Archives For Federal Trade Commission

Faithful and even occasional readers of this roundup might have noticed a certain temporal discontinuity between the last post and this one. The inimitable Gus Hurwitz has passed the scrivener’s pen to me, a recent refugee from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the roundup is back in business. Any errors going forward are mine. Going back, blame Gus.

Commissioner Noah Phillips departed the FTC last Friday, leaving the Commission down a much-needed advocate for consumer welfare and the antitrust laws as they are, if not as some wish they were. I recommend the reflections posted by Commissioner Christine S. Wilson and my fellow former FTC Attorney Advisor Alex Okuliar. Phillips collaborated with his fellow commissioners on matters grounded in the law and evidence, but he wasn’t shy about crying frolic and detour when appropriate.

The FTC without Noah is a lesser place. Still, while it’s not always obvious, many able people remain at the Commission and some good solid work continues. For example, FTC staff filed comments urging New York State to reject a Certificate of Public Advantage (“COPA”) application submitted by SUNY Upstate Health System and Crouse Medical. The staff’s thorough comments reflect investigation of the proposed merger, recent research, and the FTC’s long experience with COPAs. In brief, the staff identified anticompetitive rent-seeking for what it is. Antitrust exemptions for health-care providers tend to make health care worse, but more expensive. Which is a corollary to the evergreen truth that antitrust exemptions help the special interests receiving them but not a living soul besides those special interests. That’s it, full stop.

More Good News from the Commission

On Sept. 30, a unanimous Commission announced that an independent physician association in New Mexico had settled allegations that it violated a 2005 consent order. The allegations? Roughly 400 physicians—independent competitors—had engaged in price fixing, violating both the 2005 order and the Sherman Act. As the concurring statement of Commissioners Phillips and Wilson put it, the new order “will prevent a group of doctors from allegedly getting together to negotiate… higher incomes for themselves and higher costs for their patients.” Oddly, some have chastised the FTC for bringing the action as anti-labor. But the IPA is a regional “must-have” for health plans and a dominant provider to consumers, including patients, who might face tighter budget constraints than the median physician

Peering over the rims of the rose-colored glasses, my gaze turns to Meta. In July, the FTC sued to block Meta’s proposed acquisition of Within Unlimited (and its virtual-reality exercise app, Supernatural). Gus wrote about it with wonder, noting reports that the staff had recommended against filing, only to be overruled by the chair.

Now comes October and an amended complaint. The amended complaint is even weaker than the opening salvo. Now, the FTC alleges that the acquisition would eliminate potential competition from Meta in a narrower market, VR-dedicated fitness apps, by “eliminating any probability that Meta would enter the market through alternative means absent the Proposed Acquisition, as well as eliminating the likely and actual beneficial influence on existing competition that results from Meta’s current position, poised on the edge of the market.”

So what if Meta were to abandon the deal—as the FTC wants—but not enter on its own? Same effect, but the FTC cannot seriously suggest that Meta has a positive duty to enter the market. Is there a jurisdiction (or a planet) where a decision to delay or abandon entry would be unlawful unilateral conduct? Suppose instead that Meta enters, with virtual-exercise guns blazing, much to the consternation of firms actually in the market, which might complain about it. Then what? Would the Commission cheer or would it allege harm to nascent competition, or perhaps a novel vertical theory? And by the way, how poised is Meta, given no competing product in late-stage development? Would the FTC prefer that Meta buy a different competitor? Should the overworked staff commence Meta’s due diligence?

Potential competition cases are viable given the right facts, and in areas where good grounds to predict significant entry are well-established. But this is a nascent market in a large, highly dynamic, and innovative industry. The competitive landscape a few years down the road is anyone’s guess. More speculation: the staff was right all along. For more, see Dirk Auer’s or Geoffrey Manne’s threads on the amended complaint.

When It Rains It Pours Regulations

On Aug. 22, the FTC published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) to consider the potential regulation of “commercial surveillance and data security” under its Section 18 authority. Shortly thereafter, they announced an Oct. 20 open meeting with three more ANPRs on the agenda.

First, on the advance notice: I’m not sure what they mean by “commercial surveillance.” The term doesn’t appear in statutory law, or in prior FTC enforcement actions. It sounds sinister and, surely, it’s an intentional nod to Shoshana Zuboff’s anti-tech polemic “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” One thing is plain enough: the proffered definition is as dramatically sweeping as it is hopelessly vague. The Commission seems to be contemplating a general data regulation of some sort, but we don’t know what sort. They don’t say or even sketch a possible rule. That’s a problem for the FTC, because the law demands that the Commission state its regulatory objectives, along with regulatory alternatives under consideration, in the ANPR itself. If they get to an NPRM, they are required to describe a proposed rule with specificity.

What’s clear is that the ANPR takes a dim view of much of the digital economy. And while the Commission has considerable experience in certain sorts of privacy and data security matters, the ANPR hints at a project extending well past that experience. Commissioners Phillips and Wilson dissented for good and overlapping reasons. Here’s a bit from the Phillips dissent:

When adopting regulations, clarity is a virtue. But the only thing clear in the ANPR is a rather dystopic view of modern commerce….I cannot support an ANPR that is the first step in a plan to go beyond the Commission’s remit and outside its experience to issue rules that fundamentally alter the internet economy without a clear congressional mandate….It’s a naked power grab.

Be sure to read the bonus material in the Federal Register—supporting statements from Chair Lina Khan and Commissioners Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Alvaro Bedoya, and dissenting statements from Commissioners Phillips and Wilson. Chair Khan breezily states that “the questions we ask in the ANPR and the rules we are empowered to issue may be consequential, but they do not implicate the ‘major questions doctrine.’” She’s probably half right: the questions do not violate the Constitution. But she’s probably half wrong too.

For more, see ICLE’s Oct. 20 panel discussion and the executive summary to our forthcoming comments to the Commission.

But wait, there’s more! There were three additional ANPRs on the Commission’s Oct. 20 agenda. So that’s four and counting. Will there be a proposed rule on non-competes? Gig workers? Stay tuned. For now, note that rules are not self-enforcing, and that the chair has testified to Congress that the Commission is strapped for resources and struggling to keep up with its statutory mission. Are more regulations an odd way to ask Congress for money? Thus far, there’s no proposed rule on gig workers, but there was a Policy Statement on Enforcement Related to Gig Workers.. For more on that story, see Alden Abbott’s TOTM post.

Laws, Like People, Have Their Limits

Read Phillips’s parting dissent in Passport Auto Group, where the Commission combined legitimate allegations with an unhealthy dose of overreach:

The language of the unfairness standard has given the FTC the flexibility to combat new threats to consumers that accompany the development of new industries and technologies. Still, there are limits to the Commission’s unfairness authority. Because this complaint includes an unfairness count that aims to transform Section 5 into an undefined discrimination statute, I respectfully dissent.”

Right. Three cheers for effective enforcement of the focused antidiscrimination laws enacted by Congress by the agencies actually charged to enforce those laws. And to equal protection. And three more, at least, for a little regulatory humility, if we find it.

The business press generally describes the gig economy that has sprung up around digital platforms like Uber and TaskRabbit as a beneficial phenomenon, “a glass that is almost full.” The gig economy “is an economy that operates flexibly, involving the exchange of labor and resources through digital platforms that actively facilitate buyer and seller matching.”

From the perspective of businesses, major positive attributes of the gig economy include cost-effectiveness (minimizing costs and expenses); labor-force efficiencies (“directly matching the company to the freelancer”); and flexible output production (individualized work schedules and enhanced employee motivation). Workers also benefit through greater independence, enhanced work flexibility (including hours worked), and the ability to earn extra income.

While there are some disadvantages, as well, (worker-commitment questions, business-ethics issues, lack of worker benefits, limited coverage of personal expenses, and worker isolation), there is no question that the gig economy has contributed substantially to the growth and flexibility of the American economy—a major social good. Indeed, “[i]t is undeniable that the gig economy has become an integral part of the American workforce, a trend that has only been accelerated during the” COVID-19 pandemic.

In marked contrast, however, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Sept. 15 Policy Statement on Enforcement Related to Gig Work (“gig statement” or “statement”) is the story of a glass that is almost empty. The accompanying press release declaring “FTC to Crack Down on Companies Taking Advantage of Gig Workers” (since when is “taking advantage of workers” an antitrust or consumer-protection offense?) puts an entirely negative spin on the gig economy. And while the gig statement begins by describing the nature and large size of the gig economy, it does so in a dispassionate and bland tone. No mention is made of the substantial benefits for consumers, workers, and the overall economy stemming from gig work. Rather, the gig statement quickly adopts a critical perspective in describing the market for gig workers and then addressing gig-related FTC-enforcement priorities. What’s more, the statement deals in very broad generalities and eschews specifics, rendering it of no real use to gig businesses seeking practical guidance.

Most significantly, the gig statement suggests that the FTC should play a significant enforcement role in gig-industry labor questions that fall outside its statutory authority. As such, the statement is fatally flawed as a policy document. It provides no true guidance and should be substantially rewritten or withdrawn.

Gig Statement Analysis

The gig statement’s substantive analysis begins with a negative assessment of gig-firm conduct. It expresses concern that gig workers are being misclassified as independent contractors and are thus deprived “of critical rights [right to organize, overtime pay, health and safety protections] to which they are entitled under law.” Relatedly, gig workers are said to be “saddled with inordinate risks.” Gig firms also “may use transparent algorithms to capture more revenue from customer payments for workers’ services than customers or workers understand.”

Heaven forfend!

The solution offered by the gig statement is “scrutiny of promises gig platforms make, or information they fail to disclose, about the financial proposition of gig work.” No mention is made of how these promises supposedly made to workers about the financial ramifications of gig employment are related to the FTC’s statutory mission (which centers on unfair or deceptive acts or practices affecting consumers or unfair methods of competition).

The gig statement next complains that a “power imbalance” between gig companies and gig workers “may leave gig workers exposed to harms from unfair, deceptive, and anticompetitive practices and is likely to amplify such harms when they occur. “Power imbalance” along a vertical chain has not been a source of serious antitrust concern for decades (and even in the case of the Robinson-Patman Act, the U.S. Supreme Court most recently stressed, in 2005’s Volvo v. Reeder, that harm to interbrand competition is the key concern). “Power imbalances” between workers and employers bear no necessary relation to consumer welfare promotion, which the Supreme Court teaches is the raison d’etre of antitrust. Moreover, the FTC does not explain why unfair or deceptive conduct likely follows from the mere existence of substantial bargaining power. Such an unsupported assertion is not worthy of being included in a serious agency-policy document.

The gig statement then engages in more idle speculation about a supposed relationship between market concentration and the proliferation of unfair and deceptive practices across the gig economy. The statement claims, without any substantiation, that gig companies in concentrated platform markets will be incentivized to exert anticompetitive market power over gig workers, and thereby “suppress wages below competitive rates, reduce job quality, or impose onerous terms on gig workers.” Relatedly, “unfair and deceptive practices by one platform can proliferate across the labor market, creating a race to the bottom that participants in the gig economy, and especially gig workers, have little ability to avoid.” No empirical or theoretical support is advanced for any of these bald assertions, which give the strong impression that the commission plans to target gig-economy companies for enforcement actions without regard to the actual facts on the ground. (By contrast, the commission has in the past developed detailed factual records of competitive and/or consumer-protection problems in health care and other important industry sectors as a prelude to possible future investigations.)

The statement then launches into a description of the FTC’s gig-economy policy priorities. It notes first that “workers may be deprived of the protections of an employment relationship” when gig firms classify them as independent contractors, leading to firms’ “disclosing [of] pay and costs in an unfair and deceptive manner.” What’s more, the FTC “also recognizes that misleading claims [made to workers] about the costs and benefits of gig work can impair fair competition among companies in the gig economy and elsewhere.”

These extraordinary statements seem to be saying that the FTC plans to closely scrutinize gig-economy-labor contract negotiations, based on its distaste for independent contracting (which it believes should be supplanted by employer-employee relationships, a question of labor law, not FTC law). Nowhere is it explained where such a novel FTC exercise of authority comes from, nor how such FTC actions have any bearing on harms to consumer welfare. The FTC’s apparent desire to force employment relationships upon gig firms is far removed from harm to competition or unfair or deceptive practices directed at consumers. Without more of an explanation, one is left to conclude that the FTC is proposing to take actions that are far beyond its statutory remit.

The gig statement next tries to tie the FTC’s new gig program to violations of the FTC Act (“unsubstantiated claims”); the FTC’s Franchise Rule; and the FTC’s Business Opportunity Rule, violations of which “can trigger civil penalties.” The statement, however, lacks any sort of logical, coherent explanation of how the new enforcement program necessarily follows from these other sources of authority. While a few examples of rules-based enforcement actions that have some connection to certain terms of employment may be pointed to, such special cases are a far cry from any sort of general justification for turning the FTC into a labor-contracts regulator.

The statement then moves on to the alleged misuse of algorithmic tools dealing with gig-worker contracts and supervision that may lead to unlawful gig-worker oversight and termination. Once again, the connection of any of this to consumer-welfare harm (from a competition or consumer-protection perspective) is not made.

The statement further asserts that FTC Act consumer-protection violations may arise from “nonnegotiable” and other unfair contracts. In support of such a novel exercise of authority, however, the FTC cites supposedly analogous “unfair” clauses found in consumer contracts with individuals or small-business consumers. It is highly doubtful that these precedents support any FTC enforcement actions involving labor contracts.

Noncompete clauses with individuals are next on the gig statement’s agenda. It is claimed that “[n]on-compete provisions may undermine free and fair labor markets by restricting workers’ ability to obtain competitive offers for their services from existing companies, resulting in lower wages and degraded working conditions. These provisions may also raise barriers to entry for new companies.” The assertion, however, that such clauses may violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act or Section 5 of the FTC Act’s bar on unfair methods of competition, seems dubious, to say the least. Unless there is coordination among companies, these are essentially unilateral contracting practices that may have robust efficiency explanations. Making out these practices to be federal antitrust violations is bad law and bad policy; they are, in any event, subject to a wide variety of state laws.

Even more problematic is the FTC’s claim that a variety of standard (typically efficiency-seeking) contract limitations, such as nondisclosure agreements and liquidated damages clauses, “may be excessive or overbroad” and subject to FTC scrutiny. This preposterous assertion would make the FTC into a second-guesser of common labor contracts (a federal labor-contract regulator, if you will), a role for which it lacks authority and is entirely unsuited. Turning the FTC into a federal labor-contract regulator would impose unjustifiable uncertainty costs on business and chill a host of efficient arrangements. It is hard to take such a claim of power seriously, given its lack of any credible statutory basis.

The final section of the gig statement dealing with FTC enforcement (“Policing Unfair Methods of Competition That Harm Gig Workers”) is unobjectionable, but not particularly informative. It essentially states that the FTC’s black letter legal authority over anticompetitive conduct also extends to gig companies: the FTC has the authority to investigate and prosecute anticompetitive mergers; agreements among competitors to fix terms of employment; no-poach agreements; and acts of monopolization and attempted monopolization. (Tell us something we did not know!)

The fact that gig-company workers may be harmed by such arrangements is noted. The mere page and a half devoted to this legal summary, however, provides little practical guidance for gig companies as to how to avoid running afoul of the law. Antitrust policy statements may be excused if they provided less detailed guidance than antitrust guidelines, but it would be helpful if they did something more than provide a capsule summary of general American antitrust principles. The gig statement does not pass this simple test.

The gig statement closes with a few glittering generalities. Cooperation with other agencies is highlighted (for example, an information-sharing agreement with the National Labor Relations Board is described). The FTC describes an “Equity Action Plan” calling for a focus on how gig-economy antitrust and consumer-protection abuses harm underserved communities and low-wage workers.

The FTC finishes with a request for input from the public and from gig workers about abusive and potentially illegal gig-sector conduct. No mention is made of the fact that the FTC must, of course, conform itself to the statutory limitations on its jurisdiction in the gig sector, as in all other areas of the economy.

Summing Up the Gig Statement

In sum, the critical flaw of the FTC’s gig statement is its focus on questions of labor law and policy (including the question of independent contractor as opposed to employee status) that are the proper purview of federal and state statutory schemes not administered by the Federal Trade Commission. (A secondary flaw is the statement’s unbalanced portrayal of the gig sector, which ignores its beneficial aspects.) If the FTC decides that gig-economy issues deserve particular enforcement emphasis, it should (and, indeed, must) direct its attention to anticompetitive actions and unfair or deceptive acts or practices that harm consumers.

On the antitrust side, that might include collusion among gig companies on the terms offered to workers or perhaps “mergers to monopoly” between gig companies offering a particular service. On the consumer-protection side, that might include making false or materially misleading statements to consumers about the terms under which they purchase gig-provided services. (It would be conceivable, of course, that some of those statements might be made, unwittingly or not, by gig independent contractors, at the behest of the gig companies.)

The FTC also might carry out gig-industry studies to identify particular prevalent competitive or consumer-protection harms. The FTC should not, however, seek to transform itself into a gig-labor-market enforcer and regulator, in defiance of its lack of statutory authority to play this role.

Conclusion

The FTC does, of course, have a legitimate role to play in challenging unfair methods of competition and unfair acts or practices that undermine consumer welfare wherever they arise, including in the gig economy. But it does a disservice by focusing merely on supposed negative aspects of the gig economy and conjuring up a gig-specific “parade of horribles” worthy of close commission scrutiny and enforcement action.

Many of the “horribles” cited may not even be “bads,” and many of them are, in any event, beyond the proper legal scope of FTC inquiry. There are other federal agencies (for example, the National Labor Relations Board) whose statutes may prove applicable to certain problems noted in the gig statement. In other cases, statutory changes may be required to address certain problems noted in the statement (assuming they actually are problems). The FTC, and its fellow enforcement agencies, should keep in mind, of course, that they are not Congress, and wishing for legal authority to deal with problems does not create it (something the federal judiciary fully understands).  

In short, the negative atmospherics that permeate the gig statement are unnecessary and counterproductive; if anything, they are likely to convince at least some judges that the FTC is not the dispassionate finder of fact and enforcer of law that it claims to be. In particular, the judiciary is unlikely to be impressed by the FTC’s apparent effort to insert itself into questions that lie far beyond its statutory mandate.

The FTC should withdraw the gig statement. If, however, it does not, it should revise the statement in a manner that is respectful of the limits on the commission’s legal authority, and that presents a more dispassionate analysis of gig-economy business conduct.

A White House administration typically announces major new antitrust initiatives in the fall and spring, and this year is no exception. Senior Biden administration officials kicked off the fall season at Fordham Law School (more on that below) by shedding additional light on their plans to expand the accepted scope of antitrust enforcement.

Their aggressive enforcement statements draw headlines, but will the administration’s neo-Brandeisians actually notch enforcement successes? The prospects are cloudy, to say the least.

The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) has lost some cartel cases in court this year (what was the last time that happened?) and, on Sept. 19, a federal judge rejected the DOJ’s attempt to enjoin United Health’s $13.8 billion bid for Change Healthcare. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently lost two merger challenges before its in-house administrative law judge. It now faces a challenge to its administrative-enforcement processes before the U.S. Supreme Court (the Axon case, to be argued in November).

(Incidentally, on the other side of the Atlantic, the European Commission has faced some obstacles itself. Despite its recent Google victory, the Commission has effectively lost two abuse of dominance cases this year—the Intel and Qualcomm matters—before the European General Court.)

So, are the U.S. antitrust agencies chastened? Will they now go back to basics? Far from it. They enthusiastically are announcing plans to charge ahead, asserting theories of antitrust violations that have not been taken seriously for decades, if ever. Whether this turns out to be wise enforcement policy remains to be seen, but color me highly skeptical. Let’s take a quick look at some of the big enforcement-policy ideas that are being floated.

Fordham Law’s Antitrust Conference

Admiral David Farragut’s order “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” was key to the Union Navy’s August 1864 victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay, a decisive Civil War clash. Perhaps inspired by this display of risk-taking, the heads of the two federal antitrust agencies—DOJ Assistant Attorney General (AAG) Jonathan Kanter and FTC Chair Lina Khan—took a “damn the economics, full speed ahead” attitude in remarks at the Sept. 16 session of Fordham Law School’s 49th Annual Conference on International Antitrust Law and Policy. Special Assistant to the President Tim Wu was also on hand and emphasized the “all of government” approach to competition policy adopted by the Biden administration.

In his remarks, AAG Kanter seemed to be endorsing a “monopoly broth” argument in decrying the current “Whac-a-Mole” approach to monopolization cases. The intent may be to lessen the burden of proof of anticompetitive effects, or to bring together a string of actions taken jointly as evidence of a Section 2 violation. In taking such an approach, however, there is a serious risk that efficiency-seeking actions may be mistaken for exclusionary tactics and incorrectly included in the broth. (Notably, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s 2001 Microsoft opinion avoided the monopoly-broth problem by separately discussing specific company actions and weighing them on their individual merits, not as part of a general course of conduct.)

Kanter also recommended going beyond “our horizontal and vertical framework” in merger assessments, despite the fact that vertical mergers (involving complements) are far less likely to be anticompetitive than horizontal mergers (involving substitutes).

Finally, and perhaps most problematically, Kanter endorsed the American Innovative and Choice Online Act (AICOA), citing the protection it would afford “would-be competitors” (but what about consumers?). In so doing, the AAG ignored the fact that AICOA would prohibit welfare-enhancing business conduct and could be harmfully construed to ban mere harm to rivals (see, for example, Stanford professor Doug Melamed’s trenchant critique).

Chair Khan’s presentation, which called for a far-reaching “course correction” in U.S. antitrust, was even more bold and alarming. She announced plans for a new FTC Act Section 5 “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) policy statement centered on bringing “standalone” cases not reachable under the antitrust laws. Such cases would not consider any potential efficiencies and would not be subject to the rule of reason. Endorsing that approach amounts to an admission that economic analysis will not play a serious role in future FTC UMC assessments (a posture that likely will cause FTC filings to be viewed skeptically by federal judges).

In noting the imminent release of new joint DOJ-FTC merger guidelines, Khan implied that they would be animated by an anti-merger philosophy. She cited “[l]awmakers’ skepticism of mergers” and congressional rejection “of economic debits and credits” in merger law. Khan thus asserted that prior agency merger guidance had departed from the law. I doubt, however, that many courts will be swayed by this “economics free” anti-merger revisionism.

Tim Wu’s remarks closing the Fordham conference had a “big picture” orientation. In an interview with GW Law’s Bill Kovacic, Wu briefly described the Biden administration’s “whole of government” approach, embodied in President Joe Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy. While the order’s notion of breaking down existing barriers to competition across the American economy is eminently sound, many of those barriers are caused by government restrictions (not business practices) that are not even alluded to in the order.

Moreover, in many respects, the order seeks to reregulate industries, misdiagnosing many phenomena as business abuses that actually represent efficient free-market practices (as explained by Howard Beales and Mark Jamison in a Sept. 12 Mercatus Center webinar that I moderated). In reality, the order may prove to be on net harmful, rather than beneficial, to competition.

Conclusion

What is one to make of the enforcement officials’ bold interventionist screeds? What seems to be missing in their presentations is a dose of humility and pragmatism, as well as appreciation for consumer welfare (scarcely mentioned in the agency heads’ presentations). It is beyond strange to see agencies that are having problems winning cases under conventional legal theories floating novel far-reaching initiatives that lack a sound economics foundation.

It is also amazing to observe the downplaying of consumer welfare by agency heads, given that, since 1979 (in Reiter v. Sonotone), the U.S. Supreme Court has described antitrust as a “consumer welfare prescription.” Unless there is fundamental change in the makeup of the federal judiciary (and, in particular, the Supreme Court) in the very near future, the new unconventional theories are likely to fail—and fail badly—when tested in court. 

Bringing new sorts of cases to test enforcement boundaries is, of course, an entirely defensible role for U.S. antitrust leadership. But can the same thing be said for bringing “non-boundary” cases based on theories that would have been deemed far beyond the pale by both Republican and Democratic officials just a few years ago? Buckle up: it looks as if we are going to find out. 

[This post from Jonathan M. Barnett, the Torrey H. Webb Professor of Law at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, is an entry in Truth on the Market’s continuing FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

In its Advance Notice for Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) on Commercial Surveillance and Data Security, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has requested public comment on an unprecedented initiative to promulgate and implement wide-ranging rules concerning the gathering and use of consumer data in digital markets. In this contribution, I will assume, for the sake of argument, that the commission has the legal authority to exercise its purported rulemaking powers for this purpose without a specific legislative mandate (a question as to which I recognize there is great uncertainty, which is further heightened by the fact that Congress is concurrently considered legislation in the same policy area).

In considering whether to use these powers for the purposes of adopting and implementing privacy-related regulations in digital markets, the commission would be required to undertake a rigorous assessment of the expected costs and benefits of any such regulation. Any such cost-benefit analysis must comprise at least two critical elements that are omitted from, or addressed in highly incomplete form in, the ANPR.

The Hippocratic Oath of Regulatory Intervention

There is a longstanding consensus that regulatory intervention is warranted only if a market failure can be identified with reasonable confidence. This principle is especially relevant in the case of the FTC, which is entrusted with preserving competitive markets and, therefore, should be hesitant about intervening in market transactions without a compelling evidentiary basis. As a corollary to this proposition, it is also widely agreed that implementing any intervention to correct a market failure would only be warranted to the extent that such intervention would be reasonably expected to correct any such failure at a net social gain.

This prudent approach tracks the “economic effect” analysis that the commission must apply in the rulemaking process contemplated under the Federal Trade Commission Act and the analysis of “projected benefits and … adverse economic effects” of proposed and final rules contemplated by the commission’s rules of practice. Consistent with these requirements, the commission has exhibited a longstanding commitment to thorough cost-benefit analysis. As observed by former Commissioner Julie Brill in 2016, “the FTC conducts its rulemakings with the same level of attention to costs and benefits that is required of other agencies.” Former Commissioner Brill also observed that the “FTC combines our broad mandate to protect consumers with a rigorous, empirical approach to enforcement matters.”

This demanding, fact-based protocol enhances the likelihood that regulatory interventions result in a net improvement relative to the status quo, an uncontroversial goal of any rational public policy. Unfortunately, the ANPR does not make clear that the commission remains committed to this methodology.

Assessing Market Failure in the Use of Consumer Data

To even “get off the ground,” any proposed privacy regulation would be required to identify a market failure arising from a particular use of consumer data. This requires a rigorous and comprehensive assessment of the full range of social costs and benefits that can be reasonably attributed to any such practice.

The ANPR’s Oversights

In contrast to the approach described by former Commissioner Brill, several elements of the ANPR raise significant doubts concerning the current commission’s willingness to assess evidence relevant to the potential necessity of privacy-related regulations in a balanced, rigorous, and comprehensive manner.

First, while the ANPR identifies a plethora of social harms attributable to data-collection practices, it merely acknowledges the possibility that consumers enjoy benefits from such practices “in theory.” This skewed perspective is not empirically serious. Focusing almost entirely on the costs of data collection and dismissing as conjecture any possible gains defies market realities, especially given the fact that (as discussed below) those gains are clearly significant and, in some cases, transformative.

Second, the ANPR’s choice of the normatively charged term “data surveillance” to encompass all uses of consumer data conveys the impression that all data collection through digital services is surreptitious or coerced, whereas (as discussed below) some users may knowingly provide such data to enable certain data-reliant functionalities.

Third, there is no mention in the ANPR that online providers widely provide users with notices concerning certain uses of consumer data and often require users to select among different levels of data collection.

Fourth, the ANPR unusually relies substantially on news websites and non-peer-reviewed publications in the style of policy briefs or advocacy papers, rather than the empirical social-science research on which the commission has historically made policy determinations.

This apparent indifference to analytical balance is particularly exhibited in the ANPR’s failure to address the economic gains generated through the use of consumer data in online markets. As was recognized in a 2014 White House report, many valuable digital services could not function effectively without engaging in some significant level of data collection. The examples are numerous and diverse, including traffic-navigation services that rely on data concerning a user’s geographic location (as well as other users’ geographic location); personalized ad delivery, which relies on data concerning a user’s search history and other disclosed characteristics; and search services, which rely on the ability to use user data to offer search services at no charge while offering targeted advertisements to paying advertisers.

There are equally clear gains on the “supply” side of the market. Data-collection practices can expand market access by enabling smaller vendors to leverage digital intermediaries to attract consumers that are most likely to purchase those vendors’ goods or services. The commission has recognized this point in the past, observing in a 2014 report:

Data brokers provide the information they compile to clients, who can use it to benefit consumers … [C]onsumers may benefit from increased and innovative product offerings fueled by increased competition from small businesses that are able to connect with consumers that they may not have otherwise been able to reach.

Given the commission’s statutory mission under the FTC Act to protect consumers’ interests and preserve competitive markets, these observations should be of special relevance.

Data Protection v. Data-Reliant Functionality

Data-reliant services yield social gains by substantially lowering transaction costs and, in the process, enabling services that would not otherwise be feasible, with favorable effects for consumers and vendors. This observation does not exclude the possibility that specific uses of consumer data may constitute a potential market failure that merits regulatory scrutiny and possible intervention (assuming there is sufficient legal authority for the relevant agency to undertake any such intervention). That depends on whether the social costs reasonably attributable to a particular use of consumer data exceed the social gains reasonably attributable to that use. This basic principle seems to be recognized by the ANPR, which states that the commission can only deem a practice “unfair” under the FTC Act if “it causes or is likely to cause substantial injury” and “the injury is not outweighed by benefits to consumers or competition.”

In implementing this principle, it is important to keep in mind that a market failure could only arise if the costs attributable to any particular use of consumer data are not internalized by the parties to the relevant transaction. This requires showing either that a particular use of consumer data imposes harms on third parties (a plausible scenario in circumstances implicating risks to data security) or consumers are not aware of, or do not adequately assess or foresee, the costs they incur as a result of such use (a plausible scenario in circumstances implicating risks to consumer data). For the sake of brevity, I will focus on the latter scenario.

Many scholars have taken the view that consumers do not meaningfully read privacy notices or consider privacy risks, although the academic literature has also recognized efforts by private entities to develop notice methodologies that can improve consumers’ ability to do so. Even accepting this view, however, it does not necessarily follow (as the ANPR appears to assume) that a more thorough assessment of privacy risks would inevitably lead consumers to elect higher levels of data privacy even where that would degrade functionality or require paying a positive price for certain services. That is a tradeoff that will vary across consumers. It is therefore difficult to predict and easy to get wrong.

As the ANPR indirectly acknowledges in questions 26 and 40, interventions that bar certain uses of consumer data may therefore harm consumers by compelling the modification, positive pricing, or removal from the market of popular data-reliant services. For this reason, some scholars and commentators have favored the informed-consent approach that provides users with the option to bar or limit certain uses of their data. This approach minimizes error costs since it avoids overestimating consumer preferences for privacy. Unlike a flat prohibition of certain uses of consumer data, it also can reflect differences in those preferences across consumers. The ANPR appears to dismiss this concern, asking in question 75 whether certain practices should be made illegal “irrespective of whether consumers consent to them” (my emphasis added).

Addressing the still-uncertain body of evidence concerning the tradeoff between privacy protections on the one hand and data-reliant functionalities on the other (as well as the still-unresolved extent to which users can meaningfully make that tradeoff) lies outside the scope of this discussion. However, the critical observation is that any determination of market failure concerning any particular use of consumer data must identify the costs (and specifically, identify non-internalized costs) attributable to any such use and then offset those costs against the gains attributable to that use.

This balancing analysis is critical. As the commission recognized in a 2015 report, it is essential to strike a balance between safeguarding consumer privacy without suppressing the economic gains that arise from data-reliant services that can benefit consumers and vendors alike. This even-handed approach is largely absent from the ANPR—which, as noted above, focuses almost entirely on costs while largely overlooking the gains associated with the uses of consumer data in online markets. This suggests a one-sided approach to privacy regulation that is incompatible with the cost-benefit analysis that the commission recognizes it must follow in the rulemaking process.

Private-Ordering Approaches to Consumer-Data Regulation

Suppose that a rigorous and balanced cost-benefit analysis determines that a particular use of consumer data would likely yield social costs that exceed social gains. It would still remain to be determined whether and howa regulator should intervene to yield a net social gain. As regulators make this determination, it is critical that they consider the full range of possible mechanisms to address a particular market failure in the use of consumer data.

Consistent with this approach, the FTC Act specifically requires that the commission specify in an ANPR “possible regulatory alternatives under consideration,” a requirement that is replicated at each subsequent stage of the rulemaking process, as provided in the rules of practice. The range of alternatives should include the possibility of taking no action, if no feasible intervention can be identified that would likely yield a net gain.

In selecting among those alternatives, it is imperative that the commission consider the possibility of unnecessary or overly burdensome rules that could impede the efficient development and supply of data-reliant services, either degrading the quality or raising the price of those services. In the past, the commission has emphasized this concern, stating in 2011 that “[t]he FTC actively looks for means to reduce burdens while preserving the effectiveness of a rule.”

This consideration (which appears to be acknowledged in question 24 of the ANPR) is of special importance to privacy-related regulation, given that the estimated annual costs to the U.S. economy (as calculated by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation) of compliance with the most extensive proposed forms of privacy-related regulations would exceed $100 billion dollars. Those costs would be especially burdensome for smaller entities, effectively raising entry barriers and reducing competition in online markets (a concern that appears to be acknowledged in question 27 of the ANPR).

Given the exceptional breadth of the rules that the ANPR appears to contemplate—cover an ambitious range of activities that would typically be the subject of a landmark piece of federal legislation, rather than administrative rulemaking—it is not clear that the commission has seriously considered this vital point of concern.

In the event that the FTC does move forward with any of these proposed rulemakings (which would be required to rest on a factually supported finding of market failure), it would confront a range of possible interventions in markets for consumer data. That range is typically viewed as being bounded, on the least-interventionist side, by notice and consent requirements to facilitate informed user choice, and on the most interventionist side, by prohibitions that specifically bar certain uses of consumer data.

This is well-traveled ground within the academic and policy literature and the relative advantages and disadvantages of each regulatory approach are well-known (and differ depending on the type of consumer data and other factors). Within the scope of this contribution, I wish to address an alternative regulatory approach that lies outside this conventional range of policy options.

Bottom-Up v. Top-Down Regulation

Any cost-benefit analysis concerning potential interventions to modify or bar a particular use of consumer data, or to mandate notice-and-consent requirements in connection with any such use, must contemplate not only government-implemented solutions but also market-implemented solutions, including hybrid mechanisms in which government action facilitates or complements market-implemented solutions.

This is not a merely theoretical proposal (and is referenced indirectly in questions 36, 51, and 87 of the ANPR). As I have discussed in previously published research, the U.S. economy has a long-established record of having adopted, largely without government intervention, collective solutions to the information asymmetries that can threaten the efficient operation of consumer goods and services markets.

Examples abound: Underwriters Laboratories (UL), which establishes product-safety standards in hundreds of markets; large accounting firms, which confirm compliance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), which are in turn established and updated by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, a private entity subject to oversight by the Securities and Exchange Commission; and intermediaries in other markets, such as consumer credit, business credit, insurance carriers, bond issuers, and content ratings in the entertainment and gaming industries. Collectively, these markets encompass thousands of providers, hundreds of millions of customers, and billions of dollars in value.

A collective solution is often necessary to resolve information asymmetries efficiently because the benefits from establishing an industrywide standard of product or service quality, together with a trusted mechanism for showing compliance with that standard, generates gains that cannot be fully internalized by any single provider.

Jurisdictions outside the United States have tended to address this collective-action problem through the top-down imposition of standards by government mandate and enforcement by regulatory agencies, as illustrated by the jurisdictions referenced by the ANPR that have imposed restrictions on the use of consumer data through direct regulatory intervention. By contrast, the U.S. economy has tended to favor the bottom-up development of voluntary standards, accompanied by certification and audit services, all accomplished by a mix of industry groups and third-party intermediaries. In certain markets, this may be a preferred model to address the information asymmetries between vendors and customers that are the key sources of potential market failure in the use of consumer data.

Privately organized initiatives to set quality standards and monitor compliance benefit the market by supplying a reliable standard that reduces information asymmetries and transaction costs between consumers and vendors. This, in turn, yields economic gains in the form of increased output, since consumers have reduced uncertainty concerning product quality. These quality standards are generally implemented through certification marks (for example, the “UL” certification mark) or ranking mechanisms (for example, consumer-credit or business-credit scores), which induce adoption and compliance through the opportunity to accrue reputational goodwill that, in turn, translates into economic gains.

These market-implemented voluntary mechanisms are a far less costly means to reduce information asymmetries in consumer-goods markets than regulatory interventions, which require significant investments of public funds in rulemaking, detection, investigation, enforcement, and adjudication activities.

Hybrid Policy Approaches

Private-ordering solutions to collective-action failures in markets that suffer from information asymmetries can sometimes benefit from targeted regulatory action, resulting in a hybrid policy approach. In particular, regulators can sometimes play two supplemental functions in this context.

First, regulators can require that providers in certain markets comply with (or can provide a liability safe harbor for providers that comply with) the quality standards developed by private intermediaries that have developed track records of efficiently establishing those standards and reliably confirming compliance. This mechanism is anticipated by the ANPR, which asks in question 51 whether the commission should “require firms to certify that their commercial surveillance practices meet clear standards concerning collection, use, retention, transfer, or monetization of consumer data” and further asks whether those standards should be set by “the Commission, a third-party organization, or some other entity.”

Other regulatory agencies already follow this model. For example, federal and state regulatory agencies in the fields of health care and education rely on accreditation by designated private entities for purposes of assessing compliance with applicable licensing requirements.

Second, regulators can supervise and review the quality standards implemented, adjusted, and enforced by private intermediaries. This is illustrated by the example of securities markets, in which the major exchanges institute and enforce certain governance, disclosure, and reporting requirements for listed companies but are subject to regulatory oversight by the SEC, which must approve all exchange rules and amendments. Similarly, major accounting firms monitor compliance by public companies with GAAP but must register with, and are subject to oversight by, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), a nonprofit entity subject to SEC oversight.

These types of hybrid mechanisms shift to private intermediaries most of the costs involved in developing, updating, and enforcing quality standards (in this context, standards for the use of consumer data) and harness private intermediaries’ expertise, capacities, and incentives to execute these functions efficiently and rapidly, while using targeted forms of regulatory oversight as a complementary policy tool.

Conclusion

Certain uses of consumer data in digital markets may impose net social harms that can be mitigated through appropriately crafted regulation. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the commission has the legal power to enact regulation to address such harms (again, a point as to which there is great doubt), any specific steps must be grounded in rigorous and balanced cost-benefit analysis.

As a matter of law and sound public policy, it is imperative that the commission meaningfully consider the full range of reliable evidence to identify any potential market failures in the use of consumer data and how to formulate rules to rectify or mitigate such failures at a net social gain. Given the extent to which business models in digital environments rely on the use of consumer data, and the substantial value those business models confer on consumers and businesses, the potential “error costs” of regulatory overreach are high. It is therefore critical to engage in a thorough balancing of costs and gains concerning any such use.

Privacy regulation is a complex and economically consequential policy area that demands careful diagnosis and targeted remedies grounded in analysis and evidence, rather than sweeping interventions accompanied by rhetoric and anecdote.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants to review in advance all future acquisitions by Facebook parent Meta Platforms. According to a Sept. 2 Bloomberg report, in connection with its challenge to Meta’s acquisition of fitness-app maker Within Unlimited,  the commission “has asked its in-house court to force both Meta and [Meta CEO Mark] Zuckerberg to seek approval from the FTC before engaging in any future deals.”

This latest FTC decision is inherently hyper-regulatory, anti-free market, and contrary to the rule of law. It also is profoundly anti-consumer.

Like other large digital-platform companies, Meta has conferred enormous benefits on consumers (net of payments to platforms) that are not reflected in gross domestic product statistics. In a December 2019 Harvard Business Review article, Erik Brynjolfsson and Avinash Collis reported research finding that Facebook:

…generates a median consumer surplus of about $500 per person annually in the United States, and at least that much for users in Europe. … [I]ncluding the consumer surplus value of just one digital good—Facebook—in GDP would have added an average of 0.11 percentage points a year to U.S. GDP growth from 2004 through 2017.

The acquisition of complementary digital assets—like the popular fitness app produced by Within—enables Meta to continually enhance the quality of its offerings to consumers and thereby expand consumer surplus. It reflects the benefits of economic specialization, as specialized assets are made available to enhance the quality of Meta’s offerings. Requiring Meta to develop complementary assets in-house, when that is less efficient than a targeted acquisition, denies these benefits.

Furthermore, in a recent editorial lambasting the FTC’s challenge to a Meta-Within merger as lacking a principled basis, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that the challenge also removes incentive for venture-capital investments in promising startups, a result at odds with free markets and innovation:

Venture capitalists often fund startups on the hope that they will be bought by larger companies. [FTC Chair Lina] Khan is setting down the marker that the FTC can block acquisitions merely to prevent big companies from getting bigger, even if they don’t reduce competition or harm consumers. This will chill investment and innovation, and it deserves a burial in court.

This is bad enough. But the commission’s proposal to require blanket preapprovals of all future Meta mergers (including tiny acquisitions well under regulatory pre-merger reporting thresholds) greatly compounds the harm from its latest ill-advised merger challenge. Indeed, it poses a blatant challenge to free-market principles and the rule of law, in at least three ways.

  1. It substitutes heavy-handed ex ante regulatory approval for a reliance on competition, with antitrust stepping in only in those limited instances where the hard facts indicate a transaction will be anticompetitive. Indeed, in one key sense, it is worse than traditional economic regulation. Empowering FTC staff to carry out case-by-case reviews of all proposed acquisitions inevitably will generate arbitrary decision-making, perhaps based on a variety of factors unrelated to traditional consumer-welfare-based antitrust. FTC leadership has abandoned sole reliance on consumer welfare as the touchstone of antitrust analysis, paving the wave for potentially abusive and arbitrary enforcement decisions. By contrast, statutorily based economic regulation, whatever its flaws, at least imposes specific standards that staff must apply when rendering regulatory determinations.
  2. By abandoning sole reliance on consumer-welfare analysis, FTC reviews of proposed Meta acquisitions may be expected to undermine the major welfare benefits that Meta has previously bestowed upon consumers. Given the untrammeled nature of these reviews, Meta may be expected to be more cautious in proposing transactions that could enhance consumer offerings. What’s more, the general anti-merger bias by current FTC leadership would undoubtedly prompt them to reject some, if not many, procompetitive transactions that would confer new benefits on consumers.
  3. Instituting a system of case-by-case assessment and approval of transactions is antithetical to the normal American reliance on free markets, featuring limited government intervention in market transactions based on specific statutory guidance. The proposed review system for Meta lacks statutory warrant and (as noted above) could promote arbitrary decision-making. As such, it seriously flouts the rule of law and threatens substantial economic harm (sadly consistent with other ill-considered initiatives by FTC Chair Khan, see here and here).

In sum, internet-based industries, and the big digital platforms, have thrived under a system of American technological freedom characterized as “permissionless innovation.” Under this system, the American people—consumers and producers—have been the winners.

The FTC’s efforts to micromanage future business decision-making by Meta, prompted by the challenge to a routine merger, would seriously harm welfare. To the extent that the FTC views such novel interventionism as a bureaucratic template applicable to other disfavored large companies, the American public would be the big-time loser.

[This post is an entry in Truth on the Market’s continuing FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Aug. 22 Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Commercial Surveillance and Data Security (ANPRM) is breathtaking in its scope. For an overview summary, see this Aug. 11 FTC press release.

In their dissenting statements opposing ANPRM’s release, Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson expertly lay bare the notice’s serious deficiencies. Phillips’ dissent stresses that the ANPRM illegitimately arrogates to the FTC legislative power that properly belongs to Congress:

[The [A]NPRM] recast[s] the Commission as a legislature, with virtually limitless rulemaking authority where personal data are concerned. It contemplates banning or regulating conduct the Commission has never once identified as unfair or deceptive. At the same time, the ANPR virtually ignores the privacy and security concerns that have animated our [FTC] enforcement regime for decades. … [As such, the ANPRM] is the first step in a plan to go beyond the Commission’s remit and outside its experience to issue rules that fundamentally alter the internet economy without a clear congressional mandate. That’s not “democratizing” the FTC or using all “the tools in the FTC’s toolbox.” It’s a naked power grab.

Wilson’s complementary dissent critically notes that the 2021 changes to FTC rules of practice governing consumer-protection rulemaking decrease opportunities for public input and vest significant authority solely with the FTC chair. She also echoed Phillips’ overarching concern with FTC overreach (footnote citations omitted):

Many practices discussed in this ANPRM are presented as clearly deceptive or unfair despite the fact that they stretch far beyond practices with which we are familiar, given our extensive law enforcement experience. Indeed, the ANPRM wanders far afield of areas for which we have clear evidence of a widespread pattern of unfair or deceptive practices. … [R]egulatory and enforcement overreach increasingly has drawn sharp criticism from courts. Recent Supreme Court decisions indicate FTC rulemaking overreach likely will not fare well when subjected to judicial review.

Phillips and Wilson’s warnings are fully warranted. The ANPRM contemplates a possible Magnuson-Moss rulemaking pursuant to Section 18 of the FTC Act,[1] which authorizes the commission to promulgate rules dealing with “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” The questions that the ANPRM highlights center primarily on concerns of unfairness.[2] Any unfairness-related rulemaking provisions eventually adopted by the commission will have to satisfy a strict statutory cost-benefit test that defines “unfair” acts, found in Section 5(n) of the FTC Act. As explained below, the FTC will be hard-pressed to justify addressing most of the ANPRM’s concerns in Section 5(n) cost-benefit terms.

Discussion

The requirements imposed by Section 5(n) cost-benefit analysis

Section 5(n) codifies the meaning of unfair practices, and thereby constrains the FTC’s application of rulemakings covering such practices. Section 5(n) states:

The Commission shall have no authority … to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such an act or practice is unfair unless the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition. In determining whether an act or practice is unfair, the Commission may consider established public policies as evidence to be considered with all other evidence. Such public policy considerations may not serve as a primary basis for such determination.

In other words, a practice may be condemned as unfair only if it causes or is likely to cause “(1) substantial injury to consumers (2) which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and (3) not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.”

This is a demanding standard. (For scholarly analyses of the standard’s legal and economic implications authored by former top FTC officials, see here, here, and here.)

First, the FTC must demonstrate that a practice imposes a great deal of harm on consumers, which they could not readily have avoided. This requires detailed analysis of the actual effects of a particular practice, not mere theoretical musings about possible harms that may (or may not) flow from such practice. Actual effects analysis, of course, must be based on empiricism: consideration of hard facts.

Second, assuming that this formidable hurdle is overcome, the FTC must then acknowledge and weigh countervailing welfare benefits that might flow from such a practice. In addition to direct consumer-welfare benefits, other benefits include “benefits to competition.” Those may include business efficiencies that reduce a firm’s costs, because such efficiencies are a driver of vigorous competition and, thus, of long-term consumer welfare. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has explained (see OECD Background Note on Efficiencies, 2012, at 14), dynamic and transactional business efficiencies are particularly important in driving welfare enhancement.

In sum, under Section 5(n), the FTC must show actual, fact-based, substantial harm to consumers that they could not have escaped, acting reasonably. The commission must also demonstrate that such harm is not outweighed by consumer and (procompetitive) business-efficiency benefits. What’s more, Section 5(n) makes clear that the FTC cannot “pull a rabbit out of a hat” and interject other “public policy” considerations as key factors in the rulemaking  calculus (“[s]uch [other] public policy considerations may not serve as a primary basis for … [a] determination [of unfairness]”).

It ineluctably follows as a matter of law that a Section 18 FTC rulemaking sounding in unfairness must be based on hard empirical cost-benefit assessments, which require data grubbing and detailed evidence-based economic analysis. Mere anecdotal stories of theoretical harm to some consumers that is alleged to have resulted from a practice in certain instances will not suffice.

As such, if an unfairness-based FTC rulemaking fails to adhere to the cost-benefit framework of Section 5(n), it inevitably will be struck down by the courts as beyond the FTC’s statutory authority. This conclusion is buttressed by the tenor of the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2021 opinion in AMG Capital v. FTC, which rejected the FTC’s claim that its statutory injunctive authority included the ability to obtain monetary relief for harmed consumers (see my discussion of this case here).

The ANPRM and Section 5(n)

Regrettably, the tone of the questions posed in the ANPRM indicates a lack of consideration for the constraints imposed by Section 5(n). Accordingly, any future rulemaking that sought to establish “remedies” for many of the theorized abuses found in the ANPRM would stand very little chance of being upheld in litigation.

The Aug. 11 FTC press release cited previously addresses several broad topical sources of harms: harms to consumers; harms to children; regulations; automated systems; discrimination; consumer consent; notice, transparency, and disclosure; remedies; and obsolescence. These categories are chock full of questions that imply the FTC may consider restrictions on business conduct that go far beyond the scope of the commission’s authority under Section 5(n). (The questions are notably silent about the potential consumer benefits and procompetitive efficiencies that may arise from the business practices called here into question.)

A few of the many questions set forth under just four of these topical listings (harms to consumers, harms to children, regulations, and discrimination) are highlighted below, to provide a flavor of the statutory overreach that categorizes all aspects of the ANPRM. Many other examples could be cited. (Phillips’ dissenting statement provides a cogent and critical evaluation of ANPRM questions that embody such overreach.) Furthermore, although there is a short discussion of “costs and benefits” in the ANPRM press release, it is wholly inadequate to the task.

Under the category “harms to consumers,” the ANPRM press release focuses on harm from “lax data security or surveillance practices.” It asks whether FTC enforcement has “adequately addressed indirect pecuniary harms, including potential physical harms, psychological harms, reputational injuries, and unwanted intrusions.” The press release suggests that a rule might consider addressing harms to “different kinds of consumers (e.g., young people, workers, franchisees, small businesses, women, victims of stalking or domestic violence, racial minorities, the elderly) in different sectors (e.g., health, finance, employment) or in different segments or ‘stacks’ of the internet economy.”

These laundry lists invite, at best, anecdotal public responses alleging examples of perceived “harm” falling into the specified categories. Little or no light is likely to be shed on the measurement of such harm, nor on the potential beneficial effects to some consumers from the practices complained of (for example, better targeted ads benefiting certain consumers). As such, a sound Section 5(n) assessment would be infeasible.

Under “harms to children,” the press release suggests possibly extending the limitations of the FTC-administered Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) to older teenagers, thereby in effect rewriting COPPA and usurping the role of Congress (a clear statutory overreach). The press release also asks “[s]hould new rules set out clear limits on personalized advertising to children and teenagers irrespective of parental consent?” It is hard (if not impossible) to understand how this form of overreach, which would displace the supervisory rights of parents (thereby imposing impossible-to-measure harms on them), could be shoe-horned into a defensible Section 5(n) cost-benefit assessment.

Under “regulations,” the press release asks whether “new rules [should] require businesses to implement administrative, technical, and physical data security measures, including encryption techniques, to protect against risks to the security, confidentiality, or integrity of covered data?” Such new regulatory strictures (whose benefits to some consumers appear speculative) would interfere significantly in internal business processes. Specifically, they could substantially diminish the efficiency of business-security measures, diminish business incentives to innovate (for example, in encryption), and reduce dynamic competition among businesses.

Consumers also would be harmed by a related slowdown in innovation. Those costs undoubtedly would be high but hard, if not impossible, to measure. The FTC also asks whether a rule should limit “companies’ collection, use, and retention of consumer data.” This requirement, which would seemingly bypass consumers’ decisions to make their data available, would interfere with companies’ ability to use such data to improve business offerings and thereby enhance consumers’ experiences. Justifying new requirements such as these under Section 5(n) would be well-nigh impossible.

The category “discrimination” is especially problematic. In addressing “algorithmic discrimination,” the ANPRM press release asks whether the FTC should “consider new trade regulation rules that bar or somehow limit the deployment of any system that produces discrimination, irrespective of the data or processes on which those outcomes are based.” In addition, the press release asks “if the Commission [should] consider harms to other underserved groups that current law does not recognize as protected from discrimination (e.g., unhoused people or residents of rural communities)?”

The FTC cites no statutory warrant for the authority to combat such forms of “discrimination.” It is not a civil-rights agency. It clearly is not authorized to issue anti-discrimination rules dealing with “groups that current law does not recognize as protected from discrimination.” Any such rules, if issued, would be summarily struck down in no uncertain terms by the judiciary, even without regard to Section 5(n).

In addition, given the fact that “economic discrimination” often is efficient (and procompetitive) and may be beneficial to consumer welfare (see, for example, here), more limited economic anti-discrimination rules almost certainly would not pass muster under the Section 5(n) cost-benefit framework.     

Finally, while the ANPRM press release does contain a very short section entitled “costs and benefits,” that section lacks any specific reference to the required Section 5(n) evaluation framework. Phillips’ dissent points out that the ANPRM:

…simply fail[s] to provide the detail necessary for commenters to prepare constructive responses” on cost-benefit analysis. He stresses that the broad nature of requests for commenters’ view on costs and benefits renders the inquiry “not conducive to stakeholders submitting data and analysis that can be compared and considered in the context of a specific rule. … Without specific questions about [the costs and benefits of] business practices and potential regulations, the Commission cannot hope for tailored responses providing a full picture of particular practices.

In other words, the ANPRM does not provide the guidance needed to prompt the sorts of responses that might assist the FTC in carrying out an adequate Section 5(n) cost-benefit analysis.

Conclusion

The FTC would face almost certain defeat in court if it promulgated a broad rule addressing many of the perceived unfairness-based “ills” alluded to in the ANPRM. Moreover, although its requirements would (I believe) not come into effect, such a rule nevertheless would impose major economic costs on society.

Prior to final judicial resolution of its status, the rule would disincentivize businesses from engaging in a variety of data-related practices that enhance business efficiency and benefit many consumers. Furthermore, the FTC resources devoted to developing and defending the rule would not be applied to alternative welfare-enhancing FTC activities—a substantial opportunity cost.

The FTC should take heed of these realities and opt not to carry out a rulemaking based on the ANPRM. It should instead devote its scarce consumer protection resources to prosecuting hard core consumer fraud and deception—and, perhaps, to launching empirical studies into the economic-welfare effects of data security and commercial surveillance practices. Such studies, if carried out, should focus on dispassionate economic analysis and avoid policy preconceptions. (For example, studies involving digital platforms should take note of the existing economic literature, such as a paper indicating that digital platforms have generated enormous consumer-welfare benefits not accounted for in gross domestic product.)

One can only hope that a majority of FTC commissioners will apply common sense and realize that far-flung rulemaking exercises lacking in statutory support are bad for the rule of law, bad for the commission’s reputation, bad for the economy, and bad for American consumers.


[1] The FTC states specifically that it “is issuing this ANPR[M] pursuant to Section 18 of the Federal Trade Commission Act”.

[2] Deceptive practices that might be addressed in a Section 18 trade regulation rule would be subject to the “FTC Policy Statement on Deception,” which states that “the Commission will find deception if there is a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances, to the consumer’s detriment.” A court reviewing an FTC Section 18 rule focused on “deceptive acts or practices” undoubtedly would consult this Statement, although it is not clear, in light of recent jurisprudential trends, that the court would defer to the Statement’s analysis in rendering an opinion. In any event, questions of deception, which focus on acts or practices that mislead consumers, would in all likelihood have little relevance to the evaluation of any rule that might be promulgated in light of the ANPRM.    

A recent viral video captures a prevailing sentiment in certain corners of social media, and among some competition scholars, about how mergers supposedly work in the real world: firms start competing on price, one firm loses out, that firm agrees to sell itself to the other firm and, finally, prices are jacked up.(Warning: Keep the video muted. The voice-over is painful.)

The story ends there. In this narrative, the combination offers no possible cost savings. The owner of the firm who sold doesn’t start a new firm and begin competing tomorrow, and nor does anyone else. The story ends with customers getting screwed.

And in this telling, it’s not just horizontal mergers that look like the one in the viral egg video. It is becoming a common theory of harm regarding nonhorizontal acquisitions that they are, in fact, horizontal acquisitions in disguise. The acquired party may possibly, potentially, with some probability, in the future, become a horizontal competitor. And of course, the story goes, all horizontal mergers are anticompetitive.

Therefore, we should have the same skepticism toward all mergers, regardless of whether they are horizontal or vertical. Steve Salop has argued that a problem with the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) 2020 vertical merger guidelines is that they failed to adopt anticompetitive presumptions.

This perspective is not just a meme on Twitter. The FTC and U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) are currently revising their guidelines for merger enforcement and have issued a request for information (RFI). The working presumption in the RFI (and we can guess this will show up in the final guidelines) is exactly the takeaway from the video: Mergers are bad. Full stop.

The RFI repeatedly requests information that would support the conclusion that the agencies should strengthen merger enforcement, rather than information that might point toward either stronger or weaker enforcement. For example, the RFI asks:

What changes in standards or approaches would appropriately strengthen enforcement against mergers that eliminate a potential competitor?

This framing presupposes that enforcement should be strengthened against mergers that eliminate a potential competitor.

Do Monopoly Profits Always Exceed Joint Duopoly Profits?

Should we assume enforcement, including vertical enforcement, needs to be strengthened? In a world with lots of uncertainty about which products and companies will succeed, why would an incumbent buy out every potential competitor? The basic idea is that, since profits are highest when there is only a single monopolist, that seller will always have an incentive to buy out any competitors.

The punchline for this anti-merger presumption is “monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits.” The argument is laid out most completely by Salop, although the argument is not unique to him. As Salop points out:

I do not think that any of the analysis in the article is new. I expect that all the points have been made elsewhere by others and myself.

Under the model that Salop puts forward, there should, in fact, be a presumption against any acquisition, not just horizontal acquisitions. He argues that:

Acquisitions of potential or nascent competitors by a dominant firm raise inherent anticompetitive concerns. By eliminating the procompetitive impact of the entry, an acquisition can allow the dominant firm to continue to exercise monopoly power and earn monopoly profits. The dominant firm also can neutralize the potential innovation competition that the entrant would provide.

We see a presumption against mergers in the recent FTC challenge of Meta’s purchase of Within. While Meta owns Oculus, a virtual-reality headset and Within owns virtual-reality fitness apps, the FTC challenged the acquisition on grounds that:

The Acquisition would cause anticompetitive effects by eliminating potential competition from Meta in the relevant market for VR dedicated fitness apps.

Given the prevalence of this perspective, it is important to examine the basic model’s assumptions. In particular, is it always true that—since monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits—incumbents have an incentive to eliminate potential competition for anticompetitive reasons?

I will argue no. The notion that monopoly profits exceed joint-duopoly profits rests on two key assumptions that hinder the simple application of the “merge to monopoly” model to antitrust.

First, even in a simple model, it is not always true that monopolists have both the ability and incentive to eliminate any potential entrant, simply because monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits.

For the simplest complication, suppose there are two possible entrants, rather than the common assumption of just one entrant at a time. The monopolist must now pay each of the entrants enough to prevent entry. But how much? If the incumbent has already paid one potential entrant not to enter, the second could then enter the market as a duopolist, rather than as one of three oligopolists. Therefore, the incumbent must pay the second entrant an amount sufficient to compensate a duopolist, not their share of a three-firm oligopoly profit. The same is true for buying the first entrant. To remain a monopolist, the incumbent would have to pay each possible competitor duopoly profits.

Because monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits, it is profitable to pay a single entrant half of the duopoly profit to prevent entry. It is not, however, necessarily profitable for the incumbent to pay both potential entrants half of the duopoly profit to avoid entry by either. 

Now go back to the video. Suppose two passersby, who also happen to have chickens at home, notice that they can sell their eggs. The best part? They don’t have to sit around all day; the lady on the right will buy them. The next day, perhaps, two new egg sellers arrive.

For a simple example, consider a Cournot oligopoly model with an industry-inverse demand curve of P(Q)=1-Q and constant marginal costs that are normalized to zero. In a market with N symmetric sellers, each seller earns 1/((N+1)^2) in profits. A monopolist makes a profit of 1/4. A duopolist can expect to earn a profit of 1/9. If there are three potential entrants, plus the incumbent, the monopolist must pay each the duopoly profit of 3*1/9=1/3, which exceeds the monopoly profits of 1/4.

In the Nash/Cournot equilibrium, the incumbent will not acquire any of the competitors, since it is too costly to keep them all out. With enough potential entrants, the monopolist in any market will not want to buy any of them out. In that case, the outcome involves no acquisitions.

If we observe an acquisition in a market with many potential entrants, which any given market may or may not have, it cannot be that the merger is solely about obtaining monopoly profits, since the model above shows that the incumbent doesn’t have incentives to do that.

If our model captures the dynamics of the market (which it may or may not, depending on a given case’s circumstances) but we observe mergers, there must be another reason for that deal besides maintaining a monopoly. The presence of multiple potential entrants overturns the antitrust implications of the truism that monopoly profits exceed duopoly profits. The question turns instead to empirical analysis of the merger and market in question, as to whether it would be profitable to acquire all potential entrants.

The second simplifying assumption that restricts the applicability of Salop’s baseline model is that the incumbent has the lowest cost of production. He rules out the possibility of lower-cost entrants in Footnote 2:

Monopoly profits are not always higher. The entrant may have much lower costs or a better or highly differentiated product. But higher monopoly profits are more usually the case.

If one allows the possibility that an entrant may have lower costs (even if those lower costs won’t be achieved until the future, when the entrant gets to scale), it does not follow that monopoly profits (under the current higher-cost monopolist) necessarily exceed duopoly profits (with a lower-cost producer involved).

One cannot simply assume that all firms have the same costs or that the incumbent is always the lowest-cost producer. This is not just a modeling choice but has implications for how we think about mergers. As Geoffrey Manne, Sam Bowman, and Dirk Auer have argued:

Although it is convenient in theoretical modeling to assume that similarly situated firms have equivalent capacities to realize profits, in reality firms vary greatly in their capabilities, and their investment and other business decisions are dependent on the firm’s managers’ expectations about their idiosyncratic abilities to recognize profit opportunities and take advantage of them—in short, they rest on the firm managers’ ability to be entrepreneurial.

Given the assumptions that all firms have identical costs and there is only one potential entrant, Salop’s framework would find that all possible mergers are anticompetitive and that there are no possible efficiency gains from any merger. That’s the thrust of the video. We assume that the whole story is two identical-seeming women selling eggs. Since the acquired firm cannot, by assumption, have lower costs of production, it cannot improve on the incumbent’s costs of production.

Many Reasons for Mergers

But whether a merger is efficiency-reducing and bad for competition and consumers needs to be proven, not just assumed.

If we take the basic acquisition model literally, every industry would have just one firm. Every incumbent would acquire every possible competitor, no matter how small. After all, monopoly profits are higher than duopoly profits, and so the incumbent both wants to and can preserve its monopoly profits. The model does not give us a way to disentangle when mergers would stop without antitrust enforcement.

Mergers do not affect the production side of the economy, under this assumption, but exist solely to gain the market power to manipulate prices. Since the model finds no downsides for the incumbent to acquiring a competitor, it would naturally acquire every last potential competitor, no matter how small, unless prevented by law. 

Once we allow for the possibility that firms differ in productivity, however, it is no longer true that monopoly profits are greater than industry duopoly profits. We can see this most clearly in situations where there is “competition for the market” and the market is winner-take-all. If the entrant to such a market has lower costs, the profit under entry (when one firm wins the whole market) can be greater than the original monopoly profits. In such cases, monopoly maintenance alone cannot explain an entrant’s decision to sell.

An acquisition could therefore be both procompetitive and increase consumer welfare. For example, the acquisition could allow the lower-cost entrant to get to scale quicker. The acquisition of Instagram by Facebook, for example, brought the photo-editing technology that Instagram had developed to a much larger market of Facebook users and provided a powerful monetization mechanism that was otherwise unavailable to Instagram.

In short, the notion that incumbents can systematically and profitably maintain their market position by acquiring potential competitors rests on assumptions that, in practice, will regularly and consistently fail to materialize. It is thus improper to assume that most of these acquisitions reflect efforts by an incumbent to anticompetitively maintain its market position.

It’s been a busy summer, and promises to be a busier fall. So the UMC Roundup is on hiatus this week.

But because the news doesn’t stop even when we do, we’re using this week’s Roundup to announce a call for submissions relating to the FTC’s ANPR on Commercial Surveillance and Data Security. Submissions relating to various aspects of the ANPR will be considered for publication as part of our ongoing FTC UMC Symposium. We have already previously offered some discussion of the ANPR on Truth on the Market, here and here.

Posts should substantively engage with the ANPR and will generally be between 1,800-4,000 words. We are interested in all topics and perspectives. Given that this is the UMC symposium, we are particularly interested in submissions that explore the competition aspects of the ANPR, including the mysterious Footnote 47 and the procedural and substantive overlaps between the FTC’s UDAP and UMC authorities that run throughout the ANPR.

Submissions should be sent to Keith Fierro (kfierro@laweconcenter.org). To maximize the likelihood that we will publish your submission, we encourage potential authors to submit a brief explanation of the proposed topic prior to writing. Because selected submissions will be published as part of the ongoing UMC Symposium, we anticipate beginning to publish selected submissions immediately and on a rolling basis. For full consideration, contributions should be submitted prior to Sept. 8, 2022.

The FTC UMC Roundup, part of the Truth on the Market FTC UMC Symposium, is a weekly roundup of news relating to the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust and Unfair Methods of Competition authority. If you would like to receive this and other posts relating to these topics, subscribe to the RSS feed here. If you have news items you would like to suggest for inclusion, please mail them to us at ghurwitz@laweconcenter.org and/or kfierro@laweconcenter.org.

[TOTM: This guest post from Svetlana S. Gans and Natalie Hausknecht of Gibson Dunn is part of Truth on the Market’s continuing FTC UMC Symposium. If you would like to receive this and other posts relating to these topics, subscribe to the RSS feed here. If you have news items you would like to suggest for inclusion, please mail them to us at ghurwitz@laweconcenter.org and/or kfierro@laweconcenter.org.]

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched one of the most ambitious rulemakings in agency history Aug. 11, with its 3-2 vote to initiate Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) on commercial surveillance and data security. The divided vote, which broke down on partisan lines, stands in stark contrast to recent bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill, particularly on the comprehensive American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA).  

Although the rulemaking purports to pursue a new “privacy and data security” regime, it targets far more than consumer privacy. The ANPRM lays out a sweeping project to rethink the regulatory landscape governing nearly every facet of the U.S. internet economy, from advertising to anti-discrimination law, and even to labor relations. Any entity that uses the internet (even for internal purposes) is likely to be affected by this latest FTC action, and public participation in the proposed rulemaking will be important to ensure the agency gets it right.

Summary of the ANPRM  

The vague scope of the FTC’s latest ANPRM begins at its title: “Commercial Surveillance and Data Security” Rulemaking. The announcement states the FTC intends to explore rules “cracking down” on the “business of collecting, analyzing, and profiting from information about people.” The ANPRM then defines the scope of “commercial surveillance” to include virtually any data activity. For example, the ANPRM explains that it includes practices used “to set prices, curate newsfeeds, serve advertisements, and conduct research on people’s behavior, among other things.” The ANPRM also goes on to say that it is concerned about practices “outside of the retail consumer setting” that the agency traditionally regulates. Indeed, the ANPRM defines “consumer” to include “businesses and workers, not just individuals who buy or exchange data for retail goods and services.”

Unlike the bipartisan ADPPA, the ANPRM also takes aim at the “consent” model that the FTC has long advocated to ensure consumers make informed choices about their data online. It claims that “consumers may become resigned to” data practices and “have little to no actual control over what happens to their information.” It also suggests that consumers “do not generally understand” data practices, such that their permission could be “meaningful”—making express consumer consent to data practices “irrelevant.”

The ANPRM further lists a disparate set of additional FTC concerns, from “pernicious dark pattern practices” to “lax data security practices” to “sophisticated digital advertising systems” to “stalking apps,” “cyber bullying, cyberstalking, and the distribution of child sexual abuse material,” and the use of “social media” among “kids and teens.” It “finally” wraps up with a reference to “growing reliance on automated systems” that may create “new forms and mechanisms for discrimination” in areas like housing, employment, and healthcare. The issue the agency expresses about these automated systems is with apparent “disparate outcomes” “even when automated systems consider only unprotected consumer traits.”

Having set out these concerns, the ANPRM seeks to justify a new rulemaking via a list of what it describes as “decades” of “consumer data privacy and security” enforcement actions. The rulemaking then requests that the public answer 95 questions, covering many different legal and factual issues. For example, the agency requests the public weigh in on the practices “companies use to surveil consumers,” intangible and unmeasurable “harms” created by such practices, the most harmful practices affecting children and teens, techniques that “manipulate consumers into prolonging online activity,” how the commission should balance costs and benefits from any regulation, biometric data practices, algorithmic errors and disparate impacts, the viability of consumer consent, the opacity of “consumer surveillance practices,” and even potential remedies the agency should consider.  

Commissioner Statements in Support of the ANPR

Every Democratic commissioner issued a separate supporting statement. Chair Lina Khan’s statement justified the rulemaking grounds that the FTC is the “de facto law enforcer in this domain.” She also doubled-down on the decision to address not only consumer privacy, but issues affecting all “opportunities in our economy and society, as well as core civil liberties and civil rights” and described being “especially eager to build a record” related to: the limits of “notice and consent” frameworks, as opposed to withdrawing permission for data collection “in the first place”; how to navigate “information asymmetries” with companies; how to address certain “business models” “premised on” persistent tracking; discrimination in automated processes; and workplace surveillance.   

Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter’s longer statement more explicitly attacked the agency’s “notice-and-consent regime” as having “failed to protect users.” She expressed hope that the new rules would take on biometric or location tracking, algorithmic decision-making, and lax data security practices as “long overdue.” Commission Slaughter further brushed aside concerns that the rulemaking was inappropriate while Congress considered comprehensive privacy legislation, asserting that the magnitude of the rulemaking was a reason to do it—not shy away. She also expressed interest in data-minimization specifications, discriminatory algorithms, and kids and teens issues.

Commissioner Alvaro Bedoya’s short statement likewise expressed support for acting. However, he noted the public comment period would help the agency “discern whether and how to proceed.” Like his colleagues, he identified his particular interest in “emerging discrimination issues”: the mental health of kids and teens; the protection of non-English speaking communities; and biometric data. On the pending privacy legislation, he noted that:

[ADPPA] is the strongest privacy bill that has ever been this close to passing. I hope it does pass. I hope it passes soon…. This ANPRM will not interfere with that effort. I want to be clear: Should the ADPPA pass, I will not vote for any rule that overlaps with it.

Commissioner Statements Opposed to the ANPRM

Both Republican commissioners published dissents. Commissioner Christine S. Wilson’s urged deference to Congress as it considers a comprehensive privacy law. Yet she also expressed broader concern about the FTC’s recent changes to its Section 18 rulemaking process that “decrease opportunities for public input and vest significant authority for the rulemaking proceedings solely with the Chair” and the unjustified targeting of practices not subject to prior enforcement action. Notably, Commissioner Wilson also worried the rulemaking was unlikely to survive judicial scrutiny, indicating that Chair Khan’s statements give her “no basis to believe that she will seek to ensure that proposed rule provisions fit within the Congressionally circumscribed jurisdiction of the FTC.”  

Commissioner Noah Phillips’ dissent criticized the ANPRM for failing to provide “notice of anything” and thus stripping the public of its participation rights. He argued that the ANPRM’s “myriad” questions appear to be a “mechanism to fish for legal theories that might justify outlandish regulatory ambition outside our jurisdiction.” He further noted that the rulemaking positions the FTC as a legislature to regulate in areas outside of its expertise (e.g., labor law) with potentially disastrous economic costs that it is ill-equipped to understand.

Commissioner Phillips further argued the ANPRM attacks disparate practices based on an “amalgam of cases concerning very different business models and conduct” that cannot show the prevalence of misconduct required for Section 18 rulemaking. He also criticized the FTC for abandoning its own informed-consent model based on paternalistic musings about individuals’ ability to decide for themselves. And finally, he criticized the FTC’s apparent overreach in claiming the mantle of “civil rights enforcer” when it was never given that explicit authority by Congress to declare discrimination or disparate impacts unlawful in this space. 

Implications for Regulated Entities and Others Concerned with Potential Agency Overreach

The sheer breadth of the ANPRM demands the avid attention of potentially regulated entities or those concerned with the FTC’s aggressive rulemaking agenda. The public should seek to meaningfully participate in the rulemaking process to ensure the FTC considers a broad array of viewpoints and has the facts before it necessary to properly define the scope of its own authority and the consequences of any proposed privacy regulation. For example, the FTC may issue a notice of proposed rulemaking defining acts or practices as unfair or deceptive “only where it has reason to believe that the unfair or deceptive acts or practices which are the subject of the proposed rulemaking are prevalent.”(emphasis added).

15 U.S. Code § 57a also states that the FTC may make a determination that unfair or deceptive acts or practices are prevalent only if:  “(A) it has issued cease and desist orders regarding such acts or practices, or (B) any other information available to the Commission indicates a widespread pattern of unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” That means that, under the Magnuson-Moss Section 18 rulemaking that the FTC must use here, the agency must show (1) the prevalence of the practices (2) how they are unfair or deceptive, and (3) the economic effect of the rule, including on small businesses and consumers. Any final regulatory analysis also must assess the rule’s costs and benefits and why it was chosen over alternatives. On each count, effective advocacy supported by empirical and sound economic analysis by the public may prove dispositive.

The FTC may have a particularly difficult time meeting this burden of proof with many of the innocuous (and currently permitted) practices identified in the ANPRM. For example, modern online commerce like automated decision-making is a part of the engine that has powered a decade of innovation, lowered logistical and opportunity costs, and opened up amazing new possibilities for small businesses seeking to serve local consumers and their communities. Commissioner Wilson makes this point well:

Many practices discussed in this ANPRM are presented as clearly deceptive or unfair despite the fact that they stretch far beyond practices with which we are familiar, given our extensive law enforcement experience. Indeed, the ANPRM wanders far afield of areas for which we have clear evidence of a widespread pattern of unfair or deceptive practices. 

The FTC also may be setting itself on an imminent collision course with the “major questions” doctrine, in particular. On the last day of its term this year, the Supreme Court handed down West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, which applied the “major questions doctrine” to rule that the EPA can’t base its controversial Clean Power Plan on a novel interpretation of a relatively obscure provision of the Clean Air Act. An agency rule of such vast “economic and political significance,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, requires “clear congressional authorization.” (See “The FTC Heads for Legal Trouble” by Svetlana Gans and Eugene Scalia.) Parties are likely to argue the same holds true here with regard to the FTC’s potential regulatory extension into areas like anti-discrimination and labor law. If the FTC remains on this aggressive course, any final privacy rulemaking could also be a tempting target for a reinvigorated nondelegation doctrine.  

Some members of Congress also may question the wisdom of the ANPRM venturing into the privacy realm at all right now, a point advanced by several of the commissioners. Shortly after the FTC’s announcement, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) stated:

I appreciate the FTC’s effort to use the tools it has to protect consumers, but Congress has a responsibility to pass comprehensive federal privacy legislation to better equip the agency, and others, to protect consumers to the greatest extent.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee and a leading GOP supporter of the bipartisan legislation, likewise said that the FTC’s move helps “underscore the urgency for the House to bring [ADPPA]  to the floor and for the Senate Commerce Committee to advance it through committee.”  

The FTC’s ANPRM will likely have broad implications for the U.S. economy. Stakeholders can participate in the rulemaking in several ways, including registering by Aug. 31 to speak at the FTC’s Sept. 8 public forum. Stakeholders should also consider submitting public comments and empirical evidence within 60-days of the ANPRM’s publication in the Federal Register, and insist that the FTC hold informal hearings as required under the Magnuson-Moss Act.

While the FTC is rightfully the nation’s top consumer cop, an advanced notice of this scope demands active public awareness and participation to ensure the agency gets it right.  

 

[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

In a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Svetlana Gans and Eugene Scalia look at three potential traps the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could trigger if it pursues the aggressive rulemaking agenda many have long been expecting. From their opening:

FTC Chairman Lina Khan has Rooseveltian ambitions for the agency. … Within weeks the FTC is expected to begin a blizzard of rule-makings that will include restrictions on employment noncompete agreements and the practices of technology companies.

If Ms. Khan succeeds, she will transform the FTC’s regulation of American business. But there’s a strong chance this regulatory blitz will fail. The FTC is a textbook case for how federal agencies could be affected by the re-examination of administrative law under way at the Supreme Court.

The first pitfall into which the FTC might fall, Gans and Scalia argue, is the “major questions” doctrine. Recently illuminated in the Supreme Court’s opinion in West Virginia v. EPA decision, the doctrine holds that federal agencies cannot enact regulations of vast economic and political significance without clear congressional authorization. The sorts of rules the FTC appears to be contemplating “would run headlong into” major questions, Gans and Scalia write, a position shared by several contributors to Truth on the Market‘s recent symposium on the potential for FTC rulemakings on unfair methods of competition (UMC).

The second trap the authors expect might trip up an ambitious FTC is the major questions doctrine’s close cousin: the nondelegation doctrine. The nondelegation doctrine holds that there are limits to how much authority Congress can delegate to a federal agency, even if it does so clearly.

Curiously, as Gans and Scalia note, the last time the Supreme Court invoked the nondelegation doctrine involved regulations to implement “codes of fair competition”—nearly identical, on their face, to the commission’s current interest in rules to prohibit unfair methods of competition. That last case, Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, is more than 80 years old. The doctrine has since lain dormant for multiple generations. But in recent years, several justice have signaled their openness to reinvigorating the doctrine. As Gans and Scalia note, “[a]n aggressive FTC competition rule could be a tempting target” for them.

Finally, the authors anticipate an overly aggressive FTC may find itself entangled in yet a thorny web wrapped around the very heart of the administrative state: the constitutionality of so-called independent agencies. Again, the relevant constitutional doctrine giving rise to these agencies results from another 1935 case involving the FTC itself: Humphrey’s Executor v. United States. While the Court in that opinion upheld the notion that Congress can create agencies led by officials who operate independently of direct presidential control, conservative justices have long questioned the doctrine’s legitimacy and the Roberts court, in particularly, has trimmed its outer limits. An overly aggressive FTC might present an opportunity to further check the independence of these agencies.

While it remains unclear the precise rules the FTC seek try to develop using its UMC authority, the clearest signs are that it will focus first on labor issues, such as emerging research around labor monopsony and firms’ use of noncompete clauses. Indeed, Eric Posner, who joined the U.S. Justice Department Antitrust Division earlier this year as counsel on these issues, recently acknowledged that: “There is this very close and complicated relationship between labor law and antitrust law that has to be maintained.”

If the FTC were to upset this relationship, such as by using its UMC authority either to circumvent the National Labor Relations Board in addressing competition concerns or to assist the NLRB in exceeding its own statutory authority, it would be unsurprising for the courts to exercise their constitutional role as a check on a rogue agency.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

When I was a kid, I trailed behind my mother in the grocery store with a notepad and a pencil adding up the cost of each item she added to our cart. This was partly my mother’s attempt to keep my math skills sharp, but it was also a necessity. As a low-income family, there was no slack in the budget for superfluous spending. The Hostess cupcakes I longed for were a luxury item that only appeared in our cart if there was an unexpected windfall. If the antitrust populists who castigate all forms of market power succeed in their crusade to radically deconcentrate the economy, life will be much harder for low-income families like the one I grew up in.

Antitrust populists like Biden White House official Tim Wu and author Matt Stoller decry the political influence of large firms. But instead of advocating for policies that tackle this political influence directly, they seek reforms to antitrust enforcement that aim to limit the economic advantages of these firms, believing that will translate into political enfeeblement. The economic advantages arising from scale benefit consumers, particularly low-income consumers, often at the expense of smaller economic rivals. But because the protection of small businesses is so paramount to their worldview, antitrust populists blithely ignore the harm that advancing their objectives would cause to low-income families.

This desire to protect small businesses, without acknowledging the economic consequences for low-income families, is plainly obvious in calls for reinvigorated Robinson-Patman Act enforcement (a law from the 1930s for which independent businesses advocated to limit the rise of chain stores) and in plans to revise the antitrust enforcement agencies’ merger guidelines. The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently held a series of listening sessions to demonstrate the need for new guidelines. During the listening session on food and agriculture, independent grocer Anthony Pena described the difficulty he has competing with larger competitors like Walmart. He stated that:

Just months ago, I was buying a 59-ounce orange juice just north of $4 a unit, where we couldn’t get the supplier to sell it to us … Meanwhile, I go to the bigger box like a Walmart or a club store. Not only do they have it fully stocked, but they have it about half the price that I would buy it for at cost.

Half the price. Anthony Pena is complaining that competitors such as Walmart are selling the same product at half the price. To protect independent grocers like Anthony Pena, antitrust populists would have consumers, including low-income families, pay twice as much for groceries.

Walmart is an important food retailer for low-income families. Nearly a fifth of all spending through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program formerly known as food stamps, takes place at Walmart. After housing and transportation, food is the largest expense for low-income families. The share of expenditures going toward food for low-income families (i.e., families in the lowest 20% of the income distribution) is 34% higher than for high-income families (i.e., families in the highest 20% of the income distribution). This means that higher grocery prices disproportionately burden low-income families.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot, which allows SNAP recipients to use their benefits at online food retailers. The pandemic led to an explosion in the number of SNAP recipients using their benefits online—increasing from just 35,000 households in March 2020 to nearly 770,000 households just three months later. While the pilot originally only included Walmart and Amazon, the number of eligible retailers has expanded rapidly. In order to make grocery delivery more accessible to low-income families, an important service during the pandemic, Amazon reduced its Prime membership fee (which helps pay for free delivery) by 50% for SNAP recipients.

The antitrust populists are not only targeting the advantages of large brick-and-mortar retailers, such as Walmart, but also of large online retailers like Amazon. Again, these advantages largely flow to consumers—particularly low-income ones.

The proposed American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), which was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in February and may make an appearance on the Senate floor this summer, threatens those consumer benefits. AICOA would prohibit so-called “self-preferencing” by Amazon and other large technology platforms.

Should a ban on self-preferencing come to fruition, Amazon would not be able to prominently show its own products in any capacity—even when its products are a good match for a consumer’s search. In search results, Amazon will not be able to promote its private-label products, including Amazon Basics and 365 by Whole Foods, or products for which it is a first-party seller (i.e., a reseller of another company’s product). Amazon may also have to downgrade the ranking of popular products it sells, making them harder for consumers to find. Forcing Amazon to present offers that do not correspond to products consumers want to buy or are not a good value inflicts harm on all consumers but is particularly problematic for low-income consumers. All else equal, most consumers, especially low-income ones, obviously prefer cheaper products. It is important not to take that choice away from them.

Consider the case of orange juice, the product causing so much consternation for Mr. Pena. In a recent search on Amazon for a 59-ounce orange juice, as seen in the image below, the first four “organic” search results are SNAP-eligible, first-party, or private-label products sold by Amazon and ranging in price from $3.55 to $3.79. The next two results are from third-party sellers offering two 59-ounce bottles of orange juice at $38.99 and $84.54—more than five times the unit price offered by Amazon. By prohibiting self-preferencing, Amazon would be forced to promote products to consumers that are significantly more expensive and that are not SNAP-eligible. This increases costs directly for consumers who purchase more expensive products when cheaper alternatives are available but not presented. But it also increases costs indirectly by forcing consumers to search longer for better prices and SNAP-eligible products or by discouraging them from considering timesaving, online shopping altogether. Low-income families are least able to afford these increased costs.

The upshot is that antitrust populists are choosing to support (often well-off) small-business owners at the expense of vulnerable working people. Congress should not allow them to put the squeeze on low-income families. These families are already suffering due to record-high inflation—particularly for items that constitute the largest share of their expenditures, such as transportation and food. Proposed antitrust reforms such as AICOA and reinvigorated Robinson-Patman Act enforcement will only make it harder for low-income families to make ends meet.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on Antitrust’s Uncertain Future: Visions of Competition in the New Regulatory Landscape. Information on the authors and the entire series of posts is available here.]

If S.2992—the American Innovation and Choice Online Act or AICOA—were to become law, it would be, at the very least, an incomplete law. By design—and not for good reason, but for political expediency—AICOA is riddled with intentional uncertainty. In theory, the law’s glaring definitional deficiencies are meant to be rectified by “expert” agencies (i.e., the DOJ and FTC) after passage. But in actuality, no such certainty would ever emerge, and the law would stand as a testament to the crass political machinations and absence of rigor that undergird it. Among many other troubling outcomes, this is what the future under AICOA would hold.

Two months ago, the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Antitrust Section published a searing critique of AICOA in which it denounced the bill for being poorly written, vague, and departing from established antitrust-law principles. As Lazar Radic and I discussed in a previous post, what made the ABA’s letter to Congress so eye-opening was that it was penned by a typically staid group with a reputation for independence, professionalism, and ideational heterogeneity.

One of the main issues the ABA flagged in its letter is that the introduction of vague new concepts—like “materially harm competition,” which does not exist anywhere in current antitrust law—into the antitrust mainstream will risk substantial legal uncertainty and produce swathes of unintended consequences.

According to some, however, the bill’s inherent uncertainty is a feature, not a bug. It leaves enough space for specialist agencies to define the precise meaning of key terms without unduly narrowing the scope of the bill ex ante.

In particular, supporters of the bill have pointed to the prospect of agency guidelines under the law to rescue it from the starkest of the fundamental issues identified by the ABA. Section 4 of AICOA requires the DOJ and FTC to issue “agency enforcement guidelines” no later than 270 days after the date of enactment:

outlining policies and practices relating to conduct that may materially harm competition under section 3(a), agency interpretations of the affirmative defenses under section 3(b), and policies for determining the appropriate amount of a civil penalty to be sought under section 3(c).

In pointing to the prospect of guidelines, however, supporters are inadvertently admitting defeat—and proving the ABA’s point: AICOA is not ready for prime time.

This thinking is misguided for at least three reasons:

Guidelines are not rules

As section 4(d) of AICOA recognizes, guidelines are emphatically nonbinding:

The joint guidelines issued under this section do not … operate to bind the Commission, Department of Justice, or any person, State, or locality to the approach recommended in the guidelines.

As such, the value of guidelines in dispelling legal uncertainty is modest, at best.

This is even more so in today’s highly politicized atmosphere, where guidelines can be withdrawn at the tip of the ballot (we’ve just seen the FTC rescind the Vertical Merger Guidelines it put in place less than a year ago). Given how politicized the issuing agencies themselves have become, it’s a virtual certainty that the guidelines produced in response to AICOA would be steeped in partisan politics and immediately changed with a change in administration, thus providing no more lasting legal certainty than speculation by a member of Congress.

Guidelines are not the appropriate tool to define novel concepts

Regardless of this political reality, however, the mixture of vagueness and novelty inherent in the key concepts that underpin the infringements and affirmative defenses under AICOA—such as “fairness,” “preferencing,” “materiality”, or the “intrinsic” value of a product—undermine the usefulness (and legitimacy) of guidelines.

Indeed, while laws are sometimes purposefully vague—operating as standards rather than prescriptive rules—to allow for more flexibility, the concepts introduced by AICOA don’t even offer any cognizable standards suitable for fine-tuning.

The operative terms of AICOA don’t have definitive meanings under antitrust law, either because they are wholly foreign to accepted antitrust law (as in the case of “self-preferencing”) or because the courts have never agreed on an accepted definition (as in the case of “fairness”). Nor are they technical standards, which are better left to specialized agencies rather than to legislators to define, such as in the case of, e.g., pollution (by contrast: what is the technical standard for “fairness”?).

Indeed, as Elyse Dorsey has noted, the only certainty that would emerge from this state of affairs is the certainty of pervasive rent-seeking by non-altruistic players seeking to define the rules in their favor.

As we’ve pointed out elsewhere, the purpose of guidelines is to reflect the state of the art in a certain area of antitrust law and not to push the accepted scope of knowledge and practice in a new direction. This not only overreaches the FTC’s and DOJ’s powers, but also risks galvanizing opposition from the courts, thereby undermining the utility of adopting guidelines in the first place.

Guidelines can’t fix a fundamentally flawed law

Expecting guidelines to provide sensible, administrable content for the bill sets the bar overly high for guidelines, and unduly low for AICOA.

The alleged harms at the heart of AICOA are foreign to antitrust law, and even to the economic underpinnings of competition policy more broadly. Indeed, as Sean Sullivan has pointed out, the law doesn’t even purport to define “harms,” but only serves to make specific conduct illegal:

Even if the conduct has no effect, it’s made illegal, unless an affirmative defense is raised. And the affirmative defense requires that it doesn’t ‘harm competition.’ But ‘harm competition’ is undefined…. You have to prove that harm doesn’t result, but it’s not really ever made clear what the harm is in the first place.”

“Self-preferencing” is not a competitive defect, and simply declaring it to be so does not make it one. As I’ve noted elsewhere:

The notion that platform entry into competition with edge providers is harmful to innovation is entirely speculative. Moreover, it is flatly contrary to a range of studies showing that the opposite is likely true…. The theory of vertical discrimination harm is at odds not only with this platform-specific empirical evidence, it is also contrary to the long-standing evidence on the welfare effects of vertical restraints more broadly …

… [M]andating openness is not without costs, most importantly in terms of the effective operation of the platform and its own incentives for innovation.

Asking agencies with an expertise in competition policy to enact economically sensible guidelines to direct enforcement against such conduct is a fool’s errand. It is a recipe for purely political legislation adopted by competition agencies that does nothing to further their competition missions.

AICOA’s Catch-22 Is Its Own Doing, and Will Be Its Downfall

AICOA’s Catch-22 is that, by making the law so vague that it needs enforcement guidelines to flesh it out, AICOA renders both itself and those same guidelines irrelevant and misses the point of both legal instruments.

Ultimately, guidelines cannot resolve the fundamental rule-of-law issues raised by the bill and highlighted by the ABA in its letter. To the contrary, they confirm the ABA’s concerns that AICOA is a poorly written and indeterminate bill. Further, the contentious elements of the bill that need clarification are inherently legislative ones that—paradoxically—shouldn’t be left to competition-agency guidelines to elucidate.

The upshot is that any future under AICOA will be one marked by endless uncertainty and the extreme politicization of both competition policy and the agencies that enforce it.