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The U.S. Supreme Court’s just-published unanimous decision in AMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC—holding that Section 13(b) of the Federal Trade Commission Act does not authorize the commission to obtain court-ordered equitable monetary relief (such as restitution or disgorgement)—is not surprising. Moreover, by dissipating the cloud of litigation uncertainty that has surrounded the FTC’s recent efforts to seek such relief, the court cleared the way for consideration of targeted congressional legislation to address the issue.

But what should such legislation provide? After briefly summarizing the court’s holding, I will turn to the appropriate standards for optimal FTC consumer redress actions, which inform a welfare-enhancing legislative fix.

The Court’s Opinion

Justice Stephen Breyer’s opinion for the court is straightforward, centering on the structure and history of the FTC Act. Section 13(b) makes no direct reference to monetary relief. Its plain language merely authorizes the FTC to seek a “permanent injunction” in federal court against “any person, partnership, or corporation” that it believes “is violating, or is about to violate, any provision of law” that the commission enforces. In addition, by its terms, Section 13(b) is forward-looking, focusing on relief that is prospective, not retrospective (this cuts against the argument that payments for prior harm may be recouped from wrongdoers).

Furthermore, the FTC Act provisions that specifically authorize conditioned and limited forms of monetary relief (Section 5(l) and Section 19) are in the context of commission cease and desist orders, involving FTC administrative proceedings, unlike Section 13(b) actions that avoid the administrative route. In sum, the court concludes that:

[T]o read §13(b) to mean what it says, as authorizing injunctive but not monetary relief, produces a coherent enforcement scheme: The Commission may obtain monetary relief by first invoking its administrative procedures and then §19’s redress provisions (which include limitations). And the Commission may use §13(b) to obtain injunctive relief while administrative proceedings are foreseen or in progress, or when it seeks only injunctive relief. By contrast, the Commission’s broad reading would allow it to use §13(b) as a substitute for §5 and §19. For the reasons we have just stated, that could not have been Congress’ intent.

The court’s opinion concludes by succinctly rejecting the FTC’s arguments to the contrary.

What Comes Next

The Supreme Court’s decision has been anticipated by informed observers. All four sitting FTC Commissioners have already called for a Section 13(b) “legislative fix,” and in an April 20 hearing of Senate Commerce Committee, Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) emphasized that, “[w]e have to do everything we can to protect this authority and, if necessary, pass new legislation to do so.”

What, however, should be the contours of such legislation? In considering alternative statutory rules, legislators should keep in mind not only the possible consumer benefits of monetary relief, but the costs of error, as well. Error costs are a ubiquitous element of public law enforcement, and this is particularly true in the case of FTC actions. Ideally, enforcers should seek to minimize the sum of the costs attributable to false positives (type I error), false negatives (type II error), administrative costs, and disincentive costs imposed on third parties, which may also be viewed as a subset of false positives. (See my 2014 piece “A Cost-Benefit Framework for Antitrust Enforcement Policy.”

Monetary relief is most appropriate in cases where error costs are minimal, and the quantum of harm is relatively easy to measure. This suggests a spectrum of FTC enforcement actions that may be candidates for monetary relief. Ideally, selection of targets for FTC consumer redress actions should be calibrated to yield the highest return to scarce enforcement resources, with an eye to optimal enforcement criteria.

Consider consumer protection enforcement. The strongest cases involve hardcore consumer fraud (where fraudulent purpose is clear and error is almost nil); they best satisfy accuracy in measurement and error-cost criteria. Next along the spectrum are cases of non-fraudulent but unfair or deceptive acts or practices that potentially involve some degree of error. In this category, situations involving easily measurable consumer losses (e.g., systematic failure to deliver particular goods requested or poor quality control yielding shipments of ruined goods) would appear to be the best candidates for monetary relief.

Moving along the spectrum, matters involving a higher likelihood of error and severe measurement problems should be the weakest candidates for consumer redress in the consumer protection sphere. For example, cases involve allegedly misleading advertising regarding the nature of goods, or allegedly insufficient advertising substantiation, may generate high false positives and intractable difficulties in estimating consumer harm. As a matter of judgment, given resource constraints, seeking financial recoveries solely in cases of fraud or clear deception where consumer losses are apparent and readily measurable makes the most sense from a cost-benefit perspective.

Consumer redress actions are problematic for a large proportion of FTC antitrust enforcement (“unfair methods of competition”) initiatives. Many of these antitrust cases are “cutting edge” matters involving novel theories and complex fact patterns that pose a significant threat of type I error. (In comparison, type I error is low in hardcore collusion cases brought by the U.S. Justice Department where the existence, nature, and effects of cartel activity are plain). What’s more, they generally raise extremely difficult if not impossible problems in estimating the degree of consumer harm. (Even DOJ price-fixing cases raise non-trivial measurement difficulties.)

For example, consider assigning a consumer welfare loss number to a patent antitrust settlement that may or may not have delayed entry of a generic drug by some length of time (depending upon the strength of the patent) or to a decision by a drug company to modify a drug slightly just before patent expiration in order to obtain a new patent period (raising questions of valuing potential product improvements). These and other examples suggest that only rarely should the FTC pursue requests for disgorgement or restitution in antitrust cases, if error-cost-centric enforcement criteria are to be honored.

Unfortunately, the FTC currently has nothing to say about when it will seek monetary relief in antitrust matters. Commendably, in 2003, the commission issued a Policy Statement on Monetary Equitable Remedies in Competition Cases specifying that it would only seek monetary relief in “exceptional cases” involving a “[c]lear [v]iolation” of the antitrust laws. Regrettably, in 2012, a majority of the FTC (with Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen dissenting) withdrew that policy statement and the limitations it imposed. As I concluded in a 2012 article:

This action, which was taken without the benefit of advance notice and public comment, raises troubling questions. By increasing business uncertainty, the withdrawal may substantially chill efficient business practices that are not well understood by enforcers. In addition, it raises the specter of substantial error costs in the FTC’s pursuit of monetary sanctions. In short, it appears to represent a move away from, rather than towards, an economically enlightened antitrust enforcement policy.

In a 2013 speech, then-FTC Commissioner Josh Wright also lamented the withdrawal of the 2003 Statement, and stated that he would limit:

… the FTC’s ability to pursue disgorgement only against naked price fixing agreements among competitors or, in the case of single firm conduct, only if the monopolist’s conduct has no plausible efficiency justification. This latter category would include fraudulent or deceptive conduct, or tortious activity such as burning down a competitor’s plant.

As a practical matter, the FTC does not bring cases of this sort. The DOJ brings naked price-fixing cases and the unilateral conduct cases noted are as scarce as unicorns. Given that fact, Wright’s recommendation may rightly be seen as a rejection of monetary relief in FTC antitrust cases. Based on the previously discussed serious error-cost and measurement problems associated with monetary remedies in FTC antitrust cases, one may also conclude that the Wright approach is right on the money.

Finally, a recent article by former FTC Chairman Tim Muris, Howard Beales, and Benjamin Mundel opined that Section 13(b) should be construed to “limit[] the FTC’s ability to obtain monetary relief to conduct that a reasonable person would know was dishonest or fraudulent.” Although such a statutory reading is now precluded by the Supreme Court’s decision, its incorporation in a new statutory “fix” would appear ideal. It would allow for consumer redress in appropriate cases, while avoiding the likely net welfare losses arising from a more expansive approach to monetary remedies.

 Conclusion

The AMG Capital decision is sure to generate legislative proposals to restore the FTC’s ability to secure monetary relief in federal court. If Congress adopts a cost-beneficial error-cost framework in shaping targeted legislation, it should limit FTC monetary relief authority (recoupment and disgorgement) to situations of consumer fraud or dishonesty arising under the FTC’s authority to pursue unfair or deceptive acts or practices. Giving the FTC carte blanche to obtain financial recoveries in the full spectrum of antitrust and consumer protection cases would spawn uncertainty and could chill a great deal of innovative business behavior, to the ultimate detriment of consumer welfare.


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Politico has released a cache of confidential Federal Trade Commission (FTC) documents in connection with a series of articles on the commission’s antitrust probe into Google Search a decade ago. The headline of the first piece in the series argues the FTC “fumbled the future” by failing to follow through on staff recommendations to pursue antitrust intervention against the company. 

But while the leaked documents shed interesting light on the inner workings of the FTC, they do very little to substantiate the case that the FTC dropped the ball when the commissioners voted unanimously not to bring an action against Google.

Drawn primarily from memos by the FTC’s lawyers, the Politico report purports to uncover key revelations that undermine the FTC’s decision not to sue Google. None of the revelations, however, provide evidence that Google’s behavior actually harmed consumers.

The report’s overriding claim—and the one most consistently forwarded by antitrust activists on Twitter—is that FTC commissioners wrongly sided with the agency’s economists (who cautioned against intervention) rather than its lawyers (who tenuously recommended very limited intervention). 

Indeed, the overarching narrative is that the lawyers knew what was coming and the economists took wildly inaccurate positions that turned out to be completely off the mark:

But the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed:

— They saw only “limited potential for growth” in ads that track users across the web — now the backbone of Google parent company Alphabet’s $182.5 billion in annual revenue.

— They expected consumers to continue relying mainly on computers to search for information. Today, about 62 percent of those queries take place on mobile phones and tablets, nearly all of which use Google’s search engine as the default.

— They thought rivals like Microsoft, Mozilla or Amazon would offer viable competition to Google in the market for the software that runs smartphones. Instead, nearly all U.S. smartphones run on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.

— They underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic.

The report thus asserts that:

The agency ultimately voted against taking action, saying changes Google made to its search algorithm gave consumers better results and therefore didn’t unfairly harm competitors.

That conclusion underplays what the FTC’s staff found during the probe. In 312 pages of documents, the vast majority never publicly released, staffers outlined evidence that Google had taken numerous steps to ensure it would continue to dominate the market — including emerging arenas such as mobile search and targeted advertising. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

What really emerges from the leaked memos, however, is analysis by both the FTC’s lawyers and economists infused with a healthy dose of humility. There were strong political incentives to bring a case. As one of us noted upon the FTC’s closing of the investigation: “It’s hard to imagine an agency under more pressure, from more quarters (including the Hill), to bring a case around search.” Yet FTC staff and commissioners resisted that pressure, because prediction is hard. 

Ironically, the very prediction errors that the agency’s staff cautioned against are now being held against them. Yet the claims that these errors (especially the economists’) systematically cut in one direction (i.e., against enforcement) and that all of their predictions were wrong are both wide of the mark. 

Decisions Under Uncertainty

In seeking to make an example out of the FTC economists’ inaccurate predictions, critics ignore that antitrust investigations in dynamic markets always involve a tremendous amount of uncertainty; false predictions are the norm. Accordingly, the key challenge for policymakers is not so much to predict correctly, but to minimize the impact of incorrect predictions.

Seen in this light, the FTC economists’ memo is far from the laissez-faire manifesto that critics make it out to be. Instead, it shows agency officials wrestling with uncertain market outcomes, and choosing a course of action under the assumption the predictions they make might indeed be wrong. 

Consider the following passage from FTC economist Ken Heyer’s memo:

The great American philosopher Yogi Berra once famously remarked “Predicting is difficult, especially about the future.” How right he was. And yet predicting, and making decisions based on those predictions, is what we are charged with doing. Ignoring the potential problem is not an option. So I will be reasonably clear about my own tentative conclusions and recommendation, recognizing that reasonable people, perhaps applying a somewhat different standard, may disagree. My recommendation derives from my read of the available evidence, combined with the standard I personally find appropriate to apply to Commission intervention. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

In other words, contrary to what many critics have claimed, it simply is not the case that the FTC’s economists based their recommendations on bullish predictions about the future that ultimately failed to transpire. Instead, they merely recognized that, in a dynamic and unpredictable environment, antitrust intervention requires both a clear-cut theory of anticompetitive harm and a reasonable probability that remedies can improve consumer welfare. According to the economists, those conditions were absent with respect to Google Search.

Perhaps more importantly, it is worth asking why the economists’ erroneous predictions matter at all. Do critics believe that developments the economists missed warrant a different normative stance today?

In that respect, it is worth noting that the economists’ skepticism appeared to have rested first and foremost on the speculative nature of the harms alleged and the difficulty associated with designing appropriate remedies. And yet, if anything, these two concerns appear even more salient today. 

Indeed, the remedies imposed against Google in the EU have not delivered the outcomes that enforcers expected (here and here). This could either be because the remedies were insufficient or because Google’s market position was not due to anticompetitive conduct. Similarly, there is still no convincing economic theory or empirical research to support the notion that exclusive pre-installation and self-preferencing by incumbents harm consumers, and a great deal of reason to think they benefit them (see, e.g., our discussions of the issue here and here). 

Against this backdrop, criticism of the FTC economists appears to be driven more by a prior assumption that intervention is necessary—and that it was and is disingenuous to think otherwise—than evidence that erroneous predictions materially affected the outcome of the proceedings.

To take one example, the fact that ad tracking grew faster than the FTC economists believed it would is no less consistent with vigorous competition—and Google providing a superior product—than with anticompetitive conduct on Google’s part. The same applies to the growth of mobile operating systems. Ditto the fact that no rival has managed to dislodge Google in its most important markets. 

In short, not only were the economist memos informed by the very prediction difficulties that critics are now pointing to, but critics have not shown that any of the staff’s (inevitably) faulty predictions warranted a different normative outcome.

Putting Erroneous Predictions in Context

So what were these faulty predictions, and how important were they? Politico asserts that “the FTC’s economists successfully argued against suing the company, and the agency’s staff experts made a series of predictions that would fail to match where the online world was headed,” tying this to the FTC’s failure to intervene against Google over “tactics that European regulators and the U.S. Justice Department would later label antitrust violations.” The clear message is that the current actions are presumptively valid, and that the FTC’s economists thwarted earlier intervention based on faulty analysis.

But it is far from clear that these faulty predictions would have justified taking a tougher stance against Google. One key question for antitrust authorities is whether they can be reasonably certain that more efficient competitors will be unable to dislodge an incumbent. This assessment is necessarily forward-looking. Framed this way, greater market uncertainty (for instance, because policymakers are dealing with dynamic markets) usually cuts against antitrust intervention.

This does not entirely absolve the FTC economists who made the faulty predictions. But it does suggest the right question is not whether the economists made mistakes, but whether virtually everyone did so. The latter would be evidence of uncertainty, and thus weigh against antitrust intervention.

In that respect, it is worth noting that the staff who recommended that the FTC intervene also misjudged the future of digital markets.For example, while Politico surmises that the FTC “underestimated Google’s market share, a heft that gave it power over advertisers as well as companies like Yelp and Tripadvisor that rely on search results for traffic,” there is a case to be made that the FTC overestimated this power. If anything, Google’s continued growth has opened new niches in the online advertising space.

Pinterest provides a fitting example; despite relying heavily on Google for traffic, its ad-funded service has witnessed significant growth. The same is true of other vertical search engines like Airbnb, Booking.com, and Zillow. While we cannot know the counterfactual, the vertical search industry has certainly not been decimated by Google’s “monopoly”; quite the opposite. Unsurprisingly, this has coincided with a significant decrease in the cost of online advertising, and the growth of online advertising relative to other forms.

Politico asserts not only that the economists’ market share and market power calculations were wrong, but that the lawyers knew better:

The economists, relying on data from the market analytics firm Comscore, found that Google had only limited impact. They estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of traffic to those types of sites generally came from the search engine.

FTC attorneys, though, used numbers provided by Yelp and found that 92 percent of users visited local review sites from Google. For shopping sites like eBay and TheFind, the referral rate from Google was between 67 and 73 percent.

This compares apples and oranges, or maybe oranges and grapefruit. The economists’ data, from Comscore, applied to vertical search overall. They explicitly noted that shares for particular sites could be much higher or lower: for comparison shopping, for example, “ranging from 56% to less than 10%.” This, of course, highlights a problem with the data provided by Yelp, et al.: it concerns only the websites of companies complaining about Google, not the overall flow of traffic for vertical search.

But the more important point is that none of the data discussed in the memos represents the overall flow of traffic for vertical search. Take Yelp, for example. According to the lawyers’ memo, 92 percent of Yelp searches were referred from Google. Only, that’s not true. We know it’s not true because, as Yelp CEO Jerry Stoppelman pointed out around this time in Yelp’s 2012 Q2 earnings call: 

When you consider that 40% of our searches come from mobile apps, there is quite a bit of un-monetized mobile traffic that we expect to unlock in the near future.

The numbers being analyzed by the FTC staff were apparently limited to referrals to Yelp’s website from browsers. But is there any reason to think that is the relevant market, or the relevant measure of customer access? Certainly there is nothing in the staff memos to suggest they considered the full scope of the market very carefully here. Indeed, the footnote in the lawyers’ memo presenting the traffic data is offered in support of this claim:

Vertical websites, such as comparison shopping and local websites, are heavily dependent on Google’s web search results to reach users. Thus, Google is in the unique position of being able to “make or break any web-based business.”

It’s plausible that vertical search traffic is “heavily dependent” on Google Search, but the numbers offered in support of that simply ignore the (then) 40 percent of traffic that Yelp acquired through its own mobile app, with no Google involvement at all. In any case, it is also notable that, while there are still somewhat fewer app users than web users (although the number has consistently increased), Yelp’s app users view significantly more pages than its website users do — 10 times as many in 2015, for example.

Also noteworthy is that, for whatever speculative harm Google might be able to visit on the company, at the time of the FTC’s analysis Yelp’s local ad revenue was consistently increasing — by 89% in Q3 2012. And that was without any ad revenue coming from its app (display ads arrived on Yelp’s mobile app in Q1 2013, a few months after the staff memos were written and just after the FTC closed its Google Search investigation). 

In short, the search-engine industry is extremely dynamic and unpredictable. Contrary to what many have surmised from the FTC staff memo leaks, this cuts against antitrust intervention, not in favor of it.

The FTC Lawyers’ Weak Case for Prosecuting Google

At the same time, although not discussed by Politico, the lawyers’ memo also contains errors, suggesting that arguments for intervention were also (inevitably) subject to erroneous prediction.

Among other things, the FTC attorneys’ memo argued the large upfront investments were required to develop cutting-edge algorithms, and that these effectively shielded Google from competition. The memo cites the following as a barrier to entry:

A search engine requires algorithmic technology that enables it to search the Internet, retrieve and organize information, index billions of regularly changing web pages, and return relevant results instantaneously that satisfy the consumer’s inquiry. Developing such algorithms requires highly specialized personnel with high levels of training and knowledge in engineering, economics, mathematics, sciences, and statistical analysis.

If there are barriers to entry in the search-engine industry, algorithms do not seem to be the source. While their market shares may be smaller than Google’s, rival search engines like DuckDuckGo and Bing have been able to enter and gain traction; it is difficult to say that algorithmic technology has proven a barrier to entry. It may be hard to do well, but it certainly has not proved an impediment to new firms entering and developing workable and successful products. Indeed, some extremely successful companies have entered into similar advertising markets on the backs of complex algorithms, notably Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. All of these compete with Google for advertising dollars.

The FTC’s legal staff also failed to see that Google would face serious competition in the rapidly growing voice assistant market. In other words, even its search-engine “moat” is far less impregnable than it might at first appear.

Moreover, as Ben Thompson argues in his Stratechery newsletter: 

The Staff memo is completely wrong too, at least in terms of the potential for their proposed remedies to lead to any real change in today’s market. This gets back to why the fundamental premise of the Politico article, along with much of the antitrust chatter in Washington, misses the point: Google is dominant because consumers like it.

This difficulty was deftly highlighted by Heyer’s memo:

If the perceived problems here can be solved only through a draconian remedy of this sort, or perhaps through a remedy that eliminates Google’s legitimately obtained market power (and thus its ability to “do evil”), I believe the remedy would be disproportionate to the violation and that its costs would likely exceed its benefits. Conversely, if a remedy well short of this seems likely to prove ineffective, a remedy would be undesirable for that reason. In brief, I do not see a feasible remedy for the vertical conduct that would be both appropriate and effective, and which would not also be very costly to implement and to police. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

Of course, we now know that this turned out to be a huge issue with the EU’s competition cases against Google. The remedies in both the EU’s Google Shopping and Android decisions were severely criticized by rival firms and consumer-defense organizations (here and here), but were ultimately upheld, in part because even the European Commission likely saw more forceful alternatives as disproportionate.

And in the few places where the legal staff concluded that Google’s conduct may have caused harm, there is good reason to think that their analysis was flawed.

Google’s ‘revenue-sharing’ agreements

It should be noted that neither the lawyers nor the economists at the FTC were particularly bullish on bringing suit against Google. In most areas of the investigation, neither recommended that the commission pursue a case. But one of the most interesting revelations from the recent leaks is that FTC lawyers did advise the commission’s leadership to sue Google over revenue-sharing agreements that called for it to pay Apple and other carriers and manufacturers to pre-install its search bar on mobile devices:

FTC staff urged the agency’s five commissioners to sue Google for signing exclusive contracts with Apple and the major wireless carriers that made sure the company’s search engine came pre-installed on smartphones.

The lawyers’ stance is surprising, and, despite actions subsequently brought by the EU and DOJ on similar claims, a difficult one to countenance. 

To a first approximation, this behavior is precisely what antitrust law seeks to promote: we want companies to compete aggressively to attract consumers. This conclusion is in no way altered when competition is “for the market” (in this case, firms bidding for exclusive placement of their search engines) rather than “in the market” (i.e., equally placed search engines competing for eyeballs).

Competition for exclusive placement has several important benefits. For a start, revenue-sharing agreements effectively subsidize consumers’ mobile device purchases. As Brian Albrecht aptly puts it:

This payment from Google means that Apple can lower its price to better compete for consumers. This is standard; some of the payment from Google to Apple will be passed through to consumers in the form of lower prices.

This finding is not new. For instance, Ronald Coase famously argued that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was wrong to ban the broadcasting industry’s equivalent of revenue-sharing agreements, so-called payola:

[I]f the playing of a record by a radio station increases the sales of that record, it is both natural and desirable that there should be a charge for this. If this is not done by the station and payola is not allowed, it is inevitable that more resources will be employed in the production and distribution of records, without any gain to consumers, with the result that the real income of the community will tend to decline. In addition, the prohibition of payola may result in worse record programs, will tend to lessen competition, and will involve additional expenditures for regulation. The gain which the ban is thought to bring is to make the purchasing decisions of record buyers more efficient by eliminating “deception.” It seems improbable to me that this problematical gain will offset the undoubted losses which flow from the ban on Payola.

Applying this logic to Google Search, it is clear that a ban on revenue-sharing agreements would merely lead both Google and its competitors to attract consumers via alternative means. For Google, this might involve “complete” vertical integration into the mobile phone market, rather than the open-licensing model that underpins the Android ecosystem. Valuable specialization may be lost in the process.

Moreover, from Apple’s standpoint, Google’s revenue-sharing agreements are profitable only to the extent that consumers actually like Google’s products. If it turns out they don’t, Google’s payments to Apple may be outweighed by lower iPhone sales. It is thus unlikely that these agreements significantly undermined users’ experience. To the contrary, Apple’s testimony before the European Commission suggests that “exclusive” placement of Google’s search engine was mostly driven by consumer preferences (as the FTC economists’ memo points out):

Apple would not offer simultaneous installation of competing search or mapping applications. Apple’s focus is offering its customers the best products out of the box while allowing them to make choices after purchase. In many countries, Google offers the best product or service … Apple believes that offering additional search boxes on its web browsing software would confuse users and detract from Safari’s aesthetic. Too many choices lead to consumer confusion and greatly affect the ‘out of the box’ experience of Apple products.

Similarly, Kevin Murphy and Benjamin Klein have shown that exclusive contracts intensify competition for distribution. In other words, absent theories of platform envelopment that are arguably inapplicable here, competition for exclusive placement would lead competing search engines to up their bids, ultimately lowering the price of mobile devices for consumers.

Indeed, this revenue-sharing model was likely essential to spur the development of Android in the first place. Without this prominent placement of Google Search on Android devices (notably thanks to revenue-sharing agreements with original equipment manufacturers), Google would likely have been unable to monetize the investment it made in the open source—and thus freely distributed—Android operating system. 

In short, Politico and the FTC legal staff do little to show that Google’s revenue-sharing payments excluded rivals that were, in fact, as efficient. In other words, Bing and Yahoo’s failure to gain traction may simply be the result of inferior products and cost structures. Critics thus fail to show that Google’s behavior harmed consumers, which is the touchstone of antitrust enforcement.

Self-preferencing

Another finding critics claim as important is that FTC leadership declined to bring suit against Google for preferencing its own vertical search services (this information had already been partially leaked by the Wall Street Journal in 2015). Politico’s framing implies this was a mistake:

When Google adopted one algorithm change in 2011, rival sites saw significant drops in traffic. Amazon told the FTC that it saw a 35 percent drop in traffic from the comparison-shopping sites that used to send it customers

The focus on this claim is somewhat surprising. Even the leaked FTC legal staff memo found this theory of harm had little chance of standing up in court:

Staff has investigated whether Google has unlawfully preferenced its own content over that of rivals, while simultaneously demoting rival websites…. 

…Although it is a close call, we do not recommend that the Commission proceed on this cause of action because the case law is not favorable to our theory, which is premised on anticompetitive product design, and in any event, Google’s efficiency justifications are strong. Most importantly, Google can legitimately claim that at least part of the conduct at issue improves its product and benefits users. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

More importantly, as one of us has argued elsewhere, the underlying problem lies not with Google, but with a standard asset-specificity trap:

A content provider that makes itself dependent upon another company for distribution (or vice versa, of course) takes a significant risk. Although it may benefit from greater access to users, it places itself at the mercy of the other — or at least faces great difficulty (and great cost) adapting to unanticipated, crucial changes in distribution over which it has no control…. 

…It was entirely predictable, and should have been expected, that Google’s algorithm would evolve. It was also entirely predictable that it would evolve in ways that could diminish or even tank Foundem’s traffic. As one online marketing/SEO expert puts it: On average, Google makes about 500 algorithm changes per year. 500!….

…In the absence of an explicit agreement, should Google be required to make decisions that protect a dependent company’s “asset-specific” investments, thus encouraging others to take the same, excessive risk? 

Even if consumers happily visited rival websites when they were higher-ranked and traffic subsequently plummeted when Google updated its algorithm, that drop in traffic does not amount to evidence of misconduct. To hold otherwise would be to grant these rivals a virtual entitlement to the state of affairs that exists at any given point in time. 

Indeed, there is good reason to believe Google’s decision to favor its own content over that of other sites is procompetitive. Beyond determining and ensuring relevance, Google surely has the prerogative to compete vigorously and decide how to design its products to keep up with a changing market. In this case, that means designing, developing, and offering its own content in ways that partially displace the original “ten blue links” design of its search results page and instead offer its own answers to users’ queries.

Competitor Harm Is Not an Indicator of the Need for Intervention

Some of the other information revealed by the leak is even more tangential, such as that the FTC ignored complaints from Google’s rivals:

Amazon and Facebook privately complained to the FTC about Google’s conduct, saying their business suffered because of the company’s search bias, scraping of content from rival sites and restrictions on advertisers’ use of competing search engines. 

Amazon said it was so concerned about the prospect of Google monopolizing the search advertising business that it willingly sacrificed revenue by making ad deals aimed at keeping Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo’s search engine afloat.

But complaints from rivals are at least as likely to stem from vigorous competition as from anticompetitive exclusion. This goes to a core principle of antitrust enforcement: antitrust law seeks to protect competition and consumer welfare, not rivals. Competition will always lead to winners and losers. Antitrust law protects this process and (at least theoretically) ensures that rivals cannot manipulate enforcers to safeguard their economic rents. 

This explains why Frank Easterbrook—in his seminal work on “The Limits of Antitrust”—argued that enforcers should be highly suspicious of complaints lodged by rivals:

Antitrust litigation is attractive as a method of raising rivals’ costs because of the asymmetrical structure of incentives…. 

…One line worth drawing is between suits by rivals and suits by consumers. Business rivals have an interest in higher prices, while consumers seek lower prices. Business rivals seek to raise the costs of production, while consumers have the opposite interest…. 

…They [antitrust enforcers] therefore should treat suits by horizontal competitors with the utmost suspicion. They should dismiss outright some categories of litigation between rivals and subject all such suits to additional scrutiny.

Google’s competitors spent millions pressuring the FTC to bring a case against the company. But why should it be a failing for the FTC to resist such pressure? Indeed, as then-commissioner Tom Rosch admonished in an interview following the closing of the case:

They [Google’s competitors] can darn well bring [a case] as a private antitrust action if they think their ox is being gored instead of free-riding on the government to achieve the same result.

Not that they would likely win such a case. Google’s introduction of specialized shopping results (via the Google Shopping box) likely enabled several retailers to bypass the Amazon platform, thus increasing competition in the retail industry. Although this may have temporarily reduced Amazon’s traffic and revenue (Amazon’s sales have grown dramatically since then), it is exactly the outcome that antitrust laws are designed to protect.

Conclusion

When all is said and done, Politico’s revelations provide a rarely glimpsed look into the complex dynamics within the FTC, which many wrongly imagine to be a monolithic agency. Put simply, the FTC’s commissioners, lawyers, and economists often disagree vehemently about the appropriate course of conduct. This is a good thing. As in many other walks of life, having a market for ideas is a sure way to foster sound decision making.

But in the final analysis, what the revelations do not show is that the FTC’s market for ideas failed consumers a decade ago when it declined to bring an antitrust suit against Google. They thus do little to cement the case for antitrust intervention—whether a decade ago, or today.

In what has become regularly scheduled programming on Capitol Hill, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai will be subject to yet another round of congressional grilling—this time, about the platforms’ content-moderation policies—during a March 25 joint hearing of two subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The stated purpose of this latest bit of political theatre is to explore, as made explicit in the hearing’s title, “social media’s role in promoting extremism and misinformation.” Specific topics are expected to include proposed changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, heightened scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission, and misinformation about COVID-19—the subject of new legislation introduced by Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

But while many in the Democratic majority argue that social media companies have not done enough to moderate misinformation or hate speech, it is a problem with no realistic legal fix. Any attempt to mandate removal of speech on grounds that it is misinformation or hate speech, either directly or indirectly, would run afoul of the First Amendment.

Much of the recent focus has been on misinformation spread on social media about the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic. The memorandum for the March 25 hearing sums it up:

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have long come under fire for their role in the dissemination and amplification of misinformation and extremist content. For instance, since the beginning of the coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, all three platforms have spread substantial amounts of misinformation about COVID-19. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation regarding the severity of the virus and the effectiveness of alleged cures for COVID-19 was widespread. More recently, COVID-19 disinformation has misrepresented the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have also been distributors for years of election disinformation that appeared to be intended either to improperly influence or undermine the outcomes of free and fair elections. During the November 2016 election, social media platforms were used by foreign governments to disseminate information to manipulate public opinion. This trend continued during and after the November 2020 election, often fomented by domestic actors, with rampant disinformation about voter fraud, defective voting machines, and premature declarations of victory.

It is true that, despite social media companies’ efforts to label and remove false content and bar some of the biggest purveyors, there remains a considerable volume of false information on social media. But U.S. Supreme Court precedent consistently has limited government regulation of false speech to distinct categories like defamation, perjury, and fraud.

The Case of Stolen Valor

The court’s 2011 decision in United States v. Alvarez struck down as unconstitutional the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which made it a federal crime to falsely claim to have earned a military medal. A four-justice plurality opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, along with a two-justice concurrence, both agreed that a statement being false did not, by itself, exclude it from First Amendment protection. 

Kennedy’s opinion noted that while the government may impose penalties for false speech connected with the legal process (perjury or impersonating a government official); with receiving a benefit (fraud); or with harming someone’s reputation (defamation); the First Amendment does not sanction penalties for false speech, in and of itself. The plurality exhibited particular skepticism toward the notion that government actors could be entrusted as a “Ministry of Truth,” empowered to determine what categories of false speech should be made illegal:

Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable. That governmental power has no clear limiting principle. Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth… Were this law to be sustained, there could be an endless list of subjects the National Government or the States could single out… Were the Court to hold that the interest in truthful discourse alone is sufficient to sustain a ban on speech, absent any evidence that the speech was used to gain a material advantage, it would give government a broad censorial power unprecedented in this Court’s cases or in our constitutional tradition. The mere potential for the exercise of that power casts a chill, a chill the First Amendment cannot permit if free speech, thought, and discourse are to remain a foundation of our freedom. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

As noted in the opinion, declaring false speech illegal constitutes a content-based restriction subject to “exacting scrutiny.” Applying that standard, the court found “the link between the Government’s interest in protecting the integrity of the military honors system and the Act’s restriction on the false claims of liars like respondent has not been shown.” 

While finding that the government “has not shown, and cannot show, why counterspeech would not suffice to achieve its interest,” the plurality suggested a more narrowly tailored solution could be simply to publish Medal of Honor recipients in an online database. In other words, the government could overcome the problem of false speech by promoting true speech. 

In 2012, President Barack Obama signed an updated version of the Stolen Valor Act that limited its penalties to situations where a misrepresentation is shown to result in receipt of some kind of benefit. That places the false speech in the category of fraud, consistent with the Alvarez opinion.

A Social Media Ministry of Truth

Applying the Alvarez standard to social media, the government could (and already does) promote its interest in public health or election integrity by publishing true speech through official channels. But there is little reason to believe the government at any level could regulate access to misinformation. Anything approaching an outright ban on accessing speech deemed false by the government not only would not be the most narrowly tailored way to deal with such speech, but it is bound to have chilling effects even on true speech.

The analysis doesn’t change if the government instead places Big Tech itself in the position of Ministry of Truth. Some propose making changes to Section 230, which currently immunizes social media companies from liability for user speech (with limited exceptions), regardless what moderation policies the platform adopts. A hypothetical change might condition Section 230’s liability shield on platforms agreeing to moderate certain categories of misinformation. But that would still place the government in the position of coercing platforms to take down speech. 

Even the “fix” of making social media companies liable for user speech they amplify through promotions on the platform, as proposed by Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-Va.) SAFE TECH Act, runs into First Amendment concerns. The aim of the bill is to regard sponsored content as constituting speech made by the platform, thus opening the platform to liability for the underlying misinformation. But any such liability also would be limited to categories of speech that fall outside First Amendment protection, like fraud or defamation. This would not appear to include most of the types of misinformation on COVID-19 or election security that animate the current legislative push.

There is no way for the government to regulate misinformation, in and of itself, consistent with the First Amendment. Big Tech companies are free to develop their own policies against misinformation, but the government may not force them to do so. 

Extremely Limited Room to Regulate Extremism

The Big Tech CEOs are also almost certain to be grilled about the use of social media to spread “hate speech” or “extremist content.” The memorandum for the March 25 hearing sums it up like this:

Facebook executives were repeatedly warned that extremist content was thriving on their platform, and that Facebook’s own algorithms and recommendation tools were responsible for the appeal of extremist groups and divisive content. Similarly, since 2015, videos from extremists have proliferated on YouTube; and YouTube’s algorithm often guides users from more innocuous or alternative content to more fringe channels and videos. Twitter has been criticized for being slow to stop white nationalists from organizing, fundraising, recruiting and spreading propaganda on Twitter.

Social media has often played host to racist, sexist, and other types of vile speech. While social media companies have community standards and other policies that restrict “hate speech” in some circumstances, there is demand from some public officials that they do more. But under a First Amendment analysis, regulating hate speech on social media would fare no better than the regulation of misinformation.

The First Amendment doesn’t allow for the regulation of “hate speech” as its own distinct category. Hate speech is, in fact, as protected as any other type of speech. There are some limited exceptions, as the First Amendment does not protect incitement, true threats of violence, or “fighting words.” Some of these flatly do not apply in the online context. “Fighting words,” for instance, applies only in face-to-face situations to “those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction.”

One relevant precedent is the court’s 1992 decision in R.A.V. v. St. Paul, which considered a local ordinance in St. Paul, Minnesota, prohibiting public expressions that served to cause “outrage, alarm, or anger with respect to racial, gender or religious intolerance.” A juvenile was charged with violating the ordinance when he created a makeshift cross and lit it on fire in front of a black family’s home. The court unanimously struck down the ordinance as a violation of the First Amendment, finding it an impermissible content-based restraint that was not limited to incitement or true threats.

By contrast, in 2003’s Virginia v. Black, the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia law outlawing cross burnings done with the intent to intimidate. The court’s opinion distinguished R.A.V. on grounds that the Virginia statute didn’t single out speech regarding disfavored topics. Instead, it was aimed at speech that had the intent to intimidate regardless of the victim’s race, gender, religion, or other characteristic. But the court was careful to limit government regulation of hate speech to instances that involve true threats or incitement.

When it comes to incitement, the legal standard was set by the court’s landmark Brandenberg v. Ohio decision in 1969, which laid out that:

the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

In other words, while “hate speech” is protected by the First Amendment, specific types of speech that convey true threats or fit under the related doctrine of incitement are not. The government may regulate those types of speech. And they do. In fact, social media users can be, and often are, charged with crimes for threats made online. But the government can’t issue a per se ban on hate speech or “extremist content.”

Just as with misinformation, the government also can’t condition Section 230 immunity on platforms removing hate speech. Insofar as speech is protected under the First Amendment, the government can’t specifically condition a government benefit on its removal. Even the SAFE TECH Act’s model for holding platforms accountable for amplifying hate speech or extremist content would have to be limited to speech that amounts to true threats or incitement. This is a far narrower category of hateful speech than the examples that concern legislators. 

Social media companies do remain free under the law to moderate hateful content as they see fit under their terms of service. Section 230 immunity is not dependent on whether companies do or don’t moderate such content, or on how they define hate speech. But government efforts to step in and define hate speech would likely run into First Amendment problems unless they stay focused on unprotected threats and incitement.

What Can the Government Do?

One may fairly ask what it is that governments can do to combat misinformation and hate speech online. The answer may be a law that requires takedowns by court order of speech after it is declared illegal, as proposed by the PACT Act, sponsored in the last session by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and John Thune (R-S.D.). Such speech may, in some circumstances, include misinformation or hate speech.

But as outlined above, the misinformation that the government can regulate is limited to situations like fraud or defamation, while the hate speech it can regulate is limited to true threats and incitement. A narrowly tailored law that looked to address those specific categories may or may not be a good idea, but it would likely survive First Amendment scrutiny, and may even prove a productive line of discussion with the tech CEOs.

Antitrust by Fiat

Jonathan M. Barnett —  23 February 2021

The Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act (CALERA), recently introduced in the U.S. Senate, exhibits a remarkable willingness to cast aside decades of evidentiary standards that courts have developed to uphold the rule of law by precluding factually and economically ungrounded applications of antitrust law. Without those safeguards, antitrust enforcement is prone to be driven by a combination of prosecutorial and judicial fiat. That would place at risk the free play of competitive forces that the antitrust laws are designed to protect.

Antitrust law inherently lends itself to the risk of erroneous interpretations of ambiguous evidence. Outside clear cases of interfirm collusion, virtually all conduct that might appear anti-competitive might just as easily be proven, after significant factual inquiry, to be pro-competitive. This fundamental risk of a false diagnosis has guided antitrust case law and regulatory policy since at least the Supreme Court’s landmark Continental Television v. GTE Sylvania decision in 1977 and arguably earlier. Judicial and regulatory efforts to mitigate this ambiguity, while preserving the deterrent power of the antitrust laws, have resulted in the evidentiary requirements that are targeted by the proposed bill.

Proponents of the legislative “reforms” might argue that modern antitrust case law’s careful avoidance of enforcement error yields excessive caution. To relieve regulators and courts from having to do their homework before disrupting a targeted business and its employees, shareholders, customers and suppliers, the proposed bill empowers plaintiffs to allege and courts to “find” anti-competitive conduct without having to be bound to the reasonably objective metrics upon which courts and regulators have relied for decades. That runs the risk of substituting rhetoric and intuition for fact and analysis as the guiding principles of antitrust enforcement and adjudication.

This dismissal of even a rudimentary commitment to rule-of-law principles is illustrated by two dramatic departures from existing case law in the proposed bill. Each constitutes a largely unrestrained “blank check” for regulatory and judicial overreach.

Blank Check #1

The bill includes a broad prohibition on “exclusionary” conduct, which is defined to include any conduct that “materially disadvantages 1 or more actual or potential competitors” and “presents an appreciable risk of harming competition.” That amorphous language arguably enables litigants to target a firm that offers consumers lower prices but “disadvantages” less efficient competitors that cannot match that price.

In fact, the proposed legislation specifically facilitates this litigation strategy by relieving predatory pricing claims from having to show that pricing is below cost or likely to result ultimately in profits for the defendant. While the bill permits a defendant to escape liability by showing sufficiently countervailing “procompetitive benefits,” the onus rests on the defendant to show otherwise. This burden-shifting strategy encourages lagging firms to shift competition from the marketplace to the courthouse.

Blank Check #2

The bill then removes another evidentiary safeguard by relieving plaintiffs from always having to define a relevant market. Rather, it may be sufficient to show that the contested practice gives rise to an “appreciable risk of harming competition … based on the totality of the circumstances.” It is hard to miss the high degree of subjectivity in this standard.

This ambiguous threshold runs counter to antitrust principles that require a credible showing of market power in virtually all cases except horizontal collusion. Those principles make perfect sense. Market power is the gateway concept that enables courts to distinguish between claims that plausibly target alleged harms to competition and those that do not. Without a well-defined market, it is difficult to know whether a particular practice reflects market power or market competition. Removing the market power requirement can remove any meaningful grounds on which a defendant could avoid a nuisance lawsuit or contest or appeal a conclusory allegation or finding of anticompetitive conduct.

Anti-Market Antitrust

The bill’s transparently outcome-driven approach is likely to give rise to a cloud of liability that penalizes businesses that benefit consumers through price and quality combinations that competitors cannot replicate. This obviously runs directly counter to the purpose of the antitrust laws. Certainly, winners can and sometimes do entrench themselves through potentially anticompetitive practices that should be closely scrutinized. However, the proposed legislation seems to reflect a presumption that successful businesses usually win by employing illegitimate tactics, rather than simply being the most efficient firm in the market. Under that assumption, competition law becomes a tool for redoing, rather than enabling, competitive outcomes.

While this populist approach may be popular, it is neither economically sound nor consistent with a market-driven economy in which resources are mostly allocated through pricing mechanisms and government intervention is the exception, not the rule. It would appear that some legislators would like to reverse that presumption. Far from being a victory for consumers, that outcome would constitute a resounding loss.

In a constructive development, the Federal Trade Commission has joined its British counterpart in investigating Nvidia’s proposed $40 billion acquisition of chip designer Arm, a subsidiary of Softbank. Arm provides the technological blueprints for wireless communications devices and, subject to a royalty fee, makes those crown-jewel assets available to all interested firms. Notwithstanding Nvidia’s stated commitment to keep the existing policy in place, there is an obvious risk that the new parent, one of the world’s leading chip makers, would at some time modify this policy with adverse competitive effects.

Ironically, the FTC is likely part of the reason that the Nvidia-Arm transaction is taking place.

Since the mid-2000s, the FTC and other leading competition regulators (except for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division under the leadership of former Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim) have intervened extensively in licensing arrangements in wireless device markets, culminating in the FTC’s recent failed suit against Qualcomm. The Nvidia-Arm transaction suggests that these actions may simply lead chip designers to abandon the licensing model and shift toward structures that monetize chip-design R&D through integrated hardware and software ecosystems. Amazon and Apple are already undertaking chip innovation through this model. Antitrust action that accelerates this movement toward in-house chip design is likely to have adverse effects for the competitive health of the wireless ecosystem.

How IP Licensing Promotes Market Access

Since its inception, the wireless communications market has relied on a handful of IP licensors to supply device producers and other intermediate users with a common suite of technology inputs. The result has been an efficient division of labor between firms that specialize in upstream innovation and firms that specialize in production and other downstream functions. Contrary to the standard assumption that IP rights limit access, this licensing-based model ensures technology access to any firm willing to pay the royalty fee.

Efforts by regulators to reengineer existing relationships between innovators and implementers endanger this market structure by inducing innovators to abandon licensing-based business models, which now operate under a cloud of legal insecurity, for integrated business models in which returns on R&D investments are captured internally through hardware and software products. Rather than expanding technology access and intensifying competition, antitrust restraints on licensing freedom are liable to limit technology access and increase market concentration.

Regulatory Intervention and Market Distortion

This interventionist approach has relied on the assertion that innovators can “lock in” producers and extract a disproportionate fee in exchange for access. This prediction has never found support in fact. Contrary to theoretical arguments that patent owners can impose double-digit “royalty stacks” on device producers, empirical researchers have repeatedly found that the estimated range of aggregate rates lies in the single digits. These findings are unsurprising given market performance over more than two decades: adoption has accelerated as quality-adjusted prices have fallen and innovation has never ceased. If rates were exorbitant, market growth would have been slow, and the smartphone would be a luxury for the rich.

Despite these empirical infirmities, the FTC and other competition regulators have persisted in taking action to mitigate “holdup risk” through policy statements and enforcement actions designed to preclude IP licensors from seeking injunctive relief. The result is a one-sided legal environment in which the world’s largest device producers can effectively infringe patents at will, knowing that the worst-case scenario is a “reasonable royalty” award determined by a court, plus attorneys’ fees. Without any credible threat to deny access even after a favorable adjudication on the merits, any IP licensor’s ability to negotiate a royalty rate that reflects the value of its technology contribution is constrained.

Assuming no change in IP licensing policy on the horizon, it is therefore not surprising that an IP licensor would seek to shift toward an integrated business model in which IP is not licensed but embedded within an integrated suite of products and services. Or alternatively, an IP licensor entity might seek to be acquired by a firm that already has such a model in place. Hence, FTC v. Qualcomm leads Arm to Nvidia.

The Error Costs of Non-Evidence-Based Antitrust

These counterproductive effects of antitrust intervention demonstrate the error costs that arise when regulators act based on unverified assertions of impending market failure. Relying on the somewhat improbable assumption that chip suppliers can dictate licensing terms to device producers that are among the world’s largest companies, competition regulators have placed at risk the legal predicates of IP rights and enforceable contracts that have made the wireless-device market an economic success. As antitrust risk intensifies, the return on licensing strategies falls and competitive advantage shifts toward integrated firms that can monetize R&D internally through stand-alone product and service ecosystems.

Far from increasing competitiveness, regulators’ current approach toward IP licensing in wireless markets is likely to reduce it.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.

Jerry Ellig was a research professor at The George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center and served as chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission from 2017 to 2018. Tragically, he passed away Jan. 20, 2021. TOTM is honored to publish his contribution to this symposium.]

One significant aspect of Chairman Ajit Pai’s legacy is not a policy change, but an organizational one: establishment of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) Office of Economics and Analytics (OEA) in 2018.

Prior to OEA, most of the FCC’s economists were assigned to the various policy bureaus, such as Wireless, Wireline Competition, Public Safety, Media, and International. Each of these bureaus had its own chief economist, but the rank-and-file economists reported to the managers who ran the bureaus – usually attorneys who also developed policy and wrote regulations. In the words of former FCC Chief Economist Thomas Hazlett, the FCC had “no location anywhere in the organizational structure devoted primarily to economic analysis.”

Establishment of OEA involved four significant changes. First, most of the FCC’s economists (along with data strategists and auction specialists) are now grouped together into an organization separate from the policy bureaus, and they are managed by other economists. Second, the FCC rules establishing the new office tasked OEA with reviewing every rulemaking, reviewing every other item with economic content that comes before the commission for a vote, and preparing a full benefit-cost analysis for any regulation with $100 million or more in annual economic impact. Third, a joint memo from the FCC’s Office of General Counsel and OEA specifies that economists are to be involved in the early stages of all rulemakings. Fourth, the memo also indicates that FCC regulatory analysis should follow the principles articulated in Executive Order 12866 and Office of Management and Budget Circular A-4 (while specifying that the FCC, as an independent agency, is not bound by the executive order).

While this structure for managing economists was new for the FCC, it is hardly uncommon in federal regulatory agencies. Numerous independent agencies that deal with economic regulation house their economists in a separate bureau or office, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Surface Transportation Board, the Office of Comptroller of the Currency, and the Federal Trade Commission. The SEC displays even more parallels with the FCC. A guidance memo adopted in 2012 by the SEC’s Office of General Counsel and Division of Risk, Strategy and Financial Innovation (the name of the division where economists and other analysts were located) specifies that economists are to be involved in the early stages of all rulemakings and articulates best analytical practices based on Executive Order 12866 and Circular A-4.

A separate economics office offers several advantages over the FCC’s prior approach. It gives the economists greater freedom to offer frank advice, enables them to conduct higher-quality analysis more consistent with the norms of their profession, and may ultimately make it easier to uphold FCC rules that are challenged in court.

Independence.  When I served as chief economist at the FCC in 2017-2018, I gathered from conversations that the most common practice in the past was for attorneys who wrote rules to turn to economists for supporting analysis after key decisions had already been made. This was not always the process, but it often occurred. The internal working group of senior FCC career staff who drafted the plan for OEA reached similar conclusions. After the establishment of OEA, an FCC economist I interviewed noted how his role had changed: “My job used to be to support the policy decisions made in the chairman’s office. Now I’m much freer to speak my own mind.”

Ensuring economists’ independence is not a problem unique to the FCC. In a 2017 study, Stuart Shapiro found that most of the high-level economists he interviewed who worked on regulatory impact analyses in federal agencies perceive that economists can be more objective if they are located outside the program office that develops the regulations they are analyzing. As one put it, “It’s very difficult to conduct a BCA [benefit-cost analysis] if our boss wrote what you are analyzing.” Interviews with senior economists and non-economists who work on regulation that I conducted for an Administrative Conference of the United States project in 2019 revealed similar conclusions across federal agencies. Economists located in organizations separate from the program office said that structure gave them greater independence and ability to develop better analytical methodologies. On the other hand, economists located in program offices said they experienced or knew of instances where they were pressured or told to produce an analysis with the results decision-makers wanted.

The FTC provides an informative case study. From 1955-1961, many of the FTC’s economists reported to the attorneys who conducted antitrust cases; in 1961, they were moved into a separate Bureau of Economics. Fritz Mueller, the FTC chief economist responsible for moving the antitrust economists back into the Bureau of Economics, noted that they were originally placed under the antitrust attorneys because the attorneys wanted more control over the economic analysis. A 2015 evaluation by the FTC’s Inspector General concluded that the Bureau of Economics’ existence as a separate organization improves its ability to offer “unbiased and sound economic analysis to support decision-making.”

Higher-quality analysis. An issue closely related to economists’ independence is the quality of the economic analysis. Executive branch regulatory economists interviewed by Richard Williams expressed concern that the economic analysis was more likely to be changed to support decisions when the economists are located in the program office that writes the regulations. More generally, a study that Catherine Konieczny and I conducted while we were at the FCC found that executive branch agencies are more likely to produce higher-quality regulatory impact analyses if the economists responsible for the analysis are in an independent economics office rather than the program office.

Upholding regulations in court. In Michigan v. EPA, the Supreme Court held that it is unreasonable for agencies to refuse to consider regulatory costs if the authorizing statute does not prohibit them from doing so. This precedent will likely increase judicial expectations that agencies will consider economic issues when they issue regulations. The FCC’s OGC-OEA memo cites examples of cases where the quality of the FCC’s economic analysis either helped or harmed the commission’s ability to survive legal challenge under the Administrative Procedure Act’s “arbitrary and capricious” standard. More systematically, a recent Regulatory Studies Center working paper finds that a higher-quality economic analysis accompanying a regulation reduces the likelihood that courts will strike down the regulation, provided that the agency explains how it used the analysis in decisions.

Two potential disadvantages of a separate economics office are that it may make the economists easier to ignore (what former FCC Chief Economist Tim Brennan calls the “Siberia effect”) and may lead the economists to produce research that is less relevant to the practical policy concerns of the policymaking bureaus. The FCC’s reorganization plan took these disadvantages seriously.

To ensure that the ultimate decision-makers—the commissioners—have access to the economists’ analysis and recommendations, the rules establishing the office give OEA explicit responsibility for reviewing all items with economic content that come before the commission. Each item is accompanied by a cover memo that indicates whether OEA believes there are any significant issues, and whether they have been dealt with adequately. To ensure that economists and policy bureaus work together from the outset of regulatory initiatives, the OGC-OEA memo instructs:

Bureaus and Offices should, to the extent practicable, coordinate with OEA in the early stages of all Commission-level and major Bureau-level proceedings that are likely to draw scrutiny due to their economic impact. Such coordination will help promote productive communication and avoid delays from the need to incorporate additional analysis or other content late in the drafting process. In the earliest stages of the rulemaking process, economists and related staff will work with programmatic staff to help frame key questions, which may include drafting options memos with the lead Bureau or Office.

While presiding over his final commission meeting on Jan. 13, Pai commented, “It’s second nature now for all of us to ask, ‘What do the economists think?’” The real test of this institutional innovation will be whether that practice continues under a new chair in the next administration.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.

Joshua D. Wright is university professor and executive director of the Global Antitrust Institute at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School. He served as a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission from 2013 through 2015.]

Much of this symposium celebrates Ajit’s contributions as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and his accomplishments and leadership in that role. And rightly so. But Commissioner Pai, not just Chairman Pai, should also be recognized.

I first met Ajit when we were both minority commissioners at our respective agencies: the FCC and Federal Trade Commission. Ajit had started several months before I was confirmed. I watched his performance in the minority with great admiration. He reached new heights when he shifted from minority commissioner to chairman, and the accolades he will receive for that work are quite appropriate. But I want to touch on his time as a minority commissioner at the FCC and how that should inform the retrospective of his tenure.

Let me not bury the lead: Ajit Pai has been, in my view, the most successful, impactful minority commissioner in the history of the modern regulatory state. And it is that success that has led him to become the most successful and impactful chairman, too.

I must admit all of this success makes me insanely jealous. My tenure as a minority commissioner ran in parallel with Ajit. We joked together about our fierce duel to be the reigning king of regulatory dissents. We worked together fighting against net neutrality. We compared notes on dissenting statements and opinions. I tried to win our friendly competition. I tried pretty hard. And I lost; worse than I care to admit. But we had fun. And I very much admired the combination of analytical rigor, clarity of exposition, and intellectual honesty in his work. Anyway, the jealousy would be all too much if he weren’t also a remarkable person and friend.

The life of a minority commissioner can be a frustrating one. Like Sisyphus, the minority commissioner often wakes up each day to roll the regulatory (well, in this case, deregulatory) boulder up the hill, only to watch it roll down. And then do it again. And again. At times, it is an exhausting series of jousting matches with the windmills of Washington bureaucracy. It is not often that a minority commissioner has as much success as Commissioner Pai did: dissenting opinions ultimately vindicated by judicial review; substantive victories on critical policy issues; paving the way for institutional and procedural reforms.

It is one thing to write a raging dissent about how the majority has lost all principles. Fire and brimstone come cheap when there aren’t too many consequences to what you have to say. Measure a man after he has been granted power and a chance to use it, and only then will you have a true test of character. Ajit passes that test like few in government ever have.

This is part of what makes Ajit Pai so impressive. I have seen his work firsthand. The multitude of successes Ajit achieved as Chairman Pai were predictable, precisely because Commissioner Pai told the world exactly where he stood on important telecommunications policy issues, the reasons why he stood there, and then, well, he did what he said he would. The Pai regime was much more like a Le’Veon Bell run, between the tackles, than a no-look pass from Patrick Mahomes to Tyreek Hill. Commissioner Pai shared his playbook with the world; he told us exactly where he was going to run the ball. And then Chairman Pai did exactly that. And neither bureaucratic red tape nor political pressure—or even physical threat—could stop him.

Here is a small sampling of his contributions, many of them building on groundwork he laid in the minority:

Focus on Economic Analysis

One of Chairman Pai’s most important contributions to the FCC is his work to systematically incorporate economic analysis into FCC decision-making. The triumph of this effort was establishing the Office of Economic Analysis (OEA) in 2018. The OEA focus on conducting economic analyses of the costs, benefits, and economic impacts of the commission’s proposed rules will be a critical part of agency decision-making from here on out. This act alone would form a legacy any agency head could easily rest their laurels on. The OEA’s work will shape the agency for decades and ensure that agency decisions are made with the oversight economics provides.

This is a hard thing to do; just hiring economists is not enough. Structure matters. How economists get information to decision-makers determines if it will be taken seriously. To this end, Ajit has taken all the lessons from what has made the economists at the FTC so successful—and the lessons from the structural failures at other agencies—and applied them at the FCC.

Structural independence looks like “involving economists on cross-functional teams at the outset and allowing the economics division to make its own, independent recommendations to decision-makers.”[1] And it is necessary for economics to be taken seriously within an agency structure. Ajit has assured that FCC decision-making will benefit from economic analysis for years to come.

Narrowing the Digital Divide

Chairman Pai made helping the disadvantaged get connected to the internet and narrowing the digital divide the top priorities during his tenure. And Commissioner Pai was fighting for this long before the pandemic started.

As businesses, schools, work, and even health care have moved online, the need to get Americans connected with high-speed broadband has never been greater. Under Pai’s leadership, the FCC has removed bureaucratic barriers[2] and provided billions in funding[3] to facilitate rural broadband buildout. We are talking about connections to some 700,000 rural homes and businesses in 45 states, many of whom are gaining access to high-speed internet for the first time.

Ajit has also made sure to keep an eye out for the little guy, and communities that have been historically left behind. Tribal communities,[4] particularly in the rural West, have been a keen focus of his, as he knows all-too-well the difficulties and increased costs associated with servicing those lands. He established programs to rebuild and expand networks in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico[5] in an effort to bring the islands to parity with citizens living on the mainland.

You need not take my word for it; he really does talk about this all the time. As he said in a speech at the National Tribal Broadband Summit: “Since my first day in this job, I’ve said that closing the digital divide was my top priority. And as this audience knows all too well, nowhere is that divide more pronounced than on Tribal lands.“ That work is not done; it is beyond any one person. But Ajit should be recognized for his work bridging the divide and laying the foundation for future gains.

And again, this work started as minority commissioner. Before he was chairman, Pai proposed projects for rural broadband development; he frequently toured underserved states and communities; and he proposed legislation to offer the 21st century promise to economically depressed areas of the country. Looking at Chairman Pai is only half the picture.

Keeping Americans Connected

One would not think that the head of the Federal Communications Commission would be a leader on important health-care issues, but Ajit has made a real difference here too. One of his major initiatives has been the development of telemedicine solutions to expand access to care in critical communities.

Beyond encouraging buildout of networks in less-connected areas, Pai’s FCC has also worked to allocate funding for health-care providers and educational institutions who were navigating the transition to remote services. He ensured that health-care providers’ telecommunications and information services were funded. He worked with the U.S. Department of Education to direct funds for education stabilization and allowed schools to purchase additional bandwidth. And he granted temporary additional spectrum usage to broadband providers to meet the increased demand upon our nation’s networks. Oh, and his Keep Americans Connected Pledge gathered commitment from more than 800 companies to ensure that Americans would not lose their connectivity due to pandemic-related circumstances. As if the list were not long enough, Congress’ January coronavirus relief package will ensure that these and other programs, like Rip and Replace, will remain funded for the foreseeable future.

I might sound like I am beating a dead horse here, but the seeds of this, too, were laid in his work in the minority. Here he is describing his work in a 2015 interview, as a minority commissioner:

My own father is a physician in rural Kansas, and I remember him heading out in his car to visit the small towns that lay 40 miles or more from home. When he was there, he could provide care for people who would otherwise never see a specialist at all. I sometimes wonder, back in the 1970s and 1980s, how much easier it would have been on patients, and him, if broadband had been available so he could provide healthcare online.

Agency Transparency and Democratization

Many minority commissioners like to harp on agency transparency. Some take a different view when they are in charge. But Ajit made good on his complaints about agency transparency when he became Chairman Pai. He did this through circulating draft items well in advance of monthly open meetings, giving people the opportunity to know what the agency was voting on.

You used to need a direct connection with the FCC to even be aware of what orders were being discussed—the worst of the D.C. swamp—but now anyone can read about the working items, in clear language.

These moves toward a more transparent, accessible FCC dispel the impression that the agency is run by Washington insiders who are disconnected from the average person. The meetings may well be dry and technical—they really are—but Chairman Pai’s statements are not only good-natured and humorous, but informative and substantive. The public has been well-served by his efforts here.

Incentivizing Innovation and Next-Generation Technologies

Chairman Pai will be remembered for his encouragement of innovation. Under his chairmanship, the FCC discontinued rules that unnecessarily required carriers to maintain costly older, lower-speed networks and legacy voice services. It streamlined the discontinuance process for lower-speed services if the carrier is already providing higher-speed service or if no customers are using the service. It also okayed streamlined notice following force majeure events like hurricanes to encourage investment and deployment of newer, faster infrastructure and services following destruction of networks. The FCC also approved requests by companies to provide high-speed broadband through non-geostationary orbit satellite constellations and created a streamlined licensing process for small satellites to encourage faster deployment.

This is what happens when you get a tech nerd at the head of an agency he loves and cares for. A serious commitment to good policy with an eye toward the future.

Restoring Internet Freedom

This is a pretty sensitive one for me. You hear less about it now, other than some murmurs from the Biden administration about changing it, but the debate over net neutrality got nasty and apocalyptic.

It was everywhere; people saying Chairman Pai would end the internet as we know it. The whole web blacked out for a day in protest. People mocked up memes showing a 25 cent-per-Google-search charge. And as a result of this over-the-top rhetoric, my friend, and his family, received death threats.

That is truly beyond the pale. One could not blame anyone for leaving public service in such an environment. I cannot begin to imagine what I would have done in Ajit’s place. But Ajit took the threats on his life with grace and dignity, never lost his sense of humor, and continued to serve the public dutifully with remarkable courage. I think that says a lot about him. And the American public is lucky to have benefited from his leadership.

Now, for the policy stuff. Though it should go without saying, the light-touch framework Chairman Pai returned us to—as opposed to the public utility one—will ensure that the United States maintains its leading position on technological innovation in 5G networks and services. The fact that we have endured COVID—and the massive strain on the internet it has caused—with little to no noticeable impact on internet services is all the evidence you need he made the right choice. Ajit has rightfully earned the title of the “5G Chairman.”

Conclusion

I cannot give Ajit all the praise he truly deserves without sounding sycophantic, or bribed. There are any number of windows into his character, but one rises above the rest for me. And I wanted to take the extra time to thank Ajit for it.

Every year, without question, no matter what was going on—even as chairman—Ajit would come to my classes and talk to my students. At length. In detail. And about any subject they wished. He stayed until he answered all of their questions. If I didn’t politely shove him out of the class to let him go do his real job, I’m sure he would have stayed until the last student left. And if you know anything about how to judge a person’s character, that will tell you all you need to know. 

Congratulations, Chairman Pai.


[1] Jerry Ellig & Catherine Konieczny, The Organization of Economists in Regulatory Agencies: Does Structure Matter?

[2] Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, Fed. Commc’ns Comm’n, https://www.fcc.gov/auction/904.

[3] Press Release, Connect America Fund Auction to Expand Broadband to Over 700,000 Rural Homes and Businesses: Auction Allocates $1.488 Billion to Close the Digital Divide, Fed. Commc’ns Comm’n, https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/DOC-353840A1.pdf.

[4] Press Release, FCC Provides Relief for Carriers Serving Tribal Lands, Fed. Commc’ns Comm’n, https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-provides-relief-carriers-serving-tribal-lands.

[5] Press Release, FCC Approves $950 Million to Harden, Improve, and Expand Broadband Networks in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands, Fed. Commc’ns Comm’n, https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/DOC-359891A1.pdf.

Hardly a day goes by without news of further competition-related intervention in the digital economy. The past couple of weeks alone have seen the European Commission announce various investigations into Apple’s App Store (here and here), as well as reaffirming its desire to regulate so-called “gatekeeper” platforms. Not to mention the CMA issuing its final report regarding online platforms and digital advertising.

While the limits of these initiatives have already been thoroughly dissected (e.g. here, here, here), a fundamental question seems to have eluded discussions: What are authorities trying to achieve here?

At first sight, the answer might appear to be extremely simple. Authorities want to “bring more competition” to digital markets. Furthermore, they believe that this competition will not arise spontaneously because of the underlying characteristics of digital markets (network effects, economies of scale, tipping, etc). But while it may have some intuitive appeal, this answer misses the forest for the trees.

Let us take a step back. Digital markets could have taken a vast number of shapes, so why have they systematically gravitated towards those very characteristics that authorities condemn? For instance, if market tipping and consumer lock-in are so problematic, why is it that new corners of the digital economy continue to emerge via closed platforms, as opposed to collaborative ones? Indeed, if recent commentary is to be believed, it is the latter that should succeed because they purportedly produce greater gains from trade. And if consumers and platforms cannot realize these gains by themselves, then we should see intermediaries step into the breach – i.e. arbitrage. This does not seem to be happening in the digital economy. The naïve answer is to say that this is precisely the problem, the harder one is to actually understand why.

To draw a parallel with evolution, in the late 18th century, botanists discovered an orchid with an unusually long spur (above). This made its nectar incredibly hard to reach for insects. Rational observers at the time could be forgiven for thinking that this plant made no sense, that its design was suboptimal. And yet, decades later, Darwin conjectured that the plant could be explained by a (yet to be discovered) species of moth with a proboscis that was long enough to reach the orchid’s nectar. Decades after his death, the discovery of the xanthopan moth proved him right.

Returning to the digital economy, we thus need to ask why the platform business models that authorities desire are not the ones that emerge organically. Unfortunately, this complex question is mostly overlooked by policymakers and commentators alike.

Competition law on a spectrum

To understand the above point, let me start with an assumption: the digital platforms that have been subject to recent competition cases and investigations can all be classified along two (overlapping) dimensions: the extent to which they are open (or closed) to “rivals” and the extent to which their assets are propertized (as opposed to them being shared). This distinction borrows heavily from Jonathan Barnett’s work on the topic. I believe that by applying such a classification, we would obtain a graph that looks something like this:

While these classifications are certainly not airtight, this would be my reasoning:

In the top-left quadrant, Apple and Microsoft, both operate closed platforms that are highly propertized (Apple’s platform is likely even more closed than Microsoft’s Windows ever was). Both firms notably control who is allowed on their platform and how they can interact with users. Apple notably vets the apps that are available on its App Store and influences how payments can take place. Microsoft famously restricted OEMs freedom to distribute Windows PCs as they saw fit (notably by “imposing” certain default apps and, arguably, limiting the compatibility of Microsoft systems with servers running other OSs). 

In the top right quadrant, the business models of Amazon and Qualcomm are much more “open”, yet they remain highly propertized. Almost anyone is free to implement Qualcomm’s IP – so long as they conclude a license agreement to do so. Likewise, there are very few limits on the goods that can be sold on Amazon’s platform, but Amazon does, almost by definition, exert a significant control on the way in which the platform is monetized. Retailers can notably pay Amazon for product placement, fulfilment services, etc. 

Finally, Google Search and Android sit in the bottom left corner. Both of these services are weakly propertized. The Android source code is shared freely via an open source license, and Google’s apps can be preloaded by OEMs free of charge. The only limit is that Google partially closes its platform, notably by requiring that its own apps (if they are pre-installed) receive favorable placement. Likewise, Google’s search engine is only partially “open”. While any website can be listed on the search engine, Google selects a number of specialized results that are presented more prominently than organic search results (weather information, maps, etc). There is also some amount of propertization, namely that Google sells the best “real estate” via ad placement. 

Enforcement

Readers might ask what is the point of this classification? The answer is that in each of the above cases, competition intervention attempted (or is attempting) to move firms/platforms towards more openness and less propertization – the opposite of their original design.

The Microsoft cases and the Apple investigation, both sought/seek to bring more openness and less propetization to these respective platforms. Microsoft was made to share proprietary data with third parties (less propertization) and open up its platform to rival media players and web browsers (more openness). The same applies to Apple. Available information suggests that the Commission is seeking to limit the fees that Apple can extract from downstream rivals (less propertization), as well as ensuring that it cannot exclude rival mobile payment solutions from its platform (more openness).

The various cases that were brought by EU and US authorities against Qualcomm broadly sought to limit the extent to which it was monetizing its intellectual property. The European Amazon investigation centers on the way in which the company uses data from third-party sellers (and ultimately the distribution of revenue between them and Amazon). In both of these cases, authorities are ultimately trying to limit the extent to which these firms propertize their assets.

Finally, both of the Google cases, in the EU, sought to bring more openness to the company’s main platform. The Google Shopping decision sanctioned Google for purportedly placing its services more favorably than those of its rivals. And the Android decision notably sought to facilitate rival search engines’ and browsers’ access to the Android ecosystem. The same appears to be true of ongoing investigations in the US.

What is striking about these decisions/investigations is that authorities are pushing back against the distinguishing features of the platforms they are investigating. Closed -or relatively closed- platforms are being opened-up, and firms with highly propertized assets are made to share them (or, at the very least, monetize them less aggressively).

The empty quadrant

All of this would not be very interesting if it weren’t for a final piece of the puzzle: the model of open and shared platforms that authorities apparently favor has traditionally struggled to gain traction with consumers. Indeed, there seem to be very few successful consumer-oriented products and services in this space.

There have been numerous attempts to introduce truly open consumer-oriented operating systems – both in the mobile and desktop segments. For the most part, these have ended in failure. Ubuntu and other Linux distributions remain fringe products. There have been attempts to create open-source search engines, again they have not been met with success. The picture is similar in the online retail space. Amazon appears to have beaten eBay despite the latter being more open and less propertized – Amazon has historically charged higher fees than eBay and offers sellers much less freedom in the way they sell their goods. This theme is repeated in the standardization space. There have been innumerable attempts to impose open royalty-free standards. At least in the mobile internet industry, few if any of these have taken off (5G and WiFi are the best examples of this trend). That pattern is repeated in other highly-standardized industries, like digital video formats. Most recently, the proprietary Dolby Vision format seems to be winning the war against the open HDR10+ format. 

This is not to say there haven’t been any successful ventures in this space – the internet, blockchain and Wikipedia all spring to mind – or that we will not see more decentralized goods in the future. But by and large firms and consumers have not yet taken to the idea of open and shared platforms. And while some “open” projects have achieved tremendous scale, the consumer-facing side of these platforms is often dominated by intermediaries that opt for much more traditional business models (think of Coinbase and Blockchain, or Android and Linux).

An evolutionary explanation?

The preceding paragraphs have posited a recurring reality: the digital platforms that competition authorities are trying to to bring about are fundamentally different from those that emerge organically. This begs the question: why have authorities’ ideal platforms, so far, failed to achieve truly meaningful success at consumers’ end of the market? 

I can see at least three potential explanations:

  1. Closed/propertized platforms have systematically -and perhaps anticompetitively- thwarted their open/shared rivals;
  2. Shared platforms have failed to emerge because they are much harder to monetize (and there is thus less incentive to invest in them);
  3. Consumers have opted for closed systems precisely because they are closed.

I will not go into details over the merits of the first conjecture. Current antitrust debates have endlessly rehashed this proposition. However, it is worth mentioning that many of today’s dominant platforms overcame open/shared rivals well before they achieved their current size (Unix is older than Windows, Linux is older than iOs, eBay and Amazon are basically the same age, etc). It is thus difficult to make the case that the early success of their business models was down to anticompetitive behavior.

Much more interesting is the fact that options (2) and (3) are almost systematically overlooked – especially by antitrust authorities. And yet, if true, both of them would strongly cut against current efforts to regulate digital platforms and ramp-up antitrust enforcement against them. 

For a start, it is not unreasonable to suggest that highly propertized platforms are generally easier to monetize than shared ones (2). For example, open-source platforms often rely on complementarities for monetization, but this tends to be vulnerable to outside competition and free-riding. If this is true, then there is a natural incentive for firms to invest and innovate in more propertized environments. In turn, competition enforcement that limits a platforms’ ability to propertize their assets may harm innovation.

Similarly, authorities should at the very least reflect on whether consumers really want the more “competitive” ecosystems that they are trying to design (3)

For instance, it is striking that the European Commission has a long track record of seeking to open-up digital platforms (the Microsoft decisions are perhaps the most salient example). And yet, even after these interventions, new firms have kept on using the very business model that the Commission reprimanded. Apple tied the Safari browser to its iPhones, Google went to some length to ensure that Chrome was preloaded on devices, Samsung phones come with Samsung Internet as default. But this has not deterred consumers. A sizable share of them notably opted for Apple’s iPhone, which is even more centrally curated than Microsoft Windows ever was (and the same is true of Apple’s MacOS). 

Finally, it is worth noting that the remedies imposed by competition authorities are anything but unmitigated successes. Windows XP N (the version of Windows that came without Windows Media Player) was an unprecedented flop – it sold a paltry 1,787 copies. Likewise, the internet browser ballot box imposed by the Commission was so irrelevant to consumers that it took months for authorities to notice that Microsoft had removed it, in violation of the Commission’s decision. 

There are many reasons why consumers might prefer “closed” systems – even when they have to pay a premium for them. Take the example of app stores. Maintaining some control over the apps that can access the store notably enables platforms to easily weed out bad players. Similarly, controlling the hardware resources that each app can use may greatly improve device performance. In other words, centralized platforms can eliminate negative externalities that “bad” apps impose on rival apps and consumers. This is especially true when consumers struggle to attribute dips in performance to an individual app, rather than the overall platform. 

It is also conceivable that consumers prefer to make many of their decisions at the inter-platform level, rather than within each platform. In simple terms, users arguably make their most important decision when they choose between an Apple or Android smartphone (or a Mac and a PC, etc.). In doing so, they can select their preferred app suite with one simple decision. They might thus purchase an iPhone because they like the secure App Store, or an Android smartphone because they like the Chrome Browser and Google Search. Furthermore, forcing too many “within-platform” choices upon users may undermine a product’s attractiveness. Indeed, it is difficult to create a high-quality reputation if each user’s experience is fundamentally different. In short, contrary to what antitrust authorities seem to believe, closed platforms might be giving most users exactly what they desire. 

To conclude, consumers and firms appear to gravitate towards both closed and highly propertized platforms, the opposite of what the Commission and many other competition authorities favor. The reasons for this trend are still misunderstood, and mostly ignored. Too often, it is simply assumed that consumers benefit from more openness, and that shared/open platforms are the natural order of things. This post certainly does not purport to answer the complex question of “the origin of platforms”, but it does suggest that what some refer to as “market failures” may in fact be features that explain the rapid emergence of the digital economy. Ronald Coase said this best when he quipped that economists always find a monopoly explanation for things that they fail to understand. The digital economy might just be the latest in this unfortunate trend.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Ian Adams, (Executive Director, International Center for Law & Economics).]

The COVID-19 crisis has recast virtually every contemporary policy debate in the context of public health, and digital privacy is no exception. Conversations that once focused on the value and manner of tracking to enable behavioral advertising have shifted. Congress, on the heels of years of false-starts and failed efforts to introduce nationwide standards, is now lurching toward framing privacy policy through the lens of  proposed responses to the virus.

To that end, two legislative vehicles, one from Senate Republicans and another from a bicameral group of Democrats, have been offered specifically in response to the hitherto unprecedented occasion that society has to embrace near-universally available technologies to identify, track, and remediate the virus. The bills present different visions of what it means to protect and promote the privacy of Americans in the COVID-19 era, both of which are flawed (though, to differing degrees) as a matter of principle and practice. 

Failure as a matter of principle

Privacy has always been one value among many, not an end in itself, but a consideration to be weighed in the pursuit of life’s many varied activities (a point explored in greater depth here). But while the value of privacy in the context of exigent circumstances has traditionally waned, it has typically done so to make room for otherwise intrusive state action

The COVID-19 crisis presents a different scenario. Now, private firms, not the state, are best positioned to undertake the steps necessary to blunt the virus’ impact and, as good fortune would have it, substantial room already exists within U.S. law for firms to deploy software that would empower people to remediate the virus. Indeed, existing U.S. law affords people the ability to weigh their privacy preferences directly with their level of public health concern.

Strangely, in this context, both political parties have seen fit to advance restrictive privacy visions specific to the COVID-19 crisis that would substantially limit the ability of individuals to use tools to make themselves, and their communities, safer. In other words, both parties have offered proposals that make it harder to achieve the public health outcomes they claim to be seeking at precisely the moment that governments (federal, state, and local) are taking unprecedented (and liberty restricting) steps to achieve exactly those outcomes.

Failure as a matter of practice

The dueling legislative proposals are structured in parallel (a complete breakdown is available here). Each includes provisions concerning the entities and data to be covered, the obligations placed upon entities interacting with covered data, and the scope, extent and power of enforcement measures. While the scope of the entities and data covered vary significantly, with the Democratic proposal encumbering far more of each, they share a provision requiring both “opt-in” consent for access and use of data and a requirement that a mechanism exist to revoke that consent. 

The bipartisan move to affirmative consent represents a significant change in the Congressional privacy conversation. Hitherto, sensitive data have elicited calls for context-dependent levels of privacy, but no previous GOP legislative proposal had suggested the use of an “opt-in” mechanism. The timing of this novel bipartisanship could not be worse because, in the context of COVID-19 response, using the FTC’s 2012 privacy report as a model, the privacy benefits of raising the bar for the adoption of tools to track the course of the virus are likely substantially outweighed by the benefits that don’t just accrue to the covered entity, but to society as a whole with firms relatively freer to experiment with COVID-19-tracking technologies. 

There is another way forward. Instead of introducing design restraints and thereby limiting the practical manner in which firms go about developing tools to address COVID-19, Congress should be moving to articulate discrete harms related to unintended or coerced uses of information that it would like to prevent. For instance: defining what would constitute a deceptive use of COVID-related health information, or clarifying what fraudulent inducement should involve for purposes of downloading a contract tracing app. At least with particularized harms in mind policymakers and the public will more readily be able to assess and balance the value of what is gained in terms of privacy versus what is lost in terms of public health capabilities.

Congress, and the broader public policy debate around privacy, has come to a strange place. The privacy rights that lawmakers are seeking to create, utterly independent of potential privacy harms, pose a substantial new regulatory burden to firms attempting to achieve the very public health outcomes for which society is clamoring. In the process, arguably far more significant impingements upon individual liberty, in the form of largely indiscriminate restrictions on movement, association and commerce, are necessary to achieve what elements of contract tracing promises. That’s not just getting privacy wrong – that’s getting privacy all wrong.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Noah Phillips[1] (Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission).]   

Never let a crisis go to waste, or so they say. In the past two weeks, some of the same people who sought to stop mergers and acquisitions during the bull market took the opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the new bear market to call to ban M&A. On Friday, April 24th, Rep. David Cicilline proposed that a merger ban be included in the next COVID-19-related congressional legislative package.[2] By Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, warning of “predatory” M&A and private equity “vultures”, teamed up with a similar proposal.[3] 

I’m all for stopping anticompetitive M&A that we cannot resolve. In the past few months alone, the Federal Trade Commission has been quite busy, suing to stop transactions in the hospital, e-cigarette, coal, body-worn camera, razor, and gene sequencing industries, and forcing deals to stop in the pharmaceutical, medical staffing, and consumer products spaces. But is a blanket ban, unprecedented in our nation’s history, warranted, now? 

The theory that the pandemic requires the government to shut down M&A goes something like this: the antitrust agencies are overwhelmed and cannot do the job of reviewing mergers under the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act, which gives the U.S. antitrust agencies advance notice of certain transactions and 30 days to decide whether to seek more information about them.[4] That state of affairs will, in turn, invite a rush of companies looking to merge with minimal oversight, exacerbating the problem by flooding the premerger notification office (PNO) with new filings. Another version holds, along similar lines, that the precipitous decline in the market will precipitate a merger “wave” in which “dominant corporations” and “private equity vultures” will gobble up defenseless small businesses. Net result: anticompetitive transactions go unnoticed and unchallenged. That’s the theory, at least as it has been explained to me. The facts are different.

First, while the restrictions related to COVID-19 require serious adjustments at the antitrust agencies just as they do at workplaces across the country (we’re working from home, dealing with remote technology, and handling kids just like the rest), merger review continues. Since we started teleworking, the FTC has, among other things, challenged Altria’s $12.8 billion investment in JUUL’s e-cigarette business and resolved competitive concerns with GE’s sale of its biopharmaceutical business to Danaher and Ossur’s acquisition of a competing prosthetic limbs manufacturer, College Park. With our colleagues at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, we announced a new e-filing system for HSR filings and temporarily suspended granting early termination. We sought voluntary extensions from companies. But, in less than two weeks, we were able to resume early termination—back to “new normal”, at least. I anticipate there may be additional challenges; and the FTC will assess constraints in real-time to deal with further disruptions. But we have not sacrificed the thoroughness of our investigations; and we will not.

Second, there is no evidence of a merger “wave”, or that the PNO is overwhelmed with HSR filings. To the contrary, according to Bloomberg, monthly M&A volume hit rock bottom in April – the lowest since 2004. As of last week, the PNO estimates nearly 60% reduction in HSR reported transactions during the past month, compared to the historical average. Press reports indicate that M&A activity is down dramatically because of the crisis. Xerox recently announced it was suspending its hostile bid for Hewlett-Packard ($30 billion); private equity firm Sycamore Partners announced it is walking away from its takeover of Victoria’s Secret ($525 million); and Boeing announced it is backing out of its merger with Embraer ($4.2 billion) — just a few examples of companies, large corporations and private equity firms alike, stopping M&A on their own. (The market is funny like that.)

Slowed M&A during a global pandemic and economic crisis is exactly what you would expect. The financial uncertainty facing companies lowers shareholder and board confidence to dive into a new acquisition or sale. Financing is harder to secure. Due diligence is postponed. Management meetings are cancelled. Agreeing on price is another big challenge. The volatility in stock prices makes valuation difficult, and lessens the value of equity used to acquire. Cash is needed elsewhere, like to pay workers and keep operations running. Lack of access to factories and other assets as a result of travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders similarly make valuation harder. Management can’t even get in a room to negotiate and hammer out the deal because of social distancing (driving a hard bargain on Zoom may not be the same).

Experience bears out those expectations. Consider our last bear market, the financial crisis that took place over a decade ago. Publicly available FTC data show the number of HSR reported transactions dropped off a cliff. During fiscal year 2009, the height of the crisis, HSR reported transactions were down nearly 70% compared to just two years earlier, in fiscal year 2007. Not surprising.

Source: https://www.ftc.gov/site-information/open-government/data-sets

Nor should it be surprising that the current crisis, with all its uncertainty and novelty, appears itself to be slowing down M&A.

So, the antitrust agencies are continuing merger review, and adjusting quickly to the new normal. M&A activity is down, dramatically, on its own. That makes the pandemic an odd excuse to stop M&A. Maybe the concern wasn’t really about the pandemic in the first place? The difference in perspective may depend on one’s general view of the value of M&A. If you think mergers are mostly (or all) bad, and you discount the importance of the market for corporate control, the cost to stopping them all is low. If you don’t, the cost is high.[5]

As a general matter, decades of research and experience tell us that the vast majority of mergers are either pro-competitive or competitively-neutral.[6] But M&A, even dramatically-reduced, also has an important role to play in a moment of economic adjustment. It helps allocate assets in an efficient manner, for example giving those with the wherewithal to operate resources (think companies, or plants) an opportunity that others may be unable to utilize. Consumers benefit if a merger leads to the delivery of products or services that one company could not efficiently provide on its own, and from the innovation and lower prices that better management and integration can provide. Workers benefit, too, as they remain employed by going concerns.[7] It serves no good, including for competition, to let companies that might live, die.[8]

M&A is not the only way in which market forces can help. The antitrust agencies have always recognized pro-competitive benefits to collaboration between competitors during times of crisis.  In 2005, after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we implemented an expedited five-day review of joint projects between competitors aimed at relief and construction. In 2017, after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we advised that hospitals could combine resources to meet the health care needs of affected communities and companies could combine distribution networks to ensure goods and services were available. Most recently, in response to the current COVID-19 emergency, we announced an expedited review process for joint ventures. Collaboration can be concerning, so we’re reviewing; but it can also help.

Our nation is going through an unprecedented national crisis, with a horrible economic component that is putting tens of millions out of work and causing a great deal of suffering. Now is a time of great uncertainty, tragedy, and loss; but also of continued hope and solidarity. While merger review is not the top-of-mind issue for many—and it shouldn’t be—American consumers stand to gain from pro-competitive mergers, during and after the current crisis. Those benefits would be wiped out with a draconian ‘no mergers’ policy during the COVID-19 emergency. Might there be anticompetitive merger activity? Of course, which is why FTC staff are working hard to vet potentially anticompetitive mergers and prevent harm to consumers. Let’s let them keep doing their jobs.


[1] The views expressed in this blog post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Trade Commission or any other commissioner. An abbreviated version of this essay was previously published in the New York Times’ DealBook newsletter. Noah Phillips, The case against banning mergers, N.Y. Times, Apr. 27, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/business/dealbook/small-business-ppp-loans.html.

[2] The proposal would allow transactions only if a company is already in bankruptcy or is otherwise about to fail.

[3] The “Pandemic Anti-Monopoly Act” proposes a merger moratorium on (1) firms with over $100 million in revenue or market capitalization of over $100 million; (2) PE firms and hedge funds (or entities that are majority-owned by them); (3) businesses that have an exclusive patent on products related to the crisis, such as personal protective equipment; and (4) all HSR reportable transactions.

[4] Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976, 15 U.S.C. § 18a. The antitrust agencies can challenge transactions after they happen, but they are easier to stop beforehand; and Congress designed HSR to give us an opportunity to do so.

[5] Whatever your view, the point is that the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t make sense as a justification for banning M&A. If ban proponents oppose M&A generally, they should come out and say that. And they should level with the public about just how much they propose to ban. The specifics of the proposals are beyond the scope of this essay, but it’s worth noting that the “large companies [gobbling] up . . . small businesses” of which Sen. Warren warns include any firm with $100 million in annual revenue and anyone making a transaction reportable under HSR. $100 million seems like a lot of money to many of us, but the Ohio State University National Center for the Middle Market defines a mid-sized company as having annual revenues between $10 million and $1 billion. Many if not most of the transactions that would be banned look nothing like the kind of acquisitions ban proponents are describing.

[6] As far back as the 1980s, the Horizontal Merger Guidelines reflected this idea, stating: “While challenging competitively harmful mergers, the Department [of Justice Antitrust Division] seeks to avoid unnecessary interference with the larger universe of mergers that are either competitively beneficial or neutral.” Horizontal Merger Guidelines (1982); see also Hovenkamp, Appraising Merger Efficiencies, 24 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 703, 704 (2017) (“we tolerate most mergers because of a background, highly generalized belief that most—or at least many—do produce cost savings or improvements in products, services, or distribution”); Andrade, Mitchell & Stafford, New Evidence and Perspectives on Mergers, 15 J. ECON. PERSPECTIVES 103, 117 (2001) (“We are inclined to defend the traditional view that mergers improve efficiency and that the gains to shareholders at merger announcement accurately reflect improved expectations of future cash flow performance.”).

[7] Jointly with our colleagues at the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, we issued a statement last week affirming our commitment to enforcing the antitrust laws against those who seek to exploit the pandemic to engage in anticompetitive conduct in labor markets.

[8] The legal test to make such a showing for an anti-competitive transaction is high. Known as the “failing firm defense”, it is available only to firms that can demonstrate their fundamental inability to compete effectively in the future. The Horizontal Merger Guidelines set forth three elements to establish the defense: (1) the allegedly failing firm would be unable to meet its financial obligations in the near future; (2) it would not be able to reorganize successfully under Chapter 11; and (3) it has made unsuccessful good-faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers that would keep its tangible and intangible assets in the relevant market and pose a less severe danger to competition than the actual merger. Horizontal Merger Guidelines § 11; see also Citizen Publ’g v. United States, 394 U.S. 131, 137-38 (1969). The proponent of the failing firm defense bears the burden to prove each element, and failure to prove a single element is fatal. In re Otto Bock, FTC No. 171-0231, Docket No. 9378 Commission Opinion (Nov. 2019) at 43; see also Citizen Publ’g, 394 U.S. at 138-39.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by John Newman, Associate Professor, University of Miami School of Law; Advisory Board Member, American Antitrust Institute; Affiliated Fellow, Thurman Arnold Project, Yale; Former Trial Attorney, DOJ Antitrust Division.)

Cooperation is the basis of productivity. The war of all against all is not a good model for any economy.

Who said it—a rose-emoji Twitter Marxist, or a card-carrying member of the laissez faire Chicago School of economics? If you guessed the latter, you’d be right. Frank Easterbrook penned these words in an antitrust decision written shortly after he left the University of Chicago to become a federal judge. Easterbrook’s opinion, now a textbook staple, wholeheartedly endorsed a cooperative agreement between two business owners not to compete with each another.

But other enforcers and judges have taken a far less favorable view of cooperation—particularly when workers are the ones cooperating. A few years ago, in an increasingly rare example of interagency agreement, the DOJ and FTC teamed up to argue against a Seattle ordinance that would have permitted drivers to cooperatively bargain with Uber and Lyft. Why the hostility from enforcers? “Competition is the lynchpin of the U.S. economy,” explained Acting FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen.

Should workers be able to cooperate to counter concentrated corporate power? Or is bellum omnium contra omnes truly the “lynchpin” of our industrial policy?

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown this question into sharper relief than ever before. Low-income workers—many of them classified as independent contractors—have launched multiple coordinated boycotts in an effort to improve working conditions. The antitrust agencies, once quick to condemn similar actions by Uber and Lyft drivers, have fallen conspicuously silent.

Why? Why should workers be allowed to negotiate cooperatively for a healthier workplace, yet not for a living wage? In a society largely organized around paying for basic social services, money is health—and even life itself.

Unraveling the Double Standard

Antitrust law, like the rest of industrial policy, involves difficult questions over which members of society can cooperate with one another. These laws allocate “coordination rights”. Before the coronavirus pandemic, industrial policy seemed generally to favor allocating these rights to corporations, while simultaneously denying them to workers and class-action plaintiffs. But, as the antitrust agencies’ apparent about-face on workplace organizing suggests, the times may be a-changing.

Some of today’s most existential threats to societal welfare—pandemics, climate change, pollution—will best be addressed via cooperation, not atomistic rivalry. On-the-ground stakeholders certainly seem to think so. Absent a coherent, unified federal policy to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, state governors have reportedly begun to consider cooperating to provide a coordinated regional response. Last year, a group of auto manufacturers voluntarily agreed to increase fuel-efficiency standards and reduce emissions. They did attract an antitrust investigation, but it was subsequently dropped—a triumph for pro-social cooperation. It was perhaps also a reminder that corporations, each of which is itself a cooperative enterprise, can still play the role they were historically assigned: serving the public interest.

Going forward, policy-makers should give careful thought to how their actions and inactions encourage or stifle cooperation. Judge Easterbrook praised an agreement between business owners because it “promoted enterprise”. What counts as legitimate “enterprise”, though, is an eminently contestable proposition.

The federal antitrust agencies’ anti-worker stance in particular seems ripe for revisiting. Its modern origins date back to the 1980s, when President Reagan’s FTC challenged a coordinated boycott among D.C.-area criminal-defense attorneys. The boycott was a strike of sorts, intended to pressure the city into increasing court-appointed fees to a level that would allow for adequate representation. (The mayor’s office, despite being responsible for paying the fees, actually encouraged the boycott.) As the sole buyer of this particular type of service, the government wielded substantial power in the marketplace. A coordinated front was needed to counter it. Nonetheless, the FTC condemned the attorneys’ strike as per se illegal—a label supposedly reserved for the worst possible anticompetitive behavior—and the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed.

Reviving Cooperation

In the short run, the federal antitrust agencies should formally reverse this anti-labor course. When workers cooperate in an attempt to counter employers’ power, antitrust intervention is, at best, a misallocation of scarce agency resources. Surely there are (much) bigger fish to fry. At worst, hostility to such cooperation directly contravenes Congress’ vision for the antitrust laws. These laws were intended to protect workers from concentrated downstream power, not to force their exposure to it—as the federal agencies themselves have recognized elsewhere.

In the longer run, congressional action may be needed. Supreme Court antitrust case law condemning worker coordination should be legislatively overruled. And, in a sharp departure from the current trend, we should be making it easier, not harder, for workers to form cooperative unions. Capital can be combined into a legal corporation in just a few hours, while it takes more than a month to create an effective labor union. None of this is to say that competition should be abandoned—much the opposite, in fact. A market that pits individual workers against highly concentrated cooperative entities is hardly “competitive”.

Thinking more broadly, antitrust and industrial policy may need to allow—or even encourage—cooperation in a number of sectors. Automakers’ and other manufacturers’ voluntary efforts to fight climate change should be lauded and protected, not investigated. Where cooperation is already shielded and even incentivized, as is the case with corporations, affirmative steps may be needed to ensure that the public interest is being furthered.

The current moment is without precedent. Industrial policy is destined, and has already begun, to change. Although competition has its place, it cannot serve as the sole lynchpin for a just economy. Now more than ever, a revival of cooperation is needed.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Christine S. Wilson (Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission).[1] The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Trade Commission or any other Commissioner.]  

I type these words while subject to a stay-at-home order issued by West Virginia Governor James C. Justice II. “To preserve public health and safety, and to ensure the healthcare system in West Virginia is capable of serving all citizens in need,” I am permitted to leave my home only for a limited and precisely enumerated set of reasons. Billions of citizens around the globe are now operating under similar shelter-in-place directives as governments grapple with how to stem the tide of infection, illness and death inflicted by the global Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, the first response of many governments has been to impose severe limitations on physical movement to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The second response contemplated by many, and the one on which this blog post focuses, involves the extensive collection and analysis of data in connection with people’s movements and health. Some governments are using that data to conduct sophisticated contact tracing, while others are using the power of the state to enforce orders for quarantines and against gatherings.

The desire to use modern technology on a broad scale for the sake of public safety is not unique to this moment. Technology is intended to improve the quality of our lives, in part by enabling us to help ourselves and one another. For example, cell towers broadcast wireless emergency alerts to all mobile devices in the area to warn us of extreme weather and other threats to safety in our vicinity. One well-known type of broadcast is the Amber Alert, which enables community members to assist in recovering an abducted child by providing descriptions of the abductor, the abductee and the abductor’s vehicle. Citizens who spot individuals and vehicles that meet these descriptions can then provide leads to law enforcement authorities. A private nonprofit organization, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, coordinates with state and local public safety officials to send out Amber Alerts through privately owned wireless carriers.

The robust civil society and free market in the U.S. make partnerships between the private sector and government agencies commonplace. But some of these arrangements involve a much more extensive sharing of Americans’ personal information with law enforcement than the emergency alert system does.

For example, Amazon’s home security product Ring advertises itself not only as a way to see when a package has been left at your door, but also as a way to make communities safer by turning over video footage to local police departments. In 2018, the company’s pilot program in Newark, New Jersey, donated more than 500 devices to homeowners to install at their homes in two neighborhoods, with a big caveat. Ring recipients were encouraged to share video with police. According to Ring, home burglaries in those neighborhoods fell by more than 50% from April through July 2018 relative to the same time period a year earlier.

Yet members of Congress and privacy experts have raised concerns about these partnerships, which now number in the hundreds. After receiving Amazon’s response to his inquiry, Senator Edward Markey highlighted Ring’s failure to prevent police from sharing video footage with third parties and from keeping the video permanently, and Ring’s lack of precautions to ensure that users collect footage only of adults and of users’ own property. The House of Representatives Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy continues to investigate Ring’s police partnerships and data policies. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called Ring “a perfect storm of privacy threats,” while the UK surveillance camera commissioner has warned against “a very real power to understand, to surveil you in a way you’ve never been surveilled before.”

Ring demonstrates clearly that it is not new for potential breaches of privacy to be encouraged in the name of public safety; police departments urge citizens to use Ring and share the videos with police to fight crime. But emerging developments indicate that, in the fight against Covid-19, we can expect to see more and more private companies placed in the difficult position of becoming complicit in government overreach.

At least mobile phone users can opt out of receiving Amber Alerts, and residents can refuse to put Ring surveillance systems on their property. The Covid-19 pandemic has made some other technological intrusions effectively impossible to refuse. For example, online proctors who monitor students over webcams to ensure they do not cheat on exams taken at home were once something that students could choose to accept if they did not want to take an exam where and when they could be proctored face to face. With public schools and universities across the U.S. closed for the rest of the semester, students who refuse to give private online proctors access to their webcams – and, consequently, the ability to view their surroundings – cannot take exams at all.

Existing technology and data practices already have made the Federal Trade Commission sensitive to potential consumer privacy and data security abuses. For decades, this independent, bipartisan agency has been enforcing companies’ privacy policies through its authority to police unfair and deceptive trade practices. It brought its first privacy and data security cases nearly 20 years ago, while I was Chief of Staff to then-Chairman Timothy J. Muris. The FTC took on Eli Lilly for disclosing the e-mail addresses of 669 subscribers to its Prozac reminder service – many of whom were government officials, and at a time of greater stigma for mental health issues – and Microsoft for (among other things) falsely claiming that its Passport website sign-in service did not collect any personally identifiable information other than that described in its privacy policy.

The privacy and data security practices of healthcare and software companies are likely to impact billions of people during the current coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. already has many laws on the books that are relevant to practices in these areas. One notable example is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which set national standards for the protection of individually identifiable health information by health plans, health care clearinghouses and health care providers who accept non-cash payments. While the FTC does not enforce HIPAA, it does enforce the Health Breach Notification Rule, as well as the provisions in the FTC Act used to challenge the privacy missteps of Eli Lilly and many other companies.

But technological developments have created gaps in HIPAA enforcement. For example, HIPAA applies to doctors’ offices, hospitals and insurance companies, but it may not apply to wearables, smartphone apps or websites. Yet sensitive medical information is now commonly stored in places other than health care practitioners’ offices.  Your phone and watch now collect information about your blood sugar, exercise habits, fertility and heart health. 

Observers have pointed to these emerging gaps in coverage as evidence of the growing need for federal privacy legislation. I, too, have called on the U.S. Congress to enact comprehensive federal privacy legislation – not only to address these emerging gaps, but for two other reasons.  First, consumers need clarity regarding the types of data collected from them, and how those data are used and shared. I believe consumers can make informed decisions about which goods and services to patronize when they have the information they need to evaluate the costs and benefits of using those goods. Second, businesses need predictability and certainty regarding the rules of the road, given the emerging patchwork of regimes both at home and abroad.

Rules of the road regarding privacy practices will prove particularly instructive during this global pandemic, as governments lean on the private sector for data on the grounds that the collection and analysis of data can help avert (or at least diminish to some extent) a public health catastrophe. With legal lines in place, companies would be better equipped to determine when they are being asked to cross the line for the public good, and whether they should require a subpoena or inform customers before turning over data. It is regrettable that Congress has been unable to enact federal privacy legislation to guide this discussion.

Understandably, Congress does not have privacy at the top of its agenda at the moment, as the U.S. faces a public health crisis. As I write, more than 579,000 Americans have been diagnosed with Covid-19, and more than 22,000 have perished. Sadly, those numbers will only increase. And the U.S. is not alone in confronting this crisis: governments globally have confronted more than 1.77 million cases and more than 111,000 deaths. For a short time, health and safety issues may take precedence over privacy protections. But some of the initiatives to combat the coronavirus pandemic are worrisome. We are learning more every day about how governments are responding in a rapidly developing situation; what I describe in the next section constitutes merely the tip of the iceberg. These initiatives are worth highlighting here, as are potential safeguards for privacy and civil liberties that societies around the world would be wise to embrace.

Some observers view public/private partnerships based on an extensive use of technology and data as key to fighting the spread of Covid-19. For example, Professor Jane Bambauer calls for contact tracing and alerts “to be done in an automated way with the help of mobile service providers’ geolocation data.” She argues that privacy is merely “an instrumental right” that “is meant to achieve certain social goals in fairness, safety and autonomy. It is not an end in itself.” Given the “more vital” interests in health and the liberty to leave one’s house, Bambauer sees “a moral imperative” for the private sector “to ignore even express lack of consent” by an individual to the sharing of information about him.

This proposition troubles me because the extensive data sharing that has been proposed in some countries, and that is already occurring in many others, is not mundane. In the name of advertising and product improvements, private companies have been hoovering up personal data for years. What this pandemic lays bare, though, is that while this trove of information was collected under the guise of cataloguing your coffee preferences and transportation habits, it can be reprocessed in an instant to restrict your movements, impinge on your freedom of association, and silence your freedom of speech. Bambauer is calling for detailed information about an individual’s every movement to be shared with the government when, in the United States under normal circumstances, a warrant would be required to access this information.

Indeed, with our mobile devices acting as the “invisible policeman” described by Justice William O. Douglas in Berger v. New York, we may face “a bald invasion of privacy, far worse than the general warrants prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.” Backward-looking searches and data hoards pose new questions of what constitutes a “reasonable” search. The stakes are high – both here and abroad, citizens are being asked to allow warrantless searches by the government on an astronomical scale, all in the name of public health.  

Abroad

The first country to confront the coronavirus was China. The World Health Organization has touted the measures taken by China as “the only measures that are currently proven to interrupt or minimize transmission chains in humans.” Among these measures are the “rigorous tracking and quarantine of close contacts,” as well as “the use of big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to strengthen contact tracing and the management of priority populations.” An ambassador for China has said his government “optimized the protocol of case discovery and management in multiple ways like backtracking the cell phone positioning.” Much as the Communist Party’s control over China enabled it to suppress early reports of a novel coronavirus, this regime vigorously ensured its people’s compliance with the “stark” containment measures described by the World Health Organization.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Hong Kong already had been testing the use of “smart wristbands” to track the movements of prisoners. The Special Administrative Region now monitors people quarantined inside their homes by requiring them to wear wristbands that send information to the quarantined individuals’ smartphones and alert the Department of Health and Police if people leave their homes, break their wristbands or disconnect them from their smartphones. When first announced in early February, the wristbands were required only for people who had been to Wuhan in the past 14 days, but the program rapidly expanded to encompass every person entering Hong Kong. The government denied any privacy concerns about the electronic wristbands, saying the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data had been consulted about the technology and agreed it could be used to ensure that quarantined individuals remain at home.

Elsewhere in Asia, Taiwan’s Chunghwa Telecom has developed a system that the local CDC calls an “electronic fence.” Specifically, the government obtains the SIM card identifiers for the mobile devices of quarantined individuals and passes those identifiers to mobile network operators, which use phone signals to their cell towers to alert public health and law enforcement agencies when the phone of a quarantined individual leaves a certain geographic range. In response to privacy concerns, the National Communications Commission said the system was authorized by special laws to prevent the coronavirus, and that it “does not violate personal data or privacy protection.” In Singapore, travelers and others issued Stay-Home Notices to remain in their residency 24 hours a day for 14 days must respond within an hour if contacted by government agencies by phone, text message or WhatsApp. And to assist with contact tracing, the government has encouraged everyone in the country to download TraceTogether, an app that uses Bluetooth to identify other nearby phones with the app and tracks when phones are in close proximity.

Israel’s Ministry of Health has launched an app for mobile devices called HaMagen (the shield) to prevent the spread of coronavirus by identifying contacts between diagnosed patients and people who came into contact with them in the 14 days prior to diagnosis. In March, the prime minister’s cabinet initially bypassed the legislative body to approve emergency regulations for obtaining without a warrant the cellphone location data and additional personal information of those diagnosed with or suspected of coronavirus infection. The government will send text messages to people who came into contact with potentially infected individuals, and will monitor the potentially infected person’s compliance with quarantine. The Ministry of Health will not hold this information; instead, it can make data requests to the police and Shin Bet, the Israel Security Agency. The police will enforce quarantine measures and Shin Bet will track down those who came into contact with the potentially infected.

Multiple Eastern European nations with constitutional protections for citizens’ rights of movement and privacy have superseded them by declaring a state of emergency. For example, in Hungary the declaration of a “state of danger” has enabled Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government to engage in “extraordinary emergency measures” without parliamentary consent.  His ministers have cited the possibility that coronavirus will prevent a gathering of a sufficient quorum of members of Parliament as making it necessary for the government to be able to act in the absence of legislative approval.

Member States of the European Union must protect personal data pursuant to the General Data Protection Regulation, and communications data, such as mobile location, pursuant to the ePrivacy Directive. The chair of the European Data Protection Board has observed that the ePrivacy Directive enables Member States to introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security. But if those measures allow for the processing of non-anonymized location data from mobile devices, individuals must have safeguards such as a right to a judicial remedy. “Invasive measures, such as the ‘tracking’ of individuals (i.e. processing of historical non-anonymized location data) could be considered proportional under exceptional circumstances and depending on the concrete modalities of the processing.” The EDPB has announced it will prioritize guidance on these issues.

EU Member States are already implementing such public security measures. For example, the government of Poland has by statute required everyone under a quarantine order due to suspected infection to download the “Home Quarantine” smartphone app. Those who do not install and use the app are subject to a fine. The app verifies users’ compliance with quarantine through selfies and GPS data. Users’ personal data will be administered by the Minister of Digitization, who has appointed a data protection officer. Each user’s identification, name, telephone number, quarantine location and quarantine end date can be shared with police and other government agencies. After two weeks, if the user does not report symptoms of Covid-19, the account will be deactivated — but the data will be stored for six years. The Ministry of Digitization claims that it must store the data for six years in case users pursue claims against the government. However, local privacy expert and Panoptykon Foundation cofounder Katarzyna Szymielewicz has questioned this rationale.

Even other countries that are part of the Anglo-American legal tradition are ramping up their use of data and working with the private sector to do so. The UK’s National Health Service is developing a data store that will include online/call center data from NHS Digital and Covid-19 test result data from the public health agency. While the NHS is working with private partner organizations and companies including Microsoft, Palantir Technologies, Amazon Web Services and Google, it has promised to keep all the data under its control, and to require those partners to destroy or return the data “once the public health emergency situation has ended.” The NHS also has committed to meet the requirements of data protection legislation by ensuring that individuals cannot be re-identified from the data in the data store.

Notably, each of the companies partnering with the NHS at one time or another has been subjected to scrutiny for its privacy practices. Some observers have noted that tech companies, which have been roundly criticized for a variety of reasons in recent years, may seek to use this pandemic for “reputation laundering.” As one observer cautioned: “Reputations matter, and there’s no reason the government or citizens should cast bad reputations aside when choosing who to work with or what to share” during this public health crisis.

At home

In the U.S., the federal government last enforced large-scale isolation and quarantine measures during the influenza (“Spanish Flu”) pandemic a century ago. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention track diseases on a daily basis by receiving case notifications from every state. The states mandate that healthcare providers and laboratories report certain diseases to the local public health authorities using personal identifiers. In other words, if you test positive for coronavirus, the government will know. Every state has laws authorizing quarantine and isolation, usually through the state’s health authority, while the CDC has authority through the federal Public Health Service Act and a series of presidential executive orders to exercise quarantine and isolation powers for specific diseases, including severe acute respiratory syndromes (a category into which the novel coronavirus falls).

Now local governments are issuing orders that empower law enforcement to fine and jail Americans for failing to practice social distancing. State and local governments have begun arresting and charging people who violate orders against congregating in groups. Rhode Island is requiring every non-resident who enters the state to be quarantined for two weeks, with police checks at the state’s transportation hubs and borders.

How governments discover violations of quarantine and social distancing orders will raise privacy concerns. Police have long been able to enforce based on direct observation of violations. But if law enforcement authorities identify violations of such orders based on data collection rather than direct observation, the Fourth Amendment may be implicated. In Jones and Carpenter, the Supreme Court has limited the warrantless tracking of Americans through GPS devices placed on their cars and through cellphone data. But building on the longstanding practice of contact tracing in fighting infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, GPS data has proven helpful in fighting the spread of Covid-19. This same data, though, also could be used to piece together evidence of violations of stay-at-home orders. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in Carpenter, “With access to [cell-site location information], the government can now travel back in time to retrace a person’s whereabouts… Whoever the suspect turns out to be, he has effectively been tailed every moment of every day for five years.”

The Fourth Amendment protects American citizens from government action, but the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test applied in Fourth Amendment cases connects the arenas of government action and commercial data collection. As Professor Paul Ohm of the Georgetown University Law Center notes, “the dramatic expansion of technologically-fueled corporate surveillance of our private lives automatically expands police surveillance too, thanks to the way the Supreme Court has construed the reasonable expectation of privacy test and the third-party doctrine.”

For example, the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network – infectious disease epidemiologists working with Facebook, Camber Systems and Cubiq – uses mobile device data to inform state and local governments about whether social distancing orders are effective. The tech companies give the researchers aggregated data sets; the researchers give daily situation reports to departments of health, but say they do not share the underlying data sets with governments. The researchers have justified this model based on users of the private companies’ apps having consented to the collection and sharing of data.

However, the assumption that consumers have given informed consent to the collection of their data (particularly for the purpose of monitoring their compliance with social isolation measures during a pandemic) is undermined by studies showing the average consumer does not understand all the different types of data that are collected and how their information is analyzed and shared with third parties – including governments. Technology and telecommunications companies have neither asked me to opt into tracking for public health nor made clear how they are partnering with federal, state and local governments. This practice highlights that data will be divulged in ways consumers cannot imagine – because no one assumed a pandemic when agreeing to a company’s privacy policy. This information asymmetry is part of why we need federal privacy legislation.

On Friday afternoon, Apple and Google announced their opt-in Covid-19 contact tracing technology. The owners of the two most common mobile phone operating systems in the U.S. said that in May they would release application programming interfaces that enable interoperability between iOS and Android devices using official contact tracing apps from public health authorities. At an unspecified date, Bluetooth-based contact tracing will be built directly into the operating systems. “Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort,” the companies said in their press release.  

At this early stage, we do not yet know exactly how the proposed Google/Apple contact tracing system will operate. It sounds similar to Singapore’s TraceTogether, which is already available in the iOS and Android mobile app stores (it has a 3.3 out of 5 average rating in the former and a 4.0 out of 5 in the latter). TraceTogether is also described as a voluntary, Bluetooth-based system that avoids GPS location data, does not upload information without the user’s consent, and uses changing, encrypted identifiers to maintain user anonymity. Perhaps the most striking difference, at least to a non-technical observer, is that TraceTogether was developed and is run by the Singaporean government, which has been a point of concern for some observers. The U.S. version – like finding abducted children through Amber Alerts and fighting crime via Amazon Ring – will be a partnership between the public and private sectors.     

Recommendations

The global pandemic we now face is driving data usage in ways not contemplated by consumers. Entities in the private and public sector are confronting new and complex choices about data collection, usage and sharing. Organizations with Chief Privacy Officers, Chief Information Security Officers, and other personnel tasked with managing privacy programs are, relatively speaking, well-equipped to address these issues. Despite the extraordinary circumstances, senior management should continue to rely on the expertise and sound counsel of their CPOs and CISOs, who should continue to make decisions based on their established privacy and data security programs. Although developments are unfolding at warp speed, it is important – arguably now, more than ever – to be intentional about privacy decisions.

For organizations that lack experience with privacy and data security programs (and individuals tasked with oversight for these areas), now is a great time to pause, do some research and exercise care. It is essential to think about the longer-term ramifications of choices made about data collection, use and sharing during the pandemic. The FTC offers easily accessible resources, including Protecting Personal Information: A Guide for Business, Start with Security: A Guide for Business, and Stick with Security: A Business Blog Series. While the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLB) applies only to financial institutions, the FTC’s GLB compliance blog outlines some data security best practices that apply more broadly. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) also offers security and privacy resources, including a privacy framework to help organizations identify and manage privacy risks. Private organizations such as the Center for Information Policy Leadership, the International Association of Privacy Professionals and the App Association also offer helpful resources, as do trade associations. While it may seem like a suboptimal time to take a step back and focus on these strategic issues, remember that privacy and data security missteps can cause irrevocable harm. Counterintuitively, now is actually the best time to be intentional about choices in these areas.

Best practices like accountability, risk assessment and risk management will be key to navigating today’s challenges. Companies should take the time to assess and document the new and/or expanded risks from the data collection, use and sharing of personal information. It is appropriate for these risk assessments to incorporate potential benefits and harms not only to the individual and the company, but for society as a whole. Upfront assessments can help companies establish controls and incentives to facilitate responsible behavior, as well as help organizations demonstrate that they are fully aware of the impact of their choices (risk assessment) and in control of their impact on people and programs (risk mitigation). Written assessments can also facilitate transparency with stakeholders, raise awareness internally about policy choices and assist companies with ongoing monitoring and enforcement. Moreover, these assessments will facilitate a return to “normal” data practices when the crisis has passed.  

In a similar vein, companies must engage in comprehensive vendor management with respect to the entities that are proposing to use and analyze their data. In addition to vetting proposed data recipients thoroughly, companies must be selective concerning the categories of information shared. The benefits of the proposed research must be balanced against individual protections, and companies should share only those data necessary to achieve the stated goals. To the extent feasible, data should be shared in de-identified and aggregated formats and data recipients should be subject to contractual obligations prohibiting them from re-identification. Moreover, companies must have policies in place to ensure compliance with research contracts, including data deletion obligations and prohibitions on data re-identification, where appropriate. Finally, companies must implement mechanisms to monitor third party compliance with contractual obligations.

Similar principles of necessity and proportionality should guide governments as they make demands or requests for information from the private sector. Governments must recognize the weight with which they speak during this crisis and carefully balance data collection and usage with civil liberties. In addition, governments also have special obligations to ensure that any data collection done by them or at their behest is driven by the science of Covid-19; to be transparent with citizens about the use of data; and to provide due process for those who wish to challenge limitations on their rights. Finally, government actors should apply good data hygiene, including regularly reassessing the breadth of their data collection initiatives and incorporating data retention and deletion policies. 

In theory, government’s role could be reduced as market-driven responses emerge. For example, assuming the existence of universally accessible daily coronavirus testing with accurate results even during the incubation period, Hal Singer’s proposal for self-certification of non-infection among private actors is intriguing. Thom Lambert identified the inability to know who is infected as a “lemon problem;” Singer seeks a way for strangers to verify each other’s “quality” in the form of non-infection.

Whatever solutions we may accept in a pandemic, it is imperative to monitor the coronavirus situation as it improves, to know when to lift the more dire measures. Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and other observers have called for maintaining surveillance because of concerns about a resurgence of the virus later this year. For any measures that conflict with Americans’ constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of movement, there should be metrics set in advance for the conditions that will indicate when such measures are no longer justified. In the absence of pre-determined metrics, governments may feel the same temptation as Hungary’s prime minister to keep renewing a “state of danger” that overrides citizens’ rights. As Slovak lawmaker Tomas Valasek has said, “It doesn’t just take the despots and the illiberals of this world, like Orbán, to wreak damage.” But privacy is not merely instrumental to other interests, and we do not have to sacrifice our right to it indefinitely in exchange for safety.

I recognize that halting the spread of the virus will require extensive and sustained effort, and I credit many governments with good intentions in attempting to save the lives of their citizens. But I refuse to accept that we must sacrifice privacy to reopen the economy. It seems a false choice to say that I must sacrifice my Constitutional rights to privacy, freedom of association and free exercise of religion for another’s freedom of movement. Society should demand that equity, fairness and autonomy be respected in data uses, even in a pandemic. To quote Valasek again: “We need to make sure that we don’t go a single inch further than absolutely necessary in curtailing civil liberties in the name of fighting for public health.” History has taught us repeatedly that sweeping security powers granted to governments during an emergency persist long after the crisis has abated. To resist the gathering momentum toward this outcome, I will continue to emphasize the FTC’s learning on appropriate data collection and use. But my remit as an FTC Commissioner is even broader – when I was sworn in on Sept. 26, 2018, I took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” – and so I shall.


[1] Many thanks to my Attorney Advisors Pallavi Guniganti and Nina Frant for their invaluable assistance in preparing this article.