requested by ISP residential subscribers. Instead, they must provide sufficient access to their network without charge. (Emphasis added).

A focus on consumers is laudable, of course, but when the focus is on consumers there’s no reason to differentiate between ISPs (to whom net neutrality rules apply) and content providers entering into contracts with ISPs to deliver their content (to whom net neutrality rules don’t apply).

And Netflix has just showed us exactly why that’s the case.

Netflix can and does engage in management of its streams in order (presumably) to optimize consumer experience as users move between networks, devices and viewers (e.g., native apps vs Internet browser windows) with very different characteristics and limitations. That’s all well and good. But as we noted in our Policy Comments in the FCC’s Open Internet Order proceeding,

In this circumstance, particularly when the content in question is Netflix, with 30% of network traffic, both the network’s and the content provider’s transmission decisions may be determinative of network quality, as may the users’ device and application choices.

As a 2011 paper by a group of network engineers studying the network characteristics of video streaming data from Netflix and YouTube noted:

This is a concern as it means that a sudden change of application or container in a large population might have a significant impact on the network traffic. Considering the very fast changes in trends this is a real possibility, the most likely being a change from Flash to HTML5 along with an increase in the use of mobile devices…. [S]treaming videos at high resolutions can result in smoother aggregate traffic while at the same time linearly increase the aggregate data rate due to video streaming.

Again, a concern with consumers is admirable, but Netflix isn’t concerned with consumers. It’s concerned at most with consumers of Netflix, while they are consuming Netflix. But the reality is that Netflix’s content management decisions can adversely affect consumers overall, including its own subscribers when they aren’t watching Netflix.

And here’s the huge irony. The FCC’s net neutrality rules are tailor-made to guarantee that Netflix will never have any incentive to take these externalities into account in its own decisions. What’s more, they ensure that ISPs are severely hamstrung in managing their networks for the benefit of all consumers, not least because their interconnection deals with large content providers like Netflix are now being closely scrutinized.

It’s great that Netflix thinks it should manage its video delivery to optimize viewing under different network conditions. But net neutrality rules ensure that Netflix bears no cost for overwhelming the network in the process. Essentially, short of building new capacity — at great expense to all ISP subscribers, of course — ISPs can’t do much about it, either, under the rules. And, of course, the rules also make it impossible for ISPs to negotiate for financial help from Netflix (or its heaviest users) in paying for those upgrades.

On top of this, net neutrality advocates have taken aim at usage-based billing and other pricing practices that would help with the problem by enabling ISPs to charge their heaviest users more in order to alleviate the inherent subsidy by normal users that flat-rate billing entails. (Netflix itself, as one of the articles linked above discusses at length, is hypocritically inconsistent on this score).

As we also noted in our OIO Policy Comments:

The idea that consumers and competition generally are better off when content providers face no incentive to take account of congestion externalities in their pricing (or when users have no incentive to take account of their own usage) runs counter to basic economic logic and is unsupported by the evidence. In fact, contrary to such claims, usage-based pricing, congestion pricing and sponsored content, among other nonlinear pricing models, would, in many circumstances, further incentivize networks to expand capacity (not create artificial scarcity).

Some concern for consumers. Under Netflix’s approach consumers get it coming and going: Either their non-Netflix traffic is compromised for the sake of Netflix’s traffic, or they have to pay higher subscription fees to ISPs for the privilege of accommodating Netflix’s ever-expanding traffic loads (4K videos, anyone?) — whether they ever use Netflix or not.

Sometimes, apparently, Netflix throttles its own traffic in order to “help” a few consumers. (That it does so without disclosing the practice is pretty galling, especially given the enhanced transparency rules in the Open Internet Order — something Netflix also advocated for, and which also apply only to ISPs and not to content providers). But its self-aggrandizing advocacy for the FCC’s latest net neutrality rules reveals that its first priority is to screw over consumers, so long as it can shift the blame and the cost to others.

Recently, I discussed at this site the Supreme Court’s imposition of takings liability on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”), because USDA fined a small raisin grower for refusing to cooperate with the California Raisins Marketing Order – which, stripped of the fancy verbiage, is little more than a government-supervised output limitation cartel.  The California raisin cartel is far from unique.  There are many other USDA cartels (and analogous regulatory schemes) out there, the bitter fruits of anti-consumer and corporatist New Deal economic policy.  On August 14, in Humane Society of the United States v. Thomas J. Vilsack, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, applying standing doctrine, took the knives to a less obviously anticompetitive, but no less pernicious, USDA agricultural order, the “Pork Order,” promulgated pursuant to the infelicitously named Pork Act (7 U.S.C. §§ 4801-19).

The case was filed in federal court by Harvey Dillenburg (a pork producer) and two organizations whose members include pork producers against the National Pork Board, claiming that it misappropriated millions of dollars from a fund for pork promotion into which all pork producers are required by law to contribute for the benefit of a trade association that is funded and controlled by large pork producers.  The district court dismissed the case for lack of standing, but that decision has now been reversed by the D.C. Circuit.  It is to be hoped that upon remand, the district court will take the next step and slaughter the Pork Order, thereby “bringing home the economic liberties bacon.”  Such an outcome would strike at the abuse of governmental processes by well-organized, powerful businesses, one of the worst aspects of crony capitalism.

The D.C. Circuit’s summary description of the case is instructive:

“The National Pork Board [Board] is a quasi-governmental entity responsible for administering a federal regulatory scheme known as the ‘Pork Order[,]’ [which implements] . . . the Pork Act, . . . the purpose of which is to promote pork in the marketplace. . . .  The Board strengthens, maintains, develops, and expands markets for pork and pork products through research and consumer information campaigns. In exchange for the Board’s efforts on behalf of their industry, pork producers pay the Board a special assessment on each hog they import or sell. . . . 

In 2006, the Board, with the approval of the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, bought four trademarks associated with the slogan Pork:  The Other White Meat . . . from the National Pork Producers Council [Council], an industry trade group, for $60 million.  [Footnote deleted which explains that the USDA Secretary is charged by statute with reviewing the Pork Board’s actions, but that the reviewing court attributes those actions to the Board.]  The payment terms provide that the Board will pay the Council $3 million annually for twenty years. The Board can terminate the payments at any time with one year’s notice, in which case ownership of the phrase reverts back to the Council. Five years after buying the mark, the Board replaced it with a new motto, Pork:  Be Inspired. Now the Board keeps the initial slogan around as a “heritage brand” that it does not feature in its advertising.

The plaintiffs claim that the Board did not buy the slogan for its value as a marketing tool. They allege that the Board used the purchase of the slogan as a means to cut a sweetheart deal with the Council to keep the Council in business and support its lobbying efforts. They maintain that the Board overpaid for the slogan and that the Board’s shift to the Pork: Be Inspired campaign makes the initial slogan all but worthless.  According to the plaintiffs, the purchase of the mark and continued payment for it was and is arbitrary and capricious.  The plaintiffs also argue that the Board’s purchase of the slogan with the purpose of supporting the Council’s lobbying efforts violates the Pork Act and Order’s prohibitions against the Board spending funds to influence legislation.

The plaintiffs sued the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture under the Administrative Procedure Act seeking an order enjoining the Board’s further payments to the Council and directing the Secretary to claw back what payments he can from the deal.  The district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ suit for lack of Article III standing. . . .  The court held that Dillenburg failed to establish an injury in fact fairly traceable to the Board’s actions that is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision. . . .  It also held that the two plaintiff organizations could not establish standing to sue in their own right or on behalf of their pork-producing members. . . .

[W]e reverse and remand [to the district court].  This case involves a concrete and particularized harm caused by an agency’s failure to confer a direct economic benefit on a statutory beneficiary. We also reject the government’s argument that the plaintiffs have failed to exhaust their administrative remedies.  The statute’s provision for administrative review would not offer the plaintiffs adequate relief, and therefore they were not required to pursue it.”

This case is an example of rent-seeking in action, and, in particular, the abuse of regulatory processes to impose disproportionate costs on less-connected rivals (a phenomenon well-documented in public choice analysis of regulation), as further revealed in the D.C. Circuit’s opinion.  The Council, as a private trade organization, could not require all pork producers to join it and pay dues to support institutional advertising and other pork-related promotional activities.  The Council, however, achieved its goal indirectly by establishing and manipulating government regulation.  It successfully lobbied for passage of the Pork Act, proposed the text that ultimately served as foundation for the Pork Order, and used the Board to exercise regulatory authority over all pork producers.  Part of that exercise of regulatory authority involved the Board’s agreement to pay the Council $60 million for “The Other White Meat” mark.  This fee inevitably would be passed on to all pork industry members (including those that were not members of the Council), which are required by force of law to render payments to the Board.

The Board’s regulatory capture by the Council (the “big industry members’” lobby) is apparent, as further revealed in the Court’s opinion:

“Even though the Board paid for the mark’s development, the Council registered the mark in its own name and as its sole owner. . .  The Board and the Council were so enmeshed that, in 1986 when the Board voted to adopt the campaign [to promote the Other White Meat mark] and so committed itself to spend tens of millions of dollars in assessment funds over two decades on the promotion, it did not execute any licensing agreement or fee contract to formalize that arrangement. . . . [USDA’s] Office of Inspector General concluded in a 1999 audit that the Board ‘had relinquished too much authority to its primary contractor, the [Council], and ha[d] placed the [Council] in a position to exert undue influence over Board budgets and grant proposals.’  That history . . . raises a plausible inference that the Board’s purchase was not the product of arm’s length negotiation.

[Moreover], [b]efore the Board entered the . . . [subsequent formal] licensing agreement [for the Other White Meat mark], the Board’s own economist recommended that the Board pay no more than $375,000 annually to license the mark. . . .  [Furthermore], facts plausibly show[] that, whatever its value when the Board purchased it, the [Other White Meat] mark is no longer worth $3 million per year.”

A more compelling judicial account of the manipulation of government authority to achieve the aims of an organized private lobbying group (namely, using government to foist its promotional and licensing costs on the less-well-connected rivals of the lobbying organization’s members) is hard to imagine.

In conclusion, while the Pork Order in and of itself may have only limited economic impact, it is symptomatic of the more general problem of rent-seeking-induced special interest regulation (both federal and state) that, collectively, imposes enormous costs on the American economy.  It is also emblematic of the existence of countless federal government programs for which there is no principled justification in our republic, based on a federal Constitution that establishes limited enumerated powers and focuses on restricting government incursions into individual liberties.  It is to be hoped that the federal courts will keep this in mind and use their full panoply of constitutional tools in empowering private parties to fight cronyist governmental programs.

During the recent debate over whether to grant the Obama Administration “trade promotion authority” (TPA or fast track) to enter into major international trade agreements (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP), little attention has been directed to the problem of remaining anticompetitive governmental regulatory obstacles to liberalized trade and free markets.  Those remaining obstacles, which merit far more public attention, are highlighted in an article coauthored by Shanker Singham and me on competition policy and international trade distortions.

As our article explains, international trade agreements simply do not reach a variety of anticompetitive welfare-reducing government measures that create de facto trade barriers by favoring domestic interests over foreign competitors.  Moreover, many of these restraints are not in place to discriminate against foreign entities, but rather exist to promote certain favored firms. We dub these restrictions “anticompetitive market distortions” or “ACMDs,” in that they involve government actions that empower certain private interests to obtain or retain artificial competitive advantages over their rivals, be they foreign or domestic.  ACMDs are often a manifestation of cronyism, by which politically-connected enterprises successfully pressure government to shield them from effective competition, to the detriment of overall economic growth and welfare.  As we emphasize in our article, existing international trade rules have been able to reach ACMDs, which include: (1) governmental restraints that distort markets and lessen competition; and (2) anticompetitive private arrangements that are backed by government actions, have substantial effects on trade outside the jurisdiction that imposes the restrictions, and are not readily susceptible to domestic competition law challenge.  Among the most pernicious ACMDs are those that artificially alter the cost-base as between competing firms. Such cost changes will have large and immediate effects on market shares, and therefore on international trade flows.

Likewise, with the growing internationalization of commerce, ACMDs not only diminish domestic consumer welfare – they increasingly may have a harmful effect on foreign enterprises that seek to do business in the country imposing the restraint.  The home nations of the affected foreign enterprises, moreover, may as a practical matter find it not feasible to apply their competition laws extraterritorially to curb the restraint, given issues of jurisdictional reach and comity (particularly if the restraint flies under the colors of domestic law).  Because ACMDs also have not been constrained by international trade liberalization initiatives, they pose a serious challenge to global welfare enhancement by curtailing potential trade and investment opportunities.

Interest group politics and associated rent-seeking by well-organized private actors are endemic to modern economic life, guaranteeing that ACMDs will not easily be dismantled.  What is to be done, then, to curb ACMDs?

As a first step, Shanker Singham and I have proposed the development of a metric to estimate the net welfare costs of ACMDs.  Such a metric could help strengthen the hand of international organizations (including the International Competition Network, the World Bank, and the OECD) – and of reform-minded public officials – in building the case for dismantling these restraints, or (as a last resort) replacing them with less costly means for benefiting favored constituencies.  (Singham, two other coauthors, and I have developed a draft paper that delineates a specific metric, which we hope will be suitable for public release in the near future.)

Furthermore, free market-oriented think tanks can also be helpful by highlighting the harm special interest governmental restraints impose on the economy and on economic freedom.  In that regard, the Heritage Foundation’s excellent work in opposing cronyism deserves special mention.

Working to eliminate ACMDs and thereby promoting economic liberty is an arduous long-term task – one that will only succeed in increments, one battle at a time (the current principled effort to eliminate the Ex-Im Bank, strongly supported by the Heritage Foundation, is one such example).  Nevertheless, it is very much worth the candle.