Archives For ftc

The language of the federal antitrust laws is extremely general. Over more than a century, the federal courts have applied common-law techniques to construe this general language to provide guidance to the private sector as to what does or does not run afoul of the law. The interpretive process has been fraught with some uncertainty, as judicial approaches to antitrust analysis have changed several times over the past century. Nevertheless, until very recently, judges and enforcers had converged toward relying on a consumer welfare standard as the touchstone for antitrust evaluations (see my antitrust primer here, for an overview).

While imperfect and subject to potential error in application—a problem of legal interpretation generally—the consumer welfare principle has worked rather well as the focus both for antitrust-enforcement guidance and judicial decision-making. The general stability and predictability of antitrust under a consumer welfare framework has advanced the rule of law. It has given businesses sufficient information to plan transactions in a manner likely to avoid antitrust liability. It thereby has cabined uncertainty and increased the probability that private parties would enter welfare-enhancing commercial arrangements, to the benefit of society.

In a very thoughtful 2017 speech, then Acting Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Andrew Finch commented on the importance of the rule of law to principled antitrust enforcement. He noted:

[H]ow do we administer the antitrust laws more rationally, accurately, expeditiously, and efficiently? … Law enforcement requires stability and continuity both in rules and in their application to specific cases.

Indeed, stability and continuity in enforcement are fundamental to the rule of law. The rule of law is about notice and reliance. When it is impossible to make reasonable predictions about how a law will be applied, or what the legal consequences of conduct will be, these important values are diminished. To call our antitrust regime a “rule of law” regime, we must enforce the law as written and as interpreted by the courts and advance change with careful thought.

The reliance fostered by stability and continuity has obvious economic benefits. Businesses invest, not only in innovation but in facilities, marketing, and personnel, and they do so based on the economic and legal environment they expect to face.

Of course, we want businesses to make those investments—and shape their overall conduct—in accordance with the antitrust laws. But to do so, they need to be able to rely on future application of those laws being largely consistent with their expectations. An antitrust enforcement regime with frequent changes is one that businesses cannot plan for, or one that they will plan for by avoiding certain kinds of investments.

That is certainly not to say there has not been positive change in the antitrust laws in the past, or that we would have been better off without those changes. U.S. antitrust law has been refined, and occasionally recalibrated, with the courts playing their appropriate interpretive role. And enforcers must always be on the watch for new or evolving threats to competition.  As markets evolve and products develop over time, our analysis adapts. But as those changes occur, we pursue reliability and consistency in application in the antitrust laws as much as possible.

Indeed, we have enjoyed remarkable continuity and consensus for many years. Antitrust law in the U.S. has not been a “paradox” for quite some time, but rather a stable and valuable law enforcement regime with appropriately widespread support.

Unfortunately, policy decisions taken by the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) leadership in recent weeks have rejected antitrust continuity and consensus. They have injected substantial uncertainty into the application of competition-law enforcement by the FTC. This abrupt change in emphasis undermines the rule of law and threatens to reduce economic welfare.

As of now, the FTC’s departure from the rule of law has been notable in two areas:

  1. Its rejection of previous guidance on the agency’s “unfair methods of competition” authority, the FTC’s primary non-merger-related enforcement tool; and
  2. Its new advice rejecting time limits for the review of generally routine proposed mergers.

In addition, potential FTC rulemakings directed at “unfair methods of competition” would, if pursued, prove highly problematic.

Rescission of the Unfair Methods of Competition Policy Statement

The FTC on July 1 voted 3-2 to rescind the 2015 FTC Policy Statement Regarding Unfair Methods of Competition under Section 5 of the FTC Act (UMC Policy Statement).

The bipartisan UMC Policy Statement has originally been supported by all three Democratic commissioners, including then-Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. The policy statement generally respected and promoted the rule of law by emphasizing that, in applying the facially broad “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) language, the FTC would be guided by the well-established principles of the antitrust rule of reason (including considering any associated cognizable efficiencies and business justifications) and the consumer welfare standard. The FTC also explained that it would not apply “standalone” Section 5 theories to conduct that would violate the Sherman or Clayton Acts.

In short, the UMC Policy Statement sent a strong signal that the commission would apply UMC in a manner fully consistent with accepted and well-understood antitrust policy principles. As in the past, the vast bulk of FTC Section 5 prosecutions would be brought against conduct that violated the core antitrust laws. Standalone Section 5 cases would be directed solely at those few practices that harmed consumer welfare and competition, but somehow fell into a narrow crack in the basic antitrust statutes (such as, perhaps, “invitations to collude” that lack plausible efficiency justifications). Although the UMC Statement did not answer all questions regarding what specific practices would justify standalone UMC challenges, it substantially limited business uncertainty by bringing Section 5 within the boundaries of settled antitrust doctrine.

The FTC’s announcement of the UMC Policy Statement rescission unhelpfully proclaimed that “the time is right for the Commission to rethink its approach and to recommit to its mandate to police unfair methods of competition even if they are outside the ambit of the Sherman or Clayton Acts.” As a dissenting statement by Commissioner Christine S. Wilson warned, consumers would be harmed by the commission’s decision to prioritize other unnamed interests. And as Commissioner Noah Joshua Phillips stressed in his dissent, the end result would be reduced guidance and greater uncertainty.

In sum, by suddenly leaving private parties in the dark as to how to conform themselves to Section 5’s UMC requirements, the FTC’s rescission offends the rule of law.

New Guidance to Parties Considering Mergers

For decades, parties proposing mergers that are subject to statutory Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act pre-merger notification requirements have operated under the understanding that:

  1. The FTC and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) will routinely grant “early termination” of review (before the end of the initial 30-day statutory review period) to those transactions posing no plausible competitive threat; and
  2. An enforcement agency’s decision not to request more detailed documents (“second requests”) after an initial 30-day pre-merger review effectively serves as an antitrust “green light” for the proposed acquisition to proceed.

Those understandings, though not statutorily mandated, have significantly reduced antitrust uncertainty and related costs in the planning of routine merger transactions. The rule of law has been advanced through an effective assurance that business combinations that appear presumptively lawful will not be the target of future government legal harassment. This has advanced efficiency in government, as well; it is a cost-beneficial optimal use of resources for DOJ and the FTC to focus exclusively on those proposed mergers that present a substantial potential threat to consumer welfare.

Two recent FTC pronouncements (one in tandem with DOJ), however, have generated great uncertainty by disavowing (at least temporarily) those two welfare-promoting review policies. Joined by DOJ, the FTC on Feb. 4 announced that the agencies would temporarily suspend early terminations, citing an “unprecedented volume of filings” and a transition to new leadership. More than six months later, this “temporary” suspension remains in effect.

Citing “capacity constraints” and a “tidal wave of merger filings,” the FTC subsequently published an Aug. 3 blog post that effectively abrogated the 30-day “green lighting” of mergers not subject to a second request. It announced that it was sending “warning letters” to firms reminding them that FTC investigations remain open after the initial 30-day period, and that “[c]ompanies that choose to proceed with transactions that have not been fully investigated are doing so at their own risk.”

The FTC’s actions interject unwarranted uncertainty into merger planning and undermine the rule of law. Preventing early termination on transactions that have been approved routinely not only imposes additional costs on business; it hints that some transactions might be subject to novel theories of liability that fall outside the antitrust consensus.

Perhaps more significantly, as three prominent antitrust practitioners point out, the FTC’s warning letters states that:

[T]he FTC may challenge deals that “threaten to reduce competition and harm consumers, workers, and honest businesses.” Adding in harm to both “workers and honest businesses” implies that the FTC may be considering more ways that transactions can have an adverse impact other than just harm to competition and consumers [citation omitted].

Because consensus antitrust merger analysis centers on consumer welfare, not the protection of labor or business interests, any suggestion that the FTC may be extending its reach to these new areas is inconsistent with established legal principles and generates new business-planning risks.

More generally, the Aug. 6 FTC “blog post could be viewed as an attempt to modify the temporal framework of the HSR Act”—in effect, an effort to displace an implicit statutory understanding in favor of an agency diktat, contrary to the rule of law. Commissioner Wilson sees the blog post as a means to keep investigations open indefinitely and, thus, an attack on the decades-old HSR framework for handling most merger reviews in an expeditious fashion (see here). Commissioner Phillips is concerned about an attempt to chill legal M&A transactions across the board, particularly unfortunate when there is no reason to conclude that particular transactions are illegal (see here).

Finally, the historical record raises serious questions about the “resource constraint” justification for the FTC’s new merger review policies:

Through the end of July 2021, more than 2,900 transactions were reported to the FTC. It is not clear, however, whether these record-breaking HSR filing numbers have led (or will lead) to more deals being investigated. Historically, only about 13 percent of all deals reported are investigated in some fashion, and roughly 3 percent of all deals reported receive a more thorough, substantive review through the issuance of a Second Request. Even if more deals are being reported, for the majority of transactions, the HSR process is purely administrative, raising no antitrust concerns, and, theoretically, uses few, if any, agency resources. [Citations omitted.]

Proposed FTC Competition Rulemakings

The new FTC leadership is strongly considering competition rulemakings. As I explained in a recent Truth on the Market post, such rulemakings would fail a cost-benefit test. They raise serious legal risks for the commission and could impose wasted resource costs on the FTC and on private parties. More significantly, they would raise two very serious economic policy concerns:

First, competition rules would generate higher error costs than adjudications. Adjudications cabin error costs by allowing for case-specific analysis of likely competitive harms and procompetitive benefits. In contrast, competition rules inherently would be overbroad and would suffer from a very high rate of false positives. By characterizing certain practices as inherently anticompetitive without allowing for consideration of case-specific facts bearing on actual competitive effects, findings of rule violations inevitably would condemn some (perhaps many) efficient arrangements.

Second, competition rules would undermine the rule of law and thereby reduce economic welfare. FTC-only competition rules could lead to disparate legal treatment of a firm’s business practices, depending upon whether the FTC or the U.S. Justice Department was the investigating agency. Also, economic efficiency gains could be lost due to the chilling of aggressive efficiency-seeking business arrangements in those sectors subject to rules. [Emphasis added.]

In short, common law antitrust adjudication, focused on the consumer welfare standard, has done a good job of promoting a vibrant competitive economy in an efficient fashion. FTC competition rulemaking would not.

Conclusion

Recent FTC actions have undermined consensus antitrust-enforcement standards and have departed from established merger-review procedures with respect to seemingly uncontroversial consolidations. Those decisions have imposed costly uncertainty on the business sector and are thereby likely to disincentivize efficiency-seeking arrangements. What’s more, by implicitly rejecting consensus antitrust principles, they denigrate the primacy of the rule of law in antitrust enforcement. The FTC’s pursuit of competition rulemaking would further damage the rule of law by imposing arbitrary strictures that ignore matter-specific considerations bearing on the justifications for particular business decisions.

Fortunately, these are early days in the Biden administration. The problematic initial policy decisions delineated in this comment could be reversed based on further reflection and deliberation within the commission. Chairwoman Lina Khan and her fellow Democratic commissioners would benefit by consulting more closely with Commissioners Wilson and Phillips to reach agreement on substantive and procedural enforcement policies that are better tailored to promote consumer welfare and enhance vibrant competition. Such policies would benefit the U.S. economy in a manner consistent with the rule of law.

The U.S. House this week passed H.R. 2668, the Consumer Protection and Recovery Act (CPRA), which authorizes the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to seek monetary relief in federal courts for injunctions brought under Section 13(b) of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Potential relief under the CPRA is comprehensive. It includes “restitution for losses, rescission or reformation of contracts, refund of money, return of property … and disgorgement of any unjust enrichment that a person, partnership, or corporation obtained as a result of the violation that gives rise to the suit.” What’s more, under the CPRA, monetary relief may be obtained for violations that occurred up to 10 years before the filing of the suit in which relief is requested by the FTC.

The Senate should reject the House version of the CPRA. Its monetary-recovery provisions require substantial narrowing if it is to pass cost-benefit muster.

The CPRA is a response to the Supreme Court’s April 22 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC, which held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act does not authorize the commission to obtain court-ordered equitable monetary relief. As I explained in an April 22 Truth on the Market post, Congress’ response to the court’s holding should not be to grant the FTC carte blanche authority to obtain broad monetary exactions for any and all FTC Act violations. I argued that “[i]f 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.”

Error cost and difficulties of calculation counsel against pursuing monetary recovery in FTC unfair methods of competition cases. As I explained in my post:

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 [false positives] 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.)

These error-cost and calculation difficulties became even more pronounced as of July 1. On that date, the FTC unwisely voted 3-2 to withdraw a bipartisan 2015 policy statement providing that the commission would apply consumer welfare and rule-of-reason (weighing efficiencies against anticompetitive harm) considerations in exercising its unfair methods of competition authority (see my commentary here). This means that, going forward, the FTC will arrogate to itself unbounded discretion to decide what competitive practices are “unfair.” Business uncertainty, and the costly risk aversion it engenders, would be expected to grow enormously if the FTC could extract monies from firms due to competitive behavior deemed “unfair,” based on no discernible neutral principle.

Error costs and calculation problems also strongly suggest that monetary relief in FTC consumer-protection matters should be limited to cases of fraud or clear deception. As I noted:

[M]atters 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.

In short, the Senate should rewrite its Section 13(b) amendments to authorize FTC monetary recoveries only when consumer fraud and dishonesty is shown.

Finally, the Senate would be wise to sharply pare back the House language that allows the FTC to seek monetary exactions based on conduct that is a decade old. Serious problems of making accurate factual determinations of economic effects and specific-damage calculations would arise after such a long period of time. Allowing retroactive determinations based on a shorter “look-back” period prior to the filing of a complaint (three years, perhaps) would appear to strike a better balance in allowing reasonable redress while controlling error costs.

[TOTM: The following is part of a symposium by TOTM guests and authors marking the release of Nicolas Petit’s “Big Tech and the Digital Economy: The Moligopoly Scenario.” The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Nicolas Petit himself, the Joint Chair in Competition Law at the Department of Law at European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy, and at EUI’s Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. He is also invited professor at the College of Europe in Bruges
.]

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since my book was published last year. To close this symposium, I thought I would discuss the new phase of antirust statutorification taking place before our eyes. In the United States, Congress is working on five antitrust bills that propose to subject platforms to stringent obligations, including a ban on mergers and acquisitions, required data portability and interoperability, and line-of-business restrictions. In the European Union (EU), lawmakers are examining the proposed Digital Markets Act (“DMA”) that sets out a complicated regulatory system for digital “gatekeepers,” with per se behavioral limitations of their freedom over contractual terms, technological design, monetization, and ecosystem leadership.

Proponents of legislative reform on both sides of the Atlantic appear to share the common view that ongoing antitrust adjudication efforts are both instrumental and irrelevant. They are instrumental because government (or plaintiff) losses build the evidence needed to support the view that antitrust doctrine is exceedingly conservative, and that legal reform is needed. Two weeks ago, antitrust reform activists ran to Twitter to point out that the U.S. District Court dismissal of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) complaint against Facebook was one more piece of evidence supporting the view that the antitrust pendulum needed to swing. They are instrumental because, again, government (or plaintiffs) wins will support scaling antitrust enforcement in the marginal case by adoption of governmental regulation. In the EU, antitrust cases follow each other almost like night the day, lending credence to the view that regulation will bring much needed coordination and economies of scale.

But both instrumentalities are, at the end of the line, irrelevant, because they lead to the same conclusion: legislative reform is long overdue. With this in mind, the logic of lawmakers is that they need not await the courts, and they can advance with haste and confidence toward the promulgation of new antitrust statutes.

The antitrust reform process that is unfolding is a cause for questioning. The issue is not legal reform in itself. There is no suggestion here that statutory reform is necessarily inferior, and no correlative reification of the judge-made-law method. Legislative intervention can occur for good reason, like when it breaks judicial inertia caused by ideological logjam.

The issue is rather one of precipitation. There is a lot of learning in the cases. The point, simply put, is that a supplementary court-legislative dialogue would yield additional information—or what Guido Calabresi has called “starting points” for regulation—that premature legislative intervention is sweeping under the rug. This issue is important because specification errors (see Doug Melamed’s symposium piece on this) in statutory legislation are not uncommon. Feedback from court cases create a factual record that will often be missing when lawmakers act too precipitously.

Moreover, a court-legislative iteration is useful when the issues in discussion are cross-cutting. The digital economy brings an abundance of them. As tech analysist Ben Evans has observed, data-sharing obligations raise tradeoffs between contestability and privacy. Chapter VI of my book shows that breakups of social networks or search engines might promote rivalry and, at the same time, increase the leverage of advertisers to extract more user data and conduct more targeted advertising. In such cases, Calabresi said, judges who know the legal topography are well-placed to elicit the preferences of society. He added that they are better placed than government agencies’ officials or delegated experts, who often attend to the immediate problem without the big picture in mind (all the more when officials are denied opportunities to engage with civil society and the press, as per the policy announced by the new FTC leadership).

Of course, there are three objections to this. The first consists of arguing that statutes are needed now because courts are too slow to deal with problems. The argument is not dissimilar to Frank Easterbrook’s concerns about irreversible harms to the economy, though with a tweak. Where Easterbook’s concern was one of ossification of Type I errors due to stare decisis, the concern here is one of entrenchment of durable monopoly power in the digital sector due to Type II errors. The concern, however, fails the test of evidence. The available data in both the United States and Europe shows unprecedented vitality in the digital sector. Venture capital funding cruises at historical heights, fueling new firm entry, business creation, and economic dynamism in the U.S. and EU digital sectors, topping all other industries. Unless we require higher levels of entry from digital markets than from other industries—or discount the social value of entry in the digital sector—this should give us reason to push pause on lawmaking efforts.

The second objection is that following an incremental process of updating the law through the courts creates intolerable uncertainty. But this objection, too, is unconvincing, at best. One may ask which of an abrupt legislative change of the law after decades of legal stability or of an experimental process of judicial renovation brings more uncertainty.

Besides, ad hoc statutes, such as the ones in discussion, are likely to pose quickly and dramatically the problem of their own legal obsolescence. Detailed and technical statutes specify rights, requirements, and procedures that often do not stand the test of time. For example, the DMA likely captures Windows as a core platform service subject to gatekeeping. But is the market power of Microsoft over Windows still relevant today, and isn’t it constrained in effect by existing antitrust rules?  In antitrust, vagueness in critical statutory terms allows room for change.[1] The best way to give meaning to buzzwords like “smart” or “future-proof” regulation consists of building in first principles, not in creating discretionary opportunities for permanent adaptation of the law. In reality, it is hard to see how the methods of future-proof regulation currently discussed in the EU creates less uncertainty than a court process.

The third objection is that we do not need more information, because we now benefit from economic knowledge showing that existing antitrust laws are too permissive of anticompetitive business conduct. But is the economic literature actually supportive of stricter rules against defendants than the rule-of-reason framework that applies in many unilateral conduct cases and in merger law? The answer is surely no. The theoretical economic literature has travelled a lot in the past 50 years. Of particular interest are works on network externalities, switching costs, and multi-sided markets. But the progress achieved in the economic understanding of markets is more descriptive than normative.

Take the celebrated multi-sided market theory. The main contribution of the theory is its advice to decision-makers to take the periscope out, so as to consider all possible welfare tradeoffs, not to be more or less defendant friendly. Payment cards provide a good example. Economic research suggests that any antitrust or regulatory intervention on prices affect tradeoffs between, and payoffs to, cardholders and merchants, cardholders and cash users, cardholders and banks, and banks and card systems. Equally numerous tradeoffs arise in many sectors of the digital economy, like ridesharing, targeted advertisement, or social networks. Multi-sided market theory renders these tradeoffs visible. But it does not come with a clear recipe for how to solve them. For that, one needs to follow first principles. A system of measurement that is flexible and welfare-based helps, as Kelly Fayne observed in her critical symposium piece on the book.

Another example might be worth considering. The theory of increasing returns suggests that markets subject to network effects tend to converge around the selection of a single technology standard, and it is not a given that the selected technology is the best one. One policy implication is that social planners might be justified in keeping a second option on the table. As I discuss in Chapter V of my book, the theory may support an M&A ban against platforms in tipped markets, on the conjecture that the assets of fringe firms might be efficiently repositioned to offer product differentiation to consumers. But the theory of increasing returns does not say under what conditions we can know that the selected technology is suboptimal. Moreover, if the selected technology is the optimal one, or if the suboptimal technology quickly obsolesces, are policy efforts at all needed?

Last, as Bo Heiden’s thought provoking symposium piece argues, it is not a given that antitrust enforcement of rivalry in markets is the best way to maintain an alternative technology alive, let alone to supply the innovation needed to deliver economic prosperity. Government procurement, science and technology policy, and intellectual-property policy might be equally effective (note that the fathers of the theory, like Brian Arthur or Paul David, have been very silent on antitrust reform).

There are, of course, exceptions to the limited normative content of modern economic theory. In some areas, economic theory is more predictive of consumer harms, like in relation to algorithmic collusion, interlocking directorates, or “killer” acquisitions. But the applications are discrete and industry-specific. All are insufficient to declare that the antitrust apparatus is dated and that it requires a full overhaul. When modern economic research turns normative, it is often way more subtle in its implications than some wild policy claims derived from it. For example, the emerging studies that claim to identify broad patterns of rising market power in the economy in no way lead to an implication that there are no pro-competitive mergers.

Similarly, the empirical picture of digital markets is incomplete. The past few years have seen a proliferation of qualitative research reports on industry structure in the digital sectors. Most suggest that industry concentration has risen, particularly in the digital sector. As with any research exercise, these reports’ findings deserve to be subject to critical examination before they can be deemed supportive of a claim of “sufficient experience.” Moreover, there is no reason to subject these reports to a lower standard of accountability on grounds that they have often been drafted by experts upon demand from antitrust agencies. After all, we academics are ethically obliged to be at least equally exacting with policy-based research as we are with science-based research.

Now, with healthy skepticism at the back of one’s mind, one can see immediately that the findings of expert reports to date have tended to downplay behavioral observations that counterbalance findings of monopoly power—such as intense business anxiety, technological innovation, and demand-expansion investments in digital markets. This was, I believe, the main takeaway from Chapter IV of my book. And less than six months ago, The Economist ran its leading story on the new marketplace reality of “Tech’s Big Dust-Up.”

More importantly, the findings of the various expert reports never seriously contemplate the possibility of competition by differentiation in business models among the platforms. Take privacy, for example. As Peter Klein reasonably writes in his symposium article, we should not be quick to assume market failure. After all, we might have more choice than meets the eye, with Google free but ad-based, and Apple pricy but less-targeted. More generally, Richard Langlois makes a very convincing point that diversification is at the heart of competition between the large digital gatekeepers. We might just be too short-termist—here, digital communications technology might help create a false sense of urgency—to wait for the end state of the Big Tech moligopoly.

Similarly, the expert reports did not really question the real possibility of competition for the purchase of regulation. As in the classic George Stigler paper, where the railroad industry fought motor-trucking competition with state regulation, the businesses that stand to lose most from the digital transformation might be rationally jockeying to convince lawmakers that not all business models are equal, and to steer regulation toward specific business models. Again, though we do not know how to consider this issue, there are signs that a coalition of large news corporations and the publishing oligopoly are behind many antitrust initiatives against digital firms.

Now, as is now clear from these few lines, my cautionary note against antitrust statutorification might be more relevant to the U.S. market. In the EU, sunk investments have been made, expectations have been created, and regulation has now become inevitable. The United States, however, has a chance to get this right. Court cases are the way to go. And unlike what the popular coverage suggests, the recent District Court dismissal of the FTC case far from ruled out the applicability of U.S. antitrust laws to Facebook’s alleged killer acquisitions. On the contrary, the ruling actually contains an invitation to rework a rushed complaint. Perhaps, as Shane Greenstein observed in his retrospective analysis of the U.S. Microsoft case, we would all benefit if we studied more carefully the learning that lies in the cases, rather than haste to produce instant antitrust analysis on Twitter that fits within 280 characters.


[1] But some threshold conditions like agreement or dominance might also become dated. 

There is little doubt that Federal Trade Commission (FTC) unfair methods of competition rulemaking proceedings are in the offing. Newly named FTC Chair Lina Khan and Commissioner Rohit Chopra both have extolled the benefits of competition rulemaking in a major law review article. What’s more, in May, Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter (during her stint as acting chair) established a rulemaking unit in the commission’s Office of General Counsel empowered to “explore new rulemakings to prohibit unfair or deceptive practices and unfair methods of competition” (emphasis added).

In short, a majority of sitting FTC commissioners apparently endorse competition rulemaking proceedings. As such, it is timely to ask whether FTC competition rules would promote consumer welfare, the paramount goal of competition policy.

In a recently published Mercatus Center research paper, I assess the case for competition rulemaking from a competition perspective and find it wanting. I conclude that, before proceeding, the FTC should carefully consider whether such rulemakings would be cost-beneficial. I explain that any cost-benefit appraisal should weigh both the legal risks and the potential economic policy concerns (error costs and “rule of law” harms). Based on these considerations, competition rulemaking is inappropriate. The FTC should stick with antitrust enforcement as its primary tool for strengthening the competitive process and thereby promoting consumer welfare.

A summary of my paper follows.

Section 6(g) of the original Federal Trade Commission Act authorizes the FTC “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter.” Section 6(g) rules are enacted pursuant to the “informal rulemaking” requirements of Section 553 of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), which apply to the vast majority of federal agency rulemaking proceedings.

Before launching Section 6(g) competition rulemakings, however, the FTC would be well-advised first to weigh the legal risks and policy concerns associated with such an endeavor. Rulemakings are resource-intensive proceedings and should not lightly be undertaken without an eye to their feasibility and implications for FTC enforcement policy.

Only one appeals court decision addresses the scope of Section 6(g) rulemaking. In 1971, the FTC enacted a Section 6(g) rule stating that it was both an “unfair method of competition” and an “unfair act or practice” for refiners or others who sell to gasoline retailers “to fail to disclose clearly and conspicuously in a permanent manner on the pumps the minimum octane number or numbers of the motor gasoline being dispensed.” In 1973, in the National Petroleum Refiners case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the FTC’s authority to promulgate this and other binding substantive rules. The court rejected the argument that Section 6(g) authorized only non-substantive regulations concerning regarding the FTC’s non-adjudicatory, investigative, and informative functions, spelled out elsewhere in Section 6.

In 1975, two years after National Petroleum Refiners was decided, Congress granted the FTC specific consumer-protection rulemaking authority (authorizing enactment of trade regulation rules dealing with unfair or deceptive acts or practices) through Section 202 of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which added Section 18 to the FTC Act. Magnuson-Moss rulemakings impose adjudicatory-type hearings and other specific requirements on the FTC, unlike more flexible section 6(g) APA informal rulemakings. However, the FTC can obtain civil penalties for violation of Magnuson-Moss rules, something it cannot do if 6(g) rules are violated.

In a recent set of public comments filed with the FTC, the Antitrust Section of the American Bar Association stated:

[T]he Commission’s [6(g)] rulemaking authority is buried in within an enumerated list of investigative powers, such as the power to require reports from corporations and partnerships, for example. Furthermore, the [FTC] Act fails to provide any sanctions for violating any rule adopted pursuant to Section 6(g). These two features strongly suggest that Congress did not intend to give the agency substantive rulemaking powers when it passed the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Rephrased, this argument suggests that the structure of the FTC Act indicates that the rulemaking referenced in Section 6(g) is best understood as an aid to FTC processes and investigations, not a source of substantive policymaking. Although the National Petroleum Refiners decision rejected such a reading, that ruling came at a time of significant judicial deference to federal agency activism, and may be dated.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s April 2021 decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC further bolsters the “statutory structure” argument that Section 6(g) does not authorize substantive rulemaking. In AMG, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which empowers the FTC to seek a “permanent injunction” to restrain an FTC Act violation, does not authorize the FTC to seek monetary relief from wrongdoers. The court’s opinion rejected the FTC’s argument that the term “permanent injunction” had historically been understood to include monetary relief. The court explained that the injunctive language was “buried” in a lengthy provision that focuses on injunctive, not monetary relief (note that the term “rules” is similarly “buried” within 6(g) language dealing with unrelated issues). The court also pointed to the structure of the FTC Act, with detailed and specific monetary-relief provisions found in Sections 5(l) and 19, as “confirm[ing] the conclusion” that Section 13(b) does not grant monetary relief.

By analogy, a court could point to Congress’ detailed enumeration of substantive rulemaking provisions in Section 18 (a mere two years after National Petroleum Refiners) as cutting against the claim that Section 6(g) can also be invoked to support substantive rulemaking. Finally, the Supreme Court in AMG flatly rejected several relatively recent appeals court decisions that upheld Section 13(b) monetary-relief authority. It follows that the FTC cannot confidently rely on judicial precedent (stemming from one arguably dated court decision, National Petroleum Refiners) to uphold its competition rulemaking authority.

In sum, the FTC will have to overcome serious fundamental legal challenges to its section 6(g) competition rulemaking authority if it seeks to promulgate competition rules.

Even if the FTC’s 6(g) authority is upheld, it faces three other types of litigation-related risks.

First, applying the nondelegation doctrine, courts might hold that the broad term “unfair methods of competition” does not provide the FTC “an intelligible principle” to guide the FTC’s exercise of discretion in rulemaking. Such a judicial holding would mean the FTC could not issue competition rules.

Second, a reviewing court might strike down individual proposed rules as “arbitrary and capricious” if, say, the court found that the FTC rulemaking record did not sufficiently take into account potentially procompetitive manifestations of a condemned practice.

Third, even if a final competition rule passes initial legal muster, applying its terms to individual businesses charged with rule violations may prove difficult. Individual businesses may seek to structure their conduct to evade the particular strictures of a rule, and changes in commercial practices may render less common the specific acts targeted by a rule’s language.

Economic Policy Concerns Raised by Competition Rulemaking

In addition to legal risks, any cost-benefit appraisal of FTC competition rulemaking should consider the economic policy concerns raised by competition rulemaking. These fall into two broad categories.

First, competition rules would generate higher error costs than adjudications. Adjudications cabin error costs by allowing for case-specific analysis of likely competitive harms and procompetitive benefits. In contrast, competition rules inherently would be overbroad and would suffer from a very high rate of false positives. By characterizing certain practices as inherently anticompetitive without allowing for consideration of case-specific facts bearing on actual competitive effects, findings of rule violations inevitably would condemn some (perhaps many) efficient arrangements.

Second, competition rules would undermine the rule of law and thereby reduce economic welfare. FTC-only competition rules could lead to disparate legal treatment of a firm’s business practices, depending upon whether the FTC or the U.S. Justice Department was the investigating agency. Also, economic efficiency gains could be lost due to the chilling of aggressive efficiency-seeking business arrangements in those sectors subject to rules.

Conclusion

A combination of legal risks and economic policy harms strongly counsels against the FTC’s promulgation of substantive competition rules.

First, litigation issues would consume FTC resources and add to the costly delays inherent in developing competition rules in the first place. The compounding of separate serious litigation risks suggests a significant probability that costs would be incurred in support of rules that ultimately would fail to be applied.

Second, even assuming competition rules were to be upheld, their application would raise serious economic policy questions. The inherent inflexibility of rule-based norms is ill-suited to deal with dynamic evolving market conditions, compared with matter-specific antitrust litigation that flexibly applies the latest economic thinking to particular circumstances. New competition rules would also exacerbate costly policy inconsistencies stemming from the existence of dual federal antitrust enforcement agencies, the FTC and the Justice Department.

In conclusion, an evaluation of rule-related legal risks and economic policy concerns demonstrates that a reallocation of some FTC enforcement resources to the development of competition rules would not be cost-effective. Continued sole reliance on case-by-case antitrust litigation would generate greater economic welfare than a mixture of litigation and competition rules.

PHOTO: C-Span

Lina Khan’s appointment as chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a remarkable accomplishment. At 32 years old, she is the youngest chair ever. Her longstanding criticisms of the Consumer Welfare Standard and alignment with the neo-Brandeisean school of thought make her appointment a significant achievement for proponents of those viewpoints. 

Her appointment also comes as House Democrats are preparing to mark up five bills designed to regulate Big Tech and, in the process, vastly expand the FTC’s powers. This expansion may combine with Khan’s appointment in ways that lawmakers considering the bills have not yet considered.

This is a critical time for the FTC. It has lost a number of high-profile lawsuits and is preparing to expand its rulemaking powers to regulate things like employment contracts and businesses’ use of data. Khan has also argued in favor of additional rulemaking powers around “unfair methods of competition.”

As things stand, the FTC under Khan’s leadership is likely to push for more extensive regulatory powers, akin to those held by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But these expansions would be trivial compared to what is proposed by many of the bills currently being prepared for a June 23 mark-up in the House Judiciary Committee. 

The flagship bill—Rep. David Cicilline’s (D-R.I.) American Innovation and Choice Online Act—is described as a platform “non-discrimination” bill. I have already discussed what the real-world effects of this bill would likely be. Briefly, it would restrict platforms’ ability to offer richer, more integrated services at all, since those integrations could be challenged as “discrimination” at the cost of would-be competitors’ offerings. Things like free shipping on Amazon Prime, pre-installed apps on iPhones, or even including links to Gmail and Google Calendar at the top of a Google Search page could be precluded under the bill’s terms; in each case, there is a potential competitor being undermined. 

In fact, the bill’s scope is so broad that some have argued that the FTC simply would not challenge “innocuous self-preferencing” like, say, Apple pre-installing Apple Music on iPhones. Economist Hal Singer has defended the proposals on the grounds that, “Due to limited resources, not all platform integration will be challenged.” 

But this shifts the focus to the FTC itself, and implies that it would have potentially enormous discretionary power under these proposals to enforce the law selectively. 

Companies found guilty of breaching the bill’s terms would be liable for civil penalties of up to 15 percent of annual U.S. revenue, a potentially significant sum. And though the Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously against the FTC’s powers to levy civil fines unilaterally—which the FTC opposed vociferously, and may get restored by other means—there are two scenarios through which it could end up getting extraordinarily extensive control over the platforms covered by the bill.

The first course is through selective enforcement. What Singer above describes as a positive—the fact that enforcers would just let “benign” violations of the law be—would mean that the FTC itself would have tremendous scope to choose which cases it brings, and might do so for idiosyncratic, politicized reasons.

This approach is common in countries with weak rule of law. Anti-corruption laws are frequently used to punish opponents of the regime in China, who probably are also corrupt, but are prosecuted because they have challenged the regime in some way. Hong Kong’s National Security law has also been used to target peaceful protestors and critical media thanks to its vague and overly broad drafting. 

Obviously, that’s far more sinister than what we’re talking about here. But these examples highlight how excessively broad laws applied at the enforcer’s discretion give broad powers to the enforcer to penalize defendants for other, unrelated things. Or, to quote Jay-Z: “Am I under arrest or should I guess some more? / ‘Well, you was doing 55 in a 54.’

The second path would be to use these powers as leverage to get broad consent decrees to govern the conduct of covered platforms. These occur when a lawsuit is settled, with the defendant company agreeing to change its business practices under supervision of the plaintiff agency (in this case, the FTC). The Cambridge Analytica lawsuit ended this way, with Facebook agreeing to change its data-sharing practices under the supervision of the FTC. 

This path would mean the FTC creating bespoke, open-ended regulation for each covered platform. Like the first path, this could create significant scope for discretionary decision-making by the FTC and potentially allow FTC officials to impose their own, non-economic goals on these firms. And it would require costly monitoring of each firm subject to bespoke regulation to ensure that no breaches of that regulation occurred.

Khan, as a critic of the Consumer Welfare Standard, believes that antitrust ought to be used to pursue non-economic objectives, including “the dispersion of political and economic control.” She, and the FTC under her, may wish to use this discretionary power to prosecute firms that she feels are hurting society for unrelated reasons, such as because of political stances they have (or have not) taken.

Khan’s fellow commissioner, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, has argued that antitrust should be “antiracist”; that “as long as Black-owned businesses and Black consumers are systematically underrepresented and disadvantaged, we know our markets are not fair”; and that the FTC should consider using its existing rulemaking powers to address racist practices. These may be desirable goals, but their application would require contentious value judgements that lawmakers may not want the FTC to make.

Khan herself has been less explicit about the goals she has in mind, but has given some hints. In her essay “The Ideological Roots of America’s Market Power Problem”, Khan highlights approvingly former Associate Justice William O. Douglas’s account of:

“economic power as inextricably political. Power in industry is the power to steer outcomes. It grants outsized control to a few, subjecting the public to unaccountable private power—and thereby threatening democratic order. The account also offers a positive vision of how economic power should be organized (decentralized and dispersed), a recognition that forms of economic power are not inevitable and instead can be restructured.” [italics added]

Though I have focused on Cicilline’s flagship bill, others grant significant new powers to the FTC, as well. The data portability and interoperability bill doesn’t actually define what “data” is; it leaves it to the FTC to “define the term ‘data’ for the purpose of implementing and enforcing this Act.” And, as I’ve written elsewhere, data interoperability needs significant ongoing regulatory oversight to work at all, a responsibility that this bill also hands to the FTC. Even a move as apparently narrow as data portability will involve a significant expansion of the FTC’s powers and give it a greater role as an ongoing economic regulator.

It is concerning enough that this legislative package would prohibit conduct that is good for consumers, and that actually increases the competition faced by Big Tech firms. Congress should understand that it also gives extensive discretionary powers to an agency intent on using them to pursue broad, political goals. If Khan’s appointment as chair was a surprise, what her FTC does with the new powers given to her by Congress should not be.

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.


,

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 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 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.